Monday, 6 October 2014

A Chinese Hospital

 ECP (English Coaching Paper (sic)), where I worked from Aug 2003 to June 2004

A lunch time football game  on the frozen river  in January

I'm working  on the third draft  of 'Hotpot and Dumplings', my book about living in the remote dongbei  area of China. That it's the third draft makes me feel better, because it's almost ten years since I started.

I've used  some chapters since as a basis for short stories or articles, but now I'm all set to finish the  book. I'll be posting extracts on a weekly basis  as I go through the chapters, which Word has arranged in alphabetical order.  The first,  'A Chinese Hospital'  is set in January 2004. My husband Roy had finally overcome his fear of the Dongbei Winter and joined me in Tonghua.

I was so looking forward to our first game of Ping-Pong in the dedicated room on the company premises, where my apartment was located. But he fell and broke his wrist in the very first game.

Luckily, I'd spotted a local building labelled 'People's Liberation Army Hospital Number 208'. But despite the English lettering on the outside wall, no one inside spoke a word of English. So it was quite a challenge.

The extract below is not about the treatment, but about how easy it is to get confused when you try to communicate in Chinese.

The X-ray was to be done in the main building, to which we were escorted by a young woman who happened to be passing through the entrance hall. By now I was feeling more confident and we fell to chatting. She insisted on holding onto Roy’s  arm as we walked along the slippery  path between the two buildings and told me her name was Meilin.  She lived locally and was visiting her sister, who worked at the hospital. She herself was a student. I asked her which subject, or ‘xue’
'Hu xue’
I looked at her with new respect. 'Hu', is Chinese for tigers, so she must be a Natural History student. Certainly there were said to be Siberian tigers still roaming in the Northeast forest regions, a source of  ingredients for Chinese medicine.  So it was quite likely that tigers were her speciality.
It wasn’t until I consulted the dictionary later that I realised my mistake. It was yet another example of Chinese tones making all the difference to the meaning. ‘Hu’ can mean tiger, but it is also means ‘nurse’, depending on the tone. Meilin was not studying tigers,  but how to be nurse!
No wonder she was puzzled, when I told her how much I admired her bravery in tackling such an unusual and possibly dangerous subject.

Tuesday, 30 September 2014

Hotpot and Dumplings: A Year in Dongbei

A Street in Shenyang, China

Maybe I should start a whole new blog about my China book, but on the grounds that three blogs are enough, I won't - not for now, anyway.

Ten years ago I worked for a Chinese company in a fairly remote region 60 miles from the border with North Korea.

I decided before I went that I'd write a book about it when I came back to London. I did just that - first as a chronological account compiled from emails, a journal and notes. I even had a Word  file that I kept open when I was in the Chinese office where I worked as a 'foreign editor'.

 It took me about a year to draft the material  into chapters when I got back. Other events hindered progress,  such as some part-time lecturing and a period  when I suffered from a near-fatal burst  appendix.

All I can say about the latter is don't get it when you're sixty so that it's the last thing they suspect. And don't get the symptoms on Friday night and  have to wait until Sunday afternoon for the operation.

I wasn't too happy with the first draft of the book, so I decided to make the chapters topic-based which worked better. It meant trawling through the  printed text, once I'd decided I'd decided on the topic headings which ranged from accounts of the canteen food to visits to  cities in the Dongbei, or Northeast, region.  (Except it's  Eastnorth because that's how the Chinese refer to map directions).

In the intervening years I've mined the material for articles and stories but never really finished it as a book.  I've also learned a lot about writing (I hope). So now's  the time to give it another go.

This blog will be about progress with the writing, although from time to time I'll include photos and extracts.

Tuesday, 17 June 2014

My Years at the Park Scool

I was asked by a Lancashire Evening Post journalist to write about my school days.  Unable to get a link to the article, which appeared on June 10th, I've re-assembled it from the photos and text in my files.

Taken in 1959/60 this was a school outing to , I think, Cartmel Priory in the Lake District. I was part of a close-knit group of friends in our fifth (0-Level) year. Left to right: Jean Rigby from Bamber Bridge, Vara Latham from Walton-Le-Dale, Barbara Harvey, Audrey Blake  and myself (Sheila Livesey, as I was then).

Morning break  in the days of free school milk. I'm the one in the tunic on the right. 

My life changed when the headmaster at Eldon Street announced the names of pupils who had passed the eleven plus exam.  I went to the only Church of England Girls Grammar in Preston, The Park School, in 1955. My parents were proud but they struggled to buy the uniform and equipment, which included a wool swimsuit, a tennis racquet and a hockey stick. My father was a labourer, my mother a mill worker and I had two younger sisters.

I envied the other girls their real leather satchels on the first day. The school uniform was navy and white and I sewed silver and blue braid on a navy blazer as well as the badge, which was also the Preston symbol. It showed a white lamb with a flag and PP underneath. This stood for Princeps Pacis, ‘Prince of Peace' in Latin, but to us it was 'Proud Preston'. Underneath was the school motto ‘Weave Truth with Trust’

I also sewed a badge onto a navy beret. We were told to wear our berets at all times outside in uniform, and never to eat in the street. If a Prefect saw us we’d be reported and kept in detention.
My year was part of the ‘baby boom’ generation, so for the first year we attended classes at a large house in the corner of Winkley Square near the town centre. We were known as ‘Winkles’ and attended the main school one afternoon each week for domestic science lessons. We were supposed to walk to Moor Park, and detention followed if a Prefect spotted you on a bus. 

The house had a marble staircase and a bannister which we were forbidden to slide down, but of course we did, whenever we could. Our playground was Winkley Square itself. My best friend was Anne Jones, who had rosy cheeks and a pony tail with natural blonde streak. We talked a lot in class.  Her parents had a small farm in Longridge and she was one of the pupils who came and went in school buses to places like Bamber Bridge and Whittle-le-Woods.  Anne and I climbed up the ropes in the gym as far as the rafters, another forbidden activity.

When I started in 1955 there were five forms of 30 students: P A R K and S. We were placed according to our eleven plus test results and there were changes at the end of the first year exams. I stayed in A and was sad that my friend was placed in another class.

The main school was a short walk from where I lived. The Headmistress was Miss Shanks, a tall woman in a black gown and suede shoes with thick crepe soles, which to my mind she wore so she could creep up behind you without you hearing. She conducted daily prayers in the hall where we sat cross-legged every morning. The rest of the staff seemed to me strict but funny, so Anne and I made a little comic magazine in which we depicted their imaginary adventures.

Our teachers told us we were privileged to be at the Park School. We were to work to become useful members of future society. I was inspired by three teachers: Mrs Richards who taught my favourite subject, English; Miss Beard who taught a history syllabus that included the history of the cotton workers and the rise of the trade unions, and Mrs Auty, who taught art. Miss Beard also ran the school dramatic society, of which I was a member, and we put on an annual Shakespeare play at the small town theatre.

'The Taming of the Shrew' in 1958 . I'd auditioned for the part of Kate, but was cast as a tailor who appeared in one scene. To add insult to injury, my costume made me look like a pair of walking scissors (front row)  

A highlight of my school career was a week-long school trip to Statford-upon-Avon in 1959, organised by Mrs Richards and Miss Beard. There weren’t quite enough tickets to see all the plays, so some of camped outside the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre overnight so we could be there when the box office opened at 10 am. I remember Lawrence Olivier as Coriolanus and Judi Dench, aged 18, as Viola in ‘Twelfth Night’.

Headmistress Miss Shanks was very caring. She discreetly provided uniforms for me and other disadvantaged students. She even allowed me to do my homework in her house two or three times a week in my final exam year.  I did well as a result but my parents were keen for me to leave school and bring in a wage.

A grammar school course took a year longer than other secondary schools and my younger sister was by then old enough to leave Eldon Street.  Miss Shanks visited and, as I found out later, offered to let me live in her home and support me while I did a sixth form course, but my parents insisted I leave school. In 1960 I got a clerical job with the NHS Registration offices off Fishergate Hill. Shortly after that I met my husband-to-be and l left home.

My teachers inspired me to become a teacher myself. By 1967 I was married and living in London. I did my A Levels at evening classes and when my two children started school I did an English degree and trained to teach at Goldsmiths College. I taught English and Drama and then Media Studies for 30 years, in Secondary Schools and FE colleges, in London. I also taught English abroad for short periods.  Now that I’m retired I enjoy reviewing plays and writing fiction.  I feel that the Park School played a big part in my life.

 A recent photo


Monday, 10 June 2013

Blog Subsumed -or is it novated?

I don't know what the name for it is,  but I've decided to continue this on my other blog, to which there's a link on the right hand side. So if you've come here by mistake you can go there and if not you can just trawl down here. You are very welcome to do either.

Wednesday, 27 March 2013

Dangerous Territory : Out-of-Town Author Events

I like to go to the final event of the Oxford Literary Festival each year - the one with the awards, that is, not the one with the pricey dinner.  This year, Hilary Mantel would be presented with a special prize on Sunday 24th March.  I'd heard her speak in London when Wolf Hall was on the Booker shortlist, but I was too slow and the event sold out before I checked my diary.  
Luckily, I could buy  tickets to see Val McDermid one of my favourite crime writers, on  Sunday 17th,  in the beautifully vaulted  Bodleian Divinity Halls.
She has a great sense of humour and a fine line in anecdotes. I laughed when she told how, as a nervous beginner to the crime writing scene, she consulted  Colin Dexter, author of the Oxford-based Inspector Morse novels. Although she wanted to include detectives, she didn't have a clue about police procedure. 'Just make it up,' he told her.
She talked of  her early days at St Hilda's, where she was  one of the youngest students to be admitted, and the first from a Scottish state school. She chose crime writing because she liked reading crime novels and thought they allowed for a wide social spectrum. I'd come to the same conclusion.  Maybe it was because I laughed so loudly at her jokes that she paused from signing her latest book to smile for my camera.
We lunched at the Royal Blenheim, a favourite pub down a side street near the Westgate Shopping Centre, then came straight back to London on the three o'clock bus.
There's usually time for a stroll round Oxford, calling in at bookshops and a museum, but that day we weren't even tempted. On the bus from London we'd watched the snow falling on Oxfordshire fields ; the city itself was deep in slush. We kept our heads down and concentrated on avoiding the  icy  puddles at the kerbsides.
I'd have better luck at St Alban's, I thought, where I'd reserved tickets for the following Thursday evening , to hear a trio of crime writers at the library. Roy was already laid low with a cold and I didn't feel marvellous, but St Alban's is even easier to get to - only an hour or so from Lewisham.


The weather was, if anything, even colder, and although it wasn't actually snowing, the wide St Alban's streets were draughty. I settled for reading about the town's illustrious past -it claims to be the oldest settlement in England -in the map/guidebook that I'd bought at the station. I'd had sandwiches on the train but when I ventured out at 5.30 pm to stroll along to the cathedral and hopefully find a restaurant open I was out of luck. The tea-rooms were closing and the formal dining places were all deserted. I settled for a toasted panini in the Costa Coffee house in the shopping mall, curiously misnamed 'The Maltings'. The library was on the second floor, next to a small theatre. 
It was a good library - warm and welcoming with a pleasantly hushed atmosphere and  attractive displays. The study tables even had those cosy wooden dividers called carrels.  There was a good turn-out for the talks by three quite different writers.
Howard Linsky said he hadn't read much at all during his upbringing in County Durham. His anti-hero detective,  David Blake, works in Newcastle. Howard  said he became a writer as a result of seeing a lot of bad films and thinking he could do better. By contrast, Peter Murphy  joined the law profession at a time of great changes in the system, especially  the expansion of legal aid.  Employed as a junior by an old school barrister who kept him busy, he had lots of  stories to draw on.
I knew Leigh Russell , because I've attended a couple of her excellent workshops. After a career in teaching she 'fell into' crime when an idea for a murder story came to her as she walked through a park. I  think of it as the South London Park where Antonioni's moody thriller   Blow Up was filmed, complete with sinister wind-stirred bushes. Leigh went home and completed a first draft in 6 weeks. She's written a whole series of successful crime novels since, during a period of great change in the publishing world. I bought one of the books, a present for Roy, before the talks began,  because I knew I'd have to sneak off to get the London train and be home by 10pm.
I can't entirely blame the out-of-town gallivanting for the cough that's kept me indoors for the past two days.  On Sunday I walked across Blackheath and down to Greenwich in the face of a biting wind. I'm reminded of Thomas Hardy's characters who sign their own  doom when they set foot  outside their usual habitat.  

Sunday, 24 February 2013

Two Nice Surprises

I've neglected this blog recently, but that’s set to change. It’s not so much that I’ll neglect my other blog –hopefully I’ll continue to review plays - but current projects will  take over.

 A busy week brought two surprises:  I learned I’m to teach a day course on Pride and Prejudice, and, for the very first time, one of my short stories appeared in a magazine.

The latter is the more tangible - I can turn to page 42 and see the story I wrote last June, called 'In at the Deep End' . Although not specifically written for the event, I 'performed' it at the opening of the new swimming pool in Forest Hill (to an audience of five). It's about a young man who rescues a swimmer in distress at on his first day as a pool employee.

It's hardly an overnight success. I've attended classes, read books about how to write short stories and written them, ever since I gave up full-time work in 2005. It's only in the past three years I've concentrated on women’s magazines. About a year ago I took out a subscription to The Weekly News.

Earlier, I was thrilled by a letter to say I’d been appointed as a part-time Lecturer in Film and Literature at Bromley Adult College. It sounds grander than it is; in fact, I'm to trial a one-off day course that I offered to several colleges. It’s to take place on May 28th: 'Jane Austen: From Page to Screen'. If successful, it could lead on to greater things. Maybe the whole six novels!

I got the idea from an article I read in the Saturday Guardian. Modern novelists commented on characters in Pride and Prejudice, to mark the 200th anniversary since publication.

 I emailed my 'pitch' to about five colleges and had interviews at two. Writing the 'blurb' was a lot less stressful than attending interviews.
‘We’re all Jane-ites now’:  Jane Austen from Text to Screen
Are you a ‘text-is-best’ purist or a fan of all things Austen?    ‘Pride and Prejudice’ celebrates its bi-centennial in 2013 and regularly tops the polls of most-read novels. The author’s wit and wisdom, her very human characters and stories, are even more widely known to TV and cinema audiences. We will consider the challenges and effects of adapting Jane Austen’s works for the screen.
I haven't heard back from City Lit but the interview got off to a bad start - they weren't even expecting me. It never really got any better. But now I'll offer the course to a few more places.

I'll have to  brush up on my presentation skills. Lewisham Library wanted to charge me £175 for a PowerPoint course. Fortunately, I found a book on the shelves.

Thursday, 22 November 2012

For Me, Too: Raffles and the Golden Opportunity by Victoria Glendinning: a talk at Asia House

Victoria Glendinning - Raffles and the Golden Opportunity

01 Nov 2012

Raffles, the charismatic founder of Singapore and the Governor of Java, remains a controversial figure. In the first biography for over forty years, Victoria Glendinning charts his prodigious rise within the social and historical contexts of his world. As a young man with few prospects, he went on to carve what is now a world city from a 'wretchedly unpromising' island with no advantages other than talent and obsessive drive.

Award winning biographer, Victoria Glendinning is Vice-President of English PEN, a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and the author of five biographies

In 1989 my husband took early retirement from his BT sales job and I stuck a pin in the TES foreign job sections. I hadn't travelled abroad much, having married young, had children and gone into teaching.  Escorting students  down the Rhine or round Pompeii plus  camping in France when the children were small comprised my experience of 'abroad'. 

The pin could hardly miss Singapore- it was a half-page ad. But surely the salary was a misprint? No, what I took as a too-lavish use of noughts turned out to be true.  I passed the tests and interviews, was accepted; we spent three years on a tropical  island with one of the word's highest living standards. My husband played bridge  at the Raffles Club.  The generous salary meant we were able to travel to exotic places like Bali and Thailand and Australia.  

 I was so impressed by the Chinese  attitude to education that I've studied Mandarin ever since. No wonder I was keen to  attend a talk at Asia House about the founder of Singapore. His statue graces a harbour setting, next to what seems to be a theatre, going by my photo. I remember  it as an art gallery. Raffles Girls and Raffles Boys were the most prestigious secondary schools on the island; our visitors always enjoyed sitting in the Long Bar at Raffles Hotel drinking Singapore slings. Quite a change from South London pubs.

Raffles, the founder of modern Singapore in 1819 was  a controversial figure. A man whose father died in an almshouse, he was forced to take on the the support of his mother and four siblings. He was employed as a city copy-clerk for ten years until his restless nature made him sieze the chance of a posting to Java when it came up.
In 1819 he planted the Union Jack  in the small island at the foot of the Malaysian Peninsula. It seems that a  fantasy of an ancient archepelago ruled by the British never left him. Along with many travellers of the time he had a mania for collecting artefacts and shipped many back home.
He was a benign governor in Java and sought to improve the conditions for local workers, opposing slavery and promoting vaccination against small-pox. It  conflicted with profit-making aims of the East India Comany who later repudiated him and failed to pay him a pension. They also claimed  he owed them thousands of pounds.
His mischievous side was revealed in letters home, commenting on sensational topics such as cannibalism. Although a nominal Christian, he hated proselytisers.  He lost his children to tropical illnesses and suffered an early death at 45 from a brain haemmorhage, aggravated by the stressed relationship with the East India Company. He founded the Raffles Educational Institute in 1842.

 Raffles as a character  remains an enigma, reflected in the questions at the end of the talk. One in particular  caught my attention:   'Given that Raffles was not fired by religious ideals, where did his energy come from?'

'When it comes to energy,'  stated  Glendinning, author of several  previous biographies, 'my impression is that either you have it or you haven't -it's a gift of nature. Hero or scoundrel, Raffles seems to have had plenty of  what we'd  call 'mojo'.

Tuesday, 30 October 2012

A Timely Talk: Leigh Russell on How to Keep Readers Turning the Page

Venue: The Society of Authors, 84 Drayton Gardens, London SW10 9SB.

How to Keep Readers Turning the Page

Exploring techniques for sustaining a reader’s interest

Hosted by Leigh Russell
Dates: Tuesday 23 October or Wednesday 24 October
Time: 11am - 4.30pm

About Leigh Russell

Leigh Russell is the author of a bestselling series of crime thrillers Cut Short (2009), Road Closed (2010) Dead End (2011) and Death Bed (2012). Stop Dead will be published in 2013. Cut Short sold out six times in it first year and was shortlisted for the Crime Writers’ Association New Blood Dagger Award for best first novel. Leigh’s subsequent books sold equally fast and all went on to become international bestsellers, in the Top 50 Bestsellers List on amazon and the Top 50 Bestsellers Chart for WH Smith’s Travel. Leigh’s work has been very well reviewed including in The Times (UK) and the New York Journal of Books (US). Leigh is an experienced teacher of creative writing.

This  newsletter item caught my eye just  as I thought about signing up for NaNaWriMo, 'National Novel Writing Month', starting on November 1st. (Later blogs will be about that) . I've been to one of Leigh's talks in the past, so decided to give it ago. There's always something new to learn, I think, and I wasn't disappointed.

Topics covered included:  setting; characters; plots; pace; planning and editing. This summary is a poor representation of the amount of information and I’ve left out many names of masters of the genre, although they were frequently menioned. Main points were demonstrated with examples that Leigh read from her own books. We also did two very interesting writing exercises to illustrate how to change the pace and how to create a character.

Crime fiction is an excellent example for ‘popular’ fiction because the reader needs are always foregrounded. Crime stories ask a question or questions at the start of the narrative journey and by the end the reader expects an answer, but the trick is not just to grab the readers’ attention but to keep them reading. The tropes and conventions of the crime novel –for instance, a potential victim walking down a deserted street at night - were discussed, along with skill of subverting expectations to keep readers interested.  

Authenticity is important in a crime novel because by making the setting authentic the reader is led to accept the unusual or even bizarre happenings that will occur.  Events need to be rooted in fact, and aspects such as police procedures need to be accurate. Leigh said she’d found official bodies helpful,  especially since awareness of public image is high. When approached by email, experts were always co-operative.

It’s in the nature of crime novels to require planning and various methods of structuring were touched on, such as moveable post-it notes, plotting as for a theatrical play, the ‘snowflake’ method, mind-maps, linear forms that include a time-line or calendar, and chapter lists. Planning, says Leigh, can be done away from the desk – pondering how to dispose of a dead body while standing in a check-out queue is the norm for a crime-writer. Thinking about writing, according to Leigh, is often the most creative and important part – the writing itself mere ‘secretarial’.

It’s important to vary the pace in a crime story; too much excitement becomes unbelievable. The ‘saggy middle’ must be avoided, perhaps by bringing forward the climax of a sub-plot. Agatha Christie famously claimed that when she wrote one of her novels she didn’t herself know until the end who was the killer,  but that would be the exception. Clues and false trails need to be laid down in advance.  

The theatre is a good training ground for crime writing (|I was pleased to hear) because everything is so dramatic; it mimics  crime fiction’s need to keep the reader excited .The success of Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code, for instance, was down not so much to the quality of the writing as to the ‘hook’ in every chapter. Writers for weekly papers, such as Dickens, recognised the important of having a ‘cliff-hanger’ at the end of every episode

Creating believable characters can be achieved in a number of ways, such as creating a ‘backstory’ or dossier for the main one. It’s practical in case of need for changes later but not necessary for minor characters. Writing a series is good because a writer can build on a detective’s existing fan base.

When planning a series, it’s important to think about a main detective with his/her strengths and flaws. How to disguise the villain can be a crucial point - the charming psychopath, for instance.   Methods of showing characters include behaviour, dialogue, appearance and interaction; they can also be introduced through police interrogation or gossip from the other characters.

Motivation raised questions about what kind of person became a killer – whether temporarily motivated, as in someone crazed with grief, or possessing the more entrenched traits of a psychopathic serial killer.
Other topics rising from questions were covered, such as how to find an agent, dealing with rejection, editing, deadlines and self-motivation. The current challenges for the publishing industry in the ‘post-literate’ age and the rise of e-books were keenly debated.
Part of the pleasure of attending a study day at Drayton Gardens is the chance to meet and talk to other writers, to hear their input in discussion and  to engage in conversation in the lunch break.  During lunch I discussed Hitchcock’s films with one member, South African novels with another and how to find a Director for a children’s musical with a third. (If anyone can help, please get in touch)


Thursday, 4 October 2012

The Original and Best :The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins

Some members of the library  crime reading group were  put off  by the length of this book. For me and others Wilkie Collins' The Moonstone  was such an enjoyable read that length wasn't a problem - except when it came to carrying it, of course.
What Hitchcock called the 'McGuffin' or catalyst  for the story - the disappearance of a precious gem and the search for it - was  the least important aspect. Modern crime stories, it's true, tend to involve serial killers rather than theft of jewellery but a writers of the past relied less on sensation and more on character and plot.  
The main strengths of this, the first 'English detective story' , published in 1868, lie in its atmosphere and structure. Starting on a remote coastal region where the turn of the tide causes the phenomenon of 'shivering sands' , in a country house inhabited by two women who are unusually spirited for the Victorian era, and a pair of suitors for the daughter's hand, makes for a sense of intrigue.  Three Indian gents and their boy assistant hovering in the vicinity add an exotic and authentic edge to this tale of a gem taken first from a temple during the last days of empire and left as a legacy to the heroine, to be presented on her 18th birthday.
The aspect that I found most enjoyable was the author's use of so many different 'voices' to tell the story of the investigation and outcome. Just as the narrators have their own agendas and points of view  they are also different enough to entertain and offer new insights as the story progresses. The romance aspect is particularly intriguing as characters change their opinions of one another in the light of new evidence.  
Wilkie Collins was a close friend of Dickens - The Moonstone first appeared as episodes in Dicken's magazine 'Household Words.'  While  weekly keep-'em-reading  nature of the publishing media accounts for the eventful narrative , the influnce of Dickens on the characterisation is also very clear.

Thursday, 20 September 2012

Acting Shakespeare: Roger Rees at The Apollo, Shaftesbury Avenue

This evening was memorable for the kerfuffle involved before we  even arrived at the theatre.  Nothing to do with transport delays, either.

I don't as a rule eat out before going the theatre - having offered to review a play in return for two free tickets and a  programme, it would defeat the object. However, I had two £10 Tesco vouchers exchangeable in Cafe Rouge and due to expire on  September 30th.

 For  Tuesday I'd made a successful bid to review Roger Rees's new show  on opening night so it was an good opportunity to use them. Two-course  pre-theatre meals for about £12 are widely offered in the West End.

The  nearest branch to our destination  was in  Charing Cross Road.  We allowed for an hour in the restaurant and were shoe-horned to a just-vacated  table in the huge room.  The pre-theatre menu was brought immediately, but in ten minutes no one had come to take our order.  We were swivelling in our seats, but there just weren't enough waiters. The food at nearby tables looked great and we both fancied the lobster and crab cakes. But as the time crept on we figured we'd best find somewhere nearer the theatre.

 Wong Kei to the rescue! Chinatown's most notorious restaurant was a by-word in the 60s for 'rush and rudeness' because the staff aimed for a high turnover of customers. I've eaten there recently with a thrifty friend, so knew they'd lost none of their speedy delivery and we'd even been allowed to linger - although admittedly in the late afternoon, after cheap haircuts at the Toni & Guy academy.

Sure enough, when we told the waitress we wanted to be out in half an hour she pointed to the quick dishes on the menu and we were served within five minutes - by no means gourmet fare, but the tea was free and the bill came to slightly over £9 for the two of us.

Cheap enough, and I still have  the Cafe Rouge vouchers with  ten days to go before expiry. This afternoon we're going to take our Christmas present vouchers to see if we can book for something before then.

I'm glad to say show more than made up for the aggravation. My review is   on The Public Reviews website.