Sunday, February 26, 2006


The 'semi-ghost' town of Goodsprings, Nevada.

Wotcha, 'womblers. I'm back from my fabulous trip to Indochina. soon I will blog about this memorable jaunt, particularly the moment when I ate river algae, in Luang Prabang, Laos. Until then, here's an account of some of my other travels.

As readers will remember, a year or two ago I went hunting for ghost towns in the American west. This is what I found.


It's taken us six hours to find this place. And it doesn't look like much. Just a deserted graveyard, at the end of a winding dirt-road, tucked away in the mountains of southern Utah. But this tranquil boneyard has a fascinating story to tell. The inscription on one grave commemorates an entire family 'killed by Indians in 1866'. This grave therefore marks the moment when the nearby town of Grafton became that very American phenomenon: a ghost town.

For many years the 'Western ghost town' has been celebrated by artists and travellers. Some accessible towns, like Tombstone Arizona, have even become tourist honeypots. But such is the scale of the American West, hundreds of other ghost towns, from Lulu City, Colorado to Crackerjack, California, have remained largely unknown, and practically off-limits - until now.

These days, with the advent of better roads, decent maps, and specialist websites, the hobby of 'ghosttowning' - discovering and documenting American ghost towns - has become a pursuit enjoyed by thousands. And with a car, and the occasional use of natsav, and a computer, intrepid travellers can enjoy it too.

A good place to start ghosttowning is Nevada. At least - it's where we begin, After checking the websites, our first stop is at 'Goodsprings'. It's just fifty miles from the phoney gondolas of Las Vegas, but it could be in a parallel universe.

Goodsprings is what is known to aficionados as a 'semi ghost'. That means people still live here; alongside evidence of a more vivacious past. There is certainly a striking poignancy about Goodsprings. A chill desert wind whips off the Silurian mountains; retired wooden shacks sit next to spindly steel windmills. The only sign of real life is in the spit-stained Pioneer Saloon, which is still selling cold beers almost a century after it opened.

The little town was established by a cattle rancher, Joseph Good, in the 1880s. Soon it was home to hundreds of hard-bitten miners, and boasted stores, a hotel, and a vital connexion to the Yellow Pine Railroad. But World War One took the guts out of the place, the railhead closed, and Goodsprings dwindled to the place it is now: lonely, dusty, intriguing - and chary.

The hostile air of modern Goodsprings is not helped by the time of year we have chosen to visit. Many of the still-inhabited houses are bedecked with witches' hats, and saw-toothed pumpkin-heads, and bogus corpses strung up on nooses. These sinister decorations are for Halloween. Er, right?

Approaching one house, we kneel down to take a few pictures of a hanging 'corpse'. But then a middle aged guy lurches out, and yells at us. 'What the heck you guys doin'?' What can we reply? That we're taking photos of his home because it is so desolate and scary? Pathetically waving apologies, we beat a retreat to the twilit car, pursued by a howling dog. Only when we see Las Vegas glittering down the freeway - with its bright lights scattered across the desert, like gems from a burgled jewelbox - do we heave a big sigh of relief.

Just two hours south of Vegas, a few miles inland of the Colorado River, lies one of the West's most intriguing ghost towns: Nelson. This town's unusual history began in the 18th century, when kayaking Spanish explorers first noticed the glint of gold dust in the Colorado riversands. The Spaniards followed the glittering trail up the Eldorado Canyon, and started sinking lucrative shafts in the baked brown hills hereabouts.

Over the following decades, a number of miners made pots of money; perhaps as a result, Nelson became a brutal and lawless place. In the late 19th century, the nearest sheriff was 'Fat Mack' - two hundred miles away. Due to the distance, and perhaps because he had a regard for his own safety, Fat Mack refused to travel to Nelson. Consequently the many disputes between the miners were privately resolved - with Winchesters and Colts. Eventually the brawling miners worked out the gold seams, leaving Nelson to the buzzards and coyotes. And to Brent Holden.

Brent is the genial squire of modern-day Nelson. In 1995 he set up a cafe-museum, for the few tourists who pass this way. But it's not like any normal cafe-museum. An exploded airplane sits in the yard, the door is guarded by a coyote skull, and the kitchen is stocked with frozen rattlesnakes.

Brent also owns the nearby Techatticup goldmine. He bought it with an eye to some prospecting, but finds a more regular income by taking sightseers down the shafts, and by telling them stories. One of his best yarns concerns a renegade Indian, called Queho. In 1910 Queho went on a psychotic killing spree, slaughtering a score of white settlers. Despite several posses and lynch-parties, Queho was never captured; in the summer of 1940 some locals found his mummified body in a cavern, surrounded by the possessions of his victims.

Standing at the foot of his mineshaft, Brent narrows his eyes. 'You can still find evidence of these murders lying around. And some that think Queho himself still patrols the old mineworkings.......' Brent grins. 'Hey. Want to see what it feels
like down here with all the lights out?'

From spooky Nelson it's at least three hundred miles southeast to another splendid ghost town: Two Guns, Arizona.

Two Guns started life as an outpost for Indian traders - men licensed by the Federal government to commerce with the tribes. Two Guns flourished when the great American highway, Route 66, was laid right through the town. For a while the town, and its sister city of Canyon Diablo, boasted gambling dens and wild saloons, and at least a dozen riotous cat-houses run by madams like Bullshit Mary and Clabberfoot Annie.

But then Route 66 was superseded by the Interstate, and the bordellos and taverns went bust. Now the town sits ignored and ruinous, slumped alongside the motorway like a homeless junkie on Oxford Street. Yet Two Guns is hugely evocative to walk around, with the wind echoing in the canyon, and the cactus taking over the old saloons, and a strange sign saying 'mountain lions'. Even the disused gas station has an air of quintessential Americana.

So far we have crossed Nevada and Arizona, and seen lots of famous and not-so-famous ghost towns. It's been a hoot. But what we haven't found is the Holy Grail of ghosttowners - a hitherto undiscovered, undocumented ghost town. For this we are going to get help from Corey Shuman, a man who runs a specialist ghosttowning tour company called Gold Rush Expeditions. Corey has heard rumours of an undocumented ghost town in the Wah Wah Mountains of Utah. And he says he will take us there.

He picks us up in Cedar City, where enormous Mormon polygamist women do their shopping in strange, old fashioned floral dresses. They look like Stepford Wives on steroids.

Climbing into Corey's 4WD we head off. After an hour or two, the roads narrow, the ranches thin out, and the endless wastes of the Great Salt Desert stretch before us. Some Mormons believe this expanse of nothingness was once a decadent city in itself, turned to salt by a wrathful God.

After checking his GPS navigator, Corey tells his own story. Over the last few years he's become fascinated by the legends of the old West, legends which run particularly rich in Utah. Corey nods at the jagged skyline: 'Some say there is treasure hidden in one of the silvermines around here. And I think they might be right. Otherwise why would the Mormons have settled in such a wasteland?' He still bears the scars of his underground expeditions to find this fabled loot.

A few minutes later the car falls silent. Now we are quite scarily off-road: twenty miles from the next living soul. As the Land Rover lights out for the wilds, Corey explains. 'I heard rumours about this particular place from Ghosttown Bob, one of the old-time experts. It should be somewhere around here...' For a long while, we search the hillsides, scattering deer and wild turkeys as we go. It's beginning to seem like we're out of luck. Too bad.

But then, just as the light starts to fail, we see something. Up ahead is a glittering valley, with a stream, and cottonwood trees, and hints of old mine workings. And yes, there at the back is a parade of crumbling wooden houses. Stepping out of the car, we start to explore the shacks. Their ancient plumbing, and burnt out windows, and mysterious old bullet holes in the walls, give them an air of intense and compelling loneliness.

'What's this place called?' I ask Corey. 'What the hell happened here?'

'I don't know.' He smiles. 'It's a ghost town.'

Another shot of Goodsprings, Nevada.

Saturday, February 18, 2006

Ian McEwan is a Talentless Git

Smug literary bastard, yesterday.

Right now I'm living it up in the unparalleled luxury of the Mandarin Oriental Dhara Dhevi, Chiang Mai. This place has to be seen to be believed. I mean, I've heard of hotels where you get your own butler, and plunge pool, and piano (and you get all of those here); but this place also offers you your own private paddy field, with picturesque peasants.

Now that's six star. 'How did you find the peasants?' 'Not bad. Can I have some cotton pickers, too?' I might blog about this extraordinary hotel later.

Anyway, before I come across as the smuggest git in history (whoops, too late), I've encountered someone even smugger than me - Ian McEwan.

When I say encounter, I mean in print. I've been reading McEwan's novel Saturday, - and what a pile of trite, foolish, self-regarding bollocks it is. McEwan is a brilliant stylist, and has written some good novels and excellent short stories, but he comes close to ruining his reputation with this emetic tale.

For those that don't know it, I'll give you a quick rundown: it describes one day in the life of a brilliant brain surgeon, who has a beautiful published poet for a daughter, and a handsome megastar blues guitarist for a son, and a distinguished London lawyer for a wife, and a famous writer for a father-in-law, and a Howard Hodgkin painting in his enormous sitting room and a fabulous and plentiful sex life (with his beautiful wife) and a pleasantly agonised and finely wrought conscience about all the important things that stupid people don't have time to fret about. Etc.

You get the picture? Now, I know that McEwan's defence here is that he wanted to create a smug and complacent character, to see how happiness works and how it can be threatened, it's just that this smug and complacent character shares so many of McEwan's own personal traits and characteristics - not least a narcissistic atheism and a good game of squash and a great big house in Fitzrovia and a total lack of humour - you can't help thinking that McEwan has let himself slip into this cruddy book, this unfunny contrivance, this cowpat of liberal angst, this big warm bucket of Blairite novelistic spit.

You need proof? OK, here's two more things before I ask the Cambodian butler to peel me another mango. The central plot twist of the novel depends on a naked girl persuading a nutter not to rape her - and how does she do this? By reciting Matthew Arnold's poem Dover Beach. The sex murderer is so touched by the poem he tells her to put her clothes back on.

Er, right. Yup. Nice one Ian. I'll remember that next time I'm in Peckham and about to be mugged by a knife weilding maniac on yabba - just whip out the old Oxford anthology, and give them a bit of Milton, or maybe some early Tennyson, and bob's yer uncle.

Further proof that McEwan has seriously lost his way (he used to write good sex) is his sex writing in Saturday. Try this sample from near the end (husband and wife are banging away, yet again):

'Their appetites are noisy, their manners are rough. They can't quite trust their luck, they want all they can get in a short time. They also know that at the end, after they've reclaimed each other, is the promise of oblivion.
At one point she whispers to him, '"My darling one. We could have been killed and we're alive.'

"My darling one"???


Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Anthony Hopkins & The Meaning of Life

Anthony Hopkins saying: 'Eat shit, Plato'; yesterday.

As any good Toffeewombler knows, I am in Bangkok right now, living it up in a hi-tech boutique hotel off the Sukhumvit Road. It's called the Majestic Grande, and it's a very nice gaff, full of Japanese tourists eating seabass teriyaki for breakfast. The bathtubs are about two metres deep.

All this luxury has lulled me into a pleasant stupor, which is nice. However I was rudely awoken from my air-conditioned reverie this very morning, by a startling article in the English-speaking local rag, the Bangkok Post. The piece was syndicated from the New York Times, apparently.

Why is this article so startling? Because it's an interview with famous Welsh actor Anthony Hopkins (star of Howards End and Silence of the Lambs) in which the diminutive Taffy megastar reveals that he has personally grasped the meaning of life.

Yes, that's right, Anthony 'Hannibal the Cannibal' Hopkins has worked it all out! He's sussed it! The big Question! The Ultimate Ask! The Eternal Puzzle! The question that has befuddled the greatest brains of humanity, the eternal riddle which has confounded the likes of Aristotle, Leibniz, Locke, Hobbes, Wittgenstein, Spinoza, and Immanuel Kant, has been number-crunched by none other than the man who played Zorro's dad.

Here is the dramatic revelation of the ex-alcoholic thespian Welshman's amazing insight, as revealed, verbatim, in this morning's Bangkok Post. Try not to spill your coffee. As I did.

"'I do get a sense, however in my own life, that there's a strange substance in life that none of us knows about', the actor says. 'I'm fascinated by time. I've written a script that I'm planning to do soon, a script not about time, but about the nature of reality. It's called Slipstream, and I wrote it as a stream-of-consciousness piece.'
'My own interpretation is that, if there is a God, God is actually time, because time is so elusive,' he continues. 'I'm fascinated by that, the older I get, every moment just slips past me. You think "what is real"? You can't even grasp this moment because, as soon as you try, it's gone. I was talking to someone else 10 minutes ago, and that's all gone... that was a dream.. it's all gone.'
'And I think "Was there a past? Is there a future?"' Hopkins says. 'This goes back to metaphysics and philosophy. I think: Well, maybe that's what God is. Maybe that's the puzzle of life, what life's all about. I've got a theory that one day, at the moment of impact of death, you wake up and say: "Ah, that was it all along". That's Hinduism.'

Thanks, Ant. The professorship in Aristotelian Epistemology is in the post.

Sunday, February 12, 2006

Toffeewomble hits Indochina

Mmm, some lovely Basmati rice, right? Wrong.

Right guys, I'm off again. This time to one of the remotest parts of Indochina, the strange and still-communist republic of Laos, locked between eastern Thailand and Vietnam.

By all accounts (well, the two I've read) Laos is a curious place, full of oddities like monks who live only on coconuts and strange new religions with concrete statues and a complete absence of ATMs and the world's biggest freshwater fish (the Mekong Catfish).

Laos also has eccentric food traditions. They eat ant eggs, for a start. Yup. Ant eggs. In soup. That's what on sale there, in the photo. Ant eggs. Hm.

I'll let you know.

Thursday, February 09, 2006

A Large Wooden Block For The Weekend, Sir?

How To Make Your Own Contraception

Rocky Road
Around the fourth millennium BC, Egyptian camel drivers noticed that if they inserted a pebble into the vaginal tracts of their beasts, it prevented pregnancy. You too can use this ancient knowledge: according to Saul Newman, author of Pills and Pebbles: the History of Birth Control, what you need is a ‘pebble the size of a broad bean’. This must be lodged at the rear of your girlfriend’s vaginal cavity, but be warned: it works by ‘creating a mild infection that prevents fertilisation of the egg’.

Bring Out The Branston
More user-friendly are DIY contraceptives that use natural spermicides - substances that kill sperm because of their excessive alkalinity or acidity. Olive oil, rock salt, cedar resin, crocodile dung, rancid dough, pickling vinegar, pomegranate pulp, and ginger have all been used this way: the common technique is to soak the oil, pulp or whatever into a bit of cloth, then insert the cloth into the vagina. On grounds of taste alone, Saul Newman recommends a cloth soaked in honey. ‘Honey is still used in modern contraceptives, in the honey cap for instance’

Lemon Aid
There are also natural ‘barrier’ methods of contraception. The great Italian lover Casanova used a half lemon, with most of the pulp scooped out. Saul Newman: ‘You use the lemon as a diaphragm: you insert it into the vagina, convex side first, until it nestles at the end. This acts as a natural barrier to sperm, plus the citric acid in the rind is a spermicide. Remember to change the lemon rind regularly!’ Alternatively you could use a bit of ‘sea-sponge soaked in honey’, or a ‘plug of beeswax’. Medieval women supposedly favoured ‘large wooden blocks’, though no-one is quite sure how these worked.

Blowfish Blues
If your squeeze turns up her pretty nose as smearing her privates with alligator crap (women, so fussy!) then there are things a guy can do - like make his own condom. In the past men made ‘jimmy hats’ out of sheep gut or blowfish intestines. Perhaps easier is take two penis-length strips of very fine linen, soaked in a natural spermicide: these must be sewn together with fine cotton. Remember to attach a ribbon at the ‘base’, for fastening purposes. Or you could try ‘sub-incision’, where you cut a small hole in the base of the penis so the semen spurts out of the hole rather than into the vagina. Saul Newman: ‘Apparently you have to put your finger over the hole when you want babies. A bit like playing the recorder.’

Sunday, February 05, 2006

The Guardian and Those Cartoons

One of those cartoons. My profound apologies if this 'offends'. But that's free speech. Firebombs to the usual address.

As I have already mentioned, all mainstream British newspapers have so far refused to publish any of the notorious Danish cartoons of the Prophet Mohammad. The Guardian, edited by Alan Rusbridger and standard-bearer of the freethinking liberal-left, has been particularly verbose on this subject, explaining in at least two leader columns its decision not to publish.

Firstly, the Guardian has made plain that it does support, absolutely, the freedom to say what you like, when you like, about religion. As is only right in a newspaper born of the struggle of working people to win freedom in all arenas - economic, cultural, religious.

But this present a problem for the Guardian. Why won't they, therefore, publish these particular cartoons? Because, the Guardian says, the mere fact that you are allowed to publish does not mean you have an obligation to publish. Put it another way, the Guardian explains, there are rules of courtesy and good manners - and these rules mean you should not seek to gratuitously offend peoples' sensitivities, including the deep sensitivities surrounding religious faith.

Is this a good argument? Ultimately, I think not. To my mind, a freedom (like the freedom to satirise and lampoon religion) is worth having only if you are prepared at some point to exercise it. Otherwise it is empty and meaningless. A simulacrum of freedom.

The Guardian avoids this difficult issue. But it does say, in its own defense, that it would apply its 'sensitivity' criteria across the board, i.e., the Guardian would not publish cartoons or images that were gratuitously offensive in other ways. Such as child porn, or images of an anti-Semitic character, or images that unnecessarily offended people of other faiths, besides Islam.

Oh really? Read on.

Here, oddly enough, is an image from the March 23, 2005, edition of... The Guardian. It shows a painting of a semi-naked Jesus flashing while on a surfboard. And why is it in the Guardian? Because the newspaper was reporting the arrest of a German artist, in Greece; the artist was arraigned for publishing images of Jesus (like the one above) in a satirical 'Biography' of Christ.

The article accompanying the image explains how the Greeks were scandalised by these images - so scandalised, they arrested a foreign national under the new European Arrest Warrant.

So where are these across-the-board standards now, eh, Alan Rusbridger? Actually you do have two standards, don't you? One standard for angry and aggressive ethnic minorities, and one slightly lower standard for the rest of us.

You craven appeasers; you hypocritical jerks.

Saturday, February 04, 2006

Street of Fucking Shame


We all know about the Danish cartoon affair. As a British journalist, one interesting thing for me, within this affair, is the way not a single British newspaper has seen fit to publish the offending caricatures of Mohammad.

Many of the most important papers in Europe have now published these cartoons - Liberation, Die Welt, La Stampa, El Pais. Smaller papers in smaller countries have also run the Danish Dozen: papers in Norway, Iceland, Belgium, the Netherlands, Ireland, Hungary, Swizterland. Big papers in America are finally following suit - papers like the New York Sun and the L A Times. Even a couple of journals in The Middle East - in Jordan and the Lebanon - have seen fit to publish, at great risk.

But not one in Britain. Why? Given this stark difference, there must be something unique in the British press situation that makes them behave more circumspectly in this matter. What is it? The British Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, with all the inspiring courage of a man with 30,000 Muslim constituents to worry about, and not a shred of principle to bother him, has condemned all the European papers for republishing; he has also praised the British media for showing such sensitivity to ethnic feelings as to not publish.

Is that the reason then? The British Press is just nicer to ethnic and religious minorities, and more tenderly aware of their feelings? A brief glance at a few headlines of the last two years would quickly scotch that notion. The UK papers have no fear of 'hurt feelings' when it comes to attacking gypsies, asylum seekers, mad Christians, or even gays in politics; remember the Sun's blackly funny headline last week, when the second Liberal Democract leadership campaigner was revealed as gay: 'Another one bites the pillow'?

No, I don't buy the angle that papers like the Mail, Express, Star, or even the Telegraph and Times, or the Guardian and Independent, have suddenly become so sensitive to minority or religious feelings, that it would be enough to overcome their strong urge to publish in solidarity with their European colleagues (And lots of UK journos do want to publish the toons, trust me.)

So, again, what is holding UK editors back, compared to the rest of the world?

One thing is Salman Rushdie. The Rushdie affair had a big effect in Britain. The writer was British, he was hounded in Britain, he was nearly killed in Britain. No British editor wants to suffer the visible fate of that British subject. And the editors fear that that might very well happen if they publish.

But it should be mentioned in passing here that the Netherlands have only just had the Theo V Gogh case, when a filmmaker was stabbed to death in the street for being 'Islamophobic' - and the Netherlands has still published - which perhaps shows that the best word for the attitude on the British side of the Channel is probably... cowardice

Second, and very significant, for UK editors, is the role of Muslim newsagents. If any paper ran the toons, they would risk a boycott from their many Muslim newsagents which could be disastrous for any paper in terms of sales. And it could last for years. No editor would blithtly antagonise his retailers, like that, without a damn good reason.

Some would say defending free speech is about as good a reason you can get when you are a newspaper, but evidently not.

So there you have it. Britain hasn't published, when everyone else has, because of personal cowardice, and corporate greed.

Well done guys.

*Thanks to Harry's Place commenters for this image.
And the guy who photoshopped it, obv.