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.