Saturday, July 31, 2010

Film List - the 'golden oldie' store again...

Feeling a bit lazy again this week, so I'll just share/celebrate/gloat over another list of recent acquisitions from the best DVD shop in the world (the one next to Beijing's Central Academy of Drama).

My latest DVD purchases

The Searchers
(Dir. John Ford, 1956)

Buffalo Bill
(Dir. William Wellman, 1944)

Beneath The 12-Mile Reef
(Dir. Robert D. Webb, 1944)
A cheesy minor classic that launched the career of Robert Wagner. One of the great deep-sea diving films (although I think they're only fishing for sponges, which seems rather unglamorous), which I remember fondly from Saturday afternoon matinées on the BBC in my childhood.

Sullivan's Travels
(Dir. Preston Sturges, 1941)

River Of No Return
(Dir. Otto Preminger, 1954)

King Solomon's Mines
(Dir. Compton Barnett, Andrew Marton, 1950)
Another Saturday afternoon classic!

(Dir. George Sidney, 1952)
I have been assured more than once by fencing aficionados that this Stewart Granger romp is generally reckoned to boast some of the best (=technically most realistic) swordfights ever committed to celluloid. And it's a romp!

They Died With Their Boots On
(Dir. Raoul Walsh, 1941)
This Custer biopic may be almost completely divorced from reality, but it's a tremendous Western, and probably my favourite Errol Flynn film.

Alexander The Great
(Dir. Robert Rossen, 1956)

La Bête Humaine
(Dir. Jean Renoir, 1938)

The Last Laugh
(Dir. F.W. Murnau, 1924)
A silent screen classic starring Emil Jannings which I've heard praised so often, but have never before got around to seeing. Near the top of the 'to watch' pile...

Yankee Doodle Dandy
(Dir. Michael Curtiz, 1942)

Nuit et Brouillard
(Dir. Alain Resnais, 1955)
I hadn't heard before of this documentary about the Nazi concentration camps, made just a decade on from the War. It will be grim viewing, I'm sure, but essential.

La Règle du Jeu
(Dir. Jean Renoir, 1939)

The Desert Fox
(Dir. Henry Hathaway, 1951)

Jakob the Liar
(Dir. Frank Beyer, 1975)
Another film I've often heard recommended, but never got around to seeing. Also, curiously, it is by some twenty years the youngest film on this list.

It seems I have lots of quiet evenings in (and nostalgic "Saturday afternoons") nicely taken care of in the coming too-humid-to-go-out August.

Friday, July 30, 2010

Another piece of Friday frivolity

Another from the vaults of Viz comic's Crap Jokes, another dedicated to that connoisseur of the pun, JES. This one depends on some knowledge of the great English game of cricket and of the '60s/'70s English folk music scene, on an appreciation of this Liverpudlian band and this arcane sporting craft.

Sorry, but this made me fall off my chair, snort my drink out of my nose, clutch my aching ribs, etc. when I first saw it. Also, it overwhelmed me with a flood of nostalgia - for my '70s childhood, Test Match Special on the BBC, the English summer....

I really should have gone home this August. I am long overdue for a break from this dratted country.

Haiku for the week

Bad habits like snow:
Clearing the path seems too hard.
More will fall later.

This week has been a graveyard of good intentions. I was all fired up to embark upon some major lifestyle reforms - cutting out the booze, tidying the apartment, starting regular exercise again, crash dieting, getting down to some serious writing - but..... well, the weather has been sucking the life out of me. Low light and draining humidity has reduced me to wretched torpidity.

Must..... get..... up..... and..... DO......... something.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

War on Chinglish (16)

sports and games

Sports and games are not the same. A sport is an activity that exercises physical skill and/or strength. A game, however, is a form of competition defined by a complex set of rules, in which two sides contend simultaneously for victory against each other.

Running, swimming, skating, and pole-vaulting, for example, are sports but not games
(they have no aim other than to be the fastest, highest, furthest, etc.; and although several sportsmen may take part at the same time [e.g., in a sprint race] they are essentially competing individually, to try to give the best performance that they can; they are not confronting another competitor, to physically prevent him from attaining victory).

Chess, draughts, poker, backgammon, and go (weiqi) are games but not sports
(because they test purely mental, not physical ability).
Some competitive activities are both games (head-to-head competition within a defined set of rules) and sports (dependent on physical prowess): football, hockey, volleyball, basketball, etc.

A few activities may sometimes be seen as definitional grey areas. Some people object that table tennis is scarcely a sport, since it depends mostly on mental toughness and speed of reaction rather than strength or stamina. Others call darts a sport because it involves throwing something, even though the amount of physical effort involved is minimal.

Martial arts - such as boxing, wrestling, judo and taekwondo - are perhaps something of a special case: even though they are closely defined by rules and involve head-to-head competition, they are traditionally treated as sports not games. This is perhaps because a further element in the concept of a 'game' is that the victory conditions involve the achievement of some artificial object such as scoring a goal or making a basket. In martial arts, though the scoring systems may be quite elaborate, the fundamental aim is far simpler and more direct, less abstract: it is the physical domination of one's opponent - a fairly straightforward objective, more akin to running fastest in a race, or throwing furthest in the discus event.

The combined term sports games exists only in the Universe of Chinglish.

This is another of those occasions where Chinese only seems to have one common verb for use with all forms of physical exertion - and it always gets 'translated' into English as play.

Sorry, folks, that doesn't work. You have to be aware of the distinction between sports and games -
you play games but you do sports.
(Occasionally, we also use go with a few sports - I go swimming, I go running - to indicate that we are leaving the house to take part in them, just as we do with activities like shopping or hiking.)

Similarly, players play games; sportsmen do sports. Usain Bolt is not a player, because his event - sprint racing - is only a sport, not a game; he is a sportsman. David Beckham can be described as either a player or a sportsman, because football is both a game and a sport.

I had hoped that with the splurge of 'sports English' language training initiatives that popped up in the run-up to the Olympics, these stubborn Chinglishisms might at last be displaced - but, if anything, they seem to have been becoming even more entrenched.

It even bleeds through into the way some expats speak English: I've heard friends saying things like, "I'm going to play tai chi on Sunday." No, you're not; you're going to do tai chi. Please, remember the beauty of your mother tongue! Don't let it get tainted by this morass of Chinglish we find ourselves surrounded by.

Proclaiming it 'a digging instrument'

I have just risked making myself very unpopular with the fine people over at The Book Book book review blog by daring to point out that one of the most universally acclaimed and adored novels of the past decade - Khaled Hosseini's The Kite Runner - is..... er..... really not very well written.

Hosseini, I found, really overdid the piling on of thematic repetitions in different phases of his story. [Yes, just a few SPOILERS coming up, if you haven't read it yet.] The boy Hassan gets anally raped. Later, his son will suffer sexual abuse (by the same person) - just to remind us what Hassan suffered? In between times, one of the accomplices in the first rape suffers the same fate himself, and it drives him mad - so, there's some kind of cosmic justice in that, huh?

Why do we have to encounter this latter character again - in a wildly improbable coincidence - just to see him get his comeuppance? It adds nothing to the story. And why does the childhood tormentor of Hassan and Amir have to reappear as the adult villain at the end of the book? There's no real need for that, either; it's just a comic book over-simplification of narrative.

Perhaps I'm more intolerant than most people of this kind of excessive contrivance in a plot; but I think Hosseini could have got away with it if he hadn't been so goddamned heavy-handed about it. Every time there's some kind of reminiscence of an earlier event, he laboriously signposts it for you. In fact, he doesn't just make the parallel as glaring as possible; he then repeats it, to make sure you've noticed; and then, most times, he says outright what the parallel is. He seems to have a terror of leaving the reader to do any work for himself. Amir leaves some money under the mattress of his driver's children as a thank-you. Yes, of course it reminds him of when he put money under Hassan's mattress, to frame him for theft. We never would have thought of that if you hadn't told us. Little Hassan had a harelip. Years later, Amir gets his lip torn open fighting to protect Hassan's son. Oh, isn't that ironic? Yes, I think I might have appreciated the appositeness of that development - if you'd given me some peace to think about it for myself. Very, very, very clunky, obtrusive, irritating writing.

And I couldn't help but wonder - is this a product of the "creative writing" fad (industry!) that's now so rife in America? Do instructors on such courses now counsel that the average member of the reading public is so dumb or lazy that you have to join up all the dots for them, that you have to make everything really explicit, that you have to say the important stuff once, twice, three times to make sure they'll get it? That is, at least, if you want to produce a major bestseller.

It frightens me to speculate that our literary culture might be becoming so 'dumbed down' - but I really think it might be so.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010


A dozen years ago, when I was living in Toronto, I got fed up of having hair. Or perhaps I was just growing fearful about the fact that I was starting to lose my hair. Or perhaps it was just an early mid-life crisis, and I was desperate to effect some sort of change in my life. I can't quite remember now. I just know that I abruptly decided to shave my head, for the first time in my life.

And I have to say, I was pleasantly surprised by the result. I'd suffered considerable trepidation beforehand: it might look absolutely terrible, but I'd have to wait months to recover 'normality'. Luckily, I discovered that I have quite a nice-shaped head; at least, with no conspicuous lumps or disconcerting assymmetries. And the thinning patch on the crown is much less conspicuous when my hair is close-cropped all over (rather than more so, as seems to happen with many people).

I also found it quite liberating to have transformed my 'image' so completely. One's hair - and hairstyle - are such strongly defining components of one's appearance that such a radical change as this renders one virtually unrecognisable (at least, at first glance). The security guard on the door at my apartment building, and even some colleagues at the law firm where I'd been working, when I went back there one last time to empty my desk, challenged me as a possible intruder - unknown and undesirable.

And yes, there is a certain sinister, threatening mystique about this look - the associations with the skinhead movement, and with enforced 'uniform haircuts' in the armed forces or institutions of correction.

I'd been very wary of adopting such a potentially stigmatised badge of identity before I took the plunge, but I soon began to revel in it. People just don't give you any hassle if you've got a shaved head. Or, if they look like they might be thinking about it, it's much easier to fake a 'psycho stare' to dissuade them. I spent much of that summer touring around North America on the Greyhound buses, and I was almost always able to get a double-seat to myself. Luxury! I'd rarely enjoyed such good fortune in previous years when I'd ridden the buses around the country with hair.

Also, I discovered that you can effectively 'wash' your hair when it is this short by simply throwing a few handfuls of water over it in a bus station washroom. You don't even have to towel down afterwards: a quick rub of the head with the bare hand makes most of the surplus water spray off the bristles, and the rest evaporates in no time. It may perhaps have been this issue of practicality that was foremost in my mind when I took the momentous decision.

In the first few days after the cut, there's also an exquisite hypersensitivity of the newly-exposed scalp: it's as though you can feel every little movement of each individual follicle. Even the slightest breeze riffling through those tiny hairs is like a wonderfully sensual massage. You find yourself stroking your own head constantly, becoming addicted to that stimulating prickling of the scalp - and delightedly, fascinatedly gauging how the texture of the hair changes day by day as it slowly grows longer and softer again. You even encourage friends - and perhaps some strangers too - to pat or stroke your head. You suddenly understand why dogs are such suckers for this: it feels that good.

Perhaps it's a first-time only phenomenon, though. This thrilling novelty of sensation wears off after a week or two; and I think I felt it much less strongly - barely at all? - on the couple of subsequent occasions I've tried cutting off all my hair.

However, it's been.... 4 or 5 years now since the last time I did it. And after such a long lapse, I am once again enjoying something of the exhilaration that I did on first experiencing bristle-hair back in '98.

[I have long been tempted to adopt this as my regular 'hairstyle' - partly because my hairloss has accelerated conspicuously in the last few years, and partly because it's often such a hassle trying to get a decent haircut in China. However, my decision at the start of this week to shave my head once again - and this time, for the first time, I did it myself.... so, it's a bit untidy - was prompted by the exceptionally hot and humid weather we've been suffering here. Even with my hair cut fairly short and neat, I'd still been suffering this unpleasant sensation that it was constantly matted with sweat. I'm feeling much cooler and more comfortable now. Of course, if it hasn't grown out again by the time the autumn gets here, I may need to get myself a woolly cap!]

Monday, July 26, 2010

Bon mot for the week (century... millennium)

First they came for the Communists,
but I was not a Communist, so I did not speak out.
Then they came for the Socialists and the Trade Unionists,
but I was neither, so I did not speak out.
Then they came for the Jews,
but I was not a Jew, so I did not speak out.
And when they came for me,
there was no-one left to speak out for me.

Martin Niemöller (1892-1984)

These lines have always seemed particularly important to me, ever since I first heard them as a schoolboy of about ten - but particularly so at this time, living in this country now.

I stand corrected on the matter of the author here. I had always been led to believe that these words were spoken by Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945), and this is an attribution which seems to have gained primacy on the - not always so reliable - Internet. However, it would seem that they are more properly ascribed to Niemöller; although the exact text and provenance are shrouded in obscurity, it would seem that the famous 'poem' is derived from or inspired by one or more speeches that he made shortly after the War. Like Bonhoeffer, he had been one of the leaders of the Confessing Church, a dissident Protestant group that opposed Hitler; but unlike Bonhoeffer, he survived his wartime internment in the concentration camps. And his initial support of Hitler when he first came to power makes him a more ambivalent, somewhat tarnished figure - which is perhaps the reason why so many have preferred to associate these inspiring words with the martyred Bonhoeffer.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Between the lines

A long time ago, I wrote affectionately about an artist I know here who used to carve traditional Chinese signature seals - 'chops' - for me. This is someone I've known since fairly shortly after I arrived in Beijing: I went to his wedding; I held his daughter in my arms when she was two days old; I enjoyed one of my pleasantest Christmases with his family.

I have followed his career over these past several years, and have always tried to support the openings of his shows. Just last October, I wrote this brief appreciation of one of his typically quirky pieces.

Like most artists, he's passionate and idealistic, occasionally a little over-excitable and outspoken - that's why we love him. In the past, though, any 'subversiveness' tended to be more social or aesthetic rather than directly political, and was informed by a schoolboyish sense of mischief rather than a determination to lock horns with the authorities. (I particularly liked his piece a few years back, 'Monkey King In The Crystal Palace', a reference to an incident in the classic Chinese tale Journey To the West, where the infamously irresponsible simian 'hero' causes havoc in a glass mansion under the sea. He constructed a rather realistic-looking 'bomb' out of pieces of scrap metal, and then wheeled it into the city on a donkey-cart, leading to rubber-necking and traffic jams on the 3rd Ringroad, and much perplexity on the part of the police as to how they should respond. The building management at the Jianwai SOHO mall complex, where it was to have been displayed in a garden, decided that it was too 'disruptive of public order' and locked it away in a basement. The discomfiture of the authorities was more the point of the exercise than the sculpture itself, I think; discomfiture, but nothing more.)

In recent years, though, he's become increasingly politicized in his outlook - largely through the art community's frequent unhappy collisions with rent-gouging landlords and avaricious property developers (who, in turn, are invariably hand-in-glove with corrupt government officials). This recent profile by Evan Osnos in The New Yorker suggests that some of his contemporaries had started to compare him, in a modest way, to Ai WeiWei, the Chinese art world's 'superstar activist'.

This February, he led a protest march down Chang'an Dajie in the centre of Beijing, calling attention to the violent intimidation that was being used to try and force him and other artists to vacate an 'art village' in the Changdian suburb. I noted at the time that this had given us all some cause for anxiety. This might seem like a very routine and trivial assertion of the rights to freedom of expression and freedom of association to those of us from the West, where these rights are somewhat taken for granted. In China, this kind of thing just does not happen - certainly not in the heart of the capital, less than a mile from the official residences of the Party leaders in Zhongnanhai. At first, things seemed to have passed off well enough: there were no arrests during the demonstration, and a few weeks later there was news of what seemed to be a small 'victory' - the artists were still being evicted, but had at least received a promise of some compensation. But still we worried that there might be repercussions against the leaders of the protest.

Seven weeks ago, my friend disappeared.

Eventually, it came to light that he was being held in custody by the police. His family had not been officially notified of this (as Chinese law theoretically requires - but who's to enforce such 'rules'?). He was allowed only very token access to a lawyer during his first month in detention. He's only been allowed a couple of very brief visits from his wife. Apparently, Chinese law has no custody time limits as such, and does not even require that a formal arrest be made until someone has been held for 5 weeks. It seems there are no clear guidelines, much less 'requirements', with regard to making a charge or scheduling a trial date either - although it appears that things are now moving forward at last, and the situation should become clearer during the next few months.

Peter Foster, the China correspondent for the UK's Daily Telegraph newspaper, was one of the first foreign journalists to pick up on the story, on his blog (in this further update he included an English translation of the official witness statement of a friend who was with the artist when he was taken into custody). It's also been covered in the Toronto Star and the New York Times.

I'm not sure if my friend's arrest really has much if anything to do with his 'political' activities, if it is some kind of payback for having ruffled the feathers of some of the denizens of Zhongnanhai (or the more lowly local Party officials in Chaoyang District whose lucrative redevelopment plans have been delayed and embarrassed by his resistance); it might be that he's just the unlucky victim of some random vindictiveness by the police. Unfortunately, there's nothing all that uncommon about his case: he is representative of tens of thousands of ordinary Chinese citizens who are rode roughshod over by the authorities every year, abused and beaten by the police, thrown into jail for long - sometimes indefinite - terms.... for no good reason at all.... and with no semblance of an effective criminal justice system to protect them.

People sometimes try to tell me that 'the rule of law' is an abstruse and relatively unimportant concept; that the Chinese people are happy enough to get by without it, fearing that its introduction might hamper the meteoric rise of their economy. No - 'the rule of law' is the foundation of everything else, it is essential to a civilised society; there can be no true or lasting 'prosperity' without it.

This is something we should all be ANGRY about - not about the fate of one man, but about a legal system that can swallow people like a black hole..... and about a government that feels it needs such medieval mechanisms of oppression to hold on to its power. We shouldn't need to wait until it happens to someone we know to feel this ANGER. This affects us all, every single one of us who lives in China, Chinese and foreign alike: something like this could happen to any one of us at any time. It is happening to dozens, hundreds of people every day. And it is always someone you know: your neighbour, your uncle, your classmate, your fruit-seller.... someone like you.... you.

[There's not really anything that can be done to help this situation. The Chinese authorities tend to react very negatively to external pressure, and I am rather nervous that too much foreign press interest in the case might prove counter-productive. I'm wary even of talking about it too openly here on the blog.

However, my friend's wife and daughter are both Canadian citizens; and it is highly likely that he will become one himself as soon as this nightmare is over. The Canadian government has made some expressions of support, and claims to be 'monitoring' the case. Therefore, if you are Canadian, it might be helpful to keep up the pressure on your government to involve itself as effectively as possible by writing a letter to your elected representative, or direct to the office of the Prime Minister, saying that you are aware of this case and concerned about its outcome.]

Friday, July 23, 2010

Recently, on The Barstool

Well, of course, it was nearly all football on my 'drinking blog' over the past month or so....

However, I hope that won't have completely deterred Froogville readers from stepping over to the other side once in a while. Recent highlights over there have included a friend matchmaking for me with Ms Christina Hendricks, Nelson Mandela shilling organic beer, and the donation of a new word to the English language (illustrated with a clip of the finest piece of sports commentary ever), an analysis of the reasons women give for not going on dates with me, and a roundup of suggestions for possible names for new bars or restaurants in Beijing (intended as a reminder/redirect to this long-standing 'collecting box' for favourite bar name ideas).

See what you've been missing?

Hip? (Another Friday frivolity)

[Another gem from the very hip cartoonist Hugh McLeod's
Gaping Void website.]

I was always much less impressed with 'hip' than with 'cool'. 'Cool', it seems to me, is a truly individual expression of..... panache, élan, savoir faire, unflappability, insouciance (damn, why are the best words for this all French?)..... the emanation of a unique stylishness. Whereas 'hip' seems to be more about embodying a kind of style that is externally determined; and the pursuit of such an effect can often seem rather too self-conscious and effortful, the antithesis of true cool. The Fonz, I felt, was more hip than cool (though he could be pretty cool on occasions, too).

My favourite line on hipness came in The Hitch-Hiker's Guide To The Galaxy (possibly in the original radio series only; that was my initial medium of consumption, and remains the version I recall most vividly), said by Zaphod (or was it Ford Prefect?) of someone who failed to impress him: "He's so unhip, it's a wonder his bums don't fall off."

Haiku for the week

When mind, heart wander,
Pain recalls us to ourselves.
A kick in the shins.

Everything's a metaphor with me.....

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Live the language!

My Austrian friend Andreas Laimboeck (a long-time Beijing drinking companion who has made occasional bit-part appearances over on my other blog under a protective alias) has for the best part of a year now been devoting himself to setting up a new Mandarin school. Although he's been keeping up his day job at the same time, this is no mere 'hobby project' but a true labour of love - he's really put a tremendous amount of effort into getting things done right.

He was putting the finishing touches to his study centre in the early part of this year (there was a splendid day-long barbecue party to 'christen' the place last month), and he's now been fully operational for a few months - and already has quite an impressive roster of students. It's a great location for people living on the east side or working in the CBD: in the Sunshine 100 complex, just a few minutes north of Dawanglu subway station. Very nicely set up, too (in a converted apartment), with two fully-equipped modern classrooms, a couple of cosy study/relaxing areas, a kitchen and a balcony.

However, he anticipates that most students would prefer to have tutors travel to them, for lessons at their home or office; and he's quite prepared to provide that.

Of all my Chinese-speaking foreign friends, Andreas has achieved one of the highest levels in his effectiveness in oral communication - so good that he can prosper in a sales job where he's communicating with his customers entirely in Chinese. He therefore has quite a bit of insight into how to study Chinese effectively, and what the biggest barriers are for non-Asian learners. He's taken care to find Chinese teaching staff who are progressive and flexible in their approach, and he wants to put an emphasis on tailoring courses of lessons to the individual needs and goals of each student.

I, of course, am a notorious sceptic about the merits of learning this language. But I appreciate that most people do not share this curmudgeonly view, and I'm always very impressed by people who really knuckle down and make good progress in their Mandarin learning.

The fees are very reasonable (and I think there are some extra discounts for new students at the moment). If you're interested in taking a Mandarin course, I'd say Andreas' new school is well worth checking out -
he calls it Live the Language.


The sidewalks of Beijing are rife with dangers.

A lot of it is down to the trees - of which there are far too many, and not planted very deep (and, I suspect, being starved of water for most of the year spurs them to even greater zeal in extending their root systems). Thus, there are loose, broken, and wildly uneven paving stones all over the place.

Of course, it is the 'concealed' ones, the ones with the subtle trompe l'oeil effect that convinces you they're perfectly level when in fact they're somehow sticking up a crucial quarter or a half an inch above their neighbour - it's those that are the most hazardous.

Then, of course, you have piles of rubble and building materials spilling across the sidewalks everywhere.

And frequent holes and trenches to facilitate mysterious construction work (there are some of the hutongs near where I live that seem to get their drains relaid two or three times a year, yet they never seem to work any better); holes and trenches (and manholes with missing covers) that are rarely fenced off or signposted, and never illuminated at night.

And then, despite all of these other hazards and the great shortage of actual usable space for passage to and fro, you get a lot of people riding bicycles on the sidewalks - or, these days, quite often the super-deadly electric bicycles; or even, on occasion, driving cars.

But perhaps the most vicious of all of these lurking dangers are the little bits of metal that sometimes rear up unexpectedly out of the ground: almost-invisible metal studs that once secured some useless piece of street furniture but whose only purpose now is to trip up the unwary pedestrian; those wretched, pointless, ankle-entangling bits of mini-fencing that appear to be made out of croquet hoops; or those brutally unyielding bollards that are (presumably) designed to deter people from parking their cars on (or cutting corners across) particular sections of sidewalk.

These last are relatively uncommon, at least in my neighbourhood; so my highly-attuned internal 'threat radar' sometimes gets caught out by them.

As happened yesterday afternoon. I'd been doing some shopping in a foreign supermarket over in the Embassy district, and it was a savagely hot day. So, I was rather more intent on trying to flag down a cab than maintaining a maximum level of risk-awareness..... and I failed to notice a row of these beastly bollards along the edge of the sidewalk.

They're steel tubes filled with concrete - very, very hard indeed. They're painted in yellow-and-black wasp stripes to try to make them conspicuous, but it just doesn't work. They're quite small - only 8" or 10" high - and so completely below your sightline if your attention is focused on the traffic approaching on the road. I'd got one of these little bastards right under my feet, and didn't have the slightest idea it was there. When a taxi finally hove into view, I hailed it gratefully, and - since the unhelpful driver pulled in three or four yards down the road from where I was standing - took a big stride towards it.

Or.... I tried to take a big stride towards it. Unfortunately, my rear leg was right up against the unseen steel bollard, so, as I bent my leg forward, with my full weight upon it (and the weight of a lot of shopping too), I suddenly found myself braced against an unyielding obstacle, the sharp edge of its upper rim catching me exactly half-way up my shin.

I consider myself very lucky that I didn't snap my tibia in two like a twig. I reacted very quickly, transferring my weight to my leading foot and deftly unhooking the trapped leg in a fraction of a second. But all the same - OUCH!

The first blast of pain was so acute, I thought for a moment it might make me vomit. Fortunately, that gave me enough of an adrenalin-rush to help me keep it together until I got home. I discovered I had gouged a small but deep groove down the middle of my shin (right down to the bone, although - thank heavens - the wound closed up again of its own accord very quickly), and in the space of just a few minutes this trauma had raised a bump nearly 1" high and 4" or 5" long on the front of my leg. That disgusting super-lump soon subsided, but then I suffered more modest swelling from my ankle to just below my knee.

Luckily enough, the pain and stiffness are on the wane already, and I don't think I've chipped the bone or anything.

It was a terrifyingly close call, though: a taunting reminder that I (still) don't have any medical insurance.

If you relax your vigilance for even a moment in this country, you can be made to suffer for it very heavily. I'm usually so good about keeping a lookout for these pavement hazards. What caused this lapse in alertness yesterday?

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

A venue too far

I was modestly excited to discover that our local football team, Beijing Guo'an, were to be playing a visiting European side in an exhibition game this week. And not a soulless corporate behemoth like Manchester United or Real Madrid, but an actual football team - honest, down-to-earth English mid-table toilers, Birmingham City.

My excitement evaporated when I discovered the game was to be played not at the Workers' Stadium (as I had naturally assumed it would be) but at the dratted Bird's Nest Olympic Stadium (now, apparently, styled the 'National Stadium').

As I griped during the Olympics, the powers-that-be here outstripped their customary stupidity by locating the main Olympic venues in the most inaccessible part of the city.

Now, it ought to be a relative doddle to get to the Olympic Green, because it's in a reasonably central location, just off the 4th Ringroad, only 4 or 5 miles out of the centre of the city. But the public transport links are horrible: taxis and buses can't stop on the Ringroad itself, and there didn't seem to be any obvious taxi ranks or bus stops or whatever beside the main entrances (I think there were extra bus routes laid on during the Olympics, but they weren't well advertised, and have probably long since been discontinued). The subway link was even worse: an entirely separate line (with a laborious, overland interchange) serving just the Olympic Green, and 'connected' only to one other line - Line 10, which is itself scarcely connected to the rest of the network. From where I live, I have to negotiate three interchanges in the space of 8 or 9 stations. And the nearest exit station is still the best part of a mile away from the stadium (and I'm not sure that this rump of a line is still in service anyway; in fact, I'm not even sure if it was fully in use during the Olympics - some of the stations appeared to be closed when I walked by). I could walk all the way in a little over an hour - it's probably quicker.

Quite apart from the galling practicalities of getting there (and back), the area around the Bird's Nest is severely unappealing, a 'cultural desert'. A visit to the Workers' slots neatly into a wider schedule of revelry, since it's in the heart of the city's nightlife zone, with several clubs, bars, and restaurants within the stadium complex itself, and the Sanlitun bar district only a few minutes' walk away.

Moreover, though the atmosphere of the place suffers rather from its excessive size (it's seldom more than a third or a half full, other than for the very biggest games), it is the traditional home of the capital side, and thus inspires fervent emotions in the fans. Even I have some sentiment invested in the place, since it is the scene of the 5 or 6 games I've previously seen here.

The Bird's Nest is a pain-in-the-backside to get to, and will probably be three-quarters empty and severely lacking in atmosphere. And there's nowhere to go for a drink afterwards.

I think I'll watch the game at home, thanks.

Come on, you Blues!

Monday, July 19, 2010

A double bon mot

"It is never too late to be what we might have been."

George Eliot (1819-1880)

"Man cannot remake himself without suffering, for he is both the marble and the sculptor."

Alexis Carrel (1873-1944)

[A good line - though I discover that Carrel was an odious eugenicist. I'm not sure if he was here thinking of the reformation of individuals or the modification of humankind as a whole through selective breeding and euthanasia. I was thinking of the former.]

Saturday, July 17, 2010

My Fantasy Girlfriend - Daisy Sweetgrass

Now, it might seem to be something of a departure - a potentially rather embarrassing or even dangerous departure, at that - to add to the ranks of my fantasy heartstring-pluckers someone who lives with me here in Beijing (not in the 'intimate cohabitation' sense, of course, but in the 'geographically proximate' sense), someone who I (almost) know... well, someone that I do at least bump into around the place once in a while.

I defend myself against any such accusations of rashness or impropriety by pointing out that Daisy Sweetgrass does not really exist. She is but a stage persona and playful alter ego created by the lovely and talented young singer-songwriter Christine Laskowski.

Moreover, she's safely out of Beijing at the moment, on a month-long tour around China with her bluegrass band The Redbucks, promoting their recently relased CD All That Glitters.

There are a few songs from that album available as a free sample on The Redbucks' site above (and you can download the whole thing from Amazon or i-Tunes - recommended). And on Daisy's website (although it seems to be half-way through a rebuild: I can't currently find a rather charming Chinese folk-pop song she sang with a couple of her neighbours' kids) there are now no fewer than 14 songs, including her haunting version of Jolene.

I first ran into Daisy about a year ago, when she was playing a solo mid-week show at one of my regular neighbourhood hangouts, the French-run Salud bar. She sang Me and Bobby McGee - and I had to pick my jaw up off the floor. I have a great weakness for a sweet singing voice. And when a beguiling voice is allied with a bewitching smile, well, the heart just flops around like a landed fish. Ah, Daisy - she's even managed to make polka dot dresses iconically sexy for Beijing's music fans.

Thank heavens she doesn't really exist. And is out of town. A quiet morning's wistful swooning over some of her songs on my computer, and I'll be on top of this again. And the next time I happen to see Christine, I'll be able to have a drink and a chat with her - without a trace of bashfulness or awkwardness. Maybe.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Art, music, culture

The Beijing Cultural Heritage Protection Centre - fighting to save the capital's surviving hutongs and other historic pieces of architecture from the predations of greedy property developers and the corrupt Party cronies who rubberstamp their insane schemes - has launched a new initiative to raise funds and awareness, Do You Hutong?

The inaugural event is to be tomorrow evening, Saturday 17th July, out at the Three Shadows Photography Art Centre, a swish gallery in the Caochangdi art colony just outside the north-east 5th Ringroad. I gather it will involve a variety of art exhibits, a buffet, and a live music performance from popular laowai band Girls Are Waiting To Meet You (GAWTMY).

It's a cause well worth supporting. And it should be a fun evening - even though it is a bit of a pain-in-the-bum to get there. Maybe I'll see you there....

Haiku for the week

It saps the spirit:
No light, no depth, no colour -
Everywhere greyness.

Beijing in August. Christ, it's still only the middle of July! We have six or seven more weeks of this shit to struggle through. Now I remember why I always aim to quit Beijing in the summer (but only seem to succeed in doing so in alternate years).

Spells like this - drab, overcast, super-humid - where we don't see the sun for days or weeks at a time quickly induce SAD.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

The worst seminar room in the world

Long, narrow rooms are not great for meetings, presentations, seminars, etc. It's not easy to move to and fro amongst the participants, and the people at the back are a little too far back.

It's even worse when a huge and pointless pillar in the middle of the left side of the room restricts the sight-lines, and basically reduces the effective width of the venue by about one third.

Ah yes, and then - why not? - let's have floor-to-ceiling windows down the whole of one side of the room, to ensure that - even with wooden blinds, and on the north side of the building (but, alas, also on the top floor, under a flat roof) - the room will get baking hot.

Let's have our refreshment table inside the seminar room rather than outside, so that the burbling of the (permanently on) water-boiler will be a constant irritation - and throw lots of steam into the already quite-humid-enough atmosphere.

Let's have the most enormous tables we can possibly find - to make it really difficult to move them around to change the seating arrangements, and to create a daunting physical barrier between the participants and the presenter. Insist that I have to use one of these, too, even though it is at least five times bigger than I need. I would be quite happy with a coffee table, or a chair, to put my lap-top on, but NO - I have to base myself behind one of these ridiculously huge tables, which makes it almost impossible to develop good interaction with the participants.

Let's not have a ceiling-mounted PowerPoint projector. Perching one on a desk at the front of the room is so much more stable, and has the added advantage of making it impossible for me to move anywhere at the front of the room without crossing the path of the beam.

Let's have a gigantic projector screen that covers virtually the whole of the usable area of the end wall - leaving no room at the sides to display a whiteboard or flipchart, and, er, nowhere for me to stand.

And then, to complete my perfect happiness, have the air-conditioning fail to operate effectively. And, despite empty promises that you will get it taken care of, repeatedly fail to have it working for subsequent seminar engagements in the series. And fail/refuse to make any alternative provision for cooling the room down - like, maybe, borrowing a couple of portable fans for the afternoon.

Am I too fussy? Perhaps I am! All I ask is a little bit of space to move around in, that's not directly in front of the projection screen. And a working temperature of less than 30⁰ C. I don't think that's so very demanding.

But my Chinese partners almost invariably do.....

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

The TV Listings (5)

It's only been just over three months since I last did one of these roundups of my YouTube postings, but.... well, it has been a bumper three months! I'd better try and get into a regular habit of doing these listings every quarter - otherwise things could soon get completely unmanageable.

The Comedy/Movie Channel

Fantasy football!! - a childhood favourite dug out of the YouTube archives on grounds of 'topicality', given my present obsession with the World Cup: the animals' football match from Disney's Bedknobs and Broomsticks.

When I See An Elephant Fly - a series of links to articles on the 'greatest animated films' is my pretext to embed my favourite clip from Dumbo.

Lego eases the pain... - a re-enactment of the two key moments in England's 1-1 World Cup draw with the USA, animated with Lego figures. Actually, no, it doesn't make things any better at all: funny, yes, but still acutely painful to watch.

Darling Lulu - ultimate 'Fantasy Girlfriend' Louise Brooks, in a wonderful montage of clips from her greatest film, Pandora's Box (set to Mr Brightside by The Killers).

"This train'll stop at Tucumcari" - the marvellous opening scene from Sergio Leone's For A Few Dollars More rounds off my monthly 'Film List' on 'Crowning Moments Of Awesome'. This post also included links to great moments from Fistful of Dollars, Top Gun, Commando, Lawrence Of Arabia, and.... Duckman.

The sexiest secretary in the world - this month's 'Fantasy Girlfriend' is Miss Scott (as played by English model/actress Tracy Reed), the ravishing PA to George C. Scott's General Buck Turgidson in Kubrick's Dr Strangelove. So, of course, I have to embed a clip featuring her scene (and also Slim Pickens, as B-52 pilot Major 'King' Kong, announcing to his crew that they are about to go "toe-to-toe with the Russkies").

Faces - two favourite movie scenes that make stunning use of extended, extreme close-up on an actor's face: Gérard Depardieu at the start of Alain Corneau's Tous Les Matins Du Monde and Glenn Close at the end of Stephen Frears's Dangerous Liaisons.

OK Go vs. The Rube Goldberg Machine - one of the best pop music videos ever made (thanks to the inimitable JES for bringing this to my attention).

The Music Channel

When I See An Elephant Fly - pretty nearly my favourite Disney song, from Dumbo (see above).

Three Lions (2010 Version) - the latest retread of England's suprisingly rousing, eye-moisteningly poignant football song makes an appropriate inclusion (during the World Cup, just as we're about to go crashing out, yet again) to my Great Drinking Songs thread.

Mr Brightside - The Killers' song accompanies a superb little video of silent screen siren Louise Brooks (see above).

(You Gotta) Fight For Your Right (To Party) - the upcoming 5th anniversary bash for Beijing's best live music bar, 2 Kolegas, seems like sufficient excuse to dig up this classic '80s party anthem from The Beastie Boys.

I'm walkin' - a post on my preference for music venues that I can walk to (rather than ones that are ridiculously remote, way over on the far side of town) prompts me to put up this clip of Fats Domino performing his classic song, with a little help from Ricky Nelson.

Hot For Teacher - I've been going through a bit of a spell of nostalgia for the 1980s, evidently; this time, one of my favourite bits of Van Halen, from the 1984 album that everyone was playing to death in my first year at university.

The 'Z Cars' Theme - incessant balalaika playing from one of my musical neighbours somehow puts me in mind of the opening music from this classic British cop show of my childhood.

Fly Me To The Moon - a montage of photographs of the lovely Julie London accompanies her classic rendition of this song. Also, links to versions by Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole, and gorgeous contemporary Polish singer Karolina Pasierbska.

And The Band Played 'Waltzing Matilda' - I commemorate ANZAC Day with Eric Bogle's heart-wrenching First World War ballad about one of the Australian casualties in the Gallipoli landings: versions by Bogle himself, The Pogues, and Liam Clancy; along with links to a further version by The Pogues, performing it live, and also to renditions by Joan Baez and by Australian folk singer John Williamson.

Lili Marleen - the great WWII love song performed by the German actress Hanna Schygulla in Rainer Werner Fassbinder's 1981 film Lili Marleen. There are links to several other interesting versions of the song, including the classic original by Lale Andersen.

It Might As Well Be Spring - Jeanne Crain in the film version of Rodgers & Hammerstein's State Fair (although I discover that her singing was in fact dubbed by a Louanne Hogan). I also threw in links to versions by Dorothy Collins, Dick Haymes, and Ella Fitzgerald.

I Wanna Be Like You - the Easter Monday Bank Holiday in England reminds me of the regular childhood holiday TV treat of Disney Time, and prompts me to put up this clip of the great Italian bandleader Louis Prima as King Louie in The Jungle Book, and some links to other versions of the song in a range of foreign languages. (Also, a home video from my old university pal The Swordsman, recording his family's recent visit to Cinderella's Castle.)

This Too Shall Pass - a great little song from a Chicago band previously unknown to me, called OK Go. I originally posted this primarily for the remarkable 'Rube Goldberg machine' in the video (see above), but I found that the music grew on me. And I added several links for other videos of theirs.

The Sports Channel

England's greatest football moments - the fan video accompanying the latest version of the fine football song Three Lions (see above) includes a particularly good selection of England's best (and most heartbreaking) moments in the last few decades of footballing competition (and high quality video, too).

England's greatest goals - from the last three decades, anyway: Gazza's at Wembley in '96, John Barnes's in the Maracana, and a 'Top 10' from a YouTube poster. No additions to this collection in 2010 (sigh).

Monday, July 12, 2010

'Normal service'

[This rather fine drawing from the English illustrator Kim Thompson]

Yes, yes, I know - it's been all football on here (and on The Barstool) for the last month; and many of my 'regulars', not feeling quite the same affinity (or obsession) for the game that I do, have been feeling alienated, bored, started looking elsewhere for their kicks. Yes, you've become football widows. Sorry.

I like to think that, despite the predominating football theme, I have managed to maintain some breadth and variety in my output: we've looked at football as it touches on nostalgia, superstition, divination, zoology, literary metaphor, parallels with (or obstructions to) romantic relationships, music, advertising, linguistics, satire, and more.

But some of you were still 'bored'. Well - watch out for the upcoming 'Golf Month', that's all I can say.

Bon mot for the week

"He who stops trying to be better, stops being good."

Oliver Cromwell (1599-1658)

I hadn't come across this one before, and am a little sceptical as to whether it really was Old Ironsides (I can't source it) - but I like it.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

If I ruled the world....

Or, rather, if I coached the world...

This would be my 'team of the tournament' from this World Cup:

David Villa * Miroslav Klose


Diego Forlan * Bastian Schweinsteiger * Wesley Sneijder

Jorge Fucile * Per Mertesacker * Arne Friedrich * Philipp Lahm

Vincent Enyeama

I had been tempted to go for a 4-4-2 with Holland's Arjen Robben wide on the right; but I wanted to find room for Kaka, who did play pretty damn well, even if he wasn't able to carry his team single-handed to the final (as Brazilian figureheads seem to be expected to do). And I'm moved to pass Robben over on moral grounds: his rolling around on the ground and pulling faces every time he suffers the slightest contact with a defending player (and sometimes when he suffers absolutely no contact at all) has become quite sickening. Moreover, I don't think he's really lived up to the promise of his first two run-outs after coming back from his thigh strain: in the last two games, the threat of his jinking runs was rather too easily contained by Brazil and Uruguay.

I think this formation gives more flexibility - with Schweinsteiger sitting just a little deeper, providing the pivot between defence and midfield as he has for Germany, and Forlan and Sneijder free to drift around where they will, perhaps even swapping sides, while Kaka links with the front two. More or less a 'diamond formation', in fact.

It's hard to look beyond the German back four, who have been awesomely impressive as a unit: Friedrich and Mertesacker offer a fine blend of experience and youth, and are an even rarer combination of height/strength and pace/poise on the ball - I lost track of the number of perfectly-timed recovery tackles, often inside the penalty area, that these two made. I liked Carles Puyol and Gerard Piqué of Spain as well (especially Piqué; Puyol, bless him, is getting just a bit long in the tooth), but I think the German pair has the edge.

There's a lot to be said for taking the complete back four (and perhaps the goalkeeper too) from a single team, for the understanding that they'll have. Certainly, Philipp Lahm at right back was an automatic choice. He's been in sensational form, and doing a great job as captain for Germany; despite his diminutive stature, he's looked a dominating presence, and covers a huge amount of ground between defence and attack - even, on occasion, switching sides to fill in for the missing-in-action Jérôme Boateng over on the left. Spain's Sergio Ramos and Brazil's Maicon looked good going forward, but perhaps a little less robust in defence.

The left-back position caused me the biggest headache. I'd been tempted to take the entire German back line, but I think young Boateng has been the 'weak link' in that; not that he's played poorly, but he doesn't yet have the commanding stature of the other three, and he has tended to take a long time to recover position after forays forward down the flank. France's Patrice Evra and our own Ashley Cole are probably the two best left-backs in the world at the moment, but the dismal performances of their countries denied them a chance to shine at this World Cup. Spain's Joan Capdevilla is a rotten cheat (he got a Paraguayan player sent off by feigning - or grossly exaggerating - a facial injury), and Holland's Giovanni van Bronckhorst is really a bit past it (and hasn't done all that much apart from that stunning opening goal against Uruguay in the semi-final). Thus, Uruguay's very solid Jorge Fucile gets the nod.

The man between the sticks was a little bit of a problem too. I think Gigi Buffon is still the best keeper in the world, but he only played 45 minutes because of a back injury. Iker Casillas is starting to come good again now, but looked nervous as a kitten in some of the early games and has committed a few truly spectacular handling errors from which, for me, his subsequent good saves have not yet completely redeemed him (the Spanish fans got rather over-excited about his double save in the dying seconds against Paraguay, generously overlooking the fact that he really should have held on to the first one). Young Manuel Neuer of Germany was extremely impressive, but my vote goes - slightly sentimentally, perhaps (some consolation for the shabby way the team's been treated by their country's President) - to Nigeria's Vincent Enyeama, who was certainly the outstanding keeper of the group phase games: he only made one small error (which, alas, cost a vital goal against Greece), but a string of outstanding saves had kept his side in contention in that game up to that point (even though reduced to 10 men by a red card), as also in the very tough matches against Argentina and Korea.

Agree, disagree??

[I wrote this on Saturday night, before watching the final two games, but I'll delay posting it until some time on Sunday. Perhaps one of the Dutch, Spanish or Uruguayans will make me look a fool with a dazzling display in the last match, but this is my pick based on the bulk of the tournament.]

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Toe-to-toe with a psychic octopus

I had thought my pre-tournament (or right at the outset of the tournament, before many games had been played) prognostications on the World Cup had turned out to be pretty darned impressively accurate.

I called 11 of the 16 qualifiers from the group stage. And I could claim 12, since my suggestion that South Africa could do it was more a bit of wishful thinking, a kindly gesture of support to the host nation, rather than a serious prediction. I hadn't known that the Ivory Coast's devastating striker, Didier Drogba, was coming into the competition with a fractured forearm; that would have affected my assessment that they had the wherewithal to pip Portugal to qualification in Group G. And I maintain that Australia were desperately unlucky not to qualify ahead of Ghana in Group D.

I also had 5 of the 8 quarter-finalists (and, again, might claim 6, since my backing of South Korea over Uruguay was a burst of quixotic optimism rather than, you know, in earnest), and 2 of the 4 semi-finalists. And I predicted Spain to beat Germany 1-0 in the Final (having consulted an erroneous online rendition of the draw!); although the Spaniards have since alienated my affections with some iffy performances and some disgraceful gamesmanship, and I've actually been rooting for Germany through most of the tournament.

I didn't foresee the major upsets of Switzerland beating Spain or Serbia beating Germany - but who did? But I did predict that France would fail to qualify out of their group, and that England and Italy (and Portugal) would struggle to do so.

My major oversights were underestimating the boost Ghana would get from the "playing for the whole of Africa" phenomenon (they'd been pretty mediocre in their group games, but were a completely different proposition in the knockout phase), and failing to anticipate that Holland could transform themselves into a '70s era Germany/Italy, grinding out single-goal victories against better teams.

Aside from that, I was pretty much spot-on with most of the rest, and probably could have taken the bookies back home for quite a bit of money. OK, I didn't nail many 'exact scores' (although I wasn't really trying to), but I was mostly pretty accurate about the general margin of victory, and it would be hard to fault my analyses of the various teams' strengths and weaknesses. Indeed, on occasion, I predicted the overall pattern of a game in uncanny detail (most notably, the Uruguay v Ghana quarter-final).

But - apparently - my record is made to look puny, shot out of the water, if you will, by Paul, the World Cup octopus - who has called every single one of Germany's results so far (including their bizarre misfortune against Serbia, and the semi-final heartbreak against Spain).

His divination process seems to involve retrieving a tasty clam to eat from one of a pair of perspex boxes, each marked with the national flag of the one of the two teams in a match. I haven't been bothered to check out all of his archive, but I suspect he just goes for the nearest one each time, and that it was the serendipitous randomizing of the 'experimenters' rather than his psychic insight which 'predicted' the results. I imagine there might be an element of colour or pattern preference as well, perhaps sometimes trumping mere nearness of the clam. (Are octopuses colourblind? Apparently, expert opinion is still divided, or undecided, on this issue.)

Well, my multi-limbed nemesis has plumped for Spain tomorrow. Of course, this means nothing. He has prospered by blind fluke so far, rather than any miraculous powers of precognition or an astute appreciation of the game. And his streak's got to end some time. And, if I were a superstitious man (and I throw this crumb of comfort out to Holland fans and sports gamblers, who mostly are a fairly superstitious lot), I'd console myself with the observation that all of Paul's predictions thus far have been on matches involving Germany: his mojo may desert him when he's asked to judge the relative merits of other teams.

I suppose, to outdo the dratted creature, I will have to predict the scoreline rather than just the result - and for the last two games, rather than only the Final.

So, here goes [imagine portentous drum-roll].....

In tonight's Third Place Play-Off, I have to take Germany over Uruguay. I'm hoping it will be an open and fairly high-scoring game, so I'll suggest 3-2 to Germany as the final score (but within regular time; I don't see this going to extra time or penalties).

In the Final, I have to concur with the octopus (dammit!). Holland have been gathering momentum and confidence with each game (perhaps more so than Spain), and have developed a formidable habit of keeping on winning even when they've looked to be the second best team. However, I feel they've been riding their luck a bit, and it could at last be time for them to be found out. Spain have one of the best - if not the best - keepers in the world in Iker Casillas (although he's had a so-so season, and looked jittery for Spain in some of the earlier games here, he seems to be settling down now, and is starting to show some of his best form again), whereas Holland's Ajax keeper Maarten Stekelenburg has given the Dutch some cause for doubt. Spain also have the best striker in the tournament in David Villa, while Holland's Robin Van Persie seems to be in fairly wretched form and is obliging the midfield to contribute all his team's goals. Spain are thus, by some margin, the better team on paper, but.... Holland keep beating better teams. Not this time, though, I don't think. This one could go to extra time, but I fancy the Spanish to wrap it up inside 90 minutes; Holland always seem to get a goal from somewhere, so I'll say 2-1 to Spain.

Jia you, Xibanya!!

Where are you watching the game, Octopus?

Friday, July 09, 2010

What's in a (footballer's) name?

For an Englishman, at least, there is something irresistibly apposite about a South American defender being called Ponce - particularly when he's a delicately handsome lad, with long, sleek hair.

It was most convenient that his team mate Vidal played alongside him, ready to repair any hairstyle 'injuries' that might befall him.

The suspiciously feminine-sounding Isla was never far away, either.

Gosh, yes, I miss Chile.

I thought their most inspired selection was having a goalkeeper called Bravo. The chap between the sticks tends to suffer from rather brittle confidence, but it must be a huge boost to the self-esteem to have half of the stadium chanting your name whenever anyone - on either team - does something good! (I wonder if there are any Chinese players called Jia You??)

[The 'found humour' of the Chilean team list didn't quite approach the heights - or depths? - of the classic piece of commentary once heard in a European Champions League match about 9 or 10 years ago, when Real Madrid made a late substitution: "Gaucho, on for Quim."

That one, I feel, approaches, or perhaps surpasses, that priceless double entendre from an England v West Indies cricket Test Match back in the '80s: "The batsman's Holding, the bowler's Willey."

Ah, simple pleasures.]

Haiku for the week (month)

Poets, professors,
Magicians tame the wild ball,
Each in his own style.

Another of the wonderful things about this game: it just never runs out of metaphors.

Thursday, July 08, 2010

Dance of the gremlins

Some very, very strange things have been happening with Blogger over the last few days.

At first, I was inclined to think that it was just a glitch with my World Cup discussion thread page, which has now grown quite HUGE (over 100 comments and more than 20,000 words), and might well be maxing out either Blogger's servers or the display capacity of my browser.

However, similar problems were manifesting themselves with the comments on other posts, on both my blogs.

Often the comment form would fail to download. Or it would do so, grudgingly, but fail to display the comment verification word; so I'd have to close the window and try all over again. When I did manage to open a workable comment window, it would usually crash when I hit 'Submit' - but then I'd find (eventually) that the comment had gone through OK after all.... in duplicate. And then we got into the real weirdness, with comments going through to the 'notification' folder in my e-mail account, but not appearing on the blog for days; then, at last, they'd turn up on the blog; then disappear again. And the 'number of comments' indicator has been all over the place - seemingly disjoined from the actual total of comments: sometimes showing more than there in fact were, sometimes less, and regularly failing to acknowledge the deletion or addition of comments. Bizarre!

It was such a range of odd cyberworld phenomena that I was starting to feel a little paranoid - fretting that perhaps the goons at Kafka Central were trying to interfere with my Net link again, or that things were going awry because Blogger was getting confused by something about the way my proxy functions, or that I had picked up some particularly ingenious kind of virus on my computer.....

All nonsense, of course. It's just Blogger being a bit loopy. It has to be - doesn't it?

Ah, but then...... I hit a strange glitch with Yahoo Mail earlier today as well, where every time I clicked on a mail in my Inbox display I was routed instead to an old mail in my 'blog comment notification' folder. WTF??!! What is going on here????

Anyway, my apologies to any of you who have been trying to follow the comments on one or more of my posts and have been irritated or confused by all the repetitions over the past few days. Not my fault, I assure you.

Wednesday, July 07, 2010

The secret of great comedy - timing

Those very expensive-looking Nike TV ads for the World Cup might appear to have been some kind of jinx.

The three 'stars' they chose to highlight in the series were Cristiano Ronaldo (at least played quite well, and scored one rather stylish goal [late on, against a demoralised North Korea, but still....], but was leading a weak team who never had much prospect of getting beyond the last 16), Fabio Cannavaro (played quite poorly, and saw his has-been team humiliated by first-round elimination), and...... Wayne Rooney (hardly got a worthwhile kick all tournament, and went home after a drubbing by Germany in the first knockout round).

And in Rooney's skit, they envisaged his defining moment as sprinting the length of the field to put in a saving tackle to thwart a dangerous breakaway by Franck Ribéry in the last minute of the Final. Yeah, right. That was never the likeliest of scenarios, was it? Talk about the bizarro universe! Poor old Franck had a worse tournament than any of them - but because he has so consistently failed to reproduce his Bayern Munich form for his country over the last few years, and because the French coach, Raymond Domenech, is such a complete laughing stock in the footballing world..... well, at least no-one was watching as France finished bottom of their group and revealed themselves to be the worst team taking part. Whereas Looney Rooney's wretched non-performances were amongst the top talking points in the first half of the tournament.

Yes, unfortunate for the sponsors that their three chosen 'poster boys' - and their teams - were all such catastrophic flops in South Africa. I dare say it caused some scheduling problems with the ad campaign: they gamely persisted in running these ads while the featured players were performing so poorly, but..... once their teams had been eliminated, they had to pull them. And then, for a while, there were no Nike ads at all.

Ah, but then, they dug up another one. Perhaps it had always been planned this way. Version No. 4 featured the Brazilian striker Robinho; and it was always a pretty fair bet that Brazil would still be involved in the last week of the competition.

So, it seems Nike's ad agency had scheduled the Robinho slots to begin (at least, here in China) this week. In fact, the first one I saw was last Saturday. That's right - the day after Brazil got knocked out by Holland!

I suspect Nike have wasted quite a lot of money on this campaign. Here in China, at any rate, they seem to have cancelled the Robinho slots, but not replaced them with anything else.

That was one of the beauty's of that 'Cage' series of ads they did a few years back (was that Nike or Adidas or??), with a sinister Zinedine Zidane hosting a clandestine five-a-side tournament in the bowels of a rusting freighter: a range of players were involved in each episode, rather than just one; and they were competing in an unreal environment, for a non-existent 'team', rather than being closely identified with the fortunes of their national team in the current tournament. I trust Nike - and others - will learn the lesson for next time.

[By the way, my World Cup discussion thread has now surpassed 100 comments - although the great majority of them have been my own. I have 'changed horses', renouncing my original favourites Spain more for their odious gamesmanship than their patchy form, and siding instead with the land of my maternal ancestors, Germany. I had hoped that Uruguay could keep Holland out of the final too, but alas they weren't quite up to it. The Dutch, in this tournament, have not played very attractive football, and have become even bigger cheats than the Spaniards. Boo! Boo!]