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My freelance writing can now be found at mikeatkinson.wordpress.com.
Recently: VV Brown, Alabama 3, Just Jack, Phantom Band, Frankmusik, Twilight Sad, Slaid Cleaves, Alesha Dixon, Bellowhead, The Unthanks, Dizzee Rascal.
On Thursday September 17th, I danced on the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square.
Click here to watch, and here to listen.
Friday, December 30, 2005
Christmas Day in Hangzhou.
Oh, hang on! I omitted an important element from my blow-by-blow description of last Saturday (see below). After dinner in the Jingle Bells Water Torture restaurant, J and I wandered round the corner and found a bustling little night market - complete with a lengthy strip of street stalls selling all manner of interesting looking hot food, which ran the full gamut from mouth-watering to deeply disturbing. Vows were made to return for the full experience; when this eventually happens, I'll write it up.
Christmas Day, then.
Opened K's presents: a lovely Paul Smith tie, and - as tradition dictates - four shortlisted CDs from the forthcoming Radio 3 World Music Awards, only one of which I had heard of before. Felt a sudden lurch of intense homesickness. Resolved not to give into it.
Left J still asleep at 14:00, and caught the 81 bus back to the north shore of the lake, alighting a mile or so earlier this time. Beautiful warm sunny day, in stark contrast to the freezing cold week; within 30 minutes, I was down to shirtsleeves.
Crossed a bridge over to a large island, and walked along its shore, past brides and grooms posing for photos in the most delightfully cheesy manner: the grooms in white tuxes, gallantly kissing the outstretched hands of their Proper Little Princess brides. In front of them, photographers' assistants crouched on the ground with reflective panels, shining light back onto the bridal veils in order to create translucent "dappled" effects.
Continued walking... past scores of small boats, offering rides around the lake for fairly paltry sums... and onto a long causeway, packed with Sunday afternoon strollers. Smartly dressed urban types; hicks from up country, standing out a mile in their ill-fitting "Sunday best"; and hundreds of pairs of slightly shy young lovers, the boyfriends forever snapping their girlfriends in the full approved range of stock pouts and poses.
Ended up near the massive Hyatt Hotel on the east shore, in the heart of the downtown district, where I merged into the crowd in front of The Most Massive And Gobsmacking Fountain Ever. Actually, "fountain" doesn't do it justice - this was more of a kinetic water sculpture, with hundreds of jets spurting out, in constantly varying heights, in synchronisation to an amplified soundtrack of light classics and Chinese pop ballads. Yes, it was cheesy. Yes, it was wonderful.
Back to the flat, where J is still in bed after fourteen hours. Wake him up, so that we can get ourselves down to The Shamrock in time for Christmas dinner at 18:00. Family phonecalls in the taxi en route.
Dinner places are laid out on long trestle tables, down the full extent of the ground floor bar area. Nine of us from the company eat together: four Brit blokes, and five Chinese girlies from P and C's team. It's yer Full English: soup and rolls, mulled wine, and then we all form a queue for roast turkey with all the trimmings.
Shuffling my way forward in the long queue, I experience another sudden, violent lurch downwards. Everything here is perfectly lovely - as lovely as could be expected, if not lovelier - but I badly do NOT want to be here anymore. Ach, bloody Christmas; it messes with your head. Buggered if I'm going to let it show, though. Mask on, smile fixed, I proceed to Make The Best Of The Situation.
At the end of the meal, R gets some party games going; I volunteer, and find myself trying to tear a sheet of paper into the shape of a Christmas tree, while holding the paper behind my back. Hint: fold the paper in half first. But lengthways, not widthways, as I did - thus producing a rather nice, if irrelevant, Olde English oak tree.
The Chinese girlies are getting restless, and want to move on. There's a strong lobby for the SOS nightclub, but it's still too early. Others - headed by a stylish young miss with a yen for crooning her party piece, Seal's "Kiss From A Rose" - want to go to a karaoke bar. Everyone looks to P the English team leader - but he's, well, in an advanced state of lubrication. In the nicest possible way: he's still great value, and the very soul of generosity, but possibly not best placed for strategic decision-making. As for me, I feel bad about slinking away from The Shamrock so early - but not for me to argue, best go with the flow, etc.
An increasingly bizarre, mystifying, random evening starts to unfold. Pure "Lost In Translation", as we spill in and out of taxis, careering round the city in a mad sequence of long journeys, nobody quite certain of what's going on, bright lights flashing past all the while, car parks, glittering lobbies, FULL signs, huddles, conferences, more taxi rides, bright lights, car parks, snow machines covering us in detergent foam, cash desks, money crises, mad taxi dashes to cashpoint machines, shoving coats in black plastic sacks...
...and somehow, an hour and a half later, we're inside the SOS club, being handed plastic bags by an army of Santas, each bag containing a teeny-tiny orange "ringer tee", as they call them over the pond, and Yet Another F***ing Santa Hat Yeah Thanks For Nothing You Must Be F***ing Kidding Pal.
The SOS is large, and glossy, and bewildering, and ruinously expensive, and uncomfortable in an angular way, and full of the haughty young rich, a-preening and a-posing in The Place To Be. The intention is possibly to re-create an Ibiza superclub, such as Pacha or Privilege. It's sort-of successful; I hated those clubs ten years ago, and I hate this club now.
We try to sit at a table, but are informed that it will cost us 800 (around 55 quid, astronomic by Chinese prices) for the privilege. Bloody cheek. We'll stand on the stairs in the main room instead, necking Bud Ices and enduring the crap R&B.
A couple of the girlies look completely fed up by now; heads bowed, coats on one arm, goodie bags in the other. A couple of the others are still making the best of the situation, bopping around with P the English team leader. It's a sweet dynamic; he's genially trashed, and they're almost mothering him, waggling their figures, skittishly scolding, sharing the joke. P's Angels. Ah, bless.
Suddenly, the vast projection screens behind the DJ booth dissolve, revealing an illuminated "Celebrity Squares" grid behind. The grid quickly fills with rather sulky girl and boy go-go dancers, in skimpy Santa costumes, disconsolately gyrating to the strains of - I kid you not - a gangsta rap version of "Jingle Bells". Oooo-KAY. I text K: "You're not going to believe this, but..."
Time passes. The room fills up. The music switches to chunky, bouncy techno. Ooh, much more like it. We can work with this. Now we're all bopping on the steps, throwing shapes, laughing away. Every now and again, a curveball is thrown into the mix: a banging choon dissolves into a romantic karaoke ballad, then lurches back into the same chugging riff as before. The sound system is superb, the lasers are wild. We leave the club just as the overhead gymnastic display commences.
I've not experienced a single downwards lurch since.
Troubled Diva's Favourite Albums Of 2005.
As with the singles, I've awarded my #1 slot to the album which has given me (and K) the most enjoyment in 2005 - and their live show is dynamite as well. In fact, the only gig I saw this year which surpassed Amadou & Mariam was the artist at #2, the incomparable Rufus Wainwright. Madonna damn nearly swung it this year, but I've decided to value songcraft and musicianship above impact and spectacle. Wow, must be growing up at last...
1 Dimanche à Bamako - Amadou & Mariam
2 Want Two - Rufus Wainwright
3 Confessions on a Dance Floor - Madonna
4 Chavez Ravine - Ry Cooder
5 I Am A Bird Now - Antony & The Johnsons
6 Tender Buttons - Broadcast
7 Coles Corner - Richard Hawley
8 Orientation - Thione Seck
9 Kongo Magni - Boubacar Traore
10 Echu Mingua - Miguel 'Anga' Diaz
11 Held on the Tips of Fingers - Polar Bear
12 Funeral - Arcade Fire
13 Back To Mine - (mixed by) Pet Shop Boys
14 Ruby Blue - Roisin Murphy
15 M'bemba - Salif Keita
16 '64 - '95 - Lemon Jelly
17 Lindstrøm & Prins Thomas - Lindstrøm & Prins Thomas
18 Illinoise - Sufjan Stevens
19 Supernature - Goldfrapp
20 Ceasefire - Emmanuel Jal & Abdel Gadir Salim
21 Some Cities - Doves
22 Stars Of CCTV - Hard-Fi
23 Introducing Daby Balde - Daby Balde
24 OK Cowboy - Vitalic
25 Plat Du Jour - Matthew Herbert
26 A Certain Trigger - Maxïmo Park
27 Cru - Seu Jorge
28 The Magic Numbers - The Magic Numbers
29 Love Songs of the Hanging Gardens - Kelley Polar
30 Feels - Animal Collective
31 How to Kill the DJ Vol.2 - (mixed by) Optimo
32 Clor - Clor
33 The Understanding - Röyksopp
34 Noah's Ark - Cocorosie
35 Multiply - Jamie Lidell
36 In the Heart of the Moon - Ali Farka Toure & Toumani Diabate
37 Get Behind Me Satan - White Stripes
38 Kitty Jay - Seth Lakeman
39 You Could Have It So Much Better - Franz Ferdinand
40 Come And Get It - Rachel Stevens
Delayed but played:
1 Amassakoul - Tinariwen
2 Bamba - Orchestra Baobab
3 Lagrimas Negras - Bebo & Cigala
4 The Art and Soul of the Mande Griots - Mandekalou
5 The Futureheads - The Futureheads
6 Tarefero De Mis Pagos - Chango Spasiuk
7 Kerrier District - Kerrier District
8 Legends of East Africa - Orchestra Makassy
9 The Rough Guide To Franco - Franco
10 Love Angel Music Baby - Gwen Stefani
11 Tekitoi - Rachid Taha
12 Buena Vista Social Club Presents... - Manuel 'Guajiro' Mirabal
13 Let It Die - Feist
14 The Living Road - Lhasa
15 Deb - Souad Massi
16 Seadrum/House Of Sun - Boredoms
17 Unclassics - (compiled by) Morgan Geist
18 Boomerang - Daara J
Troubled Diva's Favourite Singles Of 2005.
I'm particularly struck by the concentration of material from the second quarter of the year, which - perhaps not surprisingly - more or less coincides with my spell on the Stylus Singles Jukebox. That aside, there did seem to be a sharp reduction in decent new releases towards the end of the year. Choosing a #1 was difficult, but I've opted for the song which I've consistently enjoyed the most over the last few months, and the song which I'm most likely to remember 2005 by. Finally, those of you who have known me a long time may well be gobsmacked by the appearance at #3 of an act who have always left me cold...
1 Hard To Beat - Hard-Fi
2 Side Streets - Saint Etienne
3 Sometimes You Can't Make It On Your Own - U2
4 I Bet You Look Good On The Dancefloor - Arctic Monkeys
5 Hope There's Someone - Antony & The Johnsons
6 Negotiate With Love - Rachel Stevens
7 Oh My Gosh - Basement Jaxx
8 Signs - Snoop Dogg ft Justin Timberlake
9 Hung Up - Madonna
10 Ooh La La - Goldfrapp
11 Do You Want To - Franz Ferdinand
12 Appropriation (By Any Other Name) - The Long Blondes
13 1 Thing - Amerie
14 In My Arms - Mylo
15 Push The Button - Sugababes
16 Be Mine - Robyn
17 Only U - Ashanti
18 Stay With You - Lemon Jelly
19 Goodies - Ciara ft Petey Pablo
20 Black & White Town - Doves
21 My Friend Dario - Vitalic
22 Hounds Of Love - The Futureheads
23 So Much Love To Give - The Freeloaders ft The Real Thing
24 Giving You Up - Kylie Minogue
25 Avalon - Juliet
26 What Else Is There? - Röyksopp
27 Je Hebt Me Duizend Maal Belogen - Laura Lynn
28 Graffiti - Maxïmo Park
29 Juicebox - The Strokes
30 The One You Love - Rufus Wainwright
31 Taste The Last Girl - Sons And Daughters
32 Crazy All The Time - 33hz
33 Emily Kane - Art Brut
34 Give It - X-Press 2 ft Kurt Wagner
35 We Belong Together - Mariah Carey
36 Love's A Game - Magic Numbers
37 You Are My Sister - Antony & The Johnsons
38 Fallen Leaves - Teenage Fanclub
39 Love And Pain - Clor
40 Love Is A Deserter - The Kills
41 22: The Death Of All The Romance - The Dears
42 Grass - Animal Collective
43 It's A Hit - Rilo Kiley
44 Make Things Right - Lemon Jelly
45 Random - Lady Sovereign
46 Lose Control - Missy Elliott
47 Hollaback Girl - Gwen Stefani
48 It's Like That - Mariah Carey
49 Decent Days & Nights - The Futureheads
50 Love Me Like You - Magic Numbers
51 Join Me In The Park - Nathalie Nordnes
52 Tied Up Too Tight - Hard-Fi
53 Biology - Girls Aloud
54 Don't Cha - Tori Alamaze
55 I Said Never Again (But Here We Are) - Rachel Stevens
56 Angel Eyes - Raghav
57 Long Hot Summer - Girls Aloud
58 Number 1 - Goldfrapp
59 Harvey Nicks - The Mitchell Brothers ft Sway
60 Wait And See - Tiefschwarz ft Chikinki
61 L.i.p.s.t.i.c.k. - Ralph Myerz & The Jack Herren Band
62 Itch U Can't Skratch - Junior Senior
63 Changes - Tahiti 80
64 Blue Orchid - White Stripes
65 It Ended On An Oily Stage - British Sea Power
66 Switch It On - Will Young
67 Crazy Chick - Charlotte Church
68 Believe - Chemical Brothers ft Kele Okereke
69 Chicken Payback - The Bees
70 Wake Me Up - Girls Aloud
71 So Good - Rachel Stevens
72 No Sleep Tonight - The Faders
73 Future - Cut Copy
74 Since U Been Gone - Kelly Clarkson
75 Love Is An Unfamiliar Name - The Duke Spirit
76 1-2-Step - Ciara ft Missy Elliott
77 Snowden - Doves
78 Lazer Beam - Super Furry Animals
79 Jacques Your Body (Make Me Sweat) - Les Rythmes Digitales
80 Move In My Direction - Bananarama
Wednesday, December 28, 2005
Best day yet, Part 2.
Compared to the timid week I've had so far, catching a Real Life Chinese Bus feels like the height of adventure. With no way of verifying that the 81 route does definitely take us to the lake, I try and plot our journey on the tiny little map from the official city guidebook. Our fellow bus travellers don't bat an eyelid at the unusual sight of two tallish Westerners on the north-west edge of town, opting to share their transport rather than zoom around in taxis.
Westerners are rare creatures in this city - I've walked past no more than one or two others all week - and yet I have been pleasantly surprised by my general lack of Curiosity Value. Almost nobody stares, and - aside from one elderly woman near The Shamrock, working the same short strip with her begging bowl every night - nobody hassles us either. It's like we're invisible. Or perhaps people are just too polite to gawp.
After the bus has traced most of the lake's north shore, we alight on the east side, near the main downtown area, and soon find ourselves wandering along a loose network of winding paths: sympathetically restored, neatly maintained and pleasantly landscaped. Visibility out over the water is poor - we can't see the far side at all - but it's good to get a glimpse of Hangzhou's major tourist attraction at last.
We stop at one of the more reasonably priced tea shops, where rambunctious family groups are Mah-Jongg at the tables. Who would have thought that such a dainty parlour game could inspire so much laughter and noise? Our tea is so leaf-heavy that it takes an age to settle, and even then we're forever extracting chunks of half-digested cud from our mouths. Hell of a kick to it, mind - an hour later, and I'm still buzzing.
J and I fall into animated conversation. We're different in many ways - but it's an invigorating difference, and we share a similarly skewed take on the world. This is is going to go well. J speaks a little conversational Mandarin, and starts to teach me a few basic words. But not, alas, the word for "toilet" - my "washy hands" mime causes the tea shop cleaner to convulse in hysterics the moment my back is turned.
"Tsi zwor". OK, got that. Shan't be forgetting in a hurry, either.
In the taxi back to the flat, our driver is yakking ten to the dozen to J, who is making all sorts of authentic sounding noises in response. Wow, impressed.
"Mike, can you start talking to me quick. This guy won't shut up. I think he's trying to get me a woman."
A quick shower later, and we're in another taxi, speeding back across town to The Shamrock. Trouble with this city: everything's a 20 to 30 minute drive away. Nothing much to do near the flat, unless shopping malls, smart furniture shops and plush but miserable lounge-bar cafés are your bag.
We alight at The Shamrock and head for the strip of restaurants round the corner. I opt for the large place that R from The Shamrock took me to on Thursday. Like everywhere else, it has been Christmassed up to the max, with the obligatory, ubiquitous Santa hats on the heads of all the staff. This would be OK, were it not for the loud Chinese disco-pop version of "Jingle Bells" that plays on a loop, all the way through the meal. And I do mean ALL the way through the meal. Chinese water torture had nothing on this.
We're in The Shamrock by 9pm, "just for a drink or two" as J has barely slept all weekend. However, company tradition dictates that I bring him down here, in order to "drink through" his jetlag. Just one or two, then. We pull up stools at the corner of the bar, next to R's base of social operations. Hostess with the mostest. She's a character and a half, that one. Love her to bits.
I've remembered to bring the Double Decker bar which I promised R over our introductory dinner on Thursday, "as a token of my esteem". (I think it was at that precise moment that she decided she liked me.) She's ecstatic; they're her favourites, and she hasn't had one in months. We discuss how best to savour it; R decides to eat half now, and half on Christmas Day. Spread the pleasure. Tonight's half is consumed slowly, ceremoniously, and amidst general celebration from the increasingly lubricated throng at the bar.
The Shamrock isn't one of those sorts of ex-pat bar. You know: the ones where jumped up petty officers of the New Asian Economy strut round like they own the place, dissing the shifty locals and their strange ways. R says that if anyone like that comes in here, she chucks them out on their f***ing ears. Instead, there's a healthy mix of East and West, with tables of Chinese merry-makers rattling yellow plastic dice buckets all over the shop.
I keep checking back on J's progress. Not wishing my lonely first few days in Hangzhou on anyone, I see it as my personal mission to ensure that his first few hours here are memorable ones. Yay, he's loving it, chatting to all and sundry as The Pogues' "Fairytale Of New York" blasts through the sound system for the umpteenth time. Tune of the trip - along with U2's "Sometimes You Can't Make It On Your Own", which nearly had me in tears on two occasions during the week.
Bloody hell, it's 2 o'clock in the frigging morning. How the hell did that happen? God knows how many litre jars of Carlsberg I've knocked back, but I'm still just the right side of legless. Farewells all round - see you all back here tomorrow for Christmas dinner, OK? - and it's taxi, crash in front of fifty-channels-of-crap Chinese telly, bed, oblivion.
Best day yet. The Hangzhou experience starts here, folks.
(The latter part of this post was bashed out under the influence of the trippy Korean twigs from the restaurant near the office, about an hour and a half ago. Well, how were we supposed to know that they were trippy? Or indeed twigs? They looked harmless enough on the laminated picture menu. You can end up with anything in this place. It's part of its charm.)
Tuesday, December 27, 2005
Best day yet, Part 1.
How strange that, even in the absence of any public holidays, I should still be experiencing something of that characteristic bloated lethargy which descends in the immediate aftermath of Christmas. It must be an automatic seasonal response, which has been hard-wired into my system. Still, let's rewind and recap the last few days, here in sunny/smoggy Hangzhou (delete as appropriate).
Saturday morning saw me back in the office, interviewing a candidate who had come over from Shanghai especially to see me. A personable young chap, who gave me my favourite answer to date.
Me: Could you tell me about your outside interests?
Him: Yes! I like watching movies - English movies. I watch between seven and ten English movies a week!
Me: What kind of movies do you like best?
Him: I like Hugh Grant... Nicholas Cage... and Brad Pitt. Because they are all very handsome! And very good!
At which point he flashed me his biggest and brightest smile, while I tried not to flush too violent a shade of puce. My God, am I that obvious?
This is what we call "taking a calculated risk".
Bouncing out of the office an hour later, still with a smile on my face, I head over to 5th Avenue for lunch. This is a large, comfortably appointed restaurant on the same block, with an English language version of the menu, much favoured by our genial English office manager - and by JP, who bequeathed me his VIP discount card on his return to the UK.
Not that discounts are really here or there; provided our expenses don't exceed a hundred quid a week (and believe me, you'd struggle to spend more), we can claim back all of our living costs on production of the all-important fa piao tax receipts. (Simple bills and till receipts aren't enough; you have to make a special request for a fa piao when you pay.)
This lunchtime, 5th Avenue decide to add a soup and a simple salad to my order. Mine not to question why. I simply accept and enjoy them without further quibble. OK, so I'm charged extra for them at the end - but it's only pennies, and I'm not about to waste my energies in attempting to dispute the bill. Especially since none of the staff speak English. It could be a rip-off - but it could just as easily be a cock-up, or even a whim. Frankly, as in so many situations over here, further speculation is fruitless. Try and seek a rational answer for all the seemingly illogical weirdnesses that beset you every day, and you may well go mad.
Does this make me think less of the Chinese? No, it doesn't. To European eyes, the lack of so much of what we consider to be basic common sense can be baffling - to say nothing of the staggering lack of efficiency, and extraordinary levels of over-staffing.
(Sometimes it feels as if, at any given point, half of the working population is engaged in nothing more than standing around, silently waiting for something to happen. Especially in shops and restaurants. Perhaps it helps to have a richly developed inner life to fall back upon. Or then again, perhaps the opposite is preferable.)
However, there is much that the Chinese must find extraordinary about Western behaviour. The impatience; the manic drive to fill each moment of the day with purposeful activity; the emotional incontinence (*); the public drunkenness; the crime; the aggression; the cynicism; the inability to feel happy with one's lot. So I'm not going to embark on any typically ex-pat "Ooh them crazy Chinks!" rants.
Well, maybe only occasionally.
I rush back to the flat, where my new flatmate J is expected at 14:00. He's already there when I arrive, and a complicated pantomime ensues as both of us struggle with the tricky double locks on either side of the door. Finally, we meet. He's spaced out with the jetlag, having had precious little sleep on the way over; I remember all too well what that feels like. However, the best solution is to keep going - and so, not much more than an hour after J's arrival, we're boarding the 81 bus for Hangzhou's famous West Lake.
To be continued.
(*) Which reminds me: I've been told that the Chinese staff in our office receive special training in How To Deal With Stressed And Snappy Europeans Who Are Having Difficulty Settling In And Might Come Across As A Little Bit Rude. Which is a good job, considering my extended battle to get the heating in the flat sorted out last week...