How I ran away to Italy

A quarter of a century ago I somehow managed to get out of Paris where I had haunted a cheap hotel for months like a ghost trapped between this world and the next. I drove to Italy where I have lived ever since. I had a great contract with a famous publisher to write a biography of Benito Mussolini but had already spent the hefty advance and had yet to write a single word. On arrival in Italy, I did not even have enough money to pay the motorway toll. But the young woman in charge handed me a form to fill in and waved me through with a smile.

The handmade suit I’ll never wear

Someone somewhere must surely have calculated that Bangkok has more doctors and tailors per capita than anywhere on Earth. These two industries, healthcare and clothing, must account for a prodigious share of tourist revenues, and they both operate on similar principles: make the customer feel pleasant even as the results disappoint. It’s a formidable business model, not least because it persuades thousands of customers that they have scored a bargain and therefore cannot be as disappointed as they actually feel. Deeply gaslit, the customer fervently believes in what he has purchased – even if his new suit would not look amiss on a Jacques Cousteau research boat or his ‘world-class’

Diary – 1 February 2018

It never occurred to me, when I was interviewed for Desert Island Discs back in November, that I’d actually be on one when it aired last week. The plan had been to laze in a hammock under a palm tree in Ko Yao Noi in the Andaman Sea, with waves lapping against the white coral beach, read books and recharge for the year. These days, however, it’s hard to be totally cut off. I’ve read about ‘digital detoxes’ but never understood how you deal with the avalanche of messages on your return. So I left my phone on and soon it was pinging with notifications from WhatsApp, Twitter et al.

A beginner’s guide to getting a massage

 The agony could strike at any moment. Daggering pains in my lower back demanded correction. Not just painkillers, I needed a permanent cure. ‘Thai massage’ suggested the internet, so I hobbled across a tangle of east London streets and found a doorway beneath a pink neon sign. A receptionist of south Asian appearance, bundled in a white winter coat, nodded at me unsmilingly. ‘Massage?’ I asked. ‘Forty,’ she said tersely. I counted eight fivers out into her small pink hand. ‘A receipt?’ ‘No receipt,’ she said. ‘Room Two.’ She gestured behind her at a line of numbered doors. Room Two was a narrow, sweet-smelling nook with silvery wallpaper, piped Burmese

The wonder of Jon Pertwee and his frilly shirt

 When a friend asked if I wanted anything for Christmas I took a deep breath and replied: ‘Well, maybe I finally need to watch this.’ I handed him a video cassette retrieved from my sister’s attic and he took it to a place that digitises such things. On Christmas Day I nervously plugged in the memory stick. There we were: Carmel and I, aged about seven and nine, bathed in late-1960s sunshine in the garden of our mock-Tudor house in Woodmansterne Road, Carshalton Beeches, Surrey. (I emphasise ‘Surrey’, because in those days Carshaltonions were in Margo Leadbetter-style denial over new local government boundaries that landed them in – shudder –

Why foreigners can’t speak Thai

For 12 years now I have been learning Thai from my maid, Pi Nong, who has been employed in our building for decades. It’s a much misunderstood relationship. Here the maid is an obligatory fixture, integrated into daily life for foreigners and Thais over the age of 45 and over a fairly modest income level. For foreigners the maid is a linguistic go-between, a bridge between two worlds, a portal into a new language. While she is making me dinner she gaily informs me that farangs cannot eat Thai food even though she is making it for me now and that, even more mysteriously, they cannot speak Thai – even

The bliss of Phuket’s Millionaire’s Mile

Many of my friends, stranded by the Hollywood writers’ and actors’ strikes, have temporarily given up their film projects and settled down to write that hopeless novel which they could never finish before. Those film projects were more alluring – more necessary – than the lingering novels because they at least held out the prospect of one day bringing them, the openly despised writers, to the kind of fantasy scenarios towards which they have worked all their life. For some, a timbered Elizabethan priory in Sussex; for others a tropical villa perched on a headland with a constant blue bar of sea to make the approach of death feel philosophical.

How to see Bangkok without the crowds

In the deliciously darkened corners of the Vesper cocktail bar, in the central quartier of the Siamese capital known as Silom, the patrons are guzzling some of the finest cocktails east of Suez: from the exquisite complexities of the ‘Silver Aviation’ (Roku gin, prosecco, maraschino, coffee-walnut bitters, almond and lavender cordial), all the way to the heady simplicity of the ‘Mango Manhattan’ (bourbon, vermouth, white port, absinthe). What’s more, everyone seems to be having a good time. Which is maybe not surprising – this place was recently ranked the 14th best bar in all Asia (by the same people that bring you the World’s 50 Best Restaurants, Hotels etc), and

Fascinating but flat: Amazon Prime’s Thirteen Lives reviewed

About ten minutes in to Thirteen Lives, Boy came in and asked me whether it was any good. I said: ‘Well, it’s quite interesting, actually. I think they’ve got the actual cave divers playing themselves, so the acting is really dull and uncharismatic and a bit unconvincing but at the same time it gives the drama a sort of echt documentary feel…’ Boy, peering at screen: ‘But that’s Viggo Mortensen. You know, Aragorn from Lord of the Rings. And Colin Farrell, who you liked in In Bruges.’ Me: ‘Oh.’ Does your main duty lie with the drama or with the truth? Director Ron Howard has opted for the latter What

‘Oculus Quest is really the way’: film-maker Apichatpong Weerasethakul interviewed

There always comes a moment in the films of Apichatpong Weerasethakul where you’re forced to scoop your brain up from the floor. In his last, Cemetery of Splendour, this occurs at the point where the sky is invaded by a colossal blimpish amoeba. You stare. Blink. Adjust eyes. It slowly dawns that you’re peering into a crystal-clear lake, cloudy heavens and whirring mitochondria in blissful, cosmic coexistence. Man, however, is weak. And the first time I was introduced to his films, one of the most significant, sensual, startling, transcendent bodies of work by any director this century, I fell asleep. ‘Amazing,’ beams Weerasethakul over Zoom. ‘Even I slept in my

Why China’s vaccine diplomacy is running into difficulties

Tear gas and rubber bullets hold off the protestors marching to Government House in Bangkok. They’re looking for Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha, who they blame for Thailand’s Covid plight. As Covid cases continue to rise in Thailand, the protestors have three demands: the resignation of Prayut, more funding for the country’s Covid response, and for the country to stop using the Chinese-made Sinovac vaccine. Back when Sinovac first landed in the country in February the shipment was welcomed by Prayut, who proclaimed it ‘a historic day’. But six months down the line hundreds of healthcare workers are still being infected with coronavirus despite having received two shots of Sinovac. A

Me, myself and Thai: my cooking lesson from Cher Thai Eatery

Lockdown is hurting everyone except the chickens. I have bought them a conservatory because Philippa, a Light Sussex, looks like ancient pants in rain. It is really plastic sheeting to hang under the henhouse; they need it because the rain is horizontal. They stare out like chickens from film noir. I have exhausted local take-aways, and you cannot get fresh hampers here. Someone sent me stock cubes for beef stroganoff in the post, which feels joyless, but everyone is selling condiments — you can lick them, call it lickdown — or chocolates or alcohol, as if for a loveless Valentine’s Day. What do I seek? Thai food. I spent my

Violence has long flowed under Bangkok’s surface

Three years ago I sat down to write a novel set in my adopted home city. Placing its claustrophobic action in the near future, I had no trouble imagining my mostly foreign characters haplessly trapped inside a decaying high-rise apartment complex and surrounded by political upheaval. Thailand has endured more military coups since 1945 than any nation on Earth, and I myself have lived through two, in 2006 and 2014, while the violent uprising of 2010 occurred while I was far away in New York. They are peculiar coups by world standards. Two Turkish friends who visited in 2014 were disgusted by the lack of tear gas and fatalities inflicted

Alcohol is the perfect cure for deafness

New York   A busy ten days, or nights rather, with some heroic drinking thrown in for good measure. Hangovers discriminate against the old nowadays, but no one is doing anything about it — not in Washington, not in New York, not in London. Our former chairman Algy Cluff’s dinner party at a gentleman’s club, followed by an extremely funny speech given by him, started me boozing and things didn’t let up. One drinks to enhance an enjoyable evening, never to relieve boredom. Also one drinks when one can’t hear, as in extremely noisy New York restaurants. I made a big mistake recently, when I had Prince and Princess Pavlos

Love, sex, sponges and disability

Hampstead has become quite a hit-factory since Ed Hall took over. His foreign policy is admirably simple. He scours New York for popular shows and spirits them over to London. His latest effort, Cost of Living, has attracted the film-star talent of Adrian Lester, who plays Eddie, a loquacious white trucker from Utah. (His ethnicity is made clear in the dialogue and the relevant lines have been left unchanged.) Earnest Eddie tells us about himself in a 15-minute monologue at the top of the show. Rather a clunky device. He’s a bookish teetotaller with a strong work ethic who appreciates the landscape of Utah, enjoys listening to Erik Satie’s over-played

Rubbish on TV

Not the most beguiling of titles, I admit, but The Secret Life of Landfill: A Rubbish History (BBC4, Thursday) was a genuine eye-opener. The programme began with Dr George McGavin proudly announcing that ‘What we’re about to do has never been attempted on television before’: a claim that it’s usually best to treat with some scepticism, but that here seemed hard to deny. Certainly, I can’t remember another TV documentary in which the presenters spent 90 minutes digging through (non-metaphorical) rubbish. At first, the mood was one of rather determined excitement. McGavin twinkled away Scottishly behind his half-moon specs as he bombarded us with statistics about the hundreds of tons

Long life | 17 November 2016

I started watching The Crown, the £100-million television series on the early years of the Queen’s reign, on Netflix but turned it off during the second episode because I couldn’t bear the endless coughing by her father, George VI, as he died of lung cancer. The coughing, performed with eager realism by the actor Jared Harris, who played the king, was made harder to bear by the fact that he kept on smoking at the same time. The link between cancer and smoking may not then have been established, but it is well known now; and exposure to both at the same time is not for the squeamish. For me,

The Spectator’s Notes | 13 October 2016

Given all the outrageous things that Donald Trump has done and said already, why has he got into so much worse trouble for dirty remarks about women taped more than ten years ago? He gets away with dog whistle politics but not, seemingly, with wolf whistle ones. Some might say this is because of political correctness; or because his evangelical supporters, while not necessarily offended by his violent views, disapprove of his lewdness; or both. But my theory about sex scandals in politics is that they are not, strictly speaking, about morality. They are tests of how the accused man (or, much more rarely, woman) behaves when attacked. Does he

Charles Moore

King Bhumibol’s death stops all the clocks in Thailand

The sad news that King Bhumibol of Thailand is no longer of this world is causing considerable perplexity, because even when it became clear the King was ill, it was not possible for Thais to talk about his death. It seems that this is partly because it is a form of treason in Thailand to encompass the death of the sovereign, but also that, in Thai culture, the personal grief felt at his death will be so great that the thought of it is literally unspeakable. So foreign businesses, visitors, diplomats etc cannot find out what will actually happen when he dies, having reigned since 1946. Rumour suggests that there

Is there something that the BBC isn’t telling us about these Norwegians?

A man has set fire to a train in Switzerland and stabbed lots of people. On the BBC News last night the perpetrator was described as ‘a Swiss national’. Similarly on the BBC News online today: ‘The suspect, described as a Swiss man aged 27, was also taken to hospital after the incident near Salez in St Gallen canton, close to Liechtenstein.’ Do you know, I think there is something the BBC – and the Swiss authorities – are not telling us. This attack was quite similar in some respects to one carried out in London recently, in which an elderly American woman was murdered. Then, at least, the BBC