Monday, April 30, 2007

I don't like monkeys!

I don't like, I don't like, I don't like monkeys.....

My favourite corpsing moment during another marathon session in the recording booth today. (The Boomtown Rats were one of the musical highlights of my childhood; it all started going to shit rather after that, with synth-pop and the 'New Romantics'.)

Ah, and the other high point was the section where students were to be asked to differentiate between "True or Falsies". What larks we have behind that microphone!

A little bit of politics

Following up on my post last week about the last-minute prohibition on local band Carsick Cars doing the warm-up for Sonic Youth when they played in Beijing 7 days ago, I have now learned that the Chinese government's beef was not - as I had idly speculated - with the Cars at all, but with Sonic Youth.

Apparently, the Ministry of Culture belatedly found out (via a post on their BBS!) that Sonic Youth had played at the big 'Free Tibet' concert in San Francisco 10 years ago, and were not at all happy about that. (Had they really not done their due diligence on the band's application to perform here? Would they have remained in blissful ignorance but for some 'anonymous informant'? It seems absurd, but.... this is China.) They didn't feel able to deport the band or cancel their scheduled Beijing and Shanghai shows (that's progress of a sort, I suppose), but they did wish to express their displeasure somehow - and Jeff Zhang's little band was in the firing line.

It looks like this could be a continuing problem for them: I am told that the Carsick Cars have also been banned from appearing in the same venue this week (one of the satellite shows accompanying this week's open-air Midi Music Festival; I'm not sure if they're going to be able to play the festival itself during the day).

I very much doubt if Jeff and his bandmates had any idea of Sonic Youth's views on the Tibet issue (as, indeed, it seems the government itself did not until the 11th hour); and it seems amazingly petty to discipline them merely for having the temerity to seek to share a stage with a well-known American band who they regard as an important musical influence. But then, The Ogre is petty, very petty indeed.

Hrabal - who he?

Bohumil Hrabal?

The writer responsible for this week's bon mot is a Czech satirist (aren't all Czechs satirists??), perhaps best known for 'Closely Observed Trains' (which was adapted into a very highly acclaimed film 40-odd years ago). Last summer, while visiting friends in the States, I read a short novel of his called 'Too Loud A Solitude', from which the quotation is taken.

Great title! Intriguing concept, too: it's a Kafka-ish fable about a man who has spent his entire working life in a damp windowless basement compacting waste paper and books in a hydraulic press. There are rather too many books, of course, what with government censors withdrawing titles from circulation on a whim and anti-bourgeois sentiments condemning countless private libraries to destruction. The discarded books become his life. He hands on selected titles to various collectors - underground academics - that he's met. He smuggles thousands of them home for himself (the huge weight of them on a precarious platform above his bed nightly threatens him with obliteration - a sword of Damocles). He makes his bricks of compressed paper into art works, with specially chosen books hidden like pearls in the middle of them, and reproductions of Old Master paintings wrapped around the outside. He even saves up his money to buy the press for himself, so that he can continue this work after his retirement.

You might say the man has an unhealthy obsession with crushing and being crushed, and it's not too difficult to guess how it ends. It's a slight thing, very short, and with no real 'story' to speak of, but it does linger powerfully in the memory.

And - as with John Banville, the Irish writer I've quoted on here a few times - the richness of the language is a constant delight.

I particularly liked this summation of the joy of reading:
"I do not so much read as savour the words. I pop a beautiful sentence into my mouth and suck on it like a fruit drop."

A literary bon mot this week

"Men are like olives; only when crushed do we reveal what is best in us."

Bohumil Hrabal (1914-1997)

Sunday, April 29, 2007

Is piracy BAD?


Here in China, piracy is rife. IP piracy, that is. Particularly DVD piracy. In fact, you hardly ever see a legitimate DVD anywhere, and they are so ridiculously expensive that I can't imagine anybody ever buys one.

I don't have too many moral qualms about taking advantage of this. I am too much of a film-lover to pass up the opportunity to build a library of classics (I had nearly 600 titles the last time I bothered to try to count them, and have inherited quite a few more from departing friends since then), whatever the legal or ethical implications.

And, frankly, I am not too concerned about 'stealing' from the Hollywood studios. Those guys are mega-rich and mega-greedy, and I don't see them going out of business because of me. I suppose I adopt the same kind of argument I did with that 'Home Taping Is Killing Live Music' campaign of a decade or two ago. Patently bogus logic! Home taping, for most people, was an addition to purchasing music (and attending concerts), not a substitute for it. By sharing music with friends, we were actually helping to increase demand for the product in stores; people got to know about stuff that they otherwise wouldn't have, and would occasionally want to go out and buy it. But, for most of us, we couldn't possibly afford to pay for all the music we wanted to listen to. It was unrealistic of the record companies to presume to control all dissemination of their material, unreasonably greedy of them to view every instance of home taping as a loss of income to them.

Of course, things have got a lot more complicated with the explosion of online streaming. Record companies are now facing a situation where they struggle to control any of the dissemination of their material, and might soon see their income dry up almost completely, unless subscription downloads can be made into an effective business model. Well, I wouldn't be shedding too many tears if the record companies go under. I'm not sure that we need an 'industry' around popular music. Good bands will always be able to make a decent living by playing live gigs. Their creativity might even flower brighter and for longer, they might avoid burnout and craziness if they weren't doomed to become multi-millionaires. You know, they might actually focus more on the music, rather than the 'rock'n'roll lifestyle'.

The music industry depends almost solely on mass reproduction of its product, so the new technology has left it up shit creek. The film industry does not depend on mass reproduction. Until 30 years ago there was no market for individual home consumption of films. For a few decades the film industry was spoiled by having this additional revenue stream open up for it. Those days may be coming to a close. Get over it. The major sources of income for the film industry have always been, and should remain: cinema screenings (there really is no substitute for the live experience of a big-screen film), TV rights, and merchandising (these days, often the biggest earner of them all). And the studios may be able to develop some subscription download revenue as a replacement for the moribund video/DVD arm of their business.

If the film companies really wanted to establish a market for legitimate DVDs in China, they'd have to get aggressive in their marketing; they'd have to be prepared to sell close to or a little below cost for a while, to drive the pirates off the streets. Pirate DVDs are often flawed (I find there's usually about a 20%-30% failure rate, even from the better stores), rarely have all, or any, of the 'special features', and sometimes don't even have proper subtitles. I'd be prepared to spend, say, 50% or so more for a legitimate DVD that I could be confident was fully functional. But, at present, they cost 3 or 4 times as much as the pirated product, so there's no competition.

Do the film companies really care about the piracy in China? I don't think so. They could lobby against it with the Chinese government much harder if they wanted to. They could fight against it much harder in the marketplace if they wanted to. I think they have greater concerns here at the moment: the relatively small cinema market in China (growing, but still pretty tiny; despite the vaunted economic growth, few people have any disposable income to speak of, and the cinema is still a very expensive night out), and the very limited access to that market granted to foreign films (the numbers go up year by year, but it's still a pretty tight quota - and, of course, only 'approved' films; i.e., pappy blockbusters).

DVD piracy can't really be said to be hurting the film companies at the moment in China, because there simply is no market for legitimate DVDs - no-one can afford them. At least the cheap pirate copies are building the Hollywood brands (people who've never been to a cinema in their lives know who Tom Cruise and Julia Roberts are from seeing them in pirated DVDs; don't tell me the film companies are unhappy about that), adding to the groundswell of demand for more foreign films to be shown in cinemas and on TV. And they support the market for merchandising as well. McDonald's tie-ins for films like 'Finding Nemo' have been hugely successful here. Hardly anyone saw those films in the cinema; they saw them on pirate DVDs.

So, the next time you hear somebody whingeing about how hard done by the film studios are, and how immoral and irresponsible it is of you to buy pirate DVDs, just tell them to FUCK OFF. Film studios get plenty of money from bums on seats. They get plenty of money from T-shirts and toys. They shouldn't expect to be able to also milk us when we want to watch a film again at home afterwards.

No Poetry!

My career in poetry has been very intermittent. I only started dabbling in it for the first time towards the end of my undergraduate days, and my approach was very jokey. I lapsed for a while, starting up again when I was teaching high school, where I had the advantage of spending a lot of time reading poetry (that's when the haiku fetish began). Then I had quite a long fallow period, until the great doomed love affair with 'The Evil One' gave me something to write about: I had an intense period of productivity that year, but then fell out of the writing habit once again. It was the second great (failed!) love affair of my life last year that started me off again - but this time, for some reason, I have kept going.

Anyway, I haven't posted one of my pomes for a little while now, so here's one of the older ones I've recently rediscovered. Poetry did prove an effective aid in wooing both of my lost loves; but with The Evil One, I was worried that I might be overdoing it, I imagined that she might one day complain that it was an illegitimate tactic, too potent a means of manipulation. Hence.....

No poetry!

"No poetry!" you'll say.
"Poems are unfair."

And what is poetry anyway?
The desire to say things better
Because we feel them deeper -
They call that poetry.

"No poetry! Poems are unfair."

But the unfairness seems to me
That you can be a poem
While I can only try to write one.

Saturday, April 28, 2007

Things To Do In Denver When You're Dead

This film seems to keep cropping up in my mind just lately. I've mentioned it a couple of times on my blogs and once on someone else's in the last few weeks.

It seems to be something of an unregarded gem, barely 10 years old yet largely forgotten.

It's a marvellous script, full of teasing paradoxes, and excellently played by a top-notch cast. The lead character, Jimmy 'The Saint' (one of Andy Garcia's best roles), seems too good-hearted to be a gangster: he is revered by everyone for his decency, loyalty, and kindness. Yet a gangster he is, or has been: beneath the charming, affable exterior you occasionally glimpse the steeliness of purpose, the ruthlessness, the capacity for sudden, effective violence. He has retired from the criminal world and is now running a legitimate business making videos of old or terminally ill people in which they can leave last messages and life wisdom for their loved ones. Rather as in 'When Harry Met Sally' the film is interspersed with snippets of these videos, which comment obliquely on the unfolding story, and which are often very touching; indeed, they do seem as if they might be genuine 'last testaments' of the dying rather than scripted elements of the film.

Jimmy's loyalty proves to be his tragic flaw. Recruited to carry out one more - rather unusual - 'action' by the local crime boss (a wonderfully sinister Christopher Walken), he reunites his old 'crew', an eccentric collection of losers, because he realises they need the money. When the job goes horribly wrong, the wrathful crime lord (a quadriplegic, known only by the nickname 'The Man With The Plan') orders a hit on the whole lot of them as an example. Jimmy has the chance to flee town, but sticks around to try to warn his friends - so he and they become like the clients of the video business, people who suddenly know that their days, hours are numbered. When you know you're going to die, your life comes into perspective, you realise what the really important things are. It's a wonderful premise, an unexpected examination of some very serious themes. For a film that is predominantly quirky and humorous, almost at times a black comedy, its lingering impression is very sombre.

There are so many delightful oddities in this film: it's set in Denver (Has any film ever been set in Denver before, let alone a gangster film?); the nameless godfather is still running his criminal empire from a wheelchair; Jimmy's 'HQ' is in a soda shop rather than a bar, and a nostalgic narration is provided by one of the elderly regulars there; Jimmy and his land-locked colleagues share a fantasy of a sundrenched retirement in the Florida Keys; the superhumanly efficient assassin - known only as 'Mr Shhh', because he's so soft-spoken - called in to wipe the boys out proves to be a nerdy, dishevelled Steve Buscemi. (Here's an interesting aside - Has Steve Buscemi ever been in a bad film? I can't think of one.)

It's chock-full of brilliant, quotable dialogue. Garcia's chat up of Gabrielle Anwar is probably the best seduction ever placed on film. And then there's Critical Bill. Critical Bill is the reason everything goes wrong. He's wildly unstable, a bit of a psychopath (he has a job in a funeral parlour, and works out by using cadavers as punchbags); and yet - as brilliantly played by Treat Williams - he's also a strangely sweet, vulnerable character, and you can sort of understand why his friends tolerate his dangerous unpredictability. At one point he ambushes an enemy, leaping out from behind a door and whaling into him with a baseball bat while screaming, "I am Godzilla, you are Japan!" My favourite battlecry!!

IMDB annoys me. It's the democracy of the imbecilic. (HOW can twee, manipulative, predictable, overlong 'Shawshank Redemption' be the highest-rated film??) So far, 'Things To Do In Denver' has only 8,000 ratings on the site and a ridiculously low average of 6.5. It should be at least 1 to 1.5 points higher than that. ('Shawshank' on the other hand has a 9.2; should be about 4 lower!) A call to action, my friends. Right this wrong. Watch 'Things To Do In Denver' and then go and give it the rating it deserves.

The last word on the cat-dog controversy

Following up on my consideration of the comparative merits of cats and dogs the other day (prompted by my discovery of a poem about cats by Pablo Neruda), I offer you this - courtesy of my good friend The Choirboy. It's quite an old thing, been doing the rounds on e-mail for a while now, but it bears reprinting - good stuff.


7 am - Oh boy! A walk! My favourite!
8 am - Oh boy! Dog food! My favourite!
9 am - Oh boy! The kids! My favourite!
Noon - Oh boy! The yard! My favourite!
2 pm - Oh boy! A car ride! My favourite!
3 pm - Oh boy! The kids! My favourite!
4 pm - Oh boy! Playing ball! My favourite!
6 pm - Oh boy! Welcome home Mom! My favourite!
7 pm - Oh boy! Welcome home Dad! My favourite!
8 pm - Oh boy! Dog food! My favourite!
9 pm - Oh boy! Tummy rubs on the couch! My favourite!
11 pm - Oh boy! Sleeping in my people's bed! My favourite!


Day 183 of my captivity.

My captors continued to taunt me with bizarre little dangling objects. They dine lavishly on fresh meat, while I am forced to eat dry cereal. The only thing that keeps me going is the hope of escape, and the mild satisfaction I get from clawing the furniture. Tomorrow I may eat another house plant.

Today my attempt to kill my captors by weaving around their feet while they were walking almost succeeded - must try this at the top of the stairs. In an attempt to disgust and repulse these vile oppressors, I once again induced myself to vomit on their favorite chair - must try this on their bed. Decapitated a mouse and brought them the headless body in an attempt to make them aware of what I am capable of, and to try to strike fear in their hearts. They only cooed and condescended about what a good little cat I was. Hmmm, not working according to plan.

There was some sort of gathering of their accomplices. I was placed in solitary throughout the event. However, I could hear the noise and smell the food. More important, I overheard that my confinement was due to my powers of inducing "allergies." Must learn what this is and how to use it to my advantage.

I am convinced the other captives are flunkies and maybe snitches. The dog is routinely released and seems more than happy to return. He is obviously a half-wit. The bird, on the other hand, has got to be an informant and speaks with them regularly. I am certain he reports my every move. Due to his current placement in the metal room, his safety is assured. But I can wait; it is only a matter of time.

My local 'Nail House'

Jiugulou Dajie - 'my' street, The Street, the 'street of dreams' where I lived for my first year in Beijing and have hung out in the vicinity of ever since - used to be a da jie ('big street'; i.e., a boulevarde) in name only; it was really little more than a hutong, one of the web of narrow alleyways interlacing the grey, single-storey slum housing that is characteristic of 'old Beijing'. At many points it was scarcely wide enough for two vehicles to pass each other, which made for some particularly horrendous traffic congestion in the rush hour (it was, bizarrely, a main artery linking the city centre to the North 2nd Ringroad, and home to a major bus route). In the summer of '04 it was all abruptly bulldozed: all the shops and restaurants - and the people - that had defined my life for nearly 2 years were swept away in a matter of a week or two. I was heartbroken.

However, I have to admit, for once they didn't do a bad job of the redevelopment. We now have a genuine da jie, a broad 4-lane* thoroughfare elegantly lined with new buildings in the faux Qing Dynasty architectural style (which is tiresomely de rigueur in the city these days, and often very tackily done; but here it's been quite well executed).

There is one rather conspicuous exception to this enforced gentrification of the street. Near the north end, just a couple of hundred yards from the subway station, is this isolated reminder of the picturesque squalor that is still ubiquitous behind these modern 'Qing' facades. I must assume that it is our very own 'nail house', home to a stubborn resister hoping to wring a better compensation deal out of the developers.

I think it's bound to be removed, one way or another, before the Olympics roll around next year. But I hope it remains for a while longer yet: I cherish it as a memento of the 'good old days'.

* I noticed that it's actually a 5-lane road. 5? Go figure. More people leave the city than go into it?? Only in China. And two of those lanes are in fact 'bicycle lanes' - not that you'd notice, because cars drive in them, and park in them, with impunity.

Friday, April 27, 2007

WITH tears!

Another gem from the Christmas Crackers anthology of literary oddities I mentioned the other day is this extract from a Victorian reading primer, which the author of the collection claims to have used himself in childhood to good effect. As a graded reader, it is perhaps a well-designed learning aid. The content, however, is, well, dark.... macabre.... potentially traumatizing.

This excerpt rather calls into question the aptness of the title, 'Reading Without Tears, or a Pleasant Mode of Learning to Read'.

Will-li-am climb-ed up-stairs to the top of the house, and went to the gun-pow-der clos-et. He fill-led the can-is-ter. Why did he not go down-stairs quickly? It came in-to his fool-ish mind, "I will go in-to the nur-se-ry and fright-en my lit-tle bro-thers and sis-ters."

It was his de-light to fright-en the chil-dren. How un-kind! He found them a-lone with-out a nurse. So he was a-ble to play tricks. He throws a lit-tle gun-pow-der in-to the fire. And what hap-pens? The flames dart out and catch the pow-der in the can-is-ter. It is blown up with a loud noise. The chil-dren are thrown down, they are in flames. The win-dows are bro-ken. The house is sha-ken.

Mis-ter Mor-ley rush-es up-stairs. What a sight! All his chil-dren ly-ing on the floor burn-ing. The ser-vants help to quench the flames. They go for a cab to take the chil-dren to the hos-pit-al. The doc-tor says, "The chil-dren are blind, they will soon die."

Here comes the haiku

Unnoticed treasure,
Daily enriching our lives.
Familiar smile.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

And speaking of cats...

Another Kopi Luwak ad. This, apparently, is from Australia.

The slogan's a bit clumsy, not nearly as good as the inspired 'Kopi Happens' on that one I posted last week. And this, although it is otherwise the same picture, lacks the wonderful animation of the left hand cranking the tail as a pump, 'coffee' being squirted into the cup out of the civet's arse. Oh, just go back and look at the original one again!

Cats or dogs?

When I spoke at the start of the week of getting a dog, it was purely a pretext for introducing the dog/girlfriend comparison. A dog simply wouldn't fit into my frenetic lifestyle at the moment (and would, I fear, soon go the way of the several houseplants people have given me as gifts since I moved into my current apartment 2.5 years ago - i.e., DIE).

In fact, I am more of a cat person anyway. I love dogs too, but I find them dim, demanding, over-exuberant, and too bloody helpless - they always give the impression that if you abandoned them for even a few days, they might die of want of affection as much as from shortage of food. A slutty, free-spirited cat will just swan off next door and charm your neighbours into feeding it. A cat, goddammit, always gives the impression that it is smart enough to open the tin of food itself if you're not around, but just won't demean itself with such trivial labour.

Cats are more 'feminine' in their character: their sensuous, sinuous elegance, their coquettish rationing of affection, their magnificent indifference. Dogs are more 'masculine': loud, good-natured, oafish, clumsy, touchingly loyal, but..... they're good fun in the pub, but I wouldn't really want to live with one.

Enough digression. Here's Neruda on cats.

Cat's Dream

How neatly a cat sleeps,
sleeps with its paws and its posture,
sleeps with its wicked claws,
and with its unfeeling blood,
sleeps with all the rings -
a series of burnt circles -
which have formed the odd geology
of its sand-coloured tail.

I should like to sleep like a cat,
with all the fur of time,
with a tongue rough as flint,
with the dry sex of fire;
and after speaking to no-one,
stretch myself over the world,
over roofs and landscapes,
with a passionate desire
to hunt the rats in my dreams.

I have seen how the cat asleep
would undulate, how the night
flowed through it like dark water;
and at times, it was going to fall
or possibly plunge into
bare deserted snowdrifts.
Sometimes it grew so much in sleep
like a tiger's great-grandfather,
and would leap in the darkness over
rooftops, clouds and volcanoes.

Sleep, sleep, cat of the night,
with episcopal ceremony
and your stone-carved moustache.
Take care of all our dreams;
control the obscurity
of our slumbering prowess
with your relentless heart
and the great ruff of your tail.

Pablo Neruda (1904-1973), tr. from the Spanish by Alistair Reid

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Another illustration

I complained again yesterday, and I have complained before, that Beijing's overabundance of trees is a major cause of the localized 'desertification' this city suffers. Again, some of my readers had questioned whether I wasn't overstating the case. Is there really a tree every two or three yards along the sidewalk? Is every single one of them really surrounded by a square yard of dust bowl? YES. The camera does not lie. There are, I would guess, well upwards of a million bloody trees in Beijing, and every one of them is surrounded by a mini desert.

The Ogre strikes again

I went to a rock concert on Monday - a pretty major cultural event here in Bejing, the highly influential (though not my scene!) and boundary-pushing New York indie 'noise' band Sonic Youth, who are widely cited as a primary musical influence by up-and-coming local bands. One of these, the strangely named Carsick Cars (I doubt if it sounds any better in Chinese; almost nothing sounds better in Chinese), led by a highly inventive young guitarist called Jeff Zhang, was to have opened the show.

But they didn't. Their 'permit' to perform was suddenly revoked, only 8 or 10 hours before they were due to go on stage. I'm not sure which of the many inept departments of government is responsible for supervising this portion of the entertainment industry. I think it might well be SARFT (yes, rhymes with DAFT - rather appropriate), the State Administration of Radio, Film, and Television (and telecoms and the Internet and....). Why would they do such a thing? Why indeed.

Well, it might be because one of Jeff's songs is called Zhongnanhai. I don't think I've heard that one myself, but I read recently that it has started becoming quite popular on the local music circuit and is being covered by a number of other bands in live shows. Zhongnanhai (Central Lake/South Lake) is the parkland residential compound in the middle of the city (immediately to the west of the old Forbidden City) for senior members of the national government, so it's possible that this piece is sailing a bit close to the wind in terms of political commentary. Then again, it's also the name of a popular brand of cigarette; so the song might be completely innocent of such subversive intent, for all I know.

However, it is very much 'the Chinese way' to wield one's powers of interference and obstruction in this manner merely to remind people that one can. The sub-text to almost every public action or pronouncement of the government here is the (increasingly desperate and hollow-sounding) assertion: "We're still in charge, we're still in charge."

Whether there was any plausible pretext or not, it is another huge PR goof for the Chinese Communist Party. The several hundred people at the gig on Monday (mostly but not all foreigners) now think the CCP are a bunch of tits. They probably did anyway, but they now believe it with heightened vehemence - for a few days, at least. Sonic Youth now know - and might not have before - that the CCP are a bunch of tits. And the music press all around the world are likely to write up what a bunch of tits they are, for the enlightenment of the previously naive or uninformed music-loving masses.

I was reminded (and not by any means for the first time since I came to this country) of W.H. Auden's bitter little satire on Brezhnev's invasion of Czechoslovakia in the summer of '68.

The Ogre does what ogres can,
Deeds quite impossible for Man,
But one prize is beyond his reach:
The Ogre cannot master speech.

About a subjugated plain,
Among its desperate and slain,
The Ogre stalks with hands on hips,
While drivel gushes from his lips.

Put not your trust in translation engines

Here is the promised English version of the Heine poem (set to music by Schumann) which I posted at the weekend. I don't know who wrote this, but it comes from John Julius Norwich's first 'Christmas Crackers' literary commonplace collection (a favourite book which I salvaged from storage on my last trip back to the UK), so it might well be by JJN himself.

A young man loves a maiden,
Who turns from him aside
To one who loves another yet
And takes her for his bride.

The girl, in sore resentment
At fortune so ill-starred,
Marries the next that comes along;
The first lad takes it hard.

It's all an old, old story,
And yet it's always new:
And whosoever suffers it,
It breaks his heart in two.

And here's what you get it you run the Google translation tool on the original German:

A young man loves a girl,
Those chose another;
The andre loves a andre,
And with this vermählt itself

The girl marries from annoyance
The first best man,
The it in the way run;
The young man is bad to.

It is an old history
But it remains always new;
And whom it just pass,
To that breaks the heart divide.

The human translator is far from being obsolete as yet!

One of many...

... piles of sand.

Some people didn't believe me, thought I might have been exaggerating a bit yesterday about the ubiquity of sand, dust, and building works around Beijing. Not a bit of it. Here is a picture of the nearest pile of sand to my apartment. There are a couple more between here and the end of the street 300 yards away. And the sidewalk re-laying operation is about 80% finished here (actually, I suspect it is 100% finished and they're just never going to get around to tidying up the remaining loose or unlaid bricks), whereas along the whole of the rest of the mile-and-a-bit long street, on both sides of the road, the sidewalk is still completely ripped up; and there are piles of sand like this one every 100 or 200 yards.

And at the moment, you see sights like this just about everywhere you go in Beijing. Hence the rattle in my bronchi, I think we can safely conclude.

PS A few days later I wrote a related post over on my Barstool Blues blog - go check it out.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Aftermath of the last big dust storm

The view out of my kitchen window a year ago. As I mentioned yesterday, I awoke early one morning to find that the cars in the parking area in my apartment complex were a curious tawny colour. A sand storm had whipped through town, stealthily, silently, in the wee small hours of the morning, coating everything in one or two tenths of an inch of fine reddish-brown grit. A remarkable sight.


Since I seem to be perennially hopeless at finding (or keeping) a girlfriend, I am becoming seriously tempted to get a dog for companionship instead. The more I think on it, the more obvious the many advantages appear.

10 Reasons Why A Dog Is Better Than A Girlfriend

1) A dog gives you unconditional love.

2) A dog gives you absolute loyalty.

3) A dog is always pleased to see you when you come home.

4) A dog enjoys being told to "fetch".

5) You can pet other dogs whenever you like.

6) A dog doesn't mind being teased about "dog years".

7) You can keep a dog happy with one or two chocolate treats, instead of a whole box.

8) You can get a dog to jump in the lake quite easily.

9) When a dog has behaved badly, you can make it sleep outside.

10) When you stop buying dinner for a dog, it dies.

Quite a powerful argument, I think.

Monday, April 23, 2007

A Lungful of Dust

This past couple of weeks, everywhere I've looked in Beijing I've seen SAND. Piles and piles and piles of the bloody stuff.

It's the annual drive to carry out building improvements and sidewalk repairs before the really hot summer months come along. It is cunningly timed to coincide with the windiest of months here in the city. And, of course, nobody thinks to wet this sand, or cover it up. No, it is all left permanently exposed to the elements. Well, there was a strip of plastic matting laid down on the 400 yard strip of bare earth between my apartment building and the end of the street that was left exposed for some days last week while the sidewalk was being completely re-layed. That, however, was an innovation, not, to my knowledge, repeated anywhere else yet. And it was a fairly coarse-weave mesh, so the sand could quite easily seep through it.

Both local and national government here are fond of blaming the city's occasional full-on 'dust storms' on the far end of Inner Mongolia, the Gobi Desert. But the low-level sand infestations we suffer on a day-to-day basis certainly all arise locally, from the hundreds or thousands of building sites around the city, from the tens of thousands of sidewalk re-laying projects, from the millions of squares of parched earth around the base of all the trees here. Even the rare apocalyptic, sky-darkening storms (there were some humdingers 5 or 6 years ago, but nothing to speak of while I've been here) come from much closer to home, I think. We had a mild one (overnight, so unwitnessed) this time last year that left everything coated with a quarter-inch of fine red sand, but I heard that analysis of these deposits showed that the stuff came from the neighbouring province, perhaps only a few tens of miles distant, not from the far end of Mongolia. (In fact, pretty much the whole of north central China is now a dust-bowl, and the Gobi is threatening to colonize half the country.)

I suspect the whole "Mongolian sand storms" story is just a myth, another piece of disinformation eagerly propagated by the government to shift blame, to divert attention from the real sources of the problem.

PS Along with the dust at this time of the year comes the cotton-balls - airborne clumps of white fluff shed by one particular variety of tree (I'm not good on names of trees). For a few days at the end of last week it was everywhere, falling thick as snow, clogging nostrils and stinging eyes. Not nearly as bad as last year, though. The puffballs seemed much smaller than I remember in the past, and the inundation has passed in only three days, rather than the week or more it has lasted before. I am told it is only the 'female' trees of the species that produce this stuff. The first few years when I was here, trees were being ruthlessly pollarded, to the point - it would seem - of death, to try to ameliorate this problem, but it didn't seem to be working. In this last year, I think, a lot of the offending trees have simply been ripped up and replaced. Progress, of a sort. Ah, the Olympics....

PPS Along with the season of dust comes the notorious Beijing Spring Cold. I thought I had miraculously escaped it this year..... but NO. I started going down with it over the weekend, and am now feeling like SHIT. And I'm usually pretty resilient about illness - this is a bad one. I'm supposed to be running a marathon in a month's time, and my training plan is already way behind. Bugger, bugger, bugger.

Patriotism - who cares?

Some deeply buried trivia quiz impulse in my brain somehow reminded me (belatedly) that today was St George's Day. I don't suppose I was the only person who forgot (until it was nearly over). I have always been deeply sceptical of nationalism and patriotism ("the last refuge of the scoundrel" and all that). One of the few things I really like about the country into which I was accidentally born is that it doesn't really have a 'national day'.

Maybe it's because England is too old to have a 'creation myth'. Or maybe it's because we, as a people, are too self-confident (arrogant?) to feel the need of a communal orgy of self-definition. I love the fireworks and the jollity and the drinking that attend festivals like the 4th July in America and the 14th July in France, but I do always feel a bit uncomfortable and embarrassed about the "What a great nation we are!" braggardliness of it.

England just doesn't have such a holiday. St George's Day? Preposterous! It has no link to our real history, nor to anything relevant to our modern culture. Only a handful of right-wing loons give much of a damn about it.

No fireworks or parades for us Angles today - and I'm very glad of that.

This week's 'bon mot'

After publishing my dark poem last week about our consuming need for recognition, to win people's attention, to leave some enduring record of our presence here on earth.... I was reminded of this famous line by Woody Allen.

"I don't want to achieve immortality through my works. I want to achieve immortality by not dying."

Sunday, April 22, 2007

An old story, yet always new

This is an old favourite. How's your German? (Don't worry - translation to follow in a few days)

Ein Jüngling liebt ein Mädchen,
Die hat einen Andern erwählt;
Der Andre liebt eine Andre,
Und hat sich mit dieser vermählt.

Das Mädchen heiratet aus Ärger
Den ersten besten Mann,
Der ihr in den Weg gelaufen;
Der Jüngling is übel dran.

Es ist eine alte Geschichte,
Doch bliebt sie immer neu;
Und wem sie just passieret,
Dem bricht das Herz entzwei.

Heinrich Heine (1797 -1856)

North Korean holidays - a shameless plug

A rare cross-post from brother blog, Barstool Blues.

And a rare foray into commercialism! It's all right - I promise I won't make a habit of it. But I know this outfit - Koryo Tours, a boutique tour company specialising in trips to North Korea, based here in Beijing (there are no direct flights into Pyongyang, I don't think, other than from here and one or two places in Russia), run by a couple of Brits, mates of mine, Nick Bonner and Simon Cockerell.

It's a fascinating country, a unique experience. And the Mass Games (on currently, and for the next month or so), an extravaganza of music & movement featuring tens of thousands of participants, is an absolutely awesome sight.

I went on one of their tours 18 months ago, and would like to go again sometime. Warmly recommended. Not cheap, but well worth it.

Saturday, April 21, 2007

Another 'bad China' moment

I saw my first tandem bicycle in China while running around the nearby lakes. What an horrendous idea! As if regular bicycles aren't dangerous enough, without making them twice as big, twice as heavy, twice as unstable.

This one was, I imagine, rented out by one of the bike-hire places as an amusing novelty for the afternoon. It was being ridden by two young girls who were woefully short-sighted and had no idea where the brakes were. They very nearly killed me. Really. I had to throw myself sideways into a wall to avoid being mown down. I was furious. I gave them 10 seconds of abuse in Chinese, English, and a couple of other languages as well.

During the rest of my run, I fantasised grimly about having forced them to dismount and then having thrown the wretched über-bicycle into the lake. I would have done this, I told myself, not to vent my own rage, or to punish them for their irresponsibility, but for public protection - they were looking set to leave a trail of casualties in their wake, and somebody should have stopped them. But, with any luck, they will have been flattened by a truck themselves before they completed one circuit of the lakes.

Ah, it's good to have such a vivid imagination. It does save me from actually murdering people like this.

A Beijing street scene

As I was (belatedly) setting off on my run on Saturday afternoon, I passed an interesting bit of street theatre unfolding right outside my apartment building. I was tempted to abandon my exercise regime so that I could stay and enjoy it all, but..... I really can't afford to miss too many more days of running.

A pedicab (a sort of tricycle rickshaw arrangement: the cheapest form of local hire transport; though not that common in central Beijing, other than the slightly upmarket ones that cater to tourists) ferrying a frail old lady somewhere had - apparently - swerved across the road (having been on the wrong side of the road - a very common offence for Beijing cyclists, who seem convinced that their own convenience is far more important than any considerations of general safety), and was very nearly hit by a black Audi. I couldn't see any evidence of injury or damage to any of the parties, but it had evidently been a very close call and the pedicab guy was fuming about it.

Now, as far as I could infer, it was the pedicab that had been entirely in the wrong. However, none of the many bystanders gathering to watch the stormy confrontation was likely to take the Audi driver's side - and neither was I.

These black cars are the curse of Beijing. Luxury sedans, all in gleaming, glossy black, with completely blacked-out windows; usually Audis, or some other flash imported brand; reputedly the official vehicles of upper-level Party cadres. However, not even Beijing has that many senior cadres. There are thousands upon thousands of these fucking things. I imagine that a lot of people are merely posing as senior cadres. A lot of these sinister black cars, I think, are driven by, for example, a relatively lowly official who just happens to have become more-than-decently rich by virtue of holding a modest but influential position in a local planning department somewhere. Or his dodgy brother-in-law who owns a building supplies company which wins a lot of valuable government contracts. Yep, these are the guys who are bleeding the country dry; complete c*nts, the lot of them, and everybody knows it. You can always tell the type (on the rare occasions they leave the protective anonymity of their black-window cars): all sharp haircuts and sunglasses and genuine Lacoste polo shirts (rather than the cheap local fakes that everybody else settles for). They're all swagger and bluster and bullying ("Hey, don't mess with me; I know people, people who could make life very unpleasant for you."); they think they own the bloody country (well, they do), and that the little people are just there to stroke their egos by being in awe of them. They are universally hated, but universally feared.

Our pedicab guy, though, was undaunted. He was a typical "old Beijinger" - tatty old jumper and a cracked leather jacket that looked as though it might date back to The War Of Resistance Against Japanese Agression (as WWII is quaintly styled around here), huge paunch, chain-smoker, world-class swearer. Beijingers have a reputation for being irreverent, bloody-minded, truculent; they all love to slag the government and 'the system' off in conversation any chance they get, but that bravado soon evaporates when they're actually confronted with one of these 'connected' guys, these black sedan bastards. But our working class hero felt wronged, and was damn well going to get satisfaction. He had prised the Audi driver out of his car, and was haranguing him in the middle of the street.

Confrontations over petty traffic accidents are a common sight in Beijing (lots of cars, very poor standards of driving; hence, hundreds, perhaps thousands of minor shunts every day). There seems to be an ingrained belief (I doubt if it's actually a law, but it's the rule everyone seems to follow) that you should not move your car after an accident - any accident - until the police come. The police might take a very long time to come. Sometimes they might not come at all. The two drivers have to sort matters out for themselves. Probably one of them will be manifestly at fault, and will eventually agree some on-the-spot compensation (since we're rarely talking about more than a scratch or a dent or a broken tail-light, it'll be a matter of a few hundred kuai). Most of these transactions are pretty trivial, but there's an awful lot of pride invested in them - the crazy Chinese notion of maintaining 'face'. These heated exchanges in the middle of the road can drag on for hours. Literally hours. It is one of the major causes of the hopeless traffic congestion in this city.

The black sedan drivers, though, are scary motherf*ckers. People don't usually take them on; and if they do, they are soon intimidated into backing down. The pedicab man's storm of fury was an unusual, inspiring sight, a one-man 'peasants' revolt'. I had hoped the argument might still be raging when I got back from my run 90 minutes later - but alas, no. I imagine that the Audi driver, with his path completely blocked by the errant pedicab and an unsympathetic crowd forming around him, will have decided to buy his way out of trouble by reaching into his fake leather clutch-purse (they all have them; another of China's fashion oddities) and pulling out one or two 100 yuan notes. On the other hand, if he was seriously 'connected', he may just have summoned the police to come and kick the shit out of the pedicab guy. I do hope it was the former.


I went shopping this morning. Impulse buy: new brand of fruit yoghurt drink - in a twin-pack, special price, with the free gift of a nice-looking little glass bowl.

Chinese packaging is.... strange. Shoddy. Bizarre.

I had incautiously assumed that the glass bowl was actually attached to the yoghurt cartons by tape or something. No - it was just loose, inside the extremely flimsy plastic bag surrounding the three items. As soon as I unpacked my shopping at home, said plastic bag revealed its remarkable flimsiness by spontaneously shredding into three pieces, allowing the nice glass bowl-et to fall to the floor.

I very nearly caught it in flight. I think I would have caught it first bounce - if there had been a first bounce. You know that thing about how glass doesn't shatter until the third impact? There's supposed to be some physical law at work, to do with the properties of crystalline structures: the first impact merely sets off potentially damaging resonances, the second 'fixes' them into permanent micro-fissures; only further impacts will cause these fissures to break. Chinese glass, I infer, is manufactured with the fissures already in place: the instant this bowl touched the floor for the first time it exploded into about 30 or 40 fragments.

Oh dear. Not an auspicious sign for the rest of my day. It might easily have made me angry. Or depressed. Instead, I just shrugged, and got on with unpacking the rest of the shopping. (The fruit yoghurt is actually rather good. Undoubtedly the brand will disappear without trace again in a month or two.) "Uh, it's China." Within seconds I had dismissed the incident from my mind.

I have become much more tolerant of these petty irritations over the last few years. I am even able to enjoy them with a sly humour most of the time.

I remember an incident while I was staying with my friend Coral down in The Other Place (Shanghai, that is) a year or so ago. Returning to her apartment to freshen up after a day out and about, I was shocked, momentarily mystified to find that my sponge bag had been completely emptied of its contents by her ayi ("auntie" = domestic help). Confused by the appearance of such a strange, male accessory in a single woman's bathroom, she had assumed that it was some sort of trash bag, and thrown away all the (expensive, foreign, new, barely used) toothpaste, shaving foam, razors, deodorant, etc. inside it, though not the bag itself??? This was a not insignificant financial blow to me (I'm a poor boy, and I don't like to write off 200 or 300 kuai's worth of nice foreign toiletries just like that), and it was darned inconvenient, potentially embarrassing that I would be spending my last night in swish, cosmopolitan Shanghai (and then going back to work again in Beijing the next day) unshaven. However, the incident was just so bizarre, so ludicrous that I responded to the discovery with a peal of laughter.

My laugh drew Coral's attention, obviously. When she discovered her ayi's aberration, she was livid. I had thought she was more mellow about the weirdnesses of China than me, but she does have a rather obsessive-compulsive streak. She said to me: "If you can just laugh off something like that, maybe you've been in China too long."

No, I don't think so. But I don't extend people the same latitude for fucking up in creative ways when I'm back in the UK or the US; here, on the other hand, it seems to be essential to maintaining one's inner calm.

Friday, April 20, 2007

Alternatives to teaching English

I've just had to give a lecturette on this topic, and last night I found this all-too-appropriate picture on the Internet to kick off my slideshow.

One day I shall probably write at more length on the subject of teaching and teachers. There's a lot to say, but I'm too exhausted now. And my feelings about it are too conflicted to admit of easy discussion. Many of my best friends are teachers, yet in general I am rather contemptuous of the profession. I love teaching, yet I hate having to do it for a living. (Actually, the same would probably be true of any profession that I found myself in. I think being a journalist would be torture for me.)

The friend who arranged this afternoon's seminar facetiously introduced me as "the richest teacher in Beijing". Ah, if only........

Perhaps the most time-efficient teacher? At least as far as my own benefit is concerned. I'd like to think that I deliver plenty of valuable content to my students too, but my main concern is to secure a decent hourly rate for myself. A couple of times since I've been here I've taken tough decisions to refuse to work for less than x per hour, and have suffered weeks or months of rising panic as I appear to have priced myself out of the market.... but then, but then, slowly, new offers of work at higher rates start coming in. So, I earn much the same as my other teacher friends, but I probably have to put in rather fewer hours to achieve it. As Liz Phair once put it in a song, "It's nice to be liked, but it's better by far to get paid."

And I am making progress in my mission to escape from English teaching altogether. In fact, I've never really had to teach much 'nuts & bolts' English (thank heavens); almost all the teaching I've done out here has been focused on exam preparation, study skills, academic writing - quite high-level stuff. And these days I try to restrict myself to business 'soft skills' training and MBA primer courses. And editing, voice work, etc.

Anything but bloody EFL teaching!!

A topical haiku

The weather's getting warmer, there's been no substantial rain for..... months(?)..... the whole city is one huge building site. It's one of the signs of Spring in this town, one of the signs that the dust problem is getting really out of hand, when the water tankers hit the streets, spraying the asphalt to try to reduce the amount of dust getting airborne.

When you haven't noticed this happening - especially wandering back from a bar in the wee small hours! - the unexpected appearance of shiny-wet roads can seem startlingly incongruous.

Streets suddenly wet -
Out of place amid the dust:
An ersatz rainfall.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

More from John Banville's 'Athena'

I've quoted part of this book before. I rediscovered it while staying with friends in America last summer, having first read it shortly after breaking up with The Great Love Of My Life, 'The Evil One', some 9 or 10 years ago. I never expected to feel as moved, disturbed, obsessive again.... yet my affair with The Poet at the end of '05 was, if anything, even more intense. I have often been tempted to e-mail these snippets to her - probably will one day, but at the moment I fear she would find them too personal, too discomfiting. I'm not feeling this hung up on her any more; 10 or 12 months ago, yes; but now - I'm pretty much on an even keel again.... with perhaps just the very occasional little relapse into foolish wistfulness: 'what if' and 'maybe' and all of that bollocks. I try to slap myself out of it whenever it happens.

My love. If words can reach whatever world you may be suffering in, then listen. I have things to tell you. At this muffled end of another year I prowl the sombre streets of our quarter holding you in my head. I would not have thought it possible to fix a single object so steadily for so long in the mind's violent gaze. You. You. With dusk comes rain that seems no more than an agglutination of the darkening air, drifting aslant in the lamplight like something about to be remembered.


We had our season. That is what I tell myself. We had our season, and it ended. Were you waiting all along to go, poised to leap? It seems to me now that even while I held you clasped in my appalled embrace you were already looking back at me, like one lingering on the brink of departure, all that you were leaving already fading in your glance, becoming memory even as it stood before you.


That kiss. Well. The effect of it was to last for days, for weeks. I felt like something that had been shattered and yet was still of a piece, all run through with hairline cracks and fissures and rocking on my base, as if I were an effigy carved from ice and she had come running at me with a hammer and delivered me a ringing blow. I brooded ceaselessly on that brief contact in a state of gloomy joyfulness and misgiving, turning the memory of it this way and that, scrutinising it from every possible angle. At times I got myself into such a state of finicking speculation that I doubted it had happened at all. It was so long since I had kissed a woman I hardly knew how it should feel..... And of course I could not believe it had meant as much to her as it had to me; the tongue of flame that had licked my middle-aged flesh and made it sizzle would hardly register, surely, on her hot young hide. Probably she was being kissed all the time and thought nothing of it. Yes, I would tell myself sternly, it was nothing at all to her, she hardly noticed it, and I would give myself a vigorous shake, like a dog out of water, and go on about my business, only to fall again immediately, with redoubled frenzy, into tormented, mad-eyed, hopeless speculation. Ice, did I say I was like shattered ice? A mud pool, more like, hot and heaving, and the thought of her a bubble rising and steadily swelling and then breaking the surface and bursting with an awful plop while down in the depths another bleb of turbid speculation was already forming itself.


At first in the weeks after she had gone I used to torture myself with the thought that I had not observed her closely or carefully enough, that when I still had the opportunity I had not fixed her sufficiently firmly in the frame of memory; but now that I am calmer (am I calmer?) I cannot believe that anyone ever can have been subjected to such unwavering demented attention as I devoted to you. Every day when you arrived in the room (I was always the first one there, always) I turned on you a gaze so awed, so wide with ever-renewed astonishment, beseeching in its intensity, that I thought you must take fright and flee from me, from such need, such fear, such anguished happiness. Not that you so much as flinched, of course; my poor haggard glare was never fierce enough to dazzle you. All the same, I insist that I looked harder at you and deeper into your depths than anyone ever did before or will again. I saw you. That was the point of it all. I saw you. (Or I saw someone.)

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Another poem, one of my darker ones

Another of the 'list poems' I was experimenting with a while back; I think, the most powerful of them, because of the underlying logic of the progression of images - the way it melds the stalker-ish obsession with lost love into such wider concerns as the artist's constant striving to create something lasting, the hopelessness we all feel in the face of mortality and oblivion, the ultimate vanity of self-assertion.

I've probably said too much by way of introduction again. I had promised myself I was going to try to stop this. Tulsa, reprove me.

See what you think of it.

I Write My Name

I write my name
I write my name in dew on windows
And in dust on table-tops

Once I wrote poems, stories, songs
But now I mostly write my name

I write my name
On the e-mails you delete without reading
And on the postcards I do not dare to send

I write my name in spray-paint
On the apartment building opposite yours

I write my name in semen on your breasts
I write my name in blood on your bathroom wall

I write 'I love you'
I write 'I hate you'
I write 'Die, bitch!'
I write 'Forgive me...'
I write my name

I write my name in letters of flame
A thousand feet high
Glowing across the desert

I write my name
In the sand on the beach
And sit and wait
For the tide

In defence of 'intellectual snobbery'

Am I an intellectual snob?

I am sometimes accused of it, and it makes me uncomfortable. I don't like criticism, especially justified criticism (although, of course, I hardly ever receive that).

I like to absolve myself of the charge on the basis that 'snobbery' is an ostentatious, pretentious assumption of superiority on a misconceived basis (i.e. the supposed superiority is either absent or resides in a quality that is of utterly trivial import).

Intellect is not a trivial thing. I have one. I think that gives me a certain licence to look down on others who don't - so long as I don't let myself get too smug or objectionable about it.

Let me be more specific: I think it is a trivial matter that my mental powers may far outstrip those of people who are not blessed with the genetic or environmental advantages that I have enjoyed; and I would not dream of deriding them for shortcomings in their intellectual development which are no fault of their own. People, however, who appear to have enjoyed the same benefits of education as me, and perhaps more so, and who purport to be men of intellect, men of high academic standing, but are in fact numbskulls - well, such people are thoroughly deserving of scorn and ridicule. It might even do them some good.

I was exposed to a prime example of this last week. One of my regular editing jobs, which throws me mostly scientific papers on IT and economics, this time gave me an extended article on early modern history. Oh, good: a nice change of pace, and more my own field (I studied history as a specialist topic in my last two years of high school, and ancient history at University).

Not so good, it turned out. This was the worst paper I have ever dealt with. And I make allowances for the author's possible difficulties with the language (this is a Japanese 'scholar', attempting to write in English); I'm quite experienced in dealing with the sort of problems that this throws up. No, this was atrocious in its structure, its argumentation, its use of evidence. This guy seems to think that he has a chance of getting published in overseas journals just because he is one of the few Japanese academics capable of reading contemporary historians in English (and in Dutch, it would appear). I think that is very unlikely.

I mean, really - the guy repeatedly made meaninglessly woolly generalisations like "the population doubled" and "the silver reserves were mined out" and "trade began to recover again" without any reference to the timeframe he was thinking of. History without dates?? Whatever next?! After the 15th or 20th instance of this, I was really getting tired of having to insert 'comments' in his text to draw the omission to his attention. This isn't just a 'language problem', it's sloppy writing, inept 'scholarship'. Heck, even when he did include dates, they were often inconsistent or inaccurate. He even located Marco Polo in the wrong century, for heaven's sake!

His bibliography was about 100 books long, but he only appeared to have actually read 3 or 4 of them, and those with a severely imperfect understanding of them, I would say. For example, he would refer again and again to a technical term coined by a famous British historian, but offered no definition or illustration of his own understanding of the phrase, and it did appear to be almost completely irrelevant to the vast majority of his slapdash content. Numerous unanswered questions, numerous unsupported assertions (I think fully one quarter of the 160-odd 'comments' I wrote for him were "Citation?") - just abysmal stuff. I might have given it a C+ (if only for the breadth of reading) - if it had been written by a 16-yr-old in high school, and I were in a particularly generous mood. As a piece of serious academic writing it was completely worthless. (Oh yes, did I mention that it included no original research whatsoever? NONE. It was purely a literature review. Unbelievable.)

My favourite factless assertion was his claim that Japan, by the end of the 16th Century, was "the largest gun-making country in the world". Now this may be true, although it seems intrinsically a little unlikely to me. After all, they had only discovered firearms technology some 50 years earlier, as a result of a Portuguese shipwreck. But our man really made no attempt to support the statement. Well, he did offer a solitary fact in support: one warlord was said to have put 3,000 artillery pieces into the field in a battle at the end of the century. He admitted that more mature estimates put that total at probably only 1,000. No reference made to whether the opposition had any artillery at all. No reference made to whether the other warlords in Japan were making widespread use of artillery. And these were presumably small to middling-sized field guns; no consideration given to larger siege guns, or to small arms. No attempt made to draw comparisons with the amount of guns being manufactured or used in the major European nations at the same period. (It's not an era I have ever studied in detail, but I immediately thought of the example of the Spanish Armada, a few years prior to this Japanese battle. Clearly, for Spain and England (and, I would guess, for most of the other great powers of Europe), their naval arsenals alone far exceeded the number of guns our author had cited in his lone example from Japan.)

There is a danger - god help me! - that this joker will persist in his deluded dreams of winning academic acclaim and will return his ludicrous manuscript to me for further edits. I don't think I could bear it.

"Brain the size of a planet, and they give me this to do."

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Infinitely Strange

Yes, strange, strange, infinitely strange is the world in which we live.

I happened on this last night, while cruising around the Internet. (I was, I confess, frittering away an idle hour in trying to test my two blogs' search engine visibility. I thought for a moment that I was now a Googlewhack for "panda abductions" - but then I discovered that 'the rules' for this bizarre hobby are that your combined search terms should not be in quotations: that's harsh.)

I assumed at first that this had to be a joke: a rare gourmet coffee which acquires its unique characteristics as a result of being passed through the digestive tract of the Asian Palm Civet. This animal likes to feast on coffee berries, apparently, and then shits out the supposedly intact beans in convenient-to-collect logs (below). Coffee connoisseurs speculate that the creature's digestive enzymes, although not harming the sheath of the beans, somehow nevertheless enhance the complex flavour and aroma of the final product. This rare and expensive coffee is mainly produced in Java, Sumatra, and Sulawesi (where 'Luwak' is the local name for the animal), although versions of it are also made elsewhere in South-East Asia, notably the Phillipines and Vietnam (where it is unappealingly referred to as 'weasel coffee').

A finely-judged April's Fools' Day jest, surely? Slightly gross, definitely outlandish, but frighteningly plausible.

Well, if it's a joke, there are an awful lot of people out there who have been taken in by it, or who are colluding in propagating it. A large number of coffee companies and connoisseurs' fan-sites include references to it. Even dear old Wikipedia has an item about it - not that Wikipedia is foolproof, but I do think they would have sniffed out a hoax by now.

That animated picture, though, I'm still not sure about. I don't know the provenance of it - genuine advertising campaign by one of the coffee sellers, or some wag's piss-take of this most unusual of brews?

Does anyone have more information on this?

Note: The advertising picture at the top of this post actually has a rather groovy - rather gross - animation, but it seems to have stopped displaying on the blog (at least when viewed via Firefox). If you click on the picture to view it in a separate window, you should be able to see the animation.

A favourite exam question

When I invited readers to 'discuss' one of my provocative asides in the post on my proposed 'three phases' of expat life, my über-commenter, Tulsa, made a remark which implied she was unfamiliar with the common use of this instruction in academic exams - and later explained that her 'selective memory' allowed her to forget tests within an hour of doing them. A strange skill, indeed.

I have always had a pretty good memory for exams. Heck, as a teacher, I have set a lot of exams - which can be a lot of fun. I've also marked a lot, which is not fun.

When I applied to Oxford (and Cambridge, as a back-up), they still had their own entrance test (this was phased out some years ago, although they still use interviews to whittle down the candidate pool - a highly contentious procedure) to supplement the results of the upper high school 'Advanced Level' subject exams. Although it was possible to attempt your application in the middle of your final year of high school study (something I would much have preferred to do, to get it out of the way), it was deemed to be such an arduous process that - back then (I think there might have been quite a shift in policy since) - almost all schools ran a "7th term" application process; i.e., you would wait until after you had completed your A-Levels in the summer term of your second year of the "6th Form" (the upper high school), and then come back for the start of an additional year, spending the winter term entirely on preparation for the Oxbridge Entrance exams. For me, it was pretty much a waste of time: I was well enough prepared anyway. It was, however, quite a pleasant change of pace from the high pressure of A-Levels: a very light timetable, a very relaxed lifestyle - this is when my poker, pool, and bar football skills started getting really good!

In addition to specialist papers on subjects related to your intended course of study (I was applying to read Classics, so had to do papers in translation and literary appreciation for Latin and Greek, and, I think, in general history also), there was a 'General Paper' of varied discussion topics, to see how well you could structure an argument off the top of your head. This was easily the most fun part of the whole process.

I remember on one of the papers (not the one I sat for the application itself; by then, we had spent nearly three months reviewing examples of past papers), they actually had this essay question:

'How would you differentiate between the erotic, the pornographic, and the obscene?'

A good question! Feeling in flippant mood, I answered:

'Only by careful scrutiny.'

I wonder if I could have got away with that in the Entrance Exam proper? I would like to think so!

Monday, April 16, 2007

A brush with death

In recounting my example of a 'bad China day' last week, I omitted to mention the key factor that briefly put me in such a bad mood - and probably thus pre-disposed me to suffering further 'disasters' throughout the course of the afternoon. (Is it, I wonder, that our state of mind can somehow provoke people into dicking us around, or is it simply that we interpret events more negatively and over-react to small irritations? Or is it - as I am inclined to feel when my paranoid streak takes hold - that 'bad luck' attracts more of the same??)

As I set out on my walk to the barber's, I was nearly knocked down by an electric bicycle that came hurtling out of a side-alley on to the main road - without looking, without signalling, without slowing down even slightly. It missed me by inches. I think I just managed to check my stride, and swayed, flinched out of its path at the last moment. I am now very highly attuned to these perils of the Beijing streets: I am constantly keyed up, on the alert for danger (when I go back to the UK or America, it takes me some time to get used to the fact that cars actually stop for you when you cross the road: for a few days, my brain reels in surprise every time it happens), relying more on my peripheral vision than looking straight ahead.

These electric bicycles are particularly challenging. They have become a big vogue only in the last couple of years. (I had heard that they were banned in Shanghai [Shanghai occasionally does sensible things like this - as much, I sometimes think, to flaunt its superior modernity as for the utility of the measure itself], but there were quite a few of them there too, the last time I visited.) They are almost completely noiseless. And they are, in size and appearance, almost indistinguishable from regular pedal-powered bicycles. If you notice one out of the corner of your eye as you are preparing to cross the road, it is dangerously easy to conclude that it is a safe distance away - "Heck, it can't be coming that quickly - the guy is freewheeling, for god's sake. And I can't even hear it yet: he must be far away." But these silent death-bringers are three times as fast as a regular bicycle. Regular bicycles are plenty dangerous enough, but these electric jobs you have to be very, very wary of. I have learned to double- and triple-check approaching bicycles, to gauge their speed carefully before stepping out in front of them. If the rider's not pedalling, that's the warning sign.

That doesn't help when they're coming out of side entrances, of course. If you STOPPED, and peered cautiously round the corner every time you crossed one of these alleys, you'd never get anywhere. So.... you take a calculated risk: you just walk straight across them, trying to keep your wits about you, prepared to jump aside if a hazard suddenly descends upon you.

Did I mention that the bloody things don't have brakes? Well, they probably do, but.... riders of regular bicycles never like to use them (Is it a thrift thing, are brake-pads expensive to replace?), and the same mentality prevails on these new monstrosities. People on electric bicycles regulate their speed by checking the throttle, relying on engine-braking to lose just a little speed when preparing to make a turn. I wonder how on earth they stop? Come to think of it, I don't believe I ever have seen one stop!

Ah, this reminds me of one of my little pieces of poetic silliness - inspired by a similar close encounter last year (though with a conventional bicycle on that occasion) while I was out on one of my morning jogs around the lakes. It started off as just an observation on the hazards presented by bicycles in this town; but, of course, it soon became linked in my mind with something - someone - else. Everything's a metaphor with me.

Traffic Accident

Beijing bicycles
Have no bells, no brakes
Or a rider incapable
Of comprehending their use

YOU ran a Beijing bicycle
Over my heart

Nanny, what ARE you up to?

The shenanigans of China's Net Nanny are becoming more unfathomable than ever.

It would appear that my tormentors down at the Net Censorship Department are in the grip of a raging multiple-personality disorder. Either that, or we are once again the beneficiaries of a piece of serendipitous clumsiness by their sainted Cleaning Lady.

Blogspot was unblocked again this weekend. Mind-boggling!! I wonder if it isn't all some elaborate experiment to test how quickly the blogging community can adapt and figure out 'workarounds' for their interfering ways.

I think I should start up a betting pool on when it will be blocked AGAIN. I'd bet on sometime around the end of this month.

Thought for the week

"To err is human; to umm, divine."

Another delightful bit of silliness from Peter Cook.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Pictures in the fire

God, I love real fires. I think I really do prefer them to TV (OK, in China, that's not hard - the local TV really isn't up to very much). I spent many a happy hour gazing into them as a child, and I still do whenever I get the chance.

My passing reference the other day to watching a fire for entertainment in my electricity-less apartment reminded me of this piece I wrote last summer. It was conceived as one of my 'freaky fables' series; although I suppose it's not a fable as such, really just an observation.

Communion of the Hearth

The Boy stares into the Fire,
Thrilled by the dancing flames
And dreaming stories in its bright embers.

The Fire is no less fascinated by the Boy,
The wild light of imagination in his eyes,
The fierce glow of excitement in his cheeks.

The Fire feeds the Boy’s hungry mind,
As the Boy's unfailing gaze fuels the Fire's pride.
They burn, burn, burn together.


They share a sadness too:
One knows it must soon be bedtime;
The other knows it must soon die.

Saturday, April 14, 2007

The Three Phases

I have a theory that there are three phases to the experience of living overseas.

First, Novelty - a perpetual state of confusion and dislocation, yet coupled with a keen excitement at the constant challenge, the constant discovery.

Second, Familiarity - the 'comfort zone', the happy satisfaction of having found your feet, got to know your way around, overcome the initial difficulties.

Third, Ennui - you miss the bewilderment, the exploration of the early days; life has become too predictable, too much a matter of habit. Time to move on.

Yes, in fact it is exactly like the phases of a love affair. Discuss.

What saves so many of us from Phase 3 here in China, and especially in Beijing, is that things are changing at such a frantic pace. Favourite neighbourhoods disappear, sometimes seemingly overnight; huge new buildings sprout up almost as quickly; there is an astounding churn-rate of shops, bars, restaurants; and of people, too - most expats are only here for a year or two, fairly few for more than four or five. It's scarcely even possible to settle into the Phase 2 comfort zone for long before the ground has moved from under your feet.

It is both a curse and a blessing. This is a very demanding environment in which to live; but also an intensely stimulating one. That's why I'm still here after 5 years, and not making plans to move on any time soon.