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Overheard at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club

This blog post can also be read at SCMP.COM –

“Now George, I’ve said I’ll take care of this so behave yourself.” It’s late and two elderly English couples are trying to settle their bill. The women perch squiffily on their stools, looking about ready to drop off. George is putting up a valiant effort but it’s clear he’s losing ground. “This is my club, George, and when we go to your club you always pay for us.” And then comes the clincher: “It’s just Christian values, George. They might be unfashionable but that’s how I was brought up.” A reverential lull is allowed to fall on the conversation. “Christian bloody values.”

“I think we have to be wary of making FGM an issue about ‘us’ and ‘them’, you know,” says an Australian woman, loudly. “The whole attitude is very neo-colonial, don’t you think? I mean, who gets to decide that western ideas about sexual freedom are superior? Colonialism was all about male phallic dominance – we mustn’t encourage a colonialism of the clitoris.”

“It sounds just like the old days,” says the local Chinese journalist, referring to a recent flashpoint: the incident of the Swedish diplomat throwing a tantrum at staff after being denied a table for 12 guests. “In fact, some things haven’t moved on at all,” she tells her companions, three suited western males. “White people have always felt superior in this club, but foreign journalists are still paid more in Hong Kong, so what’s changed there?” The men sip their drinks and give the matter some thought. “Of course, the Vikings had a decent-sized empire,” offers one. “But they never made it this far east.”

A Scotsman is telling a story. “I’ve just come out my building and I’m walking down the hill,” he says. “And you know where those posh flats across the road are? Right, well I’m going past and something catches my eye, like something going down really quick. And I look over behind this skip on the road and there’s a guy lying there. His legs are all mangled and he’s not moving, and he’s, well he’s f***ing dead – there’s no point even checking for a pulse. What the f*** can you do? So, anyway, I call for an ambulance and – no kidding – the guy says they’re too busy and can I call back. Eventually I persuade him to take a note of where I’m calling from and hang up. Meanwhile, there’s a crowd of people gathered around the dead guy and they’re all out with their phones taking pictures. Seriously, I have no words.”

Something dabs the right corner of my vision like a damp cloth. I look across the bar and a couple are crying together; sotto voce, yet somehow unguardedly. Look away, instinct says – but these don’t seem like normal, private tears. He’s mid-40s, with an intent face, Western; she’s younger, Asian, but with a CNN accent gone slurry from wine. It’s 4pm. They’re insensibly sloshed, holding hands and, I realise, praying to the Almighty Lord. Through a cloud of ecstasy, I hear her call: “Help me, Jesus, to be my better self.” The bartender, on his rounds, sets a bowl of peanuts before them. “More drinks?” he asks.

“Well, y’see, when y’leave the place you can get lifetime membership,” says Jack. “That’s what I got – this here card. Just a piece of cardboard back in those days, with your number on it and the photograph. That’s me there. Yeah, well, I was considerably younger then. It’s been 20 years since we went home to America. Always wanted to come visit again, my wife and I, but we never did, God rest her soul. I’m here now, though. Yessir, I’m doing it like we said. Changes? Oh, you bet. Hey, but you know what? It’s like old Marcus Aurelius said – the universe is change. I’m just taking it all in. And y’know, the FCC is still standing. That’s something.”