The mushrooms smelled like the nether regions of a Ukranian prostitute, only cheaper. And slightly more uplifting, leaving us in fits of laughter all night long. But you never can tell with mushrooms. I believe it was the systematic abuse of mushrooms that led our business writer to believe that it was a good idea to fly to Tehran, be beaten senseless by Iranian government forces for violating curfew during an election, and file copy about it. But each to their own. I was more focused on aesthetics. And it was while swimming in the pool at Fly Lounge on the funny black mushrooms that i came up with the idea for the magazine cover. With its glass walls, it was a simple matter for us to photograph each other floating in this tepid water, like creatures in Damien Hirst formaldehyde, before flopping down amongst the throw cushions in the lounge to drink mojitos and giggle hysterically.
After discovering this small human aquarium tucked away in a tiny but classy shopfront cocktail bar, i realised we could use it to produce some amazing underwater images. Because of its glass wall, no underwater camera was needed. All we needed was a beautiful young Khmer model, two studio flashes set up over the pool, and a photographer. Easy peasy. Plus a range of dresses that would float delicately underwater around the model. That was the idea, anyway, and that was to be the cover image for the first edition of our new lifestyle magazine, 28Days. A dreamlike underwater image of a model, with a pointer to a lively, well-written, informative feature on swimming pools in the Cambodian capital. Swimming pools in hotels, resorts, bars, and sports centres. The model on the cover would appear elegant, with delicate fabrics floating serenely around her. The image and story feature would combine fashion, sports, luxury accommodation, sensuality, and drinking, all in one fell swoop. Now that's what i call lifestyle.
Unfortunately, what actually transpired, after the hallucinogens wore off, was a shoot with a model who was terrified of water. Completely and utterly terrified. Not only was Molyvorn unable to swim, but she was seemingly unable to grasp the concept of holding her breath while her head was underwater. The water in the pool only came up to her waist, so all she really had to do was wade in, face the camera, bend her knees and go under. I had been so concerned with finding studio lighting and a cameraman that it never occurred to me this might be a problem. But here was Molyvorn, coming up, after a brief, submerged second or two, on the verge of tears, spluttering and gasping for air. She may well have been in tears: it was impossible to tell. Despite desperate mediations via a series of interpreters, soothing words, visual demonstrations and remonstrations, all our photographer was capturing was a series of images seemingly hell-bent on accurately recreating the terror of the waterboarding torture methods of the Khmer Rouge, only in evening dress.
Eventually our ever-patient and professional photographer, Vinh, managed to snag an image that recreated, to a degree, the dreamlike look i had envisaged, and we all went home.
However our valiant efforts to procure a cover image mattered little when our permanently deranged and sweat-laden Australian publisher, Neal, arrived later that week. Storming into the eighth floor boardroom fresh from the heart of the golden triangle, he was possessed by the redundant and impoverished idea that the first edition of our magazine should not pull focus on the subtle luxuries of the expatriate lifestyle, but, rather, regurgitate, like a whiskey drunk kneeling in a gutter lit by the garish rays of the morning sun, an outrageously melodramatic tabloid rendering of sex, drugs and rock and roll in Phnom Penh.
Sweating profusely, Neal began his manic spiel by pulling from his black leather briefcase an A3 sheet of paper and waving it about like a long-lost Biblical parchment. “Sex and drugs!” he shouted. As he held forth the illustration in triumph, an audible groan came from the editorial staff. The drawing, which looked like it had been knocked out in an aeroplane toilet, featured a rough sketch of a busty brunette holding a martini glass, under the heading "Sex, drugs, and rock'n'roll in the Pearl of Asia". And there, on the bottom, right-hand corner of the page, was a pile of what could only have been methamphetamine. A destructive quantity it was, too. As a design element, it formed a visual coda to a bacchanalian list of editorial contents. The 28Days magazine had rapidly degenerated into The 120 Days of Sodom, and the swirling underwater fashion photos were sunk.
Ultimately, and despite our best efforts to give the sordid theme a sophisticated sheen, this is what our front cover was to look like: a Phnom Penh bar girl seducing the dear reader with a counterfeit come-hither look over a martini glass filled with red cordial. Fortunately, after Neal's departure for Burma, the magazine improved. He hired an actual designer to work on the desk, thereby replacing the mediocre efforts of a clusterfuck of subeditors armed with varying degrees of InEptitude. But thosee first few issues were mangy dogs. And none more so than that bitch of a first issue.
As our sex columnist later said: You can't polish a turd. You can only sprinkle it with glitter. I hired our sex columnist, Lulu, on a whim, after seeing her in a bikini at a beach resort in Kampot. At the time it seemed a reasonable editorial decision. Her writing style was witty and erudite, had a deft knack of avoiding the sordid, and gave the magazine the kind of local spin and spark that we weren't quite getting from The Guardian's Charlie Brooker, with his Anglocentric, politicosurrealist rants and raves.
Before long, however, Lulu was failing to make deadlines, and my editor was demanding i ditch her and hire Ingrid, who was filing for a men's magazine in the Netherlands. I'd read Ingrid's stuff and didn't much like it. Her style was all sex on the washing machine and blowjobs. It was too "in your face" and would probably get us shut down. When i arrived as production editor, Neal had explained to me the three basic tenets of fulfilling the Ministry of Information requirements for publication:
- All articles must be truthful
- Articles must not criticise the royal family, either implicitly or explicitly
- Publications must not contain graphic depictions or descriptions of sex.
But Ingrid’s columns clearly, freely and wantonly flouted at least one of these guidelines. And what if King Sihanouk was one to day read about his fictional consummation of the Queen on a washing machine on the spin cycle? I'm sure he wouldn't take that lying down. But meanwhile, Lulu was running out of topics. What can I write about this week? she wrote in a desperate plea for inspiration. Any ideas? I mulled this over and fired back an editorial missive: I want sex in the workplace, and I want it on my desk at nine o'clock in the morning.
You could write emails like that, back then.
Then, suddenly, prior to his abrupt departure to pursue a career in heroin, my editor-at-large had what he described as a brainwave, and what I secretly diagnosed as an embolism. He decided to hire both sex columnists, and pay our paltry freelance rates to whoever filed copy first. The effect was disastrous. Ingrid and Lulu knew each other, and neither was going to stand for the other pushing in on what each regarded as their territory. Having weaved his magic, the editor-at-large then vanished to the opium dens of Bangkok, leaving me to sort out what, after a few deafening phone calls, was already shaping up as a vicious catfight in the dog-eat-dog food world of magazine publishing.
What can one do? In an attempt to pour oil on the waters, i wrote an email to both columnists: There is only one way to settle this, and that is in an inflatable pool filled with jelly.
You could write emails like that, back then.