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, 25 June 2009

Remembering only monsters

I did a lesson today based around a short documentary film about Albert Schweitzer. With my morning class I had a preliminary discussion about what was to come and wasn't at all surprised to find out that none of them had heard of him. However afterwards, in the staffroom, I was shocked to find out that only one of the other teachers had heard of him and even she was only vaguely familiar with the name.
So in the afternoon class, after establishing that no one there had heard of him either, I asked how many people knew of Hitler. They were more or less contempories with Hitler being born 14 years after Schweitzer and dieing twenty years before him. Naturally everyone had heard of Hitler. Similarly everyone new Idi Amin and most knew Pol Pot. They even volunteered more names to add to the list - Mussolini, Saddam Hussein.

Then we watched the film, viewing it in sections, answering questions about it and discussing the issues raised. Finally I had them write their own brief biographies from their notes. It all worked very well.

Now, I realise that you know all about Albert Schweitzer already so you can skip this bit, but just in case anyone doesn't...

Albert Schweitzer was a German doctor who spent most of his life working as a medical missionary in Africa. He received the Nobel Prize for Peace in 1953. The newspapers of the day called him "The Greatest Man Alive". He was a passionate anti-war and anti-nuclear weapon advocate. He wrote books on medicine, theology, philosophy and music. He was a renowned concert organist. He devised a philosophy based on the principle of "reverence for live". He died in 1965, aged 90 having worked almost up to the end. He was a truly remarkable man.

And my unscientific straw poll found nobody who had heard of him.

It seems that good men are forgotten while the monsters - the Adolf Hitlers, the Idi Amins - are remembered through the ages; that you become better known by killing people than curing them. There must be something in the human psyche that draws us to this darker side of history, or perhaps it's just that we never learn about it in school and never even find out that it's there to learn.

It's not, as todays lessons showed, for lack of interest. They were two of the most successful lessons I've done this year. They paid attention to the DVD, answered the questions and were eager to discuss the issues raised. Four of the students asked me after the lessons if I could give them any information about buying biographies of Schweitzer or even any of his works, though I suspect that for the moment they would find them very heavy going.

That's what I call a great lesson outcome.

I just wish people knew more about the world's good men than its bad men. I suppose I can live in hope.

Tuesday, 23 June 2009

Metro Voices and walking round with my eyes closed

I've been asked to do another reading for City Voices. Well, not quite. There is a second regular venue opening up right in my home town of Bilston, Metro Voices. On Thursday 23rd July at 7:30 I will be reading selections from my descriptions of a recent visit to North Korea. Of course with the speed with which the situation over there is changing, I may have to rewrite it before then.

One interesting thing is the venue, the Cafe Metro. What's interesting is not only that I have never heard of it, but that when I looked it up it seems, according to the map to be no more than a dozen yards from my regular pub. This isn't the first time this has happened. Some time ago I was having a drink, and intending to have a meal, in that pub with some friends. Unfortunately there was a power cut so we had to change our plans. Another of my friends was coincidentally in the pub and he suggested that we should try an Indian restaurant on the High Street. I was unaware of any Indian restaurant on the High Street but sure enough, when we followed his directions, there was one. Granted it was hidden behind a fairly nondescript door in a fairly nondescript wall but it was there and I had walked past it thousands of times without noticing it.

I wonder how many other things there are that I have sleepwalked past all my life.

Monday, 22 June 2009

Alice in Wonderland. Again?

And it seems, if this report is to be believed, to be some kind of sequel.

Well I thought I knew the book.

I've been following the news of the forthcoming Tim Burton Alice In Wonderland movie with the interest that you would expect.
The Internet Movie Database has an extensive cast list, and it worries me for a number of reasons. I'm not too concerned that it includes The Jabberwock and Tweedledee and Tweedledum, characters from Through The Looking Glass, as most of the other screen versions have also used them. Just too iconic to miss out, I suppose. I am concerned that they (the Tweedles, that is) are, according to the cast list, performed by Matt Lucas who has never done anything at all that I can stand. Maybe his just voicing the digital images won't be so bad.
They aren't the only Looking Glass characters either. The cast list also includes the Red Queen and the White Queen, though neither the King nor Queen of Hearts. Clearly this one isn't going to be terribly faithful to the book.

Slightly more concerning is that I know the books probably as well as anyone you will ever encounter. If I were on Mastermind with Alice as my specialist subject, you wouldn't be seeing many passes. So why, out of forty characters listed are there no fewer than twenty-eight that I have never heard of, twenty-eight that are simply not in the book at all?

Makes you wonder just where Burton will be going with it, doesn't it.

With all that said I love this conceptual art.

Sunday, 21 June 2009

This post has been ******ed

I do so love the way that Governments like to dress up unpleasant truths in words they think that we won't understand. The Americans gave us "extraordinary rendition" meaning "state sponsored kidnapping" and now we have had, from our own Government, "redact", a technical publishing term so obscure that I had to look it up.
In case anyone hasn't bothered to consult a dictionary, the primary meaning is "to prepare for publication". What this normally means is to proofread, structure and edit. What it means in the hands of the Government is to wipe out great swathes of information that they would rather we didn't see. Unfortunately, thanks to the Daily Telegraph we've seen a lot of it already and you can bet that the parts that we haven't seen they'll get round to in due course.

Until then we'll have to settle for the Government redacting things out of existence.

Wednesday, 17 June 2009

The Egyptian diet

Today was my students' writing exam. The subject was "healthy eating".
One of the students is clearly following the "Egyptian diet".

He wrote that his favourite food was "Chicken and Cheops".

The Birthday Problem

One of those books mentions, in passing, one of my favourite bits of counter-intuitive maths. I first ran across it way back, when I was a nerdy schoolkid who liked to do maths. Just in case there is anyone who is unfamiliar with it, here it is again.
How many people need to be in a room in order for there to be a better than even money chance that two of them have the same birthday?
You can assume that all birthdays are equally likely and, just to make it a bit easier, you can forget about leap years.
So, think about it.
Of course if you've come across this before you had the answer sentences ago.
But, on the off chance that you haven't seen it, go on, think about it.
I'll just wait here.
(Um-de-dum-de-dum-de dum)
Still thinking?
Go on, I'm in no hurry.
OK. Let's have a look at the problem. Most people instinctively go for rather high numbers. 183 is a fairly common answer, presumably because that's over half of 365. It's completely wrong though. The correct answer, and I can prove it, is 23.
The way to tackle it is to work out the percentage chance that NONE of them have the same birthday and then take that away from 100.
So if there is one person in a room he has a birthday that (because we're ignoring leap years) must fall on one of 365 different dates. If someone else comes in then that person's birthday can be on any one of the others so it has 364/365 chance of not being the same. The next person has 363 chances in 365, the next one has 362 chances and so on.
The 23rd person has 343 in 365.
To get the chance of all of these events being true, we need to multiply them together.
(365/365) * (364/365) * (363/365) *... ... * (343/365)
and if you do that you get 0.048697 or as a percentage about 48.7%.
So if the percentage chance of there being no two birthdays the same is 48.7%, then the percentage chance that at least two are the same is 51.3%, or a bit more than evens. It turns out with a bit more maths that you only need there to be 57 people for there to be a better than 99% chance that two of them share a birthday and for a hundred people the chance of there being no two people who share a birthday falls to below one in a million.
I remember that being one of the first bits of counter-intuitive maths that I ever saw. I love maths almost as much as I love languages.

Tuesday, 16 June 2009

Bad Maths

While I'm on the subject of Bad Science, Ben Goldacre's entertaining dissection of the alternative medicine industry and the bad practices of the pharamcuticals industry...
The trouble (or maybe the advantage) of reading this kind of stuff is that you can't stop noticing examples all around you when you have read it.For example there is a report that I heard on TV at least half a dozen times yesterday which says, in various paraphrases, that "men are up to 70% more likely to die of cancer than women."
The suggestion is that this is a) terrible and b) due to men's lifestyles.The trouble is that the bare statistic is entirely meaningless unless they give a lot more information with it. We need to know what they mean by 70% more likely. We need to know if they are talking about men who have cancer being more likely to die than women who have cancer or do they mean men and women from the whole population.
On its own the bald statement is indecipherable. For example, if 1 woman in 1000 dies of cancer then this figure means that slightly less than two men in a thousand do. Whereas if 100 women in 1000 die of cancer then 170 men do. Rather more significant.If we are talking about the number of cancer patients who die (rather than the number of people who die of cancer), the maths gets more complicated because we would need to know the incidence of cancer in male and female populations as well as the actual relative sizes of those populations before the statistic becomes meaningful.This imprecise use of mathematical language isn't hard to understand - it arises because journalists need a short quick way of saying things without giving long explanations and most of them probably don't understand that their statistics are, as presented, completely meaningless.
And that's before we look at the intuitive leap that says it's down to lifestyle differences.
I must look up the actual research paper and see what it really says.

Sacrificing a Goat

I have recently finished reading Ben Goldacre’s Bad Science and Simon Singh and Edzard Ernst's Trick or Treatment, two books that cover largely similar ground. Goldacre’s book is lighter and more humorous, while Singh and Ernst’s is more focussed and more specific but both go heavily into the concepts of evidence based medicine and into why there is little or no evidence that alternate therapies such as chiropracty, homeopathy or acupuncture actually work, indeed there is evidence that they may actually be harmful. (On the whole there is no evidence that they work because they don’t, but that’s not what I’m writing about here.)
Both books include sections on why clever people believe stupid things.
However I think that there is a reason that clever people believe stupid things that is missing in both cases and it’s missing because the starting point for the argument is that people treat homeopathy and so on as if they were sciences and behave accordingly. People give the same credence to nonsense such as crystal healing as they do to antibiotics. To some extent this is true but I’d argue that most of these pseudo-sciences are, to all intents and purposes, much more like religions than sciences. They are filled with strange rituals and arcane language. They are administered by initiates to the inner mysteries. Above all they are based on faith. And that’s where the authors have missed something important.
Faith is, by definition, belief without proof. People don’t buy into the myths of Acupuncture or Chinese Herbal Medicines in spite of a lack of proof, they buy into them because of a lack of proof. The more you, as a rational scientist, come along with evidence that these therapies are all mumbo jumbo and that you might as well hang iron over your doorway to keep out the evil spirits or sacrifice a goat on the third Tuesday of every month to propitiate the gods, then the more they are vindicated in their faith. You are the heathen, the unbeliever. Your views count only inasmuch as by opposing them you are confirming that their faith is the true faith.
Conversely, if there was sudden, undeniable proof that homeopathy worked, it would become mainstream. It would cease to be faith and start to be truth. People would walk away from it in droves in search of something else they can believe in without being troubled by truth or facts, without worrying about the lack of any evidence whatsoever.
This need for faith is culturally programmed into humanity. Most people feel a need to have something that they can trust in unquestioningly, blindly, absolutely. GK Chesterton is supposed to have suggested that when people cease to believe in God rather than believing nothing, they will believe anything.* That’s precisely what is happening with alternative medicine. People are searching not for medical cures for a malaise of the body but for spiritual cures for a malaise of the soul.
I agree with virtually everything in either book. But I don’t think it will do any good. Telling, showing, proving that these so-called therapies are all rubbish will convince only those who want to be convinced. The true believers won’t take any notice at all. It’s like arguing with a Jehovah’s Witness on the doorstep. They believe what they believe and no amount of evidence to contrary can possibly change that. I confidently predict that twenty years, a hundred years, a thousand years from now people will still be putting their trust in quacks and crackpots, no matter what the state of medical science is at the time.

(*According to Wikiquote, this is a misattribution and comes from Emile Cammaert’s "The Laughing Prophets" where he is talking about Chesterton. It doesn’t alter the point though.)

Monday, 15 June 2009

A cautionary tale

There is a brief cautionary tale for travellers that goes with the poems in the last post. The party where I wrote them was at a hotel, in Coventry if memory serves, and because there was no way on Earth I was going to suffer soberly, I had booked a room for the night. So had many others.
About a week later I received a bill for the mini-bar in my room, a startling occurrence as I had far too much sense to use it. On examining the bill I realised it was for another employee of the company (whom I had never met) who had the same surname as me but a different first name. I forwarded it on to him and presumably he paid it. I certainly wasn't going to pay it. From the itemised list he seemed to have cleaned out the entire mini-bar at a cost of over £100. And remember this was more than twenty years ago. Moral: never use the mini-bar, and always check that it's your bill before you pay it.

About time we had some more of my old poetry

This sequence of poems was written back when I used to work for a company that used to subcontract my IT skills to various other companies. One of the consequences of that kind of work is that you never really get to know your fellow employees very well an one of the consequences of that is that you don't know anyone at the Christmas party. Now as I wouldn't normally been seen dead within a hundred miles of a works party this shouldn't be a problem. However on this occasion the party was more or less compulsory.
I went. I had a terrible time.
I sat in the dining room of the hotel the following morning eating breakfast and wrote these poems. They are not very good and a bit self-pitying but that's probably how I felt at the time. I say probably because I wrote them more than twenty years ago and I really can't remember.

Solitary Symphony

Part 1: Before the Ball

Invited for cocktails,
Served in the lounge bar -
Invitation received,
To be read and obeyed.
I knew it would be
A trial and ordeal.
I had to disguise
That I was dismayed.
It started with ten,
Then twenty, then thirty,
Then forty, then fifty.
Then I arrived.
I'd changed into my
New shirt and new jacket
New shoes and new trousers
And even new tie.
Took a drink from a tray
Looked left, then looked right.
Looked up, then looked down.
There was no one I knew.
Tried to join in
This and that conversation,
Felt so conspicuous,
But what could I do.
Saw some faces I'd seen
A few times before.
I'd forgotten their names,
But I didn't care.
The dinner bell rang.
They moved to the ballroom.
The tables were laid.
I followed them there.
I sat at the table.
I could feel them wonder,
"Who is this stranger,
And why is he here."
No one voiced the question
And unless they asked it
It was not information
I could volunteer.

Part 2:Table For Ten

The table is set for ten,
But it's seating only nine.
The chair that's standing empty
Is standing next to mine.

There is a hum of empty chatter,
The chink of knife on plate.
Everyone is happy,
Everyone has a date.

They halt their conversations
To ask me what I think.
To tell the honest truth,
I think I need a drink.

They listen without hearing
As I compose my reply.
Then they talk to each other
But never meet my eye.

I wonder whose embarrassment
Is greater, theirs or mine,
That a table set for ten
Is seating only nine.

When the meal is over
And the music has begun,
Eight people join the dancing
At the table there is one.

The disco lights are starting
To liquefy my brain.
This is supposed to be a pleasure,
So why does it feel like pain.

Someone sees that I'm not dancing
And insists that I should try
But where's the fun in dancing
With someone else's wife.

They forget me in a moment.
I take the chance to slip away.
Will they notice I am gone?
If they do, what will they say?

How can I believe
That things are working fine,
When the table set for ten
Always seats just nine?

Part 3: Breakfast in the Aftermath Ballroom

It's something that has to be said.
It's something that I need to say.
I was not here by choice, you know,
I'd much rather have stayed away.
But I gave in to the pressure.
I could not invent enough lies.
I gave in and came to the party last night
I wish I had come in disguise.
A stranger alone in a strange world -
A world filled with Siamese twins.
What I hoped would have changed, I don't know
Why on Earth did I give in.

Now I'm eating a solitary breakfast
And I know they're still watching me,
Alone in a crowd in the aftermath ballroom.
What are they expecting to see?
Now I'm eating a solitary breakfast -
My last act before I get up and leave.
Without looking at them in the aftermath ballroom
I wipe a tear away on my sleeve.

Part 4: Eternal Coda

"Why were you alone?" she says.
"There was no one with me." I reply.
It isn't strictly honest,
But it can't be called a lie.

I don't want to be alone,
But it seems time after time
That a table set for ten
Is seating only nine.

Sunday, 14 June 2009

Celebrating Sanctuary

For those transatlantic readers who don't follow the ins and outs British politics let me mention, before I get to what this post is really about, the recent European elections. One of the quirks of our political system is that as well as voting for local politicians (councillors) and national politicians (MPs) we get to vote for our country's representatives in Europe (MEPs). A combination of very low voter turnout (because of disenchantment after the recent expenses scandals) and the counting system used has led to two members of the far right party the BNP , for the first time ever, getting seats in the European Parliament. For anyone who doesn't know about the BNP, they are an extremist party who, among other things, don't allow non-whites to join and wish to "repatriate" immigrants to their countries of origin. They like to dress themselves up in the clothes of proper political parties and try to present an image as a "common sense" party but the fundamental point about their politics is its racism.

And some people vote for them.

The result was discussed all over the media giving publicity to this party and event that they don't deserve but also giving the impression that Britain is becoming more extreme and more racist, which I don't believe.

With all this in the recent political background, I went yesterday something which was the very antithesis of this racism, the Celebrating Sanctuary Festival. On a beautiful sunny day people of all races and cultures gathered in the centre of Birmingham, sat on the steps of the library and listened to music from Albania, Cameroon, Zimbabwe, Congo, Iran and a host of others. I wandered around the stalls, listened to the music, basked in the relaxed and happy atmosphere, popped into the pub a couple of times, and generally had a thoroughly good day.

Here are a couple of pictures of the event.

Thursday, 11 June 2009

Is there in truth no beauty?

I was a little saddened by something I saw on my way to work this morning. We stopped at a station where a wild rose bush grows behind the bars of the fence. It has recently grown through the bars onto the platform and has had a splendid display of red roses that have brightened up the journey.
As we passed I saw a man with a very large electric hedge trimmer cutting the whole thing down, returning our view to just a plain, dull fence.

I don't know why he was doing this but I'm guessing the ubiquitous over-zealous application of perceived Health and Safety regulations. Of course I could be wrong. Either way I'd rather look at the roses than the fence.

Wednesday, 10 June 2009

Alices In Wonderland: Part 50 (The End)

The court transforms into a pack of cards which fly up towards Alice who wakes up to find the leaves of the tree falling onto her face. Realising that she has been dreaming she runs off home, leaving her sister sitting under the tree.

This illustration, by Justin Todd, unusually, takes the real life Alice Liddell as a model. The full page illustrations throughout the book are excellently done, with bright colours, though for my taste, Alice's facial expressions all seem a little flat and the layouts sometimes have a look more typical of 3D-computer renderings.
The edition is from Gollacz, 1984.

And that is the end of the book.

Sometime later I may attempt a similar exercise for Looking Glass but there are considerably fewer editions of that to work with and most of those are double editions whose art I have already shown here.

I hope you've found it entertaining but, if truth be told, we've barely scratched the surface of the available editions. There are so many more that I have, and so many more that I want, and so many more that I have never discovered. This collection won't be complete if I live to be a thousand. It will, I predict, keep on growing until it takes over the house.

Tuesday, 9 June 2009

Back in China

Back at our hotel in Beijing I spent a few minutes checking on my emails and then met up with a few of the others to head over to the Temple of Heaven. Once there we split up with some choosing to do their own thing while Alisdair, Darren and I – who had plans for the afternoon – strolling around together. I have been to the Temple of Heaven before. I know I have. I have the photographs. I wanted to go again because I have no memory of it at all. The reason for that is that when I visited last, on my first trip all those years ago, we were taken there straight from the airport on our arrival. We were all so tired and jet-lagged that it’s a wonder we were still able to operate cameras.
It was worth another, more wide-awake, visit. The pictures really say it all.

When we had had enough of the rather marvellous site, we wandered out of the gate opposite to the one we had entered by and went into a nearby cafe for lunch and to discuss our plans for the afternoon. Last night I had had no plans but then I overheard Alisdair asking Neil about a place he had read of – 798. 798 is an art village, a series of converted warehouses and other buildings in which the very best of the Beijing art scene can be found. I always love to visit galleries, especially when I’m travelling and can see things I might not get the chance to see at home. I had never heard of 798. I had, truth be told, never realised that China now has a vibrant and exciting art community. When I heard it being discussed I asked if he minded if I tagged along and a little later Darren also decided to join us.

Outside the cafe we soon found a cab and, after some confusion with our written directions, we were on the way. It proved to be rather a long way out towards the airport. Eventually we got there and went in. It was everything I could have hoped for and more. It was huge, bigger than my home town, with hundreds of galleries and bookshops and restaurants and bars. If I ever return to Beijing again I shall take at least a whole day there. I could easily spend a week there. Every kind of art was on display. Paintings both representational and abstract. Sculpture in every possible style. Satirical works and highly stylised works. Photography, graffiti, embroidery.
It was completely marvellous.

Among the exhibitions that I saw and especially enjoyed were

· an exhibition of black and white photographs of Chinese life

· a series of paintings of women’s faces hidden in clouds
· some photomontages showing thousands of people in a mixture of landscapes
· a statue called “The Ideal and the Reality” which morphed from the classic Marilyn Monroe pose into a female Chinese soldier without indicating which was the ideal and which the reality
· a series of large photographs by a former prostitute showing herself nude in various unlikely places such as business offices, in each of which she was shown as having the position of power by virtue of holding the shutter release with the cable running out of frame to the camera

· various outdoor statues that were in the streets and squares.

However the one that impressed the most by far was also the strangest. We were wandering more or less at random in and out of galleries on the principle that there was far too much to see for us to employ any kind of logical approach. In one there was a Chinese woman at a desk in a large white room with a single work at one end. The work in question looked at first glance like a green laser hologram of a larger than life figure. Closer inspection revealed it to be no such thing. It was in fact a sculpture made of fine mesh net and cunningly lit with green light so that the sculpture, the lighting and the resulting shadows created the hologram illusion.
The woman from the desk indicated a curtain covered doorway that I hadn’t previously noticed. We went through and found ourselves in a large darkened hall filled with sculptures in the same style. Red and green lighting on elaborate mesh sculptures created a startling illusion of holograms that floated around the gallery space like disembodied phantoms. I was like being trapped in Superman’s Phantom Zone and it was really quite remarkable.

The artist, according to the leaflet I picked up on the way out, was a Korean called Park Sung Tae and I can do no better than quote from that leaflet. “Park’s installations have gained a reputation for the uniqueness of their materials and for their... communication with the installation space. [They]... have been constantly spotlighted by leading art fairs around the world and have been collected by major art museums of Korea, including the National Museum of Contemporary Art and Seoul Museum of Art.”

When we came out we went for a couple of beers in one of the rooftop bars which had a slightly disconcerting glass floor that allowed us to look down onto the heads of the people in the gallery below.

I vowed as I sat there that the next time I come to Beijing, and I am certain there will be a next time, I shall spend at least a whole day at 798. I only wish that there was something comparable here in the UK, but I’ve looked at art galleries all over the world and seen nothing quite like it.

In the evening we had dinner at John’s and then a night time walk around the Hutongs which was much more impressive than our daytime bicycle tour had been, but it was a last evening kind of activity – interesting but full of the knowledge that it was all over now and tomorrow we would be on our way home.

As ever I had thoroughly enjoyed the whole thing, especially as it had proven to be such an unusual trip.

Monday, 8 June 2009

DPRK: Postscript-rumours of war

Before I talk about my rather splendid final day in China, this is probably the appropriate place to put down my overall impressions of the DPRK. In the seven weeks since I was there the situation has changed. North Korea has conducted further nuclear tests to a chorus of World condemnation. They have stated publicly that they consider the ceasefire with South Korea to be at an end. The have launched more test missiles. Their stance has become harder and more intransigent. Right now I wouldn't seriously consider visiting the country, so it's just as well that I went when I did.
I don't propose to go into any political analysis of this. For one thing I'm not qualified. For another I'm sure that some Googling will find you any number of viewpoints better thought out, better researched and better presented than I could possibly manage.
What I will do is say how my impressions of the country impact on this new era of brinkmanship.
From what I saw, I am very scared by what is happening. I don't think the DPRK could win a sustained war but I don't think they would have to. The Dear Leader is a man who has built a Godhood for himself and somehow convinced the people of his country of his apotheosis. I didn't get to speak to many Koreans but those that I did, while in most respects perfectly normal people, all seemed sincere in the way that they had bought into this modern mythology. They have a world view entirely untainted by facts. Their entire modern history is based around a series of lies and a belief in their own military infallibility. The country, away from the cities and the ruling elite is one of the most impoverished that I have seen but the fervour - artificial or not - is quite truly alarming.
The scariest thing is that although many countries, some of whom are hostile to the western way of life, have nuclear weapons, when it comes to pressing the button I think they might hesitate. I don't think Kim Jong Il would hesitate for a moment if he saw some imagined advantage to the act, and even if he were out of the picture I don't think that the military who would probably take over would hesitate. If, as has been reported, his youngest son Kim Jong-Un takes over, it's unlikely to be any different

Because they are so unaware of anything beyond the narrow blinkered confines of their day to day experience I think the people, and of course the army, would be behind whatever action up to and including destroying the whole world, their leaders took.

Many things in the trip chilled me: the Memorial Palace, the Concrete Wall, the International Friendship exhibition. Two things, perhaps surprising things, chilled me more than any others. The first was that display of children's dancing under the watchful eye of the giant poster the Great Leader. It was a demonstration of passion and fervour for their way of life that was terrifying in its wrongheaded conviction.
The second was a combination of the phrasebook's emphasis on reunification phrases and a couple of very circumspect conversations about the division of the country. The people who live there have been indoctrinated into the absolute certainty that the people of the south would welcome unification with open arms. I have met and taught many South Koreans and never once have I met a single one who would want to give up the trappings of modern civilised life and be dragged back to the middle ages under the rule of the communist north. What I find chilling is that there would be absolutely nothing I could do or say to convince a single North Korean that this is the case.
Such unshakable belief is capable of destroying the world.

Saturday, 6 June 2009

Travelling Light

I noticed something interesting when I arrived at the airport in China for my recent trip and, from the assorted comments from my fellow travellers, other people noticed it too. The size of my luggage was so much smaller than everyone else's. I'm happy to report that that isn't any kind of euphemism, just a reference to the bags I was carrying. Mostly they had multiple suitcases, in some instances rather large ones. A few of them were travelling fairly light, with single large suitcases, but I had them all beat. For a twelve day trip I had a bag that was twenty inches long by twelve inches wide by nine inches deep. It weighed about eight kilos.

It's a trick that years of travelling have given me. For the twelve days, I had a pair of jeans, some T-shirts, enough underwear to last and, purely because I knew I'd be visiting somewhere where smartness wasn't optional, a pair of decent trousers, a button up shirt and a tie.

I used to take as much luggage as anyone else but since I realised that I don't need it my bags have become lighter with every trip. I'm hoping one day to get it down to being able to travel with just what I can carry in my pockets, until then I'll just go on using smaller and smaller bags.
And that was it, everything apart from my documents.

Alices In Wondeland: Part 49

As she continues to grow, Alice upsets the jury box spilling all the animal jurors out onto the floor of the courtroom.

This illustration is from award-winning artist Helen Oxenbury. The edition is from Candlewick Press 1999. A moment's perusal of any of the excellent art will show just why Helen Oxenbury is one of the most renowned children's illustrators around today. The pictures, with their use of mostly pastel shades are an absolute delight.

DPRK: Back to the border

And so we come to the last day in the DPRK. Our return to China was to be by train, a journey of almost twenty four hours, and though it lacked any sightseeing it was not without incident.
Straight after breakfast we took our usual bus to the station where we said our goodbyes to the guides. They goodbyes were sincere enough. Whatever the political situation in North Korea, they had been friendly and courteous and if everything they said was exactly in line with their government then who can blame them for that? I liked our guides, both the ones permanently assigned to us and the ones who had shown us individual things in the country,I didn't even doubt their sincerity. When your sources of information are so limited it's easy to believe the little you are being told.

We were to change trains at the border but on both the North Korean and Chinese trains the set up was similar - four berth sleeper compartments. On the North Korean one I found myself sharing with Neil (our English tour leader), Ray (one of the other members of the group) and a Chinese man who was unconnected with our party and who spoke no English. Neil had some conversation with him in Chinese but I have no idea what it was about.
The train pulled away from the station and out of the city. The views were much as they had been from the bus when we went out to the mountains. Most of what we saw was scarcely even subsistence farming. It was little more than people scratching lines in the ground with sticks. Here and there, there were towns but as impoverished-looking as any I have seen anywhere in the world. The land looked bleak and barren. The occasional signs of industrialisation - empty roads, isolated railways, distant factories - simple added to the feeling of desolation.
We had lunch on the train, a difficult feat of coordination in such cramped conditions but a tasty enough selection of fare.
We played a couple of games of trivial pursuit.
We passed the time.
And then, in the early afternoon we approached the border.
We had been briefed about the procedures that we would encounter there but they were, nevertheless, rather alarming. Especially given what happened, literally five seconds before we stopped at the border station.
We were slowing down to approach; the train was already drawing level with a platform where what looked like a battalion of military police were waiting for us. As the train halted and the soldiers reached for the doors the Chinese man in our compartment quickly drew something from his bag and pushed it down behind my seat. I stared at him and at Neil and Ray. None of the three of us knew what to do. He put his finger to his lips and before any of us could think of how to react there were three soldiers in the train corridor and one in the room with us. What could we do? None of us spoke Korean. The Koreans didn't speak English. The Chinese man spoke neither. Neil spoke Chinese, but what could he possibly say? We did the English thing and did nothing.
The soldiers indicated that they wanted us to leave and wait in the corridor. We did so, waiting anxiously and peering back in through the open door. They called Neil back in and indicated that they wanted his bags. He opened them and they searched, very thoroughly searched, through his belongings. He had his mobile phone with him. As they are forbidden in North Korea, it had been wrapped and sealed at the airport. They checked the seals to make sure that they had not been tampered with and returned it. They took away and checked his passport. Ray and I soon followed, undergoing exactly the same procedures. The small plastic scoring devices from Ray's Travel Trivial Pursuit gave them some pause for thought - a fact which in itself indicates the level of their paranoia. Then it was the turn of the Chinese man. His "interview" was even more thorough than ours had been. Everything in his luggage was examined in detail; he was questioned at length (a process rendered difficult by the language barrier and his tendency to shrug at every question posed); his documents were all taken from him for verification. Then, to my horror, the soldier pulled the back of his seat away from the wall and felt down behind it. Of course there was nothing there, whatever he had hidden was behind my seat. What was it? If they found it, would they think it was mine? The soldier had now stood up and started looking around.
Suddenly there was a little commotion from further down the carriage, from another of the compartments. The soldiers from our compartment went down to check on what was happening and returned a few moments later. They seemed now to have decided that the Chinese man could proceed. He closed up his luggage and sat down.
Meanwhile another guard who had been progressing along the carriage examining everyone's cameras had reached me. She took my camera and indicated that she wanted to know how to review the pictures. I showed her and she started at picture number one, looking at each one. Given that there were over eight hundred on there it was going to take some time. Five minutes later she stopped and called over a more senior officer. She showed him a picture. He became quite belligerent, pointing at the picture and angrily demanding "Delete!"
I glanced at it. It was a picture of someone in uniform. I didn't even remember taking it. Quickly I deleted it. The woman went back to examining the rest. Five more minutes and she handed back my camera.
Eventually we were done and the train pulled out and over the bridge that would take us into the relative freedom and relaxed liberty of communist China - a thought that was voiced with irony by more than one of us. The bridge was marked and scarred by bullet and shell holes, deliberately left unrepaired since the end of the Korean War.
The Chinese man pulled out whatever he had hidden. It seemed to be some kind of poster written in Korean. I can only imagine that it was something subversive about Korea, perhaps something about the Great Leader. I didn't know what it was and I didn't really care. I was just glad that it was back in his possession.

Thursday, 4 June 2009

DPRK: Flower Show

After the concert we moved on to the flower show. This proved to be the sole time in the whole trip that we were allowed to be out of the direct sight of our guides. It was a strange affair. We were escorted into the ground floor of the building housing the event. There we were told to take the escalator to the next floor where the main event was held and work our way through and round the exhibition until we reached the far doors where we would be met again.

It was certainly popular, filled with crowds of Koreans, mostly in their best clothes, all looking at the hundreds of displays. Of course the displays were what made it such a bizarre event. There were exactly two varieties of flower on display – the purple orchid known as Kimilsungia and the red begonia known as Kimjongilia. Here and there there were very small splashes of white but clearly set to show off the contrasting red and purple in front of them. The displays themselves ranged in size from tabletop to hall-filling but had a startling uniformity of theme. Probably ninety percent of them were models of the Great Leader’s birthplace, surrounded by oceans of those two flowers. The few that were different were models of the country's various revolutionary monuments surrounded by those two flowers.

I was first at the exit door, where I found one of our guides waiting. I asked him a few questions about the exhibition, questions which I also researched independently later. Everyone, I was told, expressed their great love of the two leaders by entering displays. The smaller ones were from companies and individuals working in DPRK, the enormous one in the middle (at least twenty yards long and twelve wide) would be from a combination of Government ministries and organisations.

Translated by my independent research this comes out as “if you are a company that wants to go on doing business in DPRK you had damned well better enter a stand” and “if you are a Government employee who wants to find himself moving up instead of out, ditto”.

By the time we got out twilight was falling and we had just time to drive out into Pyongyang’s main square for photographs of the square, the Study House and, across the river, the Juche Monument, before heading off for dinner.

After dinner, I sat in the bar and wrote a poem about the Flower Show.

Flower Show

There are orchids of one type
And begonias of another
And they fill the halls with colours,
Though those colours number - two!
You may search from end to end
If you're looking for some other,
But this purple and this red
Are the only ones on view.
It's a flower show with a difference;
It's a duo of varieties;
One named for each leader
The Dear One and the Great.
A tulip or a daffodil
Would be an impropriety,
Such a thing in such a flower show
Would be to desecrate.
Kimilsungia, Kimjongilia
Which are counted by the ton
Surround models of the birthplace
Of the leader - Mangyindae
Or occasionally a statue -
A revolutionary one -
Being all that all the entrants
Are permitted to display.

Wednesday, 3 June 2009

Alices In Wonderland: Part 48

When the time comes for Alice to give evidence she finds herself growing larger and larger until she towers over the court.

This illustration is from the Ladybird Children's Classic edition (1986) illustrated by Debbie Boon-Jenkins, about whom I have been able to find little beyond the fact that she seems to be rather prolific, particularly in the area of Ladybird editions. She has a nice, rather blocky, water-colour style that admirably suits the book. The text is presented in a much abridged version by Joan Collins.

Tuesday, 2 June 2009

DPRK: Korean State Symphony Orchestra

The Symphony Hall was a magnificent building constructed once more of marble, at least the reception areas were. The hall itself was acoustically splendid with a rounded construction and a wooden surfacing that lent a deep resonance to the music of the orchestra. And what an orchestra it was. Several of us independently estimated that there were between 130 and 150 people on the stage. The quality of their musicianship and the power of such a grouping was in no doubt whatsoever. They were quite simply the best orchestra I have ever heard. The program was another matter. While it was all very rousing stuff it was also all more of that vaguely militaristic pomp and bombast that we had heard so much of already. It was music that while engaging enough on a visceral level had no cerebral impact at all. The only part of the 75 minute performance that I could recall afterwards was a brief, surreal interlude when the orchestra suddenly launched into a spirited rendition of “Those Were the Days”.

Actually that isn’t completely true. There were two other things about the performance that stick in the memory. One was the woman who gave a brief, spoken introduction to each piece. The introduction was in Korean but she had the most extraordinary voice that I have ever heard. It swooped and dived as if she were overcome with the weight of a great emotion. It filled the entire hall with the feeling that at any moment she would burst into such tears that we might all drown in them. It was truly astounding.

The other thing was both comical and telling.

The hall was full and we had good seats, near to the door by which we had entered, so I witnessed this whole pageant play out. As I have said we were accompanied on the tour by an official cameraman, a tall, gaunt man who glided silently around filming but who always seemed to be there whenever you turned around or glanced to one side. He reminded me of Lurch in the Adams Family. Now, as the performance was beginning he tried to enter the hall with his camera and one of the officials, a woman, turned him away. They both went out into the corridor. Voices were heard. Then the music started, drowning everything else out. I though no more of it, except that he had perhaps met his match.

Then I noticed the door opposite, nearest the stage, open and in walked our man. He walked up onto the stage and in among the musicians and started filming. Officials around the auditorium ignored him.

At first I thought this rather comical but as he continued I started to wonder. Just how important were our guides? What kind of leverage did they have if on their say so a cameraman could do as he was doing? I know that they were showing us the country’s best face but were we, a motley band of tourists really important enough to warrant this? I didn’t think so but it showed the levels of power that were actually vested in the people showing us around.

Monday, 1 June 2009

Alices In Wonderland: Part 47

Another witness is the cook.

Again, this illustration comes from a Japanese edition where I am unable to translate the edition details. The artist, once again according to the helpful shop assistant in the bookshop in Kuala Lumpur, is called Zeng Ming Xiang. I spent quite some time in the shop, Isetan (Kinokuniye Japanese Books), assisted by a Mister Teng, looking for eastern editions and managed to find several. The challenge of buying Alice editions in countries where I don't speak the language is actually rather an enjoyable one.