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.