Saturday, November 29, 2008

Film List - the greatest Westerns

Here we go with the first instalment of the review of my favourite films that I threatened yesterday.

Even here, within one narrow genre, I couldn't keep it down to less than 20! Across the whole spectrum of my film-watching, I imagine my 'best of....' list might run to a few hundred.

My Favourite Westerns

(Dir. John Ford, 1939)

Destry Rides Again
(Dir. George Marshall, 1939)

Jesse James
(Dir. Henry King, 1939)

My Darling Clementine
(Dir. John Ford, 1946)

3 Godfathers
(Dir. John Ford, 1948)

She Wore A Yellow Ribbon
(Dir. John Ford, 1949)

(Dir. George Stevens, 1953)

The Searchers
(Dir. John Ford, 1956)

3.10 To Yuma
(Dir. Delmer Daves, 1957)

The Left-Handed Gun
(Dir. Arthur Penn, 1958)

Rio Bravo/El Dorado
(Dir. Howard Hawks, 1959, 1966)
[Hard to choose between them, since they are virtually identical. I think I have a sneaking preference for El Dorado - although I'm sure the purists, including Quentin Tarantino, would insist that the original must be considered the superior one - mainly because James Caan is a better actor in the 'kid' role than Ricky Nelson.]

The Magnificent Seven
(Dir. John Sturges, 1960)

One-Eyed Jacks
(Dir. Marlon Brando, 1961)

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance
(Dir. John Ford, 1962)

For A Few Dollars More
(Dir. Sergio Leone, 1965)
[Much the best of the Dollars westerns, I think.]

Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid
(Dir. George Roy Hill, 1969)

True Grit
(Dir. Henry Hathaway, 1969)

McCabe & Mrs Miller
(Dir. Robert Altman, 1971)

The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid
(Dir. Philip Kaufman, 1972)

Pat Garrett & Billy The Kid
(Dir. Sam Peckinpah, 1973)

I found that - after some bonce-scratching - I was able to place almost every one of the directors (Delmer Daves, anyone??). And, even more amazingly, with a solitary exception, I got the chronological order exactly right (I had thought 3 Godfathers might be a little later because it's in colour).

If I had to choose just one, I think I'd have to plump for My Darling Clementine - the young Henry Fonda is superb in it, and the black & white photography is absolutely ravishing (it's one of those films where just looking at stills from it can enrapture you).

I daresay there are some controversial omissions: no High Noon (I love Coop and Grace Kelly, but I find the story just too melodramatic), no The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly or Once Upon A Time In The West (both too overblown for my taste), no The Wild Bunch (good, though basically similar in tone, but much inferior to, Pat Garrett), no Dances With Wolves (worthy but dull; and I'd like it better without Costner in it!), no Unforgiven (an intelligent 'demythologising' script, but rather plodding direction from Eastwood; I found that it didn't really hold up all that well on a recent re-watching).

There are several of the grittier, more 'realistic' westerns from the early '70s that I have fond but indistinct memories of - Dirty Little Billy, Soldier Blue, The Culpepper Cattle Co.; in most cases I've seen them only once, more than 30 years ago, and so am not confident they should be numbered among the greats. Amongst the later Eastwoods, I rather like Pale Rider; like, but not love. Of the more recent contributions to the genre, Ang Lee's Ride With The Devil is the only one I could think of that merited consideration for this list. I did also think about including The Long Riders, which is a decent Jesse James film from the '80s, but not as good, I think, as Northfield. I haven't yet seen the recent The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford, but I suspect that might make it into the list one day. However, I rather like the sense of completeness of this list as it is: those final few selections were pretty much "the last word" on the western genre, and I can't readily imagine anything surpassing them or having anything new to say.

Your comments, fellow film buffs?

Friday, November 28, 2008

A film buff

In working through the rich archives of my new blog friend, Tony B (of Other Men's Flowers), I discovered that he is, like me, an avid cinephile. In one of his early posts he produced a list of his 50 Most Memorable Films from a lifetime of cinema-going. (There are only 5 or 6 of his 50 I haven't seen.)

I am tempted to try and follow suit, but I'm really not sure that I could whittle my favourites down to any such manageable number. (Readers with keen memories might recall that I have previously offered two lists of films here on Froogville: a single top pick from each of 10 major genres, and a list of "life-changing moments" in my personal experience of the cinema.)

When I was (briefly) lecturing on film at the China Broadcasting & Communications University earlier this year (to the class with the most outlandish collection of 'English names' I have ever encountered), I gave my students the American Film Institute's list of The 100 Best American Films of the 20th Century (mysteriously unavailable online at the moment - drat!). I was distressed, though scarcely surprised, to discover that most of them knew no more than 4 or 5 films on that list; only a few of the most enthusiastic film-watchers amongst them could claim a total approaching 20. I think my figure was around 85 (yes, even the old silent classics - I would always eagerly watch out for the latest of Kevin Brownlow's restorations to appear on Channel 4, or, occasionally, in a special screening at the National Film Theatre or the Barbican). And I had at least heard of every single one of the films on the list. It will, I fear, be a long, long time before the Chinese achieve any real 'cultural literacy' in regard to the West.

But yes, I am a freak. There are very few people who've seen as many films as I have. My pirated DVD collection here in China now runs to several hundred titles. I would guess that I've probably seen at least 400 or 500 films on the big screen (in a much shorter time than Tony); and uncountable thousands on TV. Picking 'Top 10s' - or even a 'Top 50' or 'Top 100' - from such a multitude is next-to-impossible. But I may yet try......


One of the Chinese editors I work for asked me a few days ago to advise on a snappy translation of this:


It's a famous line from Xun Zi, a Chinese sage of the 3rd Century BCE.

Now, you may well ask how I - a notorious refusenik when it comes to learning the language here - can possibly offer assistance in translating Classical Chinese. Well, the answer is that I turn to my better-qualified friends for insight into the original language, and then apply myself to trying to do something with the English end.

For this, I suggested:

"From my study, I can survey the wide world; from the present, I can journey to the ends of time."

My technical adviser points out that the verb in the second clause there more literally means something like 'speaking' - or indeed, 'debate' or 'disputation'. I set this consideration aside - an allowable piece of poetic licence, I hope - because I think the general import of the remark must surely be about the power of the imagination to transcend time and distance, about how freely the mind can range (perhaps particularly when inspired by a good book); I can't think of any 'talk' word that conveys that sense of movement. And I like to picture the scholar here in solitary contemplation rather than engaging in dialectic.

Chinese people LOVE me! (21)

"Rickshaw drivers love me because...... I always turn down their persistent solicitations with politeness and good humour."

Well, almost always, anyway. There are a lot of these bicycle rickshaws operating in my neighbourhood, since the historic Bell and Drum Towers and the Shichahai lakes are quite a tourist magnet. And their somewhat aggressive optimism in touting for rides can get a bit wearing at times. I figure most of them must recognise me by now, since I've basically been living in this same neck of the woods for more than 6 years. And even if they have no memory for foreign faces, it should be pretty obvious that I am not a tourist! But these guys just refuse to accept that there is such a thing as a hopeless case. I've even had them try to offer me "the hutong tour" when I'm walking home from the supermarket with bags full of groceries, or when sitting on the Bell Tower steps swigging a bottle of beer.

Just occasionally it gets to be a pain-in-the-arse; but most of the time I find it rather quaintly amusing.

Next week: My landlord

The weekly haiku

Thunderous heartbeat
Throbs against bottom of skull -
Pile-driver outside.

The saga of the builders next door just keeps getting worse and worse.....

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Happy Thanksgiving!

I have explained my strange fondness for the Thanksgiving holiday before. After a two-year hiatus, I am today reviving my Beijing tradition of organising a dinner for all of my American friends (and a few other assorted hangers-on) who have been too lame-arsed to make their own arrangements. It should be a grand evening.

A Happy Thanksgiving to all my American readers!

A Daily Llama

Gosh, we haven't had one for a couple of months.

"I'm melting, I'm melting....."

Late-night shopping run

A couple of nights ago, I nipped out in the evening to my local 7-11. I had been laid up for a couple of days with a nasty dose of food-poisoning, and thought that some salty snacks and electrolyte drinks were needed to keep me from death. I ended up buying a bunch of other things too.

The lady on the checkout (middle-aged, rather muddle-headed, new to the job, I think) seemed strangely reluctant to use the barcode-reader.

Instead, she totted up my purchases on a handheld calculator - apparently using a combination of memory, guesswork, and asking colleagues to verify the price of each item (rather than referring to a stocklist, or anything sensible like that). I was particularly anxious to know if the barcode-reader was somehow out of action because I happen to have discovered that at least one of the items I was purchasing is significantly cheaper (according to its barcode) than the apparently advertised price on the shelves.

The dithery woman made three attempts to tally my purchases using the calculator, coming out with three different figures - the last of which was 211 kuai. When I did manage to coax her into using the barcode reader, she would do so grudgingly for one or two items and then obstinately return to using the calculator alone. When I did finally badger her into swiping the barcode on everything, my bill came to..... 174 kuai.

I don't think she was consciously trying to rip me off. But there did seem to be a staggering lack of awareness of why a customer would prefer to use the barcodes, or not trust an employee's (entirely unsupported!) mental arithmetic, or resent being overcharged. And, really, there was nothing at all wrong with the barcode-reader; it was much easier and quicker to tot up the bill using it than to flounder around with the calculator.

What is the matter with you people?! Using the barcodes is not optional!

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Favourite posts from the 2nd quarter of 2008

I'm a little behind with this. It had completely slipped my mind for the past couple of months. Better late than never....

Pick of the Archive:
Favourite Posts, April-June 2008

1) STOP interfering with the Internet! - 2nd April

Some Free Advice for the Chinese government on the issue of censorship.

2) Intellectual Property - 101 - 5th April

A Chinese employer tries to make an unauthorised film of one of my presentations.

3) List of the Month - my next batch of ming pian - 6th April

How would I describe myself on a business card? Here are some possible options.

4) Haiku time once more - 11th April

One of my most romantic ones (and this post includes a gratuitous Classical footnote!).

5) SLOW Food - 11th April

It's official: my local McDonald's is the worst in the world - and I conclude that there is a fundamental incompatibility between 'Chinese culture' and the fast food concept.

6) My Fantasy Girlfriend - Lady Penelope - 12th April

I confess: my first-ever crush was on a fibreglass puppet!

7) Another sign of the times - 16th April

I deplore the Facebook fad, and what it is doing to our language.

8) Don't make a rod for your own back - 20th April

Rueful observations on the Chinese government's handling of the Tibetan issue, and the anti-foreigner demonstrations it orchestrated here in Beijing.

9) My brain is full - 27th April

One of the key reasons why I don't learn Chinese!

10) Bali & the ballerinas - an alliterative anecdote - 28th April

A story from my far-off youth.

11) List of the Month - why I love Tom Waits - 3rd May

A selection of my favourite lyrics from the great man.

12) A discussion point - 5th May

I try - and fail! - to initiate some debate about appropriate moral parameters for the use of real-life events in fiction (prompted by my reading of Mr Pip, a novel about a brutal civil war on a South Pacific island in the 1990s).

13) This week in the studio..... - 8th May

A particularly fine selection of risible script ineptitudes from my recording work.

14) Holding it all in..... for the Olympics - 17th May

I introduce my idea for a 'sound sculpture' project to be called The Big Spit - one of first and best of My Crazy 'Art' Ideas

15) A traffic incident - 24th May

Another illustration of how the Chinese really seem to have no sense of self-preservation in their behaviour on the roads.

16) Things I Miss.... - 26th May

Summer rain makes me suddenly very wistful.

17) I hate it when that happens..... - 31st May

Another little oddity of everyday life in China.

18) An end of the month treat - 31st May

One of my favourite Internet discoveries of the year: YouTuber 'Xspazzx' doing one of his brilliant late-night rock song mimes - here, to Queen's ultra-fast jazz-punk number Stone Cold Crazy.

19) Lest we forget - 4th June

Reflections on the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square crackdown.

20) A feeling down haiku - 6th June

I was in a bad mood-slump at the start of June; but such depressions often lead to better writing!

21) Great football moments - 7th June

I mark the beginning of the European Football Championships with a celebration of Gascoigne's fantastic goal against the Scots in '96, a YouTube 'Top 10' of other great goals from the tournament over the years, and, of course, the irresistibly jaunt football song Three Lions.

22) I HATE Beijing drivers - 9th June

A further observation on the crazy - homicidal - road behaviour we have to suffer here in the capital.

23) A sporting haiku - 13th June

Is football the greatest game in world? I think so, and attempt to explain why.

24) My Fantasy Girlfriend - Mrs Peel - 21st June

A hymn of praise to Emma Peel - the perfect woman (a pity she was a fictional character!).

25) The failure of taste - 23rd June

Possibly the worst poem in history - and it's Chinese.

26) A cunning plan - 25th June

I encounter a remarkable proposal for dealing with China's population problem..... by exporting it to Russia!

27) Chinese job applications - 27th June

Surely the most cringe-inducing example of 'Chinglish' I have ever come upon (not for the easily offended!).

28) Pelé - the "God" - 28th June

More football idolatry: an appreciation of the game's greatest player, including some YouTube clips of him in action.

Chinese people LOVE me! (20)

"Chinese people love me because...... I can take a pee in only 30 seconds or so!"

Oh yes, straight in, straight out, no messing around. My fellow urinal-users find it quite baffling, and deeply enviable.

The problem, you see, is that the Chinese have not invented the fly flap - at least, not for underwear. Boxer shorts seem to be the most common variety of smalls over here, but they are invariably fly-less (as I discovered to my cost on the one and only occasion when I bought some here, a few years ago). No doubt the Chinese originally invented flies - centuries before the rest of the world - but then abandoned the idea again, as having no utility.

It is quite a spectacle to behold a whole roomful of Chinese men, all desperate to relieve their bladders, all having to go through the ungainly rigmarole of grappling with waistband and belt, dropping trousers to half-mast, widening stance to try to prevent trousers from dropping all the way to the floor, and then hopping around madly to try to get their member to flip out over the top of their undies (yes, they always do this - they seem to find it unseemly, or perhaps just too time-consuming, to drop their kecks all the way to their knees as well!). And then, of course, they have to repeat the whole process in reverse when they've finished. It easily doubles the amount of time they have to take over the operation. Me, I just unzip and GO.

You become used to the prospect of a row of half-exposed Chinese buttocks greeting you whenever you walk into a busy public toilet; but, somehow, the jiggling and bouncing around that happens while your colleagues are thus hobbled by their down-around-their-knees trousers still always surprises and alarms.

I think there is a utility in this humble idea that perhaps the "wise forebears" were missing out on.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Now the US Surgeon-General speaks Chinglish??

I just mentioned this over on the Barstool, but I couldn't resist 'cross-posting', since this blog is where I usually celebrate the Chinglish highlights I come across.

Last night, I found a bottle of Jack Daniel's whiskey - obviously bogus - that had this bizarre 'health message' added to its label:

"Kind remind. Drink rationally."

Oh, I'm never more rational than when I drink, believe me.

That's enough pictures, Ed.

Yes, my 'picture blog' week is now concluded (28 posts and 30 pictures over 8 days!). I hope you enjoyed it. If you missed it, I do urge you to scroll down and check out the posts over the last week.

There are plenty more where those came from, so I might well repeat the exercise again before long..... whenever I next find myself with so much work that I have no time for my keyboard.

Bon mot for the week

"The true adventurer goes forth aimless and uncalculating to meet and greet unknown fate."

O. Henry (1862-1910)

It'll all be over soon.....

Sunday, November 23, 2008

When numbers disagree...

Existential crisis? Call now!

I included a link to the article that explains this oddity (great English eccentrics, don't you love 'em?) in one of my 'miscellanies' a couple of weeks back.

Rhett Beaver

World War II, in a nutshell

Chinese lanterns

They're so bloody ubiquitous here that, sadly, they become a bit of a cliché, and it's difficult to find any way of photographing them that hasn't been done a gazillion times before. However, I was quite pleased with this effort - shot on Gui Jie ('Ghost Street', the famous 24-hour restaurant strip, just a couple of miles from where I live) a few months ago.


Monday, November 17, 2008

Even civil unrest is becoming dumbed down...

A theme for the week

I won't waste your time with all that "paints a thousand words" crap. I'll just say that there are a number of amusing or unusual pictures I've been meaning to share with you - some my own, some I've found during my peregrinations around the Internet - for a while, and yet I somehow haven't got around to doing so. And since I am anticipating another hellishly busy week..... I thought I'd attempt a week of picture posts.

To get the ball rolling..... another - belated - 'birthday present' for Moonrat. Rat slippers. Rather too realistic for comfort!

I am easily amused (yet again)

Last night I went to see a Chinese documentary film about the operations of a small station of the 'border police' (who appear to be a division of the PLA - the army - rather than the PSB - the police) in a desolate north Chinese town. It had its longeurs, I have to say, and I left before the end.

However, the name of one of the producers tickled my funnybone (some sort of Scandinavian, I would imagine):

Nonglux Thongdard.

I am not making this up. Though perhaps he is.

The further question that plagues me here is whether the g in his first name is part of the first syllable or the second. Is 'glux' a bad thing to be in his cold northern homeland, and do parents who want to name their children auspiciously protest that they are 'non-glux'? Enquiring minds want to know.

A 'thongdard', of course, is a flag or banner made out of skimpy underwear. Such crudely improvised battle emblems were traditionally carried into the fray by Viking 'berserkers'.

Bon mot for the week

"The grass is always greener..... over the septic tank."

This was the title of a 1976 book by the American newspaper humourist, Erma Bombeck (1927-1996).

Sunday, November 16, 2008

List of the Month - 'Desert Island' albums

I gather the BBC radio show Desert Island Discs is still going, the longest-running radio show in the world.

Since I was playing this game with some friends just last night, this should be an easy post.... Then again, perhaps not. Winnowing down my huge - and eccentrically diverse - music collection to just 10 selections (on the Desert Island, I think you're only allowed 8) is a daunting task; and I'd probably come up with a different list every time you ask me. However, on this particular Sunday morning, my inclinations are thus (yes, rock and pop only for now: things would just get way too complicated if we included classic blues, folk, world music, classical...):

Queen - A Night At The Opera
The albums that bookend it, Sheer Heart Attack and A Day At The Races, also have a very strong claim, but I suppose - if I can only have one album by any given artist - this one must take first place. It was one of the first rock albums I ever heard, and (years later!) the very first I ever bought for myself. There's also a particular nostalgic link with my childhood, in that it was recorded at the Rockfield studios - in my hometown on the Welsh border.

Pink Floyd - Wish You Were Here
Yes, The Wall and Dark Side Of The Moon are running it close, but for me this is the definitive Floyd album. I remember the creepy sleeve art from my earliest childhood (my older brother had the record), long before I was aware of or could begin to understand the music. Later, at university, it would become my favourite depression-wallow music - and it still is, twenty years later (yes, maybe I should grow up).

Radiohead - The Bends
Their best album, no question. Don't give me OK Computer! This may not be as musically intricate, but I think overall the songs are stronger and the guitar sound is irresistibly grungy.

Cowboy Junkies - The Trinity Session
Recorded in a disused church in Toronto on a budget of around CAD$100, this is a wonderfully mellow and atmospheric album (a 'studio' album with a 'live' feel), with a great mix of original songs and classic covers - including what Lou Reed himself acknowledges as the best ever version of his Sweet Jane. I defy any man of musical sensitivity and heterosexual leanings not to fall in love with Margo Timmins after hearing this record.

Fleetwood Mac - Live in Chicago
This is something of a rarity these days. I've never been able to find it on CD (at least, not in quite the same form that I have it on vinyl), and if it's available at all, I suspect it may have been re-titled. It's a double-album studio jam session they made in the late '60s during their first incarnation as a blues band, with the great guitarists Peter Green and Jeremy Spencer. Just about everyone who was anyone in the Chicago blues scene - including giants like Walter Horton, Buddy Guy, and Otis Spann - sat in for a few tracks here and there. Probably the best blues album ever.

Chumbawamba - Tubthumping
One of the standout albums of the '90s - it's really a mystery how these guys have never produced anything else quite so remarkable. The title track has suffered from being overplayed, but every song on this album is catchy and distinctive, and the use of sound clips from British films and TV documentaries to link them - so often just a glib gimmick - is here very telling. After 10 years, this is still one of the albums that I most often go back to, rarely going more than a month without playing it.

Liz Phair - Exile In Guyville
Again, there's a strong nostalgic link for me with this one, since I first owned it on a tape copy given to me by a friend I visited in China in the Spring of 1994; it then accompanied me on the remainder of my round-the-world backpacking jaunt and so became the "soundtrack" of those memorable adventures. This is quite possibly the best debut album ever. If Ms Phair has a weakness, it is that she seems to be incapable of writing a song with fewer than 6 hooks in it.

Simon & Garfunkel - Greatest Hits
I admit it's a bit of a cheat to include compilation albums, but.... well, I don't really know any of their individual albums (Bridge Over Troubled Water, maybe? I think my parents used to own that.). Once again, there are deep emotional links to my childhood - this is probably the most progressive, un-conservative music my parents ever owned, and I was exposed to it (playing it for myself, on our fabulous Pye 'gramophone') from my toddling days. And I think these guys are up there alongside the Beatles for the strength of their catalogue, and for the universality of recognition these songs have achieved.

AC/DC - PowerAge
It is often objected that AC/DC just keep on making the same album over and over again. Well, nothing wrong with that - if the album is this good. Most of their albums have a few standout songs, but on this one I think every song is unusually strong. Downpayment Blues is my 'theme song' - "I know I ain't doin' much/ But doin' nothing means a lot to me". And Angus is, well, Angus: fast, dirty, and eminently bluesy. I fear he often doesn't get the respect he deserves from the music press because of the raw simplicity of the band's music and his madcap stage antics (Rolling Stone, I gather, only placed him 94th in its '100 Greatest Guitarists Of All Time' list; I can't see how he isn't in the top 10 or 20.); for me, his phrasing and control of tone are just perfect - his playing isn't just a headbanging frenzy, it's supremely musical. He's one of the few people I would really love to be able to play like.

Tom Waits - Rain Dogs
This was the hardest choice of the lot. If I weren't observing self-imposed restrictions on this selection, I could quite easily have gone for 10 Waits albums. I fret slightly that this might be too 'obvious' a choice: it is probably his most 'commercial' piece of work, and I feel I perhaps ought to plump for something weirder or darker. I am mightily tempted by Blue Valentines (the first of his albums I ever bought, and a wonderful collection of stories) or Small Change (marvellously witty, but also deeply melancholic - it was on my record player almost constantly during my last year at university) or Frank's Wild Years or Bone Machine or..... But Rain Dogs just has so many good songs on it; and the sound of Marc Ribot's guitar is simply exquisite. With most of the other albums, I go through fads of playing them to death and then abandon them for a few months. Rain Dogs is pretty much constantly on my playlist.

And..... oh damn, I didn't get around to including a Pogues album. Why couldn't I have given myself 12 picks? Ah well - maybe I'll do an 'alternate lineup' in a few months......

Friday, November 14, 2008

Seasonal haiku

Blanket of white haze
Hides the sky and chills the bones:
Foggy autumn morn.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Chinglish mispronunciation

Absolutely my favourite example (until I think of another one, at least):

A few years ago, one of my graduate students in the university where I was then teaching told me that she was very eager to see a new film called.....

Devon Cheese Cold.

It took me a while.......

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Another miscellany

This week has suddenly spiralled out of control.

Not so long ago, I was anticipating having another worryingly barren week, but now I am looking at working flat-out for the next 5 days at least (yes, including the weekend!).

There may therefore be something of an interruption of my usual blogorrhoea.

To try to keep you amused during my anticipated absence, I offer you these diverting links.

First, this great story about a philosophy helpline - still being inadvertently advertised by a pair of Indian grocery store owners in East London, on the side of their delivery van - from England's Daily Mail newspaper a little while ago. (Thanks, yet again, to the unwaveringly strange Webside Gleanings for that one.)

On a more serious note... how is the 'global economic meltdown' hitting China? The Peking Duck has one of the best summaries so far.

Back to my usual frivol... here are some fun Obama posters. I particularly like "PRESIDENT: Now available in black!"

And on a narcissistic - or self-immolatory? - note.... I would draw your attention to my recent request for your reviews of my blog(s). Recent, yes, but already buried a dozen or so posts down the page (and 8 items down the sidebar!) - so I feel it is in order to call your attention to it again. Thus far I seem to have attracted only a few old (and new) friends to the thread, who have been either too kind or too obscure in their comments. We have had a few random, unidentified strangers as well - but obscurity has likewise confounded their unkindness. We haven't seen much actual criticism as yet. I'm waiting.

And a final treat - The Brick Testament: Bible stories re-told in vivid tableaux using Lego figures. I particularly liked the Parable of the Many Murders (yes, there really was one). (Tony, of OMF, gets the hat-tip here.)

Suddenly there came a tapping....

.... as of someone gently rapping, rapping..... on the inside of my skull..... at 3 in the morning!

Yes, just when I thought I had rediscovered the secret of getting a good night's sleep..... my building management switches on the winter central-heating. This means that I have gurgling and trickling and tap-tap-bloody-tapping in my water pipes for the next 4 months.

I've never been particularly good at sleeping with things like clocks ticking loudly in the bedroom; but this is far worse. Not only can it be astoundingly bloody LOUD, but it is also tauntingly, maddeningly bloody variable. It settles into a steady once-every-second-and-a-half rhythm for a while, and you almost get used to it, and start to drift off to sleep....... and then it suddenly adopts a different interval, but even louder...... and then it stops........ or seems to have stopped, but then you realise in fact it's just slipped into a once-every-thirty-seconds cycle. The occasional silences are almost more tormenting than the noise, as you lie in bed in agonised anticipation: has it really stopped, or is it just about to start again?

The real God-screws-with-me-again aspect of this is that my bedroom (where I cannot now sleep because of the building work outside the window) is the only room in the apartment without a noisy water pipe. The living room, where I am now forced to spend the nights, is one of the noisiest tap-tap-tap-tap rooms. Cruel Fate, you are a c**t, aren't you?

Monday, November 10, 2008

Bon mot for the week

"Let us go and get drunk on light again. It always has the power to console."

Georges-Pierre Seurat (1859-1891)

Sunday, November 09, 2008

Remembrance Day poems

Since Armistice Day will be here shortly (and most of the services, I suppose, will be held today) I thought for my 'Sunday Poem' this week I'd give you these celebrated lines by the English art historian Laurence Binyon, which are much quoted at services of remembrance on this day and appear on many war memorial monuments. They come from a fairly long - and rather plodding - poem called 'For the Fallen', which I don't think is worth quoting in full, although you can find it here if you're interested. Although too old to enlist in the armed forces in the First World War, Binyon had been to the Front as a volunteer ambulanceman.

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years contemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.

Laurence Binyon (1869-1943)

I am always reminded of this, another First War epitaph (which I think I may have quoted on here once before), quite devastating in its simplicity, by A.E. Housman.

Here dead we lie
Because we did not choose
To live and shame the land
From which we sprung.

Life, to be sure,
Is nothing much to lose;
But young men think it is,
And we were young.

A.E. Housman (1859-1936)

Saturday, November 08, 2008

The next huge bestseller

Part of this week's Moonrat lovefest was a competition to write an outline for a book that she - as an editor for a small New York-based publisher - would choose to pick up for publication. This was my entry. (I suppress my usual modesty for a moment to point out that I won. I am very much looking forward to receiving my prize, an advance copy of an about-to-be-published debut crime novel, The Ghosts Of Belfast by Stuart Neville, another of the Moonrat fan club.)

I don't want to start a category for 'My Brilliant Book Ideas' (although I do have a few of them....), so I'll tag this as as 'Books' and 'My brilliant website/business ideas'. I really do think this one's got legs. I mean, all those titles like Salt and Cod and Meat and Potatoes have done staggeringly well in recent years, haven't they - and there's nothing very sexy about them! I can't believe someone hasn't done this already!!

I confess I do feel a twinge of guilt about this victory, though: it was perhaps just a little bit mean of me to exploit Moonie's known weaknesses so.....

I had to edit down my proposal a bit for the competition entry, to meet the (rather tight!) word-limit of 150 words - at some cost to the elegance, if not to the grammar of the original. So, this is the slightly fuller version. The extended preamble, of course, is merely a set-up for the concluding punchline about Moonrat's favourite tipple. Some Saturday frivol.


A gin & tonic is the most popular alcoholic mixed drink in the world today, and an estimated 1 billion bottles of the spirit are consumed each year. As we enjoy the simple perfection of this refreshing beverage, we seldom pause to consider how it came into existence. The story of the development and popularization of gin, and its later blissful marriage with tonic water, is a rich and surprising one. Following this compelling tale from the unlikely experiments of pioneering German biochemist Franciscus Sylvius in the mid-1600s and the early success of his strong-flavoured liquor as a medicine against gallstones and gout, through the proliferation of gin-shops that plagued England in the 1700s and the essential contribution of gin as a protection against malaria for the colonialists of the 1800s, through to the craze for "bathtub gin" in 1920s America and the subsequent rise of 'cocktail culture', we reach a better understanding of gin's present eminence as the sedative of choice for the stylish literati of Noughties New York.


For the first couple of weeks that the storm of building activity raged outside my bedroom window, I was usually getting home so late (and/or drunk) that I was somehow managing to sleep through it.

Then, for a while, I got psyched up about trying to do something about it. I complained and complained and complained. Two or three times, I was seemingly successful: the site was closed down - but it took 2 or 3 hours after my phone calls to achieve this happy state, and by then the dawn recommencement of operations would be only a few hours away.

I took to sleeping on a sofa in the living room. It's pretty comfortable, and I quite often inadvertently crash out on it anyway. However, sleeping on it for several nights in succession is not good for my back, which has been playing me up a bit of late. And the living room, while it is considerably better insulated from the building site noise than either of my two bedrooms (the sealed balcony at the front effectively provides a sort of double-glazing), is still not that quiet - especially when relays of tipper-trucks are rumbling past throughout the night. Moreover, I have no decent curtains in there, so I find it almost impossible to sleep in beyond daybreak.

However, I had rather been overlooking the fact that I have a couple of sofa-beds in the living-room. I'm now using one of those, and getting a much better night's sleep. Also, I have draped my spare duvets over my drying rails on the balcony, and that has proved to be remarkably successful in damping out more of the building noise outside (not so good at cutting out the dawn light streaming into the room, but some help at least).

It's been a huge improvement in my quality of life this week. (I'm a trifle annoyed with myself that it took me so long to work out this "solution".)

Now, though, I'm starting to get worried that I may never be able to move back into my bedroom: there's always quite a lot of outside noise in there, especially from the traffic on the nearby 2nd Ringroad (to say nothing of the early morning buses with their very loud recorded passenger announcements on the street outside, and the traditional folk songs that blare out from ghetto-blasters to accompany the old ladies doing their t'ai chi exercises in the park below me). When the building site isn't too busy, the QUIET in my new sleeping quarters is really quite intense. I mustn't allow myself to get too used to it.

Friday, November 07, 2008

The 'meltdown' - in a nutshell

My journalist friend Martin (better known to readers of Barstool Blues as my pool nemesis, New Dad) very kindly sent me a slew of links to primer articles on the financial crisis earlier this week, to help me with the rather odd writing assignment I had taken on - to explain the issue in language a 15-year-old Chinese schoolchild might understand.

The best by far was this, a cartoon slideshow that will explain to you exactly what went wrong in about 2 minutes. Unmissable.

Pedants' Corner

For those of you who love words, and arguing protractedly about them, my new blog-pal Tony B and I had an amusing little spat in this thread the other day. I am pleased to say that I was eventually shown to be 'right' - although I had merely been following my gut instincts, while it was Tony who actually did the laborious research to settle the point.

You have to get up pretty early in the morning to out-pedant me, Tony! (Yes, I know: noun-into-verb again. But this is a humorous coinage of my own. And I didn't say it was never possible or useful to create new words this way, only that the Americans these days seem to want to do it all the time, and for no good reason.)

Haiku for the week

Continuing the Moonie Love celebration in honour of the excellent Editorial Ass blog reaching its second anniversary this week, I offer this haiku (one of a couple of dozen I submitted for her latest competition!). Darling Moonrat, you see, has this huge schoolgirl crush on the author Michael Chabon - all the more so since meeting him earlier this year.

Fan meets her idol,
Sighs and swoons; the hand he shook
Never washed again.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

A Moonrat triple whammy - Happy Blogsday!

And - in case you're wondering why we have so much on the adorable Moonrat today - it's because this is the 2nd anniversary of her blog.

Some of her fans have set up a Celebrate Moonrat webpage to mark the event - several Moonrat-themed prize competitions on offer, as well as just a general forum for saying nice things about Moonrat.

OK, that's it. I'm done for now.

Happy Blogsday, Moonie. I hope you'll keep going for years to come.

Website of the Month - Editorial Ass

I have recommended - or at least referred to - this site quite a number of times on here, but I haven't formally accorded it the status of a 'Website of the Month' recommendation.

Editorial Ass is a wide-ranging personal blog, written by a young New York book editor who guards her anonymity with the unlikely alias of "Moonrat". It's mostly about the publishing industry, and is distinguished by the insight - and the thoroughness - of the opinions and advice that she offers on that business, nuggets that are of particular help to those hoping to work in publishing or those striving to get a book published. She has become one of the industry's essential resource pages, and has attracted quite a significant following of published, about-to-be-published, and still aspiring authors amongst her regular readers and commenters. (I like to think of her as 'my' editor - even though I'm never likely to write anything more substantial than a long joke.)

However, it's not all abstruse 'insider' stuff. She writes with enough zest and passion that it's usually very diverting for the lay reader as well. And she often strays on to other topics of more general appeal: favourite books, music and food; her sweetly monstrous English boss; her even more eccentric family (her Italian great aunt's dialogue is worthy a novel all of its own).

She's also from time to time run rather amusing 'audience participation' events like a comic sonnet competition, a novel blurb competition, the 'Celebrate Reading!' month (where her other 'regulars' and I each contributed an appreciation of one of our favourite books), and the recent favourite poem thread.

In more serious vein, she also recently staged an online raffle that raised nearly $5,000 to help with the medical fees of a friend who'd been diagnosed with lymphoma.

The onerous demands of her job (and her family?!) mean that she can be a somewhat intermittent poster, but she mostly keeps up a pretty good frequency - and she can be quite profuse when she gets a bee in her bonnet about something! It's a diverse, stimulating, and often very, very entertaining read.

So - if it's new to you - please do go and check it out.

My Fantasy Girlfriend - "Moonrat"

I know the 'Fantasy Girlfriend' is usually a Saturday post, but rules are made to be broken. And today we have a special pretext.

For any of you that don't know (unlikely, I think, since I have poached most of my readers - nearly all the newer ones, anyway - from her blog), "Moonrat" is the cyber-alias of a rather lovely young lady who works as an editor for a small publishing house in New York. We became blog-friends when she blundered in here by happy chance one day about 18 months ago and left me a comment (and she still hasn't 'fessed up to exactly why it was that she was Googling "loo with a view" that day!).

I have no idea at all what she looks like, although naturally I imagine her as being rather pretty. However, looks are really (really!) not the sole or even the primary basis of attraction for me. I am far more interested in things like humour, intelligence, vivacity, passion, generosity and idealism - all of which she has in spades. And she is staggeringly well-read, to boot. But for her slightly questionable taste in music, she'd be absolutely perfect.

Also, I feel terribly privileged - and perhaps just very slightly encouraged? - by the fact that she has entrusted me with the sacred knowledge of her real name (a secret I will take with me to the grave!).... and also that she did once give me an open invitation to a 'date' of sorts (playing "foosball" with her in some grungy bar she likes on Christopher St).

Alas, I fear this is fated never to be anything more than an idle blog-crush. She's really a bit too young for me. And I have no idea when I might next be able to contrive a visit to New York. Also, "The Rally Monkey" might object. This shadowy companion/helpmate/gadfly figure is always depicted on her blog as a rather cute stuffed toy, but a few references recently have hinted that he might in fact be her real-life Significant Other. Ah well, most of my previous fantasy girlfriends have been dead, married, or fictional, so my disappointment won't be too hard to bear. Unattainability, I fear, has always been one of my key turn-ons.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

The things I get asked to do

The other day I received a request to produce (at 24 hours' notice - ah, China!) an article on the global financial meltdown...... for Chinese middle school students!

At least they were asking me to write in English. That made it so much easier.

I am easily amused (again)

I have just discovered by chance that there is Russian TV station called Pervy Kanal (in Cyrillic, Первый канал).

Given the huge volume of pornography flowing out of that country, it does seem very appropriate.

Alas, it simply means Channel One.

Monday, November 03, 2008

Urbane? Moi?!

My 'new best friend' in blogland (the delightful Tony of Other Men's Flowers) was kind enough to give me a very warm review the other week.

I mention this not, I hope, out of vanity or a pathetic impulse towards self-publicity, but simply to comment on or query his choice of words. While I would not disagree with the general tenor of his remarks (or seek to discourage him, or anyone else, from offering such encomia), I was doubtful about the appropriateness of some of the terms he chose to use.

For example, he described me as a "polymath". That's overstating things more than somewhat! I am a trivia-sponge, but that's hardly the same thing. I suspect that we Classicists always tend to seem dauntingly erudite to the hoipolloi because it's such a multidisciplinary subject; and almost nobody knows any Latin (much less Greek!) these days; and we do show off a bit by dropping words like 'hoipolloi' into our discourse at regular intervals. But that's really all pretty trivial and monomathic.

He went on to describe this foolish little blog of mine as "witty and urbane". The 'witty' part I'm more comfortable with, though I fear it is mostly an aspiration rather than an achievement. 'Urbane', though - that's not somehow a word I've ever associated with myself.

Then again, Tony's excellent blog is such a torturous web of irony and subterfuge that he may just have been gently taking the piss out of me. I don't think so, but....

The youth of today, I suspect, would regard 'urban' as a term of higher praise (I gather it's even become fashionable as a name these days - and not just for Popes any more!), but that hardly fits me either.

My modest social background is really far more 'suburban'. If only Suburbane were a word! That would be more le mot juste for me, I feel. I must try to popularise its usage.

And while on the subject of recommendations, I find that JES - one of Moonrat's minions and an occasional commenter on here over the past few months - has very generously, though perhaps erroneously, added my link to the sidebar of his Running After My Hat blog under the 'Writers To Be Read' category. Since JES is himself a published author, I am particularly touched by this accolade.

To balance things up a little, we had some drive-by snidery over on the Barstool last week: an anonymous commenter suggested my opinions were "obvious" and "relentlessly middle-brow". Really?? Now, I welcome a bit of verbal fisticuffs once in a while, and I like to think that I can take a punch or two, even the odd low blow, but.... well, has this chap got confused about which blog he was commenting on? There are many criticisms you might make of me and my writing - self-indulgent, bi-polar, indiscreet, and often in rather poor taste - but middle-brow I just don't see.

I suppose it's a term that only has meaning in a relative sense, a slice of intellectual snobbery: anyone who aspires to the cultural high ground and believes their taste to be superior to yours will denigrate your interests as "middle-brow".

Naturally, I resent the aspersion, since I believe my tastes to be pretty refined, even if my sense of humour is often rather coarse.

Regular readers and casual passers-by, do feel free to pitch in. I throw this thread open to your views on Froogville and the Barstool. Praise and criticism are equally welcome, so long as the remarks are cogently written.

New Picks of the Month

It's time once again to update my sidebar recommendations for favourite posts from my early days.

On Froogville, I choose The Simile Game, some frivolous wordplay and jokey poetry from nearly two years ago (although the 'poem' has renewed relevance for me now!).

And on the Barstool, I like Another great 'Hagar' moment. Hagar the Horrible, that is, the cartoon Viking marauder. This is one of my favourite jokes from that strip - and it somehow segues into an explanation (one of many possible ones, but certainly a major factor in the mix) of why I so seldom have a girlfriend. (There's more on Hagar here.)

Bon mot for the week

"You don't realise just how much you want something until you're suddenly told you can't have it any more."


The story of my life in general, and of my love life in particular....

Sunday, November 02, 2008

Sunday poem

Noodling around on poetry websites just now, I came upon the work of Sara Teasdale - a new name to me. An American writer of the early 20th Century, she is particularly known for her love lyrics. Most of the pieces I glanced at were not really to my taste, but this one I did think rather good (though perhaps only because I am reeling from yet another thwarted romance in my own life?).

After Love

There is no magic any more,
We meet as other people do;
You work no miracle for me
Nor I for you.

You were the wind and I the sea—
There is no splendor any more,
I have grown listless as the pool
Beside the shore.

But though the pool is safe from storm
And from the tide has found surcease,
It grows more bitter than the sea,
For all its peace.

Sara Teasdale (1884-1933)

Traffic Report - blog stats for October

The 'slowdown' overtaking the world's economies has yet to be emulated in my blogging, despite my oft-stated resolve to stop overdoing it so much.

Last month, there were (the usual) 50 posts and nearly 15,000 words on Froogville.

On the Barstool, there were 39 posts and around 11,000 words.

Visitor numbers still seem to be fairly static at around the 150 per week mark, despite the generous puff (and occasional syndication!) I have received from the much more widely read Other Men's Flowers blog.

However, according to Statcounter, I have recently received first-time visitors to Froogville from places as diverse as Vietnam and Hawaii - as well as an 'unknown' who appears to be based exactly on the Equator, just off the coast of West Africa (an oil rig worker, perhaps? or a round-the-world yachtsman??). Meanwhile, the Barstool has drawn fleeting attention from Fiji and Malta. What is it about island nations and drinking?

I am also rather excited to discover that I am now the No. 1 Google return for "worst Irish joke". Alas, I fear it is an indication of the decline in popularity of the genre in recent years that the eminence of this post on the search engines does not yet seem to have drawn in a host of new readers.

Commenting has been rather thin of late. Tulsa continues in her monastic retreat from blogging. The Mothman has poor Internet access in Bulgaria. And the British Cowboy is developing a 'love life' again, always a fatal blow to online friendships. Of Snopes, The Bookseller, Little Anthony and the rest, nothing can be said. We haven't heard from Gary or The Lunch for a while, either. Mighty quiet around here.....

Thank you, anyway, to my few loyal and appreciative (if largely silent) readers. I suppose I will keep churning out this whimsy as long as anyone wants to read it.