Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Monkeys don't give a fuck

(Pictured: A monkey consumes a used condom somewhere in Asia...)
On a recent daytime trip upriver in mountain-town (Neo) I was thrilled and delighted to witness a family of monkeys going up their business. A nuisance in town, the furious Japanese threw rocks to try to scare the monkeys off but they just howled, ballooed and cursed in their own monkey tongue. The monkeys of ruratopia Neomura have a reputation as gifted helions - they steal, screech and throw poo at passersby and I even hear they disrupted a child's birthday party by eating the whole cake and then biting the host's head and neck while he pissed and wept. They are vicious, savage little bastards to be sure. I remember when I came face to face with one in 'Nam - the screaming shitsack got down on all fours and opened its mouth wide and howled at me. I did the same and succeeded in confusing it. Then I caught it in my hand, gave it a quick rabbit-punch to stun it then drowned it in the ocean. Then one of its companions bit Jeremy. What can we learn from this? Only that monkeys hate tall people.

Well met, monkeys, well met.

Driven to Distraction: A Motorist's Lament

As a Scot resident in Japan, you prepare yourself mentally to be shocked and awed by a variety of cultural differences on an almost daily basis. After a while of being continually being served squid-eyes and raw eggs you gain a learned indifference to those sorts of daily culinary atrocities, and after about the 100th crotch-grab you are even able to take that with desensitized ease. However, sometimes - just sometimes - a cultural difference will pop up unannounced with such alien vigour as to completely boggle the mind.
Of course, as we all know, the place where we are most susceptible to fall prey to the ugly vulture of bad temper is at the wheel of a motor vehicle. It seems that in a car, even the tightest wound coils of human virtue unravel and start damning and cursing other motorists. One need only think back to family holidays, with their excesses of ring-road traffic jams, to imagine the familial good humour disintegrating in a haze of hissed insults and pointed criticism of Dad’s route-planning.
This perhaps explains my chagrin to be driving on a narrow, unlit, mountain road, turning a blind bend and encountering a parked vehicle in the middle of the road with its hazard lights blinking, while the driver stood by the side of the road catching frogs with a net. One emergency stop later, I was driving away fuming in an impotent rage. This sort of thing actually happens a lot in Japan. In Britain, hazard lights are only deployed in an emergency, if at all, whereas in Japan the hazards are chucked on if the driver needs to nip into the shop for a tin of juice. The Japanese as a people are unusually apologetic, in Japanese one has often apologized three or four times before a conversation has even begun – criminals are even often released if they say they are sorry. The hazard light is a way of saying “sorry!” for bad driving practices even as they are being committed. While this will drive a foreigner up the wall this is perfectly reasonable for the Japanese.
My brush with death of course got me thinking about this. Worldwide there are many different conventions for driving. In Cambodia for instance there are no lanes and right of way is determined more or less by a game of chicken, in which two vehicles will go for it at once and the first driver to slam on the anchors in naked terror is forced to give way. Luckily since Cambodia has more or less a lack of cars this does not happen very often.
On a recent trip to Hanoi I got to know another inventive, if flawed traffic system. Hanoi is a city of roughly 5 million, and has about 3 million scooters and motorcycles. There are no lanes here either, and the traffic flows in one direction like a river. Rarely does traffic ever flow two ways at once. In addition to this, the horn is used here rather than as a tool to register one’s dissatisfaction with another driver as some bizarre form of orientational equipment. While honking the horn constantly to inform other drivers of their whereabouts, the Vietnamese driver uses the other driver’s honks to disseminate their locations from the cacophony. I wouldn’t be surprised if most Vietnamese drivers could drive with their eyes closed, so much they rely on the horn to orientate themselves. It’s almost like a bat’s sonar. The honking usually starts with the morning traffic around 4:30 am and continues long into the night. How anybody gets any sleep at all is a mystery to this confounded westerner. The Japanese by contrast use the horn primarily as an expression of thanks to other motorists – like the British they would rather suck in any anger relating to other drivers and rage about it later in private.
If driving conventions differ from country to country, surely must attitudes to driving. A recent EU-wide survey by the RAC has revealed various different attitudes displayed by residents of the EU. Unsurprisingly, the Brits take the crown for the most uptight drivers, with a whopping 87% revealing that they sometimes became “very annoyed” with drivers. Quite what very annoyed encompasses is indistinct but I took to mean shouting, huffing or flicking the V’s. I understand this a great deal. I don’t know how many times I have howled and raved in the driver’s seat of my car while doddering behind some poor old grandmother who can barely see over the wheel driving 20 miles an hour on the motorway and dragging a length of fence and a dead sheep behind her. But as we are British of course we would rather stew in private than actually confront the other road user about their conduct. The French on the other hand, showed a different tack with 60% of drivers admitting they had acted aggressively to other road users. The reasonable Belgians were revealed to be the most laid-back of drivers in the EU, with only a 55% annoyance ratio.
Of course all this really means is that if you intend to go abroad this summer exercise the proper care and discretion when dealing with traffic, and always expect the unexpected. Foreign drivers will be prepared for some little Italian taxi drivers making an emergency stop and reversing down the left hand lane while looking over his hairy shoulders and swearing, but perhaps you will not. Statistics indicate that UK drivers are three times as likely to be involved in a fatal accident in Spain or Portugal than at home. UK drivers are to be advised to pay attention, drive carefully and bottle up their rage for release at a later date, probably in the form of a nervous breakdown or a massive coronary. Oh well, you can’t win them all.

Friday, August 04, 2006

You'd better start running, fucko.

The news this week has provided me with many talking points. The Delhi city authorities are dealing with their monkey infestation by introducing larger, more blood-thirsty simians in the hope that they will wipe out the shit-hurling menaces without proving a bigger problem themselves. Gordon Brown has been voted “Britain’s most influential disabled man” much to his confusion and the amusement of many observers, some of whom have joked that if being born without a personality is a disability then Mr Brown would be receiving a rather large government subsidy. Israel is bombing everyone – Lebanon, Gaza, the UN – safe in the knowledge that until American jews cease to be wealthy they will never be brought to book. But one story, for me at least, has proved the ultimate zeitgeist and really hit home what it means to be alive in this accursed Year of Our Lord two-thousand-and-six.

On the tiny Davaar Island, on Campbeltown Loch in Argyll (West Scotland for those of you not lucky enough to be born in God’s Kingdom) you can see a wonderful example of some late 19th Century religious artwork, a picture of Jesus Christ painstaking daubed onto the wall of a cave in 1887 by local schoolteacher and apparent religious fruitcake Archibald MacKinnon. While not the most famous piece of its ilk, it is certainly a local treasure and attracts a great deal of visitors to the area, many of whom believe the painting to be sacred.

Unfortunately, yesterday the painting was discovered with a huge image of Cuban revolutionary Ernesto “Che” Guevara spraypainted over it in what has been described as an “apparent political attack”. This saddens and shocks me, firstly because of the destruction of such a beautiful piece of artwork, and secondly because of the way it was destroyed. Certainly this was not an act of political vandalism. Guevara’s image is one of the most instantly recognizable in the world, and although people rarely know anything about the history involved, Che’s handsome and defiant visage represents to us a righteous and indignant rebellion against tyranny of all kinds. Forget communism, what this represents to people is sticking it to the man. While a potent image, let us not forget is also a generic image, a prepackaged imaged, cruelly hijacked by capitalists and “alternative” clothing companies to give middle-class privileged kids that anti-establishment edge they will need to give them credibility while they study to be economists of some kind. What has happened, very probably is that some kid, who thinks he’s smart, and he knows about politiks has spraypainted – nay, stencil spraypainted – a picture of a long-dead commie from a different hemisphere, who means nothing to him politically or culturally over a beautifully painted, loving created piece which represents the more sublime aspects of a religion, which while has been damaging for Scotland as a whole, has been responsible for some of our greatest moments, and is a vital part of our history and heritage. It is a case of something beautiful being destroyed to make way for something that is frankly a bit rubbish. No doubt this child thinks himself the graffiti king – well if you’re so good why do you need a stencil? Why not draw it yourself? Are you a communist? Doubt it – if you were you wouldn’t use a symbol that had been so obviously co-opted by capitalist institutions, you’d draw - oh I don’t know – Frederick Engels or even fucking Leonid Brezhnev. Then I’d believe you had even a minute amount of knowledge regarding communism. Have you no imagination? Why shout so loud when you have nothing to say? Ah, what’s the world coming to? I am a great believer in the power of social revolution, and completely irreligious, so as you can see politics and religion don’t come into it for me. All I see is art that means something being replaced with art that means nothing. If I catch the kid I’m going to strike him mute and fuck him lame. Bastard.