Sunday, February 28, 2010

Sometimes this is how it feels

Computers were given to us to make us suffer.

Or, if they weren't, Microsoft soon revised the mission statement toward that end.

Assuredly, we all have our tribulations with computers. But I seem to have more than my fair share.

The other day, I was doing some long overdue housekeeping in 'My Documents', creating some new sub-folders to tidy files away into. One of these new folders suddenly disappeared off the 'My Documents' contents menu. And it would have to be the largest one, with a lot of the training materials that I use for work, stuff that in some cases took me many hours of painful wrastling with PowerPoint to produce (in most cases I have back-up copies on flash sticks or old computers, but it would be really useful to be able to retrieve them on this drive, without having to find and copy dozens of files from several different offboard locations).

I wasn't (I'm pretty sure) doing anything to this folder at the time: one moment it was there, the next it wasn't. A search indicated that it was still in C:/My Documents/... but it didn't display as such in the contents window; and when I tried to open it through the search results page I got an 'error message' pop-up saying that it could no longer be accessed in that location. Quite flabbergasting! What the hell is the point of a 'search function' which tells you where something isn't but not where something is?? Microsoft, you have really surpassed yourselves on this one!!

I checked that I hadn't inadvertently deleted the phantom folder, or moved it inside another folder (I basically retraced my steps, going over every file and folder I'd edited - and it was nowhere to be found). My likeliest hypothesis was that the folder had somehow been cut but not pasted. If so, this must have been a very weird glitch, because I was sure I hadn't clicked on that folder - and all the cut & paste actions I'd been going through had been completed. And I think I'd tried to paste again, just to make sure I hadn't left something hanging in the ether. And I then I'd hit 'Undo Last' to see if that would bring my folder back - but no.

In the end, I went for that most sophisticated of solutions: I muttered a few brief, angry prayers to the Gods of Data, crashed the computer, and restarted. Voilà - my 'Training Materials' folder was back from the wilderness, whistling casually to itself and pretending it had never gone away at all.

Why? Why does this happen?? Why me, god???

A curious cinematic coincidence

Over the last few weeks, in addition to working through a recently purchased batch of a couple of dozen 'significant' cinema releases from the past year or so that I'd missed, I've also been digging out some classic 'feelgood' films of yesteryear from my DVD collection (not much else to do with myself during this neverending Chinese New Year holiday).

Last weekend I watched Peter Bogdanovich's 1973 charmer Paper Moon - for the first time in thirty or more years, I suppose (I think I saw its first UK television screening on the BBC over Christmas sometime in the second half of the '70s, but perhaps not since). For once, the 'Special Features' were available (usually they're omitted from the cheap pirated copies we get in China), and I checked out the 'Looking back on....' documentary featurette, where one of those interviewed was Polly Platt, the production designer. I'd never heard of her (at least, not consciously noticed her name) before; although I now discover that she had been married to Bogdanovich for a short while in the '60s, and continued to work with him on his early '70s pictures even after their divorce.

Next up - for a 'nightcap' - I fancied something even more lightweight, so I plumped for Steve Martin's wonderfully silly The Man With Two Brains.

And what was the name that leapt out at me from the credits? (Yes, I know, I'm one of those rare weirdoes who actually reads the credits.) Production Designer - Polly Platt. Now since this film came over 10 years later, and was very different in style and genre to Paper Moon; and since Ms Platt only ever worked in this capacity on about 10 films (she's still occasionally active as a producer - perhaps most notably on Wes Anderson's wonderful debut Bottle Rocket).... well, this seemed to me to be a pretty long-odds sort of coincidence.

Spooky, no?

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Film List - more great openings

A year ago, just as I was embarking on this monthly series of film posts, I did a list of the most memorable film openings. Inevitably, there were a few I really should have included that slipped my mind for the moment. And then there were one or two more new ones I've discovered subsequently.

So, here's a supplement....

More great film openings

2001: A Space Odyssey
(Dir. Stanley Kubrick, 1968)
Richard Strauss's wonderfully ominous Also Sprach Zarathustra thundering (as an aside, check out engaging Japanese electronica loon Isao Tomita's version of this: it has so much sub-bass rumble going on, it feels like an earthquake!) over the gorgeous sunrise/moonrise double-whammy..... and then the surprisingly convincing apemen sequence. Surely one of the weirdest, spookiest, what-the-f***-is-going-on-here openings ever. [Watch it here.]

Raging Bull
(Dir. Martin Scorsese, 1980)
De Niro as Jake La Motta, alone in the ring before a fight, shrouded in his hooded robe, prowling and dancing in slow motion while the operatic music swells (damn, what is that aria? so well-known, but I'm blanking on it!) - talk about atmospheric! You're enraptured within seconds. [Watch it here.]

Down By Law
(Dir. Jim Jarmusch, 1986)
Jarmusch's offbeat prison comedy, shot in luminous black-and-white by long-time Wim Wenders collaborator Robby Müller, opens with an exquisite montage of brief travelling shots - as if taken from a kerb-crawling car - capturing details of New Orleans neighbourhoods and the surrounding Louisiana swamps, set to the tempo of the great Tom Waits song Jockey Full Of Bourbon. It's so beautiful, I could watch it again and again. There's probably never been a better sequence for establishing locale. [Watch it here.]

(Dir. Zack Snyder, 2009)
I'm not a fan of comic books, or the vapid movies they usually produce; but Alan Moore crafts far more intelligent and complex stories than most people working in the genre. One of the distinctive things about his Watchmen series - later collated into a 'graphic novel' - was the huge amount of back-story it included, establishing the backgrounds not just of all the principal characters in its main, 'present day' storyline, but their links with a previous generation of superheroes, the Minutemen, and fleshing out the similar-but-different timeline of later 20th Century history on the Earth on which this story was set. It would be hard, impossible to include such a wealth of side-plots and incidental detail in a two-and-a-bit hour film, but Snyder managed to present an awful lot of it in the tremendously resonant and moving credit sequence - a five-and-a-half minute montage of snippets from the lives of these superheroes interwoven with the alternate history of modern America, set to Dylan's The Times They Are A-Changin'. Mesmerising! My only gripe is that the rest of the film feels a bit flat by comparison. [Watch it here.]

(Dir. Mike Nichols, 1970)
This is perhaps one of the most underrated films of all time. Passionate fans of the "unfilmable" book mostly dismiss it without giving it a chance; and the typical moviegoer probably finds it altogether too 'challenging'. Me, I find it stunning: if it's not the best anti-war film ever made, it's pretty damn close. And it might just be the best-ever screenplay adaptation: Buck Henry's masterful distillation of Joseph Heller's sprawling satire is arguably an improvement on the original. The credit sequence starts out defiantly dull: the long cast list displayed in slow succession, in silence, plain white script on a black background. From time to time a dog barks, seemingly irrelevantly, but otherwise there's no sound. But then.... birds start to twitter as well. And suddenly light starts to spill across the black screen, and we see dawn coming up over a tranquil Mediterranean island. Finally, as the sun starts to climb the sky, the silence is torn by the deafening whine and clank of huge aero-engines one by one sputtering into life, and the scene suddenly switches to the turmoil of a bomber base in action, an early morning mass take-off from the island runway. I've never seen such a transition of mood, the juxtaposition of the peace of nature and the destructive tumult of human activity, handled better.
[I can't find this sequence on YouTube, I'm afraid; but this is a pretty good film student 'trailer' for the film.]

Mean Streets
(Dir. Martin Scorsese, 1973)
This is possibly my favourite Scorsese. It's a deceptively simple, not to say cheap-looking introductory sequence, just a montage of home video shots sketching the background - very, very vaguely - of the protagonist, Charlie; but it's so powerfully memorable because it's Harvey Keitel! And it's The Ronettes' Be My Baby! One of the great uses of music (and of a young star's charisma) in film history. [Watch it here.]

The Italian Job
(Dir. Peter Collinson, 1969)
This, of course, remains one of the greatest of all comedy heist films, with a car chase sequence - occupying the entire last third of the film - that is unlikely to be bettered. It also improbably brings together in its cast the three "greatest living Englishmen" of the period: Michael Caine, Noel Coward, and Benny Hill. The opening sequence is quite breathtaking: outrageously improbable and over-the-top, yet it somehow wins your acceptance. It begins with a Lamborghini driving through the Alps on a gloriously sunny day, to the soothing strains of middle-of-the-road crooner Matt Monro singing the rather beautiful song On Days Like These; and it ends..... Well, if you haven't ever seen this sequence, watch it now!

Lord of War
(Dir. Andrew Niccol, 2005)
I saw this just recently, and I feel it's a fairly terrible film. Cage never really breaks out of his self-created hangdog stereotype in this role, and his lugubrious voiceover narration rapidly becomes irritating. And the tone of the film is jarringly inappropriate: it's played mostly as a comic caper, as though the protagonist isn't really a serious criminal and his ingenuity in outfoxing his pursuers is admirable - whereas, in fact, he's just a gangster who makes millions from black market arms trading. It's presented as Catch Me If You Can, where Scarface would clearly be a better template (Tony Montana is a largely sympathetic figure, not without honour and decency; but destroyed by his inability to contain his appetite for money and power - Cage's Yuri Orlov, a Brighton Beach Ukrainian emigré, is very similar). However..... this opening sequence, charting the life-cycle of a bullet from factory to victim (accompanied by Buffalo Springfield's For What It's Worth), is quite superb.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Remembering The Man In Black

February 26th was Johnny Cash's birthday. He would have been 78 today.

Cash fans are trying to establish this date as a regular annual celebration of the man's life and work - Johnny Cash Day. You are encouraged to demonstrate your allegiance by wearing black today.

I just added a post over on Barstool Blues about how I came to love 'The Man In Black' (including the video of his superb version of Hurt). Check it out.

Recently, on The Barstool

Continuing my occasional series of puffs for my other blog....

Over last weekend I put up a series of posts over on Barstool Blues about some of my memories of going to the toilet in Beijing, a surprisingly rich and resonant topic. I think my favourite, for nostalgic reasons, would be the first, although the second might be of more general historical/sociological interest, and the third is probably the most quirkily personal.

If loos are an interest of yours (and I know they are one of yours, Moonie dearest), please go and take a look.

Haiku for the week

Comforts sometimes, or annoys.
Ticking of the clock.

I think I may have to remove the battery from my kitchen clock. There is something strangely carrying about its sound. I can even hear it - just - in the bedroom, with two doors in between. And once I clock the tick, I can't hear anything else: it seems to throb through the whole apartment.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

The Chinese banking experience

My next quarter's rent is due today.

My new landlord has set up a separate bank account for the rent, and given me the pass book - for the ease and convenience of both of us. We don't have to meet up in person (he travels a lot in his work as a professional erhu player); I can just go down to the bank, and pay in the rent money over the counter. Nothing could be simpler - right?

Er, wrong. This is China. Triple-bypass surgery might be simpler.

First off, the banks don't talk to each other. So, I can't go to just any old bank; I have to go to the bank that my landlord set up the account with.

Second, banks are fairly thin on the ground, particularly in my part of town. The nearest bank I can use for paying my rent is nearly a mile away.

Third, well, I'm an idiot laowai who doesn't understand how things work in China.... so, obviously, it's not going to be easy for me. In fact, the first time I tried to pay money into someone else's bank account here, I was just told that it was flat-out impossible. The second time I tried, a year or so later, I was told that I could only do it at the branch where the account was set up (not just the same banking company, but the 'home branch' of my payee - which I didn't know, and couldn't readily ascertain). After that experience - some six years or so ago - I just sort of gave up on the idea.

I am happy to report that in the interim things have got much, much better. Oh yes. Now it is OK to make a payment into someone else's bank account, even as a laowai. And you can use any branch of the account-holder's bank to do so.

You just have to fill out a long and complicated form first. At least it's got bilingual instructions now, another huge advance on a year or two ago. But the print is tiny, virtually illegible. And there are parts of it - like the landlord's name - that you're expected to fill in in Chinese. Oh, come on! I can hardly speak any Chinese; I can't read it or write it for shit; if I do attempt to write it (and I'm attempting to copy the very fuzzy, dot-printed version on the pass book, which even the Chinese bank clerk is squinting uncertainly at), it's going to be a worthless, illegible scrawl (and my new landlord has some very complex characters in his name; my last landlord - or rather his Mrs, whose name was on all the utilties bills and so on - was a Wang; that I can write). Usually when I have to go to the bank for something, it's not too much of a problem to get the staff to fill out any required forms for you; or to dispense with the form-filling rigmarole altogether, since most of this paperwork is clearly inessential and likely to wind up in the bin at the end of the day. On this occasion, there was a very nice floorwalker guy who was doing his best to help me, despite his very limited English; but he was absolutely adamant that I had to fill out this form - including my landlord's name - myself. Oh, how we both laughed at my shoddy penmanship!

But I got it done. Out of the woods? I'd got my numbered ticket and waited in line (for only about 20 minutes or so; luckily this branch was pretty quiet when I looked in yesterday). I'd gone up to the window and handed my form to the clerk. He seemed to think it was OK - although he had to squint at the name in the pass book to verify the name of the intended payee. He took my rent money from me and put it through the counting machine twice.

And then he told me he needed to see my passport.

Now, I'd asked the floorwalker guy if I had all I needed to make the deposit. And I'd asked another supervisor (with rather better English) who came over to check on me. And I'd asked the clerk when I handed my form over. They'd all said - Fine. Just the transaction request form and the pass book and the money.

None of them had mentioned ID. It's so routine here, it simply doesn't register with them as worthy of mention. Well, of course you need to show ID! How could you possibly pay money into someone else's bank account without showing ID?? I wonder if China is the only country in the world to have such requirements? (I'd like to suppose that this is part of the mechanism for cracking down on corruption, but.... I don't think my ID information was transferred into a computer record; and the paper copy, even if it is filed somewhere, won't be easy to access, or to read. And fake IDs are pretty easy to come by; so, anyone who wants to pay off a Party official without leaving an easy trail to follow back to himself won't have too much trouble in doing so.)

Well, I blamed myself. It's the kind of problem that - after all these years here - I really should have foreseen. I was doing my best to be calm and unflappable and good-natured about it (although I was just a mite pissed off that the clerk hadn't told me this until after he'd taken the money from me and laboriously counted it). But when they told me I had to go to another window (get another ticket, go to the back of the line again) to pay my phone bill..... well, I'm afraid I did flip out a little.

Luckily, my letting agent lives very nearby, and has a moped (and a car) - so I made an apologetic call to her, to ask if she happened to be free and could help out. She was happy to come to my rescue, and was there within five minutes to pay the money in on my behalf, flashing her Chinese ID card (although they made her fill out the form again, and gave her a lot more hassle about it than they had me; the Chinese service industry doesn't yet seem to have developed a culture of trying to make things easy for people, especially not their fellow citizens).

While waiting for her to show up, I explained to the floorwalker chap that this was what I was going to do. "Oh," he said. "I could do that for you."

It hadn't occurred to him earlier! Well, it hadn't occurred to me earlier, either. I figured if he wasn't allowed to help me fill out the form, it sure as hell wouldn't be appropriate for him to pay in the money for me. I imagined there were probably bank rules against that kind of thing, and I didn't want him to risk getting into trouble on my account. Although, if my letting agent hadn't shown up..... I would have been mighty tempted to take him up on the offer.

Ah, China! It just never seems to get any less crazy.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Can blue men sing the whites?

Yes, like three-quarters of the rest of the human population, I went to see Avatar a month or so ago.

I feel slightly ashamed of myself. There are many better films that have come out in the last year that I have still to see. There are even better films going the rounds of Beijing cinemas recently.

But - love it or hate it - I suppose we have to accept that this was an 'event', one of the most talked-about releases in many years, something that may be seen as a landmark in the development of cinema. (I am somewhat sceptical of that; and if it did prove to be the case, I fear it would not be in a good way, but rather in the way that many people view the impact of the dawning of the Star Wars franchise - that it spawned an era of big-budget but empty-headed action movies, massively hyped in advance marketing and desperately dependent on big opening weekends to recoup their bloated special effects budgets, and frequently directed as much towards peripheral merchandising as cinematic art. That was an era that followed on from, and seemed to largely put an end to two decades of outstandingly edgy, thoughtful, diverse film-making out of 'Hollywood'; in the '60s and '70s much of the American cinema mainstream was 'indie' - whatever happened to that? Lucas and Spielberg will have to answer in hell. But I digress.... Is Avatar anything more than a 'next generation' Star Wars? No. I'm not even sure that it's that. And I hope we don't see a lot of copy-catting of this CGI overkill in the next wave of blockbuster releases.)

To return to my shame-ameliorating excuses - and to give Avatar its limited due - for a moment... I saw it as part of a night out with a group of friends (indeed, the evening was organised by a young lady I was rather attracted to, which, on its own, made the experience much more pleasant than it might otherwise have been): a nice Thai meal, a late showing at the multiplex, and then a few drinks afterwards over which to contemplate our reactions - together, this made for a most diverting evening.

Pity the film SUCKED so egregiously.

Come on, you know it did. Yet there's something about this film that seems to paralyse one's critical faculties for a while. Many people, I believe, who think they love it at first, come to realise over the succeeding days that it was actually pretty piss-poor. People like me, who realise they should hate it even as they are watching it, somehow manage to switch off that nagging critical voice for the duration and surrender to the spectacle of it. It's so BIG, so loud, so brash, so over-the-top that you can't help but marvel at the arrogance and pomposity and sheer unashamed dumb stupidity of it. It's an awful story and an awful piece of story-telling, but it's A RIDE. And, as with rollercoasters (the less good ones), you feel swept up in the experience, you enjoy the brief exhilaration while it's happening; but the moment it's over, you think to yourself, is that it? was that really worth the money?

There was an interesting theory being touted around when Avatar was pulled from Chinese theatres after just a few weeks that the censors had suddenly realised there was a potential in the story to promote social disharmony (the aliens are being evicted from their tree by violence, and fight back to dramatic effect; millions of ordinary Chinese are being evicted from their homes by violence to make way for new property developments, etc., and mostly do not fight back). It would be wonderful if it were true, but I think: a) China's censors are too dumb to read sub-text; b) even if they weren't, they wouldn't care, supposing (probably rightly) that most of the audience are too dumb to read that sub-text or too acquiescent or fearful to try to act upon it. No, it was pulled because it was doing too well: the Chinese authorities don't like to see foreign films beating out the domestic product too badly (the same thing happened with the politically unobjectionable Da Vinci Code a few years back).

I gather there's also been a lot of criticism of a kind of patronising, white supremacist tone to the story, in that the aliens are seemingly powerless to resist the colonial invaders until one of them swaps sides to lead them. That seems to me a bit overblown. The Na'vi aren't as helpless or unimpressive as all that. The invaders, despite being our own humankind, are clearly shown to be the bad guys (and they're all, or nearly all white). And it's a very old story archetype to have the messianic leader be an outsider - I don't think we need to read that as necessarily belittling to the people he comes to lead. On the contrary, perhaps the one point on which James Cameron elaborates usefully on this archetype is that his hero is transformed and ennobled by physically becoming one of the race he leads. Apart from that, yes, it's just Captain Smith and Pocahontas all over again - but I don't suppose Cameron was intending to affront the sensibilities of Native Americans who'd only just forgiven Disney.

However, there's not really much point discussing the story. The story is slight, silly, strains the suspension of disbelief way too far. The holes in the plot are too, too many to enumerate. (It's not explained, for example, what the precious mineral [I refuse to use that silly name they gave it, or I'd snort tea all over my keyboard!] is used for, or why it floats. More bothersomely, it's not explained why they're looking for it in the ground, when it would surely be a lot easier to extract from the floating mountains, which are presumably full of the stuff. And how is that avatar control system supposed to work - what kind of effective bandwidth would you need, regardless of the communication medium, to accomplish full brain-body interaction? And how could you accomplish it remotely in real time?? And why is this communication - whatever medium it's using - not affected, as all other human communications are, by the interference from the minerals in the mountains? And when do these 'avatar drivers' ever really sleep? It seems when their avatars are asleep, they're still awake as humans, so they must be getting pretty darned tired. No small animals on this planet, it seems, only big ones: what kind of an ecosystem is that? I could go on.)

Oh yes, and Cameron can't do villains. He was OK with the Terminator and the Aliens because the plot gave them a very basic but compelling and convincing motivation. As soon as he gets into human characters, he's lost. The thing that sank Titanic (pardon the pun) was not the Kate & Leo romance (really quite sweet, and not all that unconvincing) but Billy Zane's two-dimensional rotter repeatedly pursuing them back below decks into the icy water. In Avatar, half of the cast is that Billy Zane character - it's simply ludicrous.

But let that pass; this film isn't about the story, it's about the special effects. Is this really the HUGE STEP FORWARD everyone (well, the film's publicists, anyway) have been saying it is? No. CGI techniques move on rapidly year by year. And this is the most money that's been thrown into the CGI. So, we have a big movie with more CGI than ever before, both in the landscapes and in the creatures. But is it really such a big advance on what we've seen before? I don't see it. The distinctive thing about Avatar is the number and detail of the humanoid characters created with CGI, and how they've been modelled on the human actors to enable them to produce convincing acting performances. Yes, there's a lot more of that here - but is it qualitatively a quantum leap ahead? I don't think so. The landmark breakthrough here was Andy Serkis's Gollum in the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Here, instead of one Gollum/Jah-Jah Binks/Incredible Hulk, we've got a whole forest full of them. Now, I grant you, some of the detailing was very impressive - not just in the facial expressions, but also in some of the close-ups of hands and feet. I found the film at its most successful in the more intimate scenes, particularly in the nicely played (and almost convincing!) romance between Sam Worthington and Zoe Saldana. Some of the detailing, however, wasn't very impressive at all. The more Na'vi figures Cameron tried to cram into a scene, the less convincing the illusion became; and their movement, from a distance, particularly in the battle scenes, just wasn't very realistic at all.

Ah, but it was in 3-D as well. Big deal! I can see that in an I-MAX theatre this might have made a difference. That's a completely different experience, with the shape of the auditorium and the unfamiliar tilted-back seating adding to the disorientation and the sense of wonder (I saw the 3-D re-release of Fantasia in an I-MAX a dozen or so years ago, and that was quite a trip!). But in a regular theatre with the uncomfortable red-green goggles, it's a rather feeble gimmick - more often, in fact, an irritating affectation than an enhancement to the film. I didn't find there was any sense of depth to the picture at all most of the time. (I can accept that I might start to think of this differently, if 3-D ever becomes the norm; but at present, I'm used to creating the sense of three dimensions with my imagination, and having the film-maker try to do it for me merely distracts from that.) The 3-D effects seemed to be confined to occasionally having something appear to break the plane of the screen and enter the front of the auditorium - and usually this was one of the weird 'magic seeds' that looked like flying sea anemones, which people soon got bored with. I think this rather lame trickery can work quite well with horror movies, where you can achieve simple shock effects by suddenly having a clutching hand or a glinting knife-blade plunge through the screen toward the audience, but its usefulness in other types of picture is pretty much zero. In fact, it annoys me (again, this may change if - god forbid - we ever become used to it) because it transgresses the normal experience of cinema-going (we know the picture is two-dimensional, projected on to a screen just in front of us, but we pretend it isn't) and thus keeps reminding us that the screen is there. I don't wan't to be reminded that the screen is there. Artifice that draws attention to itself shatters the illusion it seeks to enhance. (Discuss.)

What irritated me most about this film, though, was that it had no sense of proportion, no sense of self-restraint. This is manifested in many aspects of the story and production design. It's not enough that the Na'vi are super-strong and agile hominid blue cats; oh no, they have to be 9ft tall as well (I found this tended to create some sympathy for the undeserving human villains; it wasn't really a fair fight). It's not enough that their holy sanctuary is in the heart of some beautiful mountains; oh no, these have to be flying mountains. It's not enough that they can run like the wind and ride 'horses'; oh no, they have to be able to ride flying dragons as well. It's not enough that they live in a huge tree; oh no, it has to be thousands of feet tall. Everything, everything about this film is wildly overdone. And that, for me, is what really kills it, even as an undemanding popcorn spectacle: the final battle scenes do not engage at all - they're a chaotic, overblown mess. There's so much going on in the frame at one time, and it's happening so quickly, that you can't really attend to.... or follow.... or care about any of it. You're just sort of dimly aware that the CGI movement modelling is much less impressive when they're trying to do this much at one time. Sometimes, JC, less is more. As a tree-hugging eco-parable, I almost bought this (almost - then I thought I should go and watch The Emerald Forest again); but the climactic scenes bored me and gave me a headache.

[The title of this post is, of course, taken from a pastiche of a blues song by The Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band. You can hear them playing it here (no video, alas), or enjoy a recent performance (with video) by British pub rockers The Sticklebacks here. The song (lyrics here) makes fun of the fact that the blues is increasingly played by affluent - and white - musicians, and, I suppose, implicitly questions whether this can be as authentic and valid as the original blues music of the Mississippi delta. Then again, maybe it also makes fun, especially in its title, of the fact that so many people raise this objection to modern blues music. It struck me as a rather appropriate reference for a film where blue men, voiced mostly by black men, are confronting white men, some of whom want to become blue men....]

Monday, February 22, 2010

A Daily Llama with my haircut

I am reaching a crisis point with my hair.... Am I ready, like Patrick Stewart, to baldly go...?

Bon mot for the week

"There may be honour among thieves, but there's none in politicians."

Robert Bolt [in screenplay for Lawrence of Arabia, spoken by Peter O'Toole as T.E. Lawrence]

Sunday, February 21, 2010

War Music

I happened to be chatting with a couple of friends recently about Homer's Iliad, after I was sent some links to a couple of interesting recent articles about the war epic by The Guardian's Charlotte Higgins; and I was reminded of the sequence of poetry collections based on this work by the great English eccentric Christopher Logue (who I remember fondly from my childhood as the long-time compiler of the Pseud's Corner feature in satirical magazine Private Eye, a bi-monthly anthology of the most amusingly inept, over-the-top, misguided or pretentious pronouncements in the review pages of the UK media). There are now several instalments of this project, which he has been working on intermittently for the past fifty years, and I'm not sure if they are all still in print. They're not 'translations' in the conventional sense: while he will sometimes follow the Homeric narrative structure quite closely, recreating particular incidents and metaphors immediately recognisable from the original, more often he will take a defiantly free-form approach, veering off on imaginative tangents of his own, and liberally seasoning his language with flagrant anachronisms (which at times, inevitably, will jar on the reader, but for the most part manage to convince you of their appositeness, are surprisingly successful). Logue, apparently, knows no Greek himself, and works essentially from existing English translations; although he has often consulted with Classical scholars on various points. Perhaps the best-known of these serial renderings of The Iliad is called War Music; this seems to have become a general, unifying title for the whole sequence. It was, I think, the first to be published (not until the late 80s, nearly thirty years after he'd first conceived of the idea - that should be some encouragement to writers struggling with long gestation periods for their masterworks!), and I remember loving it when I was a Classics student at university. I wonder if he yet regards the sequence as 'complete' (I don't think he was ever intending to reproduce the whole of The Iliad); since the great man is now into his 80s, I fear it is unlikely that we'll see any more of this from him.

Here is the opening of War Music:

Picture the east Aegean sea by night,
And on a beach aslant its shimmering
Upwards of 50,000 men
Asleep like spoons beside their lethal Fleet.

Now look along that beach, and see
Between the keels hatching its western dunes
A ten-foot-high reed wall faced with black clay
And split by a double-doored gate;
Then through the gate a naked man
Whose beauty’s silent power stops your heart
Fast walk, face wet with tears, out past its guard
And having vanished from their sight
Run with what seems to break the speed of light
Across the dry, then damp, then sand invisible
Beneath inch-high waves that slide
Over each other’s luminescent panes;
Then kneel amongst those panes, beggar his arms, and say:

“Source, hear my voice.
God is your friend. You had me to serve Him.
In turn, He swore: if I, your only child,
Chose to die young, by violence, far from home,
My standing would be first; be best;
The best of bests: here; and in perpetuity…”

And here's another wonderful snippet I discovered in an article by Jim Lewis on the Slate magazine website (this from the most recent [I think] addition to the cycle, All Day Permanent Red - the title an inspired piece of pop culture beachcombing: Logue stole this phrase from a Revlon lipstick advertisement!):

See an East African lion
Nose tip to tail tuft ten, eleven feet
Slouching towards you
Swaying its head from side to side
Doubling its pace, its gold-black mane
That stretches down its belly to its groin
Catching the sunlight as it hits
Twice its own length a beat, then leaps
Great forepaws high great claws disclosed
The scarlet insides of its mouth
Parting a roar as loud as sail-sized flames
And lands, slam-scattering the herd.

"This is how Hector came on us."

I was immediately regretful that I don't have access to Homer's original here with me to compare (although I suspect Logue has surpassed it). I was also reminded of Byron's "The Assyrian came down like a wolf on the fold..." - but that, I think, is a topic for another day.

I leave you with this, the haunting opening of All Day Permanent Red:

Impacted battle. Dust above a herd.
Hands wielding broken spearpoles rise through the ice-hot twilight
flecked with points.
And where you end and where the dust begins
Or if it is the dust or men that move
And whether they are Greek or Trojan, well
Only this much is certain: when a lull comes – they do –
You hear the whole ridge coughing.

[I have only just learned that, in his younger days, the irrepressible Mr Logue wrote a pornographic novella called Lust (very difficult to find now), under the exuberant nom de plume Count Palmiro Vicarion. That may have set me off on a hunt for improbable or amusing pen-names for a future post.]

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Just for the record...

I am not a killjoy in the matter of fireworks.

I have absolutely nothing against fireworks when they are being let off -

in a careful and sensible manner

by an intelligent and responsible adult

a safe distance away from me.

Unfortunately, that is just about never the case in China. Last night, for example, one of my neighbours was letting off a succession of large Roman Candles right in the middle of our compound's front gate. This was a particularly evil kind of firework - of cunning Chinese design, no doubt; not intended for any overseas market - which not only showered sparks everywhere but also pieces of secondary ordnance. Yes, some of the little fizzes of light were not mere puffs of burning vapour or minute specks of blazing firework casing, there were actually tiny pieces of explosive, which would go off some seconds later - sometimes when they'd hit the ground some yards away. I was nearly hit by some of these things when I was still a good 10ft or 15ft away, and so decided it was prudent not to approach any closer until the thing had completely burnt out. Thus, our gateway was in effect completely blocked. And I had to run out pretty sharpish to get clear before the bloody woman lit up another one.

(I've noticed a lot of the rockets this year seem to be of this secondary-explosion design as well. I daresay it's very clever, but.... it must hugely increase the risk of starting fires on the ground, particularly in a hutong district like mine where most of the roofs and house-frames are made of timber. And particularly as most Chinese rockets only seem to get at most 40 or 50ft off the ground: I've seen blazing - and exploding - fragments from these things still occasionally aflame when they reach the street, let alone the rooftops.)

I don't think that's going to work

The other day, one of my neighbours, apparently concerned about the possibility that the fragments of burning debris which rain down from the night skies on us during the firework excess of these protracted festivities for the Chinese New Year might damage her car, decided to cover it up for the duration of the cinder-heavy holiday... with newspaper.


Friday, February 19, 2010

The weekly haiku

The constant rumble
Torments our sleep, shreds our nerves:
A city at war.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

The Fifth Day

Over this fortnight and more of firework craziness that is the Chinese Spring Festival there are certain days that are crazier than others.

It's hard to discern any significance in this, since the pattern of firework usage isn't very consistent from one year to the next, or one day to the next.

However, over my many years here now, I had noticed that the fifth day of the festivities is almost invariably one of the heaviest gunpowder days.

Apparently it's because it's the traditional birthday of Guan Yu (or Tsai Shin Yeh), the God of Wealth. And he likes fireworks (so they say)!

I maintain that overall this has been a pretty wussy year so far for the exploding of ordnance on our streets. I'm not sure whether there were any government-sponsored meltdown-counteracting incentives to firework purchasing in place last year, but I gather the market in Bejing was much more competitive than it had been for some time, with three or four major wholesalers going toe-to-toe for the first time and getting into a vicious price-cutting war. This year, it would appear, fireworks are quite a bit more expensive, and people have been showing some restraint.

Concerns about last year's torching of one of the new CCTV buildings (almost certainly arson, but that's another story) may have been mildly inhibiting too: firework bans are back in place in a number of major public spaces and near important buildings (hence, unfortunately, the Bell Tower Square - minutes away from where I live, and a great place to watch the madness last year - has been dead this time around).

Even on New Year's Eve..... well, things were INTENSE for fifteen or twenty minutes either side of midnight; but usually that period of non-stop mayhem lasts two, three, four hours, dragging on well into the following morning. This year, things were fairly sedate again by 12.30am.

This has been the quietest Chinese New Year I've known in Beijing (since the 'firework ban' was lifted.... four years ago?).

Well, until tonight..... Day Five. I was woken by firecrackers at 10 this morning, and it's been going on sporadically all day. Once darkness fell, things got batshit crazy. Seems like people were maybe reining themselves in a little on New Year's Eve so they could do Guan Yu's birthday in style.

There is so much shit blowing up outside my study at the moment that I genuinely fear for my windows. There is a powerful whiff of gunsmoke in my apartment, even with all the windows firmly closed. I'm doubting whether it's going to be feasible to get much sleep tonight...

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Favourite posts from the 4th quarter of 2008

Continuing my catch-up on recommendations from a year and more ago...

Pick of the Archive:
Favourite Posts, Oct.-Dec. 2008

1) Another sign of De-Olympification - 4th October 2008

An anecdote about my first introduction to Beijing's backstreet 'hairdressers'.

2) My Fantasy Girlfriend - Barbara Good - 4th October 2008

Barbara Good, in classic '70s BBC sitcom The Good Life, was just about the perfect woman.

3) Sunday silliness - 5th October 2008

One of my favourite short 'poems', one of my silliest, one of my most outrageous puns.

4) Bon mot for the week - 6th October 2008

One of my own, one of my best.

5) Possibly.... The Best Blog in the World? - 7th October 2008

A recommendation for a wonderful recent discovery, the blog Other Men's Flowers.

6) Sunday Poetry Corner - 12th October 2008

A favourite war poem, Clifford Dyment's The Son.

7) Therapies - 14th October 2008

A list of things that make me feel better....

8) SOAP! - 16th October 2008

A great collective bar-room joke: my drinking buddies and I invent the worthy charity, Stamp Out Animal Pornography.

9) Not exactly a poem.... - 24th October 2008

But rather amusing, I think.

10) Sunday Linguistics Corner - 26th October 2008

My academic editing job throws up a particularly disturbing neologism.

11) An idealistic teacher - 27th October 2008

My approach to the teaching of poetry.

12) A motto for China - 27th October 2008

Found humour: an anecdote on Other Men's Flowers seems strangely appropriate to my adopted home.

13) White Trash Halloween - 31st October 2008

I'm not a fan of this holiday, but I did find this photograph of unusual pumpkin decorations rather fun.

14) Urbane? Moi?! - 3rd November 2008

I think I would prefer the epithet suburbane. This post became a repository for reviews of my two blogs.

15) Website of the Month - Editorial Ass - 5th November 2008

A long overdue recommendation for the wonderful Moonrat (also my Fantasy Girlfriend of the month).

16) The next huge bestseller - 8th November 2008

I win a competition with this outline for a social history of Gin.

17) Chinglish mispronunciation - 13th November 2008

A favourite example of this genre of humour: a film whose title you will struggle to recognise.

18) List of the Month - 'Desert Island' albums - 16th November 2008

My 10 favourite rock albums.... well, amongst my favourites....

19) I am easily amused (yet again) - 17th November 2008

An unlikely Scandinavian name I notice in some film credits reduces me to helpless mirth, and provokes some silly flights of linguistic fancy from me.

20) Chinese lanterns - 24th November 2008

One of my favourite photographs, an unusual view of Beijing's famous Gui Jie restaurant strip.

21) Chinese people LOVE me! (20) - 25th November 2008

Chinese underpants don't have flies; this gives me an enviable advantage over the locals when I need to take a quick pee in a public toilet.

22) Late-night shopping run - 27th November 2008

I suffer a particularly galling incident at my local 7/11 store.

23) Translation - 28th November 2008

I attempt an English version of a famous bon mot from the Chinese sage Xun Zi.

24) Film List - the greatest Westerns - 29th November 2008

The first - and best - of my monthly 'Film List' series.

25) A restful image - 1st December 2008

A photograph of the courtyard where I stayed the last time I was in New Orleans - an image I regularly turn to for solace or relaxation.

26) Last words - 2nd December 2008

A humorous contemplation of suicide (and a little bit of bitching about Microsoft).

27) Today, in the recording studio - 4th December 2008

Recording listening practice exams was never so amusing! Well, in fact, it's usually fairly rib-tickling; but this session was something extra-special.

28) Because you can make 'Art' out of anything.... - 5th December 2008

I discover a website devoted to 'tampon art'....

29) The weekly bon mot - 8th December 2008

My blog-friend Tony produces a particularly good line on cats.

30) Pulgasari - 12th December 2008

My friends at Koryo Tours arrange a screening of this 'classic' North Korean Godzilla film, whose story is rich with political metaphor.

31) List of the Month - Things I wish my mother had told me.... - 13th December 2008

A collection of bons mots - the sum of my life's wisdom.

32) Oh, grow up! - 14th December 2008

Continuing my 'Free Advice' series.... I get irritated by the Chinese government's latest fatuous tantrum over the Dalai Lama.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Website of the Month (Vrrooom! Vrrooom!)

Old drinking buddy (and occasional commenter over on The Barstool) Little Anthony is a motor racing journalist who has for several years now been mainly covering the World Rally Championship. Last year he set up his own PR agency Mediatica, and he tells me that they've just helped to launch MaxRally, a new website devoted to news and photographs from the world of rallying. One of the partners in this new venture is McKlein, a photo agency which specialises in rallying - and they produce some really striking action shots of the cars.

This is well worth a look - if you feel like indulging your inner Mr Toad for a while.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Getting SHAGGY again

Just like last year (and the year before...) I have failed to fit in a haircut in the last week before the Chinese New Year holiday. My new local hairdresser hadn't been that busy this week, but I kept on forgetting to look in on him.... and then he caught me out by shutting up shop a day early, on Thursday. I think it's now been 8 weeks since my last cut; and I usually like to get a trim every 5 or 6 weeks. Not good.

I am on the brink of shaving my head. However, not being quite convinced that I am yet ready to embrace baldness this way (particularly when the weather is still so cold), I have decided to put myself in the hands of fate: if my hairdresser returns to work next week, I shall be straight in there, gleefully disregarding the local superstition that it is bad juju for a man to get a haircut in the first month of the Chinese lunar year. If he doesn't, then shaved pate here I come!

Bon mot for the week

"A man who lies is merely hiding the truth; but a man who tells half-lies has forgotten where he put it."

Robert Bolt [in screenplay for Lawrence of Arabia, spoken by 'Mr Dryden', the slippery British diplomat played by Claude Rains]

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Live long and prosper!

Yes, it's also the beginning of the New Year in the Chinese lunar calendar today. This is one of the cooler animal years, the Year of the Tiger.

Next year will the Year of the Rabbit. That could lead to some unpleasantness at next year's transition. Or maybe not.....

But if these fellas get any cosier, we could end up with....

And that just goes against Nature - UGH!

Well, a Happy New Year to you all! Remember to wear Kevlar!

What will they think of next?

I have no truck with this day at all.

However, if you feel the need to exchange heart symbols as a token of something-or-other, you might at least - as I urged you last year - keep them anatomically correct.

You can, of course, get t-shirts - like this one from Zazzle.

Or, there are a number of "anatomically correct" pendants, like this one, out there. Since I have my curmudgeonly hat on today, I will object that most of these seem to be more or less "anatomically correct" in everything except size. Perhaps "anatomically approximate" would be a better term. (Unless they're not meant to be human hearts? But that's just creepy, isn't it?)

I think I prefer this elegant little mechanical heart (just what The Wizard of Oz's Tin Man would have wanted!), which I discovered through the Polymer Clay Daily blog (it's amazing what's out there on the Interwebs, isn't it?).

I believe this is from the same artist, Monster Kookies. You can find more of her work here. It gives a whole new meaning to holding someone's heart in your hand, doesn't it?

I wish all of my readers a happy day - just don't bother me with it!

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Time to break out the earplugs

My translator buddy Brendan yesterday posted this great skit on how an Iraq war correspondent vacationing in China might interpret the situation in Beijing this month.

Originally it was supposed to be a guest column for expat magazine The Beijinger 's issue this month, but it seems the editors thought some of the content a little too 'sensitive' - especially the reference to last year's CCTV building fire (which was, of course, a trifling event unworthy of comment, and didn't necessarily happen at all).

Do go and check it out. It would be very funny if it weren't so uncomfortably TRUE.

My Fantasy Girlfriend - Kseniya Simonova

I was introduced to the lovely Kseniya last summer by the inestimable JES in this post. Not only is she stunningly pretty but also quite phenomenally talented. I hadn't previously encountered the art of "sand-painting", but having now reviewed many of the examples posted on YouTube from leading competitions and festivals around the world, I would have to say that this girl seems to have something that puts her way out ahead of the crowd (though many of these other artists are very impressive also) - and I don't think it's just her exotic good looks.

Many of the "paintings", like the one above, are very striking when captured in still photographs, but the essence of this artform is that it is a real-time performance (created on an overhead projector so that it can be displayed on big screens), that the picture is constantly evolving before your eyes, sometimes completely transforming, sometimes becoming a succession of thematically linked tableaux that form a kind of animated narrative; and that the vigour and flair and passion of the creator is a key part of the overall impact. Kseniya Simonova is just mesmerising to watch at work.

She stormed to victory in the Ukraine's Got Talent TV show last year with the stunning performance below (when she had allegedly been practicing this kind of art for barely a year!). There are a number of other examples of her work on YouTube, all well worth checking out. And she's got her own website now (although there's only this on it, at present).

Alas, she's only just about to turn 25 - much too young for me. I wonder if her mother is single...?

I note also that she is the second Ukrainian to be inducted into the 'Fantasy Girlfriends' hall of fame. I think that this is something more than a coincidence. They do cheekbones extremely well in the Ukraine.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Improvised solutions

I bought a new frying pan to try making Jamaican 'Johnny Cakes' last week. None of the ones I already had were anything like flat, which makes shallow-frying anything a bit of a challenge. The new one isn't perfectly flat either (or else my stove isn't on the level), but I can just about get by with it. I have just discovered that this pan is flat enough (and, for the time being, clean enough, and heat-conductive enough) to dry-grill slices of bread on to make toast. My old electric toaster self-combusted over a year ago, and I've been missing it sorely (a slice of toast is one of the few 'Western' home comforts I really get cravings for). Now, however, I'm starting to wonder if I really need to replace it. Electric toasters are hard to come by here. I wouldn't trust the efficacy or safety of local brands. Foreign brands are quite expensive. And money is very tight for me right now. Maybe I'll just keep right on using the frying pan.

Last week, in preparation for my dratted housewarming party, I also went out shopping for a new hi-fi system (my old one died last summer, the controlling microchip going completely haywire). I wasted a whole afternoon on the quest, but came back empty-handed. Most hi-fi systems today seem to cost at least three or four times as much as the one I'm looking to replace (purchased six years ago). Most of them seem to have a DVD player (which I don't need). None of them seem to have a cassette tape player (which I do want). I fear I may have to enlist the help of a Chinese friend to help me navigate the bewildering, unsatisfying array of options. Or maybe I'll just continue to do without. For the last year, I have been getting by with playing ripped music on my computer, or with playing CDs on my television via a DVD player. The sound quality is pretty poor, but I suppose I've got used to poor sound quality (in this age of listening to so much music on computers and i-Pods, we get used to lousy sound quality as an 'acceptable' norm); the hi-fi that died last year wasn't anything very wonderful, and I'm sure almost anything I buy out here is going to sound fairly dismal in comparison to the proper hi-fi system I had to leave behind in the UK (and that system wasn't as good as the one I had in my undergraduate days: CD just never sounds as good as vinyl!).

Ah, once upon a time I was such an audiophile. I hate these compromises that age and poverty bring to us.

Haiku for the week

Chinese New Year

Much too loud, too long;
Alien celebration;
Deeply tedious.

The firework mayhem seems a little more subdued this year (or maybe I just live in a "quiet" neighbourhood?), but it was starting to get rolling in earnest last night - two full days ahead of the actual New Year's Eve holiday. And it will go on and on and on and on for the next two or three weeks. I found this an intriguing novelty when I first came here; but now it's just a HUGE bore. I can't wait for it to be over. In fact, I may just quit the country for a while to get away from it....

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Those naughty Australians!!

In the UK, Australians are generally known for what might be called an extreme (and seemingly unself-conscious) directness of manner, which can - depending on your mood and sensibility - either be interpreted as refreshingly unihibited or as crude and abrasive. I posted a couple of classic comedy clips illustrating this stereotypical view on my Barstool Blues blog a couple of weeks ago to mark Australia Day.

This unihibitedness or, er, shamelessness manifests itself especially in the country's advertising. We all know that "sex sells", but there aren't many countries where you can get away with using sex in your advertising quite as brazenly as this. This campaign from a few years ago was promoting a new line of wetsuits from the Radiator company - the idea being that these suits were so thin that you felt like you weren't wearing anything at all, and, ahem, this helped to improve your flexibility while surfing!! Yes, the dots connect so easily, don't they? It's almost impossible to conceive of how they might have promoted this sports clothing any other way.

You can find some of the other photos from this series here, if you're interested. And the slogan was (oh, dear me!): "Not as thick. Just as warm. All the rubber you need."

Perhaps one of the most egregious examples of this (for an uptight Englishman) rather disconcerting lack of restraint is the long-running series of TV ads for the Antz Pantz underwear brand - which uses a spiny anteater in a highly risqué manner. This, I think, is the original of the series, more than 20 years old now. I recall it caused some discomfort with the TV regulatory authorities when it was aired on a late-night comedy programme in the UK; it would never get approved for screening as an ad, I don't think, not even in cinemas. And that one was fairly understated, compared to more recent entries in the series such as this.

Me, I think I prefer something like this 1980s UK TV spot for Brisbane's Castlemaine XXXX beer. It was probably toned down a bit from what the same ad might have looked like in Oz, to accommodate our sticky-beak Pommie sensibilities - but still quite out there.

De gustibus non est disputandum, eh? Well, not if you're an Aussie, anyway.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

I am not a baker

I have a distaste for raw dough that borders on a phobia. There are so many things that can go wrong with it - things that seem so mysterious, unknowable, uncontrollable.

And it gets everywhere. I hate the messiness of it. I think I always did, even in childhood cooking lessons - when messiness was supposed to be part of the appeal.

Making dough is particularly problematical here in Beijing. Chinese kitchens are invariably tiny (most Chinese cooking doesn't require much prep work apart from a lot of chopping - something which can be done just as well in front of the TV in your living room, or sitting on the stoop outside talking to your neighbours); my kitchen has about 18 inches of workspace between the gas burners and the sink - and it's bigger than a lot I've seen. Just about nobody bakes anything here, and very few people even have an oven (I do, but it's not a very good one: one of those "portable" electric ones - not very big or very hot). Because of this, it's very hard to get baking equipment or ingredients, even at the foreigner-oriented supermarkets (I couldn't even find a sieve!).

I tried to confront and defeat my deep-seated anxieties about this department of cookery last week in preparing for my housewarming party - but I got my ass whooped. Well, I did eventually manage to crank out some savoury 'Johnny Cakes' (a very simple kind of flat scone - classic 'poor people food' from the Caribbean; I was pursuing a Jamaican theme in honour of Bob Marley's birthday); but TWO attempts to produce a shortcrust pastry (and yes, I did look everywhere to try and find some readymade, but no joy!) for some Jamaican-style meat patties were thwarted - in the most frustrating and messy manner possible. I'm not sure what I screwed up (I suspect the recipe may have been at fault), but both times the dough turned out far too sticky and completely unworkable. Gggrrrrr. (At least the spiced mince filling I made for them was good; but we had to eat it off slices of plain white bread, because of my sorry inability to make mini piecrusts.)

In my mental review of possible new careers, I think I very definitely have to cross 'baker' off the list. And probably 'chef' too. And anything involved with the F&B industry, really. Or, indeed, with any kind of creative endeavour. My temperament is too depressive: setbacks and failures bring my spirits down far more than successes can lift them. That's why I should steer clear of pastry from now on.

Monday, February 08, 2010

The weekly bon mot

"Young men make wars, and the virtues of war are the virtues of young men: courage, and hope for the future. Then old men make the peace, and the vices of peace are the vices of old men: mistrust and caution. "

Robert Bolt [in screenplay for Lawrence of Arabia, attributed to Faisal bin al-Hussein bin Ali al-Hashemi, played by Alec Guinness]

Sunday, February 07, 2010

A dark poem

I wrote this on Christmas morning (some measure, perhaps, of how depressed I was at the time). I had been shocked, outraged to read a few days earlier of the theft of the 'Arbeit Macht Frei' sign from above the gate of the Auschwitz death camp. I was relieved to learn shortly afterwards that it had been recovered, the ludicrously inept thieves (and the vile neo-Nazi who instigated their crime) caught.

The news prompted these reflections on the significance of the site. I gather it's not a particularly well-run or well-preserved memorial, and it is inevitably doomed to crumble back into the earth - probably sooner rather than later. And I worry about the kind of people who visit it; I fear it probably attracts a large proportion of prurient ghouls or Nazi sympathisers. I don't think I could bear to go there myself; its emotional impact is too overwhelming (I broke down in tears at the Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC a few years ago). But I would like to see it preserved for as long as possible. I think it stands for something far beyond the specific evil of the Third Reich. It should continue to exist as long as humankind exists: a reminder of our most terrible achievement, a reminder of the worst of which we are capable.


What they killed here
Was humanity –
Their victims’ and their own;
The doers and the done-to,
Manufacturers and product marred alike
In this monstrous factory.

What it showed us
Was the darkness in all our hearts:
The capacity, the urge to hate and hurt;
And the tricks of losing feeling, sight,
Conscience, dignity, respect,
The checks that stifle the dark impulse,
The checks that, once removed,
Allow the hate to become habit, process,
The aberration to become the norm,
Wrong to become right.

What they killed here too
Was the last fond hope of God:
Where this can happen
There is no salvation,
No higher benevolence;
Alone we made this hell,
Alone they suffered it.

They re-made the world here:
Industrializing evil revealed
The impersonalization of modernity;
More than the Bomb
Or the Moonshot or the Electric Light
This place defined
The New Era for Mankind.

Let it stand forever
As a reminder
Of the fragility of human morals,
Of how easily civilization crumbles,
How easily decency is lost,
How easily cruelty conquers,
As a reminder
Of the worst of which we are capable,
Of the darkness in all our hearts.

And let the sign stand too -
Yes, that vile joke above the heads of the condemned,
The taunting lie of redemption –
Let it stand to injoin us always
To work to make ourselves free
Of this darkness within,
To make the world free of it.
Although we know
We never can be free of it,
Let us work always toward that end.

Therefore, let it stand.
Let it be the last thing remaining of us.
When the Alhambra and the Pyramids are long gone,
Let it stand.

Saturday, February 06, 2010

List of the Month - Things I lost in the cab

A lightning quick 'List of the Month' this time....

I have been preparing frenetically for my housewarming for the past few days. Returning by taxi from a big foreigner-friendly grocery store on the east side of town on Thursday, I discovered that a few items had mysteriously fallen out of my huge shopping bag (one of those reinforced plastic IKEA jobs that you can get a small truck in). Alas, they were all items that are likely to be of bugger-all use or interest to the poor cabbie.

Things I lost in the back of a Beijing taxi cab this week

1) A tin of diced tomatoes

2) A lemon

3) A slab of sharp cheddar cheese

That is pretty much the story of my week.

Friday, February 05, 2010

That distant roll of thunder (again)

It's still 8 days until the Chinese Spring Festival this year, but already that ominous rumble in the near-distance is ramping up from 'intermittent' to 'nearly continuous'.

The week (month!) ahead is going to be rather wearing. How I would love to escape overseas somewhere!

Haiku for the week

Anxiety grows
As 'to do' list gets longer
- Before the party.

I have committed myself to having a flat-warming party tomorrow. I still have heaps of stuff to try to do to get ready for it. It is now barely 32 hours away. And I'm blogging about it....