Voice & Echoes

“A wise man once said nothing.”

I lost my voice.

Maybe it was walking Line 7 in the rain (see previous entry), the peaks and troughs of Beijing weather leaving me vulnerable to the organic equivalent of ransomware.

Thing is, I like my voice. Whether I’m a writer or a drama teacher, my voice is my living.

Several years ago, when I first went searching for my writing voice, I did what everyone who’s looking for something is supposed to do: I armed myself with the right ammunition. I sought out allies. I looked for mentors. I sat with gurus. I went to readings of authors that I liked, and asked them how they got started.

For whatever reason, I found myself spending a lot of time in Soho, London. First at the bar of an art house cinema, outlining an urban fantasy project for an aspiring transmedia producer. Then at the Groucho Club and the BAFTA building, always at someone else’s expense (sometimes the transmedia producer; sometimes the writer Geoff Thompson, who became an early supporter. He told me to keep shouting at the cave walls and to follow whichever path offered the most echo).

This time I searched elsewhere. I dosed up on Chinese medicine. I shut the hell up as much as I could, speaking only during a Star Trek movie to explain raspily to the gf: Firstly, that a man was blowing up stars in order to redirect the gateway to a land of happiness. Secondly, that I had no idea why I was watching it; Thirdly, that it was indeed perfectly fine to turn it off and go for hot pot.

I polished up a spec script to send it to the producers of a Glaswegian web series.

Then I packed a bag and went to Korea for a few days.

Welcome to the Suck


“You can blame it on the weather;
Now your life has turned so grey.” – The Joykill Collective

Early Thursday morning a cloud of dust and ash, apparently from a raging Mongolian forest fire, swept across the city. I woke up to the greyest sky I have ever seen in my life and a balcony floor that looks like Joe Eszterhas’s lungs.

A colleague said that they fell asleep beneath a starry sky around 3am and woke up three hours later under a very literal dense black cloud. It was bad, even by Beijing standards. In fact, it was the worst I’ve seen. Some estimates put the AQI at 500, some as high as 900. If schools and businesses had had more warning, they would almost certainly have closed. I spent the day dressed like Lawrence of Arabia and speaking like Tom Hardy in the Dark Knight films:

Me: Is there an air purifier in here?
Chinese Colleague: Yes. I have turned it on, and I closed the windows.
Me: Excellent. Let us drag the elite from their decadent nests and return the city to its people.
Chinese Colleague: What?
Me: Nothing.

I spent the evening in front of the telly, trying to cheer myself up with beer, barbecue and Being John Malkovitch.

Yesterday was a completely different story: The sky was blue, I was talking like July Andrews* and it was so windy that just moving in the streets was a chore. Online videos show bin lids whizzing around like windmills. Some rental bikes were dragged from their moorings. One poor bastard was struck and killed by a falling billboard in Wudaokou.

“Real,” as Dan Ackroyd would say, “wrath of God type shit”. And just another element of Beijing that I’m unlikely ever to understand.

*(post surgery, but it’s better than nothing)

The Jing in the Spring


“Anyone for tennis?”

Spring is here. Beijing has a four season climate, but the winter and summer are long and the other two seasons are short. The perfect time for sports jackets and t-shirts is a small window of opportunity.

In China, there’s often an old-fashioned view of English gentlemen spending the springtime at picnics, loafing about in straw boaters and plus fours while lazily batting around a tennis ball and munching cucumber sandwiches. I can’t speak for all English people*, but for me it’s pretty much a half truth. I don’t own any knickerbockers, and badminton is far more popular here than tennis. But when it comes to picnics with the gf and friends, especially in idyllic Chaoyang Park, I’m there quicker than you can say “ants and random dust storms”.

Cháoyáng Gōngyuán is a beautiful and vast green space, the largest park in the city. By a fine stroke of serendipity, the 2017 Beijing Book Fair was out in force the very day we chose for our luncheon, meaning the opportunity to browse at least a handful of used English language paperbacks (a veritable treasure trove by Beijing standards). I nearly bought a copy of the restored text version of William Burroughs’ The Soft Machine but I hastily dropped this idea (and the book itself) when I noticed it was a little too used, with a suspicious yellow crust across the back cover. This raised questions that I don’t even want to ask, let alone answer.


Aprés park, we popped into Zoo Coffee and wandered around Blue Harbour, a riverside shopping area and bar street at the far end of the park. Blue Harbour is reminiscent of Patrick McGoohan’s cosmopolitan Village, but instead of polite, colorful, numbered denizens it’s just the same cynical hipsters you get everywhere in the Jing. We took selfies at the Italianate fountain, dismissed a ‘British’ pub as both inauthentic and far too expensive, spent at least half an hour in another beautiful bookshop and then, as always, had Chinese food for dinner.

As I finish writing this entry, a handful of days later, the weather has already turned sweltering and the sports jacket has gone into the cupboard.

*or ‘ex’-English people

A Zed & Two Noughts

img_1709“Beijing Zoo is a paradise with its luxuriant vegetation, elegantly meandering water systems, scenic landscapes and various animals in good health.” – Xicheng District Tourism Administration

And so another Xmas has passed, and the western new year has trundled towards us like an old Chinese lady on a moped who doesn’t give a damn that you aren’t supposed to mount the pavement with those things. If dancing on the table with other foreigners at KTV and watching mawkish Hollywood fare with the gf didn’t exactly melt my heart then it has at least defrosted it slightly.

I spent Boxing Day at Beijing Zoo. I have mixed feelings about zoos. A travel writer whose name escapes me once said that if all zoos are animal prisons then Beijing must be death row. I think that’s unfair. Although mainland China isn’t exactly renowned for its track record when it comes to animal rights, looking at Beijing Zoo as nothing more than the Alcatraz of the animal kingdom, where an ironically cast Patrick McGoohan keeps a beady eye on the red pandas, is as ignorant as it is laden with references to classic Clint Eastwood movies.

When I was in Vancouver, I met a lot of international travelers (it goes with the territory when one works in a hostel). Many of them would ask about popular tourist destinations or just ‘things to do’. When the Vancouver Aquarium was mentioned it was often dismissed outright with some variation of “I don’t do zoos or aquariums”. It’s easy to empathize with such a philosophy (I absolutely do not ‘do’ animal circuses, for example). It’s also easy to turn up a nose and say that no one should visit a zoo in a million years, and that people should only visit animals in their natural habitat. But the bare-faced fact is this: the average Chinese person has about as much opportunity to go on an African safari as the average Kenyan person has of visiting Yonghegong. Everything from wages to potential visa snafus count heavily against it.

Beijing Zoo, whatever its faults may be, is a chance for educating people, young and old, about the fauna of the world. I’ve now been there twice and I don’t feel that the reputation it has in some quarters is deserved any more than other zoos I’ve visited (in London or Calgary, for example). In an ‘ideal’ world, zoos wouldn’t exist. But neither would sweatshops, coal mines or The Jonathan Ross Show.

It’s admittedly a mixed bag. The panda house is very impressive, while the king (and queen) of the jungle aren’t blessed with quite so much space. The elephant enclosure is, in my opinion, inadequate. So much so that the Chinese colleague I went with the first time refused to go in with me.

I urge you not to take my word or opinion on this, and to make your own visit. The (financial) cost is ¥10 on the door, with the panda enclosure costing ¥5 extra (assuming you avoid the ridiculously overpriced gift shop). I have yet to visit the aquarium, which has less to do with my moral compass and more to do with the extra cost of ¥150.

Plato Rides the Batong Line

(GEEKY DRINKING GAME: Ganbei a small bottle of Tsing Tao every time you spot a time travel reference ‘cleverly’ hidden in the following entry! Yes, I apparently have that much time on my hands.) (No, that isn’t one of them.)

“The barman says “We don’t serve faster than light neutrinos in here!” Then a neutrino walks into a bar.”

Back in the UK, I was a pretty voracious reader. I used to love scouring the charity shops for trashy sf and horror paperbacks. Finding deals like Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves and W. Somerset Maugham’s The Magician for a quid each, (in the same freaking shop!) made me feel like I was cruising at 88 miles an hour, pulling a trick worthy of the unscrupulous book-dealing con-man played by Johnny Depp in The Ninth Gate.

I kind of wish I had brought more books out East with me. It isn’t that English language books are unheard of here, not at all. Wangfujing has two huge bookstores, including one specifically for foreign language books. Page One and the Bookworm in Sanlitun are both veritable treasure troves. A friend of mine was even lucky enough to discover a copy of The Alchemist at the ‘Paradise Time Travel Book Shop’* conveniently located down the same mist-shrouded hutong as the shops from The Neverending Story, Gremlins and about half a dozen episodes of The Twilight Zone.

English and American food is slightly cheaper here than in the UK. English and American clothes are about the same price. But English and American books are shittingly expensive, as if all of the book shops are run by the unscrupulous book-dealing con-man played by Johnny Depp in The Ninth Gate.

Since moving to Beijing, I haven’t read as much as I usually do. I work long hours and I try to enjoy the city and the company of my friends during my days off. There’s a tendency for us foreigners to live in the moment here in the  because none of us really know how long we’ll be here, like travelers on different streams, whose craft occasionally intersect ever so briefly.

One of the places that I always try to read is on the subway. Up until recently, I was teaching a class once a week at the Beijing Language and Culture University (BLCU) in Wudaokou, a two-hour commute from my home in Tongzhou. Everything about the class was a gigantic pain in the anus (which is why I don’t teach it anymore), but the silver lining of a four-hour round trip was that I got a lot of reading done.

As well as trashy science fiction paperbacks, I like reading things that actually teach you something or open your mind to another person’s point of view. Some of my favourite writers have totally differing political opinions and world views from my own. Sometimes that’s part of the appeal. One of the reasons I love the performing arts is because of the experience of pretending to be someone else for awhile, like the guy from Quantum Leap or the fella who finds the portal behind the filing cabinet in Being John Malkovich.

Reading can also be a sort of medicine. Somebody told me that they even prescribe some psychology and self-help books on the NHS now. If it’s true, it doesn’t surprise me, but we’ll see how long that one lasts under the Tories shall we?

Something else I’ve had a passing interest in for the last few years is quantum mechanics. Don’t get me wrong, I am no Leonard Suskind or Nassim Haramein, I just like trying to get my dumbass layman’s head around how the universe might work. I recently made friends with a colleague over our mutual love of physics when a TV news report led to the following Bill & Ted style conversation:

Me: I fucking love quantum mechanics.
Him: Me too, believe it or not.
Me: No fucking way!
Him: Yeah, man.
Me: Sweet!

I have been re-reading a very strange and mystical e-book, written by a man with an incredible (and almost certainly made-up) life story that makes him sound like the Dos Equis bloke. He has no academic qualifications except for a Phd from the University of Bonkers. His e-book is about how he basically found a way to kill reality in the face when he discovered (from someone else who actually did research) that we are all living inside a giant hologram. It’s a bit like the book written by the mad old lady from Donnie Darko, only this one is real and apparently serious.

I believe that the universe is a bloody strange place. I believe that reality is only ‘reality’ because of the way it is perceived. I believe that most people spend their lives plugged into the matrix or sitting around in Plato’s cave complaining about the weather when all they have to do to see the sunlight is wake up or turn around. I remember once lying in a park in Northampton, looking at the University campus when I suddenly realized that if I turned 180 degrees, I would actually have a more interesting view: trees, dogs, multicoloured kites. I wondered at the time how many people could have a slightly better life or worldview if they were willing to make a metaphorical 180!

The world itself is a very, very small place. I absolutely love Carl Sagan’s speech about the ‘Pale Blue Dot’ on which we live (http://youtu.be/4PN5JJDh78I). The seaside at Dongdaihe is much of a muchness compared to the seaside at Mousehole or Mablethorpe. The view I have seen from the Great Wall of China is not that different to some of the views in Wales or Cornwall, and neither is the feeling of connection and satisfaction.

I’ve always loved the nineties TV programme Northern Exposure. There’s a cheesy line in that where someone describes Alaska as “not a state, but a state of mind.” I no longer understand why anyone with means would use their geographical or temporal location as an excuse to be unhappy.

Learning never used to be important to me. We moved around a lot when I was younger. I went to seven different schools and I hated all of them. Every evening my mum would ask if I had homework and every evening I’d lie and say that I didn’t. Whenever I was given a detention I didn’t show up to it, and eventually my teachers just gave up on me. The only time I ever did any written work at home was when I finally enrolled at university, and for that I was rewarded with a filmmaking diploma. In fact, it was scribbling essays on stuff like Twelve Monkeys and The Butterfly Effect that helped me to realize I wanted to be a writer. Even then the lowest mark I ever received on the course was for my scriptwriting, because my tutor thought it was too weird!

I never even enjoyed reading, except for comic books, and the occasional Sylvester McCoy-era New Adventure. I mostly just enjoyed staying up and watching sci fi shows on late night cable, which is why I never had time for homework (I was too busy watching Star Trek episodes where Kirk had to run over Joan Colins with a bus, or Picard had to wrestle android heads from Mark Twain). It was only when I realized that I wanted to write that I also realized I had damn well better try to figure out how the universe works. I think it was a pretty good decision, because it means that I occasionally catch myself “lol”-ing at geeky jokes, like: “The barman says “We don’t serve faster than light neutrinos in here!” Then a neutrino walks into a bar.”

*(My misplaced emphasis when reading the shop sign led me to believe that it was a ridiculously specialist place where I’d be able to read up on Einstein’s theories and maybe even rekindle my nerdy passion for Sylvester McCoy-era New Adventures, but it’s actually the third word alone, ‘travel’, that tells you what sort of books to expect. The first two words are just a name. Even so, it reminded me of a joke: “The barman says “We don’t serve faster than light neutrinos in here!” Then a neutrino walks into a bar.”)