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Three Stains on my Shirt June 29, 2010

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There was an unfortunate moment yesterday when my path crossed with that of Iliana the cleaner as I made my way from West Byfleet station and she toward it. The weekend had seen the inaugural Cow summer garden party barbecue / all-night rave and I’m afraid to say that a hangover, combined with an England capitulation in the World cup and then dinner with The Last One in Windlesham prevented me from lifting a finger to deal with the apocalyptic post-party debris that made Ground Zero look like the Palace of Versailles.

A Saturday afternoon on the hottest day of the year started off with rowing on the nearby River Wey, rose wine, canapes and boules on the lawn of Wisley House ended with a house strewn with empties, spilt booze, back garden decorated in toilet roll and trance music blasting way beyond dawn. Glastonbury was not missed with any pang of regret.

The Big Man, Niles from accounts, and Robbie, our much beloved raving queen were the sole survivors outside and I know I was not alone in West Byfleet to be kept awake by their constant sniggering. I could hear Robbie parodying the neighbours behind twitching curtains ‘Oh Derek, look, the gay and the black are making an exhibition in the garden again!’. One of my guests made the mistake of coming downstairs from his bed to ask them to turn it down. When he returned to his bed his partner inquired how successful he’d been: ‘They laughed at my pants’, he replied defeated.

The warm weather and the champagne at sunrise all made for the best party that Wisley has seen yet. Not that Iliana would’ve seen to that way. Quite how she managed to restore the house to its former glory without a hint of what had gone on is beyond me. What she faced and fought through was the Mrs Mop equivalent of Paschendale and yet, unlike England’s Brave John Terry and the rest of the lumpen ‘heroes’ with Three Lions on their shirt, she came out winning. Astonishing.

The exit from the World Cup always comes as a relief. I for one am not regretting spending a week painting my house in the national colours and having plastic surgery to make me look Wayne Rooney in order to show my commitment to a futile cause. There’s nothing worse than watching a nation suffer from collective delusion that we’ll be empowered by sticking a plastic flag of St George purchased from Tesco on our Japanese cars, drinking ourselves into a stupor on German lager whilst cheering on a group of millionaires who can’t hold a knife and fork and now we can all settle down to accept that we are not a great power in any shape or form and haven’t been since Lend Lease, irrespective of Sergeant Pepper, 1966 and the sinking of the Belgrano or whatever else we cling onto.

What we do well is hedonistic office garden parties and trashing respectable residences. The sooner we accept that, the better. And we can’t even win at cleaning. Believe me, the Bulgarians beat us hands down as well, before we can even get out of the starting blocks.

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The Longest Day June 21, 2010

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That’ll teach me for going on holiday. Almost from the moment I first stepped back on the platform at West Byfleet station after my restful break I’ve carried the condemned look of a man about to be, or perhaps who just has been, machine gunned.

Within a week tonsillitis struck, which was a belated welcome back to British shores and lying fevered in bed in a puddle of one’s own sweat is probably the closest thing I’m going to get to tropical for the foreseeable future.

Whilst away on holiday it slipped my attention that I, like most people who live and work in the dynamic world of modern British commerce do not have anything approaching a personal life. How many of you out there will also nod that in recent memory you’ve seen more of the office cleaners than you have your oldest friends? There isn’t time to do things like maintain friendships, start relationships (let alone get to the argument stage), exercise, explore or look at anything with an abiding sense of curiosity and wonder. By the time I get to the weekend I haven’t the energy to be social and have put in poor performances when attempting to do so, like a knacked race horse throwing itself into, rather than gliding over, the steeple. It’s not pretty, believe me.

If you’re lucky you might just snatch some time with someone you knew and liked once, confirm they are alive, grip their arm, wish them luck and wonder when or if you will see them again. The remainder of time is just an endless filler of delayed trains, Pret a Manger and Powerpoint.

Meanwhile, we’re being geared up to an Emergency Budget tomorrow that promises to cut and tax everything in sight – no doubt there will be another huge levy on alcohol in anticipation that the only thing people will want to do, if they ever find the time to do so, is throw the contents of a bottle of spirits down their throat to deal with it.

It’s only a matter of time (or perhaps 14 hours from now) before some bright spark in the treasury – possibly prompted by a letter to The Daily Mail – realises that more money could be raised by a tax on happiness. Smile at your peril – though the way things are going, especially given the progress of the England team in the World Cup, that particular well is drying up fast.

From tomorrow the nights are drawing in. See, give them the chance and now they are even cutting the hours of daylight as well.

Don’t Look Baht in Anger June 7, 2010

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Wisley House, West Byfleet, England

It’s hard to believe it was only yesterday I had an exotic Sunday champagne brunch at the Twin Palms,  but now I’m in West Byfleet with jet lag and a tub of herring rollmops in the fridge to sustain me until I can face Waitrose. I reckon for the first time ever I will renege on my purchase of their Thai hot chillis in case I have a moment and have to be revived amongst my fellow vegetables.

The only face to face conversation I’ve had is with Iliana the cleaner and that’s coming back down to earth with a bump, I can assure you. The house had only been mine for a couple of hours and it had to be pointed to me that I’d left my suitcase, suit carrier and flight bag sitting on the driveway. There’s really no explaining that apart from, perhaps, depression.

Weary and run-down, conversation was always going to be a struggle. Discussing the subject of the customs at the Chinese wedding in Kuala Lumpur, Iliana asked me what we do at traditional British weddings. Apart from an interminable church service, rambling speeches, drunkenness and at least one woman locked in the karsi in tears, I was at a loss to think of anything we do that smacks of originality or invention.

Wanting to be all-inclusive I asked Iliana if there are any traditional customs at a Bulgarian wedding. Twenty minutes later and we’d still barely scratched the surface. There was something to do with the bride having a shoe that was too big, the groom having to stuff the shoe with money and then having to search the bride’s family home for another shoe. There was also something else to do with feet that I can’t even begin to recall, meaning it sounded less like a wedding and more like a team-bonding day at Clark’s. Around the stuffing the big shoes with money, I’d lost the thread to this other dimension completely and was seriously contemplating getting the first flight back to Phuket.

Why do we inflict holidays upon ourselves? They only serve to remind us of what life is like without responsibility and in my case with good company. I even include the ladyboys of the Bangla Road in that. Perhaps the best line I heard all holiday came from one and was an indignant: “Me no ladyboy! Me lady! Me just don’t know why I have cock!”. A question I’m sure many of us have asked on a lonely Saturday night in with the TV guide and a ready meal.

I’m back on my own now for the first time in a fortnight and, in the absence of conversation and the hazy days of reflection of our misspent nights, I have already started shuffling my to-do list around the coffee table in the hope that it will take pity upon me and sort itself out. She’ll be back on her podium by now and I’m back on the herring rollmops. Leon is probably up to no good in Sydney and as for Betty, god only knows. The dentist?

Turned out nice again June 3, 2010

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Surin Beach, Phuket

So much for learning from mistakes. The second night in Patong was a bigger disaster than the first and there’s a broken man by the swimming pool today. In one mad Sangsom fuelled hour he managed to break his watch, lose his iPhone, wallet, bank cards and dignity, be photographed pole dancing with bar girls like the worst Brits abroad cliche you’d never wish to meet, run out of money, not be able to pay his tab and still manage to find the time to wake up in his room for the second consecutive night with Ugly Betty.

I swear this travelling companion only exists to make me feel good about myself for a change.With the iPhone are all his photos of the wedding in Kulala Lumpur and his time in Thailand. All he has left is Betty.

He emerged to greet us today as we took drinks in the grounds. For someone who’d been working on his tan and acting like George Michael in the Club Tropicana video for the past week, he was unnaturally ashen faced and jittery. ‘I don’t remember much and Betty’s still in my room. She made me a cup of tea this morning and now she’s watching Thai soaps. How am I going to get her out without people seeing me?’.

It’s all quite endearing really. They do actually make a lovely couple and showing all the characteristics of a long-term relationship. I’m told she nagged him for the full thirty minute Tuc-Tuc journey back to Twin Palms for losing his possessions and being disgusted with him for drinking too much. It’s not often one’s drawn to say it, but I think it had occurred to a girl who works the tourists of the Tiger Bar on the notorious go-go strip of Bangla Road she could definitely do better.

His problem now was that it was midday, Betty was settling into his room and somehow a walk of shame was going to have to be negotiated. None of us would’ve noticed him carefully leading her around the side and through the undergrowth, thus avoiding the walk of shame round the pool area at Phuket’s self-annointed ‘most stylish, contemporary resort’. That is until Betty spotted us by the pool and shouted out to wave and say ‘HARRO! HOW ARE YOU!’ with such enthusiastic ferocity she could’ve won awards as a budget tannoy.

People, all bright, beautiful and well-to-do, who’d been swimming, lounging in the sun or quietly been reading Vogue or the International Herald Tribune over their lunch at the Pool Cafe looked up in unison to see where the tranquility shattering noise had emanated from.

What greeted them was the sight of a highly animated Thai bar girl in a high heels and a short, tight purple dress, with a matching purple brace on her teeth. Next to her stood a man frozen, like an escaping POW trapped in the full beam of a sentry’s searchlight, dying a thousand deaths on the spot, not knowing what his next move should be.

Does he panic and attempt to usher her along, only looking even more guilty or does he play it cool looking like this is exactly what he does all the time? Instead he stood frozen as we prolonged the agony, ‘Did you have good time…ah, that’s nice…did he look after you? He likes you too…Maybe you see him again tonight? ‘ (at which point I swear I saw a vein pop in his forehead as he chewed his lip).

In the longest of shots that someone had failed to have their attention drawn to the scene, there was a follow up shrill shreik when Betty looked over to where we’d been sitting and grazing on lunch: ‘AWW NAAAW! BIRD GOT YOUR BURGER!’. Even the bird looked stunned. Friend just inhaled deeply through his nostrils, pursed lips and looked dead ahead into vacant space.

Like a good painting, the disapproving eyes of all the guests followed their journey around the pathway toward the reception entrance with Betty tottering along and timing the arm flung around his shoulder just a fraction before they disappeared out of sight.

He hasn’t spoken much again today. The words ‘rock bottom’ have been used a few times. For once, I think a very quiet night is on the cards.

Sikh your fortune June 2, 2010

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Surin Beach, Phuket

A Sikh masquerading as a fortune teller used all his powers of manipulating my post-Patong fragility to free me of 2000 baht on Surin beach today.

He could deduce immediately I was a very wealthy man (he must’ve spotted the Twin Palms umbrella next to me) and that I was too easy going with money. That I was prepared to listen to his ramblings was another giveaway.

Apparently I’m going to live to 93 – which is a turn up for the books – and I’ve got a lucky forehead. There was me just thinking it was merely sunburnt. What is lucky about it I don’t know and it was enough to raise the guard. Only last night, two Thai bar girls kept telling my travelling companion he had a ‘lucky cock’ immediately prior to wiping him out on yet another game of Connect Four (in 1939 a French General told Churchill that England alone would be defeated in weeks by the Nazi’s like a chicken having it’s neck broken to which Churchill later commented ‘Some chicken! Some neck’. Here we have a case of ‘Some cock! Some luck!’)

Also he told me I was in a relationship last year that didn’t work. Well, that hardly takes psychic powers as cursory glance at me is enough to deduce that one. That and the matter I’m a man of a certain age sat with two other blokes sharing a hangover on a beach in Thailand is probably the giveaway. You don’t need to be a Sikh mystic to spot my sort. I can spot men who’ve got a predilection for beautiful but unstable women – they carry a haunted look in their eyes, have been in a world where nothing quite adds up and have to pick up the pieces if anything ceases to be perfect for a split second and can usually be found all over town, invariably heading towards a bar. Some psychic.

I’d have been more impressed if he’d gone for it and correctly stated that I’m in relationships that don’t work each and every year. So where does this lucky forehead come into it – or is it the forehead that is sparing me from being in a situation I can’t cope with? Maybe I should start moisturising and taking care of it as a mark of reverence, perhaps even have it polished for special occasions and QPR games.

He did, however correctly guess my age which at 36 is a long shot given I look in my late 20’s or that’s certainly the estimation of the bar girls last night and I heartily concur. What did stagger me somewhat as he squeezed his beads was he announced that there was a big age gap between myself and the last girlfriend.

One could sense my companions suddenly warming up to this as if I hadn’t told them about some Glitteresque indiscretion. Say that to some people and he’d have got chinned for calling them a nonce. Even I wondered what figure he was going to pluck out of the air and tensed up as his little psychic Sikh mind went into overdrive, but instead of shouting out to the diners of the Twin Brother Beach restaurant that my last serious relationship was with a pubescent he nailed it. My last ex is 25.

How did he know this? More to the point how did I end up paying 2,000 baht to a man in a turban to tell me how old I was? Or for raking up my relationship with The Last One (I still puff out my cheeks whenever I hear the city of Cordoba mentioned) whilst trying to unwind and escape.

It all changes, however, on July 27. Apparently I’m going to have a defining moment and a lucky day that will change my life forever thanks to his prayer for me. Most mornings I wake up declaring it’s all going to change, but now a date has been set. Watch this space. I bet I get run over.

Apocalypse Betty June 2, 2010

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Patong, Phuket, Thailand

Dispatches from the front line

So now we have had our first encounter of Patong. We’d been briefed on what to expect, but it was worse, much worse than any of us imagined and there have been casualties. Today has been about licking wounds, piecing together the events of the evening and vowing that on our return mistakes will not be repeated.

It was a platoon of three: me, a veteran of tours of Bangkok, Koh Samui and Koh Phangan; plus two new recruits who’d not seen active duty before. You can tell which ones are going to make it and which aren’t. You can see it in the eyes. They didn’t stand a chance.

After early reconnaisance we settled into a bar called Tiger and drew immediate contact. Big mistake. We were mobbed and outnumbered. That’ll teach us for coming out of season in the name of peace and quiet. There’s fifty bars out there. All with their own perils, conceits, traps, temptations and each requiring its own particular survival and exit strategy. We never even made it past the first one we stopped in.

Sangsom buckets were ordered and the novices engaged. I’d warned them about the potency of the local brew mixed with Red Bull, but they just didn’t listen.

It’s an indictment of the English education system that, despite fine schooling and a University degree, you can still watch a man get rinsed repeatedly by a Thai prostitute in a game of Connect Four. Do they have a world championship for Connect Four? Because if they do you can swear to God bet your last shirt that the top seeds are all Patong bar girls in short skirts and heavy slap who can hold their SangSom as well as their nerve.

Each defeat cost him a pair of tequila shots: one for him, one for her. By the sixth, seventh – god knows, who was counting anymore? – consecutive defeat. All I could see in front of me was a massacre, but it was too late. Too late.

“Medic! Medic! Man down”. Call all you like, here in Patong the only medicine they know is another tequila. I knew then our mission was over. And what was our mission? Just to survive, get out with our dignity intact, to not get chewed up and spat out by the night. Some chance. This is Patong, soldier boy. You’re not in Putney anymore. And they know it too.

There’s only so much that could be done as I took casualties to my left and to my right. One was trapped in his own Connect Four hell, broken down a little bit more by the cries every few minutes of ‘I rin! I rin!’ and his pockets becoming as rapidly drained as his face.

The second I lost around 1am to a girl he had earlier christened Ugly Betty. Was it the fringe, the specs or the braces? Worse. it was all three. A perfect Betty storm. ‘Man Down! Man Down…what’s the goddam point anymore. Make mine a double. With the sound of Lady GaGa turned up to the max, no one can hear you scream.

You think you know a man. What makes him tick, what drives him on. His hopes, his fears. You’ve shared your tenderist moments, broken bread, laughed, cried, run rampant, howled at the moon. You’ve fought shoulder to shoulder with him before: London, Sydney, Reading. Then you see him after a couple of buckets in the humid heat of Patong. And the worse thing is he didn”t even want saving. From me, from himself, from Patong. Or Ugly Betty.

I took a Tuc-Tuc back to Twin Palms at 4am with a man unable to stand due to his buckets and tequila forfeits. he was a jibbering, jabbering wreck. Today his mind is blank to most of it. Maybe by fault or by design. We’d been wiped out. It’s a jungle out there, but tonight Patong, we’re going back. This time, we mean it and no, we will not be playing Connect Four.

Twin Palms June 1, 2010

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Twin Palms, Surin Beach, Phuket

Anyone who knows me well enough knows I’ve been contemplating retirement around the time I finished University. Deep down in this troubled soul there is the realisation that deadlines, Powerpoint slides and the indignity of scrumming for a standing place on the Jubilee Line are not the ultimate fulfilment in life. Throw in QPR home defeats, hangovers that require the head being placed upon a marble floor, the haranguing of personal trainers in the mix as available forms of leisure escape and one can hardly look in the mirror and say ‘Aristotle Onassis, eat your heart out!’.

Where I truly do excel is in the dark art of of doing absolutely nothing. If the IOC had any foresight and made this an event at London 2012, I’d clean up and become a national icon. Sir Chris Hoy could rest easy that I’d not impinge upon his Shredded Wheat deal, Instead I could be the face of Silent Night with a nod to Linda Evangelista:”‘I wouldn’t get out for bed for less than $10,000…because I can’t move”. That kind of thing.

As anyone with any sense of style knows, the couplet of the words ‘backpack’ and ‘holiday’ should never meet. You ever heard of a backpack give you immaculate service or cool your fevered brow with an iced towel pooside as it correctly suspects you are about tohave a moment? This all brings us neatly to Twin Palms. I embrace the idea of lounging in the sun as adorable Thai women scurry around to tend to my carrot juice needs; that my residential suite has its own pool; that within it there’s two floors of open plan living space with a specially tailored mix of ambient music easing me through every gradual movement. There’s even my personal attendant, Pond (see, I’ve got a pool and a Pond) who is just the push of a buzzer away.

This place is manifest tranquility. We’re all so soothed by every touch and detail we don’t know quite what to do with ourselves so that’s why nothing seems best right now. Yesterday was spent lounging by the tree lined pool, a light lunch of seared tuna, idly turning the pages of Juliet Gardiner’s ‘The Thirties: An Intimate History’ (I wonder what J.B Priestly or Orwell would’ve made of this) as reality seeped out of the pores.

Couples walked hand in hand. I, meanwhile, walked chilled sauvingon blanc in hand – a partner that always gives and never answers back. Yet this is no place to take alcohol in great measure. There’s already so much in the detail here that it would spoil it. better instead just to sip, take it all in and think of those poor wretched bastards on the Jubilee Line and hope in all hope that time will freeze in its passing to prevent a return to all that.

In the evening the three of us (the English contingent from the Kuala Lumpur wedding if you haven’t been keeping up) ambled across the road to the deserted Surin Beach to take dinner on the sand at a simple, no-frills local restaurant called Two Brothers with a backdrop of lapping waves. Barbecued prawns the size of dogs, a tremendous take on pork with chilli and ginger and a spicy tom yum soup that blew the brains out ensured my night ended by going back alone to my residence to immediately jump in the pool to cool off and regain compsure that not even the Singha beer could provide.

There’s neither kids nor a single herbert in football shirt in sight. Quite frankly, I dread going back to Albion in the grip of World Cup fever that can be loosely translated as full of lager, idiocy masked as pride and naked aggression directed at television sets.

Having just breakfasted on fruit, muesli, coffee and a Marlboro Light, the pool and a relaxed session in the gym beckons for the duration of the day. We’re a million miles away from the Irish pubs, go-go bars, whisky buckets, ladyboys and ping pong balls of Patong. But also only thirty minutes. The plan is to go there tonight and that’s where it will, no doubt, all start to unravel.

I am with Leon and that’s not good news and I know he is updating his Facebook or what not saying exactly the same thing about me. It painfully reminiscent of the other week when Dan Turner and I found ourselves set to be abandoned by some Cow colleagues in Village East. I only found out the next wretched morning that we’d both taken turns to take the same person aside, grab them by the lapels and plead ‘You can’t go…you can’t leave me alone with him!’.

Check on me back here tomorrow morning. Pond, who is rapidily replacing my Surrey domestic Iliana in my affections, may well have her work cut out. And maybe the Jubilee Line or someone presenting to me in monotone about search engine optimisation with all the panache of a dead dog will not seem so bad afterall.