Tuesday, 20 September 2011

The book launch of 'My Secret Life: A memoir of Bulimia' by Leanne Waters will take place on November 1st at 6.30pm in the Dublin Bookshop on Grafton Street. All are welcome, we'd love to see you there!

Follow Leanne on twitter and facebook.

Friday, 16 September 2011

To hell and back: An expat's life on the edge in Hong Kong

In the 1990s, former Royal Marine Chris Thrall found himself being sucked into a downward spiral in Hong Kong, when his work as a Wanchai bouncer drew him into the world of triads and crystal meth addiction. Now 42, off drugs and pursuing a new life, Thrall reveals how he saw the end -- and found a future -- in his autobiography "Eating Smoke."

CNNGo: Considering your addiction, how were you able to remember things so clearly?

Chris Thrall: Using crystal meth and the psychosis I experienced didn’t affect my memory. I think when you’re young and finding yourself in the world –- especially in such a memorable setting as Hong Kong -– you remember an awful lot, particularly the pertinent things like relationships you had with people and the crazy things you get up to.

"Eating Smoke" is a collection of those memories. I also experienced a great deal of highs, lows and trauma. Incidents you don’t forget in a hurry. There’s probably also a lot I don’t remember and probably just as well.

CNNGo: When was the point when you felt things had gotten seriously out of control?

Thrall: When you’re sliding into addiction you don’t realize things are getting out of control. You just believe that if you can score more drugs then you can make it all good again and everything will be just funky.

The psychosis was impossible to appreciate as it happened, too. I’d recover from a meth binge realizing that some weird things had gone on.

For example, at one point I was convinced that everything in Hong Kong had a secret set of pulleys, cables and motors linking it all up like an enormous pinball machine or a city-sized version of the ghost house at the fair.

Yet after a bender, my mind just seemed to link the experiences to being high and I didn’t feel the need to explore and question them at the time. I just had to deal with the here and now.

CNNGo: Could this have happened to you anywhere, or was Hong Kong partly to blame?

Thrall: No person or place is to blame for anything, certainly not Hong Kong.

Despite the highs and lows, I had an unbelievable time that I wouldn’t have done if I were stuck in an office in Britain. So much so, I felt compelled to write about it, 15 years on.

A raft of factors combine to make certain individuals predisposed to addiction, but rather than bore the reader with theory, I instead wanted them to go on the fast-paced and thrilling journey that I did.

I’ve dropped in the occasional hint of back story so they can work out for themselves how I went from a glowing career in an elite commando force to drug-induced psychosis and working for a Hong Kong triad family.

CNNGo: Although under unfortunate circumstances, you got to know a side of Hong Kong that most people will never see –- how would you describe it to them?

Thrall: Butlins [a holiday camp] for psychopaths. I’ve done my best to detail it in "Eating Smoke."

For me it wasn’t so much learning about the triads but getting beneath the skin of Hong Kong itself. There’s so much more to this unique enclave than meets the un-primed expat eye.

I read up on Hong Kong’s history, its culture and economic positioning. I got stuck into the language and cuisine. I learnt about etiquette, superstition, customs, religion and feng shui. And I made many Chinese friends. Through this I got a better idea of Hong Kong Chinese philosophy, and began to notice the subtler aspects of Cantonese life -– how everything ticks.

If you do this and a bit of research on the origins of the triads, the so-called "brothers of the marsh," their anti-establishment roots, dress code and discreet methods of communication, then you can stroll down Lockhart Road or sit in a Wanchai nightclub and watch it play out for yourself.

CNNGo: Living in the Hong Kong underworld, could you relate at all to other expats?

Thrall: I like to think I relate to all people across all the ethnic divides and that the friendships I write about in "Eating Smoke" show this.

I met a great deal of expats, many of whom were very kind to me. As I got more into the language and culture though and could fully appreciate the concept of "face" -– respect -– I started to resent the behavior of some of the foreign nationals, particularly the ones who talked down to the locals and acted as if they owned the place.

I think that working in a Chinese-run club, surrounded by hard-nut Hong Kong workmates and living in a Wanchai backstreet presented me with something of an identity crisis. I even began to think in Cantonese.

CNNGo: How has the experience changed you for the better? What have you learned?

Thrall: That I didn’t want to see my youth slipping away in a suit; that no one needs to be in a gang or a clique to feel good about themselves; that no matter how much you try to assimilate yourself into another’s culture you’ll always be a foreigner; that I’m now able to empathize with and support others in challenging circumstances; and that there are days when you wake up and the world isn’t the way you want it to be and that’s exactly when you must believe in yourself and strive towards your dreams.

CNNGo: What would you say to yourself now if you could turn back time and meet yourself at Kai Tak Airport when you first landed in Hong Kong?

Thrall: To quote the late [Gonzo journalist and anti-authoritarian] Hunter S. Thompson it would be, "Buy the ticket, take the ride."

Monday, 12 September 2011

'Eating Smoke' reviewed by the South China Morning Post

Check out this great review of Chris Thrall's debut book 'Eating Smoke: One Man's descent into drug psychosis in Hong Kong's Triad Heart Land. A true Story'. Click on the image to enlarge.

Click here to read more about Chris Thrall on his website.

Eating Smoke by Chris Thrall is now available to buy from the Maverick House website, click here to get your copy.

Wednesday, 7 September 2011

The Problem with Travel – Leanne Waters

When I first arrived in Vietnam, my own arrogance inhibited my ability to predict the very weighty effects the country itself would have on me. After all, I had traveled before, had seen poverty in all its extremities, had tested my body physically (as is required I am told for the sake of mental flourishing) and surely, had already met the greatest of people. Nam wasn’t going to have a scratch on me, I was sure of it.

Hoi An, Vietnam
The ‘traveling bug’, which we have all heard of so many times before is just an idea we are aware of when in the complacency of our own homes. It is only when we actual make that definitive trip that such a disease becomes reality. You catch it like you catch a common cold in winter. And by God, I caught it this time round!

In many ways, I suppose it’s a trap you fall into while away. The given destination initially presents itself as a temporary escapist route, which you have surely earned for one reason or another. And yet, when cast under its spell, a profound trick is played. Said destination seduces you into believing that your escapist environment is in fact a reality to which you could commit yourself fully. In this way, I abandoned almost everything I had left behind in Dublin. I had little interest in them anymore because Vietnam was far too beautiful to wish for anything that could be offered outside of its golden cocoon. But I think travel itself, no matter where the place, has that effect on people anyway. I was living in paradise and a lifestyle too simple to allow struggles of the past to infect its splendour. That’s why it’s wonderful though, right? Because everything of who you were and the life you lead back home is thrown by the wayside and forgotten at too rapid a pace to care for why it now means so little. It was just too easy to forget everything back home. So forget I did.

Taking such trips, I believe, also encourages you to see the best of people at times. For a start, the Vietnamese as a society are the most gentle, docile and accommodating people I have ever come across. They made it impossible to want to come back. But more than this, the conversations I had with other travelers and the camaraderie felt between us all on our journeys was something that could not be found in any circumstance but the given. As travelers, we convince ourselves of our own worldly enlightenment and worse still, feed off one another on the matter. Sure, it can only prove to heighten the hazy ecstasy of your trip, but will undoubtedly make the return journey all the more depressing. Never a good thing when you don’t have a choice in the matter!

I met two other globe-trotters while away who have had more of an impact on me than I believe anyone has had in years. The first was a 73-year-old man from Belgium that I met in Hanoi in Northern Vietnam. He partook in a three-day trip to Halong Bay in which I had the absolute pleasure of his company and many wise words. How very cliche, I know but it’s the truth. An educated man who spoke fluently in five different languages, he was traveling alone and doing the same route I had just finished in reverse. His youngest child was 20-years-old and the man himself never failed to make friends along the way. I wouldn’t dare so much as attempt to convey the wise words he passed along to us all on that trip, as to do so would surely be inadequate and thus undermine the weight with which they were first delivered. All I will say of him is that this man simply astounded me and I am sure of the fact that I will remember him for years to come.

The second was a teacher from Leeds, with whom I shared a hostel in Hoi An and was fortunate enough to meet again up the north of the country. Remarkably sharp-minded and utterly charming, he showed a substance to his character that I have yet to see in any other person I have met. He was the most alluring of persons with a shrewdness so penetrating I many times thought I would crumble during our midnight conversations – carried out always on a Hoi An balcony and after a few Tiger beers. My time spent with this teacher remains the nostalgic inspiration for my regular day dreams and indeed, holds a most special place in my memories.

I spent some time in Thailand on the usual beaten track of Bangkok and the islands. My older brother has raved about these places since he himself traveled there almost ten years ago. What he described to me then and what I myself discovered are two very different things. But then, I suppose a lot of time has passed and it has changed greatly. Thailand was an incredible place; a bit of a rush if I’m being honest. But I dread to think what we will have done to the place in another ten year’s time. Equally, I’m afraid to think what will happen to my beautiful Vietnam in years to come. That haven, which I escaped to at such a young age will surely be unrecognisable in time. I’d hate to think of it changing at all.

So I’ll keep it as I have found it; my Vietnam.

And in doing so, will never alter the very pristine picture of its memory in my mind. I can’t escape the reality of being home but at the very least, will be obscured from that inevitable truth. I found it terribly difficult coming home again. On this, my friend reminded me that such trips were ‘a fantasy’ and that I had to let it go now. This is the problem with traveling – after the long journey hours, the incredible sights, the precious experiences and all the amazing people you find along the way – sooner or later, we all have to leave. The circus finishes, the fantasy fades and eventually, we must all return to the lives we left behind. It has been a very hard goodbye.

- Leanne

“Names get carved in the red oak tree of the ones who stay and the ones who leave. I will wait for you there with these cindered bones. So follow me, follow me down”

Leanne Waters' memoir 'My Secret Life: A Memoir of Bulimia' is due to be published in October 2011. 

Thursday, 1 September 2011

Siege at Jadotville

The extremely popular Siege at Jadotville by Declan Power will shortly be making its ebook debut, on amazon.com. Here's a little reminder of how the book was first received back in October 2005, with an excerpt of a review by Don Lavery in the Irish Independent.

"Author Declan Power, himself a former soldier and now a journalist, has written a superb account of a bitter infantry battle where the Irish peacekeeping soldiers were attacked by thousands of troops led by experienced mercenary officers who had served in World War 2, Indochina and Algeria.

The Irish who were subjected to intense fire from small arms, artillery and air attack, fought back from their trenches. Waves of up to 600 enemy soldiers attacking at the time were mown down by the Irish using everything from elderly Vickers machineguns to modern FN rifles.

Inflicting at least 300 dead and twice as many wounded on the attacking Katangan force the Irish had no heavy weapons, no artillery support, apart from a few small 60mm mortars, and no air cover despite repeated UN promises.

The new book shows the absolute folly in sending the Irish company to Jadotville, a small mining town to protect people who later turned on them. The single company had replaced two companies of UN troops in Jadotville in a tactically dangerous position.

Two key figures in the affair, head of UN operations Conor Cruise O'Brien, and Lt Gen Sean McKeown, the Irish general commanding the UN forces, later agreed the order to send the company to Jadotville came from UN HQ in New York. 

When the Irish positions in Jadotville came under siege young Irish soldiers fought off the attacks thanks to the leadership of their tough commander, Comdt Pat Quinlan and his NCOs.
Repeated rescue attempts by Irish and Indian troops to break through to the besieged outpost failed, the promised UN fighter jets never appeared in the skies over Jadotville, and after days of intense fighting the Irish surrendered.

'Seige at Jadotville' has a few minor errors such as describing an attacking Fouga plane as a jet fighter – in fact it is an armed trainer – or referring to elderly Irish armoured cars as Vickers 1945 vintage vehicles when they are home built Ford armoured cars armed with Vickers machineguns.

These aside the book is well written and researched using veterans words and reminisces to describe the battle in stunning detail. It outlines the bravery and professionalism of the Irish soldiers in contrast to the bungling of their military and political masters who sent them to Jadotville and left them to their fate.

The book is a welcome addition to the small number of books written about the Congo operation and should be required reading for officers taking the Army's Command and Staff course, as well as the Cabinet table."

- Dan Lavery Irish Independent October 1, 2005

Siege at Jadotville is available from the Maverick website and will be available as an ebook from amazon.com in the coming days.