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March 2005

Nigel Slater: Toast

Fumier recommended this book to me, and funnily enough I had considered buying it last time I was in the UK, but annoyingly I saw it in a bargain book shop (the hardback for £3 or so rather than the £16.99 cover price) but hesitated - on the grounds that if it was that cheap it couldn't be any good - and then when I decided to buy it I couldn't remember where I had seen it.

Like 'Gweilo' (the last autobiography reviewed here) this is a somewhat unusual memoir. Nigel Slater is a food writer (with a weekly column in The Observer), and he has written about his childhood mainly by reference to the food that he ate (and later cooked). It is broken down into short chapters, most of which have food-related titles.

Continue reading "Nigel Slater: Toast" »


Easter is cancelled

What's going on?  The Easter programme used to be a key part of the football season, with two matches in four days giving teams an opportunity to boost their chances at the top or bottom of the table.  Even better, it also used to be a time for local derbies. 

First the spoilsport police managed to get the local derbies moved to other dates, and now this year there are no matches in either the Premiership or the-league-once known-as-Division Two.  That's right - no matches from Good Friday to Easter Monday because international matches are being played instead.

To add to the sense of unreality, there were no Premiership games two weeks ago, which means that most teams played only two matches in March. 

According to the BBC, next season the FA Cup quarter-finals will be played in midweek, though they seem to have abandoned a plan to have the final in midweek. 


Dash

Someone in my family is a huge fan of The Incredibles, so we went to the local cinema over Chinese New Year to watch it.  Now, scarcely a month later, it’s out on DVD, even while it’s still showing in the odd cinema or two!  Hong Kong was one of the last countries to get the film, but one of the first to get the DVD.

I think Kung Fu Hustle was out on DVD in Hong Kong even more quickly, though not as fast as the legitimate PRC version (albeit in Mandarin only and without English subtitles).  I realize that they are trying to compete with the pirate DVDs that were available even before the film made it to the cinema, but this is getting a bit ridiculous.  What’s the next plan – to sell you a copy of the DVD as you are hustled out of the cinema?

The Incredibles is quite entertaining, and follows the usual Pixar approach of aiming jokes at both young and old, though the storyline is more adult than before – it’s not easy to explain to young children why Mr Incredible had to give up being a superhero.  Fortunately, children don’t really care if part of the story doesn’t quite make sense to them, and there’s plenty to keep them entertained. 

I did rather enjoy the part of the film with Mr Incredible working in an insurance company, struggling to physically fit into the office and finding it hard to come to terms with the idea that his job was to stop customers making claims.  Then in the evening he secretly rescues people, incurring the wrath of his wife who complains when he comes home late after one his adventures with bits of latex on his clothes.


"I'm on the Northern Line"

The BBC reports that passengers will be able to use their mobile phones on stations on the London Underground by 2008, finally being able to do something that has been possible on the MTR in Hong Kong for several years.

However, there is some opposition to this apparently unremarkable idea:

But both the Lib Dems and the Conservatives warned the new technology could enable terrorists to carry out attacks from above ground

Concerns were raised by the Liberal Democrats last year about the security risks of such plans. Former London mayoral candidate, Simon Hughes, said mobiles were a "cheap and effective long range detonator". He added: "Using mobiles on the deep line sections... is unnecessary. Texting is a luxury, security is not."

Well, I have to agree with Simon Hughes that texting is a luxury, but does he really think that terrorists have been planning to plant bombs on underground trains but been thwarted by the lack of mobile phone coverage?  Seems unlikely.

What they need is a device that limits calls to 30 seconds.  Long enough to say where are you but not long enough to annoy your fellow passengers.


Going Underground

Yesterday there was one of those rather pathetic protests we sometimes get in Hong Kong.  The picture in the SCMP shows less than twenty cars driving slowly up to entrance of the Eastern Harbour Tunnel, thus delaying a few motorists out for a drive on a Sunday morning.  They are complaining about the plans to increase the toll for the from HK$15 to HK$25.  From The Standard:

In 2002, the New Hong Kong Tunnel Company, which manages the Eastern Harbour Crossing, applied for an increase. The Chief Executive-in-Council rejected the application.  In August 2003 the company sought arbitration and in January a HK$10 increase was agreed.

Hong Kong has three road tunnels under Victoria Harbour.  The oldest is the one from Hung Hom to Causeway Bay (known simply as the Cross-Harbour Tunnel) which is now owned by the government.  The newer Eastern and Western tunnels are owned and operated by the private companies that developed them, but will eventually pass to the government.

The central location of the original tunnel makes it the most popular, and although the government doubled the toll for private cars when it took control, the operators of the other two tunnels have increased their prices so that it will soon be the cheapest again, presumably further increasing congestion.

As Jake van der Kamp pointed out last week, the directors of New Hong Kong Tunnel are entitled to raise charges, and the arbitration process has actually allowed them a bigger increase than the one originally rejected by the government.  The point is that in 11 years the company will have to surrender its only asset to the government, so they have to get a return on their original investment by the tolls they collect.  The government cannot have it both ways – if they wanted to control the tolls they should have invested public money in the project rather than entering into this type of arrangement.

There seems to be a feeling that the government should “do something”, but the only thing they can do immediately is raise the toll for the Cross-Harbour Tunnel, and they appear to have ruled that out.  One argument against an increase is that it will benefit the other two operators and reward them for their decision to increase tolls.  However, it remains the logical thing to do because there is spare capacity in the other two tunnels whereas both Hung Hom and Causeway Bay get very congested with all the traffic using the Cross-Harbour Tunnel.

Yet it seems that the government is considering other options.  The Standard again:

The Hong Kong government, in the midst of attempting to privatize large segments of its transport, housing and other holdings, may reverse policy and seek to buy back two cross-harbor tunnels it has privatized.  Buying back the Eastern and Western tunnels is one option being considered by the government in an attempt to solve the toll controversy and ease public irritation over sharply rising toll charges.

Government planners are studying three options: buying back the Western and Eastern tunnels, disposing of the government's interest in the badly congested Cross-Harbour Tunnel, or holding shares in all three.

Buying the other two tunnels so that they can reduce the tolls?  It’s madness, I tell you! 

Yesterday's protest was a waste of time, because the govermment has already said they will look at what options are available, but the only thing they can do immediately would not be popular with the protestors anyway.  In a year or so the government will report back that they have decided to do nothing, but everyone will have forgotten about it by then.


Up in the Air

A promotional brochure arrives from a certain credit card company, offering a trip to London for some dollars and some credit card points.

It’s described as a “5 days / 2 nights London package”.  Er, hang on.  5 days?  I’d call it 3 days (and even that is a touch optimistic). 

The first “day” is a couple of hours at Chek Lap Kok airport waiting for your plane to depart, and maybe 20 minutes in the air.  The second day you arrive in London early in the morning, rested and relaxed after 13 hours in the economy cabin, and maybe you can check-in to your hotel in the early afternoon.  The third day is genuinely 24 hours in London.  The fourth day you have to be at the airport by around 7 pm.  The fifth “day” is spent in the air, arriving back in Hong Kong in the late afternoon. 

What an enchanting prospect.


Lowering expectations...or maybe not

This week the BBC announced that Ricky Gervais is making a new series that will be broadcast later this year.  However, there is some concern that expectations are so high after The Office that people are bound to be disappointed.  So what have the BBC done?  From The Guardian:

The new Ricky Gervais series is to be shielded from excessive expectation by being screened during the summer months and on BBC2.

[..]

Alluding to the high expectations for his series, which began filming two weeks ago, Gervais joked that Extras was the show "that some critics are already calling the disappointing follow-up to The Office".

OK, but if you want to maintain a low profile do you really announce to the world that this new series is "one of the highlights of the spring and summer season on BBC Two"...  Probably not. And I don't see how you lower expectations by transmitting it in the summer.  Or on BBC Two.  Watching or recording BBC Two on Monday nights in July and August probably won't be too much of a challenge for fans of The Office, now will it?

So you hype a show by saying that you really don't want to hype it.  Now it all makes sense.


Fat lady sings

Unsurprising news from the UK - Atkins Nutritionals UK is closing down.  Cue headlines about "slim pickings" in several newspapers.

As I have mentioned before, I find the Atkins Diet quite fascinating - because it does work, but not exactly in the way that Mr Atkins claimed. My view is that what makes the diet attractive (to some) is that it is easy to understand (and lets you eat things like meat, cheese, butter and cream that are not allowed on other diets), but the reason that so many people have given up on it is also the reason that it works, namely that it severely restricts what you can eat. It's quite hard to over-eat on Atkins, so of course people lose weight. Surprisingly, this rather obvious conclusion was reported as shock news only yesterday!

The idea behind Atkins Nutritionals was that they could sell food that was permitted under the diet, including low-carb versions of otherwise forbidden food. There are a number of obvious problems with this concept - firstly that it makes the diet more complicated, secondly that it means you can eat more (and hence put on weight), and thirdly that it is expensive. Food that is naturally low in carbohydrate is already available in supermarkets, and if you really want to eat bread and candy bars and other such stuff you really ought to find another diet rather than Atkins.

It also means that rather than associating the Atkins Diet with a maverick doctor who came up with an unconventional eating plan, it is linked with a company that wants to sell you expensive food.

The decline in popularity of the Atkins Diet hasn't helped, and the other problem for Atkins Nutritionals is that large food companies have jumped on the bandwagon and started selling low-carb products as well. These would be the same people who proudly advertise high-fat products with large text saying 0g Trans Fat.


Punditry

There's only one explanation that makes any sense.  The SCMP don't pay Simon Patkin for his silly little rants, he pays them for the free publicity.

Monday's paper had one of his more banal efforts, starting off with Donald Tsang's strange suggestion that Hong Kong people should have more children in order to solve the problem of an ageing population.  He uses this to claim that "many middle-class couples already support at least three children through their taxes".  However, he offers no statistics to back this up, and moves swiftly on to his real concern: 

Indeed, despite a forecast budget surplus, it is unrestrained government spending that is causing a cyclical deficit, which pundits claim will drain our reserves and put us into the poorhouse.

Er, pundits?  You mean people who write opinion pieces in the SCMP.  Oh dear, it must be serious.  I don't fancy living in a poorhouse - do they have aircon?    

Simon does have statistics to support his complaint that spending on education, health and social welfare are substantially up since 1989, though I'd wager that these have not been adjusted for inflation, making them virtually useless.

Mysteriously, he complains (warning - cliche alert) that "there has been a deafening silence from the accounting profession about curbing this increase" as if bean counters were supposed to tell the government what policies to adopt (if they do, I suggest that they adjust their figures for inflation).

He proposes a clampdown on immigration, because (as we know) many immigrants are welfare scroungers.  We know this because it has "been reported as a serious problem", though Simon hedges his bets by saying that "most immigrants work hard" (perhaps they run their own free-market think-tanks from their spare bedrooms).  In fact, of course, the most obvious solution to the problem of ageing populations all round the world is to allow more immigration, though ironically many of the right-wing commentators who want lower taxes are also paranoid about immigration.

This whole article can really be summarised very simply.  Simon is against government spending:

there should be a cap on government spending on education, social welfare and health each year. This should be reduced to zero over the medium term.

Does he mean the cap should be zero or expenditure should be zero?  As with much of this article it's hard to tell, but based on his past opinions I assume he means the latter.  Never fear, because the middle-class are very benevolent.  So, although Simon is nervous that we will all end up in the poorhouse if government spending is not curbed, he is really quite keen on a return to the Victorian era when the poor had to rely on charity and really did live in poorhouses.  Ah, happy days.    


The foggy day

This week/month/year, I am mainly...reading children's books.  In practice that means reading books from either the UK or the States.  Mainly the UK, actually. 

Naturally enough, they depict life in the UK.  So you have a family living in a semi-detached house, playing in their garden, going on holiday to the seaside, driving to the supermarket and doing all manner of other ordinary things - if you live in the UK, that is.  However, for a child living in Hong Kong, these books don't reflect their lives at all.  Living in a small apartment, probably with a domestic helper to look after them, seeing their parents for a few hours at the weekend, walking or taking a shuttle bus to the supermarket, and flying to Thailand for a short break.  Not quite the same.

Or there's the weather.  One book I've read a few times is specifically about a foggy day (and the problems of driving when visibility is only a few yards). 

Fog is one of the less attractive features of a British winter, but it is relatively uncommon in Hong Kong (unless you live at the top of a mountain, which most of us don't).  Or at least that was what I thought. 

However, the hovercraft crash last month was blamed on fog, and the following week when I was across the border it was horribly damp and foggy (though at least it wasn't cold), and some ferries were unable to reach their destinations (Pingzhou Port in Nanhai and Lian Hua Shan port near Panyu).  The following day in Hong Kong, several planes were delayed or diverted for the same reason. 

Checking up on this, it seems that the Observatory believes that there are usually a few foggy days around this time of year, so it isn't as unusual as I had thought.  So maybe two or three days each year it really is good old-fashioned fog rather than pollution.    

The other thing that strikes me about children's books is how "politically correct" they have become.  If a story has an airline pilot or a doctor in it, the chances are that it'll be a woman.  Which is probably better than it was when I was a child (and books showed daddies going off to drive trains or save the world and mummies stayed at home and worried about nothing more taxing than whether it was beans on toast or sausages for tea), but frankly it's just as unrealistic. Did I say unrealistic?  Hang on, these are books about trains that talk to each other, park keepers who talk to animals, vintage cars that have adventures and all manner of things even more unlikely than women flying 747s. 

Of course, these days they are also careful to present a positive image of multi-cultural Britain.  So, in the books, the schools have a racially diverse mix of pupils (and teachers), and the children have a racially diverse mix of friends, and they all get on famously.  Again, quite different from what I remember from the books I read in my school days but perhaps they have gone a bit too far in the opposite direction.

I suppose in Hong Kong there's no need to indoctrinate children with the notion that women can go out to work, and this isn't really a multi-cultural society either, so perhaps there's no need for heavy-handed propaganda on that subject.  So I wonder what else they present in a relentlessly positive light?