Friday, August 31, 2007

The new exercise regime

The nearest 7/11 that sells cold beer is a 20-minute walk away. Actually, the nearest store of any kind that sells cold beer is 20 minutes away.

Cold beer in cans, at least. When I was young(er) and (even more) impoverished, I only used to drink local beer in the big 675ml bottles - but the quality of the product in those is far more variable, and it takes a good long while to get them properly chilled. Canned beer, though far more expensive by unit of volume, is a much classier and more satisfying drink.

And any time I feel like indulging in one (which, while the evening weather continues to be this muggy, is likely to be almost every evening), I'm going to be getting in a brisk constitutional of at least 40 minutes.

Oh yes, I can feel the pounds dropping off already.

Something for the weekend!

I have just discovered that SUBS are playing at one of the music venues in my neighbourhood tomorrow night. Woo-hoo!

SUBS are the best live band in Beijing.

I know, I know, some people champion the cause of RETROS or Joyside or Brain Failure in regard to that heady accolade - or even, god help us, those insipid knob-twiddlers (with the appropriately insipid name), Lonely China Day.

Bollocks. It's SUBS. No argument. They are the best band in Beijing - by an order of magnitude.

And I haven't seen them since the Midi Festival four months ago. As it happens, I think I've only once before seen them play indoors. So, tomorrow night is a must.

It's good to have something to look forward to. Tonight threatens to be a bit dull....


I'm not a big fan of acronyms. I think there are too many in the world already.

This one, however, I humbly suggest may have its uses; it may gain a currency amongst my drinking chums.

What is the image that forms in one's mind towards the end of a long tedious session at the office, particularly a Friday? The activity that seems the perfect antidote or restorative for the stresses of the working day? The fond daydream that gradually becomes a galvanising compulsion?

Why, a Post-Work Gargle, of course!

A quick drink at 6, anyone? Just the one, nothing too serious.....

HBH 43

A sidewalk barbecue stall in west China...

Warm, muggy evening;
Cold beer bottles wet with dew;
Midnight passes by...

Thursday, August 30, 2007

What is it about Szechuan girls?

Throughout China, everyone says that the girls from Szechuan province in the far west are the prettiest.

I've often found it a curious phenomenon that while the Chinese - both men and women - are invariably fiercely, delusionally proud of their local cuisine ("Oh, they claim that's a Fujian dish, but actually we invented it." "Well, they do something like this in Szechuan, but our version is much better."), they tend to be a little disparaging of the pulchritude of their womenfolk ("Oh, our girls are not so beautiful. You need to go to the next province to see some real lookers. [Pause. Sigh.] But of course, the greatest beauties are all from Szechuan.").

I was interested then, on finally visiting this fabled province, to find out if the principle would hold true here as well - would they be modestly dismissive of their own Szechuan girls and praise up their neighbours in Yunnan or Gansu instead? Er, NO - with a lack of false modesty quite untypical (and rather refreshing!) for the Chinese, they all said: "Oh yes, that's right. Szechuan girls are famous all over China. They're knockouts."

I have to say - from this one brief experience - there may be something to that: I certainly saw more good-looking girls in 36 hours in one small town/University campus than I do in a typical month in lumpy, frumpy Beijing..... including a couple of real stunners.

However...... I find I may be dissenting slightly from the accepted wisdom. The most gorgeous girl I met there was actually from Hunan - the adjacent province east and a little south of Szechuan. I reflect that the only two really pretty Chinese girls I've met in Beijing were both from Hunan as well (well, OK, there was also one from Hainan, much further south; but I'm working on a theory here..... extraneous data must be discounted for the time being!). I think there's definitely some significance in that.

I must plan a fact-finding mission to Hunan. I'll let you know the results.

More Chinglish fun

While visiting the small Szechuan city of Dujiangyan today, I was amused to see a sign directing me to the city centre's "famous" 'Night Beer Corridor'. Every home should have one!

I was considerably less charmed to find, in a public toilet nearby, a small well (not sure if there's a more particular word in English for this kind of basin) for rinsing mops..... well, ordinarily it would be for rinsing mops, but here it was labelled - with seeming pride, in English - 'Vomit Pool'. Ugh! Where on earth did they get that idea from? And WHY would they want to make that the only bilingual sign in the place? They didn't have 'Press to Flush' or 'Now wash your hands' or 'Please put used toilet tissue in the bin' - only 'Vomit Pool'. Has the 'Night Beer Corridor' been overrun by English lager louts who vomit copiously in non-designated places? I hardly think so.

And in my hotel bathroom, there was a complimentary dispenser of hair-styling mist (well, it appeared to be complimentary, but Chinese hotels are often rather sneaky about concealing or completely removing the price labels, attempting to ambush you with unwelcome extras on your bill: there were a couple of unlabelled but clearly very high-end souvenir mini-pouches of tea on my nightstand which I just knew it would be perilous to my wallet to open...). It promised me "no discomfort or constraint of head". Oh good - I hate that. I didn't feel moved to try any, though.

Ah, the delights of travel in China...

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Recommended Posts, April-June 2007

A Guided Tour - recommended posts from the second quarter of '07

1) In Hankou, without watches - 28th June, 2007

Remembering my first visit to China

2) The allure of the barmaid - 25th June, 2007

A favourite cartoon, and some musings on why we fall for barmaids

3) HBH 35 - 22nd June, 2007

One of my better 'drinker's haiku' - honouring the life-changing phenomenon that is Tequila Rapido

3) Why we drink (or why we shouldn't) - 17th June, 2007

A hastily improvised poem on the melancholia associated with drinking

4) Ideal job?? - 8th June, 2007

More evidence of why I would make a very unsuitable careers adviser

5) The Queen is dead - 29th May, 2007

Celebrating one of my favourite (demised) Muslim restaurants in Beijing

6) The world's simplest bar joke - 28th May, 2007

Remembering two great jokes from the late British comedian Tommy Cooper

7) Happy birthday, 2K!! - 27th May, 2007

Some pics and comment on the 2nd anniversary party for my favourite little music bar in Beijing (also celebrated here)

8) Singin' in the rain - an 'Adventure Bar' moment - 22nd May, 2007

One of my quirkiest, most blissful recollections of my time in China

9) That's not DRUNK - 21st May, 2007

A great line from Dean Martin!

10) So, farewell then... - 15th May, 2007

Remembering one of Beijing's most useful 'networking clubs', on the occasion of its demise

11) The ultimate 'Unsuitable Role Model' - 14th May, 2007

Maudlin reflections prompted by watching again, for the first time in many years, a favourite film - 'Cool Hand Luke'

12) Virgin loos - 12th May, 2007

A review of a promising new live venue and of one of Beijing's most idiosyncratic musical talents, Xiao He

13) Bliss - May 4th, 2007

A new favourite bar - and the two very cool musician friends who entice me there so regularly of late

14) D-22 - May 2nd, 2007

Some people seem to like this pretentious music bar; the place gets on my tits!

15) The Muslim succession - April 30th, 2007

A lament for the rarity and the ephemerality of decent Xinjiang restaurants in my neighbourhood... and the beginning of the quest to the find the next

16) Concept - April 27th, 2007

My idea for a Beijing bar.... one day

17) Centro - the worst bar in Beijing? - April 26th, 2007

A long overdue hymn of hate to the most overrated bar in this city

18) Wingmanship - April 25th, 2007

Analysing a crucial concept in the art of pursuing women, and in male friendships

19) Fidelity - or fatigue? - April 23rd, 2007

Am I really more loyal to bars than to women?? A brief but disturbing philosophical musing...

20) Beware of Tequila! - April 20th, 2007

As if you need to be told

21) What is it about the French? - April 19th, 2007

An unanswerable question, of course - more thwarted romantic longing (and stern interrogation from Tulsa in the comments)

22) Amnesia, a friend indeed - April 18th, 2007

A rare bon mot of my own

23) Huxley's - the 'Haiku Bar' - April 17th, 2007

My 'local', my Lost Love, my poetry-writing - it's all linked!!

24) 'Tired & Emotional' explained - April 16th, 2007

More classic drinking anecdotes retold

25) The Adventure Bar - April 14th, 2007

The story of my first year or so in China (this one always makes me cry)

26) Post 200 - time for another poem! - April 11th, 2007

Another milestone on the blog provides the pretext for publishing one of my most depressive and personal poems

27) The breaking of the Fellowship - April 8th, 2007

The story of The Three Amigos, the unholy alliance of drinking academics which was the focus of my life during my first two years here in China

28) The Invisible Barrier - April 4th, 2007

One of my more ignominious - and life-threatening - drinking experiences

Monday, August 27, 2007

Edinburgh leftovers

A few people have asked me, in regard to my 'Best of the Fest' post of a couple of weeks ago, if that's all I saw.

Good heavens, NO! Don't be silly!

I had a fairly light show-going schedule this year, because I could only manage 5 or 6 days there, rather than my usual 10 or 12. And because the tickets are getting so bloody expensive.

But heck, no, I probably saw at least twice as much as I wrote about there. On occasion, I'll go and see 6 or 7 different things in one day.

Along with my obligatory token comedy show at The Stand (I go to one just about every year; usually only one, but....) and a couple of jazz nights at The Guildford (one of my favourite pubs in the city; and scene of last year's 'inappropriate erotic encounter' - there's always one at Edinburgh, it seems!), I also happened to catch one of the last gigs in the Jazz & Blues Festival (it always catches me out by starting a week or so earlier than everything else) at The Jam House on a drizzly Sunday afternoon; the highlight there was a young electric blues trio called Tantrum (undergraduates not yet out of their teens - god, it makes me feel old! I liked them so much I bought one of their CDs!).

The other dramatic offerings I caught, but didn't feel inclined to recommend were:

Forgotten Voices - a piece about WWI, recalled through the oral histories of survivors many years later. Now, this was all very worthy, quite moving in parts, very decently performed - just not very enlightening (well, not for me - I've read extensively on the First War, and there wasn't one of these anecdotes that told me anything new) and not very theatrically compelling (it could have been done on the radio; and, indeed, would probably have been more effective in that medium). Five septuagenarians meeting in the early '70s at the Imperial War Museum, after recording their testimonies for the archive, repeating some of the memories as small talk - there's not really anything dramatic about it. Interesting human stories, but rather lazily cobbled together. I confess I went largely to see Belinda Lang, the only female cast member, a rather lovely British actress who I've had a crush on for 20-odd years. My ardour was slightly dampened by the discovery that she is now over 50 (and, in this show, was playing 75!).

Adolf - a long-running, mildly notorious one-man show by Pip Utton. I'd been hearing good things about it for a few years, so thought I'd better check it out before he finally gets bored of doing it. The imagined final self-justification of Hitler during his last hours in the bunker has its moments of interest, but I found the impersonation a little weak; and the monologue was at times somewhat repetitive, could have been more tightly written. The 'trick' of the piece is that barely half-way through, Utton takes off the Hitler costume and becomes 'himself' again, bantering amiably with the audience about the show. Amiably, at least, at first; gradually a few commonplace racist jokes ("The Romans had the right idea: build your roads long and straight, and your immigrants can't open corner shops all over the place.") develop into a more thoroughgoing xenophobic agenda - illustrating how easily the Fuhrer can achieve his final wish, that he should attain immortality through his ideas, the poisonous ideas that can so easily find a place in anyone's heart. It's a neat idea, but, having heard quite a bit about the show beforehand, there was no element of shock or surprise in it for me - and no element of discomfort as to how far these might be Utton's real views. I suspect the effectiveness of this closing section depends very largely on audience reaction too. I have been told that it can get quite lively, with people jeering or walking out. On the day I went, nobody rose to the bait.

American Poodle - a pair of one-man pieces "on the Anglo-American relationship" by Guy Masterson and David Calvitto. I was drawn to this partly by the title, partly by the hope of seeing some decent satire (something of a dying - or dead - art, I fear), and by a curiosity to see Masterson performing (he's a prolific director, usually has 5 or 10 shows on at The Fringe every year; but I've never seen him act before). And yes, I may have been a little suckered by the blurb that read "caustic, clever, hyper-articulate, and inspired". That sounds like my buddy, The Arts Entrepreneur - on one of his good days, anyway. In regard to this piece, it was unwarranted hyperbole. Masterson's monologue was a re-telling of early American history from a British perspective, asserting that the Crown's attempt to put a tax on tea wasn't so unreasonable and that revered revolutionary heroes like John Hancock were actually pretty nasty pieces of work. There's a lot to that. And it was done with great gusto, and was often very funny. The trouble was that he burned himself out on the Revolution - which had little point of contact with contemporary events - and left himself just a scant few sentences to sum up the relations between the two countries over the 200 years since. Calvitto was a contemporary American businessman, visiting London for the first time on a mysterious errand. Most of the jokes seemed to be at the expense of American ignorance and naivety (this was very much Homer Simpson, the amiable idiot abroad, continually surprised that things weren't quite as they'd been depicted in Mary Poppins) rather than revealing any major faults in London or Londoners. It was delivered at breakneck pace, and had a few decent jokes in it, but - as with Masterson's history lesson - it really lacked any satirical teeth. I'm always fascinated by - and always disposed to admire and enjoy - one-man performances because it takes such a tremendous amount of energy and focus and sheer balls to hold a stage alone for any length of time. On this occasion, as so often, I left admiring the performances alone, rather than the content.

Exits and Entrances - a new play ("World Premiere", apparently) from Athol Fugard, based on his meetings with Andre Huguenet, a giant of the South African stage whom he had known briefly at the outset of his writing career in the '50s. Ah, how many plays have been set backstage, chronicling the artistic agony of the performer? How many of them have actually been any good? It's a sign of how lazy the writing of this one is that it relies so heavily on extended extracts from Sophocles' Oedipus Rex and from another play I wasn't familiar with called The Prisoner (and, more briefly but still rather lamely, from Hamlet). The actor playing the grand old thespian was very impressive. The actor (I didn't catch either of the names, unfortunately) playing Fugard himself was whiny and irritating. Perhaps this was also a good performance (the writing throughout seemed to betray its author as insufferably pompous and unself-aware), but it was rather alienating of audience interest. And perhaps the milieu was just too obscure: apart from never having achieved any financial success, it was impossible for me to discern what Andre's great - unfulfilled - artistic goal in life had been, or why he felt so disillusioned and defeated upon the founding of the Republic of South Africa. This struck me as an extremely dull, clumsy, under-written play. I was concerned that I might perhaps be over-reacting, since in general Fugard has a pretty high reputation. Luckily, The Arts Entrepreneur reassured me: "Oh, god, no - Fugard's a terrible writer. Nobody would read him if he weren't South African."

So, there you have it. A few more reviews.

That'll probably be it until Fringe time next year. I get to see precious little theatre here in Beijing.

How I wish I could find a way to bring some of those Edinburgh shows out here....

It's Monday again....

"People get attached. Once you cut the umbilical cord, they start getting attached to other things. Sight, sound, sex, money, mirages, mothers, masturbation, murder.... and Monday morning hangovers."

Charles Bukowski (1920-1994)

Sunday, August 26, 2007

A dark little poem

My afternoon reading turns up this - a maudlin meditation on the failure of a marriage.

Me, I have only very positive experiences of absinthe. I must try and locate some other poems featuring this most excellent of drinks.

The Absinthe Drinker

For years I tried to leave them,
leave them all.
Now they've left me.
Three childish smiles are scars
inside my mind.
She took all three.

My head breaks. The hours
slash my skull to splintered bone.

I wish there was a picture
I could hang to break the sight
of the wall across this room
with its hook of stone.

Where is my Dégas lady?
I carried her for years inside my poems
and hung her on the wall to comfort me.
Somewhere in a box of broken books
she sits, sipping her absinthe.
Now for the first time
I would drink with her.

Patrick Lane (1939- )

Off parties

I'm having a weary, apathetic, misanthropic sort of weekend.

Last night, there were two parties I'd been invited to, and two (at least two!) gigs I fancied going to.

However, the party hosts had both neglected to confirm the details to me, or to send me their addresses - which kind of made me feel that I wasn't exactly at the top of the guest list. And in each case - having only been to their apartments once or twice previously, a long, long time ago, and recalling only vaguely what area they were in, recalling principally that they were bloody difficult to find - I had no confidence that I would be able to find my way there unless I hooked up with someone more familiar with the location beforehand. And I wasn't able to do that, although I did try.

To be honest, I somehow just wasn't in a party mood. The gigs were much more appealing.

But.... well, the one out at Kolegas was only advertised in one of the three expat listings magazines, so I wasn't entirely sure it would actually be going ahead. And it is quite a long way away over on the east side of town. My guitar-playing buddies Dan & Nico, on the other hand, were playing in my neighbourhood. But I've seen them so many times now. Actually, I've seen them twice already this week!

So, at the end of the day, inertia won out. I stayed home with a DVD, fell asleep on my "man-eating sofa" before the end of it; retired to bed before midnight, didn't get up until nearly noon today.

I guess I was just too darned tired to be going out anywhere this weekend. I've only been back in the country 10 days; half of those have required full-time attendance at the dratted office; and a couple of the 'off days' were interrupted by voice recording engagements. The continual sultry weather saps the energy and the very will to live. I've endured two nights of very little sleep, one night of no sleep at all, and have slept very poorly on most of the others.

This weekend I really can't be bothered to do anything, except noodle around on the computer, watch DVDs, and SLEEEEP.

Am I really off parties? Well, just for the moment. I doubt if it will last.

Saturday, August 25, 2007


A bit of a frustrating time I had of it on Friday.

Getting off work at 5.30, I had been eager for a restorative drink and perhaps an early evening rendezvous with a few friends. Alas, no-one was game for this plan. There was a rival proposal, which - quite inexplicably - involved meeting a couple of hours later, and a few miles away (a few miles away from where we all work!!).

One of the disadvantages of working around the fringes of Beijing's Central Business District is that it is absolutely bloody impossible to get a cab between 5pm and 8pm. Particularly on Friday. And even if you manage to bag one, the traffic is often so gridlocked that it would in fact be quicker to walk.

So, if I was going to sign up to this later rendezvous, I was almost certainly going to have to walk for nearly an hour. Now although I noted over on Froogville yesterday that the daytime summer humidity seems to have been dispelled in the last few days (the stifling weather somehow breaking a couple of weeks earlier than usual), the nights still get pretty sticky when it's been hot during the day: as soon as dusk starts to fall, moisture oozes out of the city's every pore as lavishly as the sweat does from mine. This was such an evening. Not nice. Not conditions for walking.

But I walked anyway, because I didn't want to be denounced for unsociability.

The trouble was, the dinner venue was not precisely defined - I'd only been given the general locale. The time wasn't very firmly set either. It was supposed to be 8pm, but I knew I couldn't put much trust in that. And since I hadn't managed breakfast at all and only the very snackiest of lunches, I wasn't sure I could last that long. Hell, I was fucking ravenous before I left work. Damn.

So, anyway, I did my best to try to fit in with this nebulous 'plan'. I checked in with the guys shortly before 8pm (when I was about to arrive) and learned that they were now expecting to leave the (even more remote) bar they'd been congregating in "in about 20 minutes". 20 minutes later, I got a text message saying they were now working on 8.30 - another 20 minutes hence. And they didn't specify if that was when they were expecting to leave their current venue or to arrive where I was (probably at least a 20-min walk distant; 10 minutes by cab, if they could get a cab). It was becoming pretty obvious that they had no real idea of when they were going to arrive, weren't putting on any kind of hurry-up to try and meet up with me..... and might well not make it there until 9 or 9.30.

A major sugar crash is one of the few things that makes me really crabby and impatient. I gave up on them. I had got home (45 minutes, walking and subway) before I received word that they had finally arrived at the restaurant.


Now, I understand how this happens. The 'plan' is nebulous, flexible. The drinking seems more urgent to some people than the need to eat. The people you're with in the bar are more 'top of mind' than the people you're supposed to be meeting later. The timing of departure is dependent on everyone finishing their drinks, and everyone is drinking out of sync.

All I ask is that you don't dick people around.

If this is the situation, don't say, "We'll be eating at 8"; say, "We're aiming for about 8." Don't say, "We'll be there at 8.30"; say, "We're hoping to leave after this drink."

That's not so much to ask, is it?

In Beijing, it appears, it is.

Because the distances involved in crossing from one 'happening' part of the city to another can be so huge; because travel times can be so difficult to predict thanks to the often appalling traffic; because social networks are so broad (you can hardly go into any bar without running into someone that you know) - social plans seem to be in constant flux, and nobody seems to think that breaking dates, inflicting multiple postponements or reschedulings on friends, running hugely late for everything is at all untoward.

It seems that no-one here can actually be arsed to make a plan and stick to it - and it does rather get my goat at times.

End of gripe.

Friday, August 24, 2007

HBH 42

Sweet melancholy
Of an accordion brings
Paris to the heart.

Yep, another night at Jianghu.... and the guitar boys had their gorgeous Chinese accordionist friend along. And the music transported us to another continent. All we were missing was Edith Piaf.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Now We Are Five

The anniversary celebration last night was predictably brain-damaging.

I managed to round up half a dozen or so of the usual suspects, and a couple of the more unusual ones as well, for an early evening rendezvous in the new, improved, better-than-ever Nanjie (not officially open yet; but it does look very promising - good central location, two floors, large wraparound New Orleans-style balcony)..... which inexorably evolved into a late-evening sidewalk session outside a nearby hole-in-the-wall, munching kebabs.

The Choirboy and his suave Bengali chum then took it upon themselves to interrogate me ruthlessly about the status of my 'affair' with Madame X, using 'truth serum' (meng jiu, the surprisingly agreeable but very, very deadly Mongolian spirit that most of these little restaurants sell in individual-serving shot glasses).

In my state of advanced sleep deprivation and dehydration, this was just a little bit more alcohol than I should have imbibed...... Feeling very droopy in the office today.

"Jello Biafra cut my hair"

Every summer I spend in Edinburgh for the Festivals seems to throw up a crop of memorable moments and quotations; but the coolest one of this year - or of any year, come that - surely has to be this one in the title here.

Of course, you have to know who Jello Biafra is. (Tulsa, I'm guessing you need help with this.)

Luckily, I did. He was the front man for The Dead Kennedys, a thrash punk outfit from San Francisco which enjoyed a brief spell of fame/notoriety in the early '80s. I bought a couple of their albums - Holiday In Cambodia, Plastic Surgery Disasters, and the In God We Trust EP (which includes a manic version of the old TV theme 'Rawhide', sung in its entirety in about 25 seconds) - chiefly because I liked the titles. (Lizzie, are these still in my record collection??)

My drinking companion on the all-night Mexican binge recently reported has been hanging around the music scene her whole life, and claims to have been "a roadie" for the DKs when she was barely into her teens. And Jello gave her a haircut once, she told me. Beer fairly squirted out of my nose. Or it would have done, had I been drinking at the time. You could have knocked me down with a feather!

I don't care whether it's true (though I rather think it is) - it's a great line!

Monday, August 20, 2007

A MILESTONE looms....

Tomorrow is the 5th Anniversary of my arrival in Beijing. This is such a momentous event that I feel I must announce it on both my blogs.

I have just discovered that, by an alarming cosmic coincidence, it is also the 5th Anniversary of the arrival here of my best drinking buddy, The Choirboy (though I didn't get to know him until a year or two later).

In fact, several of our friends are also reaching this landmark at some point over the next few weeks.

I think A PARTY is in order.....

Bon mot time

"No-one ever got laid with a Tom Waits record collection."

Tom Waits

A previously unknown nugget of wisdom from the master, which I learned from Stewart D'Arrietta's cabaret tribute to Waits at the Edinburgh Fringe last week.

I think this may be a tad pessimistic. His oeuvre may not be classic "make out" stuff, but much of it is extremely tender and romantic. And it's all bloody good music. I dream of meeting a woman who might share (and be turned on by) my adoration of Waits....

Sunday, August 19, 2007

All-night cellar bar

I mentioned in my last haiku that I had a particularly good last night in Edinburgh this year.

I'd been to see the Tom Waits tribute show I briefly reviewed at the end of my roundup of Fringe recommendations this year. It finished about 1.30am. My companion suggested we go for "one last drink" somewhere. Now, this is still a wee bit of a problem in Edinburgh. It's better than a few years ago, when almost none of the city centre pubs were able to get late licences during the Festival month, and if you got a late-night drinking urge on you, you had to go wandering towards the seedier outskirts. There'd usually be somewhere off Leith Walk that was either legitimately staying open till 1 or 2am , or was indulging in a lock-in; but some of those places were pretty darn rough. Not the kind of place I would have wanted to take my companion (although, I suspect, she would have taken such an environment in her stride far more readily than me).

The downstairs bar at The Assembly Rooms (where we'd just been watching the Waits show), we learned, was open till 4am; but the place is severely lacking in atmosphere. We thought we'd keep that in mind as a fall-back option if we struck out everywhere else. We tried the Café Royal; there's usually a late-night comedy show upstairs, so I thought it might have been keeping serving till 2am or so - but no. We tried the Lord Bodo, one of the less scary 'dives' I've found in the city (conveniently across the road from 'The Stand' comedy club, and just around the corner from my friend Amanda's flat); it was just closing. Damn. The staff there recommended a piano bar called Fingers as being the only place nearby that was likely to be staying open late. I wasn't that keen: I'd never actually been there before, didn't have a clear idea of how to find it, and it was quite a way from where we were.

Thus, my companion and I were blundering around rather aimlessly, wondering half-heartedly if we should try to find this Fingers place; I was on the brink of quitting and calling it a night.

But then we saw some people spilling out of a doorway just ahead of us. It looked as if this place might be closing too, but we asked the guys on the door and they told us...... they were open till 4am. RESULT!!! In the event, they stayed open till 5am. HIGH-SCORE BONUS!!!!

It was an unremarkable cellar bar on a Mexican theme, but it was still doing a brisk trade (the advantage of being the only place still open within a mile or more radius!); and one Dos Equis led easily to another..... and another...... and another....... and another..... and another (and a tequila chaser or two along the way as well).

Emerging from that womb-dark seclusion, brain-dazed, disorientated, with no idea of the time, and finding a huge dawn sky painted in the most exotic colours was..... well, breathtaking.

I think I'll be seeking out this bar again next year on the basis of that memory alone. I just hope I can find it again - I have only the vaguest idea of where it is, and no idea at all of what it is called.

Surprise, surprise

My 'farewell (to England) party' was, in one way, a bit of a damp squib this year, since 5 or 6 people cried off at the last minute, citing holidays, work commitments, tickets for a Prom concert, or simply having forgotten what day it was....

On the other hand, this did leave me free to enjoy a long evening alone with my old college chum Ned in his 'home patch' of London. Ned is one of my very dearest friends.... and a pretty formidable pool player (despite - he claims - now only playing the one day a year that I catch up with him. He is, in fact, the most intimidatingly naturally-gifted games-player I've ever met..... he used to be a croquet champion.... but that's another story!).

Alas, we discovered that our 'usual' pool venue, what had become the traditional site for these send-offs of mine over the past few years, an otherwise charmless pub called The Pimlico Tram, had undergone a radical revamp of image, which involved the removal of the pool table and the previously rather excellent jukebox. It's now aiming to make the most of its space and its light wood floor by positioning itself as a more upmarket, loungey, coffee bar-y sort of place - all plush sofas and abstract art on the walls. It has yet to establish a new clientele, however, being still dominated by the same old crowd of intriguing but occasionally rather scary toothless working-class geriatrics from the adjacent housing estate.

And the beer tasted a bit 'off' as well, so we weren't going to hang around there. The barmaid was good enough to give us a few tips for other bars in the area where we might be able to get a game of pool. And that it was that led us to the charmingly-named The Surprise nearby - a pub I have often walked past, but never thought to enter. I don't know where that strange name came from. One 'surprise' about the place - which nearly thwarted our pool-playing plans - is that the pool table is housed in a back room which is unsignposted and completely separate from the main bar (yes, you have to go back out on to the street, round the side, and in through an unmarked door...... curious indeed!).

Here, the 'regulars' are considerably younger, and almost exclusively West Indian (Jamaican, I'd guess, although we didn't go into it) - all supping on bottles of imported Guinness (stout is astonishingly popular with West Indians). Useful pool players, too.

Despite being out of practice and not really liking the mini-table, tiny balls, I found I was playing pretty well. I 'played on', and saw off 3 or 4 of the locals. But I lost to Ned. Nothing suprising there; he was beating everyone. (It's not particularly good form to do that when it's your first time in a new bar: you never know who might get pissed off about it! Luckily for us, our companions on this night were a pretty affable bunch, and decently respectful of his skill.) I waited patiently for a chance to get back on the table while he racked up a string of 8 or 10 victories; then he beat me again. Then, in the interests of diplomacy, he finally managed to throw a game against one of the more venerable Jamaican dudes. Shortly afterwards I got back on the table, won a few games..... and then lost to Ned again. This always seems to happen; he is my Nemesis on the table. I mean, he's very, very good, but.... I rarely take 1 game in 5 off him. And he's not, I think, as good as The Chairman, with whom (if I count all of my 'unworthy' victories when he's a little off his game) I am running more or less neck-and-neck. I think the problem is that somehow it never really bothers me losing to Ned - perhaps because he's such a nice chap. Not that The Chairman isn't a nice chap also, but I have determinedly made him the reference point against which I gauge the waxing and waning of my pool skills. With The Chairman, there's a bit of an edge to the competition; with Ned, it's always just a laugh.

Anyway, I vicariously enjoyed my friend's success just as richly as I might have enjoyed my own. We made some new temporary 'pool buddies' around the table (must go back for the regular Friday night 'killer' tournament some time). We attained just the right level of drunkenness (definitely a light-headedness, but nothing fally-down). And I managed to catch the last Tube home.

A pretty good send-off night, then. I think I'll be returning to The Surprise.

Friday, August 17, 2007

HBH 41

Timeless cellar gloom
Replaced by sudden violet,
Pink-striped, cloud-streaked dawn....

Yup, my last day in Edinburgh, I managed to stay up all night. The early morning light was incredible. Walking on the beach at Portobello at 5.30am was one of the most blissful experiences of my life. Will probably have to write a little more about this at some stage. Wish I could remember the name of the bar!

Monday, August 13, 2007

A new bon mot

"Forgive us our hangovers, as we forgive those who continue to hangover against us."

Tom Waits

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Edinburgh Fringe reviews

I'm just back from a week up in Edinburgh enjoying the Festivals there, so I thought I would offer a thumbnail guide to the best of what I've seen.

Pick of the crop was definitely Is This About Sex?, a new comedy from the Irish group
Rough Magic (who also did one of the best shows at last year's Fringe, an exuberantly silly musical called Improbable Frequency - which featured one of my literary and boozing heroes, Brian O'Nolan, as a leading character): nicely played, and very, very funny, it avoids cheap jokes (yes, it does feature a short, middle-aged man in drag, but in context it's actually quite touching) or mere bawdiness, but instead provides a rather moving examination of the meaning of sex, and of questions of gender, identity, and sexual orientation.

A very close second, also on the Traverse Theatre roster, is Pit from Glasgow's Arches theatre company - a very dark, surreal comedy in which three actresses chart one woman's struggle to keep her family fed while existing on the poverty line in contemporary America - unusual, disturbing and thought-provoking.... and quite likely to put you off your supper. In many ways, perhaps, it's a more serious, more 'worthy' show than Is This About Sex?, but it's somehow lacking the charm of that production. Well worth a look, though.

Also quite excellent was Rosebud: The Lives of Orson Welles, probably the best of these biographical shows that I've ever seen (there have been rather too many of them in recent years). As a long-time Welles fan, I was already familiar with most of the anecdotes; and I would have liked a stronger ending (instead of a couple of easy gags); but even so, the time flew by. And Christian McKay's solo performance is remarkable, rendering a commanding figure of Welles that is both believable and likeable: the arrogance almost always a little undercut by a wry self-mockery, the bombast giving way to vulnerability.

Another fine one-man show is
Northern Stage's I Am My Own Wife, an account of the wondrously eccentric East German transvestite 'Charlotte' von Mahlsdorf, who somehow survived both the Nazis and the Stasi (while amassing a huge collection of late 19th Century furniture and running a secret cabaret club in his basement!). Apparently it's been done on Broadway already, and author Doug Wright won a Pulitzer for it; but this new production by a small Vermont theatre company has been streamlined to 70 mins to fit frenetic Edinburgh scheduling (a very effective edit: you're not aware of any 'gaps', and you tend to feel that a much longer version might have begun to overtax the audience's patience) and boasts a fantastic performance by Kevin Loreque (who not only brings the exotic Charlotte to life but also provides distinct voices for several supporting characters, including the author himself). OK, I have to declare an interest here: I am an old friend of one of the producers, so I got to hang out with Kevin and his crew and the theatre patrons after the first show; this personal connection naturally makes me a little biased in their favour - but it really is an outstandingly good show.

My buddy is also involved in bringing over one or more Mexican shows to the Fringe every year, and this year it was Cállate! - a delightfully silly physical comedy piece (directed by Cal McCrystal, who has acquired quite a reputation working on the clown performances for the Cirque du Soleil, and creating utterly daft Hammer Horror spoof Cooped for the Spymonkey troupe - probably one of the biggest Fringe successes of recent years, subsequently touring all over the world). It's a farce, pastiching the melodramatic commonplaces of early Mexican cinema. The large number of Mexicans in the audience when I happened to see it were in fits throughout and clearly saw layers in it which were impenetrable to me; but you really don't have to appreciate all the references in order to enjoy the knockabout fun of it. It's a very slight piece of work, but it's an hour in the middle of the afternoon that will leave a smile on your face.

Another piece of pure silliness I allowed myself to indulge in was EUROBEAT - Almost Eurovision!, a spirited send-up of the Eurovision song contest. It was much better than I'd expected. It was very, very good indeed. It was much bigger than I'd expected - clearly they have plans to take this on tour, and perhaps find it a long-term niche in the West End. It seems to be drawing huge audiences (albeit with the help of a lot of half-price ticket sales) who are absolutely loving it. 10 songs from 10 countries, representing the predictable range of naff Eurovision clichés, including parodies of Bjork and Nana Mouskouri. Much of the music is actually quite good (catchy boy band numbers from Russia and Estonia are predictably the audience favourites when it comes to the SMS voting at the end), and lustily performed even when it is not (although the UK are about the worst of all the entries, second only to the wordless, tuneless 'performance art' electropop noodling of the Germans). And the whole thing is held together by a pair of great comic performances from the inept Sarajevan comperes. The voting phase at the end threatens to drag just a little, but the pumped-up audience seem willing to tolerate it in order to see their favourite song performed again. It's a hoot - a funny, sexy, exhilarating good time. (And I'm not usually susceptible to the popular favourites!)

And finally..... Belly Of A Drunken Piano is a late-night cabaret tribute to the music of Tom Waits, performed by Aussie Waits-idolater Stewart D'Arrietta and a local rhythm section. Of course, I have quibbles. Like any Tom Waits fan, I was irked that so many of my particular favourites were omitted: the set was divided between the early middle period (Small Change, Blue Valentines, Heartattack and Vine, One From The Heart) and the more recent stuff: nothing from the early days or - to my chagrin - from the wonderfully rich middle period (Rain Dogs, Frank's Wild Years, Night On Earth, Bone Machine). And I wasn't that impressed with the piano playing. However, D'Arrietta is an impassioned fan and a decent impersonator, and his show provided a fine end to a very busy day of theatre-going. I just found myself getting slightly melancholic at the realisation that I am almost certainly never going to see Tom perform in person....