Monday, October 31, 2011

Escape from sports bar HELL

The unfortunate consequence of Paddy O'Shea's having become in effect the only game in town as far as sports bars go is that it is now often too crowded for its own good. It was impossible to get through the door well before kick-off in this year's Superbowl. And it's becoming a problem on proper football nights (that's 'soccer' to you, Yankees) that it is attracting ever larger numbers of Chinese fans (who mostly drink little or nothing, but take up so much space that it becomes difficult for anyone else to get served promptly). It's just not viable to try to watch Manchester United games there any more (because 80% of Chinese football 'fans' support Man U, and the place gets completely heaved out with them).

Enter James Joyce - not the Irish literary giant, but the new bar bearing his name that opened up on Xindong Lu a month or so ago. OK, it's still a bit all-over-the-place in a lot of ways (rather provisional-looking menu, staff who don't know how much anything costs, very limited 'happy hour' advertised only discreetly on a blackboard behind the bar), and some of its prices are pitched stupidly high (the food, in particular, needs to be closer to The Den's price level than Blue Frog's!!). However, it has a real wood fire down at the far end of the room, it serves way the best pint of Guinness in town (for 50 kuai - which, alas, counts as "cheap" these days), the spirits appear to be all non-fake (which is becoming a real rarity around Sanlitun), the staff are mostly pretty good, and the Malaysian Chinese landlady is a diamond. And they have a great location, just off Sanlitun, midway between The Den and Paddy's - poised to catch their overspill.

They only have two TVs at the moment, but they are good ones; and I like the fact that means that it doesn't feel like primarily or exclusively a sports bar, that it's possible to ignore the game if you just want a drink and a chat with friends. What's more, the landlady is well clued in to what's on - which is seldom or never true anywhere else (even Paddy's suffers headless chicken syndrome whenever manager Karl's not around).

And nobody seems to know about the place yet. (Or maybe they do, but they're put off by the prices.)  So, it's becoming a very attractive, uncrowded alternative to Paddy's - and the other wretched representatives in the sports bar field. I've watched my last few English Premier League matches there - last week's Manchester derby, this weekend's thriller between Chelsea and Arsenal.

Some of those prices make me wince, though. A proper 'happy hour' would go a long way to overcoming the psychological barrier I feel about spending money in there.

And I've just discovered that local station BTV6 has a full programme of live Premiership matches this year (for the first time in ages). I think I'll be doing most of my football watching at home from now on - at least during the long cold months of winter which are now descending upon us.

Bon mot for the week

"The more enlightened our houses are, the more their walls ooze ghosts."

Italo Calvino  (1923-1985)

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Going by in a blur....

It's been one of those weeks...

So far, I've been to a book club, a speaker meeting, a stand-up comedy show, three musical events, and a costume party. I've also faced my demons by venturing once more into farthest Wangjing on a secret mission.

I've visited 10 different bars this week, and blown about 1,500 RMB. And we've only just got to the weekend. Oh dear.

I've also signed a contract for a big website development project, begun a new occasional writing gig, and gone to collect two big chunks of money owed for past work. And done a ton of writing for that website. Yet, amidst all this, I've managed to fritter away an entire day trying - and failing - to find accessories for the costume party.

And I've finally begun my house-hunting.

Weeks like this make me feel in need of a holiday again.

[And I've got stuff booked for at least the next five days as well. In fact, I think I'm double-booked for each of those days. Sometimes this city just gets too much!]

Friday, October 28, 2011

Be careful what you order!

In the tropics, especially the Caribbean, you drink rum. This is a given. And it’s too darned hot to drink spirits neat, so you have to mix them. Pina coladas and other such fruity rum cocktails are very pleasant, but a chap can rarely order such a thing without aspersions being cast on his manhood. Thus, a rum and Coke is what a man mostly drinks in the tropics. How hard can that be?

Well, in Jamaica it is a minefield. The default rum option invariably seems to be Wray & Nephew’s Overproof White Rum, which is a rather too robustly alcoholic at nearly 63% (and I think it used to be even stronger when I first visited the island twenty years ago). And it tastes of toilets. That’s putting it kindly: it tastes like something you shouldn’t even pick up without putting protective gloves on first. The smell is even worse than the taste: sniff too deeply and your eyes will water, your nostrils will pucker, you may even gag. This stuff is, I believe, quite literally emetic. A chemist friend who also tried this appalling distillation some years ago assures me that he recognised the distinctive whiff of pyridine about it – a chemical commonly added to things like methylated spirit to try to ensure that you’ll throw up before you can imbibe a fatal amount of the stuff.

This overpowering chemical tang cannot be disguised or diluted. Trying to dilute this rum is a big mistake: it seems somehow able to propagate its poison, to make any mixer taste completely of its own chemical nastiness. You can pour a half-litre of Coke into a single shot of this vile drink, and the nauseating stench will still assault your nostrils every bit as savagely. The more mixer you add, the more foul-tasting fluid you have in your glass to try and drink. If you inadvertently order a Rum and Coke in Jamaica, you are almost certainly going to end up with a Wray & Nephew’s and Coke – that is, a highball glass of carbonated bleach.

The locals, it seems, have developed an immunity to the dubious chemical additives in their homeland’s flagship “rum”. Or they’re prepared to ignore its disgusting taste because it delivers such bang-for-the-buck in alcohol content. Or perhaps they just like messing with tourists. Come to think of it, I don’t believe I ever saw a single Jamaican drink any of this stuff.

No, no, they drink a much more palatable variety of rum. The leading rum producer on the island is the Appleton Estate sugar plantation, and their Special Dark Rum is the tipple of choice for most Jamaicans. It’s not particularly dark; neither dark, nor light, an amber, caramelly colour. And it’s not particularly complex in flavour; it lacks any of those rich notes of cinnamon or cardamom or vanilla that you get in some of the Caribbean’s more exotic rums. But it’s very palatable, slides down easy. Goes nicely with Coke.

'State Special and Coke  is what you order in Jamaica – if you want a refreshing mixed drink, rather than a Dr Jekyll beaker of foaming toxins.

[I've long been meaning to write more about my first trip to Jamaica - my first exotic overseas journey, right after I finished university - but keep failing to get around to it. The other week, I happened to discover that I still had this piece on my computer, something I submitted several years ago to a - now defunct - Caribbean travel website. I'm not sure if Wray & Nephew's White Rum is still as awful as this.  It has been many, many years since I last tried it. The Appleton Estate has subsequently taken over the brand, and they have been ramping up their efforts to market it around the world over the last decade or so.]

HBH 257

Smoother than Bailey's,
More warming than a toddy -
Velvet-voiced chanteuse.

The lovely Lulu is bringing her sultry lounge jazz to Fubar midweek for the next month (just kicked off on a Thursday, but will be Wednesdays through November). Just what we need to drive the winter chill from our bones.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Top Five Birthdays (in China)

Since I survived (narrowly) another birthday celebration a week ago today, I thought this might be an apt topic for another of my occasional 'Top Five' lists.

I restrict myself to parties I've had here in China, partly because my memory of events that occurred before China is now getting very sketchy, but mostly because I think I really didn't celebrate birthdays before I came here. I have never liked the idea of ticking off the passing of the years - even when I was younger, and the dread spectre of mortality wasn't leering in my face. I disliked birthday parties particularly violently as a child (awkward, forced jollity - often involving the participation of lots of children who were not my friends), and it took me a long time to get over those traumas. But here in Beijing, we're a very clubbable lot... any excuse for a party is always welcome. And so I have started to become less grumpy... well, no, not less grumpy, but less furtive about my birthdays here. I have - in most of the 10 years I've been here now - organized some sort of gathering to mark the event.

Here are the pick of the crop. Last Thursday's event would be in contention (despite so many of my friends having quit Beijing in the last year or two, I still managed to rally 20 or so folks to 12 Square Metres; and, coming off a month of no drink, I managed to get well and truly pie-eyed!), but it's still a bit too fresh in the memory for me to appraise how it compares to these fine bashes of old.

My Top Five Birthdays in China

5)  The largely impromptu birthday
Last year ended up being surprisingly fun. I hadn't really arranged anything as such. But I went to a concert with a few friends early evening, then managed to get back to my 'second home' 12 Square Metres by 9.30 or so, where quite a few people showed up to wish me well - including my recording partner DD who surprised me with a cake. JK the landlord even brought his little dog Mafan in to see me for the first time in many months.

4)  The intimate birthday
Round about '04 or '05, I organized a relatively civilized little get-together - more about food than drinking, for once. We gathered in the Fish Nation on Nanluoguxiang (when it was still fairly new there, and it hadn't yet evolved the comically awful service standards that eventually led me to boycott the place). It was also kind of a date with a very elegant French lady I'd just met; she, however, was witheringly unimpressed with my choice of venue - "An English restaurant? You're not going to eat there, are you?" Ah, no-one does disdain like the French.

3)  The brain damage birthday
One of the biggest parties I've had was at the Zoo Bar down on Qianhai Lake - briefly a favoured hangout for my cronies and me, when bar impresario Huxley had just taken it over and got The Barman (my old friend Jackson Bai, from the original Yandai Xijie Huxley's) to manage it for him. It was also one of the most alcoholically excessive. I really don't remember too much about the evening, and had to sleep in to the middle of the following afternoon to recover. People had somehow got the idea it was my fortieth - which it wasn't, quite.

2)  The serendipitous birthday
In my first year here, my birthday was a very quiet affair. I took my two inseparable buddies - teaching colleagues who together formed the disreputable triumvirate known as The Three Amigos - and some of our young Chinese friends from the Bell Tower teahouse out to dinner in a local restaurant. The Bell Tower girls couldn't stay out very late, and weren't drinkers anyway. So, Big Frank and The Chairman and myself were plodding home quite early in the evening, but paused to look in - as we almost invariably did - at our favourite watering-hole of that year, a barebones neighbourhood restaurant that we had come to know as The Adventure Bar (or The Legitimate Businessmen's Club). And, by the happiest of coincidences, 'Susie' (as we called her; she didn't actually use an English name herself), the charming little waitress there, was enjoying her own birthday party - and was delighted to share her cake with us (cake was something we'd overlooked in my festivities). And then.... there was a powercut. It affected the whole of the street, including the private college where we lived and worked. It would be difficult - nay, hazardous - to get home down the long, windowless corridors to our apartments. And there wouldn't be anything to do when we got there, save go straight to bed. So, we hung out in The Legit, toasting Susie's and my birthdays in the refreshing - and refreshingly cheap - local beer until the electricity was restored. It took three or four hours. But the candlelight in our cosy local dive was utterly charming.

Ah, but the prize must surely go to.....

1)  The ceilidh birthday
In 2008, I found the birthday falling on a Monday (otherwise a depressing non-event of a day); and, feeling that this might perhaps be my last birthday in China (ha!), and recognising that I needed to re-energise my social networks to help me try to find some new work.... I threw my most extravagant ever birthday party, taking over Salud for the night, cajoling Nico the manager into providing some free snacks and a token free drink for everyone (we did draw in 50 or 60 people, on what would otherwise have been an almost completely dead night for him), and hiring my accordionist friend Zoe Wang and the Irish folk band she was playing in then with Big John (not the more recent Blackwater, in which she plays with Des McGarry) to perform for us. There was singing, there was reeling, there were inappropriate amorous advances. 'Bowen' (the best barman they've had at Salud; I miss him!) was comping me drinks all night. And I'd got a rather accelerated start to the evening with three or four whiskies down at 12 Square Metres. And, at the end of the evening, instead of going home, I went to the Pool Bar - and things got really crazy from there on. No, I don't think I'll ever top that one!

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Little bits of heaven

The Choirboy a week or so ago alerted me to the fact that the Powers whiskey company [no apostrophe?! what's with that??] in Ireland has been running an online vote to find the country's finest snug bar.

The Dylan Whisky Bar in Kilkenny is one of the frontrunners, and you can see why from this picture. However, the voting procedure is highly unsatisfactory, since anything that gets bumped off the first page doesn't really stand a chance.

I cast my vote for (the shamefully neglected) Mulligan's in Dublin, just around the corner from TCD and the offices of the Irish Times. The Temple Bar is also grand, but I have more 'history' with Mulligan's.

The only other bar I could find in this poll that I've actually been to is the Brian Boru, also in Dublin. While I am impressed by the claim that it is the only pub in Ireland never to have run out of whiskey in either of the two World Wars, I can't help feeling that the bar pictured is much too large to be a 'snug' (I can't now remember if they have a smaller one as well; it's years since I've been there).

I do get very wistful looking at all these gorgeous pictures. It is far too long since I visited Ireland, or set foot in a real pub. My beloved 12 Square Metres is the only bar in Beijing that comes anywhere close to that feel, but... it only has one beer on draught... and no open fire... and no dogs. These are the things I occasionally become a little homesick for.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Not sorry

This was one of a pair of t-shirts that was pulled from TopMan stores in the UK a month or so ago for being in poor taste. Many people felt that it was making light of domestic violence, although I have to say it struck me - naive fellow that I am - as being more apposite to spats between male drinkers.

I am therefore wondering if I ought to get myself one of these, after my rather excessive birthday bash a few days ago. I have no recollection whatsoever of the latter stages of the evening, but it's a pretty fair bet that I will have done something to offend someone at some point.

Bon mot for the week

"One must laugh before one is happy, or one may die without ever laughing at all."

Jean de La Bruyère  (1645-1696)

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Great Love Songs (28)

I notice that my Great Love Songs selections have fallen rather behind my Great Drinking Songs this year. I hope this isn't indicative of the relative importance of these two activities in my life! (Yeah, OK, it probably is.)

Anyway, to start redressing the balance, here's one of my favourite bits of Ella, You'll Never Know, written by Harry Warren and Mack Gordon in the early 1940s (I learn from Wikipedia that Gordon supposedly based the lyrics on a poem written by a young war bride, Dorothy Fern Norris).

That Wikipedia article led me to go checking on Alice Faye, who first performed the song in the 1943 musical, Hello Frisco, Hello, winning the Oscar for Best Song that year (she sang it again in the USO morale-booster Four Jills in a Jeep the following year; a better rendition of the song, but the video is only a montage of stills of the actress). I don't recall seeing it on the American Film Institute's 100 Best Movie Songs list that I discussed over on Froogville earlier this year (no, indeed it was not: a shocking oversight!). Strangely, she never released it as a record, and so the song eventually became more associated with other artists. This is an entertaining clip of the song from Hello Frisco, Hello: a rather muted performance, in rehearsal; but it's cute how all the theatre staff stop what they're doing to listen to her, and almost start tearing up - such is the power of this song.

Friday, October 21, 2011

HBH 256

Strange to drink again
After long sobriety
A forgotten buzz

My month of abstinence has been nought but an elaborate experiment to try to establish if I am still capable of experiencing the sensation of being pleasantly drunk. Ordinarily, I am so inured to alcohol that I scarcely feel any effects of it at all. But after a month dry, oh yes, I get quite exhilaratingly head-spinny.

I rather suspect, though, that my prodigious tolerance is almost restored already. And that is an awful lot of trouble to go to just to get a bit of a buzz on. I fear I am back in the rut of routine, relatively non-exciting drinking. Until my next spell of abstinence....

Thursday, October 20, 2011

A birthday treat

Tom Waits has a new album, Bad As Me, out next Monday.

In collaboration with Pitchfork magazine, he has this week made a sneak preview available to his fans - the whole album available for listening only in an online stream (you have to apply for an individual access code, but it doesn't take very long to come through). Hurry - there are only two more days. [A huge thank-you to the inestimable Ruby, of BeijingDaze and elsewhere, for cueing me in to this.]

Here, Tom explains the concept behind the initiative...

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Friends in the fridge

It's not really a challenge to go without something unless you leave a few temptations in your path.

I haven't been taxing myself as severely as I might have done during this past month of abstemiousness, because I don't have any decent whisky in the house. I have a dribble of baijiu somewhere, but that doesn't really count as a 'temptation' (it is Jingjiu, one of the more palatable varieties, but hardly a ravisher of the tastebuds). However, I did lay in a couple of tall cans of the local beer just before I embarked on this period of self-denial, left them cooling provocatively in the back of the chiller. And they're still there.

What a good boy am I!

[Strictly speaking, I could crack one of them open at around 2am this morning. But I'm not going to. I'm going to hang on a wee bit longer, and end my drought with a few friends at the end of tomorrow afternoon. What a good boy!!]

Grossed out in translation

I was given the, er, sausages above as train snackage a couple of months ago by a very nice Chinese lady who is a sort of 'surrogate mother' to me. I still haven't got around to eating them, and I think that the rather unappetising label description of them as Roasted Dowels with Flavour is largely what's putting me off.

Almost none of the foreign punters in the Fish Nation snack stop in Sanlitun try the pork sausage option. They all go for the beef instead. Why? Because, for the most part, they don't even realise there is a pork sausage option. On the English version of the menu it's listed as Pig Intestines. Not very appealing. The staff and management seem not to have noticed the problem, even after some years. Do they ever sell any of the pork sausages, I wonder? I rather suspect they just occasionally fob them off on to drunk customers who've ordered beef but can't tell the difference.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Froog Solutions (18)

Froog's solution to the problem(s) of being broke, and having very little work, and having no decent job prospects, and being probably about to become homeless in just over a month....

Pack it all in and go on holiday somewhere!

It makes perfect sense, really. You know it does. 
[Hat-tip to my pal The British Cowboy for reminding me of this seemingly perverse predilection of mine that has so often been a vital source of consolation - nay, salvation - in time of trouble.]

Monday, October 17, 2011

The post too terrible to post

I had a very unfortunate experience last Friday. So strange and terrible and downright nasty that it defies my usual compulsion to blog about anything. However, I did record it in a 'stealth post' - in a comment on one of my old Froogville pieces to which it had an unhappy relevance. Read if you dare...

Bon mot for the week

"Affliction is a treasure, and scarce any man has enough of it."

John Donne  (1572-1631)

Saturday, October 15, 2011

A Great Driving-The-Blues-Away Song

I was suffering a bad mood-slump midweek, which threatened to escalate into a full-blown bout of depression when I suffered in quick succession TWO last-minute cancellations of desperately needed cash-in-hand work gigs and then received some especially disappointing, galling news about a 'full-time' job I was applying for. However, I've managed to shake off the dark clouds in only a day or two, largely by forcing myself to listen to upbeat music rather than the misery-wallow stuff I often like to indulge in rather too much.

My good buddy The Choirboy reminded me a while ago that one of the finest illustrations of this phenomenon - the power of music to exacerbate or ameliorate depression - came from the cult '90s TV sitcom about reprobate Irish priests, Father Ted. There's an episode where the amiable but rather selfish Ted is unreceptive to the need to talk of a suicidally gloomy young priest (Father Kevin, played by the Irish comedian Tommy Tiernan) because he's preoccupied with grooving on down to Isaac Hayes' classic funk fest, Theme From Shaft (40 years old this year!). However, the depressed young man is soon overcome by the infectious rhythms himself, and starts to feel happier, his black mood completely dispelled. Unfortunately, when he's leaving on the bus a few minutes later, some Radiohead comes on the radio... and he's right back in the abyss.

That scene was on YouTube when I last looked a few months ago - but it appears to have been expunged, or at any rate has become invisible to searches (Channel 4 - or the show's producers Hat Trick? - seem to be particularly fastidious in rooting out unauthorised postings of this material). At least you can see Mr Hayes performing the piece live in LA in 1972 (introduced by Jesse Jackson), or a more extended version from a concert in Brooklyn in 2008, only a couple months before his death; you can also listen to the original studio version. Not exactly a 'Great Drinking Song' (particularly as I'm not drinking at the moment), but definitely A GREAT SONG.

I have recently come to especially love this cover version I serendipitously discovered a few months ago from the utterly wonderful Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain (they have lots of other fabulous stuff too; check out, in particular, their rendition of David Bowie's Life On Mars).

Friday, October 14, 2011

HBH 255

More than the miles run,
The finishing line in sight
Saps the strength, the will.

Yes, that metaphor again. It seems particularly appropriate at the moment, since the Beijing Marathon is this Sunday. I'm not running myself this year, but a number of friends are attempting the shorter distances, so I ought to get out to support them.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

The simple life

Since it appears that I am now without any hope of employment, I fear I may have to persist in my recent teetotalism indefinitely. I simply can't afford to drink in this city any more.

Perhaps instead I may revert to the way I used to live in my early days here, hanging out in cheap local restaurants all the time, never paying more than 2 or 3 kuai for a beer.

Or perhaps I may relocate to a sleepy backwater town, somewhere still relatively undeveloped, unspoiled (uncontaminated by Starbucks and McDonald's and "like... like... like"-gushing young Americans!)... somewhere like Dawu, where I spent my summer holiday this year, and which I quickly came to think of as one of the nicest places in China.

Most nights I spent there, I hung out for an hour or two of an evening with my pal Richard at a formica table on the sidewalk in front of a particularly grubby hole-in-the-wall restaurant beside the town's 'No.1 Bridge'. Watching the sun go down over the river, watching the bridge and the riverbank teeming with people enjoying a summer's evening promenade, occasionally bantering with punters at adjacent tables, and sucking back a succession of cold beers (the local brand has the uplifting name Chero - we can easily imagine they mean Cheero).... well, life just doesn't get much better than that. This is not just my favourite spot in Dawu, but probably in the whole of China, and perhaps even in the world...

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Homer says it best

One more week to go. The "problem-free" existence is starting to pall...

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

The home stretch

Like a long-distance run, a long spell off booze becomes more wearing - mentally as much as physically - towards the end.

I've overcome the metabolic readjustments: no more poor sleeping or afternoon sugar crashes. I'm not getting any cravings any more. Well, I never did, really; but in the first couple of weeks, it's a struggle to get over the habituation - the ingrained expectation that every time you go out, every time you go into a bar or restaurant, you are going to order an alcoholic drink (it happens without you even thinking about it!). I've now got used to staying in a lot more, and to making a tonic water or a Virgin Mary last me for a good long while when I do go out.

And I've proven the point, dammit. Yes, I can go without drink - quite easily. No, I'm not addicted. Yes, I can resist even the most insistent and insidious and tempting temptations.

Having surmounted all these hurdles, ticked off all these achievements, you tend to start asking yourself, What is the point? Why must I persist for this arbitrary number of days? Why does a fatuous promise to myself have such power over me?

Big question. It just does, all right?

This is my twentieth day without a drink. After today, I only have eight more left.

Next Thursday will get messy. But do not try to sway me from my path before then.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Bon mot for the week

"I tell you, we are here on Earth to fart around, and don't let anybody tell you different."

Kurt Vonnegut  (1922-2007)

Saturday, October 08, 2011

I want me one of those

Blog-friend JES, in his regular Wednesday treat, The Midweek Music Break, this week introduced me to Montreal-based folk band The Barr Brothers.

Particularly fascinating was one of the links he provided to an item in Guitar World about this remarkable guitar, specially made for Brad Barr by the custom guitar shop Hobo Nation out of a vintage 1940s metal fishing tackle box. The sound is ravishing. Check it out.  (Dear Santa...)

[Brad mentions in the Guitar Player interview that the guitar was commissioned for him by an ex-girlfriend. I don't think you're supposed to break up with the ones who get you presents like that, Brad.]

Friday, October 07, 2011

Sometimes... the wistfulness overwhelms

It's not that I'm thirsty. It's not that I'm itching to get drunk again. It's just.... occasionally, when the end of the working day, the working week rolls around, and 'happy hour' draws near at your favourite bar... well, you miss familiar comforts.

I'm happy enough not drinking. But I was happier drinking.

HBH 254

The bar disappears
As the music surrounds us:
Private performance.

It was great to catch up with my old guitarist mate David Mitchell, playing a little solo show last night at Amilal. He hasn't been playing so much in the last couple of years, distracted by marriage and fatherhood and the concomitant need to get a 'straight' day job. Also, his long-time collaborator, Ekber Ebliz, has left to study in America, so their great Uyghur folk project Panjir is sadly defunct. However, David's now got a new band he calls Kite, playing his self-penned compositions with a Central Asian flavour - but they've only played a handful of small gigs so far, and I haven't yet managed to catch them. Last night he was playing this newer material on his own, on a recently acquired, utterly gorgeous sounding 12-string guitar and his custom-made dutar (although he's started calling it a tambur; I've no idea what the politics of that is - I thought the tambur was a Turkish variant with a slightly shorter neck and a much larger soundbox, but what do I know?).

Unfortunately, tiny Amilal isn't a great venue for live music at the best of times; and with a large holiday crowd in, most of whom weren't interested in the performance, it was a struggle to hear his music over the background hubbub. David, however, well used to such irritations, was able to shrug off this general indifference, and simply played to the handful of friends and fans surrounding him. At one point, he came outside to play a few numbers just for me and a couple of friends in the little courtyard. Magical.

Thursday, October 06, 2011

The worst of it is...

Yet more 'wisdom of the txts'....

Entering the third week of my proposed month-long abstinence, I find I am staying in more and more. Bars, alas, lose so much of their appeal if you're not drinking.

Hence, this SMS exchange the other night, when a friend asked if I might be coming out...

Me (morose, grumpy):  "Still not drinking. So, very dull company."

Friend (encouraging with compliments): "Not to worry. You're never dull."

Me:  "Not me! Everyone else. It's amazing how much booze lowers your threshold for being entertained."

14 days and counting....

Wednesday, October 05, 2011

A very poignant anniversary

Brian O'Nolan - the Irish literary genius better known by his aliases Brother Barnabas (under which he began his writing career doing funny pieces for student magazines at University College, Dublin), Myles na gCopaleen (under which he wrote the wonderful Cruiskeen Lawn column in the Irish times for more than 25 years across the middle of the 20th century), and Flann O'Brien, under which he published a number of sui generis comic novels - was born 100 years ago today.

Brian O'Nolan was the very first of my 'Unsuitable Role Models' here on The Barstool (it was a toss-up for that honour between O'Nolan, Tom Waits, and Jeffrey Bernard). He's been a great favourite of mine for over 25 years. I regret that I did not discover him sooner; although I suspect that I would not have 'got' him when still a boy. I had in fact read a short anthology of pieces about his character 'The Brother' when I was barely 10 years old, but had subsequently all but forgotten him again, and didn't seek out or fortuitously unearth anything else of his until around ten years later, when I was at university. Although I recall a few moments of snorting-liquids-out-of-the-nose hilarity in my first encounter with those stories of 'The Brother', I suspect the Dublin colour quite passed me by at such a tender age, and I became devoted instead to the more immediately accessible rib-tickling of O'Brien's near-contemporary J.B. Morton ('Beachcomber', of the long-running  By The Way humorous column in the UK's Daily Express). When I chanced to pick up a Best of Myles collection in Blackwell's bookshop in Oxford, circa 1985, I think I can fairly describe that as a life-changing moment for me. And when I first read The Third Policeman four or five years later - the best of his novels, I think, and one I have returned to re-read several times since - I realised that he was not just side-splittingly funny and dauntingly clever but one of the best, one of the very best writers I have ever read.

I have just learned that there was a centenary conference - 100 Myles - to celebrate his life and work a little while ago, back in July.  I am very sorry to have missed it - it was held in Vienna!  There's another, Flann 100, rather more appropriately hosted by Trinity College, Dublin, at the end of next week. That one, I suppose, I could just about make. I am mighty tempted, mighty tempted.

There have been tributes a-plenty already - from Mark O'Connell in The New Yorker last month, from Declan Kiberd on the Totally Dublin blog, and from Kevin Myers (the best written and most thorough appraisal I've yet found, though unduly sour in some respects, and harsh in its final verdict) in the Irish Independent at the end of last week. I daresay there will be others today, and over the coming weekend. I will update with any more worthwhile links I find.

I am gratified to learn that the great man has just been honoured by the inclusion of his visage on a new stamp from the Irish Post Office, while the Irish Times seems to be campaigning, not wholly tongue-in-cheek, for a statue of him to be erected (the Irish artist David O'Kane has produced the rather striking concept below, where discreet floodlighting projects a giant silhouette of the statue on to a wall displaying the text of one of O'Nolan's Cruiskeen Lawn pieces).

O'Nolan's legacy of cracked brilliance continues to inspire as well as entertain: a few years ago, I saw a superb musical comedy paying tribute to his work at the Edinburgh Fringe, Improbable Frequency (written for and first performed by Dublin's Rough Magic theatre company); more recently, the improbably named Ergo Phizmiz has created a multimedia work he calls a 'neuropera' based on The Third Policeman; and I just turned up an Irish humour blog (source of the fine photograph at the head of this post) which - though apparently rather short-lived - sought to keep the O'Nolan spirit alive with some splendid new offerings in his 'Keats & Chapman' genre of elaborately contrived puns.

There will be many people around the world enjoying a laugh over one of O'Brien's books today, and raising a glass in his memory on this Myles Day. (A pity I can't join them because I'm still on the wagon! Darn!)

[In my years of Myles idolatry on my two blogs, I have offered up numerous posts on him, including a celebration of the opening of his The Third Policeman as one of my very favourite first paragraphs in any novel, an attempt of my own at a 'Keats & Chapman' tale, and an account of how I have become convinced of the truth of his 'atomic theory of bicycles'. I've also reviewed his novels The Third Policeman and At Swim-Two-Birds on The Book Book. I've even found myself tapped up to contribute an article about O'Nolan's attitude to religion for an Irish Catholic magazine (I said 'No', not all that politely).]

Monday, October 03, 2011


Change is afoot in my favourite local - but not in a bad way. New managers MB and LJ are introducing a few small changes here and there to put their own stamp on the place - introducing some new beers, tweaking the prices a little, revamping the music playlist, planning a few special events.

And the most momentous change so far has been.....  the creation of a website!

Well, theoretically, there was one all along. Bar founder JK leased the domain name, set up a rudimentary homepage... and then rather forgot about the whole thing. It had little or no content, little or no Web 'visibility', and probably zero visitors. But now.... well, LJ counts being a website developer among her many talents, and in a very short space of time she's done a bang-up job of transforming the 12 Square Metres web address into a proper website. Go check it out.

Bon mot for the week

"Nobody hates life. We just hate all the crap it gets full of."


Sunday, October 02, 2011

New Picks of the Month

Time for a couple more recommendations from the archive, a 'best of' pick from three years ago this month.

On Froogville, I choose Not exactly a poem... - a whimsical piece of verse prompted by an ominous picture I found online, and prompting in its turn a rumination upon one of the great unanswered questions.

And from The Barstool, I'll pick Cynthia?? - a touching recollection of my first room-mate in Beijing.

I hope you'll enjoy revisiting these, and perhaps a few other adjacent posts as well. I fancy that October was a particularly rich month for my blog output - as I was recovering from the ill health that had dogged me throughout the Olympic summer, but still had rather a lot of free time on my hands due to a very slack spell on the work front.

Traffic Report - the blog stats for September

The month of dual 5th Anniversaries was relatively uneventful. The only 'special' posts I managed to contrive were this frivolous outline for a film based on the conceit of rendering the typical expat TEFL bum in China as an action hero, and The Barstool's new 'audience participation' thread on the theme of What's your unusual super-power? Thanks to an uncommonly heavy business and social schedule this last month, my blog output was somewhat towards the lower end of the scale.

There were 34 posts and around 11,500 words on Froogville.

There were 32 posts and just over 9,000 words on Barstool Blues.

In my traffic stats, I am intrigued to discover that I have recently acquired a new regular reader in Sydney, Australia; indeed, if the scarily specific 'visitor map' feature on Statcounter is to be believed, our new friend lives in the Darlinghurst district, on the corner of Hill Street and Maiden Lane. Please de-cloak and say hello, whoever you are!