Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Billy's House

This is the house I mentioned over on The Barstool last week, down in Dawu in northern Hubei, where I stayed with friends for a week in the middle of this month.  It's in the middle of an unremarkable single-storey brick-and-concrete terrace and has rather basic facilities, but it is blessed with high, high ceilings and thick walls which do a good job of keeping the searing summer heat at bay. It also has this rather charming little courtyard (almost as soothing to contemplate as this one in New Orleans), and a tiny, tiny roof-deck affording a view of the nearby lake.

The owner, my Chinese friend JP, bought it primarily as an investment. She had also planned originally to live there during regular summer visits to her family, but rapidly decided that there was an intolerable concentration of mosquitoes in the vicinity (a quite unreasonable paranoia, I would say, from my recent experience; I hardly saw one of the critters on the couple of occasions I went down there) and has chosen instead to stay each year in an apartment (next to the river, where the mosquitoes seem to be quite a bit more numerous). Hence, at the moment, the place is entirely unused. That seems a terrible waste to me.

I am extremely tempted to try to make this a regular retreat from the increasingly soul-crushing awfulness of Beijing - perhaps a month or two down there every winter and early summer, to crack on with my novel.

The house has been promised (if property developers don't seize it first) to my friends' teenage son Billy, and he proudly regards himself as the owner even though the title can't yet be formally transferred to his name. I have his blessing to stay there rent-free any time the fancy takes me. Now I have to work on his rather more money-conscious mum....

The Revolution is still a long way off

A few days ago, I passed a young Chinese guy on the streets of Beijing wearing this t-shirt.

I hope he didn't encounter any policemen who can speak/read English (rare, but they do exist), or he could have been in a lot of trouble.

Now, this appears to be a very common t-shirt slogan in America these days, and I suspect this guy's shirt was a genuine import rather than one of the cheap local knock-offs that just appropriate such slogans from the Internet without any concern for what they mean (or generate them randomly by cutting & pasting, or using a machine-translator). Nevertheless, the fact that the slogan may have been coherent and meaningful to its creator, and perhaps even to its seller, does not guarantee that it was to its wearer. Most young Chinese people think English writing - or Chinglish gibberish, most of the time - on clothing is COOL, and will buy items like this without reference to the meaning. (Lately, there seem to have been rather more of these it-actually-makes-sense-and-is-appropriate t-shirts appearing here. I spotted a girl on the subway a few weeks back wearing one that said I'm not easy, but we can talk about it. I really think she had no idea what it meant.)

I find it rather depressing that this government goes to such great lengths to suppress 'unharmonious' ideas, and yet the only real subversion here is mostly being expressed by accident.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Dreams of moving

'Tis the season of the year to be moving. Most new foreign arrivals - most of us, when we were newbies - tend to arrive in Beijing in late August or early September. And so, that's when 70% or so of rental leases seem to expire. A number of my friends have been looking at new properties recently; a couple of them claim to have found really awesome new pads close to where I live. I am looking forward to their housewarmings - with curiosity, and not a little envy. I am ready for a move too: my place is clean and fairly quiet and has a great location.... but it just doesn't have that oomph factor. It's not somewhere I ever bring people back to, or somewhere I can really enjoy just hanging out on my own.

I'm a bit of a freak, in that my current lease runs until near the end of November; so I'm unlikely to move until then. There'll probably be far fewer places on the market later in the year; but there'll also be much less demand (especially for hutong properties, since the weather will be turning arse-freezing cold by then, and these older traditional houses tend to have big windows and poor heat insulation), so there might be some better deals to be found. Or so I hope.

One of the friends who's about to move showed me his current pad at the weekend. It is gorgeous: a cosy, clean, dry, tastefully modernised pingfang* property ('Western' bathroom, small wooden deck out the back), with beautiful faux Qing furniture (it even has an opium bed). And - by contemporary Beijing standards, at least - it's dirt cheap (so cheap, in fact, that I was seriously tempted to rent it immediately, alongside my existing apartment).

Unfortunately.... it's really just a studio apartment, very, very small: probably only 40 or 50 square metres at best, and with virtually no storage space. I lived for five-and-a-half years in an enormous three-bedroom apartment; almost 150 square metres, and cupboards everywhere. I have scaled down to a place that is only 75 or 80 square metres and has very little storage - and it has been hard: the place is very cluttered; most of my books are still in packing cases. There is no way I could move into my friend's delightful little apartment without abandoning half of my personal possessions (boxes and boxes of teaching notes, 1,000+ DVDs, three or four bookshelves, a sofa and a sofa bed...).

I am really, really tempted to do it anyway, though, because when his winding little hutong emerges on to the main road, 150 yards from his pingfang gate, you see this.....

* In Beijing, at any rate, a pingfang usually designates one of the old hutong houses in the city centre; but unlike a siheyuan, which is a self-contained courtyard property, large or small, pingfang tends to be used of shared yards, where the space has been divided between several households: the individual houses are mostly tiny and ramshackle affairs that have evolved haphazardly over time; but it's a very characterful environment. (And you get very close to your neighbours!)

Monday, August 29, 2011

You always know where you are with Chinese academics

Scraping the bottom of the barrel, that's where.

But at least it's reliably amusing.

The most recent selection of slapping-my-forehead-in-despair moments encountered in one of my editing jobs for a foreign policy think tank included the inevitable sequestering of all dangerous terms like democracy, human rights, and individualism within scare quotes, citing a Wikipedia article as justification for employing the neologism informatization, omitting the timeframes for half of the economic statistics quoted, leaving conspicuous evidence of rampant cutting & pasting in the haphazard variations in the type and size of fonts, and - oh, marvellous highlight! - listing as one of the features of the distinctively 'Asian political value system' (as opposed to all that nasty Western so-called "individualism").... intolerance.

Well, I assumed that was a typo by the authors - but maybe not?


I was barely off the train back from parts south when I found myself receiving a call inviting me to a "meeting" (if they have the quotation marks, that means they are important - potentially money-earning!).

Nine days on... I have edited three, no, four fairly long academic articles, done some preliminary work on the next long business article I've been commissioned to write, wrapped up the critiquing on the final assessments for the legal English class I was doing before I left on my hols... oh, and belatedly remembered I'm supposed to be giving a seminar on something or other this week (or next, I hope) for which I have to prepare a slew of new PowerPoint slides... and chased up a couple of payments owing... and set up another meeting and a telephone conference...

I am impossible to please: when I have no work, I fret about my lack of income; when I have work, I resent the loss of my freedom.

Life - it's a tricky one.

Bon mot for the week

"This I must fight against: any idea, religion, or government which limits or destroys the individual."

John Steinbeck  (1902-1968)

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Film List - another quiz

Musing on ideas for another cinematic quiz for this regular end-of-the-month spot, I came up with this: memorable (or not?) character names.

Here are the first twenty that came to mind.... (Much harder to think of female characters, I found: I hope that's down to the comparatively smaller number of strong leading roles for women, rather than any patriarchal bias in the filing system of my memory!)

See if you can recognise the film they appeared in and the actor who played them. (I think 10 out of 20 would be pretty good going.)

Film Quiz - 20 Memorable Character Names

Sidney J. Mussburger

Howard Beale 

Charlie Allnut

Ada McGrath

Rupert Pupkin

Benjamin Franklin Pierce

Nancy Callahan

Lorelei Lee

Jules Winnfield

Buddy Ackerman

Milton Arbogast

Tracy Lord

Hank Quinlan

Kyle Reese

Tom Hagen

Rosemary Woodhouse

Benjamin Willard

Travis Bickle

Vicki Allessio

Eddie Felson

I'll put the answers in the comments next week.  Good luck!

ANSWERS now added in the comments below.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Information overload

One of the most 'popular' posts of these past few weeks when I was absent from the blog, and indeed for a good long time (suddenly, commenters again - how did that happen?!), was last Monday's piece rueing the impact of the Kindle on our book culture.

We're now up to 18 comments on that (although, admittedly, half of them are my own responses and elaborations).

I am particularly grateful to long-time blog-friend Tony B (the tireless collator of Other Men's Flowers) for sending me a link to a very short - and amusing but terrifying - science fiction story on the topic of information storage and its practicalities, MS Fnd in a Lbry. Tony had posted about this almost-forgotten gem on his blog nearly 5 years ago. It was first published at the end of 1961, the work of Hal Draper (apparently best known as a Socialist theorist, though this story certainly whets the appetite for more of his fiction, if there is any), and it warns that if civilizations persist for millions or billions of years and expand across solar systems and galaxies.... not even the most sophisticated digitization and miniaturization technologies will save them from being smothered by the sheer mass of their history. Everything depends upon the indexing....

This story is far too good to be left unregarded in an old comment thread, so I am trying to give the link more prominence here. Please go and take a look at it.

Notes from the 'Underground'

I have commented before on the shortcomings of the design and implementation of Beijing's subway system expansion - notably here, in Olympic year. And four or five months ago, I described how parts of the system are getting completely overwhelmed, at least in the rush hours.

As the 'new towns' to the north of Beijing are now rapidly starting to fill up with people (after two or three years of ghost town status after they were first built), demand on the sole line serving them - Line 5, which was a pleasantly uncrowded line when it first opened just over three years ago - has gone through the roof. Did the 'planners' consider longer trains/platforms, higher train frequency, the possibility of running two tracks side-by-side to double capacity? It would seem not. I read recently that at the Tiantongyuan stop (one I used to use quite a bit in the past, to visit my journo friend New Dad - thank heavens he relocated to HK at the start of this year), the mob of would-be passengers gathering at 8 in the morning is so HUGE that people often have to wait for 40 minutes or more just to get inside the station.

Last night, I had to take Line 5 for the first time in quite a while, heading north out of the city centre - and it was almost impossible to board the trains (and very unpleasant to ride on them), even at around 7pm, somewhat after the rush-hour peak. Luckily, I only had to go a few stops before changing to Line 10 - the 'Olympic line' - to head towards the CBD. Passenger traffic in that direction had, mercifully, thinned out by this time (I suppose not many people commute from the CBD to work somewhere else), but the trains coming my way were like sardine tins.

Beijing is rapidly adding to its subway network, with several new lines, or extensions to existing lines, projected to enter service within the next three or four years (see below).

But.... the coverage will still be fairly limited for a city of this size. And the stations are mostly very badly designed, the platforms are too small, the capacity per train is not very high. Even worse, the lines are all enormously long, stretching 15 or 20 miles out into the suburbs: hence, by the time the trains reach the centre of the city, they are jam-packed. Even worse, most of them run north-south, leaving a serious shortfall in capacity in the east-west direction. And there's still comparatively little that runs through the very centre of the city, particularly around the main drag of Changan/Jianguomen. So, a large proportion of these millions of new passengers pouring in from the outlying commuter towns are getting funnelled on to the original two subway lines, which are now rather old and struggling to cope: thanks to this inept planning, the venerable Line 1 (the especially antiquated, low-capacity line that runs east-west through the heart of the city, and is now so crowded as to be almost unusable at any time of day) and Line 2 (the 'circle line' that follows the route of the 2nd Ringroad, bounding the city centre) are starting to approach the point of meltdown. Line 5 - the first of the new commuter lines - is already there, it would seem. So is Line 10, during peak periods. And Line 4 is rapidly heading in the same direction.

It would be nice to think that the opening of all these additional lines soon might ease the congestion somewhat. But in fact, I feel sure, they will quickly increase passenger volumes far beyond their planned capacity; and a substantial number of these new passengers will be delivered into the core of the system, Lines 1 and 2, which are already overloaded.

Beijing is teetering on the brink of a massive public transport crisis. Interesting times, indeed.

Haiku for the week

Weary of the road
Hesitating to return
Wearier of home

God, it's been a fraught first week (um, barely six days) back! And I seem not to have either the physical or emotional energy to deal with any of it. I suppose last week, although fun, was rather stressful - huge amounts of walking (and concomitant dehydration/sunstroke), occasional gippy tum, bothersome allergies from the air-conditioning, and a near-death experience in "the mountains". And I was "sleeping" (not well) on the floor all week in my friends' apartment. And then I capped that with a 27-hour journey home (nearly half of it on a very grotty K-train from Xinyang [I was told by several amazed passengers that I may be the ONLY foreigner ever to have boarded the train at Xinyang!], again largely sleepless: China substitutes jet-lag with train-lag).

What is it about holidays, that they always leave you feeling like you need a holiday?

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Scarily prescient

Last Friday's haiku, that is - one I'd written and 'pre-posted' some three weeks earlier. I depicted my life as a steep cliff-face on which I had lost my grip... little realising that I was soon to be confronted with such a terrifying scenario for real.

Ten days ago, some of my adoptive in-laws (my Chinese friend JP is very insistent on extending 'family' privileges to me) took me on a pleasant Sunday morning ramble in the countryside. I have in the past scoffed at the Chinese propensity to describe any country walk as 'mountain climbing', even though it's almost invariably on a road or path and seldom very steep.

But that's the way your soft, big city folk talk. They're made of hardier stuff out in the countryside. My 'brother-in-law' kept describing the expedition as a 'walk', but in fact it pretty much was 'mountain climbing', at least in parts. Dawu County in northern Hubei province is not really mountainous, more hilly; but although the elevations aren't that great, it's pretty rugged, rocky terrain. I found myself trekking up a steep and often trackless river valley to check out this remote scenic spot below, the Yanqing waterfall (as I believe it's called; Google Earth is unavailable to me at the moment).  The last quarter of a mile became particularly gruelling - and anxiety-making, for me - because we had to scramble up a few near-vertical stretches of path, using tree-roots and so on for handholds. My gammy legs (loose flap of cartilage in the right knee, and mysterious muscle-wasting problem in the left thigh) just can't bear any weight when bent, so I was finding this a real trial. And I was wearing an ancient pair of trainers with just about no tread left on the soles - that didn't help, either. I had a couple of very unpleasant moments, finding myself slithering helplessly down a slope, literally clawing at the earth with my fingers to try to regain a grip.

Still, it was worth it when, after 90 minutes or so of arduous clambering under a baking sun, we arrived at this charming little spot and were able to cool our feet in the rockpools.

Unfortunately, our guide (a local mayor - friend of 'the family'... and a serious mountain climber) decreed that the only convenient way to bring our expedition to a conclusion and return to the road was to continue to the head of this valley. Yes, he wanted us to climb up this waterfall.

Now, in fact, this wasn't so bad. Just out of frame to the left of this picture there's a tumble of boulders which enable you to get about a third of the way up the cliff quite easily. Then there's a path of sorts through the adjacent underbrush - very nearly vertical, but not nearly so bad as some of the sections we'd covered just before the waterfall. But then came the point where we had to traverse the rockface to get back down to the riverside above the waterfall.  We had to get across about 7 or 8 feet of the cliff (not sheer, but very, very steep), edging our way along a narrow crack in the rock (it didn't protrude more than an inch or so from the cliff above, but provided a ledge about two inches or so wide if you managed to jam your feet in under the overhang). I'm not sure if the place is visible in this photo or not: it would be right up in the top left corner, somewhat above the top of the waterfall. One by one, we shuffled gingerly across this gap, pressing our bodies flat against the gently curving cliff-face, trying to get as much of our shoes as possible on to the narrow ledge (scarcely more than half the width of our feet), trying not to look down (at the 50 or 60 ft drop into a very shallow rockpool).

It was a dumb thing to do, but we didn't seem to have any choice. Without proper climbing shoes, or ropes, or any kind of safety equipment - it was a sickeningly dangerous thing to do. I would imagine that a 'walk' like that - never mind the cliff traverse at the end - might produce a significant injury at least one time in ten. The stunt on the cliff could well lead to a fatality rather more often than it is comfortable to think about.

But, oh yes, it felt mighty good to have survived the ordeal.

Although I didn't recall my foolish little haiku at the time, I did briefly wonder, while in the midst of crossing the cliff-face, what I'd do if I lost my foothold - would I see how much I could slow my descent by scrabbling at the cliff, or would I just give up.... and try to enjoy the fall?

Choose your next metaphor carefully, Mr Froog. It may be your last.

Never mind the 'watched pot'...

What about the watched clock?

We've all had the experience of finding that time seems to move sluggishly when we're waiting for something, sometimes even seeming almost to grind to a halt.

But what about a clock actually stopping when we look at it.... and then surreptitiously starting up again as soon as we cease paying it any attention?

I swear that happened to me yesterday.  I was planning to go out at about 4pm, so looked at the clock in my kitchen at 3.48. I know that was pretty much the correct time because I happened to check another timepiece as well. A few minutes later, I glanced at the kitchen clock again: it didn't seem to have moved, but I didn't pay it close attention - dismissing it as an example of that common time slows down when you're anxious about it phenomenon. Several minutes later, I checked again, and this time the fact that my kitchen clock had not moved on since I started checking it was more glaring, impossible to overlook. Damn - my clock had STOPPED. (Except... it hadn't. It was still ticking loudly, and the second hand was still whirring around the clockface at the appropriate pace; it was just that the hour and minute hands had mysteriously jammed at 3.48 - the exact moment at which I first looked at it that afternoon. I tell you, it was the power of my eyes, my penetrating stare that did it!)

I gave up on using the faulty kitchen clock, and, at about 4.10, began referring to the clock on my computer instead. Just before 4.20, I was finally ready to quit the apartment. I happened to glance at my kitchen clock again just as I was leaving: it had started up again, just as mysteriously as it had suddenly stopped a little while earlier. But the time it displayed was - of course - 22 minutes slow. It had started again at the exact moment that I gave up on it and started referring to another timepiece instead.  How spooky is that?

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

The best time of the year

My journo friend Stroppy Tom - who's been in China rather longer than me, though not always in Beijing - was opining a little while ago that he expected Beijing's sweltering summer weather to break around the middle of August, "as usual".

Now, my recollection is that the weather seldom breaks until the last week of August, and usually not until around the beginning of September. Certainly, my first 10 or 12 days here in 2002 were unpleasantly steamy. And I feel sure that most subsequent years have been much the same. However, there have been exceptions: in 2008, the city's 'usual' climate cycle was significantly deranged by frantic weather manipulation for the Olympics; and I noted around this time last year that our autumn appeared to have arrived a couple of weeks early.

For 5 or 6 of the last 9 years, I've managed to get away for a holiday in August - although I think I've always been back for the latter half of the month, and have had at least a few opportunities to rue the oppressive humidity here... before the joyous, magical transition to autumn (somehow, you can always tell when summer here is over - the temperatures may be just as hot as before, but you sense in your bones that that they're now going to start falling, almost day by day; and you know that the wretched humidity has gone for good [well, it usually gets a bit clammy for a while in mid-October as well, but that's cold humidity rather than hot]). So, I think I trust my own recollections on this; I think my mate Tom was mistaken, over-optimistic in his pronouncement on the "usual" weather pattern.

And yet... this year, it appears, he has proven to be bang on. I gather there were two or three days of heavy rain while I was away in Hubei last week... but then, Tuesday dawned with a bright blue sky, slightly lower temperature, and negligible humidity. And it's continued like that ever since (still just a little sticky at times; there's an oddly persistent pocket of humidity around the Sanlitun district; but it's not the stifling soupiness we've suffered through so much of the last three months). Autumn this year began on 16th August.

I hope that doesn't mean it's going to end early as well. This does seem almost too good to be true.

Monday, August 22, 2011

A milestone

Today I am embarking upon my tenth year of living in China. Oiveh!

This is about three or four years more than I ever contemplated being here. I had thought I'd probably skip out after the dratted Olympics, but.... the world economy collapsed and there were no jobs to be had anywhere. Things aren't much better three years on - especially for someone as resolutely 'unemployable' as myself.

The 'Escape Plan' still refuses to coalesce.

I'm thinking I might spend a few months trying to learn some Spanish and Arabic, and see which one I take to more. That would then guide my job search toward South America or the Middle East.

But I fear I'm probably going to be here for at least one more year, maybe two or three. What shall I do with myself? Watch and see.

The wanderer returns...

Yes, I'm back at last.

Although I was not 'away' as much as I'd hoped. A vaguely planned side-trip to Dali and Lijiang was abandoned, and hopes of a seaside jaunt to Dalian were thwarted not once but twice. I did manage two six-day breaks, in Yunnan and Hubei, sandwiching a five-day spell of pretending not to be in Beijing (mostly skulking at home, diverting myself with books or DVDs, and isolating myself from the noisome outside world by refraining from using the computer or the telephone).

It has been a nicely revivifying break - although, alas, it has tended to reinforce my dissatisfaction with Beijing. Everywhere else in China... the climate is nicer, people are more relaxed, car drivers are more considerate and safer. It's only in the capital that selfishness, stupidity and aggression seem to be so rampant - as if connection to the centre of government somehow breeds a sense of entitlement, and a callous indifference to the needs of others (it could be so...). I had been back in the city for all of about 3 minutes when I nearly got into a fistfight with someone: a pot-bellied oaf - typical dakuan type: pink polo shirt, crewcut, sunglasses - who thought he was too important to have to queue at the railway station exit and started roughly elbowing his way to the front. I am not the kind of guy you elbow (twice). Especially not when I've just been on a train for 15 hours and had bugger-all sleep. I indicated to him that unless he retreated once more to the back of the line, he was going to get punched very hard in the face. He saw my point - but not without a lot of yabbering and whingeing.

Beijing - SHIT.

Still, I've had my first taste of smalltown China for years, and that was thoroughly delightful. I am seriously contemplating moving to such a place - not permanently perhaps, but for an extended retreat, maybe two or three months over the winter, to try to get some writing done. And to give myself another respite from bloody Beijing.

Bon mot for the week

"The critic has to educate the public; the artist has to educate the critic."

Oscar Wilde  (1854-1900)

Friday, August 19, 2011

Haiku for the week

Sliding down a cliff
Sometimes you will stop scrabbling
Embrace the freefall

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Look familiar?

Yes, it's one of the earliest extant - and genuine - maps of China, known as 'The Selden Map', named after John Selden, a 17th century London lawyer who was an avid collector of Oriental curiosities, and much of whose estate passed into the possession of Oxford University's Bodleian Library. (More images here.)

The possible historical value of the map has only been realised in the last few years (it is now reckoned to contain a lot of information about the trade funnelling through the coastal province of Fujian in the 1620s), and a major restoration and conservation project has recently been begun on it.

[I offer an especially grateful doff of my hat to my best drinking buddy The Dissolute Choirboy for sending me a link about this a few weeks ago.]

Monday, August 15, 2011

Kindle™, schmindle

Somehow or other (I do most of my Web-meandering late at night, and thus the pathways are soon forgotten, blurred by sleep), a few weeks ago I came upon the E-book Skeptic. As you may easily judge from the chosen name of his blog, he deplores the modish novelty of digital books and reading from screens. However, he has transcended the impotent mutterings of irritation that most of us make do with, and has heroically devoted himself to collating scientific research which adds rational support to his - our - instinctual rejection of this new technology. (Apparently, there are a number of studies which suggest that stuff you read on a screen just doesn't stick in the brain in the same way. My own floundering with recalling exactly what I've read on the Internet - or where exactly I've read it - perhaps offers further evidence of this phenomenon.)

The "Skeptic" has more of a personal stake in this battle than most of us, since he is a beleaguered bookstore owner in an American college town (Durham, North Carolina, as it happens, home of the well respected Duke University; a place I have visited a number of times, since one of my best friends from my own university days has been teaching at Duke for some years). I wish him well in keeping that noble enterprise going. Almost all of the bookshops I so enjoyed during my undergraduate days in Oxford - all of the secondhand ones, anyhow - have ceased to exist now; it is heartbreaking.

I am particularly in sympathy with the argument he presents about the essentially multi-sensory nature of the reading-a-book experience: selecting a particular book and page from onscreen menus and prompts just isn't as tactile as pulling a well-loved book from the shelf, feeling the weight of it in the hands, savouring  the texture of the paper, its sun-fadedness, its smell.... and searching for that favourite passage marked by a turned-down page corner.

Another blogger I was reading recently (again, alas, I forget who or where or why) noted that he'd recently realised that as soon as he'd downloaded something on to his Kindle, that meant he was almost certainly never going to read it. Adding a text to your digital library may satisfy a basic curiosity about it, or some socially-mediated sense of obligation about making the attempt to find and acquire a recommended work - but read it? No. Whatever reminder features your e-book may have with which to goad you about unread purchases, they're never going to be remotely as potent as that stack of neglected books on the desk or the bedside table confronting you several times each day with your delinquency. And if it's really that much worth reading, you're going to prefer to read it in the form of a proper book - a book with presence and weight and texture and smell, and the capacity to add to the memorableness of the reading experience, to increase your ability to vividly recall that experience years hence.

I haven't done a Website of the Month pick for quite a while; but I feel the E-book Skeptic is an especially worthy pretext for reviving the series.

Bon mot for the week

"There is a road from the eye to the heart that does not go through the intellect."

G.K. Chesterton  (1874-1936)

Sunday, August 14, 2011

The caged bird sings

I've long had a bit of a weakness for the works of Charles Bukowski, and have quoted him before a few times, both here and on The Barstool (which I suppose might seem to be the more natural home for them). But I can't now recall how I happened to stumble upon this nice little animation a few weeks back, for his poem Bluebird. [Oh, no, I can - but that perhaps is a post for another time. I was looking for something by Tom Waits, and discovered a YouTube video of Waits reading another Bukowski poem. That woke me up to the possibility of there being some Bukowski-related stuff on YouTube and I did a bit more searching...]


there's a bluebird in my heart that
wants to get out
but I'm too tough for him,
I say, stay in there, I'm not going
to let anybody see

there's a bluebird in my heart that
wants to get out
but I pour whiskey on him and inhale
cigarette smoke
and the whores and the bartenders
and the grocery clerks
never know that
in there.

there's a bluebird in my heart that
wants to get out
but I'm too tough for him,
I say,
stay down, do you want to mess
me up?
you want to screw up the
you want to blow my book sales in

there's a bluebird in my heart that
wants to get out
but I'm too clever, I only let him out
at night sometimes
when everybody's asleep.
I say, I know that you're there,
so don't be
then I put him back,
but he's singing a little
in there, I haven't quite let him
and we sleep together like
with our
secret pact
and it's nice enough to
make a man
weep, but I don't
weep, do

Charles Bukowski  (1920-1994)

Friday, August 12, 2011

Recently, on The Barstool...

So, what's been going on over on my 'drinking blog' over the past 6 weeks or so?

Well, we enjoyed a rather awesome FREE music show at the end of June, The dazeFeast (courtesy of music blog BeijingDaze) - so I had to write an appreciation of that, along with a brief concluding aside on why door fees are the devil's work.

Only a couple of days later, I found myself rescuing an abandoned kitten (the world's ugliest kitten, but still cute).

I've also mused on the question of stag weekends (I think they're a silly idea), shared my wisdom on how to get drunk most economically, observed a catastrophically awful barman in action, discovered possibly the oddest bar in Beijing, questioned whether China's phantom revolution has moved from Wangfujing to Sanlitun Houjie, been troubled by an apparent upsurge in the surliness of cab drivers, and analysed why sometimes 'less is MORE' - for example, in the length of 'happy hours' or beer lists. Oh yes, and found several new places to drink!

And we've had music from The Jolly Boys, Fine Young Cannibals, The Cranberries, and the "father of Chinese rock" himself, Cui Jian.

I tell you, it's usually a lot more fun over there. You should go and check it out more often.

Haiku for the week

Travel disappoints:
The world's big for weary feet,
But smaller than the heart.

Perhaps I should more properly have said 'holidays'. There's an ephemerality and triviality about a holiday that robs it of any real sense of adventure or discovery. With proper 'travel', there may not be any definite destination, and certainly no firm end date: you are removing yourself from your familiar world in order to fully experience another.

Holidays are like the micro-blogging version of the true travel experience.

I've realised I don't want a holiday. I want to bring an end to my current life, and walk all the way back to England.

Yes, there are major issues of practicality. I am pondering them.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

The TV Listings (9)

Here's the list of my video postings from the second quarter of 2011. There weren't all that many during this period (perhaps because I was so busy with work, and also was suffering connection speed issues which were making YouTube access extremely difficult), and mostly music - but some very good stuff.

The Comedy/Movie Channel

Noel Coward was never like this  -  some genteel upper-class diners appear to be agreeably titillated by the very rude lyrics in this Eric Idle song from Monty Python's Meaning Of Life.

How to speak with an Irish accent  -  my visiting buddy Little Anthony and I plan to crash the China International Potato Expo. This is all the excuse I need to post a comedy video dissecting Irish culture.

The Music Channel

Be Like A Duck  - a delightful injunction to take it easy, from Keith Boynton et al (the song and video created by his mother, the egregiously talented Sandra Boynton)

Pipa masterclass with Lan Weiwei  -  a stunning demonstration of the techniques of the traditional Chinese lute from one of its greatest living exponents.

I'm Free!  -  I celebrate my escape from a particularly unpleasant work engagement with The Who (from their Live at Leeds album).

Why are you so damned handsome?  -  a fun video from sexy Norwegian girl band VOM (who I saw play in Beijing in June).

Hot In The City  -  the onset of the oppressively steamy Beijing summer seems like a good excuse to revisit this '80s classic from Billy Idol.

The Penis Song  -  Eric Idle's naughty Noel Coward pastiche from Monty Python's Meaning Of Life (brought to mind by this unlikely but disturbing news story), accompanied by a link to another song on a similar theme by comedy C&W performer Rodney Carrington... and a link to some very angry Germans also interested in this subject. (See also above, under Comedy.)

Come Together  - but not the familiar Beatles version of their famous song; oh no, a scarily weird throat-singing version in Russian (possibly?) by Siberian folk group Bugotak.

The Parting Glass  -  my blog-friend JES's posting of a great version of this classic Scots/Irish farewell song by Canadian acapella group The Wailin' Jennies prompts me to root out some other renditions - by Liam Clancy, The Dubliners, and Cara Dillon (and adding a belated link to a really good one [hat tip to the Weeble] by Irish vocal group The Voice Squad).

Abaji  -  two dazzling performance clips of the amiable Lebanese-Armenian world music maestro, who recently played in Beijing: one playing a hybrid harp/guitar created by an instrument-maker friend of his, and one playing blues on slide guitar and Asian flute.

The Sports Channel

Again, no sport. Always the most neglected category. There will be some more again one day, I'm sure.

Monday, August 08, 2011

Beware of the music fans

There's a cool little CD shop I like to drop into every once in a while. The owner there has eclectic tastes, and is often playing something interesting - rare or familiar, Chinese or foreign - when I wander past. And he's very amenable to putting on a disc or discs that you request, even if you're quite obviously not in a buying mood that day.

He doesn't really have any functional ability to carry on a conversation in English, but he has memorised many of his favourite English lyrics pretty near perfectly.

A couple of months back, I found him one Saturday afternoon blaring out Radiohead's OK Computer, singing along with every word.

When he got to this part, at the beginning of No Surprises, his delivery became strikingly lustier:

You look so tired and unhappy
Bring down the government
They don't, they don't speak for us

I do hope the poor chap doesn't get himself arrested.

Bon mot for the week

"The true test of character is not how much we know how to do, but how we behave when we don't know what to do."

John Holt  (1923-1985)

It was a pleasant surprise to stumble upon this familiar name during my online meanderings a couple of weeks ago. I discovered Holt's books in my local branch of the W.H. Smith's newsagent's/bookshop when I was in my early teens (there was a brief period of my life when, for some reason I now forget, I was going home from school by bus every day; but, facing a wait of nearly an hour, I consumed entire books while browsing the shelves in Smith's). His How Children Fail and How Children Learn left a particularly deep impression, and may well have had a decisive influence on my becoming a schoolteacher after university.

Saturday, August 06, 2011

List of the Month - wacky album titles

A little bit of fun this month....

I have tried to limit myself to albums which I actually own (although most of my collection is on vinyl, and stored in a friend's loft; I've endured many painful years of separation now), but there are a couple of 'cheats'. I was aiming for a nice round dozen, but... it's ended up being a Baker's Dozen.

It's notable, isn't it, that really amusing album titles tend to be the preserve of bands with amusing or at least at least strikingly unusual names? They are also - at least, amongst the stuff that I've bought - strongly associated with cleverer-than-average music and/or lyrics.

My Top 12 (er, 13) Amusing Album Titles

Ship Arriving Too Late To Save A Drowning Witch  
(Frank Zappa, 1982)
Zappa's catalogue could furnish enough candidates to fill a list like this on its own: Hot Rats, Playground Psychotics,  One Size Fits All, Sheik Yerbouti, Weasels Ripped My Flesh, Zoot Allures, Bongo Fury, Imaginary Diseases, Jazz From Hell, Everything Is Healing Nicely.

Lick My Decals Off, Baby  
(Captain Beefheart, 1970)
Although the 1993 compilation A Carrot Is As Close As A Rabbit Gets To A Diamond is even better as an album title. (I made it a private rule for myself here only to include full albums rather than EPs and so on, and only 'original' albums rather than soundtracks or anthologies.)

Enema of the State  
(Blink-182, 1999)
I don't really know this band, but I've often been tempted to give them a try because of this album title (and the album cover). Recently, I have acquired this, and a little bit of their other stuff, from a friend on MP3.

(Attila The Stockbroker, 1988)
One of the highlights of my student days: other great '80s albums of this left-wing comedy 'ranter' (an occasional collaborator with my pub rock hero John Otway) were Libyan Students From Hell and 667 - Neighbour of the Beast.

From Beer To Eternity  
(The Macc Lads, 1989)
One of the guiltier pleasures of my students days, this northern working class comedy punk band were obnoxiously sexist and homophobic (but, one hoped, probably mistakenly, in a self-mocking kind of way), but their lyrics were often extremely funny, and they could play a bit as well. I saw them live a few times in the '80s (including in a tiny basement dive bar called The Dolly, one of Oxford's few live music venues, on the eve of the last of my final exams: my essay-writing performance the next day was impaired by chronic tinnitus, but it was worth it!): they had tremendous energy on stage - much of which comes across in their recorded material too. Beer consumption was a dominant theme: their debut album was Beer & Sex & Chips'n'Gravy; later releases included The Beer Necessities and Alehouse Rock; and they called their 1991 'Best of...' compilation Twenty Golden Crates.

(Tom Waits, 1983)
A less guilty pleasure from the same era - one of the great man's weirdest and least accessible albums, but worth taking the trouble to get into.

Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret  
(Soft Cell, 1981)
Marc Almond's Tainted Love seemed to be the inescapable soundtrack to most of my student days, continuing to dominate college bar jukeboxes for at least four or five years after its original release. I didn't buy the album it was from until some time in the '90s, and was pleasantly surprised to discover how consistently good the other songs are.

The Least We Can Do Is Wave To Each Other  
(Van Der Graaf Generator, 1970)
I was not, in general, a huge fan of prog rock, but I discovered these guys by chance in the 'bargain bin' at one of my favourite record stores when I was a student, and slowly began collecting their albums. Their music is a lot more interesting, and their lyrics much smarter than you find in most other bands of that ilk. The second side of 1971's Pawn Hearts was a multi-part concept piece called A Plague Of Lighthouse Keepers - that is perhaps my favourite title ever for a piece of music, but, alas, it doesn't qualify as an album title.

Give Me Convenience Or Give Me Death  
(Dead Kennedys, 1987)
1982's Plastic Surgery Disasters would be a runner-up from this band. (Possible 'cheat' here: I believe this release was categorised as an anthology of unused tracks from earlier recording sessions, rather than a regular album.)

Aliens Ate My Buick!  
(Thomas Dolby & The Lost Toy People, 1988)
I learn from Wikipedia that Dolby may be about to release his first full studio album in nearly 20 years. I look forward to that. Apparently, one of the tracks on it is called Your Karma Hit My Dogma.

Too Fat To Run, Too Stupid To Hide  
(Creaming Jesus, 1990)
OK, this is the one outright 'cheat' in the list. I do not own this, nor, to my knowledge, have I ever even heard the band. I gather they were a British goth metal (or thrash metal??) outfit of the early '90s - not my kind of thing. However, I saw this album in a CD shop some time about 12 or 15 years ago and was mighty tempted to get it for the name alone.

Trouble Over Bridgewater  
(Half Man, Half Biscuit, 2000)
This magnificent British comedy band were another of the great joys of my student days. My favourite of their song titles - all absolutely inspired! - was All I Want For Christmas Is A Dukla Prague Away Kit (although 99% Of Gargoyles Look Like Bob Todd would be running it a close second). I think that was from their first album, Back In The D.H.S.S. (i.e., the dole office - maintained by a division of the government named at that time the Department of Health and Social Security). Their lyrics and song/album titles are crammed full of these sly cultural references that only a Brit - and probably, for the most part, only a Brit who was growing up in the 1970s - would get.

Please Enlarge My Cousin's Photograph  
(Glorious Pharmacy, 2005)
This intermittent 'experimental folk' collective, based around the core members of virtuoso saxophonist Li Tieqiao, percussionist Guo Long, and guitarist/vocalist Xiao He, is the most technically accomplished and musically interesting band I've seen in China - though they are rather too determinedly weird for some tastes, and tend to disappear for long spells on exploratory trips up their own bottoms. This album, though, is well worth downloading.

Feel free to add your own favourites in the comments.

Friday, August 05, 2011

Haiku for the week

A country so vast,
A single template prevails:
It all looks the same.

I find this one of the most depressing things about modern China, the staggering homogeneity of its large cities. This week I'm in Kunming, down in the south-west, near the Thai border. Yes, it's at the opposite end of the country from Beijing, some 1,200 miles distant. And the climate is much nicer. But in so many ways, it feels exactly the same: the same bland, cheap architecture, the exact same building materials everywhere; and, these days, the same crazy traffic congestion, the same choking pollution, too; the same unplanned, unfettered industrialization - you see it everywhere in China. Only 6 or 7 years ago, my friends used to tell me that Kunming was a great escape from the drudgery of the capital, that it was still largely undeveloped, unspoiled. Well, that changed very quickly.

It's not just the urban blight, the reckless despoliation of the natural environment that is so disheartening; it's the relentless homogeneity of everything. There are some variations in the older traditional architecture (wherever any of this has been able to survive). There are variations in the climate and flora, of course. And, most intriguingly, I find, there are substantial variations in local brands and chain stores (few if any companies have yet managed to establish a dominating nationwide presence). But apart from that, most large towns and cities in China are almost indistinguishable from one another: they've all sprung up from virtually nothing in the last 20 years or so, they've all been turned out by the same to-get-rich-is-glorious cookie-cutter. If someone kidnapped, drugged, and blindfolded you, and threw you out of the back of a van in the middle of an unknown Chinese city - you'd have a hell of a time working out where you were.

Kunming 10 years ago was a fairly sleepy, unindustrialized little backwater of old China. Now, it's pretty nearly as much of a characterless shithole as any other city of 8 million people. Sigh.

I'm hoping to get away to Dali for a few days next week - which is horribly touristy now, but still reasonably laidback and 'old world'. Hoping....

Well, the Dali trip misfired. However, I have to offer an apology to Kunming; I had a much better time there than I had on two previous trips, three or four years ago. I suppose on those occasions I was in general rather grumpily disposed, since I was on stressful work visits, and didn't have a lot of free time to relax and explore. Even worse, both times I managed to catch the place during an untypically hot spell. Kunming is nicknamed 'The Spring City' and prides itself on the fact that it enjoys sunny-but-mild weather at almost any time of the year. I had a wretched time there before mainly because the weather was uncomfortably hot (and quite humid too), making it difficult to get around much on foot. This time, it lived up to its reputation, with some quite blissful weather.

What's more, they seem to have somehow achieved a dramatic reduction in the city's traffic. Things are still quite congested on the major roads at peak times, but overall it looks to me as though the volume of traffic is down by at least 30%, maybe 50% on what I saw there a few years ago (most people seem to be using scooters rather than cars now). Consequently, the air quality is much better too. I don't know how they've worked this miracle, but other cities need to take note and follow suit.

And it's not nearly such an horrendous urban sprawl as Beijing or Shanghai. That 8 million population figure encompasses quite a wide area of the surrounding countryside; the number of people living within the city itself is probably less than half that.

My complaints, however, about the homogeneity of the recent building and the despoliation of the natural environment by rapid industrialization still stand. Kunming 8 or 10 years ago was probably quite delightful, and still had a distinctive character of its own. Now, it is inexorably merging into the undifferentiated mass of modern urban China, slowly losing its individuality, its charm. It is very depressing to see this process under way almost everywhere you go in this country.