Friday, November 30, 2012

Toronto locals

The other day, I was reflecting for a moment - for reasons which now escape me - on the time I spent in Toronto about 15 years ago, working as a legal intern.

My scholarship programme provided quite a nice apartment for me, down near the waterfront on Queen's Quay. And I had a bar in my building. One of the strangest bars I have ever encountered - the Purple Pepper, a bar chiefly notable for its name: a deeply naff but undeniably very memorable alliteration. The Pepper, alas, didn't really feel much like a bar, since it was in a mall. Well, in the middle of a rank of shops along the ground floor of this block (the dry cleaners and the 24-hour supermarket and, especially, the great little takeaway pizza joint on the corner were all very welcome facilities to have within 5 minutes of home, but the Pepper was nothing but a disappointment). And hence it was a bit of a goldfish bowl, with floor-to-ceiling plate glass windows along the front. At least it was quite cosily dim inside - after nightfall - and the 'purple' motif was quaintly underscored with a purple lava lamp behind the bar (I'm a big fan of lava lamps: I could watch them for hours!).

There was also a rather beautiful Eastern European (Croatian, possibly - I forget) girl who worked behind the bar there a few evenings a week. But even this was not enough to entice me into becoming a regular. The place lacked atmosphere. Nor, indeed, did it have very much custom. It was a little expensive. And the service - from the gorgeous Croatian, and everyone else - tended to be a bit offhand and surly. [It seems the Pepper is still going after all these years, but is now promoting itself more as a café/restaurant.]

That, I found, was a more widespread problem in Canada, or certainly in Toronto. Canadians have a rather gratingly self-righteous pride about their supposed superiority to their American neighbours: they seem to believe - with overbearing earnestness - that their country is better in every way than the USA, and that they are a fundamentally nicer people than the Americans. And I'm afraid it just ain't so - not in the country's service culture, anyway. Whereas the almost ubiquitous "Have a nice day!" attitude you find in America usually seems genuine, or at least well faked, in Canada serving staff mostly seem as if they are just going through the motions. There's no perkiness, no breeziness, no friendliness. It wasn't just in the Pepper, but every bar I went in during that year in Toronto (and a fair few in other places I visited, too: Montreal, Ottawa/Hull, Quebec City, Edmonton, Vancouver). Even worse, bar staff there used to aggressively demand their tips, rather than just accepting that tipping was ultimately a matter for the customer's discretion. In America, I don't mind tipping, and tipping heavily - because bar staff give value: they're pleasant and friendly to you, they make conversation if you're on your own, they introduce you to other people at the bar; they'll quite often give you a complimentary drink every once in a while; and they almost invariably slice a big chunk off your tab at the end of the evening, if you've been a good customer. In Canada, they give you your drink, and ask for a tip. That's it. No smile, no chit-chat, nada. I soon grew to hate going to bars in Canada: it was more expensive than in the States, and not nearly as much fun.

Insofar as I did have a local in Toronto (the severe winters are a serious deterrent to going out; and I was away travelling a lot, anyway), I came to favour the Acme Bar & Grill, just around the corner. It was about a 10-minute walk away, but that's no bad thing. (A 'local' can be too local. There's not really any extra convenience in having a favourite bar only 2 minutes away rather than 5 or 10 - and 'convenience' is overrated anyway! - but the reduction in daily exercise can become significant.) Of course, it was the Wile E. Coyote reference that initially attracted me. And it did seem like a very promising venue: long, narrow, essentially windowless - nice and dark, lots of wood; almost the paradigm of the perfect (North) American bar. It had a pretty decent food menu too. Again, it was the frosty demeanour of the staff that let it down. If this place had been over the border in Michigan, I'm sure I would have enrolled it amongst my favourite bars of all time; but my experiences here were always undercut by irritation and disappointment with the service. [I learn that the Acme was relaunched as the more British-sounding Duke of Argyle in the early Noughties, and closed altogether a few years ago, when the area was redeveloped. I would like to summon up a little wistful regret, but I find myself unable to.]

Perverse and bizarre as it may seem, my 'local' during that year became the wonderful T. Hogan's - some 300 miles away in Philadelphia!

That's how much Canada's bars SUCKED.

What kind of probe?

Oh, that's all right, then.

I can't think how this can have escaped my attention for so long, but... it wasn't until I visited Guizhou (way down in the far south-west of China) a few weeks ago that I discovered that Yanjing, Beijing's local beer, is an official sponsor of the Chinese effort to reach the Moon.

Does this mean astronauts will be taking beer on the spaceship with them???

HBH 313

Songs from long ago
Music unleashes memory
Memory opens wounds

Strange how powerful music is in opening up long closed pathways in the brain. Strange, and terrifying.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Great Love Songs (38)

Some years ago, I stumbled upon in a DVD store here in Beijing The Best of The Old Grey Whistle Test, Volume 3.

I never got around to watching it. Partly, I think, I was distracted by my vexation at never being able to find any of the other volumes of the series. But mostly I was a little afraid of the tsunami of nostalgia that it might unleash in me - I was waiting for a 'special occasion' to revisit this highlight of my 1970s childhood, one of the best TV music shows ever (I've mentioned it on here before; it used to be on BBC2 on Sunday nights, after M.A.S.H.), and to wallow in the melancholy that this was likely to induce.

I finally found such an occasion a couple of months ago - and the selection did not disappoint. Well, there was a noticeable falling off in the standard of the last few entries from the 1980s (although it was nice to see the great comedy band Half Man, Half Biscuit included, with their warped childhood anecdote All I Want For Christmas Is A Dukla Prague Away Kit), but the 1970s stuff was pure gold.

And in amongst this consistently high quality (Steppenwolf, Humble Pie, Supertramp, David Bowie, Jackson Browne, Stealers Wheel, Freddie King, B.B. King, Janis Ian, Joe Jackson, The Jam - gobsmackingly good stuff), the absolute standout - a shivers-down-the-spine revelation for me - was this acoustic performance of the exquisite love song, A Heart Needs A Home

Richard and Linda Thompson, I now learn, have been giants of the English folk scene for over 40 years - but they had completely passed me by. I am belatedly quite smitten with Linda; not only does she have a compelling voice, but she is here just radiantly beautiful too (the hippie headscarf notwithstanding). This performance (introduced by the notorious 'Whispering' Bob Harris, an inspiration for John Thomson's Louis Balfour character, the low-talking host of the Jazz Club segment in The Fast Show) is from early in 1975 - a year or two before I started getting into the show, I suppose.

Chinese hotel breakfasts

The poverty (almost total absence) of bar facilities in most hotels in China is by no means the greatest hardship visited upon the Western traveller.

No, the winner of that prize is surely the breakfasts.

Many hotels surreptitiously slip a wad of breakfast vouchers into your keycard holder and levy an additional charge - anything from 15 to 100 RMB per day - without telling you. Check. Complain. Refuse. Even 15 RMB is not worth it.

One of the problems is that Chinese cuisine doesn't seem to have much in the way of specialised breakfast foods: apart from zhou (a very runny rice congee, usually completely tasteless),  youtiao (fried dough-sticks that, alas, rather too often taste unpleasantly of the very old and contaminated oil they've been cooked in), and a few types of mantou (steamed buns: inoffensive, but stodgy and desperately bland), you just get the same old stuff you'd eat for lunch and dinner. I love noodles and dumplings - but I can't face them three times a day.

Another problem is that Chinese hotels will almost invariably try to offer a few token Western breakfast dishes (to pander to the fetish-with-the-foreign of their Chinese guests; most of them don't see a Western visitor from one month to the next), without having any real understanding of or sympathy for this genre. Chinese 'breakfast sausages' are peculiarly disgusting, and best reserved for possible emergency use in the poisoning of a dangerous dog.

The real problem, though, seems to lie in the perennial deficiencies of the Chinese service culture - and the associated lack of quality control or effective management supervision. Large-scale buffets are rarely much good, anywhere in the world. But in China, where the staff very often quite evidently don't give a flying fuck, they attain spectacular levels of AWFULNESS. And the breakfast service - where presumably the kitchen staff resent having to be at work so early in the morning and so do a particularly half-assed job - is the nadir. The hotplates and warming trays, of course, never function very well. But Chinese chefs on the breakfast shift seem to take a perverse pride in cooking everything at least half an hour before the service begins, just to make sure that even the early bird guests who arrive on the stroke of 7.30, or whatever, won't be able to find any food that's anything more than tepid.

To set the seal on the unpleasantness of this start to your day, you usually also encounter at least one of those mindfuck oddities of Chinese taste - like mystery fish (fried to the point of carbonization), or fruit salad presented with a selection of mayonnaises.

The only consolation I found on my recent travels (particularly valuable on the morning I was to run a marathon!) was that - presumably in response to this ubiquitous shortcoming of hotel catering - there's almost invariably a very good noodle shop almost next door to a Chinese hotel.

Exceptions prove the rule. At the hotel where I stayed in Shanghai last week, the breakfast was included in the basic room charge, and was really pretty good. The Western options were a particularly pleasant surprise (apart from the sausages, which were the standard-issue condom-filled-with-E-numbers): self-made toast (disappointingly pale; but at least it was good, plain bread, not the sickly sweet stuff you're commonly given in China), decent and very plentiful bacon, and eggs fried to order (though I couldn't persuade the server to add some cherry tomatoes to her pan, so I had to eat those uncooked). A nice experience to end my trip, except... well, the one fly-in-the-ointment on this occasion was that the dining room provided no cutlery. Bacon-and-egg-on-toast is really NOT a chopstick-friendly meal!

I suppose I should have got another slice of toast and made myself a doorstep breakfast sandwich. But bloody-minded pride demanded that I show off my chopstick prowess to the Chinese guests. It got messy.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Recommended Posts, July-September 2012

A roundup of the best bits from my summer travels.

Guided Tour - recommended posts from the 3rd quarter of 2012

1)  Time is tight  -  5th July 2012
A great live performance of one of the classic instrumental numbers by Booker T. & the M.G.s.

2)  Hail to the Duck!  -  7th July 2012
A tribute to the great bass guitarist Donald 'Duck' Dunn, who had died at the age of 70 a few weeks earlier.

3)  Mongolian Drinking Song  -  22nd July 2012
Beijing's favourite folk-rockers Hanggai perform a traditional party song which has become a regular highlight of their sets.

4)  It's my party - or is it? -  26th July 2012
A particularly strange dream.

5)  Craft beer?!  -  27th July 2012
My return to England from America triggers some adverse reflections on the beer scene over there.

6)  A culinary 'Unsuitable Role Model'  -  28th July 2012
Fond reminiscences of Keith Floyd, one of the first and greatest of all TV chefs - and an unabashed boozer.

7)  The 3rd Avenue crawl  -  31st July 2012
One of my best nights out during my recent American visit. (A few others are described here and here and here.)

8)  Great Love Songs (33)  -  5th August 2012
Waves of nostalgia brought on by being back in the old home country remind me of The Beautiful South, a band I used to listen to a lot in the '90s. Their Song For Whoever is a typically warped and witty account of how a writer's urge to treat everything as raw material for his work distorts his experience of the world and compromises his relationships. Why do I feel such a connection with this?

9)  Conversions  -  7th August 2012
Some reflections on the difficulties of shifting between different countries and currencies... And the shocking realisation that Britain is now a cheaper place to drink than Beijing (in bars, anyway).

10)  Great Drinking Songs (34)  -  11th August 2012
Well, more of a smoking song, really - Afroman's splendid catalogue song about the hazards of over-indulging in weed, Because I Got High.

11)  Another nail in my heart  -  14th August 2012
Remembering The Carpenter's Arms, one of my favourite pubs from my days living in Oxford in the early '90s; one of the many small pubs in the UK that have closed in the last decade or two.

12)  A pocket full of moonshine  -  15th August 2012
As my return to China draws near, I reflect that erguotou - a particularly rough variety of the native white spirit, produced in Beijing - is NOT one of the things that entices me back. However, I am intrigued to discover the website of a chap who is trying to learn to love Chinese spirits. Rather him than me!

13)  The call of the wild  -  16th August 2012
Another 'Unsuitable Role Model', though really not so unsuitable this time: Les Hiddens, an Australian survival expert who had a superb TV series in the 1990s about how to live off the land in the Outback.

14)  Songs that make me weepy  -  19th August 2012
Some of the music that I find most self-indulgent cathartic when my depressions strike.

15)  The blues make it all seem better  -  31st August 2012
My first couple of weeks back in Beijing had been utterly miserable. But there's nothing like a dose of the blues to perk you up.

16)  Gosh, has it really been FIVE years??!!  -  2nd September 2012
The anniversary of my favourite little bar, 12 Square Metres, is upon us. I celebrate with another dose of The Beautiful South - the rather too appropriate Liars' Bar.

17)  Something new  -  7th September 2012
I discover an excellent new barbecue place down in Shuangjing - and try a couple of dishes I've never had in China before.

18)  Great Love Songs (34)  -  8th September 2012
A serendipitous discovery during my travels was April Smith and The Great Picture Show. Here's their bouncy, saucy little love song, Wow and Flutter.

19)  Our 'theme song'  -  15th September 2012
My 'local' has become a bit of an '80s timewarp just lately: they seem to be constantly playing Twisted Sister's We're Not Going To Take It. Not that I'm complaining. Not at all. It chimes with my present mood very well.

20)  Bon mot for the week  -  17th September 2012
A particularly good one - from Noah Baumbach's great film Kicking and Screaming.

21)  I have often walked down this street before...  -  21st September 2012
The return to familiar Beijing stomping grounds cues some reflection on the territoriality of my life here (strictly a Gulou boy!), and some reminiscences about my early days in the city (when I enjoyed it far more). This, of course, was soon a pretext for a song or two - a pair of favourites from My Fair Lady that I have often been known to sing on the streets of Beijing.

22)  After-love  -  26th September 2012
I am told that the Russians have a single word to describe the feelings that you have for a former lover. I express my scepticism - rightly, as it turns out.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

On Anonymity

People sometimes ask me, "Froog, why are you such a slippery fellow? Why do you conceal your identity and contact information from the myriads [Well, 20, at the last count. - Ed.] of admiring followers your blogs attract?"

Well, self-preservation is a prime reason. A lot of young Chinese Netizens are of the fenqing tendency - rabid, xenophobic nationalists who despise foreigners in general, and particularly those who have the temerity to make any public comment on matters relating to China. A lot of these folks are formidably resourceful in the techniques of the 'human flesh search' - tracking down people's real world identities and locations from the clues they leave about themselves online. Many of these people are tedious and unpleasant in the extreme; more than a few are outright psychotic, and potentially dangerous.

So, I cloak my identity to spare myself possible grief from online nutjobs who might take offence at something I say. Now, you might think Barstool Blues here is a pretty uncontentious sort of blog, but my other outlet, Froogville, is occasionally rather less so. I use the same alias for all my online activity; and I sometimes use it to comment on far more popular - and more overtly political - 'China blogs' that attract a good deal of attention from dingbats of this sort. So, no joke: physical protection is a serious concern.

Well, that and attempting to save myself from embarrassment with friends and acquaintances - and employers! I do post quite a lot of very personal, potentially compromising revelations on my two blogs; on Froogville, in particular, I quite often discuss my work. So, there's an element of using the cloak of anonymity to preserve personal - and financial - relationships as well.

I put quite a bit of effort into this. It's not just a matter of always referring to myself by the name Froog. Almost no-one - unless they're famous - is referred to on my blogs by name; I either avoid referring to people directly, or - for those friends who make fairly regular 'appearances' on here - I use initials or nicknames. I also throw in a fair bit of misdirection about my activities: lightly fictionalizing events to make them less easy to recognise, attributing stories that happened to me sometimes to other people (and vice versa), distorting time references by implying that a recent occurrence happened some weeks back or that something that happened a month or more ago happened just last night, and so on.

Perhaps there's a component of shyness or modesty - or anti-narcissism - in my shunning of 'publicity' as well. I never introduce myself as the author of these blogs. If other people do so, I deflect the conversation elsewhere. If people suspect my Froog identity and challenge me on it, I'll deny it.

Blog writing, for me, is an acutely private hobby; and I like to keep it completely separate from my real life.

It's the polar opposite of dear old Jim Boyce, creator of the capital's pre-eminent bar blog, Beijing Boyce. He parades himself so openly on his blog that it becomes difficult to distinguish the blog persona from the actual man.

And he's a staunch advocate - often, indeed, a somewhat self-righteous-sounding one - of non-anonymous blogging. He maintains that it creates 'accountability'.

I find that an unconvincing claim. 'Accountability' in the online world consists in having to retain the confidence of your readers. If you write something that disappoints or offends them, something that they feel is biased or inaccurate or self-serving, they will criticise you in your comment threads (and perhaps elsewhere online too). And, if their disgruntlement is great enough, they will vote with their feet by ceasing to visit your blog. That is accountability. Letting everybody know who you are - so that obnoxious drunks can abuse you in bars or send you snarky e-mails - is masochism.

JB has different concerns, and chose differently to me. I respect that. His blog is utterly unlike mine (it's a public information service, with a very large readership), and making himself into a public figure has helped both in building the brand awareness of the blog (ah, that alliteration: kind of irritating, but oh so memorable!) and in forging relationships with the F&B professionals that he writes about.

Of course, the downside of revealing your identity when you operate as a bar or restaurant reviewer is that it will tend to compromise your independence, your ability to experience a venue as other punters do, your freedom to critique something uninhibitedly. I believe JB is pretty assiduous about not trying to exploit his profile to gain preferential treatment and not letting bar owners ply him with freebies, but... it must be difficult to maintain such ethical probity all the time. And it doesn't seem to me like a good idea to put yourself in the position where you have to make that constant effort. It must get exhausting

I imagine it must be a bit constraining on your ability to be brutally frank in a review, too, if the owners know you, are perhaps even friendly with you. I certainly find it hard to write about bars where the owners know that I am Froog (although, currently, that's only two; so, not too much of problem). 

Being a publicly identifiable bar blogger brings a lot of problems to Mr Boyce, I think. It must impinge to some extent on the freedom with which he can operate as a reviewer. It exposes him to potential hostility from people he does review poorly. And it creates doubts in the minds of some of his readers about his ethics or his impartiality. When set against that, his 'accountability' argument seems even more hollow.

JB often gripes about the hostility his blog sometimes arouses, and about unpleasant encounters he's suffered with jerks in bars. I feel sorry for him, and yet... well, he brings it on himself by making himself such a public figure, by putting himself in the firing line like this. If you can't stand the heat, and all that.

Even if I were writing a blog like that, I think I'd keep my name off the masthead. It's not about 'accountability'; it's about preserving something of a private life for yourself.

Chinese hotel bars

I stayed in five different hotels during my recent three-week jaunt around China, and hung out in the lobbies of a couple more. I thought this experience might furnish a post or two about the experience of getting a drink - or trying to - in a Chinese hotel.

But, um, not really, no. Most Chinese hotels don't have a bar at all - or nothing that really passes muster as one. In the lower-tier cities, at any rate, even Western hotel chains are geared pretty much exclusively towards the Chinese business traveller. Thus, the facilities they provide will almost always include a karaoke lounge (often a synonym for 'brothel'), often a teahouse (ditto), and occasionally a spa (ditto). But no bar, as such. Western drinking culture still hasn't really caught on that much here, certainly not out in the sticks.

The Ramada Plaza in Guiyang, for example, has only a coffee shop (and a spectacularly awful one, at that); no bar.

The Crown Plaza in Kaili, however, does have what purports to be a bar. I didn't see anyone using it in the three days I was there - apart from a couple of Chinese guests who favoured it as a smoking lounge, but didn't appear to make any purchases. When I asked the two staff behind the counter for a menu, they gawped at me in amazement. As well they might - there weren't enough options to warrant having a menu. A few soft drinks, and a solitary beer (Pearl River from Guangzhou - fairly tasteless, and absurdly overpriced). No spirits - not even Chinese baijiu. I don't think this counts as a bar; more like a convenience store with a handful of armchairs.

In only one of the hotels I visited on this trip was I actually able to get a beer. It was a huge and severely underused place out in the wilds of Guizhou. I suspect it aims for the conference and wedding banquet trade, but doesn't market itself very effectively and is completely deserted most of the time. Its karaoke facilities took up most of the second floor, but they were - mercifully - not in use; and the reception area for this, apart from a vague musty smell, was a not unpromising bar. Well, it had a bar, for one thing, a wood-topped counter at a nice height for leaning; that's a good start! And it was dimly lit, quite cosy. There was even a member of staff on duty who was aware that it was his job to sell drinks to people - although he might not often have been called upon to do so. Once again, there were no spirits. But there were two types of beer on offer, and they weren't outrageously expensive. Unfortunately, there were none in the fridge, so the barman had to take one from a pyramid display on the glass shelving behind him. He hadn't served a drink in so long that he had forgotten where the bottle-opener was kept; so - after a long, futile search - I persuaded him to accept a loan of mine. And when I finally tasted the beer, I discovered - of course! - that it must have been some years past its sell-by date and was absolutely vile.

But at least I had managed to buy a beer in a Chinese hotel. That is quite a challenge.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Bon mot for the week

"Nobody can be exactly like me. Even I have trouble doing it."

Tallulah Bankhead (1902-1968)

I have been tempted to enrol Ms Bankhead among my 'Fantasy Girlfriends' over on Froogville, but my attraction to her has only bloomed relatively late in my life, and is based upon what I have learned of her personality rather than her looks - although she was rather striking in her appearance, and she did have an imposing and distinctively husky voice. (I must have seen her in Hitchcock's 1944 film Lifeboat when I was a boy, but that encounter left no enduring impression on me.)

A flamboyant personality, and extravagant in all her appetites, she delighted in flaunting her many vices: she was an outrageous vamp, a chain smoker, a heavy drinker - and completely unrepentant about any of it. In the 1920s, while working on the London stage, she caused consternation in British government circles through rumours that she was sexually corrupting boys from the nearby Eton College, the country's most exclusive private school. On leaving hospital after suffering near-fatal complications from a dose of venereal disease, she quipped to reporters, "Don't think this has taught me a lesson." Her dying words - many years later - were supposedly, "Codeine... bourbon!"

Rather than calling her a 'Fantasy Girlfriend' (to be frank, I think her sexual rapacity would have terrified me!), I think I should add her to the ranks of my 'Unsuitable Role Models' here on The Barstool.

Here's a good brief biography of her. And this fan site includes a complete recording of one of her '50s radio shows, which gives a nice demonstration of her wonderfully 'lived in' voice, and her fine comic delivery.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Great Drinking Songs (37)

After a drizzly and miserable few days in Shanghai, I felt in need of a bit of a pick-me-up - and what better than this? The Banana Boat Song may not actually be about drinking (well, apart from that one reference to a drink o' rum seeing you through the night's work), but the infectious bounciness of it, the make-it-up-as-you-go-along simplicity of it, and the fact that we've all known it since childhood make it an irresistible singalong when you've been drinking.

When I was working in Canada in the late '90s, I remember once hearing on the radio a live concert performance of Harry Belafonte doing this song (I was in Sudbury, of all places; waiting in a car while a friend went to the bathroom; when she came back, she'd missed half of it, but we both just sat there, listening transfixed until it was over before we continued with our drive): it went on and on and on, Harry and his band having so much fun, they never wanted it to stop, and the audience singing along too. Coincidentally, this performance dates from almost exactly that time (well, I suppose it could be this performance that I heard that night; but I think the version I remember was even more exuberant, even longer).

And for a supplementary treat (or three), here's the original recording sung by a 29-year-old Harry...

And here he is doing it with The Muppets...

And finally, here's a possessed Catherine O'Hara breaking up her dinner party with it in Tim Burton's Beetlejuice.

Hmm, now I feel better!

Friday, November 23, 2012

My Song

Oh dear, yes, it's no longer 'acceptable' to admit to liking Gary Glitter songs. The last but one time I was in America, I found his albums had been withdrawn from record stores, and the clerks thought I was a demented pervert to be asking about the status of the stock. His depraved sexual appetites have, it seems, pretty much robbed us of one of the great cheesy highlights of '70s glam rock.

While I deplore his private conduct, I yet regret this spurning of the music. I think a person's creative output takes on a life of its own, and you shouldn't make judgements about it based on the artist's personal life (unless he's actively seeking to promote objectionable ideas or conduct through that creative work, of course). Heck, so many of the great musicians have been wife-beaters, drug abusers, religious fanatics, or people who'd behave unnecessarily snarkily towards wait staff. If we started getting too prissy about this sort of thing, started enquiring too closely into the backgrounds of the people producing the records we listen to and the books we read.... well, we'd have to be spurning a lot of rather good stuff. And silly, fun stuff.

Arriving back in The Jing after two-and-a-half weeks away, this song inevitably broke out of the maximum security compound of my memory to carry out a messy home invasion of my consciousness. I had quite forgotten that it was officially titled Hello, Hello, I'm Back Again. It's always been the refrain (unexpectedly morbid, counter to the general upbeat self-confidence of the song) - Did you miss me (yeah?!) when I was away? I know you didn't miss me at all - that  lingers with me.

You would hope that your absence from your 'local' would leave rather more of a hole, but in fact nobody really notices you're gone.

HBH 312

Cleanliness provokes,
Inviting desecration:
Pristine hotel sheets.

Yes, there is something about the artificiality of the hotel environment, the exaggerated orderliness and cosseting isolation of the hired room, that incites mischief and debauchery.

Me, I've been eating crackers in bed.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

NOTHING to do....

No telephone and no Internet make Froog go MAD!!!!

I've had some sucky Thanksgivings in the last few years, but this is way down there with the worst of them. I find I am developing an unhealthy appreciation for Shanghai's "international" TV station (which is, to be sure, way better than the China Central TV one - but that's not high praise). How I wish I had the range of indoor amusements The Statler Brothers found to enjoy!

Thankful for....?

Being stuck in Shanghai with no friends and no money and only very shaky Internet access?

Hmm, let's try again. Positive thinking.

Well, this should be my last Thanksgiving in China - that's something to celebrate.

It's a pity that my favourite holiday of the year (like Christmas, but without all the baggage - as I just remarked to my pal The British Cowboy) will have to go uncelebrated by me this year - but I hope the rest of you are enjoying the excuse for a bit of overindulgence.

I suppose I could go for a turkey dinner somewhere when I'm back in Beijing at the weekend, but.... well, I'm a stickler for observing holidays on the right day - alas.

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!!

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Recommended Posts, April-June 2012

To keep in sync with brother-blog Froogville, where I've just added a similar rundown, here are some of the highlights from The Barstool earlier this year.

Guided Tour - recommended posts from the 2nd quarter of 2012

1)  Great Drinking Songs (32)  -   8th April 2012
Harry McClintock's hobo song Big Rock Candy Mountains, which I remembered fondly but dimly from my distant childhood, and was happy to rediscover a few years ago when the Coen brothers used it in the soundtrack to their Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?

As I near the date for my (possibly final) departure from China, I reflect on some good times past and list those Beijing bars where I have seen the sun come up.... and/or fallen asleep.

3)  Great Love Songs (31)  -  14th April 2012
Hoarse-voiced Norwegian dynamo Ida Maria's infectious shoutalong I Like You So Much Better When You're Naked.

4)  Cocktails in the afternoon!  -  17th April 2012
A private tasting at MaoMaoChong introduces me to some interesting new drink recipes.

In the week of the centenary of the loss of the Titanic, I find myself reflecting on a number of metaphors inspired by the disaster - and their disastrous significance for me.

6)  Haiku Bar Haiku 282  -  20th April 2012
I suffer a case of End of the World blues.

7)  Top Five Things We Miss From JK's Playlist  -  21st April 2012
My favourite bar owner had been back in Oz for 6 months, and down at the bar I found I was starting to miss some of the classic slices of cheese that used to come up particularly often on his iTunes playlist.

8)  Bon mot for the week  -  23rd April 2012
A particularly good one, from Friedrich Nietzsche.

9)  Haiku Bar Haiku 283  -  27th April 2012
Some thoughts on the shortcomings of 'happy hours'.

10)  An extreme 'Unsuitable Role Model'  -  28th April 2012
Perhaps the most unsavoury entrant ever in this series: blathering Glaswegian drunk Rab C. Nesbitt - a fabulous comic creation by writer Ian Pattison and actor Gregor Fisher.

11)  Seasonal drinking  -  1st May 2012
Some cocktail ideas for May Day.

12)  The beauty of statistics  -  3rd May 2012
Where is the highest concentration of bars - per capita, or per square mile - in America? Someone can show you.

13)  Memories of the SARS summer  -  8th May 2012
A long overdue post on my (mostly rather joyous!) recollections of my first summer in Beijing.

Reminiscences of my long affection for Queen, and a video of their anthemic singalong (Japanese chorus and all!) Teo Torriatte.

15)  The price issue (AGAIN) - 15th May 2012
A follow-up to this post from a little over a year earlier, decrying the outrageous overcharging we are increasingly being asked to accept in Beijing's bars.

16)  Haiku Bar Haiku 286 - 18th May 2012
On the brink of saying goodbye, I reflect on the handful of bars here that have inspired something like love in me.

17)  Junk food heaven!  -  19th May 2012
I find myself looking forward to some unhealthy eating 'treats' when I get back to the UK.

18)  Taking my leave  -  23rd May 2012
To mark my departure from Beijing after nearly 10 years, I could think of nothing more appropriate than The Wailing Jennys' beautiful a cappella version of The Parting Glass.

19)  Generic expat bars, and why I hate them  -  29th May 2012
A particularly undistinguished new bar opening in the (expat-frequented) Lido area of north-east Beijing leads me into an analysis of what invariably seems to be done badly about this sort of place, and why I could quite happily live without any of them.

20)  Caipirinha!  -  31st May 2012
I celebrate being back in the old country by having cocktails at home - oh, the decadence!

21)  Haiku Bar Haiku 288 - 1st June 2012
The delights of the traditional British 'lock in'.

22)  A song for the Euros - 9th June 2012
I celebrate the kick-off of the European Football Championships by posting a video of Neil Innes' One Thing On Your Mind, a great C&W pastiche about the eternal incompatibility of the sexes. (This post became my discussion thread for chatting about the tournament.)

23)  Does Nanluoguxiang have a future? - 11th June 2012
NO. I predict the inevitable implosion of Beijing's most overhyped, overcrowded bar & shopping street. A great pity - it used to be my favourite place in the city.

24)  A decade of change:
Part 1 - 12th June 2012
Part 2 - 14th June 2012
Part 3 - 19th June 2012
This three-part series on the evolution of the Beijing bar scene during my ten years living here has already been given permanent links in the sidebar.

Another entrant in my new-ish series on great bass playing, this time focusing on bass parts that are a little more sinuous and sophisticated than my previous roundups of 'hooks' and 'chuggers'.

26)  Last call - 30th June 2012
Semisonic's Closing Time and Tom Waits's I Hope That I Don't Fall In Love With You: two great songs about the poignancy of the bar's closing at the end of the evening - and the danger of romantic entanglements forming at the bar!

Monday, November 19, 2012

Bon mot for the week

"I'll stick to gin. Champagne is just ginger ale that knows someone."

Benjamin Franklin 'Hawkeye' Pearce (as played by Alan Alda) in M.A.S.H.

He was, if I recall, turning down the offer of a drink from his snobbish tent-mate Charles Winchester (David Ogden Stiers). I was reminded of this line when in New York a few months ago (it was on a chalkboard outside a bar), and it once more struck a powerful chord with me. Does anyone really like champagne? Really?? I think we have come to like the rituals of celebration associated with it, that it is an emblem of success and happiness. Many people are also no doubt seduced by the cachet of exclusivity: it's too bloody expensive for the hoipolloi. But, honestly, does anyone like it all that much for itself? Or do you find yourself, like me, sucking down one or two glasses as hastily as possible - just for appearances' sake, just because it's free... - and then looking forward to a real drink?

I am no longer a big fan of wine, and I don't much care for bubbles in a drink (I make an exception for tonic water), and I hate snobbery and affectation, and the brainwashing of branding; so, I have a low susceptibility to champagne. But even within this unappealing category of drinks, I think many cheap sparkling wines taste much pleasanter.

Champagne is just a big French scam! Give me a bottle of Cava any day.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Great Love Songs (37)

Today, I am nominating Nina Simone as my 'Fantasy Girlfriend' over on Froogville. It doesn't matter that she was in her thirties before I was even born, and has now been dead for 9 years. Most of these selections have been 'impossible' in one way or another. It's the idea of Nina Simone that I'm in love with.

In addition to the good things included in the Froogville post, here's one of my favourite of her love songs, He Needs Me (which blog-friend JES once informed me was written by one Arthur Hamilton; not one of the more celebrated lyricists, but he was given a flying start in the business when old high school friend Julie London asked him to write her some songs and he came up with Cry Me A River).

This is a great song about 'difficult' love. I'm not comfortable with the suggestions of imbalanced affection, dependence, and self-delusion in it - but these all too commonly are elements of love. I prefer to think of it as suggestive of stoical, calmly optimistic perseverance with a partner who's just a little wayward - or perhaps just a little slow on the uptake, a little slow to realise or acknowledge the depth of the relationship that has formed. It's a complex and beautiful little song, and Nina's rendition of it has always sent shivers down my spine.

Friday, November 16, 2012

HBH 311

The distant city teems
Cool night breeze ruffles the sea
Lights on the harbour

Ah, back in Hong Kong - for the first time in 16 years.

I had one of the most exquisite evenings of my life here, back in the early '90s, sitting on the terrace of the Royal Hong Kong Yacht Club, watching night fall, looking out across the bay at the lights of Kowloon - and enjoying the company of an utterly enchanting woman... who, unfortunately, was married.

We shared a taxi afterwards, and she invited me back to her place, "for a coffee" - oh, the cliché! I declined. It seemed her marriage was quite a loose arrangement, the husband working in Japan and rarely seeing her. But I have a rather stern ethical hang-up about adultery. Or I had back then. I have been tormented by curiosity and regret about this incident ever since (and I don't normally do regret). She was one of the handful of great infatuations of my life.

What was a low-life like me doing entertaining a glamorous merchant banker in the swank environs of the Yacht Club, you might well ask. Well, as it happens, I was (am?) a member. Well, a sort of affiliate member. My best friend's girlfriend at the time was the membership secretary of a rather exclusive yacht club in England, and - as a going-away present when I set out on my round-the-world backpacking year - she did an elementary bit of computer hacking to insinuate me on to their membership roll, so that I could enjoy visiting guest member rights at a string of affiliated clubs worldwide.

Though I was grateful for the goodwill demonstrated in this gift, I felt a bit guilty about its mild criminality. And I didn't think that I was ever likely to take advantage of it. But I did find it very useful in Hong Kong....

The Royal Hong Kong Yacht Club, with its prime harbourfront location, is one of the most desirable yet frustratingly unattainable venues on the island. It is strictly 'members only', and not many people can get to be members. Members can take in guests, but only members can pay for anything. And even members can't pay in cash (or by cheque or card); you have to use your member's tab for everything, and settle up at the end of each month by credit card.

I was staying with an old university friend who was working for a merchant bank, and I discovered that he and his friends and colleagues were all mad keen to have a chance to get inside the Yacht Club for once. Since he was putting me up for free and treating me rather generously throughout the two weeks I was there, a night out at the Yacht Club seemed to be an ideal way to thank him for his hospitality. Oddly enough, despite its high-tone vibe, it was one of the cheapest places to drink on the island (something I was much relieved to discover!).

Of course, as soon as I'd done it once, I was hooked on the experience, and went back two or three more times -  most notably for this marvellous 'date' with one of my friend's colleagues who I'd found myself falling into a dangerously flirtatious friendship with.

The guilty knowledge that I was an imposter there never quite left me, even though I was becoming something of a 'regular'; but the only moment of real alarm I experienced was on my preliminary visit, when I dropped in during the daytime to make sure that I would be able to set up a visiting guest member account with them. "Where are you moored?" they asked me. Oops - busted! My panic was fleeting. I calmly explained that I was on a business trip, and had flown in this time. Everything was fine. Until my heart got broken. I suppose that's karma, of a sort.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

The Monmouth connection

At the start of the year, I did a little post on the development of my musical tastes in childhood and young adulthood.

I closed that piece by mentioning that accident of birth (I was born in the small Welsh border city of Hereford, and spent my childhood in the even smaller town of Monmouth, 20 miles to the south) may have had a significant influence on the evolution of my interest in music, and I threatened a further post on this at some point. It had slipped my mind for 9 or 10 months, but here it is at last.

For odd reasons lost in the mists of economic history (well, it was never plausibly explained to me, anyway), a record pressing plant was established a little outside of Monmouth (in the 1980s, it transformed into a CD pressing plant). Possibly predating the record plant a little, a recording studio was founded down at the bottom end of the town, in the area known as Rockfield. These studios became quite influential for a while in the '70s: most notably, this was where Queen recorded their landmark albums Sheer Heart Attack and A Night At The Opera  (I remember the studios actually got a mention in the credits on the gatefold sleeve of Night). Nimbus Records also set up shop in the area around about then.

So, there was a lot of activity in the music business in the neighbourhood where I grew up. I never saw any of the members of Queen when they were briefly in town to do those recordings, but I did quite often see people like Les Gray (lead singer of a band called Mud, briefly famous in the early '70s for a song called Tiger Feet - one of the greatest of the cheesy hits of that era, or of any era) and Robert Plant (also a fairly well-regarded vocalist), who bought houses in the area. Mott The Hoople, a band of some note at that time (Queen's first tour of America was supporting Mott! That's what that otherwise incomprehensible lyric in Brian May's Now I'm Here - "Down in the city, just Hoople an' me" - was about!), hailed from Hereford. So did The Pretenders. A decade or so later, EMF emerged from the Forest of Dean, midway between Hereford and Monmouth. Nick Lowe - a less illustrious name, perhaps, but a very influential and respected figure - also lived in the area for a while. I think the first gig I ever saw was Nick playing unplugged in my first local, The Nag's Head, in the early '80s.

Because of the recording connection, and the beautiful rural scenery of the surrounding Wye Valley area, quite a few rock stars acquired country homes round about. But they weren't full-time residents, and you'd only ever spot them once in a blue moon. More interesting to me was the community of session musicians the town attracted - guys who could play guitar or drums like gods, but just didn't have the ambition (or the craziness, or whatever it is that it takes) to want to be in a successful band, who were content just to make a decent living in the studios during the day and then hang out like regular people in the evening. Seeing one of these chaps step up to play on a small pub stage could be an astounding experience.

Robert Plant would usually arrange an end-of-year party for this local music community if he was around. And my brother would usually get invited through a couple of these session men who were drinking buddies of his. And a couple of times he took me along with him. These would be low-key, utterly unadvertised, invitation-only affairs in unremarkable local venues - but they were often quite star-studded, as Robert would inveigle all sorts of rock biz aristocracy to show up and jam. You'd do your best not to act too starstruck; and the booze flowed so freely at these things that you'd soon be struggling to recognise people anyway. But then you'd have a transient spell of lucidity where you'd find yourself saying out loud, "Fuck me! Isn't that The Edge?"

Those were probably two of the greatest shows I've ever been to; but, unfortunately, I don't remember too much about them.

Well, I remember the women. What is it about rock stars that attracts gorgeous women like moths to a flame?? I think I made a fool of myself more than once trying to hit on women who were clearly out of my league at those parties (you know, they might have been married to Jimmy Page, or something...). The memory loss is probably more of a psychological ego-defence strategy than a consequence of over-indulgence in booze and weed.

Aw, just for old times' sake - here's a blast of Tiger Feet.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Bon mot for the week

"Contentment consisteth not in adding more fuel, but in taking away some fire."

Thomas Fuller (1608-1661)

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Another Top Five Basslines

Time for another selection of songs with great basslines.

This time, I'm going for...

5)  Queen - Dragon Attack
Another One Bites The Dust is, of course, one of the most iconic of all basslines, but... well, it's a bit too obvious a choice for me. And like John Deacon's other hook-monster, Under Pressure, it's been rather done to death: covered, sampled, parodied ad infinitum. So, instead, here's his third greatest bassline (like Another One Bites The Dust, also from The Game - the last of their really great albums). It doesn't really come to the fore in this clip from a show they did in Montreal in 1981, but it's superb sound and picture quality - and Brian and Freddie are fairly ripping it up (you can try the album version here, if you like).

4)  George Baker Selection - Little Green Bag
Despite the huge exposure this song got 20 years ago through its use by Quentin Tarantino over the opening credits of Reservoir Dogs, Dutch musician 'George Baker' (real name Johannes Bouwens) still seems to have a rather low profile online, and I haven't been able to find out who was playing the bass here. I would be grateful if anyone could tell me.

3)  Fleetwood Mac - The Chain
Of course, it's the incredibly hooky bit in the extended instrumental second half that we really love, possibly John McVie's finest hour - although he's had many. For me, as for many other Brits of my vintage, this is indelibly associated with BBC2's Grand Prix programme which showed highlights of the F1 races on a Sunday evening, and used this instrumental passage (I didn't realise it was part of a song until years later) as its theme music. I was an avid fan during my teens in the late '70s and early '80s. That was the period when the manic and touchingly inept veteran commentator Murray Walker was teamed with the extravagantly laidback former world champion James Hunt - one of the great accidental comedy double-acts in TV history.

And just for good measure, here's that BBC intro...

2)  Thomas Dolby - The Ability To Swing
It was Terry Jackson who played bass with The Lost Toy People, the band that Dolby put together for his superb 1988 album Aliens Ate My Buick! (one of my favourite silly album titles!), but I'm not sure who's accompanying him at this recent gig in Denver. (You can check out the album version here.)

And in the Number 1 spot this time we have....

1)  The Cure - Close To Me
Simon Gallup featured in the first instalment of this irregular series, and may well crop up again once or twice. His playing is probably the main thing I like about the band. (And this is one of my favourite video concepts, too.)