Wednesday, March 31, 2010
Tuesday, March 30, 2010
Should I stay in or go out?
THE COIN says..... go out.
Should I start late or early?
THE COIN says.... early.
Aha! And should I drink moderately or excessively?
THE COIN says.... excessively.
And should I stick to my home turf of Nanluoguxiang or head over to Sanlitun?
THE COIN says....
[I should reiterate you may only ask THE COIN 'Heads or tails?' It is most impertinent to seek to ask THE COIN detailed questions about your life choices.
In this article, I was merely illustrating how the outcome of tossing THE COIN determined which of my two options I had to follow on each occasion. I held these options fixedly in my mind, but I did not presume to address them to THE COIN. Oh no. If THE COIN is encumbered by the knowledge of the consequences of its answer, THE COIN may not be able to enjoy its flight-and-tumble freely - it may be inhibited, it may give false answers. Keep your real questions to yourself. Just ask 'Heads or tails?']
Monday, March 29, 2010
Alas, I don't have a decent pair of dice (well, I do have a set somewhere, but they got misplaced when I moved house at the end of last year). And all that one-in-six stuff does get a bit too mentally taxing at times; sometimes all you want is a YES/NO template.
So, I have taken to tossing a coin.
Again, we run into problems there, because coins (other than the tiny, useless-for-flipping, piddling small change ones) are not very common in most parts of China. I rather think the shiny 1 Yuan coin I'm currently using for this purpose is a legacy of my last trip down to Shanghai a couple of years ago (they like coins in Shanghai; they're much more modern down there, you see).
Even the 1 Yuan coin, I now discover, is a little too small and light to be any good for flipping; well, it's easy enough to flip, but it's damned hard to catch the bloody thing cleanly afterwards.
As a simpler, less publicly embarrassing alternative, I have begun occasionally sending the SMS query "Heads or tails?" to friends I think I can rely on to give me a prompt - and non-equivocating - response. (I tried this last Christmas Eve, but was disappointed in the answer I received; however, you must always respect the word of THE COIN; bad things will happen if you try to disregard its bidding.)
I now have one specially designated COIN which I carry with me at almost all times, and which is available to friends and acquaintances of mine who may be suffering from some crisis of indecision.
So, if you are so afflicted by an inability to make up your mind about something, feel free to send me the magic text message; I will flip immediately, and relay THE COIN's answer to you. Or, if I happen not to have THE COIN with me at that moment, I will simply choose 'Heads' or 'Tails' at random myself and SMS you accordingly - which will be just as good. Please remember - you must decide clearly what your two options are before you ask THE COIN. You must not change your mind. You must do what THE COIN tells you to do.
Honestly, it's terribly liberating once you get into it.
Saturday, March 27, 2010
Friday, March 26, 2010
Thursday, March 25, 2010
Wednesday, March 24, 2010
Tuesday, March 23, 2010
Monday, March 22, 2010
Mary Pettibone Poole
Sunday, March 21, 2010
Groping back to bed after a piss
I part thick curtains, and am startled by
The rapid clouds, the moon's cleanliness.
Four o'clock: wedge-shadowed gardens lie
Under a cavernous, a wind-picked sky.
There's something laughable about this,
The way the moon dashes through clouds that blow
Loosely as cannon-smoke to stand apart
(Stone-coloured light sharpening the roofs below)
High and preposterous and separate -
Lozenge of love! Medallion of art!
O wolves of memory! Immensements! No,
One shivers slightly, looking up there.
The hardness and the brightness and the plain
Far-reaching singleness of that wide stare
Is a reminder of the strength and pain
Of being young; that it can't come again,
But is for others undiminished somewhere.
Philip Larkin (1922-1985)
Saturday, March 20, 2010
Friday, March 19, 2010
Wednesday, March 17, 2010
1968?! Christ - I was three years old! I think this is the first song I can remember hearing on the radio. It was a HUGE hit that summer (well, I fancy I remember it from the summer - the background to sunshiney south coast holidays with my German grandmother in Brixham). Hmm, it seems the single's official release date was 30th August, but I suppose it would have been getting extensive airplay for at least a week or two prior to that.
Here's the lovely Mary way back in 1968 (black & white, of course; and with karaoke subtitles, just in case you don't know the words):
There's another vintage version by her on YouTube here, with an extensive note on what's been happening in her career more recently. I hadn't realised that she was so young when she got her big break, only just turning 18. It'll be her 60th birthday in a couple of months, so I expect we can look forward to lots more nostalgic re-releases of her best-loved songs. And here's a live performance (no video) from Osaka in 1970. I've also just learned that she did a version in French (known as Le Temps des Fleurs) - which has a very different feel to it, sexy as hell. What is it about the French (language)??!! Gosh, she released versions in Italian, Spanish, and German as well. (So did Sandie Shaw, and Matt Monro. I'm beginning to think I might have to have a follow-up post just on the Spanish recordings of this.) Not that I'm any expert or anything, but to me her French and Spanish pronunciation sound pretty damned good - quite the polished linguist!
Of course, since Mary, this song has been covered by everyone and his dog. There is, for example, this quite nice instrumental version by Vietnamese(?) guitarist Sonphumai and a violinist friend (ah, the wonders of YouTube!). And then, according to your taste, you can take your pick from.... Dolly Parton (no video, stills only), Bonnie Tyler (live TV performance, very good... I sometimes used to wonder in the 70s, when Mary Hopkin disappeared, if the poor girl hadn't had some terrible problems with throat nodules and then reinvented herself as Bonnie Tyler: same age, same look, same Welshness), Sandie Shaw (her version came out shortly after Mary's and failed to take off), or Engelbert Humperdinck (who in fact first recorded this the year before Mary, but never released it as a single - a much fuller arrangement, with horns), or.... well, I could have sworn I'd heard a good rock version of this somewhere, but there's nothing on YouTube. (On further reflection, I think it was a band that opened for The Pogues at one of their Wembley Arena shows in the 80s, but I can't now remember their name.) Well, there is this somewhat anodyne version by Europop duo Bad Boys Blue (just to show that I try to cater for every taste); actually, this is one of those songs that's so good it's almost impossible to do a really bad version of it. Then there's this version by an unidentified Chinese hamonica quartet, and this by Greek bouzouki master Johnny Sporos. And finally, to prove that I really do cater for every taste, here's another very sweet instrumental... by a German ukulele enthusiast (no, really, check this out - very good).
But the pick of the crop is surely this, the Leningrad Cowboys ripping it up live (in Moscow, I assume; or maybe Helsinki - no details posted with the clip) backed by the whole vast wonderfulness of the Red Army Choir (well, more accurately The Alexandrov Ensemble - and yes, it is Helsinki, from a 1993 concert film by Aki Kaurismäki called Total Balalaika Show):
I think this is probably the greatest Drinking Song of them all. There's something about those lilting melodies of Eastern European folk music - on the surface rousingly jaunty, yet underpinned by a painful wistfulness. There's something about the balalaika too; that instrument works like a cheesegrater on the heart. There aren't many songs that can be either triumphantly happy or devastatingly melancholic, according to your mood. There are even fewer that can manage to be both at the same time. This is one of them. And the additional overlay of nostalgia for lost childhood - this is the first pop song I can remember - makes this an emotional frag-grenade for me. So what if it isn't Irish? I can't think of a better raucous, maudlin, misty-eyed singalong for St Patrick's Day.
So here, as a final offering, to get us all in the mood for the revelries later in the day, is a live performance by Liam Clancy (last survivor of the marvellous Clancy Brothers, who passed on just at the end of last year), who opens by reminiscing about his acquaintance with Gene Raskin, who wrote the new English lyrics for the song, and had been a regular drinking companion in Manhattan's famous White Horse Tavern in the early 1960s.
Have a great day, everyone. And remember: Drink Irresponsibly.
[There's a short clip of the original Russian folk song here. There's also this rendition by Belgian super-crooner Helmut Lotti. And if you hang out in Beijing's sleazy Russian quarter, you might recognise this - a breathy, Latino-pop version by the indecently sexy Dessy Dobreva (who is, it seems, Bulgarian, but enjoys a huge following across the whole of Eastern Europe - and Canada too).
Most of the Leningrad Cowboys' Total Balalaika! concert appears to be available on YouTube - check some of it out. However, Wikipedia informs me that the show featured a massed balalaika version of Stairway To Heaven which was not included on the CD or DVD - now there's a rarity I'd like to track down!
The most intriguing nugget of information in the rather spare Wikipedia bio of lyricist Gene Raskin is that he presented this 1960s short film in praise of New York's urban design, How To Live In A City (which definitely deserves a post all of its own).
I think this must surely set a new record for my most cross-linked post: well over 30 references and 3 embeds! Because of the crappiness of my Net connection, and the particularly slow and glitchy downloads I'm suffering from YouTube, and the fact that Internet Explorer inexplicably crashed on me 3 or 4 times while I was preparing this.... well, instead of an hour or so, it took me the best part of five hours! But I think it was well worth it. I hope you will too.
Tuesday, March 16, 2010
Monday, March 15, 2010
My fuel has been spent.
I forgot how to love.
I can't pay the rent.
Saturday, March 13, 2010
You see, time was when they only bothered to fake the highest-selling brands (lower margin, but far greater potential income) and the ones that were easiest to get away with (hence vodka, gin, and light rum were faked far more often than whisky, because it's tough to get the colour of a whisky convincing; they'd usually just do it by slopping in something like caramel, which may deceive the eye easily enough - especially in poor light - but tends to be a bit of a giveaway on the palate). In practice, the high-volume drinks are probably easier to get away with faking, as well as offering the larger market: people who go for these standard drinks are usually pretty undiscriminating (or just plain ignorant, particularly in the case of Chinese drinkers: how else could the aggressively marketed but utterly undistinguished Chivas Regal become a 'luxury' brand in this country, just about the only Scotch - very nearly the only spirit - the locals will drink?); or they're too damn drunk to notice what shite they're drinking, or to complain about it if they do; and most of the time they're drinking their spirits with a lot of mixer, which will cover up a multitude of sins. Even Chivas is traditionally drunk by the Chinese heavily diluted with the local soft drink of heavily-sweetened 'green tea', which masks all but the most toxic impurities. Hence, Chivas is one of the mostly widely faked brands (well, I don't drink the stuff myself; but I'm told by friends who do that in bars and clubs here it is almost invariably fake).
However, back in the 'good old days' when I first arrived here, outside of Russian vodka and Chivas, there wasn't a lot of fake booze about. The slightly more exotic clear spirits were the next to start becoming widely faked - especially Bacardi rum, which is another of those brands that I now make a point of avoiding, for safety's sake. But for a long time, the worst that you had to fear of a whisky was that it might have been watered down a bit.
When whisky faking did start becoming really widespread 4 or 5 years ago, it was confined to a few high-selling brands: Jameson's is the one I'm wariest of.
Jack Daniel's, although a big seller, would always, I fondly hoped, be passed over by this evil trade, because its flavour is just too darned distinctive - the heavy charcoal, the maple sweetness: you really can't approximate that; at least, not sufficiently well to fool anyone who's ever drunk it before.... not unless they're absolutely drowning it in Coke (and if they're doing that, I have no sympathy for them: they deserve to have their livers blown apart).
Friday, March 12, 2010
Wednesday, March 10, 2010
I figure this may be all for the good, though. There's been quite a shake-up in the 'cocktail scene' here lately, with a couple of my listed candidates being not much over a year old, and four or five of the others having arrived only within the last few months. It would probably be better to wait a few months more, until some of these newcomers have had a proper chance to establish a clientele.
Perhaps I will try this poll idea again in the summer....
For now, if you really want to play, you can try visiting the poll on the Quibblo website.
And feel free to add your own comments/reviews of the Beijing cocktail scene (or 'write-in' nominations for any worthwhile venues I may have overlooked) in the comments below.
Monday, March 08, 2010
He told me that the following night's 'Whisky Wednesday' event at The Worm - first Wednesday of the month, almost every month - had almost no sign-ups (only two advance reservations, and a handful more showing up on the night), but that it would go ahead as planned: this month's theme was to be Irish whiskeys, and at least four bottles would be available for tasting, despite the likely thin turnout. So, basically, unlimited whiskey for 100rmb! Hello!!!
Yes, of course I went along. Yes, I got VERY drunk (so drunk, in fact, that I actually turned down the offer of a free whisky from one of the punters in 12 Square Metres later that night!). I don't remember too much about the latter stages of that evening. In fact, the whole week since has been a bit of a blur....
I was thinking at the time that this tip-off had been extremely fortuitous. But perhaps it was the reverse: a random piece of ill fortune, Fate up to its wicked mischief again, a temptation that should have been turned down.
Friday, March 05, 2010
Thursday, March 04, 2010
Guided Tour - recommended posts from the 4th quarter of '08
1) A txt msg bon mot for the week - 6th October 2008
An SMS exchange with one of my regular pool adversaries leads to a quotable line or two on the Zen qualities of the game.
2) Wanted: A New Drinking Companion - 9th October 2008
I rue the loss of almost all of my bar buddies of yore, and lay down the template for new candidates for this important role. [This one has been in the sidebar for ages, but it merits another shout-out.]
3) Great Drinking Songs (11) - 11th October 2008
AC/DC's Highway to Hell, a song I once shouted along so loudly to that I lost my voice.
4) A Sunday poem - 12th October 2008
One of my own, on binge drinking and "binge thinking".
5) Cynthia?? - 14th October 2008
A romantic vignette: a chance 'encounter' in the street reminds me of a much-missed companion from my early days in Beijing.
6) Fragments - 18th October 2008
A few highlights from a particularly productive, particularly surreal evening of text messaging.
7) Happy Birthday to me! - 21st October 2008
A review of my epic birthday party at Salud the previous night, and YouTube clips of Marilyn Monroe and John Otway & Wild Willy Barrett singing birthday songs.
8) A House Divided - 26th October 2008
My essay on the importance of unity of space in a bar (a long overdue supplement to my famous What makes a GREAT bar? post of the preceding October).
9) Sazerac - 27th October 2008
One of my more 'serious' posts: the recipe and history of the classic New Orleans cocktail.
10) Lobotomy - 29th October 2008
A deadly cocktail recipe of my own devising, and the least glorious moment in the invariably inglorious career of my good friend The Bookseller.
11) More text message silliness - 31st October 2008
The Weeble taunts me about the hopelessness of my infatuation with local rock goddess Helen Feng.
12) The Aegrotat - 1st November 2008
Another reminiscence from college days, and the formidable - surprisingly pleasant - cocktail devised by my friend Mr A.
13) Bon mot for the week - 3rd November 2008
Not one but two favourite lines on drinking, from an abandoned novel of mine.
14) Tonight's txt msg highlights - 6th November 2008
More sharp lines from my SMS conversations. (Another good one here.)
15) HBH 105 - 7th November 2008
A 17-syllable paean to gin & tonic.
16) Perversity - 9th November 2008
A short poem to mark The Barstool's 900th Post.
17) Best comment yet on the American Election - 11th November 2008
I find a superb joke advertisement that sums up how most of us feel about last week's Presidential election.
18) More 'cocktails' - 12th November 2008
The things I used to drink as a student....
19) HBH 106 - 14th November 2008
What gets us up in the mornings...
20) I guessed Norwegian! - 16th November 2008
I am cursed/blessed with two uncanny abilities that do me no good at all.
21) Bon mot for the week - 17th November 2008
In praise of excess - Somerset Maugham says it far better than I could.
22) King of Snacks - 19th November 2008
I honour the "pie of 5 kuai", the superb new snack option (though tragically short-lived) on Nanluoguxiang.
23) Swizz - 23rd November 2008
A frustrating gig experience prompts a comparison of Beijing's two main rock music venues, Yugong Yishan and MAO Live House.
24) Some drinks are more dangerous than others.... - 23rd November 2008
Especially the 4th Martini - so much so that I wrote a poem about it.
25) Controversy - 26th November 2008
I get drawn into a lawyerly brawl with my pal The British Cowboy over the vexed question of whether or not Jack Daniel's is a bourbon (it is!). Even more of this here.
26) A fizzlin' Thanksgivin' - 28th November 2008
The worst Thanksgiving dinner ever....
27) Another unsuitable role model - Terry Collier - 29th November 2008
A favourite character from a 1970s BBC sitcom Whatever Happened To The Likely Lads?, Terry Collier (played by James Bolam), the ultimate 'bad influence' best friend, has probably been dangerously influential on the course of my life subsequently. This post includes the show's catchy, melancholic theme song, What Happened To You?
28) Burger blues (pt. 1) and (pt. 2) - 10th December and 14th December 2008
I bewail the poverty of burger options in Beijing.
29) The weekly bon mot - 15th December 2008
A particularly good one - from Pierre-Auguste Renoir.
30) Getting Christmassy - A Great Drinking Song and A Great Love Song (13+13!) - 20th December 2008
Gosh, is it really 21 years since A Fairytale Of New York came out? Indeed it is. A nostalgic Christmas treat for my readers.
31) Alas, poor Sammy's - 23rd December 2008
Remembering one of Beijing's great dive bars - sadly short-lived.
An amusing diagrammatic representation of how the Chinese organise a party.
33) HBH 112 - 26th December 2008
34) The Froog Bar Awards 2008 - 31st December 2008
Wednesday, March 03, 2010
Tuesday, March 02, 2010
If any of my devoted readers were thinking of getting me a Christmas/birthday/blogoversary present, this page would basically be my Wish List.
Monday, March 01, 2010
I have - if such a thing is possible - even greater scorn for sites like Twitter, which threaten to swamp the Internet with a tsunami of ephemeral inanities. God knows, blogging is quite bad enough (I don't really approve, despite being a practitioner myself); but at least blogging is, or can be, a thoughtful process, a significant act of creation, a serious literary endeavour. Twitter, at best, is blogging lite. There may be some users who are putting out worthwhile content within the very limiting constraints of the 'short message' format; but most of it is no more than brainfarts. And how the heck are you supposed to search out what might be of interest to you amid such an incontinent morass of drivel? And even if the search tools were that incisive, I simply don't have the time to waste on another new waffling medium - the Internet eats up quite enough of my day as it is.
Over the last few months I have had a new bugbear - a kind of Twitter spin-off which, while having the appearance of having a more directed (and possibly useful) purpose, is to my mind even more extravagantly pointless than Twitter itself. Yes, I'm talking about FourSquare, which is, I gather, intended to be a means of sharing information about bars and restaurants. It attempts to motivate people to participate by including a 'game' element, whereby you can earn points and win 'badges' for visiting certain types of venue, finding new venues, etc. It's also supposed to be a "convenient" way to let your friends know where you are out on the town at any given moment. Oh my gawd!
The convenient way to let your friends know where you are is to send them a text message. If I haven't invited friends to join me at a particular location, that probably means that I'd rather be on my own, or just with whoever I'm currently with; and the same, I'm sure, would usually be true of them. If we want to hang out together, we arrange something. If we want to hang out separately, that's what we do. I really don't want to "find the party" by scouring this website to identify which bar may have the most people that I know in it at the moment; and I can't imagine why anyone would. (Moreover, I'm not aware that there's any straightforward way of blocking or limiting the other users who have access to your information; so, you are potentially advising a bunch of people you don't even know or perhaps don't particularly like of your whereabouts. Hence the joking nickname for this service, StalkMe.com.)
The 'game' itself is terminally naff. I mean, really, who gives a flying fuck about collecting 'badges' on a website?! The most prized designation is supposed to be 'Mayor' - the reward for being the most regular customer at a given venue. Trouble is, the rules are so complicated or uncertain that none of the users I've met actually understands fully how this works - e.g., whether you can 'sign in' to a venue more than once in an evening (or a day, or a 24-hour period), or how often the count is re-set (most descriptions of the site I'd read said that the count was re-set each week at midnight Sunday [which is, I think, far too frequent; a monthly competition would surely make more sense]; but that seems not to be happening in Beijing - some people seem to be still ensconced as 'mayors' of places they haven't visited for weeks [Weeble, I'm looking at you here!], and indefatigable bar blogger Jim Boyce seems to be unchallengeable as the Mayor of Just About Everywhere around Sanlitun). What's more, there doesn't seem to be any publication of the rankings, or the number of visits posted by the current mayor of somewhere; so, if you're gunning for the title, you have no idea how close or far away from your target you are. Also, of course, the system is at risk of rampant cheating, since there's no verification of your actual location, and you can 'sign in' to anywhere you choose from the comfort of your own home.
A number of bar owners are embracing this fad as a possible marketing tool: I think Chad is offering permanent 'happy hour' prices to the Mayor of Fubar, and Olly at Ginkgo is offering a pizza and a drink to the first person to displace him as 'mayor' of his own bar (but, since the counter doesn't seem to be re-setting and Olly already has untold dozens of log-ins to his name, it could take quite some while to overhaul him). Good luck to them. But I think a fad is all it is. I am surprised to discover that I have as many as two enthusiastic users (and a few other occasionals) within my sphere of acquaintance; but you need.... a) to have an Internet-capable phone (which is probably only about 10% of people I know, at present), and b) you need to be arsed to sign up on the website (maybe 10% of that 10%), and c) you need to maintain your enthusiasm for the idea sufficiently to remember to 'sign in' everywhere you go (a rapidly dwindling proportion of that 1%, I would guess).
And, bar owners, please, you do realise this is just a gimmick, right? This site doesn't really tell you anything useful about your customers at all (like, who they come with, why they come, what they drink, how much they spend); it is not a substitute for being a hands-on manager and getting to know your regulars individually; the 'mayor' of your bar is not necessarily your best customer (just someone who visits a lot, and is enough of a saddo to play this silly game).
Now, as a forum for exchanging news and reviews about the drinking and dining scene, this might possibly have some utility. But.... well, in a city like Beijing, where there are never likely to be more than a few hundred users, it is far too open to manipulation: owners will exploit it to plug their venues, perhaps using aliases. Distinguishing the self-interested puffs from genuine customer comments will be too much like hard work. (Also, of course, most people just have no taste - so their comments won't be of any value, even if proffered disinterestedly.)