Letter From Bangkok


It was the summer of 1977, the year of Virginia Wade, Annie Hall and, perhaps more for the boys, a whole new movie experience making its way over from the other side of the Atlantic entitled, simply, ‘Star Wars’.

My sister, writing as a guest columnist during my one and only attempt at keeping a diary, makes a few comments about her friends and teachers, speculates wildly upon my as yet wholly innocent love-life, and signs off: ‘with luv ‘n’ lipstick, Rufus xxx’

That particular diary was a somewhat short-lived project petering out after two weeks and approximately nine pages. ‘Rufus’, however, proved to be a prolific penstress and, nearly thirty years on, she has blossomed into the effusive, the effervescent, the profound - and the seemingly world-renowned – blog-maiden known as ‘meanwhile here in France…’ Having at last, after so long, invited me to return a guest column of my own (albeit now electronically and from six and a half thousand miles away), I find myself searching for a suitable nom de plume. In the hope of fitting in with the established template I make a hasty decision to become ‘surely only in Bangkok…’ for reasons that will, I hope, become obvious as, having had a good day within a good week, I try to give you a flavour of my experience here…

The apartment in which I spent the last year had become untenable. Not only was my own personal menagerie of ants and cockroaches spiralling out of all control, but I had acquired a new neighbour from one of the less bonny regions of Scotland who, along with his young Thai girlfriend, combined a penchant for vigorous physical activity at anti-social hours with a quite dreadful taste in music. Another major problem was the water pump on the roof of the next apartment block. From being an intermittent whiner it had become a 24/7 screamer, and the management had refused to do anything to alleviate its (and my) agony. There was no doubt about it; I had to find a new place.

Enlisting the help of one of my students, Ruaychai, and his indomitable father, ‘Ruaychai’s dad’, I luckily found myself falling in love with the very first apartment we looked at. A penthouse overlooking four or five miles of the Chao Phraya river with views stretching sixty miles away to Chonburi in the South-East and goodness knows where to the West. Three minutes walk to a riverboat stop from which the orange-flag boat would transport me to the BTS skytrain a mile away, and fifteen minutes walk from Chinatown on one side and Bangkok’s main railway terminus, Hua Lumphong, on the other. Not a cockroach to be seen, it was a done deal.

The owner undertook to give the apartment a new coat of paint, to fix up that which might be in need of fixing up, and he also helped me to sort out the local maid and laundry services.

After an excellent bowl of wide, white noodle soup with fried fishballs in the market at the foot of the tower block (45p each), Ruaychai and dad took me to a dingy warehouse in a backstreet of Chinatown where, to celebrate, I purchased a really quite sensationally beautiful Patek Phillipe watch for about £24. There are many levels of fake goods here, and Ruaychai’s dad assures me that this is the absolute top of the scale. It certainly looks and feels like the business with its dapper silver-grey face and its exuberant automatic winding mechanism; nothing like the tatty rip-off watches found in Pat Pong which undiscerning tourists will eventually end up discarding with a sense of quiet relief when, inevitably after a few days, they totally cease to function.

And now, ensconced in my new palace, with sheets on the beds, books in the bookcase, pictures on the walls, and fresh lychees and mangosteens battling it out in the fruit bowl, I turn my attention towards the imminent concerts I am to be conducting for The Bangkok Symphony Orchestra.

Back in the olden days when I was based in the UK and working as a violinist with various orchestral and chamber music outfits, I usually had a general overview of what my working life was going to consist of a year or so in advance. Here it doesn’t really work like that and, with rehearsals starting tomorrow for the first of two concerts, I am overjoyed to receive some timely official clarification of where we are at as regards said performances.

It is in fact next month’s concert that has been moved back by a day to accommodate HRH Princess Galyani’s wish to attend, not next week’s; and it is next week’s concert that has seen the Mozart C minor piano concerto K491 morph resplendently into Beethoven’s ‘Emperor’ concerto.

I did enjoy studying the Mozart. It is a dark, sombre and subtle work and, even though I have had quite a lot of experience with Mozart concerti as a player, I had found it more musically elusive than I had expected. I had nonetheless thought that I was starting to come to grips with it, but, hey, none of that matters now!

A little man will be over with the Beethoven score shortly…

Today, I also get to teach my delightful Japanese student, Shunsuke. His progress on the violin is truly heart-warming and, almost single-handedly amongst my small collection of students, he vindicates my strongly held belief that instrumental technique will (given a basic grasp) pretty much develop of its own accord if one’s musical goals are held with enough conviction. We spend the lesson working on some violin duets that he has to perform next week with a school-friend; I play the second violin part, and have as much fun playing as I can remember.

At the lesson’s end, Shunsuke changes the subject and very seriously asks if I am able to give him some real, actual and important advice from outside of the violinistic arena. He has been given a part in his International School’s summer-term production of the musical ‘Oliver!’, and he needs some help on the costume front. I ask him which of the dramatic roles he has been persuaded to tackle.

‘Boy.’, comes the concise, sweet and disarmingly unambiguous response.

Both Colours (green, red, white), and Items (trousers, socks, shirt, beret) for the boys’ costumes have already been specified by the school; what Shunsuke wants to know is where, in my opinion, would be the best place to buy the material and have the costume made up.

I can thankfully assure you that the irony and incongruity of one of Fagin’s lads having his urchin’s rags made to measure at a Sukhumvit tailor’s sweat-shop is not lost upon my student, but I anyway end up recommending him to the shop where I had my last batch of shirts made.

We then suddenly find ourselves embarking on the afternoon’s second lesson. Images of camels in strange yet close proximity to the eyes of needles flit ominously through my brain as, in what will amount to a far greater challenge than the mere impartation of musical knowledge, we set out to locate Shunsuke’s inner Cockney in a quest to add some real South London authenticity to his already enthusiastic rendition of ‘Consider yourself, at home….’

A knock on the door signifies that my writing time is up. His Imperial Majesty has arrived and is in sore need of attention prior to tomorrow’s rehearsal.

If there is sufficient interest and my sister is amenable, I will be happy to contribute the odd letter from Bangkok on a sporadic basis. Until such time I leave you with the traditional ancient Thai salutation for signing off on a blog entry. (Please note Thai is a ‘tonal’ language, and that my use of italics denotes ‘high’ tone)

‘Lubhaan lip tiik!’

Leo. (xxx)



becca wrote: Your entire family are artistic geniuses (sp? forgetting the plural of genius ... surely not genii) ... what could Christmas gatherings be like?!

wonderful and terrible! (like most families?) lots of singing round the piano, great food, sulks, laughter and tears.

I love the way talent runs in families.P.S. Has the letter lost some italics along the way (see note about how to pronounce the Thai sign-off)?

yes, I'm afraid you have to imagine the italics, I don't know how to make them come out on blogger. Any tips? the author wasn't too pleased either!

If you want a word (or section of text) to appear in italics, the way to do it is to enclose it in a special notation.Here is an example, but you must substitute square brackets [ and ] for angled brackets . If I do the notation correctly, you will simply see some italicised text!Like this:[i]Some italicised text[/i]But you should find that Blogger gives you an even easier way of doing it. When you write your post in Blogger, I advise you click on "Compose", because then you can see what you're doing more easily.Just above the place where you enter your text, there are two little "drop-downs" saying "Font" and "Normal Size". To the right of these are the letters "b" and "i".They represent "bold" and "italic". You highlight the text you want to treat, then click "b" or "i" to make it bold or italic. You can also change the colour, font and size of the text, using the aforementioned drop-downs and the little letter T with a palette next to it. The green blob allows you to create links, and you can also do numbered lists, bullet points and spellchecking and various other word-processing bits and bobs, using the other options.Have fun, and let me know if any probs!

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