My wallet is starting to give up the ghost. For many years it has served me well but you can't go on stuffing the contents of the average woman's handbag into a wallet without accelerating the ageing process. And when finally it expires, that will be the end of the last link between me and my night of sin in the capital of Thailand, Bangkok.
I was there in 1987 on my way to a recce trip in Burma with a BBC TV producer called David Wallace.
‘We're going to have an overnight in Bangkok,’ he said. ‘It'll be our last night of pleasure and luxury before we hit the puritan and penurious backwoods of Burma. How would you like to spend the evening there?’
In those days when I landed in a new city I used to make for the main railway station which is usually spectacular or entertaining or both. But I sense that it wouldn't impress a hardened TV producer to spend an evening on Bangkok Station.
‘Like what ?’ I said.
‘A good meal?’ he suggested. ‘A show? A film? Trip on the river? The Patpong Road?’
‘What's the Patpong Road?’ I asked.
He looked at me protectively.
‘It's the famous red light area of Bangkok,’ he said. ‘The Reeperbahn of the East. Every taste catered for.’
‘Mmmmm,’ I said. ‘I wonder if there's any good jazz on?’
‘Jazz?’ he said. ‘In Thailand?’
‘Why not?’ I said. ‘King Bhumibol plays saxophone. He has been known to sit in with visiting American jazz groups.’
‘Bhumibol. King of Thailand. Plays a mean alto sax...’
We looked at each other. Already we were marking out territory. He was the kind of guy who knew about the Patpong Road. I was the kind of guy who knew about jazz and the King of Siam. Together we would have some wonderful conversations. And there again, maybe not.
‘I tell you what,’ said David. ‘We'll ask at the hotel desk if there's any jazz in Bangkok. If there isn't, I'll choose the entertainment.’
‘OK,’ I said.
‘Yes,’ said the hotel clerk. ‘Yes, there's one jazz club in Bangkok. But it's only open two days a week. Tuesdays and Fridays.’
It was Tuesday. David's face fell.
‘Where is it?’
‘Down the Patpong Road.’
‘Let's go!’ said David.
Walking down the Patpong Road looking for a jazz club was odd, somehow. Almost every door was a sex club of some kind, and almost everyone in the street was trying to sell something. Never ask the way from someone who's selling something, that's my motto. Doors would suddenly swing open, as we passed, and outlined against purple lights we would see the silhouette of naked bodies gyrating on stage and then the door would close again.
‘Hey, come in!’ said a young man to me. ‘A girl and a fish on stage together. Very good!’
‘Come on,’ said David. ‘We're going to a jazz club, remember, Miles?’ and he led me away wondering what the girl and the fish did exactly, and which was the senior partner in the act, and I imagined the girl writing home to her village in upcountry Thailand, "Dear folks, well I have broken into showbiz as I said I would, in fact I have met up with this really talented fish and I feel we are going to go places together, it's all very exciting..."
While the fish is writing back to his folks under the sea: " Dear all, At the moment I am in a double act with this girl, she is no good at all, she cannot sing she cannot dance, all she has is good looks but they'll fade before, I am going to go solo very soon and then watch out…!"
And then suddenly we were walking up a ramp into a multi-storey car park where it was all quiet, no hustlers, no vendors, no girls, no fish, and on the second floor there was a small door at the back which we opened and out came the sound of small group swing.
‘My God!’ I cried.
‘Oh my God.’ said David.
It was one of the most staid jazz clubs I have ever been to. Drink was mostly lager served by a Germani-looking blonde boy. Ambience was middle-aged and nostalgic. The music was mainstream jazz played by a sextet which included several Filipinos and a white clarinettist who turned out to be the Australian cultural attaché. Dancing, which mostly occurred when they played something from Glenn Miller's repertoire, was decorous jiving from the older set, done mostly from memory. In an English pub on a midweek evening you would have thought it was quite a lively affair, but what was mind-blowing was that all this innocence was taking place in the middle of all wickedness where girl met fish and people did things to other people and ... and...
‘Actually, I've quite enjoyed it,’ said David as we strolled home. ‘I only wish I knew the way to the hotel.’
I did the only thing possible. I asked a man selling wallets. He sold me a wallet. It had YSL printed on the outside.
‘Young Socialist League?’ I guessed.
‘Yves St Laurent.’ said David.
‘Wow,’ I said, holding up the wallet. ‘Not bad for 2 dollars.’
‘It's a pirate wallet,’ said David. ‘The East is the home of pirate accessories. That's never an Yves St Laurent wallet.’
Next day we went to Burma for a few weeks where we never saw a red light area anywhere and never heard any jazz. I haven't seen David Wallace for years and never been back to Bangkok. But my pirate Yves St Laurent wallet has stuck by me through thick and thin, a comforting presence in my back pocket whenever I sit down, and I am desolated that it is just beginning to pack up. Still, what a wonderful excuse to go back to Bangkok one day.
Radio 4 Dec 10 1997