“[E]ssentially the camera makes everyone a tourist in other people’s reality, and eventually in one’s own.”
First published in 1973, Susan Sontag's On Photography speaks to us with even more force today about what cameras and the mass reproduction of images have done to our appreciation of ourselves and our worlds. And she offers this insightful spin on our lemming compulsion to photograph our experiences again and again and then share these images with as many people as possible:
"The possession of a camera can inspire something akin to lust. And like all credible forms of lust, it cannot be satisfied: first, because the possibilities of photography are infinite; and, second, because the project is finally self-devouring. The attempts by photographers to bolster up a depleted sense of reality contribute to the depletion."
Though Sontag couldn't have foreseen how this effect might be exaggerated by the fact that cameras would become ubiquitous, she saw how the process was already having profound effects on our world. In her conclusions to On Photography, she says that
"The powers of photography have in effect de-Platonized our understanding of reality, making it less and less plausible to reflect upon our experience according to the distinction between images and things, between copies and originals."
Recent items I've posted on this site -- "Colonialized: The Peak Experience" and "McStuff and the triumph of democratic mediocritization" -- offer related reflections upon my own experiences of Hong Kong's Victoria Peak, the Mona Lisa, whale sharks, the universe and my self.
The above image is attributed only to "anon" on the Internet.
The Peak Experience.
In a recent post, I reflected on the strange compulsion to record every iota of our individual and collective experience and then share it with everyone else, each of whom is trying to do the same. How can anyone enjoy an unmediated experience of night-time Hong Kong from Victoria Peak, for example? (“Colonialized: The Peak Experience”)
There I stood at the rail on the viewing platform, getting a many-elbowed massage from others who had mounted an assault on the Peak Experience. I stood my ground, trying for a contemplative appreciation of what should be an amazing sight, wishing all the camera flashes weren’t destroying my night vision and wondering how these ranks of lemming photographers thought their cellphone flashes were going to further illuminate the city lying hundreds of meters below.
The Mona Lisa Experience.
Some years ago I was wandering about in the Louvre when it suddenly occurred to me: This very museum was home to one of the most widely recognized of all the great works of Western culture. Best have a look, I thought. Take an up close and personal peek at this phenomenon.
But there was no getting close to this thing. It was railed off and surrounded by a mob. As with views of the Hong Kong colonial light-creature (see earlier post), furthermore, you had to stand tippy-toes to see over other admirers standing four and five deep, not to mention risk blindness from the barrage of photographic flashes. The Mona Lisa’s famous smile, from what I could see, which was very little, looked more like a wince.
So scratch the Mona Lisa. Sara figured her YouTube Victoria Peak Experience beat “the real thing,” and I got more juice out of magazine repros of the Mona Lisa than I ever did from the real McCoy.
A cultural icon? Sure. McMona Lisa.
The Whale Shark Experience.
Swimming with whale sharks can be awesome. It’s best, I’d say, when the encounter is unexpected and you’re sharing it with a couple of other divers at most. It’s even better when these divers don’t have cameras (or, at least in the old days, when they’ve run out of film). But maybe that’s just me.
Too often these days, especially on liveaboard dive trips dedicated to finding whale sharks, you get gangs of divers all plunging into the water together going flash-flash, often getting mainly pix of other divers going flash-flash. The shark lurks in the background, figuring it’s past time, if only it can find a way to break clear of all its groupies, to migrate back to deep water.
Hey, but progress marches on. Several years ago, enterprising sports-diving entrepreneurs, not wanting to leave the Whale Shark Experience to chance, started using spotter planes around Western Australia’s Nigaloo Reef. Having drawn a bead on the sharks, they radioed fast boats which then sped off to dump loads of divers as close as possible to the sharks, no doubt massively freaking out all but the hammiest of these creatures.
Not what I’d call close encounters with untamed nature.
Since then, however, commercial imperatives and the triumph of the “fair’s fair, down with elitism; let’s democratize every damned thing there is” meme has gone way beyond the Nigaloo Experience.
Take Macau, for instance. An enthusiasm for glitzy casinos on the part of mostly non-locals has already all but erased the charming Sino-Portuguese colonial architecture and distinctive local way of life. And the boom continues. The 2,900-room Venetian, e.g., the Las Vegas Venetian’s sister development, boasts the largest gambling area in the world. Hell, it keeps a captive Venice on the third floor, complete with canals, gondolas and gondoliers, even a faux sky that remains benign no matter what the weather outside. This is a new, improved Venice with no rain and no floods and shiny big name-brand boutiques on all sides.
So how do you beat that? Easy. Toss some whale sharks in a big aquarium and invite happy crowds of adventurers to come goggle at them. New casino-related projects include funparks complete with whale shark enclosures so visitors can have a big adventure snapping photos of this largest of all fish species, beautiful creatures that, till recently, had remained rarely sighted and mysterious.
“Twenty years ago, scientists did not know much about what whale sharks ate, where they spent their time or how they reproduced. Historically, seeing a whale shark in the wild was a rare experience, even for veteran divers. Jacques Cousteau reportedly encountered only two whale sharks his whole life.” (“How to Love a Whale Shark,” Scientific American)
But now every Tom, Dick and Harry with the price of a Macau vacation can snap any number of whale shark photos and show them to friends back home who have already seen them a hundred times before on TV and YouTube. Borrr-ing. (Casino developers in Singapore are planning something similar.)
Never mind. Democratization and anti-elitism rools, OK! And who am I to suggest these experiences soon become degraded for both those privileged with the time and money to do it right and for those on a budget. Not to mention for the whale sharks.
Untamed nature for Everyman? Sure. McWhale Sharks.
The Me, Me, Me Experience. Where are we really going with all this? Good question. We’re already photographing every square centimeter of Mars and much of the rest of the solar system. Which is nothing, considering the fact there are untold billions of galaxies in our universe, and each galaxy includes billions of stars and quite a number of solar systems.
The Hubble telescope, for one, is peering into deep space to find that even the apparently emptiest bit of our sky harbors thousands upon thousands of galaxies, more of them the deeper you peer. This video shows what some are describing as the most important image ever recorded in human history.
Whoa. McMe. I guess that puts all those galaxies and stuff in perspective, eh?
The Afterthought Experience.
We’re witnessing the triumph of the “fair’s fair, down with elitism; let’s democratize every damned thing there is” meme. Meanwhile we distance ourselves from our own experience in the ongoing commodification and mass distribution of everything including ourselves.
“Does that make any sense at all?” Sara asks me.
“It probably needs more editing,” I tell her. “Plus I think I might have something like a hangover.”
"Selfie," a recent neologism, appears destined for the standard dictionaries.
"Mediacratization" is of my own coinage, a portmanteau of "mediate" and "mediocritization" hot off the press, and probably doomed to oblivion. "Mass mediacratization begets mediocritization," an aphorism for our times, and, again, hot off the press.
Related insights from Susan Sontag: "Tourists in our own and each others' realities."
"These tourist snappers are killing the Mona Lisa" (The Guardian)
Jonathan Kang, Kuroshio Sea of the Okinawa Churaumi Aquarium, Okinawa, Japan
Whale shark images by Ashley J. Boyd. (Boyd, an Australian resident in Thailand, was long one of Southeast Asia’s leading underwater photographers. A highly qualified diving instructor and teacher of underwater photography, Ashley has logged close to 4,000 dives. His photographs have been widely published in books, magazines, calendars and postcards, while his underwater video has been used in advertising and TV. He has collaborated with Collin Piprell on dozens of articles and three books (all of them now out of print):
The other morning on the BTS Skytrain I found myself bemused at the sight of nearly every one of my fellow passengers in thrall to digital devices. Each was oblivious to all the others as they pawed away at Facebook pages, e-mails, tweets, games, music and phone calls. One young renegade was actually reading a book.
More than bemused, I was struck by the sense I was living in a science-fiction story. But then, resisting the impulse to check my own iPhone, which was tucked inside my computer bag, I was struck by a thought. (The kind of thing that can happen when you divorce yourself, however briefly, from the digital web.*) I had a sudden recollection of the London-Oxford train, circa late 1970s, bearing its ranks of dark-suited, bowler-hatted men from the City, each absorbed in his own copy of The Times of London.
Not totally absorbed, mind you. Occasionally indignant squalls would thrash through the forest of newsprint in face of the rogue colonial invader (me) in his torn Lee corduroy jacket and scruffy jeans, who would like as not be reading a volume of essays by some notorious Continental thinker, some crackpot wog from the other side of the Channel.
Then, as on the BTS now, I sometimes felt myself a dilettante anthropologist at large in another world. But where the London-Oxford train was merely amusing, why did I find the Skytrain scenario also chilling? Was it an apprehension of what these ever-accelerating changes might portend for a more distant future that suddenly seemed not so distant after all?
Or maybe I just felt excluded. I should have whipped out my own smartphone and got engaged, eh? Like, get with it, man. I could’ve plugged myself into a Heidegger lecture. Sure. Or browsed the Web for a photo of British business people on a commuter train that I could use to illustrate a blog post that no one would ever look at.
Hey! What a good idea.
Related expressions of unease:
People with phones on BTS from the Bangkok Post.
Businessmen on train from the Independent.
* Getting struck by a thought may not be without its dangers. See, e.g., The Apocalypse (http://thisistheapocalypse.com).
Below us lies a massive growth of porous luminosity, its cellular steel and glass exoskeleton inhabited by various species of soft light. A colossal marine organism has emerged to colonize the harborside. Brighter creatures enjoy mutualistic relations with the colonial host. Some of them, Logo spp., are neural parasites that prey on humans.
Sara and I stand atop the Peak Tower with a bunch of other creatures, not yet colonial but through the wonders of digital technology fast evolving that way. We stand four or five deep at the railing, cameras and phones held high overhead, obsessively flash-flashing at the softly throbbing creature below us for some important reason that no one knows, driven by a primordial imperative to record innumerable images of this thing we’ve been led to, and then share them by means of social networking until, ideally, every sentient being in the universe has witnessed the giant light-creature on the shore.
Lo, and verily. And eventually, as we did once before this day, we come to stand in a queue of thousands to enter the tram, this time to be delivered back down from the Peak for reabsorption by the light creature. As we descend, it becomes progressively less apparent that this thing is in fact one organism.
During our precipitous descent, we catch glimpses up through bright high-rise canyons where members of the colony dwell.
Sara later reveals the fact she had already experienced the Peak Experience on YouTube that very morning. And then, just to rub it in, she say she did this thing without suffering interminable waits in line for the tram and pushy mobs on the viewing platform.
“Jasus, jasus,” I tell her. “We could’ve stayed in Bangkok and saved the airfare, not to mention the hours spent standing in queue.”
“Yes,” she says. “But it freshens the mind to visit different places.”
And to record every square centimeter of the buggers, and take the same photos millions of other travelers have and try to share these experiences with someone, except that everyone has already experienced them, at least on YouTube.
“Did that video really convey the Experience?” I ask her.
“No. It was much better. They took it when there was some special light show.”
Whatever. As Sara pointed out, there was plenty more to enjoy in Hong Kong.
See "McStuff and the triumph of democratic mediacrization" for more on these ideas.
Related insights from Susan Sontag: "Tourists in our own and each others' realities."
Notes. The illustration doesn't begin to do justice to the Victoria Peak Experience.
The other shot is from the Kowloon side of the harbor on the 118th floor of the Ritz Carleton, atop the ICC Building. The Ozone is reportedly the highest bar in the world. (I believe the tall building in the top left corner of the first photo is the ICC Building.)
"The solitude of writing is ... quite frightening. It's close sometimes to madness, one just disappears for a day and loses touch." Nadine Gordimer
"It's nervous work. The state you need to write in is the state that others are paying large sums to get rid of." Shirley Hazzard
It's often said that the writing of novels can be a symptom, maybe even a cause, of insanity.
Perhaps a person does have to be mad to write novels, to spend so much time alone spinning realities that no one shares till, God grant, readers enter the process. (Novelists who make enough money are of course exempt. In fact a lucky few, J.K. Rowling and Dan Brown among them, are considered very clearly sane indeed.)
Not so widely recognized is the danger reading novels was once thought to pose to one's mental health.
Bangkok-based crime writer Christopher G. Moore has recently posted an interesting item regarding changing conceptions of madness over the years. His post included this 19th-century flyer.
"Novel reading" is listed among ways one could gain admittance to the Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum. Directly beneath that appears "nymphomania." That was probably only for reasons of alphabetical order, yet there is a more substantial connection between reading novels and nymphomania. Some nineteenth-century authorities believed that reading novels, in itself dangerous to your mental health, might also contribute to nymphomania. Here's a poignant note from a case study reported in Nymphomania: A History, by Carol Groneman (reviewed in the New York Times):
'Mrs. R., described as a short, stout, recently widowed twenty-year-old woman with a lively disposition, came to Dr. Bostwick out of desperation. She explained, "If I can't be relieved of this agonizing condition, I am certain that the struggle between my moral sense and lascivious longings must soon send me to the grave." She blamed reading novels and attending gay parties in her youth as the cause of "my imagination [being] wrought up to the highest point."'
Ms Groneman also reports a case where a woman so afflicted was advised by her doctor to give up writing novels.
As Chris Moore suggests, however, fashions in madness come and go. Given the number of people who appear to be at work or about to begin work on novels these days, those inclined to conformism might fear that not writing a book was a sign of serious abnormality. In an article entitled "Writers should take a year off, and give us all a break," Colin Robinson says this:
'According to Google, some 130m titles have been published since the first books took form on the desks of monks. This overwhelming catalogue is today being supplemented at a rate never before seen in the history of the book. Another industry statistician, Bowker, reports that nearly 1.8m new titles were published in 2012, an increase of half a million in just three years.'
Not so long ago, Julian Barnes could offer this advice: "It's easy, after all, not to be a writer. Most people aren't writers, and very little harm comes to them."
No longer true, eh? It is no longer easy not to be a writer, and ever-larger portions of our populations must face concomitant threats to their well-being, large dollops of money rarely being one of these.
In conclusion, I'll offer a contrarian perspective from Graham Greene:
“Writing is a form of therapy; sometimes I wonder how all those who do not write, compose or paint can manage to escape the madness, melancholia, the panic and fear which is inherent in a human situation.”
Sometimes I like to work in coffee shops. Spending too much time alone in my office back home can leave me bushed. It’s also true that some cafés, at least, offer just the right type of distraction. The establishments I favor tend to have regular appearances of eye candy upon which I might rest my weary eyes — much like a nanny app that keeps me looking away from my computer the way I’m supposed to, warding off the dreaded “computer eye syndrome.”
But resting my eyes this day is proving a challenge. The woman at a table across the aisle is holding a baby that doesn’t look old enough to have gone over the wall at the maternity ward. She fusses around with it looking nearly as pleased as if this item were the latest iGadget from Apple. The same mother also has a toddler who gets down off his chair from time to time to march around squeaking loudly in squeaky shoes, thereby eliciting admiring smiles from his mother but not from me. A couple of Thai women also beam at him every time; mind you, Thai women reflexively dote on anybody less than a meter tall no matter what other qualities that individual might display.
Meanwhile, farther along against the wall opposite, we have two women, one of them from the Whitney Houston school of conversation and in my opinion more suited to calling hogs, preferably in some Midwestern American cornfield far removed from here. And at the table just in front of me, a beautiful Thai woman is interviewing a beautiful Indian woman for a job in art management or something. They both speak immaculate English, the Indian much too loudly, maybe to compete with the Whitney Houston clone. No doubt infected by years of art studies in countries around the world, she also waves her arms about until you have to look closely to make sure she isn’t in fact Italian. As they both became progressively more enthused by things artistic, the Thai, who has also studied abroad, becomes uncharacteristically animated, given her native cultural background, and this appears to incite the Indian job applicant to ever greater heights of gesticulatory excess, which in turn has a reciprocal effect on her putative employer till the two of them together suggest an outbreak of epidemic epilepsy. This is all pretty fascinating, nearly impossible to ignore, and eventually I get to thinking that working at home isn’t as bad a prospect as it first seemed. So I chug my tea and hit the road.
Yeah, yeah. I know. Sara keeps telling me these joints aren’t built merely for my own pleasure, and there’s no rule that says everyone has to conform to my specs of what’s fittin’ and what ain’t. I have my own office at home, where I can be as disagreeable as I like without encroaching on the happiness of others. I know.
"The squeaking soon cast a pall over the caf” Vincent Van Gogh, Night Café, 1888. Oil on canvas, 2′ 4 1/2″ X 3′. Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven (bequest of Stephen Carlton Clark)
"Cool people awaiting the invention of the MacBook Pro." Benny Andrews (1930-2006) New York Cafe, n.d., lithograph, 13 x 17 1/2 in., 1986.
Government surveillance is a public service; E. Snowden is a self-serving traitor.
Government surveillance is evil; E. Snowden is a heroic champion of our individual freedoms and dignity.
The truth may well lie somewhere between two poles. At least if you acknowledge that we conduct healthy societies and polities in the tension between ideals of perfect security and perfect freedom, perfect harmony and a Hobbesian state of nature, imperatives of the collective good and those of individual self-expression.
Like it or lump it, feel as indignant as you like, this is the human condition. We live our lives in that tension, always for better or worse at any given time, approaching one pole till contrary forces swing the pendulum back towards the opposite pole, and then back again. For your average citizen — unless you’re currently engaged in the business of either storming barricades or erecting them — the trick may lie in recognizing this and relaxing a bit.
From this perspective Snowden and the NSA are merely fulfilling roles in a perennial drama, like re-enactments of some myth of the origin. Except that it would be nice to think that, however slowly, the larger historical plot is gradually approaching some more ideal situation. Though this approach itself, fated never to arrive, is probably the best we’ll ever manage as individuals or collectives.
In any case, governments and security agencies are never going to be able to do their jobs without secrecy and without cutting ethical and moral corners from time to time. I believe that is simple fact. Though it doesn't mean they should be given carte blanche to carry on as they will. These operations will always (one hopes) be opposed by civil libertarians who appeal to laws and individual rights. Where their activities break the law, they'll have to face the consequences (which may even include changes to the law). Sometimes, as with Snowden, their activities will cause much inconvenience and real damage to government operations and, arguably, to the country as a whole.
At the same time, as I’ve suggested elsewhere, modern communications technology and the prevailing politics of fear arguably entail a totalitarian logic, and may well incite ever-more radical attempts to thwart concomitant social and political developments. (Whoa. That’s a mouthful.)
Might this in part explain Snowden’s motives? Glenn Greenwald's Guardian interview indicates it does.
The drawing is from the excellent website xkcd.
I'm probably over-reacting, but it's already getting harder these days to take pride in thinking of yourself as a writer, since so can anybody with the price of a computer and an Internet connection. You aren't even permitted to die penniless and hungry in proper romantic style, since everyone will merely ask why you did that. Why didn't you just take steps to flog your stuff?
Even if you decide you are going to flog your stuff, you aren't permitted the dignity of having others do it for you. You're expected to cruise up and down the digital highways and byways hawking the shit at the top of your lungs, just as though you were offloading fresh fruit in the soi outside, here. F*** me. And nobody's going to hear you anyway, what with all the hordes of other 'writers' going up and down, some of them with PA systems on their digital pickup trucks, hawking fish and fruit and f*** knows what, all of it having just scored Amazon's Breakout Bananas of the Month Award, or some such.
I could go on.
Hey, can you imagine? Collin's censoring my f****** deathless prose, just as though he were an upstanding citizen, something we all know is not the case.
Because he’s just another writer. Worse, he’s a writer who refuses to get out there in the street and do the necessary.
Image by Hugh MacLeod used with permission.
This is the longest I’ve neglected my blog since I started it about three years ago.
Call it writer’s block, or simple lack of sleep. Or maybe this book is really a classic hobologoistic project that should be presented to the jury now, with a view to burning the ms. before I waste any more of my life on it.
Taoist hobologoism: “Stuff happens. Some of it we call books. Better to contain these than let them lead to readers and critics, eh?” (Few people realize that Taoism originated in Canada.) See “Inspirational hobologoist aphorisms & epigrams."
Everybody’s a storyteller. What makes me think I’m not a writer? These days everyone’s a writer.
Not only that, it’s as easy to publish your stuff as it is to mail a letter. Writers of the older school, meanwhile, some of whom entertained hopes of earning a living from their products, are more and more often hearing it said that artists of all sorts should reconcile themselves to working for nothing. (See this recent article, or this one from a year ago.)
So guilt at composing a blog post instead of working on my current novel may represent a more complex plot failure. I may also be losing the thread when it comes to my own personal narrative. The sense of who I am, and why and so on. (Or, as I’ve suggested, maybe I just need a good night’s sleep.)
Who we are. I am this, and I am that. Basically, though, I am my story. I am not my brain or my body or my mind or my soul or my consciousness. And where am I? I am co-extensive with my universe, to the extent I can’t talk about a universe that lies outside what I have cognitively appropriated. That goes just as surely for the reductivist ideologue, the hardest-core logico-empiricist Child of the Enlightenment, and so I say and so it friggin’ well is, eh? In all humility, I say these things.
* An alternative, rather more reductionist view: "I am my connectome." Connectomics explores our neural wiring in remarkable detail for some uncertain ends.
* Or perhaps I am my language (or my languages).
* Or I could lapse into sufficient mindfulness of my situation that I recognize I am merely the ever-fleeting sum of contingent determinations. Whoa! Thus all of this will pass, including the prospect of writing a whole series of novels for no discernible reason or, at least, no money. Dependent origination rools!
* Or I may be nothing but a blocked novelist succumbing to avoidance behavior, in this case composing a rambling, largely pointless blog post. I should get out of here, maybe go for a walk. I should just relax, go with the flow.
Outsourcing ourselves. Here’s a good idea. I am myself a personal narrative and, with the modular commodification of self, I can simply outsource my narrative. And why not? All of us are pretty much letting corporate and other murky entities ghost-write our individual and collective selves. Why fight it? Why bother writing sprightly tomes that run darker with such themes as undercurrents. Why spoil things?
And such are the thoughts that arise on this lazy morning when I could be doing something with my life instead. Yeah. I should probably go shopping.
Work for money? You must be kidding. I’ll conclude with my perhaps Quixotic decision not to accept a recent offer for the first volume of my science-fiction series with an option on the novels to follow. In fact I was flattered, and tempted to say okay. But the publisher wanted global English-language rights at a price more appropriate to Canadian rights only.
Of course I may come to regret that decision. Lapsing into mixed metaphors, I’m liable to find myself standing here in these hard times with nothing but dick in hand, rather than with all those birds in a bush I hankered after. Or words to that effect. Reviewing those words, in fact, I’m led to believe it may be a good thing I can’t get it up to work on the novel right now.
I should be more self-confident, Sara says. Plus all this writing is keeping me off the street, so it can’t be all bad, eh?
By the way, avoidance behavior can be good for a writer. See “New frontiers in creative foreplay.”
What have tilefish and superyacht owners got in common?
Collin posed this question at the end of his last post, "Pharaonic fish and flash fatcats." And now he has invited me, Jack Shackaway, who remains unbound by considerations of political correctness, to explain.
The following passages are from a novel in progress starring yours truly — even written by yours truly though Collin will no doubt try to claim otherwise. The book is a work of fiction, but I'm real and the things described in this chapter, at least, actually happened. You could call it straight-up reportage. And here, something that Collin would never do, I insert a smiley-face: :) Hah!
“Japanieces!” Des told me.
We were standing in a large open-air hot pool high on a jungly hillside on the island of Langkawi, in Malaysia, palm fronds silouetted against a big moon overhead, bright strings of colored lights festooning the bar below. Only a few yards away, four luscious japanieces-to-be stood immersed to their bikini-tops.
“Oh, boy!” Des added.
Rich yacht owners have lots of nieces. You tend to find these items draped about their boats, many of them in advanced states of undress and sometimes, not often, more than half the age of their hosts. One theory has it that an inordinate fondness for nieces is the only reason someone who is otherwise of sound mind would ever buy such an expensive toy as a multi-million-dollar boat. In fact, according to Des, this amounts to no more than an expensive dick-enlargement operation.
“But we get to play for free,” he added. “God is good.” The mere sight of this congregation of Japanese office girls giggling and blushing away in the hot pool had instantly telegraphed a clear vision of the near future.
“You are staying in this hotel?” asked the cutest Japanese girl of all.
Wild surmise swept the pool like an early monsoon gale. “You mean, the big white boat?” asked the second and third cutest ones. “The big white boat down in the bay?” asked the fourth, who was also cute, never mind there was only one yacht of any description anchored down there, and where else would you put a yacht anyway?
“Yeah. That’s right.”
Their eyes grew as huge as Japanese eyes could get, no doubt in the attempt to accommodate the immensity of this concept, this enormous amazing motor yacht way down below in the bay and the fact that we slept on it. The water in the hot pool began to boil all around us as the girls crowded closer. In no time we were on a first-name basis with Tomoko, Hiroko, Sachi and Yumiko.
“Want a drink?” I asked.
“Yes!” they chorused.
“And Bob’s your uncle,” said Des, with a broken-toothed grin, although I think he really meant to say that we were their uncles, for now, and these fine young japanieces should just relax and let us look after everything.
A couple of musicians were beating the shit out of a piano and drums while a bass guitarist measured the carnage. This gang of three plus a singer and trumpeter rushed from one piece to another, laying a vaguely bossa nova beat over everything from Bach to Bachman-Turner Overdrive, charging along as though they wanted to finish up and skedaddle before the cops arrived.
Des seemed just about as antsy. “Boy, those drinks look good, all those little parasols and slices of pineapple. Cherries and shit. Don’t let them get warm, now. That’s it. Down the hatch. There’s lots more of this stuff on the boat. Oh, my. Yes. On the yacht.” Once more, he pointed out the big plate-glass bar window to where Boomboom II sat far below on the water. “Cheers!” he said.
“Kampai,” the girls responded, which, as they had already told us, was Japanese for “cheers.”
“Japaneices, man.” Des whispered at me, waggling his eyebrows in a very discreet manner. “We got japaneices by the boatload. Oh, boy.”
Forget about how busted up he was, Des was a ladies’ man. Pretty soon he was talking to Tomoko in an anodyne semi-pidgin. “I never get rich from photography,” I heard him say, “but I am free.”
“Yes,” Tomoko said, squinting in the way women who are nearly blind and haven’t installed their contact lenses tend to squint. “I see.”
Even smart women like this Japanese office girl generally chose to overlook the essential banality of it all. Somehow, in some way unclear to me, Des’s whole manner and appearance signaled “good for the gene pool.” It probably related to his obvious capacity to survive anything existence could throw at him. Des had that look you see in veteran rodeo riders. National Hockey League goalies used to have it, back in the days before face masks. The look that said, “Do your damnedest; I’ve sustained lots worse and I’m still truckin’.” Nevertheless, Desmond’s most recent girlfriend had left. Bryanni said she still loved him, only she couldn’t stand watching him die the Death of a Thousand Boo-boos.
But he had big eyes and long eyelashes, which he batted, bimbo-wise, and no compunctions about telling a woman anything he thought she might want to hear, and right now he was making out like a bandit.
Meanwhile I was doing my thing, batting my own eyes and explaining to Sachi and Hiroko how I wrote travel articles and suchlike. Just to make a living. But I was really a novelist, when it came right down to it. An artist, really, though I didn’t use that exact word.
“Ah, so,” Sachi said. “What is your name again?”
“Jack. Jack Shackaway.”
“Ah, so,” Hiroko also said, maybe thinking I didn’t believe they were really Japanese.
They were asking where they could buy my books and I was waffling when Des came to the rescue.
“That’s right. And he’s a war correspondent too. Both of us are. Partners to the end. Brothers in arms.”
“Oh, yeah,” I said. “That’s right.” I’d been trying to forget our latest adventure.
Tomoko and Hiroko headed off for the bathroom, and Des, dropping the pidgin and maybe forgetting Yumiko probably didn’t understand one-tenth of what he was saying, took to telling her, “Yeah, you see, if I build up my photo stock just a bit more—flesh out Malaysia and so on—and with these agencies flogging my stuff in the States and Europe, I figure on retiring before I’m forty-five. Okay?”
Pretty little frown lines formed between her perfectly plucked brows. “Ah,” she told him. “So.”
“Wow,” added Tomoko. She and Hiroko had returned to the table and also pretended to know what Des was talking about, which was something Des himself did not.
“It takes discipline. A freelance photojournalist has to face temptation all the time. You know what I mean? But you can’t give in. You have to have goals, man, and stick to them.”
And Des was sticking pretty close to Yumiko, set to score this particular goal. And maybe still set to score another with Tomoko, since I knew he was capable of adopting any attitude it took to get laid, and maybe two at once. Attitudes, that is. New Age, Marxist-Leninism—whatever they wanted to hear. Even abject middle-class propriety, if that’s what it took, as seemed to be the case with Yumi.
“So.” She tried to jog his memory. “You sleep on the big white boat?”
That’s when we should have made our move—told the ladies to go pack their overnight bags and we’d hightail it for the boat. But Des had maybe had one too many drinks, trying to hurry the girls along, and now he decided the band needed help. In fact, the band really sucked, he told us right in the middle of their bossa nova rendition of “Hotel California.”
“The band really sucks,” he announced again, and he went up to this very band and asked whether he could sit in for the next number.
As a piano player, at least when he was in full stride, as he happened to be at this moment, Des was a cross between Fats Waller and someone trying to demolish a whole piano with his bare hands. As a matter of fact, Des did have his own personal martial arts style, which he’d learned at the same place he learned to play the piano, which was a succession of low-life bars around the world. It was called tae kwan whoa, he informed me once, just before he broke both a guardrail and his foot with one lightning kick. His piano-playing style, on the other hand, had no name, even though it could get a joint rocking under just the right circumstances which these weren’t.
I noticed the japanieces were already looking nervous about their new friends, when the crew from Boomboom II burst upon the scene like a nineteenth-century press gang raiding a Bristol tavern. ...
“There is no God.” Des proclaimed.
QED. There we were, japanieceless aboard Boomboom II and on our way to Burma...
So that's how Des and I got to appreciate on a gut level -- however briefly -- in what way tilefish and super-yacht owners are same-same.
Collin seems to be planning other tilefish-related posts. I can't say what those will be.
I hope you noticed the expression "japanieces," which is a neologism coined by none other than me no matter what Collin might tell you about its provenance.
Have a look at Kicking Dogs, an earlier novel starring me, written by me, hijacked by Collin, out of print and currently languishing on the Internet as an utterly neglected e-book. Collin is even worse at promoting books than he is at writing them.
Photo of Amanputri by J. Everingham.
J.B.S. Haldane, perhaps more of a wag than most of his ilk, famously suggested that "The Creator, if He exists, has an inordinate fondness for beetles."