Wonderful, Wonderful!

George’s Stag Do, Saturday 23rd


Kung Fu is driving me, Esther and Lisa to B&Q to fetch some pebbles for Lisa’s newly denuded back garden (aka Devo’s shit’n’go). We have spent the week crippling ourselves by digging up the turf and dumping it behind her outhouse so Devo can no longer use the back garden as his personal cesspit (correction: so he can use it as his personal cesspit, but so the cess doesn’t cling obstinately to unruly grass stalks and freakishly giant weeds).

As I daydream away, Lisa and Esther heave sacks of rock onto the trolley, like a post-feminist poster. The composition is ruined by Esther spitting;

“Why don’t you help instead of standing there, you lily livered girl!”

I’ve always wished that I had a trigger word to turn me into a man, like Marty McFly and his ‘chicken’-related freakouts. After today, it seems that ‘lily livered’ works pretty well.
Before I know what I’m doing, I’m slinging sacks of rocks around like a past-it Desperate Dan.

“Don’t break them, you idiot,” says Esther as I hurl them into the trolley.
“Put them in properly,” says Kung Fu, who never, ever, tells anyone what to do.

I don’t mind admitting I was scared, and I began rearrange the sacks, my red cheeks lighting my progress like mood-indicating LEDs set to ‘schadenfreude.’

“Whoopsy, I did a boo-boo!”


Met Harvey and his Japanese wife Eiko at Sheffield train station.

They have had to fly the 9,650 miles (fact!) from Singapore to Bradford to get a Pakistani visa, in his ‘country of origin’. On first glance, I thought Harvey was even more full of himself than usual; second glance told me it was merely his white afro, grown to four times the usual size.

This is the man who customarily told me to “sort yourself out,” when my first pubic attempts at a wayward teenage hairstyle got beyond the regulated ‘no. 3 all over’.

Ha, how the mighty have fallen. And how silky their curls are.

“You don’t have to have big hair to be a scientist, but it helps!”

We take brunch at Millennium Gallery, as a squadron of cadets and their officers march past.

“Oh yeah, I forgot to tell you,” I deadpan, “we turned into a police state while you were away. Sorry.”

I like the way that sounds. I bet it’s really cool and sexy having all your civil liberties disavowed.

“I went on a school trip to the DMZ,” said Eiko, unfazed, “my friend fell over and when she looked up, a whole North Korean regiment had their assault rifles trained on her.”
I have nothing to compete with this. I consider saying that I threw half a snowball onto the roof of an unoccupied police car when I was 13. No, that won’t cut it.

I remember the burning question that I wanted to ask Harvey at 3am on some insomniac night months ago.
“You know how you came to the UK when you were 11, but we weren’t friends until we were 15, who was your BFF before me?”
“Mark Dour” he says, naming an odd semi-midget who had the unfortunate quality of being instantly forgettable.

“Aha!” I say, with the glee of someone who’s just found out that their lover’s exes are all dweebs.

“Anyone else?”

“Well after him, I didn’t have any friends for a year.”

My glee turns to concern. Not for Harvey, mind: nobody wants to hear that their partner/BFF was undateable now do they?

Harvey and Eiko are travelling from the sublime to the ridiculous, aka Tokyo to Swansea (via Asia, Europe and South America). Harvey has been applying to do a PhD in something theoretical and poncey, and Swansea is the only place that’ll have him (“we’re not travelling to the US,” Harvey says, “coz they rejected me…”).

“The interview went really well,” he tells me, “and after a tour of the university, one of the professors took me aside.

‘You know what,’ he whispered, taking in the theoretical physics department in one gesture, ‘I don’t believe any of this nonsense!’

17:00 to Buddha-knows-when

Zeugma: ‘a figure of speech in which two or more parts of a sentence are joined with a single common verb or noun.’

In Zeugma’s restaurant, London Road, I am a figure of fun corralled between two or more manly dads.

It’s time for my regular social experiment: passing as a man. I pull my shirtsleeves down over my girly bracelets and lower my voice.

To the right of me is Demi’s dad, Paul, a skinhead scouser with a soft underbelly. Sitting across the table is George’s dad, looking like a jolly, gelled mafiosa. His catchphrase of “wonderful, wonderful,” (with the emphasis on the ‘wonder’) regularly punctuates the alcoholic fug throughout the night.

We are swapping stories of money and what it does to people.

George’s dad, Tony, has the rich baritone of a self-made man.

He tells us he was holidaying near San Marino in a hotel ‘full of stunningly beautiful Russian girls who refused to smile.’

They were the children of oiligarchs, bred with no manners, ‘pushing past me on the ladder up to the diving board,’ and generally being well-dressed arseholes.

“It’s sham capitalism,” I say, warming up. Tony’s eyes say ‘I’m listening’, but I haven’t thought what to say next.
“Erm, Communism failed and now there’s money floating about. No-one knows what to do with it coz they’ve never had it, so the mafia came and took over.” I think that makes sense.

“Wonderful, wonderful,” Tony says.

A minute later, listeners are whisked away to a Peugeot car dealer in Liverpool, who Tony says inherited a dealership from a man with connections with local warlords.

The previous owner used to leave a car parked on the forecourt with keys in the ignition. In the morning, it would always be back there, traces of blood and black market stains removed. The new dealer refused to carry on this habit, and had 4 cars smashed up; the police told him to put the car back on the forecourt…

That’s nothing, Demi’s dad Paul says, I was asked for protection money from a child in a multistory carpark.

‘Gimme a tenner and I’ll look after your car,’ the boy says.
‘S’alright, I’ve got a Rottweiler in the back,’ I tell him.
‘But can it put out a fire?’ the scrote says, eyes twinkling. I gave him a tenner for the cheek.”
“Wonderful, wonderful,” Tony says.

“How are you doing, stuck in the corner?” George asks when we meet in the toilets.
“Fine,” I say, quite pleased with my manly performance.
“I told Paul that one of my cousins here was gay,” he tells me, “and he leans forward and says ‘Is it ‘im?’ pointing in your direction.”

Oh well, at least I can get drunk. In the Riverside, I bump into Tony in the toilets and ask if he’s merry yet.
Inexorably,” he replies and I give my jackal’s laugh, echoing off the porcelain. I bet if I ask him in another hour or so, he’ll say “Indubitably,” or some such Wodehousian alliteration. Tony’s sidekick is Alan, an old friend. He has the elastic face of a joker and together they giggle and ogle like a pair of twentysomethings.

We move on to Harlequins, a pub mislaid somewhere round the corner from the Riverside.

Mancunian Del and me are charged with dragging George, the paralytic stag, there. We take our eyes off him for a second, and he is suddenly riding a bike. Chained 3 feet off the floor on a fence. He does a wheelie and nearly cracks his head open.

“Come on,” we say, and drag him across the dual carriageway.
“I think it’s down here,” I say and we wander down a dark street. After a minute, George snorts in disgust,
“You don’t know where you’re fucking going,” he shouts, “I’m going back to the pub” and he legs it into the darkness.

My confusion is confounded by the sudden voice of God.
GO AWAY! YOU’RE DRUNK!” God says, with the disappointed nasal authority of a train announcement.
“What the fuck is that?” Del whimpers.
GET OUT OF THE ROAD!” the voice demands, and I try to locate the source.
Halfway up a dark block of flats, the blue death-glow of a huge flatscreen TV flickers in the gloom of an unlit room, casting shadows into the street. It stands to reason that the anally retentive voice of God could boom from the low rent recesses of a Sheffield hovel.

This is too much.
We get the hell out of the road and the neighbourhood (and that’s a Zeugma…).


Harlequins is where the night starts to blur for me. At one point, Alan starts flicking the thick head of a pint of stout onto the even thicker head of a local, and I flee outside. Alan is just cheeky enough to point to me if the bruiser asked who did it…

In the cooling air of a Kelham Island backstreet, Tony tells me he used to live near here with the baby George, and the whump of the forges used to make it impossible to open the windows in summer.
“That’s the sound that industrial bands like Cabaret Voltaire tried to emulate,” I tell him.
“Oh, very good” he says, memory fusing with retrospective knowledge, “Wonderful, wonderful.”

If only everyone I spoke to thought the same.

As the booze bodycount rises, the group is stripped down to a hard core of 5 or so. Back at George’s American Psycho apartment, we chatter into the night like 33rpm girls .

Ah, this is it, true friendship; the sort that can outlast a million drunken megalomaniac impulses. In the words of Michael Jackson, with friends like these

“It don’t matter if you’re black or white,

Or a lily livered boy of questionable sexuality.”

Hong Kong V: Re-Re-wind

Saturday 10th March

“The train to Shanghai will be leaving in no time,”

announces the station tannoy in perfect Chinglish. Despite my raging hangover, I fall about laughing with Bruce at the beautiful butchery Chinese people make of English grammar. But there’s simply no time.

Fifteen carriages of sleek chrome arrive and we find a seat. Within minutes, a speedometer tells me we are travelling at 300 km/hour, but this is clearly a lie as the landscape of warehouses and squat shacks is passing by in a dreamy meander. And yet, 45 minutes later we have travelled the epic 120 miles to the largest city in the world.

"A stable worthy of Party Horse"

A 4 Star hotel in the megatropolis? Don’t mind if I do! It is the poshest hotel I’ve ever been in; there’s a grand piano in the reception; the room has a chaise long, and there’s a giant gold bull outside.
China can be summed up by two sights on the way to the hotel.
In the subway, we came across new recruits going through their pledge of allegiance. Although just lowly train drivers or ticket inspectors, they had the seriousness of high-ranking officers responsible for the upkeep of their nation. I was scared I was going have my camera confiscated.

"I hereby promise to be punctual on pain of death"

We also saw the goldest car in the world on our taxi ride to the hotel. It’s like the Communist obsession with public displays of power and devotion has been combined with capitalist greed to create a super-society of gloriously tasteless moneymakers.

"The Shanghai makeover"

Gold cars make sense when you consider that the currency on Mainland China is the Renminbi, which comes out sounding like R’n’B. I like the idea of paying in black pop. 50 J-Los? 75 R Kelly’s? Too pricey! (And then to add to the illusion, Harvey and I ‘Cruz’ through a town called Tai O on Lamau Island. Taio Cruz, geddit!)

BreeDee’s double bed is sumptuous, but there’s been a mistake and the extra beautiful bed they ordered for me is missing; Fifteen minutes later a creaky foldout single bed arrives. Luxury.

"I need to get me some bling"

Tonight’s schedule involves Paranormal Activity 2 and a meal out, and my bed faces the hotel door and it’s mini hallway of shadowy cabinets and mirrors.

I am going to have to rearrange the furniture to keep the demons out.
If I can use the chaise long to block my view of the door, I can put the bed sideways so that it faces BreeDee’s. My childhood obsession with Three Billy Goats Gruff is proving useful- I can direct the monster to two far more juicy bodies if necessary.

“What are you doing?” asks Bruce
“Oh, just a little feng shui” I reply innocently
“No. I’m scared.”

When I am satisfied that I have protected myself as much as possible, we head out to the Bund, the waterfront where giant buildings glow with 100 foot screens.

"Retro Spiritual Gesture"

In a side street, we find The Best Shop in the World™. It’s a kitsch goldmine of useless crap at bargain prices. It is here that I find the best thing I have ever read; the blurb written on a pack of girlie cards that is so lost in translation it blows my tiny mind. There are NO typos in this:

“They are young (mostly just turned 20 years old), tender was drawn like a pinch of water; their ignorance (at least seemingly ignorant), the eyes, not too much sophistication; their beauty, like the upside down like a summer rose beings; their fear, even a little dress still confident of exposure. They are so invincible youth, smile blossoming, not to mention a man, and she can not help but read and reread.
Not every man is willing to prison high above the intellectual Mature, nor patience to listen to all young women crooning shallow art songs, stepmother face, office facial, all sidelined.
The greatest feature of the contemporary human will, just do not like to live so hard, because life itself was tired. In fact, although the generation of soft mode does not seem so “mainstream”, all the women around me also admitted that, I hope he can grow into (or at least turned it into an … …) Angelababy it, of course, no one would mind their own to keep forever faces of the children! Yes, youth is always an turbulent forces do not want to admit is not OK. Soft-mode wave struck, is irresistible.”

After reading it and re-reading it, Bruce and I cry with laughter so hard that pity and then concern flashed across the faces of the shop assistants.

“Stepmother face” repeats Bruce at regular intervals, and we fall about, while DeeDee looks on in frustration. Bloody children!
“Office facial- all sidelined,” the surreal sequence of images conjured up to sell pictured of girls in underwear is astonishing.
Almost unable to take any more surrealism, Bruce then found a cigarette case with Osama Bin Laden looking wistfully above the Twin Towers. Emblazoned across the middle of this folk-hero style design was the slogan;


With shaky hands I bought these contraband and downright weird goods. They are so wrong they ought not to exist. Who made them? What twisted translator was paid for their services? The mind boggles.

Which it also did when we came across a Mr Bean theme café.
“Oh they have them all over China” says Bruce nonchalantly,
“They love him
“WTF!?” I’m sorry, but of all the things to export from British culture, they choose this? Even out of all Rowan Atkinson’s output, this a poor choice. But then I realise that Mr Bean never actually speaks, he just dithers and mumbles like a confused otter. You don’t need to understand English to understand him. Laughing at him is a different matter; why not Charlie Chaplin or Buster Keaton or Harold Lloyd who are actually funny? Lost in translation again I guess.


There are street BBQs everywhere in China. We pick one near the Indie Club we are trying to find. As I eat the lamb and spiced bread, a gaggle of drunk teenagers run past. Unlike British yoofs, they giggle and play like dyspraxic children.

A teen lesbian couple walk past, one in pyjamas, the other in a floor length coat. They are so cool and cute and fascinating that I want to run away with them, but I am about 2 feet taller and 2 times as old and not cute at all so it would never work out. Oh well; I sneak into a shop and take a crafty photo.

"I Love You"

The Indie Club is packed with Westerners and here we encounter our first bad vibes; a tank topped nonce struts around and tries to provoke Bruce. I get a funny feeling, and then realise it’s that feeling of fight or flight I have all the time back in Sheffield, when you have to prepare yourself for some act of violence before it is acted out on you. For all their blatant curiosity, Chinese people have never felt like threats to my safety.

“This is why I never want to live in the UK again” spits Bruce, “What’s the point of feeling like this all the time?”

We head back to the hotel feeling homesick and also relieved that we’re not at home. As DeeDee unlocks the door, I see a bellboy walking slowly down the corridor towards us and feel rising panic that perhaps he is a ghost and we must get in before he catches up; at this moment, DeeDee gasps with horror at what she sees in our room. I cry out, certain that my careful arrangement will have been moved around by malevolent Feng Shui spirits.
DeeDee laughs like an evil genius and I realise I have fallen for her tricks. Which are far from over.
As I brush my teeth, she creeps to the glass partition and is staring up at me with the terrifying look of a ghoul when I turn round.
So it’s no wonder then when I lie there staring into the dark instead of sleeping. As BreeDee’s breathing slows and they embark up the soft foothills of sleep, I wake them up by saying;

“I’m scared”

like a little child to his parents. They laugh at me but I want my mummy!

“I’m going to get into your bed if you scare me anymore” I warn.

Whatever creepy plans DeeDee had are quickly postponed for another night.

Sunday 11th March

"Indie where are you?"

Shanghai’s Old Town looks the same as it did in Indiana Jones’ day. Unfortunately as he is fictional, so is Club Obi Wan, and the cute 40s facades are now inhabited by cheapo souvenir shops.
After a hard morning’s shopping, we brunch with international go-getters Edie and Toto, who work for a high spec fashion magazine.

“Let’s set up a creative agency,” declares Toto, his enthusiasm swelling to fill the room. “We will have Party Horse as house band, and Edie as stylist”
“And me too!” I bluster in, “I’m a writer…even though I’ll be 10,000 miles away, I can still be a part of it…”
You can’t take me anywhere. As we rush to catch our train, I am still giddy from the sheer ambition of a room full of Edies and BreeDees.
“Let’s call ourselves the Shanghai Flyers” I muse. We can get satin baseball jackets with our logo on the back like the Pink Ladies of pan-cultural enterprise.

As always, my daydreams come at the expense of real problems. The alleged 15 min taxi drive back to the station takes 45 mins, and we miss our train.
Chinese people are the biggest queuers in the world. They are also the biggest queue jumpers. The lines I saw at the train station ticket offices filled me with horror and reminded me of rationing scenes from war photographs. After enduring 30 minutes in one queue, watching brazen chancers edge down to the front and butt in with little resistance, we are told that we are in the wrong queue to change our ticket.

“Right” says Bruce conspiratorially, “We’re not going to let anyone push in this time, ok?”

We make a pact.

We glare around us, daring someone to do it. An old gentleman squeezes down to the front, but is refused entry. He spits a massive globule of phlegm on the marble floor and stalks away. We pump the air in triumph.
Another guy edges forward.

DeeDee looms over him and prods his shoulder. He looks around in self-righteousness as she points behind her at the queue. Unfortunately, it turns out he is with someone in the queue. As we reach the front, another chap comes and leans over the counter, talking over DeeDee to the cashier. We shove ourselves in the way but he continues to talk through the mic.

“Put your hand over the speaker!” I say with a flash of moral indignation, and Bruce obliges. The gent is not even put off then. He continues to gesture and talk through the glass. Finally, DeeDee has our tickets and we leave him to his own devices. Fail!

“Right, when we get to the taxi queue in Hangzhou, we are going straight to the front” says Bruce, his dander up.

And we do. With fake nonchalance, we push to the front, but I am bringing up the rear and can feel daggers in my back. I am too scared to look round, but finally we have a cab and we are running and jumping into it and speeding back home.

Hangzhou is many things all rolled into one; innocent and yet brutal; cute but grotesque; principled yet dog-eat-dog.
On my last night, we visited AJ in his club. It’s a renovated warehouse with a cargo-rail in the middle that bands play on. He was skyping his girlf when we came in, she is studying in London and had dumped him for 4 days during which the extent of his rebellion was to scrawl “No Girlfriend” over a cutout of semi-naked fashion models. How sweet.

"Softcore defiance in a no-porn country"

The toilets had urinals made of old pipes. Amazing, but impractical as it looked and smelt like there was no way to flush the wee away. How nasty.

"A pipe-pissing son of a gun"

While Claudia, DeeDee and AJ taxied it to the restaurant, Bruce and I took a white-knuckle tuk-tuk ride through the city streets. We were all dog-tired which made the surreal meal that followed even harder to comprehend. Here again, you are expected to cook your won food, and I had the humiliation of asking for a special ‘not’ hot-pot to cook my food in. Yes, yes, I’m a wuss.

The problem with this cooking was that all the food shrivelled into nothingness after a few mins in the broth, so when you tried to get it out there was nothing really to get.

As we tweezered AJ’s eel tails into the pot with chopsticks one came to life, writhing in its dish and making me, DeeDee and Claudia scream like girls. Luckily, they were girls. We never really recovered from this horror, and soon after retired to bed.

And finally, a decent night’s sleep under the watchful eye of Popo who seems to have grown used to the smelly giant on the airbed.

Monday 12th March

Up at 6am to catch the 08.00 plane back to Hong Kong. I meet Harvey at Starbucks again in the airport; this reviled coffee shop has become my one stable point of reference in an unfamiliar world.

After 5 days in Hangzhou, I have finally mastered the right way to say ‘Goodbye’ in Mandarin, only to realise that no-one understands me because they all speak Cantonese in the Hong Kong. Typical.

Today Harvey is showing me around Lantau Island, where the airport is situated. We bus it to the Big Buddha at Po Lin, and order coffee from a woman in a swastika apron (yes I know it’s reversed and means Good Luck over here, but it’s still shocking!).

"'You'll get what you're given' is our motto"

“Go To Big Buddha” orders a sign, alright, we’re trying but there’s 100 steps up there and it’s so smoggy you can hardly see the damn thing.

"He's behind you!"

There are wild water buffalo here (“Don’t forget to enjoy their presence!” a sign encourages. Their presence! Almost right, but so wrong…)

"I'm sacred; you're profane"

and incense sticks the size of me;

"I am incensed at the price! (Groan)"

And a sign that says I’m a long, long way from home!”


Get me out of here!

"Where's Wally #2"

Then on to a small coastal town, where cats queue in the post office;

"First Class to Katmandu"

and chrome shacks look out like retro jewellery over the South China Sea, and a market sells freeze-dried aliens

"America chases aliens; China eats them"

I am knackered, but Harvey is an inhuman freak who runs marathons and sails Dragonboats and rips apart puny humans like me with his bare hands. His tales invariable involve a ridiculous situation that he “somehow” ended up in; being half sucked into bogs, being chased by warthogs, wearing a purple wig and wolf mask to Cambridge University lectures. For a genius, Harvey is a damn fool.
We walk across a mangrovey beach where stands a lonely art deco lifeguard station, where a Poirot-era Baywatch could be filmed (slo-mo longjohns)

"No real emergencies please, we get dizzy running down to the beach"

Round a deserted fishing port, ending up in a Turkish restaurant where a stroppy longhaired teenager seethes as his dad chats away to another barrel-chested ex pat. Harvey the alcoholic is plying me with beer again, and I am dog-tired, tired of the constant stimulus and adrenaline of being somewhere utterly unfamiliar.

Tuesday 13th March: 00:35am

The flight home is uneventful; I watch Submarine and Warrior because Esther will never let me watch them at home; I have the luxury of a whole row to myself on Emirates Airbus no. 2 and lie down full length for a nap the duration of Eastern Europe.

The rest is sketchy; all I remember is an obtuse Manchester Airport train bloke making me pay for a ticket to Piccadilly.

“I’ve got a ticket for Manchester Stations. Surely Manchester Airport is a Manchester Station (you big damn fool)?”
“No sir, we’re in Cheshire”

Stomp, stomp back to the ticket booth, finally the fatty lets me past.

And finally back in Lisa’s house, Esther sobs noisily on my shoulder for a full minute while I look on with the emotional range of a zombie. I need to sleep until I’m in the right timezone.