Thursday, April 30, 2009

We few, we happy few

A few pictures from Saturday's bar crawl. (Yes, crazily enough, I took my camera along. I felt it would give me the necessary incentive to maintain some modicum of self-control..... and it seemed to work!)

Whatever happened to MIDI?

The annual rock festival staged over the May Day break by Beijing's Midi Music School has long been the highlight of an otherwise drab and pointless holiday. I've been three or four times (well, probably six or seven times over four years), and it's always been a great day out in Haidian Park (although it is a hell of a long schlepp away on the north-west side of town, and taxi drivers never seem to have heard of it).

Last year, of course, it got cancelled at the last minute, because of the authorities' paranoia about unseemly public gatherings in Olympic year. A smaller version of the event was staged during the October holiday, but it was thrown together at very short notice, used obscure indoor venues, got just about no advance publicity, was bedevilled by conflicting venue information in the listings magazines, and found itself in competition with a rival festival staged by Modern Sky Records, and..... did I mention there was pretty much no advance publicity? No, it was, I fear, a bit of a disaster. Just about no-one that I know went to it. Very sad.

However, we had all been fervently hoping for a return to form this May - it looks as if the weather is going to be perfect.

Unfortunately..... well, maybe the organizers were too disheartened by their experiences last year. Maybe there are problems with the 'traditional' Haidian Park venue. Maybe the authorities are still antsy about large public gatherings, what with all the sensitive anniversaries this year (although there are two smaller music festivals going on: we have a new two-day jazz/folk event in Ditan Park, and Modern Sky is launching its Strawberry Festival - but that's in the distant suburb of Tongzhou). No Midi for us again this year. BOO!! I learned just last week that although the festival will be going ahead on a fairly big scale (not as big as two years ago, but comparable to its ambitions three or four years ago), it has moved to Zhenjiang. Where?? Well, quite. Some of my Chinese friends have never heard of it. Apparently it's in Jiangsu Province, a couple of hours' train ride south of Shanghai. That doesn't bode well for much of a laowai turnout, but hopefully there are enough local rock fans down there to make it a decent party.

Why on earth has this happened? Global Times, a new English-language newspaper here (state-run, of course, but supposedly slightly less hidebound by propaganda imperatives and therefore more 'appealing' to foreigners than the pedestrian and often laughably happy-clappy China Daily; it's a bit early to judge, since it was only launched a week ago) yesterday carried a story about the Midi Festival, celebrating its success over the past few years, and noting with regret that the capital would be missing out on it this year. However, there was no examination of the reasons for its cancellation last year, and no explanation for the change of venue this year. Is this just laziness on the part of the journalist, or is it a government decision based on 'public order' concerns and therefore unchallengeable? Your guess is as good as mine.

Well, we haven't lost Midi completely: some of the 'bigger' bands are scheduled to play evening concerts at Star Live. However, that's a bit of a charmless barn of a venue. And the whole point of Midi is that it's an open-air event. (And a big supplementary bonus, when the festival was held in the city, was that all the bands would play formal or informal gigs around the city's cosier, friendlier music bars for most of the week. Now, that was fun.)

I suppose I could check out the Modern Sky offering; but Tongzhou really is dauntingly far away, and I have no idea how to get there. The Ditan Park festival has the considerable advantages of featuring several performers I know, and being within walking distance; I've even been offered a free ticket for Saturday. Yep, I think that's likely to be my holiday entertainment. Might be worth checking out both the festival line-ups, though. (It seems like City Weekend is the best place to look; Modern Sky's website is mostly in Chinese, and I find the bloody The Beijinger website impossible to navigate! Strawberry Festival - Friday, Saturday, Sunday; Ditan Park - Friday & Saturday).

See you around, music fans. Have a fun holiday!

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Weeble Solutions (4)

The Weeble's further solution to Chinese visa woes:

Go to Qingdao for a few days..... on the grounds that the visa officials there may be more easily convinced you are a 'tourist'.

I hope it works, Weebs.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

What's with all the waffles?

The Great Nanluoguxiang Bar Crawl on Saturday happened to coincide with the Nanluoguxiang street fair (and also with Anzac Day - hence the lively crowd at Ned's, a few of whom joined us for the middle section of the crawl).

This would have been, I think, the fourth annual appearance of the fair - except that last year's event was abruptly cancelled because of Olympic "security concerns" (they may have held it in the autumn instead; I can't remember now). This year's, apparently, was thrown together at very short notice - the authorities decreeing that spring jollity should occur less than a week beforehand. The lack of advance publicity meant that it was rather less thronged than in previous years (when I learned of the event, I was concerned that fighting our way through the crowds would throw us off schedule). However, it did mean that all the bars (or almost all of them) were open during the day; ordinarily, quite a few of them remain dormant until 5pm or 6pm.

A number of bars along the street had set up waffle stalls for the day. A bizarre coincidence?! No I suspect it must have been part of the state-mandated festivities: "You must provide snack foods. And oh, by the way, my brother-in-law can rent you a waffle iron for the day...."

That is rather how things get done in China.

There were some more 'traditional' Chinese snacks on offer too - well, more traditionally popular in China today, but in fact thoroughly Western in origin: popcorn and candyfloss! But most of the regular snackfood stalls seemed to be shut down for the day. At the restaurant where we gathered for our preliminary lunch we were given the shocking news:
"Meiyou chuanr." No kebabs??!! How can you be without the most ubiquitous of all Chinese street food (especially when this is something the restaurant usually specialises in)???? Animator Ben will bear a grudge against me over this for a long time.

I suspect the dead hand of government interference here. The cheap'n'cheerful snacks that people eat on that street every other day of the year are not impressive enough for this special event. Only more tourist-friendly foods will be allowed.

[I have little interest in eating waffles in the middle of the afternoon, myself. Particularly when pissed. And I felt that these stalls rather detracted from the bar-ness of some of the places we visited. Indeed, in some cases it disguised the fact that they were bars, and/or almost completely obstructed the entrance. Our second port of call (the one with the enticingly cheap Jim Beam and the amusing random word pairs spray-painted on the ceiling) was a particularly egregious offender on this score: since it had no name on display above the door (or no name in English or pinyin, anyway), it was recorded in my 'diary' of the day as "Nameless Waffle Place". Only later did I discover that - on this particular day - it was not the only "Waffle Place", nor even, I think, the only "Nameless Waffle Place" on the street.]

Monday, April 27, 2009

Bon mot for the week

"The happy accident happens about once a year. The rest are unhappy accidents."

Alexander Creswell (1957- )

"All happy accidents are alike. Each unhappy accident is unhappy in its own way."


[And by 'accident' I mean, of course, 'love affair'.]

Sunday, April 26, 2009

We done the bugger!

Hell, yes - The Great Nanluoguxiang Bar Crawl has been completed.

With no liver failures, and only one concern-causing extended disappearance into the loo. And only brief lapsing into Alabama Song.

About 10 guys and 5 ladies joined me at various stages of the endeavour, although only the Chairman's brother, Terrible Tes, stuck it out with me all the way from one end of the street to the other. There were also a few people who dropped by to say hi when it was all over (including The Weeble, who now risks being re-christened The Feeble).

After struggling badly to stay 'on schedule' early on, we gathered pace in the later stages, and made it to our terminus at the Pool Bar well before 11pm (having kicked off with lunch at the other end of the street just after noon). Of course, we did then stay there for another five hours or so....

We did not, in fact, drink in all of the circa 25 bars I had identified on my preliminary reconnaissance. Bad Company was closed (in a rather permanent-looking, we've-given-up-the-ghost kind of way). We'd always planned to skip Guitar Bar, because it represents The Dark Side of The Force and we all hate it. Sandglass we also decided against - partly because it seems to be repositioning itself more definitively as a coffee shop rather than a bar (we had the "Is this a bar or a coffee shop?" debate outside almost every venue on the street, and in a number of cases it was quite a tough call - in general, if it had the word 'bar' in its name, we gave it a go; Sandglass's new business cards describe it as a café), and partly as a protest against the Chinese owner who has rather unceremoniously ousted the amiable Mongolian pair who had made the place such a success over the past three years or so. I think we also passed over Log-in Pub, although I can't now remember why - perhaps just because it is so dire. There were two or three other bars at the northern end of the street that we skipped because they were charmless and deserted. And the Backwards Bar (which should have been our penultimate stop on the street itself - the reliable haven of the Pool Bar round the corner on Gulou Dongdajie being destination '+1', a treat for the survivors, an incentive to keep going) excluded itself with its ludicrous pricing policy - 40 kuai for mixed drinks and 25 kuai for a Tsingtao (nowhere else around there charges more than 15 for a Tsingers, and, as we discovered, quite a few ask only 10; and Backwards really has absolutely nothing to distinguish it from any of its more budget-friendly NLGX competitors).

Nevertheless, I think we covered around 15 or so bars on the street - which is a pretty impressive effort. There were inevitably certain problems with people drinking too slowly and/or out of sync - which meant that some of us ended up having additional drinks in some of the bars while we waited for dawdlers. Moreover, the nucleus of our group, my American pals Nick O'Pix and Animator Ben, both arrived feeling badly hungover from Friday night..... and decided that the best way to overcome that problem was to start the afternoon with whisky shots. Thereafter, we drank whisky instead of or as well as a beer in many of the venues (plus, of course, the "2 metres of happiness" selection of flavoured house rums at Salud). It was, therefore, a very seriously alcoholic afternoon and evening.

Amongst the worthwhile discoveries of this escapade:
Dida Café Bar (our first port of call, at the very south end of the street) is really more of a coffee shop than a bar and has very flaky service, but..... it has a nice roof terrace, and it sells Jack Daniel's (and a few other whiskies, I think) for only 20 kuai (and Tsingtao for 10 kuai - take note, Backwards Bar!). That was a refreshingly low-budget start to our adventure - and we were tempted to stay put there.

The place just across the street from there is now an engagingly sleazy little dive bar, again with very cheap prices (Jim Beam is listed at only 15 RMB, although the staff were unaware of this and tried to charge me 25!). It suffers rather from the stigma of an infamous bust for selling fake booze a year or so ago, but I think it's now under different management, and all the drinks we tried there seemed kosher. (A bit of a bewildering set-up there: what had been the main bar area, fronting on to Dianmen Dongdajie, seems to have been separated off and rebranded as a café; the bit on the other side has recently been converted into a clothes shop; and the terrace up top - with the bizarre slogan 'Tennis Care Life' on its railing - well, it's not clear whether that's still open at all, or which part of the premises might give access to it.) Worth a look another time, I think. I particularly liked the "graffiti" on the ceiling, with its oddly significant word pairings like "sex dirty" and "gin hazard". Unfortunately, I have no idea what the place is called, since currently there are only a couple of indecipherable Chinese characters above the door.

The hotel opposite the Central Academy of Drama has a fantastic roof deck and very reasonable prices (but again, I failed to clock its name!). A good spot for sitting in the sunshine during the coming summer, I think.

The American hotdogs at Bar Uno - one of the better recent openings in the middle of the street - were a life-saver in the early evening.

And the bar next to Salud (err.... again "nameless"!!), although it is a rather lame copy of Salud and pretty uninspiring in almost every way, is notable for serving its cocktails and mixed drinks in knickerbocker glory glasses which must contain a treble or quadruple measure.

And.... er..... OK, that's about it. Overall, the exercise chiefly served to confirm our preconceived prejudices that most of the bars on the street are pointless, charmless, and almost customer-free. But it's good to have identified at least a few new potential watering-hole options.

"Why don't we do this every weekend??"

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Polite applause from the pavilion

The Chairman turned 50 a few days ago.

This is a disturbing reminder of my own mortality - the sudden physical deterioration of incipient middle age paving the way towards senility and death. I feel this depressing milestone should not have been passed yet. I hadn't thought he was that much older than me. Worse, he's not that much older than me.

I rather doubt that I shall be looking as spry as he does when I reach the half century. Indeed, the way things have been going lately, I'm none too confident of making it that far at all.

I urged His Chairmanliness to keep his head, not play any loose shots; to dig in for the ton. I rather think he might have it in him.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Gan bei! (Surviving the baijiu ritual)

The other abiding memory - or memory loss - of my first visit to China involves my frequently being nearly baijiu'd to death by the English Faculties of the various teaching institutions I visited.

They like their liquor down there in the central western provinces; they seem to be far more hardy and determined drinkers than the Beijingers. I have very seldom become embroiled in an ordeal-by-baijiu since I've come to live here and, perversely, I rather miss it.

Back in '94, you see, foreigners were still an astounding novelty. Most of the small-town universities or teacher training colleges I was visiting would only have 1, 2, or 3 foreign teachers on their staff; and, as often as not, they would be the only foreigners in town. Shortly after I arrived, the friends I was staying with travelled to a remote town in the north of Hubei province for a conference of all the foreign teachers stationed in the surrounding provinces (almost all of them sourced via VSO, Britain's 'Voluntary Service Overseas' organization) - that was quite a party in itself; much baijiu drunk! These folks were all feeling so desperately deprived of non-Chinese company that they were ecstatic to be able to hang out with native English speakers, to meet someone new. These strangers became new friends almost instantly, and several of them invited - begged - me to come and visit them. It provided a convenient framework for my travel, so I was more than happy to oblige.

However, in each of the places I visited these foreign teachers, the arrival of another foreigner was a matter of even greater excitement to their Chinese colleagues; and in almost every case I was treated to a banquet (sometimes more than one). And in China, a banquet is always accompanied by toasting in baijiu, the dauntingly strong (and usually foul-tasting) local clear spirit.

I was warned by my new foreign friends what a trial this could be. Most of them had hints and tips to share with me for 'survival'. Most of these involved not drinking: you can discreetly spill your cup into your lap as you pick it up, or into a napkin or paper towel placed on the edge of the table for that very purpose.... or even just toss it over your shoulder as you raise the cup to your lips. You're usually drinking from a tiny porcelain thimble cup, or else from a small shot glass, so it's easy enough to conceal it completely behind your fingers; with just a little practice, you develop a conjuror's dexterity in briskly tilting the glass to empty most of its contents in a swift, concealed motion. The clutter of dishes on a Chinese dining table (and, usually, a large lazy-Susan in the middle) helps to obscure other diners' view of this subterfuge. And your Chinese hosts are mostly remarkably unobservant of such furtive behaviour. Nevertheless, the danger of exposure and 'loss of face' seemed too high to me. And it did seem to be a bit of a cheat. I experimented with these techniques a little, but it just didn't seem quite proper to me.

Other advice I was given ranged from ducking out of the toasting exchanges altogether by claiming ill health or teetotalism, to forcing yourself to vomit in the loo (in the good old Roman way), to drinking copious amounts of water to dilute the alcohol at every opportunity.

I wasn't very attracted by any of these, either.

No, the approach that I developed was more tactical, more psychological.

You see, the purpose of the baijiu-toasting tradition is to get the visitor drunk. (Many foreigners develop the paranoid conviction that the Chinese take special pleasure in trying to get foreigners drunk; but I think that the form is pretty much the same in an all-Chinese group.) Therefore, each member of the hosting group will toast you in turn. Individually. There are, say, 12 representatives of the English faculty and 1 of you. They may throw in a few group toasts as well, especially early on. But basically, the aim is to get you to down 15 or 20 shots before anyone else has had more than 4 or 5.

4 or 5, I think, is about the limit for most Chinese drinkers. As I've observed before, they allegedly lack the gene for metabolizing alcohol efficiently, so they tend to get red-faced, falling down, throwing up drunk very quickly indeed, especially once they start quaffing the baijiu. Indeed, a secondary aim of the procedure is to see which of the Chinese hosts will become ill or be forced to quit first. The weaker drinkers are usually goaded into entering the fray first - to embarrass them, and to give the stronger drinkers (or the more senior members of staff) a bit more breathing room.

So.... I worked out that what you need to do is get proactive: don't just sit there grinning like an idiot, waiting for the next toast; ALWAYS return a toast immediately. This is not common practice, and the Chinese usually get quite fazed by it. Imagine - if you've started with one or two group toasts, and then you are called upon to begin the individual toasting..... and then this crafty foreigner toasts you back! Suddenly you've had 4 shots in just over a minute and you realise you're on the fast train to oblivion.

It's a good idea to throw in a few group toasts as well. Just to put everyone on the back foot. English is acceptable, though a little bit of Chinese is obviously more impressive - even if it's just Youyi, 'friendship'! (Most of the Chinese toasts were rather elaborate, hackneyed political slogans, along the lines of "Celebrate enhanced cooperation between our two great nations!" I memorised one or two of these at the time, but I have forgotten them now.)

It was remarkable how well this worked. If you can get the first three or four toasters pissed while remaining upright yourself, most of the others will be intimidated into dropping out of the game.

Most. There will always be one or two hardcore guys who are determined to see whether they can outlast the foreigner. I think most times, despite my cunning tactics, I did end up drinking 15 or 20 shots, sometimes even more. I think I threw up at least once or twice as a result of these baijiu banquets (and I have only thrown up through alcoholic over-indulgence a handful of times in my life). I certainly retired to bed with the room spinning madly around my head on several occasions.

Ah, they were great times, though. I haven't really had quite that much fun in China ever since.

HBH 130

The room is spellbound
by her smile, her flashing eyes,
the nape of her neck.

Yes, I am unwisely seeking consolation for my latest (evidently doomed) long-distance infatuation by resuming a long-standing infatuation (no doubt equally doomed) with someone closer to home. Will I never learn?

Thursday, April 23, 2009


Despite the dingy weather and my continuing ill health and the distressing shortage of fully-committed participants, I am pressing ahead with my long-planned, oft-deferred mega-bar-crawl this weekend.

Of course, one of my Chinese friends I tried to entice along queried the point of it: "What are we celebrating?"

The Chinese, it seems, always need an ulterior reason for getting drunk; they don't like to do it for the sheer hell of it.

I replied:

"Nothing - but the spirit of adventure itself. It's like climbing a mountain: we do it just to see if it's possible, just to see if we can survive."

Yes, it's something like 25 bars in all. Survival may be an issue. Wish me luck!

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

My first memory of China

I was reminiscing over the weekend about my first visit to China, 15 years ago this month. And I thought I should add one or two stories on here about my drinking experiences during that trip.

My very first night in China (well, if we discount the hellish night I spent in a railway station hotel in Shenzhen, an episode I try not to dwell on), I got extravagantly drunk.

I was visiting an old college friend, his new Chinese wife, his sister and brother-in-law (fortuitously also visiting at this time, although they were nearing the end of their stay just as I was arriving), and his teaching colleague (the only other foreigner in the small Hankou university where my friend was working, and one of only a handful in the entire city at that time).

We'd got fairly well lubricated at dinner, only hours after my arrival. Then we went back to the university guest house where we were all staying to attack a crate of beer we'd bought that afternoon. (I think we'd paid about 30 kuai for 24 large bottles; but a good chunk of that was a deposit on the crate. I suppose there was probably some deposit on the bottles as well. I can't quite recall the basic price of a beer, but I think it was around 1 kuai each; and I recall there being some disgruntlement - amongst Chinese friends I made on the trip even more than the foreigners - because it had but recently gone up from 7 or 8 mao. Ah, those were the days! The crate was a thing of wonder, too: roughly constructed from odd pieces of scrap wood, it was extremely heavy, and difficult, not to say hazardous to carry because of all the splinters and the points of bent, rusted nails protruding from it. It was something of a cheek to charge a deposit on that. But I digress...)

We - well, I - decided that we ought to mark my first day in the Middle Kingdom by getting properly drunk, and I suggested that we ought to do our damnedest to finish the crate off in one sitting. 24 bottles between 6 people should not have been that much of a challenge, and, at first, all of my companions were game to give it a try. Unfortunately....

Well, my friend and his wife had had a big row about something at dinner, and she retired to bed early to sulk. He felt obliged to follow her shortly afterwards, either to apologise or to conduct a sulk of his own. His colleague lasted till around midnight, but then decided that discretion was the better part of valour since he had a class at 8am. So, suddenly there were just three of us, and we weren't even half-way down the case yet. The sister and brother-in-law are from Scotland (well, he's a native, and it's her adopted home ever since she was an undergraduate at the University of Edinburgh), so, they're accomplished drinkers. The sister, in fact, is one of the finest lady drinkers I know. However, I think she quit the pace around 2am, leaving still 6 or so bottles for her hubby and I to polish off. We refused to be beaten.

I'm not sure what time we finished. Probably around 3.30 or 4am, I suspect. Rather than risk disturbing my (Chinese) roommates (in a room I don't think I'd even visited yet), I crashed out on a sofa in the room where we'd been drinking, a mini-apartment the sister and brother-in-law were renting (a room I coveted for myself, since it had a quaint moon arch in the middle of it - but the guesthouse management insisted that it was never "available", though in fact I think it was always empty after my new friends left a week later; perhaps it was being reserved for possible use by another travelling couple). I lost all recollection of the latter stages of the "evening". When I awoke the next morning, groggily, after just a few hours sleep, in an unfamiliar room.... well, for several seconds at least I could not remember where I was; I could not even remember what country I was in; I could scarcely even remember who I was. It was a strangely liberating, exhilarating experience.

And then I remembered I was in China. And I felt immediately at peace.

And I thought to myself, If we drink like that every night, I'm really going to enjoy myself in this country.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Sunday, April 19, 2009

The Bookbinders' Arms

As I was reflecting the other day on my favourite pubs in Oxford, this was one of the first names that came to mind.

I hope it's still there, and still as it was; I probably haven't been there in 6 or 7 years now, and I haven't been a regular in more than twice as long.

It's one of the classic old working mens' pubs that used to adorn the corner of just about every block in the Jericho district, the residential area serving the industrial estate strung along the canal in the north-west of the city. It is, in fact, right next to the canal, and I fancy I may have first discovered it when some friends of mine and I in our undergraduate days rented a narrowboat for a canal holiday one summer from the adjacent boatyard.

Its special attraction - apart from decent beer and sandwiches, keen prices, and a general lack of pretentiousness - was its bar billiards table. Oxfordshire is one of the last areas of the country where this game still survives quite strongly, and the standard of the pub league in the county is really formidable. Quite a few pubs around Oxford have - or used to have - a bar billiards table (my beloved pool hangout, The Temple, for example; and the Donnington Arms, I think; and the Waterman's on Osney island; and The Cricketer's on Iffley Road - all also contenders for a spot in my Oxford 'Top 10'), but they were rarely very good ones. The Bookbinders' table, however, was just about perfect, the best I've ever played on. Their team was one of the strongest in the league, so they took it very seriously, and were at pains to make sure that their table was maintained in peak condition. Only two or three times did I see a league match (or a serious practice session) in progress there, but it was pretty awesome stuff. Very few players are good enough to ever play a perfect game, to stay on the table continuously for the full time limit (typically 17 minutes, I think; after that, a clock-triggered trap drops inside the table, shutting off the pockets so that balls are no longer returned for reuse; and the game ends when all remaining balls have been potted). However, with these guys, it did often come down to a test of nerve, a trial to see if one of them could stay on long enough in a single visit to the table to compile a game-winning total; if someone made an error too soon (or had scored too slowly, despite having used up more than half of the available time), then it was a near certainty that his opponent would play out the rest of game and seize the victory.

I don't think I've ever seen that jaw-dropping level of excellence firsthand in any other game - in pool or darts or any of the other pub games I've dabbled in myself. One of the guys who used to play in there was the national champion a few times back in the '90s, I think.

And I, of course, was embarrassed to play there if any of the regulars was around. I am nowhere near that good. I like bar billiards as an occasional change from pool or snooker, but I've never played regularly enough to even begin to master its intricacies. I would generally be quite happy if I could compile one or two breaks of a few hundred. And, as often as not, my occasional tussles with The Bookseller would be decided by which of us for once managed to avoid forfeiting our entire score by knocking over the black penalty skittle with a rash shot near the end of the game. No, I was really not very good at the game at all.

My dad, on the other hand.... Well, he'd apparently played quite a lot when he was a kid in the West Midlands and had become pretty useful; and, in the later years of the War, when he was in his mid-teens, he claimed he'd made a fair bit of money hustling American servicemen at the game (although I suspect they would have made fairly easy victims, since they would probably have falsely assumed that the game was similar to pool - and it ain't at all). He hadn't kept in practice, had hardly played at all since those far-off days, but he still had a few impressive shots in him and a good overall sense of the game. He could usually beat me fairly comfortably. My dad, alas, was an archetypal 'bad loser' and would sulk like a stroppy two-year-old whenever I bested him in something. As I grew up, and got better at games, I had to give up playing first Monopoly against him, then chess, then darts, then snooker and pool.... I was grateful to find one game where I could still lose to him consistently.

When I was living and working in Oxford again in the early '90s, The Bookbinders' was only a 10-minute walk away from my flat. I took my dad in there for a game the last time he visited me, shortly before his sudden death. I probably have rather more bad memories than good of him, but that last visit, and that session of bar billiards are amongst the better ones.

Friday, April 17, 2009


There were two less-than-perfect moments in my recent (not-quite) love affair with a visiting businesswoman (well, apart from her not falling in love with me, and leaving after 6 days, that is...). The rest of the time we spent together was unbelievably harmonious and blissful; yes, yes, probably too-good-to-be-true. But our first and last meetings were tainted by moments of acute, though rather amusing embarrassment for me. And I can't help but wonder now if there was some kind of omen in this.

I met her in a favourite little bar down on Nanluoguxiang. She'd been poring over a map in the corner, so I had been politely ignoring her. Then she came over and asked me and the boss for some restaurant recommendations. I didn't want to seem too pushy (and I had, alas, already eaten that evening), so didn't suggest accompanying her to a restaurant. However, having ascertained that she was a visitor and unaccompanied (and drop-dead gorgeous), I did mention that there was a nice gig in the neighbourhood later in the evening (my jazzy friends, the No Name Trio, playing at Ginkgo) and that I would be delighted if she could join me there after her meal if she had time. She agreed that that sounded a very attractive suggestion, and asked me for details.

Now, Gingko was not so very distant from where we were, and not too difficult to find, but since she was a stranger, in Beijing for the first time, I thought it would be helpful if I could give her a card with the address and telephone number on it. I was pretty sure I had one of Gingko's cards somewhere in my wallet (I have dozens of cards for bars and restaurants in my wallet!). Yes, sure enough - here's one. Only as I was handing it over to her did I notice that there was a name and phone number scribbled on it. A girl's name! I honestly have no idea who that girl was, or how I came to have her number written on a restaurant's business card. (I suspect that the card had been given to me by someone else, Nico the manager, maybe; and that I'd never even noticed there was a personal phone number added to it.) No, this did not tend to show me in a good light, I fear; it suggested that I was some sort of inveterate lounge lizard who chats girls up in bars every night.... and subsequently doesn't even remember who they are. However, I managed to apologise, and make a joke of it; and I think my embarrassment and bewilderment were so obviously authentic that she was inclined to be amused by it too (although she did tease me about it later, rather charmingly, when she wrote her own contact details on the same card for me, and then added, "Don't give this away this time!").

Anyway, all smooth sailing from there on. Until her last night. She had decided she would like to see part of a festival of films on modern dance that was screening at the Ullens Centre in Dashanzi that week. I had to work in the CBD until early evening, and so was faced with a bit of a mad scramble to get out there in time for the start. I therefore told her I'd meet her inside the auditorium. Once I finally found a taxi, and got clear of the rush-hour logjam on the 2nd Ringroad, I made improbably good time and managed to arrive with 5 or 10 minutes in hand.

Ah, but then.... at the box office, I happened to run into a lady journalist friend - outrageously sexy, something of an old flame. We hadn't seen each other in ages, so she was being very chatty, very friendly.... insisting we walk into the show together. Oh dear. I'm going to look like a lounge lizard again, aren't I? I couldn't find a way of explaining to my lovely friend that I didn't want to sit with her, or even really to be seen with her, because I was kind of on a date with someone else.... but I did manage to detach myself from her almost as soon as we were through the door. And I don't think my New Romantic Interest noticed this fleeting 'infidelity', or thought anything untoward of it, if she did. Phew!

And so, the rest of our last evening passed as wonderfully as the previous five had done. But I really, really, really do not want that to be our last evening.

Anyway, those two slight misadventures turned out to be more amusing than disastrous, thank heavens. But I still feel these anecdotes would make a suitable first post for my long threatened series on Great Dating Disasters.

HBH 129

Whisky and Guinness,
but "strictly medicinal".
This week's poor excuse!

I am once again crippled with a horrendous throat infection. I am once again 'treating' it in the only way I know how....

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

I wouldn't have thought it possible

But Centro may possibly have a rival in the unbelievably awful overpriced bar niche.

Well, no - I think Centro will always hang on to its first place there, because it is so bizarrely popular: and it is the clientele the place attracts that puts me off as much as anything. The new 'contender' is so abysmal that I think it is unlikely ever to be troubled by many customers.

Yep, last night I looked in at a networking event in the Flames bar in the new Wangfujing Hilton Hotel. Everything about the place - about the entire hotel, in fact - is deeply unimpressive. It's hidden away down a back alley, opposite an enormous construction site - the only clue to its presence being a couple of not terribly conspicuous hoardings on the corner. It appears to be run on a self-service basis. When I arrived, there was no doorman wrangling taxis, no lift attendant, no porters, nobody behind the desk - really, there was not a single member of staff visible anywere in the lobby; nothing, in fact, to indicate that this was a hotel at all.

The interior design is almost indescribably horrible: low ceilings, dim lighting, a symphony in beige (one of those awful 20th Century symphonies that nobody listens to, masturbatory atonal experimentalism).

The lobby did at least serve as a preparatory warning: the bar itself was much the same, but worse. The carpet and most of the furnishings seemed to be of the colour Tom Waits once memorably classified as "monkey-shit brown". The walls are cluttered with picture-framed mirrors, but, strangely, this seems to do nothing to create a greater sense of space; it somehow only emphasises the pokeyness of the room. The level of lighting could best be termed dingy. Now, I have often said that I like a bit of dark in my bars, a comforting wombiness. I should perhaps have been more specific: a bar needs a contrast of light and dark within (dim corners for skulking, but fairly strong lighting around the bar itself), but little or no outside light penetrating. There seems to be a fashion in recent years - perhaps driven by the eco-freaks' zeal for energy-saving - to have universally low light throughout a bar or restaurant. A few months ago I was complaining about this perverse affectation at Mesh. Flames is following the same eyesight-endangering path.

At least there's an island bar. I love island bars, in general. But this one is devoid of character, and takes up far too much space. The counter is made of fake - or very cheap - black-grained white marble; and it's not even one-piece, but crudely fitted together with tiles that are reminiscent of cheese boards.

Free "canapés" for the networking party were a selection of daubs of unidentifiable (and mostly - again - brown) paste that had been bonded to small fragments of dried bread with a blowtorch. They served no purpose whatsoever - other than to warn people against trying any of the adjacent restaurants on the 5th floor. I didn't see anyone attempting to eat one.

A poster downstairs had boasted of the views on offer. Hmm - well, I think there were only a couple of small windows in one of the side rooms. The main bar area is completely windowless. The only view would be of the construction site over the road, so probably no great loss. The poster also mentioned, I think, an intention to develop the bar as a live jazz venue. I can't see that flying either. Crappy acoustics, not enough space - nowhere, really, to put a stage. I couldn't help feeling that this promotional copy had been written by someone who'd never had to suffer direct experience of the bar itself.

Why did I waste a portion of my evening in hunting down this dismal bar? What foolish optimism had taken possession of me? My suspicions should have been aroused by the fact that the Oriented networking group (not last night's host) has started using this place for its monthly meetings this year. I used to be a big fan of these get-togethers (well, a few years ago one of the main organisers was a friend of mine); but over the past 2 or 3 years they have developed an unfortunate knack for consistently choosing unappealing and hellishly overpriced venues (Zeta, i-Ultra, Element Fresh), and then sticking to them for months at a time. So, their recent selection of Flames should have been a red flag. I shall be more alert to such helpful auguries next time.

Ah, one last thing - the drinks list. Expensive. Very. 50kuai for a Tsingtao! And it's not even the unlovely but at least comfortingly familiar 330ml bottle. Oh no, it's tepid draught served in a considerably-less-than-full Collins glass.

Wild horses could not drag me back.

Monday, April 13, 2009

A guide to getting around (in Oxford)

After a little reflection, I have found that my recollection of the names of my favourite Oxford pubs is almost as sketchy as it is of those in London. Moreover, Oxford has suffered particularly badly from the plague of "modernisation" in the pub scene, and many of the dives that I most cherished in my student days have closed down, or suffered the most grotesque makeovers and renamings (and there are quite a few more that I thought were still going, but which I can't seem to find on this map.... worrying).

Nevertheless, this summary of the (major) pubs of Oxford (aping the famous London Underground diagram) is a handy aid to the memory, a spur to further weepy nostalgia about the great drinking days of yore.

If I were better with Photoshop (if I had a version of Photoshop that worked on this computer!), I might consider knocking up a Beijing version of this. I wonder if anyone else has already produced one??

[By the way, my gal pal DD has recently suggested trying to do a bar crawl based around the stops on Line 2 of Beijing's subway system. Now, I am always game to take on arbitrary challenges of this sort, but.... I fear the problem with this proposal is that there are no bars anywhere near any of the Line 2 stations (and there are 18 stations, which might be an unmanageable number). In fact, there's nothing at all near most of them; so, DD's optimistic alternative suggestion - that, instead of proper bars, we could find a cheap Chinese restaurant or a xiaomaibu to drink a Yanjing beer at in each of these locales - would prove unworkably time-consuming. It's an intriguing proposal, though. I may give it some further thought; perhaps conduct a little surreptitious reconnaissance over the next few weeks....]

A bon mot for the week

"I thought women were supposed to turn into their mothers, not their fathers."


The begetter of this recent humdinger is a good friend of mine - whose anonymity must be strictly maintained in order to protect his marriage.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Battle of the Sexes

I fear I'm suffering from some sort of kidney problem these past few days: I seem to need a piss at least once an hour. Most inconvenient!

My best female friend, Dishy Debs, noticed this unfortunate - and untypical - habit of mine last night, and playfully made the withering generalisation:
"Men have such small bladders!"

"No, no," I corrected her. "We have such small brains. But our bladders are HUGE."

Friday, April 10, 2009

I have in mind a business*

For more than a year now I have had it in mind to attempt to organize a bar crawl along Nanluoguxiang.

Now that the pleasant weather is here (not too hot, not too cold - this won't last more than a month or so), I think the time is ripe to put this plan into effect.

The sooner the better - because new bars seem to be opening down there almost every day.

A quick check a few evenings ago suggested a total at present of 26 (although I may have missed one or two; and there are at least a dozen restaurants and coffee bars, some of which arguably might merit inclusion). Even if we confine ourselves to piss-weak bottles of Tsingtao, I fear this may be pushing the limits of possibility - both in terms of expense and liver damage. I'm sure I have killed off 25 or 30 Tsingtaos in a night once or twice before - but it did make me pretty darned drunk! And I'm not sure that I know anyone else sufficiently hardcore to give this a serious go with me (I wonder if Big Frank would come back from Korea for the event?).

I think we'll have to aim to start in the early afternoon, and allow a good 8-10 hours for completion. I'll settle on a date shortly, and let you know.

But I warn you.....
as my friend The Weeble always says, There are rules, you know. I think we'll allow people to omit a drink, or take a soft drink, in any bar they wish (I really wouldn't want anybody to make themselves ill attempting this); but I will have no truck with people dropping out through mere tiredness or boredom, or electing to stick in a favourite bar part way up the street. This is our challenge: to visit every single bar on that street in succession. Edmund Hillary didn't say to himself, "Well, that's a bloody big mountain; perhaps I'll just go half-way up", now, did he? NO.

We have to do it...... because it's there.

Who's with me?

* A reference that even The Weeble won't get.

A gig too far....

Yes, maybe I did try to pack in too much yesterday.

Tim Garton Ash overran slightly at The Bookworm, so I had to duck out before the Q&A began.

Got to Yugong just in time for the start of Panjir's set, kicking off improbably promptly at 8.30 (well, I missed the first 5 minutes or so).

Yugong was, yet again, a disappointment. The venue was uncomfortably heaved out, and it was difficult to get close enough to hear, let alone see the band. I can't imagine why the organisers didn't choose Star Live instead, a venue which could cope comfortably with much bigger numbers, and has way better sound.

Far too many tickets had been distributed (and security on the door didn't seem to be too challenging; I ran into a couple of acquaintances who'd managed to blag their way in ticketless): attendance was well beyond a comfortable capacity for Yugong. And the acoustics problem - the echoing babble of chatterers at the rear of the room overwhelming the sound of the musicians - was thus particularly bad last night.

Panjir were excellent, as always; but they only played for an hour or so.

They were a tough act for the visiting Fethi Tabet to follow. (Thanks to the heavy censoring and general crapness of the Chinese Internet at the moment, I still have no idea if that is the name of the band or only of the frontman.) And he/they did not impress. Well, the band were fine; very good, in fact. But it was a rather bland mismatch of musical styles, and their 'star' leader had a weak voice and a severe absence of charisma. (Unfortunate mismatch of fashion sense too: he teamed a panama hat with an aged pair of leather trousers that looked like some of Jim Morrison's castoffs.) He struck me as a rather 'easy listening' version of North African music; a musician capable of gaining broad appeal in France perhaps mainly because he's jolly and unthreatening and un-Arab-looking.

I was told that the set got better later on, and was positively rocking for the last few songs when Panjir joined to jam (I'm not sure how there was room for them all on stage??). I'm sorry I missed that - but the unpleasant throng and the crappy sound quality had sapped my enthusiasm after half an hour or so of Fethi's set.

However, that did enable me to get to Jianghu just in time to catch the last couple of numbers in Dan and Nico's opening set. Alas, they were on something of a work-to-rule last night (since this was the first time they've ever managed to negotiate a fee for appearing there) and only played two sets, rather than the three or four we had come to expect from them in the past. And again, there was rather a big crowd (Tianxiao's actually getting into promotion now: there's a kind of festival on there this month, with some sort of live act playing almost every night); not oppressively so, but it was not so cosy and intimate as the great Thursday night sessions of yore.

Ah well, not a bad night, though. And I managed to get home only a little after 1am.

HBH 128

Her brightness lingers.
After staring at the sun,
You're blinded awhile.

Thursday, April 09, 2009

This busy life

In - ooops! - a little under half an hour, I must be scooting out of the door for an early evening beer rendezvous with my journo friend (and long-time pool nemesis) New Dad.

After that necessary lubrication, we are both heading to The Bookworm to see a talk by one of my major journalism 'heroes', Timothy Garton Ash (I've been reading him since I was in high school; gosh, how old is he now?).

I'll probably have to duck out of that indecently early - before the Q&A is finished, anyway - because I have to nip across town to Yugong Yishan for the Fethi Tabet/Panjir gig (which is ostensibly starting at 8pm.... although I very much doubt if it will be much before 9pm - these boys work on "Uyghur time", after all; I don't think they've started a gig on schedule in the three years I've been following them, so why should they start now?).

I am assuming that, unusual (and, from the slotting together with the Bookworm event point of view, inconvenient) though this early start time may be, it is probably nevertheless a reasonably accurate guideline, that things will start by 9pm and be over by 10.30 or 11. I hope so, because my jazzy friends the No Name Trio are making a one-off return to Jianghu - the cosy little courtyard bar where they used to play every Thursday night in the good old days. I should at the very least be able to catch their second set. And we seldom get away from there before 2am when they play. Oh dear.

Sometimes I worry that I'm trying to pack in just a bit too much....

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

FREE Tabet!

Sorry, couldn't resist that one!

Everybody's favourite Uyghur jazz-folk combo, Panjir, are playing a special gig at Yugong Yigang this Thursday, supporting acclaimed Algerian multi-instrumentalist Fethi Tabet.

This event is apparently part of a tour by Tabet, being sponsored as a cultural exchange by the French government: hence tickets are supposedly FREE - but only available through branches of the Alliance Francaise, and..... well, I gather they've all been distributed long since.

I have a man on the inside who's supposedly holding a ticket or two for me. But..... can you trust a Frenchman??

Anxious times! Hoping to see you all there on Thursday. Hoping....

[Attempts to find out more about Mr Tabet on YouTube and Wikipedia are currently being thwarted for me.... while other searches on these sites seem to be working OK. I wonder if he is falling foul of blocks on the dread word 'Tibet' and all close misspellings thereof?!]

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Mei banfa!

And yet more annals of bad service in China......

Not that one really expects 'service' in small Chinese restaurants.....

Well, I happened to be out with an old friend on Friday and we ended up staying up all night at the Pool Bar, eventually stumbling out into a blissful amber dawn at around 6am. I suggested catching a quick bite of breakfast before parting - so we looked in at the first hole-in-the-wall we could find that was open early for the breakfast crowd.

We had a simple Chinese breakfast: baozi (fat, doughy dumplings) and you tiao (fried dough twists) and dou jiang (warm, sweetened soya milk). Now, I'm not such a big fan of this last item to drink on its own (fairly bland tasting, and it has an unpleasant, slightly gritty mouth-feel), but it does make a decent dipping sauce for your doughnuts. We certainly didn't need a large, steaming bowl of it each, but..... oh well, we weren't clear enough in ordering, and it's only going to cost pennies.....

The problem was: it gave off the pungent, unmistakable aroma of ashtrays. We knew before we'd even taken a first tentative sip that the stuff was going to be undrinkable, absolutely foul. We didn't even want to leave the bowls on our table, since the smell was putting us off the rest of the food.

We tried to query this oddity with the staff (my friend has really good Chinese skills), to point out that this did not smell healthy, to ask how on earth this could have happened. We didn't get very far. They brought grandad out of a back room to deal with 'customer relations'. He grudgingly agreed that there was a strange smell, but beamed his unconcern about the problem, and mumbled what is - sadly - a very standard Chinese response when confronted with complaints like this (a phrase which most foreigners find contains absolutely nothing of reassurance or apology, only a dumb impotence - and thus tends to be inflammatory rather than soothing): mei banfa, there's nothing to be done. Aaagh!

Well, at least the baozi and the you tiao were OK. And it did only cost us pennies.


In the past two or three years, barbecued chicken wings have become Beijing's biggest food craze. Dozens of hole-in-the-wall type restaurants have sprung up specialising in this simple dish, and, as often as not, vying with each other for the accolade of offering the capital's most painfully spicy glaze.

One of the best of all of these joints is said to be Hot Bean, set up by a group of young hipsters in a "prime" - if slightly obscure - location in a little siheyuan on one of the hutongs between Jiaodaokou and Nanluoguxiang, near to the Central Academy of Drama (which has long been known as the headquarters of young hipsterishness for the Chinese).

Strangely enough, I have never yet got around to trying it. Perhaps because I am slightly put off by the air of 'trendiness' that attaches to it. Perhaps because it is alleged to be so popular that one often has to queue down the street to get a table. Or perhaps just because I don't have any friends to go out to dinner with any more.

Anyhow, Dapper Dan and I were finally going to give it a spin last week.

And you know what? They greeted us with a cheery "没有鸡翅 (meiyou jichi)" - "We're out of chicken wings."

What was that? You're a wings place, and you're out of wings?? Oh, sure, they do a few other dishes. But they're all about the wings: that must account for 80% or 90% of what they sell. And they're OUT. Only in China!

They weren't even very busy at the time. It was a slow mid-week night. Not even very late: 7.30 or 8pm, maybe; yes, after the main early dinner rush, but you'd think a snacky - trendy - place like that would keep going right through the evening, until fairly late at night, even on a Wednesday. Unless they run out of chicken wings.

Now you might think that a place this popular would keep reserve stocks of some thousands of wings in its fridges or freezers at all times, and would re-order as soon as they even threatened to start to run low. You would think that they'd have one or more reliable local suppliers who would be able to deliver to them at an hour's notice, or less - and at pretty much any time of the day.

I'm sure such things are possible. Just about anything is possible in China (in that good way, of there almost always being someone willing to provide a service that you need). Unfortunately, planning tends not to be a strong point in China. The most successful wings restaurant in Beijing has no idea, apparently, about supply and stock control. Oiveh.

[I did once come upon a McDonald's where, towards the end of the lunchtime rush, all the burger options were 'off' because they had managed to run out of beef patties. That takes some doing! I hope it's now a 'how-not-to' case study at the Hamburger University.]

Monday, April 06, 2009

Even more annals of bad service in China

I rather like Jiangjinjiu, the cosy live music bar down on the Bell Tower Square.

I like the place so much that I will forgive its many failings.

I had a particularly good time there last week, enjoying my favourite Uyghur folk band Panjir, except that.....

well, I decided to order a whisky.

And they put ice in it. I hate it when that happens. Why does every bar in China assume that putting ice (loads of ice) in any drink is the default position? And especially in whisky?? Obviously it is because they know nothing about whisky. (They'd probably put ice in brandy too; but you hardly ever see brandy in bars here.)

I was unable to make my plaintive cries of meiyou bing! register with the bartender because..... he'd taken the bottle through to the kitchen out back to open and pour it. Now, maybe they only had ice out back - and they're assuming that adding lots of ice is the most important thing about any drink order - but it is extremely disturbing to have someone insist on pouring your drink out of sight like this; and, even in China, you'd think that people would realise this. I don't think I've ever seen this happen at Jiangjinjiu before; but then, I don't order spirits there very often.

And sure enough, when I got my drink back, it was..... not quite right. You might say it was my own stupid fault for ordering the Grant's, the cheapest brand of Scotch available here, and thus pretty frequently counterfeited. But, on the few previous occasions when friends or I have ordered spirits in this bar, there have been no problems; so, I was being rashly optimistic.

Actually, my "whisky" this time was nowhere near right. It had a vague taste of whisky about it (though not, I think, of Grant's whisky) rather than the emetic baijiu-and-caramel savour characteristic of the worst fakes. However, the dominant - overpowering - aroma was of pastis. How the hell had that happened? Had they failed to wash a glass that someone had been drinking Ricard or somesuch out of a little while earlier. Had they rinsed the glass with the aniseedy gloop deliberately?? Had they made the "ice cubes" out of it??? The mind fairly boggles.

But in circumstances like this, there's really not much point in arguing. Even if my Chinese were really good, I don't think I'd be able to explain the hugeness of the gap between what this should taste of and what this does taste of; and even if I had been able to, I fear the Chinese staff still wouldn't have been able to comprehend why it was such a big deal. Ah, China.

A (rather long) bon mot for the week

"If you lend money to a friend, you have to treat it like betting on a horse and then not watching the race. If, a day or a week or a month later or whenever, some honest bookmaker sends a courier to your door with an envelope full of money, you can enjoy the feelings of delight, surprise, and relief. But you have to think of the money as gone, as soon as it leaves your hands. And never enquire into the result of the race."


Sunday, April 05, 2009

Familiar pain

I knew it was going to be dangerous, but I did it anyway.

I handed her the knife.

She twisted it in my gut.

"Thank you," I said. "Thank you, for torturing me as only you can."

With my dying breath, as she twisted the knife in my gut, I thanked her.

I knew it was going to be dangerous, but I did it anyway. This was what I wanted.

Saturday, April 04, 2009

Compatibility Quotient

"I think I'll have a whisky," she said.

"You like whisky?" I said, trying not to doubletake too extravagantly.

"Well, only the good ones, I guess," she said. "I like a nice single malt occasionally."

"Which do you like best?" I asked.

"I like the ones with more character: you know, the ones with a lot of smokiness. I think Laphroaig is my favourite."

Up until then, I'd been doing a good job of holding myself back, of not falling for the bubbly personality, the fathomless blue eyes, the impossibly dainty hands. But at that moment I was lost.

10.18pm last Friday, in Amilal: the clock of my heart stopped.

[They don't in fact have Laphroaig in Amilal, but we both enjoyed a Caol Ila as a reasonable substitute for our hit of peat-boggy delight.]

Friday, April 03, 2009

London's Best Pubs

Via my old friend Tolstoy I found this article in The Times the other day, boosting Peter Haydon's newly published guide to London's Best Pubs (so new, in fact, that it doesn't appear to be on Amazon yet; although I discover that he has previously written An Inebriated History of Britain - wish list!).

The feature excerpts Haydon's 'Top Ten', and I was glad to see one of my very great favourites, The Seven Stars, on his list, along with some others that I know - The White Horse, The Red Lion, The Princess Louise, and The Coach and Horses. Actually, none of the latter are great pubs (well, The Lion maybe, but not the others); though The Coach is at least a deservedly famous one.

I was disappointed not to see other beloved hangouts of mine like The Flask in Hampstead (where I first met one of my real life 'unsuitable role models', John Hyman) or The Colton Arms in West Kensington (my 'local' whenever I do manage a trip back) included. But it's an impossible task to try to create a representative list; London has so many great pubs (despite the vile incursions of the 'wine bar' model over the past 20 years, and the almost-as-bad proliferation of the character-free 'superpub' - All Bar One, Wetherspoon's, there is a place in hell waiting for you). Yes, so very many great pubs. It's one of the few things I really like about London, one of the few things I miss about England. I am fighting back tears of nostalgia as I sit here typing this.

I was wondering if I could come up with a Top 10 list of my own; but I am alarmed to discover that I can no longer remember the names of many of my former favourite watering-holes. Well, it is over 7 years since I lived there now, and a full 19 months since my last visit. I'm sure most of the names would come back to me as soon as I return (or perhaps even if I were just to pore over a London A-Z for a while), but they're not filed in 'current memory'.

I'll give the matter some more thought.

Little Anthony challenged me a while ago to name my 10 Favourite Pubs In Oxford. That might be an easier task.

(There's also this article presenting a selection of the best pubs in the whole of England and Wales. I don't think I've been in any of them. So many boozers, so little time!)

HBH 127

Well-known streets seem strange,
Now coloured by her absence;
Haunted everywhere.

Thursday, April 02, 2009

New Picks of the Month

From the Froogville archives this month, I choose this very early post (from October 2006) on an inspired piece of Indian English which has become a kind of motto for me: Sporadic advance of relevance.

And on The Barstool, I nominate this April '07 meditation on the important art of Wingmanship.

I also once again commend to you my recent Barstool posts on The 'Dead Pool' (predict which Beijing bar you think is going to go out of business next) and Beijing's Best Restaurants.

And I further point out that the Possible Band Names thread is still open for business (even though it hasn't seen any new comments for a couple of months now - even from band-naming phenomenon, Gary). Please go and add some new contributions.

Traffic Report - the blog stats for March

Oh dear. Yet another too-much-time-on-my-hands month!

On Froogville, there were 67 posts (though 20 of those were my largely wordless 'Photography Week' series) and around 19,000 words. (Also, probably the busiest-ever month for comments, with almost 200. However, there were special reasons for that - see below.)

On Barstool Blues, there were 41 posts and just over 14,000 words.

Yes, it was a frenetic month on Froogville - and all because of one frivolous post about the young nationalist berserkers of China's online forums, the amusing little beasties that we know as the fenqing. First, my blog-pal Jeremiah mentioned it on his Granite Studio blog; then, The Peking Duck, probably the mostly widely read of the laowai China blogs, recommended it. And then, a week later, the illustrious Andrew Sullivan featured it on his blog at The Atlantic. And now, I have just discovered - thanks to the wonders of Google Analytics, which I have only just begun to play with - that I was also featured (translated into Chinese!) in this forum in the fenqing rumpus room that is Anti-CNN (hence a lot of angry Chinese stopping by lately).

What does all this do to one's traffic? Well, this (according to Statcounter):

More than 600 'unique visitors' in 3 days, following Richard's shout-out on The Duck.

But hey, look, I got very nearly that many in the space of just a few hours after Andrew Sullivan quoted me!

Most of those are going to be one-time-only visitors, I suppose; but.... this final graphic does suggest that, since this flurry of excitement in the middle of last month, the average daily number of my readers has remained higher than before - nearly twice as high, in fact. And I note that, whereas I used to have only a handful of regular readers in the States, and none in China (the 3 or 4 friends that I know follow the blogs here probably all use proxies, and thus don't "show up" as China-based), I now have 30-40 daily visits from the States and 20 from China.

Because of 'The Spike', the number of visits to Froogville last month was very nearly 3,000. I wonder what April's total will be?

The Barstool is still pottering on as before, at around 1,000 visits per month. I wonder what I can do to generate more controversy on here??

Oh, before I go..... I would also like to draw your attention to two recent features that I've linked to in my sidebars: Froog's Beijing Restaurant Guide and Froog's Beijing Bar 'Dead Pool' (predict the next bar to go out of business!). Please go and take a look, and contribute your thoughts.

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

I'm gonna wash that girl right out of my brain

Or die in the attempt....

Probably the latter.