Friday, November 30, 2012

A Chinese shopping slogan

I hadn't previously realised that the BHG supermarket chain is actually a homegrown Chinese operation - part of the Beijing Hualian Group. Here in Beijing, their outlets are a pretty impressive facsimile of large international supermarkets (much more sophisticated in their offerings than the local versions of Carrefour and Walmart, in fact), but when you get out into China's 'lower tier' cities... well, they're just as chaotic and ramshackle as your typical small neighbourhood supermarket here.

And I'd never seen them use this slogan before -  


If I had my English teacher head on, I might object that they should start with the noun FRESHNESS, to maintain grammatical consistency in the list. But it's the SURPRISE at the end that really gets me! I like to be surprised in my shopping - oh yes. (I wonder if they meant SUPPLIES??)

This reminds me of a KFC-ripoff fried chicken shop that briefly set up in the front of a tiny supermarket just over the road from the college where I taught back in my first year in Beijing (I thought I'd written about this before, but Google search can't find it; I had thought I might have mentioned it in this classic early post on here, but no). The business folded after a month or so, but they'd spent quite a bit on their packaging, as if they had ambitions of quickly growing into a chain (I'm pretty sure it was just a one-off store, and not a well-run one). The boxes were printed with an English 'slogan' rather like this one, just a random collection of only vaguely appropriate words. I think it said something like... DELICIOUS   HEALTH   EDIBLE.  Really. Hmm, edible food - my favourite kind!

Make a hole

Ramshackle China at its best! Something I spotted in the small southern city of Kaili a few weeks ago - a guy who needed rear access to this store-room, so... he just reached for the sledgehammer.

You see this kind of thing all over the place. Unfortunately, people often have little concept of the supporting wall.

Recently, on The Barstool...

Well, apparently it's been over two months since I last did one of these roundups of what's been going on over on the dark side, so I'd better try to catch up.

Lots of good music lately: a couple of favourites from My Fair Lady, The Street Where You Live and Wouldn't It Be Loverly? (both songs I have been known to sing to myself when walking home slightly merry from the bar), a slooowed-down version of Motorhead's Ace of Spades, and THEN... a 'Blues Week', with selections from Cream, ZZ Top, Peter Green's Fleetwood Mac, AC/DC, Turley Richards (never heard of him? check it out!!), Led Zeppelin (a superb early TV appearance from 1969), and Otis Spann (with the great Peter Green, again). There's also been a roundup of some of the greatest rock guitar riffs, my pick of rock's finest rhythm section pairings, another of my 'Top Five' favourite basslines, and further entries in my series of 'Great Drinking Songs' (from Jimmy Buffett, Tom Waits, and Harry Belafonte) and 'Great Love Songs' (from Nina Simone, and from Richard and Linda Thompson). And last week, when I found myself marooned in a hotel room in Shanghai with nothing to do, I posted The Statler Brothers' classic, Flowers On The Wall. I am planning to have a whole week of music posts next week, to try to clear some of the backlog of things I've got planned (since I'm aiming to retire my blogs in just three weeks' time).

In other posts, we've had a discussion of an interesting word/concept we might borrow from another language (and more similar here), one of my more personal posts on depression, a self-administered questionnaire on my life of drinking, a reminiscence of one of my favourite haunts from my first year in Beijing, a haiku about the nostalgia-conjuring powers of whisky, a pretty photograph of my latest culinary experiment, a curious discovery of an unlikely campaign from the 1920s, an important rule-of-thumb for deciding where to eat (which I ignored to my cost), an account of some of the most unusual places I've had a drink during my years of globetrotting, a reflection on the musical influences around me when I was growing up (concluding with a gratuitous blast of Mud's silly-but-infectious Tiger Feet), a romantic anecdote from my first visit to Hong Kong (getting on for 20 years ago), my opinion on champagne (it's overrated!), a brief paean to the remarkable, inimitable Tallulah Bankhead, an explanation of why I choose to blog anonymously (something of a provocation to leading Beijing bar blogger Jim Boyce, who goes in the other direction - and brings a world of grief on himself as a result), and a couple of observations from my recent travels in the south - on the shortcomings of China's hotel bars and hotel breakfasts.

LOTS to enjoy there, if you missed it first time around.

Haiku for the week

Darkness inside grows
Dread inertia grips the soul
At least the sky is blue

My seasonal doldrums are setting in early this year. The short hours of daylight usually afflict me with a paralysing depression for much of December and January - but it's not even December yet, dammit!

And it's looking like today might be the first time the daytime temperature fails to break above freezing. With the wind whipping down straight out of the north, it certainly feels well below freezing.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

For your own protection

The second of the three days of running in the Guizhou mountains I took part in a couple of weeks back ended in Zhaiwa 'Village' - a community of perhaps 10,000 or 15,000 people. I couldn't help wondering what such a small place needed with such a big police station. And indeed, this is not just your run-of-the-mill police station, but a S.W.A.T. unit headquarters!!

As I put it to my friend The Choirboy (in yet another of the frivolous text messages with which I deluged him during my time away):

"What does a sleepy little mountain town need with its own S.W.A.T. team? Can it be that the Miao minority are not as thoroughly contented under Chinese rule as all the smiley dancing would have us believe?"

Enquiring minds want to know.

A runner's excuses

Well, I've just completed my first full marathon in 6 or 7 years. I should be feeling pretty chuffed with myself. And I am, but... well, my time was just awful, EMBARRASSING. 5 hours - WTF? I could walk the distance in 6-and-a-half. This was feeble; very, very disappointing.

Amongst my excuses...

It was a 'long' course
A marathon is only supposed to be 195m more than 42km, but... this one went on for a long, long way after the 42km board. I wondered if perhaps the organisers had become confused with the Imperial measurement of the distance - 26 miles, 385 yards - but even that couldn't account for this agonisingly protracted finishing stretch: I'd guess it must have been over 500m. Moreover, several competitors who had clever GPS applications on their smartphones recorded the overall distance at well over 1.5km longer than it should have been. I rather suspect the organisers had measured the course on a flat map, not taking into account the effect of the numerous hills. And, oh my god....

It was a VERY hilly course
A German runner with one of those of GPS gizmos told me that he'd clocked ascents totalling over 500m - yup, an extra third of a mile vertically upwards. That's a hell of a tough race! Even Lezan Kipkosgei Kimutai, the amiable Kenyan who won all three stages of this 'Ultra' event very comfortably (and who looks not much more than half his forty years!), took nearly 15 minutes longer than his personal best. Most competitors, I would think, were taking at least 25-30 minutes longer. Still, I ought to be able to run a marathon in less than 4'30". Except that....

I hadn't trained enough
I'd only been training in earnest for barely a couple of months, and had been focusing my efforts on preparing for the Xiamen Marathon - which was 8 weeks later. The opportunity to take part in this event came up at very short notice, and I was really killing myself for a week or two to try get in shape to attempt it.

You really can't train for hills like that in Beijing
As I've observed before, the centre of Beijing is pancake-flat. You've got to go quite a long way out into the countryside to get in any decent practice running on serious gradients.

I may have overdone things slightly in my final preparations
I wasn't confident in my ability to last this distance, having not attempted it for several years; and having, until recently, struggled to complete even a half-marathon distance. So, I forced myself to do a full-distance dress-rehearsal around the Houhai/Qianhai lakes in Beijing (well, pretty near full-distance; getting on for 40km, I reckon) only 10 days beforehand - and that hurt, a lot. Psychologically, it gave me the boost I needed; but physically, I think I wasn't fully recovered from it.

And I wasn't able to 'taper' properly
Most long-distance runners recommend winding down your training in the last two or three weeks before a big race. You shouldn't stop altogether, but you usually do only a few light runs in the last week or so. I had to stop altogether - because of an unseasonal freeze and snowfall in Beijing the weekend before the race that made it impossible to go outside.

I had perhaps been dieting too severely
I'd managed to drop 20lbs (9kg) in less than two months. I have been careful to try to maintain good basic nutrition during this, but shedding that much weight takes it out of you - I think it has compromised my stamina a bit.

I haven't recovered my bounciness of gait yet
The weight loss hasn't yet brought much improvement to my pace. In my head, I still feel like the fat man I was a few months ago, and I'm just not picking my feet up very well, not really stretching out my stride.

I don't like my new shoes
This is a terrible thing for a runner to confess. When you buy a new pair of shoes, you're expecting them to be a central part of your life for the next couple of years, at least; you're expecting to be inside them almost daily, for hours at a time. It's a big deal. This is a closer intimacy and a more enduring commitment than I have ever experienced with a woman. I've been a Nike man for... nearly 30 years now. I have experimented with Reebok and Adidas and New Balance, but these dalliances have only served to reassure me I am well-and-truly wedded to the swoosh. But bloody Nike seem to have come up with a major redesign of their insoles. They always used to have removable, customisable arch-support inserts; but now - that's gone? I have very high insteps, and I really need all the arch support I can get. These latest shoes are in general very comfortable - no problems with blisters or runner's toenail - but they make me feel flat-footed. And I fear this is at least partly responsible for my attenuated stride, and my extreme susceptibility to calf muscle and Achilles tendon strains. I may have to investigate the Reebok option again.

I was ill
When I arrived at the first race location - the small, touristy city of Kaili, in the eastern portion of Guizhou province - it was smothered in low cloud and fog, and the damp air was thick with construction dust and other pollutants: it was the kind of foul brown fug, the off the scale of Air Pollution Index toxicity that we so often  suffer in Beijing, but which we naively hope more rural districts to be free of. After one evening's exposure to this, the glands in my throat swelled up like tennis balls. I'm not sure if it was an allergy or a cold or a response to airborne toxins, or a combination of these. But I had a sore throat and a mild fever and a nose streaming with snot throughout the three days of the event. If I'd been at home, I would have just cowered under the duvet feeling sorry for myself until the symptoms receded. But taking part in something like this gives you a huge shot of adrenalin, which enables you to overcome - or at any rate ignore - such physical infirmities.

I got my pacing all wrong
It's always a problem with big races. I am essentially a solitary runner: I don't adapt well to being surrounded by other runners. And much as I try to discipline myself, I can never completely resist the temptation to race against people - particularly in the opening few kilometres, when the field is so densely packed and there are so many people getting in your way (in China, security is non-existent, so you invariably get hordes of local people crashing the start, and trying to run along with you for the first few kilometres). Seeing people ahead of you who are obviously much slower than you - old people, short people, untrained runners, people with injuries - is annoying; you want to get them behind you as soon as you can. But if they've somehow picked up 20m or 30m on you before you pass the starting line... well, overhauling them is a gruelling and painful challenge - and it wears you out. Or, it would - if you weren't so absurdly adrenalised at the start of the race. And because of this surplus of adrenalin, however much you try to rein yourself in and to run well within yourself so that you'll be able to maintain the same sort of pace consistently through to the end, you always find yourself going quite a bit faster than you normally would. And that's not good. I know this danger, I should do more to guard against it; but I'm inexperienced, out of practice, haven't done anything like this for a long time. 

And my start in this marathon was just ridiculous: I reached the 5km mark in under 26 minutes. And I'm pretty damned sure - since I had covered most of this route in my walking explorations of the city centre over the previous two days, and since I have a pretty accurate inbuilt sense of distance anyway - that this was wildly mismeasured: I reckon it must have been closer to 6km at the very least, maybe more like 6.5km. Even if it really was only 5km, that's nearly as quick a pace as I've ever managed to maintain over a 10km race, and nearly 10% faster than I've previously run a marathon. If it was more like 6km, that's around a 3-hour-marathon pace, at least 20% better than I was capable of even in my prime. And there were some very steep hills in this section as well! Yep, I scared myself with that opening sprint: I deliberately pulled back to a gentle plod for a few kilometres to try to preserve my stamina - but I knew I was going to be completely gutted well before the end.

I was gutted well before the end
Those hills just got ridiculous. In the first half of the race, there were four or five fairly long uphill drags. In the second half, as we got out into the picturesque countryside of Qiandongnan, the hills were mostly very short - few more than 500m, many only 50m or so - but they kept coming, one after another. It was impossible - and dispiriting - to keep count: there must have been 20 or 30 of the bloody things. My stamina was flagging badly during the last quarter of the race. And then I began to feel the worrying twinges of an old knee injury, so I began to walk the uphill stretches over the last 7 or 8km. Until then, I had been on course to finish in about 4'20".

Fate - and the organisers - were messing with me over the final kilometre or two
Because this three-day event is evidently conceived primarily as a tourist promotion exercise by the Guizhou government, each race has to end in some touristy hotspot. On this first day, it was a heavily reconstructed 'model village' of the Miao minority people - hilly, and with cobbled streets: NOT what you want for the closing stages of a marathon. What's more, there were no signs to let us know where we were going or how long was left (over the last kilometre or so, it's nice to have distance markers every 100 or 200m, to reassure you that you're nearly finished), and the road was so winding that we couldn't finally see the finishing line until it was just a couple of hundred metres away. Trying to pace yourself over the closing stretch in conditions of such uncertainty is... not nice. Moreover, the organisers hadn't been able to do anything to clear the streets, so we were having to weave through gaggles of tourists... and the occasional motor vehicle. Then I paused briefly to check on the status of a young Brit who was limping home with a bad injury. And while I was doing that, I got overtaken by a China Post delivery van - which almost completely blocked the narrow streets; and followed the route of the race all the way to the end, at a crawl; and belched huge clouds of choking blue smoke into my face. Thank you, God. I was able to squeeze by it before long - but I gripe that it may have made the difference between me finishing a few seconds inside and a few seconds outside 5 hours.

I didn't find out exactly how long I'd taken, because the organisers had already dismantled the official race clock. [I heard a rumour that they'd decided - without, of course, telling anyone - to reduce the time allowed for this first race from 5 hrs to a niggardly 4hrs 30mins. They did chop back the allowance for the next day's race from the advertised 4hrs 30mins to only 4hrs - although it was 90% of the full distance, with a vicious 3km hill at the end. This kind of arbitrary change to the parameters of the competition is particularly rough on people who finish within the advertised time limit but outside the new reduced limit, and are thus denied an official classification in the event. I don't give a rat's ass about that, I was just taking part for my own enjoyment. But a lot of people were pretty disgruntled about it. A further post is brewing on the legion failures of organisation surrounding this event.]

So, anyway, damn - 5 hours??!! I have my excuses, but that really is a pretty piss-poor showing. I ought to be capable of doing a marathon inside 4 hours, goddammit! At least, I was 7 or 8 years ago, when I was really training seriously. And I'm going to get back to that level again - or die in the attempt!

Perhaps 4'30" might be a more realistic target to set myself for Xiamen, though....

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Favourite posts from the 3rd quarter of 2012

The highlights from my summer 'on the road'....

Pick of the Archives:
Favourite Posts, July-September 2012

1)  Barbecue memories - 6th July 2012
The weekly haiku in the week of American Independence Day (for which I was, happily, in America this year) revives a recollection of campfire cooking during my summer holidays as a child.

2)  Books I could read again and again  -  7th July 2012
A selection of special favourites, most of them dating back to my childhood.

3)  The heart of a sniper  -  14th July 2012
A synopsis of a long short story I wrote years ago, in Canada - kicking off a new 'Discarded Story Ideas' series.

The happiest discovery of this year's American trip was this utterly gorgeous and superlatively talented young jazz musician - instant swoon.

5)  Dying by inches  -  23rd July 2012
A rather long post, in which an extraordinary set of travails I suffer in trying to get my computer to work reminds me of one of my most unpleasant videogaming experiences, way back in my student days.

6)  An Olympic curmudge  -  27th July 2012
No, I am not a fan of the bloody Olympics!

7)  "Helpfulness", Chinese university style  -  2nd August 2012
I receive a quite astoundingly obtuse - nonsensical - reply from one of the former employers I'd canvassed for possible help in applying for a new Chinese visa. Extremely annoying, but also hilarious.

8)  Rejecting the 'modern'  -  4th August 2012
An epic curmudge, in which I spurn, um, almost every major technological innovation of the last thirty years. Luddite? Moi?!

9)  Bon mot for the week  -  6th August 2012
One of my own, on writing - and superhero stories.

10)  A crazy plan  -  10th August 2012
I have dreams of walking home from China to the UK along the ancient 'Silk Road'. Alas, there are certain practical problems with this.

11)  My Fantasy Girlfriend: Gillian Duxbury  -  11th August 2012
Being back in the UK stirs nostalgic memories of one of the very first crushes of my childhood, a popular English glamour model of the 1970s. I am delighted to discover that she still looks rather stunning today.

12)  The cone of silence  -  13th August 2012
I discover that while in China I seem to have picked up the useful knack of not listening to people.

13)  And another thing: coffee shops!  -  14th August 2012
I remember that I HATE the ubiquity of coffee shops in the modern world even more than I hate worthless new technology.

14)  The Chinese worker in action  -  28th August 2012
Ah, back in Beijing! And it's just as crazy as ever!! (A collection of similar stories soon followed.)

15)  It's science, dude  -  7th September 2012
A really cool video of an astronaut on the International Space Station playing with a big globule of water in zero-gravity.

16)  Advice to would-be writers:
Part 1  -  8th September 2012
Part 2  -  12th September 2012
A final word  -  19th September 2012
Does exactly what it says on the label.

17)  You have got to be kidding me  -  19th September 2012
I make some surprising and disturbing discoveries about trends in baby naming in the United States.

18)  My Fantasy Girlfriend: Suzanne Vega  -  15th September 2012
Three of my favourite songs from the whipsmart and very lovely singer-songwriter: Blood Makes Noise, Tired Of Sleeping, and the (rather too sadly appropriate to my unrequitable crush) I'll Never Be Your Maggie May.

19)  What are days for?  -  16th September 2012
An online questionnaire prompts some deep thoughts - and gives me an excuse to post a bit of Philip Larkin.

20)  Now you see him, now you don't  -  17th September 2012
Some facetious commentary on the recent disappearance of China's leader-designate Xi Jinping - how could I resist?

21)  Some languages have a word for it - or do they?  -  22nd September 2012
During a meander around some of the intriguing foreign words/concepts discussed on the Internet, I am disappointed to find out that so many of them are hoaxes. (I did a couple of follow-up posts to this on Barstool Blues, here and here.)

22)  Goals and objectives  -  23rd September 2012
I obsess about my weight... and announce a plan to lose some... well, a lot.

23)  Life mirrors art  -  28th September 2012
I am struck by the coincidence that hit Danish TV drama Borgen, which began in 2010, centres on an improbably foxy female Prime Minister who leads a liberal coalition... and a year or so later we find that the Danish government is a liberal coalition led by an improbably foxy female Prime Minister. What is it about the Danes??

24)  More favourite film posters  -  29th September 2012
Seven great films, eight great posters. I added a supplement here on some of the striking promotional artwork for Quentin Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Killing Hitler (And Churchill)

There's something irresistible about the concept of time travel; it can seduce even those who are sternly resistant to the rest of the sci-fi genre.

And the idea of being able to revisit - and perhaps change - key moments in Earth's history is especially compelling. I think most people have encountered one or two favourite stories of this type, and almost all writers have surely tried to write one at some point.

One such that particularly lodged in my brain when I was a kid (I think it might have been one of Ray Bradbury's, but I'm not sure; can't remember the title now) was about a company running historical tours into the past. One of their most popular destinations was the crucifixion of Jesus. The tourists had to be very carefully briefed to fit in with the Judaean crowds, not attract attention to themselves - not do anything that might change the outcome of events. So, when the moment came, the group all chanted 'Free Barabbas!', as they had been told to do. Only a few of them noticed that they were the only people doing so.

Of course, if you could travel back in time to attempt an intervention that might change the course of human history for the better, the most obvious choice for most people would be to assassinate Adolf Hitler before he comes to power in Germany. So, unoriginal fellow that I so often am, I wrote a story about that when I was in my early teens.

I was interested in the notion of events being fixed, of it proving to be impossible for time travellers to effect any changes in history. In some stories I've read, this effect is realised by mysterious laws of physics - invisible force fields or whatever that thwart the protagonist's action at the critical moment. I preferred to focus on the mundane frustrations of daily life, to suggest that the ordinary ebb and flow of events might more effectively obstruct my hero's plans. And so I had events like the breakdown of a tram, a sudden rainstorm, and the last-minute cancellation of a speaking engagement keeping my would-be assassin from his planned encounters with Hitler. I even toyed with - but didn't ultimately use - the idea of him having a revolver that he'd acquired for the purpose fail to work. (I was playing with the physics-will-thwart-you device, making it seem that the gun had uaccountably refused to fire because of some strange Law of Time; but I then planned to reveal that there was in fact a straightforward explanation - he'd bought the gun from a pawnbroker [being unable to bring any weapons with him through the time-portal], who, fearing that he planned to commit suicide with it, had deliberately sold him one with a faulty firing-pin.)

And for a final mess-with-your-mind twist.... my hero was disheartened, realised that it was seemingly impossible for him to complete the mission he had set himself, and was preparing to return to his own time. Walking down the streets of 1920s Munich one last time, he sees a man just ahead of him distractedly step into the road directly in front of a bus (or a tram; I suspect they had trams - but I never did the research to check this). Instinctively, he grabs the man and pulls him back to safety. The man loses balance and falls on top of him. As they pick themselves up, the hero finds himself finally face to face with....

Too obvious? Well, I was only 13 or 14; give me a break.

On the other side of the Allies/Axis divide, I was also intrigued as to how the untimely death of Winston Churchill might have altered history (I was very probably influenced by Jack Higgins' The Eagle Has Landed, which came out when I was on the cusp of my teens). There does seem to be a powerful argument that he was the main force in the Cabinet resisting Nazi peace overtures, and that without him Britain might have withdrawn from the War - and left Hitler secure in his European conquests, perhaps even able to make a success of his invasion of Russia and to resist involving himself in the later US-Japan war.

My seed idea here was wondering what is the smallest event that can lead to a major change in the course of history - the concept of The Butterfly Effect. I looked down to the molecular level, and decided that there must be a point where, a point where... something like the combustion process inside a car's engine is at a critical threshold, a whisker away from failing. In one reality, a car engine stalls; in another, it shudders, but just manages to keep turning over. What might flow from that?

I didn't quite have the story structure worked out to my satisfaction. It was difficult to incorporate this idea of history turning on the smallest of events inside a car's engine with the adventure story I wanted to write. What I came up with was an alternating chapter structure with two essentially unrelated stories - the connection between them only gradually emerging towards the end.

In the first story strand, an underground group is planning a terrorist campaign against an oppressive government. It is slowly revealed that this is 1970s Britain, under the sway of a Fascist party aligned with the Third Reich which still rules Germany and most of Europe.

The second story strand is set thirty-odd years earlier, in London at the outset of WWII. A car that nearly stalls - but doesn't - speeds impatiently away from a traffic light and knocks over a pedestrian a few moments later. The man survives, but suffers serious injuries and temporary amnesia. Police trying to establish his identity find some odd discrepancies in his personal history, and call in a military investigator - who eventually discovers that the man is a German secret agent with a mission to assassinate Churchill.

Hence, we come to a final realisation that the main story is happening in a Europe still controlled by the Nazis because, if that car had stalled on a foggy London street in 1940, the German agent would have fulfilled his mission... and removed Britain from the War.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Travel Notes

I eventually decided to take my computer with me on my recent excursion around southern China. I might as well not have bothered. It caused me no end of grief (that story later, perhaps), and about the only time I was able to get decent Internet access, it was on a desktop provided by the hotel. (Not proper Internet access, of course. With no VPN, it's been pretty much impossible to access any overseas sites over the past few weeks. But at least, on this one occasion, the connection was fast enough and stable enough to let me deal with my e-mail. That didn't really happen on the rest of the trip.)

I didn't think I was missing it, really. In fact, it was a valuable extra dimension to the holiday to find myself forcibly cut off from contact with employers.

However... I did find myself sending rather a lot of text messages to friends back in Beijing while I was away. So, perhaps I was missing the regular human contact that e-mail - or normal social intercourse in a city where you know people - affords?

Anyway, here are a few highlights of that short-message correspondence...

Fuwuyuan hid my shower mat!
[Not the end of the world, no. In fact, as I observed by subsequent texts to some people, it was about the least worst thing that had happened to me over the previous three or four days. But not trivial, either. When you're running late, and you desperately need a shower, discovering that your maid has removed your shower mat and concealed it in some obscure cubbyhole in your hotel room is rather aggravating. It's not as though she had replaced it or cleaned it or was trying to save it from getting too mouldy by removing it from the bath when not in use. It was very dirty and mouldy, had probably never been changed or cleaned in the hotel's history. And it was rolled up and put away still wet. And they knew the same guest was staying in the room for another day; so why, WHY would they do this?! Because this is China, that's why.]

The 'I' has dropped off the CHINA MOB LE Building. I hope it didn't fall on anyone.
[We are talking about an 'I' several feet high here. This, like most of this correspondence, came from Guiyang, the capital of the southern province of Guizhou. I wish I'd been able to take a picture of this, but during my stressful and accident-prone weekend just prior to this, I'd managed to break my camera. Trying to record observations in words rather than photographic images may have been another impetus for my prolific texting during this period.]

Ordered a 'milkshake' to justify using a table. Got a sickly sweet, lukewarm latte - undrinkably foul. Was spared having to pay for it when, moments later, a passing fly committed suicide in it.
[True story! My one - vain - attempt to try to get some work done using the wi-fi in a hotel coffee shop. The connection was even worse than the drinks.]

The trouble with the relentless malling of China's cities is that it becomes harder and harder to find a shitty little noodle shop.
[As I observed sourly to my mate The Choirboy, when struggling to find a barebones Chinese restaurant in surprisingly modern and prosperous-seeming Guiyang. Shitty little noodles shops are actually one of my favourite things in China. Especially when I've got no money. Being unable to locate one makes me unhappy.]

Ah, snack food heaven! And ALL of it fried!!
[It wasn't too long before I found the less sophisticated side of Guiyang.]

Now, this is one of the world's great snacks: a deep-fried rosti potato cake, studded with chunks of sweet potato. It's kind of like a Spanish omelette - but much greasier!

My god! They make chips on the streets here. Crinkle-cut at that!
[Lots of this in Guiyang; but I saw it a few times in the smaller city of Kaili as well. There seem to be a number of different ways of serving them, but the most common was to sprinkle a handful of chopped pickled vegetables on top... and then smother the whole lot in a heap of chilli powder!]

Nice China moment: a nurse is offering free blood pressure checks on the street. She's set up her table next to a row of five fried snack stalls. Probably not a deliberate choice...

This supermarket has blatantly ripped off the Carrefour logo. But it calls itself not a supermarket but a LiteStyle Market. Is that like a lifestyle, but... less substantial? I think I have one of those!

Madam, you outdo yourself! You've managed to encourage both of your toddlers to urinate in public simultaneously. On the tiled floor of an underground shopping mall. On either side of narrow entrance to same, completely blocking it. Outstanding!

The trouble with running away from Beijing to avoid the Party Congress is that provincial Chinese hotels only have Chinese TV, and Chinese TV has the Congress on every channel.
[No, there wasn't a lot to do in the evenings...]

The nice thing about the Congress is that hotels are instructed to give guests a free newspaper every day. Very handy for drying out sodden shoes.
[Very wet, Guizhou.]

Apparently, I'm staying in the TimeShare Intentional Hotel. No accidental tourists here!

I have discovered possibly the nicest park in China, right by the riverside. I think I'm going to soak my feet in the water until they go numb.
Of course, the only mini-jetty not occupied by amorous schoolkids is the one that someone's taken a poop in the middle of. I think I can work around it.
[This was in the much smaller Guizhou city of Zhenyuan, 250 miles or so east of Guiyang. And when my pal Ruby queried whether I really meant human poop...]

Oh yes. But it was quite a long time ago. Mostly wiped away now, only a slight lingering smell. Much like the Mao years.
[I find metaphors everywhere.]

Bon mot for the week

"The amount of eccentricity in a society has generally been proportional to the amount of genius, mental vigour, and moral courage which it contained. That so few now dare to be eccentric marks the chief danger of the time."

John Stuart Mill  (1806-1873)

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Film Quiz - Tough Guy Quotes

One final trivia challenge for you in my 'Film List' series - here are some of my favourite lines from action film heroes; some of them obvious, some, perhaps, a little less so. Best of luck!

As usual, I make no claim to the canonical accuracy of these quotes; recognisability is enough. I'll post the answers in the comments below next week.

1)  "My mule don't like people laughing. He gets the crazy idea you're laughing at him. Now, if you apologise - like I know you're going to - I might just convince him that you really didn't mean it."

2)  "If it bleeds, we can kill it."

3)  "I came here to chew bubblegum and kick ass. And I'm all out of bubblegum."

4)  "What do you think you're doing, Jimmy? If you keep on stabbing me like that, you're going to kill me."

5)  "Remember how I said I was going to kill you last? I lied."

6)  "Say hello to my little friend!"

7)  "Did you get elected?"  "No, but I got nominated real good."

8)  "Ever use a rifle grenade, soldier?"  "Pick my teeth with them."

9)  "You're the disease and I'm the cure."

10)  "You kill me in a dream, you better wake up and apologise."

11)  "You punch like you take it up the ass."

12)  "You boys going to pull those pistols - or whistle 'Dixie'?"

13)  "When I want your opinion, I'll beat it out of you."

14)  "I only told you to scare them."  "People scare better when they're dying."

15)  "I kick ass - for the Lord!"

16)  "I don't want to shatter your ego, but this is not the first time I've had a gun pointed at me."

17)  "I ain't got time to bleed."

18)  "Don't fuck with the Lords of Hell."  "Don't fuck with the babysitter!"

19)  "What do you fags want?"

20)  "That was over quickly."  "Yeah. Everybody could shoot."

Super-duper extra bonus question:

21)  "We're not going to lose. Losing's what the other guys do."

I have - belatedly - added the ANSWERS in the comments below.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Haiku for the week

Stress of the unknown;
Excitement of novelty;
Three weeks on the road.

I am somewhat uncomfortable, ashamed at the relief I feel at the prospect of returning home after a period of travelling. 'Home' is too confining, a disengagement from the world; I would prefer it to be a journey's beginning rather than its end. But I am getting old; I exhaust easily.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Happy Thanksgiving!

It looks as though I shall be having a lonely and Turkey-less Thursday this year. So - as so often! - I must live vicariously through my friends and acquaintances.

Get out there and gorge yourselves for me!

And a happy holiday to you all!!

[Yes, it is disturbing to see poor little Woodstock being fed a slice of turkey, isn't it? Surely this must be some Internet spoof, rather than a Schulz original?]

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Favourite posts from the 2nd quarter of 2012

A rundown of highlights from earlier in the year...

Pick of the Archives:
Favourite Posts, April-June 2012

1)  Bon mot for the week  -  2nd April 2012
One of my own, and one of my best.

2)  Inadvertent Truths 12  -  4th April 2012
I seem to find telling little observations about China everywhere.

3)  If only it did mean that  -  6th April 2012
I indulge in some etymological frippery again.

4)  More futility  -  12th April 2012
I am particularly exasperated with this year's English assessments at Xinhua News - which take ineptitude of test design and implementation to new depths. (Still, at least we got a few compensatory laughs out of it.)

5)  Haiku for the week  -  13th April 2012
A poignant observation on my looming departure from Beijing, drawing parallels with a faltering love affair.

6)  Your lupins or your life!  -  14th April 2012
A brief spasm of renewed interest in my Invent a band name thread over on The Barstool eventually produced its 200th comment contribution. The 'winning' suggestion was a Chinese phrase that means 'righteous bandits' - and that prompted me to dig out one of my favourite Monty Python skits to post, the ballad of the well-intentioned but inept highwayman Dennis Moore.

7)  Illegal Alien  -  19th April 2012
An extended piece on the difficulties of obtaining Chinese visas.

8)  More found humour  -  24th April 2012
I have to use a Chinese map for the first time in ages; and it provides me with a good belly laugh.

9)  The genie won't go back in the bottle  -  26th April 2012
Another of my longer and more serious pieces, this time on the impact of Sina Weibo, China's hugely popular micro-blogging service.

10)  Striking a balance  -  27th April 2012
I fret over whether my writing is sometimes too verbose; but at least I've found a wonderful cartoon to illustrate the eternal dilemma between comprehensiveness and conciseness.

11)  Another Film Quotations Quiz  -  28th April 2012
Another little end-of-the-month trivia challenge for my readers; rather easier this time, I thought.

My work for a leading international relations think tank regularly furnishes topics for me to gripe about: here, Chinese superstition, China's 'soft power' agenda, China's relations with Africa - and stupidity in general.

The recent centenary of the Titanic's sinking led me to read Walter Lord's famous account of the disaster, A Night To Remember... and then to start obsessing about all the points that he didn't really cover. This post grew into a monster, with several updates and emendations, and further discussion in the comments.

14)  My Fantasy Girlfriend: Liz Phair  -  12th May 2012
The raunchy rock chick is particularly closely associated in my mind with China, since a taped copy of her fabulous debut album Exile In Guyville accompanied me on my first visit here in the 1990s. Here, I post a couple of the best songs from that album.

15)  Haiku for the week  -  18th May 2012
Contemplating my imminent departure, I remember a useful Italian proverb, and comment on why I - and so many other people - are giving up on China.

16)  When is a gunboat not a gunboat?  -  18th May 2012
A particularly lunatic pronouncement on the Scarborough Shoal standoff by a Chinese "international security expert" prompts me to recall a favourite cartoon from Punch in the 1970s. At least I'm trying to retain my sense of humour!

17)  I feel FREE!  -  19th May 2012
Delirious with relief at the prospect of my escape from China, I celebrate with Cream's finest moment - and Pete & Dud's finest moment.

18)  Yang Rui takes a crazy pill  -  21st May 2012
Just as I'm leaving, an odious Chinese TV 'personality' ramps up the xenophobia levels here with an obscenely hateful microblog outburst. I lobby (vainly, alas) for his dismissal.

19)  "Possible", but difficult  -  22nd May 2012
The story of one's life in China for a foreigner! I try applying for a credit card - just for the thrill of rejection.

20)  Haiku for the week  -  25th May 2012
I have a Hello, Darkness, my old friend moment upon arrival back in England.

21)  I thought you were dead!  -  25th May 2012
Why - and HOW - is Carl Jung paying me money??

22)  Six Sigma in the toilet  -  31st May 2012
Even now I'm escaped from China, crazy stories from there keep following me around. (Another one here!)

23)  Hong Kong still remembers  -  6th June 2012
This year's post on the anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen protests.

24)  The weekly haiku  -  8th June 2012
I find myself overwhelmed by my reacquaintance with the colour green. (I soon wrote about further reasons why I found myself enchanted to be back in England.)

25)  Farewell, dear friend  -  8th June 2012
A brief obituary for my blog friend Tony Brooks, recently deceased.

26)  Haiku for the week  -  15th June 2012
An unusually soul-baring little post: my excitement about the upcoming European Football Championship (in which I felt England had a chance - ah, foolish optimism!) is undercut by some morbid reflections on the dangers of nostalgia.

27)  Looking at things differently  -  18th June 2012
After years of vain searching, I finally unearth one of my favourite cartoons to share with you.

28)  Vilnius calling  -  21st June 2012
Lithuania seems to be one of the likeliest locations for my next spell of expattery. The vibrancy of the local music scene is amongst its many attractions.

29)  The Fantasy Girlfriend 'Football Team'  -  23rd June 2012
In keeping with the football theme of the moment, I come up with a squad of 12 of the lovely young actresses who captivated my heart during my childhood in the 1970s.

30)  Haiku for the week  -  29th June 2012
A hymn of praise to ceiling fans.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Hitler vs. The Daily Llama

A couple of weeks ago, I stumbled upon Youtube user TheSilverUniverse, who has created a number of amusing short videos by splicing together bits of Downfall (what a genre that has become!!), including an improbable Raiders of the Lost Ark-style series called Hitler's Llama Priest. Here's Episode 1.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Bon mot for the week

"A gardener does not 'grow' flowers; he tries to give them what he thinks they need and they grow by themselves."

John Holt (1923-1985)

We've heard from Mr Holt in this series before (here and here), and we might again. He was a pioneering educator whose writing became a major influence on me in my childhood and in my early teaching career. Here, of course, he was thinking of gardening as a metaphor for teaching.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

My Fantasy Girlfriend - Nina Simone

I've commented a number of times before on my propensity to fall in love with a woman's voice, especially a fine singing voice. And since this might be the last entry in my 'Fantasy Girlfriends' series (or the last but one), I thought it was about time I honoured the singer whom I have admired more than any other.

Nina Simone was hardly classically beautiful, not the obvious head-turner that so many of my more superficial choices in this series have been. But damn, she had character - a ferocious intelligence, a devilish sense of humour, an utter intolerance of bullshit, courage, determination, and an impassioned commitment to the American civil rights cause and more generally to the ideals of equality and social justice for all. It's the personality that enraptures me rather than her looks. And the talent, of course. As well as that astonishingly rich and passionate voice, she was a classically trained pianist, and tried to fuse classical elements like the formal intricacy of her beloved Bach with her jazz playing.

I don't think I've ever heard a Nina Simone performance - any performance of any song - that didn't leave me slack-jawed and weak-kneed with admiration and delight. Now that there's such a profusion of her work becoming available online, I can lose myself on Youtube for days at a time.

Here are a just a few favourites....

First of all, a glimpse of her political side in the brief interview accompanying these performances of Revolution and Strange Fruit.

Second, a rare early performance of one of the most famous of her own compositions, Mississippi Goddamn - another scathing comment on the civil rights struggle.

And finally, something rather more upbeat - the Anthony Newley/Leslie Bricusse song Feeling Good.

Of course, I've posted about Nina on here once before, with a clip of her coruscating performance of I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free from the 1976 Montreux Jazz Festival.

And I'm going to post one of her love songs, He Needs Me, over on The Barstool today as well.

Friday, November 16, 2012

What's in a name?

I am planning to be down in the pleasant coastal city of Xiamen (known to some as Amoy) at New Year, and have been shopping around on Ctrip for a suitable hotel to stay in.

I am tempted by the Smart Hero Club - who wouldn't be?

The Losing Hotel, on the other hand, projects a rather pessimistic aura. In this period of economic slowdown, I feel more in need of the flamboyant positivity exuded by the Megaboom Business Hotel.

Decisions, decisions.

Haiku for the week

Speed, danger, and noise;
Smells of oil, rubber, metal.
Modern gladiators.

I happen to be down in Hong Kong for the week of the Macau GP. One of my unexpected vices is that I am a bit of a petrolhead, have been a motor racing fan since childhood. The Macau event is one of the most famous in the world, held on a twisty street circuit similar to Monaco. I've been wanting to go for years - and, finally, I am realising my dream.

I'll probably be deaf by Monday.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

The TV Listings (13)

A rundown of my video postings during the second quarter of this year (or so - I think in fact I'll go up to the end of July). Lots of good stuff this year.

The Comedy/Movie Channel

The wisdom of Swiss Toni - a classic example of the tortured sexual metaphors which are the stock-in-trade of the secondhand car dealer and would-be Lothario, one of the great comedy creations of Charlie Higson in BBC2 skit series The Fast Show.

"Your lupins or your life!" - bumbling highwayman Dennis Moore, one of my favourite ever bits of Python.

Rab C. Nesbitt - Gregor Fisher's belligerent Glasgow drunk accosted for a vox pop interview on the street; possibly the character's first ever appearance, in BBC2 skit show Naked Video.

A seasonal drink - flamboyant Russian cocktail maestro Bek Narzi mixes up something special for May Day.

The Leaping Order of St Beryl - comedy genius from Peter Cook and Dudley Moore: trampolining nuns! (Posted together with Cream's I Feel Free - see below, under Music.)

Bright College Days - one of my favourite Lehrer songs. (Also below, under Music.)

One Thing On Your Mind - a Country & Western pastiche by Neil Innes, from his marvellous 1970s BBC2 show The Innes Book of Records. (Also below, under Music.)

An artist in the Arctic - an appeal for funding assistance from my e-penpal Cedra Wood.

Saturday afternoon is football - this is the finest hour of Ron Manager, a parody of the bumbling TV sports pundit created by The Fast Show's Paul Whitehouse: a poignant evocation of the special place that football holds in the hearts of most Englishmen who grew up in the 1970s. (Teamed with the Match of the Day theme music. Also below, under Music and Sports.)

Floyd On Food - the bibulous gastronome, latest of my 'Unsuitable Role Models', was my favourite TV chef. My brief appreciation of the man includes a couple of clips of him in action, cooking up a beef casserole and mixing a fruity cocktail. (See also below, under Music, for his show's theme song, The Stranglers' Waltzinblack.)

The Music Channel

Big Rock Candy Mountains - a 1930s hobo song by Harry "Haywire Mac" McClintock.

I Like You So Much Better When You're Naked - a marvellous lust song by Norwegian bombshell Ida Maria.

A cheesy 'Top Five' - the songs I find myself most missing from the playlist of my bar owner friend JK, returned to his home in Oz: Kokomo by The Beach Boys, America Sucks! by GrimSkunk (OK, not cheesy, this one; just a fun bit of Yank-bashing from the Canadian punksters), One Night In Bangkok by Murray Head, Escape (The Pina Colada Song) by Rupert Holmes, and Frontier Psychiatrist by The Avalanches.

Never Said and Divorce Song - two great tracks from Exile In Guyville, the superb debut album by Liz Phair, my 'Fantasy Girlfriend' for May.

Song of the Mariachi - for Cinco de Mayo, I post Antonio Banderas and Los Lobos singing the theme to Robert Rodriguez's Desperado.

Teo Torriatte - Queen's anthemic love song, with a chorus in Japanese!

I Feel Free - Cream's song seems irresistibly appropriate for celebrating my imminent ESCAPE from China. (Also: a marvellous skit by Peter Cook and Dudley Moore - see above, under Comedy.)

The Parting Glass - the poignant Scots/Irish farewell song, in a beautiful a cappella version by Canadian girl band The Wailing Jennys.

Bright College Days - Tom Lehrer's celebration of university life seems appropriate, as I am returning to Oxford to hook up with some old friends. Audio only, alas. (Also above, under Comedy.)

One Thing On Your Mind - a Country & Western pastiche by Neil Innes, from his marvellous 1970s BBC2 show The Innes Book of Records. (Also above, under Comedy.)

Top Five 'Hoopy' Basslines - a selection where the bass playing is a bit more complex and virtuosic: Led Zep's Bring It On Home, The Who's My Generation, Aerosmith's Sweet Emotion, PIL's Public Image, Joni Mitchell's Coyote (with the great Jaco Pastorius on bass), and in the top spot, Paul Simon's You Can Call Me Al (Bakithi Khumalo on bass).

'Vilnius Temperature' - two of the best instalments from young film-maker Saunias Baradinskas' fascinating series on the music scene in the Lithuanian capital: Purple Haze/Shut De Door by Garbonitas Bosistas, and Energy by Saulės Kliošas (whose lead singer, Justė Starinskaitė, is utterly gorgeous).

Last call - two great songs about the closing of the bar (and the romantic opportunities sometimes coinciding with that!): Semisonic's Closing Time and Tom Waits's I Hope That I Don't Fall In Love With You.

Match of the Day - the theme music from the BBC's much-loved Saturday night football highlights show. (Teamed with a beautiful monologue by Ron Manager. Also above, under Comedy, and below, under Sport.)

Time Is Tight - a superb live performance of one of their signature instrumentals by Booker T. and The M.G.s (headline band Creedence Clearwater Revival can be glimpsed watching from the side of the stage, open-mouthed in admiration).

Hail to the Duck! - a tribute to Donald 'Duck' Dunn, bass player with Booker T. and The M.G.s, who had recently died at the age of 70: five of his greatest basslines - Raise Your Hand (Eddie Floyd), Gimme Some Lovin' (Sam & Dave), Can't Turn You Loose (Otis Redding), Soul Limbo (Booker T. and The M.G.s), and Soul Man (Sam & Dave again).

Mad Dogs And Englishmen - I always think of this Noel Coward classic when I go out running in the midday sun.

Little Fly - an example of the remarkable singing and bass playing of rising jazz star Esperanza Spalding, my 'Fantasy Girlfriend' of the month.

Drinking Song - a traditional Mongolian party song that has become a regular highlight of the show for Beijing-based folk-rockers Hanggai. Two live versions here, one of them accompanied by Basque band La Pegatina when they visited Beijing in 2011.

Waltzinblack - The Stranglers' demented instrumental was the theme tune for the late, great Keith Floyd's wonderful TV cookery shows. (See also above, under Comedy/Movies.)

The Sports Channel

England's finest moments - to try to invoke some good fortune for the national side in the upcoming 2012 European Championships I dug up two glorious highlights from our oh-so-near run in the 1996 tournament: Paul Gascoigne's stunning goal against Scotland, and our 4-1 demolition of the Dutch.

The old and the new - more nostalgia/optimism about English football: juxtaposed highlights of Paul Gascoigne and Danny Welbeck.

Match of the Day - the very first use of the iconic theme tune for the BBC1 Saturday evening football show that was a centrepiece of my 1970s childhood. (Also above, under Music.)