Discover more from Life Litter
007 — Back to Oxford for a banquet
A feast, five years later.
Welcome back to The Notebooks. If you missed the last, this is where we were.
If you’re coming in fresh, The Notebooks is a piece of long form writing, based on a true story, served in weekly instalments. You can read it yourself or listen to me read it in the VoiceOver.
Pieces in The Notebooks may have a song-matching, like wine and cheese.
Not your quick-release serotonin fix, The Notebooks are in it for the long haul.
Now re-opening The Notebooks to sometime in 2011….
Sometimes, to tell a story, you must tell it out of order.
Between December 2010 and December 2012, I lived in Thailand, in a town in the northwest of the country called Mae Sot. It is pretty wild, on the border with Myanmar (Burma).
There’s a bridge over the river at the border — and a heavily-armed checkpoint on both sides.
This was about a year and a half after I finished my Masters, adrift, searching through the dying days of autumn 2010 for a job, any job, in the post-crisis wreckage. I was 25 and had worked lots of places — ski school, a coffee shop, an outdoors gear shop, renovating a William Morris-inspired wooden bungalow in Seattle, you name it — but I’d never had what you might call a real job, an office job.
Or anything close to it.
Then I got a bite after sharing a writing sample from my thesis — about literacy in first encounters with pre-Columbian cultures1 — with some guys who worked for an obscure human rights NGO on the Burma border. They liked my vaguely legal background (despite having never worked as a lawyer) and my ability to edit a sentence. They hired me — my first ever desk job — and I escaped New York winter for Mae Sot.
Mae Sot is quietly famous in the NGO world. It’s a well-known posting for public health and humanitarian workers, for migration experts, for malaria researchers, for UNHCR officials, for visiting diplomats, politicians and journalists.
Everyone there is hunting for the right by-line or soundbite or photo op or metric for their next donor report.
There are seven official refugee camps nearby — or nine, depending on who you ask. There are migrant schools, makeshift hospitals, political prisoner assistance programs — and NGOs, both local and international.
The local ones — including the one I worked for — operated with limited resources, in utmost secrecy, through networks of undercover field researchers across the border.2
Mae Sot is a Petri dish of the aid economy. It is a place where you must know the difference between a refugee, an IDP and a migrant worker — and how your programme supports one or the other. Where you must know what “subaltern” means and how to use it in daily parlance without sounding like a twat.3
Where you must be able to spot a sex tourist at fifty paces.
Over the border in Burma, where the real prize is teak or gold or rubies, various armed groups vie for control of patches of territory, cloaked in the language of self-determination or moral superiority.
The town is awash in money, most of it dirty.
But this part of the tale picks up after I’d already been living out there for many months.
Back in the U.K., for some meeting or other with a potential PhD adviser, I am riding the ferry between Dublin and north Wales.
There is great drama before the window, gulls in the wind.
“Gusting 50 noughts out there,” says the Captain over the loudspeaker. “Holding steady here waiting folks, please stay in your seats until we are in the berth as we will have to retract the stabiliser fins when we enter the harbour.”
Before the great glass windshield of the boat, seagulls hang on strings. They give an imperceptible tweak of wings to fold, dip and swing across my vision, as if to smack into the windows — but they know better, and miss the building of a boat by a feather.
The wind whips a 3-tonne chain against the smokestack of a refinery, like a loose thread. The gulls ride unconcerned, diving and hanging in the storm.
Then, North Wales from the train and the edge of a thick sea, white as milk of magnesia. There’s fog on the rail-line, snow piled on an empty skate-park and air a colour that looks cold: dull pink and metallic grey.
The gorge at the Menai Straits is lent extra drama by the dipping birds and shunting girders of the bridge. Coastal north Wales is occasional hilly towns, angle-roofed cottages and the far-off lumps of dog-walkers on the tide line, dwarfed by the wide sheep-marshes.
Mountains off to the right in Snowdonia pile up into the fog, which is snow now, fine as mist, rising like flecks of steam in the shower.
A woman gets on at Bangor wearing a Rab, my jacket, same colour, the one a couple seasons old, just like mine.
Roberto Bolaño says that coincidences are luxuries in a world of misery.
Pleasantries exchanged and I scupper the social interaction from the outset by saying I don’t think she could justify buying the lighter model of the jacket as well.4 Polite laugh, of course she could justify it. She works in the City, that much is obvious.
An opening of the paper and I set to the crossword.
Conwy Castle now, all jagged turrets and frowning buttresses above a placid inlet. The snow is thicker now and sailmasts rise in the fog like telephone poles.
Distracted, I imagine she is my audience. Pick up hairclip, put it down. Read three pages of my book. Put it down. Listen to her on the phone.
She’s describing a recent trip to Burma.
“Padang tribe, the one with the neck rings. We had a driver, the hotels are so expensive, prices only gone up in the last — what? — two years because demand has risen but still the same amount of hotels as before. It’s so strange though that all the tour operators said they had been doing it for ten years. There must have been people coming then. Maybe the Swiss. And we spent a couple days in Hong Kong. Strange, there are about 50 different Gucci shops, catering to the rich peasants who sold their land around industrial complexes like Dongguan. Women from the mainland come to try to give birth on the island — I guess there’s better healthcare maybe?”
And then something about a bossy Chinese friend telling them what to order in a restaurant.
And then to Muscat, where I lost interest.
I notice the folder in front of her says ‘Linklaters’. Linklaters is a law firm, one of the magic circle. She’s a lawyer, probably only a year or two older than me.
I remember visiting Linklaters as a first year law student. There was a big boardroom, platters of sandwiches, cream cakes, tea, coffee, hot chocolate. I know there was a presentation — which is utterly blank in my head, utterly unmemorable. Faces, voices, a single noted phrase — I remember nothing of it.
I remember only the discomfort of my tights and the sandwich crusts piled on my plate. Chocolates, foil-wrapped. And the light from the Powerpoint, from the glass gallery entryway — the atrium. Entrium. I remember toying with words in my head.
Only this morning reading 2666 about the fictional artist who cut off his right hand to use in a self-portrait, calling the whole world a coincidence. I believe it now.
This young woman cast in my image, but doing it right — a trail-running lawyer with a Rab jacket and a good relationship with her mum; they spent time together at a B&B in north Wales. Running 10km, chatting to her dad about the places she’s visited and the books she’s read.
“It’s like One Hundred Years of Solitude and that’s just my kind of novel.”
She has the budget to go to Burma, Hong Kong and Muscat over Christmas and to consider buying a second (!) Rab jacket. She’s a woman who prefers, like me, the train to a wintry flight.
Who is she to raise in me such nauseous self-doubt?
I accidentally buy a sweet-salty popcorn. Awful, why can’t they just stick to one serviceable flavor.
Why can’t I.
I’m reminded of last night watching the news with my dad.
The Sky newscaster described the delay-stricken crowds at snowbound Heathrow:
“People are saying it’s like a refugee camp — and you know that’s really rather accurate, Steve.”
I thought she was going to say “and, you know, that’s not accurate at all.”
My dad chastised me for getting angry.
“You can’t expect everyone else to get upset about that. You can understand the analogy she was going for.”
Maybe before — five years before, when my toenails were still artfully curated — maybe then I would have got it. I wouldn’t have got upset at the thoughtless idiocy of comparing thwarted English ski tourists to people that have lost everything in the world.
This girl sitting opposite me would have gotten it, she wouldn’t have got upset. I wonder idly if her toenails are painted.
She is declaiming now on the wonders of development in Oman.
“They just had three tractors in the whole country ten years ago, Dad, and now the roads are so good. Did you see that big new mosque? It’s on the road from Muscat to the airport.”
I wonder if my Dad wishes we had these kind of conversations.
Alighting at Euston, it hurts to inhale. An air gourmet suffers in London, where every breath numbs the sinuses and leaves them cringing.
Like the after-effects of a quarter-pounder, to breathe deeply in London is to be left feeling greasy, clogged-up and short of breath.
From the river under Tower Bridge, I can see plastic sheets whipping loose of the scaffolding, 40 stories up above the empty Financial District on a Saturday.5
In the wind, it cracks like aerial gunfire, echoing in the hollow canyons. Sparks from the city-size test-tubes in the Matrix, with the oil refinery malevolence of warning-lit cranes on scaffolded building-tops, above a fading winter.
I perched at a Caribbean lunch counter in Peckham, where I listened to different women express their hopes for their children.
A Latvian woman told me how her daughter has been in private schools learning English since she was five. She, the mother, just got a job in a hospital. All her family followed her from Riga, except her parents, who she goes back to visit periodically. There are no jobs so the girls with education leave for Austria, Denmark and London, she explained. One, a doctor, was offered £250 a month. Then, she was offered EUR 3,000 in Copenhagen. So she went there. A gynecologist. I said don’t they need gynecologists in Latvia? And she laughed and said not really.
Then there was the Muslim woman serving at the lunch counter in Peckham. Her son had some lads ask what he was looking at and he fought back so then they came looking for him, six of them, and he still fought them.
He wasn’t afraid, she said proudly.
The woman listening to her was all wisdom and caution, urging the woman behind the counter to remember that he was lucky, that she knows so many youths who lost their lives in the last year over something stupid.
But the lunch counter woman was oddly proud. They don’t know who her brother is. He’s angry and it will all escalate from here, she said, blinking slowly.
The other woman listened, urged caution once more and left with her stewed chicken.
Later that day, I’m getting changed for dinner, rooting in coat pockets.
There is nothing like the archaeology of soft furnishings to inspire instant nostalgia. Like the depths of the couch, pockets of seldom-worn coats reveal a snapshot of a previous life, of old boyfriends, forgotten train journeys and smartly-composed now-obsolete and long-since-uncompleted to do lists.
I came upon the following:
a Christmas wish list from 2009 which included, among other things now even further from my grasp, a new pair of skis (that would be “Shoguns with randonnée bindings”);
a note from some would-be suitor “Doing anything after work? Rob 07796454390” pressed into my hand; and
the following scribbled notes written by me on receipt paper from the second floor of the Snow and Rock shop in Covent Garden, at which I spent three unfulfillingly-employed months:
The first year was determined to test, and in all likelihood end, a relationship. There were exams, arsehole flatmates, 3 months writing a graduate thesis, 3 months worrying about the grade of that thesis and, in total, almost six months spent sleeping on the floor of his mother’s house. Tempers were high, nerves frayed, and sentences short. On my first day off since before Christmas, New Year’s Eve Day, I woke up prepared to hunt for a place. I went on Gumtree, rang around and arranged to view some places. Cheap places. Shitty places. Studio flat places that rented for less than £500 a month in Tottenham, Lordship Lane, Seven Sisters, Hackney, Clapton.
That was just before I fled London — and that relationship — in February 2010.
It’s a dinner at a college in Oxford, a rich college with offshore holdings and underground cellars. The college, you know the one. It’s the one that spawns jealous hearts, thousands of incandescent denied parents, and several children’s religio-fantastical novels about Dark Matter, the multiverse and the nature of man.6
I’m a guest and burning at the indignity of no longer belonging. Present only at the invitation of a friend, who, a junior fellow at 26, is basically a rockstar of the College — and my backstage pass.
In the pre-dinner champagne reception, my friend pops the bottle contemplatively (how could she but do it otherwise?) and greets an aging don as “George”.
Burning at the ignominy of “what do you do?” and “where do you do it?”. But the beef is soft and I’ve never tasted pigeon before. I’m seated at the right hand of the College President, the seat at which one is always served first, under scrutiny lest I skim all the mushrooms off the top.
The toast is brief, apologetic, with the President explaining in no uncertain terms that attendance at such dinners is an onerous duty, juggled alternately by President and Vice-President. It is his night and, as he is an old tutor of mine fondly remembered for his popularity as a silver fox among certain female undergrads, the night is passed by me in a state of heightened mirth and red-cheeked pertness.
I regale with tales of smuggling across the Thai border into Burma under a boat tarpaulin. He suggests I capitalise on the unending public fascination with Oxford intrigues and write a novel about a skeleton recently unearthed at my old college. Mind that I give him 25% of the profits though, as well as the dedication.
“I give you, Queen.”
“Queen and country, President.”
There is such a strained artifice to even the informality, the kind that lets you know your back had better be straight. What breeds the artifice? I can’t tell if it’s the traditions and rigours underpinning behavior at formal dinners — or the asocial and deskbound habits of academics. And which came first?
For the kind of people who would over-think a cup of coffee and a chat, when forced by necessity into social encounters, perhaps these formalities — commonly understood, rigorously adhered and easily memorised — are imperative.
And a relief.
Later in the dimness of the cartoonishly regal Senior Common Room, I learn that the Sauternes is the most expensive of the three shades of fluid in enormous crystal decanters circling the table clockwise.
I have two glasses, to furnish a plate of berries and chocolates, ladled from urns like chimney tops, before I fly back to Bangkok.
Gabriel García Márquez says that sex is the consolation you have when you can’t have love.
I have a gold pen but my mind trips naked over ungolden images. I can never wipe clean the ink from the tip of this pen. All I can do is break the pen or scrawl until it gives out.
I had an ex-boyfriend once, a fascistic aspiring author with ideals loftier than his compositions. I don’t like writing on a laptop, he said. My fingers are sluggish and I have too much time to think and re-arrange. No good writing ever came from too much thought. Only a dribbly pen and a lot of yellowing thrice-folded notebooks, torn about with a leather thong, carelessly stripped off an antique umbrella stand. He said.
My friend, whose name means Thai Flower but who is not Thai, looks at the sky in October and tells me those clouds, the flecked wind-dashed feathers in evenly-spaced globules, mean it’s a good time to catch … how do you call them? River prawns?
Crayfish, I tell her.
There’s a shop at the end of my lane that sells them now every night, ten for 100 baht. Ten seven-inch big fat crayfish that you pull apart and dip head-end still gooey with baked brains into chili pulp, fingers blackened with charcoal from pulling apart the truncated chunks of their barbecued armour plates.
It’s also a good time for pineapples and small oranges. Not lychees, they come in June, and mangoes in April.
Every few months I roll through a round of de-worming medications and hope the squirming in my stomach is from gustatory pleasure only. Sometimes I fancy it looks like there are wormholes in my poop. Everyday, I get down a little too close to the toilet seat and sometimes poke exploratively with the toilet brush. I always expect to see something really tell-tale; maybe black slug-like segments of tape-worm or tiny white nodding tubes.
There is never anything like this — but the empty spaces still call to mind tunnels, nibbled clean by earthworms. Wormholes.
There is a word for this obsession that I learned in a pub quiz round on phobias once. Helminthophobia: the fear of intestinal worms.
I am watching South Korean television in a room at a guesthouse because there are rats in my house. Right now it’s the South Korean answer to America’s Next Top Model. This episode sees the girls sampling local culture in Kenya.
“It just makes me so glad to have been born in Korea,” says “Krystal”.
She jokes about how “Luna” — one of the other South Korean contestants — is so dark she looks like a local and maybe she should live there.
I change the channel.
The next show that comes up is a live video gaming competition. To watch. On TV.
The commentator is excited.
“It is carnage out there. Kim Joon Ook comes in from behind with his close quarter Uzi-backed rifle and his individual skills really lead him into the second half. Pack-your-bags has a lot of work to do in this second round. Will they go for the missile room or the control room? We’ll just have to wait and see. And now we’re looking at The Kill Charts, you know what that means, yes it’s match point! And he did it, Kim Joon-Ook has qualified for the High-five grand master spin doctor final.”
I am waiting for the 20 year old Burmese bartender that I am sleeping with to get off from work.
I am in love with a man who lives in the jungle. One of the field researchers, who works with me.
Things fall apart.
To be continued.
*All names of people are made up and any likeness to a real person, dead or alive, is coincidence.
No, I won’t share my thesis — but here’s one of my favourite bits:
“Words written in a phonetic alphabet can convey all manner of abstract immateriality. But in an oral tradition, abstract concepts can only be recorded as metaphor — since a painted or carved image must correspond to something before the eyes. Europeans, being privy neither to the ʻinfinity of metaphorsʼ, nor to the ʻprivate termsʼ, nor to any of the hidden cultural meanings ascribed to words within the oral tradition, saw only a troubling material preoccupation: the natives were unable to express anything beyond outward appearance; unable to conceive of what couldnʼt be seen, touched, or represented as a painted or carved image! How could they understand God without letters?”
It is impossible to overstate the significance of the work they do: operate seamlessly and invisibly, without detection, in and through areas of active conflict, landmines and multiple armed actors, to document human rights violations, conduct interviews, gather data of the utmost sensitivity and send text, photos and video out to be translated and published. My job — and the job of the few other foreigners in the office — was to edit the translated pieces, get them ready to be published and work out which publications or international organisations might be interested in the information.
I’m kidding, of course. It’s impossible to use it in everyday conversation without sounding like a twat.
What I think I said was that lightweight down — the less puffy version of the same down jacket we were both wearing (the Rab Neutrino Pro, since you didn’t ask) — is just a gimmick, a fashion statement. It serves neither the purpose of a proper down jacket nor will it keep you dry — so it’s basically just for high street shoppers who may as well buy North Face and be done with it. I should add that, back then, I had very fully-formed opinions on outdoor kit. I am perhaps a trifle less dogmatic these days and prepared to overlook a lightweight down purchase here and there (even though I do still think it’s gimmicky af at heart, sorry).
This was, I believe, plastic sheeting on the scaffolds of the as-yet-uncompleted Walkie-Talkie building.
I am, of course, talking about Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy. Finishing these was the first time I ever cried over a book. But not the last.