Thursday, July 31, 2008


One of the white-uniformed flunkies who has to try to wrangle passengers through the subway "security check" at one of the stations I've been using most regularly of late was wearing such an extravagantly long face when I passed her this afternoon (I was exiting, and there had evidently been no incoming travellers for a while) that I couldn't help teasing her a little, to try to coax a smile out of her.

"Cheer up," I said. "It's only one more month."

"TWO months," she corrected me, miserably.

Ah, yes, I'd momentarily forgotten about the sodding Paralympics. Life won't be getting back to 'normal' for us here in The Jing until October. Sigh.

A 'blue sky' Olympics?? (Hollow laughter)

The Olympic Village officially opened last weekend, but I gather that some competitors were checking in even earlier. The Australian delegation, for some reason, moved in the weekend before. I imagine the majority of competitors will be arriving over the next few days.

I understand the need to allow some time for overcoming jet-lag and getting acclimatised to the local environment, but...... I really can't see any point in coming to Beijing any earlier than is absolutely necessary.

The air quality is still dismal. (A friend told me today that attempts to clean up the air here have concentrated on the heavier particles and vehicle emissions, and completely overlooked certain potent carcinogens that we have billowing around us. I think he said this was a WSJ story, but I couldn't find it when I just checked. Anyone have a link for it?)

The closing down of factories and restrictions on road traffic have had some effect, but the bulk of the crap in the air is demolition debris (and I dread to think what kind of nasties there are in that; I've seen workmen out at the '50s factory complex at Dashanzi removing huge pieces of asbestos-clad piping without any safety gear at all), sand, and dust. It hangs in the air because the city tends to be relatively windless and appallingly humid during the second half of the summer (and the humidity has been made even worse by the manic over-watering of all the specially planted Olympic 'greenery').

Frankly, I just wouldn't trust any official API figures coming out of Beijing at the moment, however closely they're supposedly being monitored by foreign agencies. It's claimed that the API has been down around 100 recently - but, as this article points out, that's still terrible. Anything over 50 is a very significant health risk. If they got it down to 25 or so, that would still be like mid-town Manhattan in the rush hour - hardly ideal for athletic competition, but tolerable. There isn't a chance in hell of that happening.

But my impression is that the API here has often been well over 100 recently. I trust my eyes: I can tell when the visibility is lousy. I trust my throat, my lungs: I can tell that this cough, this sore throat isn't natural.

It's only rained twice in the last fortnight. The grass is turning brown. Every tree is surrounded by its own little dustbowl. Although the frantic hutong renovation work of the past two months is now over, many of the piles of sand dumped in the street to supply this still remain - uncovered, slowly blowing away. The major building sites were all supposed to be suspending work well before the Olympics (there was talk a year or two ago of a 6-month moratorium! Perhaps that was only ever a rumour?) - but I think the deadline for the shutdown was extended until today, and certainly many of them seem to have been still fully active until very recently. Despite the ejection of most of the city's population of casual labourers, small-scale building operations appear to be continuing all over town.

The humidity is high. And the dust in the air is just appalling.

Don't expect any track & field records to be broken at this Games. Don't expect the Marathon to take place at all.

After last night's (chemically engineered) torrential downpour, the air was - to some extent - 'washed clean': today was one of the best days we've had in quite a while. Unfortunately, the clammy humidity that inevitably follows a heavy rainfall in the summer meant that dust and smog were pretty soon building up again. And even in the early morning, when things were about as tickety-boo as they're ever likely to get here....... well, I don't believe for one moment that the API was down to the low 40s level that was being officially claimed all day long. When I went out after lunch, the air was starting to get pretty caustic again. In addition to being a "No Fun" Olympics and a "Mafan" Olympics, this is, of course, going to be a "Lying Their Arses Off" Olympics.

The Olympics loom....

While the city empties out its regular inhabitants - both Chinese and foreign - it is starting to fill (well, no, not 'fill' - the numbers are probably only significant, only visible because the streets are otherwise so relatively deserted) with Olympic visitors.

Two new regulars in my favourite bar this week are a pair of engineers who install and maintain some of the high-tech equipment used in the dope-testing.

Now and then you see people walking around the city with their Olympic Village passes still hung ostentatiously around their necks (is it mere inadvertence, or conscious showing off, I wonder). This is something that should be discouraged or prohibited by the security regime (if there were any security!), since they are a mighty tempting target for theft - for souvenir hunters and would-be event-crashers as much as for terrorists.

And last night I briefly got tempted to tag along with a bloke I met over dinner who had scored an invitation to an Opening Ceremony rehearsal.

Oh, yes, barely a week to go now. We're definitely gearing up......

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

It's that girl again

So, having given up on ever hearing again from that dratted publishing flunkie for whom I'd done several hours of work 10 days ago......

Out of the blue, she calls me on Monday evening. Yes, that's Monday evening. I am in a bar, about to go and have dinner with my buddy, The Chairman. This is not a good time. But what have we come to expect from her?

We have a long discussion. I tell her pretty much what I think of her - but in restrained terms, without being rude.

She wants me to meet with her author, some eccentric prof from Tsinghua. He really liked my work, wants to discuss his project with me, might have some more work to throw my way. I really don't want to work with this woman ever again. I don't want any more work from this guy, if it's the computer-generated garbage I had to wade through last time. I am merely manouevring to try to make sure I get paid for the work I've already done.

OK, when could we meet? "Tomorrow!" I'm not really free on Tuesday, but it seems she and the prof are jetting off to a conference in Indonesia on Wednesday and really need to discuss the editing with me before that. So, why are they only getting in touch with me 36 hours in advance of their departure?? On a Monday evening?? How many times have I bewailed the absurd last-minutism of the Chinese??

Reluctantly, I agree. But I point out that I want to be paid in cash at the outset of the meeting, before I discuss anything. And I also emphasise that this is highly inconvenient for me, and that I can spare them no more than one hour. Fine. All sorted.

We've had a long discussion, and we've got everything clear. Right?

No. An hour later, she sends me a text message. She needs me to edit the second half of the manuscript. By tomorrow. (A text message! Why can't she bloody well phone? This is major!!) I have already explained that I am out to dinner for the rest of the evening, and will be busy with something else all day on Tuesday. I reply by text message, remind her of this...... telling her that she is a crazy woman, and that what she asks is completely fucking impossible.

She doesn't reply. Worrying that I may have blown my chances of collecting the promised fee for the first half of the manuscript, I relent slightly - and suggest that I will skim the second half as best I can, if she will promise me an additional fee for doing so. To work through it thoroughly would, I guess, take a good 5 or 6 hours; but I can get up early the next day and do a superficial run-through in an hour or two, for an extra 500 kuai. She agrees.

At last, I can get back to enjoying my evening out with my friend.

Well, no, not quite. A little while later, I get yet another text message from her. (I'm in quite a bit of a fume with her again by now; not least because I have earlier asked her to text me her e-mail address, so that I have a more reliable method of keeping in touch with her...... and can attempt to verify that she does indeed work for the publishing house she claims to. 2 hours on, she has still omitted to do this.) This time she is fretting about the rendezvous I have specified: do I know the name of the coffee shop? No, I don't - and how the fuck would that help, anyway? I have given very clear and precise directions to it, practically the goddamn GPS co-ordinates. It is the only coffee shop anywhere nearby. It is really well-known, really conspicuous, really easy to find. Shut up and leave me alone, you wretched girl.

Tuesday dawns a miserable day. Having to get up at 6am to have another go at this manuscript-from-hell doesn't help my mood. As it happens, I get it finished quite quickly, and can move on to my other work.

At 10.40 - 20 minutes before my rendezvous, and rather before I need to leave my apartment - the dratted girl starts pestering me by SMS again about the name and location of the coffee shop. I reiterate what I told her the night before.

As I set out, it starts to rain heavily.

Now she phones me. She couldn't find the coffee shop. She doesn't believe that it exists. She has gone to another one, about half a mile further away. Would I like to go there? NO, I FUCKING WOULDN'T! I can't afford to take time out of my day for you like this. I am not prepared to walk twice as far, in the rain, and try to find you in some place I've never heard of.

The Chinese in general are pretty hopeless about giving or receiving directions to places, but this girl is just taking it to a whole other level: she is being so staggeringly dim and irritating that she completely exceeds my ordinarily saintly patience. "Come to the meeting place we agreed, or let's forget about the whole thing."

She got her prof to call me back. He was very nearly as bad as her. Could I come and find them and guide them to the rendezvous? No. I am now sitting in my favourite coffee shop, with a frozen mango smoothie, looking out at the rain. I am not going anywhere. This place is on the square between the Drum and Bell Towers, one of the most famous and most conspicuous historic sites in the city. If you can't find that, you must be completely fucking braindead.

I hand my phone over to the counter girl in the shop so that she can explain where we are in Chinese. This was possibly a mistake. She gets very flustered. It takes her 5 minutes. He's really not getting this Drum Tower concept. He is completely fucking braindead.

Anyway.... they were, it seems, all of about 5 minutes' walk away, but it somehow took them a further 15 minutes to find their way to me - making them twenty minutes late.

Imagine my FUME. Amazingly, I didn't throttle them both then and there - although those images danced enticingly through my mind. I was, I confess, pretty damned arsey with them. I don't think I have ever met two people so spectacularly dense and incompetent. And I really don't want to work with them ever again. But they have offered me rather a lot of money to do one last job........

Let's talk about Security (3)

Over the past few weeks, luggage scan machines have been introduced at most of Beijing's subway stations.

We've only just had them installed at my local station - and (at the entrance I usually use) it's been intelligently located at the far side of the ticket hall from the entrance. In fact, it's so inconspicuous and out of the way that a small squad of white-uniformed flunkies is kept busy ushering people across the hall to the machine. At busy times, it's quite easy to avoid their attentions and just walk through the barriers without running your bag through the scanner - although more and more people seem to be accepting their patriotic duty and queueing up placidly for the rigmarole (the gaggle of people waiting around the machine regularly blocks the exit barriers on that side of the hall!).

Many other stations seem to have sited these machines in similarly stupid places - such that it is quite easy to walk right past them and not even notice that they are there. The 'This Way, Please' flunkies seem to have been upping their diligence of late, but they're not exactly coercive...... not exactly efficient. Compliance is still largely down to the personal whim of the passenger.

I'm not sure if they even have these machines at the larger stations (I hardly ever board at Xizhimen or Dongzhimen). I just can't see it being feasible to bag-check everyone during the rush hour.

And are there any guidelines as to what sort of bags need to be checked? I haven't seen any. Again, that seems to be down to the discretion of the individual passenger/terrorist. Backpacks, even small ones, should, of course, be checked. But fanny-packs? And handbags (or man-purses?)? Well, those seem to get ignored (at least, the smaller ones). My laptop case seems to be a threshold item: sometimes it arouses suspicion, sometimes it is ignored. Carrier bags??? Uncertain.

What about prohibited contents? I usually carry a large water bottle with me (since Beijing is appallingly sweaty in the summer, and you can't ever rely on the people you're visiting to provide you with a drink), but this doesn't seem to arouse any interest. I occasionally visit one of the city's foreign grocery stores and bring my shopping back by subway; as often as not, this includes a bottle of whisky - which is, of course, moderately inflammable. But I don't think that would be a problem either.

The thing is - rather as with the similar scanners which have long been in place at the entrances to Beijing's two main railway stations - the staff who man these machines are numb with boredom and pay absolutely no attention to the screens at all. None.

And they don't appear to have any more useful equipment, like chemical sniffers, to supplement the X-ray scan.

What they should really have are DOGS. Not because dogs are better at sniffing out explosives than high-tech machines that cost 10,000 times as much (although this is probably also true - assuming there are enough dogs with this kind of training available). No, just because dogs scare the shit out of people. But they tend to scare the shit even more out of people who feel guilty about something. And most people believe that dogs are uncannily shrewd at sniffing out explosives and such (even if the dogs haven't in fact been trained how to do this, who's going to know?). As I mentioned the other day, security is mostly about making the public feel safe and the bad guys feel threatened. Dogs are excellent for this.

And the main purpose of these blanket security checks is not to catch the occasional forgetful NRA member who inadvertently left a Colt .45 in his carry-on bag; it's to make bad guys so nervous that they give themselves away.

Are the security checks on the Beijing subway thorough enough to achieve this end? NO WAY.

[And, so far, they're also missing out on one of the most basic precautions that London has wised up to in the last few years: transparent trash bins.]

Monday, July 28, 2008

Let's talk about Security (2)

My musing on the topic of security today is prompted by the fact that I got a bit riled up last week over this post by a fellow Beijing laowai blogger in which he made light of the recent spate of pre-Olympic bar closures, and even suggested that some of these closures might be justified by "security concerns".

The venues to which he referred were those around the Workers' Stadium.

These venues are within the Stadium complex, but have been separated off from the area immediately around the Stadium itself by a high, robust wire fence, a fence which will no doubt be heavily guarded by soldiers, attack dogs, and closed-circuit TV cameras placed around it every few yards. It is therefore impossible to conceive how the continuing operation of these bars, restaurants, and nightclubs would give anyone the opportunity of improper access to the Stadium itself.

The entertainment venues concerned are far enough away from the Stadium that it is impossible to conceive how they might be used as a base for some kind of terrorist attack on the Stadium - unless someone somehow managed to smuggle in a rocket-launcher of some kind (taller residential and office buildings in the vicinity are much more of a risk for that kind of thing). And since access to these venues is restricted, it would be perfectly possible to subject their customers to the very same security checks that the spectators entering the Stadium itself will undergo.

If the authorities' concern was that a bomb attack might be made on one of these businesses..... well, it tends to be rather easier to infiltrate a place to do something naughty like that when it's derelict.

And if, as blogger Boyce suggests, the authorities' concern is simply that they might look bad if some sort of incident should happen in one of these places...... well, why these places in particular? Is it purely because of their proximity to an Olympic venue (not the main Bird's Nest Stadium - this is a much older venue that's only going to be used for some of the football)? If that is the case, where do you draw the line? Wouldn't a bomb or a shooting in a coffee shop 20 yards over the road from the Workers' Stadium be just as bad? Wouldn't a terrorist incident anywhere in the city while the Games are on - whether inside an Olympic venue, next to a venue, or far from any venue - be just as bad?? If this were the rationale, then everything on the main roads along the four sides of the Workers' Stadium complex ought to be closed as well. And everything along the North 4th Ringroad (where most of the main Olympic venues are).

[In fact, it's not even clear whether all of the Workers' Stadium is being closed down. Only the restaurants and nightclubs at the North Gate seem to have been mentioned in the press. What about the discotheques and the bowling alley on the west side, or the Blue Zoo aquarium at the south end? Are they still open? That would make a complete nonsense of the security argument in favour of the closures!]

Luckily, even this government isn't quite daft enough to believe that the way to achieve security against terrorist threats is to close down every possible target. Not quite daft enough. At least, I hope they aren't.

I think The Telegraph's Beijing correspondent, Richard Spencer (a contemporary of mine at Oxford, though I don't think I ever met him back then), hit the nail on the head the other day when he suggested that the crackdown on the nightlife scene was all about 'image' rather than terrorism - and in particular that excessive revelry by laowai (and a certain class of young Beijinger) might prove shocking to Chinese Olympic visitors from the provinces, naive and simple folk experiencing their nation's capital for the first time.

Yep, that's what it's all about, I think. "Legitimate security concerns", my arse!

Let's talk about Security (1)

There are 5 Golden Rules......

1) Nothing is ever 100% secure.

2) Security is 90% PR: it's more about making the public feel safe (and the troublemakers feel threatened) than about the actuality of the situation.

3) The success of a security regime is ultimately judged more on its crisis response (and its subsequent PR handling of events) than on the effectiveness of its precautions.

4) Security is always a trade-off between minimizing risk and minimizing inconvenience.

5) Nothing is ever 100% secure.

I suppose number 2 is the most controversial (but it's not intended to devalue the importance of the other 10%, the more concrete security measures). I'd suggest number 4 is the most important. Number 3 is the one that I really worry about here in Beijing.

This week's bon mot

"The heart is a museum, filled with the exhibits of a lifetime's loves."

Diane Ackerman

Sunday, July 27, 2008

"Out of my league...."

Robert Graves has often been the choice for one of my 'Poetry Sundays', but I can't believe I haven't got around to posting this one before. My 'theme song', as you might say.

Love Without Hope

Love without hope, as when the young birdcatcher
Swept off his tall hat to the squire's own daughter,
So let the imprisoned larks escape and fly
Singing about her head as she rode by.

Robert Graves (1895-1985)

I HATE Gmail!!!

I have this morning been working through a shortlist of applicants for those teaching jobs in Nanjing I advertised on here a couple of weeks ago.

When Gmail first started up, I created several accounts for myself, but I've never really used any of them. I was just keeping them in reserve in case my preferred accounts (I have multiple personalities!) on Yahoo started getting spammed to death - or getting seriously blocked by the Chinese censors.

However, since I have now had to put an e-mail address out there on the Web (well, not in plain view, but, you know, still soliciting), I thought I'd use one of the previously pristine Gmail ones.

It has just taken me 3 hours to send 10 e-mails. 10 fairly brief e-mails. Most of them to the same recipient.

The compose screen does not work in real time!! It often 'freezes' for 20 or 30 seconds at a time, sometimes indeed for a full minute or two, before displaying the text you've typed in. You are constantly typing blind. Luckily I am a good touch-typist, and don't make many mistakes even when denied the familiar reassurance of immediate feedback. Nevertheless, this is utterly, utterly infuriating, and mind-buggeringly slow.

We get a similar problem here on Blogger occasionally with the over-zealous 'Autosave' cutting in every 20 seconds and - if you're working on a long post, or one with a lot of links and pictures - shutting you down for further input for a good long time. I think it's a similar problem on Gmail - but 10 times worse.

Is anybody else suffering with this??

I suspect that the Kafka Boys may have a hand in this as well. I've heard in the past that Gmail is often unworkably slow in China because intensive filtering of the Google search sites somehow spills over into snail-like connection speeds for the e-mail service as well.

I think I'm going to have to change my contact e-mail address on the teaching websites I've been advertising on......

Friday, July 25, 2008

Something else 'they' can try to ban me for

I posted this over on The Barstool yesterday, but I thought it was important enough to be worth repeating over here. I think the Daily Llama would approve.

My buddy (and, currently, only regular commenter), The British Cowboy, initially missed the joke, bless him.

My favourite music bar, 2 Kolegas, has started stocking 'Tibet' beer.

An exciting novelty. Alas, I have to report that it is not a particularly nice drink. The label describes it as a 'Green Barley Beer' - to my mind, 'green' is not a colour that should ever be used in connection with a beer (I don't even like it as a colour for beer bottles; brown or black - or even blue - is much better). As my friend Ben observed, the flavour is uncomfortably suggestive of lu cha (highly sweetened green tea, a favourite cold soft drink out here). Perhaps that perception was misleadingly implanted in our minds by that dratted word 'green' on the label. Or perhaps it just really does taste...... er, not quite as a beer should.

But, you know, anything makes a pleasant change from bloody Tsingtao. And I rather like the idea of buying a few cases of this stuff for my next party - and just giving it away. I think that will make a very enticing slogan for the flyer, don't you?

I think you know what I'm saying........

This week's haiku

Time dawdles, taunting
The teeming brain, troubled heart:
Insomniac nights.

I've suffered this three times in less than a fortnight now. Not good.

Perhaps it's POS - Pre-Olympic Stress?

Thursday, July 24, 2008

That girl is really starting to annoy me....

The publishing company girl, that is. The one who gave me the bizarre editing job last weekend of checking over tens of thousands of computer-generated sentences.

To recap......

First, she made me waste a whole day waiting in vain for a courier to deliver the manuscript as promised. Then she became completely uncontactable for a week or so following.

Then she got in touch again, and told me the project was still on after all. She made me wait in a whole day for the manuscript delivery again - but at least this time the courier did eventually come.

The manuscript was nearly twice as long as she'd told me it was going to be when we agreed the fee. I tried to contact her over the weekend to discuss this, but she was yet again ignoring her cellphone calls and text messages.

Then she sent a courier to pick up the manuscript on Monday morning without having arranged this with me first. I was trying to have a lie-in, because I'd suffered an episode of insomnia the night before. Having an unannounced stranger arrive at your door is always rather anxiety-making in China. Having the goon lean on your doorbell without getting an answer for half an hour is really, really annoying. I came close to committing homicide, but chose instead to cower under the sheets ignoring him.

I then contacted the girl by text message to make an alternate arrangement to have the manuscript (the half that I'd finished; the amount that I'd been asked to do and had agreed a fee for) collected from the recording studio where I was working that afternoon. Again, the courier didn't come in the 3 hours I was there, and the girl was again uncontactable, ignoring my queries as to whether she had been able to arrange the pick-up as suggested or not. I left the pages with the studio staff, and I gather from them that it was eventually collected. The annoying girl, however, has still not contacted me to confirm this.

So, I am awaiting news on whether they are happy with the work I've done on the first half of the script. I am awaiting news on whether they want me to proceed with the second half of the script. I am awaiting news on whether they are willing to offer me a slightly improved fee for the whole job. I am awaiting news on whether they intend to pay me anything for the work I have already done.

The girl has now contacted me on at least 3, possibly 4 different mobile phone numbers (possibly 5, if the person who called 20 times on Monday morning was her rather than the courier). And a landline number. She has never answered any of these numbers when I have tried to call her. She has not responded to any text messages I've sent her in 4 days.

I am now in a HUGE bloody fume about it.

I don't have an e-mail address for her, and know her only by an English name - so, there is every likelihood that I am going to get scammed.

However, I am reasonably confident that I know which publishing house she works for, and I am thinking of going around there tomorrow morning and screaming at people until somebody brings me the bitch's head on a platter.

Update: I didn't go and scream at people this morning, because I am a nice person, really.

And also because I get quite a lot of work out of other people at this publishing house, both editing and recording, so I don't want to burn down the bridge.

And also because I had another bout of insomnia last night, and wasn't in a fit state to do anything this morning.

As it happened, she finally got in touch. Well, I think it was her. She didn't identify herself, and was sending me a text message from yet another phone number I didn't recognise. She promised she would contact me "later" today. It's now pretty darned late, and I haven't heard a peep. I've sent a couple of reminders, asking if she is indeed who I think she is. No response.

God help this girl if I ever actually meet her. I've given up on the money now. I just want to let her know what I think of her.

Today's studio humdinger

A boy college student and a girl college student (as it so often is in these dialogues I have to record - ah, it keeps me feeling young!) were discussing their reading habits.

The boy revealed that he particularly liked historical novels, and mentioned two titles that he had read recently.

The girl responded: "You really are enveloped in the fictions."

For some reason, the remark reminded me of my experiences at Xinhua News!

It also occurred to me that this phrase might be somewhat apposite for our own dear Moonrat - who, in addition to launching her new online 'book club', is currently keeping The BookBook going singlehandedly. Of course, she is quite often 'enveloped' in the non-fictions, too.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

A question of taste

Yesterday in the studio.....

It's a better than average set of scripts we're recording this week. There are a lot of the tired old 'favourites', but a lot of newer stuff too; and much of it looks as if it is taken from authentic English sources - transcribed from radio programmes or lifted from newspapers.

Thus, I fear that the disturbing story of the young man who got his face eaten by his dog was probably true. (It was said that he had fallen asleep on his sofa, and that the dog - worried that he wouldn't wake up, or agitated at not having been fed on time - started biting him.) The account of the injuries was distressingly graphic, and really not at all in keeping with a textbook aimed at high school kids.

But what was even worse was the glib and jokey way the story was being discussed (it had been transposed into a dialogue between a boy and girl college student). It ended with the line: "I suppose he's looking forward to Halloween. Everyone will be wearing a mask then."

We were reading this on auto-pilot, without paying too much attention at first, but disgust and dismay started to overcome us by the mid-point, and when we reached this appalling finale, DD's and my jaws were on the table. We boggled at each other for a moment in disbelief, and then started haranguing the publishing company staff present at the session.

It seems we have in fact managed to persuade them to pull this episode from the books/tapes. A small but worthwhile victory.

But you have to wonder, How the hell did something like this make its way into a script in the first place? Who writes this stuff? Have they really got no sense of decency at all?

Monday, July 21, 2008

Are we feeling "Olympic" enough yet??

Less than three weeks to go now before the Olympics, and the craziness of the preparations ramps up each day.

Since the middle of last week, we've had dozens of police and militiamen milling about on the sidewalks of just about every major street in the northern half of the city. Does this enhance a visitor's sense of safety? NO. It just gives the (most unfortunate, highly misleading) impression that China is a police state.

Over the weekend, all the bars and restaurants around the Workers' Stadium were closed down - for the next two months. Three of the city's most popular live music venues - 13 Club, D-22, and The Stone Boat Bar - have been closed down since earlier this month (at least for music performances; failure to hold a type of permit that nobody previously knew existed was cited as the convenient excuse), and the other music bars are keeping their heads down and desperately hoping nobody 'notices' them. Another victim, reported by bar reviewer Beijing Boyce a few days ago, is Propaganda, a disco that's hugely popular with the foreign student set in Wudaokou (apparently they've decided to close down of their own volition, figuring that this would be an ideal time to get in a month or two of renovation work - yeah, right).

Most of the city's street food sellers seem to have been banished as well. I was hoping to grab a quick bite at lunchtime on Liudaokou (where I do most of my recording work); the little street is usually buzzing with activity, offering dozens of filling 'fast food' options for just a few kuai. Not today. It was deserted. Very sad. (And it's not as if any Olympic visitors are going to go anywhere near this place: it's not close to any of the venues, it's not on the way to anywhere; it's a shabby, inconspicuous, pothole-infested lane. But at least it had character; until the authorities decided that this was 'unharmonious'.)

The grass is green, the flowers are blooming, and even the weather has finally started to turn sunny again. Ah yes, and all the beggars and street hawkers have disappeared.

Oh my gosh, yes, Beijing is READY.

Well, I don't think the Olympic subway line is operating yet, but........

The Rise of the Machines

That editing job that looked as though it had vanished into the ether unexpectedly came back last week.

I was so annoyed that the silly girl at the publishing house had failed to courier it over to me on the day she'd said (OK, it was such a wretched day outside that I probably would have stayed in all day anyway, but..... it's the principle of the thing, damn it!) and had then become unconctactable for a week or more, that I very nearly told her where to shove it. But I need the money.

I didn't get a chance to look at it until the weekend. When I did so, I soon became even more annoyed (if such a thing were possible), because - a) it's not a textbook, as I had been told; and b) it's nearly twice as long as I had been told. Time to start complaining, and renegotiating the fee, I think.

On the plus side, it's actually a pretty easy job, since it's not a conventional edit at all: I don't have to re-write anything, just highlight (and occasionally, when I'm feeling generous, explain) all the mistakes.

On the minus side, it is mind-buggeringly tedious. It is about 200,000 words of computer-generated text - the same sentence patterns being repeated dozens of times with the same standard sequences of variations. Most of them are correct; most of the ones that are wrong, are egregiously so and leap off the page; it's only very occasionally that more detailed grammatical knowledge - or subjective aesthetic judgement - is called into play from me. Actually, the hardest part of it is staying alert to places where occasionally they've sneakily changed two things in a sentence type at the same time. And trying to maintain your will to live when they introduce a completely new sentence pattern every once in a while and, for just a few moments, you have to start paying full attention again. Once I got into the swing of it, I found I could scan 2 or 3 pages of this crap each minute - so I'm earning money at quite a tidy hourly rate. But there's still way too much of it for me to accept the whole job at the original fee.

The really spooky thing about this is that all of the sentences are about writing. In fact, most of them seem to be assessments of (or very vague comments or suggestions on) author submissions. ("Some minor problems in this piece are related to your punctuation. Please go over it again.")

Ye gods! This is nothing less than the automation of the publishing industry! Sinister. Very, very sinister.

I haven't got to the rejection slips yet - but I just know I'm going to run into a whole raft of them round about page 550.......

The weekly bon mot

"The chief danger in life is that you may take too many precautions."

Alfred Adler (1870-1937)

Saturday, July 19, 2008

A new 'game' for everyone

Earlier this week I started a new thread on my Barstool Blues blog, inviting readers to share with me their favourite misheard song lyrics.

I know, such things are easily overlooked amid the morass of other stuff I've posted, so I thought I would highlight it again.

My friend The British Cowboy refers me to a website called KissThisGuy, which specialises in recording amusingly misheard lyrics. So..... you can go there to find some inspiration, if you like; but really, I'd far rather you shared your own experiences with me.

However, I thought this might help to get your ideas kick-started - a brilliant analysis of the lyrics to Christina Aguilera's "Ain't No Other Man" (thanks to my blog-buddy 'Tolstoy' for finding this gem!), created by Annie Varner.

Annie (I think I'm in love!) has another similarly wonderful video here - a song apparently called "Silver and Cold" (should that be "Silver and Gold"??) by a band called AFI. This one includes such delights as "O my pitiful wombat" (presumably for "O my beautiful woman"), and "I'll beg her for Guinness" (I was, of course, reminded at once of my bar buddy, The Bookseller).


Don't feel you have to top this. But do please share your own favourite Misheard Lyrics with me here.

What the Chinese complain about

I couldn't resist this - a marvellous graphic analysing what Chinese bloggers talk about. (I'm a little slow to pick up on this [via the regularly fascinating Imagethief]: it was on the Wall Street Journal's China blog last month.)

We self-centred and somewhat paranoid laowai are apt to suppose that Chinese bloggers spend 90% of their time bitching about us; but, hey, what do you know, they actually spend most of their time bitching about their own government!

I was - briefly - quite encouraged by this. But then I pondered the figures a little more closely. In a country where the government is as fucked up as this, having 25% of blog opinion devoted to criticism of it really isn't that much. Notice also that most of this criticism is only "implicit"; and just about none of it is directed at the leadership.

Still, it's nice to know that they're really not just having a go at us foreigners the whole time. As I
observed in one of my weekly bon mots some time ago: "We'd be a lot less worried what other people think about us if we realised how seldom they did."

All the 1's


Why not?! Does there always have to be a reason?

Well, OK, this image of the lunar surface is filed as
Frame 1111 in the Lunar Orbiter Photo Gallery of the Lunar and Planetary Institute (a division of the Universities Space Research Association).

And this is Post No. 1,111 on Froogville.

So, perhaps there is always a reason........

Friday, July 18, 2008

What will they think of next?

Yes, those endlessly inventive Japanese have now come up with square watermelons. Saves space in the fridge, don't you know? This is not a hoax.

I picked this up from the Wicked Thoughts blog back in April (go search the archives; unfortunately it doesn't seem to have links to individual posts) - another favourite time-waster, of late. Indeed, I suppose I should make it a 'Website of the Month' recommendation; but be warned: it is very profuse, and very addictive.

The weekly haiku

White haze and drizzle,
No reason to go outside:
Prisoner of the rain.

Yep, yet another dose of shitty weather in Beijing. Even more dispiriting after being treated to the almost forgotten delight of a few sunny days this week.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Today's great 'Chinglish' mispronunciation moment

During a role-play exercise on B2B complaining over the telephone.....

"I do not like this shit you have sent me. Nobody will wear this shit."

I correct: "These shirts. These shirts."

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Teachers wanted for Nanjing, China

Some Chinese business contacts of mine recently asked if I could help them find some teachers for a new school down in Nanjing.

It's a tough task - almost, I fear, hopeless.

A majority of the English teachers already working in China have been forced to leave over the summer by the introduction of paranoid new visa restrictions for the Olympics. Those that are still here are mostly tied into the jobs that helped them get their visas.

And recruitment from overseas? Well, that's going to be tough to arrange over the next month as well - but we're going to do our best.

Job details below. If any of you out there reading this happen to be ESOL teachers (or know people that are), please drop me a line.

4 or 5 English teachers are needed for a well-established school in Nanjing. They will be teaching on a new undergraduate foundation program to be established this year by a well-regarded college from the east coast of Canada. A TEFL/TESOL qualification is required, and some previous teaching experience is preferred. Any suitably qualified native English speakers will be considered, although North Americans are likely to be given preference. This sort of position might be especially attractive to recent graduates of an 'Oriental Studies' discipline who wish to get 1 or 2 years' experience of living in China and improve their Mandarin skills.

Nanjing is a medium-sized city (for China! Around 6 million.) on the Yangtze River, near the east coast. A former capital, it is an attractive and prosperous city, with many sites of historical interest. It still has a relatively small foreign population, compared to Beijing or (nearby) Shanghai.

The school has a well-equipped campus in the heart of downtown. It is one of the best-run ventures of this kind I have seen in China (I visited twice last year, when I was working for a British education company that had a partnership with it). There is an experienced foreign teacher running the academic side of things (almost unheard of in China!). Moreover, the Canadian college will provide an experienced teacher of its own to act as the Director of Studies overseeing this program.

The students will be young Chinese - teens or early-20s - looking to study overseas in Canada. Their initial English level is likely to be low intermediate (or pre-intermediate); but it is hoped they will be able to make rapid progress in an English immersion environment. Class size should be 15-20. No more than 20 contact hours per week.

The basic salary will be 8,000 RMB per month (c. USD 1,200, GBP 600: rather better than average for this kind of position; and the cost of living in Nanjing is lower than in Beijing or Shanghai). Free accommodation and other standard benefits will also be provided.

The initial contract duration will be 11.5 months, to run from mid-August this year to the end of July 2009. This period will include around 2 months of fully-paid holiday.

Please note that these positions need to be filled immediately: teaching will probably start early in September, but the Canadian partner college would like to provide orientation and induction training for teachers in the second half of August.

Wishful thinking

A little earlier this evening I saw a bi-lingual sticker across the rear windscreen of a car (one of the scary black Audis favoured by the cadres and their affluent business associates).

In English it said: "Considerate driving creates a good city image."

Ah yes, more Olympic propaganda!

This, I fear, is very much too little, too late. I haven't seen any other efforts at driver education here. And, as I have often remarked before (just try searching for "Beijing+drivers" on here.... and maybe "homicidal"), Beijing has the worst drivers in China, probably in the world: no road sense, no car control, no awareness of what's going on around them, no regard for the traffic rules. It's every man for himself.

Other foreigners complain most of the undisciplined filtering right (and left) at major intersections, which often jams up the traffic flow in all four directions. My No 1 bugbear is the vice - which shows no sign of diminishing - of failing to slow down for (or, more often, actually accelerating aggressively towards) pedestrians attempting to cross the road.

How many visitors to Beijing next month will be killed on the roads? I'm afraid there will inevitably be some; possibly quite a lot.

Take care: it's a jungle out there.

Pre-Olympic progress in the fight against Chinglish

China has at last discovered the word 'proctology'! Perhaps we can now begin to hope that 'gynaecology' will soon be adopted into regular use too.

At least, in this area they have been talking about 'anus disease' for some years now; though I imagine, back in the 80s or early 90s, it would have been 'Butt Dept.' or 'Arse Ward'.

For some years now, we've been kept entertained in Beijing's public toilets by the colourful advertisements for the Dongda Anus and Intestine Diseases Hospital over on Dongdaqiao Lu. Many of us are still haunted by the image of a balding, middle-aged white guy grinning demonically out at you from the one of the early posters - and giving a huge thumbs up. Was he a patient celebrating an 'all clear', or a doctor demonstrating his examination technique? We hardly liked to speculate.

He was eventually replaced by a rather cute girl in a nurse's uniform. Well, cute - but for the fact that she was raising her right index finger dramatically skywards, and...... well, it was a small and not terribly well reproduced photo, but the tip of the finger did seem to be, er, oddly discoloured. Not nice.

The latest campaign (oh, how I wish now that I had taken pictures of the earlier ones to preserve them for posterity; but taking pictures in loos is such a dicey business....) has gone back to simply showing a picture of the hospital building. But NOW it's called the Dongda Proctology and Intestine Hospital.

Progress indeed.

Monday, July 14, 2008

It shouldn't happen to a Daily Llama....

It's shocking the indignity we humans inflict upon these noble creatures! I urge you all to send strongly-worded letters of outrage to your elected representatives.

Bon mot for the week

"Wit is educated insolence."

Aristotle (384-322 BCE)

Sunday, July 13, 2008

A Classical Sunday

It's been a long time - six months or more! - since I've posted any of my poetry. I've been in something of a creative slump this year...... and the number of entries under the 'Poetry (My Own)' tag has remained stuck at 49.

I'm not sure if this really counts, since it is only a translation, and a rather prosey one at that. It's all I can come up with at the moment.

I specialised in Classics at high school and in my first degree, and Catullus - the naughty one - was always a favourite of mine among the Roman poets.

Translations of this poem usually talk of counting 'kisses', but..... well, I believe there's a raunchier sub-text. Most of the 'Lesbia' poems are fairly bluntly about fucking, and I don't think this one is any different - it is only superficially more coyly romantic.

I have no way of knowing, but I fancy that the Latin word for 'kiss' could, in certain contexts, imply rather more, something rather cruder and more earthy; particularly, I suspect, with the oddly technical variant of the noun - basiatio: the process of kissing - that is used in the opening line. The French verb 'baiser', which is derived from this, carried such connotations, I believe, even in the time of Voltaire (I think I recall one or two places in Candide where it definitely seemed to be a little risqué); and today, I gather, it is considered thoroughly impolite. Basia and basiationes should, I feel, carry something of the same weight; but I found it impossible to come up with an English word that is appropriately suggestive without being explicit; so I have chosen instead to leave the activity unspecified, to leave these words 'untranslated'. We all know what he's talking about.

Quaeris, quot mihi basiationes
tuae, Lesbia, sint satis superque.
quam magnus numerus Libyssae harenae
lasarpiciferis iacet Cyrenis
oraclum Iovis inter aestuosi
et Batti veteris sacrum sepulcrum;
aut, quam sidera multa, cum tacet nox,
furtivos hominum vident amores;
tam te basia multa basiare
vesano satis et super Catullo est,
quae nec pernumerare curiosi
possint nec mala fascinare lingua.

Gaius Valerius Catullus (ca. 84-54 BCE)

You ask me how many times
Will be enough to sate or surfeit me?
As many as the grains of sand
On the North African shore,
Or as many as the stars
That look down on the furtive trysts
Of lovers in the silence of the night.
Only so many
Can sate or surfeit your crazed Catullus:
A number so great
That no snoops can count it,
And no ill-wishing gossip
Can jinx us by repeating it.

Old school!

I have said that I find taxi drivers in Beijing to have been getting much better over the past few years.

But then.....

Yesterday I got one who epitomised all of the worst traits of Beijing taxi drivers that foreigners so love to complain of. It was not exactly a pleasant experience, but it did nevertheless prompt a fond little shiver of nostalgia for my early days here - when such ordeals were commonplace.

The interior of the cab was dusty and malodorous. Well, no, the cab driver was malodorous. Cab Driver No. 1772** had the kind of B.O. that could kill a horse.

The cab driver was chomping (on some kind of nut, I think) - open-mouthed, hugely NOISILY (I didn't dare to look, but it sounded as if slobber would be cascading over the chin).

To overcome this self-generated noise, the driver had the radio turned up full-blast.

The driver was also maintaining an almost continuous burble of heavily accented misanthropy, complaining about the behaviour of other drivers on the road, complaining about the price of fuel, complaining about the sullenly uncommunicative laowai in the passenger seat.

The driver's own road sense and car control skills left much to be desired.

The driver then changed tack rather, ditching the sour schizophrenic mumbling, and instead complimenting me extravagantly on my Chinese. Well, I think they were compliments. Highly inappropriate, since I hadn't said anything other than my destination (5 or 6 times) and, "I'm sorry, I don't speak Chinese."

Then, of course, the driver didn't have ANY change. Luckily I had a roll of one kuai notes on me.

Taxi driver No. 1772** is a woman. Incompetence, curmudgeonliness, and rustic manners are not the exclusive preserve of the male.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Another musical treat

Yes, I am still trying to make Spazz a star. I know there's a lot of this lip-syncing going on on YouTube these days, but this guy is the best of the best. Really.

I've posted the link to this before, but some of you are just too lazy to follow links. So, here's the video embedded. Bowie's Life on Mars. Awesome.

My Fantasy Girlfriend - Daniela Hantuchova

I confessed in my 'I love tennis' post a year ago that a large part of my burgeoning fascination with the game as a pre-teen probably had to do with the timeless appeal of cute young women in white mini-dresses.

I insist, however, that my weakness for players like the lovely Ms Hantuchova above, is not just about sex, it's about the way they play the game. Well, I can't honestly say that I've seen Daniela play very much (she always seems to crash out of Wimbledon in the early rounds, before I've really started paying attention), and perhaps I delude myself because she is so gosh-darned pretty, but..... I like to believe that her style of play harks back to an earlier era, when the women's game was characterized more by accuracy than brute power, by variety of shot-making rather than brute power, by nimbleness around the court rather than brute power.

At some point in the mid- or late 70s, we suffered the 'Big Shoulders' Event Horizon. The sexiest player of that era was the sultry Argentinian, Gabriela Sabatini. When the dauntingly man-like Martina Navratilova came on the scene and started winning everything, many of the other ladies started working out manically to try to redress the power gap that had suddenly opened up. Gaby developed really big shoulders, seemingly overnight; really big shoulders are just not attractive in a woman, I find. That was a very sad day in my teenage life.

At least Navratilova deserves some credit for injecting a serve-and-volley element into the women's game. The other gym-junkies who tried to keep up with her became even more anchored to the baseline. Long baseline rallies can sometimes have moments of greatness; but when that's all there is to the game, it can get a little dull. There were a few exceptions in the 70s and 80s: Evonne Goolagong and Hana Mandlikova thrilled with the impetuous creativity of their all-court game. I remember Hana humbled Navratilova in a Wimbledon quarter-final or semi-final one year in the early 80s, running her ragged with an exquisite collection of improvised lobs and drop-shots.

Is the Slovakian beauty the inheritor of that thrilling tradition? Well, perhaps not. But a man can dream.

She is, I think, the best-looking player around today (although there are quite a few rather appealing Eastern European lasses on the circuit just now). She's very tall (nearly 5'11", according to most of the fan sites; 6', according to one of them!). She has the most amazing legs. And I gather she's also a pretty smart cookie - managed to finish high school with excellent grades, despite the tennis career, and was offered a place at a leading Slovakian university. And she's an accomplished classical pianist!

You see, I don't go just for looks.

Although it has to be said that she does 'scrub up well' in evening dress.

And she does have the most ridiculously pretty eyes.

Now, if only she could get her game together enough to start winning a few tournaments.....

Friday, July 11, 2008

The long arm of coincidence??

What exactly are the odds against meeting someone you know on the subway?

Not just in the vicinity of a station, passing in opposite directions on the stairs, milling through the ticket hall, or glimpsing someone at the far end of the platform - but actually finding someone you know standing (or sitting) in the same portion of the same carriage of the same train??

It happened to me again just last night: I bumped into a nice young German chap (Ben the Jerry) who hangs out in my 'second home', The Pool Bar, quite a bit. I hadn't seen him around for a while; it transpires he's just got back from a few weeks holiday in south and west China. It was good to see him again.

Now, I know Beijing still doesn't have all that many subway lines and stations (only 4 lines, so far, though another - serving the Olympic venues on the north side of town - is due to open any day now). And the number of us laowai using them is disproportionately high (the 2 kuai fare is risibly little to us, but the majority of Chinese - even white-collar workers - still enjoy next-to-no disposable income and are thus obsessively thrifty: the subway is 5 times more expensive than the bus, so about 80% fewer people use it). And, yes, yes, I do know a heck of a lot of people here.

But that still doesn't quite account for it.

I run into people I know almost every week on the subway. In fact, last night was the third time it's happened this month. I've run into all sorts of people: Chinese friends and foreign friends alike; former students, business associates, bar cronies, and fellow teachers. I think, at one time or another, I've run into almost everyone I know here on a subway train somewhere. And I don't even use the subway all that often! Like many of my 'affluent' foreign friends, I have become more and more a taxi kind of guy. Am I really giving myself such a high exposure to the population of my address book with just 20 or 30 subway journeys (at the very most) each month??

Is this really just one of those odd cognitive phenomena whereby our minds exaggerate the frequency and significance of accumulated coincidences?? Does anyone have a more thorough explanation they could offer??

The number of these encounters seems far too many to me to be explained away as a mere coincidence - even if boosted to the max by a random statistical blip. Your thoughts???

More snack innovation

I have just discovered that Lay's have introduced a 'Sichuan spice' flavour crisp ('potato chip', if you must).

My friend and recording partner, DD, has lately become pitifully addicted to the super-spicy Sichuan speciality, la zi ji - sometimes eating it two or three times a week, and, on at least one occasion, going to a restaurant with a friend and ordering a whole dish of this each. Quite unfathomable to me!

I have been beginning to think that maybe an 'intervention' is in order. This ain't right, it ain't natural, it ain't good for her - it ain't good for the social life (it's becoming impossible to lure her into going to any other sort of restaurant!).

I don't know if I dare tell her about these new crisps. Will they inflame her obsession even more? Or could they perhaps serve the office of nicotine chewing gum, and help to wean her off her excessive attachment to fiery Sichuan chicken??

Oh, the responsibility! I may have to flip a coin.

Weekly haiku

Constant discomfort
Clothes are always soaking wet
Either rain or sweat

I still can't quite believe how relentlessly unpleasant this summer has been....

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Chinese publishers annoy me yet AGAIN......

This time, I accepted the job.

It's a publisher I've worked with a couple of times before recently (though a different contact). And, unlike the woefully bad academic treatise I turned down on Monday, this would have been an EFL textbook. Lots of pictures. Quite a few largely blank or wholly blank pages. More than half of the text in Chinese (and so, not my concern - yay!). The English very simple, and often repeated several times.

Yep, this was only a 1,500 RMB fee, and the book was slightly larger than that dratted tourism study in number of pages - but it should be barely a tenth as much text, and much higher quality. Basically just a proof-reading job, no major re-writes. For a job like this, the fee is really not too bad at all.

The girl at the publishing house told me on Tuesday that she'd send the manuscript (it's always hard-copy for proofing here) over to my place by courier on Wednesday. I sent her a text message querying whether the courier company would be coming in the morning or the afternoon (that's as much of a guide as you can get from a Chinese courier company). She didn't respond. I tried phoning her. She didn't answer. She didn't call me back. I stayed in almost all day waiting for the courier - who, of course, never came. I tried phoning the publisher girl again the next day, to see if there had been a change of plan. She's ignoring my calls.

I guess she decided to use someone else. Or maybe she decided the book didn't need proofing. Or maybe she decided that the book probably did need proofing, but that none of her superiors would notice if it wasn't, so there was really no obstacle to her keeping the proof-reading fee for herself.

Probably we shall never know......

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

My favourite book - The Wind In The Willows

A week or so ago, I did a guest post for my blog-friend, Moonrat, as part of her 'Celebrate Reading' Month. The original post is here, if you want to go and check out the comments (and add one of your own) - but I thought I'd reprint it here on Froogville (because I'm feeling lazy today....).


Darn, this is a tough challenge our Moonie has set us! It seems invidious, impossible to choose just one book to celebrate from a lifetime's reading.

I'd already reviewed a couple of my special favourites over on The BookBook - LIFE IN A SCOTCH SITTING-ROOM, Vol. 2 by Ivor Cutler and THE THIRD POLICEMAN by Flann O'Brien - so I felt I ought to omit them from consideration here.

I've always had a weakness for the 19th Century classics, and so was sorely tempted to go for one of those - but a little daunted, too, somewhat constrained by a sense of unworthiness. If you really pin me down on what I think is the best book ever written, I have to say ANNA KARENINA; but I don't think I could begin to do it justice. I considered also some of the other great books from that period - and from that period of my life, my most prolific spell of reading, my last years at high school - MADAME BOVARY, SCARLET & BLACK, THERESE RAQUIN, A SENTIMENTAL EDUCATION, CRIME & PUNISHMENT, GREAT EXPECTATIONS, PRIDE & PREJUDICE. Prior to that, I'd had a brief, intense love affair with Melville and Conrad (I dreamed of running away to sea, until I discovered there were no tall ships any more): BILLY BUDD, MOBY DICK, LORD JIM, NOSTROMO, THE SECRET AGENT. Then there were the American greats that I mostly discovered just a bit later: THE GREAT GATSBY, AS I LAY DYING, TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD. And then there were all those more contemporary, more oddball, more risqué bestsellers, many known to me for years only as unfathomable titles from my elder brother's bookshelf: ZEN AND THE ART OF MOTORCYCLE MAINTENANCE, ON THE ROAD, JONATHAN LIVINGSTONE SEAGULL, CATCH-22 (JES has done that one for us now - thanks), LOLITA (God, I hope someone chooses to review LOLITA!), PORTNOY'S COMPLAINT, FEAR AND LOATHING IN LAS VEGAS, SLAUGHTERHOUSE 5.

I even contemplated, as more obscure possibilities, a couple of books that I'd loved using in class when I was, briefly, a schoolteacher in the early years of my working life, two of the greatest adventure novels ever written: ROGUE MALE by Geoffrey Household and THE TREASURE OF THE SIERRA MADRE by B. Traven.

And the 'big three' I was focusing on for a long time - three books that really stimulated me with their ideas, haunted me with their bleakness, turned on its head my conception of what a novel could be - were CAT'S CRADLE, NINETEEN EIGHTY-FOUR, and THE TRIAL.

But you know what? They're all a bit serious, aren't they? Maybe even a bit pretentious? And I'm sure if MR repeats her 'Celebrate Reading' festival once or twice a year from now on, before too long somebody else will cover all of these.

First thoughts are usually best. When MR approached me to ask if I wanted to contribute to this series a month ago, my initial response was, "Oh, I suppose I could do THE WIND IN THE WILLOWS." So be it.

I can't now recall if this was part of the brief MR gave us, but most contributors so far seem to have chosen something that had a big impact on their life, and most particularly on their development as a reader. I'm going way back here. THE WIND IN THE WILLOWS was the first proper book (other than picturebooks and learn-to-read primers) that I can remember my mother reading to me. Though I can't distinctly recollect the very first time I heard it, it was already a familiar story that I was demanding to have read to me again by the time I was 4 or 5 years old. By the time I was 7 or 8 it had become one of the first proper books that I read for myself. It is almost certainly the book that I have re-read most often. It is one of the few books - the only children's book, I think - that I continue to re-read to this day, once every few years or so.

It is also one of the few books from that distant era of my life that I have jealously preserved (although, alas, it is now in storage with a friend; I don't have it here with me in China, and I'm missing it). Even in my childhood, there was a hallowed air of antiquity about this volume: it was a soft-cover paperback of at least '50s vintage, perhaps considerably earlier (I rather suspect, but can't now verify, that it was in fact a '30s edition from my mother's own childhood), the pages yellowed and slightly musty-smelling, desiccated and crisp to the touch. The feel of that book in my hands, and all the memories of home and family and childhood tied up in it are much of the reason that I love it so.

It is some time since I last read it, and I'm not able to consult it now to refresh my memory. I suppose I've never really read it critically, but more for the nostalgia-wallow it induces. I can't really say if it is especially well-written, or if it is a particularly good children's book. It is, however, an undeniably captivating story, one which has stood the test of time (gosh, this year is the centenary!). There is suspense and adventure and plenty of broad humour and the quirky charm of anthropmorphized animals; but it is also a surprisingly adult story: these are adult characters in an adult world, dealing with very adult problems (addictive behaviour, debt, criminal charges, lost children). Children, I always felt, made very dull and irritating protagonists for children's stories; this was much more satisfying.

Above all, the book is - and this, of course, is a prime interest of our beloved Moonrat - the most marvellous celebration of friendship. (Indeed, cynics may carp at the closeness of the affection between Ratty and Mole, suggesting that it smacks of a romantic or sexual attachment; and at least one stage version I've seen transforms the houseproud Mole into a female character, to play up on that tension more openly.) Toad is really not a very nice character: he's pompous, vain, deceitful, undisciplined. Although he does have his more winning qualities - a certain buffoonish charm, a childlike innocence, an acute vulnerability - that earn him endless forgiveness from his long-suffering associates, it's rather difficult to comprehend how they became friends. Yet friends they are, and however much the irresponsible Toad strains that friendship, they loyally stand by him. It is the most touching and inspiring template of male camaraderie I've ever encountered (though the central relationship between Ratty and Mole is a purer, less morally challenging representation of the ideal).

Other key elements of the book's lasting hold on me are: the idyllic picture of rural life, and particularly of a life of leisure on the river ("There is nothing - absolutely NOTHING - half so much fun as simply messing about in boats," as the Water Rat famously says; I did not learn the overwhelming truth of this adage until I discovered the joys of punting as an undergraduate at Oxford years later); the stark counterpoint of the scary darkness in other areas of life (the depiction of The Wild Wood is utterly, ravishingly terrifying to a small child); the poignancy of a lost world of innocence (I didn't realise this until much later, but the ease and tranquility of the life shown on the riverbank is found also in much of Edwardian literature: it's hard now not to bridle at the naivety of such carefree idylls, not to sense the latent tragedy of the looming World War somewhere between the lines); the finely balanced tension between the allure of a life of travel and adventure on 'the open road' (most powerfully seen in the episode where Ratty meets The Wayfarer, a vagabond sea rat who briefly seduces him with his glamorous tales of world travel) and the comforting familiarity of home (the 'Dulce Domum' chapter, where Mole finally returns to his own house after a long absence, regularly used to make me cry, and probably still would); and, of course, the greatest picnic scene in literature (with the comprehensive list of foods provided rendered stream-of-consciousness style as a single, irresistible word).

I worry, though, if this is perhaps too much of a "man's book". All of the main characters are men. Indeed, all of the main characters are lifelong bachelors. We do get a few glimpses of the cosy domesticity of wife and family as an alternate ideal, but our heroes seem quite happy as they are. Theirs is a world almost entirely without responsibilities, a world of pure leisure. That is certainly the key to the book's fascination for me; but I do get a little concerned sometimes as to how much this may have influenced - corrupted - the course of my adult life. Here I am, approaching middle age still a bachelor, and - despite occasional pangs of dissatisfaction with this status - the dominant obsession of my life is always wondering when I'll be able to get out on the river again.

A micro-anecdote to close. Around the time I first came to know this book - the age of 3 or 4, I guess - there was a 'Wild Wood' which my mother would often take me to for a walk. The wood seemed huge and dark and threatening, and I wouldn't have dared to set foot in it alone. Accompanied by Mum or Dad, I could contain my fear, play with it, savour it. That was a big expedition for me back then. The wood was miles away, across an endless field of corn that stood higher than my head. I returned to that spot ten years ago, for the first time since my childhood. The cornfield, of course, was of a fairly regular size, not limitless as the Russian steppes; and it grew only waist-high, at most. The 'Wild Wood' that had overwhelmed my senses as a small boy was a simple copse of only half a dozen or so trees. The world is so very different when you're 3ft tall.

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