Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Oblique midwinter

I grew up in an extraordinarily cold house, where getting dressed under the bedclothes in winter was essential, there was frost on the insides of the window panes, and we used to put the gas oven on with the door open to get a little heat in the kitchen. Probably as a result I am miserable in cold weather and have a powerful addiction to the moment when you step out of the cold into a warm room.

I walked to the end of the road this morning, my last day in London, to pick up the newspaper. It was that kind of bone-chillingly cold day I'd forgotten all about, where your ears and face start to hurt with it just walking along; like any visceral pain it's impossible to remember it properly when you're not experiencing it, and it made me appreciate once again the fact that I live in a climate where it never gets colder than 10 degrees.

Every day there's some sharp reminder of how lucky I am to live in a bubble; today on the front of The Guardian, a picture of a man in Gaza with greyed and bloodied face, reaching for help from the hole he's buried in. The Daily Mail, meanwhile, focuses on something much more important; the headline shrieks about benefit claimants PAID 20,000 NOT TO WORK and you have to wait till page 6 to read anything about Israel.

I hate to sound trite, but this seems to be a time to work out what really matters: the people you love, little things that make life better, being positive even if there's uncertainty ahead. To quote Harold Pinter (1930-2008) out of context: what else is there?

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

A love of nature keeps no factories busy

I went shopping in Edinburgh today amidst huge discount signs; everything is on sale already. Something about the abundance of clothes on the racks gives the shops an almost jumble sale feel, which I must admit fills me with torpor. I particularly resent the implication that consumers are somehow expected to spend our way out of the recession. Why is no one suggesting that it might be no bad thing for us to stop consuming? Before the crisis started to become inexorable Ben Bernanke said that "the main source of imbalance in the global economy was not excess spending at home but, rather, excess saving in China and other developing countries, where consumption was artificially low". This sort of self-deluding myopia is what caused all the trouble; and I am definitely liking neither the idea nor the reality of consumption at the moment. But nonetheless, in the kind of contradictory gesture I'm often guilty of, here are some more ideas for my trenchant critics to get their teeth into:

Alexander McQueen, from Net-a-Porter: sky high heels to make anyone feel good;

Issa, from Matches (something about the casual way they display the clothes is accessible and at the same time a bit downbeat); and

Vivienne Westwood from Net-a-Porter.

Um meiner Zähren willen

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Ghosts of Christmas past

After my parents divorced in the 1980s, a new, mostly amicable family tradition emerged, which is that every Boxing Day, the whole extended family (my mum (Marg) and her partner, my dad (Chris) and his wife, plus half-sisters, siblings, aunts, and anyone else who's around) spend Boxing Day together, alternating between Chris's house and Marg's. Particularly in the early years, and also particularly when it was Chris's turn to be host, this was a rather fraught event, for a number of reasons as well as the usual toxic festive mix of everyone being hungry, and having had too much to drink instead, and the usual family fortunes.

Twenty years ago, at Chris's, I had a furious row with Marg which ended in crying and screaming. Flight PanAm 103 had just been blown up over Lockerbie and Marg's then boyfriend, Rob, had gone to Lockerbie in his car, because he worked nearby, and had wandered about the hillside where the debris was scattered. I didn't like Rob much anyway, but when I heard the story being told in hushed tones about how traumatised he'd been by what he'd seen there, I forcefully pointed out that given that the emergency services apparently couldn't get to the scene because of cars packed with sightseers blocking the roads, and even if what drew him there was just human nature, I didn't think that he deserved any sympathy. A plane exploded in the sky and 270 people died; of course it was going to be bad.

Marg was understandably defensive and I was adamant and probably not particularly nice about it, so this discussion was never going to come to a happy accord; pictures taken afterwards show me red-eyed and puffy-faced, and I still remember that sense of dismay at an argument gone too far, with everyone else looking on helplessly.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Shiny shiny

In honour of the cavalcade of festive gewgaws adorning Hong Kong (what is it about Christmas that allows for, even encourages, major lapses of taste and decorum?), here are a few of my favourite things. The best advice about wearing jewellery: before you leave the house, take some off.Amethyst ring, Marie Helene de Taillac.

Silver cuff, Plumo. Verdier crystal earrings, Fashion Conscience.

Friday, December 05, 2008

Family fortunes

When I read The Butcher Boy by Patrick McCabe, I liked the first line so much that I memorised it: “When I was a young lad twenty or thirty or forty years ago I lived in a small town where they were all after me on account of what I done on Mrs. Nugent”.

There’s something about the rude vigour of it (and the book that follows) that reminds me of the gypsies who lived behind our house for a few months. We thought of them as gypsies, but called them “The Bussies” (and in my mind, somewhat unfairly, they were connected with a fantasy family that my sister and I used to tell stories about as we lay in bed at night, called “the Slummies”, living in a tenement and roughly based on The Broons); they called themselves “travellers”, and they moved in one day out of the blue, because another neighbour had been keeping an ancient, yellow, single-decker bus (“the Bus”) there with a view to selling it. The travellers wanted to buy it, or so they said, but ended up living there for a while with no money changing hands, with much hand-wringing around the neighbourhood but no one willing to do anything about it.

That site behind our house, next to the woodshed, ironically enough had once housed a real gypsy caravan in the ancient style with awnings and filigree and once-colourful paint; it belonged to another family friend (whose daughter had trapped her arm in one of those old-fashioned electric clothes wringers, a story that both horrified and fascinated me and which affected the way I viewed that caravan: in my mind’s eye there is, illogically, a clothes wringer inside it), and it gradually collapsed in on itself until it had to be towed away to the dump, to be replaced not long afterwards by the Bus.

We were fascinated and frightened by the travellers: there were about eight of them, including children, but their numbers seemed to be very fluid with new people arriving or departing regularly; they were obsessed with Elvis and within hours of arrival had bedecked the Bus with pennants and red and gold banners proclaiming He was King. When I went out the back with the wood basket, to collect wood for the fire, I was a bit scared of what the travellers might do to me. This must have been around 1978, when I was 10. I have the clearest memory of a girl a bit younger than me, with ruddy cheeks and long black hair and a stern expression, who spent her time pushing an equally ruddy-cheeked toddler around in a pushchair. One shameful day I followed them into “the dell”, a scoop in the hillside that the road passed through on its way to the village, with a stream at the bottom and trees all around; in the quiet, with no adults around, I pinched that little toddler’s cheek very hard, to see if he would cry (he didn’t) as the pair of them stared at me fiercely (and with good reason) but without a word being exchanged between us.

The travellers disappeared in the dead of night, after a furious row, and as soon as we were sure they were gone for good the neighbourhood kids swarmed all over the bus to see what they’d left. It was a mess of broken Elvis records, discarded pots and pans, and clothes; they’d broken a window, and the Bus had stopped working so it couldn’t be sold, so it too took its turn to be towed away to the dump.

It seems with hindsight quite a bizarre thing to have happened; but aside from the nasty little cheek-pincher (me) there was a remarkable tolerance (which could, have course, have been engendered by fear, but was more likely just bemusement) of their presence there. We accepted them as they were and everyone got on with it. I don’t even remember wondering where they might have come from or what might have happened to them after they’d gone: they were there, and then they were not, and they didn’t exist outside my solipsistic little world, except that we had some scratched Elvis records and other little souvenirs to remember them by.

Monday, December 01, 2008

Poison pen

Until either (1) the art of letter-writing died out due to the advent of email, or (2) I (sadly) grew out of it, whichever came first (ie up until about 15 years ago), I used to correspond with dozens of people, many of whom I never met: penpals from Middlesex, Nigeria, Minnesota, or Glasgow, the early ones from Tammy and Misty, a girls' comic, and the later ones from a long-defunct Scottish music magazine called CUT. I used to take incredible care with my envelopes, decorating them painstakingly with black and white pictures cut from music and art magazines and using a silver pen to write the address.

I met three of my correspondents in person in the late 1980s, just after I left home to go to university in Glasgow. They were all from the later group and were all completely different from each other. The only one I'm still in touch with, B from Blantyre, I met (by arrangement) beside the Smiths records in HMV in Renfield Street in my first year at university and although we haven't seen each other for a few years, he's someone I think of with great affection as having been a friend when I needed one and as someone I could pick up with again in a second.

The others were more peculiar: William, the only child of elderly parents, ran his father's gas bottle business in Mount Vernon in Glasgow and, as a present, bought me black towels from Harrods which served only to scandalise my room-mate, an uptight Free Presbyterian from Ullapool called Sheena. William was so nervous when we first met he was sweating profusely, and clumsily attempted to kiss me in his father's Nissan Sunny when he dropped me back at my student flat, while I equally clumsily tried to extricate myself. And then there was Tony from Broughty Ferry (the posh part of Dundee), who worked for the Sunday Post - in the advertising department, but he carried himself with the glamour of a journalist. We met in Princes Street Gardens. Compared to B and William, I was quite attracted to him, and we seemed to be getting on well, but it all went badly wrong when we began talking about what each of us had imagined the other might be like. He remarked "I had no idea what you would be like. I was worried you might be a fat Paki".

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Just have to thole it

For St Andrew's Day: my favourite Burns poem.

To a Mouse

Wee, sleeket, cowran, tim'rous beastie,
O, what panic's in thy breastie!
Thou need na start awa sae hasty,
Wi' bickering brattle!
I wad be laith to rin an' chase thee,
Wi' murd'ring pattle!

I'm truly sorry Man's dominion
Has broken Nature's social union,
An' justifies that ill opinion,
Which makes thee startle,
At me, thy poor, earth-born companion,
An' fellow-mortal!

I doubt na, whyles, but thou may thieve;
What then? poor beastie, thou maun live!
A daimen-icker in a thrave
'S a sma' request:
I'll get a blessin wi' the lave,
An' never miss't!

Thy wee-bit housie, too, in ruin!
Its silly wa's the win's are strewin!
An' naething, now, to big a new ane,
O' foggage green!
An' bleak December's winds ensuin,
Baith snell an' keen!

Thou saw the fields laid bare an' wast,
An' weary Winter comin fast,
An' cozie here, beneath the blast,
Thou thought to dwell,
Till crash! the cruel coulter past
Out thro' thy cell.

That wee-bit heap o' leaves an' stibble,
Has cost thee monie a weary nibble!
Now thou's turn'd out, for a' thy trouble,
But house or hald.
To thole the Winter's sleety dribble,
An' cranreuch cauld!

But Mousie, thou are no thy-lane,
In proving foresight may be vain:
The best laid schemes o' Mice an' Men,
Gang aft agley,
An' lea'e us nought but grief an' pain,
For promis'd joy!

Still, thou art blest, compar'd wi' me!
The present only toucheth thee:
But Och! I backward cast my e'e,
On prospects drear!
An' forward, tho' I canna see,
I guess an' fear!

Robert Burns (1759-1796)

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Celebrity squares

I had two empty celebrity experiences for the price of one this week: first Kylie at the Hong Kong Expo site near the airport; and secondly Roger Moore at the Discovery Bay Dymock's. In their way each was as unengaging as the other: Kylie victim of the large, alienating arena with a vacuum where an atmosphere should be, gamely kicking her way through the hits; Roger's frozen face and that of his wife and their bodyguard, lined up politely behind a table to sign the risibly-titled "My Word Is My Bond" ("Roger Moore with Gareth Owen", it says discreetly on the title page). I asked him what he thought of Discovery Bay and he said it was beautiful (today, to be fair, it is: the skies blue and the air cool), to which I replied that I advised him to get out as soon as possible, only belatedly realising that this could have been construed as some sort of threat and I was damn lucky not to be taken down.

Since my motivation for going along to both events could best be described as kitsch-experience seeking, I richly deserved what I got, which wasn't much.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

My castle is my home

I had a brief, inglorious period in charge of the Australian division of the company I work for, prior to a big acquisition which increased the size of the business from 10 employees to 200 and required a full-time manager to be stationed there. While I was in charge I found it something of a struggle to get anything done, not being Australian, and being female and relatively young compared to staff who had been in the industry for 25 years and had no compunction about actively, passively and/or aggressively resisting any ideas I came up with, usually on the logic that this is the way we’ve always done things.

The nadir of the entire business, but the jewel in the crown to its denizens, was the office in Castlereagh Street in Sydney. It was about twice the size of the office in Hong Kong, but inhabited by a third of the staff, each person located (in splendid isolation and king of all they surveyed) behind a mega-desk which seemed to be consist of its own idiosyncratic add-ons, extensions, shelves and cubbyholes salvaged triumphantly from office renovations over the years; the walls were painted a revolting shade of green reminiscent of municipal sewage works or pre-glasnost Polish supermarkets; the anterooms were stuffed with receipts and invoices all clearly labelled with dates ranging from 1978 to 1992, long beyond their useful life; and piled up in mounds, everywhere, the stock in trade of our business, now long obsolete: ancient tape recorders, spare parts and audio equipment from manufacturers whose factories closed their doors in 1964. At the back, a grubby kitchen with a damaged kettle and lopsided tables which always seemed to be hosting half-eaten pipes of stale Pringles and the remains of someone’s birthday cake. The only thing the office needed to complete the look was a large sign saying ABANDON HOPE ALL YE WHO ENTER HERE.

I hope I am not maligning them too much by suggesting that the eyes of the staff stationed there were habitually dull; they certainly gleamed with native cunning when I made suggestions: “Let’s paint the walls white!” was met with the retort “But we chose this colour”. Unbelievably, despite the gargantuan desks, their chief complaint was lack of space.

I got an email this morning from N, who now looks after the business in Sydney, saying that the office is closing and staff are being relocated elsewhere. In my own small way I am feeling extremely happy about this; but presumably a whole new set of problems will present themselves as they try to find a removal agency willing to transport 14 garganto-desks with associated accessories to their new location.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Back in the real world

A depressing report from Afghanistan about the continuing erosion of women's rights as the Taliban become more powerful in the vacuum of the worsening security situation. The Afghan MP Shukria Barakzai receives death threats but says "there is no choice. I would rather die for the dignity of women than die for nothing. Should I stop my work because there is a chance I might be killed? I must go on, and if it happens it happens".

The author of the gung-ho website Come Back Alive has a different perspective: he says "Somehow in [international, usually female, journalists'] zeal to create women's rights in a country staggering to its knees, they forget to mention the complete lack of jobs, housing, medical care, health services and education for men". I'm not sure I buy the argument, though; what justification is there for acid attacks on schoolgirls?

The lone sands stretch far away

It's been a while since there was any poetry here. For St Andrew's Day (November 30), I'm choosing my favourite Burns poem (see if you can guess which one it is; I can tell you that although of course I love Scotland's national dish, that's not it). In the meantime, here is something I memorised a long time ago because I thought it was beautiful. Call me pretentious: if I ever have to type anything as a test, this is what I type (it's either this or "I met a traveller in an antique land"); from Byron's The Destruction of Sennacherib):

The Assyrian came down like a wolf on the fold
And his cohorts were gleaming in purple and gold
And the sheen of their spears was like stars on the sea
When the blue wave rolls nightly on deep Galilee...

My tag for poetry posts is from Wilfred Owen, who said "My subject is war, and the pity of war. The poetry is in the pity".

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

In pastures green he leadeth me

A welcome (for me) relapse into the trivial: I love Alexander McQueen shoes (as much as I currently like green, green anything), though I don't own any (I balk at paying US$1,000 for a pair of shoes I'll wreck in days on Hong Kong pavements, which are peppered with holes and have soft crevices between the cracks just made for heels to sink into). I do, on the other hand, own a pair of Marni shoes; but surely these are just wellies with heels?

Both from Browns, as is this: Roland Mouret dress with a detail far more slyly appealing than any number of cliched red-soled Louboutins (although Browns' model is wearing a pair: they went for the obvious match there).

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Television, the drug of the nation

Martin B was a troubled character from a wealthy East Lothian family, with the sort of pursed-lipped mother (her name was, distinctively, Mauville) who was bound to be disappointed. Martin had suffered from psychiatric problems (he said it was "LSD psychosis"), but had become a nurse, and used to horrify and fascinate us as children with tales of his experiences: decapitated pillion passengers, the wrong limbs sewn on in the mortuary; death in the ward, the body lying unnoticed for hours; making up the faces of dead bodies for family viewings, trying to cover the terrible injuries to protect their sensibilities; drug mishaps; and gruesome accidents of all kinds.

It was around the time that Elvis died (1977), and the 17-year-old brother of one of my classmates died the same year in a motorbike accident; all those images are bound up together in my memory. Many of his stories were, on reflection, probably exaggerated, but the temptation to elaborate for his wide-eyed audience must have been intense. He bought us sweets and gave us silly nicknames. We knew there was something not quite right, and teased him for the way he ate ("like a washing machine"), but his fiendish stories were plentiful and he was incredibly generous.

We never had a TV at home and longed for one. Things got worse for Martin and he lost his job, but the obvious thing for him to do with his disability money was to buy a TV for his favourite kids; and for a glorious few days we had a tiny TV, with poor reception because our cottage didn't have an aerial, until his mother insisted he return it to the shop. It seems callous, but we had no idea of his personal circumstances, so we were hugely disappointed, having no inkling that he was penniless.

Martin died 16 years ago, of an accidental drug overdose (or deliberate; no one seems to know). He's another of those oddly charismatic people from my childhood whom I can never quite believe is gone.

Saturday, November 08, 2008

In the wind

Ignore the fact that this is an advert: there is something beautiful and comical here. In the film Silent Running (1972), robots tend the world's last plants in greenhouse spaceships for eternity; I imagine Theo Jansen's creations still pacing the beaches when everything and everyone else is dust.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Ignorance isn't bliss

This story is so appalling it can't be given an adequate frame. The stoning scene in The Life of Brian mocked ignorance and stupidity, but the joke seems hollow in the face of the real thing.

Saturday, November 01, 2008

Dressed for success

I have early memories of my parents dressing up in fancy dress for parties in the 1970s: there's a particularly strong image of my mum in a rather disturbing Miss Havisham outfit, a tattered wedding dress with veils of cobwebs; I remember waiting with the babysitter to kiss goodnight to transformed beings, seeing my parents in a new guise. When I was about six, I was fascinated by a polaroid picture of my uncle Leo's then girlfriend, who, to add to her glamour, had to have a kitchen knife confiscated from her by my granny as she tried to creep into the bathroom with it, and later threw herself under a train. She was dressed in black, and was slathered in witchy green eye make-up. I took the photograph to school and showed it to my teacher, Mrs Osborne, much to her bemusement.

Although I loved dressing up - and my brother and sister and I used to parade around in our finery at every opportunity, making up plays for our parents' visitors, and donning cloaks and scarves for Guy Fawkes' Night - fancy dress, and even the name's still enough to make me cringe, was never of much interest to me as I got older, and became more protective of my dignity. Until I came to Hong Kong I would dress up in the most half-hearted way - as long as I could still look like me. But Hong Kong, for some reason, is a fancy dress paradise: there's an entire street (Pottinger) stuffed with shops selling cheap tat: swords, bats, masks and wigs, and the vendors astutely stock for themes. As always in Hong Kong, you can also do this on the cheap and extremely easily. Accordingly, I confess to having succumbed on a few occasions now, and have discovered the liberating power of the wig; the value of not taking yourself too seriously; and the sheer fun of arriving incognito, everyone peering under the veil, through the mask or over the bandages to try to work out who these strangers are.

Perhaps I just hadn't noticed this before, or perhaps this has suddenly happened: when did Halloween get so huge? Pottinger Street, a narrow, precipitous, awkwardly paved slope, was a riot of eager shoppers at lunchtime yesterday, clutching cloaks and pumpkins and bargaining half-heartedly. On the way to a Halloween birthday party last night, the streets around Lan Kwai Fong were packed with nurses and mummies and draculas and devils and tarty policewomen and schoolgirls and angels and Spanish senoritas and Harvey Dent lookalikes unabashedly drinking and waving their plastic tridents and broomsticks in the air like they just didn't care.

I was attempting to look like a witch, with long purple hair, dramatic green eye make up that aged me by about 30 years, a pointy hat and a rather fine cloak with a statement collar. It was hotter than hell under that hat and most of the accessories were gradually discarded as the evening wore on and we danced to defiantly 1980s tunes in a sweaty basement nightclub (I wish to inform you that girls they wanna - wanna have fun - girls, wanna have fun - oh girls, girls just wanna have fun). I was wearing vertiginous heels and kicked myself in the foot several times, drawing blood.

Stumbling out for a taxi later on, the street scenes were even more Bacchanalian with people spilling out of pubs onto the streets, traffic completely gridlocked, a tumult of voices and the bawling of drunken conversations. It would be trite to conclude, although I'm going to do so anyway (hence the naff title of this post) that the current uncertainty hovering over the world's financial markets is making it more compelling for the expats of Hong Kong to dress up in cheap tat and party like it was 1999.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

The best possible taste

I don't often write about food, which is surprising given how much I love it (and accordingly, I'm no sylph). For some reason I was feeling very hungry on the bus today, on the way home from work, and this made me think about the fact that actually it sometimes doesn't even matter what you're eating: the environment, the company you're keeping, the weather, the music, something unpredictable and unique or even just how stupidly hungry you are can make the following list of things, for instance, taste better than anything you've ever tasted:

a cup of tea in a plastic mug outside my just-pitched tent;
fish and chips from Joe's Fish Bar in Tranent, straight out of the packet;
a bowl of Doll instant noodles (probably chicken flavour);
fish fingers and tomato sauce, eaten with my fingers;
cold baked beans from a tin with a bent fork;
a spoonful of crunchy peanut butter from the jar; or
a slightly burnt sausage in a bap at a badly organised barbeque.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Our velocity

Terry was one of the founders of the "little school" which my sister and brother and I attended. We were taken out of state school in 1979 and started at Woodhall, as it was known, a large cottage set in the hillside near our village, with a walled garden and outhouses. Due to local authority requirements, the school had to have a set, approved curriculum and was regularly inspected.

Terry and his then-girlfriend, Mary, were teachers and they created the environment around which the school, and the other teachers, coalesced. Terry was a maths teacher and enthusiast and had a powerful presence which had a strong impact on my sister and I as pre-adolescents - so much so that we professed to "hate" Terry and formed the "Terry's Rotten Apples Club" (a cipher for "Terry's Rotten") which met in a cupboard under the stairs. We teased him and Mary mercilessly - I remember my sister saying boldly, to shocked silence, "Terry and Mary are going lick the cream bowl in bed!", for their relationship, which they had clearly agreed was not to be acknowledged in the school environment (and justifiably so: it was none of our business), and for the fact that they were both vegetarians (I once hoodwinked Mary into eating a beef crisp which I'd cunningly disguised by placing it in a bag of cheese and onion crisps). We really behaved quite appallingly.

Terry taught me probability using thousands of throws of the dice, the results meticulously logged; he taught me calculus, and we drew beautiful pie charts. I loved my maths lessons, although I behaved as though I hated them; I loved Terry too. After I left when I was 13, to go to a "normal" school (which turned out to be Steiner school, so not that normal), I'd see him from time to time and always felt as though we had a special connection, not least because of my faint guilt at the way we had behaved; but also because I felt that no matter what I had done, I was forgiven.

Terry went on to become a counsellor, drawing on the infinite reserves of patience and good humour he used with us. He died three years ago, in his early fifties, of a brain tumour. For a few years before he died he suffered operations, and bloating from drugs, and periods where he was vague and slow; but he was still recognisably Terry, even though he was no longer the powerful, vital man he used to be. Even now he still seems so alive to me that I can't quite register that he isn't.

When my sister called to tell me he had died, I stood and cried on the platform of the train station in Singapore where I was waiting for a train to take me to the airport.

The last time I saw him was at my dad's birthday party. Terry held court in the corner, clearly very ill, but smiling; and in a slightly tipsy state I went over and talked to him and hugged him for a while and then said "You made me what I am". He replied "You made me what I am".


Joan Didion writes succinctly on Salon about the real issues obscured by the farrago of misinformation surrounding the US election.

Finding Number 1 of the recent report into whether Palin abused her power in having a state trooper fired: "For reasons explained in Section IV of this report, I find that Governor Sarah Palin abused her power by violating Alaska Statute".

Sarah Palin's reaction? "I'm very, very pleased to be cleared of any legal wrongdoing ... any hint of any kind of unethical activity there."

No wonder the rest of the world is observing this election with a mixture of apprehension and astonishment.

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Oh music come and light my heart's dark places

When I was a kid I used to share a room with my younger brother (happy birthday, Robin). I had the top bunk on the bunkbed, which was against the wall. Directly on the other side of the wall, my mum's piano stood in the living room; I used to lie in bed at night listening to her play, the chords resonating through the wall. She often played my favourite piece of music, Beethoven's Sonata No. 8, Pathetique, 2nd Movement (here, and this is the best version on YouTube, played by wonderboy Freddy Kempf), and even now when I hear it I'm instantly transported back to what seems to be, for me, a rare moment of peace and tranquillity. My mum put together a series of photographs for my 40th birthday recently and looking at the earlier ones, I look so sad (there's one particularly piercing one which I clearly remember being taken: me and my sorry little face, standing with a group of people on the doorstep of our cottage, about to go to school, dreading it, my little plastic bag of belongings in my hand).

People ask me what it's like to be 40 and I tell them, without exaggeration, that the older I get, and even though there are lovely memories in there too (Beethoven through the wall), the further away I get from my childhood, the happier I am.

Saturday, October 04, 2008


The headline on CNN this morning: "Many Iraqis not focused on vice-presidential debate". That may be because they are focused, inexplicably, on surviving.

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Hypocrisy is the greatest luxury

In the South China Morning Post this week, news that the Hong Kong government is considering promoting Hong Kong as an environmentally aware city, and redesigning the dragon, Hong Kong's current logo, to reflect that (they will presumably engage a team of consultants at great expense over several months to come up with the innovative conclusion that the red dragon should be green, and perhaps have a plastic bag wrapped around one of its claws). This is, with unassailable logic, due to the high level of environmental awareness amongst the population due to the fact that, er, we live in an increasingly and unbelievably polluted city (see photographic evidence below) which the government is, also er, doing nothing about.

Silhouettes and alcohol

I had a red-hot chilli martini with some friends in the bar at the top of the Mandarin Oriental and then with my head spinning and throat burning, came home and watched the video of Alexander McQueen's A/W collection on net-a-porter. Clean lines, perfect silhouettes and simple but elegant tailoring. It might be the vodka talking but these seem to me to be things of beauty, with no hint of gimmicks (though I could have sworn the model wearing Look 5 has knock knees; you'll have to watch the video to spot it).

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Not a lot of money these days

Thank God the US Treasury, in charge of resolving the financial meltdown, are using appropriate reference to the extent of the problem, cold hard logic and statistical analysis to identify the appropriate extent of the bailout:

In fact, some of the most basic details, including the $700 billion figure
Treasury would use to buy up bad debt, are fuzzy.

'It’s not based on any particular data point,' a Treasury spokeswoman told Forbes.com [on] Tuesday. 'We just wanted to
choose a really large number'.

Dr Evil couldn't have put it any better.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Cleft palate

Admittedly, competition is fierce, but surely these are hot contenders for the most revolting shoe ever designed? Shoe-boots for goblins.

Look on the light side

Yesterday was a really long day, completely swallowed up by paddling: I was up at 7am to register for a 21K race from Stanley to Po Toi and back again, and the women’s race set off at 8.30. It was already too hot by that time and 21K is a hell of a long way by any standards (2 and a half hours of effort). I was steering my first distance race, which made me feel pretty nervous: it’s a lot of responsibility. I don’t mind taking responsibility at work (and I have to), but opting for it out of work is a different matter. It was, in any event, an object lesson in what can go wrong: having been right behind the leaders (our club’s main Hong Kong rivals) for much of the race and battling with a much more experienced women’s crew for second place, I made a mistake, we went in the wrong direction and I had to correct our course substantially to get back to the yellow buoy we were supposed to go around, which cost us three places. I was really gutted, but had to continue to project a positive outlook to the crew so that we didn’t lose out even further due to sheer demoralisation. The paddle back across the bay seemed to last for aeons and everyone was struggling, but we somehow kept going and the boats behind us couldn’t catch us.

Despite everything, I thought I steered a pretty good race: I kept the boat straight and managed to paddle a lot instead of just "poking" (sticking the steering blade in the water to change direction) all the time. I felt pretty upset immediately afterwards though: as steersperson it’s my responsibility to take the right course. Lesson learned – pay attention during the race briefing. And I was amazed by the magnanimity of my crew, who’d seen their hard-fought second place disappear due to my error. They were so nice to me about it that it was humbling.

Later on the club held a barbeque for everyone who raced and I spent a happy hour or two slaving over a hot grill looking after an excess of meat – the grace under pressure and camaraderie of my fellow barbeque operatives, not to mention the absurdity of trying to cook 100 sausages on a tiny grill, being much more enjoyable than standing dourly around with a can of beer talking about paddling. We had so many sausages that one of the barbeque chain gang, James, ended up going down to Deep Water Bay beach that evening, after we’d finished clearing up, and handing them out to the legions of Filipina helpers who gather there under the trees on their day off. I've already told him that next week there will be a rapidly growing crowd. Word will have got out that there are free sausages on a Sunday - it will be just like Life of Brian, except that they'll be worshipping sausages instead of a gourd.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Back to black

It's been somewhat po-faced round here of late. Definitely time for some frivolity: Roland Mouret Pigalle dress, from Net-A-Porter. Part, apparently, of the new minimalism.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Aural testimony

When I was 7, in the summer of 1976, I had post-aural lymphadenitis (this is what it said on the plastic tag around my wrist, and I memorised it, much to the annoyance of anyone who subsequently asked me why I'd been in hospital). I remember blinding pain in my ear, which started when we were at the beach, 1976 having been a long hot summer; and I ended up in "the Sick Kids", Edinburgh's children's hospital, crying with pain and fear at being separated from my mum.

Piercing little memories from that time come back to me. I remember them in much the same way as I can recall, as a three year old, not being able to read and looking uncomprehendingly at street signs (much like being in a foreign country). I had a room of my own, and it was the first time I had ever seen, much less eaten, liver, which wobbled alarmingly on the plate and which I comprehensively rejected; a neighbour brought me "Five Children and It" to read - I'm still, even now, unsure what or who "It" was, although I remember he/she/It could grant wishes which somehow had a Monkey's Paw-like tendency to backfire; I watched the diving in the Olympics on a tiny TV perched high in the corner, and really didn't comprehend that it was a sport; I cried hysterically when I was told that I had to stay in hospital for three more days; I fell in love with my nurse and insisted on giving her a mawkish plastic rose when I left, which has forever haunted me since as having been quite possibly nicked from someone's graveside tableau; and being transported, for one horrible night, to the general children's ward and lying awake, terrified, to the sound of others' breathing and moaning.

Afterwards, of course, as a manipulative little sod I turned the experience to my advantage as a badge of courage and source of stories, including an entirely made up tale of a child dying in the bed next to me and being taken away in the night. The thrilling story retold never, for some reason, included a description of a terrified 7 year old crying abjectly at being abandoned.

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Motorcycle emptiness

During our week in the US we unwittingly stumbled into a strange netherworld where monstrosities like the above are considered attractive, even desirable: there was a Harley convention in Kona while we were there and thousands of Harley riders on lovingly-rendered custom bikes like these descended on poor tiny Kona town to ride mindlessly around, with the apparent highlight of the whole tour being the humble, grass-covered mini-roundabout outside our hotel (I've ridden on a Harley, and an extremely boring and uncomfortable experience it was too: a perfect example of form over function). Helmets aren't mandatory so no one wears one. I know they are going more slowly than a horse and cart, but to my mind (and I speak as someone who had several near-serious accidents riding my scooter in London traffic) it makes the legal principle of "eggshell skull" seem a little more descriptive than necessary.

It reminded me of the leaked comments of a Harley executive about the appeal of their bikes: "We sell Harleys so that a man whose job title is 'accountant' can roar though a small town and feel good about himself".

Monday, September 08, 2008

Hard news

I've remarked before that it's almost impossible to get proper news of any description while in the rural US. International newspapers are non-existent; I found a single copy of the exotic New York Times in Honololu, and after the first day avoided the vacuous local press, but TV news is worse than useless. The focus of every "news" channel? Tracking the path of Hurricane Gustav (CNN, ludicrously, was billing itself as "Your Hurricane Headquarters") and the evacuation of New Orleans which, while undoubtedly important for those involved, is less pressing than any of the other multitude of things that happened while we were in Hawaii, such as the political crisis in Thailand or Fukuda's resignation, which I didn't know about till I got back.

Even more saturation coverage, however, was afforded to the arrest of "Casey" Anthony, the mother of "Caylee", a missing 5-year old girl from Florida, on unrelated chequebook charges. Speculation, the principle of sub judice clearly not being an issue here, was running riot. The nadir of this prurient coverage was surely reached by a dessicated harpy, eponymous star of the current affairs show "Nancy Grace", who asked a reporter broadcasting live outside Casey and Caylee's apartment: "Did they make this arrest at this time because they knew Nancy Grace would be live on air?" To which the hapless reporter replied, bravely: "Uh, no, I don't think that was a consideration". Presumably Nancy's next words to her offline were "You're fired!"

On the other hand, the local paper, West Hawaii Today, reported every race we were in on the front page of the following day's issue. And you could buy a copy of something called "Da Jesus Book" at the airport.

Sunday, September 07, 2008

Where the clouds are far behind me

View from Waimea Canyon, Kauai, Hawaii, September 2008 (© Simon Zeng Hao)

Although we did redeem ourselves by coming 8th in a double hull, 12-person race the following day, our anti-climactic start in the 18-mile race took the shine off the racing experience; the better part of the trip for me was the camaraderie amongst the team, the way that obscure catchphrases always develop and take a life of their own ("I haven't had a moustache since 1972!"), the sheer pleasure of new landscapes and experiences, with nothing more pressing to do than read books, talk, sit peacefully by the sea, or lie on your back in the sand looking up at the astonishing array of stars.

On the first day of the race I dropped my Blackberry in the water in the bottom of a canoe we were removing from the water. This wasn't deliberate - I also managed to wreck a camera one of my fellow crew-members had given me for safekeeping - but it did mean that I could no longer check work emails and was reprieved of technology-induced anxiety and the sense that my time is not my own, even on holiday.

We spent a few days on the island of Kauai (where, of course, Elvis filmed the incomparable masterpiece Blue Hawaii, and other incomparable masterpieces such as Jurassic... Raiders of... and South Pacific were also filmed), home to the entirely benign Pacific Missile Range facility. Five of us shared an old sugar plantation cottage in Waimea, where James Cook first came ashore from the HMS Resolution in 1778 (although he appears rather imperiously to have sent William Bligh ahead first to make sure the natives were friendly) right by the black volcanic sands of a tumultuous shoreline. We explored Waimea Canyon in our unwieldy hire car.

On our last day we took a catamaran trip along the Na Pali coastline. Nonchalant goats tripped along precarious ledges high above, dolphins swam with the boat, and Israel Kamakawiwo'ole's ukulele version of Somewhere Over the Rainbow/Wonderful World played on the PA system as they served us mai-tais and we returned home through a gap in the raincloud.

Smoked on the water

I've just spent a week in Hawaii racing in the Queen Lili'Uokalani Long Distance Canoe Race. The women's course runs from Kailua-Kona town to Honaunau Bay. As always at these events, the women go out first, at the crack of dawn. The start is often the best part of the race: over 100 canoes tightly packed along the start line waiting for the gun in a maelstrom of incredible energy and excitement. Unfortunately our canoe missed the gun; at that point we were about 50 meters behind the line and rather than powering off the start galvanised by the boats around us, we were forced to set off somewhat bathetically on our lonely 18 mile course, already behind.

The water itself is not particularly exciting: nothing like the 4 meter swells we encountered at Hamilton Island; but once we had shed our frustration, we began to pull back against the other boats and enjoy the race, particularly when the 9-member change race crews, who started 15 minutes behind, began to catch us: when the top women's crew steamed past us, we caught the wake from their support boat and some of their power and started to feel better again.

Our time was 2 hours 42 minutes, a good 30 minutes behind the winners but better than the 3 hour marathon we'd been training for. Huge turtles surfaced in the bay as we brought our boat to shore beside Danny Ching's crew who were preparing for the men's race, returning all the boats to Kona. The area where we landed is sacred in Hawaiian mythology as a place where you could seek refuge for any number of transgressions: if you were a woman who made the sacreligious error of eating with a man, or even worse, eating a banana, or a man who crossed the shadow of a great chief, you could find sanctuary there.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Eye of the storm

I am at home, and was waiting for the Typhoon No. 8 signal to be issued at 8am as promised on the Hong Kong Observatory's website, at which point I could declare the office closed; it has now been issued, but in the meantime I was rather taken with the Typhoon No. 10 warning, which is unreasonably poetic:

that if the eye of the typhoon
passes directly over Hong Kong,
there may be a temporary
lasting a few minutes to several hours.

Do not relax
your guard, as there will be
a sudden resumption
of violent winds
from a different direction. Remain
where you are if protected
and be prepared for
destructive winds.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Architecture and morality

On the other side of the harbour from my office on Hong Kong Island, the tower of the new ICC building is taking shape in West Kowloon. Known as a "superskyscraper", it will be 490m tall and Hong Kong's tallest building on its completion in 2010. It already looks too big for its surroundings: the only thing distinguishing it, like most skyscrapers, is its height.
At certain times of day it throws a shield of reflected sunlight across the harbour almost too bright to look towards - it's changed the landscape of the harbour forever. Did the architects realise that when the sun hit the glass at a certain angle it would shine out like a contemporary Pharos? There's something so arrogant and at the same time quite astonishing about it.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

The past is another country

August Sander, Peasants (1914)
I stood in the National Gallery in London for a long time looking at this picture. There is something so elegant and dignified about their faces, full of hope; on the way to the dance and wearing their best suits. I thought of William Trevor's wonderful short story, The Ballroom of Romance, about rural Ireland in the 1950s: hopeful, lonely people making their way to the nearest ballroom, some walking or cycling for miles for the promise of love.
There's an interesting article here by John Berger about this photograph, and others in the Sander catalogue: his project, cut short by the war, was to capture "Citizens of the Twentieth Century".

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

The White Stone of Lewis

Do not attempt
to lift the white stone.
It is smooth quartzite
and weighs a lifetime.

You would prove your back
could take the strain:
brave, ambitious
you can handle any challenge.

But other strengths are more sustaining:
able to change and take changes
lift old habits from heavy soil
get to grips with the smooth surface
of self deception.

Let others do the heaving and shoving
who shoulder burdens they cannot manage
and set their sights on defeating others
in pointless shows of strength.

You carry the stone with you:
crystal with hope
light with humour
smooth with complete integrity.

Tessa Ransford

Monday, August 11, 2008

Tales of the city

As children my brother and sister and I were surrounded by storytellers amongst our parents' friends: David, a musician, favoured horror stories told in sepulchural tones (the Slavic folk tale of Baba Yaga was a particular favourite); Martin, a nurse who eventually committed suicide, used to tell us gory stories about decapitation in road accidents; Ian, who died in Amsterdam last year, had been a rocker in Hastings in the late 1960s and regaled us with tales of pitched battles with mods, Quadrophenia style; Uncle Mike, now completely estranged from our family, invented a character called Rufus, who lived by the railway lines in a cardboard box. Probably the most consummate storyteller, and my favourite, was "Doody M", who went on to write scripts for Coronation Street.

Every so often I will read a short story somewhere and realise I have heard it before: M clearly pillaged everything he had read for material. When in my teens I read F. Scott Fitzgerald's "The Diamond as Big as the Ritz" (1922), I realised that I had already heard the entire story, in almost perfect detail, at the age of 8: in a marquee, at a wedding in a place called Jerusalem Croft, sitting on M's knee and wearing a green dress with white hearts which my mum had adapted from the previous year's gala outfit, and sporting, for unintended comic effect, a sling because I'd fractured my arm falling out of a tree earlier that day.

M, who lived in London, became my hero because he was a writer: he published several plays and had work performed at the Hampstead Theatre. I started writing to him when I was about 15 and treasured his letters. I sent him my pathetic efforts at short stories and was devastated when he sent back a thoroughly critiqued, marked up copy of one of them - about a murder in a block of flats - with the word "cliché" appearing frequently in the margin.

He told me about his small triumphs in getting the BBC interested in his work (once writing hubristically "Frame this letter!") and I told him about whatever small triumphs I could possibly have had at 16. But it fell apart when my dad, who took a close interest in M's letters to me, told someone he'd met who worked in the media about some great secret that M had told me not to divulge. M sent me a furious letter denouncing me as a traitor. I saw him once after that: I visited his flat in Elephant & Castle. After an awkward cup of tea, he had to go out and was very uncomfortable about leaving me there alone waiting for doolally Auntie Jane, who was late to pick me up. I said to him "I won't pry" and didn't, but after that we never spoke again.

Thinking about it now, he was a somewhat cynical man (I remember him singing/sneering along to an embittered folk song, "When you're tired of worldly toil/Shuffle off this mortal coil") who expected more from me than I could give and was unreasonably hysterical in his reaction to what he saw as my betrayal, which was in fact my dad's; but at the time I was very upset about it. I prefer to remember the amazing stories.

Monday, August 04, 2008

Poetry makes nothing happen

R was a Greek scholar and poet who was also a pyromaniac who'd set fires that endangered those around him. My dad met him through another poet and began to visit him where he was incarcerated, in the notorious Carstairs State Prison. Later, he was deemed less dangerous and was transferred to "the Royal Ed" - which was sited during that time at Craiglockhart, where Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon met. We had boxes of his books at home for safe keeping - hundreds of volumes of Penguin Modern Classics, dusty and frayed, which I spent hours going through.

In the late 1970s R was allowed weekend release and used to come to our house and sit in the same chair, by the fireplace; when it was my job to light the fire, braving the night with my torch to bring the wicker basket full of logs from the woodshed out the back and crumpling newspaper to lay it, I felt incredibly self-conscious as he watched me in silence: he the expert and me the amateur.

He was, my dad told me, "institutionalised": this meant that he was silent or mumbling, a brooding presence in the corner; jowly, like Ted Hughes, wearing an ancient frayed Argyle sweater, fumbling with his roll-ups and his pipe. I was terrified of him.

in the mid-1980s, on a long weekend visit to my Dad's house in East Linton, he was left alone in the house for a few hours. When my dad returned he discovered that R had set small inept fires everywhere and stuck his head in the oven. Domestic gas was detoxified in 1973, and it's not been possible to kill yourself with gas poisoning alone since then; if you seal the doors and wait long enough, it might work, but the ancient chaotic cottage was quite unsuitably draughty so he was lying there for a few hours.

This bathetic episode was the end of his freedom; he never got day release again and he died in hospital a couple of years later.

He wrote poetry about the mountains and Scottish iconography and published a book of poetry in 1978. I can hardly reconcile the monosyllabic, haunted figure of my childhood with someone of such imagination, now apparently regarded as "cruelly underrated"; but these poems were written while he was in hospital.

I kept some of his books - long since "mine"; and still have some of them with me.

Sunday, August 03, 2008


In Edinburgh, on the day before the first day of the Edinburgh festival, as immortalised in Trainspotting; I've never seen so many people on the streets, but that may be because when I lived here, I studiously avoided coming in to the city centre for the reasons outlined here (call me small-minded and parochial).

Irvine himself I was never that sure about, ken - visceral and shocking at first, and perverse fun to read aloud on a beach in Italy; but something of a one trick pony especially in later novels. He reviews others for the Guardian now.

Jenny Turner once wrote a devastating critique of Ecstasy here which has yet to be bettered.

I'd forgotten they're building tramlines (Darling Alistair's pet project, much to the scorn of Private Eye) and there seem to be roadblocks everywhere. I walked past the old Miss Selfridge just to see the modern neon clothes (same as the old clothes) and always pause for Robert Louis Stevenson's favourite view: down the straight streets to the Forth.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Tai tai again

This photograph was taken at 2pm yesterday in Wellington Street. I suppose it makes a certain kind of sense, unlike the handbag declaring “I am not a plasac bag” which I saw someone proudly toting the other day.

The front of this t-shirt said (obviously) “WONDERFUL THING WITH PEACE”; sadly I wouldn’t have been able to get a picture of it without causing alarm to the lieges. The best way to keep out of the heat (34 degrees yesterday) and pollution (q.v.), to get back to my office from my meeting is through a labrynthine air-conditioned above-ground network of connections between posh shopping malls – to wit, I can go up the escalator to HMV and thence past Harvey Nichols into the Landmark; from there past Burberry to Alexandra House; and from there to Prince’s Building and out of the exit by Cartier. The above litany of luxury shops clearly attracts legions of tai tais and I pondered, as I often do when walking briskly through Central during working hours, that if I had nothing to do all day but wander around spending money and having lunch with my “friends” (ie other women who didn’t have to work), how terribly empty I would feel.

Solid air

Compare and contrast these two photographs from my office window, one taken last week and one taken yesterday. The poor quality camera phone photograph doesn't really illustrate the smog in all its horrific detail, but it had a nasty metallic look to it. The sun continued to shine but you could hardly tell.

The Environmental Protection Department's website said that pollution in Central yesterday was "High" at 63 (on Hong Kong's own mealy-mouthed Air Pollution Index which does not refer to international standards because that would show us as being completely off the scale) and consisted of "respirable suspended particulates". The pre-Olympic crackdown on heavy industrial factories around Beijing may well have resulted in a compensatory powering up of factories in Guangdong province, just over the border, but more likely it's just business as usual for Hong Kong: with a few weeks' respite and glorious blue skies, it became difficult to imagine the pollution (like pain, it's hard to remember the visceral detail of the experience when you're not suffering it).

Saturday, July 26, 2008

I've seen the future

Divers (1930) - George Hoyningen-Huene (1900-1968). The composition and the texture of this photograph are flawless. I have a vague memory of it having been the cover of one of Penguin's editions of The Great Gatsby. Sunshine, languor, beauty, and nothing lasts forever.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Eat drink man woman

I spend some of my time at work doing presentations for lawyers. The law firm arranges for me to come in to their office to do the presentation which lasts an hour and earns attendees the princely sum of one point towards an annual requirement for continuous legal education. The presentations usually take place over the lunch hour so sandwiches are served, almost always in trays from Pret a Manger. I've done probably about 50 of them in the last few years. It's a great way to get in front of clients (usually between 10 and 20 litigators attend, sometimes more) and I really enjoy doing them: I have fun, make people laugh, tell what I hope are interesting anecdotes, know my subject well - or at least better than my audience (except when I was in front of 50 Melbourne barristers, but that's another story), which is what really matters - and we get business out of it because they remember where to come if they need our services.

I never usually talk about work on my blog but I had to break my own rule for this: yesterday's attendees behaved so shockingly rudely that I stumbled in my presentation. When I started my introduction, the only thing the more junior attendees (who were all young Chinese women, as a statement of fact, and there was a gang of about 10 of them seated round the table, ie more than half the people in the room) were focused on was the food on the table: rustling their paper bags, unwrapping them, discarding the contents, picking up another paper bag, swapping with each other, getting the right spoon, asking someone else to pass a Coke can, and eating with heads down and utter concentration on the task at hand.

After about five minutes of this, the most senior person there stood up and said loudly and pointedly that as a matter of courtsey they should immediately stop rustling and fussing about with the food and listen to their guest speaker (me). I said I'd give them two minutes to sort themselves out, did so, and then continued, to hardly rapt, but at least slightly chastened, silence.

Fifty presentations, at least, and that was the first time anything so unnerving had ever happened to me.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Despot housewives

I nearly bought a pair of Salvatore Ferragamo shoes in the sale at Lane Crawford. One thing stopped me though (apart from the fact that they were still ridiculously over-priced): I have vowed, on principle, never to buy anything by Salvatore Ferragamo (whose assistants at the Mandarin Oriental, by the way, exemplify that terrible Hong Kong trait of following you so closely round the shop that if you look round suddenly, both of you get a fright).

Robert Mugabe's wife, spending millions in designer shops in Paris, told a journalist disdainfully that she had to wear Ferragamo shoes and, indeed, could wear nothing else because her feet are too narrow for normal shoes. This, while her despotic husband presides over the world's fastest shrinking economy, ruthlessly murders his opponents (and their wives), and turns his country upside down.

Grace, and that's her name, is the reason why I couldn't buy anything with that logo on it.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

The soft bed of luxury

One of the above dresses costs US$2400. The other, a third of that. Can you guess which? And then the real challenge: can you guess why?
A clue: one of them is by Bottega Veneta which seem to have successfully established itself as a premium luxury brand (it was rated the world's top luxury brand in the 2008 Luxury Brand Status Index (LBSI) survey from the ludicrously named New York City-based Luxury Institute, which canvassed the idle rich to find out their opinions; apparently "wealthy women are highly discerning, almost to a fault"); partly by virtue, apparently, of superior craftsmanship, and partly, it seems to me, and this is one of the tricks of the luxury trade, by charging shedloads of money for their product. It works in Hong Kong - and if you look at their site, the roll-call of locations is quite illuminating.
Dresses by Bottega Veneta and Lanvin; shoes by Azzedine Alaia and Balenciaga, all from Browns.

Friday, July 04, 2008

I can see clearly now

The view from my office window of Victoria Harbour, Hong Kong, July 3, 2008. On my way in to work on the 260 bus, I saw islands in the distance I didn't know were there. The reason for this unusual clarity and excellent visibility? Depending who you ask, the factories in Guangzhou have been closed by flooding, so they aren't spewing out toxicity; and/or storms have cleared away the smog. Paddling on the water in the last few weeks, though, has been like navigating through a vast mobile junkheap of flip-flops, wrappers, branches, shoes, plastic bags, dead dogs (really) and empty bottles. So you can have either clear skies or clean water; never both.


Charing Cross, from the window of the Charing Cross hotel; early morning, late June 2008

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Whole country goes down pan

I always spend a bit of time when back in the UK browsing the supermarket/newsagent shelves for front page tabloid headlines, an effort which usually repays itself tenfold; if for no other reason than to get a wafer-thin impression of what people are thinking and talking about and how poorly and crassly it can possibly be expressed.

The winner this week? The beleaguered Labour government has introduced some tentative, watered down legislation to encourage employers to take on, er, more women and ethnic minorities in view of the fact that they, again er, tend not to. All subtleties of analysis, not to mention statistics, are cavalierly cast aside, though, by the Daily Express with this:


Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Modern neon

Walking along behind this woman in Central today - all in black except for her neon satin shoes - I was suddenly pierced by the strongest memories of the early 1980s. Neon colours do that to me, perhaps because they are so clearly associated with that era, just when I was coming alive to colour and texture and the allure, elusiveness and changeability of fashion, and have never really been worn since - until now, apparently.

More specifically, I'm in Miss Selfridge in Hanover Street in Edinburgh, with The Church of the Poison Mind (which even at the time I derided as puerile) on the shop's stereo and spectacularly bad-tempered Shirley Manson serving behind the counter. I'm picking up a blue and white striped ra ra skirt and contemplating a neon yellow bangle or belt to go with it.

When I was 14, Miss Selfridge was the key to being the person I wanted to be: happy, confident, popular, wearing my stripy skirt, neon dangling from my ears as I skipped along Princes Street.
I think perhaps cynicism began to set in not long afterwards, and I favoured black (and dyed my hair to prove it); I never wore neon again and probably never will. It was strange to be skewered today by the sight of someone's shoes.

Monday, June 23, 2008

All bets are off

I was in Las Vegas in 2001, at an excruciating sales conference. In my jaundiced view, not helped by the event I was attending nor by the ludicrous hotel we were staying in (“New York New York”), it was a profoundly depressing place, and even from the absurdly privileged vantage point of a high-rolling banker’s free suite at the top of the Bellagio, with a glass of Dom Perignon in my hand, it seemed as hollow as it looks. The worst aspect, and sadly this accounts for the majority of the revenue generated by Las Vegas, was the slot machines: people dressed in extremely casual, almost pyjama-level clothing, each handing over their dollars for a big bucket of dimes which they then proceeded to feed into the slot machines for hours on end, as if participating in a giant metaphor for futility.

Melbourne has a super-casino too, by the river, flanked by strange, huge, sculptural towers spouting gouts of flame every minutes or so; but inside it has exactly the same feel as anywhere in Las Vegas: an ersatz environment, entirely focused on parting fools with their money. Adam Smith could have been thinking of super-casinos, had they existed in the 18th century, when he said: "A lottery is a tax on all the fools in creation".

Macau's casinos, 40 minutes by ferry from Hong Kong, have now overtaken Las Vegas in terms of revenue. In Macau, the interesting thing is that the revenue streams are reversed: 80% of Macau's revenue comes from the tables. This is, not surprisingly, attributed to the fact that the Chinese like people to know how much they are spending; it's a face issue (see below under Maybach, Napoleon wrasse, and Louis Vuitton). No miserable solitude at the slots for them.

Now Macau has become a replica of Las Vegas (which is itself a poor, hotel theme park replica of all the interesting places in the world) it's even less likely I will ever go there again, even if you can get the best Portuguese egg tarts in the kingdom at Lord Stow's Bakery in Coloane.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Draw a veil

In space-strapped Hong Kong, in Repulse Bay, on prime land overlooking the water, there's a huge car showroom taking up about as much room as a spacious residence with garden, or, let's say, a library, a school, or a public swimming pool. It only houses one car: the Maybach. It's a boring, big-bonneted, dim-looking car with strangely whimsical curtains in the back (for the esteemed passenger's privacy, I think) which remind me of those funny little elasticated curtains you get in caravans; and it costs about US$500,000. Not as ugly as the Chrysler Crematorium: but clearly not an attractive car in any way. (It's a must-have buy, of course, for your average Hong Kong tycoon; I think Stanley Ho has one.)

Not such a clever buy after all, though, Stanley: this is a car that, in the first three years of its life (and as soon as you've taken off the shrink wrap) depreciates by US$1,200 a week.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Change your spots

I may be the only woman in the world who doesn't like Sex and the City. I really can't be moved by anything about it. What I do share with (what I understand to be) one of the bubble-headed pre-occupations of its protagonists (I may be being unfair here, but so be it) is a love of shoes I can't explain.

Today, at lunchtime, in Lane Crawford: Alexander McQueen.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Nostalgia is the enemy of the future

Oh, but they look so good...


No more to be said. Wrong, wrong, wrong.

Take the low road

My brother, sister and I were bullied by the kids in our village (see under "home schooling", below) for being toffs or tinks and well, just weird or different. I started going to school in Edinburgh aged 13 and used to have to get the bus home (no 113, 55p) and alight in the village by the phone box and walk up "the low path" through the woods to get home. The kids from the village were always hanging about near the bus stop intimidatingly. I remember practically hiding in the phone box one day calling for help; and I always felt a sense of relief on crossing the bridge and turning through the doorway onto the path away from the village.

With your family you often fall into a pattern that is hard to break even when you move away, and it's the same with bullies: even years later they can trigger some pathetic button that says they're in control. After I finished university I had to spend the summer at home and took the same bus journey from my part time job in a Musselburgh kebab shop, running the gauntlet of stares and abuse from Tennant's Special-toting losers by the Trevelyan Hall every day. One day the verbal attacks were particularly vicious and I went home in tears of anger and helplessness. My younger brother R, who'd suffered as much as I did, had just bought a beat up old second hand car and when he saw me he said "come on", and we got in and sped into the village whereupon he waded in to the group of louts shouting "say sorry to my sister!"

Brave and foolhardy, you might think: but the cowards were cowed and they muttered "Er, sorry hen" and slunk away into the evening. I never had any trouble from them again.

A moment to be proud of and a completely cathartic event for both me and R - and you don't get those very often.

Friday, June 06, 2008

Elementary, my dear

Much to the consternation of my fellow passengers (that 260 bus at 8am from Stanley to Central carries some heavy hitters, all of them on Blackberries and phones and laptops or talking about buying and selling gold) I laughed out loud on the bus to work this morning when I read the following email from my friend D, whom I’d challenged to use the word “lachrymose” in conversation:

“I felt pretty lachrymose at 2:00pm today when I read that Guy Ritchie will be
making a big budget Sherlock Holmes franchise, and that he will be ridding the
character of his ‘Victorian stuffiness’.
It all took place in seconds:
disbelief, denial, lachrymosity (starring Russell Crowe) and then a soul deep
need to push Guy Ritchie down a flight of stairs.
PS: Quite apart from
anything else, the character was never ‘stuffy’, or even particularly

And yes, a sense of revulsion and disbelief engulfed me too at the news that cack-handed Mockney Ritchie is to be entrusted with this pointless adaptation (“No Shit Sherlock”?) – no doubt plumbing the depths of the popular consensus and making Watson, and perhaps even Holmes himself, into some travesty of a Luvvable Cocker-ney into the bargain. Russell Crowe is part of the incipient farrago in the title role; as for Watson, is Michael Caine looking for work?

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Any colour you want

Airhead "Nicky Hambleton-Jones", who is apparently the presenter of something called 10 Years Younger, although she doesn't look it, says in today's South China (and please put on a silly posh English accent when you read this to yourself, or indeed to any incredulous acquaintance or passer-by): "Your hair can also be incredibly ageing and jet-black hair is incredibly stark and draining on any skin. You can soften it by going for a dark brown or warm brown so it takes the edge off the black that's so popular in Hong Kong."

Er - that would be the natural hair colour of most people in Hong Kong?

Is not elegance being able to completely forget what you are wearing?

Yves St Laurent, 1936-2008.

Saturday, May 31, 2008

Skinny dipping

I was in Kuala Lumpur this week, for two days, enjoying a curry served on a large banana leaf at the Royal Selangor Club and eaten entirely with the fingers (right hand only, as is the Muslim custom), and marvelling again at the spectacular other-worldness of the glowing Petronas Towers from the Sky Bar at Traders Hotel.

Yesterday I witnessed first hand a peculiar trend in the world of spa treatments, at a brand new (and almost empty) supermall near our hotel. This particular spa was known as "Dr Fish". Inside, rows of narrow fishtanks circumscribed the room in a continuous loop and patrons sat on the edge of the tank and dangled their feet over the edge for the fish to nibble at. Apparently although it tickles a bit to start with, it's therapeutic and healthy and the fish eat the dead skin and everything is wonderful, but I find this both undignified and, frankly, quite disgusting. One of our business partners, a large Australian, is very fond of the place: the only drawback is that the fish all flock to his feet as soon as he drops them in the water, much to the chagrin of the other patrons.

It did give me the opportunity to illustrate to my colleague L, a pragmatic Singaporean, the use of alliteration as a literary device with the phrase "I'm frightened of fish getting fat on my feet."

Friday, May 23, 2008

So watch it

My friend L told me last week that, in a week when everyone with an ounce of humanity in them was talking about the earthquake in Sichuan, all one of her colleagues (a lawyer) was focused on - and telling everyone about - was this US$20,000 watch he was going to buy.

I had a discussion about this today with my friend A, also a lawyer, who said that one of his clients, a banker, had so many watches, all worth at least US$20,000, that he kept them in a bag and wore a different one every day. He was arguing that this was an acceptable moral choice (although secretly I know he agreed with me that it is, in fact, the worst kind of self-regarding selfishness).

Friday, May 16, 2008

Friends again

My sister and brother and I spent part of our childhood being educated at home. After a difficult time at our rural Scottish primary school (we were either “tinks” because we were dressed in second hand clothes and clearly poor, or “toffs” because we had English accents) we didn’t have a peer group around us except for each other; and I think this affected all three of us: we felt like outsiders and our social skills (probably) and self-esteem (definitely) suffered as a result.

The other-ness that made us shy and fearful when we were children is, perhaps paradoxically, part of my confident armoury now; but one legacy from those days is that friends are hard-won, and important to me: I don’t collect them like bangles. The end of a friendship is something in its way as devastating as the end of a romantic relationship.

I started at a new school in Edinburgh, at the age of 13, having spent four years in the “little school”. It was a terrifying experience: how sophisticated they all were with their clothes and hair and make-up and cigarettes, and talk of snogging and lovebites and drinking at parties; how self-conscious I felt with my cheap clothes and hennaed hair. Another girl, F, joined a year or two later, an outsider in a different way, and we gravitated towards each other. She was very different from me: her parents lived in a huge house in Morningside, her father was a name partner in a firm of accountants, and she had come to the school from a well known all-girls school. F was overweight with dyed blonde hair and given to dressing in long black all encompassing tops and skirts. She was clever and funny too, but defensive and prickly and prone to outspoken criticism of others. She used to say she’d love to be a traffic warden because of the power it would give her over others. We were similar too and shared a love of the Smiths and of quoting lyrics at opportune moments (“aye, there’ll be blood on the cleaver tonight”). We went clubbing together at the (legendary, for Edinburgh) Kangaroo Klub, and I often stayed at her house. Her parents liked me. We never fought over boys. We had fun together, even though I resented her family’s wealth and she probably resented me for being slimmer than she was.

Perhaps because of our conflicting feelings about each other the sine curve of our friendship sometimes horrifyingly dipped into hatred and I particularly remember sitting cringeing in a maths class as I heard her loudly bitching to my brother’s ex-girlfriend about me. She was competitive and vindictive, and I was probably no better; when we were friends I loved her and when we were not I loathed her, and I’m sure she felt the same way about me.

After we left school we kept in touch; she went to Manchester University and I went to Glasgow, and despite a disastrous visit to “Madchester” where we went clubbing (I still remember dancing to the (pre-Blur) Mock Turtles’ “There’s No Other Way”) and she thoroughly alienated me and our friend Tara by spending the whole evening chatting up some skinny bloke and then announcing to us at 3am in her room to me and painfully boyfriend-less Tara “I’ve just got a boyfriend!”, we were still what you would call friends. When I applied for my postgraduate Diploma in Legal Practice she lent me some money to do the course, which was incredibly generous of her.

This was the seed of our downfall though: after I finished the course and started work, I was a bit slow to pay her back as I wasn’t earning much, and I missed a few payments. Instead of calling me about it, though, she took what was probably the advice of her parents and sent me a “legal” letter by registered post threatening me with legal action if I didn’t repay her with immediate effect.

I sent her a letter with postdated cheques for the remainder of the money, and said I was sorry and that I hoped we would laugh about this in years to come. I have never heard from her since.

I still think about her from time to time and wonder how she is and where she ended up. I heard she works as an audiologist and is very successful. I've never forgotten her, but I'll probably never speak to her again.