Life and Death in Shanghai

By Nian Cheng.

Because Nian Cheng (properly, Zheng Nian) had worked for Shell in Shanghai, her house was ransacked and vandalised before she was eventually hauled off to prison where she was detained without trial in terrible conditions and frequently berated to confess to being a spy for the British. Throughout this time, she steadfastly refused to admit to some crime she’d never committed, and often pointed out how absurd the arguments and claims of her interrogators were.

After six years, Zheng was released, although because she wanted to be exonerated, she initially refused to leave prison, but had no choice in the matter. Even outside prison, she was still under surveillance from her neighbours and her student, Da De. She also discovered, as she had feared, that her daughter, Meiping, had died. Officially, the girl was supposed to have committed suicide, but this, it became clear, was a lie. She had, in fact, been murdered when the extremists were trying to force her to denounce her mother.

Her daughter’s killer only received a nominal sentence.

After the deaths of Zhou Enlai and Mao, life gradually started returning to normal, and Zheng was eventually able to leave China, first for Canada and then the US where she died at the age of 94.

Unlike Jung Chang, whose parents were part of the Party elite until they were brought down by the Cultural Revolution, Zheng was from a wealthy, privileged background, which made her a class enemy. Although life in China was different after 1949, she still had a nice house with servants and a collection of some clearly very expensive objets d’art. Even when she left prison, she still behaved very much like a 太太, partitioning off her accommodation and having a garden. Her attitude seems to have been that her case should be dealt with immediately in much the same way that people in China barge up to the counter in a bank and expect the teller to deal with them even though someone else is standing at the window.

The dialogue in the book is often a weak point. Early on when Mr Hu first turns up, he fires off a staccato outburst of unconvincing clichés. When Zheng is summoned to the first meeting for Shell’s former employees, the conversation with Chi (Ji? Qi?) has a rather stilted quality to it. The “reconstructed” dialogue works better in the interrogation scenes where Zheng can skewer the warped logic of her interrogators.

Why do Zheng’s friends, Winnie and Henry, have English names (and ridiculous ones at that) and not Chinese ones? Does cook not have a name? And Ah-yee, who is Zheng’s servant after her release from prison is, er, 阿姨 [āyí] which means “nurse; nanny; housemaid”.

At the start of the book the Cultural Revolution is meant to be new and unknown, but in one passage Zheng says “Since the beginning of the Cultural Revolution, the number of slogans everywhere had multiplied by the thousand”, and yet this implies that it’d been in progress somewhat longer. The incident with the cat, where Fluffy leaps to Zheng’s defence against the Red Guards, is pure feline theatre.

I finished the book with a feeling of ambivalence. On the one hand, this is yet another tale of human rights abuse from China from a period the Party barely acknowledges and doesn’t want to talk about; it’s a historical document of a sort that needs to exist even if professional historians might not find it so useful; on the other hand, I never entirely warmed to Zheng or found her a sympathetic figure, and I wonder what sort of character she might have been if this book had been written by some neutral third party.

Time for a new bike?

Watch where you’re going, peasant.

I was on my way back to school from lunch, and had stopped at the junction where 香榭街 meets 人民西路 when some inattentive geriatric peasant on an electric scooter rear-ended me. It was just a nudge, but it was sufficient to break the rear mudguard of my bike.

As I correctly guessed, the service centre didn’t have a replacement mudguard for a Giant Hunter 3.0, and my thought was to replace it.

The bike still works, but the issue is the parts. I’ve replaced the drive train twice now (quite recently), which is an expensive proposition, and I’d decided that if that needed replacing again, I really would buy a new machine.

I went to the Giant bike shop nearby in the hope they might have a Hunter 3.0, but they didn’t, and they have such a plethora of bikes (which all seemed to be aimed at teenagers who are too stupid to appreciate the value of a decent set of mudguards) that I wasn’t really certain what might suit me, or what compromises I might have to make (e.g. stupid mudguards and no carrier).

I went over to the shop on 广瑞路 because I knew they’d had a Hunter 3.0, but that had gone. Sigh. I got them to use a tie to hold the remains of the mudguard in place.

When I went to the service centre, the boys didn’t have a mudguard, but they wanted to replace the rims instead. Yes, that would be cheaper than buying a new bike, but unlike the Chinese, I don’t believe in hanging onto something forever when it should’ve been retired long ago. I’ve seen a lot of bikes and electric scooters in the most dire state of repair because the owners have been too cheap to maintain them properly.

Giant no longer appears to do the sort of steel-framed bikes that I had when I first lived here, although I want something lightweight and with gears; and disc brakes. The Giant Escape is one possible replacement or the FCR 3100, although the Giant China website is coy about prices, which, I suspect, won’t be cheap. One of the Escape models appears to be carbon fibre, and the model I saw on the Giant UK website, which had mudguards and a carrier was £499. Eek! Or perhaps I’m just being cheap.

Later. I bought myself a Giant XCR 3700, which is the most expensive bike I’ve ever bought, and a bit bigger than the Hunter 3.0. It’s another bike with an aluminium frame, but this time black with orange highlights, and disc brakes (about time). The gears are a bit of a mystery, but I seem to have found about the right range for my particular tastes. The levers both hang downwards so that at the moment, I keep raising my finger to change up a gear only to waggle it ineffectively in thin air.

I had mudguards, a stand and a carrier added, although the lock is a liability because the carrier doesn’t hold it firmly in place, and it bounces and flips over if I hit any bumps, or rattles alarmingly (especially on the fake cobblestones on the lanes throughout Jinma). I don’t have an answer to that, and a bracket isn’t an option because instead of the lock being inline with the frame, it stuck out to one side, which would cause me to bash my knee against it unless I rode my bike in some ungainly, splay-legged style.

I seem to be able to push this machine along at a slightly faster pace than the old Hunter 3.0, although it seems less good at turning when I’m at speed.

Overall, I generally like the feel of the XCR 3700.

The Final Count

By H.C. “Sapper” O’Neille.

Following up work he began during World War I, John Gaunt perfects a means of delivering an utterly lethal contact poison, and before you can say “Jack Robinson”, Carl Peterson, this time in the guise of the wealthy Mr Wilmot, gets his hands on him and starts to manufacture the poison, and the antidote (well, a barrier cream which prevents the active agent from coming in contact with the skin).

Before you can say “Jack Robinson” a second time, Hugh Drummond is on the case, along with his chums, to thwart Peterson’s nefarious plan to load up a dirigible with the poison and spray the unwitting and unprotected British public.

Drummond soon discovers the safe house where Gaunt had been being held and where the man had left clue about the poison and the antidote. But the raiding party gets trapped in the cellar of the house until one of Inspector McIver’s men believes that it is his superior on the other side of the door.

Our heroes eventually find their way to the Black Mine where Peterson has been manufacturing the poison, and where it traps them for a time until Gaunt himself, already one isotope short of a chemical element, saves them, and they go after Wilmot’s dirigible.

That is the location for a very exclusive party for which Drummond already has tickets (which confirms in his mind that Wilmot is Peterson, who is trying to kill his nemesis once and for all). When the boys get on board the vessel, the rank smell of flowers later subconsciously alerts Drummond to the plot. When Wilmot asks him to give the loyal toast, he realises the poison is in the supposedly exclusive Chinese liqueur that Wilmot has had served to his guests. The poison has a particularly pungent smell which is being masked by the scent of the flowers.

Drummond shouts a warning to the guests, and then forces the poison on Peterson, who gets it spilt on his wrist. The antidote only gives him some protection before the toxin kills him.

The final volume of the Carl Peterson quartet ends with his girlfriend, Irma, appearing at Drummond’s side as he surveys the wreckage of the dirigible and claiming, as Peterson claimed at the end of the previous volumes, that this is not the end, although according to the narrator, Drummond never sees her again.

Unlike the other books in the series, this is told in the first person from the perspective of John Stockton, a friend of Robin Gaunt’s who gets caught up in the affair and becomes part of Drummond’s circle. Like other books in the series, it tends to be waffly. There are long chapters devoted to Robin Gaunt’s story whereas the conclusion to the novel is comparatively abrupt. The encounter with Peterson on board the airship and his demise is, perhaps thankfully, not recounted at unnecessary length, but it does seem to be a little anticlimactic after four novels. Somehow, of course, he had to be hoisted by his own petard and the circumstances prior to his death (i.e., a formal dinner) didn’t lend themselves to, say, a prolonged chase.

And so ends the career of the notorious supervillain, Carl Peterson.

The Third Round

By H.C. “Sapper” O’Neille.

When Professor Goodman reveals that he can create flawless diamonds for a fiver a go, Sir Raymond Blan­tyre of the Metropolitan Diamond Syndicate seeks out the Comte de Guy (aka Carl Peterson) to make sure that only the syndicate’s diamonds are forever.

Peterson sees an opportunity to enrich himself, and devises a plan to fake the professor’s death so that the man can share his secret with him. Unfortunately, without his notes, which have fallen into Hugh Drum­mond’s possession, Goodman hasn’t the faintest clue how to get the process to work.

Peterson soon has Drummond and the notes in his clutches, and persuades the professor to show him how it’s all done. Drummond feigns concussion, which in his world is like short-term brain damage, but is spared because Peterson wants him sane and sound before he kills him once and for all.

Drummond and Goodman are transferred to Peterson’s yacht, the Gadfly. The villain is going to throw his captives overboard and blow up the yacht with all hands, but, as luck would have it, Drummond manages to get a message to Toby Sinclair while Bulldog creates panic on the vessel by pretending he thinks Goodman is Peterson in disguise. This enables them to escape, and Peterson destroys the yacht soon afterwards.

Drummond reasons that his arch-enemy has headed back to Switzerland, where he confronts him and manages to force him to destroy the only remains notes which detail the professor’s formula. He then offers Peterson a sporting chance, a fight on a glacier, man-to-man. It seems that it isn’t the villain’s day because Irma appears to have abandoned him utterly.

Off to the glacier they go where the tricky Peterson deceives his nemesis by catching him off guard and scarpering.

Drummond suddenly realises that he’s been had because Irma was only pretending to abandon Peterson when, in fact, she was hinting where they should meet on the French side of the border.

The Third Round is a return to something like the original story. There are some touches of humour such as Drummond mistaking Professor Scheidstrun, who mimics Peterson’s nervous tic, for the man himself in disguise.

Peterson’s escape at the end by distracting Drummond’s attention and thumping him seemed a little weak. Of course, Peterson did have a four-book contract, and probably got most of the fan mail. But Drummond’s vague hope that he might spot Toby Sinclair on his yacht as the Gadfly passed by wasn’t much better.

Mind you, without such coincidences, where would fiction be?

The Black Gang

By H.C. “Sapper” O’Neille.

A gang of men dressed entirely in black has been going round abducting Communist agitators, and thrashing Jewish human traffickers. All extrajudicial, but perfectly all right because the victims are not the sort of chaps a chap invites to his club, or up to the country for the weekend.

When Count Zadowa chucks a bomb at the Black Gang, destroying a desk, it provokes the arrival of the mysterious leader of the agitators… Yes, yes, it’s Carl Peterson, now disguised as the Reverend Theophilus Longmoor, who had secreted some very rare diamonds in the desk, which have now come into the pos­ses­sion of the Black Gang… What? Yes, that’s Hugh Drummond and his chums.

Drummond soon encounters Longmoor, and quickly penetrates his disguise because of the man’s tic of tapping his knee with his left hand.

Drummond is drugged and an accident is arranged, but he manages to extricate himself more by luck than judgement, and he find his way to Peterson’s lair, which is surrounded by an electrified fence. He rescues Phyllis, and is about to escape himself when Peterson and Count Zadowa turn up, having recaptured her.

Peterson is about to have the pair of them murdered when the lights go out and the rest of the Black Gang come storming in.

Not surprisingly, Peterson and Irma manage to escape (again) while Drummond has a chat with his old schoolmate, Sir Bryan Johnstone of Scotland Yard, who has identified him as the leader of the Black Gang, whose days of fun and frolics are now over.

The Black Gang is somewhat darker and more violent than the first volume in the series, and Drummond and his vigilantes are disquieting, it being acceptable for the toffs to act outside the law, but not anyone else.

O’Neille restates his view that the people behind the Communist agitators were only in it for themselves, but that’s also essentially the people who benefit from Drummond’s activities, who aren’t necessarily making life better for the workers.

This is also a waffly book with little sense of an approaching climax as the writer appears to have been stretching out a fairly thin sort of plot. At one stage, wondering how much more of the book remained, I discovered I was far closer to the end than I’d imagined, with no sense that the big finale was nigh.

Drummond seems to work best where he’s a cartoon character. It would not take much to change The Black Gang into a story of tyrants and their brutal thugs abusing the rule of law and human rights instead of heroic chaps ensuring the stability of the realm.

At least this time, no one’s getting gay with anyone or anything.

Bulldog Drummond

by H.C. “Sapper” McNeille.

I’m so used to the survivors of World War I suffering from shell shock, that it seems implausible that Hugh “Bulldog” Drummond would place an advertisement in the paper looking for some excitement because he finds peacetime rather dull. Perhaps he has survivor guilt, which is why he’s so keen to engage in some death-defying thrill-seeking adventures after the horrors of trench warfare.

A call comes from a damsel in distress, Phyllis Benton, which puts Drummond on a collision course with the sinister Henry Lakington and the even more sinister Carl Peterson, who plans to bring Britain to her knees by cynically fomenting a Communist revolution for his own ends.

Drummond spends the rest of the novel falling into Peterson’s hands and then out of them while laughing insanely (yes, I’m not convinced that Drummond isn’t actually unhinged) in the face of constant danger while giving villainy the lumps it deserves to rescue Phyllis and marry her.

It’s all ripping, boy’s own stuff.

It’s a pity that the dialogue is so dated. As David Stuart Davis observes in the introduction, Drummond and his chums all sound like Bertie Wooster; and what would we do without the word “gay”?

“Let’s get gay with Paris.”
“Let’s get gay with Potts.”
“I watched Peterson, through the skylight last night, getting gay with that ledger.”

I’m not even going to ask what the final one involves.

It’s all good clean ludicrous fun as an idle, rich amateur fights the good fight to save Britain for the cocktail-drinking classes.

The Moon and Sixpence

By W. Somerset Maugham.

Having gained some note as a writer, the narrator falls into the circle of a Mrs Strickland, and eventually meets her husband, Charles, a rather dull, inarticulate stockbroker, who suddenly ups and leaves for Paris, entirely abandoning his wife and children. “Cherchez la femme!” they all cry.

The narrator tracks Strickland down to a shabby hotel in Paris and quickly determines there’s no femme chercher (although back home, on the basis of some rumour, it’s decided that there really was another woman, and the narrator doesn’t dare to contradict the accepted narrative). Strickland is utterly unapologetic about his behaviour, and announces he wants to be an artist.

Five years later, the narrator, bored with London and life, decides to head to Paris, where he meets up with a Dutch artist, Dick Stroeve. Stroeve has no real talent as an artist (which seems to mean that he’s good at chocolate box paintings, but his work has no depth), but he is an excellent critic, and sees genius in Strickland’s paintings.

Strickland is just as abrasive as ever, and for most of the narrator’s time in Paris, the man’s painting are out of sight. The artist falls seriously ill and the kind-hearted, but buffoonish Stroeve nurses him back to health. Strickland repays the man by absconding with his wife, Blanche, and eventually driving her to suicide.

The narrator finally gets to see Strickland’s paintings, and like everyone else who subsequently comes into contact with them, regrets not acquiring some while they’re worth next-to-nothing; and then he never sees the man again.

Eventually the narrator ends up in Tahiti where he pieces together the rest of Strickland’s life from destitution in Marseilles to his arrival on the island, his marriage to Ata, his retreat into the bush, and his death from leprosy.

The Moon and Sixpence is allegedly about genius, but Strickland, who is constantly described as being inarticulate, comes across as verbally abusive and undeserving of the curious amounts of support which people give him from the narrator to the naively nice Stroeve to Captain Nichols in Marseilles. But as for the man being a genius, that rests on Strickland’s posthumous reputation, which Maugham never adequately succeeds in convincing the reader of.

Although Strickland is based on the artist Paul Gauguin, who is best known for his time in Tahiti, most of the novel is based in Paris. When the narrator and Strickland part company for the final time, there is an abrupt fracture in the book, although the narrator mostly avoids pontificating as he fills in the missing details of the artist’s life.

To some extent, though, Maugham has a clear predilection for pontification so that Strickland is often less important than the narrator blowing his own waffling trumpet. In fact, it appears that the narrator is not so much a persona of the author as he is Maugham writing himself into the life of a fictional artist based on a real-life one. Maugham also had a predilection for art, which features in more than one of his writings.

There is a reasonable amount of humour in the book where Maugham is mocking the pretensions of the age, but without, it appears, quite recognising that his portentous style would seem so dated and pretentious nearly a century later.


By C.J. Sansom.

Dominion is set in an alternative 1952 in a universe where Britain negotiated peace with Germany in 1940 and became a fascist puppet state run by Lord Beaverbrook. The Resistance is led by the ageing Winston Churchill while in Germany, no one has seen Hitler in public for two years.

David Fitzgerald, a civil servant working in the Dominions Office, is recruited into the Resistance by Geoff Drax. He manages to get access to secret files which he photographs and passes on the information contained in them. In his haste, he accidentally leaves a sheet of paper from a different file in the wrong place.

At the same time, an old university friend of his, the timid Frank Muncaster, has been locked up in a mental hospital after pushing his brother, Edgar, out of a window after the latter told him about his work on the atomic bomb for the Americans.

The Resistance gets Fitzgerald involved, but the Germans have also heard about the incident between the Muncaster brothers and send Gunther Hoth, who has been hunting down the few surviving Jews in Germany. The Germans are keen to find out what the tight-lipped Muncaster knows.

The two matters come to a head and walk right into the Great Smog of 1952 where the Germans and collaborators in Special Branch narrowly miss capturing the party as it makes its way to the south coast (including a chat with Churchill) to a waiting US submarine.

Meanwhile, news come through that Hitler has died, and Germany collapses into civil war.

A brick of a book. It doesn’t pall, but I’m sure with some judicious editing, it could be reduced to 250 pages (from 690) and still be a ripping yarn. For example, there doesn’t seem to be any good reason for “Frank Muncaster’s Schooldays” since Sansom frequently repeats how nervous the man is. Nor is there any real reason for Fitzgerald’s wife, Sarah, to feature that much except as ’er indoors, as Arthur Daley would say. Does her side story, the death of Mrs Templeman, really contribute anything overall? Not really.

Fitzgerald may as well be wearing a T-shirt saying “Kiss me, I’m Irish” since every woman who crosses his path immediately falls in love with him, from Natalia, the mysterious Slovakian Resistance woman to the unfortunate Carol Bennett.

The Historical note at the end of the book also includes a tirade from the half-Scottish Sansom about the opportunistic SNP pre-independence referendum and pre-2015 elections. He also uses the Scottish Communist character, Ben, to lambast them as well.

Dominion isn’t a bad story, but it can be a bit of a trudge at times.

Is there life on Mars?

The Martian.

When a Martian storm turns out to be much stronger than predicted, the astronauts manning a base on Mars evacuate the place, but as they trek through the storm to their shuttle, a satellite dish hits Mark Watney, who is left behind, presumed dead.1

Watney survives, and finding himself stranded on Mars, must work out how he can stay alive long enough for the next manned mission to arrive there. Fortunately, he’s a botanist and he starts doing some indoor gardening, growing potatoes.

NASA eventually realises that someone is still on the surface of the red planet and manages to make contact with him. Plans are made to send a supply rocket, but it explodes not long after launch, and the only other plan is to send the Hermes (the mother ship) back to Mars to pick Watney up by sling-shotting it around the Earth and collect a Chinese supply ship at the same time.

“I’ve done the maths,” says the NASA scientist who doesn’t even recognise the man who runs the show. “It’ll work.”

Meanwhile, Watney loses all of his crops and must trek to another shuttle, but in order for him to reach the Hermes when it gets back to Mars, he has to strip it of most of its kit or he’ll never make it to the rendezvous point. But even without all the extra weight, he doesn’t quite make it, and must stab a hole in his suit for that extra propulsion to cross the gap to safety.2

It obviously wouldn’t make for a good film if Watney merely got on with his gardening for a couple of years, and nothing bad happened. In the best traditions of Hollywood, you know that the moment someone says, “Provided nothing goes wrong”, everything will go wrong, and it does. It could’ve been worse, though. It could’ve been Gravity-bad, with increasing levels of ludicrousness.

Matt Damon at least plays Watney as a personable individual. His banter with the rest of the expedition members is informally chummy and entertaining. Jeff Daniels is a bit bland as the head of NASA, and the scientists who aren’t in major roles are all typically nerdy because, er, that’s what scientists are. Oh, and the head of China’s space programme wouldn’t ever have grey hair. He would’ve been at the hair dye like almost everyone else.

Overall, The Martian is a decently entertaining piece of cinema even if it has to conform to The Big Book of Hollywood Disaster Film Clichés.


  1. On this point, I have to wonder why the storm was strong enough to rip the dish off its mount and blow it hard enough to knock Watney 20m or so through the air, but neither affect the astronauts nor kill him.
  2. I’m sure there’s a reasonable explanation why the other five members of the expedition were able to fly back to the Hermes without any problems while Watney’s super-light spaceship can’t make it.

Now out on DVD. Then out on DVD

The Hateful Eight.

A bounty hunter, Marquis Warren (Samuel Jackson), is taking some prizes to Red Rock when his horse dies on him. He hitches a lift with John Ruth (Kurt Russell), who is taking the notorious Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Lee) to Red Rock to be hanged. A bit further up the road, they meet the man who is going to be the town’s new sheriff. Behind the coach is a blizzard.

The party arrives at Minnie’s, where they find the cast of Reservoir Dogs, but no sign of Minnie or Sweet Dave. Ruth and the stagecoach driver drink poisoned coffee and die, while Warren and the sheriff start putting two and two together. There’s the inevitable shoot-out when it’s revealed that Domergue’s brother and the rest of the gang are there to rescue her.

The sheriff and Warren finish off the job which Ruth started, and after three hours, the film is over.

The Hateful Eight is like an extended version of Reservoir Dogs set in the Wild West. Some viewers will not doubt find that the film drags because of its length, but I don’t seem to have been in that mood.

It is full of the usual Tarentinesque violence and blood. Domergue’s face gets increasingly bloody one way or another as the film progresses.

The twist, if you want to call it that, is that the sheriff is not quite the dimwitted rustic clown the rest take him to be.

Not advisable for anyone who is not keen on blood, violence and a three-hour-long film.

I now pronounce you Chuck and Larry.

Chuck and Larry are firemen, but in order to scam the system (for all the right reasons), they pretend to be a gay couple and get married.

Dull and frequently embarrassing. (Also, Adam Sandler as a babe magnet? Don’t think so.) The 1970s rang part way through and said it wanted its tacky comedy back. I watched it on and off, but mostly ignored it.

Fast and Furious 7.

Yes, I know. Vin Diesel and chums drive fast cars and engage in the most ridiculously OTT stunts and storyline you can imagine. Jason Statham… Yeah, ’nuff said. Dwayne Johnson… ’Nuff said there, too.

Poignant send-off for the late Paul Walker who was killed in a car crash in real life while the film was in production.

Life and whatever in the imperium sericum.