Saturday, January 31, 2009

Great Drinking Songs (15)

Time for a song again - so here's See What The Boys In The Backroom Will Have, the classic saloon singalong from Marlene Dietrich in Destry Rides Again (which, although a comedy, is such a wonderful film that it made it into my recent list of The Greatest Westerns, period). The refrain ".... and tell them I died of the same" should be a warning to us all. I reprove myself with it at the end of my short-lived experiment with abstinence.

My blog-buddy Tony tells me that the late Eartha Kitt (who died this Christmas, sadly) gave an even better rendition of the song, but this is not available on YouTube as yet. So, for now, here's Marlene as, er, "Frenchy".

Mistakes in bar design

At least this is one cock-up I've yet to see in a Chinese bar. But give it time.....

Friday, January 30, 2009

Addendum to the Cast List

A few additions to last week's casting for the upcoming film of my life/blog (a jape that one friend has already described as "a piece of monumental egoism" - why, thank you!).

How could I forget my old friend, Mr Snopes? My apologies. Better late than never.


Gary, the stalwart of my Possible Band Names thread, I don't think I've ever actually met or seen (and I suppose I'm unlikely to, now that he's left China), but he assures me that this is a reasonable likeness.


And my friend "Mr Sex" definitely has something of that Clooney twinkle about him.

Mr Sex

No gripes or grumbles, please. You should all feel very flattered.

HBH 117

First rain after drought
has no effect. The second
begins to revive.

I'm not sure if I entirely believe in this as a metaphor for my resumption of drinking after a spell on the wagon. For me, it seems to be more a case of not enjoying drinking very much at the moment, even on the second, third, and fourth nights that I've been back in my old ways. This probably has more to do with my mood at the moment (January is not a happy month for me) than anything else.

And NO, I didn't make it to my original goal of of 31 full days of abstinence - from the 5th of January until the 5th of February. In fact, I barely made it half that distance. Last week there were just too many of the 'exceptions' that I'd always promised to allow myself, the irresistible excuses to drink: Obama's Inauguration, a late birthday gathering for my friend DD, the Chairman's farewell (he'll be coming back again in a few weeks, but....), and then the Chinese New Year.

Nevertheless, two weeks of complete abstinence is pretty good. It's been a long while since I last did that. Last year, I fear, I very seldom managed even two or three consecutive days without a drink!

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Two views of the Beijing music scene

And not just mine, for once (because I figure you're probably by now fed up of hearing that - like just about every other male hetero music-lover in this town - I have consuming crushes on Kang Mao, Helen Feng, and Marie-Claude Lebel).

Just to prove that I don't have anything against BeijingBoyce, I thought I'd post a link to an article he ran a couple of weeks back. He is a tireless chronicler of the Beijing bar & restaurant scene, and his blog is thus often a very useful research resource for planning an evening out. Unfortunately, he is an acutely sensitive soul, and got very miffed at me when I taunted him for being a bit of a Communist-Party-kiss-ass last summer (well, he had gone a bit overboard with a whole series of "What jolly fun the Olympics are in Beijing!" posts, so I felt it was fair comment....). In general, though, I am, if not quite a fan, a regular-ish and appreciative reader of his.

And I was particularly intrigued by this piece, guest-written by long-time resident expat Kaiser Kuo. Kaiser, a Chinese American, has been visiting Beijing since the early '80s, and likes to take the credit for kick-starting the rock'n'roll scene here with seminal metal band Tang Dynasty back in the '90s. Although he now has grown-up responsibilities as a husband, father, and tech industry consultant, he's still gigging, and occasionally even touring, with a new band called Spring and Autumn. So, he is eminently qualified to comment on Beijing's All-Time Top 5 Music Venues. (Note 1: this post is about the rock'n'roll scene, so doesn't consider jazz or folk venues. Note 2: it's a review of the history of the scene over the past decade or so; a further post on the best current clubs is promised at a later date, although it's not clear if this will be written by Kaiser or someone else.)

Of course, it should be borne in mind that Kaiser is writing here from the perspective of a performer. His inclusion of current venues Star Live and Yugong Yishan in his list would be quite unfathomable if he were writing on behalf of the paying customer. These barn-like clubs may feel exhilaratingly like really big venues when you're up on their high stages strutting your stuff; and you might not notice how thin the crowds are, especially if there's some decent mosh-pit action down the front (which I'm sure there usually is at Kaiser's gigs). However, they are pretty atmosphere-less and charm-free for the poor punter, unless absolutely packed (which doesn't happen often, if ever). And their drinks are too expensive.

Second recommendation: just the other day, my pal Brendan was so incensed by the shallowness of this article in the New York Times that he felt compelled to write this diatribe on the lameness of Chinese hip-hop lyrics. Indeed, so strong was this compulsion that he spent two hours blogging about it when he had promised to join me on Nanluoguxiang for a drink; however, I forgive him his tardiness because it is a very entertaining piece. I look forward to a series of further posts on how lame Chinese lyrics are in other leading contemporary genres.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Foreigner un-friendly

Over on Froogville I wrote the other day about my relief and delight that my local square was not cordoned off this year (as it was last) to stage some garish variety show for the Communist Party bigwigs. This allowed it to become a major venue for the letting off of fireworks as the evening wore on towards its welcoming-of-the-new-lunar-year climax at midnight.

My one remaining gripe - that I omitted to mention in that post, because I was feeling in a happier frame of mind then - was that well over half of the revellers who gathered around the square that night were laowai rather than local people. I do not often see such large concentrations of foreigners in one place, and I don't like it very much (that's why I hardly ever go out around the main foreigner bar district of Sanlitun; nearly all the bars and restaurants around my neck of the woods tend to have a preponderance, albeit sometimes a narrow one, of Chinese clientele).

Even worse, the vast majority of these foreigners were Americans. Now, I have nothing against Americans individually. Many of my best friends and most of my former girlfriends are Americans. However, Americans in a clump I do tend to find a bit irritating sometimes. Americans in a clump overseas even more so. And VERY YOUNG Americans in a clump overseas can be quite excruciating. (This is one of the reasons why I now avoid-like-the-plague the new Nanjie: it seems to have taken over the mantle of the underage drinkers' favoured hangout from long-time frontrunner Pure Girl, which kicked the bucket last year. The Rickshaw - dire in so many other ways too - I also tend to give a wide berth to because these days there are very few punters in there above the age of 25, and just about none over 30. I have long been considering writing a post about the optimum average age of drinkers in a bar I would hang out in. Soon, soon.)

The Bell & Drum bar was rendered completely uninhabitable on Sunday evening by whooping, screeching American teenagers - but a number of my friends perversely insisted on fighting through this vile throng in order to get up on to the roof terrace. Me, I couldn't see the appeal of the slightly elevated (but heavily shrouded by trees) view. The real fun was to be had down at ground level, in the midst of all the lunatic firework lighters.

At least the much, much nicer Jiangjinjiu bar a few doors down was relatively quiet - providing a welcome occasional haven from the cold and the noise outside. I had a marvellous - though completely solitary - time that night.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Taking the Strine...

Never mind all this Chinese New Year nonsense!

Today also happens to be Australia Day. And I discovered during my meanderings around the neighbourhood yesterday evening that Ned's, the friendly little bar on Nanluoguxiang that was opened by two young Aussies, Steve and Trent, last summer (and named after the celebrated bushwacker Ned Kelly - there's a rather impressive facsimile of his homemade iron helmet hanging outside the door) is doing a "special offer" on all of their fine selection of Oz beers today. I'm quite partial to VB, myself; though I'm loathe to pay the 25 kuai usually asked for it. Today's price of 15 kuai is far more tempting.

I am a little bit nervous, though, as to just how many Aussies might turn out for this. I recall that Joseph (also an Aussie) and Li Mei of the nearby 12 Square Metres bar told me they set their attendance record on this day last year (only 26 people; but, given the size of the place, that's sardines time!). Ned's isn't that much bigger; and the Aussie drinking contingent won't be split between the two Aussie-owned venues on the street because our friendly 12 Sq M proprietors are in the middle of a 6-week holiday Down Under. Yes, it could be busy....

I think I'd better go for a run first, to build up a thirst.

New Year bon mot - a Chinese poem


Among the flowers is a jug of wine.
With no friend at hand, I pour a cup alone.
I raise a toast to the brilliant moon.
My shadow makes a fellowship of three.

Li Bai (701-762)

Yes, him.... again.

(Today marks the beginning of the Year of the Ox in the Chinese calendar, you know.)

Sunday, January 25, 2009

The Cast List

You have been watching....


The Choirboy

The Chairman

The British Cowboy

Big Frank

The Bookseller
(I don't think The Bookseller would be caught dead with a 'soul patch', but apart from that, the likeness here is rather scary.)

The Mothman

The Barman
(OK, just a little too tall; but I daresay we can do something about that with visual FX.)

Dapper Dan

Dishy Debs

Sexy Sarah

Glamorous Vicky
(My other recording partner...)

The Weeble

My Pool Partner


The Man In Black

The Poet

(who, of course, still has to shroud her identity to protect her job)

OMG (likewise)

'OMF' Tony
(who started this whole idea off with this post)

(now, sadly, lost to blogworld - much missed)

The Artist



Pool Bar Luke

Old Li
(Actually, I don't think Mr Li would ever pull such a sour face, other than in jest; and he is way cooler even than Jackie Chan, but this is the best idea I could come up with.)

Looby Lou
(I should point out that my Shanghai-based lao tongxue is MUCH younger than this; but I don't think she'd find the comparison otherwise unflattering.)

Big J
(moved to Shanghai, and not enjoying it....)



Mr Sex

Dr Manhattan

The Barmaid

The Bombshell

Barack Obama

You see, my blog-buddy Tony quipped a little while ago about there being a film version made of his blog, and some casting possibilities were suggested. I rather liked the idea.... and got a bit carried away with it!

Actors may appear more attractive than the real-life characters they are portraying.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Great Love Songs (14)

I really wanted to find Ella singing this one, but YouTube doesn't appear to have such a thing as yet. Natalie Cole will have to do for now. [Ah, at last it's turned up... here. Well, I can only seem to find her popular duet with The Ink Spots, but I'm sure she recorded other versions. I had long persuaded myself that the one I particularly liked was a Nelson Riddle arrangement, but it seems it was probably by Billy May, from the Ella Sings the Harold Arlen Songbook collection.]

It's Only A Paper Moon has long been a favourite of mine. During my first job - as a teacher in a small private school in south-west England - this became something of a 'theme song' for my best drinking buddy and me, as we shared our dreams of escaping to a better and more fulfilling life elsewhere.

Full of Eastern Promise

Since this is Post No. 1,001 here on the Barstool...... well, I couldn't resist a gratuitous little Arabian Nights reference (just as I couldn't when Froogville passed this milestone 8 months back).

The title reference, of course, is taken from a long-running British TV advert; this example from the 1970s is one of the classics of the series, playing on the exoticism/eroticism of the Arab world most famously exploited in the Rudolf Valentino vehicle The Sheik.

Friday, January 23, 2009


My gadfly, The British Cowboy, has been haranguing me for ages to write a little something on this place. And I have been holding off from doing so chiefly to instil some discipline into him, to teach him that he cannot expect all of his whims to be indulged immediately. Also, I thought this might be a fittingly 'special' subject for Post No. 1,000 here on The Barstool. (Gosh, yes, it is, you know.)

Hogan's - or more properly, T. Hogan's, I believe, to give it its full name - is one of the pantheon of favourite bars that have won an enduring place in my affections, places that have in fact approached shockingly close to bar perfection. There was The Temple, my regular refuge during the end of my undergraduate days, and still my Platonic ideal of a pool venue. There was the Traveller's Rest, a second home to me during my teacher training year in Durham. There was The Black Swan, which, despite its army drill-hall ambience, somewhat displaced The Temple as my favourite Oxford pub during the early '90s, mainly thanks to its wonderful landlady, Eileen Doyle (Eric at The Temple really was a bit of a curmudgeonly old git, although his pub was marvellous). There is Mulligan's, for many years my favourite hangout in Dublin. And these days, of course, there is the Pool Bar, which is a far friendlier local than I would ever have expected to find in Beijing.

And then, during my 18-month sojourn in North America at the end of the '90s, there was Hogan's - the archetypal American corner bar. Now, during this period, I was mostly working as a legal intern in Canada; and Hogan's is in Philadelphia. However, my working schedule was very flexible. In fact, it was almost infinitely so. I had been sent there on a scholarship, but was just too old to qualify for the conventional student visa which was typically issued to scholars on this programme. After a week or two of embarrassed impasse, the immigration officials at Canada House eventually improvised a solution that involved them issuing me a regular work visa stamped with a proviso that I should not actually do any work while in Canada. Whenever the Toronto law firm I'd been placed with tried to extract too much value from me, I would take cover behind the terms of my visa and 'disappear' for a long weekend, or a week, or..... And, almost invariably, I'd nip down to Philly - since my old Oxford drinking buddy, The British Cowboy, was living there (and since there are no decent bars in Canada).

Indeed, The Cowboy maintains that he bought his house on Kalos Street because of its proximity to Hogan's - can there be any higher accolade accorded to a bar? (He probably won his wife over to the idea by emphasising the nearness of a large country park, the picturesque canal, the fast-becoming-trendy Manayunk district, and a commuter rail station...... but we know the real reason for his choice!)

Interestingly enough, I have met a couple of people here in Beijing (and one or two in DC as well) who claim to know Hogan's. And they weren't Philly people. It would appear that perhaps the place is quietly famous amongst American bar connoisseurs.

Why so? Well, it has just about all of the elements that I look for in a proper bar. It is dark; no unwelcome daylight intruding to lift your spirts unnecessarily or remind you of the time of day. It is well-proportioned and a unitary space (although the large games area in the bigger half of the L-shaped space is non-ideal for me, a bit unnecessary). It has a great bar: almost an island bar, it is a long U-shape with - a unique design feature? - occasional diamond crenellations around it to boost its effective length and seating space; and it's a perfect height for either barstool-slumping or the standing lean. It has good draught beer (this is where I first learned to love Yuengling, one of the more characterful American brews, and a local PA product). It has flexible opening hours (old man Hogan, the founder of the place, had been in the local Fire Department for many years; so it became a favoured hangout of all the emergency services, and the police are never likely to make a fuss about enforcing whatever restrictions on the opening hours are supposedly in place). And they had great staff back then when I was visiting: Dave, the genial giant who was usually running the place, was the old man's son, and he had a good crew of - mostly female - bartenders (though, as I recall, they were mostly feistily attractive, 30-something working mums rather than heart-breaking bimbos - another good thing, in my book). There was also an interesting gaggle of regulars: three or four times I found myself idling away an afternoon in there on my own, getting mildly toasted while I waited for The Cowboy to get off work - and there were always one or two diverting 'characters' around to talk to. It was a real neighbourhood place. I love bars like that.

Yes, there was also a fairly good pool table (although I disapprove of the American style of table with its rock-hard cushion rails and gaping pockets), but I could have done without that: it was responsible for engendering some lingering grudges between the Cowboy and myself whenever one of us pulled off a tactlessly long succession of victories over the other. I could have done without the gaming machines and the silly 'sticky darts', as well; but our American friends seem to crave these distractions.

The other great attraction of the place was - and, I hope, still is (I keep on promising myself that I must make a pilgrimage back there the next time I visit the States) - the food. There was a proper restaurant upstairs; I never tried that, but it was well spoken of. However, the bar snacks downstairs were just awesome (lovingly prepared according to "old family recipes" by a mountainous coloured guy called Carl, who you'd think would hardly have been able to fit into the compact little kitchen - indeed, he did usually come and hang at the bar as much as possible, whenever things went a little quiet). I think the spicy chicken wings were about the best I've ever had anywhere: a spot-on balance of sweet and hot; and a subtle kind of hot that would just slowly and relentlessly keep coming at you; it didn't overwhelm and injure with a furious initial onslaught, but it would keep your tongue and lips singing for some minutes afterwards. Heaven!

Ah, and then, the crowning glory...... I mentioned in my famous What Makes A GREAT Bar? post the appeal of a creatively timed Happy Hour, and cited Hogan's as the premier example. During that year-and-a-bit when I was visiting quite regularly, they had a Jerry Springer Happy Hour: half-price drinks (and food, I think; or 'specials', anyway) at lunchtime, while we watched the great man's wonderfully over-the-top talk show on TV. There was a week or so - when the Cowboy found himself briefly 'between jobs' - that he and I were hitting the place up every lunchtime. There are few more decadent pleasures than getting pleasantly pie-eyed in the middle of the day, while most of the rest of the world has to work...... and while mocking the inadequacies of Redneck society.... and baying, "JER-RY! JER-RY! JER-RY!" A slightly guilty pleasure, but a thoroughly cathartic one, I assure you. Ah, happy days!

HBH 116

Loss of stamina,
The gas tank always empty;
Sleeping all the time.

One of the least expected side-effects of this month's abstinence from alcohol is that I have started sleeping 8 hours (or more) every night - something that hasn't happened for years. Moreover, I am starting to crave my bed well before midnight, and thus seem to have no appetite for staying out much beyond 10.30pm any more. I suppose I am in a permanent sugar crash!!

Thursday, January 22, 2009

The Three Month Rule

My exposition of my Three Pint Rule the other day (namely, I need to have approximately three pints of beer - or equivalent - under my belt before I can start to play my best pool) brought to mind some other similar theories I have hatched over the years, most notably The Three Month Rule. (Three, as we know, is a magic number.)

As a great believer in the idea of love (almost, indeed, in a mystic notion of a seemingly pre-destined, 'paired soulmates' kind of love; my friend Richard once dubbed me "the least curable romantic I have ever met"), I sometimes become rather disillusioned when I see so many relationships around me that are plainly based solely on comfort and familiarity rather than anything deeper; in fact, many relationships seem to survive on little more than inertia - a fear of change, a fear of the unknown, a fear of the possibility of having to spend some time single again. In many of these cases, you know that the relationships aren't particularly satisfying to either party and are almost certainly going to fall apart one day, yet sometimes they limp on for years before that rupture comes. You wonder why the parties are persisting on this doomed path, rather than making a clean break as soon as possible and giving themselves the chance of finding something better.

My view is that you should generally know if a relationship has 'legs' after about three months. In the first couple of months you are easily swept along by the novelty of it all (and by the gratitude for having found someone willing to sleep with you again, if you've been through a long drought), by the first flush of passion, by the excitement of discovery (getting to know your new partner, both sexually and otherwise). Plus, of course, you'll probably be having more sex during that period than you will in the whole of the remainder of your relationship, even if you should stay together unto death. But after that length of time, you have got to know each other pretty well; you're starting to settle down into cosy routines; the initial infatuation is probably waning slightly. If, after three months of intimacy, you don't know whether you're 'in love' (and I mean the quieter, more sustainable version of that concept rather than the ephemeral compulsion of being 'in lust'), then you're not - and you're never going to be*. If you're still not sure whether this is someone you could have a long-term relationship with, then you probably shouldn't try.

It's an extreme position, I know. And I have built all kinds of allowances and exceptions into it - principally related to the degree of contact or intimacy that the partners share (and this is crucially affected by their geographic location, how far apart they live). If they're seeing each other almost every day and/or moving in together right from the outset (not something I'd recommend!), then the three-month guideline might actually be shortened to as little as six or eight weeks. If, on the other hand, the contact remains relatively infrequent, then that crucial decision-making timeframe might well be doubled or trebled. When you're living far apart from your partner, contact is inevitably reduced (I suppose the three-month period is based on an assumption that the couple are seeing each other almost every weekend and two or three times during the week). And I have found that even within the same city - in a large city like London or Beijing - the hassle of travelling to a distant district can put a brake on the development of a relationship: even when you're only living 4 or 5 miles from each other, you might often find yourselves not getting together more than once or twice a week. [In this age of instant communication, a lot of people are trying to persuade themselves that relationships can survive and even flourish on remote contact alone: telephone chats, text messages, e-mail, instant messaging and so on. I am deeply sceptical. I only know of one "long-distance relationship" that led to a marriage - and that marriage didn't last.]

Another invitation to controversy I throw out to the lurking hordes.....

* I know a lot of people suggest that 'love' can develop slowly over time, sometimes even catching people by surprise after they've known each other platonically for some time. That doesn't seem to happen for me. I am a 'bolt of lightning' kind of guy: if I wasn't smitten early on (maybe not quite at first sight, but certainly within the first one or two meetings), then it's not going to happen. The few times I have started seeing nice, bright, attractive girls who really seemed to like me - but there was no thunderbolt - and I've persisted in the relationship hoping that the feelings would grow...... they didn't; I felt awkward and insincere; I eventually felt that I'd been wasting their time and mine; and those were particularly tricky situations for me to extricate myself from.

I believe this 'gradual development' theory of love has in fact been largely or exclusively put forward by women of my acquaintance. Maybe it does work that way for the female of the species. For us chaps, I fear, it is rarely or never so. We need the thunderbolt.

Parenting advice

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Another milestone

Gosh! According to that crappy old Sitemeter hit-counter in the sidebar there, I've just received my 15,000th visitor.

That's barely more than 500 a month on average, and I get a lot of 'returns' rather than 'uniques' - so it's really not anything to get very excited about. Still, you know, I'm just saying...... Cor blimey, who'd have thought it?!

[Actually, according to Statcounter, which I pay more attention to these days, my monthly average is nearing 1,000 visits. And I gather that quite a few people are now following me via RSS feeds, which might well go unrecorded by either of these traffic-monitoring sites. Who knows how many Barstool fans there really are out there???]

The Chairman in control

The other week, the Chairman, having liberated himself (briefly!) from the 6-week 'house arrest' he'd suffered at the hands of his new, super-bossy girlfriend (Chinese, of course), was trying to convince us - or more likely, himself - that he had turned a corner in the relationship, had begun to assert himself effectively, was on the path to recovering some sort of independent life again.

"Oh, yes, I've told her what's what. I've put my foot down. I'm in the driving seat now."

"But, Chairman - you don't know how to drive."

Tuesday, January 20, 2009


I am a big Obama fan (as regular readers may recall).

And I think his inauguration - especially in a time of such unprecedented economic turmoil - is a crucially important moment in history, probably one of a handful of key events in my lifetime. I'd like to stay up to watch it, even though it will be the wee small hours of tomorrow morning here in Beijing.

Plus, of course, I love any excuse for a party.

And I've had enough of that whole abstinence thing now. It's getting to be a bit of a bore. And I think I've proved my point. I've de-toxed, slimmed down, and broken myself of some sub-prime habits (i.e. drinking when there's really no particular excuse to do so, especially at home!). Anyway, I always said I would allow myself the odd exception to the self-denying rule this month, for really special occasions. And I think this is one.

The trouble is...... no-one else seems to think so. I'm having the devil of a time trying to assemble a posse!

Drinking alone, but drinking to HISTORY!

Monday, January 19, 2009

The Three Pint Rule

My recent sufferings at the Pool Bar - unable to 'find' my game without the mild alcohol-befuddlement with which I usually approach the table - have reminded me of one of my key early theories of playing the game: The 'Three Pint' Rule.

I first proclaimed this theory way back in my undergraduate days, during the golden era of my favourite-ever bar, The Temple in East Oxford. It wasn't much of a 'theory', really, in that it did not aspire to any general applicability. It was merely an observation on myself: I tended to play my best pool during or shortly after my third pint of the evening.

I speculated that perhaps this was an ideal amount of alcohol to have on board in order to lubricate the joints, focus the mind, and conjure the fickle goddess of the pool table. It's enough to settle any nerves, relax any stiffness, and start booting into touch the cares and distractions of the working day; but not enough to impair vision or balance.

In fact, though, I suspect it really had rather less to do with the drink per se than with playing oneself in. In those days, I'd typically have a raging thirst on me by the time we got to the first drink of the evening (not least because The Temple didn't open until 7pm..... and not a very prompt 7pm either): Pint No. 1 would usually disappear in under 15 minutes, sometimes in barely 10; Pint No. 2 would go in under 20, and Pint No. 3 in not very much more. After that, I'd settle into a less frenetic rhythm of about 1 pint every 25 minutes; and in the later stages of the evening, when I started to feel 'the bloat', that might slow down to 1 every 30 minutes or so.

So, I'd typically be starting my 'magical' third pint within 30 or 40 minutes of arrival, and finishing just before the hour mark. Since my pals and I would usually start playing pool straight away, I might have got two or three games under my belt already in that time. It was enough to find my rhythm and composure, to judge the speed of the cloth, to get used to any daily quirks of the table (that table in The Temple was a remarkably consistent one; but any table has quirks - variations in the drift of the nap, the bounce of the cushion rails, the characteristics of the 'rattle' in the pocket jaws - that change from week to week and day to day with subtle shifts in the temperature, humidity, etc.). Enough time, too - assuming I was playing reasonably well, and winning - to build up some confidence.

And then, of course, it was between 7.30 and 8.00 that the first of the formidable regulars would start to show up, and it might be on my third or fourth pint that I would face my first real test of the evening in trying to defeat one of them. I think that challenge tended to raise my game, gave me the extra focus that I've always tended to lack when just playing against friends.

So, yes, probably it didn't have that much to do with the alcohol at all. But it became a kind of superstition with me. In many other bars over the last 20 years I've found that my game just doesn't quite click when I start playing sober; that I need to be feeling the first sharp buzz of alcohol before things come together.

And maybe there is something about getting that buzz on.... After the first hour of drinking, I tend to slow down to a rate of consumption where I can - more or less - metabolise my alcohol as fast as I'm drinking it. In that first hour, though, I almost always significantly exceed that tolerance (and the liver probably takes a little while to kick in and get up to speed in disposing of the toxins I'm chucking at it)..... and so I quickly start to get just very mildly, rather pleasantly drunk. Thereafter, if I'm careful about my drinking and keep my wits about me, I can maintain myself in that mellow zone for quite a few hours, without succumbing to too much of the degeneration in mental function or physical coordination which drunkenness proper brings with it. And it is this (crucially alcohol-assisted) happily relaxed and carefree mood in which I invariably seem to play my best pool.

These days I think I probably need to adapt the 'rule' to take account of my slightly declining alcohol tolerance, and of the fact that I am very seldom drinking pints any more. As a broad guideline, though, it still holds good: I know that I need to shove a few drinks down my throat in quick succession before I can show my best stuff with the cue.

Bon mot for the week

"Given a choice of two evils, I generally take the one I never tried before."

Mae West (1893-1980)

Sunday, January 18, 2009

A favourite metaphor revisited

I was swapping bar recommendations with an acquaintance last night, and I was reminded of the notion that occurred to me a couple of years ago that my relationship with a bar is very like that with a girlfriend. I am a ploddingly monogamous sort of chap. I soon get sentimentally attached, and find it almost unthinkable to bestow my affections elsewhere as well. To do so would be downright dishonourable (or perhaps just too exhausting?). There might be a number of bars that I see 'as friends', but, for me, there can only ever be one special one at a time.

Such veneration of your favourite bar is, I acknowledge, probably somewhat misguided, certainly woefully one-sided. Your bar is a complete slut: she'll show anybody a good time. You never know how she's carrying on with your friends when you're not there. You really ought to hang out in other bars once in a while, to punish her, make her realise how much she needs you.

Oh dear, I think this metaphor is spinning out of control.....

Froog on abstinence

Last night, one of my drinking buddies was taunting me by SMS about my current foolhardy attempt to refrain from alcohol for a month.

"How is sobriety treating you?" he quizzed me.

"Like a nagging bitch girlfriend," I replied, ruefully.

Actually, it hasn't been all that bad. Once I'd re-set my daily habits, purged myself of various rather-too-deeply-ingrained impulses (a beer or two with every meal out, a whisky whenever my throat's playing up a bit, a large brandy & coke every time I watch a DVD, etc.), I quickly settled into a new, alcohol-free routine, and have been scarcely bothered by cravings or regrets at all (I wish I could say the same about all my ex-girlfriends!). It might have been - would have been - otherwise if there were any special party events I'd had to pass up as a result of this stern self-commandment.... but it's been an utterly dead month on the party front.

There are three main drawbacks I've found with this new teetotal regime:

1) Without the anaesthesia of alcohol, my sensitive throat finds it very difficult - nearly impossible - to tolerate the heavily smoky atmosphere of most Beijing bars.

2) My pool game has deserted me: I just don't know how to play sober!

3) Music, and bar life in general, are not quite such fun without the familiar accompaniment - I should say, enhancement - of alcohol. I feel inappropriately, uncomfortably hyper-alert, easily bored, and often self-conscious about what to do with my under-occupied hands. Time has a tendency to elongate rather wearyingly. As I observed last night, "Who knew there were so many minutes in a week?!"

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Messin' with my head

A funny thing happened in the Pool Bar the other night....

I guess - somehow - the output settings on the laptop-based MP3 music-player had got scrambled. And only Old Dad was behind the bar: sorting out the modern technology is one of the few things that is beyond him.

While most of the elements of each track seemed to be playing normally, the vocals were bizarrely squashed - shunted up an octave or so, like a 33rpm record played at 45 (something I've been known to experiment with, in my youth), or as if the singers had taken a chug of helium.

At first, I thought we were just hearing an obscure novelty version of a song; but every song was like that. Was it a comedy band who specialise in covering the classics with "chipmunk" voices? No, it did seem as if the music was identical to the original tracks.

It was something like this:

Except that the speed seemed to be unaffected.

I wouldn't have minded so much, except that we happened to have just reached one of the 'sweet spots' of the (sometimes vexingly erratic) playlist where there is a solid run of classic rock numbers that I like - The Clash, AC/DC, Joan Jett, Alice Cooper. This should not happen! Especially when I'm about to get on the pool table......

Incidents like this are apt to spark my 'Cosmic Paranoia': "I don't believe in God...... but Somebody Up There Doesn't Like Me!"

Friday, January 16, 2009

Annals of bad design (1)

(Another reason to hate The Opposite House...)

The drinks menu in Mesh - a would-be swanky cocktail bar that's part of the huge and soulless Opposite House hotel complex I visited for the first time the other day - inflicts a subtle but excruciating torture on the eyes. The font is tiny, and thin. And it's a pale red or orange colour..... on a creamy orange background: so, no contrast at all, almost invisible!!

To add insult to injury, the lighting level is so low that you'd struggle to read even a clearly printed menu. Their gimmick is that the wait staff will offer to illuminate the pages for you with their pocket torches. Groan! Even with the torches, this font and colour scheme is virtually illegible. And it's a fairly extensive menu, with a lot of elaborate cocktail recipes. I'd like to be able to read it at leisure, in privacy, without having the staff hovering over me every second until I make my choice. This is just a horrible, horrible, horrible idea.

I was tempted to ask for the Braille version of the menu.

Now, in general, I am in favour of a low level of lighting in bars; it cultivates a sense of intimacy; also, sometimes perhaps, a sense of melancholy - but that's also a key part of the bar experience at times. Yes, low lighting is good; but not so low that you can't read the bloody drinks list! There need to be at least a few oases of reasonably substantial lighting (usually at the bar itself) to enable you to do things like that without too much difficulty.

This inept piece of graphic design would seem to be some kind of concerted 'branding' concept for the whole complex, because I found the (slightly better lit) restaurant next door had a similar if not identical colour scheme on its menus.

Bad design really gets my goat.

I imagine that, in fact, this instance is not simple incompetence: the people who chose this design realised the colour combination didn't work, but deliberately forged ahead with it anyway, thinking it was somehow 'clever'. This, then, isn't simply bad design, but perverse design. That annoys me even more....

HBH 115

Scanning the menu:
Awkward, unfamiliar choices.
Drinking - without drink!

One of the hardest aspects of the abstinence from alcohol I have imposed on myself this month is finding something else to drink when I go out. Tonic water would usually be my first choice (refreshing; and, if I'm getting too much 'withdrawal', I can fantasise that it's a G & T!), although I get irked by the fact that in most places a plain tonic water costs more than a gin & tonic (in years gone by, I have become embroiled in unseemly negotiations to try and procure a gin & tonic without gin, to try to save myself a few kuai). Also, since 'skinny' tonic water is seldom or never available here, it's not exactly a diet-friendly option; and weight-loss, rather than liver-repair, is the main aim of the current exercise in self-denial.

These days, I am delighted to find, the variety - and price - of non-alcoholic drinks is much improved in many venues. Indeed, I feel that I am rapidly becoming an expert in this curious field!

This month I have been mostly drinking.....

'Tea', in Chinese restaurants
(the complimentary stuff most places offer you is little more than warm water; just enough leaves are added to give a hint of colour, but no real flavour)

Sparkling mineral water, at The Opposite House the other night
(it was my freebie with admission to a networking event; I wouldn't have fancied paying 38 kuai for a small bottle of the stuff otherwise)

Plain bottled water, at Luga's Villa
(quite good stuff; and a very reasonable 5 kuai during the early evening happy hour)

Tonic water, at the Pool Bar
(yes, it's more expensive than a gin & tonic; but there aren't really any other tempting options at my favourite local dive)

Ginger ale, at Salud
(my other favourite hangout in the 'hood, by contrast, has a range of soft drinks at only 10 kuai each, which, I'm sure, since soft drinks are invariably horribly overpriced, must be the best deal in town; I'd never realised this before!)

Warm coconut milk, at Jiangjinjiu
(when I went there to see Xinjiang guitar wizard Ekber accompanying a visiting Aussie banjo player on Monday; a soothing winter drink, and an essential medicine against the oppressive smokiness of this small and sadly under-ventilated bar)

And.... nothing at all, at Yugong Yishan last weekend
(I've always complained their drinks are too darned expensive, anyway; I was impressed with myself that I managed to survive a gig without drinking at all, but..... well, booze is really an essential accompaniment to party blues outfit Black Cat Bone.....)

Thursday, January 15, 2009

How not to throw a networking party

I used to go to a lot of networking parties in my early days here. Partly it was a novelty, something I felt I ought to try. Partly it was necessity: I didn't know anyone when I first got here, neither for business nor social purposes. And back then, this sort of event was a far more important means of making contact with the laowai community: expats here were far fewer 5 or 6 years ago, and the sort of slightly upscale bars and restaurants that targeted them were far fewer too; outside of a handful of established venues (the John Bull Pub, the Goose & Duck, Sanlitun South Street - all now demised, victims of 'progress'), you just didn't run into other foreigners by accident very much. How things have changed!

I used to go to quite a few of the national chambers of commerce events - but they tended to be rather stuffy and earnest: if you didn't have a fat venture capital fund to invest or a huge technology transfer to pitch, you felt like a bit of an imposter. I used to go to Oriented a fair bit too; that used to be rather fun, I thought (set up originally in the States by ABCs - though it now has branches all around Asia-Pacific); but perhaps I was biased because I was friends with the principal organiser, and used to go along largely to catch up with her once a month. Since she got herself a big TV job and dropped out of the organising committee, the Oriented parties have taken a major turn for the worse. The jolliest forum of the lot was the self-mockingly titled 'Young Professionals' Happy Hour' but, sadly, that folded a few years back - and there's been a bit of a void in the social scene since.

So, last night I went to check out the newcomer on the scene, The Network Club (well, new-ish; someone suggested to me they might have been around for a year or two now, but I've only become aware of them in the last couple of months.... and I usually keep my ear to the ground about such things!). It's a much grander and more 'professional' set-up than the old YPHH. I have to say, I admire the ambition of the undertaking, the range of activities it is seeking to promote, and the thoroughness of its website. However, this 'ambition' also makes me a more than a little bit queasy: the only good reason I can see for trying to do things like this on such a large scale is to get rich quick. Their principal events - the monthly networking evenings - are pitching for around 300 participants each time: this severely limits their choice of venues; and it's way too many for either for an effective networking experience or for a pleasant social outing - you simply can't mingle easily to find the people who might interest you in such a huge and packed throng. Moreover, the hefty door fee (100 kuai! Twice what Oriented or YPHH ever charged - in fact, in the good old days YPHH used to be funded entirely by new bars and restaurants seeking to promote themselves and was free to attendees) leaves one feeling somewhat ripped off.

My biggest gripe about last night, though, was the choice of venue. Well, the choice of venue, and the organization of the space. It was held at The Opposite House, a new 'boutique hotel' in the ghastly, seemingly neverending Sanlitun Village mall, which has a number of bars and restaurants on its ground floor. There begins the problem: which of these multiple sub-venues would actually be hosting the party - some or all? It wasn't at all clear. In fact, many of the earlier arrivals like myself were directed by the over-eager venue staff into the Mesh cocktail bar to convert our 'One Free Drink' voucher into a free drink - and nearly missed out on the main event, which was in fact slowly getting going in the atrium.

The Network Club people were so intent on getting everybody to register and pay that they didn't give out any instructions as to what people should do next. The rear of the atrium area - which, I belatedly discovered, was the intended venue for the event - could be accessed only by one very narrow aisle along the edge of a large 'water feature' (a cunning piece of techno wizardry - it looks like a square of black marble with a thin film of water rippling across it, but this seems to be an illusion created with the lighting somehow). The two other aisles had mysteriously been blocked off. Venue staff members were posted there to prevent people from going through; they could just as easily have checked that anyone seeking to go through had the requisite hand stamp from the event organisers. And on the one aisle available for use, oddly enough, there didn't seem to be anyone checking the hand stamps; so this was a case where a fatuous attempt to establish venue security merely resulted in a galling inconvenience. This inconvenience was compounded by the fact that even after a large enough crowd had gathered to make it clear that this was where the event was supposed to happen and that this was the only means of access, a large gaggle of people formed directly in front of the registration table (after registering), completely blocking off this ridiculous bottleneck approach to the intended networking area.

Quite apart from these organizational cock-ups, the venue seemed to me to be all wrong for this kind of function. The Opposite House is a barn: yes, it has a monumental quality to it, and its space-age architecture is kind of funky up to a point, but..... it has zero atmosphere, absolutely none. Bottom line: you can't 'network' with an 80 ft ceiling constantly reminding you of your insignificance.

In my view, a good networking party needs a human scale: a group size where you could conceivably nod a hello to everyone in the room and get to chat to most of them, if you so chose - or at least be able to scope them all out. That becomes quite impossible with numbers of 100 or more. You also need a venue suitable to that sort of group. The ground floor of The Opposite House - if the organizers had not been perversely trying to confine the party to the relatively cramped space at the back of the atrium - could swallow up 1,000 or more people. Good networking requires a sense of intimacy, not the ambience of a cattle market. A cosy, small-to-medium sized venue - with a number of semi-discrete areas for split-off groups to get cosy - is ideal. And some seating is nice too; some people don't want to spend three hours on their feet; and I like to choose to mingle, rather than being forced to by the absence of anywhere to stand, or even to lean.

Ah yes, and alcohol would be good too. There was only one free drink last night - a rather miserly ration, I thought, considering the high cost of entry. There did not appear to be any additional drinks specials (although there was a special set dinner menu at one of the adjacent restaurants) laid on for the event. In fact, it was not clear if drinks were available at all: there was only one small table - and a few circulating wait staff - dispensing drinks in the main networking area, and this did not appear to be operating as a cash bar. It wouldn't have made much difference anyway, since the area became so uncomfortably overcrowded that it was almost impossible to make one's way through to it. And I, for one, would have been hesitant about buying many drinks at Opposite House prices.

I am a great believer that a free availability of alcohol is an essential lubricant to almost any kind of party - wedding, funeral, joint venture launch, you name it. In fact, I suggest that the disinhibiting effects of alcohol availability at such gatherings make themselves felt almost immediately, even before anything has been drunk; indeed, this benefit has relatively little to do with how much has actually been drunk - it can make its effects felt just as much on the teetotallers in the company. It's all a matter of attitude: if it is clear that this is an event where getting well-and-truly drunk is a distinct possibility, that drinking, heavy drinking is, if not encouraged, at least sanctioned.... well, then everybody gets into a party frame of mind, unwinds a bit, gets prepared to have a little fun. Weddings that try to keep everybody sober until the end of the meal (presumably to avoid heckling of the speeches??) are a disaster. Networking events are precisely the same: you need good service and affordable drinks (discounts special to the event always create good feeling) to help keep the conversation flowing easily. That was the key element missing last night. Add that to an unwieldy crowd and a horrendous venue, and you've got a pretty dire evening.

I'd really like this Network Club venture to succeed, because I think there is a niche to be filled here; but I'm going to be very wary about dropping another 100 RMB on their next event.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Possible Band Names enters its second glorious year!

Yes, I've only just noticed, but the notorious Possible Band Names game was originally posted on 12th January 2008. Long may it continue!

(Although I desperately need to find some new readers from somewhere to breathe new life into it!!)

The mysterious Gary continues to keep it going, just about single-handed. His offerings last month included such charming quirkinesses as Funkin' Donuts and The Lesser Smores (though I fear these might work better in the States than elsewhere around the world), as well as the (to my way of thinking) perversely convoluted Nocturnal Remission, and the more conventionally appealing Jungle Telegraph and Sundry Items. I feel sure that The Six-Pack Sonneteers must in fact exist somewhere out there in the C & W strongholds of Redneckland (oooh, that's a band name in itself - see how easy this is!). As December's winner, though, I have to pick Dead Cat Doormat (one fears that there's a nasty story behind that, but let's not enquire).

Gary's Foreign Band Name suggestion last month was a Chinese one, An Quan Tao - which apparently means Condom (I had to look it up). Fair enough.

And his Cover Band Name inspiration was The Boomtown Brats - "Peaches and other celebrity kids butcher their parents' hits".

New readers, old readers, please pitch in. Dear Gary can't keep doing this all by himself.

There might even be PRIZES.... one day.... maybe....

Monday, January 12, 2009

New Picks of the Month

I'm a little bit late in changing over that feature in my sidebar this month, but, on Froogville at least, we've already had quite a splurge of nostalgia recently with my Review of the Year feature over the Christmas holidays.

My new recommendation from the distant archives on Froogville is A 'Bad China Day' from April 2007 : what starts off looking as though it might be a standard expat 'China rant' soon reveals itself as a tirade against that genre, and hence against most 'China bloggers' in general.

From Barstool Blues I choose Another Jamaican Moment from December 2006: one of a number of snapshots of a rather wonderful holiday I had out there at the end of the.... (ahem) rather a long time ago.... with my old university buddy the Mothman.

Bon mot for the week

"Abstinence is as easy for me as temperance would be difficult."

Samuel Johnson (1709-1784)

Yes, it's that man again.....

Sunday, January 11, 2009

A poem for the dead of winter

The Park Drunk

He opens his eyes to a hard frost,
the morning's soft amnesia of snow.

The thorned stems of gorse
are starred crystal; each bud
like a candied fruit, its yellow
picked out and lit
by the low pulse
of blood-orange
riding in the eastern trees.

What the snow has furred
to silence, uniformity,
frost has amplified, made singular;
giving every form a sound,
an edge, as if
frost wants to know
what snow tries to forget.

And so he drinks for the winter,
for the coming year,
for all the beautiful tiny doors
in their craquelure of frost;
and he drinks
like the snow falling, trying
to close the biggest door of all.

Robin Robertson

Friday, January 09, 2009

HBH 114

The days dawn brighter
But the weeks seem longer.
Without booze, time drags.

My self-imposed abstinence is going well this week, but..... drinking is so interwoven with the fabric of my life that it is hard to know what to do with myself when I give it up completely. I fancy that it is really bars that I enjoy, more than drinking per se; but it is hard to enjoy bars without drinking. And I am already missing bars, dammit! There is a danger that I will just stay home for the entire month watching DVDs. This may be good for my bank balance, but less so for my mental health, I fear.

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

The Formula?

My American pal, Dapper Dan, used to be, like me, a few-and-serious man in his romantic entanglements, a 'serial monogamist', a gentleman. Since his last great heartbreak, however, he has adopted a new policy: these days he is far more of a 'player', an enthusiast of disposable fun in sexual relationships.

He was telling me that he's enjoying a nice fling at the moment, having hooked up with an attractive foreign girl who was, like so many of us, finding herself rather at a loose end over the recent lonely holiday.

She is, he assures me, "very HOT".

Well, that's nice, I'm pleased for him. However, I have some misgivings. In the past, I've always felt that Dan was interested in intellect and personality more than looks, but he doesn't really seem to have much else to say about this girl. I ask how old she is. 22, he tells me. Jesus! Now, Dan is not quite so withered and ancient as me, but he is well the other side of 30, and there is usually an almost unbridgeable chasm - in interests, experience, maturity - between us and girls who are barely out of college.

"Isn't that just a bit young for you?" I ventured.

"Did I mention how HOT she is?" he returned.

"Well, yes. But that age difference is surely going to lead to problems before long," I warned.

"Ah, that's the marvellous thing about it: she's leaving in a couple of months."

Ah, yes. For those who enjoy a bit of commitment-free frolic, an expat community - with its high churn-rate, few people staying more than a couple of years, some only a few months - is an ideal environment: it's just one long succession of 'holiday romances'.

Maybe Young, HOT, and leaving is the way to go.....

Traffic Report - the blog stats for December

There were 61 posts and around 21,000 words on Froogville last month (though I suppose about a quarter of that was accounted for by the "reader's favourite posts" that I rehashed for the Review of the Year feature over Christmas).

There were 45 posts and over 16,000 words on Round-The-World Barstool Blues (and all original content!).

According to Statcounter, Froogville enjoyed new visitors from Spain, Turkey, the Philippines and Romania(!!); while the Barstool claims the new distinction of having drawn one visit from each of the four Scandinavian countries, as well as ticking off India and Japan for the first time (not that I'm obsessive about 'collecting' all the countries, but....).

What will the New Year have in store for all of us? Let's venture forth and find out.

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Beware of 'accidental' beer

Today was the first day of a proposed month-long abstinence from alcohol.

(A supplementary New Year's resolution for me this year. It had taken a few days to psych myself up for this. And yesterday happened to be a friend's birthday party, and also the Saddle Cantina's infamous Cinco de Drinko promotion - half-price drinks all day on the 5th of the month. Hard to pass that up! So, I thought I'd try to lay off the booze from the 5th to the 5th. I'm not going to go crazy over this: I'll be allowing myself the occasional exception for 'special occasions' - like another birthday coming up next week, and maybe the Chinese New Year; but my aim is to avoid habitual, every-day drinking.)

I nearly fell from grace on Day 1 by reflexively ordering a beer with lunch in a Chinese restaurant. I had been insufficiently alert to this danger: it is now very difficult to conceive of having a Chinese meal - particularly a very spicy Chinese meal (man, those wings were evil) - without a beer.

What's worse, I realised that I no longer conceive of beer-with-a-meal as alcohol within the terms of my self-imposed ban; it's more like a soft drink!

Luckily I was with my recording partner DD, a strict and dominating type, who saved me from an accidental beer.