Saint Vladimir the Bastard

There were two routes to sainthood back in the day:

1. Being extremely miserable, usually by depriving yourself of nice things like money, food and sex. Then you deprive yourself of something even nicer, "not being stabbed to death", by going and poking people who are doing just fine without your religion until they murder you for some peace and quiet. You are then beatified as a consolation for the lack of proper psychological help available to you in life. There are many words for people who shout about how everyone must obey their invisible friend, and if you're Christian then "Saint" is one of them.

2. Convert enough pagans and win a free sainthood!

The latter was the choice of Saint Vladimir I of Kiev, because a man with 800 concubines didn't know the meaning of the phrase "self-denial", even if it had been translated into Russian and spelled out with the naked bodies of his octohectomistresses.

Vladimir's path in life was set by his father, Sviatoslav, who divided his kingdom among his three sons - two proper sons, Yaropolk and Oleg, and an embarrassing mishap with a housekeeper, Vladimir (so the title of this piece is entirely factual). This proves that it's possible to have control of an entire country and still not remotely understand what being in power does to people, as war broke out between the brothers approximately four nanoseconds after the father's death. With Yaropolk kicking ass and taking names (specifically, Oleg's) Vladimir bailed to Norway to pick up an army of Vikings and returned in force. And as people with an army of Vikings are wont to do, he won.

Along the way young Vladimirs thoughts turned to love and he pursued Princess Rogneda, daughter of Prince of Rogvolod. Alas, she spurned his love for he was the son of a commoner - but in true romantic movie fashion he used his commoner skills in unexpected ways to work hard and win her heart. And by "commoner skills" we of course mean of course "attack her city and kill her father", and by "win her heart" we mean "sleep with her in the exact opposite extreme of winning her heart, anything saintly, or even basic civilised human behaviour".

Eight years later he decided that boning one princess (and four score times ten spares) wasn't doing it for him anymore and set off after the Greek princess Anna, sister of Emperor Basil II of the Byzantine emperor himself. Scoring with the royalty of a foreign country might sound tricky to you, but no problem for Vladimir "Master of Romance" Svyatoslavich. His heartfelt missive to the emperor imploring the affections of Anna can be shortened to "Yo Basil, I like your sister. PS The citizens of your city of Kherson are dying of thirst, I'm not saying I know anything about the army that's causing that, but they're awful close to your capital city. Okay, bye!"

Basil insisted that Vladimir would have to convert to Christianity first, which was taken as a major victory for The Lord by those on the Greek side, but given that Vladimir already had a conquering army in the vicinity you get the feeling that Vladimir agreed in a shrugging "Fine, sure, whatever" kind of way. For a dowry he killed the rebel uprising against Basil led by Bardas Phocas, possibly the only way mass murder can be an acceptable gift to your fiances family. Then again, however you deliver mass murder as a gift to anyone they're highly unlikely to voice objections directly to the mass murderer.

After that he "put away" his three-quarters of a thousand plus fifty concubines, which in terms of historical euphemisms is right up there with "cleanse" and "relocate". Even those saintly histories that bother to mention that Saint Vladimir, Paragon of Holiness, could have had a threesome a night for a year and never repeated himself don't inquire as to how exactly an entire village of women who now constitute physical evidence of the sins of a public official were dealt with. One would not imagine that pension schemes were involved.

With his new wife he set out to claim his "save a million pagan souls for a free sainthood" bonus prize, presumably because airmiles were not yet available, and did so with the thoughtful New Testament-style strategy of destroying all the statues of the old gods and ordering people to convert. Realising that their king had solved every problem in his life to date with the liberal application of "murdering army", they did.

Around this point he calmed down (by turn of the millenium ruler standards) and stopped declaring war on countries that had made the aggressive move of sharing a border with him. Possibly bored with killing people in foreign countries, he started a civil war within his own. Displaying a lack of pattern recognition that would make a man wheelchairing his way back onto a minefield look like Sherlock Holmes, he divided power over his kingdom among his twelve sons. Apparently having utterly forgotten the first twenty years of his own life. This ended about as well as you can expect, with Saint Vladimir (Conquerer, Rapist, Polygamist and Defiler of Temples) dying en route to killing on of his own children.

Oriental Newsletter - Hong Kong High Kool

Hey all from Hong Kong, and goddamn this place is big.

I got my first proper view of it from a bay across the water, walking forward with a wall on my right so that the city unfolded as I rounded the corner, "Jesus Christ!" I commented, and as more was unveiled I continued "Mary Mother of God.." and on through an entire blasphemic geneology as more of this ridiculously gigantic megatropolis was revealed. I was at "Joseph's dentist's brother" before I finished.

This city is ludicrous, and if loads of people have already tried to write about HK it's because words will be miserably fail at the task until they're rendered ten miles tall and dropped on the reader. Written communications might define civilisation, you may have read tender poetry that expressed the deepest sentiments of your soul, but that is because your soul is a tiny unimportant thing and language simply fails here.. Fucking hell, deity-damned messianic-figure exclamation if I could express the scale of this place I'd be too busy juggling jupiter and saturn while weighing Jennifer Lopez's ass to write to you.

It also has the highest concentration of megavillains per square foot of any location in the world, with an amazing range of spires, antennae and spiky high-rises looking evil as fuck including one remarkable twin-pronged tower that's clearly trying to taze God. The unique skyline comes from the fact that "gird patterns" and "remotely adequate road systems" are foreign paleface devilry and not to be heard of. The unique pressures of a population density that makes a neutron star look sparse with land values that look like serial numbers creates an outstanding agglomeration of buildings, including some vertical shafts that look like your fridge freezer but ten miles tall. I don't know if families of spider men live in there or what, because there's no way there's room for both and elevator and anything else in there.

Then I tried to imagine the fact that people actually lived there, and that in there was more people in the buildings I could see than in Ireland, and my brain slammed its papers down on the table and stormed out like I'd just asked a Human Resources manager to fellate me at the chairman's meeting. Luckily this place has sensible drink regulations and I was able to stagger off and have a cool relaxing beer to stabilise.

(Sure, I could have acted all cool and unimpressed so I didn't look like a tourist, but anyone who deliberately suppresses the moments of wonder they have in life deserves neither).

This city also poses a serious threat to global security, because it's seven million absolute lunatics. These are people who could look at a city even half the size of Hong Kong, and thought "This place needs more buildings". Unfortunately it's way the hell too late to do anything about it as they've passed the population critical mass - Godzilla could surf into this place on a tidal wave throwing nukes like party crackers and they'd be grateful for the extra building space. He'd be halfway through central and the space behind him would consist of entirely of megaliths reaching approximately to the moon and rising. Our only hope is that they build enough that the entire island sinks into the earth's crust before they look at all our "open space" and think "that needs more of us on it".

I'm currently trying to undermine their beer supply. Wish me luck.


Oriental Adventures - Food and the fickle fate it foists

Alas, the time for beating around bushes is over. There will be no more circumlocution, side-stepping or issue-avoidance: I'm fat. Travelling to China has had the same effect on me as dropping a puppy into a bag full of dog food, then acting surprised when it can roll out. I'm not exactly american looking yet, but the fact remains that a healthy action hero should only have this profile if he's carrying a couple of ammo belts under his T-shirt. Unless Earth is invaded by a race of aliens improbably allergic to pasty white lard I can't really claim this extra weight as weaponry.

I was thinking "Man, and I don't even have any strange food stories to report for all these extra kilos", but then I realised that it's just that my definition of "Strange" has been utterly destroyed by my time here. You have to wonder what's happened to your digestive system when a diet including the following doesn't seem a little odd anymore:

duck neck
tentacle on a stick (gorgeous)
shark fin soup
goose intestine

Today was in particular a day of awesome food, walking with Xin along a really busy and authentic street buying food from street vendors. An absolute lack of tourists despite being only three blocks from an international youth hostel - the fact that those blocks are composed entirely of narrow drenched alleyways, homicidal taxis and large rows of baskets of what appear to be dried fish faces (appearances are not deceptive) seem to act as an "Anti-tourist shield". Foods acquired in this wonderland include:

The aforemetioned tentacles-on-a-stick! Squid tentacles grilled with chilli sauce and honestly more delicious than anything I've had in a long time, costing less than 50 cents and better than things some places serve on silver platters. They also look exactly like what people picture when they think of crazy foreign food, complete with little suckers and twisting shapes.

There was also other parts of squid on a stick, also delicious, but no tentacles so it's hardly worth mentioning I suppose.

The chinese had a devilish idea for a fruit-flavoured lolly that roundly sidesteps our fat frogs, our twisters and even our most fiendish E-code colourings. When they want to make a fruit flavoured pop - they actually put a load of pieces of fruit on a pop stick, then coat the whole thing in sugary syrup. And when I say coat, I mean that when I bought it I went to take off the shiny cellophane wrapper only to discover that it was A LAYER OF PURE SUGAR. Needless to say, incredible childlike happiness ensued.

Beef three star soup - I could try and describe the incredible spicy and savoury flavour of this soup, but I think it paints a better picture of my true feelings if I say that if that soup was to appear in Toronto in a couple of weeks, time would slow down while powerful piano music plays and I run towards it with my arms out for a great big hug/drink. I may in fact be crying at the time, though the combat between my sheer manliness (prevents crying) and the deliciousness of that soup (encourages it) could very well be the conflict that ends the world, not anything to do with people fighting over holy patches of desert.

Ginger mixed with milk. Yes, I know, that shouldn't work. God it does. Man, these dishes all deserve some kind of four paragraph delicious discussion fit for a food guide, but the best I can manage right now is rubbing my great big brand new belly and going "mmmmm, lovely". This is a combination of the sheer amount of food I've had recently, the fact I haven't been writing much (too busy avoiding death by vehicle while seeing the sights), and the minor contribution of the atrophication of my English language ability. I've been at a load of family dinners here where I'm pretty much treated like some rare species of Irish bear: they're happy as long as they can feed me something and pose for photos, and if I don't maul anyone that's a definite plus. To follow that analogy they're all dead keen that I mate, of course, but if they're waiting for offspring they'll have better luck with a panda with a headache due to to losing his genitals in a freak bamboo-chewing accident. Studies show that having kids puts a serious dent in the "Doing other shit" categories, so it ain't part of the master plan.

A bunch of other food items too, more notable for their location than the food though: some of the best eateries here genuinely look like the previous restaurant exploded and wasn't cleaned up before the new one was built on top of it. Some of the most delicious noodles I've ever had were cooked in a restaurant with the kitchen on the ground floor open to the street - and I don't mean open windows, I mean a distinct lack of wall or even pavement between food preparation areas and car exhausts. The rice noodle place today would need three rounds of cleaning before it'd be certified for waste management in Canada, but man it was gorgeous. I can only wish a place like the meat-skewer stall here would open near the college - I'd camp outside, and the instant it opened I'd start eating and not stop until it was closed for massive food safety violations (about twenty minutes later).

It also appears that I'm stuck with Xin! Yesterday she was off with a friend and I had to order food myself, and while I swear I ordered things we'd had before I got food that the chef should have personally apologised for. And I mean apologised to a war crimes tribunal, or perhaps the earth goddess for defiling her bounty, not just poor bastard me who had to eat it. It seems that if I was ever to leave her it wouldn't just be my main decision making organ that objects, but the gut as well (and if the latter gets any bigger there may be a serious and terrifying change in which organ has the bigger say).

Preparing to battle gut-expansion,