The madeleine holds an iconic position in the world of French bakery. So important is it that Napoleon erected a church in Paris in its honour. And for Marcel Proust eating it was the jumping off point for a rambling seven volume, 1.5 million words – a novel responsible for most lost time than perhaps any other.

For Nigel Slater, toast holds is similar status. Though I read and thoroughly enjoyed his autobiography (entitled “Toast”), I enjoyed the movie (for which the producers came up with the startlingly original title – “Toast”) more. True, the movie did rather overplay the way that Nigel was light on his loafers from a surprisingly early age – though omitted the episode where he becomes a rentboy in Piccadilly. There were also things that didn’t seem right. Did he really cook tinned spaghetti bolognese in 1967? I didn’t think that the Elizabeth David effect had reached Wolverhampton so soon – and certainly not in canned form. And the cookery book with large pictures that he studied (I think, by Marguerite Patton) – did cookery books of that era have such glossy images? I remember a battered copy of The Daily Telegraph Cookbook by “Bon Viveur” (Fanny and Johnny Cradock’s nom-de-plume) from about that era – plain and picture-free. (That cookbook holds the record for the most disgusting dish I’ve ever attempted to eat: ox liver soaked in milk to make it, allegedly, taste like duck. Absolutely vile.) Didn’t the glossy cookbook start with Robert Carrier? (“Great Dishes of the World” was published 1967.) And would a schoolboy (Slater’s friend) have used such profane language at that time? I went to a primary school in the middle of a cluster of large council estates yet didn’t encounter such language until later in life.

But, small gripes aside, for me it was just wonderfully evocative. Slater is two years older than I, so much of his history is my history. The cream and green colour scheme of the kitchen was just à propos, the nasty plastic cups used at picnics on the beach so familiar (though they didn’t have the canvas windbreaker that seemed an indispensible part of any beach outing in my childhood), the crimpelene dresses, the looooong dried spaghetti (how I remember the blue paper packets of “Lily Brand” spaghetti), the vile school milk (probably Thatcher’s sole act of kindness in her entire life was to snatch milk from the hands of schoolchildren – that said, she’s not dead yet so there’s still time, but I won’t be holding my breath), the heavy NHS glasses frames, the cheese and pineapple on cocktail sticks (though they should have been stuck into a grapefruit wrapped in aluminium foil, rather than a pineapple).

It’s only January, but this is probably my favourite film of the year.

Footnote: when I came up with the title for this posting I was really pleased with myself. I thought I was being original. However, Google is not my friend, and reveals that a quarter of a million other sites have used the same pun. Bah!!!


“Years and years ago, when I was a boy, when there were wolves in Wales, and birds the color of red-flannel petticoats whisked past the harp-shaped hills, when we sang and wallowed all night and day in caves that smelt like Sunday afternoons in damp front farmhouse parlors, and we chased, with the jawbones of deacons, the English and the bears, before the motor car, before the wheel, before the duchess-faced horse, when we rode the daft and happy hills bareback, it snowed and it snowed. But here a small boy says: “It snowed last year, too. I made a snowman and my brother knocked it down and I knocked my brother down and then we had tea.”
– From A Child’s Christmas in Wales by Dylan Thomas

Christmas is a time for looking back, for remembering. We remember the fairy stories about a virgin giving birth in a stable, about angels in the sky appearing to shepherds, about a baby who was going to be cruelly killed to take away the sins of mankind.

We look back and remember the sickly-sweet Victorian Christmas carols that even now tug at the heart. For me, even now, Christmas starts with the festival of nine lessons and carols from King’s. The boy treble singing, unaccompanied Once in Royal David’s City – that’s for me when the magic begins.

I also find myself looking back, thinking about my family, their lives and where they came from. I think about Wales.


In a recent email my mother mentioned an old Welsh lullaby, Suo Gân. It has been sung at a carol concert she attended. Here it is performed by the Choir of King’s College, Cambridge:


Not remembering the lyrics I looked them up. One line is Ar Lan y Môr (Beside the Sea), which is, of course, the title of a beautiful Welsh folk song about love, here performed by Bethan Myfanwy Hughes:


This made me think of Max Boyce who also sings this song.  He’s a highly successful Welsh singer/songwriter/comedian, whose popularity probably peaked in the 70s, but still performs to packed houses around the world. Carols from Kings wasn’t yet available for download, so I downloaded one of Max Boyce’s albums to listen to on Christmas morn.


In Thailand, when people ask me where I’m from, I always say “Wales”, which is usually greeted with a look of blank incomprehension. I then say “next to England”. They seem to have heard of England. It would be easier for me to say I come from England in the first place, but I’m proud to be Welsh and I thank the invisible magician in the sky that I wasn’t born English.

This song by Max Boyce, Duw It’s Hard, reminds me about how Wales was treated by the English not that long ago:



It’s the Season of Goodwill, so I won’t go on about Thatcher’s campaign of hatred against the miners. I won’t mention the brutal suppression in Tonypandy of protesters seeking a living wage a hundred years ago. I won’t write about the myriad other oppressions of the people of Wales by the English elite across the centuries – oppressions large and small. I’ll sign off by wishing you one and all Nadolig Llawen a Blwyddyn Newydd Dda – Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.


All that I know about George Carlin is that he’s a dead American stand-up comedian, and he had a famous monologue “Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television”. If he were still alive the monologue would be somewhat shorter, for it seems that one four-letter word beloved of the coprolaliac is now acceptable on the airwaves.

A few days ago I was watching a quiz show on the BBC and one of the contestants told a joke along the following lines:

“A few days ago I went to a Zoo. They only had one animal – a dog. It was a Shitzu.”

Though Lord Reith would undoubtedly not have approved, any perceived humour is in the mind of the listener. More objectionable is the explicit use of the obscenity in popular music. In the space of a mere quarter of an hour, whilst listening to the wireless, I heard the word used repeatedly in three songs – not bleeped out. The offending and offensive oeuvres were:

Jason Derulo, “Solo”: “Now I got my s**t together, yeah”.
(It appears that collecting and organising coproliths is a hobby of his.)

David Ghetta, “Memories”: “All the crazy s**t I did tonite”.
(Not only can’t he spell, he defecates in the evening. Fascinating. The fact that his faeces are insane is a little disturbing, though.

Travis McCoy, “Billionaire”: “Adopt a bunch of babies that ain’t never had s**t”.
(Singing about constipated newborns. Equally fascinating.)

Of course, it’s not just the crude language that I find offensive. Other songs have quite inappropriate content. Whilst impotence is for some a serious problem, and for some penis size is a cause for insecurity, neither is a subject I want to hear Rihanna singing about on the airwaves:

“Come here rude boy, boy
Can you get it up?
Come here rude boy, boy
Is it big enough?”

Is it a song you would even wish your wife or your servants to listen to?

“Quamdiu etiam furor iste tuus nos eludet? Quem ad finem sese effrenata iactabit audacia?”


A few months ago Thai banks imposed a 300 Baht fee for withdrawing cash using a foreign debit or credit card. That’s about ₤6.35 per transaction. In theory cartels are illegal in Thailand, but that didn’t stop every single bank imposing exactly the same exorbitant charge within a matter of days.

Nationwide Building Society (motto: “Proud to be different”) used not to charge for overseas withdrawals. Earlier this year they introduced a 1% charge on such transactions, and they’ve just increased that to 2% – plus an additional ₤1 per transaction charge for cash withdrawals. So, if I were to withdraw 5,000 ฿ (₤105.78) the Thai banks would take ₤6.35, Nationwide, would take ₤3.12, and I’d be left with ₤96.31. In other words, the banks between them would have taken 9% of my money, and that’s for a service that until recently they provided for free. Such usury is iniquitous. But what can one do is the face of the greedy, grasping banks?


The tuk-tuk, that noisy, three-wheeled, motorised rickshaw, so iconic of Thailand. But it’s not Thai – it’s Japanese. The original tuk-tuk was invented by Daihatsu. Some were imported into Thailand for use in Ayutthaya. Pretty soon the Thais were making their own copies. So the tuk-tuk isn’t really Thai, just affectionately adopted. In fact, there are many things that we think of as Thai, but really aren’t.

What about Thai food? Perhaps green curry? Sadly, not. The curry includes chillies, introduced into Thailand by the Portugese from South America, probably in the 17th century, and the aubergines in it are native to India, though probably spread throughout south east Asia in prehistory. Peppercorns (which were used to make food spicy before the introduction of chillies) also originated in India, but again, probably arrived in Thailand in prehistory.

Other ingredients which are recent arrivals include potatoes and peanuts and capsicums and cucumber. These are all from South America and were introduced during the Ayutthaya period. Oyster sauce (invented in China in the 1800s) is an even more recent addition to Thai cuisine.

Even the techniques of Thai cooking have also been heavily influenced by other countries. Stir-frying and deep fat frying were both introduced by the Chinese, whilst techniques for making cakes and sweetmeats such as “Golden Threads” (beaten duck egg drizzled into boiling syrup) came from the Portugese.

In short, there are very few Thai dishes eaten today which predate the Ayutthaya period.

The impenetrable Thai language, that must be Thai, right? Not really. There have been massive borrowings of vocabulary from Sanskrit, Pali, Khmer and (more recently) English. The pronunciation of the words may have changed to fit the Thai tongue, but the original spellings are fossilised in the written language.

What about Thailand’s festivals such as Loi Krathong (when banana leaf cups bearing a candle and other objects are symbolically lowered into water, marking the end of the year and a new beginning) and Songkran (when much water is splashed about)? Not Thai. They both come from Indian Brahman practice. The annual Royal Ploughing ceremony, where the King (or his representative) ploughs the Royal Field and plants rice to ensure a prosperous harvest is also Brahman in origin and, even today, is attended by Brahman priests. And in the area of religion, the Emerald Buddha (or Phraphutthamahamanirattanapatimakorn as it is more rightly called), which is the most highly revered Buddhist symbol in Thailand, isn’t even Thai. It was possibly made in Patna, India a little over two thousand years ago, and since then has done a grand tour of south east Asia, including Cambodia, Thailand and Laos. It’s only been permanently in Thailand since 1779.

Thai dancing? Introduced into Thailand when Angkor Wat (Cambodia) was seized and the temple dancers brought to Thailand.

And finally, what of the Thai people? Surely they are Thai? Well, if we go back two millennia, the land was occupied by Mon (from modern day Burma) and Khmer (from modern day Cambodia) villages. The Tais originated in Yunnan province and didn’t make it to Thailand until around 960 CE. For centuries the three groups lived parallel lives, each in its own villages. However, over time, the groups mixed and interbred. Later (about 100 years ago) there was further, large scale migration from China but this time with the immigrants being mostly Teowchiu, with smaller numbers of Hakka and Hainanese. Today around 15% of the people of Thailand consider themselves Thai-Chinese.

So, when it comes “quintessentially Thai” things are not always what they seem.


OK, pop quiz, which of the two in the video is one of the top-rated hip-hop dancers in the world, and which is a classically trained ballet dancer?


It may not be the most difficult question in the world, but Alex Wong is an incredible talent. (He’s the Asian one, in case you hadn’t guessed.) A former Principal Soloist at Miami City Ballet, he quit his job to compete in “So You Think You Can Dance”. (That’s an American TV competition for dancers who have to demonstrate skill in a wide variety of styles, from ballroom to krump, from contemporary to African jazz. It’s been one of my favourite programmes for a while now. There’s rarely an episode where I’m not teary eyed, at least once. The skill, power and emotional value of the performances are almost beyond belief.)

For Alex, every performance for him in the show has been superlative. Then, during rehearsal earlier in the week, he severed his Achilles tendon. He’s out of the show.

Icarus soared too close to the sun once more.

And it sucks.


According to AFP:

“The US House of Representatives on Thursday overwhelmingly backed a symbolic resolution urging Thailand’s political crisis be resolved peacefully and through democratic means.

“Lawmakers voted 411-4 in favor (sic) of the measure, which also calls on all parties in Thailand to “work assiduously to settle their differences” based on a five-point reconciliation plan crafted by Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva.”

Huh? Why is a bunch of over-privileged, geriatric Americans who probably couldn’t even point to Thailand on a map voting on this matter? For those of us who live here and try closely to follow politics the issues are far from clear-cut.

Doesn’t the US of A have enough problems of its own to keep them busy? Aren’t the financial crisis, woeful healthcare, rampant drug abuse, failing educational system, out-of-control credit (coupled with the lowest savings rate of any developed country), social inequality and illegal immigration enough to fill the time of the Honorable (sic) representatives? Oh, and then there’s the small matter of an oil leak somewhere or other.

And frankly, it’s rarely a good thing for Uncle Sam to take an interest in a foreign country. Think of Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Colombia, Cuba, Haiti, Guatemala, El Salvador, Dominican Republic, Panama, Grenada, Nicaragua, Venezuela Korea, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Angola, Somalia, Libya and all the others. And let’s not forget the greatest war crimes of all time: Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Bow your head in shame, bald eagle. And stay the hell away from my backyard.

Imagine that Selfridges or Harrods or Liberty’s had been burned to the ground.

That’s what’s happened here in Bangkok today.

Central World burning in Bangkok

Asia’s second largest mall (and Thailand’s largest) has been destroyed.


Thailand and Cambodia share the same religion and similar cultures, yet there has long been a tension between the two countries. So where does this animosity spring from?

Cambodians have long memories. They recall that Cambodia was once a mighty empire, sprawling from what is now north eastern Thailand through to southern Vietnam. Some of Thailand’s most striking temples, such as Prasat Hin Phimai, Meuang Singh, and Phanom Rung and Prasat Meuang Tam were built when the area was ruled by Cambodia. Khao Phra Wihaan sits on the modern Thai/Cambodian border and though granted to Cambodia by the International Court of Justice, many Thais are deeply resentful of this, and consider it rightly theirs. Troops are encamped on both sides of the border, and occasionally take pot-shots at each other. Sovereignty over some land in the area is still disputed.

Towards the end of the 18th century Siam (as Thailand was then called) under King Rama I, invaded Cambodia and seized Battambang and Siem Reap (home of Angkor Wat and historical capital of the Khmer empire). At about the same time the Vietnamese took the Mekong delta in what is now southern Vietnam. The French decided to “protect” Cambodia, preventing further loss of territory, and in the early 19th century the French were able to negotiate the return of Battambang and Siem Reap to Cambodia.

When World War II broke out, Thailand sided with Japan and invaded Cambodia (again), seizing both Battambang and Siem Reap (again), though not the area around Angkor Wat, which remained under the French.

At the end of the war Thailand was required to return the land it had seized to Cambodia. As soon as Cambodia gained independence from the French in 1953, Thailand reoccupied the land around Khao Phra Wihaan (which is almost inaccessible from the Cambodian side, anyway).

At the same time Thailand’s Prime Minister/Dictator, Marshal Sarit Thanarat, did much to destabilise the regime of Prince Norodom Sihanouk. The American CIA was also involved in the plot since it feared that Cambodia would fall under Chinese communist influence. In response, in 1961 Cambodia severed diplomatic relations with Thailand.

In 1962 Cambodia appealed to the International Court of Justice in The Hague, who ruled that Khao Phra Wihaan belonged to Cambodia, not Thailand. The Thai army was keen to go to war to maintain sovereignty over the land, but His Majesty The King intervened and told them to respect the court’s decision.

The Thai army never forgot the humiliation, and covertly supported various opposition groups in Cambodia until Prince Sihanouk’s regime was ousted in 1970.

In 1975 the Khmer Rouge came to power in Cambodia. Thai communists set up bases in Cambodia and launched raids jointly with the Khmer Rouge into Thailand. The Chinese government eventually intervened to put a halt to these raids.

In 1979 Vietnam invaded Cambodia to put a halt to the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge. (Some say 2 million Cambodians died under Pol Pot’s regime, others 3 million – we’ll never know.) The leadership of the Khmer Rouge fled to Thailand en masse. Hun Sen was installed by Vietnam as the Prime Minister. He faced a difficult task, opposed by the remnants of the Khmer Rouge, supporters of the Royal family and others. A long civil war ensued, with plenty of aid coming from Thailand for the oppositions. Eventually the United Nations intervened and a general election was held. It was won by the royalists, but an uneasy coalition was formed with Hun Sen’s party. Hun Sen subsequently seized full power in a coup in 1997.

In 2003 there were anti-Thai riots in Cambodia, sparked by a Thai actress’ alleged assertion that Khao Phra Wihaan should belong to Thailand. This was widely reported in the Cambodian press. The Thai embassy was set on fire, and Thai business premises were attacked and destroyed (including those of Thaksin’s Shincorp). (It’s speculated that this is when Thaksin and Hun Sen first met and became friendly.)

Last year Hun Sen provocatively appointed the fugitive criminal Thaksin as “economic advisor” – a move clearly calculated to offend the Thai government and people.

More recently, Hun Sen launched a foul-mouthed tirade against the current Thai Prime Minister on a website.

And now, a massive build up of Cambodian troops along the border.

So there you have it: animosity rooted in centuries of distrust.


Sunday morning coffee concerts at the Wigmore Hall in London are a staid affair. Quite possibly they could be enlivened by ear-splitting amplification, pyrotechnics, spraying water over the audience and stage-diving. Such entertainment was certainly prevalent at last night’s performance by Green Day at Impact Arena on the northern outskirts of Bangkok. And if the staid way that the audience at the Wigmore Hall were replaced by a vast throng of people jumping up and down on the spot, waving their hands in the air, clapping and shouting, well, why not? Of course, I was left with stiff shoulders, aching hands and a hoarse voice, but they say that pain is character-building. I am left wondering, though, why I spent a small fortune for a seat which I didn’t find much occasion to use. It was far more fun being on my feet with everybody else.

The audience at the Wigmore Hall dresses most conservatively. The late-middle aged and elderly turn up in their droves dressed in shirt, tie and jacket or ever-so-tasteful skirt, blouse and knitted cardigan. Here the dress code was equally conservative: black T-shirt and jeans.

Of course, the coffee concerts at the Wigmore Hall conclude with a civilised glass of sherry (or, for the abstemious, a cup of coffee). Here the only refreshment was Singha beer (which you had to pay for) – from one of the sponsors of the concert – not that I imbibed. Sitting for two and a half hours with a full bladder is far from my idea of fun.

As far as I recall, the Wigmore Hall doesn’t explicitly inform its audience that glass bottles, chains, weapons and illegal drugs are banned. Nor does it tell them that cameras are banned “for your safety”. Of course, almost every mobile ‘phone has a built-in camera these days, so at times in front of me I saw a sea of mobile ‘phone screens help up better to capture the artistic moment for posterity in a grainy picture.

As a prelude to the performance a performer dressed in a pink rabbit suit staggered drunkenly across stage clutching a bottle of beer in each hand. I couldn’t tell whether it was Singha, but it certainly demonstrated the perils of the demon drink. It was actually quite funny. Then Green Day took to the stage…

Green Day, Bangkok, 2010, ticket

The performance was both everything I had expected and everything I had hoped for. They performed a full range of their greatest hits, from the early days to the latest album. There were also a couple of songs I didn’t know. Many of the Thai fans knew all the lyrics, and at one point a young man was hauled out of the audience to sign the opening verse of one of the songs. He did amazingly well – and I’m sure it’s an experience he’ll remember for life. It’s not every day you get to perform before a packed arena.

The concert ended with Billie Joe doing a couple of solo numbers with him accompanying himself on acoustic guitar. His voice was a little hoarse after a two and a half hour performance, and the songs were a little bitter-sweet (“Wake Me Up When September Ends”, which is about the death of his father, and “Good Riddance (Time of your Life)”). All in all, for me, a great way to spend an evening.