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 September 2013

Set to run

Some time ago, in another forum I wrote the following as a demonstration of how one word can have many different meanings in English. It is, clearly, based on just a few of the many definitions of "set" in the OED.

A Wind In The Willows sequel.

Ratty set his chess set on the table at Badger's set and proceded to set it up but Badger was set against playing.
"I'd like some Jelly" said Mole.
"It isn't set." snapped Badger who was setting the clock to British Summer Time to set an example to the others who always forgot. Meanwhile Mr Toad was setting off to visit them and watching the sun set as he strolled towards the Wild Wood.
"Why it looks just like a stage set" he mused as he walked. The wind was set from the east and it was a pleasant evening and he was looking forward to being among his set again. Had they come to him off course they could have played a set or two of tennis but Badger's entertainments were more modest.
"Dear old Badger." thought Toad, "So set in his ways. We can't even watch TV, he doesn't have a set. Pity, Britney is on tonight."

He arrived at Badger's and set his hand against the door.
"Come in" cried Badger "And set yourself down", we'll set up the radio and listen to Britney for you, I know you were dead set on hearing her set."

In an item from a couple of years ago that passsed me by completely at the time, Peter Harvey points out that "set" no longer has the longest entry in the OED. That honour apparently now belongs to "run".

So, let's continue the story...

Toad, who had run the last few hundred metres so as not to miss the start wiped the sweat that had run down his face.
"Had a run of bad luck." he declared. "I'd run out of cash for a cab because I've run up a few debts recently. The run of things has been against me recently. So I've run away from home."
Badger looked at him sternly.
"You should run for office." he said dryly.
"Why?" asked Ratty. "He couldn't run a run of the mill birthday party."

Meanwhile Mole had been peering closely at Toad's soaking wet shirt.
"I think the colours have run." he said at last. "And there's a run in the fabric. I'll run along and get a needle and thread."
"No use, " said Badger. "I've run out."

Meanwhile Ratty had been fiddling with the radio.
"Hurry up," he said, "They're about to run the show."
"How long does it run?" asked Toad.
"About an hour." declared Ratty.
"Can we play cards while we listen?" asked Toad. "Poker would be good, if only I could remember whether a flush beats a run."
Much later, when the evening had run its course Ratty decided to run Toad home (he had of course now bought a car, a run down old wreck to be sure but a car nontheless.
"Thanks," said Toad. "When I get home I think I'll run a nice hot bath.
"Be there soon," said Ratty cheerfully. It's only a short run."

To be continued... (I'm in danger of running on and on.)


Sunday, 29 September 2013

A Farewell to Bilston Voices

So, Bilston Voices final performance has come and gone.
I wish I had been there to watch it, to write a farewell review, perhaps even to perform. I am of course thousands of miles away in China so I can only watch and sigh from afar. Gary Longden has reviewed it and it sounds as if they went out in their custmary style, fittingly finishing with Simon Fletcher who continues to organise the popular City Voices event in Wolverhampton.
The one thing that has always amazed me about both Bilston Voices and City Voices has been the incredibly high standards of writing and performance. With such diversity it would be reasonable to expect the occasional misfire, the occasional lacklustre night – reasonable but entirely false. Against all probability the events have not only maintained a consistently high standard but have, month on month, managed to surpass the already high standards they had achieved.

Over the years I have performed at both venues and always felt that while they have different strengths the great beauty of Bilston Voices was its cosy, friendly atmosphere. Performing there was like performing for family. I shall certainly miss it and, I suppose, I have one less reason to revisit Bilston than I had before. 

I'd like to wish all the performers I have seen there - and all the performers I have missed since moving to China - the very best and I'm sure there will be other performance venues that rise to take its place. But they won't feel the same.


Fruit and Vegetables

Some things are the same the world over.
An article in the Telegraph suggests that, thanks to bad weather, supermarkets in the UK may have to sell some fruit and veg with slightly lower aesthetic appeal than usual. We all know that in most supermarkets the apples are uniform in size, colour and succulent appearance; the carrots are straight and entirely lacking in knobbly bits; the potatoes don't have those chunks knocked out of them where the spade digging them up was a little closer than was strictly necessary; the tomatoes have neither under-ripe green bits nor over-ripe squishy bits and the bananas are the perfect shade of yellow rather than green or brown.
In short the fruit would look beautiful in a glass bowl waiting for a still-life painter to dash off another masterpiece.
Now, says the article, supermarkets may be prepared to accept visually less appealing produce "to prevent waste". 
The cynic in me suggests that it's more likely because they will be able to buy at a lower price and sell at a higher mark-up and get a better profit, but that's just me and, hey, what does the motive matter? It's the end result that counts.

Here in China things are largely the same. Most of the supermarket produce has the same look of being chosen for beauty rather than for taste as the food in the UK does. The difference is the alternative. In the UK the alternative is to go to independent greengrocers or to outdoor markets. The former sell fruit in a shop environment and the latter sell, usually from a nice clean, well-laid-out stall with tables and boxes and usually a nice awning to keep the rain off. 

Here the greengrocer almost doesn't exist - many of the shops we find on the high street in the UK don't exist - and the market is something entirely different. Chinese fruit and veg markets can be found all over the place in Baiyin. Within five minutes walk of my apartment I know of four different streets where I can buy all manner of fruit and veg. The traders are the farmers who grow them - or, at least, members of their families. They lay out their melons and apples and carrots and peppers either directly on the ground or onto a blanket. Some of them, particularly the melon farmers, will just park a lorry loaded with fruit and sell directly from the back. 

Now much of this fruit looks horrible: scabby, misshapen items that even the apparent new relaxed attitude of UK supermarkets would balk at. On the other hand it's cheap and nutritious and — once it's peeled and chopped — perfectly tasty and acceptable - not to mention indistinguishable from its prettier cousins.

There are some who would say that when I buy it I don't know whether the water supply on the farm is, as many are here, tainted with heavy metals. I do not know what kind of pesticides or fertilizers have been used — there is no regulation of the word "organic" in China. To them I say that the same is just as true if I go in to a supermarket and buy packaged food, wrapped in celophane and piled on a hygienic, cooled shelf. The supermarkets buy from exactly the kind of farmer that sells on the street. They are just pickier about the appearance than I am.

I used to buy all my vegetables in the supermarket because I thought it was convenient but now I walk past three different street markets in my ten-minute stroll from school and it's far more convenient just to buy from them. It means I don't have to make a special trip or carry everything a long way home. It's also ridiculously cheap. the supermarkets are already cheap but the street markets are half the price for double the quantity. I can buy more than I can carry and spend less than a pound.

And so here in China I do just that, even though in England my entire weekly shop — including fruit and veg — was done in Asda or Tesco.

Some things are the same the world over but that doesn't mean that I can't change.

Wednesday, 18 September 2013

Chinese labour relations

I recently came across an unexpected difference between China and England.
A Chinese friend wants to change her job. The reasons are unimportant.
In England, America and most of the restof the world the is is simple. 

You apply for new jobs and go to the interviews.
When you get one you tell your old employer.
You work your period of notice, if you have one.
You leave the old job and start the new one.

Here you have to get actual permission to leave the old job. You fill in forms requesting that you be allowed to leave and submit them to the proper authorities within your organisation and wait. They have absolute control over whether you can leave or not.

In her case it was "not".

So even though she has a new job to go to and wants to leave she has been told she must continue to work for the company she is currently at doing the job she currently does.

Sometimes, as a foreigner with rather more leeway than the average Chinese worker, it's easy to forget just how authoritarian the society here can be. We aren't really exposed to it very much so we don't notice it as much as we should.

In case anyone wonders, the job isn't anything high powered or official, it's in an ordinary and unexceptional office post.

It can be worse though. I have heard of teachers who for some trivial imagined failing have been demoted from teaching to toilet cleaning. I was also chatting with another friend recently, a Chinese English teacher. His English is excellent - virtually native speaker level - but they still sent him on a week long total immersion program with other teachers. In this they are closeted away together (in what didn't sound like fun conditions to me) and required to speak English at all times. If they are overheard speaking Chinese they receive demerits. There are a range of punsihments available including exclusion from social activities, confinement to rooms and the ever popular cleaning duties.
This sounds suspiciously like what they used to call "re-education".

I'm not sure how serious he was one he uttered those immortal words beloved of authoritarian regimes everywhere, "It's for our own good.".
I am sure that if they tried it with foreign workers it would be no time at all before they didn't have any.