Archive for January, 2010

George Clooney and Vera Farmiga

You are no doubt desperate for the sequel to Tom and Mingzhu’s girlfriend experience.

Tom admitted to Lanying, the arch-orchestrator of the plot, that Mingzhu was exactly his type. “How did you know that she was exactly the sort of woman I like?”

“I just know.”

“The trouble is…” said Tom. “Please don’t take this the wrong way but Chinese women can be tricky.”

“Tricky? Are we?”

“They can be incredibly pretty but you never know what is going on in their minds. They always trick you somehow.”

“Mingzhu is not like that. She is a very decent person.”

“All the same…”

“Does that mean you are not going to contact her?”

“She told me she will be very busy until after the new year because she is going away with her mother. So I said we can meet for lunch in January.”

January is nearly over and they still haven’t met for lunch. Mingzhu emailed him. After a few days he replied. They couldn’t agree on a date. Mingzhu wrote straight back. A few days later he replied again. They eventually agreed a date.

“But it’s not a date,” Tom told Lanying. “Don’t call it a date. It’s just lunch.”

“A lunch date.”

“No, not a lunch date. It’s just lunch.”

Then he cancelled the lunch date. He had been promoted and he had to go for lunch with his new boss instead.

“Mingzhu will understand. She likes ambitious men, doesn’t she?”

“That was when she was younger,” said Lanying. “She is more mellow now. She says you take a long time to reply to her emails. She thinks maybe you are not that keen.”

“But she writes such long ones! I have 300 unanswered emails in my inbox. I can’t reply to hers in two minutes on my BlackBerry. I have to think about them and sit at a proper keyboard.”

“Maybe you are thinking too much. It’s only lunch.”

Yesterday Tom found time to go and see a film with Lanying. It’s that film with George Clooney called Up in the Air.  I read a review over breakfast. “It’s got four stars!” I said. “I bet it’s really good.”

“Four stars! Give me that! I’m going to take that with me and show him. He never believes me when I tell him a film is going to be good.”

“He’s so fussy. He’s neurotic.”

“Yeah, and he’s always late! He’d better not be late today.”

He was late. Lanying told him twice that the film started at 3.00 o’clock but he didn’t get there till 3.17. She was waiting at the entrance watching him as he came running up the road. He was sweating.

“I already have the tickets,” she said and took him straight in. “I want to find a good seat. I hate to sit at the front.”

“I thought it had started.”

“It hasn’t.”

“You told me it started at 3.00.”

“If I told you it started at 3.30 I’d still be waiting at the door checking my watch.”

“I’ve been tricked!”

“Just sit down. Here, use these tissues to wipe the sweat off your face.”

“I told you Chinese women are tricky.”

Meanwhile Tom and Mingzhu haven’t yet agreed on a date so it’s all still up in the air.


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The Rendezvous Café

I will never leave my wife because she is the source of all my wealth, health and happiness. It is because of my wealth in particular that I am able to meet my friends in this café in London’s ever-popular Leicester Square.

Although not on a par with the Ritz, Brown’s or the Savoy, where afternoon tea will set you back £70 or £80, the Rendezvous Café must surely sell one of the most expensive cups of coffee in the world. Which is great, because it means that even in the crowded heart of London, at the busiest time of the day, you can always find an empty seat and have an impromptu chat in comfort with your friends — something you most certainly can’t do at the Ritz, Brown’s or the Savoy, where you have to book two months in advance.

Leicester Square is one of those places that American visitors always mispronounce. I suppose it’s because they never established their own Leicester Square, along with their versions of Greenwich, Kensington and Chelsea. Nevertheless, you get a lot of Americans in Leicester Square and you can look at them through the window of the Rendezvous Café as they queue up to buy cut-price tickets for the many theatres just a stone’s throw away.

Occasionally Lanying and I pass one of those theatres and spot a famous actor leaving by the stage door. We don’t often go to the theatre in the evening because we don’t like to stay out late. When we go it’s usually in the afternoon. We buy our tickets full price, on impulse, as we are passing. We usually sit near the front because of my bad eyesight, and think nothing of the price because (of course) of my wealth, but also because it’s a priceless experience, being in the theatre in the presence of great actors bringing to life a triumph of the imagination.

And we have all this to enjoy thanks to a Chinese fortune-teller. He told Lanying long ago, “You will have a hard life but you will bring good fortune to those close to you.”

By implication, those no longer close to her won’t be so lucky. And so it has proven over the years. Her first boyfriend betrayed her and she left him. He suffered a brain tumour. The worst of luck.

Her next boyfriend was mixed up with gangsters and had just suffered a terrible car accident when she met him. Under her care he regained his health, left those gangsters behind and started a successful business. After she left him he nearly died. His business ran into problems. He had to leave the country. He started mixing with the wrong sort of people again.

Last year she had a row with her boss. While she was with him he was doing very well. The first year of their collaboration he was the number three salesperson in his company. Year two he was number two. Year three, number one. Then he turned against her for some reason. He made her life hell and she walked out.

Just before Christmas she got a call from a stranger. A man had collapsed on the pavement outside his house and the caller was trying to identify him. It was a disturbing call, so she gave the phone to me.

“Did you say it was an old man?” I asked.

“No. About forty, I’d say.”

“There’s only one person I know in that part of London,” I said. “And he is about forty. Flaxen-haired?”




It was Lanying’s former boss. He’d had a stroke.

Tomorrow she’s going to the memorial service. She was trying on a stylish black outfit as I came through the door tonight. She looked stunning.

Definitely not a person I’d ever want to leave.

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Honoré de Balzac

My new year’s resolution is to read shorter books and to work longer hours.

This was prompted by my recent experience with La Cousine Bette, which, thankfully, is over now. Honoré de Balzac must have needed gallons of coffee to finish writing this sour commentary on Parisian society since I needed plenty to go on reading it. The thing I always find with Balzac is there aren’t many laughs in his Comédie Humaine.

One of my French teachers once told me how shocked he was to discover that Balzac’s letters were all about money. I’m not sure why it should have been a shock, since his novels are all about money too. Balzac wrote for money, quite clearly, and money is the motivating force of many of his characters. Our understanding of them wouldn’t be complete if we didn’t know how much they earned and how much they spent year by year.

Balzac is nevertheless a brilliant writer and his novels are full of interest. Probably not enough interest for me to consider reading all 98 of the novels that make up La Comédie Humaine, but enough to make me take his views on novel writing seriously.

So I asked him, “Honoré old chap, did you really do it all for the money? Wasn’t there perhaps a little fire of artistic ambition glimmering in your soul?”

“Of course,” he told me, in confidence. “But I was an artist driven on by the dreadful stress of poverty.”

“And coffee,” I suggested.

“Well, of course. To stay up all through the night and write like a madman, one needs more than dreams.”

“But I think there was also a powerful artistic vision driving you, wasn’t there? You were a man who loved Shakespeare. Your work is full of allusions to the writers and artists who inspired you. Wasn’t there a small part of you that also wanted to be great like them?”

“Not a small part, Monsieur Grinton. Intellectual work, labour in the upper regions of mental effort, is one of the greatest achievements of man. That which deserves real glory in Art is courage above all things — a sort of courage of which the vulgar have no conception.”

“Writing La Comédie Humaine was definitely a long-term project. Having cooked up a few little comedies of my own, I know what you were up against. What gave you the courage to keep going?”

“The lash of hard Necessity, my friend.”

“Did you get no pleasure from your work?”

“Ah yes! To muse, to dream, to conceive of fine works, is a delightful occupation. It is like smoking a magic cigar or leading the life of a courtesan who follows her own fancy. The work then floats in all the grace of infancy, in the mad joy of conception, with the fragrant beauty of a flower, and the aromatic juices of a fruit enjoyed in anticipation.”

“I know what you mean. I think I must get my cigars from the same tobacconist as you.”

“And what have you written, Monsieur Grinton?”

“Ah, there’s the thing. Nothing of note. But the cigars were wonderful.”

“Every writer can sketch his purpose beforehand, mon vieux. But gestation, fruition, the laborious rearing of the offspring, putting it to bed every night full fed with milk, embracing it anew every morning with the inexhaustible affection of a mother’s heart, licking it clean, dressing it a hundred times in the richest garb only to be instantly destroyed; then never to be cast down at the convulsions of this headlong life till the living masterpiece is perfected which in sculpture speaks to every eye, in literature to every intellect, in painting to every memory, in music to every heart! — This is the task of execution. The hand must be ready at every instant to come forward and obey the brain. But the brain has no more a creative power at command than love has a perennial spring.”

“You mean I need to work harder?”

“If you want to be remembered. The habit of creativeness, the indefatigable love of motherhood which makes a mother — that miracle of nature which Raphael so perfectly understood — the maternity of the brain, in short, which is so difficult to develop, is lost with prodigious ease.”

“You mean I should really make the most of my ideas?”

“Yes! Inspiration is the opportunity of genius.”

“But she dances on the razor’s edge, I fear.”

“She does not indeed dance on the razor’s edge, she is in the air and flies away with the suspicious swiftness of a crow; she wears no scarf by which the poet can clutch her; her hair is a flame; she vanishes like the lovely rose and white flamingo, the sportsman’s despair.”

“You make hard work sound so delightful!”

“No, mon ami! Work, is a weariful struggle, alike dreaded and delighted in by these lofty and powerful natures who are often broken by it. A great poet of my day said in speaking of this overwhelming labour, I sit down to it in despair, but I leave it with regret.

“Was that Alfred de Vigny?”

“Be it known to all who are ignorant! If the artist does not throw himself into his work as Curtius sprang into the gulf, as a soldier leads a forlorn hope without a moment’s thought, and if when he is in the crater he does not dig on as a miner does when the earth has fallen in on him; if he –”

“Or perhaps Alphonse de Lamartine?”

“– if he contemplates the difficulties before him instead of conquering them one by one, like the lovers in fairy tales, who to win their princesses overcome ever new enchantments, the work remains incomplete; it perishes in the studio where creativeness becomes impossible, and the artist looks on at the suicide of his own talent.”

“Well, if I’ve learnt anything from La Cousine Bette,” I said, “it’s that I need to read less and write more.”

For some reason the great author took offence at that. Flushed with annoyance, he darted me a look of scorn and walked away.

“You are not perfect, you know, Honoré,” I called after him.

He turned abruptly. “Quoi?”

“You left behind 48 unfinished novels.”

At which he stomped off without another word.

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