Friday, December 11, 2009

Charmless garments: 3

Strictly speaking this next item is not a garment, but since it completes the charmless outfit when teamed with items 1 and 2 below, and it is a particularly loathsome thing altogether, it seems only (ill-)fitting to write about it.

My dad was always hopeless at picking clothes as gifts and every year of the 1970s, Christmas was marked, or marred, by whatever hideous gift he'd dreamed up to give to my mum, with a constant absence of success. Probably the most egregious excess, though, on an income that could ill afford frivolity, was a pair of handmade leather and wood lace-up clogs. They looked awful and uncomfortable, and wearing them (which I'm not sure my mum ever did) must have felt as though she were carrying around her own small, but burdensome, wooden cargo on each foot.

The word "clog" is appropriate because the sight and thought of them thoroughly clogs the pathways of the brain. And to add to the ignominy, clogs have gone boldly on to spawn one of the worst inventions in recent footwear history: the Croc.

Yes, the clog richly deserves all the opprobrium that can be heaped upon it: for it is clumpy, lumpy and frumpy all at the same time.

95 reasons

For years my family always owned the same car, in different iterations: a Saab 95. It was never a new car; often rusty, sometimes featuring rustproof paint along the side in a different colour; usually in an an unlovely hue of orange or green. At the school gates or pulling up alongside a satirical queue of couples outside the ABC Cinema in Lothian Road (yes, that's a real memory), it was an embarrassment; shamefully, in conversation with a school friend I once made it (by a slip of the tongue, of course) into a Saab 99; but on journeys it was our car, and there was a peculiar warmth and cameraderie about it. Saab 95 owners would wave to each other: acknowledging, perhaps, the joy and suffering associated with owning a car prone to rust and impossible breakdowns.

Its peculiar design meant that you could sit in the back seat facing backwards, and as a child I used to love being in the back, until I began to develop chronic travel sickness and a directly connected and instinctive loathing of watching the road running away behind me.

I clearly remember travelling along Ferry Road in Edinburgh, having just crossed the Forth Road Bridge on the way back from, possibly, a trip to Fife to pick up clay for the pottery. We were waving at the car behind. The woman in the passenger's seat (and in the 1970s that's where they almost always were) stared stonily back. "Superfluous Doris" we immediately nicknamed her in retaliation (with the emphasis on the "flu" - as a reader, I never had any idea how to pronounce anything, but the word must have stuck in my mind), and we howled with laughter and stuck our tongues out like the little urchins we were. Good memories of this car, then. I still remember the registrations of two of those cars: KNU 459J and GGB 886N. And in the picture above, it now looks like a surprisingly attractive, homely but shapely car.

Sunday, December 06, 2009

Fin to finning

The Shark Savers organisation has a simple but effective idea to combat the revolting practice of shark finning for the ever-popular, though tasteless, shark's fin soup. The shark fin trade, which by the kilo can be more lucrative than selling cocaine, exists to service the demand; changing people's minds is the only way to tackle the demand, which is perpetuated at the moment by the sick cycle of "it's expensive therefore it's desirable/It's desirable therefore it's getting more scarce/It's getting more scarce therefore it's more expensive/It's desirable therefore it's expensive".

Yao Ming, who's a hero in mainland China, is appearing in a Shark Savers campaign against eating shark's fin. For US$100, you can sponsor a billboard advert featuring Yao at a bus stop in Beijing or Shanghai - this includes production, installation, maintenance, and lighting for a year. There are incredible statistics on the site showing that these billboards do actually change people's minds about eating shark's fin. Sadly, Hong Kong's billboards are nothing like as inexpensive as this, although as the hub of the shark's fin trade (and Hong Kong diners consume 3 million kilos of shark's fin a year), such a campaign is sorely needed here too.

If you sign up now, one of Shark Savers' sponsors has pledged to provide another billboard to match yours. What are you waiting for?

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Charmless garments: 2

I have more than one good reason to loathe the second item in the series, but I confess that what seals their fate from my unbalanced perspective is their strong association with a certain marketing person of my acquaintance: a bleached blonde harpy ("as I came up to Mathers Inn/Three hellish witches drinking gin..."), a colleague in the early days of my career whose favourite smart-casual work look was a pair of black ski-pants, or stirrup pants, teamed with a blouse, high-heeled pumps and loads of gold jewellery.

Awful memories from my early working life aside, just look at them: is there a single redeeming feature? High waisted, and therefore unflattering to anyone fatter than a stick (ie everyone); tight where it's unmerciful and loose where it's unwise; and capped off (or bottomed out) by the wholly unnecessary feature of the stirrup. Truly vile.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Christmas bizarre

Walking through Stanley on Saturday morning I saw a large sign proudly advertising CHRISTMAS TREES FROM THE USA. Yes, that's right: someone is flying Christmas trees thousands of miles (from Oregon, or Wisconsin, to Hong Kong) so that buyers can say that their trees are American. There is something so completely wrong about this that I was tempted to stick a note on the sign. Stanley houses a fair few American expat families, especially along Tai Tam Road and around the American Club, and no doubt many of them, and other numpties, will be gleefully ordering their American Christmas trees without a second thought. To satisfy someone's desire to have an American Christmas, a tree will be chopped down and shipped by air or sea to Hong Kong along with thousands of other trees. How does this make sense?

Predictably enough, the trade goes the other way too: 85% of artificial Christmas trees sold in the US are manufactured in China.

Saturday, November 07, 2009

Fake bake

There's something a bit unsettling about the recent resurgence of cupcakes. I declare an interest, or rather the lack of it: the cupcake promises much but doesn't deliver, and I don't really like them anyway. But I instinctively distrust the way we're all supposed to be cupcake eaters now: sold the ersatz promise of reliving some halcyon time which never actually existed, in the drawing rooms of 1950s America, where the only thing close to a job description any woman was permitted to have was "cook". Commercially produced cupcakes always taste slightly oily, the "frosting" is too sweet, and the disappointment is palpable.

I read in the FT today that women in the British Diplomatic Service were not permitted to marry until 1973. Cupcakes, to me, epitomise that reactionary era. Give me a Laduree macaron any day of the week. Or, more simply, a coffee and two pieces of Lindt chilli chocolate (see above as freshly made by me).

Saturday, October 31, 2009

They do things differently there

Mark T was slightly younger than me and attended posh boys' school the Edinburgh Academy (the uniform, tweedy green, often with brown leather elbow patches, epitomised the school). I met him at a party in the year when the record du jour was Sade, Diamond Life (1985). I was 16 and had already had my heart broken twice. Mark affected the shabby chic of rich kids in the 1980s: his jumpers were cashmere but they had holes in them and he wore battered, pointy suede boots which excited the rude attention of the neds in my village when he arrived on the bus to see me, getting off two stops early by mistake and walking in his innocent fashion through the heart of the lion's den. Mark came from an extremely wealthy family whose house, overlooking the Botanic Gardens, was rented by Elizabeth Taylor one year during the Edinburgh Festival. His pretty blonde sister, 14, had an account card at Benetton. Mark had the entire top floor to himself; he had a juke box, and a pool table, and huge groups of us used to sit around listening to Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground.

I liked Mark, and he said I was beautiful, but he was a bit timid, and I was more interested in Simon D who had a dangerous edge to him (it all seems absurd now); so I dumped Mark and snogged Simon in front of him, in Mark's own bedroom. I don't think about it very often but when I do, I still feel guilty about being so callous.

I was talking to my friend Peter recently about how you can be haunted by hurt you think you've caused someone else; in the meantime they get on with their lives without, probably, a second thought about it. We were imagining what it might be like to be able to go back and say sorry and how delighted, or more likely astonished, the recipient would be.

Simon D aged badly and became something of a joke. I have no idea what happened to Mark. He is probably a lawyer somewhere. I still remember the hurt that someone else caused me in 1985 (clearly "I bear more grudges/Than lonely High Court judges"), of which more some other time - repent, Dougie, damn you! - though despite my exaggeration here for the sake of a story, it doesn't bother me at all anymore. But I can't swear that a little piece of me would not be rather gratified if Dougie came back to apologise. I wish I could do the same for Mark.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Charmless garments: 1

This is the first of an occasional series on charmless garments. Toweringly high on the list? The spandex poloneck. A garment that suits no one and besmirches everyone. Why would any woman with more than a completely flat chest ever squeeze herself into such a mockery? The neck segment clings to the neck, the rest cleaves unflatteringly to the body (if you have breasts, a huge expanse opens up, as per this picture, making you look like some sort of monster), and the spandex... glistens.

I once knew a man (let's call him "Reptile", for so he was dubbed by me and my friend Fiona) who was fond of sporting one of these monstrous items in pale blue: immediately marking himself out as someone who could not be trusted. (And so it came to pass, but that's another story.) He is now an MP; what does that tell you? And a woman I know, a very very nice person, wears a white, shiny, especially tight one, and it's all I can do not to say something to her or attempt to stage some sort of intervention.

Signs and wonders

Yesterday morning I jumped into a cab outside my flat, having missed the bus. It was only as we arrived at my office that I realised I didn't have my wallet with me. Chastened, I told the taxi driver I had no money (to be precise, HK$102 was the amount owing), whereupon he immediately suggested that I could transfer it to his bank account and wrote down the number for me, from memory. This morning I got an email from him: "Thanks for your payment. Jimmy Yip (Taxi Driver)".

I quake at the thought of trying the same stunt with a spectacularly bad-tempered, know-it-all London cabbie - or indeed with any cab driver, anywhere else in the world. Perhaps it was patronising of me to imagine that a cab driver in his fifties would not be using the internet? It was lucky for me that my driver turned out to be Jimmy Yip.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Put a sock in it

There seems to be a fairly uncritical acceptance of the assertions in the (astonishingly long) Wikipedia article about Beyoncé's single "Single Ladies (Put a Ring On It)", which are epitomised by the statement that the song is "empowering". Aside from the fact that history will not judge the use of that word kindly, if someone could outline just one example of how that song could be regarded as "empowering" I'd be happy to hear it. Don't get me wrong, I think it's a catchy song and Beyoncé and her sexy acolytes look great in the video; but how is stamping around in a leotard insisting that a man gives you a ring to prove he loves you (with the glaring implication that what all women want is to get married) in any way "empowering" for women?

If you were to ask the women in Afghan Hands whether this is "empowering" I get the feeling they would laugh in astonishment.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Room to read

One of the shortlisted businesses in World Challenge 2009 is Afghan Hands, run by Matin Maulawizada, whose family escaped to the USA during the Soviet invasion in the 1980s. It employs women who have been widowed by the last few years of conflict and gives them an income embroidering designs for an American fashion house, as well as teaching them literacy and numeracy.

The joy and excitement on these women's faces, as they look at pictures from western magazines showing what they've embroidered, with their names sewn into every piece, and the pride they take in their work, is truly moving. One of them talks of hearing of her husband being taken into the desert by the Taliban, never to return. This is a wonderful project; if it wins World Challenge (and you can help by voting for it), Matin plans to buy permanent premises in Kabul and to offer more women the chance to learn to read, use their skills and earn some money.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Car trouble

AP reports that, following a 55% surge in growth in the first nine months of the year helped by tax cuts and subsidies for small, fuel-efficient cars, General Motors expects its sales in China this year to exceed 1.6 million vehicles. As a result China is now the world's leading auto market: 9.66 million vehicles were sold in the first nine months of 2009, up 34% year-on-year, and sales are forecast to rise to 12.6 million units this year, up 35% from 2008.

This amounts to a mind-boggling number of new cars on the roads in China this year alone. The major cities are already grid-locked and horribly polluted; rural roads are falling apart. Where are all the new cars going to go?

Rather than see this as an encouraging sign of China's economic resurgence, I find the news thoroughly depressing. This, surely, is a situation where questions need to be asked about sustainability instead of the tacit approval of the mainland's headlong rush towards becoming a car culture.

Thursday, October 08, 2009

Modern sensibility

The tragic ballerina Tanaquil LeClercq, photographed in 1948 by Irving Penn (June 16, 1917 – October 7, 2009).

Thursday, October 01, 2009


Another beautiful bunch of flowers from Tenny's flower stall, Stanley Market, Hong Kong, on China National Day 2009. It's a special one this year, celebrating 60 years of communist rule in China. Sadly, I didn't have my camera with me walking down Stanley Main Street: there was a parade of dragon dancers accompanied by banging drums, followed by a procession of little kids with intricately painted faces in Chinese opera (Yuèjù) style, young women in traditonal Chinese shoes, and incredibly dignified old ladies with beautiful gowns and brightly coloured paper parasols. These flowers remind me of fireworks: in some small way a gesture for National Day, not forgetting that there were also human rights protesters in the streets of Hong Kong today, something that will definitely not be happening on the mainland.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

October revolution

Brilliant pictures from Tim Burton's fashion shoot for the October issue of Harper's Bazaar: above, Nina Ricci; below, Alexander McQueen. I love the way that although the clothes look absolutely weird, impossible, and unwearable, as high fashion often is, for once this is echoed by the scenario in which they are displayed and it makes them beautiful.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

You'd better run, you'd better take cover

Cape Road, Stanley, Hong Kong. September 23, 2009

This picture of the road leading back to the block of flats where I live was taken this morning as I stood in a slightly disheveled state at the bus stop in the sunshine, waiting in vain for the bus which I already knew I'd missed on account of having procrastinated for too long on waking. I ended up getting a taxi. The driver, Mr Chen, was playing 80s tunes on his little CD player and I asked him to turn up the volume; for the next 40 minutes the two of us happily, although perhaps a little self-consciously at first, sang along with "Tainted Love", "Don't You Want Me?", "Enola Gay", and "Let's Dance" all the way to Central (out of sympathy for Sydney, whose usually blue skies, in a reversal of fortune, were obscured by an onslaught of clouds of red dust, I refrained from singing along to "Down Under").

As we sped through the Aberdeen tunnel I looked out the window at grim-faced Porsche drivers gripping their leather-clad steering wheels thinking how supernaturally lucky I was to have happened upon this serendipitous, silly, cheerful journey to work.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Dark age

I just stumbled across a really excellent feature in The Guardian called Fashion for All Ages. It's so nice to see women in their fifties and sixties wearing beautiful clothes and looking great. Isn't it extraordinary that this is such an unusual sight?

Thursday, September 10, 2009


"I am just going outside and may be some time."
The others nod, pretending not to know.
At the heart of the ridiculous, the sublime.

He leaves them reading and begins to climb,
Goading his ghost into the howling snow;
He is just going outside and may be some time.

The tent recedes beneath its crust of rime
And frostbite is replaced by vertigo:
At the heart of the ridiculous, the sublime.

Need we consider it some sort of crime,
This numb self-sacrifice of the weakest? No,
He is just going outside and may be some time

In fact, for ever. Solitary enzyme,
Though the night yield no glimmer there will glow,
At the heart of the ridiculous, the sublime.

Derek Mahon

Saturday, September 05, 2009

Thursday, September 03, 2009

Working wardrobe

Promenade in green: RM by Roland Mouret

Fade to grey: the deceitfully named Cheap'N' Chic by Moschino

Drapes of wrath: Diane von Furstenburg

Three very different dresses (all from Net-a-Porter) which could conceivably be worn to work. And all you need now is a great pair of shoes.
Come to heel: Rupert Sanderson from Browns Fashion

And finally a dress that could never be worn to work (but which would go nicely with the shoes; for people who like everything to match, of whom I'm not sure I'm one, that's the kind of match they like):

Hips, lips, power: William Tempest from Browns Fashion

Hat in the city

On recent visits to Sydney I've noticed a surprising number of people wearing hats. Proper hats: fedoras and panamas, cloches and gatsbys, and even what could possibly have been a homburg. My friend Davey has been photographing people in London wearing stovepipe hats. I am very fond of hats - certainly of the idea of them and, I suppose, of that romantic connection with the era when it was a social requirement to wear a hat.

Sadly, the reality of Hong Kong (not least the heat - August was the hottest on record and it's been at least 32 degrees every day) is that I am more likely to be seen wearing that most awful and unflattering form of headgear, the baseball cap, albeit only in direct connection with watersports and never, repeat never, at any other time. What I would really prefer, of course, is to be nonchalantly sporting an attractive fedora at all times, even in the canoe.

Attractive fedora from La Cerise Sur Le Chapeau at Net-a-Porter.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Back to basics

A bride-to-be was having her pre-wedding wedding shots done at the end of Stanley Main Street. With the groom nowhere to be seen, she twitched uncomfortably as a busybody attendant slicked extra make-up (wholly unhelpfully) onto her face. She looked altogether rather uncomfortable with the whole thing. I stood on a wall behind her to get the shot of her back.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Jude the Obscure

From the window of a taxi in Happy Valley: poor old Jude Law in a very uncomfortable-looking pair of "slacks", the latest in a highly risible campaign by Dunhill starring the man looking more ill at ease in every one. Look closely; he's perched on a canister, "reading" a "script", with, for no apparent reason, a pair of headphones at his feet.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Take it to the bank

Further evidence of infantilism in Hong Kong culture: the Hello Kitty credit card, brought to you by Dah Sing Bank. Hello Kitty, it appears, also has a towheaded boy friend, Dear Daniel. Wouldn't it be cute if couples were to have one each? Why look, if you put the two cards together the oversized hearts toted by each of them are perfectly aligned. Incongruously enough, the platinum version of the Hello Kitty/Dear Daniel credit card appears to be as black as pitch, albeit with a freakish outline of the pair of them emblazoned upon it, so that's something.

It would be my opinion that anyone immature enough to want a credit card which sports images of Hello Kitty is too immature to be extended a line of credit.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Dear catastrophe waitress

In the year I finished my degree and before I went back to Glasgow to do the postgraduate Diploma in Legal Practice, I spent a miserable summer back in East Lothian. I'd split up with my boyfriend just before graduating; I didn't want to sign on; home was only the place I'd always longed to get away from and seemed cold and damp; I wasn't getting on well with my Mum; I thought I wasn't going to get a grant for my course, and so on and so self-pitying. I took a job as a waitress in Musselburgh ("The Honest Toun"), in a place called Medaci's. Near Musselburgh's one bright spot, Luca's, it was a "Mediterranean Restaurant", which was really just a big room at the back of the kebab shop which the tubby owner had fancied might make a good place for fine dining. The locals viewed it with amusement: as they waited for their kebabs they'd poke their heads through the bead curtain and mock me as I stood there waiting for customers that rarely came.

The chef was a foul-mouthed, ex-Merchant Navy chef, an ancient, wiry little man called Tommy; in the absence of any customers, I used to spend most of my time in the kitchen eating delicious spaghetti arabbiata freshly cooked by Tommy as he regaled me with his stories of shagging on the high seas and knocked back whisky. There I learned the waitress's conundrum: you don't want it to be quiet because it's mind-numbingly boring waiting for customers; but when customers do arrive, you loathe and despise them for choosing your restaurant and wish them gone with all due dispatch.

For a while there was a Greek waiter there, who used to stand uncomfortably close to me behind my little counter. The boss told me to re-heat the cold coffee from the day before to offer to customers. I couldn't work the cappuccino machine. I had to invent a banana split from scratch as I had no idea what was supposed to go into one. We had the Gypsy Kings on continuous loop. The boss's nasty little son, an equally tubby 11 year old with a lightning bolt shaved on the side of his round little head, used to sneak in behind my back into the fridge and spray canned cream from the tin straight into his mouth. Tommy became an unlikely ally; he hated the boss as much as I did and even began offering me a drink of his whisky. The summer seemed to last an eternity. At its end, I returned to Glasgow, having received a grant to do my course, and it was no surprise that Medaci's closed not long after that.

Musselburgh's being recommended by The Guardian as a place to visit to get away from the hubbub of the Edinburgh Festival. When I read that, I was instantly transported back to being paid £2.50 an hour at a failing restaurant; and I just can't see anything attractive in the idea of visiting the place. Even now, though the kebab shop is long gone too, I shoot a bad glance in its direction whenever I'm unlucky enough to pass by.

Sunday, August 09, 2009

Completely barking

Net-a-porter is currently selling up leather slippers called NewbarKs. The irritating, pretentious and unnecessary capital K aside, there is something quite nauseating about the tone of the puff that's written about them: "Stay ahead of trend ... Take a style tip from off-duty models and wear these achingly hip alternatives to ballet pumps in between appointments ... Go from lounge to plane in magnificent style ... They go with everything! Diamonds, candlelight, Chloé and delicious cuisine... ". This torrent of aspirational flimflam fails to disguise the fact that, made out of buttersoft Moroccan leather though they might be, these look like old man's slippers. And I am not paying £300 to look like an old man in his baffies.

Sunday, August 02, 2009

A thing of beauty

Big Bill lives in Jurong Bird Park in Singapore. He is a bird with a great deal of dignity, despite, or perhaps because of, his massive beak. Humiliatingly, Bill is sometimes called a "whalehead", but not by his friends. Bill is a shoebill; there are 5,000-8,000 left in his habitat of tropical east Africa and he is classified as Vulnerable. However, he can eat a baby crocodile, although it seems unlikely that he ever gets the chance in the civilised confines of Jurong Bird Park. Shoebills are magnificent in flight, appearing almost prehistoric, but it is not clear whether Bill ever gets to fly.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

The cuckoo's nest

Tom Jefferson, a British epidemiologist working for the Cochrane Collaboration, says in an interview with Der Spiegel that whilst swine flu is undoubtedly a pandemic, there has been a near-hysterical desire on the part of many vested interests (pharmaceutical companies, governments, and the media, as well as certain sectors of the scientific community) to turn it into some kind of killer threat. It might sound like a vast conspiracy theory, but this definitely has the ring of truth about it. The article is worth reading in full, not least for his comments about the SARS outbreak and the relative ineffectiveness of Tamiflu.

Apparently Hong Kong has the world's lowest rates of transmission of swine flu, in theory because we learned the lessons of hygiene during the SARS outbreak. Jefferson thinks the best protection against flu is just washing your hands.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Ground control

There's a fascinating article on the NASA website about the approach to food on space missions in the 1960s. Apparently "On Christmas day, 1968, during the first lunar orbital mission, the Apollo 8 astronauts opened packages of thermostabilized turkey and gravy and ate with spoons". One of the biggest challenges was the astronauts' constant weight loss - not necessarily due to calorie expenditure (Buzz Aldrin used 300 calories an hour walking on the moon), but possibly because of stress, and how unappetising early food options were. "Inflight food consumption proved inadequate to maintain nutritional balance and body weight" and crews experienced nausea, anorexia, and "undesirable physiological responses".

I was laughing the other day thinking about Ali G's interview with Buzz Aldrin. Buzz reacts with appropriate dignity when the mugging Ali G keeps referring to him as "Buzz Lightyear" and asks him if he was jealous of Louis Armstrong for being the first man on the moon.

(Photo via NASA)

Friday, July 17, 2009

Song to the siren

Call me grossly sentimental (I'm grossly sentimental): I find the fact that drivers pull aside when a siren sounds behind them peculiarly moving. Drivers, and I am sometimes one of them, are generally pretty self-absorbed and set on their goals. Lemmings in their cars, part of the problem and not part of the solution, I mutter bitterly to myself as I wait for my bus in Admiralty with the passing traffic kicking up pollution and every car seeming to contain only one person, who's always gazing blindly, mutely ahead. But when a siren sounds, the lemmings wake up to be reminded, and then to demonstrate, that there is such a thing as public-spiritedness.

I was quite shocked to discover that, in fact, in Hong Kong it's not customary to try to move off the road to allow a path for an ambulance, fire engine or police car with sirens howling. Instead, Hong Kong's selfish commuters sit there determined to hold onto their hard won place in the traffic jam. My office looks directly down on a highway and I've never yet seen anyone pull aside; the emergency vehicle waits impotently with lights flashing and siren sounding.

Perhaps this can partly be explained by the fact that Hong Kong's narrow roads, often bounded by concrete walls, and countless loops of flyovers, don't allow for anyone to pull to one side. But the fact that no one so much as makes an effort to move is astonishing.

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Station to station

I was telling someone the other day how excited I was, on starting a new job in 1993 (my first proper job, in Alva Street in the West End of Edinburgh) to be able to use the fax machine. If I'm honest the idea of being able to write something on a piece of paper and then have it reproduce on the other side of the world somehow still really impresses me. Here I am now, on a train from London Euston to Penrith, writing a blog post, able to report that the American Christian evangelical (with the pamphlets to prove it) sitting opposite me has a large spot on her ample chin and is sniffing continuously and annoyingly; that it's raining in Tamworth, where the train just stopped; that we're running 15 minutes late... all this of little interest to anyone of course (and that's what blogging's all about!), but despite the fact that I deliver training to lawyers on technology, and consider myself fairly computer literate, I still have a childlike delight in what technology can do. Perhaps that's partly because I'm of the generation that didn't grow up with it. It still seems like a miracle to me that you're reading this.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

A truth universally acknowledged

Weddings in Hong Kong are accompanied by incredible fanfare, enormous expense, and fascinating rituals, one of which is the tradition that the wedding photographs are taken months in advance, often in the most ridiculous locations and involving numerous costume changes for the bride-to-be. These photos are then sent out with the wedding invitations to procure as many possible attendees for the wedding banquet. It's purely a numbers game: each guest has to bring a "red packet" full of cash so the happy couple can recoup the enormous costs of staging their wedding feast (and taking the ludicrous photos).

My friend C has someone in her office whose wedding photos were all taken on a trip to the UK with a Brief Encounter-style storyline involving ancient train stations, steam trains, and pensive shots in 1940s headgear. When my IT manager got married, his photos were taken around Hong Kong in locations and scenarios which the bride and groom are, frankly, unlikely ever to find themselves in again; in one shot, he's riding a bicycle across a park while she perches on the back in overblown gown; in another, the one I was lucky enough to be sent, he's crossing a stream, trousers rolled up, in his arms the smiling bride in billowing green chiffon.

It's the day before Hong Kong SAR Establishment Day, a public holiday, and on my way from Admiralty to Lan Kwai Fong for a friend's birthday drinks, I spotted three couples having their photos done. I couldn't resist taking a photo of the last pair: in an absolutely perfect illustration of the aspirational nature of Hong Kong weddings, they were posing outside the Louis Vuitton flagship store in Central.

(I regret that I couldn't take a better photograph and had to use the rotten little camera on my Blackberry. She actually looked rather beautiful and was obviously as happy as Larry; the groom was definitely second string.)

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Sunshine, moonlight, good times

The journalist Steven Wells ("Swells") died the day before Michael Jackson. Swells was a Northerner, a vituperative, angry, uncompromising character who wrote for the NME in its heyday in the 1980s, a time when I bought it every week, read it religiously, and cut out pictures for my bedroom door and to paste them onto the envelopes of the letters I sent to my friends (I was fond of a silver pen on a black envelope at the time: I wish I'd kept pictures of those slaved-over masterpieces). I wrote to the NME letters page about something (an interview with the Fire Engines, as it happens). I was over-enthusiastic, and Swells, the letters editor at the time, published it, but wrote a sarky comment after it. It destroyed me. But that's because he was a god to anyone who loved music: even if, often, he was objectionable and just plain wrong.

Swells' last column for his newspaper, the Philadelphia Weekly (watch out for those blue eyes), is a typical example of his trenchant style: and in an extraordinary coincidence he quotes Blame it on the Boogie as his last line.

Friday, June 19, 2009

The name of the game

An early lesson in cruelty, coupled with the injustice perpetrated by adults: my first friend at primary school was Stuart Osborne, a quick-witted, popular little charmer, whose mother was a teacher at the school (and a woman I can only remember as "Mrs Osborne"; in my memory, undoubtedly inaccurately, she looks like Anni-Frid, the dark haired one from ABBA). We were in the same class and bonded over the fact that we both had English accents in a rural Scottish primary school (never a good plan) and our families didn't have a TV (I remember having a conversation with him, both of us around 6 years old, where we agreed it was a Good Thing not to have a TV; we could be part of our own little club of children who didn't need TV and loved reading books instead). I invented a playground chasing game called (for some reason) "Scrooge", and we taught the other kids the game and played it every breaktime. We still have a photograph somewhere of a Halloween party at nearby Winton Hill Farm; I'm dressed as a witch, in green; Stuart's pictured eating an apple, dashing, dark-eyed, charismatic. I loved him. Until...

Overnight, it seemed, Stuart's family got a TV and he started adopting a Scottish accent. I was completely out of favour; not only that but I was an embarrassing reminder of everything Stuart was now trying to pretend he wasn't, and accordingly he actively loathed me. I watched in the playground, alone, as children played Scrooge around me. Stuart and his friend Darren threw ice and stones at me. And when I complained to Mrs Osborne, she, of course, did nothing, because it was her son, and he wasn't capable of that sort of behaviour.

Stuart's family moved to Canada in 1979 and he now works at Whistler. I never saw him again, but I've never forgotten him and the terrible taste of betrayal.

Friday, June 12, 2009


I'm pretty keen on vodka and can make damn good lychee martinis; I love bacon, especially in a floury roll with razor-thin sliced tomato and tomato sauce. What I can't countenance, I'm afraid, is any attempt to combine the two. As the website states, confirming all my worst fears: "Yes. Bacon vodka." This is a regrettable development. What next? Bacon sweets? Er... Oh.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Skin deep

As early as I can remember, my mum used to buy Oil of Ulay (as it was called in the UK in the 1970s) and apply it to her face diligently. It was expensive then (and now she can afford it, she buys Boots' own brand moisturiser) but this ritual must have instilled in me at a very early age the ethos of moisturising, and I do it every day without fail.

I recently read a book called "Don't Go the Cosmetics Counter Without Me" (7th ed.) by Paula Begoun. In it she painstakingly reviews cosmetics manufactured by most major companies, based on ingredients and efficacy, and chooses her "Paula's Picks". The book to some extent exposes the cosmetics industry as, surprise surprise, thriving on deceit (she dismisses most claims as to miraculous effects from ingredients only grown behind Guatemalan waterfalls - it's never Newcastle, is it? - as nonsense), the triumph of hope over experience, and female psychology (the belief, for instance, that if a moisturiser is jaw-droppingly expensive, it must be good), although the impact is lessened somewhat by the fact that the author has her own make-up range which, again surprise surprise, features heavily in "Paula's Picks".

Of course, I checked what I use against the list, only to discover that in most instances I've gone completely wrong: for instance, I've used Origins products for a few years, especially A Perfect World, but Paula doesn't rate Origins at all, mainly based on the fact that some of the ingredients, there chiefly to make the product smell nice and/or sound good, are potentially irritants for the skin and add no other value.

I think my mum's use of Oil of Ulay was based to some extent on the feel and the smell and I can't help thinking that if there are no nasty side-effects, and you like the smell, and it encourages you to put it on, this is a legitimate part of the ritual. I love putting on my current moisturiser (Estee Lauder Daywear Plus with SP15, which smells faintly of cucumber and incidentally gets the nod from Paula). It makes me feel, shallow and strange as this may sound, happy and contented and ready for anything.

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Seeing the light

I wandered around The Rocks in Sydney today, taking photographs until my battery went dead and the light had gone (happily almost simultaneously, although just after the camera went out of action I saw a big-bearded Methuselah with his gigantic-headed, but benign, dog; the latter was lapping happily at a bowl of water the waitress had brought him and would have made an excellent subject). I sat on a bench opposite the old police station with a takeaway English Breakfast tea and oversized wholemeal scone. Before I could spill hot tea all over myself (and as sure as night follows day, I did) I was musing to myself, first, how nice it was to have nothing pressing to do; and secondly, that I still feel an obscure sense of delight and vindication when handing money over to someone, anyone, to pay for something, anything: such as a cup of tea in a tiny little café. It makes me, I think, feel part of the world; and without wanting to sound maudlin, I also remember what it was like not to have money to pay for things. I also felt disinclined to go shopping and was satisfied with buying some small refreshments, so it works at very small quantities.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Cycle of decline

Regular readers of this blog might readily believe that I would go to the ends of the earth for a great pair of shoes; would you swallow, though, that I would cycle for 30 minutes just to find a shop that sells a top with a great name which I saw in a magazine? Unluckily, they were sold out in my size (phoning ahead might have been good planning, but recklessness of thought and deed was my watchword today) and in any case, it was an A$180 top that, though lovely, was in no way necessary.

The 30 minute cycle ride was to Paddington; the shop, Bracewell; the top is pictured here (click on 7 under "Queens of the Speedway"; it's the purple one for preference although there's also a rather unappealing Dijon mustard hue), and the name, HARLOT YES BUT TRAITOR NEVER, allegedly the last words spoken by Mata Hari.

Take it to the bank

John Lanchester writes a book review in the New Yorker (of three recent books about the reasons for the current financial crisis, all of which sound well worth reading: Gillian Tett, Fool's Gold; Richard A. Posner, A Failure of Capitalism; and Shiller and Akerlof, Animal Spirits: How Human Psychology Drives the Economy, and Why It Matters for Global Capitalism, although you may feel that just reading the excessively long title of the latter is sufficient). The book review itself is a model of clarity for those like me who find the wall of terminology deployed in banking frustrating and incomprehensible (it always seemed to me that obscure coinages and "in-talk" were as much of a self-protection methodology for financiers as they are for lawyers, mutatis mutandis: if no one understands what we're talking about, somehow that will really impress them, and not only that, our language will be a barrier to entry).

Lanchester writes: "At its heart, banking is a simple business. Customers deposit money at a bank, in return for interest; the bank lends that money to other people, at a higher rate of interest. This isn’t glamorous or interesting, but banking is not supposed to resemble skydiving or hip-hop; what recommends it is that it’s a good way of making steady money (and of creating credit in the economy), as long as the bank is careful about whom it lends money to."

But in banking, unlike the law, it's all about the short term (quoting Posner, who incidentally is a judge and legal academic): "The greater the gains are from taking risks that enable very high short-term profits, and the better cushioned the executive is by his severance package against the cost of losing his job, the more risks he rationally will take".

Monday, May 25, 2009

Track record

I've always loved trains, above all other forms of transportation. One of my earliest memories is of being taken on a steam train journey in Devon and I still remember the excitement and mystery of it. Once I attempted to create some new memories for my little sisters, then aged 6 and 8, by taking them to Glasgow with me on the train; although it's a much more prosaic journey, something about racing along the tracks, looking out of the windows as the landscape flies past, even buying a coffee from the trolley, serves in some small way to deliver a fraction of the experience of Robert Powell in The 39 Steps, all the Agatha Christie novels I tore through, Adlestrop by Edward Thomas, and the beginning of Stardust Memories.

Sydney's trains are double-deckers, with excellent, practical green leather seats kitted out with a middle section that converts from one side to another so you can change the direction you're facing in (an important consideration for me because my travel-sickness is exacerbated by facing backwards) and shiny fittings glinting in the light. The windows are scratched to hell and the interiors are dim; it's not the Trans-Siberian Express, but I'm completely satisfied.

Rural dalek

I found this dalek lurking by the postbox at the bottom of a driveway in Lawson, a little town in the Blue Mountains north of Sydney. With his plunger on the right hand and egg whisk on the other, he seemed rather benign, but I didn't chance it by going any closer.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

A taste of history

Lasagne recipe from my mother's kitchen. c.1966 and still going strong. Recipe © Marg Hall 2009 (and Good Housekeeping? 1966?)

Friday, May 15, 2009


Joanna Vanderpuije, a Central St Martin's graduate, has just produced her first collection and it's beautiful.

Perhaps it's the spare, elegant aesthetic of the photographs that contributes to the impact: these are clothes you'd be proud and excited to wear.

As Alber Elbaz says in a recent interview (and it's worth reading: he's such a likeable character, with his insecurity about his weight and his preference for sandwiches over avant garde cuisine): "A good shoe or a good dress does something to you. It's not just about fashion victims. It really does do something for all women".

All photos ©2009 Jaime de Almeida.

Thursday, May 14, 2009


For the first time since my working life began in 1992, I have six weeks off. Six weeks to do nothing, or something. In the middle of the first week, I am still fighting off the urge to be doing something: get up, get out, tick things off, you'll run out of time... the shape of the day with nothing mandatory in it is strange and a little intimidating. I cycle to a cafe where I read the paper outside in Sydney's winter sunshine. I had my hair cut. I go to the gym. I play Scrabble on Facebook. I have felt oddly reluctant to write my blog. I took my camera (an excellent Nikon D80, kindly lent to me by one of my clients) to the park and took hundreds of close-ups of spiky birdlike flowers; I stalked the unwary on street corners to take pictures of the casual grace of pedestrians waiting for the green man. Other than brief conversations with the man who sells me coffee or those people who seem to like to stop and talk to me when I have my camera in front of my face, I hardly speak to anyone all day. It all adds up to not very much, but I think I will get used to it. When I come back, perhaps I won't be able to say what I did with my time, except that, trite though it sounds, I am learning how to relax about not having anything to do.

Monday, May 04, 2009

The Second Coming

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: a waste of desert sand;
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Wind shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

William Butler Yeats (1865-1939)

Photo credit

Saturday, May 02, 2009

Summer nightmares

Evidence of the atrocities perpetrated on the helpless in Hong Kong: