Tag Archives: communism

Again: “Confess your crimes against the people of North Korea or you will not be allowed to leave the country tomorrow”

The comedy film which triggered the problem

The comedy film which Sony Pictures pulled from release…

So Sony have had to withdraw their film The Interview because North Korea hacked-into their computer system, stole their whole electronically-stored and communicated information for the last ten years and threatened a 9/11 style attack on anywhere premiering the movie. And all because Sony made a movie in which Kim Jong-un was assassinated and his head was seen exploding.

I was in North Korea in 1986 and I talked to a girl in a bookshop in Pyongyang. She told me she had actually seen – in the flesh – not a photo but the real person… Yes…  She had SEEN and been IN THE PRESENCE OF… she had actually MET the Great Leader Kim Il-sung. As she told me this, her eyes shone like exploding supernovas. It was as if she had seen Jesus. Well, meeting Jesus would have been nothing compared to meeting the Great Leader Kim Il-sung.

March 1986 - Status of Kim Il-sung in Pyongyang

March 1986 – A statue of Kim Il-sung in Pyongyang. To get an idea of scale, two people are visible at the bottom of the frame

North Korea had built 1984 even before it WAS 1984.

I went back in 2012.

Below is the blog I posted about my last day in North Korea two years ago.

I wrote a diary of my time in North Korea on pieces of paper which I always kept in the inside pockets of my clothes. I typed it all up only after getting home safely to the UK.


19th April 2012

CONFESS YOUR CRIMES AGAINST THE PEOPLE OF NORTH KOREA OR YOU WILL NOT BE ALLOWED TO LEAVE THE COUNTRY TOMORROW…

April - Kim Il-sung (with glasses added) and Kim Jong-Il

April 2012 – Kim Il-sung plus son Kim Jong-il

In North Korea, you can see new buildings being constructed as skeletons of concrete, brick and stone but rough and unsophisticated. The final surfaces, though, are very well-designed and finished. They look superficially perfect.

There is another simile for North Korea here. It looks OK from a cursory glance but, underneath…

The Chinese build better foundations.

It seems to me the Chinese have tried to change their society from the bottom upwards. The North Koreans manage any change from the top downwards. They start with the triumphant monuments to success and then (ironically in this supposed people’s paradise but – hey! – this is Communism) there is a rigid hierarchy through which change may trickle down to the bottom though it seems not to have done in the 26 years since I was last here.

North Korea: the people’s paradise

North Korea: the people’s paradise is truly a place of wonder

One odd feature in the relentless propaganda is that, since I was last here, the Great Leader Kim Il-sung’s mother and early wife seem to have appeared as pseudo Mary Mother of Jesus figures. I do not remember them being mentioned before; now they occasionally appear in pictures. Both long dead, of course. The best icons are.

This is my last day in the People’s Paradise. The train out of North Korea leaves Pyongyang at 10.10am this morning. It arrives in Beijing at 8.33am tomorrow morning. No US passport holders are allowed to take the train out of North Korea; they have to fly out.

In the train, I have lunch with a British woman who lives in New York (she has a British passport). She was at the big military parade to celebrate Kim Il-sung’s 100th birthday. The one we were not allowed to go to. She was with another foreigner who reckoned some of the giant rockets on display were not real: they were possibly made from wood. She does not know; he did not know; I do not know; this is North Korea; I only mention it as an observation from someone who was there.

She told me someone else she knows managed, accidentally, to go onto the ‘hidden’ floor in their hotel – the floor at which lifts do not stop. There was no decor. Just a bare concrete corridor and bare walls. The door to one room was slightly ajar. He looked through the crack. A man was sitting looking at a TV monitor. He left the floor quietly and returned to the ‘allowed’ parts of the hotel.

I also get talking to a man who is one of the three others I share the four-berth compartment with on this train from Pyongyang to Beijing. He was born in a Western European country (which shall remain nameless to disguise his identity). But he has lived in the US for many years. So he has both a US passport and a passport from the European country of his birth. Obviously, as he is on the train, he is using his European passport.

Pyongyang skyline dwarfed by unfinished hotel (not the  Yanggakdo)

Skyline dwarfed by an unfinished hotel (not the Yanggakdo)

Last night, he was booked into the same hotel as me – the Yanggakdo in Pyongyang. He came into North Korea with a Kindle e-reader and a laptop computer which the border guards did not query because neither has GPS.

In my opinion, he was silly on the North Korean trip. He was not in my group, but he told me he had sat at the front of his tour bus, near the two guides, taking photographs of the North Korean countryside (which is not allowed). He had also, with a fellow group member, wandered out of their hotel one night unaccompanied. Again, this is not allowed.

Last night, there was a problem with the keys to his hotel room which escalated to the point at which he was taken off to a room in the hotel and interrogated for seven hours, from 8.00pm to 3.00am.

“Why have you been taking bad photographs to make our country look bad?” the questions started, before moving on to “Why have you been disrespectful of our guides?” and so on, round and round in circles for seven hours with five interrogators.

A poster inside the state film studios

A poster inside the state’s empty  film studios

“You are not a real tourist,” they eventually said. “You have been taking photographs of people in the countryside and in the towns. They are all waiting downstairs to denounce you… We have talked to the other members of your group. They all say you are not a real tourist. You are a spy. We know you are here to spy on our country and take bad photographs.”

They brought in an IT expert with a laptop computer which he attached to the man’s laptop computer to search the hard disk. They then confiscated the hard disk. They then looked through all the still photographs he had taken and erased a lot. “Where have you hidden the other memory cards?” he was asked.

“I have no other memory cards,” he told them. But the questioning and re-questioning went on for seven hours.

It escalated more and more.

“You will not be allowed to leave the country,” they told him. You have committed crimes against the people of North Korea. Confess your crimes against the people of North Korea or you will not be allowed to leave the country tomorrow.”

“Oh shit,” he thought.

“You must sign a confession to your crimes,” he was told, “or you will not be allowed to leave the country. If you publish any photographs you have taken in North Korea, we will publish your confession on the internet.”

“Oh shit,” he thought.

He eventually signed the ‘confession’.

“You have committed crimes against North Korea,” he was then told. “You must compensate North Korea. Do you have $10,000?”

When he made it clear he was not carrying $10,000 on him, they feigned anger that he thought he could bribe them.

North Korea loves a good symbolic building

North Korea loves a good symbolic building, whatever it costs

“If you publish any photographs you have taken in North Korea,” they told him, “or continue your crimes after you have left our country or tell anyone this interrogation has taken place, we will publish your confession to your crimes on the internet.”

“They were frightening but not very efficient,” he tells me. “I had a video camera in my case and they never looked. I declared it at the border on the way in, but they never knew it was there. It had much ‘worse’ images.”

After he was released at 3.00am, he went back to his room and erased all the material he had shot on his video camera. He did this under his bed covers in case – as well as having sound bugs – the hotel room had video bugs.

I wonder what will happen at the border.

This could go one of two ways for me.

I am sharing a compartment with the guy.

Either I will be given a bad time because I will get guilt by association. Or I will sail through because the border guards will focus so much on him.

At the border, the first North Korean border guard comes into our compartment and goes straight for him.

“Camera,” he says.

Pyongyang’s Arch of Triumph - bigger than the French one

Pyongyang’s Arch of Triumph is bigger than the French one

Three other North Korean border guards come in. I go and stand in the corridor as they interrogate the guy, go through his stills camera, picture by picture, find the video camera in his case and examine that.

“My camera – my stills camera – takes videos and I have my video camera too,” he tells them, “but I took no videos while I was in North Korea.”

I think, listening to this in the corridor, that it must sound more than a little suspicious.

“You have more memory cards,” the guards say. “Where are your other memory cards?”

“I have no other memory cards,” he tells them.

“Do you have memory cards hidden in your hair?” one of them asks him.

They interrogate him for around 35 minutes. Then they turn to me:

“Camera,” the guard barks at me.

I give him my camera. He looks at all the photographs. There are 168 on the memory card. He erases 17 of them – one of the border at Panmunjom, mostly just photos of ordinary people in the very public Kim Il-sung Square in Pyongyang.

There are only three sets of photos on that memory card: Panmunjom, Kim Il-sung Square and the music concert we attended in Pyongyang. I had intentionally taken the Panmunjom photos so they could, if necessary, be erased. The other 900+ photos I had taken in North Korea are on another memory card in the rolled-up sleeve of my shirt.

The guards never ask if I have a video camera. Which I do, with five one-hour tapes filled-up.

Afterwards, the European guy tells me that, halfway through his grilling by the border guards, he realised that the European passport on which he was travelling in North Korea had an out-of-date visa for China in it. His up-to-date visa for China was in the US passport in his bag, which the guards superficially searched. They did not realise he had a second, US passport (remember US citizens cannot legally leave North Korea by train) and they did not check the dates on the Chinese visa in his European passport. But, he tells me, “I was shitting myself.”

Soldiers grieving over the death of Kim Jong-Il

Official photo: Soldiers grieving over the death of Kim Jong-il

The guards were paranoid, but not very efficient. However, they may have been hungry.

In another compartment in the railway carriage, a female border guard saw a chocolate bar in the suitcase of some Swiss travellers. She looked at their passports. “Swiss?” she asked. “Yes,” they replied. She unwrapped the chocolate bar and ate it, unsmiling, in front of the two Swiss. “It is good chocolate,” she told them.

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Organised religion usually all ends in tears, discrimination and beheadings…

(A version of this piece was also published on the Indian news site WSN)

A Siberian shaman, circa 1692

What a well-dressed Siberian shaman looked like, circa 1692

I have no problem with religions. They mostly boil down to the advice: Be nice to other people.

This is good.

But organised religion tends to eventually turn sour and it usually all ends in tears, discrimination and beheadings.

Yesterday, I went to a lecture at Gresham College in London.

Gresham College was founded in 1597. That was a year when 26 people were killed in Nagasaki because they were Catholics.

So it goes.

Yesterday’s Gresham College lecture was titled The KGB’s Bête Noire.

The bête noire of the KGB, allegedly, was the Keston Institute, founded in 1969 to study religions in Communist, and now formerly Communist, countries.

Xenia Dennen, Chairman of the Keston Institute, talked about how religions had been repressed in the Soviet Union, then come into the open again with the collapse of the Soviet Union but were now facing problems again.

Russia’s 1997 Law on Freedom of Conscience and Religious Associations recognises four religions: the Russian Orthodox Church, Buddhism, Islam and Judaism. Note that it recognises only one branch of Christianity.

More interesting to me, though, was that, last summer, Xenia Dennen visited Buryatia, a traditionally Buddhist part of Siberia.

“In Buryatia,” she said last night, “I met some shamans. They weren’t exactly what I had expected. They wore shirts and ties and had mobiles going off during our interview. The chief sat at the head of a table in a splendid wooden chair with a high back with carved eagle and other creatures adorning its back.

The interesting Buryatia countryside just south of Ulan-Ude

The interesting Buryatia countryside just south of Ulan-Ude

“We sat in what was a small wooden hut on a hillside overlooking Ulan-Ude. This was the headquarters of the Religious Organisation of Tengeri Shamans – Tengeri, I gather, are gods of sun, moon and mother earth – to which 67 shamans belonged.

“They told us that altogether there were 3,000 shamans in Buryatia who were resurrecting ancient forms of Buryat shamanism which had survived during the Soviet period in Mongolia.

“They said: We are returning to our ancient roots.

“They said the sky was their main god with a large hierarchy beneath it, but they reassured us that they didn’t dabble in black magic, which never worked. They only wanted to ‘do good’.

Today, they said,  demands the resurrection of these ancient rituals as many current illnesses are incurable… We can influence the elements… We could put out the fires in California, in Chita, in Krasnoyarsk… We can deal with global warming, tornadoes, floods… We worship the gods which the West has forgotten… If the West does not recognise these gods, then these problems will continue… How many people will die if shamanism is not accepted?

“Despite the grimness of these warnings,” said Xenia Dennen last night, “I found them a very friendly lot. But, of course, I think they might have appeared rather different in their shaman robes and in a trance. Not at all cosy, I suspect.”

But I find it somehow reassuring that there are still people out there who believe in the sky.

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Other people’s lives: Freemasons, gangsters, a cat killer and the Cold War

Purveyors of fine petrol to the nation

Owners of fine petrol stations across UK

Last night, I went to Stowmarket in Suffolk to see two excellent Edinburgh Fringe preview shows by Doug Segal and Juliette Burton.

On the way back, just before midnight, I filled up at a BP petrol station somewhere on or near the A14.

Inside, a man dressed as a green duck was talking to a woman dressed as a yellow chicken.

“It was brown and grey and French,” the man said.

“Karen has always been difficult,” the woman replied.

Then they left.

Despite that, I have no particular blog to write this morning, so I idly looked through some old diaries at what happened today in previous years. These are extracts, going back in time to another era. Some names have been removed.

Boots: a frequent weapon in Glasgow

Two negotiation tools often used to settle disputes in Glasgow

5th MAY 2002

In  the evening, I went with (a fairly well-known English comedian) to a gig at a Masonic Hall in Easterhouse, a legendarily rough part of Glasgow. The low, unmarked building was surrounded by empty space, like a free-fire zone, and had 7 ft tall spiked grey metal railings surrounding it with barbed wire on parts of the roof. There was a full house: perhaps 150 people, all dressed up in their Sunday best as if for a West End occasion. They hated (the fairly well-known English comedian’s) performance. Their favourite star was ‘Christian’ a 64-year-old who sings as if it were still the 1970s.

The son of one of the people who ran the club told us: “My nose is getting better now. It’s still just tender here, towards the top.”

The other night, he had been driving home from some late night DJ work and stopped at a petrol station. After paying, he walked back towards his car. A man appeared, said “No-one talks to my wife like that!” and hit him.

Three other men then appeared and all four attacked him, knocking him down and kicking him, breaking his nose.

The police say they have the men’s faces and the number plate of their car on video but, because the beating itself is not seen on any video, there is no point finding and prosecuting them.

It seems that the DJ boy, drunk, had reached the pay counter at the same time as the angry man’s wife and (he says) told her: “You go first.”

Seeing this from outside, the other man and his friends somehow misinterpreted what had happened and got angry.

taxisign

How is this common sight linked to the Great Train Robbery?

5th MAY 2000

I had lunch with a chum. Last week, (a prominent London gangster) told him one of the Great Train Robbers who was never caught is black and now works as a London cab driver. He kept all of his share.

My chum went to Charlie Kray’s recent funeral in Bethnal Green. As Reggie Kray came out of church after the service, handcuffed to a policewoman, my chum found himself shouting “Let him out!” and it was taken up by the rest of the hundreds of bystanders. When Reggie went to his brother Ronnie Kray’s funeral, he was handcuffed to two gigantic policemen to make him look small, but instead it made him look very dangerous. This time, my chum reckoned, he had been handcuffed to a woman to try to belittle him in fellow-gangsters’ eyes.

Later, I talked with another chum on the phone. She has just got back from cruising the Caribbean in a yacht. She said the Caribbean is full of white South Africans who have left the country and put all their money into buying yachts and cruisers. She said her bottom was probably on the Internet because one man spent 39 days sailing from South Africa to the Caribbean and, when he got there, he was greeted by her buttocks exposed to him spelling out WELCOME NICK.  He took a digital photograph to send to his friends as an e-mail attachment.

Portrait of a killer

Portrait of a pitiless kitty killer with a track record

5th MAY 1999

I had lunch with a chum at BBC Television Centre in Wood Lane.

Last weekend, he and his girlfriend went to Chichester, where she has friends. In the evening, they were all watching a video of Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels. Halfway through, the chief baddie was saying something to the effect of: “If things don’t happen, people will lose their digits.”

At this point, the living room door was suddenly pushed open – slammed open, really – by the family cat, who entered the room with the hind legs of a rabbit dangling from its bloodied mouth. The cat strode in, dropped the legs on the carpet, looked up at the humans and strode out of the room. The cat’s owner said they’d once sat and watched the same cat eat an entire rabbit in the garden, head first.

“You sat and watched?” my chum asked incredulously.

When he got back to his home in Brixton that same night, my chum found the head of a toy Teletubby (the yellow one) in his back garden. Just the head.

He recently negotiated a per-day pay rise for himself at the BBC; then negotiated a 4-day-week for himself thus, in effect, getting paid the same money for a day’s less work. He intends to try to write a novel on Mondays. His female boss is also going to take a day off work each week in an attempt to write a novel.

When I got home from the BBC lunch, I found an e-mail from another chum who works at Anglia TV:

Hey, today’s Eastern Daily Press is full of a story about an ex Anglia TV carpenter who murdered his wife and attempted to murder his daughter. You would recognise him. He looked like a little gnome and wandered around fixing things with a white coat on. He stabbed her to death because she spent more than £60 a week on the housekeeping!

Later, shopping in Tesco’s, I met the woman who used to live next door to me in Borehamwood. She, her husband, son and daughter moved to nearby Shenley about six years ago. She said her daughter was now twelve and “getting hormonal”. Nothing she (the mother) could do was right and her daughter was embarrassed by her.

Tashkent earthquake memorial in 1985

Tashkent earthquake memorial in 1985

5th MAY 1985
(four years before the Berlin Wall fell)

Tashkent, Uzbekistan.

The old city was flattened by an earthquake in 1966 and rebuilt mostly in ghastly Russian tower block style.

Walking along a street this morning, I encountered three thin policemen and a tubby officer with a moustache talking to a shirt-sleeved man who seemed to have committed a traffic offence. The shirt-sleeved man took some pieces of paper out of his right-hand pocket and offered them to the officer. But the officer noticed me – an obvious tourist – approaching with a camera over my shoulder. He dismissed the man’s offer of (I presume) roubles with a wave of his hand.

Walking into the grounds of a mosque, we were given a very crude propaganda magazine about how local Moslem customs are respected and how the Soviet state is renovating mosques. The Russians must be very worried about the Moslems in Soviet Central Asia.

My German chum yesterday encountered a local Uzbek newspaper editor called Igor who had met a girl in Bulgaria whom he (Igor) wanted to marry. This romance came to the ears of the KGB who interrogated Igor and told him there was no way he could marry her.

Igor earns 250 roubles per month compared to the average of 160 roubles per month, so he is well-off. He lives in a three-room apartment – unusually spacious – but he has to share it with his brother and one other man. There are weekly political meetings at his apartment block with a register of names and it is compulsory to attend them unless you are working.

Igor came very nervously to our hotel tonight to talk to my German chum. He wants to send my German chum a book but will have to get a friend to take it to Yugoslavia and post it from there. If Igor got mail from the West, he would be questioned by the police. He tried to persuade my German chum to send him money so he can travel to Yugoslavia himself and then on to Germany. My German chum met him just outside the hotel for this chat and thought it might be some form of set-up by the security police.

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Filed under Crime, Humor, Humour, Politics

Bouncing Czechs & Presidential pranks

(This was also published by Indian news site WSN)

Vladimir Franz - the face of Czech politics

Vladimir Franz – the tattooed face of Czech politics

I worked in Prague a few times, making promotions and press tapes for some start-up TV channels around 1995/1996.

It was only a few years after the Soviet empire crumbled and I thought Prague – and the Czech people – might be a bit grey and dour. It only took me about a week to re-appraise the situation, when I started to think of the country not as the Czech Republic but as Bohemia.

The Czechs are bohemians.

That is not 100% politically and geographically correct, but it is psychologically correct.

Certainly, when I was there, they liked their beer and they liked a party.

I should have realised this earlier because, before I actually worked in the Czech Republic, my sole experience of Czechs was bringing Ernő Rubik (inventor of Rubik’s cube) over to the UK for a couple of appearances on the anarchic children’s TV show Tiswas.

Erno was a very laid-back dude who liked jazz and wore corduroy trousers.

And THAT was under Soviet Communism.

I like the Czechs. They are generally sophisticated, cool and creative.

During my time there poet, playwright and former dissident Václav Havel was President. He had new uniforms for Prague Castle’s guards designed by the man who designed costumes for the movie Amadeus. He appointed glorious rock god Frank Zappa as ‘Special Ambassador to the West on Trade, Culture and Tourism‘ for the Czech Republic.

You have to like the Czechs.

But, like all relatively small countries (population 10.5 million) you have to accept the good (the capacity for eccentric decisions) with the bad (a possibility of corruption). In that sense, it is not unlike the Republic of Ireland.

Which brings me to the President of the Czech Republic.

In the UK, today’s Guardian newspaper carries a piece on Vladimir Franz, a tattooed-all-over opera composer, painter and professor at Prague’s Academy of Performing Arts. He is running for President and, in this week’s Presidental election race, he has an estimated 11% support and is running third. He has been compared (because of his tattooed face) to “an exotic creature from Papua New Guinea”, has no political experience and admits he doesn’t know much about economics.

So, obviously, I asked former Scots comic Alex Frackleton (now living in the Czech Republic) for some background on current Czech politics.

“In the outside world,” he told me, “it is the year 2013 – but, alas, not here where, despite digital television and high-speed internet, it feels like we’re living in the middle ages, circa 1320.

“On New Year’s Day, the out-going president of the Czech Republic, Václav Klaus (known to me as ‘Cunty Baws’) announced a presidential pardon that would see the release of 7,000 prisoners from Czech jails and court proceedings. Among those released are a number of persons either convicted of or in the process of being prosecuted for multi-billion dollar frauds which took place during the privatization process of the 1990s. Purely coincidentally – and I hasten to add this is merely an observational point on my part – Václav Klaus was Prime Minister of the Czech Republic in the 1990s.

“I seem to be alone in assuming that this is merely a coincidence as every single person I know here is furious. Everyone is going mental. Even people who don’t normally care about politics are shouting their heads off.

“To date, 600 Mayors and 500 schools have taken down the President’s portrait in protest at the amnesty. The British equivalent would be removing a picture of the Queen, the Pope or Stephen Hawking …

“Cunty Baws is shouting about how the press/media/his enemies are blowing the whole thing out of proportion. This is the guy who, as a visiting President to a conference in Chile, was caught on camera stealing a pen.

“If he wanted to do something to mark his out-going-ness, he could easily have granted free heating to all pensioners during the three coldest months of the year.

“If ever there was a moment for another ’68 Prague Spring uprising or a real revolution to replace the velvet cushiness of ’89, then that moment ought to be now.”

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Filed under Czech Republic, Humor, Humour, Politics

The poor Vietnamese woman, the Gilded Balloon & the millionaire Iranian

Yesterday evening, American comedian Lewis Schaffer (who, like all other self-obsessed comedians, likes to be name-dropped at every opportunity and to get a link) sent me a text message about my blog:

It’s amazing you can keep on doing it every day.

Well, I can tell him and you it ain’t always easy.

Yesterday, I moved a friend’s sofa from Essex to Greenwich and was helping clean up a house. Not a good subject for blogging.

So, this morning, I looked through my e-diary for what had happened around this date in previous years. These extracts are the results:

1989

In Hanoi, my local guide tells me:

“This is still a Socialist country – like Russia, da.”

He keeps absent-mindedly saying “da” instead of “yes”.

A fat woman in a rickshaw in Hanoi, 1989

Fat woman of money in rickshaw in Hanoi, Vietnam, 1989

I think I now eventually have the economics worked out.

Beggars ask local people for money but they don’t ask me. They assume I am a Russian, because I am a white-skinned foreigner.

The Vietnamese have no time for Russians because they (a) don’t smile and (b) have no money. No-one wants roubles, only dollars and, even if they did want roubles, the Russians don’t have spare cash.

The problem with using travellers cheques here is the US economic embargo on Vietnam – US companies are banned from trading with the Vietnamese. (This does not stop the North Koreans accepting cheques, though – they deal with American Express via Moscow.) My Hanoi guide tells me credit cards here are “many many years” away because there are very few computers in Vietnam.

When we pass the very flash Hanoi Opera House, he tells me it was intended for the people, but only the very rich can afford it. This implies there is a group of very rich (as opposed to just very privileged) people.

At lunchtime, I took a walk and met Hanoi’s equivalent of a bag lady in ragged-sleeved jacket, the bottom half of her face entirely red. Her face was like a robin redbreast. Brown top half. Red bottom half. I think she must have been knocking-back some particularly brutal local equivalent of meths. She muttered (and probably cursed) at me a bit, then staggered away.

'Hanoi Hilton' no longer taking foreign guests in 1989

The ‘Hanoi Hilton’ prison – not taking foreign ‘guests’ in 1989

My local guide asked me if he could use the shower in my hotel room. Perhaps it is a perk of the job – a glamorous Russian shower. He told me he lives on his own in a Tourist Office room with no cooking facilities – presumably he can always eat in hotels……I think he agreed when I asked about this last bit.

I was writing a postcard on the balcony of my hotel when bits of brick started falling on me: they are building a new storey above me. I had to go to two separate buildings to send the postcard. One to buy a stamp and another to hand it in for sending. There was a power cut halfway through this process.

I had dinner tonight with the two Hong Kong Brits I met in Da Nang – plus a couple of Canadians. When he was in Da Nang, the Canadian bloke told me he had had a T-shirt printed saying in Vietnamese I AM NOT A RUSSIAN.

He lives in an apartment in Calgary with a one-metre long iguana which, he says, craps in a sandbox behind the television set. He feeds it on cat food and says it can sense when he is about to go away because it pines and goes off its food. The iguana has its own dead tree – “well, it’s dead now,” the Canadian said – in the apartment, so it can climb occasionally. It normally sleeps on its own heated pad although once the Canadian found it curled inside his pillowcase. The only problem is it likes to climb up the Canadian’s leg and has sharp claws.

In the same apartment block, a neighbour keeps a pet boa constrictor.

I must remember to avoid Calgary.

2000

A taxi driver told me that lap dancers at Stringfellows nightclub in St Martin’s Lane pay £200 per night to work there, then make the money back by commission on drinks bought by punters and tips from punters. Competition among the girls is cut-throat… not surprisingly, given that they have to make £1,000 in a five-day week just to break even.

2001

I went round to an interesting Iranian woman’s home. She is thinking of writing her autobiography… but will probably not.

“I am not rich,” she tells me. “If I get £100,000, I spend £25,000 here and £25,000 there. It soon goes.”

She has what appears to be a part-time Kosovar maid, pale, white skinned, hook nose, melancholic hang-dog expression, cavernous eyes with black lines in the skin underneath as if on drugs.

Also there was a Kosovar translator from Pristina.

The Iranian has a British and (as of two years ago) an Iranian passport. She is thinking of publishing her autobiography when her son is 21 because he will be “more able to take things” then. He is now 16. Her family is related to the former Prime Minister of Iran assassinated by Khomeini’s agents in  Paris. Her grandmother was a Mossadeq – as in the Mossadeq who was overthrown by the CIA to install the last two Shahs of Iran.

She lived in Dubai with first husband. She once had to go to China to buy a plane – she knew the Chinese general who was selling it.

If it gets around that she is writing about her life, she says, there will be panic calls from Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Saudi offering her millions not to publish. She has lots of dirt on the Saudi royal family.

A former Swedish boyfriend found oil in Texas and she spent one year in LA after her son was born (by her second husband). She has stories of the Playboy Mansion and Hugh Hefner’s parties.

“I always went for the wrong men,” she told me.

Once, she says, she lost £5 million in a London casino.

She has a tiny and very amiable shih tzu dog which came from the US. She flew with it to Paris, then drove to the UK, hiding the dog under her armpit to avoid the six-month quarantine restrictions aimed at stopping rabies.

2002

I heard a radio report that a big fire in Cowgate, Edinburgh, had destroyed the Gilded Balloon venue last night. I phoned comedian Malcolm Hardee, who phoned his Edinburgh friend Maurice The Fireman. When Malcolm phoned him, Maurice was still fighting the fire.

The bestselling hardback version of Janey's book

The bestselling hardback version of Janey Godley’s autobiography

2003

Comedian Janey Godley is writing her autobiography. I have a terrible cold. My advice to her today was:

DON’T DON’T DO NOT GO BACK AND RE-WRITE THAT BIT. YOU CAN SORT IT OUT IN THE NEXT VERSION YOU WRITE. KEEP GOING EVER FORWARD LIKE THE SNOT DOWN MY NOSE. 

But just remember I am either a man living in New Zealand who has never seen the building you are writing about nor heard your life story… Or I am a housewife in Gloucester reading the book in bed at night before she goes to sleep. And, frankly, the way I feel I would prefer to be a housewife in Gloucester. Lead me to the sex-change shop. Bring on the Rabbi with the meat-cleaver.

I will read tonight’s (I’m sure excellent) piece tomorrow. If I live. Which seems unlikely. I don’t so much shiver as wobble around the waist and shoulders while an invisible Grimm giant takes an axe to my throat. Childbirth? Pah! NOTHING compared to the suffering of men with slight chills.

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Filed under Blogs, London, Russia, Vietnam, Writing

The curious case of Belgian schoolgirls & dogs which did not bark in the night

My early morning reading: better than Jehovah’s Witnesses

Yesterday morning, I was sitting in my friend’s house just outside Milan. There was a ring on the bell at the gate.

“It’ll be the missionaries.”

“Missionaries?” I asked.

“Christians.”

“Jehovah’s Witnesses?”

“Same thing. Missionaries.”

In fact, it was a man handing out the latest issue of the local revolutionary Communist party newspaper Lotta Communista (The Communist Fight).

So yes, missionaries.

“Are the Communists strong around here?” I asked.

“They used to be,” I was told. “There is a new Morman Temple opening round the corner, maybe this year.”

Religions seem to be finding Italy a fertile ground. Always have, I suppose.

In the afternoon, I went to the hilltop town of Bergamo with my friends. There were a group of perhaps twelve young schoolgirls going round one of the squares, asking people to wear a pink jacket and then taking photographs of them.

“Why the pink jacket?” I asked the schoolgirls.

“We are all from different schools,” I was told, “but we all come from Belgium. You go to a camp and you meet people and you do stuff for them. we are at Camp Lovere. It is a water camp. We do water sports there.”

“And the pink jacket?” I asked.

“It’s a game that we play in the city,” I was told. “We are in different groups, all battling against each other. There are other groups who have to make sure people wear pants… like swimming shorts. We have to get pictures of things and we also have to collect some Italian food and create a human pyramid. And we have to teach a tap dance to somebody and to wrap someone – an Italian – in toilet paper and take a picture.”

“And if you win?” I asked.

“We win two bowls of ice cream,” I was told. “But we have to go now.”

Belgian schoolgirls build the human pyramid

They rushed across the square. Two men were persuaded to kneel on all fours on the ground and six girls formed a human pyramid with them.

As we were driving out of town, my friend saw two greyhounds.

“They are lovely,” my friend said. “There is an Italian association which rescues greyhounds from Irish racetracks. Did you know the greyhounds get killed after they stop winning races?”

Later, as we ate our evening meal in the garden beside our house, a man started shouting and a woman started screaming in fear in the large house across the road.

I looked at my friend.

“He is shouting at her I will kill you! and she is screaming. It does not sound good.”

But the four dogs owned by the man in the house across the road were not barking so, presumably, it was not an unusual occurrence.

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Filed under Humor, Humour, Italy

Comedy scriptwriter unmasks capitalist economics as no better than voodoo

(This was also published on the Indian news website WeSpeakNews)

Mark Kelly turns his back on the police state (and the dog)

With Greece and Spain still teetering on the brink of financial collapse, the NatWest Bank’s computers refusing to transfer money to anyone for two days this week and comedian Jimmy Carr getting attacked by the Prime Minister for tax-dodging, it seemed like a good time to talk money with comedy scriptwriter Mark Kelly, not a man known to dislike Marxist-Leninism.

“It’s perfectly reasonable for economists not to know what to do,” Mark said to me in a cheap cafe in Soho (I was paying), “because Economics is not a science in the first place.

“If you have a problem with an aeroplane, then aerodynamics IS a science. There’s a cause and effect as to why a plane isn’t working and you can fix it. You can’t do that with Economics because there’s no verifiable cause and effect. Economics is essentially no different from voodoo. It’s all based on belief. Things only exist because you believe they do.”

“Well,” I said, “I was always crap at Economics at school. They forced me to do Economics for ‘A’ Level because they said I had to ‘do a science’ and I was even more crap at Chemistry and Physics. I was useless at factual subjects because I could never remember abstract facts like Sodium Chloride = NaCl and Methyl Chloride = CH3Cl but I was good at conceptual subjects like British Constitution where you could discuss things. I was good at waffle.”

Mark quite rightly ignored this (and I added in those chemical system details when I was writing this blog). I was waffling.

“I think,” Mark said, “that the best essay on economics – but I would think this – is one by Lenin on fictitious capital. The idea of capitalist economies creating fictitious capital. Money breeds money. The history of capitalist economics is primarily the history of debt and debt itself can ultimately only be collected by force.

“So America has a phenomenal level of debt, but no-one has the nerve to call in America’s debt because, if you do, they’re suddenly going to find that you’ve got a very oppressive regime and it has to be overthrown. America can’t be ‘called’ on its debt, despite the fact it has an enormous debt… but other countries can.

“If you have a big enough debt, one of the ways of dealing with it is to get rid of the person you owe the debt to… in other words War. Bourgeois economists would never include War as an economic strategy; but it is.”

“So,” I said, “Greece should basically declare war on Germany and France?”

“It’s their best bet,” Mark replied. “No, seriously, what they should do is build an enormous horse, push it over the border and then, at night, the horse opens and all the Greek Communists come out and fiddle with the other bank’s computers.”

“Computers are the soft underbelly,” I said, “The NatWest computers have been in chaos the last two days and transactions were not being processed. A friend of mine who has been involved in banking computers said it sounded to him as if someone had tried to hack into the main computer system or its twin – because they presumably have a back-up system somewhere in some un-marked building.”

“Well, as for computers…” said Mark, “with the very very sophisticated credit default swaps, the parcelling-up of debt and stuff… basically people like Goldman Sachs have been employing for 20 years or so – well, really since Reagan became US President – they’ve been employing enormously highly-rated mathematicians and some of the formulae they come up with in credit default swaps and so on are so sophisticated that there are literally only a handful of people who understand the formulae.

“So banks have been operating on the basis of formulae which they’re quite happy to admit they themselves don’t understand. It’s ultimately no different from voodoo. You’re just taking the word of other people and everyone has a vested interest in taking everyone else’s word and that, itself, is the essence of a bubble. So you have a housing bubble or you go back to the 18th century and you have the South Sea Bubble and the Tulip Bubble in the 17th century.”

“The Tulip Bubble?” I asked.

Mark quite rightly ignored me.

“People,” he continued, “talk about The Market now as if The Market were a human being. What would The Market say? How would The Market react? As if The Market were a rational person with an identity, whereas it’s not. It’s composed of an enormous number of irrational, deeply avaricious fuckwits all racing around saying Buy! Sell! Buy! Sell! 

“The choice is between a rational, planned economy – which is what Lenin was after – and… and… the irony is that capitalist economics is actually anarchy in the worst sense of the word: it’s utterly chaotic.”

“Well, yes,” I said. “Pure capitalism without any restraints is pure anarchy because the strongest person wins.”

“It’s not a science at all,” Mark said, “It’s no different to voodoo. The basic problem isn’t how to fix the system. The problem is the system itself.”

Then we carried on talking about comedy clubs.

It seemed the best thing to do.

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Filed under Comedy, Economics, Finance, Politics