Friday, October 31, 2008

White Trash Halloween

Yet another gem from FrostFireZoo. (There's another good one over on the Barstool here.)

A Happy Halloween to you all!

Little things please me

A full day behind the microphone was particularly arduous today, as I had had very little sleep last night.

However, the ordeal was made worthwhile by the dialogue in which I had to play a zookeeper....... called Mr Cage.

A few weeks ago, I had to address my partner DD as "Mrs Tigers". I corpsed for a while over that, but she got impatient with me and pretended she really couldn't see any problem with it. The Chinese do have such problems with English names.

Weekly haiku

A party excuse;
White sheets, gore and ghost stories -
Spooky festival.

I've never developed any fondness for the Halloween holiday, which seems to be mainly an American tradition - and one that I believe only began to be imported into the UK in the '70s or '80s (perhaps as a result of the success of Happy Days??).

However, it seems to be a very popular event with many of my friends. Even my (determinedly British!) friend DD is going out to a party tonight. And who am I to begrudge anyone their entertainment?

Have fun, people.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

An ominous sign

The short stretch of road running north of the 2nd Ringroad from Gulou Dajie subway stop across the old city moat and up to the park at the corner of the first block (a walk I cover at least a few times almost every day) is regularly cluttered with itinerant hawkers spreading out their wares on blankets. I have been meaning to take some pictures, but just haven't had time to get around to it this week.

The items they sell are very seasonal. And yesterday their blankets were all covered with packets of 'play' money (and incense, and other grave offerings). Yes, it seems that there's yet another of those appeasing-the-ancestors festivals in the offing. I just can't keep up. It's only a couple of weeks or so since the last one!

This one, at least, seemed to be a much smaller affair - and only lasted the one night, rather than dragging on for a whole week as before. And the skies have been high and clear this week, with very little moisture in the air - so the pollution from street bonfires didn't get too bad.

Does anyone know what this latest holiday was? I thought I was getting a handle on all these odd local customs, but this one has me baffled.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Ooooh, scary!

There seems to have been a spate of pumpkin pictures lately on FrostFireZoo. I wonder why?

Another nugget of Chinglish

One of my Chinese contacts in the education field recently created this inspired fusion of 'below' and 'following' to introduce a list. I had queried a rather garbled timetable of possible seminars I might be delivering for her this month, and she replied, "Please note the bellowing:....."


I would like to pass on the same advice to the builders "at the bottom of my garden". Yes, that noise you hear from the top-floor balcony up there is a crazed laowai who's going to get very ugly indeed when his mail-order Kalashnikov arrives. Take heed, and keep your heads down!

Yes, the saga of the building site next door continues.....

The cessation of 24/7 clanking over the weekend proved to be only a tantalising respite. Perhaps it was not, after all, my vociferous complaining that had shut them down (I did hear rumours that building work was being suspended - or at least significantly curtailed - all over the city for a few days, to try to make a better impression on visiting European ministers). Although the machinery was stilled for nearly 3 full days, the labourers were still carrying on with the pick-and-shovel work, albeit intermittently and perhaps slightly surreptitiously, throughout that time; and late on Sunday night they started gearing up for full-scale operations.

On Monday night, the crafty buggers were fairly quiet during the evening, but then started up their dratted mechanical shovel (and its attendant convoy of tipper trucks) at around midnight. I suspect they'd arranged things like this, so that most of the affected, afflicted householders would have gone to bed and fallen asleep before there was anything much to complain of..... and might perhaps not wake up..... or not think there was any point in trying to complain to anyone in the middle of the night. I went through the same cycle of complaining as I had on the previous Thursday night, but this time without any apparent result. I spent a night of very shallow and broken sleep on the sofa in the living room (which at least has the sound-dampening advantage of the 'double glazing' effect produced by the enclosed balcony at the end of the room).

But then, last night....... blissful, unbelievable SILENCE. Had my complaints of the previous evening (or the further complaints I tried to make during the day) finally had some effect? Will this prove to be another false dawn, another teasing phantom...... or will the law-abiding, slumber-respecting regime continue tonight and tomorrow as well?

Well, if it doesn't....... that Kalashnikov should be here soon.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

A Miscellany

After 7 or 8 weeks of shameful idleness, I suddenly find myself absurdly busy this week - the cultureshock is daunting (though my bank manager is no doubt delighted).

It is therefore entirely likely that I won't be doing much if any blogging again until the end of the week. To tide you over, I offer a few amusing bits and pieces from elsewhere on the Net that I've been meaning to recommend (in some cases, for ages), but somehow haven't quite got around to.

In my recent peregrinations through the back numbers of the excellent Other Men's Flowers I particularly liked this piece on holidays out of the sun. The spirit of Beachcomber and Flann O'Brien lives on.

The Peking Duck a while ago referred us to this interesting post on China's Worst Laws (most of them are pretty bad, but these might be seen to be the core of the problem) on the Foreign Policy Magazine website. (Guess what? It appears to be blocked in China at the moment! Go try your luck with a proxy.)

On a more positive note (never let it be said that I am a China-basher!), the Duck also ran this thread about why people love Beijing (or Shanghai, or both, or neither) - which prompted my own 'list of the month' on this topic back in September.

The Virtual Forbidden City (hat-tip once again to the estimable Jeremiah, this time from his own Granite Studio blog rather than the Duck) could keep you happily diverted through many a long winter evening.

If you don't have quite that much time to waste, you could instead check out this interactive webpage that gives you a scary peek into Sarah Palin's Oval Office (thanks for that one to my buddy Tolstoy's Webside Gleanings).

There - don't say I never do anything for you.

The cost of a pint of milk

Well, a half-pint, actually. In one of those tetrapak cartons.

After finishing up a recording session yesterday with my friend DD, we both ducked into a 'convenience store' next to a bus stop. Remembering that I was low on milk, I thought I'd see if they had any. Amazingly, they did.

The price tag on the shelf in the chiller said 2.80 RMB. The guy at the checkout said 5.00 RMB.

I'm honestly not sure what milk costs. It's such a routine - and relatively inexpensive - purchase that I don't really pay much attention most of the time. But my gut feeling is that in my local supermarket I only pay about 6 or 7 RMB for a full pint, and a half really shouldn't be more than 3.50 or 4. 5 RMB definitely seems just a little on the steep side, even for a 7/11-type store.

But it wasn't the price per se that bothered me so much as the inappropriate labelling on the shelf.

Pricing in Chinese stores is always a bit haphazard. It's often not clear if the tags refer to the items above or the items below. Many items appear not to be marked at all. In many cases there is a cluster of tags (many of them out-of-date?), so that you can't be sure which one is supposed to refer to the item you're interested in. And they're in Chinese only - and invariably hand-written, in a profuse, tiny, crabby script that I'm sure even Chinese find next-to-impossible to read.

But I was irritated enough on this occasion to go back and check, and to take one of the store clerks with me.

There was absolutely no room at all for ambiguity about the positioning of that 2.80 RMB tag - right under the half-pint milk cartons. Moreover, none of the tags on that entire shelf were for more than 4.00 RMB.

I was sufficiently irritated that I left without buying the milk.

It's not the price, it's the principle of the thing.

Monday, October 27, 2008

A motto for China

I have of late been working my way - chronologically, post by post - through the voluminous archives (nearly 5 years' worth now) of the excellent Other Men's Flowers. Its creator, Tony B, was for many years an official of the International Table Tennis Federation, and I was charmed by this little collection of observations on the game from March 2004 (this, doubtless, is where Boris Johnson did his research for the celebrated "Ping-pong's coming home" speech).

The comic highlight of this little post is the slogan of a Table Tennis World Championship tournament staged some years ago in Serbia, which was allegedly translated into English (tricky language, Serbian!) as: "Our balls are tiny but our aspirations are enormous."

My friend G, an eccentric artist, would, I think, find this particularly apposite for China. She has not been impressed with the physical endowment of the Chinese men she has known, and entirely understands the national obsession with 'performance enhancing' medications made from endangered animals. She is currently working on a painting intended as an ironic commentary on this phenomenon. She plans to call it The Laughing Rhino.

An idealistic teacher

This post is taken from a comment I felt prompted to leave on Moonrat's 'favourite poems' thread a few weeks ago. Forgive me; I'm feeling a little lazy today.

When I was a high school teacher (many years ago now), I always hated the idea that for the kids literature - and especially poetry! - so easily became just "work", just an excuse for exercises and discussions and comprehension questions and essays; it was never allowed to be just reading, just FUN.

So, one of the little tricks I adopted was to fairly regularly (not every class, or even every week, but at least two or three times a term) give out a poem, short or long, at the end of a class, and when the students clamoured to know if there was homework to be set on it, or questions in the end-of-term exam, or analysis in the next class, I'd just say, "No. Nothing. You don't need to answer any questions on it. You don't need to bring to class next time. I don't even insist that you read it. I'll never mention it again. I just hope that you will keep it. And that you might choose to read it sometime. And that you might one day come to understand and enjoy it. And if you'd like to ask me anything about it in private, that's fine; but, really, we are never going to discuss it in class. Never. It's just a bit of fun."

It took some of the kids an awfully long time to get used to the idea. And I'm not sure if it really did any good. One can but hope....

Bon mot for the week

"Critics are like eunuchs in a harem; they know how it's done, they've seen it done every day, but they're unable to do it themselves."

Brendan Behan (1923-1964)

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Editor's blues

Asia-Pacific is a problematical term.

A commonsense interpretation would surely confine its applicability to those parts of Asia which border on the Pacific; but in the realms of business, politics, and academe, it is commonly extended to include much, if not all, of Asiatic Russia and Central Asia, as well as the whole of South-East Asia (surely most of it should be seen as bordering the Indian Ocean rather than the Pacific?) and Australasia, and even - through conflation, I imagine, with the similar-but-different expression, Pacific Rim - to North (though not South?!) America.

The author of the international relations paper I edited this morning was principally interested in East Asian, and particularly in North-East Asian countries. He excluded Australia and New Zealand as being insufficiently important in geopolitical terms (Hah! Take that, Antipodean irrelevancies!), but - reluctantly - included the USA in his survey of China's foreign relations.

Although the title of his paper used the standard term 'Asia-Pacific', in his abstract he repeatedly referred to 'Pacific Asia'. It began to appear that he was setting up his own definition of the area to be considered, limiting it to Asian countries that bordered the Pacific. So, having replaced 'Pacific Asia' with 'Asia-Pacific' in the first half of his text, I dutifully retraced my steps and restored his original 'Pacific Asia'. Well, except that he had included an unnecessary hyphen, 'Pacific-Asia', which I also had to delete.

Then, rather belatedly, he dropped that bombshell about the inclusion of The Great Satan in the study, and I realised that we did in fact need to go with 'Asia-Pacific' throughout.

It was a laborious process: in the space of about 5,000 words, he must have referred to this geographic region at least 100 times, using his favoured (but ridiculous) 'Pacific-Asia' as well as the following indiscriminate variations - 'Pacific Asia', 'Pacific-Asian', 'Asian-Pacific', 'Asia Pacific', 'Asia-Pacific'. My brain is so mulched with all of this, I scarcely have any confidence any more that I know what the 'correct' term should be.

Why, oh, why can't writers at least be consistent in their core terminology??

Such galling inconsistency (and, to my mind, quite incomprehensible inattentiveness, slovenliness) is not by any means a failing to unique to Asian writers of English - but it is particularly bad amongst them (and I have worked with them far too much in recent years). It seems that mastering our grammar and our alien script is just too much for the poor lambs, it quite befuddles their brains, and they don't have any spare processing capacity left to try to keep alert to the possible significance of variations in spelling, word order, capitalisation, hyphenation, etc.

I do not enjoy this work.

Sunday Linguistics Corner

I've just been doing one of my occasional editing jobs for a Chinese international relations thinktank. It's the same old tired tosh about how a superpower China is no threat to anyone, and actually makes her neighbours feel all safe and warm and cosy.

I was, however, quite intrigued (horrified, but intrigued) to encounter in this uninspiring paper the use of the word 'bandwagon' as a verb. Although this usage appals and disgusts me, the intended meaning is clear enough, and it is just the kind of ponderous neologism that I can all too readily imagine gaining currency amongst our American cousins (whose otiose and inelegant lexical creativity is one of the great plagues of the modern world, in my view; I've complained about 'leverage' - used as a verb! - before). Quite often, I find, my fuddy-duddyish disdain for modernity means that I fall out of touch with 'accepted usage' in contemporary American English - which does now, alas, appear to be the prevailing standard for international academic discourse as well as the conduct of business and diplomatic relations. However, after rooting around on the Internet a while, I could find no extant examples of the word being used in this way, so perhaps we're safe from being bandwagoned..... for a while.

My author was using the word to describe the happy acquiescence of other Asian countries in China's emerging regional hegemony, saying that they "bandwagon China's leadership".

Amongst the Web definitions of 'bandwagon' I just found on Google were:

A fallacy in which one is attracted to a popular party, faction or cause that attracts growing support; following the crowd rather than using one's own judgment.


A logical fallacy of pathos in which the primary warrant for an argument is that "everyone else is doing it".

Not quite what my author had in mind!

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Chinese people LOVE me! (19)

"Chinese people love me because...... I get things done."

The lawyer friend I talked to yesterday about my troubles with the building site next door was largely unhelpful: at every turn, she was pessimistic, passive, resigned to the hopelessness of the situation. She would keep telling me (an all too common Chinese phrase, which I have come to hate) that there was "nothing to be done".

The law, she told me, was unclear, and could be easily circumvented anyway. It was difficult even to determine who the "relevant authorities" for dealing with such matters were, and impossible to identify and contact any particular individual who might take responsibility for them. It would be impossible to get any information from a government department about something like this (for example, had my protest call the previous evening been logged by anyone? what action had subsequently been taken? which building company is running the site, and what are they building? do they have a permit for after-hours work? how long is the project scheduled to take?). It would be impossible to get anyone to take any preventive action. The best that I could hope for would be some reactive relief: I could complain again each night if building work continued beyond the statutory 10pm curfew (I did at least get this much useful information from her: building sites are required to close down between 10pm and 6am - unless they obtain a special permit for 24-hour working!), but there was no way that anyone would preemptively send chengguan (a kind of secondary police force who deal with matters that are deemed 'regulatory' rather than 'criminal') to the site to make sure they were closing down on time. "Lots of people in Beijing have this problem," she told me. "It happens all the time. And it's very difficult to get anyone to take action. There's really nothing to be done."

I can't stand this sort of defeatism in the Chinese - and I try to 'educate' them out of it any chance I get. My own attitude is the polar opposite of this: I always believe that there is a way to solve any problem, if you are determined enough to find it. I keep on asking questions until someone gives me answers. I keep on chivvying people to do something until something gets done.

The other night, I complained and complained and complained about that wretched building site..... and now it has been closed down. Completely. I am assuming that the building company was discovered to have been operating without any sort of permit at all. The heavy plant is all still there, and there are three or four prefab dormitories full of workers - so this is only likely to be a temporary respite. But we must enjoy it while we may.

The whole neighbourhood is uncannily quiet today. I imagine that everyone is catching up on the sleep they didn't get over the past two weeks.

But tomorrow, when they've all recovered a bit, I'm sure they're going to be queueing up in the street to shake my hand and thank me. I hear the community committee may even be organising a small parade in my honour, with bunting and tickertape and, of course, firecrackers. I probably won't have to buy my own dinner for the rest of the year. I am become a local hero to thousands of my sleep-deprived Chinese neighbours who thought nothing could be done.

Then again, perhaps I should try to keep a low profile for a while. If that building company finds out who I am, I could get dumped in the canal with concrete shoes.

Vindication through syndication

When I glanced at my favourite blog, Other Men's Flowers, this morning, I had this strange feeling that the estimable Tony's latest post seemed rather familiar, that it was in fact uncannily similar to this one of mine from a week or so ago. Was this just a case of "great minds" thinking alike? In my sleep-deprived brainfog, I was inclined to suppose that it was. But then I stopped skimming and read the piece in full, and discovered that it was in fact identical to my post.

It took me a few moments to recall that I had but recently authorised my new blog-friend to plagiarise me at will. Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but reprinting is the most flattering. (And yes, I know, it's not plagiarism if it's authorised; but 'copy' is such a dull word.)

It is pleasantly reassuring, after two years of blogging in a void, largely ignored even by the close friends to whom I continually commend these outpourings of whimsy, to find that someone actually likes my stuff enough to show it to other people.

My only reason for hoping that Tony will not copy my pieces too often is that his blog output is strictly rationed to 15 posts a month, and I like his original compositions much better than my old tat.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Little victories

Perhaps too little to be worthy of report.

I fear the battle will have to be re-fought tonight - and every night, for who knows how long.

And last night's success was relatively small, perhaps even illusory.

I've spent a few nights away from home this week; and all the nights I have slept here, I've been returning so late (and exhausted and drunk) that I have been able to sleep through anything. And I think it's only in the last few days that the building site next to my apartment has added a huge mechanical digger (and an attendant fleet of tipper trucks which enter or leave the site every few minutes throughout the night, via a gate situated directly below my bedroom window) to its armoury of noise nuisance.

I was concerned that last night was going to be a problem, but I wasn't quite sure what the curfew time after which I could legitimately complain about the noise was; and I was foolishly optimistic that they would desist by..... 11pm..... midnight...... No. Shortly after midnight, I was at my wit's end. But I feared it was too late to impose on any of my Chinese friends; and the few foreign-friends-who-speak-good-Chinese I tried turning to were all rather obtusely unhelpful. In desperation, I resorted to Chinese directory enquiries - who told me that there was no English-language contact number for the police here (I can't believe this - but even to be told it is pretty alarming!). They did however give me a couple of other numbers to try: an 'emergency services' number (who told me it was not a 'police matter', but who I eventually harangued into promising to try to get someone to visit the site for me and shut it down as soon as possible) and a 'government information hotline' (who seemed to be representing that they were the appropriate channel for registering such complaints, but didn't seem to be capable of actually doing anything about the problem - not until the following working day, at least).

I wasn't really expecting anything to come of either of these efforts. But..... an hour or so later (just as I was finally nodding off to sleep - on the less-than-perfectly comfortable sofa in my slightly better sound-insulated living-room, with the aid of cotton wool earplugs and a HUGE slug of whisky), I got a telephone call. It was all high-speed gibbering in Chinese, and I followed less than a tenth of it; but it did seem that they were responding to my complaint, and promising to do - or to have already done - something about the noise problem. It also seemed likely to me that they were the police, or that the police had become involved at some stage in the process, because they used my 'Chinese name' (which I had not given to either of the helpline girls I'd spoken to, but which the local police know through my residence registration).

I still wasn't sanguine, but the noise did suddenly drop off quite a bit. The digger continued to operate for another half hour or so; and the trucks taking away its diggings were still rumbling to and fro for some time after that. In fact, I don't think work on the site ever stopped completely (there was some motor chugging away constantly at the far end; perhaps it is a drainage pump they can't switch off), but the worst of the noise had subsided enough for me to sleep by around 3am.

Of course, it started up again by 6 or 7am, so I am not at all well-rested today.

I had extensive discussions with a Chinese lawyer friend this afternoon about what might be done to prevent further recurrences of the all-night working. I wasn't too happy with her answers! (Apparently the prohibition on nighttime construction runs from 10pm until 6am; but it is just about impossible to obtain any effective enforcement from the 'relevant authorities'.)

There was a significant lull in the work on the site today. I fear, however, that this is just a temporary improvement in my aural environment. Indeed, it makes me suspect that perhaps last night's intermission was mere coincidence rather than the result of a heroic intervention by the powers-that-be.

By late morning, things were quiet enough to tempt me to try going back to bed. But, to add insult to injury, the apartment downstairs has been undergoing major remodelling yesterday and today. I can't see how there is enough scope for redecoration in apartments like this to keep a power-drill continuously employed for two whole days, but they managed it. I was so utterly exhausted by this stage that I managed to sleep through it anyway: I crashed out for 4 hours this afternoon.

It was not particularly deep or restful sleep, as you might imagine. I was plagued by oddly cinematic dreams: an Evil Villain's staccato laugh after he revealed his plans (Gary Oldman in the role, of course); then, someone running with heavy footsteps up an enormous stone staircase (in fact, alternating flights of steps seemed to have very high or very low risers, so the man would ascend a series of low steps improbably swiftly, but then move much more slowly and ponderously up the succeeding flight of high steps - there were many such regularly alternating rhythms in these dreams); a procession of alien pachyderms trudging, thud-thud-thud, around an arena far below; and, insinuating itself into each scene or into the gaps between them, a fast, deep, neverending drum-roll.

It is no surprise that I am mad, mad, MAD today. If those bastard tipper trucks reappear tonight, I fear blood will be spilled.

Not exactly a poem....

Fate, like a monstrous pigeon,
Soars high above our heads,
Takes careful aim,
Waits and waits for the perfect moment
To unleash its horrid liquid bombs;
And all too late we realise
Why people wore hats in the '50s.

The question that's always plagued me is, why did they ever stop? Some people lay the blame at JFK's door - he was, was he not, the first hatless US President? But I don't want to get into that conspiracy theory.....

The weekly haiku

Blue skies, sunshine seem
Irrelevant, insulting,
When heart's cold and grey.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Fate makes mock of me once more

One of the more attractive features of my apartment is the small park right outside my living-room window.

One of the more curious features of the said park is the large oblong concrete structure pictured above. As you can see, although it has a plain flat roof (its featurelessness broken only by that one cluster of skylights), its four walls are all thickly clad with great slabs of natural stone, giving it the appearance of a man-made mountain. It is some years since I actually went into the park, but I really think there's not even any obvious entrance into this building; the stone facing seems to cover it all. I suppose it is just about the right size for a swimming pool or a gymnasium, but it is not advertised to be such, and I'm pretty sure I've never seen anyone entering or leaving it, or even standing around forlornly outside after being frustrated in the attempt to find a means of admission.

No, the purpose of this structure is a complete mystery. I have often speculated that it is the discreet surface emanation of a government nuclear shelter, the iceberg-tip of an unimaginably vast underground fortress. This quaint fantasy of mine was rather disturbingly reinforced one night two or three years ago when a deafeningly loud klaxon went off in or near the "bunker" in the middle of the night; it shook my windows, and made it quite impossible to sleep; and it went on for some hours.

Anyhow - whether this strange building is Blofeld's headquarters, a disused swimming pool, or an extravagantly large groundsman's hut - it is currently undergoing an extensive makeover. For the past week or so, scores of builders have been teeming all over it. It is not clear to me what the results of these labours have been: it appears that a few small sections of the roof have been torn up - and perhaps replaced? - but I can't see that this would keep 40 men occupied day and night for a whole week, even here in China where working practices are notoriously inefficient. Other, more mysterious renovations are afoot, I fancy; perhaps even inside the building.

There are supposed to be laws prohibiting the carrying on of noisy work in residential areas between the hours of 11pm and 7am, but it is dashed difficult to obtain any enforcement of these. I have mostly been going to bed too late and too exhausted over the past week to notice how late or how noisy the work is at night; but there have certainly been at least a couple of nights when substantial noise has been produced all night, with delivery lorries and plant moving about, the shouting of orders, the occasional chime of pick-axes and the lusty singing of songs like 'Heigh-ho, heigh-ho, it's off to work we go' (or maybe I just dreamed that bit?). At least the rattling of the two or three pneumatic drills that are in use around the back of the building seems to have been stilled at night. It has, however, been going from early in the morning and with very little respite during the day. How I have come to delight in the little oases of silence that come at noon and 6pm when the workers take their meal breaks!

The reason why I am finding this so especially difficult to bear just at the moment is that, having no work currently, I am usually home all day; and moreover, since I have suffered a string of extremely late nights (a self-inflicted harm, I know), I am often desperately trying to sleep during the day. I am having very little success in that endeavour.

I am rather afraid that I shall not be able to sleep during the night either, if the noisiness persists at its recent levels. My choices would appear to be as follows: 1) to check into a cheap hotel in a quieter part of town for a week or two until this hell is over; 2) to use this as an excuse to go and pay a long overdue visit to some friends down in Shanghai (given the notorious pretentiousness of "the Other Place", though, this would likely be a far more expensive option than No. 1, even if I were lucky enough to have my friends put me up for free); or 3) to enlist the help of a Chinese-speaking friend to try to persuade my local police to uphold the law and insist that the building site closes down overnight (I did once succeed in such an attempt, but it was many years ago; and that was a much smaller piece of construction; and it was in the middle of a university campus, which perhaps gave us afflicted residents a little more leverage over our landlord - the university itself - and over the police).

I am very, very, very, very, very tired and annoyed. An explosion of psychopathic rage may well be imminent. Ah, China.

(By the way, the reason why I've seldom been into this park is that access is ostensibly restricted to people who've purchased monthly season tickets for it. You have to present proof of ID [in my case, a UK passport] and proof of residence nearby in order to be eligible for one of these. And you can only renew your ticket over a period of a few days at the beginning of each month. This last requirement is an absolute classic example of how creatively obstructive the Chinese can be. Until fairly recently, the same used to be true of the monthly passes on the subway network - with the result that there would always be horrendous queues at the ticket windows on the 1st of every month. At least we are now spared that rigmarole: the monthly passes were phased out some time ago in anticipation of the new system of smartcards and automated barriers that was introduced just before the Olympics. Such useful reforms have not yet reached my 'private park', I think.)

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Another dangerously topical bon mot

One of my translator friends declined the early evening drink I'd suggested yesterday, on the grounds that he wouldn't finish working till 6.30 or 7pm.

I was somewhat sceptical of this excuse, since I know he works from home. So I taunted him:
"Oh, the inflexible discipline of the self-employed!"

I then taunted myself:
"Oh, how I wish I had some of that!"

Missing the Marathon

So, the Beijing Marathon has passed me by once again.

I'd realised some weeks ago that I just wasn't going to be able to get in any kind of shape to attempt the full distance, and - with my recent run of ill health - even half-distance might have been a bit too much of a challenge.

It's also a problem that it falls so close to my birthday: last year it was the day after, this year the day before. At this time of the year, I'd really far rather concentrate on getting together with friends for a few drinks than trying to run 26 miles.

I was, however, rather startled to realise that the event had slipped so far from the forefront of my mind (where it had been for a couple of months or so, until just two or three weeks ago) that I hadn't even remembered it was happening this Sunday.

A gorgeous day they managed for it as well (still using that Olympic Weather Machine, I guess). However, after watching a few videos of it on YouTube this afternoon, I am pretty thankful I didn't attempt it. The Beijing Marathon prides itself on being much the biggest race in China, and perhaps in the whole of Asia. It only achieves this by press-ganging tens of thousands of senior high school and university students into taking part - most of whom have never run more than a kilometre or two in their lives. In any big race it is a problem to fight your way through the crowds of runners in the early stages; but in Beijing, it seems to me, the crowds of competitors are even thicker, even slower-moving. And, with so many inexperienced and inadequately prepared runners taking part, there is, inevitably, a huge dropout rate - which does become rather dispiriting: in the second half of the race, you seem to be constantly passing scores of people who've slowed to a walk or a hobble, or had to give up completely because of cramps or muscle tears. (Warning: Turn down the volume control on your computer. These clips of last weekend's race are accompanied by the grisly Mandopop Olympic anthem One world, one dream. I'm sorry.)

So, maybe it's better to avoid the Beijing Marathon. But I'd like to do at least one more marathon in my life. Maybe the Great Wall event next May??

Monday, October 20, 2008

A birthday bon mot

"I came into the world, and the next day I was one day older. Age ain't nothing but numbers."

Evander Holyfield

Are you going to argue with Mr Holyfield? I think not.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Return of The Shat

Or perhaps - I Shat myself again. No, perhaps not. Forgive me.

A couple of days ago, my peregrinations around YouTube brought me to this: a tuxedoed William "The Shat" Shatner performing an idiosyncratic interpretation of the Elton John song Rocket Man (in a TV show of the 1978 Science Fiction Film Awards - I suppose this would have been in a career lull for him, between the cancellation of the Star Trek TV series and the beginning of the film franchise). It's not quite so awe-inspiring as his version of Pulp's Common People that I found earlier this year, but it is.... interesting. It is, I gather, quite notorious in American popular culture, but it was a new discovery for me.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Season of smoke

The air has been freakishly clear for the past week or so. One rather suspects that the country's entire manufacturing industry has been shut down until further notice because of the global economic meltdown. Then again, maybe we've just been lucky to have a long run of cleansing easterly breezes (rather than the more usual westerly ones that bring in the industrial fug from the rest of the country, or the occasional southerly ones that pin the city's accumulated smog up against the mountains to the north and west).

Clear, that is, by day. The nights have been horrendous. The beginning of the tenth lunar month in the Chinese calendar is yet another of those appeasing-the-ancestors festivals. At other times of the year, they burn money (or, more and more often, elaborate paper effigies of consumer goods) to make sure that their departed forebears can continue down the capitalist road in the afterlife. In autumn they burn clothes - so that the dead can dress warm in winter. I think it's the first day of the month that is supposed to be devoted to this, but in practice it drags on for a week or more. Every night, hundreds of thousands of people are out building mini-bonfires on the streets. And the damp autumn air quickly becomes saturated with the soot this produces. This year has been worse than ever, the very worst I can recall. The air quality after dark has been just poisonous this week.

The decades of hardcore Communism were remarkably ineffective in rooting out these antique superstitions; and now these fatuous practices are once again freely tolerated (if not actively encouraged, as a charming manifestation of China's "rich and ancient culture"). How long can we continue to condone a quaint tradition that is so massively pointless and so shockingly deleterious to the environment? There are a lot of Chinese customs that irritate the shit out of me, and this is one of the worst. And I don't suppose the majority of Chinese really believe in this ancestor-worship nonsense - any more than we Westerners believe in Father Christmas. But our customs - hanging out stockings, etc. - are innocent, non-noxious. The Chinese custom of lighting millions of small bonfires across the country every night for a week is a massive assault on the environment - and it needs to be ended. Soon.

Season of sand

They're digging up Beijing again.

It's making it very difficult to go running in my neighbourhood, since every pavement and alley seems to be scarred with holes and trenches (and thickly cluttered with vans, trucks, piles of tools or building materials, clutches of idling workmen).

October seems to be traditionally (well, in this country, it's presumably a matter of state decree) the month of renovation. Overnight, great piles of builder's sand appear on every street corner, down every side-alley. Really, everywhere. And this always seems to happen in dead of night, remarkably surreptitiously. I've never actually seen it happen (I remember one time I was drinking in my favourite Adventure Bar and was mightily surprised and perplexed by one such stealth delivery of sand right outside the door - at around 1am or 2am, in between my hourly visits to the public loo down the lane at the side of the building).

The intended purpose of this sand is as mysterious to many people as its origin. I've seen locals regarding these sand-heaps with an apparent bafflement just as great as mine. Kids, of course, love them; sometimes crafting roads and rivers and little townships around their flatter edges, or scooping handfuls of the stuff into empty water bottles so that they can continue their play at home. And sometimes - though rather less often, as far as I can see - adults will cart off a bucket or two, to mix up some mortar to fill that bothersome hole in the dining-room wall or whatever. Some of it gets used for larger, communal projects - building a new wall, filling in a pothole. But most of it seems to lie around for weeks, unused, unwanted, until gradually time and the wind wear the pile away to nothing.

I had thought that we might be spared the phenomenon this year, or that it would at least be rather attenuated, since so much of this kind of work had gone on during the spring and early summer in a frantic spate of gussying up the city prior to the Olympics. But no. If anything, the great annual distribution of sand and the initiation of myriads of small building projects seems to be even more intense than usual this month. Perhaps it is that so many of those last-minute cosmetic building projects of 4 or 5 months ago are already falling apart? Yes, it could be so.

I am baffled as to how all this work is directed or co-ordinated. Indeed, perhaps it isn't. China often seems to operate with the collective will of an ant colony.

It is unfortunate that this frenzy of building work and proliferation of (uncovered, of course) sand piles should be scheduled for this windiest of months in Beijing (well, April is running it close; I suppose it's related to the sudden shift in temperature at the change in the seasons: spring and autumn only really last 3 or 4 weeks here - brief, intense, beautiful, windy). Most of Beijing's notorious sandstorms originate in its own backyard. The wind has often been abrasive over the past couple of weeks; and the sky has often had an ochre tint, even though the general level of air pollution has been remarkably low.

The frequency of sand distribution (and wind wastage of same) has, of course, been greatly intensified over the last few years by the preparations for the Olympics, a huge increase in the number of small-scale infrastructure improvements as well as the scores of major construction projects. This is why I thought The Pile O'Sand would be an evocative name for a bar - evocative, that is, for anyone who experienced Beijing in the noughties, for anyone who survived a decade of having their cheeks scoured, their eyes scratched, their lungs ravaged by this twice-yearly onslaught of windblown sand.

Haiku for the week

Stiffness, but not pain;
Memory of good work done:
Pleasing muscle-ache.

I'm still slightly troubled by some lumbar discomfort, but my aches and pains this week have mostly been of a rather more positive character.

Thursday, October 16, 2008


I enjoyed a post-work gargle with some journalist friends the other evening (hmm, perhaps this should be a Barstool Blues post? no, I've started on here now, so I'll carry on). At first, we were the only people in the small and somewhat remote bar (the Stone Boat, essentially an outdoor venue, will soon be forced into hibernation); but suddenly the place started filling up rather quickly. The crowd was almost all foreigners, mostly very young, and all terribly, terribly earnest. Realisation gradually dawned that we had been overrun by an NGO networking event. Everyone else was there to save the world, one self-congratulatory backslap at a time. Whereas my companions and I were just there to get drunk and trade off-colour jokes.

We could soon feel ourselves wilting under the relentless radiation of righteousness from those surrounding us. With not a single 'corporate social responsibility' brownie point between the lot of us, we felt awkward, self-conscious, out of place. We decided that we really needed a worthy project of our own to redress the shaming virtue-deficit.

It only took us a moment to hit upon one. Just before the world-savers arrived, we had been indulging in some laddish banter about video clips that are 'too hot' for YouTube, and in particular, about some recently much-discussed-on-the-Internet Darwin Awards-type episodes involving bestiality (I do hope these stories were apocryphal!). And that was where we found our inspiration.

Stamp Out Animal Pornography!


Keep it clean

If you believe that pornography should be for humans and with humans only, please join this important crusade.

This piece of whimsy was a group production. In fact, I should acknowledge that the masterstroke - the acronym and the 'Keep it clean!' slogan (I can see that becoming a catchphrase amongst the cognoscenti) - came from the sozzled genius of a mucker called Will. I wouldn't want to claim the credit for myself.

I think this idea has legs. It's just a pity that our website address is being squatted by a manufacturer of industrial lubricants and cleansers from Atlanta, Ga.

Now, what tag should I give this? I suppose it fits best under My brilliant website/business ideas - although, to date, the entries in this category have all been strictly commercial rather than charitable or campaigning. Ah, what the heck!

(And oh dear me, I suppose this post could attract all sorts of undesirables to my humble little blog. It will be interesting to see what my traffic analysis looks like in a week's time.)

Tuesday, October 14, 2008


As regular - and concerned - readers have noticed, I have not been in a good way recently.

I was very ill for a long time, over two months with scarcely any respite. It gets you down. It frightens you. My glands were so swollen I began to worry that it might be, you know, one of those things of which we do not speak. I'm much better now, thank you. Not completely better, but much, much, much better than I was a couple of weeks ago. (I think perhaps I just had an allergy to the "cleaner" air we were treated to in Beijing over the summer. As soon as our smog started to return to something like its normal levels, my cough/sore throat/fever improved enormously.)

But no sooner had I managed to start to shrug off those plegm-factory blues than I discovered that all my work this month had evaporated.

And then, last week, I somehow managed to rick my lower back. For all these reasons and more, I have not been getting much sleep lately. And when I don't get enough sleep, I get horrendously depressed. Getting out of the house was becoming a problem. Even getting out of bed or getting up off the sofa was starting to seem like a major undertaking.

How to blow away all these dark clouds in my head? Well, here are some of the things I've been trying recently.....

1) A change of air
(A weekend away in the countryside a few weeks back almost did me a power of good. Unfortunately, I didn't sleep well - scarcely at all, in fact - while I was away, which undid most of the revivifying effects of the cleaner air and the charming scenery.)

2) Shopping
(Men aren't supposed to be susceptible to the siren-call of "retail therapy", are they? Well, not so much as women, anyway. I don't go overboard about it, but..... sometimes, planning and executing an important [expensive!] purchase does give me a lift to the spirits, a pleasing little buzz of satisfaction. During the recent National Holiday, I went for a nose around the big new Solana mall, and bought myself a - long overdue - new pair of running shoes. Strange, how good that made me feel!)

3) Cooking
(I like cooking, but I'm hardly an expert. And, as a lonely bachelor, I can rarely summon the motivation to cook at all, certainly not to attempt anything very elaborate. However, as the autumn air chills, we are entering the season of soups. I particularly like making soups, for some reason. This Sunday afternoon, I knocked out large batches of leek & bacon and carrot & cumin soups. I have to say, I was rather disappointed with the initial results - though I would blame the blandness of the local vegetables rather than the frailty of my own judgement in the matter of seasonings. And the flavours will concentrate over time. They'll have plenty of opportunity, since I've made enough to last me into the middle of next week.)

4) Running
(Despite the ideal weather conditions recently, I've been wary of attempting a run because of the pain in my back. However, I did finally bite the bullet yesterday, and - touch wood - seem to have suffered no ill effects. My running gait isn't significantly hampered, and the exercise actually seems to relax the spasming muscles and ease the problem - for a while.)

5) Manual labour
(A friend was moving house yesterday, and - since she was only transferring to a larger apartment in the next courtyard - hadn't bothered to hire professional movers. I'd volunteered to help her out, and didn't like to withdraw the offer just because I had a bad back. Luckily, there was very little heavy lifting involved, and a few other friends had pitched in as well, so it wasn't too much of a trial. Of course, my back stiffened up a bit - and in some new places, as well! But, as with the running, I think the exercise was, overall, beneficial to my lumbar problem. It was certainly beneficial to my mental health. There's something particularly satisfying about moving house; perhaps it's the process as much as the exercise, the sense of achievement and completion, and the excitement of new possibilities in a new home. Maybe it's time for me to move again?)

6) Children
(I've always had a weakness for children, and a special affinity for them, I like to think. A decade or so ago, this soft spot exploded into a raging want-to-be-a-dad broodiness. That urge has softened a little again now, but I still love spending time with kids - and my house-moving friend's three-year-old is a particularly charming little tyke. Hanging out with him for the afternoon probably did even more good for my drooping spirits than the furniture-wrangling.)

7) Pets
(I get on well with animals, too. They are, perhaps, even better for my mental well-being than children: they're more extravagant and demonstrative in their affection, and they don't make you work quite so hard to win it. I like dogs, but much prefer cats. Dogs often seem to be clumsy, smelly, rather dim and pathetically needy. Cats have so much elegance, so much style, so much more emotional range. Unfortunately, I have become severely allergic to cat hairs in the last few years. But I wouldn't let that prevent me from trying to calm and comfort my friend's pair of cats, spooked by their sudden change of home. Stroking a cat and getting a purr out of it - there really isn't anything better in this world, is there?)

8) Good whisky
(After the furniture-carrying, child-entertaining, cat-soothing exertions of the day, I went out to a nearby bar to meet up with another friend, one who, like me, has been battling the black hordes these past few weeks. Like me, he is, thankfully, on the up again at last. It was good to learn this, good to compare our experiences - and good to celebrate our escape from the dungeon with a well-deserved nip of Talisker.)

9) A good night's sleep
(Last night - for the first time in ages - I slept like a log. I still woke up quite a bit earlier than I would have preferred, but..... I felt beautifully well-rested and content; and the discomfort in my lower back had almost completely disappeared. [It's back again now, but.....] Was it the physical exhaustion after my day's labours? Was it the emotional uplift I'd received during the day? Was it the smoky-flavoured nightcap? Whatever it was, I am damn glad of it.)

10) Walking
(I wasn't sure if I should risk another run today, with the back still twingeing, and my leg muscles a bit stiff from yesterday's efforts. But, since I'd woken so early on another dazzlingly bright day, I thought I'd go for a nice long walk around the hutongs in my neighbourhood instead - probably ended up covering 8 or 10 miles. Bliss.)

Monday, October 13, 2008

Bon mot for the week

"All men having power ought to be mistrusted."

James Madison (1751-1836)

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Sunday Poetry Corner

I first came across this piece in an anthology of war poetry I liked to use during my days as a high school teacher (ever such a long time ago). I don't have that volume with me now, but I've just managed to retrieve this poem from the Internet. It's quite unusual to find a poem on war written from the perspective of a family member rather than a direct participant. This one is by Clifford Dyment, a relatively little-known British poet (one about whom I'd like to know more) who was born at the outset of the First World War and wrote this poem in memory of his father while still a very young man (first published in 1935, when he'd barely turned 21 - precocious bugger!).

I love that phrase "My luck is at the bottom of the sea". I find it a useful brake, sometimes, on my own self-pity; whenever I may be tempted to say it of myself, I am reminded that things could really be oh so very much worse.

Moonrat, by the way, has been running a 'favourite poems' thread this week. I've just added this there as well.

The Son

I found the letter in a cardboard box,
Unfamous history. I read the words.
The ink was frail and brown, the paper dry
After so many years of being kept.
The letter was a soldier's, from the front -
Conveyed his love and disappointed hope
Of getting leave. "It's cancelled now," he wrote.
"My luck is at the bottom of the sea."

Outside the sun was hot; the world looked bright;
I heard a radio, and someone laughed.
I did not sing, or laugh, or love the sun.
Within the quiet room I thought of him,
My father killed, and all the other men
Whose luck was at the bottom of the sea.

Clifford Dyment (1914-1971)

Saturday, October 11, 2008

List of the Month - 10 jobs I don't have

My employment situation does appear to be uncommonly bleak just at the moment. In September, I was "in discussions" about a lot of projects that looked quite promising, but...... well, my contacts have gone ominously silent on me. All of them.

A somewhat maudlin list of the month, then. Forgive me.

10 jobs I thought I was going to be doing this month

1) Training co-ordinator for a major international advertising agency
(I got a personal introduction through a friend who works there. The preliminary meeting seemed to go swimmingly. And then...... SILENCE.)

2) Training co-ordinator for a major international engineering consultancy
(That gig was supposed to have been starting this week, but...... well, allegedly they're waiting on budget approval from the head office in the UK.)

3) Training co-ordinator for an American software firm
(Again, "budget problems" are cited. This one is particularly galling, because I have devoted a lot of time and effort to cultivating this client, and had already done some very successful preliminary trainings for them. The idea was that they were going to invest so heavily in English training for their Chinese engineering staff that I would be able to make a comfortable income just from liaising, supervising, choosing teachers and materials, and generally co-ordinating the process - and not have to do any of the goddamn teaching myself. This is my Holy Grail - if I stay in the education field at all! - but it remains maddeningly elusive.)

4) Teaching a Business English course for the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences
(I have friends at CASS, and they have been a fairly regular - if not terribly reliable or well-organised - employer of mine for the past 5 years. A few weeks ago - with teachers still in short supply here, thanks to the Olympic visa fiasco - they were desperate to staff their autumn courses. But they haven't got back to me.......)

5) Teaching a Legal English course at Beijing Foreign Studies University
(Might still happen - this one is rather my fault, for not following up promptly or eagerly enough with the contact there.)

6) Writing/editing a new listening practice textbook
(One of my contacts from the recording studios set me up with this a couple of months ago, but...... they've been "too busy" with other stuff to get started on the project, and I'm beginning to doubt if it will ever happen.)

7) Recruitment consultant
(I was working over the summer to try and find some well-qualified English teachers for a number of schools and universities around China that I've developed contacts with. It was such a busy and potentially lucrative field, that I was considering trying to move into it full-time. Alas, the visa situation has been a huge obstacle this year. Many institutions had to get by on recruiting from amongst the small pool of teachers who'd been able to remain in the country. Many apparently decided to begin the new teaching year with a vastly reduced foreign staff. And I rather think that one school has hired a number of people I introduced to them, but is just not going to pay me the promised finder's fee. A messy and frustrating business - I'm probably better off keeping out of it.)

8) Recording listening practice exams
(This has been my bread&butter for the past 3 years or so, and I had thought I was becoming established as the most in-demand British English male voice. And a couple of the studios had told me that this month was going to be "very busy indeed". But the telephone remains silent.....)

9) Film star
(I've told this story before. The project we'd been discussing was supposed to have been a three-week shoot, starting at the end of September and running on to around about now. I had been promised a meeting with the director a month ago, but it never happened. I tried chasing up the production assistant I'd met, but she didn't answer any of my calls or respond to my text messages. I probably talked myself out of consideration with my rather obvious lack of enthusiasm in that first meeting.....)

10) Travel writer
(This doesn't sound all that promising: negligible pay, and a rather uncertain promise of 'full reimbursement' of expenses. Nevertheless, it would be an interesting new departure for me, so I've put in an enquiry. I'm waiting to hear back. Waiting......)

Yep, I originally said there were going to be 10 items on this list. Then I ran out of steam a bit, and called it a day at 8. Then I remembered these last two. There are actually a couple more as well, new editing job prospects that look to be going nowhere. I fear I am staring into the abyss rather. Starting to wonder if it isn't time to try out a new country......

Friday, October 10, 2008

Being a tourist

Since I had a free day today, I decided to take advantage of the glorious weather and indulge in one of those touristy excursions that you somehow never get around to in your home city - a trip to the top of the CCTV Tower (the old one, that is; unfortunately, the new CCTV building - Ole Scheeren's distinctive skewed arch, which you can see in the distance way over on the other side of town in the shot below - seems to be lumbered with the same name; so I imagine that this one is going to have to be re-christened the CCTV Antenna, or somesuch). The viewing platform is 238 metres above ground (that's about 780 feet, I think). I do hope someone's been taking regular pictures of the changing city from up there over the past 5 or 10 years: a time-lapse film of that transformation would be stunning (one of my not so crazy 'art' ideas!).

More views of the urban sprawl......

Ah, Beijing traffic! And that's the relatively un-busy West 4th Ringroad at a non-peak time of day! (My mistake! I'm so unfamiliar with the west side of town, I think my mind tends to exaggerate how far away it is. This is, in fact, the 3rd Ringroad - which does get pretty busy..... though not at 2pm.)

This week's haiku

A huge, cloudless sky;
Distant hills never so clear;
Endless blue dazzle.

Yes, today is a stunning day. I think I should take my camera on an expedition.

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

With impecunity

Another of those words that ought to exist, but, I fear, probably doesn't. No, we have to make do with the cumbersome 'impecuniousness' instead.

I had been hoping this morning's recording gig (the one and only session of its kind I have scheduled this week) would realise around 1,000 kuai for me. In fact, it came in well short, at only 900 kuai. Oh well, not too bad; I should be grateful, since the original time estimate indicated only about 800 kuai. I was guilty of being somewhat over-optimistic, and of counting my chickens prematurely. Soon after I finished up at the studio, I learned that a 'needs assessment' I was supposed to be doing in the CBD this evening for a teaching buddy had been cancelled. That was to have been another 300 kuai for just an hour or so's work. And then when I got back to my apartment complex I was ambushed by the building manager hitting me up for the annual cleaning fee (gosh, yes, it is a swish place: we actually have an ayi to mop the stairwells twice a week!): it's only 120 kuai, but it still bites when your wallet is a slim as mine is just at the moment. Ah yes, and last night ended up being a bit of an expensive night out: I was hanging with some of my girlie chums, so found myself in a much more expensive bar than I would usually go to, and being rather stupidly generous in buying other people drinks.

Yes, in the space of just 18 hours, I have found myself some 700 or 800 kuai worse off than I was expecting to be.

This month - for, I think, the first time ever in my 6-and-a-bit years in China - I have NO WORK lined up. None at all. This morning's recording gig was an unexpected, last-minute kind of thing. There's nothing else of the like on the horizon. A number of the studios last month were saying that this month would be "really busy" - but I haven't heard a peep from any of them yet.

It is rather worrying.

I will soon have to relax my usually stringent rule against dipping into my meagre savings - or else starve.

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Signs of autumn/winter on the way

Somebody in my apartment block is baking potatoes. Right now, at 4 in the afternoon.

Not the sweet potatoes that street vendors tout from oildrum ovens on the backs of tricycles. No, actual potatoes. That's a real rarity in China. I wonder if perhaps another laowai has moved into the building without my realising it?

I love that smell, so evocative of faraway moments of happiness - cheap street snacks in my student days, Bonfire Night parties and camping trips in childhood.

I love it - and it's driving me crazy.

Possibly.... The Best Blog in the World?

Over the past few months I have become an avid reader of Other Men's Flowers, a Blogspot blog written by a fellow called Tony - the best kind of Englishman: erudite, self-effacing, acerbic, and magnificently literate. He's a gentleman of mature years (late 70s, if his online biography is to be believed; there may be a few little jests in it, but I think it is mostly in earnest), but he appears to be in fine fettle, and I hope he'll be entertaining us for a good long spell yet.

The blog is, as he says, a collection of -

Comments, short essays, anecdotes and quotations on language, literature, politics, food, the arts and almost anything else. Some are quite serious but most are not: caveat lector. (Updated every two days or so.)

Or, in another summary -

...a medley, a mélange, an assortment, a collection, a compendium, a digest, an assemblage, a compilation, a gathering, a miscellany, a mustering, an anthology, a farrago, a ragbag, a hodgepodge or a gallimaufry...

OF:...trivialities, pastiches, parodies, anecdotes, bons mots, spoofs, trouvailles, plagiarisms, causeries, reviews, pensées, abstracts, recollections, aperçus, short essays and quotations.

How can you not love vocabulary like that? It is giddyingly diverse and beautifully written.

It is, more or less, what this blog aspires to be, but at least 10 or 20 times better. However, adulation displaces any twinge of jealousy I might feel. I just love it. Marvellous, marvellous stuff. Do go and check it out.

His blog title, by the way, is taken from that of an anthology of favourite poems compiled by the distinguished British WWII general Archibald Wavell, the unifying principle of which was that - rather dauntingly! - they were all poems he had committed to memory. (I knew this because Wavell and his unusual poetry collection were amongst the eclectic enthusiasms of one of my favourite teachers at school, the one who also introduced me to colourful anecdotes about Huey Long. I think I still have a copy of it somewhere.) Wavell in turn had derived the phrase from a translation of a line of Montaigne's: "I have made a garland of other men's flowers; only the thread that binds them is my own."

More corn cobs

And why not? I happen to like them. I have this set as my Desktop wallpaper at the moment.

Monday, October 06, 2008

A new pinnacle of creativity in Chinese brand-naming

Having half an hour or so to kill before a meeting this morning, I went for an exploratory wander around one of the city's new malls (the six-storey white elephant that materialised on top of the Xizhimen subway station a few months back).

And I found a swish little boutique called....... Wanko.

It specialises in wipe-clean clothing, I would imagine. (Could be another advertising opportunity for Ms Lewinsky? Does anyone have contact details for her agent?)

Grrrr!! (2)

Don't you hate software updates?

Firefox has been badgering me to accept an "upgrade" for a few weeks now; and I didn't want to turn it down conclusively, in case one day I might possibly feel confident enough to check out the new stuff; but, for now, I preferred to postpone the decision, because of a nagging dread - a near certainty - that the new stuff would, at best, clutter up the interface with lots of superfluous new icons, and, at worst, interfere with the smooth functioning of my favourite browser (and my favourite proxy).

Well, somehow or other, over the weekend the new stuff got installed. Did I somehow click on the wrong button in my impatience to get on with my Web browsing? Maybe so; but I really rather think not. Does the dratted program just load itself - Trojan-style - after the 10th or 20th time you've hit the 'Not now, maybe later' button on the pop-up? Yes, I'm getting paranoid again. But 'they' are out to get me!!!

And guess what? Yep, Firefox now crashes on start-up. Every bloody time.

I've tried re-starting the computer. No good. Do I need to reconfigure afresh for use with FoxyProxy, perhaps? Do I need to uninstall and reinstall the whole sodding program?? What about all my 'Favourites' and browser history???

For now, Blogspot is still - remarkably! - unblocked in China. However, I'm sure this is just a temporary oversight by the Kafka Boys, and the Great FireWall will soon be reset to its pre-Olympic level of 'Maximum Annoyance', blotting out all of my favourite blog reads (including my own, of course). And I can't use Wikipedia without a proxy.

Life without Firefox and FoxyProxy is..... just.... not..... liveable!

Bugger, bugger, bugger.

Grrrr!! (1)

One of the familiar hassles of the Chinese holidays (such as the week-long one we've just endured in celebration of National Day) is that huge numbers of urban youngsters have nothing else to do with their time than go online...... and the Internet - always painfully slow and unreliable here - stutters almost to a complete halt at times.

So, if any of you have been waiting to receive an e-mail from me, that is at least part of the reason for my unaccustomed silence. My connection has been crawling so badly of late that I just couldn't be bothered to go online very much this past week.

Of course, one can't help but suspect that some of the dysfunction is planned mischief from the government's Net censors, those meddlesome Kafka Boys. Blogger has been strangely unaffected, but high-traffic overseas sites - Amazon, Wikipedia, YouTube, Google, Yahoo Mail, etc. - tend to be hardest hit. But then again, perhaps it's just an inevitable consequence of their high traffic. It may be a welcome side-effect as far as the Kafka Boys are concerned, perhaps not a deliberate policy. (Some students I was teaching earlier this year at the Communications University observed that the government didn't really have to worry about blocking YouTube in China because it was just too darned SLOW to use most of the time! I'm not sure I believed them, though. I rather think the vast majority of Chinese can't be bothered with sites like YouTube anyway if their interfaces are in English; they prefer the domestic YouTube clones because they can use their own language. Even Chinese people with extremely good English tend to be hugely unmotivated about actually using it.)

Ah well, here's hoping things are going to be better again from today on......

Bon mot for the week

"A man with no enemies is a man with no opinions. Or a man with no courage."


Sunday, October 05, 2008

Sunday silliness

This is one of my older fripperies, but I don't think I've used it on here before.... and last week's musings on the Shenzhou spaceshot brought it to mind.

Are astronauts really
Always on time?
Or is the waitlessness
Just an illusion?

Saturday, October 04, 2008

My Fantasy Girlfriend - Barbara Good

Oh, the insidious influence of television! Here we have yet another example of my romantic life being blighted by premature exposure to a too-perfect paradigm of womanhood. Barbara Good (played, of course, by the lovely actress Felicity Kendal - I bumped into her in the street in London a few years ago, and she's still looking gorgeous) was one of the lead characters in a classic BBC sitcom of the mid-70s, The Good Life. The premise of the show - beguilingly simple, but rather revolutionary and far-sighted for the time - was that her husband Tom (the wonderful Richard Briers), tiring of 9-to-5 wage slavery as he hit his mid-life crisis on his 40th birthday, abruptly decides to resign his job and adopt a back-to-nature lifestyle, trying to become entirely self-sufficient by transforming his suburban home into a small farm. Predictably cutesy adventures ensued, as they coped with raising (and killing) pigs and chickens in the back garden, and learned to do without most of the familiar comforts of the consumer society. However, the show was distinguished by the quality of its writing and acting: it was essentially a four-hander between the Goods and their friends/next-door neighbours, the snootily disapproving but affectionately supportive Leadbetters (Paul Eddington and Penelope Keith) - and all four characters were subtly and convincingly fleshed out.
Barbara, I'm sure, represented the ideal woman to many British men of my generation. Not only was she devastatingly pretty, she also had wit, intelligence, and an irresistible vivacity. (She was far too short for me..... but I'm somehow prepared to ignore that!) She was, moreover, an impressively tough cookie, resilient and determined - often providing a necessary counterweight to her husband's impetuosity. And, oh, that voice - it had a slight edge of hoarseness or huskiness to it sometimes, a purr; and it was sexy as hell.
It's such a pity she was married! Even her relationship with Tom, though, was an inspiring - and perhaps unattainable? - ideal, one of the very few really positive depictions of a marriage I can ever remember seeing on screen. Though married for many years, they still patently adored each other (curiously, their childlessness was never discussed); they tolerated and even cherished each other's foibles; they were unflaggingly supportive of each other; and, best of all, they got each other's sense of humour - their communication was characterised mostly by a playful teasing: they bickered a lot, and had a few full-blown rows, but these confrontations were always defused or reconciled by their use of humour.

I recall particularly fondly that in the very first episode Barbara sent Tom a birthday card that said: "Mozart and Mendelssohn were dead by 40. Why aren't you?"

Why has that been playing on my mind so much lately???