Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Strange deals

In recent months, JK, the boss down at my local, 12 Square Metres, has been getting 'creative' in his attempts to induce me to drink even more.

Yes, he's been dreaming up quirky drink combinations with amusing names, and pimping them at an enticing discount.

For some time, these have been unofficial 'specials', off menu, only available to those in the know, the regulars.  (Well, I'm not sure that anyone other than me has ever ordered any of them so far!)  But now.... he's set to launch a new, greatly expanded menu which will advertise these liver-busting bargains to the world at large.

The first of these bizarre combos was the Boag's'n'Roses - a bottle of James Boag's, the fine Tasmanian lager, accompanied by a chaser of the cheap but extremely palatable Four Roses bourbon.  (I've indulged in quite a few of these.  With the discount, it does represent the best alcohol-per-kuai value in the bar.)  In fact, since I'm rather partial to both drinks, I think I had serendipitously created the combination before it was ordained as a 'special'.  JK was much taken with the verbal reminiscence of Guns'N'Roses, the fine rock band who often feature on the bar's playlist (well, not often enough...), and also of 'bogan' - which is Aussie slang for 'white trash' (something I hadn't previously known).

Then JK came up with his 'Czech yourself before you wreck yourself' (which is apparently inspired by a rap song by Ice Cube - but I'm not familiar with that genre), an inspiration which may require an update to this Urban Dictionary entry - a bottle of the strong Czech lager Budvar followed by a slug of absinthe (although he's been out of Czech absinthe for a while and has had to substitute a French brand).  This is one to be approached with extreme caution.... and then backed away from again.

And his latest brainwave has been inspired by the fact that 12SqM is one of the few bars in town to carry all five varieties of Johnnie Walker whisky.  The colours of the labels correspond, more or less, to those of the rings on the Olympic flag - red, black, green, gold (well, yellow), and blue.  Hence we have a 'Johnnie Walker Olympics' if you want to try all five back-to-back.  JK is thinking of calling this his 'Special Olympics', since, as he says, "You drink that, and you will be disabled by the end of it."   
[Actually, my mate The Choirboy claims the copyright on this one, since he has discussed the idea with me a number of times this year.  Indeed, I think the pair of us probably did complete the 'Special Olympics' at the late, lamented Tryst one blurry night back in February...  JK, however, insists that he came up with the concept independently.]

Monday, November 29, 2010

Another departure

So many people are quitting Beijing this year.  Too many.

Heck - you could form a pretty darn good band from the folks we've lost in recent months.  (Ekber Ebliz on guitar, Pierre Billiard on bass, Adam on sax, Daisy Sweetgrass on vocals.... damn yes, I'd pay to see that!)

Well, you certainly can now: The Departed were missing a drummer - but beardy Canuck Jon Campbell is about to leave too.

Jon's been with us a decade or so now, and was a real mainstay of the music scene here.  He set up one of the first - if not the first - laowai-run music news and promotions ventures, YGTwo ( 洋鬼摇滚, yang gui yao gun - "foreign devil rock'n'roll"), which, over the years, has brought many excellent acts to China, and helped some Chinese bands like SUBS tour overseas.

He will be very sorely missed.  Best of luck with whatever you're up to next, Jon.  (I rather suspect we'll see him back before long, at least for an occasional visit...)

[Of particular concern is the fate of two of the most popular laowai bands here, boozy blues-rockers Black Cat Bone and the, er, uncategorizable RandomK(e), who will both now be missing their drummer.  Not that there's any shortage of good drummers here in The Jing, but these outfits won't be quite the same without JC - and I wonder if they'll want to try to carry on with a new man on the sticks.]

Bon mot for the week

"The time you enjoy wasting is not wasted time."

Bertrand Russell  (1872-1970)

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Great Love Songs (23)

Last week over on Froogville I celebrated the delectable Margo Timmins of the Cowboy Junkies as this month's 'Fantasy Girlfriend', and included a video of her singing their Blue Moon Revisited.

This is another particular favourite of mine, from their classic Trinity Session album, a cover of Lou Reed's Sweet Jane.  I could listen to that voice for hours, drown in it....

[And here's a video of them doing the song live in Savannah, Georgia; slightly dodgy bootleg quality, but a great performance.]

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Top Five Thanksgivings

At least in China, that is.

I probably have fondest memories of a family gathering I attended in Philadelphia many years ago, hosted by my old Oxford drinking buddy, The British Cowboy..... which ended with us attempting to 'walk off' the humongous meal (The Cowboy, fearing that perhaps turkey alone would not be able to sate the huge throng of in-laws he had invited, knocked up a vat of boeuf bourgignon as well!) by staggering 150 yards down the road to his 'local', the incomparable Hogan's.  I'd enjoyed a couple of rather more improvisatory ones with American friends in Oxford prior to that, and another rather more low-key one in America a little later, but... it was only when I moved to China that I found myself assuming the role of a Thanksgiving planner.

It hasn't happened quite every year.  In 2004, I had just started dating an American girl, but... she'd gone back home for Thanksgiving (and to go through a round of grad school applications) within a week of my meeting her.  I ended up having a low-key dinner with a couple of American friends (and their Chinese girlfriends), and just one or two other hangers-on.  It didn't take much organising, and I can't now remember if it even fell to me to make the reservation that year.  I suspect not - since we ended up going to the Silk Street branch of Steak and Eggs, a venue I would have lobbied vigorously against.  It serves up decent enough American comfort food through the year, but it's cramped, and the grungy diner decor doesn't conjure the ambience you want for a slightly more formal meal.  Also, I've never much liked the owner, a rather neurotic Canadian with a propensity to harangue his staff in public, and generally to whinge about everything.  (Shortly before this Thanksgiving experience, I'd had to endure a long monologue from him about how much he hated Thanksgiving, how much he hated cooking turkeys, and how much he hated all the extra work the holiday entailed for him.  You would have got the impression he even hated all the extra money he earned!  After listening to this rant, I was even more disinclined to hazard a Thanksgiving there, but... my two American chums seemed set on it.  And, back in those days, there weren't many other options.)  The food, as I recall, was OK, but unremarkable.  (The Weeble has reported that a year or two later he suffered one of the worst meals of his life there on Thanksgiving!)  The meal, in general, was pretty subdued (the Chinese girls didn't want to eat much, didn't want to stick around afterwards for drinks).  The evening was salvaged by the fact there was a visiting Irish-Aussie folk band playing at the nearby John Bull Pub. (After several more beers, I became embroiled in a joke-telling contest with the lead singer...)

In '06, I had to go down to Shanghai for work on the big day.  And in '07, strangely, all of my American buddies seemed to have made plans to do something at the weekend, and could not be persuaded to sign up for anything on the Thursday itself.  And then, of course, this year I hit rock bottom - attempting and failing to set something up, very late in the day, for a party that ballooned to 20+.  I wound up hating most of the venues I'd talked to about it, and most of the people that were supposed to have been coming (or the ones that never could quite make up their minds).  NEVER AGAIN!  Even my modest 'consolation plan' of getting in some turkey sandwiches for myself and the young American barman I was likely to be drowning my sorrows with all evening foundered (the sandwich shop had moved, and I couldn't find its new location!).  Oiveh!

However, in each of the other five years I've been here, there was a major Thanksgiving party.  Here's how it breaks down....

My Top Five Thanksgivings in China

5)  The John Bull Pub
I'm just going in chronological order here, not in order of fun or quality of food or anything of that sort.  In my first year here, I was working at quite a large private college that had several American teachers. My innocent suggestion to one or two people about doing something for Thanksgiving rapidly snowballed into an event involving just about the entire foreign staff, and a few other friends and hangers-on too.... getting on for 30 people.  The food was pretty good, I thought.  At least until we got to the pumpkin pie, which was stodgy and tasteless, but... temptingly missile.  My younger, more irresponsible colleagues initiated an enormous food fight with it, which I struggled to restrain.  Other than that, a pretty good night.

4)  The Kempinski Hotel
Very nearly the worst of the lot - but at least I wasn't involved in the organisation this time; I just tagged along with some American colleagues from the university where I was working that year.  The company was varied and quite fun.  There was a very cute young American Mandarin student I was sharking a little at the time, which was a pleasant diversion.  However, (as I'd anticipated beforehand; but I'd been powerless to change the plans) the food was severely average, and rather expensive.  Buffet service just doesn't create the right atmosphere for a banquet meal.  And the availability of so many non-holiday-fare items rather undermined the sense of Thanksgiving, I felt.  Worst of all, there was no mashed potato!!!  And, for a major foreign hotel, the service was pretty weak, too.  A major disappointment.  (And I never got anywhere with the Mandarin student either.)

3)  Return to the John Bull
Probably the best ever.  After lame experiences at The Kempinski and Steak and Eggs in the two previous years, I managed (for once, without too much grief and vexation!) to put together a slightly smaller and much  better behaved party for another Thanksgiving at the dear old John Bull (sadly demised now).  Good food, varied company (I think we had Canadians, Australians, Austrians, Chinese, and one or two other nationalities in the mix!); and even The Poet, notoriously anti-social and unreliable, deigned to turn out for it.

2)  Sequoia/Culinary Capers
The John Bull was for a while reinvented as the Sequoia cafe/sandwich bar, and it continued to put on a good spread for Christmas lunch.  Unfortunately, the following year they teamed up with an event catering company to lay on the food for Thanksgiving.... and it was an unmitigated disasterThe worst Thanksgiving I've ever had; and one of the worst meals, period.  We had to hit up a neighbourhood Xinjiang restaurant a little while later to quench our unsatisfied appetites!!

1)  Grandma's Kitchen
The service was all over the place, and the food a bit variable (horrible gravy and stuffing!); but the portions were appropriately huge, and the booze was agreeably cheap too.  The major advantage of this venue (the one lurking in a hutong behind the Beixinqiao subway station) is that it's a walkable distance from where I (and most of my friends) live, and a walkable distance from most of the bars we like to hang out in.  The disadvantage is that it's fairly tiny.  Last year they had promised us a private room for our party of around 20, but in fact they only had two small rooms with a connecting archway (bizarrely decorated rooms at that!), so we were in effect split into two smaller groups.  This year, those rooms are allegedly no longer available to the restaurant, having been taken over by the guesthouse side of the operation; and the headless chickens they have working there have no idea how they might rearrange their tables and chairs a little to try to accommodate a large party in their conservatory area.  I'd had hopes of getting something going there again this year, but the discussions proved fruitless.  I try to focus on their gravy to console myself.

Friday, November 26, 2010

HBH 210

Always the bar is there,
And the barman, and the drink:
Reasons to be thankful.

Syllables?  Who's counting?!  Thanksgiving this year was an ongoing train-wreck, but... if you at least have a couple of friends to keep you company, and can spend 6 hours getting completely wasted (on an empty stomach!), 'the day' isn't so bad, after all.  Thank god for 12 Square Metres!

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Don't mention the T-word!!!

This year, as for most of the years I've been in China, I thought of trying to organise a Thanksgiving dinner for the 'waifs and strays' - my American friends who are here without family, and who are apparently incapable of sorting anything out for themselves... although these gatherings have usually ended up including a majority of non-Americans, people who, like me, just enjoy the holiday as an excuse to get together for a big meal.

This year, the response was the most disappointing I can remember.  In fact, it was a stony silence.  Most of my long-standing American buddies have quit Beijing this year.  And the few that remain (and the Canadians, too; I lump all the North Americans in together for this, because no-one remembers to celebrate with the Canucks at the start of October!) all seemed to have made "other plans" for once.  Even The Weeble seemed oddly convinced that "plans had been made for [him]" - although he was unable to say who these 'planners' were or what exactly their 'plans' might be; rather Kafka-ishly sinister, I thought!

However, with barely a week to go before the big day, one of the aforementioned American buddies suddenly got in touch by e-mail: he's flying back from overseas tomorrow, was relying on me to sort out something for T-day.  Yikes!!

I thought it was just going to be him and his girlfriend, and me, and any 'date' I might be able to find (ha!), and perhaps, at most, two or three others.  But my friend, even while still overseas, was suggesting that he would bring at least two people with him.  My renewed enquiries here in The Jing suddenly flushed a few people out of the woodwork (and, of course, there was the inevitable string of annoying 'definite maybe' types).  And then the friend discovered that his girlfriend's old flatmate was visiting from Shanghai this week, and asked to add her to the party.  She in turn wanted to bring three or four other people.  And then one of my other friends - a surprise response in the first place - was suddenly talking about bringing a small group with him.  And the friend overseas learned that an old friend of his from the States was also flying in this week... with his entire family.

So, my projected numbers had gone from 0 to 22 (with 5 or 6 more still dithering) in the space of 48 hours.

And I had something of a meltdown.

I've got a ton of work on this week, and I'm sick as a dog.  I really haven't got the time or the emotional resource to be dealing with the kind of major military operation that is trying to coordinate dinner plans for such a HUGE group of people.

I don't believe there is any venue in this city that can reliably cater to a party of 20 or more.  Not without making an enormous song & dance about it, anyway.  And not with only 5 or 6 days left before the big day.  Certainly, the ones I spoke to about it were all utterly fucking useless.

So.... Thanksgiving, for me, is most emphatically CANCELLED.  I shall probably be moping under a blanket on my sofa with lots of hot toddies.

I hope the rest of you manage to find somewhere to enjoy a celebratory meal with your nearest and dearest.  (Just don't go telling me about it, please.)

Happy Thanksgiving!!

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Bloody Vikings!!

A month or two ago (I lose track slightly... I haven't been in much since the weather started getting cold), Xiao Shuai, the affable proprietor (and, usually, sole staff member) of El Nido, the 'dive spot of the year' on Fangjia Hutong, was imprudent enough to get into a big drinking session with a bunch of his Chinese mates.... while running the bar.  He collapsed comatose on one of the tables outside - resting face down on his folded arms, in the classic pose of Chinese students during morning classes.  And his drinking buddies seemingly ran away and left him there.  (Hm, I wonder if the Chinese concept of 'friendship' is somewhat lacking in certain respects?)

I would hope that the customers who were there then, or came in subsequently, most of whom would probably like to think of themselves as Xiao Shuai's 'regulars', observed an honour system by leaving money on the bar for him or coming back to pay a day or two later; or, at the very least, exercised some sort of restraint in facing up to the temptation that thus confronted them.  However, I heard from a number of sources that, er, some people did NOT behave in such an honourable or restrained fashion, and that some of his stocks were heavily depleted.  I was mightily relieved to see that he had not been put out of business by the episode.

If I had been there, I would like to think that I would have taken charge of the situation - closing the bar up for him, or at least manning the counter to collect money for the drinks; and trying to sober him up enough to get him home.  I'm disappointed that - from rumours of the incident that have reached me - no-one, whether Chinese or foreign, friend or casual punter, appears to have done this for him.

I hope Xiao Shuai's learned a lesson from this.  A bar owner really can't afford to get wrecked (not THAT wrecked!) while he's working.  Or, in the immortal words of Tony Montana"Never get high on your own supply."

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

JK lays down the law

"'Sex on the Beach' is on the menu.  Sex in the bathroom is not."

Monday, November 22, 2010

The boys done GOOD!!

Congratuations to Jean-Sebastien, Maikel, and Mao Mao, The Amazing Insurance Salesmen - now crowned China Champions of the Global Battle of the Bands competition, after last night's showdown in Hong Kong. [The GBOB website, by the way, is just awful; there's such a welter of general 'music community' stuff on it that it's impossible to find any information about the competition itself, completely unnavigable!]  Badr has some photos, and some quotes from his chat with the organizer last night.

Although one should never count chickens prematurely, their victory was, frankly, fairly unsurprising to me. They are a stellar trio of musicians, and I seriously doubt if there's anyone else in this competition worldwide who comes close to matching their technical abilities.

Now we're all busy plotting how we can sneak away down to Kuala Lumpur at the end of February next year to support the lads in the World Final.....

Here's a taste of them doing their thing - a version of Duke Ellington's Caravan - at 2 Kolegas earlier this year.... posted by Zhang Si'an (Jean-Seb's Chinese alias) himself.

Bon mot for the week

"I am getting so far out, one day I won't come back at all."

William S. Burroughs  (1914-1997)

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Weird and wonderful

The Beijinger magazine was giving away scads of free tickets to last night's performance by oddball Finnish choir Semmarit.  So many, in fact, that it wasn't even clear how many they were giving away.  Ruby was under the impression she'd won a couple in a random draw, but the list appeared to have her down as "Ruby + 2".  And it was a long list, with many of the freebies apparently still unclaimed as the show was starting; the girl doling out the tickets didn't ask for any ID, and only even asked our names as an afterthought - it looked like she would hand out tickets to anyone who came by at that stage, so that she could get inside and watch the show herself.

I'd been sufficiently intrigued by advance write-ups to consider paying to go and see them on their second Beijing date tonight (GO!!), but the offer of a FREE GIG was definitely too good to pass up.

It's essentially a choral act - fine close harmony singing, but transcending the conventional genre to encompass rock, disco, and pretty much every other musical style at some point.  There's also some drumming, and some occasional very pleasant accompaniment on flute or oboe (oh, and accordion at one point); and kazoos made to sound like trumpets and racing car engines.  It's a wild mix.

Although the lads - 21 of them, apparently; although I wasn't counting - are very talented musically, it's more of an all-around theatrical experience, with lots of intricately choreographed movement and zany bits of stage business (a wrestling match morphs into a bizarre tango; a trio of flash womanizers mime racing their sports cars against each other; the whole choir capers around the stage like monkeys).  And they'd made a sterling effort to customize their show for the local audience, singing a few of their songs in very decent Chinese, and hiring a cute Chinese actress to film amusing 'Semmarit News' video links introducing some of the numbers.  Most of the songs were in English, but I think I liked the ones in their native Finnish best of all: it's a strangely evocative-sounding language, redolent of thwarted lust and aching loneliness, murderous hangovers and Arctic melancholy.

Alas, the fairly bijou stage at The One did not allow them to perform this, one of their most celebrated routines, which had been heavily featured in the promotional articles.  There was barely room for all of them in their regular clothes, let alone sumo suits!! It was the one disappointment of an otherwise superb evening. [Below, the video for the song Bonsai; and here they are performing it on stage.  They've got tons of stuff on YouTube: go and check it out.]

My first time to make it out to The One, and I was pleasantly surprised: it's really quite a decent venue - although more of a night club than a music bar, better suited to cabaret or vaudeville type shows like this than regular rock gigs.  Also, I couldn't help thinking that it appeared to have been set up to film events rather than to provide a good experience for the audience: the amount of cafe table seating was rather limited (the entire space is pretty small, really) and late-comers had to sit on the (hellishly slippery!!) faux marble staircase leading up to the mezzanine balcony.  The space at first seems a bit unpromising for music - an odd shape, very high and irregular ceiling, lots of bare concrete - but they've done a surprisingly thorough job of damping the echoes to create a decent acoustic (take note, Yugong Yishan!), and the sound system is superb.  It's a pity the place is in THE ARSE-END OF NOWHERE. (And I am not going to pay 35 rmb for a Tsingtao anywhere!  However, most of the other drinks are very reasonably priced; and, as at Yugong, the 45 rmb Long Island Iced Tea is surprisingly well made, and much the best value on the menu.)

Friday, November 19, 2010

Good luck, AIS!!

The Amazing Insurance Salesmen, Beijing's finest new band to burst on the scene this year (or for many a long year), are in Hong Kong at the moment - getting ready to rumble with four other bands in the China National Final of the 2010 Global Battle of the Bands contest (having won the Beijing round of the competition a couple of months back).

I've seen the gig listed a number of places on the Internet as happening tomorrow, the 20th, but according to the GBOB website, it's actually on Sunday 21st (strange scheduling!!).

Keeping fingers and toes crossed for more success for Jean-Seb, Maikel, and Mao Mao.  Put in a storming performance, guys - and bring that title home to The Jing!

It seems the competition final is being held in a club called Sticky Fingers, in the Empire Centre at 66, Mody Road.  If you're in Hong Kong this weekend, you should go.  I'm disappointed I can't.

[If, like me, you can't be there to cheer the lads on, you may like to listen to some free demos they now have on their page on the Chinese music site Douban.]

HBH 209

Girls love to taunt you,
And friends may ignore your calls;
Whisky's always there.

It's nice to know there are some things you can rely on!

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Recommended Posts, July-September 2009

Another quarterly round-up from last year.  This one will probably be a little shorter than some, since I was away on holiday for half of this period, and suffering from problematical Internet access throughout.

Guided Tour  - recommended posts from the 3rd quarter of 2009

1)  Sympathy with Tom  -  22nd July 2009
On my return to England I find myself experiencing a tantalising moment of near-greatness on the pool table - which prompts me to commiserate, again, with Tom Watson's recent heartbreak on the last green of the British Open.

2)  HBH 142  -  24th July 2009
I find revisiting the stomping grounds of my youth to be a rather disorienting and dispriting experience...

A rather unusual selection for my weekly series of 'wise words'!

4)  HBH 143  -  31st July 2009
For some reason, travelling also sets me to brooding again on my great thwarted romance with 'Madame X'.

5)  The man without condiments  -  31st July 2009
I find myself unexpectedly catering a small dinner party in Oxford.  Unfortunately, my host, Little Anthony, has a very strange kitchen: very generously over-equipped in some respects, alarmingly under-equipped in others.

6)  Lear  -  1st August 2009
A brief review of the Washington Shakespeare Theatre's production of King Lear, starring Stacy Keach, which I'd seen a week or so earlier, at the end of my trip to the States.

7)  The Marlborough House  -  4th August 2009
The closure of yet another of my old student drinking haunts in Oxford provokes some mournful self-reflection...

8)  What they drink in Finland?  -  6th August 2009
My friend Little Anthony, a motorsport journalist just returned from covering the Rally of Finland, is able to enlighten us on this question - the answer is surprising, and rather horrifying.

9)  Chill Penury (and Dirty Tricks)  -  9th August 2009
I am shocked to discover how darned expensive most of the shows at the Edinburgh Fringe have got, with ticket prices seeming to have at least doubled in less than a decade.  I ponder a few suggestions for scoring freebies, but realise that I am far too ethical to adopt any of these.

10)  Set the controls for the heart of URANUS  -  15th August 2009
My researches into an especially pretentious 'speakeasy' cocktail bar in Alexandria, VA. leave me feeling quite incensed (I had been planning to go there, but was emphatically put off the idea).

11)  The Best Cocktail Bar In The World  -  17th August 2009
... is actually in my friend's kitchen.  And all the better for being FREE!  I particularly enjoyed his recreation of 'forgotten classic' The Avenue.

12)  An ominous landmark  -  21st August 2009
I pass my 'Chinaversary' again.... and start to feel that fabled seven-year-itch - with a vengeance!

13)  HBH 146  -  28th August 2009
In celebration of the surprisingly palatable mare's milk baijiu from Mongolia, which is becoming quite a regular 'special' at my favourite bar.

14)  A bon mot from life  -  7th September 2009
I conduct a schizophrenic conversation with myself on the topic of love, etc....

15)  You know you've been in Beijing too long...  -  13th September 2009
.... when bar staff start giving you backchat like this!  My subsequent bon mot for the week was closely related in sentiment.

16)  The Weeble learns a new word  -  24th September 2009
My translator buddy, with his disturbingly nocturnal working - and partying - patterns, had forgotten the conventional concept of 'breakfast'.

17)  Cured?  -  29th September 2009
Am I finally over my last great love affair?  Sort of, almost, maybe.

18)  Tuesday Night Music Club  -  30th September 2009
My favourite neighbourhood music bar Jianghu has instituted a Tuesday jazz jam.  I am particularly intrigued by a Chinese lady drummer who's started showing up to it.

Monday, November 15, 2010

A meeting of the Mikes

My erstwhile drinking companions Shanghai Michael and Dr Manhattan (aka 'Big Mike' or 'Mikey Mike' or 'The Mike') have arranged a reunion this month.  I would have loved to join them, but..... unfortunately (for me), it's happening in New York.

Curse this not-having-any-money!!

Bon mot for the week

The bud may have a bitter taste,
But sweet will be the flower.

William Cowper  (1731-1800)

Although I don't suppose he was thinking of Mongolian mare's milk baijiu when he wrote this...

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Go get 'em, boys!

I caught Friday's show by winners of the Beijing round of the Global Battle of the Bands, The Amazing Insurance Salesmen, at Yugong Yishan.

As always seems to happen for me at Yugong, it was a fairly wretched night... only redeemed by their STUNNING set at the end of it.

The gig seemed to have been poorly promoted, and the crowd was never above 100 (which, in that space, feels like nothing), and - after 3 or 4 truly dismal acts (including two representatives of the "cream" of the Shanghai music scene, allegedly - this is why we're so happy to live in Beijing!!) - even this scant audience had evaporated by the time Jean-Seb and the boys finally took the stage at half past midnight.  We few, we happy few!  Only 20 of us left, but my god, the boys rocked out!

In a few days, they're off down to Hong Kong for the Asian final of the competition.  They're playing one last (unadvertised) gig at MAO Live tonight.  Go and see them.

Jean-Seb's vocals are not the strongest, but his songs are pretty damn good.  And in terms of sheer musicianship, these three guys (Frenchman Jean-Sébastien Héry on guitar, Dutch Maikel Liem shredding the bass, and China's King of Cool, Mao Mao, on the drums) plainly are in a different class from anyone else currently playing in Beijing... and probably in China... and maybe in the world.  They are reminiscent of Cream or The Who in their heyday.  Really, that good.  Go see them - before they get spoiled by fame and success and recording contracts and all that shit.

Friday, November 12, 2010

HBH 208

Music fills the room,
The small spaces of the heart
Are filled with music.

I was bitching a few days ago about the somewhat unsatisfactory state of Beijing's music bars this past year or so.  I've even had a few gripes about my long-time favourite neighbourhood hangout, Jianghu - the Tuesday jazz jams seem to have faltered, the programming has been very erratic, there was a big problem for several weeks with the sound system being cranked up way too loud for their tiny space, it feels a tad expensive these days (compared to the 'good old days' when it first opened, when it was more of a dive bar for students from the nearby Central Academy of Drama: enormous gin & tonics for 25 kuai, and FREE Yanjing draft beer [well, for a little while, when Tianxiao was sorting out how the tap worked]), especially with a minimum 30 kuai cover charge for almost every event.  Worst of all, they've been getting too darned popular for their own good, often drawing crowds that have the little space completely heaved out (it's not really a good idea to book acts that have a large following - The Redbucks, with their rapidly growing frat boy fan club, had become 'too big' for this venue this year; and well-known Chinese acts.... inappropriate for this sort of space, I'm afraid); many times I've been tempted by one of their weekend shows, but then discouraged by the realisation that it would almost certainly be way too crowded.  I'm very happy for the folks there, it's good to see they're finally making some decent money off the place.  I suppose it's now become a 'proper' music bar, whereas in its early days it was more of a hobby bar that happened to be run by a pair of musicians and thus featured occasional music events.  It's just that I can't help feeling nostalgic for those simpler times.

Thursdays, though, are still one of the best nights of the week there.  In the bar's first year or so, my friends the No Name jazz trio had a regular residency there on Thursdays, and that was how I first started going there regularly.  This year, just about all of my most fondly remembered gigs have been Jianghu Thursdays: a superb unplugged set by The Verve in April, two or three rollicking good-time shows by Des McGarry's Irish folk band Blackwater (at one of which I was honoured to have the lovely Daisy Sweetgrass steal my seat),  Jean-Sebastien and Ubuul doing their dazzling experimental folk stuff, and the mesmerizing free-form improvisations of Li Tieqiao, Mamer, and Tato last week.  And last night.... Mongolian metalhead-turned-folkie Gangzi.  I'd caught this guy a couple of times before, late last year or early this, but I hadn't remembered quite how good he was.  Really - superb voice, superb guitar playing, superb songs: jaw-on-the-floor stuff, spellbinding.

After putting out a home-produced demo album a couple of years ago, and then a live recording, he's finally produced his first studio album, Sunrise, this year (more of a long EP, really: only six tracks, but never mind).  Go and buy it.  I did.

[Ah, on checking the sleeve-notes I discover that Sunrise too is a "homemade" production.  Oh well - none the worse for that.]

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Single, and PROUD

Today - 11.11 - is Singles' Day in China.... a relatively recent, and supposedly a uniquely Chinese festival.

I find the idea a welcome antidote to the artificial 'romance' of the dratted Valentine's Day - although I fear that rather too many people are treating this day as a pretext for a desperate, last-ditch blind-dating frenzy.

If it were more an unashamed celebration of singlehood, I'd be far more amenable to it.  If it were an occasion for all of our relationship-bound friends to ditch their partners for a night and come out to party with us singletons again, that, I think, would be a fine institution.  When they decide to hold a Singles' Year, you can definitely sign me up.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

When is a 'happy hour' not a 'happy hour'?

When you're only taking 5 kuai off the price of something!

OK, maybe if you were taking the price of a Tsingtao down from 20 to 15, or from 15 to 10, it would be OK.  But you do need to be giving at least a 25%-30% discount for it to start feeling even vaguely happy.

Latest offender I've discovered is the 1st Floor bar in the Tongli Studios.  Their 'happy hour' discounts (and their pricing in general) seem to be all over the shop; quite reasonable on some things, non-existent on others.  And they don't seem to advertise what the 'happy hour' tariff is, or when it applies, anywhere that I can see, either - I hate that.  A half-litre of Stella is a fairly reasonable 35rmb on their usual tariff, but they only knock a paltry 5 kuai off for 'happy hour'.  Really, boys, it's not worth it: that's just a f***ing irritation!!  

[Yes, I've said this before.  Beijing bars just never seem to get any better: year after year, the same crap keeps happening...]

Monday, November 08, 2010

Says who?

Oh, yeah?!  Well, what about drinking beer and watching football and watching the Brazilian Grand Prix at the same time, huh?

I tell you, it's all go around here.

Bon mot for the week

"I don't want to get to the end of my life and find that I have just lived the length of it.  I want to have lived the width of it as well."

Diane Ackerman  (1948- )

Sunday, November 07, 2010

Diminishing returns

I went out to MAO Live House on Friday night, for the first time in ages.

Well, it was closed for several weeks earlier this year by some sort of dispute with the local authorities.  "Fire code violations" were cited, but, given the total absence of any such effective safety codes in China, I rather suspect that it was more a matter of certain pay-offs having been omitted. MAO is, I think, just about unique amongst the music venues I frequent in having two doors (at opposite ends of the room!), and is thus marginally less of a death-trap than any of its competitors.

I was delighted to see it eventually open its doors again, but.... I think this may be the first time since then that a lineup there has tempted me back.

It is - or ought to be - the best rock music venue in the city.  It has a superb sound system and acoustics (and pretty damn good sound-proofing, to limit complaints from the neighbours), and a main room of ideal size and proportions, uncluttered by the bar and lounge seating areas that ruin the experience at its leading rival, Yugong Yishan.  There's a nice scaleability about the space, too: it's so wombily dark that, when a crowd is thin, everyone gravitates towards the front, and even a few dozen people can make the place seem reasonably packed (whereas the wretched Yugong always feels echoingly deserted with less than a couple of hundred people in); 200-300 is a good number to pack out the front area near the stage; but you can probably cram in twice that number if you fully utilise the raised area at the rear as well.

Unfortunately, their scheduling continues to be all over the place (occasional super-bills with more bands than anyone would want to see in a single night; but far too many short shows and anonymous lineups), and their publicity (at least, for a non-Chinese audience) non-existent.  Also, they seem to now have absolutely no ventilation or air-conditioning in the main room: even on a cool evening with only a mid-sized crowd, the place last night was getting to be a sauna.  The insufferable temperatures in there are the No. 1 complaint from everyone I ever talk to - Chinese or foreign - about this place.

The No. 2 gripe is the uselessness of the bar.  While I applaud the decision to devote the main room exclusively to the music, they don't really have the room in the little L-shaped space outside to run a proper bar.  They invariably run out of beer, sometimes before the show's even started.  Last night, I purchased one of the last bottles of Tsingtao, only about 10 minutes after the first act had come on stage; and there wasn't much of a crowd at that point!!  The last bottles of over-priced foreign beer - like Heineken - had been hoovered up well before the headline act came on.  There were a couple of cases of cans of the local Yanjing beer in the bottom of one of the fridges, but these, I was told, were "reserved for the bands".  They have managed to put up a rather better show at the bar than this in the past; they just seem to have given up completely.  Surely there must be some additional space where they could put in some more fridges and freezers?  And if not, I think a rock'n'roll crowd would probably be reasonably tolerant of warm beer.  They could probably make more money on beer sales than they do from their door fees - if they could only lay in sufficient stock.  It's just crazy that they're not even making the effort.  (Though at least they've given up on the obnoxious 'no readmittance' policy they tried to enforce when they first opened a few years ago.  Now you can come in and out freely; so, most of the Chinese punters quaff street beers from a nearby xiaomaibu on the sidewalk out front.... while I head over the road between sets to grab a drink in the Pool Bar.)

Yet despite these horrendous shortcomings, MAO Live is still the best rock venue in the city!!  With this year's music bar newcomers, large (Mako Live and The One) and small (Zui Yuefang and Hot Cat Club and 121) alike, conspicuously failing to do anything to build a regular roster of events or a customer base, with Yugong Yishan in danger of marginalising itself as a wealthy foreigners' social club, 2 Kolegas shooting itself spectacularly in the foot with ridiculous new speaker stacks which are far too loud for the venue and obscure half the stage, and even old favourites like Jianghu and Jiangjinjiu having mostly rather disappointing years, the situation for music bars has become almost as dire as that for sports barsIf someone could start running one of these places really well, they'd make a killing.  

I'd say MAO has much the best opportunity; but it needs to treble the size of its bar and install some industrial air-conditioning units.

[Oh, the music?  It started off well, but deterioriated steadily.  Ghost Spardac, despite their unfathomably terrible name, were actually pretty damned good: a tight little trio who play with a lot of energy and self-belief.  Punk-ish aggression, but with refreshing infusions of melody: reminded me a bit of Green Day. (Were some of the songs in English?  I couldn't really tell.  In general, I think it's a mistake for Chinese bands to try to sing in English!) I am assured that they have been together a couple of years or so now, but they don't seem to play many gigs - at least not anywhere that gets on the laowai radar.  I'd never heard of them before, but will be on the lookout for them now.

Next up were Bigger Bang.  I liked them the first few times I saw them a couple of years back, but they don't seem to have lived up to their initial promise.  Their frontwoman, Pupi (no idea if that's supposed to be an "English name"!), seems to aspire to be a new Kang Mao or Helen Feng - but I'm afraid she just doesn't have the voice or the looks or the sheer oomph of those two Beijing music scene heroines.  And their increasing use of electronica to fill out their sound is only going to further alienate a long-time synth-sceptic like me.

The main event were a Taiwanese band called White Eyes, who had been raved about by music blogger Beijing Daze when they played here in the spring.  I suspect Badr was once again letting his libido get the better of his judgement on this.  Their energetic female lead singer Xiao Gao turned up to that previous gig in an outrageous flesh-coloured slip dress with her lady-bits rather too realistically painted on the front of it.  Last night, after wearing a hooded grey cape for the first few numbers (to build up a sense of  anticipation in her drooling front-row fans), she disrobed to reveal a scarlet bustier and a skintight micro-skirt (I remember Ian Fleming had a great line about one of his Bond girls wearing something that was "decent by an inch"; this skirt was indecent by at least an inch and a half!).  Aside from this welcome frisson of titillation, though, they seemed to me to be just another cookie-cutter Chinese pop-punk band, fairly indistinguishable from dozens of similar mainland acts (and less good than many).  Xiao Gao is more of a screecher than a singer (I suffered one or two uncomfortable flashbacks of the appalling Gia Wang!), and all the songs sounded much the same.  I found my enthusiasm for the show waning after 10 minutes or so, and gone completely in 25...]

Friday, November 05, 2010

Ethereal sounds

After a heavy Wednesday, I was disposed to 'be good' and have a recovery night at home last night.  However, my friend KP, who has a long-standing talent-crush on the Kazakh folk musician Mamer, alerted me to the fact that he was to be playing a gig at Jianghu, and urged me to accompany her in order to help restrain her infatuate enthusiasm within decorous parameters.  What else can a gentleman do when presented with such a request?

It turned out that on this occasion Mamer was not the main focus of the evening.  In fact, the show was Li Tieqiao & Friends - the awesome saxophonist being joined by Mamer strumming an acoustic guitar (and indulging in one brief spot of experimental percussion on an electric bass) and veteran Mexican muso Tato Ramirez on his tabla.  And it was mesmerising stuff.  Li can do just about anything that damn well takes his fancy on the sax (and he threw in a bamboo flute at one point as well), and I can't help wishing that just once in a while he'd play a straightforward tune.... rather than teasing all manner of other-worldly noises out of the instrument.  I'm sure he would be absolutely awesome playing some of the jazz standards of Lester Young or Gerry Mulligan - and he probably has been at some point in his career; but presumably got bored of it.  Now, he's Mr Experimental all the way - but, by god, he makes you believe in whatever he's doing.  And this new lineup - playing what appeared to be prepared improvisations with a couple of other extremely talented musicians - added welcome new dimensions to Li's saxophone weirdness.  If we're not going to see the mind-blowing Glorious Pharmacy get together again (Li's long-time on-off-on collaboration with fellow eccentric geniuses Xiao He on guitar and Guo Long on percussion), then these guys could provide a very acceptable substitute.  More, please.

HBH 207

The barman knows us,
Fills our glasses to the brim:
Quadruple whiskeys!

I was speculating just last week that the departure of top bartender Clément from Salud might mean an end to the days of liver-threatening overpours there.  I wonder if his Chinese colleague Justin reads this blog??  The other night he was dispensing absolutely murderous measures to The Choirboy and me.

Thursday, November 04, 2010

Top Five Things That Can Go Wrong On A Date

My pal DD borrowed my 'Great Dating Disasters' theme for her radio show on relationships a few weeks back.  Unfortunately, she didn't feel that the topic had the legs in it for a whole show, and jettisoned it only about a third of the way in, in favour of interrogating her poor guests more closely about their own love lives.

However, this got me thinking about the topic some more, wondering if I could categorize the various types of possible disaster for one of my 'Top Five' lists.

An American friend of mine, counselling the need for perspective in these matters, used to say: "It's not a bad date if you don't end up in handcuffs.  In handcuffs in the back of a cop car, that is.  Obviously, ending up in handcuffs could be a very good date..."

An even worse example of the extreme end of the spectrum that occurred to me was the Stephen Waldorf incident, a notoriously botched police raid that was a huge news story in the UK around the time I was starting university back the '80s.  OK, it might not have been a 'date' as such, but this guy was in a car with a young lady whom the police had under surveillance because they believed her to be romantically involved with a dangerous criminal who had recently escaped from custody (a guy who had twice shot at police officers attempting to arrest him earlier in the year).  The police, not unnaturally rather jumpy about this manhunt, mistakenly identified poor Waldorf as the escaped prisoner - and shot him full of holes.  He survived, and eventually made a full recovery - but it was a horrific episode.  Since then, I often think to myself, if I don't end up in hospital on a life-support machine, it hasn't been a bad date.

Anyway, let's get on with the list....

Top Five Things That Can Go Wrong On A Date

5)  One or both of you are running badly late.
This is a particular problem for us here in Beijing - which is a rather spread-out city, with still rather limited coverage by the subway network, and some of the most horrendous traffic in the world.  Moving across the CBD in the early evening can be hellishly SLOW.  And cabs can be in very short supply at peak periods (an awful lot of drivers go off shift at around 7.30pm - really!).  However, I wonder if this isn't a problem that's been created - or exacerbated - by the universal adoption of mobile phones.  In the bad old days when we usually had no way to contact someone we'd arranged to meet once we'd both left our home or office... well, we had to make more of an effort to make bloody well sure we'd make the rendezvous on time.  Now, I'm prepared to be tolerant if you're just a little late, or if you've suffered really exceptional bad luck; but if you just didn't anticipate that it might take 45 minutes to get from Wudaokou to Sanlitun on a Saturday evening... well, I'm going to be inclined to think that you are at best inconsiderate, and at worst extraordinarily stupid.  And you should think the same of me if I screw up that much.  If you've been in this city any length of time at all, it's really not difficult to estimate the likely travelling times from one district to another in different traffic conditions.  C'est la politesse des princes.

4)  The service ruins the evening.
Of course, you should try not to let the externals ruin the evening.  The evening should be about you and your companion, your conversation, the chemistry between you.  But the circumstances in which you are trying to have your conversation will inevitably have some impact, possibly a really huge impact on how enjoyable the evening is.  And we do live in the country - the city - with possibly the worst customer service in the world.  Really - yes, it's got a lot better in the last 5 or 6 years, but it's still TERRIBLE.  And you're never completely immune from the risk of such a bad experience: even in a place with foreign management, even in a place that usually has high standards, even in a place you think you can rely on... there may be new staff, the manager may be bunking off for the night, perhaps the chef's girlfriend has just left him... bad things can happen at any time.  The possibility of outrageous incompetence - and occasional violent psychosis - from your serving staff is a constant threat in Beijing.

3)  You run into a bunch of friends.
In my famous (?) series of posts on 'Dating in Beijing' a few years back, I noted that one of the biggest obstacles to getting a relationship off the ground here in Beijing was what I termed "a hothouse intimacy".  Despite the proliferation of foreigner-friendly venues in recent years, there are still only a relatively small number that are very good - or very popular - at any given time.  And we expats tend to have large and overlapping circles of friends and acquaintances.  It really is pretty difficult to go out anywhere in 'laowai Beijing' without running into someone you know.  It can thus be next to impossible to cultivate a one-on-one relationship with a member of the opposite sex, because you can never get any time alone together.  I suppose the very worst variation of this would be running into an ex (that very nearly happened to me the last time I went on a date, a few months back!).  No, the very worst would probably be running into one of her exes.

2)  Unsuspected incompatibilities.
Or... the badly chosen date venue.  I have recounted on here before the sorry tale of the young woman I took to a gig by top Beijing punk band, SUBS.  Ideally, planning a date should be a matter of negotiation, of establishing shared interests.  But sometimes... you make a suggestion, and the lady acquiesces "just to be nice" - and you find out too late that she's absolutely going to HATE it.  And I seem to dislike a lot of things that most other people like.  My interest in a woman has cooled very rapidly when she's suggested going to one of the bars on my 'Hate List' for an after-dinner drink.

And topping off this list we have.....

1)  The chemistry just isn't there.
Even if no gross incompatibilities of taste or opinion emerge... sometimes there's just no spark.  I suppose this is more of a danger on a blind date, and I never really do those (well, I've gone on two in my entire life; and they both went astonishingly well!).  However, sometimes there seems to be at least a little chemistry there on first meetings, and you think - hope - that more could develop.  Then, suddenly, out on a date.... you discover a dismal, catastrophic, total absence of chemistry.  Maybe you should persevere anyway; maybe it's just temporarily absent (she's had a rotten day at work, received some bad news from home, had to put up with a really horrible cabbie on the way over here)?  More probably you were mistaken, deluded about the potential in this relationship at the outset... and there really is NO HOPE.  But does she feel the same way?  And, even if she does, perhaps she's still hoping to get a jump out of the evening?  It's wretched, WRETCHED to be in this sort of situation, wondering how quickly you can extricate yourself without hurting her feelings.

Of course, I have omitted the more extreme possibilities - what we might call the 'Act of God' dating disasters, where random external circumstances contrive to give you a hellish time even though you and your date may be getting along splendidly together: muggings or lost wallets; extreme weather (snow or heavy rain in Beijing is a miserable experience; and we suffer sandstorms and toxic smog too); earthquake, fire, riot... or being attacked by a squad of armed policemen.  I once had a date melt down on me because she'd just discovered (as in, an hour before she came out to see me) that her ex was about to get married to his previous ex (with whom he had evidently never completely broken up, despite living with my date for three years)  -  yep, that was really ugly.  But such calamities are, mercifully, rather rare; and I wanted to focus here on the more generic.  Do you think there's anything I missed?

Wednesday, November 03, 2010

All cock and not a lot of buzz

I'd had very mixed feelings about going along to see veteran English 'punk' band The Buzzcocks at Yugong Yishan a couple of weeks ago.

Yes, they were a 'name'.  And I was intrigued to see what kind of Chinese crowd they might attract (just about none, as it happened; the ticket price was too darned expensive).  And Sham 69, of similar genre and vintage, had rocked out pretty damned well at the Midi Festival at the start of May - so I wasn't going to hold their advancing middle age against them.

However... well, it did start to bother me rather that - just about alone among the punk bands of that generation (just when I was entering my teens) - I couln't remember a single one of their songs.  Well, no, that's not quite true: I could remember Orgasm Addict.  Or rather, I could remember the title, but not really very much about the song. After doing some memory-jogging research online, I discovered that I did in fact remember a few of their song titles - but none of the actual songs.  Ever Fallen In Love (With Someone You Shouldn't Have)? is probably their most widely known, most widely covered composition, and is often praised as a good song; but in fact it's just a good song title - there isn't really anything to the song except a lot of repetitions of the title!

I played a bit of their stuff on YouTube, and was not enthused.  Pete Shelley was always compromised by a weak, whiney voice and an autistic performance style - and he hasn't got any better with age.  Whereas many rock'n'rollers seem to find that performance keeps them superhumanly youthful, Shelley, I'm sorry to say, now looks old and fat - rather older, in fact, than his (I guess) 50 years.  Old, fat, and bored.  Not a very inspiring frontman.  Steve Diggle on guitar has at least stayed lean, but also looks older than his years.  And he's not much of a player.  And his trademark gesture, raising his right arm above his head and holding it there for several seconds (rather like a freezeframe of Pete Townsend at the beginning or end of his windmilling; and, in fact, uncomfortably close to a 'Sieg Heil!' salute...), got really old by the third or fourth time he did it - 45 seconds into the first song.  I mean, really, what the hell is the point of repeatedly calling attention to the fact that you're not actually playing very much?!

I had promised myself that I'd give them 6 songs.  I lost count, and may possibly have given up after only 4 or 5.  Then again, given that most of their songs are less than 3 minutes long, I had probably managed to survive 8 or 10 of them.  And they all sounded exactly the same.

I wonder if anyone would now remember them at all but for the BBC's long-running comedy music quiz Never Mind The Buzzcocks.  Great band name, but a very mediocre band.  One of the biggest gig disappointments of the year.

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

More Pick of the Posts

Two new recommendations from the archive, a couple of favourite moments from November 2007...

From Froogville, I select Visibility!! - a celebration of my idiosyncratic approach to 'search engine optimization', with one or two playful philological digressions thrown in for good measure.

And from Barstool Blues, I choose this 'opinion poll' on the possible reasons Why I don't have a girlfriend.


Cover charge - NO!

It was nice to catch a visiting French free jazz duo (Olivier Roussel on electric guitar, Fréderic Pasqua on drums) at MaoMaoChong last night.  These two gents are very talented, and have been tremendously proactive in soliciting bars to host them on almost every night they're in town here: tonight, I gather, they're playing at CD Blues over on the East Third Ringroad, and on Thursday they'll be at What Bar, the tiny rock'n'roll dive at the north-west corner of the Forbidden City.

My one gripe last night was the unfathomable decision to try to impose a cover charge.  I love S & S at MMC to bits, but.... this was just DAFT.

There are three (well, four) main reasons why you have a cover charge: a) to pay the band; b) to discourage punters, if you're worried that demand may exceed your capacity; c) to make sure you get some money out of every customer (particularly a problem with the Chinese, who will happily nurse one drink for hours at a time; or avoid buying anything at all, if they can); or d) to fleece people.

None of these seemed to be applicable last night.  The band was, I believe, playing for free (and the door fee being asked was too trivial to cover any significant remuneration to them anyway).  Monday nights are quiet in the hutongs, and there was never much danger that - for the early show, at least - there would be any more than a handful of people there; so, there was absolutely no need to be driving people awayMMC's custom is probably about 95% laowai, and it's just not the kind of place that attracts the curse of non-paying customers (of whatever nationality).  And they weren't making any money off it themselves - not enough to be worth the hassle, anyway.

I've complained before that cover charges tend to create a very negative impression, and are particularly inappropriate for restaurant/bars that depend primarily on casual walk-by trade (music bars can get away with it because punters don't go there for any other reason than the music).  The cover charge idea seemed particularly inept, iniquitous last night because a large birthday party group was expected during the second half of the evening, and it was obvious that the charging system would break down - or be waived - for them.  Even worse, it wasn't just a straightforward door fee: they were offering a 'free drink' in return - but only from a limited range.  So, they were boosting their revenue by only 5 or 10 rmb per person, but at the cost of baffling and irritating people, and wasting scads of time trying to explain to their punters the terms of this insanely complicated and pointless deal.

It was a fun show.  The peeps at MMC have proven they can host live music (though it was a bit of a squeeze to fit the drum kit in beside the door).... and not enrage the jingcha directly opposite!  I hope they'll do it again from time to time.  But PLEASE, no 'cover charge' next time!!!

Monday, November 01, 2010

Traffic Report - the blog stats for October

My two little blogs were running each other neck and neck last month.  (And still not much sign of the long-promised scaling down of output!  Sorry.)

There were 39 posts and around 13,000 words on Froogville.

There were 38 posts and 12,000 words on Barstool Blues.

Although JES, my most reliable supporter over the past couple of years, has recently been all but banished from my comment-threads by a tighter censorship regime at his place of work, a new 'comment king', Hopfrog (who does seem rather spookily like my separated-at-birth American twin!), has emerged to take his place.  With his help, I've produced too very lively new threads which could become long-term features on the blogs: one, a discussion of favourite musicians (inspired by my friend Ruby's challenge to nominate my candidates for a "Mount Rushmore of Rock"); the other, a discussion of favourite Formula One drivers past and present (inspired by my review of John Frankenheimer's classic 1966 movie Grand Prix).

Last week's post on Great Film Quotes and the weekend's quiz on the same theme could also attract quite a response, I hope.

And the most exotic of my recent drive-bys have been from Vietnam and Rwanda.  It's a funny old world.