Thailand does not have a great reputation when it comes to caring for animals: there are plenty of horror stories of elephants being mistreated (and later wreaking revenge on their mahout or an unfortunate tourist); many visitors to Thailand are upset by the number of stray dogs;  you can still buy intimate parts of tigers and other protected animals for use as ‘exotic foods’ and ‘longevity potions’. There are numerous private zoos where the animals may be kept in atrocious conditions. The recently opened Night Safari in Chiang Mai shocked animal lovers around the world by some shady deals on wild African animals, by failing to prevent an alarming death rate amongst animals that had newly arrived and proposing to offer exotic animal steaks on the restaurant menu.
I have seen a wide variety of attitudes towards pets ranging from adulation to complete neglect.  Some Thais I know regard their pets with as much love as they do their children. It’s common, in fact, for a pet owner to refer to themselves when talking to their pet as ‘Dad’ or Mum’. One expatriate friend of mine was ranting about pet owners, saying that it would be better if some of them adopted a child instead of a pet. I would tend to look at it the other way round and think it preferable that some people raised animals rather than spawning more children. Some Thais regard their pet rather as a sergeant-major would some particularly scruffy conscripts- one I know spends his whole time barking (almost literally) orders at his dog: ‘Sit! Come here! Go away! Stop!’. Some take pity on strays without actually wanting or intending to look after a pet. The friend of a friend had a python that she slept with until he died, at which point she put him in the fridge as she couldn’t bear to dispose of him. I can’t help feeling that pets like these are an attempt to gain staus or fill out your identity. The worst pet owners, I think, are those who get a dog simply to guard the house. The owner shows as much affection towards his pet as he does towards the safe he keeps his money in. A Thai Chinese man I know keeps huge fish with bulging eyes and slobbery mouths that he raises to win prizes and sell at a profit. The hilltribes keep them for very practical reasons: cats to catch rats, dogs to alert to approaching strangers, chicken and pigs to eat. In any hilltribes village the animals mingle together, run in and out of houses and scurry from under your feet with only the occasional squabble between them. Ever since I stayed with a French family who kept rabbits in cages who would sooner or later find their way into a civet I have been very uncomfortable with the idea of a pet that you serve on your dining table. The other day I was about to sit down to lunch with a hilltribes family when the man picked up a sling and stunned one of the chickens that were scurrying around. I found it hard to swallow the very tasty chicken curry that appeared a few minutes later.  It’s strange that what pets provide for most Westerners, companionship, doesn’t seem to figure much in the Thai scheme of things. Far too many pets are turned loose ot just ignored but the worst two cases in our area were the work of two Malaysians. One keeps a Rotweiler permanently in a tiny cage and never takes her for walks- something that shocks his Thai neighbours. The other kept a young gibbon, which is illegal- when I pointed this out to him he assured me he had friends in the Forest Department. Shortly afterwards the Malaysian and his gibbon disappeared.
Thinking about why I keep pets, the first reason is that they just showed up and I couldn’t turn them away. After that I enjoy watching them do their own thing and seeing how they interact with me. It would be nice to think that the need for pets is an indication that  biophilia is an inescapable part of the human condition and that the deep affiliations humans have with nature are rooted in our biology. But some people seem hell-bent on denying this. One of my sons’ friends in London- a computer programmer- is terrified of the countryside and turns green at the sight of any animal. Thai children who don’t actually own pets seem to learn about nature very much as an abstraction and I sometimes fear that aberrations like the Tamagotchi might lead to generations that are increasingly biophobic. I can feel this has drifted away from pets and I’ll save a few broader comments on attitudes to nature to a later post.

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I was wondering the other day why people sing in the shower and whether more people sing there than in the bath. (Well, now Richard Dawkins has disposed of God and it looks as if the US friendly Iraqis will dispose of Saddam Hussein, what is there left to think about?) My own experience suggests it is the shower that wins- I admit to singing frequently in the shower but never in the bath. Reading in the bath, yes (which is something it is more difficult to do in a shower), daydreaming and drinking a glass of Chardonnay, plenty, listening to Wagner, too, but never singing. A search in Google seems to confirm my theory that more people enliven their shower with vocal renditions- 215,000 results as opposed to 11,300 for singing in the bath.
It appears, however, that singing in the bath has a respectable history, going back at least to Ibn Khaldûn, the philosopher, historian and politician, who was born in Tunis in 1332. In his major work, the Muqaddimah, he writes:
“Joy and gladness are due to expansion and diffusion of the animal spirit. Sadness is due to the opposite, namely, contraction and concentration of the animal spirit. It has been shown that heat expands and rarefies air and vapours and increases their quantity. A drunken person experiences inexpressible joy and gladness, because the vapour of the spirit in his heart is pervaded by natural heat, which the power of the wine generates in his spirit. The spirit, as a result, expands, and there is joy. Likewise, when those who enjoy a hot bath inhale the air of the bath, so that the heat of the air enters their spirits and makes them hot, they are found to experience joy. It often happens that they start singing, as singing has its origin in gladness.”

ibn_khuldun.gif Ibn Khaldûn

In my view, this is wiser than most of the Koran and it’s a shame that the North African sage is not followed more closely by Muslims today. Nice to think that while the peasants in England were revolting and the Popes of Rome and Avignon were locked in a bitter power struggle, Ibn Khaldûn, as well as being Prime Minister for Hafsid sultan of Bougie, was able to devote his time to daydreaming in the bath.
His explanation is certainly more appealing than the modern “scientific” one that the acoustics of a shower adds reverb and bass boost so that my out of tune warblings will sound like Pavarotti. I don’t think the people (sorry, person) in the shower cares what they sound like*. Others have speculated that it is about being naked with water running over our bodies, the result of some kind of chemical reaction that takes place when were are exposed to steamy water or simply that we have nothing else to do. I know that if I have an awkward letter to write or a decision to make there’s nothing like a shower to focus the mind. All of which leads me to have some sympathy for Australians after EnergyAustralia has started discouraging people from exercising the vocal cords in the bathroom. Apparently “non-essential activities” in the shower are adding 9.08 minutes to a normal scrub, and this is contributing to global warming, EnergyAustralia says. At the very least, they say, if you have to sing you should sing short songs, no complete acts from La Traviata, for example. When it comes to songs that last a long time the Lisu people must hold the world record. I asked the other day how long a song I was recording normally lasted and was told ‘one week, day and night’ (with alternating singers, though). Just as well there are no showers in Lisu villages. Not that I go along with EnergyAustralia, though. For a start how is itthat in China, one of the worst contributors to global warming, there is no tradition of singing in the shower and baths are practically unheard of? I believe that if world leaders spent a little more time soaking in their baths they might be better disposed towards one another as well as finding a solution to the problems of climate change.

showerradioset_1.jpg technology for the unrepentant ablutionary vocalist

* I might be wrong on this. One blogger has written: “When you go home and sing ”Everything’s Coming Up Roses” in the shower, you can elevate your own personal life to an art form. This can be very affirming.” And empowering, no doubt as well.

Portrait of a cat 4

November 6, 2006

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Last, but not least… Well, no, in some ways last and least. Tua lek (little one) got her name more or less by default. As she is the smallest cat around and no one knew what she was called we just referred to her as ‘the little one’ and it stuck. She’s an original native Thai cat (not Siamese) with a stumpy tail and thick soft fur. We thought she was the youngest but it turns out she’s probably older than the others and she’s already a grandmother. For a while lived in the lane by a neighbour’s house who was not interested in her. I used to take her food twice a day but she would often disappear for days on end. On on occasion, while the neighbour was away we found her lifeless and wheezing so we took her off to the vet. On her return she decided to move in and as she was then a rather pathetic little creature we made an exception to our ban on new cats. Once in, Tua lek decided that was where she wanted to stay and even now will only venture outside for very short periods and always within a 10  yeard radius of the house. For months she was not in good health, her main problem being an infection of her mouth so she found eating painful. She also pulled great lumps of her fur out. A succession of vets simply gave her an injection or two and told us to come back when it reoccurred. Between monthly visits she would lie still, a miserable malodorous little bundle, her normal resting place being my lap or chest as I worked at the computer. For a long time I was reduced to typing the manuscript for a book with one hand, the other holding Tua lek in place. Then one day we went to a new vet who took one look at her and said’ right let’s have all her teeth out’, which he did, except one Since then she has been a new cat, playing all day like a kitten. She’s obsessed with a piece of string, she pulls it down as soon as I appear in the morning and waits by it for me to drag it along for her to chase. She races after it, ending with a series of skips and a skid into the nearest wall. Every so often she will do a vertical take-off and land on the string which she will attempt to chew with her one remaining tooth.  She doesn’t really run, but hops like a rabbit. Sometimes when she wants a attention she will do a silly walk and bump into furniture before ricocheting off it onto my leg. She’s still very affectionate. periodically I feel a  slight wobble on my chair which tells me that Tua lek has jumped up and will soon be settling on my lap. When I watch TV she will come and sit at my feet and fix me with a determined stare. After a few seconds she will jump nimbly up and settle herself on any available bit of my anatomy. In spite of this, if you pick her up she will immedately struggle to get down. She tries to miao but most of the time there is no sound apart from the occasional squeak. She does, however, snore impressively. In spite of being the smallest and the least equipped to defend herself she is fearless- when one of the neighbouring toms comes marauding there she is in the front line with the heavy artillery (Saddam) close behind her. She will often push the others out of the way to get to the food first and regularly gives Saddam a sisterly biff. She is particularly partial to titbits from our plates and gets bored with food quite quickly, demanding a change of flavour to her cat food every week. It’s often hard to find her, not just because of her small size but because she seeks out the darkest, quietest corners to rest in.Sometimes it’s the gap behind my computer monitor, or under the sofa, behind the fridge or at the bottom of a clothes basket. If anyone comes to the house she doesn’t know she flees to the remotest corner of the sitting room. If I put on outdoor clothes, she scurries off to safety behind the TV. Her health is still not that good- after a few moments chasing after the string she has violent coughing fits and has to rest for a while. Once or twice she’s managed to climb up a tree in the garden but hasn’t yet mastered the art of climbing down. Like Saddam and Bua khao, she shows no interest in hunting, but, as befits her size, enjoys playing with ants. She seems to have frequented several houses in the neighbourhood before fixing on ours and of all the cats is the one who seems to need most contact with humans.

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A tail piece on wobbles to my chair. My computer chair, which I have to periodically reclaim from Saddam, has wheels so I notice it when the cats bump into it while they’re chasing each other around. Two years ago, one Sunday morning, I was at the computer as usual and the chair started wobbling then moved a few inches. Damn those cats, I thought and looked down. No cats- they were all outside. That was the morning of the tsunami.

Thai mirrors

November 6, 2006

Funny thing, Thai politics. Our former leader, Thaksin, was unceremoniously and undemocratically booted out because those behind the coup knew that if elections were to take place he would win comfortably. Thaksin himself had been rightly accused of eroding democracy by muzzling the press and failing to respect the rights of anyone suspected of being involved in drugs or Muslim extremist inspired insurrection. None of which worried the vast majority of rural Thais who voted for him. But once the King had made it clear he was fed up with Thaskin and supported the coup, everyone is happy with the generals and no one wants Thaksin back. What they want back even less is a return to the old corrupt democratic regimes offered by the alternatives to Thaskin. One Thai commentator suggested a way forward. Why, he said was there corruption under the old regimes? Because politicians had to pay people to support them. And where did they get the money to pay their supporters? By dipping into major construction projects and the like. And their supporters had to pay their supporters in turn. And how did they augment their income  to pay them? By dipping into some less major projects. So it’s not surprising that the road to our village still hasn’t been built and the main Chiang Mai to Chiang Rai highway cracks up every time it rains.  And what was the answer proposed? To get the King to appoint some trustworthy politicians to form the government who wouldn’t then have to pay anybody to support them. Not surprisingly, the idea met with the approval of 100% of the Thais I have it discussed it with. So it’s not surprising that the international community’s call for a ‘swift return to democratic government’ doesn’t carry much resonance here. Is it democracy when a people democratically decide not to be governed democratically? Nobody is under any illusions as to what would happen were the old politicians to return. As the speaker of the Thai parliament put it in 1996: “The budget is like a popsicle that is passed around. Everyone gets a lick at it when it comes their way , so that by the time the one at the end gets it, there’s little left.” Democratic elections aren’t the answer. As The Economist commented in 1996 , “Elections … often produce the best government money can buy, rather than a good one.” And not just in Thailand.

choosing a coffin

November 5, 2006

One of the more endearing customs of Lisu hilltribes people (in addition to cultivating opium, which is done a little more discretely these days) is to order their coffins well in advance of their death. Rather as some people might buy a little cottage in the country with their retirement in view.  The wood for the coffins must be the best  available.  At around 60 pounds it represents a considerable expense for people whose only source of income is a once a year bean harvest, most of the proceeds of which are spent on New Year’s celebrations. The wood has to be carefully stored to avoid warping, which could prove an embarassment when it comes to be used. The Lisu also prepare a small collection of little pieces of pure silver – 9 for men, 7 for women, which are places on the person’s tongue just before they die, to wish them a good journey. At the appropriate time, the coffin must be made without any nails or other metal being used or glue. There are other expenses, too- the body has to be dressed in brand new clothes and, inevitably as when any event of signifiance or festival occurs, a pig has to be slaughtered. Pigs in Lisu villages lead charmed lives. Cremation is only used for ‘bad’ deaths and you can get away with a much cheaper coffin, sometimes just a few pieces of flimsy bamboo. Lisu funerals are different from those of most other hilltirbes in that they don’t allow musical instruments. There are funeral songs but recording or taking photographs is taboo. Having bought a couple of the good coffins (for others) I thought I’d  take a stroll round to the corner coffin shop and see what they had in stock. These were the Thai style coffins, very gaudy in white and gold but probably made of MFI plywood. Thai funerals can be quite jolly affairs. The first requirement is the sort of sound system that would not look out of place at a Pink Floyd spectacular in Wembley Stadium. It’s not a long faces and only saying nice things about the departed sort of occasion. In fact no one seems much concerned by the one who’s passed away once they’ve established who it is. There’s no actual riotous merriment but lots of smiling faces. Thais, like anyone else, will be shocked and saddened at an unexpected death but the initial grief soon gives way to a more fatalistic attitude. There’s an ingrained belief, even in the hill tribes who are only Buddhist in name, that there’s a predetermined departure time for all of us and when that comes there’s no point in making a fuss about it. The idea that the deceased is suffering less now than he or she did in real life seems to comfort most Thais. I’m not sure I go along with this- whenever my time comes it will be the wrong time as far as i am concerned and I woudn’t object at all if there were a few long faces for an hour or two. It seems a good idea to me, though,  to have a coffin in reserve- you never know when it might come in handy.. The coffin maker had a big sign up saying ‘Promotion, down from 1250 baht to 950’. Never one to miss a bargain I asked him if he would do a ‘two for one’ deal but he was less than enthusiastic so I decided to put it off for a while. After all, there were more urgent purchases needed, like restocking the fridge and changing the brake pads on my Mighty X pick up, which if I didn’t get round to doing I might be needing that coffin sooner rather than later. On which subject I have been informed by some of the recipients of the dollops of cash I handed out recently that unless I can keep going for another seven years they might be forced to have discussions with the taxman. It’s nice to know that some people are remembering you in their prayers. Except that none of the blighters are Christian so that won’t do any good. Not that I think a God who would go out of his way to favour me would be worth praying to in the first place. Maybe I’ll stick it out for 6 years and 364 days just to annoy them.

spoken in jest

November 4, 2006

The unfortunate Mr Kerry committed a cardinal political sin by making a complete snafu out of a joke against his opponent the other day. How can anyone respect a public figure who is unable tell a joke without getting his underwear contorted? The Admiral really needs to take a lesson or two from President Bush or even Tony Blair in the art of the well-told wisecrack. One remembers the classic Bush rib-tickler on Brokeback Mountain: “Lynne Cheney and Laura were out of town recently so I called up Dick and said ‘Why don’t we go to a movie’? He said ‘Great idea, let’s go to a cowboy movie’. Yep, finally went to see Brokeback Mountain. Let me tell you, whooo-eee. Dick sat through the movie, didn’t say a word. We came out, after a while he says ‘nice horses’. I say ‘yep’. Then he becomes real quiet again and kind of serious. I knew something was on his mind. Finally he turned to me and said: ‘You don’t suppose the Lone Ranger and Tonto …”‘ Or the sublime moment when he looked inder his desk and said “Nope, no WMD’s there.” Those were jokes any great leader could really be proud of. Our own dear leader didn’t do too badly with his ‘at least she won’t run off with the bloke next door’ line that had them rolling in the aisles at Blackpool. Mr Blair, very astutely, specialises in self-deprecating jokes on the basis that he will at least have the butt of the jokes in common with the general public. These contrast with the style of most world political figures who seem to prefer a more macho, salty flavour to their jokes. It is rather a pity that most of Blair’s seem to have been designed by a committee then vetted by a special subcommittee of the JIC and a panel of lawyers for political correctness, intelligibilty to Sun readers, potential to backfire, everything, in fact, except humour. Not a word, of course, about rape or other unmentionable subjects that spelt trouble for the rather unfunny Mr Putin, who can,however, wield his razor-like wit with deadly effect as Mr Blair found out: “Asked by a British reporter how he would respond to Mr Blair’s concerns about Russian democracy, Mr Putin said he was always glad to hear fellow leaders’ views. Then, after a long pause, he smiled and added: “There are also other questions; questions, let’s say, about the fight against corruption. We’d be interested in hearing your experience, including how it applies to Lord Levy.” It is not known whether Ms Merkel has ever been heard to utter a joke, unless inviting President Bush to a wild boar barbecue while the Middle East was going up in flames counts as one. (Incidentally, that’s a ‘wild boar’ BBQ, not a wild ‘boar BBQ’. Presumably.) President Chirac, however, does make jokes and most of them boomerang, as did his infamous remarks about British and Finnish food which are supposed to have lost Paris the Olympics. (The two Finnish members of the IOC voted for London.)

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Politicians who enjoy blunt talking don’t always crack the best jokes, a case in point being the late and unlamented Berlusconi. Most seem to have been of the level of his dismally unfunny joke about AIDS, the pick of a wretched bunch being his remark “Read The Black Book of Communism and you will discover that in the China of Mao, they did not eat children, but had them boiled to fertilise the fields.” This must have offended large numnbers of Chinese fertiliser manufacturers. Even the stony-faced Prodi can do better than that and once described Signor Berlusconi’s facelift as his biggest contribution to Italy’s infrastructure. Thailand’s own Berlusconi, the late and not unlamented Thaksin was also more successful at making money than at making jokes, a typical one being that that he needs no restraints on his authority, since his wife can keep him in line and he already is so wealthy, there is no need to pilfer from public coffers.
Returning to our shores, Master Cameron, who must rewrite and rehearse most of his jokes for a few hours first, discovered a new way of using a joke to shoot yourself in the foot when “an unscripted joke in his acceptance speech – about how a BBC-TV helicopter had stymied his determination to make a ‘carbon-neutral’ bicycle trip into Westminster – caused him to forget to mention one of the six major themes he’d meant to announce. ‘We got a good joke, but lost out on globalisation and world poverty,’ one aide commented wryly.” Being slightly sceptical of the value of such policy announcements, one is tempted to regard it as a small price to pay, even if the joke was a bit short on risibility.
To finish with Mr Kerry, what made his joke so tasteless was that what he said is, according to the Independent, actually true: “Figures released by the Pentagon show that the percentage of enlisted troops with college experience is considerably lower than that of the general population.” Mangling your punchline is bad enough, but making a remark that is true, well, that just isn’t funny.

big is beautiful

November 3, 2006

dsc00658.jpg my favourite bird- and moth-watching spot
This morning I went up to my usual spot in the hills half an hour from our ‘town house’ and found the most impressive bird I’ve ever seen in the wild- a rare Mountain Hawk Eagle. Nearly a metre high, it sat out on a bare branch for about half an hour for me to have a good look at it- through the telescope as it was a fair way away. Then, amazingly, it started to call as I had my recorder running. I was expecting a spine-chilling, blood-curdling, marrow-freezing, flesh-crawling, toe-curling screech to make my nostril hairs stand on end but in fact all that came out was the squeak of a rather apologetic mouse. Which just goes to show that if you’re really big, you don’t have to shout.