Today, and not for the first time this week according to the AirVisual app on my phone, Chiang Mai has the most polluted air of any city in the world. By a mile.
Here is the view from our window:
And here is the report for the sub-station closest to us:
The main figure, 329, is on a scale of 500 measuring overall air quality; anything above 300, according to the United States Environmental Protection Agency, constitutes “emergency conditions…the entire population is…likely to be affected by serious health effects.”
The PM2.5 figure (278.8) measures microscopic particles smaller than 3% the width of a human hair. These are so tiny that the normal dust-blocking mechanisms of the human nose and throat can’t stop them; they go straight into the lungs, and so into the blood. Completely safe levels for PM2.5 are considered to be up to 12; for levels over 250 the EPA warns, in the short term, of “serious aggravation of heart or lung disease and premature mortality in persons with cardiopulmonary disease and the elderly; serious risk of respiratory effects in general population.” We are cautioned to “avoid any outdoor exertion; people with respiratory or heart disease, the elderly and children should remain indoors.” In the long term, studies have found, PM2.5s can cause hardening of the arteries (hence increased risk of heart attack and stroke), and lung cancer.
This year is worse than most, but it happens every February and March: why? It’s tempting to lump it in with all the other ecological calamities of modern industrial civilization, but actually this is a really low-tech phenomenon: the country is burning. Part of it is accidental, but most is probably agricultural arson: burning rice stubble before planting again, burning forests to clear fresh land for planting, and even (it is said) burning underbrush to stimulate the growth of rare mushrooms which fetch a lot of money. Information about how long these farming techniques have been used is hard to find, but the only particular connection I can see with the 21st century is that there are more of us than there used to be – more mouths to feed, and so more encroachment on the forests.
So what is being done to stop it? In a nutshell, nothing. There have been tales of governments and NGOs providing tractors to farmers so that they don’t need to burn, but how many tractors would you need in an area the size of northern Thailand? There is even nominally a burning ban throughout March and April, but again, how do you enforce that effectively across such a huge area, even if there is the will to do so? Which, apart from a few show operations, there doesn’t seem to be: after all, the enforcement officers are often in the same communities, and may even be related to, the farmers who see no other way to maintain their crop cycles. On top of which, the level of burning is actually way less in Thailand than it is in neighboring countries like Burma and Laos, where there is lower awareness and even less effective government; and smoke is no respecter of national borders. Some of it may be coming from as far away as south China, where the government really is concerned about air pollution – but in Yunnan, the closest Chinese province to us, there is a saying that the hills are high and the Emperor is far away…
In response, some of the schools here are shut. Others (including our kids’ place) argue, correctly, that while parents are free to keep their children at home if they wish, schools have air filters in classrooms, all exercise is cancelled, students are told to stay inside and, when they do have to venture outdoors, wear masks; so they may be safer at school than in homes which don’t have proper air filtration (that includes ours – we could buy a bunch of air filters at $150 apiece, but then our windows aren’t sufficiently well-sealed that it would make all that much difference).
Me, I’m barely moving a muscle. Especially since this has now been going on for the best part of a week, and may continue for another month or more, until – we hope – the first seasonal rains arrive to put out the fires and wash the smoke to earth. Mildly streaming nose, slightly sore throat, low-level headache, gentle wheezing in the lungs, all of these are in a day’s sitting as still as possible. All this, it is said, adds up to the equivalent of smoking a couple of cigarettes a day. So I’ve put myself through far worse; but what’s more striking is the moodscape: the sense of living in a vast, inescapable, all-enveloping ecological catastrophe, land and sky alike permeated with smoke like the shadow that creeps out over the lands of the world as dark power crescendoes in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. Somewhere just over the horizon, it’s easy to believe, the world is ending in fire.
Leicester City. Earlier in the season, during their improbable run to the top of the table, they were – in sheer footballing terms, never mind what else they stand for – inspirational. Like when Riyad Mahrez (playing in Ligue II two years ago) did this to the plutocrat-funded EPL champions:
Or when Jamie Vardy (hero of Halifax and Fleetwood in his mid-twenties) stuck this belter (goal of the season?) on five-times-European-champions Liverpool:
Just two examples.
Declaration of interest: I am a neutral, a lapsed (hooliganism in the ’80s, not serial failure) Leeds fan. But how could anyone not want an unfancied team that play like Leicester to win the title?
Of course, it could never happen. Money in top-level football is a relative thing (after all, Leicester themselves are backed by the owner of the Thai duty-free monopoly, hardly a pauper), but the golden sacks of the big four will win out come May. The natural order: just like the free market, trickle-down economics and free-trade agreements, all that stuff we’ve been schooled to since Maggie won in ’79. Forget what you knew in the ’60s and ’70s; no first-timers had been champions since Brian Clough’s Forest, straight off the back of promotion, in 1978. But Clough was a certified genius fit for the movies, right? And that was in the days before squad rotation; that was almost black-and-white TV.
Of course, you could argue, here are Leicester, just like the teams of 40 and 50 years ago, turning out (and winning) the same way every week: Schmeichel; Simpson, Morgan, Huth, Fuchs; Mahrez, Drinkwater, Kanté, Albrighton; Okazaki, Vardy. Something about team spirit and discipline, maybe? Well, that helps of course; but it must be a blip, without the big money to back it.
Clever, plucky little Leicester. So entertaining while it lasts.
And then, about a month ago, it began to look serious. Top of the table in February? Here’s a challenge the big boys – Arsenal’s turn this time – will surely pass, and Leicester will fail. But instead Leicester changed their game; they stopped being routinely impressive, and instead clung to it. Vardy stopped scoring, Mahrez virtually disappeared, but they kept grinding it out: 1-0, 1-0, 1-0. It was beginning to look like they knew what they needed to do to win. Last week they kicked off against Southampton five points clear, and were outplayed for large stretches of the game. Mahrez looked tired, Vardy went missing; Southampton could – maybe should – have had two penalties. But the central defence of Morgan and the “ever-growing Huth” (as a commentator called him yesterday) were right on the spot when it mattered. Leicester rode the luck of potential champions, and all it took, in 90 minutes, was one perfect cross and one spectacular header:
Yesterday at relegation-threatened Sunderland, the unbelievable seemed, once again, unbelievable. Kanté was functional as always, but Vardy was driven wide and Mahrez hardly there; even when he woke up in the second half, he kept losing the ball. Drinkwater was trying to pick up the attacking slack; but, let’s face it, he’s not a striker. Sunderland outplayed them at times; survival, again, was down to Morgan, Huth and Schmeichel. Well into the second half, here comes a draw – or even, breathe it, a 1-0 loss. They could still win the title that way.
And then this happens:
So it became another 1-0, clinging in there for the last 20. Except that right at the end, after lots of messing around by the corner flags, lightning struck twice:
If you’re not a Spurs fan, how can you argue with that?
But for all of that class, the moment that illustrates why they deserve to be champions came in the 78th minute, with Sunderland attacking. A cross came in, and the Sunderland striker on the end fluffed it. Any self-respecting multi-million asshole from the big teams (why am I visualizing Diego Costa?) might have stuck it in the loser’s face for psychological advantage; but instead the Leicester defender (I didn’t spot which) patted him on the back, as if to commiserate: “I’ve been where you are, and I feel it. You may be playing a division lower next season, but I will be there with you, because that’s where I came from. You dream, so do I, and we both give all we have; we’re footballers. But in terms of success, that guarantees nothing. And maybe in a few years – months, even – our positions will be reversed.”
Can Leicester really do it? It’s still not guaranteed. Claudio Ranieri, who used to be styled the tinkerman (he seems to have got over that), could also be called the nearly man: he has been second with Chelsea, Juventus, Roma and Monaco, but never won. There are still four teams in with a mathematical chance, of whom Tottenham, the other underdogs, are (pleasingly) the most likely. Leicester still have to win three of five, or win two and draw three; that’s not easy. It has often been pointed out that for them even to have come this far is a triumph, but that no longer seems enough, at least for those not affiliated to a big-money club: by mid-April, they’ve been doing it so well for so long that it will really only satisfy if they go the whole way.
Now if only Bernie, on a more important scale, can pull the same honest trick in 2016…
Yesterday was the final day of the F/28 month of photography in Chiang Mai, so I spent a few hours running around trying to catch what I hadn’t already before it all came down. Highlights:
colour images by Shin Jeseop of a frozen lake in the Manchuria where Mongolian locals drill holes in the ice to cast nets for fish (this is the only image I could find online):
disturbing shots by Vincenzo Floramo of Burmese migrants (including children) who scratch their survival by picking through a landfill in the Thai border town of Mae Sot for recyclables that they can sell for 2 eurocents a kilo (there is supposed to be a gallery here, but none of the images load for me in either Firefox or Chrome):
But the absolute standout for me was Blue Homepage, the super-sharp black-and-white work of Julia Kook, a Korean photographer who describes herself as “A mom of two kids and an identity seeker searching for her ego.” A pair of rubber gloves hanging dripping at the kitchen sink; a pair of bare women’s feet, nail polish chipped, resting on a spotlessly clean gas burner; the top half of a scowling woman’s face, mobile clamped to her ear, against a backdrop of drab grey curtains;simple folds of cloth; a micro-detailed close-up of the top of a potted cactus, its thin spiky hair waving from what looks terrifyingly like carbuncles atop a deformed head; two lower legs, one cropped in half by the edge of the photo, standing in the sharply frozen wavelets of a large puddle. I have rarely seen the mundane domestic look so bottomlessly doom-laden.
Worth quoting her artist statement in full:
8:00 A.M. – Wake the kids and get them ready for school.
9:00 A.M. – Go to bed again.
3:00 P.M. – “Mommy! Mommy! I’m home. Guess what? In school today…”
Shit, can’t get up.
7:00 P.M. – Should make dinner.
Pick up the phone. “I’d like a large, deluxe pizza. My address is…”
Got married at 26.
13 years passed.
Got the blues.
Can’t sleep without the pills.
Have two kids.
Make meals everyday.
Look at their homework, clean the house and do the laundry.
Every morning, I’m just a normal housewife, starting a normal day.
My husband? He goes to work at dawn.
And comes home the next day at dawn; wasted.
Can see him before going to bed if I’m lucky.
Can’t remember the last time we had sex.
We are a married couple sleeping in separate rooms.
8:00 A.M. Again…
It’s been 13 years since I’ve been alone.
Seven weeks now since they took Bowie’s passport and shoes, and with them a fair number of, umm, older people’s youthful sedatives too (boo! death comes to everyone. boo-hoo…) In return: a scary and intriguing answer to a question that probably not too many people were asking before January 10th: what did happen to Major Tom after he cut circuits and sailed off into space, beyond the word at the end of his 1970s heyday that he had turned junkie ?
It’s difficult to think of any artist of anything approaching Bowie’s stature (not that there were, or are, many) who can have so effectively blown off such a large slice of their own original fan base as he did with the slick commercialism of Let’s Dance in 1983. Before that he was a cult, albeit probably the most successful one in the western world; but he was a cult of weirdness, difference, alienation, in whom anyone who felt even slightly that way could feel themselves represented, in almost as many ways as he had listeners. In 1983, suddenly he was mainstream, and massive with it: 10-million-sales massive. Well on his way to net worth 70 million quid. But once he had taken that road hardly anybody I knew, at least – though he undoubtedly kept on selling to someone – paid much attention to anything he did again. Yes of course there were the die-hards who would keep touting each latest as the best since, what, Scary Monsters? But they generally got humoured, filed in the same box as Zappa obsessives who couldn’t stop raving in midnight bars about their hero’s every tedious guitar lick. His iconography spread far and wide, into the strangest places: on the November 2012 cover of Thai Vogue, the ideal living room features a shaggy-haired Hours-era portrait high up on the wall. But all through his commercial car crash of the 1980s and his (on the face of it) has-been struggle in the 1990s to make up lost ground, how many really knew – or cared – what had happened to Major Tom?
Meanwhile, without really noticing, you got old enough that young was something which, although it still felt like you ought to be, you could no longer pretend that you were; the world had changed in ways you never expected, and a lot of what was going on around was so much less intelligible than where you had come from. Way less intelligible than Bowie had been, even at his most cryptic, in the ’70s. But then, out of the blue: here was the ultra-cool cover to “Heroes” again, except this time with a blank white box in place of Bowie’s head:
And a well weird – almost Scary Monsters weird – video of a poignant song about how what had once been was no more:
Hitherto in the 21st century Bowie had apparently been content to, if not exactly rest on, then at least give a breezy airing to his rock god laurels (and after he had achieved in a single decade what most couldn’t hope to given millennia, who could have begrudged him the right to be comatose on them if he chose?) Read reviews of Heathen and Reality, and a word you’ll find to describe those albums’ relationship to the rest of his oeuvre is “coda”. And then, after ten years’ silence, The Next Day, a patchily intriguing comeback: a vague waft of nostalgia, like listening to a revered old uncle who always has something interesting to say and some great stories, always welcome on the basis of the awesome heroics of his youth, but hardly likely to do anything surprising or fresh.
But then, unbeknown to anyone, the clinic called: the x-ray was not fine; there were scars that could not be seen. The first hint (for those who were listening) that he was turning again to face the strange came in late 2014, with the original, single version of Sue (Or In A Season Of Crime): out of the static swirls a dark summary rewrite of a sinister Jacobean tragedy, an eerie, Scott Walker-esque vocal line drifting unevenly over an edgy brass arrangement, and ending with the lingeringly held word “goodbye…” Panting to keep up was the equally strange b-side ‘Tis A Pity She Was A Whore, blessed with a lyric of poetic compression and finesse (if an altogether muddier and more tentative delivery than its later incarnation on Blackstar).
Another year, and the album landed. For two days, a musical adventure, and a lyrical puzzle worthy of The Bewlay Brothers: what the hell is he on about? Came the shock, and everybody knew him now: not the next, but the last day. Nothing left to lose. It sounded like it too: in another context the last few songs on Blackstar might almost have gone down as fillers, but not here. The poignancy of the English evergreens he’ll never see; the knowledge that something is very wrong, that he’s “dying to”; the wistful harmonica quote – moving on again – from A New Career In A New Town, as he drifts away protesting, over a backdrop of yearning Fripp-esque guitar, that he can’t give everything away…
So he wrote his own requiem. And not in a tried-and-tested idiom, as the flailing saxophones and key shifts of ‘Tis A Pity She Was A Whore attest – not to mention the sheer strangeness of the title track. And now we know what became of Major Tom: he fetched up dead in his 1970s spacesuit on an alien world where girls have tails, his jewel-encrusted skull discovered during a (permanent?) eclipse to be installed as the venerated relic of a cult of trembling people. As his earthly remains spiral into the black star that (as Elvis sang) every man has over his shoulder, it is Bowie himself, lazarized, who leads the worship, posing with a holy book in iconography that mocks – or apes – another, darker, cult leader and cultural revolutionary:
And so the process of canonization begins: the tribute concerts, the cover versions at awards ceremonies, the thoughtful reminiscences, the irony-proof rock stars lining up to relate how honored they were that he refused to work with them because he thought their music was crap. It’s all over the papers: he was not just a great artist, but a great man too – so kind, polite, considerate, always brought out the best in people, never a harsh word for anyone. Ah yes Gary Oldman, “He was the very definition, the living embodiment of that singular word; icon.”
Meanwhile, back in the video: here we are on the day of execution, in the villa of Ormen – or was that all men? And what’s this: everyday fellas crucified in agony – what, on the wooden details of their own ordinary lives? – as some rough beast of ill intent slouches towards them; yet still with enough life left to gyrate their hips like Elvis, and defiantly poke their tongues out at fate? Wait a minute, how distant is this planet we’re on?
So right at the death, when few suspected he had it in him any more, he fooled us again, pushing musical boundaries and backs against the grain just like he did throughout the ’70s; and he got us bang to rights while he was at it. There he was once more, in the Lazarus video, still getting educated and frantically writing it down, even as the fantastic voyage of this fabulously stylish and creative south London gent was drawing to an end. Back then he was our generation’s guide to living; in 2016, our guide to his own death and sanctification.
Now that’s a proper coda. What (as Tony Visconti said) a parting gift; what a final wham bam. For the last time, thank you man.
“So who was this dude”, ask my kids, “and why are all the middle-ageds so upset?” Why did the principal of my daughter’s school (born somewhere dahn sarf, 1962) approach me in the playground at pick-up time, to commiserate and reminisce? And what about that other one that died a couple of weeks ago, the black leather type with the big moustache? Why didn’t the principal talk to dad about him?
Yes, kids (and with all respect to the headbanger tribe), this death, though no more or less unexpected, is culturally a much bigger deal than Lemmy’s. And yes, it has really got to the grownups –at least those of a certain age, the unacknowledged demi-generation stuck in the middle: too late to be “Baby Boomers” (with all their hippie gear) but to whom “Generation X” icons like Kurt Cobain were a tardy footnote to what was really going on. Let’s call us (thanks to Richard Hell) the Blank Generation. On Facebook, my old schoolmate Huw says he “had a bloody great lump in my throat on more than one occasion today…a big part of my youth, and a constant companion throughout my life, is gone forever”; the ever-creative Julian (who I didn’t even know in Bowie’s heyday) called him the “single most important musician and influence on my life. The most important person in my life that I don’t know”. Andy said, simply: “time takes a cigarette.” My wife, who grew up an ocean away, and whom I didn’t meet until more than 20 years after Scary Monsters (the last great Bowie album, at least until this year), has been raving about Space Oddity and Let’s Dance. My own moment came yesterday morning with Cracked Actor: a dirty, snarling song about a dirty-minded Hollywood has-been bloating his greedy, savaged ego with a chew-her-up-and-spit-her-out hooker, lurching under an orgiastic and genuinely frightening riff – and suddenly the fragility breaks through, Bowie pleading “oh stay, please stay”, and the tears rolling down my face….
This is the first time I’ve been inspired to blog for over two years; let’s just say it has reminded me not just that time is limited, but that I’m still getting educated, and I’ve got to write it down…
So how to explain this outpouring? Huw thinks “it must be the timing of his death – its recency highlighting the beautiful poignancy of his final work”. There is something to that: the way he so jaw-droppingly turned his own departure into an audiovisual tour de force was all of a piece with his heyday, and with the impulses that made him such a creative giant in the first place. But it’s also circular logic: only Bowie could have done something so, well, Bowie, shuffling backwards into the cupboard to become his own skeleton there for all of us to keep; and he couldn’t have done that if he hadn’t been what Bowie was in the 70s, and we didn’t all know, and love so much, what that was.
Myself, I think there are three things I have to tell my kids about why we are crying now. First, there’s the astonishing music. They listen to Imagine Dragons, Jake Miller, Sara Bareilles, all fair so far and decent enough; but – call me an old fart – what depths of iconoclastic individuation are they missing out on, at the age of eleven, by not being basted in something with the imaginative license of The Jean Genie, Panic In Detroit, Lady Grinning Soul? How, as adults, will they be kookie too (and consciously strive to stay that way) without, at thirteen, having their zeitgeist saturated with a music of this sophistication, sass and wit, and being able to take that totally for granted:
So for them I made a playlist. It had to be fairly short; no sense in being comprehensive to the point where, in the car or over the dinner table, accusations of generational imperialism begin to fly. It was a personal compilation of what inspired me; I managed to keep it under three hours by omitting some of the songs that almost everyone else will say should be in there: Life on Mars, Diamond Dogs, Young Americans (that “president Nixon” reference would have been just too much like a 1970s blimp going on fogeyishly about Churchill and Hitler), Station to Station, Fashion. My wife has already objected to my selection of the stripped-down 1979 re-recording of Space Oddity over the string-soaked original. Almost nothing before Hunky Dory, and nothing after Scary Monsters. That I can make and justify these idiosyncratic choices, while admitting that nothing is definitive and there could – should – be others for others, only goes to show the almost endlessly creative strength-in-depth of Bowie’s oeuvre, and illustrates that he was many different things to different people while still being important to everyone (of which more in a minute). So here (probably better shuffled than played in a straight line) is my playlist:
Space Oddity (1979 version – b-side of Alabama Song)
After All (The Man Who Sold The World)
Changes (Hunky Dory)
Andy Warhol (Hunky Dory)
Bewlay Brothers (Hunky Dory)
John I’m Only Dancing (single)
Five Years (Ziggy Stardust)
Starman (Ziggy Stardust)
Lady Stardust (Ziggy Stardust)
Ziggy Stardust (Ziggy Stardust)
Suffragette City (Ziggy Stardust)
Rock’n’Roll Suicide (Ziggy Stardust)
Aladdin Sane (Aladdin Sane)
Drive-In Saturday (Aladdin Sane)
Panic in Detroit (Aladdin Sane)
Cracked Actor (Aladdin Sane)
Jean Genie (Aladdin Sane)
Lady Grinning Soul (Aladdin Sane)
Rebel Rebel (Diamond Dogs)
Golden Years (Station to Station)
Stay (Station to Station)
Wild Is The Wind (Station to Station -the only cover version on the list)
Speed of Life (Low)
Breaking Glass (Low)
Sound and Vision (Low)
Always Crashing In The Same Car (Low)
Be My Wife (Low)
V-2 Schneider (Heroes)
Sense of Doubt (Heroes)
Secret Life of Arabia (Heroes)
Fantastic Voyage (Lodger)
African Night Flight (Lodger)
Move On (Lodger)
Boys Keep Swinging (Lodger)
It’s No Game no. 1 (Scary Monsters)
Scary Monsters (Scary Monsters)
Ashes To Ashes (Scary Monsters)
It’s No Game no. 2 (Scary Monsters)
Second, there’s shared memory. Those of us who were that age in the 1970s have reference points with friends, regions, tribes: for me, Telegram Sam, the 1972 FA Cup Final, Pretty Vacant, Led Zep at Knebworth. For others, maybe, Deep Purple, Dennis Law sinking Man United, Genesis, Dr. Feelgood, Brian Clough, Lemmy – even Brain Salad Surgery! But Bowie did enough, from Space Oddity to Life on Mars to Ziggy to the Thin White Duke, Berlin and the New Romantics that, in some way and at some time, he touched everyone. There is a sense in which Bowie was the 1970s. Different facets of the diamond glittered for different people at different times; but all of us, in some way or another, were dazzled and believed all the way, at one time or another. And with the passing of time (which no longer, in these measured days, falls wanking to the floor), we have that in common. At least for those moments heaven loved us, the clouds parted; Bowie was on the radio, on the stereo. His death triggers grief at those formative days that live on but will never come again, as we shuffle backwards, more or less knowingly, towards the cupboard in which we will all one day be skeletons.
But while we remain here (and this is the third thing) there’s more than that. What it is was signaled by something you could almost call a “Bowie moment” yesterday morning, while I was taking my little girl to school. Ten years old, a few weeks ago she bought herself her first grown-up coat – her own choice, and gorgeously stylish it is too. It almost looks like something Bowie might have worn himself in his Young Americans phase. The weather was warm, so she had no call to wear it until the temperature dropped this week. But when she rolled up at the school gate, her courage faltered: “what if”, she worried, “the teachers don’t like it? they won’t let me?”
“If you need to keep warm”, I said, “why should you have to wear something dull just because other people are? Go on, tell them you’re the Thin White Duchess – they’ll know what you mean.” So she strode into school with her head held high, and the teacher at the gate said “Whoah! Look at you!”
One small example, but what I was trying to tell her was: don’t be scared; be yourself and stick at that, the best you can. I learned that from Bowie, though it seemed to come more naturally to him than it did to anyone. He was the master. All the glorious road from Hunky Dory to Scary Monsters, through all those ch-ch-ch-ch-changes, he remained relentlessly, uncompromisingly, uniquely himself; and not just one self, but all the twists and turns of his own evolution, with us in his wake. Yes, the quiet heroes of the 1940s had courageously bequeathed a western world more or less free of tyranny and the kind of lethal racism that Donald Trump is now trying to bring back into fashion. Their noisy inheritors of a quarter century later – Lennon/McCartney, Dylan, the Glimmer Twins, Hendrix (among others) – took the next step: be unafraid to be who you are, whatever society tells you. But Bowie, using their shoulders as a launch pad, made his own leap: who you are is constantly evolving, and to that protean self be true. The 1960s broke down the door: now be what you’re going to be, and don’t get stuck with any fixed definition of what that is. The ripples change their size, but never leave the stream.
With hindsight, Scary Monsters was the far end of that high water mark; by that time you could almost hear the tide draining out. But the ground those pioneers won is still the ground on which to play, and what I want my kids to inherit. Isn’t that what the starman told him: let the children lose it, let the children use it, let all the children boogie?
Draw the blinds on yesterday, and it’s all so much scarier. Gimme your hands.
I board the Qatar flight from Luxor to Doha, on my way back to Dubai. I am in the aisle seat; next to me, a black man in a hat. The plane takes off, reaches cruising altitude; the flight attendants come by and serve lunch. “What would you like to drink, sir?” A white wine, thank you. I unscrew the top, pour a glass, sit back and tuck into my meal.
The man next door taps me on the shoulder. “Stop drinking”, he says. I’m sorry? “Bad smell. No drink wine. Stop drinking.” I’m not going to stop drinking, I say; you booked a ticket on Qatar Airways, and they serve alcohol. If you don’t like it, choose another airline. “No English”, he says.
I continue eating, and take another sip. He pokes my shoulder again. “Bad smell”‘ he says, “no drinking”. Stop bugging me, I say; your religion forbids alcohol, and that’s your choice, but mine doesn’t, and that’s mine. Leave me alone. “No English”, he says.
I carry on. He jabs me in the shoulder again. This time I call the flight attendant, apparently a Filipino. Perhaps this has happened before; he has a spiel. “Qatar airways is an international airline”, he explains to my fundamentalist neighbor, “and we serve alcohol on board to those who request it.” “No English”, he replies.
Can you put him somewhere else? I ask. Happily the flight isn’t quite full, and they find a seat somewhere where he can be happy, next to a similarly abstemious passenger. I am left momentarily shaken at the arrogance of this self-important zealot, who feels he has the right to impose his religious dogma on others in a context where it is not appropriate. But at least I have the pleasurable consolation of a glass of wine; I take another sip, and a deep breath, and calm down. I did suggest to another flight attendant that Qatar consider having a no-drinking section on the plane, but she just wrinkled her nose; “too difficult to organise,” she said.
Luxor Temple sits in the middle of the town of Luxor. When you are inside of it looking out, through the pillars of the colonnades and hypostyle halls you can see the crappy apartment blocks of the city. There used to be a village within it, but they cleared it about a century ago; there is still a mosque. So the monumental extravagances of Rameses, Ozymandias the King of Kings, came to rub shoulders with goats and chickens, and with the common folk.
I have been twice now, both times floodlit under a full moon. Both times, I have been blown away. I have been to the Pyramids and to the Valley of the Kings, but this is the best thing in Egypt; only Karnak comes close. The lush stone forests of columns, each with its carved bole like a palm tree: simple, elemental, connected.
The setting they form by their arrangement around courtyards, almost the definition of a setting for sacred theatre, and the origin from which most holy and dramatic architecture since derived, down to the Gothic cathedrals.
The avenues of pillars, not quite symmetrical because of the leftward kink in the ground plan.
My driver smokes in the car, plays Quranic chants, and slags off the Muslim Brotherhood. His brief history of modern Egypt, in basic English: Gamal Abdel Nasser not good, Anwar Sadat not good, Hosni Mubarak good. With Mubarak not Muslims one side, Christians other side: we all Egyptians. Morsi bad, Qatar bad, Al Jazeera bad: they blah blah blah blah blah blah Egypt not safe, tourist not come. We like tourist, we safe, we friendly, we kind, Egypt beautiful. England good, America good, Barack Obama good! Emarat good, Saudi good, Kuwait good. Morsi not good, say: Christians go out of Egypt. They burn 40 churches! But Muslim, Christian, all Egyptian – my friend Christian, last week his wedding, I go in his church, good!
I agree with him that Egypt is beautiful, that religious tolerance is good, and burning churches not good. More than that, I don’t feel qualified to say.
He drives like Sebastian Vettel too; they all do.
Kom Ombo temple
He takes me to Kom Ombo, a Ptolemaic temple by the Nile, where there is an Italian tour group fresh off their boat. Then to Edfu, a glorious Ptolemaic extravagance, at which a few French people.
The pylon of Edfu temple
I take photographs, give baksheesh, and fight off those who want to sell me trinkets. In Luxor, I swap drivers. My plan – as I’ve made clear – is to see the Ramesseum and Seti temple, and then to be dropped at Luxor temple. A couple of miles into the drive, we stop to pick up an agent. Why do we need an agent? Amber lights flash. The agent assures me of his hospitality; my defensive armor locks into place. Hospitality, translate: I want to waste your scarce time pretending to look after you by subjecting you to experiences you don’t want with the goal of extracting from you as much money as possible for goods you will carry uncomfortably home and later regard as clutter. I get them to drop me at the Ramesseum – which happily coincides with Friday prayers, so they leave me alone for the duration – and then at Seti.
The Ramesseum, Luxor. The fallen statue is Ozymandias, King of Kings, as in the Shelley poem.
Afterwards, the offers start flowing: “I show you alabaster!” No thanks; I did that last time (I lie; I was never interested in the first place). Please take me to Luxor. “You want see Valley of the Kings?” No, I did that last time. “How long you stay in Luxor?” I am leaving tomorrow morning, by plane. “Where is your hotel?” I can’t remember (subtext: I know perfectly well but I’m not telling because otherwise I will find you sitting unwanted in the lobby later pestering me to buy alabaster I don’t want). “You want taxi to airport?” No thank you, I arranged that already (precisely to protect me from people like you). Smiles turn to loud grumbling in Arabic on the mobile: I can just imagine the conversation. “You told me this guy tipped generously and he was a dead cert – but I can’t take him for anything at all! He won’t even say where his hotel is!” At Luxor Temple, one more inquiry about whether they should wait: no, I don’t know whether I will go now or later when it’s cooler. And one final desperate pitch for my hotel’s name – “we take you there!” Oh man – I think but don’t say – I have legs and a map; now go away and leave me alone! But my tone is sufficiently brusque that they back off; I tip the driver but not the agent.
But I know why they do it: they’re hurting. When I get to my hotel, the co-owner, a Belgian woman married to a local, says to me: it has never been this bad. There was the Hathshupseth massacre, and there was 9.11, but after these the tourists came back within six months. Now it has been two-and-a-half years. I have seen real hunger in Luxor, she says, among those who used to make their living from the tourist trade…
And for me, sitting in a café in the garden of the Luxor hotel, all this – temples and touts – is just a memory. But I have been there – to Abu Simbel and to the head of Ozymandias, and looked on his works without despair. And I will remember this to my dying day, most likely without hunger.
Out of Luxor airport: bougainvillea erupting, vegetation waving, lush crooked palm trees growing by giant irrigation ditches. Rough roads, studded with speed bumps and military checkpoints every few kilometres; a land locked down tight. My driver chortles and guffaws at the traffic around him, and drives like Sebastian Vettel. For an hour he suffers interruptions, then pulls awayfrom the Nile and heads flat out at speed across the barren lands to the west. Ahead of us the falling sun is shattering amid grey crazy-paving clouds. As it hits the horizon, we swing south again, the fertile lands of the valley a broad green smudge away to the left. I am expecting darkness almost instantly, as they say of the tropics, but light lingers for a half hour and more, leaking slowly from a ribbed and bubbled crimson sky over desert hills to the right. During this time headlights are used only in flashes, to let oncoming traffic know we are there.
Night falls. In Aswan by seven o’clock, I fancy a beer; but in the souq these days, amid tightening conservatism, it is nowhere to be found. An enterprising youth sees me peering into fridges, and whispers “you want beer? I have beer, wine, whisky – shhhh!” – but I don’t want it badly enough that I’m willing to get dragged into an expensive backstairs transaction which will end up with me pressured to buy God knows what else. Further on, another lad grabs my hand and won’t let go, then forces a tiny blue scarab into it. I try to refuse, but he insists. He says he is Nubian, then asks me where in England: I always say Manchester, since nobody has heard of Yorkshire, and predictably always get the same response: football. He drags his dad in on the act; with a self-congratulatory grin, senior recites a long list of English towns. Their goal is to get me to buy something I don’t want or need; my goal is to avoid doing this at any cost. I tell them I have to meet someone and can’t stay. They concede that English people don’t like hassle, so they give me their card, show me exactly where their shop is, and try to get me to commit to tomorrow. “English promise?” checks the son; I wonder if he has heard of perfidious Albion. “Inshallah” is allI will say.
The Nile at Aswan
I find a place that serves beer, but no food; the proprietor tells me that this is because it is Eid Al Adha, and tomorrow there will be plenty to eat. His non-restaurant spills down three levels beside the Nile: the uppermost, indoors, is dark; the second is mosquito-ridden; the third is floating on the water, and connected to land by a half-submerged gangplank. Apart from a couple of shisha smokers, the only customers are teenage girls who want to have their photos taken with me. I polish off a couple of beers and head for four hours’ sleep.
The wake-up call is at 2.50 and my driver for Abu Simbel is in the lobby by 3.20. We head through town in the darkness to a police checkpoint where the car is bomb-detected. We are clear, but he pulls around and switches the engine off. Over the next half hour an assortment of cars and minibuses joins the queue. Turns out we are to be the lead vehicle in today’s convoy; a bullet-cropped cop squeezes himself and a large black automatic into our passenger seat. My driver regards this as a great honour. I don’t share his excitement; I would honestly prefer to be tucked away somewhere inconspicuously in the middle ranks of the convoy, but I’m left hoping that with a motherfucking gun that size, our man really does have a master plan.
As it is, all seems quiet; we head out across the British dam (1898-1933), through more checkpoints, and into the blackness. At about five o’clock the landscape turns grey, disclosing endless level desert speckled with rough gravelly bluffs.
We are doing over 120 kph, I can tell, in spite of a cigarette packet placed coyly over the speedo; is the driver trying to hide his excess from the copper sat next to him? The car behind couldn’t be tailgating more tightly; in the back, I don’t fancy my chances if anything goes wrong. Shortly before six o’clock the sun rises; as we swing back towards the Nile a series of conical hills of rubble scatteracross the desert. Is this where the ancients got their inspiration for pyramids?
The first striking thing about Abu Simbel is the glittering blue expanse of Lake Nasser, several miles wide and surrounded by more of those conical desert outcrops. This used to be Nubia, a narrow land along the Nile for hundreds of miles south of the lowest cataract of the Nile at Aswan, populated by black Africans. For millennia it was the bugbear of theEgyptian dynasties, repeatedly conquered and falling back out of their hands. Nubia no longer exists; it has disappeared beneath Lake Nasser, created when the Aswan High Dam was built in the 1960s.
Abu Simbel used to tower above the Nile, visible stamp of Egyptian domination of Nubia.
But where it was, it would have drowned; so they cut it into pieces and moved it, block by block, to the top of the hill, where they reassembled it, stuck onto the side of a purpose-built hill of rubble. I remember this; it happened while I was at an American primary school in Germany, and it was held up to us – in a National Geographic story, if I remember rightly – as a fantastic example of what could be achieved by UNESCO (back in the days when Americans believed in UNESCO). That was the 1960s.
You can argue all you like – and people have – about whether it was justified to drown this land and its civilization so that another equally ancient and more populous one could achieve agricultural stability by eliminating the Nile floods below Aswan, or whether that was not just cultural genocide but also a long-term ticket to an unsustainable population boom and unsustainable chemical dependence in downriver agriculture (Egypt, which used to be the breadbasket of the Roman Empire – Cleopatra wasn’t the only reason why they were scrapping over it – can no longer feed its own people, but has to import). But there is no doubt, on the spot, that there is something about Abu Simbel, colossal as it is, that no longer quite works. Its purpose – the domination of Nubia – has been usurped by the waters at its feet; and that cliff-top heap of rubble onto which it is glued looks like, well, a heap of rubble. Looking at it, you know it is the real thing, that it was carved over 3200 years ago, that it is not a Disney reconstruction of itself; but still – that’s what it looks like. The utopian dreams of the 1960s are gone, and Abu Simbel is high and dry. Still, that’s undoubtedly better than submerged and wet – at least we still get to see the interior detail. But it has none of the power of Karnak or Luxor, not any more.
A couple of years ago I stuck “History of Ethics” into Amazon and it came back with a two-volume tome by Vernon J. Bourke. I bought it and read it, to the end, on the principle that, once you’ve started, you have to stick it out. It was excruciating; a laundry list of pretty much what anyone who ever opened their mouth about ethics had ever said, couched in unintelligible technical terms, with no penetration, depth, or real understanding. I learned close to nothing, and it took forever. Hence I approached this single volume by Alasdair MacIntyre (written in the 1960s, before he became one of the big stars of Moral Philosophy) with some nervousness; but what a relief.
MacIntyre’s fundamental point is that concepts must be taken and understood in the historical context in which they arose, if their full meaning is to be grasped; hence this is not just a historical but a historicizing account of its field. He starts with a brilliantly insightful exploration of how the word “good” – so central in ethics – originally (in the Homeric world) meant ‘good at doing what you do in terms of your allotted role in society’, but gradually came adrift from its moorings as society changed and loosened up, creating a terminological confusion that was what the Presocratics, the Sophists, and Socrates, Plato and Aristotle themselves were, in their various ways, trying to sort out. MacIntyre is a Glaswegian, and, refreshingly, doesn’t pull his punches: he sticks it big time to Plato, refusing to accept as valid his opposition of reason and appetite, condemning his “characteristic and utterly deplorable puritanism”, and bemoaning “his willingness to impose his own certitudes upon others, with a use of profoundly unsatisfactory arguments to support his convictions” (good on him; I was always suspicious of a philosopher who could invent abstractions and promote them as somehow more real than the material world from which they were derived). He has more sympathy with down-to-earth Aristotle, champion of the balanced, practical, rational man, who posits happiness as the supreme human goal; but still lays into him as a “supercilious prig” whose ideal of the “great-souled man” is a stuck-up, self-important, condescending elitist for whom every friendship must have an ulterior motive. He concludes his tour of the ancient and medieval world with Christianity, arguing that, dependent as it was on borrowing from other traditions, it’s hard to see what it distinctively contributed to ethical thought (interestingly, MacIntyre himself became a Roman Catholic in the 1980s).
Initiating the modern world, Luther stripped away society: the only thing that matters is the individual, alone before God (a viewpoint that, it becomes clear as the book goes on, MacIntyre, committed as he is to placing people in the context of their historical and social origins, sees as egregiously corrosive, while at the same time underscoring his second main point, that the ethical is also political). He is typically pugnacious about Thomas Hobbes, elaborating a criticism of his concept of the social contract before asking: “If so, does not the whole Hobbesian case founder? It does.” Unexpectedly, he frames (and lauds) the Diggers and Levellers as true revolutionaries in the field of ethics. He makes the obscurities of Immanuel Kant plain as day (anyone who can do that has a lot going for them), adding (perhaps unfairly to Kant) a warning that the categorical imperative, being constructed as an ethical form which can be applied – “do your duty”, for example – to any pre-existing content, may have horrific implications – think Adolf Eichmann. He sees the history of ethics as in one sense ending with Hegel, who was the last to break new ground by introducing a historical dimension to philosophy: achieving freedom is a question of overcoming the obstacles you face in your particular time and place, and circumstances alter virtues.
In the twentieth century, thinking about ethics becomes increasingly tied up in words and inadequate attempts to find universal definitions for them. The resulting disputes have brought out the point that, historically, ethical thinking has generally been the project of the spokesmen of one group or class posing their values (or trying to) as universal, whether or not they were able to impose them on their society as a whole. This realization “does not entail that the traditional moral vocabulary cannot be used. It does entail that we cannot expect to find in our society a single set of moral concepts, a shared interpretation of the vocabulary…. Each of us therefore has to choose both with whom we wish to be morally bound and by what ends, rules and virtues we wish to be guided. These two choices are inextricably linked.” Unless you are among those who think, anachronistically, that people ought to be told what’s best for them, it’s hard to argue with that conclusion to this superbly stimulating book.