Friday, November 30, 2007

Chinese people LOVE me! (8)

"Chinese people love me because..... I have big eyes.... and a long nose.... and I'm very tall."

There is a certain type of Chinese girl who throws herself at Western men. It's quite a common type. If you quiz them on why they find you attractive, this is what they will always say (even if you're a snub-nosed squinty dwarf). You ponder this for a moment, and then reply, "So, what you're basically saying is that I don't look Chinese." I am hugely irritated by the shallowness (and the self-loathing racism) of this. It is amongst the main reasons why I am unlikely ever to take a Chinese girlfriend.

Rent day

Yesterday was rent day.

My landlord remembered late in the afternoon, and spent the next 4 hours repeatedly phoning my Chinese friend Cindy (who has become - god bless her - a regular go-between for us) to ask when he could come and pick up the money.

I proposed 10 o'clock on Saturday morning. That may have been unwise.

I had forgotten that the rent was due this month myself (I'm paying quarterly these days). Since I'm not doing so much cash-in-hand work lately, I have to go to the ATM to withdraw the money. Withdrawal limits have improved lately (it used to be a paltry 1,500 kuai per transaction, and 5,000 per day), but not that much - it's still a 5-minute operation on two successive days to get three months' rent and the winter heating charge together.

My landlord is a curmudgeonly bastard - but I think he's very grateful that I always pay in full, and never more than a day or two late.

Haiku of the week


Not the wrong itself
Annoys, but the endless talk
Never saying sorry.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

My brilliant website ideas

Every once in a while I come up with an idea for a website that could, I think, really take off and become a substantial money-spinner.

Of course, these are usually bar conversations, the creative fire fuelled by alchohol - and the crucial details have often become lost the next morning. Even if they haven't, I'm never likely to get around to doing anything about them. So, if you are a budding Internet entrepreneur, please feel free to steal my concepts and turn them into cash.

I've already mentioned on here, my 2001-inspired life-changing maxims site.

I also commend to you, a site for fogeyish technophobes like me to use as a shelter from the explosion of online socialising. Leah has suggested the catchy tagline "Where curmudgeons meet" for this - although that makes it sound dangerously like a kind of social networking site itself. My concept was more that you could program it to intercept all your invitations to join bloody Facebook (and WAYN and Hi5 and Friends Reunited and whatever) and send out an automatic 'decline' notice saying something like -
"Get a life, you sad git!"

And that's just for starters. Oh yes, there are more.......

Anyone else want to play this game??

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Chinese people LOVE me! (7)

"Chinese people love me because..... I show that I am 'one of the lads' (and not at all a 'sticky-beak') by always having a good hawk & spit whenever I go to use a public toilet."

The constant phlegm-gargling and spitting in China (particularly - but not only - by the men) is one of the things that foreigners here most often complain of. The Americans especially, surprisingly easily dismayed by 'cultural difference', when discussing their China experiences seem to talk of little else. It is one of the main reasons that I find most 'China blogs' insufferable.

Get over it, people.

The spitting really ain't that bad.

Indeed, in an environment this polluted, it is a natural, a necessary response - at times, quite impossible to withold.

It's NOT right...

This morning, when I arrived at my place of work, I found that the muzak-controllers in the downstairs mall area had seen fit to start our day with a particularly plodding, irritatingly warblesome version of Silent Night.

When I went down for a coffee break just now.... it was still playing.

I assume it's now going to be on a 24-hour loop for the next 4-6 weeks.

As I said in the heading.....

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Chinese people LOVE me! (6)

"Chinese people love me because..... I make the most of the little Mandarin I know - for example, always hailing my foreign friends by yelling across the bar, 'Eh, gemenrrr! Zenme yang?'"

Actually, I don't do this. (Well, only very rarely, and - I hope - with a sense of irony.) But we all know people who do. Don't we?

Reminders of transience

I finally got around to cleaning up the address book in my mobile phone this morning. It has a pretty tiny memory, and rather too quickly reaches the point where I can't input any new numbers (and thus have to carry them around on pieces of paper in my wallet, or stored in the - even less voluminous - SMS Inbox on the phone).

It's a tiresome little chore that I've been putting off and putting off....

And what do I find from this operation?

In the space of the last 18 months or so:

3 people lost their phones, and thought it too much hassle to reclaim their original number.

1 person changed her number to try to avoid having to talk to her ex-husband.

2 people mysteriously vanished without trace. (Ex-girlfriends? Any connection??)

4 people moved to other parts of China. (Although there are only 2 national mobile service providers, each of these companies is divided into numerous semi-autonomous regional entities; and thus SIM cards here are area-specific - you can "roam" with them [although it is outrageously expensive], but you can only top up in your 'home' area. Hence, every time you move, you need to get a new card, a new phone number. But, of course, you keep your old phone number, just for when you're back in Beijing for the occasional weekend. There's one guy I now have 4 different China phone numbers for!!)

And 14 people quit the country.

I have commented before (most famously, here) on the extremely high rate of flux in the population of my friends here. But this phone-cleansing rigmarole really brought it home to me: I think I 'lose' at least one person a month on average (although it tends to be concentrated into the summer months each year).

And this evening I'm being dragged off to a leaving do for a guy I've never even met! Such is expat social life....

Monday, November 26, 2007

No. 038871

Or something like that. I wouldn't want to embarrass the man by having one of my obsessive blog-fans track him down....

That - or something like it - was the registration number of the cab driver who took me up to Liudaokou last Monday. And a fine character he was: no fuss, no bullshit, no feigned inability to understand my fractured Chinese, no patronising correction of my tones. And the man actually knew how to drive. And he nodded appreciatively, approvingly when I told him to go on up to Beishatan Qiao rather than run the gauntlet of the 4th Ringroad, readily accepted the instruction rather than trying to argue for the merits of getting stuck in a traffic jam for 20 minutes.

This, you see, is an uncommonly low taxi driver number. I can't even recall how many digits they have (I think it might in fact be 7, or even 8 - must check later today), but one generally looks only at the first two. The prevalent superstition - amongst locals as well as expats, I think - is that the critical threshold is around '20'. A number lower than '20' is usually good (although you may get the occasional dingbat in the high teens). A number higher than '20' is often a bit dicey (although you may be lucky in the low 20s, since these guys have at least got a few years under their belt now; and a lot of the more recent recruits [I guess we're closing in on '30' now] are actually pretty good too; it was in the low and mid-20s that the Supervision Bureau seemed to go through a really dire spell of accepting any old swarthy peasant for the job). A number less than '15' is these days a real rarity, and implies, I think, that the guy has probably been on the road for 15 or 20 years. A number less than '10' is virtually unheard of.

Numbers less than '05' you write down in a notebook and compare with friends. I think I did once have a '0344... something'; but this guy last week must have been the second or third most ancient cab driver I've ever come across here. A red-letter day indeed.

And particularly welcome, since I've been having a bit of a bad run of late. I've been using taxis way too much, putting myself statistically at risk of "bad taxi moments" - and lord, I think my recent experience has been outside the standard deviation. I mean, I got a guy last weekend who stopped dead at a green light. Is it possible that the Beijing Taxi Supervision Bureau approves drivers who are red-green colourblind? I think perhaps it is!

I think I will formalise this as a regular competition for my Beijing-based friends (prizes yet to be decided, but probably involving alcohol): collect your lowest taxi driver numbers, and we'll see who's got the best one each month. Please, if you spot any really good, old numbers (or simply have an amusing - preferably positive! - taxi driver anecdote to share with us), add them in the comments below.

Bon mot of the week

"Freedom's just another word for 'nothing left to lose'."

Janis Joplin (1943-1970)

Yep, during my maudlin phase yesterday afternoon, I got down with Janis.... and Bobby McGee.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Favourite posts from July-September this year

Pick of the Archive:
Favourite Posts, July-September 2007

Even though these three months saw somewhat light posting (lots of work travel, 3 weeks holiday back in the UK, and a brief renunciation of blogging altogether in September), I still find that I can quite easily cull a couple of dozen special favourites from this period. I hope you will enjoy revisiting a few of these.

1) Sometimes, just occasionally, the Chinese really bug the crap out of me - 8th September

I don't rant often, but this is one: I mean, you won't believe what this guy did with his bike!

2) The way I lived then.... - 5th September

Reminiscences about my early days in Beijing, and the strange joys of existing on a vanishingly small budget.

3) My favourite runs - 2nd September

Inaugurating my new 'List of the Month' feature with recollections of the most memorable routes I've jogged over the last 20 years.

4) The Foreskin Post - 31st August

Probably my most notorious post - a flagrant attempt to boost search-engine traffic with a gross little flight of fancy.

5) Chengdu deathrace blues - 30th August

I have a rather trying time of it in Szechuan, being ferried to the airport by the world's least competent chauffeur.

6) In Memoriam - my lost phones - 27th August

A review of my checkered history of mobile phone ownership since coming to China.

7) Rejuvenated! - 21st August

Frivolous reflections on youth and age, prompted by celebrations of the 5th Anniversary of my arrival in Beijing.

8) The Expat Ladder - 20th August

OK, this one has already been elevated to the sidebar, but I feel I should include it here as well: an important (and, hopefully, amusing) post on the pecking order amongst China's long-term expats.

9) Invented words - 19th August

One of my most heartfelt poems - a farewell to my last Great Love.

10) The acronyms strike again! - 19th August

A news story about the International Ramen Manufacturers' Association provokes my mirth.... and prompts some Internet research.

11) A last haiku - July 27th

Another better-than-average haiku.... on the experience of air travel.

12) We apologise for the 'Inconvenients' - 25th July

The recent proliferation of small, late-opening supermarkets in Beijing has strangely failed to bring any great enhancement in our quality of life. Here I enumerate their shortcomings.

13) Judgement - 23rd July

Do foreigners criticise China too much? My defence of being 'judgemental'.

14) Another Milestone - 22nd July

I commemorate the Post 500 landmark with an instant poem called 'Counting'.

15) The Prisoner of Hangzhou (Airport) - 20th July

On only my second business trip for my new employer, I suffer an unbelievably bad China air transport experience.

16) I wouldn't leave without posting a haiku - 13th July

One of my older haiku: closer in form and spirit to the true Japanese tradition than my usual fripperies, I think.

17) Blue metal sheets - 12th July

A favourite story about Beijing's ubiquitous construction sites.

18) Today in the studio.... - 10th July

The funniest thing I have had to read in any of my recording jobs this year...

19) A cracking game of tennis!! - 9th July

The enthralling Men's Singles Final at this year's Wimbledon prompts some reflections on my lifelong fascination with the game of tennis.

20) (Early) Haiku - 6th July

A recent nasty moment (nearly falling out of a 14th storey window) provides the image for this haiku - one of my better ones, I think - on the exhilaration and the danger of allowing yourself to fall in love.

21) More fun from Japan - 5th July

A brilliant little video on how to apologise in Japan.

22) IMLTHO - 4th July

In which I rant against my least favourite acronym and denounce false 'humility'.

23) Forbidden delights - 3rd July

Another beautifully observed anecdote of childhood from the late Ivor Cutler.

24) The end of Froog... - 2nd July

On a weekend trip to Shanghai, I have a disquieting brush with death (while staying in this apartment).

Friday, November 23, 2007

Weather report haiku

After long greyness,
Warmth returns, spirits lighten:
Dazzling winter sun.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Another holiday bites the dust!

I do usually try to arrange some sort of Thanksgiving gathering for non-married American friends in Beijing (to give myself an excuse for an early turkey feast, without any of the often unwelcome cultural - family - baggage attaching to an English Christmas celebration), but..... this year I have been too preoccupied with work and illness to get anything fixed up. And none of my American friends seem to be up for anything anyway - either "not free" this evening, or already have other plans.

Oh well - I suppose I do need to lose some weight, really.

Anyway, a belated Happy Thanksgiving to all of my American friends!

Smog Town

Chongqing, I think, has the potential to become one of my favourite cities in China. It has.... character - almost uniquely amongst the places I've visited so far. Hangzhou looks the same as Kunming looks the same as Xi'an looks the same as Luoyang looks the same as..... But Chongqing, god bless it, looks like Chongqing. (A lot of that is down to the geography: the city occupies a narrow, hilly peninsula between the Yangtze and its small tributary, the Jialing River - so it has lots of narrow, steeply winding streets, and untypical architecture.)

However, the weather is complete shite. One of my Chinese contacts down there informed me that the place was often known as 'Fog Town'. I hadn't previously heard this; but then, he probably had no idea that the same appellation is given to San Francisco; so, we must make allowances for the cultural and educational divide between us.

Of course, in China fog still comes heavily impregnated with dust, sand, soot, industrial pollutants and car exhaust. It is generally beige in colour.

I have just spent three days without seeing the sun. The city was shrouded in a permanent apocalyptic twilight. Thoroughly depressing. And, on my return to Beijing, I find it is much the same here.....

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Chinese people LOVE me! (5)

"Chinese people love me because...., amazingly, I can use chopsticks!"

The Chinese do seem to take a perverse pride in the trickiness of their chosen national method of food-wrangling, and they appear genuinely awed whenever they see a non-Chinese handling chopsticks with anything like competence (and I certainly don't claim to be any kind of 'master' with them - no Mr Miyagi-style catching-flies-in-flight for me!). They are taught that foreigners eat only with a knife-and-fork, and assume that we must therefore be congenitally incapable of learning any other method. They little guess that Chinese food is quite common overseas as well, that we usually eat it with chopsticks, that we have probably been doing so quite regularly at least since our teens.... and could thus handle the bloody things perfectly well long before we ever came to China.

Sometimes, though, it is nice to be able to impress people so easily.

Going West, again

I'm off to Chongqing for a few days. It will be my first time in that city - and, since half of my meetings there have just been cancelled (just too late for me to be able to make any sensible change to my flight schedule - oh dear), I might actually get the chance to look around the place and enjoy myself a little bit.

And the weather looks promising. Beijing has been turning decidedly wintry over the past week; but - according to Weather Underground, at least - the considerably more southerly Chongqing is still enjoying daytime temperatures nudging in to the 60s Fahrenheit; and even its nighttime lows are well above freezing, better, in fact, than Beijing's daytime highs of the past few days.

However, this jetsetting lifestyle does mean that I am likely to be without Internet access till the end of the week. Please forgive the brief hiatus.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Y not?

Leah organised a walking tour of a hutong district for a bunch of her students yesterday, and I tagged along. It was the first time in quite a while I'd been out with my camera, so I took full advantage of the brilliant winter sunshine to take dozens and dozens of shots of anything that caught my eye.

Like this curious sign. What is it? I really have no idea.

Another painful Sunday

I spent much of yesterday slogging away over a new editing job (so much for not working on the weekends!). This was supposed to be just a "sample", to prove I know what I'm doing - although (unusually!) they have promised to pay me for it.

In 5 years of wrangling this kind of crap, I think this was quite possibly the worst article I've ever seen. Not only was the English dismal and the logical structure almost non-existent, but it was so sloppily composed that there were numerous errors even in names and dates - I probably had to spend an extra half-hour on the Internet just doing rudimentary fact-checking.

And not only was re-writing this horrendous English like wading through treacle.... the content (when it was intelligible) was often downright offensive. It was a (supposedly) academic article on China's foreign policy in Southeast Asia - full of trite, self-deluding nonsense about how "everybody loves us - and you'd better keep your goddamn nose out of the Taiwan issue!"

Yep, it actually included a line about how all the other countries in the region were happy to maintain good relations with China because they accepted that its military posturing towards Taiwan was just and necessary. Rather than vice versa! Rather than being so desperate to suck up to China that they pay lip service to the so-called "One China" Policy, while feverishly praying that it doesn't lead to a war??

It really is quite terrifying how thoroughgoing the propaganda on this issue is here. When I was teaching in a University in Beijing a couple of years ago, I found that every student (that's every single student, in the 5 or 6 large classes I was teaching) unquestioningly accepted that an invasion of Taiwan was likely, and would be a jolly good thing. They seemed to be gleefully looking forward to such an event. (I was tempted to show them the first 25 minutes of Saving Private Ryan, to remind them what a seaborne invasion is really like.)

The last time there was a major outbreak of such menacing jingoism in the local media, I dashed off this bitter little 'joke' of a poem.

A Dangerous Hobby

If you rattle a sabre too often
Its scabbard may come loose
Fall from the belt, clatter to the ground

Finding a bare blade in your hand
You have little choice
But to strike first

My favourite book

Well, one of them, anyway.

I direct your attention to Book Book, Moonrat's book review blog (which does have a permanent link over in the sidebar there). Last week, it surged past the 100 posts mark (although there have been a few general information type posts in amongst that, so it's probably not quite reached 100 book reviews yet). In fact, as chance would have it, I chalked up Post No. 100 with a review of The Third Policeman. I think that's my tenth contribution so far (and I'm due another one soon). Please, go and check it out.

Continuing the work theme....

"When your work speaks for itself, don't interrupt."

Henry J. Kaiser (1882-1967)

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Midnight Ice Cream Party

I have often been derided for my fondness for ice cream, in any weather, at any time of year, at any time of the day. Both at home in the UK and here in China. It's cool, it's tasty, it's soothing to the throat - what more do you want? But some people, many people, perhaps a majority, seem to think that this is just too much pleasure to be absorbing at one time, particularly in allegedly inappropriate conditions - such as late at night, early in the morning, when it's not summer, when it's not that warm....

I have been a much bigger consumer of ice cream in China than I ever was back home because.... well, it's one of the few reliable pleasures you can find out here, and it's ridiculously cheap.

So, I have suffered a lot of this "How can you possibly be eating that now?" scorn, both from foreign friends and from the locals.

So, I was rather touched, on returning to my apartment building just now, to find the skinny teenage gate guards (and the gate guards from other adjacent buildings [I assume] and their waitress "girlfriends") having a little ice cream fest at something after midnight - 8 or 10 of them all crammed in the sentry box by the entrance, all eagerly chowing down on a local rip-off version of a Wall's Cornetto.

These are the things that make me happy when otherwise I am not. Strange indeed I am.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

My name is Inigo Montoya...

I haven't posted a film clip for a while (well, I have an excuse - we were cut off from YouTube in China last month), so here's another old favourite for your enjoyment. I was recently reminded of it by The British Cowboy in this comment-thread over on the Barstool.

In William Goldman's hilarious revamp of the 'fairytale' genre, The Princess Bride, (20 years old this year?! God, that makes me feel my age!), the wonderful Mandy Patinkin plays the brooding Hispanic fencing maestro, Inigo Montoya - a man obsessed with finding and revenging himself on the mysterious "six-fingered man" who murdered his father years before. He has a little speech all worked out for when he finally confronts his quarry, which he gleefully rehearses several times during the story: "Hello. My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die."

Of course, when he finally tracks the guy down, it doesn't go quite according to plan....

Great sword fight!

(Although, according to my old friend Richard - who used to run the Fencing Club at one of England's leading private schools - 'expert opinion' in the field is that the all-time best film for convincing swordplay is the old Stewart Granger romp, Scaramouche. Best sword-fighting films would make a great 'Top 10' list, but I fear I am ill-equipped to make a judgement... I may undertake some research on this.)

Where have all the readers gone?

Or, more to the point, where have all the commenters gone?

The Cowboy, we know, is mired in trial preparations. But Tulsa was silent from Monday to Friday. And FG has disappeared as mysteriously as he/she/it arrived in the first place. And those three are just about it for the regular commenting; so, when I lose them, the blog seems mighty quiet.

More pointedly still, where have all my old friends gone??

At the start of the week, I sent out an e-mail to all the folks 'back home' (a roughly even split between the UK and North America, as it happens - with a few more exotic countries thrown in here and there) exhorting them to come and visit the blog, and making a 'recommendation of the week' for them to check out (of course, the infamous 'Asexualismo' post over on the Barstool - I think I'll add that one to the sidebar on here, if I haven't already). And I haven't heard a peep out of any of them. Not one. Not by e-mail, not by phone, not by letter, not by postcard..... and most certainly not in a comment! I'm really starting to wonder if that e-mail of mine got through OK. Perhaps spam filters worldwide are now being ridiculously vindictive towards multiple-blind-copies. Perhaps 'The Kafka Boys' here in China are intercepting my e-mail. Perhaps Yahoo has been suffering one of its occasional "We can be just as useless as Hotmail sometimes!" glitches in service. I shall have to do some follow-up on this.

You see, during my first four-and-a-half years in China I kept all of my buddies overseas entertained with regular 'bulletins' about my new life here: about 1,200-1,500 words of wit, rant, and general froogery almost every week. Although a few people asked to be taken off the list because they were "just too busy" to be dealing with my narcissistic noodlings, the majority actually encouraged me to keep up the habit, and interacted with me by e-mail at least once in a while; a few loyal fans would promptly query or complain if there was any cessation of the usual outpouring for any reason. And in fact, the mailing list grew in length over the years as I added a number of friends-of-friends, former China colleagues fled home, pen friends, blog friends, etc. Yes, the 'bulletin' was going out to 70-odd people every week..... and being 'enjoyed' by a significant number of them.

But..... well, I rather fell out of the habit early this year. My posting on the blogs has been taking up all of my writing energies of late, and tends to cover much the same sort of ground as the 'bulletins' did in the past (though, of course, in a private e-mail - while I still gave all the dramatis personae the anonymising protection of an amusing nickname - I was able to be far more outspoken in my commentary about friends, acquaintances.... and especially employers; and also about my romantic life; or, at any rate, my prospective romantic life, the endlessly fluid lists of women I was unpromisingly 'interested' in). Hence, I was finding it harder and harder to make the time to compose the weekly 'bulletin', harder and harder to think of suitable material to include in it - topics that I hadn't already covered on here. It became too hard. I gave up.

However, there hasn't been a high rate of 'conversion', of former 'bulletin' fans becoming regular readers of the blogs. I know from e-mail exchanges that there are several of them who do look in here, at least on the odd occasion, but don't comment - but that's only a small fraction of my original 'readership'. And so far, only The British Cowboy, Scottish Ali (aka 'anonymous') and Earthling have become anything like regular readers and commenters.

So...... I have set myself to try to chivvy rather more of these folks into joining us here on Froogville and the Barstool. My first attempt appears to have been a resounding failure. But I shall try again. Oh, yes.

"The world shall hear from me again."

Friday, November 16, 2007

The joy of skiving - diminished

I had, I confess, been plotting for the past couple of days to use my present conspicuous ill health as an excuse to take Friday off work.

As it turns out, with the dramatic deterioration in my condition yesterday afternoon, my bunking off has become a genuine necessity rather than a self-indulgent choice. And I am far too ill to enjoy the delights of a day off.

Except that not being in the office is a kind of joy in itself, even if I am otherwise feeling pretty wretched.

I do get ill pretty often, but - perhaps because of that very frequency - I am extremely stubborn about giving in to it. I usually just carry on with my normal life regardless. As far as I can recall, this is only my 4th day off sick during 5 years in China. So, things are pretty bad.

CoCo - my friend!

CoCodamol, that is. Codeine and paracetomol - a marriage made in pharmaceutical heaven!

I think it's prescription-only back in the UK (and not freely available at all in the US?), and is mostly used for the relief of "post-operative discomfort" - i.e., to try to keep you happy when you're in way more pain than you ought to be because you've been clumsily butchered by an incompetent junior surgeon. I became a big fan of them after first a rather botched knee op and then an excruciatingly painful tonsillectomy in the early '90s.

Last night, ransacking my ill-catalogued collection of medicines in a panic as I contemplated a night of no-sleep-at-all, I turned up a brown paper bag full of the lovely things. Regular codeine just wasn't working at all any more, but with CoCo I feel almost like a normal human being again.

And, perhaps even more importantly - from the point of view of actually getting better rather than simply being too narcotised to care any more - I found a dozen tabs of penicillin hidden in the midst of my chaotic drug stash as well.

Thanks to these two finds, I have managed nearly 12 hours of (fitful) sleep. I am now feeling much better, thank you. I still feel absolutely TERRIBLE, but that is much better than last night.

Alas, I shall use up all the penicillin by tomorrow. And I don't want to deplete my emergency store of CoCo too much. So I may have to venture out to a local pharmacy later, to see if I can buy this kind of thing over the counter.

I am still desperately trying to avoid a trip to the doctor's - which would, I know: irritate the crap out of me; not make me better any quicker (assuming I can buy some antibiotics over the counter); and cost me money I don't have (or can't afford/don't want to spend). Keeping everything crossed.

Time for another hot brine gargle (damn - I wish I had some soluble aspirin as well!), and then a nice honey-cloves-and-baijiu hot toddy, I think.

A feeling poorly haiku

Return to the womb,
Muffling outside world's hubbub.
Under the duvet.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Bring out your dead!

That's me, that is.

I think this is the most ill I've been in China. Probably the most ill I've been in a good 10 or 15 years. I think I may actually have to go to see a doctor tomorrow.

And I hate to do that. I've spent way too much of my life being prodded and poked and questioned by doctors. And it never did me one ounce of good. Basically, doctors can tell you if you're going to die. And they can tell you if you're not going to die. At those two extremes of the wellness spectrum, most of them have a pretty high degree of diagnostic success. But for everything in the middle, they're pretty much completely fucking useless. And expensive.

But I think I may have to bite the bullet and go to consult one tomorrow. My horrendously impacted wisdom teeth started having one of their periodic flare-ups about a week or so ago. Usually the inflammation dies down again after a few days, but this time it has just kept on getting worse and worse. Infection has broken out all across the back of my throat, converting the roots of my long-since amputated tonsils into disgusting puddles of pus. And yesterday, I started getting distinctly puffy under the jaw. Then, late this afternoon, the glands in my neck just exploded - I think I must have added 2" or 3" to my collar size in as many minutes.

I don't seem to have any antiobiotics in the house (was sure I did somewhere, but can't find the bloody things in my moment of crisis); and the codeine and ibruprofen no longer seem to be hitting the mark. (I remember a friend of mine discovered a few years ago that you can buy morphine caplets over the counter in Chinese pharmacies - that may have to be my next step. I wonder if there are any 24-hour ones nearby??) I'm a pretty tough cookie usually, abnormally high tolerance of pain and discomfort - but really, I am in absolute bloody agony. I can't imagine there's any way I'm going to get any sleep tonight. My throat is so painful I can't swallow any more without involuntary spasms of grimacing and gurning; and if my glands swell up any more, it's not just eating and drinking that will be denied me, but possibly breathing as well. It's not a nice prospect.

A long night of crunching codeine and sipping hot toddies looms ahead of me..... I fear I'm too miserable and brain-zonked even to indulge in some therapeutically distracting blog-posting.

Bugger, bugger, bugger, bugger......

If any doctors happening past would like to offer me the free reassurance that I'm really not going to die of this, that would be most welcome at this point....

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Chinese people LOVE me! (4)

"Chinese people love me because..... I am always happy to converse with them in English, and am not forever trying to practise my lame-arse Mandarin on them."

I have a particular scorn for students of Mandarin, who have, during my time here in Beijing, become rather like the plague of Hamlin rats. Many of them seem to just fritter their time away partying. Even those that do apply themselves steadfastly to their studies are not usually able - in a year or less - to make much significant progress in this most intractable of languages. And yet they all, all want to show off the 10 words they've learned this week to every Chinese person they meet - usually with the most abysmal pronunciation that actually seems somehow to exaggerate their native accent (Australian Chinese is a particular wince-maker; although Kiwi is even worse...). It is just excruciating. Most Chinese are in fact charmed or amused by this; they're a very indulgent bunch, the Chinese. It makes me puke.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

The number of the post

Yes, I have reached that point of Apocalyptic significance here on Froogville.

Is The End at hand? I doubt it.

Is this just another cheap ploy to generate more site traffic by enticing in all the devil-worshippers and loony Christian conspiracy-theorists out there? Quite possibly. (Although, frankly, I think I could live without those sorts of nut-jobs - from either end of the Manichaean spectrum - cluttering up my comment-threads..... much as I yearn to have someone clutter them up.)

Is this my thinnest excuse ever for a post? I fear it is.

Don't worry, loyal readers: I shall be back to more substantial ramblings shortly....

Hair salvation!!

I should be wary of getting too excited.

It's pretty much an invariable 'rule of life' here that whenever you find a really good shop/bar/restaurant/service provider, it will get closed down within a few months.

Either that, or it will inexplicably turn crap overnight - even if it appears to have the same owners, same staff.

So, yes, it might just have been a fluke, a one-off. I brace myself for likely disappointment not too far in the future.

But..... I just got my haircut!! In the first place I tried (I had been anticipating that I would have to try out at least 3 or 4 different establishments before I found one that was willing to deal with a crotchety laowai who didn't want the 'full service'!). Less than a 10-minute walk from my apartment. A pretty good cut, too. And, although it did take slightly longer than I really like, it was - by Chinese standards - super-brisk. And they didn't try any of the usual time-wasting monkey-business on me. And I was able to make myself understood without having to resort to using Chinese (one of the girls there even spoke a little bit of English). And it only cost me 10 kuai. (My previous regular spot had upped its rate to 15 kuai sometime last year.) This is pretty much as good as it gets for the China haircut experience.

Oh, frabjous day!!! I don't know what I've done to deserve this unexpected good fortune..... but I hope it doesn't wear off too soon.

Hair funk

I have just realised it has been more than 5 months since I last got my hair cut in China.

My last haircut was, in fact, in Edinburgh at the beginning of August. Since I usually get it cut about every 6 weeks or so, that is a very long gap. I am becoming decidedly shaggy: not quite a Beatles moptop yet, but well on the way. It's hanging nearly 2 inches over the top of my ears now, and I can't keep on brushing it back every few minutes. And the worst of it is that it knots so terribly when it's this thick. My hair's falling out quickly enough these days as it is, without my yanking clumps of it out by the roots each day with an incautious sweep of the comb.

I have been thinking the situation requires urgent attention for the past month or so. I have now been somehow failing to take the necessary action for 4 or 5 weeks.

As I recounted in that previous post on getting one's hair cut in China, the place that I had been using since sometime in the second half of 2005 had suddenly turned deeply crap; my first attempt to find a replacement closer to home had proved even more disastrous; and now I am simply dreading going into a new and strange hairdresser's and trying to mobilise my few dozen words of faltering Chinese to try to obtain the substantial trim I so badly need.

I had been planning to take advantage of a rare work-free day today to grasp the nettle.... but slept in late, pottered aimlessly around the apartment all morning, cooked lunch, cleared the backlog of neglected washing-up, etc. - procrastination, procrastination, procrastination. I had promised myself I would head out in search of a haircut at 2pm. Or so. I still haven't gone. It's now after 3......

However, I have spent 20 minutes with a dictionary dutifully swotting up words and phrases that might be of some use to me in this ordeal. "A little shorter." "A lot shorter." "It's still too long." "I washed my hair already."

And I swear - as soon as I've finished this post - I am...... going...... to........ do........ it. Yes, really.

Here I go. Wish me luck!

Monday, November 12, 2007

Chinese people LOVE me! (3)

"Chinese people love me because...... I don't steal their women!"

Which makes me something of a rarity - not to say a freak - among the expat community here.

Not too sure whether this one works, actually. I think the average Chinese male, in addition to the deep feelings of inadequacy and insecurity whipped up by the fact that such significant numbers of his countrywomen do seem to prefer foreigners, tends to think - with a mixture of unquenchable paranoia and wounded patriotic pride - that I must be after 'his' women, really..... and that if I'm not, my aberrant girlfriend-preference should be taken as an insult to the whole country.

Yep, I fear this one may be more of a "Chinese people hate me" entry.....

Yet another 'work' bon mot

"Work is the refuge of people who have nothing better to do."

Oscar Wilde (1854-1900)

These days, we might rather say 'the Internet'. Mightn't we, Moonrat? Mightn't we, Tulsa?

Sunday, November 11, 2007

A Sunday poem

I don't think I've posted any Robert Frost on here before. A strange oversight. It may be something to do with my not having any collections of his stuff with me here.

I did, however, find this in one of my anthologies.

He would declare and could himself believe
That the birds there in all the garden round
From having heard the daylong voice of Eve
Had added to their own an oversound,
Her tone of meaning but without the words.
Admittedly an eloquence so soft
Could only have had an influence on birds
When call or laughter carried it aloft.
Be that as it may, she was in their song.
Moreover her voice upon their voices crossed
Had now persisted in the woods so long
That probably it never would be lost.
Never again would birds' song be the same.
And to do that to birds was why she came.

Robert Frost (1875-1963)

One by one....

..... we compromise our principles.

I have always tried to make it a strict rule that I do not work on the weekends.

Well, actually, it's more of a guideline. I have just spent Sunday afternoon in a recording studio. I am ashamed of myself - but I need the money, goddamnit!

Saturday, November 10, 2007

My fantasy girlfriend - Queen Gorgo

I've commented before on my long-time crushette on the lovely Lena Headey, but her character in 300 was very nearly the perfect woman - drop-dead gorgeous, smart, determined..... and those skimpy costumes.....

Almost too tough, perhaps - one got the impression that she wore the trousers in the royal relationship there (well, not that any of them wore trousers in those days, but you know what I mean), that poor old Leonidas was a bit pussy-whipped. Oooh, Queen Gorgo with a whip - now there's a thought....

I think I could 'tame' her, though. I've never ducked out of a challenge of that nature.


Rather to my suprise, I find that I am currently the lone Google search return for "enormous, obscene sculpture", and the top return (of only 4) for "obscene sculpture"+"paper clips".

An interesting aside on that second search: it doesn't seem to matter whether you hyphenate 'paper-clips' (as I did in my original post on the topic on Thursday) or leave it as two separate words within inverted commas. However, if you use 'paperclips' as your search term, you don't get any returns at all. I can't recall ever seeing 'paperclips' written as one word, and suspect that it is a nasty American novelty. 'Paper clips' as two separate words no longer feels right to me either; that would tend to imply something - any 'clippy' thing - made of paper (unlikely, I know, but it could exist), rather than the more specific product designed for clipping paper together. As so often with the fusing together of nouns to create a new term, I think 'paperclips' will be our ultimate destination; but I don't think we're quite there yet. I still prefer the half-way house of hyphenation: 'paper-clips'. Is anyone else with me on that, or am I once again a lone fuddy-duddy crying in the wilderness?? Have I been swamped by the tide of 'current usage'?

A further aside. In a moment of brainfog back there ('brainfog', yes - it is my word, so I shall de-hyphen if I choose! What do you want from me - consistency?!) a moment ago, I typed 'paperlips'. Now that, I feel, would be a useful addition to the dictionary. It sounds like a hangover symptom, does it not?

But - as so often - I digress. What I had meant to say here was simply this: "Woo-hoo - my mind is a pretty original, perhaps even unique* thing, after all!"

Shall we now expect hordes of new visitors - assorted voyeurs and fetishists with a paper-clip fixation, or 'connoisseurs' of obscene sculpture?

We shall see. Tulsa is ready to receive you in the comment threads......

* See my recent comment-exchange with The British Cowboy over on the Barstool for my pedantic view on the use of the word 'unique'.

Friday, November 09, 2007

What a good boy am I!

I did not blog from work today!

That means I am a better person than Moonrat! Yes, better!

Some people have security blankets; I wrap myself up in moral superiority to keep out the chill winds of self-doubt.

But those darned drafts still creep in somehow.... I reflect that I have again only done about another 25% or so of the tasks I set out to accomplish yesterday.

At least dear Moonrat somehow manages to keep on top of her job and blog. What is the secret??

Commuting haiku

Densely crowded sea
Where every man's an island.
Morning train to work.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

The graveyard of good intentions

Well, perhaps I'm being a little hard on myself there.

I have in fact had a pretty damned productive day.

It's just that I've only accomplished about 25% of what I set out to.

My mantra for tomorrow: I must not procrastinate, I must not procrastinate, I must not procrastinate.....

Dangerous freedom

It is 9.30am, and I am still the only person in the office.

My quasi-boss is on "study leave". The administrative co-ordinator who sits next to me is off sick (but I think she's given me whatever-it-is-that-ails-her first). The receptionist doesn't get in till 10. And everybody else is at a big seminar in Shanghai. (Boo! Feeling left out again....)

This is an intoxicating, insidious temptation..... if ever there were a time to fashion an enormous, obscene sculpture out of paper-clips, this would be it!

Except that I do actually have a hell of a lot of work to do.....

My mantra for the day: I must not procrastinate like Moonrat, I must not procrastinate like Moonrat, I must not procrastinate like Moonrat....

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Chinese people LOVE me! (2)

"Chinese people love me because..... I pretend to be interested in basketball, and I always ask how the Rockets are doing."

Strange that such a height-challenged nation would embrace this most heightist (not to mention most boring) of sports, but it has. Basketball has probably displaced table tennis as the country's favourite game; and the American NBA league is gaining a high profile here - particularly over the last 5 years, since the amiable giant Yao Ming switched from the Shanghai Sharks to the Houston Rockets. Yao is the biggest sports star in China. Which means that Chinese people are unable to comprehend that he is not also the biggest sports star in the world. Any suggestion that Yao is not the best player in the NBA is likely to win you scorn, and perhaps a light pummelling. Any suggestion that China and America are the only two countries in the world that give a damn about basketball is met with shocked disbelief.

Basketball is the world's No 1 sport. Yao Ming is its greatest player. We must all support Yao and his team, The Rockets (even though they never actually win anything). All other viewpoints are unharmonious, and will be ignored or suppressed.

The shark jumped

The British Cowboy and I were reminiscing the other day about the two great small independent arts cinemas we enjoyed in Oxford - the Penultimate Picture Palace and Not The Moulin Rouge. They were both run by the eccentric idealist Bill Heine - who, in the mid-80s, inserted this huge fibreglass sculpture of a shark into the roof of his house (I've never heard whether the shark is anatomically complete - is there a head, and teeth, in Bill's bedroom, for his private enjoyment only??). I think it was supposed to be some sort of protest against the American bombing raids on Libya at that time; but the shark soon became better known for Bill's protracted battles with the local council over whether he would be allowed to keep it. He won eventually, of course. And a few months ago, the shark was thoroughly cleaned and refurbished, to celebrate its 21st birthday. Congratulations, shark.

I don't go through that part of town very often. And I had supposed that it must have been removed long since (those wonderful cinemas are no longer with us, alas). It's nice to discover that one of the City's quirkiest landmarks is, after all, still going strong. I hope it will last many more years yet.

Thanks to the Cowboy for sharing this link to the shark's very own page, on a rather wonderful little website about all things Headington.

Monday, November 05, 2007

Drip, drip, drip

They turned on the heating in my building yesterday.

5th November?? That's ten days early. Yes, central heating in this country means "as decreed by the central government". November 15th-March 15th is the official duration of 'winter', and central heating shall be fired up for exactly this period, and not a day more or less.

That's pretty rough in places further north than here. In Harbin, for example, the temperature barely struggles above freezing even at noon from mid-October onwards, and the river is usually starting to freeze over well before the end of November. Even here in much more southerly Beijing, there's often a harsh nip in the air in October (my first year in this apartment, the temperature dropped by about 15°C on October 1st; but that was a bit of a freaky freeze). However, because the Beijing October - especially the last week or so of the month - tends to be so arse-freezing (and because this is, don't you know, the seat of government), the powers-that-be usually relent slightly, to show the people what caring and compassionate rulers they really are. If it's been a particularly sharp October, sometime around the end of the month the Committee For Deciding When The Heating Gets Switched On will meet in secret session for a few days, and then issue the necessary orders for the "15th November" to be rescheduled to the 5th or whatever.

So, is that's what's happened this year? Well, I hadn't heard any gossip about it (as I usually do). And this has been the mildest October I can remember. (Yes, yes, Leah has been complaining about the weather for most of the month, but..... well, she's just been living in California for too long. Her Viking ancestors would be shamed.) Sure, it's always one of the most blustery months of the year, so the windchill can be unpleasant. It also tends to be a bit misty occasionally, and damp air can settle a chill into your bones even if the temperature's not that low. But really - the sun has been shining most of the time; we haven't (quite) had a frost yet; and the last few days, it's even remained spookily warm at night, despite the clear skies. A quick check on Internet weather sites suggests that chilly old Harbin is about 10 degrees warmer than it was this time last year. It just hasn't been cold enough to justify turning the heating on yet.

So, what's up? I wonder if more and more building management companies for 'upscale' apartment blocks like mine are breaking free of the central government shackles, and choosing for themselves when to run the heating. Perhaps the '15th November rule' is becoming more of a guideline.

Even so, it's hard to see the compelling logic for firing up early. I mean, it's costing them money, right? And the residents here were all meekly expecting to have to endure another couple of weeks of heatinglessness.

Moreover, every year I've been here so far, there has been a sudden rise in temperature in early November - a run of blue sky days and pleasant sunshine for a week or two in the first half of the month. It might be overstating things a bit to call it "an Indian summer", but it's definitely pleasant. Well, pleasant outside, uncomfortably warm inside - because, of course, the central heating is now on, and it can't possibly be turned off again, or even adjusted, to accommodate unseasonally mild patches of weather.

The central-heating takes some time to make itself felt - a day or two for the water to make its way through the miles of piping around the building, another day or two (or three or four...) for the maintenance guys to chase out all the airlocks in the system, another day or two for the warmth to really assert itself over the ingrained chill of the building's fabric. So, I'm not expecting to start feeling cosy until the end of the week (I have the top floor apartment on the most exposed south-east corner of the building, overlooking a park, so I suffer a vicious wind-cooling effect: for the last month it has generally been way colder inside my apartment than out on the streets!).

For now, the most noticeable effect of The Big Switch-On is the noise. At first it was quite a restful, quite a musical noise - a sort of whispering, rustling, tinkling, as the water splashed into the empty pipes. I was slow to realise what it was, at first. But then I twigged, and enjoyed it on two levels; the reassurance that warmer days are not far off, and the pleasantness of the running water sounds. But, after a few hours, it had settled down into the relentless - and really very LOUD - tap, tap, tap that will keep up all winter. Fortunately, the main bedroom is the one room in the apartment where this phenomenon does not make itself heard. I have found it virtually impossible to sleep in the second bedroom during the winter (which does rather undermine the value of this place!). And the din in my study is already driving me crazy. I have tried in the past to try to get this 'fixed'. I will probably try again this year. Alas, it appears that there is nothing to be done. Something in the heating system drips, drips, drips, constantly for the next 4 months, and makes a dreadful bloody racket: thump-thump-thump, tick-tick-tick, tap-tap-tap. Aaaarrrrggghhhh!!!!!!

At least I can console myself that I don't live in 'the South'. Yes, another of the more bizarre relics of the central planning era in China is the continuing insistence that half of the country does not have a winter. Or at least, not one that's severe enough to merit splurging valuable national resources on providing any heating. The dividing line is the Yangtze River. And the "freeze for the good of the country" diktat seems to embrace cities like Wuhan and Shanghai that are actually on the Yangtze, as well as those that are definitively south of it.

A lot of those places do in fact have a pretty chilly winter. Shanghai doesn't get that cold, but it is very damp. Friends in Shanghai tend to whinge continually through the winter months. Ha-haa..... yet another reason for preferring Beijing!

This week's bon mot (continuing the 'work' theme)

"Personally, I have nothing against work, particularly when performed, quietly and unobtrusively, by someone else. I just don't happen to think it's an appropriate subject for an 'ethic'."

Barbara Ehrenreich (1941- )

Sunday, November 04, 2007

Great moments in cinema history

Yes, it's time for the beginning-of-the-month list - September's declaration of intent (and last month's late, serialized, unduly protracted follow-up) herewith crystallizing definitively into a regular feature.

This month's topic is, more properly, Great moments in my personal history of cinema-going.

Out of the many hundreds of films I have seen in a cinema (really - I used to aim for 50 a year, when I had access to lots of cheap arthouse cinemas as a student in Oxford; and since then - at least, until coming to China - I've generally managed to keep up an average of at least 20 a year), there are just a handful that left a particularly vivid impression in my memory - as much for the circumstances surrounding that moment, and hence the emotional impact on me, as for the fact that they were especially brilliant films (although they were).

Here we go.....

10 life-changing moments in the cinema

1) 2001: A Space Odyssey - I was taken to see this when I was far too young. Not on its first release (heck, I was hardly even born - I hadn't realised until recently that it pre-dated the first Moon landing), but at some point when it was getting a big second run in cinemas in the early or mid-70s (it might well have been tied into the end of the Moon missions, or the launch of Skylab). I was still at primary school. I should not have been allowed in. My parents should not have taken me (I suppose they thought I'd enjoy it because I was a bit of a space programme obsessive at the time). I didn't understand it (and, even then, I was not used to not understanding things). It scared me. It traumatized me. It fascinated me. I don't think any other film has ever lingered so long or so potently in my memory. I enjoyed reading the novelization a few years afterwards (also by Arthur C. Clarke, who had written the original short story which inspired one of the key ideas in the film, and then developed the screenplay with Kubrick), and it went some way toward rendering the mysteries more intelligible. I didn't see the film again until some 25 years later (I think it had been kept out of cinemas in the UK - perhaps another of Kubrick's famous episodes of control-freakery? - until its 30th anniversary rolled around); and I still found it deeply unsettling; although at least this time I had a deeper understanding of why.

2) Vanishing Point - This would have been about the same time as '2001'; I can't now recall if it was a little later or a little earlier. My brother - quite a bit older than me, already in his middle teens, and a friend of the son of the guy who owned our small-town fleapit cinema - was my hotline to the coming attractions (there was only one film per week, and almost everyone in the entire town went to see it on the Friday or the Saturday). And this one seemed a particularly exciting prospect: a road film, a chase film, lots of car stunts. However, under our old cinema ratings system I think it was categorised as an 'AA' - which meant that you were supposed to be 14 or 15 to be allowed in. The cinema owner, Jeff, was usually pretty relaxed about letting kids in to see stuff; but this picture was reputed to have quite a bit of violence and nudity in it; and I was still only about 8 or 9, maybe 10 - it would have been pushing things a bit too far. I think I had been intending to go with my bro (he had taken me to a few single 'A' category films, where I was supposed to have been accompanied by an adult), but he got cold feet about the idea. I must have bitched about it so much that my dad agreed to try to get me in. So, part of the pleasure of this particular cinema experience was getting my way; part of it was being able to surprise my bro afterwards with my knowledge of the film (he'd gone separately with some mates, and wasn't aware that dad and I were in the theatre at the same time as him); but mostly, I loved it because it was such a wonderfully dark, existential sort of thriller. I've always been drawn to films that are dominated by a sense of bleakness, hopelessness; always, even when I was 9!

3) An American Werewolf In London - I saw this when I was attending admissions interviews in Oxford; it was the winter I turned 18. I think it was the first time my parents had ever allowed me to travel anywhere on my own. It was the first time I'd been able to drink in a pub on my own legally (a bit of a dull experience, actually, after 3 or 4 years of illicit thrills as an underage drinker). And it was the first time I'd had an opportunity to go to a 'big town' cinema (of the three cinemas that I visited in my childhood - Monmouth, Coleford, and Hereford - only the Hereford one was of any size, and I don't think it had a second screen; though nominally a 'city', Hereford was essentially a hick town, just a rather larger one than Monmouth, the overgrown village that I grew up in). It might well have been the first time I ever went to the cinema on my own. I had a high old time. I went to the cinema all three nights I was there. The highlight of those three trips (oh, how exhilarating it was suddenly to have choices, to be able to go more than once a week!) was this great John Landis horror comedy (the other two nights were 'Airplane!' and 'Monty Python's "Life of Brian"'). It was one of the very few occasions when I have really appreciated the communal aspect of the cinema-going experience (usually I am strictly solitary and anti-social in my film-watching); the theatre was packed, and the audience were loving it - a great atmosphere. I think we were all "warmed up" by the bizarre trailer that had preceded it, for a soft porn film (the first one of those I'd seen as well, I'm sure); one of those very tame ones that has to masquerade as a documentary about Swedish naturist resorts in order to get a mainstream distribution. It was ludicrously amateurish, and the commentary was priceless - we were all hyped up and reeling with laughter before the main feature began. (Was this a deliberate promotional ploy by the 'American Werewolf' distribution company, do you suppose? Was the porno trailer a fake, a comedy short specifically designed to lubricate audience laughter?) Fabulous film, too; still a favourite. Jenny Agutter in the shower - a key erotic moment in any Englishman's life (curiously enough, the other two key erotic cinematic moments in an Englishman's life are Jenny Agutter swimming naked in 'Walkabout' and Jenny Agutter dressed as a Victorian schoolgirl [and taking her bloomers off to flag down the train] in 'The Railway Children' - what was it about Jenny Agutter?). And then there was Griffin Dunne's wonderfully downbeat comment on the limitations of the afterlife: "Have you ever tried talking to a corpse? It's boring."

4) Fitzcarraldo - I had just gone up to start my undergraduate career at Oxford. I had just discovered The Phoenix, the two-screen arthouse cinema in Jericho (still going strong today) where I would spend countless hundreds of hours over the next two decades. The next morning I was required to rise relatively early to attend my college's Matriculation ceremony (failure to attend which could, I was told, have dire consequences). But what the hell - they're showing this dark, weird epic by Werner Herzog on the late show; that's a must-see. It's a long film, something like two-and-a-half hours; and it didn't start until nearly midnight. I was knackered the next day, nearly did miss the Matriculation..... might have had to wait another year to start at University. It would have been worth it! This was probably the first really great film that I got to see on my own at a cinema, and it completely blew me away; both the story and its execution resonated with me more deeply than just about anything else I have ever seen. It is a wonderful celebration of the power of dreams, of the beauty of being passionately attached to your ideals, and of the possibility of finding some consolation even in the most devastating failure.

5) Lili Marleen - My other (even more frequent) resort during my Oxford days was the delightfully sleazy, single-screen Penultimate Picture Palace (PPP) just off the Cowley Road. In my early days there, they ran this fantastic schedule where there was a different film each week for the early and late evening screenings and a daily-changing film on the afternoon matinees and late-night slots: 16 different films each week. I never quite got to see all of them; although I think I did make it into double figures for the week once or twice. In fact, I did once think of applying for a job as a projectionist there, so that I could see the films for free (at this time, the admission fee was only 99p anyway; but I was going so often that it did start to mount up!). Thanks to the wonderful profusion and diversity of the PPP's offerings, I had got to know and like the work of the very stylish, very quirky German director, Rainer Werner Fassbinder. One week I happened to notice, at the very last minute, that his 'Lili Marleen' was on that afternoon - an exuberant wartime adventure starring his regular leading lady, the gorgeous Hanna Schygulla, as a glamorous nightclub singer forced to entertain German troops. It was the only screening that week. It might be my only chance to see that film ever (to my knowledge, it never did come around again in the cinemas). And I had read that it was wonderful. It was just a bit unfortunate that it clashed with a tutorial (one of the weekly, hour-long, one-to-one sessions with a professor which are the main method of 'teaching' at Oxford). Something had to give. I hastily scribbled a note excusing myself from the tutorial. I could have fibbed and claimed illness. But I have always believed that honesty is the best policy: so I explained there was a once-in-a-lifetime chance to see a Fassbinder film at the cinema that afternoon, and I considered that more important. The prof was reasonably understanding about it. I never regretted the decision: it was a delightful, quite exhilarating piece of film-making (I've never seen it again in any medium; I wish I could find it on DVD here.). That incident was thoroughly representative of my time at Oxford; my studies were always a very low priority - I felt I was getting my education elsewhere.

6) Brazil - Terry Gilliam's blackly funny masterpiece (a take on Orwell's '1984', scripted by Tom Stoppard) is a film I find bears many repeat viewings. I think I went to see it 3 or 4 times in the first year it was out. The first one was probably at the Phoenix (I went to see it with a Welsh drinking compadre of the time, who subsequently pursued a career in film-making himself for a while). The first 10 minutes or so are just staggering; I sat there, eyes popping, jaw sagging - probably sighing with delight. A little later that summer I went to see it again at Not The Moulin Rouge, a slightly swanker sister of the Penultimate Picture Palace, up the road in Headington. Despite it being outside of the academic term time, it was a pretty packed theatre - and I ran into a couple of friends who'd also fallen in love with the film and come back for a repeat viewing. I once read that there was a cinema in Paris that showed this film every day for a dozen or more years. My recollections of seeing this film epitomise the exhilaration, the sheer joy that the cinema can inspire in me.

7) Commando - This might seem to be lowering the tone a bit, but I honestly believe that - of its type - this is a great film. It is a thoroughly workmanlike action adventure film that diverts quite well on those terms alone, yet it also gleefully sends up - much better than any other film I can think of - the conventions of that genre. I fondly recall reading this soundbite from Schwarzennegger (probably written by his publicist) when he was promoting the film (at that time big Arnie was just starting to break big after the success of 'The Terminator', and was seen as being in competition as an action hero with Sly Stallone and his rapidly deteriorating but horribly successful 'Rambo' series), probably before I saw it: "In this movie I kill way more people than Stallone. And I kill them in more interesting ways." And it's perfectly true: the "tool shed sequence" is a classic! However, I didn't just fall in love with this film because it's so slick, smart, and funny. No, it won a special place in my heart because it came at another key juncture in my life, in my sputtering career as a 'star' student. 'Collections' (internal College exams at the beginning of each term, to test work supposedly done over the vacations) were a big part of Oxford life. I'd always hated them. If you were an under-performing student, they could be labelled as 'penal', which meant that if you got a poor mark on them you could face disciplinary procedures - including, potentially, being kicked out of the University altogether. I think my 'collections' this term were not formally classed as 'penal', but I had been given enough coded warnings to realise that if I screwed them up, I would be asked to sit a second set that would be 'penal'. I was hating my course at this point. I hadn't done any work over the vacation. I knew I was likely to fail these 'collections' horribly, and it would be a complete waste of time even to sit them. I might as well just go straight to the follow-up 'penal collections' (at least that would give me a week or two to revise). So, I skipped the exam, went out and got extravagantly drunk at lunchtime with my buddy The Bookseller (as he now is), and then looked for a film to while away the afternoon with...... and we chanced upon 'Commando'. The combination of a good friend, a lot of alcohol, running away from major life responsibilities, and happening by chance on a surprisingly clever and entertaining film made - oddly enough - for one of the happiest afternoons of my life.

8) The Hairdresser's Husband - Patrice Leconte is perhaps my favourite still-active director: I love just about all of his films. And I think this was the first I ever saw. It came at a particularly bad time in my life. I had just suffered a spell of serious illness which left me in hospital for 2 or 3 weeks, and knocked me off my feet for considerably longer than that. It had required some minor surgery. The procedure was somewhat botched. The operation had been on my bottom. It damaged my anal sphincter, such that..... well, I wasn't wildly incontinent but I was distressingly leaky for a while. The surgical wound was deep, wouldn't heal properly, kept getting infected. I'd lost a ton of weight: I was gaunt and enfeebled. I'd been laid up in bed for so long that I'd become decidedly wobbly on my feet. I'd lost so much muscle tone in my buttocks that they chafed together all the time when I moved; walking more than a hundred yards or so would result in severe soreness, and indeed bleeding. Sitting down was acutely uncomfortable, yet I was barely strong enough to stand up. Can you imagine how wretchedly humiliating and debilitating and painful all of this was? I doubt it. I was in a bad place. My protracted - indefinite - period of invalidity had obliged me to quit my teaching job; and convalescing at home with my parents had been rapidly driving me crazy. Luckily, my good friend The Egregious Dr P agreed to take me in for a month or so. He was still living in Oxford, his house barely a mile from the PPP. So, I spent much of that period of recovery going to see films. The short walk there and back took ages, and was agonising - but this was the only source of pleasure and hope in my life at that moment. In that exhausted, depressed, emotionally brittle state I had some particularly intense cinematic experiences - experiences that lifted me out of near-suicidal despair; experiences the recollection of which still buoys my spirits to this day. I particularly cherish my first encounters with 'The Big Blue' and 'Cinema Paradiso' in those dark days. But it was 'The Hairdresser's Husband' that enraptured me most of all. From the opening shots - the young boy dancing so unselfconsciously, ecstatically to the strange Arabic music on his gramophone; the voiceover anecdote about the grotesquely unsuitable swimming trunks his mother had forced him to wear on their seaside holidays; the jarring revelation that this marvellously determined, unselfconscious, individualistic child has matured into a dour, taciturn, eminently lugubrious Jean Rochefort - well, I was in heaven. I'm not sure that I've ever been so wholly, instantly captivated by a story on the screen. Afterwards, I limped painfully home with a song in my heart - and didn't chuck myself in the river, as I had been seriously contemplating just a few hours earlier.

9) Dr Strangelove - I first saw this on TV one afternoon when I was about 12 or 13 (and whatever chore it was my parents thought I should have been doing was obstinately deferred). The 'real time', documentary feel of it sucked me in completely: by the end of it, I felt completely emotionally drained; I felt as if I really had just witnessed the last two hours of human existence. Nearly 20 years later, I found myself passing through San Francisco as a backpacker, and thought I should check out the famous Castro Cinema (I think it's actually on Market St; but it's near the head of Castro St, well-known as the epicentre of the city's gay community). It's a gorgeous, huge, old school style cinema - it even still has a Wurlitzer organ at the front (or, it used to back then). I confess I was a little nervous of the place's reputation as a homosexual rendezvous/pick-up site. And I was wary of the double entendre involved in asking, "Do they play the organ in the matinees?" However, I learned that Strangelove was on one afternoon during the week I was there (another of those one-screening-only deals: see it now or miss it forever), and I couldn't resist. No organ, alas. But no unwelcome homosexual advances either (I was just about the only person in the theatre - rather sad, really, for such a great film). On the big screen I found it even more devastating than I had on that first viewing as a child. My eyes were damp at the end of it.

10) The Girl On The Bridge - Another Patrice Leconte nomination, to prove how much I love the guy (and I could go on about 'Tango' or 'Ridicule' or 'La Veuve de St Pierre' at great length also). I can't quite remember when I first saw this (and IMDB is currently unavailable to me, so I can't check when it came out); but I know it was at The Phoenix; and I suspect it was in the late '90s. It was another period where I had reached a very low emotional ebb in my life. It was another occasion when I found something so deliciously enjoyable that it revived and reaffirmed my whole zest for life. For a long time I carried the ticket stub - imprinted with the name of the film - around with me in my wallet, to remind me of why I keep on living.

As I warned at the outset, I have spoken more about my mental state when I first experienced these films than about the merits of the films themselves. But they are all very, very, very good - and I do urge you to give them a look, if they are not already known to you.