Showing posts from October, 2012

The road to Mandalay

Myanmar! Shrouded in mystery, hidden for decades behind a shadowy steel curtain of tyranny! The land that time forgot! The last nation untouched by the corrupting influence of the West! Right? Yeah, not so much. It is a fascinating place, though. Still deeply culturally independent, and still more economically influenced by China than by the West, though that's changing fast. It's also quite a visually extraordinary place. Especially in Bagan, land of ten thousand temples (once literally): Spot the Buddha! I took, at a conservative estimate, approximately nineteen zillion pictures, of which these are but a sample. More to come.

Beyond Rangoon

So. Rangoon. In a way it's like every Asian city rolled into one, but poorer. Blistering heat, cracked pavements, foot-high curbs, Stalinist towers linked by thick anarchic tangles of electrical wires, occasional colonial buildings whose stains and tarnish cannot conceal their magnificent bones, dense fields of sidewalk stalls hawking food and every cheaply made article under the sun, ancient automobiles of every description converted into taxis. (Yesterday I rode in a red Volkswagen van which I think was older than I am to the Savoy Hotel, a converted colonial mansion, where I ate at Kipling's restaurant and drank at the Captain's Bar while watching Tottenham Hotspur play Chelsea. I suppose I should have quaffed gin-and-tonics rather than Dagon beer to make the colonial kabuki play complete. Note to HP Lovecraft fans; Yangon/Rangoon's original name, for some 500 years, was Dagon.) It's located at the juncture of three rivers, not far at all from the ocean,

Burmese day

"Bagan. Shit." That dusty land of many temples. And you mean many . Eighty percent of them razed or devoured by the ravenous mile-wide Irrawadday River, and still nearly three thousand of them remain, crammed into a mere hundred or so square kilometres of dusty land. More than two thousand pagodas and monastery, ranging in size from "chapel" to "cathedral", all red brick covered by whatever may remain of weather-eaten plaster, occupying the foreground, background, and skyline in every direction, jutting into the sky above rice paddies, bushes, cactus walls, thatched farmhouses, five-star hotels, an eighteen-hole golf course. Some remain original, but most have been reconstructed -- unconvincingly -- "What about you, Marlowe? Do you think my reconstruction methods have become...unsound?" "I don't see...any method at all...sir." -- but they're still magnificent, eerie, mindbending. Especially at dusk, when the hordes of fer

Notes from the Burma Road

I write to you from Pyin U Lwin, née Maymya, roughly seventy horizontal kilometers east and a thousand vertical meters up from Mandalay, in Myanmar aka Burma. It's a town originally built by the British as their summer capital; every year their civil service would move here en masse for several months to escape the brutal heat of Rangoon. They left behind a church, a clocktower, a number of magnificent colonial buildings now converted into hotels or government offices, the loveliest botanical gardens I've ever seen, and sizable Indian and Anglo-Burman populations. There's also a railway station, of course, on the line from Mandalay to Lashio, which in turn was one terminus of World War II's famous Burma Road. But enough of history. If ever a nation has had too much of history, it is this one, and today, at last, it seems to finally be shrugging off history's yoke. Today the streets of Pyin U Lwin bustle with thousands of motorcycles (and scores of horse-carria

Some thoughts on Hilary Mantel's A PLACE OF GREATER SAFETY

This is a phenomenal book. The other Mantel I've read is WOLF HALL, which is a terrific book and I don't begrudge it its Booker one bit; but it isn't a patch on A PLACE OF GREATER SAFETY. No, I take it back, I suppose do begrudge the WOLF HALL win a bit, because the implication is "if you read just one Hilary Mantel book, make it this one!" and that ain't so. One thing she does phenomenally well here, and I can't think of any other examples at all come to think of it, is portray a cohort of colourful, intelligent friends who by virtue of being in the wrong place at the wrong time seize - and are seized by - History. But they were by no means destined for it. If the aristocrats had been just a little less corrupt and incompetent, they could have tottered on for another 5-10 years before revolution came, and then it wouldn't have been Camille/Danton/Robespierre's revolution. (And what then of Bonaparte?) As a result, the character's don't