The truth about bar photography

Nick Nostitz achieved a measure of notoriety at the beginning of this century when his book, Patpong: Bangkok’s Twilight Zone was published.

The book was the first of a kind, full of candid photographs inside and outside, of the go-go bar scene of Patpong.

In an October 2000 interview with METRO magazine, Nostitz said he was asked why he had made the nightlife scene look so ugly? “Well, it is! A lot of people live in denial. Why do you think they use red lights? It makes the skin look good and inviting. Take away the red light with a camera flash and you see the scars, the blotches, the flabby skin.”

Anyone who has bar-fined Miss World and walked out into the bright lights of the evening and then wondered why he’s sauntering down a back soi with Magilla Gorilla on his arm, even though he’s only had three Singha’s, can relate to Nostitz’s statement.

Certainly, when I was involved with a glossy magazine called Pattaya by Night, it was amazing to see just how many go-go dancers who appeared to look great wrapped around a chrome pole really didn’t photograph very well. Truth be told, most don’t look good in the harsh light of day or the flash of the camera bulb.

As Nostitz rightly pointed out, most journalists work on the exploitation factor of the nightlife scene. ‘For me, that goes both ways, the girls exploit the men, too, but that’s a small thing…it goes way beyond prostitution, because there are so many unique factors in Bangkok: 1) the illusion of freedom and happiness; 2) Bangkok’s different from other cities with a lot of prostitutes, it’s a very safe city. You can be drunk at 4am in the middle of the road and nothing will happen to you. That creates a strange atmosphere. It looks so soft, happy and free. 3) it’s Asia, but you don’t need to have culture shock. You have a façade of western amenities.’

Just substitute the word ‘Pattaya’ for ‘Bangkok’ and the comments are pretty much applicable to our little sleaze-pit by the sea.

One of the chapters of his book dealt with regular, professional prostitutes. Nostitz said, ‘Girls go to a bar to make money, but they get addicted. There’s an illusion of freedom. The exchange of money is a very superficial thing. There are many cases where the woman gives it for free, or supports the man.’

As Nostitz noted, ‘A lot of people want to record the nightlife scene, but don’t realise how much it takes from you. You lose a lot in an emotional sense.’

We stopped producing the Pattaya by Night magazine after five issues, which spread between January 2006 and July 2009. Although a financial success, it had become more like work than an enjoyable pastime, particularly for the photographer.

As with many things in life there is a law of diminishing returns, be they monetary, physical, or emotional. For us, Pattaya by Night had become a burden on the physical and emotional levels, so the magazine is now just a snapshot of about four years in the life of a number of major Pattaya bars, some of which are no longer in operation.

It is still possible to find discounted copies of issues 4 and 5 of the magazine (Pattaya Beach Books, second floor, Tops Supermarket on Central Pattaya Road), or earlier issues (those that are left anyway) can be purchased from www.dcothai.com

Issues 4 and 5 have also been turned into e-books.

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Thailand’s greatest sportsman

The Bira International racing circuit, the Pattaya home for petrol heads who love watching fast cars, motorbikes, and go-karts, is named after a Thai national of royal blood considered by many people to have been the greatest sportsman the country has ever seen.

Considering the breadth of his performances, undertaken on land, sea, and in the air from 1936 until 1978, it is difficult to argue against him being declared the nation’s ‘greatest sportsman’.

Prince Bira with his second wife, Chelita

Prince Birabongse Bhanutej Bhanubandh, or simply Prince Bira as he was better known, was a grandson of King Mongkut (Rama IV). He was born on 15 July 1914 in Bangkok, the third son of H.R.H. Prince Bhanurangsri Bhanubandh.

In 1927, aged 13, he was sent to England to attend that most famous of all public schools, Eton College, where he was looked after by his older cousin, Prince Chula Chakrabongse. At Eton he had his named shortened to ‘Prince Bira’ by a teacher who could not pronounce, let alone spell, his full name.

The 1932 revolution ending the absolute monarchy in Siam and King Prajadhipok’s (Bira’s uncle) abdication in 1935, had little impact on Bira. He simply remained in England, going on to study at Cambridge University.

Apart from being a keen sportsman, Bira was studying sculpture in London when he, became interested in motor racing via his cousin Prince Chula Chakrabongse. The 27-year-old Chula headed up a motor racing team called White Mouse Stable and Bira decided to try his hand at piloting a race car. He proved a natural.

In 1934, the 20-year-old Bira met and fell in love with a 17-year-old English girl named Cheryl Heycock. She later wrote, “I found him incredibly good-looking; he was beautifully proportioned with slim waist and hips, broad shoulders and very strong arms and legs. He had smooth, pale gold skin and his black hair shone.” Three weeks after their first meeting, Bira and Cheryl were engaged.

The couple’s circle of friends and acquaintances ranged from members of the Siamese and British royal families to Noel Coward, Foreign Office official Guy Burgess -later to defect to the Soviet Union- and Anthony Blunt, the art historian who was to be unmasked in 1979 as the ‘fourth man’ in the Soviet spy ring that included Burgess.

In 1935, the White Mouse Stable team purchased an English Racing Automobile (ERA) for Bira’s 21st birthday. He named it ‘Romulus’. His first race was at Dieppe in France on 20 July where he finished a creditable second, ahead of such noted drivers as Raymond Mays, Dick Seaman, and Humphrey Cook.

He then finished second to Dick Seaman in the Swiss Grand Prix at Berne and fifth in the Donington Grand Prix. He ended his first season by setting the fastest time at the Gatwick Speed Trials and then drove a 1903 model Oldsmobile to victory in a Veteran Car Run.

Bira’s first major win came in the 1936 Brooklands International Trophy. He also won the Coup de Prince Rainier at Monte Carlo in Monaco as well as three International Light Car races, one in Monaco and the others at Peronne and Albi in France.

In May 1937, he won the Campbell Trophy, the first race conducted on the new Malcolm Campbell circuit. Campbell had set a new world speed record in his car ‘Bluebird’ just two years earlier. Bira also annexed the Light Car race on the Isle of Man, the London Grand Prix, the Imperial Trophy and the 12-hour Race at Donington Park.

In 1938, Bira purchased a new ERA vehicle and named it ‘Hanuman’. In it he won the Campbell Trophy (May) and London Grand Prix for the second successive year, as well as the Coronation Trophy, the Light Car race at Cork (Ireland), and the Nuffield Trophy.

Practising for a race at Reims in France, Bira crashed ‘Hanuman’ but escaped with only minor injuries. He returned to annex the British Racing Drivers Club’s (B.R.D.C.) Road Race and the Siam Trophy.

Bira was so successful as a racing driver he won the B.R.D.C. Road Racing ‘Gold Star’ award for 1936, 1937 and 1938, a hat-trick never achieved before or since.

After again winning the Nuffield Trophy, as well as the Sedenham Plate and J.C.C. International Trophy he was leading in points for the 1939 racing season when the Second World War broke out, bringing his auto-racing career to a halt.

By this time his popularity amongst motor racing aficionados in England was similar to that experienced by the British driver Stirling Moss in the post-war years.

According to sources, Prince Bira competed in 30 races between 1935 and 1939 for a remarkable 10 wins, eight seconds, five thirds, one fourth, one fifth, and five retirements. He also set lap records at Donington, Phoenix Park, and Crystal Palace.

Apart from racing cars, Bira was also an accomplished sailor and learned to fly. He and Cheryl (who had altered the spelling of her first name to Ceril) would take their private plane to and from race meetings around England and Europe.

Bira, and Chula (also married to an Englishwoman, Elizabeth Hunter), stayed on in Britain when the war began. Bira volunteered his services to the British Home Guard and became a glider-training instructor for the Air Training Corps of the Royal Air Force. His restored glider forms part of the Brooklands Museum in England as a tribute to his contribution.

In 1942, the Prince authored and published a book entitled Bits and Pieces. Illustrated by Bira, it was a lively and well-written account of his life as a racing driver, with a number of humorous anecdotes as well as respectful eulogies for those who had lost their lives competing in motor sports.

One story concerned Bira and the White Mouse team going a party at a hotel in Germany in 1936 attended by some of the best-known names in motor racing at that time, including the famous Italian Tazio Nuvolari and Giuseppe Farina, who later won the first ever World Drivers’ Championship.

After the war ended, Bira revived his auto-racing career and with Chula they re-established White Mouse Racing. He competed in Britain’s first post-war international race, on 10 August 1946 at Ballyclare in Northern Ireland.

The race, known as the Ulster International Trophy, saw him defeat ‘Parnell (England) with a speed of 78.48 mph…For the last 25 miles, over a most difficult and exciting course, Bira, racing in his famed “Hanuman” and Parnell fought it out so closely that it brought the crowd to its feet.’ (Bangkok Post 11 August 1946)

With wartime rationing still in place there was little opportunity for motor racing in Britain, so Bira closed down White Mouse Stable and went to compete in Europe, changing from the ERA to a Maserati, winning the Grand Prix des Frontieres at Chimay in Belgium in May 1947, in front of a crowd of more than 50,000 people.

He still continued to fly himself to and from race meetings in his private plane. At the time he was among a very few pilots to have flown single-handed from Britain to Siam.

On 30 May 1948, Bira competed in a controversial non-championship Stockholm Grand Prix. The race saw the advent of an unknown make of car called a Ferrari, driven by Clemente Biondetti, a veteran from Italy. There were no racetracks in Sweden at the time and the event was staged on an airfield about 10 kilometres south of Stockholm in front of around 36,000 spectators.

As the cars were on the grid it was found that Bira’s and his team-mate’s vehicles hadn’t been fuelled. Mechanics quickly rectified the error but then Bira’s car wouldn’t start. His team came onto the tarmac, and, assisted by Sweden’s Prince Bertil (a close friend of Bira’s) managed to roll-start the car, crossing the start line just before the flag fell. Bira was left well behind but it soon became apparent he had the fastest car in the race. Contemporary reports referred to him as ‘the little Oriental’ and he was soon battling for the lead. After taking control, Bira went on to defeat Biondetti by three minutes.

Biondetti protested the start was against the rules of motor racing and officials disqualified Bira, giving Ferrari its first ever Grand Prix victory. The incident didn’t end there. Bira disputed the ruling and after nearly a year of the case being put before various motor sport governing bodies, Swedish officials were ordered to pay first prize-money to Bira as well as Biondetti.

Bira gained some consolation on the track when he took out the Zandvoort Grand Prix in the Netherlands in August.

In 1949 Bira travelled to South America with his Maserati and after finishing fifth in two races in Buenos Aires in late January and early February he placed second in the Mar del Plata Grand Prix to the great Argentinean Juan Fangio. Bira returned to Europe where he finished second in the San Remo GP and Roussillon GP at Perpignan, both behind Fangio, before taking out the Swedish Summer GP. He was second, again to Fangio, in the Albi GP, third in the Zandvoort GP and closed out the year with a sixth in the Juan Peron GP in Buenos Aires (Fangio was second).

The World Driver’s Championship was inaugurated in 1950 and Bira contested four events. He was forced to retire in his first Grand Prix but then finished fifth in Monaco and fourth in the Swiss GP before again being compelled to retire in his last race. His total points meant he finished eighth in the Driver’s Championship.

In 1951, Bira raced just once in a Grand Prix but mechanical failure forced his retirement. He later won the five-lap Richmond Trophy race at Goodwood and finished third in the Chichester Cup. In April that year Bira broke the speed record at Goodwood with a lap speed of 145.45 kilometres per hour (90.38 miles per hour) in an Italian 4.5 litre Osoa.

On 18 December 1951, Bira married for the second time when he took his Argentinian fiancé Chelita Howard to the Thai Embassy in Paris to complete the formalities. The following November, he flew Chelita in his own twin-engined plane to Bangkok for a holiday.

Between 1952 and 1953 Bira competed in only eight World Championship races. In four of these he was forced to retire while his best finish was a seventh in the British GP in 1953.

Bira was more successful in 1954. He won the Ulster Trophy, the Grand Prix des Frontieres on the Chimay road circuit in Belgium for the second time, and was second in events at Rouen and Pescara (in Italy). He started six times in World Driver’s Championship Grand Prix, his best finish being fourth in France. He finished 17th in the World Driver’s Championship, behind Fangio.

All told, Bira competed in 19 Formula One races in the period between May 1950 and October 1954 finishing 10 times. Of his nine forced retirements only one was due to an accident.

The 40-year-old scored his final track victory in the 1955 non-championship New Zealand Grand Prix (in which future triple world champion Jack Brabham finished fourth). Returning to Europe he was sixth in the Bordeaux Grand Prix and third in the International Trophy.

At the end of September 1955, Bira, Chelita and their infant son had to be rescued off the island of Caprada in Italy when their vessel hit a reef while sailing from Cannes. One of the ship’s Italian crew members had swum ashore through heavy seas to raise the alarm. After his wife, son and crew were taken off the stricken vessel, Bira attempted to salvage it but was forced to give up and was himself rescued, unhurt.

Prince Bira returned to live in Thailand, although he kept a three-masted schooner berthed at Cannes and a home nearby at Mandelieu, in southern France. His second marriage also failed during this time, but in 1957 he married for the third time, to Salita Kalantanonda. This too ended in divorce.

Concentrating his sporting efforts on the water, Bira’s sailing abilities led to him being part of the Thai yachting team to compete in the 1956 Melbourne, 1960 Rome, and 1964 Tokyo Olympic Games. He was also on the Thai team for the 1972 Munich Olympics, even though he was then 58 years old.

In 1969, Bira contested his last major motor racing event when he took part in the Vientiane (Laos) to Singapore Rally. The 2,097-kilometre First Asian Highway Motor Rally, as it was termed, began on 16 April and lasted four days. Over 170 vehicles competed, with victory going to a Malaysian team in a Volvo.

In 1970, he won the inaugural Firebird Trophy, a long-distance sailing race for a small racing vessel known as the Fireball and held in the waters off Pattaya Bay. Bira sculpted the perpetual trophy, a massive 200-kilogram piece cast in bronze. He had previously sculpted a bronze bas-relief fountain which sits in a corner of a Silverstone paddock erected in memory of Pat Fairfield, a British racing driver who was killed in the 1937 Le Mans 24-Hour Road Race.

In September, Bira’s company Bira Air Transport was involved in a hijacking. A 36-year-old American named Bob Keesee took control of a Cessna at gunpoint and ordered the two pilots to fly to North Vietnam. He then directed them to a specific point but they claimed it was too dangerous to land. Keesee forced them to land on a nearby beach. Prince Bira later told reporters Keesee “seemed to know his geography pretty well.”

In 1978, Bira was instrumental in arranging for the Royal Varuna Yacht Club in Pattaya to play host to a World Championship race.

Prince Bira died on 23 December 1985 at the age of 71 after suffering a heart attack on the Baron’s Court London underground train station. He was cremated in a ceremony at the Wimbledon Buddhist temple.

The Coup

This story was written back in the early 1990s when bookmakers at Wentworth Park greyhound track in Sydney were plentiful. By the start of 2000, bookmakers were rarer than a Tasmanian Tiger sighting.

 

The telephone rang, and rang….and rang.

From somewhere deep in the dim dark hollows of his mind a shaft light of awareness crept into David’s clouded brain. His eyelids, heavy with a fervent desire to remain closed and ignore the intrusive ringing sounds, slowly and grudgingly opened.

Daylight.

The sun was up, although how far it had climbed David had no idea and the damned phone was still ringing. David eased himself out of bed, padded to the insistent receiver and lifted the handset.

The telltale ‘beep, beep, beep’ which signalled an incoming long-distance call sounded like miniature depth-charges designed to nuke the few remaining brain cells left in his throbbing skull.

“Yeah,” David’s voice sounded like it needed a grease and oil to return it to its natural timbre.

“Dave?” inquired the voice at the other end of the line.

“Yeah.”

“It’s Kevin mate. Sounds like you might have had a hard night on the tiles.”

The thought of the previous night and even earlier morning brought a groan to David’s throat.

“Scotch and Dry and Peppermint Schnapps. I got poured unceremoniously into a taxi at about six this morning. What time is it anyway?” David inquired blearily.

“Nine o’clock,” Kevin lied (it was just past eight-thirty), adding hastily, “Hey, I’m sorry for ringing so early, but I reckon you’ll be pleased when I tell you why I’ve rung.”

“Shit, I bloody well hope so buddy.”

The thought he’d had less than three hours sleep did not improve David’s demeanour. Another 24 hours of hibernation, undisturbed by the outside world, did not seem unreasonable.

“Mate,” said an obviously excited Kevin, “your dog is firing on all six cylinders. For the last couple of weeks he’s been blitzing every dog I trial him with and running super-fast times. I trialled him up the straight the other day and he broke the track record by about two-tenths of a second. I’ve nominated him for next week at Wentworth Park and if he draws a halfway decent box they won’t see which way he went.”

David’s erstwhile sour expression underwent a complete metamorphosis.

He had owned greyhounds off and on for some ten years and although other sports and other interests came and went, he always returned to greyhound racing. It is said that once racing is in your blood, you never really get it out.

“Broke the track record eh? God he’s never gone that quick before…” David said.

“Mate, I’m telling you he is absolutely flying, but we’ll have to wait until next Tuesday to see what box he comes up with and what the opposition is like. Listen, I’ll ring you again next Tuesday night to tell you what I think, but I reckon at this point you ought to start getting cashed up for a tilt at the bookies.”

After Kevin rang off, David went out into the kitchen, put the kettle on and made himself a cup of very strong coffee.

‘My God,’ he thought. ‘I’ve never ever heard Kevin so positive about a dog.’

Kevin had been a professional greyhound trainer for nearly twenty years. He was the type of man whose enthusiasm about his charge’s chances were usually couched in phrases like, “oh, if it wins the jump and can lead in the first fifty metres it should win” or “it’s drawn nicely and if the favourite misses the kick then we’ll be right in it”.

Even when he thought a greyhound had a strong chance of victory he would just say, “make sure you’re on”.

David sipped his coffee and decided not to tell his two partners in the dog about Kevin’s enthusiastic support, preferring to wait until after the trainer rang him on the Tuesday. Too many things could go wrong between now and then.

Racing is a fickle business and a cruel mistress. One day you’re flying high, the next sharing a foxhole with the fox.

David finished his coffee and then decided a few more hours of sleep would restore him a semblance of physical well-being.

***

As promised, Kevin rang David the following Tuesday evening.

His opening remarks confirmed his confidence of the previous Sunday.

“I hope you’ve got plenty of cash Dave, ’cause I reckon she’s the closest thing to a certainty I’ve ever seen for Saturday night,” enthused Kevin.

He explained the dog had drawn box two in race three, and from what he knew of the greyhounds opposed to him, he didn’t think there was much to worry about.

He thought they’d get a reasonable price with the bookmakers because he hadn’t raced for six weeks and failed to run a place at his past three starts. There had been good reasons for these failures, but they were unknown to the bookmakers.

“I suggest you keep as quiet as possible about this. We don’t want the bookies secret service getting a whisper about his real form,” Kevin counselled.

“Don’t worry buddy,” David replied. “We’ll keep this under wraps. I’ll wait until Friday to tell John and Bob. That’ll give ‘em enough time to get cashed up and hopefully not blab to their punting mates.”

“All right mate, I’ll see you and the boys at the track on Saturday night. I’ll ring you again if anything happens you should know about.”

On the Friday before the race, David rang first John and then Bob, both good friends of his and partners in the dog. He told them the dog was drawn for Saturday night and they should come out, armed with enough dollars to give the bookie’s heartburn. David tried to sound as nonchalant as possible and added Kevin would only give them the ‘thumbs up’ before the commencement of the meeting.

“So don’t go blabbing to your mates, ‘cause it’s not yet fully confirmed,” David admonished.

***

The three owners converged on Wentworth Park and met up with each other well before the first race.

After having dinner in the downstairs restaurant, they sidled over to the kennel complex that housed the eighty or so greyhounds racing in the ten events that night.

Standing outside the kennel block, intent on studying his formguide, was Kevin.

“The way the field is boxed he’s got average beginners drawn on his outside in boxes three and four, so if he begins OK and clears the dog in the one then they won’t see which way he went,” the trainer informed them.

“Do you think he’s fit enough to see out the 520 metres of the race?” asked Bob.

“Yeah. The last little bit will stretch him, but I think against this lot he’ll have too much of a lead,” replied Kevin. “He’s as fit as a Mallee bull and has never been run down once he gets to the front,” he added.

“I notice the market in the paper has him at 5/1,” said John.

“All the tips seem to be for the one and the seven,” said Bob. “So with luck we should get a good price.”

After further light conversation, the four conspirators trooped inside to the ground floor of the grandstand to check betting on the first event. They also began to plan the tactics they would use in the execution of their plunge.

In whispered tones David asked both John and Bob how much they planned to bet on the greyhound.

“I’ve got a grand,” said Bob.

“Same here,” replied John.

“Well, I’ve got two big ones to try and get on,” said David. Turning to Kevin he said, “I suppose you’d like us to put something on for you as well?”

“Most definitely,” Kevin answered. “I’ll give you a hundred.”

“Shit,” said David. “You really must be confident, I’ve never known you to have more than fifty on anything.”

“Mate, I think he’s a moral to win this. Only extreme bad luck will beat him.”

If the dog won then Kevin would do all right whatever happened. He would get his share of the winning prize-money and the three owners would give their trainer a nice ‘sling’ from their own winnings.

By this time bookmakers were setting their prices for the first event. The betting ring was becoming crowded with punters eager to snap up the best odds for their particular fancy.

“Listen guys,” said Kevin. “I’ll go upstairs and stay away from you until after the race.”  He quietly handed David two fifty-dollar notes and trooped off into the milling crowd.

“OK,” said David. “Between us we’ve got just over four grand to get on with the bookies. We’ll definitely destroy the price in this ring and make him favourite, but we should be able to get it all on.”

David continued, “What we’ll do is you go to one end of the ring and I’ll go to the other and we’ll start with hundred and two hundred dollar bets, depending on the price the bookies put up. If we do it quietly enough we shouldn’t panic them and hopefully get a good average price. It’ll mean carrying around a huge bundle of bloody betting tickets, but who cares if he wins?”

The partners nodded sagely in agreement.

All three decided not to bet in the first race which contained an odds-on favourite. They simply walked out of the main door and took seats in the grandstand.

In a very roughly run race the bookies cheered as the favourite got rolled at the first corner and the race was taken out by a 25/1 chance. The second race saw yet another good result for the bookies as an 8/1 shot just held on to beat the 6/4 favourite.

David, John and Bob had not bet in race two but as soon as the race was over they wandered inside the grandstand and took up a position near the centre of the ring. After a few minutes, the totalisator monitors placed around the ring began showing the opening prices for the greyhounds in race three.

Their greyhound, in box two, came up at 8.0 or a return of $8.00 for every one dollar investment. That meant he was a 7/1 chance if converted to bookmakers’ prices. With ten minutes left to race time, the first bookmakers began setting their prices.

“Shit,” muttered David, “that bloke’s only put up four’s.”

“There’s five’s,” said Bob.

“What’s favourite?” said David, and then, answering his own question. “Looks like the seven, it’s about 7/4 around the ring.”

By now the bookmakers had set their prices and the first tentative jousting with the assembled punters commenced.

Eight minutes to race time.

Suddenly, the whole betting ring seemed to spark with rapid movement as nameless faces scurried towards stationary targets. The favourite had been pushed out to 2/1 by most bookies and the assaults were clearly aimed at that greyhound. In what seemed a matter of seconds the favourite’s price had tumbled to even money.

The totalisator screens showed seven minutes and indicated number two’s price had drifted to $10.0 or 9/1.

The bookmakers’ boards were now showing 7/1 generally while some had put up 8/1.

David said to Bob and John, “All right boys, John you take the right flank, I will take the left and Bob you go straight up the guts. I’ll see you in the usual spot before the race.”

“Good luck,” said John as he disappeared into the throng of punters.

David hit the two bookmakers showing 8/1 on their boards before moving on to those showing 7/1.

He continued quietly, yet methodically, to work down the line, as did Bob and John.

With the eight contenders making their way towards the 520 metre starting boxes, the price of number two continued to tumble. David managed to place the last $100 of his money on at 4/1.

One minute to race time.

John moved through the ring and joined David.

“You get it all on?” inquired David.

“Yes,” John replied. “But I only got eights with one bookie and sevens with one bookie. The rest I got on at fours, fives and sixes.”

“The main thing is we’re on. Now all he’s gotta do is win,” David said emphatically.

They strode out of the main entrance and moved upstairs into seats positioned just to the left of the winning post. They found Bob already ensconced in a seat two rows behind them. He gave a brief but clearly nervous ‘thumbs up’.

The runners and their handlers had moved behind the starting boxes and were being prepared to move in. For three men in the crowd, the next minute would seem like an eternity.

“The runners move forward into the boxes…,” intoned the course race broadcaster, “…the favourite Soutine runs from the seven but Joy Division from box two has also been well supported.”

“All locked away now,” the broadcaster continued, “… there’s the green light through to the control tower, the lure is set in motion and they’re about to break in race three of the night from Wentworth Park…”

David, John and Bob all moved nervously forward in their seats and unconsciously held their breaths.

“All set…and racing…”

The lids lifted and eight very fit, finely-tuned greyhounds sprang almost as one from the steel confines of the boxes.

“From the inside, Joy Division was the best to begin and leads on settling down…”

All three men breathed an audible sigh of relief. At least he hadn’t miffed the all-important start.

“…into the back section and Joy Division has skipped away to lead by the best part of five lengths from…”

While John and Bob kept their eyes firmly on the tearaway leader, David calmly began to scan back through the field in an effort to locate any possible danger.

From among a cluster of three greyhounds, a sleek black greyhound carrying the number seven rug began to emerge and take off after the frontrunner.

“Onto the home corner and Joy Division by three..” continued the now-animated broadcaster, “…but here comes Soutine…”

It was now, as the gauntlet was about to be thrown down and the cheering of the crowd rose to a crescendo, that Joy Division’s fitness and heart would be put to the test.

“…into the straight Joy Division leads a length on Soutine as the favourite knuckles down to its task…”

Was he tiring? Was the favourite going to prove too strong?

“…Joy Division clear, Soutine lunges, they hit the line…photo…ooh I don’t know, I can’t split them…”

The two dogs crossed the line absolutely locked together, the one weakening, the other finishing strongly.

From their seats it appeared to David, John and Bob as though the favourite, on the outside of their dog, had just put his nose in front on the line. The angle was deceptive and no one was confident of the outcome. Nearly six hundred pairs of eyes were trained on the infield result board, awaiting a result for which some would cheer and others would groan.

After what seemed an eternity, the ‘Photo’ sign on the illuminated board was extinguished and for two seconds the screen remained blank.

Three numbers went into the frame: Two, Seven and Three. David, John and Bob cheered loudly and began to shake each other’s hands. Their plucky greyhound had managed to score by the shortest possible margin: a nose.

“Gee, he got the staggers at the finish,” remarked John, clearly excited.

“I really thought the seven had grabbed him right on the line,” said Bob.

“Well Kevin was right when he said he might be a bit weak at the finish,” replied David.

“Bloody hell, we’ve got some money to collect,” beamed John.

“It’ll be a great pleasure,” said David with a smug look on his face.

They sauntered downstairs and marched triumphantly into the betting ring, clutching a handful of tickets worth a small fortune. “See you down at the kennels,” said David, his grin still stretching from ear to ear.

“Yeah,” replied John. “Don’t drop any money on the way out will you!”

It was more than ten minutes before the trio had reassembled in front of the kennel block. Already the field for the fourth event was on its way to the boxes. David, John and Bob couldn’t have cared less.

They were soon joined by Kevin, sporting a smile bigger than the face of a circus clown. After handshakes and congratulations all round, the trainer asked what price they’d managed to get about the dog.

“Oh, the best they bet was eights, but we got most of it on at around the five to one mark,” replied David.

Between them, the three owners and the trainer had ripped over $23,000 from the hapless Wentworth Park bookmakers. As David remarked when the four men adjourned to the bar for a well-earned libation,  “Not bad for about twenty minutes of work and thirty seconds of nerve-racking tension!”

How to catch a fish or 24

Ever since mankind emerged from the depths of the ocean we continue to pay homage to our aquatic ancestors by going down to the sea and catching our great uncle (a billion times removed) and eating him.

Millions of people across the world eke out a living catching fish, while millions of others merely angle for pleasure. I heartily agree with the bumper sticker: ‘Old fishermen never die, they just smell that way’.

We are supposed to be the greatest intelligence on the planet, yet recreational anglers still fish with implements first developed sometime in the Bronze Age.

Fishing seems eminently suited to masochists and their ilk. Surely ‘frustration’ must be the one word that adequately describes angling. Locate a suitable fishing spot, arm the hooks with bait, cast out and- if you don’t get snagged in the first 30 seconds- lose the aforementioned bait to some underwater creature which has probably been living in the same place for centuries. This lurking denizen of the deep has never had to go in search of food. Instead, the great food supermarket comes to it- like a free home delivery service- with monotonous regularity, rain, hail or shine.

In my experience, fish seem to possess the advantage, choosing the high ground (or in this case the deep water) and dictating the time of battle. The human is a mere p(r)awn in the ebb and flow of the fish world.

Fish ‘play’ with anglers, rather than the reverse. Otherwise, why would so many of this hapless breed possess countless anecdotes about ‘the one that got away.’

The fish that are snared are probably the aged and infirm, clinically suicidal, or youngsters not yet properly schooled in the art of stealing bait and as such, their youthful greed leads them to the frying pan. They are mere bagatelles, sacrifices to keep the intrepid angler coming back for more.

When it comes to casting the rod and reel I am a failure, and an abject one at that. Yet it was not always so.

 

The Great Shelley Beach Massacre

As a young boy I shared- with my younger sister- in an incredibly successful fishing foray.

I grew up in the warm environs of Sydney, Australia; specifically in a seaside suburb called Manly.

One afternoon my sister and I made our way to a place called Shelley Beach armed only with cheap and primitive fishing lines: a length of green nylon wire with a tiny sinker- and an even tinier hook- wrapped tenuously around a cork that had probably started life in a bottle of cheap Chardonnay. The fishing lines cost all of about 10 cents in those days.

A favourite spot with local anglers was the end of a narrow, termite-ridden, ancient jetty located halfway around the rocks on the headland that offers protection to Shelley Beach from the raging seas.

With our rudimentary fishing lines, a small knife and container of bait, we perched ourselves at the end of the jetty and cast into the briny.

Success was almost instantaneous. Our little lines seemed to attract fish like magnets and we began hauling them in. Unfortunately, being well-educated, well-clothed and well-fed children of a modern industrialised society, rather than loin-clothed Amazonian hunter-gatherers, we didn’t know when to stop.

When we finally called a halt to the carnage, we counted no less than 24 leatherjackets, a fish with a kind of spike on the point of its head; a sort of punk rocker of the sea.

Since our parents were also card-carrying members of this modern society we knew we couldn’t take our massive haul home. There was no way our refined English-born and bred mother was going to scale, gut and freeze 24 stone-eyed fish.

If either of us possessed the entrepreneurial skills of a 1980s corporate raider we might well have managed to dispose of them for a reasonable remuneration.

Sadly, we were neither environmentally conscious, nor entrepreneurs. We took one of our victims home to show off and merely hurled the remaining 23 slimy cadavers back into the salty water.

Fishing took no further part in my life for some 13 years. The fact I was blissfully deprived of the joy of fishing did not seem to have any adverse effect upon my social standing within the community. It remained precisely where it had always been: rock bottom.

Then, towards the end of 1985 my then girlfriend and I trekked north to Cairns, perched (there’s that word again) on the Great Barrier Reef. We had come to visit her father and brothers, all keen fishermen.

In the interests of harmony- and personal safety- I disguised my lack of fishing expertise and trotted out the ‘Great Shelley Beach Leatherjacket Massacre of 1972’ story. They seemed impressed.

Her brother owned a boat and one glorious sunny day we joined him, his wife and a friend and headed out to view the wonders of the Great Barrier Reef.

“Anyone can catch fish out here,” I was confidently informed. Implicit in the remark was that if you couldn’t catch a fish on one of the great natural wonders of the world then you were clearly some kind of retard.

Looking into the clear blue waters I discerned a veritable multitude of marine life, and they seemed to be just hanging around waiting to be caught. This assumption proved to be true, but not caught by me.

My girlfriend and I stood shoulder-to-shoulder on the deck and cast our lines into the calm waters. The others did likewise.

In what seemed like the blinking of an eye, my girlfriend had hauled in four or five reef fish of varying shapes, sizes and hues. The others did much the same while I remained not just fish-less, but bait-less.

Taking pity on my pathetic performance, my girlfriend and I swapped positions in an effort to change my luck. We cast out yet again. I lost my bait. She caught another fish.

 

Moby Fish, the battling barramundi

The day after this personal debacle, I witnessed a truly great feat in the annals of fishing. Whenever I recount this story to persons of the angling persuasion I assure you the world becomes my oyster.

My girlfriend’s father, youngest brother and I travelled to the Barron River and took to it in a ‘tinny’. That’s Aussie fisherman talk for an aluminium runabout. We travelled downstream to the mouth of the river, but fished without success. Going further upstream we cast our lines into the murky depths, not far from where we had originally entered the water. Still nothing. My girlfriend’s father and brother were starting to give me the sort of ‘look’ I’d only seen in movies like Deliverance.

Then, from not more than 50 metres away, came a commotion that fortunately diverted their attention. A man of Asian appearance, rowing a boat the size of a cardboard box, was in the throes of completing a remarkable catch. He was being aided in this endeavour by two part-Aboriginals, ensconced in a rubber dinghy that bore a remarkable resemblance to an inflated condom.

We putt-putted over to the scene of battle. A huge Barramundi, probably known to its family and friends as Moby Fish, had been snared by this Asian person using a tiny cork nylon fishing line, similar to that which my sister and I used to wreak havoc at Shelley Beach.

As there was no room for the rapidly ailing monster in either the cardboard box or the condom, my girlfriend’s father offered the use of our tinny.

The great hunter spoke only broken English and seemed delighted to have Moby Fish placed aboard. We then towed the conquering hero in triumph back to shore.

It transpired his wife had been fishing with the cork line from the shore, while he had taken the cardboard box into centre stream for more serious angling.

Moby Fish had come cruising imperiously past and the hook, no bigger than a man’s fingernail became embedded in its gills.

It swam on and the line played out until there was none left, whereupon Mrs Asian fisherperson (they turned out to be on holiday from Japan) dropped the line into the water rather than attempt to reel in this heavyweight of the Barramundi world.

Her husband, alerted by his wife, rowed after the bobbing cork, retrieved it and attempted to bring in the fish. He then followed the same routine as his wife. When the line played out, he dropped it, rowed after it and retrieved it yet again.

He did this for nearly two hours while Moby Fish slowly drowned as the hook forced open his gills. It was a real life The Old Man and the Sea contest.

When we reached the shore, I was entrusted with the job of hauling the corpse out of the boat. The giant weighed almost 32-kilograms (69 pounds in the old money).

Someone recalled that one of the major angling places in Cairns was running a contest for the biggest Barramundi caught with the smallest rod. They knew this feat was an absolute certainty to win and promptly informed the Japanese gentleman of his good fortune.

The first prize was a brand new aluminium dinghy, complete with outboard motor. Both he and his good wife would be able to fit into the new boat and together they could conquer the seven seas. Well, they could at least start with the Barron River and work up.

So, after our hero took his cardboard box out of the water and put it in the back of his station wagon we travelled to the aforementioned shop. Moby Fish was weighed, measured and carved up into manageable and edible pieces while we informed a sceptical and bemused audience a story that even Herman Melville wouldn’t have dared write.

Nevertheless, our Japanese friends won first prize in the competition, had their picture in the local paper and are probably legends up in far North Queensland.

Me. I still haven’t managed to catch even a yellowtail since 1972.

Just walking in the rain

Apart from the occasional sun-drenched summer, the city of London is not noted for its balmy weather. However, a good brisk walk around its labyrinthine streets, lanes, and alleyways could never be construed as a boring way to pass the time, especially if an amble around the outer suburbs of the city is conducted in the company of man’s best friend, the family dog.

Mr. John, his wife, and their two-and-a-half-year-old golden retriever lived in a rambling two-storey house in the leafy London suburb of St. John’s Wood. Mr. John was self-employed, running his business from home while his wife played the time-honoured role of an ‘English lady’, doing nothing, but doing it in style.

A fit and healthy man who enjoyed his football and cricket, Mr. John and his wife liked to spend the weekends in the country, at a picturesque little place called Poynings.

The pair, accompanied by their retriever, would while away a glorious two days ensconced in a refurbished gypsy caravan, sited on a spacious farm owned by a friend.

The retriever, which bore the pretentious cognomen of ‘Prince’, would terrorise the farms’ cats, ducks, geese and, when feeling brave, the occasional meandering, cud-chewing bovine. He also enjoyed swimming, being especially fond of the farms’ duck pond.

Once the pair alighted from their car in the driveway of the farm, it was all Mr. John and his wife could do to keep the headstrong canine from launching itself headlong into the murky waters in pursuit of feathered sport. It seemed as though he relished getting wet.

During the working week, Mr. John would dutifully take Prince for a brisk twenty-minute walk around the environs of St. John’s Wood.

Every evening at around dusk, come rain, hail or shine, the two could be observed making their collective way along the pavements. Prince, ever obedient, ever adoring of his master, would walk briskly alongside Mr. John, unencumbered by a lead.

Prince was not like the other mongrel-types you often saw on the streets of London. Types that would refuse to come to heel and therefore required a lead whenever taken for their exercise. No, Prince was an obedient, if somewhat aristocratic, servant. No shackles were required for him.

It was mid-November and the nights were closing in early, becoming long, dark, and cold. Londoners were suggesting that winter, just a few days away, looked like being particularly cold.

One evening, the city was subjected to an unusually heavy downpour. The serried ranks of black clouds that had hung heavy and low in the afternoon sky had given speed to the onset of night.

The rain began as a light but persistent drizzle, but soon reached an intensity and duration not often experienced in the ancient capital.

Mr. John, looking out of the upper floor window, remarking with classic understatement, “The rain’s rather heavy.”

Turning to his wife, curled up on the sofa beside a roaring log fire, slowly savouring the chocolates her husband dutifully brought home each evening, he asked, “Do you think I should still take Prince for his walk? It’s a devilish night out there.”

Prince had also curled up by the nice warm fire, his eyelids drooping in that dreamlike stage before sleep overtakes the senses.

“Oh, but of course dear, he needs his exercise,” replied his wife, as yet another caramel delight found its way onto her tongue.

“Yes, I suppose you’re right. But it’ll be a quick trip for you tonight old boy,” said Mr. John, addressing the last part of his comments directly to a decidedly disinterested canine.

“Come on then, up with you and let’s go for a walk,” continued Mr. John.

Upon hearing the magical word ‘walk’, Prince sprang to attention, shook himself awake and, wagging his tail, trotted to the door of the lounge room.

Mr. John descended the stairs with Prince at his side, put on a raincoat, armed himself with an umbrella, and opened the front door.

With a shiver he strode purposefully down the four front steps at the entrance to the house, and marched off into the bleak, blustery, cold and wet night.

The leafy streets of St. John’s Wood were virtually deserted. Only a few vehicles, their headlights ablaze, were making their way carefully down the rain-sodden road, and there was not another pedestrian in sight.

Mr. John had spent the war years- the Second World War that is- as a member of Britain’s finest, the Brigade of Guards. ‘You didn’t get this sort of weather in the Western Desert when we were chasing that bugger Rommel,’ Mr. John mused to himself as he turned the first bend in the road. ‘It was bloody hot all the time. And those damned flies. Millions of them.’

Striding ever more purposefully to the end of the street he thought, ‘By God it’s cold. The bloody wind goes straight through you, not around you. Probably will be a damnable cold winter. This raincoat and umbrella are bloody useless.’

Mr. John turned yet another corner and decided to make the trip even shorter than he’d originally planned, turning down a narrow lane-way. The lane-way was poorly lit, but would take a sizeable slice off the walking distance.

‘Oh well, not far now,’ he thought. ‘I’ll have a nice hot bath when we get back.’

Turning for home, Mr. John clapped on the walking pace. Just a couple of minutes later he reached the steps to his house. His sigh of relief was audible as he mounted the four steps, opened the door, and shook his sodden umbrella.

Suddenly, his eyes caught movement at the top of the second floor landing.

There, staring down at him with a bemused expression was a very dry, very warm, very contented golden retriever.

Are sharks threatened with extinction?

The main tank in Underwater World in Pattaya was the scene of a major promotional and educational scuba diving event on Sunday 22 January. The central theme was to educate visitors and interested parties to the seriousness of the trade in shark fin and highlight the poisonous nature of the consumption of these fins.

The promotion was organised by Gwyn Mills, the founder of Dive Tribe (www.thedivetribe.com), in association with Underwater World, Sentinel Divers, Marine Project, Free Descent Clothing and students from Mahidol University.

The event was specifically timed to coincide with the start of the Chinese New Year, a period when shark fin soup is consumed across much of the Asian region and in Chinese communities in many other countries.

Gwyn paints a depressing and much under-publicised picture explaining that in under two decades, “We humans have wiped out 90 percent of some species of sharks…This means the phytoplankton eaters will increase which will then lead to a breakdown in the marine environment.”

As he states, “It’s just not possible to remove the apex predator and think everything will be OK.”

Much of this depletion can be directly traced back to the hunger for shark fin soup. Yet, as Gwyn says, “Sharks consume marine trash polluted with heavy chemicals, and shark fin analyses have shown extremely high concentrations of methyl mercury.”

When I was a kid we lived not far from Manly Marineland, an aquarium built on Sydney Harbour. On visits to Marineland the creatures we most wanted to see were the sharks.

Most people, especially children, can relate to the shark, and have a vision in their consciousness of an animal of great destructive power. Yet, shark attacks per se are rare. You’ve got more chance of being bitten to death by a rabid French poodle in a Parisian park than having an arm unceremoniously amputated by a White Pointer while paddling about the Great Barrier Reef.

Popular entertainment, in terms of movies like Jaws and documentaries showing white pointers attempting to turn a black-clad man in an aqualung into a liquorice all-sort, mean the average person regards sharks with about the same degree of concern as they would have for a tax inspector with a broken leg or a politician with severe piles.

While many in the world are slowly coming to realise the incredible importance of the shark, it is ‘culture’ which is proving harder to overcome.

When a ban on shark fin soup came into effect in the American state of California recently, one Chinese-American man, interviewed on TV, said he could not believe the ban, stating Chinese culture was “5,000 years old”, as if this justified a continuation of the slaughter.

I imagine this man of ‘culture’ is not aware of the importance of sharks to the welfare of the oceans and ultimately to we humans. If sharks could speak I guess their comeback might be, ‘we see your 5,000 years and raise you 420 million years.’

Changing a ‘cultural’ mindset is difficult at the best of times. In terms of time it is usually generational. If Gwyn Mills and his likeminded compatriots are to be believed, mankind doesn’t have a generation or more to redress the serious imbalance.

Gwyn says, “If we remove [sharks] from our oceans this will upset the natural balance and can lead to a catastrophic chain of events. Humans rely on the ocean for the oxygen we breathe and 70 percent of that oxygen is produced by phytoplankton and algae. Sharks are vital in the food chain because they remove many of the small fish and crustaceans that eat this phytoplankton and algae.”

It is an apocalyptic warning that may sound far-fetched, but do we, as a species, want to take the chance sharks will be reduced to the level of ‘endangered’ and our children grow up in a world in which these magnificent predators are a rarity or non-existent?

I want my children to be able to visit a place like Manly Marineland or Pattaya Underwater World and see sharks, as a living, breathing entity, not a picture on a wall or a taxidermist’s science project.

(People interested in learning more about the work being carried out by Dive Tribe can e-mail them at info@thedivetribe.com)

Pattaya, it really is ‘Patpong on Steroids’

A lady named Anna Chalk sent the following email to the editor of the Pattaya Trader magazine: ‘I am writing as I would like you, please, to pass on a message to Duncan Stearn. I have only just discovered Pattaya, Patpong on Steroids and I love his writing style. I belong to a book club and put forward a Bill Bryson for last month. With his facts and funnies Duncan reminds me of Bill’s writing and I like his balanced view.’

Quite a recommendation; and yes, my chest did puff up a few notches when it was passed on to me. And no money changed hands.

Pattaya, Patpong on Steroids received good reviews from foreign males and females alike since being first published in March 2002.

American author Jesse Gump (Even Thai Girls Cry) wrote, ‘Very entertaining and informative. It confirmed many of my beliefs and opened my eyes to things Thai that I had often wondered about…it is one of those books that demands multiple readings.’

The aforementioned Pattaya Trader magazine ran a book review in April 2002. The review was by Scott Miller, an American expat who also became a close friend of mine. Sadly, he died suddenly just seven months later, aged only 49.

Scott wrote, ‘Many have come before and many will come after, but Duncan shoots from the hip and he is more than a confident shooter. His stories demonstrate his knowledge of the ways of Pattaya and Thailand…Upon completion of most chapters I subconsciously thought, “Yep, been there, done that.” Again, the strength and appeal of the book is the conveyance of familiarity. Each chapter is complete in its own right and it’s easy to pick up from your last reading. If you’ve walked Beach Road or any of the adjacent sois each chapter jogs your memory like a friendly tour guide. Duncan is more than a competent tour guide and his words read easy.’

I was pleasantly surprised when I logged into Amazon and saw the following review by a K. Tucker of the Kindle Edition. ‘I’ve been reading a number of Kindle books of late on Thailand and Pattaya. This is the best one I’ve come across. He presents a lot of interesting material, and character study, making it a hard book to put down and I wish I could have read even more material by the author. He avoids bias and judgement, presenting what I believe to be an accurate portrayal of the characters involved. Seems like the best way to deal with and “understand” the Thai people is to first throw Western common sense, morals, and rationale out the window…When you are there, you are not in Kansas anymore and you need to be prepared. If you are, everything will be much more enjoyable. This book will help a lot.’

The book is now out of print, but available as an e-book for US$6.99 (about 200 baht) from Amazon, Smashwords, or Thailand’s leading on-line bookseller DCO (http://ebooks.dco.co.th)