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, 24 October 2015

Buying Food (Reposted from FB)

 I've noticed something odd about my behavior.
Occasionally I make a trip to Guilin because there is a European grocery store there where I can buy things that are impossible to get here in Yangshuo. So I go there - it's about a four hour round trip - and I buy canned goods (soups, baked beans, pasta sauces, canned tomatoes), all kinds of sauces (BBQ, Thai curry paste, satay etc), packs of flatbreads, decent quality bacon, cheese. I usually end up spending fifty to sixty pounds - 500-600 RMB. It's a lot more than I'd pay either for more easily available stuff here in Yangshuo or for the same stuff if I was back in England.
None of that is odd though.
The odd thing is that I bring them back to my apartment and put them in the freezer or on the shelf AND THEN DON'T EAT THEM. The reason I don't eat them is because every time I look at them and think of eating them I know that I can't replace them by popping across the street to Asda or Tesco. I have to make that four hour round trip again and spend a sizeable chunk of my salary.

Then, about three or four weeks later, I think, OK now I can start eating them. It's amazing how China can make you rethink your habits on normal everyday stuff like buying food.

And while we're on the subject

And while I'm on the subject I think it's marvelous that the spirit of Mary Whitehouse lives on. That lovely bunch of people over at One Million Moms want to ban the current version of the Muppets because it's "promoting interspecies romance and promiscuity".

You couldn't make it up.

In the interests of accuracy One Million Moms actually have around three thousand twitter followers while Kermit (who, for the hard of thinking, is a puppet) has more than seventy six thousand.

Would you like to hear my conspiracy theory?
I think they are actually a secret advertising agency. Anything at all that they want to ban, I want to see. A Million Billboards couldn't be more effective publicity.

In another campaign it was nice of them to bring to my attention the bizarre series "Black Jesus" of which I had previously been unaware. Thanks 1MM!

Alice and the Wolf?

I recently read that Alice Cooper's next project has him narrating an updated version of Prokofiev's Peter And The Wolf. 

This is of course the same Alice Cooper of whom moral mischief-maker Mary Whitehouse once said

"Because of this millions of young people are now imbibing a philosophy of violence and anarchy … It is our view that if there is increasing violence in the schools during the coming term, the BBC will not be able to evade their share of the blame." 
 How times change.

Are you still in China?

I posted a small and very insignificant story to Facebook about something I saw on my way to school one morning. I was walking along the street when I saw an old lady crouched by the side of the road with a blowtorch attached to a large gas cylinder. As I approached I realised that she was using it to roast a pig's trotter.

My brother's response?

"I didn't know you were back in Wolverhampton."

T-shirt of the month

 A girl in school last week was wearing a T-shirt with a large picture of a shuttlecock and the slightly mistranslated legend "Shuttledick".

Kindergarten Games as a Preparation for Life

One morning a couple of weeks ago, in between classes, I leaned on the sixth floor balcony watching the kindergarten kids playing in the yard. Their game was this. The boys and girls lined up facing each other. Each girl chose a boy by pointing at him. Then they all ran around with the girls trying to catch their chosen boys. When one was caught he had to stop moving while the girl held tightly onto him. However if one of his uncaught friends could tag him she had to release him and start the chase again.
Seems like there ought to be a metaphor for life in there somewhere.

Mooncake and pomegranates (Adapted and extend from my FB post)

I had a Friday off sick last month. I'd had a bad cold for few days but, as everyone does here in China, had continued to work. (Remember that a couple of years ago I was back at work, in plaster, two days after breaking my leg!) On Friday though I had one of those "gargling with razor blades" throats and I could barely speak enough to ring in sick. It was approaching the mid-Autumn festival and throughout my day off people kept coming to my apartment and giving me things. There was off course fruit - oranges and bananas and a large box containing more pomegranates than I could consume in a month. I still have some of them left to prove the point. As well as the fruit, though, there was mooncake. Everyone who came brought some mooncake for me. I ended up with quite a lot of it.It's the traditional Chinese food for mid-Autumn festival, rather like we eat Easter Eggs or Christmas Pudding. They all look very similar. Small round pastries about six centimeters across and about two centimeters deep, stamped with Chinese letters on the top. A couple of them had a white pastry rather than a brown but otherwise they were, to the eye indistinguishable. 
The trouble with mooncake is that it's a bit like the Bertie Bott's Every Flavour Beans in Harry Potter. You never know what's inside till you bite it. It could be delicious chopped mixed fruit. It could be not so delicious red bean paste. It could be the weird chopped lotus and green teal leaves. Or it could be the one that's a mix of sweet fruits and nuts and savoury fried pork which is, to be generous, not compatible with western palates. Some of the more... er... unconventional tastes I couldn't even hazard a guess at.
Now I daresay that somewhere in the packaging it tells, in Chinese, exactly what to expect but that is, of course, no use to me.
I tried all of them. Of about twenty there were maybe four that were delicious, four that I could force down and the rest I had to spit out the first cautious bite and then throw away the remainder. And that is of course why I always waited until my visitors had gone before trying the treats they had brought for me. I didn't want to give offense. Of course they will probably give me even more next year. 
Would anyone care for a job as my food taster?

Saturday, 3 October 2015

Another (Mostly) Facebook Roundup

It's Chinese National Week here, which means I'm now off for seven days. Unfortunately as I was told quite specifically two weeks ago that my school was only off for two days (Saturday and Sunday - how does that count as holiday?) I didn't make any arrangements to go anywhere. I was told it would be seven days by a student on the morning of the day before it started leaving no time to actually arrange anything. Oh well, you've heard "c'est la vie" and "c'est la guerre" - now you can add "c'est la Chine".

It does mean that I have time to do my occasional re-blogging exercise and add a few of the things that have gone onto Facebook since... oh wow... is it really almost four months since I posted anything here?
Anyway, this time, rather than just cut and paste, I'll paraphrase - mainly because I'm bored but also to give anyone who reads both this and the FB page, a marginally different experience.
Back in June the end of the school year was rapidly approaching and lessons were being shuffled around and end of year activities shoe-horned into the schedule. I was invited to be a judge on two occasions. The senior one students, who are now my senior twos this year, invited me to judge performances of sketches they had written. This event was to take place out in the school yard but thanks to the weather was on, then off, then on, then off, then... well you get the picture. In the end it was on - on the only night in the whole month that I couldn't actually make it. So I never did get to see them. On the other hand I did get to judge the speaking competition where twenty two of the students from my (then) senior two classes made near identical speeches on the subject of "Yangshuo". As I had helped them prepare, I was happy that there were no clashes to prevent my attendance. The evening came and as judges we were seated seated in a row at the front and I was in the middle. The two Senior 2 Class 1 students who were comperes started out by introducing the judges. They introduced judge number one who stood up and was applauded. The judge two, then judge three. Skipping right over me they went on to judges five six and seven. Then, after a slight pause they added, "and finally the most handsome, interesting and funny teacher in the school... Bob" and the whole auditorium was filled with cheers, shrieks and foot stamping. They even asked me to make a welcome speech before the competition started.
I noticed the school headmaster nodding with approval, a fact that made me quite happy as, at that stage, I had no idea if they would be renewing my contract or not.
Of course it was also the time when my school, for no very good reason and against the practice of practically every other school in China, wanted me to do exams. You may recall that I tried to explain last year that it's impossible to do oral exams for sixty students in thirty five minutes and expect anything meaningful to come out of it but there they were, insisting again. So, having, after a lot of effort arranged for the school to let me do my oral exams over two weeks, which was still inadequate but, at least, possible, I then had to reschedule Monday's exam for Saturday as Monday was the Gao Kao* exam day. I was told categorically that I had to finish by Friday that week so the results could be handed in to the office. Then I got to school on Tuesday and another teacher - my administrator being absent - informed me that I couldn't do senior exams then or Wednesday as they were sitting other exams. Another "discussion" ensued in which I tried to explain that I couldn't hand in results for exams that hadn't been done and they insisted that I must. Eventually it was agreed that I could now work the following week on Tuesday and Wednesday and hand in the results on Wednesday afternoon. China is one long stream of right-hand/left-hand communications interface failures. 
(*The Gaokao is the Chinese University entrance exam.)
In July I went up to Baiyin to visit Theresa and see some old friends. While I was there I witnessed (from the outside only) the setting up of a Chinese circus. I was taking a walk  to the coffee shop to meet a student when I came across it. Just across the street from the coffee shop is an open space where a circus was setting up. I walked past a crowd of people looking at two tigers, a lion and a black bear in cages. It was one of the saddest spectacles I had ever seen. All the animals were lethargic and looked horribly malnourished. The lion's cage was barely two inches longer and six inches wider than the animal. The tigers (in separate cages) fared little better. Worst was the bear which was chained inside a cage smaller than my bedside table and which looked to be on its last legs. I know that animal welfare isn't something most people on China are concerned about but it was pitiful to see.
While I was there in Baiyin I had my first problem with mushrooms in ages. Usually I have been quite adept at avoiding them but sometimes the restaurants just don't get it. I think I might have been reasonably safe from the dreaded mushroom at one dinner as I was eating with five Chinese friends all of whom are aware of the problem including two doctors and a nurse. When the pumpkin soup turned out to have mushrooms in the resulting chorus crying to get it replaced could be heard streets away. It was rather embarrassing really-I could just have ignored that one dish but they wouldn't hear of it. It was on another occasion, when it was just me and Theresa, when things went wrong, I don't understand why they find it so difficult. My food intolerance to all kinds of mushroom and fungusis quite severe so I make very sure that restaurants know this. So, when we went for hot pot, Teresa explained for a full five minutes that I can't eat mushrooms or food containing or cooked with mushrooms. The soup came and we checked again and were assured that it was ok. I put some vegetables in and started fishing them out and eating I'd eaten quite a lot when I fished out something that was very clearly a mushroom. The staff said in Chinese that it wasn't a mushroom it was a wild fungus. We told them that this is just another kind of mushroom. They brought a new bowl of soup which I think was just the same thing with obvious bits strained out. Too late, the damage was done. I had a night of hot and cold sweats and stomach pains and a morning of  hasty dashes to the toilet. It's not the first time. No matter how carefully it's explained they just don't get it. Why?
While I was there I did a few English lessons - some for Candy, my old private student who still managed to brighten my day with her ten-year-old enthusiasm and some for the young son of one of Theresa's colleagues. He was a little shy but did inform me that his favourite TV program is The Walking Dead. He's eleven. Later that same day Candy had brought our old books over and we were looking at a chapter about countries which included Puerto Rico which she insisted, quite deliberately, on pronouncing as "potato rico". When, the following day, we came across the word Toronto, she told me clearly that it had to be pronounced "Tomato" so that someone could move from Potato Rico to Tomato, which is actually quite a good language joke from a second language student aged ten.
Waiting at the airport for my flight back to Yangshuo I looked around. I was sitting in a crowded airport lounge waiting for the plane and realised that over eighty percent of the people I could see were using their phones either as phones or to play games, watch movies or send messages. The woman sitting next to me was simultaneously using three - one to send text messages, one she was talking on and one to watch a movie. Isn't modern life wonderful?


Of course I still occasionally comment on things that are not China related. For example

Sometimes I wonder about the people who release software. On my edition of Word most of the settings are still at the defaults. This means if I type. '"Good morning." said the boy.' It changes the "s" to an "S" (because it thinks it's the start of a new sentence AND THEN underlines it in green to tell me it's wrong and then I change it back to lower case and the green line disappears to tell me it's right. So it "corrects" my correct sentence , identifies it's own "correction" as wrong then lets me change it back and identifies my original as right. Ridiculous.


A comment on a post elsewhere read simply. "ooooooooooh!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!"
Facebook offered the option to "see a translation" so I did.
The translation read "Ooooooooooh!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!"
That capital "O" makes all the difference.


So Vin Diesal has signed on for Guardians of the Galaxy 2. I imagine the conversation went like this
Agent: Sorry Vin, Groot isn't in the movie.
Vin: Come on give me a chance, we haven't started to explore my range yet.
Agent: Look, Groot just isn't in the movie.
Vin: Listen, "I am Groot.", "I AM Groot.", "I am GROOT". There's just so much more I could do with the character. We haven't scratched the surface.
Agent: Leave it with me. I'll see what I can do.


A nice little story cropped up when I was teaching my "What do you know about the UK" lesson. One of the questions I ask is "Who is the UK Prime Minister." As part of the instructions I always tell the students that if they don't know an answer they should guess. Walking around and looking at answers I discovered that one of the students had written "Bob Dylan." When I asked him why, he shrugged and said "I don't know the answer, but I like Bob Dylan." He was pretty knowledgeable about his music too.


Finally, I've had a poem accepted for the forthcoming Offa's press anthology of poetry about Staffordshire. Here, exclusively on the blog, is a sneak preview.

Staffordshire Not

The emblem on my school badge was the Staffordshire Knot.
It's visible in all the fading photographs.
I could write my own address before I even started school
And the last line that I wrote was “Bilston, Staffs”.
But then came '74
And we were Staffordshire no more.
They had changed us at the dropping of a hat.
Our badges stayed the same,
But our home had a new name.
West Midlands.” Where's the character in that?

Some objected; they considered that they were of sterner stuff.
Continued to use “Staffs.” in weak defiance.
Wrote letters to the papers, to their MPs to the PM
But it could only end in their compliance.
The fait had been accompli
And thoroughly and promptly
The boundaries of Staffordshire receded.
The ears they turned were deaf.
No use appealing to the ref.
Any opposition to it went unheeded

But some of us, like history, will take a longer view
Not everyone thinks bigger must be best
And identity's a tricky thing to try to take away
Not something that can just be dispossessed.
Here's my old school tie.
I look at it and sigh.
To see the emblem of the knot repeated there.
Nostalgia? Well, perhaps.
But though the years elapse
Some bonds exist that are too strong to tear.

Tuesday, 9 June 2015

Facebook Roundup

Time for reposting a few of my recent Facebook posts
Starting back in April we have this little gem of honesty from my class

This week's lesson for the seniors is is on the topic of Wildlife Protection. After developing some vocabulary there is a discussion exercise where I put various topics on the board and the groups talk about what they think of them. One of the topics is "eating kangaroo meat". It almost always meets with a chorus of disapproval but today one student said enthusiastically that eating kangaroo meat is just fine. I asked him why. He looked at me as if I was mad and then said, "It's China. We eat everything." Well, it's honest

 And here are a pair of posts, one from April and one from just two days ago that jointly illustrate the Chinese approach to the concept of Health And Safety - to wit, "What are Health and Safety"?

A fine example of the Chinese approach to health and safety in the workplace. I walk to and from school twice a day along the same route. Part of the way along it there is a man tearing up a fair-sized patch of concrete with a pneumatic drill. He's been there every time I've passed for the last week. The noise from the drill and from the compressor that's powering it is tremendous. Even from about fifty metres away it's loud enough to drown any conversation. He's working without ear defenders. Chips of loose stone are flying everywhere. He's working without goggles. He is almost invisible at times in the cloud of concrete dust. He's working without a breathing mask. And that same guy has been there at least eight hours a day for the last week. He seems to be about half way through his task. I dislike some of the practices of our nanny-state as much as the next guy but when I see things like that I realise that at least we try to protect our workers.

My apartment is having security cages fitted around the rear windows.They are fitting the security frame now and I can't watch. It's terrifying. One is leaning out of my (third floor) kitchen window, completely unsupported by anything, holding one end of the very heavy frame. Another is standing outside on the window ledge hauling the frame towards him with a rope. A third is hanging upside down from the apartment above me drilling holes in the outside wall. I don't know where the other two are. None of them are wearing any kind of safety gear and all of them are taking risks that no sane person would contemplate. That Chinese approach to health and safety really is something else.

And when they do have building work done,..

There's a hotel in Yangshuo that has called itself Fawlty Towers. It's reached up a short but steep flight of steps. I noticed recently that they are having some building work done., The builder had deposited a lorry load of bricks completely covering the steps leaving the only way in or out down a very step and narrow concrete slope. I couldn't help wondering if the famous Mr O'Reilly has moved his business to China. 

You know those apps that float around on Facebook? Well there's one that will guess your age from a photograph.

I'm not posting the picture but I just tried that app that's floating around where the software guesses your age and sex from a photograph. I put in a picture of me with my girlfriend. It got the sexes right, which I suppose is something but identified me as 72 (I'm 57) and her as 13 (She's... well she's... let's just say that she's considerably older than 13).

Even after four years I still get the occasional mishap when buying food.

I know it's just a matter of cultural conditioning but sometimes the Chinese combinations of food actually make me feel physically ill. Especially when I bite into them without knowing exactly what they are. You can guess how impressed I was to discover that what I had carelessly mistaken for a Swiss Roll was, in fact, filled with pork floss rather than jam.

And I also still get the occasional cheeky remark from my students.

Doing my "Cast away on a desert island" lesson this week. I always introduce it with a picture story of me and the class on a cruise which sinks. I get drowned and the class get cast away on the island. Today one student asked why the ship sank and another answered that it sank because "Bob is so fat."

Of course there were odd comments from students right back to the start of my career as a teacher.

Something in a thread on a Facebook group ,I follow just reminded me of my very first ever teaching job. Fresh off the CELTA I got a summer school job in Harrow. My first class were a class of Japanese kids aged about eleven. A few days in we played a game with them guessing jobs beginning with a letter of the alphabet. After a few jobs like Doctor and Teacher the letter that came up was "S". I chose a girl to answer and she thought for a moment and said, pronouncing it perfectly, "Sommelier".

And finally, today's note on the demise of another business.

Businesses come and go here at a dizzying rate. The Mimosa, my old breakfast haunt wasn't the first on that street to go - replaced by a trinket shop - as many that I remembered had disappeared even before I moved here to live. Demo bar followed, though it did re-open in new premises in a less convenient, but significantly cheaper, location. The supermarket across the street was gutted and turned into... well, into another supermarket, actually. The pharmacy on the corner has now also been stripped back to bare brick and I wait with interest to see what's going to replace it. Even the apartment block facing my window is no longer an apartment black but some kind of computer school.

Saddest is possibly the one I noticed on my way home last night. Cafe Too has gone. Sign down. Shutters up. Now I hardly ever used Cafe Too, just for the occasional pot of Osmanthus tea but it had something not available anywhere else in town. It had books. English books. Shelves and shelves of books which you could buy or which you could exchange, giving the owner two of your old ones and taking in exchange one of the many others left by former travellers. With Cafe Too gone there is now nowhere to get English books. Many bars and restaurants have a few but he had thousands. I wonder what's happened to them.

That's all for now. Sometime soon, I'll do another "blog exclusive" rather than Facebook reposts.
Bye for now.

Sunday, 12 April 2015

Sleeping Flowers

(Reposted from FB)

I was out yesterday visiting a school where my company wants to place some teachers. I was with my Chinese colleague who had with him his three year old daughter. Early in the day she picked some wild flowers that she carried around with her for the next several hours. As the day went on they started to wilt and she looked at them very seriously and then said something in Chinese. Her father translated. "She says that the flowers are sleeping." Suddenly there was a loud shout from her. Her father translated again. "She just told them to wake up."

My Birthday Week

(Reposted from FB)

All in all a pretty good birthday week.

Long walk in the countryside on a sunny day on Sunday.
All my classes went really well. Most of them sang Happy Birthday to me.
Great open mic night down at the Lounge on Tuesday with enough performers that we could probably do a cover version of "We Are The World".
Good night at Demo on Thursday, even if the quiz was insanely hard (excluding the bonus round we only scored four and a half out of thirty. The winning team only got about nine.)
Got out of class today to find the department had bought me a big birthday cake.
Went to dinner with some of our office staff tonight at a great local Indian restaurant.
Unexpectedly, in addition to a carved musical box from Teresa, I got presents of wine, chocolate, coffee, an electric razor and a portable phone charger from people I work with.
I don't usually do that well back home.

And speaking of that Indian meal, I am constantly amazed at just how cheap eating out here is. Between us we had eight large vegetable samosas, two large cheese naans and two large butter naans, two large plates of Onion pakora, six different mains with rice, four beers and a banana lassi and in total it clocked in at thirty-five quid. And this is one of Yangshuo's more expensive restaurants. All of it (except maybe the local beer) was delicious.

Monday, 6 April 2015

Tomb Sweeping Day

Yesterday I decided to go for a walk along a section of road that I have never tried before. Normally I hate walking around here because it's all on busy roads with no pedestrian paths and it's smelly, noisy and dangerous. This part wasn't though. I wish I'd discovered it before. This weekend is the Chinese "Tomb Sweeping" holiday, when people go to the graves of their loved ones and clean them and leave flowers and other offerings. The walk took me past an area of cemeteries that, on another day, I probably wouldn't have noticed. Unlike our cemeteries, these were hillsides of small tombs around which there were whole families wielding machetes and spades and other tools and lighting candles and leaving all kinds of offerings: bottles of baijiu, flowers and -  at one that I saw - a whole roast chicken. Looking up into the nearby karst mountains I could see distant bands of figures climbing unseen paths to reach even higher tombs.
When I had passed them by I found myself, though still on a road, in an area of small villages and farms where everything was green and beautiful. There was traffic but not too much, and here and there mysterious side roads led off to other places. The weather was bright and wonderful but the constant sight of mourners put me in a melancholy mood so that as I walked I was remembering my own parents and wishing I could be home to leave flowers at their grave and wondering if anyone has cleared the flowers that I left when I visited in February. 
After some time I came out of my reverie and realised that I had been walking along this tree-lined route for almost two hours. It's a there-and-back walk rather than a circular one so I turned and started back, enjoying the new perspective as I returned to town for a late lunch and a bottle of beer. 
I shall certainly go that way again and explore some of the side roads. It's the first truly pleasant walking experience that I have found in this area. And now, some pictures.

Saturday, 21 February 2015

(More) Randomness from England

One of the pleasures I had been looking forward to in my visit to England was simply going into a bookshop and browsing. Of course I can do that here in China but it's so much more fun when the books contain squiggles and spaces that recognisably form words than when, beautiful as they may look, they form nothing more than – to me – incomprehensible patterns and shapes.
It was almost the first thing that I did. I attended to it straight after sinking a couple of pints with my mate Pete in the Post Office Vaults which, for those who have no knowledge of either Birmingham or ale, is a fine hostelry in the city centre.
Anyway, the second place I visited was Waterstones. I had a jolly good browse too – checking out everything from the poetry section to Sherlock Holmes pastiches to books of architectural drawings to celebrity biographies to... well I'm sure you get the picture.
During my browsing I ran across the rise of the non-book. All evidence to the contrary notwithstanding, I do have a sense of humour and I have in the past chuckled at such non-books as “Everything I Know about Teaching by Michael Gove” - a tome consisting entirely of blank pages. Not to mention guffawing heartily when I discovered people were actually prepared to pay money for a Kindle edition. While I've been away this kind of thing has proliferated on such a scale that it now has its own section in Waterstones which may be a small section but is, nevertheless, a section devoted entirely to books which, for the large part, contain no actual words or pictures.
In addition to those, like the Gove, which, in my schooldays, were usually no more than the punchline to “What's the shortest book in the world?” jokes, there are dozens of assorted “interactive books”. I realise that all books are interactive in the sense that you open them and read them and they put pictures in your head but these are interactive in the sense that you open them and do stuff. No words or pictures necessarily involved.
So, for example, there are books where one, otherwise completely blank, page will have a heading like “Draw a picture here with your eyes closed” and another will be titled “Write a sentence using the words “aspidistra”, “gumshoe” and “pterodactyl”, while a third will exhort you to get the person standing next to you to write two words describing you.
“Gullible prat” springs to mind. These books aren't cheap.
There is a whole series of “List” books where the heading on each page tells you what to write a list of;  favourite drummers, things to do before you die, most pointless purchases – that kind of thing. They run out at about twelve quid apiece and there are at least half a dozen of them. I don't know who buys them but someone must or they wouldn't go on publishing them. (Publishing seems an inappropriate word in the circumstances, but not as much so as “printing” would.)
It's genuinely money for nothing. Your money for their nothing. And damn I wish I'd been the one to think of it first.

I mentioned walking from the Post office Vaults to Waterstones which should be a straight three minute stroll but is by no means that easy nowadays. Getting from any given point A to any given point B in Birmingham is by no means that easy nowadays.
Two years ago, when I was living in Baiyin, the authorities decided to make repairs to the underground heating system that the city has. They did this by simultaneously digging up every road and most of the footpaths. Oh, how I laughed the peculiar ways of the Chinese. At least I did when I wasn't making mile-long detours to cross the street or climbing painfully out of muddy trenches that I'd fallen into. Well they can laugh at us now. Birmingham must have sent a fact-finding committee to China as the current works in the city centre seem to have been modelled on the same idea. There are multiple building projects going on which have resulted in what feels like half the city being dug up. Principally there is the redevelopment of New Street Station and the extension of the Metro line from Snow Hill to New Street.
The former, were it actually to do what needs to be done, would be a good idea. The passenger facilities and platforms are long overdue for modernisation. It's a cold concrete wind-tunnel of a place that could be much better than it is. Of course, that's not what they are doing. The sole change to the actual passenger areas has been the removal of the stairs so that access is now only by elevator or escalator. No platform has seen as much as a new lightbulb and no waiting room has received a single new chair. Instead all the changes have been exclusively to the retail areas and the station facade which now looks uncannily like the Eye of Sauron in the Lord of the Rings movies. No passenger's life is one iota better for any of it though, to be fair, they now have a choice of places to buy a latte on their way down into the bowels of the Earth.
The Metro extension is worse. It has necessitated the digging up of several main routes through the city centre to lay tramlines with the net result that trams that formerly terminated at Snow Hill will be able to go one stop further so that people will not be inconvenienced by the tedious chore of a five minute walk. I could look up how much all these “improvements” have cost but I suspect it would just depress me so I shan't bother. Whatever it is, I'm sure that in these times of austerity it is money well spent.

Not that the other end of the Metro, Wolverhampton Saint Georges, is any better. The station there closed early last year so that track could be relaid and was due to open again in October. Now, in February, it still looks like a building site with no end to the work in sight. The official reason is that when they relaid the track they discovered a mineshaft that makes it all too dangerous. This of course raises the interesting questions of why they didn't discover it when they originally laid the track and just how dangerous it's been while the trams were actually running. Cynics might suggest that only two explanations are possible.
            a) It's just an excuse to explain the long delays and there is either no mineshaft or no danger.
            b) It was discovered at the time but ignored in the rush to open the capital-hungry flagship project.
I don't find either of those particularly reassuring though either seems more plausible than them just never noticing it before. (Which would be even more worrying, if true.)

Speaking of roadworks my return to the airport was severely delayed at Nutley where fully three feet of road had been dug up, coned off and left unattended, reducing traffic on a major route to single file. No one was working there, at least not in the forty minutes it took my bus to crawl up to it and past it.

As this has all been rather negative let's put a bit of a positive spin on things.

1.      In spite of the novelty of selling blank pages at exorbitant prices most people seemed content to buy books with words and sentences in them. There may be hope for the future yet.

2.      New Street Station will probably look quite nice if they ever finish it.

3.      The Metro extension will come in handy when it's raining, especially for people dragging around heavy luggage.

4.      If there is a dangerous mineshaft at Wolverhampton, it's probably a good thing to prevent trams falling into it.

5.      Nutley is a pleasantly scenic village and being delayed there gives both drivers and passengers a chance to properly appreciate its charms. It's certainly better than being delayed on the M25.

More later.

Friday, 20 February 2015

Randomness from England (and Baiyin)

I have just returned from my Spring Break which was spent partly in Baiyin and partly in various locations in England. I considered writing a detailed, coherent description of the trip, starting with sitting on, and breaking, my umbrella, on the bus from Yangshuo to the airport and finishing with fireworks all the way back from the airport to Yangshuo which were not, it seems, in honour of my return, but rather in honour of the Chinese New Year.
I considered it and rejected it.
Instead, here are some random observations from the five weeks in no particular order.

Before I left Baiyin Theresa asked me if I could take some pictures of my home town as she'd like to see where I grew up. With that intention I went out one morning with my camera. It rapidly became obvious that Bilston is not the town it once was. If I had to caption the pictures that I took they would say things like “The empty space where the swimming baths used to be”, “The fence around the empty space where the shops used to be” and “The fence around an empty space where I'm sure there used to be something but I can't for the life of me actually remember what it was”. There would of course also be “The new leisure centre where there used to be an empty space” but that looks like it landed from another planet yesterday and might well fly off home tomorrow. You will doubtless be pleased to hear that I don't intend to post the pictures. You'll just have to go to Bilston and not see the sights for yourself.

Wolverhampton isn't my home town, though the powers that exist in that part of the world seem determined that Bilston should be absorbed into it  (and Wolverhampton itself absorbed into some weird nebulous entity called “Greater Birmingham"). In the centre of Wolverhampton is their large shopping development “The Mander Centre”. I, of course, am old enough to remember a time before the Mander Centre, a time when the shopping there consisted of the Queen's Arcade. I walked around it for a couple of hours and now fully expect to see the demise of the centre in my lifetime too. There appear to be a very large number of a new chain called “To Let :Retail Opportunity” though none of them were open when I visited.

Moving up (or possibly down depending on your point of view) I had a look at Birmingham's new library which hadn't yet opened when last I visited. Jolly nice it is too. I've got used to the odd, wedding-cake exterior and quite like it now and the interior is really very nice indeed. A fine job. It opened in 2013. The city now plans to reduce its opening hours – and its staff – by almost fifty percent. Who needs boring old books anyway?

Next door, and now part of the same complex, is Birmingham Rep where I took in a Matinee performance of Harvey where every seat was full and, at a childlike 57, I was clearly the youngest person in the audience. A very nice performance it was too, with James Dreyfus turning in an unexpectedly assertive variation on the Elwood P. Dowd role. It is the only time I have seen an audience give a loud and very enthusiastic round of applause when the curtain call cast are joined by an invisible rabbit. I expect they'll find a reason to close the Rep too if they try hard enough.

I was startled when watching Sky News at a friend's house to discover that a fictional soul band were expected to play a leading role in a current military crisis. At least that's how I interpret the ticker tape item that said “UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon expects the Commitments to end the crisis in the Ukraine”. (In the interests of full disclosure, there may not have been a capital C.)

I was equally baffled, though thoroughly unsurprised, when watching a quiz show I heard the question “Which Simon is the country 'Bolivia'” named after?” answered with “Simon Cowell”.

Speaking of odd comments on television I watched a financial analyst say, with a completely straight face, that the take over of the 99p shop by Poundland would inevitably lead to price rises. Either he had the most perfect line in deadpan comedy or he was serious. I hope it was the former but can't rule out the latter.

My poetry performance at Wolverhampton went down particularly well with praise being received from almost everyone. Even better was that, as well as the poetry I read from assorted Chinese poets, they actually seemed to like my own work too. No one had told me it was themed for Saint Valentines Day but fortunately, and purely by coincidence, the set I'd selected included a couple of love poems so that worked out OK. The other acts were the usual accomplished mixed bill. I expect it will still be there waiting for me to join in next time I visit, though that might be some considerable time in the future.

Of course before I went to England I went to Baiyin which has had a bit of an explosion in the coffee shop industry since I lived there, with the four that I previously knew being joined by at least another four. Staff training, as in England, appears to have been a bit hit and miss, though, as in two of them I was disappointed to discover that the sole person who knew how to operate the coffee machine was absent. The shops were still open but a coffee shop that offers a dozen different types of coffee all of which it is unable to prepare sounds as if it should be in a Monty Python sketch.

It looked for a while as if I would be getting rather more chance to not sample the coffees than I intended as a few days before I left the province had the same light dusting of snow that closed all roads to the airport last year. It closed them this year too. Then they opened them again as it started to clear only to have another light dusting (so little that you would sprinkle more icing sugar on a cake) on the morning I was leaving. Fortunately this time the airport road wasn't closed and I managed to get away OK.

OK, that's enough for now. I will doubtless think of another random sampling as soon as I het sen on this one. If I do, I'll add them later.(See thought of one already - I haven't mentioned the roadworks yet. Lead item in the next bulletin.)

Sunday, 11 January 2015

Twenty four hours from now I shall be boarding a plane for Gansu. My term finished last Friday and I don't have any work arranged until my week training new teachers beginning 22 February. I don't start back at school until 1st March. I'll be splitting the time between Baiyin and England and thought I'd mention an odd reversal of feelings that I have. Going to Baiyin where I was teaching for three years feels like going home but going to England, where I lived for more than fifty years feels like I'm going on holiday. I know it's probably because I'm coming back to China and intend to spend at least another couple of years here but it still seems odd to me.
Anyway, that means that I won't be able to post here for a couple of months. So much for my rsolution to be more active on my blog and less active on Facebook.
Oh well, see you later.

Where credit's due...

I wonder how Dick Van Dyke feels about, according to the IMDB,  being credited immediately below Crystal The Monkey on the movie Night At The Museum 3.

Saturday, 3 January 2015

Not a good place for a walk

I like living in Yangshuo. I really do. It has a lot going for it. Unfortunately it has one or two things in the debit column too. I decided to go for a walk today, time having dulled the memory of why I don't go for walks in Yangshuo. I was soon reminded. It simply isn't a city where it's possible to enjoy a pleasant stroll. There is one walk that is a circular stroll down by the river and round  until you get back into town but that's about it and it does get a bit tedious when there are no other places to go.
No other places to go on foot anyway. Today I went over the bridge and started walking out towards Xingping. I persevered for about forty-five minutes and then gave up and came back. The trouble is that the roads simply aren't designed with pedestrians in mind. There is nowhere for people to actually walk. Often you either have a long drop or a high hedge two centimetres to one side of you and an endless stream of criminally insane drivers hurtling past two centimetres to the other side. Those aren't the only hazards to contend with, either. The narrow strip where you are walking has frequent deep potholes apparently designed to trip the unwary and equally frequent subtle changes of level so that the ground isn't quite where your brain thinks it ought to be and you run the risk of breaking your ankle from a misstep. Assuming that you manage to concentrate hard enough to avoid the quarter of a second lapse in attention that will get you killed by one of these obstacles there is a pretty good chance that you'll contract some fatal lung condition from the air which is so polluted by car exhaust emissions that a blue haze prevents you seeing clearly a whole mountain that is less than half a mile away. China has emission control laws but you certainly wouldn't believe it from walking around in Yangshuo.
Anyway my whole walk was a singularly unpleasant experience. So I won't be doing it again until the memory of this time has also faded.

Is that the right way round?

Just followed links from one of the ESL sites that I follow to a large collection of downloadable ebooks. Interesting to see that while The Bible was classified as factual, Darwin's Origin of Species was filed under science fiction. Says quite a lot about the people who run the site.

Thursday, 1 January 2015

Delivering New Content

I've neglected this blog in the last year.
The post count says sixty-five but that's a bit of a lie. It's as misleading as the medical claims on a TV advert for toothpaste. This blog has been clinically proven to have more than five posts a month on average. Except that it hasn't, has it? Of those sixty-five posts at least twenty-five of them were reposted from things I'd put on Facebook so that the actual count for the year is no more than forty. Probably rather fewer.
So for a while I shall return to posting a few things here.
There may still be reposting going on but I'll try to, as they say in television circles, “deliver new content”.
So let's begin with last night's New Year celebration at The Lounge, an ex-pats bar in Yangshuo. I go there a lot but usually there are no more than about ten people in – sometimes just me and Adam, and he owns it! Last night was different - it was packed. There's a band that plays every week at another bar in town and they had set up their equipment in the lobby of the adjoining hotel (which, bizarrely, seems to only have guests about once a year). There were cheap drinks and free food. There were fireworks. And there was possibly the most surreal spectacle that I have ever witnessed outside a David Lynch movie.
At one point in the evening there was something Adam described to me as a silent disco. Sets of cordless headphones were handed out to people who could put them on and then choose from one of two different playlists being piped into them. The music wasn't audible to those of us without them.
These headphone-wearing customers listened to the music and danced to it while the room itself was filled with an eerie silence broken only by the shuffling of their feet on the tiled floor. To make it even more bizarre all the headphones came equipped with flashing red and blue lights and the room lighting was subdued to the point where tripping over the furniture became a major hazard.
It all went on for about twenty minutes and the sight of twenty or so people dancing to music that only they could hear was unbelievably weird. It looked like a cross between scenes from One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest and an early Doctor Who episode where the Cybermen were busy taking over people's brains with silver headsets.

Anyway, it was a passably jolly evening over all. I've had far worse New Year's Eves in the past. Hopefully it will bode well for the forthcoming year.