Monday, January 31, 2011

Another piece of dubious Chinese design

In the past year or so, automated ticket-vending machines have sprung up on the Beijing subway network.  I hadn't had to bother about them much (60 or 70% of them seemed to be 'out of service' at any given time anyway), but both of my pre-pay subway cards crashed on me recently, within a few days of each other (mysteriously irradiated by a passing UFO??), wiping off a small but irksome amount of remaining credit in both cases - and I gather there is only one place in the whole of Beijing where you can attempt to replace a faulty card and get your deposit transferred over to a new one (yes, it's only 30 kuai, but it's the principle of the thing!).

I haven't yet got around to that; so, for the past two or three months I've become a regular user of the vending machines.

Luckily, not too many other people seem to be (as yet); so it's actually a fairly swift and painless method of procuring tickets for travel.  Except that.....

Well, the touch-sensitive menu screen can be maddeningly glitchy.  It appears to utilise body heat.  So, when there's 20 degrees of windchill.... it DOESN'T WORK.

The weekly bon mot

"The highest purpose is to have no purpose at all. This puts one in accord with nature, in her manner of operation."

John Cage (1912-1992)

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Film List - catching up...

My great seasonal movie marathon is still ongoing.  Jobs have withered away, the biting north wind makes venturing outside severely unappealing, and most of my favourite bars have given up the effort to open on time or at all.  So, the staying-home-and-watching-DVDs regime that I lapsed into in early December has persisted throughout January, and is likely to dominate my February (and March?) as well.

I have now watched most of those films I listed back at the end of November, and quite a few others besides.  While most of these additional picks were fairly recent releases, some were things that I'd somehow overlooked from a year or two or more ago.

Here, then, are some of the unexpected highlights of my last six or seven weeks on the sofa....

Green Zone
(Dir. Paul Greengrass, 2010)
Probably the best action thriller I've seen in quite a while (although that's not such high praise: there's been a string of huge disappointments in that genre this last year).  Yes, yes, implausibly plotted, but tightly put together - and politically, its heart is in the right place: not just in its denunciation of the likely fabrication of "evidence" of Saddam's WMD programmes, but in its recognition that the blanket exclusion of the Iraqi military and the Ba'athist Party from the transitional arrangements in Iraq caused or exacerbated the collapse of civil order and the festering insurgency there, and, most of all, in highlighting the resentment of ordinary Iraqis at how the continuing US intervention is compromising their autonomy.  For once, I didn't even hate monotonous Matt Damon: he works pretty well as an action hero.

Children of Men
(Dir. Alfonso Cuarón, 2006)
Well, Green Zone might have been the best action film I'd seen over the holiday, if I hadn't just got around to catching up on this Clive Owen vehicle from 4 years ago.  It's a compelling premise (based on a P.D. James novel): in the near future, the world has been afflicted by a mysterious pandemic of spontaneous miscarriages and then universal infertility; no new pregnancies have occurred anywhere in the world in nearly 20 years; its nurturing instincts frustrated, and denied a posterity, the human race starts sliding into anarchy as it slowly approaches its extinction.  The dystopia depicted is rather similar to that in V for Vendetta: the small island nation of the UK has been one of the few countries to survive intact and maintain some sort of stability in this crumbling world, but only at the cost of accepting a brutally authoritarian government which institutes draconian policies against immigrants and refugees.  Within this scenario, though, the story itself (a young illegal immigrant suddenly falls pregnant, and a terrorist group seeks to kidnap her to use her as a figurehead to inspire a revolution against the oppressive government) is extremely slight.  However, it is the Mexican director Cuarón's handling of this flimsy material that makes the film so stunning: he uses a lot of long continuous takes, which are particularly riveting - technically jaw-dropping! - during the action sequences (in one, near the end, a hand-held camera follows Owen for a number of minutes through the midst of a street battle between government forces and rebels, with several elaborate special effects staged 'live' during the progress of the shot).  The "Making of..." featurettes are particularly fascinating here.

How To Train Your Dragon
(Dir. Dean DeBlois & Chris Sanders, 2010)
The best animation of the year, surely?  And in Oscar contention, I would think - for 'Best Film', not just 'Best Animation'.  I mean, I liked Toy Story 3 and Despicable Me as well, but this was in a whole other class - more original in its story, more convincing in its characterizations.

The Last Station
(Dir. Michael Hoffman, 2009)
How did I not get around to watching this during my Oscar-nominees splurge at the beginning of last year?  Hoffman's account of the last days of the great Leo Tolstoy - the bickering over his legacy, the clash of personalities between his long-suffering wife, the Countess Sofya, and his sycophantic friend Chertkov - is a delight from start to finish; nothing particularly weighty, but almost perfect in its execution - and, ultimately, one of the most moving studies of love in old age I've ever seen.  How Helen Mirren didn't get her second Oscar for her performance as Sofya is beyond me!  (And I was, I confess, also deeply, deeply smitten with Kerry Condon as the irresistibly flirtatious Masha.)

In The Loop
(Dir. Armando Ianucci, 2009)
For years I've been hearing how good Ianucci's political sitcom for the BBC, The Thick Of It (commonly described as a Yes, Minister for the Noughties) is, but, being stuck out here in China, I've missed it.  Thank heavens for the feature-length expansion, which is easier to get hold of on DVD.  I found the faux-documentary style wore on me slightly after a while, but the writing and the performances were very sharp.  Peter Capaldi is utterly terrifying as the UK Prime Minister's ruthless, bullying, relentlessly profane spin doctor/backroom fixer, Malcolm Tucker (hard to conceive of a more complete antithesis to the elaborately meek role with which he first made his name in Bill Forsyth's Local Hero twenty-odd years ago!).  I laughed out loud several times - and I just about never do that.

Michael Clayton
(Dir. Tony Gilroy, 2007)
I don't know how I overlooked this one for so long, either.  I'm quite a George Clooney fan: he doesn't have enormous range, but he does what he does extremely well.  And he chooses his scripts discerningly, uses his star power to pull for less obviously commercial projects.  While the main plot about corporate skullduggery is well-constructed and all too plausible (and fleshed out by a superb supporting cast: Tom Wilkinson, Tilda Swinton - that's a hallmark of quality right there), the film stands out for its portrait of its eponymous protagonist, Clooney's Clayton, a man almost washed up and morally bankrupt after years of being a 'cleaner', doing the dirty work of covering up or smoothing over embarrassing situations for his big corporate law firm; a man of great intelligence and charm who has nevertheless failed to achieve satisfaction in his life.  It's not often you get to see such a flawed individual take centre stage... unless you're watching....

The Social Network
(Dir. David Fincher, 2010)
Aaron Sorkin's script, of course, fizzes with great lines, producing a very brisk and accessible account of the birth of the Facebook phenomenon.  And Jesse Eisenberg gives a good performance as its begetter, the obnoxiously arrogant, practically autistic super-nerd Mark Zuckerberg.  The film amply confirms my long-standing prejudice that the site is a poisonous idea (promoting the abandonment of privacy and the impersonalization of social intercourse), and a silly fad that appeals mostly to American teens - something that I am very glad to have no truck with at all.  However, I can't help feeling that all the buzz around this film results largely from the continuing popularity of Facebook in America and its prominence - ubiquity - in the news.  Does this really deserve to be an early favourite for the Oscars?  No.  Well, only in a very weak year.  People are getting excited about it because it deals with such a 'hot topic', rather than because it's an exceptional piece of film-making.

Scott Pilgrim vs. The World
(Dir. Edgar Wright, 2010)
Much the best of the year's comic book adaptations, largely because it eschews the usual super-hero genre in favour of a quirky low-life tale of twenty-something slackers in Toronto - but with the bizarre 'magic realist' twist that the protagonist improbably exhibits "super-powers" in a series of battles (outrageously over-the-top confrontations in which platform videogaming invades his real life) to win the kooky girl he's become smitten with.  It's a tad overlong, but thoroughly charming, and very, very funny - a far worthier Oscar contender than The Social Network, I would say.  (Amongst the year's comic book films, I also enjoyed - guiltily - Kick Ass; but I did feel deeply uncomfortable with the idea of having a 10-year-old little girl as a foul-mouthed vigilante who hacks bad guys' limbs off with gay abandon.  And I was also disappointed that the story so quickly abandoned its original premise - what would happen if ordinary people tried to be super-heroes? - to follow a more conventional super-hero storyline, albeit a blackly comic one.)

(Dir. Tim Hetherington, Sebastian Junger, 2010)
Two journalists spent a full year embedded with a US combat platoon in the Korengal Valley in northern Afghanistan, an area plagued by almost continuous guerilla activity from the Taliban forces.  The title of their documentary refers to the isolated forward Observation Post the unit establishes on a commanding ridge, commemorating the name of their medical orderly who was killed early on in this tour of duty.  This is one of the best films I can remember seeing about modern warfare, and about the camaraderie of men under fire - a leading contender for 'Best Documentary Feature' prizes this year, I would think.  Some of the additional scenes on the DVD, particularly the individual interviews with the soldiers featured some months on from the end of the tour, are even more affecting than the film itself.

(Dir. Matt Reeves, 2008)
I was somewhat surprised by how much I ended up enjoying this clever reimagining of the 'Godzilla' genre of monster movie.  It tests the patience early on (the party scene is not very engaging or amusing, and threatens to go on interminably), but once the action starts, it's a pretty gripping experience - and the 'documentary' conceit (the entire movie is supposedly a single piece of videotape, shot on a small handheld camera by people caught up in the midst of the disaster) works extremely well, I think.  There are some problems of plausibility (most conspicuously, the response time of the US Army: they're able to pour thousands of troops into Manhattan, in the middle of the night, in the space of about half an hour??); the 'lice' creatures (which fall off the giant monster in their thousands, and look rather like baby versions of the monstrous insects from Starship Troopers) are an over-elaboration; and none of the characters are really very likable (in particular, Hud, the superhumanly dim and insensitive guy who shoots most of the video, is presumably intended to provide comic relief, but - although he has a few very funny moments - is mostly just a massive irritant).  However, the weaving of the large-scale special effects into this apparently 'real' home video is very well done.  And the central love story does, in retrospect, become rather affecting - underlined, as it is, by the first and last scenes on the tape showing the young couple on a day out together, some weeks before this horror engulfed them.  The film also provides an uncomfortably poignant metaphor for the 9/11 attacks on New York (some of the early scenes of people taking shelter from the debris clouds of collapsing buildings are a little too pointedly reminiscent of that terrible day).  This kind of entertainment I usually regard as completely disposable, a one-time only deal - but this I feel I might well watch again at some point.

Winter's Bone
(Dir. Debra Granik, 2010)
I wasn't in a particularly receptive mood when I sat down to watch this a few nights ago, and I often found myself getting a little impatient with its languorous pacing.  In retrospect, though, I think the film's willingness to take its time adds to its power; the fact that it is so purposefully uneventful for most of its course makes its denouement all the more shocking.  It's set in a small, inbred, backwoods community in the Mid-West; everybody is somehow related to almost everybody else, everybody - sort of - knows everybody else's business, but everybody observes an omerta-style code of silence: nobody talks about what goes on, certainly not to the authorities, but mostly not even to each other.  Whereas in the past these isolated white trash settlements would turn to alcohol to make their drab lives more tolerable and to boost their incomes, these days they favour drugs; instead of setting up moonshine stills, they're all busy "cooking" crystal meth.  The film follows Ree, a feisty 17-year-old girl who struggles to bring up her two much younger siblings and look after their mentally ill mother.  Her father has recently disappeared, presumed to have gone on the run because he was facing the likelihood of a heavy jail term for his latest drug manufacturing charge.  However, when Ree discovers that he had put up their house and property as a bail bond, she has to try to find him, to save her family from destitution.  She figures someone must know where he is; but nobody wants to tell her anything.  The bleached colours and chill air of mid-winter underline the bleakness of this community, the extreme material and moral poverty of the place.  And the slow tempo helps to conjure the sense of claustrophobia of living in such a small community: there are several shots of Ree trekking disconsolately through the woods, as she visits one after another of her neighbours' farms in her vain quest for answers.  The film provides a remarkably detailed - and devastating, depressing - portrait of a way of life, a culture that most of us little suspected to still exist in the modern world.  This, I think, amongst the major films of 2010 that I've seen, is the only one that clearly stands out as something different, something special, something Oscar-worthy (it won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance last year; but I suspect the Oscar voters will find its raw depiction of the worst of modern America to be too unwholesome).  Jennifer Lawrence as Ree and John Hawkes as her laconic, violent uncle certainly deserve to be in consideration for acting honours.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Recently, on The Barstool

Crikey, is it really two months since I last did one of these round-ups from the dark side?  It seems so.  Perhaps things have been a little quiet 'over there' recently.

Well, I won't attempt to review the whole of that period; but here are some highlights from the last few weeks.

At the start of this week, I put up one of my more thinky posts on there (more of a Froogville kind of post, perhaps?), a meditation on how imagination - and dreams - can interact with memory.  I'm rather pleased with that one - do please check it out.

I began this year with a (rather shaming!) collection of anecdotes about some of my most excessive experiences with alcohol, My Top Five 'Mornings After' (I console myself that most of them are culled from my wild undergraduate days, long, long, long ago).  Rather to my surprise, JES, one of my most discerning blog-friends and commenters, expressed an admiration for this piece - so maybe it does deserve another mention here.

Last week, I offered a brief review of the most hidden of hidden gems in Beijing, a little bar/restaurant way out in the Caochangdi township called Fodder Factory.

Also last week, I produced another of my quarterly 'Best of...' round-ups for the last quarter of 2009.

A couple of days ago, to mark Australia Day, I posted an amusing animation about just how asinine is the 'citizenship test' introduced in Oz a few years ago (a must-watch for trivia buffs!).

And at the weekend, I added another video (a pair of videos, in fact) to my occasional 'Great Songs' series, Suzanne Vega's marvellous Caramel.

Lots to enjoy there.  Go and catch up!

Today's haiku

They can't cage the mind;
Heart and spirit remain free -
But denied to us.

The second part of artist and political activist Wu Yuren's trial is scheduled for this morning (details here - please come out to support, if you're free today).

Sentencing is unlikely to happen today, but we're hoping we will at least get a verdict.  Even the unjust, but long almost inevitable, guilty verdict will be something of a relief by this stage.  Wu has been in detention for nearly 8 months now; and the horrible stresses and uncertainties of the trial have been dragging on for over 2 months.  Any sort of 'closure' here will be most welcome; another futile, open-ended adjournment would be agony.  Moreover, it seems that the pre-conviction phase will probably prove to have been the worst part of the whole ordeal; conditions in prisons - though pretty spartan - are in general not nearly as bad as those in the chronically overcrowded 'temporary' detention centres, such as the one where Wu has had to spend the last 8 months.  There are no facilities for work, study, or exercise in these places; there's no heating or air-conditioning; he spends the nights on a communal sleeping platform with up to two dozen other guys; and during the day he's forced to sit completely immobile for hours at a time on a hard wooden bench (it would fit with this government's perverse view of 'paternalism' to suppose that this might be a conscious if misguided policy of attempted reform, like a domineering parent shrieking, "Just sit there and think about what you've done!"; more probably, they just have nothing else for the detainees to do).  Most importantly, he would be allowed some visits from his family in a prison; his wife, Karen, has only been able to see him twice - fleeting, unofficial encounters - since he was 'disappeared' at the end of last May; his six-year-old daughter, Hannah, not at all.

So, a guilty verdict (and the consequent wildly disproportionate sentence - he's charged with spraining a cop's finger, for heaven's sake!) won't be so bad now for Wu, his family, friends, and supporters - though it will be depressing in what it signifies of the wretched state of the criminal justice system in this country.

However, there is perhaps a chance - just a slim chance - that the presiding judge might now throw the case out.  I doubt if any judge in such a case would dare to take that sort of decision on their own initiative (since there is some evidence, the eye-witness testimony of a number of police officers - not very much, not very convincing, not very self-consistent, not very plausible, but some); but if someone in the Ministry of Justice, or higher up in the government, wants to make a point to the police about the importance of preserving video evidence (from closed-circuit TV cameras installed in police stations: new regulations supposedly require all footage to be kept for at least 6 months, but - ooops!), then maybe, just maybe, messages may have been passed down from on high telling the judge to slap the police down on this one.  Fingers crossed.

I'll try to post more news today or tomorrow.

Today is a big day for Wu and his family.  Please spare them a thought.

Update:  Much as I expected, this Friday's session was a bit of a non-event - all done and dusted in just 30 or 40 minutes.  The judge was informed of the reasons why there was no further video evidence available (which, if true, should have been known at the time of the original hearing in November; the 10-week adjournment we've just suffered was utterly unnecessary).  I had hoped there might have been at least a token dressing down of the police and the procurator's office from the bench for this - but no.  Most bizarrely, and worryingly, the prosecutor concluded his statement on this by declaring that he was confident in the reliability of the evidence against Wu Yuren - which seems to be an attempt to get the judge to give some weight to the video evidence that no longer exists and has not been seen by anyone (Had the prosecutor ever seen it, hmm?  Since the tapes were allegedly destroyed when the CCTV system in Jiuxianqiao police station was replaced just a month or so after Wu's detention, before a charge had been formally made, it seems highly unlikely!  A statement like that would not be allowed to go unchallenged in almost any other country in the world, but here....).  It seems there was no opportunity for the defence to ask for the case to be dismissed (there's probably no procedure for that in Chinese law; the criminal justice system here is essentially a bureaucratic process rather than a forensic one, with little or no provision made for the possibility of 'innocence').  And when Wu was asked for his reaction to these revelations, and replied that it showed that China was a dangerous place to live and one couldn't have any confidence in the system here, he was rebuked by the judge.  You can read his wife Karen's account of the proceedings here.

And that's it.  No further evidence (I'm not sure if the defence has been - or will be - allowed to call any witnesses).  No verdict.  No sentence.  Another adjournment sine die.  It seems pretty likely they'll try to spring the verdict (and the sentencing, if we're lucky; although these usually happen at separate hearings, just to drag the process out even longer), towards the end of the upcoming Chinese New Year celebrations - when they know that Karen, who orchestrates most of the publicity around the case, is going to be out of the country on a much-needed holiday with their daughter.

I'll post the date for that as soon as I hear about it.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

That really ought not to be a word

During one of my editing slogs a few weeks back I came upon a word I didn't know.  An English word, that is.  An English word that actually exists, rather than a product of careless misspelling or tireless Chinglish inventiveness.

I think this last happened to me in 1992.  I was quite taken aback.


Any ideas?

Well, the 'legitimacy' - or, at any rate, the common currency - of the word may be in doubt. 'Esculent' is a scientific word for 'edible', particularly applied to plants.  (I wonder if, two or three hundred years ago, there was some kind of face-off between these two words - a heated debate in The Royal Society, perchance? - which resulted in 'edible' being adopted for everyday use, while poor old 'esculent' was relegated to being a private joke amongst botanists:  "Well, I know this new variety of palm I found in Borneo doesn't look very appetising; it is, in fact, utterly foul-tasting and kind of woody; but, surprisingly, it really is esculent." Or, as the timid curate might have said,"Oh no, my lord Bishop, parts of it are esculent.")

'Esculentism', however, is unknown - to the Internet, at least.  I am not able to check whether any of the major English dictionaries deigns to include the word.  It appears to be a coinage of the wondrously eccentric Joseph Needham, a Cambridge academic who devoted most of his life to an exhaustive study of the history of science in China (an interesting biography of him by Simon Winchester came out a couple of years ago).  He used it to designate the science of pioneering improbable foods - something they have a long tradition of in China, especially in the south (the emphasis on rice cultivation seems to foster high population density but fairly poor average levels of nutrition, hence creating a lot of pressure to find supplementary food sources in the natural environment).

You learn something new every day, don't you?

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Website of the Month

Four or five years ago, we had Sinocidal - by general consent, the funniest blog about China (although it could be bit one-note for me: a predominantly American viewpoint, and tending to rant mostly over trivia like the difficulty of being able to get a decent hamburger anywhere, rather than what I would deem to be more 'important' stuff like... well, you know, there being no meaningful rule of law nor any effective public education about road safety).  But that abruptly vanished (I forget exactly when; some time in 2008, I suspect - possibly killed off by the massively increased Internet censorship and the difficulty of getting visas in the Olympic year?).  And since then, we haven't really had a dedicated online outlet for China-focused humour, until....  the  recent launch of the China Daily Show.

What do you get if you cross plodding state-run 'English' newspaper China Daily with Jon Stewart's iconoclastic American satirical news programme The Daily Show?  Sore ribs, that's what you get!

This site is impressive looking, very professionally put together, and has lots of really good content on it.  I'm not sure how long they'll be able to keep it up (rumour has it that it's the work of just a few guys); but it seems they've been at it 4 or 5 months now (although I only discovered it a few weeks ago, courtesy of my journo buddy, The Choirboy), and the quality of articles has been fairly consistently high.  I think it's well-written enough that even non-China-initiates would appreciate much of the humour; for those of us who live in this crazy country, it is an absolute HOOT!  [The only thing that slightly undercuts my enjoyment is an occasional pang of I wish I'd written that jealousy.]

This piece about an American family being thrown into 'bird flu' quarantine and having to suffer (a world-record setting!) 10 hours of uninterrupted exposure to China's AWFUL English-language TV channel CCTV9 was... well, almost more painful than funny; but very, very funny.

And this report that unlovable Canadian 'performing monkey' Da Shan had "stopped smiling" after being denied a visa almost had me wetting my pants.  (I hear this story was briefly picked up as a serious news item in some overseas media!  Surely not??)

[I haven't been able to find out what happened to Sinocidal; but there is one surviving fragment of - what I remember as their best post ever - The Sinocidal History of China, here.]

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

SLOWLY does it!

I got hit by a car again last week.  This is becoming rather too much of a habit just lately!

This time it was a taxi... a taxi reversing.... a taxi reversing into my hutong around a blind corner.

Now, I - because I am a very alert road user (whether in a vehicle or on foot) - had noticed the taxi stopped just around the corner, and had considered the possibility that it might be about to start reversing.

However, given that he was about to back on to a densely populated residential street around a blind corner, I thought that the cabbie might do so just a little cautiously, that he might - you know - look behind him before beginning to move.  Oh, silly me!

I took a good long look at the car and its driver, and they showed no sign of being about to go anywhere.  So, I gingerly started to step out into the opening of the side-alley.  I paused just for a moment to peer in through the rear window again, to try to make eye-contact with the driver in his rear-view mirror, just to double-check that he wasn't about to reverse into me.

And at that precise moment, he reversed into me.  I might have suspected it was a deliberate piece of xenophobic hostility, but - since I was looking right at him at the time - I could tell that he simply had no idea I was there; because he wasn't looking in his rear-view mirror, or over his right shoulder; he was looking directly ahead of him, down the emptly lane he was about to exit... backwards.

It wasn't the lack of concern for what might have been behind him, though, that appalled me so much as his limited car control.  He took his foot very suddenly off the clutch pedal and lurched backwards 2 or 3 feet all at once.

Luckily for me, that was about the distance I was behind him.  And I managed to absorb the impact by bracing my hands violently on his boot and allowing him to push me backwards several inches, my slippery-soled shoes sliding easily over the smooth tarmac.

To recap: a taxi driver (who you might hope would exhibit rather better standards of road sense and car control than your average Beijing motorist) is looking to reverse into a narrow street with a lot of pedestrian traffic on it, around a blind corner.... and he doesn't look behind him OR proceed slowly, a few inches at a time; no, he tries to do it in two or three speedy lurches while looking in the opposite direction.

The worry is that this is not in any way an unusual story: I see instances of this sort of criminal incompetence almost daily on Beijing's roads.

Just occasionally, though, the lack of basic driving skills manifests itself in the opposite manner - people being too cautious.  I suppose I shouldn't complain (what do you want from me - consistency??); it is, I admit, far preferable to the usual homicidal stupidity we have to suffer here - not dangerous, just bloody irritating.  Just the other day, I got caught behind a guy driving a big SUV through the hutongs (the narrow - mostly, in effect, single lane - alleyways that still dominate my corner of Beijing).  He reached a point where there were cars parked ahead of him on both sides of the road; and it took him fully 10 minutes to negotiate this bottleneck.  Now, it is a very big car; and he was probably very inexperienced in driving it.  And erring on the side of caution is generally a good thing - up to a point.  But the lane was relatively wide at this point.  He had at least 6" of clearance on both sides of his car, probably 8" or 10", in fact: all he had to do was drive - slowly - in a straight line for 30 feet.  He lacked the confidence to do this; instead, he crept forward a few inches at a time... stopped... bit his lip in panic... checked the clearance both sides again (twice).... and slowly inched forward a little further.... then stopped again.  By the time he got through, there were three of Beijing's formidable old grannies waiting behind him (on foot) giving him abuse.  A man like that should not be allowed to own A LARGE CAR.  Well, no-one in Beijing should be allowed to own a A LARGE CAR - but especially not him.

If I get held up behind an idiot like that again, I think I'm going to climb over his roof.

I'm not that cheap....

Or maybe I am.....

They were having another of those weird, one-off - oh so distinctively Chinese - price promotions at my neighbourhood supermarket again when I last looked in a few days ago.  Two side-by-side stacks of seemingly identical packets of cocktail sausages (the American Hormel brand: not very wonderful, but way better than any of the locally made 'sausages' alongside them in the chiller) bore very different prices.  One of them was marked at around 25% or 30% cheaper.

There was no sign by the display explaining the reason for this offer.  I suspected that perhaps it was just a random piece of mistaken pricing - 'store error in your favour'.  Or perhaps a slightly smaller packet size.

But oh no - of course, they were clearing out expired stock.  Not close-to-expiry-date stock, but stock that had already expired.  I assume this is "illegal" in this country, as it is almost everywhere around the world these days.  But levels of public health supervision and enforcement here are still negligible; and public awareness of - or concern about - such issues is so low that major supermarket chains can still do this kind of thing as a matter of course, without even a trace of embarrassment, with almost no risk that any of their customers will complain... or even notice.

Being rather seriously cash-strapped at the moment, I sifted through the pile of discounted sausage packets checking the 'Sell By' dates.  I didn't think there'd be too much of a risk with a couple I found that were dated in the second half of December (I hope I'm not going to be proven disastrously misguided in that; standards of refrigeration are not very reliable here either!).  The ones that were a full month or two out of date, though, I left for the Chinese granny hovering expectantly behind me.

And I pity the poor schmuck who ended up with the packet dated 7th August.  No kidding - one of these packets was five-and-a-half months out of date.  Oh dear.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Wu Yuren's trial set to resume

The resumption of the trial of my artist friend Wu Yuren has been set for this Friday, 28th January, at 9.30am.  That's more than 10 weeks on from the initial hearing, where the police testimony was presented.

His lawyer, Li Fangping, tells us that there's almost always a separate hearing for sentencing, so the proceedings are unlikely to be concluded this week - unless by some happy chance the judge does decide to dismiss the case (which, given the preposterousness of the charge against him, and the police failure to provide promised video evidence in support of it, is perhaps not entirely impossible - though a bit of a long shot, I fear).  I've got a nasty feeling that this Friday's hearing will just be a token session for the presiding judge to be formally notified of the absence of any additional videotape evidence, and that we might face another lengthy adjournment before they're ready to deliver a verdict.  Let's hope not.  This nightmare has dragged on far too long already, and we want it to be over and done with as soon as possible.  Unfortunately, Lawyer Li is flying out for his Spring Festival break on that day (the court authorities probably knew this), so Dawu will have to be represented by his assistant - not ideal for a session where there might just possibly be an opportunity to present a motion for dismissal.

As before, the hearing will be in the Wenyuhe Courthouse, out to the east of the city in Louzizhuang.  We hope that as many people as possible will turn out once again to give moral support.

The trial hearing will once more be held 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 this Friday, please keep Wu and his family in your thoughts - and check for more news here at the end of the week.

Bon mot for the week

"In theory there is no difference between theory and practice. In practice there is."

Yogi Berra (1925-  )

Saturday, January 22, 2011

My Fantasy Girlfriend - The Template

I've always been disdainful of the notion of having a "type", a kind of woman that I could expect to be habitually, inevitably attracted to.  It seems unnecessarily limiting.  And whenever I try to isolate particular features or characteristics I think I find attractive, in practice I usually seem to find more exceptions than reinforcements for any such rules.  In reviewing my chequered romantic history, I find I have gone out with - or been attracted to -  women of widely differing ages, heights, hair colour, ethnicity, social background...

However, I've racked up quite a few entries in this 'Fantasy Girlfriends' series in the just over three years that I've been running it, so I thought it might be worth reflecting on what the most common features in this collection are.  

Well, of course, one of the most notable things about this list is that a sizeable proportion of them have been fictional.  And the rest - actresses, singers, etc. - are hopelessly out of my league.  I fear that 'unattainability' has always been an unfortunate aphrodisiac for me (one of my female friends here teases me that it is a self-destructive tendency, a species of commitment avoidance; and I fear she's right - but it's not a conscious choice, and I do battle against it); I noted in one of my earliest posts on here that I was far too often attracted to women who were dead, mad, or married; to those categories of 'unattainability' I might add barmaids, another common source of crushes (well, one every few years or so, anyway); and people who live on a different continent (or are about to; in China I've had a bad run of falling for people who are shortly to leave the country, or 'just passing through').

Anyway, doomed exercise though it's likely to be, I will attempt to come up with a list of what I tend to find most attractive in a woman - using the fantasy girlfriends as a reference point, but focusing more on what I might be (should be, AM) looking for in a real-world partner.

So, where to start?

1)  Quite tall
I am a tall guy - nearly 6'3" - and I don't like having to bend down too far to kiss a girl.  And I don't like a girl having to teeter along on ridiculous heels in order for her eyeline to be above my shoulder.  So, this is probably one of my more rigid and essential criteria.  I don't really have any upper limit: I don't think I'd feel awkward about having a girlfriend taller than me - but it's never happened, and is statistically pretty unlikely!  My only reservation about very tall girls - based on my experience of having twice briefly gone out with girls who were 6' tall, or very nearly so - is that they tend to develop hang-ups about their height, fretting that guys feel uncomfortable around them, and that it thus limits their dating opportunities; this self-consciousness can lead to social awkwardness, a reluctance ever to wear heels, and even to bad posture (stooping or slouching to try to play down their height!).  Not good.  When I think back on the girls I've gone out with, I think the majority of them have been around 5'9" or 5'10".  I'll consider a range 2 or 3 inches either side of that, but not more, I don't think. [Unfortunately, this lets out about 98% of Chinese girls.  Average heights for men in China - at least in the well-fed urban population - have shot up in the last 20 years or so; but the girls don't seem to have kept pace.  I'd guess the average height for a girl here is probably still only 5'1" or 5'2"; and it's very, very rare to find one taller than 5'4" or 5'5".]

2)  Not too young
Oh yes, girls may be in their finest bloom of prettiness in their late teens or early twenties - but they don't usually have very much to say for themselves at that age, not much life experience to draw on.  I was always more attracted to women in their late twenties or early thirties - even as a teenager.  These days, as I progress into my forties, even that is starting to seem a little indecently young for me.  I've always been a bit sceptical about that "half your age, plus seven years" formula for the ideal age of a marriage partner (is that a Muslim tradition?  I'm sure I first came across it in The Autobiography of Malcolm X...); I feel moral qualms (or perhaps just social discomfort - what would we have in common?) with an age gap of much more than 10 years.  So.... I'm looking for someone in their thirties, probably mid-thirties; late twenties (or early forties, at the upper end) would be pushing the envelope dangerously.

3)  Intelligent
Not that I would equate 'intelligence' with level of education or specific high-functioning skills like being good at crosswords or sudoku.  I'm not much impressed by things like that.  I found at Oxford - supposedly one of the most intellectually rarefied environments in the world - that the majority of students there were actually relatively dull people, people who had prospered in the education system through a happy aptitude for academic study or simply an obsessive work ethic, but had no spark of 'genius' about them, no flair, no creative fire at all.  The great love of my undergraduate days was not a student (although her A-Level results were plenty good enough to have got her into a decent university) but a girl who was enrolled at one of the city's secretarial colleges; her passion was acting, and she was set on getting into RADA; so, she had taken a 'gap year' to prepare, immersing herself in the vibrant drama scene at Oxford (I think the secretarial course was just a sop to her parents, to persuade them that she wasn't spending her year frivolously).  Intelligence can express itself in many different ways, and may flourish despite - or sometimes even because of - an attenuated formal education.  Many of the brightest people I know didn't go to 'good' universities, or didn't go to university at all.  The kind of intelligence I'm interested in is a liveliness of spirit, a quickness of wit, a restless curiosity about the world.

4)  Creative
The kind of intelligence that most inspires and fascinates me usually manifests itself in a creative impulse.  I think just about all of the women I've been attracted to over the years have been actresses, dancers, musicians, sculptors, photographers, writers & co.  Yes, I have a particular weakness for a woman who can write well.

5)  Humorous
A sense of humour is another key manifestation of intelligence, I feel; and a key element of a vivacious spirit.  I'm not thinking of people who are relentlessly making jokes, or people who laugh easily at almost anything.  I like someone who really appreciates humour, understands how it works, and can find it in places that most people overlook; someone for whom humour is an ever-present consolation, a condiment to life.

6)  Vivacious
Oh, yes, vivacity can be overdone; it can be too self-conscious, an affectation (a particular vice amongst some of the creative types I am drawn to).  But, in general, a person who projects high levels of positive energy compels the attention.

7)  Passionate, idealistic
It's good to believe in something.  It's good to care A LOT about the things you believe in.  So many people never seem to feel, or to express such strong emotion about anything.  [Unfortunately, I think this tends to be a major stumbling block for me in relationships.  Some people find my enthusiasms a bit overwhelming.  And I can be intolerant of people who don't share my tastes or opinions in key areas.]

8)  Kind, considerate
This might seem a rather obvious attribute to add to my requirements; but I find it depressingly rare to meet a person who expresses these qualities to a high degree.  My passion for my last great infatuation, "Madame X", cooled dramatically when she once made a mean remark about her sister (I tried to make as much allowance as possible for intimate family dynamics, for certain varieties of language and behaviour becoming 'acceptable' between siblings; but even so, it seemed to me rather cruel, spiteful, or at least grossly insensitive); unfortunately, I was so hung up on her that it didn't quite kill my obsession; but it did weaken it, and I find it useful to focus on this incident now if ever I feel myself backsliding into that fixation.

9)  Appreciates music
Doesn't everyone?  Well, unfortunately, NO - not outside of a familiar niche, anyway.  Music is one of the great passions of my life, and my tastes are fairly catholic.  It's difficult for me to have a relationship with someone who doesn't share this passion.  I know - have known - too many people who, for example, would glance at this stunning performance JES posted the other day and shrug and flip past it, because it doesn't fit into one of the narrow genres they choose to pay attention to.  I try to be tolerant of - and welcoming of - difference, but... there are at least two likely deal-breakers for me in the sphere of musical preferences.  I revere Tom Waits as the greatest songwriter of our times; and while I accept that he is somewhat quirky, a cult performer not well-known - nor always very readily accessible - to everyone, and thus not someone I can realistically expect a girlfriend to like or even to have heard of... well, she should be willing to give him a chance; someone who dismisses him out of hand, I don't think I can live with.  It's like refusing to listen to Bach - there must be something wrong with you.  I confess, though, that my own openness to varieties of music knows some limits: I am stubbornly resistant to rap/hip-hop; I find it to be a genre entirely without merit.  Alas, its prevalence in the mainstream of US popular music over the past couple of decades means that my rejection of it is likely to render me incompatible with most American women (my last great American ex, "The Poet", had a schoolgirlish enthusiasm for Eminem - which I'm afraid I found just risible, although I wouldn't ever tell her so).

10)  Likes to cook
I'm not looking for someone to cook for me all the time.  And I don't require that a girlfriend should be a particularly good cook.  But I don't understand people who don't cook at all, or who do so only out of necessity and take little pleasure in it.  People who feel no sense of connection to this most joyous of activities - they have blighted souls.

11)  Poise, elegance
One of my major dissatisfactions with British girls is that most of them walk so badly.  I like people with good deportment, people who move well (although I'm certainly not claiming any prizes in this department myself!).  I've commented before on how I think this is the main reason for my attraction to dancers (along with them showing their legs off, obviously).

12)  A good voice
Particularly a fine singing voice.  My mum used to sing to me a lot when I was very young; I don't suppose her voice was anything remarkable, but I found her joy and unself-consciousness in singing inspiring, and I think that was probably what predisposed me to fall in love so regularly with female singers.  Even with non-singers, a woman's voice is always a key element of attraction (or of passion-killing) for me.  A few years ago, I found my ardour for a woman wilting rapidly when I realised how strident, how shouty her voice could be (especially on the telephone; and we were attempting a 'long-distance relationship').

13)  A single mum
Not that this is something I actively seek, but it's not something I shy away from either.  And, given my target age range, I must expect that a good number of the women I'm likely to be attracted to will have one or more children already.  There is something very, very appealing, I find, about watching a woman mothering.  And I'm soppy about children.  Moreover, I worry that I've left it a little bit late to have children of my own, so the idea of getting a headstart in building a family probably has a special attraction for me.  Of course, there are all sorts of special difficulties with this: becoming a surrogate dad is a far bigger undertaking than becoming a lover, so I've always tended to proceed very tentatively - too tentatively (my problem with "Madame X", perhaps?) - when I find myself attracted to a single mother.  And if such a relationship doesn't work out, the loss of the child can be brutally hard to take, a far keener pain than the loss of the woman (I've only experienced this once, but I am just a little wary of facing the risk again).

14)  A uniquely appealing feature
I like to profess to be indifferent to physical appearance, but of course that's untrue (though I really do think that some of the attributes of character and personality I've alluded to above are far more important to me than looks).  I have a tendency, though, to fixate on one particular body part (and not the most obvious ones): the eyes most commonly (especially if they are well spaced!!), but also the arch of an eyebrow, or the nape of the neck, or.... any number of odd little details of the physical form which may charm and entrap me.  With my Ex of Exes, "The Evil One", it was her hands[Unfortunately, the flipside of this is that I am rather too keenly observant of, and inclined to obsess about, potentially off-putting features.  It's difficult to tell a girl you don't want to see her any more because of the shape of her earlobes...]

15)  A good kisser
I like kissing.  It's a make-or-break thing for me.  It's strange, terrible that all of this far more important stuff above can be reduced to irrelevance by some failure of 'chemistry' in the meeting of the lips.

Well, that's quite enough to be going on with.  And I didn't even get on to hair colour this time (I have a hierarchy - with red/auburn at the top, just ahead of light brown, and blonde and black at the bottom; but it's a secondary consideration, not a deal-breaker... I have gone out with women of almost every conceivable hair colour).

Friday, January 21, 2011

Everything happens for a reason

During a bit of comment banter the other day, I happened to recall one of the funniest lines of Chinglish I have ever encountered (well, really just a slip of spelling - but I think most native speakers would have caught it, because of the drastic difference it makes to the meaning).  I can't believe I haven't used it on the blogs before, but.... well, I've done a thorough search and I can't find any trace of it.

One of the training companies I used to be involved with had a contract for grading recruitment exams for a couple of the major international accounting firms (they do a huge trawl through the Beijing universities once or twice a year, and thousands of hopeful candidates apply: the majority of them, amazingly, with negligible English skills and severely challenged even in the field of basic numeracy - which are, funnily enough, the two major requirements).  It was mind-buggeringly tedious work, but if you could keep up a brisk enough tempo - I think we used to aim to get through 15-20 scripts an hour - it was modestly well paid; and there was additional compensation in the occasional gems of Chinglish which would produce moments of rib-tickling hilarity (sometimes, indeed, of mass hysteria, since for the first couple of years we had to do the marking in the company's "office" - actually a friend's apartment, serving dual purpose - so there would be half a dozen or so of us working side by side; and all of us so hyped up that the smallest stifled giggle or hiccup of suppressed mirth would almost invariably prove contagious).

One enduring favourite of mine was a girl who wrote, of her attitude to teamwork, "I will cooperate with my colleagues if necessary."  I felt I could 'hear' her italicized exasperation even in her plain handwritten script.  It's an attitude I have a lot of sympathy with!

Even better, though, was the candidate who, when challenged to make suggestions for improving workplace morale, ventured the idea of introducing a causal Friday.

Oh yes - that is an idea which is long overdue in China!  Let's all practice doing things for a good reason - just for one day of the week.  Little by little, baby steps - can't rush these things!  (Remember when they had a 'Stand In Line' Day campaign prior to the Olympics, to try to encourage civilized queueing at bus stops?  I envisage the same kind of thing in offices throughout the country - government offices, especially - just on Fridays.  Every other day, working practices can continue to be just as inefficient, opaque and illogical as ever; but on this one day, let a glimmer of light shine.)

How they do things in China

Apparently, it's been "a big thing" in China in the last year or two that all police stations have had closed-circuit cameras installed throughout.  It's supposed to be part of a policy to establish more accountability in the police force - and a tacit acknowledgement of the fact that police brutality is a huge problem here, that a substantial proportion of all convictions are based on 'confession' evidence that has been procured by threats, beatings, and torture.  This was the one thing that gave me some hope for a possible favourable outcome in the trial of my friend Wu Yuren: if someone high up in the Justice Ministry - and/or the Politburo - really cares enough about this policy, then maybe they might be willing to use his trial as a flagship case to uphold it, might be willing, just this once, to slap down the police and the Procurator's Office for "losing" or tampering with video evidence.

Of course, there's no real way to ensure that these CCTV systems in police stations are "tamper-proof"; and, as so often in China, there doesn't seem to be any accompanying regime of effective supervision, or of penalties/incentives to improve compliance with regulations.  The supposed requirement that police forces should store all this CCTV footage for a minimum of six months is unlikely to be much observed.

And Wu Yuren's trial date was not announced until nearly six months after his detention (and beating in the Jiuxianqiao Police Station in north-east Beijing); the police did not respond to the presiding judge's order to release the relevant videotapes for a further two months - by which time they had, of course, been deleted.  But the police had complied with the new regulations, right?  Oh yes.

If the folks in the Ministry of Justice are even half-way serious about this campaign to try to improve police behaviour in China, they need to extend that period for preserving video records to at least one year - and introduce mandatory time limits for the key stages in the criminal prosecution process.  (It's looking as though Wu might possibly spend longer awaiting the outcome of his trial than he would actually be sentenced to if found guilty.)

Haiku for the week

Blue skies start to bore,
Encourage dreams of escape,
Fleeing south with birds.

Yep, I've had it with the Beijing winter.  It's not been an especially cold one; but it has been wretchedly unvarying.  And we seem to have had 10 or 12 weeks of it already now.  I'm not really a fan of beaches and jungles and tropical heat, but... I'm starting to browse travel websites on Cambodia, Malaysia, the Philippines.  Time to get away.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

News updates

Belgian photographer/film-maker Vanessa De Smet and her two Mongolian artist friends, Dorjderem Davaa and Enkhjargal Ganbat, were successful in the online funding appeal they launched last month on the Kickstarter arts website.  They had stalled badly in the middle of the 30-day appeal period, after a strong start, but picked up momentum again in the last few days, and just squeaked home to their $9,000 target (the pledges they'd received would have been void if they had fallen short of this minimum).  Congratulations to all three of them.  I look forward to hearing more news of the completion of the projects they're working on and of their experiences on the planned European tour.  Many thanks to everyone who contributed, or passed on details of the appeal, or just checked out their video and wished them well.

Another photographer friend of mine, Amy Johansson, had this rather stunning picture of hers in contention in a National Geographic competition back in November.  Alas, she didn't win it - but it seems she did make the final, final shortlist of three, which is quite a result.  (Many thanks again to all of you who helped by giving her picture a high rating on the magazine's website.  Several of you told me that you thought it was the standout of that selection.)  She was up for a prize in a competition run by the fashion magazine Elle around the same time; she missed out on the top award there as well, but it's major kudos even to make the prize shortlist in such select company.  She currently has a solo exhibition of her Bangladesh pictures (including the National Geographic one) at the Arbetets Museum in Norrköping, Sweden - on until the end of the month.  This year, Amy is taking a photography course at the well-regarded Danish School of Media and Journalism in Aarhus.  After that... she might just possibly look into making photography her new full-time profession.  She's a very talented young lady, and I'm sure she'll be enjoying many more such successes in the future.

News - of a sort - finally in the Wu Yuren case: his lawyer, Li Fangping, was summoned to the courthouse on Monday to "view" the police videotapes from the Jiuxianqiao Police Station which were supposedly the key piece of evidence in the case, but which had not been brought to court by the prosecution on the first trial date back in November.  The presiding judge adjourned the trial - indefinitely - on Li's motion to produce the tapes, and... two full months later we are told that (surprise, surprise) the original surveillance camera tapes have long since been lost or erased; and the - obviously heavily edited - tape from a handheld video camera which was produced in court (and shows nothing to incriminate Wu) is claimed to be the sole (original, unedited) version.  So, after this long and painful delay, there is no new evidence.  In fact, there is no evidence at all - apart from the not terribly convincing testimony of the police officers.  In just about any other country in the world, the case would now be dismissed.  Here in China, there is a depressing inevitability that it will proceed anyway, and that a guilty verdict - which was effectively decided in advance - will be handed down, and that a sentence will be imposed that is out of all proportion to the trivial assault alleged (one year, if we're lucky; two or three, if we're not).  Now, we're just anxious for the trial (and sentencing) to be concluded as soon as possible.  It's starting to seem dangerously likely that they'll try to do this during the upcoming Chinese Spring Festival holiday, when it will escape too much media attention or public notice (and when Wu's family - and his lawyer - are likely to be unavailable to attend the hearings!).  Sigh.

But finally, some really good news....

'Ashleigh Burrows', a cyber-friend who was injured in the Tucson shooting on January 8th, is back blogging again - barely a week later.  She's still in hospital, but is recovering well and seems to be in good spirits.  Welcome back, a/b; get well soon.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Imaginary conversation

The editor and his editee never meet.  And it is undoubtedly much better thus.

But sometimes, in your head, you can't help but picture this scene....

"This primary source of yours....."


"Well, don't get me wrong - it's so nice that you have one.  Almost unique in my experience of Chinese historiography to date, in fact.  It's just that...."

"Just what?"

"Your citation's in French."


"But your article's in English, so you really ought to translate it.  All except the formal title of the work."

"Oh??  But it's in French."

"I know it's in French, but it should..... oh never mind.  No, the thing that bothers me more is that the author was Dutch."


"And he wrote his memoir.... originally in Dutch?"


"But it was first published in French?"


"In America?"


"In Pennsylvania?"


"In the 1790s?" 


"In French, not Dutch or English?"


"Oh, well, it's possible, I suppose.  But what makes you think this?"

"Er... well... the citation is in French."

"Yes, indeed it is.  The whole citation is in French."


"Well, it's in the Library of Congress.  They wouldn't usually record the description and the origin of the book in French."


"You've never actually read this book in the original, have you?"

"No, of course not.  I can barely speak English."

"Or French?"


"So you found this in a secondary source?"


"What language did you read that in?"


"Was it originally written in Chinese, or translated from some other language?"

"Of course it was a translation."

"Did it include citations in the original language, or only in Chinese?"

"Oh, in the original language!"

"Well, that's good.  And what was the original language of this secondary source?"


You see what I'm dealing with here?  I think I'm getting one of those bruises on the forehead that devout Muslims get from pounding their heads on the ground every time they pray.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Nicely put

As I ploughed through the editing of yet another article of limited intellectual acuity the other day, my ordeal was momentarily ameliorated by this gem.  It's from an article by a "special correspondent" for the Los Angeles Times, written in the early 20th century on the topic of Shanghai's notoriety as the vice capital of the Orient.  It is deliriously flippant throughout (at least, it seems so to me; although it is perhaps rather difficult to judge attitude and tone of voice in such a different era) - something that my Chinese author rather missed out on.

The line that particularly had me quaking with laughter was this:

"The wholesale generalization upon Shanghai’s wickedness indulged in by missionaries here, and by missionary authorities and supporters at home, is more than uncharitable; it is cruel, and false. This city holds many upright, clean-living, honorable men of spotless character. The fact that they are in a minority does not justify their being so indiscriminately libeled."

How little things have changed in 100 years! 

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

"One who knows the enemy and knows himself will not be in danger in a hundred battles."

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

"Knowledge of one's enemy and knowledge of oneself don't count for much if one doesn't also understand how dangerous battles are."


Sunday, January 16, 2011

A Sunday poem

My passion for Larkin is well-known by now to regular visitors.  This is a particularly poignant one - evoking what is lost when a life is cut short.

The Explosion

On the day of the explosion
Shadows pointed towards the pithead.
In the sun the slagheap slept.

Down the lane came men in pitboots
Coughing oath-edged talk and pipe-smoke,
Shouldering off the freshened silence.

One chased after rabbits; lost them;
Came back with a nest of lark's eggs;
Showed them; lodged them in the grasses.

So they passed in beards and moleskins,
Fathers, brothers, nicknames, laughter,
Through the tall gates standing open.

At noon, there came a tremor; cows
Stopped chewing for a second; sun,
scarfed as in a heat-haze, dimmed.

The dead go on before us, they
Are sitting in God's house in comfort,
We shall see them face to face -

Plain as lettering in the chapels
It was said, and for a second
Wives saw men of the explosion

Larger than in life they managed -
Gold as on a coin, or walking
Somehow from the sun towards them,

One showing the eggs unbroken.

Philip Larkin (1922-1985)

Friday, January 14, 2011

The interconnectedness of everything

One of the chiefest pleasures I have found in this strange hobby of blogging (and the one I had least anticipated when I set out on this experiment, over four years ago now) is the remarkable people I have met through it, the keen intelligences and vibrant spirits who also choose to express themselves via a blog: people like Leah and HomeInKabul (their blogs, alas, now deleted or restricted), Moonrat (discontinued, but the rich archive still available) and OMG (disappointingly infrequent; but when she's good, she's very, very good) and The Enigmatic, Masked Blogger and - just the other day - a New Mexico artist named Cedra saying hi for the first time; and, of course, the life-enhancing Tony of Other Men's Flowers and John of Running After My Hat.

With most of these folks I have established a personal e-mail correspondence in addition to the public-forum badinage of the comment threads; and I have come to regard them as friends.  It might seem strange (it would have seemed strange to me three or four years ago) that such 'virtual relationships' could so readily attain such warmth and intimacy, such value in my life - but there it is: communication establishes connection; when minds touch, hearts tend to do likewise.

There's this odd, wonderful camaraderie in blogging.  You even develop a sense of affectionate fellowship with people you recognise just as regular commenters on a favourite blog.  You may not have the time to visit their own blogs (if they have them) often or at all, but there's soon a comforting familiarity about their comment-thread appearances as you start to recognise their online monicker and their distinctive worldview, and you find yourself looking forward to their next observations almost as much as your cherished blogger's substantive posts.  

This is particularly the case with Running After My Hat, where John has achieved the enviable feat of attracting a cosy little community of habitual commenters - all uncommonly smart and articulate types, mostly aspiring or published writers, or people who at least keep unusually literate blogs.  One of the newest interesting people to join these select ranks in the last few months is a lady called Ashleigh Burrows (I've no idea if that's her real name), who usually comments at RAMH under the abbreviated tag a/b.  We haven't heard from Ashleigh over there this week because last Saturday she went out to meet her local Congresswoman - and that maniac started shooting everybody.  She was hit by three bullets; but it seems she's going to be fine.  Physically, she's going to be fine; mentally, I would think, the recovery could be a long and difficult road.  She has lots of family and friends to help her through it, and I hope she'll soon be on her feet again and getting her life back to normal.  We'll be looking forward to having her mind and her wit and her joie de vie brightening up the RAMH threads once again.

Her daughter posted a bulletin about this on Ashleigh's blog at the start of the week: you can check in there for the latest news, and to leave your good wishes.

I'm not a believer in the "power of prayer", unfortunately, but I am devoting my thoughts to Ashleigh and her family, and to the critically injured Congresswoman Giffords, and to everyone else who was affected by this appalling tragedy.

We shouldn't let distance insulate us from feeling the enormity of events like this, but we do; events we encounter only through news reports seem strangely 'unreal', allow us an emotional detachment.  It's only when we realise they touched someone we "know" that the horror seems to come right home to us, to come right up to us and bite us; but really, it was there all along, right up close to us - we just didn't want to look it in the face.

Be well soon, Ashleigh.