Thursday, September 27, 2007

Practically the Pulitzer

Me in Utah, last year.


Right now I am in Monte Carlo, in a hotel suite bigger than Hyde Park. It may sound like I'm living it up but travel journalism is...

Oh fuck it. No. I can't pretend. Travel journalism is just a gas. You go to amazing places for free where people grovel and scrape to keep you happy and then you go home and write about it and get PAID. I mean, how bad can it be?

It gets even more ludicrous. The other day I heard I had won an award from the American Tourist Board, for Travel Writer of the Year (magazines)(general consumer)(American subject). Not exactly the Pulitzer, but still - nice. Indeed getting an award for travelwriting is not just nice, it's stupidly pointless and slightly embarrassing. It's like getting an award for eating the most caviar, or having the best sex with Swedish girl gymnasts in the previous twelve months.

Anyway. Here's the piece that won me the award for Travel Writer of the Year (magazines)(general consumer)(American subject)

The Best National Parks in America

Choosing the five best National Parks in America is a complex business, Because there are fifty eight of them. That's right: fifty eight. What's more, they are all unspoiled, well-organised, and heart-bustingly beautiful. And they all cost about 10 bucks to get in.

Nonetheless we had to choose. So we applied certain criteria. What we've looked for is something different - and something special. Put it another way: each of our chosen parks had to represent the best of its type: desert or mountain, forest or volcano. That's why our parks come from right across the Republic, from way out west in Hawaii, to the feral cloud forests of the East.

But to make the grade the park also had to give us an extra kick: it had to offer that ineffable but grandiose poetry, that essence of the sublime, that marks the best of the American Wilderness.

It may seem strange that we've left out some of the obvious candidates: Yellowstone, Yosemite, the Everglades. This isn't because we wanted to be contrary: these famous parks, magnificent as they are, genuinely failed to impress quite as much as our selection.

On the other hand, we also had to exclude some spectacular sites - like Glacier in Montana, Big Bend in Texas, and Katmai in Alaska - simply because they were too inaccessible. There's no point in raving about a place if it costs a new mortgage to get there.

So in the end we came down to these five. Enjoy.

Best for Nature and Wonder: Kings Canyon NP, California

My eyes are tearing up. Because of a tree. And I'm not talking about hay fever - it's the sheer damn size of this thing that's making me blub: the nobility, the epic scale, the Gothic majesty.

Does that sound a little sentimental? Then you should maybe try it for yourself. People react to the famous giant redwoods of King's Canyon National Park, in the foothills of the great Sierra Nevada, in very different ways: some are struck dumb, some run up and hug the gnarly trunks (as much as you can hug something as wide as a post office), some lie on their backs, and stare for ages at the redwood's lofty green canopy, maybe 300 feet in the blue Californian air. Some like me feel humbled and exultant at the same time, and then they have to turn away and pretend they've got grit in their eyes.

Given the tremendous poetic power of these 3000 year old trees - the biggest living things the world has known - it's amazing they don't get more visitors. Compared to nearby National Parks like Yosemite, King's Canyon is often deserted outside the high summer months. Yes, King's Canyon is slightly off the beaten track, but it's not impossibly remote (maybe five hours drive from LA). So: what's going on? Perhaps some visitors don't like being confronted with the evidence of man's ravages - these precious groves are virtually the last of the regal Californian redwood stands.

There are other things to do in King's Canyon besides getting emotional next to massive plants. You can hike the lakeside trails, you can camp in Alpine meadows straight from a Toblerone advert, you can ascend to the Tolkienesque heights of Moro Rock. There's also a mighty cavern, the Crystal Cave, which descends three miles into the living rock, and boasts a 45 minute tour of the gleaming stalactites that's great for kids. If none of this tickles the touristic tastebuds, you can just hang out at the parkside lodges, some of them with enviable views of the chasms, forests and ski-slopes.

But really it is the silent, cathedral-like trees that make this place so special. Take your time, and some Kleenex, and wander through the Giant Forest area, where you'll find the biggest of the redwoods - like General Sherman, or General Grant. You might just come back a different person. I know I did.

Best for Forests and Americana: Great Smoky Mountains NP, Tennessee

Every country has a region that somehow embodies its essence, in a way that other landscapes, however beautiful, do not. For England it must be the Cotswolds, for France perhaps the Dordogne - "La France Profonde". For America it is surely the Great Smoky Mountains, a rugged range of misty, handsome peaks that straddles the border of Tennessee and South Carolina.

One drawback to the quintessentiality of these mountains is their popularity This is the most visited US National Park of all - receiving maybe 10million annual trippers. Simple proximity has a part to play here: unlike many great western parks, the Smoky Mountains are within easy driving distance of huge cities. But the main reason the Smokies are smokin' is because of the incredible hikes and trails through the verdant woods - the Smoky Mountains, in their warm southern dampness, boast more species of tree than the whole of Europe.

Yet the crowds should not dissuade you from visiting. This is still Big Country, and the protected mountains stretch for hundreds of square miles. Once you have left behind the motel-ish sprawl of Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge, the main gateways in eastern Tennessee, you can still get gloriously lost in the moonshine-brewin' boondocks.

A good place to aim for is Clingman's Dome. It's the loftiest peak in the park, at nearly 7000 feet. Then there's Chimney Tops, twin summits that loom theatrically over the wildflower meadows (as with trees, the warm rainy mountains are known for their sparkling variety of flora - from orchids to azaleas, from roses to rhododendrons).

Culture junkies can also get a fix in these parts. The Smoky Mountains are full of curious sites that offer a glimpse of old Appalachian ways: the Cherokee Indians were only dislodged from here in the 1800s, and left behind some poignant remains. Cades Coves, an 11 mile biking trail, speaks of a slightly later time when these dripping green valleys were some of the most lawless purlieus of the 48 states, a remote fastness where strange white tribes, descendants of the very first European settlers, flourished amidst the ginormous mushrooms.

Still another attraction of the "Smokies" are the wild critters - 66 types of mammals, thirty odd reptiles, fifty species of fish in the crystalline river systems, many dozens of amphibians. Add in the relative accessibility of this unique chunk of old-growth deciduous forest, and the result means that you have a better chance of seeing some of America's most wonderful wildlife in the Smokies than anywhere else on the continent.

And when you're done with your binos and walking boots, you can take a cheerful trip from the sublime to the ridiculous, and visit Dolly Parton's Dollywood. It's an entire theme park on the edge of the mountains, dedicated to the mammacious Country & Western star. In these rich soils, it's not just the millipedes that grow to record size.

Best for Deserts and Wildness: Arches/Canyonlands NPs; Utah

Often overlooked by visitors, in favour of more famous desert parks like Grand Canyon, these neighbouring parks - Arches and Canyonlands - constitute some of the most savagely dramatic scenery in the West, thanks to a unique topography.

Because this is where two noble rivers, the Green and the Colorado, collide in the desert, creating an enormous labyrinth of scorching sandstone ravines, an outback famous for its rigours, its remoteness, its indifferent hostility to man. And I mean hostility. The American writer Edward Abbey, who spent summer here as a park warden
in the fifties, recalls the telling sign that used to hang in the Arches Park loo:

‘Attention: watch out for rattlesnakes, coral snakes, whip snakes, vinegaroons, centipedes, millipedes, ticks, mites, black widows, cone-nosed kissing bugs, solpugids, tarantulas, horned toads, Gila monsters, red ants, fire ants, Jerusalem crickets, chinch bugs and Giant Hairy Desert Scorpions before being seated.’

Or course, some people find such horrors attractive. Part of the reason for coming to this exhilarating place is its challenges. If you like adventure sports, Moab and environs are unbeatable: mountain biking was born here, on the baking orange slickrock, there’s also great hang gliding, quad biking, white water rafting, climbing, swimming, bunjee jumping, fishing, trekking, camping, and horseriding. You can also go on hikes into Arches Park itself to see those hundreds of stunning sandstone formations that give the park its name; alternatively, you can rent a 4 by 4 and head into the fierce red wilderness of Canyonlands, the very last place to be mapped in America. Here you’ll find views (used in the movie Thelma and Louise) that make the Grand Canyon look sadly underwhelming. And when night comes you can take a boat down the Colorado and watch the yellow shooting stars in the desert night sky.

You can also, of course, nearly get yourself killed.

On my last day in this magnificent place - with my mind slightly befuddled by the spleandour of it all - I decided to go on the hunt for a spectacular rock formation called Corona Arch. At first, all was fine.The guidebook had told me that the trail I was following was ‘moderately easy’ and ‘ideal for kids’. So no problem there.

But then, as I clambered on: scrambling up rock faces and squeezing through crevices, I started to wonder: what kind of kids would find this ‘ideal‘? Bionic ones?

An hour passed. Another hour. Now the nerves were jangling. I was beginning to wish I was back in my hotel in laidback Moab, sipping local microbrews with the students, bikers, ranchers, and retired uranium miners.

Then my canyon came to a dead end. What next? The other chasm? But how should I get there? I couldn't work it out, because my head was swimming. I had drunk all my water - and it was 90F in the shade. And, you know what? Those circling buzzards could be vultures and…Yikes!

I looked down. Right under my boot was a great big rattlesnake.

Somehow, this terrifying sight brought me to my senses. Suddenly I knew what to do, and how to do it. Wiping the sweat from my brow I turned and bolted: I leapt down gulches and scooted past junipers and vaulted over glistening green puddles - and ten minutes later I emerged by the mighty Colorado, where the goatee’d mountain bikers were taking a nap in the shade near my car.

OK, I was an idiot. I should have been prepared. I should at least have taken a map and proper amounts of water. But boy, did that cold Wasatch lager taste good when I got back to town.

Best for Volcanoes and Adrenalin: Volcanoes National Park, Hawaii

The island chain of Hawaii is full of superlatives. It's the most isolated archipelago in the world. From the sea floor up, Big Island is the biggest mountain in the world. On Maui and Molokai you'll find some of the rarest birds in the world. And the whole place boasts some of the fattest hotel staff in the world.

But it's the volcanoes that really take the biscuit. They are probably the most active volcs on the globe - constantly erupting, like some mountainous Basil Fawlty of basalt, spewing red lava into the distant sea. By night these glowing rivers of coals can look like vast traffic jams of red brake lights, edging along M25ishly.

There are actually two volcanic national parks in Hawaii. On Maui you’ll find Haleakala, which is beautiful but inert - the volcano here spat its last lava-bomb centuries ago.

If you want real to see the real thing in action you have to visit Kilauea, also known as Mount Pelee, in the middle of Big Island; Kilauea/Mount Pelee is the volcano mother God of all Hawaiians, and she’s been suffering her geological ‘time of the month’ for as long as anyone can remember.

Getting to see the moody Ms Pelee isn’t that easy. Most visitors to Big Island stay on the sunny west coast - maybe at affable and languid Kona Beach - or in the trendier but rainier east coast - at Hilo. But these are both a two to three hour drive from the mountain herself - and the roads through the lush green coffee plantations can be annoyingly narrow and serpentine. You can stay at the pretty old-school lodge, Volcano House Hotel, right on the crater rim of Pelee: but this means you’ll be stranded here in the hotel, where it can get quite cold, and lonely, and where, just occasionally, everything is burnt to cinders.

Whatever your choice of accommodation there are three must-sees. The first is the great crater itself: a hundred years ago this mile-wide bowl of ashy-yellow rock was literally a lake of fire - as the lava simmered at the earth’s surface. These days the lava has subsided but you can still smell the thick sulfur in the air, like Chemistry lesson at school, and watch the toxic smoke billow up from fissures in the crater floor. Sometimes this smoke just belches from hidden vents in the surrounding woods - an extraordinary sight.

The next thing to do is hop in your car (or your tour bus) and head down the road that circuits the latest lava flows. These modern convulsions have slowly swept away villages, roads, and gasoline stations, and buried a visitor centre to boot, and the cooling rock now presents a frightening vista - mile after mile of tortured grey stone, boulders of sunbaked pumice, and pewtery coils of congealed magma, broiling in the relentless sun. This is the earth as adolescent, suffering her growing pains: hectares of new land have been added to Big Island since 1990.

Finally, when the long hot road gives out, you park your car and load up with water and start trekking over the craggy older lava. Why? Because at the end of the trail the new lava is still pouring into the sea: pouring slowly but surely: and where the 1000 degrees rock meets the cold Pacific waves, the whole ocean explodes in a geyser of superheated steam, a fountain of scalding white gas that bursts a quarter of a mile into the cloudless sky and falls as a corrosive acid rain.

You might want to take a hat.

Best for History and Wine. And Bears: Mesa Verde NP, Colorado

I’m standing in the centre of a kiva, a ceremonial round cellar. The kiva is at the bottom of a medieval Indian house, inside a Puebloan village. The entire village is secreted inside a cave, the cave is halfway down the wall of a mighty canyon, which is lost in the heart of the Mesa Verde National Park.

I’m surprisingly impressed. When I say surprisingly I mean this: like any European I’m not normally overwhelmed by America when it comes to history. We’ve just got so much more of it than them, and they’re so easily pleased by relatively feeble degrees of ancient-ness. Wow, you say this post office was built in 1913? And this church is over one hundred years old? Amazing!

But the native American settlements that are the jewel in the crown of the Mesa Verde Park in cool, clear, mountainous Colorado are a case apart. For several reasons. First, they represent the apogee of a culture, the Anasazi Indian culture, that flourished here for a thousand years - and you can follow that millennium of change entirely within the park itself, from the first hunter gathering to the very last kiva ritualising.

Second, the crumbling settlements and corn-cob farmlands are surrounded by pristine and untouched high country wilderness - where turkey vultures soar above pinon pines and prickly pears. Third, there’s a really great hotel with a nice restaurant right inside the park. That might sound shallow - but America’s National Parks are sometimes let down by their mediocre catering and accommodation; here you can sip fine pinot noir and eat buffalo rib-eye as you gaze through the picture windows at the elks attacking the mule deer.

Lastly, and most importantly, there are the later villages themselves. In the final century before they enigmatically departed Mesa Verde, in 1300, the Anasazi Indians built a series of confounding and beguiling settlements, within the actual crevices that lined the canyon walls of their homeland. Some of these villages were so tucked-away they could only be reached by enormous ladders - indeed if you want to visit some of the crazier villages, like Balcony House or Cliff Palace, make sure your vertigo is under control beforehand.

What was life like here, in these surreal townships halfway up a cliff? It’s hard to say. Why did the natives abandon them?No one knows. These people were no fools - some of their houses are precisely aligned with the summer solstice, so they receive the perfect light at the perfect moment. Yet the clever Anasazi were forced to give up their serene if peculiar lifestyle by an unknown force.

What is undoubted is that these places exact a notable spell, even now - especially if you stay within the park, as I did, and get to see them at sunset when they are quiet, tranquil, and deserted, and possessed of a certain spooky sadness.

I’d like to say, from an intellectual point of view, that my very last evening spent staring at the towers-in-a-cave of Cliff Palace was the highlight of my Mesa Verde visit. It wasn’t. On the slow drive back to my lodge, all sunburnt and happy, I was so lost I in contented thought I nearly ran over a bear.

A bear. It was just running across the road. A bear. A big black bear. A bear!

Yes, I was childishly excited. But that’s what America’s great national parks do to you: they turn you into a child again, staring in wonder at the awesome and innocent world.

Monday, September 24, 2007

This Erotic Story is Bollocks: Discuss

There's a reason for this photo. Honest. No, really. Seriously. Read on. Really.

A few weeks ago I was asked by the sexy website Nerve, in America, to write a "humorous" short story for the site.

So I did. At first they liked it, which was nice. But then they said they didn't like it, and they said they weren't going to publish it. I asked them why didn't like it, and they said Because it's crap (I paraphrase, but you get the idea).

Were they right? Search me. Read on and decide for yourself. The story is certainly slight - it ain't War and Peace. It's not even Somerset Maugham on an off day. But then again the story is what they asked for: frivolous and lighthearted. Fuckers.

But then again, who cares? I'm off to Monte Carlo this week. On a helicopter. So life isn't all bad.

A bientot.

The Breast Sharers

The Breast Sharers

Sean Thomas

I remember when we first had the idea for breast sharing. I was drinking with my old friend Matt in a pub on Charlotte Street in London. We used to meet there after work - me when I had finished my underpaid copywriting for the day, Matt when he had finished his shift as a bored bookshop manager. We let off a lot of steam during those beer frenzies - we'd get drunk and shoot the breeze and ogle women, argue about soccer and sex.

One coolish evening in May, Matt and I were sitting there, in the Fitzroy Tavern. If you don't know it, the Fitzroy is quite a famous London boozer. Karl Marx used to drink there during his Soho pub crawls. Aleister Crowley the Satanist was another regular -- he used to walk around in a big green cape.
These days it's mainly students because it serves cheap beer. But what students. Beautiful students. Girls of 18, 19, and 20, with their toothpaste-ad teeth, implausibly glossy complexions and lovely young bottoms, taut enough to bounce tennis balls against.

For Matt and I, this ogling was just that: all we did was look. And maybe yearn a bit. No more. Because, you see, we'd both been happily married for years, so it didn't matter to us whether these girls were all gong and no dinner. We were going home to a nice hot supper, anyway.

However, this evening Matt seemed less happy and relaxed than normal.

'They're spreading,' he said bitterly.


'Beautiful girls. Every year there's more and more of them. It's starting to get me down.'

I looked him over. Hair thinning, jowls developing: he was definitely headed for middle age. But usually he was sanguine about this. His wife was still quite a beauty. He was a lucky man.

'They're like algae in the Adriatic.'


'Girls. With their amazing breasts. They bloom inexplicably in summer. Like that algae you read about.'

'Maybe you need another drink.'

Mildly concerned by my friend's angst, I visited the bar. Between the crush of happy young undergrads, I managed to catch the bargirl's eye, always an achievement in the Fitzroy on a Friday night. On the way back, I saw that my friend had his head slumped in his hands. I placed the drinks on the table and leaned over.

'What the fuck is wrong?'

He sighed. Then he said:

'It's Laura's breasts.'

'What about them?'


He tailed off. I tried to nudge him along:

'How can there be a problem with Laura's breasts? I mean, she hasn't got any!'

It was true. Laura, Matt's wife, was an A cup at best. Her breasts were like "two bee-stings on an ironing board," as she once described herself. But Laura was also funny, clever, sexy and very beautiful in a cheekboney way; she also had a fabulous arse. Who cared if she didn't have any tits, in comparison to all that?

Certainly not Matt. At least, that's what I had always presumed. I'd always imagined Matt was the same as me - not a breast obsessive. Otherwise, why would he have married a woman with one of the flattest chests of her generation?

It now turned out I was wrong. Very wrong. As Matt sank drink after drink, it all came spilling out. He was totally obsessed with tits, as he mournfully admitted. He loved breasts. Adored them. Needed them. He liked big ones. Bouncy ones. Massive ones. Breasts like two baldheaded Zen monks having an argument under a woman's shirt. Whacking great hooters. Ginormous Bristols. Wombats. Mozzarellas. Gazonkas. Matt liked them all and he loved them big, and yet he was married to a girl with breasts like two bee stings on an ironing board.

'Don't get me wrong,' he slurred. 'I really love Laura and I don't want to be unfaithful to her ... but... sometimes...' He burped, morosely. 'Sometimes when I look at the girls in here with their big happy wotsits I just get really sad.'

My God, he was nearly crying. This was not good.

'What makes it worse...' He added. 'Is Sarah's tits. Wasted on you!'

Sarah was my wife. My pretty, curvy, 28-year-old wife with the fantastic breasts.

He was right. As I have already implied, I don't particularly care about breasts. My only concern with breasts is that they shouldn't be too weird, but other than that, I'm studiously neutral: big, small, pert, voluptuous, large-nippled, pink-nippled, extra-nippled - it's all the same to me. I'd much rather focus on a girl's bottom or her legs, which I find way more interesting and erotic.

Yet ironically I was married to a woman with some of the finest breasts imaginable.

Looked at one way, this was quite sad. Sarah's breasts were internationally acknowledged as being superb, yet they just sat there. On the shelf. Unused. Unnoticed. Ignored by me from one day to the next. And eventually they would be... not so good. They would droop. And what a waste that would represent! No one would have appreciated them at their finest. It was like someone without a driver's licence being given a new Ferrari, then letting it simply rust away in the garage.

At that moment a weird but amusing idea entered my rather drunken mind. Perhaps I could... share Sarah's breasts with Matt.

The concept was striking. But it needed pinning down. I didn't actively want any of us to "swing." No - that would have been too stressful. I don't agree with infidelity, and I despise the idea of open marriages. My parents had an open marriage, and it sucked.

But how about just sharing some breasts? That would be different -- not so profound but possibly quite rewarding. And I did want someone to appreciate Sarah's breasts before they inevitably declined. And who better to appreciate them than a close friend -- one, moreover, who was a real connoisseur of breasts, who would really get a kick out of them because he wasn't getting any decent breast action at home?

As we sat there, in the heaving pub, the deal was done. We'd share Sarah's breasts.

The only problem with this was Sarah. And maybe Laura.

The following evening I made a special supper for Sarah and I. Baked wild sea bass with potatoes, and two bottles of proper chilled Riesling. She needed sweetening. This was a tough sell.

At least, that's what I expected. I had forgotten that my wife Sarah is bold, libidinous and slightly crazy, which is why I had fallen in love with her in the first place. As soon as she heard the idea, she laughed uproariously and said, 'Why the hell not? But he can only touch my breasts, and look at them. No kissing. And Laura's got to be okay with it.'

I rang Matt that evening with the good news. To say he was very pleased would be understating the case. He started singing a Burt Bacharach medley. For Matt that was a sign of the purest joy. Hastily he reassured me that Laura was absolutely fine with the breast-sharing. Then he asked me when it should happen.

'I dunno...' I thought for a moment. 'Well... How about now? I mean, while Sarah's cool with the idea?'

He slammed the phone down. Three-and-a-half minutes later I heard his car pull up outside our flat.

'Quite keen then?'

'You don't realize how long it's been,' he said. Then he grasped me by the arm and shook my hand firmly, like an overly sincere politician. 'Thankyou, thankyou.'

We went into the sitting room. Sarah was there, on the sofa, looking pretty in her white T-shirt and laughing at Matt.

'You weirdo,' she said. This seemed to throw him, so she clucked encouragingly: 'Come on, hurry up, before I change my mind!'

Matt went quickly over to my wife. I stood in the doorway, observing. Matt sat on the sofa next to Sarah, then gingerly peeled off her T-shirt and sighed when he saw she wasn't wearing a bra. I felt proud of my wife's young and joyous bare breasts, swinging pertly before my friend. I felt happy as my friend touched the breasts, in awe. I watched contentedly as he stroked one breast like it was a puppy, and then stroked the other like it was an even nicer puppy. Matt was like a kid with two brilliant Christmas presents, unable to decide which to play with first. He was actually whimpering with pleasure. Over Matt's head I could see that Sarah was trying to stop herself laughing.

'Can I photograph them?' asked Matt.

'Nope,' said my wife.

He smiled, shrugged and thanked us anyway in a rather strangled voice.

Then he went home, happy as I had ever seen him.

The next day at work I got an angry call from Sarah.

'Laura didn't know!'


'I just spoke to her. I mentioned the breast-sharing thing - and she knew nothing. She went nuts.'

'Jesus. So what do we do now?'

'She wants you to sing to her, when she's masturbating in the bath.'

I paused.


Sarah's tone was brisk and businesslike.

'She says she's always liked your singing voice. I said I couldn't care less about opera. So there we are. It's a swap. She wants you to go over there and sing to her when she's soaping herself. I guess we'd better agree, to keep things smooth.'

That night I did it. I went over to Laura and Matt's house and I watched Laura take a bath and use a vibrator while I sang "Che Gelida Manina" from the opera La Boheme. I noticed she had a nice pussy. Very neat. Then she got out of the bath and showed me her arse, the arse that I had always liked. The soapsuds were running down the golden firmness of her buttocks. It was all very exciting. And it was getting out of hand. Two days later Sarah said she wanted some thrills on the "breast-sharing front," as she was the only one going without. The trouble was, she didn't fancy Matt at all - but she had always admired the thighs of a colleague of mine: Andrew M, the accounts manager at work. So he came over one night and Sarah rubbed Boots bodylotion into his muscly, rugby player's thighs, while I went off to play with Andrew's girlfriend's long red hair; meanwhile Matt persuaded a friend to let him tweak the neglected left nipple of his fiancee, and Laura was massaged by a lesbian friend of Sarah's with gorgeous lips.

Three weeks later we started up a company based on the concept. We advertised for couples who didn't want to be totally unfaithful, but who did want to pep up their sex lives. The special attraction of our concept was that we promised to utilize bits of your partner that you might find unattractive, or aspects of their sexuality that disinterested you, that another might just go crazy over. All the spare sexy stuff going wasted around the world: it would now be properly admired. In a way, we were being environmentally friendly. Recycling.

On the website, we told our own story. We used Sarah's breast-sharing tale as our prime example: how some beautiful breasts unappreciated by their present owner had been swapped for a glimpse of female bottom and some operatic bathing fantasy, and how everyone was satisfied.

The site was an instant hit. Within weeks we were on TV and all over the press. Then it went global and people started making us offers for the concept. Across the developed world people were breast-sharing, swapping unwanted but voluptuous hips for delightful but unappreciated cunnilingus skills, and so forth. It was a total triumph. We made the world a happier place, and we also made a lot of money.

One day, maybe a year after it all kicked off, Sarah was standing in the garden of our big new London house. She had that mischievous yet sexy expression on her face, the one I'd seen when I'd first suggested "breast-sharing". She was staring at the neighbour's garden, at the cocker spaniel that was chasing a football.
'You know,' she said, 'I wonder if the neighbours appreciate just how sexy that dog is?'

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Gnomes. And Whores

The Land of Gnomes. And Whores

I'm standing in the middle of a pretty Czech town called Cheb. With its pleasant colonnades and mouldering Gothic churches, it seems unexceptional. Yet this small town is the centre of the world's greatest concentration of hookers. And gnomes.

The main reasons for these bizarre proliferations is the proximity of Germany (just ten miles down the road), and the gulf in income represented by the border. Since the old Iron Curtain collapsed, rich Germans have driven over the frontier to buy favoured items from the poorer Czechs.

One thing they come looking for is gnomes. Garden gnomes and other kitsch ornaments are incredibly popular in southern Germany (they have never been anywhere near as popular in Czechia). Germany used to have its own gnome industry. But in the last few years German gnome moguls have discovered they can manufacture and sell gnomes much cheaper on the Czech side of the frontier.

The effect of this is that every shop around Cheb appears to stock gnomes. You can buy gnomes on roadsides, in grocers, and in petrol stations. You can buy them from stalls, supermarkets and newsagents. The centre of Cheb has a huge bazaar, run by Vietnamese, almost entirely given over to gnomes. They specialise in the more adventurous end of the gnome market.

Naturally, there is a humorous side to this. Less amusing is the market for commercial sex. According to a recent study, Cheb has more brothels per head of population than anywhere else on the planet: at least 35 bordellos have been counted, in a city of just 30,000 people.

There are underlying factors behind the explosion in Cheb's sex industry - besides the proximity of Bavaria. Decades of communism have made the Czech Republic a secular society that sees little shame in sex, of any kind - at least when compared to Catholic areas of western Europe. A swirl of nationalities in this region - including Ukrainians, Roma, Slovakians, and Asians - arguably makes for a certain rootlessness, that encourages vice. Moreover, the age of consent in the Czech republic is just 15.

Whatever the precise sociology, the impact of this widespread prostitution is intense. A few hundred metres from the cutesey centre of Cheb, the whores begin. Every streetcorner has a knot of blonde women, loitering and beckoning. Every third or fourth building seems to be a "club", or a "night bar" or a "playhouse". The brothels have ancillary service industries, of sex shops, solariums, and hairdressers.

The surreal atmosphere extends beyond the city limits. The forests and meadows surrounding Cheb are adorned with placards showing the way to yet more cat-houses: the Happy End Bar, the Eden Club, the Vanesa Night Bar. Lines of German trucks stand parked in the forecourts.

Unsurprisingly, prostitution makes Cheb a sad and even sinister place. I'm keen to leave. But halfway down one particularly dingy street, I am accosted. Four drunken gypsy youths, brandishing plastic cups of beer, stop and stare at me. With them is a girl of maybe 16, possibly younger.

Is she their sister? Maybe their niece?

Who knows. She offers herself to me, for money. The lads grin in approval. I flee to the safety of my rented Volkswagen and make for the German border. On the way, I see that the roads are lined with hundreds more prostitutes. And thousands and thousands of gnomes.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Rugby a l'Anglaise

I took this exciting pic, in Biarritz.

My blogging has been a tad patchy of late, because I have been travelling across France and Spain. I hope to say more soon. Here's something mildly relevant I wrote for the firstpost last week.

Vive le Rugby

I've never heard such a stirring rendition of La Marseillaise. Grown men are linking arms; lovers are carolling in unison. At the same time, three or four excitable lads are waving the vivid, Union Jack-like flag of the Basques.

The setting is a noisy brasserie in Biarritz: the raffish resort in Le Pays Basque. We are waiting for the first match of the Rugby World Cup to begin: France versus Argentina. And I couldn't be in a better place: because this far southwestern corner of France is, paradoxically, the throbbing heartland of French rugby.

The local side, Olympique Biarritz, have several times won the French championship. Toulouse, just up the road, is another major force. The great Serge Blanco is an Olympique alumnus. But why rugby? Why here?

As the game kicks off, the excitement really surges. It's much livelier than I expected: French people watching sport, even soccer, often seem self conscious about their enthusiasm. In Biarritz there is no such detachment when it comes to rugby. The fans are jumping about, spilling their cider. One classic French lady, complete with yappy dog, is yelling like a Bayonne fishwife at the ref.

Then, quelle horreur, the Argies score a try, from a cruel interception. The brasserie goes eerily quiet. I use the sudden, anxious silence to ask the locals why they love the sport.

Isabelle is a tour guide of Basque-Italian descent: she says: 'Basque men adore rugby because they like to show they are real men. Look at Basque peasant sports - carrying huge stones, sawing big logs - they are all tests of virility. Rugby is a version of that.'

Standing next to her is Paco, a wealthy builder. He reckons, by contrast, that rugby is popular here because it filled a niche when traditional Basque ball games, like the fiery pelota, were repressed. ‘Or maybe it is the violence‘, he says - with a wink.

Suddenly there is a groan. The hapless French fly half has missed an easy penalty. The crowd hisses, Paco tuts, the little old lady slaps her dog. The referee blows for the break.

The second half begins more promisingly. There is an enormous surge by the French pack, which ends with Isabella panting. But then the Argentineans return fire. One man kicks over a chair in disgust.

The final minutes are unbearable. A climax of whistles, jeers, and impenetrable Basque curses makes the commentary inaudible. Lots of contumely is being hurled at the English ref Tony Spreadbury. I start to speak in an American accent.

The game ends. France, unbearably, have lost. The atmosphere is deeply tense.

As we exit the brasserie something happens which I have never seen before in France. There is nearly a fight. Two Aussie surf dudes are chortling rather obviously at the pitiful French performance. Someone chucks a wild punch, the barman intervenes, the fracas breaks up It could be a Salford pub after a spiteful Manchester derby.

I'm not sure why the Basques are so keen and aggressive when it comes to rugby, but I think I recognise the trait. Recent genetic tests show that the Basques share significant ancestry with the British; indeed a new theory holds that the Basques were crucial early settlers of the British Isles, around 8000BC. They are, in a sense, our forefathers

Want to know where the British acquired their warrior spirit? Come to Biarritz. And watch a rugby match.

Saturday, September 01, 2007

The Lurchers

A lurcher, yesterday.

The Lurchers

Most journalists know the power of a good cliche: that hackneyed phrase that gets over an idea, without too much effort. Political journalism, especially, could barely survive without the use of world-weary metaphors and timeworn conceits.

Right now the cliche of the political moment, in the UK, is "lurch to the right". As David Cameron's Conservatives trot out a number of robust Tory policies - the ending of inheritance tax, opposition to the EU Constitution - so the massed ranks of political scribes have lined up to describe this as a "lurch to the right".

So common is this cliche (I've counted it a dozen times in two days) the reader's eyes glaze over when they see it. Yet the phrase merits closer examination.

For a start it feels like we read "lurch to the right" more often than "lurch to the left". But is this perception true?

Yes. Google the phrase "lurch to the right" and you get 25,000 hits. Google the phrase "lurch to the left" and you get barely half as many. This is especially striking, in that the second phrase alliterates. And if there's one thing journalists like almost as much as a cliche, it's a phrase that alliterates. Yet the hacks don't seem keen to say "lurch to the left".

What's going on? I think there's a subtle, and maybe subconcious agenda here. The idea, for many liberal-left journalists, that a move to a more rightwing position could be timely, sensible, clever, or deft, just feels ridiculous. No, such a move has to be stupid and clumsy, a staggering "lurch": like the monster of Doctor Frankenstein on lithium.

By contrast, a move to a more leftwing position feels, for many journalists, radical and exciting, daring if controversial - never a lumbering, Neanderthal "lurch". That's why such a move to the left is more often described as a "swing" or a "shift", or even a "veer".

Interesting things, cliches.