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.

Sunday, 21 October 2012

Chinese Pop Videos: A Template

Last Spring Break I found myself on a bus from Yangshouto Guilin. To entertain the passengers they were playing and endless stream of Chinese pop music videos. Yesterdday I saw more of them as I was travelling to Xinglong mountain to go hiking and still more on the way back. Many of them follow a curiously similar narrative that is strikingly obvious even in the total absence of understanding of the lyrics. It goes like this.

Boy meets girl.
Boy and girl fall in love.
Girl leaves boy.
Boy is heartbroken.

In the "boy is heartbroken" phase he will gaze moodily at photographs of happier times, hallucinate his girlfriend still walking around with him, stare at the ocean.
In the gloomier videos instead of leaving him the girl will die in a tragic accident and in the very gloomiest he will hurl himself from a cliff or swim out into the sea never to return.

In short Chinese pop videos are unrelentingly miserable. Just for once it would be nice to see something a bit more upbeat.

Hasn't happened yet though.

Perseverence: A Chinese virtue

So this is how it went.

I was planning a quiet weekend sitting in my apartment watching DVDs with my feet up and a cup of tea. Then, as I was walking home from school on Friday I got a text from my administrator asking me if I wanted to climb a mountain on Saturday. A few brief exchanges established that while it was a mountain it was a hike up and down rather than a full blown climb so what could I say but "Yes".

Four of us were supposed to be joining a group that seemed top be the Chinese equivalent of the Ramblers' Association and heading off for a two hour drive to Xinglong mountain where we would hike up and then back down before coming home. It was, we were assured, very beautiful. In the event, the seven thirty start deterred two of the party and the two of us who went, Carole and I, were joined by Jane, our administrator. The Chinese group was part of a national organisation called Travel Friends but, as Jane explained, the Chinese for this sounds like the Chinese for Donkey Friends and we three, having not been with them before were the new donkeys.

The new donkeys joined the old donkeys in a group rather larger than we had anticipated. Two full fifty-seater coaches set of a few minutes past seven-thirty to head for the mountain. It was an uneventful journey, accompanied by videos of Chinese pop songs and a bizarre Chinese movie that seemed to be about warriors and magicians but was rendered quite hard to watch, even for the Chinese viewers by the fact that it kept getting part of the way in and then restarting from the beginning.

We pulled off the Gansu Expressway and onto smaller roads and then, about two hours after starting we stopped. There was a roadblock. Untroubled by this the driver backed up, returned to the expressway and continued on. We would, Jane told us, find another route to where we were going. At the next exit we left the motorway, followed some smaller roads, came to the junction where we needed to turn south to get to the mountain and ran into a police roadblock. They waved us on our way and the driver continued looking for another route. Perseverance is an especially Chinese virtue.

A little further on we stopped and everyone left the coaches and started to follow our group leaders up a dusty and unpromising path that would, they said, lead to where we were going. Perhaps it would have. We shall never know as about two hundred yards in there was, yes, another roadblock.

We went back to the coaches. In England there would have been grumblings. Murmurs of rebellion, even. No one here seemed very much perturbed as we went on our way to seek another way in.

It seemed for a few minutes as if we had found one when we stopped at what was clearly an entrance to somewhere touristy. There were pavilions and car parks and lots of people but after a few minutes we drove on.

Fortunately the next stop was the right stop. A steep flight of stone steps led up past a memorial which Jane told us was a cenotaph and just beyond it was a military cemetery. As we followed the path we passed a small group of people, including a monk, reciting prayers at a tiny pillared structure and then we were into our hike, starting off along what began as a moderate slope up the mountainside. It was, as billed, a beautiful walk. The bare branches of the autumn trees crowded into the path scratching at exposed flesh but it didn't seem to matter. The views out along the valley were magnificent. On the nearby mountains autumn trees glowed like burnished bronze – the sunlight made them look as if the whole mountainside was on fire. Where we were walking the trees were almost bare of foliage but many of them were still covered with red berries. White spores from other trees drifted past us on the wind.

Soon I was breathing hard. The climb was steep and the path narrow. The Chinese with me ranged from teenagers to old men and women but most of them seemed to be taking the walk with ease. Before too long we were strung out along the path. Whenever I paused to take a picture – or more accurately to uise the excose of taking a picture to give me a few moments rest – I was quickly surrounded by people who wanted to have their picture taken with me. Singly and in groups they joined me and only by starting off up the hill again could I break free. The respite was temporary. Each time I paused it was the same routine.

The climb became steeper and at times rather more precarious as the narrow path edged along near vertical drops. Then it became muddy and my training shoes started to slip. Most of the Chinese hikers wore boots although some, like me, had less appropriate footwear.

Perseverance of a different kind was the necessary order of the day. Eventually we reached the top. In a couple of clearings we sat down to eat our packed lunches. As I munched my way through my own fruit and sandwiches people kept coming and offering more. Assorted fruits, plates of pickle for my sandwich, ginger cakes, biscuits – I could easily have managed with no provisions of my own. And now that I was a captive "donkey" practically everyone there turned up for photo opportunities. I know foreign friends are rare in this part of the country but I felt like some kind of rock star.

Carole too had the same cross to bear as everybody surrounded us for more and more photographs. I must have been captured on film a hundred times half way through chewing on my food. Not very flattering but they didn't seem to care.

When I had finished eating I wandered around taking my own pictures. There was a kind of bush that had many white berries – it may have been a variety of snow-berry or wax-berry - and another that had small deep red pods shaped like a soy sauce bottle (as one of the locals haltingly explained). Through one small gap in the trees I could see down the opposite slope into a dense stand of trees which shifted with the sunlight revealing tantalising glimpses of a far off plain.

It was quite wonderful.

At about two thirty we set off down a different trail. Initially this was steeper but less slippery. It occasionally flattened or even climbed a little but the rapid and overwhelming trend was down. Suddenly things became a lot worse. The solid trail started to give way to a kind of peaty soil that crumbled and slipped beneath our feet. I was ab ut halfway back in the long procession and the frontrunners had loosened it still further so that it was very difficult to walk on by the time I got there. I put my camera away. It was hard enough to get down this kind of path with both hands free. Things became steadily worse until we were sliding and slipping and tumbling rather than walking down the mountainside. I tried to aim myself for the solider looking trees so that when I slipped, which was often, I didn't slip too far. Grabbing onto whatever branches and bushes I could to slow my descent I made my way down.

By now everybody was falling with alarming regularity. Things got even worse. The smooth branched bushes that had lined the trail gave way to spiky shrubs that could not be safely grasped. The trail started to disappear, though the others had already come this way – I could still see some of their bright clothing in the distance. As I slipped down a particularly sharp drop I saw, with tremendous relief that though the path was now all but invisible the direction that I was headed was towards a very long set of stone steps.

I struggled too it, climbed the rail and was on solid ground for the first time in about an hour.

As the steps started a considerable distance higher than my present position I could only surmise that there was a separate – safer – trail that we had somehow missed.

I looked down.

The steps seemed to go on forever. My thighs and calves were aching with the effort and my legs were already shaking. Within minutes my knees had been added to the list of painful body parts as I started down.

And down and down and down. There were hundreds, perhaps thousands of steps before I eventually reached the bottom where there was a small bar. Carole had already got a beer for me. I drank it standing, afraid that if I sat my knees would seize up completely. None of the Chinese were drinking. They just stared at us as if we had gone mad. We didn't care. We'd damn well earned that beer and we strolled down the last few hundred yards of flat path back to the coaches, still drinking it. Swigging from the bottles as we walked.

It was a much more strenuous day that either of us had anticipated but it had been terrific to get out in the fresh air and get some exercise again.

It's too long since I've been hiking but next time I go I'll know that what I need is perseverance. And preferably some decent boots.

(And I'll post some pictures a little later in a separate entry.)

Wednesday, 17 October 2012

A View From A Window

I have been asked a couple of times if my assertion that day to day life in China is much the same as day to day life in England can possibly be correct. After all, they say, it can't be, can it? China is so different. Obviously in many ways it is. The food is different. The entertainment is different. Many of the attitudes and beliefs, especially medical ones, sound like little more than preposterous superstitions to us. As my previous post showed the approach to town planning and the efficiency of the public services is certainly different.

So it's different, isn't it?

Well, that's not really what I'm talking about. Let me try to explain.

I am typing this at a desk where I can see out of my fifth floor window and look along the street. What can I see?


Let's take the buildings first.

Running from left to right across the street I can see:

A bank, a hotel, another bank, a grocery shop, two restaurants, a carpet shop, a pharmacy, a barbers, another grocery shop, a bar, a hardware shop and a garage. I can't see it from here but I know, from experience, that below my apartment there is another garage where blue-overalled mechanics are working on taxis, fixing the engines, replacing exhausts and gear boxes. Above all but the hotel, which is itself several floors high, I can see apartments. Where the curtains are open and I can see into the apartments I can, at this moment see a man watching TV, a couple of kids in school uniform (and why they aren't at school, I don't know – it's ten in the morning!), a woman cleaning and tidying, an old woman watering some plants and a group of people just sitting doing nothing much of anything.

All seems very like the things I'd see at home if I could see into people's apartments there.


So what can I see if I look along the street?


Vehicles first – there are parked cars outside the hotel, cars moving along the street, a bus, a couple of taxis, a couple of motor cycles, some workmen's vehicles by the roadworks and a police car with a couple of policemen leaning on it having a smoke: and, just like England, a couple of white vans with slightly dodgy looking geezers parked on the side of the road.

The road itself has rather more roadworks than would be seen in England but, as I explained before, it's also rather more than would usually be seen in China.


There are a couple of stray dogs running about and I can see one cat sunning itself on the shop steps.


What about the people?

Well, it's a little late in the morning for kids. At lunch time or when school finishes for the day I can see hundreds of them in their school uniforms, running, fighting, playing, shouting, dragging their heels because they have a bad school report to give to Mom, smoking at the bus stop, swinging their school bags, reading comics – in short, doing what kids do.

Right now though they are all in their classrooms having history or physics or whatever drilled into them. I can only see adults. The shops aren't very busy at the moment so a couple of shopkeepers are standing outside talking. People in suits are going in and out of the hotel. Men in overalls and orange jackets are digging more holes. Two twenty-somethings are standing looking bored and cold while their friend is a few paces away talking on a mobile phone. A man is awkwardly trying to wheel a bicycle and balance half a dozen bags of groceries at the same time. A woman is reading a notice in the bank window. Lots of people are walking into and out of my view as they go wherever they are going. Two women appear to be complaining to each other as they have difficulty climbing over one of the trenches that the workmen have dug.


The whole thing looks completely normal, a scene that I could see anywhere.


And that's what I mean when I say it's much like life in the west. People clean their homes, look after their kids, go to school or work, earn a living, buy food for themselves and their pets and, on a day to day level, everything is just like back home. Societies may well vary greatly but people are people and that's why the details may vary but it's really the same picture and the view from my window is very like the view from your window

Tuesday, 16 October 2012


There is a small typo in the last post. To get the correct idea of the scale of the power outage it should have said "taking out 16 apartment blocks in the process".

Chaos and Progress

Much of the time things in Chinese cities tick over in a way that gives the impression that there isn't that great a gulf between the western and eastern ways of life. China is after all a highly technological nation. Shanghai is a model of glossy, hi-tec living. Last year they put three astronauts into space and brought them back safely. Even here in Baiyin a stroll round the streets at night looks like Las Vegas with all the flashing lights and neon signs.
And then you realise that it's not all that it seems.
It's been apparent since I came back after Summer that something has changed in the administration. Specifically in whatever passes for the town planning division of the administration. Last year there were occasional times when you would walk down a street and find a trench along the side accompanied by the mountain of dirt that had been dug out to accomplish whatever electric, gas, sewage or heating works were needed. There were holes here and there that the unwary might fall down as they  hadn't been there the day before. There was some chaos. But this year there are "civic improvements" going on. This year there is progress. And here progress seems to be a synonym for chaos.
If any English town planner suggested that it would be a good idea to simultaneously dig up every road and every footpath in the city he would be quietly moved to another department where he could do less damage. Here though it has struck someone as necessary and from thought to inception is about a heartbeat when you are an official with any power. So, and it's no exaggeration, in the downtown area of the city approximately seventy-five percent of all the roads, pavements and paths have been dug up along their entire length. I, for example, cannot go the couple of hundred yards to the local market without clambering over several  mountains of mud, balancing precariously on concrete slabs used as temporary bridges across three separate gaping holes in the ground and jumping half a dozen two foot wide, six foot deep trenchers.
Last week I went to dinner at my administrator's home and to get to the front door had to negotiate a hole that was the full width of the alley between the buildings, five-foot wide and eight foot deep with rusty iron piping at the bottom should I fall. There were two muddy ledges, one on each side, to act as stepping stones.
The reason for this chaos is that they have decided to replace the heating system.
Now, to understand fully, you need to know how the heating works. In most countries householders control their own heating. They have gas or electric central heating or just free standing heaters or even coal fires. They turn everything on or off as they choose. Here in China that's not how it works. Here there is a citywide grid of underground pipes and then more, narrower pipes that are fastened to the walls inside and outside the apartment blocks and narrower still pipes that go into the apartments and into the radiators. On a fixed day each year the heating is turned on and hot water is pumped around the whole city and on another fixed day it is turned off.
It's an inefficient and ineffective system at best.
This year I have serious doubts that we'll have any heating at all. I can't see how they can possibly have all this finished by the official 1st November heating switch-on.
Of course, everything can always get worse. And it does.
The workmen digging the roads up power their tools by running jumper-cables from the junction box in any one of the apartments. This is NOT a good idea as was demonstrated by the way that last Friday they blew out the main generator taking out apartment blocks in the process. Mine included. Power has only returned today on Tuesday morning and the way they have fixed it is with a truly scary Heath-Robinson-ish lash up of cables and boxes that they have strung from apartment to apartment hanging from open junction boxes, trailing across floors, leading out of open fourth storey windows, dangling across the gaps between buildings and joining the apartment blocks like bulbs on a Christmas tree.
So I've been in darkness from about six-thirty onwards for four days and as a result  have gone over to visit friends who live outside the affected area. That too hasn't been altogether a good experience. On Sunday I went over to watch a movie and have a couple of beers at Carole's. In her apartment block there is power. There are also, a work gang refitting the inside pipes who were hammering and drilling the whole time I was there from seven till about ten thirty. They were, I am told, still hammering and drilling at twenty tow midnight. The noise sounded as if the whole block might come down. The net result of their work is that the stairwell is filled with a spaghetti-like tangle of pipes, all lagged with a kind of black rubber. They are screwed in random variations to walls and ceilings. They poke through crudely chipped holes into apartments, drop through holes in the floor to the level below and continue their twisting, turning journey to the ground floor where they disappear outside through a hole in the wall and join a larger pipe in a hole in the ground.
Carole was told yesterday that this week the workmen will need access to her apartment to make the final connections.
This, of course, is progress.

Tuesday, 9 October 2012

Random bits including poems

I think it's safe to say that no one will be getting a Christmas card from me. It's nothing personal. It's just that today I had to send an important, single-page letter to my pension company in England. The weight of the letter itself was too light to register on the Chinese scales. It cost 230 ¥ - that's £23. At that kind of price it would be cheaper to fly home and deliver Christmas cards in person.

And that wasn't even the most annoying thing about the process. The most annoying thing was how long it took. In an empty post office the bureaucracy of filling in forms in English, waiting while they checked the computer, getting someone to fill in forms in Chinese, waiting while they retyped the Chinese into their computer, waiting while they telephoned someone to find the price and so on took almost an hour.

I passed the time explaining to my Chinese friend that to send a letter the other way costs a tenth of the price and takes about two minutes. She was amazed as it hadn't occurred to her that our mailing experience was anything other than perfectly commonplace.

Chinese bureaucracy is just one of those things that you have to live with over here.

Like Chinese road works. If there is a single road within five miles of my apartment that isn't dug up along the entire length of it I haven't found it. Getting into and out of apartments becomes a random assault course of ditches six feet deep, mounds of earth ten feet high, concrete slab "bridges" a foot wide, mountains of pipes waiting to be laid, weeks-old piles of rubbish that no one can collect or clear because of the other obstacles. It is, I am told, a program of civic improvements, though even the local people who see this kind of thing all the time can be heard grumbling about how bad it is and how the improvements only ever make things worse.

Another street, another trench,

another overpowering stench.

The trenches do not cause the smell

though they're a bloody pest as well.

It's obvious we'll never know

who'll clear the bins that overflow.

Those who earn their daily bread

in that task just scratch their head.

"With all these holes," you hear them say

"How can we take the trash away?"

Trenches deepen, rubbish piles.

I walk the streets for miles and miles

and everywhere is just the same.

Someone, somewhere is to blame

for another day, another trench

and another overpowering stench.

It's surprising how very small things can make me happy. This week, as I mentioned before, I found a shop that sells baked beans. Last week it was sardines. Last night I went over to my friend's apartment because she had just come back from a trip to Shanghai and had bought me half a pound of mature cheddar cheese. Little things but significant to me.

Or to put it another way, as I did in an idle moment between classes

It's great to get a moment's bliss

discovering something I miss.

Last week it was a can of beans.

The week before it was sardines.

Such little things – how well they please.

I'd be in Heaven if I found cheese.

Last week was a school holiday and most of the teachers here went away to different destinations in China. As the only foreign teacher staying in the city it fell to me to look after my friend Ben's three month old puppy.

There's pee in one corner and poo in the next.

He does it to vex me. Consider me vexed..

Turns his nose up at food, laps at his water,

takes bites out of things that he shouldn't oughta,

like chair legs and tables, my ankles, my hand.

Does as he pleases at every command.

As I clean up his mess with a mop and a pail.

He sits there so innocent, wagging his tail.

And when I sit down he jumps in my lap,

curls into a ball, settles down for a nap.

He's tiny and cute – I forgive him his sins,

and as he lies dreaming, I'm sure that he grins.

A Blackbird Sings

The second small stones anthology, "A Blackbird Sings", will be available shortly. Now I'd be misleading if I said you should buy it because it contains my work. It does, but that's misleading nonetheless. It contains a single piece of my work which consists of a grand total of twenty words. So if you don't want to buy it because it's me, then why should you buy it?

Good question.

You should buy it because it's full of tiny observations about the world we live in from all sorts of writers. The brief was, as in the previous collection, to write things that are short, perfect reflections of our everyday experiences and they writers manage to do just that. Every piece, selected from thousands by the editors -Fiona Robyn & Kaspalita Thompson-, is a small polished gem of writing.


So where can you get it?

You can pre-order it from Amazon right now and on the 1st November, for one day only, the Kindle edition will be free to download. As soon as I have a link to buy the book I will post it here.

Meanwhile don't forget that my own books, which actually contain considerably more than twenty of my words, can be found by visiting

They are also available from Amazon though I'd prefer you to visit the publisher directly on the link.

Sunday, 7 October 2012


I've talked about KTV before. It's one of the standard ways in which Chinese people amuse themselves. For those who may have forgotten my previous post KTV is a kind of Karaoke but the difference is that you hire a private room, go in with your party and sing KTV to each other - nobody but your friends to see (or hear) you. I have a new question about it though. Why do so many Chinese people seem to get so much enjoyment out of something they are so bad at? Now I have no illusions about my own singing voice. Frankly it's awful. I couldn't carry a tune in a bucket but compared to the friends who yook us last night I am Pavarotti, Freddie Mercury and Elvis Presley rolled into one. The hideous racket that ensued whenever one of our CHinese friends took the microphone was like the wailing of damned souls in the lowest pits of hell.
Now I do know a couple of people here who can actually sing, whose songs may be incomrehensible because of the language barrier but who can, nevertheless, belt out a decent, entertaining tune in a close approximation to the original. They weren't there last night. Instead we were at the opposite end of the scale. It's good of them to invite us but, on the whole, I'd prefer a less painful evening out. Say a root canal filling.

A rare delicacy

A post that is meaningful to so very few people...

yesterday, after a year of trying, I found a shop in Baiyin that sells baked beans. Just cheese and bacon left to find, now.

Monday, 1 October 2012

On one page (addendum)

I inadvertently missed out the most impossible* one of all.

5. At this time tomorrow __________ the museum.

a) we're going to visit
b) well be visiting
c) we'll visit
d) we're to visit

If you can pick between those four answers your better at this language lark than I am.

(* And yes, I know "impossible" is supposed to be one of those adjectives that you can't put "more" or "most" in front of. I don't buy it. Never have. It's just more bad advice.)