Between you, me and the lamp post
Over the years we've had allegations of malfeasance concerning the whole spectrum of life in Thailand. Among the more unlikely cases have been claims of dubious goings on concerning purchases of such items as school pianos, parliament clocks, cows and even kindergarten toys.
The latest to come under the microscope is the humble lamp post.
Attracting attention are more than 6,700 lamp posts adorned with the mythical half- bird half- man Kinnaree which have sprung up in Bang Phli, Samut Prakan. It is not so much the decorations that are under scrutiny but assertions that the lamp posts are over-priced as a result of unscrupulous goings on in their purchase. Heaven forbid.
Before we get too excited, fancy lamp posts are not new to Thailand and are an accepted part of the culture. Around the kingdom all sorts of exotic streetlamp decorations can be seen, some tasteful, others less so. Most reflect the local culture. Chai Nat has royal barges adorning its lamps while Nonthaburi had models of traditional vendors in boats.
One of the more curious-looking displays in a Chiang Rai park features giant catfish wrapped around the lamp post. Near Suvarnabhumi Airport there have been raised eybrows concerning fancy-looking model aircraft attached to the street lights. Some say they look more like those toy planes which adorn shelves of travel agents.
A bit of local colour displayed in creative ways on lamp posts doesn't do any harm, although of course it would be preferable without dodgy dealings. At least the street lights perform a useful function.
The main concern on my little soi is not what the lamp posts look like but that their lights are actually working. The dog appreciates them too, for different reasons.
Apart from its important service to the canine community, the lamp post does have other functions. For a start the old Benny Hill TV shows wouldn't have been the same without someone walking into a lamp post. That got an even bigger laugh than the banana skins.
It reminds me of one night on Sukhumvit a few years when I was waiting for a taxi. Across the road three people wearing funny clothes stumbled out of a cab. They had presumably been to a fancy dress party and appeared to be rather merry. One was dressed as a Roman Centurion with a white tunic and replete with helmet, sword, shield and assorted regalia. He looked quite splendid if a bit wobbly. He had only advanced a few paces when he walked smack into a lamp post. Fortunately the helmet prevented him suffering serious damage to his noggin.
Following this temporary setback, the intrepid Centurion defiantly waved his sword at the offending lamp post and weaved down the street, scaring the wits out of some Thai pedestrians confronted by this deranged ghost. Our valiant Centurion eventually disappeared into the darkness, a truly fine example of the Roman military motto, virtus et honor (Strength and Honour).
There was an acknowledgement to the versatility of the lamp post in George Formby's classic 1937 hit song, Leaning On A Lamp Post, in which he uses a lamp post as an unlikely support for pursuing a romance. Unlike some Formby numbers it is not saucy, and the lyrics inform us "I'm leaning on a lamp post at the corner of the street/ In case a certain little lady comes by…"
Lamp post lovers will be pleased to learn that the song is a particular favourite of Britain's Queen Elizabeth and in her personal top ten. According to the Daily Mirror, the Queen told her private secretary she could sing all of Formby's songs. Just imagine her belting out "Oh me, oh my, I hope the little lady comes by".
Perhaps the most iconic lamp post is the one Gene Kelly swings from in that marvellous sequence from the 1952 musical, Singin' in the Rain.
As he splashed his way through the puddles Kelly's performance is all the more remarkable because he was not well, suffering from a fever. Getting absolutely drenched hardly helped. Nonetheless, the creative way he uses the umbrella as a prop in his dance routine is quite astonishing. The 10-foot-tall green fibre-glass lamp post used in the film was later stolen from the back yard of someone who collected such memorabilia.
As a tribute to Kelly's performance, in London's Leicester Square there is a statue of him swinging from the lamp post, and there is no need for Hollywood special weather effects as London kindly provides the rain and puddles for free.
In the old days when there were gas lamps, lamplighters in England would walk or ride around on pushbikes lighting the lamps with a wick attached to a long pole. It was a highly respected profession as they made people feel safer on the streets after dark. This proud image was endorsed in one of Charles Dickens' first short stories in 1838 titled The Lamplighter in which the author refers to them as "highly moral and reflective people".
It was noticeable that in the 2016 film Mary Poppins Returns, Dick Van Dyke's chimney sweep from the original 1964 film is replaced by a lamplighter, a more acceptable occupation for a Disney character than a "Dusty Bob" as the sweeps were known.
Surprisingly, there are still 1,500 active gas lamps in London. Maybe we could be in for Mary Poppins Returns Again.
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Bangkok Post columnist
A long time popular Bangkok Post columnist. In 1994 he won the Ayumongkol Literary Award. For many years he was Sports Editor at the Bangkok Post.
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