Nov 102016
 



ALT TEXT

Fei Mo Di

Fei Mo Di has slaved for two days to make me this amazing movie, ‘S’, as a goodbye gift. This photo is from it. We promise each other that we will meet one day in London for cake at Maison Berteaux on Greek Street.

It is seven months since I arrived here, at this airport perpetually seething with people. I’m squatted on the floor, reaching the end of Bel’s Christmas book. God – I’d find it impossible, having one Chinese and one British parent like Ben Chu does. How the hell do you behave, when you come from two – well, almost like, two species?
    The final page. I’m skimming it while shuffling slowly forwards in the queue for boarding. The man in front – British, suit-and-tie, middle-aged, big-bellied, wheezing – scowls in an obvious way at my book’s title Chinese Whispers: Why Everything You’ve Heard About China is Wrong, then turns away, handing his young Chinese wife his emptied MacDonalds paper-cup-with-straw for her to dispose of.
    Despair of humanity comes over me too easily.
    Meanwhile Ben Chu is telling off his readers. ‘Start thinking of the Chinese not as some homogenous and intimidating mass of humanity, but as individuals…’ The peasanty-looking Chinese guy behind me starts pushing – like, we’re all going to get on the plane faster if you do that.
    ‘…There are good and bad people among them, just as anywhere else’, writes Chu.

    ‘Some are corrupt, some upright. Some are brutal, some compassionate. Some are greedy, some frugal. Some are mean, some generous. Some are racist, some are tolerant. Some are narrowly nationalist, some are voraciously cosmopolitan.’

It’s high time, says Ben Chu, that we all moved beyond Somerset Maugham’s inability to empathise.
    I admit, I’m crap at empathy. Too quick to write people off as hopelessly alien when they don’t behave like me. Useless at fathoming another person’s mind.
    Once buckled into my seat by the window, I return to the final page that I’ve only skimmed, because I am keen to learn.

‘There is no unfathomable Chinese mind … There really is no Chinese mystery waiting to be revealed…’

I have to pause from reading to do my usual thing of manically gripping the arm-rests for the few moments of take-off – those seconds when the wheels leave the ground and you get tilted back as the plane soars steeply upwards…
    The wheels tuck in and clunk somewhere. I dare to peer down at the receding city lights, feeling the plane judder as though bumping into the curb, but no – there is no curb; it’s just air. Then back to the book in my lap. The final sentence.

‘To understand the Chinese, we need only listen to our own hearts.’

A flare in the corner of my eye. Below the plane a beautiful orange peony is blooming. No – a tangerine cloud, billowing towards us; no – a red flag unfurling until it entirely covers the sky and now gets spangled with a white-hot firework display.
    Exclamations fill the quiet of the plane – on my side only, the side from which the windows of the sideways-tilted and slowly-arcing jumbo jet have been offering a glittering cityscape until this fireball. Now hubbub; now urgent calling across the rows to other belted-in passengers who cannot see outside, until the fantastically-evolving light-show has a soundtrack – a clamour of excited exchanges, calls to the stewards, wails. Seconds become a half-minute, the multilingual cacophony of agitation building, unintelligible, now harmonizing into a collective keen. The jet distances itself from the city, then from the haze of electric lights defining the outer metropolis. Above the racket, an urgent-sounding announcement in Chinese begins. Distant human settlements are coming into view, speckling the darkness like far-away galaxies, while the receding tremendous ball of flame above central Shanghai has gained dark edges of nothingness; no lights from the city’s heart, all the glitter gone.


 

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Oct 132016
 



ALT TEXT

Aussie Cyril

Aussie Cyril took this on his phone and gave it a ‘magic lantern’ effect.

I’ve lost you. I’ve lost Ilka for good, too. And I’ve lost sight of my manuscript.
    What has Shanghai done for me?
    What did it do for you?

Dear Suki,
Thank you for all your assistance in my communications with Bella’s Shanghai employers in the last week. Thank you also for boxing up and posting Bella’s possessions, I am most grateful. I will of course refund all postage via your UK account if you could please provide your bank details – thanks. Pls let me know how many boxes will eventually be in the post and the approximate date of arrival. Below is a link to Bella’s obituary from the Guardian in case you have not seen it. The Guardian is one of the newspapers which used to publish Bella’s photographs.
Thanks again for your assistance at this sad time.
Best wishes, John

Did you find out you were terminally ill, Bel, and so decided to kill yourself? Was it not really about your daughter, or anything else? Did you not, after all, have it all planned before you left me?

Well. Your obituary is an eye-opener. Born in Surrey. Dutch father, Polish mother. Guildford Grammar School. Kibbutz before Cambridge. Dropped out of English Literature to go travelling with artist husband Eli Esteban in the Middle East – ‘an odyssey that stimulated Bella’s award-winning career in war journalism which brought an early end to the marriage. Their only child, Elise, was brought up by paternal family members. Bella’s recent loss of her daughter, who took her own life, may have been a factor in Bella’s suicide…’
    Things I knew: unsettled, questing, idealistic, brave. A love-child made with a stranger. Private – no: secretive.
    Things I didn’t know: divorced, award-winning, Jewish, your daughter died at her own hand. A medal for bravery.
    Things your in-laws probably didn’t know: their grand-child’s true parentage. Unless they did know but were compassionate?
    Was your accidental child the reason why your marriage failed?

Another Guardian Online obit, referenced in the sidebar, catches my attention: Astronaut Ludowic Kendal dies aged 87, Cornwall…

I’m just waking up your PC from sleep mode. There: your qq account’s now on-screen. Dozens of new emails are waiting to be opened. What am I supposed to do about them? I don’t know how to close down a life. I have no experience.
    Desk clearance is more straightforward. I’m binning all your printed-out articles – sorry. I can pack this last handful of books into one of those half-filled boxes. Hey – my poetry collection has a page-corner turned down. Christ, Bel. The poem on that page is Running joke – about suicide. Were you thinking of it?

The college’s waiban has issued me a deadline of fourteen days to leave the flat. I hate being here anyway. Empty of you. Empty of your stuff. Empty of food. That retch-inducing stench in the kitchen.
    I want to hear you ranting about another imminent catastrophe. I’ll pay better attention. Promise. Please come back.

Afternoon. Your students enjoying the cancellation of their class.
    Poor, miserable Lily Hong has just helped me book my flight. We’re on our way now to visit an exhibition – Cyril’s recommendation – by the photographer Adou. But on the Metro she’s inconsolable. What can I do?
    ‘Bel my best friend [sob]. I speak Bel all my sorrow [sob]. I lonely now.’
    I can’t help her, Bel.
    In the gallery she breaks down again. ‘My father at prison.’
    ‘Oh god – I didn’t know. That’s awful.’
    ‘Not bad man! Government say he corruption. Every businessman corruption. He only same. Government make example.’
    ‘Is there anything I can do?’ Stupidest question in the world.
    She trails after me into the gallery café, slumps mournfully at a table. What to do, Bel? I get her a latte.
    She looks up at me. ‘I want to go outside China, start new life.’
    ‘Where do you want to go? How?’
    ‘I tell Bel I want marry a foreigner, but she say “all men are bastards”. Not help me.’
    ‘Hmm…’
    Look, Bel. Sometimes pragmatism can work for people. This is what I can offer her.
    ‘…would an Australian be okay?’

On the Metro home I notice a new text. It’s always – ridiculously – disappointing when I see it’s not from you.

Dear Suki – saw Guardian obit for your Bel – my god, what’s going on? You must be in shock! Can I do anything?
Tamara

God. I haven’t even acknowledged her own bereavement.


 

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Oct 062016
 



ALT TEXT

Bel

When I went onto your laptop last night I discovered you’d installed this pic as the screensaver. One from your movie about me, STILL LIFE, made soon after we first met. I look then how I now feel. Was I having a premonition about you? Is there such a thing as a ‘suicidal nature’, and might I have sensed it?

Just checking your emails. S’okay, none are personal. Just spam and stuff.
    ‘Scuse me while I check my own emails. Oh! – your brother again:

…basic details are, one week after her daughter’s funeral Bella took Élise’s ashes onto the Ostend-to-Dover ferry to scatter them at sea. Remarkably Élise had managed to write a note asking for this, indicating a rare moment of rationality. The note compounded the tragedy for Bella by proving Élise’s suicide was pre-meditated.
… passengers saw Bella jump, but the rescue was not quick enough to save her life…
…have no idea about a chest x-ray. Are you sure? She never mentioned…

I think John thinks I’m just the person you were sharing a flat with.
    I suppose he’s not wrong.
    And here’s a long email from my ex, Ilka!… Well well… She’s going to marry a 72 year-old widower who likes art, because she’s lonely. I’ll just quickly acknowledge it:

Dear Ilka – CONGRATS! Wishing you peace & contentment & hope ul be happy. He sounds good person. No need get defensive about going straight. Have had marriage offer myself. New life in Australia. But need my independence. To be honest sth horrible hs happened here will write more v soon not now. Sx

We’re wondering, Bel… did you leave us a note? I’ve been searching this desk, but there’s nothing much… My last poetry collection; a couple more books: ‘Chinese Whispers’ by Ben Chu, ‘The Good Earth’ by Pearl Buck; all these print-outs of articles that I’ve kept for you in a neat stack… You’ve put a big red circle round a paragraph on this first one, the Paul Verhaeghen:

‘…the freedom we perceive ourselves as having in the west is the greatest untruth of this day and age… We are forever told that we are freer to choose the course of our lives than ever before, but the freedom to choose outside the success narrative is limited. Furthermore, those who fail are deemed to be losers or scroungers, taking advantage of our social security system.’

Exactly what Tim Lott said. The culture of our homeland sets us up for terminal frustration, disappointment and a sense of failure.

I, too, hate this world. But as you say – which corner of the planet to run to?


 

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Jun 092016
 



ALT TEXT

Aussie Cyril

Aussie Cyril’s photo. My radical crop.

This morning’s Air Quality Index for Shanghai is only a slight improvement on yesterday’s: ‘unhealthy for sensitive groups’.
     ‘Morning! How are you feeling?’
     Bel coughs hard. Rubs her eyes. ‘Lily Hong says the air’s going to be [splutter] better in March.’
     ‘Good! Only a couple more days of this, then. Here – thought you’d prefer tea first, before the champers.’ I set down the cup at her bedside. My head is full of last night’s incident, of which I cannot speak.
    ‘Thanks, but the champers’ll have to wait til I knock off teaching.’

When I awaken my laptop I find among the morning’s freshly-arrived emails – bugger – one from Cyril, which I quickly skim:

…how wonderful every day would be, to be witness to that heady combination of your enthusiasm, creativity, and joie de vivre… As said, …so much materially to offer you… little me…
     Your servant,
     Lots of love, Cyril

Hey – there’s also one from Tamara’s photographer pal, Hong Kong Ron! Recently arrived Shanghai, wants to photograph another Shibari session, Tamara has put him onto a master rigger, am I available this week?
     Bel, creakily sitting up in bed, glances over, then searches my face. ‘What’s up?’
     ‘Uff,’ I half turn – ‘nothing up. Just another booking for this week. All good.’ I hesitate. ‘To be honest, I’ve got a bit of a Situation.’
     ‘Oh?’
    ‘Cyril’s asked me to marry him.’
    ‘Told you.’
    ‘Actually it was late last night when I went out for that fag. Sorry. I’ve been in shock till now.’
    Bel flings herself out of bed – ‘I always said “ulterior motive”’ – and slams into the bathroom. Is she that upset?
    ‘As you know, I find him physically repulsive,’ I call through the door.
    ‘There’d be plenty of advantages,’ she calls back. Crash – ‘Ow! Shit.’
    Advantages? Having to dominate Cyril? I want to be the subordinate one. Told what to do. I want someone to take over my stupid life and govern it better than I do. But not Cyril!
    There is no more talk. Bel slams off to her class.

Later I email Hong Kong Ron back, fix up a session for tomorrow night, in the Bondage Master’s apartment. For an evening I will gratefully be guided, led, controlled, instructed. All I have to do is obey. Submission is so uncomplicated. And furthermore, highly valued. It’s a good bargain for both sides.

Late afternoon. The Delightful Peony’s one heater breaks down, so I return to the flat to hunch over my little radiator with a fistful of new poems. Apocalyptic imaginings: a tsunami obliterating Pudong, the Jin Mao Tower collapsing due to the sub-standard concrete of its construction, the Peace Hotel bombed and in flames. I get two plastic tumblers ready for Bel‘s return. The champagne is chilling in the fridge.

A call from Lily Hong. ‘Miss Suki, please come. Bel’s daughter is died.’
     ‘What? Pardon?’
     ‘Bel is here. In office. Please come.’
     In the Foreign Affairs office I find Lily Hong seated in front of her computer screen weeping, together with Bel, around whose shoulder her arm is draped.The screen is filled with a China Airways webpage in Chinese.
     When I walk in, Lily Hong nuzzles at Bel then relinquishes her chair for me.
    Bel is impassive. ‘I’m booking a flight, but not for straight away. My brother can deal with it all.’
    ‘What happened?’ Fearful, I reach, lightly touch her cheek. ‘How did you hear?’
    Her face twitches away. ‘John called’ – she looks at her watch – ‘about an hour ago.’
     ‘How..?’
     ‘Oh, she just died.’ Pause. ‘About 11 pm Holland time. Heart failure. People like Elise are full of anti-psychotics and massively overweight. And she chain-smoked.’
     I do what Lily Hong was doing. Bel’s shoulders under my arm are wooden, unyielding. She seems tight-coiled, ultra-controlled.
    ‘I’d rather miss the funeral and everything.’ She scrolls through dates.’ Let’s try for a ticket in three weeks.’ She looks up at Lily Hong. ‘I can buy this ticket now with my credit card, can I?’ Then, like an after-thought, ‘Maybe I don’t even need to go.’


 

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Apr 212016
 



ALT TEXT

Mike Little

Another belly pic by Mike Little, from the second session with Trish his artist wife who projects her drawings onto me. According to the philosopher-semiotician Saussure (says Trish), the words we use are not a true record of the reality that we are looking at, they are ‘motivated signs’ – and the meaning is only within the sign. Bel was recording Trish‘s ramblings: ‘There was a movement among painters away from attempts to paint realistically; you know – figuratively. I think this was due to a distrust, because they thought that this kind of “realism” pretended that it knew what the world was like…’

Good morning Cyril,
have read all the photographers’ essays in this book you’ve lent me. I like Lucien Clergue best for his prioritisation – even above setting up the cameras – of his relationship with the model. “Both the model and I may be completely exhausted at the end of a session, but it’s a good kind of exhaustion”. He says that, when photographing the model, he is completely content. Some of the others in this book – they couldn’t give a toss about the model as a human being. Can’t write more, Bel is just bringing through our elevenses.
Suki

Days have gone by with no proper conversation with Bel. Not my fault. If she talked, I’d talk. What’s the story of her child? Why is Elise in a psychiatric hospital?
    Then this morning, over our tea-break, a conversation happens.
    ‘Your turn.’ She sets down two cups of English tea on my desk in the bedroom. ‘Why are you really here?’ She settles on the bed. ‘I mean, it’s not all about writing your novel, is it.’
    The question is chilling. I shiver. The January weather, too, is chilly. Humidity, when the temperature drops and there is no adequate indoor heater, gets into your very bones. Could I make Bel happy by saying I came to Shanghai to be with you?
    But I have to be honest. ‘Um. Okay, I’m avoiding my unsuccessful life.’
    Bel reaches over, squeezes my arm (it’s always a shock when we touch): ‘Still on your quest,’ she says, generously.
    ‘Actually, you know, something’s started haunting me – I mean, being here, with time to reflect: I keep reading articles about women giving birth at fifty. Ageing first-time mums are all over the news. If you’ve got enough money you can make it happen.’
    ‘God. Materialism in extremis.’
    ‘But I’m jealous.’
    ‘Look, Suki. Being a parent can ruin your life. And that’s even people like us with all the benefits and support of living in the West. Wait’ – she leaves the room.
    Is she going to show me something to do with Elise? Photos? But she returns with – oh god – not another article, which she urgently skim-reads, then summarises:
    ‘Listen: tens of millions of poor people in countries like Nigeria, India, Pakistan and Peru can only afford to eat for five days each week. Most of the world is exhausting its ground water because of overpumping… la la la…’ – she skims down – ‘…yields are flat-lining in Japan… Here! In northern and Western China, and the Sahel region of Africa which is an area wracked by insurgency and conflict, people are running out of land to grow food. Millions of acres the world over are turning into wasteland because of over-farming and over-grazing!’
    ‘It sounds a bit sensationalist, Bel. I wouldn’t just take it all as read.’
    ‘This American scientist Lester Brown who’s never been wrong about any prediction is saying it.’
    ‘Look, just don’t worry about big stuff, Bel. Enjoy little stuff. This cup of tea.’
    But Bel has dropped back into her default mode.
    I’m rubbish at dealing with my own depression, never mind hers.

Evening. It is a relief to go out of the flat for the second session at Trish and Mike Little’s place. A good distraction for Bel.
    Video-camera in hand, she unobtrusively gets to work.
    ‘Is your neck ok?’ Mike fusses over me, supervising my positions. ‘Are you warm enough? Do you want to sit in that chair? We’ll have a cake break in a bit. Happy days!’ Then gets on again with his pedantic, conscientious photographing.
    Trish bumbles about, switching different spotlights on and off, shifting her projector to create new shapes on my body. ‘I’ve been getting my ideas from this Swiss guy Saussure, who advocated “the detachment of the sign from the referent”. Are you with me? It’s all ever so difficult…’
    ‘Clever, isn’t she,’ Mike grins indulgently. He takes another careful photograph. And another. And all the while, Bel – gifted photo-journalist and film-maker extraordinaire – sidles around us, doing what she is brilliant at; a silent presence, close to the room’s walls, by necessity an outsider, recording it all with her unique eye.


 

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Mar 312016
 



ALT TEXT

Aussie Cyril

Aussie Cyril has lent me another book. I’m being educated. So this latest crop of one of his photos is informed by the hard-edged geometries of Edward Weston who belongs to an important group known as the Photo-Secessionists. In 1902 this group split from the Camera Club of New York to pursue Pictorialism: techniques of manipulating negatives and prints to make them look like drawings, etchings, and oil paintings (and this group did include some women! Clarence White worked with Stieglitz. Also Annie Brigman). They drew inspiration from European art movements with similar goals such as the Linked Ring. The later works of group member Alfred Stieglitz and those of Weston (who was also influenced by modernists Sheeler and Strand) mark the decisive start of contemporary Art Nude photography. But I’m deffo not aiming, like Weston does, to ‘purposely neutralise the uniqueness of the human form by equating it with inanimate objects’. Weston got perverse satisfaction from achieving images of the nude that were ‘entirely impersonal, lacking in any human interest which might call attention to a living, palpitating body’. Is Weston the same type as Uglow? Two haters of humanity?


    ‘A baby froze to death on the Gaza Strip because it was living under a tarpaulin.’
    ‘Oh dear.’ I set down at Bel’s bedside her morning cup of green tea.
    Her not-long-awake face is already set in a frown. ‘This is why Muslim gunmen shoot randomly into coffee bars. It’s simple cause and effect. It’s people with no legitimate forum to protest all the historic injustices committed against them.’
    ‘Well, Merry Christmas, anyway’.
    She snaps shut her iPad. ‘I hate the world, Suki. Where is safe?’ –
    ‘Well, let’s see…’ Oh no – Bel is clearly about to cry!
    ‘We’re all just animals.’
    ‘Look Bel, I think that too. But come on…’ I pass her a Chinese rice-bowl overflowing with peanut M&Ms – ‘it’s Christmas Day.’ No response. ‘Sorry they’re not Quality Streets.’
    Bel throws off her quilt and heads for the bathroom. ‘“Empathy” isn’t innate in human nature; that’s just a self-righteous myth of Western culture because actually anyone who’s non-white and/or non-Christian-heritage is viewed as alien.’ I hear her landing on the loo. ‘Altruism’s a myth too. We only do stuff for others in order to get something.’
    ‘That’s fair enough, isn’t it, though?’ I hover outside the bathroom. ‘Like for example, if it’s to get love? Hey – are you off out or something?’
    ‘Told you: I’m teaching. It’s a normal day. Communist State, remember?’ The shower starts but she rants on. ‘So-called “values” are purely social constructs created for pragmatic reasons. For particular purposes. Everything’s fake. Love is fake. Huh. Lerv. I lerv ya, babe.’
    She is being scarily weird. ‘Okay – we’ll do gifts later, yeah? And I’ll cook!’
    Will my cooking lift Bel’s mood – or at least distract her? Or be the final straw? I don’t know how to help her. After she’s gone to work I prepare her an extra gift. A poem I wrote years ago called Bethlehem, after the 2002 Siege of Bethlehem that reduced to ruins the nativity scenes I had learned in childhood. I print it out and decorate its edges.
    How to spend the rest of Christmas Day?
    I go to the Delightful Peony with my iPad, and email Aussie Cyril.

Happy Christmas Day, Cyril! Am half-way through the book about muses. Edward Weston’s photos of Charis are totally about sex. Never mind what the book says. With muses there’s always something sexual going on. In Weston’s case he has sex with his model at the same time as objectifying the female body to the extreme. The model is no more than a tool. A lifeless plastic sex toy.

As ever, his answer is instantaneous.

Jingle Bells! Hope you’re enjoying today as much as our afternoon together yesterday, which has been the highlight of my Christmas. Aha – you think Weston’s work is about sex? He always insisted his intentions were purely formal and not in the least erotic. You must have read in the ‘muses’ book by now that his nude portraits of the back of Anita Brenner suggest faintly distasteful similarities with his toilet bowl! Yet these are in his own view his ‘finest set of nudes… in their approach to aesthetically stimulating form’. For him they are an ‘absolute aesthetic response… Every sensuous curve of the “human form divine” but minus imperfections’. Stieglitz himself did actually express dislike of Weston’s art nude images, calling them ‘sterilised’; that they lacked fire and life and were ‘more or less dead things not part of today’. No sex!

At teatime Bel returns from class with a polite greetings card from the university’s hierarchy and a very pretty box of dried fruits from Lily Hong. Nothing from any students.
    ‘Here’ – I hand her a Tsingtao beer and clink it with mine. ‘Cheers! Let’s do gifts!’
    Bel opens a small package from Belgium: a book on China sent by her brother. Then my poem, and a grey sweater. ‘It says cashmere but it might be fake.’
    ‘It’s great. Fake’s great – it means “authentically Chinese”.’ She hands me two packages wrapped in red paper. ‘For you.’
    In a pretence of gayness I rip at them. ‘Omigod, where the heck did you find a percolator? You’ve been trawling those fancy malls!’ My second parcel is – ‘Oh joy! Thank you so much!’ – ground Columbian coffee.
    Then she is sidling off onto the balcony. ‘Just making a call.’
    ‘Bel – why do you never say “I’m just calling my Mum”, or whatever?’
    ‘My brother. I normally call my brother on Christmas Day. Sorry. Excuse me.’
    ‘Got any sisters? Are your parents alive?’
    ‘My brother’s it. Childless bachelor, lives in Antwerp because of his solar panels business, very kindly acts as the contact person for Élise. With the unit. He lets me know if he’s been informed of anything by the staff. If there’s anything to tell.’
    ‘Staff? Unit?’
    ‘Sorry. Élise lives in a psychiatric hospital.’ Bel steps outside, tapping at her mobile.
    ‘Oh. Thank you. Sorry.’
    Élise. Like Für Élise. I guess she might be – what – thirty-ish?

Christmas night. Early to bed. Not a candle lit, not a carol played. Apart from yesterday afternoon (Cyril – overjoyed – treating me to a festive tea at the Peace Hotel), a truly crap Christmas.

Bel is a silent lump in her bed, her lamp already out.
    I’ll just do a last check for any emailed greetings.

One more gift: click on this link.
I’m sorry.
Thanks for being here.



 

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