Friday, August 31, 2012

The blues make it all seem better

I've been having such an unbelievably shitty week (month, year, life) that I thought I'd unwind this afternoon with a good 'ol dose of the blues. Indeed, Worried Life Blues seemed irresistibly appropriate (although, as it happens, the song is chiefly about woman troubles, which is the one kind I currently don't have). This is Eric Clapton jamming with Buddy Guy at Ronnie Scott's Jazz Club in Soho, circa 1987. (Christ, I was still a student back then!) The mere mention of that venue makes me a little moist-eyed: it is one of the very few things I miss about living in London.

But here's an even better version (no video, unfortunately), performed by its original composer, the '40s blues piano master Big Maceo Merriweather.

And while we're in this mood, here's John Lee Hooker with Serve You Right To Suffer (which is, I think, the first blues album I ever bought).

My own private HELL

As a bizarre culmination to the catalogue of woes that beset me yesterday (every piece of technology I depend upon conspiring to let me down in sequence!), my computer clock surreptitiously reset itself an hour ahead.

As I whined by SMS to my buddy The Choirboy, with whom I had arranged an early-evening rendezvous...

"Oh no! I ran out of the house in a mad rush... and now I'm at the restaurant an hour early - with nothing to do but drink!!"

This might not seem such a terrible disaster for a chap like me, but....  I am trying NOT to drink at the moment - really.

And with the humidity around 80% or 90%, it was particularly unpleasant to be bustling along the streets in the mistaken belief that I was going to be late for dinner.

I am coming to believe that my computer was hacked yesterday. Much other havoc was wreaked, but changing its clock was a peculiarly subtle form of mischief!

But could my tormentor really have known that, because I'd been working (or trying to!) at my computer all day, this was the only clock I was paying attention to? Or that the smog in Beijing yesterday was so bad that it had been uniformly gloomy all day long, and it was thus impossible to recognise the time of day from the light level outside? Or that, having been frustrated in attempts to work for most of the day (first my e-mail account was frozen, then my computer refused to reboot for an hour or so), I had been furiously catching up with important e-mailing at the end of the afternoon and had completely lost track of time (might have been writing for one hour, or two, or three - really had no idea)?

I can laugh about it now. Yesterday evening I just wanted to headbutt a wall.

HBH 300

When will is strongest,
Fate rises to the challenge,
Gives reasons to drink.

I really am full of good intentions at the moment, trying to accomplish a lot of good things - get healthy, get fit, get back in marathon training... give up booze, or at any rate beer.

But Life is crapping all over me. I have just had a fortnight-from-hell, and it shows no sign of letting up. Drowning the sorrows is starting to seem irresistible, inevitable, compulsory.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

In a fog

Crikey - I've been back 10, no, nearly 11 days now, and I'm still not in the right timezone.

I'm not usually susceptible to jet-lag, but I think a particularly long and arduous flight (a two-leg affair, with a midnight layover) followed by a couple of days of smoggy sunlessness when I first got back to Beijing may have got the better of me this time.

Well, that and the ongoing stresses of being in China once more (e.g., drivers and pedestrians running into me on a daily basis, and then scowling at me as if it's somehow my fault), being jobless, having had a big wedge of money apparently stolen from me by incompetent financial institutions... Yes, tougher souls than me might have had some trouble sleeping under these conditions.

Also, I must confess, there has been rather a lot of compensatory partying going on: VERY late nights, and far too much beer and whisky. In the space of barely a week I've had a couple of catching-up-with-old-friends sessions, my 10th Chinaversary, a wetting-the-baby's head session with my favourite new dad, an engagement celebration with a young Brit making a return visit to the bar, a farewell party (extended over three or four days), a 'welcome back!' session with another short-term returnee (my favourite-ever barman, back for a couple of weeks' holiday), and... a wake (which was at least the earliest night I've had in the last week, since grief and whiskey left us all too exhausted to continue much beyond 9pm).

The rest of this week is looking pretty arduous as well...... culminating in a day-long 5th birthday bash for my best-beloved bar, 12 Square Metres, on Sunday.

After that, I definitely need to take a few weeks off....

Monday, August 27, 2012

Bon mot for the week

"You have to know how to accept rejection and reject acceptance."

Ray Bradbury (1920- )

Oiveh! Back in Beijing over a week, but no posts on here because I've had first no Internet connection at all, then no reliable Internet connection, then a crappy landline connection but no wi-fi, and now, still, after 10 days, no bloody VPN. The techies from Witopia are supposed to be trying to rummage around in my computer tonight to see if they can find out what the problem is. I have found a temporary and rather unsatisfactory 'fix' of my own; but I want to know why the service I paid good money for, and which has proved remarkably robust against Chinese interference in the past, has suddenly turned into a piece of crap (it's not the Chinese Internet that's defeating it, it's my new computer!).

And this is only ONE of several ways in which Life has conspired to crap on me from a great height over the past month. I am not a happy camper at the moment.

We might get 'normal service' back in a day or two. Or I might get confined to a mental institution. The latter is seeming more likely...

Monday, August 20, 2012

Bon mot for the week

"Fasten your seatbelts; it's going to be a bumpy night."

Bette Davis, in All About Eve (1908-1989)

My ten-year Chinaversary is imminent. I could get messy.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Top Five Songs That Make Me Weepy

This topic came up when bantering online with Music Mike a few weeks back. He had suggested there were some songs that brought a tear to his eye simply because they were so good. I'm sceptical of that: I think that for a song to act on the tear ducts there has to be some innate sadness in its content, and/or in the personal associations that it has acquired for you.

Since I am hugely prone to depression and melancholia, there are any number of songs that can have this effect on me (and only a few that can snap me out of it). I might well have to come up with one or two further posts on this topic. But these were the five that came most readily to mind. [They are also very good songs, Mike; but that's not what tears me up about them.]

Top Five Songs that bring a tear to my eye

5)  Radiohead - Fake Plastic Trees
I know, I know, it's a bit of a cliché. It might seem that only people born around the beginning of the '80s, people of the generation that experienced the emergence of this song in their moody early teens, should really be entitled to get exaggeratedly emotional over it. But the lyrics speak to me powerfully of middle-aged exhaustion and disillusionment and despair. There's something about the way Thom Yorke sings "It wears him out..." that leaves me gutted every time. Here's the original video. (There's also an excellent live performance video from the 2003 Glastonbury Festival.)

4)  Simon & Garfunkel - The Sound of Silence
A song of creepy intensity and an ultimate wallow in nihilistic despair and disgust with the world, the prettiness of the tune only serving to create an additional tension with the suicidal tenor of the lyrics. Moreover, of course, it has acquired further dark resonances from its use over the devastating closing shot of The Graduate - Dustin Hoffman in the back of the bus, having apparently gained his heart's desire but suddenly realising he has no idea why he wanted it or what he's going to do next. Here's a live TV performance from 1966. (The original album version can be heard here.)

3)  K.D. Lang - Outside Myself
A powerful representation of alienation and despair so great that it leaves one emotionally numb. I grew dangerously attached to this song during a spell of particularly bad depressions in the later '90s, and again following the death of my mother shortly after I moved to China. This is a performance from the BBC music show Later... with Jools Holland in the 1990s; slightly dodgy sound and picture quality, unfortunately, but a great performance.

2)  The Pogues - Kitty
A beautiful traditional ballad, hauntingly sung by Shane MacGowan at the end of the Pogues' marvellous debut album Red Roses For Me. That whole record has had the power to move me to tears since my student days, but it is this song that works most powerfully on my heart-strings. Songs of farewell are a particular weakness of mine; songs of failed or thwarted love, also; and outlaw songs of men wronged by a harsh government, too (yes, I know, I'm a hopeless Plastic Paddy at times). Kitty combines all three genres into three-and-a-half minutes of distilled heartache. Here's a rather nice live performance from Glasgow's Barrowlands in 1987.

But in the No. 1 spot this time we have....

1)  Fleetwood Mac - Storms
This has been a late-night depression-wallow staple of mine since the early '90s. I think I'd initially been attracted to it as a poignant account of a failed love affair, but I'd been listening to it a lot just before my father died and so it has become associated for me not just with separation but bereavement. I also identify with the defiant celebration of a tempestuous temperament at the close of the song: "I have never ever been a blue cold sea; I have always been a storm."  Here's the album track, accompanied by a nice montage of photos of the delectable Stevie Nicks. (There's also an interesting 'demo' version of the song here.)

Friday, August 17, 2012

Bluegrass makes everything better

I was casting around on the Net last week to try to find a song appropriate to announce my return to Beijing, and I couldn't get beyond this (first thoughts are always the most inspired, aren't they?): Return To Dismal Swamp, an up-tempo instrumental number by the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band.

There's another great version here (founding member of the band, John McEuen, playing with some other musicians on America's Country Music Television), but unfortunately video embedding is not available.

Is it "accurate" to describe this as 'bluegrass'? I'm not an aficionado of the genre, so I really have no idea; if it's got a banjo, that's enough for me...

HBH 299

Crossing continents
Sense of time and place confused
Changing night for day

After such a long journey, I will be in a disordered state of consciousness and wretchedly weary. But, arriving in the middle of the day, in strong sunshine, I must fight the impulse to go to bed for as long as possible - preferably till well after midnight!

I may not have much idea where I am, or what hour of the day it is; but I can take comfort in the fact that... the sun is always below the yard-arm somewhere in the world.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

An entirely suitable 'Role Model'

Talking of dear old Keith Floyd the other week reminded me of another of my TV heroes, Les Hiddins - the 'Bush Tucker Man'. Hiddins is a former Australian Army officer who saw service in Vietnam, and is an expert on wilderness survival. Starting from the late 1980s, he made three series of the show Bush Tucker Man for Australian TV, demonstrating how the Aboriginal peoples live off the land in the Outback. I think the programmes didn't show up on British TV until the early or mid-90s, but I became a big fan, and would love to watch them again. They were breathtakingly photographed; and Les was a TV natural: unassuming and down-to-earth yet completely authoritative, and plainly loving the austere environments he was navigating.

Most of the other 'role models' I've celebrated on here were distinguished by their heavy drinking as well as other nobler and more creative qualities. I have no idea if Les is much of a drinker (although, being an Aussie, he's almost certainly fond of the odd beer now and again), but he is manifestly a thoroughly good bloke. And I just discovered that it was his birthday a few days ago: he turned 66 on Monday. Happy Birthday, Les!

Quite a lot of his show is uploaded to YouTube now - here's a sample of an early episode.

More on Les can be found here and here; and on 'bush tucker' here and here.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

A pocket full of moonshine

Gawd, am I really coming back to THIS?????

Well, NO. Much as I have loved to drink to excess over the years, and curious as I am to try new types of alcoholic beverage, reckless as I often am of my own safety, and indulgent though I be towards many of the less obviously appealing quirkinesses of life in China... I have never liked erguotou.

Even though it is the cheapest way of getting drunk in Beijing (and perhaps in the whole world), I have always believed that, above all, drinking should be a pleasurable experience. I can tolerate most forms of baijiu (Chinese spirit); tolerate with difficulty, but, yes, tolerate; and there are just a few varieties that I even quite like. But erguotou is the cheapest and crummiest of the lot, wildly uneven in its taste and quality - varying from nasty to disgusting.

There are very many things that I have enjoyed about drinking in China over the years, and may enjoy again, but... the hip bottle of erguotou is not one of them. You can use this stuff for disinfecting work surfaces or for lighting a barbecue, but for drinking - never!

However, in searching out the above photograph just now, I was fortunate to stumble across a new China blog in which intrepid laowai Derek Sandhaus is attempting to cultivate a genuine appreciation for the 'subtleties' of baijiu by pushing himself beyond its alleged 300-shot threshold of acclimatisation

Good luck to him! I'm glad he's doing it, so that no-one else has to. 

[Although, come to think of it, I must be getting pretty damn close to that consumption total myself. In fact, I probably exceeded it on my first visit to China 18 years ago. And I have found no signs whatsoever of getting over the distaste for it.]

The 'lads' are preparing my 'Welcome home!' already...

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Another nail in my heart

The Carpenter's Arms, on Nelson Street, at the bottom of the Jericho area of north-west Oxford, was my 'local' in the early '90s when I returned to my student stomping grounds to work for a couple of years. A little later, my oldest drinking buddy The Bookseller lived for a year in a nice basement flat on Walton Crescent, almost directly opposite this little gem of a pub, which extended my close acquaintance with it for a little while longer.

The ambience wasn't marvellous: it felt too much like the living room of a private home, with plush beige carpet throughout (most of the pubs in that area had indeed originally been private residences, many having been converted into commercial premises in the mid-1800s as a result of the Beerhouse Act). But it had a friendly landlord and landlady, a mixed crowd of regulars (partly thanks to having the Oxford Synagogue next door), some decent bar snacks, and a very well-kept pint of Guinness. It also had three other conspicuous attractions: a good dartboard (I don't play much; but I like a game occasionally, and having a decent quality board that won't spit your darts back out on to the floor half the time is a major incentive to take your arrows out with you more regularly), an excellent jukebox (including a lot of The Kinks: Sunny Afternoon, Lola, and Apeman were particular favourites in there for a while), and..... an Aunt Sally court (the BEST pub game ever: like an aerial version of skittles in which you have a single wooden 'dolly' mounted on top of a post as the target, and you hurl great billets of wood at it from some yards away; most miss and thwack into a sheet of canvas or plastic stretched behind the target to catch them; it is very satisfyingly physical - and a great fun competition for anyone to join in, because it's very simple but almost no-one is really that good at it).

Back in those days, the place also had its resident eccentric, a rather sketchy character of indeterminate age (though a little nearer to 60 than to 40, I would guess) called Dave, who, despite appearing half-cut most of the time, was a formidable opponent in any kind of pub game. I was reluctant to take him on at cribbage or dominoes, having seen him trash others of the regulars at these uncomplicated games. But he mentored me for a while at Aunt Sally. And he taught me a very good betting trick at darts.

Another unexpected delight of the place was that most weekends I would find my old friend Mohammed in there. I was a little taken aback when I first bumped into him there, surprised to find that, although a 'good Muslim', he was fond of a pint of Guinness. I was also impressed that he still recognised me, quite a few years on from when I'd last seen him. Mohammed had been one of the first guys to open up a kebab van in Oxford (nowadays, there are a dozen or more such mobile food stalls around the city centre; when I started there as a student there were only four, and only one or two of them sold kebabs, the others being burger or baked spud places; but there was a veritable 'kebab explosion' during the mid-80s, with new vans appearing every term). He was also one of the best (my college made him an honorary member of its Junior Common Room in gratitude for his contribution to keeping the student body well fed); and even after he gave up his own van after half a dozen years or so, he'd still occasionally reappear on a new van somewhere, sharing his experience with a young friend or relative to help them start up (the benefits of his input did not always persist for long, but you could guarantee that any van on which he had been sighted would have excellent salad and a properly fiery chilli sauce for a month or two afterwards).

So, although I was only hanging out there for around 18 months (and, most especially, during the month or two that my old college pal Richard - the one who seduced me into coming to China! - stayed with me during a break from China one summer), I have a host of fond memories of that pub. And I had been looking forward to popping back there on this visit - just one drink, for old times' sake. Alas, it was not to be. The place has closed down, and been converted back into a pair of terraced houses. According to The Lost Pubs Project, this may have happened at some time in the later '90s - though I'm pretty sure I recall it still being there in 2000. Well, whatever, it's gone now; and I have a lump in my throat.

A day later, I noticed the Horse & Jockey on Woodstock Road was gone too; closed in 2002, apparently. I have fewer regrets about that: it was a large and fairly charmless pub, never a favourite or regular haunt of mine - although I did drop in occasionally during my student days, since it was the last pub heading north out of the city on this road, and was a convenient stop-off if visiting friends at the adjacent St Anne's or St Anthony's colleges.

It seems we've lost something like half of the pubs we used to have in the UK 40 or 50 years ago, and, if the recent rates of attrition persist, we could have lost half of the 60,000 that remain in another decade or so. I hope this won't happen: the situation seems to be stabilising a bit now, after a few brutal years of closures precipitated by the smoking ban and the crash of the economy. But it is dispiriting, disorienting to find that so many of the landmarks of my student days in Oxford have now disappeared forever.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Bon mot for the week

"I think two-thirds of all the money I ever earned I spent on women and drink. The rest I just wasted."

George Best (1946-2005)

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Great Drinking Songs (34)

Well, not a conventional drinking song, perhaps; but the (in)sensibility is much the same. And I can imagine this being fun to sing while drunk... or, um, high.

Here's the original video for (the full version of) Afroman's Because I Got High, from when it first appeared as the end credit music in Kevin Smith's Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back.

But here's something even better I just found on YouTube: the song illustrated with a compilation of great clips from The Simpsons. (This will almost certainly get pulled quite soon, so enjoy it while it you can.)

Friday, August 10, 2012

HBH 298

Crazier sober?
The sailor staggers on land,
Imagining the sea.

I have gone a week without alcohol. Well, four days (and two days without food). I am seriously considering giving up for good. Health concerns and money concerns both counsel it.

But then I remember that perhaps the main reason I've overindulged so much all these many years is to sedate my overactive brain. Things get a bit freaky in here when we turn the dial up to '11'. The world isn't ready for that. I'm not ready for it.

Thursday, August 09, 2012

Recommended Posts, July-September 2011

Some of the highlights from this time last year...

Guided Tour - recommended posts from the 3rd quarter of 2011

1)  To stag, or not to stag  -  2nd July 2011
My thoughts on stag parties.

2)  The Jolly Boys  -  9th July 2011
I discover the fabulous septuagenarian Jamaican dance band The Jolly Boys, and post their irresistible cover of Amy Winehouse's Rehab.

3)  The Great Taxi Rebellion  -  12th July 2011
Observations on why it's suddenly become next-to-impossible to get a cab around Sanlitun.

4)  Yet more wisdom of the Froog  -  14th July 2011
My advice on the most economical way to get drunk in China.

5)  Innovative entrepreneurism!  -  15th July 2011
Beijing's most unusual bar???

6)  Top Five 'Pastures New'  -  20th July 2011
Some out-of-the-way bar discoveries that made my drinking life a bit more varied last summer.

7)  Nothing To My Name  -  24th July 2011
Celebrating the 25th anniversary of legendary Chinese rocker Cui Jian's breakthrough hit, Yi Wu Suo You, an anthemic 'protest' song of alienated youth that continues to resonate today.

8)  Measure for measure  -  29th July 2011
A new Beijing bar fatally pisses me off by not advertising how small its glasses are.

9)  Dreams  -  30th July 2011
I missed The Cranberries when they played in Beijing a couple of days earlier, so, in regretful tribute, I post their greatest hit in my Great Love Songs series.

10)  Bon mot for the week  -  1st August 2011
One of my own, and a goody.

11)  Less is more  -  2nd August 2011
I identify FIVE areas in which Beijing's bar owners are frequently getting it wrong.

12)  An end of pies?  -  15th August 2011
The Shanghai Pie Company ceases distributing its products in Beijing. In my local, 12 Square Metres, we are distraught.

13)  An idea for a bar  -  17th August 2011
The disfigurement of the Sanlitun Houjie bar strip by a mysteriously unused enclosure of construction fencing for much of last year prompted some irreverent creativity.

14)  Where it all began...  -  24th August 2011
Some surprising facts about the history of lager-making.

15)  The bar that isn't  -  25th August 2011
A little break in 'small town' China was nicely reinvigorating; but it was bloody difficult - impossible! - to find a bar. (I ended up drinking every night outside a hole-in-the-wall restaurant with a particularly restful view.)

16)  King of the Road  -  27th August 2011
Roger Miller's celebration of hobo-ing had a powerful impact on me in childhood. It has become my 'theme song'.

17)  Froog's 'Rules of Drinking'  -  6th September 2011
A lifetime's wisdom distilled into twelve simple epigrams.

18)  Beat The Devil's Tattoo  -  9th September 2011
In anticipation of the excellent Black Rebel Motorcycle Club's headlining appearance at the Intercity Music Festival in Beijing's Chaoyang Park that weekend, I posted their brooding, incantatory hit, one of my favourite musical discoveries of the past year.

19)  Divine coincidence  -  13th September 2011
A very funny moment in my local bar.

20)  What's your 'superpower'?  -  16th September 2011
A reader participation frippery - to mark the blog's 5th anniversary.

21)  Yugong Yishan SUCKS  -  23rd September 2011
An in-depth, scathing analysis of why "Beijing's top music bar" is such a thoroughgoing disappointment.

22)  Fizzless  -  29th September 2011
I become concerned about the recent phenomenon of soft drinks in Beijing all going flat within moments of being poured. What gives?

Tuesday, August 07, 2012


When you first enter a country where the basic unit of currency has a much lower value than you are used to at home, it can be a dangerously exhilarating sensation. Walking around with a wallet or pocketbook or money-clip stuffed with great wads of colourful cash denominated in 100s or 500s or 1,000s makes you feel like Rockefeller, and there is a serious risk you may start spending impulsively, recklessly, unless you keep the exchange rate in mind at all times. (In China, 100 is still the highest denomination of banknote, so you have to carry a particularly fat wedge around with you if you're planning a big night.)

After a little while, though, this initial rush wears off; and, as you become used to the new currency, I think the higher numbers you're dealing with every day actually tend to instil more caution - they do, at least, with thrifty old me. I wouldn't think too much of dropping £20 on one round of drinks back in the old country, but the idea of blowing 200 RMB in one night in China causes a little consternation.

Partly, of course, there may be an awareness of the comparative cost of living at work here. China is - or ought to be! - still quite a bit cheaper, on the whole, than any of the developed countries; so, 200 RMB is actually worth more like £50 or £60 in equivalent spending power in the UK (and it would have been well over £100 when I first moved to Beijing a decade ago). However, I think much of the anxiety is simply an instinctive baulking at the magnitude of the figures involved. I don't think I'm always calculating - even subconsciously - how much the sums I spend in China are worth in pounds Sterling, or how much that might buy me back home in the UK; I just wouldn't very readily spend hundreds - or thousands - of anything.

After long immersion in a society where you have to spend 50 or 100 units on almost anything, there is a danger of becoming inured to it, and thus perhaps careless of handing over those sorts of amounts in another, stronger currency. As with the 'motorway driving syndrome' where long periods of driving at high speed can cause you to seriously underestimate your speed when you return to driving on minor roads, after years of drinking in China you have to be careful to guard against the possibility of blowing £200 or $200 in a single evening's bar crawling in England or the States. 

On this latest trip home, though, I've been noticing an opposite phenomenon: it seems that I am rather too aware of the different worth of the currency, that mentally I tend to over-value dear old Sterling - and hence I'm more hesitant to spend £3 or £3.50 on a beer here than I would be to spend an exactly similar amount back in Beijing.

Of course, I don't like having to spend 35 RMB on a beer in Beijing; but, over the last few years, I have been forced to get used to it. Here in the UK, I still find a price tag of £3.50 a pint quite outrageous

Partly, I suppose, it's just a case of being out of touch with the cost of living here: having three years of inflation catch up with you all at once is a rude shock to the system. But, you know, I don't think the price of beer has really gone up all that much since I was last here. I was starting to find the beer in England "too expensive" even a decade or so ago, before I moved to China. Nostalgia is probably a big part of the problem for me, particularly when, as now, I'm staying in Oxford, the scene of my wild student days: whenever I'm here, I somehow expect 1980s prices, and am perpetually disappointed. A further problem may be that there seems to be more of a 'beer spread' in England these days; there always has been a lot of price variation between different parts of the country (with Oxford, unfortunately, being one of the most expensive places outside the West End of London), but now there can be a huge difference between one pub and the next on the same street, and I'm no longer au fait with where the best bargains are to be had (and it doesn't help that most pubs have stopped displaying their prices - what the hell's up with that?!).

Despite these difficulties of adjustment, my experience here in the UK has reinforced my position on the excessive level of pricing in Beijing's bars these days. Even in Oxford, one of the most expensive places in the country, a beer - a full pint of good draught beer! - is rarely as much as £4, and, if you shop around, can be got for around £3, or even a little less occasionally. There is, therefore, NO WAY we should ever be paying more than 30 RMB for a draught beer in Beijing.

When - IF - I return to Beijing, I think I'm going to go dry.

Monday, August 06, 2012

Bon mot for the week

"Some people mistake me for a doormat and discover that I am a landmine."


I thought I'd put this on the blogs somewhere before, but a search would not disclose it if I have. Perhaps my memory plays tricks on me again. This is a line I first used to my friend Gorgeous Georgia several years ago. I notice that this is often a difficulty for me in social relationships: I am so easygoing most of the time that some people think they can start to take liberties with me. And perhaps they can, for a little while. But they come to the line sooner than they think - and they'd better not cross it! As the late Patrick Swayze advised in Road House, I am nice, nice, nice... "until the time comes to not be nice."

Sunday, August 05, 2012

Great Love Songs (33)

One of the great incidental pleasures of cruising around and hanging out with old friends is the chance to occasionally rediscover in their music collections things that I haven't heard in... well, 20 or 30 years, in some cases.

On this trip, the standout musical experience in this category has been Welcome To The Beautiful South, the 1989 debut album from The Beautiful South, which I got to know when I was sharing a flat with my college buddy Ned for a year or so in the mid-90s. I never much liked Paul Heaton's voice, but he was an outstanding songwriter, and his output with this band was consistently rich - an album every couple of years for nearly twenty years, and not a dud amongst them. I suppose 1996's Blue Is The Colour was the one that made the biggest splash for them commercially, but I rather think Welcome was the best of the lot: it's packed full of tremendous melodies and tremendous arrangements; every song is strong, different, and distinctive. And it opens with this, Song For Whoever... a brilliantly witty reminder of why it is unwise to go out with a writer.

Friday, August 03, 2012

The 9th Avenue crawl

Although on previous visits to Manhattan I have usually stayed over towards the East Side, I have somehow ended up spending more time hanging on the West, and particularly around the Mid-Town stretch of 9th Avenue - an even grungier counterpart of the bar-filled drag of 3rd Avenue that I had navigated with my old pal Dr Manhattan on my first night in the city last month. The Doctor, alas, was indisposed on my last night and unable to join me on a projected exploration of this area. Travelling solo, my peregrinations - and my drinking - were much more limited than they might have been. But I still indulged in a brief nostalgic tour of some of the odd little drinking dens I've discovered in this part of town before.

Places like.... the Holland Bar, a barebones boozer just round the back of the Port Authority Bus Station that was celebrated in the New York Times a few years ago (the bar* that I mentioned in my opening America post a month or so back); or BillyMark's West (on the corner of 29th St), similarly stripped down but rather warmer of welcome (run by a pair of Italian-American brothers, I gather); or Twins (run by a pair of twins, I believe); or the 9th Avenue Saloon (corner of 46th); or... well, there are just too many dive bars to choose from in that neck of the woods! Both time and money were limited, so I restricted myself to these few that I'd encountered before and thought worth paying another visit to. I really must go back for a more thorough exploratory crawl one day.

There's a fair amount of enticing sleazerie around over on 8th Avenue as well. Earlier in the day I'd happened upon Wakamba - or 'The Distinguished Wakamba Cocktail Lounge', to give it the full and misleadingly grandiose description emblazoned on its awning. Cocktails appear not to be heavily featured; it's just another unashamedly grotty drinking den dealing mainly in beers and shots, as far as I could see. Online reviews often seem to complain that it's a bit overpriced, and suggest that its main draw is the voluptuous and scantily clad Latina (and/or Eastern European?) girls who usually tend the bar. Perhaps that's more of an evening thing. When I looked in during a slow midweek afternoon, there was a guy behind the bar and all-afternoon 'happy hour' prices on domestic draught and bottled beers seemed very reasonable for a place that's in the heart of the tourist zone, only a few minutes' away from Times Square.

I'm looking forward to a chance to revisit 8th and 9th Avenues with a fuller wallet... and with Dr Manhattan or some other drinking buddies in tow.

*  The Holland used to give away shots for spot trivia questions. Last time I passed through, I won a drink for somehow remembering that the 4th President of the US had been James Madison.

HBH 297

A different sunlight
Senses grown unfamiliar
Afternoon drinking

I don't do it often, but it is a very pleasant buzz you just don't get from a regular evening session - perhaps mainly because there's still stuff to see when you go outside again.

Thursday, August 02, 2012

Two for the road

A mere four or five hours of drinking is rarely enough for a man such as Dr Manhattan. When he took me out on the town in New York a couple of weeks back, he was not content with our splendid little crawl down fifteen or twenty blocks of 3rd Avenue. No, he wanted to show me a piece of history - so, for a nightcap, he took me to the Old Town Bar on 18th Street, one of New York's most venerable watering-holes, established in 1892. It's a long tall room, with a magnificent marble-topped bar that stretches over 55ft. The mosaic-tiled floor and mahogany fittings seem untouched in the last 120 years. The gents is a tourist attraction on its own: its giant-sized Hinsdale brand urinals celebrated their centenary a year or two back. Yet, despite its celebrity, the place still seems refreshingly down-to-earth, a proper neighbourhood boozer. Definitely a place to look up again on my next visit. My only gripe with this bar is that it closes indecently early (well, midnight); we only caught it just in time for last orders.

The Doctor, of course, despite it being a 'school night' for him, was still not yet quite done at this early hour. Oh, no. When we got kicked out of the Old Town, he took me to Lillie's on the next block south for our final drink or two of the night. That was... an experience. But I'm afraid I didn't feel the love. Lillie's (named after Lillie Langtry, I'm told) supposedly tries to style itself an "Irish bar", but I could see nothing Irish about it whatsoever, apart from a few of its whiskey selections. The space is almost identical to the Old Town, but while that 18th Street bar has commendably preserved an authentic Victorian feel, its 17th Street neighbour has refurbished with rococo excess: the riot of tack and the overbright lighting detracts from the few original elements (another long marble bar) remaining. Alas, it would seem that over-the-top decor and bright lighting are what delight the young and well-heeled Manhattanites of today. While the gorgeously fusty Old Town Bar was almost devoid of customers, its gawdy counterpart was still packed out with yuppies well into the early hours of Monday morning. It might be quite fun to visit with a group of friends, or if scouting for a pick-up (we encountered at least one expensive prostitute working the room), but it's not the kind of place you would make your 'local'. Well, I wouldn't, anyway.

Still, it was a thought-provoking end to a very entertaining reunion with the good Doctor, and to my reintroduction to New York City after an absence of several years. I must try to get back there more often.

Wednesday, August 01, 2012

New Picks of the Month

August three years ago was a relatively quiet time on the blogs, because I was on holiday for the first half of the month, and then when I returned to Beijing I found my access to Blogger completely blocked by the Chinese censors for a while (well, apart from the blog-by-e-mail facility, which was not a terribly satisfactory substitute for the 'normal service').

Nevertheless, there were some uncommonly rich pickings on Froogville. I'll opt for The bond as my prime recommendation, the post with which I opened the month, pondering on the strange power that newborn infants seem to have to command the lifelong affection of complete strangers. [However, I might equally well have gone for this bon mot about Jesus, or this theory of history, or this elegy for the demise of the secondhand bookshop, or this very funny regional-accent-based joke, or this one about one of the less popular saints, or one of the best of my haiku, or this exposition of the infamous 'omnibus analogy'. A month of diverse inspirations!]

And on The Barstool I choose The Best Cocktail Bar In The World, the only place I know where I can get my favourite cocktail, and which is not a conventional bar at all, but the expansive kitchen of my good friend The Younger Dr P.

Traffic Report - the blog stats for July

Well, despite being on the road (mostly in America) and thus with irregular Internet access last month, I somehow kept up a modestly brisk rate of blogging...

There were 24 posts and just over 10,000 words on Froogville.

There were also 24 posts, but only around 7,000 words on Round-The-World Barstool Blues.

Not much else to remark upon. Number of visitors is down slightly on Froogville (The Barstool occasionally edging ahead!!). Commenting is all but dead. Well, summer is always  a SLOW time, a period when vacations eat into the online readership, but.... I rather fear Twittermania has killed off dear old blogging. Very sad.

But I never gave much of a damn about cultivating an audience anyway; these blogs are private scribble-pads for my own amusement. So, I think I'll plough on with them for a bit longer yet.