Woodland sprites

May 8, 2013

When I lived for an extended period in Hong Kong, in the 1990s, we would occasionally discuss what we missed about the UK. As far as I can recall, it was basically the English countryside in Spring: blackthorn-blossomed hedgerows and downy-soft meadows, verdant forests nestled in tiny valleys in Somerset, the Yorkshire Dales; things like that.

On getting back to the UK, I remember discussing what had changed in the old place for the better, and only being able to come up with three things: Pret a Manger; cashback in pubs, and something else, which I can’t remember. Which could be related to the availability of cashback in pubs.

But last week, I got a long and chatty, gossipy email from an old friend. (Hint: I love long, gossipy and chatty emails…). In it, he mentioned that he’d heard a programme on Radio 4 about Evelyn Waugh’s 1928 novel Decline and Fall. He’d remembered that it was one of my favourite books, and kindly sent along a link. I casually clicked it, and spent the next 45 minutes missing England more than I would have thought possible.

It wasn’t great radio, in the way the Hindenburg going up in flames was great radio. Instead, it was three professors of English, and Melvyn Bragg, just talking about the book. I’ve never cared greatly for Bragg, but he knew what he was talking about. And, as I sat on my balcony, listening to Bragg doing his thing, looking out over the mighty Mekong, I was forced to reflect on some of what I’ve given up by moving out here.

The idea that there will ever be a radio station here that would devote 45 minutes to discussing a minor 90-year-old novel is absurd. The UK has only four times the population of Cambodia, but we are, perhaps, less culturally rich here.

Or are we? There are undercurrents here, swirling away, unseen by us barang; things we can’t even begin to guess at. Information moves around independently of us, unseen and unknowable. A large part of that is, obviously the language barrier, which makes life infinitely more mysterious, and I really should try harder. (My longest phrase so far in Khmer translates as “I have no money, but I have a stinky face,” which has ’em in stitches down at The Pub. Honestly.)

Hyper-despot Hun Sen announced this week that his son Hun Manet (not one of the ones wanted in Australia on heroin importation charges) was actually the son of a neak ta, a local spirit, who lives in a tree near one of their many houses. He said this during a nationally-televised speech, aimed at extending brand Kleptocrat for future gerations.

Now, if David Cameron had said that one of his sons was supernaturally-born, after a liason between Sam Cam and a wood spirit, the world would fall on its arse laughing. But here, Hun Manet’s poll figures went up. He’ll almost certainly get elected to the Senate in the July elections.

I realise as I write this, that I’m treading a fine line between being patronising and being stupid. So, to clarify, I don’t believe in neak ta, or god, or anything else supernatural. I think Hun Sen is a remarkably effective leader of this country, if by effective you mean that he is efficiently corrupt, bloodthirsty and unpleasant.

Yes, it is, I suppose, possible, that Hun Manet is the son of a woodland sprite. It is also possible that Hun Sen and his children might retire from public life, and let people get on with trying to make their lives better. Watch me hold my breath.

I’m absolutely sure that Hun Sen thinks he’s doing this country an astonishing favour by holding power in a death grip. The truth is, I can write anti-Hun Sen stuff until the cows get back from a night out at Howie’s Bar, because he’s got everything tied up nice and soundly, and worries about nothing.

As Gibbon pointed out, originally, every empire ends in a decline and a fall. It could be some time though.



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