Tag Archives: Phnom Penh

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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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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