MAGGIE Cheung is in the Leather Room. One of the three most famous Chinese women in the world – the other two being her fellow actresses and former co-stars Gong Li and Zhang Ziyi – she sits on an ornamental armchair, surrounded by red and gold gilding, panelling and drapery, in a theatrically decorative corner of Edinburgh’s Prestonfield Hotel. Conde Nast Traveller recently described this place as “so extravagant it’s like walking on to the set of some flamboyant costume drama”. Cheung has appeared in dozens of such movies, and looks as if she belongs here. But the actress herself has never felt that she belongs anywhere, and particularly not on a film set.
ON March 25 this year, the Scottish Executive drew a rough shape on to the map of the Highlands and claimed everything within that space as part of the new Cairngorm National Park. Same old place, slightly different name. Almost everybody concerned is confident that this invisible upgrade will enhance the life of the area.
WITH hindsight, I realise that I was naive when I set out to read all the novels on this year’s Man Booker Prize longlist in a single week. I accepted the assignment for reasons of intellectual vanity. Not even the great writer and critic Gore Vidal had ever pulled off such a wheeze, although he did once famously go through the top 10 American bestsellers and write a characteristically imperious essay about the experience. Now, it would be my turn to become a book group of one, a judging panel unto myself. I would read 17 novels in seven days. Starting the week as diligent as a librarian’s apprentice, I would end it halfblind, sad-faced and walking into walls, like a pit pony down a Chinese coal-mine.
AFTER a major heart attack last June, the world-renowned explorer Sir Ranulph Twistleton-Wykeham-Fiennes spent two days in oblivion. His heart was shock-started 11 times, but he remembers nothing. “Total blackness,” he said when he came out of it. “So if that’s dying, I’m a lot less worried about it than I was before.”
TO COME to Crufts uninitiated is to feel like a stranger in Dog City. Humans still outnumber canines at the greatest dog show on earth – more than 120,000 people now visit the event in the course of its annual four-day run at the Birmingham NEC arena. But the object of their journey is to honour and to serve and to marvel at this pantheon of dogs in all their beastly magnificence. I arrive at Crufts 2005 on the night of the gun dogs, reaching the main hall just in time to see which of the day’s ten winners in that category, each judged the best of their breed, will go through to the final Best In Show competition tomorrow – where the finest dog on the planet will be decided.
THERE is no place on Earth where a person can say with absolute certainty that they are not being stalked by ninjas. Common sense suggests this is unlikely, but pure logic dictates that you cannot prove a negative, and the art of the ninja is to go unperceived. I have been around the world to look for them, to shadow them in reverse, and whenever I find a possible candidate, he or she tends to deny it. “No no no,” said Mats Hjelm, a web-designer from Stockholm, during a short break from his ninjutsu class in Tokyo. “I don’t like to call it by that name, although I know that some other people do. And I definitely don’t call myself a ninja.” This was, of course, exactly what a ninja would say.
It’s a bright cold day in the austral midwinter. The low sun is dropping into the lake, drawing long shadows from the dead trees, broken streetlights, and bent telephone poles that stick out of the water as if planted there. Three flamingos are floating down the Avenida De Mayo, past the half-sunken ruins of the Azul Hotel. Their pinkness almost glows against the dry white crust that covers every exposed surface. It looks like ash, or frost, but is actually salt. There is 10 times more salt in this water, per cubic centimetre, than in any of the world’s oceans. The lake was named “Epecuen” by the Mapuche tribes who once populated the surrounding lowlands of central Argentina – it was their word for the itch caused by the salt drying on their skin, though they also found that it had health-giving properties.
Around the time that David Mitchell was writing his epic, polyphonic, pan-historical novel, Cloud Atlas, a 13-year-old Japanese boy named Naoki Higashida was working on a kind of memoir about his own autism. Naoki’s condition was severe enough that he could only do this by pointing to the relevant characters on a custom-made cardboard alphabet grid. With great effort and patient assistance, he compiled a list of answers to the most frequently asked questions about his behaviour. The resulting book was titled The Reason I Jump, and first published in Japan almost a decade ago. David Mitchell didn’t hear of it until years later, when his own young son was diagnosed with autism. “Before that, I had no reason to know anything about it,” says Mitchell.
This is war. A convoy of highly-trained, heavily-armed, hyper-caffeinated American Marines rolls towards Baghdad in open-top Humvees, down a highway that Saddam Hussein ordered built in his own honour. En route, these men follow poor instructions and bad directions, taking friendly and enemy fire while struggling to obey changeable rules of engagement that needlessly endanger their lives, and result in numerous civilian deaths. They complain constantly, swear pornographically, and sing past or current pop hits when bored, which is often. It makes for phenomenal viewing. “And it’s all true,” says David Simon of his new seven-part miniseries Generation Kill, scrupulously adapted from Evan Wright’s non-fiction book about the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. “Evan really did get the perspective of these guys in the Humvees. This is what they thought and feared. This is where their anger was rooted. This is how they regarded command. We wanted to get it exactly right.”