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, 30 April 2009

DPRK: accidentally omitted photograph

I meant to include this in the post about my arrival in the DPRK. It's a photograph of that Pyongyang Hotel.

DPRK: A brief history lesson, mostly inaccurate.

Time for a quick, and probably not very accurate, history lesson. Skip this entry if you a) already know about the history of the Korean peninsula AND b) are likely to find your blood pressure rising because I don't actually know what I'm talking about. Otherwise read on as the importance of knowing some Korean history will become clear later.
In 1910 Japan annexed Korea, a move that Japan says was legal and Korea says wasn't. Opinion on how bad it was is also divided but nobody (except maybe Japan) would call it an enlightened period of rule. There was widespread resistance. A Korean Government in exile was established in China. Uprisings were frequent, reprisals more frequent, and there was an ever tightening military grip. The situation went on for a long time - right up to World War II.
At the end of World War II, Japan was, as everybody knows, on the losing side. The situation in Korea was interesting. There were two clashing political ideologies in the country: in the south, sponsored by the US, and in the north sponsored by the Soviet Union. The solution, supposedly temporary was to split the country, more or less along the 38th parallel with a US led administration in the south and a Soviet led one in the north.
On 25th June 1950 war broke out between the two halves and exactly why that was depends on who you listen to and which version you believe. According the accepted history here in the west the North invaded the South. According, as you'll see later, to the North Koreans it was only in response to a southern invasion of their territory.
What followed was an extremely bloody war that involved not just the principals but also the US, The Soviet Union and China as well as troops from an assorted bunch of United Nations countries, including the UK. Nowadays this war is often called the "forgotten war" because when asked to name the great conflicts of the twentieth century most people start running out of ideas after the two World Wars and Viet Nam have been mentioned. Although estimates vary widely most agree that two million or more died.
And nobody won. (Though both sides would disagree with that, with predictably opposite opinions.) On 27th July, 1953, without any actual conclusion, an armistice agreement was signed and subsequently a demilitarized zone was established around the 38th parallel. The countries remained, and still remain separated.

OK history lesson over. Ten seasons of M*A*S*H notwithstanding, the war itself lasted only three years.

And after lunch, on day one, we got to visit the Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum. This is the name used by the DPRK for the conflict that we call the Korean War. And in the next entry I'll tell you all about it.

Wednesday, 29 April 2009

DPRK: The Great Study Hall of the People

As we had been told at the trip briefing the next day's itinerary didn't exactly match the published one. We were re-briefed on it over breakfast. We were to visit the People's Study House, the Korean Folklore Museum, the Military Museum, the Pueblo spy ship and the Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Monument. The name of this last attraction being the North Korean name for what we refer to as the Korean War. It started to dawn on people that our days were going to be kept so full that we would have neither the opportunity nor the energy to wander off into areas we weren't supposed to see.

First up was the Grand People's Study House. All countries, whatever their political leanings, like to show their best face to the world. When I have overseas visitors you can be sure that there are areas of Wolverhampton and Birmingham that I'll steer them away from. There are places in both cities that I'd think twice about going myself. So it's hardly a surprise if the Korean authorities want to do the same. Almost all of the things we were to see in the coming week were either cultural showpieces or modern historic buildings that were intended to put the unconventional North Korean view of twentieth century history.

Given that Pyongyang had been completely flattened by the end of the Korean War and has been totally rebuilt since - mostly in a blocky, lego-brick, brutalist style - the Grand People's Study House is a bit of a surprise to look at. It fills the west side of Kim Il Sung square and has been built in a mock classical style with green-tiled saddle roofs and columned storeys that diminish in size like the layers of a wedding cake.

Inside the first thing you see, reminiscent of the famous Lincoln statue is a statue of Kim Il Sung, the Great Leader, seated in a marble pillared hall. The Study House isn't a school as such, more a centre where adults go to learn about computers, learn foreign languages and obtain additional knowledge and information. It houses a library and many classrooms including those dedicated to teaching the political philosophy of North Korea - the Juche ideology. We were, as I'd expected, taken round a number of rooms to see what was going on.

In one room students were busy at computers, though not connecting to the internet as would be the case in an English classroom. In another we saw, and briefly participated in, an English class being taught. We spoke to them in turn to demonstrate our accents. Slightly more ironic, or perhaps subversive, was the fact that as we entered they were learning English proverbs and the one being practiced was "Walls have ears". From there we went on to speak with a Doctor of Philosphy, Dr Lee Sung Chal and to visit a room where a curious assortment of books donated by the Dear Leader, Kim Jong Il, could be seen.
Overall two things struck me about the place. One was how wastefully built it was with marble staircases, huge, echoing cold corridors and that fanciful external look. The other was a kind of touchingly naive pride in the facilities which were, by western standards really rather primitive and old-fashioned: old computers, a part computerised/part card index system, students learning to speak English in wooden booths by repeating back phrases read to them by the teacher. I found myself reminded of the film Brazil, a dystopian nightmare of bureaucracy and control.

Out on one of the terraces we could look out on the square. We could, we were told, take pictures of the square and of the view to the north but were not to point our cameras towards the south. I wasn't sure why, though someone with a map speculated that it might be because there were ministerial dwellings in that direction.

After visiting the Study House we moved on to the three-storey, Korean Folk Museum, which gives a picture of life in pre-revolutionary Korea. The guide spoke excellent English and did her best to inject some interest into the static displays of artefacts in glass cases but it was something of a losing battle. After a while it all blurred into one and the ban on photography in the museum didn't help.

I was quite glad to leave and get back outside for our next, brief, visit to a stamp shop. Here, in addition to postcards and stamps to send home, there was a wide variety of commemorative stamps available, as sets,or in presentation slip cases or even bound into books. One especially interesting book told the history of the modern DPRK in stamps. I bought a couple of posters showing revolutionary stamps for my wall. This particular set reproduced the colourful but sinister posters that can be seen around the city showing smiling uniformed people holding guns in the air, or happy cheerful uniformed workers building bridges or pylons.
After half an hour in there it was time to go for lunch.

Tuesday, 28 April 2009

DPRK: Arrival

After another visit to that magnificent Terminal Three and a short flight we arrived, at last, in Pyongyang airport, in the Democratic People's Republic of Korea. We proceeded to the fairly basic, single-belt luggage reclaim and waited. Gradually it occurred to us that as all the luggage on the belt was marked as being on its way to Tokyo, our luggage might well be in Tokyo marked for North Korea. And so it proved to be. It was several hours before the authorities had processed everyone on the plane and we were on the bus heading for our hotel. First impressions of the city were not entirely favourable. The buildings were plain and drab and interspersed with huge posters of the Great and Dear Leaders, and assorted revolutionary monuments. If anyone had asked me to make up a fictional communist state set in the 1950s, it wouldn't have been very different from this.
We also met our local tour leaders, Miss Kim and Mister Lee. It was difficult so early to form any real opinion of either the city or the guides, and because of the long delay in clearing the airport the things we would have done during the day had been rescheduled, leaving us with just time to check into the hotel, shower, put dirty clothes back on and go to dinner, a Korean banquet in much the same multi-dish style as China, but with some rather different dishes. I've eaten Kimchi before and didn't care for it. Pickled cabbage isn't a favourite of mine even in its English version. The Korean version I like less. The rest of the food was fine though, with meat dishes, vegetable dishes, rice dishes and fish dishes. The fish ones were particularly tasty even if they weren't as spicy as I'd have liked.
After dinner I tried out the "Tea Shop" which seemed to sell no tea but rather a lot of beer, including a nice dark one that made a great change from the yellowish fizzy lager that is the normal fare in foreign parts.

The hotel, the Yanggakdo, was amazing, and amazingly full. It's a huge tower with a rotating restaurant on the roof. In Pyongyang, you don't have much choice as a tourist, you stay where the authorities tell you to stay. Given that this particular hotel is constructed on an island with guards at the only entrance, it's a pretty safe bet that people never go walkabout. The hotel has everything a guest could want, multiple dining rooms, bowling alley, swimming pool, bars, shops, billiard tables, Karaoke bar and nine-hole golf course. Of course you wouldn't want to leave. After all you didn't go to Korea to see what Korea was like did you?
The reason it was full was the date. It was 10th of April. In five days it would be the 15th of April, the birthday of the great leader and that means a week of celebrations. Countries that have diplomatic relations with Korea all had people there. Everyone was in the smartest of smart tuxedos and we were there in our grubby jeans and T-shirts. No wonder we got a lot of odd looks from the other guests.

Monday, 27 April 2009

DPRK: Prelude in Beijing, Lunch with Mr Liu

When we had all gathered we immediately split up again. Some of us had booked a tour of the Hutongs, the narrow alleyways that are the back streets of Beijing. Others were off to see the Bird's Nest Olympic stadium; others had their own individual plans. Those of us off to the Hutongs were taken by bus and dropped off in a small square where a row of pedal rickshaws were waiting.

First however we had a lunch. For this we were led into what appeared to be somebody's house. I wasn't very hungry so I just had a single bottle of beer while the others ate what seemed to be a very nice meal. As lunch was finishing we were joined by a local guide, a rather loud and confident young woman, and by Mr Liu, a man who though now retired was once a figure of some importance in the world of Singing Crickets and Fighting Grasshoppers. Mr Liu was a gap-toothed and weather-beaten elderly man carrying a rather odd assortment of items. His fame as a breeder of insects was readily apparent from the number of books he showed us featuring pictures of him with some of his prize specimens. Apparently, so our translator informed us, he was also famous for holding a record for cooking dumplings.

He showed us the tools of his trade: a fighting bowl, a living bowl complete with a separate connubial chamber, a long thin feeding spoon, a long flat (yet oddly delicate) cricket pooper-scooper, a long thin brush to encourage recalcitrant insects into the aforementioned connubial chamber.
Most intriguing were a set of miniscule scales for ensuring that the grasshoppers were fighting in the right weight class.
Someone asked, via our translator, how they knew who had won a fight. It seems that they operate not so much a "last-cricket-standing" as a "last-cricket-not-eaten" principal.
As he talked, Mr Liu bounced around the room with irrepressible energy, swooping and leaping like some demented thing. His enthusiasm was manic, his patter at a Gatling-gun speed that taxed the translator's abilities to the full. I felt worn out just watching him.

When he was finished he packed everything away - two ornate earthenware jars containing a grasshopper each vanishing into pockets in a trick worthy of Tommy Cooper.
It was fascinating but when I thought back to it later it reminded me of the last of the Rocky movies. In that film, Rocky is retired and running a restaurant. He is a convivial host, joining in with the guests, signing autographs and recounting tales of his past glories. Mr Liu seemed a little like that; a man who has seen some glory days and some acclaim now endlessly retelling his past for the tourists.
I felt a little sad at the idea.

Afterwards we went back into the square and into those bicycle rickshaws. They pedalled off down the streets and we sat back eager to see the famed Hutongs. I'm not sure what we had expected but what we got was a bit of a disappointment. The route led us through dull grey streets with dull grey walls. We stopped once at a gate but we didn't go through it, just looked at it. Finally we stopped at a market. It was predominantly a small local food market and not terribly interesting though it was, as markets almost always are, a good place to take pictures.

Saturday, 25 April 2009

DPRK: Prelude in Beijing (The Forbidden City)

Back outside, in that smoggy atmosphere, we headed north towards the Gate of Heavenly Peace, the southern entrance to the Forbidden City. As we queued to go in we were entertained by the bizarre callisthenics of the Chinese Army guard. These exercises seemed to consist of some weird oriental mix of running, marching, wrestling and barn dancing. They were an odd but momentary distraction, all but forgotten as we entered the Forbidden City itself.

For those who haven’t been there then I can do no better than recommend that you hire a DVD of the Last Emperor, which was filmed there. It is far more than just a palace being, as the name indicates, a city within a city. It was the residence of the Emperors of the Ming and Qing dynasties from 1420 to 1912 and contains almost a thousand buildings with over eight thousand rooms. Now it’s a World Heritage site with many thousands of visitors, both Chinese and foreign, every day.
I wandered around taking pictures and looking at a couple of the museums that are contained inside – the museum containing the various jade sculptures was particularly fine.
I noticed, as I had done the last time, a rather odd phenomenon. To describe it you need to picture the layout of the City. It is more or less symmetrical about a North-South line. The main palaces within are set at the ends of a series of courtyards in such a way that you can proceed from one to the next through the courtyards by following a central line. They have names like the Hall of Supreme Harmony, the Hall of Complete Harmony, the Hall of Preserving Harmony and the Palace of Earthly Peace.

Off to the sides things become slightly more labyrinthine, though no less interesting, with smaller buildings on smaller courtyards and paths. Some of these buildings have been pressed in to service as the museums. The odd phenomenon is that almost all, certainly over ninety per cent, of the visitors choose to follow the central route so that if you do the same things are crowded and at the entrances to the various palaces there are people six or seven deep taking pictures over each other’s heads. If on the other hand you wander off to the sides there is almost no one. You see a few visitors once you enter the museums but otherwise things are calm, peaceful, beautiful and devoid of crowds.
So, after seeing a couple of palaces, that’s what I did, following the eastern side of the complex through the museums until eventually I came to the end and turned left again to lead me to the Northern Gate, the Gate of Divine Prowess, where we were to meet up again with our guides before going our own separate ways for the afternoon.

It is, as my pictures show, a remarkably photogenic place.

Tuesday, 21 April 2009

Here we go again

More from the book of forward planning.

Over the Easter break the college has installed lovely high-tech computer smart boards in most of the classrooms in our department. Because we have this super new equipment we clearly no longer need such low-tech things as whiteboards, so they have taken them all away.
You can probably guess where this is leading.
The smart boards don't work, so we are left with teaching classes with absolutely nothing to write on.

Ah, the genius of it all.

DPRK: Prelude in Beijing (The Great Hall of the People)

As soon as we left the bus, a little way outside Tiananmen Square, it became obvious that China has changed a great deal since I first visited the city. For one thing nobody was wearing uniforms or red armbands. For another the ubiquitous coughing and spitting has, while not exactly disappeared completely, has been greatly reduced. It was the atmosphere that was most noticeable though. There is an openness, a lack of tension that wasn't there back then.

The people now in and around the square are clearly tourists, back then they seemed more like pilgrims. China may still be communist but it's a very capitalist style of communism now.

This new freedom seemed rather at odds with the frequent, and apparently pointless, X-ray checks that our bags were put through. I asked Bobby, our local guide, about it. He seemed rather amused.
"They bought a lot of X-ray machines before the Olympics," he explained, "So they feel they have to use them."

Our first vist was to something that hadn't been open to the public last time I was there - the Great Hall of the People. This is an impressive building that runs along the western side of the square and acts as a ceremonial building and the Chinese Parliament. Inside - among other things - are meeting halls for the various regions, a vast auditorium and various banqueting halls.

It's a magnificent building - outside and in. We were guided round for about an hour listening to descriptions of the building and the Chinese government, but, if truth be told, nobody was really listening as the look of the place was too distracting.
Eventually we returned to the reception hall. Through the glass doors we could see just how smoggy and dirty the air outside was, a fact that hadn't been immediately obvious to us when we were out there.

Monday, 20 April 2009

DPRK: Prelude in Beijing (Arrival)

The main trip was of course to DPRK, but at either end we had time in Beijing. Flying into North Korea is only possible from a few places. The UK isn't one of them. China is.
When I first visited Beijing, about twenty years ago, my initial impression was of greyness. Grey roads ran between grey buildings and grey dust covered the grey clothes of the grey people. Times have changed. Now the first impression is one that has been carefully designed and constructed specifically to leave visitors to the city gaping open-mouthed - the airport. Specifically Terminal three.
Of course we've all seen it on TV in the build up to the Chinese Olympics and during its construction. This one terminal is famously bigger than all five of London Heathrow's terminals together. It was, until Dubai overtook it, the largest passenger terminal building in the world. It looked impressive on television but that was nothing compared to the real thing. This place is designed to impress and it delivers. Vast cathedral-like spaces are filled with an impossible amount of light from walls of glass. Beamed domes with triangular skylights arch high above the gargantuan rooms. Uniformed staff look like toy soldiers in an aircraft hanger. The scale is immense and, as we arrived, it was, apart from the few disembarking passengers almost totally empty.

There was a bus ride from the plane to the terminal followed by a ten minute walk to passport control and then another walk to a railway station. A train journey of several minutes took us to baggage reclaim with another lengthy walk to conveyor belt 36. The buildings we pass by and through would not have been out of place in the glossiest of science fiction movies and the interiors were so pristine and gleaming they might have been polished only seconds before our arrival.
It was very, very impressive indeed.

DPRK Notes: Preface

So, I'm back. Did you miss me?
The Democratic People's Republic of Korea (aka North Korea) is one of the most interesting and unusual places that I have ever visited.. Over the next few weeks I'll be writing up my diaries of the trip and posting the edited highlights here. Rather than write it in daily diary form I'll post about the individual places we went and things that we saw. This is because it was without question the most packed trip I have ever been on. Apart from the start and finish in Beijing, not one minute of one day is left empty. When we weren't visiting things we were eating. When we were doing neither of those we were sleeping. To write it up here a day at a time would require thousand plus word entries that nobody would want to read. Those entries will start with the next one. This entry is a brief overview to set the scene.
The first thing that you need to know, if you have followed the automated entries saying where I was supposed to be, is best summed up by the words of our tour leader at the initial trip briefing.
"You know the itinerary that you have? You can put it away and forget it. On this tour things will change every day. Sometimes more than once. Everything will be covered but don't expect it to be in the same order listed."
He was right on all counts.
The general organisation of the tour was that we went everywhere accompanied by two guides - one man and one woman - and a cameraman who was recording the trip to produce a video to sell to us at the end. Opinion on the purpose of the guides varied. Were they there to facilitate our tour or to make sure that we didn't see or do anything the authorities didn't like or to report back to some shadowy control anything we said?
Paranoia is easy. Questions escalated. Were our rooms bugged? Was it safe to speak in the lifts? Who knows?
For what it's worth I think the guides were there to guide us - and that includes to guide us away from things we weren't supposed to see. And I think that a country having trouble keeping the water running or the lights on is unlikely to waste the effort needed to bug the rooms of a bunch of tourists. But what do I know?
I won't say any more right now about the country as I'd like you to build up the picture of it gradually, as I did, changing you opinion as the trip proceeds. I will say that it was the most fascinating trip I have ever made.
And that that isn't necessarily a good thing.
Entries here and on my photoblog will contain as many pictures as I can fit in.

Saturday, 18 April 2009

Virtual Travel Blog #11

Somewhere on a plane between there and here...

Friday, 17 April 2009

Virtual Travel Blog #10

Where I am right now is not somewhere that has convenient access to the internet so, rather than leave this blog empty while I'm gone, I thought I'd put a few entries up in advance telling what, according to my itinerary, I should be doing. When I get back I'll tell you what really happened.


A free day in Beijing. I have no idea what I'll be doing but you can be assured that I will be documenting it with my camera. Tomorrow I shall be getting my flight home, leaving at about lunchtime.

Thursday, 16 April 2009

Alices In Wonderland: Part 43

As she talks to the Gryphon and the Mock Turtle there is an announcement that a trial is beginning and Alice runs off to attend the trial.

This illustration comes from a very short Hungarian edition aimed at very young children and including Alice and seven other stories in a tiny, 72 page edition. I have tried to identify an artist credit on the book, and there may be one, but my Hungarian is none existent and I have drawn a blank.

Virtual Travel Blog #9

Where I am right now is not somewhere that has convenient access to the internet so, rather than leave this blog empty while I'm gone, I thought I'd put a few entries up in advance telling what, according to my itinerary, I should be doing. When I get back I'll tell you what really happened.


Strange as it sounds I'm really rather looking forward to today which consists entirely of a very long train journey through the day and on through the night returning to Beijing. I love travelling by train in countries where the trains are so much more interesting than our own English ones.

Wednesday, 15 April 2009

Virtual Travel Blog #8

Where I am right now is not somewhere that has convenient access to the internet so, rather than leave this blog empty while I'm gone, I thought I'd put a few entries up in advance telling what, according to my itinerary, I should be doing. When I get back I'll tell you what really happened.


We spend the morning still in Kaesong but then drive to the most fortified border in the world on the 38th parallel. This should be very interesting, though more interesting will be finding out just what we can and can't take pictures of.
Apparently we're returning in the evening to Pyongyang for a traditional duck barbecue.

Tuesday, 14 April 2009

Virtual Travel Blog #7

Where I am right now is not somewhere that has convenient access to the internet so, rather than leave this blog empty while I'm gone, I thought I'd put a few entries up in advance telling what, according to my itinerary, I should be doing. When I get back I'll tell you what really happened.


Today we have the Father Liberation Museum (gotta love those names!), a sculpture park, the Central Art Gallery and a film studio back in the capital followed by the ancient capital of Kaesong for a trip to the tomb of King Kongmin. The hotel here should be interesting as it's a traditional local hotel with mattresses on a heated floor rather than beds.

Monday, 13 April 2009

Virtual Travel Blog #6

Where I am right now is not somewhere that has convenient access to the internet so, rather than leave this blog empty while I'm gone, I thought I'd put a few entries up in advance telling what, according to my itinerary, I should be doing. When I get back I'll tell you what really happened.


The International Friendship Museum filled with, according to the guide, presents from foreign dignitaries and the well wishing public including railway carriages from Stalin and Mao. There is also a visit to a Buddhist temple and another to the Juche Tower.

Sunday, 12 April 2009

Alices In Wonderland: Part 42

The Duchess introduces Alice to two very odd characters, the Gryphon and the Mock Turtle with whom she has a long, punning conversation, a bit of a sing-song and a dance.

Some editions are illustrated by heavyweights. The 1978 Delacorte Press edition has one such - Tove Jansson, creator of the Moomins.

Virtual Travel Blog #5

Where I am right now is not somewhere that has convenient access to the internet so, rather than leave this blog empty while I'm gone, I thought I'd put a few entries up in advance telling what, according to my itinerary, I should be doing. When I get back I'll tell you what really happened.


On the agenda today we find a trip to the Kumsusan Memorial Palace, a stroll in the Moranbong Park, and a bus journey to the Myohyangsan mountains where we will be staying overnight.

Saturday, 11 April 2009

Virtual Travel Blog #4

Where I am right now is not somewhere that has convenient access to the internet so, rather than leave this blog empty while I'm gone, I thought I'd put a few entries up in advance telling what, according to my itinerary, I should be doing. When I get back I'll tell you what really happened.


A day in the North Korean capital starts with a visit to the Mansudae Monument, a ride on the Metro (just like home really) and a visit to the Arch of Triumph. There is also a visit to the birthplace of Kim Il Sung and another to the Grand People's study house.
The evening rounds off with a visit to the Korean State Circus.

Friday, 10 April 2009

Virtual Travel Blog #3

Where I am right now is not somewhere that has convenient access to the internet so, rather than leave this blog empty while I'm gone, I thought I'd put a few entries up in advance telling what, according to my itinerary, I should be doing. When I get back I'll tell you what really happened.


A dullish day planned for today, transfer to the hotel, flight to Pyongyang, transfer to the hotel. I imagine there'll be more to it than that unless the flight is incredibly inconveniently timed. Anyway, this is the day that I shall enter North Korea, not my birthday (which was yesterday) as I had previously miscalculated.

Thursday, 9 April 2009

Virtual Travel Blog #2

Where I am right now is not somewhere that has convenient access to the internet so, rather than leave this blog empty while I'm gone, I thought I'd put a few entries up in advance telling what, according to my itinerary, I should be doing. When I get back I'll tell you what really happened.


My only full day in Beijing should include revisits to the Forbidden City, Tiananmen Square, another possible chance to duck out of the Opera. I also have a free afternoon to wander round and take some pictures. Doubtless they will turn up here and on my other blog later.

It's also my birthday today, so I'm hoping that beer might be involved somewhere along the line.

Wednesday, 8 April 2009

Alices In Wonderland: Part 41

When the Duchess arrives she and Alice go wandering off away from the game, deep in conversation.

The illustration is from the Templar Publishing edition, 2002 and is by Cinzio Ratto who manages to be both quirky and charming and who has a wonderful web site to boot, albeit not in English.

Virtual Travel Blog #1

Where I am right now is not somewhere that has convenient access to the internet so, rather than leave this blog empty while I'm gone, I thought I'd put a few entries up in advance telling what, according to my itinerary, I should be doing. When I get back I'll tell you what really happened.


Today I should arrive in China, in Beijing. Nothing is listed on the itinerary for the day other than transfer to the hotel. As I arrive at about lunch time this seems a little unlikely. At the very least I'd expect a couple of very large Chinese meals and a walk around part of Beijing. I'd guess that here might be some kind of evening entertainment too, though God forbid that anyone should suggest the Chinese Opera. Should that happen I shall claim a headache, in anticipation of the one that the Chinese Opera gives to every European who listens to it.

Monday, 6 April 2009

DPRK Update

Well, I'm packed and ready to roll.
Twenty-four hours from now I'll be arriving at the airport with about thirty minutes to go to check-in. The flight leaves at 8:25 and takes about eleven hours. I'm normally not good at sleeping on planes but the timing is at least good so if I can get some sleep I will, at least ,be arriving at a sensible time and maybe even a little refreshed. It's helped by being a direct flight.

There will be posts here while I'm gone telling you where I'm supposed to be on each day and of course there will be photo posts over at my other blog. All of that has been set up in advance. The posts about what actually happens on the trip will all be made when I come back - so that's something for you to look forward to.

For now, I'll say au revoir.

See you around the 19th or 20th April.

Saturday, 4 April 2009

Alices In Wonderland: Part 40

As they play the Cheshire cat appears and has a conversation with Alice. The King and Queen are less than amused and order its head to be cut off. When the executioner says that he can't cut the head off unless there is a body to cut it off from, they send for its owner, the Duchess.

This illustration is from an unusual edition illustrated by Abelardo Morell who has used cut up versions of the Tenniel illustrations in a variety of settings and then photographed the results. The effect is a striking variation on the most familiar illustrations which I am sure Lewis Carroll, who was himself a renowned photographer, would have loved.

The edition is by Dutton Children's Books, from 1998.


...does anyone know how to indent text in a blogger post? Neither tab nor inserting spaces works as blogger just strips leading spaces and tabs back out again. Hence all those unsightly dot-dot-dots in the last poem.


Random Scenes from Childhood

a wedding in the pub lit green
..........barrels in the yard
lost in the market place
.....slip away unseen
..........pulse pounding hard
...............race home in tears
having tonsils out
.....gulping ice-cream
..........printing on sheets
...............trampoline bed
building a sandpit crocodile’s pretended scream
...........“killing” it with feet
...............castle walls instead
visiting my gran
.....sunday afternoon
..........cakes and jelly
...............unfamiliar street
hiding in the alley
.....distant as the moon
..........butterfly belly
...............homeward retreat

Objects in the rear-view mirror

"But it was long ago and it was far away, oh God it seems so very far
And if life is just a highway, then the soul is just a car
And objects in the rear view mirror may appear closer than they are
And objects in the rear view mirror may appear closer than they are"

(Meat Loaf)

I just read the latest round up on the Bad Science blog and the part where Ben Goldacre talks about the unreliability of memory really struck a chord with me. A few weeks ago I was walking home from work along my regular route through the city centre when I noticed a building. Now we are not talking about a small building. The one I noticed was big. Huge. It towered up behind the other buildings and I stopped and looked at it with the bizarre notion in my head that I had never seen it before. It had clearly been there a long time. It wasn't a new building. "I wonder", I wondered, "how many times I have walked along here and failed completely to notice that?"
If anyone had asked me just an hour earlier if such a building existed I would have said, "No." If they had shown me a photograph I would have complimented them on their clever use of Photoshop.
Another illustration of the fallibility of our attention and of how we instantly forget almost everything we see is one any regular commuter is familiar with. How many times have you got to work and can't recall a single thing about the journey you have just made? The worrying thing is that this happens not just when you are in the mind-numbing environment of the bus, train or metro but also in the environment of the car where you could reasonably be assumed to be paying attention.
Of course this has more to do with focus than memory but it is interesting. (Well I think so.)

I have recently started posting various autobiographical poems about my childhood but I have to wonder how much of it is true, not because of my writing or the need to fit the scansion but because I'm not sure of what I remember. I've mentioned before that one of my earliest memories is of being with the other kids in the yard outside a pub where a relative was holding a wedding reception. I've also mentioned before that I don't actually know if I remember the event or remember remembering it later. I'm not even certain that it happened at all. Similarly with other memories from childhood: the swing behind the neighbours' garden, making a sand crocodile, getting lost in the market and running home. At least I have independent verification of the last one as it was favourite story of my mother's throughout her life.

Another incident occurs to me to demonstrate the utter betrayal our memories are capable of. My mother died in 1998 and was followed a few years later by her sister, my aunt. At my aunt's funeral one her sons read a eulogy and told a story of how his mother had once given the "kiss of life" to a dieing goldfish using a straw. As he said it simultaneously my brother and I turned to look at each other. Both of us remember this as having been our mother. My cousin and his brothers all remember it as having been their mother. It's beyond unlikely that that it happened twice and we are all correct so either two of us in my family or three of them in their family have identical but wrong memories.

I suppose the bottom line is that my autobiography may or may not be true and the fact that I remember it all won't make it any truer.

So now I'm going to end this post and start a new one with a new post in my autobiographical series.

Thursday, 2 April 2009

DPRK Update

My timing appears to be as impeccable as ever.

Hopefully this renewed tension will not lead to any difficulties either with the running of my trip or with the trip itself.