Tag Archives: China

North Korea – Phallic monuments, war lies, famine and an interview with MI5

An amazing erection in Pyongyang: the Tower

(A version of this blog was also published on the Indian news website We Speak News.)

Surprisingly today, our older male guide admitted that North Korea had a famine in the 1990s. It was, he said, caused by “no rain” and, in the period 1994-1999, “only 200,000” people died, not the 3 million he said was claimed by the Americans.

I think Apartheid in South Africa was doomed when they let television into the country. People could see what life was like outside the country.

Widespread tourism in North Korea brings much the same threat.

Being a North Korean must be like being a sheep or a goat. You are born into a place where people look after you and you learn to trust them and believe they care about your welfare. Then, one day, they may slit your throat and eat you with vegetables.

North Korea is an enclosed world of brown countryside and white-and-red towns. Or white-and-off-red towns. Brown earth. Off-white buildings. Red banners and slogans.

The Great Leader Kim Il-sung’s Juche Idea of self-reliance – much touted when I was here in 1986 – seems to have been superceded by the Songun philosophy of “military first” – which “prioritises the Korean People’s Army in the affairs of state and allocates national resources to the army first”. Interestingly, this first seriously appeared in 1995, the year after Kim Il-sung’s death, when his son the Dear Leader Kim Jong-il took over the country.

I wonder what sucking-up to the military Kim Jong-Il’s son the new Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un will have to do.

All towns seem to have at least one tall thin monument in a central position with slogans carved around or on it – the ultimate being the Tower of the Juche Idea in the country’s capital Pyongyang with eternal sculptured flame atop. It all seems a bit like worshipping a stone phallus erected in the middle of ancient communities with dwellings huddled round it.

North Korea is very big on icons.

We were taken to the national film studios today. The late Dear Leader Kim Jong-il was much bitten by the would-be-Hollywood bug. We were proudly told that he had visited the film studios more than 590 times. We were told the studios made 20 films each year. So that would be almost two per month with lots of overlapping.

But the studio buildings and the widespread backlot streets were deserted. The ladies and gents toilets were closed and had to be found and specially opened. The gents was flooded. Someone told me there appeared to be an old woman sleeping in the ladies toilet.

The man in charge of the film studios said that the Great Leader Kim Il-sung himself had given advice on the positioning of the studios. He had said they should be outside the city.

Good advice, I believe.

The school year here starts on April 1st, which seems a very appropriate date given some of the facts learned in school. We were taken to an ‘ordinary’ school today.

In reality, of course, foreign visitors are never taken to ‘ordinary’ schools.

The school we were taken to – the June the 9th Middle School Number One School – was closed. This is the fourth day of a two-day public holiday. the extra two days, we were told, are “because in the previous two days the people had to celebrate”.

The science schoolroom had a small, cheap microscope on each desk. There was one room devoted to lessons about the Great Leader Kim Il-sung. And one room devoted to lessons about the Dear Leader Kim Jong-il. “The children have one lesson each week on them,” we were told proudly.

Some children had been dragged in to perform for us. As with all performances in North Korea, they were perfect in every way, though with a slightly unsettling emphasis on accordion-playing.

I was very impressed by one small picture among many others stuck on a wall. It was of the small children undergoing military training – crawling under barbed wire and the rest.

Then we were taken to the War Museum where we had explained to us why the Korean War started. Basically, as I understood the story, the US made lots of money during the Second World War by selling its armaments. When the War finished, the US went into a big economic Depression and decided to start the Korean War to stop the Depression.

Last time I was here, in 1986, the line was that the Korean War started when the running dog South Korean lackeys of the US imperialists wantonly attacked North Korea, but the valiant North Koreans pluckily fought back, drove the Americans back to the sea and the Yanks begged for a peace treaty.

This fails somewhat to explain why the border between the two Koreas remains in the middle of the peninsula and, as told in 1986, the Chinese Army was not involved in any way. Presumably North Korean grandfathers who remember US/UN troops surging northwards through their village and then remember Chinese troops surging southwards through their village see the value of keeping schtum.

Today, I asked if many Chinese visitors came to the War Museum and if they saw the same rooms as us. “There are four Chinese rooms in the museum,” I was told, “but we do not have time to see them today.”

I do not really care. The more important factor to me is that, although there is some talk of the US conning the UN into being involved in the Korean War, it is the Americans who are 100% blamed (or credited) with the war. We see their downed aircraft, captured vehicles and photos of their POWs. Britain is never mentioned because it seems important to keep the focus of North Korea’s xenophobic hatred on the Americans alone.

That’s fine by me. It gives me a quieter life as a Brit.

In the evening, as a special treat, we are taken to Pyongyang’s main theatre for a special mega-performance by a cast of 2,000 in honour of Kim Il-sung’s 100th birthday. Broadway and Andrew Lloyd-Webber eat your heart out. A stupendous production of professional perfection. It is later put on YouTube:

But, really, you had to be there to appreciate the scale of it.

At a restaurant meal, one of our group tells me his story about being interviewed for a job in MI5. He passed the tests where you are given lots of disparate information from different sources about a fake situation and have to compile a risk assessment  situation report. He got through to the interview stage and failed. He says he thought it was because he was around 22 years old at the time and “they like more fully-formed people… all the others were older, maybe in their early 30s.”

I wonder how uni-directional the microphones are in the restaurant. I feel reassured that the North Koreans have better people to bug in this celebratory period.

When I get back to the hotel – our final night is unexpectedly in the 5-star Yanggakdo Hotel – the television, very bizarrely, has the BBC World TV channel on it. What are the authorities thinking of? North Korean workers in the hotel can see this. I think of South Africa and Apartheid.

The BBC is saying there has been a Los Angeles Times report with photos of US soldiers posing with the severed limbs and other body parts of suicide bombers… and North Korea has said it will no longer allow UN nuclear inspectors into the country because the US has withdrawn food aid to North Korea in response to the launch of their rocket last week.

We live in interesting times.

Most of it utterly unknown by the people of North Korea.

… CONTINUED HERE …

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North Korea – George Orwell’s pyramid looms over the capital city Pyongyang

Big Brother really is watching over you

(A version of this piece was also published on the Indian news site WeSpeakNews and by the Huffington Post)

I left my Beijing hotel early this morning for a flight to North Korea and got caught in a traffic jam on one of the Chinese capital’s ring roads.

When I was in Beijing in 1984, the city had crowded streams of bicycles. Now it is all cars in wide multi-lane carriageways and flyovers in high-rise skyscraper surroundings which look like something from Fritz Lang’s Metropolis.

At Beijing Airport, we get on an ancient Tupolev aircraft – very noisy – staffed by ultra-neat North Korean air stewardesses, each in prim red jacket, white shirt and dark blue scarf – the colours of the national flag.

When I entered the aircraft’s cabin, there was an overwhelming smell of air freshener. About 45 minutes into the flight, it became obvious why. The smell of air freshener had disappeared and the natural odour of the aircraft had reasserted itself: a rather unsettling smell of petrol fumes. It is difficult to say which was more unsettling: the smell of petrol or the saccharine-drenched music coming out of the aircraft’s not-very-good speakers. It was like easy listening to Nelson Riddle music in a flying petrol station.

But the North Koreans were trying their best. And that is all anyone can do.

When I was in China in the mid-1980s, some of their new hotels were run as joint ventures with Swiss companies on ten-year contracts. At the end of that time, everything would to revert to the Chinese. So they had ten years learning what specific items and what standards were expected by Western tourists. The North Koreans, in self-imposed exile from the rest of the world for generations, have no idea what goes on beyond their borders and little idea of what travellers expect.

When our group arrived in Pyongyang (you can only travel to North Korea in supervised groups, only rarely as a supervised individual), the people who had paid extra for single rooms (including me) found that there were no single rooms available and we had all been bumped down to a less-good hotel. But the North Koreans were trying their best.

There are so many people in North Korea for the celebrations of the late Great Leader Kim Il-sung’s 100th birthday that, surreally, Pyongyang has a shortage of hotel rooms. The British tour company Regent Holidays, which normally takes only occasional single groups into the country currently has four groups in simultaneously for the celebrations; a Swedish company has brought a total of 200 people in several groups.

Each group allowed into the country has to have two North Korean ‘guides’ and a driver constantly with them. This is not only so that the untrusted foreigners are carefully supervised, watched and reported-on by the two guides, but so that each guide can keep a careful watch on the other guide. When I was here in 1986, it slowly became obvious that the bus driver out-ranked the two guides and was himself there to watch and report-on them.

North Korea is not a country where paranoia is under-stated.

But people are people. Insecure, internally modest. No-one chooses which country they are born into. People are people. There is nature v nurture but neither is 100% of anyone. People are people.

Our group of 16 individuals is supervised by two individual North Korean guides: one an experienced older man, the other a relatively inexperienced younger girl.

If the two guides and the driver all keeping a wary watch on each Western tourist and on each other seems oppressive, think of the individual psychology. With this level of paranoia, there is a personal insecurity which is occasionally visible in the eyes of the guides and most of the North Koreans we encounter (except, oddly, the driver). What if they do something wrong? What – even worse – if they do not do something wrong but someone higher than them in the paranoia chain mistakenly thinks that they have done something wrong? This is not a forgiving country. They have been at war with the Americans and the South Koreans since 1950.

The Korean War ended in 1953. But only in theory. In March 2010, a North Korean miniature submarine torpedoed and sank the South Korean ship Cheonan, killing 46 sailors. In November 2010, the North Korean army bombarded the South Korean island of Yeonpyeong with around 170 artillery shells, hitting both military and civilian targets, killing 4 people and injuring 19.

In George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, one of the basic necessities of the state of Oceania is that it has to be constantly at war with one of the two other great super-states. A very real external threat is vital to hold the country together. Oceania and North Korea seem to be interchangeable in this respect.

In the fields of North Korea – glimpsed through bus windows on very uneven roads – people are rarely cultivating the barren-looking land. When they do, they almost never have mechanised help; they rarely even have oxen and hand ploughs. They seem to till the soil with their hands. Individuals sitting in brown earth fields.

This is not a 21st century state. This is not a 20th century state. This is like England under the rule of Richard III. We are talking here about medieval countryside scenes.

But, in the capital Pyongyang, the monuments have got even bigger than they were in 1986. Wide avenues, imposing monuments, monolithic buildings

There is a new road with unnecessarily massive monumental buildings for different sports. A giant basketball building. A giant table tennis building. A whole street of buildings for different sports. Gigantic buildings with massive car parks. In a city with very few cars.

There are new tower blocks of apartments. Everything looks stylish on the outside. Our decidedly underwhelming hotel has underfloor heating (which cannot be turned off) but currently has no hot running water.

The invisible building, as seen a few years ago

And, towering over everything, is a giant pyramidal building, massively out-of-proportion to everything else. It is an unfinished 1o5-storey hotel – the Ryugyong Hotel – which the North Koreans started to construct in 1987 – exactly 25 years ago – but never completed. It looks perfect on the outside but it is a showy facade, like a simile for North Korea itself.

The giant 330-metre tall building was due to open in 1989 with either 3,000 or 7,665 rooms (facts are variable in North Korea). For several years after it failed to open, North Korea denied the building existed, despite the fact it dominated the skyline. Now, 25 years after work started on the structure, it is the elephant in the room; never mentioned but ever present.

“It is an enormous pyramidal structure of glittering white concrete rising 300 metres into the air, containing over 3000 rooms above ground.”

That is not a description of the gigantic grey pyramidal would-be hotel which dominates the Pyongyang skyline.

It is George Orwell’s description of the Ministry of Truth in Nineteen Eighty-Four.

But it will do.

It will do.

Welcome to North Korea.

… CONTINUED HERE …

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Beijing – An arrest in Tiananmen Square and an offer of exciting sex

The arrested men are led away by police in Tiananmen Square

(A version of this piece was also published by the Huffington Post)

I am still in Beijing.

During the night, I was talking to a girl at the top of a suburban street, telling her about the various Schneiders. There was Roy Schneider in Jaws; there was Romy Schneider sharing butter with Marlon Brando in Last Tango in Paris; and there is Dave Schneider, who I always think of as the bloke in the back window of the Eurostar train as it hurtles along in the climax of the first Mission Impossible movie.

The girl was very impressed and a friend of hers also came along to find out more about the various Schneiders.

Then I woke up.

It was a dream.

I later realised the two girls were wrong to be impressed. The Jaws film star was Roy Scheider not Roy Schneider. And it was Maria not Romy Schneider with the butter.

It was just a dream.

And this morning, as if still in a dream, it felt like I was home in London when a taxi driver took me on a 12-minute round trip in the opposite direction to where we were going, to increase his meter fare. It is what all cabbies must do the world over to foreigners in their city.

Eventually, we got to Tiananmen Square, where all access is guarded by soldiers/police at kiosks with X-ray machines. This is no big deal, really, as all Beijing’s metro stations have X-ray security machines too.

I say all access to Tiananmen Square is guarded by the efficient Chinese security system.

Except one.

I wandered unstopped and unchecked (carrying a bag) through the old Zhengyangmen (Qianmen) Gate behind Mao’s Mausoleum and wandered into the Square unstopped.

At the far end of the square, nearly opposite the Tiananmen Gate itself, men and women in red and yellow jackets offered to take photos of passers-by.

As I left the throng, four young men maybe in their late teens unfolded a large rectangular banner – red, with white Chinese letters. They smiled as I passed by. About 12-15 seconds later, there was the sharp bark of a voice.

One of the red and yellow jacketed ‘photographers’ – a particularly burly man – was shouting and, as I watched still walking away, he strode and tried to tear the banner from the four youths’ hands and scrunge it up, still yelling towards a police van about 50 feet away.

The banner had been up and visible for maybe 12 seconds. Almost no-one had seen it; perhaps only me. And I did not know what the Chinese writing said.

Four policemen strode across from their white van and marched the four young men away.

The four young men went quietly; they did not have to be held; they obviously knew it would happen like, I guess, maybe some lemmings know their jump off the cliff will not end well. But they still feel compelled towards the self-destructive act.

They strolled with the police towards the white van. The red and yellow jacketed man went back to being a photographer, accosting tourists to have their photo taken with Chairman Mao’s giant portrait on the Tiananmen Gate in the background.

To Westerners like me, this seems an example of the repressiveness of the Chinese regime. But to the Chinese themselves – obsessed with maintaining order and stability and horrified by the possibility of ‘chaos’, I suspect it could seem like benevolent paternalism.

The men and women standing and sitting around and watching what ordinary people do are, I suspect, not seen as oppressive Big Brothers but as protective brothers and sisters.

There are men (mostly men) sitting at the bottom of, it seems, all the escalators in the metro, just ‘watching’ in case an unfortunate accident happens.

Life has got much, much better for most people.

When I was here in 1984, I realised I was slightly (not much) taller than most people in the street. I got looks. But people did not notice my height, skin colour and different clothing if I walked at the same, slower pace that they did.

In 1984, the Beijingers walked slower than people did in London. Now, in 2012, they do not. Maybe I have slowed down (always a possibility) but I think they do walk faster. And they have taken advertising to their hearts.

It is everywhere. Including on the moving rubber handrails of the escalators in the metro.

And I was very impressed by a very inventive way of advertising on the walls inside the metro tunnels as the trains speed between stations.

As the train carriage speeds by through the dark tunnels, on the black walls are a series of pictures which appear to be one static image as seen from the fast-moving train. I guess it must be like a flick book. Your eyes see a lot of the same picture repeated and your brain sees one static picture. Occasionally the image changes. I have never seen anything like it, although someone later told me there is one of these ads in the Heathrow Express tunnel into London Airport.

Meanwhile, watching TV back in my 13th floor Beijing hotel, I continue to be amazed that BBC World’s TV reporter  is still allowed to remain inside North Korea. He contrasts what he is being shown by North Korean officials with the real North Korea glimpsed by the BBC cameraman through train and coach windows. Simply the phrases he uses in his reports – “Few outside would recognise this as prosperous” and “totalitarian control” would surely merit the North Koreans throwing him out?

Tomorrow, I fly to North Korea.

I left my iPhone and iPad back in London, knowing they would be confiscated at the border.

Ten days ahead of me with no news of the outside world.

What might happen?

When I was in Laos in 1989, I missed the fall of the Berlin Wall. The first I knew of it was coming back through Bangkok Airport and seeing a week-old issue of the Sunday Times with pictures on the front page of the Wall coming down.

But perhaps I have more personal worries.

This afternoon, eating a sweet, a slice from the back of one of my teeth – perhaps a quarter inch high – came out. It seems to be part of the real tooth, not a filling. A sticky sweet was the culprit.

Tonight, I went to the Novotel to e-mail my eternally-un-named friend and ask her to book me a dental appointment when I get back home.

As I walked up to the Novotel, three prostitutes offered to have sex with me. Well, presumably each of three prostitutes, not all three together. The youngest was wearing a white coat; the others were stylishly-dressed in black, merging into the darkness and with sadder eyes. The youngest was bubbly and effervescent: “Sex,” she said to me. “Exciting sex.”

When I came out of the hotel, after sending my e-mail, there were only two of the ladies of the night standing in the same place. The white-coated young girl was still there, giggling and smiling. “Sex?” she asked. “Exciting sex?”

I went to the metro, wondering what happened to the four young men in Tiananmen Square and what will happen to Bo Xilai and his wife. Will I miss a major news story while I am in North Korea?

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Beijing – Waltzing in the headlights of a fast-coming future in the new Tokyo

The future is bright and dazzling in Beijing - the new Tokyo.

I am sitting in my hotel room on the 13th (top) floor of a 4-star hotel in Beijing.

I was in Beijing in 1984, 1985 and 1986.

My memory of Beijing in 1984 is of almost everyone wearing green or blue Mao suits – a uniformity of dull colours. The next year, some lighter pastel colours were creeping in and I stumbled on a fashion shoot by the lake in Beihai Park where the glamorous model was wearing a mini skirt.

Back then, I remember a rather dusty, occasionally misty city with Dickensian factory chimneys, streets swamped with tsunamis of bicycles and building sites each with hundreds of workers instead of machines. This was not – and is not – a country with a labour shortage.

Today, on the 45-60 minute drive to the city centre from the giant fuck-off-and-die airport (built for the 2008 Olympics), we passed through a new city with giant, often very well-designed buildings and loads of cars on busy four and five lane carriageways.

Then we hit Tiananmen Square with its new monument to distract and disguise where the demonstrators were in 1989. It now also has an apparently permanent visible police presence plus parked police cars and vans.

Once past Tiananmen Square, we hit the more crowded, narrow streets with jumbled shops and narrow, greyish, busy alleyways I remembered.

The TV in my hotel seems to cater mostly for Chinese, not English-speaking, businessmen – a not insignificant point. And the BBC World news channel is reporting that Sony has announced a whacking $6 billion loss.

The Japanese are on their way out.

The Chinese are on their way up.

More surprisingly, the BBC still has a TV reporter inside North Korea. Why has this man not been thrown out of the country? He is still telling and showing the truth about what life is like there. He was invited in to show the glorious start to the celebrations of the 100th birthday of the Great Leader Kim Il-sung – and to report on the ‘fact’ that the North Koreans’ upcoming rocket launch is to put a satellite into space, not to test an ICBM capable of carrying a nuclear warhead.

Fat chance. He is making it clear North Korea is a fantasy land of literally incredible facades.

The North Koreans have said their rocket will be launched “by 16th April”. As the late Kim Il-sung’s 100th birthday is on the 15th April, guessing which day it will actually be launched does not seem like, err, rocket science.

Back on the TV in Beijing, BBC World is reporting that someone called (as far as I can figure phonetically) Nee-lu-yang, disabled and on crutches after being beaten up by the police, has been sentenced to three years imprisonment – and her husband to two years – for “provoking trouble” by campaigning against the eviction of people from their homes to make way for new building developments by the Chinese authorities.

In China, rapid modernisation comes at a price which would be unacceptably high in the UK.

I took a walk out tonight and, over the course of an hour, I passed nine people walking their pet dogs. In the mid 1980s, a friend of mine went into Canton free market a meat-eater and came out a vegetarian: “It was the live dogs and cats and owls that did it,” she told me. “All in small cages, ready for eating. It was the owls that really got to me, with their big eyes staring out at me.”

Now dogs are kept by some as pets. The sign of an increasingly moneyed society and probably the sign of an increasingly something else society which I can’t put my finger on.

People were still doing that deep, throaty Chinese spitting in the street back in 1984.

Things have advanced at an amazing rate.

And yet… And yet…

There is still that protester disabled and on crutches after being beaten up by the police, sentenced to three years imprisonment for “provoking trouble”.

Some might argue that 2012 in China is more like Nineteen Eighty-Four than it was in 1984. But with a glittering veneer.

On my walk tonight, in a darkened open space about 20 feet from one of Beijing’s busy ring roads, I heard the faint sound of traditional Chinese music and saw about thirty people of various ages dancing in slow motion. Some were waltzing; some appeared to be practising slow-motion line-dancing.

Perhaps this is a new 2012 version of tai-chi.

In 1968, Country Joe and The Fish recorded a song called Waltzing in the Moonlight. In Beijing, they are waltzing in the headlights of a fast-coming future.

China is the new Japan… with Japan, like Atlantis, cut down to size by the Gods with a national catastrophe.

It only took water to overwhelm Atlantis.

Japan, a more advanced civilisation, had visited on it by the Gods the triple disaster of earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster. Japan has stumbled if not yet been humbled..

The road signs in Beijing – and many local shop signs – are in both Chinese and English. The government is preparing for and has already entered an international future.

And yet… And yet…

The girl in this 4-star hotel’s Business Centre not only does not speak English, she does not know how to print off text from the computer she supervises onto the printer sitting beside it.

And the BBC World channel reports that the wife of prominent Chinese politician Bo Xilai has been arrested on suspicion of killing a British businessman last year. No motive is given; the businessman seems to have been a friend of the anti-corruption Mr Bo and his wife; and the Chinese leadership is changing this year.

Now, presumably, Mr Bo has been knocked out of the running.

Don’t mess with the Chinese.

*****

Here is the sound of Country Joe and The Fish Waltzing in the Moonlight

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One night in Tashkent, I did not sleep with a Nazi

I am knackered by lack of sleep and cannot think of anything to blog about, so I am reduced to remembering what happened on Friday 3rd May 1985 in Bukhara and Tashkent, in what was then Soviet Central Asia.

I was on a 37 day group tour of the Soviet Union, Mongolia and China. We started in what was then Leningrad (later re-named St Petersburg after the collapse of Communism) and ended in Hong Kong (which was, at that time, still a British colony and not part of China).

In our group, there were Americans, Australians, Canadians, English, Germans and Scots. This is an extract from my diary:

_____

Friday 3rd May, 1985

Our group leader, Jimmy, is a dour and wizened Glaswegian in his mid-fifties who, when not taking large groups of strangers to exotic locations, works as a barman in London. He says he has been coming to the Soviet Union for 23 years and has never been invited into an ordinary Soviet citizen’s home. He has been visiting China for 4 years and has been invited to ordinary people’s homes several times.

“Russians are so completely paranoid,” he explains, “They don’t even trust their neighbours in case they report them for something.”

At the airport in Bukhara, a woman border guard sniffs and wants to confiscate a plastic bottle of water carried by American platinum blonde Carla. Having got through Customs, we are told we cannot sit on any seats in the Departure Lounge because “the Departure Room seats are not for sitting on”. We are taken to wait on the tarmac, separated by several yards from the locals already patiently waiting there, in case we contaminate them or vice versa.

As usual, the locals have to wait while we are first to board the smallish prop plane with its wing above the fuselage. The locals look at us forlornly with something between hatred and resignation. They are seated separately from us and are collected by different airport buses when we land at Tashkent.

In the afternoon, we are taken to a collective farm. Someone asks what happens in years when the crops fail. “We never have crop failures,” comes back the immediate reply. Seeing us laugh, the Party member pauses, taken aback, then adds: “ Once we had a crop failure… Once.”

At each stop, the singles in our group have to share with different members of the group – this is Jimmy’s wise idea to avoid people being paired permanently with people they hate.

Tonight, I have to share a room with one of our Germans – Alex – a boorish old man in his sixties who keeps geese and who, at every stop in Russia, blithely told the Inturist people that he had been in their country once before – during the War. This went down particularly badly at Leningrad.

He leches after any women under 30, sometimes clenching his fist and raising his forearm behind their back: a sort of retired Nazi Benny Hill.

His animal-like snoring is so loud that the walls virtually vibrate and, during the night, it continually wakes me up. I find I can temporarily stop the snoring by clapping my hands, but it soon re-starts. I progress to turning the radio quickly on and off, banging my headboard, throwing headache tablets at him then finally putting the light on above his bed head. All to no avail.

It is like sleeping in a room with a Panzer tank revving up its engines.

I try not to think about what he might have done when he was in the Soviet Union during the War.

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Duck! The dangers of Chinese subtitles, kidnap and Rupert Murdoch’s flying bus

Yesterday, I went to see a movie The Beginning of the Great Revival (aka The Founding of a Party), which was screening in London as part of the China Image Film Festival. It seemed to be very good film. A sumptuously made movie. Of course, if you work for the state film company, have a virtually limitless budget and you are making a movie about the founding of the Chinese Communist Party, this could help. But I thought I espied a director who had been influenced by Sergio Leone’s historical epics.

I say The Beginning of the Great Revival “seemed” to be a very good film because, alas, despite opening and closing titles with English translations, the actual two-hour long historical epic turned out to be in Chinese with Chinese subtitles.

This reminded me of the time I sat through Sholay at the National Film Theatre when they had accidentally rented a print of the epic Indian language movie with French sub-titles.

I speak neither French nor Hindi but you cannot fail to enjoy an all-stops-pulled-out Bollywood film where (as always) people randomly burst into song and the hero has both his arms cut off yet continues to fight in true action man style. (Both Sholay and Monty Python and the Holy Grail were released in 1975 so I doubt if either ripped off the idea of an armless hero; it must have been the spirit of the times.)

I also do not speak Mandarin nor read Chinese script and my knowledge of Chinese history 1910-1921 is a tad hazy, but The Beginning of the Great Revival was never less than interesting. You can see why in the (subtitled) trailer on YouTube:

I was brought back to some form of reality when I came out of the cinema and read Rupert Murdoch’s iPad-only newspaper The Daily. The front page story was:

DUCK! – Anyone’s guess where 13,000-pound satellite will hit

sub-headed as:

READY TO TUMBLE! Satellite hurtles toward Earth – and scientists can’t say when or where it will hit

This was a story I had never heard of before – and I had seen the lunchtime news on BBC TV yesterday.

“NASA scientists,” The Daily said, “are shrugging their shoulders with little or no idea when – or where – a satellite the size of a bus will fall to Earth. The latest projections last night were that the defunct NASA satellite would tumble to Earth from space sometime this afternoon, but because the satellite is free-falling, the space agency and the U.S. Air Force cannot make a precise prediction about when and where it will hit.”

According to the article, NASA claimed the chances of someone being hit by a piece of falling debris was 1 in 3,200 and the debris would fall along a 500-mile path.

Those odds of 1 in 3,200 seemed surprisingly low to me.

“The only confirmed case of a person being hit by space junk,” The Daily told me, “was in 1997 when Lottie Williams of Tulsa, Oklahoma, was grazed on the shoulder by a small piece of a Delta rocket.”

NASA has apparently warned people against touching any part of the satellite they might find lying around on the ground.

“While it contains no hazardous chemicals,” The Daily reported, “the space agency said people could potentially be hurt by sharp edges.”

Apparently what NASA calls “medium-sized junk” falls back to earth about once a week. Debris the size of a bus falls about once a year. When bits of the Skylab space station (the size of a house) fell onto parts of Western Australia in July 1979, local authorities fined NASA $400 for littering.

I thought I should perhaps check if anything the size of a bus had fallen on London while I was in the cinema watching the glorious founding of the Chinese Communist Party in The Beginning of the Great Revival so I got a London Evening Standard (which is now owned, like the Independent newspaper, by an ex-KGB man).

Its front page news was a story about a boy who had been encouraged to read by the Duchess of Cornwall. I could not find any story anywhere about anyone being killed by a bus from outer space falling on their head so, when I got home, I checked the BBC News channel (no unusual deaths; no mention of death from above) and then checked my e-mails to find one from mad inventor John Ward – designer and fabricator of the highly-prestigious Malcolm Hardee Awards for comedy.

He told me he had been booked by the University of Lincoln to appear on 12th October at something entitled An Eccentric Symposium – Tomato Tomäto.

Among other billed events and speakers at this academic symposium are ‘Project Pigeon’ (“an art and education project that works with pigeons as a vehicle to bring people together”), the World Egg Throwing Championships and a talk on Gender, Exercise and Art by Anthony Schrag, an artist now living in Scotland whose work, according to the University of Lincoln, “focuses on blowing things up, climbing on things and occasionally kidnapping people”.

I could take no more.

I went to bed.

When I woke up this morning, the BBC News channel was reporting that the NASA spacecraft could not be found, but it had passed over the UK twice during the night and was now “the size of a refrigerator”.

They also reported Prime Minister David Cameron’s warning to the world that we live in dangerous economic times.

Fuck the economy. Where is the fridge?

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The greatest mystery in all of China is to be found in a Northwood restaurant

I will be going to see more movies in the China Image Film Festival in London later today.

In round figures, there are 4,000 cinema screens in the UK.

In China – a vastly larger country – there are only 6,000 screens.

But, within the next five years, China will have 20,000 screens and will become the second biggest film industry in the world after the US – larger than India’s Bollywood. In the last year alone, there were 500 films made in China.

I had a meal in a Chinese restaurant in Northwood last night, not far from ’the bunker’, and got home to watch yet more on the BBC News channel about a world economic situation that is barely – or perhaps not – under control. All the ‘advanced’ countries seem to be in debt that will stretch decades into the future.

But China is sitting on vast amounts of money. The irony of a Communist country becoming rich on capitalism.

The last decade was all about China making things but the next decade will be all about China owning things.

Which reminds me of something a history teacher once said as a throwaway line at my school when I was about 13.

He said: “Civilisation and power moves westwards because invading armies have always ridden westwards, following the daylight.”

Trite, of course.

But, in the northern hemisphere, it is roughly true.

At the moment, power is moving from North America to the Pacific Rim (a phrase that always sounds to me like a dubious sexual practice).

What confuses me is that the Chinese are very expansionist of late.

They have been putting money into Africa, especially into very suspect regimes, for a couple of decades. They are building an aircraft carrier or, at least, have refitted a Russian one. They are now investing heavily in the West.

This seems very un-Chinese. The Great Wall was built to keep the uncivilised long-nosed foreign devils out and to preserve the integrity of China which, with quite a lot of justification, looked inward at itself as the only truly civilised place.

Japan was always the regional expansionist power, not China.

Of course, there was the invasion of Tibet in 1949, but that seemed an unfortunate exception to the rule and a knee-jerk reaction after Mao Tse-tung’s Communists took power.

It seems to be very un-Chinese to be expansionist. It is a great mystery.

Though, sitting in a Chinese restaurant in Northwood last night, it was secondary as a mystery in my mind to the greater ongoing mystery of why the Chinese – who, let’s face it,  invented pretty much everything – never invented the teacup handle not the knife-and-fork. And why on earth were chopsticks thought to be a good idea in a nation where the staple diet was and is based around small grains of rice?

Life is a constant mystery.

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