Britain in Thailand

Visions of Thailand

British author Philip Cornwel-Smith talks to John Ramsay about his journey from Time Out London to Bangkok’s first city listings magazine and his new book Very Thai, an in-depth celebration of Thai popular culture.

By John Ramsay

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Eleven years ago, on his way home to the UK, author Philip Cornwel-Smith landed in Thailand on a three-day stop-over little knowing it would change his life. In those three days he had an offer he couldn’t refuse: to become the founding editor of Metro, Bangkok’s first city listings magazine. He’s been here ever since.

“I’d previously worked on Time Out guidebooks in London,” he says. “And for a listings agency that supplied newspapers such as the Guardian, Daily Mirror and Daily Telegraph.

“The Time Out London guide was the first publication I worked on, so things have come full circle, because I‘m now editing the Time Out Bangkok guidebook.”

Cornwel-Smith left Metro almost three years ago, but his stint there sparked an idea for a book about Thailand that delved a little deeper than standard guides, and perhaps explained some of the things that many foreigners who have grown to love the country find mysterious. The result is Very Thai, published in December by MR Narisa Chakrabongse, at River Books (see BiT, Sept-Oct 04).

Very Thai had been in mind since 1999,” Cornwel-Smith explains. “If you’re an editor on a city guide, particularly in a foreign nation, people come to you asking ‘what’s this, what’s that ‘.

“So these questions – which I’ve also asked myself – were at the back of my subconscious. Things like: Why are the tissues at café tables so small… And so pink? Why do Thai cats’ tails end in a knot? Why is society ladies’ hair so huge?

“The lack of answers was the inspiration for the title of the book, because often the only explanation people can muster is: ‘Well, it’s very Thai.’ “

The book is laid out in 65 short chapters, grouped under four headings: Street, Personal, Ritual and Sanuk. They cover a vast range of topics, from Blind Bands to Beauty Queens, Ghost Stories to Truck Art, and reveal an almost obsessive eye for the minutiae of daily life that are the building blocks of culture.

“I wanted to put a book together that looked at contemporary folk and pop culture, but one that went beyond anecdote and observation,” Cornwel-Smith says. “One of the characteristics of popular culture is that it’s often not conscious to the people who experience it, trade in it, and create it. To some degree things that are pop or folk have gone beyond innovation or fashion to become just what people do. They’ve become invisible.”

Cornwel-Smith’s many years in Thailand lend authority to the writing, and give him the knowledge to tie loose threads so that a cohesive tapestry starts to unfold. But equally impressive is the freshness of observation. Coming from a writer who’s been in the country for so long, the book is surprisingly un-jaded.

“Well, having done Metro for eight years, I thought the book would write itself; that I would know it all,” he says. “But, of course, what I realised is that I knew almost nothing. So, it was all new research – going to various regions of the country, staying in village homes, attending festivals, going to places that are simply not touristed…

“And talking to experts who have a dispassionate eye on their own culture. People who’ve accumulated incredible local knowledge and also have the lucidity to think about common patterns. It was all new.”

Along with fact and observation comes insight, such as in the chapter on Taxi Altars, in which Cornwel-Smith notes that the means of managing road traffic is very similar to that of river traffic; that steering a car is merely an extension of steering a boat.

“I think that came from the observation that taxis are decorated according to the traditions of boats,” he says. “This brought me round to thinking that taxis are culturally still afloat, and I thought: ‘Oh, they’re driven rather like boats, aren’t they?

“The more you look at the way traffic behaves – the way parking is managed at roadsides, in car parks and forecourts – they’re just like wharves with things being shuffled backwards and forwards. People float around; taxis hover; just like boats do on the river.”

Very Thai is packed with brightly coloured photographs, including 17 on the cover alone which make the title leap from the bookshelves. “When people see the cover they recognise various things they see in the streets,” says Cornwel-Smith. “They almost feel a little bit of ownership of the book, because it’s about things they’ve noticed.

“Lots of Westerners have an affection for Thailand. They want to know about the country but many things don’t make sense to their Greek-style logic, which is very strong on rules and procedures. So, there’s a latent demand for this material.

“But there’s also a zeitgeist. Recently, another book came out on contemporary Bangkok that included some similar subjects, a film called Citizen Dog had images or elements of story line of about two thirds of the chapters in Very Thai, and these topics are also popping up in magazines like aday. So, it’s a pregnant topic. I‘m surfing a wave.”

And what do Thais make of the book? “I‘m very happy to say the near universal reaction is that they’re chuckling over the pictures, and feeling quite a sense of happiness – and some surprise – that someone has looked into these very ordinary things that are part of the furniture.”

Very Thai is leading Cornwel-Smith on yet another career path. The book is already being used as source material for academic study, which means the author is now in demand for lectures at Asia House and SOAS in London. And he has plans to write more.

“Pretty much every topic in this book could be a book on its own,” he says. Which sounds like a lifetime’s work.

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