Monday, July 30, 2012

Friday, July 27, 2012

More questions than answers

For the past two weeks, I have been almost exclusively obsessed with the problem of trying to get a visa to enable me to return to China. (Not that I particularly want to go back, not long-term; not at all, really; but I have unfinished business I need to take care of there.) And it is a vale of tears.

Demand for Chinese visas has increased so enormously in recent years that an outsourced visa agency has been set up to deal with applications in London. This actually appears to be reasonably efficient, and provides a much more pleasant user-experience than applying through the Consulate (although I believe you can still do that). Their website is certainly far more detailed and coherent than the Chinese Embassy's. But, alas, the content is still provided by the Embassy - and thus isn't all that enlightening. If some of the items on the application form seem incomplete or ambiguous or the purpose of them is not clear, you can click on a little ? 'help' symbol - which produces a pop-up bubble that repeats the original text word-for-word. So, not really any 'help', then.

The online 'help' service isn't all that much better. Although it is much better than I had feared (I refrained from trying it for some time, because I had assumed it would not provide an answer at all or that any answers it did give would be completely hopeless). My first attempt to raise a query via that channel produced no response. The second produced only an unhelpful repetition of the text that I had queried (and completely ignored the other 3 or 4 succinct, numbered questions I had asked). A third attempt, however, did produce a fairly prompt and helpful response on the two most important points (but again ignored the other three). I had to try the service again this week, and I once more received an appropriate response - although it was more than 24 hours in coming.

A modest amount of kudos for the e-mail helpline, then: it's not brilliant, but it's not utterly useless. The telephone help service, though, is completely overwhelmed: I have three times sat in a call queue for 15 or 20 minutes without getting through to anyone. The appointment booking facility (the only real advantage over applying at the Consulate, which might be more stressful but would avoid the additional agency fee) also seems to be over-stressed: despite having pre-booked a slot to deliver my application within a 30-minute window, I had to wait nearly 50 minutes to be seen. And now that I'm having to make a second appointment with them (because my first attempt to get a visa quickly foundered), I find that they've supposedly got no slots open until the middle of next week. [Are there a lot of Olympic tourists in London who've decided it might be fun to go to China next? Or is it just that half of the agency's staff are taking their holidays?]

Since they seem to allocate a certain amount of time for walk-in applications, I wonder if that might not be quicker than showing up with an appointment. I may flip a coin on that. I have provisionally booked an appointment for next week, but I'm still not sure I'll have all the paperwork in hand by then.

I had been planning to come back on a tourist visa, you see. Because everyone loves tourists, right? It can't be very hard to get a tourist visa, can it? Ahem - this is China. They want you to prove you are a bona fide tourist by showing them your hotel reservations and your return airfare. A problem if you're not planning to return by air (yachtsmen, hikers, and passengers on the Trans-Siberian railway - you're screwed). A problem if you're intending to stay with friends or couchsurf, or if, like me, you already rent your own apartment there. A problem, in fact, for anyone who may prefer not to blow a heap of money on travel and accommodation until their visa application has actually been approved.

Luckily, there is an alternative. Instead of providing documented proof of your intended itinerary, you can just get an 'invitation letter' from an organization or an individual based in China. And in the past, this has been only a very token requirement most of the time: an unsigned e-mail was usually accepted as sufficient, anyone - Chinese or foreign - could invite, and no-one ever checked up on any of the details. Easy-peasy: it was just another piece of paper they wanted for the files. You could fake something for yourself if you wanted to. But at the moment, I'm told, they are insisting that only a Chinese citizen can provide such an invitation.

Well, no problem. My landlord is a friendly and obliging fellow (and I thought it a good idea to demonstrate that I  have accommodation lined up, even though this is not a specified requirement under the 'invitation letter' option), and was quite happy for me to use him as my inviter.

Unfortunately... just last week, just days before I went in to submit my application, it seems they tightened up the guidelines on tourist 'invitation letters' to require that they should now be in the form of a proper letter with a handwritten signature, rather than just an e-mail. They didn't update the website to let anyone know. I had been concerned about this detail, so it was one of the things I'd tried to query by e-mail; it was one of the points they'd failed to respond on. But I had been encouraged by someone who told me he'd applied successfully with just an e-mail 'invitation letter' only a week earlier. If I'd known I needed an actual letter (luckily, they are - supposedly [I'm terrified they might change the policy on this as well in the next few days!] - accepting faxed or scanned copies rather than originals [in line with the requirements for 'invitations' for a business visa]), I could have obtained one. But it would probably hold the process up by at least a few more days, since my landlord - like most Chinese folks I know - only seems to check his e-mail a couple of times a week. Still, I thought it was going to be OK to apply with an e-mail 'invitation letter'; and I was rudely disabused of this when I attempted to submit my application last week. (I half-suspect the girl who dealt with me might have been bullshitting me about this, since I've heard conflicting accounts about the current state of the requirements from other people. But she did make a remarkably convincing case: if it was a lie, she delivered it in an extremely elaborate and plausible fashion. And I should at least be grateful that she warned me of this problem in advance, rather than receiving my application from me only for it then to be rejected. I think I'd probably have to pay at least some of the fees for a failed application, and would face an even harder task when applying again.)

It also seems that a tourist visa isn't really worth having anyway. Tourist visas are advertised as being available for six-month periods (with multiple entries allowed), and, in exceptional cases, occasionally even for 12 months. This, I'm now told, is not true. Well, such visas are available, but only for those with Chinese spouses (or, if you get lucky with your visa assessment officer, sometimes if you have a Chinese fiancée). Yep, even if you marry a Chinese person, you still get no rights to reside or work in China; you just become a permanent tourist (which means you need to leave the country to renew your visa, and you need an 'invitation letter' from your spouse every time as well). For actual tourists, you can only get a visa for a maximum of three months. And currently, you can only get one with two re-entries; and those are forced re-entries - you have to leave the country at least once every 30 days to prove you are a tourist! So, in effect, you can only get a 30-day visa. Moreover, I've just heard an alarming rumour that in some countries Chinese embassies have begun to demand original copies of 'invitation letters' and/or proof of the inviter's ID (i.e., a photocopy of their Chinese ID card). I think this is probably just in a few countries that are considered especially dodgy (Russia, Eastern Europe?), but it's a worrying sign of how the regulations might evolve elsewhere. It's more trouble than it's worth. I'm going to try the business visa option instead.

The trouble with that is that business visas are always the ones that get clamped down on hardest when the government is getting antsy about the numbers of foreign guests in the country. They've been just about impossible to obtain in the mainland - or even via Hong Kong - for most of this year. So, I'm not all that sanguine about whether an application for a business visa is going to be accepted in the current climate. (Of course, the visa agency website says they are still available, but that doesn't mean anything.)

Also, I've suffered some galling delays in obtaining the necessary 'invitation letter'. I sent out a raft of begging e-mails last weekend - after my tourist visa fiasco - and (rather to my surprise and delight) got two positive responses. Unfortunately, one of my potential inviters apparently has their company stamp "in for servicing" or somesuch (being revalidated by the relevant government department?) this week, and so is unable to send me an 'invitation letter' until the weekend. My second option appeared to be in a position to e-mail me one straight away, but... it took them another two days to get around to it, and then they omitted a few pieces of crucial information, so...

Two weeks or so on from beginning this process with my first online researches, one week on from my first rebuff, five days on from my first soliciting of 'invitation letters', and five days before I'm due to try my luck again at the visa agency.... everything is still up in the air.



And while I'm waiting for all this stuff to fall into place... the rest of my holiday is indefinitely on hold: I have to skulk close to my computer all day long, I have to hover within striking distance of London. Hoped-for visits to friends in Bristol, Bath, Newcastle, Edinburgh are looking in jeopardy. Oiveh!


Haiku for the week

In childhood we cared:
Sport seemed noble, inspiring.
Now, an empty show.


I got quite excited about the Olympics as a kid, and watched avidly in '72 and '76. But the enthusiasm was already waning by the time I got into my teens, and the competition in '80 and '84 was compromised by boycotts (I approved of the Americans' stand over the Russian invasion of Afghanistan and was disappointed that Britain hadn't followed suit). I haven't given it much of a thought since then. I made the effort to take more of an interest when the Games were being held in Beijing four years ago, but the atmosphere then was rather subdued by an oppressive government and an almost complete absence of overseas visitors.

And, as I observed after the last Olympics, the event has now become ridiculously bloated, overhyped, over-commercialized, raddled with nationalism - completely divorced from the original ethos of the Games. It's supposed to be about the individual pursuit of excellence; I'm not even too keen on the relay events in running, and certainly wouldn't include any team games. I'd strip the event down to the a few core sports, closer to the original ancient Greek template: basically just the athletics, and maybe swimming; no team games, no adversarial games, nothing that requires apparatus (other than the long-established throwing sports), and nothing that requires subjective scoring (diving and gymnastics, though they are fascinating to watch, are not proper competitive sports). There might be a case for some of the combat sports (the Greeks had boxing and wrestling), though I would resist them on moral grounds (trying to hurt someone shouldn't really be a sport or a form of entertainment). There might be a case for cycling (not a very complex piece of apparatus; and I can imagine the Greeks very easily might have invented it in a slightly different universe); but it is a very boring event. No, athletics and swimming would be it for me. All over in a week. If only...

The Olympics have become a colossal bore. And, if you happen to be caught in the host country, the host city, a massive inconvenience.


Wednesday, July 25, 2012

It's my party - or is it?

I've always been morbidly fascinated with mental derangement and distortions of consciousness, and particularly with amnesia and other disruptions of accurate memory. However, being far too nervous a soul ever to have experimented with hard drugs (I did drop acid in San Francisco once, but that's another story), my exploration of this strange territory has been purely imaginative - well, apart from the occasional morning-after memory wipe induced by excess of alcohol.

So, it is particularly difficult for me to trace the origin of the uncommonly vivid dream I had a few days ago. The emotional wellsprings are obvious enough - anxiety (the [probably futile] quest for a new Chinese visa is doing my head in at the moment), wistfulness/wish-fulfilment (ah, material comfort: yes, that would be nice!), disorientation (where the hell am I really? what is going on here?), a desire for escape/oblivion - but the specifics of it confound me rather.


I was throwing a large party in my apartment. This appeared to be an apartment, and indeed a neighbourhood (maybe even a city), I was not particularly familiar with, had perhaps only just arrived in. (There was a vague sense at times that this event was supposed to be set during the time I was a legal intern in Toronto, but this did not seem a significant factor, and the dream bore no relation at all to my actual experience there.)

I was in a very disordered mental state: perhaps anxious, perhaps jet-lagged, perhaps a bit feverish; perhaps just extravagantly drunk (there was a point early on where someone made me an enormous pina colada, which I drank very swiftly); but I had a feeling that I was inexplicably losing control, was possibly under the influence of some drug or other - I wondered if someone might have spiked one of my drinks, slipped me a 'Mickey Finn'.

And in this state of relaxed befuddlement, it didn't at first bother me too much that the party just kept getting bigger - not only in terms of the number of people attending, but in the space we were using. I was pretty sure that it had started off in my apartment, but it had somehow migrated into neighbours' apartments, until we had seemingly taken over an entire floor of the building. I started wandering from room to room, seemingly without end; and the rooms themselves kept getting bigger, until I found people serving cocktails in huge halls.

Eventually, I started getting worried by this, realised that I could no longer be in my apartment, or even in my apartment building. What was going on? Oh my - it appeared we had crashed the City Museum and were having the party there.


Now, what does all of that mean, Mr Freud?

Monday, July 23, 2012

Dying by inches

Back when I was in college (way, way back), my friend Andrew had a BBC Micro, one of the earliest desktop computers. It was lodged for long periods in my room, because I happened to have a small colour TV to which it could be linked, and this provided a rather better experience for game playing than its cumbersome monochrome monitor. Hence, I became something of a social nexus, as Andrew and some of our other friends would spend hours hanging out round at my place to play games (or waiting for their turn). 

Despite my disdain for such a non-intellectual activity, I confess I did succumb somewhat to the insidious appeal of these games myself: I was for a while quite badly addicted to Defender... trying to set myself ridiculous, arbitrary targets of 'perfection' - like playing without ever resorting to the 'smart bomb', or trying to rescue all the kidnapped humans (or all but the last one) before returning them to the lunar surface in one go, or seeing how many 'baiters' (the super-fast, super-thin, super-belligerent flying saucers that would start materializing nearby if you took too long to complete a level) one could collect on one's tail before rounding on them to try to blast them all with one frenzied burst of laser fire.
The white spaceship here is about to die, because the baiter is directly above, and about to rain down fire on it

That, however, was only a brief period of weakness; I shook myself  of it after a few months - either because I'd hit a ceiling I couldn't get beyond (a little above 200,000 points, I believe), or because the pain in my right index 'trigger' finger was becoming too worrying; probably a combination of the two. Such adaptations of the plodding, two-dimensional arcade favourites of a couple of years earlier really weren't all that compelling. Defender was the only one that got under my skin; Galaxians diverted me only for a short while, and Pac-Man, Frogger, and Space Invaders(!) didn't entice me at all.

But then... along came a new, very different kind of game, a game called Elite that would soon be universally hailed as a landmark achievement in the world of videogaming. It was an open-ended sci-fi adventure game which combined 3-D space combat with an element of interplanetary trading: you could turn a profit by transporting a range of products between different worlds, and use the cash to upgrade your spaceships and weapons systems. The graphics were necessarily extremely limited, but there was an impressively detailed story scenario around the game, and a vast - seemingly almost infinite - universe to explore: hundreds upon hundreds of galaxies and planets that you could visit to do some buying and selling (although I think the fabled planet of Raxxla, ostensibly the ultimate goal of your explorations, was only a red herring; after a while, you'd just hop from galaxy to galaxy, searching each one's map for Raxxla, and moving straight on to somewhere else if it didn't appear - but, of course, it may not have been on the maps). Andrew and I - sharing a house that year - got deeply sucked into this one: we may well have spent some hundreds of hours playing it, doubtless at some detriment to our studies.


The thing that finally broke my bondage to this game was - oh horrors! - the unwinnable dogfight

Your ship could zap instantly across and between galaxies using some kind of stargate system, but you would emerge into regular space some way away from your destination planet and be obliged to complete the last leg of your journey at a laboriously slow pace. Sometimes, your destination would loom large on your screen as soon as you popped out of hyperspace, but at others, it would be a tiny speck on the horizon and you might have to slog across the intervening void for 10 minutes or so. If you were carrying a cargo of any value, you might be attacked by pirate ships (or, if you were smuggling contraband, you might be attacked by police ships - who were sometimes even more vicious and relentless opponents). And while involved in a space battle with other ships, the planet you were aiming for never got any closer (often, indeed, it got further away, might even disappear from view completely, if you had inadvertently started flying in the wrong direction in the midst of the melee; but even if you continued to fly directly towards the planet, it would never get any closer while combat was in progress). Such attacks, then, could become irritating, downright tedious. Once you'd got your flying skills up to snuff, they were rarely that much of a challenge, but... they could SLOW DOWN your progress towards the goal of docking and trading quite insufferably.

Eventually, I reached a situation in the game where I always emerged from hyperspace with my planet dispiritingly far away. And I always got jumped by pirates almost immediately. Worse, these were particularly canny, skillful, formidable... invincible pirates! They would attack one at a time. They would attack from long distance, approaching at speed and opening fire immediately they came within range, firing with deadly accuracy. You had to spot them the instant they appeared on your radar and take them out with your first shot; and even then, they might inflict some damage on you with their first flurry of fire. It was enormously stressful, working with such unforgiving - non-existent - margins for error. But each time I tried to get past this challenge, I got better and better. Pretty soon I was able to lock on to these incoming attackers at extreme range and to take them out with my very first shot.

But that wasn't good enough. Because another pirate ship would always appear within a few seconds. And another. And another. There seemed to be no end of them. On one occasion, I dispatched well over 200 of them, and yet more of them were coming. That must have taken me a good two or three hours, and there was still no end of the ordeal in sight.

And during this continuous, protracted dogfight, the dratted planet never got any closer! I tried ignoring the attackers, declining to engage them in combat, and just flying directly towards the planet at full speed. No good: the planet did get slightly closer, but my attackers would shoot me to pieces within seconds (if you didn't kill the first one quickly, you soon got a second and a third on your tail, and then you had no chance). I tried maintaining my course towards the planet during combat (a fully pimped-up ship boasted laser cannons top and bottom, left and right, front and rear - so you could roll or tilt yourself to an appropriate shooting angle without changing your forward direction too much). No good: it was apparently a glitch of the programming that no forward progress through space could be registered during a phase of combat.

It was, it seemed, an unwinnable situation: you might suffer through this for hours, or days, and never see off all of your enemies, never be able to make it safely to your destination. The only options appeared to be: give up on this planet and/or this trading mission (I imagine I had something particularly valuable in the cargo hold, though I can't now remember what) and try going somewhere else; or activate the Escape Pod (which saved your life, but wiped out all your progress in the game, all the fancy enhancements you'd laboured so long to purchase for your spaceship). Clearly these would have been admissions of failure, and were quite unacceptable. Instead, I abandoned the game altogether - vexed that it had thrown such a maddeningly impossible challenge at me.



The truly terrible thing about this situation in Elite was how long it took you to die. You could hold on for hours, just losing a little bit of shield strength/hull integrity/energy reserves in every few waves of attacks, your ship's handling gradually becoming more and more sluggish, the declining meters and blinking warning lights on your dashboard display reminding you of your slow decline toward the inevitable. I sometimes felt that, if I'd kept sharp and determined, I could have held on for 10 or 12 hours, for 24 hours, almost indefinitely; perhaps if I'd just driven myself that bit harder, I might have discovered that there was in fact a finite number of pirate ships to defeat and that this planet was reachable after all. The final defeat tended to feel rather like a suicide: you had accepted that you were beaten, you had to give up trying to fight any more. Putting yourself through such stress for two hours or more was acutely draining, both physically and emotionally. But it was the inescapable hopelessness of the situation, the slow and relentless erosion of the will to fight that was so utterly devastating. If it did not reduce me to tears, it must have come pretty damn close; and I recognise that I am still perhaps a little traumatised by this 25 or more years later.



Which extended reflections were prompted by my experience last Thursday. I was trying to check requirements for my new Chinese visa application online, to fill out said application online, and to complete a raft of related e-mailing, including the forwarding of a draft of the 'invitation letter' I needed from a Chinese friend to support the application (I wrote it myself to make sure it included all the required information, but needed to get his approval and signature). 

For this rather important and urgent and stressful work I was using my new mini-laptop, recently purchased in America. I had thought that I had brought a US-UK socket adaptor with me on my travels, but discovered I only had a UK-US one. There used to be umpteen shops around Victoria station (where I happened to be staying) that sold such useful traveller's accessories, but these days there seem to be NONE (well, I did eventually find one, but it had closed early, just to spite me). New computer batteries are feeble things; it takes a while for them to build up their capacity (allegedly; this sounds like bullshit to me - but my new battery was advertised as being good for 6 hours, and was starting to fade badly in less than half that time). My host has no wi-fi connection of his own, but piggybacks off that of the pub downstairs; I suppose one can't really complain about a FREE (and pirated!) service, but it was a very weak beacon, prone to crashing altogether at frequent intervals, and, of course, becoming even less stable as my own computer power faded.

That little batch of important and urgent work - which should, really, have taken me no more than 10 or 15 minutes - took me something over 3 hours. During the last hour of that, the Internet connection was failing every minute or two. Then my computer starting shutting down for lack of power. I managed to fire it up again after a short rest, but again and again it expired in the middle of my attempting to send my final e-mail (the one including the crucial 'invitation letter'). On the last occasion, I'd decided to copy the text of my letter into the body of the e-mail rather than attempting to attach it (an ever-so-slightly but very dangerously longer process). I had completed my explanatory e-mail to my Chinese friend, I had 'copied' the text of the letter from Word; I just had to hit 'paste' and then 'Send'... and the computer died on me, for the fourth and final time. The whole of my Thursday afternoon had been devoted to trying to overcome this unholy alliance of vexations, and they had finally got the better of me.

And it felt exactly like that last time playing Elite.


Bon mot for the week

"Only entropy comes easy."


Anton Chekhov (1860-1904)


Really - Anton said that? I couldn't find out where. At least one quotations site says it was Lewis Mumford (1895-1990). I could imagine it being Ensign Chekhov, but...

Saturday, July 21, 2012

My Fantasy Girlfriend - Esperanza Spalding

Ah, America - land of inspiration! Last time I was staying here, I serendipitously discovered the imperiously elegant beauty of jazz singer Angela Hagenbach, via an exhibition of photographic portraits that was showing at the nearby Museum of Black History in Alexandria, VA. This time, I happened to be vegging out with a cookery programme on PBS when a solicitation for donations to the network came on, presented by the exquisitely lovely and ridiculously talented Ms Spalding. How had I not been aware of her for the past several years? Oh yes, I'd been living in China for a decade - silly me! Even with the Internet, it's not easy to keep your finger on the pulse of global culture there.

Ms Spalding, I gather, was a classically trained multi-instrumentalist during her childhood, but has come to specialise in playing jazz bass. Like this....



Friday, July 20, 2012

Stemming the tide

Four months or so ago I found myself obliged to de-activate the word verification 'safety feature' on the Blogger comments form because it had been getting so absurdly glitchy that it was effectively preventing all commenting.

Unfortunately, the spambots seem to be getting smarter, particularly over the last few weeks (I began to wonder if the sudden inundation I was suffering wasn't somehow related to my location: how could my being in America render the blog more vulnerable to these pests??). I have often been getting 10 or 20 spam posts a day lately, and around 50 in one 24-hour period on one occasion. It was becoming mighty tedious to wade through my 'Blog Comments' folder deleting them all manually. It was also, I realised, potentially a bit of a bummer for any avid followers of the blog(s) who might have subscribed to a comment feed, and would thus be receiving all this dross too.

So, the other day I re-engaged the word verification gizmo.

I hope it's behaving itself now, and is allowing reasonably easy access to genuine commenters. Please let me know if you are experiencing any problems with this (most of my regular readers have my e-mail address).

(Not that I have many readers any more, much less commenters. The 'blog thing' is so last decade, I am told by people who are more hip than me to evolving cyber-trends. Alas, alas.)


Haiku for the week

Rules they won't tell you,
Questions that have no answers:
Kafka seeks a visa.


I always knew getting back into China was going to be tough. The knowledge has been of little avail in strengthening me to face the ordeal. 


This is a case where forewarned appears to be only pre-depressed.


Wednesday, July 18, 2012

The TV Listings (12)

To keep you all entertained while I'm busy travelling, here's a catalogue of my video postings from the first quarter of this year.



The Comedy/Movie Channel

The warmest place to hide  -  My first posting of the year was the viral sensation of young British animator Lee Hardcastle's rendering of John Carpenter's The Thing with Pingu characters. Of course, it got pulled for copyright infringement within  a week. I wonder if it's still available anywhere? I had thought it would have survived on Chinese video-sharing site Youku, but I can't find it on there at the moment. Such a pity - it was a work of genius. [I later found a re-posting on Youtube.]

The burning schoolhouse  -  A Canadian pyrotechnics company comes up with a really bad taste concept for a super-firework.

A rousing opening  -  The title sequence from the second Indiana Jones film, in which Kate Capshaw plays a glamorous chanteuse in a 1930s Shanghai nightclub, and sings in something approximating to Chinese.

Down in one!  -  Former Aussie Prime Minister Bob Hawke demonstrates that he still knows how to chug a beer, even at the age of 82. (See also below, under Music, for a version of the great Aussie theme song, Down Under.)

"That's exactly how I felt!"  -  Lucifer gives his side of The Fall: one of my favourite scenes from the wonderful Peter Cook/Dudley Moore film Bedazzled.

Romance, the Japanese way  -  In anticipation of the dreaded Valentine's Day, I share an hilarious instructional video from The Japanese Tradition series.


The Music Channel

The inaugural episode of a new series, with - ahem - six very diverse songs, all distinguished by their memorable bass.

Folsom Prison Blues - A friend invites me out for a drink on 13th January, and points out it is the anniversary of Johnny Cash's famous appearance at Folsom Prison: an ideal excuse to post The Man In Black's signature song (in a performance from his San Quentin concert, a year after the Folsom shows).

Me and Bobby McGee  -  January 19th was the 40th anniversary of the death of Janis Joplin; I had to commemorate this with a posting of her finest hour.

Anything Goes (in Chinese??)  -  To celebrate the Chinese New Year, I post the opening sequence of Indiana Jones and The Temple of Doom, in which Kate Capshaw belts out the Cole Porter classic in a Shanghai nightclub. Expert opinion is divided as to how good her Chinese is, or indeed as to whether she's actually singing in Chinese at all. For good measure, I added a Lego reconstruction of the scene as well. (Also above, under Comedy/Movies.)

Down Under  -  For Australia Day, I post Colin Hay performing his famous Men At Work hit with The Ringo Starr All-Star Band. (See also above, under Comedy, for a brief clip of Bob Hawke sculling a beer.)

Birdland  -  This instrumental piece by electro-jazz outfit Weather Report is one of the great get-up-and-go songs. In need of a lift to the spirits, I posted the original album version and a tremendous live performance from a 1978 concert in Germany.

Stop That Train  -  To mark Bob Marley's birthday, I post one of my favourite Wailers songs: the original version, and an acoustic performance by its composer Peter Tosh.

Hesitation Blues  -  I missed Jorma Kaukonen playing in Beijing, but here is one of his trademark songs, performed with mandolinist Barry Mitterhoff.

I Wish I Was In New Orleans  -  I am once again sorry to be missing out on the Krewe du Vieux carnival in N'Awlins, but I console myself with one of my favourite Tom Waits songs, in a fabulous live performance from way back in 1977. Some more versions of it here (including Scarlett Johansson's idiosyncratic take on it); and another song with the same title by up-and-coming roots music star Ben Prestage.

My Baby Loves A Bunch Of Authors  -  At the start of this year's Bookworm International Literary Festival, I post this charming little number by Canadian comedy band Moxy Früvous.

The Wild Rover  -  I celebrate St Patrick's Day this year with one of the greatest of all drinking songs (ironically, it was originally written as a temperance song!), in versions by The Dubliners, The Dropkick Murphys, and (something of a rarity, this) The Pogues.

Whiskey In The Jar  -  Double happiness: over on The Barstool, I mark the Irish national day with Thin Lizzy's finest moment - backed up by two other versions by Gary Moore and The Dubliners.

Another Top Five basslines: 'chuggers'  -  the second instalment in my series honouring great bass playing concentrates on songs that just chug.


The Sports Channel

Still no sport?? No. Sorry.



Saturday, July 14, 2012

The heart of a sniper

I've been meaning for a long while to institute a series on the blog here about some of the more memorable story ideas I've come up with - over forty or so years of being a dilettante almost-writer.

As I am somewhat pushed for time at the moment (OK, lazy), I thought I'd start with my sniper story - the background to which I've already recounted on here a few years ago (along with the opening few paragraphs). 

This was originally written as a long short story (one of the very few things I've got around to writing out in full), Watching, which I felt had the scope for expansion into a short novel. Of course, I've never got around to attempting such an expansion, and I think I'm unlikely now ever to do so.

Anyway, my starting point for this was examining the perspective of someone who holds a god-like power of life and death over people: what does a sniper think about, crouched in his nest for hours at a time, waiting for the right moment to shoot, just watching people? 

I was also fascinated with the possibility that in a civil conflict like this there might not always be rigid demarcations between the feuding communities, that people from either side might be able to mingle with their "enemy" and for much of the time conduct relations with them in a more or less normal way. 

So, the narrative idea developed of an odd love story where a sniper becomes infatuated with a young girl he sees through his sights by day. At night, he starts crossing over into her community to try to meet her and develop a relationship with her. Eventually, he is successful in this; but as they become lovers, he is increasingly tormented by guilt about the people - her people - that he has killed, and by the fact that he must try to keep his role in the war a secret from her.

He is particularly tormented by the fact that he's killed the girl's former boyfriend - the only time that he'd killed with some kind of personal animus or moral judgement. Ordinarily, he selected only sick or elderly victims, and soon acquired a reputation for this apparent mercy. However, from his high vantage point, he'd been able to observe many times that this man was a callous womaniser, routinely cheating on the girl the sniper had become smitten with. He wasn't quite sure himself why he'd suddenly decided to shoot, whether there might not have been some element of anger or envy or self-interest behind it; and this not knowing his own motives gnawed at him.

After the war, he had married the girl and they had emigrated to North America, but his guilt about the secret he was harbouring grew worse and worse, and his anxiety was beginning to damage their relationship. Eventually, he felt impelled to confess to her that he was the sniper who'd killed her previous lover. And she had replied simply, coldly, "I know."

And in that moment he knew for the first time what it is like to be watched from a great distance by someone who holds your life in their hands.




Friday, July 13, 2012

Froog mad-dogging it again

Gosh, it was nearly four years ago that I first attempted to post this classic Noel Coward song, to accompany a description of the masochism of trying to run during the hottest part of the day.

Today, having been busy with some e-mailing and such during the morning, I didn't set out from my Del Ray holiday headquarters on my run down to, and along, the Potomac until exactly 12pm. Venturing out at noon, in such a hot country, is asking for trouble!

Luckily, the weather is relatively cool today. But the humidity down by the river hits you like a brick wall, and has almost invariably been halting me in my tracks over the past couple of weeks, sucking all the energy out of me, reducing me almost instantly to a long restorative spell of walking. 

It's probably a little unrealistic of me to be attempting an 8 or 9-mile run when I am around 20lbs overweight. But I feel that, if I slow down enough, I ought to be able to manage it - to keep going at a very modest plod for 80 minutes or so. Alas, it seems not. I seem to have lost the 'forever pace', the speed where I am sufficiently within my capacity for exertion that I can keep going and going and going - indefinitely, if necessary (I have most often tended to use this slower-than-usual pace when exploring new routes, and am uncertain how long it's going to take me to get back to my point of origin).

It is dispiriting to be reminded that I have been "woefully out of shape" and struggling with my running for at least four years now. I am starting to worry not just that I have run my last marathon, but that I may soon have to accept that I can't run any more at all. Boo.

Well, I will try to raise my spirits with this sublime celebration of the Englishman abroad from Mr Coward. (I hope I am not going to be a jinx again: the previous clip I posted was pulled only a couple of months later.)


There are good versions of this also by Colin Baldy and The Muppets, but the original is still the best.

Haiku for the week

Not cool, but cooler;
After heat that weighs like lead,
Refreshing contrast.


I didn't quite understand all the whingeing about the "heatwave" here in America last week. Where I am, the temperature did not, I think, quite make it (not often, anyway) into the scarily advertised 100+ Fahrenheit range. And, apart from last Saturday, there was never very much humidity; so, even scorching sun felt quite tolerable to me. It's the stickiness, not the UV burn, that gets me down. 

The change is a powerful thing, though. Now that it's back to low 80s and high 70s (still HOT for an English summer!), one considers the possible need for a pullover.



Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Favourite posts from the 2nd quarter of 2011

Time for a roundup of my best posts from the middle of last year.



Pick of the Archives:
Favourite Posts, April-June 2011


1)  The vision thing  -  5th April 2011
One of the things I found most striking on a recent visit to Malaysia was the fact that drivers there actually look where they're going - in striking contrast to what we find on the streets of Beijing! (And here's another example of homicidal stupidity by a Beijing driver.)


Forget the Boat Race; now we have a Stoat Race!


3)  Signs of Spring in The Jing  -  9th April 2011
None of them good, unfortunately; the blooms we've long hoped to see are still hiding in their buds.


4)  Inscrutable llamas  -  13th April 2011
In which we learn how to interpret the facial expressions of the woolly animals... because it might come in useful one day.


5)  Time travel is BAD, m'kay?  -   14th April 2011
One of the daftest stories to come out of China since... the last one. State censors attempt to ban TV shows featuring time travel.


6)  It doesn't travel well  -  18th April 2011
Perhaps the ultimate reason for not learning Chinese: nobody speaks it outside of China (and not even everybody in China speaks it).


7)  Does that come with potatoes?  -  19th April 2011
Assorted silliness inspired by my recent crashing of an International Potato Expo in Beijing.


8)  A lesson from history  -  25th April 2011
I happen upon an analysis of everything that went wrong in the latter part of the reign of the Emperor Qianlong; and it all sounds uncannily similar to today.


9)  Limits to growth  -  5th May 2011
Academic economists come up with more highly persuasive evidence that China is on the brink of a slowdown... that could become a meltdown (but maybe not).


10)  Uses of the Jasmine Flower  -  7th May 2011
Some reflections on the possible origins of China's misfired 'Jasmine Revolution'.


11)  The after-scent of a sunny day  -  9th May 2011
One of the - sometimes too rare - incidental pleasures of living in Beijing.


12)  An important lesson  -  15th May 2011
What does a Mexican gravestone have to do with Hilaire Belloc? I can find a connection!


13)  Mr Grindtooth again  -  17th May 2011
Why I don't like working for Chinese education companies and universities... (Amongst the reasons!)


14)  My Fantasy Girlfriend: Phyllida Trant  -  22nd May 2011
The lady barrister played by Patricia Hodge in ITV's Rumpole of the Bailey may have been responsible for one of my signature fetishes. My own failure as a barrister is probably down to my falling in love five times a day whenever I went to court.


15)  A touch of Zen  -  25th May 2011
A rare example of a good Beijing cab driver experience.


16)  Great Movie Songs  -  28th May 2011
A list of favourite songs that somehow didn't make it into the American Film Institute's Top 100.


17)  Reasons to live in Beijing  -  7th June 2011
I'm not convincing myself any more. (Three years earlier, I'd come up with a much more positive list.)


18)  HELL  -  21st June 2011
Just when I thought my working life couldn't get any worse... they sent me to Wangjing, the worst place in Beijing. And my experience got even worse... and worser.


19)  FREE at last!  -  23rd June 2011
A little musical celebration, prompted by my ecstatic relief at having quit one of my most horrific ever jobs.


20)  Film List: Great chat-up lines  -  25th June 2011
An end-of-the-month quiz for you.


21)  The secret to a long life  -  28th June 2011
I'd been having a very stressy month, but my discovery of this wonderfully restful little song - Be Like A Duck - by Sandra Boynton may have saved my life.


22)   A strange dream  -  30th June 2011
I don't remember my dreams very often; but when I do, they are doozies!


Monday, July 09, 2012

Bon mot for the week

"We are all here on earth to help others; what on earth the others are here for I don't know."


W.H. Auden (1907-1973)


Saturday, July 07, 2012

List of the Month - Books I'll re-read

The two chief delights of being on an extended holiday are that I have lots of free time for reading (something that I sometimes neglect for months at a time when I've got a lot of work on) and that I am visiting a succession of friends who are all avid book buyers (as distinct from readers, I fear - buying loads of books that I never get around to reading has often been a vice of mine, too). Hence, I am enjoying lots of opportunities to read new things. And I am delighted to discover that the Book Bank, a most excellent secondhand bookshop in Alexandria, VA., near where I am currently staying, is still going strong when so many other businesses, and nearly all the bookshops, in the area have been failing (the Old Town Movie Theatre, just up the road, another favourite hangout of mine in these parts, has not been so fortunate: it closed down just a few weeks ago); I shall undoubtedly be spending many hours browsing - and buying (hopefully leading to reading) - in there over the next week or two.

However, this sudden splurge of reading has awoken a nostalgia in me for old favourites, and left me rather dissatisfied with the new books I'm trying to read.

There are a handful of books that have so got under my skin, and which are such an intense pleasure to read, that I would happily revisit them again and again. In fact, as a laboriously slow reader, I don't have time to re-read them often, and in some cases have not looked at them in many years now - but I would re-read them if I had the opportunity, will try to ensure that I re-read them at least once or twice more before I die. [Some of these books I have reviewed here or elsewhere online, so I'll provide links where appropriate.]



Books I could read again and again

(Kenneth Grahame, 1908)
A powerful - and possibly corrupting - influence on my young life, one of the very first books I ever read. I liked it particularly because the anthropomorphized animal heroes were not cutesy talking animals but grown-ups, with grown-ups' problems. It was also a seductive vision of bachelorhood, an existence of complete freedom and endless leisure unencumbered by family or work responsibilities. Yes, very corrupting.

Great Expectations
(Charles Dickens, 1861)
For me, this is the greatest of all of Dickens' works (and a reasonably accessible length, compared to some of his other doorstops). I was required to read this as one of my set books for English Literature O-Level (the main set of exams we take at the end of the compulsory period of high school education in England, at around the age of 15 or 16), but, luckily, this obligation did not arouse any weariness or resentment in me. On the contrary, I was very grateful to have been forced to devote such close attention to it, to have been led to savour its richness so thoroughly.

(Ivor Cutler, 1984)
I became a fan of the wonderfully eccentric Scots performance poet Ivor Cutler through a few of his radio appearances I heard as a young boy. This, I think, is his very finest work, a slim volume of short prose poems comprising a distorted, often slightly surreal, but still compellingly poignant evocation of his between-the-wars childhood in a Glasgow slum. It had originally been released some years earlier as a spoken word album, but I've never possessed that. Perhaps the best book for re-reading in this whole selection, because it only takes about 20 minutes to read, and it is a pure joy. 
(There was no Volume 1.)

The Once and Future King
(T.H. White, 1958)
My favourite book of my slightly later childhood (I discovered it at around the age of 12, I would say; whereas I'd known The Wind In The Willows since I was 3 or 4); so clever, so funny.

The Bodley Head Saki
(Saki [H.H. Munro], 1963)
This was the definitive collection of the works of the Edwardian master of the short story form, and I'm peeved that I am no longer in possession of the edition I had cherished as a boy. (It's quite a valued collector's item these days, apart from anything else. I particularly liked the informative introduction by a J.W. Lambert, which included an extract from Munro's only 'serious' work, a History of Russia [now lost? I tried to find it in Oxford's Bodleian Library when I was a student there, and if they don't have a copy, then...], in which his sly wit would keep spilling out despite his best efforts to contain it. There's an unfortunate story behind my loss of this book. My favourite teacher at school was a drinking buddy of the writer and columnist Philip Toynbee, who lived fairly nearby. Toynbee had been asked to review a new edition of Saki's stories, and wanted to refer to the Lambert introduction to the Bodley Head collection, but didn't have a copy of his own. My teacher borrowed mine to lend to him, but we never got it back; the poor man was already quite ill with cancer, and died not very long afterwards.) Munro was an exquisite prose stylist, he wrote even more elegantly than P.G. Wodehouse. And his irreverent, often macabre sense of humour was completely in tune with my own. He is the writer with whom I most identify.

Cat's Cradle
(Kurt Vonnegut Jnr, 1963)
My favourite Vonnegut - perhaps because he doesn't indulge in any of his trademark tricksiness here (time-jumps, omniscient Tralfamadoreans, addressing the reader directly, throwing in random story ideas from alter ego Kilgore Trout). I love the bleakness of it - an unusual apocalypse scenario from which there is ultimately no escape. And I love the invented religion of Bokononism (rather like Taoism in its willingness to embrace the essential meaninglessness of life).

(Flann O'Brien, 1967)
Another of my great literary heroes, O'Brien (real name Brian O'Nolan) was one of the most dauntingly clever men I've ever encountered and perhaps the greatest parodist who ever lived. His writing is often exquisitely beautiful as well as side-splittingly funny, and this, my favourite of his books, is quite remarkable: I sometimes carry it around in a pocket, just to dip into at random for a quick pick-me-up - there is something delightful on almost every page.

Anna Karenina
(Leo Tolstoy, 1877)
I worry that I may never get around to re-reading this, because it is enormously long. I worry sometimes, too, that it might perhaps disappoint on second reading, that it couldn't possibly enrapture me as utterly as it did when I first experienced it, at the age of about 14. I think I should put such fears aside, and schedule the time to enjoy this a second time. It was quite breathtaking. There are so many scenes I remember from it as vividly as if I'd only read it yesterday (though, in fact, I've only read it once, well over 30 years ago; and I've always avoided watching any of the film versions of it). This is the one book I wish I had written myself. 


Friday, July 06, 2012

Haiku for the week

Woodsmoke, burning fat,
Meat juices hiss and sizzle;
Ancient urge sated.


Barbecuing is not big in England; or at least, it wasn't during my 1970s childhood.

But, by happy accident, it became a central part of my annual holidays as a boy.

For most of my childhood, we holidayed in the same place, a secluded farm outside a tiny village in the middle of Exmoor, a wild National Park in the south-west of England. We always went 'camping' - although, after the first few years, usually in a caravan rented from the farmer, rather than a tent. My father's favoured leisure activity was fly-fishing, although it wasn't a great de-stresser for him since he wasn't very good at it. One day, wading in the shallow stream (actually the River Barle) that ran beside the farm, he stubbed his toe painfully on something. Realising that the offending object had been rather more substantial and more sharply edged than the flat stones that covered the river-bed, he vowed - with a single-minded vengefulness of the sort now personified by Homer Simpson - to rediscover and uproot it. We located it fairly easily, and, since the water at this point was less than a foot deep, my brother and I undertook the mission of excavating it, as a sort of sacrificial offering to our grumpy dad. It took a fair bit of digging out, since it proved to be a large flat piece of metal sheet, about a third of an inch thick and about two foot wide and nearly four foot long. It was pretty heavy, and was well buried in the silt and stones of the riverbed, but after an hour or so we wrestled it free and carried it triumphantly back to our parents.

The metal sheet was uncannily flat and smooth, and - after a bit of scrubbing - surprisingly clean and unrusted. It was, in fact, ideal to use as a hotplate above a large open fire.

And so this became our primary means of cooking on every summer holiday. Previously, we had occasionally cooked on an open fire, but, not having a grill to keep food out of the flames, we'd been limited to wrapping potatoes and such in aluminium foil to bake them in the embers, or spearing sausages precariously on the end of sharpened twigs to roast them over the flames. Uneven cooking, excessive blackening, and frequent dropping of things into the fire invariably ensued. It was fun, but it was a rather laborious means of producing not particularly good food. (Yes, I suppose we could have purchased grill forks or purpose-cut wooden barbecue skewers; but we were a thrifty family. We always began our cook-outs by foraging for suitable sticks, and then spending several minutes whittling them to a point with a small penknife.) I don't believe we would have got into the habit of cooking all of our meals on an open fire but for that fortuitous discovery of the big iron plate.

We used to hide it in the underbrush near our campsite when we left - our farewell ritual - and root it out again on our return the following year (sometimes we visited at Easter as well as in the summer, so there might have been around 15 trips in all), apparently unused by anyone else in the interim.

This was how I discovered the atavistic thrill of cooking outdoors, on an open fire (ideally with wood you've collected for yourself; buying mass-produced charcoal briquettes seems such a cheat). It's not something I've often been able to indulge subsequently, either in the UK or in China. In the US, however, every backyard seems to have a barbecue (my current host's has five!). And I have arrived in the prime barbecuing season. Hmm, what's that smell?

Wednesday, July 04, 2012

Happy 4th July!


I'm in America for the 4th July this year - only the third or fourth time I've managed this, despite being a fairly regular visitor to the country for twenty years now.

Since the holiday is falling in the middle of the week, the celebrations are even more protracted than usual. Well, last weekend was relatively quiet where I'm staying (not least because a freak storm on Friday night had left much of the area without electricity - or a cellphone network, or Internet, or cable TV); but the first big party was last night; and the barbecue overload now seems set to run without a break for at least another four days.

So much for my diet plans. From next week, I am going to be restricting myself to granola bars and live yoghurt. But for now - bring on the burgers and the pulled pork and the ribs!!


Monday, July 02, 2012

Traffic Report - the blog stats for June

Well, despite being "on the road", I have so far been maintaining my usual - excessive - rate of posting. Having a fast Internet link (and way too much time on my hands) can be corrupting!

Things are likely to be a little slower for the next few weeks while I am in the States, because there is quite a lot of other stuff I am trying to get done while I am here.


Last month, there were 31 posts and nearly 13,000 words on Froogville.

There were 28 posts and around 10,000 words on Barstool Blues.


And that's without counting my huge European Football Championship discussion thread, currently standing at 62 comments and nearly 14,000 words (at least three quarters of of them mine: I had been uncannily accurate in most of my analyses and predictions, right up until the final - when the emergence of SuperSpain took me rather by surprise; I had  been rooting for Italy, who, I felt, had been clearly the best team over the first five games of the tournament).

The other major item of business this past month was my retrospective on the changes I've witnessed in the Beijing bar scene over the past 10 years, a series in three parts (I, II, and III).