Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Spring has Sprung

I spotted this early Forsythia blossom on December 27th , as I walked down to the station. The south-facing wall and sheltered position helped it to an early blooming, no doubt. The weather has been dry and sunny for a while and there were more flowers on the same bush by the next day. Although the frost turned the rooftops white last night, it’s good to see the flowers again.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

White Christmas at the BFI Southbank

The washed-out visuals and muffled soundtrack of the trailer at Cineworld does this film no favours. Although my partner made approving noises, I put this down to his fondness for the big-band era of Bing Crosby and Rosemary Clooney, two of the stars. So I wasn’t expecting much, having arrived at the BFI too late for a Mamoulian film, when I settled for ‘White Christmas’ instead.

The BFI studio is the smallest auditorium at the South Bank venue, with only four rows, but the screen seems enormous. The digitalised Vistavision looked freshly minted and the sound was great in what they call their ‘state-of-the-art’ auditorium.

Bing and Danny Kaye play showbiz entertainers, who help a retired General save his Vermont hotel by putting on a show, aided by two showgirls and a troupe of extras. Clooney and Vera-Ellen play the girls. The talents of the lead players and the period interest prevent the film from being overwhelmed by huge dollops of schmaltz.

I was still recovering from the tedium of Baz Lurhmann’s antipodean epic a few days back; White Christmas set a cracking pace in terms of plot development, and flashed by in a whirl of colour. For me it veered too much on the side of dance in the balance between cavorting and plot/dialogue, and younger audience members giggled at the clumsy segues between dialogue and songs. Strange, when you consider no-one baulked at ‘Mamma Mia’s sometimes irrelevant outbursts.

Screening until January 1st

Byzantium 330-1453 at the Royal Academy

The Byzantines were heavy-handed with the golf leaf, as seen in the familiar icons, sacred figures emblazoned on wood panels. There were plenty of them at the excellent RA exhibition I visited with son D on Saturday. The show rooms were quiet so I assume potential customers were taking advantage of the post-Christmas sales, like R, who’d gone to buy an electric blanket. He’d seen the Byzantium exhibition with a crony before Christmas.

The £100 annual entry fee for two members plus two guests seems a lot, but since just one visit with pals could cost £40 it’s good value. Out-of-town friends really appreciate it. I like to make a few visits on my own to these big shows, one using a £3 audio guide. Maps and charts at the start show the size of the Byzantine Empire at different dates and explanatory notices are in all the rooms, but I’m too impatient to look at these on a first visit.

Gold was the signature motif, sometimes overlaying silver on jewelled necklaces, plates, bowls and boxes. Elaborate bas-relief figures covered chalices, some endearingly battered as if trodden into the mud of many an ancient battle-field. One was even said to be the original Holy Grail.

D raved on about techniques and materials. I remembered that he studied Art History before being sucked in by Computer Science.

My favourites were the ivory artefacts, small hinged pieces called triptych, depicting saints in little arched doorways. It was Jane Austen who said her writing was as if carved on pieces of ivory, but these reminded me she was thinking of detail. I like carvings anyway; usually jade so hard it has to be ground, or the crude lines of woodcuts. Ivory’s qualities permit exquisite detail, as in a bishop’s frown with lines scrunching his face as if his mitre was too tight.

The Friend’s Room at the RA is a treat, and a kind of extension of the experience, with well-heeled members making Bohemian fashion statements.

R joined us, miffed from having to unpack the ‘heated mattress protector’ so it would fit the dimensions of the cloakroom cubby-holes. D expressed shock at the price of £6.50 for a miniature quiche and tiny salad, but an accompanying glass of wine at £2 made it a bargain compared with the stand-alone price of £5 for the wine. The water's free.

After that we saw a small exhibition in the Sackler Wing D was keen on, a collection by modern artists. The main interest there was a wall of front covers of an art magazine but the extenuated statuary was agreeable, particularly one of a hound.

This page has some great links, including one to an article about icons, written by the Archbishop of Canterbury


Friday, December 26, 2008

Heathrow Christmas

‘This is known as the world’s biggest car park’, I said to Lu Weiyuan (Luke) as we sped round the almost deserted southern loop of the M25.

‘Really? ‘This had been his standard response to explanations since our re-union the day before. His English is excellent and he has great curiosity, which is what I like most about him. His dry sense of humour is such that I can't always tell when he's being ironic.

With his suitcase taking up all the boot space and his wife Linda’s case jammed in front of the passenger seat, I’d had to leave R at home.

Sooner than risk the cross-London route to Heathrow recommended by Mappy.com, with one false move at Clapham and I end up in Kensington, I’d opted for twice as many miles but all motorway, starting with the A2 at Blackheath, I had to keep my wits about me at the Heathrow end with five terminals to choose from, but with no traffic I could at least slow down to read the overhead signs.

In 1990, seeking a language-exchange partner, I’d posted a notice on a board in Goldsmiths Library. MA student Luke responded and I’ve been involved with his studies more or less ever since. He’s a wild life photographer teaching in a university in Taiwan. Now he was in the UK for his PhD Viva in Durham. His email said he’d be spending a week in London, mostly while I was in Lanzarote. His return flight was on the 25th.

‘There’s no public transport on Christmas Day’, I emailed him.


So I picked Luke and wife Linda up from their hotel and we visited the dinosaurs on Crystal Palace Park on the way back.

It gave R and son D time to come round from the evening before, spent trying to find a pub in Blackheath where we wouldn’t be deafened by rollicking locals. After one stand-up beer in The Hare and Billet we’d ended up in the basement bar of the Clarendon where a sedate game of pool was in progress. No wonder it was quiet, with drinks at £15 a round for the free of us. As driver, I was on the lemonade.

The whole lunch, apart from the sprouts, had been cooking for hours. The pheasants had been in the electric slow cooker overnight so only needed a reheat.

The long roofs over the drop-off point at Terminal 5 resembled rows of nun’s headdresses, like gigantic angel wings. Quite Christmassy, really.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Back from Lanzarote

Scenery, food and weather were well up to the mark in Lanzarote, where cultural delights are mainly inaccessible except by car, so I passed the week in a daze: walking by the sea, reading and eating fish dinners.

The two-mile stretch known as the 'strip' alongside the main beach at Puerto del Carmen was undergoing repairs to pipelines. They were laying new ones , for all I know, a bit like central London.

It was weird coming back on a kind of ghost plane, with fewer than 20 passengers, all of us spaced evenly with an entire row of seats each. The pilot said it would equalise the weight.

Down to earth with a bump at Gatwick (literally - the landing approach was over-speedy, and the brakes were jammed on, jolting us foward.)

If I'd been wondering which country it was, exchanges with bad-tempered officials would have soon put me straight. At deserted Gatwick I remarked to the passport checker that it was very quiet. 'Do you want to make a complaint about it?' he snapped. I said that he must have had quite a few already that day. Fortunately, he was trapped in his glass box. so couldn't get out to arrest me and there were no spares about. I put it down to worries about pending unemployment.

We took the Victoria stopping train. A surly guard sold us singles to Coulsdon South, the outer-most stop covered by our Freedom Passes. He quoted £11 60 for the two of us, then got stroppy when R asked him if there were concessions for OAPs. He said he could charge us more if it had been later than 4.30am . R fronted him up, which is a bit unusual for him, and said in answer to his exasperation, 'The answer is 'No', then'. By way of aplogising, I suppose, the man grumbled that it was 1am, which we couldn't dispute. It was 1am for all of us.

The queue for the night bus was a mix of mainly foreign young men with backpacks, a few loungers and a couple of wasted-looking characters crouched on steps in shop doorways. The temperature was a balmy 10 degrees. We had an interesting half-hour journey in 'reserved for the elderly' seats -interesting because I read a thriller whilst listening to a young man with a guitar case, dressed in bright 70s clothes with a full 'afro' hair-do. He was talking to an older man about gigs they'd been to.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Journey to the West at the O2 Dome

The journey west from Lewisham to the O2 Dome is mercifully short via the DLR .

The grandchildren are at that in-between age for pantomime when they think it's for 'kids' , so I was resigned to 'Madagascar 2' and a meal at Nando’s for their annual Christmas outing. Then tickets for 'Journey to the West' came up at short notice. For me it was a bonus that the show is based on the Chinese classic ‘Journey to the West’, known to some from the TV series, ‘Monkey’.

The anarchic hero sets out on a quest for immortality with his strange companions. They include aptly-named Pigsy and a Prince who’s been changed into a horse. Journeying through places with exotic names, they meet a set of oddball characters who help or hinder them in their quest for immortality.

Children in the audience were entranced by the multi-media presentation, which had lots of acrobats, martial arts and characters flying through the air on wires. Nine scenes included ‘The Crystal Palace of the Eastern Sea', 'Heavenly Peach Banquet' and 'Volcano City' , all with fancy costumes and live music. There were subtitles for the Chinese dialogue, but most of it wouldn't have made sense to anybody who didn't know the story, and it didn't detract from the spectacle.

My adult companions whinged at the length of the performance and at the rip-off interval prices; with £2 for cokes as well as £10 programmes, they had a point . The green tea was a bargain, though.

The whole Dome ambience, with dozens of food outlets, a cinema at the top of an escalator and an artifical ski slope so you can watch people falling about, has a buzzy feel. ‘You know, Grandma', said 13 year old Gemma, ‘we could come to the Dome the next time we stay with you, even if we don’t see a show’.

(Oh, and I'm off to Lanzarote for a week, so no more postings for a while)

Friday, December 12, 2008

Deadline Thursday

I think everybody should know about the University of the Third Age. It’s open to people over fifty, and they meet in centres and in each others houses. There’s a wide range of subjects, not just academic but everything from meditation to mahjong. They even organise holidays and rambles. I’ve learned Spanish in the home of a Flamenco dancer and I once led a ‘Study Day’ on Chinese Film at Goldsmiths College, the South London Centre.

The annual fee is £10 and all the sessions are free, although there’s a charge for the online courses they also run. I’ve agreed to tutor the ‘Introduction to Chinese’ one, starting in September.

Yesterday I went to the end-of-term meeting of U3A writers’ workshop and was delighted to hear our anthology had raised £120 for the charity MIND.

Every fortnight eight of us get together to read our short stories and receive constructive feedback from the rest of the group. Next, our tutor gives us writing exercises. We generally work on them for about fifteen minutes then read aloud what we’ve written before completing them at home.

A selection of work, ‘Deadline Thursday’ was compiled by after we circulated and critiqued stories and poems we thought might be suitable, and the editor also organised the printing.

Find out more about U3A and a group near you:

Tuesday, December 09, 2008


Odd, the things that motivate people. I’ve been encouraging R to take more of an active interest in the Internet recently. Even if he'd just look up and print off the Guardian Quick Crosswords it would spread the burden.

I took it as a sign of progress that he’d researched Christmas cakes online. The crit. recommended Asda’s ‘Extra Special’, and R located a store at Crossharbour, next to the DLR station. We’d call in en route to to see ‘The Changeling’ at West India Quay.

Fine, I thought. It would be a quick ‘in and out’ job and for once we’d leave early enough to get to the Cineworld in time to see the trails.

But no – although there were dozens of all kinds of Christmas cakes, not to mention stollen and mince pies and chocolate logs, the ‘Extra Special’ at £7.98 was not on the shelves.

As for ‘The Changeling’ it was almost as disappointing. The 1930s décor and costumes looked authentic enough, especially the telephone exchange supervisors on skates, but Angelina Jolie doesn’t look right as Christine, the heroine. Her surreal appearance suited Grendel’s mother in 'Beowulf' or Lara Croft, the cartoon-based character. As for her acting as an ordinary ‘mom’, even the LA street cars looked more authentic. In fact, given the general oddness of the performances, even the roller skates were more convincing.

The characters were all one-dimensional, and coincidences notched up the melodrama. Saviour Malkovich arrives just as the asylum nurse is about to throw the switch on the electric shock machine and even worse, when Christine faints at seeing the headlines in the street, he's there on cue to catch her. Maybe the director Clint Eastwood thinks the past just was more melodramatic, or that ‘women’s films’ should be.

Meanwhile R seems to be going great guns online. He’s located the Bose European centre and arranged for the wonky radio to be collected. My own research showed ALDI’s Holly Lane cake as best value and R thinks the other report may be from a previous year. So he’ll be ringing the Catford ALDI before calling in on the way to his bridge game.

Christmas cake report


The Changeling reviews


Sunday, December 07, 2008

Plus ça change...

I'd only called in at the National Portrait Gallery to use the loo. After choosing Christmas cards in St Martin's crypt I had an hour or so before I was due to collect tickets , in Covent Garden. In the downstairs hall, though I spotted one or two people waiting for the doors of the lecture room to open. ‘Conversation Pieces in Georgian Society’ sounded promising.

They turned out to be a type of eighteenth century paintings the speaker had been researching. Slide examples showed well-dressed families in elaborate costumes dealing cards, drinking tea, playing the harpsichord, etc. Sometimes they were in rural settings. These paintings, she said, were not so much about reality as about aspiration: 'exemplars' rather than ‘examples’ of polite society at the time. The pictures were as much about costumes, leisure pursuits and furniture as about the people, she argued and their function was much like that of today’s Sunday supplements – a kind of showing off of the aspired-to ideal. They were very keen on all that - there were best-selling books telling men how to stand in a drawing room. The one in the picture shows the:

‘relatively bare settings of Arthur Devis, which emphasized restrained good taste, in contrast to William Hogarth's more lavish scenes of refined consumption…Such settings were not intended to represent specific spaces. Rather, like the interiors of Hogarth's modern moral subject paintings, they were to be understood as signifiers of abstract virtues—‘

Hmmm. I'd certainly recommend these free talks. There was a big screen for the slides and a steeply raked auditorium with comfortable seats. Well worth dropping in for. I can recommend the loos, too.

More about the speaker and her subject:

Friday, December 05, 2008

House Full

I’d found a left-over theatre voucher in a drawer so decided to treat myself to a 3pm matinee at the Old Vic. I still had the programme from ‘Living Together’ a few weeks back. Sadly, the House Full sign was up, and all the box office could offer was a ‘standing ticket’ for £10.

‘Not what you’d expect on a Wednesday afternoon’, I whinged to the woman standing behind me in the ‘returns’ queue.

‘You’d never know there was a credit crunch on’, she agreed. She was older than me and wore a woolly hat, but apart from that we were twins: short and round with northern accents. We were well down the queue.

‘It’s the schools, too’, put in a pink-faced man on my other side. Back against the wall and buttoned into a navy overcoat, he looked like the youth who visits his gran in the Catherine Tate show.

The woman frowned. ‘When I was at school, we went to see Shakespeare, not to comedies’ She’d travelled from Chertsey, so no wonder she was cross.

‘Student groups are more likely to have returns, though’.

‘Yes, but I went to see ‘The Doll’s House’ the other week’, I said, ‘and teenagers in the row in front were a right nuisance texting one another, with the teacher telling them off.’

Then we chatted about plays and theatres and prices until a woman in a fur hat came up and offered the young man a spare ticket. ‘Oh, no, you don’t have to pay!’

Soon after, an usher in black, waving a walkie-talkie, made his way along the queue and said there were standing places with restricted views for £7.50.

‘What’s the point of that?’ said my companion.

I decided to walk to Piccadilly because I'd read that ‘The Day the Earth Stood still’ was being screened at the Cineworld at 4pm. The late afternoon sun turned office blocks to gold as I crossed Hungerford Bridge at dusk, and a five-strong band, including accordion and trumpet, played ‘Kalinka’

‘That film only starts next week’ said the girl at the cinema, so I watched ‘Zack and Mirri make a Porno’ instead, which was silly and very rude but had me and an audience of a dozen laughing out loud. It had an attractively grungy look.

When I walked through a very crowded Leicester Square afterwards I heard screaming and saw a screen had been put up to show the front of the Vue cinema. Girls were hanging over barriers, waiting for the stars of a film called ‘Twilight’ to appear.

So altogether it was a good afternoon, even though I didn’t get to the play.

About the Aykbourn Trilogy at the Old Vic


About the film:


Wednesday, December 03, 2008

I went to Shanghai to buy a Hat

Guests crowded thestairs leading to the basement of the Italian Bookshop in Cecil Court, and no wonder- the guest speaker was from the ‘ministro’. Or could it be he was the ministro? I couldn't quite catch it, although classmate Bamboo tries to keep my Italian up to scratch. The talk was about Sino-Italian relations, all in Italian, and it sounded like one of those political speeches delivered at some low-key venue that's headline news next day. He gesticulated a lot, so sounds from the hand mike came and went and his talk was punctuated by protests from people in the one-and-nines at the top of the stairs. Bamboo had persuaded someone to bring one of those kick-steps for me to sit on.

It’s not long since I reviewed her last book, ‘Blue China’ for the Dimsum website. The daughter of an Italian diplomat and Chinese opera singer who met in Shanghai during the war, she moved to Italy when she about ten years old and I admire both her elegance and her industry. She lives in London with her English husband and entertains me when she sits next to me in the twice-weekly Frith Street Chinese class.

Most of the speech went over my head so I admired the elegant dresses, footwear and hairstyles in the audience. The bookshshop manager, a tall woman in satin velvet printed with a kind of muted Mondrian pattern, made graceful arm gestures at the throng and at the speaker. Bamboo began to talk and soon had everone laughing at her anecdotes about Shanghai. I remember how well she compared with Xinran, no mean speaker herself, at the Asia House launch of 'Blue China'

The latest book, whose title is a quote from a Marlene Dietrich film, is autobiographical too, but with a focus on the city. Even the post-talk snacks were stylish - ciabatta squares filled with piquant cream cheese and cooked sliced courgette and mushroom. I didn’t stay for wine, although tempted by the cosy atmosphere of the upstairs shop, as I faced a cold train journey home

My Review of Blue China:

The Italian Bookshop website:

Monday, December 01, 2008

Family Flops
I find films about 'eccentric' families hard going, especially American ones. (Not counting 'The Addams Family', currently satirised in the best-yet Orange ad.) I don’t just mean 'Meet the Fockers’ which I once saw by mistake in Barcelona, because the Spanish title was nothing like that I’m one of the few people I know who didn’t like Sam Mendes’ 'American Beauty' because of the 'quirky family' theme. Last Friday, though, I thought an antidote to John Boorman's harrowing 'Deliverance' on TV was in order. 'Four Christmases' was about the only light comedy at Cineworld that we hadn't seen.

One advantage of paying £14.99 a month for as many films as you can watch, apart from saving on heating costs, is you don't mind the odd 'turkey'. That's just as well.

‘FC’ had Reese Witherspoon and Vince Vaughn play a loved-up couple fog-bound in their home town of San Francisco at Christmas. An airport TV interview blows their cover so they have to visit all four sets of their divorced parents. In a way the constant shifts are good because each set of in-laws is more unfunny than the one before. Some of the scenes were amusing, such as the one where the couple are forced into playing Mary and Joseph in a nativity play at a revivalist church and the husband lets his luvvie instincts take over. Otherwise it is so bad it makes you long for a nice slow French film where the families may be dysfunctional but at least the house décor is tasteful and there's a bit of obscure philosophising.Come back, then, 'I’ve Loved you so Long', even with unnaturally genial (and silent) grandfather and false-bonhomie dinner table scene. All is forgiven.

Come to think of it, 'Summer Hours' wasn't bad.

The Addams Family:


Deliverance :


Summer Hours:


Sunday, November 30, 2008

Rubbing shoulders with Artists

Oh’, I explained to Zadie Smith ,' it’s not difficult but it can be tedious; you just have to keep slogging away, without much progress.’ Zadie had been expressing her admiration for anyone who learned Chinese. Her large brown eyes swivelled towards my classmate, who piped up. ‘And then one day, it suddenly clicks and you get a breakthrough’. Zadie nodded as if she knew exactly what we meant, then laughed and said she’d stick to Italian, as that was difficult enough for her. Remembering my manners, I asked what she was working on at present and learned she’d been awake until 4am finishing a talk she had to deliver in New York the next day. As she moved off, I explained to my friend that the life of a successful writer involved a lot of time-consuming publicity.

Three of my Chinese classmates and I were in a tiny back room of Probsthains bookshop, tucking into refreshments at the launch of a Chinese woodblock exhibition. I was eating sandwiches because I was due to meet R at Cineworld later.

As I reflected on the consolations of obscurity, a Chinese guy with a pony tail squeezed passed. Surely, my friend said, he must be Ma Jian, author of the Chinese novel ‘Red Dust’ .

I asked the He Weimin, the woodblock artist, if he could effect an introduction. We’d talked to him earlier, a very modest young man currently enjoying a residency at the Ashmolean in Oxford. He was pleased that I knew Harbin, the city where he was born. Although he didn’t know the suspected author, he went over and said something. The pony-tailed one began to laugh uproariously and told us he was an artist, but not a writer. That’s another launch in the pipeline, then.

'Long hair and a pony-tail is more or less a sign of artistic non-conformity with Chinese artists, I said to my friend.

More about the artist and images of his work here:


More about Zadie Smith:


An Interview with Ma Jian


Saturday, November 29, 2008

Here's one for a wet Friday:

Crowe and DiCaprio were adequate in Ridley Scott's Body of Lies, a film about American counter-terrorism in the middle east. The real star was Mark Strong, playing a kind of Jordanian James Bond with suits to match. His lean grace and brooding glances enhanced every scene he appeared in. Fortunately there were plenty. The plot’s better than ‘Syriana’, in that I could at least follow it. Amazing establishing shots such as barren Afghanistan mountains roads or the high-rise hotels of a Dubai cityscape were impressive, but never overwhelmed the storyline. For me the critique of casual US violence was too muted, and embedded romance was about as credible as DiCaprio speaking fluent Arabic. High-tec satellite monitoring scenes in command headquarters, demonstrated that an eagle’s eye view was nice and safe but not much use when the enemy kicked up a dust storm. This metaphor for the gap between the generals the and ground fighters delivered a trite message in an entertaining format. Torture scenes were grisly but short.

Mixed Reviews on my favourite film website:


This page tells you how to see as many films as you want in London and the UK for £14.99 a month:


Friday, November 28, 2008

Korean Film Night

Most foreign cultural centres in London lay on freebie events, often with food and drink thrown in. It was a choice of orange or apple juice at the film show at the Korean Cultural Institute in the Strand (entrance opposite The Sherlock Holmes pub in Northumberland Ave) . Not very exotic fare, but still very welcoming.

I wouldn’t say the viewing conditions were optimal, either – four shallow steps at one side of a wide hall, with long thin leather –covered cushions. Tip - for the next free screening, (Thurs. Dec 11th, 7pm) arrive early enough to get a seat at the back, where I can lean against the wall, or ask for a chair to put on one side, like the late-comers. It's free but you have to book in advance.

I’ve never seen a bad Korean film, but mostly they’re firmly in the horror genre. ‘Barking Dogs Never Bite’, directed by Joon-ho Bong, is an entertaining slice-of-life comedy about city dwellers. These include an the academic who needs to raise $10,000 bribe to himself into a professorship, his pregnant wife with a craving for walnuts, two hapless shop workers who dream of TV fame and a sinister janitor who may know something about the pets that keep disappearing.

I noticed there was an art exhibition to check out later, with a wonderful semi-translucent jade tea service. I like jade so much I must have been a Chinese Empress in a former life.

I enjoyed the film but was fidgeting by the end, being unused to sitting with my knees drawn up towards my ears. I may have been an Empress in a former life but I don't have the physique for crouching.
Never mind – looking forward to canapés and wine at a Chinese exhibition opening tomorrow.
Here's a Review of the film:
For further info. and to book: info@kccuk.org.uk

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Imagination isn't enough

For a while I thought 'Imagine This' was connected with John Lennon. When I did find out it was a musical set in the Warsaw Ghetto in 1942 that really put me off. I dislike vacuous shows like ‘Mamma Mia’, but this went too far in the opposite direction

I like a bit of triumph over adversity in musicals –it’s almost ‘de rigeur’ for that feel-good effect. The marvellous ‘Zorro’ I enjoyed the other week was based on real events, and ‘Dickens Unplugged’ was a bit of a mishmash but a reasonable reflection of the great man’s protest at social injustice. ‘Imagine This’ would at least have a story. Came a weekend with heavy rain forecast and I thought, ‘Give it a go’.

When I write reviews for websites I can get in free but it’s mainly fringe theatres, or subsidised ones like the Young Vic and The RSC .The ‘price’ is a write-up which seldom takes less than five hours. My contact's ‘affordable’ ticket supply tends to be at short notice and it’s mainly previews or sluggishly-selling matinees. Often front-row seats, though.

I’d asked to be further back after nearly getting my eyebrows singed in ‘Zorro’, but I found that in the New Theatre, Drury Lane, Row D is the front row. R said he missed one key point entirely – a slogan painted on a briefly appearing backdrop. It was because we were looking upwards at an angle. A bit nerve-racking too when the Roman soldiers were using their lances for impromptu kung fu fights- .even more attention-grabbing than Ian MacKellan’s full frontal as ‘King Lear’ in the same theatre.

In fact, ‘Imagine This’ wasn’t half bad as far as staging, costumes, singing and acting went. The plotline, about a troupe that puts on a show to boost morale in the ghetto, about oppression in ancient Rome, was promising; the star-crossed romantic leads were good. The music was weak, though, and in fact the best tune was in the first scene, called ‘The Last Day of Summer, performed by the whole cast, on the great revolving stage, in marvellous thirties costumes. The carousel motif was used cleverly throughout to reflect the theme of recurring historical cycles, rises and falls and the triumph of hope over adversity.

Unfortunately, it didn’t convince me. The second verse of title song, very well delivered by star Peter Polycarpou asked us to imagine a giant statue with a torch rising from the sea. Just in case anyone had missed the pointed reference to the US, one of the cast climbed on a table, draped in a cloth and holding a rolled magazine aloft. No wonder the Americansin the audience liked it, but in light of recent occupations and complaints of oppression it wasn’t exactly tactful. The rest of the audience took it quite well, I think.

There was indeed a strong positive aspect to the play – where people share common bonds and fight a common enemy the mind’s capacity to soar above immediate circumstances is inspiring. Unfortunately, as the outcomes of the double plots made all too clear, the end of suffering is not so uplifting. Ultimately the message of the show seemed Hollywood-inspired and chimed ill with stark realities, however stylistically presented.

'Imagine This' is at the New Theatre, Drury Lane. More about it here:

'Zorro' is at The Garrick Theatre, Charing Cross Road:


'Dickens Unplugged' is at The Comedy Theatre, Panton Street:


Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Lost in the Mists of Time

I wouldn’t say my arms are my best feature, being short, podgy and freckled. Much of a piece with the rest of me, I suppose, but a future spare-part surgeon would be challenged to find a match in his (presumably frozen) stock.

Aesthetic considerations aside, an out of town car trip and an overnight stay in a bargain hotel chain resulted in additional bright red blotches.

It wasn’t so much the appearance that annoyed me as the constant itching. When, after a week, it was no better, I consulted a GP.

From what I hear I’m lucky, because if I get to my local surgery by 8am I can make an appointment to see a doctor the same morning. That’s if I’m not too fussy about which doctor I see. I’m not; I assume they’re all more or less trained to the same standard and in any case I like to meet different people. As it happened, said the receptionist, I could see Dr X right away.

By the reflected light of his PC, the doctor looked a little pale. I asked him how he felt instead of the other way round and perhaps we got off on the wrong foot. After all, 8am isn’t an unearthly hour. I showed him the problem and asked him if the allergic reaction could be any way connected with the flu and pneumonia jabs I’d been persuaded to have the week before. He looked offended. ‘Unlikely’, he said, moving his eyes back to the screen. It was even more unlikely, in my opinion, having survived 65 years, three of them in the tropics, and never had an allergic reaction before, that they were unconnected.

Let it pass, I thought.

After a glance at the blotches and a verdict of ‘Insect bites’, he typed a prescription. Then he scrutinised me. ‘Do you smoke?’

I told him no. ‘What about in the past?’

‘Oh, only about forty years ago, when it was fashionable.’

His features, never exactly cheery, took on a graver cast.

‘I don’t think smoking was ever fashionable!’ It sounded like a reprimand to frivolity.

I sized him up. He’d be in his mid forties, I guess, the same age as my daughter. He was too young to remember the TV ads of the fifties - ‘You’re never alone with a Strand’ - or those Bacall and Bogart films where you could hardly see the stars behind the clouds of cigarette smoke. Not to mention Jack Hawkins and his pipe in ‘The Cruel Sea’. Didn’t he know that medical practice has its fashions, like education? They must keep the historical aspects from them in training.

So I said nothing, but, as R’s mother would have said, ‘thought the more’.

I’m glad he prescribed antihistamine tablets and cortisone cream instead of a course of leeches, though. The problem cleared in three days and my arms were restored to their usual level of unsightliness.

Monday, November 24, 2008

I All Dressed Up

I first met Hannah at the local baths. ‘You do more chatting than swimming’, says R. He doesn’t understand that women can swim and talk at the same time.Hannah commutes from Haringey and swims before going to work. A lay reader, she more or less lives for the church, so I listen, fascinated, to accounts of retreats, sermon preparations and what the bishop said to the other bishop. She’s also kind and funny and brings in all kinds of back-up literature for me to look at.

Last Wednesday R went with me to the ‘Readers’ Quinquennial Eucharist’, at St Pauls, a kind of re-licencing ceremony for lay readers as well as a swearing-in for new ones. I’ve never been inside before, which is probably because there’s a £10 charge for sightseers. It was all very dramatic, and we had good seats under a high side arch to the left of the main arena, under the great dome. The infamous acoustics scrambled the hymns. We could gawp at gold-leafed cupolas and the inside of the dome itself, with its railing.

By chance we were seated alongside a marble statue of a local naval hero, Nelson, on a plinth above smaller figures. To our right was another battle hero, some Marquis who was Governor of Bengal. They're not exactly religious subjects, I thought. On the other hand, these national heroes were no doubt associated with religious inspiration in peoples’ minds at the time.

The only other person on the back row with us was a vicar with a purple shirt, letter-box collar and Lancashire accent. He’d recently been posted to North London from Manchester. ‘You won’t get used to it’, I told him, but he assured me the people were very pleasant. I suppose it makes a difference when you’re a vicar and people habitually defer. He wondered how the England v. Germany match on TV that night was getting on, which I assumed was ‘man of the people’ talk for R’s benefit. He was on a loser there, though, and Roy adroitly changed the subject. The vicar revealed that now he’s in London he has a free pass to St Pauls, which was the least I'd expect. He said he too had been a lay reader before becoming a priest, and when I asked him was it a natural progression he said no, he’d resisted, but his own vicar had said he had a vocation.

This reminded me of Francis Thompson's poem 'The Hound of Heaven' :
'I FLED Him, down the nights and down the days;I fled Him, down the arches of the years;I fled Him, down the labyrinthine ways Of my own mind; and in the mist of tears I hid from Him, and under running laughter.'

An officious usher or ‘wandsman’, told him off for trying to take a photograph.

I was astonished to hear R say St Pauls was built on the bones of our ancestors. I wonder if all the regalia and ceremony was getting up his nose and provoking a kind of displaced anti-royalism, as he’s usually so discreet. Apart from the visual splendour and the singing, plus a short but topical sermon by the Bishop of London, there was the dramatic dialogue during the service. It’s designed, I suppose, to check out the aspiring readers’ resolution, a bit like the marriage ceremony when they have to declare any impediments, except there were more questions along the lines of ‘Will you endeavour to fashion your life according to the way of Christ?’To which they had to answer : By the grace of God, I willAfter the ceremony there was general mingling and photo-calls, the Bishop of London happy to pose with his crook alongside groups. I was pleased to find Hannah alongside a minor bishop. She’s uncharacteristically stern in the photo, but I think she was still feeling nervous, and the robes crackled with starch. She looks quite different with no clothes on.

Afterwards we went to an O'Neills pub near Cannon Street station. It was all quite festive, large-sized bunting with pictures of Irish menu dishes strung across the bar and young men in suits who'd removed their ties. I told R that as his ancestors were Welsh he could hardly claim St Pauls had been built on their bones. He said he meant his ancestors on the other side. As to that provenance I think I'll draw a veil.

Here’s a website with a commentary about St Paul’s :http://www.explore-stpauls.net/oct03/pano_pages.htm

Thursday, November 06, 2008

My Luck is in.

One of my favourite views is the approach to the coffee shop in Waterstones in Greenwich. It always feels like a reward at the end of a walk across Blackheath and down through the park. It was a cold day when I took the photos, making me think Winter is really on the way. The trees still make a colourful show.
R was ahead and later refused to led me money when I decided to buy ‘Wannabe a Writer?’ by Jane Wenham Jones. I was tired of my Chinese homework, especially as I’d forgotten to bring my magnifying glass and the characters are small in my so-called ‘pocket’ dictionary that weighs at least 2lbs. Another reason I was glad to sit down. Jane’s book made me laugh – well, the section on ‘Writer’s Bottom’ that I read. She writes for the Writers' Magazine I subscribe to.
Trouble is, the book cost £9.99 and I only had £6.50 on me. R took out his wallet to show he didn’t have any cash on him and no, I wasn’t supposed to use the card because we’d agreed we’d only get money once a week and it wasn’t his fault I’d left my spending money at home. He’d come back later in the day, if it was so important.
But there was only one copy! What if it was sold? As R was still in the coffee shop I went over to the desk and hung about for a while. Should I ask them to reserve it? I could pay a deposit. Then I heard the assistant ask a customer if he wanted his loyalty card points taken off the price of a book purchase. Hmm. With the Society of Authors 10% discount and the loyalty points on my own card the price of the book came down to £6.05. Happy Ending - I bought it.

Friday, October 31, 2008

2008 London Film Festival

‘I suppose you’ve a long list of things you want to see at the London Film Festival,’ remarked a classmate at the start of the month. But I’ve learned my lesson. In 2006 I overdid things badly with my press pass, saw too many and nearly drove myself mad trying to review them all. I couldn’t write about films for six months after.

Last year I didn’t even try to review all the films I saw, and prioritised the Chinese ones. This year, apart from the four Chinese features and one short in the festival I saw only one other. It was called ‘Visionz’, a Ugandan film set in a ghetto on the outskirts of Kampala. There was a plot of sorts, with four teenagers headed for a city recording studio, but first they had to buy a blank disk. That took a lot of time and effort. The film was mainly a portrait of life in the teeming slum, alongthe lines of ‘City of God’, across the spectrum from drug dens to revival tents. The music was excellent and the non-professional leads were convincing.
In 2007 the Chinese films were mainly about migrant workers and the effects of rapid change. This year the theme was social disruption among the stationary populace, an exception being the first film I saw, ‘The Warlords’. A historical epic, it had Jet Li making difficult leadership decisions, hindered by Andy Lau as his blood brother. Both were sworn to help the government put down a rebellion on the late Qing dynasty but differed about tactics. They were also in love with the same woman, but that was a side-issue. There was lots of hand-to-hand fighting and blood spattered lenses, an absence of chariots thundering across the plains but plenty of agonising. How do you deal with 4,000 captives when you’ve hardly enough provisions for your own men, for instance? It drew on ideas from recent hits such as ‘Hero’, and ‘Crouching Dragon’ and I’m fairly sure it’ll get a general release. It deserves to.

'The Warlords' was screened at the Odeon Leicester Square on the same night that Gwyneth Paltrow turned for a guest appearance at ‘Two Lovers’, due to start half an hour before on the same night. So I got past all the paparazzi who were corralled behind the barriers and hung about in the foyer after I’d collected my ticket, wondering what was happening. That’s how I got an exclusive shot of Gwyneth answering questions before the screening. Shame it's a bit dark but I'm still learning how to handle my new camera.

I’ll write about the other Chinese films later.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Being on the Radio
It's all been a bit strange this last couple of days. On Thursday night I was at the Broca Cafe, round the back of Brockley Station for a meeting of a writers circle I joined recently. It was formed two or three years ago by members of a a writing class at Goldsmiths - the same one I did last year. So we had an ex-teacher in common even if I was a new member. Anyway, before we started on a writing exercise someone asked me if I'd done any talks on China with Olympics making it so topical.
I was surprised, because it hadn't really occurred to me; I'd submitted a couple of articles about my year in Tonghua to the Dimsum Website as well as covering some cultural events but hadn't thought specially about anything to do with the Beijing events.
So I as surprised by a phone call next morning. An Irish voice said ' I 'd like to talk to Sheila Cornelius' and 'Do you have time to talk? I assumed it was someone trying to sell me something so I said 'I'm about to go out', which was true because R had proposed a drive to Whitstable. We needed to go early as we were meeting friends for drinks in the evening.
'I'm from Talkradio in Dublin and we wondered if you'd agree to contribute to a programme tomorrow night. It's called Culture shock and it's about China. You've written a book about Chinese cinema?' Of course, I had, and I would be willing if she could let me something more about the topic. Would the evening be convenient for me if she rang back? No, it wouldn't but I'd be in in the morning.
I'd forgotten that next morning, Saturday, I was due at the local library for a crime reading group, starting at 10.30am. Never mind, maybe they'd ring before 10am when I needed to leave,and after that R could field the call. I'd struggled to finish Val Mc Dermid's 'Beneath the Bleeding', specially for the meeting.
When I got back, no phone call. Disappointing, but after all I hadn't made myself available the night before. I assumed they 'd found someone else.
We went to the cinema at West India Quay in the afternoon. It was 'Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day' which I'd been eager to see for a while. Coming back, R suggested we go for a walk. I'd better be in at 7pm for the start of the programme because I'd agreed in theory to be on it.
Unlikely, said R - as they hadn't rung back. So at 6.30pm he went off for a walk on his own and I listened to a message on the answer phone. It gave a number to ring and I was told I'd be part of a panel of four people and I'd be asked about how the Chinese were represented on film.
I was in a quandary because I'd put a chicken to slow cook and I could imagine R would arrive back when I was already on the phone to Dublin, doing his usaal of coming in and calling upstairs to me if I wasn't in sight. So I wrote a note in big letters so he'd see it straight away, and sure enough they rang at 7.05pm when he was still out. I thought I'd use the plug-in phone in the bedroom, as the others are on stands and tend to lose their charge after twenty minutes or so.
'Hello this is Talkradio, and I will now transfer you to the programme desk'. I listened to some Irish sporting news for about five minutes, except I wasn't really listening because I was so nervous. Eventually, when Fionn Davenport introduced the programme and said they were going to kick off with an item about China I felt a bit calmer. The other three panel members were in the studio in Dublin and I was a 'on the line from London, Sheila Cornelius, visiting Lecturer in Film at Morley College.' That was a while back, and taken from the blurb on the back of my book, but I wasn't about to interrupt him. For one thing he was speaking very quickly and was already putting a question to the first panellist, a Mr Wang, who was head of a Chinese school in Dublin.
He was asked about how he's adjusted to cultural differences in Ireland and the part that traditional Chinese beliefs played in his adjustment. He gave a typically diplomatic response about being open and accepting to everything. He mentioned Buddhism and although the wasn't himself a practising Buddhist he'd been influenced by the the Confucian emphasis on on harmonious living . Another Chinese panellist, this time a woman, and a Catholic, responded to a question about religious tolerance in China and a man called Connor Cleary, who'd been a correspondent in Beijing for five years talked about media censorship. I was asked how far filmmakers could work inside the strict censorship rules and I was able to say they got roundit to an extent, citing Zhang Yimou as an example of someone who'd had his films banned. He's often been able to fool the censors.
The others came in again, talking about freedom of expression in the arts. I was thinking I'd said my piece when Fion said they'd just received a text message which asked wasn't it true that Zhang Yimou's films showed that if you messed with authority you would always come out badly and what did I think? It was unexpected but I gabbled on a bit about how the films showed that authorities had responsibilities too and how it all went wrong when power was abused. The caller had mentioned 'Curse of the Golden Flower' and I knew it quite well, having reveiwed it for Dimsum. Phew!
'So, openness, harmony and individual expression' said Fion Davenport in a voice dripping with irony, and went on to introduce the next part of the programme. A voice thanked me for taking part.
To my surprise I'd enjoyed it. I hadn't dried up, and I'd been more or less coherent. R said I'd spoken rather quickly, but I'd been taking my cue from the others.
R had come up for a nap as soon as he came up, so was lying on the bed beside me. Fortunately, I noticed in time that he'd set the timer alarm to wake him up after fifteen minutes - the seconds were counting down - and I turned it off. It's not all plain sailing for us 'on the line from London' pundits.
Dimsum extract about Curse of the Golden Flower:
About my book:

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Index Cards Versus a Computer Database
'Ha! Ha! Bit of a Dickensian scene this!' says Adam (not his real name) , when he spots me updating my short story cards.
I haven't used them before because it's only recently I've been submitting enough. The stories were just a list of titles in a computer file and (I'm glad to say) had grown in number to the extent where I couldn't remember what they were about and how many words long they were. Apart from tracking submissions I thought it might be a good idea to be able to flick through cards that had these details. Competitions are advertised from time to time and it would be good to be able to find one already written to fit the purpose. Well, that's the theory.
I was a bit taken aback by Adam's comment because I do like gadgetry. I was an early computer user because R was a salesman for BT. Adam was a colleague of R's. I quite like Adam - he has more about him than some of R's friends. R seems to pick them for how kind-hearted they are instead of for interest or novelty value. (He says my friends are far too eccentric.)
R didn't want a computer cluttering his desk at work when he had no plans to master it. Hence I was able to use it for my film dissertation in 1997. When I'd done an earlier education one in 1986 it was literally a cut and paste job, with glue and scissors and an electric typewriter, so the Tonto was a big improvement. Later I discovered 'tonto' is Spanish for crazy, and that's what you had to be to use it because it was so erratic. No mouse, so you had to have a list of key combinations to perform the word-processing functions. You also had to ring up the help desk a lot.
Now I've got a whole novel on five and a half inch floppy disks and a dot-matrix printed copy. I did that in 1987 and an still transcribing it chapter by chapter.
Adam, unlike R, is an IT enthusiast. I remember he once came to lecture to my A Level Media students on the subject of 'Future Technology' . I don't suppose the content would seem so far-fetched now.
Anyway, there I am copying up records from the back of my notebook, a good task whilst I'm waiting for R to be picked up and taken to Hever Castle. As it's the school holidays Adam is free to venture further than their usual city-centre gallery or cinema. He's not a teacher. At R's 65th birthday dinner, when he'd already been retired for 13 years, Adam's journalist wife said in her ringing Scottish voice: 'Adam, I hope that you don't think you're going to spend your early retirement doing nothing , like your friend R! I'm not going off to my work every day while you lie in your bed.' So Adam is a technician at a school.
Well, I explain to Adam that it may look Dickensian but it's very useful to have this data about the stories on cards. We had a brief chat about dedicated programmes that might be suitable but the main point was it wouldn't really be so convenient or accessible. Maybe I need to look into it, though.
I haven't got much further than titles so far. I've started a separate set for magazines that take short fiction.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Free Furniture

I think Americans call it Dumpster Diving, this habit we've developed lately of helping ourselves to unwanted items left outside houses.

The block of flats where we live stands on the corner of two roads of expensive houses leading up to Blackheath. They're always changing hands, so subject to constant renovation or restoration, and the skips are a good source of furniture.

One road was laid out as Victorian villas built at the same time as the station, and although two of them were once halls of residence for Goldsmiths College students, like the rest they're now divided into flats. For a while we helped update the electoral register, so we're familiar with all the weird fire-escapes and death-trap entry systems. Thank goodness we decided one cold and dark October, when we were both racked with coughs, to hand on the baton.

All the roads around here are reflect the terrain: Hyde Vale; Princes Rise; Blackheath Hill. It's pleasant enough set off for the park encumbered at most with a backpack or a lightweight folding chair , the better to enjoy the shade of mighty oaks on sunny days or sit within earshot of the bandstand when all the benches are occupied; to turn back carrying a swivel chair (see above) or a new glass-pannelled interior door is a different matter. Especially when we live on the third floor and there's no lift.

However, the stuff is often in very good condition - the door was still in its wrapping - so we can't complain. Maybe the credit crunch will bring a halt to all the moving about, but in the meantime the skips are very useful.

I'm not saying it's entirely down to improved seating, but progress on the writing front has been good.

I joined two writing groups, one a U3A one which has been very inspirational as far as writing execises and motivation has been good - the tutor is keen to get an anthology together. The other is a dedicated group of supportive local writers whose feedback is valuable.

I've written and submitted some short stories as well as some website reviews, althugh I've cut back on the latter. Here's my reviews of a play called The Pilgrimage of the Heart and a collection of Chinese short stories called Loud Sparrows:


I've also written a review of short stories by Anne Enright called Talking Pictures:


Mainly, though, I've been finding and submitting to print outlets, of which more later, I hope.

Friday, June 27, 2008

My Declining Years

When I retired from teaching my friend D. said, 'Remember, Sheila, these are your declining years. Just decline to do anything you don't want to.' I laughed.

I also observed how closely D. followed her own edicts. Fancy refusing to accompany your spouse on a vist to see his relatives in America, I thought last year. Tough-minded, my friend D.

Just recently I've been doing the same myself, although not with regard to trips to America - chance would be a fine thing. No, as soon as I sense that anything brings more aggravation than it's worth I give it the heave-ho.

Take these films reviews I've been writing for a certain NY-based website. OK, I thought at first there might be money in it eventually, and I suppose the younger writers are filling up their CVs so it makes it worthwhile for them. What I was getting was free previews for foreign films in exchange for what was often a minimum of five hours researching directors, actors, etc and writing the review. Well, that's OK, too, because my finances are limited and I really like films.

When the site editor starting talking about posting direct to site instead of sending reviews as attachments it was a different matter. Did I want to start learning all the complicated protocols and jargon before putting it into practice? No. It would like publishing your own book after you'd written the novel. Well, on a smaller scale, of course. So I've resigned as contributor.

An organisation asked recently me to be an Online tutor for a China course. Flattered, and tempted because it would dovetail with my existing research interests, I agreed. The usual terms - no fee, but never mind, it would be motivational and interesting for me.

Then the frustration started. Information was slow to arrive. Questions were answered partially after some delay. An Internet search instigated on my own account ruffled feathers: I was made to feel guilty for accessing course information which should have been offered in the first place but which was immediately removed from the web.

Time went by, and I needed to look at the course reading list to prepare for an Autumn start. Had I been forgotten about? An oblique reminder brought vague promises and eventually the name of some-one else who might be able to help.

Once, I would have persisted, pussy-footed around and been grateful for any crumbs of help that came my way. Being paid to put up with it made a difference, I suppose. Now, I think of D. and just decline. I've emailed to say they need some-one within the organisation who knows the ''protocol and personnel' better than I do and I'll be sure to be in touch should I reconsider.

All this declining is very liberating. I wish I'd thought of it before.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

New mini-laptop.

I decided to photograph my new mini-laptop alongside the normal-sized one . It looks more like a wannabe laptop. With the weight less than a kilo it means no more lugging the bigger one round to libraries. Developed in response to a 'computer for every school-child ' programme, it's called an Asus Eee PC.

As I'm a bit of a gadget freak, I keep out of IT shops as a rule. I was there for something fairly harmless like printer cartridge when I first first spotted the Eee on a shelf in a local branch of Curry's.

The salesman, a gangly youth in a smart royal blue shirt, wasn't interested. He was talking to a colleague about how he'd spend the evening, at some night-club called Zero.

Normally, I'd just study the batteries or something, and listen in, but I was quite keen to get the information. The Eee looked like the best writing aid I'd seen since I'd bought my first computer in Singapore, a desk-top Apple Mac with a 7 inch screen. I'm not counting the prototype monster requiring five and a half inch floppies my husband brought home when he worked for BT. It had no mouse, but a long list of key combinations to do things like starting a new paragraph.

The Curry's assistant decided the sooner he got rid of me the sooner he'd be downing Red Bull and Vodka at Zero's.

'I wish they'd never brought these out! There's no CD-Rom drawer, for a start!'

'Well, I didn't want one of those. I just wondered if it could be used as a word-processor...'

'You need one of these bigger ones. It doesn't have Word.'

'It says it's compatible, though, on that card. Could you turn it on so I can see the size of the print?'

He complied, his body half turned away so he could work with one hand and talk to the girl at the check-out desk at the same time.

I'd come back at 5.15pm as the shop was busy earlier. Waiting in the post-office queue had whiled away half an hour, but it was obviously too near closing time at Curry's to get this guy's full attention.

'Would it be possible to load Word onto it?'

'What? The programme would take up more than the memory. It's only 2GB, or 4 GB if you pay the extra £30.'

At £249.99 it still looked good to me. I could put my Bingo win towards it and call it an early birthday present. I'd raid the Edinburgh Festival fund.

I went home and did some research on the Internet, then when I was satisfied the Eee would suit my purpose, I took a bus to PC World.

There the first salesman I asked made sounds which I took to mean he'd go off to see if they had them in stock. I never saw him again.

The second was much more helpful, cheerful even, and looked on his computer catalogue to see which colours they had in stock: pink, blue, green, white and grey. He didn't even try to talk me into a pink one, although they had six of those.

It seems to fit my purpose. I plug my data stick into one of the USB ports and open up a file to work on, then save it to continue on the normal-sized laptop when I get home. So far I've only used it on the park. The keyboard's a bit small and takes some getting used to. It's got Wifi so I should be able to check emails once I get it configured. (If you click twice on the picture and then slide it round you can get a close-up)

This afternoon I'll take it down to my local library. I have an idea they don't make a charge for using their Broadband Internet connection.

At least they are fairly helpful there. They even have card on the counter that you can fill in if they don't come up to standard as regards being polite and helpful. Seems to me they could introduce that scheme in computer shops.


No probs surfing the Web at my local library where the Wifi connection is free. The IT-savvy librarian was very excited about the Eee. 'You're very trendy, Madam. Did you know Stephen Fry has one of those?'

Friday, May 09, 2008

Martello Beach Resort

We had a cold stay of it, mid-April, at a caravan site in Clacton - myself, son and two grandchildren. At least the Martello Tower inspired me to write a short story. Years ago I visited one famous in literary annals: the Martello Tower on the coast near Dublin. That was wildly romantic, with steep rocks and a pool where James Joyce swam in his youth.

My son brought an 'Essex 2008' brochure, mainly stuffed with notices of Summer events. I read that 103 of these Martello towers were built between 1805 and 1812 in case Napoleon invaded. Essex was thought to be so vulnerable that two were built within a mile or so of one another. I can see the attraction of landing on those flat shingly beaches. The towers themselves , though, are not at all attractive; they're squat and cement-coloured, like fish-and-chip-shop steak puddings. Mostly they're derelict and this one seemed deserted, as if turned out of its mould onto a patch of derelict caravan site near the ugly sea wall. Apparently it's used as a 'community resource' - the odd structure on the top is with the sloping roof is used for watching birds, I think.

Roy stayed behind in London as he was still recovering from 'flu, and I wished I'd taken a hot water bottle. I'm still working on the story, hopeful it will suit one of the women's magazines I've been studying. The children enjoyed the pool at the club house, and I liked splashing around although it was really too shallow for serious swimming. Clacton was a featureless town without the seedy frontage or romantic old town pubs of Hastings, the cultural attractions of Brighton or Whitstable's oysters. It was too cold for walking, and anyway my grand-daughter doesn't like to, so we watched interviews with Marathon runners on the TV and kept the gas fire turned up high. Shame the heat never reached my bedroom, at the other end of the van. The walls are not much thicker than cardboard.

On Sunday afternoon it was remarkably easy to park in a Clacton side street to visit a run-down aquarium on the pier, entrance fee a very resaonable £2. They could hardly have charged more, considering that the main tank was under repair. I felt sorry for the ugly lumpfish, squatting in the murky depths like half-deflated grey balloons with rows of carbuncles along their sides and gaping botoxed lips. They were surrounded by mini-shoals of agressive silver hake, dashing from one end of the tank to the other. Further along the pier the children filled transparent plastic figurines with layers of coloured grit, my grandaughter choosing a heart with a lace attached. 'Look, grandma, a present for mummy'.

By the time we went home she'd handled it so much that the layers had mixed together.

The evening entertainment was Bingo, then a giant rabbit leading the kiddies in line dancing with a misogynist magician to follow. Maybe he was just jaundiced, but it was a bit early in the season for that. I didn't care by then as I'd won £100 for a 'full house', although young Sam had to help me keep track of the numbers. He was duly rewarded.

I've done more reviewing than fiction writing this month, mainly of French films, and reported on some China-related talks. I also joined an excellent 'live' writing group which inspired me to write two stories, one of which I posted to WriteWords. It attracted fewer negative comments than the usual run, so I'm quite cheered.

Yesterday was so warm I took my new mini-laptop to the park. It was too hot to work in the pavilion cafe garden so I went into the cafe itself but as I half expected I attracted admirers - well, one admirer who was in his late fifties/early sixties maybe but had a fine head of wavy grey hair and good taste in shirts.

'Excuse me, but I couldn't help noticing the machine you are using, and wonder where you bought it.'

(Did anyone think it was my personal allure ? You can lower your eyebrows now)

I told him all about it, and I'll do the same here when I've had time to take a photo of it to include with my next post - maybe tomorrow.

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

I was in bed with flu for most of last week. I cancelled an interview I was supposed to conduct this morning with the author of a gruesome-killings novel set in Hongkong. It'll have to be done by phone later in the week. What a shame. I was quite looking forward to meeting this Devon-born woman who ran away from home aged 16 and got involved with triads after being addicted to heroin(she was only trying to score ampethamines, so let that be a lesson) It's called The Trophy Taker, a reference to the villain's penchant for taking souvenirs of his victims, except in this case they are no items of underwear but body parts. Hopefully I'll write it up for Dimsum.

I have another review outstanding, although I've nearly done that, an autobiography called Blue China about a half-Italian half-Chinese woman born in Shanghai c.1940. She's a classmate of mine and I'm meeting her in Chinatown tomorrow for lunch. One thing, if a Chinese person invites you, you know they'll be paying. There'll be a lot of pushing food round plates, though. Rosemary, or Bamboo, to use her pen-name, is an impossible glamorous ex-model and I've still not recovered my appetite.

I have to finish a write up a of show I saw last Sunday, before the flu kicked in. Called East Meets West it featured The Chinese Elderly Art Group from Beijing. A troupe of septuagenarians cavorted about the stage of the Queen's Theatre in Shaftesbury Avenue, performing traditional folk dances. That's where daily xigong exercises gets you.

My copy of the Goldsmiths Alumnus magazine called Goldlink 30, arrived, containing my report on a talk I there before Christmas. 'Sounded as if it was very boring'. Thanks, Roy. It's a trendily-designed alumni mag with a picture of a girl blowing bubble-gum on the front. So I'm feeling quite positive.

I'm going on a caravan weekend in Essex with the grandchildren. A sign I'm feeling better, this morning I went up to Stanford's, in Long Acre, to get an ordnance survey map of the area. As I went in I heard a young man ask an assistant, 'Do you have a map of London?'

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Welcome Spin-offs

Whoopee! I earned a little money from three separate sources this month - all indirectly connected with my writing.

First up was escorting 15 media personnel from Shenzhen on a tour down-river to Greenwich, taking in the Changing of the Guards. I was nominated by my ex Chinese tutor . 'I remembered you lived over there' she emailed.

I've had some modest success in exploiting my interest in Chinese having written a book about film and some articles. Revently I've written and am sending out a book based on living in China. I had a letter only this morning from a publisher to say I should submit via an agent. Grrr....

I'm sure that if it were not for the writing spin-offs I'd have given up Chinese ages ago. It's quite gruelling, so motivation needs constant boosts.
All, the same, I'd advise any writer to pick an obscure subject like Chinese film or woodrot in Byzantine tryptiches for a short route to publishing success, albeit in a rather specialist field. Fortunately, China's become fashionable so I'm hopeful of selling my book. Not sure about the Byzantine Tryptiches.

The Shenzhen people were charming and considering they'd only arrived in London the day before, full of beans. I showed them Leicester Square where they took photos of one another by Shakespeare's statue. Next to Trafalgar Square for more photos in front of lions and fountains and then we had a chilly half hour wait outside Buckingham Palace. As we watched the tops of brass helmets go by, 'I expect you've seen this hundreds of times' said the breathless interpeter. I tried to look like a royalist. I'd been more confident in Trafalgar Square burbling on about our 'great naval hero'.

After that I got a free Chinese lesson all the way to Greenwich on the boat. The guests were in their thirties, and mostly married with one child each, left in the care of grandparents. The parents, all 'rising stars' in Chinese TV media, are in London for one-month long course on UK media, with weekend cultural outings.
Shenzhen is an affluent city. One of the women received news by mobile during the boat-ride that her car, stolen just before she let China, had just been found. The others all confirmed they had cars back home. I was casting envious looks at the photographic equipment some of the men were carrying. I'm thinking of upgrading via the Tesco catalogue to improve my pixel count.

Shenzhen is the first of three cities to feature in the China Design Now exhibition at the V&A, and much the best of the three, in my opionion.

I regained my strength and warmed up over a Vietnamese lunch in Greenwich before tacking the steep hill up to the observatory. More photos, this time standing with one foot in the east and one in the west. The wind was strong on either side of the meridian and whistled through indiscriminately. Roy had met us off the boat, as he's the one with the Greenwich Guide credentials, and it was good to share the responsibility as the group scattered alarmingly in the grounds of Flamsteed House.

We went back to town on the bus as it was getting late. Leaving us at Waterloo Bridge the interpreter explained she was staying in North London and would be reporting early next day. We said goodby to our charges under festive red lanterns outside a Chinatown supermarket. I was concerned they might not find their way back to their hostel in Bloomsbury but the one who spoke the best English assured me they'd be OK and promised she'd ring me from there on their return.

We were exhausted, and blew half the profits immediately on spaghetti and a glass of wine each at Bella Pasta. I got paid £80, which after tax came to about £62. There was a message on the answerphone at home.

Another entry on my online banking page was for £65 was labelled ALCS and had me pondering until the ALCS magazine arrived next day. It means Author's Licensing and Collection Society , which monitors and collects fees for library borrowings and photocopying. My film book appears on a few 'required reading' lists so it pays out a modest annual fee.

The last, and to my mind most indirectly-connected-to-writing payment was a cheque for £5 for sending a photo of myself to The People's Friend. They have a page called something like Down Memory Lane which I'd noticed when I was browsing the short stories to see if I might write one to their specs. I've been practising like mad.

I sent three pics, thinking the best by far was a snap of my mother escorting me and my sisters along the prom at Blackpool, c. 1950. She'd bought us candyfloss, and I was down to chewing the stick. Another showed myself and my two sisters standing on cobbles outside our home. But no, they preferred the studio-posed one where I'm sitting, aged six months, alongside a stuffed dog which looks the more intelligent one of the pair. My mum is in the picture, too, but she can't be seen - she's holding me upright from behind whilst the photographer does his stuff.
The letter with the cheque tells me they'll send me a copy of the issue in which the photo appears.

So even if the The People's Friend does reject the story I sent them, I shan't mind so much. I don't see how I can feel badly about a magazine that wants my picture, and the spin-off will encourage me to try again.

Monday, March 10, 2008

After the Storm

I was awakened around 5.30am by what I thought were aeroplanes, but the noise kept going at the same level. I remembered then about the storm warning. Looking out at the trees, I could see they weren't moving much, but even though our flat's on the second floor we're quite a way down-hill from the heath. Still, the windows were being battered enough to dissuade us from walking down the High Street to the swimming pool.

Later we walked up to the park, where so much damage had been done in the great storm of October 1987. It was pretty breezy across the heath - at one point Roy, struggling with an umbrella, warned me not to walk so near to the narrow road that runs north-south along the western edge. He was afraid I might be blown onto the road in front of a passing car.

All seemed well on the park - no trees fallen over, as far as we could see. We came back on the DLR and as we were walking from the station we saw this heap of abandoned umbrellas. Just as well that we weren't out earlier.