Thursday, April 30, 2009

Great lines not to use

Koryo Simon staged another of his occasional screenings of North Korean (or North Korea-related) films at Bar Blu the other night. I couldn't post an advance notice for the event this time because I was without Internet access at the start of the week - ggrrrr.

The first film was a compelling Dutch-made documentary about a dashing young German conductor giving masterclasses at the Pyongyang Conservatory of Music (and encountering rampant sexism in the supposedly 'model Socialist republic'). The second, a popular North Korean romantic comedy - ponderously titled Urban Girl Comes To Get Married (can't find it on IMDB!) - was a surprising gem. Not quite such a riotous romp as the "Korean Godzilla" Pulgasari that we saw a few months back, but strangely charming and very funny in parts.

A beautiful city girl visits a rural village to help with the rice harvest (still a twice-yearly ritual for almost all of the DPRK's urban populace) and develops a crush on a dashing farmer. Unfortunately the young swain is rather brusque and stand-offish with her because he is obsessed 24/7 with striving to improve farming methods and build the "workers' paradise".

Amongst my favourite thigh-slapping lines were these:

"Whenever I see you I am filled with one desire. Yes, I desire to learn your skill of making dress." (The girl is a clothes designer. Can we see a gay sub-text in this request??)

And (when she visits his house late one night; surely a promising situation...).....

"You should go home now. I have to shovel duck dung into the gas burner."

And I thought my chat was bad!!

Stubble is back in fashion??

I was running late for a lunch date with the improbably perfect woman I was romancing a month ago..... Well, she had suggested it at very short notice, a change to the plan we'd made on parting the night before; so I apologized that I needed to shower and shave before I could join her.

She joked, "I'm sure your beard cannot have grown that much overnight. And unshaviness suits a writer like you."

Sigh. Yes, I have that text message saved on my phone.

'Unshaviness' - it really ought to be a word, didn't it?

[And "a writer" like me?! Gosh, that takes some living up to!]

Wednesday, April 29, 2009


Is that what they're saying about me?

My Internet connection has been mysteriously dysfunctional since the weekend. I hardly need to tell you how hugely off-pissing that is. I do not wish to become one of this city's legion of wi-fi nomads.

This kind of service interruption happens pretty regularly (though usually just for a few hours or half a day at a time); so it is entirely possible that it is simply down to the fact that the Chinese Internet architecture is extremely rickety and that the complete lack of competition between the two main service providers leads to them both being equally crap.

However, I can't help fretting that perhaps it is a piece of targeted censorship (or harassment, intimidation, call it what you will). It's getting to be that time of year again. And I definitely suffered a lot of this in March and April last year (targeted harassment, I mean: phone taps, nuisance calls, diversion of e-mails, the whole bit). When given a choice of the conspiracy or cock-up explanations, I generally choose cock-up. But this time, I'm not so sure......

And to add further to my woes.....

On Sunday lunchtime I managed to leave my bank card in a cashpoint. I get paid in cash most of the time, and very seldom have to raid the cashpoint for readies - and so I have become somewhat incautious about the procedures you have to follow when using them here. (In the UK - at least, back in the 80s and 90s, when cashpoints were new; I can't recall what the form is now - you always used to get your money last, after the card had been returned to you. That seemed a sensible course to me, since very few people are going to forget to walk away with their money, but it is very easy to forget to walk away with your card once your primary need has been satisfied. When I first encountered money first/card last machines in Canada, I lost my card in them 5 or 6 times during the course of the year.)

This should be a blessing in disguise - since the card is very old, the lamination is flaking off it, and many cashpoints decline to recognise it as a result. I am long overdue for a replacement, but.... I have been terrified about asking for one, and putting off the evil day. This is not only because trying to achieve anything in a Chinese bank is an awful rigmarole that typically involves an hour of more of waiting and then taking 10 or 20 minutes to process your simple request (or NOT process it, as often as not), but more particularly because a year or so ago my bank stopped recognising my PIN. The PIN was still good for the cashpoints, but it suddenly didn't work on the keypads at the teller's windows, so I wasn't able to authorise even the simplest of requests any more - not even for a statement or a new passbook.

[One of my Chinese banks (I've had several in my time) refused to issue me with a passbook, so the bank card was the only evidence I had of the account, the only reminder I had of the account number. I thought that was just crazy, and closed the account down as soon as I could. Mind you, I'm not sure that the other banks place much trust in a passbook alone.]

And I have long been terrified of the extreme incompetence and obtuseness of Chinese banks in establishing customers' ID. My main bank account has managed to fuse my first and middle names together, and I suspect this aberration is responsible for the fact that numerous attempts by various employers to transfer money directly into the account have been refused by my bank (account number alone is not good enough, apparently!). Moreover, most Chinese bank staff cannot speak or write or read a word of English, and so cannot easily recognise foreign names - or find their way around supporting ID documents such as passports.

In short, your bank card is, in practice, your only means of accessing your bank account. And if you forget your PIN (or the bank changes it without telling you), then you probably won't be able to get a new PIN or a new passbook or a new bank card or to gain any access to your account ever again. The chances of you being able to establish your identity as the owner of the account based on your passport or whatever other information you wrote on your original application form are slim to none. Without your PIN, you are, to put it bluntly, completely FUCKED.

Yes, I am living with the very real fear that virtually my entire life savings are now lost to me forever - appropriated by the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China.

More gems from the studio

We were treated to an especially bizarre and disturbing scenario in our recording script on Monday. (We should really cherish the novelty of it, I suppose, and not dwell on its grotesqueries.)

One of our monologues recounted the story of a baby bird that strayed into a Chinese middle school classroom. The children apparently closed all the doors and windows in order to trap it (there was no mention of whether the teacher was present in the room). They then proceeded to chase the poor thing around the room, throwing their pencils, erasers, and knives at it, until it dropped to the floor, exhausted and terrified.

This appeared to be a contemporary story, not a reminiscence of the daft Mao campaign to eradicate sparrows from the country. One can scarcely conjecture what kind of warped imagination concocted this macabre scenario. The only saving grace was that the narrator - alone amongst the schoolchildren, and rather 'out of character', since he had earlier appeared to be enjoying and joining in the tormenting of the bird - eventually took pity on the creature and released it outside.

And Chinese middle school students routinely carry knives???

Yes, that piece raised a lot of uncomfortable questions.

But let us swiftly move on to something lighter. The dialogues are usually lighter than the monologues - sometimes so light that any slender thread of logic they might have contained will blow away on a puff of breeze.

"Do you like squirrels?"

"No. But I like dolphins."

That's it. No context. No resolution. Just the random juxtaposition of two of the most unlike animals you could name.

I do hope these kids weren't talking about food preferences.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

An interruption to the drivelling

Where has our Froog been these past few days?

(And yes, it is a few days. At least, for me - since the last couple of posts were 'pre-programmed' on Saturday morning, just before the mammoth bar crawl that wiped out most of the rest of my weekend.)

Biding my time.

Saving the seethe.

Enjoying a preparatory gargle of pent-up bile.

Yes, once again my bloody Internet connection has been down for a few days. Once again my crappy service provider has been uncontactable, or unconcerned, or has feigned ignorance of the problem, or has protested that there is nothing it can do. Heads will roll.

Monday, April 27, 2009

The weekly bon mot

"The only difference between an artist and a lunatic is, perhaps, that the artist has the restraint or courtesy to conceal the intensity of his obsession from all except those similarly afflicted."

Osbert Sitwell (1892-1969)

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Something missing

One month on, and it doesn't get any better....


someone dug a hole
I don't know where it came from
or how to fill it in
but here it is
in the middle of my life
getting in the way
all the time
whenever I want to go
anywhere, do anything
I have to leap over, step around
where once there was no hole
now there's a hole

it is as broad as your smile
and as deep as your eyes
it is the shape of your laugh
I gaze into the hole, and long
to jump in

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Film List - my 6 favourite cinema experiences

Rather than share memories of favourite films, this month I thought I'd review some of my favourite cinema experiences.

So (in no particular order)......

The Ritz
My hometown 'flea-pit' in Monmouth. (Or was it The Regal? Or The Roxy? God, I've forgotten!) Most of my first few hundred cinema experiences must have been there. There were a few opera boxes at the back, which my parents usually favoured - it made for a remarkably cosy and intimate feeling, rather like being able to enjoy the cinema experience in your own living room. I recall becoming indecently aroused by Racquel Welch's fur bikini in One Million Years BC, scared witless by the homicidal computer in 2001, and bored and embarrassed by my parents' sorry addiction to The Sound Of Music (which they must have taken me to see at least a half a dozen times; it's only recently that I've become able to enjoy it again).

The Penultimate Picture Palace
An arthouse flea-pit in Oxford, where I whiled away most of my undergraduate days. (After a period in hiatus, I gather it is now operating again as The Ultimate Picture Palace.) All the Oxford cinemas were great (even the major chains in the city centre); indeed, I retrospectively justified my choice of Oxford over Cambridge to myself by reference to the amount of cinema available; in the '80s, Cambridge had only about half the number of screens that Oxford did, and no decent arthouse. The other independent Oxford cinemas, The Phoenix and Not The Moulin Rouge, were also wonderful, but the PPP was my favourite of all because it was so endearingly sleazy - and so cheap.

The Prince Charles
A sleazy arthouse cinema in the heart of London, with very cheap afternoon shows. During my law school days in the mid-90s, I was a weekly - sometimes daily - visitor there; and I always make a point of going there once or twice on every trip back to the UK now.

The Castro
A huge, old school cinema - complete with a Wurlitzer organ (although, unfortunately, I have not heard it being played) - at the west end of San Francisco's main drag of Market Street, adjacent to the 'gay ghetto' of Castro Street. I went to a screening of Dr Strangelove there on my first visit to the city 15 years ago. Sadly, the place was almost deserted; but it is undoubtedly the most beautiful cinema I have ever been in.

Nameless cinema in Nadi, Fiji
While backpacking around the world in the mid-90s, I took the opportunity to go to a local cinema in Fiji a couple of times. The main features were pretty disappointing - Maverick and Blink; the supporting films I have completely forgotten. However, it was a fascinating experience, a glimpse of what film-going might have been like in America or the UK back in the early days: an uproarious communal event with lively and almost continuous audience interaction - boos, cheers, laughter, shouts of "He's behind you!", etc. (I also recall cutting my hand to ribbons one night. I'd purchased a coconut on the street outside, but in the dark I was fumbling to prise the flesh out of the shell with a Swiss Army penknife that kept snapping shut on my fingers. Ouch.)

The China Film Archive
Not an especially wonderful cinema, and I've only been there once. But it's good to know that it's so convenient for where I live - only about a 20-minute walk away. And I had a marvellous time there last month at the 'Scottish Cinema of Dreams' festival organized by Tilda Swinton and Mark Cousins. Admission was free, but it wasn't clear how many advance tickets distributed via the Internet were actually going to be used (I'd tried to get some, but the website kept crashing), so there was quite a crowd of us waiting anxiously outside, wondering if we'd get in. It was great chatting with some Chinese film enthusiasts in the queue. Some other foreign friends showed up too. And we did all get in. They were trying to recreate the atmosphere of Scotland inside: potted pine trees, pine fragrance, projections of snowy highlands on three walls, and Cousins in his kilt. I could have done without Rod Stewart's Sailing before we started the movie - but some people found it jolly. We were there to see Bill Douglas's trilogy of autobiographical short films - which are striking, but very glum viewing: not easy to sit through in a single stretch. It was also somewhat unfortunate timing, in that the early evening showing had started at around 6pm - dinner time! Luckily, there was an extended break between the second and third instalments, so we all ravenously dashed out on to the streets in a hectic search for the nearest snackfood vendors. And nobody minded that we brought beer and chuanr into the theatre with us for part three. The perfect cinema refreshments! That was the most fun (despite the oppressively dour nature of the films) I've had at the cinema in several years; and, almost certainly, the most fun I'm ever likely to have at the cinema in China.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Your 'Chinese self' is a moron

Another reason why I don't learn Chinese....

There's a funny and perceptive piece by Kaiser Kuo in his Ich Bin Ein Beijinger column in The Beijinger magazine this month (online here) in which he notes that even people who appear to have reached quite a good level of fluency in Chinese are, in reality, still very limited in the grammar and vocabulary at their disposal and the range of situations they can comfortably operate in. Hence, you can find yourself coming across as a child or an idiot when you try to engage in Mandarin conversation with a native speaker. This is something else that discourages me from making much of an effort with the language. I know I'm never going to be able to function in it with genuine fluency (but I have the bumbling basics to be able to order food or buy train tickets; and that's all I feel I need).

Now, I suspect there's a certain amount of false modesty in this article. I've met Kaiser a few times, and his Chinese seems pretty damned good to me (after all, he's been here, on and off, for something like 25 years now; and he's sung in a Chinese rock band, for heaven's sake!). Then again, perhaps he has a bit of an inferiority complex, because overseas Chinese tend to be held to higher standards: the local Chinese tend to assume initially that anyone who looks Chinese must be a native speaker, and, even when they discover that this is not the case, they seem to believe that all ethnic Chinese have an innate capacity to learn and excel in Mandarin. The people who always complain to me most about how difficult they find it to learn Mandarin (and/or to use their Mandarin effectively in day-to-day situations) are foreign-born Chinese - even though they are, in almost all cases, at least starting off with the advantage of having spoken the language a bit with their grandparents when they were kids.

Kaiser's point, I think, is that really high-level fluency - the sort of fluency we aspire to, the sort of fluency that would allow us to communicate as freely as we do in our native tongue, the sort of fluency that would allow us to fully convey our personality and our sense of humour - is, if not quite impossible to achieve, then at least extremely rare. Most people who think they're 'fluent' (and are indeed impressively so in many situations) still suffer from certain deficiencies which impede completely natural, unselfconscious communication.

A further amusing observation which Mr K calls to our attention is this: since most foreigners get to practice their Mandarin primarily with their wives/girlfriends* or with taxi drivers, their 'Chinese persona' tends to be coloured by these models - to veer wildly between Carrie Bradshaw and Jake La Motta.

* Although I feel that the gender imbalance in the expat population has narrowed in the last few years, there are probably still considerably more men than women. And, for a variety of reasons, foreign guys do - mostly - seem to dig Chinese chicks.... whereas Chinese men are less universally admired.

George WHO?

This morning in the recording studio we were treated to yet another example of Chinese ineptitude in dealing with English names, this time resulting from the inability to recognise well-known names (usually because of a complete ignorance of how they are spelt or pronounced in English) when transcribing foreign radio or television programmes.

Today, you see, we had to read a dialogue about George Oki. You know, the famous American woman painter who drew much inspiration from the landscapes of the New Mexico desert. That George Oki.

Haiku for the week

Illness fills the mind,
Takes possession of one's life.
Illness, dread, despair.

I have been miserably ill for the past two weeks or so, but, touch wood, today seems to have marked rather a breakthrough. I still have a painfully raspy throat and a tickly cough, but I'm no longer running a fever. The glands in my neck are still the size of walnuts, but I no longer feel as if my entire throat is puffed up like a bullfrog's. Speaking is still a little uncomfortable, but swallowing no longer is; and I don't seem to be in imminent danger of losing my voice any more. Progress indeed!

I've had several episodes like this in recent years, but I usually manage to see them off with a self-prescribed course of antiobiotics. It's provoked by the dust in the air we so often suffer in Beijing, but I think it is some form of infection rather than an allergy. It is pretty dramatic - I was not exaggerating with that bullfrog analogy. And, of course, I worry that there may be some underlying problem rendering me susceptible to these throat infections (or that such serious, recurring ill health may cause me some kind of permanent damage), especially when one persists for so long and, on this occasion, proves impervious to the usual treatments.

I have been so worried this week that I was on the brink of consulting a doctor. And I absolutely hate having to consult a doctor; I haven't done so for years. To be frank, I was becoming concerned that maybe there was something wrong with my lymph nodes. You know, something.

It didn't help my mood - or my hypochondria - that I learned this week that a Beijing friend had recently died of cancer, barely a year after he was first diagnosed. That makes 5 people I know amongst the expat community here who've had cancer, 3 of whom have died - and they've all been in their 30s or 40s. Maybe that isn't statistically significant (although I don't think I know anyone my age back home who's had cancer problems), but it's a disturbing and depressing coincidence. The environment in Beijing is pretty damn toxic and we are, I'm sure, all shortening our lives by being here. I just hope we're not shortening them by that much.

Thursday, April 23, 2009


Two butterflies are resting beside each other on a leaf.

One suddenly stirs, shudders, flexes its wings agitatedly, and cries out, "Oh my god, what a terrible nightmare!"

His concerned companion speaks soothingly to him. "Oh, honey, not the Zhuangzi dream again?"

[Ah, if only I could draw.....]


Is it just me, or has there been in the China Daily recently just a little more "openness", a little more willingness to address difficult issues and voice opinions critical of the status quo? We probably shouldn't get too excited about it. The range of topics they're allowed to be this adventurous on is no doubt still narrowly prescribed by higher authorities, and the criticisms remain very oblique, muted.

A couple of days ago, for example, there was an editorial on the case of Wu Baoquan, a man from Ordos in Inner Mongolia, who has been jailed for posting online comments critical of the way in which the local government there had carried out forced land acquisitions (a common source of complaint in China today). The writer delicately notes that the apparent use of the police as "a tool of local government to tackle unfavourable opinion" (again, a very common source of complaint in China) is "a role that might go against the Constitution and relevant legal codes". Might?? It's amazing how no-one in this country has a clue how to handle modal verbs until it's necessary to make your English as wishy-washy as possible when expressing some criticism.

The piece also notes that, while you may not be able to trust your police or your government in China, it's all right, because the Internet these days is providing a useful avenue for righting such wrongs. This notion was prompted by the fact that the victim in a very similar recent case in Henan has been released from prison early and given an official apology, after there was an online outcry about what had happened to him. However, this praise of the power of the Internet seems somewhat grimly ironic, given that both these men, and others too, were jailed for precisely that - trying to use the Internet to publicize a grievance. There's no sign yet of a remission of sentence for Mr Wu. (We're told that he should be happy that he's been given leave to appeal again; but he might not be quite so stoked about that, because the first time he appealed, the judge doubled his sentence from one year to two because he had showed "a lack of contrition" by continuing to pursue his complaint against the local government.)

The real money quote, though, is this:

Bending laws by judicial organs such as public security departments should be the last thing to happen in a country with a sound rule of law.

Gosh! Are they implying - ever so gently and indirectly - that China doesn't have a sound rule of law? I think perhaps they are.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Olympic leftovers (4): "Ma Lin says 'hello'!"

My best friend here in Beijing, a rather sporty and roguishly charming young Irishman, managed to break both his wrists on the eve of his birthday last year. (Don't practise capoeira when drunk is the lesson we learn from this.)

Although this was a moderately amusing story, he was naturally rather shamefaced about telling it; and his friends all soon grew bored of hearing it. So, for a while, we developed a little competition of suggesting more exotic explanations for his incapacity. Our favourite (since this was just after the Olympics last year) was that he had been Ireland's surprise hope of a gold medal in the men's table tennis, but that the Chinese team - desperate to protect its domination of the competition - had sent the heavies round to sort him out. "Ma Lin says hello."

[Yes, I'm recycling again. I originally recounted this anecdote in a comment over on Tony's blog; but it still amuses me.]

Who stopped the rain?

Apparently, it rained pretty heavily almost everywhere in China over the weekend. Everywhere.... except in Beijing, where we had only a couple of light showers overnight. Beijing is still pretty damned parched. At least the laying of the dust across much of north China has restored our blue skies (the air in Beijing is still fairly poisonous, especially anywhere near the huge construction sites around Sanlitun; but at least it's transparent again, which it wasn't for much of the preceding fortnight).

Quite a few times recently, it's looked like it might rain here in the capital, it's felt like rain.... but it hasn't rained. This is quite remarkable, since ordinarily any and every cloud that approaches the city is promptly shot full of silver iodide by artillery batteries stationed to the south and west - and, sure enough, rain comes. A sour-tasting, chemical-rich rain that tints the sky green.

But I don't think we've seen any of that since the Olympics last year.

There are two (non-exclusive) 'conspiracy theories' to explain this curious circumstance. Or three, if you believe in karma or divine retribution or....

1) OK, so, the Hand-of-God, reap-what-you-sow, don't-mess-with-Dame-Nature explanation is simply that the powers-that-be here in Beijing are being punished for all the meddling they did with the weather last year to try and ensure a reasonably well-watered and non-polluted Olympics. There doesn't have to be any mechanism; it's simply right and just that we are now suffering month after month of rain-free, cloud-free drought and inexorably turning into a desert.

But me, I like to try and find a mechanism always.

2) The drought currently afflicting north central China is at least partly caused by the massive re-routing of water supplies to the capital last summer. Beijing demanded so much water from the provinces to the west that their water-tables were dangerously depleted, and still haven't recovered. Beijing's not getting any rain because there's now very little groundwater to evaporate from the areas immediately upwind.

3) Even when clouds do appear over the capital, we don't seem to be trying the silver iodide trick any more. Did we use up all our stocks last year? No, I think it's more possible, more likely that we're having to observe some kind of quota system. I noted last year that Beijing's rampant cloud-seeding must effectively be robbing areas further east - notably the sprawling municipality of Tianjin - of rainfall, and that this probably couldn't continue completely unregulated. I suspect that Beijing used up all of its cloud-seeding allowance and then some last summer, and is now being forced to refrain from the practice for a while.

Just idle speculation, of course. But I think these ideas merit some investigation.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Yet another not-the Daily Llama

Aw, cute.

But not a llama. No, this little fella is another vicuňa. The last one was too sketchy for some people....

Oddly familiar

Here's another "favourite" script from my recording work, one that exemplifies a different variety of the Chinese ineptitude (or the ineptitude of China's educational publishing houses, at any rate) in dealing with English names.

In one well-worn scenario (I must have recorded this many dozens of times now, with only the smallest of variations), a cub reporter is approaching a small-town college professor for an interview. Something like this....

"Excuse me, Professor Brown. Could you spare me a few minutes of your time to answer some questions? My name's Helen Keller."

"Helen Keller? That name sounds familiar."
[I can't help thinking that this sounds like a sarcastic interpolation from myself or one of my fellow voice-workers, transcribed - unwittingly? - into later versions of the dialogue.]

"Yes. I write a column on the environment for the local paper."

"Ah, of course. Helen Keller! Nice to meet you."

[I am not making this up.]

Monday, April 20, 2009

A bon mot double-header

"The life of every man is a diary in which he means to write one story, and writes another; and his humblest hour is when he compares the volume as it is with what he once vowed to make it."

J.M. Barrie (1860-1937)

"We must be willing to let go of the life we have planned, so as to have the life that is waiting for us."

E.M. Forster (1878-1970)

Saturday, April 18, 2009

China and me (memories of my first encounter)

I have just passed the 15th anniversary of my first visit to China. I can't now recall the exact date. I flew into Hong Kong some time in the second half of March, but Qing Ming - the big annual grave-sweeping festival - caught me out by falling fairly early that year: all travel to the mainland was booked solid, and I found myself trapped in Hong Kong for 10 or 12 days, waiting to sort out a flight to Wuhan. When I did finally arrange that ticket, it was for a ridiculously early flight out of Shenzhen (now, of course, a bustling metropolis, but at that time still largely under construction; no kidding - my taxi ride to the airport from the small downtown area was 40 or 50 minutes of passing nothing but building sites), so I had to take the train over the border the day before and find a cheap hotel to spend the night. That episode is best glossed over: Shenzhen was a nightmare. I date the beginning of my experience of China proper from my touching down at Hankou airport (the runway only a rough concrete strip surrounded by grass; the terminal building a simple hangar; baggage claim a hurly-burly free-for-all as we snatched our possessions directly off the back of the tractor). It's a pity I don't remember exactly when that was; the beginning of April, I guess.

It was an unimaginably different world here back then. About 18 months ago, I revisited Hankou for the first time since '94 and barely recognised the place: an entirely new city has sprung up there. The new airport is gleaming and modern, no longer just a shack in a field. There are no more steam trains (passenger trains had already moved over to diesel, but steam was still being used for some freight until about 10 years ago, I think); and train tracks no longer wind through ramshackle neighbourhoods, taking you by surprise as they emerge from between houses and run straight down the middle of the street for a while. There no longer seems to be any of the drab, grey one- and two-storey housing that used to be everywhere there; it's all apartment blocks now.

It was still "a country of bicycles" back then. There were hardly any private cars, other than for a few party bigwigs; and only a handful of taxis, compared to today. The main passenger service was provided by motorised rickshaws - small motortrikes with crudely improvised bench seats and canopies (made of the then ubiquitous red, white and blue striped plastic sheeting which used to adorn every shop-front and building site; these days, it only seems to be used for laundry bags) fastened above the rear wheels. Very unstable. I had one particularly hairy experience as our driver dodged crazily through back alleys littered with building materials, seeking out the most improbable shortcuts as he made a heroic but rather too careless-of-danger attempt to get us to the Wuchang Stadium in time for a football match; at one point he clipped a pile of sand with one of his rear wheels and we got a good 25° or 30°of tilt on for what seemed like several seconds. I'm sure the only reason we didn't flip over on to our side was that I was 1.5 times as tall and twice as heavy as the Chinese friend who was sharing the seat with me, and so was able to provide saving counterbalance. Yes, sometimes your beergut may save your life - really.

There were some guys offering a passenger service on small two-wheeled motorcycles too, for one person, riding pillion; I didn't have that much of a deathwish. These machines were something of a novelty back then, and most people didn't seem to have much idea how to ride them. Accidents were commonplace. And both the bikes and the one-size-fits-all 'passenger helmet' offered were way too small for me.

So, the adoption of new forms of transport had begun, but it hadn't got very far by that point. Apart from the buses, there were some mini-vans and the occasional Liberty truck - but, basically, hardly any motorised traffic at all. Just thousands and thousands of bicycles, human rivers of them, 8 or 10 abreast on each side of the road. Even Beijing, I heard (though I didn't get the chance to visit the capital on that trip), was much the same in those days - eerily quiet compared to the constant rumble of traffic we endure today.

The commercial revolution hadn't yet really taken off. There were no major brands or national chains. A lot of restaurants and shops still bore old-style Communist designations like No. 23 Workers' Canteen (a particularly good spot for re gan mian) and No. 1 Department Store. Almost every house was attempting to run some sort of business out of its front room, but often with no sort of sign out front; and often those businesses would wither and disappear within weeks (in the neighbourhood where I was staying, I saw a number of these enterprises abruptly abandoned in favour of trying something else, just in the couple of months or so I was there). Our favourite eating spot in the 'hood was a family home that we knew simply as "The Fat Lady's", our affectionate nickname for the cheery and well-fed woman who owned it and did most of the cooking (I think she was actually called Mrs Wu). A little further down the street, another house opened itself up as a baijiu store; the guy had a selection of 8 or 10 huge 'Ali Baba' earthenware jars in a tiny, unlit room opening on to the street. You'd bring along your own container - usually a small plastic jerrycan - and he'd painstakingly fill it up for you with a ladle. I think the price was only about 10 kuai for 2 or 3 litres, even of "the good stuff". And the boss was quite happy to give us free tastings (perhaps only because we were foreigners, and foreigners were still a glamorous rarity in those days), even though we'd abuse this facility at least a couple of times a week: only a couple of sips each time from a porcelain thimble-cup, but still quite enough to get you lightly oiled, when you're sampling 5 or 6 liquors in quick succession, and on an empty stomach.

Exposure to cultural influences from outside China was still very limited. At the gate of the university where I was staying, there was a music shop (at that time, only cassette tapes were available; but within a year or so, I think, there would be a big influx of cheap CDs - quality-control rejects or deleted stock that had been 'clipped' to try to render them unusable - that would make a lot of Western popular music available here for the first time). The music they would blare out of their speakers every day seemed to progress chronologically, as if they were attempting to provide a potted history of Western music to passers-by (or perhaps this was simply the order in which the owners themselves happened to be discovering it?): at first it was all Buddy Holly and Chuck Berry (no Elvis, I don't think); but after a few weeks, they moved on to The Beatles and The Beach Boys, and a little later again to The Rolling Stones and The Who; towards the end of my time there, glam rock started to make an appearance - and I found myself regretting that I couldn't stay just a bit longer, to see if they would embrace punk next.

In theory, foreign currency was not convertible. You were expected to buy this weird intermediary currency - the FEC (Foreign Exchange Certificate) - which could only be spent in a handful of designated hotels and restaurants and at the special 'Friendship Stores'. This system was in the process of being phased out, as China lobbied for acceptance into the WTO, but was still nominally in place during that first visit of mine. In practice, of course, almost everyone was happy to get their hands on your pounds or dollars, and 'illegal' street-corner moneychanging was a daily event. (Hmm, perhaps that's one thing that hasn't changed so much: bank commissions are so high, so few branches actually stock much if any foreign currency, and there are so many piddling bureaucratic restrictions on how much money you can change, that just about every foreigner I know - including several who run 'legitimate' businesses here - still routinely uses backstreet moneychangers, because there's no real alternative.)

You didn't encounter much English back then. There was one stock phrase, "Hello! How are you?" (invariably enunciated in such improbably plummy tones that I always expected someone to follow up with "More tea, vicar?" or "Anyone for tennis?" ; I couldn't help but think that some listening practice tape they'd all been exposed to must have been culled from the sitcoms of Penelope Keith) which almost everyone seemed to know, and which would follow you down the street everywhere you went. Apart from this, just about no-one you'd meet on the street spoke a word of it. (However, I was touring around a lot, visiting universities and teacher training colleges, so I'd meet a lot of students, academics, and government officials who did speak some English.) There was no English or pinyin on road signs or food packaging, and only a very little on shop signs or advertisements - very different from today! The sense of being surrounded everywhere by Chinese writing - screaming incomprehensibly at you - was rather oppressive. But it did create an incentive, an imperative to learn the Chinese language that is lacking today; then, it was necessary for survival; today it's purely elective. Within just a few weeks, I developed a pretty fair listening ability, could speak a few dozen words quite effectively, and could even read quite a few of the most important characters (distinguishing 男, male, and 女, female, was the first essential, since toilets were never labelled in any other way back then). Most Chinese cities today are a bilingual environment, in both speech and writing; in these circumstances, it is much harder to learn Chinese, and much easier to get by without it - my Chinese has withered with each year I've spent in Beijing.

The country was on a cusp back then - poised between the possibility of breathtaking transformation or stagnation and collapse. Since the events of '89, China had suffered international isolation and the consequent stalling of its economic reform programme; and although Deng Xiaoping had tried to get things moving forward again with his famous 'Southern Tour' the year before, it was unclear whether his initiatives were yet having any effect - at least, outside of Shenzhen and the Pearl River delta. A German journalist I was hanging out with a lot was extremely alarmed about the country's prospects. Local government employees in Wuhan, he told me, were owed some months of back pay, and were threatening strike action. Many of the local utilities had broken down: refuse collections had been suspended some time ago, and people were dropping their rubbish down manholes. (Under-street explosions from accumulating methane were becoming commonplace; I witnessed one at extremely close quarters. Interestingly, many of the Chinese passengers who scattered from the bus we were on at the time seemed at first to think that we were under attack from the police or the army - such were the anxieties of those times.) Power cuts of an hour or two were an almost daily event; most of the larger shops and restaurants left candles out on counters and tables, ready to be lit whenever required. There was no street-lighting, other than on a handful of main thoroughfares; and, in the dark, missing manhole covers were a major hazard - I nearly stumbled into oblivion two or three times. Above all, the country was conspicuously dirt poor: even the major cities still felt like 'the Third World'. In short, China early in 1994 appeared to be coming apart at the seams. But it didn't. Somehow, that crisis was weathered, the reforms began to take hold, and the national economy would sustain double-digit growth for a dozen or so years.

I am glad to have seen the country at that crucial stage in its development; rather sorry not to have seen it also a decade or so earlier, when the legacy of the Mao years had scarcely been shrugged off; and yes, I confess, I am perversely disappointed that the China experience today is not so intense, so raw, so challenging. I was surprised to find how massively Beijing had changed by the beginning of the Noughties, even before the huge drive to rebuild the city ahead of the Olympics: the capital, and almost all of the country's cities and larger towns, now feel very modern, very 'Westernized' (KFC and Starbucks spread like Giant Hogweed). China is still very different from Europe or North America; but it's no longer so utterly alien as it was 10 or 15 years ago; and I do kind of miss that.

I had the time of my life on that first trip - travelling, mostly alone, on buses, boats and trains, all around the central provinces of Hubei, Hunan, and Szechuan - and I completely fell in love with this strange and crazy country. As soon as I got back to England at the end of the year, I began to look for ways to come back here. My German journalist friend had dreams of setting up an international school in Wuhan, but they never came to fruition; some contacts I'd made in universities and in the Ministry of Education had promised to help me find a job, but those promises proved empty; in desperation, I tried applying to VSO (the British equivalent of the Peace Corps, which was at that time providing most of the few hundreds of foreign English teachers in the country; very different from the situation today, where there are tens of thousands of them, mostly recruited directly by private schools and colleges), but even they turned me down (I think they took my eagerness to return to China as a sign of mental instability!).

So.... I got sidetracked doing other things for 7 years, and when I finally came back here, the China I knew had all but disappeared. But it's still wonderful, in constantly new, constantly changing ways: it's mad and huge and friendly and frustrating and baffling and endlessly vibrant. It's hard for me now to imagine anywhere else I'd rather live.

Friday, April 17, 2009

More snapshots from the countryside

I am much given to still life and abstraction....

War on Chinglish (7)

Could you tell me about it in details?

No, I couldn't.

In English we use the plural, details, in phrases like Give me the details. We can also use an adjectival form, detailed, in phrases like I look forward to receiving more detailed information from you.

But in detail is a set phrase, and it is ALWAYS singular. As with so many of these Chinglish eccentricities, this wouldn't be at all a difficult usage to recognise, remember, and assimilate if people here actually bothered to read very much authentic English (rather than the Chinglish drivel that most of the domestic educational publishers churn out), and read more attentively, more actively.

And, once again, I am fairly certain - because of its astonishing ubiquity - that this error has been propagated by a bad high school textbook.

I wish I could describe the history of this aberration in more detail for you, but I haven't yet been able to identify the book or books in question.

The weekly haiku

Memories of her blur;
all lost women become one
in the confused heart.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Apologies for obscurity

A couple of times recently I have used especially arcane references as post titles over on my companion blog, Barstool Blues.

The first, It is true that I do not, I was confident that at least my ridiculously well-read drinking buddy The Weeble would get. It is an archaic turn of phrase much favoured by legendary Irish hero Finn MacCool, as he appears in Flann O'Brien's dementedly brilliant comic novel At Swim-Two-Birds. This character has a poetical bent, and coins a number of brilliant metaphors to brag of his resilience in facing trouble: I particularly cherish I am a hound for thornypaws and I am a tree for windsiege. A great book.

Then, last week, in advertising my evolving plan to conduct an epic bar crawl in Beijing shortly, I proclaimed I have in mind a business. This comes from a programme for the opera Carmen, in a deliriously bad English translation supposedly produced by the Paris Opera many years ago - reprinted by John Julius Norwich in the first of his Christmas Crackers anthologies - which begins "Carmen is a cigar-makeress in a tabago factory" and degenerates from there.

The summary of Act Two is as follows:

Enter Escamilio, a balls-fighter. Enter two smuglers (Duet: 'We have in mind a business') but Carmen refuses to penetrate because Don José has liberated from prison. He just now arrives (Aria: 'Slop, here who comes!') but hear are the bugles singing his retreat. Don José will leave and draws his sword. Called by Carmen shrieks the two smuglers interfere with her, but Don José is bound to dessert, he will follow into them.

And, of course, in the last Act the toreadors enter to the rousing song "All hail the balls of a toreador!" Priceless stuff.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Just the facts, ma'am

There was a great, though disturbing, story over on the Chinageeks blog a week or so ago about the artist Ai Weiwei's campaign to compile a comprehensive list of the schoolchildren victims of last year's Wenchuan earthquake, and the obstruction which this venture is encountering from local and national government.

It includes an hilarious transcript of a telephone conversation between one of his researchers and a battily paranoid local government official, which concludes:

"This isn't a matter of 'speaking harshly', it's a matter of facts."

"You're talking about facts? I immediately suspect you're a female secret agent for the Americans."

You couldn't make it up! Could you? No, I don't think so.

See also Chinageeks' translation of an online article by Hu Yong on the importance of commemorating individual victims rather than impersonal numbers - he's speaking initially of the Nanjing massacre, but moves on to the Wenchuan earthquake. He couldn't, of course, extend his argument to the June 4th 'crackdown'. We can only hope that the government here will one day have the courage to do so.

Another gem from the studio

Last week I had to keep a straight face (and an even voice) while recording this dialogue:

"You have long hair, don't you?"

"Yes. I have three hairs."

I cannot even begin to hypothesise an explanation for this one.

[Hmmm - Homer S famously has three hairs; but in this picture I notice he has only two. Rats! Can't be bothered to dig out another one just now. Google Image searches are being heavily interfered with at the moment. It's hard to see how dear old Homer might subvert the rule of the Chinese Communist Party, but..... they're taking no chances this year!]

Monday, April 13, 2009

Sunday in the country

A couple of pictures from my weekend away in Huairou.

Unfortunately, the air quality was almost as bad as it has been in Beijing over the past few days (a shroud of humidity trapping tons of dust in the air, at times cutting visibility down to only a few hundred yards); and the hillsides were so crowded with blossom that it was difficult to get a clear view of anything as I hiked up this gorge - other than a formless sea of white and pink flowers. Stunning to experience live; but it doesn't make for good photographs.

A bon mot for the week

"Everybody wants to build but nobody wants to do maintenance."

Kurt Vonnegut (1922-2007)

Mr Vonnegut was, I'm sure, thinking of the human condition in general, and perhaps more particularly of American foibles. But it seems to me that this one could be seen as especially appropriate to the Chinese today. There can be few other countries in the world where such a profusion of gleaming newness is but a mask for a morass of instant decay.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Things in bloom

The dramatic change of the seasons here in Beijing seems to call for some Housman. This is an especially appropriate selection for me at this moment, since I have just returned from a weekend away in the countryside, staying with my friend DD in her "hovel" in Huairou County. We opened the front gate upon arrival and were greeted by the gorgeous spectacle of the pear tree in her courtyard in full flower and thrumming with bees.

I have taken the liberty of altering the figures to fit my own condition; AEH, of course, imagined writing this as a young man of twenty.

"Loveliest of trees, the cherry now..."
(A Shropshire Lad, No. 2)

Loveliest of trees, the cherry now
Is hung with bloom along the bough,
And stands about the woodland ride
Wearing white for Eastertide.

Now, of my threescore years and ten,
Forty will not come again,
And take from seventy springs two score,
It only leaves me thirty more.

And since to look at things in bloom
Thirty springs are little room,
About the woodlands I will go
To see the cherry hung with snow.

A.E. Housman (1859-1936)

Saturday, April 11, 2009

List of the Month - the ming pian game again

I have once again been pondering the question of what I should put on my (now long overdue) next batch of business cards.

Here, then, are........

12 More Things I Might Have Printed On My Business Cards

A legend in his own Inbox

Hammer of the fenqing

Blogging in the wilderness

Single and desperate

Part-time curmudgeon

In China too long

Instant epigrams

Your place or mine?

When does the hurting stop?

Spleen & bile

Poet, lover, lush

People know me

Friday, April 10, 2009

The Reader

I just treated myself to a couple of big batches of (yes, of course, pirated) DVD purchases to see me through a planned month (or two) of liver recovery and careful spending. It included most of the winners and contenders in the recent Academy Awards, and a fair range of other stuff too.

Unfortunately, I decided to kick off with The Reader. (Well, no, I decided to kick off with the Keanu Reeves remake of The Day The Earth Stood Still, but that is just so awful it doesn't even merit comment. I feel soiled. I feel obliged to rush out immediately and buy the original version by way of karmic recompense.)

What a steaming pile! Prettily photographed and well-acted, yes, but what on earth is the point of it? I will follow the conventional etiquette of issuing a SPOILER alert, although I don't think there is very much in this film to spoil.

I suspect the source novel by Bernhard Schlink may be much better. There is often this problem in adapting very 'literary' novels for the screen. It's not to say that David Hare did a bad job of the screenplay as such; just that the contrivances of the plot are rather more rudely exposed on screen. In a novel, we can suspend disbelief rather further, particularly if we're being carried along by the ideas, and by the quality of the writing. Well, it's not really 'disbelief' that needs to be suspended as such, since this is not a wholly implausible story, though a somewhat improbable one; rather, it's a suspension of the demands we more usually make upon a narrative - focus, pacing, characterization, unity, that kind of thing. Writers today take far more liberties with this kind of thing, and we often allow them to get away with it, if their writing has other compensatory qualities. I rather think Schlink's novel may be such a book.

The Reader is not one story, but three: it's an erotic memoir of first love, a courtroom drama about a war crimes trial, and a prison story about a convict learning to read and write while behind bars. Each of these three elements is fine as far as it goes, but they don't blend convincingly together. (And, OK, yes, the main segment about the initial love story does make for somewhat uncomfortable viewing: David Kross's character, though he looks older, is supposed to be still only 15, but having a torrid sexual affair with a woman more than 20 years older than him. The only occasion on which any reference is made to any possible impropriety in this is when an innkeeper who's just served the couple lunch mistakes the woman for his mother. But for that one brief moment of discomfort, the arrangement is treated as perfectly normal, it is not questioned at all.)

The Holocaust theme seems to be grafted on rather arbitrarily to heighten interest; but that section of the film is dealt with somewhat perfunctorily. And the key plot device here is, well, yes, wildly implausible. Young Michael's subsequent visit to a concentration camp (which he is able to tour entirely alone; and without registering any reaction whatsoever) had me in tears, as any close-up contact with the Holocaust will do; but that left me feeling manipulated. The scene didn't seem to serve any purpose other than to inject some emotional impact that the rest of the story lacked.

The most frustrating thing about this story is the utter lack of any characterization: we never get to know the two main characters or understand their motivations; thus we never get to care about them. You can't expect people to sit through a 2-hour film with such a complete absence of emotional engagement with the protagonists.

I couldn't help recalling that when Kate Winslet made a very funny, self-mocking cameo appearance a few years ago in Ricky Gervais' Extras series, she joked that Holocaust roles were Oscar gold; that shaft of satire has proved prophetic for her (although I suppose this role was at least untypical to the extent that she was a guard rather than a victim). Yep, she was ticking all the 'Oscar' boxes with this one: willing to be naked, willing to be 'old' (lots of make-up in the later scenes), and willing to play a mentally compromised character (highly neurotic, and perhaps somewhat educationally subnormal - not going "full retard", but going plenty far enough in the context of, oh my god, a Holocaust movie!). It was a performance of some range and subtlety, but I've preferred her in many other things. I imagine it was the sense of 'worthiness' attaching to the project rather than the performance itself which won over the Academy voters here.

The one thing that almost redeemed this leaden fable about the power of love and reading was the final scene between Ralph Fiennes (the lover, in middle age) and Lena Olin (the camp survivor). Everything in the film up to that point had been trite and unsubstantial, I found; but that scene (I could well imagine it being David Hare's own invention, inserted as a kind of protest against the dross he'd been having to deal with in the rest of the film) was unexpected and electrifying: the victim refusing to be conciliatory, refusing to give any easy absolution, challenging Fiennes (and his former lover) as to what on earth they thought to achieve by approaching her in this way - it seemed almost to represent the everyman response of the poor viewer, mystified as to what had been the intended point of the whole story.

I'd watch that scene again. I'd almost recommend buying the film just to watch that scene; but I don't suppose it would have the same impact unless you'd first been baffled, bored, irritated and appalled by the 115 minutes that precede it.


I had a cabbie the other day with the impressively aged registration number 0347**(yes, it's about time I tried to revive interest in my 'Search for Beijing's longest-serving cabbie' feature). He told me he'd been in the job for 21 years. (Unfortunately, he seemed to be one of those drivers who've been hopelessly outgrown by this crazy city: completely bewildered by the strange new metropolis that has sprung up in that time, and unsure of his geography outside of a few well-travelled districts. The garish novelty of the Haoyun Jie bar strip was completely unknown to him, and even 3rd Ringroad landmarks like the Hilton, Kunlun, and Kempinski Hotels seemed to evoke little recognition.)

The most memorable oddity of this cab ride, though, was the fact that the chap had chosen to insert his registration card into its dashboard display upside down. I'm always a bit suspicious when the card isn't easily visible (dirty display pocket, excessively sun-faded print, card missing from pocket altogether, or being substituted by an illegible photocopy - I've had all of these more than once), but after a little theatrical neck-craning I satisfied myself that my driver was indeed the same guy pictured on the card, the one with the veteran registration number.

Why had he done this, I wonder? He was plainly used to being asked about it, and seemed to find it amusing in some obscure way; but he didn't offer any explanation, and my Chinese was too limited to probe for one.

I wondered if he was repeating the visual 'pun' invariably used at Chinese New Year with the posters or paper cutouts of the character fu (good fortune) - - pasted on people's front doors upside down: (upside down) and (arrive) are, as well as being almost identical in written form, perfect homophones (dao, with the 4th [falling] tone]); and thus, putting your on the door the wrong way up is considered to express the auspicious thought "good fortune is here!"

As it happens, (with the addition of the intensive particle to indicate a completed action: dao-le) is also what you tell your taxi driver when you see your destination going past.

I wonder if my long-serving but not especially knowledgeable cabbie thought this was a witty way of announcing to his passengers "Wang [not his actual name] is here for you!" Maybe so.

Postscript: My curmudgeonly erstwhile drinking companion, Big Frank, had very little patience with Beijing's cab drivers. But then, we all got into more trouble with taxis in our early days, because we didn't know our way around either. And I think there was a spotty patch in the early Noughties where the Supervision Bureau didn't seem to be doing anything effective to vet the standard of newly recruited drivers. The situation seems very much better to me now. Anyway, Big Frank used to joke sourly that the Beijing taxi drivers' test to qualify for their licence should be nicknamed not The Knowledge (as the London cabbie's notoriously demanding exam is known) but The Ignorance; anyone, he suggested, who was foolhardy enough to admit some slight familiarity with The Forbidden City or Wangfujing Street or the Kempinski Hotel - or any other significant landmark - would be immediately disqualified. Honestly, 4 or 5 years ago, that idea didn't seem so far-fetched.

Haiku of the week (month, year?)

Beijing's curse returns:
Lungs, throat, eyes all filled with dust;
Coughing all the time.

The belated return of the warm weather this week has been a decidedly mixed blessing. It's only rained twice in the last six months or more, so the whole of Beijing - the whole of north China - is a vast dustbowl; and now that dust is getting airborne.

I have been so bloody ill this past week or so, and I'm really starting to worry whether it's viable to stay in this country.

Thursday, April 09, 2009

A fine image

Another piece I warmed to on first dipping into my The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2005 anthology last Friday was the micro-story Accident (bizarrely, annoyingly, this is uncredited - so I assume it must be the work of the collection's editor, Dave Eggers).

I was touched by this concluding metaphor:

The driver knows your name and you know his, and you almost killed him and because you got so close and didn't, you want to fall on him, weeping, because you are so lonely, and all contact is contact, and all contact makes us so grateful we want to cry and dance and cry and cry. In a moment of clarity you finally understand why boxers, who want so badly to hurt each other, can rest their heads on the shoulder of their opponent, can lean against one another like tired lovers, so thankful for a moment of rest.

China snapshot

Beneath one of the road bridges over the canal alongside Beijing's North 2nd Ringroad, half a mile or so away from where I live, as I walked home on this bright warm afternoon, I came upon a young man doing foghorn impressions with his baritone sax.

Impressively resonant in that narrow, shaded space; and charmingly surreal, too; but musical - not really.

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Who on earth is Katrina Grinsley?

And where on earth?

And should I perhaps seek her out and propose to her??

Sorry, rambling there.

I have been visiting the site of my new blog-friend JES quite a bit recently. And he has a particularly sophisticated word-verification anti-spam gizmo on his comment form called ReCaptcha. This gizmo gives you not just a single nonsense word to fill in to try to convince Mr S's website that you are not a spambot, but a pair of words (or sometimes a word and a number). And, of late, it has been throwing up such oddly memorable and seemingly significant combinations that I am beginning to develop a paranoia that this isn't the work of a mere randomising program at all, but that the dastardly Mr S is controlling the display directly himself, slyly choosing resonant phrases that will tease and torment his poor readers.

I mean, where else can such a haunting North Country femme fatale as Ms Grinsley have sprung from?? The ReCaptcha device (at least, back in the days when it was being apparently random) has very seldom offered up a proper name. In fact, it seldom produces even one half of its word pair with an initial capital, let alone both of them.

So, it was certainly a bizarre statistical freak to be confronted with Katrina Grinsley.

Either that, or Mr S is matchmaking for me??

More chuckles in the studio

One of the greatest trials of my (well-paid but painful) work behind the microphone creating English listening practice tapes for Chinese high school students is the recurring ineptitude of the educational publishers we work for.

This is especially conspicuous in their constant inability - or even desire - to attempt to ascribe appropriate English names to the characters in these dialogues.

The Chinese people, almost every single man, woman, and child among them, are completely incapable (because - for so long now - their senior educators and publishers have had no concern for trying to produce accurate and helpful English-language teaching materials) of: a) distinguishing between personal names and surnames; b) distinguishing between female names and male names; c) distinguishing between real names and risible names; and d) using names in appropriate combination with titles.

In my first recording session today, almost every single dialogue had inappropriately allotted character names like Jane, Janice and Eva to the male voice (me!). OK, that was probably a different kind of error: the editors being so stupid or lazy that they had inverted the gender assignations throughout - the parts labelled 'man' should all have been 'woman' and vice versa.

No, a better example came up this afternoon when...... the suspicious death of a 'Dr Jack' was to be investigated by a detective called 'Officer Windy'.

How we laughed! How we cried!

Spring at last?

I'm still not 100% convinced.

Yes, the daytime weather started perking up at the weekend, and has been decidedly warm for the past couple of days, but..... still the breeze is quite brisk, and there's a lingering nip in the air that we don't usually feel in April. Things are cooling off pretty quickly after dark, and even I am not hardy enough to venture out at night in shirtsleeves alone.

Usually when Spring arrives here, it arrives so emphatically that you know, you just know that there aren't now going to be any more of those shitty cold spells. And the trees and bushes know it too, because they put forth their blossoms abundantly, unanimously, simultaneously.

This year, there still seems to be something a bit tentative about the blossom response. Some trees began coming into bloom on Sunday and are already now starting to look a bit threadbare, after taking quite a buffeting from the wind. A few others still seem to be holding back. And some appear to have started to blossom, and then retracted again, as if suspicious that Winter maybe still has one more dirty trick up its sleeve this year.

Spring only lasts 8 or 10 days in Beijing, and I had been starting to fret that I might miss most of it if I didn't have any time to get out and about before the weekend. But I think (I hope) the still slightly equivocal warm weather may stagger the Spring a little more than usual this year, may prolong our cherry-blossom season into next week.

If it does, I may even take a few pictures for you.

Monday, April 06, 2009

The weekly bon mot

"Preparation is half the battle. Unfortunately, the other half is still fighting."


Sunday, April 05, 2009

Dedicated to....

I suppose this is perhaps Cummings's best-known poem. When I was a schoolboy, I used to think he was 'my secret'. Well, no-one read poetry as a teenager anyway; but even those who did found Cummings too weird, too difficult. I was flattered by the delusion that only I got him. But then Woody Allen had Michael Caine use this poem to woo Barbara Hershey in Hannah and her Sisters, and for a few years suddenly everybody loved Cummings. I need hardly say that I was rather out of gruntle at this state of affairs.

Anyway, I got over my pique at Woody Allen. And the phase of Cummings being universally popular faded a bit. Once more he feels like a hidden pleasure, a poet cherished only by select initiates (yes, there may be several hundreds of millions of us, but we are still 'select', dammit!).

And this poem came to mind this week because I am - for the first time in a long time - giddily in love again. And the young lady who has inspired this feeling does have the most exquisite hands.

somewhere i have never travelled

somewhere i have never travelled, gladly beyond
any experience, your eyes have their silence:
in your most frail gesture are things which enclose me,
or which i cannot touch because they are too near

your slightest look easily will unclose me
though i have closed myself as fingers,
you open always petal by petal myself as Spring opens
(touching skilfully, mysteriously) her first rose

or if your wish be to close me, i and
my life will shut very beautifully, suddenly,
as when the heart of this flower imagines
the snow carefully everywhere descending;

nothing we are to perceive in this world equals
the power of your intense fragility: whose texture
compels me with the colour of its countries,
rendering death and forever with each breathing

(i do not know what it is about you that closes
and opens; only something in me understands
the voice of your eyes is deeper than all roses)
nobody, not even the rain, has such small hands

E.E. Cummings (1894-1962)

[By the way, I've now updated my last 'Poetry Sunday' post on Baudelaire's Albatross, identifying the English translator (thanks, JES), adding the original French text of the poem, and providing a source link with a number of other English versions.]

Saturday, April 04, 2009


Last night I hung out with my old flame, The Poet. As part of her birthday present to me (six months late, but that's The Poet for you) she gave me The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2005 anthology. Dipping in at random, the first piece I came across was this - Manifesto, by George Saunders, from Slate magazine, celebrating the rise of the movement People Reluctant To Kill For An Abstraction (PRKA).

Saunders closes by saying:

To those who would oppose us, I would simply say: We are many. We are worldwide. We, in fact, outnumber you. Though you are louder, though you create a momentary ripple on the water of life, we will endure, and prevail.

Join us.

Resistance is futile.

This cheered me up tremendously. And I'm in a really obstinate depression at the moment. Do follow the link to read the whole piece (especially if you're a fenqing or a fenwai).

A different kind of fantasy

I think I'll take a rest from my 'Fantasy Girlfriends' series.

Just for a month or so.

It is difficult at the moment for me to wax lyrical on the unattainable screen sirens of yesteryear (and so on). I cannot conjure the necessary levels of obsession when I am fixated on a real-world romantic interest.

Yes, I now have a real 'fantasy girlfriend'! Which is to say that I have a potential girlfriend that I fantasise about converting into an actual girlfriend.

Probably no good will come of it; but at the moment I can't think of much else. She is practically-perfect-in-every-way, and even Emma Peel suddenly seems a rather poor substitute.