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.

Monday, 26 March 2012

Are They Insane?

This post is a rant, albeit a fairly short one. Feel free to skip it
and come back tomorrow.
I use gmail and anyone who also uses gmail will surely sympathise. I
know that Google's upgrades always seem to make things worse but the
recent mandatory "upgrades" to gmail are on a whole new level of
bizarre unusability.
First of all I was forced to switch from an interface that I was
perfectly happy with.

Then there was the bug that meant that while ALL of the text
descriptions of the buttons had gone the new icons didn't show so
every button showed as a blank square over which I needed to hover to
find out what it did.

With that fixed, at least to the extent where I have icons rather then
my preferred text, the true genius of the upgrade became apparent.
Trying to forward an email I tried to find the way to get my list of
addresses to choose from. After fifteen fruitless minutes of
searching, someone helped me find it but then I could only create a
new email rather than put in the forwarding addresses for the required
people. I had to cut and paste every individual address to do it.

Still, clumsy and awkward but doable.

Gets better though.

Having done that I decided to reply in the thread to the original
post, composed my reply and sent it.
Where did it go?
Well it wasn't to the original sender.
It was to the people I had forwarded the post to. It seems that I need
to open the specific post within the thread and reply to that rather
than to the thread itself.

Google, you have outdone yourselves. The new interface is the most
counter-intuitive, user-unfriendly piece of software I have seen in
many a long year. And I worked in IT for twenty years and thought I'd
seen it all.

I am seriously considering switching back to Hotmail which I left years ago.
Nice job!

Sunday, 25 March 2012

China: A Change In The Weather

In the last week the weather here has changed for the better. The last
couple of days in particular have been bright, sunny and warm - warm
enough for T-shirts, so yesterday I went to Lanzhou with Erika. Todd,
the replacement for the replacement for Mike was going to come but
decided that as he's only been here a week he would be better spending
time working. Aubri, the new teacher out at the Experimental School
also decided not to come.
They missed a fine day out. We started late because on Friday night we
were out with our local friends celebrating Erika's birthday. We
started with a meal, at seven, and then went on to KTV until around
eleven. Apparently after that, on her way home, Erika was called by
another local friend and went off clubbing for several more hours. An
indication of how well she celebrated her birthday might be that,
after a long and fruitless search, she eventually found her apartment
keys behind the chocolate cake in the fridge.
Anyway, we took the bus to Lanzhou and went over to the same park that
Mike and I visited a few months ago. I liked it then but this time it
was even better. The sun was shining and the concrete walls gleamed
white as marble. The tops of the fence pillars had been covered with
crumbs and seeds, presumably to attract the birds, though no birds
were in evidence - either scared off by the crowds or hiding from the
afternoon heat.
We climbed the hill slowly. Every few yards there was someone else who
wanted to have a picture taken with us. At one corner there was a
group of five teenage girls who delayed us for more than a quarter of
an hour as individually, collectively and in every combination in
between they insisted on being photographed with each of us.
The park was amazingly busy. Families picnicked on the grass, groups
of elderly musicians sang and performed in the pagodas, at the tables
outside the top-of-the-hill cafe people played Chinese chess and
mahjong while small children dodged between the legs of both tables
and patrons, chasing each other on lively games.
At the Buddhist temple half way up the acrid smoke of incense hung in
the motionless air. The lack of wind has a downside. At each new turn
we looked back across the Yellow River towards the towers of the city.
They rise between the mountains like an enormous game of Sim-City but
the thing, on this glorious day, that was most noticeable was that
they were made indistinct by the pollution that plagues the city. The
irony of the bright sunlight is that it reveals the pollution all the
more clearly. The mountains that rise behind the buildings, no more
than a few miles away, were almost invisible in the haze.

All the same the walk was a pleasant one: climbing easy paths,
chatting with children and teenagers, smiling at the stares of the
adults. A thoroughly enjoyable day that we rounded off, as you would
expect, in Pizza Hut, before heading home on the last bus.
Today has been just as glorious. When my tutorial students rang to
cancel their session I was rather pleased as it gave me a chance to
head out for a couple of hours in the park. I took my writing with me,
intending to sit and work on some partially completed poems or perhaps
begin some new ones.
I meandered up the hill and sat under one of the trees and took out my book.
I had written about two words before I was interrupted. Two boys, aged
about eight roller-skated up to me and said "Hello". The bolder of the
two asked me a stream of questions. My name? My age? My country? Do I
like China? And I in turn asked them some. His more reticent companion
stood looking at his feet and only joined in when prompted in Chinese
by the first boy. They stayed for about fifteen minutes and then
skated off.
This time I managed about a dozen words before they were back with
fresh questions, having consulted in Chinese about what they could
ask. Do I like animals? What is my favourite animal? Do I like Chinese
Eventually the skated away for good and I started again.
This time I was interrupted by a couple in their twenties. The girl
wanted her photograph taken with a foreigner and her boyfriend was
happy to take the picture. They sat down on the grass with me and
talked. The boyfriend had very good English and also some French,
which will come in handy as he's in the process of trying to get
permission to emigrate to Canada. The girl had, or at least used, less
English but joined in from time to time. At one stage he revealed that
he was on his first date with her - the park is a popular place for
lovers' trysts. I wanted to know why he was wasting time talking to a
random foreigner when he was on a first date but he assured me that it
was her idea and she nodded her agreement.
By the time they left me the sun was getting quite low and the air had
cooled off to a point where it was becoming uncomfortable to sit in my
T-shirt so I headed back to the apartment to have a go at writing my
poetry in a less pleasant but less disturbed location.

If the weather keeps up I may go back to my regular post-class strolls
around the area, but I shall probably not be trying to write again.

Thursday, 22 March 2012

Another Day, another flatmate

At almost no notice my flatmate has, for no good reason that either of
us could discern, been relocated to another city and so the school has
yet another new teacher while I have yet another new flatmate.
Seems a decent enough sort but why, oh why, do they keep sending us
ones who don't drink? It has the effect that when we go out with
Chinese friends the burden of drinking falls onto just me and Erika.
You might wonder why I cant just say "no". It's not actually possible.
They already know that I drink and the fact that I want to drink in
sensible amounts doesn't enter into the equation. Once your Chinese
friends know that you drink at all the only option presented is to
drink a lot.
If they really get their way "a lot" means until you are rolling on
the floor being sick into a bucket.
The only way not to drink a lot is, from day one, not to drink at all.
For example, on Sunday, before Thomas' unexpected departure, we had
lunch with some local friends. We started at about noon and from the
outset I insisted that I couldn't drink as I had tutorial students
coming at four and I was pretty sure that their parents would be less
than happy if I turned up drunk.
In spite of that they continued to try to press beer onto me for the
whole afternoon and it was only because I was stubborn to the point of
almost offending them that I managed to get away with drinking a
single bottle.

So next time I get a change of flatmate I'm hoping for one who drinks
and can share this burden.

Sunday, 18 March 2012


I just remembered today that I haven't watched any of the recent
episodes of The Office as it was on mid-season break when I left for
my Spring Vacation.
So I started to watch them today.
And stopped.
Almost immediately.
Well, almost immediately the second episode started.
Minutes into it.
Now I can't watch any more of the series. The last eleven episodes are
destined to be designated as "stories that never happened", just as
one complete season of Doctor Who never happened.
Not in my reality anyway.
And for exactly the same reason.
Catherine Tate.
I've checked, she's in at least seven consecutive episodes.
Why did TWO of my favourite series have to add her to their casts?
It's clearly a conspiracy.
I cannot stand her, to the point where I cannot bring myself to watch
anything she's in. I don't like her alleged comedy and I like her even
less as an actress.
Well I suppose it will save me the cost of buying the DVDs of season eight.

And now the question is which series that I like will she pop up in next?

Of Titles And Typos

A friend has just emailed and asked me "what happened to Part 5?"

What indeed!

To reiterate: I can post to this blog by sending emails to it but I
can't actually see it because the Chinese firewall blocks all of the
common blogging platforms. Blogger? Can't see it. Wordpress? Forget
I get a post back from the blog containing whatever I posted so I know
that it's been posted, but that's it.
The result is that I can't go back and look at posts that I have
previously made so that I sometimes forget just where I have got to
when I use sequences of linked titles. Mea culpa. But what can I do?
It also means that if, as I almost inevitably do, I spot typos mere
seconds after hitting ENTER it's too late to do anything about them. I
have no means of correcting a faulty post.

With all that in mind please forgive errors in the titles and tpyos in the text.

Friday, 16 March 2012

Exquisite with courtesy and others.

And speaking of the Banyan Tree Park, this rather charming notice is
posted just inside the gates.

From now on I shall certainly try to exquisite with courtesy and others.

China: Random Observations

I was amused on my way home to see a stall selling gum in "Diversiform
Flavours". An accurate, though unexpected use of the word.

Not as amused though, as I was when I reached my aprtment block where
one of the neighbours was having a three-piece suite delivered... on
the back of a motorcycle!

China" Spring Break Part 6

The plan was that we would alternate days in Yangshuo and days out –
mainly hiking – varying the routine only in response to the weather.
Our first planned day out was the straightforward and flight hike
along the roadside out to Moon Hill. The rather poor map that we had
indicated that it was about eleven kilometres round trip and that
there were a number of attractions to be seen on the way – The Totem
Trail, The Butterfly Spring, The Dragon Caves, The Banyan Tree Park
and Moon Hill itself. We set off after breakfast.
The initial walk was to the edge of town where the more elaborate and
decorative buildings of the tourist quarter give way to functional,
shoe-box-squat structures that are purely functional and far more
typical of modern Chinese architecture. Soon these too disappeared and
we found ourselves heading down the side of a broad highway. It wasn't
especially busy and it was lined with fields on both sides. Beyond the
fields, far more magnificent when seen here, without the town, are the
giant karsts that make the area one of China's most scenic places and
put it high on any tourists list. They rise from the flat
surroundings, or from the water filled fields, like improbable giant
molehills. Most of them are conical but here and there nature has
wrought them into more elaborate shapes as pieces of them have broken
and fallen or the wind and weather have eroded them.
Before too long we came to the first marked "attraction".
It was the Totem Trail which, we discovered too late, had the less
than attractive price of 108Y. Now ten pounds may not sound like a lot
but by local standards it's a considerable sum and for that you should
expect a pretty special attraction. First though you have to navigate
the arcane procedure for actually paying it. You go to a ticket booth
where you pay and you are issued with a ticket. Then another employee
escorts you to a second ticket booth where various details are asked
and filled in on the form by another employee who takes and stamps the
ticket. Another employee then leads you to the gate where yet another
takes your ticket and admits you. I suppose it's one way of finding
employment for the huge population but seven people (two in each
booth) to do work that could far more efficiently be accomplished by
one seems a little excessive.

So we were in. After a small and deeply uninteresting museum there is
the trail itself. My advice is not to bother. Phoney totem poles have
been set up along a path that you can easily walk along in about ten
minutes. Here and there, there are equally phoney "village huts" where
people in authentic polyester prehistoric costume try to convince you
to have your picture taken with them (printed and for sale at the
gate). Then, just as you are thinking "There must be more to it than
this" you discover you are right. There is more. There is a gift shop
through which a snaking aisle leads you past the overpriced souvenirs
for almost as long as you have spent on the trail.
A final twist and you are back out on the car park.

We spent a few minutes trying to find any sign indicating either the
admission price or the true nature of the attraction but were unable
to discover one, which prompted our decision to skip the Butterfly
Spring as it had a similar lack of detail at its ticket booth.
We did however stroll on to the Banyan Tree Park where, for a far more
reasonable 20Y we wandered around a pleasant and busy park which just
happens to have a Banyan tree in the middle of it. Sure, it's just a
park but it's a nice park filled, even on a fairly gloomy day, with
people enjoying themselves. Families were playing with each other.
People were wandering round just relaxing. Bamboo rafts were punting
along the river.
We continued on. The Assembly Dragon Caves were along a detour from
the main road and we decided that if we had the time and the
inclination we would see them on the ay back and pressed on to Moon
Hill itself. Once again it was in a park with a small entry fee. It's
called Moon Hill because there is a roughly semi-circular rock arch at
the top of the hill which has its lower edge obscured by trees when
viewed from the level of the road. The result is to make it look like
a crescent shaped hole through the rock.
The climb up to it was steep, zig-zagging between the trees along a
path that took about twenty minutes to climb. It was about half that
on the way back down.

The walk back to town also seemed to go rather faster, perhaps helped
by the decision not to visit the caves. Back in town we opted for a
curry in a Malay restaurant and then settled down in a pub called The
Alley for a couple of beers. It had been a long and pleasant walk
though mostly along a main road. We made plans for a couple more walks
and called it a day.

China" Spring Break Part 4

I woke up freezing cold and shivering and unsure where I was. I was
certain that I had been on a train but this was clearly a room. Then I
remembered the train had been yesterday. And the day before. I had
caught it at about seven on Thursday night and got off it at about
eleven on Friday Night. The journey had been uncomfortable. Overnight
I had been in a top bunk with virtually no clearance and absolutely no
chance of either sitting up or turning over. They day had been spent
alternating between pacing the carriage – I had no seat – reading a
book I'd bought in Xi-An and listening to music. It had passed slowly.
Very slowly.
Then I had been picked up by a pre-arranged taxi and an hour and a
half later had checked into my room at Meicheng English School in
Yangshou. The room had been cold. The heating had been off for some
time and the wooden floors and full wall window had leached all the
heat around. Putting the heating on had made little difference and
even in my dreams I had been freezing.
I showered – more to warm me than to clean me – and went out for a
first walk around Yangshuo.
It's been said, and with some truth, that Yangshuo isn't really China
at all. Instead it's a kind of airlock between the real China and the
rest of the world. It's full of tourist shops and western restaurants
and most people there speak at least a little English. Many of them
are fluent.
I spent the whole day just refamiliarising myself with the layout of
the town. Breakfast was bacon and eggs. Lunch was a ham and cheese
sandwich. Dinner was a burger and fries followed by a couple of beers.
I was sticking to my diet with ease. On the whole though it was a day
of doing nothing and when I went early to my bed it was good to find
that the heating had done its job and the room was pleasantly warm.
Tomorrow John was arriving and although I expected that for his first
day he would be too jet-lagged to do much it was the beginning of the
main part of the holiday.

The main problem, I realised, as I waited for him at the bus stop next
morning, was that although I knew what time his flight was due in at
Guilin, I had no idea if it would be on time and no idea how long it
would take him to make his way from there to here.
In the event he was later than I expected and I had time to go eat
some breakfast before he turned up. We walked down to the hotel he'd
booked for his first night and when he'd checked in and freshened up
went back for his first look at West Street.

West Street is the main tourist part of Yangshuo. It's a narrow
pedestrian-only street several hundred metres long. It's lined with
shops selling souvenirs of all varieties. Necklaces nestle side by
side statues. T-shirts hang above lucky cats with their waving arms.
Carvings, paintings, postcards, jewellery, Chinese Chess sets,
miniature Mah-jong sets with tiles too small to ever handle.
Interspersed among them are cafes and restaurants and bars. Side
alleys run off the main street, dodging over bridges that span the
narrow water channels, lined with more restaurants and bars.
At the far end, by the river, there is a market where larger items can
be found – fans five feet across, carpets, statues of stone and wood,
stone xylophones (though perhaps that should be lithophones).
It's busy and colourful though why the salesmen seemed to think I
would be interested in buying silk dresses remains a mystery.

We wandered relatively aimlessly – me because I knew the area well
enough already and John because the lack of sleep on the flight and
the jet-lag were taking their toll.
There were two weeks ahead to get a more detailed view of the town.

Gratified and apologetic

This week three separate people have emailed me to ask what's happened
to the blog lately. This is most gratifying as I hadn't realised that
as many as three people read it regularly enough to notice that my
posting rate has fallen so badly. Sorry about that. There isn't any
special reason for it, I just haven't got around to posting anything.

I will in my next post get back to talking about my holiday in
Yangshuo. For this one let me tell you about an incident this week
which illustrates perfectly one of the major differences in teaching
in China and England.
Earlier this week I had a class in which a number of students arrived
late. As they were only a few minutes late and the lesson is only
forty-five minutes long, rather than spend a lot of time addressing it
I gave them a brief warning and sent them to their seats. One of them,
a girl of about twelve always has an attitude problem in class and she
was also eating when she came in. A few minutes later she started
fighting with one of the boys. I sent them to separate corners of the
room to separate them. When I let her sit again she immediately
started a conversation in Chinese with the girl next to her. I told
her very clearly to stop talking and her response was to echo the
warning in a mocking tone.
So far this could all be a student in in any school in the UK and,
indeed, it isn't the student's behaviour that has caused me to
comment. It's what happened next.
As she was clearly taking no notice of me at the end of the lesson I
took her to the office to be spoken to by her Chinese English teacher.
This teacher shouted at her quite sternly and then telephoned her
class teacher who came to the office and shouted at her some
more...and gave her a series of extremely hard open handed slaps
across the face. Hard enough to leave the face a stinging shade of
red. Hard enough that they rocked her on her feet.
I was stunned. If any teacher in the west did that they would lose
their job immediately. They would probably arrested for assault and be
put on a child protection register. This isn't meant as a criticism of
the teachers involved. This kind of punishment is perfectly normal.
Commonplace, even. There were five other teachers present and not one
of them reacted at all. It's such a normal thing that it's not even
worthy of comment for them. It sits very uncomfortably with us though.
The girl had been a pain in the arse in class and had needed to be
spoken to but I hadn't expected her to receive a physical beating for
it. If I had realised that she would, then I probably wouldn't have
taken her to the office at all. It's made me rethink my policy of
threatening them with their class teachers as a threat I'm not
prepared to carry out is no threat at all.

Last week I had witnessed something else in the office that was also
pertinent. The junior students had been given a dictation test in
their Chinese English class and most of them had done very badly. I
saw some of the papers and they were very poor indeed. However, for
us, a failure of so many students wouldn't be looked at as a failure
of learning it would be looked at as a failure of teaching. The
response here though was to call ALL of the failed students into the
office and give each one a few sharp raps across the palm of the hand
with a heavy ruler. Dozens of them were lined up and punished in this
I sort of understand, without in the least condoning, why you might
use physical punishment for discipline issues, but for failing a test?
It really is a different educational world.