Friday 25 January 2013

Why I am Never Going to Thailand

Gaolled for Criticising Royalty

This week the Thai journalist Somyot Prueksakasemsuk calmly made a ‘victory’ sign as he was led off, in chains, to begin an eleven-year sentence for criticising the Thai monarchy. Although the Thais' script is the prettiest in the world, their statutory liberties are not.

I don’t know enough about Thai history to understand why many subjects of the monarch, King Bhumibol, adulate him. Perhaps they simply can’t imagine him not being there. He was crowned under the Great White Umbrella of State, holding the Royal Utensils, as long ago as 1946. 

His Majesty King Bhumibol is either very stupid or very clever. In 2005 he deliberately invited public criticism, which led immediately to hundreds of arrests.  Ha ha ha! He loves firemarms, and as a youth kept a carbine, a Sten gun, and two automatic pistols in his bedroom. He used to do target practice with his elder brother, King Ananda Mahidol, until the latter was found mysteriously dead (of gunshot wounds).  

Mrs and Mr Bhumibol PhD PhD PhD etc, love slaves?
Bhumibol boasts that he studied Latin and Greek Classics in the Lausanne Gymnasium. [He hankers after intellectual credibility, holding the world record for honorary doctorates, ten of them from the same Thai university]. Perhaps he became obsessed by the myth of the Theban fratricides, Eteocles and Polynices.  Perhaps it was in Lausanne that he acquired his professed love of poetry.  

I fear that it is actually my duty here to criticise the Thai royal family, even if it is a criminal offence under Thai law. With a royal cousin, His Serene Highness Chakrabandh Pensiri, Bhumibol once wrote several songs. I have read those translated into English here:

They are abysmal. But two features stand out (see excerpts below). First, the groovy Thai Cousins can’t get enough of the poetic figure known as ‘servitium amoris’, characteristic of the Latin elegiac love poets. Since the mode of production in late Republican Rome was actually slavery, begging to be chained up, burnt and flogged by your dominatrix must have triggered real associations, as Prof. T.P. Wiseman (rumoured to be the model for Dumbledore in Harry Potter) argued in his brilliant book on Catullus.

The ‘slavery of love’ trope is, however, difficult to take seriously in the context of Bhumibol and his wife (see fig.) Moreover, his use of it is shocking given that Bangkok is the global capital of human trafficking. Thailand is the easiest place in the world to find enslaved (often under-age) prostitutes.

Just as bad is the comparison of the singers’ narrative voices with those of people without food in ‘Hungry Men’s Blues’. Applying this metaphor takes some gall given (a) the levels of poverty which persist in rural Thailand, and (b) Bhumibol’s status as the World’s Richest Royal, with a fortune estimated at $35 billion.

Today’s exercise in practical criticism is the sole, tiny act of solidarity with Somyot Prueksakasemsuk I can muster. If anyone knows the address of his gaol please let me know so I can send him something-–anything--more interesting to read.

Poems by the Thai Royal Family
Love Over Again

A slave of your love
Forever I will remain.
Heaven up above
Won't let me love in vain.

Sweet Words

The song you sing me
Has sweetest words and melody.
It's love-laden flare
That keeps my heart all aflame.
I wonder if you really care
Or is it just a game
Of teasing poor me
Ever to be your slave of love?

The Hungry Men’s Blues

We've got the Hungry Men's Blues.
You'll be hungry too, if you're in this band.
Don't you think that our music is grand?
We've got the Hungry Men's Blues.
You've eaten now all of you.
We'd like to eat with you too.

Saturday 19 January 2013

Luther, the Greek Resistance, and Tomato Sauce

Erfurt under the Weight of History

I am used to being surrounded by history. In England I live ten minutes away from the Burford churchyard where Oliver Cromwell had the Levellers executed in 1649. I actually attended church there until the curate told me atheists weren’t welcome.  Until  recently, I also drove on my way to work past Runnymede, where King John signed the momentous Great Charter of Liberties in 1215.

 Luther thinks up some Articles
But a week based in Erfurt has left me feeling that I have been hit over the head by the entire history not just of Europe but of the world.

I live on the street featuring the oldest synagogue in central Europe (c. 1100). I am attached to the same university and indeed the same Faculty where Martin Luther became a radical Protestant and took his Masters.  Max Weber, who (with Marx and Durkheim) invented sociology, and without whom we would not understand ancient slavery, was born up the road in 1864.

Nikos Beloyannis
20th-century Erfurt got nasty. It was here that the incineration furnaces for Auschwitz and other death camps were made by a local engineering company. After WW II, Erfurt, as part of East Germany, was handed over to the Soviet Union. But the oven company (now dissolved)  was improbably renamed Maschinenfabrik Nikos Beloyannis in honour of a famous Greek resistance fighter and Communist who had escaped a concentration camp. The name change only lasted three years. I imagine the Erfurtians struggled to pronounce it.

23 years after reunification, the DDR still haunts the city. People over forty don’t smile back at well-meaning foreigners (or at least not at me). Signs asking you to shake the snow off your boots before entering premises ! or leave the toilet clean ! have that bossy old German Democratic Republic exclamation mark after them!  In corners of one supermarket I found some mysterious containers for sale marked ‘DDR Tomaten-Sosse!’.  

Just imagine! There was a communist condiment so beloved that people still crave it under free market capitalism! Since the said new economic wonder-system can’t even cope with the local demand for Heinz Baked Beans, of which the father-of-my-children scoffed the very last remaining central German tin today, my DDR-sauce is about to come in handy. 

After acquiring sufficient Deutsch courage in the local ale house, I am about to try it, crowning the only pig-free sausage I have located since arriving in Germany.

Sunday 13 January 2013

Boars, Bores, and Aristotle

Heroic Sow Teaches Young to Wallow

The flu I suffered in transit to Germany made me delirious. My paracetamol-fuelled dreams featured rampaging wild boars, leading to a bout of feverish e-research in a Cologne hotel. 

The Legion that Beat Up Boudicca
The sus scrofa is everywhere once you emerge from the Eurotunnel:  they snort in forests and glisten in pate and pub signage; they ooze on butchers’ counters. Boars have recently been reintroduced onto UK farms after being extinct in the UK for centuries, and escapees are pioneering wild communities in several counties. But these freedom-fighting bristly porcines now face culling because they outrageously propose to do the things all pigs do (and did for millennia in Britain before the Middle Ages)—root around, turn ground into mud, and defend their piglets from predators.

Daddy, where's my milk?
It is true that Brits have historical reason to fear the boar. The Roman legion that put down Boudicca’s revolt, the XXth, used the boar as its emblem. As a classical scholar I have been signally neglectful of my intellectual responsibilities in not stressing the importance of boars. 

We must dispel the falsehood that boars make good fathers, propounded in the books about the Gruffalo and his child, whose tusked physiognomies are clearly modelled on the sus scrofa.  It is the mothers who are impressive. They are almost unique in the mammalian world because communities of females UNRELATED BY BLOOD but who RESPECT each other come together to build communities. 

Theseus attacks Unarmed Single Mother
We must rewrite the record to acknowledge that most legendary boars were actually heroic females. The fierce, rampaging ones are usually  nursing mothers, which means that the Erymanthian boar slaughtered by Heracles probably left little babies to expire without their milk. So did the Calydonian swine, target of the most famous mythical hunting expedition of all, adding a fresh feminist focus to a tale which already featured the prowess of the athletic heroine Atalanta. But the Calydonian she-boar was herself part of a glorious dynasty, as the daughter of no less a sow than the Crommyonian Sow killed by Theseus.  

The only Greek mythical boar likely to have been male was the one into which the thuggish war-god Ares turned himself when he decided to kill Adonis, who had stolen his girlfriend Aphrodite. This interests me because my first husband was called Ares.

Ares (left) attacks Love-Rival Adonis
And just in case you do ever encounter a bristly sow in a Deep Dark Wood, there is a defensive weapon far more effective than a hunting rifle. It is a copy of Aristotle’s Logic.  A student at Queen’s College, Oxford, was long ago attacked by a boar in a forest east of the town. He rammed the book he happened to be reading—the Logic—into the boar’s gaping jaws, crying ‘Graecum Est’ (to be translated as something like ‘This is the Greek response to you!’). 
Weapon against Boars and Bores

This could work on self-important, aggressive (or boring) humans as well as boars, and indeed suggests a new way of stopping people whose papers go on too long at conferences. Remind me to put a copy in my handbag before the next conference session I chair.

Sunday 6 January 2013

Exit Pursuing a Boar

What did the Sus scrofa say to the Canis lupus familiaris? (The text of inscription runs out here--suggested supplements welcome)

After picking up a nasty dose of stomach flu while visiting members of the sororial branch of her tribe in Gaul, Edith went to Cologne in Germania Inferior on her way to eastern Germany. After visiting the Archaeological Museum there and seeing this image of a wild boar (sus scrofa) facing down a dog, she became feverish and delirious. She then disappeared in the direction of the Black Forest without having written her blog. We are hopeful that she will have been found by next week.