Monday, August 31, 2009

Bon mot for the week

"You can't hold back the dragon unless you know the dragon and what makes him tick."

C.T. Cummins

Who? Well, I think I know, but I'm still researching. Google yourself.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

A convivial footnote

I have just learned that tonight (or tomorrow??) is also the first anniversary for Luga's Villa.  I understand the celebration rolls from midnight.
I am wary of going, since a) Sanlitun on the weekend is a wretched place, and b) Luga's idea of a celebration is to plonk a free bottle of highly dubious vodka or tequila down on your table (and urge you to feel free to request another if you manage to finish the first one and are still alive).  On the other hand, I rather like the old rogue.  And there is a big football game on tonight.
My, it could be a long evening....

Happy Birthday! (not quite yet...)

Major celebrations in prospect tonight at my favourite little Nanluoguxiang hangout, 12 Square Metres, which is marking its 2nd anniversary by reducing its very fine Cooper's beers from Oz to a dangerously affordable 15 kuai each (the last time they did this, for their "late Australia Day" bash at the start of the year, I got tempted into severe over-indulgence).  It's a bit of a cheat because the real anniversary is not until the end of next week (when we will probably do it all over again!), but today we have the further pretext of a leaving party for the boss, JK, who's flying Down Under tomorrow for an extended break with his family.
And tomorrow is The Choirboy's birthday...
I had been hoping to embark upon another period of abstinence, or at least of relative sobriety, in order to shed some of the weight gained on my recent holiday and try to get in shape for the upcoming Beijing Marathon, but.... well, what can you do?  Fate and the calendar are conspiring against me.  Yet again.

Friday, August 28, 2009

HBH 146

Sweet liquor of the steppes
(Never ask how they make it!):
Mongolian baijiu.
Animator Ben went on a visa run to Mongolia last week, and brought back a bottle of the curiously palatable local spirit distilled from mare's milk.  It's now installed in our favourite bar.  And I suspect it's going to cause trouble this weekend.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Bon mot for the week

"Perhaps all pleasure is only relief."

William S. Burroughs (1914-1997)

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Froog Solutions (2)

Froog's solution to jet-lag.

Stay up until 3am or 4am for three nights in succession. Nothing ousts jet-lag like sheer bloody exhaustion!

Friday, August 21, 2009

An ominous landmark

Today is (er, was - I'm having to insert this post retrospectively, owing to my recent access problems with Blogger) my 'Chinaversary'.

As I remarked to friends by SMS:
Seven "inglourious" years! I think I'm beginning to feel the itch.

Yep, things are finally starting to seem a bit stale. I am thinking of trying pastures new. Probably just idle daydreaming, but I am thinking of it....

HBH 145

A string of late nights
leads to a few new crushes.
Tomcat prowls again.

Oh yes, I'd been back in Beijing scarely 12 hours when I encountered a lady who's quite likely to become the next in my long line of Doomed Infatuations.

And I followed that up with an evening of staring forlorn - unnoticed! - into Madame X's ear.

I'm back in the old routine rather too quickly.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

My favourite cocktail

Of all the many delicious drinks that my two doctor friends have mixed for me in their glorious cocktail laboratory of a kitchen, the one that really blew me away (I'd never before encountered it, and I believe it is something of a rarity these days, a 'forgotten classic'), the one that most made me crave another encounter with it, was.... The Avenue.

It's equal parts calvados, bourbon, and passion fruit juice, with a little splash of orange flower water and just a smidge of grenadine. Deceptively simple (er, if you can get the orange flower water and the passion fruit), but delightfully subtle and fruity.

Do try it.

Monday, August 17, 2009

The Best Cocktail Bar In The World....

.... is in my friend's kitchen.

No, really.

The Younger Doctor P (he of the world-shattering IPD Theory) used, in his far-off youth, to be a big fan of Jack Daniel's. It is one of the things that first bonded our friendship: he would usually keep a bottle of the stuff in his undergraduate room, and I would often go around to help him drink it. Alas, he came to feel that he had rather overindulged during his student days, and for several years swore off spirits altogether, and confined himself to drinking wine, and an occasional beer (he still won't touch JD - very sad).

However, since his marriage a few years ago, he has rediscovered his interest in the stronger forms of alcohol. His good lady (also a doctor), you see, is a big fan of cocktails; and she has infected him with her enthusiasm. Their spacious kitchen is now transformed into a cocktail-worshipper's shrine. They have more cocktail recipe books than most people have cookery books. They have a beautiful collection of vintage '20s and '30s shakers. And they have a mind-boggling selection of unusual liqueurs, spirits, aperitifs, and bitters: the last time I attempted a count, it was something like 80 different bottles (they used to be all on open display, ranged along every spare inch of shelving and workspace; but now, most of them have been discreetly stashed away in various cupboards) - a far broader selection than I have ever seen in any professional bar.

Dinner with the good doctors is invariably preceded by two or three wonderfully tasty - and often quite obscure - cocktails. It is a great, great pity that I am only able to visit them for a day or two once every couple of years.

Bon mot for the week

"What, when drunk, one sees in other women, one sees in Garbo sober. "

Kenneth Tynan (1927-1980)

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Set the controls for the heart of URANUS

Regrettably, I failed to contrive a rendezvous with Dapper Dan during my recent holiday in the States (he had recently returned there for work, and was living not too far away from my host, The British Cowboy): we were both without mobile phones, and had only intermittent e-mail access, so making arrangements to meet was tricky.

As a cocktail aficionado, the Dapper one was intrigued to try out a "speakeasy" cocktail bar in Alexandria about which he'd heard some buzz, and he enlisted my help (as the man with the "expert knowledge" in that locale) to discover exactly where the place was.

This wasn't completely straightforward, since the joint is wilfully secretive (closed half the week for private parties; no sign outside; only a discreet blue lantern to draw attention to the otherwise unmarked, residential-looking doorway; only a silly pirate flag flying outside the parent restaurant next door to announce whether or not it is open). Moreover, most of the online listings I found for it which purported to provide maps of its location were a block or two wide of the mark. And it doesn't even have its own website - only once you've established that it's an offshoot of a grandiose fish & chip restaurant called Eamonn's can you find their website and then click on the PX (for such, apparently, is the name of this clandestine cocktail lounge) button on the bottom right of the main page.

After this rigmarole, I confess I was already getting pretty irritated with the place. The owners, I discovered, are responsible for a number of other rather pretentiously upscale F&B ventures in the neighbourhood: Eve's (which, I'm told, is in fact a pretty good restaurant; and offers the same cocktails as PX at rather more affordable prices) and The Majestic (which has always disappointed and horrified me, since its outward appearance is that of a classic American diner - but everything on the menu costs about three times as much as it would in a diner); and then the chip shop to which PX is attached is - to give it its full, ludicrous, name - Eamonn's - A Dublin Chipper. My abhorrence of faux Irish bars is by now well-known; my abhorrence of faux Irish "restaurants" is, I discover, even stronger. I don't think anyone involved in this venture is from Dublin, much less called Eamonn. And is there anything particularly distinctive about the Irish way - let alone the Dublin way - of cooking or serving chips? And do they really call a chip shop "a chipper" in those parts?? I've never come across the usage. And I'd hazard that I've eaten a lot more chips in Dublin than the owners of this place. To me, this all just screams wanky.

Nonetheless..... DD was very keen to give the place a try. And I am partial to a cocktail once in a while. I was open to persuasion. It could be a special night out, my one big blowout of the holiday....

But then I learned some more about the place. Most of the people I met in Alexandria had heard of it, but never actually been to it - which started to seem like a bad sign in itself. Two of my oldest friends, though, had been; and they had formed a severely negative impression of it. Apparently, there is a two-drink minimum - and the cheapest drinks are around $15 (with many of the cocktails being $20-$30, or even more). Furthermore, there seems to be a surreptitious cover charge - at least if you want a table or a booth (the place is allegedly getting so popular that reservations are de rigueur); the website doesn't make it clear whether this also applies if you just want to sit at the bar. One of my friends complained of having gone there a second time with a group of girlfriends and finding herself charged something like $30 per person just for sitting down (a rather paltry canapé tray of hams and cheeses was definitely not worth this imposition, she protested).

Now, the friends in question here are amongst the most affluent I know, so their fretting over the prices was not just a product of penury or thrift. They simply felt that it was far too expensive for what was on offer. I have since canvassed a few other people on this too, and I have found them all in agreement: those prices are just crazy. Most have suggested that prices like that could sometimes be justified - but for that, you'd typically expect stunning decor, superb wait service, classy (free and unlimited) nibbles, and some decent live jazz. None of which PX has.

And the clincher for me was this. I discovered in the course of my online researches that the head barman there makes his own tonic water. Now that is quite pretentious enough. Why on earth would you bother to do something like that? Why not pay more attention to infusing your gins and vodkas with some unique flavours? But then.... the guy warns potential punters that he will be displeased if you "just order a gin and tonic". Why go to all the bother of making your own tonic water if you're then going to discourage people from trying it?! Does not compute. And, while I can see that a gin & tonic is not really a cocktail as such, and that the barman might prefer you to choose more exotic drinks, both to feed his retirement fund and to fully exert his professional skills..... well, a bar owner really can't tell his customers what to drink. A gin & tonic is a classic sundown drink, the most popular mixed drink in the world - and if you're going to get snooty with me if I try and order one in your bar.... then, guess what - I'm NOT going to come to your bar.

That is pretension taken to stratospheric levels.

I was grateful that our communication difficulties prevented Dapper Dan and I from following through on our plan to mount an expedition to the PX Cocktail Lounge. I daresay he'll get around to trying it on his own one day, and I look forward to his report. I, at present, find it impossible to conceive of having a pleasurable experience in a place that's that far up its own bum.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Inappropriate erotic encounter (spirit of the Fest!)

There always seems to be one.

This time it was in front of 500 people.

Yes, I got a cuddle from Camille O'Sullivan.

The raunchy chanteuse loves up several men (and quite a few women) in every show, so I shouldn't feel 'special'. But I do.

She kissed my bald spot.

HBH 144

Park bench, evening glow;
solitary drinker basks;
world goes by slowly.

Ah, the joys of an English summer! On those rare occasions when the sun shines, anyway....

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Another landmark

This post (or this one) is - amazingly enough - the 3,000th to appear on my two blogs, Froogville and Round-The-World Barstool Blues (in a little under 3 years!).

How do I do it?! And why???

Monday, August 10, 2009

Bon mot for the week

"Love, with very young people, is a heartless business. We drink at that age from thirst, or to get drunk; it is only later in life that we occupy ourselves with the individuality of our wine."

Isak Dinesen [Karen von Blixen-Finecke] (1885-1962)

Sunday, August 09, 2009

Chill Penury (and Dirty Tricks)

No, not entries for the Band Name Competition (though I suppose they might be...), but my sad reflections on my prospects for entertainment during the festival season here in Edinburgh.

I'm sure it's less than a decade ago that most shows in the Fringe were only £2 or £3; and even within the last five years or so, surely most shows were still only about a fiver? This year I am shocked to discover that even the cheapest shows are mostly £11 or £12. The 'good old days' when I could see 20 or 30 shows in a week and still come out of it with change from £100 are no more. £10, for me, is a daunting psychological threshold. I'm sure on my last few trips up here, I must have paid £10 for a show now and again, and £7, £8, or £9 on quite a few occasions; but a price of more than £10 per ticket strikes fear and resentment into my soul, provokes a profound resistance to pay. I fear I may have to ration myself to a single show per day. Oh, woe, woe.

Now, friends up here in Edinburgh have been encouraging me to believe that I can score lots of freebie tickets. This is quite common sport amongst the local people at this time of year, I gather. They suggest such sneaky tactics as wheedling the poor students desperately touting their shows on the Royal Mile to give you free tickets instead of just flyers; or "befriending" the most disconsolate-looking group of young people in a bar and offering to be a rent-a-crowd for their audienceless show (the ideal outcome being that you will get some free drinks out of them as well as free tickets; and maybe even a chance to sleep with the lead actress); or just hanging around outside shows that have very short (or no) queues, and trying to blag your way in at the last minute. Another variation on these approaches is to scour the comedy blurbs to identify the most painfully unfunny novice comedians (you can usually tell) and then seek them out and offer them your services as a laughter-catalyst ("Oh yes, my guffaw is utterly infectious. Even my smirks and chortles spread like wildfire, but the full laugh will reduce your punters to hysterics in an instant."). Then, of course, the really unscrupulous just try to pass themselves off as reviewers. My host has suggested, as a grander version of this, that I set up a website for a phoney Chinese theatre festival and introduce myself at the Fringe Office as the 'director' - looking for some shows to take back there next spring. Hmm, it's crazy - but it might just work....

The problem with all of these ruses (aside from the ethical considerations, that is) is that they're all tending to make you an uncritical bottom-feeder. Any shows for which you can get free tickets in this way (well, other than by impersonating a journalist or a theatre director, anyway) are likely to be pretty piss-poor; nearly all the good stuff - even the more low-key, 'unregarded' gems - gets the word-of-mouth going for it and is soon pretty near to sold-out.

Also, I do feel rather bad about exploiting people's vulnerability in the ways suggested above. I like to support and encourage performers, and I feel I ought to pay them something for their efforts (I just can't afford to pay £10+ !!). I don't think I'll be trying out any of these subterfuges for myself over the next few days.

However, I am not above accepting free tickets if offered to me..... And my buddy The Arts Entrepreneur (arriving tonight), in addition to usually having at least one or two shows of his own on in The Fringe (mostly as a producer, occasionally as writer/director), is pretty well-connected in the scene here and often manages to score us some invitations to various friends-of-friends' shows.

There also seems to be more and more completely free stuff going on in recent years - not just the street performances on the Mile and in Princes Gardens, but numerous bars and restaurants providing comedy and live music offerings. In the past I've always been a bit suspicious of any show that was FREE (apart from the rollicking jazz and folk mini-festivals staged at The Guildford Arms every year: a regular stop-off of mine for the past decade or more): if it's not worth paying for, it's not worth seeing, I used to think. And that perverse prejudice had been rather confirmed by a number of truly dire shows I'd caught under the umbrella of 'Fringe For Free', a promotion of the past few years. This year, though, I think I shall be forced to set these misgivings aside. I have barely enough money left to pay for beer, so - it's FREE or NOTHING for my theatre-going this week.

Friday, August 07, 2009

New Picks of the Month

Looking back to the time of my last holiday, two years ago this month, I was amused to rediscover this Froogville post - Rejuvenated! - on the denying of age and the concept of 'Beijing years'. (I used to love the idea when it meant that I was still only 25; but I am now about to turn 35, and will be 40 all too soon... )

And from the Barstool Blues archive of that vintage, I point you towards What is it about Szechuan girls? - my enquiry into where China's most beautiful women come from.

HBH 41 - Revisited

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

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

[This was two years ago. I wonder if I'll experience any such ecstatic moments in the coming week?]

Thursday, August 06, 2009

What they drink in Finland?

Little Anthony, my host in Oxford last week, is a journo and PR man on the motorsport beat. He'd just come back from a couple of days in Finland, hanging out with some local rally drivers immediately prior to the Finnish Rally. He found the experience alcoholically exhausting (ah, those Scandinavians!), and was wimpily invoking this as an excuse for a radically reduced drinking capacity when he got home.

So, what do they drink in Finland, we asked.

Pear cider, apparently, is the answer. It is quite the craze over there at the moment. (I wonder if there's a long history of local manufacture? I can't imagine why anyone would think of importing something like that. Although the cider people do seem to have very slick marketing these days. Pear varieties have sprung up as a surprisingly successful novelty item in England in the past year or two, it seems. And the Magner's brand [a really not very nice cider - from Ireland??] has sprung from obscurity, perhaps from non-existence, to prominence in the UK in not very much longer. It is strange, strange.)

Pear cider, it seems, meets most of the essential criteria expected by the Scandinavian drinker: it's sweet, disgusting, expensive, and deceptively strong.

However, it's not really strong enough. So, the fashion is to drink it with a vodka top!

Little Anthony was goaded into demonstrating this for us the other day. He slept in very late the next morning.

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Some consolation

It's not all doom and gloom in Oxford.

One of the happier moments of my week of mostly thwarted nostalgia in Oxford last week came with the discovery that Pepper's Burgers at the top of Walton Street (closed, abruptly and without explanation, some two years ago) is now operating again.

It is not quite what it was (the two Indian guys behind the counter don't seem to be very sure of what they're doing, and don't speak much English; I suspect the place has been taken over by the Indian restaurant next door, and they're still feeling their way into this unfamiliar culinary enterprise). The chips I had there at the weekend were soggy and anaemic (and came, at first, without the salt and vinegar I'd requested), and the basic quarter-pounder seemed a tad smaller than it should have been. However, the meat and the buns are still excellent, the range of sauces (including the infamous 'White Shark' extra-hot chilli) is just as it was, and the prices continue to be very reasonable.

I really think this might be The Best Burger Joint In The World.....

The Marlborough House

I have been saddened to discover that one of my favoured drinking haunts in my last year or two as an undergraduate at Oxford - the Marlborough House, off the Abingdon Road - is shuttered and up for sale. At least it appears to be a fairly recent closure, and perhaps it will re-open when it finds a purchaser.

Pub closures (or - even worse - makeovers, transformations into glib and soulless wine bar/bistro/gastro-pub monstrosities) have been proceeding apace across the UK for at least the past decade-and-a-half, I guess, but this sorry process really seems to have gathered added momentum with the recent economic crisis. So many of the neighbourhood corner pubs in Oxford seem to have disappeared since my last visit. The demise of each one of them desecrates another cherished memory, obliterates an emblem of past happiness, removes yet another tie to the carefree days of my far-off youth, to my former life in England.

It makes me very sad. Not only sad, but even more acutely aware of my vagabond status in the world, my disconnectedness, my solitariness.

Monday, August 03, 2009

Bon mot for the week

"The good thing about dating very young women is that they tend not to be too concerned about the lovers you had before they were born."


Saturday, August 01, 2009

Another excuse for a party

My 'local' over these past few days in Oxford has been - somewhat bizarrely, perhaps uniquely for an English pub - SWISS (owned by a very friendly Swiss couple, that is; and thus sporting a short but intriguing menu of 'genuine Swiss cuisine').

Thus it is that I discover the previously unknown fact that today, August 1st, is Swiss National Day.

All day today the 'local' has a very tempting offer of a Swiss dish and a pint for just £5. Alas, I am away in Bath for the weekend.

My best wishes to any Swiss readers!

[By the way, JES - try not to freak out too much, but the 'local' is called The Duke Of Monmouth.]


I'm heading off to Edinburgh in a few days for my biennial fix of the Fringe.

But this year I have already treated myself to some theatre on my travels: I went to see King Lear at the Washington Shakespeare Theatre a couple of weeks ago - the day before my return to the UK. I'd only heard that it was on at a dinner party a day or two before. And the run was supposed to have ended, but had just been extended for another week or two. And I found myself able to buy what was supposedly the last unsold ticket for any of the performances that weekend (they were doing matinees and evening performances on both days - pretty exhausting!). So, I felt my luck was in, that Fate was goading me into attending - although, at $85, this was much the most I've ever spent on a trip to the theatre (most of my theatre-going, I reflect, has either been fairly inexpensive [student productions, festivals], or heavily discounted [e.g. via the half-price ticket booth in Leicester Square], or FREE [comped by friends involved in the production, or paid for by my employer when I was a teacher accompanying school trips to Stratford & co.]; having to pay more than £10 or so for a show is an uncomfortable shock to the system; having to pay nearly £60 brought on palpitations!).

How was it?

Well, I liked Stacy Keach in the title role. He has the physical presence you need for such a grand role, and also an air of danger about him that reminds you what a scary mother****er Lear had been in his heyday (and still can be, on occasion); yet this image of an irascible old tyrant is mostly masked, softened by a great affability, charm, and humour. This Lear, despite his excesses, is very human, very likable. I found the earlier scenes, though, more compelling; the later descent into senility (and partial recovery at the end of the play?) is always difficult to bring off convincingly - and in this production there seemed to be greater emphasis on the power struggles of the daughters and their husbands than on Lear's degeneration.

Although I am in general rather wary of transposing Shakespeare to contemporary settings, the conceit of locating the action in a fragmenting early-90s Yugoslavia worked well here (except for the inevitable jarring incongruity of the repeated references to France, Cornwall, and Dover where we might have been expecting Greece, Serbia, and Dubrovnik); the casual cruelty and the naked greed for power of the Dark Ages is all too appropriately embodied in the petty warlords of the Balkans, a bunch of swaggering, uncouth, leather-jacketed gangsters.

The supporting parts were very well played too, but..... I found Robert Falls' direction just too loud and boisterous and gimmicky. There was too much humorous business going on (this is not a play where we want the mood to be lightened every few minutes). And whilst the frequent bursts of raucous Eastern European pop music underlined the setting and boosted the energy levels, this may have been a bit overdone. We certainly didn't need The Stones' Gimme Shelter at the beginning of the tempest scene - that was a cheap gag that achieved only bathos rather than pathos. Many details of the production became, for me, irksomely distracting - or, at least, shifted the emphasis away from Lear rather. It's a strange presentation of this play in which the figure of the King doesn't quite seem to be the main event. This seemed to be a rather trimmed down version as well: barely 3 hours' running time, even with all the additional bits of business. It's a long time since I've seen the play, but I think a full text production should run a lot longer than that. The 'mad scenes' (and the scenes with The Fool - though I'm less bothered about that), in particular, seemed much attenuated.

It was an imaginative and thought-provoking re-imagining of the great play, though; and Keach's Lear was very memorable. I'm glad I went. Even though it cost me an arm and a leg. And even though I had to forego the rival attraction of watching the denouement of Tom Watson's bid for the Open title at Turnberry - equally awe-inspiring, equally tragic!

This production of Lear was first staged by Chicago's Goodman Theatre a few years ago, and there are some good photographs of it on their website.