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From the archives…

You never know what you’ll find when you start digging through old newspaper clippings or declassified material from The National Archives of Australia. It might reveal the truth of a minister’s sinister past, or shed light on a rumoured assassination plot.

These are some of the stories I’ve dug up in the last little while in my spare time at The Sydney Morning Herald. I continue to snoop around. I wonder what I’ll find next?

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Books, Donal Trump, Exclusive, North Korea, World domination

Two families, both alike in infamy

Donald Trump is a notorious misogynist, bigot and liar who stands accused of sexual assault and was caught on tape bragging about vile and abusive behaviour. He met Kim Jong-un in a landmark summit today, but we shouldn’t make the mistake of thinking they are equals.

It came to pass, the world’s two worst hairdos faced off and the fat men shook hands. The grotesques who have the power to forge peace or ruin the world sized each other up. Twelve red, white and blue flags (six of the United States of America, six of the Democratic People’s Republic) above the red carpet showed not only how far North Korea has risen with the aid of nuclear weapons, but of how far the US has fallen. If you’re reading this, it means we’re not all dead.

For all the US President’s ability to tarnish his country and drag his office into the muck, his North Korean counterpart is a serial murderer who rules a nation of 25.4 million as a criminal empire. Lest we all fall for the idea the thirtysomething Kim is a cuddlier and more modern iteration of the despots that came before him, we should remember he had his uncle and half-brother murdered in stunning, public fashion to cement his authority. He rules over a virtual prison, and while some economic gains have been made under his leadership, the average North Korean has few freedoms and lives under the very real threat of being sent to gulags or executed for slights (real or imagined) against the regime.

Trump might wish he had such power, and his unhealthy enthusiasm for strongmen is well documented, but doesn’t. Yet.

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Science Fiction, Shakespeare, Star Wars, The Last Jedi

Star Wars: The Last Last Jedi Rant

Kylo’s shirtless. Luke learnt a new trick. Rey’s pretty much the same. Phasma is Wile E. Coyote or something. Spoiler alert: they don’t blow up a Death Star.

The bits that go pew-pew-pew are best, and the bits that talk mumbo and jumbo are worst. The consensus is, The Last Jedi is the most divisive and argued about Star Wars film since … the last one. Did everyone just forget how much The Force Awakens both enthralled and disappointed everyone? And did anyone forget that all Star Wars movies are, let’s be real, just a bit shit? Even Empire had mynocks and a muppet being dragged around a swamp. And that’s my favourite.

The movie has launched a million thousand-word think pieces, and yet it all boils down to this. When it’s good, it’s great, and when it’s bad it’s not really that terrible. I mean, there’s no Jar Jar.

But I do wish they would re-shoot all of Benicio Del Toro’s scenes for the Blu-ray edition. Replace him with Christopher Plummer. It will only take a couple of days and a pointless half-hour of the film will at least become enjoyably pointless.

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You will never be as cool as Christopher Plummer quoting Shakespeare in Klingon.

That is all.

 

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Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar, Opinion, Thailand

The R-word.

Little over five years ago, Aung San Suu Kyi emerged from Myanmar a hero. Arriving in Thailand, she was Asia’s answer to Nelson Mandela: a striking figure standing among ethnic Burmese labourers, she spoke of the spirit they had maintained in the face of a regime which had kept her imprisoned and the country impoverished.

From human rights darling, in the past week Suu Kyi has become demonised for her response to the Rohingya crisis in western Myanmar. With about 370,000 people displaced from an oppressed ethnic and religious minority of 1.1 million, entire villages burned and estimates of 1,000 deaths, the United Nations has called it a textbook case of ethnic cleaning. Five years after being feted on the world stage, she has decided it’s better to stay away from the UN General Assembly in New York next week. Instead, she will reportedly give an address about the need for national unity on Tuesday.

Anyone surprised by the Nobel laureate’s lacklustre response to South-east Asia’s greatest humanitarian crisis hasn’t been paying attention. Silence has been her answer for years, and the backlash is long overdue.

When Rakhine state erupted into riots in late 2012, and the Myanmar army sealed off the area from prying eyes and nosy NGOs as 125,000 people were displaced, Suu Kyi’s decision to stay mute could be explained away as a tactical political decision by an opposition figure playing the long game. There was nothing to gain from speaking up for them, and there was the potential to lose support from the Buddhist majority whose votes she would need in landslide numbers to have any hope of wresting parliamentary control from the former junta and its cronies.

Besides, with ethnic tensions and war raging elsewhere in the country, Myanmar’s newfound openness and democracy was fragile at best. Even now, as Suu Kyi’s government tests the water on establishing a federalist system in fraught peace talks, a ceasefire seems as unlikely as it did in the last days of the junta. On how many fronts could Suu Kyi be expected to fight?

In the aftermath of the 2012 riots, the sense was that once she was in parliament and had a hard-won election behind her, we would see the real Suu Kyi.

To even get that far, Suu Kyi struck a deal with the devil. She may have worked her way around a rigged constitution to create a position for herself above a proxy president, but the army holds key defence and interior ministries and accepts no oversight. Suu Kyi’s silence – or when pushed, her willingness to echo the army line about violence coming from both sides in Rakhine state – has morphed beyond political expediency into a leadership vacuum.

In the 2015 election campaign, there was some mention of how disappointing Suu Kyi had been on the question of ethnic minorities generally and the Rohingya specifically. Murmurs from within her party machine painted her as increasingly single-minded and controlling as they zeroed in on victory. But it was last October, just under a year after her resounding election win, when the army responded to attacks with a series of shocking human rights abuses – unarmed people shot dead, women and girls gang raped, villages scorched, Korans burnt – that the moral failure became inexcusable. Worse, in echoing the army’s equivocations, Suu Kyi has given the impression she can tolerate such actions.

Suu Kyi and the Myanmar army are not wrong to point out the situation is far from black and white. A minority of Rohingya have instigated violence, and the emergence of the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army with its claimed links to Islamic State is a frightening development.

Yet the crackdown that came in response has been catastrophic, as UN secretary-general Antonio Guterres has said. Silence will only make it worse. It is time for Suu Kyi to break it.

 

 

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Opinion, Thailand

Scroll with the punches

As Meechai Ruchupan sets about redrafting his constitution to suit the whim of the new king of Thailand, perhaps it’s worth remembering an alternative version was put forward in Brunch magazine a year ago. That, too, went through a drafting committee and editing process. (Karl Marx and Douglas Adams were cut out, better jokes were put in.) Here, for the record, is the original.

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Poo is to blame for this. Saiyuud Diwong’s brilliantly titled Cooking With Poo is the reason I am contemplating making a coffin for a dog knitted from carefully collected cat hairs. The Klong Toey cooking guru is the reason I now think of Richard Branson when I pee.

Let’s rewind. Late in 2011, stalking a bookstore in Australia, Cooking With Poo grabbed my scatterbrained attention for the same reason it caught everyone’s eye. I dutifully laughed, pointed it out to my girlfriend, and, like the brainless zombie slave of Mark Zuckerberg that I am, snapped a photo for posterity and adulation on Facebook.

cooking-with-poo1A former Canberra colleague, Ari Hall, found Cooking With Poo so hilarious he bought a copy online. His young children took delight in the title and he reported that the meals were delicious.

So far, so what, you might think. And you’re right: this sequence of events caused no glitches in the Matrix, as far as I’m aware.

Then I moved here. A few months later a package from an anonymous sender arrived at the Bangkok Post office. It contained Screw It, Let’s Do It, the penetrating insights of Richard Branson in book format.

On the same day came another thick, brown cardboard envelope. Knit Your Own Dog. Right then. What could this mean? It doesn’t get much more cryptic unless you’re doing a crossword in a crypt.

After a bit of befuddlement wondering who in this or any other world would want me to knit my own dog, pausing only to admire the design of the border collie, I noticed the receipts. Hall introduced me to the website the books were purchased from, one offering low prices and free shipping anywhere in the world, so he became suspect No.1.

Months passed and the books sat around, laughed at, but unread. (No dogs were stitched up in the making of this yarn.) They were nearly forgotten until another two packages turned up. Fancy Coffins To Make Yourself by Dale Power and Crafting With Cat Hair by Kaori Tsutaya. The day after, there was a fifth: Liquid Gold: The Lore And Logic Of Using Urine To Grow Plants by Carol Steinfeld. Now Hall was really taking the piss.

Knit dogThese deliveries made me laugh and brightened my days, but left me wondering what was expected of me. Should I pick up a pair of knitting needles and fashion myself a woollen English sheepdog? Make a tiny tote bag out of cat hair? Urinate on my girlfriend’s orange tree? Get out the saw and hammer and fashion a coffin for my sanity (which is in terminal decline and bound to depart any day now)? Or was he after some wicked and incredibly complicated combination of all the above?

Ah, let’s do it, there was only one answer and I knew it. I opened the books.

Branson’s slim volume of lessons in life takes barely two hours to read and probably didn’t take much longer to type. Straddling the manic and the maniacal, it is a barrage of upbeat positivity and can-do enthusiasm that battered the shrivelled, cynical side of my soul to the point where I started enjoying myself. The infectious and irritating (if you’ll forgive such a rash assessment) 106 pages zip along with self-help phrases, anecdotes and the odd attempt at modesty. The nagging thought “well, Branson, you can afford to say that” does itch away when reading about a billionaire’s successes.

bransonBut it’s hard not to be charmed by a man who can go from “he was rescued just before he froze to death” to “the whole trip was an amazing experience” without seeming to pause for breath. Or thought, for that matter.

Sally Muir and Joanna Osborne’s opus Knit Your Own Dog has even fewer pearls of wisdom, but the purls are on show in pictures of the 25 canines they have created. It’s very cute, and as the authors exhorted me to “stitch your bitch” in the introduction, a pair of knitting needles has found its way to the condo.

But like a dog that’s finally caught his own tail, I have no idea what to do next.

Translated from the Japanese, which says it all, really, Crafting With Cat Hair promises quirky projects made from clumps of fur your feline friend has left around the house or all over your clothes. Making finger puppets, book covers, tote bags, mittens and scarves from discarded cat hair sounds revolting to me, but fortunately there is enough humour to undermine the creepiness.

Not entirely helpfully, there’s a warning on page 58: “These crafts are not recommended for people with cat allergies.” Apart from being eye-bleedingly obvious, no one allergic to car hair would have survived the previous 57 pages of instruction – they would have been dead before they’d completed a single coin purse.

Fancy-Coffins-To-Make-Yourself-Book-Cover.jpgFancy Coffins provides help for “one of life’s most critical undertakings” and Power says coffin making “has always been a grave matter”. Those two phrases are the best parts of the book, mainly pictures and carpentry instructions. There’s no point reading further unless you intend to knock together a final resting place for yourself or your nearest and dearest loved ones and enemies.

Last was Liquid Gold, which does offer a couple of hours of reading material along with slightly troubling images of smiling people pouring pee on their pot plants. As soon as I sat down at a cafe and opened the book, I heard the call of nature. I may have also made a mistake ordering a golden lemon squash.

Steinfeld, who is a project director at environmental advocacy non-profit group Ecowaters, go figure, puts the case that we are pissing away amber gold, that urine can be sustainably recycled as fertiliser. At the start there’s a snapshot of how urine has been used and ingested throughout history in industry, rituals and medicine.

“There appear to be no well-controlled studies that show that urine therapy can cure life-threatening internal diseases, only anecdotal reports.” There should be an award for an author who can construct a sentence like that.

I will admit to skipping the section “Carbon matching for the hardcore urine user”. It just didn’t seem applicable to my life right at this moment. The hardcore are featured, however, with multiple examples of gardens thriving because of the golden touch. Peeing is believing, apparently.

Reading of the trials and research already taking place, much of it in Sweden, is interesting. Steinfeld is not entirely convincing, and a few loopy “web of life and energy” phrases filter through. Still, it makes you wonder if wide-scale urine recycling could become reality, even if it does sound like a brain fart from the Bear Grylls school of resource management.

Knit dog 2Thanks to Hall, I am wondering if Branson’s just-have-fun business advice can be applied to knitting a coffin with a urine diverter to water the plants that I grow to feed a vegetarian cat that sheds its fur so I can make pin cushions.

Time to mete out some revenge. Credit card willing, a couple of ominous brown envelopes will soon turn up at his workplace. Inside will be copies of Scrambled Brains: A Cooking Guide For The Reality Impaired, since that’s how he’s left me feeling, and Grow Your Own Drugs, in the hope that one way or another it messes with his mind.

Originally published in Bangkok Post’s Life section in May 2013.

Books, Review

Coffin up cats and dogs

Poo is to blame for this. (From the archives.)

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One of the curses, or blessings, of being a journalist is that everyone else’s story seems more interesting than your own. It’s great to meet the famous and powerful, and be in that ringside seat to history, but seldom does anyone else care about the reporter who acts as the conduit. JFK, Castro and Nixon changed history; Cronkite, Walters and Frost just got to talk to or about them. The best we can hope for is “Oh, the humanity”, a headline or phrase that will be forever linked with the event to which it was connected.

At first glance, everyone else’s story in Zoe Daniel’s memoir, Storyteller, is more interesting than the author’s. But that idea is flawed — everyone else’s story has been told, and hers is compelling in its own right.

A former Southeast Asia correspondent for the Australian ABC, Daniel arrived in Bangkok a little more than four years ago in time for the military crackdown on red shirt protesters that left 96 people dead. She left after covering Typhoon Haiyan, which killed at least 5,000 people in the Philippines late last year. In between, she interviewed Thaksin and Yingluck Shinawatra (at a time when only one of the siblings had been ousted as prime minister), Myanmar opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi (sneaking in when she was still under house arrest) and reported on the region’s various disasters, tragedies, elections and social upheavals.

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It is tempting, in a month when Ms Yingluck was dismissed and martial law was imposed, to read through Storyteller and look for insight into Thailand’s current crisis. On that front, Daniel offers nothing new — it is amusing to read of Thaksin greeting her warmly in Dubai, and insisting all he wants to do with his life is lecture at university, play golf and advise his children. “My youngest sister is already there, so no need for me to go back as prime minister,” he told her.

Storyteller serves well enough as a potted history of the region’s past four years. Myanmar’s haphazard reopening to the world and continuing ethnic violence, Cambodia’s belated trial of ageing and ailing Khmer Rouge leaders and Thailand’s flood disaster of 2011 are all covered.

But the surprising parts of Daniel’s memoir are the stories that happen between the news reports — her desire to balance career ambition with starting a family is complicated by reporting in Africa and Asia. The litany of poverty and conflict she witnesses stands in stark contrast to the comfort and safety she and husband Rowan wish for their children, and could have provided had they chosen a different life in Australia.

“In Sudan, a woman gives birth shaded only by a sheet of Unicef plastic held up with four strong sticks. It’s around 50C. Still, I want a baby. Go figure.”

In Bangkok, Daniel has help from her supportive husband and housekeepers, but she tortured herself over a ruined birthday cake and swearing in front of her two young children. A desire for a third child results in struggles with IVF and miscarriages. There are deaths in the family during her posting as a foreign correspondent.

Daniel doesn’t dwell on what motivates her to seek world exclusive stories while trying to be Supermum, but the contrast between the two makes for an interesting read. Without ever getting bogged down in analysis, Daniel has shown some of the sacrifices involved in telling important stories from difficult places — and Bangkok is one of them.

Originally published in Brunch magazine in May 2014. I read the book on a plane from Bangkok to Brisbane, and it was during that flight Thailand’s constitutional court stripped Yingluck Shinawatra and several of her cabinet members of their jobs, leading to the coup a few weeks later. I may have been harsh in saying Daniel offered nothing new to our knowledge on Thailand; that’s not really the book’s purpose. 

Books, Review

Behind the news

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Books, George Orwell, North Korea, Review

The zombie Nazis of North Asia

If it wasn’t so tragic, the Kim dynasty and its regime would present a comic vision to the world By Michael Ruffles

Two impressive and creepy railway carriages stand entombed inside an Aladdin’s cave of goodies donated by dictators and despots in a museum nestled in Mount Myohyang. Both date back to the 1950s and both are well appointed in ways that befit a communist strongman; each had a bed, desk and space to conduct affairs of state, one had a chandelier. The one on the left with a khaki and green interior colour scheme was a gift from Mao Zedong, the blacker one to the right from Joseph Stalin.

They were presents for North Korean tyrant Kim Il-sung, a man who remains president of the prison-country even as the 20th anniversary of his death approaches. Between the three of them, Stalin, Mao and Kim the first are responsible for so many deaths that historians will probably never work it out to the nearest million. Standing so close to such terrifying history made me suddenly but subtly rebellious. While the North Korean guides weren’t paying close attention, I reached out and touched them.

John Sweeney writes of a similarly trivial act of defiance in his latest book, North Korea Undercover. He gave voice to I’m so Ronery from Team America: World Police, which so remorselessly skewered the late Kim Jong-il. “I dared to sing that in North Korea while no one was listening, and even so it scared the pants off me.”

Such is the mind control at work in what Sweeney calls the world’s most secret state. On an eight-day trip the journalist whose screaming match with a Scientologist went viral online largely kept his mouth shut. He did this in the name of perpetrating a larger act of defiance, filming a documentary undercover for BBC’s Panorama and then publishing a book.

With its one-party state, cult of personality, network of gulags and population control through food, brainwashing and fear, the Democratic People’s Republic’s parallels with Stalin’s USSR and Mao’s China are clear: The two neighbours propped up the regime for decades, and even the 25 years since the collapse of the Soviet Union have seen strategic benefits in tolerating the rogue state. The parallels with Nazi Germany are there too, and not only in the regular restaging of the Nuremberg rallies. Sweeney spells out just how the fervently nationalist and nominally socialist country systematically oppresses, manipulates and kills its citizens.

“The real belief system of the DPRK, the one aggressively fired at its people through television, propaganda posters, the radio and loudspeakers across the nation, is that old black magic: racial purity. There is a subtle difference from Nazi ideology proper: the Koreans of the North are not a master race who must overlord the other races, but pure children who must be protected by the Leaders, Great, Dear and Fat, sorry, Young.”

Sweeney has some great phrases for the absurd aspects of North Korean life and politics: eternal president Kim Il-sung (dead nearly 20 years) and eternal general secretary of the Workers’ Party Kim Jong-il (dead for a little more than two) are the zombie gods and one is a bad Elvis impersonator, the capital Pyongyang is the Big Zombie, new leader Kim Jong-un is Fat Boy Kim.

During Sweeney’s eight-day visit in the guise of an academic they visited a university with no students, a children’s camp without children, a bottling plant with no bottles and a hospital that only looked after patients in the morning. “Not for nothing does former British ambassador John Everard compare the North Korean regime to Kafka, as performed by Dad’s Army.”

It is often, and often glibly, said that North Korea takes George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four as its blueprint. Sweeney asked for a copy while at the Grand People’s Study House in Pyongyang: he’s not the first to try.

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The Grand People’s Study House, as seen from the Juche Tower in winter.

The light-hearted moments and occasional tone of incredulity do not detract from the impact of the regime’s brutality — they serve to reinforce the alien nature of what Christopher Hitchens called a “small planet”. It is impossible to separate what seems zany from the outside — Kim Jong-il’s 11 holes-in-one in his first and only round of golf, Kim Jong-un having an ex-girlfriend and her singing troupe machine-gunned over a “pornography scandal” — from the ways the regime oppresses its people; they are one and the same.

“Understanding North Korea is like figuring out a detective story where you stumble across a corpse in a library, a smoking gun beside it, and the corpse gets up and says that’s no gun and it isn’t smoking and this isn’t a library. It’s like nowhere on Earth.”

Restriction of information is essential to maintaining this small world’s order, and Sweeney brings expert analysis to the old question of whether the country has been brainwashed. His conclusion is that it has.

Despite the book cover’s promise of “unprecedented access”, North Korea is not unexplored territory. Reporters have been there, officially and unofficially, and there is much academic, government and NGO literature to draw from. Sweeney cherry-picks from the best of these, even repeating some gags, to provide a broad outline of the county’s history and how it came to be engaged in a game of geopolitical chicken with nuclear weapons while its people starve.

Without the benefit of having last month’s UN Commission of Inquiry report at his disposal, Sweeney outlines systematic human rights abuses from a network of gulags to international kidnappings to state-sponsored starvation. The largest problem is the nagging feeling that North Korea Undercover brings little new to the discussion. The information is as up-to-date as possible in the book-publishing world (it was finished before Kim Jong-un had his uncle executed in December) and compresses many sources and arguments into an easily digestible read. All of it is interesting, and much of it is disturbing, but little of it is groundbreaking.

But that isn’t necessarily the point. When he released the UN report last month, commissioner Michael Kirby said: “At the end of the Second World War so many people said, ‘If only we had known … if only we had known the wrongs that were done in the countries of the hostile forces.’ Well, now the international community does know … there will be no excusing of failure of action because we didn’t know.”

Sweeney’s book adds to that knowledge. And yet the status quo lingers, with the threat of nuclear weapons and Chinese reluctance deterring intervention.

“Part of North Korea’s tragedy is that it cannot evolve into a tyranny less harsh,” Sweeney writes. “The nation lurches on, zombie-like, pitiable, blackly comic and scary in equal measure.”

Originally published in Spectrum on March 2, 2014.

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North Korea

The ghosts of Pyongyang

The Korean People’s Army put us on a bus and took us away. All I had were my clothes and my passport as I took a seat on the right and got comfortable for the ride to destination unknown.

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This is a little like we’re going to prison, said the Frenchman to my left. Except prison buses don’t have seats covered with velour. Certainly not in North Korea.

We were banned from bringing virtually anything. Metal and liquids were out, watches were frowned on in case they had GPS locators inside, I left my belt behind to avoid the hassle. We had our passports checked and were scanned – subjected to close inspection – by metal detectors before boarding.

We waited half an hour in Kim Il-sung Square, that space in the heart of Pyongyang where a large portrait of the eternal president faces smaller paintings of Marx and Lenin, a space transformed into a bus terminal for the afternoon. In that time a Cuban military attache in full regalia, diplomatic figures, and representatives of the international news media had walked past.

It was the afternoon of February 16, the 70th anniversary of Kim Jong-il’s birth (officially) and the first major date on the North Korean calendar since his death in December. Word passed around that the destination was the palace, and there would be a military parade. A soldier sat three rows behind us.

The route was not the most direct available, instead we we drove past the prettiest buildings. The main road to the Kumsusan Palace of the Sun (the name changed that afternoon to reflect the fact Kim Jong-il’s body would soon be joining his father’s inside) is wide and long enough to be an airstrip but there was no traffic within two kilometres.

After a long but brisk walk from the bus, passing military hardware and unsmiling soldiers, we reached our vantage point, one of the balconies.  It was about 2.30pm, so the temperature was near the -3C maximum, but would soon drop. We found a place to stand that was mercifully out of the wind, generals to our left, aid workers and diplomats to our right, cameras in the pre-approved strategic locations, and waited.

To read the rest, click here. Originally published on April 13, 2012, the day a long-range North Korean rocket broke up shortly after launch. For a photo gallery, see Policy Forum.

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Picasso, Dali, Renoir, Degas, Monet and Manet — I have gazed in awe at all of them. Reflections of moonlight dappling across a river, mist-like tutus of nubile ballerinas, ants crawling across melting faces held up by sticks — it hardly matters whether the artist was going blind, a bit of a pervert or made elaborate jokes about vaginas with lobsters and telephones, they left behind masterpieces of amazing dexterity.

On a good day, with fair seas and a following wind, I can make a decent fist of a stick figure. For all the hours spent wandering galleries gawking at the greats and sneering at Warhol’s soup cans, the most success I’d had with a blank canvas was wrapping a black tie around one with an off-kilter Windsor knot and calling it The Suburban Noose. Jeff Koons has nothing to fear.

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Art

One for the Monet, one for the road

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