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