The Pigeon Responds!

It’s Chinese New Year… which means the arsenal of fire crackers exploding outside my door make it impossible to compose a proper blog post. Plus, several discounted bottles of baijiu are also not helping the cause.

So, in place of a carefully crafted series of witty bon mots, instead we pass this week’s soap box to one Simon Clode – author of the book The Last Flight of the Pigeon that was reviewed here last week. You may recall that I dissected this prose as particularly and peculiarly Partridgean… and Simon has responded in the same vein. Rather than cut-and-paste his response to my review here, I instead encourage you to pop over to his blog and take a look at it yourself. It’s a masterclass on how to reply to book criticism.

Now where did I put that baijiu? I’m feeling dangerously sober…

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Celebrate the Chinese New Year of the Cock by purchasing my book Party Members – a dark comic fantasy that also features a giant Chinese cock. It was meant to be.

Book Review: The Last Flight of the Pigeon by Simon Clode

Disclaimer: Normally when I write book reviews I add a little disclaimer that, unlike all my other posts, it is written in a spirit of some seriousness. That will not be the case today though. A second disclaimer: this review is going to be packed with references to British culture that will only be resonant with British men of a certain age; so if you’re American or under the age of 25 you might as well log off now and go look at Buzzfeed or something. Third disclaimer: I was given a copy of this book by the author to review who wrote: “[I] would love it if you would review Last Flight of the Pigeon. It’s deliberately not a book aimed at China experts or people who’ve been here long enough to claim anything more than a visit. You can savage it as much as you like, it was a hobby project to fill the hours of visa limbo I willfully put myself through. Is that a defensive enough proposal for you?”

Last Flight of the Pigeon is a structurally sound, inoffensive and workman-like account of an Englishman in his early thirties who decides for no reason at all to cycle from Beijing to Kashgar. Why he decides to do this is beyond me. His passion for navigating by bicycle between one pollution-heavy city to another is never fully explained in the book. Such Quixotic endeavours have never made sense to me. I can understand the desire to conquer more primal challenges – like wanting to sleep with a redhead or trying to finish a triple-deck cheeseburger in order to get a discounted lunch – but I personally can’t relate to those people who want to put themselves through extreme physical punishment in order to climb a rock or walk really, really far. The response of some mountain climbers to why they put themselves through the ordeal of climbing a mountain is “because it’s there”. I still don’t get it. As Jasper Carrott once noted, an elephant’s bottom is also “there” but you don’t see many people trying to climb up them.

The title is a misnomer. The “pigeon” in Last Flight of the Pigeon isn’t one of the feathered variety that are rumoured to carry TB and Jack Duckworth used to keep in his back yard on Coronation Street, but actually one of the iconic “Flying Pigeon” bicycles that were China’s mainstays before everybody decided to become cunts and drive Audis instead. Simon points out that it was actually meant to be “Flying Dove” but since there is no differentiation in Chinese between the words “dove” and “pigeon” the translation came out slightly less poetical than intended. At least a popular chocolate bar managed to get the translation right otherwise I’d be sat writing this whilst chomping on an unappetising bar of hazelnut pigeon.

(For a book saturated with obscure British pop-culture references, I’m upset that Simon didn’t include John Shuttleworth’s classic Pigeons in Flight at any point)

However, after about four chapters of Simon writing in detail about his efforts in buying a Flying Pigeon bicycle, his desire to want to ride a Flying Pigeon from Beijing to Kashgar, the history of the Flying Pigeon, a long list of the Flying Pigeon’s technical aspects, and what the Flying Pigeon means to him, China and the world… the Pigeon breaks down on the very first day of Simon’s bike trek before he’s even left Beijing and he covers the rest of the 4,999 kilometres to Kashgar on the back of a Giant mountain bike instead. (“Giant” is a brand of bicycle by the way, I didn’t mean that he was actually riding a giant mountain bike. That would be preposterous. As far as I know the author only has normal sized legs.) So after all the initial build-up, the Last Flight of the Pigeon turns out to be a short ride out to the fifth ring-road. Despite this, the title remains unchanged, though I personally would have changed it to Riding on the Shoulders of Giants.

Safely ensconced on his new mountain bike, Simon then proceeds on his 5,000 kilometre journey to Kashgar. To give credit to Simon, with Last Flight of the Pigeon he has really managed to create an astonishing writerly achievement, as reading the book genuinely felt like I was riding 5,000 kilometres to Kashgar. I felt every single one of those kilometres. Every. Single. One. I have to admit that I almost gave up on Last Flight of the Pigeon more than once, but luckily for the author I was on my Christmas holiday in a third-world country with several very long car journeys to endure, so with nothing better to do I persevered to the end.

It’s remarkable how little anything of interest happened to the author during his long journey to Xinjiang. Apart from one or two incidents with sand storms and the hazards of attempting to pitch a tent within one, the journey is mostly a catalogue of tyre punctures, checking into hotels and what he had for lunch each day. At the back of the book is a list of all the statistics that were accomplished during the journey. One of the stats is that 51 pot noodles were consumed during the journey. This is certainly true as almost every single one of those pot noodles is mentioned in the book. Being the sad bastard that I am, I actually did a Ctrl+F search through the book and counted mentions of 32 of those 51 pot noodles.

The author doesn’t provide much background on himself or why he decided to move to China, but we do learn that he previously worked in the public sector back in the UK. His public-sector background shows as anyone who has had to work in the competitive private-sector would never have the ingrained habit of writing long statistic heavy reports that nobody reads. At times I felt that a Project Manager approach had been used to formulate the book. I could imagine the creation of each chapter… a long list of boxes waiting to be ticked off one by one and inserted into each chapter before it felt complete.

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Something like this

Each chapter cycles (ha!) through the same structure: description of the journey so far, pot noodles, some historical facts thrown in on the particular town or city featured in that chapter, a handful of comedy references to spice up the writing, and a couple of lazy liberal sideswipes at how awful UKIP is or how the British are bigots to show that he has the correct opinions on things. Sometimes the references to British culture from the 1980s or 1990s can be really obscure – even when I myself am a British man who grew up in the 80s and 90s. The book should come with a trigger warning to Americans that it contains dangerously obscure references to Ed Miliband and Kajagoogoo. This brings me to my next point about the book: it’s difficult to understand who the audience is that the author has in mind to read the book. Non-British will find most of the language and references baffling, Old China Hands will find nothing new here about the country, and those without an interest in China may not be interested in it at all. Sometimes I felt that the book was intended for the author alone.

If it sounds like I’m being a bit harsh on Last Flight of the Pigeon: you’re right. The book is largely inoffensive (apart from the asinine virtue-signalling swipes about the British and colonialism) and there are people who enjoy such books detailing long journeys from Point A to Point B – Simon would probably get along very well with Christopher Rehage who wrote about walking from Beijing to Urumqi. Unfortunately, I’m much more degenerate than Simon and prefer a bit more colour in my stories. The author freely admits that he wrote the book as a hobby project when going through a period of not having very much to do. It’s an unpretentious book that doesn’t pretend to be anything that it isn’t.

AND THEN I CHANGED MY MIND.

About three-quarters of my way through Last Flight of the Pigeon, a remarkable revelation hit me. Prior to reading the book, I had just completed Nomad by Alan Partridge which also features a journey by the renowned broadcaster and radio DJ. In Alan’s case it is a journey by foot from his beloved Norwich to a nuclear power station in Dungeness. The more I read Last Flight of the Pigeon the more I slowly realised that it wasn’t about cycling from Beijing to Kashgar at all. No. Last Flight of the Pigeon is in fact an affectionate tribute to Alan Partridge written by a true aficionado. The similarities between Alan and Simon are startling:

  • Both spend a lot of time sleeping in motels.
  • Both seem to only communicate with hotel receptionists and/or petrol station attendants.
  • Both have weird fascinations with vehicular transportation and like to describe it in detail.
  • Both talk constantly about their obscure hometowns and music that ordinary people have forgotten about.
  • Both have strong views on the pedestrianisation of city centres.

There were moments within the book that were straight out of Partridge:

“So before we get to that point I should make two things clear. First, they are both very clever people.”

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“There is more to Xinjiang than this”

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“These establishments always – and I mean always – possess at least one angry dog. This one was no exception.”

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“Other journeys of a similar length include: for fans of a good time – Dublin to Galway; for fans of Didcot Parkway – Bristol to Oxford to London; for people on Spring Break – Los Angeles to Tijuana; for EU workers wanting a filthy weekend away – Brussels to Amsterdam; and for residents of North London – It’s like cycling around North London a lot, whilst refusing to acknowledge anywhere else exists.”

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“Where are you from?”
“I’m British.”
If inquisitor is female – “Are you married?”
“No”
“Why not? How old are you?”
“31, but I have a girlfriend in Beijing”

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And how could one read the following beautiful Partridgean-style quote and not be in any doubt that Last Flight of the Pigeon is actually the finest Partridge fan-fiction ever created?

“When I wasn’t sleeping in a tent near a graveyard, rubbish tip, or jaw-dropping scenery, I would be frequenting one of China’s business hotels. They often award their own stars but by global standards, they’re somewhere around two or three. What is not in doubt is the value they provide. I didn’t pay more than £35 a night, the average price was under £20, and some were as cheap as £12.

Five-star they may not be, but more often than not you get at least one bed and a clean bathroom with a powerful shower. You don’t need more than that, but how best to maximise the Chinese business hotel experience on a bicycle journey I hear you ask.”

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Once I realised that Last Flight of the Pigeon was actually a love-letter to Alan Partridge, my whole perception of the book changed. I began to read the book with Alan’s voice in my head. Immediately it transformed from a dry account of a long bicycle journey to a hilarious experience of one man struggling to find his place within the universe. I then proceeded to enjoy the book immensely.

Oh, and I also enjoyed the stunning finale to the book when the author announces, for no reason at all, that he has herpes. I certainly didn’t see that one coming.

And on that bombshell… all that remains to be said is that Last Flight of the Pigeon is available on Amazon. If you’d like to see more musings from a man who really missed his calling in life to be a provincial radio disk jockey, you can find Simon’s blog here.

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If you enjoyed this post you may also enjoy my book Party Members – a dark comic fantasy that exposes the corrupt underbelly of modern China.

An interview with Ray Hecht

It’s that man again…

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Ray “Spratly” Hecht still lies within the 9-Dash Line

Here’s Ray Hecht. You may remember him from his books South China Morning Blues (that I reviewed here), Pearl River DramaThis Modern Love and The Erotic Adventures of Hercules (as yet unpublished. And unwritten).

Ray was recently kind enough to feature an interview with me on his site where I discuss my thoughts on writerly things.

Direct your mouse pointer hither.

Some highlights:

“…like a nerd at a prom night getting drenched in a vat of pig’s blood…”

“…a tenacious black woman who fought against 1960s racism to become the first botanist in space…”

“…I’d probably grab a samurai sword and go berzerk outside a Beijing branch of Uniqlo…”

“…8 Reasons why Asian Girls are Better…

If you don’t think pig’s blood, botanists in space, samurai swords or Asian girls are interesting, then I don’t know what is wrong with you.

Thanks Ray for the interview.

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If you enjoyed this post you may also enjoy my book Party Members – a dark comic fantasy that exposes the corrupt underbelly of modern China.

A Christmas Pantomime – Part Three

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(As mentioned in Parts One and Two – this was written ten years ago so I have added some footnotes to help the younger ones out there.)

What is Christmas?  It’s a little Robin Red Breast shivering in the winter cold.  It’s a hungry orphan being led into a shed.  It’s a lone snowman whose nose-carrot is missing because it has been stolen and subsequentially eaten by a gypsy thief.  However, most importantly it’s the grand finale of our Christmas Panto, which even cable destroying eartquakes cannot prevent.*

(This final act is brought to you by Gordon’s Gin)

Act the Last: In which Hu Jintao takes a dump on a futuristic toilet.

SCENE: Last week we left Hu Jintao trapped in the Cavern of Chinese Delights with only a mysterious lamp for company.  As the curtain raises, Hu is sat crying atop a mountain of Kenny G albums.

HU: Bah Mantou!  What am I going to do trapped in this cave for all eternity?  Without me at the helm, who is going to send out the orders to knock down Beijing’s last remaining hutongs, and shake hands with the Foreign Minister of the Solomon Islands on his next trip to Beijing?

(He whips out his diminutive penis and stares at it in his hand)

HU: No.  Even though I may be stuck here forever with only Pizza Hut discount coupons and 1000 year old eggs for company, I should still lead a socialist lifestyle and say no to masturbation.  I know, I’ll rub this lamp instead.

(He rubs the lamp, and astonishingly, a genie pops out)

GENIE: Take a wild fucking guess who I am.  Come on, you know the score, three wishes and I can go back home.  And if you think I’m going to sing and dance like Robin Williams did in that Disney film, you are very much mistaken my friend.

HU: Ok, for my first wish I would like a bottle of XO Remy Martin brought to me by a girl in a Tiger Beer leotard.

(The genie snaps his fingers and the wish is granted)

HU: For my next wish, I would like a can of 7-up to wash it down with.

(The wish is granted and Hu drinks the repulsive cocktail and plays dice with the Tiger Beer girl for 45 minutes)

HU: And finally, I would like you to send me hundreds of years into the future so that I can meet the Representative of Harmonious Christmas Future.  I want to see how wonderful Chinese society is in the future thanks to my well-thought out policies.

(The curtain closes and then reopens to a new scene set in the 24th and a half century.  It looks a lot like present-day Beijing, only dirtier, and for some reason an animated cartoon duck is flying about in the background.**  A sinister hooded figure dressed all in black awaits Hu Jintao as he is lowered by string onto the stage)

HU: Finally!  This must surely be the new golden age!  An age when China has risen again to her rightful place as master of the universe!  An age where the GDP doubles EVERY SECOND!  An age where all the people of China can live in peace and harmony as long as they don’t question the Communist Party!  An age where piped music comes from the ground everywhere on Earth!  I guess that you are the Representative of Harmonious Christmas Future?

(The Representative nods his head solemnly)

HU: This is great!  Representative, show me some of the great things about this all-new Cyber-China!

(The Representative transports Hu Jintao to Tiananmen Square.  Nationalities of every minority are dancing around in national dress and a huge sign proclaims “Only 972 days to the Second Beijing Olympics)

HU: Wonderful, wonderful, I can almost smell the harmoniousessnessness.

(Suddenly, the minorities stop dancing and start firing laser beams out of their eyes and burning down buildings.  A tree is blown up which reveals the sign to be actually saying “Only 972 days to the second time Beijing will be allowed to compete in the new Olympics”)

HU: Noooooo!  Oh, the huge manatee!  What’s going on?

TIBETAN: Where have you been worthless Han scum?  As you know, all the real minorities of China were persecuted to death years ago, and you Han created robot models of us to cover up the truth.  But now we will rise against you!  Come my brothers, let us combine.  Tibetan…

MIAO: Miao!

UYGHUR: Uyghur!

MONGOL: Mongol!

HUI: Hui!

TIBETAN: Together we shall form UltraSuperMechaMinority!

(They form together to create a giant ethnic robot and begin trampling all over the Forbidden City)

HU: Bah Mantou!  How can this be?  Where is the government?  Who is leading the country during this hour of crisis?

REPRESENTATIVE: I can answer that: for I am the new all-powerful leader of China.

(He pulls away his cloak to reveal he is none other that Tom Cruise)

HU: Tom fucking Cruise?  B,b,b,b, but… how?

TOM: Actually, I’m the second cloned version of the original Tom Cruise, and I am head of the joint Scientology-Falun Gong government which took power in China years after your death.  Thanks to your ridiculous ideologies of harmonious societies and Market-Leninism, the people of China were willing to accept any old rubbish, and so we took our chance.

HU: (Weeping) No, no… it can’t be true.  I have seen the past, and I have seen the future, and now I realise how wrong I have been.  I promise to embrace the spirit of Christmas, I promise to be a good man, I promise to make China a better place.  Just please, take me back!

(There is a wibbly-wobbly noise like the kind Garth and Wayne used to make in Wayne’s World, and Hu is back on his chair in Zhongnanhai)

HU: I’m back!  Oh, I’m so glad!  Was it all a dream?  No, I don’t think so, it seemed so real.

(Wen Jiabao re-enters)

WEN: Oh great leader, where have you been?  We were so worried.

HU: You would not believe me, young Wen.  I have been to the past and seen the first Christmas in China, and I have been to the future and seen the consequences for our country if things don’t change.

WEN: So then, can me and the lads have the day off?

HU: Bah mantou, absolutely not!  Get my bags ready and I want a ticket for the next flight to Canada as soon as possible.  I’ve seen what the future has in store for China, and there’s no way I’m staying here for it.  See you later, fuckfaces!

(Hu Jintao runs off to steal as many public funds as possible.  Wen Jiabao is left on stage to deliver the final speech)

WEN: Well, folks, you may think that I’m annoyed that Hu failed to see the true meaning of Christmas and deserted the country, but actually I’m not.  You see, in my spare time I’m actually the Representative of Developing Christmas Present, and I got together with my other two mates so that we could scare Hu Jintao off and I could be leader.  So you see boys and girls, it was a happy ending after all.  For me anyway.  My first rule will be to ban Christmas and place emphasis on getting drunk and receiving bribes at Chinese New Year instead.  Now get out, all of you, before I have you all shot.

(The lights go out, there is the sound of gunfire, and then an eternal eerie silence)

The End

 

 

 

 

* When I originally wrote this, I wasn’t actually able to post Part Three until way into January thanks to an earthquake in Taiwan that knocked out China’s entire internet for two weeks.

**I have no idea what this was referring to. If you have any ideas, pop it in the comments because I’m buggered if I know.

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If you enjoyed this post you may also enjoy my book Party Members – a dark comic fantasy that exposes the corrupt underbelly of modern China.