Friday, 3 April 2009

Mahananda/Andrew, age 61

Friends of Mahananda/Andrew

It is with regret that I have to publish one last blog on behalf of our mutual friend Andrew Serafinski, also known to some of you as Mahananda. He died on April 2nd in a hospital near his home in London, having suffered a very severe stroke in the small hours of the morning. Many friends from across all six decades of his life were at his bedside when he passed away at 9.20pm, having not regained consciousness all day.

You may well be reading this blog because Andrew met you while travelling. The blogs he wrote while travelling speak for themselves about the kind of person he was and how he saw the world and I can't sum that up here.

He had warm way of connecting, an instant generosity and a kind of love for the world that is hard to describe. You just felt it. If you met him for just one day, you'd likely miss him the next. Before he went travelling he left 50 kilograms of birdfeed for the finches in his garden.

His loss came without warning. A vessel in his brain ruptured and the medicine he takes to thin his blood perhaps meant the damage was extensive and beyond repair. No firm conclusion was drawn as to why it happened.

When he returned from the trip with Joanna and myself across the width of Asia he said he had finished the outer journey and now the inner journey was calling him again. His last six weeks were spent in large part in his garden, planting and clearing for the spring growth and reconnecting with his friends.

Please feel free to leave you messages here. If, however, you would like to contact me personally for any reason I can be reached by email as follows:

Warm wishes

Tuesday, 10 February 2009

bangkok bye byes

Yesterday the mercury bubbled and fizzed around 35 degrees C. Humidity was a drenching 30%.
How I long for snow tomorrow!

After months of mostly haunting the abodes of backpackers, I have been embedded in a grand old hotel by the banks of the river for the last two nights of my journey, to be amongst the shades of my writing confreres.

They range from the sublime to the bathetic. My fellow countryman (I'm pure Pole when it suits) Joseph Conrad stayed here, as did Somerset Maugham, Noel Coward and Gore Vidal (and I have lots in common with that trio) and many other illustrious wordsmiths; also, alas, those literary pygmies (prolific certainly but pygmies notwithstanding) Jeffrey Archer and the shimmering pink blancmange herself, Dame Barbara Cartland, graced, or soiled more likely, the Oriental's sheets.

Writing this blog - and this is my final instalment from foreign parts - became an integral, if unintended, part of the journey.Š

The blog began in a last-minute panic on the eve of departure, when I'd pressed all the wrong buttons and obliterated myself: it endured teething pains in Siberia where the keyboards were in Cyrillic and I didn't know which buttons to press: and came onto its own in Mongolia where I was tested and tormented by screeching teenagers playing computer games all around me, but where I found I could retire into a sound-proofed bubble of concentration, which gave up its riches willy-nilly.

If you are reading this, thanks for accompanying me thus far.

I hope to write more when I'm back at home, where I'll start on a long-overdue journey inwards.

What form despatches will take I do not know.

Tuesday, 3 February 2009

tattoo tales

Everywhere one looked on our island there were tattoos.

Fierce dragons thrashing a passage around the impediments of overripe midriffs; demure circlets of flowers around a young girl's upper arm, an hommage perhaps to Laura Ashley; exotic hieroglyphs highlighting the knobbly vertebrae of a youth's backbone, and all manner of curlicue and arabesque.

I bear my own relatively recent tattoo on the deltoid rump of my left arm, an elegant hum, ancient seed syllable denoting Absolute Reality - the ultimate conversation stopper. It took me over five decades to even entertain the thought of having a tattoo.

Thanks to Darren, tattoed from head to foot with more planned, I took the steps down to his mate's tattoo parlour in a basement beneath a louche hairdressers in the Hackney Road, and was pricked and pierced for half an hour, and then went home wrapped in cellophane.

I didn't feel much, having smoked, for Dutch courage, a tiny spliff in the graveyard opposite beforehand, so apprehensive was I of the imagined pain and even more of what felt like the ultimate transgression I was about to enact, a flight from polite society.

More frightening than that even was how to tell my mother!

She bore her own tattoo, the number 63565, on her left forearm for all the world to see, branded as she entered into Auschwitz in 1943. That number overshadowed my whole life (I often considered that at my mother's death I would have to surgically remove it and keep it preserved in aspic in a bottle, so precious was it. In the event I allowed it to be cremated with the rest of her, but the ashes remain in a lovely ceramic pot in my living room; I am not yet ready to release them to the Golder's Green Crematorium Garden of Remembrance, as decorum demands.)

A few months later, and with renewed Dutch courage from complimentary cocktails in a Swiss mountain hotel, I told her. Perhaps mellowed by her own unaccustomed cocktail, she hardly batted an eyelid, long resigned, too, to what she saw as my follies.

So thanks Darren, and not just for the tattoo. You were such a whizz with computers, and helped me choose and set up my first laptop. I dare say you are still tuned into cyberspace and admiring my blogging prowess from another dimension.

In your simple, direct and often disarmingly crude way, you taught me more in the few months I knew you than any number of sophisticates had, in more than a decade of spiritual searching.

What a shock it was to hear of your death the evening I returned to London from a retreat!
Worse still to see you the following morning at the morgue, unreachable behind glass as your body was still in the coroner's care, so uncertain was the cause of death. Suicide would not have surprised any of your friends, bereft as you were from the loss of Chris your soulmate a year earlier.

There was a dreadful contusion on your forehead, which in my ignorance I thought was a gunshot wound, or mark of some other shocking violence. It turned out to be nothing more than the bruise a corpse acquires when its brow is pressed against the hard wood of a bedframe for days on end. It was a long while before a troubled friend battered down your door and found you. You were 33.

Death from natural causes was eventually proclaimed. A relief, although no one quite believed it.

I led your funeral, as I had Chris' a year earlier.

His had been a baroque and whacky affair, his coffin arriving for the event in the reduced glass hearse of a motor bike sidecar, which had conveyed him from Tufnell Park to Kensal Rise, a not inconsiderable distance. You could not help but smile.

You too aspired to be a biker, Darren, but smiles were in short supply that year and for your funeral we thought a limousine was best.

Another year passed almost to the day, and I led my mother's funeral.
One of the best things I've done.
Many thanks to Rosalind for supporting me so fully through a momentous week.

Enough funerals already!

ooo, I dooo like to be beside the hua hin

My first seaside holidays were Whitsun breaks on the Isle of Wight, where my parents had once honeymooned.

A friend and client of my father's, Mr.Horwich - a Horowitz from Bialystock recreating himself as an English hotelier - had acquired the Pier Hotel at Seaview. The eponymous pier had long since been claimed by changing habits of travel and the ferocious appetite of the English Channel, and hardly a strut or beam survived; but the hotel was a beautiful Victorian affair that struggled on into a postwar world. It was wonderful to a child to explore grand staircases and labrynthine corridors, sniff around salt-smelling cellars and wonder at the overwrought balconies and ornate white stucco of the facade, crumbling and eroding in the sea air.

Looking out across the waves, beyond the massive round forts sitting it out in the straits, deterring past and future Napoleons from setting foot on our green and pleasant land, lay Portsmouth beckoning from the mainland. Portsmouth, drear and uninviting, best seen through a marine haze or obscuring summer downpour. Portsmouth, that would reclaim us after our few days' idyll-by-the-sea. With this constant reminder of the quotidian and dull, we frolicked and rollicked for our allotted few days, in a gay abandon.

Many many years later I spent the New Year with friends in the New Forest. So close to childhood haunts, I persuaded the friends to a jaunt on the Island. We motored around on the first day of a fresh year, through Ventnor where I like to believe I was conceived, and on to Seaview where I promised tea at the Pier Hotel. Driving down the final tree-lined slope to the hotel, prelude to past delights, I was flooded by memories. Coming out onto the Esplanade at last there was a shocking, shattering, unbelievable, vacancy. All that remained of the beloved building was a great smashed concrete raft, level with the earth.


We never did get round to diving on Koh Tai.
Perhaps it was a subliminal response to the two diving instructors, the one a chain-smoking (I'm sure he'd devised a way of smoking underwater) South African with a partially bleached Mohican, and the other a hefty monosyllabic shaven-headed hulk, with the craggy skull of a Cro-Magnon.
Lovely fellows, but you wouldn't want to meet them under a dark rock.

Saturday, 31 January 2009

confessions of a snorkeling virgin

Nobody told me the apparatus does not have to leak.
While others splashed around blithely and gazed intently, I endured a mask that rapidly took on sea water, triggering an allergic rhinitis; the meanly narrow breathing tube was soon bubbling and gurgling frothily, triggering off my worst fears of an ill-met death by drowning in some unkempt corner of a National Health hospital, courtesy of a poorly maintained respirator.

I retired to bed for a day to nurse my phobias and an alimentary indisposition precipitated perhaps by one banana fritter too many on a sub-stratum of papaya salad doused in fiery chili.
Then it rained torrentially for a day, and we wondered why we were there, and why no-one had told us the rainy season is not yet done.

And then the sun returned and I got my hands on proper snorkeling gear and what a revelation that was! Just yards off the beach the reefs began, fecund with piscine life and splendid corals and cucumbers and all manner of delight. A spell-binding phantasmagoria, in which I cavorted for hours. My new submarine friends did not seem the least put out. As curious perhaps as I was about them, they clearly were too about this large, very pink, visitor with ungainly flapping flippers huffing and puffing in greeting.

Here are listed some of my new friends, taken from a marine wallchart : Moustached thryssa, Obtuse barracuda, Starry emperor, Damsel fish, Painted sweetlip, Black-backed anemone, Ornate threadfin bream, Blackspot long tom, Lined silver grunt, Fourfinger threadfin, Areolated grouper and his unsalubrious friend Greasy grouper, Pomfrets both black and white, a very camp Yellow queen fish, Golden toothless trevally and his deceitful companion False trevally, monosyllabic Wrasse, Brushtooth lizardfish and the splendid double-barrelled Chacunda gizzad- shad. Aurevoir to you all, and your less resplendently named companions.

Tonight is our last on this lovely island . Tomorow we split. I return to the mainland and go my own way for a week or so, for an internal and private de-briefing.

Thursday, 22 January 2009

becalmed in bangkok

A day's delay, as Joanna was ill in the night, keeps us in Bangkok where the mercury soared to 34C today, and you could cut the air pollution with a knife.

A knocking at my door at 4.30 am, heard above the whirr of the lurching ceiling fan (God, they are scarey things: I feel a scarcely resistable desire to put my hand up to its whirring) and the din of an antiquated air conditioning unit outside my window, could only be a maniac.
As there have been lots of wild noises in the corridor (we are staying in a budget hotel), I don't open. Renewed knocking at 5 am reveals itself to be David with news of Joanna's indisposition. He had been the earlier knocker too, but become embroiled with a drunken Belgian next door to me.

I devote the day to air-conditioned museums. I have spent the previous few days long-distance walking around town.

I have booked a flight home for 11 February. David and Joanna will travel on for a while beyond that. My thoughts begin to turn toward London.

Wednesday, 21 January 2009

momentous day

From my sweltering bed in Bangkok I watch events half a world away in frosty Washington, and marvel. I shed a tear or two, and hope for better things.

You, Erin and Sam, are probably recovering from another celebratory Embassy bash. I wish you and your country well.

Thanks Erin for your concern about my defunct camera. I'll try and get it fixed when I'm home, which isn't too long now. In the meantime I"m enjoying my possibly fake Leica\Lumix - I've been seduced by its zoom.

Off at 6am tomorrow to our island.

Monday, 19 January 2009


How I pine sometimes for an England and Englishness that possibly never existed except on celluloid, in black and white, and in my parents' fond imaginings, born of gratitude to a regime that did not slaughter. Tea and understated sympathy was what you got instead.

What kind of England do we return to in a few weeks? The credit crunch only set in after our departure. Woolworths for one is no more. The only time I have shop-lifted was at Woollies in Streatham. It was a kid's prank, and the dare a Milky Bar, in a dim and distant time when white chocolate still seemed a miracle.

Perhaps it was that illicit thrilling Milky Bar that inaugurated decades of assorted addictions, often involving the briefest of brief encounters, snatching pleasure at the limits of the law. My England became a fraught and unhappy place, without refuge or repose.

For two days now I have been walking around Bangkok in temperatures around 30C, visiting temples and following canals and seeking the shade of public parks. The temples are quite extraordinary, huge in scale with extensive precincts, and very beautiful. Its amazing what you can do with several million mosaic chips and bucketfuls of smashed crockery. Its giving me ideas for the garden back home. I have seen the famed Emerald Buddha which is in fact made of jade, and a golden reclining Buddha who was 41 metres long, and whose massive soles were inlaid with the most lovely mother of pearl decoration; a feat indeed of the inlayers' art. The Royal Palace here knocks most royal palaces into a hat.

We are all a little weary of travelling, and in a last gasp for me as I'll be coming home earlier than the others, we go down the coast in a couple of days to relax on an island in the Gulf of Thailand, where David and I will do a diving course!

Sunday, 18 January 2009

battambang to bangkok

Our last night in Cambodia we stay at delightfully named Battambang.
Would like to linger longer but Thailand tempts and tantalises.

Will we get across the border this time?
As we approach Poipet, scene of our previous debacle, my bowels begin to churn at the prospect of ever ping-ponging, like Sisyphus, between here and Phnomh Penh with improper papers.

We get through in seconds, and take a tuk-tuk to the nearest station from where we are to entrain for Bangkok. To my surprise we drive on the left side of the road for the first time in months.

Can this be the station, this charming wooden cottage in brown and cream, like a Pullman carriage? It looks like the set for a Thai "Brief Encounter". Surely Celia Johnson will soon emerge with her curious clipped vowels, bravely enduring the mote in her eye, and is Trevor Howard on hand to remove it, and spark off a tragic romance in dreary post-war English suburbia, the only glimmer of glamour being a Kardomah Coffee House to sip adulterous beverages?

All through the film Rachmaninov's 2nd piano concerto bursts in, giving soaring ironic voice to a passion that the stiff upper lip can never enunciate. Marvellous!

Closing time, damn and blast! More of Englishness tomorrow. Am I getting homesick?

Thursday, 15 January 2009

pharewell phnomh penh

I returned in the afternoon to the lovely national museum, which I have visited a few times now.

I wondered again at the colossal reclining Vishnu in bronze. Once he was six metres long and water spouted from his navel, a C12 Chinese visitor at Angkor Wat wrote. His eyebrows and moustache then were jewelled marvels, and he had gems for pupils. This is Vishnu Anantasayin, reclining in cosmic sleep on the back of the sea serpent Ananta - without end - on the surface of the cosmic sea.
As the story goes, Vishnu brings forth from his navel a lotus from which blossoms Brahma, four-headed and all-seeing, to whom it falls to set down the material world of time and space.
What a marvellous creation myth, primal sea and serpents! Am I becoming a Hindu?

This Vishnu, re-discovered only in 1935 , is now much truncated; the massive shoulders, head and brooding face, and two left arms (!) are all that remain, but what grace and beauty and sheer presence.

I linger long and alliterively around the lingam - Shiva in phallic guise - and regret the linga did not make it into Buddhist iconography, when so much else from Hinduism did.
Perhaps there is a case to be made for reviving the linga at the LBC - the Linga Buddhist Centre, why not?
I'm sure it would have its devotees.

I take chilled green tea in the garden courtyard, and converse in French with the elegant and charming lady who serves me from her little fridge in the shade. She is soon off to market to buy her evening meal - to eat alone in her room, or with her burgeoning family? I'll never know - so we take leave of each other elaborately.

I visit for a last time the room of fragile standing Buddhas. Their wooden arms, raised with palms towards me in abhayamudra- the gesture of fearlessness - seem to wave goodbye.