Friday, April 30, 2010

Ultimate bank queue nightmare

Stuart kindly directed me to this hilarious story on the excellent Chengdu news & listings site GoChengdoo yesterday. Lord knows, I've had some horrendous experiences with queueing in China, particularly in Chinese banks, but at least I've never found myself waiting behind a customer who was trying to deposit 500,000 RMB in one-yuan notes!

In any other country in the world, you'd immediately be thinking "Hoax! April Fool!", but here it is entirely plausible, almost indeed expected: "Oh, yeah, China - of course!"

And, alas, I find it illustrative of a number of the things that are most disappointing, most vexing about this country: obtuse bureaucracy (why are the bank's procedures for handling cash deposits so goddamned intricate??), lack of foresight or common sense in customer service (why do the banks not have special provisions for dealing with businesses which handle large amounts of small change?), the primitive condition of the financial infrastructure on which the supposed 'economic miracle' precariously rests (why is China still so predominantly a cash-only economy?), and the selfishness, vindictiveness or sheer lack of consideration that people so often show to each other (I mean, what was the guy who did this thinking? Did he have a grudge against the bank, or did he just not give a toss about anyone else?).

I have no sympathy for the bank. Chinese banks entirely deserve any grief that is visited upon them. I don't feel particularly sorry for the tellers: I'd hazard that spending several hours counting and re-counting stacks of soiled banknotes was actually rather more 'fun' than their regular duties. But if you were one of the other customers who went into the bank that day (or week?)...... boy, were you screwed!

Recently, on The Barstool....

Another of my occasional roundups of highlights you might have missed from 'the other side'.....

Well, last week I was outraged to discover that Beijing does not make the list of 29 Best Cities For A Man To Live (29???), while its hated rival Shanghai somehow does - at least according to fatuous online magazine Ask Men.

I also indulged in a brief rant at the inappropriateness - or, in some cases, downright ineligibility - of most of the nominees in this year's The Beijinger Bar and Club Awards.

A couple of weeks back, I celebrated my affection for the song Lili Marleen, and for the Fassbinder film of that name.

More recently, on ANZAC Day last Sunday, I posted Eric Bogle's And The Band Played 'Waltzing Matilda' (one of the most poignant of all anti-war songs, the life story of one of the Australian casualties of the Gallipoli landings) - in versions by The Pogues, Liam Clancy, and Bogle himself.

And (potentially most controversially, although it seems to have gone mostly overlooked or forgiven so far) I analysed why not all men find Chinese girls irresistible.

Much to ponder there....

Haiku for the week

The sky sings summer,
North wind plays a different tune.
And the north wind wins.

One day soon we're going to wake up and find it full-on summer. Somebody kidnapped the spring this year.

Thursday, April 29, 2010


When I was talking about great film opening scenes a couple of months ago, I somehow overlooked Alain Corneau's marvellous 1990 film Tous Les Matins Du Monde, a meditation on the nature of music, based around imagined events in the young life of a great 17th century French court composer, Marin Marais. It's an exquisitely photographed and immaculately composed piece that has the lingering resonance of fable. I haven't seen it in nearly twenty years, but everyone I've recommended it to (classical musicians, usually) has been as enraptured by it as I was. And this is how it opens: Marin Marais, in advanced old age, is present at a rehearsal of one of his pieces by a court chamber group. Music and voices whirl around him as he slides into gloomy introspection and starts reminiscing about his experiences nearly fifty years before, when he was studying with the great master of the bass viol, Sainte Colombe. The scene is sustained for some minutes, and the camera throughout is holding a fairly tight close-up on Marin's ravaged, worldweary, white-painted face. It wouldn't work without an actor as compelling as Gérard Depardieu. [The subtitles appear to be in Polish. Sorry about that.]

This in turn put me in mind of one of the great closing scenes of a film, in Stephen Frears' Dangerous Liaisons, where the Marquise de Merteuil, finally exposed for her wicked manipulation of others' love lives, is driven from the theatre in shame by the jeers of Parisian high society; returning to her boudoir, she gradually dissolves into silent tears; again, the camera keeps a tight close-up on her face as she slowly begins to remove her make-up. Not many other actresses could have pulled this off, but Glenn Close does it superbly.

Sometimes this country just gets too bizarre...

At lunchtime today, the hole-in-the-wall diner where I dropped in for a plate of chao bing was playing an especially, er, eclectic mix of music. I'm pretty sure it wasn't the radio, but who knows if it was some sort of online station or podcast or a self-compiled MP3 playlist or..... In this crazy country, it might even - just conceivably - have been a shop-bought compilation CD.

A Mandopop ballad was followed by..... the Internationale..... followed by Jingle Bells (in English, though I've no idea who the child singer was)..... followed by a rather nice traditional Chinese folk tune whose name escapes me..... followed by the Moonlight Sonata.

Something for everyone.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Don't scare me like that!!

For the past couple of days I have again been suffering that infuriating glitch with Yahoo Mail where you lose the 'Browse' button for selecting the file you want to attach to an e-mail (since I make a large proportion of my money from writing and editing jobs, not being able to send documents easily by e-mail immediately threatens my livelihood). And this time, even the little rigmarole I worked out last time of manually writing in the file address was not working; even when I had carefully copied the complete address (having first transferred the files in question on to an external drive to simplify their addresses), they were repeatedly failing to attach.

But that was as nothing compared to the heart-attack-inducing IT nightmare that was shortly to follow. My (barely nine-months-old) computer suddenly crashed completely. And refused to restart. In any mode at all. Windows then initiated a rather scary 'AutoRepair' feature which I'd never seen before (and never want to see again), which took about 15 minutes to decide that whatever it was that was preventing my computer from starting up was something that it could not fix.


Time. Meditation. A calming cup of tea.

Thinking that - because of the suddenness of the shutdown, following on rapidly from the unexpected breaking off of my VPN connection - I might have been the victim of some kind of online attack, I disconnected from the Internet (mere superstition, I suppose; I can't see how leaving the cable attached could have any effect when the darned computer wasn't even switched on). Then I interrupted what looked like it would be another aborted start-up attempt (or another diversion to the worryingly unhelpful 'AutoRepair') by hitting the F12 key to get some other start-up options. Then - having had a few bad experiences (in the past, with other computers) with attempted restarts in the various 'Safe' modes (which often just seem to lead you into variations of that 'AutoRepair' nonsense) - I selected 'Regular Start-Up'.... and crossed my fingers.

And voilà - my computer was suddenly back to normal again.

The experience scared the bejayzus out of me, though.

How, WHY do these things happen???

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Something for the kids

It looks like we're only getting one day of holiday for International Labour Day this year (unlike the two or three days we had last year or the year before, and the full 'golden week' we used to enjoy prior to that) - next Monday, May 3rd. However, for those with young children, filling an extra day of 'weekend' with diverting activities can be a bit of a challenge.

Canadian artist and photographer Karen Patterson - one of my oldest friends here in the Jing - set up a fun art class for kids a year or so ago, which she has called Beijing Color Studio (website currently "under construction" - check back in a month or two). She's now able to run these classes in the much bigger studio space she's been fitting out over the past few months in Caochangdi (she threw a rather awesome christening party for the place last Friday); it's a tad remote for those of us who live in the city centre, but very convenient for Shunyi, and fairly easy to find, being immediately adjacent to the Fifth Ringroad about a mile or so east from the Dashanzi junction.

Karen's offering two special half-day classes next Monday (to be led by her lovely and talented assistant, Nina Griffee): 8-and-unders in the morning, 8-12s in the afternoon. I think it's 475rmb for either session, with discounts available for more than one child or if you book before the end of the week (places limited, so hurry).

E-mail Karen, if interested.

Update: Karen was forced to give up this business - and the studio she ran it from - at the end of 2010, partly as a result of all of the hassle and anguish she'd had to go through over the extended detention of her artist husband, Wu Yuren.

She had been hoping to find someone to carry on the brand/concept, but that seems not to have materialised.

Monday, April 26, 2010

The world's bizarrest review

Today in the studio (yes, I'm finally getting some microphone work again, after four months of severe drought!).....

A young Chinese man and woman discussing a film they've just seen:

"I thought the acting was so good it was almost like ballet."


If they'd said "like opera", one could have read it as sarcasm; but "like ballet" is positively dada-ist! And quite unintentionally so, I'm sure.

Bon mot for the week.

"The superior man is distressed only by the limitations of his ability. He is not distressed by the fact that men do not recognize the ability that he has."

Kong Qiu ('Confucius' - 551-479BCE)

Sunday, April 25, 2010

A poetic double-whammy for homesick Englishmen

Since a proper spring seems to have gone missing in Beijing this year - summer just around the corner, probably about to burst suddenly upon us after a succession of dull days, wet days, chilly days, with no interval of mild weather and blossoms to ease us into the four-and-a-half months of fierce heat - I have been getting rather nostalgic for 'home', wondering what this best of seasons may be like in England right now. Of course, Browning anticipated me by 150-odd years.

His Home Thoughts (a poem I love chiefly for that phrase "the first fine careless rapture") presents an interesting comparison, I think, with that other great celebration of England and Englishness, Rupert Brooke's The Soldier.

Home thoughts, from abroad

Oh, to be in England
Now that April's there!
And whoever wakes in England
Sees, some morning, unaware,
That the lowest boughs and the brushwood sheaf
Round the elm-tree bole are in tiny leaf,
While the chaffinch sings on the orchard bough
In England - now!

And after April, when May follows,
And the whitethroat builds, and all the swallows!
Hark, where my blossomed pear-tree in the hedge
Leans to the field and scatters on the clover
Blossoms and dewdrops - at the bent spray's edge -
That's the wise thrush; he sings each song twice over,
Lest you should think he never could recapture
The first fine careless rapture!
And though the fields look rough with hoary dew,
All will be gay when noontide wakes anew
The buttercups, the little children's dower
- Far brighter than this gaudy melon-flower!

Robert Browning (1812-1889)

The Soldier

If I should die, think only this of me:
That there's some corner of a foreign field
That is for ever England. There shall be
In that rich earth a richer dust concealed;
A dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware,
Gave, once, her flowers to love, her ways to roam,
A body of England's, breathing English air,
Washed by the rivers, blest by suns of home.

And think, this heart, all evil shed away,
A pulse in the eternal mind, no less
Gives somewhere back the thoughts by England given;
Her sights and sounds; dreams happy as her day;
And laughter, learnt of friends; and gentleness,
In hearts at peace, under an English heaven.

Rupert Brooke (1887-1915)

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Film List - Oscar continues to get it WRONG

It's time to conclude my survey of the most shamefully misguided American Academy Awards choices in the 'Best Picture' category. Last month, I reviewed the period up to the end of the 1970s, so today I'll run through from 1980 to the present. As before, I'll confine myself to considering the nominees that I think would have made much better winners than the Academy's selection (if I'd tried to include all the outstanding films that were passed over for a nomination, the task would have become completely unmanageable).

More Oscar-nominated 'Best Pictures' that really should have won

It seems to have become fashionable to poo-poo the winner, Robert Redford's Ordinary People, but I do think it's an exceptional film - a really powerful story with excellent performances all around, especially from the young Timothy Hutton. However, Scorsese's Raging Bull is something quite remarkable, widely acknowledged as the standout film of the entire decade.

Gosh, we were so proud and excited to have a British winner for the first time in yonks. But Hugh Hudson's Chariots of Fire is really a bit twee, and doesn't linger long in the memory after you've watched it. Louis Malle's Atlantic City is a much better film. However, Warren Beatty's gorgeous Reds was the cinema event of this year, and probably vying with Raging Bull as 'the best of the 80s' - a film with the epic sweep of Lawrence of Arabia. The Academy's voters presumably passed it over because it was seen as glorifying Communism (an especially big no-no at the dawn of the Reagan era) - or perhaps just because Warren is such a prick.

Well, Richard Attenborough's Gandhi is not at all an unworthy winner this year, but.... it does drag rather; the phrase 'worthy but dull' hovers in the back of my mind. Norman Jewison's delightful comedy Tootsie (Dustin Hoffman in drag - what a concept!) didn't stand much of a chance in the face of such earnestness. Costa-Gavras's Missing did, and I think it should have won - but, presumably, like Reds the year before, it was seen as politically unacceptable (it probably only got the nomination because of the extraordinarily fine lead performances from Jack Lemmon and Sissy Spacek).

One of the low points in Oscar history - with the statuette going to the manipulative slushfest Terms of Endearment. It's difficult to conceive how this could have been favoured over Lawrence Kasdan's fine ensemble drama The Big Chill, or the wonderful theatrical two-hander of Tom Courtenay and Albert Finney in Peter Yates's The Dresser, or Bruce Beresford's great Country & Western film Tender Mercies (which deservedly won a Best Actor Oscar for Robert Duvall, and the Best Original Screenplay award). It's a long, long time since I've seen Tender Mercies, but I am certainly tempted to give it the nod here. However, since the Oscars tend to favour 'big' films, well, it's really hard to see how Philip Kaufman's stirring account of the beginnings of the US space programme, The Right Stuff, didn't win.

I should probably take another look at Miloš Forman's Amadeus sometime. I loved Peter Schaffer's stage play, but the film left me rather cold when I first saw it. '84 was perhaps another annus mirabilis, certainly a year of tough choices: David Lean's final epic, A Passage To India, Robert Benton's Depression-era drama Places In The Heart, and Norman Jewison's riveting whodunnit A Soldier's Story. But, really, Roland Joffé's The Killing Fields didn't win? How not?

After a few years of very strong 'Best Picture' fields, 1985 was somewhat of an annus mediocris. Bland travelogue Out Of Africa won. This, of course, was the year that Steven Spielberg's adaptation of Alice Walker's The Color Purple was expected to clean up, and in fact came away with nothing. I think, for once, the Academy got something right: for me, Spielberg missed the mark by a mile in that film: everything was too lush, too smooth, there was no realism to it. No, I thought Héctor Babenco's Kiss Of The Spiderwoman was the only real standout among the nominations this year (presumably unacceptable to the Academy because of its homosexual theme and foreign setting).

Oliver Stone's histrionic Vietnam film Platoon won. The Academy was finally ready to honour a Vietnam film (after unaccountably spurning Apocalypse Now seven years before), but there are many better ones they might have chosen over the years. Roland Joffé’s The Mission was a big misfire for me: Chris Menges' photography is ravishing, but the story is clumsily executed, silly and unbelievable. However, I find it very, very hard to choose between the other three nominees this year: Children Of A Lesser God, Hannah and Her Sisters, and A Room With A View. I think I'll plump for A Room With A View - the best E.M. Forster adaptation, and one of the finest adaptations of a classic novel ever, as nearly perfect as a film can be.

There's no arguing with Bertolucci's gorgeous epic The Last Emperor in 1987, although I think James L. Brooks's Broadcast News might well have won in almost any other year.

Rain Man is an extremely good film, but I say Dangerous Liaisons is even better - a rare example of a stage adaptation really breaking free of its constraints and transcending the original.

Driving Miss Daisy??? '89 was a strange year, indeed: Field of Dreams and Dead Poets Society got nominated too. Born On The Fourth Of July should have won - it's my favourite of Oliver Stone's films (though not untainted by some of his trademark vices), and Tom Cruise's performance as Ron Kovic is stupendous.

I like Dances With Wolves. A bit too long (OK, a lot too long), and a bit too much Kevin Costner, but a good film - beautifully photographed and a sensitive portrayal of the Native American perspective on The West. But it was up against Scorsese's Goodfellas, the best gangster film since The Godfather, and one of the few really outstanding films of the '90s. Something going wrong around here....

Another weird year, with the hugely overrated horror-thriller The Silence Of The Lambs unaccountably taking the top prize, while Disney's The Beauty And The Beast and the Barbra Streisand-directed romantic drama The Prince Of Tides were padding out the nominations. I suppose I would have given the prize to Warren Beatty's Bugsy - narrowly over Oliver Stone's JFK.

In 1992 Clint Eastwood's Unforgiven was a decent winner - the best Western in nearly 20 years, although I think it stops some way short of greatness. Howards End (another near-perfect Merchant/Ivory adaptation of E.M. Forster) and Neil Jordan's haunting transsexual love story The Crying Game should have been running it very close.

The schmaltzy picaresque of Forrest Gump won. Pulp Fiction didn't. Something going wrong around here....

Braveheart??!! Oh, how the Americans love their Brit-bashing pseudo-history! George Miller's wonderful talking-pig charmer Babe or Ang Lee's Emma Thompson-scripted Sense and Sensibility would have been far more deserving winners, but I think I would have given the prize this year to the superb Apollo 13.

The English Patient is a useful illustration of how a too-finely-wrought and rather pretentious literary novel can appear merely ludicrous when transferred to the big screen. I'm amazed that this piece of tosh won anything but Razzies. What's even more baffling is that it beat a fairly strong field: Jerry Maguire, Fargo, and Shine. Another very tough choice, but I'd favour Mike Leigh's quirkily wonderful Secrets & Lies (lord knows how it ever got nominated!).

Of course, 1997 was Titanic's year. I like it well enough, but I don't love it. I would have liked to have been able to make an argument for its not winning - but none of the other nominees that year was really deserving of the accolade.

This was the year the Oscar voters got confused by period costumes. They gave the award to Shakespeare in Love when clearly they must have intended to give it to Shekhar Kapur's dazzling Elizabeth (Cate Blanchett has been a 'Fantasy Girlfriend' of mine ever since).

It was nice to see the resurgence of the 'sword & sandal' epic, but Ridley Scott's Gladiator - aside from Russell Crowe's great, grizzled performance - is really pretty vapid. Steven Soderbergh's Erin Brockovich was clearly the pick of the crop this year.

A Beautiful Mind is not by any means a bad film (another great performance from Russell), but Todd Field's In The Bedroom is in a whole other class: it is, I think, probably the finest American film of the decade.

I don't particularly rate the next two years' winners, Chicago and The Return Of The King, but none of the other nominations were conspicuously worthy either. Was there really such a dearth of decent films at the start of the Noughties?

The Academy said Million Dollar Baby; I would have said Sideways.

The Academy went for Crash, Paul Haggis's overwrought and unbelievably coincidence-driven study of racial tensions in Los Angeles. Everybody had expected Ang Lee's (beautifully photographed and played, but rather uninvolving) gay cowboy saga Brokeback Mountain to win; it was probably undone by the same homophobic impulse that ruled Kiss Of The Spiderwoman and The Crying Game out of serious contention. Somehow everybody ignored George Clooney's simply superb black & white recreation of TV news anchor Edward R. Murrow's titanic clash with Senator Joe McCarthy, Good Night, and Good Luck. This film almost deserved to win for the photography alone, although the script, acting and direction are brilliant too. David Strathairn should have got the Best Actor Oscar for this, and maybe Clooney should have got Best Director - an unjustly overlooked instant classic.

Honouring the deeply flawed police melodrama The Departed was in effect a 'Lifetime Achievement Award' for Martin Scorsese. Clint Eastwood's magnificent war film Letters From Iwo Jima would have been a far worthier winner (although I think its companion film, Flags Of Our Fathers, is even better, and I'm mystified as to why it didn't get the nomination).

Although I'm a huge fan of the Coen brothers, I did not love their thriller No Country For Old Men - I found the disconnected narrative structure and lack of resolution deeply unsatisfying (although it seems I may have seen a severely bowdlerized pirate copy which rendered parts of the story incoherent). There was a strong field this year - Michael Clayton, Juno, Atonement. However, for me, the standout of the year was clearly Paul Thomas Anderson's There Will Be Blood.

I have issues with the story in Danny Boyle's Slumdog Millionaire, the 2008 winner, but it's hard not to be seduced by the sheer zest of it all, the snappiness of the direction, the lushness of the photography. And there wasn't that much competition: Milk and Frost/Nixon were very fine films, but not clearly 'Best Picture' material.

I am grateful to The Hurt Locker for shutting the infantile Avatar out of the major awards, but it is itself a pretty terrible film. As I said on the eve of this year's Oscars, the utterly captivating Sixties coming-of-age story An Education would have got my vote.

So, there we have it. I wonder how the Academy will manage to stuff up this year...

Friday, April 23, 2010

Happy Bard-day!!

I have mentioned before that I am far more excited about the fact that today is (ostensibly) the birthday of William Shakespeare than that it is also St. George's Day.

Winter warmers

As I search for consolation in this unseasonal chill (usually summer is here in Beijing by the end of April, but at the moment spring is still faltering, and we're suffering some of the chilliest nights I've ever known at this time of year), I reflect that at least it is extending the chuanr season for me by a few weeks. These bijou streetside barbecues - typically, little cubes of heavily seasoned mutton on a wooden stick - are a ubiquitous snack food here, but.... well, once the weather starts getting warm, the meat - often left out in the sun for hours at a time before being put on the grill - becomes something of a hazard, and I try to avoid eating mutton-sticks, or at least drastically cut down on my consumption, during the summer months. At the moment, though, I feel quite safe in continuing to chow down on them in prodigious quantity.

My other favourite foods from the Muslim restaurants that specialise in this snack are nang bao rou and da pan ji, rich concoctions of mutton or chicken with big chunks of vegetable stewed in a spicy tomato broth. These are just too darned filling for the summer months, when the hot weather begins to suppress the appetite. I seldom eat them from April through to September. However, while the weather remains this nippy, they are an essential source of comfort and insulation.

Haiku for the week

Blue sky and sunshine
Frozen marrow will not thaw
Still in Winter's vice

Temperatures last night supposedly stayed several degrees Centigrade above freezing, but I'm not convinced: it felt absolutely arse-freezing from shortly after sundown, and our breath was smoking before midnight. There was very high humidity after a day of rain, and it was that dampness - almost as bad as London - that drilled the chill into our bones.

The 5-day forecast is currently suggesting that we might get overnight frosts again on Sunday and Monday. What has happened to the weather this year??

Thursday, April 22, 2010

The Hurt Locker

In my Oscars post last month I remarked that, while grateful that it was shutting the abysmal Avatar out of the major awards, I thought that The Hurt Locker too was a pretty poor, severely overrated film. The time has come to elaborate on that opinion - something which will inevitably require a few SPOILERS (so, anyone who hasn't yet seen the film and might still like to, steer away).

Of course, it's a tense, engrossing, exciting film. It would be hard to make a film about bomb disposal that wasn't exciting. But Ms Bigelow & co. (well, I suppose the blame should mainly rest with the scriptwriter, Mark Boal) seemed to be afraid that it wouldn't be quite exciting enough (for today's attention-span-challenged audience) if it was just about bomb disposal, so they threw in a bizarre and completely implausible firefight/sniper duel in the middle, and a somewhere-beyond-implausible, nay, downright ludicrous lone vigilante episode towards the end.

I note that the most vociferously negative reviews on IMDB come from current or former American servicemen, many of them with experience in Iraq, some of them indeed in EOD (Explosive Ordnance Disposal) teams like the one depicted in the film. I have some military experience myself, having spent a couple of years training with the reserves while at university, so am perhaps slightly more attuned than many people to the kind of SOPs (standard operating procedures) that soldiers follow in combat situations. However, I would think that any reasonably astute layman would start to become uncomfortably aware of the myriad inaccuracies or implausibilities in this film. The British group encountered in the desert are fairly obviously SAS (although the credits bizarrely refer to them as 'contractors': are they supposed to be mercenaries? or did the film-makers just not want to risk offending the legendary British special forces regiment?), and yet they get rather easily taken out by an Iraqi sniper (at extreme range, with what appears to be an ordinary rifle). Our EOD team has gone into the desert alone (only three of them, in one vehicle) - miles outside the city, in a completely unsecured area - to dispose of ordnance; why don't they just trail a huge banner from their Hummer saying 'AMBUSH US NOW'? Luckily, when they do predictably come under attack, the wily black sergeant - who appears to have served in just about every specialism in the US Army - proves to be an accomplished sniper himself (it really is not likely that bomb disposal specialists would be proficient with a Barrett high-velocity rifle, or even in spotting for a sniper). Iraqi traders are allowed on base, inside the Green Zone - without any apparent security checks at all (maybe some Iraqis are allowed on base like this: but I'm pretty sure they'd get searched every time they enter or leave, and that their IDs would be recorded). Jeremy Renner's character manages to sneak off base by hijacking an Iraqi's car, walks back across half of Baghdad without coming to any harm, and then gains readmission to the base without any apparent disciplinary consequences. Later, he leads his three-man team into dark alleys at night to search for possible insurgents, without any back-up (and, as one of his put-upon colleagues points out: they're not infantry, this isn't their job!), and then.... orders that they split up ("Ambush me now!"). These are comic book excesses grafted on to make the film more diverse in its subject matter; they completely destroy its credibility as a realistic study of the war.

It's the unlikely behaviour of the EOD team when they're actually about their business of disarming IEDs that draws the most criticism, though. Other squads of soldiers - who should be securing their perimeter, clearing adjacent buildings, sweeping for snipers - are rarely much in evidence, and not doing anything very effective when they are around; on one occasion, a squad is found cowering together in a tiny courtyard (just waiting for someone to toss a grenade on top of them) rather than patrolling the streets. This recurrent absence or uselessness of the rest of the army is presumably designed to emphasise how vulnerable the EOD team is, and how much responsibility they must take for protecting each other when out on a call. OK, I see that - but it is ridiculously overdone: it is clearly impossible for a two-man support team to protect the disposal technician from snipers etc. on their own. The repeated depiction of their operations in this exaggerated manner misrepresents how EOD teams actually work and shows a lack of respect for the contribution of the non-specialist soldiers out on the streets with them.

Worst of all, Renner's character (he's such a hollow cypher of a man that I can't remember his name) is a loose cannon, a maverick who shows little respect or concern for his team, disregards standard procedures, and takes unnecessary risks. On his first job, he unearths half a dozen artillery shells by simply hauling on the wires attached to their detonators. Apparently this was done because Kathryn Bigelow felt that it made a good shot (it was used on the cover of the DVD - and maybe on the posters as well?). I don't agree that there is anything particularly impressive about the image - but it would be a very good way of getting yourself blown to smithereens. Indeed, Renner consistently makes his two team-mates feel so unsafe that at one point they quite seriously contemplate murdering him in order to preserve their own lives. He makes a pointed contrast with his predecessor in the team (played by Guy Pearce in the prologue), a very cool, cautious, meticulous operator. Now, I met a couple of guys who do this work while I was in the Army, and I can tell you - people in that job are all cool, cautious, and meticulous. A wild man like Renner wouldn't last five minutes: he'd either get himself killed, or get canned as psychologically unsuitable. This again is cartoonish exaggeration to try to woo an uncritical but too-easily-bored audience.

I wasn't even much impressed with the direction here. Kathryn Bigelow's done some good things in the past, is a fine action director (Point Break, Strange Days), but this film left me fairly flat. In particular, [BIG SPOILER] she doesn't effectively establish why the first explosion proves fatal for poor Guy Pearce, but the final one leaves Jeremy Renner with only a bloodied nose; the latter explosion seems far bigger and above ground level, and Renner, rather than having his back to it and running away, stands and turns to face it; he appears to be about as close, or closer to it than Pearce had been, and he gets hit by large chunks of debris - but he is unscathed. Baffling.

There's no real elaboration of character either, we never get any insight into why Renner's such an arsehole. The opening epigram that "war is an addiction" suggests that he is an adrenalin-junkie, but there's nothing really in the film to develop that interpretation. He appears to enjoy being good at the job, rather than enjoying danger per se; and his unorthodox methods appear to be the result of a rebellious, anti-authoritarian nature - or perhaps just not being very bright - rather than an active attempt to increase the level of danger. And when he elects to return to Iraq for another tour of duty, it seems to be because his suburban American life is very, very boring; he simply misses his job, not the thrill attaching to it. Thus, the purported theme of the film - the excitement of facing danger in such a stressful job - just isn't there. We might find it exciting to watch men doing this job; and we might imagine that they find it exciting too; but there's no examination of this in the script.

So, if the love-of-danger is not the theme of the film, what is? I find there is an emptiness at the heart of the film - it's impossible to say what it is about.

Why, then, has it been so enormously popular? Well, aside from the fact that it is an inescapably exciting presentation of a fascinating subject, I theorise that it may have appealed particularly strongly to American audiences because it is essentially a 'white hat' depiction of their involvement in Iraq. It's set quite early on in the conflict, before the situation had become a quagmire, when there was still some optimism about the idea of having liberated the country from Saddam Hussein. And, although we see some of the awkwardness and hostility between Americans and Iraqis, the film is not primarily about anti-American feeling or about direct combat with insurgents: the work of the EOD teams is largely about saving Iraqi lives, and that's something Americans can feel good about. However, finding a feelgood angle in a protracted and avoidable war does not make it a good film. The action is unrealistic, the characters are two-dimensional, and there's no real point to any of it. I would have ranked it No. 9 of the ten Oscar nominees this year. In fact, I don't think I would have nominated it at all.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

What is it about the balalaika??

One of my musical neighbours plays the balalaika. (Well, it might be a pipa or something, but it sounds more like a balalaika to me.)

While, in general, having people practising music is not one of the more unpleasant neighbourly noises one might have to suffer, the sheer repetitiveness of it can start to wear down your forbearance after a while. Most of my neighbours are professional musicians who will practice the same short piece for hours at a time, day after day after day.

And there's something about the balalaika...... that makes all balalaika tunes sound like the Z Cars theme after a while.

Now, I am usually rather fond of the balalaika. And I have a nostalgic soft spot for the Z Cars theme (a favourite BBC police show from my distant childhood). But there's something about the thought of the Z Cars theme played incessantly on something like a balalaika that is eroding my sanity just at the moment....

Politically incorrect

My latest group of students includes a couple of members of the Kuomintang. I hadn't realised that the Kuomintang still existed in the mainland. Live and learn!

I gather from Wikipedia that this Kuomintang is a completely separate entity from the ruling party in Taiwan, one of the eight minority parties sanctioned by the CCP, and properly known as the Revolutionary Committee of the Kuomintang (中国国民党革命委员会).

However, my students would keep referring to it as the "Chinese Kuomintang".

"But surely the Kuomintang in Taiwan is also Chinese? I think perhaps you should say 'the Mainland Kuomintang'," I teased, succumbing - for once - to an upsurge of CCP-approved 'right thinking' and 'correct speech'.

I mean well. I would like to think that I may have saved my two students from a trip to the gulags.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

The first shall be last....

... and the last shall be..... even more last.

The one thing worse than being booked on the first flight from Beijing to Europe to get cancelled because of the Eyjafjallajökull eruption last week is, arguably, being booked on what might - or might not - be the first flight from Beijing to Europe after the resumption of quasi-normal international air travel yesterday.

I've had two old college buddies around over the past week or so (not to mention two old China friends making whistlestop trips back to Beijing.... and The British Cowboy was making vague noises about passing through the country, but had to reschedule). It was starting to look as though they might have been around for much, much longer.

Dr W and his young son, after the cancellation of their flight last Thursday, were looking at not being able to get any spare seats on a plane back until early May. He decided to take a Polar hop to NYC instead, and take his chances trying to get home from there.

Richard P and his family were placed in an even more anxious state of uncertainty. They were supposed to be on an early flight out this morning, but the airline was unable to confirm the status of this service throughout most of yesterday. If it had been cancelled, they would have been stuck at the back of a 5-day backlog of stranded passengers and would perhaps not have been able to get home until the middle of May.

Fortunately, their flight did leave on schedule. I discovered on the website late last night that the flight was finally being listed as 'scheduled' (the airline having had the foresight to move their first flight from Europe to Beijing yesterday to earlier in the day, to make sure that they would have a plane here in time to fill that schedule; things unravelled last week in such a way that Beijing was largely emptied out of long-haul planes belonging to the European carriers, so it's taking a further day or two to get schedules from here to Europe back on track), although that was too late in the day to give my friends a little peace of mind before they'd turned in for the night.

I'm relieved for them, but a bit disappointed for myself: they were only passing through Beijing en route to and from Mrs P's parents' place down in Hubei, so I didn't actually get to see them on this trip. I had my fingers half-crossed that their flight would not happen.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Local colour (2)

I can't identify the cause of this phenomenon, but for the last few days all the streets in my immediate vicinity have smelled very strongly of dog poo.

Local colour (1)

I encountered another China first yesterday when taking an afternoon stroll through my neighbourhood.

A man was cooking a pair of pig's feet on the sidewalk.

With a blow-torch. (Well, not one of those oxyacetylene ones for welding; one of those little jobs you can use for melting tar on a roof [I think that's what this chap had been doing in the morning], or crisping the top of your creme caramel...)

Top marks for improvisation.

(And I am relieved to be able to record that the trotters were no longer attached to a live pig.)

Bon mot for the week

"To overanalyze the source of aptitudes greatly diminishes the mystery and beauty of all our abilities."

Michael Fantuz (a Newfoundland-based painter)

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Top hole!

The ever inventive Tony of Other Men's Flowers has recently issued a challenge to his readers to try to use online dictionary/thesaurus resources to produce a definitive list of all the words for approbation currently in use in the English language. He suggests that tech-savvy aspirants to his prize ($50 donated to charity) may want to build their own database of eligible words, and even customise some code for the elimination of duplicates (although it occurs to me that it should be possible to use the reviewing tools in Word to highlight/delete all instances of a particular word and then restore a single example... yes?). That sounds like it might be the kind of task that Froogville's resident IT guru JES would relish.

Tony's intriguing post set me to thinking about how the Chinese express their approval or delight.

It seems to me that they have a considerably more limited range of common words and expressions for this purpose than English. They get an awful lot of mileage out of the basic (hao = good): they can reduplicate it to make it stronger (hao hao) or use adverb intensifiers with it (hen hao, feichang hao). One way or another, you do hear an awful lot of hao, hao, hao - and not a lot of anything else. Well, apart from 'OK', which seems to have become hugely popular in recent years - though mostly for expressing agreement rather than admiration.

Other than these, the only really common expressions of approbation I seem to encounter are:

不赖 (bu lai, not bad), which always strikes me as rather quaintly understated (I don't think they employ a lot of litotes in Chinese); it tends to put me in mind of a Brit saying something like "Not too shabby".

漂亮 (piao liang, beautiful), which is the ubiquitous - just about the only - term of praise favoured by sports commentators in this country. When addressed directly to a person, I can't help thinking it comes across as a little like the Australian phrase, "You beaut!"

And then there's 励害 (li hai, which the Mandarin Tools online dictionary tells me means "skillful; adept; proficient; professional"), the standard expression of respect exchanged between players at my favourite pool-playing bar in Beijing. The intriguing thing about this one is that there's another word with identical pronunciation (possibly, indeed, two different words, since there seem to be two distinct character pairs, 利害 and 厉害, which are now indistinguishable in meaning - perhaps The Weeble can assist us on this point? Weeble? Weeble?) which apparently translates as 'terrible, formidable, serious, devastating, tough, capable, sharp, severe, fierce'. That seems to me to be a far more potent - and far more painfully apposite - word for expressing your awe of the local pool shark who's just handed out a spanking to you. I feel sure the two (or three?) words must be tending to merge into a single usage. It would be rather amusing, would it not, if HR people in writing out performance appraisals on staff inadvertently started to use the term that means 'tough, fierce' rather than merely 'competent, professional'? I bet it does happen from time to time. Anyway, to my mind, li hai seems closest in nuance to the French use of "Formidable!"

I wonder if my readers would like to contribute any other suggestions for favourite words or phrases of this sort - whether in Chinese or any other language?

Saturday, April 17, 2010

My Fantasy Girlfriend - Wang Bingyu

There haven't been too many Chinese girls vying for attention in this 'Fantasy Girlfriend' collection of mine, nor in my private life either. I seem to lack the propensity of many 'Western' men out here to develop an excessive, compulsive, exclusive interest in Asian ladies. Some I like, but most leave me rather cold. Instead, my genetic programming has given me a powerful predilection for pale-skinned redheads or dark-eyed, curly-haired brunettes.

However, every once in a while, a Chinese girl, despite her tiny stature and boringly black hair, will somehow insinuate her way into my thoughts, get under my skin, worm her way into my heart. And Betty Wang, captain of China's Women's Curling Team, is just so gosh-darned cute.

Naturally, I am impressed by exceptional prowess in any field of human endeavour, and Betty's achievements in her sport are quite remarkable: leading the national team while still in her early twenties, and winning both individual and team World Championships last year. (Having to settle for the bronze medal place in the recent Winter Olympics, and then failing to qualify for the final play-offs in the World Championships last month has been seen as something of a national disaster after the heightened expectations she and her team-mates have generated in the last year or two. So, now sympathy for her in a time of trouble is added to my admiration for her abilities.) Such success - particularly in an event requiring such sustained levels of concentration and elaborate tactical thinking - is suggestive of an unusual intelligence and strength of character.

What is it about curling? In many ways, it seems an extremely silly game (especially that business with the brooms, or mops, or swiffers, or whatever it is they use these days to buff the ice in the path of the stones) - but it is remarkably TV-friendly. There's something about the pace and rhythms of the play that is insidiously compelling, especially when you're watching late at night after a few beers (which always seems to be the way it is for me). There's a beguiling accessibility about it as well: the tactics, although fairly subtle and complex, are also quite readily comprehensible after just a few hours of study. [I'm not sure that it really gains anything, though, from being played on ice. I much prefer its non-icy precursor, Flat Green Bowling.] And, since it doesn't require any great strength or athleticism, its female exponents do not need to be muscle-bound or masculinized, and many of them are strikingly good-looking. I confess to having been at first rather more distracted by some of the Swedes and Germans when I found myself watching more and more of this event during the Vancouver Olympics, but amongst the Asian competitors Betty Wang is the real charmer. (I've said pish-tosh before to Dottie Parker's over-quoted line about men spurning the attractions of "girls who wear glasses", and I'll say it again now. The glasses are a key part of Betty's appeal. That, and the wonderfully calm intensity of her demeanour when she's playing her game.)

Friday, April 16, 2010

Recently, on The Barstool....

Another brisk review of some of the recent highlights from my other blog....

Well, a couple of weeks ago, I posted this piece on a rather unusual new bar in my neighbourhood - Twang!! (This was a first excursion for me into the realm of April Fool's Day spoofery, and I am quietly chuffed with my success: a good number of my regular readers were well and truly duped by this.)

For people with a more serious interest in the Beijing bar scene, I have contributed two long posts - here and here - on the hot topic of the moment, the dramatic decline in popularity of new upmarket cocktail joint, Apothecary.

I have also introduced my readers to the usefulness of injecting some extra randomness into your lives by consulting THE COIN (with further elaborations of the madness in my method here and here).

And just yesterday I posted this piece, What's your -ism?, on the fine art of beermat flipping.


Paranoia (again)

Someone dropped into my favourite bar asking after me a few days ago. He purported to be a journalist with local expat magazine The Beijinger, curious about something I'd written about government plans for the redevelopment of a popular bar district near where I live.

However, it was a Chinese guy. I've never seen his name in the magazine. And he left a very cheap and tatty personal business card rather than a The Beijinger one, with only a private e-mail address rather than a The Beijinger one.

So, forgive me, but I'm just a mite sceptical about that "journalist" cover story.....

Probably I'm fretting over nothing; but after a good friend's little run-in with the authorities a few weeks back, I am in state of heightened alertness. Please don't be offended if I treat attempts to contact me by strangers with extreme suspicion.

Haiku for the week

Too many late nights,
Early starts at work fatigue:
Afternoon sleeping.

It's become a worrying pattern over the last two or three weeks: I am strangely finding it much easier to sleep during the day than in the early hours of the morning; far too frequently I am tumbling back into bed at 2pm or 3pm or 4pm and immediately lapsing into a blissful coma for two or three hours - the kind of sleep where you feel you never want to wake up, and it requires an enormous effort to drag yourself out of bed again.. I am beginning to fret that there is something amiss with my health.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

The TV Listings (4)

Oh dear - I haven't done an update on my YouTube postings for a little over a year now. However, since the censorship in China got so crazy last year in the run-up to the 60th anniversary (of the founding of the People's Republic) celebrations, and since the Tor proxy I'd been relying on for so long began letting me down big time.... well, I didn't post any videos at all for the best part of six months. So... hopefully, this list won't get too unwieldy. Hopefully....

The Comedy/Movie Channel

Keeping upbeat - a couple of classic exhortations to 'positive thinking': Bing Crosby and The Andrews Sisters singing Accent-tchu-ate the Positive (from Dennis Potter's BBC musical drama series The Singing Detective) and Always Look On The Bright Side Of Life from the end of Monty Python's Life of Brian.

Using your imagination - the climactic confrontation (and the official trailer) from Jim Jarmusch's recent philosophical, dreamlike 'thriller' The Limits Of Control.

My Fantasy Girlfriend - Tilda Swinton, in brief clips from one her earliest films, Sally Potter's Orlando, and one of her most recent, Jim Jarmusch's The Limits Of Control.

More great film openings - the stunning 'life of a bullet' sequence from the beginning of Andrew Niccol's Lord Of War, and links to several other classic openings.

My Fantasy Girlfriend - Kseniya Simonova - the gorgeous 'sand artist' in action: the performance which secured her first place in the 2009 Ukraine's Got Talent contest.

Those naughty Australians!! - links to some classic risqué TV adverts for AntzPantz knickers and Castlemaine XXXX beer.

Australia, Australia, Australia, we LOVE you! (AMEN) - Australia Day, January 26th, prompts me to post a couple of classic comic stereotypings of the tense Aussie-Pommie relationship, from Monty Python and Barry McKenzie.

My Fantasy Girlfriend - Vanna Bonta, and her video What Goes Up, celebrating the human conquest of gravity.

Gourmet Night - another of our 'Gluttony Night' excursions in Beijing reminds me of this immortal bit of Fawlty Towers (not in fact the 'Gourmet Night' episode, but the one where the rude schoolboy demands salad cream rather than mayonnaise).

"Oh my god - it's full of stars!" - naturally, I celebrate the 2,001st post on Froogville with the Stargate sequence from 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Space: 1999 - while Post No. 1,999 prompts me to share this video mash-up of clips of aliens from the cheesy British '70s sci-fi series (set to The Monster Mash, of course).

Snow business - a couple of seasonal clips of mass snowball fights, from Leuwen in Belgium (the current world record holder) and the University of Wisconsin, Madison (an almost-annual challenger).... and a famous Budweiser commercial with horses having a snowfight.

I think Mr Garrison says it best - a fun slide-show illustrating the song Merry F**ing Christmas! sung by demented 4th Grade teacher Mr Garrison in South Park.

Scary Santa - the deeply disturbing dream sequence from the beginning of oddball 1995 French film La cité des enfants perdus.

My Fantasy Girlfriend - Dorothy Provine - my profile of the lovely '60s actress/singer Dorothy Provine concludes with a clip from her show-stopping turn as Wild West saloon chanteuse Lily O'Lay in Blake Edwards's slapstick comedy epic The Great Race (see also 'Great bar fights' below).

Great bar fights - classic film brawls from The Great Race, Blazing Saddles, Shane, and Ride Beyond Vengeance, with a link also to the marathon fistfight between John Wayne and Victor McLaglen in John Ford's The Quiet Man. [Damn - it looks like a couple of these might already have been deleted by jealous film studios!]

12 Square Metres: The Movie - my favourite little bar in Beijing is featured in a brief travelogue piece on a Chinese website.

An omelette of peace - I conclude the answers to my recent 'Film Quotations Quiz' with the scene from wonderful foodie film Big Night where Italian chef Secundo (Stanley Tucci) makes up after a big fight with his brother Primo (Tony Shalhoub) by sharing a frittata with him. Just magical.

Shoe Jintao - a video report on Tibetan New Year celebrations amongst the exile community in Dharamsala, north India, which includes Tibetan kids spiritedly flinging shoes at a portrait of Chinese President Hu Jintao.

The Music Channel

Keeping upbeat - Accent-tchu-ate the Positive and Always Look On The Bright Side Of Life (see above).

Great Drinking Songs (20) - my St Patrick's Day treat this year is the rousing singalong Those Were The Days: the classic 1968 hit version by Welsh songbird Mary Hopkin, and live performances by the Leningrad Cowboys and Liam Clancy, plus links to countless others....

Jesus Saves, I Spend - electro-folk-pop exponent St Vincent (real name Annie Clark) is one of the artists in town for this year's Jue Festival. I didn't get around to seeing her myself, but thought it was worth posting this link to one of her more interesting videos.

Also Sprach Zarathustra, arranged by Japanese electronica whizz Isao Tomita, accompanied by some freaky fractal animations (also, a link to his hilarious interpretation of the Star Wars theme).

For What It's Worth - the classic Buffalo Springfield track accompanies the 'life cycle of a bullet' sequence that opens the arms-trafficking film Lord Of War (see above).

Hurt - I celebrate 'Johnny Cash Day' - the great man's birthday, February 26th - with the video of his haunting performance of this Trent Reznor song.

Can blue men sing the whites? - my extended diatribe against James Cameron's Avatar provides a pretext to provide a couple of links to this song: the original by The Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band (no video, alas) and a more recent pub gig rendition by The Sticklebacks.

Great Love Songs (17) - Country star Faith Hill's irresistibly catchy 1998 hit This Kiss, accompanied by a montage of Disney cartoon romances (plus a link to her original video, and some anime fan tributes).

Marley Day - I celebrate Bob's birthday (and my imminent flat-warming party) on February 6th with the incomparably spaced-out Kaya (photo montage only).

Carnival time once more - at the end of January the Krewe du Vieux parade rolls in New Orleans, an early precursor of the Mardi Gras season in which I have been lucky enough to participate a few times. This year the King of the Carnival was none other than Dr John - so here's a great live performance of his classic party song, Iko Iko.

Great Drinking Songs (19) - the great raunchy comic songstress Sophie Tucker belts out the 1920s hit Fifty Million Frenchmen Can't Be Wrong (the subject of an extravagantly convoluted pun in Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow), and links to several more of her performances.

Weekend musical moment - Canadian band Patrick Watson are in town (though I didn't go to see them), so I post the atmospheric video of their song Fireweed, and provide a couple of other links.

Continuing the numerical theme - Post No. 2,000 on Froogville seems like an ideal excuse to embed the video for Pulp's Disco 2000.

"We're not worthy!" - the legendary Jimmy Page is in town for a couple of days: I get all overcome with fandom, and feel compelled to post a few examples his awesomeness.

Snow Song - the wonderful stop-motion animated video for White Winter Hymnal by Fleet Foxes. (Also, links to some others of their songs, including the video for Mykonos.)

He Shouldn't-a, Hadn't-a, Oughtn't-a Swang On Me - a great Henry Mancini-Johnny Mercer song from the film The Great Race (see 'Dorothy Provine' above).

Don't Be A Chinese Child - I commemorate the 15th anniversary of the Karamay theatre fire on 8th December (in which 325 people died, the majority of them young schoolchildren) by posting a video of blind Chinese folk-singer Zhou Yunpeng performing his bitter song on the subject. I posted the lyrics, in Chinese and English, here on Froogville, and wrote more about the Karamay fire here.

Great Drinking Songs (18) - I mark my departure from China for an extended summer break with this all-too-appropriate hit from The Animals: We Gotta Get Out Of This Place (taken from an obscure '60s 'beach comedy' called It's A Bikini World).

Tell me WHY - Bob Geldof and his Boomtown Rats pianist Johnny Fingers perform a stripped-down version of I Don't Like Mondays for the 1981 Amnesty International fund-raising show The Secret Policeman's Other Ball.

Great Drinking Songs (17) - my favourite song from the later, post-Shane MacGowan era of The Pogues - Drunken Boat (only a fan slideshow, alas, not a performance video).

Great Love Songs (16) - bluesmaster Big Bill Broonzy sings the Gershwin song Glory of Love; perhaps my favourite ever piece of acoustic guitar.

Great Drinking Songs (16) - for St Patrick's Day this year, I post The Pogues' and The Dubliners' version of The Irish Rover.

The Sports Channel

Er..... no sports selections in the whole of the last year?! How did that happen? I'll have to do something about that very shortly.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Defining the Spring

Beijing, I learned last week, has an official definition for the arrival of Spring: the daytime high temperature has to achieve a 5-day average of 10 degrees Centigrade or better. And we passed that threshold on Wednesday or Thursday last week.

It seems a bit of a wonky criterion to me. Two or three days of reasonably mild weather, or a single properly warm one (and it's not unknown for us to have the odd day nudging above 20 degrees C in early March) will easily bump up the 5-day average to that kind of level - even though the temperature may plunge again subsequently, taking 5-day averages back below the 'Spring threshold'.

I would have thought that a more reliable test would require not just an average over a number of days, but a sequence of days - perhaps three or more - each reaching the required temperature. I would also have thought that it ought to take some account of how long the temperature has been near the highpoint, or above an agreed threshold. We have a lot of days where there's a 20-minute interval of strong sunshine, and the rest of the day is at least 5 degrees colder. If it's not feasible to measure the number of hours at or above a certain temperature, then I'd suggest that the critical threshold temperature needs to be considerably higher; 10 degrees C is still pretty nippy, anyway - I would have thought 12.5 degrees would be more like it (with a requirement of something like 5 hours a day at or above that point), or 15 degrees for an isolated peak.

Oh, and of course, it mustn't freeze overnight. The really odd thing about our weather over the past few weeks is that, although the sunshine has sometimes been quite bright and warm, the weather systems are still predominantly coming from the north - so the air is far nippier than it should be at this time of year, and the wind has a keen edge to it. We've had several nights lately where, despite Spring-like weather during the day, the temperature plummeted perilously close to freezing again overnight. Last night was definitely a good few degrees below, probably the coldest we've had since January.

The Beijing meteorologists claim, of course, that however cockeyed their definition is, in practice it seems to work well enough: for the last several years, at least, it has managed to coincide with the arrival of sustained warm weather, the end of overnight frosts, and the massed, synchronous blossoming of trees around the end of March.

This year, however, the appearance of blossoms has been sporadic thus far; and those trees that have put forth most fully will have been most severely rebuked for their optimism last night. Spring still doesn't feel like it's here, despite what the weathermen were telling us last week.

All of which is merely an excuse for a song..... It Might As Well Be Spring, from Rodgers and Hammerstein's State Fair. There's a very good rendition by the now largely forgotten Dorothy Collins, performing it live on a 1950s TV variety show here; and the classic Dick Haymes recording (no video) here; though the best of the lot is surely Ella Fitzgerald's (but again, no video). But here's Jeanne Crain singing it (well, apparently she was being dubbed by one Louanne Hogan) in the movie...

Monday, April 12, 2010

What are they thinking??

Employers, that is.

Especially employers who fail to give me jobs.

Well, more specifically, HR people - since it is usually they who somehow fail to forward your application appropriately to the nominal 'decision-maker'.

And, even more specifically, the HR people at..... well, one of the Embassies. You can probably guess which.

A little while ago, you see, succumbing to mounting despair about the dwindling income stream from my freelancing efforts, I applied for a job at one of the Embassies processing visa applications.

And I got a bit pissed off with them when they didn't even acknowledge the application. I mean, that minimal courtesy shouldn't require so much effort; and it is, I think, essential in a country like this where the ricketiness of the Internet architecture and the huge amounts of government interference in the normal functioning of the Web add to the general glitchiness that computers and e-mail providers everywhere are prone to - resulting in frequent uncertainty of transmission. If you don't acknowledge my e-mail, I'm going to have to assume it went astray - and keep re-sending it ad infinitum, or until I do get an acknowledgement from you. Sorry.

Well, the HR crew at the Embassy did respond - suitably sheepishly - to my first follow-up; but they still didn't give me much of an idea of a timetable for the selection process, just a very vague suggestion that a short-list would be drawn up soon. And I heard nothing further from them.

Again, I don't think it's asking much to expect an actual "Sorry, you didn't make the short-list this time" notification, rather than just being left to assume the worst from an ongoing silence. It's easy-as-pie to set up a single group-mailing to all the unsuccessful applicants (and I don't suppose there were huge numbers of people pursuing this particular opening). Indeed, in circumstances like this, I don't think it's unreasonable to expect a small amount of feedback on why you've been unsuccessful.

Otherwise, the suspicion lingers that they've just somehow misfiled your application.....

In this case, it does seem particularly odd that I wouldn't even make the interview stage. They didn't like my long experience of working in China? Or my involvement in the visa process from the other side, helping Chinese students prepare their applications? Or the fact that I am a trained lawyer, with at least a modest background in immigration appeals work???

Hmm. Perhaps they thought I was overqualified?!

Or perhaps I failed the security vetting (without having even been told I was to be screened)?? [I did fail one once before, many years ago - when my then still outstanding student loans required a rate of repayment outstripping the disposable income I would have had in my initial training period as a government accountant.]

It would be nice to know.

So, I chewed off the HR people a little bit more. Pointless, but cathartic - made me feel better.

And now, it seems, they are trying - in their own modest, illogical, HR-y way - to make amends to me...... by sending me notifications about every single bloody job that comes up at the Embassy, the majority of which I am patently unqualified for. Why, oh why???

Bon mot for the week

"Errors using inadequate data are much less than those using no data at all."

Charles Babbage (1791-1871)

Sunday, April 11, 2010

An illustrated Sunday poem

[Landscape with The Fall of Icarus by Pieter Brueghel the Elder, 1525-1569]

My favourite teacher at school introduced this great piece of Auden to me when I was in my mid-teens (the Classics guy, naturally: he was an endearing oddball, and - since I didn't seem to need much help with the Latin and Greek - we'd spend hours hanging out and just chatting about stuff, any old stuff, stuff like this poem; his sensibility and interests, his mischievous sense of humour were rather reminiscent of my favourite blogger, Other Mens' Flowers Tony). I think it must have been shortly after this famous work of Brueghel's had been featured in Edwin Mullins's superb BBC2 series 100 Great Paintings - one of the highlights of my childhood and a cornerstone of my education. The painting is an elegant, bitter joke - the story of Icarus is so famous, such a powerful metaphor, but here it's reduced to an irrelevance, almost invisible - an observation on the triviality of human endeavours and the loneliness of suffering, brilliantly analysed by Auden.

Musée des Beaux Arts

About suffering they were never wrong,
The Old Masters; how well they understood
Its human position; how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer's horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.

In Breughel's Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water; and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.

W.H. Auden (1907-1973)