Thursday, August 28, 2008

Tentative Tokyo

This week I received my Tentative Assignment (I won't find anything out for sure until two days before I leave). Ten weeks' teaching at Hosei University Tama Campus and a flat in Fuchu City, twenty-two minutes by Keio Line to Shinjuku (think Lost In Translation or Tokyo as people who've never been there imagine it all to be) and, by dint of its links to Suntory Beer and Toshiba, home of a brewery museum and two whole rugby teams. There's a kind of symmetry to it - I've lived north and east of Tokyo (south is out for reasons of the Pacific Ocean) and I've already worked three months at Hosei's Ichigaya campus. All in all, it's about as good as I could have hoped for.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

At The Crossroads

Without a doubt the most important week of Newcastle United's season will be the remainder of this one. Before the transfer window closes it's absolutely imperative we add a defender, another striker and a creative midfielder able to pick passes through the kind of deep-lying defences we're likely to come up against when playing teams at home. Make the right signings now and, with the already impressive additions of Gutierrez, Guthrie and Coloccini (a real snip at just one and a fifth Anton Ferdinands), we could easily finish in the top six or eight. Do nothing and a few key injuries could see a repeat of last season's shambles.

Ashley's talked a lot about his ambitions for the club in recent weeks but, as the weekend's attendance proved, talk alone doesn't fill a stadium. It's time to act. And fast.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

On The Wall

I spent the entire Bank Holiday weekend in the verdant Northumberland countryside, rattling back and forth on the Hadrian's Wall bus, getting sunburnt (Sunburnt! In England! In August!) on a 13-mile walk between Chesters Fort and Once Brewed, trespassing on the grounds of haunted castles, legging it from bulls, eating Brown Ale flavoured ice cream and drinking copious amounts of wine in a tent while gazing at the stars and listening to the North Tyne burbling by.


Friday, August 22, 2008

Nothing To Hide?

It's an ironic example perhaps, but the loss of a memory stick containing the personal details of criminals proves once again the inanity of believing that innocent people have nothing to hide. From CDs lost in the post to documents left on trains, the government has shown itself to be completely incompetent when it comes to protecting the personal data it currently holds. Increasing that information (by way of a National ID Card Database, for example) only magnifies the risk.

The issue is not whether normal people have things worth hiding (anyone with a bank account automatically passes that test). The more pressing questions are why the government needs our data and how they guarantee to protect it. It's up to them, not us, to justify erosions of our personal liberties. So far, they've failed on both counts.

The Mackem Wiki

Entertainingly illiterate.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Ground 101: South Shields 5 Hebburn Town 1

Believe it or not, the Premier League wasn't the only competition to begin today. The FA Cup (Extra-Preliminary Round) got underway at that quaint old time of 3pm at a muddy Filtrona Park. Dominating the clarts and divots in midfield, Shields won at a canter against a Hebburn team who didn't start playing until they were three-nil down. And by then it was much too late.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Marsden Quarry

And sun!

What I'm Reading

Orwell's diaries, in blog form, online here.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008


Tenth, says The Guardian. "For Newcastle this season, safety is all there is to look forward to." Sad to say it's hard to disagree. We are the new Middlesbrough, just with thirty thousand extra fans.

Thursday, August 07, 2008

Digging Up

By last year's standards my container potato experiment was not a resounding success (a fact I'm ascribing to not enough watering and a failure to top up the soil). But still, it's not a bad haul for zero money: one old bin, four supermarket potatoes, left in a bag by a kitchen radiator to accidentally chit, and a few spadefuls of soil chucked in from the vegetable patch. Enough for a Sunday dinner, at the very least.

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

To Liberec

We stop off in Terchova to spend the last of my crowns on alcohol and bread rolls, then start the eight and a half hour cross country drive to Liberec. It's hot and uneventful until thirty kilometres north of Prague, when the tyre blows and I spend the next half hour by the side of the road in a fluorescent yellow jacket, right foot on a red triangle to stop it being blown away by huge trucks doing ninety kilometres an hour inches from my toes.

Things have changed but are always the same in Liberec. More supermarkets, new cranes, a KFC on a corner, Hypernova closed. But there's still (for now) the dirty orange bricks and dark brown roof of Tesco, a clock face in Fugnerova, triangle-topped Jested and the cobbled square in front of the town hall. Plus Steve and Henry, half-litres of Svijany and a klobasa with bread. Proseem.

I stumble home at one, realise I only have the indoor key, ring the buzzer, get a ten-crown coin stuck in a phone box, spend twenty minutes failing to borrow a mobile phone, contemplate a hard floor in the railway station, remember which building I'm in, blag my way through the main door and, finally, go to bed. When I wake up the next morning the klobasa reappears. I step barefooted on a toy train. The only paper in the flat is a prescription bag.

One Final Push

We leave early, my backpack bulging with two and a quarter litres of water, a half pack of inadvertently crushed biscuits, two cereal bars, six dry rolls, sliced Edam and a map produced before the Berlin Wall came down (translations: Russian, Polish, German and Hungarian; price: 5 Czechoslovak crowns).

Parking the car in Stefanova (at less than a third of High Tatras' prices) we take the steep blue path through the forested valley to Medziholie, five hundred metres up between the rocky top of Velky Rozsutec and Stoh's shorn head. A muddy short cut along the yellow path bypasses the peak of Stoh, cutting forty-five minutes off the walk and depositing us in the woods at Stohove Sedlo, from which its a sharp drop down and then back up through the raspberries to Poludnovy grun and lunch.

We're now striding along the shoulders of the mountains, clipped, stark and topped with baked-mud paths like a dried-out Lake District, all mini-hills, dips and rises until we finally reach the top of Chleb, 1,647 metres above sea-level, 1,000 metres higher than where we started.

Dropping down to the saddle brings our first encounter with cable car culture: fat men in white trainers wheezing on the path, a gaggle of Polish teenagers screaming and flirting on the rocks, Coca Cola and hamburgers, sinks designed so you can't fit a water bottle under the tap. The half hour hike to the park's highest point, Velky Krivan (1,709 metres), brings relative peace and quiet until the thunder starts rumbling ominously to the north. We take the fast way down, straight under the cable car to Chata Vratna, losing the badly-marked path two thirds along and ending with a mindnumbing, madcap, foolish scramble down a scree slope. Foot on small stone, stone slips, fall on hip, slide, swear loudly. "Be grateful we have our lives," says a woman at the bottom. A tad melodramatic. But maybe only a tad.

The hike ended nine hours after it began, squashed four in the back of a car from Prague, driving 100kph along a winding road. Towards the pub.

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Mala Fatra: Malé Rozsutec

Stay or go, go or stay? I hummed and hawed, tossed a coin, deferred to the driver. In the end we had no choice: the room had gone. So off we went, back west, avoiding toll roads, unwilling participants in the Slovak national sport of extremely stupid overtaking. We stopped somewhere that had a big church and a Soviet war memorial, pushed on to Terchova, came a little way back and found somewhere to stay, a privat a few hundred yards from the Hotel Diery with low beds and embroidered pictures on the wall.

Just a little walk before dinner, we thought, so I went out in the afternoon heat wearing a heavy cotton top and a pair of sandals, neither of which were much help when we were scrambling up rock faces, hauling ourselves down chains, walking over waterfalls on metal ladders, or clinging to handrails over smooth, drenched, rounded stones. Six and a half hours later I was scoffing the all-in halusky and getting pissed on Zlaty Bazant.

Sometimes it pays not to plan.

Skalnate Pleso: The Long Way Round

The dinky red electric train to Stary Smokovec was almost full. Germans and Poles, Russians and Czechs, Slovaks and Hungarians. There was little choice at the station but to follow the crowd, behind the Grand Hotel, up Hrebienok on the path through the woods that runs parallel to the funicular track, straight on at the bridge by the waterfall, then up, down, up to Skalnate Pleso (Rocky Tarn). Lomnický štít rose six-hundred metres above, dipped in the clouds, cable cars shuttling visitors back and forth to the safety-railinged, concrete top. The end of the hike, Tatranska Lomnica, nothing more than a splodge in the valley below, hooked to chairlift lines and tarmac roads. On the bench opposite two men were slugging plum brandy neat from a bottle. A girl in a green dress and canvas shoes picked her way across the ridge.

Monday, August 04, 2008

Another Thing

While I was away the garden got very slightly out of hand. Nothing that you'd notice immediately, understand. Floppier, greener in the wrong places, withered at the edge. In between chapters of Fight Club I planted swede in place of shallots, deadheaded godetia and pulled off sweet pea pods, re-potted a Christmas tree gone brown at the bottom, moved an alpine strawberry plant, decided against moving peppermint tea seeds, saturated potatoes, uprighted runner bean stakes and picked brown-tinged basil leaves. After a while things started looking better. I went back to the book.

Predne Solisko

Two thousand and ninety three metres up, civilization just a speck in the distance. I sit on a rock, my feet balanced on two loose stones. Behind my back is a sheer drop to a miniscule waterfall.

Off the Car Train, Up the Mountain

We unloaded the car at six, too early to do anything besides find a parking space in Poprad and walk up and down its single pretty street. After trying a succession of overpriced hotels, bored receptionists typing figures into calculators that were twice what we wanted to pay, we visited fake-folksy pensions in Spišká Sobota, then gave up and headed west into the mountains.

My first impression of Štrbské Pleso was awful. Stop-start traffic queued along the road into town, cars parked like supermarket trolleys at four quid a pop, building cranes and souvenir huts. Souvenir huts, souvenir huts, souvenir huts. The path was crammed all the way to Popradkse Pleso, like a crowd walking to a football match. But in the woods, for a moment or two, we were absolutely alone. It was idyllic.

Sunday, August 03, 2008

While I Was Away

The sun came out, briefly; Newcastle signed a defender but still managed to look uninspired, unimaginative and appallingly threadbare up front thanks to the lack of pace or skill in midfield and the leaden-footed, waste of space duo Smith and Ameobi; the mackems bought El Hadji Diouf, possibly the most hated man on Tyneside; despite the best efforts of Collingwood and Flintoff England were outplayed again (time to replace Vaughan with Cook or Strauss, but please not Pieterson); and the Blairites did to Brown what the Brownites did to Blair (though if Miliband really is making a play for the leadership, wouldn't he be better off waiting until after Labour loses the next election?)

So, where to next?

The Poprad Sleeper

"You'd better close that window after Olomouc or the gypsies will have your bags." As the conductor waddled to the end of the corridor Prague slipped behind us dome by dome, panelak by panelak. I clambered onto the middle bunk, just big enough to cover those parts of my body between the ankle and the ear, and tried to sleep. The train moved up and down like a tray on a clumsy waiter's arm, capital-bound passengers screeched past, there were station announcements and bright lights in Kolin, Pardubice and Olomouc, the curtain flapped against my toes. We crossed the border just before dawn. I never did see any gypsies.

Saturday, August 02, 2008

All Roads Lead To Liberec

Even ones that begin two thousand metres up a Slovak mountain.