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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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It’s not often people get to see me with my shirt off.

It’s not that I’ve got anything to hide. It’s just that I suffer from benign British reserve.

It’s funny how these cultural things work. You grow up surrounded by certain values and assumptions and – it’s hardly surprising really – you adopt them as your own.

It’s not very British to blow your own trumpet or flaunt what you’ve got. At least it wasn’t during my impressionable teenage years. Maybe things have changed.

We’ve been influenced by America where hiding what you’ve got is practically a crime.

I was chatting to a German this week. He works for a Swiss company in New York and was over in London for a week. He told me the women in New York are very forthright. I kind of knew this already because I’ve seen every episode of Sex and the City at least three times. He said if you go into a bar in New York, women approach you for sex. But you have to pass certain tests. One is having a fat wallet and a lean body. The other is having a great job. The third is having the ambition to get an even better job.

If women are really like that in New York then, if I’d grown up there, I would probably still be a virgin.

Or would I?

It could be that I’d have become the chief executive of a global company and have the body of Jared Leto (see picture.) Because cultural expectations rub off.

On the way to meeting my German friend I was listening to some frenetic rock music in my car. (It’s because I got it free in a magazine.) I found myself jumping in my seat like a metalhead on crack. I even started to become a touch impatient with my fellow drivers.

Earlier in the day I was reading an article in my favourite British newspaper, The Guardian, about how we become like the characters in the novels we read.

By the way, the comments on that article, if you’ve time to read them, are typically British, like this one from timbo1211.

After reading Slaughterhouse 5 I developed a distrust of linear models of chronology. I say after reading Slaughterhouse 5, it was really before, during, and after.

This is glaringly obvious really. You don’t need to pay a psychology professor to work it out for you. Reading good books makes you a better person and reading bad ones turns you into a vampire.

I’d like eternal youth but I don’t want to suck anyone’s blood in order to enjoy it. Luckily, there’s an easier way. Matt Posner and Jess C. Scott have just written a brilliant new book called Teen Guide to Sex and Relationships.

I’m going to read it and I’m hoping to shed at least thirty-five years.

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A wet summer

The only time I get to sleep with my wife is when her ex-husband comes to stay. Last time she gave up her bedroom and slept with me in mine. This time I’m the one making the sacrifice. Matthias will have my bedroom for a few nights.

At least we didn’t have any trouble with the stairs this time. We’ve moved to a ground floor flat. Matthias finds it much more convenient.

He even had lighter suitcases.

One of the reasons for this was that Matthias forgot to pack any warm clothes.

Lanying told him off for being so thoughtless.

“But now is summer!” he exclaimed at the airport. “It is hot in London, I am thinking.”

We drove back through the torrential rain discussing where you can buy a cheap raincoat. Matthias was getting chilly in his short-sleeved polyester shirt, so I turned on the heating.

Matthias has been living in Kuala Lumpur for the past two years where it’s regularly 30 degrees.

“They don’t have any seasons in Kuala Lumpur, do they?” I said.

“They don’t have seasons in London, either,” said Lanying. “It’s cold and wet every day of the year.”

“You only think that because you spent all day yesterday in a darkened restaurant,” I told her. “It was glorious sunshine all afternoon.”

“People think it’s hot in London when it gets to 24 degrees,” she replied. “Everyone strips off and lies down half naked in the park. But 24 degrees isn’t hot. They’ve got no idea.”

I got a little lost on the drive home from the airport so Matthias had to direct me. He repeated the instructions from my satnav. First I got the sensual Welsh woman directing me. “In 400 yards go round the roundabout and take the fifth exit. Then stay in the right hand lane.”

Then I got the broad Swiss-German of Matthias. “You see, you need to go right round it again and take the fifth turning onto that road that you were on before. That must be the road. You came off it. And now you need to back on it again. Yes. One. Two. Three. Four. Now it is this one. The fifth turning. You see the motorway is sweeping round like that. Yes. It must be the same road we were on just a moment ago. Perfect. Now we are OK.”

He moved the suitcases easily into my room while I went alone into the underground car park.

“There’s been a problem,” Lanying told me when I came back up to the flat.

“What?”

“Matthias had some herbal drinks in his suitcase and one of the tops is sort of crushed and broken.”

“You mean it leaked all over his suitcase?”

“All over his clothes. Now he hasn’t got anything at all to wear.”

“That would explain why he’s sitting on my bed naked.”

“What, is he?”

He was.

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Black Colossus, 1933

The Chinese have a word tóudà (头大) which means overwhelmed. Literally it means head-big and the idea is that your head is bursting with concepts too numerous and too difficult to contain.

I was taught this word yesterday on a flight from Shanghai to London by a Chinese woman called Hui. She spoke hardly any English and this was a problem because the plane had been delayed and she’d missed her onward flight to Lyons in France. It was in trying to absorb the information passed on from the non-Chinese speaking British Airways crew about what she needed to do to get another flight that she became overwhelmed.

It first became apparent that she couldn’t speak English when the stewardess asked her what she’d like to drink.

“Café,” she said.

“What?” asked the stewardess, who spoke only English.

“Café,” repeated Hui hopefully.

“I’m sorry,” said the stewardess. “You’d like what?”

I was between Hui and the stewardess so I mediated. “Coffee,” I said.

“Thank you!” gushed Hui in light, breathy English that shimmered softly against my skin.

It was an eleven hour flight, extended by two hours due to a delay just before take-off, so I had two books with me. For the first couple of hours I was immersed in the exhilarating prose of Robert E. Howard.

Conan strode to the altar, lifting Yasmela in his bloodstained arms. She threw her white arms convulsively about his mailed neck, sobbing hysterically, and would not let him go.

“Crom’s devils, girl!” he grunted. “Loose me! Fifty thousand men have perished today and there is work for me to do – ”

“No!” she gasped, clinging with convulsive strength, as barbaric for the instant as he in her fear and passion. “I will not let you go! I am yours, by fire and steel and blood! You are mine! Back there, I belong to others – here I am mine – and yours! You shall not go!”

He hesitated, his own brain reeling with the fierce upsurging of his violent passions. The lurid unearthly glow still hovered in the shadowy chamber, lighting ghostily the dead face of Thugra Khotan, which seemed to grin mirthlessly and cavernously at them. Out on the desert, in the hills among the oceans of dead, men were dying, were howling with wounds and thirst and madness, and kingdoms were staggering. Then all was swept away by the crimson tide that rode madly in Conan’s soul, as he crushed fiercely in his iron arms the slim white body that shimmered like a witchfire of madness before him.

I had not yet learned the word to describe Conan’s emotion: tóudà … overwhelmed.

Robert E. Howard loves adjectives and active verbs. The Chinese textbooks I use have exercises called substitution drills where you take a model sentence and slip in all sorts of alternative words. I had been playing this exercise in English while I read Black Colossus.

Then all was _____ by the _____ that _____in Conan’s soul, as he _____ in his _____ arms the _____ body that _____ before him.

As I looked at the soft contours of the lithe little Chinese body in the seat next to mine, cloaked in a thin British Airways blanket and lit ghostily by the lurid unearthly glow of the shuddering jumbo’s night lights, my subconscious was doing a substitution drill of its own, drawing into the fierce upsurging of its uncontrollable passions that helpless and supple-limbed figure whose attachments, I suspected, could be every bit as strong as Yasmela’s.

I hadn’t quite reached a witchfire of madness but there were still many hours to go.

I put away Conan and reached for my stolid Chinese vocabulary book.

“Oh!” declared the unearthly shape next to me. “You are studying Chinese! How long have you been learning it?”

She said it in Chinese, her pale face almost touching mine, her breath once again cool on my skin. Her lips were stretched wide in an ecstatic smile, showing gleaming white teeth, and her brown eyes glittered with a fierce and infectious curiosity.

I was speechless.

“How long have you been studying it?” she repeated, slowly. Then, “I speak only Chinese and French.”

“I also speak French,” I said in Chinese.

Then she spoke to me in a rapid, soft, perfectly accented French. I replied haltingly and she rewarded me with an increasing torrent of words that revealed more and more about her life and her affections, her passions, her sorrows, her joys.

She and her words were irresistible. Two hours later I realised my head was reeling. I was damp with sweat, worn out by the exertion of trying to communicate in a bewildering combination of two very different foreign languages.

“When I speak French with you,” I told her later in Chinese, “I am overwhelmed.” She laughed prettily, pleased with my use of the word she had taught me. But the better part of what I wanted to say was left unsaid. I was like a speechless child trying to talk to an eloquent adult. All that I felt was unutterable, too deep for words, shimmering like a witchfire of madness beyond the horizon of palpable language.

It is now almost 24 hours since that experience. I have slept and bathed. I have read some sobering texts, done my laundry and brought home my groceries. I have had time to adjust to my home environment once again and the fever in my brain has somewhat subsided. I think I have become wiser – and I have this piece of advice for all writers who value their sanity and craft: steer clear of Conan the Barbarian.

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Geoff Hurst scoring for England

On Sunday England will be playing Germany in the World Cup. Such matches always arouse strong feelings in England. If you are German you had better stay indoors.

My wife, who is German, doesn’t understand. “I should hang out a flag,” she said last night as we were walking along the river bank. She had seen an Australian flag draped over a balcony. Elsewhere there are England flags in windows, tied to gutters, pinned to walls, stuck on cars, flapping and fluttering wherever they can be hung.

“Other people have flags,” she said. “Why not me?”

Luckily it is impossible to buy a German flag in England. Otherwise she would probably do it and I’d be sweeping up broken glass in the living room instead of writing this.

She doesn’t appreciate the history. “I’ll always support Germany,” she said innocently while they were playing against Ghana the other night. “Because I like to see football played well. Yeah. The Germans really know how to play. This is proper football. Not like when England play.”

Ghana were in an all-white strip. Germany in an all-black one. “I hope they are not going to wear those awful black uniforms when they play England,” she said. “Really! Why do they have to wear black?”

Fortunately, because it is very important and she will probably be talking about it all through the match again otherwise, the Germans will be in White on Sunday. White shirts, black shorts and black socks.

England will be wearing their lucky all-red strip. They could have chosen red shirts, white shorts and red socks, the combination they wore in the 1966 World Cup final when, let us not forget, they beat Germany 4-2. But the all-red strip brought them victory against Slovenia on Wednesday and may be lucky again tomorrow.

Not that I’ll be seeing much of the match. Yesterday was Lanying’s birthday and Sunday is Mingzhu’s, so we’re having a double birthday celebration. Lanying and Mingzhu will watch the match and I’ll be going to Lanying’s favourite Chinese restaurant on the other side of the Thames to fetch some Sichuan kebabs.

The kebabs are for the meat-loving Germans who will be joining us for dinner and for Mingzhu, who also loves meat.

We have some new friends, Carley and Andreas. Carley is Chinese. Andreas is German. And Lanying has also invited Tom. I’ve mentioned Tom before. He’s the German who really likes Mingzhu and would probably be going out with her if there was any chemistry there. Lanying invited him because she was feeling sorry for him. He has been stuck at home after being crippled in a skiing accident so he has put on weight and become depressed.

So seeing the woman who won’t go out with him after watching his national team get thrashed will be just the thing to perk him up I expect.

Mingzhu doesn’t know he has been invited yet. I hope she doesn’t choke on her kebab.

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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.

“Why?”

“I could have had roast dinner every weekend.”

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Tom Courtenay

I hope I am not spreading myself too thinly. There’s not much of me to go round. But I have recently joined Goodreads (see sidebar) after prevaricating for a while. I decided I needed to broaden my horizon and find some recommendations for books from outside my narrow social circle. I particularly like recommendations of books that are free, such as those on Project Gutenberg, but I don’t want to be seen as a mean old-fashioned fuddy-duddy who only likes dead authors because they don’t need to get paid. I read books by living authors too. Short ones. I’ve started a few trilogies and quartets and even a dodecameron but I’m still stuck in the middle of them. So short single-volume novels are best.

I’m a bit lonely on Goodreads, so you are welcome to befriend me there.

I find it quite useful to be able to keep track of what I’m reading there because I have a tendency to get distracted and forget. I also like the way Goodreads allows you to consult public opinion rather than rely on the marketing of publishing companies. I have a sceptical relationship with publishers. Of course, I love the way they publish books for us to read. Especially short ones. But I sometimes get really frustrated by their policies and their marketing tactics.

One of the things that really frustrates me with publishers is the tendency to publish unwieldy versions of books I really want to read. I like books to be light and portable. I love ebooks. I hate hardbacks. I really hate so-called trade paperbacks, which have all the inconvenience of hardbacks without the durability.

I am really grateful for computers, digital text and the iphone.

But I don’t want to sound like a geek. I really need some friends.

Oh, but I nearly forgot to mention. I do have one friend. She may be a nerdy blood-sucking phlebotomist but at least she likes me for who I am and not just because I’m willing to post a link to her populist feature on vampire novels.

I think.

Thanks, Nicole!

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