I had descended with some trepidation. It felt like I was looking for justice, but here in Bangkok there is no justice, only karma. The motorbike taxi driver who had greeted me at the entrance to my condo was particularly feral, he had skin tight jeans and oil stained hands. He reeked of Thai whiskey, cheap cigarettes and fingering. A heavy night weighed down on his eyelids, and I could see the morning sun was not his friend. He drove like a lunatic and decided to have an argument with a girl on his phone while we were speeding on the burning overpass.
Now I am sitting in a soulless shopping mall, listening to a fat, old drunk who is dressed like a clown. He is talking and all I can hope is that this grotesque scene is merely a shadow dancing on the wall of my imagination. “...You see it was the seventies and it was a whole different time back then...”
I’m not exactly sure why I had arranged this meeting with James, it is the third time that I have met him. I suppose I had become fascinated by the twisted turns of our conversations, I don’t know, I have always been drawn to the macabre.
As he pours whiskey from his silver flask into his paper Starbucks cup, I am still trying to figure this all out.
He’s talking again but I’m not really listening. I acknowledge the clangs of the dropping names which animate his anecdotes, but these people are meaningless to me. Who are they? It’s a hollow list of notorious drunks who were all celebrated at some point for being, “such fun.”
James Farnham is now both spiritually and physically redundant, he does little more than consume in order to maintain a veneer of usefulness. He looks like something that might have knocked up Ronald McDonald’s mother at a traveling fair back in the 1960’s. Beneath his rubber mask and bright orange wig, his thinning hair is dyed a sandy brown in order to make him look younger. As he removes the mask and the wig to drink his coffee, I cannot help wondering where the wig ends and his hair begins. I think he likes people looking at him.
He absorbs attention along with everything else. From opulent furniture, to exotic liqueurs; from obscure objet d’art, to young looking boys, everything he hoards becomes indistinguishable. It seems obvious to me that he has replaced the draconian systems of his mother’s regime with a shambles of camp tat and ludicrous hair dye.
His mother lingers.
60 years ago, James Farnham was born to a woman who had been raised by Indian servants in Calcutta. He has mentioned this fact many times. Using a dead woman to describe a 60 year old man seems very odd; however, it is clear that she is ever present in his thoughts. I can see with every artificial gesture he makes that he never questioned the ridiculousness of her etiquettes. I think she is the reason that he absorbs the world around him. Despite his bulky physique, every move betrays his mother’s relentless insistence on efficiency and grace being the mark of civilized people. I’m guessing that he has never challenged these assumptions, and as a result, he has inherited a sense of responsibility to continue his warped pilgrimage of progress towards an imagined state of enlightenment. For James, like his mother, the pinnacle of human development is the ability to correctly use a fork and knife.
I think he has always seen himself as someone who matters.
From what I can gather, his story is one of constant sacrifice and perceived revolution. In his mind the 60’s had changed the world, so now he gets to dress like a clown and hang out with children and hiss the letter “ssss” at them to indicate plurality. The ultimate irony of course is that he cannot spell and has a terrible understanding of grammar, so he frequently makes more mistakes than his students. “Stupid boy, it’s the man-SSSSSSS car, because there is only one of them!”
On the 9th of April in 1969, while studying classics at Bristol university, James had witnessed the maiden flight of Concorde from Filton airfield. From our conversations it is clear that this is a symbolic moment in his life.
Something about technology making the world a better place?
Eventually I find out that he had also met his first wife, Elsie, at the airfield that day, but it was Concorde that had proved to be his most cherished memory. Elsie’s a Welsh singer, a poor man’s Dorothy Squires; so naturally, I’m thinking, she’s a monumental drunk.
To sit in a Starbucks listening to James speak about the 1960’s is oddly disturbing, because the deja vu is earth shattering. It’s all so familiar, even though I was born in the seventies. I’m sure that most English people listening to him will have heard the story before:
Once upon a time, the world was black and white and grey. Men wore dark suits and blank expressions and glasses which denoted rank. Women were known as, “gals,” and they wore light grey dresses and everybody spoke with received pronunciation. Everyone was disinfected with impeccable morals and a strong sense of social order.
One day, around 1963, young people discovered from the Americans that they could earn a fortune selling sex, drugs and rock and roll to each other. Then, as everyone knows, the world exploded into a colourful scene of sexually charged revolution and change; suddenly the whole world was young and free and beautiful - well, according to James.
At some point in the conversation I am sure he has mentioned the phrase, “...and it felt like anything was possible.” I find it hard that people still believe this story, yet it is clear that James really does believe in his perpetual pilgrimage to a civilized utopia. The world would be a better place if only everyone listened to him.
Far from posing any real chance of accord, the old ideologies only exist in opposition to each other, so they play out as circuses and we, in the audience, still hold our breaths for the flying man on the trapeze. James believes he changed the world, and presumably the world owes him a debt of gratitude. His unlimited credit fuels this sense of entitlement and at times, if he drinks enough, you can see the real matter of his wealth - the potential to resort to violence and intimidation.
I am drifting in and out of the conversation, but it doesn’t really matter, I’ve heard it all before.
Posh boys still sing the blues and romanticize about the struggles of the working man. Young girls still drink gin in order to forget that they have a say. The very notion of class war has been assimilated into the accepted norm... It’s something we do when we’re young. James talks of his formative struggles, his absent father and relative financial hardship, and he uses these facts to underscore the empathy he presumes to have with everyone else. Maybe this is the key to his success; I mean, how else does a man get to travel the world and think nothing of dressing as a clown just for fun?
This is all an act.
This is all a pantomime and I can see right through it. He’s pretending to be a poor man made good, a modern Horatio Alger, even the ludicrous pretensions of his mannerisms are carefully concocted. He’s a fraud and this eccentric facade is merely for the benefit of an audience. It is played out for my entertainment and it is nothing more than a desperate attempt to appear controversial. Behind the smoke and mirrors, the big shoes and the striped pants, the struggles and the complex temptations - there is nothing.
At the university he had been a vocal advocate of Marx and the other social utopians. In Bristol he had been relatively poor and he viewed his fellow students through envious eyes. On rainy days he would sit in Clifton, nursing a pint of tepid cider, and talk about the corruption of the ruling class. Then he graduated and went to work in Slough. For James Farnham the sixties were over. University had taught him that it wasn’t the subject you study but the narratives you weave that truly matter; he has fashioned a story that has come to define him. “...You see it was the seventies and it was a whole different time back then...”
And what about the seventies Mr Farnham? Surely that was a halcyon time for grown men to dress like clowns and pedal paedophilia dragged-up as popular youth culture?
It would appear that during the seventies, James Farnham had lived a double life. By day he was a boring suburban suit, by night he was something of a local celebrity, apparently they were swingers him and Elsie, and she was regarded as a notoriously outrageous hostess.
His work was far from exciting, but he took to it very well.
It was the first time that he had actually encountered working men and he didn’t like them at all. Stripped of all their theoretical nobility and literary romanticism, he found them crude and painfully dull. He grew to loathe them. He was working as a middle manager in a factory that made underwear that he never bought. The factory was located in the Slough trading estate, him and Elsie settled in a beautiful new house nearby. James had embraced village life in a small town, would-be conurbation.
Though he is still incredibly shaken by his former employees, like his mother, they linger and he mentions them often. He frequently talks about his negotiations with the unions. He says he always respected them, yet he couldn’t understand them. Perhaps it was the accents? A lot of them were Polish, a fact that he recounts again and again presumably to highlight how cosmopolitan he is, but I think that he had never spoken to men like this before. They had talked of their rights and they hadn’t just asked for more pay and better conditions - they had demanded them. He began to think of them as ungrateful dependents, and he learned to despise them.
Thinking about it, whenever I have met James, he has spoken of the unions with a kind of vitriol that most people save for the Nazis. These rants are impassioned with the language that is employed to start revolutions or wars, and I suppose for James, this was his war. During our conversations it is clear that he has yet reconciled this conflict in his mind, He sees it as a personal affront and he cannot understand the betrayal. After all, he had written many articles and attended many demonstrations to defend the rights of these working people - why were they so intent on holding civilization to ransom?
I have noticed that when he speaks of his employees, he uses the pronouns, “they,” and “them.” In doing so, he distances ‘them’, it is clear to me that he has drawn the lines years ago and has been at war ever since.
So, as a result, I always try and steer him away from talking about the seventies when he’s been drinking; which means that I am always trying to steer him away from talking about the seventies.
It’s lunchtime in a shopping mall and he is already starting to slur his words. He has been performing on stage with some children in a local beauty pageant. He has another show to do later this afternoon and I have to admit I really want to see it with my own eyes.
Tell me more about the seventies Mr Farnham.
He has previously informed me that he had employed the language of socialism in order to trick the unions into signing away their jobs. He had spoken of, “fairness,” and “equality,” while secretly preparing to import cheaper labour, people from overseas; people who were desperate and therefore less concerned about pay and conditions. The plan had been successful, and for his ingenuity, he was awarded with a promotion. If anyone objected to his tactic he labelled them a racist - thereby silencing any tangible opposition. In doing this, he had successfully subverted the term racism and eroded the concept beyond recognition; indeed, talking to him he is very conscious of this. He is not at all embarrassed about exploiting any divisions in order to maintain productivity and further his career. James climbed the career ladder and led the company towards an ever elusive concept of efficiency.
Eventually this required him to move production to Thailand, where people worked all day for less than the price of a latte from Starbucks. The company has now moved to Amata, an industrial park to the east of Bangkok that seems desperate to manufacture a community. It’s a lot quieter than Slough, less noise and more space. James likes it because he has three female personal staff who are beautiful and do everything he asks without question. He says they know their place.“...Huhurgh Hurgh, Mmmwell, you see-of course-sit was the seventies you see, n’it was a wHOOOOOOOOle different time back then...”
I have become conscious that he has repeated himself several times, I can see the warning signs.
His life in the seventies was one of deception. He lived with Elsie in a newly built house near Wexham, and to many he was the embodiment of a happily married man. Behind the scenes, he tells me that he was incredibly promiscuous; he has spoken fondly of erotic encounters in public places. How much of this is actually true is unclear. However, the relish with which he describes frantic wanks while wedged against old porcelain soaked in piss certainly rings true. It’s clear that in his booze addled mind he loved these encounters more than his wife. I can’t say for sure, but I’m guessing one of the reasons that he had married Elsie was that she was one of the few women with whom he felt comfortable lying. And I’m guessing that they were drunk a lot.
True, I am playing the omniscient narrator, I can only speculate on their marriage. I piece together the information given to me and embellish what lies in between. In my defense, I have spent many hours sifting through the fragments of memories and notes from my talks with James; because, frankly, she’s a mystery. He’s mentioned her many times; however, she remains anonymous. I know the sketch of her character but nothing else. He also evades all of my attempts to elaborate on his son and his daughter with Elsie...
He tells me about the young looking boy who is fucking him now. He looks mischievous when he talks about this, occasionally he assumes a distanced glaze in his eyes that refuses to make contact with mine. He shifts his baulk in the low chair and ridiculously colourful suit, and I become aware that he is aroused just thinking about his latest lover.
I’m not sure if anyone has ever experienced talking to a semi aroused, drunken clown in a busy shopping mall before, as moments go, it’s pretty awkward.
He is distracted and his eyes are searching for some stimulation and they come to rest upon the slender hips of our geeky-looking waiter. James’ eyelids squint a gluttonous moment of gratification, and in a hideously Freudian moment, his conversation ambles towards obscenity as he recounts the tales of his new lover’s sexual exploits. “I love to feel his rock-hard cock inside me...”
I try very hard not to care, or even to let his words take effect, but there is something primal in imagining true horror. Already my overactive imagination has concocted a revolting picture of smooth, tanned skin greedily exploring the folds of James’ over-indulged rump. I shudder at the thought of his muscle-weak corpulence receiving the attention and the care of anyone, but why should I care? My prissy judgement says more about me than it does about him.
It strikes me that I am being hypocritical about this. In asking myself the question, “why would anyone share such intimate information with virtual strangers?” The irony is not lost on me. I have looked back at my own blogs, postings and articles, and I cannot fully understand my motivations for discussing my sexuality. Is it pure narcissism? Is it indulgence? I’ve not ruled these explanations out; however, I maintain that human sexuality is a natural aspect of our lives that frequently gets distorted.
I feel to some degree that my sexuality has been hijacked. I’m not sure of the exact moment it happened, but all of a sudden, I felt the language of gay discourse no longer included me. It began to serve a privileged elite who publicly proclaimed their love and sought to marginalize the cruising that has, at its heart, an authentic engagement with the sexuality of men. Being gay for me isn’t about Conran interiors and tasteful soft furnishings, it’s about sucking cock.
We maintain that discussing our sexualities in public forums is vulgar, yet in silencing these aspects of our character we endure many disruptions to our daily lives.
That being said, it would be disingenuous of me to deny that I too have noticed the slender waist of the geeky waiter. If I am being completely honest I register his physique and in a moment I picture a passionate coupling and I taste the salt of his sweat and feel the coarseness of his hair between my lips. I suppose the only difference in this moment between James and myself is that I do not vocalize the fantasy.
“I was married for over 10 years, so now I’ve decided to follow the path of least resistance.” I have heard this line repeated many times before. It always precedes a lengthy, intimate description of his relish at fucking young looking boys, all of whom have no agency in the narrative.
When James describes his new lover to me, it is a fractured image. It is compartmentalized beyond all recognition. It is a picture comprising of, “large hands,” “strong arms,” and of course a, “long, thick cock.” I piece these things together in my mind and cannot see the person. I see a jumble of stereotypes and cliches that do not settle into anything other than a broken picture of subjective assumptions.
“...He’s 17 but he looks much younger, I just wanted to have some fun, I wasn’t looking for love or anything, he seduced me...” The thing with James is that he will never profess to seeking anyone’s approval, and yet at this moment this is exactly what he is doing. It’s almost as if he sees me as some kind of moral judge and jury, like I am the unspoken voice of his forgotten conscience. The really sad thing is I don’t care what he does. And then it happens, I become aware of the fact that he is no longer talking to me, he is conducting a conversation with something else, something that is not in the here and now. He is justifying his actions to a memory.
In Thailand, I have been lucky enough to witness many bizarre things, a lot of which, people in the UK might find very odd. I have witnessed my class of teenage boys dress up as girls, and erotically dance to Lady GaGa songs for the entertainment of a visiting football team. I have sat in the studio of a televised singing competition and watched young Thai teenagers dress up as children and erotically dance to the applause of their families. I’m going to go out on a limb here and propose that the sexualization of young people is not traditionally frowned upon. Indeed, many conversations I have with different people here would indicate that a persons’ sexuality is frequently identified with being young.
If you are shocked by the notion that over-sexualizing young people is pretty normal, then you need look no further than western popular youth culture. Sexual liberation, with all the fun of the teenage party, is intrinsically linked to our consumption. We consume the enthusiasm of youth and subvert it into an endless popularity contest. Cool is a currency that nobody can ever really cash in. Look at the pictures of a 15 year old Kate Moss or Britney Spears – it’s sex. If you’re looking at the work of Terry Richardson, for example, the hipster liberals will completely fetishize young looking naked girls, particularly those who will have sex with sleazy old photographers. We may loathe men like Terry Richardson, but they certainly hold a mirror up to some men’s sexuality.
Perhaps this is all down to the baby-boomers like James, the pioneers of our beloved sixties revolution.
So watching James, wearing a pair of oversized, striped dungarees and a rubber mask that is the stuff of snuff porn, bouncing around a stage in a shopping mall is really not as disturbing as it seems when I have typed it. In fact, even as the young Thai kids, over dressed in sexy teenage fashion, get up and start dancing with him, I don’t feel in the slightest bit unsettled. To be honest their parents couldn’t be more proud. It reminds me of those times in the UK when parents used to send their children on to shows like, “Jim’ll’ fix it,” and “Top of the Pops.” Wasn’t that the seventies? Seriously, is there anything more obviously wrong in the world than Jimi Savile’s tracksuit? Perhaps it was a whole different time back then.
“The boy is on his way now...” James is drunk and he is beginning to frighten me. He is reaching that moment of equilibrium that precedes the flip into madness. It is the time when he expresses a sober piece of factual information. It’s at that point I know he has had too much to drink. It is a statement that is devoid of all nostalgia and artifice, it is a tangible piece of information that signals a spiral into the horrific reality of his existence. It’s almost as if James reaches the point where he becomes aware of his own ridiculousness and all pretensions aside, he sees himself as the drunken old queen dressed as a clown.
He looks beyond me and talks to the voices in his own head. “The thing about being a professional actor in Thailand, is that nobody ever really takes you very seriously.”
He shifts in the seat and sways his booze filled latte from side to side. His chins judder in my general direction and emphasize his discomfort, he is sweating and his hair dye is running down the back of his neck. “They just think I’m some sort of fucking joke, I used to know Cary Grant you know, and here I am reduced to the role of a children’s entertainer!”
To be fair to James, even though his voice is raised, there are no children around who can understand what he is saying. Also, in the presence of the children, he is genuinely well behaved. There is something quite comforting in the way he gently interacts with them, I would say that there is nothing more traditionally English than a drunken old clown making children laugh. I find nothing inappropriate about his contact with the children. Which is a tragedy in itself. When did all this become so normalized? What does concern me at this particular moment, is that I am not a child, and therefore I am a legitimate target for his twisted drunken madness. He is riddled with whiskey and unfulfilled ambition, I have to keep telling myself that he isn’t really talking to me.
His change of mood is instantaneous.
Unwittingly I have provoked him, he leans forward in short controlled jabs and spits his words at me as if they were back-handed slaps.
“...I just want a laugh, don’t you understand that? I just want some fun... You’re too fucking boring... My boy likes to have fun...” His face has contorted into a mask of rage and his words have lost their charm and been transformed into a venomous strike of contempt. He hisses all the “Sssssss” sounds into a protracted lash and he whips me with words intended to wound. He reminds me of a horrendously toxic character from Sesame Street. “... You think you’re ssSSssoh much better than me, but you’re boring... Sssssitting there with your fucking green tea! You can’t judge me, who the fuck do you think you are? Ssssstuck up little queen!”
I try to placate him as best I can, I am used to these outbursts from him, they are viscous and filled with rage, but they are never really directed at me. They are directed at a ghost, some might call it the remnant of a conscience.
“...Tha’s the trouble with all you European boysSSSsss, all think you’re sSSSsomeone sSSSSpecial, well you’re not. You’re nobody, you’re just fucking boring, I don’t have to put up with all your shit, Asian boysSSSSs are sSSSo much more fun, they know a good thing when they see it...”
It is at that moment that his eye is caught by a smiling young boy who is walking towards the cafe. The boy looks so young and content. He looks like a young teenager, barely 14 years old, yet he moves with a self confidence that tells me he is most definitely older. He reaches out and tenderly places a hand on James’s shoulder. Call me crazy, but I just don’t get the attraction at all, what is the glue between these two people? Is it just about the money?
“It’s time to go Mister, you drunk.” It’s odd to see someone so young have power over someone so angry. It is instantly clear that he has re-negotiated this afternoon’s performance, I’m pleased about that, the thought of James being on stage in this state is truly frightening.
“Ah, yes, thank heavens you’re here, this chap over here is becoming a bore.” He shakes the back of his hand in my direction. “I deal with people like you everyday, you’re all full of shit, if you ever came for a job at my company then you wouldn’t get it, that’s the problem with people like you, you’re all full of shit!”
He leaves without paying his bill and so I end up reluctantly buying his lunch. As I watch him wobble off being assisted by a teenage boy, I can’t help feeling sorry for him. The initial shock of his verbal attacks has worn off and I feel sad that life can be so cruel. He doesn’t even get to fulfill his obligations as a clown. James has been trained to rule the world and it’s a world that no longer needs him.
Like many Europeans, I was born to question the world around me. I inherited an inquisitive nature that tempted my forefathers out from the imprisonment of a metaphorical cave and into the sunlight. From an early age I wanted to know the form behind the shadow. This has always been a most treacherous and lonely path, it is a journey towards enlightenment that has no rational meaning. I see in James something akin to this, we share a common root despite our differences. Beneath the boozy, lecherous persona, James wants to strive out into the world and bring a rational order to the chaos. So consumed by his own self righteous motives, he cannot concede to the meaninglessness of his enterprise.
Indeed, where has this inquisitiveness brought any of us?
We have become a desperate diaspora of Morriseys and Cowells, a civilization that points our fingers at the world and criticizes everything and anything, while ignoring the fact that our time is over. It doesn’t occur to us that we come across as clowns, spouting our stories of reasonable order while instigating pandemonium.
We learn everything and nothing, so our missionaries travel the world speaking of a universal peace, and our armies look for nothing but war. Is it any wonder that we in the west are frequently misunderstood?
I see in James the logical end to every pilgrimage, it is a promised land with two faces. One is jovial and fun, the other is vicious and cruel.