Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Where do you think you are?

I haven't found the time to go grocery shopping for a couple of weeks, so have run out of food in the house.  With very few chums around to join me for a proper dinner out, I have thus found myself a number of times constrained by a tight schedule and a grumbling stomach to - oh, the shame of it! - resort to eating fast food.

This past weekend, for example, walking to a sports bar to catch a football game, I realised that I hadn't eaten anything substantial all day, and ducked into a Subway to get a sandwich.  I'm a big fan of Subway: tasty, reasonably healthy, and good value.  And the stores here are usually quite well run, with staff who speak decent English.

Unfortunately, I tried to ask for some bacon to be added to my chicken sandwich.

The boss himself stepped forward to deal with this outrageous request.  And he said, in remarkably good - but rather strident - English:  "You can't have that.  Where do you think you are?  This is China.  Just what you see on the menu.  There's no chicken & bacon.  Only chicken."

I think in every other Subway store I've ever been to, in every other country, bacon has been an inexpensive optional add-on (for any sandwich for which it might be appropriate).  But here in China, it seems, the bacon is reserved exclusively for the BLT.  You will cause them major stress if you try to ask for bacon on anything else.

While I was grateful to the boss man for explaining the position to me so clearly, I couldn't help thinking that China is still struggling rather with the customer service concept.

[To be fair, we did soon hit on the compromise solution of giving me some bacon on my sandwich and billing it as a 'double meat' order of chicken.  Unfortunately, this cost an extra 15 or 20 kuai, which seems a tad steep for a measly three strips of bacon.

My friend Nigel had a similarly irksome wallet-shock experience in his local Subway outlet recently.  At this branch, it seems, they are unaware of the 12-inch option, and advertise only 6-inch sandwiches.  With some difficulty, he was able to persuade them to make him a 12-inch sandwich (since the bread rolls are all 12 inches long and have to be cut into two to make the 6-inch sandwich, this shouldn't have been a hard concept to grasp, but somehow it was).  They insisted on charging him for two 6-inch sandwiches, rather than the usual much better value 12-inch rate.  Subway in China seems to be somewhat lacking in that comforting uniformity which is the essence of the franchise concept.]

Monday, November 29, 2010

Final reminder - another plug for Amy!

My photographer friend Amy Johansson has one of her pictures in a competition being run by National Geographic this month.

If you haven't already done so, please follow this link to view her remarkable picture "Unsafe Journey".  And, if you like it, please rate it out of 10 (rate it as a 10!).

The online poll closes on November 30th, so - hurry, hurry!  Thank you.

[Yes, yes, I mentioned this a week ago; but some of you might have missed it.]

What happens when you sit on a Chinese dining chair?

That's right - IT BREAKS.

I think the ubiquity of this hazard is not widely appreciated because, at least in most foreigners' apartments here in Beijing, the dining set is essentially for display purposes only.  Eating-out options are so numerous and varied and convenient (and ridiculously cheap) that most people seldom or never dine at home.  I'm a bit of a freak in that I do try to cook for myself at least 50% of the time.  But mostly I just fix myself simple pasta or rice dishes - stuff that I can eat out of a bowl, from a lap tray, while I sit on the sofa watching TV.  And I never invite people round for dinner.  Aside from an ex-girlfriend who used to cook for me about once a week, I think I've only been invited to someone's home for dinner twice in the 8 years I've been here.  Dining furniture just doesn't get used.

In my last apartment, only one of my six dining chairs got moderately regular use: the one my landlord used to sit in to count his rent money once a month (later, once a quarter).  That one broke.  Well, it didn't fall apart completely, but the joints were loose, and it started to sway and sag alarmingly.

A few months ago, my swivel desk-chair broke (I'd had it nearly 7 years, and it had survived two moves, so I can't really complain about that).  Since then, I've been using one of the four dining chairs in my new apartment for working at the computer.  And guess what - sagging joints, terminal wobbliness, imminent collapse.

I've just made a quick inspection of the other chairs in the set, and I'm quite sure the only reason they're still looking relatively solid is that no-one has ever sat in any of them.  They're all equally poorly assembled: the joints just don't fit together very securely.

[On a related note, why is it that in a Chinese sink it is the hot tap that is almost invariably labelled in blue and the cold one in red?

And why is it that in almost every kitchen in every apartment I have ever seen in China, at least one of the kitchen cabinets will have its doors sagging off its hinges (and/or the cabinet itself will be coming away from the wall)?

I reflect that my bar-owner friend Joseph prefers to do almost all the handywork in his place - the shelving, the light fittings, even the wiring - himself, rather than entrust it to Chinese workmen.  And when he has had to get Chinese labourers in for some larger task, he's usually had to supervise them every single minute - to make sure they know what they're supposed to be doing, and how.

It often seems to me that nobody knows how to do anything properly in this country.  And, worse, no-one seems to care.  There is almost no 'Made In China' product I would consider wasting my money on (things made for the local market, that is; we are seeing the beginnings of some quality control, the beginnings of some effort, in the stuff they manufacture for export).  And I certainly wouldn't ever buy a house here - the interior, at least, would be falling apart within 5 years.]

Bon mot for the week

"A man's style is his mind's voice. Wooden minds, wooden voices."

Ralph Waldo Emerson  (1803-1882)

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Dying in harness

I was reflecting the other day on my first career as a schoolmaster (nearly twenty years ago now: it seems another life, someone else's, not my own).  Much as I loved the job (or certain aspects of it, anyway), I was mightily relieved to have escaped it, when a spell of serious illness forced me to retire in my mid-twenties.

There's something insidiously comfortable about that lifestyle: the steady routines, the short working hours and long holidays, the sense of separateness - of being insulated - from the outside world; and the sense of mastery too, of having absolute dominion over your classes, absolute (well, nearly) freedom to do whatever you will with them - unsupervised and unchecked by anyone.

But there's a deadening inertia about it, too.  There's not much in the way of a career path - unless you want to take on major administrative duties (at the cost of reduced contact time with pupils) or pastoral responsibilities as a live-in housemaster in a boarding school.  It can be quite difficult to change schools.  And, after a while, you become so attuned to the characteristic eccentricities of the school and the staff you're currently working with that change begins to seem too effortful, too irksome a dislocation.

It's not uncommon to find schoolteachers (particularly in the private sector) who have spent their entire working lives in the same school.  In fact, the deputy headmaster at the school where I taught had himself been educated there, and thus - apart from the brief interlude of university, which I gather he hadn't much enjoyed - he had spent his entire life in the same place.  I found that baffling and horrifying.  But I could see that - without a bold and decisive step, and perhaps a willingness to embrace a period of unemployment - this was a path that I myself was heading along.

For me, it was ultimately the routines - the very orderliness and predictability that some people find so reassuring - that started to make the job seem irksome to me.  The repetitive cycle of the timetable oppresses the soul, I found, makes you feel like a hamster on a wheel.  Each week is the same as the one before, and each term, and each year.

There's not even that much variety available to you in what you can teach (in English literature).  Shakespeare is, of course, compulsory for all; but the number of his plays which are at all accessible for children of 14 years old or so is really pretty small.  The longer, more complex works like Lear and Hamlet have to be reserved for advanced studies at 16+.  With the juniors you're stuck with Romeo & Juliet or Julius Caesar, and perhaps Macbeth or Othello; and maybe Henry V or Richard III for a history play, and As You Like It or The Taming Of The Shrew for a comedy.  And that's assuming that your school has sufficient copies of all of these, and that all available copies have not already been appropriated by your more senior colleagues; in practice, you may only have three or four to choose from - and you have to do two with each year group.  When 'The Scottish Play' came around for the third time in four years, I found myself thinking, "Not again!"  And I didn't want to be feeling like that about Shakespeare, going 'stale' on such great writing through enforced over-exposure.  And so I resolved to get out, after at most one more year.  (But, as Fate would have it, a near-death experience got me out of it rather sooner than that.)

Philip Larkin has a fine short poem, Schoolmaster, on the theme of spending a whole lifetime in such a narrow sphere, and how such an environment erodes your sense of identity, your independent will.  It closes with the chilling line:  He had dissolved.  (Like sugar in a cup of tea.)

Unfortunately, I can't find that one online.  But here's another good one.  Some online sources appear to attribute this to Larkin, but I'm pretty sure it's actually by Vernon Scannell.  The style and sensibility are very alike, though; I'm not completely confident in the identification.

Ageing Schoolmaster

And now another autumn morning finds me
With chalk dust on my sleeve and in my breath,
Preoccupied with vague, habitual speculation
On the huge inevitability of death.

Not wholly wretched, yet knowing absolutely
That I shall never reacquaint myself with joy,
I sniff the smell of ink and chalk and my mortality
And think of when I rolled, a gormless boy,

And rollicked round the playground of my hours,
And wonder when precisely tolled the bell
Which summoned me from summer liberties
And brought me to this chill autumnal cell

From which I gaze upon the April faces
That gleam before me, like apples ranged on shelves;
And yet I feel no pinch or prick of envy
Nor would I have them know their sentenced selves.

With careful effort I can separate the faces,
The dull, the clever, the various shapes and sizes;
But in the autumn shades I find I only
Brood upon death, who carries off all the prizes.

Vernon Scannell  (1922-2007)

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Film List - this year's Christmas plans

As at this time last year, I am beginning to lay my plans for a week or two of thrifty and unsocial hibernation around the turn of the year, snuggled up at home with the DVD player.

I haven't had a major splurge of purchasing for a little while now, so I'll probably go out and see what I might have missed amongst the recent releases (a lot of people I know seem to have enjoyed Guy Ritchie's Sherlock Holmes).  However, amongst my sprawling library of classics, these are the ones that I'm feeling would be most appropriate - for me - for this holiday season.

Films I Plan To Watch This Christmas

The Wizard of Oz 
(Dir. Victor Fleming, 1939)
I had intended to watch this last Christmas, anticipating that it was about to be returned to me by a former student I'd lent it to a couple of years or so before.  I was meeting her for lunch on the day I wrote last year's post - but she again forgot to bring it with her.  I only finally recovered it a couple of months ago.

Bonnie and Clyde
(Dir. Arthur Penn, 1967)
A fairly recent acquisition, this.  I'm curious - but also a little nervous - about how well it will bear up.  I think I've only seen it once in my life, when it was shown as the 'Monday Film' on BBC1 in the early or mid-70s.  As a kid of not yet 10, or not much more than 10, I found it extremely disturbing, haunting.  I'm not sure that it will seem so potent to an adult.  But much of the point of my private Christmas Movie Festival is nostalgia - recreating favourite film-watching experiences from the past, particularly from my childhood.

The Producers
(Dir. Mel Brooks, 1968)
I'm not sure if I have this on disk or not.  If not, I must scour the city's DVD stores for it.  It is far, far, far too long since I saw this.  And my first encounter with it was as a 'Christmas film' on BBC2 in my childhood: very late at night, because of its challenging content - so I was able to enjoy it on my own, long after my parents had gone to bed.

Cinema Paradiso
(Dir. Guiseppe Tornatore, 1988)
It's a long, long time since I've seen this one as well.  I recounted here how strongly it affected me on first viewing, because of the peculiar circumstances of my life at the time (I was near suicidally depressed after a very severe and painful illness).  Tornatore has such a painterly eye for composition.  I was enraptured by the opening shot - a bowl of lemons on a whitewashed windowsill - and sat in the dark of the cinema beaming to myself, thinking "Oh, I am going to love this!"  I just hope the version I've acquired here is not the 'Director's Cut' - a tiresomely overlong version that clunkily seeks to 'explain' much that is merely alluded to in the original release (and which even includes a brief, rather sordid reunion between a middle-aged Toto and his long-lost sweetheart).  I am rarely won over by these extended versions of films (even if they might have some merit if approached in isolation, in practice they are always labouring against the associations and the affection we have built up for the film in the version in which we first experienced it); in the case of Cinema Paradiso, the original theatrical version is infinitely better.

(Dir. Brian De Palma, 1983)
Tony Montana seems to keep cropping up in conversation just recently; it seems to be some sort of cosmic hint, the kind of prompt that should not be ignored.  I might run a back-to-back comparison with Howard Hawks's 1932 film of the same name.

(Dir. Sergei Bondarchuk, 1970)
The Christmas film extravaganza has to include at least one big old historical epic.  And this is one that I first saw on TV at Christmas, as a kid, so it should conjure all the right nostalgic resonances.

The Blues Brothers
(Dir. John Landis, 1980)
Now, I know I have this one, but.... I haven't seen the disk around for ages.  I hope I didn't lend it to someone!  I'll have to do some excavating in the piles and piles of DVDs I have lying around to see if I can find it.  I think it's at least 5 or 6 years since I last saw this - far too long.  When I was at university, I'd probably watch it at least half a dozen times a year.  I mentioned recently that I thought this was probably the most quotable - and widely quoted - film of my lifetime.  I was then reminded it of even more forcefully by blog-buddy JES posting this rather wonderful music video which parodies the Ray Charles sequence from the film (a new song by Hansen, of all people!).

Oliver Twist
(Dir. Roman Polanski, 2005)
I bought this when it first came out, but somehow never got around to watching it.  Now may be the time.  A little bit of Dickens is more or less de rigueur at Christmas, after all.  I might treat myself to a comparison viewing of David Lean's (almost certainly far superior) 1948 version as well.

A Fred Astaire film
I am shamed to discover that I don't yet own any!  A trip down to the 'golden oldie' store next to the Drama Academy is definitely called for.  I think Flying Down To Rio or The Gay Divorcee would be at the top of the wish list.

Midnight Express
(Dir. Alan Parker, 1978)
Gosh, yes, it's years since I've seen this too.  In fact, I may have seen it only once, early in my undergraduate career (at the marvellous Penultimate Picture Palace in Oxford).  I remember it as a huge pop culture phenomenon during my childhood, something that was notorious as a film far too disturbing for younger children or teenagers to be exposed to, a film even my macho brother seemed to have found rather unsettling, and a film that everyone seemed to have heard about even though perhaps not that many had actually seen it.  I'm not sure if I have a copy of this: another quest may be necessary.  I am definitely a bad machine.

Inglourious Basterds
(Dir. Quentin Tarantino, 2009)
I saw this early this year, but I feel I'm definitely ready for it again.  It's not by any means my favourite Tarantino (not at all his "masterpiece", as he jokingly insinuates at the end), but there's so much going on in it that I think it will repay several rewatchings.  Tarantino, I suppose, falls into the category of 'guilty pleasures': the violence is often unpleasant, and the humour dark and perverse, but... he does it so cleverly, he creates such irresistible romps.  In this film he has masterfully recaptured the tone of the WWII comic books that were so popular in the UK in the late 60s and early 70s (I must have read dozens of them; mostly hand-downs from my elder brother).  I'm not sure if QT realises this, though; did that genre also exist in America when he was a kid??

Music and Lyrics
(Dir. Marc Lawrence, 2007)
I'll probably be watching quite a few rom-coms over this period (another of my unexpected 'guilty pleasures'!), but this Hugh Grant/Drew Barrymore charmer has become a particular favourite in recent years.  My buddy The Chairman gave it to me as a Christmas present three years ago, and it has become something of a tradition that I watch it again at this time each year.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Recently, on The Barstool...

Or not so recently....  I haven't done one of these roundups from the dark side for 6 weeks or so now.

The main event on Barstool Blues in that time was the launch of my "Mount Rushmore of Rock" post (now highlighted in the sidebars of both blogs), wherein I invite readers to nominate and discuss their four (or so) favourite rock musicians (and/or bands).

We've seen plenty more music - from Tommy Emmanuel, The Ramones, zany Finnish singing group Semmarit (who I caught in Beijing last week), and China champions of this year's Global Battle of the Bands contest The Amazing Insurance Salesmen.

Donning my 'consumer champion' hat, I've bitched about the improbable difficulties sometimes encountered in getting a decent pint of draught beer in Beijing, and about the frequent inappropriateness of cover charges.

And I have offered a helpful analysis of the Top 5 Things That Can Go Wrong On A Date.

Did you miss any of this good stuff?  Go and make amends at once.

Yet another new low

For the past few days I've been wading through the sludge of an "academic" paper on the natural gas industry - one of those editing tasks that feels more like writing the article from scratch.

The author doesn't even know the word pipeline.

Haiku for the week

Lack of answer smarts:
Instant communications
Beget instant snubs.

Trying to organize a party in the age of SMS (etc.) seems to have become harder, not easier.  I despair of the modern world....

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Happy Thanksgiving!

My Thanksgiving, alas, is cancelled this year... but I hope all of you who wish to celebrate this best of all holidays will be able to do so (without the ridiculous hassle that has blighted my week).  Happy Turkey Day!!

[This picture is a promotional shot for a New York punk band called Heloise and The Savoir Faire.  They look like they might be rather fun.  I shall have to have a noodle around on YouTube and see what I can find of theirs.]

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Boosting Amy

["Unsafe Journey" -  Copyright Amy Johansson 2009]

I've mentioned before my very talented photographer friend, Amy Johansson, when she launched her photo-essay on the tanning industry in Dhaka six months ago.  Now, another of the photographs she took while living in Bangladesh - the rather stunning one above of a young girl hitching a hazardous ride on the coupling between two railway carriages - has been selected for the final stage of a National Geographic competition.  Online voting counts toward the final result, so - if you like this shot - please follow this link and rate it out of 10 (the higher number, the better).

The poll closes on 30th November.  (I'm not sure exactly when.  Midnight, EST, I presume - but don't let things go down to the wire.  Head over there right now!  Or, as we used to say in my days as a student politico, "Vote early, vote often!")

It seems as though, as well as being a hazardous situation to photograph, it was quite a hazardous shot for Amy to get.  She tells me that she'd been photographing passengers riding on the roof of the train when she noticed this girl down between the carriages - and asked two guys to hold her legs while she lay down and leant over the edge of the roof to take the picture.

I believe there's only a modest cash prize - but Amy is a 'poor student' this year, so it would be a very welcome boost to her funds and help her with some other photo projects she's got ongoing.  And getting your name associated with National Geographic is a nice enhancement to your CV!  So I hope you'll all trot on over to this webpage and give her a high score.

Amy has some more pictures on her own website, and on a photoblog she started a few months ago to document the projects she's doing for the photography course she's currently taking in Denmark (but she's been too busy lately to keep it updated).  She was also a finalist in a competition in Elle magazine this month.

Good luck, Amy!  I hope you win both prizes.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Update on Wu Yuren

Unjustly jailed Chinese artist Wu Yuren had the first part of his trial last week.

We always knew that there would be a second hearing for the sentencing some time later (well, unless he was acquitted, of course; but that, I'm afraid, is a very slim hope); but in fact, even the main phase of the trial has not yet been completed.  After nearly four hours of examining the police witnesses and hearing submissions, the presiding judge granted an adjournment on the basis of Wu's lawyer's request to see a complete and unedited version of the police video which was supposed to have been the key piece of evidence against him. (It was purported to show abusive and/or violent conduct towards police officers questioning him at Jiuxianqiao police station; but the few short pieces of tape produced by the prosecution showed nothing of the kind.)

Wu's wife, Karen, was allowed into court to watch the proceedings (although the court officials hadn't had the courtesy to let her know that her request to attend was going to be granted; she turned up to the courthouse last Wednesday fearing that she would be forced to wait outside all day).  However, no-one else was allowed in, not even the official representative sent by the Canadian Embassy (Wu's wife and daughter are Canadian citizens).  The handful of other available seats in the 'public viewing area' (a single row of seats behind the accused) were apparently taken up by paid 'witnesses'!

There was quite a sizeable crowd outside - not just friends and colleagues of Wu, but a good number of curious passers-by, and also people with petitions of grievance against the government (I suppose it's possible that such petitioners may occasionally demonstrate outside a courthouse anyway, but it seems likely that most of these people had come specifically because they had heard on the grapevine that there was to be a high-profile case heard that day, and this might give them an opportunity to garner some media attention for their own causes).  Many of Wu's artist friends - including superstars of the Chinese modern art world like Ai Weiwei and the Gao brothers - had turned up, and gave interviews to the numerous reporters from international media outlets.  The police, it seemed, had known what to expect, and were  doing a surprisingly reasonable job of managing the crowd, keeping them back from the courthouse entrance without being too heavy-handed about it, and designating taped-off areas for the media interviews (although this 'interview area' was an adjacent building site, perhaps not the safest and certainly not the most comfortable setting for such activities; and some people were a little fretful that the crowd was being forced to spill backwards on to the busy main road).

Police witnesses attended to give evidence at the trial in person - something that is, apparently, almost unheard of in Chinese criminal cases.  Moreover, the judge did appear to be making an unusual effort to give the proceedings an appearance of fairness - allowing Wu and his lawyer to question the witnesses without interference.  His lawyer, Li Fangping, believes the international media attention surrounding the case (and the Amnesty letter-writing campaign on his behalf; and possibly also his wife's nationality, and the resulting involvement of the Canadian Embassy in monitoring the case) is responsible for this unusual turn of of events, and he is taking a modestly optimistic view of the likely outcome.  Unfortunately, the summit of such optimism is that Wu will be found guilty and receive at least the minimum sentence mandated for the charge against him (1 year - but with nearly 6 months already served).  An acquittal, unfortunately, is pretty much unthinkable, since it would involve too much "loss of face" for the police, the prosecution.... and the government.

Wu at least seemed in good spirits, and remained calm and dignified throughout; and he managed to snatch a few words with his wife during one of the recesses (the first time he's been able to see or speak to her since his detention).  He was also much encouraged to see how many people had gathered to support him outside the courthouse (he could see out of the windows of the van they brought him from the detention centre in)... and, doubtless, by the loud cheer that went up on his departure again.

There's a lot that might be said about the video evidence - or the lack of it - in this case, but perhaps I'll return to that topic at another time.  I think it's extremely unlikely that the prosecution will supply a much fuller version of the video recordings made at the police station that day; and even if they did, I doubt it it would really have much bearing on the outcome one way or the other.

The trial is expected to resume some time next week.  And Lawyer Li has been promised that he will receive a generous 72 hours' notice of the new hearing date.... but we shall see.  Let's hope so.  I'll post details on here as soon as we know.

The trial was extensively covered by the overseas media; for example, by the The New York Times and  The Washington Post.  But in the Chinese media??  Probably nothing.  Even the Global Times (an English-language offshoot of official Communist Party mouthpiece People's Daily, but noted for being one of the occasionally more daring and 'liberal' of the state-run publications here), though it has carried a number of items on Wu over the past 9 months, does not appear to have mentioned his trial (the last article I can find on there is this one from two months ago, describing the strange meeting his wife was summoned to with a group of police officers back in September).

You can read a far more detailed account from Wu's wife, Karen Patterson, of what happened at the Wenyuhe courthouse last Wednesday here and here.

Keep an eye out for further developments.


Multinational Beijing band (French guitarist, Dutch bassist, Chinese drummer) The Amazing Insurance Salesmen  just won the title of China Champions of this year's Global Battle of the Bands contest.

I just posted on this (including what is so far the only YouTube footage of them performing) over on The Barstool, and music blogger Beijing Daze has news and photos from last night's winning performance in Hong Kong.

The lads now go on to do battle in the Grand Final, scheduled for 26th February next year in Kuala Lumpur.

Jia you, baoxian chaoren!!

This is great news for the Beijing music scene.... and mandates another week of heavy drinking for friends and fans of the band....

Bon mot for the week

"Hope is a good breakfast, but it is a bad supper."

Sir Francis Bacon  (1561-1626)

Saturday, November 20, 2010

My Fantasy Girlfriend - Margo Timmins

I've mentioned on here before my propensity to go weak at the knees over musical talent in a woman, and indeed to 'fall in love' with the singing voice of someone I've never seen.  The lovely Margo Timmins, voice of the excellent Canadian band Cowboy Junkies, is the prime example of this phenomenon. 

I discovered the Cowboy Junkies while living in Toronto a dozen years ago, recommended to me by a friend there.  I was immediately smitten with their superb second album The Trinity Session (I see they did a Trinity Revisited concert film and album a few years ago with a host of star guests, to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the original recording: I want, I want), and it has been an enduring favourite ever since - one of the very best albums for a three-in-the-morning happy-sad wallow in melancholy.  I hoovered up most of their back catalogue over the next few months (courtesy of the marvellous and ridiculously cheap Yonge Street record store, Sam The Record Man - demised for a while, but now happily back in business); although, sadly, I never got to see them live (strangely enough, although they tour almost constantly, they rarely seemed to play any dates in their native Canada, spending far more time in the US and Europe - at least during the period I was in Toronto!).  The band tend not to have pictures of themselves on their sleeve art, and so, for a long time, I had no idea what Margo looked like; I was simply mesmerised by her voice.

It was only some years later that I finally discovered (a discovery I found very pleasant, but somehow unsurprising) that she was, as I had always fondly imagined, a fairly tall and elegant woman - with the angular cheekbones and red hair that are my particular weakness.

She has a beguiling personality, too - very relaxed and low-key, with a self-deprecating sense of humour.  Her stage persona is very muted (I eventually got to see her sing live at the Shepherd's Bush Empire in the early Noughties; one of my favourite concerts ever): she doesn't talk that much between songs, sits on a stool the whole time, and sips constantly on a cup of hot tea - yet I find that all rather charming.  It might not seem very compelling for a live performer, but that voice is so damn marvellous - and she projects such ease and confidence in her mastery of it - that she holds the audience's attention effortlessly.  And, of course, it helps that the band is so good: it's a family band, Margo and her two brothers and an old friend; they've been playing together pretty nearly their whole lives, and they often play a quite extraordinary number of gigs in a year.... they are the tightest unit I've ever heard.

One of my favourite - most heart-melting - Margo moments is the 'hidden track' at the end of Rarities, B-Sides, and Slow, Sad Waltzes (probably the best album of 'offcuts' ever produced by any band; I prefer it to most of their regular albums).  The band are taking a break from a recording session, waiting for pizza or something.  Margo's on her own, doing a mike check, launches impromptu into a gorgeous unaccompanied version of the Bruce Springsteen song My Father's House.  The other musicians join in towards the end, turning it into a rowdy singalong - and then they all collapse into giggles.  Then, the thing that really gets me (her speaking voice is as delicious as her singing one), Margo responds with wonderfully light sarcasm:  "Why, thank you, boys; that was just lovely."  [Buy the album: you'll see what I mean.]

Here she is doing her ravishing take on Elvis - Blue Moon Revisited.  [Swoon]

Friday, November 19, 2010

Haiku for the week

Air like sandpaper;
To breathe is to gargle grit;
Beijing in autumn.

Well, not just in autumn, of course.  Beijing's air pollution can be pretty shocking all year round, especially with the renewed frenzy of construction going on just now (you can hardly walk down any street without almost falling into yet another half-built subway line!).  But it gets particularly bad with the very damp air we suffer through a few weeks of the autumn.  And this year, that damp spell seems to have been continuing - or to be persistently recurring - much later than usual.  It's usually out of the way by the last third of October, but this year we've been suffering October-ish mists and fogs through much of November as well.  Even on days which have been fairly bright and clear, chilly mists descend upon us as soon as the sun is down - and with them, suffocating, throat-scouring air pollution.  Effective visibility is not just reduced in distance (it was down to less than half a mile last night, I would say); what you can see appears grainy, like an underexposed photograph.  Yugh!

Monday, November 15, 2010

Wu Yuren's trial this week

Jailed Chinese artist Wu Yuren is finally being tried this week, after five-and-a-half months in detention.

The trial is due to take place at 9.30 this Wednesday morning, 17th November.

This means it's perhaps a little too late now to contribute to the Amnesty letter-writing campaign on his behalf... although every little helps, however late in the day; and it is possible to submit your letters of concern to the listed officials by fax or e-mail, so you could get something in within the next 24 hours.  Moreover, this week's hearing will not be the complete trial; the sentencing will not take place until some unspecified later date, possibly some weeks hence.

If you're in Beijing, you might consider attending the trial, or joining a small group of supporters outside.  Wu's Canadian wife, Karen, will be there - although it's not clear if she'll be allowed in (foreigners - even family members of the accused! - have to go through a laborious process of applying in advance for "permission" to enter the court; Chinese nationals should have no such difficulty, although I suspect that, in practice, the authorities will do everything they can to discourage or prevent people from directly witnessing the proceedings).  We are also hoping that one or two 'big shots' might be showing up.  And there should be a lot of attention from international media.

The trial is set to take place in Court #16 at Wenyuhe Courthouse (Tel: 010 8599 8553, 010 8431 3271).  This is in Chaoyang District, but quite some way out of the centre of the city, in Louzizhuang Village, Jinzhan Town.

You can get there as follows:

Bus routes 306, 350, 639, 659, 983, or 989 to Louzizhuang Station.

By car, take the Airport Expressway No. 2 (the one that's an extension of Chaoyang Park Rd.) to the Louzizhuang exit, drive north to Louzizhuang Road, then turn right and drive east for around 1,500 metres along Louzizhuang Road: the courthouse is about 150 metres after the traffic lights, on the north of side the road.

朝阳法院温榆河法庭地址:北京市朝阳区金盏乡楼梓庄村温榆河法庭, 法庭#16。
朝阳法院温榆河法庭乘车路线:乘坐306、350、639、659、983、989 在楼梓庄路口西站下车,东行300米路口即到。

If you can't make it out to Louzizhuang on Wednesday, please keep Wu and his family in your thoughts - and check for news online later in the week.

Bon mot for the week (Sun Tzu is crap series)

"In war, the most important thing is victory."

Sun Tzu (ostensibly 6th Century BCE, but probably legendary)

"In war, the most important thing is obtaining a satisfactory number of your objectives at minimum cost.  This can be achieved without victory.  Indeed, the defeated often profit more from a war, or prosper better after it, than the victors."


Sunday, November 14, 2010


I've been meaning to post this for a while now, the moving final scene of Richard Attenborough's Oh! What A Lovely War... and there is no more fitting time.

YouTube user OhWhatALovelyWar has kindly posted all the musical numbers from the film - well worth checking out.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Anyone for TED?

The TED seminar series came to Beijing today, but..... it wasn't widely promoted.  The venue, apparently, could only accommodate 200 people, and the tickets got a very narrow distribution in media circles.  (A couple of people I know got some.  I am jealous.)

There was talk of there being a live broadcast at several venues around town, but.... this never materialized.

Belatedly, I discovered that one satellite viewing venue - near my home - had been organized, but.... it was also ticketed, and also rapidly sold out.

There was supposed to be a live podcast on the Net, but..... it was on Chinese site, Tudou.  I don't know if I'm missing a plug-in I need for this site, or victim of some other gremlin, but for me the page had only dead links!  I am tempted to say, That's what you get for partnering with a Chinese Web company.... but I suspect it's more a case of That's what you get when you try to run a public speaking event in China.  Much the same happened when Obama wanted to do his 'town hall meeting' with students when he visited last year; the authorities reluctantly acquiesced, but media coverage of it was squelched.  

Ideas - even in the fields of "technology, entertainment, design" - are always potentially political, always potentially dangerous in this country.  Live mass online broadcast??  I don't think so.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Film Quotations Quiz - ANSWERS posted

I was gently (implicitly) reproved by Mr B yesterday for omitting to make good on my promise to furnish answers to last month's Film Quiz on the most famous movie lines.  I have now done so, in a comment here.

Apologies for the delay.

A follow-up quiz on the same theme will be forthcoming in a couple of months....

The weekly haiku

Some thoughts lodge like burrs,
At the top of memory:
Girl glimpsed long ago.

JES, like me, feels an especially potent resonance in the elderly lawyer Bernstein's remark on this in Citizen Kane.  Since he reminded me of this, the idea - and a girl (or two, or three!) it might have applied to - has been haunting me all week.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

'Little Emperors', little thugs

I witnessed an horrific little vignette on the subway the other week.

A Chinese family - father, mother, and a boy of about 11 or 12 years old - were hurrying to board my carriage.  As they got on, the boy was throwing a huge stroppy fit about something or other, whining angrily at his father.  His father lost his temper with him and cuffed him quite heavily over the top of the head.  The boy promptly turned around and shoulder-charged his mother violently in the back, to make her move down further inside the carriage.  In fact, he did it twice.  Despite his tender years, he was already an inch or two taller than his mum, and quite a chunky lad.  It obviously hurt her quite a lot - both physically and emotionally.  She rolled her eyes in anguish and glanced towards her husband hoping for some gesture of support, but he chose to ignore her and leave his bratty son unadmonished for this public assault.  She herself didn't dare to say anything - whether from unwillingness to scold her little darling (at least, in public), or from fear of him, or from not wanting to make her husband 'lose face' by taking on his responsibility to discipline the child.

Sadly, such ugly little scenes are all too common in this country.  There was a notorious example captured in photographs 18 months ago where a similarly psychopathic little runt publicly humiliated his mother - shoving and slapping her, yanking on her hair, and ultimately getting her in a choke-hold! - for several minutes because she had tried to resist buying him a toy he'd demanded.  I've seen quite a few similar incidents myself here in Beijing.  Most commentators blame the 'One Child Policy' - suggesting that single children tend to be over-indulged by their parents and grandparents (the so-called 'little emperor' syndrome), and are poorly socialised with other children.  However, I rather fear that the extraordinarily poor parenting I so often see here, and the well-springs of violent rage that so often become manifest in both children and adults, must have wider and deeper causes.  I think this country is still traumatized by the mass hysteria, the mass violence (and the mass homicide) of the Cultural Revolution years - and probably will be for another generation or more yet.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

War on Chinglish (17)

Remind me of what I already know.

Inform me of what I don't know.

That is all.

[Well, no, not quite all.  I admit that I am irked by this at the moment because I have just encountered it - yet again - with a school I am working with.  It seems like another example of a rather-too-common Chinese slipperiness, seeking to find oblique ways to insinuate that they've already told you something they know they should have told you but didn't somehow get around to telling you.  You know - I find a scrawled handwritten note on the bottom of the slip of paper with the printed address of the company where I'm supposed to be pitching a training course the next day, and it says: "Reminder - laptop."  No previous reference has been made to the need for a laptop.  I hate using PPT slides anyway.  This school has promised to provide all necessary materials to me, and they haven't given me any PPT slides.  They haven't asked me to prepare any PPT slides.  So, what, pray, is all this crap about bringing a laptop?  There is no way I am going to be carrying my own laptop around with me all day just to do one brief pitch at the end of the afternoon.  That is all.]

Monday, November 08, 2010

Taking leave of my census

Yes, the puns continue.

The dreaded nationwide population census, which I had supposed was going to be held early next year (when I plan to be out of the country!), and for which the authorities held a laughably ineffectual dry run at the end of August, is in fact under way at this very moment.  We are now exactly half-way through the 15-day counting period, and there's been no sign of any census-takers around my way as yet - so I am becoming cautiously optimistic that I will succeed in evading their irksome attentions.

Much has been made of the fact that foreigners are to be included in a Chinese census for the first time ever this year.  However, I took a look at an English translation of the Chinese government proclamation authorising the census (can't find the link again now, sorry.... ah, here it is!), issued in Wen Jiabao's name, and it says quite clearly that "temporary" residents are not to be included.  Long-term or permanent 'residence' status for foreign nationals - something akin to the American 'Green Card' - has only fairly recently been introduced in China, and only a handful of old China hands, people who've been here for donkey's years, are eligible for it.  The rest of us have to re-apply for visas and working permits at least every year or two, often every few months; we are supposed to re-register our residence at the local police station, on a form which is designated a 'Certificate of Temporary Residence', every time we return to Beijing after even a day or two away in another part of China (although this is one more honoured in the breach than the observance); and we could all be subject to arbitrary ejection from the country at a moment's notice, if we look at a policeman the wrong way or something.  We are all most definitely TEMPORARY in our sojourn here, as far as the Chinese government is concerned.  So, I don't see why the heck they're going to the bother of pretending to include us in their census.

What annoys me even more is the sheer pointlessness of this exercise.  The Chinese government already knows exactly how many foreigners are here and where we live and so on.  They have our addresses registered in district police stations across the capital, they have computerised immigration records from our point of entry every time we come back into the country, they have our visa and work permit and employment records.  In some cases, at least, they have expansive dossiers on our movements and our known associates.  Trying to get some old granny from the neighbourhood committee to pester us to write our basic info down again on a census form (which is, I gather, entirely in Chinese!) is a colossal waste of time.

Bon mot for the week

"The man who has no inner life is a slave to his surroundings."

Henri Frédéric Amiel  (1821-1881)

Saturday, November 06, 2010

List of the Month - What people come here for

Well, of course, I'd like to think that people come to my blog(s) for intellectual stimulation, to enjoy and engage with all the wit and weirdness and playful provocation that I put on here.  I would hope that the largest numbers of readers might be drawn here by posts like the ones I listed here at the end of last year, as an illustration of the exceptional variety of my output.  However, in a recent rummage around the nooks and corners of the Google Analytics breakdown of Froogville visitor traffic, I discovered - unsurprisingly, I suppose - that most people in fact wander past in search of titillation.  My 'home page', of course, is far and away the most visited part of the site; and also - curiously - certain of my month-by-month archives seem to have attracted quite a bit of attention; but in general, amongst the regular stand-alone pages, it is my series on 'Fantasy Girlfriends' which dominates these statistics.  And amongst the lovely ladies thus celebrated, it is the charming English actress Kate Beckinsale who is way out in the lead, with almost five times as many 'unique page views' as any of the others (although I am gratified to see that silent screen siren Louise Brooks and the ravishing 'Miss Scott' [George C. Scott's sexy secretary in Dr Strangelove] have recently been storming up the rankings).

Here's the complete list:

The 10 'most popular' posts on Froogville

10)  Twenty Weeks  -  18th October 2010
It's good to see that one of my more serious and important posts - commemorating the 140th day that my friend Wu Yuren had been unjustly detained in a Chinese prison, and advertising Amnesty USA's letter-writing campaign on his behalf - has been getting at least a little bit of attention.

Strange that this - entirely frivolous - post should be the one that shows up most often in search engine results!  Do people really need that much help in choosing a good name for their quiz team??

8)  My Fantasy Girlfriend:  Diana Darvey  -  22nd December 2007
For a Christmas treat, I post a video of the impossibly glamorous cabaret artiste - a regular guest on English comedian Benny Hill's TV show during the mid-1970s - performing a medley of songs (in a succession of ridiculously sexy costumes).

7)  My Fantasy Girlfriend:  Jan Francis  -  7th February 2009
The lovely English actress - a ubiquitous face on British TV during my childhood in the 1970s and 1980s - continues to have a strong fanbase.... who seek out posts like this one.

The willowy redhead with the Garbo-esque cheekbones and the dauntingly sporty physique (she's an accomplished endurance athlete) is, unsurprisingly, another search engine favourite (a former Playboy Playmate!.... although I discovered her through a video game...).

5)  My Fantasy Girlfriend:  Louise Brooks  -  12th June 2010
The iconic early movie star is moving steadily up the rankings.  And quite right, too!  The concluding video mash-up of great moments from her classic role in Pandora's Box is particularly worth a look.

4)  Grand Prix  -  8th October 2010
This recent post - a review of John Frankenheimer's classic motor racing film Grand Prix - has been boosted towards the top of the list by my new 'Comment King' Hopfrog, who entered into a long and vigorous conversation with me about the relative merits of some of our favourite Formula One drivers.

3)  My advice to the Chinese government  -  9th October 2010
An even more vigorous (though much less protracted) comment thread than the one above on motor racing was generated by this post in response to the announcement of the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to jailed Chinese human rights activist and pro-democracy campaigner Liu Xiaobo.

2)  My Fantasy Girlfriend:  Miss Scott  -  22nd May 2010
The sexiest secretary in film history (very well played by the gorgeous English actress/model Tracy Reed) has deservedly moved up into the No. 2 spot.

But way out in front we have...

1)  My Fantasy Girlfriend:  Kate Beckinsale  -  21st November 2009
My post was less an appreciation of the delightful Ms Beckinsale's acting career or her 'English Rose' prettiness than a personal memoir of my repeatedly narrowly failing to meet her while she was an undergraduate at Oxford University, and then finally meeting her (sort of) several years later - in the most frustrating of circumstances.  Although this page has stacked up an enormous number of 'hits', it also registers an extremely high 'bounce rate': it would seem that most visitors are merely searching for glamour photos of the actress, and are not motivated to stick around and read about my recollections of her.  This blogging lark can be a thankless business!

Friday, November 05, 2010

Not such a great wall

There has been some 'excitement' in my favourite neighbourhood bar over the past few days.

The landlord of the adjacent building has finally let it to a new tenant after it had lain vacant for most of this year.  Either the landlord or the tenant (the landlord, I think) thought it would be a cool idea to build an extra room on to his property by annexing part of the shared courtyard in the rear (it's traditional 'old Beijing' pingfang housing: ramshackle single-storey structures clustered together around little yards).

And, this being China, he just went right ahead and did it - without a thought of seeking "planning permission" (I'm not sure if it even nominally exists in this country; since there's no 'rule of law' to speak of, it makes little difference whether it does or not), or a by-your-leave to the neighbours.

At least he didn't put up his new walls right in front of the bar's back door.  No, he didn't quite do that.  But my bar owner friend arrived at work a few days ago to find that his 'emergency exit' was now boxed in by a hastily constructed 12-foot high wall, leaving him barely one square yard of space outside.... and no exit to the street any more.

Now, this didn't particularly bother him.  He was inclined to view this remodelling of the space at the rear of his bar as having created a convenient bit of extra storage space for him, or perhaps as a clandestine spot to set up a barbecue in the summer.

However, he thought his landlord would probably not be quite so chuffed about the matter.  His bar comprises two small hutong properties which he has knocked through into one.  However, he has two separate landlords, and different durations on the leases.  Thus, it is entirely likely that one day the landlord of the rear half of the bar will reclaim his property and require my friend to rebuild the dividing wall.  And he won't then be very happy with the fact that there is no longer any means of access to his house (short of climbing over the rooftops, that is).

No, indeed he was not pleased.  Doubleplus unpleased.  He turned up the next day with a sledgehammer and knocked down the offending new walls in person.  His inconsiderate neighbour remonstrated in heated terms.  Blows were exchanged (with fists only, I understand; not with the sledgehammer or any other heavy implements).  The police were summoned.  And the whole neighbourhood turned out to watch.

I rather fear this might become a long-running saga, perhaps something of a reprise of the Hatfields and the McCoys.

Ah, China.

The weekly haiku

Waking late, confused;
Bolted breakfast, headlong rush.
Alarm clock failure.

Strange, very strange.  I didn't wake up until nearly 8.30 this morning.  That's at least an hour later than I've woken up.... well, any time this year, I think, certainly any time recently.  And more than two and a half hours later than I've been waking most mornings for the past week or so.

My alarm clock-radio, though primed to do its ungentle business at 7.30am, remained mysteriously silent.

It was only the builders in the apartment downstairs that saved me from being late for work.  Although the grinding of power drills on concrete is an even unlovelier start to the day than a blast of Beijing Radio.

Thursday, November 04, 2010

Little obfuscations

Sometimes, the characteristic quirks and foibles of Chinglish can arouse vexation or paranoia in the long-suffering foreign resident.  Many of them seem just rather too conveniently supportive of the national predilection towards obfuscation and evasiveness.

Take the passive voice, for example.  The Chinese are not good with verbs in general; but the idea of making verbs passive seems to escape them completely.  However, their penchant for invariably using the active voice with inanimate subjects nicely divorces the thing - and the associated action, or lack of action - from any human actors.  Hence the implication: this is just something that happened; no-one is to blame.

A few weeks ago, I had applied by e-mail for free tickets to a concert which were supposedly being distributed by one of the embassies sponsoring the event.  After a couple of days, a Chinese staff member sent me the disappointing answer: "Sorry.  The tickets are not providing." - a formulation that deftly avoids telling someone what's actually happening here.  Do you mean "We can't provide you with tickets" or "We haven't been provided with the tickets"?  The tickets don't provide themselves, you know; someone has to do the providing.  Or not.

Wednesday, November 03, 2010

Trial date fixed for Wu Yuren

After 5 months in detention, my jailed Chinese artist friend Wu Yuren has finally had a court date set for his trial.

His wife and lawyer were summoned to a pre-trial meeting to fix the arrangements yesterday morning.  They received only a few hours notice of this.  And they were initially sent to entirely the wrong venue for the meeting.  And when they got to the right venue, miles out of town, his wife wasn't allowed in anyway - because the judge didn't feel 'comfortable' with foreigners.  Ah, China.

Anyway, it seems the details of the charge against him have been refined, and somewhat ameliorated: it looked like they were going to accuse him of hitting a policeman, but now they're just saying that he "injured the officer's finger" in trying to snatch a video camera out of his hand.  I'm not sure that this will make much difference to the severity of sentencing, but we can hope.  At least it's nice to see that the suggestion that he had somehow "beat up" a cop in a room with five other cops was too ludicrous to fly even in a Chinese courtroom.

The trial will be two weeks from today, 9.30am on Wednesday 17th November.

There is still time to join in Amnesty USA's letter-writing campaign on Wu's behalf, but please do so quickly.  

I have a feeling that such lobbying could be particularly influential in the run-up to the trial.  Please - FORWARD THAT LINK

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

More Pick of the Posts

Two new recommendations from the archive, a couple of favourite moments from November 2007...

From Froogville, I select Visibility!! - a celebration of my idiosyncratic approach to 'search engine optimization', with one or two playful philological digressions thrown in for good measure.

And from Barstool Blues, I choose this 'opinion poll' on the possible reasons Why I don't have a girlfriend.