Thursday, December 31, 2009

Awards Season

The end of the year is upon us once again, and with it come a lot of annual reviews and polls and prizes and awards. And once again I have failed (as far as I know) to merit even a nomination for any kind of blogger plaudit. (Well, I was named a Superior Scribbler at the start of this year, of course; but that's a bestowed by a friend kind of honour rather than a triumphing in a competitive vote one, the result of the favourable opinion of one reader rather than many.)

Rather than just sulk about it, I thought I'd invent some awards to give myself.

Most Prolific Blogger of the Year
Getting on for 1,000 posts this year, between my 2 (er, 3) blogs. Crazy. Logorrhoeic.

Most Alcoholic Blog of the Year
My alternate blog, Round-The-World Barstool Blues, of course - which has catalogued my meanderings through Beijing bar life on, I would guess, well over 200 nights out over the past year, including at least two 16-hour binges. Not many people have that kind of dedication. Some bloggers put their heart and soul into their writing, sure; but I give you my liver too.

Most Uncomfortably Personal Blog(s) of the Year
I know, I know, I'm rather too introspective - and ruthlessly frank - at times. Between the two blogs this year, you have been able (if you were so inclined) to chart an odyssey of spiritual torment - stressful interactions with landlords and letting agents, disintegrating professional relationships, a perpetually thwarted love life. If you think this makes uncomfortable reading, what do you think it is like to live it??

China-Basher of the Year
I have mocked the country's lamentable English skills, continued to foment splittism in the Western regions through my coded picture posts, and even dissed the national "birthday" celebrations. No contest, surely?

Most Diverse Blog of the Year
I mean, where else would you find posts on topics as varied as the population dynamics of vampirism, a satirical take on the Chinese government’s attitude to Tibet, a sketch of an opening for a novel about sniper duels in Sarajevo, an essay on Ancient Greek profanity, a dozen Twitter-length ghost stories, a modern art review, a commmentary on “China’s 60th birthday”, the usefulness or otherwise of St Anthony, the first truly comprehensive theory of history, the endless amusement value of Chinese condom brand names, a roundup of favourite film quotations, a meditation on the psychology of ‘bad taste’ jokes, some wise words on censorship, advice on how to make Chinese friends, memorable cinema-going experiences, speculation on the causes of the severe drought in China this year, North Korean chat-up lines, abstract photography, an innovative business idea for an exclusive men’s club, the shortcomings of Beijing taxi drivers, the sex life of Chairman Mao, astronomy (and The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide To The Galaxy!), a satirical rundown on some of the most conspicuous elements of “Chinese-ness”, a defence of the “Ponzi scheme”, gay penguins, the difficulties of translating classical Chinese poetry, possible poltergeist activity in my kitchen cupboards, a 1940s advertisement for a non-existent product, the odd outbreak of paranoia, a tribute to Bon Scott of AC/DC (and a passing jibe at Mao), the poverty of scholarship in Chinese academe, the bizarre delights of Victorian magazine advertising, and the Dalai Lama in a Santa hat…. and some speculation on what Internet archaeologists of the future will make of all of this? Really, where??

I feel so much better now.

A Happy New Year to all my readers
(if I have any left after all that).

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

A slight lull in blogging?

Well, here on Froogville, perhaps - just very slightly, over the last week or so.

It's all been happening over on Barstool Blues, you see - quite a flurry of end-of-year posting over there. Just in the last few days I've added Little Frank, a companion Christmas story to this one, and a further rundown of my favourite Christmases spent in Beijing.

And today is THE BIG ONE - I've just added my annual Beijing Bar Awards post. Please, go and take a look. And add your own views in the comments.

Guanxi explained

A few years ago a friend sent me a series of diagrams like this, illustrating key differences between 'Western' and Chinese culture (said to have been created by a Chinese girl who's emigrated to Germany; I didn't originally know the source, but I've learned that it's a graphic designer called Yang Liu). This is one of my favourites, on the concept of networking, or guanxi, as the Chinese say. On the left, we Westerners are stuck in our tightknit little groups, rarely breaking out beyond one or two degrees of separation. On the right, for the Chinese, everyone is connected to everyone else, albeit very tenuously. If you know someone who knows someone who knows someone who knows someone who knows someone who knows someone in a position of power, a chain of reciprocal favours can be initiated - that's guanxi!

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Among the musicians

The apartment complex I've just moved into is still government-owned (well, I guess everything in this country is still government-owned, but in the last few years a lot of residential accommodation has shifted to 'private' ownership on long - but rather tenuous - leases), and dedicated to one of the classical musicians' unions. A lot of the original tenants, like my landlord, have chosen to sub-let to make some extra money for themselves, but the majority - it would appear - are still living here, free or on a heavily subsidised rent.

Hence, I am surrounded by music for much of the day.

On one of the first occasions I walked over here, carrying some of my things to begin moving in (it's only half a mile or so away from my old apartment, and I didn't trust my movers with some of my delicate possessions - computers, cameras, and so on), I was greeted by the sound of someone in my block playing a bamboo flute. That was quite beautiful.

Unfortunately, I haven't heard that again. Most of my neighbours seem to have pianos. (My apartment was supposed to have had an upright piano, which I considered a very attractive feature. I have a few friends who play a little, and might have appreciated the opportunity to practice for free round at my place. And I was seriously tempted to try to learn myself. I am more than a little miffed that my landlord and his wife made a last-minute decision to remove it, so that their 10-year-old daughter could start learning - without telling me, or making any adjustment in the rent!) Not all of them are piano-players. There's a guy over to my right somewhere who knocks out some decent Chopin once in a while. But the neighbour to the left appears to me to be an exponent of some other instrument who is just trying to work things out on the piano - he obviously knows music, but doesn't play at all well (on one of my first days living here, he spent a couple of hours or more hacking away at Lara's Theme, again and again nearly-but-not-quite nailing a passage - it was a strange torture, indeed).

And on the floor below, for two or three hours in the late afternoon and early evening almost every day, we have someone practising who's really not much good at all. I think it must be a kid. I suspect, in fact, it is the kid who threw a 40-minute hysterical, abusive tantrum at his parents the other day. There hasn't been any more piano practising from that apartment since. I wonder if the kid has won his battle to give it up? Drama in the hutong.

Although being surrounded by this - often not so musical - plink-plink-plink can occasionally get a bit irritating, it's not really one of the more annoying neighbour noises one might be exposed to. Often, indeed, I find the sound of a piano strangely restful, even when it's not being played well. And at least it's not happening (much) at night, or in the early morning, only during the day (when I ought not to be in that much; but work has gone dead at the moment). And the noise is relatively muted, even from my closest neighbours (my letting agent told me that the building was specially designed with sturdier walls to improve sound-proofing - I was sceptical of that, but maybe there's something in it).

I am starting to feel awkwardly out of place, ashamed, guilty in this environment. I feel I don't really qualify for residence among such talented and dedicated people. I have a guitar and a harmonica which I hardly ever play - daunted by the difficulty of mastering the instruments, despairing of ever being able to become as good as I'd like to be (it doesn't help that I know so many guitarists in this city, six or seven really excellent players, people I know I could never begin to emulate). I'm starting to think that I should start to make a serious effort with them again, start trying to play regularly. Just to fit in, you know. Peer pressure.

Monday, December 28, 2009

A study tip for my Chinese readers

In a spirit of seasonal magnanimity....

Here is the number one piece of advice that I have given to (and had ignored by) my Chinese students over and over again in my years of teaching here.

Learn how to use a dictionary properly when 'learning' new words.

The Chinese education system stresses rote-memorization (I suppose it's the only way to learn the character writing system), and many Chinese do indeed have impressively well-developed memories.

Unfortunately, rote memorization is not a good way to learn vocabulary in another language. Many of my students have bragged to me about how they can "learn" 10, 20, or even 50 new words at a sitting. They are sadly deluded. No, you can't.

The problem, as I touched on in my last War on Chinglish post (further highlighted in the comments) is that errors so easily creep into dictionaries and word lists, and such errors are then quickly hardwired irrevocably into usage if students rely on parrot-like repetition of lists of definitions as their only means of assimilating new vocabulary. Often the definitions they learn are not outright wrong (though often they are), just incomplete or misleading. But most Chinese students will never become aware of these shortcomings because they don't refer to English dictionaries very much, or pay attention to how the words are actually used in the authentic listening and reading passages they encounter. For rote learning, students want to have a simple Chinese equivalent for each English word - and, much of the time, no such equivalent exists. And so, for example, we find Chinese students unable to distinguish between give, send, bring, take, carry, and see off because they are all identified with the single Mandarin word song, .

Trying to learn long strings of words is a waste of time. However good your memory is, new words won't 'stick' if you try to absorb too many at one time. Focus your efforts on a more manageable number. I usually recommend 5 or 6 at one time as a sensible maximum to attempt.

Learning one-word Chinese 'equivalents' of English words is a waste of time, and will lead you into numerous Chinglish errors. By all means, try to relate new English words to your native vocabulary (especially when you are a beginner), but be wary in doing so; always try to refer to an English-only dictionary as well. In order to truly 'know' a word and be able to use it appropriately you need to know not only its basic meaning but its range of meanings and the circumstances in which it most commonly appears; rules of use, common collocations, its synonyms and how it is distinguished from them. You can only get that from an English dictionary, not from an English-Chinese dictionary.

I usually also recommend my students to try the following exercises every time they're learning a new word:

a) Copy out the English dictionary definition of the word.

b) Try to write a definition or an explanation of the word in your own words in English.

c) Following example sentences in your dictionary and/or textbook, write a few sentences of your own which clearly illustrate the meaning of the word.

d) Try to write further sentences in which you can imagine you might actually use the word yourself.

e) Read these sentences aloud, to practice saying the word (and begin assimilating it into your listening & speaking vocabulary).

Do try this, please. It really helps.

Just memorizing lists of Chinese definitions of new English words does you more harm than good.

A year-end bon mot

"The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable man persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore, all progress depends on the unreasonable man."

George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950)

Sunday, December 27, 2009

The Tea Tower (A Christmas Story)

The thing that persuaded me to stick with my first job in China (with employers from hell) was that it was based in a very cool neighbourhood, right in the heart of the city. I was barely half a mile away from the ancient Drum and Bell Towers, and I had a view of them from the window of my regular classroom on the 4th floor. The Bell Tower, I feel, is much the more aesthetically pleasing of the two (pictured above from its sister tower, on this travel website); on clear, sunny days I would often gaze at it wistfully during my classes, drawing comfort from it, reviving my drooping spirits.... dreaming of my escape when the bell rang.

It became a regular place of refuge for me and my two fast friends of that year (
'The Three Amigos') whenever we had a break in our working day. We soon came to know it as The Tea Tower. Like most 'historic monuments' in China, these Towers attempt to pay their way by renting out part of their floorspace to various commercial enterprises. The ground floor of the Bell Tower is a teahouse which attempts to flog overpriced speciality teas and souvenir tea sets to the hordes of foreign tourists who visit. This teahouse functioned as a finishing school for young girls attempting to qualify as tour guides (I never quite found out how this worked, but I've found the same thing in one or two other places - there used to be a similar teahouse in Ditan Park, for instance, where the staff were all trainee tour guides). These were some very charming and impressive young ladies; mostly from quite modest backgrounds, they'd never had the opportunity to go to university or even, in some cases, senior high school, but they'd educated themselves by their own efforts, to the point where they all had very serviceable English, and occasionally a smattering of some other language as well. We Amigos used to hang out there pretty regularly, singly or together, whenever we had a break between classes or a free afternoon, shooting the breeze with these delightful young girls. They would let us sample some of the cheaper teas, and we'd try to give them some help with their English - and chat with the tourists sometimes, giving them a friendly welcome and answering their questions about life in Beijing. The girls would also sometimes escort us up to the top of the Bell Tower to enjoy the impressive view over the city - without having to pay the usual 10rmb fee.

Four of them became particular friends: we invited them round to our flats in the college for small parties a couple of times (an evening watching DVDs at my pal Frank's place, and a Bonfire Night chilli cookout at mine), and took them out to dinner on my birthday. After six months or a year, they would move on to tour-guiding (or something else), but we kept in touch with them all for some time more.

And on Christmas Day that first year, I played Santa - turning up at the teahouse in the scarlet tunic and cotton-wool beard and handing out boxes of chocolates to them. I think this was the first time in my life I'd done this (well, I dimly recall a costume party back at university where I went as Santa and tried to persuade 'naughty girls' to sit on my knee - but perhaps we'd better draw a veil over that), and it would be another four years before I'd do so
again. It was the highlight of my Christmas that year. (I also went in and ho-ho-ho-ed at our favourite local restaurant of that time - The Legitimate Businessmen's Club, as we called it - to give a huge box of chocolates to the three lovely waitresses there, and a Chinese chess set to the young chef who'd taught me how to play. I urged the girls not to eat all the choccies before I came in that evening, but..... they wolfed the lot within the hour.... thereby probably tripling their calorie intake for the week.)

Of course, it was too good to last. Good things in China seem to be especially ephemeral. The girls' supervisor in the teahouse was a sour-faced old battleaxe who resented the frequency of our visits. She objected that we were taking the girls' time away from the paying customers (although we took great care never to do that), and eventually she 'banned' us. We speculated that she might have had a more self-interested motive for this, rather than doing it purely out of meanness and stupidity. There were various bonus regimes in place for the girls if their sales of tea and knick-knacks exceeded certain targets each month. The group bonus for reaching the highest threshold was quite a generous amount, but the target was set at a somewhat unrealistic level and the girls had never come close to meeting it. Until we came along - in October and November that year they qualified for the big bonus twice in succession. Well, OK, October is the peak month for tourism; but not that much better than August and September; and things are usually slackening off rather badly in November. I do think the welcoming atmosphere we helped to create there for foreign tourists - effectively adding two or three additional (unpaid) staff to the sales team! - gave a little boost to the girls in earning those bonuses. If they hadn't made those targets, the supervisor would probably have got to keep the money - or some of it, anyway - herself. That's the way things go in China.

So, the great days of 'The Tea Tower' came to a sorry end. But we had five or six glorious months - those were some of my happiest times in China.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Snow business

.... like show business!

Yet more Christmas punsterism. Forgive me.

A few weeks ago, the students of the University of Wisconsin at Madison took advantage of a heavy fall of snow to have a massive snowball fight. They were hoping to get into the Guinness Book of Records - but, as it was all a bit impromptu, no Guiness representative was able to get there to verify the number of participants (must be a pretty tricky thing to do with an event of that kind, anyway!). Better luck next time! Apparently, they do this almost every year.

It seems, according to Wikipedia, that the official American record is still that set at Michigan Technological University nearly 4 years ago. However, a new - Guinness-recognised - world record was set on the 14th October this year by this monster snowball fight in the Belgian city of Leuven, with a tally of 5,768 participants (how do they count them??). They had snow that early this year in Europe????

I think this is an even better snow fight, though. Pity it's an ad for a really crappy beer; still pretty funny.

It doesn't look like we're going to have a White Christmas here in Beijing this year - but a man can dream.

Season's Greetings to all my readers!

A Christmas Daily Llama

The Daily Llama in a Santa Hat! Well, as near as I could find. [I understand his health isn't great at the moment. I wish him a swift recuperation, and many more years of life.]

And who is that rather gorgeous lady beside him? A Christmas quiz for you!

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Scary Santa

I watched Jeunet and Caro's La cité des enfants perdus again the other day. I'd forgotten that this was the opening sequence. It reminds us, helps us to understand that the whole Santa concept is deeply weird, and can be - really, perhaps, should be - deeply disturbing to young children.

I was at a kids' Christmas party just the other week where one little girl shrieked her head off at the arrival of Santa and had to be taken home.

I was glad I wasn't playing the role this time. I had been at the previous year's event. (I was gratified to learn later that one particularly cute four-year-old had pronounced that she much preferred last year's Santa. If only her mum had such good taste....)

The Christmas Card list

Hymer Trimming

Arthur White

Chris Mars

Wee Viv

Chris McR

Di Wright

Mayor Daseby

Mary-Ann Bright

Ant Mayall

'York' Chris

Mrs B. White

Christmas punnery! There are doubtless many versions of this (although, oddly, I couldn't seem to dig any up on the Web). I think I first saw this done in The Goodies' Christmas Album, circa 1975. This is a hastily concocted version of my own. Longer and better variations are certainly possible - but I rather like this because it does include a few names of people that I've actually known (not the Mayor, obviously, but some of the others).

Jollymerryhollyberry and all that!

Not exactly getting in the Christmas spirit

The Internet gremlins are still poking fun at me, even now that I have shelled out cash for "unfettered access".

I am finding it next to impossible to leave comments on Blogspot blogs. For some reason (I suppose I may try going to one of the Help forums to see if I can get an answer on this), the 'comments' form is still refusing to load in Firefox (I had thought this recently emerged problem was a side-effect of having to use Tor as my proxy, but evidently not). Even more bizarrely, the only way I can leave comments via Firefox is by clicking on the 'comments' tab for individual posts in the 'Edit Posts' screen of Blogger. Of course, there already has to be at least one comment on a post before this will work; I am precluded from leaving a first comment myself via this route. And why, WHY does this work, when nothing else does?? It's baffling.

And, in Explorer, attempts to leave comments keep getting crashed by those annoyingly nanny-ish 'This site contains both secure and insecure information - are you sure you want to send?' pop-ups. Unless, that is, I am signed in as the Blog administrator - in which case this problem seems to disappear. However, I generally log in to Blogger through Firefox; and Explorer doesn't recognise when I'm logged in through a different browser. And I can't log in separately through the comment form, because of the 'secure/insecure' nonsense again.

So, I have to open Blogger in Explorer, log in..... and then I can visit Blogspot blogs in Explorer, and leave comments as 'Froog'. Why is this so hard?

Oh, oh, there's another wrinkle yet. I had forgotten to log out of Blogger in Firefox. Google/Blogger deemed it 'suspicious activity' that I was trying to access my account in two different browsers (but on the same goddamn computer!) at the same time, and closed my account. It has demanded that I change my password (because, obviously, an 8-letter password is going to be much more secure than a 7-letter password; especially when it's emanating from the same computer as the allegedly 'suspicious' activity!!!). And, since there is no way of communicating with Google/Blogger, I cannot complain about how daft this is. I just hope I'm going to be able to change my password back.... before I forget what the new one is.

Google/Blogger, this is NOT the way to wish someone A Merry Christmas.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Snow Song

If you take any interest in contemporary popular music, you probably heard of Fleet Foxes at least a year ago. Apparently, their self-titled debut album won rave reviews and appeared in a lot of year-end 'Best of...' polls last year. If you're from their native Seattle, you might have been following them for 3 or 4 years now.

But for me, living in the cultural isolation of China, they are a new discovery - and I would still be in ignorance of them if the invaluable JES had not introduced them to me in this post last Friday (do check that post out for another of their songs and a couple of brilliant excerpted reviews).

I'm not sure how much I love them. I find most of their lyrics a bit too determinedly opaque for my taste, and their unique 'sound' does begin to pall after a while. Then again, maybe I've just overdosed on them a bit these past few days. They are clearly a very talented and innovative bunch of musicians, and they are creating something that is quite out of the ordinary. I'd expect them to be not just a short-term vogue, but a major force in contemporary music.

YouTube user neutrinoo appears to have posted the whole of their first album (sound only), if you want to sample more. Harder to find, there were also a couple of EPs - Fleet Foxes and Sun Giant - prior to the album. Quite a lot of live performance clips are starting to appear too, but the only other actual video I've been able to find is for this song, Mykonos. They've been so busy touring for the past couple of years that a second album keeps getting put back, but there should be one out around the middle of next year.

However, of all the stuff of theirs I've listened to in the last five days, it's the song above, White Winter Hymnal, that I just can't get out of my head at the moment: the music (and the video) are quite mesmerising.

(Caution: If you attend to the lyrics, it's not nearly such a pretty little song as it sounds. If Brian Wilson had chosen to write something about a teenage gang slaying, this might have been it.)

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

More Keats & Chapman

Some years ago, I ventured to make a few attempts to emulate the elaborate punmanship of the great Irish humourist Flann O'Brien's Keats & Chapman stories. This was my favourite of these efforts.

Keats and Chapman, continuing their warm but occasionally fractious companionship into the 1930s, are discussing the recent phenomenal success of the film 'King Kong'. Keats, brimming as ever with the enthusiasm of youth, is eager to go and see the film, but the older Chapman is wary of the huge crowds at the cinema. Also, more generally, he decries the crude populism of the film's producers, which, he feels, is sullying the artistic potential of the promising new medium - or, as he puts it, "Odi profanum vulgus, et RKO."

[For the benefit of Moonrat,
perpetually perplexed by puns, and of any other readers who were denied the delights of a Classical education, "Odi profanum vulgus, et arceo" (pronounced 'RKO') is a famous opening line of one of the Odes (III.i) of the Roman poet Horace, meaning something like "I disdain the unholy mob, and fence it out." RKO Radio Pictures was the company which produced the first - and best - King Kong in 1933.]


After more than 7 years of enduring variously crappy Chinese Internet connections....

after 2 years or so of massive censorship interference and steadily disappearing web-based proxies....

after several months of gradually disintegrating functionality with Tor/Privoxy/Firefox....

finally, I have signed up to Witopia.

And, oh my good god, it's FAST.

[Not without a few teething problems, though: the installation was fiddly. Connection to the chosen server often seems to fail first time. And Explorer has got its knickers in a knot with "the new add-on" and crashed a couple of times. Moreover, many of the problems that have been bugging me lately - limited user interface in Blogger, inability to leave blog comments - are still plaguing me, so I must assume that the problem lies with Firefox rather than with Tor. But, you know, overall - WOW! This is a brave new world of Net-browsing!!]

Monday, December 21, 2009

Strangeness in the neighbourhood (3)

Somewhere just to the north of my new apartment complex there is a big government building of some sort.  Well, I know there's a hospital hereabouts, but I'm not sure if it's that.  I wonder if there might be an army base off one of the hutongs I haven't yet discovered.
You see, we get rather a lot of very loud, very shrill exhortations to love the Party and so on blaring over a tannoy at odd hours of the day.
And most mornings at 10 (possibly every morning, but I don't notice it unless I'm in my study on the north side of the building) we get March of the Volunteers, the national anthem.  This is not a tune I want to be hearing that much of.

Strangeness in the neighbourhood (2)

Somebody was letting off crow-scarers around here yesterday.
Really.  Crow-scarers.  In the heart of the city?  At two o'clock on a Sunday afternoon?  What gives??

Strangeness in the neighbourhood (1)

I could have sworn someone on my staircase was baking a Christmas cake the other day.

A bon mot for the holiday week

"There's no such thing as a small act of kindness. Every act creates a ripple with no logical end."

Scott Adams (1957- )

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Waking to strange sounds

the upstairs neighbour's shower

sounds like rain

rain in the tropics, heavy drops on a tin roof

rippling rattles of bright thuds

throbbing through my whole apartment

dinning through my tin-roofed head

loud, too loud, yet oddly restful

conjuring sleep

while still preventing it

unwelcome noise

but impossible to resent

a reminder of rain

rain in the tropics

a reminder of another bed, another time

a conversation about rain

A recent jotting, this, perhaps no more than a sketch.  Not quite a poem, but something in that awkward middle ground between poetic prose and notes for a poem.  All the same, I rather like it.  A pure stream-of-consciousness thing: the 'creative process' here, such as it was, consisted simply in suppressing a lot of what might have been included - trying to identify the source of the noise, trying to get back to sleep, the details of the images and memories that came to mind, that final conversation and where it led.  Less is more.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

My Fantasy Girlfriend - Dorothy Provine

Well, I wondered if in fact I should have said 'Lily Olay', the shameless floozie of a saloon singer that she plays in the clip from  The Great Race below. 

I've always had a weakness for singers (and shameless floozies?), and I remember being quite smitten by her in this sequence when I first saw the film, aged about ten.  I think watching this again might be another of my nostalgic Christmas treats - although it's not a great film otherwise, and seriously overlong thanks to the superfluous Prisoner of Zenda pastiche at the end.  This, however, is one of the great saloon songs (and it is, of course, followed shortly afterwards by an epic saloon brawl [only currently available on YouTube in French! I've just added  the video of this – and a few more great screen punch-ups – over on The Barstool.]).  Oh yes, and Peter Falk is pretty funny as Max, the bungling sidekick to Jack Lemmon's villainous Professor Fate (clearly a model for the Dastardly and Muttley cartoons).... but I digress.

Dorothy is not quite my 'type' really (blonde?!), rather too petite at 5'4" (although she got supersized in the now obscure '50s sci-fi comedy The 30ft Bride of Candy Rock), but she did have an irresistible cuteness... and a flair for comedy... and a great singing voice.  And although her film career didn't really take off, she did crop up in a number of minor classics from the '60s that I remember fondly from childhood viewings a decade or so later - Good Neighbor Sam, That Darn Cat!, and It's A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World.

Back in those distant days, I also caught a one-off nostalgia re-run of an episode from the ABC television show that really made her name at the start of the '60s, The Roaring 20's (unnecessary apostrophe!).  In this she also played a chanteuse, the rather less alluringly named 'Pinky' Pinkham.  I think my favourite of her numbers from this is You Do Something To Me.  There is quite a bit more of her on YouTube (including this rather unsettling clip of her impersonating Al Jolson in blackface!); although, given that the show was set almost entirely within her nightclub, and she usually sang two or three complete songs in each episode, and it ran for two full seasons... well, there ought to be a lot more.  Perhaps more of her songs from this will have emerged if we return to that search in a year or two's time.  One of the more engaging oddities to be found at the moment is a guest appearance in a musical episode of Dr Kildare, where she duets with Richard Chamberlain on I Like New York In June.

Enough of this noodling.  Here's that saloon song, He Shouldn't-a, Hadn't-a, Oughtn't-a Swang On Me - music by Henry Mancini, and fantastic lyrics by Johnny Mercer which fairly zing with slick rhymes (in many cases, double rhymes; I remember even as a kid being blown away by that Texas/solar plexus/reflexes triple-whammy!).  Enjoy.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Website of the Month (the Year!)

I am not a Web-slut, like some people.  I don't browse and roam at random, all over the place.  I am fiercely loyal to the sites I like, but there are very few of them.
Therefore, my recommendations of other blogs and websites have been considerably less than monthly.  In fact, we haven't had one at all for quite a while now.
I think it is high time that I wrote an encomium for Running After My Hat.  Its author, JES, has become my most regular commenter over the past year or so (and a valued personal correspondent, tech guru, and occasional Web research assistant too), but I do not recommend his blog purely out of friendship or gratitude - it is thoroughly excellent in every way: consistently well-written, amazingly wide-ranging, stimulating and amusing.
I particularly love his occasional What's In A Song? feature, exhaustively researched essays on classic songs, covering the history of their composition, musical structure, pop culture trivia, memorable performances, and many other fascinating side avenues too.
Another great favourite is the regular Friday post where he takes a poem from the whiskey river literary blog as the starting point for a stream-of-consciousness (sometimes more of an avalanche-of-consciousness) collation of loosely related poetry, prose, song, and much else besides.  It is always a highlight of my week, and I can hardly wait to see what he's going to entertain us with today (since he's based in America, I don't usually get to see his Friday morning post until Saturday).
If you haven't yet clicked over on to his site from one of his comments here or one of my previous mentions of him, please do so at once.  You won't be disappointed.

Recently, on The Barstool

It's been a rich few weeks on my companion blog, Round-the-World Barstool Blues.
I've posted a video of a moving performance by Beijing folk singer Zhou Yunpeng, and a link to a video profile of my favourite Beijing bar, 12 Square Metres.
I've also expressed my anxiety at the possible disclosure of my identity.
And just now I have posted a tribute to my favourite barmaid (and one of my great, foolish crushes of the year - although I accepted that she was far too young for me, and I think the affection she inspired in me was really more fraternal than lustful).
All well worth checking out.

The weekly haiku

Cheeks are sandpapered
And shards of glass tear the flesh:
Wind from the north-west.
My, yes, it's cold in Beijing at the moment.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

My favourite pun

One of the regular items in the Irish Times humour column written by one of my great literary - and drinking - heroes, Flann O'Brien, through the middle decades of the 20th century was his series of "Keats & Chapman" stories. These were beautifully crafted little anecdotes which imagined the two famous poets as contemporaries, friends, inseparable companions - indeed, they seemed to be engaged in an intimate but sexless cohabitation, rather like Holmes and Watson or Morecambe & Wise.

I'd never known much about George Chapman, other than that he had famously written an early English translation of Homer's Odyssey, and that this had been a major influence on the young Keats, inspiring his poem
On First Looking into Chapman's 'Homer'. I knew he was quite a lot older than Keats, but I used to imagine that perhaps if his floruit had been in the mid- to late 1700s, in old age he might just have overlapped with his adolescent admirer. I was shocked and shamed to have a friend point out to me that he lived in fact 150 years earlier than that, a contemporary of Marlowe, Jonson, and Shakespeare. So, these flights of fancy from O'Brien were a particularly outlandish invention, even for him.

The distinctive feature of these pieces was that the stories in themselves were utterly inconsequential; they served purely as a means to arrive at a punchline which was always the most elaborate, outrageous, wince-making pun.

And this is one of my very favourites of them. (And it has an extra special place in my affections because it was also a private joke often shared with
my mooting partner, my best friend from my days at Bar School.)

[My apologies to the shade of Brian O'Nolan/Flann O'Brien/Myles na Gopaleen (O'Nolan was his real name, na Gopaleen the pseudonym under which the Irish Times columns appeared, O'Brien the better-known alias under which he published his novels). I am endeavouring to recreate this from my own poor imagination, and in rather abbreviated form. This doesn't begin to do justice to the elegant contrivance of the originals.]

Keats and Chapman are holidaying together in Crete. The younger man - zestful, enthusiastic, naive - spends the morning bounding around the countryside, foraging among the ancient ruins. His companion - cynical, worldweary, curmudgeonly (as in all the great comedy double acts) – disdainfully ignores all this activity, devoting himself instead to a good book and a bottle of retsina.

At lunchtime, the explorer returns, proudly showing off the fruits of his labours - a single tiny fragment of pottery.

"What have you got there?" asks the reclining Chapman, witheringly unimpressed.

"A small thing, but Minoan," comes the defensive reply.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

A motto, or a name?

Continuing an occasional series of re-treads of 'highlights' from the e-mail bulletins I used to assail my friends with in the first half of the Noughties….  this little bit of whimsy is from the early months of 2001.


One of my correspondents - cruelly recalling that in one of my past lives long ago I was a Classical scholar - has challenged me to produce a Latin and/or Greek rendition of the motto 'Better to be lucky than smart'.

Alas, I have thus far failed to find such an epigram, or anything like, in the Classical canon, and as an exercise in original translation I am finding it damned tricky (and not only because that region of my brain has been gathering cobwebs for the last 7 or 8 years).  It's tough to latch onto the best grammatical construction for such pithy statements, for a start; but the concepts are more of a bother to me. 'Better' is tough enough: I think 'materially well off' rather than 'morally good' would most often be rendered by some sort of 'blessed by the gods' idea (=enjoying good fortune=lucky), which leads us into a tautology.  'Lucky' is perhaps even worse: I can't recall ever coming across the idea of being 'lucky' in the ancient world (although, of course, I was never a very diligent student) - in the sense of "prone to having unlikely but beneficial things happen to you".

Indeed, I can't recall coming upon the notion of 'probability'.  Where are the ancient treatises on the mathematics – and psychology - of gambling??


In the quest for a Latin translation of that troublesome motto I mentioned a while ago, one of my Transatlantic correspondents helpfully offered 'Felix non sollers' as an admirably pithy, coat-of-arms style reduction of the essence of the sentiment. 'Lucky, not clever', he suggests. To my mind - but, hey, I'm no Classicist (not any more) - it's a bit more like 'Happy, not accomplished'.  However, I think that's a tremendous slogan for the slacker generation.

I'm also rather taken with the idea of insinuating a character called Felix Nonsollers into my still-gestating novel.  I can see him as a small-town solicitor in somewhere like Harrogate or Market Harborough.


Status report

Three weeks after I started moving in to my new place, I have still scarcely made a dent in the unpacking.
I haven't yet cooked anything more elaborate than a bacon sarnie in my kitchen.
The foot of my bed is still barricaded by a pile of bin bags containing clothes and surplus bedding. 
In the living room - the most unusably cluttered area of the apartment - the summit of my achievement has been to clear a narrow path between the teetering piles of boxes in order to give me a view of the TV from the sofa.
Ah, but now, but now.... I face a week or two with virtually no work at all (and, probably, two or three months with scarily little work - the Christmas/New Year/Spring Festival double-[triple- ?]whammy plays havoc with one's annual income projections); so, I really should be able to get stuck into the problem.
Yet still I procrastinate.....
(Maybe I should turn the computer off?)

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Go out and buy!

The other day, this post from blog-buddy JES put me in mind of a favourite tale I heard from my father many years ago, which I added in a comment (unfortunately, in a brain-dazed state, I added it to the wrong post).  I think it bears repeating here.  I don't have that many fond memories of my dad, but this is certainly one of them.  [Although I always harboured some doubts as to whether he'd really done this.  It seemed so out of character.]

My father, not usually the sort of chap to indulge in such japery, told me a story about his days in the army (in Palestine, in the turbulent years just after WWII and just before the creation of the state of Israel). He and a friend created a phoney advertising campaign, both formal and informal (posters and graffiti around their camp; and, I think, also a few jingles on the local Forces' radio, and maybe even a brief film ad at the Saturday evening cinema show). It kills me that I can't now remember the brand name of their invented product, but it was something corny (and American!) like Spiffo or Flub. They only had two pictures to use, but this produced a brilliant juxtaposition that suggested their slogan. One was a portrait of the young Frank Sinatra, just becoming known to British audiences (I imagine, through contact with all the American servicemen stationed in Britain during the war). The other was of a mushroom cloud from a recent A-bomb test. "Frank Sinatra says…. it's atomic!"

The genius of this jape was that there was never any other copy at all in these ads, no suggestion of what the product might be – but, apparently, after a couple of weeks or so, scores of people were demanding to know when it would appear in the camp store. Whatever it was.

The power of advertising!  I learned an important lesson from this story.

Frank Sinatra says... it's ATOMIC!!

Monday, December 14, 2009

A sticky situation

What substance is the most difficult to clean up after a spill?
The spillage of what substance on the kitchen floor would be most likely to exacerbate my intermittent ant infestation?
The breakage of what in my kitchen would be most mystifying?
The breakage of a large jar of honey
What would be the most inconvenient and annoying moment to discover such a breakage and spillage?
Just as I am about to head out of the door for a work engagement
Yep, it is quite a challenge to the ingenuity to find a way of clearing up a large puddle of thick, sticky goo, studded with tiny shards of broken glass (using only Chinese cleaning products, which are not of the best).
As far as I can work out, a plastic bag of sugar - the top of which I'd folded over and taped down when moving apartments the other week - unstuck its fastening and slowly began to uncoil itself.  The springiness in the plastic was evidently sufficient to topple over the adjacent jar of honey (it probably wouldn't have been sufficient to push open the cupboard door, but since I am still in the process of organising my new kitchen, I'd left the doors open) and propel it into space.  An interesting trajectory - it fell in the middle of the floor, having moved at least a foot away from the edge of the cupboard in the course of dropping about 6ft.  I'm no physicist, but I can't see an end-over-end tumble achieving that.  Maybe it fell on its side within the cupboard, and rolled a few inches first to build up speed?
Either that, or I've got a poltergeist.
At least I figure the week can only get better from here on....

Bon mot for the week

"Human beings, who are almost unique in having the ability to learn from the experience of others, are also remarkable for their apparent disinclination to do so."

Douglas Adams (1952-2001)

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Poetry, with Chinese characteristics

I attended a particularly stimulating talk at The Bookworm this week given by Nick Admussen, a young American academic and poet based in Beijing, examining some of the crossover between Classical Chinese and modern Western poetry.  (Here's a fuller account of the lecture, from Canaan Morse on Chinese translation website Paper Republic.)
I thought the most interesting piece Nick introduced was this, a sort of free-form riff on 'The Ballad of Lovely Women' (麗人行, Li Ren Xing) by Du Fu (or Tu Fu, 杜甫,  712-770) - widely considered to be one of the greatest, if not the greatest poet of the Tang Dynasty 'golden age'.  Many of his works, like this one, were bitterly satirical of the opulence, corruption and cruelty of the Tang court in its declining years.
The curious thing here is that the American poet, Frank Bidart, is a professor of English, and apparently knows no Chinese at all.  His version of the Ballad is adapted (with an infusion of some additional historical background) from a prose rendition published in 1967 in The Little Primer of Tu Fu by the British Sinologist David Hawkes (who died this summer: the link is to his obituary in The Guardian).  This book is, I'm told, an excellent introduction to the great poet's work, but has been long out of print (well, I had heard that it was recently reprinted again; but I haven't been able to find any evidence of that online).
Nick used both versions to raise the question of how one deals with references which are opaque to the modern audience.  Hawkes, like most academic translators, tried to remain faithful to the allusive spareness of the original, but provided voluminous explanatory footnotes.  Bidart chose to incorporate the 'footnotes' into the body of his poem: the significance of the pepper-flowers in Du Fu's work would be deeply obscure to most modern readers (and perhaps to many contemporaries also?), but Bidart found it such a striking image that he elaborated an extended gloss on it.  I was reminded that when, a while back, I attempted an English version of Catullus' Quaeris quot mihi… , I elected to omit three whole lines (all that stuff about "between the oracle of sultry Jupiter and the tomb of old Battus" - in Catullus' own time it was considered an elegant literary sport to work in such abstruse nuggets of guidebook information about a locale; but for us today, it is otiose and irrelevant knowledge) ... and the pseudonym of his lover ('Lesbia' carries other connotations today.  Few people now know that Catullus - in thus anonymizing his lover - was paying homage to the female Greek poet Sappho, one of his main artistic influences, and a native of the island of Lesbos.)... and even the key word 'basiationes' (I think we know what he's really talking about; and it's not just kissing!).  Translation - it's hard.
Apologies for the digression there.  We're supposed to be focusing on China today, not Rome.  Here's Frank Bidart's take on the famous Du Fu poem.  (I'll try to add the bridging version between the two by David Hawkes in the comments.)
[I would have liked to include Du Fu's original too, but.... I'm afraid I'm not very good at searching for stuff in Chinese!]
Tu Fu Watches the Spring Festival Across Serpentine Lake
In 753 Tu Fu, along with a crowd of others, watched the imperial court—the emperor's mistress, her sisters, the first minister—publicly celebrate the advent of spring.
Intricate to celebrate still-delicate
raw spring, peacocks in passement of gold
thread, unicorns embroidered palely in silver.
These are not women but a dream of women:—
bandeaux of kingfisher-feather
                                                       jewelry, pearl
netting that clings to the breathing body
veil what is, because touched earth
is soiled earth, invisible.
As if submission to dream were submission
not only to breeding but to one's own nature,
what is gorgeous is remote now, pure, true.
The Mistress of the Cloud-Pepper Apartments
has brought life back to the emperor, who is
old. Therefore charges of gross extravagance, of
pandering incest between her sister Kuo and her cousin
are, in the emperor's grateful eyes, unjust. Her wish
made her cousin first minister. Three springs from this
spring, the arrogance of the new first minister
will arouse such hatred and fury even the frightened
emperor must accede to his execution. As bitterly to
hers. She will be carried on a palanquin of
plain wood to a Buddhist chapel
deep in a wood and strangled.
Now the Mistress of the Cloud-Pepper Apartments,—
whose rooms at her insistence are coated with
a pepper-flower paste into which dried pepper-
flowers are pounded because the rooms of the Empress
always are coated with paste into which dried pepper-
flowers are pounded and she is Empress
now in all but name,—is encircled by her
sisters, Duchesses dignified by imperial
favor with the names of states that once had
power, Kuo, Ch'in, Han. Now rhinoceros-horn
chopsticks, bored, long have not descended.
The belled carving knife wastes its labors. Arching
camel humps, still perfect, rise like purple hills
from green-glazed cauldrons. Wave after
wave of imperial eunuchs, balancing fresh
delicacies from the imperial kitchens, gallop up
without stirring dust.
With mournful sound that would move demon
gods, flutes and drums now declare to the air
he is arrived. Dawdlingly
                                             he arrives, as if the cloud of
suppliants clinging to him cannot obscure the sun.
Power greater than that of all men except one
knows nothing worth rushing toward
or rushing from. Finally the new first minister
ascends the pavilion. He greets the Duchess of
Kuo with that slight
brutality intimacy induces.
Here at last is power that your
soul can warm its hands against!
Beware: success has made him
incurious, not less dangerous.

Frank Bidart