A great book to read during a time when it’s hard to travel. Bangkok Days investigates various nooks and crannies of the Big Mango. Osborne is “on the lam” in Bangkok a place he can live cheaply. (Still possible?) He makes this discovery while visiting to have dental work done.
“The days were empty by design. I didn’t have a job; I was on the lam, as old American gangsters had it. A perfect phrase. The lam. It means “headlong flight,” according to my Webster’s dictionary. Lamming, to run away.”
The book is meandering and unstructured, but Osborne is a good observer and writer so this doesn’t matter. His days are not completely empty, he becomes a flâneur, a man who wanders observing society – through the malls, nightlife districts and less accessible neighbourhoods.
“This part of Rattanakosin just north of the canal which empties into the river is one of the few remnants of the old city that the authorities, no doubt in a fit of absentmindedness, have neglected to bulldoze. The surfaces of the houses are a vertical maze of cracks and puzzles, in which cicadas are lodged as if they have mistaken it for a man-made forest.”
Osborne covers the much talked about topic of middle-to-old-aged Western men who have gone to Bangkok for one final hurrah before the big empty. He does this well without moral sermonising or crass lionising of his friends’ libertine ways. If there is any glue which holds the narrative together it comes from the bonds formed at the Primrose Apartments, where Osborne initially stays in Bangkok. There he meets his cast of escapees, running from their life of invisibility in the West. The most developed character is McGinnis.
“McGinnis was six foot seven. He towered in doorways, in hotel lobbies, in the light of streetlamps. There was something wonderfully sinister there, and I love sinister men. A sinister man doesn’t just walk down a street, he rolls down it like a superior ball bearing. A sinister man cannot be amiable, but he can be good company. Despite his association with the science of air-conditioning, McGinnis was also subtly aristocratic and refined, while doing nothing better with his life than selling mass-produced cooling units.”
Then there is Dennis, a decrepit retired bank manager from Perth, with the best lines about how Bangkok is the place to be, where one can feel alive again.
“Dennis often said to me that Bangkok reminded him of an ancient Roman city, at least as we imagine them to have been. Cities of polytheistic lust. Nothing, he added, could be further removed from the cities of Anglophonia, which were based not on a love of pleasure but on a worship of power.”
New York, by contrast, where Osborne, a pom, lived for twenty years always sounds like hell when he mentions it.
“…not sure I have much talent,” I replied, quite truthfully as it happened. “And if I did have some, I wouldn’t go around talking about it. I come from New York, where everyone does that, even if they have no talent whatsoever. It makes me want to vomit. I think I came here to escape exactly that.”
Osborne travels to Malaysia and Macau for journalistic missions and tries to relate these episodes back to Bangkok. I found this an indulgence and the editor should have cut the non-Bangkok parts. Towards the end of the book, he takes a break from the libertines to visit a priest and nun helping addicts in a slum. He observes that a lammer like himself feels sorry for these missionaries alone and stuck in a foreign slum forever – but at the same time, they feel sorry for the likes of him and his purposeless brethren. This reminded me of Graham Greene’s “A Burnt-Out Case” where the worldly man seeks refuge with priests in a leper colony. Osborne has been compared with Greene. (Stop comparing Osbourne to Greene, please! He’s nothing like him.) In interviews, Osbourne has said he’s a long way from Greene’s level yet but is flattered by the comparison. I haven’t read Osborne’s novels – I have high hopes for them (and was later disappointed.)
He relates a couple of his own sexual escapades but there is nothing too raunchy. He sleeps with a prostitute at the Primrose, an introduction to the kind of pleasure that is on offer in Bangkok.
“There is a word in Thai, sanuk, which embodies the idea of enjoying life to the full as a duty. It is usually translated as “fun” or “pleasure,” but it is really untranslatable. Porntip was a bearer of sanuk. She came every fourth day for a month, with a curious punctuality, as if she was coming upriver between classes.”
Whether we Westerners should or can enjoy a sanuk lifestyle is a debate for the ages. Can it be of benefit or just damage us and those around us? If there is anybody around us.
My favourite tale is of him buying bathroom plugs. He rings his upper-class Thai landlady but she has no idea how to say plug in her language – or refuses to share this knowledge with a foreigner who couldn’t possibly be able to use Thai words. He eventually finds out that Thai for plug is ‘pluk’. But at the store, they can’t understand him – he has the tone wrong. Eventually, he resorts to pointing and gets his plug. He goes through the process of buying a plug multiple times before he can pronounce “pluk” well enough for the store assistant to get one right away. He then has a bunch of plugs he’ll never use, but hey one word of Thai mastered, however many thousand to go. The same happens with a chicken dish, he practices saying it (and eating it) every day for a week before Thais can understand him. He recognises that not understanding the language provides a kind of protective cocoon. I know what he is on about. In China, it was reassuring when I finally learnt to understand conversations. Mainland Chinese shouted so I thought they were constantly fighting, in fact, they were discussing lunch. However, from time to time I’d pick up on rude comments directed my way. I remember being at the Summer Palace and a mother warning her child (in jest?) to stay away from me or I’d kidnap him and take him to America (the home of all Westerners obviously)… On Lamma Island in Hong Kong, a Mainlander said to his girlfriend, “Look at the size of the great white hunter’s feet!” If you don’t know the language, you don’t have to hear these things. But enough about me…read Bangkok Days.
Edit May 2023: I’m travelling to Bangkok tomorrow for the first time in twenty years. As for Osbourne, after enjoying this book his novels have been a disappointment. I haven’t got through any of them, what I have read I found slow, stuffy and mannered.