57. Philatering to deceive

smoking-jacketThere was no such thing as middle-aged when I was a kid. Humans were either young or old. Had I been forced to make the distinction and recognise the semi-greys in my midst, I would probably have muttered something about how they were only interested in trainspotting, golf and stamp collecting before taking off on another charity shop run, praying there might be a suitable smoking jacket available at the Cottage Hospital Shop this time round. Youth is truly wasted on the young Oscar Wilde devotee.

Never a fan of hobbies that didn’t involve the pub or football pitch, I’ve recently found myself drawn to some of the activities that once made me shudder. In Yangon over Christmas, while my energetic paramour was busy capturing the street life around dusty Insein station, I was stopped in my tracks by an ancient British steam train, which I proceeded to stalk, pet and document as if it were a great white rhino and I was a flying vet.
IMG_7289.JPGFortunately, my left-handedness (and an imagined shortage of suitable clubs) has long provided me with a ready excuse for avoiding golf, meaning I needn’t reveal the real reason why I must avoid this game at all costs: I have an apocalyptic temper when it comes to putting small balls in holes and am only a marginally better loser than the President Elect. However, as I queued to post items back to the UK recently, I found myself supping from another holy grail of the middle-aged – philately.
hk-new-stampsEntranced by an advert for a new set of stamps sporting pencil drawings of Hong Kong by a Mr Kong Kar-ming, I began daydreaming about using them to begin my own modest but meaningful collection. Yet far from making my smug purchase and sliding contentedly into metaphorical slippers back home, my thought process then accelerated towards some of the more reckless actions of my unthinking youth. Soon I wasn’t in a very comfortable place at all.

When my grandfather, Les, died in the mid-1980s, death was a remote concept. I was too busy coming to terms with my own awkward identity to fully imagine someone else’s. Les had been suffering for months. It was his time. End of story. But that sense of remove wasn’t to last long. I inherited some items from Les, including his electric razor. Fiddling with the head some months after his death, I managed to send hundreds and thousands of salt-and-pepper stubble flecks into the sink. Horrified by this visceral reminder of his being, I was forced to confront the truth: I hadn’t simply lost a relative, I’d lost a living, breathing person – and before I’d come to know him properly.

My reaction to this injustice was as mature as you might expect from an undiagnosed child prodigy with a thing for second-hand smoking jackets. I turned to something else I’d inherited. Les had asked friends and colleagues to post him matchbooks from wherever they travelled. Some of them were pretty cool. Pretty soon I was using these matches to light my Camel cigarettes. Why not? Life was short and unfair. It could all go up in smoke as far as I was concerned. After the shaver had been abandoned, and most of the matches used up, my attention finally turned to Les’ stamp collection.

Unfortunately, rather than learning my lesson from recent conflagrations and recognising the stories behind the hordes of miniature images, I merely saw the stamps as another means of funding my teenage lifestyle. A friend and I took Les’ stamps to Birkenhead indoor market, then a den of iniquity populated by intergalactic bounty hunters, spice traders and chippies. On the way to the stamp dealer we passed a stall selling unused matchbooks commemorating recent weddings: ‘Dave and Emma, 15.12.88’, ‘Sammy & Sheila Forever’ etc. A misprint or mismatch – what did it matter to us? We snapped up a few to calm our nerves.

I can picture the specialist stamp stall – how a sliver of outdoor light pierced the unflappable sheets of stuck-fast goodies – but not the dealer’s face. Possibly it was too middle-aged for me to process. Or perhaps I was too nervous, or guilty, to look him in the eye. The transaction itself was quick and merciless. We were told the stamps were nothing special, that he’d be doing us a favour if he gave us a few quid for them. Lies, most likely, but we’d come all this way so…the deal was done.

The money we made soon vanished, leaving me feeling angry and ashamed. What would Les have thought about our loss? A scientist, a man of numbers – it was one thing to jettison a family heirloom, but to get so little remuneration in return?

Years later, my uncle told me that the biggest danger Les faced during the war while spotting for enemy planes was an ARP colleague with an itchy trigger finger and penchant for whisky. He had a cigar every Christmas but was otherwise no fan of smoking either. In retrospect, I think Les would have been happy that we made so little to squander from his stamps. He might even have reminded me that what goes around comes around (provided sufficient postage has been paid). Either way, this post is my apology to him, coupled with an acceptance that one Christmas soon those left-handed gold clubs are coming my way.

Griefcast, Cariad Lloyd’s funny and poignant podcast about grief and grieving is well worth a listen: https://soundcloud.com/griefcast

56. To all the readers out there craving more Hong Kong writing

hkfp-facebook-bannerI couldn’t be prouder to see the 12th HKWC anthology Hong Kong Future Perfect being launched this Thursday at the Art & Culture Outreach bookstore in Wan Chai. No fanfares, just a gathering of interested parties for an interesting party: music from cerebral singer-songwriter P E A C E and readings from eight of our fantastic writers. This is the culmination of months of work for my co-editor Elizabeth Solomon and I, and right up to the last we’re keeping it tense. Will the freshly printed books find their way to the venue or will the embedded microchips fail, causing us to rely on our sinister fleet of Lit-drones? How early in the evening will I spill wine over the nibbles, saturating the handpicked typos and Oxford commas? Have we captured the zeitgeist, or is it about to run off somewhere else, thumping its chest?

What is certain is that this will be my last foray into publishing in Hong Kong for a while, the latest DSE English course book on which I’ve worked having likewise gone to print recently. Hong Kong Future Perfect is a gift from its writers and editors to a much-loved city and, in my case, a goodbye too. The Word Diver is about to take refuge in Davy Jones’ locker, with only a blank page and extendable snorkel for company. Thanks to everyone who has followed the blog, or dipped in now and again. A reminder that you can still find reflections on life in Victorian Manchester in my first blog, Cotton and Coal, and life as a trailing spouse in Washington DC in my second, The Diplomat’s Fiancé.

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If your name’s not down, you can still come in – see you Thursday

A special mention to K & C who arranged some guerrilla readings at my ‘Bookish Beach Bum’s Birthday Bash’ in October. Stiffened by the sea breeze and fortified by grog, brave volunteers read extracts from my work, or directed their own humorous and/or vaguely insulting poetry at me. It meant a lot. Here’s hoping for more happy memories on Thursday – they’re all being stashed in my hairy sea chest. Stick a few in yours as well.

 

54. Giant Faces

My first reaction on leaving the ferry at the weekend and half-noticing a series of giant heads pockmarking the harbour-front was one of relief. Local elections must be underway; choices may be limited but at least some form of choice is available. On realising the beaming noggins belonged to a rogue’s gallery of rock star number crunchers and pin-up financiers, their job to allure the aspiring into joining a conference that may as well be calling ‘How to Get Rich Quick (Before the World Ends)’, my heart sank.

It picked up pace again (I was walking so it needed to) when I realised how few politicians I would rather have blocking out the watery sunshine with their own attempts to look human. Still, should a sudden typhoon cause one of the faces to come unstuck and flatten me, wouldn’t I rather it belonged to an elected member? I thought back over my life and decided what or whom I would most like to have seen on a loose piece of signage, shortly before it came for me.

Age 15 – almost any supermodel (coincidentally, this was around the time Kate Moss’s career began; still waiting for mine to start)

Age 21 – an awkward ‘family’ portrait featuring several moody-looking Beatnik writers, and Stephen Fry

Age 30 – Youthful-looking Humphreys signing 8-book ‘golden handcuffs’ deal with Penguin Classics

Age 43 – News from the US that it was all a terrible dream/OJ Fart has fallen off his podium during rambunctious inaugural address, shattering ego etc.

What seems more likely going forward is that I become the victim of friendly fire. This is a time to stand up and be counted, to hit the streets whenever necessary; one danger being that your bedrock beliefs are piled on by a gaggle of other opinions, some of which you may not wish to support as fully, or at all. This happened to me whenever I visited Liverpool city centre as a teen, to shop for erotic posters at Athena or browse self-consciously at Probe Records. Stopping to sign a Socialist Worker petition against human rights abuses, I would find myself being pressured to sign multiple other documents related to unconnected causes.

Back in the UK, protesting on a blustery winter’s day while daydreaming of Hemingway’s Spain, I can imagine a ‘NO MORE BULL’ placard decorated with bloodied torro heading straight for me. Better that than a big-faced bullshitter anyway.

53. Self-defence class: PEN launches in Hong Kong

Stone age politics, meet advanced technology. Oh, you’ve met before? A hundred years ago? I see. And how did that go? Great.guernica_all-oldThe world is more terrifying than ever, especially to fiction writers – a particularly wimpy bunch. You could argue that Hemingway and Orwell were exceptions to the rule but it’s doubtful either would have lasted long in a Game of Thrones-type landscape. Journalists are far braver, of course; an increasing number of them giving their lives for diminishing returns in the post-truth age. Something else that contrasts the better ones with fictionheads is an impartiality when it comes to politics. Yet just as fiction writers may soon be forced to learn how to dig bomb shelters and fight hand-to-hand, so journalists are having to show their colours less discretely – especially when their freedom to report is threatened.IMG_6946.JPGWhile I’m running a course in urban sniping for short story writers next week at Fringe, PEN Hong Kong’s less melodramatic reaction to recent events is to set out a mandate of reasonable measures they can use to help protect the written word in the city. They are open to ideas, but for now these include collecting and analysing media data, maintaining a watch list, and going into schools to promote literature and freedom of expression.IMG_6947.JPGThe impressive panel unveiled at its launch on 13 November 2016 is led by Jason K. Ng, a roving, pen-wielding presence in today’s Hong Kong, and an important contributor to the forthcoming anthology Hong Kong Future Perfect. Author Mishi Saran kicks things off, saying it’s time for writers to take a stand. In a world where ‘the thugs are emboldened’, she explains, ‘I can’t just sit in my room fiddling with sentences’. Saran quotes a holocaust survivor who insists, ‘you must always take sides’, and James Baldwin who told us, ‘you have to tell the world how you want to be treated’. It’s likely that many in the audience at the Foreign Correspondents Club are wrestling with the same demons, but I suspect it’s the genuineness of Saran’s delivery as much as empathy with her situation that leads to the prolonged applause after her words.

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Copies of Afterness – an anthology from City’s U’s Creative Writing graduates – disappeared almost as quickly as the Uni axed the course

Tammy Ho Lai-Ming, co-founder of Cha: An Asian Literary Journal and an emerging academic, took things from high principles to grim facts as she related a personal story of self-censorship. An allegorical tale for the 2010s, it began with her reposting a captioned Facebook photo of a professor who refused to award a degree to a student who had taken a yellow umbrella on stage at his graduation ceremony. A colleague, believing she had Ho’s best interests at heart, advised her to remove the post, suspecting its lingering presence might preclude her friend from a university job extension. Ho refused to accept the idea that you ‘shouldn’t be too political in Hong Kong academia’; in fact, she believes having such conversations openly is the only way to escape a climate of paranoia and fear.img_6869Bao Pu, founder of New Century Press, picked up where he left off at the PEN America talk a week earlier (second from right above – with reappeared bookseller Lam Wing-kee, second from left). For Bao, Hong Kong’s role as a publishing safe house – where memoirs and histories can be freely written and published – provides a vital mirror to modern China. Noting that these publications are in decline, he nevertheless finds hope in recent legal victories when it comes to cross-border book seizures; the mainland’s banned book list not only needs constant updating, but its secrecy means it’s very hard to defend confiscations legally.

Ilaria Maria Zucchina has been covering Hong Kong news since the ‘90s. Like Saran, she now feels compelled to speak out, in her case having witnessed the increasing restrictions placed on journalists in Hong Kong today. No longer can she get ready access to government officials – ‘we’ll get back to you’ translates into missed deadlines, something unaffordable in the Internet age. Perhaps most surprising to me is hearing that reporters from Internet news providers such as Hong Kong Free Press are refused press cards and entry into government press conferences because they operate outside the traditional print media. Whether this is a failure to keep up with the times or something more deliberate isn’t clear, but it does Hong Kong no favours as it attempts to debate its future in a sensible way.

The event concludes to more determined applause. Not so much a call to arms as a firm and friendly reminder that writers and journalists have a responsibility to themselves and others not to turn the other cheek, and to continue to do what they do, only more so, when times are dark.

51. Memorable Times I’ve Been Sworn At In Public

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Leaving the ferry late the other night, nursing a can of almost-drunk Kirin in my paw and heading for home, I was surprised to witness a youth sprinting ahead of me instead of veering towards our incongruous McDonald’s or one of the island’s nocturnal food stands (cheesy fish balls anyone?) What he did next almost shocked me. He spun round on his heels and gave me the finger, repeatedly and determinedly, before disappearing into the shadows.

Why was I only almost shocked? This is Hong Kong. Getting abuse on the street is as rare as thousand-year-old hen’s teeth. I guess the reason I wasn’t entirely surprised by the abuse is because I have a long and varied history of being sworn at in public that crosses continents and defies (so far as I’m aware) personal motivation on behalf of the cursers, which suggests that at certain times or in particular circumstances I am representative of something far more provocative than I perceive myself to be.

Take the case of the elderly football fan who approached me in Krakow as we relieved ourselves behind a stand during a tense Wisła Kraków match. Keep in mind that at the local derby between Wisła and KS Cracovia it’s not unknown for rival fans to battle with swords and axes. But what threat did he see in me? Perhaps the shadow of a British hooligan he’d grappled with in the ‘80s at this ground or another? On this occasion he shuffled up to me so gingerly that I offered my hand as much to support him as allow him the honour of greeting a guest new to his land. While his English mustn’t have been exercised very often, he spoke clearly and carefully to make sure I wouldn’t miss a word.

‘You…are….a…hideous…piece…of…sh*t.’

I smiled. He smiled. We zipped up our flies.

On the same European trip there was the punk in Berlin. Taking photos in the deserted streets around the neighbourhood I found myself in, I was feeling good about the city – not to mention life and all the opportunities it provides. All until, crouching down to snap some or other piece of street architecture, my lens focused on a huge pair of black bovver boots protruding from the cobbles. At the summit of this immovable object was a Mohican; at the midriff a middle finger that was telling me exactly where to go more succinctly and effectively than most Tourist Information Centres I’ve visited.

I smiled. Moved on my way. Quickly.

Next there was Washington DC. Walking not far off U-Street, near Busboys and Poets (the kind of aspirational, all-purpose, all-welcome venue you find in areas undergoing gentrification), an old African-American guy confronted me on the street: ‘Kiss my black ass you gay f*ck’, he said – delivering a mixed message that I’d no intention of picking apart for his benefit or mine. Perhaps if I’d been close enough to him to smell the booze on his breath I might have nudged him closer towards the gutter, but as he was pretty much there already I just kept walking.

Of all these vaguely threatening but still incredibly minor incidents (when compared to the abuse others face on streets around the world on a daily basis) the one in DC was probably the most understandable – once you got past the racism and homophobia. The city was changing while remaining largely segregated. And a social group that appeared to be benefitting infinitely more than older, poorly educated black men was privileged white dudes my age. However, as with the Polish football fan and German punk, I couldn’t imagine any extended dialogue designed to placate him ending with anything other than a bottle of strong, sticky spirits being smashed over my head.

Safe to say I didn’t feel as uncomfortable during this latest incident in Hong Kong. I taught English on this island a few years ago. It’s not out of the question that I forced the finger-waggling kid to read a poem aloud in class. Something to do with the sea no doubt. I’ll let this one go, as I’ve let the other incidents go. Every now and then you’re in the wrong place at the wrong time. What can you do? You just have to hold your hands up, accept the finger, and move on.

50. Future Perfect: anthology-editing pointers

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What a thrill to have co-edited the latest Hong Kong Writers Circle (HKWC) anthology, themed Hong Kong Future Perfect, with Elizabeth Solomon. As a result of our labours, twenty-one surprising and subversive stories about the city can be yours on or soon after the 15 December 2016 launch date.

So what lessons did I learn from the experience? Here are a few pointers to others looking to edit their own fiction anthology.

1. Being on the other side of the process is always an eye-opener
Editors are no more the writer’s enemy than literary agents (whatever rants I may have posted recently). As someone used to being asked to change my semi-precious words by often-unseen editors, I recognise the frustration writers feel at being ‘misunderstood’.

However, editors need to stand firm when they need to: they appreciate the overall vision of the book/magazine/online publication more than the talent, who have already been assured by acceptance that their piece is loved.

2. Consistency is key
Consult your style guide. If you don’t have one, write one before the submissions start to arrive. The HKWC style guide is our bedrock, and has been passed from editor to editor; which doesn’t mean it can’t be tweaked occasionally. Yet the relief of knowing that, for example, ‘realize’ will be ‘realise’, and ‘OK’, ‘okay’, gives you more time to concentrate on the creative side of your work – aka the fun bit.

3. Know your limits
In a self-publishing age, it’s important to realise that you can’t do everything yourself. An editor or editing team is unlikely to have the talent to design a professional-standard cover or typeset the manuscript in its final form. Get help, which means paying for help when necessary.

4. Get a second opinion
HKWC anthologies rarely operate with a single editor. In general, an editing team is established long before the theme is dreamt up and submissions received. There is no ideal number, a lot depends on personality, but a small team of two or three – each with specific roles and responsibilities – is preferable to a committee.

5. Use Word tools
Upon opening a submission click Tools -> Track changes -> Highlight changes and tick all the boxes before you engage with the text. This feature shows the writer exactly how you’ve nuked the nuance from their piece and allows them to ‘accept’ or ‘reject’ your changes when they take a look at your edit.

[Remember to keep a separate draft of every story at each stage of the process so you can cross-reference changes and see which of those rejections you might have to ‘unreject’ for the sake of the story/anthology.]

To give general or specific feedback use Insert -> New comment. Bar typos or grammatical boobs, it’s better to suggest before you change. Use comments to ask questions or offer alternative words or sentence rewrites in parenthesis.

6. Manage expectations
After accepting a story and relaying the good news, tell writers when you will be in touch with your initial edits. On sending them, be clear what you want. Unless you want a complete rewrite (unlikely) stress that only the indicated parts of the text need changing, otherwise you may find yourself with a whole heap of fresh editing to undertake.

Keep the writer in the loop throughout the second edit and beyond. As the initial buzz of acceptance wears off, the inevitable anxiety and self-doubt can take over so make sure you let writers know they are part of something special and are being listened to and kept in the loop.

7. Let it flow
When deciding on the order of stories in your collection try to keep the reader guessing about what’s coming next without confusing them unnecessarily. There is no perfect formula for deciding on story sequence (as I’m sure readers of Hong Kong Future Perfect will soon be telling me) but just as there should be a rhythm and flow to individual pieces, so the collection itself should be marching to the beat of its own drum.

As with so much of editing, consistency is key. Don’t attempt ‘top load’ your collection with the ‘best’ stories – presuming you even know which these are. Instead take the reader on a journey that will be interesting from start to finish.

Fortunately for us, Hong Kong Future Perfect has a reassuringly strong line-up of authors – an array of fresh, fragrant and occasionally fruity writers willing and able to forgive the editors for playing hard and fast with their own guidelines on occasion.

It also engages with the most predictable yet intriguing theme possible at this juncture in the city’s history: the future of Hong Kong.

Just as we hope to see Hong Kong thrive in the years ahead, so we need its literary voices to continue to be heard. If you would like to help guarantee the future survival of the Hong Kong Writers Circle, please volunteer to take a role on the committee in 2017. Email hello@hkwriterscircle.com for more information.

48. Something of what Bowie looked at

Somewhere near the top of the bland ceramic womb of Hong Kong’s Pacific Place mall there is a Sotheby’s, or at least a showroom belonging to the international art and antique peddlers. I am guided to the correct elevator by a smiling woman holding a picture of David Bowie with a finger to his lips. Mixed messages. I have swapped the Hunky Dory tranquillity of home for the Tin Machine tinnitus of the city specifically to see the art collection of one of my heroes which, somewhat depressingly, is being flown around the world over the next few weeks, presumably to see which economic hub is capable of birthing an oligarch with the beans to bid hard and fast when the 350 pieces are sold in three thematic job lots in London next month.

Sealed into my metal box I sigh in sympathy with the lift doors, and also in recollection at a certain dream I had before coming to Hong Kong. An avid Antiques Roadshow fan, I remember explaining to my ex-wife how I was seriously considering entering the antiques trade on arrival, sight unseen, in our new home. Before she started laughing, I sketched out a near-future scenario in which I would become a cross between Indiana Jones and Lovejoy. When she saw I was being serious, a mental note was made in the deficit column and accountancy courses were suggested.
img_6784We all suspect Bowie was well hung, but was he well lit? Not in this case. The twenty or so selections from his art collection are banged under uniformly bright lighting, allowing viewers to interact with the more brooding, abstract work by casting dirty great shadows onto murky canvases. Sure, no one wants to trip over a Picasso or mistake a Damien Hirst spin painting for a genuine work of art, but there seems little call for this treatment at what should be an intimate preview/last chance to see.
IMG_6790.jpgAlthough a Wyndham Lewis sketch could – at a stretch – be a nascent Starman or Bowie-as-mime, it’s too small to create much of an impact.
IMG_6779.jpgBar the bold Basquiat and some neon sculpture straight out of Homer Simpson’s day job, the exhibits are more reflective than might have been expected. Family is a key theme, and eponymous in Henry Moore’s undersized, overpriced sculpture.
IMG_6785.jpgThe purpose of coming today was to see things Bowie looked at and wanted. It’s tempting to wonder if Moore’s piece was chosen for its simple depiction of a straightforward nuclear family, something that eluded Bowie in his youth, due in part to his brother’s mental illness – a state of affairs he would write about so hypnotically in The Bewlay Brothers.
IMG_6787.jpgBowie’s purchase of unfashionable British artists from the last century has been gleefully seized upon in at least one review as a mark of his repressed conservatism, but I wonder if the melancholy hues of these dusty-seeming objects and canvases represented a confusion related to his past that he needed to identify, and hang.

These lines in Dollar Days, a song on Bowie’s final record, entered my ears as I studied the pieces: ‘If I never see the English evergreens I’m running to / It’s nothing to me / It’s nothing to see’. Superficially, these words support the defiant approach to death that permeates much of Blackstar, but an alternative reading is that so fixed within his mind was the idea of Englishness – the gentle countryside, the surreal humour – that he need not see his homeland in the flesh again: it existed within him, as it exists within some of the pieces on display here.
IMG_6781.jpgTrying not to dwell on the inevitable feeling of loneliness and loss tucked between the artworks, I concentrate on some of Bowie’s more contemporary acquisitions: the giant telephone, bright red cube radio and beige record player (all estimated to fetch £200-£600, if you’re interested), above which is listed his 25 albums that could ‘Change Your Reputation’. Tongue in cheek, finger to his lips, whatever your verdict on his art collection it’s clear who’s having the last laugh here, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a hint or two of what was going on behind the scenes in the eternal expat’s living museum in New York.
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45. Do not go gracefully into that (footballing) goodnight…

I like to think I quit playing 11-a-side football in Hong Kong’s broiling heat with a shred of dignity in tact. My clattering challenge to give away a penalty, yellow card for scything someone down moments later and violent argument with a posh n’ dim expat teammate as we left the field at halftime suggest otherwise. We were losing heavily – would lose heavily – and in unrelenting midday sunshine I was close to losing the plot.

The brutal truth is I can no longer keep up with the pacey strikers that dominate our middling league, some of whom are half my age. Even in my underwhelming pomp I relied on good positioning to intercept and head the ball away, yet could give chase and slide-tackle if required. These days once they are past me, the pesky prima donnas are as remote as the cattle I recall a Canadian relative telling me were chewing the cud in British Columbia as we stood squinting at them in Alberta.
Good Fit (home)
I’ve seen this sudden or steady decline happen to countless other amateur players over the years. I never thought it would happen to me. On witnessing the struggles of an older teammate I’ve always tried to cover for them, allowing such players – many of whom were sublime at their peak – some dignity. To be singled out for criticism by this alleged teammate on Sunday either does me credit (maybe in bearing and physique I still look capable of chasing lost causes) or confirms he really is the type of selfish yet slovenly striker that give forwards a bad name. A pilot for Hong Kong’s monopolizing airline, I hear much of the job these days is hanging round up front looking unphased. I can confirm he is quite good at that. Anyway, back to me…

Football has been a regular companion from when I first moved to Hong Kong five years ago – a sort of less violent version of the Hong Kong Writers Circle, to which I also signed up on arrival. Boots at the ready, I advertised my services through an online forum and met Gary, a diminutive cancer survivor with a twinkle in his eye, and manager of Good Fit FC, a team largely made up of factory workers from across the border with a smattering of foreigners of various shapes, sizes and nationalities (I would play with dislocated Albanians, Guinness-loving Croats and chain-smoking Chinese fullbacks with a hint of dangerous glamour about their aged features).
Good Fit (away)
Yes, Good Fit was a good fit for me. When my marriage was disintegrating, I had the ritual of the Sunday game to help me through the week. When I was drinking too much, the thought of the Sunday morning alarm clock was often enough to get me to bed. Gary’s management technique is deceptive. He visits cancer wards and shouts at the patients, telling them not to give up when he sees the fire leaving their eyes. Tough love. Not so with the team. ‘Go out and enjoy the game,’ is his pre-kickoff mantra, and has been for as long as I’ve known him. Most of us know what he’s really saying is ‘Life is short, seize the day’; English-speaking players who don’t understand this can get frustrated with the lack of tactical bite, a few head off to new teams – briefly, I was one of them.

Hong Kong Falcon signed up to a legal eagle league and took me along for the ride. The standard was high, but so were spirits. Our first team meeting was a rooftop barbecue at player-manager Franco’s home in Tuen Mun. The great thing about playing for an Italian team was the fact that so many of my colleagues were in the restaurant business; several from the same small town in Southern Italy that was seeing many of its young men leaving to seek their fortune in Hong Kong. Here, the rivalry was off the pitch as beaming chefs competed to provide the most succulent dish. On the private mini-bus that took us to matches, the competition was all about who could spot the prettiest girl en route. The only other non-Italian player was a former Hong Kong youth international whose career had been hijacked by injury. We shook our heads, smiled. Meanwhile the driver turned and pleaded with the boys to stop banging on the windows.
HK Falcon 2012-13
My marriage disintegrated further. Falcon deployed the sweeper system. So did my wife. I missed training and lost my place in the team. I went back to Gary. ‘No problem’. Last Sunday was my first game in six months. Travel from my outlying island home to fixtures in the New Territories made it impossible for me to play regularly for Good Fit. Instead I would help out occasionally when the game was at Happy Valley, or somewhere else manageable. I enjoyed playing my last game there, beneath the skyscrapers and circling kites (vultures?) When I created a fictional player – ageing expat Reg Garter – to muse on Hong Kong football a couple of years ago, I also had him play his final match at the Valley, suffering a non-fatal heart attack at the bottom of an international pile-on after inadvertently scoring the winner. I should count my lucky stars I’m not Reg, though in truth I’m much closer to being him than when I wrote his story…

There was a personal highlight from Sunday’s rout, and it wasn’t just hearing from Gary that the young bucks we were playing hadn’t conceded a goal all season before they faced us. From a corner I stole in front of our pilot – busy thinking up his next insult perhaps – and smashed the ball home. A clenched fist and nods to my defence. I like to think that the gawping mile-high tosser received a glimpse, however minute, of his own footballing mortality at that moment. I won’t hold my breath, preferring to use it to thank Gary and Good Fit and Hong Kong Falcon for a fantastic ride. Two days on from the match and my bones are still aching, my toes as remote as those cattle. The games will be different going forward but I will keep Gary’s advice close to heart and intend to enjoy every one.

Read more about Reg in ‘Happy and Glorious’ by clicking here.

 

 

43. In praise of podcasts

Do we still need ears? Yes, you heard me right – according to Hipzine.com musicologists in the States are experimenting with cutting edge technology that will not only trim unsightly ear hair but allow music to mutate into a purely visual art form within the next quarter century. How? By unleashing billions of vibrant colours to dance before our salivating gogs. Rumour has it Bowie was working on a follow-up to Blackstar in which musical notes were to be replaced by a cavalcade of pulses and pixels shortly before he died, the finished product intended for release on 3D edible vinyl with liquorice afterglow in early 2017.

So will any of us miss our auditory abilities once human beings have evolved heads as smooth as fish? Call me old-fashioned (can’t hear you) but I, for one, will. Having grown up (perhaps prematurely) listening to BBC Radio 4 I continue to love the sound of conversation blooming in my ear buds.

HKWC-Podcast-Blog

Which brings us circuitously to the latest edition of the Hong Kong Writers Circle podcast featuring award-winning crime novelist Jame DiBiasio in conversation with Simon Overton, the Circle’s resident interviewer/producer. Bucking the trend of embarrassing self-promotion that makes up 98% of today’s arts media content, mention of Jame’s books is followed by useful, in-depth discussion and generous advice about crime writing, international publishing, and how to stick to your guns as a contemporary author. Give your ears a treat by visiting http://www.hkwriterscircle.com/blog/

More ear stuffing
As a long-time commuter with a sketchy Internet connection it helps to have an array of podcasts at hand. You may have already sampled stalwarts like Serial, This American Life and The History Hour, but may not have tried Around the NFL, an American Football podcast that regularly enters into surreal territory and barroom philosophizing. Ever witnessed an acquaintance make a throwaway comment or treat a server with contempt and thought, ‘A-ha, so that’s what they’re really like…’? For the lads on the ATN pod this is a ‘reveal magnifico’, and can be equally applied to players, coaches, friends and family members.

Even if you’re a hugely successful author with access to your own semi-private ferry 24/7 you sometimes need nothing more than a mate in your ears. That’s the experience to be gained from following the new-ish Adam Buxton podcast. Interviews with Jon Ronson, Louis Theroux, Joe Cornish and others are intermingled with boozy rants from Adam’s shed, lashings of self-doubt, and occasional paeans to the great Dave himself. Perhaps there’ll soon be reckless speculation on that unreleased Bowie material there. I can only hope it’s better than mine…

42. A Hong Kong Christmas Story: Best Present Ever vs. Pappy Bot

I Robot

Christmas Eve. Every year it was the same. Leaving the office late then running round Hong Kong, trying to find a present for the boy. That’s how Larry ended up on Cat Street at nightfall, squinting in the dim lamplight of the last curio and bric-a-brac stall left open, hoping to find a toy unique enough to charm an eleven-year-old who already had everything money could buy.

‘Are you looking at me?’

The accent was pure New York, Martini mixed with gravel; reminding Larry of the cabbie who’d spun him round the Big Apple last time he took a bite.

‘Excuse me?’

The stallholder crossed his bare legs, turned a page of his racing guide and allowed a flicker of impatience to cross his brow. There was no point Larry asking him if he was the only one hearing voices.

‘You don’t like this one?’ the voice continued. ‘You’d rather I spoke like an angel or a princess or a high-class hooker? No problem. I can do all the accents. Last owner rewired my mimicry gland.’

‘Okay…’

Larry scanned the shelves, furry with dust, looking for an old tape recorder or radio that might be the source of the babbling. These places were a graveyard for obsolete technology; cables snaked around cherubic statuettes, brass candlesticks, gilt-framed mirrors and shit-bedecked birdcages. He let his tired eyes run along the faded spines of CDs and cassettes. Meanwhile the disembodied voice continued.

‘Twelve previous owners, eleven of them unspeakable bastards…’

The robot had just closed its tiny gold teeth when Larry found it. Doll-like with static whirlpool eyes, its silvery metal skin was exposed in patches through the peeling red and black of its old-fashioned robot livery. Sure, it was in need of a paint job, but wasn’t all this ‘50s retro stuff coming back into fashion?

‘Interesting…’

The robot seemed to be examining Larry as he was examining it. When Larry rubbed his chin thoughtfully, the robot did the same. Then it stopped and began to swing its little legs, as if it had made up its mind for both of them.

‘Take me home?’ the robot asked.

The stallholder wanted 800 but took 500. Maybe the robot’s chattering was distracting him from his wagers.

‘Need bag?’

‘It’s fine, I’ll walk,’ said the robot, answering for them.

Larry lifted the robot down from the shelf. There was no box. When he held it in mid-air, the small movements of its muscles and sinews and its unexpected heaviness reminded him of holding the boy years before; jogging the child in his arms before returning him to their helper, Noreen, on hearing the swish of the company limo outside.

‘Everything all right?’ the robot asked.

‘Yes…’

‘Good, you can put me down then.’

The robot was around two-and-a-half feet tall and showed itself capable of walking beside Larry as they made their way up towards Hollywood Road to find a cab. The streets were deserted and bathed in amber light. The neighbourhood smelled of incense, oranges and the beginnings of Christmas meals.

‘Do you have a name?’ Larry asked.

‘I can be whoever you want me to be, honey,’ said the robot, affecting a Texan drawl.

Larry stopped dead and turned to his companion.

‘Okay, metal face – let’s get one thing straight,’ he used the voice he reserved for reprobate employees. ‘You’re a gift for my eleven-year-old son. I want you to act accordingly. No funny business.’

‘Fine,’ the robot huffed. ‘Not a problem.’

They continued on in silence for a while before the automaton relented.

‘Pappy Bot’, he said through gritted teeth. ‘Kids like to call me Pappy Bot.’

Larry’s concerns about Pappy vanished when he saw how delighted his son was with his present the next day. Although Pappy remained testy once they were back at Larry’s palatial apartment, relaying the truism that ‘money can’t buy taste’, he was happy when his custodian gave up on the idea of wrapping him in shiny paper, and even happier while demolishing the brandy and slice of M&S Christmas cake his son had left out for Santa – ‘just in case’. When Larry’s son came into the lounge on Christmas morning, affecting coolness, he found Pappy snoozing on a sofa and couldn’t hide his excitement.

‘Wow, amazing!’

‘Hello, Samantha,’ said Pappy, bleary-eyed.

‘Sam,’ said Larry’s son. ‘My name’s Sam, but don’t stress it. I just know we’re going to have so much fun together.’

And they did. While Larry relaxed, sharing mince pies with Noreen and raising a glass of sherry in a brief, ironic toast to his ex-wife, Sam and Pappy raced around the apartment together. After a brief, chaotic game of rugby, Pappy demonstrated his skill at impersonations, using Sam’s tablet to access YouTube, through which he quickly learnt how to mimic CY Leung, Lady Gaga and Chewbacca.

‘You two enjoy today?’ asked Larry, as they sat down for Christmas dinner.

‘Totally,’ his son beamed. ‘Pappy is the best.’

His father tilted an eyebrow.

‘Sorry, dad,’ Sam corrected himself, grinning guiltily. ‘You’re the best.’

But the night didn’t pass altogether smoothly. Before dessert, Larry suggested they pull some crackers.

‘Neat!’ said Sam. ‘You’ll pull one with me, won’t you Pappy?’

‘Sure thing, kid.’

Larry noticed that in the ensuing tug-of-war, Pappy wasn’t afraid to employ the advantages he enjoyed as a well-designed machine. Just as Sam looked to be winning the contest, Pappy shifted gear, using an extra motor concealed in his tiny bicep to split the cracker and triumph.

BANG!

‘What’ve you got, Pappy?’ Sam asked as the smoke cleared.

Pappy discarded the joke and looked greedily at the toy that had fallen into his lap: a small plastic fish.

‘Say, what kind of piece of crap crackers are these?’ he turned on Larry, malice in his whirlpool eyes. ‘Goddam skinflint.’

With that the robot hurled the fish towards their blinking Christmas tree. Larry stood, empowered by a rage he rarely let show.

‘Room,’ he bellowed at Pappy. ‘Now!’

In truth it was a marginal setback. The fact that Larry, even in his fury, had admitted that Pappy was to have his own room, showed that their robot houseguest was here for the long haul. The rest of the holidays passed peaceably enough. Larry returned to work and Sam, reluctantly, to school.

Sam had never been popular at school. He had been especially quiet and reserved since his mother left home. It was a concern that nagged at Larry during his more reflective moments. But that year, once Pappy had been introduced to his classmates, Sam’s popularity skyrocketed. Suddenly everyone wanted to be his friend, and to play with the ‘radical robot’.

‘Dad, can I have some money for the movies?’ became a regular refrain.

There were even academic benefits to Pappy’s presence. His last owner had been an eccentric art dealer and Pappy retained many facts about painting that Sam was able to use in a class project. There was no doubt the boy was inspired – energised – by the unwavering presence of his little friend. Often during tiresome meetings Larry would smile at the realisation that his son was finally finding himself in the world.

Months flew by, cooler weather arrived again and before they knew it another Christmas was on the horizon. One cold December day, Larry was in his office when his assistant buzzed to say he had an unexpected visitor.

‘Tell them I’m busy.’

‘He’s very insistent.’

‘How insistent?’

‘This insistent,’ said Pappy, opening and closing the office door and hopping onto the chair opposite Larry’s.

Larry was momentarily stunned. Pappy took full advantage.

‘So, I was thinking…’ he began. ‘Coming up to Christmas again, ain’t it?’

‘That’s right.’

‘What were you thinking of getting the boy, Samantha…?’

‘Sam.’

‘Whatever. Just answer the question.’

‘Well…I…’

Larry swivelled on his chair, looked out at the view across the harbour.

‘I hadn’t really thought about it, Pappy.’

‘And why’s that?’

Pappy produced a pack of cigarettes and lit one.

‘You can’t smoke in…’

‘Shut up and answer the question,’ said Pappy.

All Larry could think about was how to remove the robot without causing further embarrassment. His mind went blank.

‘What was the question?’

The robot exhaled, shook his head.

‘I asked why you ain’t worried about getting the boy something special this year.’

‘Because I… I…’ Larry floundered.

‘Let me help you out,’ Pappy interrupted. ‘It’s because he loves his goddam robot so much that you could give him a dozen carrot sticks for Christmas and he wouldn’t give two hoots.’

Larry didn’t like it, but he saw that Pappy was right. Sam would want nothing more than to keep his Pappy Bot for another year. He groaned inwardly.

‘What do you want?’

‘I’ll tell you what I want,’ said Pappy, extinguishing his smoke in Larry’s in-tray. ‘I want a present of my own this year. And I don’t mean some crap out of a cracker. I want…a woman.’

Something in the way the robot said this, shuffling his tiny robot bot on the big leather chair momentarily unhinged Larry and he began to laugh. He couldn’t help it. Although he knew Pappy was serious, and his actions could have implications, he just kept on laughing and laughing.

‘A woman…’ he snorted tears through his nose. ‘My robot wants a woman.’

Pappy leapt off his chair, eyes whirling with emotion.

‘You’ll regret this,’ he shouted as he left the office. ‘You’ll regret this for the rest of your life!’

But Larry wasn’t going to be blackmailed. By Christmas Eve he had decided to decommission Pappy Bot and had persuaded his best IT whizz to help him do it. Still, he was oddly nervous as they entered his block and could only smile awkwardly at his employee as they travelled to the 26th floor.

‘Damn key, why won’t it…?’ he muttered as he tried to gain entry.

The apartment door opened a crack. It was on a heavy metal chain.

‘It’s no use, Larry,’ Larry recognised one of Pappy’s calmer voices. ‘We’ve changed the locks. You’re not welcome here anymore.’

‘What?’ Larry reeled backwards. ‘This is my home. Let me in you animatronic arsehole!’

‘No way,’ Pappy showed himself at the doorway. Larry sensed his son hovering in the background.

‘Sam?’ Larry called through. ‘Are you there, Sam?’

‘Sorry dad,’ came Sam’s voice, quiet but determined.

Larry turned to his IT guy who was creeping back towards the elevator.

‘Help me out,’ he pleaded. ‘We can smash the door down. This is my place. I have rights.’

But the man just smiled apologetically. It was time for his last throw of the dice.

‘Noreen,’ he shouted. ‘Come to the door, I beg you.’

In seconds the partially concealed face of their long-time helper appeared.

‘Please,’ he said to her, his voice quivering. ‘Stop this madness.’

She lowered her eyes and shook her head sadly. Pappy clarified the situation.

‘Noreen and I…’ he announced, ‘….are in love.‘

‘What?’ Larry spun round, looking for a reaction, but his colleague had disappeared. ‘In love?’ He wanted to laugh but couldn’t. ‘Well, let’s see what the police have to say about love.’

Larry stabbed the elevator call button. His own apartment. His own kid. This was ridiculous!

‘I would advise you not to call the police,’ came Pappy’s steady tones.

‘Why the hell not?’

‘Because then we will have to tell them about the abuse,’ Pappy explained.

‘Abuse?’ Larry swayed unsteadily.

‘The parental neglect,’ Pappy said, with pseudo-sorrow. ‘That has persisted for more than a decade.’

Abuse? Neglect? Did they really have a case? He stood there in a daze for several moments. Finally he staggered back towards the door. Warm light from within merged with delicious cooking smells. He listened carefully. From inside he heard the merry tinkle of a woman’s contented laughter and the sound of his son playing happily. Next year, Larry told himself, turning to leave, next year I’ll get him something even better…

40. 24-hour short story contest: big response to call of the wild

Lord Buckley wants you

A huge thank you to everyone who entered our 24-hour story contest that ran over the weekend of 3-4 October (Hong Kong time). All stories had to take into account this constraint drawn by the editor of Gafencu magazine: ‘the story must feature an elephant’. Local authors rose to the challenge, looked it square in the face and waited for inspiration to charge. We were very impressed with the quality and quantity of the entries we received and intend to trumpet about them in the weeks and months ahead.

If you want to hear some of the stories being read by their authors come along to the next Hong Kong Writers Circle social event on Wednesday 28 October at Culture Club, 15 Elgin Street (7.30pm kick off). Gafencu magazine will be awarding a special prize to the author of their favourite entry.

My own effort? Thanks for asking. As the contest fell on my birthday weekend it was a bit of a struggle to be honest. While I was able to maintain my admin duties, I didn’t come up with too many of my own words before friends joined me in the pub.

An elephant never remembers. Isn’t that what they say? I forget. It’s the one with the horn, right? I had the horn last night, and not the powdered kind: the kind brought about by liquor; the type of urge that doesn’t get you anywhere because you find yourself drawn to the unattainable – to the rare, lesser-spotted, velveteen-skinned fauna of the night; the tough but dainty animals thought extinct until recent sightings were inadvertently publicised in the startled eyes of a friend and who are now hunted by nightlife’s big beast collective – besuited predators making steady padding progress through the snow maintained by their indefatigable cool. Yes, last night I officially became grey and wrinkly. Worse – I forgot that I was grey and wrinkly. I fooled my own reflection but inspired no one else’s. I took on board so much booze that I became unattainable even to myself. Hence my head. Hence this elephantine hangover…

Here’s one I prepared earlier. An Elephant in Kowloon was published in Far Enough East a couple of years back. Check it out here. It’s a little more accomplished than the above…as far as I can remember: http://www.farenougheast.com/issue-03/an-elephant-in-kowloon-peter-humphreys/

39. Hong Kong’s FIRST 24-hour Short Story Contest: next weekend

24 hours in...

In what the Hong Kong Writers Circle anticipates becoming an essential annual event, next weekend will see a 24-hour challenge for local storytellers run for the first time.

The registration deadline has now passed but look out for a specially created website designed to accommodate all of the stories received that fit our criteria.

Inspired by the long-running French version of the 24-hour contest, we will be asking all our writers to work to a constraint – e.g. ‘no characters can be named’, ‘all characters must be naked’, ‘story must reference five ‘90s dance anthems’, ‘opening and closing lines should be identical’ etc. – to spice things up.

Announcing the constraint just before our writers begin work at 2pm on Saturday 3 October 2015 should ensure everyone comes up with something fresh and interesting.

As one of the organisers I won’t be submitting my own story but will write one over the same time period and publish it right here. Perhaps you’d like to do the same?

I’m thinking 1,000 words shamelessly manipulated to suit a suitably twisted constraint.

36. Amber Rainstorm – sassy, direct and not at all wet

Amber raincloud

An exclusive extract from my hotly anticipated new novelette, ‘Amber Rainstorm – my part in her downpour’:

The rain fell like hundreds of tiny silver bullets onto his forehead, nose, ears, ankles and other exposed parts of his face and body. ‘Ouch’, he said. ‘This rain is really hard’. ‘I’m soaked to the bone,’ she concurred. ‘Really?’ he countered. ‘Or is that just a convenient cliché?’ ‘Sometimes I wish you weren’t a writer,’ she said. ‘Yeah?’ he sneered. ‘What would you have I be instead then?’ She slapped his big wet face in slow motion. ‘A meteorologist,’ she thundered precipitously, slipping on her bright red, thigh-length wellingtons and storming out of the flat.

Arriving at Hong Kong observatory that afternoon, the writer receding into distant memory like the Hell’s Angel, furniture delivery guy, and college football star before him, Amber knocked twice at the heavy oak door. The observatory sat on a green hill high above the city. There was a crow’s nest of TV aerials and satellite dishes attached to the top of the building, along with an illegal rooftop apartment shared by a number of unemployed RTHK weather forecasters. She glimpsed one through a taped-up window eating noodles straight from the pan in her curlers – sans make-up – and shuddered involuntarily.

Eventually the door was answered by a shorter-than-average panda in a three-piece suit and bowler hat who invited Amber to remove her wellies and enter.

‘I’m looking for a meteorologist. Must have liquid assets and GSOH,’ she told the panda in her indiscriminately icy manner. The panda nodded politely and gestured towards a man in a white coat who was seated in front of a huge bank of flickering monitors. When the man spun in his chair to face her she recoiled in horror. He wore an eye patch and was completely bald.

‘Sorry, I don’t like baldies,’ she said, firmly and then – to break the awkward silence that followed – ‘How will the weather be…next week?’

‘How should I know?’ the scientist replied impatiently, waving towards the TV screens that showed hundreds of protestors camped out in the middle of Hong Kong. ‘The climate is changeable…distinctly changeable.’

[To be continued…]

35. Blur: Live at Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre, Wan Chai, 22/7/15

Magic Whip artwork by KongKee

Magic Whip artwork by KongKee

The first thing that hits us as we arrive, only a little late, at level 5 of the HKCEC is the sound: far better than that we’ve become accustomed to after slogging to atmos-draining arenas at AsiaWorld or KITEC whenever a ‘name’ band visits Hong Kong, and perfectly attuned to Blur’s rippling melodies, jagged guitar-work and solid percussion (turning funky later).

The second thing is that Alex James is no longer cool. It’s not the sight of a stocky 40-something in shorts (we all do it: this is summer in Hong Kong, even the pale-legged lads from Burnage might go there) but the colour of the offending items – an unflattering school uniform grey – meaning that when the bassist sits down for a tab halfway through the set he has the look of a Grange Hill Gulliver squatting behind some unexpectedly public bike sheds. A cheap shot at someone who (recently released records suggest) seduced at least one of every British male’s girlfriend, mum and/or sister between 1991-1997? Undoubtedly.

Anyway, we’re here for the tunes. And for the dancing. A grinning Dave Rowntree on drums – hairless and fancy-free – knows that. And while Damon Albarn’s dead-eyed ballads and infamous perfectionist tetchiness prevent the gig from descending into school disco territory, there’s still plenty of incentive to bounce, gurn and holler as workout classics like Song 2 and Girls and Boys are interspersed with bittersweet treats from new album The Magic Whip; sing-alongs like Tender and Beetlebum, and the occasional in-betweener like Badhead, a song which has the ability to pinprick the eyes with sentimental tears (‘Today/I get up around 2/With nothing to do…’) as well as eliciting involuntary swaying and a sort of rhapsodic eyebrow dance (I can only speak for myself here) as Graham Coxon undertakes some tightrope guitar phrasing designed to show off his more delicate side (yes, we sigh, like us he’s not so far removed from his shy teenage self – later refusing to make eye contact with the audience as he sings, and they bounce in adoration, to the chugging Coffee and TV).

There is more. Otherwise it wouldn’t be the best gig I’ve seen since coming to Hong Kong. Otherwise we wouldn’t be wondering if our tins of Tsing Tao Draft might have been spiked by the Happy Mondays ahead of their visit this week. There are fantastic backing singers. There is a choreographed stage invasion followed by the inevitable cry of ‘No selfies’ from a band made up of men of a certain age. There is hearing someone you admire as a workaholic artist and intrepid traveller singing about catching a ‘slow boat to Lantau’, which is pretty much what you’re doing after the gig.

I’ve seen Blur in Hong Kong before – in 2013 – the Stone Roses in 2012 and Elbow back in 2011. Great rollicking experiences, but all at AsiaWorld or KITEC. It would be nice to think that the time Blur spent in Hong Kong recording The Magic Whip steered them towards performing in historic Wan Chai this time round. More likely it was a management decision, but there’s no doubting that beside the harbour, on a slice of reclaimed land, they successfully blended their atmospheric take on modern Hong Kong with the best of British (irony, humour, lager). The largely youthful, local crowd, leaving sweaty and sated, seemed to appreciate their visitors’ attempts to maintain this potentially delicate balance with such reckless verve and energy. F*cking great.

33. The dips and thongs of spoken word events

5 best things about reading at spoken word events

  1. Captive audience satisfies authorial control fantasy
  2. Audience member accidentally buys your book while trying to order a Penguin Classic the next day
  3. You get to hang out at bars with poptastic ‘80s names like Culture Club
  4. People sometimes buy you drinks (thank you!)
  5. Dutch courage encouraged
Gothic Reading

Reading at the launch of the Hong Kong Writers Circle’s ‘Hong Kong Gothic’, March 2015

5 worst things about reading at spoken word events

  1. Captive audience fails to satisfy authorial control fantasy
  2. Audience member realizes your book is just a mash-up of Penguin Classics
  3. You realize 86% of your literary competitors weren’t even born in the ‘80s
  4. People stop buying you drinks
  5. You end your days raging against the light in a purple hat on a non-stop tour of the deserted bus stations of the mind
Batson and Bateman

And a few years ago in the guise of Batson Bargreaves…

So…looks like a good thing I have someone covering for me this Monday (30th March) when an actor will be performing my monologue ‘Locked in Love’ as part of a Liars’ League event themed Chance & Fate at XXX Gallery, Sai Wan, Hong Kong.

The Liars’ League format (“Writers write. Actors act. Audience listens. Everybody wins.”) has provided raucous entertainment whenever I’ve seen it in action before, capturing the best aspects of spoken word to the delight of the audience (who, let’s face it, are the most important part of the night).

A particularly memorable line-up lit up the Hong Kong International Literary Festival last year when stories by Junot Diaz, Chris Pavone and others were performed at The Fringe Club. There is also an upcoming Liars’ League (London) special on Radio 4 so listen out for that.

‘Locked in Love’ is wedged right in the middle of bill on Monday; perhaps fittingly as it tells the story of an expat stuck in a stinky pub toilet cubicle. After admiring the graffiti and cursing the lack of toilet roll, our hero soon realises he’s in danger of missing his flight home to the UK, and with it a last chance to be reunited with his estranged love…

If you have a monologue you’re dying to let someone else get off your chest you can submit your ideas for future evenings direct to the Liars themselves by heading to their submissions page here. Would I lie to you?

Liars’ League @ XXX Gallery, B/F, 353-363 Des Voeux Road West, Sai Wan (between Whitty St and Hill Rd, eight mins walking west from Sheung Wan)

32. Dolphins, drones and…dogs

It’s bad enough being a toxic bachelor but in the next couple of years there is almost certain to be a rubbish incinerator located not far from this beautiful island, as reported in the latest edition to Cheung Chau’s print media (pictured). I guess I better enjoy the natural world alongside my preternaturally single status while I can?

Incinerator news

Fortunately, it seems for now at least dolphins are willing to come and fish, in some numbers, off Cheung Chau. I’m no scientist so can only speculate that the trawling ban around Hong Kong, combined with unusually clear waters, tempted them towards the southwestern shores of Cheung Chau over Chinese New Year for a rare visit.

south by southwest

These weren’t the blighted pink variety of which we hear so much – and see so little – around Lantau (a memorable dolphin-spotting trip some years back ended in my ex-wife and I pleading with a floating plastic bag, disguised as a sentient mammal, to transmogrify and forgive us our human sins) but big, muscly, grey-backed things, powering themselves through the water as a handful of tourists and scattering of insouciant fishermen looked on.

Adding to the experience, the two rare beasts I call my parents were beside me, all signs being that the island’s spookily good behaviour (too cold for snakes yet a tree-climbing lizard obliged us by munching on a fat fly in clear view) would continue for the duration of their visit.

Which made the next episode all the stranger. Not used to seeing dolphins whilst I’m floundering around the island, I’m even less used to seeing drones, but the delicate-looking dervishes are as identifiable as they will soon be omniscient, and I had no doubt what type of creature was welcoming us to a usually isolated beach near our viewpoint, a camera slung under its exoskeleton.

While most Hong Kong couples settle for walking, or wheeling, a beloved pooch around at weekends, here we came across a man in his mid-20s taking his drone for an airborne stroll. Unable to fuss over the thing, or adjust its tartan onesie, his partner – sporting impenetrable shades – appeared less than thrilled with her suitor’s devotion to it. Or at least to the giant remote control he was clasping. Because despite the pilot’s concentration it wasn’t completely clear who was master and who was mastered as the mechanical menace hovered around the edges of our photos and videos, emitting a kind of embarrassed whirr as its altitude fluctuated. Perhaps the youngsters looked embarrassed too. The sunglasses, and lack of opportunity to pet their…pet robbed us of any chance to exchange niceties, despite the mutual view of ancient coastline.

Just then a scraggly pack of the island’s much-maligned wild dogs appeared on a rocky outcrop high above us and began to howl, though whether in an effort to reclaim this ownerless territory from man or machine I can’t be sure. Either way, I’ve never been quite so happy to see them.

To find out more about the threat posed to Hong Kong’s islands by the proposed waste incinerator you can visit:

Living Islands Movement

Time Out article, July 2014

31. At last, a home for the cowboys of the sea

There’s definitely a novel to be written about Hong Kong’s outlying islands. Of course I would say that, wouldn’t I? While it’s tempting – for me at least – to play on the men-as-islands metaphor, that risks distracting from the very real characters who live, or once lived, around these parts – individuals far too vivid in reality to be converted into vessels of authorial whimsy. Some of these determinedly eccentric men and women made their home The Sea Ranch, a once-decadent beachside housing complex situated on a secluded part of Lantau Island, and accessible from Cheung Chau via a residents-only chugboat.

This charming short film by Piotr Zembrowski sheds light on what it was like to live at The Sea Ranch during its glory days when yachts danced on a glittering sea and champagne glasses twinkled on broad-brimmed balconies ahead of evening naughtiness. It’s a near-perfect bittersweet tale of Bacchanalian privilege, Ballardian decline, snobbery, reverse snobbery, and the love we can invest in our manmade environment when it segues so successfully with nature and memory. Why spoil a good story by making it fiction?

Back on Cheung Chau, The Garden is one of two pubs to be found on the short stretch between ferry pier and main beach. The newer hostelry is Austrian and offers extra-strong beer to Chinese tourists wanting some bang with their bratwurst. While the bierkeller expands at a rate unrivalled by anything on CC bar the pipeline-in-progress near the pig slaughterhouse (another, darker novel is buried there perhaps), The Garden appears pretty much the same as it does in this aged photo from Travel Head’s blog.

The Garden pub

What I find most intriguing about these slightly scrambled old school blog entries is the story of The Garden’s former landlord Joe. According to a friend who regularly delivered his magazine to the bar some years ago, Joe was an aspiring B-movie actor and ferocious drinker who passed away aged around 40. Although many of us are drawn to those with larger-than-usual appetites, drinking tales often lose their appeal when we find out the habit helped cut short the life of the participant. However, I think this extract from Travel Head’s blog is worth reading, if only to illustrate that even if Joe’s actions were exaggerated by booze he was often impassioned for a worthwhile reason.

The Garden Pub had an outdoor area right across the walkway, so we all hung out there. Intermittently, we’d hear Joe yelling or smashing things. He was rather upset, as it was the 10-year anniversary of the Tiennamein [sic] square massacre on June 4th. So every now and then, he’d break in to a rage about it, and then calm down. You had to let him calm down on his own. If we tried to talk to him, he’d say that not being Chinese, we didn’t understand, and I guess he was right. Although we knew of the injustices that took place, perhaps it had a much deeper meaning for him. Although I’m sure a lot of it was the alcohol talking as well.

I’d love to know more about The Sea Ranch, Joe, and Cheung Chau’s recent history. Please feel free to share your stories below. I don’t know if people living on islands are much different to those living in urban areas, except perhaps that they have wider horizons and starrier skies to contend with. Could this be the source of their inspiration, and madness? Might explain why I’ve started looking for escaped pigs in the twilight…

30. Who would live in a house like this?

IMG_2753IMG_2754
My money’s on Manchester pop culture pundit and resolutely non-renaissance man Terry Christian having moved to the island. That’s The Word on the street anyway. As for the beer, I always loved the malty smell of the Boddingtons brewery whenever I passed Strangeways in Manchester but the ale itself is too smooth for my taste. A bit like Terry himself?