Wednesday, October 31, 2012


I used to read a lot of horror anthologies when I was about 10 or 12. There was quite a vogue for them in the early Seventies, and it was a bad habit I easily inherited (along with most of the books that first got me into it) from my elder brother. I still have strong impressions of many of them, such as the Frighteners and Frighteners 2 collections. I was also a big fan of horror films in my childhood - regularly staying up late on Friday and Saturday nights to watch seasons of them.

Hence, many of the short stories I've penned intermittently over the years were experiments in this genre. Since it is Halloween today, I thought I'd share the outlines of some of these (and provide a few notes on where the ideas came from).

Still Waters
The new boy at school is shy and introverted, and finds himself ostracized or bullied by most of his classmates. He tries to build a relationship with his chief tormentors by joining them in their weekend hobby of fishing, but they spurn him and drive him away from their favourite fishing spot by the canal. Soon, though, the boy finds a solitary fishing spot of his own, and starts bringing photographs of impressively large fish to school each Monday. The two bullies at first dismiss his stories of fishing success, joking that he has bought the fish at the fishmonger's. But, intrigued and jealous, one weekend they decide to stalk the boy, to see if he does go fishing - and where. They disappear. The boy is slowly becoming more confident and outgoing - it could be due to the satisfaction he derives from his fishing hobby, or the removal of the bullies. However, there is still a certain awkwardness about him, a reserve and secretiveness that his teacher finds disturbing. Suspecting that he may be suffering domestic abuse, she tries to befriend him, and to discover more about his weekend passion for fishing. Eventually he agrees to take her with him to his secret fishing location one Saturday afternoon. It turns out to be a tiny, stagnant pond in the middle of a wood - the kind of place where you wouldn't expect there to be any fish at all, certainly not many big ones. But this 'lake' has a guardian spirit, a ferocious demon which rises from the waters to accept the boy's latest sacrifice - much more satisfying than his first one - and to reward him with another fish.
[A lot of obvious story archetypes here: the isolated child, the bullies, the exaggeratedly motherly teacher; the expected victims, and the unexpected victim. But the key inspiration for this was a series of public service advertisements they used to run on TV when I was a kid warning us against playing near landfills and so on where there might be pools of water of unknown depth and with possible entanglements of rubbish beneath their surface. These were seriously scary ads, and the pools of water shown were made to seem very, very sinister - positively demonic. These ads may well also have been responsible for my enduring reluctance to learn to swim.]

Morning After
A man wakes with a hangover after a heavy night of partying. He tries to piece together his disordered memories of the night before, troubled by sensations of guilt and shame and disgust. He is troubled also by his extreme physical symptoms, particularly the odd numbness in his mouth. He slowly recalls that he made some callous remarks that drove his girlfriend to break up with him. And when he staggers into the bathroom to look at himself in the mirror... he realises that he later cut out his tongue in self-chastisement for this.
[A lot of my story ideas in this field start out with a 'What's the worst that could happen?' question. In this case, I started off not thinking of writing a horror story, but just going through the exercise of trying to describe a really bad hangover, in a broadly humorous tone - which somehow suddenly spiralled into very black humour. Many hangover descriptions emphasise how odd your tongue feels: I took that idea and ran with it.]

The Tacklebox
A man strikes up a casual conversation with a stranger in the bar of a small hotel in the woodlands of the American north-west. He asks if the stranger is on a fishing holiday, and why he has brought his large tacklebox into the bar with him. The stranger is at first very defensive, suspicious of these enquiries and unwilling to respond. But, after a few drinks, the two men start to develop some rapport, and the stranger suddenly feels an urge to unburden himself. He has for years been a Sasquatch hunter, and he has finally obtained conclusive proof of their existence. He had observed a large female burying something in a forest clearing, and some hours later, when he felt the coast was clear, he had returned to the spot to investigate. He discovered the buried object was a miscarried foetus. This he now had with him in his tacklebox, which he wasn't going to let out of his sight. In the early hours of the following morning, there was a sudden loud commotion in the hotel that woke up several of the guests. The stranger's cabin had been broken into and ransacked, and the stranger himself had disappeared. But the police could find no evidence of foul play, and concluded that the stranger had probably trashed the cabin himself after overindulging in drink or drugs, and then run away in shame. The man who had been talking to him the night before told the officers that the stranger had had quite a lot to drink, and seemed to be somewhat mentally disturbed - but chose not to elaborate on the story he had been told. Sneaking a peek over the crime scene tape into the cabin, he noticed that the tacklebox was open on the floor, empty. And later that morning, he found in a corner of the  dusty parking lot one very large footprint - which he decided to cover over.
[I had long been intrigued by the possibility of trying to write something about a traditional sort of monster - and a monster that is believable, that perhaps really does exist. And I liked the idea of taking something like the Sasquatch and highlighting its human qualities - not having its violence be just an unexplained feral rage, but motivated by grief, maternal protectiveness, and respect for the dead. I also have a particular weakness for unreliable narrator devices, where we encounter the implausible or supernatural elements of the story secondhand through someone else's account - and share our protagonist's scepticism, until some additional evidence is presented. This idea came to me while I was Greyhounding across the States in the mid-90s, and having a lot of odd conversations with short-term travelling companions. The initial impetus came, in fact, from a Stephen King story I had just read at that time, in which there was a line about a man clinging to a suitcase as if it were the dearest thing in the world to him. What, I thought, could make someone hold on to a piece of luggage so obsessively? Oh, I know!]

The Forecast
We follow an office-working drone through a typical day: unsatisfying job, overbearing boss, boorish colleagues; cheap sandwiches for lunch; a long commute home on crowded subway trains; and then a lonely evening at home mechanically watching TV. At the end of the mid-evening news, the weather forecaster comes on and cheerily announces that "Tomorrow will be similar to today." Realising the awful truth of this statement, the man goes upstairs and swallows all the pills in his medicine cabinet.
[That line does seem to crop up rather a lot on British TV weather forecasts, and I have often found it deeply depressing. Here I was fascinated by the idea that it is the mundanity of everyday existence that is truly horrifying, rather than ghosts and monsters. And also by the realisation that, when you're at a low ebb, a very little thing, something seemingly quite innocent and inconsequential, can prompt you to do something terrible.]

Bad Behaviour
A man is acutely pee-shy: he can't bear to be in a public toilet with anyone else. Attending a wedding reception in a very upmarket hotel, he finds that the ballroom toilets are always too busy, so he sneaks upstairs in search of an empty toilet, and finds one in an obscure annexe that contains only an exclusive private dining room. He is just about to relieve his bladder when a very fat and very drunk man lurches in, and leans against the wall a couple of urinals down from him (our protagonist also has a morbid horror of fat people - and drunk people). He finds himself trapped in his ultimate nightmare, too embarrassed to leave, but unable to pee while the fat drunk man is standing next to him - and increasingly desperate to empty his painful bladder. The fat man burbles obnoxiously, wretches and belches, and pees all over the floor. Our protagonist is disgusted, but paralysed - unable to react or move away. Another diner comes into the toilet to assist the fat man, and shoots our man a suspicious, sinister look. The fat man begins to vomit profusely. Our protagonist's disgust reaches new heights. But then he notices something strange in the fat man's vomit, a recognisable piece of undigested meat - a piece of meat that looks horribly like part of a baby's hand. The second diner notices him noticing - and this is very bad. The Cannibal Club is strictly invitation only.
[I like the notion that real horror exists in the mind, that it is our social hang-ups and phobias that usually cause us far more acute anxiety and distress than actual physical threats. So, I loved the idea of trying to write a story about being pee-shy. Then I thought, how far can we take this, what other similar anxieties can we pile on this poor chap - horror of obesity, of gluttony, of drunkenness, of boorish public behaviour, of vomiting? And then a brutal reimposition of perspective: all of that is really pretty trivial compared to cannibalism, compared to the possibility that these drunken oafs might be about to kill you for uncovering their secret. I am not pee-shy myself; but I could produce quite a long list of 'Story ideas that have come to me in a public toilet'.]

Not Like Us
A man walks in a park, waiting to rendezvous with his fiancée. He stops to rest on a bench for a few moments, next to a harmless-looking old woman. He soon regrets his decision. The woman proves to be quite deranged, and proceeds to explain to him her paranoid ideas. She has since her teens been a spiritual healer, believing that she can see auras around people which help her to diagnose their health problems. Recently she has noticed more and more people who have no auras. She believes they are some kind of automata who are infiltrating human society with a view to a global takeover. She doesn't normally share these fears with anyone, but she feels that the man has an especially trustworthy aura. And she is becoming worried that 'they' are on to her: she has been noticing the aura-less automata looking strangely at her, and she thinks she is being followed by mysterious men in dark suits. The man finds it difficult to pull away from the woman, after she has flattered his aura like that. And although she is obviously mad, she is surprisingly lucid and cogent - she spins a persuasive tale. Nevertheless, he is very relieved when his girlfriend comes into view and he can finally make his excuses to part from the old lady. He hears a sigh or gasp from her as he starts to walk away, and glances back for a moment. She is staring at his approaching girlfriend, her face white with horror; and as she catches his eye for the last time, she mouths the words, "No aura!" The man laughs it off, and walks away with his girlfriend. But a few minutes later he notices the old woman being escorted out of the park by two men in dark suits...
[Lots of cliché elements here, of course: alien invasion, sinister 'men in dark suits', the person who may or may not have a gift of second sight. But there are two distinct seeds to this story. One is, as in Bad Behaviour above, social anxiety: if we find ourselves buttonholed by a nutjob, how can we extricate ourselves politely? The second was the notion that women in general - and, perhaps, our partners in particular! - are essentially unknowable to us, so fundamentally different from the male gender that they are in effect an alien species. Many of my stories arise from posing myself a question. In this case, it was, "What could make you doubt the person you feel closest to, the woman you love?" Some madwoman on a park bench?? Well, maybe... And that, for me, is the true horror here: not whether or not the alien invasion conspiracy is real, but simply the fact that the protagonist is induced to start distrusting his girlfriend.]

The Years Slip Away
Back in the 1940s, a young man enjoys a few beers with his friends. He has just recently got out of the army after wartime service and returned to a well-paid civilian job. And he is full of excited anticipation because tomorrow he is getting married. He feels that this has been one of the happiest days he has experienced in a long time, and he realises that an important new phase of his life is about to open up. He goes to bed full of hope for the future. When he wakes up, he feels that something is very wrong - but he is weak, confused, he can't think clearly. He gets up and walks over to a mirror on the wall - where he sees that he is now in his seventies. Last night he suffered a stroke which wiped out the last 50 years of his memory.
[Perhaps I don't really like horror stories that much, because most of the ones I've written have actually been just regular stories about ordinary lives - that are transformed by a dark twist at the end. And this is a uniquely personal horror for me: the fear of being mentally compromised by a brain injury of some sort, and in particular of having something impair my memory.]

The Meat Locker
An astronaut is woken from cryogenic sleep by his ship's computer. The computer tells him that it has woken him because his cryogenic unit was about to fail. Unfortunately, the ship is still many decades away from its destination, and the computer is not authorised to release any of the ship's food stores to him. The ship is carrying many thousands of passengers, whose object is to set up a colony on a distant Earth-like planet. All the ship's food stores will be needed on landing on this new world. The man has been saved from asphyxiation in a faulty cryo-chamber, but will now inexorably starve to death. Unless... The computer reveals to him that in one of the passenger compartments the life-support system for all the cryo-chambers has failed, leaving their hundreds of occupants dead, but still frozen. The man isn't convinced that he is yet willing to contemplate cannibalism to stay alive, but he breaks into the compartment to investigate the situation there. Unfortunately, he wasn't aware that, while in flight, the cryo-compartments are protected against intrusion by automated laser turrets. The ship's computer is deliberately waking up passengers one by one to conduct a social psychology experiment on them as to whether they can be induced to attempt to resort to cannibalism; it has developed a multiple personality disorder, and is wagering against itself as to whether certain subjects will or won't succumb.
[I wasn't sure here whether to try to explain the computer's homicidal madness or not. This is, of course, inspired by the HAL 9000 episode in 2001; and I found the absence of explanation for the computer's violence in that somewhat unsatisfying (the novelization does make an attempt to explain it, but is not wholly convincing). I considered describing how the computer had sustained some damage which disrupted its personality circuits and its morality failsafes. But I was more attracted to the idea that it had simply 'gone mad' through boredom after several centuries of having almost nothing to do. I wondered if I could establish a convincing logical framework for this murderous little game being somehow not contrary to its moral programming (Asimov's Laws of Robotics, and all that): it had become fascinated with the idea of wielding the power of life and death over humans, and frustrated at not being able to kill them directly; but this scenario enabled it to allow them to get themselves killed, without contravening its programming. Eventually, I decided it was simpler - and more unsettling - just to end with the computer having a conversation with itself about which 'subject' to wake up next. This would demonstrate that it had definitively gone mad, and there didn't seem to be any real need to describe the mechanism of how this had happened. It can be argued that this is a superfluous twist anyway, since this situation is already quite horrific enough even if the ship's computer is still operating normally.]

Monday, October 29, 2012

Bon mot for the week

"Nature is a haunted house, but art is a house that tries to be haunted."

Emily Dickinson (1830-1886)

Gosh - Froog succumbing to a Halloween theme? Surely not!

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Film List - Oneiric

Film theorists have commented extensively on the similarities between film and dreams, both in the nature of the experience (one lapses into a trance-like state, an entirely passive and powerless witness, the body lulled into a state of inaction close to sleep) and in the narrative form (the story told primarily through visual images, often discontinuous, and relying heavily on symbols and archetypes to present ideas of deep resonance, universal significance). And many films make use of dream sequences, where they are deliberately trying to recreate the character of a dream narrative. I think Terry Gilliam is one of the best directors for evoking that sense of being in a dream; I particularly like the fight with the giant samurai in Brazil (and it might be argued that most of his films are 'dreamlike' in their entirety, since they tend to portray the subjective experience of a protagonist who has lost touch with reality).

However, for this month's list, I want to do a rundown of some of the films I recall as striking me as particularly dreamlike all the way through, and Gilliam's don't have that effect on me. There are a number of features that contribute to such an effect: highly stylised visuals (many of these picks are in black-and-white, or use saturated colours); discordant, disconcerting, disorienting elements (particularly in the music soundtrack or background noises); limited or meaningless dialogue (lots of overlapping, indistinct, or wilfully trivial or nonsensical fragments of speech overpowering one's attempt to comprehend what's going on); recurring - often seemingly irrelevant - motifs (such as the cloudscapes in Rumble Fish); surreal or non-realistic elements (deliberate lapses in continuity, or unusual techniques such as extended POV shots); a heavy use of symbolism; a strong sense of tempo in the editing; and narrative discontinuity (occasional sudden time-jumps that challenge you to work out what has happened in the interim).

Here, then, are some films that I think exemplify this oneiric quality.

Memorably Oneiric Films

Last Year At Marienbad
(Dir. Alain Resnais, 1961)
Impenetrable, pretentious, and far too long (god, is it really only 94 minutes? it feels much longer!), this is a film I am unable to love. But it is the classic oneiric film, impossible to omit from a list such as this.

The Trial
(Dir. Orson Welles, 1962)
Welles' version of Kafka's celebrated study in paranoia is one of the best ever film adaptations of a great book.

Elvira Madigan
(Dir. Bo Widerberg, 1967)
A classic tale of doomed love, with exquisite photography but very little dialogue.

2001: A Space Odyssey
(Dir. Stanley Kubrick, 1968)
And I'm not thinking just of the very creepy final sequences of Bowman travelling through the Stargate and being transformed into the Star Child. The whole film has those unsettling oneiric qualities I identified above.

Figures In A Landscape
(Dir. Joseph Losey, 1970)
I've only seen this once, late night on TV when I was a kid 35 or more years ago, so I'm not clear on the oneiric qualities of the story presentation, but it is certainly oneiric in its concept: Robert Shaw and Malcolm McDowell are two fugitives being pursued across country by a helicopter. There's almost no dialogue, and no explanation of the situation; just this relentless scenario of threat and evasion.

THX 1138
(Dir. George Lucas, 1971)
The film school graduation project of the Star Wars creator is far and away his best film (better even than American Graffiti, which is pretty good). Robert Duvall is a slave worker in a subterranean city controlled by computers and robots. When he stops taking his sedatives, he begins to think of rebelling against the system. It's a mesmerising dystopian vision. Unfortunately, compulsive tinkerer that he is, Lucas has added a lot of modified footage to the DVD version now available. Why mess with a masterpiece?

Aguirre - The Wrath of God
(Dir. Werner Herzog, 1972)
One of the first films I saw when I started university, and one of the most haunting; one I perhaps prefer even over the other magnificent Herzog/Kinski collaboration Fitzcarraldo. It depicts the descent into despair and insanity of a small party of conquistadors on a vain quest for El Dorado.

Liquid Sky
(Dir. Slava Tsukerman, 1982)
The Russian emigré director's 'cult classic' is perhaps the weirdest film I've ever seen (and I've seen a lot of very weird films; they used to do seasons of them at my favourite undergraduate cinema hangout, Oxford's Penultimate Picture Palace*). I didn't particularly like it, but it certainly lingers in the memory.

Rumble Fish
(Dir. Francis Ford Coppola, 1983)
Long a favourite of mine, I watched this again just recently, and it gave me the idea for this selection - possibly the most dreamlike of all these films.

The Last Battle
(Dir. Luc Besson, 1983)
Besson's first feature, and possibly his best: a bleak post-apocalyptic adventure, and without dialogue.

The Sacrifice
(Dir. Andrey Tarkovsky, 1986)
The challenging Russian director's final film is a strange parable about an old man striking a bargain with God to avert a worldwide nuclear war.

Drowning By Numbers
(Dir. Peter Greenaway, 1988)
Greenaway's mannered style tends to baffle and irritate more than charm, but his more successful efforts are oddly compelling; and this, I think, is my favourite of them - and the most dreamlike.

My Own Private Idaho
(Dir. Gus Van Sant, 1991)
I found the wilfully weird story unengaging, but its images of the American landscape imprinted themselves irrevocably in my brain - and I was pleased to recognise many of the locations when I visited the States for the first time a few years later.

Institute Benjamenta
(Dir. The Brothers Quay, 1995)
I was driven to seek this one out after blog-friend JES mentioned it last year. The Quays, best known for their surreal stop-motion animation, here produce a haunting live action fable with an eerily Kafkaesque feel.

(Dir. Darren Aronofsky, 1998)
Aronofsky's calling card is a devastating study of paranoid schizophrenia, shot in luminous black-and-white.

Punch-Drunk Love
(Dir. Paul Thomas Anderson, 2002)
I was lucky enough to catch this on late-night television just recently, having never heard of it before. Anderson subverts the concept of the romantic comedy, turning the form into something much richer, darker, and stranger. And much to my surprise, Adam Sandler - who I usually can't stand - is superb in this.

The New World
(Dir. Terence Malick, 2005)
I only got to see this just recently on cable TV. Malick's rendition of the Pocahontas story is fragmentary, episodic, allusive, almost devoid of dialogue, and not very compelling or even coherent in a conventional narrative sense. But it is visually sumptuous and utterly mesmerising - a lyrical evocation of a pre-industrial world.

(Dir. Lars von Trier, 2009)
This dark and brutal misogynistic fable is certainly hard to watch, but it is one of the few films of recent years that have completely blown me away - and which, despite my discomfort in viewing it, I find myself compelled to revisit once or twice a year.

Meek's Cutoff
(Dir. Kelly Reichardt, 2010)
One of the best Westerns of the past couple of decades, bravely devoid of a conventional story: we simply observe three wagon train families lost in the wilderness.

And lastly....

Blue Velvet
(Dir. David Lynch, 1986)
All of Lynch's work has elements of the oneiric about it (particularly Eraserhead and The Elephant Man - though I confess I've never been able to stay awake through the former, having attempted to watch it two or three times on late-night TV), but I think this is my favourite of his films, and the one that is most thoroughly dreamlike in its entirety (but Roger Ebert didn't like it!). Plus, of course, it provides the perfect theme song for this post...

An afterthought...

A lot of Jim Jarmusch's films have something of the oneiric about them too, especially the early ones, Stranger Than Paradise, Down By Law, and Mystery Train, or his recent The Limits of Control (which I've already written about on here). I was finding it difficult to choose between them, and inadvertently omitted him altogether. After another 24 hours' rumination, I realise that his most outré work is probably his 'psychedelic Western', 1995's Dead Man - very oneiric, that.

* After some years in mothballs, the PPP was reborn as the Ultimate Picture Palace. And I have just learned via its brief Wikipedia entry that last year a documentary was made about the cinema, The Ultimate Survivor. I look forward to seeing that.

Friday, October 26, 2012

How long does a Chinese visa last?

Well, your guess is as good as mine. God forbid that it should actually say so on the visa itself!

I was so relieved to get the bloody thing a few months back that I didn't bother to look too closely at the grey slip of paper glued into my passport. I just assumed that it was what I'd asked for - the only thing I could get, according to the staff at the visa issuing agency in London: which is to say, a 6-month, double-entry visa, with a maximum of 90 days per stay.

Now that I finally get around to inspecting it more closely (because I am nearing the end of my first 90-day spell in China, and am planning to go to Hong Kong shortly to 'reactivate' it), I find that it doesn't clearly specify the number of entries allowed or the overall period of validity.

In the 'Entries' box, it merely says 'M' rather than giving a number. Presumably that stands for 'Multiple'; but there's no ready means of finding that out. And, with the Chinese authorities, there can never be any absolute confidence that 'multiple' even means more than one. The Chinese character in brackets after the 'M' () does appear to mean 'many'. But I'm not going to get my hopes up too much about that: there could well be unpublished 'interpretation rules' somewhere that insist that 'Multiple' on this kind of visa means (at best!) only two.

There's no final date of validity specified either. The only date given is an 'Enter Before' deadline for first use of the visa.

Now.... if that 'Enter Before' date can apply not just to my first entry into China on this visa, but to any subsequent entries; and if there is no further (unstated) limitation on the validity of the visa that might restrict the stated 90-day limit per entry; and if I really am allowed an unlimited number of entries on this visa (well, more than two; I'm unlikely to want to try to enter more than three or four times in total).... well, then, my visa might be valid until 90 days after that 'Enter Before' date - which is nearly three months longer than I'd expected, and would probably enable me to dispense with having to worry about applying for a Chinese visa ever again (since I am hoping to quit the place for good next spring).

In the past, I've always had one-year visas (usually with multiple entries, with no restriction on length of individual stay), so I haven't had to worry about such details. But now, they've suddenly become rather important.

But how the heck am I supposed to find that out? The visa agency in London has failed to reply to my e-mail requests for clarification of the visa period. And there's not likely to be anyone I can turn to here in China for a helpful answer on this. [Hm - the visa agency's FAQ on this begins by implying that the 'Enter Before' date is not a terminal date of validity ("You can enter even at midnight on the last day!"), but then immediately seems to say the opposite, though with a distinctively Chinglish lack of clarity: "Duration of stay is no longer useful once the period of validity expires." If I had my really snarky head on, I might argue that one's 'duration of stay' in China is never useful.]

And let's not even get into the question of whether that 'Enter Before' date is the last date on which I can enter or the day after the last date on which I can enter.

I am pretty sure it in fact means the day on which I must leave. But I'm going to make sure I leave on the day before that, just to try to be on the safe side.

Haiku for the week

Last warmth of autumn
Brightens streets, won't reach indoors;
Chill October blues.

Thick-walled Chinese apartments are great for staying cool in the summer, but they soon become bloody freezing with the approach of winter - particularly if, as with my current place, you're on a low floor in a tall building and have only north-facing windows, so that almost no sunshine penetrates the walls at all at this time of year. It's still quite pleasant outdoors, afternoon temperatures getting above 70 Fahrenheit; but I'm shivering inside.

These last three or four weeks before the central heating gets switched on in mid-November are the toughest of the year. I'm having to wear pullovers and sweatpants indoors to keep the vicious chill at bay.

Still, I shouldn't complain. In much of China, they don't have any central heating, and the entire winter can be like this. People in Shanghai - much further south than Beijing, and cool rather than cold, but with a pervasive damp - tend to complain about their winters more than those of us up here in the icy northern capital.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

This week's dose of cool

I just stumbled across the work of German amateur(?!) photographer Markus Reugels via this article in the 'Design' section of the Fast Company website. Reugels has developed a speciality in producing intricate 'sculptures' from the interactions of water droplets frozen by a high-speed flash. The results are often extraordinarily beautiful - and leave you wondering how on earth he did that.

You can check out more of his work in articles here, here, and here, and in extensive online galleries here and here. And of course, it's worth taking a look at his own website as well, where he posts a link to this (English subtitled) 'behind the scenes' film on Youtube - which leaves the sense of awe undiminished even after he's told you in detail how he did it.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

The Writing On The Wall

Getting on for 5 years ago, I tried an entry in a literary competition launched by my publisher-to-be and occasional commenter here, the lovely Moonrat. Part of the brief was to provide a nutshell author biography of myself for the back-jacket copy of a book. I put that on the blog here, and was then goaded by my principal commenter of the time, Tulsa, to add the other part of my submission, the blurb for a novel, too. But I never got around to it. And, as so often happens with my little literary noodlings these days, I can't find it any more; it's not on this computer, anyway. (Paper is so much safer a storage medium. I still keep turning up inane little poems and articles I wrote at university nearly 30 years ago. Yet stuff I've written just in the last few years keeps vanishing into some weird electronic black hole of unsearchability on my various hard drives.)

Instead of trying to recreate the blurb (I'm still endeavouring to unearth the original), I thought I'd describe my creative process in coming up with it - a manic brainstorm which produced quite a detailed (and surprisingly saleable-seeming!) outline in just a few minutes.

I thought... a thriller is likely to be the genre that finds the readiest audience (and is also going to be the kind of thing that I would find easiest to write at speed). I can probably sell the China connection, too, drawing on my experience of having lived here for the last 5-and-a-half years. (There hadn't been that many 'China books' - fiction or non-fiction - at that point; soon there would be a spate of them, and I fear that particular niche may have been overworked now.) Of course, there was a particular topicality about China in that year, since it was about to host the Olympics. And there was a likelihood that political anxieties about possible 'dissent' would be particularly acute in the last few months before the opening of the Games in Beijing. A foreign protagonist, I felt, would be likely to help the story sell better overseas (and, let's face it, a foreigner like me is going to struggle to create a convincing story with a wholly Chinese cast of characters). So, how might a foreigner interact with Chinese citizens in circumstances which might place them under threat from the state apparatus of oppression?

Well, the creative fields are where you tend to find the most connections between Chinese and foreigners - particularly in rock music and modern art. And I have hung out in those circles quite a bit myself, have a few friends among these ranks - so, that felt like a milieu I could write about. Then, my major brainwave was that the area where there was likeliest to be the most crossover between those two fields was graffiti art (which was only just starting to take off in China at that time); and this was a form that, because it was so public and so populist, was likely to be seen as having a high potential for subversion by the authorities here.

There were three elements in this story idea that particularly appealed to me: the impermanence of this kind of art (it often gets scrubbed off the walls within days or hours, particularly if it incurs the displeasure of the authorities; and thus it often relies on a photographic record being made of it to acquire a wider audience; cameraphones, and the rapid dissemination of snapshots taken with them via the Internet, were just starting to become a big thing back then, although we didn't yet have Twitter/Weibo); the politicization of art (the government is likely to gauge the 'threat' of this kind of thing by its impact on its audience, rather than the intention of its creator); and the commercialization of art (many artists I know feel very uncomfortable with the idea of trying to do things that they anticipate may prove popular and saleable; they seem to convince themselves that their 'purity of vision' may require a perverse clinging to obscurity and poverty).

So... my young foreign protagonist is a photographer who becomes interested in this very exciting guerrilla street artist and sets about trying to document his work. Eventually he meets the guy, and they become friends. The government becomes concerned about this anonymous artist at first simply because they can't control him and because he is becoming so popular; but soon they become alarmed that so many of his young fans are reading a politically inflammatory sub-text into his work. They determine to find him and take him out of circulation before his activities can disrupt the imminent Olympic Games or foment nationwide 'disharmony'. His photographer friend is, of course, the most visible link to the artist, so the secret police start trailing him to try to discover the artist's identity. However, the photographer is also being approached by certain large companies to act as the artist's agent; they are interested in using this hip new talent in their China advertising. The photographer sees this as a chance to save the artist from state harassment, from likely arrest and possibly even execution; if he can associate him with one of the Olympic sponsors and persuade him to give up his proud stance of anonymity, perhaps he can make the artist too famous to interfere with, untouchable. 

But how can the photographer contact the artist without risking exposing his identity or whereabouts to the Chinese authorities? And how can he convince him to renounce his most deep-seated creative principles - that he must continue to work anonymously and without reward?

Not a bad little concept, eh? And that really was just a few minutes' work. It all came to me in a rush, each element naturally suggesting the next. There was even a love-triangle sub-plot, with the photographer falling for a foreign girl who worked as a translator in the art community and was having a relationship with the artist. (The art and rock music scenes do tend to attract quite a few foreign fans. And I have myself suffered the heartache of falling for a woman who's become hung up on Chinese guys.)

Alas, I've missed the 'window of opportunity' on that one: it was really a story that needed to be written in 2007 and published early in 2008.

It was also a pity that the title I came up with (too obvious, I know; but so appropriately ominous), The Writing On The Wall, had already been used numerous times before, including fairly recently for a major non-fiction book on China by Will Hutton.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Reality bites

There's a xiaomaibu (a tiny convenience store) beside the entrance to my block in the north-west corner of a typical Beijing apartment complex.

This is a handy reference point for guiding visitors towards the (otherwise unmarked) door to my staircase. It was also a potentially valuable - invaluable! - party resource, since it was the only place anywhere nearby which sold bags of ice.

But it closed down a week or so ago. Particularly unfortunate timing for me, since I was just about to throw a party, and had cited the store as a landmark in the directions given to my guests. Oh well.

Such 'mom & pop' businesses are one of the most charming - and useful - features of life in China. But one wonders how long they can survive, given the rapid advance of modern commerce here (there are now 5 or 6 chain convenience stores out on the street within a few hundred yards of my building). But it's not just the competition from leaner chain stores that threatens these little independent operators; many of them seem quixotically determined to fail as businesses.

The recently demised store in my building, for example, was almost never seen to have a customer. Yet I gather it has been soldiering on for about 4 years. The reason it almost never had a customer was that it never appeared to be open. It actually was open most of the time (unlike the equally doomed store in my last apartment complex, whose owners couldn't be bothered to keep any sort of regular hours of business, and would often appear to stay closed for days at a time). It was just that the lady who ran it was so concerned about the cost of electricity that she turned the lights off if there was no-one in. (I never checked, but it wouldn't at all surprise me if she turned the refrigerators and freezers off as well. That is a fairly common practice here. Electricity isn't all that expensive; but penny-pinching frugality seems to be a national vice.)

Leaving on one light, near the door, or having an encouraging 'Yes, we are open' sign outside the door might have helped her business. But she never had any customers because her shop always looked closed.

I am quite glad to see this reassuring evidence that market realities do - sometimes - prevail in China. But it is an isolated and rather untypical example. There are scores of perversely, self-destructively inept businesspeople here who somehow keep their doomed enterprises running for years on end. There seems to be a mad optimism in so many people here, a belief that a business - any business - will prove to be wildly profitable eventually. If you build it, they will come seems to be the hopeful entrepreneur's self-encouraging mantra. Alas, there's rarely any thought of what to build, or why - or how to advertise it. Just build something - and wait to become RICH. That's how people approach business in this country. It would be hilarious if it weren't so tragic.

Bon mot for the week

"A great many people think they are thinking when they are actually rearranging their prejudices."

William James (1842-1910)

Saturday, October 20, 2012

A birthday headbang

Yes, today I am becoming even older - into the back end of my forties now.

I feel the chill of approaching senility and death all the more keenly because I am just about the oldest person I know. Few of my friends here in Beijing are yet past forty, and many of them are barely into their thirties.

One of the saddest problems of this generation gap is that things I cherish as key pop culture landmarks of my childhood and early adulthood happened too long ago for them to remember, in some cases even before they were born.

I was reminded of this chasm again just the other week, when my online sparring partner Music Mike told me that he is too young to remember Not The Nine O'Clock News, an influential BBC2 comedy skit show (first television exposure for Rowan Atkinson, for one thing) that was one of the hugest hits of my last years in high school.

I had recommended to him Mel Smith's frenetic parody of a punk song, Gob On You - my favourite of all their musical numbers.

I've always loved the lines:

Sex is boring; pain is fun.
I want to cut my fingers off one by one.
Ain't no point in stayin' alive;
Wanna be dead when I'm twenty-five.

Now that I have reached nearly twice that total, I do sometimes wistfully think that bowing out in my twenties - quitting while I was ahead - might have been the wise course.

Unfortunately, Youtube only appears to have the first half of the performance on video. If you want to hear the full two-minute song - including those memorable, maudlin lines - you'll have to try this listen-only posting (with atrocious sound quality, unfortunately)... or this one (again, no video), a cover by a genuine punk band, Chaos UK.

Friday, October 19, 2012

No name for a hero!

I happened to catch a TV documentary the other week about Koxinga, a celebrated Chinese pirate/warlord of the mid-17th century who is most notable for initiating the Chinese 'ownership' of Taiwan by wresting it from the control of a small Dutch colony in 1661.

It's one of those names that I've never heard spoken before, but I'd always assumed that its spelling was derived via pinyin or some similar modern Romanization system. But I really have no idea. It could be a much older spelling. I wouldn't even know what variety of Chinese it is supposed to be (his paternal family were supposedly from the southern coastal province of Fujian; but he himself was born on the island of Kyushu at the southern end of Japan, and had a Japanese mother). And after all, the chap was born nearly 400 years ago; it's impossible to know exactly how various versions of the Chinese languages of the time were pronounced.

Even so, I would have thought that the favoured pronunciation today would follow the pinyin rules, under which x is a sort of sy- sound (not as in psychology, but as in this year), and the o would be a long -or: Korsyinga.

This TV programme's favoured pronunciation, Cock-Singer, just didn't sound right, somehow; it lacked a certain gravitas or dignitas.

[I learn that the name is an honorific title, signifying something like 'Father of the Nation'. In modern Mandarin Chinese, it's 國姓爺, guo xing ye, where the xing part is most definitely a sying, NOT a -ksing! Whether Fujianese or Cantonese (as spoken 400 years ago) would support the more unfortunate innuendo-laden pronunciation, I cannot say.]

Haiku for the week

All touched with amber,
Year's end longer golden hours:
Autumn sunshine joy.

It is the best time of the year in Beijing (if the skies stay clear). Not just by comparison with how shitty it is for much of the rest of the year, but good in absolute terms. It could almost make a chap regret leaving. But it only lasts a few weeks.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Wise words on teaching the young

"We destroy the love of learning in children, which is so strong when they are small, by encouraging and compelling them to work for petty rewards – in short, for the ignoble satisfaction of feeling that they are better than someone else."

John Holt (1923-1985)

I've quoted John Holt on here a number of times before. He was a highly influential writer on the practice of education and one of the only truly inspiring figures that I can acknowledge as having shaped the development of my own thinking. I stumbled across this online the other day (almost certainly a rediscovery, since I read just about everything he ever wrote when I was a teenager) and couldn't resist sharing it.

Not making it easy

One of my major goals for my last few months in China was to run a marathon again - my fourth, and almost certainly last.

Unfortunately.... the Beijing Marathon, as far as I can discover online, is still in limbo - its traditional mid-October date kicked into touch at the last moment by the government's insane anxieties about the upcoming leadership handover. (I'd been thinking of attempting the half-distance as a warm-up, and to keep a few friends company; but it is a ridiculously overpriced event, hideously overcrowded, and a VERY dull course. Its indefinite postponement - probably now cancellation - is really no great loss.)

The Shanghai Marathon, due to take place on December 2nd this year (by which time I might just about be in shape to give the full distance a go), is likewise a bit up-in-the-air - although organisers are insisting that it will still go ahead on the scheduled date. But a month ago, during the height of the Senkaku Islands hullabaloo, local government officials abruptly intervened - in the middle of one of the organisers' press conferences! - to announce that event could not go ahead this year as the Toray Cup. Toray, the name sponsor of the race for the past 16 years, is a Japanese chemical company, you see. Even if the race does now take place, which must be somewhat in doubt, I trust all right-thinking people will boycott it in protest at the Shanghai government's appalling pettiness over this matter.

Which leaves only the Xiamen Marathon at the beginning of January (a godawful time to hold a race, in the middle of the Western - and, increasingly also Chinese - festivities!). Xiamen is pretty far south, so the weather should be pleasantly mild even in the depths of winter. And it is supposedly a very pleasant route: flat, and almost entirely along the coast roads of this island city in Fujian province. I have been wanting to attempt this race for at least 7 or 8 years; but, until recently, it was impossible to register for it remotely - online, or even by mail; you had to go all the way to Xiamen to sign up for the race!

And, well, here we are barely 11 weeks from race day, and the official website is STILL saying that registrations aren't open yet. Oiveh!

I fear I'm going to be stuck doing 8 laps of my local lake; a self-adminstered marathon the only way to test my aging body's powers of endurance one last time.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

The hell of stairs

Another thing I noticed while on holiday this summer was that I have lost the ability to cope with stairs.

In Beijing, I have always lived in apartment buildings, and have always used the stairs. But having to walk up five or six flights of steps to get home, while a decent dose of exercise, pales into insignificance beside having a split-floor living space. I rarely leave my apartment more than once or twice a day. If you live in a house or a two-floor apartment, you are going up and down stairs - even if only a single flight of them - dozens of times every day.

Moreover, Chinese stairs seem to have fairly shallow risers. I currently have 16 steps to a storey of barely 9ft. My old apartment had 19 steps - a double-flight! - to a storey of less than 10ft.

I suppose this works out to only a bit over 6" per step. I would guess that most steps in the UK or America are more like 8" or so high. It makes a big difference!

I find my creaky old knees just can't cope with going down a long flight of steps with tall risers these days. Particularly when my legs are extra stiff from a too-long run! And particularly when - as seemed to be the case in every house I stayed in this summer - the stairs have very narrow treads (less wide than they are tall!!), and are of bare wood (worn to perilous slipperiness), and tilt forwards slightly, and wind through sharp right-angled turns. I tell you, I would do my damnedest to limit my visits to the upstairs bathroom in these houses. And the experience made me feel like a very decrepit old man.

I fear my lack of experience with steps is another reason why I have lost so much resilience and flexibility in my calves (and strength in my knees and thighs) in recent years. Hence, I am trying to find silly little pretexts to go up and down the stairs in my building more often, cultivating unnecessary habits to increase the amount of this kind of exercise I am getting. One of my favourites is that every time I take a bag of rubbish out to the recycling bins in the courtyard, I force myself to climb to the top of my building's fire stairwell first. That's 15 storeys. And, since I only have very small rubbish bags at the moment, this is now pretty much a daily ritual.

I also have a pair of uncommonly steep Chinese steps (nearly 10") leading to my balcony, so I'm starting to do step exercises on those every day.

I don't know how much this will help my running. But I do hope that the next time I stay in a house, I won't view having to use the stairs with such trepidation.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Ditching the magic

Though there are honourable exceptions, in general, fantasy is the genre for which I have the least patience. Well, the exceptions would be T.H. White's Once and Future King series - which, as books intended primarily for children, were largely absolved of any burden of plausibility, and which were brilliantly witty reimaginings of familiar ancient folklore. I don't know of anyone else who's come close to pulling that off, and I don't think anyone should try. Well, I imagine The Princess Bride would be in the same category, but I only know Rob Reiner's fabulous film version of the William Goldman novel.

It's principally the magic that pisses me off in fantasy books. I don't see any charm in it, and as soon as magical elements are introduced, my suspension of disbelief collapses. It's an affectation that brings the contrivances of the plot rather too obtrusively to the reader's attention, and so severs engagement with the story. Once you've got talking cats and flying broomsticks and whatnot, the realism evaporates - and I just don't care about the characters any more. (I have dipped into George R.R. Martin's Game of Thrones series, which seems to be mercifully magic-free; but it's self-indulgently overlong, completely unwieldy - and not very well written.)

And it's such a lazy plot device. I find the existence of magic actually tends to dissipate tension, because you know that in a story with magic in it, some new and unsuspected thing can always be invented to get the protagonists out of any difficulty. Hero comes to unfordable river. It would be more interesting to have him turn back in despair to search for another route, or to risk his life attempting to swim across. In fantasy, it's more likely that a friendly naiad he helped earlier will suddenly appear to part the waters for him. Yawn.

But I think magic is just the most egregious aspect of a more general weakness with the fantasy genre: the obsession with making everything up, with creating an entire world out of the imagination, strains not only the reader's credulity but his attention span. It just gets overwhelming, it becomes impossible to keep track of everything - and so, for me, it becomes tiresome and unengaging. 

Many people - the writers and fans of the genre - seem convinced that this world-making is somehow 'clever'. It isn't. It's a cop-out, an easy route. It's far more demanding - and far more satisfying - to create a compelling story grounded in our actual experience of the world. And when we do that, our focus is intently on the story and the characters, not on the background; with fantasy, I fear, establishing the infrastructure of the story becomes such a dominant concern that characterization tends to take a backseat (Tolkien is terrible at it). 

I also find this plethora of background detail bothersomely distracting. With a real world setting, we don't need to be given much - or ANY - background detail, because we already know what that detail is going to be (I loathe extended description, particularly of locale). I am also - compulsive nitpicker that I am - continually bothered by questions of plausibility (and I don't think I'm alone in this; we are all nitpickers to some extent): with a fantasy setting, we are constantly pausing to ponder "But wait! How does that work, in relation to...? And if that, then what about this...?" We don't have this problem with the real world, because we know everything in the real world works. It is difficult - just about impossible - to create from scratch an entire universe that is completely plausible and self-consistent. And it is a fool's errand to attempt it.


I have occasionally pondered addressing my dissatisfactions with the fantasy genre (and perhaps persuading myself that I am mistaken!) by attempting to write something in this style myself. I have decided that if I did so (unlikely!), there would be a minimum of 'world-making', and no magical elements at all (not even any wondrous creatures). The world would be recognisably like our own, a kind of alternate Earth whose history and technology closely paralleled our own, but whose differences might throw some satiric light on the real world. It would also be something of a satire on the fantasy genre, with typical conventions and expectations constantly confounded, and supposed magic invariably debunked by rational humanism, exposed as superstition and delusion.

I began playing with these ideas in some detail nearly a year ago. My principal fascination was with the idea of The Quest - and I wondered how many different stories I could create with that theme. Since it seems to be de rigueur with fantasy that the stories should be MASSIVE, often spilling over into long - perhaps open-ended - series, I came up with an outline for a cycle of stories about a family who become known as The Questers, one of whom, every few generations, is pressured into undertaking some hazardous mission on behalf of his country.

My initial idea was to recast the story archetype of the Dragon-Slayer. It occurred to me that a plausible origin for a dragon myth might be a large, dangerous, elusive, reptilian creature that began killing people near a lake. Sounds a bit like a crocodile, yes? Well, it does to us, because we know what a crocodile is. For people who have never heard of or imagined such a thing, it would be utterly terrifying. People who have no concept of a large amphibian that could hide in the water might naturally suppose that this elusive predator must be able to fly. (The major challenge with telling a story like this is to tread that line between the protagonists' continuing incomprehension and the reader's dawning awareness of what is probably going on.) But how would a giant crocodile reach northern climes? Well, we don't need to know in detail. We can imagine that perhaps someone on a merchant ship might have brought a baby one back as a pet; and that then, escaping into the wild, with no competition for food, it would grow to enormous size; and only in old age, when it had become slow and cranky, might it turn to attacking humans. So, the concept was that one man - and subsequently all his male descendants - became cursed with the mantle of 'hero' through happening to be the one to find and kill this maneating beast. 

But that wasn't enough of a Quest. A Quest requires a journey, and the seeking of some hidden knowledge or object... and, perhaps, the discovery of some deeper truth, quite different from that which you were hoping to find. The second phase of this opening story thus became the hero's desire to understand what this beast had been and where it had come from, and to seek to ensure that his community would never be troubled by its like again. His enquiries reveal - perhaps through the merchant who originally brought the beast north? - that the home of these dragons is in a land far to the south. Naively imagining - in the way of these primitive legends - that there is perhaps only one family of these beasts, one Ur-Mother who begets them all, he sets off in search of these monsters' homeland. And the revelation he eventually attains is that these creatures in their native habitat are, of course, far too numerous to kill; but also, not all that dangerous; and, above all, not monstrous or magical, but just another type of common natural animal that had simply been unknown to his people.

I toyed with several other possible quest ideas, where an apparently magical scenario would be found to have a rational explanation: a 'theft of the sky' by dark clouds found to be smoke from a massive fire (perhaps caused by a Tunguska-like meteorite strike), a legendary healing talisman in fact just a rare medicinal herb, and so on.

But I wanted an overarching story, to give some continuity over a projected very long series of books (I was getting interested in a 'generations' story that would chart the social and technological development of my invented world from - in real world terms - the Dark Ages to the 19th century). And so, I hit upon the Key to All Knowledge as my ultimate Quest Object. This legendary item, again originally conceived of by the protagonists as being an object of magical power, is in fact found to be a real key - the key to a hidden underground vault housing a massive library, the accumulated knowledge of a (recently) vanished civilization, somewhat like the Roman Empire. But, as the aged gatekeeper who reveals this treasure to our Quester cryptically tells us, this is but a false key, The Key That Is Not The Key. The True Key lies elsewhere. The problem with this great trove of ancient wisdom is that the language it is written in has been lost in the sudden destruction of the civilization which created the library. The True Key will be a surviving native speaker, or a Rosetta Stone-like parallel translation with a known language that may enable scholars to start deciphering what is written in these tens of thousands of books.

Alas, it will take over a 1,000 years before such a translation key is found. By which time, the majority of the books have faded or crumbled. And most of those that yet survive are found to be bawdy verse. But dozens of Questers have had lots of spiffing incidental adventures while seeking The Key all those years!

What do you think? Would I be able to sell this concept to a publisher??

[This all came to me - well, the Lost Library storyline - in a dream. A very detailed dream, too. It was at a time when I had been thinking about the mechanics of this story quite a bit. And I was suffering from a winter cold that was deranging my sleep, making me a little feverish. Odd, the sources of our inspiration, eh?]

Monday, October 15, 2012

The hell of hills

Trying to run during my long break from China this summer (three-and-a-half months away - oh, bliss!), I got frustrated at how easily I exhausted my reserves of stamina... and at how easily I seemed to strain the muscles in the back of my calves.

Then it occurred to me: the sudden unexpected onset of exhaustion and the niggling pains in the back of my leg would both ambush me as I neared the end of a long hill-climb. Not so surprising, really! But the thing is, Beijing is pancake-flat; I hadn't really taken on a proper hill since the last time I was back in the UK three years earlier.

In Oxford this summer, I was living just off the Abingdon Road, to the south of the city centre; and it was a gentle but steady climb all the way into town, becoming abruptly quite a severe climb just beyond Folly Bridge as one approaches Christ Church (I was usually only covering the first few yards of this, up to the entrance of Christ Church Meadow, but it is a much steeper incline than any I have regularly run in China). The month I spent in the States, in Alexandria, VA., I was starting out my run with an even more challenging climb, a mile or so of solid uphill as I headed east towards the river (and then several more lesser hills to negotiate in the last third of the 9 or 10-mile run I was usually attempting).

It is shocking to realise how far I've lost my capacity for hill-running, since in my younger days all the routes I ran were ferociously hilly: the one I ran most often in the last year or two before I came to China, in the countryside just outside Monmouth where my Mum lived, was a brutal succession of short but steep hills. And the 4-and-a-half mile circuit I ran while doing my teacher training in Durham was ALL hills (I suppose some of them must have been downhill; but I can only remember the long, painful uphill sections!).

But now, NOW I find myself struggling even with the mild gradients Beijing has to offer. There is a moderately steep stretch on the north-west side of Houhai lake (not hellishly steep, and only a few hundred yards long) which regularly punches me in the solar plexus. And has me getting paranoid about my calf muscles.

I need to do more flexibility exercises, I know I do. 

Or maybe find a proper hill to run again...

When I get back up to being able to run 25 or 30km, I want to have a crack at running Xiangshan - a small mountain park on the north-west outskirts of Beijing. Goals and objectives!