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, 30 April 2012

Through all the different looking glasses

I have feeds set up for the phrases "Alice In Wonderland" and "Through The Looking Glass". These are mainly to keep me informed of new productions that I might get to see (some hope!) and new editions that I might like to buy. Recently, for example, they informed me of the magnificent new edition illustrated by the renowned Japanese artist  Yayoi Kusama, which I shall be buying just as soon as I have an address to get it posted to.

The "through the looking glass" feed is interesting for a different reason - the number of bizarre ways in which the phrase gets used as a metaphor. In just the current list of sites it is used to refer to

- San Antonio Spurs' basketball match with the Utah Jazz
- rioting in Quebec
- democracy versus mob rule
- Facebook
- the NFL draft
- a University production of Through The Looking Glass (well there had to be one legitimate entry)
- artist James Franc
- Newcastle Falcons rugby team
- a mural at the museum of Flarida art
- a museum in Istanbul
- Tampa Bay Rays baseball team
- a luncheon event at a Methodist church
- an album by the rock band Toto
- online sci-fi thriller "Subrasan"
- a letter to an agony column about a teenage girl making sex videos
- Anzac day
- the art of Divya Anantharama
- the Penn State Board of Trustees Election
- the American legal system
- the Republican Party's attitude towards women
- an open air production of A Midsummer Night's Dream
- college Lacrosse
- The Little Prince
- the art of Greg Simkins
- the likely influence of Mormonism on Mitt Romney's presidential campaign
- the scientific theories of Peter Duesberg
- the use of "looking glass as a metaphor" (rather self-referentially)
- future technology
- the work of artist Lamya Gargash

and a number of others that I can't view in the looking-glass world of the Chinese internet.

I know it's a useful metaphor, but really, can't people come up with something just a touch more original?

Tuesday, 24 April 2012

Making Plans In China

Making plans in China is a fraught business. It's always tricky for
all sorts of reasons and even trickier if you are a teacher. Schools
tend to make up their schedules as they go along. When things change
they tend to do so at zero notice. I have been rung up at eight thirty
in the morning to tell me about a previously unscheduled class that is
beginning at nine and I have, on other occasions turned up for a
scheduled class only to find that the school have decided that they
will do exams instead but neglected to inform any of the teachers of
the fact.

Take this week for example. There are supposed to be a couple of days
holiday coming up on Monday and Tuesday. I asked what days I would be
off and was told that from tomorrow, Wednesday, to Tuesday I wouldn't
have to teach as there are exams this week and the holiday next week.
This was, I was assured, the situation in all the Baiyin schools.
The four of us foreign teachers made plans to take a visit to the
Labrang monastery in Xia-he from Saturday to Monday.
The first thing that went wrong was that one of the schools in Xia-he
isn't sticking to the timetable. They are doing exams AFTER the
holiday next week and to make sure the students get enough lesson want
their teacher to go to school on Saturday. So only three of us could
Still, plans were made.
Today, as I was leaving, I asked casually for confirmation that I'm
off tomorrow. I was told that I am not off tomorrow. I have to teach.
The exams are now due to be on Thursday, Friday and SATURDAY. This
wouldn't affect the trip but was rather annoying. I had been due to do
Monday and Tuesday this week and Wednesday to Friday next week. Now,
as I have to do both Wednesdays I have to prepare a complete set of
lessons which would normally last a week simply to teach one day.
Ah well. Not a disaster.
What was a disaster was the teacher I know who is from Xia-he. She
informed me that the local police have "requested" that no foreigners
travel in the area because they are expecting "terrorist" activity.
This probably means that they are expecting protests by Tibetan
separatist groups and, frankly, Buddhist "terrorists" aren't all that
terrifying. The trouble is that when the police here ask me not to go
somewhere I find it sensible not to go. There is a very good chance
that they will simply send me straight back and not allow me to stay.
The threat doesn't bother me but the inconvenience of spending all day
getting to a place and not being allowed to stay does. Also there is
always the chance that it might earn me a black mark. While I'm
working here I keep my nose clean and do as I'm told.

So all plans are now off.
We may instead get a day out in the country at the Yellow River (which
I've done before) or a day out in Lanzhou (which is just another city,
which I've also done before). Or we may not. It's difficult to tell
because that would involve making plans and making plans in China is a
fraught business.

A Hell designed for me.

Walking to school yesterday I noticed a large number of stalls set out
in one of the squares. I wandered over to take a look. It was a book
fair. Every stall was covered in books - big books and small books,
text books and story books, thick books and thin books. And all of
them in a language I read not one word of. As someone who loves to
spend every spare minute in book shops and at book fairs it was a hell
designed personally for me.

More from Chinese exams

Once again today I was approached by a colleague bearing a Chinese
produced English test paper. He had two queries.

One question read

"The child ____________ because he __________ his mother.

a) cried, missed
b) was crying, missed
c) was crying, was missing
d) cried, was missing"

Which, he asked, was correct.

The trouble, as usual, is that all four of those answers form
perfectly grammatical sentences in English. The precise circumstances
of their use might vary slightly but none of them are wrong.

The second question was one where the student had to fill the blank
with an appropriate form of the given verb.

He __________(leave) his job last September and he _____________
(work) in another city now.

Nothing hard about the first one. Clearly the form is "left". What
about the second one? Either "works" or "is working" seem to fit the
bill perfectly. Leaving aside subtleties about whether "works" applies
to a permanent position and "is working" to a more temporary one, both
versions are perfectly fine.

How does anyone ever pass an English exam in China?

I couldn't explain either of them adequately. I just had to shrug and
say that, once again, the questions as phrased were, in my opinion,
impossible to answer.

Monday, 23 April 2012


He never wanted presents,
nor cards,
nor birthday greetings.
He always told us so.
But my present is this:
a day of memory,
and this verse
is the greeting in the card
I cannot send.

Robert Hale 24 April 1924 - 24 September 2010

Monday, 16 April 2012

"Geek Joke" or "Why physicists don't get invited to parties"

The lesson this week is very straightforward. In essence the students
choose a location, some characters and a situation and write - then
perform - a brief sketch.

From one group of (presumably) physics enthusiasts among my English students.


Einstein and Newton are playing together in Heaven.

Einstein: Do you want to play hide and seek.
Newton: OK
Einstein: I'll close my eyes and you hide.
Newton: OK

<Einstein closes eyes>
<Newton draws a one metre square on the ground and stands in the middle of it.>

Einstein: Are you ready?
Newton: Yes, I'm ready.

<Einstein opens eyes>

Einstein: Hello Pascal. Where did Newton go?


It took me few seconds to figure out and I have a physics A-level
(admittedly from a long time ago.)

Sunday, 15 April 2012


Birthdays do not end with death,
expiring with that final breath.
The calendar does not lose the day
when one you loved has gone away.
Time does not stop when someone dies.
Each birthday sees the same sun rise.
The years still pass, a long procession;
to mortal flesh make no concession.
And I, as always, mark the day
with no flowers, with no bouquet,
but rather with a memory
of all my mother meant to me.

Sunday, 8 April 2012

China: Other Items redux

From an interview in China Daily comes the news that when offered a
paper imitation of an i-pad to burn and send to his ancestors a
customer asked how his grandfather would know how to use it the
salesman replied that Steve Jobs will be there to help him.

China: Birthday

Tomorrow is my birthday.
The sun is shining.The day is beautiful and hot.
Last night I had a great birthday celebration with my colleagues and friends.
Couldn't be better.

From time to time people ask me if I am enjoying my time in China as
much as I seem to be.
Let me answer it this way. I have just returned from a walk around the
city. It was my intention to buy myself a birthday present. As I
strolled slowly around, just taking my time and enjoying the warmth of
the sun on my face and arms I pondered what to get for myself and I
came to the conclusion that there is nothing that I actually want.
Sure I'd love a pound of cheddar cheese or a pint of Enville White but
I have grown used to not having certain things and wanting something
that it's impossible to get is a bit silly. I'd love them but right at
the moment I don't actually want them.
There is literally nothing that I want.

And tomorrow is my birthday, the sun is shining, the day is beautiful and hot.
Couldn't be better.

Thursday, 5 April 2012

China Other items available include...

According to the same China Daily article other paper-made items
available include

sedan cards
nannies and concubines

All of them are apparently available at a shop owned by a Mr Zhang in Guangzhou.

China: The Rising Cost of Being Dead

The Rising Cost of Being Dead

I mentioned in my last post the practice of burning imitation money at
Chinese festivals. It seems that it isn't just money.
This is from China Daily, an English language Chinese newspaper.

"The price of paper-made sacrificial offerings has increased by up to
50% ahead of the Qingming festival, or Tomb-Sweeping Day, in
Guangzhou, mainly due to the rising cost of labour and raw materials.
Paper made imitations of famous brand-name luxuries, including Louis
Vuitton bags, cars, laptops, watches, garments, wine and cigarettes
were among the item that saw the largest price hike.
A paper-made foreign-brand car, Louis Vuitton bag or set of
western-style suits now sells at 40 yuan (£4)."

Apparently even dead people need their luxury items, though it's their
living relatives that have to pay the increase in the prices of

China: A Long Day Part 2

The souls of the dead, waiting to cross over into the next world,
were, we had been informed, gathered around the island. A ceremony
would be held I which a bridge would be built to allow them to cross.
Among the, the Master had solemnly informed me, was a relative of mine
who had died in war. I didn't believe at all. It seemed a fairly
unlikely possibility that my Grandfather's brother – dead many years
before I was even born, dead before my father had even met, let alone
married, my mother – would be following me around waiting for my help
in crossing over.
Still the other people at the island, the devotees, all believed that
the spirits of their ancestors were hovering around unseen, waiting to
cross the bridge and I was interested enough in the ceremony and
culture to return to the island as an observer of the practice.
We arrived back at about seven O'clock. People there had finished
eating their evening meal and were gathered at the temple. Our hosts
welcomed us back and we were asked to buy five candles to light –
three at the temple and two at a tent that had been erected further
down the hill in front of the partially completed new temple.
We did so and were then given some large bundles of yellow paper that
were symbolic money that we would burn later to assist our ancestors
in their afterlives.

After a quick meal – which they insisted that we take, and insisted
that we eat completely – we returned to the ceremony. Master Jin and
the other monks were preparing themselves in the temple. Devotees were
approaching the steps with their offerings: bundles of the spirit
money; large paper packages containing prayers; gifts for the dead.
We asked what the procedure would be.
"We will go to the entrance to the island and burn the money." we were
told. "Then we will come back down for the ceremony when the souls and
the ghosts will cross the bridge."
While things were continuing I walked down the hill to the "bridge".
People were still in the process of constructing it – a structure
about twenty metres long consisting of wires and coloured paper.
Cloth, or perhaps heavy paper roles in white and yellow to symbolise
silver and gold, were being rolled out along it, hanging about three
feet above the ground.
Back at the temple things were happening.
Master Jin let the entire assembly up the path to the entrance to the
island. Here a large fire had been lit.
"Burn only half the money" advised Aaron. "The rest we will burn at
the crossing over ceremony."
When everyone had finished burning half their money and the parcels
that they had been carrying the procession returned to the temple
where prayers began again while the monks changed into different robes
of embroidered yellow silk.
Then we went down to the spirit bridge where everyone gathered in a
crowd outside the tent. Inside Master Jin was chanting. She had the
sword from the morning to drive away any evil spirits that would try
to disrupt the ceremony. When she had finished the devotees crowded
forward to collect the paper prayers that they had written earlier in
the day, which they would burn with the rest of the "money".
We asked what remained.
"We will walk around the bridge three times and then burn the money."
said Aaron. Then it will be time to go home.
Before that however there was a procession around the bridge by the
monks who circled the bridge and finally came to a halt halfway along
one side of it. Master Jin sat while there was more singing and
chanting. Then she rose and carrying a bowl in which there was a fire
– alcohol or spirit based – from the blue flame – circled the bridge.
Here motion was gliding and smooth and as she went she dipped her
fingers into the bowl, lifting the flame away with them and flicking
it into the air. She placed the bowl at the head of the bridge and
then repeated it with a fresh bowl to place at the foot of the bridge.
Then we started to circle the bridge together. At both ends fires were
burning in which more spirit money was being burned. We were told to
hold onto our money as there are several different kinds of spirit
money and ours would be burned later.
Asking again what remained we were told that there would be a brief
return to the temple and then we would come back to the bridge where
there would be food spread out for the ghosts on their journey. After
that we would burn the money.
I couldn't help noticing that every time we asked there was a new step
in the procedure and it was already getting quite late and with the
night the weather had turned rather colder.
We went back to the temple and came back to the bridge and, after more
chanting food was spread out from plates carried by monks. Everyone
gathered in small groups and started to burn their remaining paper
money. Little fires filled the whole area. While we had been back to
the temple the spirit bridge had been removed so that the whole field
was filled with small fires. We started our own and burned our money.
"Now," we were told, "They will launch the boat upon the river."
The boat had been previously unmentioned.
It was a wooden boat about a metre long with carved figures inside.
They carried it down from the houses to the fires. Before they could
launch it, it had to be decorated. This proceeded slowly with candles
in the shape of flowers and paper garlands being added to the
structure. When it was complete Todd was invited to join those
carrying it along the dark path to the river while I was given one of
the wooden tiles with a candle on it that would be floated away before
the boat was launched.
It was rapidly approaching midnight as we set off along the path. It
wasn't two dark to see as the night was clear and the half moon bright
with a hazy moon-dog ring around it. We negotiated the path with
little difficulty and I bent to launch my candle along with the
Moments later the boat was launched, though its size and lack of
buoyancy made it a trick task to get it out deep enough to be

And then it was, I thought, over. We went back up the path and
prepared to leave. There was however one more thing.
They wished to present us with gifts. In the temple we were given
chalice-like copper candle holders half filled with the butter that is
used as a fuel. We should burn them in the evening before retiring and
in the morning after rising we were told.

We crossed the pontoon bridge holding onto our gifts. In the dark and
tired to the bone it was a trickier task than it had been fresh and in
daylight but it was soon accomplished. They day was over.
It had been a long and tiring one but completely fascinating.

China: A Long Day - Part 1

My phone rang ten seconds after my alarm clock.
I'd been expecting the call but not quite that early. A couple of
weeks ago Aaron had invited us out to see a ceremony releasing fish
and birds back into the wild and he was calling to confirm the
"An hour, at the school gates?" he said. I agreed and checked my
clock. It was seven thirty.

The night had been filled with a wild, howling wind and it had
scarcely dropped with sunrise so that the city was filled with dust
and sand and, in spite of the bright morning sun, the cold cut through
my jacket.
The three of us – Aaron, me and my current flatmate, Todd – took a cab
out to the island in the yellow river where the ceremony was to take
place. I'd been there before and so I knew that it was about a forty
minute trip, time enough to relax a little in the car. I closed my
eyes and dozed and when I opened them again we were approaching the
ramshackle pontoon bridge that connects the island to the shore.
We were not the first to arrive.
At the nearer of the islands two temples – the only complete and
functioning one – dozens of people were kneeling and praying. There is
a short row of rooms where the people on the island spend there time
and we went to sit in one of these to drink tea and talk to the stream
of visitors eager to see the two strange foreigners who had come to
their ceremonies. Finally the abbot – an elderly man in a cardigan and
donkey jacket – came in. He was unbelievably pleased to have foreign
visitors and when I asked if I could have permission to photograph the
ceremony he beamed his approval, informing me that I could – and
should – photograph anything and everything and post it onto the
internet for all my friends to see.
So I became the day's official photographer.

A knock at the door indicated that things were getting properly underway.

The ceremony was a joint Buddhist and Taoist one. In front of the
temple a row of brown-robed Taoists were mirrored on the opposite side
of the entrance by a row of black-robed Buddhists. The fourth side of
the square was completed by the followers who were standing watching
the proceedings. Drums and gongs accompanied the chanting and singing
and as I took a discrete picture from the edges I felt a hand on my
sleeve guiding me into the centre of the action as one of the monks –
also in "civilian" clothing – indicated that I should walk about and
take photographs that I had considered obtrusive.
Feeling a little awkward I did so but was even more surprised a moment
later when he led me into the temple to photograph the Buddha statues
– which is normally a serious faux pas.
In the other room of the temple Master Jin, a woman in he seventies,
and a group of red, silk clad monks were performing rituals that were
largely incomprehensible to me. Here too I was encouraged to take
pictures until the abbot indicated that we were now to become part of
the ceremony. I put my camera away and we were presented with "hadas",
red ceremonial scarves embroidered with floral designs, placed around
our necks my Master Jin.

Outside, we rejoined the followers as prayers and blessings were
spoken over the cages of birds and the large buckets that were
over-filled with fish. I noticed that many of the fish, and at least
one of the birds, appeared to be dead already but moments later dozens
of eager helpers lifted them and we proceeded down to the river bank.
More prayers were said – Master Jin waving a ceremonial sword to drive
off evil spirits. I was asked to open the cage doors to release the
birds and they – apart from the dead one – fluttered off into the
shelter and protection of the skeletal winter trees.
Down at the waters edge the fish were being place into the water,
poured or lifted from bowls and buckets. As I had suspected many were
dead though some that seemed so, revived once they were in the water.
Overhead birds circled anticipating a meal once the humans had gone
from the scene..

With the release complete Todd and I were escorted into the centre of
the crowd to stand with the be-robed monks while people took our
photographs. We were it seemed highly prized and honoured guests.

After a basic, but very nice, lunch where the abbot himself came to
sit with us – firing off a stream of questions through the
interpreting skills of Aaron – we were about to leave when Master Jin
approached us. She said something in Chinese. We were being invited to
return for the evening's ceremony where dead souls would be crossed
over into the next world. Did we want to come?
Of course we did.

Sunday, 1 April 2012

China: Spring Break: A Walk

It's been a while since I got to this and I've forgotten which number
this part should have.
Still, it doesn't matter.

Here's the story of our next day walking in and around Yangshuo.

Before I left for my Spring Break, I scoured the internet for a decent
map of Yangshuo and the surrounding areas and failed to find one. In
Yangshuo I tried again but the best I could do was a photograph of a
map that is on a plaque on the corner of West Street and a printed
leaflet from the hostel with a map that was fully four centimetres
Still, nothing ventured and all that.
There was a cycling route marked that we thought we could walk,
especially as it had the advantage of being on roads and paths that
would not be as busy the main roads we had walked on last time.
It took us about twenty minutes to go wrong.
The maps both indicated a turn to the right at about the point we had
reached and sure enough there was a right turn. It took us up through
a village. There were a couple of children playing and a few wild
looking dogs. As we walked between the red buildings an old man passed
us, his lined face turning to observe us curiously before continuing
on his way. The road became narrower and we became more and more
convinced that we were wrong. Eventually, as it became clear that this
road was turning into a dirt track that led out towards a couple of
Karsts, we stopped and looked around.
After some discussion we turned and headed back towards the road.
It was the first of many inadvertent diversions.

The walk took us by turns through villages and countryside. It was a
dull day but dry and the walking conditions were good. The villages
varied from tiny groups of houses, reflected in the water of the pools
that surrounded them to larger, more modern – though less interesting
– towns. At the point where we actually needed to turn tight the path
started to run alongside the river, just as it did on the inadequate
map. The river however seemed to have been diverted into an arrow
straight concrete lined ditch, though we could see what appeared to be
the main channel in the distance across the fields.

As lunchtime approached we passed through a more substantial town
where there were covered stalls running down to the main river channel
and piles of bamboo boats which the locals continually tried to
persuade us to try. We waved them away politely and continued on but
now the path veered away from the river and after a short time seemed
to go into a park, while a narrower branch went along a dirt track to
the right.
We paused to eat lunch in the park and pondered our onward route. I
was for trying to find out if there was a road that went all through
the park but eventually we chose to follow the other path. As in our
earlier exploration it narrowed, and narrowed as it entered the
village until we could see no obvious way to proceed and turned once
more upon our heels.

Back at the town we walked down towards the river. There were a number
of ramshackle huts in which people sat eating or talking. In some of
them card games and dice games were going on and as we walked we were
occasionally approached by more people offering bamboo raft rides but
none of them were very persistent.
As the track we were supposed to be following was marked as a bicycle
route and the track we were actually following was a foot wide and
muddy and stony, we were reasonable sure we were wrong but the
direction seemed to be right and we were still following the river.
Ultimately it led out onto a wide sandy road and we continued on this.
There was a bridge across the river to a reasonably large town but we
were sure that our route was all on this side so we ignored it and
carried on.
This part of the walk was a good deal less interesting. The road was
wide but it was sandy and though there was now only an intermittent
spotting of rain, the previous days had made it muddy and unpleasant.
It had quickly veered once again from the river and started to slope
uphill. As we entered the outskirts of another especially unlovely
town we were convinced that we had got lost again. Our choices were
to go back to the last fork, about forty minutes away or continue in
the hope of reaching somewhere that would lead us home.
We decided to go on to the far edge of the town in the hope of seeing
something that would give us a clue as to were we are. Providence
provided. Half way through another path led off to the right and at
the corner a signpost in English declared that we could follow it to
the JiuXian hotel. As our map indicated that the town we were in
should be JiuXian we carried on with a slightly more optimistic sense.

The path became more steep but the road quality also improved and by
the time we came to another village we felt sure we were actually on
the correct route. We weren't.

Somewhere along the way we had missed a right hand turn that would
have led us out onto the main Yangshuo to Guilin road at a point where
it was about a twenty minute walk back into Yangshuo. Our route
meandered on and on and on and did eventually lead to that same road
but at a point that was more like two and a half hours from Yangshuo.
We turned reluctantly onto the main road and started walking. That
last couple of hours wasn't pleasant. Walking along the side of a busy
road never is, but in China where most drivers ignore what we could
consider normal rules of the road, it is especially fraught. We were
in what must be intended as a cycle lane which means that it is used
by cycles, motorcycles, tractors, some cars and quite a lot of busses.
Drivers overtake on either side whatever traffic may be on the road
and take what look to me like suicidal risks. Or if you are walking,
homicidal risks.
The views were still marvellous but we were paying too much attention
to not getting run over to really appreciate them.

Eventually we saw the toll booth in the distance that either indicated
that we were now only about forty minutes from Yangshuo or that we had
been going in the wrong direction.
John inquired and it was good news. We were indeed going the right way.

An hour later we settled into a café for a nice pot of tea and some
cake. Our walk had taken about eight hours and now that we were safely
back we could relax and think about how much we had enjoyed it – in
spite of spending so much of it unsure of where we were.
We killed a couple hours more before heading into the Red Star café
for some Mexican food (everything can be found in Yangshuo, if you
look for it) and then a couple more beers before heading back to our