The third film was in Beijing when Antony and I decided to hit the hutongs one last time on the morning of our departure for the airport. We were staying in a swish low-built hotel, itself a hutong on a grand scale with rooms around two squares: the first a space where taxis could pull in, but the other a miniature garden complete with opium-boothed bar and a little massage hut where I’d been dressed in pyjamas, methodically pummelled, and given medicinal tea to drink. (At lunch the day before a waiter had wielded a kettle with a spout an ell in length, always getting the tea in our tiny cups from a distance of several yards.) We turned left and left again into lanes full of bicycle repair shops, usually advertised by a single stirrup pump, and what seemed like spontaneous markets formed on wiggles in the road by two or three minivans and their sparse, fresh contents. Tight corridors between grey concrete houses were hung with washing, walls repaired with plastic, doors decorated with posters. We passed men in singlets, a boy who sat on a door-step covering his eyes, mothers slopping out buckets. We crossed a sudden busy road, a man whose T-shirt said ‘Hello Boby/yesterday you are…’ – and some third line we forgot immediately on plunging back into the grey labyrinth, then emerged into what seemed to be a play park by a lake.
The green area of swings, climbing-frames, and standing-stones decorated with incised characters, gave way to a walk around the lake taking in trendy new bars, boating areas (little gunboats in green with red stars on them were pedalled past), a peculiar crannog of miniature houses apparently built for ducks, and another play-park where small children were pushed back and forth in swings moulded into the forms of giant goldfish. But where we first happened upon the park there was a man sleeping on the grass on a spread-out newspaper; children watching (very disparately-sized) dogs copulate; and a gathering of men gambling in tight little units around cards and mah jong sets. And in the play area, using the bars to stretch themselves, were some trim older people, perhaps in their sixties.
As we leaned on the railings by the water, we saw one of them set up a tape recorder on a picnic table, and the group resolved itself into couples, a few of them woman and woman as the old unselfconsciously, silently do, in the absence of sufficient surviving males. A switch was flipped and everyone began to dance. It was a sedate, swing-based form of music, vaguely pop, vaguely oriental, and so was their dancing, full of elegant little twirls. It wasn’t clear from their expressions whether they were learning or rehearsing. The music would get switched off abruptly, and, while a debate went on as to what to play next, and the tape was jammed on fast-forward or rewound in search of the start of something, the dancers would languidly practise some more, discussing and repeating their steps before embarking on another jazzy waltz about the play park. And this is what I recorded, not the moments before or after, in which we went for a bottle of cold beer on the decking of the boat club, or jumped in a rickshaw in order to dash to the hotel, catch the taxi to the airport, then lose my phone with all these films on it – none of that peace or panic – just the short whirling slow distracted moment of their dance.
About this poem
This poem was included in Best Scottish Poems 2006. Best Scottish Poems is an online publication, consisting of 20 poems chosen by a different editor each year, with comments by the editor and poets. It provides a personal overview of a year of Scottish poetry. The editor in 2006 was Janice Galloway.
Irresistible to me because it is prose and poetry at once. Next to the more classically-defined poetry of his thrillingly eclectic collection, Bad Shaman Blues, this piece shows this poet's contrasting yet oddly similar way of working between the cracks. This selection is one of a set of three 'lost films as the name suggests. Transience, borders, boundaries.
The last day of my briefest, bustling stay
in Beijing and Shandong, translating poets
into friends, found us eagerly astray
down back lanes, by lakes – wakeful, half-afloat
on the adrenaline of strangers' lives.
So first I tried to film that Sunday shimmer,
and then made prose my lost phone's mourning wife,
translating pixels into words all summer
in search of our days' rougher music – how
the nap of things repels us and compels
with tangs of static, feedback's sugar squalls –
relinquishing that art which must compete
with chaos: happiness is incomplete
until you're dancing, floundered by the flow.