Master of Puppets

“You ever want to be somebody else?”
“I’d like to try Porky Pig.”
“I’ve never wanted to be anybody else.”
– Easy Rider

When I was a kid I guess I wanted to be some kind of action hero: an Indiana Jones; a Luke Skywalker; maybe, at the very low end of that spectrum, a Bob Hoskins as Mario. One day I swung through the cavernous tomb of my own bedroom cupboard with a bullwhip that my aunt had brought over from India. the whip snapped, the railing on the cupboard collapsed and my mum frantically took me aside and told me I was going to have three kids and a mortgage instead.

My parents used to tell me off for staying up late, for watching too many movies, or for showing off to my friends. Overused parental catchphrases included “stop filling your head with nonsense” and “don’t play up just because you have an audience”. My kindergarten teacher used to call me ‘foghorn’, although that disappeared under a layer of shyness and social awkwardness a few years later.

Fact is, I now get paid to shout like a foghorn and play up to an audience. Turns out that filling your head with nonsense can actually be quite the lucrative investment. I’m not exactly flashing the qian but I can afford to live the way I want to for once. I don’t even have to dress like a hobo or live on junk food anymore (I still do sometimes, but I don’t have to).


“Ah,so you’re my replacements. A dandy and a clown.”

– Doctor Who, The Three Doctors


As a college student, despite briefly flirting with the idea of training as a stuntman, a puppeteer or a functioning alcoholic, I suppose I wanted to be a cross between Hunter S. Thompson and Harry Dean Stanton. I once jokily berated a new guy on my acting course for turning up in a Hawaiian shirt. “That’s my gig, man! I’m the guy who wears Hawaiian shirts around here.” For some reason, instead of socking me in the mouth or telling me to piss off, the guy just stopped wearing Hawaiian shirts; as, a few short years later,  did I.

Eventually I settled on the idea of just being me.

I sometimes lamented the painful truth that I rarely left the streets of my East Midlands hometown, but I always reminded myself that Socrates never left Athens. I visited Athens once and I thought it was a shithole. If his shithole was good enough for Socrates then, I reckoned, my shithole should be good enough for me. But then I became aware of an even more painful truth: certain parallels in questionable personal hygiene aside, I am hella not Socrates.

But eventually I had a wash, grew into my own skin, and became a little more comfortable with myself.


“A puppeteer told me he loved me today. I know, I can’t think of anything more pathetic!” – Catherine Keener


A couple of years ago, when I was looking for an escape hatch from Tongzhou (a slightly less comfortable shithole), I applied for a job with Sesame Street English as a curriculum writer. Sesame Street was and is one of the many ESL companies in the Jing that the guys I worked for in the suburbs couldn’t compete with on any level. Sesame Street was the sleek, predatory shark while the now bankrupt company I was with at the time were, even then, the upside down goldfish.

On the whole I like teaching drama more than ESL. Maybe I like it more than I’d have enjoyed writing for Ernie and Grover. My first full semester as a drama teacher is now over. A couple more days of teaching a summer camp and then I’m on holiday. I’d like to think that my grand, poorly drawn stage designs for next term will contribute to the juvenile drama centre equivalent of Michel Gondry meets François Delarozière, but the truth is gonna be… well, much less French for a minimum.


I like my job here, even if I’ve always had mixed feelings about the theatre. I like anything that’s an art form, and I like a storytelling art form a thousandfold more. I like that theatre at its most basic is just one or more person performing in front of one or more other person, which is what I’ve been doing with me life since I was a kid.

It’s comforting and interesting to know that the cavemen in Wangfujing were once doing the Neolithic version of what I teach, and that future eight-limbed generations, perhaps people who don’t have to work for a living and can just tell stories for the sheer post-humanity of it, will be performing dramas long after someone’s pushed the big red button on our current society.

But British people are supposed to be cynical and rip the piss out of anything as wanky as the theatrical arts, especially if it’s popular in France.

I’ve got mixed feelings about teaching, too. Robert McKee, who’s not exactly short of opinions, once barked that “the world is full of people who teach things that they themselves cannot do” (and he must know, let’s be honest). Or, as the hoary old caveat has it: those who can, do. Those who can’t, teach. Those who can’t teach, probably just teach anyway.

Most teachers I know, when they are honest, will jovially admit either that they are doing something creative in their spare time and wish they did that for a living, or are approaching burn-out. Some, bless ‘em, are doing both. You can use your own imagination and judgement to decide which category I fit into.


Pure Imagination

“There’s always gratification in self expression.” – John Horatio Malkovich

I recently watched a video of the brilliant writer Alan Moore being interviewed at the Odditorium. I’ve no idea what or where an ‘Odditorium’ is, but I do know that Alan Moore certainly belongs there.

I like Moore’s work very much. I like his ridiculously obsessive level of ‘quality control’ or ‘attention to detail’ or whatever it is that makes the great artists such control freaks. He once joked that if he was describing a glass of water in one of his scripts he would go so far as describing the hydrogen and oxygen molecules in it. For Show Pieces, the Lynchian film series that mixes the seemingly unrelated elements of sociopathic clowns, Northampton working men’s clubs, and Egyptian funerary practices, he wrote everything from dialogue and stage directions to songs, stand-up routines, and labels for imaginary products*. That level of control over a fictional universe is enviable (and almost certainly shows why he has disowned every film project adapted from any of his comic book work).

Speaking of which, I’m actually a lot more interested in Show Pieces and the other work that he is doing these days than I ever have been in most of his comic book writing. He may indeed be considered the best graphic novelist in the world (although that’s unfair to Grant Morrison, Warren Ellis and Neil Gaiman at the very least), but I find Moore’s current prose,  film and spoken word work far more engaging than his ‘heyday’ superhero stuff.

In the interview, he moaned about young people not knowing who Aldous Huxley and Timothy Leary are. With all due respect to Northampton’s bearded prophet-magus, this probably just shows that he hasn’t met the right young people. I refuse to believe, despite some decidedly compelling evidence, that every young millennial is a half-sharp twat. I’d still like to think that most millennials are waking up in a way that young people haven’t been awake for a long time, and that some of them are even beginning the long search for a fire exit to the 3D movie theatre. Whether or not they will find it in time is another adventure…

As well as watching interviews with Northampton-based worldbuilders, I’ve been reading a bunch of screenplays that I found online. Most recently I read The Men Who Stare at Goats, the script behind the knockabout war comedy based on a slightly darker book and a much darker true story about the American military flirting with hippie culture as a way of appealing to young men of the post-Vietnam era.

Today’s lack of counterculture was another thing Alan Moore complained about, but do we really have much of a culture to counter these days?!? Anger will always achieve more than apathy, but does unbridled rage make any more strategic sense than going misty eyed or carrying lambs and flowers into battle like the goat staring men?

Historically, screenplays are grouped with cereal packets, technical instruction manuals and 17th century medical textbooks at the bottom of the list of things that people read for pleasure. I won’t go into the old ‘are screenplays art?’ debate but I do think that, if written well (perhaps obsessively), they are at least an often under-appreciated form of writing.

It can be edifying to compare early drafts to the finished version of some favourite films.** There are also the great unmade scripts: The Island of Doctor Moreau (adapted by the writers of The Wild Bunch and Full Metal Jacket); Sandman (adapted by the writers of Pirates of the Caribbean and Shrek); Neuromancer (adapted, for once, by the writer of Neuromancer). Films that you will never see anywhere but in your mind’s eye.

Screenwriting was always my own medium of choice. Despite the frustrations that come with it: Despite not feeling like a ‘real artist’. Despite directors/producers/other writers ‘reworking the material’, usually into turgid crap. Despite endless Skype calls answering questions like “but why does he stumble back, in awe? Wouldn’t it be a case of him jumping back, in shock?”**. Despite managing to upset aspiring producers by saying it’s perfectly alright for them not to ‘get’ the ending, but you’d rather find a producer who does than change it. Despite the drawers and drawers full of un-filmed work that people will tease you mercifully for: “was this written by a twelve year old?” (as if, at 23 and with your first attempt, you’re supposed to be the new frickin’ Shakespeare).


A friend from England recently dug out an old horror script that we’d written together and has decided to film it (after rewriting it of course). It will be nice to see some ‘new’ work come to life, as always (even if the writing is only half mine, and even that half is not my best work). But I have yet to master the God-like level of control over my sporadic screenwriting that an artist has.

The Men Who Stare At Goats is not a great screenplay. It deals with a lot of the stuff I like: shamanism, counterculture elements, redemption stories. But it’s also a little preoccupied with Joseph Campbell and Star Wars references. I like my shamanism bubbling under the surface like an Alan Moore story, not smacking me in the forehead like a Dim Mak.

In a world that has lost its way, we need more people like Alan Moore (not people who copy his writing style or fashion sense, but people who do good, creative, uncompromising work). We need more artists, writers, journalists, performers. People who can see or do what others can’t and then try to explain some of those wyrd things to us.

When a world is undeniably fraying around the edges, the best coping mechanism is devoting time to something you love. Some people have the good fortune of being great at what they love, others just have to keep working at it and hope for the best. Ken Robinson, the educator and writer, calls this sweet spot ‘the element’; Joseph Campbell calls it ‘bliss’ (after a rough translation of ananda, one of the gateways to enlightenment in the Hindu Upanishads); I call it ‘the stuff you do when others have given you the courtesy of getting the fuck out of your face’.



But isn’t it frustrating?

Yes. It is. It’s frustrating to write short or long form scripts that you know are unlikely ever to see the light of day (for film, TV, web, or any other scripted media).

Yes. A script that isn’t filmed may as well not exist. Unlike an unpublished novel, one that can always be rediscovered and published years later, an unmade screenplay is just a map or a blueprint to a place that doesn’t exist or a building that was never constructed.

But as Vonnegut said in an earlier entry, “you will have created something”.

*One of which, Tunguska Vodka: This One Will Flatten You, could only be dreamt up by a demented alchemist like Mr. Moore.

**An epic puppet battle between John Malkovich and the devil may indeed have made great cinema, but it’s easy to see why it didn’t make it into the final draft.

**Yes, this was a real conversation.

The Anatomy of Melancholy (Part Three): “The Joker’s Warpaint”

I write of melancholy by being busy to avoid melancholy.” – Robert Burton

This is the third and final part of a loosely connected trilogy of posts about my recent investigation into cheering the hell up at a couple of Beijing’s art galleries.

For part one click here:

For part two click here:


“Sing in the shower. Dance to the radio. Tell stories. Write a poem to a friend, even a lousy poem. Do it as well as you possibly can. You will get an enormous reward. You will have created something.” – Kurt Vonnegut

In the first of Tim Burton’s now-dated versions of the caped crusader myth, which I recently re-watched for the first time since childhood, the psychotic Joker is portrayed as an ambitious but petty thug with an aptitude for chemistry and art. After falling into a vat of chemicals and emerging looking like Sylvester Stallone’s mum, Joker terrorizes the people of Gotham with some poorly-lit MTV infomercials for tainted fashion products that turn people into ‘works of art’.

Like most people, I much prefer Heath Ledger’s Oscar-winning ‘agent of chaos’ version of Joker, the mad dog chasing cars who “doesn’t even know what he’d do if he caught one”, an anarchist torturer with unevenly applied greasepaint slapped on his unwashed, pallid, mentally-ill face.

Some Marxist writers and thinkers (Zizek springs instantly to mind) have stated that they actually identify more with villains like the Joker and Bane than with the Dark Knight himself, feeling that where Batman represents the capitalist status quo the villains usually offer a socialist or anarchist worldview, albeit one brought about by the ‘regime change’ of terrorist action.

However, what the sort of IRL, mentally divergent cunts who put on fright wigs and shoot people because they’re ‘inspired’ by movies like Batman or Old Boy or Taxi Driver, seem to forget is that these characters are fictional. They only exist to drive a narrative forward and to butt heads with other characters.*

They are also bell ends.

Even so, a terrorist villain as frustrated artist was an interesting angle for Tim Burton and his screenwriting team to choose. It wouldn’t be the first time some absolute helmet took their artistic ambitions and pissed them away into more Machiavellian pursuits: In the mid-20th century there was an Austrian fella who, after being absolutely ridiculed in the art world, turned to politics. He finally took Europe by storm in 1939 with a little piece of his called World War Two. Here in the 2010s, even Dubya turned out to be a frustrated painter all along.

What is an artist anyway? It’s just someone who can see something that others can’t, and then articulates that vision through a chosen medium in a way that is, hopefully, understandable to at least a handful of people.

My day spent searching for multimedia gems in China’s capital led me from the virtual reality floor of the 798 Art Factory to the very real third floor of a building in Blue Harbour shopping precinct.

The Yang Art Museum is known locally by the slightly odd but decidedly delicious acronym YAM.** I knew, when I found a xeroxed copy of Guy Debord’s La Société du Spectacle (in French, alas), that I had come to the right place.

I was here to see the exhibition ‘Rebel Cities’, an effort by multiple artists, many of whom were engaging in “research and activism at specific – often socially and geographically marginalized – places in Beijing.”

No photography was allowed in the gallery, and I don’t really like photographing art that much anyway. The map is, of course, not the territory: Seeing a photo of the Sistine Chapel is not the same as standing under its ceiling, any more than watching a virtual herd of elephants is the same as shitting your pants in a Jumanji-level stampede. I did scribble some notes (most likely indecipherable to anyone else) a habit that I actually picked up from the coffee shop companion and gallery-owner-to-be mentioned in the previous entry: “Your writing about it can be the photograph.”


Mostly I just wandered around looking. After a morning of interactive virtual reality it was nice to passively watch the work of painters, filmmakers and typographers from the city; to soak up some of the hard work of creative Beijingers who are as inspired by their own urban space as I am.

A crumbling semi-shithole of a space it may be. A space that I spent my morning escaping from as tenaciously as the beaten down protagonist from Brazil. A space that the clown prince of crime would have no hesitation in razing to the ground while laughing hysterically. but a space that, for now at least, I call home.

*Conflict, as anyone with even a cursory interest in film or literature knows, is drama.

**They even have an enticing loyalty card called the Super Yam.

The Anatomy of Melancholy (Part Two): “Three Hundred and Sixty”

I write of melancholy by being busy to avoid melancholy.”

– Robert Burton

This is part two of a loosely connected trilogy of posts about my recent investigation into cheering the hell up at a couple of Beijing’s art galleries. For the previous post, click here:


The arts are not a way to make a living. They are a very human way of making life more bearable. Practicing an art, no matter how well or badly, is a way to make your soul grow” – Kurt Vonnegut

The Raindance Film Festival is, like basketball and Doctor Who, one of many cool things to have been created by a Canadian. Raindance (something you can now be arrested for in Ireland, probably) was the brainchild of Elliot Grove, Ontario’s most remarkably tech savvy Anabaptist.

During my first trip to the Jing, one of my colleagues had studied Fine Arts in the U.K. Just like every millennial who chose this course of action, she was unemployable in her home country and was traveling on a shoestring, slowly stoking her dream of becoming a gallery curator.

This young lady was interested in my coffee shop meditations, and she suggested documenting each coffee I drank with a photograph or a notebook entry, describing the coffee and the universe that I saw inside of it. While this is not necessarily a bad idea for an art project, the fact is I couldn’t be bothered. I’m almost always drinking coffee because I’m knackered and lazy, and rarely if ever because I want to create art-wank.

I was thinking about none of these things when I walked into a shabby old factory in 798 Art Zone for the Raindance China VR Film Festival.

I grew up in the nineties, the cyberpunk age of The Lawnmower Man, The Thirteenth Floor, ExistenZ* and of course The Matrix. Virtual Reality is, for me at least, a childhood dream come true.


Living in China is like living in Futurama: Just as you’re marveling at the Star Trek-level technology, the futuristic door malfunctions and smacks you in the back of the head. It was no surprise, therefore, that the first opening credit to the Introduction to Virtual Reality film was ‘No Internet Connection’.

But then it began, I was sucked into a 360 degree world of awesome, albeit one where I did not speak the language and was therefore unable to translate the phrase “It’s a little fuzzy, mate!” Even this was soon forgotten when I was floating in a junk boat, sitting in a Mongolian yurt and doing other seemingly exotic things that, ironically, I could have been doing in real life if I’d left the factory and gone to the fucking train station instead.

But then: Bam! A herd of elephants. A spinning planet whooshing overhead. A freaking dinosaur sniffing at my crotch. I was genuinely thrilled. This is, as I suspected, much of what I love about films, games, art, storytelling and real life rolled into one slightly odd-looking thing that fits on your face. This was a cavernous universe that filled a couple of square meters. I was only slightly disturbed by the threat of conjunctivitis and the thought that “if my brain thinks I’ve seen elephants in the wild, will that make seeing real elephants in the wild less impressive?”

To say that I watched five short films for ¥80 (roughly a tenner in old money) is not entirely accurate. Suffice it to say that I experienced five pieces of interactive art, using sound cues to look in vaguely the right direction, standing in just the right place to avoid the blue bars that indicated the end of my new little world. Halfway through one story, narrated by nineties somebody Ethan Hawke, I glanced at my feet and realized I’d been a bunny rabbit the whole time. This is weird, wonderful, Alice in Wonderland stuff. The most unbelievable thing about it was that I couldn’t convince the gf, someone who keeps the cellular data people in business 22 hours a day, to come along with me.


I used to laugh at the slogan of a coffee shop around the corner of the very gallery I was standing in: a slogan that stated “the future is NOW!”** But, on behalf of my nerdy ten-year-old self, who wondered how far-fetched the ‘holodeck’ actually was, I think that those Latte-making bastards might be onto something.

I have to admit, I’m slightly unsettled by the idea of some creature in the post-human future strapping on their equivalent of a headset and saying “Ah, so that’s what an elephant was” or “Ah, so that’s what the 1930s was like” or “Ah, so that’s what Post-Trump Nuclear Neo-Primitivism is!”

But, speaking as someone who spent his morning gleefully prancing around The Art Warehouse chasing creatures from Persian mythology, “the future is now”…

*Made at a time when video games as art and game designers as celebrities were still the stuff of science fiction!

**(and not, slightly more accurately, “really, really soon”)

The Anatomy of Melancholy (Part One): “The Bittersweet Notebooks”

“I write of melancholy by being busy to avoid melancholy.”

– Robert Burton

I recently found myself writing what became another long essay about various things that have been pissing me off. Instead of boring my handful of loyal readers with a 3000 word tirade about things that depress me, I’ve decided on this occasion to post it in installments as a loosely connected trilogy about life and art, which I will continue over the next few days.


“If you want to really hurt your parents, and you don’t have the nerve to be gay, the least you can do is go into the arts.”

– Kurt Vonnegut

Would it surprise you to know that I’m worried about the current state of our world?*

Stephen Fry was recently investigated by Irish police for alleged ‘blasphemy’. How, in the 21st century, is that a legitimate crime? It’s like being investigated for phrenology  or performing weather magic or calling someone’s invisible friend a cunt.

Have you Baidu’d “wtf is happening in Chechnya” recently?

Someone here in China bashed a woman’s head in because he wanted a space on a sleeper carriage instead of just a seat on the train.

You can’t even board an international flight that you’ve paid for without the threat of some militarized American knobhead beating the shit out of you.

Retarded people are running major corporations and powerful governments, but that’s not exactly new. I recently read an article about a group of symbologists having once been hired by the Americans to come up with a pictographic warning system for future generations so that when the human race has all but wiped itself out and the seven-toed survivors have adopted the latest hip lifestyle choice of anarcho-cannibalism, there will be something to stop our primitive grandchildren from stumbling into one of the many toxic waste dumps that previous generations have already left behind. Some of the poker-faced suggestions were: a brotherhood of secret priests, a race of genetically engineered plants that would flower as an early warning system, and selectively bred cats that would change colour when they approached radioactive material. Apparently it took über-genius Carl Sagan to point out they could just paint a big skull and crossbones.


When the fuck did bigotry, violence and idiocy become our default setting? How much longer are we going to keep impotently doing tax returns and going to church and watching TV and drinking beer instead of actually doing something? I’m as guilty of it as the rest of us.**

What good can possibly come of all this? The only good I can see (and I speak only for myself as always) is “perspective”. It puts my own life and problems into perspective. One thing that people-who-like-paraphrasing-stuff-they-heard-someone-else-say like to say is that when you consider the size of the universe it makes all of our human problems seem insignificant. Bullshit. Surely your problems have significance precisely because they are significant to you. To say that the universe*** almost certainly doesn’t give a shit that you exist and is probably, in fact, downright hostile towards you is most likely accurate. But you yourself are a piece of the universe that is actively struggling to understand itself. I’d say that makes your problems pretty damned significant indeed.

What’s the best course of action for someone who’s down in the dumps about chronic human fucktardedness? For someone who’s suddenly disturbed by all the old films I’ve re-watched recently: Being John Malkovitch because it’s essentially about operating a member of the successful Hollywood bourgeoisie as a balding meat puppet for financial gain. Twelve Monkeys because the best ideas in it are actually spouted by Brad Pitt’s Oscar nominated mental patient. Batman Returns because it’s well nineties and he shouldn’t have bothered.

Is the best course of action to put on a pair of kung fu slippers and go for a walk with my hands in my pockets? To go clothes shopping? To do some exercise? To try to remember that knowledge will probably prevail, even when we’re all living like Rick Grimes? That life, as the poet Jeff Goldblum once told us, finds a way? Is it to try to channel all of the annoyance, frustration, and ennui into yet another screenwriting project that nobody is likely to make?

I tried all those things. I did some push-ups. I dug out some old notebooks. I dipped into my Naruto pencil case and did some writing. I bought a new pair of sports socks. Then I took my hands out of my pockets and decided to investigate a couple of Beijing’s multimedia art galleries…

*or have you been paying attention?

**except for church. Fuck church, natch!

***(and any deity who may have created it that we may get in trouble with the Irish authorities for berating)

Where The Art Is

“This is where you cross the road to Liyuan station. If you’re really lucky you might even make it to the the other side.”

I recently acquired a roommate, a young Russian guy who is still in the wide-eyed, jet-lagged and slightly bewildered stage of his Beijing journey. So far, his most used phrases are an English one that can be reduced to the acronym ‘wtf’ and a Russian one that loosely translates as “fucking internet!” His sudden appearance has led me, and other colleagues, to dust off some of the hidden gems of Tongzhou and show them to him. It hasn’t taken us long.

Dagao is an art district here in Tongzhou, pretty much round the corner from where we work. Beijing is pretty hip when it comes to art. When I lived in Beiyuan I used to make frequent trips to 798 Art Zone, which is built on the empty shell of a former communist munitions complex. I loved 798 as soon as I set eyes on it because the artists have taken something ugly and pointless (a factory of death) and turned it into something quite beautiful (art).* Dagao is a mini-798, where you can look at subversive military art and dinosaur graffiti while sipping a coffee or a glass of reasonably-priced European wine.

What other delights does Tonghzhou hold? Well, before you pack your bags and book a flight, let me warn you that Dagao is about it. Unless you want more booze. Or coffee. There are plenty of Starbucks outlets here as well as Maan coffee, where they give you a sad-looking teddy bear instead of a table number while you wait for your piping hot Americano. There are also a couple of clubs, the best of which seems to be ‘WJ’. I have gone from stumbling around with one colleague desperately looking for a glass of Chivas Regal to stumbling around with another outside of the WJ club, where they give us a free bottle just for turning up and being white. Almost certainly the fake stuff, but it works just as well.

One night while exploring with a friend, I came across a massage parlour in the nondescript basement of a nondescript building. It was more respectable than you might imagine, they wore little sergeant pepper outfits but made it clear at the outset that no ‘extras’ were involved! I can’t tell you how nice it was to have a relaxing massage at half-midnight on a work night (right up until they put flaming hot cups on my back and twisted them until the flesh bruised. I could have done without that bit to be honest).

There’s a dingy all-night Internet cafe, thick with cigarette smoke and full of sweaty nerds hovering over the mouse, numbly playing violent war games. I only saw it from the outside but, creepily, it looked to me like everyone was playing exactly the same thing.

Tongzhou is, you may have gathered, not the most exciting part of Beijing. It somehow manages to tread that fine line between being heaving with people and being dull as balls (kind of like China’s answer to Kettering). It can be, as my Russian colleague has found, both overwhelming and yet somehow infinitely underwhelming at the same time. It is the strangest place I’ve ever lived (including the counterculture commune that I used to stay at), and yet for the past few months I have found myself referring to it as ‘home’…

*There’s also an art district in Shaungjing, which is frequented by wankers who think 798 has become “too commercial”. I went there during Spring Festival but it looked exactly the bloody same as 798 to me!

The ‘p’ is Silent

Me: “You see why I keep losing my temper?”

My Co-Teacher: “Yes, because  you are on [your] period.”

There’s a scene in the kung fu classic Enter the Dragon where Bruce Lee is traveling on a Junk boat, where he ends up explaining the ethos behind his own badassery. In this scene Lee is approached by a shadow-boxing New Zealander who belligerently asks “what’s your [martial arts] style?” Lee’s character, imaginatively named Mr. Lee, can barely stifle a yawn as he replies “I suppose you could call it ‘the art of fighting without fighting’.” His Kiwi assailant narrows his eyes suspiciously and says, in no uncertain terms, “show me some of it!” Lee agrees, explaining that there isn’t enough room on the boat to demonstrate. He suggests a trip to a nearby island. The New Zealander gets in a wooden rowboat and Lee immediately casts it off, leaving the swearing bad guy adrift in the ocean, stinging from the realization that he’s just been had by the art of ‘fighting without fighting.’

Wangfujing, in central Beijing, has become one of the training grounds for my own martial arts style, which I have dubbed ‘the art of telling people to fuck off without actually resorting to telling them to fuck off.’ I like to imagine that if Bruce Lee was alive today he might nod with approval at the name of this style, and at its clever acronym: ‘tatpfowarttfo’.

Like any seasoned martial artist, I only unleash the power of the ‘fo’ as a last resort, and it is reserved almost exclusively for people who try to take me ‘tea shopping’*. Whenever I am approached by an individual who tells me how handsome I am or how they would like to help me improve my Chinese I resort to monosyllabic answers before unleashing an animal cry, tearing off the metaphorical black shirt and unleashing a deadly dose of tatpfowarttfo.

Note that when I mentioned the tea shoppers, I used the qualifier ‘almost’ (as in, “not entirely exclusively”). I have also body-slammed unsuspecting attackers with the more subtle moves in the tatpfowarttfo arsenal, often as a way of escaping the cast-iron death-grip of a night out in Sanlitun, which I usually find about as enticing and rewarding as my job doing the night shift in a care home run by nuns…

…Which, coincidentally, was where the very first movements in the training manual of tatpfowarttfo were stealthily developed. Yes, I know: If there is a hell, then my adventurous week-and-a-half working for the Nazareth Sisters or whatever they were called has guaranteed me a ticket there on the one-way bullet train.

My black belt in tatpfowarttfo has earned me many accolades and nicknames: “grandad”, “letdown”, “miserable old bastard”. In fact, only the other day a friend was lamenting the fact that I wanted to spend a day off writing instead of ascending the stairs of yet another temple devoted to some Chinese god or other: “There’s all these great parks and temples in Beijing and you’re sitting in a fucking Starbucks!” He said.

I stared at him.
He blinked.
He looked down at his feet.

When he looked up again it was with the face of someone wondering how the hell he was standing on a little wooden boat, shaking a fist and thinking This is going in the blog, isn’t it?

*See previous blog: