Saturday, March 31, 2007

It's My Birthday

31 today. Ten whole years of adulthood. I woke up around eight feeling tired and wrung-out from the night before, lay in bed with my eyes closed for half an hour, then finally got up to track down my presents: three of Wainwright's walking guides to the Lakes, a hardback Gardener's Year and ten pounds tucked inside a birthday card.

Thursday, March 29, 2007


Meanwhile my work in the garden continues apace. So far this week I've germinated parsley, chives and godetia seeds, planted garlic cloves and gooseberry bushes, sewn poly-tunnel covered radishes on the vegetable plot, set down a herb wheel, potted up a bougainvillea and stuck starfighter and poppy bulbs in amongst last year's planters.

Perhaps this summer I might even stick around to see the results.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007


Exams are always a topsy-turvy time. No matter how much effort you've made to prepare your students thoroughly your influence wanes to nothing as soon as the real action starts. Watching the clock tick down, I often feel like the coach of a losing football team with no more substitutions to make, suddenly dependent on the mood of each student, the predictability of the topics and, to a variable extent, the personality of the examiner. Yesterday wasn't really much different, in spite of the fact that this time I was on the other side of the door. Interlocuting my Entry 2 students' speaking and listening test, I very badly feigned impartiality while I read instructions from a script and a Cambridge examiner marked their responses. I was both there and not there, breaking eye contact as soon as I'd asked the questions, willing them to give the correct answer, and sometimes having to fight back the urge to nudge, or in some cases shove, them towards it.

Monday, March 26, 2007

Late March

If it hadn't been a Monday, it would've been the perfect early-spring day. The sun high up in the sky, a slight wind coming in off the sea, the temperature just about warm enough so that you didn't need to take a coat out. I got home from work shortly after one and went straight out into the garden to prepare the clay soil for planting, start a seed tray of marigolds and water the thirsty container of courgettes that I put in the greenhouse yesterday.

Outside in the Garden

The second half of the weekend was much more productive than the first. After cleaning up my hard drive I dug over the borders and vegetable patch then picked up some new plants at the local nursery: a pink carnation that flowers the whole summer, a perennial oregano herb and a silvery-green, softly spiked curry plant.

Saturday, March 24, 2007


After a lovely morning it degenerated into a sideways, stuttering non-achieving sort of day. My laptop keeps freezing as soon as I try to go online, I came home empty handed from a three hour round trip to Royal Quays this afternoon then threw away two hours of my life watching England's over-hyped Premiership all-stars huff and puff to no great effect in Tel Aviv.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Is This It?

I left home at eight o'clock this morning wrapped up in a thick coat and waterproof shoes. Last night's puddles had iced-over and cracked and the ground was sprinkled everywhere with snow. Coming home four hours later, I had to squint to see in the sunlight, my coat was zipped right down and beads of sweat had started to collect at the top of my back.

Winter or spring? To be honest, I haven't got a clue anymore.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Winter: Just Hanging Around

It might be the start of British Summer Time this Sunday morning but our elusive winter is finally putting up a fight. It's been snowing on and off since very early this morning, brief flurries swirled about and blown diagonally on the biting north winds, flattening the daffodils and whitewashing the earth before the sun comes back out and melts it all away.

Iraq: Four Years On

Amazingly, 29% of the British population still believes that Blair and Bush were right to take military action in Iraq. You have to wonder where these people have been for the last four years. Certainly not in Iraq itself, where billions of dollars have been spent, over four thousand coalition troops and countless more civilians have been killed, and yet only one in three people thinks the situation has improved since Saddam was deposed. Presumably they also believe the First World War was a good way for young people to let off steam, that the Twin Towers falling was the second most important TV event in history after Chantelle winning Celebrity Big Brother, that the NHS is safe in David Cameron's hands, and that it's no use doing anything about global warming cos we only cause 2% of emissions and it said in the paper that the Chinese and Indians have got massive power stations and dead cheap flights now too. And how about the 5% of respondents who think the mess in the Middle East has made Britain a safer place? Do they all drink in pubs near army barracks, or did they just not get that bit about weapons of mass destruction?

A rhetorical question: Are people really so stupid?

Monday, March 19, 2007

A Load of Old Rubbish

According to a recent survey, UK households dump more than 3.3 million tonnes of food a year, around a third of everything they buy. There really is nothing to be said in mitigation for this wasteful stupidity: even if you don't think climate change is a problem, it's an undisputed fact that our small island is fast running out of landfill sites.

The lazy, self-serving excuses for inaction - you can't help what you throw away and everything breaks down in landfill anyway - just don't wash any more. Organic waste doesn't decompose when it's buried under a mound of rubbish, instead it gives off methane, a greenhouse gas which contributes to global warming. And the people who throw away money buying needless things every time they go to a supermarket - or for that matter every time they leave an electrical appliance turned on overnight or take the car out for a journey they could have walked just as easily - are usually the first ones to start moaning when either taxes or their bills go up.

So do something useful and start your own compost heap. Even if you don't have a garden, you'll be reducing your impact on the environment, lowering the amount of waste that needs to be buried underground, and giving yourself a free source of nutrient-rich soil for houseplants, containers and window boxes. Everything you need to know is here.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Newcastle United: Disappointment Once More

There's an awful but comforting predictability about Newcastle United. It doesn't matter how bad you expect them to be, they very rarely fail to disappoint. This afternoon's timid surrender to a side stuck in the bottom three since the first month of the season must surely mark the beginning of the end for Glenn Roeder. There was no shape, no urgency, no discernible tactics, out of form players needlessly played out of position, defenders who can't defend, creative players that don't create. No more excuses: we're just a rank bad team.

Friday, March 16, 2007

It's the prestige, stupid

"Labour is the only party pledged to end the nuclear madness."
Tony Blair (1982)

The Trident programme is "unacceptably expensive, economically wasteful and militarily unsound". Gordon Brown (1984)

Edging out even Newcastle's horrific display, the week's most depressing spectacle came in the House of Commons, where a Labour government once again needed the support of the Tories to pass the kind of bill that, only a couple of decades ago, they vehemently and justly opposed. Why exactly do we need to renew Trident anyway? It's certainly not about guaranteeing our security: terrorists aren't likely to bother with missile defence shields or submarines out at sea when plotting bomb attacks in London, and if North Korea ever does develop full nuclear capacity, we'll be well down the list of potential targets, possibly somewhere along with Sweden, New Zealand and Guatemala. More pertinently, in the highly unlikely event that a rogue state such as Iran were to launch an attack on Britain, it's utterly inconceivable that the US would fail to retaliate. The Germans and Japanese understand this; even the right-wing nutters in Tokyo realise that their standing in world affairs is not harmed by their lack of a nuclear deterrent, nor is their economy hindered by the need to develop and maintain useless warheads.

Like an impotent old man with a teenage girlfriend, Britain and France hold on to their deterrent for no other reason than prestige, in vainglorious pretence that we are still big players, no matter what the cost. Quite what good it does the French remains unclear; surely everyone knows that in order to beat them you only have to go through Belgium? As for the British, we sacrificed economic development to our history and imagined status straight after World War II, developing a costly independent capacity when the Americans, fearing secrets would be leaked to the Russians, reneged on a promise to share their own nuclear research. Having the bomb didn't help us in Suez or the Falklands, didn't affect currency devaluations or mass unemployment, didn't improve the education of our children, or the quality of the NHS.

We don't need Trident. We need a better society.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

We'll Support You Evermore?

Unless you're daft enough to count that cheap bit of glass you win for beating part-time teams in a half-paced summer kickaround, tonight's result equals one more year without a major trophy for Newcastle United, the 38th in a row. Gutless, scared and tactically inept, the team and coaching staff were disgraced, bottling what amounted to their only really important game of another dreadful season, in the context of which it is last week's performance, not this one, that stands out as an abberation. The saddest thing is, like a bunch of Club 18-30 losers on a Benidorm beach, they'll only be back to embarrass themselves again next year.

And make no mistake about it, we are witnessing the death throes of an era at St James' Park, the final dissolution of what little promise remained after the Keegan years. Forget the headline figures of 48,000 attendances for league games, the lack of depth behind those poor, deluded addicts who continue to shell out fortunes to watch spineless mediocrity was made clear by the crowd for last week's first leg, and for every cup-tie this season. The supporters are losing hope, and they are slowly dwindling away.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Lessons from the Weekend

Edinburgh on a Six Nations weekend: men in kilts and Home Counties accents, queues twenty deep outside fake Irish pubs on the Grassmarket, hostels full of slim-boned, beer-bellied rugby fans wearing nothing but boxer shorts and shamrock hats. Happy drunks blew around the streets like discarded litter, crowding everywhere. I ate vinegar and chips and haggis and chips, felt the grease flood my stomach, and chased it down with pint after pint of absurdly overpriced beer.

It was great.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Wednesday, March 07, 2007


Johan, my friend from Sweden, arrives today for a long weekend. I haven't seen him for almost four years, not since I left him on the platform at Siracusa, surrounded by luggage and newspapers, waiting for the overnight train back to Naples. I hope he's cheered up in the meantime. On Saturday morning we're taking a slightly shorter rail journey, this time to Edinburgh with my brother and Mr Derek Wood, where we plan to do all the tourist stuff and then get totally bladdered before, during and after a literary tour of the city's pubs.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

This Soiled and Squalid Land

My half hour commute to work takes me past a McDonald's and a Tesco supermarket twice every weekday. Every time I see the same depressing sight: carrier bags fluttering like torn flags in tree branches; fast food cartons and soft drink cups with chewed-up straws strewn across neglected grass verges; dog shit, takeaway boxes and spat out chewing gum stuck to the pavement, chocolate bar wrappers clogging up the gaps; soggy free newspapers discarded under seats and all along the width of a metro platform littered with dog ends, used tickets and flattened beer cans. Jeremy Paxman's article in this morning's Guardian is exactly right, the filth that litters our streets is something that shames every one of us.

Monday, March 05, 2007

Garden: Early Spring

Although it'll be a few more days before most of the daffodils open, the ragged line of yellow crocuses I planted last autumn have bloomed and fallen over in the front border and another potful of bulbs came up while I was on holiday. It's time I started planning the vegetable patch: this year I'm trying out cucumber, beetroot and carrots.

Sunday, March 04, 2007


Yesterday I went on what I am faintly ashamed to admit was my first ever political demonstration, protesting the government's plan to cut free ESOL classes for asylum seekers. There were about three hundred of us gathered in the square at the Centre for Life a little before 11am, including parents with children in pushchairs, and officials in wooly hats and Palestinian scarves handing out placards with images of George Bush and The World's Number One Terrorist on the back, now hidden by tape and wrapped round bits of plywood. As we set off along Clayton Street, towards the shopping streets and match-day traffic, a group of Christians were kneeling in prayer against stem cell research on the pavement. We marched to the Monument, led by refugees on drums and a woman with a megaphone, chanting You say: Integration, We say: Education and 2-4-6-8, what do we appreciate? ESOL to the utter bemusement of passers-by. At the Monument itself we packed together in a crescent shape for half an hour of speeches that almost nobody could hear. The two students on the steps canvassing for the Conservatives sat in silence throughout.

More people arrived as we squeezed past the early afternoon shoppers on Northumberland Street, competing for attention with Hare Krishnas and shopfronts and dancing bands, before coming to a halt outside the Civic Centre. A man dressed in blue jeans and a football scarf went inside to hand in a petition. There was a moment of anti-climax and then we headed off to the pub.

Saturday, March 03, 2007

Divorce Part Two

I'm happy to say my worries about the divorce papers were almost completely groundless. I asked a mate to check them over for me and the few quibbles that still remain aren't enough to change the most important point: we're both getting what we want with the minumum of hassle. In a few days or weeks copies will arrive in the post for me to sign and send back; then a friend will stand in for me while everything is rubber-stamped in a Czech courtroom, and our marriage will be finally buried six months after its sudden and unexpected death.

Friday, March 02, 2007

Saturday: Plzen to Prague

We rolled out of bed early to stuff ourselves at breakfast, had our extremities almost taken off by the shower, then went souvenir shopping at the brewery and Tesco, filling our baskets to the brim with cheap alcohol, bottles of water and Marianske Lazne wafer biscuits. As neither of us could face another beer we had a few slow turns around the centre, killing time until the one o'clock bus to Zlicin on the outskirts of Prague.

Checking-in, I thought back to the last time I'd flown out of the place, a few snowy days after Christmas 2005, three weeks after we'd returned from India. In the early evening we'd got as far as the runway before getting stuck overnight in multi-coloured plastic chairs. The plane took off over a day late, and we were the lucky ones.

A Very Good Friday

I had my first class with the two council groups today, in a building just down the hill from Chichester metro. The students were all women, a mixture of Bangladeshi housewives, Eritrean asylum seekers, Iranian graduates and a couple of glamorous Thai wives. It was a gorgeous spring day, the sort of Friday when you have butterflies in your stomach thinking of the approaching weekend. I walked the hour home after work, stopping off at Lidl halfway to do my weekly shopping. There was blossom on the cherry trees, snowdrops in the grass and crocuses by the roadside. An ice cream van painted in the colours of the Belgian flag played the Teddy Bears Picnic as it crossed the old railway bridge.

Thursday, March 01, 2007

Plzen: Friday

We sat for an hour and three quarters on the bus from Karlovy Vary to Plzen. The seats were cramped and thinly-padded, and we had to wedge the backpacks upright between our feet. I tried to concentrate on a book, then fell asleep and woke up, gratefully, on the outskirts of the city.

The hotel was just off the main square, in a cobbled side street that opened out into a park. We dumped our bags in the Ernest Hemmingway themed room - an African mask behind the TV, ostrich feather patterned wallpaper in the bathroom and a framed print overlooking a writing desk - and headed straight back out to the brewery, where we had two half-litres of Pilsner Urquell and goulash soup for less than the price of a pint in Newcastle.

The rest of the day was spent wandering between pubs: a Gambrinus at the football stadium; standing in a corner with a thin glass of Svijany in a crowded Mexican place on Americka; two visits to Na Parkane at the brewery museum for unfiltered Plzensky Prazdroj; dinner and a Czech lesson at U Salzmannu, the city's oldest bar; other places I can no longer recollect, where my brother pilfered beer mats and plastic holders and a square tablecloth with Original Pilsner Urquell Restaurant written across one side. We ended up downstairs in the hotel bar, sitting by a wall covered in pictures of stars of the Harlem Renaissance. A German was chatting up the barmaid: Where are you from? Where are you work? She got bored and lifted her top for someone else. We decided it was time for bed.


The end of a month, the end of a marriage. Katka emailed me three documents - in Czech with brief English summaries - that I need to sign and send back. Certain things immediately struck me as odd: for a no-fault divorce there were a lot of sentences beginning with her name: Katerina Hudson no longer loves Michael Hudson; Katerina Hudson no longer wants the marriage to continue; Katerina Hudson suggests that the marriage should end in divorce. And why bring up the fact that I went to Japan or China?

A couple of hours after I got the email I was out on a date. One door closes and another opens. Knowing me, I'll probably only go and get myself stuck.