Saturday, October 31, 2009

Halloween punnery

Just to bring yesterday's collection of micro ghost stories up to a Baker's Dozen, here's a final little spooky frippery for All Hallow's Eve....

He haunts the back benches and the lobby bars: an old ghost Tory.


Film List - golden oldies

A very simple list this month (because I'm feeling lazy):
My Latest Purchases From The Best DVD Shop In Beijing
(the one next to the Central Academy of Drama)
The Testament of Dr. Mabuse
(Dir. Fritz Lang, 1933)
The Temptress
(Dir. Fred Niblo, 1926)  -  Garbo!
The Killers
(Dir. Robert Siodmak, 1946)
The Fall of the Roman Empire
(Dir. Anthony Mann, 1964)
New Orleans
(Dir. Arthur Lubin, 1947)
The Thin Man
(Dir. W.S. van Dyke, 1934)
Knights of the Round Table
(Dir. Richard Thorpe, 1953)
(Dir. Anatole Litvak, 1956)
Lola Montes
(Dir. Max Ophuls, 1955)
Nanook of the North
(Dir. Robert J. Flaherty, 1922)
Random Harvest
(Dir. Mervyn LeRoy, 1942)
My Darling Clementine
(Dir. John Ford, 1946)  -  the best Western ever.

Up yer bum!

Oh dear.  I've been at it again.  A couple of months ago, I got dragged into a long comment-thread exchange here, on Stuart's Found In China blog; and this week I've found myself doing it again, here.  My recurring antagonist is a young man who calls himself 'Pffefer'.  He's a lot sharper and more coherent than your typical fenqing, at least when he keeps off the trucker's pills; however, from time to time, he can get quite offensive, and I had to issue him a bit of a warning this week.  Knowing something of my Classical education, he quipped back that perhaps I would start insulting him in Greek.
Well, yes indeed.
A favourite term that came to mind at once was the verb rhaphanidoô (I'm pretty sure there's also a form rhaphanizo, although I can't seem to find that online).  Unfortunately, none of the dictionaries I've looked at seem to support Greek characters.
It's derived from rhaphanis, a type of radish, and the venerable Liddell & Scott Greek Lexicon famously defined it as to thrust a radish up the fundament.  Which was no use at all to a 13-year-old schoolboy: what the heck was the fundament??  The distinguished scholars were, of course, coyly avoiding the use of the word anus. 
Yes, this word means to ravish with a radish! 
But not in a good way.  Oh no.  Apparently, this was a particularly nasty punishment often visited upon adulterers and other chaps who had offended the master of the house in some way.
The exact mechanics of this, though, were never - as far as I was ever able to discover - elaborated on anywhere in the surviving Classical canon (it's the sort of the word you're only likely to find in the bawdy comedies of Aristophanes, and he's not a great one for explaining his references - "lion on the cheese-grater", anyone?); and so this was a question which excited much speculation during my years of studying Ancient Greek.
The first suggestion one usually encounters is that this type of radish was rather large, and thus its insertion was inevitably painful. This is at first quite a surprising idea to us Brits, who only know the small, round purplish red variety - which are of the size and shape of things that people do quite often put up their bottoms for pleasure. It's quite an eye-opener for the naive teenager to discover that other members of the radish family can grow much larger.  I don't know if anyone's done any investigation into what kinds of vegetable they were growing in Attica at that time.
Then, of course, one adds in the fact that the radish is usually quite a piquant vegetable, that perhaps it is its heat that is the main source of anal discomfort.  But the larger radishes are mostly very mild, aren't they?  And you wouldn't expect any of the spiciness to seep out unless it had been peeled - did they peel before thrusting?
The ultimate, and most convincing (most alarming!), conjecture is that one made cross-cuts in the end of the vegetable, so that when introduced to a moist environment it would soon fan out into a floret - making it difficult or impossible to remove again.  Ouch!
So, Mr Pffefer, please stay on your best behaviour, or I may have to come after you with a peeled radish.

Friday, October 30, 2009

12 spooky vignettes

Belfast-based author Stuart Neville has been running a contest this month, challenging his readers to produce some ghostly micro-fiction for Halloween, via Twitter. Apparently this means that you're limited to 124 characters (including punctuation and spaces). I suppose I should have given this a shout-out earlier, sorry; but the submission deadline is midnight GMT on the 31st October, so there's still plenty of time for you to have a go, if you feel so inclined. Follow the link above for full details.

Although I was intrigued by the format, I disapprove of Twitter rather violently. Blog-buddy JES very kindly forwarded a couple of my efforts (the first two below) via his own Twitter account, but I didn't want to bother him any further. However, at the start of the month, I found myself knocking out one or two of these a day, in idle moments. As with haiku, once you get the knack of the format, they're relatively easy.

So, here are 12 micro ghost stories, to get you in the mood for Halloween. (I'm not a big fan of the holiday myself, but I don't begrudge others their goosebumpy pleasures.)

[Stuart's debut thriller has recently been published, as The Twelve in the UK, and the rather more self-explanatory The Ghosts of Belfast in the US: an extremely well-written but disturbing tale of an ex-IRA man haunted by the spectres of those he has killed - see JES's review here.]

What drew him to that dreary graveyard day after day, he never knew until at last he found the stone with his name on it.

The perfect man, she thought. He walked her home. They kissed by moonlight. And then he showed her the spot where he died.

He couldn't help himself. Every day he drove down that street, the little girl always waiting to run out in front of him.

I watch myself across the street, under the lamp-post: the man who looks like me, my mirror-self escaped, following me.

Suddenly, the hitch-hiker has vanished, yet the seat beside me is wet with rain.

She stalked him in life, and now too in death, his jilted mistress. Suicide did not end her obsession.

The barman's in a mood: ignores us regulars, chats only to these new guys, says things haven't been the same since the fire.

It puzzles him. He buried his wife in the basement last year, but she still sits there on the sofa every night watching TV.

Vengeance is what he wants. Though the men who killed him are themselves long dead, he still thirsts for vengeance.

Each dawn I see him, the sentry standing down, lighting a cigarette – just as he did a week ago, when the sniper saw him.

We stopped using the departure lounge at Gate 22 after the crash yesterday; but when I walked past just now, it was full.

'One careful owner' the salesman said. He didn't tell me she gassed herself in this car. Now she bitches at my driving.

24 - a superstition

I don't ride in lifts (elevators, if you prefer) very often, in China or anywhere else.
But there's one office building I've been visiting regularly of late where the lift always bamboozles me a bit.  As I'm looking up the columns of buttons to find my floor - just at the point where my floor is - the odd and even buttons suddenly swap sides.  I've been heading up to the 26th floor in this place fairly regularly for a year or so now, but it still trips me up every time.  And I suppose I must have had similar moments in other Chinese lifts over the years.
The problem, you see, is Chinese numerology.  4 is held to be a very unlucky number, because  (si meaning 4) is a homonym for (si meaning 'death').  Well, a near homonym, anyway; I believe the tones are different (but don't get me started on the tones in Chinese!!).  And 24 is especially unlucky, because the 2 is supposed to represent 'quick' or 'easy' (and I really have no idea how that works, since the character for this, , is in fact yi, a [near] homonym for 1, not 2!  Help, anyone?).  Conversely 28 is one of the luckiest of numbers, since 八 (ba meaning 8) is associated with good fortune (although I don't know that there's any pun or homonym going on with that; why is 8 lucky?  Help anyone?). 
So, Chinese buildings commonly omit a 24th floor, because the Chinese - still an extremely superstitious bunch - wouldn't want to rent any space on it.  (Should we try pointing out to them that the floor labelled 25 is in fact the 24th floor??)
I know this perfectly well, but it still befuddles me on occasion, whenever I'm travelling up to the 20-somethingth floor.
Do buildings in America and/or Europe omit a 13th floor?  I've never really looked out for this.  I travel in lifts even more seldom in those countries.

Haiku for the week

Grey chill enters bones
Another absentee sky
October Friday
Usually, we get an upturn in the weather around now, a little burst of 'Indian summer' in the first week or so of November.  I can't wait.  The back end of October is always the shittiest period of the year here.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Let The Right One In

It's been a while since I added a film review on here, but I've been staying in a lot lately (for a variety of reasons - mostly not good: poverty, illness) and so finally working through a great stack of DVD purchases I made earlier in the year.

Last year's Swedish vampire drama, Let The Right One In, was certainly one of the most stylish and haunting things I've watched in quite a long time. It - more or less - won me over, despite my strong scepticism about the genre. The recent upsurge of vampire-mania leaves me baffled: Anne Rice I didn't get; Buffy was at least mildly amusing, but it never hooked me; Twilight? Twaddle!

I am appalled to discover that on IMDB, Let The Right One In is currently ranked in their Top 250. This can only be because it is a relatively recent release and it is a vampire film. It is a pretty good film, yes; a film that transcends the vampire genre; but it is not a great film, and nowhere near being one of the best films of all time in any genre. IMDB voters are - as so often - just being silly. It might, however, just possibly be - as many of the press reviews appear to have been saying - the best vampire film ever.

It would be hard to comment on how it transcends the usual vampire fare without describing quite a bit of what happens in the story, so if you haven't seen it yet and don't like SPOILERS, stop here.

The story appears to have a contemporary setting, in a small town in northern Sweden, in the depths of winter. This is a smart twist for a vampire film straight away: the night lasts 16 or more hours a day, so the period of the vampire's inactivity is going to be much shorter. The next, and even smarter innovation is that it is grounded in a familiar everyday story: the vampire thread adds texture, drama, but the prime focus is on the loneliness of young Oskar, an awkward 12-year-old who is bullied by his classmates and neglected by his divorced parents. Oskar gains in self-confidence and self-assertiveness after he finds a new friend outside of school - potentially also a first girlfriend, and ultimately a protector. So, it's a simple coming-of-age story, a socially isolated child learning to fight back against bullies. It just so happens that the catalyst for this transformation, his beautiful new next-door neighbour Elli who he meets on the climbing frame outside their apartment block every night.... is a blood-feeding monster with supernatural powers. Well, you can't have everything.

The film is beautifully photographed - with most of the action happening at night, lit by harsh streetlights reflected from the snow. And there's an unhurried, elegiac rhythm to it as well: this is a film that's not afraid to take its time (almost certainly the first key aspect of it to be ditched from the forthcoming American remake). Occasionally, perhaps, it is just a little too ponderous; but overall, this tempo seemed appropriate to the bleak environment and the empty lives portrayed.

I did have a few other misgivings. I didn't find Oskar's character very satisfyingly fleshed out: he's a cherubic but saturnine enigma who hardly says two words in the entire film, other than to Elli. The scenes with his parents, in particular, seem rather too spare, tacked on in a perfunctory kind of way. And the coda baffles: we see Oskar on a train - going where, signifying what? It is an irritating non-event, particularly after the stunning finale which precedes it. (I don't want to put in too many SPOILERS here, but that final scene is destined to be known as something of a classic, and I think I will say a little more about it in a comment below.) There are also a couple of scenes in which it is suggested that Elli - ostensibly a 12-year-old like Oskar, although she might "have been that age for a very long time" - can transform herself into a 30-year-old woman; this doesn't really seem to add anything to the story but perplexity.

Vampire fans, apparently, particularly approve of the faithful inclusion of most of the elements of traditional vampire lore: resting during the day, extreme sensitivity to light, and - as referred to in the title - being unable to enter a home without permission (although I'm not sure what the origin of that one is; I don't think I'd ever heard of it until Buffy; it wasn't in Dracula).

I particularly liked one great shock moment: the exterior scene at the hospital. Not shock as in a moment of horror, but a really well-staged surprise - all the more impressive in that you are absolutely expecting what happens to happen, but it still takes you by surprise.

It's a simple, well-made film, with many layers to it. It's a particularly - perhaps uniquely - affecting study of the vampire myth: we pity Elli because she is a vulnerable little child, but there's no diminishing the horror of what she is, and it is this shocking contrast at the centre of the film that makes it so morally ambiguous, so troubling, so compelling. I just wish I could have cared a little bit more about Oskar.

Don't say I didn't warn you

My blog-friend Tony, of the eternally diverting Other Men's Flowers, yesterday forwarded me a link for the latest James Fallows article in The Atlantic, on the alarming topic of environmental health problems in China (Mr Fallows has but recently returned to the States after a long posting in China, and has been wondering how many years he might have knocked off his lifespan).
This is a recurring concern of mine, since I tend to suffer almost continual respiratory illnesses throughout the autumn and winter months (and other, weirder, more alarming ailments from time to time), and four people within my sphere of acquaintance have died of cancer within the last couple of years (quite young people, who were otherwise in good health). Fallows tries to be as bullish as he can about the prospects for recovery or survival if you limit your exposure to China - but the underlying message is pretty bleak: if you spend a long number of years here, it's probably going to kill you much sooner than if you'd stayed back home; and it definitely isn't a good place to bring up children.
However, perhaps the most alarming statistic in the whole article was this: the number one cause of death among foreign Embassy staff in Beijing is road traffic accidents.
Yes, you read that right.  They're usually on fairly short rotations, you see, only out here for two or three years, not long enough to develop any of those threatened chronic health problems; but there is no getting away from the short-sightedness, incompetence, and sheer homicidal aggression of Chinese drivers.
I touched on this problem in one of my very first posts (although at that time I wasn't disclosing the fact that I was in China), and many more times subsequently (try searching the site for terms like 'accidents', 'drivers', 'road traffic', and 'wrong way'.... or indeed 'homicidal').
The official figure for 'road deaths' in China is over 100,000 per year (or it was, the last time I looked; probably much higher now that the number of cars on the roads has again doubled in just a few years); that is, or was, more than 5 times the worldwide average for deaths per number of vehicles.  And that figure is, almost certainly, grossly under-reported.
I know from bitter experience (I worked at the Beijing Bureau of Statistics for a while) how vague, unreliable, or simply fabricated most such figures coming out of China are.  The chaps at the Bureau mostly had no concern about methodology whatsoever: they were utterly incurious as to how the raw data they received had been compiled or what it could truly be said to represent.  They just did their number-crunching on it, and collated it into reports, as they were required to do, without ever raising a question about any of it. 
You see, I wouldn't be at all surprised if 'road deaths' in the statistics compiled in China is a completely undefined term.  I wouldn't be surprised if it only includes people who die in vehicles, not pedestrians killed by vehicles.  I wouldn't be surprised if it excludes bicycles (and even motor scooters and electric bicycles).  And even if it is just people killed in vehicles, I'd bet it's still a gross under-estimate.  A lot of road traffic fatalities never get logged at all: out in the country, bodies of victims just get tossed in a ditch, and later recorded as 'cause of death: unknown' by local police; here in the cities, hospitals - I'm told - are actually discouraged from being too fastidious in their record-keeping about this kind of thing.
I should think that deaths and injuries from road traffic accidents must be well over 1 million per year in China: it is carnage out there.  (And, since healthcare in general and emergency response in particular is still so poor here, a very high percentage of injuries end up being fatal.)
Just about every foreigner I know who's lived here more than a few years has witnessed a fatality on the road; most have been involved in some sort of accident; one nearly lost a leg after being hit by a truck.  I myself have seen at least three fatalities on the streets of Beijing - all people who'd been knocked off bicycles (nobody wears helmets).
Be careful when you're crossing the road here.  Very, very careful indeed.
[That very first post on the dreadful driving standards in this country was part of a series of oblique commentaries on China which I tagged as 'Where in the world am I?'.  I discontinued this when I 'came out' about living in China, but I still think this was one of the strongest strands I've written on the blog, and I do commend you to go back and check out more of these posts.]

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Return of the Daily Llama

Well, we haven't had one for quite a while now - largely because of my Internet/blog access problems and the difficulties I've been having in conducting picture searches or uploading photos.  This snoozy fellow comes from my old library of llama pics; I hope I haven't used him before.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Mac attack

This morning I happened to read a news item online about Iceland's economic crisis forcing McDonald's out of the country (hurrah!).
This reminded me of the 'Big Mac Index' sometimes used as a lighthearted way of comparing the cost of living in countries around the world.  I gather the idea was originally started, and is still continued annually, by the financial institution UBS; but in the past decade or so, The Economist's version has probably become more widely known.  I'm not sure where to get hold of a full version of the UBS country list (not on their website, as far as I can discover), and The Economist's is only available to subscribers (although the latest list appears to have been pirated - or perhaps reprinted with permission? - by the Oanda exchange rates website here).
Also, at present, this related index on how long it takes to earn a Big Mac in different countries is available free on The Economist website (although the stats come, in fact, from UBS).
There's a little interesting background on the UBS and Economist indices on Wikipedia, and a good article explaining their significance can be found here.
I suppose we should count ourselves lucky that here in China we still enjoy (hardly the right word) one of the world's cheapest (exchange-rate adjusted) Big Macs.  When there was a big spate of McDonald's openings shortly after I arrived here 5 or 6 years ago, I think the Big Mac was originally priced at around 18 rmb; but that proved too much for the local market, and the price was soon slashed back to 10.50 rmb.  In the last year or so, it's crept up again by small increments, and it's now about 12 or 12.50 rmb.  Not much over USD 1.50!  Of course, you might not get quite the same experience for your money here, whatever the Franchise Lords back in Illinois protest: the quality of the meat here is quite atrocious (yes, even worse than in the US), and the service is often extremely slow.
Not that I really wanted to talk about hamburgers anyway.  No, this was all just preamble - to introduce a post I just wrote over on parallel blog Barstool Blues describing my similar (but far more useful) idea for the Beer Equivalence Index.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Beijing Noise Pollution Blues (3)

When I get back from the bar, I discover that there are a couple of workmen busy replacing the big plastic characters on the sign above the entrance to the big government building opposite my apartment block.
It is 12.30 at night and freezing cold.  And they are working 25ft up without safety harnesses.  I feel for them.
But they are working with electric drills.
What was that about a law against noisy working late at night???
Luckily, these drills aren't very loud.  And they're out the back of my apartment, the side that's well insulated from noise.  There are lots of other people in this neighbourhood it is going to bug the crap out of.
I mean, really, because it's a government building you can't replace the sign during the hours of daylight??
Yes, sorry.  I am going through one of my occasional periods of low tolerance for the eccentricities of this country.

Beijing Noise Pollution Blues (2)

I am under noise attack by day as well.
For the last several weeks there have been renovation works going on in my building.
They have at least been observing the not-working-unsocial-hours regulations.  But between about 7 or 8am and 7 or 8pm there has been a more or less continuous thump and clatter of dropped building materials and chipped off tiles, and the intermittent but persistent brrr-brrr-brrr of drills.
At first, I think, it was a unit on one of the lower floors being converted into new office space.  Then it was an apartment one or two floors below me being extensively re-fitted.  (Are the workmen just hanging around the building, hoping to find new commissions every few weeks?)
Now (I judge from all the dust and debris on the steps) they're doing something down in the basement.  Funny - the drills still sound as if they are directly below my bed and study.
Lie-ins are near impossible.  Working productively at the computer is difficult, with this din - albeit a fairly muted din - almost constantly going on in the background, thrumming through the floor below my work desk, vibrating through my skull.
The drill is the worst thing.  It's one of those terrible SLOW drills.  Slow, and getting slower as it bites into something - horribly reminiscent of the dentist's instruments of torture.  And it's just a few seconds at a time; then a pause; then a repeat; then a pause....  It's like a constant stream of surreptitious farts reverberating through my apartment.

Beijing Noise Pollution Blues (1)

The whole block (well, since we're talking short hutong blocks here, probably two or three blocks) at the north-east end of Jiugulou Dajie has been razed.  Yes, they took my hairdresser's, dammit.  And much else besides.
And now, of course, we're running up against some kind of deadline - after a shutdown for the dratted National Holiday - and they need to keep the rubble clearing going on throughout the night.  Mechanical diggers, bulldozers, and tipper trucks rumbling away.... 24/7, I shouldn't wonder.
Now, this is a fairly densely populated residential area.  And isn't there supposed to be some law about not conducting noisy operations between 10pm and 7am???
Yes.  But if you got a permit for a development as big as this, you don't need to worry about the laws.
Fortunately for me this is just far enough away (about half a mile) that it shouldn't really be a bother.  Although it is a very still night....
Earplugs again tonight, I think.  Just to be on the safe side.

The weekly bon mot

"I hold this to be the highest task for a bond between two people: that each preserves the solitude of the other."

Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926)

Sunday, October 25, 2009

A Classical Sunday

I had long thought this poem to be lost to me.  It had been introduced to me by my charmingly quirky mentor on my teacher training course at Durham twenty years ago, and I had used it myself subsequently a number of times in my teaching.  But then.... well, my last paper copy of it got lost in one of my numerous transfers of dwelling, and, in the days before computers and the Internet, that was it.  I'm not sure that this was ever published.  And, after the advent of the Internet era, I had tried repeatedly to dig it up online, but had always come up blank.  Then along came my endlessly resourceful blog-buddy JES to make me feel dumb and inadequate by rooting it out it for me fairly promptly.  As with the other long-lost poem he found for me, Edwin Muir's Suburban Dream, conventional thanks are entirely inadequate, but duly rendered anyway.
My teaching tie-in to this, since it is an irreverent, post-modern subversion of a well-known Greek myth, was often to begin with looking at the most basic story archetypes - The Quest and so on: the hero has a mission, the hero has special attributes or items to help him, he has monsters to defeat, and a girl is part of his reward.
During that first year of teaching I happened upon a particularly nice example of the way we have all internalized these simple story structures we learn in earliest childhood from myths and fairytales, and understand them better than we often consciously realise.  I think in fact this wonderful moment occurred in a marking exercise that had been artfully devised by my ever-playful mentor.  We were learning how to teach Latin to middle school pupils using a series of books called the Cambridge Latin Course, which had an ongoing narrative about a young Roman called Quintus who was driven from his home in Pompeii by the great volcanic eruption in 79AD, and subsequently wandered around the rest of the far-flung Roman Empire having various adventures.  In the second or third book in the series he was in Roman Britain and found himself at the court of a British king (the name escapes me; unimportant).  Courtiers aiming to assassinate the king introduced a performing bear which, goaded or released from its chains, ran amok in the royal dining hall.  Quintus was promptest to respond, picking up a nearby spear and running the poor bear through with it as it advanced on the king - thus ensuring that the rest of his stay in Britain would be very pleasant, I daresay.
Our mentor had given us an example of a simple comprehension test that could be set on this Latin passage (a nice alternative to just plodding through it, translating sentence by sentence around the class), and provided samples of genuine student responses to the questions set.
One of the questions was, unsurprisingly, why did Quintus kill the bear?  The expected answer was something like 'to save the king's life' or 'because the bear was dangerous'.
One student had written "because he's the hero".
Brilliant!  I wanted to give him an extra mark.
Anyway, the poem (thanks again, JES)....

One can get used to anything; the cave

Was dark, smelt bad, and twice a day the wave

Slopped on the floor; however much she swept,

Sand, bladderwrack and dead sea-urchins crept

Over the stones. The monster did not care,

But crouched preoccupied before the door,

Fretted at unsuccessful business deals,

Went out to fish and came back late for meals.

And when at last the heaven-sprung hero came,

Wing-heeled and gorgon-shielded, thirsty for fame,

Red-hot with bravery, he found her sitting

Upon a damp stone, busy with her knitting.

The monster lay asleep, and dinner stood

To simmer by a fire of smouldering wood.

The sword seemed pointless, something was amiss.

She stirred the pot. He had not come for this.

He was too late. The voyage had been too long.

The gorgon shield turned no ill thing to stone.

The gold helm hardly dazzled her at all.

She hung the iron ladle on the wall,

Stood up and faced him. Was the moment come?

But when the monster shivered in the gloom

She bent and spread a cloth over its coiled

Green limbs. The hero's attitude was spoiled.

Had he looked close enough he might have seen

A thin dry shudder where her heart had been,

But saw no thundering wrong to fight about,

Clattered his golden armour and went out;

Finding her patient unrebellious shape

No pretext for a plain heroic rape.

The tide was rising, and she turned once more

To sweep the dark sea from the door.

Graham Hough

Saturday, October 24, 2009

My Fantasy Girlfriend - Zhou Xun

I haven't yet included a Chinese or Asian lady amongst my 'fantasy league' of ideal women, and I am occasionally accused of perhaps having some sort of racist bias against them. Indeed not! I don't have the exaggerated weakness for Asian ladies that many Western males in the Orient manifest, but I certainly appreciate the charms of the most charming of them.

And I really don't think they come any more charming than the elfin actress, Zhou Xun. Although she hasn't quite yet achieved the international profile of Gong Li or Zhang Ziyi, I think she's been in more and better films than either of them in this decade, which makes her probably the premier female Chinese film star of the moment (at least, within China). There may be prettier starlets out there, but Ms Zhou just has that indefinable something that completely wins you over - a certain perkiness, a suggestion of humour or intelligence; I'm not quite sure what it is, but WOW. I rather fear that none of the still photographs I've been able to dig up really capture this radiant vivacity of hers - but you'll just have to make do, and take my word for it (if you haven't yet seen and adored her in any of her films, that is).

She's an extremely good actress too. I was first smitten with her in her two big breakthrough roles (gosh, getting on for 10 years ago now) in Suzhou Creek and Balzac and The Little Seamstress. Lately she's been on my mind because she's starring in a new wartime spy thriller called The Message, said to be rather good, and heavily advertised on the TV screens in the subway carriages over the past month or so. In this she wears a qipao. If I could find a really good picture of Zhou Xun in a qipao, I'd be in a happy daze for the rest of the week. This isn't really a very good one, but it will have to do for now.

She is tiny, though. Very nearly a full foot shorter than me. So, I fear it would never work. This is really my main problem with the ladies of the Orient, their diminutive stature. If the lovely Zhou Xun were just 4 or 5 inches taller, she'd be my perfect woman.

Friday, October 23, 2009

The wall of silence (AGAIN)

In one of my early posts on here, I bewailed the infuriating local proclivity for breaking off all contact rather than delivering 'bad news'.
I don't say it's a uniquely Chinese - or Asian - vice; but I fear it is especially common here.
And this week, I'm suffering another big dose of it.  There are five people to whom I sent important e-mails at the start of this week.  Five people from whom I really require a prompt response.  Five Chinese women: all very well educated; all in middle management roles; all with good enough English that you wouldn't think anxieties about expressing themselves clearly in an e-mail would delay or prevent their replying.
But, after four days, I hadn't had a reply from one of them.
One did at least respond fairly promptly when I started following up by text message.  She claimed my e-mail had been eaten by her spam filter (which, I suppose, is plausible; although this hadn't been a problem with any of the other e-mails we've exchanged over the past month), and then sent me the reply I'd been waiting for yesterday evening.  Not too bad.  Though I'm very sceptical about that 'lost e-mail' excuse: I suspect she was just slapdash in working through her Inbox.
Two of the others - both very important, since one involves a payment that is due to me, and the other involves a negotiation on a new training contract - are still failing to respond even to SMS.  This probably betokens bad news.  But not nearly as bad as provoking me into going round to their offices in person and tearing them a new arsehole each....
The other two, I find, I don't have mobile phone numbers for; so I'll just have to try calling them at the office on Monday.
WHY?  Why are people so crap like this?  Why are they so lazy, so inept, so rude?
Oh, I know what it's like to be inundated with e-mails, and to find it difficult to keep track of which ones need a reply, which can be read without replying, and which can just be deleted or ignored.  But you have to be disciplined and thorough and conscientious.  However many e-mails you receive each day - whether it's 50 or 500 - you have to devise a system for dealing with them effectively.
If it's a personal e-mail (rather than a group mailing), and it's asking for action or information from you (rather than just providing you with information), then it requires a reply.  And if you don't have time to reply in detail, or you won't be able to give a substantive response for a certain period of time, you still need to acknowledge the receipt of the message immediately, and give some idea of the timeframe for providing a full response.
Acknowledging an e-mail - "Thanks.  I'll try to get back to you by the end of the week." - takes a matter of a few seconds.  It's really not hard at all - even for people who are very shaky in their written English.
Acknowledging e-mails is especially important these days, when overactive spam filters - and other Internet glitches (here in China, the rampant Net censorship adds to the occasional unreliability of e-mail transmission) - do gobble up such a lot of correspondence.
Acknowledging e-mails promptly and consistently will save business relationships from going sour.
And it will also save a lot of time - because some people, not everyone, maybe, but some people (like me, of course), if they don't receive an acknowledgement of an important e-mail, will follow up every two or three days until the end of time.... and you really don't want your Inbox getting filled up with that kind of bad karma, do you?
So, pretty please with sugar on top, answer your f***ing e-mail, will you?


After two or three weeks of reasonably ready Internet access via Tor, I find myself being comprehensively blocked again today.
Is there some special reason why they're tightening the clampdown again?  (Obama's upcoming visit, maybe??)  Or are the Kafka Boys just twiddling the knobs for fun?
Well, I'm long overdue to sign up for a VPN, anyway.

The weekly haiku

Everywhere building,
and half-dug holes not filled in:
hazards in the dark.
The twice-yearly spasm of hutong renovation is once again in full swing.  And once again, much of the work seems to have been begun and then abandoned half-done.  The lanes in my neighbourhood are nearly all impassable, and there's sand everywhere (getting airborne, getting in the lungs).  What gives with this??

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Another traffic report - the blog stats for September

Catching up on housekeeping....

Here, a little later than usual, are the output figures for September.

On Froogville last month there were 35 posts and around 12,000 words.

On Barstool Blues there were 31 posts and nearly 7,000 words.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Good beginnings

San Francisco literary agent Nathan Bransford (a blog I discovered through the indispensable Moonrat) was running a competition last week for opening paragraphs for a novel.  I had been thinking I might have a go myself, but was caught out by the very brief window for entries. 
It may be just as well.  The event was really intended for people who already have a completed novel to peddle - rather than for dilettantes like me who just knock off isolated first paragraphs for fun once in a while.  [I have, in fact, been toying for a while with an idea for a 'novel' to be called An Anthology Of First Paragraphs.  Don't tell me someone's already done it!  Borges, maybe?]
Also, I'm afraid, Mr B's tastes seem to be not at all in tune with my own.  Frankly, I thought his 10 'winners' were 10 of the least engaging that I'd read.  Not badly written, but trying just a tad too hard; not naturally winning of reader involvement. There were many, many more that I personally preferred, from the couple of hundred submissions I glanced through (but christ, he had over 2,500 entries!  Respect for wading through that lot!).  His choices, I felt, were all a little bit too self-consciously 'literary' (a common vice, I find, in 'creative writing group'-crazy America), a bit over-elaborate, straining too much for descriptive effects or distinctive quirkiness.  Not one of them gave me much idea what the rest of the novel would be about.  And not one of them really inspired me to want to find out.
It's a fascinating exercise, though.  Do check out as many of the entries as you can.  Then compare with Nathan's top ten.  You can also read his comments on his selection process, and the opinions of his blog readers on what makes a good first paragraph.
Pondering this last question myself, I feel it's too complicated an issue - and with too diverse a range of possible 'answers' - for it to be worth trying to formulate any set rules.  But I know a good one when I see one.  Or, I know what I like.
I had a quick look through the books I have in my apartment (not that many, alas) to try to find an example or two.  Breakfast at Tiffany's might have been a contender, I thought; but when I dipped in to remind myself, I found the first paragraph (establishing the setting of the narrator's first apartment in New York) to be just a bit too leisurely, almost ponderous.  I much prefer the brisk immediacy of the second paragraph (but perhaps that's partly because we all know Holly Golightly now?):
It never occurred to me in those days to write about Holly Golightly, and probably it would not now except for a conversation I had with Joe Bell that set the whole memory of her in motion again.

One of my absolute favourite opening paragraphs is this, in Flann O'Brien's The Third Policeman:

Not everybody knows how I killed old Phillip Mathers, smashing his jaw in with my spade; but first it is better to speak of my friendship with John Divney because it was he who first knocked old Mathers down by giving him a great blow in the neck with a special bicycle-pump which he manufactured himself out of a hollow iron bar.  Divney was a strong civil man but he was lazy and idle-minded.  He was personally responsible for the whole idea in the first place.  It was he who told me to bring my spade.  He was the one who gave the orders on the occasion and also the explanations when they were called for.


Amongst the Chinese novels I have, only Zhou Weihui's Shanghai Baby stands out as immediately arresting.  The book overall is a disappointment: it uses sex too cheaply for titillation (well, don't we all...?), there's no real plot to speak of, and the narrator is too shrill and self-centred to be good company for long.  But there's a wonderful verve and self-assurance about this first paragraph (and credit, too, to the translator Bruce Humes for capturing this voice):

My name is Nikki but my friends all call me Coco after Coco Chanel, a French lady who lived to be almost ninety.  She's my idol, after Henry Miller.  Every morning when I open my eyes I wonder what I can do to make myself famous.  It's become my ambition, almost my raison d'être, to burst upon the city like fireworks.



Any recommendations, readers?


Monday, October 19, 2009

The sea inside

I went out to the Dashanzi art district the other day to catch the opening of a new exhibtion space there, White Box Art Museum.
My old friend Wu Yuren was one of a number of Chinese modern artists participating in the big inaugural show.  It was quite a challenge to guess which of the many and diverse works on display might have been his.  I wondered at first if it might not have been the rather grimly realistic flayed pig skin (in fact, this was rendered in latex, with fine strands of scarlet wool suggesting webs of blood vessels on the translucent 'skin'); he has had his moments of experimenting with 'body shock'.
Ah, no.... here we are....
Dawu's piece was a simple white drawer, recessed into the wall, half open.  And when you peer inside, you find it's brim full of water.
Well, I assume it was water - but I suspect it may have been treated with something, since it seemed an unnaturally bright, swimming-pool blue; and the meniscus on it was so taut that it looked at first as if it might have been covered over with a thin layer of glass or plastic (I had assumed that it would have been covered with something, to prevent it getting full up of all the dust and such in the Beijing air over the month the exhibition is on - but no).  The execution of a thing like this is quite cunning, quite challenging.  How did he manage to build a sliding drawer into the solid breezeblock wall of the gallery?  How did he make it securely waterproof?  How did he manage to get the interior of the drawer so well lit?
This fascination aroused by the understated cleverness of the construction works nicely in tandem with the quirky charm of its incongruity; you expect to find socks, underwear, or perhaps documents in such a place, but instead..... you find a miniature swimming pool.
I think he called the piece something like 'Tranquil Sea'.  And there was something oddly restful about gazing into this draw full of calm, blue water.
Most 'modern art' of this kind leaves me completely cold; in fact, it often arouses my scorn and contempt.  I feel there are far too many self-proclaimed 'artists' around these days whose work is little more than a mediocre middle-school craft project with a pretentious caption underneath it.
But Dawu I have a soft spot for.  There's a wit and a zest about him you don't often find in artists of this type, an imagination that really is a little out of the ordinary.
I'm not sure if there's really any point to it; but it strikes some kind of a chord with me....

My philosophy of teaching

I just happened to come across this in a comment from a year ago on this post (itself on my approach to teaching, something which might well become a mini-series of its own), and thought it was worth reprinting.

I am very sceptical of the idea of "teaching" poetry.

I think the best teachers can do in most subjects - and just about all they can do in teaching literature - is to communicate their own passion.

You can't tell kids that they ought to be excited about something; you can't even really show them, most of the time, why they ought to be excited by something; all you can do is show them that it is possible to be excited by something - and hope that they may be inspired to go in search of that excitement themselves.

This in turn reminded me of an especially dismal metaphor that has long haunted me, an image that was elaborated to me - with great earnestness, as the sum of wisdom in the profession of teaching - by a particularly embittered and cynical old schoolteacher I worked with on one of my first teaching practice stints during my teacher training year (20 years ago now).
This miserable old git told me:  "Imagine there's an empty milk bottle on each desk in the classroom.  The teacher stands at the front of the room with a tin pail of water, and hurls the water into the air. Every once in a while, a few droplets may fall into the open necks of a few of the bottles.  But not very much.  And none of the bottles will ever be full, however long you fling water at them."
I've always preferred this analogy:  "There's a tap at the front of the class.  The teacher, without comment or explanation, goes to the tap and operates it, pouring himself a tall glass of clear, cool water.  He drinks the water, with quiet satisfaction, and returns to his desk.  He invites his pupils to help themselves to a glass also, any time they feel like it."

Bon mot for the week

"The secret of staying young is to live honestly, eat slowly, and lie about your age."

Lucille Ball (1911-1989)

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Choose your next witticism carefully, Mr Froog

Rather to my shame, I accepted that filming gig after all.
I thought I'd effectively discouraged them by asking about the script ("Script?  What script??"), and by asking for a higher fee.  For a day or two, there was a heavy silence from my contact.
But then they tried to come back to me.... late on Friday night.  I ignored them.
They rang again early on Saturday morning (which was when the shoot was supposed to have been taking place).  I had a dreadful feeling they were going to ask me to turn out immediately - and I very nearly ignored the call again.
It turned out that the shoot had been moved to a location in the CBD rather than miles out of town, and had also been put back to Sunday.
I still wasn't keen to work on the weekend.  And I was very strongly inclined to blow them off on the grounds that it was unacceptable to arrange something like this at less than 24 hours' notice.
But I really need the money....
And at least it was no longer going to be an all-day affair. No - because I'd quoted them a suggested hourly rate (not as a serious bargaining ploy; purely to illustrate to them how inadequate was the fee they'd initially offered me for a full day's work), the film-makers had a ponder, and then decided that they could probably get my scene taken care of in just a couple of hours.  Or so.
Remarkable how a little financial leverage can suddenly wake people up to the idea of, you know, planning.
Great result for me (I got paid very nearly as much as they had originally offered for an open-ended shoot).  But I did feel rather sorry for the other foreigner roped into the project - a young German guy who'd been asked to attend at the location from 7.30am (I didn't start till 9.30), and had still done absolutely nothing when I left shortly before lunchtime.  No, the 'day rate' is not a good deal.
A further consolation for me was that I found myself working with just about the prettiest girl I've ever met.  Well, the prettiest Chinese girl I've ever met, anyway.  A complete knockout.  I spent the morning in a happy daze, even though the director was - predictably - taking half an hour at a time to work out what he wanted in a 5-second shot.
I was mostly just doing noddies while a young Chinese man delivered a presentation on oil refinery equipment.  I couldn't help thinking that the CG models on his Powerpoint display looked like a typical Bond villain's hideout.  So, most of my questions and comments (there was no sound recording, so we were all able to adlib our dialogue as facetiously as we liked) were along the lines of..... "So, the secret missile silos are where?  And that'll be the death-ray installation at the bottom right, I suppose?  And I bet that's the hangar for Mr Blofeld's getaway plane."
What larks!
And I got paid a hefty sum of money to smile at an impossibly pretty girl for a couple of hours.  Maybe I could get to like this sort of work after all.