Red and Gold

“Hey look, a museum about how great Mao is. You don’t see those too often around here!”

The Communist Party was engaged in an extensive meeting here. You may have heard about it. It took longer to get through than the Council of Elrond, and was about as interesting. The bright side, though, is that the shopkeepers’ doorways and community workers’ armbands aren’t the only thing turning the colours of the flag.

There are two reasons that I hadn’t been to Fragrant Hills (on the outskirts of Beijing) until last week: one is that this epic mountainside park is located literally the opposite side of the city to my flat; the other is that every other bugger in the Jing always seems to be there. It’s the sort of place, along with the relatively nearby Summer Palace, that any tourist simply has to ‘do’: a vast region of parkland that changes colour with the seasons. When the gf, probably hungering for the wilderness of Mongolia again, heard that the leaves were shifting into autumnal hues, we packed some snacks and set an alarm for 6am.

Neither of us are natural early risers (the morning shifts in Vancouver hostels used to wipe me out) but the two of us got out of bed on time. By 8 o’clock we had travelled a vast chunk of Line 7 and almost all of Line 4. At Beigongmen metro station we found the bus to Fragrant Hills, along with the central throng of other buggers. It took us two attempts to reach the end of the cattle-like enclosure that had been installed to deal with the endless flow of would-be mountaineers, listening to shouted instructions over a megaphone by a little old lady who had wandered in from the mysterious realm of Jim Henson’s subconscious. “Do not wait for seats,” she roared over a megaphone in Chinese, “you will find no seats here. Mwahahahaha!”*

The bus took about three chapters of Carlos Ruiz Zafon and almost every inch of my patience before we mercifully reached the gate at about 9.30am. Those of us who had woken at 6 were in no mood for the boiled eggs or jianbing being proffered by the street food vendors, nor for the public toilets that tried to rob ‘Smells Good Mountain’ of it’s otherwise deserved moniker.

Red and gold koi carp swam around the ponds of Tranquil Heart Garden and Tea Shop (the ‘and tea shop’ portion sadly revealing itself as a haggard old pagoda shuttered up in shame at having revealed its last legs). We were a little surprised to see that hardly any of the trees were sharing the colours of the fish or flags, most of them stubbornly clinging to their green summer shades under a slightly hazy sky.

A chair-lift style cable car system connects the lower rungs of the park to the mountaintop above. Despite looking rickety and bringing to mind images of Clint Eastwood kicking people to death in Where Eagles Dare, I felt it would be nice to ride to the top and then climb back down. Future visitors beware, however, the city spoils you: we got to the gates and realized that card and WeChat payments are unacceptable for this venture, and neither of us had brought any cash. Putting conspiracy theories about forcing the populace to exercise aside, we began our two way journey up the stone stairs hewn into the mountainside, travelling across terrain littered with green trees, discarded water bottles and torn popsicle wrappers.

Our journey, like the endless meeting of papa Xi’s, became long and arduous. At one point we stopped, like Sam and Frodo, to eat a sausage on a stick. I lost my British reserve and became Gollum at one point, telling some hippy-looking chap off for tossing a wrapper on the floor about seven inches from a bin, but he just shrugged and probably pretended not to speak English.

We made it otherwise unscathed, drawing our imagined swords in victory, sipping a lemon tea and eating some pork and pepper at the top. The journey back was made a little easier by stops along the way: temples, pagodas, pavilions, souvenir shops.

All told, we were at Fragrant Hills for several hours. We sprung ¥20 each for a taxi home, something we both agreed that none of our British friends would have done; instead they’d have tightened their sphincter and joined the two-hour bus queue. We soothed our barking dogs with a foot massage and had a well deserved BBQ dinner. All payed for via WeChat, of course.

*No, I did not make that bit up.


The English Patience

“What y’all speaking Arabic for? Ain’t that one of them there dead languages?” – yes, seriously

There is a conspiracy theory that states certain foreign governments hire Americans to travel around the world making loud obnoxious nuisances of themselves in order to spread a negative international reputation of America. There is actually a slightly more believable conspiracy theory that states certain types of American are pretty good at this already, foreign employers or no.

I went to Paddy O’Shea’s* to shoot the breeze with a mate. We were approached by a group of Americans, possibly in the employ of outside governments, who wanted to take a photograph of the wall behind us (“Hey, d’you guys recognize me?” “No.” “I’m on… THE WALL!”**) They wanted to take a photo of the photo, which was put to us as a friendly suggestion that it’d be really great if we could move away from the wall for just a second to allow for this twice in a lifetime opportunity, which we politely did. Then another American arrived and it was suggested that hey buddy it’d be really really great if they could get just one more photo, at which point we politely pointed out that actually they were already in possession of a photo of the bloody wall and that we’d quite like to sit still and enjoy our pints in peace. Luckily these chaps took this as intended: as a move from the martial arts manual that I refer to as The Art of Telling People to Fuck Off Without Actually Resorting to Telling Them to Fuck Off (TATPFOWARTTFO).***

One of my friends, a long-haired poet from middle England, once took a road trip to visit our cousins across the pond. Stopping in a gas station in Kentucky he was told in no uncertain terms by the shotgun toting James Dickey character behind the counter that “We don’t serve faggots round here!”

I don’t really know why a certain type of good ole boy votes in an angry midget with a nylon head to run things at home and then immediately pack a rucksack to travel around (“I like to say I have a BLACK BELT in travel y’know!”) complaining about the service and acting agog when they discover an international reputation as ‘rather loud and a little on the irritating side’.

I do not, under any circumstances, mean to imply that every white American is bigoted, annoying and socially inept… but damn the ones who are ain’t doing y’all many favours are they?



*(in the running along with Flann O’Brien’s in Bangkok and Johnny Fox’s Irish Snug in Vancouver for World’s Greatest cod-Irish Pub)

*Not a Pink Floyd reference, apparently.

*** See:

The Power of Derp


“There’s battle lines being drawn. Nobody’s right if everybody’s wrong.” – Buffalo Springfield

In 1979, Hal Ashby* directed Peter Sellers in a film called Being There. Sellers plays a low IQ gardener called Chance, who has never left the stately home in which he lives and works. All he knows of the outside world is what he’s seen on television while obsessively switching between channels: snippets of Sesame Street and Johnny Carson and Mr. Rogers. When his employer dies, Chance the gardener is forced to confront the real America for the first time. For various reasons, he ends up living with a socialite who takes every one of his dumbass monosyllabic (and televisual inspired) utterances as profound, metaphorical wisdom. Chance’s new friend introduces him to the president of the United States, and the theme becomes ‘just how far can a white retarded person actually get in American politics?’ Bear in mind that this was a far-fetched comedy film at the time, but you only have to look at what’s happened recently in the real world to guess the answer.

There are some people who object to my use, either in conversation or in written form, of the word ‘retarded’. There are other people (slightly less retarded ones) who completely ‘get’ that I use this incendiary word not to mock those with a genuine, medically diagnosed Forest Gump/Rain Man/Malkovich-in-that-Gary-Sinise-movie form of mental handicap. Mental or physical disability is of course nothing to be made fun of.

No. The sort of tards I wish to poke with a stick are the 20-watt energy-savers who voted for Brexit without knowing what an EU was; the half-sharp foreskins who are more concerned about a female Doctor Who than a female prime minister that no one initially voted for; the dull-witted gammon flaps who use tiki torches not for some friendly neighbourhood gathering, but for attending racist protests swaddled in Nazi iconography and then for drying their uncontrollable tears when someone on YouTube points out that they’re a bit of a racist.

I completely understand if the word ‘retard’ upsets you. There are words that upset me, but that’s not your problem is it? I hope that my outright abhorrence at some mayonnaise hued twat waving a swastika and doing the Roman salute here in the troubled 21st century is your problem, and I hope that you’re as angry about it as I am.

“I do not seek to understand that I may believe, but believe that I might understand.” – Anselm of Canterbury


Freedom of speech means that people have the right to say something that you disagree with. It does not mean you have to accept what they say without comment. It does not mean that they should be surprised or upset if someone challenges them verbally, physically or (at the very least) on the internet.

Papering over or ignoring the differences between cultures is pointless. I’ve spent enough time in China to know, for example, that Chinese people often think differently from me. I’m not always comfortable with that, but I can accept it. Accepting and celebrating those differences instead of getting angry about them or pretending they don’t exist is surely a sign of sanity, maybe even maturity? But accepting a bug-eyed, gap-toothed Nazi salute on American soil? Are you even remotely serious?

People have the right to be heard. Perhaps they even have the right to be understood. But to be accepted? Fuck no. The idea that we need to accept everyone, whatever their beliefs, is nonsense. Toxic, dangerous nonsense. We should not be accepting or ignoring the current level of open, unabashed pants-shitting ignorance and tongue-lolling intolerance, we should be stamping it out like the rubbish bin fire it is before it’s allowed to become a flat out blazing landfill inferno. These arseholes should be scurrying back into the woodwork, cowering and crying and waiting to be arrested. As philosopher Karl Popper says, a healthy society must (paradoxically) become intolerant of intolerance.

I’m not solipsistic. I’m not a nihilist. I do care about you and yor’n, but if y’all got your fat rube head wedged in the glass jar of stoopid, all I can humbly offer is a ball-peen hammer and the hope that you get the sort of education or medication that will finally help you outwit that turnip.

“To me, it seems to be negligence if, after confirmation in the faith, we do not study to understand that which we believe.” – Anselm of Canterbury


Words** have exactly as much power and emotion as people ascribe to them. Some atheists get annoyed when people use the word ‘God’ (especially with a capital ‘g’). Certain names for ‘god’ will even get you on the sort of list that it’s pretty hard to extricate yourself from. Equally, some religious people get annoyed when atheists use words like “grow” and “up”. But the theologian Anselm of Canterbury once described his philosophy as “an active love of God seeking a deeper knowledge of God”. If you replace the word ‘god’ with ‘the universe’, then isn’t that pretty much what Neil DeGrasse Tyson and the rest of the guys who bat for the other team are still doing?

If your reaction to a complicated universe is to try to make it as simple as possible by following an ideology that chimes with your limited beliefs, more power to you. If you want to put that ideology on a flag, you go right ahead my thick son. But if you’re gonna try to force those beliefs on others and disagree violently with their own beliefs while spastically waving that flag in everyone’s face, don’t be surprised if you suddenly find yourself wearing yer flag rectally (and yes, by ‘rectally’ I mean a literal placing of flagpole betwixt the cheeks of your dumb cracker arse)

A couple of years ago, I blogged on the virtues of anger as an energy to motivate.*** But I wasn’t talking about thick, impotent rage: standing about with your milky white arm extended and your crimson neck knotted, hurling things and shouting ‘sner’ at people who already have reason to believe that you ain’t the sharpest fork at the dinner. I was talking about what the Christians might call ‘righteous’ anger. Channeled, distilled, targeted anger that is borne out of dissatisfaction with the world as it is; burned off in the alchemical and probably blasphemous crucible like lead into gold; forged and alloyed into a sword of awesome. I was talking about what the buddhists might call participating fully in the joyful sorrows and sorrowful joys of the world; understanding that existence is pain; that life is not supposed to be easy and that you, sir, as Mohandas K. Gandhi told us, gotta be the change y’all wanna see! Admittedly, if the change you want to see involves being surrounded by the corpses of your imagined enemies, or only white people emigrating, maybe rethink that shit a little, yeah?

I am someone who loves words and tries to appreciate their power. I try always to choose my words carefully. But they are ‘just’ words. They can put us to sleep or wake us up, like inputting the right code into the software; and if you’re not running a powerful enough computer, then the code becomes meaningless. But I believe there’s a process here: thought/word/deed. Get your thinking clear, and you will almost certainly find the right words. If you’re really lucky (and sufficiently motivated) then hopefully the right actions will follow.

*(possibly the most underrated of film directors in Hollywood’s long and checkered history)

**(including the word ‘retard’)

*** see:

There is Nothing For You at Huagong Station

“Please stand firm and hold the handrail.”

Slightly anxious about the forthcoming U.K. general election (mainly because the only thing most British people are good at is making stupid decisions really loudly), I hopped onto a rented bicycle and tried to out-pedal my woes. I had, as usual, no idea where I was going.

I rode out past Happy Valley subway station, following Line 7 for twenty minutes or so, through muddy puddles and past huge cement trucks that trundled towards me from the opposite direction. My journey along this part of the line was abruptly cut short. A huge blue fence blocked further access in every direction except the one I’d just travelled in. The only escape was Huagong metro station, and even that lay concealed within a stretch of blue Labyrinth.

A mysterious man in a deck chair marked the entrance. Whether he was paid to be there* or simply enjoys sitting in the rain outside fenced off subway stations remains unclear. He didn’t smile. When I made it into the bowels of the station, I found I was Huagong’s only customer (perhaps its only customer ever). You know those seventies movies where a white guy walks into some ‘ethnic’ bar and the music stops while all of the patrons turn in shock and anger. That’s pretty much what happened on this wet, grey day in the Jing.

The cleaner, an ancient Mervyn Peake character who had been dutifully polishing ticket barriers that no human would ever pass through, nearly dropped his cloth as he stared at me the entire time I was there. I expected him to start pointing, letting out an unearthly screech like Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Seriously, the first and last thing I saw at Huagong was this dude’s uncomprehending bald head as he stood in exactly the same position, mouth open, damp rag hanging limply from his hand.

The only other people at the station were two security officers, one male, one female. Both wore expressions that said “wtf is this man doing in Huagong?”

With the knowledge and freedom of a man just passing through, and the optimism of one who hopes never to return, I took one last look at the station, said a silent and emotional farewell, and boarded the train for Hufangqiao.

*(Possibly by David Lynch or the ghost of Federico Fellini)

The Year of the Rat


“Even when you are not paralyzed by fright or screaming with pain, life is a moment-to-moment struggle against hunger or cold or sleeplessness, against a sour stomach or an aching tooth.”

– George Orwell

I rode a crowded bus the other day (there is no other type of bus in Beijing, that is literally the only appropriate adjective in this case) and there was a video monitor displaying footage of car crashes here in the capital, appealing for witnesses.

I took two things away from the blurry, cctv footage of people being knocked off motorcycles and being dragged from wreckage, one being that most drivers here really are dopey as fuck. The second was this: I couldn’t see a bloody thing. No faces, no distinguishing features, no articles of clothing. Nothing that would have reminded me,  had I previously seen the original flesh and blood incident, that I was actually there that day.

It made me think: if all of these cameras are here to keep people safe, why are the police appealing for witnesses and showing us blurry footage of people we’d never recognize in real life even if they lived next door (unless their face actually looked like pixels. That would, admittedly, be suspicious as all hell).

Urban explorer Bradley Garrett points out in his indispensable TED talk The Value of Trespass, “If you want to control people’s behaviour, the most effective way to do that is to make them think they are being watched all the time. People will monitor their own behavior if they think they’re being watched. This has always been the dark secret of installing CCTV cameras in cities. The cameras don’t even need to work.”

This week, I jumped on the American bandwagon and read George Orwell’s 1984 for the first time. I had often meant to. It’s exactly the sort of thing that I should have read as a student when I was into Kafka stories and Berkoff plays. I tried it once but, like Naked Lunch, gave up a few chapters in. On that occasion, I had written it off because it was making me feel depressed, but I did pretty much live in Victory Mansions at the time. This time I finally won the victory over myself and made it all the way through.

Another reason it has taken me so long to read 1984 is that it casts a very big shadow. It’s one of those stories that has bled so violently into western pop culture that I always felt I knew it before ever cracking the spine on my ¥20 paperback version. Other novels, TV shows, movies and adverts have paid lip service to its ideas, some have actually gone pretty much as far as full-on fellatio.

Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, a firm favourite of mine, was originally to be titled 1984 and 1/2 (an allusion not only to Orwell but also to Federico Fellini’s brilliant movie 8 1/2). Even in the 21st Century, Gilliam’s The Zero Theorem basically just promoted Big Brother to Management, giving him a social media account and a VR helmet. Management watches one rogue employee in a ruined chapel through ‘ManCams’, including one not so subtly mounted on a decapitated crucifix.*

I was born in 1984. I also, like everyone from England, pretty much lived in 1984! When I returned to England from Beijing (a place that most British people who’ve never been here refer to as ‘oppressive’) the first time, I was absolutely horrified to pass through a huge Orwellian machine that scanned my passport and face before I was set loose in London, home of half a million CCTV cameras. In the Jing they just stare at me with a wooden face and then give me a little red stamp.


1984 is, obviously,  a warning. It’s what can happen if people are apathetic. I remember when New Labour planned to bring ID cards to the UK, something they had previously dismissed out of hand as ‘fascist’ when first proposed by the Tories. I was amazed that a ‘first world’ government would do something so invasive to its citizens, but I was even more amazed to discover that I was one of only a handful of people who was actually angered by the idea. I remember one conversation with a family member who said they didn’t remotely object to ID cards because they had ‘nothing to hide’ (which, as Edward Snowden tells us, is “like saying you don’t care about freedom of speech because you have nothing to say”).

I lost a lot of faith in the soon-to-be Airstrip One that day, gesticulating wildly and shouting “I’ve got nothing to hide either, that’s why I don’t need a fucking ID card!”**

I am not, despite what some people think, a fan of ‘political correctness’. I object to most derogatory phrases and to military video games and to ultra violent horror movies, but I object far more to anyone thinking they have the right to tell me what words I can use, what games I can play and what movies I can watch. I have every right to refer to someone who insists on running a low watt bulb as a ‘twat spastic’, just as you have every right to be offended by that.

And I do not, by any means, think that the word ‘blackboard’ is racist, or that ‘brainstorm’ is derogatory towards retards.

There’s a nineties movie that only a handful of people have ever seen called EdTv, an MTV generation glimpse into the very near future of our own oppressive, mediocrity-obsessed present, where the value of anyone’s story is its potential to be branded, franchised and sold to the baying masses. With superb timing, the film came out the same year as the original series of ‘reality’ surveillance show Big Brother.

EdTv is essentially a less clever, less subtle version of The Truman Show. The plot is this (yes, genius, there are spoilers coming): An ailing network hits on the idea of taking reality TV to its logical extreme, following around the ultimate Gen X archetype, a schlubby video store clerk, and broadcasting his boring-ass, beer-swilling, blue collar existence 24 hours a day. For the first 48 hours, everyone hates the show but even so nobody can stop watching. By day 3 everyone’s heart has melted and the programme becomes a massive hit, reversing the network’s fortunes and making a big star of its working class hero. But in a desperate bid to secure ratings, the network executives start interfering with Ed’s life, forcing him to split up with his girlfriend and engineering ‘chance’ encounters with English supermodels as well as digging up embarrassing moments from his family’s past. Ed realizes that fame and fortune has come at a terrible price, and threatens to quit the show. But he has signed a contract, and his friends and family have all signed release forms, allowing the network to follow Ed and everyone he cares about with a video camera 24/7. It’s only when he turns the tables on the oppressive executives by digging up anecdotes about their own past and broadcasting their secrets on live TV that the plug is finally pulled.

That’s one thing that’s wrong with the Big Brothers of the world: they aren’t interested in transparency, they’re interested in control. They want to know everything about you, but they don’t want you to know anything about them.

I’ll tell you some things that offend me. I do not expect you to take note.

I’m offended by people who think that because they have a strong opinion, that it deserves to be respected or at least listened to by everyone (I can understand the Buddhist principle that ‘the opposite of what you know is also true’ but I don’t, for example, give a shit what either Gallagher brother thinks about other people’s music, or believe that Nick Griffin was ever a serious politician).

I’m deeply offended by the word ‘landlord’.

I find using internet comments to ‘stir debate’ an offense that should be punishable by death.

I’m offended by the term ‘twat spastic’.

And I find it offensive that so many people are totally blasé at the thought of their every move being scrutinized by someone.***  I even find the term ‘under surveillance’ pretty offensive, not least because I for one am so fucking over it!

It was said by whoever I’m about to paraphrase that those who refuse to learn from the past are doomed to repeat it. It would be sad if Orwell just got the date wrong. I  hope that enough people are paying attention, and that those who are willing to learn won’t end up standing idly by and watching some absolute Big Wanker fuck everything up anyway.

*The Zero Theorem brilliantly pokes fun at the dotcom ‘bubblegum dystopia’ worlds of most modern tech companies: the kind of migraine-inducing offices that look more like a playground, as if riding down a big yellow slide or playing in a psychedelic ball pit will increase an employee’s productivity in some way. One journalist memorably pointed out after a trip to Pixar studios that it feels like an animator couldn’t even nip to the toilets for a quick wank without it being encouraged as part of their creative process.

**My faith never really returned, especially after a conversation with someone else who smacked my gob with “yeah, but some people are just smarter than us, aren’t they? They’re the ones that should be making the decisions, not us”.

***(and, therefore, by anyone. There’s no surveillance equipment that can be used only by ‘the good guys’).

No Time Like The Present


“Life as we know it is only possible for one-thousandth of a billion billion billionth, billion billion billionth, billion billion billionth, of a percent. And that’s why, for me, the most astonishing wonder of the universe isn’t a star or a planet or a galaxy. It isn’t a thing at all. It’s an instant in time. And that time is now.” -Prof. Brian Cox

It was a balmy zero degrees in the Jing when I touched down about 2am local time on Sunday. Seeing the city from the air, all lit up like Spirited Away, really brought home how absolutely massive Beijing is. Flying towards the sea of lights, I had a feeling that could be compared to returning ‘home’ (or at the very least a feeling like I’d been cheating on my muse for a couple of weeks).

The now-familiar journey went smoothly: through customs, with its unfriendly sign that just reads ‘FOREIGNERS’ and  its unsmiling uniformed staff; the equally baffling taxi journey from terminal to home via where-the-actual-fuck-is-this-bit; the unpacking of the suitcase and the fitful, unrefreshing sleep until noon.

Spring Festival decorations were still everywhere (as was, confusingly, Xmas music). The gf had yet to return from her hometown, so I took the subway alone towards Nanluoguxiang, only to write it off as far too busy at the weekend. Instead, I took a stroll along the hutongs around beautiful Houhai. The ice is slowly thawing around the edges of the lake but the brave and the foolhardy are still skating and zorbing on the surface, performing figures of eight and other, less graceful feats in the shadow of the drum and bell towers.

There is a traditional Chinese curse that says “may you live in interesting times”. It’s sad to think that if US president Fucktrumpet has his way then in a few years this could all look like the smoky final verse of 99 Red Balloons. Still, whatever may or may not happen in the future, I’m consoled by the fact that right now I am here in a city that sometimes feels like home.

Finishing Touches


“And… cut!”

Yesterday marked the end of my trip to the land of apples and Borat. My friend and I eventually won our Napoleonic battle with the elements to gather enough footage for the video project. The Soviet era lenses that we’ve been using have given the footage a very cinematic look, and I can’t wait to see the finished short.

It’s true that some days we only got outside for a grand total of thirty-five minutes, tops, before the very real threat of frozen johnsons drove us back inside for copious amounts of hot tea, but we eventually wrapped after a sub-zero legend trip towards the river, plus a couple of pick-up shots the following morning (shortly before the power went down in the apartment complex, which meant packing my bags and showering in dwindling daylight before writing this at the airport and posting it from my apartment in the Jing).

The troubles of the world have been weighing a little heavy recently, although I again see hope in the fact that the likes of George Orwell and Hannah Arendt have begun climbing the bestseller list, as if people have realized that switching off the X Factor and educating themselves instead is possibly the best defense against the forthcoming zombie apocalypse.

I’ve barely scratched the surface of the Republic of Kazakhstan, but it’s been grest to notch up a second Asian country to my travels and to spend time with friends I hadn’t seen for over a year. I hope to return one day. Possibly during the summer next time!