Touring the Empire
[ places - october 05 ]
I am fascinated by England; the land of culture and literature and formerly one of the world's most powerful empires is a place I can return to again and again.
My flight from Bangkok into Heathrow was smooth, but once I touched down I was stuck in chaos: the airport staff was on strike; there are not enough people working at the airport in the first place, there are not enough trolleys and most passengers struggled to carry their own luggage. That shows me how tough the English people are.
I got a lift from a friend into the West End; amazingly, unlike four years ago, there was little congestion. How can London have smoother flowing traffic than Bangkok? The answer is simple: if Thai people had to pay 370 Baht (£5) to get into the city, Bangkok would be one of the most pleasant places to live in. The congestion charge is doing its job.
London is really friendly on the eyes. Ugly billboards announcing consumer products are quite rare; instead, I got a clear view of beautiful architecture, some in good condition and some run down, interspersed with green parks. What a nice city.
As soon as you step out into the street, you encounter almost every nationality on this planet: the African working in the bank; the Indian in the post office; the Jamaican in the supermarket.
Where are the English people? Almost every visible job is done by somebody from somewhere else. The answer is astounding: they turn up every Friday and Saturday night in Piccadilly, Soho, Trafalgar Square and every street corner, bar, nightclub and fish and chip shop, to get drunk. At least the young ones do.
I went to the Metro Club, next to Tottenham Court Road Station, where noisy rock’n’roll bands play in a dark, low-ceilinged room. The club was packed with an English audience. I had fun, and a deaf ear after about an hour. Later, I lost myself inside the giant Trocadero leisure centre in Leicester Square, watching rich Arab girls drive dodgem cars. Amongst the slot machines and hustlers, I could easily forget the world outside, but after a while I couldn't handle it. The Trocadero is like Nana (a Bangkok red light area) - without the girls. What's the point?
After the noise and lights, I dropped by Harry Ramsay's, the world famous fish and chip franchise off Piccadilly. Following this giant plate of greasy food, I couldn't walk any longer and had to take a bus back home.
After many long nights in the metropolis, I welcomed a new English dawn and traveled to Oxford, trying to make my trip constructive. I visited the magnificent Pitt Rivers Anthropological Museum. The extensive collection of artifacts from around the world - tattoo models, enthobotany samples, musical instruments, indigenous weapons, several display cases with the sign 'Treatment of Dead Enemies', skulls and shrunken heads were all display. Perhaps they will add a couple of Iraqi skulls to the collection to show how the British and Iraqis treat each other. The world is not what it seems. We are not moving away from where we started. Killing is a human instinct. We can see it around the world: my country is not an exception; neither is England.
Another day to kill, so I moved on to the very ‘civilised' town of Avebury, whose megalithic stone circle is populated by shamans. I followed a group of English people along the line of magic stones. I heard them - grown-up people! - talk of witches and wizards. The past and present are connected here. The stones are surrounded by rolling hills planted with wheat. A farm truck is spraying pesticides near our trail. Don't mention the environment in England - the green and pleasant land has long given way to industrial-scale farming and the countryside is ruined.
From the ancient stones and farming towns, I moved into the English heartland, the Cotswolds, where the have-people are having cream teas.
In my country, the have-people spend their money on cars. The gap between the haves and the have-nots has elastically extended itself in my lifetime. We Thais will be rich, drug-free and the cleanest people on this lovely planet because we get washed out intellectually. It's not likely to happen in England.
Time flies and money can fly too. This attractive country is unaffordable. You pay for more than you get. Every time. Within two weeks of arriving in Britain, I had met three people whose ceiling had fallen onto their bed or living room. English houses are in terrible condition and the plumbing is a joke. The rent is unimaginable - £500-700 a month for a small London flat.
On my last day, I was in a friend's specialist record shop off Oxford Street - the Rolling Stones' or the Beatles' 7-inch singles retail for £30-50. So here is what's left of the empire: their last great cultural moment - the 1960s, their counterculture - has become part of consumerism.
Best to get on a plane and go home.