Tuesday, January 31, 2006

All The Countries I've Ever Visited

I'm going to this country in a week or two. Well, the country represented by this flag. But where is it? Not telling! Hah!

All The Countries I Have Ever Visited

Here is a list of all the countries I have ever visited. OK, this may seem like a boring concept not untainted with personal smugness, but as an added inducement to read through, there is a competition at the bottom.

Before I start on this exceptionally dull exercise, I'd like to make clear my criteria. For a country to qualify as a place I have visited, I actually have to have been in person on that nation's sovereign territory. i.e. A stopover at the airport, where you don't leave the actual airport (and don't cross the passport barrier) does NOT count. Nor, obviously, does flying through the airspace. However just passing through the country, on a train or by car, DOES count, as long as there is a passport check at some point, or, failing that, you cross the designated frontier. Yes I know these might seem arbitrary rules, but hey it's my stupidly boring list, not yours.

Furthermore, the country must have been recognised as a country - by the UN, for instance - at the time I passed through it. This may seem an obscure point, but see this example: in the 1980s I travelled through Yugoslavia, and I spent time in the south of the country. The south is now an independent state called FYROM (cute name, huh? It means Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. A waggish friend of mine says that when they sort the dispute with Greece that has necessitated this clumsy name, they can just call the country M, which has a nice sinister ring, like a character in a Kafka novel. "Where are you going on holiday?" "Oh, I'm going to... M." But I digress.)

So where was I? Yes. Criteria. How do I assess my trip through Yugoslavia, that took me through one country in the 80s - but would take me through five if I did it now? The only logical way I can think is to take the countries that were in existence at the time of the trip. So I don't get a credit for FYROM, because it didn't exist when I travelled through it. But do I count Yugoslavia, which no longer exists? Yes. But maybe with an asterisk next to it, to indicate it doesn't exist now.

And with that monumentally dull and possibly incoherent preamble, here's my list of All The Countries I've Been To.

San Marino
Vatican City
Czech Republic
Soviet Union*
The Lebanon
Mount Athos***
South Africa
Trinidad & Tobago

So I make that 54-58 countries, depending on how you count the *s, the ones that don't exist any more, and the ** - Palestine. Is this a state? And of course the *** Mount Athos, the semi-independent ecclesiastical-monastic republic in the north Aegean which has passport controls and its own laws and its very own flag and diplomatic corps, but is technically in some ways part of Greece.

Er, anyway, let's call it 56. Not bad. I'm particularly pleased with Madagascar and Azerbaijan.

However I also note huge great holes - nothing in South America, India a big no-no, sub-Saharan Africa virtually a dark continent, and Australasia/Polynesia also missing. Travel editors of Britain, are you reading??

And here's the competition. Soon I shall be travelling to a new country, not on the list above. That's the flag, up there. But where is it?

The correct answer will win the usual five storey town house in Mayfair AND a signed copy of my new memoirs, at special discount price*.

* Spookily similar to the price charged by amazon, inc p&p.

Sunday, January 29, 2006

File Under Docu-Fiction by Asshole

Talented bad boy with tattoos and previous? Or sad sweary Mary with a Hemingway fetish?

James Frey & Me

As observers of the American literary scene will know, the above pictured beardy, James Frey, is a bestselling memoirist. His stark, searing, staccato, sordid, no-expletives-barred I-did-drugs-and-survived rehab confessional A Million Little Pieces has sold about 3m copies in America alone, most of them since Oprah Winfrey made it her book of the month late last year.

Except, it isn't - it isn't a confessional. Following revelations on a blog called www.smokinggun.com, it turns out that James F made up large parts of his blood-flecked memoir, including crucial chapters where a teenage girlfriend dies in a railway crash, and he undergoes terrifying root canal dentistry without aneasthetic.

You probably know the ins and outs of the Frey scandal, but to give you a measure of his egregious and wholesale fabrication, Frey devotes dozens of pages of his book to the appalling dental ordeal - where, because he is an addict, he is refused a painkiller yet still has his teeth sliced open while strapped to the chair. This part of the book is full of keynote Frey passages, like: 'Pain. Pain pain pain pain pain.' Etc. Etc etc etc etc etc. It's kind of predictable and repetitive yet it does have a power of its own - you do turn the pages.

But if that power comes from the feeling that 'my God, this really happened, this poor bastard really had root canal work without aneasthetic' - and I think a lot of the book's potency does come from the non-fiction aspect - then the power is unmerited. Frey has plugged his book into the mains without permission. He's pirated this power. Because, as he confessed on a second and much more hostile Oprah show last week (the lady has turned against him), he cannot 'honestly remember' whether he had dental work without aneasthetic or not.

So, let's get this right, you wrote 30 pages about having root canal work without aneasthetic, yet you can't remember whether it 'honestly happened'? In other words, you kinda... 'made it up', right?


And it gets worse. Probably the most crucial plot point of the book is when Frey gets busted for attacking some billyclub weilding cops while off his face on crack, and then - as a result - gets slung in jail for three months, at the end of which he goes to see his girlfriend, the girl he met in rehab, and she dies.

Frey, it turns out, didn't go to prison. He didn't have a fracas with the cops. He wasn't even on crack. He just drank a bit, got arrested for Driving While Intoxicated, was 'cooperative and polite' according to the arresting officers, and was quickly released from his police cell. All in all he spent about two hours banged up. Not three months. Less than a morning. Not a quarter of a year. That's quite a big mistake.

Hilariously, Frey's follow-up memoir - My Friend Leonard - purports to begin where the last left off. With Frey in the county jail. Uh-huh. The very first passages of the book describe how Frey was nearly beaten to a pulp while in chokey, and then describes life as it was during that hellish 87th day in jail.

Perhaps he meant to say his '87th minute in jail'. And perhaps he meant to say not 'beaten to a pulp' but 'immediately let out of the police cell after my mother bailed me for $700'.

Anyhoo. All this is common knowledge. So why am I getting all het up?

Two reasons, both connected to the fact that I am also a memoirist - my first volume of memoirs comes out in May this year (as if you didn't know) with Bloomsbury Books.

1. Frey has fucked it up for all of us autobiographical writer types. As any memoirist knows, you have to lie A LITTLE BIT when you write your own life. For a start, nobody goes around with a tape recorder all the time, so you just have to recreate, or mechanically reconstitute, conversation and dialogue - as interestingly as you can.

Also, you telescope timing and switch events around, to give your book something like a plot, a narrative, an arc. Real life seldom has a tight and perfect story curve, or any kind of story curve, so in the memoir genre you are obliged to finesse just a tiny bit. If you didn't, your book would be unreadably sluggish and pedantic. 'The following year was less eventful, though I did buy some nice pyjamas', etc etc.

I think these tricks-of-the-trade are permissible (others may disagree). A memoir is a subjective memory of certain parts or aspects of a life - it's not the tell-all journalese that is an autobiography.

But Frey went way beyond this discreet legerdemain. He made up stuff by the shedload. He arguably plagiarised other books. He created whole new scenarios from scratch. He sat down one day and thought: I know, I'll fucking lie. And why? Because, according to reports, he originally wrote the book as a novel. And fair enough. But then he found he couldn't sell his book as fiction - 17 New York publishers refused it.

However, as non fiction, it was much more marketable - so that's what got sold. Frey and his agent successfully repackaged the book as memoir, without taking the fibs out. Tsk. Tsk tsk tsk.

Here we come to the crunch. For me. As a result of this scandal, every memoirist, and every memoir, will now come under enormous scrutiny - and be checked for adherence to absolute fact. We are all going to have to put ugly disclaimers in our books from now on ('some details have been changed'). Every time a memoirist opens his laptop, he or she will have the scary image of a frightened Frey looming over his shoulder. Thanks. Wanker.

2. The second reason I am personally pissed off with James 'I spent eight minutes in prison' Frey is that I have/had a second memoir in the pipeline. This memoir was going to detail all the bad stuff in my life. The really bad stuff. The heroin addiction, the crack habit. Because I have had a life as crazy if not much crazier than the life detailed in Frey's bestseller. The difference between my life and Frey's 'life', however, is that mine is fucking TRUE. I really did do two months in prison - and not for defacing library books - I was on a fucking RAPE CHARGE. I really WAS kidnapped by Hezbollah. I really DID get in a knife fight in Marseilles. I really DID live in a hotel in Bangkok that sold heroin on room service. I really WAS stranded in a forest in Siberia coming off heroin after being ejected from a troop train.

But who, exactly, after Frey, is ever going to believe me?

PS. I just found this interview with Frey, pre-scandal, on a website called Zulkey.com. In the light of his revelations, its priceless. Particularly this Q&A:

Q: After your release from Hazeldon, you spend three months in jail in Ohio. How did that compare to rehab?
Frey: Jail is really fucking boring, and occasionally, really fucking scary. It is about doing time and getting it over with and staying out of trouble. Rehab is about fixing and changing your life. It, however, can also be boring and scary.

Yeah, James. Those TWO HOURS you spent in a police cel must have been 'really fucking scary'. I mean, two whole boring hours without a nice latte. How scary is that?! You could have got a slight cramp in your wimpy white arse from sitting down on that nasty hard chair. And how did you manage to stay 'out of trouble' during your several minutes in prison? I'm amazed you weren't buggered in the communal shower then forced to become the big man's bitch, given that you spent literally the time between breakfast and elevenses imprisoned in that hellhole.

Friday, January 27, 2006

Cousins No More?

Finns or Family?

Are some immigrants more 'British' than others? Not according to the government. A few weeks ago the powers-that-be announced a proposal that would end the specal rights given to Commonwealth citizens, with British grandparents, to settle in the United Kingdom. These 'ancestry' privileges generally apply to Old Commonwealth citizens, from Canada, Australia, New Zealand etc. About 10,000 immigrants take advantage of the laws every year.

Obviously there are sound political reasons for this continued downgrading of our ties with the 'White Dominions', in favour of our exciting new ties with Latvia, Belgium and Afghanistan. But sometimes this trend flies in the face of emotion - and history.

Some time back I was returning from a short trip in France with my then girlfriend. She's British, born in Britain, and lives in Britain. But she happens to have a Canadian passport due to her father's assumed nationality. She was carrying this passport when we went to France; it never occurred to us that it might cause problems.

We were wrong. At Dover we were stopped, and my girlfriend's passport was minutely examined. Then she was interrogated, aggressively and lengthily, by an immigration officer. Why was her Canadian passport so blank? Where exactly was she going in the UK? Did she have enough money to live on? Was she going to sponge off the state? What was a Canadian doing at Dover? Etc.

For an hour, my girlfriend was made to feel like an illegal immigrant at best, like a criminal at worst. And while it went on, all around us the UK's newer immigrants - French, German, Greek, Spanish, Ukrainian, Finnish, Iraqi - were sailing through Customs unhindered.

Coincidentally, my girlfriend and I had just come from a tour of the World War One battlefields in France. My girlfriend had shown particular interest in the graves of Vimy Ridge. Where 20,000 loyal Canadians died in the defence of the British Empire.

Monday, January 23, 2006

Things They Don't Tell You About Hawaii

Mo'okini Heiau, Big Island, Hawaii.

I've been to a few weird places in my time, as is obvious to regular readers. Just scroll down a few inches, and you'll see I'm practically a regular in the spooky London chambers of Victorian devil-worshipper Aleister Crowley, for instance.

Yet this place I checked out in Hawaii is up there with the most sinister locales I have ever visited. It's overlooking the wild Maui Straits, at the very northern end of Big Island - the largest in the Hawaiian archipelago.

This part of Hawaii is serously remote, and far from the urbanised, cocktail-drinking Pacific paradise of public imagination. Here the people speak Hawaiian, or pidgin, and the roads run over endless lavafields, black and baking in the heat - until you reach the very north, when green fields suddenly take over: fields full of hostile thorn-bushes, and strange piles of stones, and tiny cottages. It could be a Celtic landscape, if it weren't for the fierce hot wind that never stops.

Beyond the little town of Hawi, the only town in the area, a lane snakes down to the stormy coastline, where whales disport in winter. From the cliffs around here you can see the island of Maui on a clear day; otherwise all is deserted. A few birds struggle against the wind. Cows wander the sun-crushed fields, panting in the heat.

And right at the end of the lane is this place. Mo'okini Heiau - a massive square of piled-up lava rocks, with some standing stones, and strange paddocks, and ritual roadways. Before I went, I was told Mo'okini was the most atmospheric of the Hawaiian sacred places (Heiaus). It is certainly the oldest - this temple/fortress is administered by an hereditary priest who claims direct descent from the 4th century founder.

The few people that make it this far know that Mo'okini Heiau isn't just atmospheric, it is intense, and sinister, and somehow disturbing. At least - it was for me. It could have been the merciless sun. The hot unceasing wind, like from an open oven. Or maybe it was the eerie stone I discovered at the back of the site. Having been to Mexico and visited Aztec ruins I felt I knew exactly what it was when I saw it - a sacrificial stone. For human sacrifice.

But could I be right? When I got back to town I Googled away, and yes. It turns out Hawaii has a long history of human sacrifice, which ended only in the nineteenth centry - and these sacrifices occurred mostly at places like Mo'okini Heaiu. Many thousands died on these stones over the years, perhaps strangled to death, or maybe sliced open to have their living organs ripped out, before their lifeless corpses were thrown over the cliffs in obeisance to the Shark God. And some Hawaiians still honour these dark Gods, as votive offerings left at sacred sites will attest.

They don't tell you THAT in the Hawaii holiday brochures, do they?

The sacrificial stone, Mo'okini Heiau. See what I mean? The funny gungy stuff in the dip is not, admitedly, human entrails decomposing in the sun, it's a rotting lei (traditional Hawaiian flower garland) left by a pious local. But still.

Sunday, January 22, 2006

Insufferable Gloating, Inc

I had quite a nice time in Hawaii. To give you a taste, here's the view from my FREE hotel room, over Waikiki Beach and Diamondhead. The room should have cost $500 a night, but because it was me, it was FREE. Yes, Free. FREE. As was my BUSINESS CLASS flight.


Friday, January 20, 2006

Another Brussels Scandal

The exciting new European Parliament, yesterday.

News from Brussels

(Strasbourg, France) In a dramatic late night session, the European Parliament yesterday passed a joint resolution, condemning homophobia.

The measure passed on a 469 - 149 vote with 41 abstentions. It calls on the European Commission to take a more proactive roll in fighting anti-Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transexual prejudice in several EU states.

The extraordinary and unexpected decision has shocked many observers. Brussels lobbyist, David van Looooooewuenhook, said this morning: 'No one expected this. We thought the Parliament was going to put out a simple declaration saying that it was OK for people to hate puffs and dykes, because they are pervs. Then one of the members of the European People's Party presented a counter resolution, saying we should in fact fight against homophobia. You could have heard a pin drop!'

This is not the first surprising volte face by the increasingly powerful Strasbourg-based parliament. Last week the same assembly was expected to pass, on the nod, the Wogs Pakis and Niggers can all Fuck Off Back to BongoBongoland Bill, but in the end it was rejected, albeit by the narrowest of margins.

Veteran EU-watchers admit they are fazed by the turn of events. Bernadino Fantastico an Italian journalist based in Brussels, says: 'It could get worse. Next week, the Socialist Group has proposed a bill that says Motherhood and Apple Pie is Good. Judging by the latest events this too could pass. As could Let's State A Lot Of Tediously Predictable Politically Correct Total Gobshite Bollocks Directive (EU 456/67) which comes before the Commission in February'.

A spokesman for the EU Commissioner for Stupid Dreary Pointlessness was unavailable for comment last night.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

The Wickedest Building Site in the World

My friend Tim, with suitably weird lighting effects, standing in one of the rooms of Aleister Crowley's apartment block, just before Christmas.

The following piece by me appears in this week's Time Out magazine; I blog it for all my non-London readers, and because I am too lazy to blog anything original.

A poignant story attaches to this piece. After me and my pal Tim had visited the apartment block, and had the strange 'skull story' encounter detailed in the final paragraph, I tipped off the Daily Mail about my conversation with the site manager. They then ran a piece of their own, which led to the worker who put the skull on the basement floor being sacked.

I don't know how to feel about this. Guilty at helping a guy lose his job? secretly thrilled at the power of the press? - or slightly unsettled that the Satanic power of Aleister Crowley is still affecting lives in the most curious way? You decide.

Here's the piece.

Visiting Satan's Basement

Sean Thomas

It looks like an ordinary, down-at-heel Victorian apartment block: just a curve of yellowing bricks, dusty shop-windows, and crumbling ornamental stonework. The sense of drabness is underlined by the builders' scaffolding and plastic drapes - as this corner of old London is redeveloped.

But appearances can be deceptive. This building, number 67 Chancery Lane, was once truly remarkable: notorious for its sex, drugs and Satanism. Because this was once the home of Aleister Crowley, the 'wickedest man in the world'.

Crowley was born in 1875, in Leamington Spa; bright and articulate, he was the son of violently evangelical parents; perhaps it was this upbringing which turned him onto the Dark Arts. By the age of 20 he'd left Cambridge University, climbed some mountains, written some poetry - and joined a secret order, the Golden Dawn, a society of posh bohemian occultists which boasted Irish poet W.B.Yeats and Oscar Wilde's sister in its ranks.

The Golden Dawn was known for its rigorous induction process. Hours of ritual, days of prayer, and weeks of study - of ancient magical lore - were required for promotion to higher levels. Crowley proved an able student, and shot up through these hierarchies; as he progressed, Crowley became impatient with the fusty, scholastic attitude of the other Dawn members.

At this point he met a fellow occultist called Alan Bennett; Bennett invited Crowley to move in to his flat at 67 Chancery Lane. There, the two likeminded magicians got up to some very strange stuff.

Crowley installed two temples, dedicated to the dark gods and goddesses. In one corner of the apartment Crowley kept a skeleton, which he fed on small songbirds and cups of blood. Visitors to the flat reported, perhaps unsurprisingly. 'an intense atmosphere of evil' as the two young men conjured hundreds of demons, sometimes in an opiated haze (Crowley was one of the world's first heroin addicts). Those visitors that didn't instantly flee were sometimes invited to participate in the Black Mass, or obscene acts of 'sex magic'.

Crowley and Bennett soon moved out of Chancery Lane, yet the 'evil atmosphere' lingered on, long after their departure. The records show that the landlords had trouble letting the place for a decade.

And now? In a few weeks time the interior of the building will be gutted, as it is turned into upmarket flats and offices. So this is the last chance to view the 'wickedest flat in London' - largely as it was. That's if you can persuade the builders to let you in.

In truth, there isn't that much to see: some Victorian fireplaces, a couple of dingy corridors, and a scuffed and venerable bathtub. Yet the place does have a strange ambience: a pungent air of sickliness, or worse. That could be the rotting 70s

The builders themselves are unaware of the history of the place. Which makes what happened a few months ago all the more bizarre. As we tell the site-manager the true story of Aleister Crowley and his songbird-eating skeleton, his face goes a shade of white. 'That's very weird.' he says. 'When we first moved here we found a human skull next to a five pointed star, made of sticks - just sitting on the basement floor. I thought it was someone playing a joke.'

A joke Aleister Crowley would have adored.

Four other Golden Dawn sites

Mark Mason's Hall, Great Queen Street, WC2
Before the Golden Dawn had their own premises, they used to meet in some chambers in the basement of this freemasons' hall. The dubious occultists were asked to come and go by the back door, so they wouldn't embarrass anyone. Long demolished.

17 Fitzroy Street, W1
This was the first proper temple of the 'Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn': the rented building was dedicated to Isis-Urania on the 1st March 1888. W.B.Yeats was probably inducted into the Order here in the early 1890s. Destroyed in the Blitz.

Clipstone Street, W1
In 1892 the Order moved to this little thoroughfare running east from Great Portland St. According to historian Ellic Howe, the Dawn paid 10 shillings for two rooms, and their neighbours were “a hairdresser, dairyman, confectioner, two sculptors, cabinet-makers, french polishers, a piano tuner, and the offices of the German Waiters’ Society". Recently demolished.

36 Blythe Road, W6
The last notable address of the Golden Dawn, Blythe Road saw a famous magical battle between Aleister Crowley and W.B.Yeats. It was April 19, 1900, when Crowley, dressed in a kilt, daggar and 'black mask of Osiris', tried to take control of the Order's vaults, protected in the Blythe Road temple. With the help of a bemused constable, Yeats managed to rebuff the spell-casting Crowley; the shattered Order was extinguished soon after. Blythe Road is the only major Golden Dawn site still standing in London, and thus a crucial address in the global history of 'New Age' religions. It should be preserved.

Sunday, January 01, 2006

Toffeewomble Tour Update Blah Blah Etc Etc

An inflatable moose head, stuck to a wall, yesterday.

Happy New Year! I haven't got much to blog, not least 'cause I haven't got much time to blog, being briefly stuck between stages two and three of my epic journey around the world (well, my epic journey around Cornwall, London, and parts of the USA). As such I am generally packing, unpacking, staring out of the window, repacking, and wondering where my airline tickets are.

About the only thing I've got to say, of interest, is my favourite quote regarding New Years. It comes from Evelyn Waugh's diaries in the mid-20s, when he made this entry for December 31st.

"I hear they are thinking of starting a new year. I'm not surprised. I do hope it's better than the last one."

Have a fanTAStic 2006, everybody.