June 30, 2007

Nicholas Stoodley - Living in the Twilight Zone Part 2 of Chapter 9

Tune in every Saturday as Nicholas recalls the Disco Decade in Manila when Martial Law, Cuban heels, Donna Summer, Coco Banana and a lot of hair combined in a frenzy of uncertain excitement.

Chapter 9 - Camelot Part Two

Don't bring home AIDS, take home EMPEROR PIZZA. (An advertisement for pizza I once saw on a wall in Bacoor Cavite). Yes it's a strange country, but perhaps country is the wrong word as the Philippines is so much more than that! A black comedy of errors, the Philippines staggers from one crisis to another in a mindless mayhem of magic and madness where the normal rules of existence have been transcended: the endemic corruption, the non-stop intrigues, the unbelievably bad driving, the dirt and degradation that surround the cities…and yet this twilight zone called the Philippines – would we really have it any other way? There's something seductive in the madness; something truly compelling! In this weeks episode English designer Nicholas Stoodley, finds himself embedded in a coup in progress and becomes a Pinoy in the process.

We drew to a halt beside a huge throng of bystanders blocking the road and making further progress impossible. Just as well; no doubt, if given the chance, my taxi driver would have pulled into the parking lot of the Camelot Hotel and that is where a contingent of rebel soldiers were holed up! There was a sudden sharp report of gunfire and the crowd dived for cover, scattering in all directions – unfortunately leaving the taxi I was in dangerously exposed.

"Get out, get OUT!" I yelled at the insane driver who was straining to see which side had fired the salvo. Dangerously insane young boys broke cover from behind trees and raced to pick up still hot shell casings from the road. They were worth money and money was food!

"There…THERE!" the taxi driver stabbed the air with his hand towards the right, completely ignoring me.

"Get the hell out of here!" I bellowed and seized the driver by the shoulders. A loud rumbling sound was followed by a huge tank lumbering slowly but very deliberately directly towards the taxi. Fearing perhaps that his nice new taxi might get flattened, the driver finally realized he'd better retreat. It wasn't an easy feat. Several other cars had backed up behind our taxi also wanting to see what was going on and they had formed a road block of sorts. The tank was getting closer and closer.

"Reverse…reverse!" I screamed, almost sobbing in mindless panic. The driver too was now panicking and tutted continuously as he inched his way backwards almost flattening an old woman sitting on a stool outside her house with a bemused expression on here face. She'd seen it all before no doubt, but to me it was a completely new dimension to life in the Philippines.

Eventually we were able to make a twenty three point turn and speed off to my original destination. That day several bystanders had been killed at the Camelot Hotel but despite the fairly obvious risk of being shot, crowds of onlookers continued to watch in awed fascination as the coup ground on. But all this was just a passing diversion when compared to the big one: the coup of 86.

Holed up in the palace, a freeze dried Marcos and his Pit Bull, Fabian Ver, plotted out the final steps to an overlong charade. The party was long over and it seemed as though everybody knew it except general Ver who, almost foaming at the mouth, was screaming, "We must ATTACK!" And this was live TV. We had watched in disbelief as the embattled pair attempted to explain their strategy to a horrified nation. ATTACK ATTACK. And General Ver was not known as a gentle man. Meanwhile Cardinal Sin who had taken on the moral responsibility of ridding the country of its unduly unelected President, cajoled the crowds to gather outside Camp Aguinaldo and Camp Crame and defend the rebels holed up inside. This was history being created on my doorstep: People Power, and I wanted to be part of the action!

The embassies had warned us at all costs to stay indoors, buy candles and canned goods and to all intents and purposes my friends and parents assumed I was ensconced at home watching what was happening on CNN along with the rest of the world. "Where are you going?" demanded my maid, dropping the customary "Sir" in her disdain as to my obvious attempt to leave the house.

"To the camps" I had replied almost happily as I ran towards EDSA to join crowds of jubilant people on their way to save their country. Throngs of Nuns in full religious regalia, complete families with Lola in a wheelchair, students, hot dog vendors and souvenir salesmen. Transistor radios spewed out unfounded rumors, some were singing and most were eating as Filipinos tend to do when possible. It was Mardi Gras. A day out. Yes, it was serious and there was a purpose to it all but it felt joyful despite the hovering presence of helicopter gun ships overhead like vultures waiting for a kill.

Nearing the junction of EDSA and Ortigas a major road block had been created by buses and huge trucks parked side by side across the road. Here the crowd was completely solid and appeared to be so all the way to the camps. Some had spread rumors that tanks were on the way. Further progress was impossible so we settled down to wait – for what precisely we didn't know. Nobody knew really except perhaps Marcos himself who knew that the last waltz had been danced long ago. It had shown in his face when he forbade General Ver to bomb the hell out of the camps and machine gun the crowds. He was already looking at his legacy and Imelda was packing her jewels into Kleenex boxes in another room.

It was the first time I had seen so many tanks in full battle mode. A snake of dull green war machines heading directly to where I was standing and there was no way forward. If they wanted to get to the camps then I was toast. Simple as that! I took a few photographs but I was too nervous to concentrate. The nuns just in front of me knelt down in the road in front of the lead tank and the crowd went quiet. A ripple of electricity went through the crowd and the hairs on the back of my neck tingled. For a few moments there was an impasse and with all the hundreds of thousands of people in the streets you could have heard a pin drop!

Suddenly the lead tank roared, swung round and ploughed straight through a concrete wall as though it was made of cardboard in an attempt to find a way forwards but, as one, the crowd repositioned and blocked any further movement. Nobody had said anything, it was a collective consciousness. If they wanted to get to the camps they'd have to kill hundreds, perhaps thousands of us and we didn't care! We just didn't care. This was our chance and we were going to take it whatever the cost! It was an amazing almost exhilarating feeling and it was at that moment that I became a Pinoy, fighting alongside my brothers to forge a new republic. But of course times change. There's Marcos nostalgia now! He brought order to an unruly country. Imelda had so many good projects. The list is long. And where I had faced down the tanks is now Robinsons with scads of shoppers totally unaware of the historical significance of the site. There Nicholas Stoodley made what could have been his last stand. For the Philippine Nation.

Previously: Chapter 9 - Camelot Part 1

Start from the beginning! Read: Chapter 1 - An English Virgin

Nicholas Stoodley was born near London and has lived at one time or another in the South of France, Rome, Sydney, Tagaytay, England, Paris and Manila with plans to move to Ibiza shortly. A former assistant to Valentino in Rome, he arrived in Manila in 1976 and pioneered Ready to Wear in the Philippines with the NICHOLAS STOODLEY brand of casual clothing. During his stay in the Philippines Nicholas also won the PBA Invitational Basketball Conference in 1980 with his team from Los Angeles, designed and manufactured a Stainless Steel Sports Utility Jeep that was featured in the Frankfurt Motor Show and opened "Skatetown", a Roller Disco with Jorge Araneta in Cubao. And that was just the first course!

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