Friday, June 29, 2007

Sushi (Fish on Friday)

I'm off to The Other Place (that is to say, Shanghai) for the weekend.

But, as a going away present, I leave you with the best from the 'Japanese Tradition' video series that I recommended last weekend. I posted a link to this before (via Leah's blog), but back then I was too unsavvy to have sussed out embedding it. This, then, should be a lot more accessible for y'all.


I LOVE this.

Stormy weather haiku

Noon sky black as night,
Buildings tremble at thunder.
Nightmarish portents.

Yes, a couple of days ago Beijing suffered a most unusual - nay, verily APOCALYPTIC - tropical storm.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Just messin' with ya!

Yahoo was restored to us by mid-morning.

But I wasn't going to let that get in the way of a good post. I'd nearly finished my mad jazz-will-topple-the-government hypothesis before I went to work this morning, and I thought I'd share it with you anyway, even though it has already been (for now, at least) outpaced by events.

When I picture to myself our bothersome Internet censors here in China (the Kafka Boys, I like to call 'em, because the rationale for what they do is so impenetrably obscure) I am often reminded of the Gary Larson cartoon 'God at his Personal Computer': His Omnipotence, long-gowned and white-bearded, hunched in front of a display screen, zooming into a close-up on a hapless mortal man who is walking underneath an upright piano as it is being hoisted precariously into the air by a fraying rope.... his hand hovering mischievously over a 'Return' key labelled 'SMITE'. (You know the one I mean. Unfortunately, it is nowhere to be found on the Internet.)

Then at other times I visualize their headquarters as being like the nerve centre of a Bond villain's hideout: all gleaming computer consoles with row upon row of blinking lights and obscure switches..... and quite deserted, all humming away calmly on 'automatic'..... deserted, that is, except for the mild-mannered old janitor, who absent-mindedly leaves his mop leaning against a wall.... it falls, accidentally moving the lever that activates the Website Destructo Beam..... and it's goodbye, Yahoo; so long, Blogspot; suck on this, BBC; you're next, Google.

This time, the tragic mistake was swiftly spotted and corrected. This time.

Next time we may not be so lucky. Next time our favourite websites may be completely vaporised....

Conspiracy Theory # 27: blame it on the jazz

Yesterday evening The Commenter-in-Chief sent me the joyous text message: "Hortense is back!"

Hortense is a young Frenchwoman who runs a small arts promotion company here called Hi-Tang. In addition to her commercial activities, she also compiles a free weekly e-newsletter on the upcoming events on Beijing's limited - but occasionally rather good - jazz (& folk) scene.

She's been on a break for most of this month, and I have been rather at a loss as to how to plan my weekends without her. Tulsa, The C-i-C, is very nearly as much of a music junkie as me, so has been feeling similarly deprived these past few weeks.

Good news indeed, then, that Mlle H had returned to us.

Except that only an hour or two later, before I had had a chance to check this week's listings from the indispensable Hortense, Yahoo Mail (and all the other appendages of the Yahoo juggernaut) abruptly disappeared off the cyber-map in China.

Coincidence? Oh, no, I don't think so!!

I mean, JAZZ - it is the most subversive, the most shamelessly anarchic of all musical forms, isn't it? And it has long been associated with drug-taking, heavy drinking, loose sexual morality, and other non-conformist, distrubing social attitudes. Sharing information about upcoming jazz events in the capital is obviously just the thin end of a wedge that leads rapidly to huge conspiracies to undermine the harmony of society.

After all, the other major bugbears of the present Chinese leadership are a wise and gentle monk, a slippery and self-serving - but freely elected! - politician, and an old people's exercise club. Honestly - any CCP timeserver will eagerly expatiate on how the greatest threat to the national security of the People's Republic today is...... the Dalai Lama. Where Dubya has his 'Axis of Evil', China has the 'Axis of Naughty'.

If the old geezer in the vermillion robes is such a scourge, I don't think they're going to be giving Keith Jarrett or Branford Marsalis a visa to come here any time soon. Oh NO - folks here much prefer the likes of Richard Clayderman, remember?

And Hortense and I will continue to be subject to this surveillance and harrassment - 'enemies of society' that we are!

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Now, really, this is just getting SILLY...

Nanny is being beastly again. This time she has cut us off from Yahoo Mail.

I am very, very, very angry.

I may have to start using Gmail instead (I set up a bunch of accounts ages ago as an 'emergency back-up', but I really don't like the service, will take a while to get the hang of it...... don't have any of my Address Book copied into it - oh, damn!).

This appears to have happened within the last 12 hours or so, and there's no word yet on what might have brought it about. With luck, it will prove to be only a temporary aberration.

Time for a poem - a poem about time

Or timelessness, to be more exact.

Half-past Two

Once upon a schooltime
He did Something Very Wrong
(I forget what it was).

And She said he'd done
Something Very Wrong, and must
Stay in the school-room till half-past two.

(Being cross, she'd forgotten
She hadn't taught him Time.
He was too scared of being wicked to remind her.)

He knew a lot of time: he knew
Gettinguptime, timeyouwereofftime,
Timetogohomenowtime, TVtime,

Timeformykisstime (that was Grantime).
All the important times he knew,
But not half-past two.

He knew the clockface, the little eyes
And two long legs for walking
But he couldn't click its language,

So he waited, beyond onceupona,
Out of reach of all the timefors,
And knew he'd escaped for ever

Into the smell of old chrysanthemums on Her desk,
Into the silent noise his hangnail made,
Into the air outside the window, into ever.

And then, My goodness, She said,
Scuttling in, I forgot all about you.
Run along or you'll be late.

So she slotted him back into schooltime,
And he got home in time for teatime,
Nexttime, notimeforthatnowtime,

But he never forgot how once, by not knowing time,
He escaped into the clockless land of ever,
Where time hides tickless waiting to be born.

U.A. Fanthorpe

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Farewell to smoking bars.... and smoking guns....

A cross-post from brother blog Barstool Blues:

For those of you who might have missed it, for nearly 4 weeks now the comment thread to my post 'Shanghai'd' has played host to a ding-dong duel of words between my DC-based drinking buddy, The British Cowboy, and myself.

This should not have happened. Not there, anyway. The post was actually about the differences between Beijing and Shanghai, both in the bar scene and more generally. That topic could, should have provoked quite a lively discussion...... if I had any significant number of locally-based readers. Clearly I do not.

No, instead Denmark-based artist, 'The Earthling', posed a question about smoking in bars here in China. Which prompted The Cowboy - a semi-reformed smoker - to start bemoaning the imminent banning of smoking in bars in DC. Which prompted me - rather because I felt his debating skills were getting a little bit sloppy from recent disuse than because I actually disagreed with him all that much - to get on his case about that. And, well, one thing just led to another.... and another.... and another. And just when the smoking ban issue might just about have run its course, I rashly tossed in another provocation, by taunting the Cowboy (not yet an American citizen but thoroughly assimilated into the culture) about his sympathy for the American fetish with gun ownership. And so the whole thing got a second lease of life.

52 comments (by far the most active thread of any of the posts on either of my two blogs in their first 9 months of life), and more than 12,000 words (at least half of them mine!). It has become a 'blog within the blog' over the last few weeks.

But it has to STOP. It is becoming far too time-consuming.

Perhaps the Cowboy and I will resume our amiable feuding again at some later date (quite probably at some smoke-free, gun-free bar in his manor); but for now, I think we both need to take a rest, and get back to the more pressing business of our lives.

That stream of comments, though, is a fascinating little backwater of the blog - and well worth a visit..... when you have 30 or 40 minutes to spare.

Very bad things

The day of bad memories has come and (nearly) gone.

My spirits have largely recovered; they had done so a day or so ago, really. The clearing shower on Sunday evening and the (mostly) bright sunshine we've had since have helped to blow the cobwebs away. Perhaps my fit of melancholy was, after all, more of a 'seasonal affective' thing brought on by last week's drab grey weather (or by the difficulty I have sleeping properly when the weather's hot and/or humid) than any calendar-based anxieties.

It wasn't even the anniversary of a bad thing that happened to me, and I should be wary of over-dramatizing it, of seeking to make it my story, my trauma.

I have alluded to this on here once before. Three years ago today, someone tried to murder one of my best friends. There had been a girl involved. A Chinese girl. My friend had been going out with her for quite a while, but decided to break it off. He really hadn't treated her at all well, to be honest - but he didn't 'deserve' what happened to him next. It turned out that she had a rival suitor, Chinese, an old friend from her home town who was violently unhinged and fancied himself as a bit of a small-time gangster. He ambushed my friend in a public urinal, striking several times at his head and upper body with a long-bladed hatchet before running off. My friend managed to stagger back to the nearby pool hall where I was waiting for him unawares, waiting to continue our regular Saturday evening 'best of 7' contest. He was a mess. He had one particularly long and deep wound across the side of his head - that might well have split his skull open; luckily it hadn't, but it had nicked the artery in his temple. He had quite a few other lesser - but still ugly - leaks as well. I have never seen so much blood in my life; and I hope never to see so much again.

The taxi ride to the hospital seemed to last forever; in fact, it only took 25 minutes or so, but in my memory it feels like days. At first, I was all calm determination. My inspirations (always a cinematic reference with me!) were: Harvey Keitel in the opening scene of 'Reservoir Dogs' (yes, that much blood) - "Look me in the eyes. You are not going to fucking die."; and Ed Harris's steely mission controller in 'Apollo 13' - "No-one is going to die on my shift." I felt as if I were keeping him alive by a sheer effort of will. And that was so devastatingly draining, I think my psychic reserves are still not fully restored to this day, and perhaps never will be. I lost part of myself that night.

And despite all the bravado and confidence I invoked from my macho man role models, I began to weaken near the end. Suddenly the sense of my impotence became overwhelming. Yes, I could try to staunch his wounds; yes, I could try to keep him calm and focused and upbeat.... and conscious; yes, I could yell at the taxi driver to go faster (and enlist the help of Chinese friends on my mobile phone to try to impress the sense of urgency on him); but at the end of the day, there was precious little I could do in the way of First Aid, and I had absolutely no control at all over the things that were really going to make the difference between life and death: the driver, or the traffic.

We got lucky. At that time of the day on a Saturday, the roads in central Beijing are often gridlocked; but we were blessed with a relatively clear run over to the foreigner hospital on the east side of town. And I'd phoned ahead to the emergency room. We probably didn't have an awful lot of time in hand: by the time we got there, he was losing consciousness, deathly pale, his veins were closing down.

But he made it. He's fine - only faint scars; and, as far as anyone can tell, remarkably untraumatized by the event.

Around the anniversary, I find myself getting a little anxious. It's not just an emotional flashback (although it is partly that); I have some continuing fear for my friend's safety. The culprit is still at large, and might well be still in this district of Beijing (although I did hear a rumour a while ago that he'd gone back to his home town of Harbin). Although his identity is a matter of common knowledge locally, the police scarcely bothered to investigate the incident at all, and certainly made no effort to find the guy and bring him in for questioning. (And, as you'd expect, the British Embassy was also utterly bloody ineffectual.) I have no reason to suppose that this thug knows - or any longer cares about - my friend's whereabouts. And I hope that after this lapse of years his ire towards my friend will have weakened; but it's not easy to be confident of that - and psychopaths tend to remember anniversaries as well. So, I'm always somewhat uneasy, somewhat darkly introspective around this time of year.

And this is one of the things that makes me so intolerant of your typical 'China blogger' whingeing about his "bad China experiences". Oh, please, don't even go there. You have no fucking idea.

On the other hand, I think this has made me a lot more tolerant of this city's horrendous traffic and its often geographically-challenged cab drivers. I don't enjoy being delayed in a cab, but..... I tend not to get too uptight about it any more either. I think to myself, "So - I'm going to miss a meeting, a cocktail date, a flight..... It really doesn't matter."

Monday, June 25, 2007

GJN strikes again

"What passes for woman's intuition is often nothing more than man's transparency."

George Jean Nathan (1882-1958)

Sunday, June 24, 2007

A 'non-violent' martial art

I had been hoping to share with you today a clip from a favourite film, but..... as I whinged a little while ago, China's Net Nanny has decided - in its oh-so-very-finite wisdom - that I am not to be allowed free and unfettered access to YouTube any more.

Oddly enough, one of the few groups of videos on the site I do still seem to be able to search and view to my heart's content is the very funny 'Japanese Tradition' series, to which we were tipped off by Leah some months ago (that "Etiquette of the sushi-shop" one is definitely the best, but I quite like most of the others too).

Here's one on the noble art of origami - culminating in a wonderfully po-faced 'duel' between two venerable origami masters.

Fantastic stuff! (And proof that I'm not all gloom & doom this weekend!!)

More morbidity

Forgive me - it's the time of the year.

I was thinking I hadn't posted much poetry this month. It's mainly because I've been too busy (or too 'uninspired') to write anything recently, and don't have that much left in the 'archive' that's worth sharing.

This is really just an unfinished sketch, another little bit of playing around with a line fragment that insinuated itself into my skull and refused to leave ("cool/cold kiss of the razor"), and which I've used elsewhere, probably to better effect. However, I think this has one or two worthwhile moments - I might do something with it one day.

I labelled this 'Suicide Note #4' partly because I write so many dark little pieces like this that I thought I might as well - slightly disparagingly - identify it, or 'anonymise' it, as part of a larger body of work, perhaps indeed an infinite series of such broodiness. Any random number would have done: I was tempted to use something much larger ('#378' perhaps); but '4' is an ill-starred number in Chinese numerology, symbolic of death - so it seemed rather appropriate.

Suicide Note #4

There must be something better

Better than the pain
Of being always poor
In a world that loves riches
Better than the pain
Of paying to live
By the month, by the week, by the second
Better than the pain
Of working only for pay
While the soul withers
Better than the pain
Of covering one's bills
While burying one's desires
Better than the pain
Of seeing what I once had, want again,
And know I will never have

Better by far, the brief sharp sting:
The cool kiss of the razor
Is the best pain of all

Further intimations of victimization

Isn't it funny - yes, hilarious! The Divine String-Puller is such a tease! - how when you're feeling a bit down, everything seems to go against you?

Yesterday, I was without power for most of the day. And it happened in a strange way. It began, I'm sure, as a generalised power-cut in the building (we get quite a few of those): everything was dark and ominously quiet; the lights in the stairwell didn't work. Inconvenient as it was to be denied the opportunity to work on my computer, surf the Internet, watch TV, listen to music, do the laundry, hoover the floor, have a shower..... or any of the myriad small but necessary chores that fill a weekend, I was prepared to wait patiently. These things usually sort themselves out in a few hours. But after a few hours, I noticed the stairwell lights restored, and a TV booming away in one of my neighbours' apartments; but my lights were still out. I decided to check my electricity meter. I didn't think I should have been anywhere near exhausting my pre-paid credit, but.... heavy use of the air-conditioning lately seems to have burnt through the 500 kuai in 5 or 6 weeks rather than the usual 16. Of course, I wasn't quite sure of this, because the last couple of digits on my meter's LED readout are burned out; but I was certainly pretty low on credit. So, I schlepped to the bank, queued for a while, put another 500 kuai on my top-up card, came home and inserted it in the meter. Still no power. Something very funny going on. I checked my circuit-breakers for about the tenth time. All seemed to be sound there. Little did I realise that there was an additional 'master' circuit-breaker behind a secret panel beneath the meter on the landing. That had somehow been tripped, and I needed a flunky from the building management office to come and reset it. That was a fine waste of a day.

I am seriously beginning to think that the Kafka Boys have it in for me too. (Yes, more than they have it in for just anyone....) My Yahoo Mail is grindingly slow. ChinaLawBlog now seems to have been banished beyond the Great Firewall (it is much the least offensive - or politically contentious - of any of the blogs I visit; and I read it more for work than mere pleasure). OK, that one probably isn't directed just at me - but in my current state of mind, it kind of seems that way. ("Why seems it so particular with thee?" "'Seems', madam? I know not 'seems'.") And I am finding both Amazon and YouTube rendered virtually useless for me, because they crash immediately upon my trying to use the 'search' facility on them. (Well, not all searches, but most - and not on anything that one would expect the CCP to have a particular sensitivity about..... unless the Coen brothers are seen as threatening the "harmony of society" in some subtle way that I can't begin to understand.)

"What do you want from me? I'm just an actor. Just an actor."

Friday, June 22, 2007

Brain the size of a planet...

And they give me this to do.

No, the first week at the new job has not been going well. Long periods of inactivity and crushing boredom - interspersed with occasional tooth-grinding stints of being asked to make important decisions without any of the necessary information.

"The first million years were the worst. The second million years, they were the worst too. The third million years were really awful. After that, I just went into a sort of decline."

Door Therapy Haiku

Only one from three:
The choice refines the judgement.
Behind the third door?

Yep, still working on my billion dollar psychotherapy scheme......

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Touring the Archive - top picks for 1st Quarter '07 (Part 2)

And here, hot on the heels of 'Part 1', is my conclusion of the round-up of favourite posts from Froogville for the first three months of the year.

Does anyone (Tulsa?) strongly agree or disagree with my choices? Or just think that all the posts are rubbish?? Do let me know what you think.

Pick of the Archive: Favourite Posts, Jan. - March '07 (Part 2)

1) Nothing ventured, nothing gained - 28th February

I recount a favourite anecdote (about the colourful Depression-era politician, Huey Long) which has - oddly (inappropriately?) enough - provided me with an inspiring motto in life.

2) The 7 Habits of Highly Efficient (?) Readers - 28th February

I thought this was one of the most intriguing and provocative short posts I have written - but it has (so far) failed to elicit any comments at all. I hope that will change over time.

3) The experience of 'home' - 27th February

Two more quotations from the Irish writer, John Banville, which strike a particular chord with me.

4) Continuing the 'What is poetry?' series.... - 26th February

I've posted several poems on 'the nature of poetry' by other people; but this is the only one of mine.

5) Lives of the poets - 23rd February

I discovered a very funny, very cruel jest attributed to the German poet, Heine.

6) In praise of failure - 21st February

I juxtapose two great quotations on failure and success - one from Tennessee Williams, the other from Malcolm Lowry.

7) The tyranny of coincidence - 21st February

My reluctance to believe the unwelcome report of a bathroom scales prompts some philosophical musings.

8) Valentine, schmalentine! - 13th February

Valentine's Day? Bah, humbug!!

9) Snow in February (again) - 8th February

An unexpected fall of snow prompts me to give a retread to one of my best poems from a year ago.

10) Return of the Haiku Man - 2nd February

I don't often feel that my haiku are 'substantial' enough to merit inclusion in the 'Best of....' list; but for some reason I particularly like this observation.

11) More poetry about poetry - 21st January

I love so many of Robert Graves' poems, but this one is very near the top of the list.

12) Bad news - 17th January

The discovery of this fine poem by Emerson comes as an unhappy, sinisterly significant coincidence for me.

13) 10 Curious Facts About Me - 6th January

I indulge in some unprompted autobiography - having realised that I was too "unpopular" a blogger for anyone else to "tag" me to do this.

14) The Curse Of The Three Adjectives (Where in the world am I? [21]) - 5th January

Many of my teacher friends insist that this is the funniest post I have written.

15) Don't try suicide! (3 ripostes to my last post) - 4th January

I follow up this rather gloomy post, A favourite suicide poem, with a selection of (arguably) slightly more uplifting pieces on the theme.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Free money

I get paid mostly in cash.

Sometimes I get a little careless or forgetful about counting it up and stashing it away.

This morning, about to leave for work, I found on my desk - amid the morass of teaching notes, business cards, half-read listings magazines, flyers for art openings I missed a month or two since, etc. - an unremarkable brown envelope. Unremarkable, but for the fact that it had 800 kuai in it (a bit over $100 - quite a useful sum of money over here). I have no idea now when or where or how I earned it or how long it has lain neglected on my desk - but it was a very pleasant surprise. Particularly as I was running dangerously short of readies, and was beginning to contemplate a spell of self-imposed 'house arrest' as my only means of avoiding an embarrassing cashflow crisis.

It's not often you get these "gifts from the gods". I remember even as a very young child being fascinated, entranced, positively enamoured with the "Bank error in your favour" card in the Monopoly set. Perhaps I caught some of the bitter wisdom in my parents' eyes whenever this came up - "As if the error ever goes in that direction in real life!" they smiled to each other sadly.

Today, though, I prefer to think of this unexpected bounty as a visitation from the Tooth Fairy. The senile old bitch has suddenly realised that she short-changed me once when I was a kid, and is now belatedly making amends for that decades-old delinquency, paying me back with interest.

Thank you, old girl. I am truly grateful. I take back the "senile old bitch" remark. I just got a bit carried away for a moment.

Now..... what shall I spend it on?

The tersest of footnotes

In last week's haiku I chose as my high promontory "a peak in Darien" - a conscious reference to a line at the climax of Keats's famous poem 'On first looking into Chapman's 'Homer'...':

Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
When a new planet swims into his ken;
Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes
He star'd at the Pacific - and all his men
Look'd at each other with a wild surmise -
Silent, upon a peak in Darien.

Great lines. I rather think "eagle eyes" might have been an original formulation back then; alas, so soon reduced to cliché - by the time of my childhood it had become a trademarked gimmick of the 'Action Man' military action figures (there was a little lever in the the back of their necks that made their eyes swivel from side to side - even as an 8-year-old, I was hugely unimpressed).

The one problem with this is that Cortez was not the first conquistador to catch sight of the new ocean.

As Francis Turner Palgrave noted with brutal succintness in a footnote to the poem in his classic Victorian anthology The Golden Treasury of English Verse:

"History would require Balboa."

Monday, June 18, 2007

Another Tour of the Archive - top picks for 1st Quarter '07 (Part 1)

I had been aiming to limit myself to something more like 20-25 recommendations for the first quarter of this year, but..... well, March was a bumper month (it was an especially fertile period for my 'Where in the world am I?' strand, which was about to be brought to an end by my revelation that I was indeed living in China). And once I'd put something down on the 'provisional' list, I just couldn't bring myself to discard it again. I fear I am just not ruthless enough for this.

I would hope that enthusiastic readers might find the stamina to work through most of my output eventually. I would particularly urge you to read through the 'Label' categories in the side-bar.

Naturally, Poetry (my own) is the section I would most wish to find an appreciative readership. And - whatever qualities my poems may lack - they do have the advantage of being short.

I am also quite proud of the 'Where in the world am I?' series. Although I used to give this label also to my occasional routinely diaristic pieces (that almost invariably allude to the difficulties of life in China for a foreigner), I should perhaps more properly have confined the category to the posts on China that I wrote in a deliberately 'anonymized' style (usually beginning with the cryptic formula "I live in a country where...."). There were only 44 of these, and I think they represent some of the best writing on this blog.

Anyway, I will try to render this next list of 'top picks' a bit more manageable by dividing it into two batches. Enjoy

Pick of the Archive: Favourite Posts, Jan. - March '07 (Part 1)

1) The Country That Taste Forgot (Where in the world am I? [41]) - 30th March

Some observations on Chinese musical tastes - or the lack thereof.

2) The sense of loss - 29th March

A favourite passage from the determinedly 'poetic' Irish novelist, John Banville, reminds me of a Great Lost Love.

3) Yes, but WHO are you? (Where in the world am I? [39]) - 28th March

Shortcomings of Chinese telephone technique - illustrated with a transcription of an actual call.

4) On a lighter note - 28th March

One of my favourite, silly 'love poems' - and it was classically inspired, to boot.

5) Death to the trees! (Where in the world am I? [37]) - 27th March

I am not by any means a "tree-hater" (as some of my detractors unfairly suggest), but there is a powerful - I would say overwhelming - argument that Beijing has too many trees, and this is it.

6) Everything returns.... - 26th March

One of my older poems, this; but one that I feel has stood the test of time well.

7) 101 Uses of a Sidewalk (Where in the world am I? [32]) - 24th March

If I had to choose only one 'Where in the world am I?' post for inclusion in a 'time capsule', I think this would be it.

8) First fruit - 23rd March

Multiple treasures here: a photograph, a thumbnail eulogy, links to several other worthwhile websites, and an excerpt from the wonderful Scots writer, Ivor Cutler.

9) A romantic haiku - 23rd March

This was a tribute to Great Lost Love, The Poet (hell, I wooed her with it!) - probably the most romantic thing I have ever written.

10) Supplement: Where queue-jumping really rankles (Where in the world am I? [31]) - 22nd March

This is the one 'China rant' that is obligatory for all foreigners living here; I hope that I have done a better job of it than most other 'China-bloggers' (a group I mostly disdain).

11) A long suppressed Roger Hargreaves title? (Where in the world am I? [29]) - 20th March

'Found humour' - I share some serendipitous silliness from my sessions in the recording studio.

12) More on The Evil One - 15th March

I indulge in more "painfully frank" autobiography about The Great Lost Love of my life, as a preamble to another of my older poems.

13) It doesn't ***** work! (Where in the world am I? [27]) - 13th March

A can-opener that doesn't open cans? Only in China!

14) The School for Henchmen - 13th March

One of my funniest, one of my weirdest posts - it all came to me in a dream, honestly.

15) The Good Cabbie (Where in the world am I? [25]) - 7th March

I celebrate an unexpected 'positive taxi experience', to reaffirm that the WITWAI? series isn't all 'rants'.

16) My kitchen is CRAP (Where in the world am I? [24]) - 6th March

Long, self-indulgent catharsis - one of my most tedious posts, I think, but still funny in parts.

17) Thought (motto?) of the week - 5th March

This, I think, is the best (so far) of my self-composed bon mots.

18) A happy discovery - 4th March

I happen upon a previously unknown and heart-breakingly marvellous piece of E.E. Cummings - and immediately feel compelled to share it with the world.

Imperialism, Chinese style

In my first year here in China, Zhang Yimou's historical epic Hero was launched. It has some great martial arts scenes and is gorgeous to look out, but..... well, the story is ludicrous, the final moral impossibly obscure. Nevertheless, it was a major cinema event, and it was very heavily promoted throughout China. When it first came out in cinemas, there seemed to be no dubbed or subtitled version available, so I went to see it entirely in Chinese (in a cavernous - and very expensive - theatre in a mall on Wangfujing, Beijing's main shopping street). At the time, I understood very little Chinese (4 years on, I am proud to report that I understand even less). The film was of course completely incomprehensible to me. The key events are endlessly 're-told' from different perspectives, Rashomon-style. All I could gather was that Maggie Cheung stabbed her boyfriend 4 or 5 times (and only on one of those occasions with any discernible reason). And I thought I'd been in some dysfunctional relationships! Ah, well.

A few months later I saw Hero again, at Cherry Lane Movies, a foreigners' film club that shows Chinese films with English sub-titles. When I had the benefit of understanding the dialogue..... the film made even less sense.

However, I was entertained at this second showing by having my cynical buddy Big Frank (one of my original China posse, the Three Amigos) on hand to make wry comments on the film's many implausibilities.

This whole reminiscence about the film Hero is in fact prompted by yesterday's quotation from Tacitus, which pointed out that Rome's approach to extending its 'civilization' was to kill everyone who stood in its path. In this film (and in real life, too - there can seldom have been a less admirable candidate for a country's national hero) this is very much the approach of Qin ShiHuangDi, 'The First Emperor'. At one point he has sent his enormous, sinister, black-clad army to wipe out the gentle and studious 'Calligraphy People'. The beatific, white-haired calligraphy master injoins his followers to keep practising their brush strokes even as millions of deadly arrows rain down upon them. "Remember," he says, "no matter what they do to us, they can never destroy our culture."

"Well, NO," came the scathing observation from Big Frank beside me, "I think you'll find that if they kill you all, they can." Quite so.

Getting things done

Getting things done in China can be very time-consuming, very tiring. Even the littlest things. Sometimes I think especially the littlest things.

My new employer is applying for a work permit on my behalf this week. The Foreign Affairs Administration should really only need 2 photos of me for that - one for the permit itself, and one for their files. However, with the Chinese passion for redundancy, they have decided to insist that applicants submit 4 photos. I have a whole bunch of 'passport-sized' photos I got done when I renewed my British passport a couple of weeks back, but.... the British government currently prescribes that such photos should be shot against a white or grey background, while the Chinese government demands photos on a blue background. I do still have some photos with a blue background from last year's visa renewal ordeal. Some. 2, not 4. Bugger.

So, I've had to go to my local photo shop to get some more done, before the employer can set all the paperwork in motion. I forgot to get around to this all weekend. (I fear I was in fact just subsconsciously funking out of doing it, because I know that venturing into a photo shop can eat up such a surprisingly large number of minutes - sometimes even an hour or more - from your day.) This morning, I had to get in there bright and early, so that I could deliver the photos to my office as soon as possible after 9am.

I got to the shop just after 8am. And waited. And waited. Around 8.30am a couple of girls showed up to open the shop. "Are you late?" "No, we open at 8.30." "But the sign on your window says 8am-8pm." "Yes, but we open at 8.30." Ah, so that's clear. Well, they took the photos without too much fuss, and did not even - for once - faff around in Photoshop for too long, resizing and recentring the image. But then there was a problem with the printer (I knew it was too good to be true....). Out of ink, apparently. They plugged in a new cartridge. It still didn't work. Ah, they needed a second kind of ink as well, it seemed. Where was this ink? They weren't sure. Maybe it was in this cupboard. (Foreigners soon come to dread the word 'maybe' in China - it is used ubiquitously, and seems to imply: "We don't know, and probably don't care very much, and certainly can't be bothered to find out for you; or perhaps we're just culturally programmed to avoid ever giving a straight answer to a question even when the information requested is utterly straightforward and within our certain knowledge.") Then why don't you get it out of the cupboard? The cupboard is locked. Why don't you unlock it? (In China, you always prompt like this, because it seems quite possible that they simply hadn't thought of that.) We don't have the key. Who has the key? The laoban (=boss). Where is the laoban? He doesn't get in till 10.

As you might imagine, hair was being torn out by this stage - making my bad haircut look even worse.

As luck would have it, the laoban - or someone else with a complete set of keys - turned up shortly afterwards, my photos were printed without too much further ado, and I was on my way before 9.30.

However, this simple operation - something that in the UK would take only a few minutes in one of those automated photo-booths - had here stolen nearly 80 minutes of my life. This is China.

The Monday bon mot

"An actor without a playwright is like a hole without a doughnut."

George Jean Nathan (1882-1958)

I recently went to see a "play" that had had no discernible writing expended on it; the entire evening was a doughnut-less hole.

Sunday, June 17, 2007


We haven't had a poem for a while.

Thumbing through an anthology, I find my morbid eye settling on all the gloomy ones, the ones that reek of despair and death. No, no, I don't want to drag you down with me!

How about this one - downbeat, certainly, but richly allusive.


"What is the world, O soldiers?
It is I:
I, this incessant snow,
This northern sky;
Soldiers, this solitude
Through which we go
Is I."

Walter de la Mare (1873-1956)

I taught one of de la Mare's grandsons once. Or great-grandsons, more probably.

The oppressive image of desolation in the word 'solitude' here reminds me of the line the Roman historian Tacitus famously put into the mouth of Calgacus - a Scottish (or 'Caledonian', at that time) chieftain supposed to have led the resistance to Rome, until defeated at the battle of Mons Graupius by the Roman general Agricola in 83AD. Tacitus imagines Calgacus delivering a speech to his men to inspire them just before the battle (a commonplace device in early history writing, which was more literary than 'scientific'). Tacitus so completely assumes the 'enemy' point of view that he produces a very fine piece of rhetoric, including a climactic line of savage satire, one of the most memorable condemnations of Rome's imperialism - of all imperialism - ever written.

"Faciunt solitudinem; pacem appellunt."

("They make a desert; they call it 'Peace'.")

A castrato in the classroom

I've just come back from doing another one of those teacher training seminars I bitched about a couple of weeks back.

It should have been a little better this time. I was working only with the 'middle school' group. Around half of them have a functional level of listening & speaking in English, as opposed to about 3 out of 20 in the 'elementary school' class. I had at least a fighting chance that, as a group, they would be able to understand my instructions, and complete the activities as directed. I fought. I lost. I got my arse kicked.

One of my commenters chided me last time that my impatience with these teachers was a sign of "castration anxiety" No. My balls were severed long ago, by one or other of the Great Lost Loves. You can only be castrated once - not a source of anxiety for me any more. Heck, these days, even my penis and I are estranged. We exchange postcards occasionally, wish each other well at Christmas and on my birthday, but apart from that, we let each other go our separate ways.

But I digress. What I meant to say was that I am not generally uptight as a teacher. I am not a control-freak in the classroom, or in my life. I am not an insecure person.

I don't get pissed off at laziness (and we're talking about actually putting your head down on the table and having a nap here), inattentiveness, and lack of common sense in my students because these things are a challenge to my authority. I get pissed off at them because they are wrong. And because they are so easily fixed, yet not fixed. And because they are so particularly endemic in China. And because these are teachers, dammit - these people are the source of the problem (or the perpetuators of it); if they can't give a better example to the next generation, things are never going to improve in this country.

When you put a bunch of local schoolteachers together in a group, you see the whole country in microcosm - the worst of it, all that's confused and backward and never likely to change. And it's depressing as hell.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Gary Larson's finest moment (well, one of them)

I'm not sure if this is meant to evoke the eternal existential dilemma of humankind, or if it's just satirizing the insidious power of advertising, or.......

But I know that I like it.

My earlier posts today were uncharacteristically heavy, so I thought I'd toss in something a little more frivolous.

And while we're at it.....

Thumbing our nose at the Chinese authorities, that is.....

I learned from Asia Media this week that jailed Chinese journalist*, Shi Tiao (this link to his bio on the CPJ website includes links to some of his articles), has been joined as a party to the lawsuit brought against Yahoo in the US by the World Organization for Human Rights USA (blocked in China - what a surprise!). Is Yahoo still dumbly hiding between its "no choice but to comply with local laws" excuse? I expect so. Is it doing anything to lobby for Shi Tiao's release? Probably not. I have no idea what the cause of action in this case if, or whether Yahoo might actually lose - but either way, they're going to be in PR purgatory for a long time yet. Though not as long as Shi is likely to remain in prison.

Now, this is third-, fourth-, eighty-eighth-hand news that can easily be ready by anyone on Asia Media and numerous other news sources, and has, I expect, even been reported within China (well, I bet the South China Morning Post gave it a mention, at the very least), but.... mentioning it on the Internet is the kind of thing that can get you into trouble here. Particularly if I were a Chinese national. Even as a foreigner here, I do suffer an occasional nervousness about the possible consequences of writing about issues like this.

But hey, Blogspot is already blocked!!! So, what're you going to do to me, Net Nanny? Send me to bed early without my milk??

* China regularly boasts more jailed journalists than any other country in the world. Now there's an unenviable record: check out the Committee to Protect Journalists 2006 report on this, the overview here, and details of individual cases here.

Nanny knots her knickers once again...

China's Internet censorship regime - the "Net Nanny" - is at it again.

Blogspot is still blocked. Amazon is still glitchy (the search facility is mostly operational again - but still, of course, blocked on any TAM-related queries). E-mails to and from the UK are sometimes taking 2 or 3 hours to get through!! (Is it just me? Am I under the microscope as a dangerous subversive?? Perhaps this isn't a good time to have my visa up for renewal....)

And a couple of weeks ago, Shanghai student blogger Yee got blocked. It didn't seem to bother him initially, but he's only posted once or twice since. I hope he's doing OK. Apart from the audacious and unpatriotic decision to post in English, Yee's blog was fairly unobjectionable. He's a super-Net-nerd, and writes only (though quite interestingly) about stories related to the Internet in China - popular sites, new programs, etc. Of course, that does occasionally involve hot talking points in the Chinese 'blogosphere' and observations on censorship. Perhaps it is these few posts that have incurred the ire of the government. A few months ago he popularized a 'workaround' he'd found on a Chinese blog for reconfiguring the Firefox browser to allow unfettered access to certain blocked-in-China sites such as Blogspot. I suspect just about every Blogspot blogger in the country is now using this. Perhaps that's what pissed off the authorities (although they sure took their time to decide just how pissed off they were about it).

Anyway, I hope I didn't contribute to Yee's troubles by giving him a namecheck on here a few times (I really don't believe that anyone reads this blog regularly - certainly not the Chinese censors). And I hope he'll be back in action soon.

One of his last posts (after the block was imposed), on June 5th, featured another helpful tip for sneaking behind Nanny's back: a Google proxy for mobile devices. Now, if you go via this, you only get 'simplified' mobile-readable versions of the web pages, but it's perfectly serviceable - and will enable you, for instance, to keep up with your favourite Blogspot blogs if you're not able to use the Firefox workaround at the office (Tulsa, are you listening?). Even better, although this proxy will not be able to connect you to the 'comment' pages, it does display a link which takes you straight there - something that is not possible on regular proxy services like Anonymouse.

Yee, I hope you're back in action soon. Information like this is gold dust; and I'm far too much of a Luddite ever to find this kind of stuff out for myself.

PS Since I am unable to access Yee's 'comment' pages (I can only view him via Anonymouse now), I wonder if one of my overseas readers would be kind enough to say 'hi' to him on my behalf, and leave a link to this post there for him. Thanks.

Friday, June 15, 2007

Testing Times

One of my houseguests this week had entered for the LSAT (America's law school entry test), which he was to take on Tuesday.

Peking University - one of the oldest and most prestigious (they themselves would claim the most prestigious!) in China - was to host the exam; so we might expect a reasonably high standard of organizational efficiency, yes?

No. This is China. I've worked at Bei Da (as it is known locally), and it is just about as fucked up as every other university in China. It only achieves some semblance of international academic respectability because it has so much money and influence, and because it can cherry-pick all the best students from across China. Its administration and teaching are still mostly abysmal.

As my friend found out.

The address he'd been given for the test venue said only that it was part of the English Department. Well, there is no English Department as such; at least, not one that's easy to identify, because it is a sub-unit of the Humanities Department. The University's website is pretty piss-poor. There is a map on it, but it is tiny, and probably labelled (if at all - you can't really see) only in Chinese; you are supposed to be able to click on different parts of the campus to get a readable enlargement, but.... that function wasn't working when we tried. And the 'test centre', when he eventually found it, was not in fact part of the 'English Department' at all, but an unrelated building located in a completely different part of the very large campus. He at least had taken the precaution of making exploratory trips up there - on each of the two preceding days - in order to track the place down. Candidates who had not been so farsighted or so fortunate, candidates who had hoped that getting there an hour or so early on the day of the test would be sufficient, arrived vexed, breathless, and late.

It was a brutally humid day, but there was no air-conditioning. I imagine there must have been ceiling fans (every Chinese university building I've ever been in has ceiling fans), but for some reason they were not in use. Sitting the test became a physical challenge more than a mental one.

And guess what - there was no effective invigilation. None of the assistants in the test rooms appeared to speak any English (although at least a quarter of the test takers were non-Chinese). The 'chief invigilator' was never seen; he was merely a disembodied voice over a tannoy. Now, there probably is no way of cheating on an exam like the LSAT, but even so, you expect there to be a strictly disciplined test environment to ensure that no-one will even attempt to cheat. The rules for the test were very detailed, with a prescribed list of permitted items that could be taken into the test room, items that had to be carried in a see-through Ziplock bag of a certain size. My friend was rather exasperated (he's German, and lives up to his national stereotype of being very methodical and a little uptight) that - after he had spent long hours fretting over these regulations, and scouring the city to procure the right size of bag, the right size of water bottle, the right kind of pencils, etc. - to discover that these rules were not being enforced at all by the Chinese test centre staff. Some Chinese candidates were bringing in the kitchen sink in large, opaque carrier bags. Some brought in (banned) cans of soda. Some even had mobile phones or MP3 players with them. I don't think anyone attempted to bring in a dictionary - but it is unlikely anyone would have stopped them if they had.

Just another day in a Chinese exam room. (Did you think I was exaggerating when I complained of this the other day?)

The organizers of the LSAT really might want to consider taking over the administration of the test themselves in China, rather than franchising it out to a university (even a "leading" university such as Bei Da). I wouldn't trust any Chinese educational institution not to make a complete fiasco of it.

But...... to finish on a quainter note: the Chinese apparently refer to this test as 'LeSat' (Me: "Isn't that the vampire in those Anne Rice novels?"). And why shouldn't they? How are they to know that a convention has arisen of pronouncing the acronym 'El-Sat'? Heaven forbid that they should ever pay any attention to how native speakers pronounce things - the Chinglish way is always best!

Friday comes round again

Undreamt vistas break
From a peak in Darien -
The first day at work.

Yep, they want me to start that job TODAY!! Here goes.....

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

The Second Door

A strange day for me.

I appear to have been offered that job I was agonising about at the end of last week.

I appear to have accepted the offer.

I still can't quite believe that I have done so.

I suppose, under my 'Three Doors' system described yesterday, this would be a 'Second Door' choice. It's quite a big change for me, but not The World Turned Upside Down. (It just feels like it at the moment, because I've been a directionless bum - and enjoying it - for so damned long now.)

Somehow, though, this just isn't sitting comfortably with me at the moment. This doesn't feel like me. I should be a 'Third Door' kind of guy, dammit!

Bad haircut, bad karma

Getting a haircut in this country is a major ordeal.

The most competent, cheapest, and least hassle option is one of the white-coated roadside operators. For 3 or 4 kuai, they'll give you a nice short trim, and they won't waste their time about it. Of course, there are some serious hygiene issues about their equipment - but I figure if they don't draw blood, I'll probably be all right. In my first year here, I regularly used to use an old girl - I thought of her as The Nit Lady - who set up her up little wooden stool in an alley beside the Drum Tower. Alas, she disappeared. Indeed, most of these sidewalk barbers seem to have disappeared. There are still lots of white-coated freelance masseurs lining up in front of my local park, but a street haircut is getting harder and harder to come by. Perhaps this is another symptom of the 'civilizing' of Beijing that the local government is attempting to impose prior to the Olympics.

After considerable shopping around, I had found a large hairdressers' shop that seemed to be pretty reliable. It was a little more than 20 minutes' walk away, which was a bit of a pain-in-the-arse, but they were cheap and they didn't usually give me too much hassle.

Amongst the anxiety-causing quirks of a Chinese hairdressers' shop (this list does not attempt to be exhaustive - there are so many) are these:

1) They are unfamiliar with any kind of hair that isn't long, thick, straight, and black.

2) They want to wash your hair before and after the cut - because they can charge you more money this way. It is often very, very difficult to persuade them that you have only just stepped out of the shower and your hair really doesn't need washing again.

3) They really, really want to use masses of styling gel and mousse and colour on your hair, because..... well, it's just more fun for them that way. And Chinese kids love to experiment with naff, punky hairstyles - why are foreigners all so strait-laced?

4) They often want you to choose your style from a book. An enormous catalogue of magazine clippings of film stars. It doesn't matter how much you tell them you don't want a 'style', you just want a trim, like it is now but shorter..... Oh, no: they insist that you point at a picture. And the pictures are all horrendous. You search in vain for a younger George Clooney..... and eventually begin to wonder if you'll have to settle instead for a lank Brad Pitt or a piratical Johnny Depp.

5) They have no concept of urgency. Even a simple trim ("How many times must I tell you? No washing, no styling - just a trim!") can easily take an hour or more. No matter how obviously impatient you become with them. No matter how many other punters are waiting for service. Everything must happen in its own good time.

6) They love to work in a collective fashion - haircutting by committee. We foreigners are still such a novelty for many of them that everyone in the shop will want to gather round to watch. There will be frequent pauses for discussion amongst all the hairdressers. You may even find each of them wanting to take a turn at doing some of the cutting. See 5) above.

7) They are terrified of making mistakes (perhaps especially with foreigners), and so will typically trim your hair half-a-millimetre at a time..... pausing every few minutes to ask nervously, "A little more?" "A lot more!!" See 5) above.

8) They all think they're Vidal fucking-Sassoon: they're ridiculously perfectionist - even when they've finished, they will faff around for another 5 or 10 minutes making imaginary 'tidy-ups', snipping infinitesimal slivers of hair off here and there. See 5) above.

Oh god, I could go on. I have more than once been tempted to just shave my head completely (I have in fact bought myself a set of electric clippers for the purpose: they are ready and waiting for that moment when my patience finally snaps once and for all).

Of course, I have evolved my techniques for dealing with this kind of hassle now. I show them quite clearly at the outset how much I want taken off the top, off the sides, off the back; I tell them quite clearly what time I intend to leave; I remind them regularly of the need for a bit of hurry-up by pointing dramatically to my wristwatch. It seems to work.

And for the past 18 months or so, I have been loyal to the one shop. That's been a big help. They know me there. They understand my little foibles. They can comprehend my smile-and-mime approach to overcoming the language gap.

Well, they used to be able to. Over the past few months, all the staff there who recognised me seem to have left. Indeed all the hairdressers appear to have left. The last time I went there, there seemed to be only two cutters (and one pair of scissors!) for a dozen or more work-stations. I smiled-and-mimed for all I was worth. I pleaded. I wept. I even tried to speak some bloody Chinese to them (always a tactic of desperation, and never very efficacious). No use - I just could not get them to cut my hair.

So, yesterday, I tried out the hairdressers next door to my apartment. The one that is always worryingly empty. Needless to say, that was a mistake.

It seems there was only one - shockingly young - male hairdresser on the premises. And he was 'busy' (i.e., pondering, consulting, resting.... not actively doing very much) with another customer. So, the boss's wife thought she'd have a go. She was a rather clumsy and diffident woman. Left-handed - that was alarming in itself. Or maybe she just wasn't sure which hand to hold which implement in, and had decided, for some obscure reason, that the comb needed to be wielded with greater precision than the clippers and should thus be assigned to the right hand. Anyway, she did not appear ever to have cut hair before. It was comical, but also appalling: watching in the mirror, I became dangerously detached for quite a spell - enjoying the slapstick performance for a while, until I came to my senses again and realised that this was my hair she was butchering. I humoured them all as best I could, tolerated her ineptitude for a long time, hoping for a sudden improvement - but eventually I had to put my foot down and demand some remedial attention from the (at least vaguely) competent young man. He managed to salvage the situation, just about - but it's definitely not one of the better haircuts I've had in my life. And it's not very short, either. I'll have to go through this hell all over again in a couple of weeks.

I wonder, in fact, if the whole strange episode wasn't some kind of prank amongst the staff - perhaps they were betting as to how long I would put up with this totally unskilled woman fumbling around my head. Oiveh!

What have I done to deserve this??

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

What's behind the Third Door?

I was discussing various 'self-help' systems with my friend The Life Coach the other day, and, in a moment of facetious inventiveness, I created an outline for one of my own. Initially it was conceived as pure parody, but now I'm seriously starting to wonder if it might not have real commercial potential.

I'm going to call it Three Doors™ therapy.

In essence, it is this:
There are Three Doors in front of you. Which one are you going to step through?

Beautifully simple. It presupposes that you are going to move forward (not stay where you are, or try to go backwards). It presupposes that you always have choices. It limits those choices to a manageable number.

The image of the doorway is so familiar, so beguiling. The act of opening a door, and stepping through it, is so elementary, yet so empowering - as in a fairytale. It is almost impossible not to feel a childlike thrill of anticipation about that moment of revelation when we turn the handle, pull the door open, and discover what lies beyond. It is such a familiar, easy, everyday act that we can readily imagine doing it, are eager to do it, will find few excuses to hesitate; curiosity will always win out over apprehension.

Of course, what lies beyond the doors will be defined by the clients - perhaps we'll call them Seekers (or Openers?) - in the course of consultation. The aim is to identify their problems, refine their possible courses of action, give them an irresistibly simplified decision template.

I have been thinking that the basic guideline for differentiating the Three Doors (though it might sometimes be modified a little from this, according to the nature of the question being asked) would be this: The First Door is essentially the door of the status quo (but we will not allow passivity or stagnation: even the least demanding, least challenging Door will require some change; we might call this one The Same, But Better); The Second Door is an option of 'safe' change - not minor, but not pushing the boundaries of your comfort zone too agressively; and The Third Door is the route of radical change - the left-field, the unexpected, the "out-of-character" option.

Even the mathematics of it appeals to me: 3 is such a compelling number. We might even develop our action plans on the basis of series of 3 successive 'Three Doors' choices - giving us, within a fairly short timeframe, 27 different possible outcomes.

The possibilities of this are enormous. (Anyone interested in discounted 'trial' sessions during the development phase??)

"Every journey begins with the opening of a door."

Twiddling the knobs again

The boys down at Kafka Central have been surprisingly underemployed this month. In an instant of bored mischief they threw the 'Block Blogspot' switch again. I think it was probably the weekend before last. Most of us Blogspot bloggers in China entirely failed to notice at first, because we now all routinely use the alternate routing option on the Firefox browser (spread around the Chinese Internet a couple of months ago by Shanghai-based blogger, Yee), which is - thus far, fingers crossed, knock on wood - unknown to, or at any rate unmolested by those pesky Kafka Boys.

One must presume that this latest blocking of Blogspot pages was prompted by anxieties about the possibly 'subversive' effect of blog-based discussions of last Monday's 18th anniversary of the suppression of the 1989 student protests here. In general, the level of interference with normal operation of the Internet has been very low compared with the last few years I've been out here: e-mail providers seem to have been untouched (Gmail was down completely for a few weeks last year, and Yahoo Mail would go through periods of being very, very slow and/or occasionally suffering long delays in transmission), and Google searches on sensitive topics related to the protests are being allowed (you just can't follow any of the links!). However, Wikipedia pages relating to those events (with one possibly significant exception that I may return to in a later post) are all being blocked - even via Anonymouse. Moreover - somewhat inexplicably! - this year all searches on Amazon seem to be being blocked, not just those on TAM-related titles. Overall, then, an extremely patchy and haphazard censorship regime here in China - comme toujours.

More of a mild irritation than a major obstacle - although it may reduce Tulsa's contributions for a while, since she is apparently not able to use the Firefox dodge from work.

Does anyone else out there have fuller information on this latest Net crackdown??

Monday, June 11, 2007

Omar & me

A favourite joke from Punch (during my '70s childhood) - England's leading humorous magazine for over a century, but now alas defunct. I have been reminded of this by Leah's gratuitous use of the term "castration anxiety" (most recently here).

It was in fact a cartoon, but I have been unable to find it on the Internet.

Another oddity which helped to fix this in my young mind (apart from the fact that it's very funny.... and depressingly appropriate to me) is that I once saw it reprinted in a Polish newspaper - but the caption, instead of being a single pithy sentence (or three), ran to a short paragraph. Is Polish a hopelessly verbose language? Or had they changed or elaborated the story quite beyond recognition? I never found out.

Anyway, the joke:

One of the Sultan's most gorgeous concubines, clad only in skimpy, diaphanous silks, is lounging provocatively on a divan, idly trying to seduce the rotund attendant who stands nearby holding an enormous ostrich feather fan. He is quite unmoved by all her charms.

Peeved, she taunts him: "What's the matter with you, Omar? Have you no ambition? Do you want to be a eunuch all your life?"

Yes, that one's always had rather too deep a resonance with me - particularly now that the possibility of a 'straight' job is hovering over me (sword-of-Damocles-like) for the first time in several years; particularly now that I am once again mired in doubt, hesitation, excessive caution about making a move on the woman I currently adore. "What's the matter with you, Froog? Have you no ambition?"

Last refuge of the scoundrel?

"Patriotism is an arbitrary veneration of real estate above principles."

Another smart line from George Jean Nathan. He's got so many of them, I think I might rely on him for my weekly bon mots for the next month or so.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

A love letter to Amy Hempel

For anyone interested in learning a little more about Amy Hempel, the author of the micro-story I posted on Friday, there is a wonderful essay - 'She Breaks Your Heart' - on her 'minimalist' style, by Chuck Palahniuk, in the online LA Weekly from 5 years ago (I think I'd better cut & paste this before it disappears from the archive).

Palahniuk admits to a hesitancy (something most of us feel, I think) about meeting his literary idols, for fear they will not be quite so impressive in person - but apparently he came through a brief conversation with Amy Hempel with his adoration intact.

I've never read any of Palahniuk's books, though they have quite often been recommended to me by friends. I discover that he is an adept at the art of self-promotion - go check out his website, The Cult.

Saturday, June 09, 2007

Ronnie's Rocket

I mentioned last week in my "8 things you didn't know about me" post that I began my love affair with football as a Hereford United supporter when I was a small boy. And I remembered with special pride having witnessed one of the greatest moments in football history, that Ron Radford goal.

It might not look like that much on this little YouTube clip (taken from BBC 1's 'Match of the Day' programme), but trust me - it was a screamer: Ronnie was only just inside the Newcastle half when he started cantering forward, and was still well over 30 yards from goal when he met the wall pass and smacked it. But it gains so much from the context also: this was the greatest 'giant-killing' feat ever in the English FA Cup competition. Hereford at this point were still a non-league side, many of their players only part-timers; whereas Newcastle were one of the best 4 or 5 teams in the country, and were almost universally expected to win comfortably. This goal came - out of nothing - barely 5 minutes from the end of the game, a game in which we'd fallen behind quite early on, and in which, despite labouring valiantly and having most of the ball, we'd never really looked much like scoring. There might have been a few longer and/or harder shots over the years, but I don't think there have been any that were this crucial, that produced such an overwhelming explosion of emotion in the crowd.

It was a mere formality that this goal should win 'Match of the Day's Goal of the Season competition that year. At the end of the 1970s, it also won Goal of the Decade. It was shown on the BBC on FA Cup Final Day every year throughout the '70s; and well into the '80s, I think.

There's even a little China reference attached to this memory for me. My good friend Richard, who first enticed me out here in the early '90s when he was teaching at a small university in Hankou, professed ignorance of this classic football moment. I was sceptical, incredulous. He's a bit younger than me, but not that much: he must have remembered all of those Cup Final Day rundowns of "great moments in FA Cup history", always culminating in that Ron Radford goal.

We developed quite a little debate in our regular correspondence (approximately fortnightly, for most of the 4 years he spent in China - and real letters, too; ah, the days before e-mail!) as to which of us had the aberrant childhood experience or the faulty memory. He insisted this goal couldn't possibly be as momentous or well-known as I supposed. I berated him for having no knowledge of anything beyond the confines of his native Huddersfield.

Luckily, I was soon able to proffer some convincing evidence that my perception of this goal as a key cultural landmark of 1970s England was indeed correct. Nick Hornby's football-themed autobiography Fever Pitch came out at this time, and became a huge bestseller. Its gimmick was to draw parallels between Hornby's personal life and his experience of his beloved game of football. The book is almost entirely focused on his obsessive support of the Arsenal team. There are only three short chapters that are not about Arsenal: one is on Cambridge Utd (who Hornby briefly supported when a student), one is on the Brazilian national side,.... and one is on that Ron Radford goal. I sent Richard a copy in Hankou as a Christmas present that year. Even he now had to admit that this was probably the most famous goal of all time.

And I was there......