Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Nazis Come In Many Colours

If you lift those hoods, what colour faces would you expect to see?

Compare and Contrast

Here are two stories. The first, you've probably heard of. It's the terrible racist murder of black student Anthony Walker. Here's a typical news summary of this case (from the BBC website some months ago).

"A-Level student Anthony Walker, 18, died in hospital after a gang of up to four white men attacked him in Huyton, Merseyside, on Friday.

He had been taunted at a bus stop with his white girlfriend and a male cousin. They fled but were set upon in a park.

Police believe the killers are local, and want the community to give them up.

Mr Walker had spent the evening with his girlfriend, who attended the same sixth-form college in Huyton.

Merseyside Police said that as the couple waited for a bus outside the Huyton Park pub with Mr Walker's cousin they were subjected to a "torrent of racial abuse" by a man in his 20s wearing a hooded top.

Police want to trace two men who were seen talking to the man shortly after he hurled the abuse.

'We believe the offenders are local and we believe it is the responsibility of the local community to give [them] up,' says Assistant Chief Constable Bernard Lawson

Mr Walker and his companions did not retaliate to the abuse and left to find another bus stop. But they were followed and as they walked through McGoldrick Park they were attacked by a gang of three or four men.

Mr Walker's girlfriend and cousin saw a man carrying an axe bludgeon him, and ran to get help. When they returned minutes later they found him slumped on the ground with massive head injuries.

The axe was embedded in his skull.

Police hope CCTV footage from a camera just yards away from where Mr Walker was attacked will provide vital clues.

Mr Walker was taken to Whiston Hospital and later transferred to Walton neurological centre where he died at 0525 BST on Saturday."

Wicked, sick and repellent. Of course. Now look at this story, from the Guardian website, a year or two back.

"A man has been convicted for his part in the racist murder of a 15-year-old schoolboy who was kidnapped, stabbed and set on fire for no other reason than he was white and in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Kriss Donald was snatched from the streets of Pollokshields, Glasgow, in March by a group of five Asian men looking for revenge after one of them had been struck by a bottle thrown by a white teenager in a nightclub the previous day.

At the high court in Glasgow yesterday, Daanish Zahid, 20, was by unanimous verdict found guilty of the racially aggravated abduction, assault and murder of Kriss. He will be sentenced at a later date.

The court had heard that Kriss was jumped on as he walked down a street near his home with a friend. As he was bundled into a car, he screamed: "Why me? I'm only 15."

His mutilated body was found the next day on a walkway in the east end of the city. The slightly built boy had been beaten, held down and stabbed 13 times, then set on fire while he was still alive. Bleeding to death and burning, he tried to crawl towards the river Clyde but died in a ditch.

A passerby who found his body the following day thought he had stumbled across the carcass of a dead animal.

Zahid had claimed in court that he was not part of any plan to abduct Kriss, and accused two other men, who cannot be named for legal reasons, of the murder. Zahid admitted being in a car at the scene where Kriss was killed, and said he had heard the boy's "screams and cries of pain" and seen a fireball after accelerant was poured over the teenager."

I guess - I'm just guessing - that if you are British you have heard of Anthony Walker. But you probably haven't heard of Kriss Donald, even though his murder was significantly 'worse', given that poor Kriss Donald was first tortured, then stabbed, then set alight, over several long hours. Walker was killed with one axe-blow to the head.

So how come Anthony Walker's murder has led the TV news on several occasions, but Kriss Donald's has been forgotten? Is there just better news value in murderous white racism than murderous brown racism?

Google hits for 'murder' & "Kriss Donald" - 787. Google hits for 'murder' & "Anthony Walker" - 43,000.

Kriss Donald. RIP.

Monday, November 28, 2005

Britain's New Licensing Laws

Some of Britain's vital munitions workers, last Wednesday.

As British toffeewomblers will be well aware, last week the government introduced liberal new licensing laws, finally abandoning the restrictive drinking hours which have held sway in the UK for ninety years.

All well and good, you might think. Yet in the midst of the debate and celebration, one thing has gone missing. Those restrictive alcohol laws were originally introduced in the Great War, when it was felt that too many vital munitions workers were getting drunk at all hours, thus endangering the war effort.

So, what would effect would the new laws have on those very workers? This seems a crucial point to me. Last week, as a consequence, I paid a visit to an armaments factory in Deptford, to see the workers before the law. There's a photo I took above. An orderly and sober scene, I think - encouraging to all who care for the nation's security. Then, two days later, after the new laws came in, I returned to Deptford, to find out how the workers were responding to the government's new 24/7 licensing hours. Here's what I encountered:

Here are two of the same women, yesterday. A clear difference in behaviour, I think. However, this could have been a coincidence, so I proceeded to another pub, which now has drinking up to 1am. This is what I saw...

... Yet another munitions worker from the photo at the top. Two days ago this was a vibrant but diligent young woman, happily engaged in the manufacturing of howizter shells. Now look at her, just one day after the New Licensing Laws came into effect. If this is the kind of thing we can now expect, the nation is clearly at risk.

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

American Stonehenge

Doesn't look much, does it? Just a bump in the endless scrublands of the American southwest. Actually, it's a modern day Avebury, a hi-tech Carnac, a contemporary pyramid fashioned by laser beams. It's also damn hard to get to.

Star Axis

Seventy miles west of Santa Fe, New Mexico, a dozen miles from the nearest wind-blown desert settlement, one of the world's most extraordinary artworks is nearing completion. Called Star Axis, it is the beloved brainchild of fifty-something US artist Charles Ross.

Star Axis is, its progenitor claims, a 'naked eye observatory'. The essential purpose of Star Axis is the viewing of New Mexico's wonderfully cloudless desert night skies. But the observatory looks like no other earthbound telescope. With its pyramids, stone chambers, viewing platforms and sombre pharaonic staircases, it could be an unexpectedly pristine pre-Columbian excavation, or even the neolithic home of a wistful alien.

For the genesis of Star Axis we have to go back thirty years or more, when Charles Ross was a member of a famous, and infamous, art movement. This movement has had various names over the years - Land Art, Earthworks, or Environmental Art. Whatever its true title, most people agree that Land Art began in 1968, when the Dwan Gallery in New York staged an exhibition of works which all seemed to celebrate and elegise man's relationship with Mother Nature.

Featured in the exhibition were several artists who went on to great fame within the genre. The curator of the exhibition, Robert Smithson, later built Spiral Jetty. This is a huge whorl of dark rocks, that spirals into the polluted pink waters of Utah's Great Salt Lake like the ravenblack hairbang of a Twenties flapper.

Walter de Maria, another Dwan artist, also went on to fame: when he stuck four hundred shining steel javelins in the undulating scrublands of western New Mexico. De Maria entitled this justly celebrated artwork Lightning Field (as it was designed to attract lightning in a storm-prone area). Yet another Dwan gallery luminary, Michael Heizer, chopped 240,000 precise tons of granite from Mormon Mesa in Nevada and called it Double Negative. Heizer labours to this day on the construction of his very own Aztec fortress: Complex One, an enormous edifice of courts, walls and truncated pyramids, sited on Heizer's own remote Nevada ranch.

Compared to these revered artistic names, of Heizer, Smithson and de Maria, that of Charles Ross is relatively lesser known. But with the completion of Star Axis - expected in the next couple of years - he may become more famous than any of his Land Art co-creators.

This fame, if it happens, has been a long time a-coming. Charles Ross first conceived of his artwork in the early 70s. For the next four or five years he and his assistants criss-crossed the desert states of Utah, New Mexico, west Texas, and Colorado, searching for the perfect site. By 1975 they had found their grail; the purchase of Chupinas Mesa followed a few months later.

But that was just the beginning. From the off, Star Axis was a mammoth project, requiring prodigious amounts of preparation. For several more years the site was surveyed from planes, and the artwork mapped out with topographical models. Fully five miles of road were also laid down, to enable access to such a faraway location.

Finally, construction of the art work proper was commenced. Ross & Co excavated the Mesa's central cone, built stone channels, threw up a cone-rim to protect the heart of the work, and constructed various buttresses, walls and towers. All this time, the architect had to be wholly mindful of the true purpose of the artwork - to provide naked eye apertures wherefrom certain cosmic sights and progressions could be viewed. Therefore the building had to be done in the most exact way, with computerised modelling and so forth.

The last few years have seen - funding problems notwithstanding - an acceleration in pace. The buildings have been faced with beautiful grey and ochre stone, which shine in the desert light. Accommodation has also been built, for the selected visitors who will one day be invited.

So, if you are lucky enough to visit this enormous art work, what do you see? Star Axis has four essential elements. The first is the Hour Chamber. From here one can view an hour of the earth's rotation. Charles Ross himself describes it like this: 'The opening of the Hour Chamber is a 15 degree triangle, the amount the sun travels in one hour. When seated on the observing bench positioned in the back and centre of the Hour Chamber, this thirty three foot tall triangular opening frames sixty minutes of the stars directly beneath the pole. This celestial pole is precisely framed by the peak of the triangle.'

Put it another way: this is a room to silently view a shard of the earth's movement, a glimpse of our cosmic dance. Sitting in the darkness of the Hour Chamber is akin to sitting in the nave of a great Gothic church - trying to discern the meaning of that bright blue stained-glass window in the choir.

This reverent ambience is underlined by the solemn climb to the Hour Chamber: up through the so-called Solar Pyramid. This itself is the second element of Star Axis. Practically speaking, the Solar Pyramid is a kind of sun dial: its triangular shadow marches across the desert floor as the hours pass. This 'shadow field' has been closely designed on astronomical and aesthetic principles; the size of the shadow field also changes with the seasons. The echoes of the great Aztec pyramids, eight hundred miles to the south of Star Axis - and similarly designed on heavenly principles - are obvious.

The third artistic compass point of Star Axis is the Equatorial Chamber. This was almost an afterthought - Ross only built it when he was devising an entrance to his piece de resistance, the Star Tunnel. The Equatorial Chamber is a kind of Mayan hallway, a place to 'reorient yourself' within the building, and with the heavens above. This intense space also happens to be precisely aligned to the earth's axis, and is perpendicular to the equator.

The final element of Star Axis, and its spiritual core, is the Star Tunnel. Here's how Charles Ross describes his coup de theatre: 'At the center of the Star Axis site, an inverted cone has been carved deep into the capstone of the mesa and lined with rock masonry. Within this cone a specially constructed tunnel will rise eleven stories. Visitors will enter the tunnel from the bottom of the cone and walk up the stairs in perfect alignment with the Earth’s axis and its outward extension to the stars. As the axis moves away from Polaris to point to other regions in the sky, the relationship between Polaris and the pole diverges in ever-widening circles.'

As he goes on the explain, in the Star Tunnel the earth's '29,920 year time frame of precession' is 'spatially experienced by moving up or down the tunnel's staircase'. In other words, the heavens above are turned into a slot to view astronomical time. Being in the Star Tunnel is like being in a Soho peep show - but looking at Moses. It's odd, and unnerving, and ultimately rather moving.

There are other touches. Dates engraved in each stair of the Star Tunnel identify the years relating to the stars above. Thus, as Charles Ross puts it, the visitor can view the orbit of Polaris as it existed for Nefertiti, or Plato, or Leonardo da Vinci, or as it was in the Stone Age and will be again in A.D. 13,000. Other apertures are designed to make certain stars appear at certain angles, and so on.

If this sounds like a paean, it shouldn't. Star Axis, like all Land Art, is not without its flaws and its detractors. Many people ask how these gigantic artworks can justify the despoliation they represent. And standing a few hundred yards from the Solar Pyramid of Star Axis, it's easy to see that point of view. Did the desert ask to be sliced open and imposed upon? Do the mesas and the wilderness gain from such 'arrogantly' artistic interpretations?

And yet, and yet. The same criticisms could be levelled at the great megalithic monuments of Carnac, Kilmartin, Silbury Hill and Newgrange -along with many others. And this just goes to show the exalted company Star Axis keeps. As it rises from the sandy wastes of New Mexico, Star Axis is sincere evidence that man has not lost his intuitive connexion with the heavens, his ability to celebrate our earthly condition in a humble yet magnificent manner. Whoever threw up those sarsen stones on Salisbury Plain would feel very much at home amidst the sagebrush and the pyramids of Chupinas Mesa.

Star Axis is scheduled for completion in 2006.

For plentiful information on visits and funding go to

One of Star Axis's extraordinary stairways.

Deep inside Star Axis.

A view of New Mexico from the Hour Chamber.

Beneath the whirling desert heavens...

Friday, November 18, 2005

Scrying with Nubiles

What do you think this is, a porn-site? No, sorry - this picture is strictly relevant to the post, so I felt I had to put it on, for clarity's sake. The thing is, by watching the way your girlfriend removes her knickers, after she's gone, er, bicycling without her skirt on, you can predict the future. Yes!

I know I haven't been blogging much of late. I also fear I may not be blogging quite so much over the next few months (though I may blog even more, so stop cheering). This is because I have been distracted over the last few days, and I may be distracted further in the future. And why these distractions? [get to the point, Sean] Well, it's because the good people at Bloomsbury Books have taken my next volume of memoirs. Yes! It's true! Yay! Hooray! Hip Hip! Huzzah! May the angels of happiness strum their harps overhead, may the trumpets of joy be heard in every Pret a Manger in the realm, may I get a really big fat advance.


But still, there's no point in me counting my literary chickens yet, is there? Who knows, I may only sell two copies, and then I'll have to go back to reviewing Lego for amazon (see posts below, passim).

And that's what this post's about. Telling the future. I've been investigating the various means of clairvoyancy and soothsaying through history, to see if any of them are any good, and will tell me just how famous I'm going to be. Here's what I found.

How To Tell The Future


is the art of foretelling the future by looking at smoke. It was practised in Babylonian and Roman times. To do it, first get some incense, or scented wood. Then burn this over some charcoal, in a small brazier. This should be placed in your lap, so try not to chargrill your nads. Now ask a question relating to the future and watch the response of the smoke: if the smoke goes straight up the answer is yes, if the smoke is wonky, or sluggish, it’s no. This method of fortune-telling was favoured by famous mystic Emmuduranki of Sippar. So you’re in good company.

is the name for predicting the future onion. In fact three onions. Obtain three fresh round onions. Place them in a spot where they can be undisturbed for some time. Name the left onion Yes, the middle onion Maybe, the third No. According to top American fortune-telling expert Scott Cunningham: ‘the first onion to sprout determines the answer to your question. If the onion’s sprout points towards you, that strengthens the accuracy of the answer’. I'm really not making this up.

is the ancient art of foretelling what’s to come by looking at the entrails of sacrificed animals. This art was much favoured by the Romans, who used to get through thousands of cattle a week in their temples. If you don’t have any cattle to hand, try a Sainsbury’s chicken with giblets. Related divinatory arts are Hepatascopy, clairvoyance by looking at animal livers, Oomantia, which is divination through the inspection of egg whites, and that old favourite, Tasseography, aka the Tea Leaf Method.

is divination by looking at people dressing or undressing. Possibly one of the more enjoyable techniques, if your subject is a nubile Roman slave girl, the Caesars particularly favoured this method. Apparently one morning Augustus Caesar’s right sandal was buckled on to the wrong foot by his valet. As a result of this, the Emperor Augustus knew a military revolt would occur that day. Which it did, so stop sniggering at the back.

Next time you’re at a party
observe the girls dancing round their handbags. Watch to see which girl drops out first. You now know the future as you’ve just practised Gyromancy, the art of fortune-telling by watching people dance in rings. If this isn’t flaky enough for your tastes, you could try Onchyomancy, the art of divination by examining fingernails, Molybdomancy, where you drop molten lead in water, Tiromancy, for which you need holey pieces of cheese, or Yourgirlfreind’sexpression-
thismorningomancy, by which you can tell if you are going to get laid that evening.

Monday, November 14, 2005

Good Names, Bad Names

Sign, Majanga, Madagascar.

Hooray! I have a title for my second volume of memoirs. It is:

Happiness Cracked

One Man's Pursuit of the Ultimate Pleasure

Not bad, eh? I'd like to thank all the toffeewomblers who gave their own suggestions, i.e. none of you, you useless lazy fuckers. Cuh. Don't come running to me when you need a name for your stupid screenplay/new fishing boat/baby daughter.

But enuff churlishness. To celebrate my successful title-scrumping, I thought I'd post this pic I took in Madagascar, a few weeks ago, of what has to be the most unfortunately-named shipping line in the whole of the southwest Indian Ocean.


Sunday, November 13, 2005

Something Good From Belgium

'My boyfriend's a dick'. A Scala chorister sings her little Flanders heart out, using swear words.

From The Guardian, a few weeks ago...

The Scala Choir

Sean Thomas

'I touch Myself', by the Divinyls, a gloriously sleazy 80s single about female masturbation, is hardly an obvious choice of material for a chorus of teenage Belgian maidens. But that's the kind of song the Scala choir chooses to cover. Even more surprisingly, in their innocent mouths it becomes a spiritual psychodrama of quite unsettling power.

The Scala choir was formed in 1996, in the Belgian village of Aarschot, by two brothers named Steven and Stijn Kolacny. The brothers chose sixty adolescent village girls, who were then given an intense vocal training.

Of course there are many gifted choirs. The paradigm shift came in 2000 when the Kolacnys' choir of girls started performing pop songs, both standard and obscure. The effect was revolutionary. As Scala aficionados already know, there are few things as electrifying as hearing a chorus of wide-eyed Fleming sixthformers sweetly enunciating the words 'her boyfriend's a dick, he brings a gun to school' (from Wheatus' Teenage Dirtbag) as if they were singing the Kyrie from Verdi's Requiem.

Since that watershed in the choir's history, they have gone on to serious cult status, much of it achieved via the Internet. Their occasional shows are sold out; their albums of cover versions (like Scala on the Rocks) have done well in France and the Benelux; their inexplicably spine-tingling versions of Travis, Jacques Brel and U2 have even been heard on the radio. And now, with a big European tour, they threaten to break into the mainstream, and into the English-speaking world.

Weird enough, you may think. Yet Scala are just the latest in a slew of curiously off-centre outfits to impact on the musical scene. In the last few years, a whole genre of unlikely people making inspiring music has sprung up. It has even been given a name: Outsider Music.

Other examples of Outsider Music include the Langley Schools Music Project, a decades-old recording of Canadian infants singing famous popsongs, and the Shaggs, a bunch of American hillbillies with a piercingly creepy discography. Some musicologists would cite Gavin Bryars's Jesus' Blood Never Failed Me Yet, a fifty minute fugue incorporating a London hobo's drunken hymn, which was composed by Bryars in 1973, as an early and excellent example of the genre.

But you don't have to dig that deep to appreciate Outsider Music. Just listen to the Scala Choir mixing Bach and blatant lunacy on their new version of
Radiohead's Creep. You may never be the same again.

Four and twenty virgins came down from... Flemish-speaking Belgium. The Scala girls giving it their all.

Thursday, November 10, 2005

Heaven: an Update*

Paradise, yesterday.

Heaven: the latest Updates

God has announced that the following updates are
available for Heaven 7.1.4, by visiting

Both mac and pc users should note that this software
only runs upon death, and that all your sin
repentances should be up to date.

The new Heaven has resolved issues with haloes and has
a new look chat room for catholic martyrs.

God bless

Archangel Gabriel in Excel Office 2004


Heaven 7.1.4 is a faith based application for those
that have downloaded Jesus into their hearts. This
software may cause issues with Jewish and Muslim users.

*I'd like to thank my friend Loic Rich for letting me blog this - his comedic riff on Heaven - without his permission, as I couldn't think of anything to blog myself. Hey, we all have our off days.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Trilobite Tea Party

Fossils on sale in Tangier market, yesterday.

It has been alleged that some of the fossils on sale in Morocco are fake. I'd just like to say that, having recently returned from Tangiers, this is a complete calumny against a fine bunch of traders. I did a long tour of the souks of that city, and literally every fossil I saw was at least as genuine as the one pictured above. OK, the moaning minnies amongst the 'real fossil brigade' might claim that it is rather unlikely that two trilobites, a scorpion and a thingummy would all get fossilised at the same time in the same place in a precisely equidistant way, but haven't these 'real fossil obsessives' ever considered the possibility that dinosaurs had picnics? Maybe these antediluvian creatures were having a good old natter about the ammonite down the road and then WHAM they got fossilised? What's so unbelievable about that? Fake fossils, my Cornish arse.

Next thing, they'll be saying that some of the hard drugs sold on the streets of London are 'cut' in some way.

Saturday, November 05, 2005


There, that got your attention, didn't it? Hitler may have been a genocidal pervert, but he sure knew how to design a flag. But stop looking at it now, or you might go to jail.


Yesterday six 'white British supremacists' were jailed, one for five years, for distributing race-hate literature, and promoting a racist website. At the trial the Judge said they were not being imprisoned for what they believed, as 'this is a free country', but for inciting racial violence. As some of the material distributed included advice on how to 'roast a rabbi' and how to construct a nail bomb, it would seem these sentences were entirely justifed.

And no doubt they were, against the five men who actually distributed this vile garbage. However the case of the sixth man sentenced yesterday, Kevin Quinn, is more challenging.

As far as I can establish this man was given his suspended two year jail sentence not for distributing the material mentioned above, but for 'possessing a Nazi pamphlet', called the Longest Hatred. He also apparently had a 'bust of Hitler' in his home and 'a copy of Mein Kampf'.

Intrigued by these references, I did some research. Clearly this pamphlet must be pretty bad, for its mere possession to be an imprisonable offence. Is it? Decide for yourself - it's here.

Then again, you may not want to read it, as doing so might put you in prison. So I'll summarise it for you - it's a fairly lunatic, predictably repellent piece of anti-Semitic drivel, blaming the Jews for communism, multi-culturalism, capitalism, the price of petrol, and all those bad haircuts in the 80s. Etc etc. But, and here's the crux of the matter, at no point does it say 'go out and kill all the Jews' or 'go out and torch a synagogue', or anything of that kind. It's just fairly nasty, very boring gibberish.

And a man has got a jail sentence for 'possessing' it.

Doesn't that make you think? It is a crime simply to possess a pamphlet with anti-Semitic overtones. Whatever we think of anti-Semitism, whatever we think of the sad guy with the Hitler bust, this seems incredible to me. It also belies what the judge says: clearly the UK is no longer a free country, if you can't 'possess' pamphlets with unsavoury political views without risking a prison sentence.

Anyway. Watch out everyone. Perhaps it's time for you to junk those videos about the Nazis. While you're at it, get rid of those history books with the picture of Goebbels. And burn your laptop after readng this post, the cops are probably watching you now. Personally speaking, I'm going to have a lobotomy, to remove the parts of my brain where the words "anti-Semitic" have occurred. You never know.

Friday, November 04, 2005

Blunkett, Blair, Bleeeahh

As British toffeewomblers will know, our beloved UK Pensions minister, David Blunkett, has just had to resign, following more allegations of sleaze and corruption.

This is actually the second time Blunkett has resigned in a year. The man's got form. A lot of form. Over the last year or two he has had an affair with another man's wife, fraudulently given this woman free travel, illegally helped her nanny to get a quick visa, unethically joined a company weeks before rejoining the Cabinet (against ministerial rules), tried to profit from the same company's involvement with the government, used government notepaper for personal and commercial purposes, and generally taken jobs without declaring them in the proper way - despite being informed of the proper procedure three times over. He has also faced unproven allegations of: interfering with his son's schooling through the Education Department, using government chauffeurs for private purposes, unethically asking the police to guard his mistress, putting pressure on the US Embassy to grant a passport, and getting the taxpayer to pay for a Spanish trip with his girlfriend. I may have missed something.

And his response? In his farewell speeches, he says he has 'done nothing wrong', however he admits he has 'made mistakes'.

I like this ‘mistake’ thing. Useful. I’ve got a magistrates hearing coming up for a speeding offence, 72mph in a 60mph zone. In fact, I might try and use the Blunkett defence.

‘So, Mister Thomas, you admit you knew the speed limit, but you then accelerated to 72mph.’
‘Yes, your Honour, but it was a mistake.’
‘But you admit that you did this three times. That you were informed of the speed limit three times over, yet each time you carried on speeding at 72mph.’
‘Yes, but each time it was a mistake.’
‘Fair enough. You remain a man of the utmost decency and integrity. Not guilty.’

Don’t think so, do you?

Even more intriguingly, the Prime Minister, confronted with the above list of Blunkett's misdeeds, has declared in ringing tones to the House of Commons, that David Blunkett is an honourable man who leaves office 'without a stain of impropriety'. Without a stain, not a single embarrassing stain? Really?

I’d like to have seen Blair’s response, if he’d had Fred West as a Cabinet Minister.

‘Fred West remains a man of unblemished integrity and honesty. Yes he has admitted making mistakes in butchering seven of his children and thirteen lodgers and burying them in the garden, but I do not see how this affects his Cabinet position. We all make mistakes. Fred West has also had to overcome significant problems in his life, not least being a blood-crazed sexual psychopath, and I think fair-minded people will take this into account when judging his behaviour. Indeed, I believe Fred West remains the ideal person to pilot through parliament the government’s new Back Garden Paving-Over (Amendment) bill.’

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Seoul Music

Me, trying to look cool, in South Korea.

As regular toffeewomblers will know, a few months back I spent a short time in South Korea. Here's what I found. Please excuse the puns.

Korea Guidance

You know how you feel when you look at a champion bodybuilder? That appalled fascination? That grudging respect? That mixture of ugh and wow? That’s the same reaction you get when you look at the South Korean capital, Seoul.

Because this isn’t the most pretty of cities. In places it’s downright ugly. Yet when you consider that the whole place has been built in fifty years, from scratch, after the devastation and carnage of the Korean war, then you can only gasp in admiration. Here is a vast, brawny, butch, kinetic, energising Asian metropolis of at least ten million people - that has been lifted into the smoggy sky in almost the same time it takes you and me to put up that pesky bedroom shelf.

Not that Seoul is all brashness and concrete. Within its hilly swathes of brick and breezeblock there are some corners that have a gentler feel, a defiantly feminine touch.

My first such discovery is at the national palace of Gyeongbokgung. This is a complex of pagodas, burned down by the Japanese twice (as the local guides are keen to mention). It’s kind of impressive, but also rather monotonous. But then I reach the side-pagoda of Hyeonghoeru; this floats above a placid lake, next to serenely empty concourses, with a curtain of blue mountains beyond. It makes for a strangely moving scene, despite or because of the hum of the nearby freeways.

And it’s not just ancient (or rebuilt) monuments that offer these gratifying moments of lyricism. For instance, just a few hundred yards from the main drag of Sejongno - noisy, pushy, frenetic - is tranquil Insadong. This retiring neighbourhood feels like a throwback to an older Korea, full of exquisite cafes, intriguing art galleries, wooden framed teahouses, and shy little restaurants - serving suckling pig with kimchi pickle, or the wildly more-ish native staple, of rice and spicy meat, called bibimbap. One of the teahouses, as I discover, even has little songbirds fluttering delightfully through its rafters. I just hope the birds don’t fall in the tea (‘waiter, there’s a thrush in my cuppa’).

Actually, if the birds did take a dive into the char, the locals would probably eat it. One of the most notorious aspects of South Korea is the nation’s penchant for lustily gulping down the strangest food items: like grasshoppers, octopus eggs, and dogs. On my second day in town I dligently hunt around for some of these items, and come up trumps with a tin of silkworm larvae, openly sold on the shelf of a downtown 7/11. These are very popular with kids, or so the cashier tells me.

Carting my prize back to the hotel I open up the tin of silkworm pupae. The larvae are soaked in soy sauce and vinegar and look like small rotting beans with a cancerous tan. The smell is even worse. Nonetheless I manage to force down a third of one bug - before rushing into the hotel corridor and hurling the entire contents of my mouth, and the can, into the very deepest bin I can find.

What kind of people would enjoy this kind of food? The sort of people who like to drink lots of beer. On my last evening in Seoul I head up one of the city’s wooded hills to take a look at the view (Seoul definitely looks better by night). The area I explore - Itaewon - turns out to be the alluring Hampstead of Seoul: full of affluent families, and their leggy student daughters. Itaewon also boasts plenty of bars, hotels and upmarket nightclubs.

For some reason I am expecting these places to be sensible, and decorous, or at least orderly and businesslike, as that is what Seoul is like by day. I couldn’t be more wrong. These places rock. The bars are full of drunken salarymen whooping it up, the clubs are full of their almost-as-noisy wives and girlfriends and, I suspect, whores. It’s an infectiously happy scene, and I’m beginning to see why the Koreans are known, to some, as the Irish of Asia. By the end of the evening I end up in sentimental group hug with a bunch of shipowners, as we all join in a maudlin singsong.

The next day I wake up with a Korean-War-sized headache. So I fly to the one place in the country guaranteed to soothe a hangover: Jejudo, the semi-tropical island that lies a hundred miles adrift of the Korean mainland. I have been told that Jejudo is the honeymoon capital of Korea. Whoever told me that is dead right. The place is chocka with embarrassed new husbands in ill-fitting dinner jackets.

Why do they come here? Because Jejudo has a lot going for it: accommodation, transport, dinners and drinks are as good, and even cheaper, as elsewhere in Korea. The local grilled fish dishes are also quite fabulous: check out the squid. Cactus tea is another impressive local speciality, along with those octupus eggs. And the beaches aren’t half bad, either.

Yet my favourite thing about Jejudo turns out to be none of these things. What I most like about the place is the haunting landscape. With its drystone hedges, bedraggled cottages, enigmatic stone menhirs, and rainswept green fields, Jejudo has something of a Celtic feel - it could almost be Connemara, or the Isle of Lewis. If it weren’t for the bashful oriental brides plucking tangerines from the trees.

Tempting as it is to loiter in Jejudo, until I am as tanned as brown as a soy-sauce-soaked silkworm pupa, I have one more stop to do. Back in Seoul I climb on board a bus. I’m heading for the DMZ, the so-called ‘Demilitarized Zone’ that still divides South Korea from the Stalinist North. I’m keen to see the very last frontier of the Cold War.

As we get on the bus, the tourguide makes sure that no one is wearing jeans. Apparently jeans are seen as ‘disrespectful’. This curious clothes policy enacted, we set off: heading through desultory suburbs, followed by mellow hills and sunlit paddy fields. Everything is calm, even jolly. But then the mood seems to change. The faces of the tourguides grow darker, even the sky seems to cloud over in sympathy. Finally, the border looms up.

It’s enormous. The lofty fences of steel and razorwire stretch over hill and dale - like a high-tech Hadrian’s Wall. What makes this incredible barrier even more striking is its utter seriousness. As the the guide explains, this 240km-long, 4km-wide strip of no-man’s-land, isn’t just for show. People are still getting shot here - defectors, frightened soldiers, fishermen.

Suitably chastened, everyone climbs off the bus, to go look at the two villages that survive inside this surreal ribbon of no-man’s-land. The first village, officially administered by the South, looks bright enough. A showpiece for capitalism. But then we discover there’s a curfew in the DMZ, enforced as part of the post-war truce agreement. Everyone has to be home by 11pm, or else.

As for the village run by the communist North - Gijong - that’s even weirder: no one lives here. It’s a ghost village. The only signs of life are vast arrays of loudspeakers, constantly blaring propaganda at the decadent capitalists in their respectful slacks. As persuasive tactics go, this isn’t very effective. Frankly, I wish I’d worn jeans.

Back in Seoul, I am ready to leave. But before I do, I get to witness one more extraordinary thing. Lunchtime. It happens like this. I am in the middle of sunny, smoggy, downtown Seoul, surrounded by the skyscrapers, the soaring corporate headquarters. It’s five to twelve, and the place is averagely busy.

Then the clock strikes noon. Suddenly the pavements are engulfed with people: black haired secretaries, white shirted executives, bustling office workers from LG and Samsung and Hyundai. And these people aren’t out strolling, they aren’t ambling to the sandwich bar. They are striding, marching, speeding. The tide of chattering, nodding, hungry, determined, bibimbap-seeking humanity is so powerful I am actually swept off the sidewalk and into the street, where a trendy kid on a motorbike nearly hits me.

I don’t know what that says about Korea. But it is eerily impressive. Like watching a brilliant young bodybuilder, flexing his steroidal muscles.

Somewhere in South Korea.

Interesting feature of old building in Seoul. Well, interesting-ish.

Big temple. In Seoul. As you may have guessed, there's not much else to see in Seoul, apart from dark-haired people working really hard. And diners eating pooch soup.