Sunday, December 31, 2006

Saddam Is Dead

So what changes? Toppled more than ten years too late and quickly made irrelevant by sectarian civil war, Saddam was history long before the noose tightened. I shed no tears for the brutal tyrant or make any of those facile, meaningless comparisons with Bush and Blair, but government executioners in Zarqawi masks and seventy more dead before sundown beg the question asked by Thomas Friedman three years ago: Is Iraq the way it is because of Saddam or was Saddam the way he is because of Iraq?

If this is a milestone, then the only thing it tells us is that we're on the wrong road.

Friday, December 29, 2006

North Korea

For the duration of the Sunshine Policy, but particularly since Roh Moo-hyun came to power in late 2002, the South Koreans have scrupulously avoided antagonising the North, sometimes to the point of absurdity. Even allowing for a certain amount of posturing while they negotiate the transfer of military command with Washington, Seoul's latest Defence Ministry report, which describes Pyongyang as "a serious threat," is therefore doubly disturbing.

With Abe still riding the nationalist wave in Tokyo, and the six way talks involving Russia and the Chinese stalled like a second hand Lada, the question isn't so much whether Kim Jong-il will listen, but how he can be manoeuvered into concessions without the whole thing toppling down, taking much of East Asia and the rest of the dollar with it.

Thursday, December 28, 2006

Tynemouth

Three days of monotonous, leaden skies. Like unwanted snow, the rain started falling the moment I stepped on to the street. It was a listless evening: we'd arranged to meet at half seven, but nobody arrived until eight, and even then few of us were really in the mood to stay out for long. We talked about football and women; I was home by half past eleven.

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Boxing Day

Don't be fooled by that benign bourgeois guff about toffs handing out trinkets to their servants, Boxing Day was only ever made a holiday so that people could finish scoffing all the food they needlessly cooked the morning before, and then panic buy exactly the same amount of rubbish next year. I breakfasted on Christmas cake - why does the marzipan always fall off as soon as you pick the damn thing up? - cut-price cherry scones and an orange, then went for a slow run to work it all off before getting stuck into the rest of my chocolates.

Monday, December 25, 2006

Just Like the Ones We Used to Know


In the end it was a thoroughly grey Christmas, with skies the colour of plastic drainpipes and air like the inside of a wine chiller. Woken up at ten past eight by my mother's voice shouting 'He's been' through the darkness, I rolled out of bed some time later and methodically set to work on this year's batch of presents - five paperback books, four bottles of alcohol, three pairs of socks, two framed pictures and a partridge in a pair of sunglasses.

We ticked off the traditions one by one: a fried breakfast followed by half an hour trying, and failing, to get one of those new interactive DVD quizzes to work, then start reading or fall asleep on the coach. Just after noon I got my bike out and pedalled to Marsden Bay, returning just in time for dinner, hurriedly punctual as ever at the stroke of two.

Whatever happened to Christmas tele? Did it really use to be that much better, or did I just have nothing more interesting to do when I was ten years old? I ended up watching a whole hour's worth - Doctor Who - over the last two days, and even that felt like slightly too much. Instead we knocked back a couple of bottles of wine and played a board game in the back room, giving up drunk, lethargic and stuffed full of food just as it was beginning to get interesting.

And that, to me, is what Christmas is all about, not the money swindle consumer mentality, Santa Claus or the religious add-ons. In what used to be the dead of winter it's still magical to have a few days with friends and family where all you have to do is eat, drink and be artificially merry.

Happy Christmas.

Sunday, December 24, 2006

Do They Know It's Christmas?

Lots of seasonal cheer from the bicycle banning clowns at Nexus. On Christmas Eve, at just the time of year when people wanting to emulate the Bishop of Southwark should be encouraged to use public transport, they decide to stop the ferries at teatime and run hourly services on the Metro from seven.

It's Christian political correctness gone mad!

Friday, December 22, 2006

Richard Littlejohn

Meanwhile, runaway winner of the most odious news story of the week is Richard Littlejohn and his compassionate take on the Suffolk prostitute murders: "in the scheme of things the death of these five women is of no great loss."

As comforting as his words of sympathy will be to the children facing Christmas without their mothers, I can't quite shake the feeling that Richard is a loathsome, repugnant, braying, talentless hack moron racist long overdue a bit of electronically aided psychiatric help.

ID Cards

This week's least surprising news is the government's announcement that, instead of putting the National Identity Register on the new computer system that was apparently needed to avoid security problems, duplications and mistakes, our personal details will now be shuffled between three databases that were there all along. John Reid, Minister of Fear, popped up again to reassure us all that the about turn is "sensible" and not one of those U-turns that governments always make after they've rushed into a senseless policy without thinking through the consequences.

Here's another sensible idea: stop bombing innocent people and supporting the use of torture, scrap ID cards and use the money you save on IT consultants to improve intelligence and border security, identifying the people who pose a danger to national security and leaving the rest of us to go about our normal everyday business free of molestation from inept, illiberal idiots.

www.no2id.net

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Winter

Winter's finally here with Christmas dinners and two frosty mornings in a row. Yesterday's sunrise was a pink as icing sugar and the day before a thick, mildewy fog came down in the afternoon smelling like laundry left overnight in a washing machine. Last night after work I had another date - this time with an ex-nurse from Esh Winning, County Durham. Who knows what'll happen?

Sunday, December 17, 2006

A Weekend in December

A wasted weekend. Following Friday night's dull Christmas party, yesterday was idled away shopping and drinking. My imagination always fails me at this time of year: I had absolutely no idea what to do with today and only the sun dragged me out of the house. After a late morning run, I walked the couple of miles to Lidl to do some solo shopping - frozen spinach pizza and two packs of brie, a dozen wholegrain pitta breads, a tub of multi-vitamin tablets and a sliced German rye loaf to go with the cupboardful of coucous, pasta and chicken soup I have at home.

Friday, December 15, 2006

Global Warming

It's less than two weeks until Christmas, we have double-digit temperatures and the last of the summer flowers dying in the garden. As much as I'm enjoying the unseasonably mild weather, it's really just another reminder that our current way of life is completely unsustainable. My own miniscule contribution to fighting global warming - cutting down on flights, composting waste, recycling plastic bottles and unplugging the TV when it's not in use - doesn't amount to very much, but it's pointless complaining about government inaction unless you're prepared to take responsibility for yourself.

Especially when all we get from the people in power is precisely the last thing we need: more hot air.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

The Cost of Translation

While I'm all for this new more teaching, less translation mantra, the BBC's scoop about £100 million of taxpayers' money being spent on translations for non-English speakers is essentially a non-story. Contrary to the unspoken assumption that foreigners and their funny languages are bleeding us all dry, the study should really be taking into account the cash that they've already paid into the economy by way of taxes. And, just to be fair, how about deducting the amount that foreign countries spend on translating documents for mono-lingual Brits?

I don't suppose that one would have made many headlines, but it would have been a lot closer to the truth.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

One Year Later

Yesterday was a year to the day since I got back from India. In many ways it seems even longer, though conversely my memories of the place remain incredibly vivid. As befitting random anniversaries, the day itself whizzed by - eight hours of packing course brochures for a mail shot followed by a couple more in a classroom at the ESOL centre. Throw in the long walk back to the metro station and it was almost time for bed by the time I'd finished my dinner.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Weekend Over

This hasn't been an especially productive weekend. I saw a snowdome exhibition, half-heartedly tried to do some more Christmas shopping and browsed for cheap books in the company of a tramp.

Friday, December 08, 2006

Christmas Decorations



The start of December: time to put the Christmas decorations up again. I'm not going to pretend that I helped in any way.

Dangerous Driving

Bridie Stead and Danica Green were hit by a car on their school. Bridie's mother was killed trying to shield her daughter, who was left with a shattered elbow and right foot. Danica had one of her legs amputated. Alan Steel, a disqualified driver high on heroin, scarpered after the crash and has shown no remorse since his arrest. Yesterday he admitted causing death by dangerous driving.

If he'd intentionally left home with a loaded gun that morning, and had fired off a few rounds while waving it in the air, would he have been charged with dangerous shooting?

The effect is the same. Why not the crime?

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Another Fine Mess

The Iraq Study Group report does a very good job of stating the obvious, but manages rather less well when it comes to apportioning blame. The idea that the Iraqi government be punished economically unless it achieves national reconciliation - we got you into this, now you get yourselves out of it or else - is a greater exercise in wishful thinking than even Donald Rumsfeld ever managed.

We caused the mess. The very least we can do is help clean it up.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Stocking Up

I made it out just once more this afternoon. My parents had got hold of some 40% off Thresher vouchers so we drove over to the nearest wine shop to stock up on Christmas booze. Not surprisingly, the shelves had been cleared of all the cheap stuff and what was left was about as adventurous as an accountant's record collection: Echo Falls, Jacob's Creek and Ernest Gallo. I got two bottles of Hardy's Cabernet Sauvignon for £3 each, then ran back to the car head down against the wind and rain.

In The Crowd

With perfect timing, I left home at quarter to eleven in a gap between rain fronts, prolonged my run by a few hundred metres around the back of the fire station, and finished just as the first new drops began spitting out of the ever strengthening wind.

I knew today was going to be a wash-out so, with nothing better to do, I had a long walk around Sunderland city centre yesterday afternoon. In keeping with the season, lights had been slung across the bare branches and an ice rink set up by the bandstand in Mowbray Park. In the paved oblong between the glass front of the Bridges Shopping Centre and the bombshelter of a station, little wooden huts sold mulled wine and crepes and pipe-cleaner toys wrung from metal.

Saturday, December 02, 2006

A Meeting

I went out last night with a jaw-droppingly intelligent and attractive Swedish girl called Frida. She has straw-coloured hair, is studying for a PHD at Durham, talks lucidly about books and politics, speaks four languages, and has travelled around Europe and both continents of America.

You know, I think I wouldn't mind seeing her again.

Friday, December 01, 2006

Into December

The first day of December. The warm sun strobed through the metal rainings as I ran along the main road. Without the fallen leaves it would have been impossible to tell whether it was the start of winter or the beginning of spring.

It looks increasingly like the government will try to tackle traffic congestion - and raise lots of money - by forcing motorists to pay to use roads. The idea works in principle, but I still don't see why taxpayers' cash should pay for improvements to a privately owned rail network, particularly when the train operators keep raising ticket prices by way above inflation. Will even more public funding lead to cheaper fares or higher share dividends? If you price drivers off the roads on to expensive, overcrowded trains isn't that just another form of taxation? And why is renationalisation still a dirty word?

Saturday, November 25, 2006

Friday Night, Saturday Morning

I got home at half two this afternoon after seeing Casino Royale on my way back from my brother's. Friday ended on his couch at 4am after too much beer, a late night lock-in in Tynemouth and a walk in the rain for cold, soggy chips and spicy takeaway pizza. Saturday, like the exciting relationship I almost started halfway through my fifth pint, was over before it had even begun.

Friday, November 24, 2006

At the Movies


Thanks to my brother's work, I managed to wangle tickets for the final show of the Northern Lights Film Festival last night - Jonas Cornell's strangely episodic Puss and Kram (Hugs and Kisses). I either missed something - not the voyeuristic nude scene, thankfully - or my appreciation was spoilt by too much free wine beforehand. Either way, it was understated to the point of bemusement.

Following my morning run, I potted some Campanula Glomerata Superba seedlings and plonked a couple of dozen English Bluebell bulbs in the front garden, successfully beating the rain front that moves ever closer and threatens to wreck my plans for the weekend. Amazingly, I noticed that a few of the dwarf Gladiolis along the side of the house are now in full bloom, weeks after the rest had rotted on the stem, and just as I was about to start lifting the bulbs up for winter.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Any Given Sunday


The first real frost of winter meant I had to run with more care than usual across the pavement slabs the low sun hadn't reached by ten o'clock. I warmed down afterwards by digging over the vegetable patch and building a cobbled path to the compost bin. After lunch, I went for a walk along Newcastle's other river, the Ouse. There wasn't a soul to be seen anywhere - I think they were all Christmas shopping in Eldon Square.

Friday, November 17, 2006

Things Start Moving

I finally got my criminal record check back this morning, disappointingly clean. The same post brought a contract from JET, so I should at least be getting the odd hour of teaching work between visiting embassies and obtaining expensive translations.

Yesterday was a glorious autumnal day, the kind when everything's in sharper focus. On my morning jog I could see clean across from Gateshead to Penshaw Monument, while the wind scraped clouds rolled out like dough across the sky. After work I went out for a few drinks with a primary school teacher I met last week. As fun as it was I couldn't help wondering what we'd find to talk about once the travel stories ran out. She was obviously looking for something serious, or at least something more serious than I can be bothered with right now.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

No More Heroes

Sometimes you have to feel sorry for the football millionaires. After Thierry Henry had his weekend spoilt by supporters going home early, now Jose Mourinho's joined Alex Ferguson in whinging about fans not making enough noise at home games. Honestly, you constrain people in plastic seats, price them out by doubling ticket prices and then hire a bunch of overpaid mercenaries to play boring, negative football, and the ungrateful swine can't even be bothered to make their own entertainment! Is it really any co-incidence that attendances are falling or that the best atmosphere in the big league nowadays is created by fans of unfashionable clubs that keep ticket prices and wage bills down?

If these parasites really wanted more of an atmosphere, they would talk about cutting ticket prices, creating singing areas or bringing back the terraces. It was antiquated facilities, poor policing, metal fences, hooliganism and overcrowding that caused tragedies like Hillsborough, not the act of standing itself. But then there's no money to be made in any of that, is there?

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

The Secret Agent

I used to think John Reid was just an illiberal, ineffectual, opportunistic bully. What kind of Labour home secretary pushes ID cards and detention without trial, scapegoats minorities, encourages parents to spy on children and teachers to inform on students, fills jails to bursting and proposes centrally planned limits to immigration? But then he was once a bruising, Trotskyite busting member of the Communist Party, wasn't he? Keep up the good work, Agent Reid. Uncle Joe would have been proud.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Shopping

Went to Royal Quays this afternoon, between Reading's second goal and kick off at the Arsenal. As usual since the book shop went to pot, I came back with nowt. The camping shops were full of overpriced garments in small sizes and the only trainers I could find were pairs designed for tools. I mean, who wants to wear six different colours on their feet, or have luminous splodges all the way up their heels? Passing the bike stands, I briefly wondered if it was the first or the second time I'd been back since I cycled there with Katka, and when my mind had stopped measuring every single event by its proximity to the end of my marriage. Truth be told, I couldn't remember the answer to either.

On Running

I set out at half nine, straight after finishing the Sunday paper and my morning cup of tea, running beside cars and shrivelled up leaves, stepping round dog shit and jumping puddles of autumn rain that over-filled the sunken tarmac. The weak sun was as yellow as school canteen custard. Fifteen minutes later I turned around at the traffic lights in front of the new, pale-brick fire station, across the road from the back gate to the hospital where I was born. Speeding up down the crematorium hill, I started thinking about another Sunday morning jog, no more than a year and a half ago, seeing teenage boys in baseball uniforms riding bicycles on the pavement, a homeless man in a wheelchair listening to the radio by the river, old couples weeding under concrete flyovers, football practice in the municipal stadium and shiny black headstones in the cramped neighbourhood temples. Things change: back then, I used to double back at a metal bridge next to a 7-11.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

City Away

Another Saturday, another abject performance from Newcastle United. Thanks to Roeder's inept tactics and ham fisted man management, we started the game with just a crock up front and ended it with three centre halves and seven midfielders. And what of the players? Parker's in a strop, Emre only ever hurts the opposition with his mis-timed tackles, Duff, like Michael Owen, is only in it for the money, Stephen Carr can't defend or pass the ball properly, a blind archer hits the target more often than Obafemi Martins, N'Zogbia's gone backwards, Moore would be better off spending his afternoons in the pub and Sibierski has all the agility and awareness of a bag of cement. As for the chairman...

Thirty seven years since we last won a trophy - with this lot it'll be almost as long till we next win a game.

Remembrance Day

I was still in Jarrow at eleven o'clock, the hour of remembrance. In the teaming rain, old women stood against shop doorways locked in readiness for the two minute silence. In the place on the corner that sells cheap beer, shoppers paused over baskets of cut price confectionary and the sound had been turned off on the push-a-button-and-win game. The queue froze six people deep while the woman behind the counter scribbled noiselessly on bits of paper. I stood head down in the second aisle over the massed ranks of spaghetti hoops and out-of-date ciabattas. Even the tinsel hung against the window never stirred. At 11.02 pop music started playing on the radio and all thoughts turned back to the present: "I mean him off the X-Factor, man." "Can you jump on the till, Carol?"

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Stuff Happens

So goodbye Donald Rumsfeld, that modern day Nostradamus finally brought down by a "little understood, unfamiliar war". It was Rummy, remember, who told us that Saddam's WMDs were definitely "in the area around Tikrit and Baghdad and east, west, south and north somewhat," described the post-invasion looting as the untidiness of freedom, arrogantly proclaimed that the whole thing would last no more than five days, five weeks or five months, and once promised "I don't do quagmires."

If you're looking for a job, Donald, I hear they have plenty of vacancies in the infantry these days.

The Castle

In Kafka's novel, the land surveyer K is summoned to the castle erroneously. His arrival is acknowledged provisionally but never definitively, and he never gets any closer than the village at the foot of the castle, where he works as a school caretaker. Although the novel has no end, K discovers that a land surveyor may or may not have been needed at an indeterminate point in the past, though he was not necessarily the person who was actually called for. I now know how he must have felt.

Nine weeks after I applied for my criminal record check I received a letter from Newcastle Council telling me that I need similar checks done in every country I've ever lived in. The only help I was given was a fax back telephone number, which only has details for two out of the five countries. I'm surprised they didn't set the letter to self destruct as soon as I'd read it. From what I can gather, I'll need to visit the embassies of China, Japan, Korea and the Czech Republic in person, forking out cash for travel, postage, consular fees, official translations and having my fingerprints taken. The Italians will let me do everything by post, or at least I think they will. But unlike K, I won't be getting any kind of job in a school until it's all finished.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Still Running

A whole two months of jogging and I've finally ditched the Minotaur hunt around my estate for an undulating route along the side of a dual carriageway to the local fire station and back. I'm now running for just over half an hour instead of twenty five minutes, and get to breathe in petrol fumes for free. It beats glue, and pump prices what they are these days who am I to grumble? After sitting on my backside for eight hours a day, I'm also doing twenty or so minutes of weights most nights, plus a hundred press-ups, fifty sit-ups and five minutes twisting my waist from side to side on some contraption Katka couldn't fit into her suitcase. To hell with diets and parental responsibilty, what we need are more divorces if we want to tackle this obesity problem thing.

Monday, November 06, 2006

Queued

You know those days when everything seems to be going a bit too well? It all began with a job interview for sessional work with JET, a really good organisation that provides English lessons and employability training for migrant workers and refugees. Thanks to a bit of research and some inspired rambling, I left with the promise of paid teaching hours in the near future. Next, I got to the college and discovered that I'm guaranteed work there through till Christmas, leaving me quids in by lunchtime with another forty-odd pounds to come for a two and a half hour lesson in the evening. The inevitable catch came by text message. After two months my criminal record check still hasn't come through, so the two classes I had scheduled for this week have gone down the Swanee. I'm sure it's all the fault of that Guy Fawkes character.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

Bonfire Night

Exactly how does Guy Fawkes Night really help us define what it means to be English? Cheap fireworks exploding like gunfire for weeks on end; penny for the guy and frozen kids waving sparklers in car parks; adults burning effigies and piles of wood to celebrate the things that made Britain the country it is today - religious persecution, torture and severed heads on sticks. All a bit of fun? Can you really see many Iraqis spending the next four hundred years begging loose change and setting ropey old scarecrows on fire to keep the memory of Abu Ghraib alive?

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Cold Snap

This morning's cold, bright weather brought an unexpected bonus. Putting my winter coat on for the first time since spring, I dipped my hand into the side pocket and found a ten pound note and a handful of twenty pence coins. That warmed me up for a while.

With the start of winter comes talk of divorce. We've decided to do everything in the Czech Republic rather than here, mainly because of the cost. In Czech law, as long as you've been married for a year and separated for six months then no more questions need to be asked. All we have to pay is £20 for the document itself, and then around the same again for the translations. No wonder they have the highest divorce rate in Europe.

I still have conflicting emotions about the whole thing. On the one hand, it's the very last thing that I ever wanted to happen and I can't help thinking that I'm giving up way too easily. Nonetheless, it wasn't my decision to walk away from the marriage, and I'm certain that there'd be no hope of reconciliation even if I wanted there to be. Under the circumstances, a clean break is doubtless best for both of us.

Sunday, October 29, 2006

By The Coast


It seemed a pity to waste a sunny day so I took the metro to Seaburn and walked the four and a bit miles along the beach and the riverbank to St Peter's. Watching the yachts circling each other out at sea made me think back to those long Sundays sitting on the sea wall in Siracusa, wandering narrow streets lined with leaning, biscuit-coloured palazzi that crumbled like stale cake, listening to the World Service by my front door as the sun went down over the Ionian Sea, oil tankers crowding the horizon on the way up the coast to the refineries at Augusta. Sunderland's not quite so exotic, but it'll do for now.

Stop All The Clocks

The clocks went back last night. For the next four or five months I'll be getting up in the dark, travelling back and forwards to work in the dark, and watching the sun rise and set through the window. Funnily enough, going to bed in the dark has never really bothered me. I woke up at exactly the same time as usual and passed the extra hour reading a few chapters of JG Ballard in bed with a cup of Darjeeling. Time to start making plans: today I'm going to fill in the application form for the long winded Cert in FE Teaching / Cert for ESOL Subject Specialists course that I'm hoping to start in January.

Before that, I'm off to the seaside.

Friday, October 27, 2006

Big Things

For the third day in four it took me ages to get home from work because of problems with the metro. After a break down blocked the line on Monday, and an overheated axle on a train carrying nuclear flasks to Sellafield disprupted services on Wednesday, yesterday's high winds closed the bridge over the Tyne, meaning I had to walk across to Gateshead and then wait twenty minutes on a crowded platform for a train to arrive.

Luckily, big things had happened in the morning. A letter came about an interview for an ESOL teaching job, then I found out I'd got a month's worth of paid work on Monday and Wednesday evenings at the place where I've been working voluntarily. Add on the three and a half days I'm putting in at Newcastle College and I should be rolling in the cash come Christmas.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Another Desk Job

Yesterday I started my very latest new job on the reception desk at the college's Trade Union Education Centre. In eight hectic hours, I answered six phone calls and dealt with three visitors. The morning whizzed by as I folded up leaflets and stuck address labels over envelope windows. Then after lunch and an hour's gazing out of the window - I could see two vending machines, an Avis car hire, the orange bollards, grey CCTV cameras and barbed-wire topped red brick wall around the casino car park and a brownish pebble dashed office bulding - I went looking for more work and ended up putting stickers onto little boxes on the back of information leaflets for the rest of the day. It goes without saying that not just anyone can adapt to the vastly different skills required to put stickers on both boxes and windows, which is probably how come I got the job in the first place.

So now I'm working there every Monday for the forseeable future, plus I'm continuing with the registers on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursday afternoons. It'll be a squeeze now I've just got a three day weekend to rest up in, I'm sure, but hopefully I'll manage to last as long as Christmas.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Green(ish) Fingers


My first go at gardening wasn't half bad at all. I grew asters and marigolds from seed, got four or five courgettes, more basil and sage leaves than I knew what to do with, a plastic container full of spring onions, and I haven't had to buy a single tomato since I came back from China. This morning I noticed that, thanks to global warming, even the plants I stuck in the corner of the garden as an experiment have turned out all right. In fact, the only things that failed were the garlic bulbs I tried to grow in pots in the greenhouse. I might have another go at those next year, if I haven't stumbled across another hobby by then.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Past The Finish Post

To help get Katka health insurance in the Czech Republic, I've spent the past couple of weeks filling in forms and collecting her old payslips and tax documents. Yesterday, after posting everything off to the Inland Revenue, I emailed her that I'd finally sorted things out and sent my best wishes for the future. I got a childish temper tantrum in return.

In retrospect, I should have known what was coming. I'd touched on some examples of her recent selfishness - such as emailing me a couple of weeks ago to moan that she was really down, had realised that she was losing something special and just wanted to be in my arms; then following it up the very next day with a brief message informing me that she was now in a "really good mood" because she'd solved the problem at work that had apparently been the sole cause of her depression. I was trying to caution not antagonise her, to show how her more thoughtless actions affect others, and could affect her in the future. As my email was friendly and non-judgemental I naively imagined she would be big enough to at least listen to my point of view.

Her response was swift. She never loved me - why else would she have allowed me to go to China? As proof, she was always happy to see me go because she could finally have her own space. Conveniently enough, she neglected to mention that this was space in which she started an affair with her brother's married best friend, which is obviously the very best kind of space a person can have. Next up, I was the selfish one, damned because I hadn't offered to go back to the Czech Republic with her. As the temporary boyfriend was still juggling her, his wife and children for a full three weeks after I returned from China to hear that our marriage was dead and her flight home had already been booked, I'm slightly baffled by her revisionism.

But not really baffled, of course. It's much easier to project blame than to dwell on the consequences of our own actions. Nor does any of it particularly matter - whether she loved me or not is wholly immaterial as far as I'm concerned. Despite the disastrous end to our short-lived marriage, it would be immature and pig-headed of me to obliterate the good times we shared together. If she wants to do so, then that's a matter for her alone.

It's sad that it had to end like this but I'm only very fleetingly angry and not at all bitter. In the couple of dozen emails and two phone calls we've exchanged since she left she has never once expressed any kind of regret or understanding (I did get a text message twenty minutes after I told her that I'd found out about the affair with a few easily-typed platitudes - you are the best man I've ever met, I didn't deserve you), only self-pity and requests for help with tax forms and translations for her new job. Enough is enough: my life is better without her; we have no more ties, only the memories.

Paper Round

Another of those loops: when he retired, my father started delivering the local free newspaper to help keep fit. This week he's on holiday in Spain, so I agreed to stand in for him, getting up at five o'clock this morning so I could finish up before the rain started chucking down. It was exactly the same round that I did when I was at school, fifteen or sixteen years ago - I eventually got the sack for missing out too many houses. Despite the wet weather, I managed to do a better job this time.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Birthday

My brother turned 28 yesterday, which reminded me that I'm now closer to my thirty-first birthday than my thirtieth, and that despite my certainty that I'm living through a pause in time - or more accurately that dead space between the end of one thing and the beginning of another - it ticks away regardless elsewhere, pulling me further from my past towards a still imperceptible future. This is by no means an entirely melancholy observation: the pause will end soon, I'm sure. All I need is a bit of patience, and a ready supply of strong alcohol in the meantime.

Monday, October 16, 2006

Monday

I've been working at Newcastle College for almost a month now, checking class registers, tracking down marks and updating the internal database. In ordinary circumstances this would be a routine and mundane task, but at the start of term, with timetables, students and classrooms constantly changing, I often feel more like an archaeologist than an administrator, pouring over fragmentary bits of information that are almost as difficult to piece back together as a smashed Etruscan vase. Today was especially hard, partly because it was Monday, but mainly because we were three people down. I worked against the clock all day and came home with a dull ache in my left shoulder that not so very long ago Katka would have massaged out of me right away. It's always the things that you took for granted that you end up missing the most.

The weekend was obscured by the shadow of that relationship; I felt the extent to which I'd grown accustomed to living with someone, sharing touches and feelings, knowing that they're always there. On the occasions when my shoulder isn't killing me, I feel the loss of those things rather than the absence of Katka herself, though perhaps the two are really bound together. Fortunately, both can be replaced.

Friday, October 13, 2006

Memories and Consequences




Autumn has arrived, bringing crisp, chilly air and pale blue skies. I drove down to Durham with my brother this morning. After a quick look inside the cathedral we walked along the riverbank and up to the Durham Light Infantry Museum, re-treading old footsteps every inch of the way.

More memories yesterday afternoon. At a loose end after a late morning trip to the cinema, I took the metro out to the coast at South Shields. Walking along the sand, I retraced part of the route I used to jog along before I went to Japan for the first time, the place by the rocks where I played boules with Myung-hee and my parents in the boiling summer just after I got back from Sicily, and the bit of sand where Katka and I stretched out by our bikes a few weeks before I left for China. Was that really only four months ago?

I don't regret going to China one little bit. If I'd gone back to the Czech Republic instead, I'd probably still be married now, but it would only have delayed the inevitable by a few months, a year at most. I think she'd already cheated on me once before then, though I didn't know it that day by the sea; I'm sure she'd have done it again, and I would've ended up wasting an important part of my life.

I don't spend very much time thinking about any of this. Honestly.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Unusual Times

Without a doubt, these last few weeks have been among the strangest of my life so far, totally distinct from the months and years that went before. My attitude to it all surprises me: though I still think about Katka more than anything else, and I'll continue to remember the good times we shared together with fondness and occasional nostalgia, the sense of loss is almost gone, the hurt all but evaporated. I feel the absence of a warm body beside me, of the comfort that came from imagining that I'd found what I wanted and would never have to look for somebody again, but I don't miss Katka as a person at all.

I always knew how insecure she was, but I trusted her to resist the temptation of drunkenly following up on a few kind words and a bit of attention. What really stung was not her cheating but the sheer extent of her immaturity and selfishness: from the moment she arrived back in the Czech Republic at the beginning of July I ceased to exist as a person, let alone as a husband. I noticed the change immediately - no more phone calls, only five or six short, semi-glacial replies to my emails in the whole six weeks she was back home - but, at the time, I was just happy she was enjoying herself...

This hurt me deeply, of course, but it also helps. It makes it so much easier to let go.

Sunday, October 08, 2006

Back On Top





We set at half past eight yesterday morning, and were starting up the side of Scafell Pike, England's highest mountain, around four hours later. Unfortunately, the clouds came down quicker than we could go up, so that by the time we'd reached the top visibility was down to around twenty metres, and the wind, rain and steam-like gusts of cloud were almost knocking us sideways. Still, for the half minute or so that we were absolutely alone at the rocky summit, we were indisputably the highest, and very likely the coldest and wettest, men in England.

After a long breakfast this morning, we drove north and hiked around the edge of Loweswater. Back for more when spring comes.

Friday, October 06, 2006

Ton Up

My one hundredth post. To think that when I started this blog in preparation for China I was worried that I wouldn't have anything to write about! Nothing at all happening today, mainly because I'm off to the Lakes early tomorrow morning for a weekend of scrambling up and down mountains while drunk and hungover.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Normality Once Again

There's a real chill in the air today, a reminder that winter is on its way. Today I feel like I'm almost back to normal, that Katka belongs to the past, and that my future will be very definitely better for her absence. I'm sure there'll be a few bumps on the road ahead, but I'm just as certain that I could never go back.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Remembering India

Another bloody anniversary: a year to the day since two nervous honeymooners boarded a night flight from Heathrow to Mumbai. I'd travelled down on the early morning Megabus from Newcastle; we picnicked in the park behind the Marshall Foch statue at Victoria, spreading newspaper across the leaf-strewn grass; down and outs and foreign alcoholics had taken all the benches.

And then we were walking out of the shabby, deserted airport and into a black and yellow taxi, bumping along dirt roads, rounding people and cows and auto-rickshaws. It remains scorched into my mind: the baking heat, the beggars pressed up against the windows, the menacing pandemonium of it all. We both had exactly the same thought: What the hell have we done?

Hell was the street between our hotel and the train station, lined on both sides with open fronted shacks. Small fires burnt here and there, naked children ran along the edge of what passed for the road, hunched women stared at us through exhausted, vacant eyes.

Thankfully, things got better after that.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

That Middle of the Week Feeling

I've always been a hoarder, mainly because I'm so stupidly sentimental about so many things. That explains my reluctance to throw anything out just now - the shrivelled up flowers I bought Katka as a welcome home present still sit in a glass vase to the left of the stereo, the clothes she wore on her last day here exactly four weeks ago - red pants and a sky blue and grey hooded jumper - lie crumpled on the floor in front of the wardrobe, and about the last thing I see before I go to sleep is a picture she painted in the week before I got back from China. I'm still not sure if she hung it there as a goodbye present, though I like it more than most of the other gifts she gave me while we were together. I am, however, sure that the first thing I'll eventually get rid of is the plate we smashed outside on the driveway at the start of our wedding reception. It's a Czech wedding custom, each broken piece representing one year of happy life together. Looking back, we'd have been better off dropping it on the sofa.

Monday, October 02, 2006

Open Wide: One Week On

When I said I craved normality, I wasn't thinking about a trip to the dentist's. £15.50 for a pretty girl to move a bit of metal around your teeth then hose them with water. Not many bargains like that about nowadays.

Sometimes I think I'm really ok, but then I walk into somewhere as simple as a dentist's surgery and am immediately struck by the thought that last time I was here I was with Katka, or she was waiting for me back at home, or we'd just eaten dinner. I felt that in the three or four weeks before last Monday, of course, but it didn't have the stamp of finality back then.

I'd been watching a documentary on Albert Speer and the Nuremburg Trials right before I read that email last week. I wonder how long my mind will continue to associate the two events? Funnily enough, I often joked that some of her opinions were a bit fascist, and her infidelity does seem like a fairly final solution.

Good news: easyJet have emailed me a £25 voucher. Ironically, it's an apology for them cancelling Katka's flight home at the beginning of July. She had to re-book and wait twenty-four hours. Shame it wasn't a couple of months...

Sunday, October 01, 2006

Sunday

How strange it feels to look back at what I wrote last Saturday: the end of an instantly forgettable week. Well, I won't be forgetting this one in a hurry. Nothing has ever wounded me like this before.

Everything else I did this week seems utterly irrelevant, though there was a little new growth among the carnage that followed Monday night. The temporary job went well, and my ESOL teaching career is slowly taking shape. On Thursday I found out that I may well be getting my first paid work from the place I currently volunteer at. The following morning I had a phone call asking if I'd be interested in applying for another position, this time teaching people from settled immigrant communities who don't have enough English to hold down decent jobs.

And I need to give this a try. I crave normality, and I think I have done to varying extents for at least the last year and a half. Despite its many attractions, I've had enough of moving around. I feel a need in me to settle somewhere, to feel my feet are firmly rooted in the ground. I guess that's why I was so eager to get married - I have this terror of ending up like Jay Gatsby, thinking that I can just reach out and grasp something only to find it's already silently slipped away.

I'm still jogging - every day except two for over three weeks now - I read whenever I can concentrate, and I'm listening to stuff that I'd neglected for too long - David Bowie, Al Green...it reminds me that there were a lot of things I never got round to doing with Katka. I don't want that to sentence to be misconstrued: I could have done no more at the time given the circumstances that prevailed, Katka being Katka and me being me. There are no what ifs.

Life isn't easy, but I don't suppose that's a bad thing. We learn and re-evaluate, we recover and move on. Eventually.

Saturday, September 30, 2006

The Weekend After the Week Before

This week has been hard, I can't pretend otherwise. I feel like a sea wall battered by waves that it was never designed to control: anger, bitterness, fear, vindictiveness and, above all, this horrible, horrible feeling of being alone, of having a space inside that might always remain empty. I cried while out jogging on Friday and mistook it for sweat - tears rolled down my cheeks like rain drops on a frosted windowpane.

I did some things that I'm not very proud of, but they were the only things that I could think of doing at the time. I can't say with any exactitude how I feel right now, only that I know I must be patient, and I know that I can't blame anyone else for what happens from now on in my life.

So I start by moving forwards; just tiny little steps at first. I called Katka and told her I forgive her, that I know she did only what she had to do. I refuse to carry any anger and bitterness with me, wherever I go from here.

Tomorrow is October. A whole new month. I'm sure I've always hated September: daddy long legs and the end of the summer. It doesn't help that Katka left so many things lying around. What do I do with the nail varnish and hair spray, or the half full box of tampons on the windowsill? I can hardly give them to the next girl. But it does help that when I look around the room I don't only see things that are intrinsically linked to her - this was also the place that my grandparents lived. My grandmother died six years ago, when I was in Korea. I remember coming into the darkened room on New Year's Eve to say goodbye to the empty space, fighting back the tears.

"You don't weep unless you've been happy first; tears always mean something enviable."

Last night in the pub I felt like I was back in a world of limitless opportunities, which I may or may not be able to take. The one constant I have is that you can never say never, and that you can't know what you'd do in a situation until you've been in that exact same thing. An example: on the morning of the day I met Katka I spent ten minutes explaining to someone all the reasons why I couldn't be bothered having any kind of relationship with anyone. Six months later I was married.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

The End

Turmoil. I found out last night that Katka has been, and still is, seeing another man. Worse, I discovered it by reading an email that I was never meant to see. It's over. Irrevocably.

Saturday, September 23, 2006

Saturday

The end of an instantly forgettable week. I'm starting a part time job on Monday - two and a half days a week at Newcastle College for a whole £6.25 an hour. I've already spent most of my first week's wage on a bus pass and a new jacket.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Postponed

I was all keyed-up to start work tomorrow - two weeks in an office at Newcastle College for a humongous £7 an hour - until the whole thing was cancelled by text message. While a part of me rejoices at the thought of more carefree afternoons and idle mornings spent exercising and reading the newspaper, another jabs accusations of laziness, time wasting and self-indulgence at my softened-up conscience. I've decided I have the temperament of a writer, just not the talent.

Monday, September 18, 2006

Around the Block Again

Increasingly, I feel that my life is a series of loops - big, small, stimulating or mundane, but always this dull sense of familiarity. Here I am single and living in Jarrow, re-reading my old books, looking for temporary work, traipsing up Westgate Road once a week. It frustrates me that I have to go back in order to go forward.

Tonight I was back at the ESOL centre in Newcastle, helping out with evening classes for refugees and migrant workers. It's liberating but strange being a volunteer in somebody else's lesson. Usually, I'm well-prepared and in control in the classroom; now I'm now just one more pair of hands, circling cramped tables and scurrying between the students and the photocopier. This is not very good for my huge teacher's ego. Or my feet.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Seaham


The last day of sunshine: we drove south along the coast through the dead towns of the East Durham coalfield. At Seaham, the pit shafts had been replaced by orange-brick supermarkets and shoebox housing estates. Above the pebble-strewn beach there were more retirement homes than pubs, more parking spaces than people.

We didn't stay long.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

St Mary's Lighthouse


Mid-September and the sun's still out. In Newcastle this is as sure a sign of abrupt climatic change as the shrinking of the polar ice cap. As if by decree, wobbly-bellied men stripped off to the waist and old-aged couples drove to coastal car parks to take the air, silently gazing out over the North Sea with the side windows rolled down an inch or two. Prolonging my latest health kick, I cycled the twenty-odd miles to St Mary's Lighthouse and back in the afternoon, climbed 137 spiralling steps to the top, and saw all the way along the coast from the white wind turbines at Blyth to the graphite-shaded pier escaping the north bank of the Tyne. I'm now attempting to douse my thighs.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

In The Country







I spent most of the weekend walking around stately homes and country estates. And, thanks to Heritage Open Days, it didn't cost me a bean.

Friday, September 08, 2006

Open Days



So we beat on, boats against the current...

I feel restless at home. I need to keep moving. On Wednesday afternoon I wandered around North Shields Fish Quay, climbing the steep stone steps for views of the concrete-coloured river and a warm pint in the Wooden Doll. Yesterday I went to the Roman fort at Segedunum, where I looked into lots of glass display cases and breezed round the baths and excavations. Today I spent the best part of the afternoon at Bowes Railway, touring workshops and old coal mine rolling stock. In between, I've written a few emails, uploaded loads of photos, filled in some forms so I can start my new, and as yet unpaid, job as an ESOL tutor for Newcastle Council, read the 500 odd pages of John Le Carre's The Constant Gardener, started jogging for the third time in four years, and done very little else of any consequence at all. As usual, I'm waiting. For what, I'm not yet sure.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Leaving

Just back from the airport. Everywhere I look I see things that remind me of her. I feel a bit hollow, as if something's been scooped out of my insides. Other than that, it's just very difficult to say.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

An End of Sorts

As I write Katka's things are folded neatly on the bed. Her suitcase is open on the floor. The last few days have been strange but, surprisingly or not, somehow positive. A bike ride over the river, a walk to the cinema, lots and lots of talking. Ultimately, what needs to happen will happen, even if it doesn't seem that way right now.

Saturday, September 02, 2006

Kielder




Yesterday I went camping with Katka, my brother and Derek Wood, in some ways the most interesting of my acquaintances. Clouds and showers blew over our heads all day but we managed to have a good walk around the village and part of the lake followed by a drunken night's sleep relatively undisturbed by the fact that we'd mistakenly brought just a single two man tent for four people. A couple of times I caught myself thinking that this would be my last ever trip with Katka. I'm still prone to bouts of pointless sentimentality in spite of all the people and places I've left behind.

The rain came heavily this morning and looks like it might never stop. We drove home happy but silent, covered in midge bites.

Friday, September 01, 2006

The Long Goodbye




I arrived back in Newcastle at 1pm yesterday afternoon. Within ten minutes I found out that the face to face discussion I was expecting to have with Katka was, in reality, a fait accompli. Result: my marriage is now over.

The rain came everyday while I was in Shanghai, big thunderstorms on the first two days and then damp, clinging fog all Wednesday that made the big buildings of Pudong look like emasculated ghosts standing along the riverbank. I suppose I should have seen the ominous signs even then. Despite that, I liked the city much better second time round. The narrow pavements and leafy streets of the French Concession and the enjoyably ghastly Old Chinese Town made me feel like I was in a city with an identity of its own. After a while, I even began to like the fake watch touts and art student scammers on Nanjing Lu.

Things will be fine.

Monday, August 28, 2006

Leaving Xiaoshan

I left Xiaoshan at half past two yesterday afternoon. As the train pulled out towards Hangzhou, my final view of the city was through the gap between two dirty net curtains decorated with pigeons and pagodas: a canal and a factory chimney; the golden-topped hotel and half a pavilion high up on the hill.

I met up with Derek and Jo, two friends from Newcastle, at the hostel around six o'clock. We went out for few happy hour beers in the French Concession and then came back by way of a Russian restaurant and a convenience store, laden with bottles of Tsingtao lager. First I need to deal with the de-hydration, then I'll work out what I'm doing today.

Friday, August 25, 2006

Final Lesson

That's it, then. My working days are over. Yesterday I booked a train ticket to Shanghai and a bed in a hostel for three nights. Tomorrow I'll start packing and go to Hangzhou one last time. As always, weeks that seemed to telescope endlessly seem now to have passed by almost unnoticed.

A few things that still make me smile: inane western presenters talking about eating candied hawk on CCTV9; sunburnt, topless men who push into queues at train stations; waitresses who hand you the menu and simulataneously whip out their order pad; the Volkswagen Santana - the poor man's car of choice; takeaway aubergine and tomato every lunchtime; people taking outdoor showers in their underwear; students using sellotape to strip the ink off their paper when they make a mistake; motorbikes on the pavement; students telling each other that "you only know what the government says" - a conversation I thought it better to truncate. Although the teaching industry and raw capitalism can sometimes be dispiriting, I've never regretted coming here. China has been an experience.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

The End of Summer

There's a real end of summer feeling in school this week. Two of the seven summer teachers have already left. A third has no classes, so just hangs around for a few hours tidying up bits of paper and checking emails. The rest of us are teaching from 8.30 to 11.30 in the morning, spending a couple of hours eating lunch and preparing the next day's lesson, and then clearing off home in the middle of the afternoon. The days are beginning to merge into one - it's almost as if I have one foot on the plane already.

Monday, August 21, 2006

Hangzhou Again




Another interesting weekend. After a twelve hour shift on Saturday, I took a late morning bus to Hangzhou and walked around the western edge of the lake to Lingyin Si, one of the few major Buddhist temples to survive the Cultural Revolution. The place was more like a zoo: coach party after coach party led by tour guides screaming into megaphones charged through grottoes full of Buddhist carvings; slouching policemen and tourists with expensive digital cameras pushed aside devout middle-aged Chinese people waving burning incense sticks as everyone clambered to get a view of the orange-robed monks. How I love Sunday sightseeing!

Friday, August 18, 2006

Last Day of Class

Things have gone a bit strange here this afternoon. A twelve-year-old kid rammed a pair of safety scissors into the forehead of one of his classmates about an hour ago. The victim was led down the stairs a short while later, rounded metal stuck a few centimetres deep in his bone, green plastic handles sticking out at right angles to his face. They took him to hospital by the fastest available means - cycle rickshaw. He's now in intensive care. The other child is sitting with his face to the wall in an office down the corridor, looking like he could either explode with rage or burst into tears at any moment.

In The Evening

I called Katka straight after my class finished yesterday. We talked for five minutes until my credit rang out, an unsatisfying, disposable conversation that left me feeling both sad and relieved when it ended mid-sentence. There are so many things you can't express on the phone, no matter how hard you try. She felt so very far away. The only thing to do was to buy enough beer on the way home to get drunk on and spend the next few hours listening to loud music.

Later, just for a laugh, I turned on CCTV9 - China's Newspeak language answer to CNN or BBC World. The latest in their nightly reports extolling the new Qinghai to Tibet railway was a half hour panegyric to the environmental sensitivity of the construction workers. Since the railway opened on July 1st - when the "eyes of the world were all on Golmud" - 400,000 tourists have swamped Tibet. There's currently a three day queue for train tickets and a week-long wait to visit the Potala Palace (probably a bit longer if you're the Dalai Lama). Near one of the stations, a Tibetan businessman proudly showed off his gigantic new plasma screen TV and microwave. His wife stared blankly at the remote control and cooked butter tea on a stove heated by horse dung.

In other news, I learned the name of the company chosen as the official wine supplier to the 2008 Beijing Olympics and the location of both the Milk Capital of China and the Kite Capital of the World. I'm still waiting to find out why elderly Chinese men think it's acceptable to walk around the streets in just underpants and flip-flops on balmy summer evenings, though. Maybe tomorrow.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

One Year On

Today is my first wedding anniversary, which must have been why I was woken up at twenty past six this morning by the sound of firecrackers being let off outside my flat. The whole day is still so vivid, so near and yet so very long ago. Sitting now in a windowless office in eastern China while my wife sleeps by the banks of the Elbe, I remember the madcap dash across the park to the register office, slivovice in the back garden until 3am, London in late August, the two-month honeymoon in India, five months sitting on a swivel chair in a call centre and the good and the bad of everything in between. Happy anniversary, Kacenka. I'll see you soon.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

The Beginning of the End

I'm now at the beginning of the end. In exactly two weeks' time I'll be back at Pudong Airport preparing for the long flight home by way of Munich and Dusseldorf. This week I have only a single class with a single student between 3 and 6pm. Next week I'll have five students in one class from 8.30 to 11.30 in the morning. On Friday I'll be finished, and two days after that I'll be back in Shanghai. Somewhere within that lot I should have four or five days free to see a bit of the country.

I'm glad I came but I don't think I would like to do it again. Summer schools - the next week and a half excepted - are just too much work, too little organisation and not enough fun. I'm looking forward to a long, long holiday.

Monday, August 14, 2006

Hiking in Hangzhou



Going on a five-hour hike with just a guidebook map, a small bottle of water and a shed load of suncream probably isn't the most sensible thing to when the temperature's nudging forty degrees, but needs must when you're working six days a week. I got off the bus just south of West Lake at 11am, aiming for a narrow trail called the Nine Creeks and Eighteen Gullies and, eventually, the famous Dragon Well village, home of China's most expensive green tea leaves. I ended up finding the village but not the trail, instead wandering along a circuitous route that passed car parks, Chinese kids bathing in muddy pools, a hidden cave full of Buddhist carvings, and a tea room that had pictures of a confused looking Queen Elizabeth taking tea with smiling Chinese politicians all around the walls. In the room where I was hurriedly seated there were a few mushy slices of watermelon, two cigarette butts, an cork-topped thermos of hot water and a single scruffy armchair: I eventually concluded the Queen had probably knocked back her cuppa somewhere else. Or did the price suddenly double for her, too, when she passed on the chance to buy a big bag of overpriced tea leaves? A sudden thunderstorm meant I had to abort the last leg of the walk, so I took the bus back to town and stuffed my face with pizza in a Chinese owned, Australian themed place above Starbucks and across from the Ferrari Store.

I got home around 8pm, had some sushi for supper, knocked back a bottle of Tsingtao and lay on my bed until I fell asleep. The things you can do when you don't have any classes on a Monday morning!

Friday, August 11, 2006

Me and the Super Typhoon

The strongest typhoon to hit China in half a century smashed into Zhejiang Province yesterday. In Xiaoshan it rained a bit in the afternoon, which must have pleased all those workmen who spent the entire morning tying trees to metal posts.

This week has really dragged. I've hit maximum contract hours with six full teaching hours everyday, which means, including preparation time, I'm now working solidly from eight in the morning until gone six in the evening. In the evenings, I have just enough energy left for a long walk home before I flop onto my bed to drink beer and watch DVDs. I've been asleep by eleven every night. I hardly needed to come all the way to China to do any of that.

Thankfully, the teaching begins to wind down next week.

Monday, August 07, 2006

Hangzhou



Despite its inauspicious beginnings, the weekend actually turned out pretty well. Saturday was poker night - playing for jiao (half pence) coins, I cleaned up and made enough for my bus fare to Hangzhou and back. Which is how I found myself walking very, very slowly around West Lake, one of the top five tourist attractions in the entire country, yesterday afternoon.

Unfortunately the lake's popularity ensures that it suffers from all the gawdy excesses of modern Chinese tourism. Restored pagodas reached by escalators cut into the hillsides; twelve seater golf buggies laden with sightseers bump up and down over three hundred year old stone bridges; mass parades led by flag waving guides; boat trips and musical fountains. With a bit of patience, though, you can still find some peace and quiet: wander through the willow trees lining the main path and you'll find families dipping their feet into the cool water. And at the botanical gardens I had a bamboo forest all to myself for the best part of an hour.

Next weekend, weather permitting, I want to hike through the hills to Hangzhou's tea plantations. Only five more days to grind through till then.

Saturday, August 05, 2006

Down Time

Yesterday I was shattered.

For an hour and a half in the early afternoon I shared a ten by ten metre room with twenty-two Chinese kids. My only instructions were to play lots of games, to avoid teaching them anything new, and not to prepare any handouts or printed materials. Less teaching, more babysitting.

Luckily, it was a one-off. Instead, I now have a one-on-lesson for three hours a day with a 16 year old kid who has very rich parents and very little desire to learn English. The first class started at 8.30 this morning.

I need sleep, beer and a little bit of silence.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

When The Lights Go Out

Without any warning, the electricity went off shortly after half past ten last night. The only light came from my laptop screen. The only air conditioning was a slight breeze that didn't even ripple the heavy, dull coloured curtains that cover my window.

Five minutes later the whole building was down on the street. Some smoking cigarettes, some gossiping by torchlight, some sitting calmly on the kerb. The neighbourhood supermarket didn't sell candles so the owner - fat and barechested with red marks down his back that made him look like he'd been attacked by a suction cup - lent me a torch for the night. When I got back, a workman had clambered up a lampost without a harness and was scrutinising the power lines, while a crowd of people gathered on the road below. As I opened my door the lights all came back on. The big white box on the wall started belching ice cold air. The front doors closed one by one.

Monday, July 31, 2006

After Shanghai




Shanghai was, in the end, only Shanghai. Big buildings, neon lights and Western multi-nationals on every corner. A composite of every other big Asian city I've ever visited. A characterless Tokyo with a motorway of a river. In the evening we sat in bars full of Westerners, then passed round cans of Japanese lager on the promenade across from the Bund. Homeless people were curled up in the doorways, dark shapes under brightly-lit buildings, the unseen poverty beneath the conspicuous wealth. In the big cities China is no longer even nominally communist: the system merely remains as a means of control. I ended up drinking too much on an empty stomach and spewing mushroom slices up on the hostel floor. The next day I crawled baked and dehydrated around the Bund and Pudong taking photos and feeling nothing.

The most interesting part of the trip was the train ride home: an airport-like station with five floors and a huge glass roof; the peasant-faced man next to me who gnawed chicken legs in between loud mobile phone conversations, and the child's musical candle across the aisle that played a tinny version of Happy Birthday on an uninterrupted loop for an hour and a half. The uniformed staff swept cigarette ends off the floor with brushes made of twigs and gave loud sales pitches from the middle of the carriage for cheap bracelets and children's toys. I spent most of the time staring out of the window trying, and failing, to shut out the senseless commotion.

Saturday, July 29, 2006

Shanghai



Another Saturday morning.

A malign atmosphere pervades the teachers' room, largely due to the sudden necessity of writing student reports on top of giving tests, preparing lessons and teaching the kind of teenage kids who like to draw pictures of themselves shooting their teachers to death on the whiteboard. Some of the newer teachers have reached the end of their tethers - hardly surprising given the lack of support they've been getting recently. Shanghai couldn't have come at a better time.

I felt really tired last night so I left early and took the long route home up the few hundred steps to the Martyrs' Monument to see the setting sun, then right along the top of the ridge, where I stopped at a restored pavilion and watched the neon come on one by one as the day began to die.

Thursday, July 27, 2006

Pay Day

Pay day was Tuesday, three weeks and five days after I first arrived in China. I was expecting to receive forty-five one hundred yuan notes stuffed into a fat brown envelope; instead I was handed a plastic bank card, deposit slip and pin number. This came as a slight surprise, possibly because the word bank had never cropped up in conversation before.

After moving to the UK, it took Katka a couple of months, two branch visits, a signature and four official documents before she could open a bank account. Here in China things are evidently a little simpler.

To mark the halfway point of our teaching contracts, ten of us are off to Shanghai this Saturday afternoon on an overnighter, returning late Sunday evening. Hopefully the city will live up to expectations. As usual, the organisation of transport and accommodation hasn't been entirely straightforward - if only the Chinese bank account principle extended as far as someone booking a hostel and sorting out bus and train tickets for me before I even realise I'm going to need them.

This week I've also managed to whittle my preparation time down to around two and a half hours, which means I'm now working eight hour days with an extra two hours on top for general time wasting, Internet surfing and eating. Life's a blast.

Monday, July 24, 2006

War Games


Saturday was strange. Very, very strange. We set off from Xiaoshan just after two in the afternoon for the forty minute drive to Hangzhou. Newly built apartment blocks had sprung up on either side of the dual-carriageway, many with Alpine style roofs or mini-pagodas and Eiffel Towers tacked on top. Rose bushes had been planted every few metres in the central reservation, stretching mile after mile after mile. Crossing the river, flat barges moved silently through the grey water like gunboats on the Mekong.

Then came the paintball. In stifling heat I sat through an hour long induction conducted entirely in Chinese, during which I gathered precisely two things: we would be carrying full size AK47 replicas up and down a hill, and we'd be shooting high velocity beebee pellets at each other rather than splodges of paint. My enthusiasm plummeted still further when the costumes arrived - camouflage trousers that ended at my ankles, a plastic GIs helmet and a Darth Vader mask with a few pin-prick size holes for ventilation and no peripheral vision.

We started the game minus half our body weight after half an hour's marching around and standing to attention practice, which the Chinese kids lapped up with worrying eagerness. Unfortunately nobody bothered to tell the foreigners what we were supposed to be doing, so I ended up still playing the first game as the second one was starting. In a blow to national stereotypes, the French girl quit after two minutes while the Pole fought off five hundred Asians in a desperate rearguard action before she surrendered and her home was razed to the ground.

The barbecue was pandemonium. A free for all involving fat Chinese rich kids, skewered raw meat, live shrimp, smoke and fire. I stayed in the corner cooking bits of tofu. The karaoke kicked off later, at almost exactly the same time as the heavy rain started. A 15 year old kid stripped off to the waist and started gyrating in front of the teachers. Another used his camera flash to strobe the dancefloor after the techno music started banging out. As we drove home huge forks of ligtning ripped through the night sky.

Friday, July 21, 2006

Friday

Another week down. Five more days chalked off. This time next week I'll be exactly halfway through my time here. Sometimes I feel that things haven't quite lived up to expectations: too much work at school and not enough to do in the city. But every now and then I see something that reminds me why I wanted to experience this country. Tonight it was four policemen travelling in an open sided white golf buggy, blue lights flashing as they trundled along the main road. On the pavement outside the supermarket hundreds of people were standing in front of a big screen showing a Hong Kong gangster movie with Mandarin and English subtitles. Inside, I watched as three layers of beaurocracy attempted to put out a burning cigarette in a wastepaper bin.

Tomorrow I'm going paintballing with forty-odd rich Chinese teenagers and the other six summer teachers. Tonight I'm going home to sleep.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

People Are Strange

More tales of the weird and the wonderful from China:

Middle-aged women doing step-aerobics on the steps of the Bank of China building. A shop that sells nothing but shoes for very small children stays open until 10.30 at night seven days of the week. Surprisingly, custom is scarce. KFC playing a muzak melodied Chinese language version of Jingle Bells on a Monday evening in mid-July. A dog refuses to piss in a bush so its owner spends thirty seconds waving her finger in its face before smacking its bottom twice. (I wonder if the one child policy has had some strange psychological effect on broody Chinese women.)

Xiaoshan itself remains almost iredeemably dull. Yesterday I noticed a student-made poster in one of the classrooms on the city's tourist attractions: many cars, some KFCs, many tall buildings, many people...

Book early to avoid disappointment.

Monday, July 17, 2006

Day Off




The beginning of week three.

Yesterday nine of us took the hour-long bus ride to Shaoxing, forty-odd kilometres, several million concrete buildings and one or two rice paddies to the east of of here. After walking along the canal banks in the rain we took a city bus to East Lake, where we squeezed into wooden boats propelled by gap toothed old men who pedalled with their bare feet and steered with long bamboo poles under low stone bridges and through green and blue striped caves. Hiking back from the far side of the lake, we passed a bamboo wood, green tea plantations and a tea house clinging to the rock face next to aubergine plants and oriental orchids.

Judging from the guide book description I'd expected Shaoxing to be a pleasant provincial backwater, a bit like one of those small towns in Northumberland that have a castle at one side of town and a river at the other, and very little else in between. I discovered that very few places on the east coast of China can be described as backwaters anymore - little Shaoxing accounts for almost 70% of the region's textile trade; plush hotels, western restaurants and their indigineous imitators like Kung Fu Fast Food and Winner Pizza throng the centre of town, while huge out of town textile supermarkets and foreign joint ventures congregate on the outskirts. The concrete in front of the train station almost gleamed.

Next weekend we're going paintballing in Hangzhou with a busload of teenage Chinese students. One more strange experience to look forward to.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

At Dusk

Seven o'clock in Xiaoshan. Nobody is at home. Old women sit on park benches and street corners fanning themselves with rolled up newspapers. Nearby, men play cards on plastic tables. The roads are full of taxis and scooters. In the big park next to the school teenagers rollerskate and play badminton, flicking the shuttlecock back and forth across the concrete. Cycle rickshaw drivers haggle over fares and crowds gather two and three people deep to watch ballroom dancers circle round the pavement. TV noise blares out of ground floor bicycle garages. On the hill behind the bus station, the pavilions are illuminated one by one.

Two Weeks Down...

Sometime around half past six last night I decided I could do no more lesson preparation of any practical value, so I left work early and headed downstairs to a family steakhouse for dinner. Eschewing the frog curry, I ordered a chicken steak package meal and a large beer. The waitress came back with a knife and fork wrapped in card and a large napkin, which she gestured for me to hold in front of my chest. I understood why when the food came, still fizzing away and spitting grease viciously in the direction of my light coloured shirt. The food was nice, the beer tasted like toothpaste.

Back home, it was way too hot to stay cooped up indoors so I changed and went straight back out to investigate the neighbourhood. I walked up and down sidestreets lined with hole-in-the-wall shops selling dried fish, men's polo shirts and, bizarrely, cleaning implements and hard hats. I found a pond overlooked by decrepit apartment buildings and a main road with a bridge made out of two eight-metre-high dragons, their mouths closing over a pearl in the middle of the water. Further on, a wide street had a dozen tyre fitters on one side and the same number of hairdresser shops on the other. I stopped at a convenience store, bought two beers, and went home to sleep.

Monday, July 10, 2006

World Cup



I didn't stay up to watch the final. The World Cup was a serious disappointment - and not just because of England's clueless coach and overrated, pampered superstars. How many really great games were there in the whole tournament? Three? Four? Fewer? Too many teams care less about winning than they do about just not losing. Things will get worse before they get better.

I left home just after noon with an empty backpack and no suncream intending to walk round the corner to the air-conditioned supermarket and back. Somehow I ended up hiking in the hills edging the north of town for the next three hours. At a small temple old women fed me sticky rice and fruit while female monks in black capes intoned rapid scripture in front of a seated Buddha. From the top of the hill Xiaoshan spread out in every direction, apartment buildings sticking up through the haze on the horizon all the way to Hangzhou, small neighbourhoods clustered at the foot of skyscrapers waiting for the wrecking ball.

Saturday, July 08, 2006

How To Have A Lie-in

At half past six this morning the noise started: bus engines; voices; car horns short and prolonged, alone and in chorus; bicycle riding hawkers with megaphones; stomping feet; squeaky brakes; aeroplanes approaching Hangzhou. Eventually I drifted back to sleep.

Then came the heat, accompanied by the shrill wail of invisible cicadas. The temperature went from bearable to cloying faster than a Ferrari does 0-60. You end up feeling as if you're saturated with sweat, like a sopping wet sponge that's been wrung out countless times but never fully dries.

My shirt was stuck to my back about two minutes after I left the flat just after eleven. Xiaoshan has wide pavements and traffic lights that count down in seconds. Not that it makes crossing the road any easier. If the customer is God in China, then the pedestrian is Cristiano Ronaldo. The green man was lit solid and the counter told me I had twenty seconds left before the colour changed, and still I stepped into two lines of moving traffic - cars, buses, motorbikes, pedal-rickshaws and cycles turning right into the street in front of me and, on the far side of the road, the same volume of traffic turning right out of it. In the centre you're vaguely safe - only motorbikes and taxi drivers veer across the middle of the road. Essentially, it's a leap of faith.

Even though I don't have any classes on Saturdays, we have to be at the school for six hours on top of the five hundred we do during the week. So far today I've sent three emails, composed one blog entry, listened to three CDs, ate one meal and prepared all of Monday's and half of one of Tuesday's lessons. This evening we're planning our first visit to the KTV - Chinese karaoke.

Friday, July 07, 2006

Thursday Night

I'm knackered. Every day I get to the teacher's room a little after 8am drenched in sweat. I teach three teenage boys from 8.30 to 11am, then eat takeaway food and spend the rest of the afternoon teaching and preparing lessons. Only once this week have I left work before 8pm.

Last night I went to the Taiwanese place next door and ordered food by the point at pictures on the wall method. I thought was ordering curry rice but apparently I'd selected the scrumptious processed meat and dry breadcrumb sandwich, a plate of fried dumplings and a large coca cola instead. Things got stranger on the way home: a middle aged woman let her dog foul the grass verge by the main road, then took its left paw in her right hand and walked the mutt upright across the zebra crossing as if it were a small child. Further along, at the top of the park that stretches along the side of Xiaoshan's Venice style waterway, an open air ballroom dancing class had attracted forty or fifty people, who were twirling about on a patch of concrete under the streetlights. I stood and watched for ten minutes, sipping tastless beer from a rapidly warming can, the weird scene backlit by red and blue neon, three quarters of a moon poking through the clouds, and a searchlight sweeping back and forth across the night sky. This is China. This is why I'm here.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

Eating

Xiaoshan boasts a staggering array of restaurants. In just a week I've already sampled noodles in soup, fried noodles, boiled rice, fried rice and sweet and sour pork. No claws, eyes, trotters, fish heads or frog meat for me, thank you. Last night we went to the posh place next door to the school, where I enjoyed my first bit of English speaking service from a nervous looking girl who'd obviously invested in a 1970s You Can Speak English In Just 40 Minutes book and tape set. Her most natural sounding phrases were 'Wait a moment, please,' 'Would you like to eat and drink anything?' and the mind bending 'Would you like the beer hot or cold?' (I went for cold but got luke warm anyway). My spaghetti in black bean sauce was a more interesting concoction than the Western muzak: three songs played in a loop for an hour and a half.

Today I'm back on the sweet and sour. With a side serving of rice. Boiled.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

End of week one

Today it's raining. Not drizzle or showers but real bounce back off the pavement and splatter your chin stuff. And given some of the things that you'll find on the street here, that's really, really not nice. Earlier this afternoon an elderly gentleman very kindly climbed into one of the two sinks in the school toilets and proceeded to pick foul smelling things from under his toenails and off the soles of his feet. This was still only the second most disgusting thing I've seen in the last twenty-four hours - beaten by the duck's beak and chicken claw sticking out of separate dishes at dinner last night. No more soup dishes for me.

Last night I attempted to wash my smalls in the ancient looking washing machine located on my balcony. This entailed me filling the machine with water from the tap using a length of dirty rubber pipe, flicking a switch to drain the water out of the bottom, refilling it using the pipe again, transferring the sopping clothes to the attached spin dryer, and then holding on to the machine while it threatened to jump out of the window. This evening I'll be taking my shirts to the laundry.

Monday, July 03, 2006

Weekend


The dream is over. I watched the game in a Chinese disco on a big screen hung in front of the DJ stand. Loud Mandarin language pop boomed out, and two girls in shorts and crop tops danced on either side of the screen. Afterwards I wandered outside to see Cristiano Ronaldo's smiling face on a huge TV screen fixed to the side of a skyscraper. I can't believe that one of four very average sides will be World Champions this time next week. How much further forward are England for five years of expensive foreign coaching? Timidity and blandness instead of chaos and hell for leather, that's all.

Yesterday we took the bus to Hangzhou, a rich city swollen with half finished apartment buildings that resemble upturned packing crates. The journey was reminiscent of India - fumes and dust, dirty upholstery and karaoke videos playing at full volume above the driver's head. We passed field after field of advertising billboards - China's second largest crop after rice - spotlit from below and bearing pictures of urban development, Western consumer durables and Japanese high technology. After finding the city's famous West Lake we traced a route along the banks while the sun gradually roasted my skin, and then got hopelessly lost trying to find the bus station for the return journey.

I had planned an early night but it was too stifling to sleep even with the aid of a late night can of weak lager. The apartment is so hot that you have only two choices: leave the air conditioning on all night (too noisy) or turn it off just as you close your eyes and hope that sleep comes before the sweat starts flooding your body. Apparently cockroaches don't have the same problem.

This morning was my first lesson. Two slow Chinese teenagers with a combined vocabulary of five words. Fun and games.

Friday, June 30, 2006

Xiaoshan



My flat is a fifteen minute walk from the school, along the banks of a small stream ruuning away from the centre. It's on the fifth floor of a grimy building with bare concrete steps, no lift and no lights in the stairwell, which made arriving after dark with three bags a lot of fun. There's hot water in the shower heated by a gas bottle that leaks when you turn the top, and a bed that's just about big enough for me to fit on with a woven 'mattress' not much softer than the floor. Added to the horrific 1970s Socialist Realism style decor, it's a bit like kipping in a really cheap caravan park. Other than that, everything's cool. Except the temperature.

My first impression of the city wasn't too bad. There are plenty of pointy hills on the horizon and quite a bit of green in the middle of all the concrete. It spreads out for miles, with a mini-Manhattan of bank buildings and department stores at the centre and a spider's web of smaller shopping streets almost completely covered by trees for hundreds of metres on either side. The architecture is a mix of glass fronted towers with stone lions by the entrance and frayed around the edges three and four-storey buildings with shops on the ground floor and grotty apartments up above. Like Korea, most of the shops either sell exactly the same things - cheap shoes, flowers, sportswear, alcohol and jewellery - or random products lined up behind a bored looking salesman. Most of them have more glass display cases than customers.

Tonight is ping-pong and beer. First classes are on Monday.

Thursday, June 29, 2006

China

I ended up in Xiaoshan after all.

The flight from Newcastle was late, leaving me with a ten minute dash from aeroplane to aeroplane at Dusseldorf. After a long three hours at Munich, I got on the Lufthansa flight to Shanghai to find that the in-flight entertainment was made up of a tatty magazine that I'd already read in ten minutes flat and two cack American films shown on an overhead portable TV screen located directly behind the head anyone wandering up and down the aisle. I hit the spirits and managed to get some sleep.

China on the way from the airport: heat; building sites, building sites, building sites; endless concrete flyovers; a sky with real clouds, not just an ecru haze; motorcycles on footbridges; big black cars with tinted windows. The driver's English ended at 'Welcome to China' so I had a bit of shut-eye and then enjoyed the action on the road. When the traffic was moving freely, cars ping-ponged from lane to lane - overtaking in the hard shoulder, indicating left, then immediately right if the first lane looked as if it might be clearer after all. Like pensioners jostling in a post office queue. Then the traffic would slow to a near crawl and the road would turn into one of those puzzles I had when I was a kid where you had to slide small squares around to make a picture; cars squeezing in and out, in and out of small spaces, always further away from where they wanted to be.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

The Night Before

The packing's almost finished and I'm just about ready to go. I'm leaving from Newcastle tomorrow afternoon on the 1.30 flight to Dusseldorf. I have just under an hour there before travelling on to Munich, where I have another three hour wait for the flight to Shanghai Pudong. Convoluted but cheap.

From now on watching the World Cup will be a nocturnal activity. At least England are playing in the early game on Saturday. Without Deco and possibly Ronaldo, Portugal are definitely beatable. Whoever wins the tactical battle, wins the game.

Monday, June 26, 2006

Monday Morning

The weather has been dreadful for the last three days: highs of around 15 degrees, permanently grey skies, and a damp chill interrupted by the occasional heavy downpour. I'm not complaining too much, though: a wet English summer is still preferable to a baking hot and exhaustingly humid Asian one.

Today is Katka's birthday. Impatient as ever, she had all her presents, cards and birthday cake by teatime yesterday. The other big news this morning is that I am now going to be teaching in Jiaxing, a city of around two million people more or less halfway between Hangzhou and Shanghai, and not in Xiaoshan, a city of around two million people on the other side of Hangzhou, and an hour further away from Shanghai on the train. Shanghai, Hangzhou and possibly Suzhou are all manageable daytrips from Jiaxing, which suits me down to the ground. Now all I have to do is pack my bag and sort out my first couple of lessons.

Sunday, June 25, 2006

Ecuador

A functional performance by England against a team that looked like it had already reached the limit of its ambition. Ecuador were poor, England just good enough. The midfield retained possession much better than in the previous three games, though Gerrard was again guilty of trying to force the play with needlessly ambitious through balls. Michael Carrick's passing was excellent but Beckham looked slow and predictable and Joe Cole was infuriatingly wasteful with the ball. Worryingly, the defence is beginning to look vulnerable - John Terry may be dominant for Chelsea but he's suspect at international level. If Paul Robinson was playing for any other team in the competition, the commentators would have labelled him as the weak link in the side.

Portugal and Holland kick off in twenty minutes. If the Dutch win, England could scrape through to the semis. I think Portugal and Scolari have too much movement and tactical awareness for Eriksson to counteract with his unimaginative, safety first gameplan.

Friday, June 23, 2006

Edinburgh Again


Another early morning start. This time I was in Edinburgh for quarter past eight, and in and out of the consulate in exactly ninety seconds just under three quarters of an hour later. I had enough time to walk up to the castle and then along the Royal Mile as far as Waverley, before taking in the views from the top of Calton Hill on the slow route back to the bus station.

Five more days till China.