Tag Archives: war

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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A few things I should have mentioned about Nuremberg – or maybe not

My eternally-un-named friend in Nuremberg

Eternally-un-named friend in Nuremberg at weekend

“I need a blog,” I told my eternally-un-named friend today.

“Oh no, no,” she said. “I’m tired. There’s a lot of things you’ve said in other blogs where I think Oh, I don’t really like the way I sound there – that’s stupid – and why do you have to use the eternally-un-named friend phrase so often?… and… I’m really tired.”

“You’re at your best when you’re tired,” I told her. “You’re on a roll; go for it.”

My eternally-un-named friend and I returned from Nuremberg yesterday. It was my first visit. She had been there in the 1980s and 1990s.

“Tell me about Dürer and the statue of the rabbit,” I suggested.

Albrecht Dürer drew a picture of a young hare in 1502. Outside Dürer’s (rebuilt) house stands or, rather, sits a modern sculpture based on his picture.

Mad hare

The hare with the myxomatosis kind of eyes

“I remembered it being like your mother’s ornament,” my eternally-un-named friend told me today. “But it wasn’t like that at all – or Dürer’s drawing. Instead it was like this crazy thing that had myxomatosis kind of eyes and had his claws on top of a human foot and had other things sticking out of it… It looked like it had had a car crash and was really rough and ghastly and spookily gross but, then, Dürer did have some pictures of odd animals with pop-eyes for some reason.

“It just disappointed me because, of course, I was getting well into hares because of their connection with the moon and them being…”

“Connection with the moon?” I asked.

“The moon,” repeated my eternally-un-named friend. “The moon goddess is represented by a hare in pagan religion when women ruled… or were, at least, equal… ehhh… the world.”

We looked at each other. We laughed.

Durer_NurnbergRuins

But you can mention the Dürer statue which survived the War

“We did have that conversation at Dürer’s house,” I reminded her, “where we were both disappointed that nothing in Dürer’s house appeared to actually be Dürer’s. Most things were copies.

“And I said to you: That’s possibly our fault, because the British bombed the place and – was it 94% or was it 97% of the town was destroyed?”

“I don’t think we need to keep mentioning things being bombed,” said my eternally-un-named friend. “I don’t think we need to keep mentioning the War. There is the Fawlty Towers joke of Don’t mention the War, but there does come a point where it all… There ARE other things.”

“Such as?” I asked.

“Dürer had a toilet built in his kitchen,” replied my eternally-un-named friend.

“I forgot to mention that in my blogs,” I admitted. “Remind me.”

“It was against city council regulations, even in those days,” said my eternally-un-named friend. “So he had to pay a fine before they would give it back to him.”

The Nuremberg Rally review stand in 1933

The Nuremberg Rally review stand in 1933

“But, getting back to the War,” I said, “you thought it was odd that I didn’t mention Rudiger playing tennis against the back wall of Hitler’s review stand at the place they held the Nazi rallies.”

“Well,” said my eternally-un-named friend, “people just used it for hitting balls against and Rudiger did when he was a teenager in the 1970s. Now you can’t do that because of it crumbling. If you had included it in your blogs, it would have showed that life had gone on. Only a few decades after this building we’ve all seen used on television as an awesome Nazi symbol of power… people were playing tennis against its side and back walls. It’s like the Ozymandias poem.

The Noremberg Rally review stand in 1993

The Nuremberg Rally review stand in 1993, already crumbling

“When we were there at the weekend, the whole of that road where they used to march in front of Hitler was being used by a family on roller skates. It was like a 1950s no-longer-used schoolyard and there was some guy in shorts just using the steps to run up and down for exercise.”

“The odd thing,” I said, “was that, when we were in the rally ground, I didn’t think of the awfulness of the Nazis or the scale of the rallies. I was thinking of the lyrics in that Stereophonics song Nice To Be Out:

Let me think now, let me see
I stood once where Hitler’s feet had stood
When he made a speech in Nuremberg in ’38

“Oh for goodness sake…” said my eternally-un-named friend.

Rudiger Schmidt - one degree of separation from car accident

Rudiger Schmidt: a man only one degree of separation from Nuremberg’s first car accident

“You didn’t mention that one of Rudiger’s first landladies was an old woman who was so old she had owned the first car in Nuremberg and, about a year after she bought her car, someone else bought the second car in Nuremberg and, a few weeks later, they crashed into each other.”

“I didn’t think it was interesting enough,” I said.

“But,” said my eternally-un-named friend, “you were interested when Rudiger mentioned that female nurses are called krankenschwester, male nurses are called krankenpfleger and ambulances are krankwagens.”

“I just like the idea of a crank wagon,” I said. “When were you last in Nuremberg?”

A knitted tree-warmer in a Nuremberg park

Knitted tree-warmer in Nuremberg park

“1993. And you didn’t mention in your blogs that the Nuremberg bratwurst sausages are small and thin – the size of a finger – because the wives of men in prison used to shove them through the keyhole. They were small enough to fit through a large keyhole… At which point in your blog, you could use the picture I took of you looking like Dr Strange-glove pointing to a very large lock which isn’t the prison. It was in the castle.”

“It might not be interesting enough,” I said. “What else did I forget to mention?”

“They have beavers in the river,” said my eternally-un-named friend.”

We looked at each other.

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Filed under Germany, Humor, Humour, Nazis

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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Memories of the Falklands War, the IRA bombings and Glastonbury in 1982

Felexible Anna Smith

Anna Smith, a peacenik in 1980s

Yesterday, I quoted a hedgehog memory of this blog’s occasional Canadian correspondent Anna Smith. At one time, in the 1980s, she tried performing comedy.

“Possibly my comedy career did not advance,” she told me today, “because I was consumed with altruism for hedgehogs, meeting with Generals Against The  Bomb and rescuing young children who had inadvertently ingested pages of LSD at the Glastonbury Festival.

“In 1982, an elderly actor – George Walton, of Soapbox Children’s Theatre – was letting us stay for the summer in the spare bedroom of his house in Forest Gate, East London. Next door lived a young  boy who spent his days in his garden howling the Tarzan call – Ah-AH-ah… Ahhh-AH AH! – quite musically. I used to wonder if he would write Tarzan – The Opera, when he grew up. Sadly, he didn’t.

“I remember I was staying at this house in Forest Gate not long after the IRA bombing of a bandstand in Regent’s Park. George Walton was upset about the bombing as his nephew had been one of the musicians playing in the bandstand when it exploded. The nephew was not killed but, tragically, he was made deaf. After that, I always made a point of crossing the street near embassies, unless it was one that I was protesting outside of.”

1982 was also the year of the Falklands Conflict.

The 1982 Falklands Conflict - same year as IRA attacks

The Falklands 1982 – same year as IRA attacks

“The war with Argentina was of especial interest to me,” Anna tells me, “because I was born in Argentina and thus an Argentine citizen for life. So, technically, I could have been considered an enemy alien. I remember in English kindergarten in Argentina I had been taught that the islands in the South Atlantic were The Malvinas in the morning and The Falklands in the afternoon, depending on who was teaching the class…

“When I travelled in and out of England during the Falklands War to my striptease assignments in Brussels, the British immigration officials would look askance at my place of birth – though some, seeing my Canadian passport (and shapely figure), added kindly: Ah well, you can’t help where you were born, love…

In some parts of East London, there were street parties being held under banners saying  SIXTY MORE ARGIES KILLED!!! and the like.

It was the same year I went to the Glastonbury Festival.

“We had met a child called Joseph when we were selling anti-nuke badges at a small festival at Crystal Palace. He looked a bit like a monkey. His ears stuck out. He was about eleven. He seemed to be a precocious and unusually solitary child, very outgoing, but always alone. At Crystal Palace he lagged about our area, talking very intelligently. We wondered whether we would see him again and he then asked if we were planning to go to Glastonbury. We were and told him we would be near the train ride.

“A month later he found us exactly there. He had very much enjoyed the train ride and he came round to talk with us frequently.

1982 - the Glastonbury Festival

1982 Glastonbury Festival – children on acid

“On the last day of the festival, he popped by and I was not there. When I returned, my friends said he had been there with some strange sheets of paper with tiny cartoons printed on them. He had wondered whether the papers might be drugs. My friends did not know and he had wandered off into the crowds…

“I realised that it was likely LSD and we started looking for him. We tried to get to the main stage so they could announce that there was a missing child wandering around Glastonbury alone and probably very high, but they wouldn’t let us anywhere the stage, because Alexei Sayle was on and they thought we were merely rabid Alexei Sayle fans trying to get near him, touch him or whatever. So we were stuck with the futility of trying to explain: NO WE DONT WANT TO TOUCH ALEXEI SAYLE!

“Eventually we got them to make the announcement – I think it may even have been Alexei Sayle who made the missing child who resembles a monkey announcement – and the crowd laughed at first, not sure if it was a set-up for a joke. We only mentioned the monkey because of his ears, poor kid…

“He was found and brought to the Samaritans in an enormous white tent overflowing with cots and stretchers and people crying, overdosing on drugs and vomiting and lying on blankets.

“Most of the volunteers were very concerned about the location of the remaining acid. But, at some point, one of the supervisors realised that the emergency tent with its Samaritan acid scavengers and vomiting addicts was not a good environment for any child and Joseph was moved to the cosy living room of the Eavis farmhouse, where he was cared for and we sat waiting for his parents to show up while he hallucinated, seemingly happy, as green lasers lit up the darkness outside.”

Anna lives in Vancouver now.

“I was out at the river yesterday,” she told me. “At 6.00pm. the CBC announced that some of the salmon fisheries seasons were open. Several species of salmon have arrived at the mouth of the Fraser. At 8.00pm I was out watching the fish jump.”

Different times, different lives.

“I hope Joseph is OK now,” said Anna.

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Filed under 1980s, Drugs, Music

British Lieutenant Colonel writes comedy novel about Sierra Leone war

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

David Thorpe’s face hidden behind his novel

David Thorpe’s face hidden behind novel

It’s not often a serving British Army officer writes a comic novel about a real war he was involved in. So Eating Diamond Pie by David Thorpe is an interesting one.

When I met him last week, I asked: “Did you think I want to write a book or did you think I want to get Sierra Leone out of my system?”

“I didn’t need to get it out of my system,” explained David. “I just wanted to write a book, but I intentionally didn’t do much research on how to do that. I thought If I do, it will be formulaic. So all I did was find out how many words you’re supposed to write – 70,000 to 90,000 words for a first book – this one is 86,000 words. And the only other piece of advice I followed was Write about what you know. I thought What do I know? Well, I knew about the civil war in Sierra Leone.

“It’s not a military book. It’s about a guy who’s ex-military, working for an aid agency and most of it is really just pointing fingers at the aid agencies. It’s a fictional book, though set in a real war. I could have taken that story and put it against other backdrops I know: Bosnia or Northern Ireland or Iraq or Afghanistan and perhaps I will write books about those in the future.

“I actually wrote the plan for this book on the flight out to Iraq thinking I would write it when I was in Iraq – in my spare time! But this was in 2007, when it was fairly hairy out there and the tour was at such a frenetic pace that there was no time to write. When I came back, I was at based at Catterick in North Yorkshire while my family was still living down south, so suddenly I found myself ‘married unaccompanied’, as we say, and I sat in a little flat in Richmond, North Yorkshire, on my own every evening. It took six months.”

At what point did you put humour into it?” I asked.

“It was always going to be a comic book.”

“You wrote an article for Mensa Magazine last month,” I pointed out, “where you mentioned the Sierra Leone rebels’ habit of using machetes to hack off arms or hands – which they called the ’short sleeve’ option or the ‘long sleeve’ option. You said it was a conflict completely bereft of sympathy, compromise or humanity. So this war was serious insanity and you decided to write a comedy about it…”

“Well,” said David, “there’s Springtime For Hitler and Catch-22 and Blackadder Goes Forth… War is a fascinating human activity and it’s at the extremes. So, if you’re making any type of social comment or documentary comedy, you can find it easier to hook it onto the extremes of humanity.

“Once I’d written it, I had this moment of terror thinking: You know, this could really badly backfire here: Army officer has written a funny book about war. But, then, none of it is: Look! That man’s had his arm cut off! Isn’t that funny? Let’s crack a joke. And, if you write something that’s bland and completely uncontroversial, what’s the point? Imagine if Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin just painted nice pictures of landscapes…”

“You joined the army when you were 17,” I said. “And have been involved in several wars.”

“Oh yes,” David said. “Always plenty of wars going on.”

“There’s that statistic,” I said, “that, in the last hundred years, there’s only been one year…”

“Yes,” said David, “only one year -1968 – when a British soldier hasn’t been killed in active operations.”

“They used to say a hundred years.” I mused, “Probably much more than a hundred years now.”

“It’s not brilliant, is it?” said David. “I went on a battlefield tour recently. The World War One battlefields. The Somme. And I realised human beings are a fairly ridiculous species. The way we solve our problems: using all our technology to kill each other. When you see the industrial scale of World War One, it’s just so ridiculous. The final trenches ended up just 200 metres further on than the very first trench that was dug. Ten million dead. You just think: Really? And we’re the alpha species on Earth?”

“Why were you in Sierra Leone?” I asked.

Members of the Sierra Leone Army during the war

Members of the Sierra Leone Army during the civil war

“We were part of IMATT – the International Military Assistance Training Team, helping the Republic of Sierra Leone’s armed forces organise themselves.”

“What about the West Side Boys?” I asked. “Weren’t they high on drugs most of the time? They thought they were superhuman and ironically, because they were crazed on drugs, they were superhuman because they would do anything.”

“They’d cover themselves with amulets,” said David. “It’s in the book. They were into Voodoo and they believed it and, of course, if you convince someone – and it helps if they’re high on drugs – and you tell them You are bullet-proof, then they’re going to run towards the enemy very quickly. So we had to try and convince them that this wasn’t such a brilliant military tactic. But without destroying their value set.

“African wars are mostly about logistics and not firing off all your bullets in the first ten minutes. If you can just control your rate of fire you will win.

“We made the mistake earlier on of trying to train them as a Western force. There’s no point. You could give them the most complex set of tactics you could come up with but, ultimately, all they wanted to do was line up in two ranks behind a big truck with a big gun on it and march forward and then start firing. And whoever had the most bullets left won. Variations on that theme.”

“Ultimately, you won,” I said.

The Revolutionary United Front was a loose affiliation of criminals and ne’er-do-wells,” explained David, “and there was a lot of swapping of loyalties, jumping sides. Groups would fight sometimes for the government, sometimes for the rebels, depending on what suited them.

“In Africa, though, there’s a capacity for forgiveness you often don’t find elsewhere. We took all the weapons off the various warring factions, put them all in a demobilisation camp and, after some antagonism in the first 24-48 hours, they all calmed down and they were playing football together within two days. You witnessed this and you suddenly had hope. You thought There is a real chance of peace here, because these guys are prepared to forgive. 

“But, if you go to Bosnia and bump into a Serb, he’ll have a tattoo on his forearm – a large cross with four Cs in each corner – which, in Serbo-Croat, means Only Unity Can Save The Serbs. He’s celebrating and remembering the Battle of Kosovo in 1389. He’ll absolutely hang his hat on that as a reason he hates the Croats and the Bosniac Moslems.  So what chance have you got of peace?

“And you go to Northern Ireland and the Catholics will be raging about the Battle of the Boyne and you can never go forwards if all your politics is based on what’s behind you. What happened in the past may be unjust, it may be bad but, if it’s 400 years ago – you know – get over it. We are just blips in history. We’re here and then we’re gone.”

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Filed under Africa, Books, Comedy, Military, Sierra Leone, war

UK comedian Matt Roper has ended up in a wheelchair in a hospital in Saigon

Matt Roper in hospital yesterday in Saigon (Photograph by nurse Than Thiet Sang)

Matt Roper in hospital yesterday in Saigon (Photograph by nurse Than Thiet Sang)

Oh the joys of modern communication via the internet.

The last I heard from British comedian Matt Roper was just over a month ago when I blogged that he had diarrhoea in India after a rather too enthusiastic encounter with a local drink called Fenny.

Imagine my surprise then, yesterday, when I received an e-mail from Saigon… and the cyber conversation that ensued.

MATT: I am hospitalized in Saigon. God giveth but he doesn’t piss about when he takes it away again… But I thank him for Cuban trained nurses and free wi-fi! Hope you are well!

JOHN: You are hospitalised? Seriously? With what? Are you insured? Are you OK? If there is a ceiling fan, you can live the start of Apocalypse Now! – “Saigon… Shit, I’m still in Saigon…” Are you OK? (Given that you are in hospital) Actually, yes, Cuban levels of healthcare will be a bonus point.

MATT: Cubans train some of the finest doctors and nurses in the world. Latin America is very, very lucky to have them. Some of the staff here trained in Cuba, Vietnam being communist and all, the two countries have a strong relationship. They’re amazing with me.

JOHN: So how are you?

Matt is in the Franco-Vietnamese Hospital in Saigon

Matt is in the Franco-Vietnamese Hospital – officially in Ho Chi Minh City – but it is still called Saigon by almost everyone

MATT: I’m fine but for my right leg. Deep vein thrombosis. Specialist reckons it can be healed back to normal 100%. But then she also thinks footballer Wayne Rooney is the British prime minister. I’m in a fucking wheelchair and on a drip. But strangely enjoying being waited on and given the opportunity to rest as much as I want. Franco-Vietnamese Hospital, Ho Chi Minh City. Fully covered for travel insurance. Thank fuck.

JOHN: How/why are you in Saigon? Your trip was to India.

MATT: I don’t fucking know. Why does the sun rise in the morning and then set again in the evening? Life leads me John and not the other way around.

JOHN: Deep vein thrombosis? Jesus. That’s the thing you’re supposed to get from long-distance flights, isn’t it? Keep a diary of your stay. It could be an Edinburgh Fringe comedy show.

MATT: That remains to be seen.

JOHN: Have you been elsewhere in SE Asia? Laos is interesting.

MATT: I spent a week or so in Bangkok. From there I came here. First time in Vietnam for me. When a new nurse comes to deal with me they ask if I live here in Saigon. When I say “Just a holiday” they sort of throw their heads back and laugh. What luck I have! What sort of a man gets deep vein thrombosis from a 90 minute flight? I ask you.

JOHN: What are your impressions of Saigon?

MATT: The ceiling in my room. The pisspot by my bed. The steady wheels of the commode, gliding gently across the polished floor of the ward. Seriously, the night before I was in the hospital, I was in the rooftop bar of the Caravelle Hotel sipping coffee, looking out over the rooftops of the city, my heart filled with joy. Isn’t there an Arabic proverb? One minute your hand is in your pocket, the next it’s up your arse… ?

Saigon in 1989, from the roof of the Rex Hotel

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

JOHN: I was in Saigon in 1989. I remember having drinks atop the Rex Hotel.

MATT: During the Vietnam War (it’s called the American War here) the Caravelle Hotel was the base for all the foreign journalists. That hotel was bombed, they managed to hit one of the rooms, but they reckon if they’d have targeted the bar instead they would’ve taken out every last one of the hacks.

JOHN: How did the hospitalisation happen?

MATT: I thought I’d torn my calf muscle. After three days I couldn’t walk, so I ended up coming in for a check-up. They gave me an ultra-sound scan and it turned out to be thrombosis. A public statement to the fact that I am suffering and I continue to suffer. Even Lewis Schaffer couldn’t lay claim to this.

JOHN: I wouldn’t be so sure.

MATT: I have only just let go of the notion that actually they’re going to amputate my leg. The things that have crossed this restless mind… If they did amputate it, would they show it to me afterwards? Would I want to see it? I doubt it. But, on the other hand, my chances of getting a series with the BBC would increase tenfold.

JOHN: I will blog about this tomorrow. Do you have a picture of yourself in a wheelchair or similar?

MATT: You’re a sick man, Fleming.

Modern-day Saigon, fortunately with Cuban-trained nurses

Modern-day Saigon, fortunately with Cuban-trained nurses

JOHN: Seriously. Send me a photo. When are you out?

MATT: When I’m allowed out. I don’t know. I think maybe a week or so more. I still can’t walk proper, so…

JOHN: Are you going elsewhere? Or coming straight back to the UK?

MATT: I really don’t know. I have either to stay put in Vietnam as they need to monitor my blood regularly or get back to Bangkok overland until it’s safe for me to fly again. Still, there’s stacks of material. Stacks of the stuff.

JOHN: It is an Edinburgh Fringe show. Trust me.

MATT: Nurse Than Thiet Sang must be credited for taking the attached photos of me. She was on a mission checking blood pressure before she was stopped to take these. If you really want a wheelchair shot you will have to wait until the male nurse who wheels me out for a strictly forbidden cigarette is on shift (later today).

JOHN: Too late. I will survive. I hope you do too.

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North Korea – Phallic monuments, war lies, famine and an interview with MI5

An amazing erection in Pyongyang: the Tower

(A version of this blog was also published on the Indian news website We Speak News.)

Surprisingly today, our older male guide admitted that North Korea had a famine in the 1990s. It was, he said, caused by “no rain” and, in the period 1994-1999, “only 200,000” people died, not the 3 million he said was claimed by the Americans.

I think Apartheid in South Africa was doomed when they let television into the country. People could see what life was like outside the country.

Widespread tourism in North Korea brings much the same threat.

Being a North Korean must be like being a sheep or a goat. You are born into a place where people look after you and you learn to trust them and believe they care about your welfare. Then, one day, they may slit your throat and eat you with vegetables.

North Korea is an enclosed world of brown countryside and white-and-red towns. Or white-and-off-red towns. Brown earth. Off-white buildings. Red banners and slogans.

The Great Leader Kim Il-sung’s Juche Idea of self-reliance – much touted when I was here in 1986 – seems to have been superceded by the Songun philosophy of “military first” – which “prioritises the Korean People’s Army in the affairs of state and allocates national resources to the army first”. Interestingly, this first seriously appeared in 1995, the year after Kim Il-sung’s death, when his son the Dear Leader Kim Jong-il took over the country.

I wonder what sucking-up to the military Kim Jong-Il’s son the new Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un will have to do.

All towns seem to have at least one tall thin monument in a central position with slogans carved around or on it – the ultimate being the Tower of the Juche Idea in the country’s capital Pyongyang with eternal sculptured flame atop. It all seems a bit like worshipping a stone phallus erected in the middle of ancient communities with dwellings huddled round it.

North Korea is very big on icons.

We were taken to the national film studios today. The late Dear Leader Kim Jong-il was much bitten by the would-be-Hollywood bug. We were proudly told that he had visited the film studios more than 590 times. We were told the studios made 20 films each year. So that would be almost two per month with lots of overlapping.

But the studio buildings and the widespread backlot streets were deserted. The ladies and gents toilets were closed and had to be found and specially opened. The gents was flooded. Someone told me there appeared to be an old woman sleeping in the ladies toilet.

The man in charge of the film studios said that the Great Leader Kim Il-sung himself had given advice on the positioning of the studios. He had said they should be outside the city.

Good advice, I believe.

The school year here starts on April 1st, which seems a very appropriate date given some of the facts learned in school. We were taken to an ‘ordinary’ school today.

In reality, of course, foreign visitors are never taken to ‘ordinary’ schools.

The school we were taken to – the June the 9th Middle School Number One School – was closed. This is the fourth day of a two-day public holiday. the extra two days, we were told, are “because in the previous two days the people had to celebrate”.

The science schoolroom had a small, cheap microscope on each desk. There was one room devoted to lessons about the Great Leader Kim Il-sung. And one room devoted to lessons about the Dear Leader Kim Jong-il. “The children have one lesson each week on them,” we were told proudly.

Some children had been dragged in to perform for us. As with all performances in North Korea, they were perfect in every way, though with a slightly unsettling emphasis on accordion-playing.

I was very impressed by one small picture among many others stuck on a wall. It was of the small children undergoing military training – crawling under barbed wire and the rest.

Then we were taken to the War Museum where we had explained to us why the Korean War started. Basically, as I understood the story, the US made lots of money during the Second World War by selling its armaments. When the War finished, the US went into a big economic Depression and decided to start the Korean War to stop the Depression.

Last time I was here, in 1986, the line was that the Korean War started when the running dog South Korean lackeys of the US imperialists wantonly attacked North Korea, but the valiant North Koreans pluckily fought back, drove the Americans back to the sea and the Yanks begged for a peace treaty.

This fails somewhat to explain why the border between the two Koreas remains in the middle of the peninsula and, as told in 1986, the Chinese Army was not involved in any way. Presumably North Korean grandfathers who remember US/UN troops surging northwards through their village and then remember Chinese troops surging southwards through their village see the value of keeping schtum.

Today, I asked if many Chinese visitors came to the War Museum and if they saw the same rooms as us. “There are four Chinese rooms in the museum,” I was told, “but we do not have time to see them today.”

I do not really care. The more important factor to me is that, although there is some talk of the US conning the UN into being involved in the Korean War, it is the Americans who are 100% blamed (or credited) with the war. We see their downed aircraft, captured vehicles and photos of their POWs. Britain is never mentioned because it seems important to keep the focus of North Korea’s xenophobic hatred on the Americans alone.

That’s fine by me. It gives me a quieter life as a Brit.

In the evening, as a special treat, we are taken to Pyongyang’s main theatre for a special mega-performance by a cast of 2,000 in honour of Kim Il-sung’s 100th birthday. Broadway and Andrew Lloyd-Webber eat your heart out. A stupendous production of professional perfection. It is later put on YouTube:

But, really, you had to be there to appreciate the scale of it.

At a restaurant meal, one of our group tells me his story about being interviewed for a job in MI5. He passed the tests where you are given lots of disparate information from different sources about a fake situation and have to compile a risk assessment  situation report. He got through to the interview stage and failed. He says he thought it was because he was around 22 years old at the time and “they like more fully-formed people… all the others were older, maybe in their early 30s.”

I wonder how uni-directional the microphones are in the restaurant. I feel reassured that the North Koreans have better people to bug in this celebratory period.

When I get back to the hotel – our final night is unexpectedly in the 5-star Yanggakdo Hotel – the television, very bizarrely, has the BBC World TV channel on it. What are the authorities thinking of? North Korean workers in the hotel can see this. I think of South Africa and Apartheid.

The BBC is saying there has been a Los Angeles Times report with photos of US soldiers posing with the severed limbs and other body parts of suicide bombers… and North Korea has said it will no longer allow UN nuclear inspectors into the country because the US has withdrawn food aid to North Korea in response to the launch of their rocket last week.

We live in interesting times.

Most of it utterly unknown by the people of North Korea.

… CONTINUED HERE …

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Filed under North Korea, Politics, PR