Tag Archives: social

Return from North Korea to China, land of individual freedom & Keanu Reeves

Keanu Reeves’ new movie “Man of Tai Chi” shooting in Beijing

During the night, on the long train trip back to Beijing from Pyongyang, I mention that, since an accident in 1991 in which I was hit by a truck, I have not been able to read books. I can write books, but I cannot read them.

Our English travel agent guide tells me he was recently mugged in the street in Bristol. “They hit me on the back of the head with a baseball bat,” he told me. And roughed me up a bit at the front, too. I have had difficulty reading – and slight speech problems – since then. It’s very frightening when it affects your mind.”

I develop a slight toothache.

As soon as we crossed the bridge over the Yalu River which divides North Korea from China, two smiling strangers (everyone was smiling) separately observed to me how strange it was to feel that entering China was returning to ‘freedom’.

A woman I did not know said to me, smiling: “It’s like a weight has been lifted.”

Somewhere between a station signposted Tanggu and Tianjin city, I noticed there were satellite TV dishes on some of the old, single-storey peasant homes. Not Party buildings, not notable buildings, not in any way rich homes. And occasional clusters of buildings had solar panels on their roofs; possibly communal buildings; impossible to tell.

Then, for mile after mile after mile, a gigantic new elevated road/train track was being built. Make that plural. Over mile upon mile upon continuous mile, new highways, new tower blocks were being built. It is as if the country is building a new city like Milton Keynes every week or a new London Docklands nationwide every few days.

So very different to when I was last here in 1984, 1985 and 1986.

The irony with China is that, in the Cultural Revolution – the Chinese call it the ‘Ten Year Chaos’ – of 1966-1976, the Red Guards wanted to destroy the past, to start from the ‘now’ and build a new society. That now has happened. The irony is that it is not the future they envisaged; it is the future they feared.

Would this giant leap forward have been possible in a country without the unstoppable anti-democratic will and irresistible totalitarian power to push it through? Who knows? But it is an interesting thought/dilemma.

As we arrived at Beijing railway station, someone told me they had seen on BBC World TV that the North Korean satellite launched last week had exploded shortly after launch. Back in North Korea, of course, they will ‘know’ that Satellite 3 was a glorious success and will ‘know’ the giant leaps which their country makes continue to be the envy of the world.

If you live in a self-contained village isolated from all outside knowledge – or, indeed, in The Village in The Prisoner TV series – you know only what you know. There are no known unknowns, only unknown unknowns.

Living standards and social/technological advances are comparative. The North Koreans can see for themselves – they ‘know’ – that their society has advanced in leaps and bounds – from the electricity pylons of the 1980s to – now – mobile telephones and three satellites in space. And they have seen the tributes brought to their leaders by the admiring leaders of other countries.

China – with 7.5% growth per year – is living the advance a stagnant North Korea falsely believes it is making.

In the afternoon, in Beijing, I go into a Bank of China branch. It is in a suburb of the city. The door guard and staff look shocked that a Westerner has wandered into their branch.

I get a ticket to go to the cashier. A recorded message on the loudspeaker tells me when my number – Number 46 – is ready to be dealt with and which cashier to go to. The recorded message is in Chinese… then in English. Like the road signs, the metro signs and many shop signs. It is not just for my benefit. Each customer announcement is made in Chinese… then English.

At the cashier’s desk, facing me, is a little electronic device with three buttons marked in Chinese and in English. By pressing the appropriate button, unseen by the cashier, I can say if her service has been Satisfactory or Average or Dissatisfied.

Welcome to capitalism. Welcome to China 2012.

About half an hour later, near the Novotel and the New World Centre shopping complex, I pass a woman with one eye, begging. Welcome to capitalism. Welcome to China 2012.

Close to a nearby metro entrance, an old grey-haired woman is lying flat on her back, immobile, on the pavement. Beside her, by her head, a middle-aged man, possibly her son, kneels, rocking backwards and forwards, bobbing his head on the pavement, as if in silent Buddhist prayer. A large sheet of paper with Chinese lettering explains their situation. Passers-by drop Yuan notes into a box.

Welcome to China 2012.

At dusk, walking back to my own hotel from a metro station on one of Beijing’s busy, modern ring roads – a 45 minute walk – I see some movie trucks belonging to the China Film Group – dressing rooms, a director’s trailer, equipment vans.

Further along, down a side street, they are shooting second unit photography for a movie called Man of Tai Chi – actor Keanu Reeves’ directorial debut – in an area of grey, old-style, single-storey streets just a 15 second walk off the busy ring road.

In Pyongyang, the North Korean film studios had clearly been doing nothing. But they wanted – they liked – to pretend they have a thriving film industry.

In China, they do.

But they also block Facebook, Twitter and, indeed, this very blog you are reading.

Welcome to China 2012.


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Filed under China, Movies, North Korea

Why I am pissed-off but not pissed

I think the late comedian Malcolm Hardee – never knowingly under-promoted in this blog – felt I was a social misfit deserving of a certain amount of pity because I do not drink, do not smoke, have never taken recreational drugs and never go round talking about my sex life, such as it is.

Of all these, I think the one which most unsettled Malcolm – and unsettles a lot of people I interact with – is the fact I do not drink – well, maybe at births, deaths and marriages where not to drink a toast would be impolite.

A friend of Malcolm told me:

“I didn’t trust you at first because you don’t drink, but now I know you’re a bit on the mad side, so it’s OK.”

One inevitable conclusion people wrongly reach when I tell them I don’t drink is that I must have been an alcoholic at some point.

The first of two explanations, though, is that I never really enjoyed drink.

In my late teens and early twenties, in pubs I drank lager because it was less bitter than… well… bitter. And, in restaurants, I drank red wine. But both were more a social convention I went along with, not a pleasure.

I suspect most people started to drink because it was a social convention. And also because it is an excuse. People say it relaxes them or makes the conversation flow or is a ‘social lubricant’.

What they more often mean is that it gives them an excuse to behave in a way they would otherwise not feel they could behave in. Drink is an excuse to do what you want to do. I never felt that need in the sense that, if I wanted to behave in a certain way, I did.

If I want to tell someone they are a cunt, I tell them. I do not need drink as an excuse.

It is not something I would necessarily recommend socially or in career terms.

But I have never understood the wider psychology of drinking. People say:

“Oh, I had a great night last night. I can’t remember a bloody thing. I passed out.”

I have always thought, when something like this is said:

“Well, if you want to affect your brain to such an extent that it shuts itself down to try to avoid the damage and you think losing consciousness is, in itself, a good thing, then it would be quicker and cheaper to insult a professional boxer and let him punch you in the head for 30 seconds.”

I do not see the attraction of not remembering what happened nor of passing out.

My memory is bad enough already.

As far as I remember, I have only been drunk twice.

The first time was in my parents’ house on Hogmanay. I was OK when I was with people downstairs. But, when I went upstairs to bed, my legs gave way.

The second time I can not clearly remember the trigger, but the result was walking unsteadily home along Haverstock Hill in Hampstead and a searing headache the next morning.

There was one other near-drunk experience one Christmas or New Year when I was making my way home. It was in the early hours of the morning; it was dark; I was alone; there was thick snow on the ground; and the street had sodium street-lighting.

I was sick. My mouth poured out vomit into the snow.

I staggered on a few yards then realised that, in among the diced carrot and assorted foodstuffs and phlegm, I had puked out the tiny pink plastic plate to which were attached my two false teeth.

The sodium street-lighting made all the snow on the ground look orange. My vomit was yellow-orange – made uniform orange by the street-lighting. Everything was the same colour. I could not see my vomit in the snow. I had to go on to my hands and knees, very close to being totally drunk, and move my hands slowly and as carefully as I could through the surface of all the snow on the yards of pavement behind me until I found a patch that was warm and wet, not cold and wet. It took a long time. It took so long my muddled mind was worried that, by the time I found the spot, the warm puke would have cooled to the same temperature as the snow and I would miss the vomit patch.

That, pretty much, is what I think of when I think of getting drunk.

The only drinks I actively like are champagne (drowned in orange juice) and vodka (equally drowned in orange juice).

Two double vodkas (drowned in orange juice) sharpen up my mind; though three double vodkas slow down my mind.

But I do not drink them now.

Which brings us to the second reason I no longer drink.

There was a period when, through happenstance, I ended up working with and sharing a flat with a very bright TV director. He had been in the cream of his Oxbridge year and, twenty or so years earlier, he had been scooped up by a major British TV company along with some other very fine – and later very successful – Oxbridge graduates.

We would sometimes watch University Challenge on TV. Just idly, not showing off, he could answer a high proportion of the questions; I could answer maybe one or two if I was lucky.

What I am saying is that he was a bright cookie.

But he had been drinking socially for about twenty years. He had the sort of job where you almost had to drink socially every day.

He would drink wine at lunchtime; beer after work before going home; and spirits at home in the evening. Sometimes, he would start a sentence and not finish. He might say,

“Of course, I remember when the main…”

…and then drift off then, 30 seconds or a minute or so later, start another unrelated sentence.

His mind was, not to put too fine a point on it, fogged and fucked.

Around the same time, I had professional dealings with the press officer at a major British film distributor. He was the same. He was maybe in his late 30s.

He had obviously been very bright at some point. Maybe in his early 20s. He still was bright. He had obviously had a very sharp brain at some point. But he no longer had a sharp brain. He was a press officer. He had to meet and greet and schmooze and smile and drink day-in, day-out. And it had fogged and fucked his mind.

I decided to stop drinking.

I never much liked beer.

I never much liked white wine (except fizzy champagne drowned in orange juice).

Red wine, to an extent, depressed me.

I did not like spirits (except vodka drowned in orange juice).

So I stopped. I just told everyone I did not drink. They thought it was odd, quirky, downright mad. But that was their problem.

I did try to drink to drown my sorrows over a girl once – straight vodkas in excess. But it was ineffective and expensive. To a logical person brought up a Scots Presbyterian, the first point was a major factor. But perhaps, to a Scot brought up among Jews, the second point was the clincher.

The irony is that I do not drink but I now have a beer belly.

I have never smoked but I now have a smoker’s cough.

So I do not get pissed but I am now pissed-off.

Life. Don’t talk to me about Life.


Filed under Comedy, Psychology

Comedians bitching in the fantastical Gaucho Club at the Edinburgh Fringe

I was talking to someone last week and we thought it might be quite jolly to have a comedians’ club at the Edinburgh Fringe throughout August, catering not for the VIP top-of-the-billers but for the ordinary riff-raff of comedy. But, of course, it’s far too complicated and time-consuming to organise an 18-hour-a-day venue with inevitably essential access to drink.

Oh, alright, it was not so much an idea as a cheap pun.

We thought it might be jolly to have somewhere called the Gaucho Club or the Grouchy Club for comedians at the Fringe – a club for ordinary scum whom London’s Groucho Club would never want to have as members.

You know you’re getting old when you talk about how Glastonbury has changed and remember the ‘good old days’ at the Edinburgh Fringe when, after comedians had performed their shows, they would end up in the bar of the old Gilded Balloon in Cowgate – before it burnt down – where they would drunkenly bitch with others of their ilk while the Late ‘n’ Live show rambled along anarchically on stage.

Now, during August, there are late-night clones of the old Late ‘n’ Live show (including the current Late ‘n’ Live show and Spank!) all over town and late-night performers-only places to schmooze-in like the new Gilded Balloon’s Tower Bar (too-exclusive and somewhat snooty) or Brooke’s Club at the Pleasance Dome (too Pleasance-centric); the Fringe Central building closes too early for any of this and is, in any case, a tad lacking in atmosphere.

Even if you could find an ideal physical location like the ultra-atmospheric Bannerman’s Bar in Cowgate where the likes of Arthur Smith and Malcolm Hardee used to hang out – the timing is difficult.

I once phoned a comedian in London at 4.00pm in the afternoon and he said: “Are you mad? It’s 4 o’clock… I’m still in bed!”

That’s a little extreme but, after a few days at the Edinburgh Fringe, even normally early-to-bed-at-midnight people involved in shows do certainly get into a rough rhythm of perhaps getting to sleep around 3,00 or 4.00am, then getting up around midday.

Midnight would be the best time for a comedians’ club, but lots of them are still performing or seeing shows at that time. Before shows start would be a theoretical possibility – perhaps 11.00am to midday daily.

But, at that time, most comedians are still turning over in bed, groaning, dreaming of getting their first booking on a TV panel game or thinking they really have caught a sexually-transmitted disease this time.

And then there’s the general throng of punters and tourists. You can’t bitch properly if the audience is sitting at the next table in the bar.

So perhaps next year, eh?

A set time and place for comedians and associated hangers-on (among which, of course, I include myself) to meet for a regular schmooze in the Gaucho Club or the Grouchy Club at the Fringe – for a whinge and a bitch.

Or not. Fuck it! Who would turn up?

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Filed under Comedy