Monday, June 30, 2008

Guesting on Editorial Ass

Our dear blog-friend, Moonrat, has been too busy with work to keep up her blogging lately, but she hit on the canny idea of asking all her online friends to each do a guest post for her on a favourite book, creating a 'Celebrate Reading' Month.

My turn came round the other day, and I wrote about The Wind In The Willows. Go and check it out.

Thanks to all the other contributors, too, for some very interesting posts. And congratulations to Moonrat for making it happen. What an excellent idea! I hope she'll do it again one day.


That makes 8 days straight, going on for 9.

Let's see - yes, a week yesterday started fairly bright, though with some haze and overcast, so I don't think the sun was ever actually directly visible; and things had started to turn pretty murky - humid, smoggy, gathering rain clouds - by the time I went over to Tuanjiehu for a barbecue with friends mid-afternoon. The last day that was actually clear and sunny was Saturday 21st June.

Since then, we've had 8 days of sepulchral gloom - every single day wretchedly humid, massively polluted (no API figures seem to be being released at the moment, but I'd guess it's been continuously above 400 throughout this time), rainy, unrelentingly GREY. Light levels in the middle of the day have rarely been better than you'd normally associate with dusk.

I think it's inducing a kind of jet-lag in me: it's almost impossible to tell what time of day it is. (Of course, staying up late for the football so often hasn't helped with that!). It's certainly not helping with the depression I've been suffering this past month.

This last week or so has been especially grim, but the entire month of June has been pretty awful. And April and May weren't all that wonderful. An acquaintance I hadn't seen for a while commented on my hair colour when I bumped into him in my favourite Jianghu bar last week. He thought I might actually have been dyeing it! No. My hair is the same non-descript mid-brown that Nature bestowed on me. It's just that ordinarily it goes several degrees lighter when I get some sun on it. My companion, it seems, remembered my surf-bum blond highlights from last summer. He'd only just got in from Nanjing, and didn't realise that we haven't really had a summer in Beijing yet this year.

The Kafka Boys are getting smarter

No?! Surely not.

Well, they at least appear to be getting more determined, more bloody-minded.

It was always naive to suppose that censorship here in China would become less strict - rather than more - during the Olympics. The government here is in a complete panic about the prospect of anyone "spoiling the party" by making some kind of protest or demonstration - whether they be Chinese or foreigners. In fact, foreigners are such a threat to the "harmony" of the Games that the government is making it pretty much impossible for anyone to come here (more on this in a day or two, perhaps).

So, the filtering of the Internet is being ramped up here. A week or so ago, Kafka Central finally got around to blocking Anonymouse. Bastards! Even more worrying, they seem to have found a way of cutting us off from TOR. The other proxies I have added on to my Firefox browser are still good for now, but I'm getting anxious.

Bon mot for the week

"Everyone is a bore to someone. That is unimportant. The thing to avoid is being a bore to oneself."

Kitty O'Neill Collins

Who? Well, precisely! I am once again taunted by an online quotations treasury with no biographies. Ms Collins seems to have come up with quite a few worthy epigrams, widely anthologized on the Net - but no-one out there actually seems to know who she is (Wikipedia has yet to hear of her). I wonder if perhaps she is the Kitty O'Neill played by Stockard Channing in a '70s TV movie Silent Victory - a deaf stuntwoman, race car driver, and land speed record-holder??

Answers in a comment, please, if you know.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Lessons of War - Pt. 3

This is the final part of Henry Reed's fabulous Lessons of War trilogy, which I've been posting serially over the past few weeks (Parts 1 and 2 here and here). This is perhaps my favourite of the three. When I was in the army reserve at university, the NCO instructors were still talking about "trees which have bushy tops to"; I found it difficult not to crack up. And I particularly love that closing line: "I will only venture a guess that perhaps between me and the apparent lovers.... is roughly a distance of about one year and a half."

III. Judging Distances

Not only how far away, but the way that you say it
Is very important. Perhaps you may never get
The knack of judging a distance, but at least you know
How to report on a landscape: the central sector,
The right of the arc and that, which we had last Tuesday,
And at least you know,

That maps are of time, not place, so far as the army
Happens to be concerned - the reason being,
Is one which need not delay us. Again, you know
There are three kinds of tree, three only, the fir and the poplar,
And those which have bushy tops to; and lastly,
That things only seem to be things.

A barn is not called a barn, to put it more plainly,
Or a field in the distance, where sheep may be safely grazing.
You must never be over-sure. You must say, when reporting:
At five o'clock in the central sector is a dozen
Of what appear to be animals; whatever you do,
Don't call the bleeders sheep.

I am sure that's quite clear; and suppose, for the sake of example,
The one at the end, asleep, endeavours to tell us
What he sees over there to the west, and how far away,
After first having come to attention. There to the west,
In the fields of the summer sun the shadows bestow
Vestments of purple and gold.

The white dwellings are like a mirage in the heat,
And under the swaying elms a man and a woman
Lie gently together. Which is, perhaps, only to say
That there is a row of houses to the left of the arc,
And that under some poplars a pair of what appear to be humans
Appear to be loving.

Well that, for an answer, is what we rightly call
Moderately satisfactory only, the reason being,
Is that two things have been omitted, and those are very important.
The human beings, now: in what direction are they,
And how far away, would you say? And do not forget
There may be dead ground in between.

There may be dead ground in between; and I may not have got
The knack of judging a distance; I will only venture
A guess that perhaps between me and the apparent lovers
(Who, incidentally, appear by now to have finished),
At seven o'clock from the houses, is roughly a distance
Of about one year and a half.

Henry Reed (1914-1986)

I hate PowerPoint

And while I'm in the mood for a rant.....

God, I hate f***ing PowerPoint!

I've agreed to deliver a 2.5-hour presentation this week (trying to inspire science graduates to improve their spoken English if they want to have a chance of getting a job with a foreign company).

It's just a little bit out of the usual run, and the pay is OK (not by any means great - but I can't afford to be too fussy at the moment; it's threatening to be a very lean summer). It is, however, a lot of time to fill. I am expected to provide all my own materials. Including PowerPoint slides. I don't have anything ready to hand that quite fits the bill.

So, yesterday I spent 5 solid hours preparing the slides for the bleedin' presentation. 5 hours!

OK, it would help if I knew my way around the program a little better. And it would have helped if Google weren't being so sodding slow that every time I wanted to add a picture, it took me 20 or 30 minutes to find something suitable.

But PowerPoint, I find, is an exceptionally fiddly, finicky, non-user-friendly programme - even by Microsoft's dismal standards. (Why is it so tricky to click on the edges of a text box when you want to move or re-size it? Why does it keep on automatically reducing the font size to fit when there isn't really any need to do so? And how can you disable this? How come you can align left or centre, but not right or both sides? How come you lose the numbering when you cut & paste in bullet-points? Is there any easy way of saving your font colours, or do you just have to try to remember what you've used before for each kind of heading? I could go on......)

Another day of my life gone. I just hope I'll get the chance to use the presentation more than once.

And NO, you may not film it.

Glitches and Gremlins....

..... beset me on all sides again.

As if it's not bad enough that the Kafka Boys are screwing around once again with which sites we can access, the connection speed on my ADSL Internet link has been crawlingly slow over the past few days - and I'm suffering many 'time-outs' and crashes on Google, Yahoo Mail, Blogger, etc.

I wrote a whole bunch of posts yesterday morning, but for some reason wasn't able to post them. (Luckily they had - somehow or other - all 'autosaved' as drafts; though not always very complete drafts.) Frustration.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Pelé - the "God"

I felt in need of cheering myself up a bit, so I've just done a bit of noodling around on YouTube for an hour, enjoying some highlights from the career of the magnificent Brazilian football star, Pelé.

This, I think, is the best collection of highlights I could find (although this one - with mostly similar footage, but mostly rather less good picture quality - does seem to have more of his divine dribbling).

Yes, there is a cheeky cartoon of a coked-up Maradona at the end of it. It's rather unfortunate how many of the comment-threads on these YouTube football compilations degenerate into ugly name-calling between supporters of Maradona and Pelé (though it is, I rather think, quite telling that the ugliest of it seems to come from the Maradona camp). For me, there's just no comparison. There's no denying that Maradona was a prodigiously talented player, but.... well, I think Pelé could do everything that Maradona could do, and a bit more besides (a better header of the ball, a more powerful shot, and, crucially, a much more even temperament). However you might rate their record of achievement on the pitch, there's no question that Pelé's wider influence on the game has been far more. Not just his ability, but the spirit in which he played the game have been an inspiration to millions all around the world. 99% of the time, he played with a smile on his face; whereas Diego always wore a scowl, or a sulky pout. And if we do look at the record on the pitch, well, the statistics of Pelé's career are just flabbergasting, unparalleled. He played competitive football from the time he was 11 or 12 until just shy of his 37th birthday; he averaged over 50 games a year throughout that period (injuries notwithstanding); he averaged very nearly a goal a game (at both international and club level). A goal every game! Astonishing! That record will stand for all time: no-one is ever going to come close to it.

Yet, what I love most about Pelé is that he is celebrated as much for the goals he didn't score as for those he did - particularly some of those magical moments from his international swan-song in the 1970 World Cup: against Czechoslovakia, attempting to lob the goalkeeper from 5 yards inside his own half, and getting the length absolutely perfect but having the shot drift just inches wide of the post; against Chile, putting a shot against the foot of the post, but being alert enough - and cool enough - to track the rebound right across the face of the goal, catch up with it on the far side, and calmly back-heel to a team-mate to slot home the finish; against England, making a huge leap to power a perfect header toward the foot of the far post, only for Gordon Banks bring off an unbelievable reaction save; and then, in the semi-final, improvising that sublime dummy around the Uruguayan keeper, but then shooting from a difficult angle and seeing the ball scrape off the outside of the far post. All this and more (including all the goals from the fantastic final against the Italians) in this tribute to the 1970 Brazil side below.

I don't think Maradona ever pulled off anything quite like this, was ever quite so exuberantly inventive. His creativity was more dogged and industrious, less joyful. Unless you were an Argentinian, or a supporter of one of his club sides, I think you tended to appreciate Maradona's skill with a rather cold detachment: it could inspire awe and amazement, yes, but not affection. Pelé inspired love - from opponents as much as from teammates, from rival fans as much as from his own side's supporters. Hell, even people who know or care little about the game - the beautiful game - can appreciate the greatness of Pelé.

Pelé spent the tail-end of his career promoting the game in the USA, with a three-year stint at the all-star New York Cosmos team in the mid-70s. There is one goal in particular that I recall from that period (shown on the Saturday afternoon worldwide sports roundup on the BBC's Grandstand show): Pelé picked the ball up near the half-way line and cantered forward, almost unopposed; he played a slick one-two (with Beckenbauer, I think - Pelé and Beckenbauer in the same team! Fantasy football indeed!), and then chipped the keeper from the edge of the box - on the run, with the outside of his right foot. Just exquisite. He made everything look so easy. I'm afraid I couldn't find that goal on YouTube, but here's a selection of other great moments from his time with the Cosmos.

I think Pelé was the first black man I was ever aware of - and I absolutely adored him. (The second was Louis Armstrong. And the third was Muhammad Ali. I grew up convinced of the innate superiority of coloured people!)

Don't forget - my EURO 2004 comment-thread is still open for business.

China bugs me sometimes

As I headed out yesterday evening, I found one of my middle-aged female neighbours (in her nightclothes, of course) at the foot of the stairs.

She was stood right in the middle of the exit, peering out into the rain through a crack in the door, and carrying on some sort of conversation with someone outside (her husband, sent on a shopping errand, I think).

She heard me coming down the stairs. She glanced over her shoulder at me as I reached the bottom of them. I attempted friendly eye-contact for a brief moment before she looked away again. I stood behind her, waiting patiently for her to step aside so that I could pass through the doorway. She didn't budge. For a good 5 or 10 seconds - until I brought my existence rather more forcefully to her notice. This is not, alas, an uncommon phenomenon.

A little while later, I was walking down a hutong, passing this Chinese guy. He glanced to his right just as I was coming alongside him. But he didn't see me. Or, if he did, he didn't pay any attention to me. No, because he chose that exact moment to fling his spent cigarette aside. The still-glowing butt nearly hit me, and landed right at my feet.

I briefly fantasised about catching this cigarette-end on my shoe, juggling it from foot to foot for a moment, and then volleying it crisply back into his face.
"Oh, sorry, mate. Didn't see you there!" (The Chinese, we note, don't even apologise. And the irony would be lost on them.)

I try not to get too down about this stuff. I try to make every possible allowance for it. I try to understand why people are the way they are. I try not to make knee-jerk assumptions of cultural superiority. I remind myself that I would perhaps have greater resources for dealing with, or avoiding, this kind of irritation if I could be bothered to learn more than a couple of hundred words of the local language.

But....... again and again I find the Chinese to be almost solipsistic in their lack of awareness of or concern for anybody else around them. I find this very, very depressing. I think I'd find it depressing even if I weren't so damned depressed already.

Live and learn

I discovered something new the other day. Such nuggets of fresh knowledge seem to have been rare of late, but perhaps I just haven't been panning enough.

I was talking about differing social customs relating to food and eating out with one of my business English classes, and a couple of my students eagerly told me that the concept of "going Dutch" on the bill was fast becoming more popular in China - but that they had a different expression for it.

My students were amazed that I hadn't heard it before.

They were even more amazed to learn that it was not, as they had always assumed, a British or American expression (No, we say "Going Dutch".).

I confess I was more than a little surprised I hadn't heard it before myself. But most of my Chinese friends speak good English (and are perhaps self-aware enough to refrain from using such odd Chinese expressions in their English conversation). Moreover, when I eat out with Chinese friends, I - or one of my other foreign friends - will usually foot the bill, in deference to the fact that we are, in general, rather better off than them, and we don't want them to feel inhibited about joining us in slightly fancier restaurants than they would usually frequent.

Anyway, what the Chinese these days say, apparently, for 'splitting the bill' is...... 'AA'.


While I try to be open to the possibility that there may be obscure - or recent - pieces of English usage (particularly from the US) that I am not familiar with, it immediately seemed unlikely to me that: a) anyone in the English-speaking world would coin a new expression for something like this, something that we already have perfectly adequate phrases to describe; or b) that if they did, they would use an acronym for it; or that c) if they did use an acronym, they wouldn risk unnecessary confusion by stealing the name of the Alcoholics Anonymous organization. No, my suspicion was that this was one of those weird acronyms spawned from the world of txt msg and BBS, and that it was probably entirely Chinese in origin.

One of my students did some online research during the break, and it seems I was right. Some years ago, a Chinese dude searching for a convenient expression to use for this quaint new Western custom of splitting the bill at dinner (in China, traditionally, one person treats everybody else) - probably using one of those execrably bad electronic dictionaries that they all rely on so much these days - tried to look up the English for 'equal shares' and happened upon....... algebraic average.

Amazing, but true.

Friday, June 27, 2008

Anatomy of a down

For the past three or four weeks I have been about as low in mood as I can recall being in many, many years - perhaps in a decade. Very bad, indeed. Psychopathic and dysfunctional at times. I don't know that I've ever been that bad before.

I fret about the possible reasons.

Cumulative lack of sleep is a leading contributor, I have no doubt. I've never slept well in China; and my crazy lifestyle tends to drive me to burn the candle at both ends, staying up too late at night, getting up too early in the morning. And the stifling summer humidity here in Beijing (which, this year, kicked in at least a month or so earlier than usual) makes it very difficult to get in any quality sleep at all.

Work stress may be part of it too. I have way too many balls in the air, irons in the fire, or whatever just at the moment.

Then there's probably the shock of a change in workload and tempo of life this month: I've suddenly gone from working 80-hr weeks to 10-hr ones; and I find that when I have too much time on my hands I fall to brooding.

The foul weather we've been having is a big factor too. This week has been so continuously humid, hazy, and overcast that the peak daytime light levels have been barely above what you'd expect at dawn or dusk. We haven't seen the sun at all. The whole month been very nearly as bad. Perhaps I am afflicted with Seasonal Affective Disorder in an unexpected season.

Because of the humidity and smog, I've only been able to get out for a run once every week or two for most of this year - rather than the three or four times a week that I aim for when I'm on a serious fitness kick. When I'm not able to exercise regularly, it's not just my physical condition but my sense of mental well-being that takes a hit.

I wonder, too, if this might not be the onset of my "mid-life crisis". Thanks to the environmental stress and lack of exercise this year (and, yes, the late nights and the boozing too), I have finally started to show my age: I've put on several pounds, started to get distinctly paunchy, and my hair is suddenly thinning rapidly. I am not ready to be 40, damn it! Heck, I am not even ready to be 30!! And yet now, I look in the mirror and I see 50, 60, and Death coming towards me fast.

And then, there's that other seasonal thing, the anniversary of my worst experience in China. It is haunting me with renewed insistence this year. I can't see any likely significance in that timeframe, or in my circumstances now, which should render me so especially vulnerable. Perhaps it is just the football providing a link to revive the memories: we were in the middle of EURO 2004 when it happened. Yes, oddly enough, I think that might be it. I always felt I had come through the ordeal pretty well, but I fear my catastrophic mood-slump of the last few weeks had an element of post-traumatic stress in it (and I know quite a bit about PTSD from my training as a personal injury lawyer).

But enough of this gloom and doom. I'm starting to feel much better now, thank you. Now, if only the clouds would part and show us a little blue sky again for a few days......

Be your own Daily Llama

How could anyone resist??

Faith in human nature restored

I dined last night - hastily and alone - at my favourite hole-in-the-wall Muslim place (I go there almost every week, and sometimes two or three times a week).

The bill seemed rather high, so I queried it. I was disgruntled to discover that the beer has gone up to 4 kuai a bottle (twice what it should be!), but the rest all seemed to be in order..... except that it came out to quite a lot more than I usually pay there for a similar selection of snacks. My brain was too exhausted to grapple with the maths (or the laoban's scrawly handwriting), my Chinese too rudimentary to explain my disquiet. I like the place, so I didn't want to make a scene about it. I shrugged and smiled and proffered the slightly infated amount being asked.

I'd only got a yard or two out of the door before the laoban came running after me. He had indeed goofed on his arithmetic, and had 10 kuai to give back to me.

You don't see that kind of thing very often in China (or anywhere else, for that matter); but that makes it all the more heartwarming when you do encounter it. It's good to be a regular.

The weekly haiku

Pale sky, empty streets;
Neither sleeping nor waking,
The city at dawn.

Yep, it was another late one tonight. I met a nice young Russian chap and stayed out all night drinking with him until the football came on. Although I have been backing Spain since a few days into the tournament, I did feel for my companion's pain.

Walking home at 5am, as the sky unfades to grey, is quite a magical experience.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Chinese job applications

This story actually comes from my friend Jean, who used to do the oral exams for the IELTS English test, and would keep herself entertained through the tedious weekend's slog that this is by recording the most amusing student encounters and e-mailing or text-messaging the highlights to her friends later in the day.

Interviewer: So, why are you studying English?

Candidate: I want to be a cunt.

Interviewer [taken aback]: I'm sorry?

Candidate: I want to be a cunt.

Interviewer [struggling to retain composure]: Er, why?

Candidate: My mother is a cunt. And my father is a cunt too. All my family likes a-cunting.

Interviewer [now visibly cringing]: I see......

Candidate [warming to her subject]: So, I want to study a-cunting. I want to be certify-a-cunt.

Interviewer [englightenment slowly dawning]: Ah, I see. So, er, moving on......

Ah, and then there was this gem related to me a while ago by Ben The Jerry, one of my Pool Bar companions. He does a bit of work editing CVs and application letters for Chinese graduates seeking work with foreign companies.

He told me that one girl seeking translation work had included on her CV, under 'Personal Qualities', the following statement:

"I am careful and hard-working. Not lazy like foreigners!"

And this, remember, was intended to support an application for employment with a foreign company. Naivety is something of a national trait.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

A cunning plan

Damned ingenious, these Chinese!

I have just read a fascinating article (well, no, it was mostly content-free near-gibberish, but this one passage attained a chilling coherence) which recommends - in deadly earnestness - that the Chinese government starts exporting its surplus population to Russia.

Russia, it is suggested, will be glad to receive anyone it can get, because it is suffering a catastrophic shrinkage of its own population (through economic migration and premature death caused by alcoholism and industrial pollution) and is struggling to find the manpower it needs for its economic reconstruction.

On the other hand, there is a widespread fear that as soon as significant Chinese communities are allowed to build up anywhere in Russia, they will start lobbying for "unification" with the motherland - "But Vladivostok has always been a part of China, Minsk has always been a part of China." (Oh yes, it's true: just about anywhere with a 'Genghis was here' sign was, is, and always will be 'historically' a part of China!)

Given that an awful lot of those migrating Russians end up in China (because it's less of a shithole than Russia has become in the past decade or so, and the economic opportunities here are perceived to be much greater), one wonders how easy it is going to be to persuade Chinese workers - particularly University graduates, who are supposed to be a key component of this programme - to move to Russia. From what I hear, it's pretty damned difficult to get graduates to move out to the less-developed western provinces of China (where at least they can still speak Chinese).

And given the dismally poor language-teaching methodology I have encountered in this country, and the generally low motivation of non-language specialists to study or use a foreign language, I am very sceptical as to whether large numbers of Chinese (and we are potentially talking in the 100,000s here), both peasants and professionals, are going to be willing to try to master Russian.

I suspect this plan will languish on the drawing-board.

Full marks for AMBITION, though.

Out of the mouths of babes and.....

...... Chinese academics.......

I've been editing another beastly-boring "scholarly" paper on international relations today. Only the occasionally amusing infelicities of the language made the 6-hour ordeal survivable.

My absolute favourite was the discovery that there was held in Russia a few years ago a symposium on 'The Economics of the Post-Industrious Society'.

Of course, I'm peeved that I wasn't invited to be a keynote speaker......

More irritation - with Chinese characteristics

I had made a lunch date with one of my former students today.

I had been rather looking forward to it.

10 minutes before we were due to meet, I got a text message from her suggesting a change of rendezvous - different place, same time.

To be fair to the dear girl, she had sent it nearly two hours earlier, but it had evidently got held up in the pipeline somewhere (our SMS network here tends to be something less than 100% reliable!).

However, as I pointed out to her, somewhat heavily, 2 hours is not really sufficient notice of a change of plans like that - not, at least, for us finicky foreigners.

The new meeting point she'd requested wasn't actually all that far away - just far enough to be really irritating. I knew to a fine margin how long I'd need to reach the rendezvous I'd specified (7.5 minutes). I knew the restaurant I wanted to go to (a nice-looking little Vietnamese bistro that's recently opened up down towards the Drum Tower). I knew what I wanted to do afterwards (shopping, and perhaps a meeting, nearby the restaurant, in my 'hood). I knew what I was doing before (putting in a full and very tedious morning's work on an editing project - which was planned to finish at 12.52pm precisely).

So, I really don't want to be told, just as I'm about to head out of the door to a meeting just around the corner, that in fact she's waiting for me nearly 3 miles away. Having unilaterally changed our plan without waiting for a confirmation from me, you understand. And without thinking to actually try to call me to discuss it.

It would only have been a 10-minute ride on the subway; but, just lately, the subway is a sweaty hell - the air-conditioning on the trains and on the platform struggling to make any impression on the 90%+ humidity (even when it's working, and a couple of times recently I've been unlucky enough to get in a train carriage where it wasn't). In fact, the weather today has been so thoroughly foul that I hadn't even fancied the 7.5-minute stroll to the corner of Jiugulou Dajie, and I was quite glad of the opportunity to cancel my appointment with my ditsy student. Heck, I'm going down with allergies - croaky throat, itchy eyes - from the opaque, poisonous Beijing air even while sitting indoors in the comparatively protected environment of my apartment.

So, searching for a positive to take from this negative experience, I can say I am relieved (and probably much healthier) because I didn't have to go outside this afternoon. Ooh, and I got my beast of an editing job finished as well.

However, I confess to being still deeply, deeply pissed off about it. Not with the girl - she's an old, old acquaintance now, and I can forgive her just about anything. And not at the disappointment of my plans - I can meet her some other time, check out that new restaurant some other time (and I really haven't had much of an appetite today anyway).

No, I only get really down about this sort of wayward and inconsiderate behaviour when it strikes me as being emblematic of a wider problem. And I'm afraid today's little episode is. The Chinese, I'm sorry to say, seem to be largely incapable of showing any consideration for other people, or of being able to 'decentre' their viewpoint to imagine what other people's interests and concerns might be (it just did not occur to my student friend that I had reasons why I had suggested the time and place that I had, and that it might be highly inconvenient for me to depart from that). A phenomenon - a vice - no doubt closely related to this is their incessant last-minutism: they really think nothing of informing you of an important meeting or of changing a scheduled appointment at half a day's notice, an hour's notice, 30 minutes' notice, or 5 minutes' notice.

6 years here, and I haven't got used to this yet. Maybe I never will. Maybe it's time for me to leave.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Yet another Daily Llama

Doesn't he remind you of someone??

The failure of taste

I have commented before here on how, er, strange Chinese taste can be - by Western lights, anyway: either charmingly unsophisticated or terminally naff, depending on your mood. Grown women touting Hello Kitty accessories, Richard Clayderman revered as a great classical pianist, The Eagles crowned "the greatest rock band in the history of the world, ever", etc.

However, there is now a new exemplar of this odd capacity to completely disregard the canons of good taste (and tact, sensitivity, common human decency) that obtain in most of the rest of the world, a new nadir in the annals of China's shortcomings of taste.

Wang Zhaoshan, Vice-President of the Shandong Provincial Branch of the Chinese Writers' Association, has recently written this "poem" on the Sichuan earthquake disaster:


This rough-and-ready translation is provided by the estimable Leah and "a friend" (yes, I have basically just pinched this post off her blog - I hope she won't mind):

To whom can I cry over this disaster,
The President calls out to me and the Prime Minister cares for me,
The voices of the Party's love and the nation's compassion spread into the debris.
To have one billion people crying together for me,
Even becoming a ghost is lucky enough.
The tanks are like silver eagles saving the children,
On the left are the army uncles, and on the right are the police aunties.
Love from the whole nation, to have it is worth dying.
My only wish is to have a TV screen in front of my grave,
To watch the Olympics and to cheer with the others.

Really quite gob-smackingly TERRIBLE, isn't it?

As I observed in a comment on Leah's original post, it inevitably puts one in mind of McGonagall - though without any of the charm. William Topaz McGonagall (wonderful middle name!) was a great favourite of the marvellously deranged British comedian, Spike Milligan, and was also celebrated in the splendidly entertaining Book Of Heroic Failures by Stephen Pile, a loo-side book of mine for many years. He was one of the great Victorian eccentrics, a native of Dundee in Scotland in the latter part of the 19th Century who achieved a wide celebrity - or notoriety - for his prolific, clunking doggerel. One of his most infamous verses was on the Tay Rail Bridge disaster of 1879, which rivals Wang's piece above in its crassness. McGonagall, however, was so beguilingly unself-conscious about his poetic inadequacies that it's difficult not to develop a soft spot for him. His work is a riot of accidental humour. As Pile memorably said of him, he was "so giftedly bad that he backed unwittingly into genius".

Wang, however, though unintentionally hilarious, cannot, I feel, be enjoyed in the same easy spirit. This work is so tactless in its subject matter, so heavy-handed in its propagandizing (that line about the tanks leaves me dumbstruck!), so downright sick in its conception that it produces more winces of pain, horror, or embarrassment than innocent guffaws.

I am relieved to report that Wang has been widely derided by Chinese netizens for this piece. However, their criticisms seem to have been directed mainly towards its blatant toadying to the ruling Communist Party. No-one seems to have commented on its monumental tactlessness. Or on the fact that it is simply very, very, very bad.

Bon mot of the week

"Accept that some days you're the pigeon, some days you're the statue."

Roger C. Anderson

Neither of them sounds a particularly alluring option to me; but I suppose I can see what he means.

The big question, though, is who the heck is Roger C. Anderson? Biography-less quotations pages are the bane of my life! The only likely Roger C. I can find via the Internet is an American botanist. I wonder if he's the guy that said this, and what the when, why and how of the remark might have been.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

My Fantasy Girlfriend - Mrs Peel

I suggested last month that Lt. Gay Ellis of Gerry Anderson's UFO was perhaps my first flesh-and-blood crush, but NO, that's rubbish, of course. I think every hetero Englishman old enough to remember the '60s (and perhaps those just a bit younger, too; I'm sure they were doing re-reruns well into the '70s) has an erotic fixation on Steed's coolly sexy sidekick from The Avengers, Emma Peel.

Heck, her influence even spread to America: there's a section in Tarantino's original script for Pulp Fiction (excised from the final film) where, at the beginning of Vincent and Mia's date, she quizzes him on his pop culture tastes, and one question - I think it's "Which woman do you fantasise about being beaten up by?" - produces the answer "Emma Peel from The Avengers."

She was, of course, very calculatedly crafted to be an ultimate fantasy woman by the show's producers. It is said that even her name was chosen as a sly pun: M Appeal=Man Appeal. Although her first name, in fact, was rarely used. I've always had a bit of a weakness for the name Emma (I wonder if it can be traced to this programme, or if it was an entirely independent predilection), but Steed almost invariably referred to her as "Mrs Peel". Perversely enough, this was a key part of her appeal: although she was the sexiest woman on the planet, she was also sexless - determinedly chaste and glacially unattainable (I worry that this 'challenging' template may have imprinted itself too deeply on my pre-adolescent brain). Her husband - a spy or a test pilot or an explorer or somesuch, I forget quite what - was missing, presumed dead, on some distant continent; but she remained unwaveringly loyal to him, stubbornly hoping for his eventual return (and indeed, he did - improbably! - reappear, to justify writing her out of the series after 3 or 4 seasons). There was ostensibly a frisson of attraction between her and Steed which they were both too noble to act upon; but I have to say, to me their exchanges seemed less like flirtation and more like the teasing of long-time co-habitees (brother and sister perhaps, middle-aged but unmarried, still living together).

Rather as with my earlier (marionette!) crush,
Penny Creighton-Ward, Mrs Peel was an unlikely superspy: highly intelligent, independent, and resourceful, adept with firearms and in unarmed combat, cool under pressure - and a stylish dresser (oh my god, those catsuits!). Ah yes, and the casual hauteur, that 'unattainability' thing - a dangerous quality for a boy to get addicted to!

The character was all the more compelling, I'm sure, for being played by Diana Rigg - no mere eye-candy but a rather fine actress, and a woman who in her own person exuded much of the same coolness, elegance, and intelligence that distinguished Mrs Peel.

Darn it - Emma Peel was quite simply the ideal woman. No-one else - whether real or fictional - could ever equal her. It is a strange curse that we middle-aged, hetero British men have to bear: knowing that we are forever doomed to a sense of faint dissatisfaction with the women in our lives.

I hate CCTV5

I mentioned the other day over on The Barstool that I had been getting particularly vexed that my enjoyment of the present Euro '08 football tournament on Chinese television was being impaired by the fact that they don't display the game clock. (Well, they do during the original live broadcast, although it's almost invisible - thin, dim, tiny white numerals against a red swoosh logo in the top right of the screen. On later re-runs, the game clock is removed altogether. WHY??) It is quite maddening if you switch on after the start of the game and have no indication at all of how long there is left to play (an uncertainty increased further by the fact that the timing of the re-runs seems to change subtly from day to day!!).

My friend DD - a part-time journalist as well as my regular recording partner - was supposed to be interviewing the director of CCTV5 the other day, and, knowing that I was quite a sports fan, asked if I had any suggestions for tough questions she could ask him about the station's coverage. Naturally enough, I launched immediately into about 5 minutes of invective about the NO GAME CLOCK issue. I'm not sure if she brought this up with him or not. If she did, nothing has yet been done to rectify the oversight.

Switching on at noon the other day to try and find the mid-day(ish) re-run of the previous evening's European games, I happened to catch the tail-end of an international volleyball match. This is much more of a big deal in China, since it is a sport they have lately come to excel at (although I think the men's team - in competition here against Australia - are not quite the invincible world-beaters that the Chinese women are). Here, they weren't displaying THE SCORE!!! I found it oddly touching that the CCTV5 idiots are equally capable of fucking up the presentation of a sport that the local audience cares about (although, actually, football is pretty damn popular here - even though the Chinese national team can't play for shit).

This year, CCTV5 - the national sports channel - has replaced the '5' in its logo with the five Olympic rings. I suppose they will be intimately involved in producing the coverage of the Olympic events (although, no doubt, with a hefty input of foreign equipment and expertise). All I can say is - god help us all! Expect: incidents shown out of chronological order; lots of irrelevant reaction shots of Chinese competitors not in medal contention; key parts of the screen obscured by superimposed Chinese captions/banners; key pieces of information - scores, times, names and countries of competitors - illegible, erroneous, or completely absent.

(A further gripe about the football coverage: they don't show the team lists before the game. Really, how hard would it be to prepare a quick lineup - in Chinese and English - to let us know who is playing where?? Aaaaarrrggh!)

By the way, football lovers, do go and check out this comment thread over on my other blog, where some old college buddies of mine and I have been teasing each other about our prognostications on the results of the current European Championships.

The Return of the Kafka Boys

I learned last night that Blogspot is once again blocked in China.

I had thought that opening up of the main English-language blog sites was part of a package of token "liberalizations" of the media here intended to satisfy the IOC and the world's press that the PRC is finally taking some significant steps towards introducing a free flow of information - at least for this Olympic summer. Some hope.

Of course, I hadn't noticed this latest imposition of the block. Since, through the FoxyProxy gizmo, I now have the choice of using either the application's own 'default' proxy routing or the Tor network (both are usually too SLOW to be very attractive options; but they usually work eventually, if you don't have too many windows open at once..... if there's no other way). So, I've become rather used to cycling between these two options whenever I find I have a problem getting to a particular website.

However, lately I've been finding that I can access Blogspot fine using Firefox alone. This, I'm told, should not be possible. Curious. It would appear that I am once again viewing the site via the alternate IP address I programmed into my browser settings last year. I had thought that that workaround might have been superseded when I added on all the FoxyProxy bits-and-bobs. And this routing had been blocked a few months ago - which was why I got involved with FoxyProxy in the first place.

Yes, it would appear that the government's censorship goons, in attempting to reimpose their block on Blogspot, have inadvertently removed one of the key elements of the block they had imposed earlier. The oppression in this country is charmingly INEPT sometimes.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Not exactly a Daily Llama

Just because I have given up on my visual puns, it doesn't mean I have given up on my quirkiness....

Climate change (on the local level)

For much of the last two months, Beijing has been mired in a swampy humidity - a humidity that makes it deeply unpleasant to have to spend more than a few minutes outside; a humidity that even the most powerful air-conditioning struggles to dispel inside (and powerful air-conditioning tends to be too noisy to allow me a good night's sleep); a humidity that renders life utterly wretched.

Our summer is usually made insufferable by this phenomenon through most of July and August, but it's rarely much of a problem before the tail-end of June. This year, we've been regularly assailed by it since late April or early May.

As you might expect, I mainly blame the trees. Beijing had a huge number of trees anyway, but I'm pretty sure that even more have been planted in the last few months as part of "greening" initiatives prior to the Olympics. If the total number of trees is not much increased, the amount of foliage certainly is: most of the tired old trees in my neighbourhood have been replaced with younger, more vigorously leafy specimens. The little park outside my window has been entirely replanted, and the leafiness is now so dense that I can no longer see the little square in the middle where the old ladies practise their t'ai chi every morning (although they haven't been doing that anyway for quite some time, since the park has been closed to the public while these renovations are under way).

I've asked this question before. Would anyone like to hazard an answer? How much water does a tree release into the air every day via transpiration? I believe it's quite a lot. Multiply that by, oh, I'd guess at least 500,000. (Really, the number of trees in Beijing is unbelievable. It may well run into millions.)

And then, of course, you have the vastly increased watering. Spraying of the roads by water lorries used to be only a once-in-a-while event, mostly on the more major roads only, and only when there had been a particularly long, hot, dry spell of weather, or in areas where major construction had left a lot of sand on the ground..... Lately, it seems to have become a nightly event, everywhere.

And the amount of water being sprayed on to trees, parks, and roadside flowerbeds is just staggering. Ordinarily, when the weather turns hot, the trees start to fade and wilt, the grass turns brown and thins out, every patch of open ground becomes hard-baked and turns to dust. It is only to be expected. Beijing is not a well-watered city. It has no major waterway of its own. It is, in fact, on the edge of a desert. It perversely tries to make itself as verdant as its envied cousin, Shanghai (which lies near the coast, on a well-watered floodplain, straddling a massive river - and has a huge annual rainfall); but, most of the time, it accepts that it can only achieve a kind of pale greeny-beige rather than Shanghai's lush green.

But not in the Olympic summer. These are Green Olympics, damn it! It doesn't matter if the rest of China suffers a catastrophic drought as a consequence; Beijing will remain extravagantly watered until the Games are over. China's image-obsessed bureaucrats have apparently failed to comprehend that, in this context, 'Green' is a philosophy rather than merely a colour. The over-watering of Beijing - at the expense of the rest of the country - is, I suggest, severely un-Green; indeed, it could well prove to be a massive environmental disaster, both for Beijing and the rest of China.

It seems no-one has given a thought as to how this will affect Beijing's climate. If this smothering humidity continues through August, performance in the Olympic outdoor events is going to be severely impaired. Don't expect any new world records. Do expect a lot of retirements in the Marathon.

Maybe the city authorities will cut back on this watering a bit while the Games are actually on. Maybe. We can but hope. The city's hundreds of building sites will all be shut down for the month (as will all the factories for miles around; and there will be draconian restrictions on road traffic, too), so hopefully the amount of air pollution will be much lower. Over the last 6 or 8 months, days of damp air have meant that it is unpleasant, downright dangerous to set foot outside because the water molecules trap all the airborne pollutants near the ground, creating a toxic smog that can reduce visibility to less than half a mile. (I wonder also if there might not be a mutually reinforcing cycle here: does particulate pollution trap water vapour near the ground??)

There is also talk of employing a new policy on cloud-seeding. The shooting of silver iodide crystals into the sky is rampant in Beijing: almost all of our rainfall is artificially produced in this way (it produces a characteristic yellow-green tinge to a rainy sky; a lurid, piss-coloured western horizon is our early warning that a big shower is on the way). This too would appear to have been stepped up of late (although perhaps there have just been an unusually large number of clouds drifting our way in the past few months; I get the impression that the cloud-seeders pretty much shoot down everything they possibly can at any time of year), since we have had a huge number of rainy days this year - most unusual for May and June. This hasn't been helping the humidity problem either. However, come August, they're supposed to be moving the silver iodide batteries (some rockets, some anti-aircraft guns) further west, with the idea that they can make the rain fall before it reaches Beijing - ensuring clear skies during the Olympics, and also, allegedly (I am sceptical about this) washing any pollution out of the sky. We shall see.

If it's not the freakishly high recent rainfall, or the prodigious watering of the city's greenery, or the profuse transpiration of all the new trees....... well, perhaps it's just the greatly increased amount of standing water in the city. For the past few years, most of the city's canals, moats, lakes, and ponds have been kept at a low level - or completely emptied for long periods - to allow for pre-Olympic refurbishments (I'm not sure, but I guess there might be some completely new outdoor water features that have been built as well; there are certainly a few new parks under development). Now - for the first time, I think, in the 6 years I've been here - they're all FULL. I really hope this isn't the major contributor to our massively increased humidity problem; if it is, our troubles are likely to endure beyond this year. I'm hoping that it's mainly the additional rainfall and the additional watering (and the newly-planted trees and shrubs - which will soon wither and become less moisture-effusive as Beijing returns to its natural BEIGE next year).

If THIS is going to be our regular annual climate from now on...... well, I'm afraid it may be time to go and live somewhere else.

Beware, Chinese leaders - fictional supervillains always seek to alter the weather; and it always ends badly for them.

The weekly haiku

Days of sunless gray;
Choking air stifles the soul:
Olympic summer.

Yes, the "weather" in Beijing has been unbelievably, terrifyingly SHITE again for most of this week. I may write more about this in a moment.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Everybody's doing it

Making their own version of The Sopranos title sequence, that is.

This week The Chairman and I are being visited by one of our erstwhile colleagues (one of those who endured the horrors of the Evil Bastard Employers with us in our first year, and is thus forever bonded with us through a kind of brothers-in-arms combat camaraderie) - sometime artist, formidable (if erratic) pool player, and irrepressible Manc git, "Mad Mike".

Mike and his mate James have recently made their contribution to the Sopranos tribute oeuvre, shot around Liverpool and Birkenhead where they now live ('New Jersey on the Mersey'). Check it out.

Of the (numerous!!) other versions out there, I rather like this one of southern England, this of the Bay Area, and this of Quebec City. But the very best, of course, is this one of the fictitious California city of San Andreas from the Grand Theft Auto video game series.

Also well worth checking is this Mad TV parody, showing what The Sopranos would be like if it were shown on network television (witha terrific James Gandolfini impression from Will Sasso).

Wednesday, June 18, 2008


A former Beijing resident has been paying a return visit, a rather nice young Englishwoman who lived out here last year. We had been pretty friendly while she was here, and had kept in touch a little by e-mail since she departed.

I was thus rather disappointed to discover that she had come back for a holiday without tipping me off, either before her arrival or subsequently. Indeed, I wouldn't have known she was visiting at all had I not happened to notice her amongst some blog photographs of a party last weekend.

When I realised she was here, I asked around after her and discovered she was staying with another female acquaintance of mine. I sent her greetings via that acquaintance, asked if there was any chance of meeting up before she leaves.

That acquaintance never acknowledged receipt of my message (although I gather from another source that she received it OK). The visitor never attempted to get in touch with me (although I gather from that other source that the message was passed on to her).

I contacted the rest of the visitor's usual posse - all also "friends" of mine, a gaggle of single girlies who I refer to teasingly as 'The Coven' - to ask when she was going back, if there were any plans for a night on the town before that. None of them replied to me. NONE.

I learned from another source that the visitor is leaving on Thursday, was having farewell drinks today. Evidently I was NOT INVITED.

I make as many allowances as I can. Some people are just very BAD at responding to text messages. Sometimes (not often, I think - not nearly so often as a few years ago) text messages here simply get lost in transmission, dropped from an overburdened network. But it is particularly dispiriting when 4 separate people - most of whom I'd attempted to contact about this more than once - all completely ignore you.

Perhaps they were embarrassed by the fact that I was 'excluded' from the reunion, and thought it would be kinder to try to hide it from me? Jeez! I know she's only in town for a week; I know her girlie mates are more important to her; I realise she might want to make her last night out a girls-only affair. I won't try and crash the evening - I'm not like that. I won't be offended; I quite understand. How much worse is it to be cut from the party and NOT BE TOLD? Ten, a hundred, a million times WORSE.

What is wrong with people these days? This kind of behaviour seems to be becoming more and more common. It's crass, it's unnecessary, it's DUMB. It's self-centred, it's inconsiderate, it's RUDE.

I sometimes have fuddy-duddyish moments where I wonder if there's a generational element involved. I find this sort of egregious discourtesy much more common in people under 40, positively rampant in people under 30. Folks in their 40s and 50s, I feel, were probably better brought up.

I took this collective snub very hard because I am particularly depressed and emotionally vulnerable at the moment (it will probably pass in a week or two - 'seasonal' factors in play).

I was reading an observation recently on the importance of having people you can turn to for support in times of personal crisis...... and I fret that perhaps I don't have anyone like that out here. It is often said that because of the transience of expat society our 'friendships' here tend to be more numerous but more superficial. Then again, I'm not too sure how much I could really rely on any of my older friends back in the UK or the US either: isolated by distance, our contact is increasingly infrequent; all of them are absorbed in their own lives and rarely give me a moment's thought these days.

"Friends are the people we allow to hurt us."

Who was it said that? Perhaps it was me.

Monday, June 16, 2008

A (Daily?) Llama

Yes, I know I haven't been managing to keep up anything like a daily frequency. In fact, of late I've barely managed to post as often as once in seven days - but I wouldn't want anyone to suggest that my llamas are weakly!

Make the most of them when you can.

And I'm still waiting for my t-shirt, MR.

More annoyingly daft things Chinese teacher-employers do

There is a theory starting to be touted amongst the dwindling number of teachers that remain that we might actually be able to command increased rates over the next few months because of the sudden imbalance between supply and demand. Whenever anyone says this to me, I snort out of my nose.

Chinese teaching institutions have a long and ignoble history of a) not giving a damn about teaching quality, b) not giving a damn about student outcomes, c) not giving a damn even about the long-term viability of their school, d) not giving a damn about teacher qualifications, and, of course, e) never wanting to pay more than the absolute minimum they can get away with (and, if at all possible, short-changing even on the meagre pay they have initially agreed).

I don't see any reason why that is likely to change. There are plenty of dumb, naive teachers over here who are willing to take whatever they're offered without attempting to negotiate. There are plenty of people over here who will almost work for free - because they "love China" (which, in practice, tends to mean that they are retired or semi-retired or have a comfortable private income - and some ulterior motive for being here, which, as often as not, at least amongst our American brethren, involves surreptitiously spreading the word of Jesus). And then, of course, there's a never-ending supply of tourists/backpackers/beachbums/starving artists/whatever who will happily substitute for proper teachers in order to earn a little extra beer or bong money. And, as a last resort, I think most Chinese schools I've encountered would be quite happy to close their doors for a few months rather than pay foreign teachers a decent salary for once. Either that, or they'll try to stay open using entirely local Chinese teachers (no doubt protesting to their disgruntled students that Ms Li and Mr Wang are in fact Canadian Chinese, native English speakers, really....).

Am I a cynic? With reason!

Recent examples of things that have completely got my goat.

1) I am asked to do some 1-to-1 private tuition - for 130 RMB per hour! The lowest fee anyone ever gets for English teaching out here - even for bog-standard classroom teaching, which is usually much easier (and much more reliable in terms of income stream; private students always cancel or reschedule classes all over the place, and only pay you for the handful of sessions where they deign to turn up) - is 150 RMB per hour. 1-to-1 stuff is usually at least 200, if not 250. I don't usually get out of bed for less than 300. Yawn. Next!

2) I am asked to do a promotional event for a Chinese educational publisher. They want me to "entertain" a mass audience of senior citizens with a 'baby steps' lesson on - what else? - The Olympics. "Do you have any materials to use for this?" I ask. "No. We thought you could improvise something." Yeah, right. For 90 minutes! Sigh.

3) I am asked to take on a business English gig over the summer months. The pay isn't at all bad, but it's a horribly designed, utterly pointless course ("Spoken English" for a massive class of oil engineers, most of whom, I'm sure, - I know, from bitter previous experience - will barely be able to enunciate a single syllable). Ah yes, and they're planning to run it right through the Olympics; the final class will probably be at the same time as the Olympic Closing Ceremony (I did gently point out that it's extremely unlikely that any of the students will show up for that class). Oh, and it's about 80 miles out of town. Would they be providing a driver, I asked. No, no, that would be too much trouble, I was told. I could take the train, they suggested; there was one every 30 or 40 minutes. Well, that's nice. If the train times don't happen to fit with the teaching schedule too snugly, this could add another 1 or 1.5 hours to the already horrendous travelling schedule. Let's think about this: even if the trains do leave at an ideal time.... Hmmm - walk to subway, 10 minutes; wait for train - on a Sunday - possibly 8 or 10 minutes or more; subway to Beijing train station, 20 minutes; walk from subway to train station (clear security check, fight through crowded concourse, identify platform, etc.), 10-20 minutes; board train at least 10 minutes before departure....... So, I've probably spent at least an hour in transit before I even leave Beijing. I think, if I had a chauffeur-driven ride, I could be at least half-way to the venue in that time. Hence, that would be another NO, then.

The penny-pinching, incompetence, and sheer stupidity of these people does get me rather depressed at times. Very, very depressed, in fact.

Bon mot of the week

"Congratulate yourself when you have done something strange or extravagant and broken the monotony of a decorous world."

Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882)

Sunday, June 15, 2008

A dream home in Beijing

A young Dutch family of my acquaintance are taking a 6-month sabbatical from Beijing, but would like to keep up the lease on their charming hutong home, and so are looking for someone to sub-let from them - from next month to the end of the year.

But for my present (perpetual) shortage of funds, I would be mighty tempted to take it myself. I may just do so anyway, on a crazy impulse. Unless YOU know someone who'd like it......

It's a traditional Beijing siheyuan - a single storey home built around the four sides of a small open courtyard in the middle. It's hidden away in a nest of alleyways just off Jiaodaokou Nandajie, a great central location mid-way between The Forbidden City and the Yonghegong Lama Temple, and very close to the new Line 5 subway. It's been thoroughly modernised and tastefully fitted out with a mixture of modern European and traditional Chinese furniture. And it's blessed with all mod cons - air-conditioning, satellite TV, broadband Internet, etc. (Hmmm, the satellite TV alone is very tempting during the Olympics......)

And it's a snip at 10,000 RMB a month.

Drop me a line if you know anyone who might be interested (or if you want to goad me into taking it myself!).

[This could also be a short-term (though higher rent!) holiday let, I suppose, for anyone wanting to come here for the Olympics - although I'd rather concentrate on letting my own place for that first!]

Another Lesson

This is the second part of Henry Reed's Lessons of War trilogy which I began posting a couple of weeks ago.

II. Unarmed Combat

In due course, of course you will all be issued with
Your proper issue; but until tomorrow,
You can hardly be said to need it; and until that time,
We shall have unarmed combat. I shall teach you
The various holds and rolls and throws and breakfalls
Which you may sometimes meet.

And the various holds and rolls and throws and breakfalls
Do not depend on any sort of weapon,
But only on what I might coin a phrase and call
The ever-important question of human balance,
And the ever-important need to be in a strong
Position at the start.

There are many kinds of weakness about the body,
Where you would least expect, like the ball of the foot.
But the various holds and rolls and throws and breakfalls
Will always come in useful. And never be frightened
To tackle from behind: it may not be clean to do so,
But this is global war.

So give them all you have, and always give them
As good as you get; it will always get you somewhere.
(You may not know it, but you can tie a Jerry
Up without rope; it is one of the things I shall teach.)
Nothing will matter if only you are ready for him.
The readiness is all.

The readiness is all. How can I help but feel
I have been here before? But somehow then,
I was the tied-up one. How to get out
Was always then my problem. And even if I had
A piece of rope I was always the sort of person
Who threw rope aside.

And in my time I had given them all I had,
Which was never as good as I got, and it got me nowhere.
And the various holds and rolls and throws and breakfalls
Somehow or other I always seemed to put
In the wrong place. And, as for war, my wars
Were global from the start.

Perhaps I was never in a strong position.
Or the ball of my foot got hurt, or I had some weakness
Where I had least expected. But I think I see your point.
While awaiting a proper issue, we must learn the lesson
Of the ever-important question of human balance.
It is courage that counts.

Things may be the same again; and we must fight
Not in the hope of winning but rather of keeping
Something alive: so that when we meet our end,
It may be said that we tackled wherever we could,
That battle-fit we lived, and though defeated,
Not without glory fought.

Henry Reed (1914-1986)

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Bon Voyage!

Leah (most erudite and amusing of my blog-pals), alas, is leaving us. I fear she hasn't much enjoyed her time here in Beijing, and has decided to scoot off home early - before the Olympic craziness gets completely out of hand.

Have a safe trip, L. We'll miss you. At least we'll still have the blog.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Guilty pleasures

After being near catatonic with depression for the past two weeks.......

I find that a quick blast of Cher's Greatest Hits is blowing away the cobwebs a bit.

Well, no, I'm still depressed - but at least I'm moving.

It may help also that we are in the middle of one of the biggest thunderstorms I have ever seen, in Beijing or anywhere else, one of those where the thunderclaps are so loud they rattle your windows in their frames and (you imagine) the fillings in your teeth and...... well, they do set off half the car alarms on the block. This is a BIGGIE.

Of course, it needs to be to have a chance of clearing away the disgusting fug we've been suffering all day. I think this was perhaps the worst day of the whole year (and god knows we've had more than our share of them; I'd guess that at least one third of 160 or so days we've had so far year have been so foully smoggy that it hasn't really been safe to set foot outside); the air was so thick with haze and grime that it seemed to have become a milky fluid, barely translucent at all, tinted the colour of chlorine. Disgusting.

And not what you need to help you break you out of the blues.

Cher, though...... Cher and 100 decibel thunderclaps, that's starting to make a dent in it.

I despair of the modern world

NOBODY can spell ambience any more.


Not anyone who writes for any of the local Beijing expat magazines, anyway.

What's with that? You'd think that people would notice the connection with phrases like ambient temperature...... which, mercifully, nobody seems to misspell yet.

It is another sign of the inexorable decline of civilization, I fear.....


A sporting haiku

Tussle of strength, skill,
But more imagination:
The beautiful game!

God, I love football.

There really is no other team sport that even begins to compare with it.

There are few other games played on anything like such a broad space. There are no other games I can think of that allow for such complete freedom of distance and direction in passing. (Amongst the chiefest of rugby's many dismal flaws for me is that one only ever passes the ball just slightly backwards, and rarely more than a few yards. American football - another game I have a great fondness for - in theory allows short hand-offs and backward and lateral passes, but in practice a pass is almost invariably 20 or 30 yards straight downfield - and there's only one player that ever throws it.) In football, passes of 2 yards or of 80 are equally possible, both can be executed with exquisite delicacy, devastating accuracy, both can be catastrophic to a defence. The ball can be played fast or slow, in the air or on the ground; its path can be shaped to an astonishing degree by the spin a player imparts to it. I don't know of any other game that comes close to enabling such gorgeous variety in the play. And you can play the ball - whether to bring it under control beside you or to send it on its way - with any part of the body whatsoever (except the hand and the arm). That, I think, is the game's special greatness; having to control the ball with a stick or whatever is too limiting to the patterns of play; being able to use your hands is too damned easy.

And - though many, I know, disagree - I feel that the very difficulty of scoring is another mark of proud distinction. I have seen many, many low-scoring football matches - and even a fair few scoreless draws - that were absolutely riveting, breathtaking entertainment. Games where the scores easily rise into double-digits seem to me to be missing the point. Basketball (odious, odious game!), where there's a score every 20 or 30 seconds, fills me with ennui within minutes.

Pélé, probably football's greatest ever exponent, spoke with palpable passion when he dubbed it The Beautiful Game. As a child of 7 or 8, I saw exactly what he meant - and have adored watching ever since.

Fellow football nuts, a comment thread has evolved this week, over on The Barstool, devoted to the current European Championship. At present, it's just me and my surly college chum The British Cowboy shooting the shit. Do, please, feel free to join in - and raise the tone of the discussion.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Website of the Month

I recently happened upon the "it does exactly what it says on the label" Blogspot site, BoozeMovies.

This provided the inspiration for my 'bon mot of the week' over on The Barstool on Monday (which still no-one has identifed - come on, people).

Well worth checking out - for film fans, fans of drinking, fans of drinking while watching films, fans of drinking in films.....

I was especially interested in this recent post about the upcoming announcement of the American Film Institute's 10 'Top 10s' - a poll of the greatest (American) films in each of ten major genres. I am much in sympathy with Mr Boozemovie's own selection of favourites (just one in each category); but I suppose, in a spirit of individuality, I should come up with some different picks of my own.

Animation - The Lady & The Tramp

Fantasy - Brazil

Science Fiction - BladeRunner

Gangster - The Godfather

Western - Pat Garrett & Billy The Kid

Sports - Sea Biscuit (a tough category, this; I recently saw a basketball film called Glory Road which would also be a strong contender)

Romantic Comedy - Ninotchka

Courtroom Drama - Inherit The Wind

Mystery - Strangers On A Train (although I'd probably take the original Dutch version of The Vanishing in preference even to this, if we weren't confined to 'American' choices)

Epic - Spartacus (in fact, I probably concur with Boozemovies' nomination of Lawrence of Arabia, but I'm trying to be different here....)

Other suggestions? Cowboy?? Mothman?? Bookseller??

The AFI choices will air next Tuesday evening (17th June) on CBS.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Favourite posts from the 1st quarter of 2008

Pick of the Archive:
Favourite Posts, January-March 2008

Having discovered - slightly later than the rest of the world! - the astounding 'dancing Filipino prisoners' phenomenon, I offer up a list of requests for their next YouTube routine.

2) Chain of association - January 6th

A gloomy and depressive week produces a not-bad poem (quite possibly the only one I've written this year - what is wrong with me?!).

3) Some languages have music - January 10th

I kick off my wilfully provocative Why I Don't Learn Chinese series with this confession that I find the sound of the language severely unattractive.

4) Chinese people LOVE me! (14) - January 11th

I indulge in the obligatory ex-pat rant against the odious TV 'personality', Da Shan.

5) Rich and strange - 16th January

More bizarre discoveries from the Internet: novelty coffins from Ghana, and a Japanese artist who crafts exquisite sea creatures out of plastic bottles.

6) Belly rumbles, belly laughs - 18th January

Some choice bits of Chinglish from the new menu at my favourite local restaurant.

7) Wanderlust - 20th January

Some reflections on where the impulse to travel in me comes from - my 'black sheep' grandfather, The Wind In The Willows, and a favourite Larkin poem are cited as likely influences.

8) I WANT this book! - 21st January

I turn up a link to a list of 'weird book titles', including the irresistible 'How To Avoid Work'.

9) Chinese people LOVE me! (15) - 24th January

Some observations on who pays the bill, including an anecdote of one of my great romantic disasters. Another much commented-upon post.

10) A bon mot double whammy - 28th January

I can't resist a little riff on Voltaire - as consolation for my recent firing!

Some encounters with staff of the state-run Xinhua News wire service leads me to indulge for once - rashly! - in a little bit of politics. Extensive comments on this one too!

12) It's a funny old world - 29th January

The bizarre novelty of a two-seater toilet prompts some reflections on the shortcomings of bathroom plumbing I have encountered in China.

13) An 'It's that time of year again' haiku - 1st February

The early onset of the protracted firework overkill that is Chinese New Year fills me with trepidation.

14) Self-destructive tendencies - 8th February

Following on from my topical haiku this day, I compile a list of the suicidal behaviours I have witnessed in connection with the setting off of fireworks in the last few days.

15) The wonder of YouTube - 10th February

My favourite YouTube discovery of the year: a young guy who does brilliant lip-syncs of his favourite rock songs (in this case, What's Up? by 4 Non-Blondes).

16) More 'meme' madness - 12th February

A selection of excerpts from the 123rd page of books I'd read recently - an intriguing exercise.

17) 10,000 Maniacs - 13th February

I commemorate the milestone of the blog's 10,000th recorded visitor with this great YouTube clip of the Canadian band 10,000 Maniacs - Natalie Merchant duetting with guest David Byrne on three songs at the end of their MTV Unplugged concert.

18) A romantic(?) haiku - 15th February

A true story - I am completely smitten with a woman I saw while I was out running around Houhai lake.

19) Mao The Mischievous - 15th February

Stranger than fiction - another true story (picked up from my blog-buddy, Jeremiah) about a bizarre digression during the landmark diplomatic talks between Mao and Kissinger in 1973.

20) Another double bon mot - 18th February

Another consolation for the loss of my job at the end of last year. This time I'm riffing on a favourite line from a favourite film.

21) More Chinglish highlights (illustrated!) - 23rd February

A winter break in the far northern city of Harbin produces some amusing photographs.

22) In search of El Dorado - 25th February

The quest for China's best DVD shop (check out also this list of the most common, quirkiest faults with pirated disks out here).

23) Doing The Lantern Festival right - 28th February

Harbin seems to do the Chinese New Year's festivities so much better than Beijing. Here are some photos.

24) A bon mot on 'art' - 3rd March

Probably my favourite bon mot discovery in a long, long time - from Dilbert creator, Scott Adams.

25) Roll call - 8th March

Subbing for a friend for a month in a series of University evening classes, I discover the worst collection of 'English names' ever chosen by a single group of Chinese students. Really. The worst EVER.

26) Because it doesn't get you anywhere... (Why I don't learn Chinese [3]) - 12th March

Observations on the limited utility (in everyday situations, at least) of being able to speak Mandarin.

27) Top overseas consultant to the Beijing Olympics - revealed! - 12th March

This roundup of recent news stories on Beijing's preparations for the Olympics is so alarming (so depressing!), I can only conclude that Dr Evil has replaced Steven Spielberg as the leading foreign adviser to the Organizing Committee.

28) My Fantasy Girlfriend - Elizabeth Russell - 15th March

One of my favourites in this series so far - incorporating an extended review of the film in which the character appears, the Bollywood classic Lagaan.

29) Inverted commas - the Chinese propaganda machine's deadliest weapon - 17th March

My comment on the Chinese governments unintentionally hilarious penchant for referring to everything they don't like as "so-called...... democracy, freedom, human rights, etc."

30) Don't sling mud - 20th March

Morose observations on the most common responses to the Tibetan troubles in the Chinese blogsphere, kicking off my occasional series of more politically slanted posts, Free Advice For The Chinese Leadership.

31) Un-banned! - 24th March

The lifting of the censorship block that's been imposed on my two blogs for most of this month reminds me of an anecdote from my early teaching days here, an illustration of the occasionally rather creative mangling of English that the Chinese can produce.

32) I just wish they'd make their f***ing minds up! - 30th March

My summary of the ways in which China's Internet censors have been trying to disrupt our lives over the past few weeks - and an impassioned request for them to STOP!