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, 31 December 2011

A River of Stones: 31st December

Where the ice meets the stones it is rounded and smoothed, tamed by the contours that it fills but where the ice meets the water it is fractured and jagged and full of frozen energy.

Friday, 30 December 2011

A River of Stones: 29 Dec (posted a day late)

Ten skewers of mutton at the barbecue.
Four tiny pieces on every skewer.
I wonder why the third piece on each is always fat.

A River of Stones: 30 December

The old woman sells bright green bitter-bean powder at the corner of the bridge: weighing it with a hand scale, scooping it from a plastic bowl into paper bags. The pungency slices into my sinuses as I pass.

Wednesday, 28 December 2011

China: Building Standards

In my "River of Stones" post I mentioned that the observation for the day was about Chinese building standards. The River of Stones project is all about close observation and I have been closely observing the building project in question for some months. I walk past it four times a day, every day and have marvelled every time (not necessarily in a good way) at the construction work. Let me take you through the process so far in some detail so that you can understand why Earthquakes over here tend to demolish whole cities.

When I arrived in Baiyin what was there was waste ground with a wooden fence around it: what the Americans call a vacant lot, I believe. Soon after work began.

Foundations were sunk to a depth of no more than a couple of feet and a thin concrete base poured.

A frame work of metal rods, each about an inch thick and all rather crooked and rusty was created. Where the support columns and beams were to go they were gathered in groups of about eight or nine.

Wooden frames were erected around the rods and concrete poured in to form those supporting columns.

Temporary wooden floors and ramps were put in and the process repeated to form a second storey. There may be plans for a third storey as rods still stick up from the top.

The large spaces were filled with breeze blocks which all have the appearance of having come from a building demolished somewhere else, and the smaller spaces with bricks of a similar second-hand vintage.

Various ground floor window frames have been inserted with the gaps around them also filled with pre-used bricks.The frames themselves are metal and clearly rusty and have also evidently been recycled from a now defunct building.

They have not yet begun the process on the next floor, but they have started construction on a second building on the site which is currently at the metal framework stage.

Now that might sound like an exaggeration for comic effect but it isn't. It's a fair and accurate description of what I have observed. The whole process looks as if they are intentionally building it already derelict. The structural integrity is, to say the least, poor, and unless they are planning to remove a lot of the structure they have created and replace it with something more substantial and better built, they will have created something that good huff and puff from a big bad wolf would bring tumbling down. The worrying thing will come if they skim the outside to a decent standard of appearance because then I will start to wonder about just how safe my apartment block and my school are.
Not that I haven't already.

River of Stones

Some of you may remember that I took part last year in the River of Stones project where people write a small observation of the world around them every day for a month. Well it's happening again. This time my circumstances in the good old People's Republic of China mean that I cannot post the badge for the project on my blog as I cannot even SEE my blog. (Though thanks to the miracle of email I can post to it.)

Howeve,r I can still post a mention. If you would like to read some of the small stones or to take part in the project you can find information at

I will be posting my own writings here (not tagged as I have no way to tag posts via email) and in the appropriate places on the WOWH blog. The other options, creating a new blog or posting on twitter are two of the many many things that the Great Firewall of China prevents me from doing.

I will only be able to post until 21st January as after that I will be out and about in the wilds of China travelling and visiting and with no regular access to a computer. Still enough is, as they say*, as good as a feast.

Here to start us off is a small stone for today. An observation that I will expand upon in another post.

The bricks and breeze blocks look used. The window frames are rusty oblongs. The concrete is decaying and the wood is rotten. They are building the apartments pre-ruined to save time later.

(*Actually, as father used to say. He was a man with many such homilies.)

Tuesday, 27 December 2011

China: Ridiculous

This is getting silly now.
I knew that I had all of January and half of February off but in conversation with the Chinese teachers today I discovered that THEY have all of January and half of February.
I, on the other hand have all of January and ALL of February.

If this job got any easier I'd have to pay them.

Sunday, 25 December 2011

China: Christmas

When I was invited to a Christmas morning service at Baiyin's only church I had doubts about accepting. To begin with I'm not a believer so it sometimes seems a little strange to go to church – but on the other hand I go for weddings and funerals so why not a Christmas service? Of course there was also the matter of needing to get up at seven thirty on Christmas day to be ready to go by eight thirty.  Then there was the question of just how well religious ceremonies are accepted by the Chinese authorities. I had read articles that were some years out of date about the Baiyin police "raiding" the so-called "house churches" where people had set up chapels in their homes.

All in all there seemed to be plenty of reasons not to go.


The invitation came on Friday night and slightly circuitously. We, that is me Michael and Erika, have become friendly with a local family who have an apartment in a block just a few hundred yards away from mine. They had originally invited us a couple of months ago to spend Christmas day with them and we had accepted but on Friday afternoon I had a call from the daughter (who has today decided to change her name from the decidedly odd Elove to the rather more normal Erin) who is the only one in the family to speak reasonable English. She asked if we could change to Christmas Eve as her Uncle Ray couldn't make it on Christmas day. The trouble was we couldn't make Christmas Eve. We already had a meal arranged with the teachers from our school. Half an hour later she called back and said, "Can you make tonight?"


The restaurant was hidden away in an alley just off the main Baiyin crossroads and like a lot of Chinese establishments didn't look like much from the outside. Inside though it was great. It was decorated with Christmas trees and streamers and tinsel and it was very full.

It was a hotpot restaurant complete with its ferocious burner and bubbling cauldron of  lava-like liquid in the centre of the table. With Erin's help we ordered food that didn't include mushrooms and set about our meal.

They are a nice family and good people but there is a drawback to going out to eat with them. They really do like to drink beer. And they really do like to "Gan bei". Chinese people mostly toast this way using little glasses, shot-glass size, but Erin's family prefer to use bowls which hold around a third of a pint. At each toast everyone is expected to empty the bowl completely.

I have found ways round it. I have already established that because of my great age I am unable to drink as much as they do and this time I had the added reason that I needed to work on Saturday. So, as before, I was allowed to "Sui Yi" which roughly means, drink as little or as much as I liked.

The others were not so fortunate and as the pile of empty bottles grew larger the party became drunker and louder. Remaining relatively sober I could view it all with quiet amusement which was mistaken by our hosts for wisdom. At one point Erin's father, Tom, said something to her in Chinese.

She translated.

"He says that Michael is very strong and Erika is very beautiful and that he respects Bob very much."


The conversation, all through the medium of Erin, inevitably turned to Christmas traditions and when it was mentioned that many people attend church on Christmas day she said that her Grandmother was a Christian. There was some rapid conversation in Chinese followed by Tom making a telephone call. He relayed the conversation to Erin who said that her Grandmother would very much like for us to come to the service with her.

All of the reasons for not going ran through my head but what came out was, "Yes, I'd be delighted to go."


On Saturday I had two things I needed to do. First of all I had been asked by our FAO if I would help record some taped dialogues for use in student exams. After that I had my dinner arrangement.

Jane and her friend who is, confusingly, also Jane called at the apartment at three thirty and we went just a few blocks towards the city square and then turned off into one of the mazes of apartment blocks. In one we were ushered into an apartment where one of the rooms had a lot of sound equipment and a very large computer. For an hour and a half we sat reading and recording dialogues with me occasionally correcting mistakes in them. By the time I had finished everything and returned to the apartment we were ready to set off for our meal with the teachers. It was a taxi ride out to the west and the restaurant was excellent. As with Friday it was a hotpot restaurant but this one was the kind where the hot pot comes in individual pots. It had an odd arrangement of ceramic heaters built into the tables at each position – odd because these were completely covered by a table cloth that sat between heater and bowl and somehow didn't catch fire.

The meal was, as always, excellent, and the hot mulled wine that came with it was delicious. It wasn't exactly roast turkey with all the extras and the conversation, even though they were English teachers, was less than free-flowing, but it was a very nice evening which we concluded by going off to a KTV and having the traditional Chinese sing-song until almost midnight when it was time to go home.


At 7:30 my alarm woke me and I took a quick shower. Mike stuck his head out of his bedroom and announced that we would have to go without him as he had had a terrible restless night and was sure that if he went he would simply fall asleep in church.

I strolled down to meet the others.

At Erin's apartment I was met by Erin, her father and mother, her brother, her grandmother and her three year old cousin. Or they may have been some other relatives entirely. Chinese tend to play a bit fast and loose with describing family members – referring to cousins as sisters or brothers, unrelated family friends as uncles and aunts and their children as cousins. It all gets a little confusing.

In any case they were glad to see us and quickly led us to the bus stop. On the bus everyone seemed to be going to this one church. People didn't just stare, they came and talked to us in Chinese which Erin translated.

It was only a few minutes down into one of the few sections of town that I haven't yet explored and the church was an impressive, slightly blocky grey building. It was large and very clearly from its architecture a church. Outside helpers greeted us and showed us in. The huge open hall was already packed with people. A pianist was playing carols and a woman in red and white robes was singing.

We were led right to the front pews and seated. In front of us was a large stage with professional looking lighting and sound equipment. A large illuminated red cross hung on the wall behind it.

More and more people crushed in. Two rows of seats were added in front of us leaving only the narrowest of paths in front of the stage. The congregation were noisy but settled down when the pastor appeared on the stage. He read what must have been a prayer given the frequency of "Amens" that it produced. Then he introduced a choir who came up onto the stage and stood on the banked rows at the back to render "Oh come all ye faithful" in Chinese. They followed it up with a host of other tunes, both familiar and new and then left the stage. A new figure appeared – an elderly man in a purple cardigan carrying a very well worn bible.

He started to read. And read. And read. And read. It went on for about twenty minutes and must have been suitably uplifting for those who understood Chinese. For my part I amused myself playing peek-a-boo with the three year old cousin and giving English names to her and to Erin's brother – Becky and Josh (I decided that as we were in church the short forms of Rebecca and Joshua would be appropriate).

When he finally finished I thought it would be over. How wrong can you be?

Another choir came on and sang a song. Then there were dancers. More singers. More dancers in a very long procession. Two and a half hours passed quite quickly as the colourful parade of carol singers and nativity performers continued. Several times one of the church wardens came and asked the family if Erika and I wanted to sing. We kept politely refusing until it became obvious that "No" simply wasn't permitted.

Forced to perform we went for the song that both of us have been teaching our classes all week – the seasonal, but not exactly spiritual, Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer. Half the hall exploded with flashbulbs as we went on stage and afterwards the other half wanted their pictures taken with us. The service was, by then, over apart from a distribution of food gifts to everyone packages containing bread and eggs and a kind of sour packaged snack. We left the hot room to go out into the refreshingly cold street and catch the bus back.


It had proven to be a very satisfying and entertaining way to spend Christmas morning. I shall certainly make appoint of not turning down any invitations.


Which reminds me, next Saturday I am going to a wedding. It should be interesting.

Monday, 19 December 2011

A Christmas Greeting

For anyone that I may have inadvertently omitted from my general "Christmas card mailing".

It's Christmas time in Baiyin but there's no snow on the ground.

The streets are not all ringing to the jolly Christmas sound.

The main square doesn't have a gigantic Christmas tree,

And I've checked the schedules, there's no Christmas on TV.

Nonetheless it's here, if you look around you'll find it.

There's tinsel round the bar and little tree behind it.

At the supermarket checkouts the girls are dressed as elves,

And there are Santa hats for sale among the clothing shelves.

There may be no carol singers, no chorus of "noels"

But when I entered class today the kids sang "Jingle Bells".

So, a wish from far-off China – have a Christmas that is Merry,

And if you ask if mine is too, I'd have to tell you "very!"


Merry Christmas


Sunday, 18 December 2011

To Put Away Childish Things:Text Based Adventure Games

When I moved house, in June, part of the process, as anyone who has ever done it will know, was to clear out the loft. There was all sorts of stuff up there – books, VHS videos, a red box full of scratched 78 rpm records, a sink unit, a partially completed plaster cast set of twelve inch tall chess pieces, a large sack full of my mother's old handbags, a shopping bag full of old pairs of glasses, a couple of armchairs, numerous assorted empty cardboard boxes, A bag of 00 gauge railway track, a lava lamp, miscellaneous ornaments, a children's snooker table, a fully decorated Christmas tree, a shower unit, bottles of homemade wine from the late 1970s, wine and beer making equipment, assorted cushions, various computer games for various obsolete computers, a box of Rubicks-cube-style puzzles…


Hold on. Back up a moment. "Various computer games"?

Ah yes, various computer games. Those were the days. I had all sorts of different early computers - ZX80, Spectrum,BBC, Atari. Back in those days we'd moved on from "pong" and  monochrome Space Invaders and Asteroids were state of the art in graphics but what I always liked were text-based adventure games. Gamers today are used to astounding graphics, worlds with millions of locations, complex interfaces, on-line group quests and all the other paraphernalia that go with their fictional worlds. They would probably laugh at the quaintness of the old games.

But I remember the days when there were no graphics at all, when an adventure with two hundred locations was colossal, when the interface was that you typed <verb><noun> instructions on the keyboard and waited to see what, if anything, happened, when your adventuring was done solo.

I think the first text adventure that I played was Scott Adam's Adventureland on my old Atari. It's astonishingly crude by any standards. Go North – Take Lamp – Go West – Climb Tree.

Ah those were the days.

I did several of the Scott Adams adventures – Adventureland, Pirate Adventure, Ghost Town, and the Spiderman and Hulk Questprobe adventures. I moved on to Zork and Colossal Adventure and the (astonishingly good) Hitchhikers' Guide To The Galaxy. I ploughed my way through fantasy adventures and science fiction adventures and even a text based Alice In Wonderland Game (which didn't get thrown away with the others: - even though the machine to play it on is unobtainable now, I filed it away, after all a collector is a collector).

I played for hours trying to solve the puzzles – which were sometimes fiendishly difficult. Even getting the damned babel fish into your ear wasn't all that simple when the vocabulary available was so restricted.

I endured the frustration of repeatedly dying and having to start over because I had forgotten to save or, more frustrating still, had saved but hadn't realised that there was some hidden item in a location I passed through days ago that I now needed.


And then I stopped. I don't know why. I probably bought a new computer and the old games became obsolete. I haven't touched a text based adventure since the mid-eighties. In fact I haven't really done any kind of adventure gaming since around then – but I have discovered, doing my usual minimal research for this blog post -  that the Hitchhikers guide to the galaxy game is available – in its original form on line.


Which accounts for the rather abrupt ending that you are about to experience.


Must dash. Vogons are demolishing my house.



Thursday, 15 December 2011

China: monkey hear, monkey speak

On the rare occasions that I sit for any length of time in the office (which is what the staff room is called in China) I witness an apparently endless stream of kids come to see their Chinese English teachers* with oral homework and time after time it's the same drill. The boy or girl will stand in front of their teacher clutching a textbook which has been folded back to the correct page but NOT looking at it. Then the learned passage will be recited. The interesting thing is that there is never any attempt at correct speech rhythms or correct intonation. All the syllables carry the same timing and the same - flat - tone, and the same amount of stress. Pauses between words are constant and exactly the same as pauses between sentences.
The result is that the passage is recited correctly - by which I mean "to the teacher's satisfaction" - but with no evidence at all that the child in question has understood a single word of it. It has been learned the way a parrot learns to say, "more tea, vicar" and with just as much effect. This isn't how to learn a language it's how to learn a parlour trick that is to be trotted out to amaze your aunts and uncles when they come to visit.
Then the child is replaced by another one who recites the same passage with the same lack of meaning, and another and another and another.
I suppose that with so many children to teach something of a production line approach to the task is inevitable, but there must be something better than this.

Wednesday, 14 December 2011

China: Shipwrecked!

This week's lessons have been going rather well, though producing some
novel - and unexpected - results.
The details of the lesson vary from class to class but the main
activity is, for the seniors at least, constant.
I divide the class into groups explain that they have been shipwrecked
on an uninhabited island and that before the boat sank (taking with it
all the teachers) they had time to fill a suitcase with useful items.
As groups they have to come up with a list of items and then explain
to me how they chose them.

On Monday one group had a list that included "beautiful women, whiskey
and a pig". The pig, apparently was so that would be able to kill it
and eat it.
Yesterday a group went one better with a list that consisted solely of
"Doraemon, love and condoms". Doraemon is, apparently, an anime cat
who can provide everything they need to survive. Apart from love and
Today didn't provide anything other than a class taking the task
seriously with sensible suggestions. Until I was leaving after the
lesson, that is, when one group handed me an origami boat and told me
that I didn't have to drown with all the other teachers.

Can't wait to see what tomorrow's groups come up with.

Monday, 12 December 2011

It's like painting... oh, wait - it's not

It seems that they have finished painting the Forth Bridge.

Let me propose a new simile.

"It's like painting the Forth Bridge" to describe a task that seemed never-ending which you have now completed.

Wednesday, 7 December 2011

Chine: Timetables

I've been off sick with a mild chest infection for a couple of days which is now, thankfully, almost cleared up. This morning I received a text from a colleague saying that he was coming to visit me this afternoon. Nice, I thought, to have colleagues that show such concern. I hadn't realised how much concern. At two thirty my doorbell rang and I pressed the button to let him in and unlatched the apartment door. I heard steps coming up to the fourth floor and discovered that it wasn't just Burton who had come to visit, it was the whole department including the guy who sits in the corner and hardly ever speaks. Seven people. If this were a hospital they'd have to take turns.
Moreover they were bearing gifts of fruit.
A lot of fruit.
There were easily three kilos of satsumas and two kilos each of bananas and apples. To eat them all before they go off I'll need to go on an all fruit diet for a couple of days.
We sat around the apartment chatting with me assuring them that I am almost completely recovered and will be back at work tomorrow. This reminded them of something important. They told me that my Friday lessons are cancelled but that I will need to go in and teach them on Sunday. This is because on Friday the students have more exams.
This kind of thing happens a lot. Timetable changes happen regularly and usually with a day or less notice. Lessons are switched from afternoon to morning, from weekdays to weekends or even cancelled altogether with virtually no prior notice. As a teacher in China it's just one of those random things you have to get used to.

As if to hammer home the point, about an hour after they had left I got another call from Burton. Apparently my morning class tomorrow has been switched from 11:15 to 10:20 and my afternoon classes have all been cancelled. This was something he found out about at three thirty today. Short notice is definitely the norm.

Monday, 5 December 2011

China: Another day in Lanzhou

We, that is to say my flatmate and I, had another day out in Lanzhou yesterday, though it wasn't actually out idea. The third of the little group of teachers in the city, Erika, didn't come. Recently she seems to be less inclined to socialise with us and so, when the FAO invited us to have dinner with her and her son at her apartment on Friday night Erika cried off. Richard, the FAO's son was home from University for the weekend and he met us and showed us the way to the apartment. It was the standard Chinese apartment, laid out almost identically to all the others I've seen, including ours. Jane cooked up a pretty good meal and afterwards we spent several hours drinking beer and playing card games. It was sometime during this activity that Jane suggested that, as a reward for our unpaid demonstration teaching she would take us to Lanzhou on Sunday. She would show us around and take us wherever we wanted to go. We could also go out and see her son's University and drop him at his student accommodation in the afternoon.

It seemed a good plan.

When she arrived on Sunday morning it was in an education department car complete with our own driver. Mike climbed into the back with Jane and Richard and I took the front passenger seat. Erika, it seemed, had decided not to come.

The drive to Lanzhou is no shorter in your own car than it is in the bus, but it's considerably more comfortable. We went through the toll gate and onto the expressway and raced through that bleak landscape, even bleaker now than that winter is arriving, than it was before, keeping up a steady stream of fairly trivial conversation.

Once we reached Lanzhou our first port of call was one that I had read about and suggested – the waterwheel park. It's a modern attraction which the authorities are still building. It consists of a moderate sized park in which various waterwheels and the associated contrivances have been installed in a Heath Robinson tangle of chutes, run-offs, millstones and – of course – wheels. At this time of year the only thing missing is the water that powers it all!

The wheels did not turn, the run-offs remained dry, the millstones did not grind. Nevertheless it was interesting.

Just inside the main gate there was a small wheel and a large circular area around which were arranged, on pedastals, small statues of the various emblems of the Chinese years. Mike told Richard when his birthday was and asked Richard which animal was his sign. Richard did a brief calculation and informed him that he was born in the year of the tiger.

I gave him my birth date.

I was unsurprised to learn that I am a cock.

We strolled around the park. In addition to the, currently static, waterwheels it is filled with slightly oversized and stylised statues representing the Chinese way of life of a bygone era. They could hardly be called beautiful, some of them border on the grotesque, but they were original and fascinating. Across the river, a decorative dragon ran along the entire length of the far bank. We could see it constantly as we strolled through the park which runs in a narrow strip parallel to the water. At the end of the park it is possible to look at the main road bridge over the river and here the dragon rears up with its head towering above the traffic and staring into the face of a mirror image dragon that approaches the bridge from the other side.

Looking the other way we could see the constant signs of new building and civic expansion that seem to be the defining mark of modern China. It was a bitterly cold day. In our warm clothes we were snug enough but as I took picture after picture a bone-deep ache crept into my exposed fingers and, though I was having a great time, I was quit glad when we finally turned around and made our way back to the car.

The park, even now, is a quite fascinating place and I shall try to make another visit when the summer comes before I leave Baiyin and see it in action.

From the park we headed into the city for our planned appointment with something far more important than mere sight-seeing – Pizza Hut!

I have been in Baiyin now for three months and though I vary my Chinese food to the extent that I can with home cooking there are a great many foods that I miss. I had been told that there was a pizza restaurant in Lanzhou and when I mentioned this to Richard at dinner on Friday he showed us an advert for the place. It was, we were delighted to discover, a franchised branch of Pizza Hut. We drove towards the shopping street where it was located. The streets around the area were narrow and filled with traffic and people. The driver manoeuvred skillfully through them. Here and there, as with Baiyin, there were token signs of Christmas. At a point opposite a small, raggedy Christmas tree bedecked with half a dozen pink and yellow baubles, he stopped and let us out. Richard led us back a few yards to the junction and there, wonder of wonders, was Pizza Hut.

We went in and it was immediately obvious that it's a popular destination. There was a waiting list and the customers were milling about in the small, but warm, reception area. Jane spoke to them in rapid Chinese and handed a ticket to her son.

"We are B18," he said, "There are about twelve people before us."

We didn't care. We would wait.

About thirty minutes later, our turn came and we were showed in to a table. The décor was like any other Pizza Hut and the staff were dressed in festive Christmas waistcoats with green bow-ties and Santa hats. Pleasant, upbeat western pop music was playing. The menu was in Chinese and English and featured everything you would expect – pizzas in all varieties, pastas, soups, salads as well as other things that you wouldn't expect – Jambalaya, assorted Chinese rice dishes.

On the wall was a large sign that read "Happy Moments".

Happy indeed.

The meal took considerably longer than we had expected so that by the time we finished it was already late enough that we needed to take Richard back to his University. In her teens it had also been Jane's University and we drove out along the river road, past the Lanzhou mosque and out to the west, towards Lanzhou Northwest Normal University.

As soon as we walked through the gates there was no mistaking the familiar campus feel of the University. I haven't been on a campus for more than thirty years but there is something about them that is unmistakeable. Students wandered about with armfuls of books. Academic buildings towered above us. On the playing fields a game of football was under way. Groups of students, both small and large, were everywhere. I felt a brief nostalgic longing for my own student days, so long ago.

Richard and Jane showed us round, pointing out the places that were important parts of their lives. It was an interesting lesson in change as time after time Jane told us what buildings had been in her day and Richard told us their current functions.

It's a large campus with many blocks of student and teacher accommodation. It took us almost an hour to walk around it and then it was time to leave, time to let Richard go on his way back to his own accommodation and time for us to be on our way back to Baiyin.

Lanzhou is a much more varied and interesting city than Baiyin, though, as we found out last time when we tried to walk around unguided, it is better seen with someone who knows it well to show you around.

Sunday, 4 December 2011

China: Animal instinct

There will be much more about my day out in Lanzhou later but I can't resist posting this now.
At the waterwheel park there is a display of the Chinese zodiacal animals - you know, year of the rabbit, that kind of thing.
Mike and I asked our Chinese friend, Richard, what animals our birthdays fell on.
Mike it seems was born in the year of the tiger.
I, on the other hand, am a cock.