Monday, August 31, 2009

More flakiness in Chinese journalism

I was watching the news on CCTV9 - the "international" channel of the state television company here - over the weekend, depressed to hear more threatening rhetoric in response to a proposed visit to Taiwan by the Dalai Lama.
The report quoted someone - a Taiwanese quisling from the Kuomintang political party, I believe - decrying the visit as "politically motivated" and "likely to destroy cross-Strait relations".  The item then concluded by saying (I kid you not), "And Al-Jazeera reported similar comments."
Now, Chinese journalists are notoriously bad - even worse than Chinese academics! - at distinguishing secondary from primary sources; but even so, this was quite a staggering lapse.  Indeed, even the intention behind the phrase is somewhat baffling.  Is this supposed to be implying that the celebrated Arab news agency is adopting an editorial stance that joins in condemnation of the DL's possible visit?  They didn't seem to be saying quite that.  Or is the fact that Al-Jazeera is reporting such condemnations seen to grant them an imprimatur of greater credibility and significance?  (And is it only laowai cynics such as myself who wonder if, by contrast, other news sources of even greater fame and influence - such as, oh, I don't know, the BBC perhaps - considered this story undeserving of comment?)
My parsing of this comment was this: "And this isn't just one self-serving, rent-a-quote politician saying this.  Oh no.  Lots of people are saying it.  But we're too lazy to tell you who."
I assume that the native English speakers on the editorial staff at CCTV9 don't work at weekends.  Either that, or they're not trusted to work on stories about any of "the three T's".  Or perhaps they're just so beaten down by the relentlessly dismal quality of the material they have to work with that they've given up trying.

The weekly bon mot

"Try to cherish the questions themselves, like locked doors, like letters in an alien tongue."

Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926)

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Film List (cribbed)

It has of late become a 'tradition' that I end the month with a post about my love of the cinema, but I am rather thwarted this month by limited access to my blog - and to much of the rest of the Internet.
Instead, I shall simply refer you to my blog-pal Stuart who at the start of this month produced a great piece on China's Top Ten Cinematic Strops, fine movies which somehow or other got the Chinese authorities all riled up.

Friday, August 28, 2009

The caged bird squawks!

The numbing inconsequentiality of those last few posts should not be taken as a sign that I have succumbed to the dismal Twitter-ing mentality.
Oh, no.  I'm just enjoying being in touch with my blog again, revelling in thumbing my nose at the censors.
You see, I just remembered that during the last big Internet clampdown (beginning of June) I set up Blogger access via my e-mail account.  And it works just fine.
Ha, ha, suckers!  What are you going to try now?  Block my e-mail as well?
Well, they might.  It has been known.

Just for the hell of it

I have to go down to the local police station in a moment to try to re-(re-re-)register my "temporary" (er, 5 years and counting) residence.
I am tempted to wear a t-shirt I inherited from my pugnacious brother which bears the slogan: "Which part of FUCK OFF don't you understand?"
But then again.... I don't like to be unnecessarily confrontational.
And it's not written in Chinese.


I've been back 9 days, and I only just got around to unpacking properly.

Wisdom of the txts

Remarking to some friends via SMS on my "week from hell" last night, I tried to strike an optimistic note by concluding, "The worst is over."
What I actually wrote the first time was: "The worst is ever."
Yes, indeed.

Haiku for the week

To hear the silence
Amidst the relentless roar:
A knack of sages.
A knack I thought I used to have, but seem to have mislaid....

Monday, August 24, 2009

Bon mot for the week

"Too often travel, instead of broadening the mind, merely lengthens the conversations."

Elizabeth Drew (1935- )

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

An idealised Irish history

The other week I was reading Virtual History, a collection of essays on counterfactual historical scenarios edited by my Oxford coeval Niall Ferguson.

In Ferguson's introduction, he quotes this joking history of my ancestral homeland, supposedly written by the anonymous "AE" in 1914. "Progress", you see, isn't always forwards.

The small holdings of the 19th and 20th centuries gradually come into the hands of the large landowners; in the 18th century progress has been made and the first glimmerings of self-government appear; religious troubles and wars follow until the last Englishman, Strongbow, leaves the country; culture begins; religious intolerance ceases with the disappearance of Patrick, about 400 AD, and we approach the great age of the heroes and gods.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

The omnibus analogy (theme & variation)

I thought I'd written about this on here before, but it seems not (my archive has become so vast that I'm now finding it difficult to search through - and impossible to remember - all of my previous posts).

There is a well-worn humorous observation on the phenomenon of love droughts (something on which I am a world expert) which goes:
"Women are like buses. You wait around for one for ages, and then three turn up all at once."

The dejected and cynical often add corollaries such as:
"But then they don't stop for you!"

"But they're not going where you want to go."

My unhappy experience on Sunday night prompts me to suggest another such variant (one which seems particularly appropriate to my own romantic experience, alas):
"Suddenly you're spoiled for choice. But they're all strangely dysfunctional."

Trying to get back from Oxford to London for a mid-evening pub rendezvous, I was confused and distressed to find that the (normally very reliable - I've been using it ever since it was first launched some 20-odd years ago) 'Oxford Tube' express coach service was encountering some difficulties. The bus waiting at the stand was mysteriously 'not in service'. The service is so frequent that there's usually a second one on hand waiting to go as well, but not on this occasion. When another bus did finally show up, it was also displaying the dreaded 'not in service' sign. Although departures are advertised as being "every 12-15 minutes", it was nearly 20 minutes before we were able to board (the second bus - which had finally removed its 'not in service' notice; although the driver didn't seem any too confident about this). There had already been quite a gaggle of people waiting when I arrived at around 6pm, so I deduced that it had probably been at least half an hour since the last bus left. Not a good start to the trip.

But it got worse. The bus crawled through Oxford (road works, one-way systems, and the addition of several new stops on this route have stretched what used to be a matter of a 10 or 15-minute run from the city centre to the outskirts of Headington into more like 30 or 40 minutes). Then it broke down at the Park & Ride on the edge of the city. Another bus came along 15 or 20 minutes later, so we all got on that. Unfortunately, a woman with a perpetually screaming baby also got on and chose a seat directly behind me.

That might have driven me quite mad - except that 10 minutes or so later, the second bus stopped in a layby just outside Oxford. And remained stopped. Several minutes passed. We thought the driver had just got out to open the luggage bay doors for some new passengers. But the new passengers disappeared somewhere and so did the driver. No announcement was made about the reason for the delay. Nearly 20 minutes passed. I got out to see what the hell was going on. The driver was preoccupied with trying to close the door to one of the rear luggage compartments (which had developed a faulty latch, and pretty clearly wasn't going to close). So preoccupied that I couldn't get a word out of him! To my horror, I discovered that there was another bus parked just ahead of us which had also developed some kind of problem (I don't think this layby was a regular stop: the new passengers who'd initially been trying to get on our bus were people who'd been stranded by this breakdown)! Luckily a third bus had just pulled up behind us, so I quickly hopped on that before the rest of the passengers from the two stranded (and nearly full) buses realised that rescue was at hand - most of them, I imagine, would have to wait quite some time more before another (fully functional bus) came along.

So, here we had, in quick succession, at least 3, possibly 4 or 5 or more buses on this particular service, all breaking down. That's a bit much to be just a coincidence, isn't it? I wonder if there's some sort of crisis of undermanning in the maintenance department of this bus company over the weekends? Perhaps strike action or sabotage by disgruntled engineers? Or foul play by a commercial rival??

It can't be just my bad karma, surely??

Monday, August 17, 2009

Bon mot for the week

"No one realises how beautiful it is to travel until he comes home and rests his head on his old, familiar pillow."

Lin Yutang (1895-1976)

Saturday, August 15, 2009

List of the Month - Tales of the Unexpected

I try to take a fairly free-form and improvisatory approach to travelling; I try to be a good boy scout (not that I ever was one; it's just an expression, you understand) and be prepared for anything; I try to expect the unexpected.

But still, occasionally, Life takes me by surprise, sneaks up on the blind side.....

I seem to have had an unusually large number of such odd - as the Chinese would say, unexpectable - experiences on this latest holiday of mine.

So, here they are....

12 Things I Never Expected To Be Doing On This Holiday

Seeing some Shakespeare (King Lear)
(And paying about twice as much as I ever have in my life before for a theatre ticket!)

Making my first ever total clearance in a game of pool
(At least, as far as I can remember. It must certainly be the first one in a very, very long time. It was only on a half-size kiddies' table at a friend's house, but still..... a very pleasing achievement.)

Listening to Belly's 'King' album again for the first time in ages
(It was a great favourite of mine when it first came out in the mid-90s, but it might be 10 or 12 years since I'd last heard it.)

Catering a dinner party, at very little notice, from a woefully unstocked kitchen
(Thank heavens for Gordon Ramsay's Fast Food!)

Having my first serious asthma attack in about 30 years
(Sadly, this forced me to cut short my weekend in Bath, where I encountered the severe allergy problem.)

Going to see BrĂ¼no
(I was dragged along to it, despite my vigorous opposition.)

Drinking in a Swiss (?!) pub
(in a quiet suburb of Oxford... )

Being serenaded by the septuagenarian mother of one of my hosts
(with a delightful impromptu rendition of the traditional Tyneside schoolchildren's song Geordie's Lost His Penker)

Being publicly fondled by a sexy singing star
(All just part of the show, alas.)

Getting stung by a bloody wasp
(Also for the first time in about 30 years; hence my exaggerated anxiety that I might have developed a fatal allergy to the little bastards in the interim!)

Taking part in a pub quiz
(And oh, so nearly winning! Although I am somewhat ashamed that I knew Paris Hilton's middle name... )

Walking 'home' past Arthur's Seat in Edinburgh, after midnight, in the pouring rain
(Oh, who am I kidding? That happens every time I go there!)

Friday, August 14, 2009

The Saint of Lost Things

I suffered a minor disaster at the beginning of last week when a clutch of coach and rail tickets I'd just bought for the last leg of my travels around the UK mysteriously went missing..... and I had to replace them at the last minute (thereby inflicting grievous budgetary harm on my already puny reserves of cash).

A friend I was meeting for dinner that night suggested that I call upon the assistance of St. Anthony - a quaint custom in her family which she claims has proven apparently efficacious for her on a number of occasions. I confess I'd never heard of this saint before (any of them: Wikipedia recognises half a dozen or more holy men of that name; but this site suggests that there are two who may be responsible for the 'lost & found' duties in heaven). St. Christopher is really the only such "helpful" saint I've come across. And I'd never thought him of much use, since I'm sure many hundreds of people each year must perish in shipwrecks and plane crashes while wearing medallions with his "protective" image on them.

I was loathe to have any truck with such batty Catholic superstition. And it seemed to me that any "intercession" by St. Anthony on this occasion would just be annoying rather than helpful, in that I had already shelled out for new tickets, and thus discovery of the originals would merely prove that the unfortunate accident had been the result of my own foolishness rather than external foul play. And so, indeed, it proved: the dratted tickets turned up as I was leaving for the station next morning, hiding in plain sight (as lost things always seem to do), exactly where I thought I'd put them, the first (and seventh and eleventh and...) place I'd looked for them. Damn.

St. Anthony, I feel, has drawn a particularly thankless job from the heavenly employment agency. Lost things (and missing persons - the other part of his brief), after all, usually remain lost, and thus bring incalculable inconvenience and heartache into the world, even to the most devout of Catholics. And even if he does come through for you, 9 times out of 10 it's probably going to be too late to make any difference, and - as in my case - he's just going to add to your vexation by showing you that the lost things weren't really "lost" after all. He seems to me to be one of those divine agents who is more of a punisher (albeit of a relatively mild degree most of the time: a horrid taunter and teaser, but at least not a smiter) than a bringer of succour.

Who'd be St. Anthony? Not me!

Another Edinburgh joke

"Life is getting very strange these days. Schoolgirls now dress like prostitutes. And the prostitutes dress like schoolgirls. It's confusing. You don't know whether to offer them money or sweeties."

Overheard at The Fringe....

The weekly haiku

Time to turn homeward,
Adventures now forsaken...
Weary of the road.

Damn, holidays are so bloody exhausting. I'll need a nice long rest when I get back. But I won't get one.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Strange reminders

I recently discovered that there's a diner across the road from Newcastle railway station called psb.

Who knows why? Perhaps these are the initials of the owner(s).

They are probably unaware that in China this acronym designates the Public Security Bureau - an especially feared, reviled, and derided institution even by the generally sorry standards of police forces around the world. Not the kind of associations you'd really want to invoke in marketing your small business.

In the last few days, I seem to have been finding these odd little China references everywhere I look. I fear I am starting to become homesick.

As the Buddha might say....

I have been bitten on the wasp by an ankle.

However, when I said this to my hosts after returning from yesterday's run, they thought I'd gone a bit doolally.

Indeed, perhaps I had. I was bitten - stung, I suppose I should say - within minutes of setting out, and didn't want to abandon my last opportunity to enjoy this magnificent route around Arthur's Seat. So I kept plodding on - despite the very considerable pain and the hypochondriacal fears of an imminent collapse into anaphylactic shock. A more-than-usually gruelling experience it was, I can tell you.

A friend of mine concussed himself a few weeks back. Trying to reassure his doctor wife over the telephone afterwards, he told her that the Prime Minister (a common befuddlement test medical personnel use) was... Tony Blair. He has subsequently tried to maintain that he was joking. Although Gordon Brown's premiership has been eminently forgettable.

Of course, currently the answer to this question would be Peter Mandelson. But I wonder how many head trauma victims or medics are going to know that?

The path not (often) taken

The other day, while on my morning run in Edinburgh, I decided to take the Innocent Path.*

It's not often that happens with me.

* Yes, it really is a hiking/cycling route in Edinburgh, shadowing a disused railway line.

Another landmark

This post (or this one) is - amazingly enough - the 3,000th to appear on my two blogs, Froogville and Round-The-World Barstool Blues (in a little under 3 years!).

How do I do it?! And why???

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

An Edinburgh joke

"The men in this town are like the stalls in the public toilets. If they're not taken, they're full a' shite."

A lady of Edinburgh comments on the local shortage of 'good men'.

A Geordie joke

A Geordie goes to the hairdresser's and says, "Gi' us a perm."

The barber shoots him a funny look for a moment. Then he says, "Ah wandered, loonly as a clurd..."

Well, it was a new one on me.

[Apologies if the rendition of the dialect is not all it might be. I've never had a particularly good ear for accents and the like, and have proven remarkably immune to picking them up myself. When I was doing my teacher training up in the north-east, I slowly learned to interpret the baffling local lingo from Biffa Bacon and Sid the Sexist, two of the main characters in the adult comic Viz (a Geordie creation which had only recently been launched nationwide and was becoming a huge pop-culture phenomenon of the time). I fondly recall that one of my favourite pupils back then once teased me (in a delightful Geordie sing-song I won't even attempt to recreate with my spelling): "Ay, sir, you don't half talk posh." I honestly don't think it had ever occurred to me before. I suppose university is a predominantly middle-class environment, and, in the south of England, the majority of university students speak with a fairly neutral, 'Home Counties' sort of accent. I'd scarcely known any other way of speaking - until I went oop north to begin my teaching career.]

Monday, August 10, 2009

Abroad thoughts from home

"Last night, I dreamed I went to Manderley again..."

Well, in fact I dreamed I went once more to that improbably spacious courtyard house I was hoping to rent in Beijing (and this time offered the landlord, I think, about one half or one third of what he was asking for the place; although the dream did not reveal his response...).

Am I finally starting to miss the dear old Jing? I think perhaps I am.

Then again, perhaps - with less than a week now until my return - I am just starting to panic about where I'm going to be living come September.

Bon mot for the week

"When preparing to travel, lay out all your clothes and all your money. Then take half the clothes and twice the money."

Susan Heller (????)

I'm afraid I have no idea who this wise lady is. Yet another of those darned biography-less online quotations! Is it this
Susan Heller, I wonder?

Friday, August 07, 2009

New Picks of the Month

Looking back to the time of my last holiday, two years ago this month, I was amused to rediscover this Froogville post - Rejuvenated! - on the denying of age and the concept of 'Beijing years'. (I used to love the idea when it meant that I was still only 25; but I am now about to turn 35, and will be 40 all too soon... )

And from the Barstool Blues archive of that vintage, I point you towards What is it about Szechuan girls? - my enquiry into where China's most beautiful women come from.

Haiku for the week

The endless drizzling;
Every day dawns grey and cold -
An English summer!

At first, I was finding the weather here a refreshing change from the months of rainlessness we've endured in Beijing; but, after a couple of weeks, it is starting to get tedious - not to mention limiting of outdoor activities. I stare mournfully out of the window, and then scan my friend's bookshelves for something else to read.

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

The end of an era

As if it's not bad enough that nearly a third of the pubs I remember from my Oxford student days are now lost to us, I learned on my recent trip back there that all of the city's secondhand bookshops have closed, or are about to very shortly (well, all except the secondhand department of the venerable University bookshop, Blackwell's, and one or two charity shops).

The global recession has hit publishing particularly hard, it seems (god damn, the scourge is hitting America too); but I gather the pressure on secondhand bookstores has been gathering for some years now. Many people, it seems, prefer to buy their books online these days. I really don't understand that. I mean, I can just about see the convenience argument for buying new books from Amazon, because with that kind of purchase you probably already know what you want. Random browsing is key to the secondhand bookbuying experience, however. When I go into a secondhand bookshop, I have no idea what I'm going to come out with - but I'm pretty sure I'm not going to come out empty-handed. The pleasure lies in ranging the shelves for an hour or two, searching for hidden, unguessed-at, unknowable delights. Oh, the modern world! We foolishly venerate the false idols of Efficiency and Convenience, and, in doing so, cast aside so many subtle joys.

This passing of the bookshops is particularly grim news for my old friend, The Bookseller, who suddenly finds himself being forced to embrace a career change in his forties. He's muttering vaguely about applying to some public libraries. I hope that works out for him, but it will still be quite a jarring culture-shift. I think he may need some counselling.

So may I. I don't know what I'm going to do with myself on trips back to Oxford from now on, if I can't fritter away an afternoon here and there in his bookshop.

A comprehensive theory of history

The friend I was visiting last weekend told me - with perverse pride - that her eldest boy had caused a few ripples of disapproval at his primary school recently by expressing a passionate admiration for Oliver Cromwell. This is England, not Ireland, we're dealing with here; but it seems that, at this school, at least, the prevailing orthodoxy these days is staunchly pro-Royalist.

My friend explained that her son's robustly pro-Cromwell stance could be attributed to this book (purportedly written by one L. Dugarde Peach - I've been searching for anagrams in that!), one of the Ladybird series of reading primers that we all grew up with in the UK - back in the good old days. She has kept her copy all these years and is now sharing it with her own children.

Mr Peach's succinct explanation of the cause of the English Civil War is as follows:

"King Charles was a very stupid man."

There's a genius in its simplicity. The more I think on it, the more I fancy that this could be historiography's "theory of everything". Stupidity is the ultimate explanation for all varieties of social upheaval (riots, strikes, revolutions, wars) and for the outcome of all great power struggles (revolutions, wars, general elections, talent contests) and for the origin of all man-made disasters and so on. Yes, the result of any conflict can always be attributed to the greater stupidity of the losing side. (I recall a friend of mine in the British Army once quipped: "Tactics is how you lose a battle. Strategy is how you lose a war.") The task of the historian to analyse and "explain" events would be so much easier if this were kept in mind.

Did no-one ever think of this before?

Monday, August 03, 2009

A statement of principle

Probably a restatement of principle, in fact. I'm sure I must have said this somewhere before, but not recently, and perhaps only in the 'comments'.

I have recently found myself being hounded (particularly pointlessly, since the post in question is two months old, and never had much of a discussion thread going on it anyway) by an obnoxious 'fenqing' type, and I have - regretfully - started to "harmonise" him (i.e. to delete his comments). I have very, very seldom resorted to such censorship before (I can't remember the last time...), and I really don't like to do it; but sometimes I feel it is inescapable.

For the benefit of this particular flan-thrower - and any other fenqing out there; and, indeed, any potential commenters at all (I would like to encourage more rather than less commenting on here!), let me make it perfectly clear why I have done this.

I am quite open to - indeed, I welcome - criticism and disagreement. I am pretty tolerant about the use of profanity (although I am wary about offending - and thereby discouraging the comment-thread participation of - others who are more sensitive than me on such matters). I am even prepared to tolerate a certain amount of personal abuse (not much, but some; the main problem with personal abuse in blog comments, it seems to me, is that it tends to displace everything else).

The thing I do insist on, however, is relevance. If you're not making a point that has a bearing on the topic of the post, then I am likely to delete it.

My only other requirement is coherence. If you're just writing unintelligible gibberish, then I will delete those comments.

If you have something worthwhile to say, and can say it clearly, and it has some bearing on the topic in hand - then you are always most welcome to say it here, and will not be censored by me (no matter how much I may disagree with it, or how hostile your attitude toward me is).

[It may also be worth reminding folks of the little Manifesto I penned 4 or 5 months ago, when I first started getting 'famous' - or infamous.]

Bon mot for the week

"I have nothing against Jesus per se. He's one of my favourite fictional characters."


My friends' wives are always saying they're going to matchmake for me, but they very seldom get around to making any introductions. My hostility to organised religions is a particular obstacle in Christianity-crazy America, as one of the American wives has despairingly told me. My aversion to religion leads to the further - and perhaps even greater - problem that I could never agree to being married in church (indeed, my abhorrence of churches has grown more violent, positively Damien-like, with the passing years, to the point where I now feel very uncomfortable attending a friend's wedding in a church). I once quipped to my long-suffering American would-be matchmaker that perhaps I should warn potential dates of this off-putting idiosyncrasy of mine by wearing a t-shirt with the slogan: "You'll marry me in Vegas, or not at all."

Sunday, August 02, 2009

The bond

I used to be sceptical about the depths of attachment some people claimed to feel for children, especially for children other than their own. I was dubious about the supposedly mystical power of newborns to compel the affection, devotion, loyalty of anyone around them. I've always been fond of children in general, but not of babies. Babies are ugly, noisy, leaky, and you can't have a conversation with them. I just didn't get the thing with babies.

But over this past decade I have experienced the phenomenon for myself. Twice. There are two babies that I have met, held in my arms, only a day or two after their birth: one a niece, the other a daughter of one of my oldest friends in China. And - years later, even though I have not seen nearly as much of them as I would have liked - I am still ridiculously gaga over these two kids. I am starting to be convinced that there is some kind of pheromone newborns give off that can cement your attachment to them long-term - permanently - even on quite brief exposure.

Of course, it may help that these two little girls are exceptionally pretty and vivacious, and precociously smart, and very affectionate towards me. But maybe they just naturally reciprocate my affection for them. And maybe I am inclined to overrate their virtues because of this strange, unconscious, chemically-driven imperative to adore them. Do they seem cuter to me than to most other people, to people they didn't enslave in their first days of life? These questions fascinate me.

It's also a cause of some awkwardness, some guilt for me. There are other children I would like to feel this intensity of affection for: my other niece, in particular; and the children of very good friends, some of whom I perhaps stand in a quasi-godparent relationship to (I have been asked to consider being a godfather a couple of times, but regretfully had to decline because of my godlessness). I am fond of these other children; but it's not the all-consuming, daffy, helpless soppiness that I feel about those two. (And I wonder what JES's latest Web-gizmo discovery would make of that last sentence?!)

It's a strange phenomenon.

(I'm intrigued also as to how this may relate to the concepts of 'falling in love' - and remaining in love! - with adults. I think there's only one of my exes - only one of my recent-ish exes, anyway - who still inspires this kind of spontaneous affection in me. What kind of pheromones did she blitz me with??)