Friday, 30 November 2007

Campaign Socialists

George Orwell's observation that "in a prosperous country, left-wing politics are always partly humbug" has special resonance for two former Young Turks, Peter Hain and Harriet Harman, rivals in Labour's recent deputy leadership campaign, who are currently embroiled in a scandal that may leave them with more time on their hands at the age of 57 than they really wanted.

Hain, the Work and Pensions Secretary, has fallen back on the old chestnut "administrative error" for his failure to register a campaign donation by Jon Mendelsohn, Labour's new chief fundraiser. Mendelsohn is himself in hot water for his knowledge of proxy donations made to Labour by David Abrahams, a property developer who claims to have shared a porridge or two with Gordon Brown, who in turn has forgotten sitting next to him at dinner.

Harman's impressive portfolio – Leader of the House of Commons, Lord Privy Seal, Minister for Women, Secretary of State for Equalities and Head of the Government Equalities Office – may not be enough to save her given she's pointing the finger at the Prime Minister's inner sanctum for her decision to accept an illegal donation from one of Abrahams' middlepersons (as I must call then in deference to Harman's moral sensibilities). Meanwhile, rumours continue to circulate that the lady lawyer failed to declare bank loans to the Electoral Commission as required by law.

Hain shot to fame as a teenage anti-apartheid protester in the late sixties/early seventies, while Harman, who stands to lose most as heir apparent to Gordon Brown, cut her teeth as a lawyer for the National Council for Civil Liberties. Sadly, all other things being equal, it appears her career may be cut short on account of financial liberties she may, or may not, have taken.

With all of this kerfuffle (as Andy's mate Lou would put it), the Tories have opened an 11-point lead over Labour. However, the only certainty in this whole silly business is that they'll have blown it by the time the next general election comes along.

Thursday, 29 November 2007

Enhancing Your Ideas-Hub

As anyone who has had to conduct interviews recently will know, from Sunday, the Kowloon Canton Railway will be no more. While assorted marketing, accounts, purchasing, PR and HR types have been making their presence felt in meetings rooms up and down the territory, as they prepare for life without Michael Tien (the sibling who got the brain cell), the editorial team of the sleep-inducing corporate magazine, Trackrecord, which makes the letters page of the SCMP look like Pulitzer material, have been as busy as the band members on the Titanic.

To the strains of "Nearer My God To Thee", which, it is rumoured, lulls Sir Donald to sleep each night in Government House after his nurse has tucked him up and put the toys back in the cot, the Trackrecord team have produced their very last issue, which landed on my desk this morning along with a giant poster from the Community Chest, of which more later.

There were the obligatory photos of gormless looking "artistes" wearing fancy hats, striking unusual poses and doing strange things with their fingers, of unhappy looking piglets with burnt ears and glacé cherries where the eyes should have been, and of members of the KCR Volunteer Team assembling of a Saturday afternoon so that group photo shots could be taken with members in the crouch position so beloved of Hong Kongers, even when there's no one behind you and so no reason to stoop and stick your bum out.

But, as with many aspects of life, "no reason" is what Hong Kong does best. It is truly Hong Kong's advantage, its added value, what makes it stand apart from places where old-fashioned research and development, planning, and sensible decision-making keep people in their box, rather than cavorting around outside it, like Donald trying to find his toys.

What particularly caught my eye was a computer virus that hadn't been picked up by the editor, which had resulted in the word "enhance" creeping into every article and caption. Outgoing septuagenarian CEO James Blake, still looking like the cat who got the cream nearly two years after becoming top honcho when his predecessor fell on his own sword attempting to take on the Tsang/Tien axis, was the first victim of the virus, reduced to muttering vaguely about the "endeavours of the past decade…enhancing the KCR's convenience to the many who travel by rail between Hong Kong and southern China…"

The same virus had spread right up to the border with China (or "boundary with Shenzhen" if you want to appear to be politically correct) as several species of dragonflies were captured on film trying to escape from the "Lok Ma Chau Ecological Enhancement Area".

Not to be outdone, a Trojan Horse had insinuated its way into another article, turning what had once been a straightforward piece about a staff suggestion scheme into some gibberish about "Business Process Improvement Project Competition cum Ideas-Hub Recognition Gathering".

Meanwhile, a worm had tunnelled into KCR Head Office and was allowing malicious users to control the magazine remotely, as the centrespread had been hijacked by a directive to staff to "don the same look" on "Dress A-like Day" by wearing the same T-shirt. According to the Co-chairman of the Progressive Integration Topics Coordination Team (it's impossible to make this up), this will "generate a highly remarkable team spirit". Not half! But who gets to keep the T-shirt?

After this, you'd think the Chest poster would come as something of a letdown. Not a bit of it. For a measly $88,000, you can become the proud possessor of one of those new indestructible ten dollar bills,
which the canny Chest cleverly disguises as "Violet" in its innovative eight-colour schematic representation of the rainbow http://www.commchest.org/eng/event.cfm?no=111

For those who don't know, the ugliness of the ten dollar note prompted people to tear it up rather than be caught in possession of one. Instead of redesigning it to blend in with the pleasing 20, 50, 100, 500 and 1000 dollar notes, though, the Progressive and Integrative types at the Hong Kong Monetary Authority emerged from their Ideas-Hub with the revolutionary idea of keeping it exactly the same, but with a porthole where once there'd been a white space.

All proceeds from the auctioning of the 11 notes with lucky serial numbers up for grabs in the "Supreme Series" ($88,000 is just the reserve price, I'm afraid) will go to "enhance (naturally) the Services for the Mentally Handicapped". Just how many employees of the KCRC and the HKMA qualify to reap the benefits of the scheme is not yet known.

Wednesday, 28 November 2007

Your Startus for Ten

Today was one of those rare occasions when I checked my gmail account, specially opened to accompany this blog. Today also turned out to be one of those even rarer occasions when I had something in the Inbox.

It turned out to be a genuine question concerning the revamped Fumier blog. The writer wanted to know whether it should be called Fumier Resartus or Fumier Restartus, as it is styled by Hemlock. After all, as "andy_a15" wrote, it has just been restarted but can a blogger actually misspell his own blog? (Ah, Andy, do not overestimate the intelligence of the average blogger. Some, I'm afraid to say, make the discourse on Icered look like a meeting of the Inklings.)

Since this might be one of those questions that everyone wants to ask but are too shy to be the first, in case they look stupid, let me throw it open, in the hope that the great man himself will clear it up. Of course, Fumier might want to have his say as well, which would be splendid.

MTR's Drivers of Difference

I feel strangely empowered this morning. It appears that someone at the BBC pays attention to what I say, which puts them up there in the pantheon with my daughter when aged seven (I was the subject of a short, but excellent, piece entitled "The most interesting person I know") and the security guard at work who thinks I'm an authority on absolutely everything because I can speak some Cantonese and know that Fei Fei used to be married to Cheng Siu Chau.

Anyway, I noticed yesterday evening after I had once again beaten both Weakest Link finalists in the head-to-head that the voiceover link promoting the fare on offer for the rest of the night had been changed as per my recommendation. Previously, they had this ludicrous system whereby the first programme following the Weakest Link was introduced as "Coming up", the second as "Next" and the third as "Later".

Now, as any self-respecting former MTR driver will tell you, "next" and "coming" have the same meaning. Cast your mind back to the halcyon days when you had real, live announcements on the trains, not this monotonous, recorded rubbish.

You'd never know if you were going to get someone like my father-in-law, who'd never studied English and had to give the bride away reading from cue-cards where the English had been rendered in Chinese characters more or less bearing the required sound. Thus, "Welcome, ladies and gentlemen" became "Wai hong lai ding aang je tou mun" – or something like that.

My favourite was the chap who was new (one hoped) and keen as mustard. He was determined to give passengers their money's worth on every announcement. Even if the destination was indecipherable, it still sounded as if it would be fun to visit. "Coming stayshun Amorty!"

Such was the desire of the keen ones to come up with something different (to "add value", I suppose, in today's parlance) that they would even change the names of stations where the English name was the Chinese name. Thus, Tsuen Wan would metamorphose into "Tsuen Wen", while the sky was the limit for Tsim Sha Tsui, with "Shim Sha Shui" a particular favourite.

The variants on "Please mind the doors" were legion and legendary. Tempo varied from largo ("Preaze-ie mine the doors") to prestissimo ("Pre-mi-dor"), but, whoever supplied the voice, the doors were always to be mined. Some spoilsport, grasping the difficulty of spitting out consonant clusters with final plosive, asked permission of his bosses at Kowloon Bay to use "Please stand clear of the doors" instead, and the sissies agreed. One can pretty much trace the decline of the railways to this fateful decision. Televisions in the carriages and signs telling people not to walk on the escalators were just a government API away.

After 85 years of operation, the BBC have finally cottoned onto what every Hong Konger learns at primary school, and have revised their rubric for continuity folk accordingly. In place of "Coming up", "Next" and "Later", yesterday we had "Next", "Then" and "Later". Needless to say, the programmes were still the same old crap.

Tuesday, 27 November 2007

2007 Fumier Award for Driving

It's been a keenly contested contest, but in the end the winner was, predictably enough, a silver Mercedes Benz driven by a woman using a mobile phone.

Out of the hundreds of entries received, this one stood out in every category: Lack of Concentration, Lack of Awareness, Lack of Consideration, Feverish Impatience, Bigshot Syndrome, Post-Accident Performance, and Sheer Stupidity.

It started as a typical everyday Hong Kong scenario: traffic on slip-road joining traffic on main road from the left. It developed in the typical Hong Kong fashion: vehicles on the slip-road trying to get ahead of as many vehicles on the main road as possible by rushing to the point where the lanes converge and then darting in.

The denouement, however, was anything but typical. The diminutive Mercedes lady, who carried on a conversation on her hand-held mobile phone throughout, got her angles wrong, and when the taxi driver declined to give way to her, simply drove into the cones.

The best bit was yet to come, as she leapt out of her car – causing the triad van behind the taxi to swerve and then strike up the first chord in what quickly became the ever popular Hong Kong Horn Symphony – still holding her mobile in her left hand, and started jumping up and up, shouting at the taxi driver to stop.

By the way, love, if you're reading this, you need to fix your offside headlight. Now I've got your attention, there's actually no need to have your headlights on in the middle of the day. Or your fog lights, for that matter.

Monday, 26 November 2007

Blue is the Colour

Yesterday was Japan Cup day. Probably not a lot of people know that – even in Japan. This blue ribbon occasion had not, though, escaped the attention of an old Australian friend, who descended on us at the weekend desperate to escape his country's general election. "I found myself between a Rudd and a Howard place, mate" was the best he could come up with after having all that time to think of something better on his 10-hour flight from Sydney.

Like many Australians, Roy is actually from New Zealand originally. Like many Australians, he has travelled extensively in Europe (Earl's Court) and Asia (nearly everywhere in Thailand). He also put in a stint in Tokyo, where he was able to indulge his great passion for throwing away his money on temperamental animals that strut around parade rings.

But what really attracted him to the Sport of Kings wasn't the owners and the hangers-on, nor even the jockeys, but their mounts, as racehorses are, slightly worryingly to my mind, referred to by racing types. "Twelve hundred pounds of raw power, mate! Can't beat it." Well, I suppose you could try, but with their fearsome kick and a disposition that makes Russell Crowe look like a choirboy, you'd be well advised to keep your whip tucked in your belt.

Roy was keen to place a bet on the race, having been told by a bloke on the plane that "Pop Rock" was a dead cert. After breakfast, I pointed him in the direction of the local gambling den and wished him good luck. "Don't believe in luck, mate," he grinned back at me, his grin quickly turning to a leer as he caught a glimpse of someone in a skirt behind me. "Geez! Fitter than a butcher's dog. You're a lucky bastard living here!"

I scarcely had time to return home, tip my daughter's Black Eyed Peas rubbish out of the CD player and replace it with Bach's Goldberg Variations when the phone rang. It was Roy. There was an emergency. Could I come and help?

When I got to the Jockey Club, Roy was nowhere to be seen. I finally found him outside chatting away with a couple of off-duty Filipino maids and giving them his card. Having managed to attract his attention, I asked him what the matter was.

"That's the point, mate," he replied. "No idea. They won't accept my ticket."

I asked him to let me have a look. Everything seemed in order, which left me puzzled. But I'm not one to let puzzlement get in the way of an opportunity for a good piss-take.

"Did you show them any ID, Roy?" I asked.

"No, mate. Isn't my money good enough for them?"

"It's policy, Roy. Foreigners need to show proof of identity. There's been a lot of problems with syndicates taking the Jockey Club to the cleaners. Mostly run by Aussies."

Roy fumbled in his hip pocket for his passport.

"This do, mate?" he asked, his bravado noticeably ebbing.

"That should be fine. Let's get back in line."

Five minutes later and "part-time staff" Wanda Wong was raising her right arm at us in that peculiar way beloved of Jockey Club staff.

"What's the problem with this ticket?" I asked in Cantonese, having flashed Roy's passport at her.

Wanda ran it through the machine, which spat it back out immediately, like a Sydneysider served a warm beer.

"Black colour no good," she replied in English. "Must use blue colour."

She took a fresh ticket, picked up a blue biro, waved it towards us to make sure we got the point and copied out Roy's ticket, holding it up behind the glass window so Roy could check it was in order.

"Gee, mate, looks the same to me."

Roy's face was a picture. Part of me wanted to keep this going, but the other part wanted to get back to Glenn Gould.

"That's the point, Roy. You filled it out fine, but the computer couldn't read it because it was in black. The lady here's written it out again for you in blue."

Prompted by an angry and still rather bemused Australian, I asked Wanda why they didn't put signs up telling customers they should use blue pens, not black ones.

"You can use the pens over there," was her response, pointing to a counter with a couple of blue ballpoint pens tethered by a mass of rubber bands. "They are blue colour."

They say every cloud has a silver lining and this one certainly did. Roy spent the rest of the day before catching the ferry to Macau calling up all his friends to tell them his latest story. From time to time, snippets would drift in from his room.

"Can you believe it?…no, won't take black, mate…best-selling colour in the world…right-royal fuck-up…didn't test the system properly…nah, won't change it…Jockey Club tells staff to tell you to use blue biros instead…can you believe it?"

"Pop Rock" was beaten a head, but Roy declined to collect his place money.

"I'm keeping this, mate," he boomed, holding up his ticket, his habitual brio restored. "Gonna get it framed when I get back to Parramatta!"

Friday, 23 November 2007

Taking it to the Limit

With the sexagenarian Eagles' latest offering – purchased in a moment of weakness by my wife – playing on the Blaupunkt, I turned into the office car park in bright and breezy mood early this morning. Having turned the headlights off so that the camera could read my registration number (you'd have thought someone would have worked this one out), I started the ascent to my berth on the fourth floor only to be confronted by a glistening new sign. In fact, as I continued on my way up the ramp, I was confronted with a whole series of the things, each telling me the same thing. I was prohibited from going more than 5 kmh.

Aware of how seriously new initiatives are taken in my company (we once had an "Innovation Architects" programme), after reaching the first floor I decided I would travel at the appointed speed. Two difficulties presented themselves, neither as formidable, though, as the one I was to encounter later on my journey.

First came the sleeping policemen. There are two of these, spaced only a few yards apart, and they're quite severe. The upshot was that my car just about got over the first one but lost so much speed (well, everything is relative, as Einstein pointed out) that it failed to negotiate the second. I reversed and had another go. This time I'm glad to say I made it, nursing my car over the obstacle like a Grand National runner that's refused at the Chair first time round, but only at the cost of inching up to 9 kmh.

I looked around sheepishly, in case a security guard should appear, as they are wont to do. This time I seemed to have got away with it, although the cameras may have picked it up. If that were the case, I'd have to rely on the guy in the CCTV control room being occupied in the racing pages of Sing Pao Daily News or popping out to refill his mug from the communal tea flask.

The second problem was that I began to lose concentration as I negotiated what used to be a short journey but had now taken on the proportions of traversing the Mulsanne straight at Le Mans in a tractor. I'd never before had the experience of a cleaning lady overtaking me with her bucket and sponges as she moved from one director's Mercedes to the next.

But all these were just hiccoughs compared to the difficulty I faced when time finally came to exit the straight. Rather like someone cycling for the first time along a road they've driven many times before, I'd never realised before just how steep the ramp up from the first to the second floor was.

I'm not entirely convinced that the committee (it must have been a committee – individuals are seldom that stupid) which had decreed the 5 kmh speed limit had taken the simple, but worthwhile, expedient of a test run before issuing their edict. If so, it's possible that they were driving one of the company's Toyota Echos and had stalled at the first judder bar and gone no further.

Anyway, there I was in a position that would not be recommended by the road safety council of keeping my eye not on the road but on the speedometer. At first, the natural deceleration into the bend had brought my speed down to 4 kmh, but as the gradient kicked in my Institute of Advanced Motoring training took over and I depressed the accelerator.

Big mistake! Before I knew it the needle was hovering around the 10 kmh mark and I was doing the equivalent of 220 kmh on the Lantau Link. I nervously checked my rear-view mirror but once more I had got away with it. What's more, this part of the car park, having no parking spaces, isn't served by CCTV. My luck was clearly in. I resolved to send the servant to buy a couple of Mark Six tickets from the Whitty Street Jockey Club branch. Heck, she could get one for herself!

Not much more than five minutes later and I was reversing into my space opposite the lift lobby on the fourth floor. Wiping the sweat from my brow, I strode over and pressed the "Up" button. I only had to wait 30 seconds before the lift arrived. Bonny, the security guard, tipped his hat to me as I got in.

"Morning, sir" he said, looking rather serious.

"Morning, Bonny," I replied cheerily.

"Do you know speed limit of five kilometres has been implement?"

"Indeed, couldn't help noticing the new signs," I replied.

"Sorry, sir, but you were found to be doing 13 kilometres."

"Impossible," I replied. "I was watching the speedometer like a hawk all the way."

"On fourth floor, sir. Reversing into Parking Space 418."

Will they make me write a self-criticism? Worse still, will they make me listen to "Hotel California" on endless loop?

Thursday, 22 November 2007

Art Concealing Art

My trip down memory lane with Clive James's television criticism pieces from yesteryear's Observer continues to throw up interesting tidbits. I can't say I watched too many South Bank Shows with Melvyn Bragg, but an interview with Gore Vidal from the spring of 1981 would have been worth tuning into.

It is a testimony to my ignorance that my knowledge of the American is limited to his role as screenwriter on Ben Hur. Like Andy Warhol, Mata Hari or Randy van Warmer, from the moment his parents christened him, Gore Vidal was destined to be more famous for his name - suggesting a hairstylist with a particularly sharp pair of scissors - than for his accomplishments.

One of his undoubted achievements, though, was to tell Melvyn, who knew a thing or two about writing himself, as evidenced by his excellent novel The Maid of Buttermere (a lake that will never shake off for me its associations with invisibility after a saturated caravan holiday there in 1969) that "Write about what you know" is the advice we give to people who shouldn't be writing at all.

"What he meant," adds James, "was that writers without the capacity to imagine won't be very interesting even when reporting their direct experience, no matter how bizarre." Reading this, I had the same kind of jolt I used to get when reading Hillaire Belloc's Cautionary Tales for Children, which was this child's reading material of choice from the limited selection beside the throne in the downstairs cloakroom, pipping Horse and Hound and the 1946 Wisden Cricket Almanac. Which snotty-nosed prep school brat could resist stories of children eaten by lions or boys firing loaded guns at their sisters?

Founder and CEO of Amazon.com he might be, but Jeff Bezos might benefit from Vidal's advice if his latest "letter to customers" is anything to go by. The kindest thing one can say is that Jeff writes like the guy with a degree in computer science and electrical engineering that he is, as he attempts to sell his corporation's latest product, the strangely named Kindle, which conjures up images of a fugitive on the run from a sexologist:

"Dear Customers

I love slipping into a comfortable chair for a long read – as I relax into the chair, I also relax into the author's words, stories, and ideas. The physical book is so elegant that the artifact itself disappears into the background. The paper, glue, ink, and stitching that make up the book vanish, and what remains is the author's world."

One of the qualities that sets a domesticated blogger apart from the strays is his or her imagination. That this needn't be an imagination of Wordsworthian proportions or even a strictly literary imagination is proved by two purveyors of the art based here in Hong Kong.

That Hemlock has managed to keep going six days a week for nearly six years is a tribute not just to his doggedness but also to the cast of characters and places he has dreamed up. As in any effective soap opera, we come to care about the comings and goings on the Mid-Levels escalator and the shenanigans at J-Peg Holdings. It just wouldn't be the same if Winky, instead of glaring at Hemlock across her congee at the Yung Kee Restaurant, shared a joke with him over a plate of bacon and eggs at DotCod. The reader comes with certain expectations and wants those expectations met. As in all good construction, the devil is in the details.

Yesterday, Hemlock was in particularly playful form, referring to the "flood of emails" he had received from readers in the 24 hours since he'd cast doubt on the identity of a letter writer to the Post he'd quoted the previous day.

Hemlock may have got the fan mail idea from veteran blogger Spike, whose former incarnation was memorably described by Hemlock as "Hong Kong's most tragic known case of priapsism" (which I had to look up). Last month I had a good chuckle at a post with the title "Sent by everyone in the world I know to me". Spike was referring to an e-card with the caption: "Sorry you're dissatisfied with your easy, high-paying job".

Maybe Spike should forward the card to Jeff Bezos. Anything to keep him the right side of the keyboard.

Wednesday, 21 November 2007

Oh Mary Don't You Weep



Norman's cryptic observation on the headgear in Peter Paul Pasolini's Decameron spurred me to chase it down. Awesome.

Too Much Attitood

The highlight of our televisual viewing is without doubt the re-runs of the BBC's Weakest Link. There's something for all the family. My 11-year-old is able to perfect her Anne Robinson impression and get high on the reaction she gets from her parents. My wife predicts with uncanny accuracy who the team will vote off next ("The bald one didn't bank"…"The woman who looks like Marjorie Dawes in Fat Fighters thought penguins live in the Arctic"). Then there's me, who never misses an opportunity to remind them that I set the record for correct answers in Radio Mercury's telephone quiz in 1986. (23, since you ask – I was floored by the question "What's a Suffolk punch?", to which, since I didn't know the answer, I responded, "Anyone from Norfolk", thus ensuring I went out in style.)

Running The Weakest Link close, though, is America's Next Top Model, which screens at 8.30pm on a Sunday. While Anne Robinson has to wear black gear to look dusky, the dusky Tyra Banks need wear nothing at all to set my pulse racing. In her days as a full-time model, she quite frequently did wear next to nothing, but these days as Executive Producer of possibly the world's most vacuous show, she manages to change outfits so often that she could give a run for his money to the redneck who appeared on America's Got Talent the night before.

This guy's talent was to change his wife's clothing behind a curtain in a nanosecond, which went down a treat with panellists David Hasselhoff and "Brandy". What makes America's Got Talent a cut above the average talent show is the presence of ex Daily Mirror editor Piers Morgan, who realised early on that working with two people with seven brain cells between them was bound to make him look a genius.

Of course, the English accent does no harm either, but the role that Piers, whose chief claim to fame as a hack was to be fired from the Mirror for authorising the publication of fake photographs of Iraqi prisoners being abused by British soldiers, has perfected is that of pantomime villain. When Piers is in full flow ("You're either deaf or you're dumb" he told the redneck), NBC's fellow in charge of holding up the commands "LAUGH!" and especially "BOO!" is made redundant. On Sunday, though, it looked for a moment that Security might need to be called in, when the redneck, with his wife beside him giving the Nancy Reagan stare of adoration, eyeballed Piers and told him "No one calls me dumb". You could hear a pin drop. This was pure theatre.

Back on America's Next Top Model, Tyra was giving her marching orders to the brightest, and prettiest (bar the incredible Lisa), girl still standing after the first three episodes. One of the things that Executive Producers have learned over the years is that these shows need variety: not in performance (these are typically so dire and so heavily edited that they take up little air-time), but in background. The hooman angle.

Thus, at the start of each series, there's always a fatty (she won't get kicked off until mid-way through), there's usually a clever one (as in going to college) and there's sometimes a "foreign" one (the Russian was runner-up last time, I believe). However hard they try, though, they can never seem to get an "Asian" on the show, using Asian in the American sense of Chinese/Korean/Japanese rather than in the British sense of Bangladeshi. I suggest they get in touch with Ron.

Someone who wasn't too busy studying to appear on this season's show was Jennifer, who we were continually reminded was from Yale (or "New Haven, Connecticut", as the caption rather more modestly put it). Cor! Phoarr! as Lieutenant George would have summed it up perfectly in Blackadder. How I wish I could shed a few years and play senior to her sophomore. The idea of a study group with Jennifer and Tyra stirred my creative juices to such an extent that I needed to have a lie-down. This meant I missed the final cull, when Tyra tells the girl who's been voted off by her panel of weirdos and has-beens (Twiggy) that she "must go and pack her bags", not of course before the obligatory hugs and tears.

When my daughter told me they'd jettisoned Jennifer, I was distraught. How come they hadn't got rid of the autistic one with the mole? What about the fatty? No, she repeated, Jennifer would be resuming her studies. Tyra told her that Twiggy had told her (and "Miss Jay" had agreed) that she had too much attitood.

No one – that's NO ONE – is allowed to outshine America's savviest ex top model.

Period.

Tuesday, 20 November 2007

Lest We Forget

I believe it was Clive James, the Australian critic and writer, who once said that the Japanese are so practised in conformity that even when they rebel, they all rebel together. Another clever chap, Alan Bennett, who wrote the thinking man's farce Habeas Corpus, once remarked that the British will forgive a man anything so long as he lives long enough.

Fortunately, James doesn't believe in this tosh. As television critic of the Observer for a mind-boggling ten years between 1972 and 1982, he produced essays so incisive and well written that they became best-sellers when published in three volumes in the early 80s. It's a measure of his skill as a writer that even today, 35 years after the first ones were written, you can read about programmes that you've either forgotten, or more probably, never saw, and still feel you're encountering something very special.

One of James's great gifts was the ability to be serious when he needed to be, despite his prodigious talent for amusing the reader. Another of his gifts was that he was never flippant. One of his particular targets were Nazis who got away with murder after the war and were never called to account. Chief among these targets was the despicable Albert Speer, Hitler's Minister for Armaments and War Production, who emerged from his 20 years not so hard labour in Spandau Prison to re-invent himself as everyone's favourite ex-Nazi.

In his column of 13 September 1981, "Speer checks out", James elevates TV criticism to levels seldom achieved, as he reflects on the death of this hideous man:

"Speer never made the mistake of saying there were no extermination camps. He said he didn't know about them. He impressed the gullible by declaring himself willing to accept responsibility for Nazi crimes even though he was not aware of their full scope. But as the man better informed about the Reich's industrial resources than anybody else including Hitler, Speer was in fact fully aware of the purpose and extent of the Final Solution and by pretending that he was not he did the opposite of accepting responsibility.

Speer cheated the rope, cheated the world and yet further insulted the shades of innocent millions. Those of us who live by our brains should remember his example, which serves to prove that intellect confers no automatic moral superiority. Otherwise we will meet him again in the Infernal regions, and be once more confronted with that look of puzzled concern, as if there were something difficult, ponderable and equivocal about the rights and wrongs of tearing children from their mothers' arms, piling their little shoes in heaps and pushing their twisted corpses into ovens."

In honour of all who suffered and out of respect for all who endeavour to stop us becoming indifferent to it, I will postpone my intended comments on the weekend's television until tomorrow.

Monday, 19 November 2007

Cultural Learnings and Tithes That Bind


If you haven't seen Borat, do. As an indictment of modern American culture it's worth any amount of earnest blogging commentary or pedantic discussion on message boards. It's also very funny.

Borat is the brainchild of Sacha Baron Cohen. Cohen, who like all tall comedians hails from Cambridge, also brought Ali G to the world. Until a year ago, I knew Ali G only from The Office BBC TV series, since this is the character Keith the morose accountant dresses up as on Red Nose Day.

Anyone wanting to see Ali G (a white guy who's trying to convince himself he's a "brotha") at his finest need only look up on youtube his interview with David and Victoria Beckham ("Little bit of a different vibe to Parkinson, eh?"), where the talk quickly gets round to a well-known football chant about Posh's sex life:

Ali G: Now there's a really insulting song that they sing about you. Have you heard it? What is the words?

Posh: I can't repeat that really, it's pretty insulting.

Ali G: (to Becks) But have you heard it?

Becks: No I haven't heard it.

Posh: Well what is it?

Ali G: Well I heard something, is it about you taking it up…

Posh: Oh yeah yeah, ok? It's Posh Spice… (leans forward and silently mouths "takes it up the arse")

Ali G: (loudly) So you take it up the arse!

Posh: No!

Ali G: That ain't an insult, that is the biggest compliment you can get!

Posh: You're just saying that cos you're a bit of a batty boy yourself.

Ali G: (leaning back in his chair) You is crossing dangerous territory!

Back to Borat, or Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan, the two scenes that encapsulate the woes of the "US and A" most powerfully are one with bigoted university students filmed in a motor-home and one in a charismatic church.

"Charismatic" is here used to refer to an assembly where people of all ages are encouraged to throw their arms in the arm shouting "Thank you, Jesus!", where middle-aged men are moved to take their paunches for a spin around the auditorium like a pack of whirling dervishes, and where men at the front (only men) indulge in an unorthodox style of prayer for penitents who've negotiated a path to the stage through the runners, uttering imprecations over them while simultaneously attempting to push them to the floor. It's perhaps redundant to note that two of the eminent members of the church are a congressman and a supreme court judge. This is not only the US and A, this is also The South.

After receiving assurances that Jesus loves his "retard brother" Pilo and even his neighbour Nursultan Tuyakbay ("Nobody loves him!"), Borat is pushed to the floor and rewarded with passage to Los Angeles aboard the church bus for his climactic (though not in the sense he was hoping for) meeting with Pamela Anderson.

Watching the on-screen shenanigans reminded me of a wacky "Christian" event that was taking place at the same time over at the white elephant that is called the Hong Kong Stadium. For some reason that will doubtless remain forever hidden from me, I had received an invitation to a Tagalog-only event run by one Mariano Zuniega Velarde, better known as Brother Mike.

According to wikipedia, this "Servant Leader" of the Philippine-based Catholic Charismatic El Shaddai movement, does a little better than the average domestic servant, being owner of Amvel Land Development Corporation, a real estate company and a television station.

His message is straightforward: give ten percent of what you earn to the Lord and He will return it to you tenfold. Sceptics and disgruntled former members see things a little differently, wondering whether Mikey's closeness to the Lord has not now given way to self-identification with Him.

Anyone wishing for an antidote to all this garbage could do worse than rent Pier Paolo Pasolini's Gospel according to Saint Matthew. He may have been a mixed-up fellow (the DVD documentary describes him as "atheist, Marxist and Catholic") but he was a poet who knew how to get a performance out of people wearing upside-down wastepaper baskets on their heads. Ultimately, the power of his product lies in the fact that he lets Jesus speak for himself, drawing, as fellow non-believer Johannes Brahms did in his masterly Requiem, all his dialogue only from the Bible.

Friday, 16 November 2007

Private Lessons

Joyce knows how to get a man to do what she wants – just take an interest. Needing only a hint of encouragement to clamber back on my soapbox, I will try to oblige by filling in the details of the steamy encounter in Trevelyan Cottage alluded to teasingly in the post before last.

Actually, this was the second time I had been snogged by a horny female. The first took place in our caravan when I was about 13. Unlike the Haileybury siren, I've forgotten the name of the woman who first taught me that the tongue could be used for more than just eating or talking, but she was our live-in help in the house.

Now, before you go racing ahead, I need to make it clear that she didn't live in with me. Also, she wasn't a busty Scandinavian blonde. She came earlier and her name was Petsi. Sadly, she was only with us for a month or two before returning to Sweden.

In those days, we used to take our caravan every year to Le Lavandou in the south of France for surf, sand and sex holidays. There was plenty of sand, the surf would get up if Le Mistral was blowing, which leaves us with the sex. This was provided by a copy of Harold Robbins's The Betsy, which had somehow found its way on board and whose spine was broken on the page where the grandfather character (later played by Laurence Olivier in his anything-to-pay-the-bills period) asks a hotel maid if she is French, and follows up with the immortal line, "Well, then, French it!"

However, my initiation didn't take place on the Côte d’Azur, but in the rather more prosaic surroundings of our driveway in Surrey. One hot summer's day I had retired to the caravan to do what all 13-year-old boys do in their long holidays. No, you're racing ahead again – I wasn't doing that. I was reading my copy of Shoot! (so you were close in a way) in my replica Manchester United shirt, on the back of which my mother had sewn the number 7, worn by my hero George Best. I was just killing time really before the coast was clear and I could go down to the bottom of the garden and smoke one of my father's Romeo y Julieta cigars.

I must have got through a couple of dozen of these over the years. I don't know whether my father noticed that his stock was being depleted, but I used to reckon that since Dad was a pipe man, he wouldn't really miss them anyway. I remember some were in boxes and others came in tubes. These were my favourites, but there was one problem with them: they were so big that they took about an hour to finish. My solution to this problem was to puff for all I was worth, pretty much non-stop. That's where the public school education came in handy – someone trained in bolting down their food on chip night to get to the top of the queue for seconds had a head start when it came to demolishing Cuba's finest health sticks.

Anyway, in came our helper without so much as a by-your-leave, and before I knew it she was pressed against me evidently in need of my help with her breathing.

Fast forward three years or so, and I enter the girls' house on some matter or other. I think nobody would expect me to remember that now. What I do recall, though, is that my business was not with my would-be seducer, who we shall call Martha, as she was like the sister who preferred action to contemplation.

While keen, naturally enough, to be discreet, I don't think it's telling tales out of school to say that she shared a surname with an alias once famously adopted by Odysseus in a story told in the world's first great novel, The Odyssey. Odysseus, who later changed his name to Ulysses so that James Joyce could write an interminable book about him with no punctuation, was a cunning fellow and when challenged by a giant for his name had replied "No one".

That's good writing by Homer, but like all good suspense writers he was of course working backwards from his denouement. In this case, the punch line came after Odysseus had blinded Polyphemus and escaped from the giant's cave by hanging onto the underside of his sheep, an art since perfected by Welshmen who like a little foreplay.

Fellow Cyclopes (or Cyclopses, if you're Greek isn't up to it) – who were obviously a compassionate lot – hear the screaming and drop by to ask what's going on. Polyphemus, whose no savage when it comes to oratory while in agony, replies, "Nobody is killing me either by treachery or brute violence!" Naturally enough, his mates beat a hasty retreat, thinking he must have been on the ouzo again or gone doolally from all those "It Pays to Increase Your Word Powers" he's been cutting out of Reader's Digest.

So, we're in the kitchen, whoever I want to talk to isn't there, and Martha asks me upstairs. To the dormitories. Now, as you might imagine, this was a big no-no, and any members of the opposite sex caught in situ, let alone in flagrante delicto, would be looking down the barrel of rustication, perhaps expulsion. Such was the allure of Martha that all the blood seemed to rush from my brain and I followed her up the stairs. Thirty seconds later and I was on my way down again, having had my tubes cleaned.

I struggled to concentrate in "Horsey" Smith's Latin class that afternoon. My mind was still pulsing with my Romeo y Julieta moment.

Thursday, 15 November 2007

Being Cary Grant

Writing about Haileybury yesterday got me all nostalgic. So many images – seemingly unrelated – came drifting back. Editing the House magazine, a role in which I fancied myself as a bit of a subversive, like an unpronounceable Dostoyevsky hero. Looking forward to Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, because these were the days you got chips for tea. Vesta curries. Endless Vesta curries cooked on the filthy single ring of the Junior Common room of a Sunday afternoon. Grabbing an eyeful of James Forrester's girlie magazines (can't remember which – it was never important somehow), which arrived in a brown paper package every month.

My favourite memory of all (if I might lapse into a whole catalogue of barely concealed self-promotion – unusual for a blog, I know) is my 18th birthday. By now I was a prefect – Second Head of School, in fact – and my birthday that year happened to fall on a Wednesday. Now, Wednesday was the evening all the prefects ate together on the balcony overlooking the school's magnificent dining room, a cavernous building with an enormous dome where two people could stand in the corners and whisper to each other across acres of space when it was empty.

What we most looked forward to on a Wednesday evening was the beer. There were jugs of the stuff. It being my birthday, I was toasted frequently and by the time we broke up I was fairly well oiled. That evening I was to take part in a debate against the local girls' school, Queenswood. Not only was I taking part, I had also come up with the topic that was finally agreed upon for debate: "A red under the bed is preferable to a skeleton in the cupboard". My schoolmate and I were to oppose the motion. I'd prepared something and was good to go, though a little unsteady on my feet.

Unfortunately, when we arrived there, it transpired that both sides had prepared the same side of the debate. Being a perfect gentleman, I offered to speak in defence of the motion. I reckoned, not without some cause, I think, that since it was such a ludicrous motion anyway, I could easily bluff my way through.

Looking back, sometimes I think I dreamed it all. I have no clear memories. Within an hour, we had won the debate by a landslide and I was being feted by scores of girls. Some of them may even have propositioned me, but I was so out of it by then that I would have been useless to any of them.

If anyone has seen Hitchcock's Thirty Nine Steps and/or its virtual remake North by Northwest, for the first and only time in my life I felt totally "in the zone", as if I was flying and could do no wrong. In the former, Robert Donat (innocent man…case of mistaken identity…on the run) addresses a political rally in the highlands and is mobbed by his audience after giving a rousing speech advocating social reform having been ushered onto the stage and introduced – mistakenly, I need hardly add (another case of mistaken identity) – as their prospective parliamentary candidate.

Cary Grant (my celluloid hero) reprised the role in North by Northwest. One scene has him entertaining and shocking in equal measure a blue-stocking auction audience as he tries – successfully, like Donat – to attract the attention of security in order to escape the more sinister attentions of conspirators bent on destroying freedom and replacing it with tyranny. Standard Hitchcock fare…and great fun.

When I sat down to write this, I meant to talk about Dicky Scott and his proclivity for underlining his Bible, but that will have to wait for another day.

Wednesday, 14 November 2007

Just Another Brick in the Foyer

After Merton College's revolutionary Paye-As-You-Eat fundraising scheme, my old school has got in on the act with a cunning plan of its own.

Haileybury is apparently now ranked 28th out of several hundred in the public school pop charts, The Times something-or-other, a statistic which the Headmaster, Stuart Wesley, twin brother of the late lamented Roger, the best friend an 18-year-old could have, is fond of quoting.

I'm not sure if anyone yet does rankings for passing-round-the-begging-bowl, but if so Hertford Heath's finest would surely achieve at least a podium finish.

I recently received a letter from the "Director of Development". "Development" seems a bit of a buzz word at present. My early morning tennis partner informed me after our workout that children at his school in Hong Kong had today off as it was "Teachers' Development Day". And there was I thinking that the way teachers developed was by teaching their pupils.

How hopelessly old-fashioned I have allowed myself to become was driven home the other day when my 11-year-old announced at dinner that she wouldn't be going to school the following day. When I enquired why, she said that there had been a swimming gala and teachers were taking the next day off to get over it. When I asked her how far they had swum, she gave me her Lizzie McGuire look and refused to talk to me for the rest of dinner, jabbering away in Cantonese to my wife, which suited me fine.

Back to my alma mater (or "almer mater", as Hemlock, who obviously didn't pay attention in Latin lessons, styles it). "Our plans are even bigger for the future", the Director of Development wrote rather ominously in the second paragraph. A new modern languages centre (MSC) was on the agenda. "We want to offer a multi-sensory approach to learning which will bring subjects to life."

The mind boggled. "This requires ambition and determination..." Not half, I thought. "Bringing subjects to life"? In my day, the limit of Ken "Scratch" Rimmer's ambition was to keep his charges awake.

Anyway, bottom-line, they want two and a half million quid. They'd already received a couple of grand, but how I could help was by "becoming involved in our buy-a-brick campaign". For a mere 50 pounds, they were offering alumni the opportunity to "personalise their brick" for display in the foyer of the MSC.

Now, I'm no great shakes as a mathematician, but I do possess a calculator, and this tells me that the foyer would need to be pretty big to handle 50,000 bricks. I guess one doesn't get to be Director of Development without an elementary grasp of logistics, as the lady held out the carrot of "permanent naming opportunities", which would enable the O.H. to live on in the memory long after his or her brick had crumbled in the foyer.

For a mere 125,000 pounds, I could have one of the six teaching rooms named after me, or, I suppose, all six of them if I were to win tonight's Triple Trio at Sha Tin. If I were feeling a little parsimonious, or had only got the Quinella in the opening Class 5 event, I could plump for a Language Assistant Room, which is being given away for 20 grand.

I haven't replied yet, as I'm weighing up my options. Call me an old snob, but the brick thing strikes me as the height of vulgarity, the very thing I thought the public schools stood against. On the other hand, the room thing has a certain cachet and appeals to my yearning for immortality, which has so far got me no further than a blog.

I will save hard, cut down on the Guinness, sell the car, resign from the club, take only package holidays from Hong Thai and quit the Daily Telegraph fantasy football league at the end of the season. I will take the Director up on her kind offer to name a room after "someone whose presence at Haileybury made an impact on my life".

I can see it now, "The Naughty Sixth Former Who Took Advantage of a Shy Member of the Upper Fifth and Gave Him the Snog of His Life Upstairs in Trevelyan Cottage Staff and Resources Room".

Tuesday, 13 November 2007

A Welcome near the Valley

On Sunday evening I went to the Academy for Performing Arts to listen to the Hong Kong Welsh Male Voice Choir. Since its formation in 1978, when, we were told, all 12 founding members were Welshmen good and true, the number of swarthy pitmen has dwindled, so that now only about a quarter of those decked out in garish scarlet at the weekend would qualify as leek-eaters.

If it sounds like a backhanded compliment to say that the highlights of the evening were the contributions of the students of the APA, then it should be added that they were outstanding and a credit to both the Dean of Music and the Head of Brass. The 16-year-old pianist, Rachel Cheung, was particularly impressive, imparting just the right amount of feeling into a Chopin Fantasie Polonaise, and resisting the temptation to go the whole Yundi Li.

The other standout performance was by the eight man small choir, who did a magical rendering of "Danny Boy", which for the record is neither Welsh nor Irish. Well, half Irish, as the lyrics that are sung to the tune Londonderry Air were written by Frederick Weatherly, an English lawyer who never actually visited Ireland.

That the full choir (around 45 strong) rose above the level of a bunch of blokes being tipped out of the pub at closing time was due in no small part to the conductor, who wisely chose very few pieces where the four parts had to sing in unison for long. For, counter-intuitive as it may seem, it's not singing in harmony that shows up amateurs most cruelly, but singing the tune together. There's always one who can't, see.

My own memories of Wales are mixed. I went on two cricket tours there in the 1980s, managing to hit the ball 90 yards (I paced it out afterwards) through the pavilion window at Drefach, near Llanelli. It was all to no avail, however, as their opener, a miner, came in and smashed the ball to all parts. He remains to this day the only cricketer I've ever seen bat without gloves.

The following year, we went and it rained all week. In the end, we managed just half a match – but what a half it was, with the home side, Pontarddulais, winning off the last ball, after their number eleven had been dropped at long on. Not only dropped, our fielder managed to shepherd the ball over the boundary rope for six.

That evening we had a bit of a party, it being our last night in the principality. Knowing that matters were likely to take a vocal turn at some point, I had prepared something for any members of our team who were still standing to sing along to. Appropriately enough, I had adapted that great Welsh hymn by the Williams brothers, Guide Me, Oh Thou Great Jehovah.

I've forgotten most of it with the passage of time – I do recall that "When I cross the verge of Jordan, bid my anxious fears subside" became "When I crossed the Bristol Channel, I saw floods and three landslides" – but I still remember the chorus. Instead of "Bread of heaven", the clubhouse was soon reverberating to strains of:

Rain in Swansea
Rain in Swansea
Rain from five till 'alf past four
Rain from five till 'alf past four.

Monday, 12 November 2007

Bombs Away

Went to Ma On Shan's best kept secret, the Crystal Harbour Restaurant, for yam cha on Saturday. Yes, okay, settle down, Ma On Shan is its own best kept secret, I know, but at this far-flung outpost of the Li empire you are virtually guaranteed a table as the place isn't located on any bus route and requires locals to walk at least five minutes from the nearest shopping mall.

The restaurant is really part of a dodgy hotel that caters for Mainlanders and visitors from abroad (I do so hate the appellation "foreigners") with pony tales and foreign accents. For this reason, they have stuck plaques in the khazis with the following message:

"Please not Pedal

Self-respect Personality"

They clearly don't want those dodgy Romanians and Kazaks squatting on the toilet bowl when making room for an extra cha siu bau or two.

Talking of bombs, Aaron Kwok, the most vocally-challenged of the Four Heavenly Kings, is being forced to put on extra shows at the Hong Kong Coliseum owing to the overwhelming demand to see him dance, lip-synch and change his clothes a dozen times. Consistent with the need to dress mutton up as lamb, the event has been called "Swiss Privilege Aaron Kwok de Show Reel Live in Concert 2007" (multiple "sics" and one big wretch in a paper bag).

I'm not sure I understand a word of that, which makes it consistent with Aaron's career, which has been built on lots of dry ice on stage and lots of hot air off it.

Saturday, 10 November 2007

Fools' Paradise

Gweipo's comment about the quality of articles in the Moaning Post has roused me from my Saturday morning ennui, diverting me, if briefly, from Wayne Rooney's ankle ligaments and prompting me to sound off once more.

Besides CS Lewis, I'm a bit of a fan of George Orwell. Someone who could write: "In a prosperous country, above all in an imperialist country, left-wing politics are always partly humbug. There can be no real reconstruction that would not lead to at least a temporary drop in the English standard of life, which is another way of saying that the majority of left-wing politicians and publicists are people who earn their living by demanding something that they don't genuinely want" is my sort of bloke.

Orwell also had much to say about the abuse of the English language, most notably in Nineteen Eighty-Four (Newspeak) and in essays such as "The politics of the English language". In the latter he talks about prefabricated phrases that will do your thinking for you. He cites examples from political writing, including a communist pamphlet and a letter to the "democratic socialist" weekly newspaper Tribune. He describes the staleness of imagery and the lack of precision that chacterise the authors' writing:

"The writer either has a meaning and cannot express it, or he inadvertently says something else, or he is almost indifferent as to whether his words mean anything or not. This mixture of vagueness and sheer incompetence is the most marked characteristic of modern English prose, and especially of any kind of political writing. As soon as certain topics are raised, the concrete melts into the abstract and no one seems able to think of turns of speech that are not hackneyed: prose consists less and less of words chosen for the sake of their meaning, and more and more of phrases tacked together like the sections of a prefabricated hen-house."

Opposite the Letters page this morning, an offering from the man charged with revitalising Hong Kong's institute for educating and training teachers, Anthony Cheung Bing Leung, demonstrates these deficiencies.

To be fair, one cannot blame Anthony for the headline "A creative boost", nor for the appalling cartoon (by "case", which seems somehow appropriate) showing a teacher in gown and mortarboard being innoculated by a technician dressed in a lab coat with 70s-style pockets. Even the byline "Hong Kong needs to cultivate originality and promote quality teaching to improve its competitiveness, writes Anthony Cheung" cannot properly be laid at Tony's door, as he doesn't actually use the word "originality" and this is not a direct quotation.

Nor does he use the word "cultivate", although he does use the derived noun "cultivation". Indeed, his sentence containing the word "cultivation" is promoted to what Simon (he of the World) tells me is called a breakout box: "A creative environment hinges not just on hardware but, more importantly, on the cultivation of the mind".

As many of greater wit and insight than me have pointed out, a shibboleth for determining whether one is dealing with a bullshitter or not is the simple, but ghastly, word "hub". Anyone who uses these three prefabricated letters gains automatic entry to one of Dante's circles. Tone qualifies in fact for Virgil's full tour of Hell since he shows no remorse for his first offence and wilfully sins a second time (not quoted here). He also manifestly rejoices in his transgressions, shamelessly using "leading edge" and even "pillars":

"Hong Kong's leading edge as an international financial and business hub lies in the 'efficiency enhancer' pillars of financial market sophistication and goods market efficiency."

CS Lewis was right when he said: "Any fool can write learned language: the vernacular's the real test."

If nothing else, Hong Kong is a fools' paradise.

Thursday, 8 November 2007

Vehicles Simultaneously Turning Left


This sign has recently appeared on the roadside near my office. Not only is the meaning not immediately obvious in English, it's just as unclear in Chinese. Being a man who enjoys a challenge, I set out to try and solve the riddle.

The sign is placed on a two-way single-carriageway road about 100 yards from a T-junction. This isn't a conventional T-junction, as traffic is two lanes one-way. But it's conventional enough in the sense that traffic on the other road can turn into the single-lane road.

At the T-junction hatch markings replace the solid white lines in the middle of the road to prevent a second line of cars pushing up and across into the other half of the road. Of course, some drivers still do this, but I've never seen two lorries attempt it.

My powers of deduction led me to believe that it was just such a manoeuvre which must have prompted this unique road sign. One container truck tried to muscle out another one, jack-knifed and held up traffic for two hours, causing tailbacks to the Cross-Harbour Tunnel.

I learned this morning that I wasn't so far out. The friendly chap on the front desk told me that a few months ago two trucks had gone head to head for the right to deliver their load of seafood first, hit each other, stopped to argue, and then been hit by a taxi.

The sensible response from the Highways Department, after discussions with the police, would have been to extend the hatch markings back 100 yards and put up a sign enforcing single-lane traffic. Instead, they have sent out a coded message to "professional" drivers announcing that anyone driving a vehicle less than six metres long is welcome to fight for pole position at the top of the road.

Minibus drivers throughout the territory will be licking their lips…

Wednesday, 7 November 2007

Killing People can be Disastrous

My eye was caught by a recent letter in the section of the local rag where it asks its readers to do for free the job its journalists should be doing for their salary. It's called the Talkback section, and it's very Hong Kong: nanny state meets spaceman. Each day a hack is required to put aside his pen and his passion for investigative journalism and put on a mortarboard and play headmaster, as he sets the paper's readers a couple of questions.

My recent favourite is "What should be done to encourage more backpackers to come to Hong Kong?", which predictably didn't last long, after one enlightened pupil came up with the correct answer in the shortest letter received by a newspaper since G.K. Chesterton answered the poser set by The Times "What is wrong with the world?" using just three letters "I am". Back to the backpackers, a correspondent from the Peak had obviously seen through her telescope the kind of things Antipodeans in singlets and thongs get up to at Chungking Mansions, as she wrote tersely, "Absolutely nothing".

A more recent homework assignment has been "How can driving behaviour in Hong Kong be improved?" This has prompted a flood of letters from what I come to think is one and the same person. The grounds of my suspicion are simple but conclusive: tucked away in each of his letters are references to places we have heard of before. There's Spring Garden Lane, the Hopewell Centre, the American Club at Tai Tam, and – the clincher – a yellow Saab convertible on Repulse Bay Road. Yes, you may be able to take fumier out of the blog, but no one can take the blog out of fumier. He's simply parasitised a corner of the Mourning Post.

His past campaigns have targeted some of the major scourges on our streets: SUV drivers who switch on their hazard lights when they slow down for traffic lights; taxi drivers who drive in the daytime with headlights and fog lights, and at night with just sidelights (one of which doesn't work); motorcyclists who have disabled the dipped setting on their headlights.

The latest battle in fumier's crusade to rid the world of people who drive as if they were taught at the Hong Kong School of Motoring has elicited a response from a Fanling citizen with the suitably no-nonsense name Samson Chan Yin Tung. Fines, penalty points, even prison are ineffective means for dealing with people who drive through red traffic lights, according to Samson. What they need is re-education. Samson's final paragraph gives unparalleled access into the mind of the special type of genius that is required to guarantee that your letter is published by one of the teachers at Asia's leading newspaper:

"Through civic education, they will come to realise that when they run a red light, it could have disastrous consequences because it could endanger the lives of other people. Once motorists come to realise this, their driving will improve."

You really can't argue with thinking at this level. After all, if Hong Kong employers came to realise that if you contract out your cleaning work, women who were previously earning 20 dollars an hour will now get paid ten dollars an hour, then of course they would keep the cleaning in-house and pay more. And if the bloke who walks into 7-Eleven as if he owns the place shouting "Marlboro!" at the top of his diseased lungs came to realise that the people who are waiting in the queue are valuable human beings, then naturally he would tuck in behind them and wait his turn.

Tuesday, 6 November 2007

Blogged down by Details

Bloggers are in the main, I suppose, more tiger than hyena. That is, they tend to be solitary creatures, even hunters. What they hunt may be fame. Thus, I recently read a letter in Hong Kong's apology for a newspaper in which the writer, a Filipino from Lantau Island, if I recall correctly, referenced "Hemlock", as in "as Hemlock says", obviously assuming that everyone in Hong Kong knows who Hemlock is. In this case, the Letters Editor also let this slip through, suggesting either that he considers Hemlock to be as famous as Bono, say, or Bus Uncle, or that he's lazy and doesn't do his job properly, or that he himself is Hemlock.

Anyway, it must give Hemlock a big kick when he sees his name being adduced in evidence by a politically aware former domestic helper now spliced to a western man and living in the Pearl River Delta. I don't know exactly how I'd feel if I saw my name quoted in a letter by, say, Peter Lok of Heng Fa Chuen or J. Garner of Kowloon, but I imagine the feeling would be right up there with making partner or getting a Valentine's card from an anonymous fan or being asked to have your photo taken for the club magazine ("Oh, no, really…not really photogenic at all…bit of a 5 o'clock shadow…well, if you insist"). How exactly I'd feel if I were quoted by Rudolf Voll or Elsie Tu is another matter entirely, but the fact is, as Oscar Wilde or Mark Twain once said, "There's only one thing worse than being talked about, and that's not being talked about".

Besides fame, bloggers may also hunt scalps. Now this will usually be other bloggers, of course. There are as far as I can tell two types of bloggers: the IT guys and the others. The IT guys consider themselves the originals, the true bloggers. As Henry V might have put it, if he had spent less time on his archery and more on his html coding:

"We few, we happy few, we band of bloggers;
For he today that shares his codes with me
Shall be my brother."

Sometimes, a blogger will hunt public figures. Typically, this takes the form of an elaborate ritual, a stylised dance, in which no blows ever actually land. It's a bit like the British House of Commons, where the Labour guy and the Tory guy pretend to hold each other in utter contempt, when everybody knows that, like the rest of us, it's their own side, those bastards who would do anything to further their own careers at the expense of their colleague's, that they hate with a vengeance.

Just occasionally, a blogger will become obsessed with a real-life public figure. (All bloggers, being solitary animals, are especially susceptible to obsessive behaviour. Bloggers who also write blog reviews are probably beyond clinical help.) But whereas for most of us blogging itself provides the outlet, the vent, that prevents us from going totally tonto, for a select group it becomes the channel for their schizoid behaviour, the Mr Hyde through whom they can convince themselves they are righting the world's wrongs by means of a never-ending crusade against one man. How many mildly abnormal individuals must have crossed the line to complete Cadbury's Fruit and Nutdom in their earnest determination to tell the world that George W. Bush is a liar and a moron. Whoever it was who quipped "Show me a normal person and I'll cure him" had a point, of course, but there is "different" and then there's "blogger-different".

The trouble with the crusading blogger is easily understood, even more easily predicted. As soon as anyone else (blogger or commenter, if he still allows comments) writes much the same thing as the blogger himself, the crusader faces a dilemma. (Well, it was a dilemma the first time it happened; after that, he never even thinks about it.) Should he agree with the other fellow, which would of course entail acknowledging him and validating him, or should he find fault with him, take him on, attack him? (Crusaders cannot just ignore.) The crusading blogger ends up like sacked policeman, Yaqub Khan, who spent more than a decade running a one-man campaign (well, one man and one woman, as he was assisted by Elsie Tu) to protest against his dismissal by the Royal Hong Kong Police Force.

I recall a diary (sounds better than "blog" somehow) entry by Hemlock some time ago in which he admitted to a mild form of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. He was cursed, as he put it, like TV detective Adrian Monk, to be continuously bombarded with needless details.

As the English language guy at J-Peg Holdings, Hemlock would certainly have recoiled Monk-like at a letter that landed on my desk the other day. Talking of tigers, it was from that most aggressive and feared of all government departments, the Environmental Protection Department. One wonders just who is doing the editing job for the EPD and whether Hemlock might not be advised to apply for the job. The letter itself was unremarkable ("captioned location" vying for supremacy with "above location", like two bloggers going head to head for regional winner of the World Blogger Awards). It was the address that had me twitching Monk-like and in danger of remission to full pedant mode. It read as follows:

10/F., Shatin Government Offices,
1 Sheung Wo Che Road,
Sha Tin, New Territories,
Hong Kong

It may be a god-forsaken place favoured by Toyota Echo drivers and lecturers at Hong Kong Polytechnic, it may become every Sunday the temporary home to 40,000 illiterate gamblers who are living examples of Dr Johnson's comment about the triumph of hope over experience, but surely the Hong Kong Government can make a decision on what to call the drained swamp?

Or is this their way of showing the public that thinking out of the box means more than wearing a T-shirt and jeans on Dress Casual Day, more than renaming Dress Casual Day "Dress Special Day"? It obviously means having alternative names for cities in the Special Administrative Region. I wonder if it also means calling themselves the Hongkong Government from time to time in demonstration of their commitment to innovation and creativity.

Monday, 5 November 2007

Policing the Nanny State

A CD called "Sing with the Hong Kong Philharmonic" recently landed on my desk. Not available in the shops, this glossy production features eight "sponsors" and "donors" of the Phil, each of whom paid a small fortune to book the orchestra as backing for their vocal talents.

For the record, the best warbler was one Ella Lau, who, besides the obligatory Mandarin song, did a very nice version of "On My Own" from Les Misérables. The role of show-off-in-chief was taken by Laurence Scofield, whose version of Se vuol ballare (literally, "If someone wants to dance") from Mozart's Marriage of Figaro would, I fear, have brought parties to an abrupt end rather than encouraging the good burghers of Seville and Salsburg to leave their huddles in the kitchen and get-on-down to the dance floor.

Scofield was obviously hungry for a few seconds more of fame, having already achieved 15 minutes of it when charged and subsequently acquitted of the Dickensian offence of keeping a disorderly house five years ago. Personally, I thought the shop he and his wife Brenda, now lecturing on "malefemaling" at Hong Kong University, established on Cochrane Street, Fetish Fashion, provided the perfect antidote to the growing homogenisation of our high streets, and showed true out-of-the-box thinking of the kind promoted by our Chief Executive.

Six undercover policemen who infiltrated two of the parties held in the house would appear to agree: one of them revealing to the court that he had agreed to being tied up on a wooden saddle and having his backside whipped and scratched. Whipped cream was also on the menu, a packed court was told by the young officer, who attended the magistracy wearing a uniform in place of, or perhaps on top of, the G-string he had favoured for his starring role in Brenda and Laurence's "Mixed Party" a year earlier.

One can only wonder what Camilo José Cela would have made of all this. I have this vision of a masked figure, black cape billowing behind him, stepping off the Mid-Levels escalator, with a Watson's Water Dispenser cradled under one arm and a nanny goat straining on a leash behind. I can also imagine that the assembled barristers, accountants and engineers, not to mention Hong Kong's finest, would be the ones bleating before the night was out.

Friday, 2 November 2007

Sleeping with the Enema

Armed with avid reader Norman's recommendation, I borrowed Journey to the Alcarria by Camilo Jose Cela from the library. It's a short, rather elegiac, description of a walking tour the author, originally from Galicia, took in 1946 through a little visited part of Spain just east of the capital in Guadalajara Province. Indeed, Cela chose the area because it represented to him quintessential Spain, far from the tourist track.

The book is full of commonplace encounters with local characters, ranging from mayors to travelling salesmen to simpletons, so it comes as quite a shock when one's reading of a bucolic scene on page 57 at rural Moranchel is interrupted by the following: "An adolescent goatherd and a member of his flock are sinning one of the oldest sins in the shade of a hawthorn tree blooming with tiny sweet-smelling flowers, white as orange blossoms."

That's the first and the last mention of bestiality in the book – it pops up, as it were, out of nowhere. Piqued by this almost French lack of embarrassment about taboo matters, I do a search for Cela. I am directed to a review of another of his books in the New York Times. The titles of the review "Death and Revenge in Spain's Backwoods" and of the book itself Mazurka for Two Dead Men get me worried that bestiality is only the tip of the iceberg and that necrophilia was the Spaniard's true passion. I'm not far wrong:

"Murder, child abuse, adultery, bestiality, rape, onanism – all occur regularly, but they are never called by such terms or by any others remotely like them. These acts are given the names they have in the language peasants and small-town people use with one another."

It's no surprise this fellow ran off with 1989's Nobel Prize for Literature from those repressed Scandinavians. (And who knows what the citizens of Europe's most northerly countries get up to during those long winter nights?)

Cela's wikipedia entry revealed a couple more interesting facts. First, his mother was English. I must admit at this point my mind began racing ahead and I found myself writing my own entry. "She was from Essex. Her future husband met her at Club Med in Torremolinos…"

I have to say the next revelation did nothing to alter this impression. "In his later years," wiki continues, "Cela was infamous for his boutades: he boasted in an TVE interview with Mercedes Milá about his capability to absorb a litre of water via his anus, offering to demonstrate. He had already scandalized Spanish society with his Diccionario Secreto, a dictionary of slang and taboo words."

If Albert Arnold Gore, Jr., can win the Nobel Prize for Peace for 90 minutes of self-promotional catharsis, then surely this guy's a shoe-in for a posthumous Peace Prize, having dedicated nearly 90 years to the cause?