When I stayed in Mandalay, I spent an evening being entertained by the Mustachio Brothers, the most dangerous comedians in Myanmar – formerly Burma.
But this evening developed unexpectedly in to a culture clash which revealed to me how some of the gaps between societies may simply be unbridgeable. Goodbye, my One World dream!
I’ll start off by acknowledging these brothers as the incredibly brave artists they are. This trio of hirsute guys have truly suffered for their art down the years, at the hands of government goons and the local judiciary.
There used to be 3 bros, but one died following a stint in jail for making politically incorrect jokes about the high and mighty. What they have done is a high water-mark for all comedy which wants to be subversive.But it seems like the Mustachio Brothers are being over taken by history.
When I saw the remaining 2 bros perform, it was November 2015 and a historic general election was taking place: for the first time in decades the poll was fair and free by international standards. Gags about corrupt cops were no longer so dangerous in a Myanmar where the Generals had loosened their grip on society and the beloved Aung San Suu Kyi (aka The Lady) was days away from a landslide election win.
Then there are the jokes. What stuck out that night was not necessarily the big events taking place outside the theatre (which is also the family home). No, it was the comedy itself and how us the audience took it. The jokes were bawdy and on topics such as ‘the wife’, ‘marriage’ and ‘who does the cleaning’. There were some about domestic violence too. It sounded dated and outmoded to me – and to others too: there were a few intakes of breath amid the indulgent laughter, perhaps a signal that some sacred safe spaces had been violated. So the comedy was challenging stuff, but not in a conventional way: this pensioner on stage was telling us jokes so tired even Jim Davidson might turn them down (maybe).
So how to respond? Laugh along at his politically incorrect gags in order to be respectful of this slice of local culture? Invade the stage in the name of women’s liberation? Tut-tut the dated gags? The sense of dissonance and confusion were palpable to me, sat at the front on the floor. My laughs were polite, not genuine. I didn’t want to disrespect this radical comic veteran who’s been through so much, by sitting stony faced through his routine. But if he did this material at a students’ union in Britain, there’d be a riot and then a public shaming on Twitter.
So it seems to me the Mustachio Brothers today face a bit of a crisis of comedy: jokes which used to be subversive no longer are in a changed political climate and bawdy cracks about ‘her indoors’ just aren’t very funny to the type of audience who come to the show (travelling westerners). Will the Mustachio Brothers mock and ridicule Aung Sang Suu Kyi now she’s in power? That might be awkward: posters of her are plastered all around the venue and she’s a national icon of freedom. Myanmar looks like it is moving in to a new epoch and the Mustachio Brothers can legitimately say they have helped bring about this monumental change, by refusing to be cowed by despotic authority, or to stop laughing at it. But what next for Burma’s most dangerous comedians?
At the end of the night, I loyally paid for a t-shirt and got a photo with Mr Mustachio. He’s a cool guy and I admire his bravery and endurance greatly. Above us in the photo is a picture of The Lady at a show back in 2002.
Autocorrect on my iPhone just took to a whole new level a very dull email I was typing about a contract. As my fat fingers punched away at the screen, typing the phrase ‘Can you please send…’, Autocorrect delivered big time.
It decided the next words in my email should be ‘U.S troops’ and inserted this phrase in to the sentence.
‘Can you please send U.S troops’ I was about to ask the letting agent sitting at her desk. I bet that’s a request she doesn’t get every day.
It was a shame to delete this accident, but renting in London is no laughing matter. So I did.
Ready Player One is a great modern sci-fi novel which I loved reading in just a couple of days. I’ve written this piece of fan fiction about the story’s arch villain, Nolan Sorrento. Ready Player One is a classic tale of good vs bad and as usual, it’s the baddies who get all the best lines. The set-up is a search for an ‘Easter egg’ of ultimate power (not a chocolate egg) which is hidden somewhere inside a fully immersive virtual world called the OASIS. Much of humanity spends all day inside this OASIS simulator cos real life sucks so bad (I do enjoy dystopias, though I wouldn’t like to live in one). SPOILER ALERT: Don’t read this unless you don’t mind discovering how Ready Player One ends. My story is Sorrento close up, in the first person. And he ain’t happy.
Hope you like.
‘I am Nolan Sorrento. I’d say call me IOI-655321, but that would be inappropriate at present, for a number of reasons.
You may know me as the chief operating officer of Innovative Online Industries. More likely, you know of me from the hunt for Halliday’s egg in the OASIS. If so, then you will definitely know of me from what happened as a result of the search for the damn thing. But actually you don’t know much at all, so allow me to fill some gaps.
You saw the news feeds. I have. It is not pleasant viewing. It cannot be denied that the egg hunt did not progress to the advantage of my employer, or myself. I haven’t plugged in to the OASIS since I was abruptly escorted from the haptic chair in to a police car by two officers, at the exact moment of our defeat. Since then, I’ve not had the desire to plug in and anyway I could not do so, as my movements are somewhat restricted at present by my detainment at a police station. Yes, fate is a strange mistress.
My own status is currently, shall we say, unresolved. It is true I am no longer in possession of the senior ranking you know me to hold. My employer has suspended me – on full pay – pending the outcome of a criminal investigation in to three ludicrous allegations: that I masterminded a large explosion which resulted in a large number of deaths, also that I ordered the murder of an individual who tragically plummeted to his death while on a balcony and also that I planned to kill at least two others. It will be a miracle if I am convicted of these preposterous allegations. I look forward to resuming my work at IOI soon.
Now then, I know what is the common view of me among you bovine masses who today plug in to that online utopia, the OASIS, to hide from reality and escape the inanity of your lives. I know about your hatred and disdain. I do not cower before it, nor from you insects. You hold no power over me because you mean nothing. Never did and never will. You think I am a devil at the controls of a demonic company that nearly succeeded in kicking over the virtual sand castles you’ve all made inside the OASIS? We wanted to – heaven forbid – make some money from the thing. Money which could pay for your jobs, pay wages, increase prosperity in the real world. If you have a problem with that, well then you’re the dangerous one, not me. Yet somehow it is a fact that today the mob is happy with the state of things.
Today the OASIS is in the hands of a bunch of sanctimonious young worthies – Parzavil, Artemis, that lot. They all have more money than sense and think that throwing cash at problems is the solution. Everyone outside their magic circle is reduced to the status of their client, merely quarry for these uber privileged kids to feel good about themselves by donating to ’causes’ and ‘charity’. And you all are expected to be grateful! Let me tell you these elite-level busybodies really turn my stomach. Well you are welcome to it, I hope you like it. You can’t say you didn’t ask for it. It certainly is a PR victory by them on a massive scale and the IOI communications team could learn from it, for future reference.
We at IOI know we face a challenging public relations environment, but I don’t believe we deceive anyone; we are simply an ambitious company willing to do what it takes. Let me reveal what society has missed out on, with the result of the egg hunt. Had IOI been victorious – and everyone knows I tried my hardest – then the OASIS would have become a type of upmarket resort; somewhere you go to recharge and refresh, ready to return to the real world with renewed vigour for the challenges at hand. There are enough of those, aren’t there. Jobs at the Grand OASIS Luxury Resort would have been created for all levels of player. Your online earnings would have been convertible in to real world money; increasing real-world wealth and your personal prosperity, let me remind you again. Sounds good? That’s because it was.
Open your eyes. Humankind has not benefited one iota from the result of the egg hunt. This is obvious to anyone with eyes who lifts up their OASIS visor and looks around. Parzival has not liberated you all from the clutches of some dastardly ‘Sixers’. What he has done – along with his accomplices – is condemn millions of people in the real world to continued dependence upon a part time paradise. What of all the players who supported him by showing up at the crystal castle for the final battle? I’m talking to you. Are you wealthy now? No, you are where you always were; hooked up in your silly suit pushing around thin air in your basic home, while the counterfeit reality of OASIS thickens like concrete around your soft minds. In what kind of world is this outcome a common victory? Serfs.
I can’t finish without pointing out the role an influential and responsible individual had in this whole mess, someone who’s shown himself to be a real low quality person. Yes, I will name names: Ogdon Morrow, OASIS co-founder. He should know better. Morrow should have known better than to aid and abet the lunatics in seizing control of the asylum. He should have seen clearly that success for IOI was synergistic with his own publicly stated position on the OASIS. He was a critic of what it had become. My victory – my employer’s victory – would have unleashed change upon that place. But this person opted for the easy route – to be popular. It’s crystal clear now that to Morrow nothing matters more than rolling back the (several) decades by spinning tracks at a virtual nightclub. Truly desperate stuff. In the final reckoning, this pensioner has shown himself to be nothing but what he always was; an approval-seeking PR man.
But now I really must stop. The lawyers are waiting, another meeting beckons and I’m back in my element.’
Back in the USSR, they ate this snack. Sojove Rezy (meaning Soya slice, I’m told) has made it unchanged through glasnost, perestroika and the break-up of Czechoslovakia. Even the wrapping is the same today as during the Cold War, apparently. Orange coloured, grainy textured and very filling, is this hearty little bar. I enjoyed it at Bratislava airport. Admittedly Sojove Rezy is not as elaborate or delicious as other confectionary which Slovakia does so very well (yes, I’m thinking cream cakes). But this contrast between it and something like a decadent, bourgeois punch torte cake, makes Sojove Rezy an authentic slice of culinary history from the age of Soviets. Workers, Forward! to the sweet shop.
…Or there’s something about some hotel rooms. I wrote this to try capture the feeling I had in one hotel room in particular. It may have been in Bratislava near the airport, around the turn of 2015. I wonder if the room’s creeped out more guests since then. This piece is called Hotel Cadaver.
Hotel rooms are the worst places in the world. They can swallow up a person and make them disappear, even though every straight, tidy line of them is visible and covered by light. There is something eerie about entering a room where you know somebody has been only very recently, but of whom there is now no sign whatsoever. The human element is purged in hotel rooms. A predatory plant closes around an insect which has stopped to rest upon its plump red petals, and then consumes it silently, leaving not a trace behind. And we like it this way. What does that say? It says I like a room which looks clean as a cadaver. Maybe this is why I dislike the surgicaly bright and sharp lighting of the room. It belongs to the operating table and later in the morgue and yet here it is lighting a bed containing warm, living bodies. This frosty white light is fit only for post-mortem, not in a place for dreaming and making babies. But a hotel room in which the human presence remains is just as bad, in a different way. It is a newly discovered crime scene of dishevelled sheets, discarded detritus and DNA evidence shed by somebody who was in a hurry to leave. Unmistakable odours belonging to a perfect stranger linger and become an invisible presence of decay. It’s always shocking to discover a room like this; to stumble in to a most private sphere. Later, Housekeeping arrives wearing gloves and with detergents and large bags for disposal. Knocks respectfully at the door and enters. Later is seen leaving, carrying bags: contents unknown.
I went Laos in September 2015 and in Vang Vieng, I took a trip in to a cave one afternoon. I was the only one there. It was an odd experience for me. Hope you enjoy.
I walked alone in to the underworld through a low hole in the mountainside. In to the darkness I shone my torch and its light threw up staggeringly high, dark shadows on the walls. It was mountains within mountains in here; folds and creases of antediluvian rock making jagged new peaks and plunging ravines in the spotlight; all moving and dematerialising, then reappearing as the beam swung round. I made a noise, the echo came calling back, faint and from somewhere much deeper in the darkness, out of sight of my eyes. It was raining outside and I was the only person here; no locals or foreigners were to be found. I was alone inside this timeless place of dark and shadow. Or I was alone? Pressing on through the gloom, there were rustling noises above my head and when I snapped my torch in their direction, I caught small, fleeting shapes fleeing the light. ‘Bats’ I said aloud. ‘Bloody bats.’ This was an alien landscape; pressing in all around me were unusual formations of rock, probably moulded over millennia by water which began dripping when Eden was still open and was still dripping now, long after hell has been shut down by society. This accidental space, moulded by tectonic forces and invisible to the outside world, existed outside of my experience, out of any experience in the open air. It was like time had been driven out of this place so as to let the cave endure by itself the weight of mountain permanently upon its back. What can live in a place like this? Presently, I became aware of being in a large space and I felt suddenly small and vulnerable here, what else could be in this underground ocean of dusty, stagnant air, hiding from society. I felt like the swimmer who goes under the waves and senses at once the darkening blue limits of vision all around him, who knows that somewhere close to him but out of sight – is an big bad whale. I pictured a scaly green hand laying itself on my shoulder, or something horrible coming out of a wall and scuttling fast down the sides toward me, its bristles on end with malign intent. I quickly made my escape and was happy to step outside in to the drizzle, to put behind me this mountain which was now covered by mist at its summit, and towered high in to the sky.
I’m writing this first post in Slovakia, in a town called Trencin. Slovakia is a gem of a country, a hidden gem perhaps, since it seems to be in the Czech Republic’s shadow in terms of fame. Well, that’s a good enough reason for me to pay a visit!. There’s plenty of delicious schnapps to sample (at all times of day) and the food is hearty and delicious. It’s where Central Europe meets Eastern Europe and the traveller can enjoy classy buildings from the age of Austro-Hungarian Empire and also some relics from the Berlin Wall era: no prizes for guessing which wins in the beauty stakes. I thoroughly recommend a visit to Slovakia if you wanna get off the well-beaten track, it’s a wholehearted, picturesque place. Nostrave! (Cheers)