Monday, February 27, 2006

I finished my review of ‘Capote’, which I saw on Saturday with Roy and enjoyed very much, and spent quite a bit of time today answering a Writewords rebuttal of my review of ‘Good Night and Good Luck’, which really stopped me making headway with my China book ‘Silkworms and Snow’ . Monday, after all, is a day which I have clear for writing, so I intended to make up for last week's setbacks.

Tonight I went to a really useful talk about publicising oneself as writer online. Delivered by a man who described himself as a computer geek, one Sean McManus, to an audience of about 200 Society of Authors members, it was really useful. I had half thought he would be representing some company charging a fortune to set up websites, but it seems that my blog is good enough, at least to start with. I must make an effort to use links and photos to brighten things up a bit.

Tomorrow, too, I’ll register for a domain name. That’s the first step. The second , getting a blog, I’ve already done- in fact I’ve got two, counting my photojournal –

The talk was at a posh venue – the Overseas Club in St James’s Street, and although I could have hung about and ‘networked’ with other belabelled authors whilst drinking white wine I wasn’t in the mood. - I wanted to get home. Another thing I must do is order some cards - they are free from a company called vistaprint, at an address on the back of Sean's card.

I had a very pleasant, slightly spooky walk along Pall Mall towards Trafalgar Square. There weren’t many people around until I was passing the ICA and approaching Admiralty Arch, although there were plenty of taxis swishing past. I was looking at the imposing buildings on my left, with high sash windows and cream-painted pillars and a huge pediment with a Prince of Wales feather in bas relief. It would be handy to have a flat there. To my right, the dark recesses of St James’s Park, the outlines of trees and illuminated roofs and domes beyond, and a circle of lights that was the London Eye.

I looked in Smiths when I got to Charing Cross, hoping to get a TLS, but they didn't have any- the Waterloo branch is much bigger. Instead I bought The New Yorker Magazine and read a very well-written piece on the train by John Updike. Well, it would be well-written, wouldn't it, like all his stuff. It was called My Father's Tears and I thought it was going to be all sentimental patriarchy stuff, but I read it anyway. It reminded me that I must finish a memoir piece of my own that I'm in the middle of - about when my grammar school headmistress called me into her study and told me to take off my skirt.

Friday, February 24, 2006

Reviews Finished!

I was quite pleased today because I mangaged to write a review of 'Good Night and Good Luck', directed by George Clooney, which I saw last night,and posted it to the Writwords website, and I also managed the opening paragraphs, in three different styles, for the Film Journalism course. Oh, and not to mention a proposal letter to take to my Goldsmith class tomorrow. No Chinese, and no book-writing, but I can't have everything. Maybe swimming will help my knees, which I notice are a bit creaky from non-stop sitting in front of the computer.

Thursday, February 23, 2006

Films Unlimited

After spending only an hour or so on my film reviews I went off to my Chinese class, which I enjoyed as much as ever but renewed my vow to study between classes- in theory I'm committed to an hour a day but in practice I seldom manage much more than half an hour, so I try to make up for it by listening to tapes on my Walkman when I go to sleep or when I wake up in the night. My Sinophile chum Canadian Barbara thinks this practice is shocking for someone who is married, but Roy doesn't mind, except when he can hear the whirring of the spools. I stifle the sound with a pillow if he complains.

On the way there I took my books back to Charing Cross Library and was pleasantly surprised at being able to renew Paul Auster's 'New York Trilogy', which I've renewed twice already. 'You can renew up to six times' said the kindly girl at the desk. I didn't know that, but it is just as well because by the time I've read the newspapers, 'Sight and Sound' and 'Time Out' that's it- there's hardly any time for reading books. Oh, 'The Oldie' arrived today, too.

It was a really miserable grey wet day but I was cheered up when I went to get an Unlimited Cinema ticket from the Haymarket Cineworld cinema on the way back. It was the notice in the Time Out this morning about an upcoming French film festival that finally decided me. It costs £13.99 to go as often as I like to all the Cineworld cinemas in England, and they seem to get all the decent mainstream films as well as some foreign ones. I had to have my photo taken against a pull-down screen in a corner of the foyer and the elderly gent wielding the camera took the photo from a low angle, so it looks as if I'm an extra for 'The Night of the Lving Dead'. 'You can keep these', he said, as he clipped two off the nine or so copies he made.

I would have had to hang about until 4pm to see the only film on offer that I hadn't seen already - 'Good Night and Good Luck.' As tonight is one of Roy's Bridge evenings and I'm not playing myself, I think I'll make an inaugural trip to West India Quay, despite the weather.Otherwise I'll be slumped in front of the TV drinking wine.

I had another go at the film research when I got home, and there's not much more to do now so I am more hopeful of getting the reviews finished. I even made a start on the paragraphs in different styles this morning.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Making a plan

Because I was feeling anxious about my film reviews - whether or not I had enough time to do the research and the writing and meet the deadline - I drew up an action plan in the poolside cafe. It's full of chatty little kids and the kind of mums who take the trouble to talk to them; a six year old girl at the next table was asking loud questions about my vaccuum flask, as if she's never seen one before.It had tea left over from the morning, because the Chinese class was even livelier than usual, so there was no chance to drink it.

I thought I'd go to the film library tomorrow because my first Google trawl hadn't thrown up much info on the film I've decided to write about, 'Hidden' (Cache) directed by Michel Haneke. I decided it was best to do one I'd already written a review for, but the more scholarly of the three reviews will need some background. There's supposed to be one in tabloid style, one for a specialist mag or broadsheet and one for a trade mag. Anyway, this afternoon I found a website which was much better, including some in-depth analysis from worthy journals, so I took notes and am feeling more cheerful. I'll also find more info about the lead stars, Denis Auteuil and Juliet Binoche, but that'll be easier. I always read the trade mag 'Variety' anyway, in an online format, and I don't think the lowbrow one will be a problem.

In fact, there was an email from the BBC Collective site today to say I'd won a free DVD for the review. It's better than the two previous prizes which were both pop music CDs, one by a black rapper called Kano and a band called Babyshambles with Kate Moss's druggy boyfriend as a leader. The DVD is called 'The Mysterians', not one I've heard of. I think they just send out as prizes the free copies they are sent to review. Quite a good idea!

Tuesday, February 21, 2006


I have too many things needing attention this week, including my first real deadline for the Film Journalism course and the need to write a feature proposal for my Goldsmiths Journalism class. I resume my twice-weekly trips to Soho after a welcome half-term break, and I am really struggling with my piece on unemployment for 'Silkworms and Snow' The language issues which bedevilled my days in the office and which should make for a funny piece seems not only ponderous and flat but really difficult to organise. In fact, I'm going to print it off so I can see it more clearly in print than just scrolling down the screen.

The Film Journalism task is quite difficult - to write three opening paragraphs of a review on the same film but in different styles, depending on which publication it is meant for. The materials pack provides some examples which don't really seem varied enough, although two are quite distinctive - a rambling account full of personal anecdote, for a website, and a piece of short headings and one-sentence paragraphs for the Daily Mirror. The others seem very similar.

I got up early this morning and started on a new review, of 'Lady Vengeance', but I think it will save time to use a film for which I have already written a review - 'Hidden' (Cache) directed by Michel Haneke. I've already posted this to the Writewords Review Page and to the BBC Collective. The deadline is next Monday but I can see it is going to take a lot of thought to define characteristics of style and then write the pieces. That's what makes me think I'd better choose a film I'm familiar with already - then I can go sraight into the writing, with a little extra research on the director for the more scholarly piece. I'll take another look at the examples first, I think.

I'm tempted to say I won't go swimming with Roy this afternoon - I usually drive over to the baths at Beckenham and by the time we get back we've only just got time for dinner before catching up on two episodes of Coronation Street,recorded whilst we were out playing Bridge last night. I will go swimming, becase I feel so sluggish. It's odd - I was optimistic about the book only a week ago and now I'm dragging it along like a big iron ball on a chain, trying to kick it into something more attractive and thinking it's hardly worth it. Still, this is the time for resolution and gritted teeth.

I also sent off a query to Central Lancashire University in my home town because my next project will be based on researching life in cotton factories from c.1938- 1978. That about covers the span my mother worked in the mills. I was thinking of moving to Southport for a year, despite Roy's protsts, because as well as being near the research area I can also see more of my sister, who is now retired in Preston, but maybe just a few weeks at a time will be enough. It could be costly to rent a place, although relatively cheap compared with the summer.

Thursday, February 16, 2006


I have these days when the muse deserts me, or when it is particularly hard to write, in the sense of composing sentences and paragraphs. I usually revert to doing research for a future episode of my China book, and after a while I’m OK.

One of the planned chapters will be about Chinese DVDs, the mainstay of our evening entertainment in Tonghua during my recent spell in a remote part of China, and almost an item of currency, like cigarettes in prison, except, unlike cigarettes, they could be swapped around for re-use.

They were very cheap - about 60p in English money , but also very unreliable. The failure rate was about one in every six or seven, with the frame freezing at one of the most suspenseful parts of the plot. I was probably the only one who also appreciated the opportunity to obtain a collection of Chinese DVDs, which I also brought back, although not in such great numbers. Mostly they were in slip covers but before we came back I remember we spent a whole morning taking the some jewel-box DVDs from their cases and repackaging them inside the inserts using rubber bands to hold together the double disks and cover.

This morning I went through the collection in search of those with badly-translated covers for inclusion in the articles. Just occasionally the title on the cover was misleading, and instead of the expected film it would be a totally different one.

Unsurprisingly, given the quiet tenor of our days amongst the foothills of the Changbaishan, our tastes tended to the more sensational thrillers – ‘Kill Bill’, ‘Blackhawk Down’ and ‘Gangs of New York’ and other lesser-known movies of the straight-to-DVD kind. Romantic comedies like ‘Four Weddings and a Funeral’ were popular with Katharine, my only female UK colleague, and me, and musicals, like ‘Chicago’

Most episodes I can write using the source material I already have; I’ve been reorganising a chapter on the sometimes hilarious sometimes vexing problems I had with subediting language for the magazines, for instance and for which I kept lots of examples, but some pieces need beefing up with statistics. I saw a useful article in the Guardian this morning about the difficulty the Chinese government have in controlling piracy, not just with DVDs but with books and music. I can use of the info in my articles, which will probably one of the more journalistic chapters, like the one on laid-off workers I’m preparing. I already found a very useful academic essay on the Internet about that.

I wonder what novelists do when they get struck by an uncreative phase?

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Film Journalism Icebreaker

My Film Journalism course started officially yesterday and the first task, called Icebreaker, was to post something about ourselves and something about our reactions to film reviews of films recently seen. I looked at some already posted and was not surprised to find they were mainly from people about half my age. This is what I wrote to introduce myself in terms of my film interests:

Hi everyone!

I live in southeast London, but was born in the north in the pre-TV era . My parents took me to the cinema twice a week in the 50s. My favourite films are Woody Allen’s ‘Play it Again, Sam’, and the Cohen Brothers’ ‘Fargo’, but I love foreign language films

I did an English degree and PGCE at Goldsmiths (1969-73). I used film in my teaching, thanks to the ILEA film library, which sent the reels in a van. I took a course in how to use a 16mm projector then a three-year part-time BFI Film Certificate. In the 80s the government decided media should be part of the school curriculum so I went to more classes. In the 90s I taught three years in Singapore where they are film-mad, and decided to learn Chinese. I bought a video camera and home equipment and filmed my student drama group for parents’ evening.

In 1997 I started writing. I was doing a part-time Media Studies MA and had put together a course on Chinese film, which I taught at evening classes. I saw a notice in the BFI library asking for directors’ profiles. A newly-formed media book company- they had a mattress and an Applemac in Camden - asked me to write an introductory book on Chinese film. I went on to write more articles on censorship and Chinese film.

In 2003 I stopped teaching and worked as subeditor in China for ten months. I’ve been writing a book about it since, as well as film reviews for the BBC Collective website - I won a Kano and a Babyshambles CD. Since September I’ve been attending a Saturday course in Journalism at Goldsmiths and I belong to Writewords, an online writers’ group.

I read Sight &Sound, especially the synopses because I like to know film plots in advance, also Time Out, especially the ‘Top 10 critics choices’ to help me decide what to see. I still go twice a week. I love to read Derek Elley in Variety and like Cosmo Landesman in the Sunday Times, also audience reviews on websites like IMDb and Rotten Tomatoes

Two films I saw recently both had a revenge theme – ‘Munich’ and ‘Lady Vengeance’ The first, tipped for festival awards, I found poorly acted, overlong and blatantly misogynist. I liked the suspense of the lead-in to explosions but found the meal-time chats tedious It also looked cheap, which is unforgivable, given Spielberg’s resources. I agreed with TO’s Mike Hodges that to represent London, by a few shots of mail boxes and double-decker buses under a deluge was silly. ‘Lady Vengeance’, also praised by critics, was beautifully designed and directed and kept the audience engaged right to the end. The way the strands of the story unfolded to show, not just to tell, how the revenge and the form it took was justified, was worth so much more than all the blether in ‘Munich’.

I’m thrilled to be on this course and look forward to discussions, on-line and at the seminar.

Monday, February 13, 2006

A funny thing happened on the way to my Journalism class on Saturday.

I was waiting at the bus stop in Lewisham way, juggling with a rucsack and a plastic bag with three newspapers - they all contained free DVDs and they all had loads of supplements, so it made for an unwieldly parcel, especially as I'd bought them from the kiosk in front of the DLR station. They don't normally issue plastic bags so this one wasn't big enough.

I think I was digging out the DVDs when I noticed this boy, who couldn't have been more than twelve years old, sitting on one of those hard-shelled suitcases. I remembered he was the same one who'd been behind me at the kiosk, the woman telling him she didn't need his help today, thank you. I noticed him because he was making loud noises by continually snapping the handle up and letting it spring back onto the suitcase.

I was moving away from the noise when the bus arrived and in my hurry I dropped a £1 coin, which I picked up. '£1 down!' said the boy, in a loud voice, and as I got on behind him I saw he was about to slip a £1 coin into his wallet.

'Hey, did you pick that up just now?'

'So what'

'Well, it's mine.'

'It's mine now'. He put the case on the rack beside the driver and sat down. Meantime I was putting down my bag, finding my bus pass and telling him off all at the same time. He took no notice at all and the bus passengers looked on, bemused. I was feeling quite annoyed by this time, so started really scolding the boy as I sat on the seat behind him.

'You know, I would really feel ashamed if I were you -picking up money dropped by little old ladies ( I exaggerated a little) If you do that now, what will you do when you get older...' I was really giving him some verbal, everyone on the bus listening in and the woman sitting next to the boy turning round to smile at me admiringly. He was a burly boy, and probably a bit of a bully at school, obviously used to toughing things out. At this point he just got up and climbed the stairs to the upper deck.

I was having a discussion with the woman of the ' young kids today, what are they like' kind when he came down again, collected his suitcase and got off at the next stop. By way of a parting shot I called after him to say I would ask the kiosk woman where he lived and come round to see his mother. The woman in front thought that wouldn't do much good, and I had to agree. Meanwhile the boy, having got off the bus, was swearing loudly.

When I arrived at the class and told my classmate all about it she said I was lucky, really, that I had got away without being injured. 'They go in for all this happy-slapping nowadays and you wouldn't have stood a chance.'

I explained that with a bus load of passengers and the boy only about twelve years old I'd felt safe.

Maybe she was right. I suppose I could have ended up in a heap on the floor, instead of pleased that at least I'd had some kind of reward for my £1, even if it had only been his discomfort.

Sunday, February 12, 2006

Don't Take No For an Answer

So embarrassing on Thursday, when I got into a sold-out screening on the coat-tails of two much more assertive companions. It was 'Shanghai Story', at the Vue Cinema in Leicester Square, on Thursday.

I arrived half an hour before the film was due to start and saw it had already sold out. I joined the queue all the same, because Susie Wong the organiser was supposed to send me tickets for several films, including the night before's gala, and they hadn't arrived.

The young woman at the box office looked through the envelopes, with no luck - all Chinese names. She even made a phone call to an office somewhere in the building. I had taken out my press card, only received only the week before on the strength of my Goldsmiths course, and a thin woman with a German accent who was standing nearby saw the card and heard the assistant tell me I could wait in the foyer untilt 'the organisers' arrived. From then on she stuck to me like a limpet, relating her backpacking adventures and asking me could I get her a ticket.

Next came Eva the French woman from my Chinese class, whom I'd arranged to meet. She stood in the foyer declaiming loudly about how much she wanted to see the film, why didn't they screen it more than once, she had come a long way, etc.. She also waylaid a couple of passing employees, one young man in particular to whom she gave several arguments as to why she should be let in. 'Oh, you see, it's a sell-out and it would be illegal to sell teh seats again', he explained.

Eva is tall and slender and has long hair with blonde streaks, despite being in her mid sixties. She was dressed in a long black coat and beret and with her French accent and imperious manner could well be mistaken for a former film star - Brigitte Bardot's less nubile sister, perhaps. She has the manner of someone who is used to getting her own way.

Then the troup of 'organisers; arrived, headed by Susie Wong, who is a little old lady now although I am told she is the original character on whom the Shirley MacLaine film was based. She look startled when I stopped her and told me I hadn't even asked for a ticket for this particular show. Meanwhile Eva was accosting a good-looking mid-thirties man whom I suspect ws Chris Berry, Susie's film consultant, who was escorting the pretty young female director. She was due to give a talk session at the end. He soon came back from the screen to say the auditorium had plenty of seats. At the start time the young employee escorted us, now twelve in number, to the audotorium. Not only did we get in, but it was free.

When I told Eva that I would never have been so pressing, she said 'Ah, but sometimes when you really want something you have to go all out to try!' Just to think, I usually just slink away with a shrug!

It wasn't a particularly good film - too much money put in by Shanghai companies, I expect, so there were some extraneous outdoor scenes which slowed the narrative, and it was too sentimental, in parts. I wasn't too sympathetic to a family who although they had been persecuted under the Communists seemed to have done quite well, still living in their original house in the French Concession district, albeit it sharing the kitchen now with an elderly couple. The old matriarch whose last illness had caused her children to gather had even managed to conceal some valuables from the Red Guards, although her husband had been killed.

Thursday, February 09, 2006

I completed a chapter of 'Silkworms and Snow' yesterday morning and posted it to the Write Words website, the online writers' group I subscribe to.

In the afternoon I went to the Dockland Museum for a screening of a 1959 film called 'The Lin Family Shop'. This is the first of several films I'll be seeing as part of a series in an event called 'Shanghai on Screen', organised by the Chinese Cultural Centre. I was associated with this in the past, having introduced a couple of screenings when a film festival was held at The Barbican in, I think, 2000.

Here's a review of the film I wrote this morning:

The Lin Family Shop Dir: Shui Hua 1959

This story of social melt-down begins in 1931 just after the Japanese invasion of Manchuria. In a small southern town to a spoilt shopkeeper’s daughter is criticised in the street by her classmates for her father’s selling of Japanese goods. More concerned with her appearance than any larger social or family obligations, the girl throws a kitten off the bed, in an act which prefigures the small family’s fate in the ensuing story. An intimate mise-en-scene is created by mid-shots of characters in cramped domestic spaces and views of narrow streets and busy canals, drawing us into the web of credit and debit relationships which underpin Mr Lin’s business. He is in debt to bank, his landlady and his supplier, as well as neighbours who have invested their pittances in return for interest. In this world people pay late and demand early. With a wife and teenage daughter as well as three shop workers relying on him for their livelihood, distant political events force Lin into desperate measures; when a local bigwig takes a shine to his daughter it only compounds his problems. The narrow alleyways and decaying canal side dwellings of a small town in Zhejiang Province in 1931, provides a claustrophobic backdrop to events, with falling snow adding ironically pretty detail to the dog-eat-dog world of competitors, demanding landlords and stone-faced bankers. Reassurances are quickly followed by betrayal and no-one can be trusted. Whilst her husband lives to the constant clack of the abacus, the mother relies on prayers and offerings to the goddess of good fortune. Meantime tension is ratcheted by reports of the ever advancing army and the threat of collapse of the social order. Adapted from a novel by a well-known supporter of Mao’s socialism, the film was criticised at the time of its release in 1959 for a too sympathetic representation of the lead character, whose anxiety is given much depth by Xie Tan’s subtle playing. However, the film’s focus is less on human failings than on a flawed economic system. The histrionics of the ending seem contrived, with victims trampled in a police dispersal charge in an otherwise compelling portrait of a doomed social milieu.

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

The Chinese Poetry Evening at the BL was more varied than I expected. There was music and a fifteen minute lecture with slides about calligraphy, delivered by the man who did the characters for the current Chinese poems on the London Underground. He was modest and self-deprecating in his manner, which endeared him to the audience.

Six poems, translated by Arthur Waley, were set to music 'for guitar and high voice' by Benjamin Britten, played by a very gifted female Chinese guitarist and sung by an English man with light curly hair and a satin waist-coat. He didn't have as high a voice as James Bowman, the counter-tenor I admire, but he sang very well, with a precise enunciation.

The poems were written between 1,000 - 600 B.C. One that made an impression me was 'The Big Chariot':

Don't help-on the big chariot;
You will only make yourself dusty.
Don't think about the sorrows of the world;
You will only make yourself wretched.

Don't help-on the big chariot;
You won't be able to see for dust.
Don't think about the sorrows of the world;
Or you will never escape from your despair.

Don't help-on the big chariot;
You will be stifled with dust.
Don't think about the sorrows of the world;
You will only load yourself with care.

A major theme of the Book of Songs, from which this was taken, was the burden of office for the educated men or literati who made up the civil service of the day and their wish to retire from the intrigues of court life. Here the big chariot seems to symbolise the machinery of bureacracy.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

I was thrilled yesterday afternoon to collect my Film Journalism package from the BFI offices in Stephen Street. I was on my way to the British Library and had half an hour or so before the Chinese Poetry Evening so I took the plastic folder from the envelope and had a look at the course materials. I'd already taken out the introductory letter on the bus.

There seem to be many more small seating areas than I remember from before, dotted all around the BL first floor, outside the reading rooms per se. Most seem to be equipped with lamps and plug-n facilities for laptops, which lots of people were making use of. I noticed a stand-up area of what look like tilted-back coffin lids grouped around a high table. I wonder if this is one of the hot-spots for accessing an Internet connection. I'll have to find out.

I discovered from my BFI package I am in a group of ten assigned to one of four tutors. There was also a website user name and password as it's a distance learning course, apart from a two-day seminar in London.

I'll really have my work cut out now to juggle my writing commitments. First priority must be to my book about China 'Silkworms & Snow', but what with my Saturday morning Journalism course at Goldsmiths to write for and my twice-weekly Chinese classes in Frith Street it will be a bit pressured at times.

I go to Chinese class today but can fit in a couple of hours on the book. Then another hour before I meet Roy at Beckenham for swimming, in which I'll proably work on my restaurant reviews for the Goldsmiths class . As soon as I get back from swimming, with a stop off at Waitrose on the way, it will be time to go to play bridge at Gisela's house.