Saturday, February 28, 2009

Film List - great openings

Last month's list featured the most "challenging" films I've enjoyed showing to Chinese students. Another exercise I've enjoyed running a few times here in 'film studies' classes is to show a brief selection of opening sequences. This can be great fun. There's so much to talk about: the establishment of character, setting, and genre; the use of music and sound effects; editing, pace and rhythm; point-of-view and camera movement; suspense; the exploitation, and occasional subversion, of audience knowledge and expectations.

The best film openings

(Dir. Terry Gilliam, 1985)
Breathtaking! My problem with this one is not being able to stop. The first 8 or 10 sequences are so fast, so brilliant, so diverse, and establish so much of the story, I can't resist showing just a little bit more, and a little bit more, and a little bit more. And there's really too much to talk about in this. I adore the first scene in Sam Lowry's office, with the camera swooping through the frenetic bustle of the file clerks, perfectly matched to the incongruously jaunty theme song; it's a magnificently choreographed piece that fills only a few seconds of screen time but overwhelms your senses.

Blade Runner
(Dir. Ridley Scott, 1982)
A wonderful establishing shot, soaring over the dystopian Los Angeles of the near future: huge but apparently decaying buildings loom out of the darkness, some intermittently (inexplicably, irrelevantly!) belching flames into the sky like oil derricks; pollution and foul weather have shrouded the city in a perpetual twilight gloom; a few flying cars swoop and hover. And the camera homes in on a vast office building, coming in through a window to discover two men facing each other tensely across a desk. Now, I have to say that I find the conceit of the Voigt-Kampf Test to be one of the most glaring of the many annoying plot holes in this film (why try to identify the cloned humans through a psychological stress test when you could just screen their DNA; and when, in fact, the chief of the Blade Runner squad already has photographs of them??), but this first scene is undeniably very powerful (partly, at least, because of its initial incomprehensibility: why is Man A asking these weird questions, and why is Man B getting so twitchy about it?).

Get Carter
(Dir. Mike Hodges, 1971)
I didn't think the recent Stallone remake was too bad, but one has to prefer the Michael Caine original - surely one of the most brutally amoral and downright bleak crime films ever made. I love that my Chinese students, of course, have never heard of it; also that, having little alertness to varieties of speech or other cultural indicators, they never twig that there's such a stark contrast between the expensive clothes, brandy, and cigars enjoyed by the characters we find in the opening scene and their coarse manners, their working-class accents. "What kind of film is this?" "We have no idea, teacher. We haven't seen enough of it yet." "Oh yes you have. You can tell within 5 or 10 seconds that these people are gangsters!"

The credit sequence is tremendous as well: the distance between Caine's gangster turf in London and his old hometown in Newcastle where he now returns - a dangerous distance that isolates and weakens him - being emphasised by the length of the journey, starting in daylight, arriving at night (I remember the first time I made that trip in the late '80s it took 4 or 5 hours rather than today's 3; god knows how long it took 20 years earlier); lapses in time elided by intervals of blackness when the train enters a tunnel (which provide the opportunity to display the credits in white script); Caine's boredom, and the obsessive-compulsive quirks of his personality; and Roy Budd's memorable score. Wonderful.

Saving Private Ryan
(Dir. Steven Spielberg, 1998)
I don't love the very first sequence at the war cemetery: I think it's a bit too long drawn-out and heavy-handed. I also feel it's a bit of "a cheat", cutting from the old man's face by the graveside to Hanks's face in the landing craft, thereby implying that the old man is Hanks's character rather than Ryan (do we get a chance to read the name on the grave? I can't remember). There are a few subtle touches, though, even here that are worth pointing out to Chinese students: the juxtaposition of the American and French flags; the inclusion of some Star of David grave markers as well as crosses. And then the Normandy landings sequence really throws you into the midst of the action: so many talking points about POV here. (I occasionally show the opening of Jaws too, just to highlight the shark POV!)

Apocalypse Now
(Dir. Francis Ford Coppola, 1979)
Another modern classic that hardly anyone in China seems to have seen! I'm not sure that I've ever shown the whole film, though; partly, at least, because it seems to be impossible to get anything other than the 'Redux' version on DVD, which is just too darned long and not an improvement on the original. The opening sequence - the lush serenity of the jungle suddenly erupting in a storm of napalm, accompanied by The Doors' 'The End' - is just stunning. I like to emphasise the visual and aural reminscences that blend this dream-like opening montage of Vietnam images with the establishing scene of a wasted Martin Sheen lying in his hotel room (and the great opening line: "Saigon - shit!"): the whirr of the ceiling fan recalling the rotor blades of the helicopters, Sheen's face as expressionless as the monumental sculptures in the jungle. (I sometimes follow up with one or both of the most celebrated transitions in film history: the thigh bone tossed skyward by the brawling apemen becoming a space station at the end of the 'Dawn of Man' episode in 2001 and Peter O'Toole's breath blowing out a match in a dingy office in Alexandria becoming the wind blowing across the dunes of the Arabian desert at sunset in Lawrence of Arabia.)

For A Few Dollars More
(Dir. Sergio Leone, 1965)
This is my favourite Leone film. This is quite often the opening that I show first, sometimes indeed as a preparatory teaser at the end of the preceding class. I just show the very beginning, the pre-credit sequence, which is a masterpiece of establishing mood, genre, and suspense; it's also an outrageous piece of cheek, because it serves no other purpose than that - no connection is ever established to the characters or the story that follow in the film itself. The camera on a high vantage point looks out across a deserted plain. In the middle distance a man on horseback is riding diagonally across the plain, slowly drawing nearer to us. What, we wonder, is going to happen? How soon will we recognise who the rider is? Is this Clint Eastwood, the star of the film? Just how long will the director dare to stretch out this rather uneventful shot? (I remember seeing an interview with David Lean once where he said that in retrospect one of the few regrets he had about the choices he'd made as a director was that he had not made Omar Sharif's first entrance in Lawrence - slowly morphing from mirage into man as his camel plods across the desert towards us - even longer.) Well, in fact, we never find out who the man on the horse is. After a few seconds a rifle shot rings out, the rider falls to the ground dead, and the startled horse gallops away. We've been sharing the POV of an unseen assassin lying in wait on the cliff top. We never know who the victim was. We might assume that the shooter was Eastwood's character, but we're never told, and it doesn't really matter. The scene just establishes that these are tough times, life is cheap; this is a film about bounty killers.

(Dir. Marc Caro and Jean-Pierre Jeunet, 1991)
Another marvellous opening, one that achieves a remarkable balance between being (disconcertingly!) amusing and also genuinely terrifying. It sets the tone and style of the film very strongly in the opening thirty seconds: the cartoon-like zest of the action, the distorting close-ups, the rapid camera movements and slick editing, the grand guignol production design.

The Fisher King
(Dir. Terry Gilliam, 1991)
I feel this film takes a bit of a turn for the worse when Robin Williams appears, but I could watch the opening again and again; and in this case, it's more about the script and the power of the actor than the inventiveness of the director. Jeff Bridges' portrayal of the egotistical radio phone-in host is magnificent. You will never again see a character so thoroughly established, and then so utterly destroyed in such a short space of time; it's a little reminiscent of Daniel Plainview's story arc in There Will Be Blood - but here it takes only a handful of minutes rather than nearly three hours.

Once Upon A Time In The West
(Dir. Sergio Leone, 1968)
In one of the most celebrated of all cinematic openings, Leone manages to drag out the credit sequence to several minutes - in which period there is almost no dialogue at all, and just about no 'action'. It is an essay on boredom, yet thoroughly compelling. Three hired guns stake out a remote rail stop waiting for a man to arrive on a train. The train is late, and they have to kill time. Even Hitchcock would be in awe of the extent to which Leone manages to prolong the suspense here. One of the gunmen walks out to the railway track and looks off into the distance for a sign of the train. I'd be willing to bet that in just about any other Western where something like this happens, you'd see the puff of a smokestack away down the track or hear a distant train whistle. Here, you can see clear to the horizon and there's no train: it's going to be a long wait.

And oh look, it's on YouTube! Well, I couldn't find a complete version; this one is missing at least the first three or four minutes! Oh well, it'll do for now.

Pun alert

"Eat, drink and be Mary!"

While searching for a copy of Edward Hopper's painting Nighthawks at the Diner to post on The Barstool yesterday, I happened upon the diverting picture-manipulation website Worth1000. This is one of my favourite images from there.

Friday, February 27, 2009

Total Perspective Vortex

Thanks to the indefatigable Tolstoy I was this week introduced to the recently launched Galaxy Zoo 2, a project which aims to enlist the help of the general public in classifying the 250,000 or so galaxies that have so far been photographed. That means you, bloggers and blog readers, if you have too much time on your hands, which you obviously do. Check out the tutorial on how to classify galaxies, and the current Top 10 Galaxies as voted for by the site's users (rather an odd selection, this; my favourite, below, is only ranked at No. 3!).

By a curious coincidence, on the very same day I stumbled upon this video on YouTube discussing the enormity (yes, 'hugeness' might be better; see comment below, from "Mr Hubble" himself) of the Universe as illustrated by the stunning "Deep Field" photographs taken by the Hubble Space Telescope.

"It just showed me what a really great guy I am."

The weekly haiku

An old pain returns,
The memory of a woman.
Shrapnel in the heart.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Call me Ponzi

In the wake of the Bernie Madoff scandal, I have been doing some reading up on Carlo Ponzi, the early 20th Century Italian conman who pioneered the kind of sham investment scheme that now bears his name.

I have been suggesting to friends that I might try something of the sort here in China.

I am being facetious, of course. I merely throw the idea out there as a provocation to discussion.

The trouble is, I'm finding it harder and harder not to take the idea seriously now. I had expected that my friends would all remonstrate with me, and remind me of all the moral objections to such deceptions. But they haven't. Every single one of them has greeted the idea enthusiastically and encouraged me to start making earnest plans for executing such a scheme.

Anyone rich enough to drop a few hundred thousand RMB on an investment scheme probably isn't going to be that badly impacted by the loss of the money. And after all, any investment can fail: you shouldn't gamble if you can't afford to lose the money.

Anyone greedy enough and dumb enough to give his money to a stranger to invest, without carefully checking his credentials, pretty much deserves to have his wealth redistributed in my direction, I would say (or rather, my friends have been saying it, and they're starting to win me over to their way of thinking). And Chinese fat cats are a particularly objectionable bunch, for the most part; it's hard to have any sympathy at all for people who've become obscenely wealthy running mines or brick kilns or chemical factories in this country. Some might say there's actually a moral imperative to relieve such people of some of their ill-gotten gains.

Yes, I'm giving it some thought.

Still saying NO

Despite my rather alarming financial circumstances, I am continuing to trenchantly refuse the solicitations of an extremely dodgy-sounding and woefully disorganised Chinese school which for the past month or more has been offering really quite a respectable fee to undertake a course of lectures on legal English for them.

The guy who's trying to organise things is a youngster, still in college, and simply hasn't got a clue what he's doing. Every time he e-mails me, he tells me something different about the plans for the course. I'd only been keeping the door open this long because I wanted to try to help him, and I thought there was a slight chance that if he took my advice about how to structure the course then I would feel able to participate in the project after all.

Things were starting to look promising. It seemed that the original plan to teach the course via video links to several other remote venues had been abandoned. But then.... perhaps it wasn't. It seemed that he'd agreed that the course should be delivered via class teaching in small to medium-sized groups, rather than through mass lectures. But then..... well, it was going to be delivered by a mixture of classes and lectures - with no indication of what the balance between the two kinds of teaching would be, or why. And the class size might be 50-70..... which pretty much makes it a lecture anyway!

At least the course has been trimmed down from the utterly absurd 300+ hours they'd initially been talking about (full-time, during the day, five days a week, for 10 or 12 weeks). They're now suggesting a 5-week course, with classes or lectures in the evenings. Every day. Yep, seven days a week for five full weeks. Crazy. And my contact didn't even seem to think that this was a significant change, couldn't fathom why I might not want to work every single evening for five weeks straight, after I'd told him that I might be willing to work two or three afternoons per week.

And, of course, they still don't have any appropriate materials to use.

And the contract! Oh my god - the sample contract they sent me was just flabbergasting. The chap told me I could rewrite any terms I wasn't happy with; but that would have meant re-writing the whole thing.

The following is the gist of (what I hope will be) my final e-mail to them:

Dear XYZ,

The plans for this course seem to be constantly changing, and it's all sounding very chaotic. Therefore, I'm sorry to say, the company you are working for does not inspire me with any respect or trust.

Please don't take this as a personal criticism of yourself: you seem like a nice guy, and I appreciate that you are trying to do a job under very difficult circumstances. But I really don't think you are appropriately qualified to be attempting to do this job, and you haven't been given the resources that you need.

It's really not a question of money for me (I quite often work for very little money, or for no money at all, if I believe in the project): I just don't believe that your company will be able to deliver a course that provides value to the students; and so I don't want to be involved in it.

I offer you a few final observations on what you have told me so far, in the hope that they might be of some help to you.

1) The course is still far too long just for an exam preparation course, as we originally discussed in January. If you are going to provide 100+ hours of teaching, you need a much clearer definition of the purpose of the course and how much content you want it to cover.

2) Even if you do provide a course of 100 hours, it would be much better to spread it out over a longer period of time. Students simply will not be able to attend evening classes every single night of the week; and once students start skipping a class occasionally, it becomes easier and easier to find more excuses to skip class. If you try to schedule classes every day for 5 weeks, I guarantee that you will get very poor overall student attendance - and thus very poor results at the end of the course. I would recommend reducing the number of study days to 2 a week, or at most 3 a week, and extending the number of weeks.

3) You need to pay a lot more attention to development of course materials. You cannot teach (or lecture) from a textbook. I know it's quite common in Chinese schools and universities, but it really is a terrible teaching methodology and most foreign teachers will refuse to do it. The first book you showed me is a self-study book, so it is particularly inappropriate for use as a basis for lectures (though some of it might work OK in small-group classes). The other books you mentioned sound as if they are specialised textbooks on topics like company law and contract law; these are probably much too high level for this kind of course, and again will not really be of much help in providing material for use in class. What you need are textbooks on legal English. Unless you can provide some appropriate books for your teachers to use, there will be a huge amount of preparation work required in order for them to produce their own materials. You're not allowing enough time (or paying enough money) for that preparation work to be done properly - which is the main reason why I think the course will be a bad one.

4) There is a big difference between teaching in a class and teaching in a lecture. If you are going to use both methods, you need to make it clear in your timetable how much of each kind of teaching there will be in each part of the course. In my view, it would probably be better to teach a course like this entirely in classes.

5) I do not believe that a course like this can be delivered effectively via video link only (not even the lecture component, and certainly not classes). I don't think any experienced and principled teacher would agree to this style of teaching for these topics. I would strongly urge you to abandon this idea. If you have students in other cities, you should try to find them teachers based locally so that the course can be delivered properly - in person, in small-group classes.

6) Curriculum design, materials preparation, and teacher recruitment really need to be handled by an experienced senior teacher (maybe not someone who will teach on the course themselves, but someone who would be capable of doing so, someone who understands the demands and difficulties of the content well: that would mean a native English speaker with experience of teaching legal English). Until your company appoints such a person to co-ordinate the course planning, other teachers such as myself are not going to have any confidence in the company or the course.

7) The sample contract you sent me is completely unworkable, ridiculous. I would have to rewrite it almost entirely before I could consider signing it; and I'm sure almost all foreign teachers would feel the same way. No-one is going to agree to work for your company at any time, in any place, for a whole year. There's no point in sending out a contract like that. It is only going to put people off the idea of working for you. That contract really makes a very, very bad impression.

I am sorry to be so blunt, but I really want you to understand why I am so strongly opposed to this course.

I hope you can fix some of these problems and that you will eventually be able to provide a worthwhile course. But I'm afraid I do not believe that you will, and thus I do not want to have any further involvement with this course.

Best regards, Froog

End-of-the-month budgetary blues

I try to discipline myself to live within my income. I never, ever like to spend more than I have earned in a given month.

This, however, can be very difficult, not because of any weakness of willpower on my part (honestly!) but simply because my income here is always so erratic. The first two months of the year, disrupted by the lengthy Chinese New Year holiday, are always particularly slow times for work. This year seems to have been worse than ever.

This month I am clearly not going to be able to live within my income, since I will have earned less than 5,000 RMB. One private student has suspended her classes because she is "too busy" at the moment. A day's teaching work I was supposed to have been doing this Saturday in substitution for a friend has just been cancelled. And a voice recording gig this morning that was supposed to have been 3hrs + in fact turned out to be only 50 minutes. All rather galling.

I haven't "overspent" by too much so far, and I suppose I could allow myself credit for an editing fee that went straight into the bank (and there's another BIG fee from just before the holiday that I'm still owed). However, I fear the tail-end of the month is likely to prove especially expensive: all my utilities have fallen due at the same time, and I'm going to have to put another 500 RMB on my electricity top-up card within the next few days if I don't want to lose my power; and, of course, there's some serious consolatory partying to be done.

Yep, at present I am probably just within that 5,000 RMB spending limit, but I reckon I'm going to go at least 2,000 RMB over it by the end of the month. Damn. I HATE to erode my savings like this.

I figure I can cut myself a little slack on this, since it's a fairly small overshoot; and I earned reasonably well in the first half of January (while abstaining from alcohol for most of the month and living very quietly - and cheaply). So, over the year so far I think I will still just about have covered my expenditure with earnings.

Well, all of my expenditure except rent, that is. And that's due too. Usually I manage to have six months' rent salted away by the time the landlord comes round to collect for the coming quarter, so parting with 13,500 RMB in one go doesn't leave me feeling too vulnerable. But not this time: I don't yet have one cent stashed away towards paying for the quarter after next. (Well, I have the money. I have quite a bit of money really, little stashes of it here, there, and everywhere: but it's all earmarked for various purposes - new computer, trip home, emergency reserves - and is not really 'available' for use as rent money.)

I need to find myself a new job. And soon.

[Sorry. Exceptionally boring post. Just "thinking out loud".]

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Olympic leftovers (2)

I caught a little of a CCTV profile of China's star gymnast He Kexin over the recent New Year holiday.

The young lady appears to have filled out quite considerably. Maybe it's just a little layer of winter insulation. Maybe she'd been eating a lot over the holiday period. Maybe she's been taking a rest from training for a while.

But she did appear to be becoming a little bit of a porker. Taller and fuller figured, too. Perhaps she's finally hit puberty. There is, of course, always speculation that these young female gymnasts are given drugs to delay puberty and keep them small and light, although the rigorous training regime alone is apt to do that. When these girls do finally 'grow up', they grow up fast.

He Kexin, I would say, is growing up. She's now starting to look like the 16-year-old China claimed she was a year ago. Almost. Well.... starting to look like the just-turned-15-year-old she actually is.

Regular readers may recall that I wrote on the age-faking scandal at the time, here and here.

The IOC was eventually shamed into launching an "investigation", but I never heard the outcome of that. Has the story really been forgotten, hushed up, "disappeared"?

I just tried to find out, and.... guess what? A search on Google News produces only ONE return for He Kexin. And that one probably only slipped through the filter because it's in Polish.

A regular Web search produces considerably more returns; but, seemingly, none of them are dated later than 23rd August last year. Has Ms He really done nothing of note since then? Has there been no further public discussion of the "age controversy"? I find that hard to believe. No, I fear that we are still seeing blanket censorship of this topic within China. (I need to find myself a better proxy; FoxyProxy no longer seems to be cutting it.)

I would be grateful to anyone who could send me some more up-to-date news on this.

By the way, I put "controversy" in quotation marks because I don't think there's any controversy about it at all. Check out the excellent Stryde Hax for overwhelming proof that He Kexin was underage when she competed in the Olympics last year, that her documents were altered to make her appear older, and that Chinese government officials have repeatedly lied about it ever since. Oh yes, and tried to pull every incriminating document from the Internet as soon as it was exposed. And tried to suppress domestic discussion - or even awareness - of the issue by censoring the Net.

Other female gymnasts in the Chinese team last year were also underage. It would appear that conspiring to fake the age of female gymnasts has been a standard government policy here for some time. The only new wrinkle in the He Kexin story is the massive attempt to cover the tracks of the deception online. Yang Yun, a medal winner on the assymetric bars at the Sydney Games in 2000, has publicly admitted to being only 14 at the time. She doesn't seem to be ashamed at this revelation, and no action has been taken against her. On the contrary, the mayor of her home town seems to consider it a matter of greater pride that she could win a medal at such a young age, blithely ignoring the fact that it was against the rules.

I have spoken before about the apparent lack of any moral qualm in the Chinese about cheating. It is one of the things I find most depressing about this country.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Plug of the day/week (2)

Simon Cockerell (of Koryo Tours) is holding another of his occasional series of North Korean film shows tonight, Tuesday 24th - from about 7pm, once again upstairs at Bar Blu.

Tonight's programme is supposed to be Americans in Pyongyang, a 50-minute documentary about last year's ground-breaking visit by the New York Philharmonic Orchestra; followed by the (curiously - not to say disturbingly - named) Our Fragrance, a North Korean rom-com.

I don't suppose it will quite match the thigh-slapping hilarity (sorry, I meant chin-stroking political allegory) of the "Godzilla" romp Pulgasari that we saw last time, but it sounds interesting. I'm hoping I'll be able to make it.

Plug of the day/week (1)

Joseph, the Aussie proprietor of 12 Square Meters ("Beijing's smallest bar"!), was back home in Oz for several weeks at the beginning of this year, and thus missed Australia Day on January 26th.

He's decided to have a belated celebration of his nation's foundation exactly one month on - this Thursday, February 26th.

The rather fine Cooper's ales are all going to be reduced to a very tempting 15 RMB per bottle, and there will be some discounts on other booze too - including 5 RMB shaved off the already rather reasonably priced malt whiskies on the top shelf.

It's likely to be a busy night, I think.

I aim to get there early, before the crowds.....

Monday, February 23, 2009

Ride on, baby

I gather that this young woman has been subjected to considerable vilification (and a little libidinous ribaldry) by Chinese netizens recently, after pictures like this one began to spread around the Internet. Yes, she's sitting on the shoulders of The Great Helmsman (apparently it's a newish statue of him, in a shopping plaza in Changsha, the capital of his home province of Hunan) - how disrespectful!

However, while most of the commentary has been critical of the girl, much of it (representative samples reported with translations on Global Voices, here), it seems, has been critical of Mao.

I particularly liked this bitter observation:


He rides on millions of people for his entire life. Why can't people ride on him for a while?

A good question.

And it reminded me that last week saw the anniversary of the unfortunate death of the great rock'n'roller Bon Scott. So here, just a little late, is a nice tribute video from YouTube, accompanied by one of my favourite of his songs, Ride On - a number that really makes me wish AC/DC had played more slow blues. [How's that for free associating?!]

Another reason not to drink the tapwater

My bathroom has become a science project.

It is at least partly my fault. I have been rather slovenly in my domestic habits over the past few months, and haven't given the bathroom floor a proper mopping in ages.

But there are certain Chinese factors at play here too. It's a Chinese bathroom, so it only has one drain - a rather small one that very easily becomes blocked. And the water doesn't drain towards it anyway (oh, no, of course not - this is China!). There's a particularly ugly tendency for water to pool under the wash-hand basin, something that's become worse recently because of a small leak that's developed around the joint of one of the inlet pipes down there.

I used to rely on the force of the shower spray to rinse most of the water away, but..... my shower-head has been getting feebler and feebler of late, clogged with the silt that flows through the water-pipes of my building. (No kidding. Most Beijing taps are fitted with filters of coarse wire mesh just inside the nozzle to sift this stuff out. There's usually one in the hoses, too, that attach to your washing-machine or your shower-head. I took them all out, because they were getting completely blocked every month or two, and it was such a pain-in-the-arse to keep removing and cleaning them. I don't know if the pipes in my building are particularly bad, but there's almost always a noticeable sediment in the bottom of a bucket or a washbowl that I fill from my taps. And sometimes the water is actually visibly discoloured, usually a reddish brown as if tainted with blood or rust. Most off-putting!)

The silt, you see, I'm sure that's the problem. I haven't been rinsing it away as thoroughly while I shower; the unsuspected under-the-sink leak has perhaps shifted the patterns of water circulation around the tiled floor; and no, I know, I haven't used the mop for far too long. Little by little, insidious, unnoticed - like the slowly rising water temperature of frog-boiler Gramsci - this bloody silt has been building up into mini sand dunes in the nooks and corners of my bathroom floor.

And it harbours life.

At first, I didn't pay much attention to the little flies that were sometimes manifesting themselves in my bathroom. I quite often get a few small insects appearing in the apartment, and I assume they've just flown in from outside.

It was odd, though, that they were always in the bathroom. They seemed to be flying up out of the drains in the sink or the floor. I tried sloshing some bleach down, in case there was somehow a little colony of the critters down there.

Still the flies appeared, in ever greater numbers. One day last week when I counted over thirty of them, I began to get a mite concerned about it. Usually I am a bit of a krypto-Buddhist, and try to refrain from killing living creatures without a very good reason. However, the infestation was reaching alarming proportions now, and was, I felt, starting to constitute a good reason. I began swatting the little bastards. Tiny black smears on the tiled walls remind me of the casualties in this private war. I must have dispatched at least 50 of them now, but more keep coming back.

And then there are the writhy things. I'd been noticing these for a while, but had thought they were just strands of hair or bits of dirt or minute sandbars of silt wriggling about in the current of water flowing over them. No. When I took a really close look, I discovered that they were alive. I'm not sure if they are some larval form of the pesky little flies. They look more like some kind of tiny worm or leech to me. Yick!

Hand-to-hand combat isn't going to work with these little bastards. We need to bring on the WMDs. Yes, I hate to escalate in this way, but I fear I really have no choice: we're going chemical. Trouble is, they seem to be remarkably resilient to bleach. I've been raining salt on them instead. Very effective in individual cases, but I don't think it's a complete solution. I think I need to hose down the whole room with something very toxic.

Thank heavens this grisly menagerie seems content to occupy my bathroom, and hasn't yet attempted to annex the rest of the apartment.

I am quite sure that these strange life-forms must have hatched from eggs in the silt that pours out of the taps. (I have already heard of two other Beijingers who've been having similar problems - the flies, at least, if not the leeches - so it's not just karmic payback for my negligent hygiene practices.)

So.... the next time you hear someone in Beijing bragging that they drink the tapwater.... you might want to mention this cautionary little tale to them.

Right. Now it's time to go shopping for some pest-control products.

"Of course, you realise this means WAR?"

Two-for-one bon mot time

"Without humility there can be no humanity."

John Buchan (1875-1940)

"Humility is the ability to give up your pride and still retain your dignity."

Vanna Bonta

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Only the snow can begin to explain

I was put in mind of this piece - perhaps my favourite of all Cummings's work - by yesterday's poetic exchanges on The Barstool with one of my translator buddies. I generally disparage the lack of flexibility or precision that seems to afflict the Chinese language as a result of its limited grammar and vocabulary, and in particular the impenetrable ambiguities that can often arise through the same word/character being able to serve as noun and verb (or adjective), and sometimes indeed as different words with quite dissimilar meanings. However, in poetry at least, this blurring of grammatical boundaries can sometimes work a certain charm. Such playful reinvention of grammar was Cummings's trademark, and nowhere was it more thoroughgoing or more successful than here, I think. A lovely, lovely piece. I especially like "and down they forgot as up they grew" and "more by more they dream their sleep".

anyone lived in a pretty how town

anyone lived in a pretty how town
(with up so floating many bells down)
spring summer autumn winter
he sang his didn't he danced his did.

Women and men(both little and small)
cared for anyone not at all
they sowed their isn't they reaped their same
sun moon stars rain

children guessed(but only a few
and down they forgot as up they grew
autumn winter spring summer)
that noone loved him more by more

when by now and tree by leaf
she laughed his joy she cried his grief
bird by snow and stir by still
anyone's any was all to her

someones married their everyones
laughed their cryings and did their dance
(sleep wake hope and then)they
said their nevers they slept their dream

stars rain sun moon
(and only the snow can begin to explain
how children are apt to forget to remember
with up so floating many bells down)

one day anyone died i guess
(and noone stooped to kiss his face)
busy folk buried them side by side
little by little and was by was

all by all and deep by deep
and more by more they dream their sleep
noone and anyone earth by april
wish by spirit and if by yes.

Women and men(both dong and ding)
summer autumn winter spring
reaped their sowing and went their came
sun moon stars rain

E.E. Cummings (1894-1962)

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Brother of the more famous....

The quotation the estimable Jeremiah chose to use on his blog the other day was the famous opening line from L.P. Hartley's The Go-Between.

Naturally, that got me free-associating to this.... possibly one of the most successful ads ever to appear on British TV. It was repeated for years throughout the 1980s, and on into the 1990s, I think. There were several excellent ads in this series (promoting the 'Yellow Pages' business telephone listings), but this one just took off to another level, developing into a cult phenomenon. Norman Lumsden, the elderly actor who played the character of
"J.R. Hartley", became a national treasure (he lived for nearly another 20 years, to the age of 95). Someone even had the bright idea of cashing in on the ad's success by creating the book the old man had been searching for (and a series of other similar ones). It's a funny old world, to be sure. A very, very charming little video story, though.

Inspiring the blogosphere

My blog-buddy Jeremiah has posted a quotation of the week in emulation of my bon mot series (which he calls a 'meme': not a term I love, though I suppose its use here is less questionable than it typically is in blogland). It remains to be seen whether he will make this a regular feature of his blog.

I wonder how many more of my recurring features (or my brilliant but ephemeral one-off posts) may have spawned their imitators elsewhere on the Internet? Lots, I trust. I may go Googling to try to find out.....

Chinese people LOVE me! (24)

"Chinese people love me because..... I always ask their permission before taking their photograph."

Unfortunately, they usually say no. This girl selling dried fruits was the only one of several stallholders in my neighbourhood who agreed to let me take a snap of her when I last went prowling with my camera a month or so ago.

It goes rather beyond shyness, I think. A lot of older Beijingers - and quite a lot of young people, newly arrived from the sticks to work in jobs like this - seem to have a superstitious hang-up about being photographed: I don't know if it's quite that "stealing your soul" anxiety, but it's something pretty potent.

In a lot of the street scenes I've shot, I find on later examination that there's a foot or an elbow sticking out from behind a tree or a lamp-post in the middle distance..... where someone was trying to hide from my camera!

In general, I find it's better to use a really long lens and shoot surreptitiously from a distance. If people don't realise you're taking pictures, they don't get upset

(Interesting moral problem, though: is this still a bit naughty? Particularly if you're taking quite a close-up portrait of someone?)

Friday, February 20, 2009

Why I like living here

For all of my occasional grumping and griping, I do absolutely love living in Beijing.

I am particularly fortunate to live in such a great area, one of the nicest neighbourhoods in the city. The old Bell Tower (above), the city's most beautiful building, is only a 10-minute walk away. And, since it is such a dazzlingly lovely day today, I think I'll take a stroll down that way right now.

Olympic leftovers (1)

I know, I know, I wrote quite enough about the darned Olympics last year, but..... after a long pause, I feel I can now return to the subject occasionally.

And I really don't know how I came to omit mentioning this at the time last summer.

I learned from a cab driver that many Beijingers spoke of the official Olympic logo as being a picture "of a man shot in the back.... by the police.... while trying to run away...."

Yes, the red hole in the chest is somewhat unfortunate, and one can readily see where this gory interpretation springs from.... but the elaboration of that image.... ouch! It speaks volumes about the psyche of this nation, I fear, and about its brutal recent history.

Weekly haiku

The world seems too bright,
After grey days, after snow,
Sunshine pains the eyes.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

It'll make you feel better

Not at someone, of course. No, just as personal catharsis, in the relative privacy of your own bathroom or balcony. Can't beat it.

Oh, this is a good example of the right technique, too - from a recent watermelon sculpture competition. [Hat tip to Moonrat for that one.]

Ominously quiet....

The building site outside my window has been completely shut down since a week or more before the Chinese New Year holidays - over a month now.

It is now 10 days since the official end of those holidays, and there's still no sign of life there.

I worry that the project may have been abandoned - a conspicuous victim of the 'meltdown' right on my own doorstep!

I know it may seem paradoxical to complain about this, after all the griping I did when they started this work back in October, but..... well, I had got used to enduring the 24-hour noise outside, and I was rather looking forward to the dratted work being finished. I don't want to have to look out on this eyesore indefinitely.

[And yes, it's been snowing in Beijing for the past couple of days. The Spring is threatening to be even more
schizophrenic than it has been in the last couple of years. The first half of February was uncommonly mild: the daytime temperature got up into the 60s Fahrenheit a few times last week. This week - arse-freezing again! And the first snow of the year! 5 more weeks until it's really Spring, I reckon. 5 more weeks....]

The government is doing its best to HELP you

I just saw a story on the TV news here that the Beijing government has set up a 'job fair' outside one of the main train stations.... to assist arriving migrants in finding work.


I figure most of these people find work readily enough through family contacts already here, or through the freelance employment agents who circle the train and bus stations like vultures. Assuming there is any work to be had, that is.

No, nasty old cynic that I am, I am inclined to suspect that this is more of a social control measure - trying to establish a more accurate register of migrant workers arriving in the city so that, if there is a serious shortfall of new jobs ('if'???), they can be easily rounded up and sent back home.

Then again, maybe it's more just an empty propaganda exercise. I imagine these new arrivals don't have any contact details to give out (with any luck, they've arranged to crash with family or friends - but they might not know the address, and probably wouldn't want to give it out to government representatives anyway). Most migrant workers have a very precarious and sub-legal status here: without valid Beijing residence papers, which very few of them have or can get, they are subject to fines or detention at the drop of a hat. I am therefore very dubious as to how many of them would sign up with a government-run employment registry.

Still, all this talk of caring for and helping the migrants is very uplifting, isn't it? Help with finding jobs. Help with re-training (wonderful shot of beaming peasant, quite probably illiterate, flicking through a booklet on safety procedures in the building industry, seeking out the illustrations, looking at them rather bemusedly; perhaps he's already worked in construction for several years and has never seen a safety harness.....). Gosh, they might even make them eligible for healthcare and education one day. And remove that threat of arbitrary arrest. One day.

In the midst of all this rather unconvincing happy-clappy stuff, there was one chilling statistic: a spokesmen for the government employment agency said that they had details of 30,000 jobs available..... but they needed to find 100,000 more.

As is usual with the Chinese handling of statistics, no parameters were mentioned. What's the timeframe there? 100,000 jobless peasants have arrived in Beijing in how long???

Yes, somewhat alarming.

I am becoming increasingly unsettled by the unaccustomed (perhaps inadvertent?) candour we've been seeing on CCTV9 items about the economy in the past month or so. Even Yang Rui's Dialogue, a talking heads programme which is usually to be relied upon to provide reassuringly gung-ho and right-on pro-China commentary from Chinese and foreign guests alike, was just recently mentioning terms like "social unrest" and "rising crime" in relation to "mass unemployment".... in China. After 6 years of nothing but good news most of the time, these little unexpected doses of reality are quite a shock to the system.

10 million job losses this year in the construction sector alone, they were saying. And that's just what they're admitting to. Oh my gawd!

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Ultimate Daily Llama

I don't know how I resisted for so long.....

In a nutshell

A friend I hadn't seen for a while enquired by SMS last week what I had been up to of late.

My reply:

"Like the scholar-poets of old, I have been leading a life of quiet contemplation: reading lots of Chinese history, drinking lots of tea, focusing my qi."

Monday, February 16, 2009

Bon mot for the week

"Imagination was given to man to compensate him for what he is not; a sense of humour to console him for what he is."

Francis Bacon (1561-1626)

Sunday, February 15, 2009

More cynicism on love & sex

Nobody ever did it better than Dottie.

General Report On The Sex Situation

Woman wants monogamy;
Man delights in novelty.
Love is woman's moon and sun;
Man has other forms of fun.
Woman lives but in her lord;
Count to ten, and man is bored.
With this the gist and sum of it,
What earthly good can come of it?

Dorothy Parker (1893-1967)

As with so much of her stuff, though, I find myself in disagreement. Perhaps I am a freakish example of my gender, but I do seem to have a very powerful monogamy gene. I've remained in love with the same woman for years, even after the relationship had ended. And I find it just about impossible - almost literally unthinkable - to get interested in someone else while I'm in love. I'm strictly a one-at-a-time kind of chap. Anything else would be too exhausting, wouldn't it?

Saturday, February 14, 2009

List of the Month - Things we most like about Chinese culture

I confess to being in a testy mood of late. I haven't been out of the country in nearly 18 months, and I'm probably getting a little stir crazy. I am in that vulnerable state where the oddities of life in China can rather too easily get on one's nerves. I am therefore trying to instil some positivity in myself, by reflecting on some of the things that I really like about this country.

However, by way of preamble, I will begin by observing that one of the things that pisses me off most about this country is the tendency many people have (not just the local people, but resident foreigners who are trying too hard to assuage their colonial guilt by being exaggeratedly 'culturally sensitive' all the time) to defend things that are - well, let's not say fucked up here; let's be 'culturally sensitive' and say non-ideal, counter-rational, inefficient, harmful - yes, people will defend so many things that are thus severely non-ideal as 'part of the culture', as if this somehow renders them sacrosanct, above criticism or even analysis and comment (at least from us uncomprehending waiguoren). Not everything that a people does or believes or creates is 'culture'. Not all 'culture' is good. 'Culture' is not exempt from examination and criticism, not incapable of change. If you tell me, for example, that 'your culture' approves the beating of children, then I will tell you that your culture is wrong. Although I'll also be inclined to argue that moral norms like this are not strictly within the scope of 'culture' as I perceive it.

That, of course, could be a whole other post, or a series of 'em. One day, perhaps, one day. But not now.

First, though, one further gripe - this time about the typical attitude of foreigners to the more challenging aspects of Chinese 'culture' that we encounter in our daily lives here. In general, there are two reactions (not always mutually exclusive). People sometimes get stuck in deplore mode, and whinge on about things incessantly: "Oh my god, I will never get used to people spitting in public/shouting in restaurants/cycling on the wrong side of the road/whatever." And sometimes people will lurch to the other extreme and try to find something eccentrically charming even about behaviours they basically find rather gross: "It's really amazing, isn't it, how much people smoke out here; I mean, even in the middle of dinner? And isn't it quaint how they let their toddlers crap in the street?"

I do my best to avoid either of these attitudes; but I don't always succeed. None of us do. But I like to think that I try harder than most.

Anyway..... having got some of that out of my system, here is a little list of things I really enjoy about Chinese life.

Things I Most Like About Chinese Culture

Tai chi
Perhaps the best exercise system in the world: very elegant, very restul, very meditative. I love watching people do this. One day - maybe soon - I'll start studying it properly, rather than just trying to copy the old ladies in the park.

Gong fu cha
A method of serving Tie Guanyin, a superior variety of Oolong tea named in honour of the Chinese Goddess of Mercy, Guanyin. I think it's more of a southern thing; I've never encountered it here in Beijing. The tea is brewed in small individual cups; it's very strong, with the leaves stacked almost to the brim; and you're supposed to drink three (or is it four?) successive infusions of the same leaves, each with a strikingly different character. I am not in general very attracted to 'tea culture' here (any more than I am to 'coffee culture' in the West; if I'm going to sit around shooting the shit with my buddies for a few hours, I need beer to accompany that; tea and coffee, it seems to me, have more of the uncomfortable diuretic effect, but none of the disinhibiting or imagination-stimulating benefits of alcohol). Teahouses can be monstrously expensive, and are often just a tourist rip-off. However, I was thoroughly won over by the calming atmosphere of the gong fu cha ritual (and by the taste of the tea) on my first visit to China many years ago, and I wish I could enjoy it a little more often.

Tapping on the table to thank someone for pouring you a drink
This is one of the few local customs that I have found utterly charming, and adopted so wholeheartedly that it has become almost an unconscious habit in me now. I don't like the fact that it is supposed to represent the elaborate self-abasement that we know as the kow-tow (according to tradition, the practice originated amongst some servants of an Emperor [I don't think anybody's ever told me which one] who was travelling about the country incognito to try to find out what his subjects thought of him; one day, the servants felt shamed when the disguised Emperor poured tea for them, but, in order not to blow their cover, they improvised this rapping-with-the-knuckles gesture to take the place of the full kow-tow they would have offered him in the palace), but that's no longer relevant. It's a simple gesture of acknowledgement, a small, everyday courtesy (the type of thing, alas, that often seems in rather short supply in China: the 'culture' here doesn't have a lot of 'please' and 'thank you', and very, very little friendliness or respect towards people in menial jobs).

As with the tai chi, I'm not sure that I'd really want to do this myself. Not for quite a few more years yet, anyway. But I like to watch. The kites in Beijing can be quite spectacular, and can climb to enormous heights.

Communal singing
Not the scourge of karaoke, which has within the last 20 years become an almost ubiquitous national addiction (and the bane of many foreigners living in China: we will inevitably be required at some point in our time here to endure a session of several hours' duration - hours that can seem more like days - in order to keep up good relations with our Chinese friends or colleagues), but the singing that goes on in parks, usually amongst the more senior citizens. These are mostly old revolutionary songs, so I sometimes feel a certain discomfort at the reminder of the crazy - murderous - days under Mao; the sentimental nostalgia these old folks seem to have for those bad old days is, one can't help but feel, somewhat misplaced. But still, the songs are unquestionably rousing, and the process of singing together obviously brings a lot of joy to the singers - and to those of us listening.

Nope, not a very long list, was it? Calligraphy didn't quite make it in (I have too much hostility towards the impracticality of the writing system; and I don't find the characters themselves intrinsically all that attractive, although I concede that certain calligraphic styles can look rather good). Nor did wushu (the ancient fighting arts - impressive, but becoming sadly trivialised and commercialised these days). Nor TCM (I try to keep an open mind about its possible benefits, but I'm convinced that a good 95% of it is dangerous quackery that relies solely on placebo effect). Nor the cooking. Nor......

And, oh dear me, I think I might have a (rather longer) post brewing in me about all the aspects of Chinese 'culture' I don't like at all.....

The day which shall not be named

My antipathy towards Valentine's Day is by now, no doubt, known to all.

And if you are going to indulge in any of the conventional expressions of faked-up sentiment on this most nauseating and artificial of festivals, then you might at least do so (as that scourge of the Internet, Mr Tolstoy, urged us around
this time last year) with a realistic representation of the human heart. If everything else about this day is phoney, let us, please, keep at least this one thing accurate.

There are plenty of - rather arty and attractive - examples of such 'anatomically correct' hearts out there now. This was my favourite, from a selection I found on Trendhunter.

My apologies to new reader 'Fiona Jane', in case this picture should bring on another feeding frenzy. Yes, it's chocolate.

Friday, February 13, 2009


Most of the Chinese reports on this week's big fire in Beijing have centred on the fact that the bigwigs at CCTV have had to "make self-criticism" because the fire - in the complex which is to house the state TV station's new headquarters - was started by some "giant firecrackers" they'd decided to let off in celebration of the last day of the Chinese New Year holiday without permission.

I wasn't aware that there was an Outsized Fireworks Licensing Authority, but there you go. "You live and learn," as they say in the gulags.

A feeling good haiku

Forgotten freshness:
The chill air tastes clean and sweet.
Morning after rain.

Yesterday was a drab non-event of a day, misty and smoggy. But at least we had several hours of fine drizzle - the first rainfall in ever such a long time. Well, snow has been forecast for us a few times this winter, but hasn't quite materialised. There's been a little around the fringes of Beijing, but none in the city itself (except just once or twice when, walking home after midnight, I encountered the beginnings of a mild flurry - but over very quickly, and so thin and wet that it never settled). Apparently - like much of the rest of north and central China this winter - we hadn't had any measurable precipitation in Beijing for 108 days.

[Now there's a significant number! 108 was the number of Penelope's suitors in The Odyssey, all slain by the returning Odysseus at the end of the story. It was also the number of ancient heroes reincarnated as the leaders of the 'Outlaws of the Marsh' in Liang Shan Po - at least according to The Water Margin, the Japanese TV serialisation of the Chinese classic that became a cult hit on the BBC in the 1970s. Numerology is the same the world over. Nine dozens, you see - very potent. But I digress.]

A jog around the lakes this morning with the streets still damp was an ecstatic experience.

Unfortunately my mood is dragged down more than a little by the fact that I've pulled a muscle or tendon in the back of one of my calves quite badly, and covered most of my circuit at a limping walk rather than a jog.

This is particularly galling since we are now entering the brief 'perfect season' for running in Beijing: from mid-February there is a 4-6 week period when the weather is mostly cool but no longer arse-freezing, and occasionally quite warm but not uncomfortably so. By the end of March it will probably be getting just a little warmer than I really like for running; by the end of April it will be starting to get f***ing HOT. And I've gone and crocked myself for, I would guess, at least a couple of weeks. Damn, damn, damn.

It is an absolutely glorious morning, though.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Nothing to see here

People in the rest of the world have probably seen plenty of pictures like this already. Here in China, they are rather harder to come by. I think there's some filtering of Google Image searches going on, since most of the search terms I just used produced returns like this either not at all or not on the first page.

Though I learned about this as it was happening (on Monday night, during the Lantern Festival firework frenzy) from Chinese friends, and I gather there were some live reports about it as breaking news on radio and TV, I'm not sure that any live footage of it was shown. There was no reference to it at all on the local 'international' channel, CCTV9, until the following evening, and then only a 10-second mention and an almost subliminal still shot of the burning Mandarin Hotel. The Peking Duck
reports that the state news service Xinhua promptly sent out instructions to Chinese websites to downplay online coverage of the story, and we've seen a similar near-blackout in all the other media here. There doesn't seem to be anything particularly politically sensitive about this story. It's just that there is no bad news in China.

I note that one of the early Xinhua stories on the fire - before the powers-that-be fine-tuned the censorship dial - suggests that this not-quite-finished hotel building is 200m away from the distinctive metallic doughnut of the new CCTV Tower (headquarters of the national TV station). Hmmm. I haven't been over that way for a while, but I think it is a bit closer than that. It is part of the same complex (and, like the Tower, also designed by Ole Scheeren as part of a unified concept). And that fire was plenty big enough that it might have spread to the Tower as well. A few panicky rumours flying around on the night suggested that it had done so.

Of course, we're all terribly relieved that it didn't, and that the Tower is intact...... although the ungenerous spirit of schadenfreude in me would have been eager to see how the Chinese media would make light of an even more conspicuous and shaming disaster like this. Also, I confess, I am slightly regretful at the lost opportunity for a really great headline. Beijingers, you see, have nicknamed the CCTV Tower 大裤子 (da kuzi, or 'big pants' - 'pants', apparently, in both the British and American senses!).

Can't you just picture it?

I'm afraid I just can't help thinking that that would be a particularly appropriate headline for a story about CCTV, given its notoriously creative interpretation of 'truth'.

(One of my translator friends assures me that an alternate and possibly better rendition of ku would be 'crotch', but..... CROTCH ON FIRE!? Where's the humour in that??)

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Fame at last??

Seen on a bus in Scotland recently.....

Well, no, not really, of course.

It seems that quirky slogans on buses and bus stops are quite a feature of the zeitgeist back in my old home country. And now someone has created a Bus Slogan Generator so that we can all have a go.

I am yet again indebted for the link to the irrepressible Tolstoy.

Monday, February 09, 2009

An end-of-holiday treat

Today is Yuanxiaojie, the Lantern Festival, the finale of the 16 days of festivities for the Lunar New Year we've just been through here in China. And, sure enough, as dusk falls on Beijing, the the crackle of fireworks rolls through the city - rather sinisterly like gunfire.

Just before this all started, I posted a nostalgic little piece about Barry Norman's late-night Film review programme and the special place it has in my memories of childhood. I mentioned then that I wasn't sure if the programme still survived. During the '90s I was out of the UK for long spells, and too gosh-darned busy to watch much TV anyway when I was in the country. By the dawn of the Noughties, I think I was dimly aware that the show had passed into history, but I hadn't been aware of it happening. My online research has revealed that the BBC canned it in 1998, while I was living in Canada.

Here is the beginning and end of the last ever show, including the famous credits sequence with what Barry not unreasonably describes as "the best theme music on television".

In my earlier post, I included a video clip of the jazz great Billy Taylor playing this tune, I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free, which he composed. I also put in a link to a version by Nina Simone (with no accompanying video). Apparently, Billy made a gift of the song to her, and hers was the first recorded version (although Billy soon followed up with his own instrumental version, which became the Film ** theme music).

Here is the great lady completely tearing the song apart at the 1976 Montreux Jazz Festival. Enjoy.

Not that this really has anything to do with the Lantern Festival..... except that it makes me feel celebratory. I hope it does you too.

Happy Lantern Festival, everyone!

Bon mot for the week

Contentment: the smother of invention.

Ethel Watts Mumford (1878-1940)

Not much information on the Internet about Ms Mumford, but it seems she was a fairly prolific American humorist of the early 20th Century, and responsible for quite a few well-known bon mots. We may hear from her again in weeks to come.

Sunday, February 08, 2009

D.H. Lawrence on teaching (again)

Last summer I posted the D.H. Lawrence poem Last Lesson Of The Afternoon, which encapsulates rather too well the staleness and the hopelessness that often overwhelm the teacher.

To counter-balance that gloomy view and affirm that I do, after all, rather like teaching (although I try not to do very much of it any more, since I usually find it to be both spiritually and financially unrewarding in China), I thought I should offer this other poem of his on teaching. I had meant to do so some months ago, but it somehow slipped my mind.

The Best Of School

The blinds are down because of the sun,
And the boys and the room in a colourless gloom
Of underwater float: bright ripples run
Across the walls as the blinds are blown
To let the sunlight in; and I,
As I sit on the beach of the class alone,
Watch the boys in their summer blouses
As they write, their round heads busily bowed:
and one after another rouses
And lifts his face and looks at me,
And my eyes meet his very quietly,
Then he turns again to his work with glee.

With glee he turns, with a little glad
Ecstasy of work he turns from me,
An ecstasy surely sweet to be had.

And very sweet, while the sunlight waves
In the fresh of the morning, it is to be
A teacher of one of these young boys: my slaves
Only as swallows are slaves to the eaves
They build upon, as mice are slaves
To the man who threshes and mows the sheaves.

Oh sweet it is
To feel the lads' looks light on me,
Then back in a swift, bright flutter to work,
As birds who are stealing turn and flee,

Touch after touch I feel on me,
As their eyes glance at me for the grain
Of rigour they taste delightedly.

And all the class,
As tendrils reached out yearningly
Slowly rotate till they touch the tree
That they cleave unto, that they leap along
Up to their lives - so they to me.

So do they cleave and cling to me,
So I lead them up, so do they twine
Me up, caress and clothe with free
Fine foliage of lives this life of mine;
The lowest stem of this life of mine,
The old hard stem of my life
That bears aloft towards rarer skies
My top of life, that buds on high
Amid the high winds' enterprise;

They do clothe my ungrowing life
With a rich, a thrilled young clasp of life;
A clutch of attachments, like parenthood,
Mounts up to my heart, and I find it good.

And I lift my head upon the troubled tangled world,
and though the pain
Of living my life were doubled, I still have this to comfort and sustain,
I have such swarming sense of lives at the base of me,
such sense of lives
Clustering upon me, reaching up, as each after the other strives
To follow my life aloft to the fine wild air of life and the storm of thought.

And though I scarcely see the boys, or know
that they are there, distraught
As I am with living my life in earnestness, still progressively and alone;
Though they cling, forgotten the most part, not companions,
scarcely known
To me - yet still because of the sense of closeness clinging densely to me,
And slowly fingering up my stem and following all tinily
The way that I have gone and now am leading, they are dear to me.

They keep me assured, and when my soul feels lonely,
All mistrustful of thrusting its shoots where only
I alone am living, then it keeps
Me comforted to feel the warmth that creeps
Up dimly from their striving; it heartens my strife:
And when my heart is chill with loneliness,
Then comforts it the creeping tenderness
Of all the strays of life that climb my life.

D.H. Lawrence (1885-1930)

Saturday, February 07, 2009

My Fantasy Girlfriend - Jan Francis

One of my first big flesh-and-blood crushes, Jan Francis was an extremely pretty actress who was a ubiquitous face on British TV during my childhood in the '70s and '80s. She had a wholesome, girl-next-door beauty, rather than being a head-turning glamourpuss; an English rose, something very close to my ideal paradigm of desirable womanhood. I later learned that in her teens, before turning to acting, she had trained and performed with the Royal Ballet. I suspect that contributed to her appeal for me as well. I've always had a bit of a weakness for dancers; and it's not just the long legs, nor even the grace and elegance of their movements; it's a rather less obvious or tangible quality they seem to exude, a poise or confidence, a suggestion of being completely comfortable with their bodies.

I think I first saw her on Jackanory, a long-running teatime series on BBC in which an actor would read a children's story in daily 15-minute segments over the course of a week. I was immediately smitten. And she was in such regular work over the next 15 or 20 years (at least on TV; she never made the break into films, strangely), that I was regularly re-smitten. She was a damsel in distress in a Sunday teatime serialisation of The Last Of The Mohicans, Mina Harker in a feature-length TV adaptation of Dracula, a French Resistance operative in the wartime drama series Secret Army (in a mac and beret - very sexy!), and much else besides. Her most famous role was probably as Penny Warrender in Just Good Friends, a romantic sitcom that was one of the BBC's biggest hits of the '80s.

Ah, Jan. So many happy memories. She's in her 60s now, but still looking rather fine. She has that kind of inner beauty that actually seems to intensify rather than fade with age.

Losing my composure

A series of interesting encounters with strangers in bars kept me out rather late last night. When I finally set out for home, I was so tired that I decided to treat myself to a cab (19 times out of 20 I will walk back, because it's only a little over a mile from my apartment to my favoured watering-holes).

It turned out to be not so much of a treat.

"Turn right here," I said.

"Right?" said the cabbie disbelievingly, and acting like he was somehow terribly disappointed that he couldn't go straight on.

Now, Beijing cab drivers will almost invariably repeat the address and/or instructions you give them two or three times, as if seeking confirmation. They're usually not. A gruff dui, "That's right", will get them on their way more effectively than a foolhardy attempt to repeat or elaborate what you've just said. (This seems to be very much a Beijing quirk. I haven't found taxi drivers anywhere else in the country doing this.)

With this guy last night, though, his reluctance to actually do what I told him amounted to a psychosis. At the next junction, he made to turn left - despite having just been told to turn right, and acknowledged as much. At the next lights we needed to do a U-turn. He set off in the right-hand lane - and then made a big fuss about the difficulty of pulling over to the inside lane, even though at 3.30am there was no other traffic anywhere in sight. Even then, he failed to execute the required U-turn, claiming it was "impossible", and waiting instead for the traffic light to allow him to make a left into Gulouwai. While we were waiting - for what seemed like several minutes - another cab squeezed up inside us and made a U-turn. I found that rather galling. I indicated the ease and legality of the supposedly "impossible" manoeuvre to my driver, but he still didn't want to attempt it. However - perhaps to prove to me that a U-turn was within his repertoire of driving skills - he started to perform one at the next junction where I asked him to turn left. More amazing even than that, even when I'd put him right and got him pointed in the right direction, he again tried to show off his U-turn as we were entering my road.

My "taxi driver Chinese" is perfectly adequate, and I almost never encounter any difficulties telling people where I want to go. And it is difficult to conceive of any possible misunderstanding that would prompt someone to attempt a U-turn in the middle of the entrance to a narrow side street.

This guy only had to make 5 or 6 turns in the space of a 5-minute ride; and at every single one of them, he tried to turn the wrong way. Every single bloody one! I gave up trying to give him verbal instructions, and just pointed the way vigorously. By the end of the ride, I'm afraid, my patience and calm had all evaporated - it was not quite a Christian Bale moment, but getting there.

I am usually very tolerant of the foibles and failings of our cab drivers. It's a tough job. He was probably knackered.... half asleep.... maybe even a little drunk (you do quite often see cab drivers taking an extended meal break in the wee small hours of the morning, and fairly freely partaking of beer and erguotou; Jeremiah reported a particularly alarming cab driver experience the other day). But this chap was being so bizarrely, creatively incompetent that I couldn't help thinking he was deliberately pissing me around.