Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Review of the Year - JES recommends....

It seems particularly appropriate to bring 2008 to a close with a reflection on what it was like to be in Beijing during the Olympics - and this post was the selection of JES.

Readers who followed all of my Olympic observations will have noted that the great majority of them were extremely negative, as is this one. However, if you're interested in the comparison, I did manage to get even darker a few times over on the Barstool - notably in this post, which makes most of the same points as the one below, but even more bitterly.

For the sake of balance, you might check out this Barstool post for a slightly more positive review of that crazy 17 days. (Oh, what the heck, I'll append it at the bottom here.)

What was I expecting?

first posted on 31st August

I have been profoundly disappointed in my experience of the Beijing Olympics. It was an event I had been looking forward to ever since I arrived in this country six years ago. It was a large part of the reason for my coming here in the first place. Yes, I feel dejected, deflated, and a little lost.

Some people have asked me: Well, what were you expecting?

I think the answer to that was implicit in my post of complaints about the Olympics over on The Barstool the other day; but I will try to define a little more closely what I had hoped for or imagined for these Olympics.

I had wanted to be able to enjoy it with all my friends. (Many of them had got kicked out of the country, or decided they didn't want to stay here in August.)

I was hoping to make some new friends. (I had naively envisaged huge numbers of foreign tourists; in fact, we got considerably fewer than in a normal August.)

I had expected crowds in the streets almost everywhere, certainly around any of the main foreigner-targeted bar-and-restaurant areas. (There were hardly any crowds anywhere; foreigners were usually only spotted in twos and threes [and almost invariably wearing Olympic badges; it became a contest to find a foreign visitor who wasn't part of the Olympic set-up; most people without badges in fact proved to be Olympic workers who were being discreet about the fact, or resident expats like myself], not in tens and hundreds, exuberantly conga-ing down the road.)

I had been hoping some overseas friends might visit. (Few expressed any interest; none could get visas.)

I had been looking forward to introducing visitors to the Beijing I know and love, to its street life. (Nearly all Beijing's street food vendors and a fair few small restaurants were closed down. No-one was allowed to put chairs and tables out on the sidewalk.)

I had been expecting that we would be able to watch the Games outside. (That was how we'd enjoyed the Football World Cup two years ago. Every bar bought extra television sets, and many of them were set up outside. And there was a huge projection screen erected in the circular altar enclosure at the centre of Ritan Park, accompanied by numerous food & drink concession stands; that was a great place to watch the sport. There was nothing like that for the Games this month).

I was expecting that we'd be able to watch coherent coverage of the Games, with English commentary. (In fact, most of the sports bars were unable to find satellite channels covering the Games, and we had to make do with the terrestrial Chinese coverage - which was just godawful.)

I was expecting much more vibrancy from the local people. (Apart from a handful of popular events like basketball and ping-pong, most Chinese appeared massively indifferent to the Games.)

I was expecting the city to be packed. (It often felt semi-deserted.)

I was expecting the city to be buzzing with excitement about every little piece of Olympic news. (Apart from noting the relentless daily increase in China's enormous haul of gold medals, no-one really seemed all that interested in the details.)

I had expected almost every bar to be busy, all night, every night. (In fact, with only a handful of exceptions, the bar scene was very, very quiet this month.)

I had been hoping for a fortnight-long PARTY, a carnival atmosphere. (I guess the Chinese just aren't carnival people. Or their government doesn't allow them to be.)

Perhaps I was foolish ever to envision any of this. But that's why my sense of disillusionment has been so profound. Almost all of my hopes for these Olympics - hopes that I'd been building up for 6 years - were entirely disappointed.

Highlights of my Olympics

first posted on Barstool Blues on 29th August

As a balance or contrast to my recent Boyce-bashing, "Olympics? Bah, humbug!" post, I will now record just how much fun I had over these past few weeks.

The Elements of a Fun Olympics:

My Top 8 Moments of the Beijing Games

1) Watching the Opening Ceremony in Room 101.

2) Wading through ankle-deep torrents of water with The Choirboy during a stupendous downpour as we made our way to the judo venue on the USTB campus.

3) Watching the Lin Dan v. Chen Jin men's badminton semi-final with a gaggle of Chinese guys on the sidewalk opposite the US Embassy.

4) Watching the climax of the China v. USA Women's Volleyball match next to the chuanr stall by 2 Kolegas.

5) Watching a bunch of little Chinese kids ecstatically playing in the fountains on the Olympic Green.

6) Watching Usain Bolt's storming 100m victory on the little TV behind the bar at the Pool Bar.

7) Watching the thrillingly close final of the Men's Volleyball..... in the comfort of my own living room, with some chips'n'dip.

8) Watching the Closing Ceremony in Room 101.

Yes, that was about it. And alongside these moments of joy, there were many, many moments of extreme suckiness too: the absolutely undrinkable pint of Tiger I was served at Bar Blu, taking hours to get back home from the Olympic venues, CCTV failing to broadcast the bronze medal match in the Men's Football at all, the Holland House's outrageous decision to show hockey rather than athletics on the final night, the Goose & Duck cutting the athletics coverage just before the final two events, the local fans' tiresome devotion to basketball to the exclusion of almost all else.

No, not really a great Olympics experience, overall.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Review of the Year - OMG recommends....

The double-whammy of demanding in-laws and a new job have, unfortunately, kept the delightful OMG away from blogging for much of this year - a great pity, since she is one of the best writers I've found out there. She has, however, been gracious enough to respond to my request for a blog post recommendation for this Review of the Year series.

As a stylish and beautiful young woman, she naturally takes a keen interest in hair, and she tells me that she therefore particularly likes my intermittent series of posts on the trials of getting a haircut in this country. I rather suspect she had in mind this one, which is from 2007. However, this one from early this year is quite good too, I think; though not as good as this one of OMG's, a true classic of the genre!

More haircut blues

first posted on 14th March

There is a superstition in China that it is bad luck for a man to get his hair cut during the first month of the new year in the Chinese lunar calendar: specifically, dire things could happen to your mother's brother as a result. Even if your mother doesn't have a brother, or he's dead already, or you can't stand the old fart - well, this is an ancient tradition, and not something you should mess with. It seems somehow reckless of yours and your family's good fortune to take risks with this kind of thing (although one suspects this is a tradition that has been vigorously promoted over the years by the hairdressers, so that they can take a longer holiday at this time of year).

This is one of those odd little local customs that rather charms me, and that it amuses me to observe - even though there is really no reason at all why I should, and it is today widely falling into disuse even among the natives.

And, for some reason that escapes me, I didn't quite get around to getting my hair cut on the weekend before the Chinese New Year holiday got underway; and have thus had to bide my time until it becomes 'safe' to go back to the barbers again, although my hair was becoming uncomfortably shaggy.

I had thought that last Friday would be my first 'opportunity' to get my hair cut. But I had been basing that on the erroneous belief that lunar months are 28 days long. I have recently learned that, at least according to the Chinese lunar calendar, they are strictly based on the appearance of the new moon - and this is usually at 29-day intervals. Moreover, it seems that the 'prohibition' on haircuts actually goes beyond the first month: the 2nd day of the 2nd lunar month is the 'Dragon Raises Its Head' Festival - birthday of Earth-god Tudigong, the real advent of Spring, and....... the most auspicious day in the entire year for a man to get his hair cut.

I had anticipated that the end of the superstitious haircut embargo would occasion a huge run on the barbershops, and for that reason had not bothered to check one out on Friday - which I mistakenly thought to be THE DAY. I had to work most of the weekend, so didn't get a chance to try for the haircut until Sunday afternoon...... and so discovered, by unhappy accident, all this nonsense about the Dragon waking up and getting skittish as a kitten: every hairdresser's shop in my neighbourhood was packed to the rafters. Sigh.

So, I've had to let it go nearly another week, and have only just now got myself a trim. I am mightily relieved to have shed some of that weighty and unruly thatch and to be feeling once more a little more like my 'ideal self' at last.

I am rather concerned, though, that the too-good-to-be-true hairdresser's I discovered just around the corner a few months back already appears to be 'going through changes'. Maybe it's just that all the staff change their own hairstyles every few days and thus seem perpetually unfamiliar to you (and, well, I've only been in there 2 or 3 times before, the last one a couple of months ago; so, there's very little chance that I'd recognise any of the people there anyway), but it didn't seem like the same place at all. A very slow, fussy, reluctant-to-actually-remove-any-hair kind of cut, no chirpy English-speaking girl hovering around to help out.

Still, it hasn't turned out too badly. It's not as short as I like it, but it looks reasonably neat. The guy seems to have done some weird kind of layering thing with it, leaving it progressively longer towards the back of my head. I suspect this may be a prudent stratagem to help conceal my rapidly thinning crown. However, it feels to me too much as if it is likely to develop into a mullet if I leave it unattended to for more than about 4 weeks (my hair is nothing but a trial to me: that which does not fall out grows unreasonably quickly).

Review of the Year - Moonrat recommends....

Moonrat tells me that this post in which I named her as my 'Fantasy Girlfriend' for November was "my favorite post of the year by far". Women are so easily manipulated by flattery!

I hope she was only joking about that. I don't like to think of her as being such a shallow narcissist! Anyway, it doesn't seem quite right to allow her to nominate a eulogy of herself as 'post of the year'. Fortunately, she also admits to being a huge fan of my 'Daily Llama (or not)' series of frivolous photo posts - and in particular of this one.

[Please note: the 'Daily Llama' series was conceived as an oblique protest against the fact that it is impossible to mention a certain Tibetan spiritual leader by name without bringing down the heavy hand of the Chinese government censors upon one's poor little blog. So, please, don't mention you-know-who openly in the comments.]

A wiggy Daily Llama

first posted on 5th July

Even a llama can have a bad hair day, it would seem. This fellow is called Cletus.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Review of the Year - Earthling recommends....

Earthling - who once was vying with the formidable Tulsa for 'first commenter' kudos - has semi-deserted us in the second half of this year. Hence she is perhaps "cheating" ever so slightly in nominating the biographical outline that I've had linked in my sidebar for most of this year. No matter - we forgive her, since she is at present denied Internet access either at work or at home. And she has provided a rather more elaborate justification of her choice than anyone else so far: "As a psychologist, I like reading between the lines and finding out what has taken people to the places/stages of their life. Froogville's CV spread out like a story - it's one of the best ways for a CV to be. I like this one also because many questions and mysteries are solved and one gets to know a lot about the man behind the blog."

Actually, I'm not sure that there is all that much falling "between the lines" here. It is a fairly full and detailed account (with only an acceptable modicum of fictionalization or concealment to make me appear slightly less pathetic): the whole sorry history of the Froog is there. Read it and weep.

For amateur psychologists who really want something to get their teeth into, I'd suggest that this post (of almost identical vintage) may hold more appeal.

Who is this Froog person anyway?

first posted on 31st January

Some have asked. Heaven knows why!

If you're really interested to learn more about the eternal enigma that is Froog, here is the thumbnail biography I knocked up as 'back jacket copy' for a would-be novel as my entry in Moonrat's competition last week.

Froog attended Oxford University, where he was rendered virtually unemployable by a degree in Classics. He has flirted with careers as an academic, a schoolteacher, a lawyer, a TV producer and a beachcomber, but was spurned by all of them. He is a recovering teetotaller who moved to China in 2002. He now lives in Beijing, working mainly as a technical editor for a variety of academic journals, educational publishers, and business information services.

For the really curious (Beware of the Cat!!), this is a more richly detailed version that I created for one of the training companies I was involved with last year.

Froog was born in the UK, in the small city of Hereford near the Welsh border. He attended Oxford University, where he took a degree in Classics (an exceptionally diverse 'major' covering the language, literature, philosophy, art and history of ancient Greece and Rome). He then attended the School of Education at Durham University for one year, successfully completing a PGCE (Post-Graduate Certificate in Education), qualifying him to teach both Classics and English at secondary and tertiary level in the UK. During this year he was lucky enough to undertake a 'teaching practice' with the inspirational teacher, Adrian Spooner, who was then developing his "language awareness" coursebook, 'Lingo', which used the language and culture of Rome and Greece as a medium for enhancing the English language skills of younger secondary school students. Froog drew on this experience in writing his course dissertation on the problems of native speaker language acquisition and on the ways in which comparisons with the teaching and learning of other languages can be helpful in the English classroom. After qualifying, Froog worked for 4 years in a small private school in south-west England, mostly teaching English (but also Latin, Greek, Classical Civilization, Ancient History, Drama, and Film Studies). He particularly enjoyed working with some of the low-ability groups in the school, in which many of the students suffered from serious learning difficulties such as dyslexia. It was also here that he first became interested in the challenges faced by speakers of English as a second language, since a large number of the students were Chinese (mainly from Hong Kong and Singapore).

Temporarily retiring from teaching after a serious illness, Froog soon returned to the profession, working as a private tutor around Oxford giving one-to-one coaching in preparation for the national school exams, and becoming an Examiner in English Literature in these exams at both the 16-year and 18-year-old level (GCSEs and A-Levels). He also trained as an EFL teacher with the well-known Oxford International School of English (OISE), and delivered more than 500 hours of classes for them over the following 18 months. Then – at the advanced age of 30! – he took a "year out" to go backpacking around the world. The main focus of the trip was a visit to an old college friend who was teaching at Jianghan University in Wuhan. He spent nearly three months there, using it as a base for travels around the central provinces of China, and fell in love with the country.

Back in the UK, Froog returned to academic study, taking a Diploma in Law at the University of Westminster in London, and then attending Bar School to qualify as a barrister (trial lawyer). He won a scholarship to intern for a year with a commercial law firm in Toronto, but on his return found that there were no openings in the profession in England for someone of his age. Instead, he went to work in business, joining a TV production company which specialised in making corporate promotional videos and designing websites. Although initially taken on as a salesman, he soon became a team leader, managing production projects from inception to completion. Later, he moved to a similar role with a leading corporate hospitality provider.

However, Froog could not shake off his fascination with China, and when the chance came up to move to Beijing in 2002, he jumped at it. At first he taught English in Universities: the Beijing Normal University, the North Jiaotong University, and the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. Since 2005, he has worked entirely freelance as an English teacher and business trainer, developing and delivering courses for such companies as Sun Microsystems, Cisco, Intel, Allen & Overy, Siemens, Alcatel-Shanghai-Bell, Beijing Power, China State Construction International, Sinopec, Lenovo, and the Bank of China.

He also provides specialist training seminars on business skills such as leadership, problem solving, time management, and giving presentations, and has taught on a number of pre-MBA and pre-MPA primer courses.

These days, teaching and training is only a sideline for him, as his focus has shifted more towards educational consultancy. He is also much in demand as a voice recording artist and as a writer and editor of English teaching materials, and has several further occasional jobs editing and polishing reports for academic journals, PR firms, marketing consultancies, business information services, etc.

He may write a novel or a travel book one day, if he can rein in his prolific blogging habit.

So, if you know anyone who might have a job for me......

Review of the Year - Froog recommends a 'bon mot'

And why shouldn't I get in on the act? No-one has so far recommended a bon mot as one of their 'picks of the year', and I wanted to keep to my usual weekly format on here during this fortnight-long retrospective. I have dug up some very, very good wise sayings over this past year (some of them not used as yet; I find the research often eats up 15 or 20 minutes of a Monday morning that I should be devoting to breakfast.... or something), and it's quite tricky to choose just one favourite. However, I think the winner has to be this marvellous observation from Scott Adams.

A 'bon mot' on art

first posted on 3rd March

"Creativity is allowing yourself to make mistakes. Art is knowing which ones to keep."

A great line from the Dilbert creator, Scott Adams, who turned 50 last year.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Review of the Year - Mothman recommends....

My disreputable old University chum the Mothman (quite a noted authority on moths, hence his monicker), after being quite a lively commenter earlier in the year, has, alas, rather abandoned us of late. Apparently, we're not interactive enough for him; he tells me he prefers forums where he can trade abuse, flirtation, and off-colour humour with strangers.

However, he did rather like this post about a frivolous piece of collective inventiveness that sprung from a bar conversation a couple of months back. He was out of sympathy with the viewpoint, but applauded the fact that I was for once "addressing the important topic of pornography". This is one where it's worth checking out the comments on
the original post.


first posted on 16th October

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.)

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Review of the Year - Chad recommends....

Chad (an occasional contributor to my Possible Band Names thread over on The Barstool) - despite his erstwhile blog-name of 'Chad Dimpler', which might lead you to suppose that he's an American - is in fact a fellow Brit. He tells me that the approach of the London Olympics - or "the great 2012 White Elephant" as he calls it - already fills him with horror and ennui, and he waits with some trepidation to discover "what the mind police have in store for us, as they try to make it look as if the UK can in fact organise a piss-up in a brewery!" Thus, my copious postings on the Olympic preparations here in Beijing had a special, horrid fascination for him this year, and he particularly commends this one - my whimsical 'art' project inspired by the municipal government's quixotic attempts to eradicate the vice of public spitting.

Holding it all in..... for the Olympics

first posted on May 17th

There have been some slight signs of 'progress' in the campaign to eradicate some of the less appealing behavioural traits of Beijingers prior to the projected influx of foreign tourism in August: blatant queue-jumping at the ticket window in the subway is much reduced, queueing for buses is becoming much more orderly, and just occasionally you even find people allowing passengers to disembark from subway carriages before piling through the doors themselves.

But public spitting? I can't say I've detected any significant reduction in this; but it is supposed to be a key focus of the campaign - the powers-that-be having recognised that it is one of the things that most grosses out us sensitive foreigners. I think there really is an expectation here that there will be no spitting at all during the Olympics, that Beijingers will somehow overcome the habit of a lifetime and restrain themselves for a full two or three weeks.

It seems a crazy, unrealistic dream, but...... this is a country where social engineering of this kind really is possible. Perhaps we really will see a gob-free August.

But can you imagine what it will be like as soon as the Games are over and the tourists leave? An enormous collective, synchronous SPIT, a cathartic release of weeks of retained phlegm!

This strange, terrible image got me to wondering what this might actually sound like - 10 million people doing a huge simultaneous hawk-and-spit.

I think you could probably generate a reasonable facsimile of it by recording a representative sample of, say, a hundred or so Beijingers spitting in their different ways, and then multi-tracking each one scores of times to produce the requisite depth and texture and volume.

If only I had some decent sound equipment! I mean, some people make good money off ideas like this. If you hear of anyone else doing something like this, remember - you heard it here first.

Yes, THE BIG SPIT - the first in an occasional series of My Crazy 'Art' Ideas.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Review of the Year - Livy recommends....

My long-time (and much-travelled) pen-pal Livy rather liked this post, celebrating our relief at the disappearance of the arid puritanism that had descended upon our city during the Olympics.

She says:
"As a visitor to a strange place one's eye tends to skim over the inexplicable - to focus on the parts that fit our stereotype of the place, or that completely stand out like sore thumbs. The bits that we don't understand or recognise, we don't tend to see until we get to know a place. You see the detail that a new visitor would miss, and that's what I like about your blog."

Another sign of de-Olympification

first posted on 4th October

It's not just the street-food stalls that have returned, it's also..... the backstreet "hairdressers".

These are tiny, squalid salons - usually just off a main street, down one of the little side alleys - where no-one ever seems to be having a haircut, but the exclusively female staff are...... well, rather garishly dressed, and, by Chinese standards, rather voluptuous. Yes, they are in fact mini-brothels.

There used to be a lot of them on Jiugulou Dajie - The Street, my home in my first couple of years here; at that time a main road in name only, it was really no more than a wide hutong (though subsequently redeveloped and broadened into a majestic boulevarde) - where the presence of the private English college I taught at provided a significant source of business (lots of relatively affluent young kids who didn't know how to get laid any other way). Since the Olympic redevelopment of the area, they've all been forced into 'hiding' down the little alleyways round about. And earlier this year, they were all closed down. (I'm not sure if there was any policy targeting them specificially, although I would imagine that there was. However, the general crackdown on migrant workers living here without the requisite residence permit - hukou - will have led to most of their employees being kicked out of the city for the summer.)

Now, at last, they are starting to reappear. There's something oddly comforting about it - even the sleazier aspects of the city form part of its familiar charm.

I was very naive about these places when I first arrived here. The girls would become terribly excited whenever a foreigner walked past - tapping loudly on the window with a coin to get our attention and beckoning us agitatedly to come in. "My god!" I'd think to myself. "Do I really need a haircut that badly?"

Review of the Year - Gary recomends... a haiku

Gary, a regular visitor to The Barstool, has recommended one of my Haiku Bar haiku series - No. 99, on the zen of playing pool. As habitués of my 'drinking blog' will know, this is quite a frequent topic over there (most notably in this early post).

HBH 99

first posted on 26th September

The table, the balls,
The player, the cue are ONE:
Zen of the pool room.

Last night I had one of those moments. It didn't last very long, but for a couple of games last night in the Pool Bar I was suddenly really in the zone. I think I was inspired to dig deep to find my best game by the challenge of two young Chinese guys new to the place, who were just playing too darned well (and were being a bit too cocky about it). I'm not usually able to find that steeliness of focus you need to beat people who are really good (probably better than me) if they are friends of mine. I'd like to have a better record against Kung Fu Man and New Dad and The Chairman, but..... I just don't get really fired up about it.

Last night (well, the early hours of this morning, actually) felt good.

It helps that Luke has finally bought some new cues for the place as well..... (I take this as a reassuring sign that he has no thoughts of selling up just yet!) We had been down to only three: one good one, one bad one, and one with a loose weight in it. Most unsatisfactory. Two or three new sticks now: a bit light, but with decent tips, and ramrod straight. Much more satisfactory.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Review of the Year - Elizabeth recommends....

We kick off my seasonal retrospective with this suggestion from my newest fan, Elizabeth. She claims to have now read my entire year's output on Froogville! I hope she's pulling my leg. A lady should have better uses for her time. And I'd feel somewhat intimidated by the idea that someone else might have come to know my quirks and foibles better than I do myself! I suspect in fact she's only made it half way through January.

Anyway, her pick is rather appropriate for the holiday season, since it discusses the etiquette of eating here in China.

If you have been reading here for a while, and would like to nominate a favourite post for republishing - please feel free to do so.

And please contribute a review (good, bad, or mixed) here.

Chinese people LOVE me! (13)

first posted on 5th January

"Chinese people love me because...... I always remember to leave some food on the plate."

This goes very much against my natural inclinations. My parents grew up during the days of austerity in the Second World War and were thus pretty fanatical during my upbringing about not wasting food; and, while I don't like to be too fanatical about anything, that's always seemed like a pretty sensible policy to me. But here in the Orient, there is a powerful cultural belief that finishing all the food implies that you are still hungry and that therefore your hosts have not served you well enough; to prove that you couldn't eat another thing, you must always leave some food on the dishes.

When dining alone or with foreign friends, we're not too likely to bother about this, just for the sake of sparing the restaurant owner's feelings (although it's pretty hard to under-order in a Chinese restaurant!); but when out with Chinese friends, especially when they're paying (having dinner at people's homes just never seems to happen in Beijing; it's such a restaurant culture here), it is vital good manners to leave food unfinished to show your appreciation.

This curious custom is probably well-known, even to many people who haven't worked or travelled here; but I think it's always worth trying to maintain a high level of self-awareness about things like this. If we allow them to become too internalised, too reflexive, there is a danger we may start using them inappropriately; perhaps too there is a danger that they may start displacing the 'cultural reflexes' of our native culture - and, however long I stay here, I don't want to become Sinicized, thank you very much.

Lately I have been brooding on what I might do with regard to this eating convention if there were an unfamiliar collision between the private and the public spheres - if, for instance, I started dating a Chinese girl (or got a Chinese flatmate). If we were eating on our own together, whether at home or in a restaurant (but especially at home, of course, and especially if they'd done the cooking), would I be feeling all awkward and uncertain about how much of the food I should eat?? "Er, it is OK if I have this last dumpling, is it? You're sure you don't mind?"

Another Christmas treat

The Morecambe & Wise Christmas Show was the centrepiece of the festive season during my 1970s childhood. There is one clip in particular I've been looking for - a very simple little gag from, I think, the opening of one of the Christmas specials. Eric and Ernie are decked out in white tie and tails, and standing very sombrely each behind a pair of kettle drums. Music begins to play and Ernie pounds out a vigorous flourish on his drums. Eric's turn comes to repeat the figure with even greater gusto..... and we discover that his drums are in fact open vats of milk, so that when he beats on their surface he gets completely soaked. One of the most gloriously silly visual jokes I have seen - it still brings a warm glow to the heart 30 years later.

But I couldn't find that, alas. So, here instead is the classic 'André Preview' skit. Possibly the best punchline ever??

Advent silliness (4)

I found it very hard to choose between this

and this

so I offer you them both. The Leprechaun Nativity and The Luau Nativity were very close runners-up! From the Calvacade of Bad Nativities, kindly recommended to me earlier this year by JES.

A Christmas Card

Happy holidays to everyone!

(For me, it's Saturnalia....)

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

A (not quite) final reminder...

My planned End-of-Year Review will run through the 12 Days of Christmas, from December 25th to January 5th: one or two posts each day reprinted from the past year's output on Froogville and Barstool Blues, as recommended by my readers.

If you would like to add a request, it's not too late (but it will be soon, so pull your finger out!): just leave me a comment here, telling me the name and date of a favourite post, and why you liked it.

I think I probably have now goaded responses out of nearly all of my commenters. But who knows? Maybe I can still flush a few 'lurkers' out of the shadows.....

The best of bah-humbuggery

Nobody does it better than Tom Lehrer. Here's his infamous 'Christmas Carol'. No video, I'm afraid - but this does display the lyrics, if you need to brush up your Lehrer.

And just to show that Mr Lehrer and I are equal-opportunity offence-givers, here's his 'Hannukah in Santa Monica'.

All I want for Christmas (3)

All right, if no-one is going to give me MONEY for Christmas, how about some music? I am rather short of seasonal CDs out here.

List of the Day has recently provided a superb two-part rundown of the most improbable Christmas albums of all time, here and here.

I was particularly intrigued by, particularly sceptical about


but, amazingly enough, these do both appear to be genuine. I hope these fine performers were approaching the project with a sense of zestful irony (and self-mockery).... and that they hadn't just fallen upon desperately hard times.

However, I think the most fascinating title on the entire list has to be this:

A collaboration with John Cage, perhaps? I really need to find out what this album is all about. Please bring me this, Santa. Please.

Christmas shopping blues

I have wasted every spare moment of the past 5 or 6 days shopping for various bits and pieces that I felt were necessary to a proper Christmas.

Things like sticky tape, for example. Imported brands never seem to be available here. Locally-made ones very seldom are (you'd think they'd be a regular item in any place selling office stationery, but NO); and, of course, they just don't stick. If any of my friends feels like sending me a seasonal package of goodies this time next year, one or two big rolls of Sellotape would be top of my request list.

However, the main object of my quest these last few days has been parsnips - my favourite winter vegetable. I'm fairly sure I have seen them here in the past: certainly in foreign chain supermarkets like Walmart and Carrefour (although here in Beijing, these are mainly targeted at the local Chinese market, and so don't carry very much in the way of exotic overseas foodstuffs), and even occasionally in Chinese stores and street markets. Or so I thought. Anyway, I've been to every darn place I can think of this year, and not a sign of them - not even in the covered market on Shunyuan Lu, a place where many of the city's foreign restaurants buy their produce: if they haven't got them, I figure no-one has. Alas.

To help in my quest, an English friend who speaks rather good Chinese sent me a text message with the name of the vegetable in Chinese characters and pinyin; at least, she said, this was what two separate dictionaries had told her was supposedly the name: 欧州放风 (ou zhou fang feng). I haven't been able to verify this from the online dictionary I usually use. [Brendan, can you offer any help??] None of the Chinese people I showed this to evinced any sign of recognition at all, not even a couple who are in the bar/restaurant business; though quite a few of them laughed.

The problem is that these characters correspond to something like European Union break wind (thing). Well, that final feng, apparently, can mean 'rumour' or 'news' as well as wind, and I am unable to determine whether it is also used of intestinal gas; so, maybe it has to do with breaking news? But how does that make any sense as the name for a vegetable? However, as I am now developing some alertness to the Chinese sense of humour, it seems entirely plausible to me that they would name an unfamiliar foodstuff something like "Makes foreigners fart". I'm stumped, though, as to why they would do that to the dear old parsnip: in my experience, it is one of the least flatus-inducing foods.

Anyway, it looks as though - despite the semi-coordinated efforts of four people scouring the city and comparing notes via text message - we face a parsnipless Christmas tomorrow. Swedeless and turnipless, too (and again, these are vegetables that I have seen here in past years; the ubiquitous luobu - the Chinese 'white radish' - wouldn't quite work as a substitute, I don't think). Brussels sprouts were also looking a lost cause, until I finally turned up some in the Sanlitun Jenny Lou's yesterday afternoon (having already come up blank in two other branches of this foreigner-oriented Chinese supermarket chain!). Now, if ever there were a vegetable that deserved to be dubbed European fart-inducer, sprouts would be it! I suspect, though, that the Chinese for this is just 'very small cabbage' - it's a very literal-minded language, most of the time.

Anyway, a Happy Christmas to all of my readers! I hope you have parsnips, if parsnips are a thing you like.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Advent silliness (3)

All I Want For Christmas (2)

OK, yesterday's suggestion was silly: what would I do with Viagra??

No, I'm a simple man. A nice big stack of money is what I'd really like for Christmas. And I have been very NICE this year, Santa, really.

Though, in current times, I suppose dollars are not really the thing. Could you make it krugerrands, Santa? Pretty please.

Signs & portents (The End of Days?)

People sometimes ask me, "So, how is the global meltdown affecting China?"

Well, it's difficult to say.

One of the first things I notice is that people seem to favour the 'tsunami' metaphor rather than 'meltdown'. Does that have any wider currency, or is it just a regional linguistic preference? A couple of the Chinese "academics" I edit for have used it already, and I noticed Hong Kong supremo Donald Tsang say it on TV the other day. I suppose, as a metaphor it has the advantage of suggesting transience - whereas a 'meltdown' can just go on and on (hmmm, perhaps not a good time to mention 'the China syndrome'?!), and even when it's over leaves an irremediable mess.

Then, the air has been uncannily clear over the past few months. I mean, even cleaner than it was during the Olympics. It started getting all crappy again pretty much the instant the Paralympics was done, but then it suddenly brightened up again at the beginning of October and we've been almost entirely smog-free ever since (we've had just a few bad days, but I'm sure it's been almost entirely domestic coal-burning and the occasional blitz of ancestor-worship bonfires, not industrial haze). Admittedly, the weather is usually pretty good through much of the autumn and early winter: it's an especially windy season, which helps; also, the government's statistics-wranglers are usually working desperately to hit their promised quota of 'blue sky days' for the year, and so ordering sporadic factory shutdowns to achieve that. However, we do also get a lot of really shitty air quality days through October to December every year, and this year there have been NONE. Chinese friends will insist that factory closures have thus far been limited to a few highly-publicised incidents in Guangdong, but..... I really think there isn't much manufacturing industry going on in the entire country at the moment.

There is a lot of forced jollity in the media about how pro-active the government is being in trying to stimulate the domestic economy (to bail out the rest of the world - thank you, China!). However, China Daily last week also mentioned a survey which suggested that the typical response of Chinese citizens - 3 out of every 4 respondents! - to the economic crisis was to "save more" (and, given the continuing crapness of China's banks - much improved since I've been here, but still pretty terrible - much of that saving is going to be, like my own, under the mattress). China is seeking to maintain its nominal GDP growth - and restrict unemployment - by pouring money into state-funded infrastructure projects. Stimulating domestic consumer-spending is a bit of a pipe-dream, I fear. And when you've become used to a decade or more of continuous double-digit growth, 7.5% counts as a recession.

The roads are oddly deserted. Really, the traffic is much better now than it was during the Olympics. OK, there has been a new restriction brought in to cut down car use (registration plates with a certain last digit are banned from operating on a particular day: I'm not sure if that works out to a 1-in-10 or a 1-in-5 reduction - though it seems to me like a pretty difficult system to publicise or enforce effectively); but during the Olympics, there were similar measures intended to cut down car use by half, and, in addition, most government-owned vehicles (nearly half of the total on the roads in the capital!) were pulled out of service, and a huge number of people quit town for a fortnight to avoid the whole circus. I would say that the number of cars on the roads now is significantly lower than it was during the Olympics, and down by maybe as much as 50% on what it was 6 months ago. Yes, maybe some people just learned to do without their cars during the period of Olympic restrictions - but I rather think that at least some of this lull on the roads is the result of reduced business activity (or of belt-tightening, loss of economic confidence, converting that second-car-for-the-Mrs into something-more-portable-like-gold). I am thus far something of a lone conspiracy theorist in making this observation, but I'm confident that in time more and more people will realise the truth of this. When the cars disappear from the roads in these sorts of numbers, it's a sign of something pretty dramatic - and not good.

Oh yes, and this may not be so much of a 'meltdown' thing as a 'China's economic miracle is built on straw' thing, but..... a couple of weeks ago I learned that almost all of China's domestic airlines have been losing money hand over fist for the past year or more. This being China, their response has been to start omitting to pay their landing fees to the airports. Since the state has to prop up this industry (and is probably still the major investor even in nominally privatised airlines), we can be sure that there will be some kind of surreptitious bail-out. But we had reached the awkward, ugly, risible stage of having the chairman of the Airports Association going on TV to threaten the airlines with being refused landing rights if they didn't make good on their arrears. What larks.

Ah, and then I mentioned the other week the curious phenomenon of how massive road and sidewalk mending operations around the city of Beijing appeared to have been abandoned half-finished for two months. Something odd going on with that too......

My basic Jeremiah message (or perhaps Cassandra?) for you is this: if you're waiting for China to dig the rest of the world out of a hole, think again. China is built over a hole of its own, and this global crisis might just cause it to topple in. Interesting times.....

Monday, December 22, 2008

Christmas is CANCELLED!

Well, the original 'plan' is, anyway.

You see, one of my pool-playing buddies has this friend who has a Chinese wife who manages a European restaurant..... that isn't opening on Christmas Day. So, the suggestion had been made that we, a select group of friends, could take the place over for the day, and try our hands at knocking together a Christmas lunch in a professional kitchen.

Yes, I fear it was always 'a bridge too far'. The number of invitees began to snowball (and to include more Chinese guests, thereby increasing the pressure to provide a mixture of Western and Chinese dishes; we'd already been committed to trying to do two roasts, since the Welsh, apparently, favour lamb over turkey as their traditional Christmas meat - now it seemed as though we might have to add Beijing Duck to the menu as well!). And we'd had no time to get together for a planning meeting - to discuss how we were going to divvy up the shopping and cooking (and cleaning up afterwards!) duties for such a large party.

It was small wonder that the project rapidly unravelled at the end of last week.

However, despite the rather high potential for chaos and acrimony in the kitchen, I had rather been looking forward to it. After all, what is Christmas without a little chaos and acrimony?! I had been nervous about the prospect of trying to use professional cooking facilities (and in a kitchen/restaurant I'd never seen before) - without trashing them - but I was also strangely excited by the challenge.

I think we must try to resurrect this idea next year - keeping tighter control on the numbers, and allowing ourselves a bit more preparation time to address the logistics.

I had briefly worried that I would now be left friendless and foodless on the big day (90% of my friends have left town this year; and it's almost certainly now too late to book anywhere for a meal out.....); but instead I find myself helping my friend DD to cook dinner round at her place. An altogether more manageable sort of party, but still..... 7 adults and 2 young children: far from straightforward!

All I want for Christmas (1)

From those fine people who brought you the Tampon Menorah.....

Mother, Governor, future President... and cake-maker!

OK, after this, I promise - NO MORE Sarah Palin jokes.

Bon mot for the week

"You cannot do a kindness too soon, for you never know how soon it will be too late."

Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882)

Sunday, December 21, 2008

More festive frivolity

In my researches the other week into the YouTube archive of Adam & Joe skits, I found one particularly good one that did cater for an embedded link. This is one of their soft toy sketches - but not, for once, a complete film parody but a profile/interview/plug with Guy Ritchie talking about Snatch, hosted by Tom Terrapin (an affectionate piss-take of Tom Paulin, a wonderfully lugubrious Irish academic and poet who has established a bit of a niche for himself as a presenter on BBC arts review programmes).

A change of diet

The notorious "man-eating sofa" has now taken to eating mobile phones as well.

That's twice in two days!

You'd think I'd get wise....

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Film list - COLD!!

I had thought of trying to come up with a Christmas list, but..... in that category, I fear, the choices are severely limited and all a bit obvious. In fact, I start getting stumped after the thoroughly charming old 'Do you believe in Santa?' classic Miracle On 34th Street (I'm thinking of the black & white original, of course; I've never seen the later remake). I'm not a big fan of A Christmas Carol (Dickens at his most gloopily over-sentimental!), although the blackly funny Bill Murray update of the story, Scrooged, is one of the few modern Christmas films that I enjoy. I haven't managed to warm to It's A Wonderful Life, either. In fact, it's probably my least favourite Frank Capra film: mawkish and far too long. I know it's become a Christmas staple for Americans, repeated on TV every year and reverentially watched by entire families; but we Brits don't have that sentimental history with the film. To my knowledge, it has only ever been shown on British TV once (at least, up until the late '80s or early '90s, which was the one and only time I got to see it).

So, discarding a Christmas theme (and prompted by the weather, which has just turned brass monkeys here in Beijing again!), I thought I'd instead offer a list of the coldest films I know.

The best COLD films ever made

Nanook of the North
(Dir. Robert J. Flaherty, 1922)

The Gold Rush
(Dir. Charles Chaplin, 1925)

Scott of the Antarctic
(Dir. Charles Frend, 1948)

The Savage Innocents
(Dir. Nicholas Ray, 1960)
[Anthony Quinn as an Inuit is a bit cheesy, but it's a well-made quasi-documentary about life in north Alaska.]

The Red Tent
(Dir. Mikhail Kalatozov, 1969)
[This all-star international co-production is, I fear, largely forgotten now, but it is one of the most gripping Arctic survival films I have seen. It tells the true story of the Italian general Umberto Nobile's (Peter Finch) doomed attempt in 1928 to become the first man to fly an airship to the North Pole. Overcome by bad weather, the airship crashed on the ice-cap. Eventually, Nobile and some of his crew were rescued, but many others perished, including some of those who tried to mount rescue missions; the famed polar explorer Roald Amundsen (Sean Connery) disappeared without trace while trying to reach Nobile.]

McCabe & Mrs Miller
(Dir. Robert Altman, 1971)
[Surely the coldest of all Westerns?]

Jeremiah Johnson
(Dir. Sydney Pollack, 1972)
[This very nearly made it into my 'favourite Westerns' list last month; but I suppose I think of it more as a wilderness survival tale than a classic Western.]

Dersu Uzala
(Dir. Akira Kurosawa, 1975)
[Probably the best film in this selection, and also perhaps the coldest; shot partly on location in Siberia.]

The Thing
(Dir. John Carpenter, 1982)
["Man is the warmest place to hide!" said the posters. Carpenter's canny blend of Alien and Invasion Of The Body Snatchers is one of the best horror films ever made. The Antarctic location creates an overwhelming atmosphere of claustrophobia and paranoia.]

(Dir. Nils Gaup, 1987)
[An old Lapp legend vividly brought to life, this is a compellingly simple little film. Though there are others on this list that might make you feel more of a chill in your bones, this is almost certainly the film that was actually the coldest to make. I think it is the only film to have been shot entirely on location within the Arctic Circle; and I gather it was quite a problem to stop the film-stock freezing in the camera! IMDB tells me there was a Hollywood remake of it last year - I am curious, but also filled with trepidation. You shouldn't mess with a classic.]

(Dir. Joel and Ethan Coen, 1995)

A Simple Plan
(Dir. Sam Raimi, 1998)
[I actually rather prefer this to Fargo. One of the best - and bleakest - thrillers of the last few decades.]

(Dir. Charles Sturridge, 2002)
[A two-part TV movie made for the UK's Channel 4, this is rather too long for a regular feature film, and rather more modest in its production values than we might hope for in a cinema film. Nevertheless, it's a thrilling re-enactment of what is surely the most awe-inspiring of all tales of survival in the Antarctic.]

Touching The Void
(Dir. Kevin Macdonald, 2003)
[One of the best dramatised documentaries ever made, a heart-breakingly intense re-telling of the ordeal of a pair of British climbers tackling a remote Andean peak in the 1980s. There is one point at which the main protagonist, Joe Simpson, knows that his life depends on his ability to thread one loop of rope through another. It should be a simple enough task, especially for such an experienced climber; but there's 20 degrees of windchill and his hands have stiffened into clumsy claws. Watching him try and fail again and again to thread that rope-loop is just agonizing for the viewer - your identification with the predicament is total.]

Eight Below
(Dir. Frank Marshall, 2006)
[Yes, I know, I had low expectations of this when I first heard of it, expected it to be very twee and Disney; but, in fact, this story of a team of sled-dogs on an Antarctic research station who are abandoned to fend for themselves when the winter storms arrive early one year is utterly absorbing - and unquestionably very, very cold.]


Friday, December 19, 2008

Yet again, I despair of the Chinese education biz

Yesterday, I was approached by a friend of a friend about the possibility of doing some writing/polishing work - for an educational consultancy that "facilitates" applications for graduate study in US universities.

I've done quite a bit of this sort of work in the past, but I do regard it as something of an ethical minefield, and always proceed very warily to try to keep within what I feel to be an acceptable level of 'application enhancement'. I'm quite happy to advise people on what kind of thing they should write for the personal statements, essays, etc. (though people are never happy with just that!). I don't mind giving detailed feedback, suggesting changes, rearrangements, and extra material (or different emphases) that might be useful. I'll even agree to 'polishing' the English, including a fair amount of re-writing - just so long as the substantive content has all been provided by the candidates themselves, and we're trying to preserve the general character of their original English (not vainly trying to make it 'perfect'). You can readily imagine what a muddy area this is, how difficult it can be to keep that line of moral rectitude clearly defined in your mind.

And, of course, what Chinese would-be graduate students invariably want is for someone to just write the whole bloody thing for them.

And that's what this agency was asking me for. I said NO, of course; tersely and emphatically.

Well, at least they had the decency to be a little shamefaced about it (or perhaps just tactically dishonest?): they claimed that the essays they wanted me to write would not actually be submitted with any applications, but would simply be used by their clients as 'models' to guide them.

Yeah, right. Plagiarism is a particularly big problem in China: there seems to be little understanding of the concept; and it fits all too snugly into the wider culture of pervasive cheating in academe, where anything that works is accepted as OK (hmm, yes, in fact, that is the culture of the whole country, in everything - Deng and his cats, again). If I write 'model answers' for these guys, the very best that can happen is that they will follow the template slavishly, quoting long sections verbatim, and only occasionally adding crude - and not always very appropriate - examples or explanations of their own. The worst that can happen - and IT WOULD, for a certainty - is that some of them will submit one of my 'models' as their own work, with few if any changes made to it. (And, probably, without even making any attempt to remember, understand, or research what I'd written about. I was briefly quite amused to contemplate some of these guys being challenged at interview to explain their choice of 'favourite character in literature', and having to reveal that they had absolutely no idea who Holden Caulfield was, or why they had chosen to call him "a whiny, self-dramatising little charlatan". I soon restrained these ungenerous impulses. Schadenfreude, alas, is not an adequate motive for compromising one's ethical principles.)

Guys (and gals), please try to get this through your heads:
The point of these writing tasks is a) to provide evidence of your level of written English, and b) to demonstrate your individuality.

You can't possibly demonstrate your individuality by following someone else's template or 'model answer' - even if you do customize it appropriately with details from your own experience and opinions. It is utterly fatuous - completely bloody pointless - to attempt to utilize anyone else's writing when completing your university applications. And, really, if you aren't able to attempt this kind of writing task in English unaided, then you aren't fit to undertake graduate study overseas.

Oh, yes, and if I help you to look smarter or more competent in English than you actually are, then I am colluding in your cheating - and, maybe, am helping you to win a place at university that you don't deserve (and probably won't profit from), and thereby denying that place to someone else who'd make better use of it than you. I'm not prepared to do that.

[I only compromise my principles on this issue ever so slightly, to the extent of doing some prompting and 'polishing' for grad school applicants, because I figure that universities expect that everyone is getting some help of this kind, and therefore make allowances for it.

I realise I am a freakish anomaly in taking this moral stance. There is a thriving industry here in China for 'ghostwriting' university applications. And, I fear, most of the universities must be quite well aware of this, but just don't give a damn - because they don't care whether the majority of their overseas students will actually be any good, they just care about collecting their fees.]

This week's studio highlight

We've had another run of recording scripts this week where - contrary to usual practice - we're not allowed to correct anything.

This meant that I had to keep a straight face while discussing the American mega-chain, Wart-mark.

(By the way, one of the local Chinese supermarket chains blatantly apes the famous trade name by calling itself Wu-Mart. In these times of improving IPR enforcement in China [no, don't laugh], I wonder how long they'll be able to keep getting away with that.)

Haiku for the week

The holidays drag,
A season of emptiness;
Far from our loved ones.

I do, as a rule, rather like Christmas. But this year, I'm missing my family and friends back home more than usual; and most of my friends here have fled the country.... It's likely to be a drab and uneventful next couple of weeks, I fear.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

More Advent silliness

Why, why, in the name of god, WHY? What do the Madame Tussaud's people think they're up to?? Is this somehow sly humour, or is it just sheer unadulterated madness? I fear, the latter. (The middle magus is Prince Phillip - an even more unfathomable choice than Blair and Bush!!)

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

The 12 Days of Christmas - a year-end review?

I've conceived a plan to try to give myself a break from daily blogging over the upcoming holiday by re-printing a selection of the best posts from the last 12 months.

I have endeavoured to contact all of my 'regular' readers (and/or anyone who's ever left a favourable comment!) to ask them if they can nominate one post they remember as a personal favourite - from either or both of my blogs. I already have a number of replies, and a few more promises "to get around to it".

However, I thought I'd make a more public announcement - just in case there's anyone I missed; or in case there are some lurkers I don't yet know about out there who'd like to join in.

Just leave me a comment here with the name and date of a post you like (and perhaps just a line or two about why, if you can be bothered).

I'm intending to run this series of re-posts as a sort of End of Year Review from 25th December to 5th January - so you still have plenty of time. I'll put a notice up over on The Barstool as well. Please join in.

'Advent' silliness

Not that I have any truck with the religious aspect of Christmas, you understand.... but I do get rather sentimental about the children's tradition of counting down the last few weeks or days before the big day with a special Advent Calendar. For a '70s child like me, Blue Peter is always the key reference for this. This classic BBC children's magazine show (50 years old this year!) went out on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons, and on each of the last 4 shows before Christmas they'd light one more candle on their four-pronged 'advent crown' (Note: this link blocked in China!!) - a hanging decoration precariously constructed from coat-hangers and tinsel, which always seemed likely to be an atrocious fire risk (see below).

Now, I'm probably already too late to keep pace with them, since Christmas Day is falling on a Thursday this year, but.... I have a series of 3 or 4 amusing Christmas pictures to share with you over the coming two weeks. Ho, ho, ho!

First up is this. My discovery of
'tampon art' the other week - via the reliably diverting List of the Day website - led me to investigate the artform's home website, Tampon Crafts (slogan: For any time of the month...), where they have such jaw-dropping wonders as..... this Christmas Tree. (They're very multicultural: they also have a menorah - check it out.)

Call me paranoid

I know you all do already, don't you?

This morning I received my first - probably only, this year - Christmas parcel from overseas (abundant thanks to my old Oxford chum, The Nags, and, more particularly, to Mrs Nags). It had only taken 12 days or so to reach me. It had, however, been brutally ripped open (for 'routine inspection' by China Post??). Packages of confectionery inside (which, I think, is not strictly legal to bring into the country) were ignored, but the gift-wrapped package containing a book and a CD had its top chopped off (smashing the corner of the CD case and significantly distressing the top end of the book - although, given the evident violence of this operation, I suppose I should be grateful that the top 2" of the book wasn't sliced clean off!). Over the years, I have had quite a few parcels from friends abroad fail to reach me altogether. A writer friend in America claims that she twice tried to send me advance copies of her debut novel a couple of years ago, but neither one reached me (she'd called her book The Dissident - do you suppose that might have been the problem?).

This, then, was quite a distressing start to the day.

I also suffered a power outage today. Most inconvenient. Unlike last time, I couldn't see any obvious maintenance work on the power lines in progress, so I was briefly inclined to wonder if the powers-that-be were beginning a campaign of petty persecution against me (perhaps for being foolhardy enough to publish some positive comments on you-know-who just recently?). I soon discovered that the power to my entire apartment complex had been cut (but, hey, you know - in this country they really might be willing to inconvenience 100 people just to put the wind up one troublemaker..... happens all the time....). But..... well, the power was restored after only 5 or 6 hours, so perhaps it was just 'maintenance' after all.

But then.... as I was heading off to work just before 9am.... I found the neighbourhood crawling with cops! 2 vans and 3 or 4 squad cars, and perhaps more on the way: 15 or 20 uniforms suddenly descending on the row of shops at the end of my street! Definitely something afoot!!

But it couldn't have been anything to do with little old me, could it? Could it??

Monday, December 15, 2008

More football joy

Bereft of playmates and at a loose end of a Monday evening, I once again found myself watching the CCTV5 'World Football Evening' tonight.

Last week, we got a barely intelligible 40-minute mishmash of highlights from recent Barca v Real Madrid matches: great moments of football, but no real story - it was difficult to distinguish the different games, or to keep track of the score in any individual one of them. Tonight we had a retrospective of the career of the great Brazilian striker Ronaldo. Again, there was no kind of coherence of presentation: clips from his recent spell at AC Milan were jumbled up - seemingly quite at random - with bits from the early and middle phases of his career. However, this didn't really matter too much, because essentially it was ALL GOALS. And what goals! The man had such power and pace as well as poise and balance, such a deft touch, such an overwhelming confidence. Almost all of these goals (probably 30 or more were shown) involved him picking the ball up 25 or 30 yards out (on quite a few occasions, perhaps 40 yards or more out; once, in his own half!), sensing a possible gap in the defence ahead and just making a bee-line for goal in a surging, unstoppable run. Time and again he did it. He must have scared the crap out of defences: square passes across the back line were definitely not a good idea when he was anywhere around.

However, the ultimate example of this sort of grace & power goal - tearing the guts out of a defence with devastating pace and unshakeable composure on the ball - has to be this one, from the phenomenal Liberian player George Weah, when he was playing for AC in the '90s. He wins the ball in his own penalty area and runs through the entire opposing team to score. I remember the Italian media dubbed it "the coast-to-coast goal". OK, it's only against lowly Verona, but still..... as one of the YouTube commenters observed when I first found this posted a year or two back, "sheer football pornography"! Also worth bearing in mind that many might have thought of him as being in the twilight of his career at this point, having enjoyed several prime years in France with Monaco and then PSG: this is the beginning of his second season in Italy, and he's just about to turn 30: but he would play another 4 seasons at Milan and rack up a total of 46 goals for them. There's more of 'King George' here - 10 best career goals.