Tag Archives: North Korea

My nine days in North Korea in 2012

Changgwang Street, Pyongyang, in 1986


I first visited North Korea in 1986, when the Great Leader Kim Il-sung was still alive. He died in 1994.

I went again in April 2012, shortly after his son and successor the Dear Leader Kim Jong-il died (December 2011).

His son Kim Jong-un had succeeded him and was, at that time, being referred to as the Supreme Leader.

Below are the blogs I wrote in April 2012. I wrote them on paper while in North Korea and kept them in my inside jacket pocket at all times and only posted them once I was back in the UK. I am not that mad.


A North Korean stage production in April 2012


12th April – George Orwell’s pyramid looms over the capital city Pyongyang

13th April – A land of nuclear bombs and satellite launches, but no electricity

14th April – Walter Mitty truth in an anarchic, pedestrian totalitarian state

15th April – North Koreans are not the the mindless brainwashed zombies of US propaganda

16th April – The Leaders’ spectacles

17th April – A beacon of hope for the down-trodden masses of the wide world

18th April – Phallic monuments, war lies, famine and an interview with MI5

19th April – “Confess your crimes against the people of North Korea or you will not be allowed to leave the country tomorrow”

20th April – Return from North Korea to China, land of individual freedom & Keanu Reeves

21st April – My undying admiration for their supreme leader Kim Jung-un

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Filed under North Korea, Politics, Travel

North Korea, Manchester’s Living Dead and the influence of House of Hammer

House of Hammer logo

Some things make you feel old.

So I received this e-mail. It read:

The Living Dead at the Manchester Morgue

It’s not great, but you won’t sleep through it…

Wow, you’re still alive! I remember reading your stuff in the House of Hammer magazine when I was 11 or 12 years old. In fact, I was thinking about you when I watched The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue on YouTube a wee while ago. What did you write about it in your review? Something along the lines of: “The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue is no great horror film… But you certainly won’t sleep through it”?!

I used to write feature articles and occasionally reviews for film magazines, including House of Hammer, which was oddly published by Marvel Comics UK and had a wider horror scope than just movies by Hammer Films. It later transformed into House of Horror.

The e-mail I received was from an Ian Smith. He added: “Did you write a feature about David Cronenberg and his first four movies (Stereo, Crimes of the Future, Shivers and Rabid) in House of Hammer — somewhere around issues 13 – 16?  If so, you also acquainted me with the World of Cronenberg for the first time — another feather in your cap! I seem to remember Mark Gatiss fondly waving a copy of House of Hammer on a BBC documentary he did about British horror movies.”

Ian Smith’s blood and Porridge website

The Blood and Porridge website

So I thought Ian Smith might be worth talking to because, born in Northern Ireland and brought up both there and in Scotland, he currently lives in Sri Lanka and spent time in England, Switzerland, Japan, Ethiopia, India, Libya, Tunisia and, he says, “a part of the Korean peninsula that isn’t visited very often”. His website is titled Blood and Porridge.

So I talked to him via Skype in Sri Lanka, shortly after he had come back from a month working in Burma. He works as a teacher-trainer for people wanting to teach English as a foreign language.

When he finds the time, he writes short stories – horror, science fiction, fantasy and, he says, “even ‘mainstream’ ones set in humdrum wee Scottish and Irish towns and villages”. He has also published non-fiction on topics ranging from travel to Scottish amateur league football teams, from linguistic relativity to vampire movies. He has written under the pseudonyms Steve Cashell, Rab Foster, Eoin Henderson, Paul MacAlister, Jim Mountfield and, he says, “occasionally, under my own boring name”.

“So,” I said to him, “a part of the Korean peninsula that isn’t visited very often?”

“Yes,” he replied, “I spent two years working in North Korea with the British Council.”

“Which years?” I asked.

North Korea: the people’s paradise

North Korea: People’s Paradise with a hint of a nuclear bomb

“2005-2007. That’s when they became a nuclear power. I remember I was with the British Ambassador that night and he was looking quite rattled and I told him: Well, you’ve joined that exclusive club. There can’t be many ambassadors who were in a country that suddenly went nuclear. It did not cheer him up.”

“Where were the bugs?” I asked. “The first time I was in North Korea we went, for some reason, to the Indian ambassador’s residence and he started off by just pointing silently to the radiogram, which was where the main bug was.”

“The only thing I noticed,” said Ian, “was that, when I picked up my telephone I would sometimes hear clicking noises. There was obviously someone listening in. I had freedom to go pretty much anywhere in Pyongyang, though occasionally I would spot someone behind me who was obviously keeping an eye on me.”

“Did you get out of Pyongyang much?” I asked.

“Just a little bit. I was generally restricted to the city but there are a couple of places you can go to which are on the official tourist trail. You can go about 30 miles down the road to the beach; and there’s a couple of mountains you can go to. Most of the time I was in Pyongyang and then they’d fly me over to Beijing every couple of months for a break.”

“Much-needed,” I suggested.

“Well,” said Ian, “I have to say I didn’t actually mind the job too much. I got on quite well with the North Korean people: they had a very nice, dark sense of humour.”

“Really?” I asked, surprised anyone risked showing any sense of humour in the People’s Paradise.

Ian Smith

Ian Smith: a very well-travelled man

“They were very British, actually,” said Ian. “Always slagging each other off. I guess you probably need it in that environment. I enjoyed working there. You just had to not think too much about the wider picture.”

“What were you doing there?” I asked.

“I was training-up some teachers of English – giving them some training on the job.”

“Who is getting taught English in North Korea?” I asked.

“It’s quite a big thing,” said Ian. “At the time, Kim Jong-il had said he wanted everyone to speak English because it was the international language for business. Even in the more secluded countries, they now realise there’s a need for it.”

“It sounds dangerous,” I said. “North Koreans would actually be able to talk to foreigners.”

“Well, it’s a two-edged sword,” agreed Ian.

“What did you think when you were told you were going to North Korea?”

“I saw it advertised and applied. I had been in Newcastle-upon-Tyne for three years.”

“So anywhere was better?” I asked.

“I wouldn’t say that, but I felt it was definitely time for a bit of a change.”

“You read House of Hammer when you were about 11 or 12,” I said. “I always imagined I was writing for 16 or 17 year olds.”

House of Hammer No 9

Unusually cheerful-looking House of Hammer

“Well,” said Ian.”you couldn’t get into the cinema to see these films and your parents wouldn’t let you stay up late to see them on TV, so it was a kind of forbidden fruit thing. Someone said: The scariest horror films are the ones you are too young to get in to see. You just imagine them being much worse than they actually are.

“And now you write yourself,” I said.

“I do a bit of writing. I write a lot of horror stories. I usually get two or three published each year. Sometimes hard copies, sometimes internet magazines. I’m not going to make any money out of it. It’s all moved online, but the problem is you get paid less now, if at all.”

“Why did you want to be a writer?”

“It’s just something that seemed obvious to me. Even when I was a kid, I was writing stuff in exercise jotters.”

“And now it’s all gone electronic,” I said.

“I think with a lot of those horror and fantasy writers from the 1970s and 1980s – their actual book market dried up and a lot of them started doing stuff on the internet and self-published – Tanith Lee, who died a few weeks ago published dozens and dozens of books in the last decade or so, but all electronic. Her fanbase would download it.”

“Your next story?” I asked.

One of the online markets for Ian’s work

One of the online markets for Ian’s work

The Groove. It should be appearing soon in a Kindle magazine called Hellfire Crossroads.  It’s a traditional revenge-from-beyond-the-grave story like the ones that used to be in those horror comics all those years ago. In it, the guy who has died is a sort of John Peel music obsessive who has this horrible, bitchy wife. The guy has left these requests for music to be played at his funeral but she ignores them and plays Angels by Robbie Williams. I just thought that, if something was guaranteed to bring me back from the grave in a fit of revenge, it would be that.”

“A sort of Hammer Horrory idea,” I said.

“I was reading,” said Ian, “an interview with the director Julian Richards, who made a film called Darklands in the late 1990s, which kick-started the new movement in British horror movies and he said, when he was a kid, the first film he did was on super-8 and he basically found the story in House of Hammer because they used to do these horror stories at the back – Van Helsing’s Terror Tales – he spent three years turning that into a film. So, in a way, House of Hammer was quite influential.”

“I guess every little helps,” I said.

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Filed under Horror, Magazines, Movies, North Korea, World War II

Frankly, I prefer North Korea to Paris

Afternoon tea with Elf includes interesting conversation

I suspect Elf Lyons can pronounce French better than I can

Yesterday afternoon, I bumped into comedian/actress Elf Lyons at the Soho Theatre Bar. She had only recently returned from Australia and, next week, is off to Paris. I had just been to Shepherd’s Bush. I think I may have annoyed God at some point.

I have been to North Korea twice (in 1986 and 2012) but have only been to Paris once (in 2000). I think this was a good decision, if you can call it a decision.

I was fascinated by North Korea; I can’t say that Paris held the same attraction when I went there, although Montmartre was nice.

I was in Paris on 21st March – exactly 15 years ago.

I was staying with two French sisters.

One of the local schools was called Lycée Lino Ventura, after the Italian actor. This seemed slightly odd to me.

I said to one of the sisters:

“Maybe in Britain, we should name a school after Michael Caine.”

She mis-heard Michael Caine as my cocaine.

Confusion ensued.

I managed to break my denture when I was there (don’t ask). Later, after having my denture repaired, I tried to thank the dental technician by saying: “Merci beaucoup,” but, because of the remnants of my Scots accent which makes me pronounce -oo- sounds idiosyncratically, it apparently sounded like I was saying to her Merci. Beau cul which means “Thankyou. Nice ass.”

It’s only flipping’ Noel Gallagher, ain’t it?

It’s only flippin’ Noel Gallagher, ain’t it?

I am not one of life’s great linguists.

In the evening, we went to see the English band Oasis perform in concert at Le Bataclan Club. The rowdy audience had been indulging in English football chants, a large flag of St George was being waved and there were groups of very obvious Brits. At one point, Noel Gallagher said: “Is there anybody out there who isn’t from flippin’ England?”

That is my main memory of Paris.

That I heard Noel Gallagher unexpectedly use the word “flippin”.

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The mysteries of Mr Methane, N Korean internet and Comedy’s Samuel Pepys

A teaser message from Mr Methane

A teaser message from Mr Methane

This morning, I received an e-mail from that ever-efficient farter Mr Methane. It said:


John, What an awful term ‘sneaky peek’ is but just thought that this sneaky peek promo photo may be of use on your blog as a lead up to my New Year’s Day Message as you start building the tension and anticipation of your readers.

I’m off into an internet abyss from later today until 5th Jan and only contactable by mobile phone.


As I had absolutely zero idea what my blog was going to be today – and still do not as I write this – I told him I probably WOULD use his photo and, indeed, I would include a link to his New Year’s Day Message To The Nation. Here it is:

The link is ‘Private’ at the moment, but the video will go live at midnight on New Year’s Eve. I have no more idea than you what it contains, but I admire a good bit of promotion and Mr Methane is an expert at blowing his own trumpet.

Soldiers grieving over the death of Kim Jong-Il

Soldiers express their grief over the 2011 death of the  Dear Leader Kim Jong-il in the People’s Paradise of North Korea

Even more mysterious is how, in this day and age, Mr Methane can be off to an internet-free zone until 5th January (the late Malcolm Hardee’s birthday).

I can only think of a trip to North Korea, one of the few places on earth that has not experienced a wind of change since 1946.

Adam Taffler, underground entrepreneur (Photograph by Kirsty Burge)

Adam Taffler commented on my clothes (Photograph by Kirsty Burge)

… I also received a New Year message this morning from showman Adam Taffler – another great promoter – despite the fact this is only 28th December. Perhaps he, too, is off to North Korea? Certainly he, too, has a Malcolm Hardee link which I am not yet allowed to mention.

Adam wrote to me – clearly in an attempt to get quoted in my increasingly prestigious blog – saying that I am…


…the Samuel Pepys of the comedy underworld and innocent stirrer of the cauldron of comedy. In some ways you are like a follower of Boudica in an encroaching Roman era, one of a few who sees the wisdom of the ancients lacking on the telly box. An old school alchemist in a Hawaiian shirt who sees where the gold is.


Is it really Adam Taffler as a pervy Santa Claus?

Is it really Adam Taffler as a pervy Santa?

I think this translates as “You are an old fart who wears overly-elaborate shirts,” but I will take it as a compliment.

Adam also sent me a picture of (what he claims is) him as (I quote) “a pervy Santa”.

I have still not decided what to blog about today.

Life is an ongoing mystery.

But here is a teaser for the potential future movie Iron Sky: The Coming Race. I presume this impressive-looking film about Nazis riding dinosaurs will be, in some way, a sequel to the surprisingly good Finnish-Australian-German movie Iron Sky, which was about Nazis living on the dark side of the moon.

Happy 28th December.

The producers are currently crowdfunding the movie and, at the time of writing, have raised $422, 175 of their $500,000 target with eight days left to go.

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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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I have a flashback to Vietnam in 1989…

On YouTube, there is a video of the last flight out of Da Nang in 1975

Fourteen years later, almost a quarter of a century ago from today – in November 1989 – I was in Da Nang. This is an extract from my diary.

Three of the American ‘journalists’ I saw in Cambodia are here with a lady from the Vietnamese Foreign Office. They are ex-GIs and have been touring former places they were based and fought in and around Huế and Da Nang…and meeting some former Viet Cong fighters.

They have interviewed the Foreign Minister who apparently said little except that the Japanese are “animals”. This was in an on-the-record interview.

The Foreign Office lady was interesting. She had shown film director Oliver Stone (of Platoon and Salvador) around and had a VHS of Spitting Image in her office – she thought it very funny. She had started reading Animal Farm but had got bored. She also went to North Korea last year and had been regaling the Americans with stories of how OTT it is. She said they had eaten potatoes every single day for lunch, so she and her room mate went back to the privacy of their room and talked about how boring potatoes were and how they wished the North Koreans would not serve them. Sure enough, the next day…no potatoes were served.

The Americans told the Foreign Office lady they could have easily won the Vietnam War, but the moral and political price would have been too high.

The most philosophical one of them told her quietly and amiably: “We could have obliterated you. We could have wiped your country off the map.” She smiled politely.

It strikes me the Americans still have not realised (even after the Russian debacle in Afghanistan) that money and might and technology alone cannot defeat motivated individuals. Also, the more I see of this country, the more insane the American tactic seems – staying in fortified enclaves. They could never have won the Vietnam War any more than the British forces on their own can ‘win’ in Northern Ireland. The difference is we know it but have no alternative. I suppose the problem is the Americans don’t understand guerrilla wars. They’re pumping money, arms and equipment into Central America, assuming quantity will triumph.

Anyway….

It was monsoon day today. I woke up at about 0300 in the morning with rain chucking it down. This continued for most of the morning. Sheets of it coming down. I got a chance to wear my waterproof top and leggings. I suspect the locals thought I looked distinguished – if hysterical tittering is a compliment over here.

An old guy attached himself to me as I wandered around. He said he occasionally goes to Saigon “but the crime is bad there. People have guns and sometimes policemen are shot by robbers”. He seemed to be talking about more than one isolated case. He asked me to send him “two movie magazines – American.”

He said only newspapers get censored, not movie magazines, and there is no problem sending him things.

Last night, after I got back to my room, there was a knock on the door.

A young-ish woman.

“Yooseepwon?”

“Sorry?”

“You sleep one?”

Aha! I possibly already have AIDs from the acupuncture needles; I don’t need this.

“No. Sleeps two,” I said. “Two people here.”

She wasn’t convinced, but said, “Ah!” and went away. After I closed my door, I heard her knocking on another door along the corridor. Presumably she had a list of all the rooms occupied by single men and says: “Can I sleep here too?”

Uncle Ho Chi Minh must be turning in his mausoleum up north in Hanoi.

I met a couple of British expats (they’ve been away from home for 37 years) working for the UN who reckon Vietnam could start to flourish within 18 months. In one Hanoi hotel, they told us, twenty rooms are on a retainer to Japanese companies waiting for the right time to move in their businesses. They have retained the empty rooms for six months to see how the Vietnamese withdrawal from Cambodia goes and are waiting for US pressure on Japan to lessen. (ie “Don’t trade with the Viets!”)

I also met a local teacher of English. He has the top teaching post on the highest grade at the local college and earns $10 per month; he has a wife and four children. He does occasional tourist work for meals, not money. He listens to the BBC World Service (illegal, he says) and gave me his business card, printed free for him by a student’s father.

“Don’t write,” he told me, pointing to the address on his card. “It would not be good for me.”

I have been warned about pickpockets in Da Nang.

I had a walk around town. Everyone ignored me. I assumed this was because they thought I was a Russian. The Russians took over the vast US naval base and airfield – I think it’s a main port for their Pacific Fleet. People who did look at me did so without expression or with a slight scowl. On some of the secondary shopping streets, though, I got some “Hello”s followed by smiles when I replied in English. On four occasions, when I said I was “English” they insisted on grasping and shaking my hand. I have never had this before. One bloke, discovering I was English, tried to sell me “real Viet Cong’s jacket…with holes in it…Real holes!…A memento…”

Only a couple of kids half-heartedly asked for money. There are more brightly-coloured Saigon consumer goods here than in Huế. More hustle and bustle. More money, I suspect…unless you teach.

The sad teacher said he agreed with Tolstoy: “Life is a dream.” He was an amiable man unable to control or affect his own destiny because of history, politics and lack of money. An intelligent man trapped below his ability and unable to do anything about it.

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Political gossip. Mick Jagger fondled by MP. Cabinet Minister thrown out of pub

In Sohemia last night: Mark Seddon (left) and Martin Rowson

In Sohemia last night: Mark Seddon (left) and Martin Rowson

I went to the Sohemian Society in London last night to hear about “Gay Hussar Nights”.

The evening was billed as two insiders’ journeys through Bollinger Bolshevism with the Rabelaisian Left: “Former Tribune editor and Labour Party National Executive member, turned Al Jazeera TV correspondent Mark Seddon and multi award-winning cartoonist Martin Rowson will chew the cud and spit it all out for your delectation in an evening of downright irreverence and much jocularity all laced through with a healthy contempt for the British political and media establishment.”

And so, indeed, it turned out.

The Gay Hussar is a famed Soho pub that, in pre-Blair days, was the haunt of left wing journalists and politicians. In the 1960s, the owner threw prominent Labour Party politician George Brown out of the building when, uninvited, he started to feel-up the woman sitting next to him – which was said last night to be “the only known case of a serving Foreign Secretary being thrown out for being drunk and disorderly”.

There were also stories about “the great left wing Labour MP and serial fellationist Tom Driberg” – a gay friend of gangsters the Kray Brothers and rumoured to be a Soviet agent via the Czech intelligence service.

“When Tom got very excited about the swinging sixties,” Martin Rowson said last night, “he tried to entice Mick Jagger to stand as a Labour MP and had dinner with him in the Gay Hussar. Everything was going swimmingly well until he started fondling Mick’s knee and rather blew it, as it were.”

There were two other people at that dinner: Mick’s girlfriend Marianne Faithfull and (the poet) W.H.Auden. While Tom and Mick were talking about Labour Party politics and the coming revolution, W.H.Auden asked Marianne:

Tell me. Have you ever smuggled drugs into the country?”

To which Marianne mumbled a reply. 

“Ever take them up the arse?” asked W.H.Auden

The evening broke up shortly afterwards.

Mark Seddon is a man who obviously shares my taste for the bizarre as, last night, he recommended people should take holidays in the people’s paradise that is North Korea – he has been there seven or eight times. He also told another story about George Brown.

The esteemed Labour politician was at a ball in Lima, Peru. With music playing and, having had quite a few drinks, George Brown was feeling ‘tired and emotional’ and went up to a vision of loveliness in a long gown, saying:

“Beautiful, beautiful lady in the red dress, can I have this next dance?”

To which the reply came: “Certainly not. This is the Peruvian national anthem… and I am the Cardinal Archbishop of Lima.”

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