Dynargh dhe'n Blogofrob

Tuesday 17th October 2006

One Friday I nipped off from work early and got on a plane to Singapore. A lot of people in Hong Kong are fairly dismissive of South East Asia's smallest country. "Not much of a box to tick," said one colleague. Another simply said, "I think you will be very bored."

But I had been meaning to visit for some time. And I'd heard all this before. Singapore has a well established reputation for being dull, sterile and governed as effectively a one party state, which enforces needlessly strict rules, such as the outlawing of chewing gum. These are all generalisations though, and everyone who generalises is a moron. Plus, as I only had 36 hours in the country, I was preparing for some pretty intense sightseeing, which might involves a lot of sweat, aching limbs and frenzied map reading, but surely not boredom.

When I arrived back in Hong Kong on the following Sunday night, exhausted from said sightseeing and an unfortunate bout of the trots (of which more later) I was conscious that I'd just had a quick, possibly inaccurate, snapshot of Singapore, and I certainly hadn't been bored, but I could help feeling that it was funny old place.

This feeling was first suggested to me on Saturday morning, as I was sitting in the spotless (and deserted) underground station, waiting for a train to take me up to Little India. A dot matrix display, below one telling me how long my wait would be, flashed between the following messages:

Seen anything suspicious? Contact our station staff or call 999

and

You cannot teach a man anything; You can only help him find it within himself - Galileo

And with that the spacious and comfortable MRT helped me find Little India. As I climbed out of the station I could already smell the spices, the heavy scent of which followed me through the close packed colourful shops, rammed full of vegetables, garlands, saris and tin cans. The shops were overflowing with goods, all browsed by endless streams of shoppers, forever squeezing around one another. I walked happily amongst the colours and smells for a while, before seeking out the Tekka Centre, a food hawker centre and wet market, which was no less packed than the streets, both in terms of produce and people. After marvelling at giant durians and the death throes of gawping fish, I was back on the streets making my way to Sri Veeramakaliamman Temple, a Hindu temple dedicated to Kali. It was buzzing with worshippers and tourists. Ghee lamps burnt while white haired men clad in loincloths washed and placed petals on statues with names like Sri Madivai Veeran and Sri Periya Karuppa. More statues covered the roofs and tumbled over the gateways into the temple - multi-coloured depictions of gods, lions and warriors languished over the building's opulent domes

I had been looking forward to trying one of Little India's famous $2 SGD curries. But on Thursday lunch time I had been foolish enough to eat a salad from Prêt à Vomir, and had that night, by my reckoning, lost nearly 5 kg from various parts of my body, in various forms. Although weakened I now felt much better, but whenever I contemplated a curry my stomach suddenly felt ominously heavy, and I had to stop, lean against a wall and breathe deeply for a couple of seconds. So, with regret, I left the curries well alone and headed to the old colonial centre of the city.

I emerged from the MRT into a place utterly different from the Singapore up in Little India. The straight lines of glass clad office blocks and flat concrete squares littered with corporate art reminded me of Exchange Square in Hong Kong, or Broadgate Circle in London. I crossed the Singapore River and strolled up to the Padang, the local village green, on which a few white flanneled figures were playing cricket. Various war memorials lay half hidden in the thin strips of park between the Padang and the bay. I circled the Padang, gazing at the various colonial relics that populate this part of town: the Raffles Hotel, the imposing Supreme Court and St Andrew's Cathedral. Inside the Cathedral, only the whirring fans, hanging just above the pews from long cords attached to the rafters, give any indication that the building is perched on an island just above the Equator. Just past the old Parliament, a statue of Sir Stamford Raffles stands on the river bank, marking the spot where he first landed to found Singapore. The plaque underneath the statue reads:

On this historic site, Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles first landed in Singapore on 28th January 1819, and with genius and perception changed the destiny of Singapore from an obscure fishing village to a great seaport and modern metropolis.

He also founded London Zoo.

In the afternoon I made for the China Town area, and paced the empty pavements of Club Street and its environs looking for people. I suddenly realised that aside from Little India, Singaporeans were decidedly thin on the ground. Perhaps they spent the weekends in their famously plentiful public housing and didn't bother with the city centre. The emptiness was emphasised, when, walking down a quiet China Town street, I spotted a large pile of charcoal, built into a cube and about 3 foot high, on fire by the side of the road. As I passed it I looked around for some explanation. But there was no-one to be seen, nothing to indicate whether the thing should be on fire or whether I should be near it.

Despite its huge Chinese population, Chinatown in Singapore is perhaps less Chinese than, say, Crawley. Like everywhere else in Singapore, its streets are lined with pretty arcaded shop fronts. Above ground level the windows of the multi-coloured buildings are shuttered and bordered with understated bas-relief columns. The district is calm, muted and well-ordered. I did, however, stumble across three hubs of activity. In the first two, the activity was provided mainly by tourists. The Thian Hock Keng temple, is an elaborate Buddhist and Taoist place of worship, but it looks positively ascetic next to the Sri Mariamman temple located a few streets away, the roofs and ceilings of which are covered with lively depictions of various Hindu stories and people. The third area of activity was at the centre of Chinatown, around Pagoda and Temple Street, where, to be fair, the "China Factor" did exceed that to be found in your typical dead-end West Sussex new town.

Various tourist markets sold the usual tat and a smattering of Indian tailors competed for the attention of passing gents ("Sir, sir, the best tailors in Chinatown, find anyone better and I retire and close my shop sir"). But time was getting on, and, interested in food again, I headed for the hawker stalls. I was expecting dai pai dongs but, this being Singapore, I found instead a neat line of stainless steel kiosks on wheels stretching down the street and graded A, B or C according to cleanliness. I chose an A, which sold various simple noodle dishes - about all my delicate constitution could handle just then. I spent a while slurping wanton noodle soup and people watching before wandering back along the river, past smart waterside apartments, to my hotel at Robertson Quay. There, once it got dark, I spent an hour swimming in the pool, a strange fish tank like contraption teetering on the hotel roof.

The following morning I checked out of the hotel and made for Orchard Road, the famous shopping thoroughfare of Singapore. It's a pleasant wide road, lined with lovely huge trees. But even bigger are the malls that squat along its length, behemoths of consumerism, supposedly selling almost everything under the sun (except, I assume, chewing gum). Although fairly well populated, it wasn't the crush of eager shoppers my rather exciteable guidebook had led me to expect and, thankfully, was nothing like Mongkok on a weekend.

Unfortunately I am a terrible shopper, and after a couple of hours on the street I had only managed an extended browse in what claimed to be Asia's largest bookshop. I left for the airport in a cab, empty-handed apart from the remnants of a Starbucks latte.

Selected photos of Singapore can be found here.

98 - posted at 12:54:06
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Tuesday 10th October 2006

Actually sod the V Festival (my Dad's asked me to stop swearing so much on the blog, so I've said "sod" instead of "fuck"). It was good fun, but I can't muster a full blog. We drank quite a lot of cider and enjoyed some great music - James Dean Bradfield, Beck and Radiohead stick out.

On the first day it rained quite a lot and we had to pay £10 to find out who was playing where and then queue in the drizzle for 40 minutes for beer tokens. It also turned out that Rhys, who I had planned to meet near the second stage, was actually to be found by the second stage at the Chelmsford site rather than the one in Staffordshire where I was patiently waiting. But after that unpromising start, things got markedly better after JDB appeared on stage, looked down on the small damp crowd that had assembled to watch him and said, "You poor soaked bastards". It made a nice change from the Artful Dodger posturings of Richard Archer off Hard-Fi, who strutted around the stage like a Thunderbirds puppet, exclaiming, "We're 'ard-Fi from West Lahndahn" (no, you're from Staines in Surrey), before telling us that we weren't going to let the rain get us down. Speak for yourself mate, you're not stood out here watching a bunch of twats ponce around on a covered stage before heading into the VIP area towards heat and towels and queue-free bars and groupies and drugs.

But V was good. Though hopefully back to Glastonbury next year. For now, I've got to post something about North Korea before events totally overtake me and Kim Yong Il (as newsreaders irritatingly and unnecessarily call him) zips up his boiler suit, bouffs his hair and shouts, "Shibal nom, Geseki" (sorry Dad) before repeatedly stabbing a stubby finger down on his new shiny red button.

Claire's photos from the V Festival can be found here.

97 - posted at 07:20:44
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Monday 2nd October 2006

The "I've peaked and I'm kidding myself" party

Hi. I'm, uh, I'm a pet psychiatrist. I sell couch insurance. Mm-hmm, and I, and I test-market positive thinking. I lead a weekend men's group, we specialise in ritual killings. Yeah, you look great! God, yeah! Hi, how are you? Hi, how are you?

Ten years! Ten short, blink and you'll miss 'em years. There was a five year school reunion. That was five years ago. Not five minutes, which is what it seems like. So, on Saturday, in a dark room above a very sloaney pub on the King's Road, we all circled each other politely, discussing nothing in particular except maybe how quickly a decade has passed and how weird that girl's hair now looks. It wasn't really as if everybody had swelled. There were a few larger waistlines, a few balder heads. There were people who said, "Hello Rob," who I swear I had never laid eyes on before. There was someone who greeted me with, "Hello Alex". There were lots of lawyers and accountants. It was vaguely entertaining. But I wasn't expecting to be vaguely entertained. I was expecting shakabuku. Unfortunately, I'm no Martin Blank.

Once, when filling out an application form, I was faced with the slightly unusual question, "If you could be any character from a film, who would you be and why?" I wrote:

Martin Blank, from Grosse Pointe Blank. He carries out his work quickly and efficiently, and, although undertaking his tasks individually, he recognises the need to work alongside others at times and the value of good support staff. He also dresses very well.

Given that this was an application to a law firm, the answer was ill-judged (actually the whole application process was ill-judged but I don't want to dwell on that). Martin Blank kills people for a living. He also has obsessive tendencies and is heavily reliant on his therapist, despite having been fired as a patient. I didn't get the job.

Unlike Blank, the ten year reunion did not drive me to an existential crisis point (it's arguable that I've been there for at least three years). I did not stare deeply into a baby's eyes and realise that my work is inhumane and meaningless (again...past three years). I had no swift, spiritual kick to the head that altered my reality forever. I chatted, drank, went to sleep, woke up with a hangover and stayed in bed until 2:30pm on Sunday. Ironed a few shirts. Had a curry. Went to sleep again. No shakabuku. If the 10 year reunion didn't bring it on, what will? When do I get my shakabuku? I was just trying to get a little validation for my life. I guess I came up a bit short!

96 - posted at 10:46:44
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