Shattered by the sound of silence

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 05 August, 1995, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 05 August, 1995, 12:00am

SITTING here on the 29th floor watching the storm clouds gather once more I am struck not by the power of nature, but by writer's block. Much of this empty-headedness is down to a long flight through time zones which has left me roasting chickens at three o'clock in the morning and pouring a large one on the rocks with my breakfast.

This is worrying, more so because people do not seem to think it is unusual for me.

I have returned from one of those countries in the West where talking loudly in public places and shopping on Sundays are frowned upon. There were Hong Kongers there, but they seemed as much out of their element as I now feel back here. A young couple from Sha Tin, staying in my hotel, seemed to be having particular trouble coping with the silence. They spent much of their time staring at the breakfast buffet, waiting for the pushing to start so they could join in.

Hong Kong, like tapeworm, does tend to get into your system. Every other country seems by comparison to be in a state of perpetual slow motion replay. I was frequently taken by surprise in coffee bars and restaurants by people who insisted on striking up conversations. The look of horror that spread across my face at the sound of the words, 'bit nippy again today Sir' or 'are you new around these parts then?' confused the populace. By the time I remembered that such social intercourse was normal, it was usually too late.

Waiters and waitresses learned that I was not to be messed with and avoided me with diligence. Eat, pay the bill, keep wit and repartee to a minimum. I am a Hong Konger and time, remember, is money.

This took me back to my first visit to England after moving to Hong Kong. On the London Underground, fresh from the arrivals lounge at Heathrow, I did what any thrusting young individual would do during MTR rush hour and pushed my way through the crowd so I could get a seat. I did so at the expense of an elderly lady - an act which here would be worth the full 10 points and drinks all round, but there was considered oafish and rude.

A thousand and one copies of The Times were rustled in anger. The lady thwacked me across my legs with her handbag and said: 'Young man! If I were your mother I would ask your father to take his belt to you.' I said: 'Sorry. I'm from Hong Kong,' which was a ridiculous thing to say, as if it might explain everything, but the first thing that came to my lips. If God had chosen to vaporise me on the spot I would not have argued. It's a fair cop, Almighty Creator. I'm a rude and insufferable pipsqueak and you've got me bang to rights.

Travel does not only prove that Hong Kong has become part of me perhaps more than I have become part of it. It also makes me realise how scared I am of flying. Not in the Erica Jong burn your bras and be assertive sense, but in the how-does-one-of-these-things-get-off-the-ground-and-stay-off-it sense.

Flying is made worse for me because stewardesses, cabin attendants in the contemporary vernacular - no doubt they will soon be flight enhancement facilitators - seem to realise that I am only in the posh seats because other people are paying.

Left to my own devices, and to my own diminutive budget, I would be taking the trans-Siberian, or at the very best joining other mortals for 14 hours of hell in economy class. At least these days the drink is free, although only in the big seats do they tend to come back and offer you seconds. In economy, getting sozzled is not part of the deal.

So get sozzled is what I do. It's the only way I can summon up the nerve to get on a plane and, once on it, to stop running for the doors every time I detect a slight change in engine tone.

My wife has become an unwilling accomplice in my efforts to stay drunk throughout plane flights. She is teetotal (don't you detest people who have no need for drug dependency?), but I always insist she asks the stewardess for a snifter anyway. This means I can drink hers.

On a recent Emirates flight to somewhere a long way away - it's academic, but probably England - they were giving out half bottles (presumably a contributing factor in making Emirates Airline of the Year in 1994). At the other end they had to wheel me through immigration on a luggage trolley.

Where were we? Oh yes, writer's block. It is, as I was saying, due entirely to jet lag, a phenomenon I had not experienced before and always believed was invented by people who travel a great deal purely so they can use it to bore those of us who don't.

'Los Angeles to Wogga-Wogga . . . non-stop . . . red-eye . . . 747-400 . . . serious turbulence . . . really sexy stewardess . . . what a babe . . . gave me her telephone number . . . etc, etc . . .' This, I now realise, is not the case. Jet lag does happen and is nice. It is now 9am, which means for you it's time to stop making excuses and do some work, but for me it's time for a quick one before dinner.