Saturday, December 31, 2011

Review of the Year (what I've been wittering about in 2011)

My year-end roundup last December proved to be quite a popular post, so I thought I'd attempt something similar this year.

What I was writing about in 2011

It was a year of milestones: I entered upon my tenth year of living in China; I passed my 100,000th official 'visitor' here on Froogville, and my 50,000th on The Barstool; both the blogs reached their 5th anniversaries. I celebrated this event with an account of how I came to be a blogger, and with a 'collecting box' post seeking readers' suggestions of their unusual super-power (along with an attendant 'Nemesis'). It was also the centennial of Irish humourist Brian O'Nolan, one of my favourite writers, and the 25th anniversary of Nothing To My Name, a landmark hit for the founding figure of Chinese rock'n'roll, Cui Jian.

There were dark clouds at times in 2011. My artist friend Wu Yuren went through a faltering, oft-adjourned fiasco of a trial, without any verdict being reached, and spent the first three months of the year in a detention centre - making a total of 10 months that he was kept away from his family - before finally being released. An online friend was injured in the Tucson shooting in January. I had some serious health worries of my own through the middle of the year. And, much as I try to resist getting too serious or too topical on here, I was unable to avoid making some observations on the sickening Foshan hit-and-run incident in October.

Other more earnest posts - but leavened, I hope, with some wry humour - included further denunciations of Twitter (and its Chinese version, Weibo), and the ghastly e-book phenomenon; a disturbing parallel between the last years of the Qianlong Emperor and present times; grumps about the Chinese censors' assault on Witopia (only very briefly successful) and the meltdown of Beijing's subway system; an exposé of a widespread misperception about the size of the customer base for China's Internet giant Tencent; and a Cassandra-like warning on the longer-term prospects for the Chinese economy. I also pondered dejectedly on the Jasmine Revolution's failure to materialise (although this did suggest to me a promising concept for a new bar), remained resolutely unexcited about the 90th birthday party for the Chinese Communist Party, and identified the mass exodus of the Chinese upper-middle class as one of the key safety valves that is deferring possible revolution.

Quirkier China observations included my discovery of how Beijing massage parlours are able to offer sexual services legally; a life-affirming good taxi driver experience (particularly welcome in a year in which Beijing's taxi service has declined alarmingly); a bar owner friend improvising a risky remedy for a fizzled firework fuse; the TV watchdog trying to ban time travel; and the realisation that one of the reasons Chinese universities are rubbish is that they don't encourage enough frivolity among the student body. I declined to purchase some sausages that were 5 months past their use-by date, witnessed some panic-buying of salt after the Fukushima nuclear accident, and discovered that there is a special word for the Chinese propensity to eat things you really shouldn't. I also encountered China's (possibly the world's) worst-dressed woman, observed an unusual game of cards, discovered some very odd toys, and experienced a flood of nostalgia for outdoor pool tables. I enjoyed an inflammatory cartoon about a 'rabbit rebellion', and learned that the Chinese word for 'rabbit' has a very unfortunate homophone (this has been The Year of the Rabbit, in the Chinese zodiac system). And I compiled a list of the Chinese words likeliest to gain adoption into global English.

In the realm of work, I have been dismayed at the thoroughgoing incompetence of Chinese lawyers. I have continued to be appalled (but unsurprised) at Chinese academics' inability to distinguish between different types of source, their exuberant mixing of metaphors, their transparent plagiarising, their rampant redundancy, and their hybristic belief that they can interpret subtle nuances of Western popular culture (even the jokes in South Park!!). I was particularly vexed by a chap who managed to conflate four or five different uses of the word 'enlightenment'. And I've wondered whether any of this might be helped by the introduction of a 'Causal Friday'.

I have begun to feel pangs of homesickness (or perhaps just China ennui, or more specifically a growing disenchantment with Beijing), and have contemplated trying to walk back to the UK (my restless wanderlust, I realise, can be attributed to a formative childhood influence). I've also considered relocating to somewhere less stressful in China (I've even got a house in mind); or perhaps opening a bar of my own (in Malaysia!). 

In a review of my Googlewhackiness, I listed some of the unlikely search terms that will guide you to my blogs. A walk in the country nearly ended in death. One of my dreams was enchantingly musical (or musically enchanting); another was all about bars. I turned up a satirical quip about the slack morals of foreigners in Shanghai, crashed the China Potato Expo, learned how to gauge the mood of llamas, and was disturbed by an unfortunate juxtaposition of businesses next to my holiday hotel. I've shared my thoughts on barrister's wigs, reflected on all the more exotic places than Beijing in which I might have lived, demonstrated why nobody really wants to see any of my photographs, reminded you of the importance of being careful with electricity, been disappointed that The Rapture once again failed to occur, discovered some fascinating patterns in inter-disciplinary crossover in American academe, realised the disturbing fact that all my favourite films end with the death of the protagonist, and sketched out a treatment for an action film about EFL teachers starring Jason Statham.

In a surge of nostalgia for my 1970s childhood, I enrolled TV commercial siren Valerie Leon and delectable actress Jane Seymour among my 'Fantasy Girlfriends'. I also - rashly! - attempted to set out in some detail the template for my ideal woman/real-life girlfriend.

I assembled a number of different versions of Bohemian Rhapsody (bluegrass band Hayseed Dixie's was particularly enjoyable) for a video post. I was reminded that the Theme From Shaft is an irresistible cure for depression (ironically enough, Led Zeppelin's Black Dog may be an even better one; but I haven't got around to posting that yet). The song Be Like A Duck I have also found to be a great stress-buster, and to encapsulate valuable life advice. I celebrated St Patrick's Day with some classic versions of the Scots/Irish farewell song, The Parting Glass. I discovered a wonderfully strange guitar. This tribute to film composer John Williams (by Salt Lake City a cappella comedy group Moosebutter) is splendid too. And finally, I shared a list of my favourite amusing album names, and another of favourite movie songs (ones that - strangely! - hadn't made it into the American Film Institute's 'Top 100')

On the poetry front, we began the year with some painfully apposite lines from T.S. Eliot. I have also flaunted my classical education by offering up poems of my own inspired by Xenophon and Horace, and I have made a cup of tea for Mr Death.

In the world of my bar blog, I enjoyed one nearly perfect day, met Lassie, discovered an unlikely new drinking role model, and rescued the world's ugliest kitten. I have learned an interesting fact about the history of lager making, been reminded how wonderful Beer Lao is, and ventured briefly, bravely into what is in all probability Beijing's worst bar. I've mused on the important question of why all Norwegian women are gorgeous, and grumped about how obnoxious young Irishmen seem to have become in the last couple of decades. I reflected on the evolution of my bar-hopping habits in Beijing, grouched about excessive booze prices here (a call-to-arms which has gone sadly ignored!), explained why I have fallen so decisively out of love with Dos Kolegas (once my favourite music bar), and recalled some of my most embarrassing 'morning after' experiences

Among the Barstool posts of rather broader interest, I have produced an important bon mot on the usefulness of drink, and shared more of my wisdom on hangovers. I've also discussed the etiquette of where to stand in the men's toilet, suggested how the expat magazines might improve their 'Bar of the Year' polls, advised on how to hold a successful music festival, discoursed on the essence of the stag party, identified some overlooked or unexpected failings of many bars and restaurants, and formulated some simple Rules of Drinking.

Solid gold, all of that. Well, most of it.

Do dip in at random, if you're a first-time visitor here - or if you missed any of this stuff first time around.

And don't forget:  the Froog Bar Awards for 2011 are now posted over on The Barstool.

The Curse

I had been thinking of having a small gathering - a pre-New Year's Eve warm-up sort of affair - round at my place this afternoon for a select few friends.

But a sudden spell of foggy and snowy weather over north-east China for the last couple of days may have jeopardised the travel plans of people who were supposed to be returning from visits home in time for the New Year.

And now I discover that the Chinese government has decreed that today should be a working day.

Of course!

The technocrats think:  
The Western New Year is of very little interest to our Chinese people, not one of our traditional festivals. But we must start making it a holiday for them, just to show how 'modern' (though not 'Westernized', of course - oh no!) we have become. What's that? It falls on a Sunday this year? Well, let's take a leaf out of the crazy British book of workers' welfare and give our hardworking populace the following day off in lieu. Splendid! Oh, what about lost productivity? Hm, better make the preceding Saturday an additional working day, then... Sorted!

Really. New Year's Day is of no significance in this country at all. Except that, because of it, this year everyone is being forced to take Monday off work, but to work this Saturday instead.

I'm beginning to think 'they' do it just to sabotage my housewarming parties...

Friday, December 30, 2011

TODAY, over on The Barstool....

I've just posted my annual Froog Bar Awards.

So, if you're curious as to which bars in Beijing I like most, and least... or where to find the best cocktails... or where to steer clear of the nachos... or which was the best visiting foreign band this last year... or...

Well, it's ALL there in one handy package. Go and take a look.

Haiku for the week

Hell is nicely furnished...
Crowds become oppressive...
Exit can't be found.

I went to IKEA yesterday. Catching it at lunchtime during a holiday period was a particularly bad move: custom was close to the normal weekend peaks, but 80% or 90% of the staff had gone on a break, resulting in logjam queues everywhere. Hell on earth.

It's the struggle to find the way out that is always particularly wretched. I absolutely HATE that place.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Making a point

Earlier this year, a Chinese businessman from Qingdao hired a team of workers to trash his brand new Lamborghini Gallardo with sledgehammers, because he was dissatisfied with the after-sales service he'd received from the car's China distributor.

Now, I've been known to suffer the odd fit of pique myself from time to time, especially over unsatisfactory service. And I appreciate the cathartic thrill of a bit of wanton destruction occasionally. Better out than in, and all that.

But I do worry that the Chinese tend to lose their rag rather more easily than most other peoples, often over the most trivial of slights.... and then to lose all sense of proportionality in their response to the perceived insult.  And these bloody cars cost something like 5 million RMB, for heaven's sake! Remember what I was saying about China's new breed of tycoons the other week? More money than sense!!

At least this chap did this (partly) to help publicise World Consumer Rights Day on March 15th.

However, this is a class of consumer for whom I find it difficult to muster any respect.

A seasonal Daily Llama

This is, I think, somewhere in China's chilly north-east. It might be Harbin...

A higher mathematics?

The online weather forecasts never seem to work out all that well for China, and especially not for Beijing. The 5-day forecasts are, of course, particularly unreliable; but even the 24-hour ones go bizarrely astray at times.

And then, sometimes, even the 'current' news seems to be completely up the spout. This morning, for example, Weather Underground is assuring me that there is a "0% chance of precipitation" today, even though it is already snowing.

I wonder if there can be some mathematical justification of this apparent aberration: when the likelihood of precipitation tends toward infinity, does it somehow flip back to zero?

Or is it more of a semantic thing? When snow has become an actuality, there's no more 'likelihood' about it?

Enquiring minds want to know.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

It really is incredibly hard to learn [Why I don't learn Chinese - 16]

I was sent a link recently to this excellent essay (written more than 20 years ago, it would seem), Why Chinese Is So Damn Hard, by David Moser, an academic Sinologist and long-time Beijing resident. It is a pretty exhaustive account of why Chinese is such a uniquely difficult language to learn (for non-East Asians, particularly; but, in fact, for everyone, even the Chinese themselves).

In this occasional series, I mostly confine myself to a more personal response to the challenge of learning Chinese - pondering my particular learning handicaps, my lack of emotional engagement with the language, my doubts about its practical utility (even for someone living in China - and certainly for anyone living anywhere else!), and so on. I haven't often attempted to address the qualities of the language itself that make it so dauntingly difficult to learn. I suppose I don't really need to; Moser has had the last word on that. [His bibliography includes a link to an article by another eminent Sinologist, Victor Mair, on the near-impossibility of using a Chinese dictionary.]

Moser warns us:
"Those who undertake to study the language for any other reason than the sheer joy of it will always be frustrated by the abysmal ratio of effort to effect. [My emphasis] Those who are actually attracted to the language precisely because of its daunting complexity and difficulty will never be disappointed."

So, you see, it's not just me.

Of course, Moser may have modified his view somewhat in the interim - now that he has, I'm sure, attained a much higher level of mastery in the language than back when he was a struggling graduate student. And he was clearly being at least slightly tongue-in-cheek when he observed a few lines later in the essay:
"Those who can still remember their original goals will wisely abandon the attempt then and there, since nothing could be worth all that tedious struggle. Those who merely say, 'I've come this far - I can't stop now' will have some chance of succeeding, since they have the kind of mindless doggedness and lack of sensible overall perspective that it takes."

Nevertheless, beneath the overlay of humorous exaggeration, I think his argument is basically earnest and accurate. Chinese is, for all sorts of reasons, much, much harder to learn than almost any other language. Only dedicated translators and academics can realistically expect to ever achieve a reasonably high level of functioning in it. And, in order to do that, they must be prepared to give up many hundreds - nay, probably many, many thousands - of hours of soul-crushing effort to study and practice.

If mastering Chinese is not to be one of the central aims of your life, is it worth bothering with it at all?

Well, that's what this series of mine is about. I haven't yet found any convincing argument that it is worth bothering with - but  I remain open to suggestions on the point.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Just what I didn't want for Christmas!

Wandering around the Internet earlier today, I chanced upon humour site Gimme A Break. This collection of toilet signs was pretty good, but the real stop-you-in-your-tracks post was this one on some recent Chinese toy designs. I thought these 'sex education' (I assume? "Go on, Johnny - cut the umbilical cord!") dolls were quite bad enough....

... but WHAT on earth is going on with this monstrosity?

Don't have nightmares!

Sign your name... and again... and again...

One of the most remarkable - and cumulatively irritating - things about the Chinese bank experience is the amount of paperwork involved.

Cancelling my lost bank card and ordering a replacement last week took getting on for 15 minutes. That was at least four times as long as it had taken me to withdraw half the money in the account! And at the end of all that, I was required to sign four separate forms - all of them in duplicate, triplicate, or quadruplicate. (No kidding! At least they were carbon copies.) That's in addition to the rather complicated form I'd had to fill in to request this 'transaction' at the outset. And on every one of these five forms, I seemed to have to sign in a different place. Even if I could recognise the relevant Chinese characters for 'Sign here' or whatever, it would be pretty difficult to distinguish them amid such a morass of other unknown characters on these Chinese-only forms (few, if any, of the banks here seem to provide any dual-language forms as yet).

And on top of all that, I was repeatedly called upon during this protracted procedure to key in my PIN at the counter - presumably to confirm that I was still present and supervising the clerk's activities. I wasn't asked to confirm or assent to any particular action (maybe the poor clerk just thought this would be too difficult to try to explain to me?); but then again, this didn't seem to be just a passage-of-time security requirement. Sometimes I would be called upon to enter my PIN again within a minute or thirty seconds, but then I might be left unbothered for several minutes. At times I was asked for the PIN just once; at others, I had to enter it twice - and once, thrice - in quick succession. I lost count, but I think I must have keyed in the PIN a total of at least 15 times, over some 10 or more separate occasions.

And you know what, I bet most of those forms were in a wastebasket by the end of the day. This is not the way to save the forests, people.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Bon mot for the week

"Three grand essentials to happiness in this life are something to do, something to love, and something to hope for."

Joseph Addison (1672-1719)

Saturday, December 24, 2011

A holiday treat

Thanks to the indispensable JES (who offered up a little playlist of seasonal songs for his regular readers a couple of days ago), I was led to this fascinating history of one of the greatest wintery songs, and one of the greatest of all duets, Baby, It's Cold Outside. It was composed by Frank Loesser, who wrote both music and lyrics, and is perhaps best known for the Damon Runyon musical Guys and Dolls. It seems he wrote this piece not for a show, but as an entertainment for his own house-warming party in 1944. For three years or so after that, he performed it regularly as a party piece with his first wife, Lynn, but the song enjoyed no commercial circulation. Eventually, realising that it was one of the best things he'd written and that he had to let it go out into the world, he sold the song to MGM who used it in an Esther Williams vehicle called Neptune's Daughter. It won the Oscar for Best Song in 1949, but apparently his wife wasn't best pleased about him having given up their private treasure.

I grew up with the classic version by Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Jourdan on the Ella and her Fellas anthology. More recently, I have come to like this Welsh transposition (they have the weather for it!) by Tom Jones and Cerys Matthews. [There are some fun live performances by this pair out there as well, of which this one seems to have the best picture quality.]

This version by Zooey Deschanel and Will Ferrell in Elf is rather sweet, too.

However, courtesy of that first link from JES - to the American Songwriter website - we can enjoy an extra special treat. This is where it all began: a rare recording from National Public Radio of Frank and Lynn Loesser singing their song. (Audio only, but magical.)

If you are still eager for more, the Songbook blog has a fairly comprehensive collection of videos of the numerous other recorded versions of this duet, and of a number of other seasonal favourites too - some hours of pleasant distraction.

Happy holidays, everyone!

Friday, December 23, 2011

A cash-strapped Christmas

There is never a good time to lose your bank card. Especially in China, where replacing one is an absurd and galling rigmarole. But Christmas - a time of no work and much partying and heavy cash expenditure - is probably just about the very worst time for that to happen.

So, yes, I know, it's my own stupid fault.

At the Bank of China, you have to pay a 15 rmb administration charge to get a new card issued - a trivial amount, but irritating nonetheless. What's more annoying is that they insist you pay in cash; for some reason, they can't just deduct it from your account balance. This could be mightily inconvenient if you happen to have lost your wallet as well as your bank card, but fortunately I hadn't. It is mightily inconvenient for the bank, too, since people carry mostly wads of 100rmb notes, and are going to be asking for lots of small change back.

Then you have to wait 10 to 12 days for your new card to be issued. What the hell???
When you open a new account, they give you a card immediately; every bank clerk has a stack of them under the counter. Chinese bank cards aren't personalised in any way: they're not printed with your name, or any number specifically connected to your account. So, assigning a given card to someone's account is all done on the computer. A new card could therefore be issued on the spot. Even if cards had to be individually crafted from fine jade and engraved with a unicorn's horn, you'd think they'd be able to turn one out for you in 3 or 4 days. Two weeks??!!

Ah, but the icing on the cake is this: while you are waiting for your new bank card to be issued and activated, your account is completely frozen - you can't even take money out using your pass-book. (I'm not sure if it's 'frozen' against inpayments as well; but, this being China, it very well might be!)

The only positive element of this latest bank experience of mine was that the clerk who served me was astute enough to point out that my bank account would be useless until some time in January before she filed my 'lost card' notice. If she hadn't done that, I really would be having a Pot Noodle Christmas. I think I got very lucky there.

I think a Chinese banks are CRAP! series may be appearing on here in the New Year.

Haiku for the week

More dark days ahead
Hope yet finds some room to grow
After the solstice

We do get some very pretty light at this time of year. I am itching to get out and take some photographs; but I fear my state of health dictates that I should cosset myself at home for a few days.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

No EFFIN way?!

My pal The Choirboy, an avid consumer of Oirish news, kindly sent me this link to an Irish Times article a week or so ago. We learn that Marie Kennedy is aggrieved with Facebook for refusing to let her list her tiny hometown of Effin, Co. Limerick as her location, on the grounds that it might be found offensive. 

It appears that a number of other uses of 'Effin' - clearly intended as an oblique profanity - have been allowed elsewhere on Facebook. I have discovered, for example, that there's a recently launched guitar dealership in Butler, Missouri called Effin Guitars. So, it's not clear exactly what Zuckerberg's drones are taking issue with. Perhaps they simply don't believe the place exists.

As we can see from the Google Earth view above, it only just barely exists. Effin, in fact, seems to be a solitary large farmhouse. Its satellite community of Lower Effin, a couple of hundred yards down the road, appears to be a rather more developed hamlet with possibly two or three distinct addresses.

I remember a holiday in Ireland about 20 or so years ago when I came upon one such community during a Sunday afternoon stroll with my girlfriend. It was rather more substantial than Effin appears to be. For a start, it straddled a T-junction, where one minor road met a slightly less minor road. In fact, the less minor road led all the way to Dublin, and there were occasional buses; so, for rural Ireland, this was quite a bustling transport hub. Well, back then - Christmas 1990, as it happens - this community consisted of a small petrol station (which appeared to be in mothballs), a church (Church of Ireland rather than Catholic, long since closed), a village shop (closed when we passed through), two or three or houses.... and two pubs. A very generous provision for a local population that might well have been in single figures, and probably not more than a few dozen if you included all the farms for quite some distance round about. But it always seems to be so in Ireland: every village, no matter how unsubstantial, must have at least one pub, usually two or three. On this occasion, by some strange cosmic coincidence, the pub to the left of the junction bore my family name and the one to the right bore my girlfriend's. "You go to yours and I'll go to mine," I quipped. She was not amused. We went to 'hers'. I've always wanted to go back and try the other one some day.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

There is an acronym for it

I learned a new term the other day, while writing about China's burgeoning luxury sector for a business consultancy: HNWI.

That's High Net Worth Individual - defined as having investable assets of US$1 million or more. There's also an Ultra-HNWI classification, with assets in excess of 30 million dollars. China is reckoned to have around 10,000 of the latter. And they're migrating into the Renminbi billionaire echelon (assets over US$160 million - nearly 2,000 of them now!) at the rate of several hundreds per year.

I've always preferred to think of them as China's Unscrupulous Nouveau-riche Tycoons.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Passing on

It's a strange coincidence that two such prominent political figures should succumb to mortality in quick succession.

And I find it rather unfortunate that the exaggerated geo-political prominence of North Korea may result in news of the transition of power there distracting some attention away from proper remembrance of the much-worthier-of-notice Václav Havel.

I'm not without a certain grudging respect for Kim Jong-il. He appears to have been an intelligent and cultured man, and a dauntingly shrewd political operator. But he was also a dictator, a murderer, and a self-indulgent bon viveur who gorged himself on the finest food and drink - even while tens of thousands of his people starved to death.

Havel was an inspiration for the ages, rather than an object of fear and ridicule for a few decades. He's been a hero of mine since my schooldays. President Obama noted in his initial tribute on Sunday: 
"His peaceful resistance shook the foundations of an empire, exposed the emptiness of a repressive ideology, and proved that moral leadership is more powerful than any weapon."

He was, by all accounts, an exceptionally warm and generous human being as well. And a pretty funny writer. There's a good obituary on Bloomberg's Businessweek.

I rather fear KJ's funeral arrangements will be getting more coverage here in China, where there's an odd sentimental reverence for a country that is a cherished 'ally' and is perceived as a heroic last outpost of full-on Communism and Cold War ideological simplicity. In fact, Communism doesn't really have that much to do with it any more, and possibly never has had; in practice, it's just a gangster state, much like China is. Senior party officials sell their influence, or directly grasp the reins of the country's most profitable trading and industrial sectors - creaming off money to make themselves obscenely wealthy, while the majority of the population is kept artificially impoverished.

Chinese tourists love to visit the DPRK, treating it as a sort of Cultural Revolution theme-park, to remind themselves how far they've come in the last 40 or 50 years. If they looked a bit closer, they'd realise they haven't come all that far after all: the political cultures of the two countries are depressingly similar.

The Chinese are still waiting for their Havel. So are the North Koreans.

Monday, December 19, 2011

A new job possibility?

I've just been writing a business article about the growth of China's super-rich elite over the past decade.

It comes as no surprise to learn via the San Francisco Chronicle that China is now becoming a major market for British butlers (originally a Bloomberg piece by Colm Heatley, but the pagelink to that is mysteriously, maddeningly unstable). I recall Jonathan Watts of The Guardian, an occasional partner-in-drink out here, wrote a similar piece just before the Olympics. Ah, here it is, on the teaching website One Stop English.

This could be an exciting new opportunity for me. I've always fancied myself as a Jeeves-like model of shrewdness and suavity. Perhaps I should enroll in butler school?

Mind you, it can be a backstabbing profession....

Bon mot for the week

"Am I really eccentric, or am I just wearing a funny hat?"

Tom Waits  (1949- )

As so often, I am indebted to JES for sending me a link a little while ago to an extended interview with Waits on NPR's 'Fresh Air' programme, in which this line came up. It was said to have been first used in an interview with The Guardian a few years ago, but I haven't been able to find that. However, there has been another very fine interview with him in that newspaper just recently, to mark the release of his latest album, Bad As Me, at the end of October.

I hope somebody is going to get me that for Christmas....

Sunday, December 18, 2011

An especially topical 'Sunday Poem'

Well the wind has relented today; but for most of this week it has been howling down out of the north-west at 15, 20, 25 mph. And every one of those miles represents a degree or so of windchill.

Feverish with a cold, and struggling to sleep anyway through the ominous resonating of my building, fragments of this piece by Ted Hughes kept popping into my mind.

I think I'd first come upon it as a teenager. I then chose to use it a few times in poetry classes I taught myself when I became a schoolteacher for a while a few years later. Wonderful how obstinately poetry resides in the memory, when so much else is lost! I hadn't read this poem - or even given it a thought - in at least a dozen years; but I found I could recall it almost word for word.


This house has been far out at sea all night,
The woods crashing through darkness, the booming hills,
Winds stampeding the fields under the window
Floundering black astride and blinding wet

Till day rose; then under an orange sky
The hills had new places, and wind wielded
Blade-light, luminous black and emerald,
Flexing like the lens of a mad eye.

At noon I scaled along the house-side as far as
The coal-house door. Once I looked up -
Through the brunt wind that dented the balls of my eyes
The tent of the hills drummed and strained its guy-rope,

The fields quivering, the skyline a grimace,
At any second to bang and vanish with a flap;
The wind flung a magpie away and a black-
Back gull bent like an iron bar slowly. The house

Rang like some fine green goblet in the note
That any second would shatter it. Now deep
In chairs, in front of the great fire, we grip
Our hearts and cannot entertain book, thought,

Or each other. We watch the fire blazing,
And feel the roots of the house move, but sit on,
Seeing the window tremble to come in,
Hearing the stones cry out under the horizons.

Ted Hughes  (1930-1998)

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Film List - pleasant surprises

The 'Film List' comes early this month - since next week is Christmas, and then I plan a little year's end review for the final weekend of December.

I have been living quite quietly the past few months, staying in a lot, watching a lot of DVDs (and, latterly, a lot of HBO). Many of the films I've sat through have been fairly awful (for instance, I finally got around to watching Scorsese's Gangs Of New York - and realised why'd I'd been avoiding it all these years!).

However, in amongst all the dross (most of HBO and Phoenix Movies, alas), and amongst the classics I'd seen before, and amongst all the so-so and the near-miss and the mildly disappointing... I have stumbled by happy chance across a few things which gave me unexpected pleasure. The pleasure was unexpected in two ways: first, I hadn't heard anything about these films before I began watching them; and second, my expectations of them based on their apparent budget and genre were extremely low - but they turned out to be very good indeed. Watch out for these. [Beware: a few mild SPOILERS here and there.]

(Dir. Neil Marshall, 2010)
The kind of straightforward action adventure tale you didn't think they made any more. This film addresses the story of Rome's 9th Legion, vanished without trace on a punitive expedition against the Picts of Scotland, from the perspective of a small group of survivors trying to fight their way back home from deep behind enemy lines. It was made for a negligible budget by contemporary standards, but it assembles an impressive cast: the excellent Michael Fassbender as the dashing young hero, and stalwart British character players Bernard Hill and David Morrissey, who actually make you believe in and care about the two gnarly veterans under his command. Director Neil Marshall (who cut his teeth on low-budget horror flicks The Descent and Dog Soldiers, and is now busy working on the TV mini-series Game of Thrones) handles the action scenes very well (lots of the intricate choreography and stop-start editing perfected in 300), and also produces some stunningly photographed vistas of the Scottish Highland locations. The story is nothing very substantial, but for what it is, it is executed just about perfectly.

The Warrior's Way
(Dir. Sngmoo Lee, 2010)
I'm not usually a big fan of the comic-book style in movies, but this zestful marriage of the ninja and Western genres won me over.  It's done with exuberant style, and its tongue firmly in its cheek. And the bizarre background details and lurid, painterly colour palette give it a surreal, dreamlike quality (it's mostly set in a virtual ghost town on the edge of the south-western desert, where a group of washed-up circus performers are attempting to build a giant ferris wheel, seemingly in the delusional belief that it will revive the local economy).  Once again, the film benefits from an excellent cast: Kate Bosworth (an actress I hadn't seen before), very appealing as the plucky young heroine (unfortunately, she rather has to carry the film, since the male lead, Korean actor Dong-Jun Jang, is a little too determinedly expressionless to be at all engaging; a common problem with ninjas!), the always watchable Geoffrey Rush as the obligatory alcoholic ex-gunslinger, and Danny Huston as the unspeakably nasty villain (this is my one major misgiving about the film, in fact: you can establish 'evil' without setting up an attempted child rape - that just doesn't sit well in a film that is essentially a light-hearted romp).

Meek's Cutoff
(Dir. Kelly Reichardt, 2010)
Less surreal, but even more captivatingly dreamlike is this unorthodox Western about early pioneers making their way west on the Oregon Trail. Meek (Bruce Greenwood), a crusty old mountain man full of bombast and tall tales and disdain for the Native Americans, has been hired as a guide by a trio of families in their wagons, but appears to have become hopelessly lost. They take prisoner a solitary middle-aged Native American they encounter, hoping he will be able to lead them to water and to safety; but it's not clear that he is any less lost than they are. The film is sparse in incident, sedate in tempo; and there's no resolution - the party just blunder around the wilderness, trying to remain calm as they face the spectres of thirst, starvation, and despair. And yet it is quite mesmerising: beautifully photographed, tautly scripted, very well acted (Michelle Williams, especially, as the most spirited of the young wives in the group, dominates the screen in every scene she's in).

Down In The Valley 
(Dir. David Jacobson, 2005)
Writer/director Jacobson pulled together a superb cast for this unusual drama: Edward Norton as a charming drifter, Evan Rachel Wood as the feisty teen who starts a romance with him, Rory Culkin as her withdrawn kid brother, also befriended by Norton, and the always excellent David Morse as the children's single dad, hostile to this stranger's sudden influence. This is a film that takes its time, and constantly keeps you guessing as to which way it's going to turn next: Norton's wannabe cowboy at first seems too good to be true, all old world courtesies and simple-hearted decency; but it gradually becomes apparent that he is a hopeless fantasist, and perhaps a sociopath - and yet, through all these revelations, he remains a sympathetic character.  All four of the leading characters are, in fact, unusually well-developed and believable human beings. This is an unusual story, compelling told, and it lingers powerfully in the memory.

Ninja Assassin
(Dir. James McTeigue, 2009)
Apparently conceived by the Wachowski brothers, who are co-producers, this delivers fast-paced thrills and stylish gore. Korean pop star Rain is extremely buff in the lead role of Raizo, a rogue ninja being hunted down by his vengeful 'family', and, though conventionally expressionless, does manage to be modestly engaging. The rest of the casting is the film's weak point: Ben Miles (an incompetent Interpol detective) is a British TV actor better suited to light comic roles; and Naomie Harris (a resourceful researcher who gets herself into trouble for turning up evidence that ninjas are real) is very pretty but lacks screen presence, leaving the impression that the producers probably wanted but couldn't afford Thandie Newton or Zoe Saldana for the part. The relentlessness and implacability of the ninjas, and their ability to materialise out of shadows, is well rendered - genuinely creepy and scary at times. And the script has a certain mordant humour, doesn't take itself too seriously.

(Dir. David and Alex Pastor, 2009)
I found this on HBO late at night a few days ago, and am annoyed to have missed the first 20 minutes. It's a post-apocalypse tale about a handful of young people in America struggling to make their way across country in the aftermath of a global pandemic. The focus is on the pervasive fear of the deadly disease - which is pretty obviously going to get everyone eventually - and the way in which ties of community, friendship, family, even basic morality are eroded by the imperative of survival. I gather it bombed at the box office in the US, after being misleadingly marketed as a routine horror film. In fact, it's a compelling human drama, often very suspenseful and ultimately very poignant.

[I'll leave this post at its originally planned time of Saturday afternoon. I ran out of electricity before I'd finished writing it, and so was cut off from my Internet connection. Finishing it off late on Sunday night, I discover that it's been leapfrogged by a poetry post I'd done earlier. Oh well, it's not as if anyone notices most of what I post anyway!]

Friday, December 16, 2011

Haiku for the week

The wind goes through us,
Hollow men, struggling homeward
Without thought or feeling.

The last few days have been brutal here. A couple of times I've actually been woken up, an hour or so before dawn, by the din of the wind raging around my apartment building. 

I usually manage to leave the longjohns in the drawer until January, but they've had to come out early this year.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Favourite posts from the 3rd quarter of 2010

I've fallen a little behind schedule again on these roundups of last year's highlights. I usually aim to get them out only 12 months or so after the end of the period covered, but it's now over 14 months on - oh dear.

Pick of the Archives:
Favourite Posts, July-September 2010

1)  Jumpers for goalposts  -  3rd July 2010
The approaching climax of the World Cup makes me nostalgic for my '70s childhood spent watching football on the BBC; and comedy genius Paul Whitehouse perfectly captures that feeling with his 'Ron Manager' character.

2)  What's in a (footballer's) name?  -  9th July 2010
Some amusing names among the Chilean players in the World Cup remind me of a couple of crude accidental puns that have cropped up in the field of sports commentary.

3)  If I ruled the world...  -  11th July 2010
And, of course, I had to greet the World Cup Final by picking my 'team of the tournament'.

Daisy is the stage name and alter ego of a delightful singer-songwriter called Christine Laskowski, who lived in Beijing for a couple of years but has left us now. Elevating her to the ranks of my Fantasy Girlfriends provided an excuse to plug her website and the CD All That Glisters, just released by her bluegrass band The Redbucks.

5)  Hip?  -  23rd July 2007
In a very short post - primarily intended to plug a favourite website I'd just discovered, cartoonist Hugh McLeod's Gaping Void - I managed to ruminate on the distinction between 'hip' and 'cool', reminisce about The Fonz, and quote a favourite line from The Hitch-Hiker's Guide To The Galaxy.

6)  Between the lines  -  24th July 2010
An impassioned post about the unlawful detention of my artist friend, Wu Yuren. (He was finally released on 2nd April this year, after 10 months in prison.)

7)  Makeover  -  28th July 2010
Contemplating shaving my head, I reflect on the first time I did so, a dozen years earlier.

8)  Proclaiming it 'a digging instrument'  -  29th July 2010
My very negative review of Khaled Hosseini's The Kite Runner leads me to wonder morosely what's becoming of literary taste in the modern world.

9)  Another piece of Friday frivolity  -  30th July 2010
A favourite in my occasional series of cartoon puns, most of them, like this one, raided from Viz magazine's repository of 'Crap Jokes'. (Two more great ones here and here!)

10)  A China-inspired Sunday poem  -  1st August 2010
Billy Collins shares my delight in the poets of the Tang and Song dynasties.

11)  Democracy isn't everything  -  7th August 2010
But it is a hell of a start! For my latest 'List of the Month', I consider some of the other elements of an advanced society that China is sadly lacking.

12)  Beijing Taxi  -  10th August 2010
My review of this documentary about taxi drivers leads to some broader musing on the shortcomings of Chinese documentary-making.

13)  The Beijing I miss  -  23rd August 2010
An afternoon's walk restores some of my enthusiasm for living in this city.

14)  Who are you calling 'strange'?  -  25th August 2010
I am amused to discover that some social psychologists have coined the acronym WEIRD to remind themselves how unrepresentative their typical experimental subjects are of the wider human race.

15)  A memory fragment  -  26th August 2010
A poignant recollection of the period of my thwarted infatuation with a lady I dubbed 'Madame X'.

16)  Short Animation Festival  -  28th August 2010
For my end-of-the-month Film List, I offer a selection of great animated shorts.

17)  How not to do it, in Powerpoint  -  1st September 2010
Some tips from a recent training session on giving presentations.

18)  Elements of Englishness  -  4th September 2010
Another offshoot of my business training work: an attempt to summarise the 'national character' of the people of the land of my birth.  

19)  Desert song  -  5th September 2010
I have an uncannily vivid dream - apparently set in a futuristic version of Amman, Jordan. I wonder if this might be a 'cosmic hint' that I should consider moving there.

20)  Things Word won't do for you  -  6th September 2010
A suggestion for a new feature I would like to see added to Microsoft's Word program - to make it a bit more fun.

21)  Don't underestimate the Daily Llama  -  7th September 2010
Two funny pictures: a baby llama playing rugby.... and Jesus playing gridiron football!

22)  A familiar story?  -  11th September 2010
Another of my dream stories (a scene you might recognise).

-  12th September 2010
One of my longer and more thoughtful posts (provoked by a British Council lecture I attended, given by Dr Chris Hall, most of which I'd found myself rather violently in disagreement with; I had meant to return to another topic he touched on - 'Chinese English' - but haven't got around to it yet).

24)  An e-commerce idea for China  -  16th September 2010
How about a website where you can haggle over the price? Why has no-one done it yet??

25)  My Fantasy Girlfriend - Rachel Manija Brown  -  18th September 2010
This month's pick is a very amusing writer, who I discovered in a particularly serendipitous way.

26)  The most important lesson of The Tank Man  -  20th September 2010
A long gripe about this country's terrible driving standards, and the hazards of trying to cross the road.

27)  You are old, Uncle Wang  -  22nd September 2010
I have a particularly good Beijing taxi experience - with one of the city's most venerable drivers. This reminds me of my longstanding 'collecting box' post for examples of uncommonly low taxi driver registration numbers.

28)  Strange foods  -  24th September 2010
Another amusing picture post. Garlic-flavoured ice cream, anyone?

29)  China snapshots  -  28th September 2010
I happened to notice quite a lot of odd and quirky things (more than usual!) about my adopted homeland in the previous week or two.

30)  Futility  -  30th September 2010
I reminisce about my experience of playing the strategy game Risk, and in particular about the brutal 'Ontario Incident' - which very nearly ended one of my closest friendships.