Archive for the ‘City LIfe’ Category

ImageThis summer a terrible thing happened. My wife became friends with my Chinese teacher. They go shopping together in the mall. Serena has been trying to get my wife to wear the same tantalisingly short skirts and hot pants that she wears to my lessons. They talk about diets and Chinese parents and men. Men! Yes, and women, too. And women’s legs!

It used to be that my Chinese lessons consisted of me telling my teacher things about my wife and my teacher telling me things about her husband.

Then I would go home and tell my wife things about my teacher.

It worked well for a while and I suppose I should be glad that I’ve known at least some happiness in my life, however briefly. Now I try as much as possible to say nothing to either of them, although the talk at home is all of Serena.

The first pair of hot pants Lanying came home in were so short she couldn’t sit down. She had to take them back to the shop the next day and get a more comfortable pair. I told one of my colleagues about it. He shook his had sadly. “I can’t say anything,” he said, “that one of us won’t regret.”

Lanying talks every day about my Chinese teacher. Yesterday she told me something Serena’s husband had told her. “He likes looking at legs,” Serena told her. “He thinks there should be a law against women wearing long trousers.”

“That’s the most ridiculous thing I ever heard!” I said. “But that doesn’t mean he likes other men to look at Serena’s legs.”

“No, of course not. He likes looking at other women’s legs.”

“Not that Serena doesn’t have good legs,” I said diplomatically.

“Serena has great legs.”

“She does. But, you know, in general, a man doesn’t like the world to see his wife’s legs.”

“Exactly,” said Lanying, “no matter how good his wife’s legs may be. ”

“Between a man and his wife, of course, it’s quite all right. But in public, it’s a different thing.”

“But I suppose a man gets bored of looking at the same legs all the time,” she said, “and needs fresh legs to look at.”

“Fresh legs. Indeed.” I’m always happy when I can agree with my wife.

“She is still very young,” Lanying said. “She wants to please him.”

“Yes. I’m sure that’s the reason she wears hot pants all the time.”

“But, really, I think her skirts are too short.”

“So you won’t be buying any short skirts?”

“Definitely not. I’m not a teenager any more.”

Once again I was able to agree. “I’m glad you understand men so well,” I told her. “You don’t try and please me, at least.”

“I dress only for myself,” she told me.

We were walking along the River Thames at the time and I noted that although winter was well under way, the day was exceptionally fine.

“It’s going to be cold on Thursday,” she said.

“Oh, that’s a pity. I suppose you shall have to put away your hot pants and get out your winter clothes.”

“You shall have to get out my winter clothes. The box is too heavy for me.”

“I will be only too glad,” I told her.

And I felt gladder than I’ve felt for a while. The warmth of the sun was very pleasant on my face and the rolling of the waves in the river made a beautiful sound that covered our words and seemed to promise a beautiful English autumn ahead, leading into an even more beautiful English winter.


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Tom didn’t come for dinner on Sunday, so that was one catastrophe averted. The other German came, though, and without his English son. Father and son needled one another by text.

“If you run out of tissues,” Andreas wrote as the English team collapsed under the superior German firepower, “you can tear up some of those English flags for handkerchiefs.”

“The Germans may have won the football match,” his son retorted, “but they are still very bad at making at jokes.”

Lanying roared with glee everytime Germany got the ball.

“Which team are you supporting, Mingzhu?” I asked, expecting her to side with England.

“Uh, I don’t know. Which team is better looking?”

In the end her allegiance was with the handsome German centre-back Arne Friedrich.

I was sent to fetch some Sichuan kebabs. At first the streets of London were deserted but, after Germany scored the third goal, the will of the nation wilted. Disheartened fans sidled out of pubs and living rooms to smoke a much-needed cigarette, kick a discarded beer can, or simply stare at the bluest sky we’ve had in years and wonder where it all went wrong.

As I waited on the corner of a deserted south London suburb I began to doubt my choice of rendezvous. I couldn’t have chosen a worse spot to wait. The sun was beating down on me, I looked shady in the shade and my view of the road was obscured by a dirty red brick bridge.

As I stood there, furtively counting my cash and avoiding the stares of the occasional passing drunk, I wondered whether I should risk getting out my iPhone and taking a picture. People have been stabbed on that street for less.

I slipped it out, took a quick snap (see above) and tucked it away again, resisting the urge to read Tales of Chinatown on it while I was waiting.

Then suddenly he was there, the motorcyclist from the restaurant. As he handed over the goods and I passed him the cash, I saw he had thrown in a free bottle of wine.

I love the Chinese. They are so flexible when it comes to doing business.

It’s a shame they are useless at football even though, as I was informed in detail over dinner, they invented it.

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I adore Mingzhu. “You look so good in blue,” she told me the other week. “And you are so slim. You have no belly. There’s nothing there at all.”

“That’s because Lanying keeps me on a diet of tofu, fish and bitter green vegetables.”

“I couldn’t eat like that,” she said. “I love English roast dinners. Beef and Yorkshire pudding and roast potatoes. I’ve got to have meat.”

“But you don’t put on weight. You have a perfect figure.”

“No, my belly’s bigger than yours. Look!”

I looked and I can still see it now. I think about it often, that belly. Smooth and shapely. Seductive. Slim. Gorgeous.

Last night the three of us were on the tube discussing Sex and the City 2. “I don’t like the way they approach other cultures,” Mingzhu said. “They went all the way to Abu Dhabi and they just wanted to behave like they were in a nightclub in Manhattan.”

Opposite us were four young men who had been drinking. They were staring at us. Well, not so much at me. “That’s what you want,” said one of them, who was a Geordie and was wearing a trilby. “You want to get off the beaten track.”

Mingzhu and Lanying couldn’t understand his accent but they nodded. He started to talk some more so Mingzhu said “What?”

“Get off the beaten track,” he repeated amiably.

They still didn’t understand.

“Get off the beaten track,” I said.

“Ah,” Mingzhu said, still puzzled. “Yes.”

We explained that we’d been to see Sex and the City, which led to a discussion about the best of British films since the original Ladykillers, which Lanying so admires. The Geordie had good taste. Unfortunately Mingzhu and Lanying couldn’t understand him. He warmly recommended Shogun Assassin and I told him I would put it on our rental wish list.

At London Bridge, Mingzhu had to get off. She gave me and Lanying a quick kiss and hurried to the doorway. The Geordie stared after her. “Stop drooling!” One of his friends told him. “It’s obvious what you’re thinking. She’s gorgeous.”

At the cinema Mingzhu had bought me a chocolate ice cream. She didn’t ask me, she just bought it. I had no choice but to eat it. It was delicious.

It was a quiet cinema where everyone is usually very well behaved. But last night there were groups of women drinking cocktails and hooting. They cheered loudly when Sarah Jessica Parker appeared on the screen. “Don’t they know it’s a film?” Mingzhu whispered to me. “She can’t hear them.” Mingzhu has never seen a single episode of Sex and the City, unlike Lanying, who has sat through every episode several times, with me at her side.

“I should have married Mingzhu,” I told Lanying today as we sat down to an octopus salad.


“I could have had roast dinner every weekend.”

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The Naming of the Seabourn Sojourn

The thousands of you who read my blog without ever commenting and yet very kindly take an interest in my personal situation must be itching to know what became of my plan to move house.

Well, it took seven months of tense negotiation but my plan finally came good. I have moved and I couldn’t be happier.

I have thrown away most of my possessions and my life has become richer and more enjoyable. All those musty old books have gone. All my furniture. Most of my clothes. The garden tools. Instead I now have a swimming pool, a gym, two jacuzzis and a fleet of boats to take me up and down the Thames.

A few nights ago I was startled by a loud explosion just outside the window. I peeped out and saw fireworks. I pulled on my shoes, ran like blazes and was treated to a spectacular display coming from the river near Greenwich. It was to celebrate the naming of the Seabourn Sojourn.

The photo by Lanying doesn’t do justice to the startling beauty of the explosions.

I saw The Seabourn Sojourn set off on its maiden voyage a few days later as I was coming back from my swim. It looked magnificent, lit up like a small city, gliding with majestic slowness.

But why the strange spelling? Well, the company has many ships and they’re all called Seabourn something. So it must be one of those strokes of marketing genius for search engine optimisation so I’ll just shut up about it and stop driving Lanying nuts.

Anyway, now I’ve had time to get settled on the Thames, I’m wondering what my next goal should be. Something big and complicated to distract me even more from the anxiety of literary endeavour. Maybe a holiday house in Krakow. It’s very beautiful there, I’ve heard.

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“How would you describe the way you speak, Joseph?” Mingzhu asked me the other day over dinner. “Are you posh? You sound very posh.” 

“I’m not so much posh as educated,” I said. 

“When I first came to England,” said my wife, Lanying, “I was very surprised that not everyone spoke clearly like Joseph. I couldn’t understand most people at first.” 

“But after a while don’t you find yourself talking like them?” Mingzhu asked. 

“Yes. Yes. There was one office I was working where they all came from Essex and Joseph said I was picking up all this Essex slang. I didn’t know it was slang I just heard it and copied it.” 

“Exactly,” agreed Mingzhu, “because as a foreigner speaking English you don’t have anything to fall back on. You just copy everything. You don’t have your own roots in the language.” 

“That’s why the work environment is so important,” said Lanying. “You have to choose your colleagues carefully otherwise you can end up using totally unsuitable expressions.” 

“I know,” said Mingzhu. “A lot of my colleagues are from Essex actually.” 

“And do you find yourself talking like them?” 

“Yes. Inevitably. One of them who sits opposite me is very funny. He uses lots of swear words. He can’t have a conversation on the phone without swearing. But in a funny way.” 

“A lot of people in England talk like that,” said Lanying. “On the train you hear swearing all the time and in these impenetrable accents, like Cockney and Brummie and Geordie. But Scottish is the worst. I can never understand people from Scotland.” 

“Well let me tell you something,” said Mingzhu. “The people in my office are all English and they complain all the time that they can’t understand people from Scotland, so you’re not alone there.” 

“The other day on the train,” said Lanying, “I was with my Chinese friend, Yin. She was was visiting from Switzerland. There were some German tourists in the other seat and they wanted to know if the train went to London Bridge. They asked some Scottish people but they couldn’t understand what the Scottish people said. So my friend, Yin, told them in German.” 

“They must have been very surprised to see a Chinese person in London suddenly switch to German.” 

“But why? That’s what Chinese are good at.” 

“What is?” 

“Lanuguages. We are great at languages. We can learn anything.” 

Mingzhu looked at her a moment. 

“Yes!” persisted Lanying. “We are very good at languages. We are great actually.” 

“There’s a word in English for that.” 


“For what you just said.” 

“What word?” 

“Up your own arse.”

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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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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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