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.