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.