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Bags and Baggage

Over the years my preparations for travel have been getting closer and closer to the absolute last minute. It's almost like a game, a sexual tease, a challenge to run it down to the last possible moment and not forget anything, not overlook some essential - socks, toothbrush, medication, underpants, the pants themselves. Maybe it's a sign of a gnawing reluctance to head on out again, for the umpteenth time this month, year, lifetime.

I am so over flying. It's just so... yuppie. I am not a pernickety traveller, at least I don't consider myself so. I can't say I am as obsessed and worried about the aeronautical details of my flights as some, those who seem to both know and care whether they are on an Airbus 719 or a Boeing 777 - like you can do something about it anyway. God knows I've flown enough for the thrill to be well and truly gone, for me to accept philosophically the discomfort and pain than any cramped flight entails regardless of the plane or the carrier, and so I only worry about what it pays me to worry about. Crashes, for example. The pilot stroking out is a new one, now that the retirement age has been raised to 65!

But here it is, 8am; my flight to Hanoi at 10;05, the airport 30 minutes away and still my bag is open on the bed.

Maybe it's because I still miss The Mouse, my diminutive Filipina maid whose anniversary of departure just came and went. She left last Easter to rescue her daughter, The Mousette, from the clutches of her unfaithful husband, The Rat: some of you might remember the angst this drama caused, not just because of the logistical hoops I had gone through getting her in to Singapore myself without the exploitation assistance of an agency, but also because she was the closest thing I have had to a female companion for 5 years. She was my majordomo, my valet, my aide-de-camp - the cheerfully helpful forgiving secretary to my absent-minded professor. Maybe I delay and hover over the suitcase because I am subconsciously awaiting her brushing me aside with her quiet "Mr Pilip, I do this," to take over the packing, so neatly, so comprehensively, so appropriately for each trip.

Whatever. I close the lid of my bag, call the taxi and leave the apartment to await his arrival at my pick-up location in five to eight minutes time. All packed, I realize in the taxi, save for that crucial component -- reading material. I left out the books I was going to take - Michael Chambon's "The Final Solution" and Sam Harris's "The End of Faith" - but walked right past them with the dimness of my mind matching the dimness of my bed-room with the lights turned out and the curtains still drawn. Damn.


The strange and random eclecticism of the Airport Bookstore.

You don't expect to discover anyone important anymore, you're too old for surprises like that, only to catch up on the more popular of the important people you ignored before (because they were popular or too good), or to find the latest flash-in-the-pan Booker Prize winner, or the current darling of the New Yorker or NYT's first venture into the highly marketed and hopefully lucrative world of fiction, or some new/better indistinguishably undistinguished chick-lit / bloke-lit phenomenon from England.

When I was 18 or so, in a bookstore in my hometown (Griffiths probably, no doubt long after you'd see old Mr Griffiths himself plod out in his bow-tie and suitcoat to check on how things were going) I commented to a friend's elder brother that I only buy books if they are the greatest novel ever written. He thought he was so smart that guy, P**** Z**** was his name, but he never got it. The blurb on all the contemporary effervescent ephemera always says something of that ilk, you see. He looked at me like I was stupid and turned away. "Hey you," I didn't say. "I am not stupid, at least not just because I am younger than you. Ageist bastard! Is it so tough to accept that someone four years younger than you might have an opinion to offer, or at least a worthwhile joke?"

Ok, E@L that was 30 years ago. Time. To. Getoverit.

Here on the shelves in Changi airport is every John Grisham ever published, unlikely to be called The Greatest Ever except in cash terms... There, the latest Robert Ludlum, ditto, whom I thought died some years ago but who somehow manages to come out with a new one every few months. He evinces that sort of immortality first exampled by Scientology (don't laugh! that's mocking other people's religion... well OK, giggle a bit) founder, L. Ron Hubbard, whose turgid Battleship Earth series (and others I believe) was churned out not-so-mysteriously from well beyond his much-denied grave. None of his[sic] tripe on the Sci-Fi/Fantasy shelves, praise be to whatever god the scientologists revere - Mammon? Though I am tempted by a recent Iain M. Banks... But no, the edition is too large.

What about something from the recently and genuinely deceased Muriel Spark? "Momento Mori", appropriately enough for Muriel, is the only book I recollect my mother ever having read at my suggestion. And she enjoyed it, she said. I doubt that we will see much more from Mrs Spark post her interment, she was not quite part of the literary star-maker machinery was she? Merely a terrific writer whom E@L hasn't read much of, sadly. One who didn't start writing till she was quite old, for that matter. (Hope for E@L yet?) So I look. Nope, no "Prime of Miss Jean Brodie", no "Ballad of Peckham Rye."

Where Muriel should be is this pregnant-must-get-married pot-boiler thing by gigillionaire ex-pharmacy salesman (there's hope for E@L yet) Nicholas Sparks called "At First Sight" - far be it for me to give away the weepy ending but the Statistically Improbable Phrase plastered all over Amazon is "amniotic band syndrome"...

Usually when I buy a book at the airport I choose by size. It's gotta be small. Not these large edition things that seem to be the softcover version of the hardback. It's gotta be like an old-fashioned Penguin, cheap and it fits in your pocket. Usually I am travelling for work and need a book that I can have in my back pocket for those oh-so-fuckin-frequent times the customer leaves me waiting in the corridor for 4 hours or more at a stretch. Here's a case in point. Perfect. Nathaniel West's "The Day Of The Locust" in a small Penguin. The blurb says, "The Greatest Hollywood Novel Ever Written", or something like that. And I've never read it - although I've got it at home in Australia in a double edition with "Miss Lonelyhearts" which I absolutely loved and want to write a novel just like... Why haven't I read DotL then? Don't ask me, some inexplicable perversity makes me sometimes avoid books that I think are TOO good...

Oops, I've gone against my better judgement and put DotL back on the shelf. Why? It was part of a Buy 2 Get 1 Free deal from Penguin Modern Masters and I've read all the others here for sale.

Oops, I've REALLY blown it this time. This is NOT a small book by any method of assessment. Size, weight, density of ideas. I've picked that bloody 800 page monster from impenetrable writer William T Vollman, "Europe Central", a multi-voiced cryptic epic about Germany and Russia from the 1st to the 2nd World Wars! The blurb says, "The Greatest Book Vollman Has Ever Written", or close enough. Man, didn't it take me 15 years to finish "Gravity's Preterite Fucking Rainbow"?! Did I ever get more than 5 pages into Vollman's "The Ice Shirt", or "You Bright And Risen Angels"? No! Why do I torture myself with this difficult post-modernism experimental stuff? Why? Why??? WHY????? WWHHHHYYYYYYYYYY????? [I DID finish "Whores For Gloria," thinking back 10 years or so.]

Because I need to keep convincing myself that I am smarter that P**** Z****, that's why!

It's a futile Sisyphean task because I know that I really am not. If I was I wouldn't have to, am I right?

"Do I need a bag? Well it's not going to fit in my pocket, miss."


[I'll do the books links to aNobii later - maybe on the weekend.]


Posted by: expat@large on Apr 20, 06 | 1:30 am | Profile


It seems the Aussie PM agrees with E@L about post-modernism!

"The English syllabus taught in Australian schools is being dumbed down by "rubbish" post modern literature, Prime Minister John Howard says." TheAge.

Posted by: expat@large on Apr 20, 06 | 2:36 pm


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