January 3-8, 2009

Some Handy New Year Advice

THE Diary does not believe in New Year resolutions. They are self-indulgent recipes for disaster. Born of unfounded hope, they are almost invariably destined to die of neglect in three days. Instead, we like to focus on keeping safe, being nice to the neighbors – in the broadest sense of that term – and having fun.

So here’s some handy New Year advice for those of you who have to drive on Bali’s roads – at random, which is how most drivers in Bali do it; or regularly, therefore making mandatory the practice of clasping some favored protective talisman tightly to your chest.

1. Indonesia notionally drives on the left. Always veer left if approached from any direction by a yellow truck, a petrol tanker or a bus driving at speed and maniacally. Unless it’s on your left, in which case you’re toast. And that’s if you can see it in the cloud of black smoke all trucks and buses produce so that potential victims cannot identify the registration plate or the driver.

2. Indonesians actually drive all over the place: wherever comes to mind is the rule. This is especially so with motorbikes (see below).

3. White lines have nothing to do with keeping left or even (what a concept!) in lane. They are driver testing devices: you get brownie points if you can keep your vehicle centered over the white line.

4. Most Indonesians ride motorbikes: On your right; on your left; up your clacker. Motorists are supposed to know the road rules (we think). Motorbike riders are exempt from this requirement.

5. No one turning out onto busy roads ever looks right. They might see the approaching traffic. Nor do they stop. That could cost them valuable points in the highly popular national Shit-That-Was-Close near-miss competition. (There’s a tour drive company in Bali, clearly an honest one, whose fleet of people-carriers is proudly decaled Naramis Transport.)

6. On the open highway (ha!) a vehicle flashing its right-turn indicator (a) may be turning right, though this is highly unlikely; (b) might be saying it’s safe to pass (it never is); (c) could have a driver who has activated the indicator by mistake while sending text messages on his mobile phone; or (d) may be thinking about turning left, eventually; say in 10 km or so, or perhaps next year.

7. Traffic lights in Indonesia go amber before they go green (if they’re working). All Indonesians have an undetectable chromosome that compels them to hit the hurry-up-in-front horn before the light goes amber. The further back in the queue they are, the more ahead of the game.

8. Most intersections have free left turns on red. Don’t stop there if you’d planned to go straight ahead. You will spark a riot and a policeman will materialize from nowhere and demand large sums of untraceable currency.

9. Everyone goes straight ahead from right-turn lanes at traffic lights. That is, except for the buzzing cloud of motorbikes on your left, and an occasional yellow truck: these will turn right, across your bows, as you pull away. Use your hazard lights to indicate straight ahead. It never means you’ve broken down (most Indonesian vehicles are beyond repair anyway).

10. If you hear a siren, it may be an ambulance out trying to run down some customers, or it could be a huge police escort for the shiny new Mercedes limo of the acting deputy assistant under paper-shuffler in chief. If the latter, assume that the unintelligible high volume staccato you’re hearing from those loud-hailers means “get out of the way NOW” and do so. The difficult bit: guessing which point of the compass they will come from.

George, You Were a Shoe-In for a Laugh

PRESIDENT George W. Bush, who vacates the office on Jan. 20 but keeps the title for life because Americans, whose Constitution officially denies them the dynasties they crave, need to venerate their former elected kings, got a bad press for most of the past eight years – no, make that all of the past eight years – and in many instances quite unfairly. But then again, he had this habit – we’re sure it’s a Texas thing – of making himself a target, although only lately for irate Iraqi journalists with throwaway shoes and masochistic desires to investigate rumors that the “New Iraq” police might have changed their long-standing policy of beating up miscreants.

Dubya, as the header gabblers of the media dubbed him for his mangled middle initial, often generated irritation of shoe-throwing levels. The Diary got heartily sick of hearing him say he was going to bring people to Justice – we checked, thinking this must be in Colorado; but it’s actually in Mingo County, West Virginia – when he meant Gitmo (as in Guantanamo Bay, site of America’s eternal shame). Never mind – shortly he’s off to Truth or Consequences. That’s in New Mexico, by the way. It’s just a short taxpayer-funded Former POTUS plane ride away from his home at Play Ranch, Texas.

He was provoked of course. No one can ever forgive that certified nutcase Osama bin Laden for being such a sour little rich Saudi frat boy that he went off and founded his own chapter of MMA (Mass Murderers Anonymous), or that silly Saddam for not seeing the writing on the wall or even that Mars Bar on the night table in his funk hole.

Bush did bring so many of his problems on himself. But never mind. He also gave us a laugh, and not just because as a Yale man he would never have spotted that American-generated global meltdown coming, or the Wall Street crooks behind it all. Here at The Diary, we’re still rolling around the floor at his Dec. 16 statement on same: “I’ve abandoned free-market principles to save the free-market system.” We are indebted to Slate Magazine’s “Bushism of the Day” chuckle corner for the reference.

At the same time, in the fatuous fashion of modern politics, it has become the custom of the commentariat to focus on what they hate without retaining the objectivity to see beyond their own moral blindness. Bush has a self-deprecatory sense of humor that many people – and especially his blinder critics – could usefully emulate. His gag at the Dec. 19 unveiling of his presidential portrait (see photo) is a case in point: “I suspected there would be a good-size crowd once the word got out about my hanging.”

We’ll miss you, George. And anyway, we’re fresh out of shoes.

Exit Stage Left

HAROLD Pinter, the English playwright, actor, political activist and Nobel Prize winner, who has died aged 78, was a man who played many roles over the years. That he was a focus – and of course thought himself the locus – of Leftist mindset was never in doubt. His plays were compelling, his social and political arguments less so. That’s not a partisan judgment: human society advances through the arguments put forward by great minds and Pinter was, if nothing else, a great mind.

Unfortunately, like many on the Left, he would brook no argument with his positions. The Left was right. The notion that the good thinkers of the collective soft Left could ever be wrong was never one that entered his brain. He said in his Nobel acceptance three years ago that “the crimes of the US have been systematic, but few people have talked about them.” For cant and total rubbish, not to mention a complete absence of historical perspective, you can’t beat that comment for plain stir-crazy.

He was a better commentator when thinking out loud about the trade that he practiced with such compelling talent. He said – again in his Nobel speech, a masterly presentation – that “a writer’s life is an almost naked activity. You are out on your own, out on a limb.”

He also said – in a moment of naked honesty whose fundamental irony, given it came from him, that he likely missed – that language in art is “a highly ambiguous transaction, a quicksand, a trampoline, a frozen pool that might give way under you, the author, at any time.” So true: And as he also said, “the truth is illusive, but the search is compulsive.” Quite so: It’s essential, too. Playwrights with searing talents like Pinter are very rare. Fellow-travelling political guerrillas like Pinter – unfortunately – are two a penny.

Deep Throats

TIME and tide, as that inescapable aphorism puts it, waits for no man. Numbered in the clutch of notables who left us at the end of the year – Pinter above, Eartha Kitt (of whom more below) among them – was Mark Felt, who died at 95 on Dec. 19. Felt was not an entertainer, although he was responsible for Richard Milhous Nixon, prissy-faced president and foul-mouth extraordinaire, being even more inventive than ever with his strange hobby of cussing on tape. He was Deep Throat, the man who arguably did more than anyone else to protect democratic values in America in the 1970s.

It is a tribute to his unimpeachable honesty and uprightness that he told friends six years before he finally revealed himself in the pages of the magazine Vanity Fair – decades after the event – that he was ashamed of being Deep Throat, the man who exposed the Watergate scandal by doing what grubby little politicians – like Richard Nixon – never want people to do except if to their benefit: by leaking to the media. He had no reason to feel ashamed.

Another deep throat who assuredly was an entertainer was the American Eartha Kitt, the singer Orson Welles once described as the most exciting woman in the world. She was 81. Kitt rose from poverty to become not only a singer but also a dancer, actress and self-professed “sex kitten.” She made herself one of the most remarkable and distinctive entertainers in the history of cabaret and the light musical stage.

Matt’s Place is a Great Spot

THE Diary spent Christmas and the week up to New Year in Darkest Old Dart, aka Britain, which Indonesians know as Inggris because – as the regrettably non-dominant non-English native cultures of the British Isles know only too well – the English have always been a tad confused about their real place in the world.

The temporary domicile was the area of Lincolnshire on the east coast known as South Holland (it looks like it; it just lacks little boys showing commendable willingness to stick their fingers in dangerously leaky dykes). This was the home of Matthew Flinders, the British explorer-seaman who did everyone a favor in the early 19th century by charting much of Australia’s coastline and proving to early Aussie travel agents that development of a mass holiday market for Australians in Bali would have to wait for the invention of the airplane, because of that bit of water in the way.

The weather was on a cool side. Try 3C for your day’s maximum temperature and see how you like it. Getting back to Bali was a treat in every respect! But there were compensations, aside from the fact that if you’re a natural night owl, midwinter Britain is the ant’s pants: it’s dark until after 8am and dark again by 4pm. A better compensation was to find the Flinders Bar at The Black Bull in Donnington – it’s just over the road from The Black Swan, so Matt obviously got about his birthplace on his return from the antipodes with tall tales and true about the strange creatures he had seen there. How could a passing Aussie fail to drop in at the Flinders Bar? Well, this one couldn’t. And it wasn’t just because his favorite Scottish brew, Carling ale, was handily on tap.

OK, Holiday Over

THE Diary, as noted above, is pleased to be back home in Bali. The holiday’s over. It’s time for that other annual ritual: standing by with the mop and bucket for the monsoon rains with which the Island of the Gods traditionally greets a new year.

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