Postcard from Lille, Part 39

Lille A Ses Fusilles
© Always Worth Saying, Going Postal 2019

Five’s a funny number, especially on a train. We’re a party of two plus two plus one, with me being the one. I’m sat in the dark on my own for the trip through East London and Kent towards the Channel Tunnel.

There’s not a lot more to do other than look out of the window. My own middle-aged reflection, coloured a late evening November black, looks back at me. Much of the line from St Pancras International to the Channel is in cuttings or tunnels or within high trackside noise-reducing barriers. Not much of a view.

The tunnel announces itself with no fanfare, merely a different shade of dark. However, there is high excitement at the Calais end. It is floodlit and covered in high wire fences, running for many miles, presumably to keep illegal immigrants out of the tunnel and away from its road vehicle carrying shuttle trains.

As Calais disappears behind me, the impression is one of nondescript flat and dark. With the French being allergic to hedges and fences, it is not like England.

When the high-speed line was built, the Mayor of Lille, Pierre Mauroy (who for part of his time in office was also prime minister of France), insisted that it ran through the centre of Lille rather than by-passing it via a ‘parkway’ style station.

Derelict land, slightly to the east of the town centre, was cleared and, as well as Gare de Lille Europe, a mall and modern business / commercial district were created. A downside being that much of the approach to Lille Europe is tunnelled, depriving a view of the city. The station itself is a partly underground dingy slab-sided concrete box, which the five of us alight at only half a day after leaving our northern English home town. Although I must say, it feels much, much longer. Perhaps there is a time difference?

It is cold, it is wet, and at first glance, the area is a bit of a post-modernist glass warren. As we step out into the great boulevard of Pasteur, nothing can go wrong. Two rooms have been booked in the Novotel next to the railway station, a two-minute walk away if we get the direction right.

Previously and elsewhere, it is hot, it is dry, it is bright and the great boulevards of Manila are named after former presidents. The original seafront for Roxas, who briefly led the country from the end of the war until 1948, when he was taken by a heart attack.

I was introduced to Marcos (the sea of concrete not the man) during a day and a half in a taxi looking for Dane Publishing at Tan Dang Sora.

Quezon has an entire city named after him and, I would wager, this should be the actual pub quiz capital city of the Philippines, as that’s where the parliament buildings are.

Did I say Roxas was the seafront? Further into the bay, on reclaimed land, lies Macacapal which is one of the north-south urban highways. It is named after Diosdado Macapagal, the fifth president of the third republic and a ‘Liberal’ in the Filipino mega-rich interpretation of the word.

If the name sounds familiar, a more recent president, Gloria Macacapal Arroyo is his daughter. Commentators tend to miss out her middle name to give the impression, perhaps, that she achieved her office on merit, as a modern empowered woman, rather than by being her father’s daughter. You and I, dear reader, know better.

Incidentally, in case you were wondering what direction the trade winds of nepotism blow in, the present mayor of Lille, Martine Aubry, is former French finance minister (and EU high panjandrum) Jacque Delors daughter.

Always Worth Saying, Going Postal
Corrupt kleptomaniac installed by nepotism meets the President of the Philippines
Michael Goss, The Government of the Philippines – Public Domain

And if you think Gloria Macacapal Arroyo’s married name more modest, it isn’t. Her husband’s great uncle was a Senator. A great aunt founded a religious order, several miracles have been attributed to her. She is currently part way through being canonized. At least one of Mr and Mrs Arroyo’s children is married to a billionaire.

Frankly, at an Arroyo soiree, the scruffiest, poorest and least Catholic guests may well be the Rees-Moggs.

The great Philippine families tended to marry into each other making Manila, at least at the elite level, despite a population of 12 million (in those days), a bit of a village. Before you build barricades and storm the Malacanang Palace, bear in mind that if you can bluff your way into that elite, many doors open for you.

My business associate Gisele was part of one of those great families, descended from the eight brothers of Sipalay. Having been born and educated in one of the provincial outposts, she was pretty indestructible, able to climb a coconut tree in her bare feet and was effortlessly well connected.

And incidentally, the Manila hyper-rich could be really good fun and quite down to earth. The billionaire’s lifestyle involved endless brownouts, using all your tact and guile to get water for the toilets and fighting with a forest of wooden poles, transformers and wires (whist up a ladder in a typhoon) before you could be certain of catching your favourite TV show.

On the other hand, some of the children were dumped in front of MTV, horribly spoilt, bored and drifting towards drugs and destruction (eg the Vizconde massacre). Also, like Jordan Peterson’s big lobster at the bottom of the ocean, given a stark choice between pursuing justice, liberty and the rights of man, or hanging onto their money, they (quelle surprise) hung on to their money. Before you judge, dear reader, so would you and before you ask, I certainly did, with one interestingly glaring utopian exception, which we will come to eventually.

They also weren’t afraid to hit a more modestly waged English travelling gentleman will the bill for being entertained, not only for the food and drink at the finest restaurants THEY’D invited ME to, but even for the petrol money to get them there.

If you’re ever in an Asian mega-city and pass a filling station forecourt where a chauffeur, standing next to a giant smoked glass limousine, has picked up an English travelling gentleman (dressed in his night- out-in-the-tropics number threes) by the ankles and is shaking the money out of his pockets, then you know what is happening.

I suppose that’s why they’re rich and I’m just comfortable.

Standing every round of drinks was a bargain as, after half a mouthful of San Miguel, my business associative Gisele would fall off her stool allowing me first refusal to drag her across the floor, bounce her out the premises, hoist her feet above her head and revive her in a spray of mineral water. Almost as much fun as going to church or reading the great literary classics.

Jose P Laurel was president during the Japanese occupation. Least said the better, other than he is recognised as a President and does have roads named after him both in Manila (following the Pasig River) and elsewhere.

Incidentally, there is a JP Laurel in Davao City and if there’s ever a ‘Get Carter’ style ‘Postcard from Lille’ walking tour (and there should be) then rather than visit Gateshead’s municipal car parks and muddy river banks, you will walk along JP Laurel, Davao City, to Victoria Plaza Mall. This is where a friend, as all the contestants looked the same, made a near-fatal mess of judging a Miss Beautiful Girl competition. You will skate on the ice rink, visit my old accommodations, see Assumption Parish and hear tales of the legendary Fr Conrad. Excuse me, I’m getting ahead of myself.

Ramon Magsaysay was president from 1953 to 1957. His boulevard is one of the main East-West thoroughfares and subsequently seems to have attracted malls and one of the city’s skyscraper clusters. An over-head railway has been built above it. Common.

President Corazon Aquino’s husband had the airport named after him as that’s where he was assassinated by Ferdinand Marcos’s goons. Corazon herself doesn’t appear to have a street named after her, rather schools. Perhaps it’s too close to the time for a legacy to emerge, or perhaps it’s because she was useless and nearly destroyed the country? There is also a Corazon Cojuangco Aquino Monument. Make a note of that middle name. The Cojuangco’s were landed-landed gentry which made the informed commentator smile during her ‘People Power’ uprising which replaced the Marcos regime. The movement should really have been called ‘Rich People Power’.

Carlos Garcia (1957-1961) Boulevard curves around the crescent-shaped Heroes’ cemetery, which is very noticeable from the air, you will have seen it if you have ever flown into Manila’s Ninoy Aquino International Airport.

Joseph Estrada should have a prison named after him.

Rodrigo Duterte is still in office. He was preceded by Benigno Aquino III, son of Corazon, a bit of a nondescript chap. Never married, or drank alcohol, his hobbies were billiards and computer games. When he left office, he moved back into his mother’s home.

Which leaves, and out of respect with no fatuous remarks attached, Elpidio Quirino, who was president of the Philippine Republic between 1948 and 1953. His wife and three of his children were killed during the battle for Manila in 1945.

His avenue runs diagonally between Roxas and the Pasig River. It is a dual carriageway with a concrete central reservation enclosing a line of scruffy trees. Towards the Eastern end, it is hemmed in by low rise buildings, mainly of weathered concrete or corrugated metal. Down the side streets are a densely packed mixture of poles and wires, small business premises, homes and improvised buildings, inhabited by emaciated cats and dogs and large flocks of children.

Therefore, Quirino Avenue’s Dona Josefa apartments stood out somewhat. They were six stories high, had a lower floor of shop fronts and then five floors of slab-sided, pollution pitted concrete, each interrupted by seven metal grilled windows per floor, most dotted with air conditioners.

If Dona Josefa had been a creature, it would have been a big, square crab with five rows of seven big eyes. All its legs would be tucked underneath it as it guarded a row of parked cars and vans at the edge of the thoroughfare.

Inside were serviced apartments, more than decent by local standards, each with a living and sleeping area, small bathroom and well-stocked small kitchen. Usefully, they could be booked by the month, week, day or even by the hour.

If want to take your girl-friend there, bear in mind the apartments may be being used as a safe house (and bomb factory) for terrorists and as a stakeout for those trying to catch them. If you spot myself and Gisele peeping through cracks in slightly open doorways, listening at walls with upturned glasses or sitting in reception pretending to read an (upside down) Manila Sentinel while clocking all the comings and goings, we’re not spying on yourself and your Wednesday afternoon squeeze. A friend might do such a thing, but we have booked a room for the day and are staking out the said terrorists with a view to distracting ourselves into their apartment to take a few photos, gather a bit of intel, run away terrified, present what we’ve found out to the authorities and claim a reward.

If you’ve a sudden, inexplicable, insatiable, even primal, desire to take your girl-friend (and possibly even your wife too) to the Manila Orchid for the free offer at its casino, then I may pull a feather from a passing barangay chicken and pin it to my (Panama) hat.

Posters about the Dona Josefa and leaflets pushed under your door have been subliminally suggesting this to you. A girl at reception even dropped it into a conversation about the traffic.

We have built up a log of your movements. We’ve been in touch with your contacts. We know what you like to do in your spare time. There is no such thing as a ‘free’ offer. It’s a trap.

You would probably have fallen for it; I certainly would have and the terrorists certainly did.

Giselle calls our room from reception, the suspects have left in a taxi. Ten minutes later the Orchid rings to tell me that my guests have arrived,

‘I remembered not to spoil your surprise, sir. They still think it was a special offer. See you again soon, sir.’

Not only have they arrived they’ve been given room keys, a hostess, are already on their second drink and tucking into the buffet before heading for the casino tables. Game on.

Their room at Dona Josefa is 603, two floors above the one we’ve rented. Myself and Gisele rendezvous outside it, guns at the ready, just in case. The door is always double-locked, room service never allowed in. That end of the corridor stinks, presumably of explosives. Regular readers will recall I was cagey about what happened at the dockside in Mersin, likewise there are ways of opening locked doors that you’re not supposed to know about. They will be blanked out in films or even documentaries about locksmiths. There’s no good reason to make every door in the world less secure for the sake of entertainment. The internet may have changed all that, but having seen how easy it is to make every inventor in the history the USA look like a working-class black woman who drives a Prius, it might not have.

We carried out a semi destructive entry, meaning that we got the door open quickly and it was possible to close it behind us. To the initiated it would be absolutely obvious what we’d done, also the door might never lock again; a bit of a give-away. Never mind, best we could do, the adrenaline was pumping now. Ultimately this is a smash and grab to get a reward, tomorrow morning’s consequences are somebody else’s problem.

Gisele flicked on the light to reveal three very surprised people. The two of us were surprised as, despite all our preparations, careful note-taking, contacts and cousins and loggings of comings and goings, a terrorist was sat in the corner making a bomb. He was surprised to see us pointing guns at him. Did I say he looked surprised? No, he looked absolutely terrified. A terror which, in an instant, spread to myself as I noticed a bundle of wires around the room’s light fitting spreading out to all kinds of pieces of electrical equipment around the flat. Gisele had just suddenly and unexpectedly switched everything on. In an agonising freeze fame adrenaline-soaked slow motion, the explosives being prepared in the room, not the most stable of substances to start with, began to ignite.

To be continued……

© Always Worth Saying 2019

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