Thursday, 30 October 2008

Zhongguo Uncovered

Today was a day of firsts. For one thing it was the first time I've seen live turtles for sale by the side of the street. This being China, I couldn't say for certain whether they were available as pets or as food, but my guess is probably both. It was also the first time I've encountered a Chinese transvestite prostitute, towering at about 6'3" in heels and advertising her dubious wares on a corner outside my hotel - which is in a very vibrant area indeed.

More importantly, today was my first glimpse into what makes this country tick. China's strength - the reason it can boast 9% growth in the midst of a global recession - is its industry, and particularly it's clothes factories.

Touring these enormous mass production lines was more than just an insight into the Chinese miracle, it was an insight into clothing generally. I assumed, not unreasonably I thought, that most manufacturing processes were automated these days, picturing a machine assembly line where a large bit of cloth went in and a polished and embellished tshirt, shirt or jacket came out, needing perhaps a bit of hand embellishing but nothing more.

I was quite spectacularly wrong. While some processes here are fully automated, such as the German knitting machines that produce garments to spec, needing no more manpower than a supervisor, most are full on, labour intensive and require large numbers of workers.

"This factory employs 7,000 people" my guide tells me, mostly migrants from China's rural districts who are housed on-site in dormitories. I don't pause to ask her, because I am gazing down line after line - as far as the eye can see and in all directions - of neatly lined up sewing machines, each manned and piled high with fabric. As you move down the line, watching each practice their specialty, from hemming to cuffs to buttons, you see the fabric go from rough material to finished product. The number of workers here alone is staggering, let alone the output. This is just one factory, and their are thousands like it dotted round Hangzhou, Shanghai, Beijing and all over China. This microcosm of Chinese industry, cheap labour leading to mass production, just goes to show why so many of my clothes bear the 'Made in China' slogan.

On another note, the following extract from The Londonist's halloween listings caught my eye:

Join the anarcho-pagans and witchy-lefties in Docklands, gathering outside 25 Canary Wharf, the now cold, empty building of Lehman Brothers, to dance on the grave of capitalism. 5pm to midnight, but as it’s an anarcho, don’t worry about getting there too early. This event has a Facebook page.

That sounds like a party I'd like to go to.


Monday, 27 October 2008

Ni Hao Capitalism

He kele

All five of us stare blankly at the pinyin syllables on the board as our tutor leads us through their pronunciation one by one. It's our first morning of Mandarin classes, and so far we've gone through the gamut of juh, chuh, zuh and qus, the oas and ous and all the other uncomfortable consonants and vowels which have left our jaws feeling just a tad worn out. Our teacher smiles at us with an impossibly friendly grin, which hasn't left his face all morning. It could be reassuring if it weren't so forced.

"You are about to speak the first Chinese sentence," he tells us, grin spreading wider. "Please repeat: hur kur-luh". Each of us tries in turn, until he is satisfied with our pronunciation. "Now", he says, "what does it mean?" We stare at him blankly.

"This one," he points to the 'He', "is a verb. It means to drink. This one is a noun. Kur-luh. What do you think this means?"

The girl next to me makes a timid suggestion. "Cola?" she asks.

"That's right. Cola. So what does this sentence mean?"

Noone answers, so he tells us.

"Drink Coke." Another wide grin.

Mao is presumeably turning in his grave.


Friday, 24 October 2008

Market Passage

Noone needs to hear about how I spent a week reading and shopping. It's an odd thing about Shanghai, I love it here but it's very western, and completely unchallenging in the way Beijing was. I could be in any city right now, which is why there's so little I'm feeling the need to write about, but I'm having a fantastic time anyway. I've spent my days exploring the city, and especially the art street (50 Moganshan Lu, a set of gallery spaces in old warehouses) and the fashion and technology markets. The art street was interesting, but there was little that really grabbed me. The most engaging piece was a work by Liu Bolin at Eastlink Gallery, although the website sadly doesn't make any mention of him. His photographs of chameleon-like people, who are painted to fit into their background, are powerful and reflect a general sense of the removal or ignoring of the individual in a lot of the works I saw. Another, less successful, show featured 21 artists' self portraits, none of which featured the artist themself, at least not in any kind of obvious way. One featured a screenshot from a google search of the artist's name. I do want to return, since a lot of the bigger galleries were closed on the day.

Apart from time spent with Charlie and his Mandarin course friends, I've spent most of my time in the markets, bargaining and checking out what they offer. Shirts are tailored for about 12-15GBP, whilst a tailored suit is around 50. Wandering around is fascinating, and makes you entirely reassess the value you attached to clothes since everything is so cheap.

Walking through a market yesterday, a woman started to offer me her wares - watches, handbags and DVDs. Having not yet encountered a proper fake DVD seller, I was intrigued and asked her what she had. She led me through her shop to a back room. There, on shelves, stood stuffed animals, which she removed. She grabbed a magnet from the side and attached it to the back wall. With a 'click' the whole thing came away, revealing thousands of tiny plastic slips, each containing a fake or copied DVD, each costing a pound - and I'm sure I could have got them for less. Having looked through hundreds of options, and picked out five to examine, she asked me if I was interested in TV shows. China does not show most American shows on TV, so it is down to the fake DVD sellers to keep the eager Chinese market up to date with Gossip Girl, Heroes, Prison Break, 24 and the like.

"What do you have?" I asked.

'Click'. Back went the back wall, and off came the stuffed animals from another shelf. 'Click.' Off came another panel and here again stood hundreds of boxes, brightly coloured, each one containing full series of TV shows. I paid for my purchases and made to leave. "Better take this", the shopkeeper told me, handing me a black carrier bag and putting the DVDs inside. "So the police don't see."


Sunday, 19 October 2008


I don't know what it is about Shanghai that made me immediately love it so much. It's probably the architecture. The crazy angles and impossible structures that made the Beijing skyline so interesting are here, and in greater numbers. In fact, entering in the taxi takes me back to entering New York, but here the buildings are more spaced out, less overwhelming. Each one can be appreciated for the marvel of engineering and aesthetic design that it is. Walking down Nanjing Rd., the main commercial street, with Charlie (a family friend doing a language course out here) makes me embarrassed at how excited I was to find Wangfujing. Every building seems to be a multi-storey shopping centre or a moody market, and everywhere people, excitement, full restaurants and busy streets. Taking the metro - despite the crowds - is a dream, clean, spacious, air-conditioned. The board counts down to the second how long it will be till the next train will arrive. And when the counter reaches 0.00, whoosh, bang on time comes the train. It's not a perfect city, but it's so energetic it's hard not to be sucked in.

There are pluses and minuses everywhere, and my hostel is providing two counterbalances. My room currently has no window. They assure me that tomorrow I can have a room with one, but they told me that yesterday too. Meanwhile the internet is sketchy at best, unable to deal with Skype or even internet radio. That said, the room is cheap, perfectly clean and pretty big, so I'm happy to have it as a base.

One thing that hasn't improved from Beijing is the driving. I don't think I've described just how manic Chinese driving is. First of all, traffic lights and pedestrian crossings are treated as quiet reminders at best. When a driver decides to turn a corner, traffic signals are ignored completely. As for the roads, the main ones can be divided into as many as six or seven lanes, which doesn't take into account the drivers' habit of using the lane markings as an overtaking lane. In Beijing we saw a car get wedged as he tried to gain a few yards down the tenth lane of a once six lane road. In taxis it's best not to look at the road, or listen to the horns around you, as your driver is as likely to be guilty of these violations as any.

I'm starting a language course Sunday for two weeks, so I'm doing my best to get as much of Shanghai in before I do. Checking out the markets tomorrow, hoping to find that £40 bespoke suit I've been promised!


Friday, 17 October 2008


Today is my last day in Beijing. It's funny, I booked my flight because I felt a bit overwhelmed by the city, wasn't sure what else to do with myself. As soon as I did, I started to really enjoy myself. Walking around Beihai park today, visiting beautiful buddhist temples awash with fragrant flowers and incense, soundtracked by evocative bell-ringing and harmonising voices from mounted speakers, I felt fully at peace. Pockets of serenity like this one, away from the frustrated gridlock or manic manoevring of the crowded traffic system, where the smog that pervades the city today seems mystical once again, protective. From the highest point the city hides in clouds of grey-yellow fog, but the boats on the lake, the belltower, the temples, these become part of my little world. I sighed contentedly, and wandered back to the hostel.

Beijing has felt like the deep end for me. Outside of the tourist spots noone speaks English, people haven't been very helpful - even taxi drivers - and the place has taken me by surprise, exceeding and undermining my expectations. At the same time it's hard not to love the place, the constant activity, the noise, the beauty, the size - it's all so idiosyncratic. The pace of change here is visible, which is not an experience I've ever had before, but the history is palpable too, standing side by side with sheer modernity.

Several things will stick in my mind about this city, but there's one thing I'll never forget. In the Forbidden City there was a sign beside a relic which read, in inimitable Chinese style:

Please remember a moment's carelessness can cause the eternal loss of beauty.
The irony of this quote - in a country that underwent the historical reinvention of the cultural revolution, in a city that all-but-destroyed part of its heart (the hutongs) to make room for wider roads for the Olympics - did not escape me. But "The past is another country" does not quite fit in here. Rather there seems to be a coexistence between past and present. This plea is a stark reminder of the risks of such a fast rate of progress in a country with so rich a history.


Thursday, 16 October 2008


Just the name has something special about it. It reverberates around my head as I make myself down more wide boulevards, Wangfujing, the word itself enticing me to visit. Wangfujing, like Oxford Street, Rodeo Drive and 5th Avenue all rolled into one, something mega, beyond, the perfect home for a consumerist such as myself. The closer I get, the better I feel, like the sight of familiar shops, English and American brands and rampant consumerism will take me that little bit closer to home. Like so much I've experienced in these four short days (it feels like forever), I get exactly what I expected, and something else entirely.

Wangfujing is the highpoint of Chinese capitalism, a long street running parallel to the Forbidden City and Tiananmen. Walking down it from the top I pass rundown electronics shops and then, every so often but getting more common, like passing by ripples in a pond on the way to the heart of the disturbance, a designer store here, a five star hotel there. Boss. Burberrys. Smart shoppers laden down with bags, business suits, jeans and baseball caps, mobile phones. My hostel is in a traditional area of Beijing, full of hutongs, the idiosyncratic little alleyways alive with street vendors and tables crowded with chess players, at night lit only by the glow of their cigarettes and the moon. Where I am now could be a different country to those homely, dusty backalleys. This is a nod to western capitalism. Only it's bigger, better, cleaner and cheaper. As I enter the pedestrianised area, Wanfujing-proper, I am in heaven.

Noone needs to hear about how I went shopping for two hours, especially when the only thing I bought was a cheap (almost certainly fake) jade necklace. What is worth pointing out is just how big the place was. I wandered the main street to the very end, then popped in to check out the department store. This was how I found out that the street, which seems to stretch out for ages, is just a shop front. The department store itself merely takes up a part of an enormous shopping mall, which stretches the entire length of the street and climbing for six floors. Shops range from McDonalds to top-class restaurants, Nike to Giorgio, Starbucks to a multi-screen cineplex. And when you've explored that, you can cross the street and explore the next one, just two floors this time but occupying a whole block, underneath the Grand Hyatt.

I walked home elated, awe-struck by the containment of everything in one place, right at the heart of a major city. As I went, I noticed people eating what appeared to be candied chestnuts, and had my second following-the-ripples experience of the day, tracing the line back to the vendor of these sweet-smelling caramelised treats. It was only on my first bite that I realised my mistake. Not chestnuts, but miniature apples, softened but underripe, perfectly complemented by the crunchy toffee coating. Not tough like English toffee apples, nor too big. Each bite was warmly sweet and sour, a perfect balance of the two. As I reached the hostel again, I reflected on these symmetrical experiences which have made me fall in love with Beijing, if only just a little bit.


Wednesday, 15 October 2008

Forbidden City, Tiananmen Square, The Great Wall of China and Home

Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City are like two sides of the same coin. Both are enormous, imposing. Both display the glory and power of their respective regimes, and reflect the egos of the men in charge of them. Standing side by side it would be easy to appropriate the one into the context of the other, a line of Chinese building which follows the same philosophy, if not the same aesthetic concerns. The Forbidden City is overwhelming, an overt display of wealth, a series of daunting, stunning courtyards and palaces dedicated to the glory of one man. 9,999 rooms make up the palace, befitting the son of god (whose palace in the heavens is said to contain 10,000 rooms). Tiananmen is similarly hard to take in all at once, barely a square, just a vast, open tract of concrete, with a statue in the centre and buildings barely hemming in the sides. From the gate towards the Forbidden Palace, Mao looks down upon his people. At the other end stands his mausoleum, queues of Chinese tourists backing up far into the square for the briefest of glimpses of the formaldehyde-preserved body of their former ruler. Yet there is stark difference between these two immense feats of architecture, and it is ideological as much as it is aesthetic. The Forbidden City was built to glorify the Emperor and was, as its name suggests, closed to the general public. Only the Emperor's wives, concubines and advisors, along with foreign dignitaries, were allowed inside. Despite the cult-like representations of Mao, Tiananmen was designed to be public, open at each corner, capable of holding 500,000 people in one go. Of course, it has fame for other reasons too, ones which my guide did not mention and neither - for fear of censorship - will I. Be that as it may, there is something in these two structures that draws hundreds of millions of Chinese tourists every year, flowing from one into the other, paying their life savings in some cases, just to see these two icons of Beijing before they die. Tiananmen may now have a reputation less conducive to the idea of a free populace, but this area is one of Mao's victory, Tiananmen being the conduit through which most visitors will enter, and judge, the excesses of a bygone age found in the Forbidden City.


In China, everything may not be for sale, but almost everyone is trying to sell you something. Our guide takes us to a Jade museum on the way to the Great Wall. Museums like this one are based in factories, so our tour takes in the different types and manufacturing processes of Jade as described with ruthless efficiency by a woman in a business suit and shiny silver trainers. Brief lecture dispensed with, we are dumped in the shop and told to address our questions to more semi-formal employees, ruthless salespeople who stalk us as we browse, always following a step or two behind. I buy nothing (despite the forceful attention of one of them). My guide, who appears to have a vested interest, notices this. At the next place, a ceramics museum-factory-shop, she follows me around making helpful suggestions. "This pen is lovely. Look, only sixty yuan. That's less than ten dollars... You could buy your mother a present. You like this teapot?"

At the Great Wall, our guide leaves us to explore by ourselves. My companion is a retired headmaster, a warm, kind man who appears to have a better idea of what my trip is about than I do. Our starting position gives us two options: an impossible looking steep climb to the top of a mountain and beyond, or a more leisurely path. My companion's air of hardy anticipation leaves me in no doubt as to which one we'll be following. I set off reluctantly behind him, knees aching from the initial two-foot-high steps. Half an hour in and I'm gasping, desperate for an exit strategy. Irritation and anger set in. In this impossible challenge, I'm beginning to see the rest of my trip stretch before me. Long days, difficult journeys. And for what? I don't care if I reach the top of the mountain. I don't care if I keep travelling for a day or a week. Why not just give up when it becomes hard?

The surprise comes at the last hut we stop at before turning back, a sweaty hour straight uphill in bright sunshine. We enter and decide to check out how much further there is to go. Every time we'd reached a hut we'd found it had hidden much of the path beyond, and more misery awaited us (or me at least, since my companion seemed delighted to keep going). This time, though, there is no more. Even if we'd wanted to go on, we couldn't. The wall ends in a miniature balcony over the hill. It is only on the way down, noticing how many more people there are at the bottom than the top, watching people falter a quarter or halfway up the path (at points where I paused and then struggled on) that I begin to feel really good about the whole thing. My legs are shaking with adrenaline, sweat's pouring from my back and legs, but I'm buzzing, my mind racing, my body stronger than it was a moment before. Walking down the hill I start to see the benefits of travelling clearly, how stepping out of my comfort zones may be awful at times, but will serve me well in the long run. How much stronger I can feel from an uphill climb. And how much better the world looks from the top of a mountain - but only on the way down again.


Tuesday, 14 October 2008

Culture Shock

I wake at 3 pm, having slept solidly from midnight. A night on Dom's floor and snatched sleep on the plane left me dead on arrival. Yesterday was tough, but it seems miles away now. When I arrived, the hostel was empty, I didn't understand the language, everything seemed too big or too fast. At junctions, cars seemed to race across, people ran. From a distance it felt like watching a stop-motion video, unnatural and disconcerting. Jingshan park was crowded with Chinese tourists. I paid my 2yuan entry (20p) and wandered in. From the top of the hill, hidden by trees, I could hear singing in Chinese, beautiful harmonising voices. I started to climb, passing a man standing on the roof of a hut, engaging in a painful-sounding self-tapping ritual. At the top I reached a gazebo-type structure. Two women had erected a tape deck and speakers. This is the music I'd been hearing. Disorientated, I started to walk, passing through more gazebo-type huts decorated in red and gold. I reached the largest one, the highest, with an enormous buddha statue inside. Tourists queued up to bow, but I turned back, worried I'd get it wrong. From here the city looked overwhelmingly endless, shrouded in its low lying off-yellow cloud.

I kept walking, getting my bearings. I finally got back to the hotel hours later, mildly wet, moderately underfed and exhausted. Entering my room again, reviewing the small oppressive corridor with two sets of four poster beds, I burst into tears. For half an hour I couldn't stop crying, letting fatigue and fear flow out of me. Speaking to Alisa and Soleil calmed me down. I got into bed and watched a film, forcing myself to stay up until I could barely see with tiredness and my ears started playing tricks on me.

Today is different. I feel fresh. I head out of the hostel, past a crowd of young Americans and Canadians who I've been vaguely aware of from my room laughing and drinking since midday. I want to talk to them, but right now I need food. I reach a main street and stop in the first restaurant I come to. After so long the meal - kung po chicken and salty vegetable dumplings with the most fantastic chewy-crunchy texture - brings me fully back. In good spirits I return to the hostel. This time I don't know how to approach the group of people, still sitting around a load of bottles of beer. I sit down at a computer to check my emails, and smile at the girl.

"Would you like to join us?" She smiles in my direction as she asks, and I gratefully take a seat amongst them. This is my first exposure to travellers' banter, and it's fun. Ben always said it's like speeded up friendship, and it's clear that noone has the barriers up in the way they do when you meet people at home. They know that they'll be gone in an hour or two, as do you, so you can say what you like. There's nothing to hold you to them or them to you, so you are completely relaxed, and nothing is taken too seriously. We rinse each other mercilessly. It feels pretty good.

Later I head out from the hostel to meet a woman called Ashley I met on It's a website that advertises beds in cities for travellers - usually on people's couches. I just want to meet some people who know Beijing, so I am seeing Ashley for a drink with some of her friends. I give the taxi driver the google map address of the place we're drinking, carefully transcribed by a helpful woman from my hostel. He drops me off, and a man immediately offers me a "Lady bar".

"You want sex? What, you don't like sex?" he asks.

I brush him off irritatedly, and start to walk. A moment of panic sets in - I can't see the place we're meeting, the Pink Loft. He approaches again.

"You need help?" Gratefully I show him my directions. Luckily his profession gives him a goodish grasp of English. "This is North street. You want South street. You go there, cross, keep walking. You find it." I thank him, setting off in the right direction and brushing off more people offering me sex.

When I meet Ashley she leads me to a bar. "This is a pretty authentic Chinese bar experience," she explains to me, guiding me into a hotel lobby. "You have to go through a seedy dive, where they charge for rooms by the hour, to get there." We get in the lift and she takes us to the top floor, where I meet her friends. The crowd is largely American, friendly, with a reminiscent scent of home befitting the conversation of expats. We discuss the city, my travel plans and childhood tv shows. Leaving, I get John's number. The party is given in his honour, as he's moving to Shanghai next week. This gives me a valuable contact in the city, which I'll be travelling to in the next week or two, and makes me feel even happier. Tomorrow I have to be up early, I'm taking a tour of the city. I just need to work out how to get to sleep first.


Monday, 13 October 2008

First Impressions

There's a thick smog over Beijing this morning. Whether pollution or just fog, it's difficult to tell. Either way, it casts the city in a bright yellow haze, making everything seem brighter than it should, adding an aetherial tone to the skyscrapers and highrises. Beijing airport is immense, steel and glass as far as the eye can see and in all directions, especially up. Everything is efficient to the point of precision, and I am told off by the passport control officer for standing out of position. At baggage reclaim an attendant stands by, his sole job to set the cases upright and neatly ordered as they come off the conveyor belt. It seems pointless, passengers keep knocking bags over as they grab their own, but he keeps setting them right none the less, staring half-heartedly around him as he contemplates the Sysiphean monotony of his task. The taxi ride is in turns calm and terrifying, the driver nonchalantly weaving between traffic at 100kph without signaling or looking. The smoothness of the journey makes me forget that he is overtaking on the inside, until a particularly harsh bit of braking or the too-fast approach of a nearby car make me jump. Getting in to Beijing, everything just feels too big. Long, wide boulevards run five lanes deep (both ways) between the impossible architectural angles that make up more glass-and-steel behemoths on all sides. At first fascinating, I begin to lose interest until we turn off into the district I'm staying in, right next to the Forbidden City. My hostel is down a maze of side streets, messy half-built brick and tin shacks pepper the area. The hostel itself is nice, airy and comfortable, with bright red walls and paper lanterns hanging from the ceilings like a cheap Chinese restaurant in London.

I have a new mobile number, on an international sim card. The number is +447872259008. It's free to receive calls in China, and from the UK it's the cost of a local call. I'll also be on Skype from time to time. Until next time. x


Wednesday, 8 October 2008

The countdown begins...

His departure was getting closer now, and still the fear hadn't hit. He was excited, but there was a part of him that felt nothing at all. China was just another place, another scene for him to contemplate whilst introspecting and feeding himself a diet of trashy narratives from American TV. This was the part that had learnt not to be afraid, that had kept him in his safe zone through university, the part that was always fighting his urges to the risky. Nothing new in it, but the excitement, that was keener, sharper than he had experienced before. He found it difficult to sit still, needed music, writing, constant movement. Not nervous, not anxious, just ambition and adrenaline. Standing in line at the visa office these two sides came against each other for the first time.

The process had taken weeks, with bureaucracy interfering at every step of the way. Now, finally, after two and a half weeks and with four days until his flight, he was about to hear the answer. His restful side was reassuring him – what does it matter if you don't get it? Don't worry about it. It was this side that directed him to read the farcical play that he keeps glancing up from, checking whether his number has been called yet. His excitable side, what's does it think? He almost doesn't ask. A week ago it was this side that he had let take over, lying in bed trying to get some sleep, so he could put his application in. This side had been running questions too, but they were stopping him sleep, palms sweaty beneath thin blankets, boiling shivers of anxiety that made him uncomfortable however he lay. What if you don't get the visa? What will you do? What will your family say? They already think this is a foolhardy, badly planned scheme, what about your flights? Endless. Endless questions, fears. He had lain in bed, trying every tactic he knew to stop the tape running in his head. Music, radio, tv, nothing helped. He’d snatched two hours of waking sleep and set off to put his visa in.

With this in mind, he embraced his comfortable side this morning, thinking about London, Starbucks and McDonalds, panda cars and zebra crossings. He looks up at the desk in front of him. There is a commotion, a man shouting. His wife was denied a visa and he, close to tears, asks what they are going to do. The powerless desk clerk, she's just a saleswoman, she can't help him. There's a helplessness in them both that he recognises as his own, recognises but no longer feels. Tentatively aware of this he finally listens to his adrenaline. To his surprise, he doesn’t start to worry, he doesn't care about his visa anymore. Now he just wants to get away, to get into new situations, take new risks away from watchful eyes. If not China, then India, Venezuela, Africa, anywhere. This side has liberated itself, isn’t locking itself into an idea but is open to all suggestions, and he knows this is the stronger side. He waits calmly. His number is called. He approaches the desk with enthusiasm, a smile breaking despite the sleep between his eyes and the morning-sick feeling he gets when he doesn’t eat breakfast. Whatever happens he will be travelling this Sunday, he knows it. The woman at the desk, she smiles back at him. It takes him by surprise, he has watched her deal with the people in front of him, miserable and disinterested. He feels a further surge of energy as he banters with her, passing comment on the other jokers travelling halfway round the world. When her stamp says 'APPROVED' he's really buzzing, because he is going to China, there’s nothing stopping him now, he’s taking himself into unknown territory, and he just can't wait.


Monday, 6 October 2008

One small island to another

A bit of semi-creative writing from Belfast International Airport to Stansted:

He sits in the airport departure lounge, senses gouged by over bright strip lights, children's chatter and the pungent aroma of nearby monster munch. The darkness outside is held back by the reflections of pinball machines' flashing lights and the glow from fast food convenience stands. His head hurts, but only slightly. His eyes ache mildly. His stomach feels hollow, though just twenty minutes before he had felt ill from overeating. Nothing is wrong, really. Four words that fully sum up the extent of his despair more than purple prose ever could. Nothing is wrong. Nothing to complain about, no real reasons for sadness. In fact, in a way, he feels quite happy. And yet... The empty feeling won't quite go away, the aloof disconnection from the surrounding world, a quiet desire to escape. And yet to desire escape is to feel trapped, and he doesn't feel trapped in anything he hasn't constructed for himself, his own small neuroses and confusions that add pressure to a blessed life. He doesn't want saving, he isn't lacking anything he really wants, but he doesn't really want anything. To define your own goals when they have always been set for you is a learning step, and at the moment, he has no goals.

His fingers start tapping, his mind racing through options in a cycle. Who am I? Who do I want to be? Who can I be? He refuses to be trapped by these thoughts again, let himself wind down without an answer. He must decide. He must choose a path, and pursue it to a logical conclusion.

So who does he want to be in twenty years?

He lets his mind wander to the first thought, and declares himself a forty year old photographer. He sees the advantages. He sees his images in magazines, newspapers, on books. He hears the acclaim of those who respect his work. He feels the pride of an expressed vision recognised by an adoring critic. What's wrong with this picture? He can see the acclaim but not the work. In fact, he recognises something in himself now. He enjoys taking photographs but does not have the respect for the work that he wants from others. He doesn't admire the effort, in fact he thinks it should be easy. Even if it isn't, it's too simple. He doesn't want the acclaim. He wants to be something more worthwhile.

He sees an author now, tap-tap-tapping on a keyboard with a wife and children in an adjacent room. He finishes his chapter, wanders in to the kitchen to take a swig of milk, helps his daughter with her maths homework. That night he attends a party given for a friend of his, and tells an eminent politician they do not understand the human impact of their own policy. Returning home, his conversation has angered and inspired him and, sipping on the leftovers of last nights wine and lighting up a cigarette, he starts a new short story. Or a play. Or a film. It doesn't matter at this stage, the idea just has to get out there. Two hours later he looks up. He hasn't realised how long he's been writing for, and he looks over the pages that have appeared on his screen. His trance-like state has left him calm. When he wakes up in the morning he'll turn it into a treatment and send it to his agent, then get back to work on his novel. Now it's time to sleep

but he knows it'll be a peaceful life. Looking up, he notices it's his turn to board, but this vision has made him calm. He takes his seat at the front of the plane, lingering on the threshold to let the last of the cool night air and the fresh wetness of Ireland soothe his unwashed face, blinking his heavy eyes in the dark of the cabin at take-off. He doesn't let up now, he feels like he's getting somewhere, maybe.

The lights come on around him lending a harsh overexposed aspect to the fixed-false smiles on the over-made-up, over-medicated stewardesses. She turns away, but from the side he notices the break in her smile, the hardness of her look as she shows her back to her customers. He crosses air-stewardess off a mental check-list and turns to his next considered profession.

He sits across a table from a pin-stripe suit and a briefcase, and tries to remember why he got into politics. Suit's going through budget figures, restrictions, health and safety. Nothing gets done, he twiddles his pen between his fingers and tries to pretend he's listening. This is the downside of being a cabinet minister, but he knows in an hour or two he'll be done with meetings in his plush Westminster office, dark wooden furnishings lending an academic air to an already austere collection of literature and non-fiction. Attractive as his surroundings are, it is the meeting he has organised with a distraught constituent that he's really looking forward to. It may take place in a dingy pub where his suit and tie will draw attention soon enough to his wallet and mobile phone, the precise matter may be trivial to the point of being a waste of his time, but he will feel helpful. He will regain his sense that what he's doing, in however minor a way, is making things better, incrementally, salving the world's problems one oversized house extension at a time. Tonight, afterwards, he will attend a fund-raiser for a prominent cancer charity and pledge his commitment to increasing funding for the important fight against this disease. Next week, on the arrival of a foreign dignitary, he will conduct meetings to put pressure on the country's incipient dictatorship to release political prisoners and remove curbs on freedom of speech. In his infrequent periods of inactivity, or frequent periods of travel, he will re-read Chomsky, Pilger and Klein, or there future equivalents, and form judgements based on opinion pieces (never news reports) from a range of sources and newspapers. He will act for his beliefs, for his party, for his country, and for the common good of humanity, and he will stand tall when asked to go against what is right – because he knows the good he does is only worth it if it does not come out of a contract of doing bad. He...

He runs out of fresh things to say, but he gets excited rereading his own ideas and hopes. As the plane begins to descend and he is forced to hibernate his laptop, he stares out the window at orange pinpricks of light over London and wonders if the last two options are mutually exclusive. Why can't he be a politician and a writer? Why can't his politician have a wife and family? Why doesn't he see plaudits for himself in anything but photography? He considers making amendments when the plane lands, but he feels he must stay true to the goal he has set himself. When he hits the ground he starts running to get out of the terminal and onto the bus, to keep going and keep thinking. As he goes, his ipod blares in his ears and Santogold makes him pause for thought: Got no need for fancy things, all the attention that it brings.

He takes his seat on the bus, eyeing the seat in front suspiciously. Is it reclined? (Am I sitting in the wrong seat, could I get more seat-bang for my seat-buck?) Deciding it isn't, and that the blonde who occupies it is just attractive enough not to offend by moving anyway, he reconsiders the line he has stuck in his head (Santogold's still blaring at this point, but he doesn't pay attention to it). He was won over by the idea of not wanting fancy things, but hadn't considered the second part, the attention part. He doesn't care about not getting attention. If anything, he craves it, craves to be the best and to win. So he ignores that bit and asks himself whether he needs fancy things, or just wants them. And if wanting something, and being able to have it, is justification enough to take it.

So he thinks about Venezuela, an adjunct to the political career path he is setting out for himself, and tries to work out the feasibility of pitching up and asking for a job in the government. The idea excites him but smacks of colonial arrogance, so he imagines again learning Spanish, studying Latin America, possibly leaving London forever and never coming back. The images from John Pilger's documentary, The War on Democracy, flash through his mind – mansions and barrios – and the questions that present themselves start to veer into the realm of where he would live, and whether he'd be robbed in the first month. He clears his thoughts.

He is fat. Really quite fat. Not obscenely so, but enough to merit a ticking off under the conservatives 'blame fat people' campaign (and they hope the nanny state will die with Labour). The reason he's quite so plump is immediately obvious, the rich plate of desert that sits in front of him on a pristine white tablecloth. He sips a rich red wine and starts to make a pompous observation to his younger, female companion. He tells her that to run a successful restaurant Рlet alone a high-end chain Рyou really need to care about the quality of your food. He can tell she isn't listening, isn't really falling for it, is really thinking about the paps outside and the exposure it will give her modelling career, and whether she'll really have to sleep with him for him to introduce her to his fashionable client̬le, but he doesn't care because he knows she will sleep with him Рthey all do Рand anyway this qualifying isn't for her benefit anyway. He listens to himself talk, approving the self-congratulatory tone and the flavour of his restaurant's signature dish, rich in his mouth from a flatulent burp. He stretches a venal hand to envelop her malnourished fingers, and suggests they leave. No need to wait for the bill in his own restaurant, and he wants to make sure they get decent press coverage (that'll show his ex-wife) before the paps flash round the corner to stalk reality TV stars snogging last year's Vanity Fair cover queen at the latest 'latest thing' nightclub, which subsists on those too stupid or not famous enough to avoid paying the exorbitant cover charge and drinks prices.

He shudders and smiles at the thought, confident that whoever this character is – and he can't help admitting there's something delicious about his caricature – it won't be him. Possibly an acquaintance, possibly an enemy, possibly the ex-husband of an equally parodic (but far thinner) older woman he'll have a temporary affair with, but certainly not him.

He feels alive, sharp, warm, passionate and almost teary eyed. This exercise is teaching him one thing, as he takes quick glances at the bitter, or gormless, or impassive, or downright bored faces that pepper the seats around him. Sometimes it doesn't matter what you write, whether you write it for yourself or for everyone to see, or if you write it for publication. Just writing is enough to give him energy, to excite him, to make him open his mind to new ideas, and he feels like maybe, just maybe, he's answered his question.


Saturday, 4 October 2008

This is not a rant...

There are some things that put me off a writer instantly. The most damaging is if you simply can't empathise with their position, especially when they go on about it. H once gave me a manuscript to read. It started with the line "This is a rant, so hear me." I put it down after ten pages of meandering complaints, usually centring on how customers at B&Q kept asking the narrator where the lugnuts were, the selfish pricks. I was clearly meant to see the meaningless futile angst of it all, but I just ended up thinking the writer was an arsehole.

The same thing put me off Paul Theroux, despite everything great I've been told about him. His book about travelling in Africa didn't so much set the scene of the journey as start mid-whine about how noone thought it suitable a man in his 70s travelling alone from Cairo to Cape town. I gave up on page 80, with some reservations - I did want to hear about his trip, but not when it was all viewed through the prism of sticking it to his wife and fellow concerned parties back home. I don't do teenage rebellion, especially not from a septagenarian.

So it is with this in mind that I make the following statement: people don't seem to entirely understand the concept of this trip. I am going on an adventure. Safe, secure, planned - within reason, these are words I'm trying to dispense with when I think about taking off around the world. For people in my family this is an odd suggestion. Over Rosh Hashana dinner my mother got herself into a panic ('He's not even going to get to China!'), my uncle took me under his wing ('I'll phone my travel agents') and my grandmother just waved a hand and told me it didn't matter that I'd 'done it all wrong' because I'll have 'learnt for next time'. As far as I'm concerned, I couldn't be doing this better. This messy, half-schemed trip gives me a chance for a real sense of freedom, and a real sense of adventure. It's only half about the places I go, the sights I see and the comfort of where I'm staying and how I get there. The exciting bit is taking off into the unknown, testing out new things (even if that's the queue at the Indian embassy in Beijing). I couldn't have planned it better.