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, 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.)