‘merikey, again

The blurredup, pseudoreality of the SCT is now reaching endtimes. The grand banquet approaches; final trumpets blare.

It’s been a wondrous few weeks, I reckon—although pretty Hogarthian. I’d arrived imagining some sort of academic Damascene conversion, but have instead spent a good deal of my time languishing down Gin Lane, vomiting in passing buckets, or pizzeria toilets. This isn’t to say that a lot of learning hasn’t gone on (it certainly has—don’t get me started on the primacy of poetic language; I’ll bend the ears right off your face), but more that there has been a pleasing ratio of work to notwork, reading to notreading, sobriety to notquitesobriety. They should probably put this on the posters. But I bet they don’t.

In my time left I still anxiously await two things: 1) feedback on my thesis project from that most eminent of brainboxes, Professor John Brenkman; and 2) my as-yet-undetermined fine from the Ithaca court judge for the terrible crime of illegal swimming. A potential double-whammy of “your project is dross; give up” and “we’ve considered your fine, and have decided to give you The Chair” would certainly be hard to stomach. I’m hoping instead for a shiny red rosette for “Best Boy” and a slap on my Twink (thanks, Tony) wrist from the authorities. As with most things, the truth probably lies somewhere in between these imagined outcomes.

A shortsharp spell in GITMO notwithstanding, though, it’s been a thoroughly de-concealing (ahem) experience in many ways. I have learned, for example, of my moochful attitude towards new acquaintances, who have, given my residence in the arse-end-of-nowhere-town-of-Lansing, been persuaded over time to lend beds, belts, trousers, shoes and even underwear (thanks, Dan) in a continued effort to keep me both clothed and off the streets. I’m essentially living as a parasitoid wasp armed only with an English accent and a voracious appetite for grace and hospitality. In this regard, it’s probably a good thing that we’re winding down the course. I’m no entomologist, but I seem to remember that in the lifecycle of the parasite it doesn’t end too great for the unwitting host.

What I’ve offered in return is open to question. I would like to think, of course, that dazzling conversation, wit and joie de vivre serve adequately as currency. But I think it’s far more likely that my role here has been one of accent punchbag (in the nicest possible sense). So if—and this is a real if—I’ve brought anything to the table here at all, it’s probably a heightened appreciation of the humble glottal stop. To my credit (and surprise), I’ve so far resisted the temptation to up the ante and Bill Sikes my way round town like some cock-er-ney chimneysweep. Perhaps in the coming days this will change.

Other than all this, my time here has been spent lurching, bathed in coffee and cyclesweat, from seminar to lecture and from miniseminar to colloquium—all of which, the seminar excluded, have been slightly hit-and-miss affairs, but certainly worthwhile, and often (unexpectedly) entertaining. Reading in the inbetween has been a bit of a challenge what with the everpresent possibility of groupbased distractions, but I’m glad to say that my too.cool.for.school, selfprepared reading packs have been (almost) totally devoured, brainwise. Just a couple of Heidegger essays and some Eliot poetry to plough through, and then I can (figuratively, probably) throw the things into a burning lake of hellfire.

It’s going to be a sad occasion on Thursday when we all have to say goodbye. Sad and very probably socially awkward, given that it’s a vague “banquet”-style event for which we’re supposed to make ourselves look presentable. We had a Garden Party a few weeks ago which came with similarly equivocal instructions on attire, meaning that whilst some people rolled up dressed for the beach, I looked like a fucking waiter. I was pretty overdressed, too, for the awful, fratboy-gunshow, topless-wrestling tourney I was unfortunate enough to witness, but perhaps more on that another day …

‘merikey, so far

Within just a few hours of landing in New York I was sitting in Prospect Park in Brooklyn, eating an overpriced ‘eggplant’ (read: aubergine) burger, and enjoying some low-priced festival music as part of the ‘Celebrate Brooklyn’ summer series. Willy Mason was first up, Masoning his way about the place, followed then by some British guy called Michael Kiwanuka, a singer with a truly remarkable voice but slightly less remarkable songs. Unfortunately for me this hipsterglow was tarnished slightly through spending most of my time sitting in isolation as gangs of happyfolk caroused about me like smiling helium balloons tethered to fashionable paint cans. And as the sun set I began to feel increasingly like a tourist in a dominion of knowingfolk chatting their knowingtalk of knownboroughs and knownpeople. Still, not a bad introduction to a city of which I had unreasonably high hopes …

The rest of my shortlived Brooklyn-life was spent largely under the influence of good booze and better company, punctuated by a seatofthe’pants’ (read: trousers) ‘soccer’ (read: football) game in which England managed, daringly, to beat a pretty mediocre Sweden team and get a nation’s hopes up for no reason. Most pleasing, though, in this regard, was the Hasidic Jew sat opposite me in the pub during the match—that really was some high-five.

Then it was off to Ithaca on the Greyhound Bus, amidst mild passenger fury, but, alas, no beheadings.

Ithaca is deadlyquiet. I’d never realised quite how much noise my own ears make. The whole place is lakes and trees and hills and waterfalls, with some land in between, holding everything up. That’s about the best I can do so far. I’ve only really been to the supermarket and the university, both of which are vast and a bit scary, and more expensive than I thought they would be. 1 x bag of onions: $3.99! I’ll let you decide which that relates to.

Otherwise, my seminar proper starts tomorrow morning at 9.30 a.m., and having now met the majority of my fellow SCT goers, all my fears and apprehensions appear well-founded. These guys both know and, possibly, pretend to know, a great deal of effing stuff about stuff. And they talk very quickly about it all. One girl in particular spoke as if she was disappearing over an event horizon. I caught about every four words. I think she was talking about gays.

I fully expect to be outgunned on the academic front anyway, so I’ll maybe try to develop a series of endearing and ostentatious gimmicks by way of distraction and feint. It’s all about hiding in plain sight. Now where are my bowling shoes and L.E.D. cravatte?

Syntaxless BKK

NHS spectacles, unwashed moustaches, men of the register; the paedo-sheek of Hoxton Square wrought citywide. sleazy wheezies at the ATM: phlumk, bounce, bounce … bounce. phlumk, bouncebounce. The Drain of the World. “See, it’s real!” Ladies and gentlemen, please: drinkupquick, nothing to see here. click, pfffsssssssst! KNO3s and paps, mammas and pappas; cashslaps and slappers. just drinkupquick. pop! Shweeeee … pussyclubsoda bills and beaks.          bye.

Beijing (Part 2)

City histories

Walking the city

In The Practice of Everyday Life, Michel de Certeau says that to walk in a city is to subvert the authority of the dominant, organising forces of government. By walking the streets of the city, he argues, the pedestrian takes shortcuts to create personalised and individuated routes outside of the official cartography, thus re-appropriating the rules and products of authority to promote personal agency. Try that in Beijing, Michel.

With roads that stretch twelve lanes across, a pedestrian crossing system that defies any logical explanation, and some of the most impatient taxi drivers I’ve ever encountered, to walk in Beijing is to risk your life. Even in the hutongs (residential areas of city characterised by narrow, labyrinthine lanes), cars bustle pedestrians out of the way with impatient pips of the horn and a too-close-for-comfort driving style that borders on the sadistic. Once you’re out onto the arterial highways that course through the city, pedestrians all but disappear (or become invisible to motorists, at least), which pretty much leaves the pedestrian with one option: to hail their own Mad Max-cum-Robert de Niro cab driver and go marauding down a side street.

I imagine that strolling slowly through the lanes of Monmartre (baguette in hand) does invigorate the soul somewhat, but were Michel to get up to such idle philosophising in Guo Zi Jian Street he’d most likely get his kneecaps spacked off by a passing motorbike.

Jingshan Park

This isn’t to say, however, that the residents of Beijing billow about in cars all day like, to quote Stephen Fry, ‘bin bags full of yoghurt’. It’s true that obesity is on the rise in China, with rates as high as 20% in some cities, and that China, like the rest of Far East Asia, has an unhealthy attitude towards McDonald’s, KFC and many other shit-merchant fast-food chains, but you only need to visit one of the many public parks in Beijing to realise that, in the capital at least, the population is far from slovenly.

We were lucky enough to be staying very close to one of these public spaces—a beautifully presented, green little number called Jingshan park, which is situated just to the north of the Forbidden City—so we were able to witness the ‘enlivening’ of Beijing’s populace first hand. We arrived at around 10 a.m., and the park—which consists of a variety of squares, gardens and trees organised around a pagoda-topped hill—was already teeming with for-joy-of-it activity.

In fact, it was a little overwhelming: there was singing, dancing, skipping, playing, writing, twirling, whirling and orating; there were the ancient, the aging, the youthful and the young; there were tourists, tourers and locals; there were showmen, cheerers, gazers and partakers; there were teachers and students, performers and applauders; there was talent, practice and hard work; there was tradition, vibrancy and cultural heritage.

And it was all happening at that moment, in togetherness, as one, for us, and everyone else. And I can honestly say that I would have happily stayed there forever.

Of all the social activities, though, it was the storytelling and poetry recitals that stayed with me the most. Here were aurally transmitted narratives—enhanced, modified and, no doubt, edited through generations of telling and re-telling—that were finding a receptive audience in the heart of Beijing. By listening to these stories, people could take part in the narratives as they unfolded, assuming a role beyond that of audience members to become characters, orators and authors of a shared social heritage. And as we finally left Jingshan Park and crossed the road to the imposing entrance of the Forbidden City—a cultural monument that makes no secret of its past exclusivity—it became clear just how important the preservation of such social histories can be.

The Forbidden City

Since opening its doors to the public in 1925, the Forbidden City has become a world-famous tourist attraction and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, which has kind of transformed the place from a symbol of imperial extravagance into a beautiful repository of jabbering idiots. Coachloads of tourers zip about the place like wasps wearing backpacks, and every opportunity to look inside one of the buildings involves wrestling with gangs of DSLRs all vying for position atop outstretched arms.

That said, however, the vastness of the place is truly impressive, as is the intricate detail of the craftsmanship on every eave, tile and doorway. A great many talented and unhappy people must have toiled away their lives to construct such a work of art. (Which is true, I suppose, of many of the man-made UNESCO World Heritage Sites. I doubt there were many smiling labourers on site at Machu Picchu, for example, and I don’t suppose knocking together The Sphinx was a barrel of laughs, but that doesn’t mean that one shouldn’t be awed by the fact that these things were put together by human hands so many years ago.) That the Forbidden City came to represent the stratification, exclusivity and decadence of Chinese imperial rule doesn’t stop it from being a luvverly bunch of buildings.

Tian’anmen and Tian’anmen Square

The same cannot be said, though, of Tian’anmen Square, which, belying its historical significance (or maybe in testament to it), is rather grey and plain, and as we walked through Tian’anmen and out onto the infamous square (via a security check), it was easy to see the difference between the old, dynastic Beijing and the new Beijing of political posturing and military might.

The buildings surrounding the Square are like many you find in the redeveloped areas of Beijing, i.e. enormous, symmetrical cuboids—a design that lends itself nicely to orchestrated displays of military prowess. In fact—and I have no idea whether this is an established architectural term or not—much of what’s in and around Tian’anmen Square could be classified as ‘power architecture’. These buildings (and the people within them), the brickwork says, aren’t to be mucked about with.

There were folks, of course, during the 1989 Tian’anmen Square protests (known more popularly as the Tian’anmen Square massacre) that did decide to ‘muck about’ with the authorities, and the ghosts of that traumatic history certainly linger. Despite the crowds, despite the noise and despite the traffic, there is a screaming silence of things unsaid: a disavowal on the part of Chinese government officials; a rejection, a rubbing out. That I could have been standing next to someone on Tianan’men Square who knew none of the details of that terrible event—someone who perhaps knew it more euphemistically as the Tianan’men Square ‘incident’—just shows the incredibly pervasive power that a paranoid, controlling government can wield. And also proves that as important as the Forbidden City and Tianan’men Square are to Beijing, it’s the socially constructed cultural histories of Jingshan Park that have the most resonance for the people who actually live there.

798 Art District

Similarly important, I would argue, is the 798 Art District—a rejuvenated factory complex that’s now home to numerous gallery spaces, workshops, studios, cafes and boutiques. Apparently its burgeoning popularity has seen many of its original tenants (proper poor artists, like) forced out by larger, more commercial galleries and artists, which is a shame, but somewhat inevitable, and it certainly doesn’t detract from what is a truly original and exciting idea to foster creativity in the city. If those that were ejected are able to establish another artistic community elsewhere, which they are apparently aiming to do, then the Beijing art scene seems to be in pretty safe hands.

The district itself really brought to mind the area around the old Truman Brewery in East London (the 798 factory has a touch of the brewery about it, in fact), which is similarly engaging, creative and forward looking (if rather more self-aware and pretentious). Both have at their heart the renovation and re-purposing of abandoned or derelict buildings to provide arenas for the public to engage with creative, artistic endeavour, and while it’s undoubtedly true that many parts of Brick Lane have been hijacked by a bunch of angular wallies, the 798 Art District has, for the time being at least, retained a tangible atmosphere of independence and free thinking.

The only depressing thing about it is that such a factory complex in Hong Kong would have been torn down and replaced with a corporate headquarters in the time it takes to wash a brush.

Beijing (Part 1)

I visited Beijing (and China) for the first time over the Easter holidays, and have since been trying to write some stuff down about the trip. Unfortunately though—and perhaps predictably, given how much I loved the place—what started as a cursory travelogue-type-thing has very quickly turned into an essay-length word-splurge. Under advisement, then, and for my own sanity, I have decided to split what’s finished of this snaking beggar into more graspable chunks …

~ ~ ~

Impressions

Pre-impressions

The portrayal of China—or, perhaps more accurately, the Chinese government—as a shadowy, secretive and somehow malevolent force has been a mainstay of the British media for some years now. Even when a report may at first glance seem positive—‘China’s anti-piracy role off Somalia expands’ (BBC)—the body copy is often infused with distrustful language that hints at ever-present ulterior motives. The headline just mentioned, for example, which refers to China joining the allied naval forces in the fight against Somalian piracy, is expanded upon in the main body of the story with the following detractions:

  • The agreement also allows China to take on the rotating chairmanship of the naval task force that coordinates patrols.
  • China is believed to be interested in raising its participation in the anti-piracy drive partly because one of its ships was hijacked last October.
  • Analysts say China is also eager to extend its naval reach beyond its shores.

Looked at in unison, these statements paint a fairly clear picture of intent: China has changed its stance out of economic self-interest, military expansionism and, as hinted at in the first bullet-point, a desire to control the allied forces in the area (with god-knows-what nefarious aims). Interestingly, the story then goes on to explain how Chinese state media are twisting events through their own news channels by claiming a ‘central’ and leadership’ role in an ‘important international operation’, which in a fairly neat way works to confirm our suspicions about the Chinese government (after all, they lie to their own citizens), whilst simultaneously presenting the BBC as unquestionably impartial.

I should add—although I hope this isn’t really necessary—that none of the above should be interpreted as me showing support for the Chinese government, or, for that matter, suggesting that the suspicion shown by much of the media in the UK and elsewhere is somehow unfounded. I’m pretty sure it’s not. Instead, it’s supposed to illustrate that through being relentlessly (and one-sidedly) reminded, whether explicitly or implicitly, of China’s threat to international relations and world prosperity, a certain preconception of China—the place, the people, the state—is bound to manifest itself.

My first trip to China, then—to conclude this lengthy and circuitous introduction that got away from me a bit—was in some sense a journey to an expectation. I had an idea of the country long before I’d arrived—an idea that, whether valid or not, was to be continually challenged and undermined by the history, people and atmosphere of Beijing.

First impressions

In many ways, though, stepping from the plane into Terminal 3 of Beijing Capital Airport confirmed my preconceptions (and, in a strange way, reminded me of England). Banks of security cameras, utterly conspicuous in both positioning and number, scan your every move through the health check, immigration and baggage reclaim sections of the airport. It’s said that there are an estimated 4,200,000 CCTV cameras in the UK (discounting any operated privately in shops or offices), but I would argue that Beijing is up there with London in terms of cameras per capita. From the airport to the train station to the city itself, they hang from streetlights and buildings like bats in a cave. When we finally arrived at our hotel and switched on the television, all we could get was the state-run service called, coincidentally, CCTV (China Central Television). Never has a TV looked so much like an Orwellian telescreen.

But then this was just the first night; my impression of China was still being coloured by years of negative press (as well as a rather brusque immigration check by a seemingly catatonic border control officer). The city itself, doing little to allay my skittishness, was dark and cold, and slightly intimidating in its desertedness. As we rounded the corner and began walking down the road to our hotel, I caught sight of a figure sitting on a set of steps leading up to a doorway. Their head was down, huddled in against the cold, and they were wearing a greatcoat and an ushanka. These were my first impressions.

Friends as family and family as friends

So, after an all-too-brief whirlwind visit to the UK—bursting with friends, family and much imbibing—it’s with excitement that I head back to the warm(er) embrace of Hong Kong to see in the year of 2010.

It’s been great. Catching up with old friends—or, more accurately, reminiscing with them—is always a joy, and more often than not, as we sit locked in chatter and huddled round pint glasses, it’s as if I never even left home. Linked by a shared heritage, the same things still make us laugh, make us long and make us cringe, and I believe now, perhaps more than ever, that this will always be so. A more comforting thought I can scarcely imagine.

But from the cherished old to the darling new I go. And to my family: ballooning ever outwards into youthfulness with the passing of time. From son to brother to uncle I have travelled, as new shoots—seen far, far too fleetingly—creep and toddle ever onwards into smiles and words. My uncledom is such a quick little pleasure—diaphanous, almost—but so worthwhile, so very strong.

For these relationships to transcend the turbulence of emigration is a wonderful thing, suggesting as it does roots that supercede routes.

The rhizome of family and friends. The rhiz-home, if you like.

A special feat.

But now, as I say, it’s back to Hong Kong, where the feat must be repeated.