Bury my Boots at Hurgadah

Have keyboard, will ramble

Why we fight

So, I had a conversation the other day. A conversation about injustice. And I thought I’d write a little bit about it. And about my latest course.

See, I went and got elected at the union representative at my workplace. And in spite of having a constituent of less than half a dozen workers, being a union representative in Norway is a Big Deal.  My previous job was at a multinational corporation down Dublin way, and if nothing else that job taught me how important workers’ rights were. Because, as temps hired on annual contracts from another multinational specializing in human resources… Well, we had fuck all rights as employees. So as a federal employee in Norway I have access to paid sick leave, a state pension, and a 37.5 hour work week. And those are just the three things I can think of. Not privileges. Rights. Still three things better than the Dublin job.

Anyway, as a union rep (the Norwegian word is tillitsmann) I suddenly spend a lot of my free time and occasionally working hours (representatives have right to paid leave for union matters and courses) learning about tariff agreements and whatnot. A couple of weeks ago I had a full working week worth of schooling. Nicknamed Tillitsmannskolen I, or Representative school (part one), we spent  a week learning the history of trade unionism in Norway, agreements and negotiation processes, as well as the usual indoctrination. Now the course centre was actually built by the largest labour union in  Norway (Landsorganisasjonen, 880 000 members or so), and it showed. Statues of historical unionist and Labour Party politicians (often both), paintings of street protests… It was a little bit like those political academies I always imagined political commissars in the Soviet Union went to. And not in a bad way, necessarily. It told you you had a lot of power and resources on your side. And since union dues come out of your pocket, it’s partially yours as well. Just don’t vandalise it, right?

Anyway later (after the course) I had a talk with a woman and we came onto the  subject of poverty. Now I never really managed to see myself as a poor person, but things were tight growing up, it stayed tight as I studied and in my mid thirties it still takes some getting used to having more money coming in than out… (I am SO not complaining. I did live half a year in India and have seen more poverty than I need for two lifetimes. In global terms I am filthy stinking rich) And discussing how I watched with envy all the fancy people going from their expensive cars into nice suburban homes while I was biking home to the ten square feet student flat sharing a bathroom with Mr. Mystery Psycho Neighbour of the Month (I had a lot of shifting neighbours at out hall. We stopped joking about my next door flat being cursed after police dragged out the four Russian smugglers living there), Ahhh, student days. Anyway, the conversation turned to inequalities. They are real, and well visible if you are on the wrong side. And in today’s world, they are growing. But to be honest, although things are wildly unevenly divided, I am angry but not despairing. Because you can’t.

The fight today in Europe (Norway as well) is very simple: Differences in income and living standards are not only increasing, they are becoming institutionalised. In Norway things are not to bad, but growing. In Norway the difference in top salaries is about 17 times the lowest ones, in Germany the difference is 90 times… And it is clear Germany is the poster boy for pay negotiations, not Norway. The big bureaucratic patchwork known as Schengen, EFTA, the European Economic Area or simply the EU (Yes, they are all different beasts, but all connected into one Frankensteinian singularity) have weakened the rights of workers and of critical infrastructure like mail, railroad and healthcare across Europe.  And when we see the Conservatives ruling neighbouring Sweden with a two-digit unemployment rate trying to undo what they did earlier, being unable to reverse their course due to EU directives overruling the country’s own laws… Things are dire. Everybody talks about the European Parliament in Brussels. And some  will bash the European Commission. But the people making sure there is no retreat without exiting the system completely? The Court of Justice of the European Union. A court of some 87 or so judges (honestly, I tried to fact check this but CURIA doesn’t disclose it’s numbers any more, it seems. My figures are from the nineties.) who decide if a country or regions policies are in line with the treaties of everything from the EEA to EU. So,meet the European version of the Revolutionary Guardians’ Council! Except instead of worshipping a warped version of Islam they worship a warped version of capitalism known as the Four Freedoms. Gordon Gecko among friends.

And the struggle will be harder before it gets easier. If ever. Dumping salaries by hiring people from countries with salaries resembling the Third World and putting them in jobs, squeezing out the people who do bothersome stuff like demanding good wages and start union chapters… Not to mention the privatisation of the previously mentioned public services, consistently meaning all those employment contracts and negotiated pay scales  go right out the window and hello underpaid temps! Nice to see you, shame you can only stay a year or so (Relax, we’ll just renew your contract. It’s just to avoid insane extra costs like retirement insurance. It’s not like you’ll ever get old and infirm, right?) And so, the beauty of it is that the Euro interpretation of liberalism means, when these benefits go away they won’t come back. You can’t even rehire people for decent salaries. Because as soon as somebody undercuts that pay? Federal procurer instances are legally bound to accept it. Because to do otherwise than accept the lowest bid would be detrimental to the bidding process. So why not give up?

You can’t because that is the essence of struggle: If you give in, the other guy wins on walkover. You pick your fights, but you can’t avoid them altogether. Or to state it differently: You pick your battles, but you don’t pick your war. Sometimes it is important to stand up for your beliefs. And necessarily not a token parting shot so you can feel good about yourself afterwards. You stand up, and do everything you can. And I am part of a team that is not necessarily a winner in the short term, and we will take a beating or two, probably. But one: I have faith. And two: A friend of mine told me, whether you win or not isn’t always the question. Sometimes you need to take up that fight simply because it is the right thing to do. So we fight on. And after setbacks, odds are we win in the end. If we’re stubborn enough.

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The author

So, some weeks ago ( I SAID sorry for neglecting you!) I met one of my idols: A writer. A published author. She had Written A Book. I’m sorry, but I get slightly starry eyed when meeting these avatars of culture.

No I am not being sarcastic. In my inner eye, the minute you have written a book (well published it anyway) you get a niche in the great pantheon of writers from Homer and Herodotus to Emily Dickinson and Murakami. On a little plinth. Because you deserve it. You’ve given the literary canon another little brick, another book to put on top of the pillar stretching towards the stars. (Yes, I know that by internal logic the authors of “Holy Blood, Holy Grail” and “Who moved my cheese?” are put on a plinth somewhere too, but I try not to think about that. Shush!) Did I gush a little there? I think I gushed a little there. Also, Siri Pettersen (for that is her name) writes fantasy.

Now I should note that my resent home country, Norway, has a rather strained relationship with fantasy as a genre. In short, it didn’t quite come off as…  Well, as worthy literature. Scandinavia is a pragmatic modern region, making a point of being rational. The Age of Reason made it big here, in Norway at least as strong if not stronger than Sweden or Denmark. (Finland, nobody knows, really. The other countries are slightly afraid of it and never ask).

So in stead of fantasy, or even science fiction (I suspect the implication that the future, or anything can be better than current life in Scandinavia is slightly offensive. Also that dystopias rock the boat too much) people read crime. Nordic crime. Dark, brutal crimes in the  cold unforgiving wasteland that is Scandinavia. The real reason it is so sparsely populated is that sooner or later, hidden conflicts between people come to a head and are only resolved by murder. Cruel murder with hidden hints as to why he or she had to die. Like, say,  through a pitfall trap filled with sharpened bamboo sticks hidden across the path of the victims regular morning constitutional. Or something. (And the victim probably was a rich psychopathic pederast with Nazi connections from WWII).  So Nordic crime is popular in a country and region where fantastic literature is derided as immature and unrealistic, is what I am saying.

Anyway she wrote a fantasy novel without elves and dwarves. And no dragon. There really is no magic in that universe, either. When exasperated friends and critics asked “But, but, there is a quest the heroine must complete to fulfill an ancient prophecy, right? And a sacred artefact? Preferably several?

Pettersens reply to this is that No, there are No magic items, no dragons, elves, dwarves or orcs, no quest and no prophecy!

This often is followed up (tentatively) by the question… “Ehm… You ARE certain it is a fantasy novel?”

Yes, Siri would be sure to reply.

“…Because…?”

“BECAUSE”, she will say triumphantly opening her book, “There is a MAP ON THE FIRST PAGE!”

There are as we all know, two kinds of fantasy novels: Those with maps and posers.

You need maps in proper fantasy novels. That is just how it is.

So, meeting Siri Pettersen I shamelessly started picking her brain on how she planned the structure, got it published, and sort of accidentally blurted out that I wrote a novel as well.

She asked what it was about. I proudly answered “A man trapped in the body of a gorilla must travel Dublin – Cambridge round-trip, in a Morris Mini!”

“Really? Wow, interesting!”

That was a catalyst. Dragging my old NaNoWriMo project out again, I started figuring out how my gorilla hero was to get out of Belfast clad only in a Celtic football scarf with his trusty Scottish motorhead sidekick again. One of the people who’ve done it and became a Successful Writer (giving automatic fringe benefits like eccentric habit privileges and becoming a token part of the gallery on the screensaver on Kindle Readers. Or so I assume) heard my plot and found it “interesting!”

So back to my trusty (dusty) writers seat! Imaginary plinth in the literary pantheon here I come! Also, I will throw paper planes at the author of “Who took my cheese?” if he is there as well.

“Neglect” is such an ugly word…

Dearest blog of mine. I’m sorry. I haven’t been seeing you as much as I should. And it’s not you. It’s me. As you sat like a wallflower while I went about flirting with Facebook and whatnot… I am so sorry. Now, when I started you up, I promised I would spend at least 20 minutes a day on you. Now, the last post was almost a year ago. And it was my (so far) last one on Thai history, culture and general trivia. So a debt of honour motivated me into dedicating a year of monthly posts to Thai history (“at gunpoint” also is an ugly expression) on you.

Has nothing interesting happened since then?

Well no, actually quite a lot has happened. A new job (of which I will say nothing here so that’s out), new friends, and new projects…

I’ve met a brilliant author lately, who inspired me and motivate me to keep writing. I’ll tell you more about her later.

A Brazilian surrealist exhibition in Oslo, with my nephew. (Yes, I have a nephew now, but more on him and modern art later).

Also, I’ve discovered some OH WAIT, OUR TIME IS UP! Oh dear that was 20 minutes.

Well, more tomorrow! Til then…

 

A little bit of Thai history: Finale

So, first of all, as a big “Thank You!” to a friend of mine who helped me out in the fall of 2011, I’ve written monthly posts about the history of Thailand for a year. This will be my final one, so far.

Second, it is at least sixteen days overdue.  Some of it due to job pressure, some due to laziness, but most of all due to me not knowing what the HELL I was to write about now? I mean, what is left uncovered?  Thai cooking? beauty pageants? Action movies? Wait a minute… ACTION MOVIES!

Inseethong

Insee thong, 1970. (image from Wikipedia)

But, in my best historical anecdotal style, I’ll start with a brief history of film in Thailand. I began, as so many other things, with the royal family. In this case indirectly. In 1897 the first films came to Thailand, first with the Lumiere brothers’ travelling film exhibition, soon followed by a film recording of the Thai royal family’s visit to Europe. Though Prince Thongthaem Sambassatra was the first film pioneer making documentaries and historical films, cinema theaters for the public were started up largely by Japanese business men. In the early days,  Japanese films were so popular that nang yipun became the generic term for all moving pictures. European and American films were called nang farang (after the nang drama (shadow puppet plays) that were a Thai traditional art).

The Topical Film Service, a company set up by the State Railway Service of Thailand to make promotional and educational films about the railway and other government services. As well as collaborating with Hollywood studios to make films like  the historical drama “Miss Suwanna of Siam” and the documentary “Chang”, the Topical Film Service was a training ground for indigenous filmmakers.

Misssuwannaofsiam

Miss Suwanna of Siam, 1923. (image from Wikipedia)

And THEN… Among the 17 films produced between 1928 and 1932, only fragments survive… However, among them are a minute long clip of a car chase and a 3 minute boxing match. The Thai Action Movie was born.

In the 1930s, new developments changed film again. The “talkies”, sound pictures, gave birth to dubbing (these were actually often done “live”, with a dubber in a microphone booth back in the theater) and color film. This is regarded as the golden age of Thai cinema. It lasted till 1942, when the dictatorship allied with Japan seized the film institutions to be used as propaganda tools for the government.

In the postwar era, 16mm film made for wartime newsreel production was abundant. And with the smash hit of 1949, Suparb Burut Sua Thai (Thai Gentlemen Fighters) actually outgrossed Hollywood movies at the box office, the action film was well back on track in the fifties.

Oh, and also a director named Rattana Pestonji made his breakthrough as  a director in Thailand at this time. Seeing as how most of his films are regarded as masterpieces ( including Santi-Weena, which was the first Thai film to be entered into international competition, at the 1954 Asia Pacific Film Festival in Tokyo, and 1961’s Black Silk, the first Thai film in competition at the Berlin International Film Festival) and he put Thai cinema on the world stage all by himself, he should probably be mentioned, I guess. So,to give him his dues, he is regarded the father of contemporary Thai cinema. He didn’t make any action films, though.

One who DID was Mitr Chaibanca, Muay Thai champion, flight instructor at the Royal Thai Air Force Academy and action film star who made 266 films before falling to death from a helicopter during a stunt in what was to be his last film, Insee Thong. In a sad twist of irony both died the same year, 1970, giving Tha cinema a big blow, both for action buffs and people who for some reason liked films with artistic merit.

It would bounce back however, with the 1977 tax hike on foreign films, making Hollywood boycott Thailand. Faster than you could say “LIGHTS! CAMERA! ARTISTICALLY RIPPED SHIRT! ACTION!”  The Thai action genre  was BACK, with 150 films made in 1978 alone. Scholars and critics generally refer to films of this era as  “nam mao”, stinking water. So you just KNOW they didn’t mess around with subplots, long dialogue or multiple takes. This was action ALL THE WAY.

However, when the boycott ended in 1981 and TV spread  in Thailand the demand collapsed, and in the 90s only 10 films were made a year. So the new wave,  three directors of television commercials – Nonzee Nimibutr, Pen-Ek Ratanaruang and Wisit Sasanatieng – had an idea in the wake of the Asian crisis of 97.

They would make action films with artistic merit.

Dang Bireley’s and Young Gangsters, a crime drama about the rise and fall of a young gang leader, Tears of the Black Tiger,  a Thai Western movie (and homage to the 70′ action genre) and  Bangkok Dangerous, a crime film about a deaf-mute hit man,  are some examples of the new wave within the action genre alone.  Also I should mention the thriller genre that has blossomed, with classics like The Eye and Nang Nak about a woman seeing ghosts with transplanted corneas and a husband haunted by his dead wife.

And I can’t write about Thai cinema without mentioning the gay film genre of Thailand (yes, there is a separate gay film genre in Thailand. Buddhists don’t judge, it seems). There are many, good and bad (including the spy B-movie Iron Pussy)The film Iron Ladies is a comedy film about a Thai volleyball team consisting of gays and transgender persons winning an international companionship. Tes, it’s based on a true story.

The_Iron_Ladies_DVD_cover

 

(image from Wikipedia)

A Little Bit of Thai History: From rice to HDs

Well, about a year ago from now a friend of mine did me a huge favor. And as part of my debt of honor I write a post about Thai history. So here goes:

In October 2011 the charming picturesque holiday destination of Thailand suffered severe floods, putting large tracts of the country under water. Hundreds died, and much of Thailand’s infrastructure was destroyed. Also, it drove the price of hard drives sky high.

Hang on, hard drives? Thailand?

Well, as it turns out Thailand has industries as well. And with the dawning of globalization, well…

OK, to start with the beginning: In the 1940s Thailand bet on the wrong horse. Specifically, they allied with Japan. As the average student of history and most war gamers will know, things ended up less than stellar with Japan, and as one of very few in Japans corner in the Asian version of the WWII Thailand was forced to pay damages. Now, this being a country barely industrialized the damages were paid in rice. Suddenly, Thailand needed to get itself organized. Earlier rulers were mostly concerned with building up the armed forces and planning coups against one another, but now there was the necessity  of organizing large shipments out. So from being just barely above colonial status (most international businesses organized lumber and mine extraction themselves) Thailand developed a stock exchange for rice, plus a comprehensive system for determining the value of rice.

Two years passed after the end of the war and the newly installed (by the Allies, BTW. Not the Thai) government was couped.  Again. This time the coup leader was the former prime minister. Now, seeing as how this was the guy behind the whole “lets ally with Imperial Japan” thing he was not exactly in the good books of the US, who were the only people ending the war with cash to spare for foreign aid. So he did what was the new thing for attracting support from the Western countries: Anti-communism campaigns.

And it worked. Money came in, development aid and subsidies, and the government being anti communist set up large state owned companies for developing industries (nope, not communist at all). This was administered by a large body of state bureaucrats (Hah! D’you think communism would EVER do something like that?) and denouncing China, breaking all ties with them (OK that last one actually qualifies). And all was well underway by the time of the next coup in 1957.

The next government did things mostly the same. Some businesses were actually privatized, with only the ones vital for infrastructure kept on by the state. Oh, and this government continued Thailand’s proud foreign policy tradition of “What could possibly go wrong with this?”  by joining the US in what was to be called the Vietnam War. This brought in a lot of US support, monetary as well as militarily.

Then in the 1970s the US were gone ,gone, GONE from the region, neighboring Cambodia and Laos were Communist puppets of a Vietnam that was Communist, had just won an epic conflict with the US and a smaller one with China, and was good at remembering past grievances…  And of course Burma, that already in the 70 was  a close ally of China.  Who at this point had resumed diplomatic and trade ties with the US. Oh, and since USA was more than busy forgetting Southeast Asia  ever existed, aid to Thailand petered out. Witch was a shame, because at this point Thailand WAS a bulwark against Communism by sheer geography.

As luck would have it Thailand was never invaded (Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam were busy fighting each other in the 70s)  but the economy nearly crashed in the mid-80s. Thailand did what any sane country not part of the Euro Zone did, and devalued the Bath, Thailand’s currency. The third time they did, Thailand actually got an unexpected windfall: When your currency is at rock bottom, exports and labor costs are WAY competitive. So competitive Toyota and Ford set up car factories there. and that’s when Thailand got lucrative as a target for outsourcing.

In October 2011, Western Digital and Toshiba lost some of their biggest Hard Drive production plants when the flood hit. As well as doing what they could to help the local communities the plants were operating in, they worked their ASS off to get the plants up and running. Thailand isn’t the biggest industrialized economy in the world. But ion a country where even the military coups are comparatively polite and people have the will and means to work harder and cheaper than many others, Thailand today is a part of the global village.  When something happens in Thailand, the world takes notice.

A Little bit of Thai History: The warrior queen

Another month, another installment: Here’s another payoff on my debt of honor!  As a repayment of a favor I write a little bit about  the history of Thailand every month. Today I’ll write about intrigue, sacrifice, and an elephant duel.

In 1524 Siam was mess. Two years after the previous king Chairacha had died, the rule of his son Yot Fa was usurped. Given that the king in question was an 11 year old kid and his mother Sri Sudachan, the chief consort of  Chairacha was the one actually calling the shots, we shouldn’t blame little Yot too much. Also, the one deposing him WAS said mother. So what can you do?

The rumors around the de facto queen are murky. A lot of courtiers died mysteriously, and she is said to have poisoned the more troublesome rivals at court. Including her lover, king Chairacha. What we do know is that she outright executed several prominent officials while in power,replacing them with her own loyal people. When it was impossible for her to conceal being pregnant, she staged a coup against her son the king. He was quietly poisoned by mommy while her new lover Phan But Si Thep was crowned king under the name Worawongsathirat.

His glorious reign lasted all of 42 days.  A relative to the dead king Chairacha, Khun Phiren Thorathep plotted a scheme to lure the king, his concubine Sri Sudachan the poisonmurdery and their new born daughter. He planted a rumour of a really huge elephant in the jungle, and as the king and his loved ones sailed up the river by royal barge to capture it (as previously mentioned, Thai royalty has a thing for elephants) they were ambushed and horribly murdered.

(Oh and by the way: King Chairacha became king by deposing and executing his nephew the king. Who was aged five. Being an infant did not protect you if you belonged to an inconvenient bloodline).

So  the ringleader Khun Phiren Thorathep, a distant relation to the last king… Then gave the throne to ANOTHER prince,  Thianracha,who was crowned as Maha Chakkrapat (just before giving a cushy vassal king-title to his buddy Thorathep).

So at this point, we are only one huge invasion force across the border from this being  “Game of Thrones” with elephants.

Which is just as well, because at this point a huge invasion force crossed the border from Burma. It turned out that Burma had had a stable period of empire building,and figured Siam was next on the list. The Burmese attacked with some 12000 men, 2400 horses and 60 elephants. There was no way the border garrisons could stop that, so the Burmese were met with little resistance until they came to a village named Suphanburi near the capital Ayutthaya.  There, the king waited for them and counterattacked.

As well as the king, his queen  Sri Suriyothai  were leading the Siamese army on elephants.  The king and the enemy general started the battle as the tradition was at the time: Single combat on elephant back. Unfortunately, the king’s elephant panicked and ran. When the queen saw the Burmese general chasing the king, she spurred her elephant on, blocking his way and engaging him instead. Oh,and her daughter too, by the way. Yep: The royal backup was his queen in armor and general regalia. Her backup was her teenage daughter, also armored and in the same war elephant gondola as her mom. The warrior Queen special.

It would have been nice if she defeated him. But the Burmese general was a professional soldier,and cut her from the shoulder to her heart in one blow with his spear, killing her instantly and fatally wounding her daughter. The king got control of his elephant eventually, rallied the Siamese forces, and turned away the Burmese army. He managed to withdraw to the capital with the bodies of his wife and daughter.

After the war ended, the king built a temple,  Sri Suriyothai, to  house the remains of his queen. Boththe temple and the stupa adjoining it exists to this day. One of the later names of this war  is The War that Led to the Loss of Queen Suriyothai.

A little bit of Thai history: The original white elephant

So, for my monthly Thai history post (OK read the freaking blog if you don’t know what I’m talking about) I admit to having idea block. I mean, what to write about? Then I realized: Elephants. And then I thought WHITE ELEPHANTS!

The term “White Elephant” generally means something a government mostly keeps as a prestige pet project. You know, something that really costs more than it is worth keeping. One origin of the word was supposedly that the Siamese king would give troublesome elephants to obnoxious client rulers, making them indebted in honor without actually benefiting from the gift itself. Or possibly they saw the number of white elephants that did absolutely nothing but walk around eating the shrubbery at court. And then they thought “What could POSSIBLY justify expenses like that???” 

Simple. Elephants are a symbol of Thailand. And white elephants are sacred. In fact, between 1855 amd 1916 the flag of Siam was literally the only a white elephant on a red background: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Flag_of_Thailand_1855.svg

Because “This is SIAM!”. Possibly.

The elephant has never really been domesticated, and even today they are hard to breed in captivity. Add to the fact that almost NOTHING stops an elephant when it decides to charge, they became the classic era version of a weapon of mass destruction. And even in times of peace the elephant has been tremendously useful as basically a biological tractor/crane/earth mover/pimpmobile for royalty.

Then there is the fact that Thailand has both the Buddhist and the Hindu religions strongly feature elephants. Buddhas mother reportedly dreamed of a white elephant giving her a lotus flower the night before she gave birth. And Hinduism has Ganesha, a god with the head of an elephant. So a white elephant, being a mutation rather than a separate species is a symbol of luck. Oh and the king doesn’t give them away. A white elephant is lucky for a monarch, so any white elephants discovered is ceremonially donated to the king (who then lets it go back t the wild most often, as he currently has a dozen or so). 

For normal elephants in Thailand the situation is getting more difficult. Development of plantations and industrial logging is removing the habitat of wild elephants in Thailand, and actual gas driven tractor, cranes, earth movers and Audis are eroding the niche of tame elephants. Some mahouts (elephant drivers) have taken to the cities in desperation, but that just creates ore problems, like food (an elephant eats 200 kilos of leaved DAILY, not to mention water) traffic (modern roads are just not built for elephants) ans safety (when stressed, elephants can go into a rage). 

Fortunately there are reservations for elephants nowadays. Also, the tourist industry is taking in more and more tame elephants for safaris. So the elephants are not going away completely. Especially not the white ones. Thais feel good luck is reason enough to keep something around.