Archive for December, 2009

Sasha Grey as Chelsea

Last night I went to see a film called The Girlfriend Experience. It was a very intelligent film with some intriguing performances but it was less interesting to me than the rest of the evening, in which the film played a very minor part.

We’d invited along two of Lanying’s friends who had never met each other, a woman called Mingzhu and a man called Tom. Tom is looking for a girlfriend experience and Mingzhu is looking for a boyfriend experience. Lanying has plenty of matchmaking experience so the film was her idea.

We learned over dinner that Tom had studied Chinese in Shanghai ten years ago and had plenty to talk about with Mingzhu, who was born there. “It has all changed now,” she said. “For better and worse. Anything in the world you can imagine, you can get it in Shanghai.”

Lanying talked in great detail about a massage she’d had in Thailand, which held everyone’s interest for a while.

Then we took the tube to the cinema and Lanying took this opportunity to nudge me (quite hard) in the ribs. “It’s going well, isn’t it?” she whispered excitedly. “They seem to really like each other.”

I nodded. They were talking a lot together and seemed to be hitting it off.

Afterwards we went home with Mingzhu. “Tom is really nice,” I suggested.

“Oh yes,” said Mingzhu. “He’s very easy to talk to.”

“And quite witty.”

“We were talking about the film,” said Mingzhu, “and I told him, it’s really interesting because, speaking for myself, since I can only speak for myself, I have no experience of prostitutes or escorts or anything like that. And he said ‘Is that a question or are you waiting for me to make a comment on that?’ And I said, ‘Oh no, it’s not a question.’ And he said ‘Well, of course, those massage parlours in Shanghai were in my student days.'”

We all laughed about that. But later Lanying got a text from Tom. “Well, that went very badly,” he said. “She took no interest in me at all. The only thing she was interested in was what I did as a student ten years ago.”

Lanying was shocked. Some frantic texts and emails followed.

“She really likes you,” Lanying told him.

“Are you just being polite, or do you really think so?”

“No, really! She thinks you are very interesting to talk to.”

“Well, she is stunning, so I might be interested if she is interested.”

Some texts and emails to Mingzhu followed. “You’d better send him an email to let him know you enjoyed the evening!” Lanying advised her.

“How will he feel if we just stay friends?” Mingzhu asked.

“What shall I tell her?” Lanying asked me.

“Tell her it’s up to the two of them now.”

“I’m glad I’m not dating.” Lanying said.

“Me too. I need all my spare time to practise Chinese.”

“Well,” Lanying told me, “a man stopped me in the street today while you were in the bookshop and told me he thought I was very beautiful, so I’m very happy.”

“Really? What kind of man? Was he old?”

“No, he was young.”

“He wasn’t one of those drunks in a Santa costume was he?”

“No. He was sober and quite handsome.”

“Well,” I said, “Mingzhu told me I speak Chinese like someone who has been studying it for years.”

“You have been studying it for years.”

“And you are very beautiful.”

“But it’s nice to be told.”

“Maybe you should pass on that comment from Tom that he thinks Mingzhu is stunning.”

“Already passed!”

We both laughed about that. You need to laugh about something. This whole girlfriend experience is terribly stressful.


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Chucky, the chess genius

When Lanying wants to be nice to me she calls me Chucky. This is not because she thinks I look like a killer voodoo doll but because I am cute like Charlie Brown, affectionately known as Chuck to Peppermint Patty.

It’s a bit embarrassing when she calls out “Chuck!” in the supermarket and everyone looks round in bewilderment (no-one is called Chuck in England) but generally I don’t mind.

There is another Chucky I have been thinking about a lot recently — Vassily Ivanchuck, who is one of the world’s top chess players. In January he was ranked third, in July he was ranked thirtieth and in August he crushed all opposition to win the FIDE Grand Prix in Armenia.

I’ve always thought rankings in chess were invidious. What I admire is creativity. Chucky is a very creative player. He’s even invented his own variant of chess called “Kissing the Queen.” Chucky is so good at chess that he probably doesn’t realise how difficult his game is. Even to play within the rules you have to have a very sharp eye because the queen cannot be taken or sacrificed and an attack on the queen must be treated like a check so anything that puts your queen in danger is not allowed.

But a couple of weeks ago he was knocked out of the chess world cup by sixteen-year-old Wesley So from the Philippines.

“I should leave professional chess,” he declared. “Chess is killing me. Chess is playing against me! Chess is destroying me!”

The following week he had to issue an apology. “I ask the forgiveness of my supporters, friends, colleagues in arms, and numerous chess lovers, for the emotional interview. I was very upset after losing, but am not in any circumstances planning to give up chess!”

This outburst and subsequent retraction has only made me think more highly of Chucky. Chess is an emotional game. It appears to be a game of logic but it is in fact very emotional and can be very creative, as long as you are not thinking about your ranking. If you are thinking about your ranking you play safe. You play like a computer. The game becomes dull and ends in a draw.

I like players who use their imagination and take risks. Chess players should be emotional about what they are doing. If they never feel like giving up, they are not committing themselves enough.

If you watch Vassily Ivanchuck in these videos, you can see how excitable he is, particularly when he is explaining how to kiss the naked queen, which wins the game.

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My boss wants to send me to China. But he doesn’t want me to tell anyone yet. That probably means nothing will come of it. But, just in case, maybe I should spend more time practising Chinese.

“He speaks Mandarin,” my boss keeps telling everyone.

But I don’t. Not really. Last week I was ill and I went to see a Chinese doctor.  I sat in the waiting room and listened to four Chinese people having a conversation. I could only pick up a word or two here and there. Sichuan cuisine. Prawns. Squid.

“We’re talking about food,” Lanying told me.

“I know. Sichuan cuisine. Prawns. Squid.”

“Hey, he speaks Chinese!”

“He taught himself,” she told them.

“But I don’t speak it well.”

“You speak it very well,” they said.

But I couldn’t even understand the conversation, let alone join in.

I practise for one hour a week every Friday, talking, reading and listening. I no longer have time to practise writing. Every Friday I’m reminded of words I’ve forgotten through not practising enough.

If you don’t use a language every day you forget it.

I spent so much time learning Chinese that I’d stopped reading English books and I was forgetting how to write in English. This time last year I decided to stop learning Chinese, read two English books a month, and spend five hours a week writing a novel.

So far everything has gone to plan. I’m nearly at the end of the 2nd draft of my novel, I’ve read at least 24 English books and I’ve forgotten lots of Chinese.

Lanying has never wanted me to learn Chinese. “I want to read your novel,” she reminded me last night.

Well, I will take a week or two to think about my next steps. The novel needs another draft before I can allow it to be read. And there’s another novel that I want to write.

So maybe I will have to make Lanying speak to me in Chinese. Usually whenever I say anything she gives me a blank look and stays stubbornly silent. Either that or she bursts out laughing.

Now I will tell her “如果你要看我的小说, 你就要说汉语!”

If you want to read my novel, you’ve got to talk to me in Chinese!

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Last night I was reading the comic adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s story Goldfish. It was years since I’d read the original — too long ago to remember the details. There was a vestige of dry wit in the comic but not much. The story was taut but dull. I put it down, unfinished. The original story, I remembered, was not as compelling as Chandler’s best work but I certainly read it to the end.

Fortunately, the collection it’s in — Trouble Is My Business — is not one of the books I’ve thrown out recently so I started to read it again this morning. What a revelation! Sometimes it’s only when you see something done badly that you appreciate the same thing done well.

Chandler has nailed his medium completely and achieved perfection. In the first four pages he sets up his story, foreshadows the ingenious conclusion, makes me laugh half a dozen times, creates some sultry sexual tension, appeals to my compassion and even sneaks in some poetry, while keeping everything (in Kathy Horne’s words) “as tight as a fat lady’s girdle.”

He does it partly through dialogue and partly through description. You’d expect the description to be cut. But in the comic even the dialogue has been cut so that the characterisation, the humour and even the sense of place are lost.

Carmady’s office (he’s called Marlowe in the comic but Carmady in the original story) is opposite the Mansion House where Kathy Horne works.

A warm gusty breeze was blowing in at the office window and the soot from the Mansion House Hotel oil-burners across the alley was rolling across the glass top of my desk in tiny particles, like pollen drifting over a vacant lot.

That is all the description we need for now. Later, Chandler picks it up again in the dialogue.

‘Did you ever hear of the Leander pearls?’ she asked. ‘Gosh, that blue serge shines. You must have money in the bank, the clothes you wear.’

‘No,’ I said, ‘to both your ideas. I never heard of the Leander pearls and don’t have any money in the bank.’

‘Then you’d like to make yourself a cut of twenty-five grand maybe.’

I lit one of her cigarettes. She got up and shut the window, saying: ‘I get enough of that hotel smell on the job.’

This is beautifully done. Kathy Horne may be a stereotypically “seedy, sad-eyed blonde” but the writing is a masterclass in economy. Economy in writing doesn’t mean leaving things out. It means putting things in. That’s what Chandler is so good at. The readers of hard-boiled detective stories didn’t want compassion, complex characterisations or sensitive descriptions. They just wanted the writer to get on with the story. Chandler does get on with the story but he smuggles those other things in anyway.

If you read what he’s written about his writing you know he had to work hard at that. It’s a shame to see all that effort undone by a careless adaptation of his work.

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