Sunday, February 28, 2010

The end in sight....

That was a long 10 days, that was.

But my little period of de-tox is nearly over. I'm planning to leap exuberantly off the wagon at midnight tonight.

Filling in the next 6 hours is going to be a bit of a slog, but I'll manage it somehow...

Friday, February 26, 2010

A Black Day - in a good way

Today would have been the 78th birthday of the late, great JR Cash - or Johnny, as he became known to the world. (His given name - which, I think, usually appears on his song lyric copyrights and so on - was simply JR. Apparently, his parents couldn't agree on names for him, so just gave him the two initials.... as happened with BJ Hunnicutt in M.A.S.H.)

Today also sees the release of the second (and, it would seem, probably last) posthumous collection of songs from the fabulous series of recordings he made during the last decade of his life with Rick Rubin's American Recordings label - American VI: Ain't No Grave.

I began listening to music - playing records for myself - when I was little more than a toddler, left alone for hours at a time to amuse myself with my parents' venerable Pye Gramophone and their big collection of (mostly) 45rpm singles. Their tastes were very, very middle-of-the-road (absolutely NO rock'n'roll, not even any Beatles), so Johnny's Live At San Quentin album was a decidedly outré component of the collection - but one that had a deep impact on me. I don't think they had anything else of his, though; and my musical tastes developed in other directions. It wasn't until I went to law school in the mid-90s that I began listening to him again, but I assuredly became a convert. These days, I think I'd align myself with Kid Rock, who said of him: "As far as I'm concerned, his face should be on Mount Rushmore."

Johnny himself once said of his output: "I love songs about horses, railroads, land, Judgment Day, family, hard times, whiskey, courtship, marriage, adultery, separation, murder, war, prison, rambling, damnation, home, salvation, death, pride, humor, piety, rebellion, patriotism, larceny, determination, tragedy, rowdiness, heartbreak and love. And Mother. And God."

I can live without the strong Christian undercurrent in his work, but it's hard to argue with the rest of that list. He would, in fact, make a fine, inspiring addition to my 'Unsuitable Role Models' hall of fame. He had some major problems with drink and drugs, especially early in his career, but he got them under control - while continuing to write and sing about that experience with a charisma and conviction that can send shivers down the spine. Here's his quietly devastating version of Trent Reznor's Hurt, from the American IV album, recorded late in his life.

And to honour the memory of The Man In Black, we are all being encouraged to wear black today. I wear black most of the time anyway, but I've been holding off all week, just to make today a little special. I wonder how many other people in Beijing will be joining the tribute.

[I notice that Johnny's ominous, 'Book of Revelations'-inspired When The Man Comes Around - also from the fantastic American IV album - has spawned a large number of video tributes on YouTube. All of them, naturally, are fairly grim viewing; but this, I think, is one of the best.]

HBH 171

The world moves slower,
Grinding on its axis,
Without alcohol.

This has been a strange - and gruelling - week. But it's nearly over.

Thursday, February 25, 2010


The Beijing live music scene is emerging from its Chunjie hibernation.

Last night, Salud had a new(ish) Chinese Celtic band, Iontach Banna (a plausibly Gaelic-looking name, but I do not recognise either word and have not been able to find them so far in any online dictionary!) - which features a nice combination of fiddle, flute, guitar, harmonica and bodhran. In addition to praising their fine musicianship, I would note that the flute player is extremely cute. [It would seem there's suddenly a bit of a competition developing in the Irish bands stakes in the run-up to St Pat's: my friends Nico Torrese and Zoe Wang - formerly of 'The Dublingers', a fine, if unfortunately named, ensemble which sadly dissolved last summer (I'm not sure if it's their fiddle-player who's now leading Iontach; she looks kind of famliar!) - have joined a new Celtic outfit, Blackwater, which apparently includes a singer [a singer, indeed yes: I discovered a few days later that it is none other than the Great Uncle Bulgaria of the Beijing music scene, Des McGarry - so they should be a pretty awesome show], and will be making its debut at Paddy O'Shea's this Friday.)

The heart-meltingly lovely Daisy Sweetgrass (who was sadly absent from The Redbucks' last day of normality show at Jianghu just before the holiday) is supposed to be appearing at Ginkgo tonight.

Then on Saturday, the gorgeous Marie-Claude Lebel - who's been absent, or lying low for far too long - makes a welcome return, again at Ginkgo (and supported by an interesting-sounding French singer-songwriter called Joris, a recent arrival in Beijing who will apparently be performing "folk-punk and rural blues").

And then, on Sunday, Lantern Festival Day (the grand finale to the fortnight-long bore-a-thon that is Chinese New Year), Helen Feng is doing a show at Yugong Yishan with her 'reinvention' of her old rock'n'roll band Ziyo - henceforth to be called Free The Birds. I will probably have more to say on that choice of name another time (awful! awful!), but for now we're all just grateful to see Helen and the gang back in action.

That's altogether too many crushes for a man to deal with in such a short space of time! My heart will be feeling wrung out like an old dish-rag by Monday morning.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

That familiar fragrance (A Final Loo Story)

Beijing is fairly generously supplied with public toilets - especially in the older hutong districts such as the one I live in, because much of this venerable slum housing still has no running water, or at least no indoor toilet facilities. The public loos are often the only toilet (or bathroom) in the neighbourhood, and so are a key focus of communal life.

Thus, they get a lot of use. And, often, not very much cleaning.

And whatever they do clean them with is often even more unpleasantly pungent than the bodily effluvia it is trying to erase. Beijing toilets have a very particular whiff. (Well, I haven't made a close study of this; but I do rather think that different regions and major cities of China probably have distinctive toilet stenches of their own, affected by variations in local cuisine, local gut flora, local cleaning products.)

Most laowai gripe endlessly about this, citing it as a pet peeve right up there alongside the rampant public spitting and toddlers in their backless pantaloons taking a dump on the sidewalk.

But me..... well, somehow it never really bothered me that much. I soon got used to it. I started to appreciate the utility of it (when the call of nature is insistent, desperate, surprising.... it's never a problem to locate a toilet in a hurry in Beijing: you just follow your nose). I spent so much time in the hutongs - jogging, taking photographs, staggering home drunk - that this nostril-stretching pong became bound up for me with a lot of pleasant memories. It became something of a nostalgia-trigger for me.

I was, therefore, somewhat regretful when the great pre-Olympic modernisation programme I mentioned the other day started to gather pace. Suddenly many of the most familiar loos in my most frequented neighbourhoods, the familiar loos and their familiar smells, were disappearing. The new breed loos, though far from odourless, are usually ten times less stinky than the Beijing toilets of old.

I was particularly sorry to see this transformation finally overtake the especially smelly one down by Qianhai lake, which has a special place in my heart as The First Loo I Went To In Beijing, and which I have jogged past countless times since on my circuits of the lakes. But here's a remarkable thing: whereas those hygienic makeovers usually reduced the trademark Beijing Toilet Stench almost to zero, in this one loo it somehow hardly managed to make a dent in it: that distinctive sickly-sweet odour, a heady cocktail of toxic cleansing chemicals and diarrhoea, was almost as strong as ever.

I know it seems perverse of me, but…. it was comfortingly familiar to me by now, and I liked it. Passing it was always a quaint little highlight of my jogging route.

But then, a couple of years ago, they knocked it down altogether (perhaps because it had failed some Stinkiness Test the Beijing authorities had introduced as a quality control standard for the Great Olympic Clean-Up?). Call me crazy - but I missed it.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Damn, this is harder than I thought

"Uh-oh! 6.30! Time for me to resist my first drink of the day."

And then I face the same challenge every 20 or 30 minutes thereafter for the rest of the evening....

This abstinence kick is tough going!

Monday, February 22, 2010

The Hidden Toilet (A Loo Story - 2)

My friend The Chairman is a ditherer and a bumbler and Captain Unreliable; he's half-blind, terminally unworldly, and can't make - or keep to - a plan to save his life. However, he does have a remarkable talent for discovering stuff. (It was he, for example, who first blundered upon Café Sambal, a great little Malaysian curry house that had just opened in our neighbourhood. He was, of course, unable to relocate it for some weeks....)

On one occasion - way back in our first year here in Beijing, the winter of '02 - he somehow happened upon a great public toilet. Well, it was still a Chinese public toilet, so not particularly impressive by the standards of some we know in 'the West', but pretty damned nice by comparison with what we were used to in the neighbourhood.

At that time, most Beijing toilets were still extremely primitive: trenches rather than urinals (and, as often as not, these trenches were out in the open air); the crappers all squat-style, scarcely ever a sit-upon (there was occasionally a token one - for "the disabled", rather than for us pernickety foreigners); seldom any tiling, only bare cement (often cracked and crumbling cement); seldom any stalls, just one big communal crapping zone; there didn't even seem to be any running water in them - maintenance guys would come around once or twice a week to flush them out with a hose. No, not very wholesome.

It was one of the major pluses of the preparations for the Olympics that all the city's public toilets were substantially upgraded. Now they all have tiled floors, partitioned stalls, and running water; most have at least one urinal (although the outside trench has not completely disappeared); many have a live-in (I kid you not!) attendant to clean them regularly; a few even have such exotic refinements as piped music and pot-pourri (the Beijing Tourist Authority introduced a 'star' rating system for toilets; I believe it goes up to '4 stars', but I've only ever seen '3 stars'; in a 4-star loo, I imagine they have a liveried flunky to wipe your bottom for you). This was an unimaginable transformation in the space of a few short years.

And what The Chairman had so fortuitously stumbled upon was a prototype - one of the very first of these new-style loos to be built in our neighbourhood, a good year or two before they started to become at all commonplace.

In fact, it was - in those days - even nicer than the common run of these new loos today because it was almost completely unused: nobody knew it was there! You see, it had been built - somewhat surreptitiously and very hastily - in a spot where nobody would have expected a loo to be: between two blocks of hutong housing, with only a very narrow alleyway - a rather dauntingly featureless canyon of bare brick, no more than about 18 inches wide - giving access to it. God knows why The Chairman would ever have ventured down there, unless there is some masochistic streak in him that seeks out likely places to get mugged.

But we were mightly glad that he had found it. Mugging is, mercifully, almost unknown in Beijing. And this loo was such a huge step up in comfort and cleanliness from anything else in the vicinity that we would, if 'the call' was not too urgent, quite happily walk half a mile or so to make use of it.

It wasn't until nearly 18 months later that we learned the unhappy answer to the riddle of why this super-loo had been built in such an unlikely location. The main street it was hidden from - the street that had been 'my home' for my first two years in Beijing - was scheduled for 'improvement' prior to the Olympics. In the early summer of '04, with very little notice given to the residents, a massive road-widening and redevelopment scheme was begun. The row of houses (two rows?) that had separated the super-loo from the main road was demolished, and now it fronted directly on to the sidewalk alongside this suddenly bustling major thoroughfare. Evidently, someone had planned this all out quite a long way in advance; but the evicted householders only got about 6 or 8 weeks' warning - that's how they do these things in China!

The super-loo now stands prominent on the corner of the hutong where I have just begun to live (not nearly so "super" now that a lot of people are using it!), my landmark for guiding me home in the evening. That's why this anecdote has come to my mind again now.

Bon mot for the week

"'Prohibition'?! Ha! They tried that in the movies, and it didn't work."

Homer J. Simpson

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Behind the motorbike (A Loo Story - 1)

I passed a motorbike - completely concealed under a cover - in the middle of a sidewalk in my neighbourhood the other day. You don't see a great many of them around here. (I think they're supposed to be banned within the 3rd or the 4th Ringroad, although there's not much effective enforcement. I suppose motorcycle owners just don't like to park them out on the street, if they can help it.)

I was reminded of "the motorbike" - a key component of the mythology of my first year here, part of the legend of the Three Amigos and the "Legitimate Businessmen's Club". In those impoverished early days, my two inseparable drinking companions were two of my British teaching colleagues from the loathesome private college where I found myself working; and our regular resort - at least 4 or 5 nights out of every 7 - was a small restaurant a few hundred yards down the street from that college, a place where we rarely ate, but loved to hang out drinking cheap beer and watching the colourful local characters..... often until the wee small hours of the morning.

Like most small bars and restaurants of this kind, 'The Legit' had no bathroom facilities of its own; we were expected to use a public toilet. The nearest one was about 100 yards away, down the alley immediately alongside the restaurant. That might not seem like such a great distance, but..... it was a brutally cold winter that year; I think still the worst I've experienced here. And, as newbies, we hadn't yet got used to the Beijing climate. Moreover, the cold weather started uncommonly early, before the mid-point of October. At this stage (having received only one month's wages - with a lot of inappropriate deductions made - to see us through our first two months in China), we were all too poor to buy decent winter coats. So, stepping outside at all was a painful and unappealing prospect. A 200 yard stagger in sub-zero temperatures was definitely to be avoided, if at all possible. But, such is the acutely diuretic effect of the local beer, that - once you've "cracked the seal" for the night - a toilet break becomes inevitable at least once every hour.

However, the street this restaurant was on was not very busy at night. And it had very limited street lighting. And the building next to our favourite restaurant was set back a few yards further from the road, and was fronted by a bare wall with no windows. There was a small patch of bare ground between it and the sidewalk, and it was fairly well cloaked in shadows. Only two yards from the restaurant door, this was a very tempting spot to take a surreptitious piss in public. And yet - prim and proper Englishmen that we were - we would probably still have endured the icy walk down the lane to the public toilet, because of the risk of being spotted by a passer-by on the street (probably way more embarrassing to us than to them; peeing in the street is very common in China, even when there are public toilets nearby). Luckily, there was almost always a big motorbike - shrouded in a tarpaulin - parked on this patch of empty ground, leaving a gap of just a foot or two between it and the windowless wall; this provided enough cover to make us feel safe from prying eyes, to reassure us that we could take a piss against the wall without attracting unwanted attention.

And so it became one of our great catchphrases of that long, cold winter: "Excuse me for a moment, please, gentlemen. I need to go behind the motorbike."


After the other night's little episode (staying up half the night listening to Pink Floyd, with a bottle-and-a-half of rum on board!), I have decided to go on the wagon for a bit.

Only until the end of the month (or thereabouts). I'm not going to try to be super-strict with myself about it, but I am on a bit of a health kick at the moment (started running again last Sunday, for the first time in about three months). And it is a small gesture of solidarity with my pal JK, the boss of my favourite bar, who has determined to abstain from alcohol for the whole of February.

Things could get ugly very shortly after midnight on March 1st.....

Friday, February 19, 2010

HBH 170

The emptiness dins;
Empty heart and empty life;
Drink is all there is.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

THIS drunk

2 in the morning, lying on the sofa with eyes closed, listening to The Wall.... realising I know every word..... singing along....

It's been a heavy day. It's the only way to get away from the bloody fireworks!

Varieties of 'bad guest behaviour'

12 days on from that darned housewarming party of mine, and I still haven't let all of the anger go..... Deep breaths, deep breaths.

Perhaps another griping post will prove cathartic.

Amongst the things that most piss me off about party guests....

1) Trespassing into the kitchen
I suppose some people meant well; they kept asking if there was anything they could do to help with the cooking. But, really, once you see how cramped and cluttered my kitchen is, it should be obvious that the most helpful thing you can do is keep the hell out of the way. And, unfortunately, a lot of the intrusion into the kitchen was directly linked to point 4) below.

2) Standing in really stupid places
If not in the kitchen, then immediately outside the kitchen. Or in the narrow corridor leading to the kitchen. Or right next to the table with all the drinks on it. Or immediately inside the front door. Really, people - I know it's quite a small apartment, but it does offer quite a wealth of places to stand where you wouldn't be in the way of something!

3) Being cheap
Many of my guests brought me quite generous gifts of booze and/or housewarming presents. But quite a few brought me only a very puny offering (two bottles of Tsingtao?!) or nothing at all. That is pretty miserly. (But at least I managed to warn people off trying to fob off their unwanted Chinese table wine on me this time.)

4) Being greedy
A lot of people seemed to expect to get a complete dinner from me. A lot of people were wolfing down as much food as they could, hovering predatorily outside (or inside) the kitchen to try to get their hands on each new batch of barbecued treats as quickly as they could. That's rude and selfish. I was not offering you a meal, only snackage - you should realise that and limit your consumption, so as not to leave others short. (I realise the quantities of food available were not that generous even for the 25 or so people who showed up, and would have been dangerously inadequate for the 40 or 50 who were expected to show up. But this was not down to any miserliness or bad planning on my part. It was purely a matter of logistics: I have a tiny oven, incapable of cooking more than about 15 to 20 pieces of meat at once. Therefore, to cook the 80 wings, 60-odd ribs and 20 large drumsticks - not to mention the savoury mince, johnny cakes, sweet potato chips and dip, homemade ginger beer, etc. - I was able to offer had taken me ALL DAY.)

5) Being ungrateful
There wasn't a lot in the way of thanks or compliments about the food. Some, but not much. Quite a few people seemed to be resentful that there wasn't more of it, rather than thankful that there was any at all.

6) Not drinking enough
I'm a boozer. I throw boozy parties. It's all FREE - what's the matter with you?!

7) Bombarding me with phone calls and text messages while the party's in progress
I have some sympathy if you're apologizing for running late (most weren't - apologizing, that is) or need help with directions (though not much sympathy, since my place is easy to find; and I had sent out to everyone in advance a detailed description of how to get here - by both e-mail and SMS). But, really, do you not think that I have a million other things to be doing right now? You don't phone a party host during the party unless it's absolutely the last resort.

8) Bringing additional guests (without asking)
The new apartment is fairly small. And I like to keep these gatherings fairly intimate. And, if I'm catering, I'd really like an accurate idea of total numbers. Of course, bringing a 'significant other' is always OK. Or an attractive single woman you think I might like. In fact, if you ask me nicely, I'll probably say yes to anyone. But don't just assume you can turn up with two or three total strangers in tow.

9) Hiding stuff
Lots of prominently placed bins and trash bags around, people. Absolutely no need to be putting empty glasses and used paper plates under sofas and so on.

10) Asking to use the computer
It's a party. My computer is closed, switched off, disconnected from the Internet. I'm up to my eyeballs with stuff in the kitchen. It is not a trivial thing to ask me to take time out to set up my computer so that you can use it. And if one person starts getting online, others will follow. And a lot of these people are drunk, and have sticky fingers. Now, I might not have minded if this were a close friend, and they'd asked me nicely, and given me a pressing reason. But it was one of the total strangers who'd tagged along with someone, and she asked with an air of entitlement rather than supplication. I nearly went ballistic on her.

This isn't rocket science; it's simple consideration and good manners.

But there seems to be less and less of that around these days.

And there seems to be something about parties that brings out the worst in people, as if the opportunity to be in someone else's home without close supervision by the owner nurtures a perverse urge to transgress the normal boundaries of polite behaviour.

I really don't think I'm going to throw a party ever again.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

The passing of Dr Manhattan

He was known by many names. At first he was The Mouthpiece of Evil. Then he became Dr Manhattan. He was also Mike or Big Mike or Mikey Mike or, most recently, The Mike (yes, his latest running joke has been to start referring to himself habitually in the third person, and preceded always by the definite article).

For the past 9 or 10 months he has been my boon companion, my principal partner in drunkenness and gluttony; but - right about now - his plane should be taking off towards the North Pole. It wasn't quite such a joined-at-the-hip state of affairs as my relationship with Crazy Chris had become a couple of years ago, but we had been hanging out a lot. I shall miss the old bugger.

Safe trip home, Mikey!

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Cruel and unusual

I tried out the new-ish Tapas Café in a nicely renovated siheyuan at the bottom of Nanluoguxiang yesterday (since it was about the only place in the neighbourhood that was open).

The food was a bit of a mixed bag: the patatas bravas were foul (nuggets of deep-fried styrofoam, presumably shop-bought), the chicken wings indifferent; but the Spanish omelette was excellent (if somewhat untraditional, very mushy in the middle), as were the lamb chops (although staff defied requests to cook them anything other than very rare; fine for me, but one of my companions wanted a little less blood). Service was good (although there was no-one else in the place, so...), and the prices not unreasonable. I think it's worth giving another go.

However, the worst - almost intolerable - aspect of the evening was the music playlist: it was the most cheesy, pappy, horrendous, middle-of-the-road romantic mush - 90% boy bands. On the rare occasions when a half-way decent song came up, it was invariably in a mushy boy band cover version rather than the original. They even managed to find a "re-mix" of Louis Armstrong's What A Wonderful World with Kenny G saxophone ladled all over it - which is a crime against humanity.

Really, we would have been quite happy to hang out and drink some more there, but the muzak was offensive, insufferable.

I am hoping that they'd just forgotten to take off their 'Valentine's Day Mix', and that we might get something less AWFUL next time - but I'm not that confident.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Housewarming aftermath

Not nearly as bad as last time, at least (that's what comes of having less than half as many people come!). Still, not an appealing prospect to wake up with the next morning. Or the next afternoon, I should say. I was very good about it, though: I did do nearly all of the cleaning and tidying straight away.

An especially improbable, but possibly topical bon mot for the week

"Give me a woman who loves beer, and I will conquer the world."

Wilhelm II of Germany ['Kaiser Bill'] (1859-1941)

Sunday, February 14, 2010

And a happy Year of the Tigger to you all!

Tigger, Tiger..... in Chinese it's all the same.

A mysterious thing

My normal approach seems to be useless all the time. Time to try something different, perhaps....

But not TODAY.

[This cartoon, of course, from the XKCD Webcomic.]

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Great Love Songs (17)

It's been ages since we had a Great Love Songs entry, over 8 months. I am loth to post one on the eve of the dread day, lest anyone think that I am succumbing to the ersatz emotion of this dratted festival. On the other hand... well, Love Songs is starting to fall badly behind the rival Great Drinking Songs strand, and I wouldn't want anyone to think that drinking is more important to me than romance (it probably is; but I wouldn't want anyone to think that!). So, the time is ripe.

I developed a bit of a weakness for Country & Western music when I was living in North America for a year-and-a-bit towards the end of the '90s - not least because the female singers all tend to be rather gorgeous. (And I was based most of the time in Toronto; C&W is also very big in Canada, and their music video TV station for it - CMT, Country Music Television - I find rather better than its cross-border equivalent, GAC [Great American Country].) And Faith Hill is one of the most gorgeous of the gorgeous; she made a particularly big splash that year ('98, I suppose it must have been) with a rather poppy album, from which this infectiously catchy number, This Kiss, was the main hit single. (I'm sure many C&W purists denounced her for jumping on the Shania Twain 'crossover' bandwagon and deserting 'true' country music. And I gather she has subsequently returned to a more traditional style.) In addition to its hookiness, though, it's also got some very clever rhymes - always something I'm a big fan of (how can you not love a song that includes the word 'subliminal'??). It even includes aposiopesis - now how many songs can you say that about?

I was reminded of this song by the improbably mind-bending - if disappointingly brief - smooch I enjoyed with an old flame at New Year this year, so I've been meaning to root it out and post it for a while now. Unfortunately, Faith Hill's "people" at Warner Records have got YouTube well locked down, so you can only view her original video for it here. However, there are quite a lot of good "homemade" videos accompanying the song; this anthology of clips from Disney cartoon romances is probably the best. I just hope the Warner Records killjoys won't demand its deletion too soon.

[For some reason, anime video compilations for this song seem to be especially popular. Well worth checking some of these out, too.]

Friday, February 12, 2010

Gig of the Week

And very nearly of the month, perhaps.....

I gather American bluegrass band The Redbucks (featuring the disarmingly beautiful voice of the disarmingly beautiful "Daisy Sweetgrass") are playing at one of my favoured local hangouts tonight. I've seen them a good number of times now, but never at that venue, so..... I guess that's a must-see.

And, according to the expat listings mags, this seems to be the only gig on anywhere tonight, and one of only a very few slated for the next fortnight. Amongst the reasons I hate the Chinese New Year holiday.....


I got up this morning - as I almost invariably do, no matter what I've put myself through the previous evening (in this case, hanging out with The Chairman in the Pool Bar and Amilal until 1.30am or so) - at around 7.30am.

After about an hour, I was realising that this had been a foolhardy action and crawled back under the duvet. It was only with the greatest difficulty that I hauled myself out again four hours later.

That was some of the catch-up I needed after..... well, TWO all-nighters and three or four more late-to-bed-and-early-to-risers in the space of just 8 or 9 days. I feel so much better for that. But I must NOT allow myself to go back to bed again this afternoon.

HBH 169

Morphs into disappointment:
Party plans awry.

Yes, that again. I'll shut up now.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Yes, I bear a grudge

I'm still sulking over the large-scale spurning of my housewarming party last Saturday. OK, a number of people had already gone out of the country - which is only to be expected, just a week before the Spring Festival. And a few people thought they were going to be free, but then decided they weren't, after all; this was very disappointing (given who they were: The Chairman, Dishy Debs, etc. - the core of my guest list), but at least they let me know. The Choirboy turned up very, very, VERY late (and sans girlfriend) - but at least he showed up. About twenty or so other people who I had hoped - expected - would show up (most of whom had given pretty definite, not to say enthusiastically positive responses earlier in the week) were suddenly mysteriously "not free" until much later in the evening (a couple of them came along to the 'after party' at 12 Square Metres), or else simply disappeared off the face of the earth. So, we were left with only about 50% of the expected turnout - which is more than somewhat of a bummer!

My parties, you see, are not like most other people's. And most of my invitees ought to appreciate that (but seem not to!).

Most - or many - house parties seem to be held at really large apartments, shared by groups of people. They are therefore able to invite the world at large: friends, and friends of friends, and workmates, and casual acquaintances of each of the housemates. Thus, they usually guarantee a strong turnout by being fairly indiscriminate, promiscuous in inviting guests - and so most absences go unnoticed or unregretted. With me, I'm doing these things entirely solo. And I'm trying to restrict myself to manageable numbers, so - for the most part - I only invite people I know quite well and really want to come; every absentee is noticed and regretted (especially if they've RSVP-ed in the affirmative).

Also, most house parties don't usually splurge a huge amount on booze. I know from bitter experience that I can't trust most of my guests to be particularly generous in "bringing a bottle", so I endeavour to lay on enough booze for everyone. That entails quite a significant expense. And it means that it's really useful to have a fairly accurate idea of how many people are intending to come.

Similarly, most other parties don't do much, if anything, in the way of food - chips and dip, maybe sending out for pizza. I usually attempt to cook food myself. I am not by any means a great chef (and I don't have much of a kitchen), but I make a big effort to produce tasty and unusual (and, mostly, hot) snacks for everyone. Again, this means that having an accurate idea of numbers is pretty important. So is having people turn up reasonably punctually ('cos I'm slaving away in the kitchen to produce hot food which won't, you know, stay hot for that long...).

Finally, it seems that most other parties tend to run later in the evening. Perhaps this is to allow people to get dinner first, so they won't be bothered about what snacks may be available at the party. Or perhaps it's just that the hosts don't give a damn about provoking angry confrontations with their neighbours, and maybe having to close things down abruptly when the police make their second or third visit to complain. Me, I do care about my neighbours (and I'd rather avoid having visits from the police); so I generally aim to wrap things up no later than 10pm, and, ideally, by 8pm or 9pm. The late evening party thing doesn't really seem to work in Beijing, to my mind (since most Chinese go to bed so early, and are going to be bothered by the unaccustomed NOISE from the laowai apartment). I much prefer to go for late afternoon or early evening gatherings (which have the added advantage of leaving people free to go on to other events, music gigs and so on, later on).

Unfortunately, it seems that I am swimming against the tide of fashion here.

People get used to turning up at parties where the hosts don't remember having invited them; parties where no-one's doing any substantial cooking; parties where you're expected to bring most of your own booze; parties that might keep going towards midnight if the neighbours are out of town and the police aren't feeling too cranky. People here, it seems, often tend to treat parties as anonymous and casual affairs, open-invitation mass events that are not that much different from spending a night out at a bar. They get into the habit of thinking that they can show up any time they like - or not at all - and no-one will much care, or even notice.

Yeah, well, my parties aren't like that. If you don't come, I do notice, I do care..... and you put me to considerable f***ing inconvenience and expense. And I get greatly disheartened at the lack of affection, respect, and even basic courtesy that this seems to evidence on your part.

If you said you were going to come on Saturday, and didn't...... keep out of my way for a few weeks, because I am extremely f***ing GRUMPY about it.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Top Five Parties I Have Thrown

Time for another 'Top Five' list! In the aftermath of my rather disappointing housewarming at the weekend, I have been reflecting on the more 'successful' parties I have given. I think I'll restrict myself here to parties I have thrown at my home, since it's a little difficult to make a comparison with parties organised at bars or restaurants (and there are an awful lot of those, since I was a "semi-professional" party organiser as a student, heavily involved in the 'dining society' and cocktail party scene).

So, here we go then.....

The All-Time Top Five Parties Thrown Chez Froog

5) 'Collections' Cocktails
At Oxford University, 'Collections' are internal examinations organized by the individual colleges, usually administered just before the beginning of each term - to check whether you've done your assigned holiday reading! They soon become a humdrum routine, no more than a minor irritation; but for first-year students they can seem rather daunting. Most of my friends and I were pretty nervous about the first set of 'Collections' we faced just after Christmas (not least because, in my case at least, I hadn't done any of the holiday reading). So.... I threw a breakfast party for a dozen friends in my tiny undergraduate room for an hour immediately before they were due to start: croissants and cocktails at 7.30am. It was such an outrageously silly - self-destructive! - idea; but it was just what we needed to distract us from the impending exams and reduce our anxieties.

4) The Pyjama Party at the old Froog Towers
Everyone has to throw a pyjama party at some point in their lives - particularly if you live in Beijing, where the penchant of the local people for using pyjamas as outdoor wear (and at any season of the year!) is one of the city's most appealing quirks. I did mine about 5 years ago, in my previous - much larger - apartment. The pretext for that party was my girlfriend's (American academic, The Buddhist) birthday; although, I fear her celebration got hijacked or upstaged rather by the sudden return of my buddy The Chairman to China (Big Frank was still around at this time, so the evening degenerated into a Three Amigos reunion as we sat in a cheap neighbourhood restaurant drinking 3kuai beers until 3am or 4am). People seem more inclined to turn out for parties in the evening than in the afternoon; and the birthday pretext was probably also an incentive - so, it was probably one of the biggest turnouts I've had for an event here in China. A lot of people failed to enter into the dressing-up spirit, but enough did to render us quite a spectacle when we went out on the road at around 10pm or so - headed to our 'after-party', which was of course in nearby BED bar. There are probably still pictures of us out on the Internet: I don't think I've ever seen such a large group of laowai wearing pyjamas in public!!

3) New Year's Eve Party in Oxford
I'm not a big fan of New Year's Eve, and this is the only occasion on which I've thrown a party on this date. In my penultimate year as an undergraduate, I was renting quite a big semi-detached house in West Oxford, and so thought I should put it to use by inviting a small group of friends to come and party with me. We had warm-up drinks at the house, then went into town for a slap-up Chinese meal, then returned to the house for midnight revelries. The party expanded rather beyond the originally anticipated numbers, and we all got very, very drunk. Around 3am or 4am, there was no more booze to be had in the place..... so my enterprising Scots friend The Bookseller cracked open a bottle of Benylin cough syrup and started offering that around to anyone who was still conscious.

2) St Patrick's Day Party at the old Froog Towers
I'm not sure why, but I think this actually drew the biggest attendance of any of the parties I've thrown here in China. For once, people were all fully willing to come in the afternoon. And for once, I hadn't over-extended myself with the catering: I simply cooked up two huge pots the previous day (leek & potato soup and Irish stew), and put them on a very low simmer on party day - both were very well received. Naturally, I got very tired and emotional (I'm a terrible Plastic Paddy!), and tried at one point to sing The Wild Rover down the phone to The Chairman (who was working in Hangzhou that year, I think).

And....... the wildest Froog party ever was.....

1) The 'Back on the booze' party at that house in Oxford
Yes, that was a great party year. Six months on from the humongous New Year's Eve party (number 3) above), I had another, even wilder bash. I had been starting to fear that my drinking was doing bad things to my bank account (if not to my liver), so I decided to go completely dry throughout most of the summer term. Of course, that gave me the perfect excuse to throw a huge end-of-term party at my rented house in West Oxford when I started drinking again. I laid on strawberries and ice cream..... and lots of Pimm's (much of it consumed in combination with sparkling white wine - a concoction popularized, if not invented, by my fellow Corpuscle [as members of my college are affectionately known] Mr A, and known by the suitably warning name of 'Rocket Fuel'). Most of the party took place in the large garden out the back - which was bizarrely decorated with numerous pieces of ceramic toilet furniture (I was renting from a mysterious and slightly sinister Chinese businessman who owned a couple of restaurants in town; he had decided to re-equip the restrooms in one of them, and just dumped all the old fittings in my garden; they all seemed perfectably serviceable, and we assumed he would one day put them back in another of his restaurants or sell them on..... but he seemed to just forget about them): there is a group photo of me and several of my guests sitting on lavatories in the open air - like living garden gnomes. At another point (I cannot remember why) a good number of us had improvised 'Kamikaze' headbands for ourselves with strips of loo-paper and red felt marker pen and were running up and down the garden in formation, crying "Tora! Tora! Tora!" Alas, many of these headbands were later unwisely disposed of in the loo, causing a severe blockage (and my female housemates were somehow convinced that I had done this deliberately to piss them off - it wasn't me, ladies, honestly!). The frivolities came to an abrupt end when The Bookseller inadvertently put his foot through our glass front door; but, luckily, he wasn't badly hurt, and this accident just provided a convenient excuse for us to adjourn to a bar in town. After 6 or 7 weeks of abstinence, my alcohol tolerance was well down; I am afraid I got very, very drunk. So drunk, indeed, that I have very little recollection of what happened with the remainder of the evening; I remember suddenly finding myself walking home, as if I'd just materialized from somewhere, been beamed back to earth after an alien abduction episode; it was around dawn, and I was perplexed to find that I was wearing my boxer shorts outside my trousers. Ah, we were young and crazy then. I don't think that one will ever be topped.

Lost days

It all started with that darned housewarming party. Well, really, it began even before that: I was so crazily busy for three days beforehand - planning, shopping, cleaning, cooking - that I wasn't getting much sleep. Putting this much effort into a party is emotionally draining, and I'm not sure if I have it in me any more.

Then, of course, there was the after-party. And the after-after-party. And the after-after-after-party..... I didn't make it home until dawn.

Then - unwisely - I ended up having a huge hair-of-the-dog night at 12 Square Metres on Sunday.... and once again stayed up until past midnight (in the hope that CCTV5 would be showing the Chelsea v. Arsenal game live, but they weren't).

Then, of course, I rolled out of bed at 6am to go and watch the Superbowl at Luga's Villa...... and the storming Saints victory (first time I can remember for quite a while that the team I was pulling for managed to win!) led to another all-day partying session. And I mean all day: I didn't get home until after dawn the next day (I think that has probably eclipsed the epic day-long drinking spree I got into with Big Frank on Superbowl day four years ago). I tried to restrict myself to a couple of catnaps during the day, because I wanted to avoid getting my bio-rhythms completely Weeble-ized (my friend The Weeble is a translator; and, for some reason, translators just don't sleep at normal times); but by mid-afternoon I'd lapsed into a coma on the sofa..... Waking early evening, I thought - hoped - just for a moment that it might still be Monday. Er, no.

Sort of getting back in the right 'timezone' now, but still exhausted. Where did this week go??

I am getting too old for this shit. But.... GO, Saints!!!!!!

Monday, February 08, 2010

A particularly timely bon mot (something for the weekend, anyway)

"We owe to the Middle Ages the two worst inventions of humanity - Gunpowder and Romantic Love."

André Maurois [born Emile Salomon Wilhelm Herzog] (1885-1967)

Chinese New Year coincides with Valentine's Day this year. I don't think there'll be any fireworks for me....

Sunday, February 07, 2010

How not to throw a party...

Ah, well, the housewarming party has come and gone. People came, people had fun - so I suppose I shouldn't fret about it too much.

It's just that.... well, it was - by some margin - the most disappointing party I've thrown.

Amongst the reasons....

1) A much smaller apartment
(The old Froog Towers was Party Central because it was f***ing huge. I could accommodate 50 or 60 people in the living room, without spilling over into any of the three bedrooms! The new place definitely feels a bit cramped by comparison.)

2) The proximity of the Spring Festival holiday
(A lot of people have left town already. Others discovered [only in the last day or two - ah, last-minute China!] that they were expected to work this weekend, to lessen the impact of the upcoming long holiday on the nation's productivity.)

3) The curse of Marley Day
(It SNOWED! Snow is a further major discouragement to people coming out. The last time I had a Marley Day party [three years ago], it also snowed [though at least not until midnight; during the day it merely pissed with rain] - even though I was having it four weeks late, at the beginning of March. I think God hates me. Or He hates Bob Marley. God has no taste.)

4) An early start
(People don't deal well with 'early starts' in this town, apparently. I thought the logic was sound: enjoy drinking while it's still daylight; clear out early, so as not to annoy the neighbours too much; leave people room to go on to something else - dinner, gigs, other parties, whatever - in the mid-evening. But no-one wanted to show up until 7pm. And a lot of people were threatening to come at 9.30 or 10pm - long after we were supposed to have finished.)

5) The most unreliable friends in the world
(I think I may have elaborated before [though I can't now find the post] on my 60% Rule: only two-thirds of people you invite to a party reply at all, two thirds of those reply in the affirmative, and two thirds of the affirmatives actually show up - which means you can budget for about a third of your total invitation list. I think that ratio would be higher - at least 70%, maybe even 80% - in most other environments; but in expat Beijing you're lucky if you hit 65%. You just have to accept it and deal with it. However, I think yesterday my percentage was even lower than that. And that was particularly galling since, because of the limited space in my new flat, I'd largely restricted the invitations to good friends - rather than inviting everyone I've ever met, as I'd typically done in the past at Froog Towers. Of my closest friends..... one showed up 4 or 5 hours late, half a dozen more suddenly had "something better to do", and.... well, several others just vanished without trace. Heartbreaking.)

On the plus side, though, one guy came all the way from Shanghai especially for this!

Also, it was quite a "United Nations" kind of affair: in addition to the inevitable British, Americans and Chinese.... Australia, New Zealand, France, Ireland and the Phillipines were represented (Germany, Greece, Canada, Taiwan, Holland and Mexico amongst the no-shows!).

And the food - if I do say so myself - was AWESOME!

And I have enough beer (and RUM) left over to keep me wrecked throughout Spring Festival!!

Saturday, February 06, 2010

Marley Day

It's Bob Marley's birthday! My day in Beijing opened with an 8am snow flurry, but inside I'm starting to feel all sunshiney. This is a day to be celebrated with RUM, jerk chicken, RUM, certain substances, RUM, reggae, RUM, and reggae....

Friday, February 05, 2010

HBH 168

Perfect for 'boat drinks',
Feeding dreams of the tropics:
A tall rum and cola.

My (admittedly somewhat late) housewarming party is tomorrow. Since it is Bob Marley's birthday, I shall be mostly drinking RUM!

Thursday, February 04, 2010

Food of the Gods

Olly Stedall over at Ginkgo has added pork scratchings to the menu - as a bar snack, at just 5 kuai (I don't suppose you get very many for that, but still....).

If they're anything like as good as those pictured here (and on the Ginkgo website, where we learn the interesting fact that the Dutch word for this tasty treat is knabbelspek - which, of course, sounds to me like a band name!), I'll definitely be giving them a go.

However, sceptic that I am, I was inclined to doubt whether Olly had snapped his own scratchings (fnnnarrggh, fnnnarggh) for the advertisement, and..... indeed not, no: the photograph appears to come from this food blog, along with the recipe. No matter - perhaps the Ginkgo ones look (and taste) even better??

Hmmm, just typing this is making my mouth water.....

New Picks of the Month

Time to dip into the archives once again to unearth a couple of forgotten 'classics'....

From Froogville I nominate Accidental Poetry - an anthology of readymade images I discovered in a box of 'Magnetic Poetry'.

And on The Barstool, you should take a look at Sometimes larking, usually darkening, an anecdote about the failure of my career as a lawyer (including, as a bonus, the funniest clerihew ever written).

Wednesday, February 03, 2010

Something for the weekend

Good news and bad news (twice over). The good news - Alan Paul, founder of popular blues outfit Woodie Alan, is back in town for while, and getting the band back together for a gig this Saturday. The bad news - it's at The Orchard! (Nice enough place, and very convenient for people who live in the upscale laowai ghetto of Shunyi in the shadow of the 6th [or is it the 7th??] Ringroad..... but absolutely miles away, hard to get to [and nearly impossible to get back from] for us city-centre-dwellers.)

More (rival) good news - fun funksters The Verve and extended drumming troupe Afrokoko Roots are headlining a big gig to commemorate Bob Marley's birthday this Saturday (he would have been 65 this year). The bad news - it's at Yugong Yishan (which offends me more with each visit: increasingly high door fees, increasingly shitty drinks, same old dismal acoustics, same old predominantly foreign clientele).

Tempting possibilities, but..... I think I shall be having to make my own entertainment.

Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Another kind of failure to communicate

In recent weeks I have remarked on here upon the strange failure of nightclubs Lan and Le Zazou to advertise (adequately, or at all - as I was taught to phrase it in my lawyering days) their discount promotions over the holidays, and on the discrepancy between the amount of publicity solicited by Obiwan for its change of ownership/image in December (lots) and the amount given to the fact that it was going to be closed for a month for refurbishments (none).

A little while ago, I came upon another rather striking breakdown in communications...

Chad was making some changes to the drinks menu at Fubar just after Christmas. He was only just out of hospital (after having a nasty spill on his motorcycle), so was still a little groggy from painkillers, and not fully on his game. He therefore asked his graphic designer buddy who was reformatting the menu for him to invent some amusing names for the new collection of cocktails. Said buddy was distracted by an imminent change of apartments and...... forgot to do so. The new menus came in from the printers with the twenty new shooters on the back page all labelled simply as 'Drink Name'.

The curious thing, though, was the complete blind spot the Chinese staff had about this. Dr Manhattan and I tried repeatedly to explain the problem to them, but no-one - no-one, not even the new bar manager or Chad's Chinese partner - seemed to grasp it. "Yes, yes, new drinks - very good. Yes, yes, 'drink name' - good." "So, if I ordered a 'Drink Name' - which one of these twenty different drinks would I get?"

Really - the penny was dropping in slow motion. In fact, I'm not sure that it ever really did drop.... because at that moment Chad showed up, and promptly had a coronary.

It's OK. The drinks have been named now. Luckily, printing costs in China are very low.

Traffic Report - the blog stats for January

Oh dear - Barstool Blues has been keeping up the momentum of peak party month, December. This is a damning indicator that I have had way too much time on hands recently, and have been going out far more than is good for me (or for my bank balance, anyway). While I have managed to observe my private resolution to scale my output back just a bit on Froogville, the Barstool is threatening to get out of control. Hold me back, someone, hold me back!

There were 44 posts and 12,500 words on Froogville last month (I'm sort of aiming to get it down to about 40 posts and 10,000 words).

On Barstool Blues there were also 44 posts, but a whopping 16,000 words (where does all this stuff come from??).

I wonder if I'll be able to rein myself in a little in February. I'll do my best. At least it's a short month.

Monday, February 01, 2010

A dirty trick

No-one wanted to come out to play on Saturday.

Even Dr Manhattan was in a curmudgeonly, stay-at-home frame of mind.

There were a couple of gigs on, but I wasn't somehow in the mood.

I'd been out quite late on Friday, and then slept badly; I didn't fancy another late session.

So.... I thought I'd go out for a few drinks at 12 Square Metres, aim to get drunk fairly quickly, and then head home around 9.30 or 10pm for an "early night".

A few pints of draught and a couple of tequila slammers were doing the job very nicely.

But then, just as I was about to leave at 9.30, I received a text message from Dr Manhattan - he'd had a change of heart and was en route to the bar. Exquisite timing.

Of course, that meant another four hours of getting completely lashed, and being in no condition to do anything for most of Sunday....

A bon mot for the week

"I do not believe that any man can be a good lover who has not owned a cat. You think it's easy to make them purr. But there's purring, and then there's purring. It's all about feedback. Having cats teaches you that."


This occurred to me when I was petting the kittens in Amilal a few weeks back.