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.

Thursday, 29 May 2008

Some travel poems

I've noticed that I've been a bit lax in including poems in my recent blogs so in order to redress the balance here's an entry consisting of virtually nothing else. First of all let me give you the other two short poems that were written for the Poems on the Metro competition. (Two can be found in earlier entries.) Of the original four entries, the first one here was my own favourite, although I suppose, in hindsight, it is a bit downbeat for such a competition.

Incidentally it's actually a genuine observation of a family who were waiting for a train at Coseley Station* as I was off to work, one fine sunny morning.

Waiting For the Holiday To Begin

There's a family on the platform,
A man, a woman, two children
Lots of suitcases.
The little girl is throwing stones
At her brother
Who is pulling faces.
The man looks at his watch,
Then up and down the track,
But there's no train.
The boy, with concentration asks
"If this is a holiday.
Where's the rain ?"

The final one was a comment on the kind of whistle-stop tourism that long trips sometimes turn into.

Seeing the Sights

Been there, done that, can't you see the T-shirt ?
Round the World, and back,
Carrying a rucksack.
Sometimes, a hotel, a night of comfort doesn't hurt.
Here and there, everywhere,
Off and on the beaten track.
Deserts, jungles, from the mountains to the sea
Waterfalls, glaciers
I passed them on my way
Great Wall, Pyramids, every sight there is to see
The White House, Taj Mahal
I've seen them for a day.

Now, here's one written after a couple I was with were conned by one of the many dodgy tuk-tuk drivers in Bangkok. They agreed a price for him to take them where they wanted to go. He took them somewhere else, claiming it was tourist information. They went in and found it was a shop that wouldn't let them leave without buying something. Bangkok is by no means the worst place for this kind of thing but it is so common it can scarcely be called a scam at all. You really just have to take a little care. That and a licensed taxi-cab. It's really more of a song, but as I can neither play a musical instrument nor carry a tune, it's presented as a poem.

Bangkok Hustle

They hassle you and hustle you
And strong-arm you and muscle you
And ply their art of getting to your cash.
They badger you and bother you
There's nothing they would rather do
Than get their grubby hands upon your stash.
The tuk-tuk drivers take you to
Anywhere they're wanting to
But never to the place you want to be.
Their uncle's cousin's brother has
Things they say no other has.
They take you to his shop and get their fee.

So, you do the Bangkok shuffle
As they Bangkok hustle
And you try to get away
Do you want to buy a T-shirt?
Want to buy a CD?
They hustle in your way.
You do the Bangkok shuffle
The side-step bustle
To get to where you want to go
Do you want to buy a necklace?
Want to see some boxing?
Want to see a ping-pong show?

And if you choose to walk along
You'll find the con-men going strong
With pitches cons and scams of every sort.
It's getting old to sell CDs
The current trick is MP3s
But bet there's nothing legal to be bought.
Or else men in suits and floral ties
Will smile and look you in the eyes
And offer gems at prices that can't fail,
Which you'll find, too late alas,
Are nothing more than coloured glass
By then your salesman's vanished on the trail.

So, you do the Bangkok shuffle
As they Bangkok hustle
And you try to get away
Do you want to buy a T-shirt?
Want to buy a CD?
They hustle in your way.
You do the Bangkok shuffle
The side-step bustle
To get to where you want to go
Do you want to buy a necklace?
Want to see some boxing?
Want to see a ping-pong show?

And finally, an oddity. This poem wasn't written as much as it was constructed. Most of the lines are taken directly from the titles of the trips in a travel brochure. It occurred to me as I was reading it that all these grand sounding trip titles formed a kind poetry of their own and so with just a tweak here and there and a couple of additional lines I created this. For anyone interested the brochure was an old one from Explore and while the specific names may have changed I'll bet the trips are largely the same. I used to use them a lot. I'd recommend them.

Brochure Dreams

It's time I had the Summer planned.
The Golden Road to Samarkand ?
Central Asia - Overland ?

Which I wonder should it be.
The Kingdom of the Ashanti ?
Perhaps Dordogne Discovery.

I can't decide what's for the best.
The Malagassy Lemur Quest ?
The Blue Cruise (East and West) ?

I've spent more than half the day
Dreaming of the Nakasendo Way
And the Island Trails of Sao Tomé.

I wish that I could do it all
See Orinoco and the Angel Falls
Go to China - Walk the Wall.

I really don't know what to do.
The Dogon Trek and Timbuktu ?
From Delhi to Kathmandhu ?

The plan is grand but if it fails
Instead of on the Kasbah Trails
You'll find me in a caravan - in Wales.

*Who on Earth would have guessed that Coseley Station would have a Wikipedia entry, complete with a photograph? Boy, there is some trivial stuff in Wikipedia.

Wednesday, 28 May 2008

One of my turns

"But I have grown older and
You have grown colder and
Nothing is very much fun any more.
And I feel one of my turns coming on."

One of my turns, Pink Floyd

This nostalgia thing seems to be afflicting me quite a lot recently. Only last week I was getting all nostalgic for our long-gone local library and the yellow Gollancz dust jackets. This week, over the obligatory few pints of real ale I found myself getting nostalgic about television. It is, we agreed, no longer very much fun.

The program that prompted our musings was Battlestar Galactica. Now there will be some of you who remember the kitsch and rather silly original with Lorne Greene as Commander Adama. There will be some of you who have watched the "re-imagining" that is currently into its fourth season. There will be some of you who, like me, have watched and enjoyed both. It seems unlikely but there may even be some of you who remember the 1980s version with pleasure. (OK, I'll give you that that one is a bit of a stretch – even the show's creator allegedly didn't like that one.)

Anyway we were comparing original with re-imagining. Stacked up together the new one is better produced, slicker, deeper, has more rounded and better developed characters, much better special effects, better acting, better stories and better music. No competition is there? But there is. Neither of us could exactly say why but the original one was fun and the new one, good though it is, isn't. Pete put his finger on it when he said that in ten years time when they are side by side on his shelf of DVDs and he wants to watch something he'll reach for the old one not the new one.

We started to think about other shows, old and new and compare them on the same basis. Obviously few programs have the distinction of two versions that can be compared quite so directly: so we started with the obvious one – Star Trek or as we know it Star Trek: The Franchise That Wouldn't Die. We thought of the various versions: Star Trek, Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, Voyager, Enterprise. We agreed that while most of them had been good (neither of us cared very much for Enterprise) none of them were half as much fun as the original with Captain Kirk and a lot of very dodgy sets. They all take themselves too seriously.

We wondered if it were only a symptom of Science Fiction but we decided it isn't. We turned instead to crime programs. There is no way on Earth anyone could claim that Starsky and Hutch was better television than, for example, CSI . (Quincy would perhaps have been a more apt comparison, but neither of us had ever seen enough of it to form a judgement.) Starsky and Hutch was pretty slick by the standards of the day but compared to CSI the production values were low, the character development non-existent (more about that in a minute), the plots repetitive. It was also a whole lot more fun than any current cop show. Tacky rubbish but very entertaining tacky rubbish.

Character development in all of these shows was bizarre by modern standards. In any given episode there could be extreme trauma, life-affecting events, experiences that would surely affect a real person for decades. And they were always forgotten by the start of the next episode. There were no knock-on effects visible when you tuned in a week later.

I recently saw an old Starsky and Hutch in which the bad guys (for quite unconvincing reasons) had got Hutch addicted to heroin. He was in a very bad way, but by the end of the episode a couple of days in Huggy Bear's spare bedroom and some hot soup had fixed him up and even the bags under his eyes were gone by the next episode. No lasting effects allowed. Ever.

Compare that to the ongoing traumas in modern shows where everyone is a recovering or lapsed alcoholic, or has deep personal problems, or is a policeman and closet psychopathic killer (unlike everyone else, I really don't rate Dexter.) These themes develop from week to week. Characters change. Actions have consequences. There is the dreaded curse of the arc plot which afflicts almost everything. You can't tell a story in forty five minutes, you have to have a story that lasts forty five weeks and then ends without a resolution when the network cancels the show.

There are of course some modern shows that are quite fun. Monk is an American example, made fun by Tony Shalhoub's terrific central performance, a sharp and amusing script and a great supporting cast. And by having a new story each week with little or no impact on future stories. Apart from the change of lead actress and a change of theme tune (referenced in the plot of one of the stories) you could pretty much watch them in any order and not know the difference.

On British TV we could only think of Life On Mars/Ashes To Ashes but even that's a bit of a cheat because it's fun precisely because they deliberately ape the style of the old programs with a large dollop of post-modern self-conscious parody thrown into the blend: but even they have their arc plot.

We couldn't really come up with much else. Then the bar called time and we had to leave but our overriding conclusion was that… well, that nothing is very much fun any more.

Monday, 26 May 2008

Guilin: The Prequel

My earlier post about visiting Guilin in China was all based on my second visit there. It had changed quite a bit since my first visit in 1992. That had been interesting in a whole different way.

Our plane, a small narrow bodied jet on which the faint but unmistakable logo of Aeroflot could still be seen through the inadequate ‘Air China’ repainting, approached the airport. In the bright sunlight the area looked a gorgeous place. The strange conical mountains rose from an impossibly green plain like the Molehills of the Gods. When we landed it was at an airport that seemed to be military rather than civil. We had acquired a new "guide" at Xi-An airport, Robert and now, as we trooped down the steps onto the runway, we were met by our local man, Hector. He was tall and thin and slightly shabbily dressed, with a broad goofy grin that never left his face for the whole of our time in his city. Parked near the chain link fence was a bus which could easily have been mistaken for a derelict. Hector led us to it, proudly proclaiming it to be the best in the city. We climbed aboard, leaving our luggage behind, and drove on to yet another lunch in yet another local restaurant. This one was magnificent. It would have shamed the standards of Chinese restaurants in any capital city in Europe. The interior was cool and air conditioned. The furnishings and decor were all of elaborately carved wood. We grouped around the highly polished tables and were served by immaculately uniformed and deferential waiters.

We were also the only people in the whole enormous dining room. The impression was that it had opened solely for our visit.

At the hotel our luggage hadn’t turned up. By now we should have learned the lesson but still no-one had thought to pack anything as sensible and practical as a spare T-shirt into their hand luggage. As it was 90 degrees and we had exploded into soaking perspiring sponges the moment we had left the plane, we were in need of a change of clothes. Robert checked us in while Hector went back to the airport to find out where our changes of clothes had all gone. There was just time for a quick shower to get rid of some of the sweat and cool down before climbing back into the dirty clothes and heading out to the Reed Flute Caves.

Guilin is in the heart of the China that people imagine, the China of rice paddies, toiling peasants in broad hats, buffalo drawn carts on dirt tracks with mountains in the background and thin wispy clouds in a perfect blue sky. The town itself was nothing very special. It was rather seedy and shabby. The hordes of visitors, both Chinese and foreign, had resulted in a thriving but rather tacky tourist boom.

The drive out to the Reed Flute Caves though was so perfect that we insisted on half a dozen stops to take pictures of the mountains reflected in the water of the paddies. None of the workers in the fields showed the slightest interest as twenty people lined up on the road to take their photograph. I supposed that it was such a common occurrence that they scarcely even noticed it any more.

The caves, when we reached them, were extremely busy. Crowds of people were waiting to be admitted. We queued with joined them for over an hour in the small, shadeless concrete waiting area. The sun was even hotter now that it was at its afternoon zenith and we were all on the verge of heat-stroke when we finally stepped into the cool dark interior.

Those strange conical mountains are limestone and they are pitted with caverns that have the usual weird limestone stalagmite and stalactite formations. We went down the steep path and entered an enchanted fairyland. Coloured spotlights in dozens of hues and shades had been cunningly hidden among the rocks to illuminate the various features and formations, casting gargantuan multicoloured shadows around them. For more than an hour we followed the path. At the very lowest point of the cave system was a vast natural hall with a perfectly still underground lake that reflected the gorgeously lit roof as if it were a polished mirror. I had never seen anything like it and even now, years later, when I have been in cave systems in many parts of the world, even in the mighty Carlsbad caverns, it still remains the most wonderful of them all. Purists will disagree, saying that what I found so entertaining was the light show, that the caverns themselves were much less spectacular than others, that to appreciate the natural beauty would have been better than the art and artifice of the Reed Flute Caves. I don’t care. Even if it was the lighting that made the place wonderful it was, nevertheless, wonderful.

Back at the Hotel there was still no luggage. There was however an extremely harassed Hector. Our bags, he said, were safe. Unfortunately the reason that they were safe was that the authorities at the airport had impounded them. He was negotiating for their release. It wasn’t an uncommon problem. All that was needed was a sufficiently large bribe and we would get everything back. Meanwhile we should eat dinner, have a few drinks and a sound nights sleep and wait until morning.

We took the advice and sure enough, when we woke up, our suitcases were outside our doors. OK, the locks were open and broken, clearly having been forced. Inside everything was messed up but seemed to be complete. I didn’t know whether to be pleased or insulted that none of my things had been worth stealing.

I selected some clean clothes from the jumbled together mess and got ready to attempt breakfast. The anti-malarial tablet that I had taken was making me severely nauseous but I went down anyway. By the time I reached the dining room I felt dreadful. The sight and smell of breakfast unleashed a fresh assault from my quivering stomach. I forced down a glass of juice and retreated to my room. It looked as if I might have to miss today's trip on the river Li and spend the time in a darkened room. I lay down on the bed and closed my eyes.

An insistent knocking at the door woke me. I looked at the clock. I had had about two hours extra sleep. The knocking proved to be Robert, checking up on whether I wanted to take the boat trip or not. I was still feeling ill but the immediacy of the problem had eased so I decided to go after all.

Down at the docks there wasn’t one boat there were dozens, a flotilla that looked like a re-enactment of Dunkirk. The boats were all of the same design, square and blocky with an interior lower deck with tables and seats and a flat canopied upper deck where we could stand and watch the riverbank go by. For the more dedicated shoppers there were even a couple of small trinket stalls on the deck selling items of jewellery.

The convoy moved out and the combination of the fresh air and the lovely day started to blow away my sickness. I was glad I had come.

Out on the river the cormorant fishermen were at their business. They fish with trained cormorants, slipping a noose around their necks to stop them swallowing their catch. I watched one release his bird into the air. It hovered for a few moments then swooped down to skim the surface rising again a moment later with a large fish in its talons. It circled back to the boat it had come from to deliver its catch.

We drifted lazily down the river through a magnificent landscape. It was tranquil and serene and a perfect change of pace from the frantic sightseeing that had filled the days until now. At the back of the boat was a kitchen where cooks were busy preparing our lunch. We ate inside the boat and considering the cramped conditions in which it had been prepared the meal was excellent.

After lunch, all nausea gone I wandered back outside to simply watch the world drifting by.

It seemed that there were many things that were common in our wanderings wherever we went in China - the local restaurants, the people striking up conversations and, of course, the cultural shows. In Guilin there was another of them. Of the two I’d seen already I’d hated one and loved the other. What would the Guilin version be like? It turned out to be colourful enough but was one of the weirdest cultural shows I have ever witnessed. It consisted mostly of dancing but there was no perceptible Chinese element to it. The opening dance was, as far as I could tell, a Cossack dance. This was followed by what appeared to be a Red Indian rain dance and the show stopping finale was a perfectly choreographed replica of the Chimney Sweeps dance from Mary Poppins.

In the interval I had another unlikely encounter that left me chuckling for the rest of the evening. I had found out in conversation with Robert that many of the jobs in China are state controlled. The employer is he government and as a consequence the job you end up with can be determined by the whims of the particular government officials with whom you have dealt. At the break in the show I went to the toilet and was standing in the urinal happily going about my business when I felt something at my feet. I looked down expecting to see a cat or a dog. What I saw was a wizened old main kneeling at my feet polishing my shoes and taking the chance that my aim might not be perfect. I was astonished. What should I do, I wondered. What I did was pretend he wasn’t there, carried on until I had finished, zipped myself back up and turned to leave. He stood up and opened the door for me. I reached into my pocket automatically to tip him, forgetting that tipping is illegal in China, and he backed away waving his hand in a gesture of refusal. On my way back to my table I wondered if he had been allocated that job, polishing shoes in a men's urinal, and d who exactly in the local government offices he had annoyed enough to be given it.

Monday, 19 May 2008

I'm Late, I'm Late...

What do you do when you don't have time to complete your planned blog about the Turner Prize?

You dig out some old book reviews you wrote about Alice In Wonderland related books and post them instead.

Alice In Blunderland (John Kendrick Bangs)

Alice In Washington (Richard Pray Bonine)

What is it about Alice that, more than any other book, it draws people with all sorts of motives to write pastiches? There are enough books and articles in the style of Alice to fill a decent sized library. From explanations of quantum mechanics to treatises on saving the rain forest to books of mathematical puzzles it seems there is no end to it. I even won a T-shirt myself once with a letter of the month to a magazine in the style of Alice’s conversation with Humpty Dumpty. But I digress. Beyond all those things it draws political satirists like raths to a sundial. Whenever someone wants to point out the absurdities of any political landscape the first metaphor out of the bag is always Wonderland. I’d assumed this to be a modern phenomenon but I find I was mistaken.
Two recent additions to my collection have been Alice In Washington by Richard Pray Bonine and Alice In Blunderland: An Iridescent Dream by John Kendrick Bangs. The latter was published in 1907 so a new thing this most definitely isn’t.
Satire by its very nature has a short shelf life. Targets that are well known and in the public eye today could well be largely forgotten tomorrow. Today’s satire can all too easily become tomorrow’s incomprehensible gibberish.
So how does the 1907 book fare? Surprisingly well, is the answer. Bangs chose to satirise concepts – specifically the concept of state ownership as opposed to private enterprise. He also managed to do it in such a way that while not understanding the point would remove some of the pleasure from the book it would nonetheless remain quite amusing for the absurdities used as illustration - the train that completely encircles the city and doesn’t actually move (you get on at your stop and walk along the train until you reach the stop where you want to get off) for example or the attempt to run cars on a mixture of cologne and hot air which is very logically and reasonably explained.
It’s a brief but moderately entertaining read and by targeting ideas and concepts remains at least partially relevant today.
Alice in Washington is another thing altogether. Published in 1999 it’s already past its sell by date. It chooses to satirise the life of Bill Clinton. It’s with a little shamefaced nod of self-deprecation that I admit to giving up halfway through it. Put bluntly to an Englishman not familiar with all the ins and outs of the Clinton Governorship and Presidency it is the aforementioned incomprehensible gibberish. It probably is to most Americans too unless they can name all the major players in the Whitewater affair or list in alphabetical order the members of the Clinton administration. I found the book pretty much unreadable and am, now that I think about it, astonished that I managed to get as far as I did. The cover blurb describes it as “a gentle satire full of puns and poems and galloping alliterations”. Well, perhaps it is but a less accessible book I have yet to see.
Perhaps someone who is American can read the thing and enlighten me. Is it just my British perspective or am I being over generous in thinking I’d like it better if I came from Baltimore instead of Birmingham?

Alice’s Journey Beyond The Moon (R.J. Carter. Ill. Lucy Wright)

Sequels by other hands are often tricky beasts and never more so than when, as here, presented with the central conceit that they are a “lost manuscript” by the original author. This, like other pretenders, is of course no such thing. It is a new story. The problem with it is that the pretence that it is a lost Carroll manuscript extends to a series of long footnotes explaining how the various jokes and whimsies fit into the lives and events surrounding both Dodgson and Alice Liddell. These footnotes are done in the style of “The Annotated Alice” side by side with the text. For example the footnotes to one of the poems (giving the recipe for a rather unusual pie) explain that the ingredient “wet collodian” was a photographic chemical with which Dodgson would have been familiar and the nonsense word “queechy” refers to a novel by Elizabeth Wetherell that he gave to his sister Henrietta on her twelfth birthday. The depth of research into Dodgson’s life is impressive but as a literary device it all rapidly becomes rather tiresome and it’s a good idea to read the book through and ignore the footnotes altogether until you have finished.
What, then, of the story itself? At ninety pages it’s quite a thin tale but pastiches the style of Carroll quite well. Some of the puns and jokes are good and there are quite a lot of amusing touches. The artwork while not in the Tenniel style complements the story nicely and I suspect that there are many references and subtleties that a single reading has failed to reveal to me. The main problem is that at times it tries rather too hard to be clever. References to Descartes and an exposition of Zeno’s paradox are deftly handled but seem a little out of place. The insistence on explaining some of them in those annoying Gardneresque footnotes doesn’t help. As soon as you need to explain a joke it ceases to be funny.
The story has Alice journeying to the moon through the eyepiece of a telescope and while there having the kind of adventures that she had in Wonderland and through the looking glass. The style doesn’t quite hit the mark but comes much closer than Jeff Noon’s Automated Alice (though not as close as Gilbert Adair’s Alice Through The Needle’s Eye ). This is “explained” by suggesting that the work was written some years after the original stories, again an explanation that is necessary only because the author insists on maintaining the fiction that this is a lost story.
What of the poems and songs? Once again they are in the correct style and character and with a nice whimsy but they lack the surety of Dodgson’s metre and caused me to stumble in trying to get the rhythms right.

Final verdict? A slight but diverting dreamlike tale which would have been all the better if more attention had been given to crafting a longer story and less to the learned and mock-erudite footnotes.

Bad Alice (Jean Ure)

It’s impossible to review this book adequately without giving away the major plot points so if you are likely to read it -- and in spite of it being a very disturbing read I recommend that you do -- and don’t want to know in advance what it’s about then skip to the end of the review now.

Still here? Then let’s get on with it.

Bad Alice concerns the friendship between two children one summer. Duffy is a teenage boy with mild Tourette’s syndrome and Alice is the girl next door. Alice is a child that is universally agreed to be a bad sort – universally that is except for Duffy who strikes up an immediate friendship with her.
As the plot unfolds the disturbing nature of Alice’s family set up is revealed and the abusive relationship with her father is readily apparent to adult eyes reading the book if not to the adult characters. Duffy’s gradual realisation that his friend’s obsession with Alice in Wonderland masks very deep and real problems is poignant and painful to us because we have seen coming what we know he must eventually realise. Alice’s problems become most apparent through the version of Alice in Wonderland which she is secretly writing and allowing him to read. These sections are at times a little too knowing and articulate for a thirteen year old to have written but that is the only slight flaw in an otherwise brilliant but deeply disturbing book. This should be on recommended reading lists for all teenagers as the handling of one of the worst problems that exists in society is sensitive and intelligent and raising the awareness within teenagers that such problems don’t have to be simply endured must be a good thing.
Come to that raising the awareness of the problem among adults is also not a bad idea. Maybe, if enough people had their awareness raised then we could eradicate this kind of thing altogether and books like this would become unnecessary.

Final verdict. A sensitive, disturbing and above all necessary read.

Monday, 12 May 2008

Brightly-Coloured Blobs

There is a kind of fixed template nowadays for those who wish to make TV programs for very young children. They need a handful of blobby near-human looking characters, usually furry and always brightly-coloured. These characters wander around a landscape that is not just brightly-coloured but almost exclusively primary-coloured. They make a variety of pre-linguistic sounds that are apparently meant to mimic the noises children typically make before they learn to speak but which in fact resemble the noises you get if you try to speak through a kazoo.

There is usually some kind of narration, often by a "famous voice" – a down-on-his-luck actor or a pop-star-turned-thespian will do nicely.

And not being a child psychologist I have absolutely no idea whether this is a good thing or a bad thing and hence no comment to make.

What is the point of this post then?

Well, flipping around the channels this morning I happened upon something called "In The Night Garden" in which a light blue blob and a brown blob in dungarees were running around a large bush that was a shade of green unknown in nature. They were looking for each other but as they kept running in the same direction were always on opposite sides. All the time they were making a kind of squeaking-grunting noise. Eventually they did find each other, at which point the narrator (apparently Derek Jacobi) chipped in with the comment that stopped my hand on the way to the channel switch

"Igglypiggly and Upsy Daisy have found each other. Isn't that a pip?"

"Isn't that a pip?"

I haven't seen language like that since I last read a Famous Five book and that was more than forty years ago. Enid Blyton, who wrote them, died in 1968.

So why, I wondered, did the narrator use such an oddly dated turn of phrase? Is it perhaps making a comeback? Can we look forward to similar 1950s middle-class expressions being revived? Will it be a jolly good show? Will everything be absolutely ripping? Or perhaps topping? Will there be lashings of ginger beer when mater and pater get home? Are you a good egg? Or maybe a brick?

Maybe not. Maybe it's just "pip". Maybe it's part of the current street argot of the average three-year-old. Of course as I don't have an average three-year-old handy I may never know.

When all is said and done it's probably just an idiosyncrasy of the writer. Who knows?

And with that I must be away. It just remains to say "Toodle pip, old chap. Toodle pip."

Friday, 9 May 2008

Yellow Dust Jackets

At the top of this blog it says "travel, language, poetry, teaching and anything else that occurs to me" so let's get away from travel for five minutes. Let's talk instead about libraries. (And I can think of at least one reader who just cheered.)

Nowadays, apart from looking for text books, I don't go to libraries. If I want a book, I buy it. It accounts for a substantial percentage of my salary but what can I say. I like owning books better than I like borrowing them.

Part of the problem is that I don't have a convenient local library and the selection of books available at the less convenient ones (the ones that are an hour or more each way to get to) don't coincide with my requirements.

But it wasn't always this way.

I've lived in the same house (give or take periods working away or travelling or living at the University Halls of Residence) for forty-five years – I was six when we moved here. Back then there was a library and I had read a lot fewer books. It was, even for a six year old, a five-minute walk away. It has long since disappeared, demolished for no very good reason. The land to this day remains derelict although they did put a fence round it and dig a hole a couple of years ago.

But that's something else that wasn't always this way.

I remember the library so well I could draw you a map and with a bit of effort label up the shelves with Dewey classifications. I remember it as I remember little else of my childhood. It's a bone-deep visceral memory.

At first I used the children's library. (In through the front door. First door on the right. Librarian's desk on the left, immediately inside. Young children's books at the back left. Older children's books at the front.)

I remember taking my books to the librarian and the pink cards being taken and put into little card envelopes and filed in a wooden drawer.

I also remember the day when I couldn't find anything I hadn't already read and was allowed into the adult library. (In through the front door. Through the door straight ahead. Librarian's desk to the right – connecting to the children's desk via an arch). Fiction on the left. Non-fiction on the right.)

In the next few years I probably read ninety percent of the fiction in there. (It would have been a hundred percent but inexplicably the library also had books suitable for girls.)

I'm getting all nostalgic for the colour yellow now – not any old yellow, the yellow of the spines of the books published by Victor Gollancz. They were always the ones that I looked for first. They had all the best science fiction. Of course at this remove it's difficult to identify specifically which authors were in the Gollancz stable but among the science fiction authors that I discovered at the time were Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clark, Robert Heinlein, Stanislaw Lem, J.G. Ballard, Philip K. Dick, Keith Laumer, Andre Norton, Frederik Pohl, Robert Sheckley, John Sladek, E.E. Doc Smith, John Wyndham and Robert Zelazny.

Ah. Those were the days.

But don't get me wrong. I didn't just read Science Fiction. I also read Ian Fleming's James Bond books Adam Diment's less well-known spy books The Bang Bang Birds, Dolly Dolly Spy and The Great Spy Race. I read Russel Thorndike's Doctor Syn books which I remember fondly and Kenneth Royce's XYY Man series. I read Sherlock Holmes. I read anything and everything. These are just the ones that jump immediately to mind. I'm sure I could come up with many more if I put my mind to it.

And now I don't go to the library. Instead I browse in bookshops. I treat bookshops as libraries with the inconvenience of having to pay but without the inconvenience of having to take the books back.

And even that is changing. Quite often now I browse on line. And that's what I'm off to do now, to browse on line. I have a sudden fancy to read a Doctor Syn novel, or maybe one of the Adam Diment ones. If I can find them cheap enough I'll buy some. And as I read them I'll think about the old library.

Wednesday, 7 May 2008

Another Point of View

It's often nice to get a different viewpoint on something, to see something familiar through other eyes. Paul Merton's TV series on China could scarcely be more familiar. Although he's getting to meet lots of people arranged specifically for him, and staying in decent hotels rather than the tents and downmarket dives that I managed, he's visiting all the same places that I went to last time I visited China and that's giving me the chance to compare my observations with his. Of course there are some differences – I paid for my trip whereas he's was paid for his – then again he's a famous (and very funny) comedian and I'm a bloke from Bilston who has a blog. So how do things stack up?

A few general observations first. He was absolutely spot on target when he talked about the ever-present noise that forms a soundtrack to the Chinese experience – the sound of someone hacking up a mouthful of phlegm and gobbing it into the gutter. On my first trip – way back in 1992 – I wrote down my first impressions and they included this

"the other thing you can't help noticing (is) the amount of coughing and spitting that goes on among the Chinese. To a westerner it is very disconcerting to see everyone from teenage girls to little old men coughing up a mouthful of phlegm and expectorating with gusto into the gutter."

He seems (though I missed an episode, so I could be wrong) to have missed another particular favourite in which someone will lean forward at an improbable angle, place a finger firmly against the nose to close one nostril and empty the other onto the ground by blowing very hard.

Something else that I have to agree with him about is Chinese Opera. After I saw it in Beijing, my local guide commented sadly that it was killing Chinese culture in the eyes of foreign tourists because once they had seen that nothing he could do would persuade them to see anything else "cultural". A group of us who had been to see it struggled for appropriate descriptions and eventually came up with

"It sounds like someone strangling cats in an alley full of dustbins and looks like Max Wall performing Aladdin."

When we saw it, it was enlivened by a faulty computer generated translation of the words which seemed to be omitting all the nouns and thus providing such eccentric possibilities as "I will overcome my and build a mound of their."

Another point of almost complete concord between his experience and mine was his boat trip down the River Li from Guilin. He went on one of the small boats which seem to always be full of backpacking Australians. The scenery is magnificent, far more so than you can possibly appreciate from a television program. It was such a highlight of my trip in '92 that when I returned nine years later I made a point of ensuring it was in my itinerary again.

Although both Guilin and Yangshou had changed greatly in the intervening time, the river had not. It was every bit as lovely as I remembered it. The sun was high in the sky, the water was calm enough to be a mirror reflecting back those remarkable conical mountains that rise from the plain like giant molehills. Here and there, there were groups of children playing at the water's edge and sometimes a long low boat with a fisherman. We floated downstream, watching the birds wheeling overhead and the buffalo cooling off in the shallows. It was idyllic… and just as with Paul Merton's trip every now and then the peaceful tranquillity was completely shattered by the noise from a flotilla of huge boats steaming up-river full of Chinese tourists all sitting inside, eating dinner and ignoring the wonders around them.

I have to differ with him on some things though – specifically on his opinions of Yangshou and Guangshou. In both cases it would be harder to find a more complete disagreement. Oh, the facts of the cities are indisputable but it's the interpretation that you put on them. Paul Merton wasn't to put it mildly, very keen on Yangshou which he thought was too touristy and too commercial and too much like every other touristy and commercial place in the world. I, on the other hand, loved it. I checked myself into a very odd hotel that reminded me of a condemned flat I once occupied in Nottingham. Not only did I have the room to myself, I had the whole building… an annex to the main hotel. Why should somewhere quite so deadbeat have appealed to me? It's hard to say. I wrote several versions of a description while I was there. The best of them was this.

There was something very Chinese about the room: not the Chinese of pagodas and palaces, or rice fields and straw hats but the Chinese of the cultural revolution. As I looked at the streaked and stained whitewash on the walls and the bare floorboards with just the faintest remaining traces of ancient varnish; as I looked at the beds with their thin mattresses and single sheets, I could picture myself as one of the proletarian masses living my life in what was only technically a two roomed apartment. I paced out the larger area – almost eighteen feet square and about the same height. The other "room" connected via a hole in the wall without a door. It contained a tiny cold shower, a cracked and plugless sink and a squat toilet. It was about four feet by three.
I lay down on one of the beds and stared up at the green metal fan, which, even on its highest setting, moved barely fast enough to disturb the humid air. It didn't matter. I hadn't put it on for the comfort but to help dry my washing – underwear, towels, T-shirts – which were strung out across the room on a wire fastened there by some previous occupant. It was a losing battle. The day was so humid they would never dry adequately.
I mentally inventoried the furnishings. It didn't take long. Two beds with mosquito nets. Two armchairs far too dilapidated to be called threadbare. One table with a wobbly leg. A broken television set. An apparently homemade cupboard.
As I lay there trying to relax, I could smell the mustiness of the place. The whole building reeked of it. The room was a perfect match to the building, which was a seedy run-down thing away from the main block of the Xiling Hotel where those on higher budgets were staying. I didn't mind. I actually felt comfortable there. It was – after a fashion – en suite and I did have a room, indeed a whole building, to myself.
Forty yuan per night? For a whole building?
A bargain.

Anyway, back to why I like Yangshou. After months of travelling we were stationary for a few days and I couldn't think of anywhere I had been that I'd rather be stationary in. It's a backpacker town and anyone who has ever been backpacking around the world will need no further description. It's a place that seems to have no reason to its existence beyond the travellers on its streets. It has two main streets joined by various alleys and they are crowded with a fifty-fifty mix of tourist shops and bars. They all have either jokey or mock-classical names : Minnie Mao's, The No-Name café; The Golden Lotus; The Shining Mountain. The shops sell nothing but souvenirs (T-shirts, carvings, lanterns, jewellery) or pirated copies of rock CDs.

I found it all very relaxing and friendly and for three of the four days there I did absolutely nothing except hang around in bars chatting to random strangers – Chinese and otherwise – and generally relaxing more than I had done in the previous five months of travel. It was great. I was very tempted to answer one of the many advertisements around the place for English teachers and stay there.

Guangshou, by comparison, Paul Merton liked, seeing it as the authentic face of modern China. And he's not wrong there. Unfortunately the authentic face of modern China looked to me very much like a grim and dull industrial city with little to recommend it other than the facts that a) my stay was very brief and b) it was a convenient place to get the ferry to Hong Kong. It's the kind of place that is vastly improved by leaving it. The restaurants and hotels were too expensive for someone on a tight budget and all in all, especially coming a mere day after Yangshou, I'd have to say that I found the place thoroughly depressing. This wasn't helped by the fact that I could find absolutely nowhere to eat that wasn't well beyond the money I had to spare and ended up sitting in a hotel room (I'd persuaded a couple of Danish backpackers that what they needed was to rent me six foot of floor space in their room, without mentioning it to the hotel management), drinking a couple of bottles of beer, eating a packet of biscuits and watching a documentary – in Chinese – about tuna fish. It was a new low.

Next week Paul Merton is in Shanghai. I shall make a point of watching to see if we agree or disagree. Either way, it's good to get a second perspective.

Thursday, 1 May 2008

Ten 100-word annecdotes involving food

I don't do lists. They are too trivial and pointless. Waste of space. So this isn't a list of ten one-hundred-word anecdotes involving food.

Definitely not.

1.Kyisimoss Dinner

Panchase Ridge, Nepal, Christmas Day 1993

The locals were preparing Christmas dinner for us. One of them accidentally kicked over the basket that the chickens were under and spent an hilarious fifteen minutes chasing them across the hillside before returning them to their prison to await dismemberment.
I looked away again, to stare at that view across the valley – at the twin peaks of Machapuchare.
I looked back. They were killing a goat for the curry.
And away. And back. They were baking a cake in a round iron pot in a hole in the ground.
They "iced" words onto it with jam.
"Happy Kyismoss 25thDac1393"

2.It's What Flavour?

Beijing, China, 1992

A hint for those travelling in China – don't eat the ice lollies.
Why not? What can possibly be wrong with an ice lolly?
At the delightful Yonghegong temple, I found out. After queuing for tickets in the blazing hot sun, I decided to buy one and cool off. From the selection, I chose one with a green wrapper, expecting it to be apple or kiwi fruit flavour. It wasn't. It was chopped green beans frozen in sugar water. It tasted disgusting. I gave it to a passing ten-year-old, who evidently didn't agree with my assessment, and went into the temple.

3.Just For The Tourists

Somewhere on the Amazon, Ecuador, 1999

Look! Absolutely no one really does this, right? It's like the sheeps' eyes thing. Made up to gross out the tourists. So here we are, a day out in the Amazon Jungle. See, there's our guide, over there, breaking a branch off that tree.
Urgh. It's covered in ants. He wants us to do what? No way! Wait. Dave's taken the stick. He's licking them off.
Why did he have to do that? No we all have to do it or look like wimps. I like fresh food but this is ridiculous.
No, I don't think they taste of lemons.

4.I've Had This Before

Austria, 1989

The morning, billed as a strenuous hike, was in reality a gentle, albeit uphill, stroll. Nevertheless we were ready for lunch and grateful to find such a delightful Alpine bistro. Now Donald was studying the menu. Most of us played safe with the easy translations. He declared loudly
"Ah, I think I've had this before." and ordered something unrecognisable before starting lecturing us on haut cuisine.
Fifteen minutes later a plate containing several pounds of almost raw, quivering white fat was placed before him.
"Oh," he said "That's not at all what I was expecting."
Everyone tried not to laugh.

5.A Smell Of Water Bug

Vientiane, Laos, 14 February 1998

Translated menus should be approached carefully. Things are not always as they seem. We sat in the restaurant. We ordered. The waitress brought food. My beef and peanut curry was bright red, astoundingly hot and very tasty. David's sticky rice was rice. It was sticky. Warren, more adventurous, ordered "Chilli with smell of water bug". A translation problem, he assured us. It was a plate of vegetables with little unidentifiable black things. One of them turned over, grew legs and escaped over the side of the plate. Translated menus should be approached carefully. Things are sometimes exactly as they seem.


Inari, Finland, 1995

I hadn't fancied the boat trip and that left me at a loose end in an especially uninteresting town. After a little desultory exploration I decided on a whim to try reindeer for lunch. It came as shapeless lumps of unappealing grey meat served with about two kilos of mashed potato. It was deeply unimpressive.
Afterwards I explored the shops which seemed to contain every conceivable reindeer part fashioned into every conceivable souvenir. If I'd bought them all I could have probably reassembled a complete animal.
Later, back at camp, Herman had prepared a treat. Reindeer stew. With mashed potato.


Chengdu, China, 3 August 2001

Misled, perhaps, by having already found a café that did bacon sandwiches, I felt optimistic about dinner. Hotpot. It conjured images of steaming potato-topped stew.
It was an upmarket restaurant but I was puzzled by the polo-mint-shaped tables. We were quickly seated and gas burners, built into the table, lit. A put was suspended over it, divided into two sections. One contained bubbling red lava, the other bubbling green slime. We were given plates of unidentifiable shredded meat.
"Drop them in," said my guide," "Then take them out with the chopsticks and eat. Be careful. The red one is hot."

8.A short treatise on literal-mindedness

Barcelona, Spain, 2004

Catalonian restaurateurs must be trained in literal-mindedness. Menus deliver precisely what is written on them in black and white. In a chic restaurant I ordered duck with orange, expecting perhaps duck in an orange flavoured sauce and a few accompanying vegetables. What I got was half a duck. And an orange. Whole and unpeeled. Others ordered peas and ham, which was a large bowl of peas and a slice of boiled ham. I was sorriest for the man who ordered the spinach. Two kilos of boiled spinach, unsullied by contact with other foodstuffs, would be more than Popeye could manage.

9.Keep Your Hands Off My Sausages

Various locations, South America, 1999

There are two main varieties of vegetarian – moral and practical. The practical ones don't eat meat because they don't like it, the moral ones because they prefer a more ethical treatment of animals. I don't understand either of them but I respect their views. The trouble is the third kind – the part-time vegetarians. When you are cooking at the campfire and you've prepared, at their request, a separate meatless option, it's annoying to have them nick your sausages because they "look nice". I'm sorry but vegetarians are like virgins. You is or you ain't. And keep away from my sausages.

10.As Sure As Eggs Ain't Eggs

San Jose, Philippines 22nd December 1995

There is something important that you need to be told,
So listen, listen well now, I beg.
Though it may look like one on the menu
"Balut" simply doesn't mean egg.
Oh, it's true it's an egg in most senses.
It came from a hen, can't deny it,
But you need to delve closer and deeper
If you think, "That looks great! Think I'll try it."
For a "balut", though an egg is quite fertile
And if it's closer to hatching that's more tasty.
It's a "boil in the shell" baby chicken,
So when choosing your lunch, be less hasty.