Home » Backpacking in Thailand » The expense of truth

The expense of truth

There are three kinds of people, as I’m sure you’ll agree.

The Buddhist Monk is a consume-nothing minimalist. Bare white spaces leave room for contemplation. You can imagine anything in a bare white space. You can see the world clearly, if uncomfortably. You can live on air. Such a world requires no transactional value-system – only a mind eternally present in the Now.

Lonely Ms Lovestoshop has thirteen credit cards and store cards, all maxed-out, on which she owes three times her annual salary. Thirty-four-point-nine per-cent interest holds no fears. Her idea of a holiday is a shopping trip to Milan. Her wardrobe, cupboards and under the bed are stuffed with – er, stuff, that she’s never going to wear.

And then there’s me.

Mr Finer-feelings. Part monk, part hedonist, Libran by birth and inclination, I would love to have that white space to live in, but it would be a world containing just six, impeccably beautiful and useful possessions. I would want nothing else, other than red wine, bread, olive oil, avocados and tomatoes (with a little sea-salt), an ocean and the occasional sunset. Oh, and Hunzi.

The year before last, for instance, I decided that the Alfa Romeo in most of its manifestations was the most beautiful production car you could buy, that I could afford. Having a little money for the first time in a while, I bought one.

I spent weeks on the internet, researching the marque, the model range, the dealers and their prices, comparing all the parameters and matching the outcomes to my discerning criteria of affordable beauty and usefulness. The one that I finally bought seemed to satisfy all demands.


After signing-off the delivery, I noticed that on the passenger side, just down in front of the seat, was a small, dark, triangular gap where the gorgeous pale-beige carpet had been cut incorrectly and did not fully cover the inner doorsill. It was an area about two inches long and half an inch high at the apex. Every time I drove the car, it tickled the corner of my vision, this tiny but significant imperfection, that had been overlooked in Quality Control.

Reader, I sold that car.

Oh, yes, there were other reasons, practical reasons. Though undeniably beautiful, it was not as useful as I had hoped. Pale beige leather and expensive carpeting did not really go with the need to kennel my lovely dog, Hunzi, for a couple of hours each afternoon while I worked away from home. Not on wet, muddy days. The Italian suspension was just not up to lugging around the weight of a couple of 1cwt bags of sand-and-cement, a dozen 3-metre lengths of 2″x4″ timber and half a dozen paving slabs, as I discovered after our nearby B&Q was closed for months due to minor flooding.

And the first time I tried overtaking, it terrified the life out of me when, at the top end of second gear, with a lorry heading the wrong way towards me, I floored the accelerator and there was just – nothing. The trick, as I luckily discovered after a millisecond of thinking, whoops!, was to throw it straight up into third, where it seemed to take-off like an F-16. But the seed of doubt had been sown.

Finally, I had put the remains of my money into a long-term bank bond, so that I could not get at it for another six months. As my overdraft crept ever closer to its limit, I thought, this is silly, I owe the bank this much, losing so much interest every month; but I have five times as much saved with the same bank, earning much less interest, that I can’t get at to pay it off. I never go anywhere, I have no friends I need to impress, I don’t really need a car at all.

So I sold it, for two-and-a-half thousand pounds less than it had cost me five months earlier. An expensive lesson in aesthetics.

And now, I fear, I am at it again.

(Boring guitar chat alert – look away now)

This outrageously beautiful item, whose portrait I have reproduced here with full acknowledgement to dealer, GuitarWorld, is the semi-hollow Custom 24 by Paul Reed Smith, in Faded Whale Blue. I pictured a faded whale. It costs about £3.5 thousand, which is not at all expensive by guitar-porn standards. Why I class it as guitar-porn is simply because, in a more normal reddish or browny colour, it’s £800 less. And because I couldn’t help bookmarking it, so I can gaze lustfully at it every day.

It’s just the kind of thing I mean when I say I demand only six possessions in my white room, in my life, that are all beautiful and useful; taking after William Morris’s famous dictum. Paul Reed Smith’s guitars are not only gorgeous to look at, they are also useful, in that they sound absolutely fantastic when played by experts. I am certainly not the world’s greatest guitarist, far from it, so to spend £3.5 thousand on a single guitar, however sculptural, would be pretty idiotic. Wouldn’t it?

And, what you can’t see in the photograph, but what I know, is how spectacularly UGLY this guitar is on the reverse! Because these semi-hollow Paul Reed Smith guitars, that are all very much of a muchness in terms of their design, particularly the cowhorn shape, all have a standard varnished, heavy-looking solid mahogany back in which are set several large and ungainly plastic manhole covers through which you get at the internal electrics, held in place by ugly screws. A very American solution, I may say.

Worse, where the stick joins on to the box, Mr Smith has designed an ugly great lump of wood, that I stare at in dismay and disbelief whenever I go online to try to find my ideal instrument amidst his seductive and ever-lengthening catalog; The Special One that I would be happy to spend the rest of my life with, alone on my desert island (alone, that is, apart from Hunzi. And maybe Scat, if she promises to stop eviscerating prey on my expensive handwoven Indian rug (‘100% Acrylic’). Although recently she has taken to doing it in my bathtub, where I find chunks of bloody flesh and little curly baby feathers of a morning (I found an entire mouse last week, stuffed down the plughole, dead).

Other guitar-makers seem able to minimise this clubfoot, or even get rid of it altogether. I can see the reason for it, which is to minimise the alternative, of taking up valuable space by setting the neck inside the resonant cavity of the body – but not the rhyme. It’s hideous. I know that if I do somehow get hold of £3.5 thousand and buy my Custom 24 in Faded Whale Blue, I should spend the rest of my life gazing in horror and dismay at the back, vainly wishing that embarrassing lump away, instead of admiring the stunning beauty and Zen-like clarity of the false front and the special sound it makes – until I decided to sell it and take another thumping loss.

Never let it be said that the pursuit of truth and beauty is not as deeply, spiritually painful a journey as any other mode of existence. For if beauty is truth, as Keats eloquently put it, and truth beauty, then to have both can be bloody expensive.


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