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Book Review: by Lang Reid

Bangkok May 2010

With recriminations still abounding from the Red and Yellow forces (and add in the Army), this book is well timed.  Bangkok May 2010, subtitled Perspectives on a Divided Thailand is just available in Bookazine Big C Extra.  The book was edited by Michael J Montesano, Pavin Chachavalpongpun and Aekapol Chongvilaivan (ISBN 978-616-215-042-5, Silkworm Books, 2012) and those three writers have also contributed to some chapters.

To try and ensure a balance between Red and Yellow preferences, the book is made up of items/articles/blogs from 26 writers, with many from tertiary institutions within and outside of Thailand.

In Montesano’s Introduction he writes, “Scholars may treat the ongoing conflict between Red and Yellow as Asia’s first major violent revolution - whether triumphant or extinguished - of the young century.  They may see it as the sad end to a royal reign that looked so successful for so long.  Or they may determine that it was due to the greed, cynicism, and evil of Thaksin Shinawatra alone.”

In the third chapter, James Stent writes, “The tragedy is Thaksin proved to be a false prophet, a venal and egotistical demagogue who had realized the potential power of the rural voting masses, but did not use this insight genuinely to reform the nature of Thai society.”

The concept of the ruling elite (ammat) versus the poor peasant (phrai) is a wonderfully emotive way to look at what happened in May 2010, but is far too simplistic, and this is ably shown throughout the book.  Many graphs are printed to attempt to show where the support groups lay, and it is obvious that “reds” was not a cohesive slice of the Thai population and many factors smudged the edges, including the cash hand-outs for the demonstrators from the bottomless piggy bank held by Thaksin Shinawatra.

Examination of the May 2010 conflict automatically brings up (or dredges up) the massacre of 1992, and no attempt to suppress this is done in this book.  There are more than passing similarities, and much of this can be explained by Thai culture/society.  This is dealt with by more than one author of the chapters.

This book was a brave undertaking right from the outset, as the internal struggles are far more than a democracy trying to make itself apparent.  It is also not a condemnation of what has gone before the Thaksin years, the patronage system, Bangkok versus Isaan Thai and other popular concepts such as the lese majeste provisions in the legal code and the vexed question as to whom is the next to succeed HM King Bhumibol.  The book offers no real definitive answers, but does bring forth several points to ponder, far more than the surface battle of the colors.

A weighty tome and good value for anyone with an eye to the future - the future of Thailand itself.  The back cover says it all, “Contributions examine socio-economic, political, diplomatic, historical, cultural and ideological issues with rare frankness, clarity and lack of jargon.”  The only omission to this book is the fact that the red sympathizers are now in power, and Thaksin’s younger sister is the PM.

Freddie Mercury

Claimed to be the definitive biography of the band Queen’s front man Freddie Mercury by Lesley-Ann Jones, the front cover simply features the man in his typical stage pose. The back cover has a tribute from Thailand’s own rock authority Simon Napier-Bell, and it was that which prompted me to pick up the book from the Bookazine shelves at Big C Extra.

Queen, as performing artists, have fans all over the world and the life of Freddie Mercury was one which must have been difficult to describe, being one of surreal excesses, culminating in his early death at only 45 years of age from AIDS-related illness.

The popularity of Queen goes without question, their Greatest Hits album being the number one seller in the UK at 5.4 million. Yes, outselling the Beatles.

Freddie Mercury (ISBN 978-1-444-73369-3, Hodder and Stoughton, 2011, B. 495) is a complete biography, describing the life of the man of African-Indian heritage, right from his fairly secret childhood in Zanzibar.

His problems with his family’s religion which banned homosexuality, are explained with an understanding of what this had meant to Freddie Mercury. With Zanzibar having outlawed gay relationships, even his birthplace was being denied him. Author Jones even postulates that much of his lyrics were Freddie escaping reality, since his childhood memories were being made impossible.

The early years of a band called Smile were mirrored by many fledgling groups, with the band members living in squalor in pokey flats. That anyone actually made it to stardom was amazing. Only those with immense talent, and a modicum of luck would make it. Freddie and Queen, of course, did.

Much of the book is a chronicle of the band, with their struggle to attract a record company, with Freddie as a lead singer posturing on stage in front of a world that was not quite ready for such campish behavior.

Every band of that era which had obtained any fame can be found between the pages. Mott The Hoople, Black Sabbath and Motorhead for example.

The long play Bohemian Rhapsody is dissected and the initial reluctance of radio stations to air this recording apparently had the other members of Queen very worried, but not Freddie (or not shown by Freddie). Freddie comes through as always having a very personal side, which was not shown to many of his confreres.

Comparison is drawn between Freddie Mercury and Elton John, both of whom were sensitive children who adored their mothers and played piano, both changed their names, and both gay. (However, this should not be taken as a way to spot latent homosexuality.)

It is an insight into the man whose talents exceeded his hold on reality. It is doubtful whether anyone, even someone with a very secure psyche, could withstand the pressures of stardom such as his. The price to pay for the adulation of millions is just too high.

I found the book fascinating in its pen portraits of those involved in the music scene, with the ‘marriage’ of music and managers being highly tenuous at times.
If you enjoyed their music, you will enjoy Freddie Mercury.

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Bangkok May 2010

Freddie Mercury