Johnnie Buffalo

On the fourth day after the fight that lasted three minutes followed by the party that lasted three days — on the Monday morning, when training recommenced — Hoagy did his knee again. It was bad; he knew immediately. So bad that he disappeared from Lion Rock and didn’t come back for four days. He must have spent most of them lying down, since he could hardly walk. Head back, no doubt, coke running down the back of his throat. But by the end of the week he was back at Lion Rock, taking massage from Na Keow, writhing in pain on a table in the bar and groaning, “Why? Why did I have to kick him so hard?”

It was karma. He’d felled his opponent with a side-kick to the knee and and sent him back to the dressing-room on a stretcher. 

The massage sessions were pure punishment. The Thai approach to such injuries is the opposite of Western medicine. The West says, immobilise the limb, apply cold. The East says, mobilise the limb, apply heat — apply pain. So Hoagy was blasting through it the Thai way, using the pain to mask — or maybe force himself to face — the fear: the fear that this was it, that he’d never be able to fight again, and without that discipline he would fall apart, lose himself, and blow all the gains he’d made. I realised the only thing Hoagy was really afraid of was himself. 

“Yeah, it’s karma,” I said. “But you can’t know whether it’s good or bad.”

Good??” said Hoagy, and “Aargh!” at the same time, so it came out kind of like “Gaargh!!”

“Why not?” I said. “You won’t know until later. Maybe it makes something else happen and something else and later you look back and realise it wasn’t a punishment, just a redirection. You can’t calculate karma, just like you can’t negotiate with it.”

I was picking up conversation we’d had another night. He’d been bigging me up for what I’d done to help Apsara’s kids, and I’d confided to him that I’d known I had to change my karma after my mother died. That I’d put everything on hold by becoming a drug addict for two years, and had imagined I could hear the creaking of a great avalanche of bad things about to come down on me.

“I thought maybe you were hoping to get into Apsara’s pants.”

“Well, that too. I did want to get back together with her. I tried not to think about it, but it’s true.”

“Sssss…aargh!” Na Keow’s thumbs exploded Hoagy’s hissing laugh. 

“Anyway, it didn’t work. But that’s how it is. If you do something for someone else, good karma’s gonna come in whatever currency it chooses. You might not recognise it. But you can’t negotiate with it.”

Listen to me, schooling the great Hoagy. But I’d realised something as I was speaking, so I was schooling myself.

“I hadn’t got involved,” I said, “I wouldn’t be here now. So I wouldn’t have met you.”

He liked that. 

“It is what it is,” said Hoagy.

“That’s right, man.” Gesturing towards the knee. “Maybe this happened for a reason.”

“Maybe,” he said. 

And convulsed as Ne Keow hit the spot again.

Then in a strangled voice: “But I’m still gonna fucking kill Johnnie.”

To have the knee go again after the long struggle to rehabilitate it was a disaster. It couldn’t be completely coincidental that the injury came at the end of three days of over-indulgence. A more considered post-fight regime might have helped avoid it. He knew he shouldn’t blame Johnnie, but — what the hell? — he decided to anyway. Why not? Somehow it seemed inevitable that Johnnie should be in front of him when it happened. They were sparring, and Hoagy was getting frustrated with Johnnie’s half-hearted approach. He wanted three-quarter power in Johnnie’s punches and kicks, but was getting less than half. And Johnnie needed to be able to take a punch, he said, needed to harden up the skin around the eyes. So Hoagy was trying to goad him and putting too much into it, when his standing leg had buckled under him mid-kick. It wasn’t Johnnie’s fault, but Johnnie was the trigger. Johnnie was the bad luck.

“I’m gonna — Aargh! — fucking kill ‘im. AARGH!!

Johnnie had been around at Lion Rock as long as I had. He was Hoagy’s first recruit, moving in to Lion Rock months before I did. In fact I’d met Johnnie before I met Hoagy, that night when the boat had been top-heavy with soldiers, and all the talk was of the film that never happened, the story of a traumatised soldier living in the woods. I’d chatted with Johnnie, and something about our conversation that night had left me feeling puzzled. He looked to be in his early thirties, with a strong physique and a handsome, long-boned face, but he seemed oddly uncomfortable or unsure of himself. He had very clear eyes, their pale, vivid blue contrasting with his dark hair and beard. But his brow was habitually furrowed, and those beautiful eyes flicked sideways at me as he spoke, as if to check the effect of his words. 

I assumed he had a military background like everyone else on the deck, but that wasn’t the case — though he told me he’d been thinking about enlisting until this guy Hoagy (that was the first time I heard the name) had talked him out of it. He’d been hanging out in Patong when he’d run into these guys who were making a film about PTSD. Ex-soldiers all of them, they’d struck Johnnie, in his words, as ‘next level’. Johnnie, who despite his looks was only twenty-one and trying to decide what to do with his life, decided there and then that he wanted to become a soldier. He tagged along with the group and came with them to Lion Rock, where Hoagy, eight years and several life-times his elder, soon talked him out of the idea. 

So now Johnnie didn’t want to be a soldier, he wanted to be Hoagy. He stayed in the jungle and started learning Muay Thai. He’d done some boxing, Western style, at school, and had got the idea that he was good at it. Twenty-one and full of egotistic fantasies, he thought he was going to be a big champion. It was this constant self-inflation that quickly started to grate on everyone. Thais are tolerant people, but big egos will always be cut down to size. Nueng and Ai soon gave him his name, Johnnie Buffalo. 

It’s kind of a cool name, actually, unless you know what it means. The enduring, traditional insults in Thai are all about animals. For instance, the equivalent of ‘Fuck you!’ in Thai is ‘I hia!’ which means, ‘You are a monitor lizard!’ Monitor lizards often live in canals and sewers. They are ugly things and aggressive with it, and calling somebody a hia is fighting talk. Buffaloes, on the other hand, are just stupid. Not unpleasant animals — not at all. They have beautiful eyes, like Johnnie. Brown, of course, not Johnnie’s haunting shade of blue. Big, soulful eyes with long lashes. But they are stubborn and unteachable, just like Johnnie.

By the way, don’t be annoyed, Johnnie, if you’re reading this. Don’t let the name haunt you, Johnnie — own it! Doesn’t matter how you got it, it’s gangsta. Has a good rhythm. Own it. Make something of it. It’s yours, at least.

We farangs are all buffaloes around here, compared to these capable Thais. They are the ones who’ll survive when it all comes down. They have skills, and they have community. 

‘Oh, look what Johnnie Buffalo do now,’ complains Nueng, opening the cooler. ‘He put i in i-bock but not put beer. Johnnie! Johnnie Buffalo! You know how much I spend on i every week? Two thousand, three thousand baht. What you keep cold Johnnie? You keep Thailand cold?’

Nueng likes to keep the bar areas clear and tidy. Johnnie has a habit of leaving his T-shirts everywhere, stripping them off once the day gets warm and then forgetting them. Nueng simply picks them up and keeps them, or passes them on to his wife or Shogun or Ice to wear. There are days when Nueng’s whole family is dressed in Johnnie’s T-shirts. 

There are two bars at Lion Rock — the boat, up on the road, and a sturdy shack built out of rough timbers down by the boxing ring. Johnnie was put in charge of it. Perhaps some responsibility would bring out the best in him. He was supposed to open it for morning training and serve fruit smoothies, but nothing was happening. Ai had christened it the JIGARO BAR — gigolo, that is — and made a wooden sign. Johnnie Gigolo fancied himself with the ladies, and boasted about that as well. The Thais weren’t having any of it. Not their way at all. Their way was mockery. 

Hoagy’s way was more forceful. I’ve seen him yelling at Johnnie, jaws wide open, roaring in Johnnie’s face so viciously that you think you can see his epiglottis vibrating like in a cartoon. 

“You’re not ‘quick’!” screams Hoagy. “What the fuck are you talking about? Quick? Quick? Everybody here is quicker than you!!” 

Apparently Johnnie thought he was intelligent. Intelligent enough to argue with me about whatever I was talking about. What Morgan did to Tesla, for instance. 

“But, Paul, there are no rules, Paul,” says Johnnie Buffalo.

So the trust-fund kid was on the bankers’ side. Johnnie’s father had died when he was two years old, and his step-father was an actuary. There was money put aside for him when he decided to stop fucking about in Bohemia. 

I didn’t like to be around this Hoagy-Johnnie antagonism: Hoagy turning into some kind of psychotic drill-sergeant, and everybody else going quiet. I’m sure Hoagy didn’t feel good about it either, losing his cool like that. 

Is that just how it is? For every golden-haired warrior like Hoagy — for every god-man with a destroyed ego — must there always be some inferior, dark version dragging him down, some self-worshipping donkey like Johnnie? Perhaps it’s inevitable; that the is attracts the wannabe, the real attracts the fake. That there are always hyenas hanging around the lions. 

Johnnie wasn’t good at getting up in the morning, when most of the chores got done each day. So one morning Hoagy grabbed one of the geese, hugging it in his arms and carrying it to Johnnie’s hut, where he stuffed it in through the window, because Johnnie liked to lie in bed until training time. You can only imagine the honking, hissing, flapping, biting chaos that must have ensued in the tight space. A bit rough on the goose, and Hoagy had apologised profusely to the bird afterwards and promised never to do it again. As far as he could tell, the goose had forgiven him. 

Another time Hoagy forced Johnnie to sit motionless all night on the top deck of the boat, hour after hour, not allowed to move or speak until sunrise, because negative Johnnie needed to see how fucking beautiful everything is. 

But it’s not going to work, is it? Fun to hear about, amusing in the retelling, but no more, really, than an expression of dominance. Hoagy losing his touch, his ability to lead by example, by minimalist utterance and alert observation of his audience. It was ironic that Johnnie, who admired Hoagy so much, should be so immune to his idol’s influence. 

Then there was the fist fight. It happened quite early on, before I’d moved in to Lion Rock. A bare-knuckle fight between Johnnie and Hoagy, would you believe? I mean, seriously, how dumb do you have to be to get into a fight with Hoagy? The way I heard it, Johnnie was going on and on about his boxing prowess, how he was going to be the new Mike Tyson and all that, and finally Hoagy couldn’t take it any more — how the fuck do you shut this guy up? So Hoagy stands up and says, ‘All right, then, let’s go. You and me, in the soi, no gloves, now!’ 

You have to give Johnnie some credit — he’s not a coward. But he’d talked himself into this and he would lose too much face if he backed down. So Johnnie Buffalo gets up and follows Hoagy outside. 

Now Johnnie’s a big strong guy — though I’ve heard Hoagy talking about the stretch- marks he’s noticed on Johnnie’s shoulders, a tell-tale sign of steroid use. But Hoagy is on a different level, anyone can see that. It’s just the way he’s put together. A couple of inches shorter than Johnnie, but balanced, compact, explosive. Whereas Johnnie, built like a horse, has no whip. I’ve watched him train. Those kicks take too long to wind up, announced by a dog-like growl. And those heavy punches? A long reach becomes a drawback if your opponent can see the punches coming. It gives time to react, to come inside, and once that happens you’re in trouble unless you can shut it down in the clinch.

Hoagy didn’t go too hard on him — he spared his nose and mouth, smacking him up around the jaw and eyes. But there was blood. Man, I wish I’d seen it. Johnnie Buffalo with his face all bloodied up, after a fist fight with Hoagy in the middle of the road. 

Oh-gee take energy from everything, says Ai. From the ground, from the air…

Johnnie, on the other hand, takes nothing from anywhere except his fantasies about himself. And from proximity to Hoagy, of course, like the rest of us. I reckon Johnnie must have caught the odd girl falling off Hoagy’s table, for one thing. Hoagy had completely lost interest in women, at the time I got to know him. 

They steal your energy, says Hoagy. 

He was open to the right one coming along, and he’d know when she did, but until then he was done wasting his energy. At that point he’d been completely celibate, he told me, for more than half a year. But there seemed always to be a trickle of girls finding their way to Lion Rock to try to change his mind, and no doubt Johnnie sometimes found himself in luck instead. 

He would often repeat things he’d heard Hoagy say, trying to co-opt the power of his hero’s spell over others. He’d drop them into the conversation whenever he could, as if they were his own wisdom. 

‘Words are actually a very crude form of communication, Paul,’ says Johnnie Buffalo. 

‘I know,’ I say. ‘I’m a writer.’ I’d already had a chance to work out that comeback: esprit d’escalier, given a chance to rewind.

‘The jungle sees inside you, Paul. Everything is conscious, Paul.’ 

‘Very true, Johnnie, though I sometimes have my doubts about you.’

It was all pure Hoagy, but he’d throw these lines at me like a challenge. In his mind, if he was to be buffaloed for his failings, then why shouldn’t I be put through the same process. 

‘Lion Rock is a place where people learn things they don’t necessarily want to learn, Paul.’ The old hand, he always loved telling me what Lion Rock was and what it wasn’t. 

Once I heard him hitting on a couple of tourist girls in the bar with this kind of mystic jungle talk. Using this stuff to try to get laid means that you don’t have the faintest idea what it all means. He feels the power of Hoagy’s words — their exchange value, if not their truth. So he tries to trade them. But in his mouth the words have no power. Well, maybe over some dim tourist girl, once in a while.

It’s the same with his attempts to manipulate. He’ll be nice to you when he wants something. In fact that’s how you know he wants something. He doesn’t understand why his manipulations don’t work and nobody believes his lies. And that’s why his brows will always be furrowed above his vivid blue eyes, and he’ll never really understand anything. The buffalo doesn’t learn. A goose through the window, a night of enforced silence, swift combinations of punches bloodying up his face. Hoagy getting more and more frustrated. Johnnie Buffalo, stupid, stubborn, unteachable. 

Eventually they sent him away. 

It takes a lot for that to happen. It’s not the Thai way. They will mock you and tease you for as long as it takes, forever if necessary, but it takes a lot for them to turn you away. But Johnnie managed it, by fucking the girlfriend of one of Hoagy’s old mates who was over from Oz. She was coming on to him, everyone could see it, and Hoagy warned him not to go there. 

But he stuck it in her anyway, says Hoagy, so he had to go

That’s why he’d been away in the north when Hoagy was back in Oz, fighting the government over his pension. But as soon as Hoagy was back in Phuket, Johnnie Buffalo came straight back. And they gave him a second chance. Lion Rock is Nueng’s place, and Nueng has the final say. Hoagy will always defer to him. 

Hoagy rolled his eyes at me. ‘He’s like the kid brother you never wanted.’

So Hoagy was stuck with his shadow; we all were. I generally stayed away from Johnnie, but couldn’t all the time; I didn’t want to make a thing of it. So once in a while I had to have a conversation with him. It wasn’t easy. I don’t think I ever had an interaction with him which didn’t leave me feeling puzzled and frustrated. It seemed impossible ever to reach any common ground. Even when there was no explicit disagreement, he seemed to maintain an attitude of opposition. And he had this habit of using my name excessively in conversation. Like this (we were talking about Steve): 

‘Paul, you’ve just gotta give him time, Paul.’

‘Sure. Nobody’s saying he doesn’t need time. But I don’t want to just leave him alone, because if you do that he just sleeps and plays video games all day.’

‘He just needs time, Paul.’

‘I know, yeah. He needs time.’

‘You’ve just got to give him time, Paul.’

I looked at Johnnie and he stared impassively back. He hadn’t even met Steve at that point, as I remember.

‘All right, Johnnie, well I guess we agree about that, though somehow it feels like we don’t.’

We were in the boat bar. I got up to go, picking up my bag and bike keys. Then I turned back. 

‘By the way, Johnnie, would you mind not saying my name the whole time?’ 

‘I usually think that using someone’s name is a mark of respect, Paul.’ 

‘Really?’ I said. ‘All the time like that? To me it feels kind of condescending or something.’

‘Well I don’t mean it like that.’ At least he didn’t say ‘Paul’. 

‘There are languages where just using the word you is considered taboo,’ I said. 

‘But I don’t get it, why?’

‘Names are personal… Look, it would just really help if you stopped saying it three times in every —’ 

At that point he interrupted, ‘But Paul, maybe I’m not here to help.’ 

A slipping of the mask. 

‘All right, Johnnie,’ I said, getting onto my bike. ‘If that’s how it is, I’ll say good night, and we won’t speak any more than we have to.’ Starting the engine I gunned to the top of the path, taking the two-brake nose-dive down into the trees. 

Not everybody disliked Johnnie, and nobody disliked him all the time, not even me. Nueng’s teasing often had an affectionate quality. ‘I love you Johnnie,’ he would say, putting his arm round him. ‘But you are buffalo.’ He would play master-and-slave games, making Johnnie massage him for hours, and mostly the ribbing was good-natured and humorous. Nueng and Ai’s line was: Johnnie Buffalo is just a child, he will learn. 

Kayla got on well with him. They had something mysteriously in common: that excluded feeling; that certain bewilderment at life. They talked a lot about their childhoods and the different hang-overs each of them had been left with. Whereas I was bound to dislike Johnnie for his constant needling, she wasn’t on the receiving end of any of that. He was different with her. Even his eyes were different, she told me. Sometimes they were pale and indifferent. Other times their pale blue darkened with threads of green. 

Johnnie’s father had died when he was two, and his mother had remarried an actuary. A lot of money had gone into his education, not that the results were in any way visible as far as I could see, except perhaps in the emotional baggage, the anxiety that resulted from too much concern, too much pressure. An over-feminised childhood had left him with a compulsion to prove himself as a man, perhaps. 

As as he didn’t think he could prove it with Kayla. A trust-fund kid slumming it in Bohemia, a few hundred thousand dollars set aside to take care of his future and no sense of direction in his life. Kayla by contrast had nothing waiting for her and nothing behind her, but she was way too good for him and it wasn’t going to happen. She was open and perceptive, honest, gentle, unpretentious and warm, with a laugh like birdsong — and inexperienced, emotionally naive and vulnerable. All of Lion Rock embraced her instinctively and unconditionally. Nueng and Ai loved her like one of their own. Hoagy too — anyone who hurt Kayla would have them to deal with, no question, so I shouldn’t worry too much.

Still, I did. 

When I’d started coming to Lion Rock in the mornings to train, it was Kayla who had wanted to have a go at Muay Thai, and once she’d been in the ring a couple of times, Steve agreed to try as well. So the three of us were there every morning. It was a lovely human scene, men and women and children and chickens and cats, the thwacks and grunts from the ring, the whoops and commands of the coaches, loud reggae or techno music pumping out from the Jigaro Bar — which still wasn’t serving any fruit drinks, but we lived in hope. Unfortunately there was some kind of stand-off going on over the matter of the blender. Johnnie had bought a new one for several thousand baht, but had then left it standing around despite being asked to clear everything out for the builders, who were extending the bar and installing a wide new roof. The blender had somehow got broken, and now stood in an improvised shrine in front of the boat, with another of Ai’s signs, saying “R.I.P. Brenda.” Johnnie, in protest, had gone on strike. 

Kayla would often come back in the afternoons or evenings just to hang. She loved to smoke, and of course I let her. It calmed her, and made it easy to talk; she enjoyed our rambling ‘chats’ as she called them. Sometimes I’d take her for dinner at Sabai Corner or in Rawai. Hippy, a Lion Rock veteran who turns up every few months, told me that when he first used to see me around I’d made him think of Leon the Professional, like in the movie — older guy, with a lived-in face, shall we say, who’s always got this young girl in tow. Seeing her on the back of my bike, people usually assume she’s my daughter, though once or twice, this being Thailand, someone ventured, ‘Your… girlfriend?’ 

Not my girlfriend, God forbid, and not my daughter either. But I had to accept that fatherly role to a degree. The kid had never had a friend in her life, and that had to leave her a little vulnerable to emotional manipulation. I’d brought her here among the vanara, the forest humans of Lion Rock, so I had to look out for her. Anyone who looked like they might take advantage of her inexperience would have my veto. I’m no grizzled assassin like Leon, it’s true, but I would find a way to enforce it. That’s just how it was. Even Johnnie Buffalo must sense, surely, that Kayla was off-limits. He’d already been sent away once for ignoring warnings. I’d have to find an opportunity to make this clear to him. But that wasn’t going to be easy, given our mutual antagonism.

I understood well enough why Johnnie didn’t like me: Hoagy’s original recruit, he saw himself as Hoagy’s double, or something like that, but faced a constant drip of criticism not only from the Thais but from his role model as well. And then I show up, and who am I? Not a soldier, not a boxer, not even young, but here I am with these kids and Hoagy loves me for what I’ve done for them and spends hours talking with me about Nikola Tesla and Bohemian Grove and all the other weird stuff I bring with me. 

Not only that, but I was witnessing all his humiliations. 

One morning at training, after I’d seen him getting a vicious tongue-lashing from Hoagy the night before, I was holding Johnnie’s feet while he did sit-ups, and I asked him, ‘Are you and Hoagy OK?’ 

His answer seemed disconnected from reality. ‘Yeah,’ he said, ‘we’re fine, a hundred percent. Two hundred percent, Paul. You’ve got to understand, me and Hoagy, we’re like brothers, Paul. It’s just brother stuff, Paul.’ 

Well, all have the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves. We’re not rational creatures, but rationalising creatures, as someone once said. If there was internet here I’d look it up. 

But there was a kind of symmetry. In his own way, Johnnie Buffalo was as big a mystery as Hoagy. Not as interesting a mystery, but a mystery nevertheless. I often wondered why he put up with so much, why he didn’t just leave. I guessed he didn’t have any other ideas, anywhere else to go. 

And I can’t just leave him out of this story, much as I’d like to. I have to put up with him, just like Hoagy and Nueng and Ai and the rest. We’re all stuck with Johnnie Buffalo. Somehow it feels inevitable, like a law of nature or something. Somehow, Johnny Buffalo just has to be there. 

When Johnnie got his second chance, there were conditions. One of those was that it would soon be time for him to fight. Enough posing around; time for a reality check. Time to step into the ring, Johnny, hey. 

Once Hoagy had fucked up his knee again, the matter was brought to the top of the agenda. With our champion out of action, someone had to be getting ready to fight, or Oh was wasting his time coming here every day, in Nueng’s opinion. The decision was made, and the date set. The first thing Johnnie did was shave his head, keeping a triangular patch hanging down at the back. This would have time to grow out into something plaitable, since the fight was fully a month away. The second thing he did was choose himself a nom de guerre, a ring name — Ma Daeng: Red Dog — which caused a certain amount of hilarity around the boat, since there happened to be a brand of chemical drain-cleaner with the same name. ‘Don’t touch Ma Daeng,’ Nueng would call out. ‘Ma Daeng have bacteria. You don’t know what disease you will get.’

By the time the fight came around, Ma Daeng’s Chinese-style pig-tail was looking splendid, tied with a red string. He was up against a balanced-looking Thai fighter, a fraction shorter than him and lighter, of spare, athletic build. In fact, looking back I think the Thai could have murdered Johnnie if he’d wanted to. And he did, but in that very Thai manner which doesn’t rub in superiority, but conserves force and face — the ethic seems to be to display unquestionably superior technique rather than necessarily inflicting as much damage as you could. It’s not just an honour thing, I imagine, but a good policy for longevity as a fighter — stay out of trouble, demonstrate your superiority, win. Having said that, any boxer will of course be happy to end a fight inside the distance. 

Red Dog kept going forward, trying to land punches and get into clinches. Hoagy, in his corner, was screaming at him to put together some combinations. He was strong but too slow. He didn’t have that whip or speed of thought. Once or twice he tried a fancy back- elbow, but he wasn’t landing anything, and meanwhile the guy was floating all around him, twice flipping him heavily onto his back with a sweep to the standing foot. That was enough. He did what he needed to and no more. 

So Johnnie went the distance, but I think everybody knew that it was an emphatic defeat. After the fight it was a little awkward — Johnnie clearly wanted to get a big group photograph with the Lion Rock crowd, but people kept drifting off and it didn’t happen. I felt for him, telling him he’d done all right. 

Back at the boat, exhausted and in pain, he laid himself out on a bench, wanting someone to massage balm into his shins, but I wasn’t about to do that and nor was anyone else, and he quickly fell asleep there in the bar, in his silk shorts, with a towel covering him. 

I tried to be encouraging. Getting into a Muay Thai ring in front of a crowd for the first time is not an easy thing. Again, I have to hand it to Johnnie — he’s no coward. But he had clearly found himself out of his depth. He had finally learned something. And that was Hoagy’s point in making him fight. If he couldn’t teach Johnny to curb his ego, reality surely could. 

What Johnnie had learned just how much pain was involved in blocking kicks with your shins, and of having your kicks blocked in the same way. It was different from kicking a pad wielded by his coach. What you spend most of your time doing in training turns out in reality to be so painful that you can’t actually use it as a weapon. It’s like walking into a coffee table in a dark room over and over again. And yet that’s the standard move in Thai boxing. I guess it hurts a lot less if you’ve been doing it since you were seven. 

After the fight, like anyone else, Johnnie rested his bruises for two or three days, but then pleaded a bad back as a reason to not train. And then he was sick for a few days with a fever. And then the back was still bad and he still couldn’t train. But he wouldn’t admit what he had learnt: that he wasn’t anything special at boxing and that in fact he didn’t want to box any more. Instead you could have pointless conversations with him about his back and whether he should go and see someone about it, and still from week to week there was no sign of him get back into training. 

Instead he took up drawing. I’d seen him sketching a few times, and he wasn’t bad. In fact I was quite struck by a sheet of faces he’d produced. Impassive faces, thickset faces with oriental features; faces with the impassive gaze of an idol. I was particularly struck by them because Johnnie himself had mastered the art of the impassive gaze like nobody else I’ve known. He was really good at it; every muscle still, the brow unfurrowed, letting those big pale eyes cast a calm dispassionate gaze over everything before him. And yet you never got the feeling he was contemplating anything; allowing himself to be contemplated, perhaps. A pose. A thousand yard stare with nothing behind it. 

But it was a stare even Hoagy could get lost in, as I saw on the night of statues.

I’d spent the evening at Ap’s place, and it was late by the time I got back to my hut. The rain had soaked the path, helping cement the new steps I’d cut. I’d forgotten my lamp, and I just had the little LED on my key ring, so I was picking and squelching my way cautiously down the hill. And when I came to my hut I found a very strange scene.

I was watching my feet as you have to on that last little stretch of the path, and so I was on him before I saw him. Johnnie was sitting on the side bench of my verandah, perfectly still, with his hands on his knees. I clapped him on the knee, and said, ‘Hallo, Johnnie,’ with a question in my voice. He didn’t respond, just sitting there in that impassive way he has, staring at… and I followed his gaze… Hoagy! In the dim light, and focusing on the surprise of Johnnie on my porch, I hadn’t registered him. 

I have a nice deck chair, upholstered in some padded plastic material, very comfortable. I sit in it to write, with my laptop on a little adjustable computer desk I picked up at Homepro. Hoagy was lying back in the chair with his legs up on the desk. He was twisted at the waist, turning his torso and head towards Johnnie, as if he had been frozen in the middle of reacting to a surprise incursion into his world. His fists were clenched and raised towards Johnnie, and his face wore a frozen expression of horror and defiance, as if he were ready to defend the universe against flocks of hideous demons pouring through some portal into our reality. His eyes were locked on Johnnie’s.

It was a bizarre scene. Two big men frozen like statues on my porch. Like waxworks. Like the casts of bodies at Pompei, petrified in death by the pyroclastic wave pouring down he mountainside.

I looked from one to the other. Neither responded. Neither’s eyes, locked onto each other’s eyes, even flicked towards me. It was as if I wasn’t there. 

‘What’s going on, Johnnie?’

Not a flicker.

I crouched beside Hoagy and rubbed his forearms and fists, as if trying to warm a frozen corpse, saying quietly, ‘What is it, Hoagy? What’s the matter, man?’ I noticed how his wrists were cocked; it wasn’t even a correct punching posture.

He didn’t move a muscle. His eyes stayed fixed on Johnnie’s, unblinking, his brow furrowed, his jaw set in grim determination.

Has time stopped? I wondered. Am I the invisible man?

I opened my door and went inside. I’d been planning to have a cup of tea and a spliff before sleeping, so I put the kettle on. I asked the statues if they wanted a cup of tea.

‘What kind?’ asked the Johnnie statue.

‘Earl Grey,’ I said.

‘No thanks,’ said the Johnnie statue. ‘Have you got a cigarette?’

I did. I gave him one, lit it for him, and he smoked it, all without without taking his eyes off the Hoagy statue.

I ignored them, moving around as if they weren’t there. I made the tea. I put some music on and smoked a joint. They didn’t move. I lay down and went to sleep.

I half expected them to still be there in the morning, but they weren’t. Hoagy was in the bar as I drove up, and was already calling out to me, ‘Paul, I’m so sorry!’ before I stopped the bike.

I went in and gave him a hug, deflecting his profuse apologies. He told me — they were both on mushrooms, obviously — that he’d been looking into Johnnie’s eyes and seeing something very horrible in there, ‘bacterial’ he said with a grimace, some kind of seething fountain of filth. I told him how he was lying, and he said, ‘Yeah, I was flying a space ship, and Perry was my co-pilot, and then I looked round and he’d turned into Johnnie.’

I wanted to know how long he’d been like that. It must have still been light when he and Perry had come down to chill on my porch. We knew you wouldn’t mind, he said. So my padded deck-chair and computer-desk had made him think of a space ship, like the captain’s bridge in Star Trek or something.

Now I understood the position his arms had been in. The fists were gripping a steering console — that’s why his wrists were not aligned as in a boxing stance — and he had twisted his body, reacted in shock to Perry’s transformation into Johnnie, and remained frozen like that for I don’t know how long, but several hours, certainly, staring into Johnnie’s eyes. And Johnie had remained there, staring impassively back.

‘Yeah, we went down to chill on your porch,’ Perry told me later, ‘and then Hoagy started saying all this weird shit like he does sometimes when he’s on mushrooms, and I don’t know how to deal with him when he’s like that, so I called Johnnie to come down…’

I was surprised he’d done that. Hadn’t he seen how Hoagy and Johnnie interact when they’re tripping? You need to keep those two apart, not send for Johnnie becauseHoagy’s saying some weird shit. It was the opposite of a good idea.

Later I saw Johnnie sitting with Hippy at one of the stone tables under the trees, and went to join them.

‘I love you, my brother,’ said Hippy, as Hippy does.

‘We were playing egos,’ Johnnie explained. ‘It’s just brother stuff, Paul. Battling egos. Me and Hoagy, we’re like brothers.’

I didn’t say, that’s not the way Hoagy talks about you. 

It was a bizarre incident, and I couldn’t help dwelling on it. Hoagy’s utter immobilisation, apparently unable to speak or to move even an eyelid, as if he’d stepped out of time, fascinated and hypnotised by the fountains of filth he could see behind Johnnie’s eyes. The tension in his body. His Defender of the Universe posture. For the first time, I felt a twinge of concern for him.

And Johnnie. What was his game? What was he thinking?

Just brother stuff, Paul. Ego battles.

And me wondering why he was still here. Rejected and sent away, mocked and ridiculed every day. Not a soldier, not a boxer, and certainly not Hoagy. Nowhere to go, nothing to be but Johnnie Buffalo, Johnnie Gigolo, Johnnie Wannabe.

It crossed my mind that there might be another way of looking at this. Was Johnnie trying to find a way of beating Hoagy?

Couldn’t beat him in a fight. Couldn’t beat him in an argument. Couldn’t beat him in the esteem of the tribe. Baited and mocked where Hoagy was lauded and loved.

Hoagy unable to move or speak. Johnnie calmly smoking a cigarette, turning down a cup of tea.

Brother stuff.

Was Johnnie looking for a way to win? Had he found a way? 

He’d accidentally precipitated the knee injury, with his impassivity as a sparring partner. Hoagy goading him, trying to get him to punch harder, and take a few around the eyes. And then the knee going under him.

And the four day coke binge. Hoagy going deeper into psychosis.

The buffalo, slow but strong. Without whip, but could he outlast him his idol? Could stupidity become a strategy?

The impassive gaze.

Waiting him out, wearing him down.

Hoagy always said that Johnnie was a good person, just immature, needing to learn. I’d taken his word on that, but now I was having doubts. Was there more to the buffalo than even the buffalo knew? 

They were just passing thoughts, but I was a little bit spooked. It’s easy to get spooked in the jungle, on these long nights, down by the rocks, under the moonlight. 

THE PLAGUE PANOPTIC

“Behind the disciplinary mechanisms can be read the haunting memory of ‘contagions’, of the plague, of rebellions, crimes, vagabondage, desertions, people who appear and disappear, live and die in disorder.”

the lethal text

“First, a strict spatial partitioning: the closing of the town and its outlying districts, a prohibition to leave the town on pain of death, the killing of all stray animals; the division of the town into distinct quarters, each governed by an intendant. Each street is placed under the authority of a syndic, who keeps it under surveillance; if he leaves the street, he will be condemned to death. On the appointed day, everyone is ordered to stay indoors: it is forbidden to leave on pain of death. The syndic himself comes to lock the door of each house from the outside; he takes the key with him and hands it over to the intendant of the quarter; the intendant keeps it until the end of the quarantine. Each family will have made its own provisions; but, for bread and wine, small wooden canals are set up between the street…

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DOUBLE-HEADED SNAKE

Ut crashed out in the middle of the day in the little hut he’d built at the edge of his field. Hungover on Laow Kao, the cheap, dirty rice spirit that is everywhere in these parts, he’d grown dizzy working in the sun. 

He felt so sick he didn’t even lean his blade against the wall next to the door as he usually did, just threw himself down on the mat with one arm cushioning his face, his fingers loose around the wood of the handle. Then he’d rolled over onto his back, and let go of it.

The snake was already in there, he just didn’t see it. 

It was sugar time, when the farmers harvest their crops with big machines that drum and howl deep into the night, their lights creating pools of strange, shifting shadows. Others set fire to their fields instead, to burn off the dense, dry foliage, leaving the clumps of canes standing free, before bringing in a ragtag team of workers, cheaper than the machine. The practice is technically illegal, so they sometimes do the burn-off at night; an eerie sight in the darkness, that orange glow on the horizon or reflecting from clouds above the trees.

Burning makes cropping much faster, and the sugar even tastes better, with a subtly caramelised tang to it. It also has the advantage of driving out snakes, making it safe for the croppers to enter. Sugar time, then, is when you’re most likely to see a python, and it’s also when they’re looking to eat before disappearing into the hills to meditate, as the Thais say, until the rains come back. Dogs disappear, and everyone has a snake story in their family.

Malayopython Reticulatus moved very, very slowly, and completely silently, getting itself into position. It took a hundred years to form a great circle around the man’s prostrate form. It watched the man intently as it moved. It knew from his breathing that he was deep asleep. Tongue flickering, it appraised his position, planning its move. It observed the man’s limbs, the left arm across his body, the right flung out above his head in sleepy abandon. 

A hundred years it took, maybe two, but when it struck it was fast, closing like a sprung trap. Both ends of the snake entwined his body in an instant, the tail moving as intelligently as the head, binding him from the feet to the chest and crushing the breath out of him.

“Huuuuhhhh!” said the man, his eyes coming open.

“Wake up!” whispered the snake behind him. “No time to sleep,” and sank its teeth into the shoulder of the free arm, whipping its neck muscles viciously from side to side like a dog, trying to tear the arm out of its socket. Clamped in a fifteen foot coil of locked, constricting muscle, the man could not draw breath to make a sound as the animal ripped into his shoulder. Darkness welled up in his brain, feathering his vision as consciousness grew wings and prepared to float clear of his body.

But at that moment, his knuckles collided with the wooden handle of the knife, which lay exactly where he needed it to be, where he’d let go of it when he turned over. 

He grabbed the handle and tried to stab at the snake, but he couldn’t get the point round because the blade was too long, or get much power because the only movement he had was in his elbow and wrist. So instead he drew the blade across the hard skin of the snake, sawing backwards and forwards, and for ten or twenty seconds that’s how they were, man and snake sawing away at each other until suddenly the coils loosened and unravelled like a shredded drive belt, and he could breathe.

“!hhhuuuuuuuH,” gasped the man, oxygen burning the light back into his eyes.

“Fuck you,” said the snake. “Now look what you’ve done.” 

Ut didn’t wait for it to leave, but hurled himself out of the hut, his left hand seeking the slippery meat of his right shoulder. Hugging himself like that, blood flowing through his fingers and down his arm, he staggered all the way back to the village, yelling raggedly for help. His son was at home, and he wrapped the shoulder in a wet T-shirt and drove him to Chum Phae hospital on the back of his motorbike.

“You were lucky,” said the medic who cleaned his wounds. 

“I know,” said the farmer. “Lucky to get so drunk last night.”

“How so?”

Ut told him that they’d finished the sugar harvest yesterday and he’d sat up drinking with the driver.

The medic didn’t understand what that had to do with surviving the snake-attack, so Ut explained that he’d been cutting the sugar canes that had survived the machine at the edges of the field when he suddenly felt everything spinning and went to lie down in the hut.

“Ah,” the medic interrupted. “You see? So many ways Laow Kao can kill you. Like they say, if you don’t see the coffin, you never wake up.” 

“What are you talking about?” said Ut. “Laow saved my life.”

“Oh yes? How do you work that out?” asked the medic. These farmers, they’re crazy, he thought. 

Ut turned his head to look at him, just as he bent down to continue cleaning. “Because normally I keep my—”

Suddenly he stiffened on the table. 

“Hurts?” asked the medic. Had the injection worn off already?

He looked at the man’s face and found that he was staring past him at something, with an expression of astonished horror on his face. He looked round, expecting to see a terrorist or a ghost entering the room, but there was nothing, only the glass door with the hospital logo. The man was trying to sit up, and he gently pushed him back down.

“Take it easy,” he said. “Relax.” Maybe hallucinating from loss of blood? Or just his sun-and-whisky-fried brain playing tricks on him. These farmers…

He started dressing the wound.

It was the first time Ut had been in a hospital. When he’d arrived he hadn’t noticed the strange symbol stencilled on all the doors. And there it was again, on the doctor’s badge, and again on the noticeboard on the wall. 

A hundred questions raced through his mind. How did they know, ahead of time? And why put depictions of his ordeal everywhere like that, before he even arrived? Did they do that for everyone?

What is this place? he asked himself. Am I dreaming? Am I already dead?

The sun was getting close to the horizon as his son drove him home. Half the sky was obscured with dirty haze, the dark outline of Phu Wiang pillared with smoke. His shoulder was starting to hurt again.

“How many stitches?” asked his son. 

“None.”

“Huh?”

“Not enough skin left to stitch. Stop at the shop,” he said. “I need a drink.”

“You have money?” asked his son.

“Sugar time,” said Ut. “Credit no problem.”

At home they hit the Laow together, and went over the whole story in detail. When he got to the part about the strange depictions of his own near-death experience he’d seen painted everywhere at the hospital, his son frowned for a moment and then creased up, convulsed with laughter. Waving his arms, he gasped, “Pa! I can’t breathe!”

“Nor could I.”

And that started him off again.

The bottle was nearly empty. Ut hauled himself to his feet.

“Finish that,” he said. 

As he lurched lopsidedly towards his bed, Ut turned and said, “You know what I think, son?” 

His son was still shaking. “No, Pa, what do you think?”

“This life,” said his father, “—it’s just a crazy dream. Makes no fucking sense at all.”  

Red

The boys had gone swimming and Red wanted to go too, but her mother wouldn’t let her. She was too young and didn’t know how to swim. So she waited for a while and then sneaked away, following the path to the pond. As she approached through the trees, she could see their backs, five naked boys sitting on a level branch which grew out across the water, and called out to them. 

There was a scream, and a splash, then more screams and four more splashes. It was strange, because the screams were shrill like the screams of girls, but there were only boys at the pond. When she came up over the rise to the bank there was no one on the branch, and five heads in the water. So she walked along the branch, holding her arms out for balance, and sat down. She started chatting to them, while they all trod the muddy brown water.

She chatted away happily for about half an hour while the boys stayed in the water. They seemed to have less and less to say, but she chattered happily in the dappled shade of the trees, swinging her legs above the pond. Time went by, and then she thought she’d better go back before her mother noticed she was gone, so she stood up carefully and balanced her way back to the bank. When she turned to wave goodbye to the boys, she noticed that their lips all seemed to have turned blue. 

The King came to the village, King Bhumibol Adulyadej, Rama IX, ninth king of the Chakri dynasty. Among his many titles,  Phra Chao Yu Hua — ‘Lord Upon Our Heads’ — and Chao Chiwit — ‘Lord of Life’. The people of Chum Phae and the surrounding countryside assembled on a sports field, sitting in a great oval ring. No one stood, even the people at the back, because in Thai culture your head must be lower than the head of the King at all times. The big helicopter landed in the middle, whipping up a storm of dust. A group of people emerged, stooping beneath the slowing blades.

King Bhumibol grew up in Germany and America, and was known as a intelligent, studious man, a scientist and musician, refined and modest in demeanour, who asked many questions and listened attentively to answers. He didn’t expect to be King; he inherited the crown unexpectedly after the death of his older brother. His village tour of the North of Thailand was combined with visits to royal development projects — irrigation, water detention and aeration, river basin improvement, check dams and artificial rainmaking. He had been educated in Switzerland, but made prolonged efforts to know his people’s lives and help improve them. He abandoned physics and applied himself to the study of forestry, botany, water-management and rural economics, developing his ‘sufficiency economy’ theory in opposition to the export-oriented policies of elected governments. He still composed music, once in a while; but chiefly he became known for his science. ‘The King’s Science’, they call it. In the West they call it ‘permaculture’, or ‘agroforestry’. In Thailand, they say ‘following the King’s Steps’.

The King walked around the ring of people, and wherever he looked they lowered their heads to the ground, as if a gust of wind was passing through a field of grass. The people at the front spread scarves and towels on the ground for him to walk on. He talked to villagers here and there, put his hands on people’s heads, until he came to a little girl who held herself upright on her knees, almost standing, staring at him while everyone around her bowed their heads. He stopped in front of her. She looked up at him in his dark glasses and neatly pressed safari shirt with its big chest pockets. He wasn’t a tall man, and his face was almost delicate with its fine straight nose and narrow cheek-bones. She was amazed by the pale yellow of his skin, like early morning sunshine. She noticed that he avoided stepping on the scarves the people spread out before his feet. 

‘Are you really the King?’ asked Red, her brows furrowing up almost to her hairline. Next to her, her mother, face lowered, was shushing her and pulling on her arm for her to get down. 

The King looked down at her with amusement crinkling the corners of his eyes. At his shoulder, half a step behind, the Queen smiled brightly at the girl.

‘Yes,’ he said, ‘I am.’

‘You don’t look like him,’ said Red. She had only seen pictures of him in his ceremonial robe of gold. Beside her, her mother moaned softly, pressing her face into the grass.

‘Well,’ he said, ‘I don’t mind that you say so. But I am your King.’

He nodded, looking at her, and then turned and moved on.

One day when she was four her mother left her in charge of her little brother, who was eight months old and already walking, and when she wasn’t looking he fell from the deck of the house onto the ground with a dull thud and lay there without moving. Her mother came running, and gathered him up in her arms. Blood was coming from his ears and nose and gurgling from his mouth. The mother pushed the girl away from her brother with hate in her eyes. Wailing, she ran down the road with the little boy in her arms, and Red ran after her and could not catch up, but she ran until she fell down in the road, with the sun low on the horizon flooding her eyes with red light, and then blackness. She knew nothing until local women came and picked her up. 

Later that day her mother came home and hit her, and then took a sarong and tied it tightly around the little girl’s wrists before throwing the other end over a roof beam and pulling her up until her feet left the ground. She beat her and left her hanging there, for a long time.

She visited her brother in hospital where he lay in a glass tank. After three months he came home, and there was no lasting damage. But the beatings continued. 

They told her she was ugly. Over and over again they told her, until she believed it. She had wide cheek-bones, a button nose and bright brown eyes, and looked no different, she thought, from any of the other girls in the village. But ugly, ugly, was all she heard. Because that’s what Thais say of a child, meaning ‘difficult’. An obedient, harmonious child is beautiful. One with too many questions, too much spirit — a difficult child — is ugly, ugly, ugly. Red was stubborn, and difficult to feed because she wouldn’t eat meat. When the men of the village, every couple of months, went hunting in the mountains of Phu Wiang and came home with a deer or a pig slung on a pole between their shoulders, she would never join the feast. 

Her father, at that time, kept pigs, and when she was ten he gave her one as her own to take care of until it was old enough to be sold. He promised her she would have the money from the sale. She loved the pig, and she didn’t understand what would happen to it when it was sold. But when the day came, somehow she knew. She cried and cried, and her father comforted her and told her that she could spend the money on whatever she wanted. She ran to her room and threw the money at the ceiling, and it fell on top of the mosquito net above the bed where she threw herself face-down, sobbing into the pillow and grieving for her pig. 

It wasn’t until a week later that she took the money down and caught the bus to the market, where she bought herself a fancy pair of flip-flops with shocking pink straps and high heels, and a nice top. The rest of the money she spent on snacks and sweets for her family and friends. By the time she got off the bus on the way home, tottering on her heels and handing out sweets to her friends, she was happy again, and so proud of her heels, feeling as tall as a queen. Her aunties were sitting at the kitchen table, and Red happily took out the snacks she had bought for them, but when her mother saw her it was as if the sky was falling in. She grabbed the child and turned her upside down, wrenching the shoes from her feet. “Clean them!” she commanded. “Tomorrow you take everything back!” 

In front of her aunties, Red wanted to die from embarrassment.

So next day the shoes and the top were returned, and instead she was forced to spend her money on sensible Nam Yang shoes, despite what her father had said. She spent the next few weeks subtly trying to destroy them, taking a knife to the soles, digging it into the stitching, contorting her body to drag her feet in the dust, sitting behind her brother on the motorbike. The brand was famous for durability, and she couldn’t be too obvious about her sabotage, but she was determined the shoes would not last long.

She was punished for every little thing, beaten sometimes with a stick, until she had bruises on her bruises. Her brother had it too, but never as bad. Her mother tied and hung her for every transgression, though she often didn’t know what she had done wrong. It was always her grandmother who took her down. Never her mother — and never her father, either. Her father was a kind man, but he never dared to go against his wife. 

This went on until Red was fifteen. It went on, that is to say, until she was big enough to look her mother in the eye and raise her own hand in a movement that said: No more. You won’t do this any more.

Her harsh treatment had not made her submissive. Far from it, in fact. In her teenage years, her father became a teacher at her school, and this made her unpopular. The others said she was stuck up. Maybe she was. The anger inside her had made her severe, and she would never allow herself to care what anyone else though about her. Often she cut class, and climbed a tree inside the school grounds, where the janitor would find her, pointing out this tree or that one to the teachers. One day a group of seven or eight girls followed her home from school, taunting and insulting her, chanting her name. Finally her blood rose, and she turned to face them.

“All right,” she said, and drew a line in the dirt with the toe of her shoe. “If you want me, come and get me. But you come one at a time.”

Something authoritative in the tone of her voice made them obey. There was a still moment, and in that moment something extraordinary happened. It was as if her spirit left her body for a second and flew up above the battlefield. She could see everything in her surroundings, experiencing a complete three-sixty degree vision, down to the smallest detail. The girls standing there in a semi-circle, glaring at her. A flow of red ants along the power cable next to the road, their whiskers catching the sunlight. A beetle shuffling in the dust, making a strange pattern. Nearby she heard the bird that chirrups in seven rapid pulses of sound, four quick and three slow. Further off, the bird that whistles in a looping tone, ‘For real! For real!’ Over to her left, there was a motorcycle taxi rank, and she saw that the men had suspended their game of bottle-top checkers and were laying bets, twenty baht notes changing hands. Everything seemed simultaneously distant and close, sharp and defined. 

Then the leader of the girls stepped forward and was immediately enveloped in a fury of fists and knees and feet. It didn’t last long, and ended with the girl on the ground and Red on top of her, the girl screaming as Red sank her teeth into the flesh of her face.

She stood up and spat out a piece of the girl’s cheek. She wiped her bloody mouth with the back of her fist, finding to her surprise that she was still holding a clump of the girl’s hair, with skin attached. 

She brandished the trophy in triumph. ‘Next!’ she roared, as the whimpering girl crawled away.

There was no next. 

Twenty baht notes changed hands.

Her father had to pay money for the girl’s stitched face. It wouldn’t be the last time he had to pay, but he never complained. Secretly he was proud of his fighting girl.

That was not how Red earned her nickname, which she’d been was in babyhood, because her hair had a hint of red in it when it caught the light. 

But it was how she discovered what beat inside her chest: 

jai nạkrb

a warrior heart.

Baudrillard in Bangkok

Magritte, La Trahison des Images (The Treachery of Images), 1929

A simulacrum is a likeness, image or effigy; bearing a superficial similarity to its original, it is a placeholder or sign for the real thing, a representation rather than a replication. The instrumental suffix –crum signifies something which might be used in a simulation, like a baby doll in a nativity play, a CPR dummy, or a scale model of the moon for rehearsing the Apollo mission. The French social theorist Jean Baudrillard, however, galvanised the word with post-modern magic, stratifying its meaning into three or four gradations. In Simulacra and Simulation (1981), the simulacrum becomes something more than a mere likeness; it is the image that ‘murders’ reality. The violence of the hyperbole is startling. This is the treason of images. 

There are four orders of simulation.

“Such would be the successive phases of the image: it is the reflection of a profound reality; it masks and denatures a profound reality; it masks the absence of a profound reality; it has no relation to any reality whatsoever; it is its own pure simulacrum. In the first case, the image is a good appearance — representation is of the sacramental order. In the second, it is an evil appearance — it is of the order of maleficence. In the third, it plays at being an appearance — it is of the order of sorcery. In the fourth, it is no longer of the order of appearances, but of simulation.”  

So, let’s try an analysis. I’ll take a subject close to home. Just up the street, in fact.

There’s a stunningly beautiful woman standing by the entrance to an entertainment plaza in a certain South-East Asian capital of some ten million souls. Or ten million people, rather, there being far more souls than bodies in this city. 

Her name is Mew. 

She’s standing in the entrance, in a sexy dress, swinging a hip. Tall as a model, with jutting breasts and a teasing smile, she is perfect from every angle as long as she keeps still. The simulation is betrayed by the hyper-feminine exaggeration of her movements. And her voice, when she speaks.

Is ‘Mew’ a first order simulacrum, of the order of sacraments? Does this impersonation of a woman defer to the original? Does ‘Mew’, in his life-long yearning to be one, acknowledge the ineffable nature of woman?

Arguably yes — and for that reason he has kept his penis.

The majority of ladyboys do, and not just because they are still saving up for this last and most expensive staging point on their transformative journey. Value lies in difference, as Baudrillard says, and it is the penis that acknowledges the sovereignty of the original and makes the kathoey a work of art, of the order of sacraments, a first order simulation. The simulation is revealed as artificial, groping towards reality… at least, by the end of the night. 

They keep the dick because the dick is money. 

Let’s not assume, then, that Mew wants to be a perfect illusion. Rather, she is a flickering double-image: half-moon, futanari, khatoey. Without her penis, the ambiguous tease, the post-modern flirtation, would be lost. Reconstruction of the genitals would be a stupid and irredeemable mistake, signalling the end of the performance and consignment to the lowest rung of femininity, and she knows this. Her penis matters as much to her as to any man – it is her livelihood, her value, and her sacrament. 

But Mew is both more and less than a work of art; she’s simultaneously a first and a second order simulacrum. Mew’s simulation of a beautiful woman does indeed threaten the original – the Bangkok bar-girl – by trying to steal her customers. The fact that she costs more than a girl suggests that the precession of simulacra is, in this field, already an economic reality. 

You might think she has a different clientele, but there is a big overlap, and Mew, believe me, loves nothing better than to seduce a ‘straight’ man. Of course a straight man, led astray by her, can no longer be counted as straight, exactly, though since he has no desire for sex with men you cannot say he is gay either, or for that matter bisexual. 

She is magical only for as long as you are deceived by her appearance. Once she exposes her secret penis, her business is to usurp the anima in your mind and your bed – to be better than a girl. If she can do that, she graduates, no longer a work of art but an evil appearance; of the order of malefice. Masculinity and femininity die in a murder-suicide, and resurrect themselves in a new synthesis.

The physical changes Mew has gone through are mirrored by the remodelling that occurs within the psyche of her customer. I know men who only like chicks; some of those chicks just happen to have dicks. There are men who could never be attracted to another man, but who are seduced by ladyboys and eventually grow to enjoy them more than the women they simulate. In some cases they become, in time, fixated on the simulacrum. Now they can’t fancy a woman unless she’s not a woman. 

In such a case, the original object of desire has disappeared, to be replaced by its image, a simulacrum now masking the absence of the real, which persists only in rotting shreds clinging to certain points on the map. All notion of an original is forgotten, and only the fiction remains. Such a man inhabits the dark side of the half-moon, so to speak, a world of copies without originals, signs to nowhere and portraits of no one. It is not real, but it is not unreal either – it is hyperreal. Mew, I’m sure she’d be thrilled to learn, is the perfect illustration of French post-modern social theory. I’ll have to try to explain that to her some time.

Futanari – literally ‘to be of two kinds’, or ‘dual forms’ – exhibit the precession of simulacra, and their absence from the text of Simulacra and Simulation is an inexplicable oversight on Baudrillard’s part. However, the fact is that the burgeoning of androgynes in Asia is rooted, not in French social theory, or even in biology or genetics — but in rumour, theatre, and folk religion. 

Traditional clothing in Japan made it easy to dissemble gender; for instance, a woman could easily dress as a man to gain access to a prohibited area. A man could dress as a woman and hide a weapon or contraband in the belt bag. Security guards were therefore posted at key points in the city to perform body checks, and whether or not their origins lay in actual cases of clitoromegaly or hermaphrodism, the sensational stories told by these guards became popular and widespread.

In theatre, the conventions of Onnagata led to all kinds of identity-play, culminating in early 17th century Wakashū kabuki, which used casts of adolescent boys to play both male and female roles and dwelt on erotic themes. Surviving oral elements of Japanese folk-religion hint at tales of gender transformation; deities such as dōsojin had ambiguous gender, and were represented by both phallic and yonic symbols. Belief spread that people existed who could change their gender with the phases of the moon, and the term hangetsu or ‘half-moon’ (半月) was coined to describe such beings. From there the half-moon  becomes a character in anime and manga, explodes into pornography, and onto the streets of Tokyo, Manila and Bangkok.

The hangetsu is not surreal, it’s hyperreal, like the various chimaera of folklore modelled in a thousand forms all over Bangkok, from the golden singh tigers guarding the Royal Palace to the kinnara birds adorning the lamp-posts, to statues and reliefs of the Great King Naga. Once you start looking, impossible creatures of the mythical forest of Himmaphan are everywhere. Mew, I guess, is just another one of them.  

Baudrillard’s paradoxes do not strike us as counter-intuitive in the least — not in Bangkok, for sure. Here, hyperreality seems both imminent and immanent. But Bangkok, believe it or not, is no different from anywhere else in this world. Like the corruption, the commodification of everything is just more obvious here. But the rest of the world is not, qualitatively speaking, any different. As the reality-principle approaches its epochal crisis, hyperreality seems to breathe from every surface, artistic, sexual, political, technological, theoretical. Biologically-inspired robotics have quickly manifested Philip K Dick’s vision in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? – a title which neatly encapsulates the short-circuiting of reality that Baudrillard describes. Robotic cockroaches and mules and cheetahs and snakes and fish and dragonflies already exist; once the bees are gone, leaving Google’s micro-drone pollinators to service Monsanto’s genetically engineered plants, how long before humanoid robots will climb from the cinema screens to hunt us down in packs? At that point, the precession of simulacra will be nearing completion, and we will feel, too late, the murderous capacity of the image. 

But let’s not worry about it, for long before that day arrives, along comes Mew’s friend Wan, tottering on her stack heels, swinging her arm and bubbling, as always, with laughter. Wan ran away from home at twenty and ended up in Pat Pong, working in a khatoey bar where most, though not all, of the girls were boys. That was the bar’s selling point, and why it was called ‘GUESS’. Runaway Wan was adopted by the ladyboys, who liked her and showed her the ropes. So it was natural that she should borrow their mannerisms, and her persona become a salute to them. Those angular gestures rubbed off on her, the ironic hands, the gaily swinging arm – and she could be very gay, very funny, always pushing the joke, staccato laughter peppering her speech until it was almost incomprehensible. She had her hair dyed blonde, spiky like an anime character, with one side shaved, which grew back in her native black, giving her a two-tone, punkish look. A stud in the tongue and one in the nose, tattoos visible on her right arm and left shoulder, and she was good to go.

It was part of her job, and the standing joke, to keep the customers guessing. Sometimes she would shove tissue paper down her shorts to make a little bulge — a girl pretending to be a boy pretending to be a girl. It’s positively Shakespearean. More to the point, essentially Baudrillardian: the simulation of a simulation. Wan was the original the ladyboys were copying. When she copied their copy and paid homage to their homage, she became, not a fake, but a fake fake. 

“It plays at being an appearance: it is of the order of sorcery.” 

And always a great conversation starter!

A few years ago, I heard that one of the big fashion houses, unable to beat the incessant wave of rip-offs, deciding to compete with them and bringing out a ‘fake fake’ line — that is, an authentically branded article posing as a fake, cutting corners to create a cheaper product. 

I don’t know if that caught on. But Wan did – she was extremely popular; fake fake with a strap-on, of the third order of simulacra of Nana and Pat Pong. 

Kite

Lion Rock is set on a rugged coastal hillside, facing the setting sun, the whole hillside like an amphitheatre for the nightly show. Up on the road is the bar shaped like a boat, guarded by geese, loud with reggae and roosters and the roar of improbable vehicles. Down a steep path, just about negotiable by motorbike, is the main clearing. Rows of old rubber trees shelter a dozen huts, two boxing rings, a training area, a simple shower and toilet block, and another jerry-built bar with a pool table. 

The third level is where I am, this jungled little valley coming down to the sea. Big tumbled rocks gnarled with tree-roots are stacked up at the ocean’s edge. At the edge of these is an old fisherman’s shack; branches overhanging the cliff, festooned with ropes and old floats. People come down here to fish. Tourists come down occasionally, during the season, to snorkel or kayak or just sit on the rocks. They don’t disturb me. My hut is a few dozen yards back from the ocean, back and up, since everything here is crazy steep. 

It’s hauntingly beautiful down here. Up at the top, from the deck of the the boat, you’re presented with the huge brimming bowl of the ocean, textured, furred, molten, bristled, glassed, covered with silvery tracks like snail’s trails… then, when you come down here, the horizon comes in close, pearl-stringed with the dazzling lights of squid-boats. The moon rises over the hill, and illumines the whole valley when it’s full, adorns it with the crescent of its horns when new. 

Here at the bottom of the hill, there’s a weird perspective. The ground falls away steeply to meet the sea, and somehow the sea seems to rise with equal steepness to the horizon. The illusion is of being in the nick of a deep V between land and water. At the angle, the join is marked by white water churning at and over the dam of rocks. At night a restless breeze comes off the ocean and skids up the slope; water and air in constant motion, and the land too in subtler ways. 

Over to the right you can see the lights of Kata Noi beach. There are fireworks many nights, twinkling through the trees seconds before the sound catches up. And yet this little pocket of jungle is complete, a living ecosystem, distinct in its identity, its sense of itself. It is what it is.

The rains are back, coming in from the South-West. I see the showers and storms approaching, a second horizon moving towards me across the bay. Three days of rain already. It leeches the energy out of the place. 

The boat leaks, water streaming down through its decks, rather than up through its hull, kind of an upside-down way for a boat to sink. All that comes up through the mud floor are streams of ants. In the bow is a raised stage with curved reed walls complete with wooden portholes; drums, amps and guitars, taped cables and dodgy plugboards. Somehow no one gets electrocuted, nothing shorts out. This is because Ai knows exactly where to position everything between the drips. At one stage he rigged up a complex system of funnels and hoses to gutter the water and escort it outside, but that went by the board when the new concrete bar got put in, a thing of crude design redeemed ever so slightly by the pattern of polished stones embedded along the surface. Behind the bar are two big coolers which have to be refreshed with ice every other day, and shelves of spirits for cocktails mixed and sold by the tattoo boys after they’ve closed their studio upstairs.

Down in the valley, the rain also stirs up the termites — or more properly carpenter-ants — which made a second attempt to move into my house. The first time was the first night I spent here. I woke up prickling all over, covered in tiny ants. When I put the light on I saw that the black highway streaming across my bed contained big black chewing machines as well, like tanks in a column of infantry.

Some nights you just have to admit you’re outnumbered and just sit up writing till dawn. 

May as well put some music on. 

I was patrolling a pachinko

Nude noodle model parlour

In the nefarious zone.

Hanging out with insects, 

Under ducting — 

The CIA was on the phone.

I spent about a month clearing the steep little valley where my hut sits between a rock and a huge old tree, a few yards from the sea. Slash and burn — more slash than burn, with all the rain we were getting. Thick, tangled vegetation, everything connected to everything else by the parasitic creepers and runners whose mission is to engulf the entire landscape. Jungle is tangle and jumble, filaments twining around everything from the ground to the tree-tops, big sheets of creepers hanging from the trees. When I moved in, there was nothing but the path with the steps Hoagy cut, and a few yards of space where the builders had stacked the bamboo. There was nowhere to go except down to the sea, or back up to the other huts.

It was a lot of work to strip jungle back to bare earth, but that’s what I wanted to do, to create some space. It was young jungle, and underneath I found evidence of previous clearings, charred wood and tree stumps. But for me it was all discovery — uncovering a different landscape of rocks, going down to the intermittent stream. Everything I’m looking at now was completely invisible under vegetation, even the twenty foot cliff overhanging the head of the valley. 

As I cut and cleared, I began to see that it could become a kind of garden, and that between gradients I could define horizontal paths between the rocks. I liked the look and smell of raked, opened soil. Butterflies seemed to like it too; as the clearing grew, more and more came — five or six different kinds, but most often the ones coloured like tigers, tawny orange, white and black, and the ones I love the most, black with a flash of gentian, and the white ones veined with an almost Wedgwood blue. Small chameleonic lizards were also attracted to my work, hopping up on rocks or leaves beside me, long-limbed and four-handed, regarding me dispassionately with swivelling eyes, waiting for me to disturb something edible.

Cutting is the fun part; the hard work is dragging the vegetation out so you can burn it, patiently raking and pulling and severing. Then going over the soil with a hoe or adze, prizing out roots and axing clumps of grass. It will grow back quickly, so the last thing is that every day you must walk the ground you want to stay clear. I firmed and brushed until the ground was smooth and bare to walk barefoot, threading to and between the rocks: a garden of forking paths. I keep them raked and swept — the rest I’ve allowed to grow back selectively. Dark ivy leaves cradle and embrace the rocks, instead of smothering them. I want it to be a place to walk, sit, meditate, trip. 

Sometimes I feel like Bob Arctor at the end of A Scanner Darkly, Philip Dick’s best novel in my opinion. His mind broken by the fictitious drug Substance D, he surrenders his shattered identity and is given a new one by the sinister rehab organisation, New Path. He is no longer Bob, no longer has a second name; now he is simply ‘Bruce’. He is put to work on the land, as his warden (dreadlocked Nueng) preaches at him about the benefits of living and working in nature. And it’s true, he finds himself calm at last, his mind empty but for mountain and sky and leaves and earth. 

There is something beautiful about working on the land. The closest I’ve come to it before was working on a farm in the summers when I was a student. Those were great days. Brown skin, second skin of harvest dust. Tired muscles, and a red moon as I drive to my girlfriend’s house. 

Thinking about that, I feel the ache and tug of the past. A long, long time ago now — another lifetime. Another person? 

So give me a new name, put a hoe in my hand and set me to work. 

The only thing that’s been holding me up has been the rain — not because it stops me working most of the time, but because it makes it impossible to burn anything, so I accumulate big backlogs of decaying vegetation. Then suddenly the wind dropped, the sea-swell stilled, and the season felt as if it was changing — but it was a false spring, and there was still rain most nights, sometimes heavy. 

Still, I’m getting it done. I light huge, smoking fires every time it dries out enough. On this side of the stream the ground is gently sloping, with nice flat rocks — on the other side it rises quickly to the foot of the cliff — which would make a beautiful climbing wall, if climbing’s your thing. 

I’m more into the horizontal, for now. Flat, gentle ground. Somewhere you can stand and look. A bamboo bed to sleep on, in a churning kaleidoscope of waves. 

Hoagy came down to have a look, reclining like a huge, blue-green lizard on a rock, and pronounced me a ‘weapon’. We made plans, a favourite occupation at Lion Rock: a roofed platform as a place for meditation, or maybe someone could run yoga classes looking out over the sea. That unobstructed view all the way to India. I go along with Hoagy’s excited ideas, but somehow I already know none of it will happen. And I don’t care. Down already has a different vibe from the main clearing, centred around the boxing rings. More peaceful, meditative; another level of Lion Rock.

∆ 

Kayla was here all day yesterday. She loves Lion Rock, and comes to hang out as much as possible. I am so happy to have found this place and that it’s something I can share with her. In turn, she helps make Lion Rock what it is. It’s somewhere she can be herself, where everybody knows and accepts her. That’s something she’s never had before. In fact she’s never had friends before — but she does now. For her, Lion Rock means inclusion and belonging. She feels at home in the loose community here, enjoys the animals, the music, the stories and all the crazy shit that happens. Whatever happens, she’s going to remember this place. Her first Bohemia. 

She turned seventeen a month or two ago. She never went to school, and, as I always tell her, however left out that makes her feel, it’s an advantage in some ways. Like everything, it depends how you look at it. It makes her more open, I’d say, connected with reality perhaps — Kayla always keeps it real. That’s why I like her so much. She has a fresh openness of character; she’s a page on which the good people around her now can inscribe something beautiful — about what men can be, I hope, if nothing else. Kayla is brave, and honest, and what more, really, can you ask of anyone? 

Kayla’s strange life-story means it’s a drag for her to answer a lot of questions, and this can make it difficult with new people at first. But she’s got to get used to that. Meanwhile, the core of Lion Rock knows her and accepts her completely. Nueng adores her; Hoagy high-fives her gleefully whenever their paths cross. Here she’s just another waif and stray; she’s what Lion Rock is for; she belongs here, I tell her, as much as anyone.

If she meets anyone who doesn’t know her story and asks her where she went to school or why she doesn’t speak Thai or anything like that, I tell her to to make something up. She can be who she wants. Don’t be ashamed of you mystery, I told her. Tell them you were raised in a forest by wolves, or whatever you like. 

She doesn’t have much confidence for such role-playing, but the other night there was a young Russian guy at the bar who started asking her questions.

Even a standard opener like “Where are you from?” triggers a sideways look at me.

I take the lead. “Kayla was raised in a forest by wolves.”

It has the desired effect. He goes quiet, and we change the subject. Then he wants to know where the forest was.

“I don’t know,” says Kayla. “The wolves didn’t say.”

Go girl!

“Well,” he says, “then what kind of forest was it?”

“Tropical,” says Kayla without hesitation, because after all she doesn’t know any other kind. 

“Really? A tropical forest with wolves? That is most unusual.”

Now she was stuck. 

“Google it,” I said.

“OK,” said the Russian. “I will.”

After he’d gone I said to Kayla, “We may have to rethink the wolves. It might have to be monkeys.”

“Shit,” she said. “Please not monkeys.”

“I don’t know,” I said. “Tigers? Leopards, maybe? Up to you. It’s your childhood.”

Tigers would have been a little too daring, perhaps. In the end she settled for Orang Utans, but she wasn’t happy about it. 

“I miss the wolves,” she said.

I’d got up late, and had done only a little light work around the hut, because Hoagy and I had stayed up the night before, talking, playing pool and doing lines of coke. I wasn’t expecting her, but when I got hungry I went up to the clearing and took a shower, then revved my bike up the ragged trail to the road. Kayla was in her usual place at the end of the bar, lying on her front and playing with her phone, with Chickadee, the possible chicken, sitting on her back. We couldn’t quite work out what she was. The kids had rescued her, a little black thing with enormous feet, from a cat, and now she lived at Lion Rock with all the other waifs and strays. 

I drove her into town to grab something to eat and buy a few things I needed, and then we headed back to the Rock. I asked her if she’d like to come down to the valley and set fire to stuff. Ooh yes, she said. She’s a bit of a closet pyromaniac, like me, and there was a lot of cut vegetation waiting to be burnt, which should be dry enough by now. We had fun building a fire and getting it started and tending it, sitting on rocks and talking in that comfortable way that has developed between us. Talking was one of her favourite and most important things, now. There were so many conversations she hadn’t had, though I suppose that probably goes for all of us, if we did but know it. 

We had a smoke and walked all of my paths, because they are still fresh and need the tramping of feet to harden them. Suddenly she exclaimed as a hole opened up under her bare foot and a centipede with bright orange-red legs and head came shooting out, heading at high speed down the slope, hotly pursued by one of my lizard friends with an iguana-like fringe around his jaw. We watched as he took his time crunching up the big insect. Those ones with startling red legs and headgear, Ai told me later, have an insanely painful bite: pain that makes you want to gnaw your own leg off like a fox caught in a snare, and even morphine doesn’t make any impression on it. 

Then the rain came in from the sea with thunder and lightning, so we sat on my verandah watching the torrents form and big earth-coloured stains take shape in the sea. As the storm passed over us a vertical bolt came down like a hammer on the hillside, close enough to set our senses reeling. We knew we were stuck for an hour or two, but we didn’t mind. I put some music on, and Kayla sat sketching as we talked and laughed about people and chickens and wolves. She even called herself by her assumed name at one point — the name she’d lived under for most of her childhood: I showed her how to roll a spliff, and she had a go, holding up the end-product as lumpy and saggy as a Christmas sock, laughing and saying, ‘Look! Kate’s first joint!’ 

Her father had made them choose new names. Her brother had gone for ‘Steve’; resolutely ordinary. Five-year-old Kayla wanted to be called ‘Kite’. It was a silly idea, she told me — what kind of name was that? She couldn’t remember where she’d got the idea; perhaps she’d come across a character with that name in book or something. But her dad wasn’t having it: far too conspicuous, he said. She could be Kate; Kate Michaels was suitably nondescript. Oh well, she was happy enough to keep her initial as a connection with who she’d been before. 

‘Kite,’ I said. ‘I like it! Kite — that’s so cool. You should keep it, it suits you.’

She sputtered a laugh. ‘But it’s a…’ and she mimed flying a kite, looking up. ‘A thing.’

‘A toy?’

‘Yes.’

‘Also a type of bird,’ I said. 

She didn’t know that. 

It suddenly got dark, and even though the rain wasn’t letting up we climbed up to the clearing and had a game of pool at the Jigaro bar. There was no one around. That’s what happens when it rains — people get stuck where they are, whether in their huts or up at the boat. Rain hammers on tin rooves so loud you have to shout to talk. Bead-curtains of rain hang from every eave and doorway. We got bored with pool and braved the rain again, just a few yards to the big boxing ring where Nueng and Ai had set up the music gear. I turned the power on, slightly nervous about electricity because everything was so wet. But Kite sat down at the keyboard and started messing around, finding a big dramatic sound and playing the white notes with unselfconscious enjoyment. I stood beside her and supplied bass notes and twiddled knobs, and together we created epic thunderstorm music, abstract and cinematic, with the rain hammering and the thunder rumbling.

After a while Johnnie Buffalo appeared out of the darkness, bare-chested with a towel over his head. Kite was sitting on a stool, listening to me sing ‘All Along the Watch Tower’, looking extremely happy with the way her Sunday was turning out. Today had turned into something special for her. Fire, rain, lightning, and weed, sketching and talk and barefoot paths and music, what could be better? I asked Johnnie to look up the chords to ‘Perfect Day’, the Lou Reed song, on his phone, and I stumbled through it, Johnnie and me belting it out the choruses together with gusto, a spontaneous serenade to the laughing Kite. That was going to be my name for her from now on, I had decided. Five-year-old Kayla would get her wish.

It’s such a perfect day 

I’m glad I spent it with you

Such a perfect day

You just keeping me hanging on

You just keep me hanging on

By this time it was already about nine thirty and Kite thought she should probably be getting back. But it was still raining, and Johnny pointed out that there were several empty huts where she could sleep if she wanted to stay over. It was a good idea — the hill road would be treacherous even if the rain stopped. So we hauled our asses up the trail to the roadside bar to find something to eat. We were in luck. There was fish curry and barbecued chicken, plenty left for the two of us. The rain stopped while we were eating, and we went all the way back down to my valley to drink tea, eat Oreos and call her mother to let her know she wasn’t coming home. Then I armed her with my head-lamp, a can of insect spray and a bottle of water, and Kite set off back up the path to her hut.

Deckard’s Unicorn

Rachel, by Paul X Johnson

REPLICANT EPIPHANIES 

“I have seen myself backward.” Philip K Dick, A Scanner Darkly 

In Hampton’s Fancher’s screen adaptation of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep by Philip K Dick, Rick Deckard is a ‘blade-runner’, a police assassin hired to hunt down rogue ‘replicants’ or androids. He is instructed to go to the Tyrell Corporation headquarters to  test their latest model, the Nexus 6. His task is to find out whether his equipment, the Voight-Kampff machine, still works on a state of the art replicant produced by a corporation whose brand tag is ‘More Human than Human’. Has the difference between android and human now narrowed to the point where it can no longer be detected? Can technology still distinguish between natural human and designed humanoid? 

At the huge, pyramid-shaped Tyrell Corporation building, Deckard is greeted by a poised, beautiful young woman and escorted into the presence of the CEO of the corporation, Dr Eldon Tyrell. The great man requests that Deckard run a control test on a human subject first. His assistant Rachael will oblige. 

The Voight-Kampff test consists of a series of questions designed to elicit an emotional response. Rather like a lie-detector, the machine correlates questions and answers to involuntary physiological responses, in this case by detecting micro-movements of muscles around the eye, and measuring capillary dilation, fluctuation of the pupil and dilation of the iris. 

The test on Rachael takes much longer than usual, suggested by the use of montage. At the end of it, when Deckard finally switches off the machine, Tyrell immediately asks him for his conclusion, and the two men proceed to discuss Rachael’s identity in front of her, with brutal insensitivity to her feelings. She has been revealed – if the machine still works – to be a replicant. This revelation is devastating to Rachael, who thinks she is a real person, with her own memories and dreams. 

Deckard moves the adhesive discs from her cheeks and switches off his beam. 

DECKARD: Lights please. 

The lights come on. 

TYRELL: Well? 

DECKARD: If she is, the machine works. 

TYRELL: The machine works. She is. 

Rachael sits very still. Except her eyes — they go to Tyrell and hang on. He stares back at her as he speaks. 

TYRELL: How many questions did it take? 

DECKARD: Thirteen. 

Rachael sits rigidly in her chair, as the ground crumbles around her, her big mermaid eyes locked with Tyrell. His voice is quiet and strong, mesmerising. She’s hanging by a thread. 

Deckard watches with a bad taste in his mouth. 

DECKARD: She didn’t know? 

TYRELL: Memory implant. She was programmed. But I think she has transcended her conditioning. I think she was beginning to suspect. 

Rachael nods fixedly. Careful not to let go her grasp. 

TYRELL: How many questions does it usually take, Mr. Deckard? 

DECKARD: Five, maybe six. 

Slowly, carefully, Tyrell unlocks his gaze from Rachael and turns towards Deckard, who is starting to put away his equipment. Rachael sits there pale and expressionless, her feet flat on the floor; alone is the word. 

After seven months of script development (prolonged by ongoing industrial action at the studio) the relationship between Hampton Fancher and director Ridley Scott, two brilliant but sometimes difficult men, had deteriorated to the point where the writer walked off the project. At that point Scott called in David Peoples, a screen-writer with a long pedigree, to complete the changes he still thought necessary. 

Peoples found the script quite brilliant, and retained most of it as it stood. The changes he did make are all the more interesting because they are relatively few. They enable us to see the difference between a brilliant newcomer and an experienced professional in the field. 

Sometimes Peoples will add a line or two of dialogue, such as the additional question in the Voight-Kampff test undergone by the replicant Leon in the opening scene.

HOLDEN: Describe, in single words, only the good things that come into your mind about: your mother. 

The response, fully developed only in the shooting script, is perfect: 

LEON: My mother? Let me tell you about my mother. 

Explosive gun-shots, deafening in the confined space, confuse us for a moment, and Holden is already reeling backwards in his chair before the viewer realises what has happened. Now Leon stands, and puts another bullet in him. 

A number of Peoples’ changes consist of breaking up longer scenes into shorter ones and interleaving them to delay the pay-off. Rachael’s Voight-Kampff test is a case in point. As brilliantly as Fancher evokes Rachael’s sensations as she learns that she is not a real human, but rather a designed commercial product, he does it novelistically, mainly through narration. For Peoples that won’t do, dramatically. For one thing, the impact of the revelation is entirely internal, conveyed through Fancher’s prose. It reads beautifully, but the emotional impact needs to be externalised somehow, or go to waste. Secondly, this moment, the intense pathos of the replicant’s epiphany, is just too important to let rise and fall in a single scene. It must be savoured a little longer, dramatised, made more playable. 

Sean Young in Blade Runner

In his redraft Peoples has Tyrell ask Rachael to leave the room at the end of the test, before anything more is said. Looking somewhat offended, she wordlessly complies, the rhythm of her high heels on the floor loud in the silence. Now the creator and the natural enemy of this beautiful golem will discuss her in private, the combination of her hurt expression as she leaves and Peoples’ crisp, rich dialogue conveying the pathos of her situation without yet revealing her own response. 

DECKARD: She really doesn’t know?

TYRELL: She’s beginning to suspect, I think.

DECKARD: Suspect! How can she not know she is?

TYRELL: Well, we began to notice in them a strange obsession. 

Tyrell is pacing now, lecturing. 

This obsession, he goes on to explain, is with memories as the source of identity. But replicants (as we have already learned) have a life-span of only four years, so that they do not have time to develop mature emotional responses to their situation. 

TYRELL: After all, they are emotionally inexperienced, with only a few years to store up the experiences which you and I take for granted. If we gift them with a past… we create a cushion or pillow for their emotions… and we can control them better. […] In the case of Rachael, I simply copied and regenerated cells from the brain of my sixteen-year-old niece. Rachael remembers what my little niece remembers. 

As Deckard notes, we have come a long way from Dr Frankenstein. 

Memory implantation and erasure is a motif in Philip K Dick’s science fiction, associated with a powerful theme of identity – and the breakdown of identity – throughout his work. The theme finds its most powerful expression in A Scanner Darkly. It is pervasive in the novel from which Fancher distilled his original ‘Dangerous Days’ screenplay which eventually became Blade Runner

Dick was fascinated by parahumanism and as such stands in a long line of artists who have developed the theme – and not just from Frankenstein onwards, either: as that novel’s alternative title, The New Prometheus, indicates, science fictional examples are a modern take on an archetype with deep roots – not forgetting the golem legends of the Jewish Kabbalah, of course. In fact the latter provide a more consistent line of descent, because then all the examples are of humans creating humans, or parahumans. The older story of Prometheus is a creation story, not a golem story. A Titan is a god, though a survivor of a defeated generation, and it is he who creates humanity. The interest of the Prometheus story to my mind is the fact that the gods themselves – in the form of their king, Zeus – oppose the creation of humanity and fear the species’ potential to one day overthrow them. Zeus eventually relaxes when he decides that humans will inevitably destroy each other first. 

The scope of Dick’s original vision is broader in the novel than Fancher can include in his screenplay. There is a state religion, a whole culture built around the simulation of animals, and the climactic development in the plot is when Deckard comes to realise that he isn’t just pursuing a handful of rogue androids: that in fact the city has been completely infiltrated by replicants, who have not just infested but duplicated its institutions. There is a police department and a replicant police department, a City Hall and a replicant City Hall, and so on. Dick’s vision, then, is of an exploding parahuman dimension in which there are duplicates and simulations of everything, institutional structures as well as individual humans. Fancher’s script has to cut most of this material while trying to leave enough to make this dizzying sense of replication continue in the mind of the viewer. 

What he does, with a novelist’s instinct, is hang the script on the archetypal love story. This is the genius of Fancher’s screenplay; the original novel has a much lighter archetypal anchor, and drifts badly as a result. Fancher reaches into the mess and pulls out the well-known plot in a beautiful new form. Two lovers yearn to be together but cannot, usually for reasons of who they are, and usually enforced by a dark, unrelenting father or patriarchal figure. One of them is from the wrong class, or the wrong family, or is poor, or a slave. 

Or she’s on your list of androids to kill.

She is not even technically human. 

The deep theme of this archetype is always identity. If the love story doesn’t have this theme, it lacks archetypal power. Our multiplying identity issues must be resolved. You cannot expect to find true love, to paraphrase Christopher Booker in The Seven Basic Plots, if you don’t know who you are. 

So in Blade Runner

She doesn’t know who she is. Still refuses to believe it. She comes to Deckard’s apartment to show him a photograph of herself as a little girl, with her mother. (It’s Peoples who is threading this ‘mother’ leitmotif throughout the screenplay.) And Deckard, wearily, proves to her that her life-story is not her own and she is therefore not real, by quoting examples of her intimate childhood memories to her in a poignant passage of dialogue, ending with another little chime on the bell of the mother. 

DECKARD: Remember that bush outside your window with the spider in it? 

Rachael looks up at him. 

DECKARD: Green body, orange legs… you watched her build a web all summer. 

RACHAEL: Yes.

Her voice is getting very small. 

DECKARD: One day there was an egg in the web. 

Rachel nods faintly. 

RACHAEL: After a while, the egg hatched and hundreds of baby spiders came out and ate her. That made quite an impression on me, Mr Deckard. 

DECKARD You still don’t get it? Implants. They’re not your memories, they’re Tyrell’s sixteen-year-old niece’s. 

Rachael doesn’t say anything, she can’t. 

DECKARD He’s very proud of them. He ran them on a scanner for me. 

Rachael just stares at him, stunned and barely holding on. 

And Deckard lets her turn and run. Her disillusionment is not his problem. He’s already done her a favour by not killing her. She’s not even human, after all: a replicant. A golem. A ‘relational object’. 

So now she knows. She’s reached her anagnorisis. She’s staggering under it, clinging to an old photograph, knowing none of it is real. The plot now must proceed by steps to the point where it is finally proved to Deckard, ultimately by the same means, that he too has, shall we say, identity issues.  

∆ 

As do I.

And as do you. 

The difference between life and story is that the awakening doesn’t happen all at once. With me it took many years. The Western middle classes, I know now, are the most deluded, deceived and self-deceiving people in the world, and I’m talking about myself as much as anyone.

The deceived and the self-deceived: tamagotchi and nomenklatura, to borrow somebody else’s mixed metaphor. The nomenklatura are people with their feet on the ladder, people with position or career and something to lose. These people may sense there’s something very wrong with the picture they have of the world, but the picture works for them and they aren’t going to talk about it, and won’t let you either if they can stop you. Their ignorance is a choice. 

Everyone else is tamagotchi. Tamagotchi have no independent existence: they allow themselves to be fed, wound up, put to sleep, woken up, or killed off. I prefer to think of them as Eloi, as in H G Wells’ The Time Machine. It’s not their fault; they’re not so much ‘ignorant’ as innocent, nescient. 

And then there’s a third group, much smaller, of people who are consciously aware to varying degrees, capable of facing reality, but aware that first you have to find it. The reality principle is a motive force, not a resting state. A sense of reality is not among the innate qualities gifted to humans from birth; our detachment from reality, or from ‘base-reality’ as the simulation theorists have taken to calling it, is assuming mythic proportions. 

This is where Bohemia comes into existence, an idea coeval with the industrial encroachment of the machine; the desire to remove oneself from a mechanistic society, somewhere you can embrace life, death and truth, the human condition in all its fullness. So go and live with the gypsies, make art and make love, suck up all that good opium and absinthe, and the smiles of those pretty, cheerful grisettes. But whereas the bohemianism of Baudelaire and Byron was viscerally real, a reaction to the world, what I got sucked into a century and half later, the mass-produced post-war version of Bohemianism which called itself the Counterculture or the Hippie movement or whatever, was a complicated and impure phenomenon. Of course it had its own organic impulse; a reaction against the world that had destroyed so much of itself in the war had to be expected; but these movements can be steered, by infiltration and mass media, not to mention the millions of doses of LSD handed out for free by merry pranksters at rock festivals and ‘acid tests’. 

The ‘Counterculture’ wasn’t the first major social engineering operation — the trivialised, materialistic ‘consumer society’ that the Counterculture despised had itself been sold to the public in a rapid and co-ordinated campaign in the early 1930s, heavily centred around mega-corporations like General Electric and RCA which had been brought into being to monopolise and control the development of the new electrical technologies. I despised my parents’ generation for buying into the consumer culture, while myself buying into the central plan for my generation.

The generation born in the post-war years might have been perceived as a potential threat to a parasitic elite sustained by the war-system we live under. Numerous, healthy, prosperous, educated, we might have become a problem to The Problem if we’d kept our heads. So we had to be diverted. And that was the counterculture, controlled opposition from the start, with its pantheon of imposters and charismatic spooks, its impersonators and sexy surrogates, its ‘life-time actors’ and ‘agents in tie-dye’ — they did for us with chemistry and weaponised anthropology, like they’re doing for our children with nano-tech and wavelengths…

You see, ‘peace and love’ was never exactly what was going on… there was a huge mobilisation of beat-poets and social theorists, chemists and anthropologists, freak-dancers and Young Turks, sound-engineers and disc-jockeys, TV-presenters and underground magazines and artists and hair-dressers and serial-killers… The counterculture was not blowback, argues author and researcher Jan Irvin of Gnostic Media, building on the ground-breaking work of the late lamented Dave McGowan in his books Weird Scenes Inside the Canyon, Programmed to Killand others – it was the engineered vehicle through which ‘entheogenic’ and ‘psychedelic’ drugs (new names for psychotogenics or psychotomimetics – i.e., substances which induce or mimic the effects of psychosis) were to enter society, along with a new sexual paradigm to destroy the family, and a new aesthetic to debase the culture through an ‘archaic revival’ and new age mysticism.

Irvin is an ethno-mycologist, whose life took a different turn when, in researching the work of John Allegro, the Dead Sea Scrolls scholar whom Irvin also publishes, he stumbled across documents which revealed beyond any doubt that the banker and journalist Gordon Wasson was working for the CIA when he undertook his heavily publicised trip to Mexico to ‘discover’ the magic mushroom in 1957; Henry Luce’s Life magazine featured the adventure as its cover story, ‘Seeking the Magic Mushroom’, May 13, 1957. Wasson, in fact, was engaged in Sub-project 58 of MK-ULTRA. 

This was a significant discovery: it confirmed with documentary evidence what McGowan already suspected: that MK-ULTRA was not just a project to create robotic killers, couriers and sex slaves, but something much bigger: a social engineering project on a wide scale, a project to redesign society, or at least to ‘unfreeze’ its structures to a degree that would permit specific reshaping. Thus the facts Irvin has unearthed force us to re-evaluate not just our concepts of government, society and culture, but, in cases like mine, even our stories about ourselves.

Irvin’s research has continued, and brought interesting results at the architectural level of MK-ULTRA, by mapping connections around institutions such as the Esalen Institute in Big Sur, California, the Bohemian Grove and its sister institution the Century Club in London, and key players like Edward Bernays and Marshall McLuhan. Right in the middle of that psycho-social connectome we find none other than the author Aldous Huxley, provoking a legitimate question as to whether Huxley might have been one of the main architects of the enormous social engineering project called MK-ULTRA. 

It makes sense. Huxley comes from the famous Darwin-Wedgwood-Huxley dynasty, closely associated with evolutionary science, population control and eugenics. His brother Julian was an evolutionary biologist, eugenicist and internationalist and one of the founders of the United Nations. Brave New World is presented by the author as a prescient warning, the prophecy of a future whose anti-humanism will be allayed, for its privileged castes, by consumerism, hedonism, bio-engineering and conditioning in a centralised, technological slave-system. In view of Jan Irvin’s MK-ULTRA revelations, we should understand that in his novel we are not looking at prescience, necessarily: unless you can call a blueprint the architect’s amazing premonition of the building.

As Irvin says, drugs were the counter-culture; none of it would have happened without the LSD; we already knew that Timothy Leary was a CIA asset; more shockingly, Irvin now finds evidence suggesting that Ken Kesey and Allen Ginsberg, as well, were ‘agents in tie-dye’, as he calls them. The Doors and Frank Zappa and ‘Papa’ John Phillips and Dave Crosby and all the leaders of the West coast hippy movement seem to have been placements, virtually all of them from military families, parachuted into LA along with all the logistical support they needed. There are varying degrees of certainty about the performers and musicians who gravitated towards Laurel Canyon; and different levels of participation, witting and unwitting agents and so on. We know that the social, commercial and technological contexts (the venues and contracts and session musicians and dance troupes and FM radio and strobe lights and sound systems) sprang up around the new music with remarkable rapidity, as if enabled by hidden influence. And we know that the scene was riddled with weird crime and cult activity, Charlie Manson’s Family et al, and also a strange military presence, not just in the family backgrounds of the key players, but physically in the form of Lookout Mountain Air Force Base, which housed state-of-the-art film studios with lavish production facilities. The swirling creative mess of the counter-culture was not simply seeding itself here but being subjected to, shall we say, shaping and steerage as its growth and impact were accelerated and amplified by mass media. And as Irvin says, it was all about the drugs.

Why? To produce dissociation and atomisation. To ruin the anti-war movement. To isolate the young. To decommission many of the potential change-agents of my generation. Legions of pied pipers were deployed, with the soundtrack, the attitude, the look and the vibe, to lure the children away from the village. And I was one them. 

So, then: I am tamagotchi. I am eloi. It turns out I never rebelled, as I thought I had, but enthusiastically followed instructions – or ‘suggestions’, which might be the more appropriate term.

All they had to do was show me a ‘forbidden’ path, and I was gone.

And there’s the epiphany. It’s not easy to live with. The knowledge itself is a little psychotogenic, you might say. Through drugs and music, the project altered my outlook and affected my life, diverting much of my effectiveness as a force for good. Turned me, though not all at once, through pseudo-psychosis and dependency, into a force for disintegration.

As Dick puts it in A Scanner Darkly

Substance D is for Dumbness, Despair and Desertion – desertion of you from your friends, your friends from you, everyone from everyone. Isolation and loneliness… and D is finally Death. Slow death from the head down.

Part of the fascination of Phillip K Dick, in retrospect, is the way he intuited the realities of his own time better than anyone else until much later. His most interesting figurations turn out to be real, a fact of which we are becoming increasingly aware: real, already, in the fifties and sixties, when the mind control projects of MK-ULTRA were beginning to produce. Memory erasure. Memory insertion. Screen memories. With the technology that existed now, you could make anyone remember anything. Hell, you could make a man remember walking on the moon. 

How did he know? What little Bluebird sang to the Horse-lover? How did Mr Fat see into the heart of the Artichoke? 

Professor Darrell Hamamoto makes the point that as a child Dick lived in Berkeley and traveled to San Francisco every week to attend weekly therapy sessions at the Langley-Porter clinic, an elite extension of UC Berkeley Medical School and the same clinic attended by Allen Ginsberg. 

‘Probably an early example of what later became known as the indigo children. [Dick] was a genius as a child and he was being tested very early on for possible intelligence work, just as people with extraordinary athletic ability like Eldrick (‘Tiger’) Woods was being tested very early on through his father Earl Woods, whom we know was in the intelligence area.” 

So when you begin to understand that what came out about the CIA’s MK-ULTRA project in congressional inquiries in the 70s was just the tiny tip of a gargantuan iceberg, that the super-soldiers and sex-slaves and torture-proof couriers were just its most spectacular victims, and that the scope of the project was a wholesale reconfiguration of society, the re-engineering of values, norms and relationships… and that you too were an experimental subject, and still are…

When you begin to get an inkling of how everything was weaponised, and woven into webs to snare your psyche — music, art, novels, psychology, anthropology, chemistry, entertainment, celebrity, everything — 

When it dawns on you how you were gamed, moulded, seduced and traduced by artists of the lie and guides to nowhere… That even your ‘rebellions’ were predicted and promoted, the sub-project of a sub-project of a sub-project…

When you understand how you were turned into a pretty little golem, an innocent Eloi, a zoned out zombie-child at the coming-out party of the Hellfire clubs… When you finally see how the culture has been engineered, and through it, you…

And when you begin to wonder who designed your mind, who scratched the aleph on your forehead and can erase it too…

Then you experience it, too; your replicant epiphany. 

Human beings are powerful. Human beings are dangerous: intelligent, resourceful, violent. Even if you have them in chains, you must fear their ingenuity. You can subdue them by force for a time, but you can’t do it forever. For that, you have to control their minds.

Natural humans are born from their culture. The culture is the mother. It evolved naturally in a particular race or people in a particular time and place, developed over the centuries as a collective response to nature and situation and climate and history and other species and neighbouring societies. And somehow, out of that random sorting of recombinant strands, randomly, organically, miraculously, came you. 

Didn’t you? 

What will you do? When you understand that you, too, were mass-produced? Designed, and limited by design.

You’ve got a choice. You can sit rigidly in your chair while the floor crumbles around you. Or you can stare for a moment at the tinfoil unicorn in your hand, nod your head, and step into the elevator where a beautiful woman of your own kind is waiting for you. 

Or you can look up at your interrogator and say:

Leon illustration by Brian James

My mother? Let me tell you about my mother. 

Familiar Games

Photo by Sam Sherratt

I lived for six years in Amsterdam. Arriving there several weeks before starting my new job, I walked around the city and hung out in the park and the coffeeshops. The first three conversations I had with strangers all went the same way. They’d ask me what I thought of the place so far, and I’d say great, really chilled, I liked it; and then they’d give me the dark warning. It would go something like this:

‘Well, just be careful. You know, Amsterdam is a place where you can get anything you want. And I mean, anything you want. So – be careful.’

One girl, with junkie’s skin, said to me, ‘It can be a very cold place, you know.’

And that’s true. Physically, it’s true – this is Northern Europe, after all, despite the balconies on every apartment and the flocks of parakeets in Vondel Park. Winters can drag on. It’s windy, prone to downpours and storms which bring down trees and tram-cables. But everything’s always working by morning – does any city have such legions of workers?

If you’re living below sea-level on a sandy swamp, it pays, I suppose, to make sure you’re not caught short-handed.

But the girl was talking about a deeper coldness – something in the Dutch character, perhaps. And for sure, they don’t like freeloaders. It’s ‘pump or drown’. Do what you want otherwise, but take your turn at the pump. And there’s a historical coldness, a deep numbness left over from what happened here seventy or so years ago. Everyone knows about Ann Frank, of course. But the coldest place in the city has to be Nieuwmarkt, which was turned into a holding-pen for the mass deportations to concentration camps in Germany and Poland during the occupation. 

Growing up in England, ‘the war’ seemed like a distant myth. Here, you’re a little closer to it. 

What is the particular horror of the historical construct we call Nazism? What are the connotations which make that word the definition of evil?

It’s an easy list to begin, but a hard one to end. Race supremacy, eugenics and genocide. The ‘war machine’. The concentration camps; the stacks of emaciated dead; the barely animated skeletons of the survivors; the industrialisation of death; the horrors of human slavery. The serial numbers tattooed on people’s arms. People used as things – kill the defective, work the rest to death. That’s what they deserve: they are cattle; beasts of burden; dumb animals.

And the most hideous thing of all, perhaps, that seems to lie curled up like some horrible parasite in the bowels of the monster, the thing that seals our recognition of the Nazi entity as the ultimate evil: the activities of Nazi scientists in the camps, such as Dr Josef Mengele, the ‘Angel of Death’ of Auschwitz. Human experimentation. Pressure chambers and freeze-tanks. Torture and vivisection. Trauma-based mind-control. Technology and psychology repurposed to the creation of hell on earth. 

Add all of this together and you get something like the connotations of the word ‘Nazi’. A powerful epithet – a word as powerful in our age as ‘Satan’ was in others.

I had an interesting discussion with one of my Dutch students about the story of Ann Frank. I had an idea – not original, but I can’t remember where I came across it – that her diary could serve as an illustration of the Theatre of the Absurd. The typical situation of an absurdist play such as Waiting for Godot or Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead shows us characters trapped in a world where the horizon of significance has gone haywire – nothing makes sense any more: it’s the same world, but somehow gutted of meaning, structure or consistency. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are summoned into a world of inscrutable intrigues, halfway through a story they have no chance of understanding (the story of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, by William Shakespeare). These are minor characters who suddenly find themselves centre-stage, with no memory or past beyond the little the playwright gave them for their limited roles. They literally do not know who they are, and get confused about which name belongs to whom. They are adrift on a bare stage in a world in which the laws of physics and probability can no longer be relied upon for consistency. They are powerless in ways that had not been imagined, in a world which is nightmarish because nonsensical. In these plays the characters are directionless, forced to wait endlessly on events or more powerful characters, and they fill the time with familiar games, rituals and rivalries, formulas to distract themselves from the suspense – and the contradictions – of their intolerable situation.

This, to my mind, obliquely sums up the position of Ann Frank and her family in their secret room, filling their days with routines while the world outside goes hideously mad. But Madeleine, my student, found this a hard connection to make, though she struggled to articulate why. Was it the equation between the Franks and the fictitious clowns in these stage-plays? Did this undermine the essential nobility or heroism which imbued Madeleine’s conception of Ann’s family? Or was it the word absurd, when she wanted the word tragic? I can’t say for sure, and I don’t think she really knew. I felt that she was simply not, as an Amsterdamer, able to take the step back from events necessary to compare their pattern to an essentially comedic theatrical genre. There was something about it which seemed sacrilegious to her.

As a child, my favourite toy was GI Joe, only in England he was called Action Man. I had four of them. They had implausible super-hero bodies, scars on their cheeks, and no genitals. No raping for them, just killing. One wore the German SS uniform, and had, of course, blonde hair and blue eyes. The hair was painted on. Please, these weren’t dolls, they were ‘action figures’. I never tucked them up in bed, only invented new ways for them to kill each other.

Raised from childhood by Hollywood and Mattel, we are fascinated by the human drama of war, whether hooked on its excitement, its technology, its cruelty, its sacrifice – and we don’t look much deeper into the topic. We tend to stop at the front line. We don’t ask what war is, or why it happens. We assume that wars ‘break out’, that they are accidental, random events, like hurricanes. When the wars involve ‘us’, and we only really hear or care about the ones that do, then they are Overcoming the Monster stories, good versus evil.

It takes a long time to begin to see that things might be otherwise, particularly in the case of the Second World War. For my parents’ generation, there was and is no question: this was the good war – no matter what might be said about other conflicts in history, this really was the archetypal struggle against evil. Death in this war was not waste. Hitler was a madman and a monster, and his madness and monstrousness somehow enslaved the entire German people, who, because of their susceptibility to this madness, have to accept some measure of collective guilt for what happened; and what happened could never happen here. 

No one notices the implicit racialism of this pseudo-explanation.

Occasionally, lip-service is paid to the idea that in theory it could happen here; that what happened to the Germans could happen anywhere. Whether those who acknowledge this really mean it is another question. It may be seen as theoretically possible at some unspecified point in the future — but they don’t mean that it could happen here almost overnight, as it did in Germany. In our normalcy bias, we cannot imagine such a transformation, any more than ordinary Germans could, during the Weimar republic. Oh, no – if it happened in the West, we would see it coming this time, and stop it before it got too late.

Before Amsterdam, I’d been as wrapped up in my own life as everyone else. I hadn’t fulfilled any of my ambitions; all I’d achieved was to stir up a few dramas around my insignificant existence. In fact I’d developed something of an addiction or fetish for story, which grew perhaps out of my literary obsessions. A horrible thing to say, when we’re talking about events which hurt people – but all through the protracted and painful process of separation and eventual divorce, I got through by consoling myself with the fact that at least something was happening at last. I think it was the only way I could reassure myself that I was still alive. Walking out of my marriage for the second time, I resolved to get out of the country and try to start again. Amsterdam was perfect — close enough to be visited by my kids, who were teenagers now and would like coming here. I still had some direction, some adventure and ambition in me, to carry me into a new millennium.

Then two airliners waltzed out of the sky and melted like blowtorch flames through the steel and concrete facades of two huge buildings, leaving cartoon cut-outs of themselves down to the wing-tips. In the fires that resulted, the steel frames of the buildings melted to glowing lava in less time than it takes to defrost a turkey, whereupon the buildings exploded and collapsed symmetrically into their own footprints at near free-fall speed, leaving hardly a rubble pile, as concrete was pulverised into huge pyroclastic clouds boiling through streets and high up into the sky.

Later that day a third steel-framed building spontaneously collapsed with a smooth, demure curtsey all the way to the ground. The crime scene was immediately dismantled by the authorities and the remaining steel shipped out of the country before it could be examined. The fires under the rubble, impervious to water, burned for months. The dust was full of tiny spherules of iron: by-products not of the mere melting of steel but of its evaporation. The planes – like the others flown into the Pentagon and into the ground at Shanksville Pennsylvania – were never found. They simply ceased to exist.

There was no criminal investigation into the biggest mass-murder in US history. The authorities immediately knew everything that had happened, and nothing remained to be found out, so any hearings into the event were resisted tooth and nail by the executive.

In response to the attack, a series of wars were launched by the US – or rather, a state of permanent war was declared along with a state of emergency, annually renewed. The US Constitution was demonised and its dismantling began. Hideous and extensive torture programmes were openly inaugurated. The US government suspended habeas corpus, appropriated the right to kill, torture or detain indefinitely any American citizen (any human being, in fact) without trial or even disclosure, anywhere on the planet. Concentration camps were built or renovated all over the United States under the auspices of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Police forces were progressively militarised. Every department of the government armed itself to the teeth; billions of rounds of ammunition were bought up. Armed drones patrolled domestic airspace, linked in to huge surveillance systems.

Denial is a strong capability of the human mind, socially evolved for its survival value. For example, at the end of the war in Germany, most people denied knowing about the existence of death camps. But they must have known of the concentration camps within which the extermination programmes were hidden. German people must, surely, have been aware of the civilian labour programmes, the loss of legal protections such as habeas corpus, the right to a trial. They must have observed the incremental passage of enabling acts for a police state with growing concern. Why didn’t they resist before it was too late? we ask, with comfortable hindsight. Why didn’t people speak out?

Some did, of course. And what happened to them? The same as would have happened under Stalin or Mao — they were beaten up, tortured or killed by private armies of brown-shirted thugs, or arrested and taken to labour camps, where they were tattooed with IBM serial numbers and worked to death for I G Farben. Or they were mown down on the edge of pits they themselves had dug. Or they were tortured or experimented on, lost in a world beyond the protection of laws.

Those who survived National Socialism in Germany were not, one must assume, its most outspoken critics. Those who stayed out of the camps would by definition be those who didn’t like talking about, or even knowing about, concentration camps and things of that nature. As always, not knowing is a survival strategy — and those who survived the regime are, I suppose, statistically more likely to be the ones who had mastered the art of not knowing.

In a Mafia neighbourhood, there are things you train yourself not to notice. Blindness has survival value, when the sighted begin to disappear into the prisons.

Like Winston Smith, I play a little chess. Amsterdam is a real chess town; practically every café and coffeehouse has a set or two. My best friend and I would come out of school many evenings (we were teachers at the international school) and settle down in a warm coffeeshop for a couple of spliffs and a game or three of increasingly inspired but amnesiac chess.

There’s a place, Café Schaak, just off Leidseplein, where people play cards, backgammon or chess. That’s all that happens in there – drinks and games. Most days the clientele consists entirely of men, mostly Turkish. Sometimes I take my oft-times dinner companion, the beautiful Katarina Albertova, to Café Schaak, just to give everybody a treat.

Katarina learned chess from her grandfather, and she’s better than I am although she’s half my age. She’s a Russian Uzbek, with an Asiatic width to her cheekbones, which like her other bones are among the finest on the planet, in my humble opinion. When she plays chess, she sits completely motionless from the beginning of the game to the end, with her legs crossed, her back straight, thumb under her chin and her right index finger measuring the epic curve of her cheekbone. She moves her pieces always with her left hand – the right index finger stays where it is. Her body doesn’t move.

Me and Katarina, it’s going nowhere – it’s just a game. Absurd, really. She is saving herself for the man she marries, which is obviously not going to be me. She lived with her grandparents in Samarcand until she was twenty-two. She was twenty-three before she tried wine. I tell people that she was raised by fairies in the middle of a forest, and sometimes they seem, momentarily, to believe me.

When I say she is half my age, I mean that she is exactly half my age, and this is in fact the whole reason I know Katarina. In the couple of years approaching my fiftieth birthday, I was involved in a deep affair with a woman which violently hit the buffers a few months before my birthday. My girlfriend had talked about organising a huge party for my fiftieth — she had a talent for that kind of thing. But that Christmas, I was hurled onto the rocks by a horrible sequence of events: an accidental pregnancy, the death of the baby, and a vicious break-up. I was still in a bad, low place as my birthday approached, and I said to my friend Natalie that the only way I thought I could get through the evil day was if I had a date with a woman half my age. She told me about a waitress at a Belgian restaurant she and her husband frequented — she was Russian, had supermodel looks, and was exactly twenty-five years old.

I took her to a nice restaurant. She was exactly what was required. We meet every couple of weeks. She likes to go out, and I like the arm-candy. It’s a game, like chess, a way to pass the time. Adrift on a bare stage, where the laws of physics and probability can no longer be relied upon for consistency, we are powerless in ways that had not been imagined. We find ourselves awake in a world which is nightmarish because nonsensical. Directionless, we are forced to wait helplessly on events, filling our time with rituals and rivalries, formulas to distract ourselves from the suspense — and the contradictions — of our situation. Like Ann and her family in their secret room, we fill our days with familiar games, hanging on to our sanity while the world outside goes mad.

HANUMAN

.

I found the place by accident, like everybody does. I’d stayed in Phuket longer than planned, to keep an eye on Apsara’s kids while she finished up in Bangkok and got ready to move down here. I was living in a simple holiday bungalow and had rented another one for them. It was around the beginning of November — late afternoon of a beautiful day, just coming into high season. I headed up into the hills on my motorbike, and stopped at Karon Viewpoint to take photographs. Then I coasted down a side road, a long twisting descent through forest, with amazing views westward out over the sea. I took more photographs along the way. A row of six or seven spirit houses. A forest shrine. The road halved by a fallen rock. And then a strange structure, an open wooden framework shaped like a ship, with a bow section with portholes, a deck and a mast with a crow’s nest. Sparks were flying and falling as a couple of men worked with a welding iron at the bow end, silhouetted against the sky. A hundred yards further on there was the steep driveway to a restaurant, with a great view out over the bay. After that, a couple of informal dwellings, and then the road petered out into a mud track. So I turned and went back to the boat and looked around inside.

Rastafarian colours, green, gold, red, black. Rough wood and old statues. Buddha heads. Bob Marley and marijuana leaves. Downstairs, dozens of leather belts, bags and even jackets hung from the ceiling. Beautiful chickens with strong legs and vivid plumage wandered around. A depressed monkey on a leash twitched and stared. 

I bought a belt from a slender young Thai with a beautiful Afro. This, I would find out later, was Ai, second in command on this crazy boat stranded on the jungled hillside. He told me the place was called ‘Lion Rock’. 

Up the precarious stairs, still without hand-rails, there was a spacious deck, with a crow’s nest and another spiral staircase to a third level at the rear, like the poop deck on an old galleon. Supporting this, a more modern structure, a cabin with glass windows. 

The view out over the sea was spectacular: a great bowl of ocean bounded by a forested headland to the left, and over to the right, a tree-covered island where I could just make out a the shape of a single house near the rocky shore. Beyond that, the tourist beaches of Kata. 

Having discovered Lion Rock, I took to driving into the hills most days around sunset, bringing my laptop or a notebook. I would sit up on the top deck and write, or map out ideas on big pages. Now that I was cut adrift from teaching, I was spending my days writing hard, and by late afternoon needed to get out and get some air. While Lion Rock only attracted a trickle of people, those who found their way there were often worth passing the time of day with. Nueng, the patron, would build an enormous joint for three hundred baht if asked, or sometimes for free just to be hospitable. And the man is nothing if not hospitable. Khun Lirok, Master of Disaster, rastaman-geezer of this jungle road to nowhere. 

One evening the top deck was packed with heavily muscled and tattooed guys, most of them, apparently, soldiers or former soldiers, Australians and British. I chatted with one or two of them, and got talking to an Aussie called Clay, who turned out not to be military himself but a therapist who said he wanted to work with traumatised soldiers here. There were huts down the hill under the trees, where one such soldier had been living. The idea was to bring others here, to live in the forest, exercise, meditate and find some peace. And work with people like Clay to get their shit together. Something called the Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder Foundation was involved, and there was a film crew here to document the beginnings of the project. Clay was an adept in Neuro-Linguistic Programming and wanted to be involved — but he was frustrated: all the soldiers wanted to do, he said, was get wasted and go into town to find hookers. 

‘I can’t work with someone who smokes marijuana every day,’ he said.  

So Clay and the soldiers never got off the ground. Nor did the film, as far as I know; a trailer was released, but that’s as far as it got.

There was jamming at the Rock on Sunday nights, with some talented musicians turning up to play, and, sometimes, a Ukrainian girl who lit up flaming torches and danced around the deck to our music. I liked to join in on the djembe, and we all played faster when Anna spontaneously combusted like that. The musicians were the first people I got to know — Dieter, a brilliantly gifted saxophonist and flautist, his friend Philippe, a skeletal Frenchman who played gentle, melodic bass, and various Thais, guys like Samart, a talented percussionist; Chai, who played flamenco-style guitar; and Daeng, peerless on the didgeridoo. At times the music had a sparse weirdness — drums, sax, bass and didge — that was completely right for the treetops, the rhythms of crickets and frogs, and the moon peering over the top of the hill. 

One Sunday night we were taking a break; Nueng had put some reggae on. There were about fifteen or twenty people — mostly strangers, including some Chinese tourists, sitting round on the benches that ran along the sides of the boat. I’d brought Apsara’s son Steve with me that night, and had just sat down next to him when suddenly the music stopped. There was a moment of shocked silence, and I swear I heard an intake of breath from the Chinese. Then a new tune came on: ‘Land Down Under’, that pop-reggae song by an Australian band from the nineties.

I looked round. Out of nowhere an extraordinary figure had appeared. Naked apart from a pair of shorts, his body mottled from neck to toe with tattoos, muscles snaking beneath his skin, he moved around the deck in a distinctive dance — or tried to, because he kept losing his balance, as if the deck, for him, were pitching in a heavy ocean swell. Whatever he was on, it seemed to have taken him into some other dimension altogether, leaving his powerful body in ours, and filling everyone with a momentary unease, as they tried to assess whether there was a problem here. His appearance was so wild, it was as if he had erupted from some mythic time, a figure from legend or fantasy.

As he swayed and overbalanced, everyone seemed to hold their breath, waiting for the crash. But none came, because each time he fell he executed an instinctive and perfect roll, like a paratrooper, the heavy musculature on his back turning his body into a smooth hoop. The only noise was when his bare feet, on the upswing, brushed a table and disturbed some drinks. 

Lying on his back, he looked at me upside-down and seemed to gesture towards me, so to break the tension I went over and held out my hand to pull him to his feet. He lay back on the bench and we talked for a minute or two; our conversation was somewhat incoherent, probably, because he was so high and I, despite my attempted assurance, was a little unsettled — like everyone else — by this apparition of a man who couldn’t stand up but fell with such grace.

He told that me he lived ‘down there’, jerking his head over his left shoulder towards the darkness of trees below us, where one or two lights peeped through the canopy.

‘There are some huts. You can stay here.’

I didn’t know if he meant anyone in general, or me in particular. 

‘I can?’ I asked. 

He looked at me. ‘Are you one of us?’ he asked.

I thought, who the hell is ‘us’? 

‘I don’t know,’ I said. ‘What do you call yourselves?’

‘People of the land,’ he drawled, an ironic self-mockery in the tone, as if to offset any pretension in the phrase. 

I looked at his close-cropped hair and finally made the connection: this was the famous PTSD soldier of the woods that I’d heard about. 

Seemed like a pretty nice guy.

Everyone calls him ‘Hoagy’, kind of a cosy name for a man who is such a weapon. 

‘Weapon’ happens to be his highest term of praise for others — Bow, the young boxer, for instance, is a weapon, with his spare physique, quick fists and whipped, high kicks. Anyone pushing on and getting things done for the common good is also a ‘weapon’. But Hoagy is a weapon if ever you saw one. Not some mass-produced mechanism, however; more like a hand-crafted Samurai sword, perfectly balanced and honed to an edge so sharp it almost cuts your eyes to look at it. 

In a tourist paradise like Phuket you see a lot of gym-addicts driving around on their motorbikes displaying their sculpted torsos to the world. But whereas they look like they were drawn by Max Fleischer, Hoagy is pure da Vinci, Vetruvian Man, all perfect proportion, physical poise and coiled power: the golden ratio in human form. And those muscles were not made on machines in some expensive gym.

No one ever built anything in a gym, says Hoagy, except their ego.

He’s a fighter, so the muscles are not merely decorative. It was as an infantry soldier, carrying 180 pound packs and sniper rifles across high mountain passes, that he laid down the basis of the exceptional physical strength he now possesses. He sustains it in the ring and on the bars with endless repetitions, and on the roads, where the man runs twenty or twenty-five kilometres every day. Guys who’ve gone running with him have told me that every woman he passes gapes in astonishment; every head turns; every jaw drops. And he doesn’t even notice. 

Hoagy doesn’t do shoes. He was in boots for four years, and that was enough. Now he is always barefoot, even on the road-runs. He would have to have running shoes specially designed for him now, he says, since his gait has changed so much. In the jungle, he feels with his toes as he walks. No centipede or snake will ever sting him, Ai tells me confidently; — they’ll sense the purity of his energy and let him pass. 

He saw combat with the Australian army in both Afghanistan and East Timor, two nasty wars to find yourself in. Asymmetrical warfare, meaning the enemy doesn’t wear uniforms, and the line between combatant and non-combatant is very blurred. Your relationship with the whole civilian population is severely prejudiced. Fear and loathing on both sides. 

‘You don’t know who is who, and anybody can pick up a gun, but the moment they throw it down they’re a non-combatant under your rules of engagement. So you end up being constantly alert, your fight or flight mechanisms are on overdrive, you’re on a constant adrenalin high — you’re an adrenalin junkie. And that’s why every soldier I know is fucked up on drugs, coke or meth to replicate the adrenalin high, tranks and sleeping pills to calm down, or smoking weed morning till night. You have to calm down. And that’s what Clay doesn’t understand.’

It wasn’t just the weed that helped him hold himself together. It was Muay Thai kick-boxing, the martial art of Thailand, that gave him the discipline he needed. His life was centred around his routines of training and fighting at the stadium in Patong every few weeks.

I’ve seen video of one of his early fights. He was huge, then, so heavily muscled that his neck had disappeared and his thighs rubbed together. Shaven-headed, he looked like some kind of terminator robot. But that’s not the best build for a Muay Thai fighter, and over the next few years he progressively shed a lot of that weight. He grew his hair out into short red-blonde dreadlocks, painstakingly fashioned by Nueng. Lighter and faster, his kicks and punches ever more whipped and vicious, he started winning all his fights. 

But the changes he was going through were deeper than that. To his fighter’s regime he had added the discipline of Buddhist meditation. Every half moon he would spend the night motionless and in silence, facing the glittering sea on the top deck of the boat or the rocks at the edge of the ocean. His days would be spent working, clearing jungle, carrying bricks or bags of cement or wooden planks down the steep hill from the road to the clearing. He had a new mission. The weapon had changed hands.

∆ 

I kept going to Lion Rock for the company and the music. The Sunday night parties moved down from the road to the clearing halfway down the hillside, where the huts were. Soon a full-sized concrete and steel boxing ring with a big green roof went up, together with roofed training areas for bag-work, and bars and bags at the front edge of the clearing, overlooking the jungled slope down to the sea. The unfinished ring — not yet equipped with stanchions and ropes — became a music stage for the moment. Hoagy was recuperating from a knee operation, so there was no rush. Nueng brought in a regular band, local boys who needed the practice and the gig.

Hoagy, the elusive green man of the woods, could sometimes be found hanging around in a hammock, but was generally an intermittent presence on music nights. He had acquired a side-kick, a tall, athletic Australian called Johnnie, and seemed happy about having another resident for the huts and a partner on training runs. 

Then the dry season ended, and suddenly everybody was gone. Anna had gone back to Ukraine, Daeng had found a job in Bangkok, Samart had rejoined his band in Pat-a-loon, down south. Johnnie had gone North to Chiang Mai. Hoagy was in Australia, Nueng told me. 

I had no desire to go anywhere than these few kilometres of coastline, so I stayed exactly where I was. Apsara was back, and I had moved into an apartment which I rented from Dieter the sax player. I was writing hard, and because of what I was writing I was slipping back into the dark aura I’d worn like a coat for so long. All my work was about deception, about reality-creation, about the perceptual prisons which are built around us while we sleep. 

It was very quiet at Lion Rock. I’d sit on the top deck with my laptop, and Nueng would come up the spiral stairs to smoke with me. 

‘What are you reading?’ he would ask, looking at my laptop.

‘Writing,’ I would say. ‘About terrorism.’

‘Ah.’

And another time. ‘What are you writing?’

‘About genocide.’

‘Ah.’

These were not words he knew. 

And then I thought, the guy’s a Rastafarian, I know how to say this. 

‘I’m writing about Babylon,’ I said, and sang — ‘Babylon system….’

He grinned his gappy shaman grin.

‘Is da wampeer.’

I nodded. ‘That’s it, man. I’m writing about the vampire.’

Then one day I coasted down the jungle road and pulled up outside the bar and Hoagy was there. Looking a lot lighter, and wearing the beginnings of a pointy chin-beard.

He’d been back in Oz, he told me, fighting with the government about his military pension. The issue was that he wouldn’t go to their doctors and therapists, or accept their treatments. The upshot was that his money had been halved. 

‘Shit, man.’

He shrugged. ‘It is what it is.’

One of his favourite phrases.

We went upstairs with our beers. It was then that we really started to talk, and not long till he’d persuaded me to move in to Lion Rock. 

Come and spend time with some good people, says Hoagy. You’ll find you don’t need half the things you think you do.

∆ 

He does not talk easily, does not really trust words. 

Words are actually a very crude form of communication, says Hoagy. 

Well, I know that. Every writer knows that. 

And yet he has an engaging way of speaking. He’d be the last to claim that he is especially articulate, but he chooses his words carefully, and has that knack of amplifying what he says by saying less. It’s a lot about timing. 

In a place like Lion Rock you have to respect people’s space. Soldiers don’t always want to dwell on their experiences. It’s natural. Hoagy very much lives for the here and now, and the people around him. If he spends time dwelling on the past, he keeps it to himself. He has ways of separating himself in his own private bubble. Training. Running. Meditating. And spending hours in the tattoo parlour with Boy and San and the bamboo needle. Some major new design getting laid across his back, prick by prick, the blood and ink wiped away every few seconds as he lies face down with a towel over his head, focusing on the pain. Using it?

Pain is a necessary evil, says Hoagy. 

Particularly for him, it would seem.

He’d take a break after an hour or two and smoke a joint. The outlines of the new tattoo were shaping up slowly. 

‘What is it?’ I asked him.

‘Hanuman,’ he told me. I knew the word, the name, but I didn’t really know what it was. Actually I thought it was a type of tree.

‘No, no,’ he said. ‘Hanuman — the Monkey God.’

‘Some kind of Hindu deity, right?’ I asked.

‘Yeah, yeah,’ he said. ‘But here, too. He’s like a patron saint for a lot of these Muay Thai fighters.’ 

When he felt like talking, I listened. He told me that a few months ago, when they’d wanted to make that film about him, his ego had been getting out of control. That was what had blown the project up, clashing with another big ego in the guy who was directing the film. After that he’d known that he had to reign himself in. The documentary could have been useful in his plan, which was to turn this place into a retreat for ex-soldiers, combined with a thriving Muay Thai gym. 

‘The ego is like a loop,’ he said. ‘You can spend your whole life just going round and round.’ 

‘Like a toy train,’ I said, and he laughed, ‘Ssssyeah!’ and added, ‘You have some good analogies, man.’

He seemed to have succeeded in breaking the loop. I was flattered by the interest he took in me, and the fact that if was sitting writing on the top deck he would sometimes climb the spiral stairs to find me. He was not one to drag the conversation round to himself. Nor was he someone you were ever tempted to bullshit or try to impress, because he would see right through it. A good listener. Observant. Trained. He had a high regard for training — but at the same time, no contempt for education. We talked about a lot of things. He asked me what I was writing about, and when I mentioned Nikola Tesla, he immediately said, ‘They really did a number on that guy, didn’t they?’

I was full of thoughts about the great Electrician, but he knew a lot too, and had good discernment, a sense of what to believe and what not to believe, what he knew and what he didn’t know. Or maybe he just knew how much to (not) say. 

I was curious about him. When I asked him if he had good people behind him he said, ‘Oh yeah,’ without hesitation, and told me about his mother and his uncle. His father, too, he always spoke of with affection, said that me and him would get on well if we ever met. He said he wanted to get him over here at some point. He had lived with his dad during his teens, a period in which he had gone seriously and criminally off the rails. But over the last few years he had swung back towards his mother’s side of the family, and become very interested in their aboriginal heritage — hard to believe, looking at him, Celt from head to toe — but you can clearly see it in photographs of his uncle. His mother less so. As a child, her parents had passed her off as Italian to save her from being taken into the notorious residential schools. In adulthood she’d become an activist and had some significant campaign successes to her name — helping to prevent the building of a road through aboriginal lands, for example. 

‘She’s a weapon,’ said Hoagy.

I was curious, of course, about what had happened in his army career to make him abandon it after his first four-year term. I imagined a disaffected soldier who had got out at the first opportunity, traumatised by his experiences. But that wasn’t it. When he came out of the army, he told me, he was fine. He wasn’t aware of any trauma. It was a year and a half before that came to the surface.

In Afghanistan the coalition forces shared bases with the Afghan army. The Taliban had sleeper cells inside the Afghan army, and every once in a while one of these assets would be activated. One evening a group of about twenty soldiers leaving the briefing room were mown down by machine-gun in a suicide attack. One of them was a good friend; Hoagy had known him since his teenage years in Perth — and his girlfriend too. Ever since it had happened, he had known he must write to this girl, or go and see her. 

Even after leaving the army, it took him another eighteen months to steel himself to do it. Finally he wrote to her, and received an almost immediate reply. It wasn’t writing the letter that opened him up; it was reading the girl’s words. Everything started coming back. He was suddenly lost. He couldn’t talk to anybody. Drugs and sex didn’t work. He couldn’t even train. He didn’t know what to do or where to go, to get away from it. It’s one thing to get out of the war — but how do you get it out of you?

He was in Phuket when this happened. One night he ended up at Nueng’s jungle bar, in its previous incarnation half a kilometre up the road from where it is now. It was nothing more than a kind of treehouse by the side of the road, but you could drink and smoke weed in the jungle, and that’s what he was doing. But, like everything else, it wasn’t working. 

So he was the last one left, sitting at the bar medicating himself with one White Russian after another, and it was getting late, and he said to Nueng that he’d better go. 

‘Go where?’ asked Nueng. 

‘I don’t know, man,’ said Hoagy. ‘I just don’t know any more.’

So Nueng closed the bar and brought him down the hillside to the rocky shore. Rastaman and Babylon’s soldier clambered along the weirdly-shaped rocks in the moonlight. Sitting on a flat rock looking out across a glassy sea, Nueng started to teach him how to breathe, how to calm himself. There was — still is — an old fisherman’s shack right on the edge of the rocks, built from bamboo, corrugated tin and driftwood around a tree. He slept there that night, wrapped in the breath of the ocean. Over the coming days, Nueng taught him how to meditate, and soon introduced him to the mystery of the mushroom that grows in this forest. He lived on the rocks for a long time, in the sound of the sea, the serial music of crickets and frogs, swimming, training, praying under the moon, finding a new self arising from deeper within than he’d ever been able to see. 

∆ 

The crisis was several years in the past by the time I met him. He had lived in the forest, going away from time to time to silent retreats at a temple on the mainland, and continuing to fight at the stadium in Patong. Then there had been a serious knee injury which had forced him to return to Australia for an operation. When he came back to Phuket, he started putting money into the construction of the new boat-shaped bar, the jungle gym, the boxing rings, toilet and shower block, and the new huts. And that’s when I stumbled across the place. 

One night I came up to the top deck to find him ruefully massaging his knee and gazing out over the sea. 

‘You can’t always do what you love to do, eh?’ he said.

He’d had more than twenty fights before the injury, and won most of them. It had given him the discipline he needed to hold himself together and not revert disastrously to type — which was, in his own words, a ‘very sinful person’. He had been working to rehabilitate the associated muscles for months, but it wasn’t happening.

The Hanuman tattoo was finished, running down the left side of his back from the shoulder-blade; the god-like warrior with the head of a monkey emerging from clouds and rocks, a heavy club over his shoulder. I’d looked up the name and learned that Hanuman is an avatar of Lord Shiva, and an important character in the ancient Hindu Ramayana. Like the Singh lions and Kinnara birds of Thai folklore, he came down from the Himalayas along the course of the Mekong River. The Monkey God rose to prominence as a cult figure during the Islamic occupation of India as a symbol of political resistance and an icon for martial artists. Along with courage and heroism, Hanuman exemplifies devotion to his personal god, Rama, and one interpretation of the name, I was interested to read, is from Sanskrit han meaning killed or destroyed, and maana meaning pride. 

He is a vanara, or forest-human, his divinity masked behind the face of a monkey. 

Maybe the Monkey God was watching the painful hours Hoagy was spending face-down in the tattoo parlour, because suddenly the knee had started to respond, and he was back in serious training and scheduled to fight at Patong in a month’s time. He was a little nervous about it, which you should be, in a brutal and unforgiving sport like Muay Thai. 

But only a little. ‘What’s the worst that can happen?’ he said, and answered his own question. ‘You get knocked out.’

In other words, it’s not like being in a war. 

The way things panned out, he didn’t have too much time to dwell on it. One afternoon a messenger from the stadium turned up at Lion Rock — Hoagy having long since lost his phone — waking him from a nap, and asking him to step in that night for a fighter who’d withdrawn. Hoagy shook off his sleep, stretched and shadow-boxed and headed for Patong. That night he lost on points, but it didn’t matter. What mattered was that he’d gone the distance. He’d found himself slow, as he knew he would, and his left thigh was banged up from his opponent’s kicks, but the knee had come through without problems, and his official comeback was still on for two weeks’ time.

I booked a taxi and took Apsara’s kids, Kayla and Steve, with me to Sai Yen Nam stadium in Patong. Ap would have come too, but she was working nights as manager of the Rose Bar in the famous Laguna nightclub in Rawai. We got ringside seats, and luckily the seat in front of me was empty, so I was able to rest my camera on the back of it and get some good footage. The stadium was big and noisy, with musicians up on a platform above the crowd in one corner providing the traditional sarama soundtrack to the action; two drummers and a piper playing the hypnotic wind instrument — I don’t know the name of it, but the sound is like a cross between a bagpipe and an oboe — whose honking, nasal, relentless rhythms, dispassionate and weird, perfectly evoked the unforgiving moment of two fighters facing off.

His opponent was a tall Thai with good reach and technique, and battle was engaged from the start, unlike the standard approach where boxers spend the first round cautiously testing each other out. The contest was even, but halfway through the first round his opponent backed Hoagy into a corner and leapt into the attack with an elbow to the head. As the round went on it was clear that Hoagy was bleeding from the scalp. At the end of the round, as Nueng and Oh washed him down in the corner, there seemed to be a lot of blood. 

He came out aggressively for the second round, and it seemed to me he was trying to end the fight quickly because of the cut. By halfway through the round there was a continuous stream of blood running down the middle of his brow and down his nose — but not into his eyes. As long as he could see his target, it was not getting away. His punches were getting through, and under his onslaught the Thai eventually seemed to freeze, unable to find the tactic to repel him. Hoagy surged forward, trapping his quarry first in one corner then another, dazing him with a heavy right and finishing him with an elbow to the top of the head and two left hooks as he went down.

And stayed down, as the referee raised Hoagy’s arm. He barely celebrated, kneeling for a moment beside his unconscious opponent and raising his gloves to his forehead in a wai before leaving the ring to sustained applause, the announcer yelling ‘Superstar! Superstar!’ as he made his way to the dressing room, raising his arm just once to acknowledge the crowd. 

‘Wow!’ said Kayla. ‘They like him here!’

It was getting late, and our taxi would be waiting so we left at that point rather than staying for the remaining bout. I edited the video and showed it to Ap, who had been disappointed she couldn’t come. She was touched to see how seriously Hoagy had taken the wai kru — the ritualised warm-up routine through which a boxer dedicates the fight to his teachers and masters. Hoagy’s carefully memorised routine was long, elaborate, and sincere, his demeanour modest and respectful, and it was easy to see why the Thais forgave his violent destruction of their man. 

A couple of days later I was at Lion Rock, showing the fight on my Mac to anyone who was interested. It was decent footage, though because I was too close to the ring I needed to move the camera every so often, and I’d missed some of the action in the corners, especially the moment when Hoagy took that elbow. I’d just about captured the brutal final sequence, however.

Hoagy was on the top deck, four stitches in his scalp but feeling fine, so I gave him a personal showing of the fight and he talked me through it. He hadn’t been concerned about the cut; Muay Thai fights are not stopped for blood, and it looked worse than it was.

‘Want to watch it again?’ I asked.

He smiled at me sheepishly. ‘Yeah,’ he said. ‘I do, actually.’

And why not indeed? He’d been out for two years, and now he was back. You have to enjoy such a moment. You never know how many more there will be. 

I left the machine with him and went downstairs to get more beers.

∆ 

Hoagy and Nueng were having some new huts built — traditional bamboo bungalows this time, with woven reed roofs and big verandahs, more beautiful than the simple tin-roofed huts already spaced around the clearing. I negotiated with Nueng to have another one built for me, which I would pay for. I would have rights to it whenever I was at Lion Rock, but if I was away then Nueng would have the right to rent it out.

Nueng picked out a spot for me down the hill from the main clearing, twenty meters back from the ocean, beneath a stand of huge, old trees. The four of us, Nueng, Hoagy, Johnnie and me, cleared and levelled the space with hoes and scythes, and another space adjacent to it for the wood to be stacked.

It was different down here, steep and densely jungled. To the front, the slope was overgrown with tangled bush, papayas and banana trees, new growth that had not been cut back for several years. To the rear of where the hut would stand, broken ground, rocks and gullies, old forest with a treacherous floor of ivy and dead wood — darker and more dangerous. 

Johnnie’s spade turned up a huge, acid-yellow centipede, fully six inches long. It writhed and thrashed, already wounded. We all looked at it —  Johnnie trapped it with his blade and looked at Hoagy, who said yeah, it’s already done for, and Johnnie cut it in half and flicked the pieces away into the brush. 

Bamboo poles of all sizes and woven reed panelling had already started arriving up on the road, and the next day we began the task of lugging everything down the motorcycle track to the clearing and through it and down the rough earth steps Hoagy had cut. As usual Hoagy’s back took most of the strain, carrying the big stuff while I staggered around with bundles of thin poles and awkward reed panels. His money had enabled most of the construction in the main clearing, the huts, shower block and boxing rings and so on, but more than that, most of the bricks, wood, concrete and steel had found their way down the hill on Hoagy’s back. There’s no four-wheeler access on this hillside, though you can get a motorbike half-way down. So almost everything has to be carried in by hand. Johnnie too had put in some shifts — but Hoagy’s appetite for physical work is huge; he goes into a work-trance and just keeps going.

Before we’d finished transporting all the wood down the hill, the team of builders moved in — four men and two women. There was no plan or blueprint, no tapes or spirit levels, everything cut by eye, custom-built to fit between a ring of rocks and the huge, snaking roots of the trees. In three days the bungalow was done. 

That night I sat on my verandah with no lights, feeling my peripheral vision awakening under the moonlight. Angled glints from a leaf here, another there. Wriggles of luminescence through the leaves, below me to the right, where the waves broke against the rocks. And under the banana trees on the other side of the valley, a firefly, and then another.

The fact that there are things that hurt or even kill you here means you have to open your senses. The beauty of the place means you want to anyway, but you have to be mindful, as they say. I find especially that my sense of hearing seems sharper. It’s dark exactly half of the time, and sound is everything after dark. Sometimes I would lie for hours listening nervously to every leaf-fall. Nature-paranoia takes a while to subside.

So the nights were sometimes long, but the days flashed by. It’s hard work clearing jungle. Using the word ‘jungle’ might seem overdramatic, since this was not old growth, probably only four or five years since it was last cut back, but it’s the only word that conveys the impenetrability of matted, entwined vegetation. There were young trees, thin enough to sever with a blow, briars and bushes, banana trees and elephant palms with their watery stems, shoulder-high brush, and everything tied together by nets of ivy-like runners. Big mats and screens of it hanging down from trees. All so woven together that you had to cut away underneath and at the sides and roll it up like a carpet. 

I was keeping myself to myself and focusing on my task. I’d hang out for a while at morning training, and spend the rest of the day working on my paths and terraces and at my writing. Usually I came up later than the others to eat, because I loved the twilight time in my valley. Often Hoagy had gone to bed — he rose at first light and often slept soon after dark.

He came down to help me a few times, and we instantly fell into a good rhythm of silent co-operation. Like him, this is something I really like — to work together without needless conference — each in his own mental space but in tune with the other. So Hoagy starts raking mats of vegetation from the top of a big rock and without saying anything I climb up on top to cut the creeper-lines holding it back. That kind of thing. I think more than anything else my respect for silence helped to win his trust. We talked when he was in the mood.

I had no way to imagine the things he had done, or picture the visceral memories backed up and waiting to spool through his mind, in relays of horror, fear and guilt. But it seems that at some stage, this thing they call PTSD is going to suddenly grab you by the throat and hiss:

You remember all that shit you lived through? Now you get to go through it all over again.

I imagine that at some point your self-narrative, the story you tell yourself about yourself, collapses and implodes, and reality sets in — the reality of how they used you; what they turned you into. A weapon. And at that point, the weapon is turned on you.

Sometimes if I was awake early and climbed up to the main clearing for a shower, I’d see him in the ring, stretching or shadow-boxing, both of which are more like a ritual dance the way he does them. Or late at night I’d find him meditating in the centre of the ring in darkness, at half-moon or full-moon especially. I would respect the ropes and not speak to him, of course. But that’s the way he is. He appears soundlessly or is already there. By nine he is doing chores, carrying bags of ice and racks of bottled water, sweeping leaves into piles all over the clearing. Earth has to be kept bare and walked regularly or the undergrowth creeps back. He’ll sweep for an hour or even two while everybody else sits around the boxing ring, watching the training and waiting for their turn. It seemed to me all the sweeping was about keeping mental space; he liked to be around people but alone with his thoughts.

Hoagy’s second comeback match has gone down in Lion Rock legend as the fight that lasted three minutes followed by the party that lasted three days. We all went across to Patong in a minibus, Nueng and Ai and Nueng’s wife Pom and his kids, little Kim Lang and his teenage son Shokun and Ice, Pom’s daughter from another marriage, and her friend Joy, and of course Johnnie was there, and Hoagy’s partner Perry from the business they’d opened in Chalong several years ago, and three friends who were visiting from Australia, Dannie, Tom, and Panda, and San and Boy the tattoo boys, and Kayla and Steve. Hoagy came out to a roar from the end of the stadium we’d taken over, and within three minutes had sent his opponent back to the dressing room, horizontal again, this time with a shattered knee. Then there were rounds of beer and tourists wanting to have their picture taken with the winner, and we all piled back into the bus and headed back to Lion Rock to continue the party.

It must have been the third night after the fight; the Aussies had all taken mushrooms, and I wasn’t ready for that yet, but I’d offered to stay up and roll joints for them when they needed them later. I went down to my hut and sat on my verandah above the sea for a while. Then I rolled two joints, put one behind each ear, took my torch and wandered up to the other huts. I expected to find them hanging out on somebody’s verandah but I couldn’t see or hear anyone.

The boxing ring is the village square of this settlement, always illuminated at night. I walked around quietly but could hear nothing. I didn’t want to disturb anyone in their huts, so I sat in the ring, where I could be seen, and smoked one of the joints, staring out at the brilliant lights of the fishing boats strung across the horizon. 

Then I went on up the steep climb to the boat — also deserted — took a beer from the cooler and climbed the spiral stairs to the deck. I’d managed to lose the other joint from behind my ear, so I settled at a small table and rolled a couple more. Then I went and peered out over the railing down over the village under the trees. I put my torch on strobe and shone it into the darkness, thinking it might attract scattered trippers like moths. 

When I turned round again, Hoagy was there, looking with curiosity at the beer and joints on the table. I hadn’t heard his approach. When I turned he saw me too, and said, ‘Two perfectly rolled joints, and Paul too!’ 

We smoked.

A minute later he said, ‘This can’t go on forever.’ 

Hoagy has this way of saying something and then watching you to see how you are processing it.

I waited, and he said, ‘I’ve just had a message.’

‘Yeah?’

He said, ‘I’ve been told I have to leave. To go to this centre.’

I thought that’s what he said, anyway. It sounded like military stuff. A new assignment? He’d been out of the army for nearly five years by my calculation. What was this, some kind of Jason Bourne style re-activation?

But I’d misunderstood. These were not military orders, even though he spoke as if they could not be disobeyed. No, he’d been tripping and meditating in his hut, and had received various images, and words. Rainbow snake. Didgeridoo. Clan paint on dark skin. River. Rock. A straight road through the desert.

‘Received?’

‘Through the aether, as you like to say.’ A reference to our conversation about Tesla. 

Part of it concerned his brother, who was to become a father of twins next April. He would go to be there for him, but along with this were instructions for a journey to the centre of Australia. I’d been fooled by the accent — not ‘this’ centre, but ‘the’ centre. He said he had to find certain old men, aboriginal elders, before they died, in order to learn what they knew. 

These were instructions, he felt, from his ascended masters. 

Wow. So he’d be here only for another few months. 

‘I’ll have to leave this place in your hands.’ 

I took a few moments to absorb this. My hands?

Then I started laughing, and changed the subject, explaining my misunderstanding. I asked him whether he had ever been approached about recruitment into special forces. Given his physical and mental qualities, I said, one would think that he would be exactly the kind of material they would be looking for. 

But then I backtracked — ‘But I guess you wouldn’t fit the psychological profile…’

‘I did then,’ he said. 

And waited.

‘They don’t recruit,’ he added. ‘You have to apply.’

Watching me. 

He’d applied to join the SAS — the British Special Air Services. He told me he’d been given a retainer and six month’s leave before reporting for training.

‘So what happened?’ 

‘They said, come back in peak physical condition. And learn a martial art.’

At that point the geese sounded off. Without glancing down at the road, he said, ‘That’ll be Johnnie, with his negative vibes.’

I realised I hadn’t heard the geese when Hoagy arrived.

A second later, with goose-klaxons ringing in our ears, Johnnie came up the stairs. Hoagy prevailed on him to mix us some White Russians, and Johnnie went off happily enough to make them. 

I was standing in the middle of the deck, smoking. Hoagy, leaning back against the railing above the road, was watching me.

‘I was an extremely… efficient… soldier,’ he said. ‘Like if you told me, go over there, shoot that person, I would do it.’  

I exhaled, watching him back. His eyes had gone dark like gun barrels.

When Johnnie came back with the drinks, he wanted to talk to Hoagy about some thoughts he’d had about his own life, so I left them to it, and walked back down the hill to my hut. 

What he’d told me had changed the picture. I had imagined a disaffected soldier who had served his time and got out at the first opportunity. But I was wrong. He’d more than survived; he’d thrived on it. He’d been — by his own description — a ruthlessly obedient killer, who wanted to progress in his chosen career. I was beginning to get an inkling of how great a transformation he had undergone.

But there was a contradiction. Babylon’s soldier, focused and disciplined; a corporal, with six men under him; ready to move on to higher things, elite units, special training, covert operations. I still hadn’t got it straight: why had he left the service, if he was so good at what he did? It wasn’t PTSD — that only came later. So what happened? What was it that turned a robotic killer for the Anglo-American empire into this vanara, this forest Yoki, this barefoot warrior-hermit meditating at half-moon in a boxing ring in the jungle?

∆ 

I’d have to wait to get my answer. In the meantime I watched how he was around these people. 

The other Aussies had gone home and there were only a handful of us farangs around: Hoagy, Johnny and me, and Hossein, an Iranian guy who was here to detox and try to get off the tranquillisers and sleeping pills he was addicted to — and he wasn’t there much, because he kept running away. Then there was Jespersen the mad Dane, coming out of two years of hardcore cocaine addiction, who had also disappeared for the moment. So it was mainly Thais at Lion Rock. As well as Nueng’s clan and Ai and the tattoo boys, and Bow the young boxer whom everyone agrees is a weapon, there was Na Keow, our cook and masseuse, a big woman with thick glasses, intelligent and skilled, and her little girl Minh, two years old, a rocket-fuelled jungle-monkey if ever you saw one.

There were one or two older guys, too, who’ve been around this place for a long time and stay here when there’s building work to be done. Nong, not to be confused with Nueng, would come down to the rocks every day to shower under the water that comes out of the cliff. Years ago he had inserted a plastic pipe between the rocks, to bring some of the flow away from the rock-face so you could stand under it. It had never stopped in five years, and he told me he’d been drinking it that long as well. An honorary member of the family was Oh, our trainer, who came every day and brought his lovely wife and baby, and other young boxers to help when there were too many farangs wanting to train. 

So what I saw was a Thai community which had adopted and embraced this impressive but damaged man, and taken him to their hearts. Nueng’s family and friends and other people who had strong connections with this place knew and loved Hoagy. Beneath it all was his enduring bond with Nueng, whom he spoke of as his master and teacher. 

The kids loved him and he would spend hours with them, laughing and catch-phrasing, teaching them mischief. He celebrated everybody, teasing everybody, and lifting everybody up. ‘Joy, you sexy piece of womanhood, you,’ and she turns — ‘What?’ ‘Nothing.’ But she knows what he said and it’s smiles and good vibes all round. The guy knows how to give something of himself to others, how to spread the positive energy he’s overflowing with.

And then friends would come through, old army friends or older ones from Perth, and you’d see a lot of the ritual Aussie bro stuff, the endless roastings, the obscenity battles — man, these guys can talk forever when it means nothing. I can’t catch half of it, with accents and slang turned up full. Even if it doesn’t mean anything, it’s necessary, and Hoagy would do it to pick up where he’d left off with people. He doesn’t much enjoy it any more, he tells me, the whole drinking-culture thing, but he does it anyway because you have to meet people where they are; these rituals must be undergone. 

I was the anomaly at Lion Rock — older than the others farangs and the only one not connected with Muay Thai or military. An intellectual, with plenty of talk about Baudrillard and McLuhan, Tesla and Einstein, and barely enough muscles to cover his bones. I don’t know exactly how they perceive me… once I caught Joy looking at me sideways, like, what is this guy doing here? And of course I asked myself that as well. For me it’s the literal realisation of my dream of bohemia, like those artists and writers going to live among gypsies in the slums of post-revolutionary Paris; a spartan tropical version of that. It was always going to happen, given the chance; I was always going to turn my back on everything, disillusioned and self-exiled, like Jacques in the Forest of Arden.

What Hoagy was doing was building a community, loose but like-minded, where people could live on this land and find what they need, like he did. As for Nueng, the Westerners coming to Lion Rock provided the resources to sustain his way of life, the only way he can live. Rastaman, geezer-man, elephant-mushroom shaman man. Nueng tells me that all he wants is to keep his tradition alive through one more generation. 

Be like we always were. Keep on doing it till we can’t do it any more.

That’s the plan. 

Lion Rock is many things: Muay Thai gym, stoner haven, Jungle School and Capital of We — you can look at it idealistically or cynically but the root is simple: two guys from very different backgrounds recognised they wanted the same thing — to live by their own values, in a little tribe of people, under trees. Two tribes, coming together.

And therein lay the answer to my question. A soldier came here to learn Muay Thai, to make himself even more deadly than he already was. He was scarred by the wars he’d been part of, but he didn’t know it yet. It was the people he met, and who embraced him so generously, who changed him. The boxers, the coaches. Muay Thai culture. Just listen to that music, the sarama, what it evokes. Courage. Acceptance of pain. Muay Thai people are tough, and honourable. The culture is all about respect, and dedication. The wai kru frames the fight in higher things. You dedicate your fight.

And that was it. Just like me sitting in my valley, my senses opening, my peripheral vision coming back, Hoagy found new awareness growing in him, new levels of understanding. Empathy awakening within that masculine ethos of ritual conflict, pain and mutual respect. With his mother’s help, he got out of the army, and his commitment to the SAS. He pled PTSD, which at that point he didn’t have. He laid low, fearing repercussions. Didn’t even have a bank account, letting his mother handle his army pension and the compensation for the damage he didn’t yet know he carried. 

And then the trauma smashed into him like a train and scattered the pieces across this dark patch of jungle between the garish tourist towns.

Forest humans put him back together.

Hanuman. 

Devotion. 

Killed pride.

BOHEMIA

Photograph by Rick Nuffer

∆ 

The Kingdom of Bohemia ceased to exist in 1918, when it was absorbed into the new Republic of Czechoslovakia. The people of the various lands which now constitute the Czech Republic were all referred to by the English as ‘Bohemians’, and the Czech language as Bohemian, until the term ‘Czech’ became more prevalent in the twentieth century. However, the defunct kingdom is immortalised, for purely accidental reasons, in the current usage of the word ‘bohemian’ to denote the lifestyle of impoverished artists: unconstrained by convention, sexually free, voluntarily poor; a life devoted to art and love. The word is now used almost exclusively in this sense.

The accident was merely that the Romani people of France were thought to have entered Europe through Bohemia. Bohème was the name the French gave to the Roma, just as the English by a similar misconception called them Gypsies, believing their origins lay in Egypt. The word carries the full range of connotations generated by outsider perceptions of the Roma people: wandering and adventure; poverty and laziness; dirtiness and immorality; exoticism and possession of arcane mysteries. 

Charles Baudelaire’s poem ‘Bohèmes en Voyage’ in Les Fleurs du Mal (1857) is a case in point. To Baudelaire the Roma represent everything foreign and exotic. They remind him of his voyage to India; they remind him, perhaps, of himself, self-exiled from the bourgeoisie and thus from family. To him they are ‘the prophetical tribe, that ardent-eyed people’ (trans. William Aggeler, The Flowers of Evil (Fresno, CA: Academy Library Guild, 1954). Their women breast-feed openly, and their men watch over them with ‘gleaming weapons’ and ‘eyes rendered heavy / By mournful regret for vanished illusions’. They represent fertility and ferocity, and are watched over by the Anatolian-Phrygian mother goddess Cybele, who  ‘Makes the desert blossom, water spurt from the rock / Before these travellers for whom is opened wide / The familiar domain of the future’s darkness.’ 

The Bohemians had arrived in France from the fifteenth century onwards; now their misnomer would be appropriated by a new tribe, and Bohemia would become, not a country or a people, but a state of mind. 

∆ 

In post-revolutionary, early nineteenth century France, artists and poets started moving into cheap working class areas in Paris, often areas where the Roma had settled, and before long the term ‘Bohème’ had transferred itself to those who adopted a version of the gypsy lifestyle and aspects of their dress. Indeed Romani culture reportedly regards cultural attitude, Romani spirit (called romanipen or romaimos) as more important than ethnicity in determining membership of the tribe. An ethnic Rom, for example, who does not exhibit romanipen is considered a gadjo or non-Romani; and likewise a gadjo who shows romanipen may be considered Romani. From mid-century ‘bohemian’ also enters English to describe the unorthodox lifestyles of artists, poets, musicians and actors in cities across Europe.

These bohemians were apostates of the bourgeoisie who renounced security, orthodoxy, and social convention. The bohemian abjures the narrowness of the bourgeois vision, with its kitsch denial of the uncontrollable and disturbing aspects of life — bohemianism is an attempt to embrace life in all its fullness, including, of course, sexuality and death. It mirrors the Romantic aesthetic, founded not on beauty but the sublime – an aesthetic experience which transcends beauty and ugliness, life and death, and which overwhelms the observer, inducing a primitive awe and reducing his personal existence to insignificance. Since experiences of the sublime are (by definition) rare, the bohemian tends compulsively to seek self-immolation in sexual passion and alcohol or drugs – opium and hashish in nineteenth century Paris, and of course absinthe – to render the mundane sublime.

The bohemian artist is detached from his middle or upper-class roots and finds a greater sense of belonging among the poor. Of course a devotion to art is, de facto, a renunciation of money, though shadowed by dreams of recognition and wealth. Artists who become wealthy can only do so as a by-product or side-effect of their art; no one goes into art to make money; anyone who does is gadjo, and no part of this tribe. The bohemian accepts poverty because he aspires to something richer than wealth. The mystery he sets against bourgeois banality, the arcane enlightenment that sustains the literary gypsy, is more than status or wealth; it is art. The goddess that breaks the rock for him and makes the desert flower is not Cybele but his model or Muse.

As for love, the poets and painters of Montmartre, the Latin Quarter and other bohemian haunts found their anima in the idealised figure of the grisette – the poor working class girl who cheerfully combines prostitution with her work as a seamstress, a flower seller, or a milliner’s assistant. The title role in Giacomo Puchini’s opera La Bohème (1896), beloved of the bourgeoisie across Europe and indeed the world, is based on characters out of Henri Murger’s loosely structured ‘novel’, Scenes de la Vie de Bohème: Francine and Mimì. The composite character Mimì is a seamstress, but all the other main characters are artistic bohemians: Rudolfo is a poet, Marcello a painter, Musetta a singer, Schaunard a musician, Colline a philosopher, and so on. The cast is made up with students, working girls, townsfolk, shopkeepers, street-vendors, soldiers, waiters, children… and this is the bohemian milieu.

Forty years later Tennessee Williams beautifully evokes a similar urban scene in his play A Streetcar Named Desire, set in New Orleans. In Williams’ cast there is no poet – that role is subsumed into the lyricism of the author’s stage directions, and the madness of his alter ego, Blanche Dubois. But Elysian Fields thrums with jazz musicians, sailors, working men, street-vendors and prostitutes. For the bohemian poet or the New Realist playwright, these people are real in ways that those trapped in the illusions of the secure, respectable life are not.

The life-style is not sustainable, of course, and there are only two ways out of Bohemia: fame or death; apotheosis or self-destruction. And there were so many ways to take the latter road: drink, drugs, disease, starvation, madness. Although unknown at the time of his death, the young poet Thomas Chatterton, who killed himself in 1779 at the age of seventeen, became a Romantic icon when the Pre-Raphaelite painter Henry Wallis immortalised him in his painting of 1856; which inspired a rash of copycat suicides by other would-be Parisian artists jealous of his posthumous fame.

Others were less rash. Henri Murger rewrote his character-sketches as a novel and his novel as a play, moved out of the city and spent the rest of his life re-cycling stories of people he’d known in the far-off country of Bohemia. 

∆ 

The bohemian meme spread across Europe and the English-speaking world, surfacing in the Shelley menage on Lake Geneva, and the pre-Raphaelite group in London, which created a visual style that later made millions for the owner of the Biba chain of clothing stores and myriad other Carnaby Street entrepreneurs. Via Andy Warhol and the Factory, Lou Reed and Nico, Timothy Leary and Aldous Huxley, the Grateful Dead and the Doors, eventually it found its way into my naive and provincial skull, whence I would never be able to extricate it, or even want to.

I grew up in the cathedral city of Winchester in southern England, a pleasant middle-class dormitory town with one of the highest per capita incomes in the country. My father was an advertising man who worked for the oldest agency in London, traveling up to town every day; an educated man of taste – the ad man who never sold himself, which made him a little different in his world and had a lot to do, I think, with his cumulative success in the business.

As a teenager, I gravitated not towards London but towards Bohemia. I found some of the bohemian poets, musicians and painters who nested in my provincial town, such as the fondly remembered Duncan Tweedale, who lived on benefits and practically without furniture, but owned an ancient hand-operated printing press which spewed out many editions of the underground magazine Black Eggs. Unfortunately his is about the only name I remember from this time, but I remember faces, paintings and poems – and I remember the magical midsummer’s night two or three dozen of us spent on top of St Catherine’s Hill outside of the town, the site of stone-age ceremonial mazes, crowned by a stand of tall hornbeam trees. We lit a fire and jammed and smoked and entwined until dawn, when I literally rolled down the hill and somehow home to my middle-class domicile.

Captured by the rip-tide of bohemianism, but still under the control of my (very lovely) parents, I somehow found myself studying at Oxford University, where after a few miserable and misplaced months I found a band to play drums in, centred around two friends who had recently graduated and now inhabited a beautiful squatted house in Iffley village, a mile or two along the river. It was the old Mill House, which had previously belonged to the Professor of Botany at the University. The extensive gardens, overgrown but full of rare plants and trees, sloped down to the sluice gate, where we would try to swim against the rush of water at night, and always be beaten back. There was a tall tulip tree, with its magnolia-like flowers; clearing a nettle bed we found rare snake’s head orchids. Since the professor’s death the house had stood empty; another rock band occupied the upstairs, and the ground floor was John and Allan’s. We spent hours and days working on our music, playing Grateful Dead and Beatles, Stones and Steely Dan until our live sound was tight as a studio recording. We gigged in town sometimes, but as time went on we took to just throwing parties. That way we could leave our gear permanently set up in the huge front room with its double sets of French windows opening on to the overgrown lawns. People came, bringing drugs and wine; they spilled out into the gardens, and later the river. This was where I experienced my first LSD trips, wandering off across the river and into the dark countryside for hours. There were many that year – far, far too many – but I managed to pull out of my psychedelic trance in time to study for a week or two and pass my first year exams.

You could call us hippies – which was merely a new name for bohemians, though now there were powerful influences manipulating the meme. I dropped into college a couple of times a week for tutorials, but apart from that I spent most of my time at the Mill House. The locals hated us, of course, and sometimes threw bricks through our windows. Staying in the house with a girlfriend one cold New Year, we found that the tulip tree had been cut down by the local council, and workers had sawed the trunk and branches into neat logs, which we lugged inside and burned in the fireplace all night, tripped out of our minds and transported by the sweet smoke of the rare, perfumed wood.

Our bohemian bliss survived until the end of my second year, when the two guitarists moved to London to try their luck. I moved back into college and got back to my studies. This was 78, and it was as if I was waking from a dream, or some great experiment I’d been part of was finally being shut down. Nothing by now but a doe-eyed, disoriented lotos-eater, I had no idea how to deal with the world or the future. I didn’t know what direction to take, and after I graduated I found myself marrying my girlfriend, moving to London, and taking temporary labouring jobs while I wrote poems and struggled to resist increasing pressure to decide what to do with my life; I can’t explain it: I’d known, for a long time. But somehow I’d forgotten.

The music and the fashions seemed to have changed overnight. Reagan and Thatcher came to power. There were new cults – of the body, of money, of ‘lifestyle’. The bohemian meme was not dead in me but slept like a recessive gene as I got to grips with London, searching for a viable career, and soon, starting a family.

Murger’s health never recovered from his years of deprivation, and nor could any of his subsequent work match the success of Scènes de la vie de bohème. He died, penniless, in a Paris hospital in 1861, two months before his fortieth birthday.

That same year, a new mutation of the meme surfaced thousands of miles away across the Atlantic, when the San Franciscan journalist Bret Harte created his ‘The Bohemian’ persona for his column in The Golden Era newspaper. The ‘bohemian’ sobriquet had become attached to journalists of the new commercial style; young, cultured newspaper columnists in the big cities called themselves bohemians, and when the Civil War started they spread out across the country to cover the conflict, their roving lifestyles and dependence on the pen giving them some imaginary congruence with the archetype. A number of them of them built humorous, self-admiring personas for themselves; the life of the journalist became the tangential subject of the journalism, just as in a later re-incarnation of this style, the ‘gonzo journalism’ of Hunter S Thompson.

Living by their wits and their pens, these journalists glamorised their roving, unattached lifestyles, and no doubt part of the attraction was the subtext of roving, unattached sexual possibility which is almost always synonymous with dreams of travel. Harte’s column was wildly  popular, and — like Murger — he republished them in book form after the war, as The Bohemian Papers. (This time nobody made an opera.)

On the East Coast, Junius Henry Browne entertained the public in The New York Tribune and Harper’s magazine with pen-portraits of ‘bohemian’ journalists (such as himself) and accounts of some of their adventures on the road. It’s a watered down version of the bohemian ideal; I suppose the American fascination with the sheer size of their acquired continent and the adventures to be had on it explains the phenomenon; the experiences of these adventurers seemed essentially romantic to the new American bourgeoisie.

In 1872, when a group of journalists and aficionados of the arts in San Francisco established a club for cultural pursuits, looking to introduce some of the ‘sophistication’ of the East coast to the West, they called it, inevitably, The Bohemian Club. Many of the Club’s members were prosperous, respectable businessmen – and now the ‘bohemian’ tag expanded to include wealthy, sociable bon-vivants. The Club quickly acquired some extraordinarily prime real estate in the form of 2,700 acres of ancient redwood forest in Sonoma County, where from 1879 it held an annual retreat in the woods, called The Bohemian Grove –- and it was at the Grove that a dark form of high (aristocratic) bohemianism emerged, or re-emerged. More Thelème than Bohème, it would have shocked even Beaudelaire, and made de Sade weep with envy.

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