Blog News

1. Comments are still disabled though I am thinking of enabling them again.

2. There are now several extra pages - Poetry Index, Travel, Education, Childish Things - accessible at the top of the page. They index entires before October 2013.

3. I will, in the next few weeks, be adding new pages with other indexes.

Sunday, 12 April 2015

Sleeping Flowers

(Reposted from FB)

I was out yesterday visiting a school where my company wants to place some teachers. I was with my Chinese colleague who had with him his three year old daughter. Early in the day she picked some wild flowers that she carried around with her for the next several hours. As the day went on they started to wilt and she looked at them very seriously and then said something in Chinese. Her father translated. "She says that the flowers are sleeping." Suddenly there was a loud shout from her. Her father translated again. "She just told them to wake up."

My Birthday Week

(Reposted from FB)

All in all a pretty good birthday week.

Long walk in the countryside on a sunny day on Sunday.
All my classes went really well. Most of them sang Happy Birthday to me.
Great open mic night down at the Lounge on Tuesday with enough performers that we could probably do a cover version of "We Are The World".
Good night at Demo on Thursday, even if the quiz was insanely hard (excluding the bonus round we only scored four and a half out of thirty. The winning team only got about nine.)
Got out of class today to find the department had bought me a big birthday cake.
Went to dinner with some of our office staff tonight at a great local Indian restaurant.
Unexpectedly, in addition to a carved musical box from Teresa, I got presents of wine, chocolate, coffee, an electric razor and a portable phone charger from people I work with.
I don't usually do that well back home.

And speaking of that Indian meal, I am constantly amazed at just how cheap eating out here is. Between us we had eight large vegetable samosas, two large cheese naans and two large butter naans, two large plates of Onion pakora, six different mains with rice, four beers and a banana lassi and in total it clocked in at thirty-five quid. And this is one of Yangshuo's more expensive restaurants. All of it (except maybe the local beer) was delicious.

Monday, 6 April 2015

Tomb Sweeping Day

Yesterday I decided to go for a walk along a section of road that I have never tried before. Normally I hate walking around here because it's all on busy roads with no pedestrian paths and it's smelly, noisy and dangerous. This part wasn't though. I wish I'd discovered it before. This weekend is the Chinese "Tomb Sweeping" holiday, when people go to the graves of their loved ones and clean them and leave flowers and other offerings. The walk took me past an area of cemeteries that, on another day, I probably wouldn't have noticed. Unlike our cemeteries, these were hillsides of small tombs around which there were whole families wielding machetes and spades and other tools and lighting candles and leaving all kinds of offerings: bottles of baijiu, flowers and -  at one that I saw - a whole roast chicken. Looking up into the nearby karst mountains I could see distant bands of figures climbing unseen paths to reach even higher tombs.
When I had passed them by I found myself, though still on a road, in an area of small villages and farms where everything was green and beautiful. There was traffic but not too much, and here and there mysterious side roads led off to other places. The weather was bright and wonderful but the constant sight of mourners put me in a melancholy mood so that as I walked I was remembering my own parents and wishing I could be home to leave flowers at their grave and wondering if anyone has cleared the flowers that I left when I visited in February. 
After some time I came out of my reverie and realised that I had been walking along this tree-lined route for almost two hours. It's a there-and-back walk rather than a circular one so I turned and started back, enjoying the new perspective as I returned to town for a late lunch and a bottle of beer. 
I shall certainly go that way again and explore some of the side roads. It's the first truly pleasant walking experience that I have found in this area. And now, some pictures.

Saturday, 21 February 2015

(More) Randomness from England

One of the pleasures I had been looking forward to in my visit to England was simply going into a bookshop and browsing. Of course I can do that here in China but it's so much more fun when the books contain squiggles and spaces that recognisably form words than when, beautiful as they may look, they form nothing more than – to me – incomprehensible patterns and shapes.
It was almost the first thing that I did. I attended to it straight after sinking a couple of pints with my mate Pete in the Post Office Vaults which, for those who have no knowledge of either Birmingham or ale, is a fine hostelry in the city centre.
Anyway, the second place I visited was Waterstones. I had a jolly good browse too – checking out everything from the poetry section to Sherlock Holmes pastiches to books of architectural drawings to celebrity biographies to... well I'm sure you get the picture.
During my browsing I ran across the rise of the non-book. All evidence to the contrary notwithstanding, I do have a sense of humour and I have in the past chuckled at such non-books as “Everything I Know about Teaching by Michael Gove” - a tome consisting entirely of blank pages. Not to mention guffawing heartily when I discovered people were actually prepared to pay money for a Kindle edition. While I've been away this kind of thing has proliferated on such a scale that it now has its own section in Waterstones which may be a small section but is, nevertheless, a section devoted entirely to books which, for the large part, contain no actual words or pictures.
In addition to those, like the Gove, which, in my schooldays, were usually no more than the punchline to “What's the shortest book in the world?” jokes, there are dozens of assorted “interactive books”. I realise that all books are interactive in the sense that you open them and read them and they put pictures in your head but these are interactive in the sense that you open them and do stuff. No words or pictures necessarily involved.
So, for example, there are books where one, otherwise completely blank, page will have a heading like “Draw a picture here with your eyes closed” and another will be titled “Write a sentence using the words “aspidistra”, “gumshoe” and “pterodactyl”, while a third will exhort you to get the person standing next to you to write two words describing you.
“Gullible prat” springs to mind. These books aren't cheap.
There is a whole series of “List” books where the heading on each page tells you what to write a list of;  favourite drummers, things to do before you die, most pointless purchases – that kind of thing. They run out at about twelve quid apiece and there are at least half a dozen of them. I don't know who buys them but someone must or they wouldn't go on publishing them. (Publishing seems an inappropriate word in the circumstances, but not as much so as “printing” would.)
It's genuinely money for nothing. Your money for their nothing. And damn I wish I'd been the one to think of it first.

I mentioned walking from the Post office Vaults to Waterstones which should be a straight three minute stroll but is by no means that easy nowadays. Getting from any given point A to any given point B in Birmingham is by no means that easy nowadays.
Two years ago, when I was living in Baiyin, the authorities decided to make repairs to the underground heating system that the city has. They did this by simultaneously digging up every road and most of the footpaths. Oh, how I laughed the peculiar ways of the Chinese. At least I did when I wasn't making mile-long detours to cross the street or climbing painfully out of muddy trenches that I'd fallen into. Well they can laugh at us now. Birmingham must have sent a fact-finding committee to China as the current works in the city centre seem to have been modelled on the same idea. There are multiple building projects going on which have resulted in what feels like half the city being dug up. Principally there is the redevelopment of New Street Station and the extension of the Metro line from Snow Hill to New Street.
The former, were it actually to do what needs to be done, would be a good idea. The passenger facilities and platforms are long overdue for modernisation. It's a cold concrete wind-tunnel of a place that could be much better than it is. Of course, that's not what they are doing. The sole change to the actual passenger areas has been the removal of the stairs so that access is now only by elevator or escalator. No platform has seen as much as a new lightbulb and no waiting room has received a single new chair. Instead all the changes have been exclusively to the retail areas and the station facade which now looks uncannily like the Eye of Sauron in the Lord of the Rings movies. No passenger's life is one iota better for any of it though, to be fair, they now have a choice of places to buy a latte on their way down into the bowels of the Earth.
The Metro extension is worse. It has necessitated the digging up of several main routes through the city centre to lay tramlines with the net result that trams that formerly terminated at Snow Hill will be able to go one stop further so that people will not be inconvenienced by the tedious chore of a five minute walk. I could look up how much all these “improvements” have cost but I suspect it would just depress me so I shan't bother. Whatever it is, I'm sure that in these times of austerity it is money well spent.

Not that the other end of the Metro, Wolverhampton Saint Georges, is any better. The station there closed early last year so that track could be relaid and was due to open again in October. Now, in February, it still looks like a building site with no end to the work in sight. The official reason is that when they relaid the track they discovered a mineshaft that makes it all too dangerous. This of course raises the interesting questions of why they didn't discover it when they originally laid the track and just how dangerous it's been while the trams were actually running. Cynics might suggest that only two explanations are possible.
            a) It's just an excuse to explain the long delays and there is either no mineshaft or no danger.
            b) It was discovered at the time but ignored in the rush to open the capital-hungry flagship project.
I don't find either of those particularly reassuring though either seems more plausible than them just never noticing it before. (Which would be even more worrying, if true.)

Speaking of roadworks my return to the airport was severely delayed at Nutley where fully three feet of road had been dug up, coned off and left unattended, reducing traffic on a major route to single file. No one was working there, at least not in the forty minutes it took my bus to crawl up to it and past it.

As this has all been rather negative let's put a bit of a positive spin on things.

1.      In spite of the novelty of selling blank pages at exorbitant prices most people seemed content to buy books with words and sentences in them. There may be hope for the future yet.

2.      New Street Station will probably look quite nice if they ever finish it.

3.      The Metro extension will come in handy when it's raining, especially for people dragging around heavy luggage.

4.      If there is a dangerous mineshaft at Wolverhampton, it's probably a good thing to prevent trams falling into it.

5.      Nutley is a pleasantly scenic village and being delayed there gives both drivers and passengers a chance to properly appreciate its charms. It's certainly better than being delayed on the M25.

More later.