Thursday, December 27, 2007

Reason to be jolly

I've been in Scotland for the last few days, and have, happily, largely managed to avoid the dispiriting experience of "the shops" before Christmas - except on Christmas Eve, unfortunately, where other feckless no-hopers who haven't, smugly, completed their shopping four years ago, roam like the Day of the Dead around John Lewis picking up gift sets. So much pressure, so little pleasure!

The high point for me was a walk along the beach at Gullane on Christmas Day in the sunshine, with a clear cold blue sky high above, pristine sand, and hardly anyone else around. In previous years I've been bent double walking along the same beach in high winds with a sandblaster etching at my face; but this year it was perfect.

Other small pleasures: biting the head off a chocolate Santa at 8am; shiny patent forties-style lace-ups going cheap in the Jenners sale; my sister's home made almond croissants; driving the enormous van we were given at Edinburgh airport ("Ah've given ye an upgrade to a bigger size for yer comfort", the woman behind the counter said mysteriously) at breakneck speed down country lanes; and watching The Big Sleep, with fish and chips and a few glasses of shiraz, curled up on my sister's couch on Boxing Day.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Ready to wear

I frequently mock myself as shallow, but my love of clothes - nice clothes - goes back a very long way: to my early childhood, probably, and dressing up in shiny fabrics and embroidered capes from the dressing-up box; but definitely before I was ten, because I remember going shoe shopping with my mum and being absolutely definite about the shoes I wanted, even though she thought the heels were a bit too high for me (they were brown leather with pale brown plastic wedges, decorated with raised ridges in a box pattern, from Clark's in Dalkeith). Sophisticated I might not have been, but I loved beauty.
I still like to walk around Lane Crawford touching all the clothes as I pass the racks, running my fingers down chiffon sleeves and across cashmere collars and satin bodices. That I could actually own beautiful clothes still seems like an impossible joy to me.

I grew up wearing clothes passed down by my older sister, or made by my mum, or bought in jumble sales, until I could afford to buy my own; and I always seemed to be wearing something that was too small, or made out of strange fabric, or patched, or had holes in it, or was really made for a boy. I longed to look the same as everyone else. The pain of being different; the pleasure of wearing something beautiful, of looking good: these things are intermingled.

My favourite era is the 1940s, and the style epitomised by Lauren Bacall. I don't know where this comes from, because I don't think my mum ever felt the same way as this about clothes, and my sister's style is quite different from mine.
The picture above is as close to perfection as you could possibly be.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Booked out

I hate to sound churlish (and after all, how good is my Chinese?), but one of the common amusements of expats in Asia is the poor standard of English spoken by people whose jobs have been given to them on the basis that they speak English. I frequently get emails in my inbox at work which clearly have not been read by a native speaker prior to sending. Today one arrived from a Shanghai-based online bookseller which contained the following remarks (emphasis added):

“As we’re embracing another X’mas here in China, we’re being puzzled by the same question: what holiday gift should I give to my family, friends, co-workers and customers? This year, you’ve got a new option. You can visit our cool and innovative website … to search for all the gem American English bestsellers for children, teenagers and businesspeople. Do you believe that we have most of the best known and best selling titles in such categories as children, business & investing, career development, self help and nonfiction? Do you believe that nearly 70% of these titles are not available from any other sales channel in China? … Our hardest core, however, is not the consulting piece, nor our selection, nor our logistic part. Our real core is our passion to make our customers happy at all cost.You may wonder how we deliver our promises. Do business with us once, you’ll know it. We’re a small company with big dream. We know we can’t compete with big guys on the # of items, but we can win by hugging our customers, providing them with more customer value and better customer experience.”

It’s hard to know where to start (and to be fair, you’ve got to admire their enthusiasm), but I draw the line at the idea of anyone “embracing X’mas” or being hugged by someone who is, after all, not my friend, but just someone trying to sell me a book, and a book like How to Make Friends and Influence People at that. Which reminds me of another classic faux pas by someone who came to see me in my office to try to offer some services to my company: halfway through the meeting he brought out, from his inside pocket, a copy of the self-same self-help title and brandished it, claiming that his wife made him read it once a month. How to Make Potential Business Partners Cringe and, Ulitimately, to Guarantee They Drop You Like a Hot Potato would have been more apposite.

Saturday, December 08, 2007

Strange fruit

When we were in Palau, we were out to dinner one night and S, a member of our group, ordered the Palauan delicacy, fruitbat. No one was quite sure what to expect, but when it arrived there was an indescribable shocked hush followed by uproar because it was, frankly, the most unnerving dish. The most astonishing thing was the lack of finesse in preparation: it looked as though they'd dunked the bat in hot water to cook it and then sploshed it in to the bowl with some coconut milk and a few desultory vegetables; and the hair, and the wings, were all still intact, with its little face, teeth bared,as well they might be, poking up above the water line.
Such was the commotion on the appearance of this dish that the restaurant staff looked somewhat affronted and I was suddenly cringeingly conscious of the fact that we were mocking what amounted to their national dish -
If you are squeamish, look away now
- but when S sliced off its face to eat the brain - and you have to give him credit for eating, at the end of the day, all the meat he could find on its little body - there was really no way to respond except with a kind of appalled gasp.
I took the photo above using S's camera. I'm pleased with it, under the circumstances, but I don't think I'll be selling it to Nigella for her next recipe book.

Friday, December 07, 2007

Friday, November 30, 2007

Bite the hand

I was in Singapore on Tuesday night to give a presentation to around 120 senior clients, or potential clients, who were, as usual, 95% male. Now, I always get hit on at these events – not, of course, because I’m any kind of goddess, but because certain sorts of men in Asia seem to think that western women are up for anything. My enthusiasm for my business and the promotion thereof has often been mistaken for interest of another kind. One old gimmer, who had once been someone very important in Australia, emailed me after one event to say he was going to throw caution to the wind and come to Hong Kong just to take me to dinner… Anyway, two Indian men came up to me after the talk with great enthusiasm. They both heartily shook my hand and said how good it was to meet me and how we can work together in India, etc etc. One of them shook my hand again, but this time he curled his middle finger on to his palm – an unmistakable signal of some sort which would still have looked to any observer like a legitimate handshake. When I told L (the general manager of our Singapore office) about it, she said it was a sexual overture. If this is true, and I can’t think of anything else he might have been trying to signal to me, that is really quite extraordinarily revolting.

Life on the water

During my visit to Singapore this week, a recent tragedy dominated coverage in the Straits Times: five members of Singapore’s national dragon boat squad, all in their early twenties, drowned last Friday when their boat overturned following a race on the Tonlé Sap river in Pnom Penh, Cambodia. A huge national outpouring of grief ensued in Singapore, understandably, but one of the outcomes was that from now on, all Singaporeans participating in watersports events either in Singapore or overseas are to be required to wear a lifejacket.

As a paddler, and somewhat inept swimmer, I have some sympathy with the emotional response, but looking at the facts, it appears that wearing a lifejacket would have done nothing to prevent the deaths and in fact would have made things worse. The paddlers were swept under a 45m by 12m pontoon. The Tonlé Sap, as I saw for myself on my last visit to Cambodia, is an extremely wide, muddy, and fast-flowing river with unpredictable and extremely strong currents. Anyone being swept underneath a pontoon would be unable to see a thing and unable to surface. A lifejacket would hamper any attempt to get out from under the pontoon and would have been worse than useless.

As usual, the official response to this sort of accident stems from a total lack of understanding of the conditions surrounding the accident and of the sport.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Stop making scents

From Cathay Pacific's inflight magazine, November 2007 (Hong Kong to Singapore):

Kelly Caleche (Hermes)
"The conniving encounter between the spirit of the Kelly Bag and the perfume. The unexpected caress of a leather floral scent".

Rarely, if ever, has the word "conniving" been so inappropriately employed. As for the unexpected caress of leather florals - I am beginning to feel quite nauseated. Unexpected? You bet! Get off me, you old git!

Sunday, November 25, 2007

The mobile blues again

Oh, Mama, can this really be the end
To be stuck inside of Mobile with the Memphis blues again...
Bob Dylan

As a twelve year old listening to this song I thought he was singing "stuck inside a mobile..." meaning a mobile home, meaning a trailer or caravan... Perhaps I ought to explain: it's not, or not just, that I led an unusually sheltered life; but because when I was twelve the mobile phone did not exist as a concept. Amazingly, for such a simple idea, and now so widespread, science fiction cinema of the 50s and 60s never posited that in the future, along with their Bacofoil suits, everyone in the world (or at least, Hong Kong) might be carrying a mobile means of communication. My word association with the word "mobile" as a twelve year old might also have had something to do with the gypsies who lived in a bus behind our house for a few months (AKA as "the Bussies"; and that's another story). Whatever the reason, being stuck inside a mobile was a genuinely sad prospect, and not just because of the way Bob whinged it. My friend Gordon once described a wild Highlands party which culminated in him waking up criminally hung over, "on the floor of someone's caravan, wrapped in a blanket, with my head on a welly". Amazingly, all those connections and that imagery spring unbidden to mind when I think of the word "mobile".

To the point, though: I will regularly, and have done so twice in the last couple of days, ask someone shouting in to a mobile phone to tone it down. I am, as my friend C, AKA La Grande Poobah says, assertive, or perhaps that's just disagreeable. In my view the mobile phone bawler lacks self-awareness and more importantly, consideration for others.

The reactions are varied: usually, and gratifyingly, they say sorry, and comply (I do ask nicely); but yesterday, I got a very aggressive response. There was a sign on the wall (in the spa, as it happens: a place where people go to relax), so I was within my rights; but this made no difference to madam, because she had to speak to her friend.

I think this problem may be particularly common in Hong Kong, where there's an obsession with answering, or being on, the phone come what may. People will routinely answer their phones in the cinema. Sadly, the Trigger Happy TV sketch where Dom Joly answers an enormous phone during a film screening and shouts into it "HELLO! I'M IN THE CINEMA! YES, IT'S SHIT!" is not that funny in Hong Kong: it's the normal state of affairs.

Monday, November 12, 2007

The opium of the people

Although my mum was brought up a Catholic and went to a convent school, and my dad was Church of England, my brother, sister and I weren’t baptized and from an early age I had a healthy distrust for any form of religion, as epitomised by the tedious assemblies at school where we were pressganged into the tuneless singing of modern hymns such as “You in Your Small Corner” and “Morning Is Broken”, as well as more traditional favourites like the frankly scary “Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory” and “The Lord of the Dance” (“I danced in the morning till the sky turned black/It’s hard to dance with the devil on your back” was a particularly nightmarish line).

However, my sister and I, for a brief period, regularly went with the Carlins to attend mass at the Catholic church in Ormiston, a village a few miles from home. It took place in what seemed like someone’s living room and there was a definite air of the undercover about it. We stifled a smirk as the eldest Carlin boy shook the smoking samovar and rang a bell, silly in his surplice; and counted the moments till it was over so we could get out of there. The only reason for going through this? The chance to spend our pocket money at the best sweetshop for miles around, with jars and jars of sherbet lemons, and chocolate éclairs, and cola bottles, and pineapple cubes, and pear drops, all available by the quarter pound in little white paper bags.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Television, the drug of the nation

Our next door neighbours in the 1970s were called the Carlins, and we were endlessly fascinated by how different they were from us. There were three children of around our age, all with solidly Scottish names. They were a traditional, Catholic family, and they had a proper dad, and a proper mum, unlike our own parents who seemed to be unalterably other. One of the differences was the fact that they had a TV, and the three of us learned that if you turned up at their door and at a certain time of day and asked “are you coming out?” the answer would be no, because they were watching Children’s TV. “Can I come in?” was the next question, and Morag, Douglas or Eric would disappear inside to ask the great arbiter while the supplicant waited on the doorstep hoping for the right answer.

It must have been a source of, at best, amusement and at worst annoyance to the Carlins that they would often end up with all three Hall children in their living room, having to be left there when their tea was ready; and when the children’s programmes were over and the six o’clock news came on, this was the cue to leave and we would politely lean around their kitchen door, where they all sat at the kitchen table, to say “Thank you”.

Returning to our own house after being at the Carlins’ was always a slightly dispiriting experience . What I remember most was the smell of our house compared to theirs. Their house smelt of chips, and washing powder; ours of wholemeal bread and clay; and it always seemed a bit cold, and dingy, and dinner was never ready.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Into the blue

Having just obtained a PADI Open Water diving certification, in the less-than-clear waters of Clearwater Bay in Hong Kong, my first series of “real” dives was in Palau, in Micronesia. We were there for the Micronesia Cup and the following weekend were heading to Guam for the Heineken Cup (where, incidentally, my crew won gold in the Women’s 16K). During the week inbetween, we did 11 dives in total in the most heart-stoppingly amazing conditions: clear blue skies, beautiful water, sunshine, and incredible locations such as Blue Corner, Blue Hole, German Channel, as well as a wreck dive on a sunken Japanese warship, where I peered through a darkened porthole almost expecting a face to come up to meet me. We saw giant manta rays moving langourously through the water like stealth planes; turtles carrying their ancient burden and protection; black tip and grey sharks; wicked schools of black barracuda; my favourite, the noble, sad-looking Napoleon wrasse; and cute little matt black fish with blue sickle-shaped tails and pouty blue lips.

The technicalities of diving are quite straightforward: panic is the only enemy as long as you remember to keep breathing. There was one moment at Blue Corner when we swam alongside a massive wall and I looked down into unimaginable darkness below as the wall went on and on, falling away beneath us, and I had to look round quickly for someone else nearby to reassure myself I wasn’t alone. I also had a “Lost in Space” moment when we hooked into the reef at German Channel: against the current, if you don’t hook in, you can float away, and when my hook came free I was saved by one of the others, as if in slow motion, reaching out to grab my string as though I were an errant pet.

On the boat on the way back, in the sunshine, speeding between muffin-shaped islands in the clear evening, I was thinking that I must be the luckiest person alive.

Transports of delight

One thing Hong Kong does well, in an unheralded sort of way, is public transport. But people still drive, even from where I live, with a bus stop right outside the door, to where I work, which is less than ten minutes on the bus. You have to conclude that people just love to drive. Ownership is already expensive but making it even more prohibitive will just appeal to that great HK addiction, one-upmanship.

Today's prize for hubris goes to the driver of a huge, shiny black Range Rover turning in to a gated residence on Garden Road. The numberplate? ALTRUIST.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Fit for a dog

I was a very hungry (or rather greedy) little girl, who used to sneak flapjacks out of the heart-covered tin in the kitchen when no one was looking and stuff them up my jumper so I could steal back to my room and eat them in peace. I used to eat whole tins of cream and condensed milk by removing the lid with a tin-opener and sticking in a spoon (as a result, even now the simple act of opening a tin, even a tin of beans, is freighted with the promise of delight), and even tried eating dried dogfood in furtive handfuls. It will surprise no one that I was somewhat tubby as a child.

Now, a million miles and years away (although still, arguably, somewhat tubby), I have the same breakfast every morning, from the ubiquitous Pret a Manger, which consists of the following: a skimmed latte, a banana, and an apple & raspberry yogurt pot. Once I get to the office I pour some dried muesli in to the top of the pot to make it seem healthy. The muesli looks, and tastes, exactly like the dog food I once tried to eat, which my mum still, rather cruelly, feeds to her cat.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Oh music come and light my heart's dark places

An article in yesterday's Guardian music blog bemoans the lack of exciting, wonderful records this year (the comments are worth reading if only for the extraordinary litany of names of obscure bands that their defenders are championing). I wrote a comment about Maximo Park, of course, who inexplicably hadn't been mentioned except in a faintly derogatory context, but then I began to wonder whether I was really entitled to comment. I don't mean that in a macro sense, but more in the context of my age and experience (as wizened and hoary as I am). Maybe the only people who can really comment are 16-year-olds, for whom every sound is as exciting as the last.

Then again, if it were left up to 16 year olds, there would be nothing to listen to except Enter Shikari (accidentally illustrated in the Times with a photo of Shakira) and My Chemical Romance. In which case, heaven help us all.

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

24 hours from Tampa

It's funny how strange coincidences happen wherever you are, utterly at random of course, but perplexing nonetheless. I'm in unlovely Tampa, Florida. The day started unsuccessfully - after a 24 hour journey to get here from Hong Kong, and a restless sleep on the wrong side of the world (12 hours behind) - with a visit to an area of Tampa called Ybor City, which held out the promise of "boutique shopping", but actually resembled a ghost town so closely you could almost see the tumbleweed in Urban Outfitters. Everywhere I asked for what I needed (amongst other things, an iPod nano, as a prize draw gift for the stand at the exhibition we're here for, and a place to have a manicure), I was told to go to a mall. So I finally ended up at a faceless place called the International Mall, and walked in to Neiman Marcus only to hear Annie Lennox singing a song written by my sister's ex-boyfriend, the (infinitely better) original of which I first heard on the M8 between Glasgow and Edinburgh, while being driven, in his old black Mercedes, by the guy who'd co-written the music.

Then I went to have my nails done in a huge, but hitherto completely empty nail bar, which smelled strongly of air freshener and whose walls were adorned with slightly suspect plastic flowers. Five disconsolate Vietnamese girls sat waiting for customers. As "Tina" scrubbed my nails and painted them neutral pink, on a huge screen over her shoulder I was lucky enough to be able to watch a completely preposterous film, entitled "DOA" and purportedly set in Hong Kong.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

The shoe's over

Fashion is a form of ugliness so intolerable that we have to alter it every six months. Oscar Wilde

I know this will open me up to accusations of fickleness, but wandering round Lane Crawford’s shoe department (shiny, shiny, shiny boots of leather), I was struck by the sense that Christian Louboutin shoes suddenly seem somehow a little bit vulgar – even (gasp!) trashy. Maybe it’s overkill, or maybe it’s the fact that every cheap shoe-copying designer is now employing red soles, but the once-coveted shoes have lost their sheen for me.

I’ve also gone right off spindly heels, which are wholly impractical for Hong Kong’s hazardous pavements, and Louboutin’s range does seem to offer either verging-on-the-transvestite platform hoofers, or dainty little flimsy things with toothpick heels (even if they are in modish patinaed silver), and nothing inbetween. Give me a nice chunky Marni heel any day of the week. If it passes La Grande Poobah’s “biffer test” (Q. Is this a biffer shoe? – “biffer” meaning, I think, some incredibly easily overstepped line between superb and what can only be described as a transvestite/remedial combo, although perhaps she can clarify) then I couldn’t be happier.

Marni’s autumn/winter collection (I’ll be adding some pictures from French Vogue) is actually quite wonderful. The chunky stuff has in the past been a bit whimsical and childlike but this season it really seems to work.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

They're after my body

There’s a solicitors’ firm on the same floor as my office, named after the senior partner, a woman who is apparently very wealthy – and the reason we know this, apart from her general reputation, is that she has a bodyguard, a Gurkha. When she’s in the office he is usually stationed in reception, where there is nothing whatsoever to do, staring disconsolately out at passers-by; and he doesn’t get any activity unless she leaves the office or goes to the toilets on the same floor, at which point he follows her and stands outside. There is a ladies’ toilet and an “executive toilet”, for which only “executives” (including me) have the key; if she’s gone to the ladies, you can expect a stand-off outside as you try to get in while insisting to the embarrassed looking bodyguard that he can’t prevent entry to a public toilet, even if there may, in an extremely unlikely twist of fate, be armed-to-the-teeth mainlanders waiting inside to seize his employer. Standing outside, how can he protect her anyway?

This may seem an absurd over-reaction to an unlikely threat, but since poor old Teddy Wang was whacked in the eighties in an apparent kidnap-attempt-gone-wrong, the denizens of Hong Kong’s wealthier families have all been paranoid about being kidnapped for ransom and bodyguards are de rigeur. It’s also a very effective status symbol, signifying as it does both wealth and importance. I feel very sorry for the poor man, who has obviously never had to combat anything more dangerous than our meek and frankly puny office manager (albeit unusually irate on this occasion) trying to wash her hands.

Friday, September 14, 2007

I can read you like a book - and not a very good one

My first real job was with a legal publisher in Edinburgh, where I was employed as a legal editor writing law reports for an illustrious law journal (and managed as a result to learn a lot more about Scots law than I ever did at university). Plenty of things stay with me from that time, not least the cast of characters who were employed there – a constant turnover of malcontented law graduates, a lacklustre yet arrogant marketing department who used to produce leaflets littered with spelling mistakes (“an ideal book for practicioners”), and a tyrannical Managing Editor who always smelled faintly of TCP.

Duncan was one of my favourite colleagues because he was so determinedly himself in any situation. He was from the Black Isle, near Inverness, had been a prison officer and consequently played the bagpipes in the Inverness Prison Officers’ Pipe Band, and once uncompromisingly described our Managing Director as “a fat oaf, and a balloon” (you really need sound here to appreciate the full majesty of this remark when pronounced in the inimitable Black Isle accent). His catchphrase was “you can’t go wrong with a brass dog!” – his unerring advice to anyone looking to buy a special gift for someone.

These were the very first days of email and partly because of the novelty of it, Duncan and I used to exchange increasingly sarcastic messages with each other about the third occupant of the editors’ room. A thin, gaunt man, with a passion for Sarah Michelle Gellar, he became known to us as “Bravo Two Zero” or “BTZ” for short, due to his propensity to make up increasingly outlandish stories about himself. BTZ told me that he’d murdered someone once, with precise details of how he’d covered the floor of his bathroom with plastic binbags beforehand, surprised the victim with a chop to the throat, and disposed of the body by chopping it up and dropping small, bloody pieces from his car window a handful at a time as he sped through the Scottish countryside. He told Duncan he’d had to leave the west coast of Scotland (to come and hide in a small legal publishing office in the west end of Edinburgh) because of a Paisley drug deal gone wrong; and he told me that he’d had to flee Glasgow at the dead of night after the execution of Joe “Bananas” Hanlon and Bobby Glover (two notorious gangland figures who were shot in the head and dumped in a car boot in Barlanark) because he’d been involved in the “hit”.

Bravo’s finest hour was falling in love with, and subsequently stalking, a new, pretty editor. As I approached her desk one day I noticed that there was a huge bunch of roses shoved in her bin which she was kicking vengefully. I asked her what was going on and she broke down in tears and spilled the beans about her creepy suitor, who’d been following her home from the pub where she worked and loitering outside her bedroom window late into the night.

I left the company to work in London and Duncan went to Inverness to join the Procurator Fiscal Service. BTZ was discovered to have been running a record sales business from his desk instead of working for the company which was paying his salary. Now if he’d told us that, we certainly wouldn’t have believed it.

Saturday, September 08, 2007

Japan to Japan

I saw my first live band in 1982 at the Edinburgh Playhouse – Japan. Some of the lyrics have dated badly, especially in my current context of living in Hong Kong (from the faintly embarrassing “Cantonese boy/Bang your tin drum” to the unnecessarily mystical: “We walk backwards/Say nothing”), but it’s hard to describe the excitement I remember feeling on going to see them at the age of 14 – the hush and then the roar as the lights went down as the band came on stage; the vision of David Sylvian, who was clearly some sort of god, singing on stage, with Ryuchi Sakamoto dancing on tiptoe beside him; the drum solo in “Visions of China”. Sylvian is playing in Hong Kong in a few weeks’ time and I was quite chastened to realise it would be 25 years since I last saw him live.

My excitement about music hasn’t really diminished in that time. My boyfriend at university said to me “One day you’ll meet someone who is as passionate about music as you are”. Even though I sometimes wonder what 20 year olds think of people like me abrogating “their” music (much the same attitude, I would think, as I would have taken as a 20 year old towards people in their late thirties trying to pretend they knew about music – see below under The Klaxons – They’re Shite), I still buy CDs, and listen to the radio when I’m in the UK, and the way I felt when Maximo Park came on to the stage at Summersonic didn’t feel any less intense to me than 25 years ago.

The mercury sank in the mouth of the dying day

I know it’s futile to get worked up about music prizes, governed as they seem to be solely by considerations other than music, but it really is a travesty that the Klaxons should have won the Mercury Music Prize. Why, they’re terrible! I know this from personal experience at Summersonic in Tokyo. By unhappy coincidence, they were on the dance stage before Maximo Park. My sister and I had fought our way to very near the front in anticipation of "the Park" coming on, only to be completely blindsided by hordes of Japanese kids moshing like demons to the crass sound of the Klaxons. Their only half-decent song was a cover ("It's Not Over Yet" - a song title just begging for the response "But We Wish It Was"). Their lead singer, for some reason, was in a wheelchair. Their between-song banter was a joke. So we discreetly moved backwards and geared up for another forward surge.

Inexplicably, once the Klaxons finished, the crowd rapidly dispersed (perhaps because US mouthy shouters Sum41 were on next door) and there were relatively few people staying to see Maximo Park, although they were headlining. So Claire and I got right to the front, hanging on to the railings and gazing up in awe like star-struck teenagers.

I'm in two minds as to whether I really care that Maximo Park weren't as popular as the Klaxons. It's always a shame to see true genius (and I am not exaggerating, I think) go unacknowledged; but on the other hand we got to be right at the front, and I get to keep my sense of being part of something special which not everyone can truly appreciate.

Besides, any fatuous nonsense-peddler can win the Mercury Music Prize, and frequently does: M People, anyone?

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Walk out to winter

I am not ashamed to say that I am really excited about the new season (which I might even be persuaded to call “Fall” – that’s how far gone I am, although I do find myself pretentiously fond of the conjunction “A/W” for “Autumn/Winter”). The shops are full of jewel colours and beautiful fabrics, the shoes are shiny, and gone are the unwearable shapes of summer, to be replaced by only slightly more wearable shapes; but that’s not the point, because this season is all about what are fatuously called “key pieces” and my favourites are all there, it seems, ie pencil skirts, peep-toe patent heels, and fitted jackets, though I’m not racing to acquire any pussycat bow blouses (frankly I don’t have the neck for it).

We’ve definitely been here before, but I am happy with anything 1940s-inspired, and thankfully there's a lot of it about. So easy to wear! So chic! And as ever the usual panoply of outrageous fashion in-jokes are being pitched at the unsuspecting, the predictably disastrous results of which which I am looking forward to seeing on the streets of Hong Kong. I can reveal that I haven’t seen any jodhpurs yet, even the Balenciaga ones which reputedly sold out everywhere to women who really want to add inches to their hips, but today I saw someone wearing patent leather knee high riding boots, AKA wellies (a nod to the jodhpurs perhaps). Given that it is still 30 degrees and 68% humidity here, this shows a dedication to fashion that is truly awe-inspiring.

Anything remotely welly-like always reminds me of Fireworks Night, circa 1974, when I spent an entire evening wondering why something felt funny inside my wellies, only to discover on returning home that our cat, Tigger, had the previous evening thoughtfully dumped a dead mouse in my boot as a gift, or as leftovers, and the crunching underfoot was of little bones.

Friday, August 24, 2007

How Chinese is it?

After the recent crash of the China Airlines plane at Nagoya Airport, in a fantastically revisionist gesture worthy of Stalinist Russia, the airline painted their logo out in a hamfisted attempt to avoid bad publicity. Since, as with all airline crashes since the dawn of airlines, the crash will henceforth be known as “the China Airlines Nagoya crash”, it’s hard to think of a more futile gesture. It’s now also likely to be known as “the China Airlines Nagoya crash where China Airlines painted out their logo”.

Creating a stink

Browsing through SASA (a truly excellent, and very cheap, Hong Kong make-up store, which proudly sells individual miniature items of skincare products by Clinique, Estee Lauder and Lancôme et al clearly labeled “not to be sold individually”) and idly glancing at the perfumes, I was astonished to see that there’s a cologne (itself somehow a wonderfully dated word) for men called “HUMMER”, the bottle decked out in suitably masculine steering-wheel type trim.

Not only does the Hummer pollute the streets (I saw a large yellow one with blacked out windows in Phnom Penh, a truly vulgar statement and a revolting contrast to the bicycles, beat-up trucks and pedal taxis that otherwise crowd the narrow streets), now Hummer drivers (aspiring or otherwise) can wear the cologne. I didn’t smell it – that would have been a bridge too far – but presumably it reeks of arrogance.

Hello pity

I’ve commented before about the inexplicable proclivity of women in Asia for Hello Kitty and other infantile icons. Only in Asia would you see a top-of-the-range Mercedes with its back shelf packed with wince-inducing cuddly toys. In a Tokyo department store recently I saw the reduction to the absurd of this phenomenon: a display of Hello Kitty kitchen implements from toasters to microwaves, plus Hello Kitty bra-and-knicker sets (for adult women?) and an entire display of accessories and gewgaws dedicated to Hello Kitty’s evil twin, who bestrode the stand like a colossus complete with goth-style black cape and skull and crossbones logo. The evil effigy had not been graced with a name but clearly it was Hello Sickie.

I wouldn’t want to imply that I’m insulting the intelligence of Asian women but there is a huge market out there for this dross and the infantilism it encourages is to be deplored. As for the Hello Kitty vibrator - you couldn’t make it up.

The pictures (to follow) are not all that great – I took them in a hurry lest anyone think that I was snapping them in order, god forbid, to have them copied cheaply in China.

Thursday, August 09, 2007

Colour me bad

Wandering around the shops in Richmond, where the new season's clothes have just arrived, I was struck by the fact that the two most ubiquitous colours were those of my least favourite foods: beetroot (more charitably described as puce, and euphemistically as burgundy) and tinned sweetcorn (mustard, or "chartreuse"). It's another injustice perpetrated on the unsuspecting. At least autumn ("fall") brings with it remotely wearable clothes, although legions of infantile smocks and balloon-shaped skirts are still in evidence; but the magazines (and you've got to believe them) are all saying that it's OK to wear a pencil skirt again.

The heart of light, the silence

We went to the Tate Modern in London last week. Despite the fact that it's such a huge space, I find it strangely disappointing that the gallery rooms are all small, so that it feels as though you have to file by the artworks, which is a bit too close to ticking off the sights for my taste, and follow the familiar pattern of white walls and pale wooden floors. What's exhibited consequently seems somehow stale and dead.

On each of my visits I am always drawn to the same place: the Rothko room. Rothko was commissioned by the Four Seasons Restaurant in the Seagram Building, New York, to create artwork for their walls, but before he'd even finished the sequence of paintings he abandoned the idea of putting them in a room full of people eating, as being incompatible with what the paintings ask for, which is contemplation. This was the right decision (although when I first saw them, in a room at the old Tate Gallery, I was childishly moved to comment that they were rather foodlike - one of them clearly depicts two fish fingers on a slice of burnt toast - as usual in attempt to avoid being pretentious I went to the opposite, prosaic extreme). What springs to mind on looking at them is the line about looking in to the heart of light, the silence. They are displayed in their own room, although there is no door, in dim light as specified by the artist. Having been to Stonehenge for the first time a few days earlier I was struck by the parallels between those bold shapes. Doors open or closed? Gateway or barrier?

The most compelling for me is T01165 - portrait-shaped, with blood/rust red oblongs on a pale, almost lilac background. I'm pulled in to thinking about nothing and minutes pass by effortlessly.

After seeing them I wandered out into the gallery again, but the rest just seemed like noise.

-Yet when we came back, late, from the hyacinth garden,
Your arms full, and your hair wet, I could not
Speak, and my eyes failed, I was neither
Living nor dead, and I knew nothing,
Looking into the heart of light, the silence.
Oed' und leer das Meer.

TS Eliot, The Waste Land

Saturday, July 28, 2007

Costing a packet

Hard on the heels of recent shock news about the price of pork, prices for instant noodles, the most popular convenience food in mainland China, are increasing nationwide due to dramatic increases in the cost of raw materials and "product improvement" (does this involve making them longer? more crinkly? less soggy? less toxic?).

Sources from an organisation I confess I had never heard of before this news emerged, the World Instant Noodle Association China Branch (clearly the most powerful branch of all), said that prices will rise at an average rate of about 20% with the highest hike being around 40%. The China Economic Review said that "Prices of high-end instant noodles have already climbed and further price rises will mainly come in locally made medium- and low-end noodles."

Considering there are 1.3 billion people in China it has always struck me as astonishing that there aren't more instances of social unrest. The GDP keeps rising at an alarming rate (over 10% this quarter) and the cost of raw materials is inevitably increasing. When the cost of a bowl of noodles rises by 40%, and the average wage is still only US$1,000 a year, you can see a crisis coming.

(There are low-end noodles? This must be the equivalent of the introduction of first class post. The service stays the same, but now you have to introduce a poorer version and call it second class.)

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

A different world

I had a thought-provoking conversation yesterday with a Singaporean criminal prosecutor. He was about the same age as me (late thirties), and very senior: judges and lawyers often seem extraordinarily young in Singapore. According to one of his colleagues, meritocratic principles apply whereby someone who is fresh out of law school and in their mid-twenties is not deemed to be any less capable of presiding over a court than someone in their fifties. This is an interesting reversal of the equation of age with wisdom.

In Singapore the death penalty applies for murder and drug smuggling as well as other crimes, so I asked him how he felt about the fact that the outcome of a successful prosecution would be the death of the accused. He said that his first time was the hardest, but that he had dealt with some horrendous crimes and had no doubt that where someone was convicted of such a crime, they deserved to die.

As part of a presentation he was giving, he had a collection of photos of forensic evidence from the murder of a child and it was all I could do to stop him showing them all to me: "I've seen enough", I said politely. It was something he had become so familiar with he didn't even realise how terrible the photographs were. He did his job well in that case: the accused in that case was convicted and was hanged.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Through the window

My grandfather, Donald (Don) Hall, was a commercial artist who designed mannequins for shop windows. These were proper mannequins, with cheekbones, and stylised hair, and pointing, elegant hands, designed to sport Dior; and thinking about this the other day as I walked along Des Voeux Road I realised that I had no idea what the mannequins looked like in any of the shops I pass every day. That's not just because I'm fixated on the clothes, but because they are not mannequins but dummies: designed to fade in to the background, and be as unnoticeable as possible. Many of them have no heads and no hands, or if they have heads, their faces are featureless. Look at them the next time you pass a clothes shop and you'll see what I mean. The dummies used to be aspirational for the women looking longingly at the clothes, part of the dream of what I could be if only I wore that dress; but now a dummy with a lifelike face would be unnerving, the lipstick garish, the eyes disturbing and the image all wrong.

Grandad was still desperate to create with his hands long after he stopped working, and insisted on creating, out of clay, an awful, mawkish effigy of my grandmother which he glued to her gravestone with epoxy resin - someone should have persuaded him otherwise, although I feel sad saying this, because to him it was real.

Thursday, July 05, 2007

Not with a banger, but a whimper

Swine disease in southern China has killed millions of pigs in the last year and that's led to an increase in the price of pork in mainland China of 30% in May alone. The recent high pork prices have prompted forecasts of higher inflation this year due to the importance of pork to the Chinese diet. So much so that presumably to avert pork riots, Wen Jiabao said the government would "go all out" to keep pork on dinner tables.
This bombshell came at an appropriate time in my linear little world (sample interior monologue, in no particular order: "clothes ... shoes ... politics ... music ... sausages"). After the previous post, I was thinking about how much I love sausages, proper sausages like the ones pictured above. Serving suggestion: stashed in a bap, with a smear of tomato ketchup, and eaten with a mug of hot, milky Scottish Blend tea held securely in the other hand: pure culinary heaven.
Of course sausage travesties abound: at hotel buffets in Malaysia and other Muslim countries, you often encounter the peculiar, disappointing chicken sausage, which has a texture like cushion stuffing (appalling though this is, it is as nothing compared to the horrors of turkey bacon); and I've never had a proper sausage on a plane yet. Nothing will dim my enthusiasm, though. Pork riots? It seems fair enough to me.

Sunday, July 01, 2007

In at the shallow end

At a time when blank-hearted nihilists and confused young men bent on death are thinking about the best way to kill as many people as possible - and inept as the attacks so far have been, they have the sense of being a series - the news in Hong Kong is all about the 10th anniversary of the handover of Hong Kong, and the traffic restrictions and enhanced security as a result of the Chairman (Hu Jintao) being in town ("number one! China number one!", my taxi driver said excitedly yesterday, concurrently and ill-advisedly removing his hands from the wheel to gesticulate), and the complete non-event that is the second official crowning of Donald Tsang as our Chief Executive complete with over-long footage of interminable official ceremonies.
Even though I am on the other side of the world, my anxiety levels are quite high, and I was shocked by the pictures of the burning Jeep Cherokee which ploughed into the side of Glasgow airport. It feels a bit too close to home. The anxiety is hard to explain, but it must have something to do with my fears for the people I love, even though rationally they are not in imminent danger, at least no more so than anyone else is. I chide myself for this involuntary response too, because this is not downtown Baghdad, and it's nothing like the danger the Iraqi people face every day.

Beyond my own selfish response to it, though, I have the strong feeling right now that it is quite impossible for me to comment in a meaningful fashion, still less control what is happening in any way. So here's something meaning less to look at: from the top: Ring by Marie Helen de Taillac; dress by Donna Karan; shoes by Marc Jacobs. All from Browns Fashion. It was either that, or a picture of a sausage: you have to take your shallow comfort where you can find it.

Monday, June 25, 2007

At the violet hour

At the violet hour, when the eyes and back
Turn upward from the desk, when the human engine waits
Like a taxi throbbing waiting...

From The Waste Land, TS Eliot

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Monday, June 18, 2007

London kills me

I am wide awake with jetlag at 2am having just returned from London on Saturday and I was lying thinking about London and the impact it always has on me. I last lived there nearly 5 years ago and was happy to leave for something new - London is one of those cities rich with potential but also a sense, if you live there, of missed opportunities and sometimes, of life taking place elsewhere, beyond reach.

There seemed to be a real buzz there this time around - of money, of style, of creativity; so used have I become to the relative uniformity of how people dress and, crucially, the average body shape in Hong Kong (conservatively; and slim) that for the first few days I people-watched quite hungrily, feeling as though I were looking in to a cakeshop window (although I must say, without wanting to be cruel, that plenty of people in London look as though they have gone rather further than just look in the window). The temperature was warm, the sun shone, and I went to a work dinner in Exmouth Market where everyone was sitting outside with glasses of rose at 10pm, and I went to lunch at Rhodes 24 in the old Natwest Tower, with vertiginous views of the City and the Gherkin in astonishing perspective, and Stephen Fry sat chatting nearby, and everywhere I walked there seemed to be people outside bars, and vulgar light blue Lamborghinis racing down side streets, and a wildly diverse mix of people, and hair colour, and what can only be described as Widow Twankey shoes in the shops (I'll try to find an example, stand by!).

I also had a flying visit to Edinburgh for my twin nephews (AKA the Peas)' fifth birthday. I brought them Spiderman figurines and robot hands ("with ratchet sound") from Hong Kong, and arrived to surprise everyone at their birthday party at my mum's house (always a gratifyingly jaw-dropping experience when I turn up unannounced). Edinburgh was several degrees cooler and, perhaps accordingly, seemed much more staid than London where something is definitely happening.

On the plane, out of sheer boredom, I read a copy of Tatler - a ludicrous publication written, and presumably read by, people called Binky Tippington-Smythe - which a concerned reader once advised me to subscribe to since VOGUE had irked me so much. One article was complaining about how the super-rich (the Mittals et al) had spoiled London for the upper middle class who can no longer afford to buy houses in Kensington and Chelsea. These vulgar arrivistes have apparently spoiled it all for the old Etonians who used to be the cream of the crop and can't even get in to the social milieu anymore. Welcome to the real world, where someone is always wealthier than you and the social rules are being rewritten by the obscenely rich for their own benefit (who else's?). That's the nasty side of London.

Sunday, June 10, 2007


In the last two days apocalyptic weather conditions have beset Hong Kong: yesterday, at dragon boat practice at Middle Island, the dreaded red tide (algal bloom) was everywhere to be seen: sometimes frothy, sometimes thready, like egg yolks in the water, sometimes red, thick and gloopy and resisting the stroke of the paddle. The official line is that it is harmless to fish and humans, but looking across the bay at the tide of scum floating on the water, catching in the shark nets and forcing the closure of Repulse Bay and Deep Water Bay beaches, it seemed as though we might be the unsuspecting future victims setting out for an innocent paddle at the beginning of a B-movie entitled "RED TIDE".

Today we were in Lamma for their first International Dragon Boat Festival. Huge amounts of effort had clearly gone in to organisation, but there were amber rain and thunderstorm warnings at 7.30 am and conditions did not improve. The setting was spectacular, if determinedly urban, with a massive power station just to the left of the beach and the races running alongside the power station sea wall. After a handful of races in pretty rocky conditions, the heavens opened, the waves thrashed the shore and the races were halted, purportedly until the lightning stopped. I spent the next few hours huddled under a carapace of umbrellas with three other members of the women's team, getting to know them a whole lot better than I'd anticipated as the rain dripped down our necks (this is when you discover the true meaning of "waterproof"). Then the whole thing was cancelled, and we trudged back to the ferry with the rain lashing us all the way.

So familiar does this scenario seem that, as we huddled together for warmth in our umbrella cocoon, and I sat with my head on my knees musing to myself about the vagaries of the weather, I had a hard time remembering that I was not, in fact, on a camping trip in the Highlands, sheltering disconsolately inside a sodden tent.

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Open water

I've just arrived back from my second trip to the weird golf buggy world of Hamilton Island where the Hamilton Cup Outrigger tournament takes place. The highlight, apart from driving the golf buggy - and I can tell you I tried to position myself behind the driver's wheel whenever we had to use it: the only way to enjoy being in a golf buggy is to take over the controls - was the 16K women's open race, which involved circumnavigating the island anticlockwise and running slap in to the biggest water I have ever paddled in (2.5 metre swells, some breaking, and nowhere to go but through the middle). The boats around us were being tossed in all directions by capricious waves so the only thing to do was focus on getting the paddle in the water and trying to prevent the boat flipping over. At one point we were literally thrown onto the rocks and had to paddle backwards to get away and back in to the race.

We came 17th out of 34, which doesn't sound much but against outstanding competition (essentially, the world's best paddlers), it was a major achievement. Plus, as parochial as this seems, we beat both women's teams from our main Hong Kong rivals.

In conversation afterwards the women's crew decided that the main reason we gel so well - despite being of vastly different backgrounds, ages and personality types - is that we were all outsiders as kids. I was talking to someone about this today and she said that all expats in Hong Kong are the same: we're all driven here by our difference. It's an interesting theory, but not one I'd test in a bar in Lan Kwai Fong on a Saturday night.

Monday, May 21, 2007

Hicks from the sticks

David Hicks has been released from Guantanamo Bay and has returned to Australia to serve out his sentence. The South China today describes him, not unkindly, as "a former kangaroo skinner". This reminded me of the heartbreaking description of a girl who was murdered in Edinburgh in the 1990s and ended up being wrapped in a carpet and dumped in a drain in the common garden area of a block of flats in Newington - which incidentally was also my brother's back garden, shared with another 400 flats. Police posters asking for information described her as "an enthusiastic karaoke performer".

As someone who could legitimately be described as "a former hospital skivvy" and "a former pizza waitress", I'd better watch my step.

Friday, May 11, 2007

Blow by blow

Isabella Blow, avante-garde dresser and English eccentric, died last week in an extraordinarily dramatic fashion: by drinking paraquat - the weedkiller beloved of garden nihilists everywhere (not least by Jim, our next door neighbour when I was a kid. Jim had his own supply and a natty little spray canister device to boot. It had its own strap which looped over the wearer's shoulder, allowing easy access to the toxic nozzle. When he got bored of walking around other people's cars kicking desultorily at the tyres, or listening to the collected works of Jim Reeves, or shouting at the neighbours' children, or eating mince and tatties in his cabbage-smelling house, or just needed a pick-me-up, he'd liberally spray paraquat hither and thither). Paraquat has a unique and quite disgusting smell - the strength of will required to drink it would be quite considerable.

She deserves to be remembered, amongst other things, for sporting a lobster hat (everyone said it wouldn't work!) and for wearing a Joan of Arc dress complete with heavy, oily chain (for that added authenticity!) which she dragged across the pristine white carpet of Jean Paul Gaultier's apartment ("Sacre bleu! C'est magnifique, mais ce n'est pas la guerre!", he may have cried at the sight).

True originals are doomed never to be part of the mainstream and she was reportedly disheartened by the fact that despite having brokered Alexander McQueen's highly lucrative contract with Gucci, she got "nothing but a dress" out of the deal; but she also had a particularly nasty form of cancer. She told the assembled party at her husband's country house (and you could take another fascinating detour around the family history of her husband, Detmar Blow) that she was going shopping, but instead she stayed home and drank her poison.

Russian droll

Two things to remember about Boris Yeltsin.

Boris was asked by a BBC journalist to describe the Russian economy in one word.

He said: "Good".

The journalist then asked him to describe it in two words.

He said: "Not good".

After Boris's death, his former deputy was asked to sum up the Yeltsin era. He said: "We hoped for the best, but it all turned out as usual."

Friday, May 04, 2007

Pear down

I'm in Singapore airport, about to leave, having just tried some Absolut Pears, which was so good I had to buy a bottle. Pears and vodka, who'd have thought?

I was only in Singapore three days, but this was long enough to be caught in one of the extraordinarily fierce downpours that proliferate this time of year. Huge fat pear shaped rain drops hurled with vigour from the ethereal sky and bounced up inside my umbrella.

I managed to get to my favourite bar in Asia, CitySpace at the top of Singapore's tallest hotel. They serve perfect apple martinis and you can see what seems like the whole of the city laid out like a map - though not one I can follow: small as Singapore is, I'm still confused.

Friday, April 27, 2007

I ergo, ergo I am

As part of our training for the Hamilton Island Cup at the end of May, the 6 women and 5 men from our club competing in the races, who are collectively known as the “Hamo” crew (“hamfisted” in my case), are all completing various on and off-water tests to gauge our fitness. The test results are humiliatingly revealed on a weekly basis and I can tell you that there is nothing more motivating than knowing the email of doom is going to appear for all to see. Nowhere to run to, nowhere to hide!

The toughest, and paradoxically the shortest, test is 750 metres on a rowing machine, or ergonometer (“erg” or “ergo” in the parlance). Panicking at my signal failure thus far to get below 3 minutes, I have gone to the lengths of engaging a personal erg coach, my friend A who’s a brilliant rower and a very attractive woman to boot. For the price of breakfast (and some flattery), she’s going to teach me how to improve my wretched technique enough to scrape a more dignified time.

Friday, April 20, 2007

Education otherwise

It's 20 years since I left school this year, and I am hardly surprised that there has not been as much as a whisper of any kind of class reunion to mark the passing of time (and all of its sickening crimes). Some have died, and some have faltered, and I don't really know where most of them are apart from a few gems I am still in touch with. I suspect that it's really still not long enough ago yet for most of us.

Philip Roth wrote acerbically of school reunions that there are few reasons to go, most of them suspect, and usually based on self-aggrandisement (look how much better than you I have fared!).

Our school was a difficult and troubled place and when I joined at the age of 13 (after four years of an only-partially-successful experiment in rural home schooling, about which more some other time), I was terrified by what seemed to be the premature maturity of my fellow pupils in the big city: talking about learning to inhale, and drinking at parties, and lovebites. I felt completely out of my depth.

Shy and insecure, and longing to fit in but unable to, I made things worse for myself by falling horribly in love with the class celebrity (who would definitely mind being described this way). So popular was he that, when I went past his house on the bus, I would always see at least one person hanging around outside waiting to catch a glimpse. I never stooped to that, of course, but I too succumbed to his rough magic. He had several self-appointed female security guards whose job it was to stop anyone from getting to close to him.

At the first real party I ever went to (ie the first with no adults present), I watched in despair as he carried his then girlfriend, who was wearing a risible schoolgirl outfit with a black lace garter, up the stairs for – what? I didn't know. I had a glass of wine and danced to Mad World, which in that teenage nightmare seemed to speak my life.

The pupils at my school seemed to specialise in psychological warfare – or is that every school? So yes, on reflection I am in no hurry to revisit those memories either; as this article about the Virginia massacre by Lionel Shriver (author of the disturbing, powerful book We Need to Talk About Kevin) says:

"For a lucky few, school and college are where we first distinguish ourselves. But for the majority, they are the site of first humiliation, subjugation and injury. They are almost always our first introduction to brutal social hierarchies, as they may also sponsor our first romantic devastation. What better stage on which to act out primitive retribution?"

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Luck be a lady

Imagine my surprise on receiving this in my inbox at work today from the delightfully named "Be a Lady". I am not sure what she's selling, but I just can't wait to buy it. The fact that any Hong Kong shop assistant worth her salt would be describing this unfortunate woman as "Too fat" (a common response to western women when you ask for something in your size) makes it doubly unnerving.

Friday, April 13, 2007

Slip sliding away

I had a vivid, terrible nightmare two nights ago about being on the back of J’s motorbike and the motorbike crashing and sliding across the road leaving both of us badly injured and bleeding. This morning on the way to Stanley for an early morning paddle, we hit a patch of diesel and in slow motion slid across the road exactly as it happened in my nightmare. I hit the ground pretty hard and for a moment was confused: am I still dreaming?

Most of Hong Kong’s roads are bordered by high concrete barriers, which I’ve often thought would be hell to barrel into, but we were going very slowly (the sixth sense of the rider looking for patches on the road) and the bike slid away rather than landing on top of us. J was unhurt; and I got up, my arm sore, pretty shaken, a graze on my knee but my favourite Kenneth Cole trousers completely unscathed (I told you I was shallow – the first thing I thought was: damn, my trousers!), and my bargain buy H&M leather jacket as good as new. Hey, looking good in a crisis is what it’s all about! And we came out of it a lot better than we did in my nightmare.

For the second time in the last year, then, I was in Casualty getting an x-ray, this time of my arm. The doctor looked about 20 and he didn’t know where to look when I took my top off – he had to call in a nurse using what looked suspiciously like a panic button beside him on the desk. Ostensibly this was to chaperone me, but I think he was just terrified.

My main concern now, and this illustrates only how much I’ve been sucked in to the shadowy world of outrigging (I guarantee only my sister will spot me in this clip; and yes, we won), is that I might not be able to paddle this weekend.

Monday, April 09, 2007

School of thought

The Fratellis remind me of everything that's good about being Scottish, and other things too: the warm East Lothian summers of my 1970s childhood, and discovering music for the first time. I was slightly too young to fall for the Bay City Rollers, and dumbfounded by the hysteria, but music's seductive whisper was already at my ear. In my old primary school (destined to become a recording studio where Orange Juice would record "Simply Thrilled Honey"), when I was six, I had a conversation in the toilets with a girl called Margaret McNeil, who lived in a house with turrets, whose father was a lawyer, and who owned a pony: so of course I worshipped her and craved her indulgence:

Me (squeaks nervously): What music do you like?
Goddess (confidently): Slik.
Me (blurts): Why?
Goddess (confidently, and with more than touch of condescension): They're not too loud, and not too quiet.

Despite her confidence, infamy came to Margaret too: the pony and the house had to be sold after her father was disbarred for embezzling the clients' fund; but this was my first ever musical recommendation and I took it to heart. Not too loud, not too quiet: I loved Slik from that moment on.

Of course the Fratellis are (in my English teacher's most withering dismissal) derivative: but that's why I like them. They sound so Scottish, for one thing: and this unexpected wave of nostalgia comes over me whenever I hear "I seen you and little Susan and Joanna round the back of ma hotel - oh yeah". I'm thinking about tartan flares, and football scarves on Top of the Pops, and BA Robertson and Bilbo Baggins (a band so obscure there's no Wikipedia reference for them, but for the trainspotters, they were once "managed" by poor old discredited Tam Paton), and the beginning of my passion for music, and my longing to belong, in the flat grey surroundings of the toilets at my first school.

Thursday, April 05, 2007

Secrets and lies

At my grandfather’s funeral, I stood up in church and read “Everyone Sang” by Siegfried Sassoon, which was written in the month he was born (April 1919). I’d forgotten to bring my print-out of the poem, so in a little modern twist, as we drove on the motorway from London to Leicestershire I called a friend in Edinburgh on my mobile and he Googled it and dictated it to me.

Families perpetrate many injustices upon each other – ask anyone – but the one involving my grandfather is worse than many. As global injustices go, this one may be small, but so convoluted and cruel is the story that it’s hard to know where to start.

Granddad was a commercial artist who had ended up sculpting models for shop-window mannequins. His life story was full of regret: he talked most eloquently about his war experiences, his memories of a friend who was court-martialled and shot for falling asleep at his post, and the loss of the family business when the factories were requisitioned for the war effort. Painstakingly, after the war, he rebuilt the business, but then he went into partnership with a cad who betrayed him, and he lost everything again as a result.

Granny died in the 1980s; Granddad lived alone in a beautiful old English village, in a slowly decaying house called Pear Tree Cottage (not just a conceit: there were pear trees in the garden). I spent many happy hours in that garden as a child, polishing a statue of Peter Pan with rose petals. Peter’s hand had been broken off and rather hamfistedly reattached with epoxy and I could never get him, or his reattached limb, clean.

My father was the second of four children. The oldest – let’s call her Ann – went wrong from a young age: she pawned Granny’s jewellery in her teens, asked for (and received) her inheritance in advance in her twenties, dyed her hair blonde, smoked, married badly, divorced, married badly again but this time to money, moved to America, and generally hurt her parents upside down and inside out. How they loved her, though! As teenagers my sister and I were heartily sick of being compared unfavourably by Granny and Granddad to Ann’s children.

By the time of Granddad’s funeral, there was something rotten in the garden: Ann had got very close to Granddad before he died, uncomfortably close, and had taken out an injunction to prevent any of her siblings from entering the house on the grounds that one (J) had been stealing heirlooms (unlikely), one (L) had threatened Granddad with a gun (sadly true), and one (my father) was not to be trusted.

Consequently the wake, such as it was, had to be held in the garden, and fearing that it would be a washout, we had packed the boot with bottles of Cava and plastic cups. Cousin P (Ann’s daughter) brought strawberries and we toasted Granddad on the sunny lawn as if nothing was wrong. Of course there was a nasty aftertaste, and I was astonished to overhear Ann telling the neighbours that she’d organized the “champagne”; but the real bombshell was the news that Granddad, in his will, had left nothing to two of his children (J and L), a small share (some 5%) to my father, and the rest, including the house, to Ann.

My father and his other sister tried and failed to challenge the will on the grounds of undue influence. The will was executed by Ann’s lawyers who claimed it was valid and that Granddad knew what he was doing. Old and frail, and hospitalised for some time before he died, he could easily have been persuaded not to trust the other three of his children by the one with the facelift. So righteous and confident was she that she arranged the sale of the house to the next-door neighbours, who had coveted it for years, as we stood in Granddad’s garden in the sunshine with cups of Cava in our hands.

Everyone Sang

Everyone suddenly burst out singing;
And I was filled with such delight
As prisoned birds must find in freedom,
Winging wildly across the white
Orchards and dark-green fields; on - on - and out of sight.

Everyone's voice was suddenly lifted;
And beauty came like the setting sun:
My heart was shaken with tears; and horror
Drifted away . . . O, but Everyone
Was a bird; and the song was wordless; the singing will never be done.

Siegfried Sassoon
April 1919

Friday, March 30, 2007

Foreign lesion

I went to have my moles scanned again today at the unwieldily-titled Hong Kong Skin Cancer Diagnostic Unit (HKSCDU) in Des Voeux Road, Central. Unlike last time there was no feeling of euphoria when I left: it was a different nurse who immediately made me feel uneasy as she seemed so unsure of what she was doing. Initially she said tentatively that she wasn’t sure if she could identify the moles that were previously scanned. She couldn’t work the camera and we had to give up on getting my five suspect moles photographed; and when she scanned my moles and tried to mark where they were on my body on the body outline provided in the software, she kept marking them as being on my right arm instead of my left so we had to go through the whole process again for each one (scan the mole with the little handheld scanning “gun”, press too hard so it hurts and arguably distorts the mole, wait aeons till the software loads the photo, mark where the mole is on the electronic representation of my body for easy identification). She casually described one of my moles as “suspicious”, which didn’t inspire much of a sense of well-being; and she had such an air of timidity that I began to wonder if she’d ever done this before. (I had to bite back the sarcastic remark “First day in the job?”)

The problem was that I was feeling increasingly disagreeable, and I knew that I was intimidating her, and as I intimidated her, she became more nervous, and as she got more nervous she made more mistakes (at one point the poor women said “I’m not having a good day”). I just couldn’t help it, though: it’s bad enough subjecting yourself to the uncertainty of submitting your moles for examination in case one of them has decided to mutate, and seeing your potentially-cancerous “lesion” appear on screen at 1000 times its usual size – the size of a small plate, in fact - and the magnification making the hairs on my arms appear like big black cables, without having someone ineptly squeezing K-Y jelly (used for the scanner) all over your arm as they fumble with the technology and nervously chit-chat about how suspicious my moles look.

As I write this I feel somewhat guilty about my absolute inability to empathise with her muddling and wonder whether someone reading this might immediately conclude that I’m a bad-tempered curmudgeon. But I think that professionals should be, if nothing else, professional. Not only that: I am paying HK$2000 per mole to be reassured. That aside, I resolve henceforth to comport myself with better grace under pressure.

Thursday, March 29, 2007

Next, please

Always too eager for the future, we
Pick up bad habits of expectancy.
Something is always approaching; every day
Till then we say,
Watching from a bluff the tiny, clear
Sparkling armada of promises draw near.

How slow they are! And how much time they waste,
Refusing to make haste!
Yet still they leave us holding wretched stalks
Of disappointment, for, though nothing balks
Each big approach, leaning with brasswork prinked,
Each rope distinct,
Flagged, and the figurehead with golden tits
Arching our way, it never anchors; it's
No sooner present than it turns to past.
Right to the last
We think each one will heave to and unload
All good into our lives, all we are owed
For waiting so devoutly and so long.

But we are wrong:
Only one ship is seeking us, a black-
Sailed unfamiliar, towing at her back
A huge and birdless silence. In her wake
No waters breed or break.

Philip Larkin

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Eton trifles

As anyone who knows me will testify, I am unashamedly partisan towards Scotland. As long as a public figure (usually in either sport or politics) is Scottish, they can do no wrong in my eyes (not you, Tony Blair, you’re just pretending). Lantern-jawed automaton David Coulthard; petulant boy genius Andy Murray; premature pensioner Colin Montgomerie; and last but not least in a very long list, po-faced PM-in-waiting Gordon Brown (despite his apparent attachment to ruinous PFI projects).

I was on a flight from London to Edinburgh at Christmas two years ago and Gordon Brown and his family were in business class (with British Midland, this is nothing special: you get a slightly more comfortable seat and a curtain separating you from economy). When we got off, with no personal security or accompanying minions in sight, Gordon went to the carousel with everyone else to pick up his family’s bags. And somehow that really impressed me.

Overwhelming pro-Scottish bias on my part aside, I can scarcely believe that any British voter seriously thinks that lightweight old Etonian nepotist David Cameron is a viable Prime Minister. Only the most shallow trend-driven unthinker could possibly be considering voting Conservative in the next election. This is all you need to know about David Cameron.

Meanwhile, back in the real world, in the first decade of the 21st century, hundreds of women in India are being accused of witchcraft and either murdered or assaulted and dispossessed by their ignorant, superstitious neighbours.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Differently Alber

There's something about Alber Elbaz'z designs for Lanvin that I find absolutely beautiful: and I'm drawn to the Lanvin racks in Lane Crawford to run my hands over the silk and admire the precise cut, economy of style, and perfect use of texture and colour (different shades of black have never melded so well).
Despite the ill-advised black fright-wigs the poor models were given to wear at his recent A/W ready to wear shows in Paris (was this a fashion anti-statement or a simple mistake?), the shoes are astonishing (viz. the wobbly red heel in the second picture) and the dresses are inviolable.
Pink Crocs anyone? (The previous post was nearly titled Croc of Shit, but I thought better of it.)

Thursday, March 15, 2007

From the sublime to the ridiculous

Having tried and failed to post pictures of jaw-droppingly wonderful Lanvin dresses at the weekend (watch this space), and with my head full of pleasant thoughts of the new season which, despite veering off towards the unwearable (sky high spring heel shoes, lucite wedges and violent blue patent leather everywhere you look), has shown some interesting signs of being more than just a barely-disguised copy of, sorry hommage to, the 60s, the 80s, let-them-eat-cake, whatever, I was walking through Hong Kong's International Finance Centre this morning. Imagine my distress when I passed a man in a formal, dark blue pinstriped business suit wearing a pair of pink Crocs.

Not a clog, not a flip-flop, not a water shoe - it's a fully fledged abomination and the hands-down, top-ranking, toe-curling candidate for ugliest footwear ever designed.

Yet this guy had this smug look on his face, the look of a self-proclaimed iconoclast: (a) hey! check out my cool shoes! (b) They're the funky sting in the tail of my formal attire! (c) Baudrillard's not dead!

All I can say is: (a) Yes I have (though I dearly wish I'd never set eyes on you). (b) No they're not. They are a scourge of humankind. (3) Yes he is.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Another country

Perhaps I'm toughening up - hallelujah! - or maybe I'm already as hard as nails without even realising it. I'm pleased to report that the work disasters of the last few weeks have passed by me on the waters. The advice I give to anyone in trouble - "just step over it" - which in turn I was once given by one David Beaumont in the hallowed, and drug-steeped, environs of a bar called La Sorbonne in the Grassmarket in Edinburgh in, good grief, 1985 - seems to have worked for me, too.

It does seem hugely self-indulgent of me to complain about work, in any case. I wanted responsibility? I got it. Now shut up and get on with it.

I could say the aforesaid David Beaumont - a rakish, good looking individual who must, I admit, take some of the blame for the fact that I decided to do a law degree, as he'd just completed one at Aberdeen - meant well, but clearly he didn't, and the insouciance and quasi-contempt with which he delivered the lines really stuck with me. Yes - I kind of liked it.

No need to talk about why he gave me this advice, at least not this time.

The past is another country. They do things differently there.
L.P. Hartley

Saturday, February 24, 2007

Pithy epithets

Time is a great teacher, but unfortunately it kills all its pupils.
Louis Hector Berlioz

What if they conquer us?
The tea has come.
In at most a thousand years
Someone will conquer them.
Chinese philosopher

Two countries divided by a common language

Oscar Wilde said this about the UK and the US, but he could have been talking about Australia: last night, watching TV in a hotel room in Melbourne, I puzzled over the use of the word "hoon". Any guesses? It's an abbreviation of "hooligan". Hoons are a problem, with their souped up cars and their attacks on the innocent with golf clubs in dry grass-lined suburban streets; so there's a "dob in a hoon" helpline to report the miscreants in your own back yard.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Hard times

I had the worst ever day at work yesterday. Things went wrong; we made a mistake, which was my responsibility, and I ended up offering my resignation. It wasn't accepted, but I've spent yesterday and today putting myself through hell.

I feel that I really only have the thinnest layer protecting me from blows: I take things like this intensely personally and excoriate myself for everything I didn't do or should have done. I have hardly slept, I can't eat, I feel completely devastated by what has happened. I realise that it's an emotional reaction akin to the way I feel if things go wrong in my personal life, and this may not be appropriate for work: for one thing mistakes do happen, and if I can't cope with that, perhaps I shouldn't be in that job. But one of the things that makes me good at my job is that I care about the business, and care about the people I work with, and it makes it very difficult for me to cope with disasters like yesterday. I lack perspective and forget how lucky I am.

I know the measure of the individual is the way he or she reacts to things going wrong, and I just have to grit my teeth and get through this. It feels pretty damn hard right now, though.

Saturday, February 03, 2007

I am curious orange

One of the little amusements about life in Hong Kong is spotting people wearing t-shirts bearing slogans in English which often skirt perilously close to doggerel - a phenomenon which is a subset of Hong Kong women's wacky fashion sense and which more than a few times has made me wish I had one of those most tacky of accessories, a camera phone.

Today on my way up the escalator I spotted this on someone's back (reproduced in full, complete with superfluous curly brackets and colon):

for porn: {

I glanced at her face on the way by. I don't think I'm wrong in concluding that she clearly didn't have the faintest idea what her t-shirt was saying about her.

I've collected a few of these now: my favourite is still


but I'm also very fond of




Saturday, January 27, 2007

Kind of blue

Looking at some of the shoes in the shops recently, I can't help wondering whether they're a manifestation of some sort of conspiracy by designers against women foolish enough to buy and wear them. I'm all for unwearable shoes if they are, at heart, beautiful, and have a few pairs in my cupboard to prove it; but when I'm wandering round Lane Crawford's shoe department, frequently I'll pick up a pair that look wonderful only for the nasty aftertaste to hit straight away - the Lanvin shoes above are a classic example (from the excellent Browns website). Elegant in almost every way, and strangely compelling, but then your senses are assaulted the deplorable uber-wedge under the toes, and it's all over.

One fall-out from the year-long hangover of the Marie Antoinette film starring, risibly, Kirsten Dunst as la reine Marie, has been pre-revolution style excesses all over the catwalk : crinolines anyone? Designers like to think they echo what's happening in the wider world, but draining ideas from a Hollywood movie is just fashion eating itself. Perhaps it's just a rehash of the Christian Dior "New Look" subterfuge of 1947: post-war austerity startlingly countered by dresses requiring acres of material which, coincidentally of course, required the services - and consequently revived the fortunes - of France's struggling material manufacturers.