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.

Saturday, 30 May 2009

DPRK: Various Monuments

The day’s itinerary was, as usual, laid out before us, but the weather made it less than appealing. We were to stop for a photograph of the Three Charters Monument, visit the Great Leader’s birthplace, visit an open air sculpture park, visit the Pyongyang Metro, visit the Great Leader’s monument (also in the open), go to a fairground to celebrate the Leader’s birthday. Not a promising list for such a day.

We did stop at the services and again for the Three Charters photo opportunity, miraculously in a very brief gap in the worst of the rain, but by the time we reached Mangyondae, the birthplace of the Leader, it was pouring again.

Clearly we could not miss out such an important place but our visit was as brief as it’s possible to be, a fifteen minute tour of the main bit with a guide explaining about Kim Il Sung’s early life and then back onto the bus.

It was still raining hard when we reached our next stop - the Pyongyang Metro. Anyone who hasn't seen this kind of overblown communist architecture might be wondering why on Earth we would want to visit the metro. I wondered myself until we got in there. We were allowed, accompanied of course, to ride the metro for one stop so we saw two stations. They were designed and built with an opera-house grandeur. There was more of that marble everywhere. There were rows of elaborate, multicoloured crystal chandeliers. There were massive murals of workers, of the Great and Dear Leaders, of revolutionary scenes. The metro itself on the other hand, though efficient enough could hardly be considered a model of modern comfort; the design of it, with it's hard leather seats and harsh lighting reminded me of the kind of buses and trains we had in the UK maybe forty years ago when I was at school.The weather had eased a bit once more by the time we reached the Great Leader’s statue. This is twenty three metres high and is, according to our guides, solid bronze. Given that a 10cm cube of bronze weighs about eight kilograms then a metre cube of bronze would weigh about 8000 kg and such a statue would, I estimate, weigh about two million kilograms.

I didn’t do that calculation at the time but, suspicious of this “fact” I did ask the question. I was told that the statue weighs “as much as the hearts of all the people of Korea”.

Actually the statue is, political ideology apart, extremely impressive. It isn’t just the statue of the leader, it is flanked by two enormous reliefs representing the flag of the country and the revolutionary struggle. There is no need for such an obvious and transparent fiction. It’s wonder enough without it.

After that it was back to the hotel where we had lunch in the revolving restaurant that sits at the very top of the structure looking out over the city. Lunch was excellent though for once my mushroom allergy got me the better deal. Instead of a vegetable soup (containing mushrooms) I was given a bowl of truly delicious pumpkin soup which was quite the nicest thing I had eaten in days.

In view of the weather we were also presented with a new itinerary for the rest of the day. After freshening up and changing into slightly smarter clothes we were to head out for the Sate Symphony Hall to see and hear a concert by the Korean Sate Symphony Orchestra, follow that with a visit to the annual flower festival celebrating Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il, stop briefly for some more photographs of monuments then finish the day with a traditional Korean duck barbecue in a restaurant.

How is that even possible?

I've been having problems with my computer recently. Basically certain websites have, when I connect to them, been behaving rather oddly. Not logging me in properly, not letting me have access to certain sections of them. Giving me access to a different random selection of pages each time I log in. Plain weird.

I tried connecting on different computers with different operating systems and using different firewalls. No joy.
I contacted the sites to find out if I was alone in this. I was.
I contacted my ISP and spent a lot of time on the phone without success.
I took my laptop and modem to a shop and we tried an apparently identical modem with my laptop and my modem with an apparently identical laptop. The problem suddenly semed to be with my modem.
I spent more time on the support line and we agreed to replace both the modem and the sim card, though neither of us could see how either of those things could produce such strange symptoms.

They said they would send a new sim and a secure envelope to return the modem. The sim came this morning and I popped it into my old modem and lo and behold, the problem has gone away.

My question is this. How in the hell is it even possible for a sim card to have a fault that specifically produces that kind of error on certain sites and no errors at all on any other sites?

I don't get it.

Friday, 29 May 2009

Alices In Wonderland: Part 46

Among the witnesses, there is the Mad Hatter...

This illustration is from a "Best Loved Stories" edition from World International Publishing Limited. (1984). The text is abridged for young readers but the art is uncredited.

A little walk

I spent this morning chasing my tail in a frustrating attempt to get some computer problems I've been having resolved. Eventually, after a promise of some action from my ISP, I gave up, put my camera in my pocket and went for a walk.
I live in the middle of what my old geography teacher used to call the "West Midlands Conurbation". I've never thought of it as especially pretty or scenic, but, if you choose your route carefully, you can, even here, get away from the roads and traffic. Here are a few of the pictures I took. More will be appearing sometime soon on my other blog.
The interesting thing about these pictures is that at no point in the hour and a half that I was walking was I ever more than about a minute away from a main road.

Thursday, 28 May 2009

DPRK: Kaesong Folk Hotel

From the mountain we drove to our lodgings for the evening, the delightful Kaesong Folk Hotel where guests stay in traditional style rooms, sleeping on thin mattresses on the floor with hard blocks for a pillow. On the way we passed the town square where the children's festival was still going on and moments later drove into the car park of the hotel.
The complex is built across a small stream and the individual blocks contain several rooms around small courtyards.

We dropped our belongings in the rooms and went out to take a couple of pictures before a tasty but uncomfortable dinner, again in the traditional Korean style, seated on the floor. The only downside to the whole thing was that we were not allowed to leave the grounds of the hotel, not even by a few paces to take photographs in the street.
That notwithstanding it was a very pleasant place to finish the day.

Next morning, when we went down for breakfast, we also realised that we could see the distant statue of Kim Il Sung on top of the hill. Had we looked for it in the dark of the previous evening, after we had spent an hour or two in the candlelit environs of the bar - the power having gone off shortly after our arrival - we would also have seen it. The various monuments to the two leaders around the country are among the few things where power is most carefully maintained even through the frequent power cuts that afflict everywhere else.

Tuesday, 26 May 2009

Joined up programme planning

The new Terminator movie opens here very soon. Naturally this means that the previous three Terminator movies are showing on TV next week. They are showing on different channels. Terminator 3 shows on Channel 5 on Sunday. Terminator 2 shows on ITV on Wednesday and The Terminator (1) shows on BBC1 on Friday.

I know the movies have a time travel plot but isn't this just a touch silly?

Alices In Wonderland:Part 45

The defendant in the trial is, of course, the Knave of Hearts.

As an interesting (or perhaps not) aside, this is the role that I took, aged six or seven, in my infants school play. I had, as I recall, two lines. "It wasn't me." and "Do I look like it?"

This illustration is from another of those editions where I would like to give some information but can't. It's a Japanese edition and because I can't read a single word of Japanese I don't know the publisher or any other details. What I can say is that it, in spite of the picture below, quite typical Manga art by, according to the shop where I bought it (in Malaysia) Sakumo Shigeko.

As ever, if anyone can provide more details of the edition, I'd be grateful.

DPRK: Kongmin Tombs

The other site that we had to get in wasn't very far away and a few minutes later we arrived there: the tombs of King Kongmin and his wife. These are a genuine ancient monument dating to 1372. They are located in a quite charming area and a short stroll up the stone steps brings you to the twin mounds of the tombs. Here there are a number of excellent statues, virtually free of restoration and a view of the strangely named "Oh My" Mountain.
The legend of the name is that King Kongmin had been seeking for some time the perfect site for the tombs to be constructed. He had consulted all the best geomancers in the land but didn't like any of the suggestions. In despair he said that the next geomancer to provide a location would be richly rewarded if he liked it and executed if he didn't. The site was selected and Kongmin went to inspect it. He told his soldiers that if he didn't like it he would wave a handkerchief from the top of the hill as a signal to kill the geomancer. When he reached the top of the hill he found that it was a perfect site. However it was a hot day and he unthinkingly took out a handkerchief to wipe the sweat from his brow. At the bottom of the hill they mistook this as the signal and killed the geomancer. When the king reached the bottom again they told him what had happened and he said "Oh My!". Since then, this has been the name of the mountain.

DPRK: In the news

There can't be many people who are not aware of the DPRK's nuclear test this week. It's been roundly condemned by pretty much everybody, though I doubt most of the DPRK general public are aware of that. External news sources are pretty much non-existent in the country. The opposite isn't true though. On the BBC we saw a clip of the DPRK state broadcast announcing the news. I have no idea at all if the translation was accurate but that wasn't what interested me. I was fascinated by the DPRK announcer's voice which was shrieking and hysterical and bizarre in a lunatic-on-helium way.
I have, as you'll see in a couple of posts time, encountered this weird way of speaking in the DPRK before, from the announcer at the concert I attended at the State Symphony Hall. It struck me as ludicrously demented at the concert, as a style for reading the news it is quite the most bizarre thing I've seen in weeks.

Monday, 25 May 2009

Alices In Wonderland: Part 44

After quite a long delay, I'm picking up the threads of this sequence, so...

The trial, in which the court is trying to determine who stole the tarts, continues.

One of the lesser illustrators of Alice is, of course, Lewis Carroll who did his own illustrations for the first edition, which had the original title "Alice's Adventures Underground". There are a number of facsimile editions of this work that include the illustrations but, if truth be told, hiring a professional (Tenniel) for the first proper publication of the book was a wise decision. Carroll's illustrations are far too naive to appear in a professional work.

Sunday, 24 May 2009

DPRK: Kaesong Children's Palace

Many things in the DPRK had reminded me of the China that I visited more than twenty years ago. The infrastructure of the country, the apparently unquestioning nature of the population, the disparity between those in the party apparatus and those not; all these things and more were similar. So when I discovered that the afternoon was to be a visit to a school, I thought that I knew exactly what it would entail. In that visit to China we had had just such a visit, in Shanghai, and I recall it to this day. We saw displays of expert dancing from groups of young girls and boys; we saw a group of students learning to create beautiful calligraphy; we saw a child of about six playing a complex piece of Bach watched by two beaming piano teachers; we saw displays of artistic, musical and gymnastic prowess that would have impressed anyone. We even saw a class of students assembling transistor radios. And at the time I recall remarking that I bet there wasn't a child in the whole showcase school that wasn't the son or daughter of a fully paid up party official.

This afternoon, I was sure, would be more of the same: the children of the elite (which of course doesn't exist in the DPRK) performing highly skilled routines in a school at Kaesong that the kids of those peasants toiling all day with their hands wouldn't ever have the slightest chance of getting near.

Under normal circumstances that's exactly what it would have been. In fact it started out that way. We stopped the bus some way from the school and walked towards it. There were large groups of uniformed school children laying flowers at the feet of a statue of the Great Leader. In the school we saw some displays of basketball and karate but it was clear that most of the children weren't there and we soon found out why.

Tomorrow, April 15th, was of course the celebration of the birthday of the Great Leader, Kim Il Sung and today, out in the town square the students were having a celebration in song and dance. Our English tour leader asked the Korean guides if we could stay and watch some of it so we went out to the square where it was just getting underway and sat down on the floor, with the assembled crowd to watch. It was fascinating. It started with a group of teenagers dancing on roller skates accompanied by a full orchestra which, while not perfect was certainly quite amazing for school musicians. They were followed by the pupils of the school performing a great variety of dance routines, song performances - both solo and as a choir, an accordion group, acrobatics and gymnastics. And all of it was performed with a breathtaking degree of skill. And all of it was performed in front of the giant smiling beatific portrait of the leader in whose honour it had been conceived. We stayed there for about an hour, quite literally enthralled by it, until our guides insisted that we had another site to visit and needed to be moving on.

It was only later that a comparison occurred to me. In the film Cabaret, there is a scene where a group of people go out to a cafe and while they are there, members of the Hitler Youth perform the song "Tomorrow Belongs To Me". Beginning with a solo singer it mounts to a sinister and triumphal crescendo. It's one of the most chilling moments in the whole film, especially when Michael York remarks, as they are leaving, "Do you still think you can control them?"

Friday, 22 May 2009

DPRK: The Concrete Wall

The sense of reality though was rather quickly dispelled when we left the DMZ. We drove for some time through land that was more fertile than we had seen in the north and villages that were a little more substantial but the overall standard of living and the complete lack of modern farming methods (by which I mean from the last six centuries) was unchanged. We were on our way to something called "the Concrete Wall". One of our group was a political historian with a special interest in Korea and he had never heard of this edifice. Nor, it transpired, had anyone else on the bus. To give the DPRK viewpoint I will quote from another leaflet that I picked up.

"The Korean people are a homogeneous nation of the same blood that has lived for many centuries in the same territory, using one language.
Over their 5000 years of history, they have created a brilliant culture and enjoyed a harmonious life. However since the end of the Second World War, when US troops occupied the south area of Korea in 1945, the Korean people have been living in a country divided for over half a century...
...The concrete wall, which runs from east to west, was built by the south Korean puppet clique at the instigation of the US imperialists, their masters, in order to divide the nation into two for ever.
It is 5-8 m high, 10-19 m wide at the bottom and 3-7 m wide in the upper part., and fitted out with pillboxes, lookouts and other military establishments. It is 240 km long"

Before I give my opinion about the wall, let me continue for a moment to describe what we saw and the circumstances in which we saw it.

We drove away from the DMZ for around forty minutes and arrived at a car park in the middle of nowhere at the foot of a small hill. We walked up the hill into a dull and functional military-style building. Behind the building, in a dugout trench, a row of binoculars and telescopes were mounted on fixed tripod bases, looking out across a barren and empty stretch of ground. In the very far distance there was a road visible with some traffic on it. Halfway between us and that road was a stretch of what looked like wall, though it was hardly visible without the use of the binoculars and telescopes. Here and there were things that might have been military observation towers.
The details of the walls construction were explained to us and the evils of the American overlords who had demanded it made clear. Comparisons were made with the Berlin Wall.

There are, as even the most determinedly non-militaristic can see, a number of problems with all of this. First and foremost is that the question "who gains" is ignored altogether. Coming from the west and having taught English to any number of South Koreans I can state absolutely that I have never met a single one who wanted to be reunited with the North, especially if that meant giving up the high standard of life that they have now to join a regime ruled by such a dynasty and essentially hurl themselves back to a repressive feudalism. Whether they are right or not is irrelevant. It is in their interest to encourage defectors from the North, to make it easier, not harder, for such people to enter South Korea. (Of course the DPRK position is that everyone there is happy in paradise so there are no defectors, in the same way that they need no prisons because there are no criminals.)
Secondly there is the construction of the wall. It has, they say a north facing, vertical wall of up to 8m and a south facing sloping wall. In what way is this an effective fortification? Sure it would prevent the immediate advance of tanks from the north but it would also prevent the advance from the south. An eight metre vertical drop wouldn't be very easy to negotiate, would it? Then there is the manpower and the effort and the time that would have been required to build as opposed to, say, laying a minefield.
Of course there is that Berlin Wall comparison to look at as well. That was built by the East to keep their people in, rather than by the West to keep them out. This tends to be far more typical of such measures.

Then of course there is another set of questions to be asked. If it really is across the whole length of the border then why did we need a forty minute drive to get to it when we were already at the border? Truly I had no idea where we were. We could have been at the border of fifty km away from it for all any of us knew. We were also looking at it through binoculars from a kilometre away. It could just as easily have been made of polystyrene as concrete.
All in all there was nothing convincing about it, either in concept or execution, though it was rather creepy to hear the North Korean descriptions of it, delivered with every appearance of sincerity.

Wednesday, 20 May 2009

A brief note

A larger version of the DMZ panorama in the last post can be seen by clicking on it. It's well worth a look.


You might think that the Demilitarized Zone would be another of the unsettling experiences of the tour, but in many ways it is far less so than the Memorial Palace or the Friendship Exhibition. For a start, it seemed to me to be much more honest. We had spent the whole morning driving along completely deserted highways; wide, well-maintained, perfectly straight routes that had absolutely no traffic on them. Long distance travel, it seems, is something that doesn't happen in the DPRK. I suppose, had I asked, I would have been told that when everyone is happy where they are they have no need to move. Given that I know that you need permits to travel in much of the country and special permits to enter or reside in the capital, I suspect the truth of the matter is rather more sinister.

We broke to stretch our legs and have a cup of tea at something that was a bit like a very small motorway service station. Only a bit like it as the staff had clearly set up five minutes before we got there and would equally clearly be shifting everything away five minutes after we left. We were the only people there. Hardly surprising as, as far as I could tell, we were the only people on the road. Almost everyone walked out into the middle of the deserted highway to take pictures. When would that ever happen on one of our major routes?
We arrived in the late morning at the DMZ and, after some formalities and hanging around, were driven down a narrow road - with clear points where concrete blocks could, at a moment's notice, be used to render it impassable - to the DMZ itself.

We've done the history lesson that resulted in the creation of this strip of land separating North from South, so we don't need to do it again.
Inside the DMZ you can see the hut where the armistice talks took place, a small and comfortable place; the larger, colder, less friendly hall where the agreement was signed (and an array of photographs and exhibits from the period); the Joint Security area where the actual border is marked by a line across the concrete the neatly bisects the group of blue huts that straddle the border.

You can actually walk around a table in the hut, under the watchful eye of the guards, thus entering South Korea and then re-entering North Korea. This is the one place that you can visit from both countries. (Or from the DPRK perspective, from both halves of the single country.)

A uniformed officer shows you around, explaining everything in Korean, for your guides to translate. He'll even let you take his picture, or pose with you in the one place in the whole country where such a thing is permitted.
There is a fine irony in the name DMZ, given that it is the most heavily armed border on Earth and given that, under their respective flags, the fortress-like buildings that face each other are clearly so heavily armed and protected.
Nevertheless, in its own brutal way, it is much more honest than almost anything else we had seen. Name aside, there is no real pretence here that everything would be fine if only the Americans would stop the brothers in the South from pursuing their desire to join with the North. This is a military base and nobody claims otherwise.

Monday, 18 May 2009

DPRK: Korean State Circus

As with many experiences in the DPRK there was a kind of hybrid Lewis Carroll-Franz Kafka feel to our visit to the circus. It began when the bus pulled up on a rain-swept, deserted car park in front of the large and impressive building where the circus is held. We were escorted in, into an foyer that was as large as any theatre I have previously seen. Once again the predominant building material was marble. Marble staircases swept up and down from this grand entrance. Those of us wishing to, ahem, use the facilities, after our long drive were escorted down one of these into the basement where the equally impressively built and decorated toilets had no running water. Once we had been escorted back up we were placed in a waiting room. This was a large rectangular room with armchairs lined up around the sides for us to sit on and portraits of the two leaders hung upon the walls. Why we had to wait there never did become clear, though a random assortment of Koreans and non-Koreans entered or left over the next fifteen minutes until finally we were led out, upstairs and into the auditorium. It looked like any other circus. There was a circular performing area in front of a stage. High above it in the roof were what were clearly trapezes. Rows of seats were banked steeply around one the side opposite the stage. We were led to our, rather good, seats. Strangely the place was very busy, if not actually full. I had seen no signs of life on the car park and could only imagine that there was another, less grand, entrance for the locals to use.

Soon the acts began. In many respects they were completely normal circus acts. There were wire-walkers, trapeze artists, tumblers and acrobats, trampolinists and trick cyclists and even a couple of entertaining and inventive clowns to fill in the gaps while the equipment was being set up or taken down behind them. There was one moderately unpleasant animal act involving performing bears but otherwise it was a well-performed and entertaining circus.
Except for one thing.
It was clearly the right place to use that phrase from the book.
Sasang-yesulsong-i nopsum-nida.” – It is of high ideological and artistic quality.
Let me illustrate with just one example, the wire-walkers. They were a group of extremely skilled artists: racing along the wires – slack or tight – on foot or on unicycles, alone or in acrobatic groups. The wowed the audience with their practiced and flawless routines. So what was ideological about it? Well two things. First it was performed in front of a backdrop projection of glorious revolutionary workers building power pylons and the routine was clearly designed to mimic this heroic activity. The “workers” ran up the wires, erected imaginary pylons and generally created a spectacle of good comrades at work.

Other acts were performed in a similar way and in front of similar projections. One of the routines from the clowns involved two working men with a (styrofoam) telegraph pole. Another had the hapless, but honest, worker making a fool of the wily, but unscrupulous landlord.

When it was all over we were led back out through a busier foyer but into a still deserted car park.

Saturday, 16 May 2009

DPRK: The International Friendship Exhibition

Note: photographs in this entry are taken from the International Friendship Exhibition tourist leaflet that I picked up at the hotel. Photography is strictly forbidden.

Less phony, though a good deal more disturbing was the Friendship Exhibition. This too has been built in the Mt Myohyang region, apparently because it was a favourite area for the Great Leader to spend time. As you approach by road you see what looks like two very traditional Korean buildings. They are no such things. They are a decorative front for an extravagant exhibition of gifts received by Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il. As befits his higher status we visited the Great Leader's bit first. Once we had passed the smart, unsmiling, armed guards on the door we handed in our coats and cameras (no photography is permitted), put cotton outer covers over our shoes and proceeded into somewhere that was every bit as overblown and bizarre as the Memorial Palace had been. Room after marble-lined room has been built into the side of the mountain, joined by marble lined corridors. In every room there are display cases containing the gifts. It's a bizarrely eclectic selection. There are statues made of every conceivable material from wood, to metal, to stone, to ivory, horn, Bakelite, plastic, glass. They are of every conceivable subject from revolutionary scenes to animals to abstracts to sports figures. There is furniture and there are costumes. There are cars and a train. There is a drinks tray made from a dead crocodile. There silver bowls and golden tea services. There are precious jewels set into ornate objects and precious jewels presented as if dug from the ground yesterday.

As you read the captions or listen to the guide certain things become obvious. As with the awards room at the Mausoleum, the greater and more elaborate the gift the dodgier the country it came from. Valuable gem-studded artefacts often turned out to be from the countries, communist or otherwise, with human rights records of the most appalling kind. There were, for example, several very large (not to mention illegally modern) ivory carvings presented by Robert Mugabe. Gifts from European nations tended to be not from Governments or Government figures but from individuals, business organisations or fringe left-wing political groups with tiny memberships. Official state gifts from western nations tended to carry an apparently unnoticed level of ironic comment. Gifts from the UK for example filled a single small cabinet and included the kind of "Present from London" souvenir rubbish that you'd be ashamed to give to your least favourite auntie, and a present labelled as being from "Ex-President and Mrs Jimmy Carter" was a cheap and nasty glass ash-tray.

Part of the way round there was another compulsory opportunity to bow to a wax effigy of the Great Leader. It was surreal. The lifelike effigy was at the end of a long room. It had been placed in a setting of artificial trees on a footpath that merged into the painting of the mountains on the wall behind. There was more of that vaguely stirring music playing, this time rather softly, accompanied by the noises of birdsong. Fans ruffled the faux-foliage with a semblance of a summer breeze. We duly lined up in front of this figure and bowed though, as one wit commented later, it was really more of a Mexican wave than a bow as such.

The tour was briefly interrupted for a cup of tea on the terrace where we could sit and contemplate what is said to have been one of the Great Leader's favourite views. We could also read one of his poems but either he was a rotten poet or he had a rotten translator because it was something most people would be ashamed to put their names to, full of clichéd, pompous phrases about the revolutionary spirit of the people.

More rooms full of more gifts followed until we were led back outside, across the car park and into the second building. Smaller, but similar it was devoted not to the Great Leader but to the Dear Leader. If anything his gifts were a weirder selection than his dad's. In addition to the statues and paintings and tapestries, the exhibition had more furniture than a branch of Ikea. There were radios and computers, cameras and telescopes. There was a Basketball signed by Michael Jordan and apparently presented by Madeleine Albright.
We rather rushed this second experience as time was moving on and we needed to get to lunch before taking that dull drive back to Pyongyang for our visit to the circus. We were hurried around it by our guides and were soon on our way.