Thursday, 31 July 2008

Defying Irresponsible Cliques

"Nothing is so unworthy of a civilized nation as allowing itself to be governed without opposition by an irresponsible clique that has yielded to base instinct. Who among us has any conception of the dimensions of shame that will befall us and our children when one day the veil has fallen from our eyes and the most horrible of crimes - crimes that infinitely out-distance every human measure - reach the light of day?" (leaflet printed by the White Rose resistance movement)

If you haven't yet seen the film Sophie Scholl: The Final Days about a few brave young Germans who opposed Hitler and the Nazis, it's worth a viewing. Scholl may truly be numbered among those "of whom the world was not worthy".

The book Defying Hitler, by another "good", or, in Sebastian Haffner's case, ordinary, German – he got out before his fate might be sealed – is mundane and low key, and all the more powerful and haunting for it.

All this makes our own unopposable, irresponsible governing clique that panders to its own base instincts look like small beer, but you can never be too careful. The road to serfdom is one along which the institutions, rather than being safeguarded, have been allowed through indifference and lack of courage to go to rack and ruin.

Wednesday, 30 July 2008

Poor Canucks

Having never visited either country and therefore having a mind blissful in its ignorance and completely free for prejudice, I've always thought of Canada as a large version of Norway. Lots of water, lots of trees, fairly strange people (the Mabelisms should carry a health warning).

What I hadn't realised until I opened the latest issue of Green Cross, the publication of the Occupational Safety & Health Council, was that Canadians were so poor. No wonder, then, that so many of them end up in Hong Kong.

This month's highlight is an interview with two academics from the Canadian National Institute of Disability Management and Research, Mr Wolfgang Zimmermann (did he invent the frame?) and Dr Garry Corbett (Ronnie's boy), especially this bit:

"According to Mr Zimmermann, 60% of disabled people in Canada live below the poverty line compared to 25% of able-bodied people."

I wonder what percentage of that 25% have Disabled Parking stickers?

Tuesday, 29 July 2008

Orange Horses

Sometimes, among all the smart alecky comments, biting satire and holier than thou pontifications, I think we bloggers, the self-appointed, slightly self-satisfied and thoroughly self-absorbed Conscience of the Community, do the powers-that-be we so love to vilify a disservice.

Several years ago now, the rulers of Hong Kong decided they would place fake horses painted in garish colours at strategic locations around the territory, like the orange one at the traffic lights opposite the Vocational Training College in Sha Tin.

To this end, the rulers approached the government and of course the government replied to the Hong Kong Jockey Club, "Sure, go ahead! Just make sure it looks really infantile and doesn't make us look stupid".

So, these things that looked like rocking horses without the rockers went up across Hong Kong. And we all laughed and sniggered and said, "What a bunch of wallies!" or, in Troika's case, something a bit stronger.

Then, yesterday evening, I looked out of my window and realised that the Jockey Club and their underlings in the government had been right all along. Actually, it was my daughter who first drew my attention to it.

"Daddy," she said (we're on pretty good terms at the moment), "there's an orange horse on the practice ground next to the Olympic Show Jumping and Dressage Venue." (She's very listener-centred when it comes to orientating her interlocutor to the exact location of the events she is describing.)

Taking a look through the binoculars, my reply was short and to the point.

"Fuck me – you're right."

"And so, then, were the Hong Kong Government," she retorted as quick as the flash of lightning that at that moment sent horse and rider scurrying for the stables, "which you are always mocking with your blogging friends."

Looking out towards Tate's Cairn, the whole sky was concealed by a thick orange blanket, each respirable suspended particulate twinkling at me like one of Job's comforters.

It takes guts to say "I was wrong" and it isn't as much fun as saying "Fuck me – you're right". But on occasions like these, I'm left scratching my head and wondering whether the big guns here aren't more augurs than the ogres we so love to portray them as being.

Maggie Thatcher, Your Boys Took A Hell of a Beating!

Small country, larger than life sports commentators. The Nordic theme continues (courtesy of a "soccer" fan among my readers) with Bjørge Lillelien's commentary after Norway beat England 2-1 in a qualifier for the 1982 World Cup. Who said Scandinavians are shy and reserved?

Very rough translation:

"We are the best in the world! We are best in the world! We have beaten England 2-1 in football! It is completely unbelievable! We have beaten England! England, birthplace of giants. Lord Nelson, Lord Beaverbrook, Sir Winston Churchill, Sir Anthony Eden, Clement Attlee, Henry Cooper, Lady Diana – we have beaten them all. We have beaten them all. Maggie Thatcher, can you hear me? Maggie Thatcher, your boys took a hell of a beating! Your boys took a hell of a beating!"

Lord Beaverbrook. Unbelievable.

Simply ... Norwegian.

Monday, 28 July 2008

Landing from the Midnight Sun

Amazingly popular though this blog is in Asia and the U.S. (posting that picture of a nude Amelie Mauresmo lookalike was the smartest move I ever made – proof that virtue is it's own reward, my motivation being purely artistic), I don't get that many visitors from Scandinavia.

Finland leads the way, with Norway second, most of the hits being recorded in the long winter months, when the denizens of Tromsø and Lapland desperately seek new ways to relieve the tension brought about by month after month of outer darkness, whaling and gnashing of teeth.

Sweden's a bit slow, as may be expected of a nation which produced the Saab and the fellow in Abba who looks like a monkey, while Iceland can be excused, along with the Faroe Isles, since they're awaiting their Internet connections. I'm not even sure the Faroes have electricity yet.

So when a gizmo flashed on the screen to offer congratulations on my tenth visitor from Norway, my initial euphoria quickly gave way to the humbling realisation that this was my first Scandinavian visitor since March. One Svolvaer doesn't make a summer.

The Northerner had, my gizmo informed me, arrived by means of a search for "review of "I Don't Want to Be Chinese Again". It's nice to know that Norway's most celebrated Hong Kong expat, Joe Chung, is as immune to vanity searches as the rest of us … with such excellent taste in websites too.

Friday, 25 July 2008

I Am Very Boring

They seat you very close together at Baby Blue, whither I repaired for luncheon yesterday wit' mae Dorothy Sayers, mon. Imph'm!

Sitting next to two people jabbering away in Cantonese isn't a problem when I'm reading, as I don't understand enough of what they're saying to be zeroed unwillingly to their conversation.

But yesterday was different. It wasn't only that the conversation taking place a yard from me was in English; the Chinese bird on the far side of the adjacent table was pretty damned hot.

At least, I imagined she was from the outline I was getting in my peripheral vision, my vision having been hampered by my having removed my specs to set about my reading. (Later, I was able to confirm her pulchritude when I put down my book, put on my glasses as casually and ungeekishly as I could and pretended to look at someone past her shoulder, flicking my eyes down to check her out on the way back. Sadly, our eyes didn't meet.)

The fellow she was with was an ugly bastard with a bald head and a goatee. He was also Canadian, liked hockey and worked in the media. All this I learned from his feeble attempts to impress a woman who clearly deserved better.

Now, in the way these things work, I had managed to catch a glimpse of this loser as I was being shown to my table, before I took off my Jacques Lamonts. And there was just the faintest glimmer of recognition. Putting the ugly mug together with all the biographical details he insisted on providing – much to my irritation (though not, it seemed, to his interlocutor's, who seemed to be lapping it all up) – I thought to myself, "I know this fellow. I'm sitting next to the Kevin Sinclair of sport."

It was towards the end of the meal that I caught the first snatch of conversation from the vision of beauty sitting on the diagonal.

"I am very boring," she said in an accent blending sophistication and vulnerability.

The Canadian was in his element, relishing the opportunity to discourse on a subject in which Canucks are undisputed world champions.

"No, you're not boring," he solemnly replied. "I wouldn't have come all this way to meet you for lunch if I didn't think you were interesting."

Imph'm, laddie, the lassie meant she was bored. Cantonese doesnae distinguish atween the twain.

Thursday, 24 July 2008

All Greek to Me

The bilingual magazine of the Hong Kong Public Relations Professionals' Association (PRPA) landed on my desk this morning. Adding value - as PR types say - to this month's issue was an article by Prof. Shannon A. Bowen called "Elite Executives in Issues Management: The Role of Ethical Paradigms in Decision Making".

That's a heading with quite a bit of food for thought. It contains words I'm not too fond of, like "issues" (why do Americans have to say "I have self-acceptance issues" when they mean "I can't stand myself"?), words I don't know what they mean, like "paradigms", words that annoy me for no discernible reason, like "executives", and words that I'm quite frankly rather ambivalent about, like "elite".

The problem with "elite" can be simply put. If other people don't consider me as belonging to an elite, then I get pretty miffed. And yet, when I hear the word used of other people, I go all egalitarian and think "Who the hell do they think they are?"

As for "ethical", I've always felt it to be a bit of a fudge word, used by people who're not straightforward enough to say "moral". The kind of word that American lawyers would have invented if Aristotle hadn't got there first.

My feelings about "ethical" are probably complicated by the fact that I have a book sitting on my shelves called Ethics written by A.C. Ewing for the Teach Yourself Books series. It's another of those books I borrowed from a library and never returned.

I never read it either. Lurking under the surface of my psyche was the repressed thought that I'd taught myself enough about ethics by not returning it in the first place.

Shannon presents three ethical paradigms that elite executives subscribe to. They are the material, the utilitarian and the deontological. Now, of course, anyone worth their salt is going to subscribe to the last named: it's got more syllables, it's Greek and no one knows what it means. Perfect for the modern executive whose idea of intellectual achievement is to carry a copy of The Economist into a business meeting.

Of course, as anyone with a Classical education will know, deontological is derived from two Greek words: the word for "tooth" (which can be spelt with an e, as in dentist, or with an o, as in orthodontist, or with both, as above) and logic.

So while the materialist is an egoist and the utilitarian an altruist, the deontologist understands instinctively that reading crappy academic papers in silly magazines is like pulling teeth and chucks the thing in the bin.

Wednesday, 23 July 2008

Goodness Gracious Me!

Reading Joyce's heart-rending self-criticism for inserting a typo into the name of an Indian lady called Aiya (or was it Wah? – anyway, something very Chinese), I was deeply moved. If Joycey is so guilt-ridden after transposing a vowel, I shudder to think what penance she would make for a really serious mistake, like filling in an expenses claim incorrectly.

Anyway, the Indian connection got me thinking about a junior tennis evening the other day when the two cricket clubs went head to head at my old stamping ground, Kowloon Cricket Club.

Having been poached by Hong Kong Cricket Club for an enormous signing-on fee, I was assured of a frosty reception from the Darksiders, and, indeed, no sooner had I set foot inside the lobby than I was told by the Filipino on the front desk that my Richie Benaud impression had been deleted from the club's Talent Night DVD by order of the Entertainment Committee.

Not best pleased, I led my team to the courts, where the opposition, comprising the cream of the local Sindhi community – the Asranis, Shahanis, Sukhanis and Biryanis – awaited us.

An hour or so into the action and Mr Biryani wandered in to see how his son, Chapati, was getting on. Playing at number six, he was struggling against one of our girls.

"You know," he said, "it's really just you know like important that the kids enjoy themselves."

"Oh, absolutely," I replied.

Little Biryani double faulted.

"Come on! Focus!" came the cry from beside me.

As if on cue, Chapati creamed a forehand return.

"YES! YES!" cried Biryani senior, getting to his feet and pumping his fist.

I went off to check on the players on the lower court. When I got back, Chapati was returning to the loneliness of the locker room, having just spoken with his dad.

"I've given him a real incentive, you know. I told him that when he's good enough he can play against me."

Tuesday, 22 July 2008

Dagoes and Niggers

That's a quote from Dorothy Sayers, of all people, from her Lord Peter Wimsey book Five Red Herrings.

It was first published in 1931 so I guess you can forgive her, but still I was rather shocked to come across this in her tale of shenanigans among the artistic community of Kirkcudbrightshire.

This is my first Sayers and the jury's still out. It's like reading Agatha Christie after she's been on a creative writing class. DLS takes her passion for providing details to the point of obsession. Can anyone except a train-spotter really be interested in train timetables to and from Stranraer (plus connections in all directions), or the way in which train tickets for bicycles were collected at the station and then stored in Glesgae?

To cap it all, her toff detective is remarkably unsympathetic, more Wimpsey than Wimsey.

I guess she was still struggling to find her niche in her early years, which were marked by extreme turbulence in her personal life. And detective stories always pay the bills.

Still well worth a read, her radio plays The Man Born To Be King caused a lot of controversy at the time (during the Second World War) because they had the disciples talking normal, like. Know what I mean?

Her predilection for giving her characters funny accents is given free rein in Five Red Herrings. One of the Scotch characters is always saying "Imph'm" (or something like that), which I can't work out at all, but all the assorted Scots are preferable (Did ye nae ken it?) to the Cockney chauffeur who keeps confusing the local MacPlod by h'aspirating every word 'e shouldn't and vice versa. Thus, Hammond (that's his name) becomes 'Ammond, but Arthur becomes h'Arthur.

Sayers's crowning achievement, or greatest crime, depending on which camp you belong to (and one gets the feeling with Sayers that critics are divided as much by personal predicament as by scholarly considerations - but what's new there?) was her translation of Dante's magnificent Divine Comedy for Penguin.

I don't know enough about Dante to pass judgement on Sayers's work, but, then again, the second of the three books, "Purgatorio", is so sublime that even me and me 'Arrap couldn't ruin it.

H'onest, guv!

Monday, 21 July 2008

So Afraid of Being Taken In That They Cannot Be Taken Out

"They have chosen cunning instead of belief. Their prison is only in their own minds, yet they are in that prison; and so afraid of being taken in that they cannot be taken out."

At first, these words put me in mind of the type of people who value smartness (as in "trickiness") - sing muk in Cantonese - as a quality to aspire to and to teach their children by example.

The type of people who fire their domestic helper just before they complete five years' service so they don't have to pay the statutory long service payment come to mind.

Then, as the bunch of jokers who call themselves Hong Kong's government react in the only way they know how (by tinkering) when everyone else points out that their latest brainwave would see them collectively sectioned in any other country, we can at least see where the people they pretend to represent get it from.

Cynically conceived without thought – with distinctly racist overtones (money was slashed from the wages of Filipinas and Indonesians to be funnelled into the retraining of Chinese women as maids, when even my two hamsters know that the number of Chinese women seeking retraining as cook/cleaners is less than the number of brain cells shared among Sir Donald Tsang and his groupies) – the foreign domestic helpers' levy merits one solution, and that is its termination.

Finally cottoning on to the fact that the original starting date for their masterplan (September) would result in a rash of termination of contracts, i.e. sackings, so that punters could save nearly ten grand, the Government have now announced that their latest madcap scheme will start in August.

What hope is there that these idiots will do the one sensible thing and abolish the loony levy?

About as much hope as Nero telling the Praetorian Guard to keep the Swan Vestas under lock and key while he's feeling a bit fragile and is likely to take it out on someone.

Separated by 2,000 years, 6,000 miles and about six inches in height, Nero and Don are united by the psychopath's need to fiddle while everyone else burns.

Friday, 18 July 2008

The Power of the Blog

It's moments like this that make it all worthwhile. Stung by my criticism of their lousy English, Dymocks – purveyors of beach holiday reading material extraordinaire – have responded by sending their e-flyer out again … with corrections.

The answer to their Carrie Bradshawesque question "Have you ever wondered why everybody these days seems to busy?" remains the same – "No" – but at least the revised version "Have you ever wondered why everybody is too busy these days?" is grammatical.

You'll notice too that they've taken the opportunity to dispel all doubt from their presupposition by removing "seems", while retaining the pervading air of banality and the aroma of Chinglish. "Too busy" to do what? "So busy" is what they mean.

A final change has been made to the subject heading, where the spotlight has shifted from the grub to Jamo, star of hit TV soap Monastery! - "Dymocks Booksellers Presents Lunch with Abbot Christopher Jamison" being ditched in favour of "Dymocks Booksellers Presents Abbot Christopher Jamison".

The Craving for Inequality

C.S. Lewis had a fair bit to say about the perils of equality, especially in education, where he saw it as a sop to resentment and envy. In his view, equality was like medicine ("I do not think that equality is one of those things (like wisdom or happiness) which are good simply in themselves and for their own sakes. I think it is in the same class as medicine, which is good because we are ill").

He also presented a very interesting defence of what he calls "ceremonial Monarchy" (his term for the type practised in the United Kingdom):

"We Britons should rejoice that we have contrived to reach much legal democracy (we still need more of the economic) without losing our ceremonial Monarchy. For there, right in the midst of our lives, is that which satisfies the craving for inequality, and acts as a permanent reminder that medicine is not food. Hence a man's reaction to Monarchy is a kind of test. Monarchy can easily be 'debunked'; but watch the faces, mark well the accents, of the debunkers. These are the men whose tap-root in Eden has been cut: whom no rumour of the polyphony, the dance, can reach - men to whom pebbles laid in a row are more beautiful than an arch. Yet even if they desire mere equality they cannot reach it. Where men are forbidden to honour a king they honour millionaires, athletes, or film-stars instead: even famous prostitutes or gangsters. For spiritual nature, like bodily nature, will be served; deny it food and it will gobble poison."

The whole thing (just 1,200-odd words – originally printed in The Spectator in 1943) is available here (pdf file).

Thursday, 17 July 2008

Eastern Hogwash

Clive James, multilingual Aussie know-all and friend of the great and the good, nailed Eastern mystic hogwash as well as he nailed Nazi leaders who said they didn't know what was happening to the Jews.

Here's another piece from his Observer TV column of the early 80s, in which he trains his sights on one Bhagwan Rajneesh, a bearded gentleman who ran an ashram in Poona:

"My own view is that human reason as we know it in the West is the only kind of thought there really is, and the Wisdom of the East, to the extent that it exists at all, is at least partly and perhaps largely responsible for the fact that India can't provide a decent living for the majority of its people."

I'm sure there are untouchables who'd go along with that.

Wednesday, 16 July 2008

To Bussy Too Give a Shyt

If you're one of those people who get mildly irritated with someone who's always saying they're busy (as my old teacher used to say, "If you want something done, ask a busy person"), you may be interested in a "literary lunch" with one Abbot Christopher Jamison.

This fellow, who turns out to be the latest in the long line of Australian exports to England, eventually found his way from Earl's Court to Worth Abbey in Sussex, a place best known for an outstanding performance of Elgar's Dream of Gerontius by the Weald Music Society of Crawley in 1984.

Jamo, who is billed on the email flyer I received from Dymock's as the star of "the hit TV series The Monastery", which like most hits, I'd never heard of, will be speaking – for a fee – to "those who are not sure what they believe, but are looking for spiritual space and peace" - at a price.

Reading this tosh, I was reminded of Clive James taking the mickey out of that old bore Bernard Levin, who was reduced to a state of quivering admiration when interviewing one of those Indian mystics that came off the conveyor belt quicker than an Austin Allegro in the 1970s.

The Sage of Srinigar, looking down his grey beard in that glassy-eyed way brought on by a lifetime spent preparing for retirement in a big house in Europe by taking his Vedic Vishwavidyalaya to Vidya Varadhi levels, listened in a trance-like state as Bernard asked him for the secret of serenity and contentment.

"My own guess," James writes, "was that the old boy had attained serenity through being careful to let other people do the worrying, but this might have been an unworthy reaction to the sage's line of chat, a stream of platitudes which might possibly have sounded more challenging in the original language."

As an alternative to getting rich by spouting hogwash while others look after all your daily needs, the other way to face down your responsibility to maintaining standards that set human beings apart from the other animals is to not give a damn.

This is the method favoured by Dymock's, whose contribution as booksellers to the literary improvement of the community is to kick their text off with the following ode to their own mediocrity:

"Have you ever wondered why everybody these days seems to busy?"

Tuesday, 15 July 2008

Bienvenue à Mon Blog!

Bienvenue à l'homme, ou la femme, qui est arrivé a mon blog pour faire des recherches sur "le sexe à gijon dans les asturies"!

J'espère que tu as beaucoup des tissus et une grande bouteille d' huile de bébé de Johnson.

Amuse-toi bien!

YouTube Comments

The TV series America's Got Talent is made by Piers Morgan. "Made" in the sense that he's often the only reason to watch it.

To this end, he has been blessed by fellow panellists so insipid that you could put Nury Vittachi on the panel and there'd be an immediate improvement. At least you know that when Nury makes a funny face at the camera bits of plastic won't start peeling off, as happens each time the mannequin called David Hasselhof drools over a female act (even if they're four of the fattest and ugliest bitches you've ever seen).

"Awesome! Incredible! Awesome!" he manages to gurgle from his pool of saliva as half of his nose caves in.

You'd have thought a fellow christened Piers Stefan Pughe-Morgan wouldn't need to make a name for himself, but he did anyway when in 2004 his Daily Mirror attempted to halt its slide into oblivion by publishing photographs of Iraqi prisoners being abused by the British Army.

Armed with all the resources of photoshop, who but an idiot would try to persuade cloth-capped, whippet-owning Mirror readers that our Tommies were capable of drilling Saddam's finest in the dark arts? Everyone knows that's the preserve of upper-class detritus like Max Mosley.

Still, it did Piers no harm at all, as he's wiped the carpet with everyone since his fall from grace, culminating in a knockout performance on the execrable Celebrity Apprentice, winning the hearts and souls of the kick-ass collective: Donald Trump, Donald Trump's midget mute son, Donald Trump's frigid hermaphrodite daughter and Donald Trump's bad hairpiece.

As regulars will know, I too like to encourage young talent. And, given that the bulk of this website is written by you the reader, what could be more appropriate than plugging a song by fellow "Welsh" chorister Ray Crooke, which is pretty damned long but nonetheless a paeon to the efforts of people like you, who enable me to write less by writing more.

Here's the chorus, in case you don't get that far:

YouTube comments
I see them every day
And I get a lot of pleasure
Reading what they say.
You can scrutinise and criticise
Cut me down to size, but hey!
I don't care. I like to share.
My songs won't go away.

Monday, 14 July 2008

Malfunction Indicator

Exhausted by my attempts to raise the tone of my ramblings by such expedients as googling the German word for name-dropping, I'm taking Troika's advice and reverting to Fumierian rubbish.

I ought to thank another local blogger Cantopopped (who carries the banner for the younger generation as a kind of Son-of-Fumier) for the inspiration for this morning's lame effort.

Mat's been droning on about driving in Hong Kong in a manner Fumier would be proud of, while getting in the obligatory references to Australia and "T". To save you reading it, in his latest post, T's driving back after having a latte with Mat at Festival Walk and asks Mat whether he should sell his Holden on the local second-hand market (piss poor as it is) or wait till they get back to Parramatta and trade it in for a white Audi TT.

I hope you enjoyed that, because my actual story is pretty average, as was proven when I told it in its oral version at a bloggers' meeting held in a secret location over the weekend. I'm not a liberty to say who was there, but they were each of them just as boring in real life as they are online. Which made the whole thing worthwhile as far as I was concerned, as it convinced me how incredibly witty and interesting I am.

Okay, then, the story. The other day a light came on in my car. Not the one that comes on when you open the door, but a little yellow icon on the dashboard display. I couldn't make head nor tail of the icon, which looked like an anvil, so, when I got home, I got the manufacturer's book out and looked it up. The anvil stood for a "Malfunction Indicator".

Here comes the funny bit. Instead of reading this as meaning there was some problem in the engine, I parsed it as meaning that the indicators weren't working. So, I stuck each indicator on in turn and got out of the car to check that they were working. Front and back.

They were, which was good news, at any rate. When I got home, the wife, who'd had a similar problem with her motor but sorted it out by phoning the mechanic, told me what a prat I'd been. I still wouldn't give in, and started a spiel about how "Malfunction Indicator" was ambiguous, ill-worded, non-user-friendly, etc. etc. until the words died on my lips because I knew I was losing this attempt to rationalise my idiocy big time.

Thoroughly depressed, I switched on the Australia Channel to catch the end of the New Zealand South Africa rugby match being played in Dunedin, where South Africa hadn't won since the Boer War, which, if I understand it correctly, they just shaded in extra time.

The All Blacks had fought back as always (except when they're at the World Cup) and looked as if they were going to win yet again, when suddenly up popped a tubby bloke with a shaved head calling himself Enrico Januarie. One moment of brilliance later, and it was all over.

My depression lifted faster than you could say "John Ashworth thought JPR's face was the football".

Friday, 11 July 2008

Our Parents' Lives Enthral Us

In his monumental collection of essays Cultural Amnesia, Clive James takes Namenserwähnung to a new level. By name-dropping in untranslated German, James appears keen to emulate some of the geniuses he describes as impervious to public perception of their work, and also to test the devotion of his fans.

And a fan I certainly am, especially of his television criticisms for the Observer (collected in three volumes covering 1972-1982). Not only is he unrelenting in his dismissiveness of any notion that top Nazis such as Albert Speer didn't know all about the murder of the Jews and other "undesirables", his aphorisms generally have the twin virtues of being valid and pithy. Take this one on Harold Pinter, author of the play that almost put one 16-year-old off the genre for life:

"What makes Pinter not just a post-war British playwright but a twentieth-century writer is the way he distils to an essence the characteristic modern political experience, which is to search, as if your life depended on it, for answers to questions that make no sense."

In the midst of the overpowering erudition and reminiscences of conversations struck up in Parisian cafés with European émigrés in four different languages, James has an excursus on books we read because they make us feel virtuous. Among these he includes Edmund Spenser's Faerie Queene, which made me feel even more virtuous than I did when I read it, for the reason that I actually enjoyed it, while he writes that he had to read it facing the window overlooking the street so that he could count the number of people on the upper deck of the bus to prevent himself nodding off.

Perhaps our different experience speaks of the difference between reading something as an undergraduate and as someone of middle years. Perhaps it also speaks of the difference between reading something because it's on a reading list and reading something because you've been led to it by a favourite and trusted author. (C.S. Lewis wrote some of his best essays on Spenser.)

I've just finished another book that Lewis put me onto, which wouldn't be on many people's list of must-reads. (Nor mine, to be honest – it was that sense of virtue which took me over the finishing line.)

But like all books of intrinsic merit, the prose work Centuries of Meditations (written by English priest and poet Thomas Traherne in the 1670s) contains many gems. Here is one that might resonate with quite a few people more than 300 years later:

"It is not our parents' loins, so much as our parents's lives, that enthralls and blinds us."

Thursday, 10 July 2008

Brown and Bush

I've been away from England too long to know much about Gordon Brown, who finally made it to Number Ten after a seemingly interminable time next door.

But I do know a bit about Wuthering Heights, a book I read in my Dad's blue leather Classics books-by-post edition when I was a teenager. I don't remember much about the book, but reckon I saw the film, which, if memory serves, starred Merle Oberon alongside Larry Olivier. (O, Larry, O Larry! O Raiph, O Raiph! O Johnny, O Johnny!) Larry's co-star's name was fixed in my mind because her name meant "swallow", which all seemed perfectly innocent to a public schoolboy.

It was while at school that I saw Raiph Richardson and Johnny Gielgud in a play by Harold Pinter, the name of which I have forgotten and which I couldn't understand head nor tail of. It was as a result of watching plays like this one and Marlowe's four-hour bore Tamburlaine the Great that I decided I was, as Tom in The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin would have said, not a play person, but a film person.

We've just finished watching the first two series of Reggie and I have to say it's special. It's unusual in that it seems to develop a momentum of its own and gets better as it goes on. The writer David Nobbs plays with the basic principle of good story telling: put an ordinary person in an extraordinary situation – think Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, which wouldn't work if Alice was eccentric or brilliant.

At first, the viewer thinks Nobbs has reversed the principle: an extraordinary person (Reggie) is put in an ordinary situation. Then, as if he's playing a game of three-person Uno, Nobbs reverses the principle again, as Reggie's eccentricities become predictable and scarcely (for him) eccentricities at all, while he works and thrives in an extraordinary environment – selling rubbish.

The caricaturish nature of the supporting players (CJ, "Great" and "Super") is counterbalanced by the growing awareness that Reggie's wife is just as nutty as Reggie himself, even though – perhaps, because – she's so normal. As the man said (if it wasn't Mark Twain, it should have been): "Show me a normal person and I'll cure him".

Faced with true comedy such as Reggie Perrin, Brown's attempts to secure a place for himself in the national consciousness as a brooding anti-hero seem pitiful and pathetic.

Thinking about it, the thing I most associate with Wuthering Heights is Kate Bush, who shot to fame in England by dressing up as a Goth on Top of the Pops and wailing. No one ever heard the words of the song – they were incidental, anyway, since it was all about atmosphere – but I always heard the chorus as "O Heathy, O Heathy, come back to me!"

Brown and Bush. Has a ring to it, doesn't it?

Wednesday, 9 July 2008

Book Fare

A question for the Leisure and Cultural Services Department of the Hong Kong Government. Would it be possible to send an email reminding borrowers to return books before the due date, as other libraries do, rather than two weeks after they're due?

Tuesday, 8 July 2008

Little Miss Sunshine

If, like me, you find beauty pageants for 4-year-olds a very sad reflection on the parents who need to obtain their self-esteem in this way, you probably enjoyed Little Miss Sunshine.

Here's the dance scene, where the excellent Abigail Breslin (just nine years old) satirises the whole sick scene. For parents who think it's perfectly acceptable to dress their five-year-olds up like hookers and think it's disgusting when a kid extends this fantasy in a perfectly logical direction.

Monday, 7 July 2008

Have You Heard the One about the Car Park?

My wife and daughter are great fans of local comedian Chim Sui Man, whose one-man show is currently playing to packed houses. He likes taking the rise out of Sir Donald Tsang, who keeps providing him with plenty of material, and satirising aspects of Hong Kong life such as talent shows and beauty pageants. Again, plenty of material.

Still on a comedic theme, my wife's currently reading a book by Joe Chung, a Hong Konger who married a Norwegian and settled in the former Danish colony. Written in Chinese, the title is translated on the frontispiece as I Don't Want to Be Chinese Again, although the literal translation – I Don't Want to Be Chinese in Another Life – is more telling.

One of the jokes he tells is rather good, I thought, and might brighten up your Monday morning.

A car park is built and different countries are given the opportunity to park there. The Germans go first and because they're very precise, they manage to park 100 cars. The Japanese have a go and they park 120 of their smaller cars. The Americans are next and they squeeze in 80 of their large automobiles. Finally, it's the Chinese turn, and they only manage to park two cars.

One at the entrance and one at the exit.

Friday, 4 July 2008

Michelle Pfeiffer Could Be My Woman

Since she burst onto the scene as Al Pacino's moll in Scarface – Brian de Palma's low-key cinematic exploration of social-moral issues facing Latino immigrants in Florida – I've always had a soft spot for Michelle Pfeiffer.

After proving that you can get away with walking around on the piano lid in high heels if you distract the pianist with a jazzy snatch, she reunited with Pacino in Frankie and Johnny playing a waitress with image issues. How I yearned to swap places with the ageing Italian and sow the seeds of self-esteem she so desperately needed!

She recently popped up on DVD in a delightful film called I Could Never Be Your Woman about an older woman who fancies a bit of raw youth. Even the presence of Tracey Ullman (does anyone find her funny?) can't ruin the film, which is stolen by the 11-year-old Irish actress with the unpronounceable name, Saoirse Ronan.

Thursday, 3 July 2008

Zheng Jie Nude

Well, bits of her.

I Welcome You to Stop Writing This Drivel

This morning I received a begging letter – nothing unusual there – which ended with the words: "We welcome you to contact us for information on our activities."

Actually, it didn't quite end there, as, like all good Hong Kong begging letters, it ended by looking forward to my positive response and thanking me for my cooperation in advance.

As I read this, I thought "Whatever happened to good old 'encourage' or 'invite'?", as in "We invite you to contact us …"

The answer to this conundrum came when I had cause to peruse a letter we were sending out to a charitable organisation who wanted us to pony up a staggering sum of cash.

"Thank you for your letter inviting us to take up Platinum Sponsorship at $100 million", read the draft.

Again I asked myself, "Why not good old 'ask'?", as in "Thank you for your letter asking us to take up …"

Linguistically, two, perhaps three, interesting things are happening here.

First, on a syntactic level, Hong Kongers have added "welcome" to the list of "telling" verbs that are followed by a noun or pronoun object and an infinitive with to.

Second, on a semantic level, the space previously occupied by ask has been colonised by invite, allowing the space once occupied by invite to be invaded by welcome.

Third, on the pragmatic level (in answer to the question beloved of all children everywhere and hated by all with a totalitarian bent – "Why?"), by using invite rather than ask, it appears that you're not actually requesting a favour from someone but doing them a favour.

Using the same kind of perverse logic, these people seem to think that if you use welcome rather than invite, you're actually greeting those who have already taken up your invitation.

Phoney and pernicious.

Wednesday, 2 July 2008

Zheng Zhecks Czech

With temperatures soaring to 27 degrees on Wimbledon's Number One Court and her sweat-stained top revealing more of her generous chest than intended, China's Zheng Jie continued her giant-killing run with a win over Nicole Vaidisova.

After just failing to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory in her previous matches, the 19-year-old Czech player finally managed it against the diminutive native of Chengdu, who now meets the younger of the Williams sisters in a mouth-watering semi-final.

With Serena more and more resembling the issue of a union between the Michelin Man and Xena Warrior Princess, Thursday's match is already being billed as the Battle of the Busts. Spectators are guaranteed plenty of game points, break points and set points – not to mention pencil-eraser points.

Vaidisova's cause was hardly helped by the presence in the players' box of boyfriend Radek Stepanek, who'd spent the time he's had off since being knocked out of the men's competition on Saturday honing his Homer Simpson impression. When you're Goliath staring down the barrel of David's sling, the last thing you need is some joker in a fur hat going "Doh!" each time you look up for advice on a close line call.

In the commentary box, the A-Team (Simon Reed, Lindsay Davenport and John McEnroe) who had done the preceding match between Venus and Tamarine Tanasugarn had gone off for a well-deserved cup of tea, leaving late-night viewers of STAR Sports with Barry Davies and … Virginia Wade.

Quite what Barry (who I first heard commentate on Match of the Day nearly 40 years ago) had done to deserve this I don't know, but if it's bad enough listening to Virginia in the privacy of your own sitting room – where you can at least hurl abuse at her – imagine what it must be like to be confined in close quarters with her for two hours.

The uninterrupted flow of psychobabble delivered in that droney voice was enough to have my 12-year-old Vaidisova-wannabe reaching for the sick bag. Would we Brits have cheered for Virginia all those years ago when she overcame big Betty Stove in the Queen's Silver Jubilee year if we had known the price we would have to pay when she retired and was rewarded with a microphone?

In the tournament for mispronouncing Chinese words, Virginia warmed up by lulling viewers into a false sense of security with a correct rendition of Chengdu before wrong-footing them by calling Sichuan "See-shwarn", following the lead given by BBC newsreaders who Frenchify the capital as "Beigeing".

Having got into her stride, Ginny was unstoppable, calling the Chinese player "Jeng", "Jong" and even "Ju-ong". Inevitably, the Swiss umpire got in on the act, trying out a number of variants before settling on the safest one – the one that covered both players: "Game, set and match, Miss Zheck".