Songkram

You may have seen the news – it’s really tense here in Thailand at the moment. The situation threatens to spiral out of control at the slightest provocation. People are lurking on every street corner with whatever weapons they can get their hands on. It saddens me to say this of my beloved Thailand, but even children – yes, children – are shooting each other indiscriminately. The Home Office has issued a warning to British people that they shouldn’t travel to Thailand unless armed with water pistols.

Yes, the Thai ‘Songkram’ festival began today, and it is typically celebrated with the reckless dissemination of water. Koh Phi Phi has turned into Water Fight Island. A water pistol is a must if you want to stand a chance of defending yourself against unprovoked attacks from slap-happy Thais. Loose affiliations are formed and broken; farang and Thais were united by a common purpose as we helped defend our guest-house from ice-bucket attacks.

—–

One of the biggest bummers about being human is that we’re never satisfied. A cup of tea is always better with a slice of toast. A slice of toast is always improved by melting some cheese on it. Melted cheddar is improved with a splash of Worcester sauce. I can’t think of a single activity, emotion or product that couldn’t be made better or worse with the addition or subtraction of something else. For example, while typing this sentence I am also listening to an iPod and half-watching a frankly bizarre Japanese cartoon on Thai TV.

What I mean to say is, it is very difficult to appreciate the present moment just as it is. Many of what should have been peak experiences in my life were completely lost on me at the time. Case in point: playing a gig to just shy of ten thousand people, supporting the Pogues in Dublin. I spent most of the gig trying to decide if the tastelessness of buying wine in a cardboard box can be forgiven if it is purchased to consume with your family over the Christmas period, when excessive consumption causes everything to taste of everything else anyway. It works the other way around, too – you often don’t realise how shitty a particular period was for you until it’s over. In my case, 2005. That year can fuck right off. Anyway.

I managed to appreciate a present moment earlier today. I was walking barefoot down a white sand beach into warm turquoise water under blue skies with the hot sun on my back, about to swim out to a coral reef, snorkel in hand, ready to harass some tropical fish. It suddenly struck me: Things could not be better. I actually said to myself, ‘This is a perfect moment – appreciate it!’

I trod on a sharp stone exactly a quarter of a second later and hurt my foot. There is nothing to learn from this.

—–

Blogging is difficult when you’re living a lifestyle of tropical minimalism. I eat, I sleep, I read, I swim. I’m in good shape; swimming and snorkelling every day does that. I can hold my breath for two minutes and do 50 press-ups, although probably not at the same time. I hope I won’t return to being a hopelessly lazy slob when I get back to England.

The only slightly unusual thing I did recently was to narrowly avoid contributing to a man’s death while getting a haircut. Maybe you’ve heard of Libet’s Half-Second Delay. I have a book on the subject, but it’s a couple of thousand miles away at the bottom of one of many cardboard boxes which my worldly possessions call home. From memory – and I hope I don’t misrepresent it – a scientist named Libet conducted a series of experiments in which he wired up a subject’s brain in such a way as to monitor its electrical activity. Having done this, he asked them to say ‘now’ and to raise their hand at a moment decided by them. The burst of electrical activity in the brain at the moment of saying ‘now’ is clear to see.

What was curious was, when the person said ‘now’ – the moment they articulated their conscious decision – the activity of the brain seemed to suggest it had already prepared the signals to the nerve endings in the subject’s hand about half a second before.

‘Well, it would’, was my first instinct when I first read of Libet’s Half-Second Delay. But half a second is a long time, longer than most people seemed to expect. This is a crude explanation of the experiment, and if you’ve read this far, you might like to look up a scientifically-worded account of the phenomenon. Not on Wikipedia!

I don’t think Libet himself ascribed any philosophical consequences for his experiment, but since then dozens of high-minded articles, academic papers and stoned conversations have been inspired by its apparently calamitous impact on the proponents of free will. Opponents to this idea point to the fact that Libet’s experiments also showed that a subject could over-rule their own decisions at the last moment. This is crucial to consider!

This experiment popped into my head not because I was sitting at the top of a mountain smoking Thailand’s finest and chanting ‘Om’, but because I was sitting idly in a barbershop waiting to get my hair cut. There was a Thai guy already in the chair, so I had to wait a long time. Thais are generally very careful about their appearance, and the hairdresser was scraping delicately around his ears, neck and eyes with a cut-throat razor.

My mind was blank. My eyes fell on a mosquito. It seemed to be taunting me, the little bastard. It paused in front of my nose, did a little figure-of-eight, used its wings to flap out ‘ner-ner ne ner-ner’ and came in for the sting. I rolled my neck, squinted, and raised my hands to take my vengeance on my insect tormentor with a resounding clap.

As my hands were hurtling towards each other and the mosquito, I had a sudden and vivid understanding of the consequences of a loud and sudden release of energy for my fellow customer. Namely, blood spurting from one or both of his carotid arteries, the shrieks of a hairdresser holding a bloodied razor blade providing a soundtrack. My brain sent my nerve endings a message meaning nothing other than ‘Abort! Abort!’, and my hands met silently. Manslaughter averted! The mosquito bit the palm of my hand and flew out the door.

—–

I wish my sub-conscious had made such an intervention when we walked into a travel agent’s shop on Koh Tao about a week ago and asked for tickets to Phuket. We took an overnight boat out of Koh Tao. We were loosely assigned berths on the starboard of the poop deck. I slept for about five minutes. When we reached dry land, we took a coach to Phuket. I slept for about five minutes. Then it took us two hours to find our hotel. It was a good hotel for many reasons, and worth the effort of finding, but is also the only positive thing I can find to say about Phuket. It’s full of fat old cunts buying themselves as much focky-focky as their grossly obese bodies can cope with. Every bar is dedicated to this commerce; every bar looks exactly the same: The Sweethearts Bar, The Love Bar, The Good Time Love You Longtime Bar, etc. We’d foolishly paid for three nights in advance. Not much else to say.

We’re currently on Koh Phi-Phi, which is lovely. We went to the beach where they filmed The Beach. If the beach could speak, it would say ‘leave me alone’. We should have done. Nas is doing some scuba diving. I’m not an enthusiast; I find all the equipment claustrophobic. I’m going rock-climbing instead. We’re going to Koh Lanta in a few days before heading to Malaysia.

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5 Responses to Songkram

  1. pete485 says:

    Ah, Phuket! Not been yet, but you’ve confirmed my worst suspicions.

    In any case, Happy Songkran!!

  2. Ray says:

    Outstanding post. Enjoyable, entertaining and yet thought provoking.

    It reminded me of some elderly Americans I used to know. No matter what life threw at them, they seemed to be content through extreme ups and extreme downs. Their philosophy was expressed as; “This too will pass”. If it’s a good time, enjoy, but don’t get to used to it. If things are awful, then hang on in there; things will pick up. I’ve lost touch with them & they’ve probably died by now, but your story brought back fond memories of a couple of gentlefolk. Thanks.

    I remember reading about the Libet stuff at the time & being reminded of some tests done earlier by the British military that seemed to show some fighter pilots instinctively “knew” how to manoevre in combat before consciously deciding. That said, since nobody knows what time or consciousness is, I guess there is still plenty of room for yack. Can it be true that the road to hell is paved with good intentions? Some might say that Libet tells us the tarmac has already been rolled out.

    As for background on Libet; how about links to a paper from somebody at UCL & a tutorial from Cambridge University? Try

    http://cmbi.bjmu.edu.cn/news/report/2005/neuro/10.pdf

    http://www.cudos.ac.uk/LATER.swf

    Neither outfit is too shabby & they get my vote over Wikipoo any day.

  3. Celia says:

    Another great read! 🙂

  4. Serena says:

    Oh that reminds me….you seen Mr. Cass there yet?

    😉

  5. charlotte says:

    Best. Post. Ever. 😀

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