Friday, June 30, 2006


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


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


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.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

More Football

Something to look forward to - next season's Premier League fixtures were announced this morning. With Newcastle's forward line consisting of a half-fit Shola Ameobi and the disinterested and disillusioned Albert Luque, expectations are not exactly sky high here. At least the fixture computer has been relatively kind with the opening games, our now customary tonkings at Anfield and Old Trafford aside.

Sheffield United are certainties for relegation - see Sunderland for what happens to battling sides with limited talent and no proven goalscorer. Watford might put up more of a fight but lack the resources. I think Wigan, Fulham and Aston Villa will scrap over the remaining place, with Reading finishing mid table. Chelsea will, of course, win the thing again.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006


The interview went quite well, though I'll have to wait another couple of days to find out if I have a job to come back to in September. There were eight questions in all, ranging from the differences between EFL and ESOL teaching to how I would go about promoting equality in the classroom. As I've effectively already been doing the job for the last five months as a volunteer I'm reasonably confident about the outcome. This could be the first step on my way to a new career.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006


England may have topped the group but that doesn't disguise the inadequacies of the team or manager. With Owen seemingly out for the remainder of the tournament, Walcott clearly not trusted to perform at this level and Rooney struggling for match fitness, we look dangerously light up front. Tonight's performance merely confirmed that Peter Crouch is not up to the job. Likewise, Jamie Carragher, great centre half though he is, is no right back, and Ashley Cole is unfit and out of form. As for the captain - if only this were American Football and we could just bring him on to take free kicks and corners. Beckham offered absolutely nothing tonight, except to berate others for his own sloppy, unprofessional mistakes. And the coach? The folly of only taking four forwards aside, Eriksson remains totally unable to influence a game from the touchline; his team is panicky, disjointed and one dimensional. Is that really all you get for £4 million a year?

Monday, June 19, 2006


Due to the mad insistence of the Chinese consulate that I apply for and collect my visa in person, I was out of bed at half four this morning for the two and a half hour Megabus ride to Edinburgh. The bus turned up twenty minutes late and was already full of unfortunate wretches who'd endured the overnight journey from London, so I ended up stuck next to a silent women with sunglasses and spots whose head kept toppling onto my shoulder. In keeping with their laudable commitment to customer convenience the Chinese have helpfully located their consulate three miles west of the centre next to Murrayfield stadium's car park. Thankfully I was straight in and out, which gave me enough time for a stroll around Princes Street Gardens before I had to get the return bus at 11am. Back to do it all again on Friday, when I may have finally woken up.

Sunday, June 18, 2006


We got back from Kildale this afternoon tired, hungover and sunburnt. Yesterday lunchtime we scrambled up the steep hillsides above the village to the Captain Cook Monument, then walked three miles over the fields to the nearest pub to watch the Czechs get stuffed by Ghana. Back at the barn, we stuffed ourselves with sausages, burgers, beer, wine and slivovice before flopping onto the plastic coated mattresses from around one in the morning onwards. We made our way back home via the coast at Saltburn, where we strolled up and down the pier in the spitting rain and took a water powered cliff railway up to the nearest fish and chip shop. Bliss.

Saturday, June 17, 2006

Away Day

The weekend's off to a splendid start: the sun is shining, a letter arrived inviting me to an interview for a teaching job on Wednesday, and we're off to the North York Moors in half an hour for two days of country walks, beer and barbecues. More when I get back.

Friday, June 16, 2006


In the garden I'm growing garlic, basil, sage, courgettes, spring onions, spinach and tomatoes. I'm also trying to revive an old strawberry plant and working over some soil in the corner to take carrots next spring. Today I got my very first harvest - forty or so basil leaves, the biggest three quarters the size of my palm.

In the afternoon I went to Sunderland for an hour. The deckchairs were out by the bandstand in Mowbray Park, full of old people wiling away another afternoon and young mothers fat with oversized jewellery, bulging shopping bags and stomachfuls of pizza and chips. I dodged the school groups in the Winter Gardens then came home to watch bits and bobs of Argentina's annihilation of the Serbs.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

England Part II

Another insipid performance against dogged but limited opponents. Another three points. On we go to the last 16.

But several big questions remain: What happens if Rooney breaks down again? Will Owen end up a half fit passenger? Can we afford to wait for Lampard and Gerrard to replicate their club form, or do we drop one for a holding midfield player and let the other run loose? What was the point in bringing Theo Walcott? Does Erikkson have a Plan B that doesn't involve Owen Hargreaves and a retreat to the edge of our own penalty area?

And then some questions have already been answered. Forget Crouch's goal, he just isn't international class. If Rooney and Owen aren't fit and on fire, England have no chance of lifting the cup. Downing and Lennon are bold, pacy and exciting but consistently let down by poor delivery into the box; the captain is the exact opposite. I stand by my original prediction. It's the quarter finals and good night.

Jobless in Jarrow

For the next thirteen days I am happily unemployed. Yesterday was my last day at the Orwellian sounding NHS Business Services Authority. No more will I be dispatching European Health Insurance Cards or Prescription Pre-Payment Certificates for 30p an hour above the minimum wage. No more sitting in a stuffy office for seven and a half hours a day. Next stop China, and back to the classroom.

To be honest, I've quite enjoyed the last five months. The money was crap and the work boring, but I could stroll along the river at lunch time and it was relaxing to do a job where I didn't constantly have to think on my feet (literally). But enough was enough.

After work I went to the pub with Katka, then onto the theatre to see Northern Broadsides' energetic, Yorkshire accented production of Henry IV. Best of all, the theatre was less than half full so we sat in the upper gallery despite having only paid a fiver each for the cheap seats way up above.

Sunday, June 11, 2006

City by the Sea

The great British seaside: windshields on the beach, the smell of salt and vinegar, tatooed louts buried waste deep in the sand, children swimming in ice cold grey water. We lazed on the sand for half an hour in the middle of a bike ride that took us down to the river, up to Marsden Bay, then back home via a shopping trip to Lidl. Afterwards we played badminton in the side garden, using a concrete path and a rosehip bus for side lines and a couple of wheelie bins as the net.

Sunday Morning

Today's a scorcher. If it weren't for the smell of roast beef and the unedifying sight of Heather McCartney's jugs splashed across the front page of the Sunday papers, I could almost forget I was in England at all. Football's off for today as I have to butter Katka up so she won't moan too much when the more important games are on during the week. Not that Mexico vs Iran was a particularly exciting prospect anyway. I spent a couple of hours this morning wandering round the local garden centre where I bought a lovely light orange Osteospermum, a trailing Million Bell for the new wall mounted basket, and a tall Aguilegia McKana with dancing yellow flowers. After lunch we're going to brave the roads and cycle to the beach at South Shields for a quick plodge and a few beers...and maybe a sly peek at some sporting action on TV. Sshh.

Saturday, June 10, 2006

This is England

So England are off and running. Sort of. Today's performance showed that Eriksson still hasn't learned from the mistakes of the last two major tournaments: players continuously moved out of position, negative subsitutions that hand the initiative back to the opposition and an inability to change the pattern of the game once it starts going against us. Another second half show like that in the knock out stages and it'll be goodbye for another four years. At least Theo Walcott might be ready to play then.

I fell asleep with ten minutes to go, although that may have had more to do with the fact that I was up at 6am to go to work. On the way home a young mother got on the metro with a toddler and a pushchair piled high with boxes of Budweiser beer. It's fair enough caring more about beer than the comfort of your child, but drinking Budweiser?! And this in the week that an eight year old girl was diagnosed with repetitive strain injury from sending text messages on her mobile phone. England's future is bright indeed.

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Photos from the Farnes

Learning English

Supposed socialist and PM-in-waiting Gordon Brown's latest Daily Mail pleasuring wheeze? All new migrants should "play by the rules" and learn to speak English. On the face of it an extremely laudable idea, and one I hope the many thousands of monolingual English migrants in France and Spain will soon also be forced to adopt. In the meantime, a helping hand for all the linguistically challenged foreigners flocking to our shores: if you're ever forced to sit an exam, just randomly intersperse your conversation with the simple expressions 'to be fair,' 'at the end of the day,' 'f*ck off' and 'you know what I mean?' and you'll pass for native speaker standard no bother at all.

Sunday, June 04, 2006

Farne Islands

I dragged myself out of bed at seven fifteen this morning for the forty-odd mile drive north to the Farne Islands - puffin, seal and kittiwake encrusted rocks just off the coast at Seahouses. We went on a two hour boat trip to Longstone Island and back, chugging around the National Trust nature sanctuaries before tucking into a jumbo sized haddock and chips once we were back on land. On the way home we stopped off at Embleton Bay, where the skeletal ruins of Dunstanburgh Castle stand high above a mile long curve of dune backed sand. After a two hour stopover back home we're back off out to see the Sunderland Symphony Orchestra at The Sage tonight.

Photos to follow.

Saturday, June 03, 2006


Summer's here and Britain's sizzling in the seventies! Katka was up and out on her bike early to lie on the beach with a book. I've always thought that only pies, potatoes and chicken drumsticks are better for being laid down on a flat surface and cooked all over slowly, so I slapped on the remains of last year's suncream and went for a wander along the coast instead. I took the ferry across the Tyne just after lunch, then walked up the seafront to Cullercoats before collapsing onto a metro back to North Shields. On the way home I stopped off to buy Katka flowers. Something I do every summer. Once.