Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Living in the Wild, Wild West

You gotta love Spaghetti Westerns; the macho gun-slingers in their shiny boots and spangley chaps, bright leather holsters ever at the ready and both a sparkling eye and a gleaming pistol for some buxom, fast-talking dame with a frilly, pink skirt that she doesn't mind hitchin' up above her garters as she storms out of the saloon in mock-disgust over something her charismatic, boyfriend sheriff has uttered. And then there're the Indians; those hollerin', homicidal, feather-headed madmen in ug-boots and fawn, suede chaps - every one a savage, and not to be trusted. Man, I just love the black-and-white politics and emotions of the Spaghetti Western. It's easy to know who to root for, and who to detest and despise ... so easy, in fact, that even as a kid, sick and home from school ('cause that's the only time they were ever on the teev) you could turn on the box at any stage of the film, and you'd know exactly what was going on. It was kind of comfortable – like putting on a nice, clean pair of old undies.

Did someone mention clean undies? Naturally, 'cause that's what Spaghetti Westerns are all about, I reckon. Think about it. Here you are, a ten-year-old, snivelling mess, lying back on the couch with a blanky all tucked-up nicely under your chinny-chin-chin, and you're staring at the tele, into what is ostensibly, so they tell us, a window into the past ... a window into the Wild West.

But while it's always easy to know when the moustachioed, black-hated villain is gonna draw on the count of two, or when the barman is going to duck as a half-empty bottle of sippin' licka flies in the general direction of his balding, bespectacled head, there are some things about the Spaghetti Western which, as one gets a little older and wiser, just don't make much sense.

The case-in-point is that the Spag Western, being, as we said, a window into life in the Old West, portrays a place where it never rains, where everywhere is dust and mud, and where cowboy desperados, after months out on the Ponderosa swallowing cow-dung or "going fishing" up on Brokeback, mosie on into town with only enough time to whore and drink, before copping a silver bullet between the shoulder blades or being chased away by Sheriff Charisma. Certainly not enough time to wash their dust and sweat-stained bodies or launder their fraying hats and dirty breeches, and yet, in the Spaghetti Western, there's never a dusty hem or sweaty underarm in sight.

And the Indians too; out there on the prairie, thwacking off arrow after arrow at some bastard landowner and/or buffalo, then skinning both of them and dousing 'emselves in blood and gore before going off for a chuff of the peace-pipe. Now come on, when are they gonna have time to scrub the blood out of their clean, light-brown daks with all that going on? – I went to Uni, I know how unclean stoners are the next morning! But the Spaghetti Western would have us believe it was all clean, brightly-coloured pants; clean, frilly knickers; clean, Whorehouse Madams with hearts of gold; and clean Sheriffs with a sense of morality and duty, while all around them was dirt and lawlessness.

Something doesn't quite fit, does it? I'll admit that the realisation that Hollywood has been lying to me about the state of cleanliness and hygiene in "the olden days" was, ironically, brought to my attention by the silver screen itself. In John Hillcoat's The Proposition, a "Western" set in olden days, outback Australia, the portrayal of life is anything but clean, and the contrast with its genre forefathers was both brilliant and startling. But still, the movies are the movies, and after a sickly, stay-at-home childhood of sparkling silver spurs, starched, silver-lined collars done up to the neck and perfectly-proportioned, unblemished suede hats, it's hard to know what to believe about life and hygiene in the olden days.

In hindsight, some questions about life are best left unanswered, as I discovered in the Wild, Wild West last week. The setting was a little further west of Texas and California, but despite being a little off-course, the Tibetan plateau makes a pretty good meal of the American West in the olden days, and I can assure you, it's been quite some time since the cowboys and whorehouse dames of western Tibet have had a wash!

You know how, when the desperados ride on into town, chewing tobaccy and spitting here and there, all the town pokes grab their children and skedaddle pronto? And you know how all the shutters on the windows bang closed and within seconds there's no sound in the sandy, dusty, single street other than the wind blowing between the rickety buildings? Well that was exactly Donkey and the Team wandering into our first stop on the road trip. That dusty town, a grimy pimple on an otherwise flat, featureless landscape emptied of inhabitants immediately upon our arrival, and just like in the movies, the only place left open to us was the saloon.

Whisky being a little hard to come by in these parts, we settled for the local brew, chang, and turned to look at the filthy bar, with its stained inhabitants staring back at us. After a couple of heart-starters, it was time to order a feed, and just like food from the un-refrigerated larders of the Wild West, the meat that was presented to us smelt as bad as it tasted – sort of like how you'd expect that lung on the anti-smoking ad to taste after it had been dried out in the sun and then pissed on by a diabetic yak - so it wasn't long before Donkey was looking around for a bathroom. I could have been still looking now, if it wasn't for my interpreter who informed me that there was no toilet, and that I had to go around the back. Well, "around the back" was over a small wall, through a knee-deep pile of rubbish and suspiciously human-looking excrement, past a cow with a hideously protracted anus, and around a corner to the back wall of the establishment, where I quickly discovered I had not been the only person to use these amenities in the last three years. Hmmm, as the sick little Donkey of years before, all curled up on the couch, I don't ever remember seeing the Sundance Kid's boot covered in Butch's crap! Something was not right; while the setting rang true, this town was nothing like the clean, well-kept locales of the Spaghetti Westerns. Feeling even worse than I did after the meat, and not a little puzzled, I returned to the bar and was able to gather the troops with very little prompting.

That night, we pulled into a steep valley just before dark. Our destination, with the exception of the Tibetan prayer flags above, which were so abundant as to blot-out the final rays of the setting sun, could well have matched a Californian gold-mining town of the Great Rush of the 1850s. The bustle was loud and intense as we threaded our way through the series of rickety wooden buildings to find the hotel – a windowless, coffin-like box with more dirt on the floor than a graveyard. The soiled sheets on the beds looked like they'd wrapped a few corpses in their time, but the nun who ran the place didn't seem to notice.

On the way down to our exciting new lodging, I was a little shocked at the rubbish piled up in the small stream that ran between the closely spaced buildings, and the smell was quite something else. The reason for the latter soon became apparent as I squeezed my way along a particularly narrow stretch of track, and out of the periphery of my right eye, saw a lady, slightly raised on a stone platform, about level with my waist, glance at me, casually squat and ... well, let it all hang out!

By the time I had dumped my gear in the coffin, I was almost ready to curl-up and admit defeat – the Wild West was not the highly sanitised and civilised place I had believed it to be, but rather was a squalid, impersonal and grossly immoral reservoir for disease. Unfortunately, giving up was not an option, because by that stage, the lung-meat-a-la-yak-urine from lunch was really making itself known. To its credit, in addition to the stream we'd followed earlier, this town had a toilet. Up the hill I climbed, and in the dark, I accidentally went into the Ladies'. The stench was something to be believed, but under the circumstances, I could ill afford to be fussy, so I let it all go, and heard the disturbing splash as the processed lung meat landed in the river far below.

There's truly nothing like the thought of a disgusting toilet to keep you sleeping all through the night despite the pain of a near-exploding bladder, but at first light, there was no alternative but to trek back up the hill. On arrival, I realised my embarrassing mistake of the previous evening, and this time selected the correct door.

On entering, I became aware of the extreme sexism which exists in modern society, even in this filthy community run by nuns. Y'see, while my experience of the night before had been brought to you by the phrase, "over-powering and physically debilitating stench", that was nothing compared with the Blokes'. Clearly, as evidenced by the fact that you could actually see the floor of the Ladies', the nuns do try to clean up their toilet every month or so, but the Blokes'! Oh my Gawd! The floor was coated from wall to wall, and the unmistakable scent of both fresh and fossilised human faece was like a blow to the head. So the nuns are more than happy to clean their own, but us cowboys can go to hell, right? Sexist in the extreme! Maybe ... but who knows, it was so ... confronting in there that perhaps the guy employed to clean the Mens' died while working one day, and fell through the hole. It certainly felt possible, and they'd never know 'cause no one would ever dare to venture close enough to the sluggish river below to search for his body.

As you can imagine, the Mens' toilet was not a place in which to spend too long, and as I turned to leave, I had to side-step a young man urinating on the door-step, as if, out here in the Wild, Wild West, close enough is good enough.

My recent visit to the Wild West of Tibet has given me a pretty good whiff (OK, bad expression) of what life must've been like in the olden days, and my rudimentary understanding of public health is such that if the Cow-pokes of the Spag Westerns had lived in conditions such as these, there's no way they would have sported the wonderfully unblemished complexions I envied as a sickly, young Donkey, nor the sparkling, cleaned and pressed outfits of the trusty sheriff and his posse. Once again Hollywood has lied to me, and another piece of my youthful innocence has been flushed down the dr... ah, I mean, dropped into the river!

Beneath the mass of prayer flags, deep down in the "bowels" of the valley, something dark and smelly lurks in the river beside Tidrum Nunnery. Pic: Hagas


BV said...

The toilet culture of Tiebet. Who knew?

Ann O'Dyne said...

Hi DB - there's too much in that post to retain in my head for comment ... re Spag Westerns: I love all those lee Van Cleef movies.
somewhere at a theatre in Melbourne Australia right now there is a band/orchestra performing Sergio Leone compositions - I hope they sell-out.
If you want authentic accurate western on film try 'Dirty Little Billy'.
god it was good. check it on for details.

Happy Trails to you

The Man at the Pub said...

But you fotgot the best way to clean out a toilet in the wild west.... 12 sticks of Dy-no-mite!

Kate S said...

Oh, dear lord. This should have come with a warning, as in:

Don't eat chocolate while reading.

Thanks, Donkey. I may never be the same.

Ann O'Dyne said...

re my idiot comment above - strike Sergio Leone the Director and replace with ENNIO MORRICONE the composer.

I know you knew what i meant.
reading blogs via public terminals is not conducive to clear thought.