Friday, July 27, 2007

A last haiku

Airplane cabin hush;
Waiting, dormant, outside time.
Reborn on landing.


A final 'going away' haiku for you (post-dated, to maintain a deceptive appearance of normality). I do still rather enjoy the experience of air travel.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Hard to tear myself away

Why does Beijing do this to me?

I had been itching to get away. I was growing desperately, miserably weary of Beijing, China, my life.

But then, I had a rare completely free day today - having been unable to procure a flight to the UK until Thursday; and, for once, having had the sense to throw my leaving bash a day early (well, my flight leaves at dawn tomorrow!). I've only managed a scant handful of days without any work at all in the past three months; so this was really quite a luxury.

And Beijing has just given us a near-perfect day: a day such as we rarely see in late July, and just about never in August; a day such as we have rarely seen this year since early June. Bright, clear sunshine, low humidity, powder-blue sky. I've just been ambling about my neighbourhood all day, reading a book, getting a tan; and, for once, not having any extraneous shit to worry about (apart from my packing, and my ridiculously early start for the airport).

And suddenly I am missing the place, before I've even left. This seems to happen to me every year when I get ready to leave for my summer break. The weather gods, it seems, are joining in the great cosmic conspiracy against me. Why, WHY do you tease me so?

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Going away

Yes, I am departing for the UK for three weeks, and not expecting to be keeping up the blogging habit from there. The rest is silence....

To keep you busy while I'm away, I have in the last few days attempted to initiate three contentious, open-ended discussions (I may even try to put these in the sidebar), on:

Chinese food - the worst cuisine in the world, just possibly?

The films of the Coen brothers - do you have a favourite?

Beijing v. Shanghai - which is the better city to live in, and why?


Please, during my absence, try to amuse yourselves with these. Or with noodling around my substantial archives.


I'll be back.


"8 Things About You" Revisited - friends reply to the challenge

Back at the beginning of June I (grudgingly) accepted one of those blogworld 'tags' to reveal 8 previously unsuspected facts about my life; and I passed the challenge on (even more hesitatingly) to a number of my blog chums.

Well, my old butler (really!), Snopes, has just sent in a belated contribution (buried in the comment thread to my original post: I might so easily have missed it! I think I'll re-print it in this post for easier access). This prompts me to review the success of my 'tag' efforts on this; and I think that only Moonrat (in bed with Harry Potter these last few days) is still defaulting. Although I have lost the link to Earthling's blog for the time being (she was invitation-only for a while, and then, I think, relaunched on another address).

Anyway, Leah finally got around to answering the challenge last week.

HiK (Home in Kabul) was much more prompt. Almost supernaturally so! Faster than a speeding bullet.....

OMG followed just a couple of days later.

And Tulsa, 'The Constant Socialite', despite her initial protestation of reluctance, caved in to the peer pressure soon after.

And, for your reference, it was Jeremiah who originally 'tagged' me.


Now, here's Snopes's two penn'orth:

1) I killed a man once. It was during my National Service, in Malaya during The Emergency. It is disturbing and shaming memory for me. It was also a turning-point in my life because up until then I had been seriously considering a career in the Army.

2) In my later years, I have become quite proficient in the game of bowls, and it is now my major hobby.

3) I am distantly related to one of the founders of http://www.snopes.com/, a popular American website which debunks 'urban legends'. She and her husband claim that they took the name from a family of characters in the works of William Faulkner, but I suspect she was also secretly paying tribute to her own family tree.

4) Master Froog won me in a raffle. It is a strange story but quite true.

5) I can wiggle my left ear but not my right.

6) I am fond of a pint of bitter, but I have never touched strong spirits.

7) Inspired by Master Froog's recommendations on his blog, I have just read 'The Third Policeman', and it is indeed extremely entertaining.

8) For nearly 20 years now I have spent a good portion of every summer in a villa just outside of Porto. I am ashamed to admit that my progress with the language has been very limited.

Battle Royale: Beijing v. Shanghai

I cross-post this from my other blog, the Barstool.



********************************************

Since I'm going away for a few weeks - and am likely to post little or not at all in that time - I thought I would leave you by trying to kick off an online debate on the relative merits (or failings) of China's two greatests cities, Beijing and Shanghai. (Yes, for the sake of simplicity, I'm going to leave Hong Kong, Chongqing, et al out of the discussion for now, if you don't mind.)

I have touched on this great controversy here on the Barstool a couple of times before (here and here), but I somehow failed to trigger the expected torrent of pugnacious opinions. Oh, well, third time lucky?



So, which do you prefer, and why?

Beijing, the seat of government, or Shanghai, the centre of commerce?

Shanghai is commonly said to have more of a 'European' feel to it, but is that necessarily a good thing? And does that make Beijing 'more Chinese' by comparison?

I love Shanghai as an occasional weekend getaway. I love the narrow little streets of the old foreign concessions. I love the fact that it's on a huge river, close to the sea. I love the fact that its taxi drivers mostly know where they're going. I love the fact that the grass is actually green there.

However, it is expensive, pretentious, and it rains all the time. It doesn't seem to have such a lively cultural scene as the capital, with a particularly notable deficiency in live music venues. The city has two of the worst airports in the world. Shanghai natives are notoriously snooty and exclusionary towards outsiders - even (especially!) other Chinese. And did I mention how bloody expensive it is??

On other issues - such as the purported superiority of Shanghai's women and of its cooking - I'm not really experienced enough to comment. I suspect these views have a lot of truth in them, but it's not enough to save the city for me. Good for a holiday, terrible place to live!

Most people I know share this overall assessment. But then, I live in Beijing; and most of the people I know who have a strong opinion on this topic are people (both Chinese and foreigners) who have moved from Shanghai to Beijing and have found that they prefer it here.


What about the great blog-reading public out there? Let's hear your views - but on the Barstool post, if you please.

Is it a poem?

It's been a while since I offered you one of my "poems about poetry" series. This is an old favourite from Brian Patten (who avid readers may recall that I once met).




A Blade of Grass

You ask for a poem.
I offer you a blade of grass.
You say it is not good enough.
You ask for a poem.

I say this blade of grass will do.
It has dressed itself in frost,
It is more immediate
Than any image of my making.

You say it is not a poem,
It is a blade of grass, and grass
Is not quite good enough.
I offer you a blade of grass.

You are indignant.
You say it is too easy to offer grass.
It is absurd.
Anyone can offer a blade of grass.

You ask for a poem.
And so I write you a tragedy about
How a blade of grass
Becomes more and more difficult to offer,

And about how as you grow older
A blade of grass
Becomes more difficult to accept.

Brian Patten

We apologise for the 'Inconvenients'

One of the most galling things about the plague of so-called 'Convenient Stores' that has broken out across Beijing and Shanghai in the last few years is that they are so inappropriately named.

Amongst the less-than-convenient things about them:

1) Their hours of opening are never very clear. These days, most of them are 24-hour, but quite a few are still "7-11" - approximately. Actually, a lot of them just seem to open and close when they feel like it. There was a "7-11" next to my apartment building for a while which seldom opened before 8.30 or 9 in the morning (which is uncommonly late for this country!), and invariably shut up shop again rather before 10pm. It's not entirely surprising that its business was so weak, and that it closed for good after a year or so.

2) They rarely stock anything you'd actually want to buy. In particular, almost none of them carry milk - although this is now becoming a popular product with the Chinese also, and can be found in any regular supermarket, the 'convenient' stores for some reason disdain it.

3) The tills run out of change remarkably frequently. This is particularly likely to happen at the exact moment that you walk up to the counter to pay for something. Where the store has more than one till (most of them these days have two), it is entirely probable that both tills will run out of money at the same time. When the till or tills run out of change, it will take an undisclosed amount of time (but never less than 10 minutes) to fetch more money from the back of the shop. There will never be any sense of hurry-up about this operation. There will never be any explanation or apology for the delay.

4) Inputting new stock codes into electronic tills takes upwards of an hour a day. Staff expect you to wait while this is happening.

5) Stock-taking takes upwards of two hours a day. During this operation the store's doors remain open, but the staff will refuse to serve you.


Yes, OK, I am especially bitter because most of these eccentricities were regular failings in the store next to my apartment. The staff there were so bloody useless, it really wasn't any kind of an asset to the neighbourhood at all. (Neither is the expensive baijiu & cigarettes store that has replaced it, but....) However, I have also observed these phenomena from time to time in many other stores of this type in China. 'Convenient' really doesn't seem to be le mot juste.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Chinese food is SHITE

There - I've said it!

I feel so much better now.

Now, of course, that is a wild and indefensible generalization, given the huge variety of regional cuisines within China. We all enjoy eating Chinese food once in a while. We all have certain dishes that have become particular favourites. And whenever I'm overseas - outside of China - a Chinese restaurant remains one of my top choices for an evening out.

Why isn't that the case within China? Well, there are many reasons. Probably enough for a whole series of posts on the topic.

Partly my contempt for the majority of Chinese dishes stems from a reaction against the ubiquitous Chinese chauvinism about their cuisine. You just get so damned sick of hearing all the time that they have the best cuisine in the world, and having to smile and nod in dumb 'agreement' for fear of making a scene, that there comes a time when you just have to set the record straight. You do not have the best cuisine in the world. In fact, most of it kind of sucks!

I am far from being alone in this lack of enthusiasm for the local cuisine.

There are two conspicuous phenomena I have noted during my time in China. One of these is how quickly and wholeheartedly the Chinese embrace Western cooking (especially fast-food: KFC, McDonald's, Pizza Hut et al are hugely successful over here). That doesn't do much to support the theory of the innate superiority of Chinese cooking, does it? (And by far the most popular variety of 'Chinese' food - at least here in Beijing - is Muslim cuisine from the western 'provinces' like Xinjiang; and that's really Central Asian, a completely separate culinary tradition.) The other is how nearly all expats virtually give up eating Chinese food - except on special occasions - after they've been here a year or two.

Now, I was always rather disdainful of this latter attitude: I felt that it betrayed an inappropriate dependence on 'home comforts', a failure to 'engage' with the native culture. And I still feel there is some truth in that judgement. There are hordes of North Americans here who seem to be unable to survive without regular fixes of burgers, fries, and pizza, and a breakfast at 'Steak & Eggs' every weekend. Heck, I can quite happily go for a year at a time without indulging in any of that junk food (I like it, I like it a lot; but I'm not addicted).

But when it comes to going out for a meal - at any rate for a fancy meal, a fun evening out - these days 'Chinese' is just about never something I consider. There are so many other options available. And they're all better. Korean, Japanese, Thai, Malay, Indian, Middle Eastern, Russian, Brazilian. There's even a kosher restaurant just opened up here.

Even the best Chinese restaurants here, for me, just don't bear comparison with these foreign places. The reasons, as I said, are many. Quality control in this country, especially in the food industry, is shaky at best, most of the time non-existent. Standards of service, as I recently tut-tutted over on the Barstool, are generally abysmal. The quality of the food itself (even in the better restaurants) is mostly pretty atrocious: vegetables just don't taste like they ought to (the local garlic, in particular, seems to have no garlickiness about it, only a savage, battery-acid hotness); chicken is rubbery, beef stringy (often, I suspect, from dairy rather than beef stock.... or from water buffalo that have expired of natural causes after long lives of toil), pork tasteless; when you order Beijing Duck, you need a whole duck each (at least) because the birds are so goddamned scrawny.

But a lot of my dissatisfaction does come down to the cuisine itself. As a French chef witheringly put it in conversation with me a few months back: "They have the most amazing variety of ingredients in the world here - and only one way of cooking them."

Alas, it does appear to be true. Almost everything is stir-fried in a wok; and that does tend to mean that everything is appallingly greasy. Apart from Cantonese 'sweet & sour' dishes, spring rolls, and a few types of battered vegetable emulating Japanese tempura, nothing is deep-fried. Apart from dumplings, almost nothing is boiled or steamed. Apart from Beijing Duck, just about nothing is roasted. Apart from yangrouchuan (mutton kebabs), just about nothing is grilled (and that's part of the Central Asian cuisine imported via Xinjiang anyway). There are very few stews or casseroles (soups are almost invariably just water-with-bits-in). They seem not to have any thickening agents. They don't have any dairy in their cooking. They don't have any flavourful alcoholic drinks to add to their cooking (they use rice wine once in a while, but it doesn't impart a lot of flavour - mercifully!). They don't have much in the way of sauces at all. They don't really seem to have any herbs or spices, for the most part - apart from garlic, chilli, and ginger, and, occasionally, star anise (hence the wild enthusiasm with which they adopted MSG, I daresay).

Yep, despite the staggering variety of available ingredients, the majority of Chinese cooking is greasy, bland, and depressingly homogenous.

Even the rice is BORING. Really quite gobsmackingly, unbelievably boring. Every other country and region I've ever encountered that relies on rice as its staple has recognised that it is TASTELESS and taken steps to deal with that shortcoming - by adding garlic, cumin, saffron, curry, pineapple, etc., etc. The Chinese don't even add salt or soy. I never order rice in Chinese restaurants any more. I'd rather eat cardboard.

Now that I have become a regular 'business traveller', I am being forced to eat out much more often. And I'm really not keen to eat Chinese. When I was down in Hangzhou last week, I sought out their branch of the 'Indian Kitchen' chain. It's not the best Indian restaurant in the world, and the service is predictably wayward, but.... at least you know you're going to get some variety in the menu: wet dishes, dry dishes; rich, meaty gravies or smooth creamy sauces; meat-only dishes and vegetable-only dishes; fried dishes from a wok and baked dishes from the tandoor; delicate blends of spices; marvellous breads and several different types of flavoured rice.

Yes, sorry - a deferential bow to all of my Chinese friends, and to any casual Chinese readers who may wander in here - but, compared to food like that, Chinese cooking sucks.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Judgement

I ran into one of my favourite former students by happy accident this Saturday afternoon.

She was giving her American boss a little tour of my neighbourhood. We stepped into a nearby restaurant for a drink and a chat on their roof terrace.

At one point, she observed rather bitterly that "One of the reasons foreigners love China so much is that it gives them the chance to be judgemental all the time."

I can see her point. It must get rather wearing to be constantly hearing so much criticism from visitors to the country. Heck, we are all guilty of it from time to time. And many foreigners, I fear, do whinge and condemn rather too relentlessly, without much insight or any sense of tact.

However, I do also feel that my student was exhibiting here a rather too common Chinese reaction of being over-sensitive, over-defensive. The Chinese, alas, are generally very intolerant of criticism: they tend to view it always as unwarranted condemnation, even when it is constructive and justified. Indeed, they are apt to take offence at even quite innocent observations on their country and culture; on occasions where clearly no offence was intended, nor could even be reasonably inferred. Conversations with Chinese friends can be quite a cultural minefield.

Her boss and I smiled when she went on to suggest that this wasn't something we'd do at home. Oh, no - we do it all the time, everywhere, about everything. Yes, we probably overdo it sometimes; perhaps carping criticism does become a knee-jerk - always accentuating the negative, and denigrating the positive.

But this does seem to be something that is too seldom found in China - a tradition of critical thinking and open discussion. To observe, analyse, and form judgements is a good thing. The word 'judgemental' only acquires a negative connotation when the judgements made are inaccurate or unjust, excessively negative, hypocritical, insensitive, or derived from an inadequate knowledge base.

So, sorry - but China is a PFU country: there is lots to criticise here. We foreign guests in the country would probably criticise it a lot less if the Chinese themselves were able to criticise it more.

Wisdom of the Froog

"The Master encourages all of his students to find their own Path. He shows them his own Path only as an example."


A number of my "fan club" have taken to calling me 'sensei', you see. It is rather too heavy a responsibility.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Another Milestone

Counting

How strange the human frailty for numbers.
Daunted by the multifarious world,
We fake some measure of knowledge and control
By naming, labelling, counting;
By parcelling out time
We deny dread infinity.
Counting somehow comforts us:
Counting the books on our shelves,
Counting the days of our lives,
Counting the loves we have lost.
The uncountable dismays, yet fascinates:
The books we don't have,
The days still to live,
The love yet to come.


This is a 'sketch' only. I just wrote it in a couple of minutes flat, to meet the need for some sort of commemoration of the fact that this is Post No. 500 here on Froogville. There might be the germ of something worthwhile in here.

Anyway, thanks for reading (and for commenting, those few of you that do). How many more posts will there be? Who knows? I am pondering giving up this blogging malarkey, since it is way too time-consuming - and I've never really felt that it is 'me'. Then again, I'm probably hopelessly addicted by now....

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Old, but still sprightly...

Another favourite film clip for you to enjoy. I had meant to post this a few weeks ago, but YouTube has been misbehaving mysteriously in the People's Republic of late. Only today have I been able to access this excerpt again.

This comes, of course, from the 2nd greatest of all the Coen brothers' films, Miller's Crossing. Now there's a provocative discussion point for you - which do you think is their No. 1? Surely everyone must have an opinion on that. After all, who does not love the Coen brothers??

Irish gang boss Leo (Albert Finney) gets ready to unwind at the end of a hard day's racketeering; he puts his feet up, lights himself a stogie, and cranks up his favourite rendition of 'Danny Boy' on the gramophone;.... but someone is intent on disturbing his reverie. Big mistake.

Ah.... "the Old Man's still an artist with the Thompson."

Friday, July 20, 2007

Tell me something I didn't already know

That last post about the hell of Chinese airports reminds me of one of my favourite pieces of inept English delivered over a tannoy announcement.

In Hangzhou Xiaoshan Airport the other day, the announcements were mostly saying, "Flight XY456 is delayed because of.... plane delay."

It reminded me of an occasion in London several years ago when I was trying to go north from Clapham Common on the Northern Line (notoriously the most antiquated and unreliable branch of the Underground network), and there were severe interruptions to the service.

The platform announcer - clearly starting to speak before he'd fully decided what he was going to say - delivered the message:
"We apologise to passengers for delays in the Northern Line service this morning. This is caused by..... um.... er...... trains running late."

You don't say?!

The Prisoner of Hangzhou (Airport)

I was to have been flying back to Beijing from the southern city of Hangzhou on Wednesday afternoon.

I had been warned by a work colleague earlier that there was a danger of delays because there were some big thunderstorms around Beijing. But that was at 8 o'clock in the morning. I assumed it would blow over pretty quickly, and I couldn't conceive of how it might still be disrupting flight schedules 6 or 7 hours later. But I was to learn. This is China.

I got to the airport in plenty of time. So much time, in fact, that I thought I'd try to switch to an earlier flight. No joy there. It seems that - unlike in enlightened countries like America - China's domestic airlines don't have any reciprocal agreements to enable easy flight-swapping. On a visit to Shanghai a few weeks back, I had been offered a switch to an earlier flight - but I suppose that was on the same airline. This could be one of the advantages of flying with one of the more major carriers like Air China or China Eastern. If you travel - as I always seem to! - with someone like Shanghai Airlines or Hainan Airlines, they often only have one or two flights a day.

Anyway, during this brief, frustrated negotiation, I noticed with some alarm that the flight I was trying to get on - not yet listed for boarding - had in fact been scheduled to leave two hours ago. Scanning the departure board, I found many more of these warning signs: nearly all the Beijing flights were blinking red, departure delayed, boarding delayed, check-in delayed. This looked like it could be a bad situation. But the backlog was only around two hours, presumably the duration of the storm; and the backlog would slowly clear, right, the delay would get shorter rather than longer over the rest of the day? Oh, no.

Recorded announcements were droning continuously. This was perhaps the worst part of this dreadful airport experience. There was no let-up, no silence, no peace, even for a moment. It was very difficult to concentrate on my book. And the announcements were mostly saying that new departure times "would be announced later". Uh-oh, indefinite postponements. That doesn't sound good. And this was still for flights that should have left in the morning or early afternoon. They weren't even mentioning my flight.

A few flights for other destinations were delayed too, but the problem seemed to be mainly with Beijing: NO Beijing flights were taking off. This was becoming ominous, sinister. The announcements were mostly citing unspecified "plane delays"; but in relation to Beijing, they were often giving "bad weather" as the excuse. I was beginning to suspect it was something far more serious - a plane crash, a terrorist incident, an earthquake? I began desperately firing off text messages to friends in Beijing to try to find out what was happening. The weather, I discovered, had been gloriously fine since mid-morning. No-one was aware of any reason why there would be delays.

Well, since my return, I haven't been able to uncover any dark secret behind this strange phenomenon. It may simply be that a temporary closure of the airport for an hour or two at the start of the day during the thunderstorm caused a logjam at air-traffic control that escalated out of control during the rest of the day. China's air-traffic control system is still within the hands of the Army, and it is notoriously inefficient: most hardened business travellers here build a 1-2-hour delay into their itinerary whenever they have a flight scheduled in the second half of the day. Finding controllers (and pilots) with the necessary skills and English ability is becoming a huge problem: the volume of domestic air traffic in China has doubled in the last 5 or 6 years.

But I digress. Where was I?

Ah, yes, camped out next to Gate 16, trying to read a book.

Around 5pm - an hour or so after we should have boarded - it was announced that our flight would now leave at 7.15. Well, at least we now have a time. Some of those poor devils on other flights to Beijing are still getting that dreaded "the new departure time will be announced... later" message. But an hour or so later, our projected departure time was put back to 8.15. Then the announcements started saying "we'll tell you later" again. And the airline representatives decided to switch off the display board at our gate because they realised it was just annoying people now.

Now, I felt sorry for these airline guys. There were three of them, and they were having a hell of a time. 'Beleaguered' is definitely the word that springs to mind. I have subsequently heard a story of someone in this job being pretty severely beaten up by irate passengers in a similar situation a little while ago. And this did seem a worryingly imminent possibility at Gate 16 a few times. The Chinese do 'ugly mob' rather too easily. They tend to have a rather short-fuse temper, their cultural expression of dissatisfaction moving almost immediately into apoplectic shouting and counter-banging, and then escalating all too rapidly into full-on physical confrontation. Once or twice, when leading complainers forced their way behind the counter, I was really concerned that things were about to turn very nasty indeed. Luckily, we never quite passed that threshold. I don't even really know how close we got. At one point a couple of airport security guards were summoned; but they just loafed around, surveying the situation from a safe distance for 30 seconds, and then sidled off again. I'm not sure if they felt that their mere appearance on the scene would quell any potential riot, or if they shrewdly judged that there was no real danger of such a flare-up here..... or if (more probable, I fear) they didn't like the look of the situation at all and wanted to keep well out of it.

I think the over-the-top irascibility of the Chinese passengers (comical, if it weren't so scary) was strangely useful in helping me keep my composure. I didn't want to make life any harder for the poor airline reps; I didn't want to become like those animals shrieking abuse in their faces. There was one of the three who was really doing a remarkable job of keeping calm and friendly in the midst of this morass of hate; and his English was pretty good. Whenever there was a lull, I caught his attention and led him aside for an amiable "come on, you can tell me, what's really going on" sort of chat. He told me they were hoping to board the plane shortly, but they still didn't have a take-off slot from air-traffic control, and there were 4 or 5 other Beijing flights still waiting which had been due to take off much earlier in the day than us, and so would be ahead of us in the queue. (He also told me - very disturbingly - that one Beijing flight that had taken off in the early afternoon had been sent back to Hangzhou by Beijing air-traffic control. How can such things be?)

By this stage, it was nearly 9pm. I pointed out to the friendly airline guy that, if this were really the case, it was almost inconceivable that we were going to get away that night. You don't get to take-off until a good half-an-hour or so after you begin boarding, and the flight takes nearly 2 hours in the air: so, I was calculating that we needed to be getting on the plane before 10pm. (I suppose they might have kept Beijing airport open later than usual to accommodate the backlog of flights. I have landed there shortly after midnight once or twice: but the place was a graveyard then, and there were very few taxis on the rank. I didn't fancy walking into that scenario after 8 hours of sitting around an airport.) And the problem really didn't seem to be with waiting for air-traffic clearance. I don't think any planes took off for Beijing all evening. For some reason, it just wasn't happening. I told the airline guy we needed a decision soon on taking us to a hotel. He nodded sadly, but said it wasn't up to him.

I was on the brink of walking out of the whole nightmare. I thought, I'll just buy myself another ticket on an early morning flight tomorrow, and take a taxi back to my hotel. I didn't think my employer would make a fuss about reimbursing the expenses. Only the difficulty of trying to get a refund on my original ticket gave me pause.

And then, all of a sudden, at 9.30pm, they started boarding us. "They're probably just going to keep us on the runway for 2 hours, and then send us to a hotel," I remarked ruefully to my new airport-delay buddy, a Kenyan businessman called Ali. I was spot on. They kept us in the plane for two hours, then deplaned us again and told us we were going to a hotel for the night. I really think they knew all along that there would be no more flights out that night, and just put us on the plane for more effective crowd control. At least I managed to sleep for most of that two hours.

We didn't finally get to the the hotel until half-past-midnight, and I was too hyped-up to turn in immediately. Also - although it was in all other respects much the nicest Chinese hotel I've stayed in - there was an enormous air-conditioning plant right outside my window; so, despite my exhaustion, sleep was slow in coming.

********************************

Ah, and then, the final straw. I was - at last - in deep, deep, restorative slumber. The bedside telephone rang. LOUDLY. I wasn't sure what time it was. Still dark outside. Maybe it was an early wake-up call. I had tried to explain to the airline rep at the hotel (a different one, not very good English) that I really needed to be back in Beijing as soon as possible, and would be very grateful if he could get me on a flight early the next morning. On the phone there was a girl yabbering away in Chinese. At great length. "Uh? Whaa??" I suppose it might have been one of those nuisance calls from hookers that you almost always seem to get in Chinese hotels in the wee small hours. That didn't even occur to me at the time (maybe it was the absence of the keywords - in English - these calls almost always include: "Massage?" and "You want company?"). I remember how, with only half my brain in operation, I made such elaborate efforts to try to communicate with her, fumbling through the few dozen Chinese phrases I know (for some reason, I kept wanting to speak in French to her) to try to construct a coherent message: "I'm sorry. I don't understand. I can't speak Chinese. I'm English. Do you speak English? Does anyone there speak English. I'm sorry." It was a painful process, but it seemed to work. "Yes, yes, English, OK." the girl said (in English), and then hung up. I was thinking that it might be some urgent message about an early flight. I was going to do my damnedest to stay awake until I got a call back in English. I switched on the bedside light and checked my watch. 2.30am. What the f***?! Why would anyone be calling me at that time?? Shit. This is China.

I went back to sleep. Around 3am I was woken again, by the call-back in English. It was the hotel reception desk. "The airline has asked us to tell you.... your flight is cancelled." "WHAT??" "Your flight is cancelled."

What were they thinking? Was the hotel supposed to be a mere fleeting comfort stop, a "splash'n'dash" before we once again returned to the airport to try to take off in the middle of the night? Did the "cancellation" only become official hours after the airports had all closed and we'd all gone to bed? Yet this news was so momentous that we had to be informed immediately?? "Yeah, I kind of know my flight was cancelled. THAT'S WHY I'M HERE!"

I have railed many times before against the apparent stupidity of 'the Chinese way of doing things', but this example absolutely takes the cake. How could anyone - at the airline, at the hotel - think for even one minute that it was necessary or useful to wake everyone up in the middle of the night to tell them something they already knew? How??

I am still sleep-deprived and cranky two days later. At least the substitute flight the next day went fairly smoothly (although it didn't get me home until 4pm).

I am seriously considering quitting my new job. Business travel in China is just not something I want to be a major part of my life.

Consolatory haiku

Looking on the worst,
Darkest of humanity:
Strange consolation.


During my round-the-world backpacking year (quite some time ago), I reached a point of complete emotional exhaustion (not unrelated to financial exhaustion) in Fiji, and was very, very depressed for a while. I read Schindler's List, and that snapped me out of it.

During my recent nightmare travel experience in Hangzhou airport, I diverted myself by reading José Saramago's Blindness, an almost equally horrendous parable of the failure of humanity. It's good to restore a little perspective at times like that. This is very, very annoying - but things could be a lot worse.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

In transit

A quick mental calculation reveals that I have just spent around 140 of the last 176 hours working/travelling. So, please, no complaints about the shortage of posting over the last week.

My itinerary over this past week was always going to be pretty horrendous - even without the notoriously dismal schedule-keeping of China's domestic aviation industry. It ended up being a small slice of hell.

Doubtless, a full rant will come later. This is just a brief announcement that I'm back. A day late. I am supposed to be leaving again tomorrow (for the UK, or Hubei Province, depending on the coin toss) - but that is probably in jeopardy because all the planning/packing/ticket-buying/tidying-up loose ends at the office that I was supposed to be doing yesterday and today hasn't happened because of the 24-hour delay in my return flight from Hangzhou. Can you hear me seething? Can you?

Monday, July 16, 2007

Essential China tip - best Web proxy yet!!

My cyber-pal Leah was saying a little while ago that she couldn't be bothered with the Firefox workaround the rest of us have been relying on to circumvent The Great Firewall here in China. However, only in the secluded environs of a comment did she explain that she was able to spurn the Firefox option because she was getting by just fine with a site called Kallahar's Place.

I admit, I was sceptical at first. I think I tried it when she first mentioned it to me several months ago, and it seemed not to work..... so, I just thought, "A-ha, good in America; no good in China."

But now, it's working fine. Or at least, "Method #2" on the page is ("Method #3" is annoyingly glitchy, and "Method #1" is a link to the Proxify service - which, at present, appears to be "no good in China"): you just type in your desired URL, and away you go.

The big advantage of this proxy is that it enables you to leave comments on blogs. None of the others I've tried has allowed this. Very useful.

Tulsa, take note. You have no excuse for not keeping up with your commenting duties from the office now.


PS I have just found one rather odd glitch with "Method #2" - the browser gets "stuck" on the webpage you're visiting, and you can't easily get back to the Kallahar proxy page to visit other websites. Well, you can..... if you click 'Refresh'!! Watch out for that.

The end of the world as we know it

I seem to be permanently 'on the road' at the moment - so posting will continue to be intermittent or non-existent for a little while at least. Have patience, please.

As a little treat to keep you going in the interim, here's one of my favourite scenes from Dr Strangelove. This feels as though it was just improvised by Peter Sellers. "Let me finish, Dmitri. Let me finish...."

Think on this....

"It is better to have loved and lost than to have just lost..."

Anon

Friday, July 13, 2007

I wouldn't leave without posting a haiku

Distant hiss of surf
Sighing from the moonlit beach
- A lover's yearning.


Another "here's one I prepared earlier" haiku for you, to tide you over while I make yet another business trip.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Blue metal sheets

The bright blue corrugated metal partitions you could see in that last post are one of the distinctive features of life in Beijing in recent years. Almost every building site is ringed around with them. And there are hundreds, perhaps thousands of major building sites in this city at any one time.

It wasn't always so ubiquitous. I think the first time I saw it was a few years ago, when they demolished my favourite - narrow, slummy, charming - street here (Jiugulou Dajie - Old Drum Tower Avenue, the place where I lived when I first came to Beijing) as part of a massive pre-Olympic road-widening and modernization programme. At first, the piecemeal demolition of the buildings along the street (much of it carried out by the owners themselves, as they meticulously gutted their homes and businesses of any materials of value) went on in full view. Then someone remembered that the Olympic torch was going to pass along this route (I can't now recall why the heck the torch was here 4 years early, but it was), and realised that dozens upon dozens of derelict, "bombed out" houses might not make the right impression on TV. And so, pretty much overnight, the blue metal sheeting sprang up along the entire length of the street.

Trouble was, it still didn't really obscure the view of stark, skeletal, half-ruined dwellings behind them - some of which were two or three storeys tall (the hutongs are traditionally built on a single storey, but some slightly more modern dwellings had become interspersed with them). So, along much of the street, another layer of metal sheets was added, to double the height of the screen. This was slightly more effective.

The stark blue-painted metal, though, was still rather ugly, rather conspicuous - rather too obviously hinting at the desolation it was attempting to conceal. So...... on the evening before the torch came through, hundreds of workers showed up to paint the metal wall the same unobtrusive pale gray colour as the surrounding hutongs.

It may just have worked. I didn't see the TV coverage, but I imagine that if the cameras focused tightly on the runner carrying the torch, the background would have just been a continuous blur anyway..... and doubtless there were large, well-marshalled crowds lining the route..... so, three-quarters of a mile of continuous metal wall may have gone unnoticed.

This little anecdote sums up the good & bad of China for me, especially in regard to the government. Foresight: next to zero. Instinct to always opt for the cheapest, crappiest, most short-term 'fix' for any problem: overwhelming. Ability to get things done on impossibly short timeframes: quite frightening. Last-minute-ism: a way of life.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Farewell to my local 'nail houses'

The 'nail houses' near where I live - obstinate pockets of squalor resisting the relentless tide of gentrification in the neighbourhood - have finally succumbed to the bulldozer. Actually, this happened two or three weeks ago, but the weather had been too shit (and I had been too busy) to take any pictures until the other day.
At night (on this site - somewhat unusually - the workers do actually knock off at night), this line of metal-sheet wall is largely opened up (WHY??), and there's no security at all (although the construction workers are sleeping somewhere in there). Alas, my 'happy snapper' camera is completely incapable of taking pictures at night.

The alarming thing about this building site is that they have dug a foundation pit over 20ft deep. It is something to behold - and I'm sorry I haven't got a picture of it for you yet. I dread to think what kind of HUGE edifice may be about to rise out of this chasm. This is is one of the last of the old hutong areas, only a few hundred yards from the famous Bell Tower; there is supposed to be some sort of 'preservation order' in place; there are supposed to be prohibitions against building anything tall or anything garishly modern. But this is China: if the developer distributes a few hong bao (little envelopes stuffed with cash) in the right places, he can do anything he wants.....

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

A War of 'Convenient's

In the last few years, chains of small, late-opening supermarkets have sprung up all over Beijing. Quite a few of them stay open 24 hours - although there seems to be absolutely zero demand for this. There were scarcely any when I first arrived 5 years ago, but now you'll pass one on almost every street. They don't seem to be having much impact on the myriads of hole-in-the-wall mom & pop stores, because they are, of course, much more expensive. In fact, I wonder how viable they are, because they seem to be deserted most of the time. I generally prefer to support the small local shops; but there are occasions when bright lights, air-conditioning (hell, during the summer, you sometimes go into one just to cool down for 5 minutes), half-way decent refrigeration, a wider selection of stock (though still tending to overlook foreigner staples like bread and milk), and consistent pricing (rather than mom & pop's all-too-frequent "I wonder how much we can screw this guy for?" approach) win out.

Now, it's one of the obstinate quirks of 'Chinglish' that these mini-supermarkets must be called 'convenient stores'..... rather than the favoured standard English 'convenience stores'. There's no point trying to fight it: this usage is entrenched, universal, unmoveable. Oh well, one gets used to it.

You might well think that Beijing is somewhat oversupplied with such stores - but that is as nothing compared to Shanghai. There, every street corner has at least one. And in the old centre of the city, in the former 'foreign concession' districts, the blocks are very short. That means there's at least one one of these stores every 100 or 200 yards. At least one. In fact, you generally find that, on any intersection, two of the four corners are occupied by rival chains. Sometimes three of the corners. Sometimes, even all four. I think there are four or five major companies in competition, and perhaps a few other smaller operations too. Watson's, which may just about be the market leader, is, I believe, an Australian company. Lawson's I don't know about it; I half-suspect it is a Chinese copy of Watson's rather than an overseas brand. I feel there's definitely something a bit suspicious about the name of the other leading player, Alldays; it reeks of Chinglish mis-translation of "7-days-a-week" or "24-hours-a-day". Then there are one or two chains with Chinese names - which I can't remember.

Now, on a hot, sticky summer day in Shanghai, it is nice to know that you're never more than a few minutes' walk from a cold can of Coke (or a tea-egg; these Shanghai stores do try a little harder to woo the local customer by providing a range of traditional hot snacks as well as all the pre-packaged stuff).

However, the ubiquity of these stores is in other ways a bit of a pain-in-the-arse. They make every street corner look pretty much identical; and thus make navigation (especially for an occasional visitor like myself) extremely difficult. What's even worse is that the doorways of these stores are invariably cut right across the corner of the road-junction, facing diagonally across to the opposite corner of the crossroad. Maybe this is a more common arrangement in America. It's pretty rare in the UK. It does make it very difficult to remember which direction you were coming down the road when you went in (particularly when the only landmarks are the indistinguishable 'convenient stores' on most of the other corners of the crossroads). On a previous visit, I once got badly disoriented within just a few hundred yards of the friends' apartment I was trying to find my way back to, and blundered in circles around the (unlit, poorly signposted) streets for half an hour or more trying to get back on track (it didn't help that my map of Shanghai has an inconsistent approach to labelling streets: sometimes English only, sometimes Chinese only, sometimes font that's big enough to read, but usually not - and the smaller streets mostly go completely nameless. And, on this occasion, I confess it didn't help that I had become confused between the adjacent Ji'an and Jinan Streets!).

A curious case study for economists, this. How can there really be enough business to sustain 4 or 5 identical companies? Is it really the best strategy to site their stores immediately next to their rivals? Aren't there just too many of them? Which of these companies will achieve the greatest success? Will the market move eventually towards a monopoly, or is the current oligopoly a stable, sustainable long-term model?

Answers on a postcard, please. Well, in a comment, if you must.

Today in the studio....

Recording English-learning materials in China has to be the most boring job in the world. Only the occasional moments of inadvertent, dada-ist genius in the scripts make the ordeal tolerable.

My favourite today:

"I ate all your apples. And my cat ate all your bananas."

Well, you're just a bad neighbour, aren't you? And your freak cat is soon going to be very, very ill.

Monday, July 09, 2007

A cracking game of tennis!!

The love of tennis grew slowly in me.

In my earliest childhood, the Wimbledon fortnight was an obscure torture - banishing my favourite TV programmes from their accustomed slots, and seducing my parents' attention (especially my mother's) away from me. The scoring was unfathomable. The action was repetitive. And the matches seemed to last all day. Sometimes, indeed, they really did last all day - or at least, far, far beyond the range of a 4-year-old's temporal imagination.

But somehow I got sucked in. Maybe it was the relentless, hypnotic rhythm of the thwop-thwop-thwop of the balls. Maybe it was a desperate wish to find some form of communion with my parents. Maybe (a few years later) it was the very short white dresses (although all the pretty girls crashed out in the opening rounds; amongst the serious contenders only Chrissie Evert and Gabriela Sabatini exercised any hold over my pre-pubescent libido). Within the space of a couple of years in the early '70s I went from being a tennis-hater to being a tennis nut.

I became enraptured by the compelling geometry of the court. I finally started to appreciate the logic of the scoring structure, and the very protractedness of the game, the fact that a drama - of many shifting scenes - could play out over 2, 3, 4 hours or more. I loved the gladiatorial aspect of it, players locked in desperate combat before the eyes of the crowd. Above all, I was fascinated by the psychological dimension of the encounters - the way that you could so often see the shifting balance of power between two players not in the quality of shots they were making but in their facial expressions, their body language, their aura.

[This is something of an aside here, but I think one of the most startling, most revealing sporting spectacles I've ever seen was the Borg/Connors match-up at Wimbledon near the end of their careers. I believe it was the quarter-final or the semi in 1981, probably the last time they played each other. Connors came out like a man possessed - realising that this might be his last chance to defeat his nemesis, and determined to do something about it. I don't think I've ever seen someone playing with such furious, sustained emotion for so long. I don't think I've ever seen somebody hitting the ball so goddamned hard. And he was seeing the ball beautifully, striking it so well every time. Borg couldn't live with it. He lost the first set to love. He hardly won a point. In the second set he started to be able to hold his own service game, with difficulty - but he was still basically getting blown off the court. He could hardly get his racket on the ball most of the time. The great 5-time champion was not just being beaten, he was being outclassed, humiliated. But (like my great hero and role model, Cool Hand Luke) he just would not give up. And you could see that it was starting to get to Connors. It looked like the match was over and done with. He'd hammered Borg into the ground for an hour or more. I think, if memory serves me, that he even got an early break - perhaps two - in the third set. But Borg would not give up. He just kept hanging in there, kept coming back for more. And Connors wilted - more mentally than physically, as if he had burned himself out with the emotional intensity of his initial onslaught. His self-belief wavered, and then crumbled. Borg somehow clawed his way back into the third set; and then won the next two fairly comfortably. It was an awe-inspiring, heart-rending piece of sporting theatre, utterly unforgettable - and a powerful lesson. And maybe Borg burnt himself out in that tremendous struggle, too... That was the year he finally lost his crown to McEnroe.]

I haven't been able to watch much tennis since I came to China. There's not that much on, it's always at crazy hours of the night, and it is strangely hard to follow without the familar English-language commentary accompanying it. And, much as I admire Roger Federer's ability, his dominance of Wimbledon does seem to have become a bit of a bore in recent years; there aren't that many people around who can give him a really good scrap - at least, not on grass.

Not until last night, anyway. I had practically forgotten that Wimbledon was going on; I hadn't seen or heard anything about the Championships this year. But I happened to get home last night just as the Men's Final was starting, and stayed up watching it on local TV - mesmerised, ecstatic - until the denouement at 1.30am (local time in Beijing). It's been quite a while since we had a 5-set final, hasn't it? I don't think anyone took 2 sets off Pistol Pete in the last round..... Did Pat Rafter take Goran Ivanisevic to a fifth set? I think maybe he did; can't really remember now. But before that, you're probably looking back to the Becker/Edberg days for such a close-fought contest.

And what a 5-setter last night's match was! That has to be some of the best tennis I've ever seen, and the match was on a knife-edge most of the way through. I thought Nadal was playing the better tennis for most of it, but he just couldn't make it stick; apart from the 4th set, when Federer lost his focus badly for a while, he rarely looked like breaking his opponent's serve (managing to do so only once, as far as I can recall - I confess that, dazzling as the match was, I was very weary, and did doze off briefly a few times). It's often said of the great champions (it was certainly said a lot of Borg back in the '70s) that they play the big points better (ah, the beauty of that scoring system!). That certainly seemed to be true of Federer yesterday. He was a little inconsistent, making too many unforced errors; kept getting himself into trouble, kept getting himself out of it (apart from in the 4th, when he had a bit of a suppressed tantrum). He only really showed his dominance in the tie-breaks, and in the final set, when his game went up a gear-and-a-half.

Nadal, though, is an extraordinary player. I wonder if he can go one better next year. I'll be watching.

Who said that?

"Reality is merely an illusion - albeit a very persistent one."

Albert Einstein (1879-1955)

(Although it might equally well have been Sakya Muni.... or Morpheus in 'The Matrix'.... or.....)

Sunday, July 08, 2007

And now Blogger pisses me off....

Ah, now here's a really irritating new glitch with Blogger - all of a sudden the 'Title' box is inaccessible, so all my posts will have to be nameless.

Get this fixed, Google drones.

It's tiresome enough that you can't change fonts or add photos or justify-both-sides without completely screwing up the rest of the formatting, and that text in a different font sometimes gets automatically reduced to the smallest font size (which is in fact invisible on Blogspot), or that the posts don't actually display as they appear in the 'Preview' window, or....

Aw, fuck it! It's like democracy: it ain't no good, but it's what we're used to.... and maybe, just maybe it's the least worst option.


Update: It turns out that now you can 'activate' the 'Title' text box by clicking on the word 'Title'. Before, you could just insert the cursor directly into the text box. Obviously this is an improvement. How silly of me to complain!

Funniest student error I've come across

It's easy to laugh (and I have) at the numerous characteristic manglings of the English language perpetrated by Chinese speakers, the dreaded 'Chinglish'; but such inadvertent humour can be just as rife amongst native speakers.... particularly children.... and particularly amongst children who are, shall we say, less educationally-gifted (such as the ones I chiefly worked with during my school teaching days back at the start of the '90s).

The best example I ever encountered came in a composition written for me by a 14-year-old student in my English class. He was describing an incident the previous summer when there had been a small fire on his family's yacht.

He wrote:
"The excitement was mounting, and so was my sister."

As if that wasn't good enough, his next sentence was:
"We couldn't bare any more."

That put a stop to my marking for a good 5 minutes or so. I was rolling around on the floor of my study, howling with laughter.

An old one, yet always new

I just turned up this old poem-fragment. I think it's from 10 or 15 (or more!) years ago, yet it still seems just as appropriate to me today. Yes, wistfulness - I do wistfulness a lot. I suppose the happier state would be wistlessness...

OK, perhaps this isn't very good - but I haven't felt inspired to write anything new for a while. Bear with me.



The drummers in my head have played too fast
And loud and furiously and strong,
Driving me always beyond the pace
My stumbling wits allow.

How long, how long I've searched for softer rhythms
To quell the riot of despair within my soul.
And after all these years, at last I find them
In the gentle steady beating of your heart.

Only let me lie
With my head upon your shoulder
And I can be at peace.
Only let me lie...

Spare me from incompetent employers

In the past month I have started two new jobs; both of them for UK companies - so you might think that maybe they'd be a little bit more together about administration and planning than the Chinese schools, colleges, and businesses that I have mostly worked for since I came out here.

But NO - the "This is China" disease insinuates itself everywhere.

Last weekend I was despatched to Shanghai to deliver a seminar to a group of primary school teachers. I was representing a major ESOL examining body.... which was to have provided all the presentation materials for me ready-made. So I had been assured.

In fact the seminar had been hastily "re-designed": instead of the usual three-hour presentation on a single topic, I was to be asked to deliver three one-hour presentations on related but discrete topics. Since the preparation time required is about the same for each topic regardless of the length of the presentation, this would entail about 3 times as much preparation as normal. Since this was the first time I had given any presentations for this organisation, it would in fact be about 9 times as much preparation as normal. In fact, since I had no prior familiarity at all with the exams in question and no experience of teaching this age range (7-10-year-olds), it would probably be about 20 times as much preparation as normal. Needless to say, I did not have that much time to prepare.

The first CD-ROM of presentation materials I was given turned out not to have any of the materials it was supposed to have on it. I had - foolishly - trusted my contact at the exam board to give me what she had promised she would give me, and didn't have time to doublecheck until the following weekend. She wasn't able to send me a replacement until the following Tuesday, just a few days before the seminar. The second disk had dozens of slight variations of the PowerPoint presentations I was supposed to give, but no indication of which one I was supposed to use, or why. There were no back-up copies. The embedded audio and video links didn't work, and I had no time to replace them.

And guess what? Although I had been promised complete & appropriate materials for all three parts of the presentation, there were no materials at all for the middle section (on recommended classroom activities), and the materials for the first and last sections were each for a three-hour presentation.... so, not appropriate at all. Moreover, the presentations were incredibly badly organised and poorly written, and with an utterly inappropriate level of detail, cluttered PPT slides, muddled guidance notes, an unmanageable plethora of 'satellite' materials to refer to (most of which, in fact, the audience had not been given anyway); and they were, for the most part, seemingly pitched at a native rather than non-native speaker audience. Most of the teachers I was speaking to were tired, bored, unmotivated, uncommunicative; and several of them really had a very poor functional level of English speaking & listening. All in all, a bit of a nightmare.

So, I had to slow down a lot. I had to simplify a lot. I had to discard most of the material I had been given. I basically had to fucking improvise for nearly three solid hours. I managed it. It wasn't one of my finest performances, but I pulled it off. The most successful bit was the middle period, on teaching activities - because there I wasn't hobbled by having to use the exam board's crappy materials at all.

Now, this irks me considerably. This is what I do. I am a good public speaker; I'm good at giving presentations; it is one of my specialised training topics. I take pride in it. I hate being put in a situation like that where you've got useless materials and an uncommitted audience and a whole morning to fill. Yes, sure, I got a free trip down to Shanghai out of it (although I am not confident that I'm ever going to receive my - very modest - fee or my expenses, since now they keep pulling the "our office is only open for a few hours a day, and never when it's convenient for you to drop in, and we can't make cash payments unless our financial officer is on site, which is NEVER..." excuses on me), but I would far rather have the satisfaction of having done something useful and having done it well. Really. That's who I am.

Friday, July 06, 2007

(Early) Haiku

Step into nothing,
Relinquish stability:
The heart in freefall.


I'm away travelling for the rest of the week, but thanks to the wonders of Blogger, I am able to leave you a haiku - and make it appear that it arrived on Friday as usual.

YES, I can transcend Time. My home is Gallifrey.

Thursday, July 05, 2007

More fun from Japan

As a going-away present (I'm going to be off in Xi'An for a couple of days), I leave you with this - another gem from the introduction to Japanese culture series I've been sharing with you (here and here).

I explained yesterday that I am a very unapologetic sort of fellow - but if I were, I'd study this to hone my submissiveness to to perfection.

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Happy 4th July!!

I almost consider myself an 'honorary American'.

Over the last dozen or so years, I have visited for an extended holiday at least once every two years. By an odd quirk of fate, several of my University friends moved to America - following spouses or better job prospects - and I now have more of a social network around the north-east States than I do in London. Since moving to China, I have probably spent as much - or more - time in America as I have in the UK. In that period, I have spent a couple of July 4ths with my old Oxford buddy, The British Cowboy (who, like
a man who spends too long on the same bicycle, has become more American than English). I have travelled through most of "the Lower 48" states, Greyhounding from coast-to-coast three times. And a majority of my girlfriends, both here in China and in my former life, have been American - or at least, 'North American' (almost none have been English; I wonder why that is?). I nearly got a (frighteningly well-paid) job in America 5 or 6 years ago (that prospect going pear-shaped was what propelled me to China - it's a funny old world!). I can readily picture myself living in America in my 'retirement'. I much prefer it in almost every way (apart from the scenery - I do miss British scenery) to the UK.

I have spoken before of my preference for Thanksgiving over Christmas, and for Independence Day over St George's Day. I would love to go out somewhere tonight to celebrate the 4th. But, I fear, not much will be happening to mark the day in Beijing (there'll be something at the US Embassy, of course; but I don't have the 'in's' there). Perhaps there will be some barbecue events this weekend.

Anyway, warm best wishes to all my American friends. And, if you're in Beijing, I hope you can find a few firecrackers, and perhaps a decent hotdog, to remind you of home.



PS As a tender jibe at my American friends, I have just added a new joke to my 'collecting box' over on the Barstool.

IMLTHO

Blog-friend Leah, venturing to disagree (or to pretend to disagree) with one of the comments I'd left for her the other day, taunted me with the dreaded 'HO' tag - IMHO, IYHO.

I loathe all these bloody acronyms (lazy, and largely pointless) that have been spawned by the age of SMS, e-mail, and instant-messaging. I particularly loathe IMHO - it seems so unnecessary.

Of course this is an opinion. Of course it is MINE. Who else's would it be, for heaven's sake? It doesn't need to be tagged, highlighted - it can stand quite happily on its own. It certainly doesn't need to be apologised for, which is what that tag so often seems to be trying to do.

Are my opinions "humble"? Well, no, probably not.

I try to be humble in all the ways that matter: not considering myself more important than others, not making assumptions of entitlement, not selfishly trying to assert my needs and wishes ahead of those of others, "walking softly on the earth".

But are my opinions "humble"? NO. And I don't see any reason why they should be. A "humble" opinion is hesitant, feeble, ill-formed, half-arsed. I am robustly (but not, I hope objectionably) self-confident - particularly in regard to my intellectual abilities, my taste, my judgement. I stand by my opinions (and I have many of them!).

I do not suppose that I am always right. And I do not demand (often) that others agree with me. But I am not going to introduce my opinions in a fog of disclaimer, apology and self-doubt.

My attitude is always: THIS IS MY OPINION - Suck it and see!

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Forbidden delights

I promised some time ago to share a little more Ivor Cutler with you one day (I posted another piece of his here a couple of months back). This is from the same source, this time Episode Nineteen of his marvellous faux autobiography 'Life in a Scotch Sitting Room, Vol. 2'.



"And don't go near the chimneys!" Mother shouted when we ran out to play at the chimneys, mouths bulging with a lump of gristle; or vein, if it had been liver - chewing-gum of character.

You could put it in your pocket and come back to it later, if you needed your mouth for something else. Sinew was another favourite - you could rub out with it.

Three chimneys, dark red, nearly black, stood across the field. Eighty-feet high, side by side. I sat with my back to the brick, sniffing in the sweet smell of soot, watching a cloud approach the top of a stack. For something to do, I started up the irong rungs of the decaying ladder.

"I'll tell Mammy!" cried my sister, never at a loss, busily rubbing two bits of brick against one another to make rouge.

"I can see up your trousers!" called my big brother, who was going to be a minister. I climbed a few rungs just to defy them, and absent-mindedly went to the top.

"Come down!" they all shouted, very excited. I held on tight and looked about, shaking with fear. A white flower blew across a brick, delicate and soft. It was small, like me, and courageous.

I leaned, and scraped off a handful of black velvet delight with which I made marks on my flesh.

Then I descended carefully and followed the others home for a thrashing.

Traffic Report - blog stats for June

Still not much sign of the promised slowdown in my output.

52 posts and around 18,500 words here on Froogville last month.

Number of visits seems to be slightly down (still around 500 for the month); but it has been nice to welcome Tulsa's 'gang' to the comment pages. (Well, I suppose it's only HiK and OMG - and the mysterious 'Batty' once or twice. Not really quite enough to be called a gang. But Earthling - originally "my friend" - has been swiftly assimilated into the clique... and I fear that our other newcomer, Moonrat, may soon follow.)

I'm still boggling at that 18,500 figure. 'WordCount' doesn't lie. Does it??

This month's totals will, I think, be well down on that - since I am travelling a lot for work over the next couple of weeks.... and then going on holiday.

Don't worry - there will still be a lot of new drivel appearing on here. Just not quite as much as in recent months.

And I may start to try boosting the readership by throwing in occasional gratuitous references to panda bestiality or hair tonic orgies in Zhongnanhai.... That ought to be good for a few cheap laughs.

Monday, July 02, 2007

The end of Froog...

I just gave you a glimpse of the views across the Huangpu River from my friend L's Shanghai apartment.

Beware: Beauty can lure and distract you into a fatal inattention.

On Saturday night I was pretty exhausted, and not enjoying the nightclub we'd ended up in after dinner (I don't enjoy nightclubs in general; in fact, what passes for 'music' in them these days literally makes me physically ill); so I made my apologies and headed home alone just before midnight.

On the lightning introductory tour of the wondrous apartment that afternoon L had pointed out various of the balconies that seem to sprout everywhere around the edges of the three levels the pad occupies. I recalled her saying that the one outside her bedroom, on the uppermost 'loft' level, was the best of all. It was a relatively clear night, and a bloated, yellow full moon hovered over the sci-fi skyline of Pudong across the river. A great night to take some long exposure photographs, I thought - bracing my little Nikon Coolpix (I hadn't brought any of my real cameras, alas) on the rail of one of the balconies. The balcony on the top floor would probably be the best of the lot. And I didn't feel inhibited about going up there, since L had already taken me into her boudoir earlier - and she and her husband were likely to be out for another couple of hours or so yet.

So, up I went, to the 14th floor, or whatever it is. Into the bedroom. The view was indeed stunning. I opened the window to step outside to take a picture (not a sliding French window as on the balconies downstairs, but a hinged door-window).

The bottom of this glass door was raised 4 or 5 inches from the floor, so I thought to look down to check my footing on the other side. And guess what? No footing! No balcony! Just a 150ft freefall to the road below - and my leading foot reaching tentatively into space, towards that final plunge.

Thank heavens I wasn't more drunk (I was quite) or more tired (I was very) or more incautious (I have been mentally slapping myself around the face for my foolishness ever since). That was an unpleasantly close call.

Envy

This weekend I was visiting an old friend from college (I 'rediscovered' her a couple of years ago, after more than a decade out of touch, via a networking website - ah, the wonders of the online 'community'!). She has done rather well for herself. She and her artist hubby have recently moved into a new apartment a mile or so north of the Bund in Shanghai. It's extremely comfortable. It is spread over the top three storeys of a 14-storey block. It has balconies - some small, some less so - all over the place. And it's right on the river.

This is the view:

I'm not normally a materialistic sort of guy. But if I were.......


Yes, I feel the unfamiliar vice of covetousness stirring within me. Cold shower time!

A gambling bon mot

"The race is not always to the swift, nor the battle to the strong. But that's the way the smart money goes..."