Thursday, December 31, 2009

Maybe Tomorrow

I was thinking of going for a final run of the year this morning but when I woke up it had just begun to snow and Great Railway Journeys was starting on the telly and I was still quite full from the curry I had last night and I'd cut my finger a few days before clearing ice from the pavement...

So in the end I didn't bother.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Christmas Day

Christmas came at the end of a bitterly cold week. I woke up just after eight to weak grey light, a hoar frost on the pruned back tree tops and six-day-old snow still covering the garden. In the kitchen brussels sprouts had been left to soak in a plastic bowl next to last night's empty beer bottles. I put on the kettle, added a swig of Vana Tallinn to a cup of coffee, and sat down to open my presents: chocolate coins, boxer shorts and socks, playing cards with gardening tips, clothes and books, deodorant, Spanish wine and a big box of shortbread biscuits.

Happy Christmas.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Touchdown

It had snowed heavily during the late-afternoon and Newcastle Airport had not long reopened when my BA flight from Heathrow touched down. We sat for an age waiting for ice to be scraped off the steps and the entrance to the terminal building. I suddenly felt every minute of the twenty-five hours I'd been travelling since waking up in Tokyo.

There was no sign of the gritters on the roads so we drove home slowly through the slush and ice. I caught the end of Match of the Day, had a beer while listening to Benitez blame the referee for his own tactical failings, and flicked quickly through the morning papers. Reality TV shows, a few inches of snow bringing the country to a halt, a knighthood for an actor.

Nothing much changes.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Heading Home

And so we reached the end of another quarter year in Japan, queuing at the post office to send our money home, dragging our suitcases back down the stairs, meeting up for final drinks, one last room inspection and a train ticket to Narita.

One way, of course.

Last Class

Peter finds out what his students can remember from three months of daily lessons. The answer is, "Not much."

Group photo. Men don't make Churchill-for-the-camera signs. Or smile, apparently.

My last class ponders a wall. Very Zen.

Japan's Year in Words

First among the top ten phrases of 2009 was 'change of government', an expression British people are likely to be using too in 2010. Further down the list were words more often used by my students: 'new type flu', 'soshoku danshi', or herbivorous men, after the growing numbers of young Japanese males with no discernible interest in sex, and 'reki-jyo' (history women), a reaction to this among pretty Japanese girls who now look back to the warring Samurai period in search of their ideal partners.

Leaving Hiroshima

As darkness came down the lights were on all the way along Peace Boulevard. Pirate ships and love hearts hanging from branches, long lovers' tunnels and a merry-go-round. I walked as far as the illuminated pyramid, working off the pork, noodle, egg, squid and prawn okonomiyaki I'd just eaten. Three santas came past, leading a horse and white Cinderella carriage along the main road. The clock struck six. It was time to go back.

Miyajima

Up and out of the hostel for 9am, I breakfasted on hot hash browns and a fried egg on toast before catching the tram to Miyajima-guchi. The tour groups were lined up like an army of invasion at the entrance to the ferry port, marched out in columns fifty-metres apart by tour guides holding flagpoles and providing non-stop commentary through microphones. Wild deer wandered about indifferently. The souvenir shops weren't doing any business, but the photographer in front of the floating Torii gate was seating twenty at a time on two low benches, cameras crowding the sides.

Daishin Temple was, by contrast, an oasis of peace. Water tumbled gently into rock pools, there was the slow tinkle of coins in a donation box, Koi swam in lazy circles around a pond completely still except for the movement of the light. From the highest point of the temple you could see right back across the bay.

I had lunch in a wooden pavilion a short way up Mount Misen, watching a ferry crossing and clouds drifting in over the mountaintops. From there it took an hour to the top, stone step after stone step, bending first this way then that until I came upon the summit. There were large, rounded boulders, an open-topped wooden building selling sweet sake and udon noodles. Someone was speaking French, a wild deer was grazing on the stone, there was a transistor radio and the Inland Sea. And then, 529-metres up, the snow began to fall.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

The Symbolic Emperor

"The empty centre around which everything spins," the American journalist Patrick Smith called the institution of the Japanese Emperor. "Hollow vessels into which anything can be placed and so given meaning". We are now, going by the gengo calendar which still marks time according to imperial reigns on commuter cards, restaurant receipts and the mastiffs of newspapers, in the year of Heisei 30, yet mention of the Emperor's given name, Akihito, leaves every Japanese person I know completely bemused and even the title of his reign, which translates as Achieving Peace, brings only the mildest of recognition. "His father was Hirohito," I persist. "Showa. He married a diplomat called Michiko."

"Oh yeah, I think I know her," said one of my students eventually. "Didn't she go to Oxford University?"

Hiroshima Castle

I already knew that the main tower of the castle was gone, because I hadn't seen it from Hakushima the day before, but now I saw that the entire castle had disappeared without a trace. Not even the turrets or front gate survived. Only the moat and the stone foundation remained, presenting a pathetic sight.

Toyofumi Ogura - Letters from the End of the World.

As it got dark I walked over the moat to Hiroshima Castle, the five-storey concrete reconstruction of a fortification that had stood since 1599. There were stone ruins nearby which I took to be the remains of a feudal donjon but turned out to be the foundations of a military barracks, all that was left of the Imperial General Headquarters. A party of Australian teenagers stood by the door, debating the entrance fee.

I crossed what was the West Parade Ground. There was a gold embossed shrine and an A-bombed willow tree, split evenly at the base. An elderly man dressed all in white jogged slowly round the moat.

Shukkeien

Less than one and a half kilometres from the hypercenter, Shukkeien, laid out on the instructions of the Lord of Hirohsima 326 years previously, was almost completely levelled by the blast and resulting fires. The rainbow bridge spanning the centre of the pond, modelled, like the rest of the garden, on Hangzhou's West Lake, was the only structure to remain intact. Thousands of survivors sought refuge here after the bomb. Most died before they could receive medical attention.

It was very crowded, and to distinguish the living from the dead was not easy, for most of the people lay still, with their eyes open...The hurt ones were quiet; no-one wept, much less screamed in pain; no-one complained; none of the many who died did so noisily.

John Hersey - Hiroshima.

Hiyijima Hill

High on Hiyijima Hill, opposite the entrance to Hiroshima's Museum of Contemporary Art, a single Henry Moore scuplture, shaped like a pair of malformed legs twisted downwards at the hip, forms a kind of gateway to a lookout point over the flat land back towards the centre of destruction. A US Army photo shows the view in October 1945, two months after Toyofumi Ogura saw it on the day of the bombing:

All around me was a vast sea of smoking rubble and debris, with a few concrete buildings rising here and there like pale tombstones, many of them shrouded in smoke. That's all there was, as far as the eye could see.

The hills of Koi are still there. The Kyobashi River too. The rest of the city rises once more in innumerable steel and concrete spikes. Even the daffodils are almost in bloom.

The Atomic Bomb Dome

A dragonfly flitted in front of me and stopped on a fence. I stood up, took my cap in my hands, and was about to catch the dragonfly when...

Schoolboy's memoir from Children of the Atomic Bomb.

Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer was playing softly as I came up from the underground shopping mall. It was shortly before nine in the morning, around half an hour and sixty-four years since the first atomic bomb exploded in a soundless, camera-flash burst six-hundred metres above my head. The whole of Surakagu, an amusement and commercial district at the hypocenter of the bomb, was instaneously obliterated.

A decorative metal fence, camphor trees and a riverside footpath circle what remains of the old Industrial Promotion Hall. Bits of twisted metal crown its top, balustrades hang like broken teeth, ending in mid-air. Weeds grow through the jumbled assortment of rubble on the ground, the shell of the building was stripped off like paper, leaving naked, bubbled, brick. A low wall marks the centre of the building. The sides are all caved in.

The hypocenter itself is 160-metres away, among an amime cafe, parking for Sogo Department Store and two dozen vending machines stacked with hot and cold drinks. A roadside sign marks the exact spot. A waist-high traffic cone stood to the right, next to a notice advertising thirty minutes parking for two-hundred yen.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

To Hiroshima

Most often we sped, sometimes we crawled, occasionally, nearer Tokyo, we slowed completely to a halt. I listened to a radio play I'd downloaded from the BBC, extended my foot rest. My neighbour curled up like an egg, his head sticking out across the aisle. I pushed back my seat, pulled down the head cover until it almost touched my chest and blocked out what remained of the light.

We stopped at the services around midnight. I must have slept, fitfully, afterwards because the next thing I remember distinctly was half the bus emptying at Fukuyama. The clock said 6.02. We pulled into Hiroshima early, in the middle of the morning rush. By eight o'clock I was on the other side of the station, across the first river, looking at a shrine built on the roof of a concrete car park.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Another Japan

Behind the surface is another Japan, slower-paced, still attuned to simpler pleasures. Vegetable fields grow amid oceans of concrete, children skip rope in shrine precincts, mothers ride bicycles with wire baskets in front and children strapped to the back, old people weed roadsides and play croquet in gravel-scattered yards, blending into the noise of packinko parlours and vending machines and fully-automated car parks, where cars are raised on metal platforms and slotted vertically like DVDs in a rack.

This is the Japan we never read about, the Japan of distant hometowns. The journalist Patrick Smith termed it "a regret of the modern", a wistful kind of longing for what once was. This is not the frantic dash to modernity, the high-rise, glass-fronted buildings with neon lights and video screens out front, but the sprawl of two-storey houses, countless tiny gardens each with its own persimmon tree, flowerbeds planted with ornamental cabbages, the mournful, village cry of the sweet potato van - "Stone baked sweet potato" - filling the air.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Running Log: Reprise

Keeping to the same pace as last time, I added another two kilometres to the distance, turning back shortly after passing a house covered top to bottom in multi-coloured Christmas lights. A spotlit Santa was clambering up the chimney towards a unicorn, its front hooves raised in understandable fright. Even with a two-hundred metre sprint to finish off, I was barely out of breath when I reached the foot of the stairs.

Time: 35 minutes
Distance: 5.5 kilometres.

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Nearing the End

We're halfway through the last week of teaching and things are beginning to wind down. The student reports are done, there's an all-you-can-drink party planned for Friday night, and three days later, a few hours after my final class, I'll be taking a night bus to Hiroshima.

I leave Tokyo, possibly for good, next Saturday morning, with almost two clear months between here and Odessa.

Saturday, December 05, 2009

South Africa

'The Group of Life', was The Guardian's take on England's World Cup draw. Certainly, the usual big tournament complacency and a clash at altitude with the USA look the biggest barriers to the last-16. Compare that to Brazil's Afro-European Group of Death or Germany, Ghana, the Serbs and Australia, who make up our list of potential opponents in the first of the knock-out stages.

Spain should win the tournament, but won't. Argentina and France will come good but fall short. Portugal and the Germans are the most likely shock early exits, Holland the dark horses and Brazil, as ever, favourites. And England? At the risk of coming across all Trevor Brooking, they have no more or less of a chance than most of the teams listed above. Less, if Rio Ferdinand and John Terry continue in their current run of form.

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Running Log

Somewhat belatedly inspired by the example of the Kawaguchiko Marathon, I set out on my first run in nearly three weeks. The night air was chilly enough for tracksuit trousers and a hoody. I kept to a steady pace along the cycle path, passing the brewery and turning back when I reached the start of the track along the Tama River. If I didn't quite make it as far as last year, that was only because I'm saving it as a target for next time. No, honestly.

Distance: Three and a half kilometres (going by the signs to the folk museum)
Time: 25 minutes.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Kawaguchiko: Sunday

The thirty-fourth Kawaguchiko Marathon started promptly to the second at 7.30 am. The day was grey and overcast, the temperature down to four degrees. There were more than thirty-thousand runners, over half attempting the 11-kilometre fun run, and the streets around town were clogged with human traffic, clouds obscuring the mountains and descending on the lake.

I decided to take the early train back.

Kawaguchiko

It was nearly dusk by the time I got to K's House Hostel. I checked in, discovered I was the only person in the room not running in the following day's marathon, and set out on a walk around town. I found a herb garden next to a batting cage, the smell of thyme and the thwack of ball on bat, and an outdoor onsen with six different pools of slightly varying temperature including an upstairs tub from where, on a clear day, you could lie back and look out at Fuji. In the dark the best I could manage was the Family Mart sign further up the hill.

Back at the hostel, I got talking to Jas, an English teacher from Wolverhampton who'd taken up running six months previously and was now attempting his very first race. Two Swiss muesli salesmen were planning a half four breakfast and an Australian in the corner was talking loudly about some ice caves. I sipped whisky, flicked through a paper. At nine o'clock people started drifting off to bed.

At the Foot of Fuji

It was half past ten and fifteen degrees when I arrived in Kawaguchiko, and a steady stream of hikers had already started up the wide, paved path to Tenjoyama Park. Scrambling towards the top, the visibility was perfect in every direction but the one I was looking at, Fuji suddenly cut off at the shoulder by a sun-lit bank of cloud.

It took less than half an hour from the train station to the upper cable car terminus. The last of the autumn leaves were dying on the branch, hanging limply like banners at an abandoned parade. People queued at the viewfinders as if the clouds obscuring the mountain would magically disperse upon the insertion of a hundred yen coin. In front of the gift shop was a plastic model of a cartoon rabbit knocking the breath out of a beaver. Across the lake, you could just about make out the first snowcaps of the Japanese Alps. When I saw a second beaver trussed up and hanging from the ceiling outside the men's toilets, I decided it was probably best to leave. It was another ten minutes to the peak itself, a disappointing clearing in the pines, with stumps left for seating, a cairn-sized shrine and what would have been half a view of Fuji in a gap between the trees.

The mountain calm was shattered as soon as I hit the lakeshore. There was a Fancy Shop and J-pop ballads, duck boats and sightseeing buses, speedboat rides and coffee restaurants. I followed the waymarked path out of town to the westernmost edge of the lake, passing Omuro Sengen Shrine, the oldest of Fuji's shrines, rusting jet skis, a motorbike lying in the empty swimming of a bankrupt hotel, blue and yellow boats with their hulls facing up, piled by the water's edge, waveboard shops and little roadside cafes with Christmas trees out front. I stopped for lunch on a lawn by the water. The clouds were getting thicker all the while.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

The Tale of the Whale

I'd got back from work early, been to the 100 yen shop on the way, and splurged - if you can splurge in a place where everything costs the equivalent of 66p - on milk and bread rolls, eight eggs, a bunch of five bananas from the Phillipines and a tin of tuna with Japanese writing on the side.

I began to doubt that it was tuna the moment I opened the tin. Dozens of tiny bones were mixed in with the fish, some of which was wrapped around bits of a hard, enamel-white substance the shape and size of a push-down pen top. The meat was red, semi-dessicated and tough, and tasted like oily beef. I took a bite, wondering what kind of fish I was eating, then scanned the characters on the side of the tin using the Japanese-English dictionary on my mobile phone. The final word of the first sentence translated as Iceland; a quick search of the internet threw up an identical picture of the tin alongside an article entitled 'Tesco stops selling whale meat in its Japanese subsidiaries'. I didn't bother eating the rest of the bun.

I'd always assumed that whale meat was an expensive delicacy here, forgetting that it only really became popular as a cheap way to get protein in the years immediately after the war. I checked the next day, but none of my students had ever eaten it and most were surprised to hear you could buy it so easily. "You whale whore," laughed the Australian I share a teachers' room with. "I got some bad tuna from there myself the other week. It was full of little, round white stuff."

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Ten Years

It was ten years ago today that I landed in South Korea with nothing more than a degree in English, a two-day TEFL certificate and an urge to do any kind of work that enabled me to live abroad. It was enough to get me a job teaching English. It was also enough to make me no worse at it than any of the people I was working alongside. Which is to say, standards weren't particularly high.

I intended to see out a year then move on to South America. I got a girlfriend, decided I wanted to make a career out of teaching, and wound up staying three - and I've never yet made it any further south than New York.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Chichibu-Tama: A Wild Sheep Chase

It's a perfect autumn morning and I'm on a train speeding north to Chichibu. Elderly couples dressed in running shoes and baseball caps are taking photos of each other across the bench seats. Through the window I look out on terraced squares planted with tea bushes, a football pitch and baseball diamond side-by-side on levelled dirt, a half-timbered Swiss cottage on a bend in the river, villages made up of a few houses strung across a road, each one seemingly with its own lawn-sized field to the side, onion tops and cabbages sprouting from the soil.

'Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas' was playing on a loop when I arrived at Seibu-Chichibu Station. There wasn't a cloud in the sky. The temperature was nudging sixty degrees. I walked as far as Chichibu Shrine before I found a map, bought sushi and a bar of white chocolate for lunch from a supermarket next door to Cafe Snob (closed, of course), then picked up the trail back at the station, past a Mister Donut and up into the hills.

Several consultations of the map and one two-minute conversation with an elderly Japanese man - of which the sum total of my comprehension was, "Turn right soon" - later, a marker on the ground pointed the way towards Hitsujiyama. A flock of sheep grazing in a pen (Hitsujiyama literally translates as Sheep Hill) qualified as a rare enough sight to have become a tourist attraction of sorts, mothers proudly snapping their children as they posed by the fence. From here the track quickly diminished into a dirt path, which twisted like a tree root through a forest before hitting tarmac and beginning the long, steep climb to a wooden pavilion at the top of a small peak.

A few hundred metres further, following a drop easily as sharp as anything on the other side, I clambered up a faded metal staircase and found myself staring across at a gravel-covered hillside and not, as I'd initially thought, the slate-grey roof of a giant temple. Smoke was belching from metal stacks, there were some cement-scarred rocks and a factory that looked like something from an early episode of Doctor Who. I pushed on, quickly.

Fortunately, a wing of En-yu Ji, the twenty-sixth of thirty-four temples dedicated to Kannon, the Goddess of Mercy, in and around Chichibu, was just around the next corner, propped up on wooden pillars with its back to the rock. It was here I met Yukio, a Japanese who'd quit his estate agent's job eight years ago to travel around the world ("I went to Antarctica, Tahiti, India, Australia...") and now worked in internet security. We walked together as far as the pearl-white statue of Kannon which overlooked the Kagemori plain, then took the short slog down to Daienji (temple 27), where the sounds of the city once more began to intrude: an electrical generator, the smell of incense, children hitting a baseball, the urgent ring, ring, ring of a level-crossing bell, a puff of smoke from a steam train...

Over the tracks, we skirted the main road as far as temple twenty-eight, backed up against a sheer cliff face, red maple leaves overhanging the stairs. I skipped the cave, left Yukio paying his two-hundred yen, and backtracked to the concrete bridge and the narrow path to Urayamaguchi Station, on the Chichibu Main Line. It took me as far as the metal bridge in front of Urayamaguchi Dam, one-and-a-half kilometres further on, to reach the conclusion that I didn't have enough daylight left to make it to the lake. I took out my last piece of sushi, turned around, and walked the three stations back to town.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

No More Cash for Sunderland Station

Only Sunderland, dear Sunderland, could pull off the simultaneous trick of being absolutely crap and utterly insignificant. Seriously though, the government's decision was probably made in the best interests of the town. "Depressing gateway" sums the place up, but it does at least fit in perfectly with its surroundings.

Moving On

There aren't that many similarities between the lives of an English teacher abroad and a Premier League superstar. There's the huge gulf in salary for starters (when my Latvian business class found out what I was earning in Riga one laughed and another offered to pay for my dinner), and even the consolation of mild celebrity is, in Europe at least, nowadays confined to grim, one-school-town Wearside-on-the-Volgas.

In fact, about the only thing European TEFLers do have in common with the likes of Craig Bellamy - aside from a proclivity for faking illness to get out of extra work - is the excitement of summer and winter transfer windows (almost all jobs on the continent run from early autumn to the middle of the year, with a smaller intake of teachers straight after Christmas). Hard on the heels of this year's last-minute Bosman move to the Baltics, it's beginning to look like my next stop will be Odessa, Black Sea beaches, Potemkin Stairs and all.

UPDATE: There aren't that many similarities between the lives of an English teacher abroad and a Premier League superstar? Obafemi Martins's bank manager might just disagree.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Moat's No-Brainer

As a ginger haired man who made his money flogging singing fish, Barry Moat is doubtless used to living in hope. On his attempt to buy the club: "I'll keep beavering away in the background, and hopefully one day we'll get there". Or on what Ashley might do next: "Hopefully he'll make some investment in the club. Hopefully we'll get some commercial partners...Hopefully the money will be spent on the playing squad and that bears fruit and we get back to where we deserve".

Hopeless, on the other hand, is how most people would describe his timing - less than a week after the launch of a fan-based buy out whose overtures he has so far studiously ignored. Likewise his enthusiasm for selling the naming rights to St James' Park, as if a maximum of £3 million a year could even begin to bridge the gap with the Premier League. At current values, we'd be lucky to get a quarter of a Milner, less wages.

Whatever remote chance he had of pulling off a sale - and there are still plenty who think Moat was only ever a means of deflecting attention from Ashley's inability to find a genuine buyer - has long since been and gone. If he's serious about helping the club, now's the time to stop ignoring NUST and put some money behind a bid that actually stands a chance of success.

Fuji from Fuchu

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Yes We Can

On the same day that Sports Direct executives were spotted measuring up signs at St James' Park - and knowing Ashley, you can guarantee they'll be tacky, obtrusive and five sizes too big - the Newcastle United Supporters Trust launched its long-awaited campaign for fan ownership.

Can it work? It does in Spain and Germany. As recently as 2008, we were among the top twenty most profitable clubs in world football. Run properly, there's no reason why we can't be again.

Toon fans, hasta la victoria siempre.

Sunday, November 08, 2009

Not Wanted @ St James' Park

Chaos theory in action: In Tokyo, on the last train home from Shinjuku, a girl throws up in a Lowry's Farm bag. In Newcastle, Jonas Gutierrez finally scores a goal.

Despite the prominent reporting on the BBC - "The new name provoked furious protests before, during and after the match" - and elsewhere, friends on the scene were much less positive, with heavy-handed stewarding and no more than four or five hundred gathered at the Milburn steps. No matter. Active protests against Ashley-owned businesses are already being planned.

Watch this space.

UPDATE: Boycott Ashley.

Thursday, November 05, 2009

In Kawagoe

I was last in Kawagoe five years ago. We'd come down on a National Holiday after a night of drinking in Tokyo, and stumbled, in the slow, desultory way that hungover people do, around all the sights. "Boring," we both agreed. "Nothing to see but a few old buildings."

Sober, I liked it a lot better.

I had missed the big festival - when hordes of people parade parade with wooden floats along the main streets of the town - by a fortnight, and the only crowds were in Candy Lane. The whole place whiffed of aniseed, schoolchildren still in their uniforms - black for the boys, navy blue for the girls - were snapping up baguette-sized sweet bread, on offer at just 300 yen. The rest of the town passed in snapshots: a trio of middle-aged women tottering about in kimonos, a black-suited businessman slurping noodles in front of a temple bell, a man practising his golf swing in an alley, his umbrella standing in for a club.

In opposition to its bigger, flashier, full-tilt at the twenty-first century neighbours, Kawagoe is a city that makes a deliberate stab at nostalgia. Traditional Architecture Zones, sweet-potato beer, and runner-pulled rickshaw rides. "Welcome to Kawagoe. A City Where History Lives," said the sign at Kita-in Temple. Even the sightseeing bus looked as if it had been manufactured by British Leyland. But, this being Japan, traffic still ran both ways up Chuo-dori, right in front of the historic Edo warehouses, and every tour guide carried a megaphone as well as their flag.

This being Japan, the staid is also never far from the surreal. A few hundred metres past Honmaru Goten, the oldest building in Kawagoe, a front garden had been turned into a shrine to Christmas, painted snowmen hung alongside red paper lanterns, and a stepladder in the corner, next to the tree, had its top three rungs wrapped in tinsel. Around the next corner was a house with Junk Style Collection stencilled on its windowboxes and metal watering cans hanging from the door, and, nearer Candy Lane, an outdoor Garden Restaurant served meals from a VW Campervan, with seats laid out on wooden decking.

Sober, I liked it a lot.

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Enoshima


Up without sleep on day three of my holiday, I opted for a trip to the seaside at Enoshima, a small island on the Shonan Coast of Kanagawa Prefecture.

The stations grew smaller and smaller the further we travelled, through Noborito and Sagami-Ono and finally Chogo, where I sat for the last stretch of the journey behind a driver in white gloves and matching face mask. He had the voice of a market trader and a disturbing tendency to point into space like a goalkeeper organising a defensive wall.

As we pulled into Katase-Enoshima there was a blue tiled building, a rust-covered Beetle, a row of bikes and a long walk to the exit that reminded me a little - but only a little - of Inverness. Outside was a red and green Chinese front, a concrete square and a bridge straight ahead, the sea shimmering on the other side of a row of palms. Hawks wheeled overhead. Across the bay, Fuji was masked to the snow cap in wisps of stratocumulus.

Naming Rights (Again)

"Our intention is to put a package together that would include for instance stadium rights with a jumbo screen included in that sponsorship which is great for the fans as well. Our intention is to have - for instance sportsdirect.com@St James’ Park".

sportsdirect.com@St James' Park? It's bad enough renaming the ground, without making it sound like some kind of cheesy, small town nightclub. You have to be intelligent to make as much money as Ashley has, people used to say.

No, you don't - you just have to have no sense of fucking shame.

UPDATE: Ashley regime @ a new low.

UPDATE II: No sense of shame? Here's your last chance to get a Heritage Stone, just in time for Christmas. Heritage - buy it while it lasts.

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Dawn Breaks on the Edge of the City

The cars came first - not that they had ever really gone away - followed by the trains, one every ten minutes at this time of the day. A lorry slowed at the lights and there was the hum of something electrical coming from outside. A crow crawed (the closest you ever get to birdsong here), a motorbike sped past, an engine started, another lorry, the car door slammed, another lorry. Through a gap in the curtains I could just make out the light. I turned over, again, and reached out for the clock. The time was 6.02 and fifty-four seconds.

Politeness

"Why is it," I asked, "that when fire engines come past my flat at three in the morning they need to use their lights, sirens and have a man with a loudspeaker shouting for people to move out of the way, please?"

She thought for a moment. "In Japan we are very polite."

To Yamanashi and Back


It was cold, bright and clear this morning - the perfect weather for hiking. Together with my Australian workmate Peter I set off to climb Mount Kuratake, an hour and a half away in Yamanashi Prefecture.

After passing through a village and skirting a dried-up reservoir, we climbed ever higher past small stone Buddhas and waterfall after waterfall until we reached the Anaji Pass, where the path forked left to the summit, 990-metres up and partially covered with ice. West, over the shoulder of the Tanzawa Range, was Mount Fuji, snow streaking from the peak like shampoo off a scalp.

We came down quickly, through a forest of Japanese pine, reaching the station just as the sun finally dipped out of sight. Later, after the train ride home and a dinner of bacon, fried tofu and eggs, we were back out at the neighbourhood sento, the youngest people there by more than twenty years. I lay in the hot tub, a jet of water massaging the balls of my feet while six more arrowed into various points on my back. There was an old man next to me with his face screwed up against the heat, and a Family Mart carrier bag draped across the shower head, an empty coffee can and unopened bar of soap poking out of the top.

The Firm: Caught on Camera

Thanks to Tyne Dock Green for this gem from the BBC. Presumably London-resident Daniel Radcliffe will be the first arrested if there's a sudden outbreak of violence among men in long black capes, and Pete Postlethwaite's bricking it lest the IRA resume their mainland bombing campaign.

Monday, November 02, 2009

Three Peaks

It was dark and cold when I finally woke up on the first day of my holiday. The sky was a moody grey, thick with the promise of rain. I hummed and hawed, toyed with a trip into Tokyo, then shoved a fleece in my backpack and headed off to the Oku-Tama.

Changing at Tachikawa, I travelled north-west, out, always out, of the city. We terminated at Ome, where the train changed into a Rapid, bound for Tokyo Station. I stood on the platform by a noodle shop, shivering into my jacket.

There were plenty of seats on the last stretch of the journey. Down the carriage, a man in a face mask sat flicking through a book, someone else stared at the writing on a carton of soy milk, a couple laughed over pictures on a mobile phone, and there was a woman with a bag that said It is very sad when nature becomes dirty and goes. There was a river somewhere below, houses dotted about a valley, trees as straight as matchsticks, and clouds that hung from mountains like breath on a winter's day. All around was green. And grey.

A small group got off with me at Mitake - a few hikers, soy milk woman, her carton now concealed inside a plastic bag, and a man with five umbrellas slung across his right arm - but once I took a left out of the station it was just me and the crows.

Over the train tracks, the path wound up and, very occasionally, down, though for every down there was an even bigger up. Trees lined the sides like spectators at a parade; their roots were as big as hockey sticks, veining the ground. Turning off at a yellow marker the path narrowed sharply, traversing a raised, sloping platform no wider than my feet. As I was mulling over the possibilty that I had, in fact, taken a wrong turning my foot slipped and I tumbled down ten metres of mud, rock and branches before I hit a dead tree and was able to haul myself back up. Gingerly retracing my steps, I followed a trail of blue string that had been tied to tree trunks - though for all I knew they could have been left there as a cruel joke on anyone daft enough to go hiking on a damp day without the aid of a proper map - up a slope that I thought stupidly steep until half an hour later, when I saw what was on the other side. At the top of Mount Sogaku I wiped myself off, ate lunch - tuna-flake riceball, dry bread bun and a swig of an Asahi Vitamin C drink - and rested with a chapter of Bruce Chatwin talking about a coup in Benin. The climb had taken an hour and a half.

With the clouds upon me - the shrine at the summit looked as ghostly as a haunted shack - and darkness and the rain both threatening to close in, I put my foot down, skipping the detour to the peak of Mount Iwatakeishi, and pushing straight on to Mount Takamizu, another forty-five minutes along the ridge. The directions I was following made much of the "sweeping view across to Mount Gozen". Not today, there wasn't. Shrouded in mist, all I could make out was the signpost for Ikusabata Station, the final stop on my walk. Another few hundred metres brought me to Jofuku Temple, with giant swords and an Imperial flag, and then, after a long, rocky, downhill stretch there were streetlights and a concrete road and the first unmistakeable signs of human habitation.

It was, I thought, time to go home.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Thursday Night, Tachikawa

"You're from Georgia? So's my friend here. He keeps goats." "No shit, man! Me too." He leaned drunkenly across the table, flashing a smile that was nine-tenths metal. "You got any hens? I get double yolkers." His girlfiend pushed closer, her hand against my knee. "I think my boyfriend gay. He say many problems Japanese girl, American man."

That was the kind of bar it was.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Dr Jekyll and Northern Rock

Admittedly I've never thought of global money markets on any terms other than Upton Sinclair's - "Fascism is capitalism plus murder" - but I'm still struggling to fathom how the Northern Rock good bank / bad bank is actually supposed to work. Does one half smile encouragingly, build up rapport by offering you cigarettes and keep bringing cups of over-sweetened tea while the other sits backwards on a chair, beats you up in a cell and then has you stand in a pool of your own piss for sixteen hours straight? Or perhaps, as a friend put it, the tea comes before you get a mortgage, the piss after.

In essence, I suppose, the deal is this: the state gives £27 billion in aid to Bad Bank, which then, through a magician's sleight of hand, turns broken-down Good Bank into a profitable concern. Good Bank must now be sold because it's wrong for governments to interfere in the free market. Bad Bank, and its £27 billion debt to Good Bank the taxpayer, must now be dumped on the state, because it's wrong for governments to interfere in the free...

When done without government consent, this is more usually known as money laundering.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Naming Rights

Tempted as I was to join in with the barrage of insults aimed at Mike Ashley - "boycott, boycott, boycott," "Does a name change from a local name constitute ethnic cleansing?" (To the writer of that one: I don't think so, though you may want to double check with Radovan Karadzic just to be on the safe side), "Ashley, you're a cock" - I couldn't hope to beat this effort from the Guardian's sport blog:

Given Ashley's inability to conclude any kind of business deal it looks like NUFC can look forward to the team turning out at the Ashleydome next season wearing a Slazenger kit sponsored by Sport Direct.

Funny, but like a last-minute Danny Guthrie tackle, painfully close to the bone.

Autumn

Sometimes it rained, but when it did, it truly poured; other times, everything was a radiance of blue - Pico Iyer, The Lady and the Monk.

After a whole weekend of English-winter drudgery - days of constant rain, the sky so dark you need a light on at noon, and that depressing cold-humid dampness that could permeate the walls of a bank vault - the sun came back out, turning maple leaves snooker-ball red and making the mountains as clearly visible as a fifty pound note on an empty pavement.

The nights are drawing in and the mornings turning chilly, but when autumn in Japan is good, it is, as Iyer wrote, "like I had never known autumn before".

Monday, October 26, 2009

At Work

This is my day: I'm up at twenty past seven and out of the door an hour later, my arrival at the station timed for the gap between the local train from Shinjuku and the 8.32 Semi-Special Express to Keio Hachioji. I take up my place on the platform exactly midway between the news kiosk and the lift in order to alight at the correct place twenty-six minutes later, facing the black-suited, white-shirted swarms heading in the opposite direction. Amusement arcade melodies announce the arrival of the train. The doors always stop precisely at my feet.

Off the train, I take the stairs two at a time to make sure of a seat on the ten-minute bus ride to campus. We file off one-by-one, the driver intoning thank-yous like a lobotomised monk as his machine spits back our pre-paid tickets. There are people sweeping fallen leaves, handing out free packets of tissues with advertising attached, slowly crawling to class. I head for an office of light-blue uniforms that bark "Morning" at me in perfect unison as I pick up the classroom key, passed two-handed with a bow by a security guard who then affixes his seal to the right of my signature. I teach seven classes a day, six per my lesson plan and one where the students are supposed to set the topic, have lunch before noon and go home, if I'm lucky, at around quarter to six.

I do this five days a week. I prefer the weekends.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Time For Change

Only the disaster prone Mike Ashley could contrive to offer a permanent contract to a caretaker manager right as the wheels threaten to come off our season. Chris Hughton's a likeable man who's done better than most of us expected, but he's no more likely to take us up on our unwanted owner's terms - and let's not beat about the bush here, he's getting the job because he's cheap and grateful enough to do whatever he's told - than a cricket nightwatchman is to score a double hundred in a Test Match.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Acceptable in the '80s

If nothing else the last 20 years should have busted the ideological fallacy that privatising public services is always a good thing. Competition means lower prices for consumers? Not if you're a gas and electricty user or need to take the train, it doesn't. The private sector is more skilled than the state? Tell that to the victims of Railtrack. Services plummet, prices soar, but the taxpayer subsidy continues unabated, hoovering public money into private pockets.

Royal Mail is the biggest but not the only current battlefield. Locally, see Shirley Ford on the de-facto privatisation of the Metro, demanded by the government as a condition of new investment (as if Metronet simply never happened). Peter Mandelson is said to be "beyond angry" at the threat of strike action. In truth, it's those of us who need a reliable post service and affordable public transport that should be incandescent with rage.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Danger Signals

One point from nine, a single goal in our last three games. As long as we remain second in the league it would be wrong to call it a crisis, but our currect form does show the folly of Ashley's attempts to get promotion on the cheap. Barring a frankly unnatural run of luck with form and injuries, the squad we have now is palpably not up to the job of a 46-game season. We're crying out for pace and creativity in midfield (we haven't had a player who could pass the ball accurately since Emre), for adequate cover in key positions - like the left-back that Keegan asked for fourteen months ago - and for long-term solutions to loan signing sticking plasters. It's not hard to imagine the damage a couple of injuries would do to our defence in January with Simpson and Khizanishvili both gone.

Knowing Ashley, I won't be holding my breath.

Mount Takao

Despite the dire precictions of the newspaper weather forecast (weatherunderground was far more optimistic, and we go back a long, long way), I managed to persuade two other people to join me on the fifty-five minute, hangover-busting ascent of Mount Takao. Things didn't begin well. Arriving at the station, we were met by an arrivals-hall scrum, guides with travel agency flags leading walkers to the cable car, people waiting by the ticket barriers with cardboard signs, dozen upon dozen queuing up for free maps. We lost the majority once we were past the cable car station, another few by taking the quietest trail to the top, but we didn't find that out-of-the-city feeling until we pushed on past the first peak. The trees were just beginning to turn, mountains ran away into the distance like a scene from a Chinese landscape painting.

Friday, October 16, 2009

The Daily Heil: Hoist By Its Own Petard

From the paper that brought you Britain's support for the Nazis and the scandal of the million failed asylum seekers getting free treatment on the NHS comes this "hateful idiocy...of pure blockheaded spite", admirably and comprehensively savaged by the great Charlie Booker in this morning's Guardian.

It's already been the subject of several Twitter and Facebook campaigns and well over a thousand complaints to the PCC (it's a clear breach of articles 1,5 and 12 of the code, covering accuracy, intrusion into grief and discrimination). Bearing in mind the Mail's great love of public witchhunts over jokes about having sex with the granddaughters of minor celebrities, feel free to join in here.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Muted

Even now, my fourth time here, the thing that gets me most about Tokyo is how silent its public places can be. Every night, changing trains at the busy junction of three different lines, I stand in soundless queues on crowded platforms and hear nothing except for birdsong being piped through the public address system. Once onboard, except for the odd gaggle of high school girls trilling "Bye bye" as their friends get off the train, each long carriage is deathly silent even when you're so crammed together your feet barely touch the floor. People read books, check emails, listen to music, scroll through mobile phone screens, play computer games, stare off into space, fall asleep with their mouths wide open. But only foreigners ever speak.

There are, unfortunately, exceptions. Living near a fire station, I'm regularly woken up at night by the wail of sirens - and a booming, megaphone-loud voice simultaneously thanking motorists for moving to one side.

Thursday, October 08, 2009

If Carslberg Did Typhoons...

Waking up to sunshine, twenty-five degrees by the middle of the day, an all-you-can-eat Thai buffet and a walk around the park, late-afternoon trains to Shinjuku, Fuji from the 45th floor, catching the end of happy hour and downing Kahlua when you should have been in work, Scottish football fans in kilts and saltire t-shirts.

And not a drop of piss-weak Scandinavian lager anywhere to be seen.

Storm Coming

The first typhoon to make landfall in Japan for two years also got me a day off work ("Classes cancelled tomorrow," read the slightly panicked email. "Please stay in your home.") In most other places I've worked an unexpected holiday would be a cause of unbridled joy. Here it means giving up a Saturday later in the term.

I woke up at ten and braved the storm by opening a window. The sun was out, a man rode past on a bicycle and the wind was no stronger than a blustery day in Newcastle.

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Rainy Days

Typhoon Melor's northerly approach has led to two days of near-incessant rain in Tokyo (though mercifully caused a corresponding 100% fall in "Today is fine day" sentences from my students). The 75p all-plastic umbrella I bought last week is thus far proving not quite up to the job. The same, it has to be said, as more than one member of my nominally intermediate level class.

Sunday, October 04, 2009

Night Out In The 'Pong

It's gone midnight by the time we leave the subway and Roppongi is just getting started. There are GIs in baggy jeans and white t-shirts, groups of Japanese with dyed hair and boots that reach past their knees, a man curled up drunk on a patch of grass by a public toilet, so much neon you only know it's dark when you look up at the sky. Taxi doors open automatically like CD player draws, lights scroll, flash and flicker, Nigerians move through the streets handing out piles of 500 yen drink fliers. "Club New York, down here," "Essential, upstairs. Entrance over there," "Hey man, where you from? Looking for somewhere good?"

Wandering the streets with convenience store beer we end up in Gas Panic, where your feet stick to the metal floor and anyone caught momentarily without alcohol is likely to have a menu and torch shoved in their face. No drink, no entry. Tequila shots, 500 yen. Cans of Asahi, six. Rumcola, eight. "I got another year and a half here, man," says the soldier with the broken thumb, continuing a conversation I hoped had ended twenty minutes earlier, "then I'm opening a bar in Texas or California. My family are all teachers. Math, Geography, History..."

We leave the last bar at six o'clock. The sun is up. Bodies sprawl across the train station platform.

Saturday, October 03, 2009

He's Not The Messiah

But to parahphrase Monty Python, he was working under some very naughty boys. A million quid in wages for "a player who was not expected to play in the first team," public statements that were, by the club's own admission, "simply untrue". "Profoundly unsatisfactory," was the verdict on Newcastle's defence.

Not much change there then.

Friday, October 02, 2009

A Million Miles From The Madding Crowd

Middlesbrough's misfiring team prefer playing away from home, thinks the soon-to-be-sacked Gareth Southgate. "We're fourth and my team are thinking 'What's going on?' The relationship between players and fans has clearly changed."

With the pathetic crowds Boro are getting this year I'm surprised noise still carries from the stands to the pitch. Fickleness, as endemic to Teesside as brown air, pot bellied women and concrete smoke stacks.

Thursday, October 01, 2009

Simple Pleasures

It'd take a lot more than a day of light rain and Newcastle only managing to scrape a fortuitous home draw (and if you want one good reason why Hughton will never make a permanent boss it's attempting to play Nicky Butt wide left while leaving Gutierrez on the bench) to even begin to dampen the joy of waking up after seven and a half hours of (almost) uninterrupted kip.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Off Kilter

A manhole had burst open on the way to the university bus stop. In the dark, the sewage looked like an oil slick. The air was damp and shit-smelling, exactly matching my mood. Since arriving on Thursday I've managed one night's sleep of more than three hours and been forced to sit through twelve hours of training for the fourth time, on the premise that I may have forgotten how to write on a whiteboard or structure the most simple of forty-minute lessons. Last night I had no sleep at all; tonight it's half past two and I'm sitting with a glass of water, typing on a computer, listening to the noise of traffic through an open window.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Fuchu

Not a lot changes in nine months away from Fuchu. FC Tokyo banners hang from Edo-imitation lampposts, and I found the cheap tempura place opposite the keiten sushi and all-for-300-yen izakaya in a back alley behind the station. Between there and my flat is a whole row of room salons, still with hand-written signs advertising for "Filipina workers with proper visa."

My apartment is smaller than last time, overlooking the end table in a Nepalese restaurant, the top of a roof and the corner of a car park. The Shop 99 has changed too, replaced by a Lawson 100 store that costs a whole one yen extra for bags of misshaped aubergine and tins of tomato sauce flavour mackerel.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Off To The Match

Way back at the beginning of May, watching the final meek surrender in a sports bar at the slightly more salubrious end of Lāčplēsis iela, I decided that Ashley or no Ashley I would be back at St James' the next time I possibly could. As things turned out, a second placed finish in an online score predictor won me two tickets to a Premier League game of my choice or £80 in cash - enough for three seats in the Leazes End this afternoon with drinking money to spare.

First prize was flights for two to New York, but the Big Apple doesn't come with views like this:

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Onions

Even when you spend nine months of the year abroad, it isn't too hard to grow a decent crop of onions. Dig over the ground at the end of the year, start the seeds in a greenhouse at Christmas, and get someone to transplant them in March. Remove any nearby weeds while they're growing, water occasionally and you should be able to ease them out of the ground by the end of summer, a week or so after the foliage turns brown and begins to topple over.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Edinburgh Visa Run

Returning to Tokyo means first returning to Edinburgh, to the grey sandstone blocks west of Princes Street that house stockbrockers and architects and the Consulate General of Japan. Arriving on the bus at half past eight, and with an hour to kill before I could hand in my visa application, I headed down the Royal Mile to Holyrood and took the steep path up Salisbury Crags, passing Americans wearing baseball caps and lycra shorts and a woman running her dog downhill.

I was inside the Consulate for no more than five minutes. A security guard sat by the door reading the sports pages from the Daily Record and there were mugshots of Japanese Red Army members on a poster next to the counter. "Your passport will be back by Friday, maybe earlier," said the woman on the other side of the glass. The sun shone through the window on the bus ride home. By the time we reached the border, I'd long since fallen asleep.

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Japan Again

Even before I left Japan I knew I'd be going back. Despite the iffy impression of so many three-month contracts on my CV - "You move around a lot, don't you?" was the opening question in my last interview - and the utterly inane online training I've just had to complete for the third time (Example: Speaking English is likened to playing volleyball because a) many people are involved and trying to keep things going, b) one side controls the conversation before passing it back to the other side, or c) everyone talking has a different strategy to come out the winner), Tokyo - a city you could visit a hundred times before you stop discovering something new - is the only place I've ever lived that I can't imagine getting tired of.

Saturday, September 05, 2009

The Miners United

I've been in Spain for the past week and a half, hiding from the sun in my parents' front yard with bottles of beer and paperback books. The best, GB84 by David Peace, got me into this absorbing day-by-day account of a Westoe miner's year on strike.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

The Way North: Split to Trieste


Trieste's Grand Canal, Austro-Hungarian architecture, restaurant tables by the water, and text updates on Crystal Palace versus Newcastle United.


Ljubljana, by the Triple Bridge.


The pebble beach on Šolta, the closest island to Split.


Diocletian's Palace, Split. Built in the 4th century AD as a retirement home for an emperor, taken over by Medieval squatters, and now used by souvenir shop hawkers and foreign tourists drinking cups of coffee on velvet cushions.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Conversations on an Aeroplane

"We don't have to eat in restaurants, do we? We can just find a cheap supermarket, buy half a baguette or something and fill it with something cheap, like cheese or ham."
"Yeah, cheap."

"I don't know what he's doing with her. I mean, he's not the best looking but he could still do better."
"Have you seen his hands? They're horrible. I always look at the hands first, then the eyebrows."
"Really? I look for all-round hotness."

"Look at that island. Spectacular, isn't it? Doesn't look like Europe at all."

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Split or Bust

When what remains of Newcastle's first team squad runs out tonight I'll be somewhere between Split's airport and a city centre bar. With another year of Kinnear and Ashley looking increasingly likely, I'm not going to pretend that I'm missing out.

UPDATE: One nil, Shola, read the text message from Newcastle. "You watch," I said, "he'll go mental now and get a hat-trick."

Sunday, August 09, 2009

Game One

"Ye kna it's gonna be crap but you've got to watch it anyway," said the man at the bar. England's cricketers were 42-0. On the screen Ameobi, Nolan and the rest were coming out of the tunnel in their ghastly yellow shirts. Things, you felt, could only get worse. In contrast to much of last season, Newcastle played like something resembling a team. West Brom - formidable at this level, according to the morning papers - were looking distinctly ordinary. And then, right on cue, we were one-nil down. For the record, the unrealistic expectations of those Geordies present amounted to shrugs of the shoulders and mutters of "What else did you expect, man?"

An hour, one goal and several Krul saves later the mood in Newcastle was slightly more hopeful. Down at Headingly England had lost five wickets for another forty runs.

Thursday, August 06, 2009

Running Log

It's 4pm and 22 degrees, summer at last. The air by the bandstand smells of burnt sausage, car exhaust fumes and melted ice cream as we set off down the hill to the seafront, running on the spot, waiting for a gap in the traffic. My brother's back starts hurting as soon as we hit the beach, even-paced along the narrow strip, no wider than a metre, between the water and dry sand. After a mile we stop, pulling up by a man selling ice creams from the back of a caravan. We walk back to the car. To my surprise I'm barely out of breath.

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Back to Reality

Michael Owen wasn't the only person making the journey from Newcastle to Manchester last month. A couple of days after my last post I started a one-month residential summer school at Chetham's School of Music, whose list of banned internet sites, as I quickly discovered, included blogger.com. Not that I had the time or ability to write: summer school management is much longer on workload than it is on sleep, particularly when half the pissed population of the city centre passes right under your bedroom window on its way home every night.

More to come when I'm a bit less frazzled.

Friday, July 03, 2009

From One United to Another

Another potential masterstroke from Alex Ferguson, the man who bought Cantona and David Bellion, got Henrik Larsson on a half-season loan and signed Eric Djembaa-Djembaa as a replacement for David Beckham. As I don't suppose Owen will be able to dictate his wage demands, he's on a free and everyone else wants to play for Real Madrid, it's not so much a risk as a sign of minor desperation.

It might work, it might not. When it comes to the charismatic Mr Owen I just don't give a stuff either way.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Once More Into The Breach

Relegation, that ice cream lolly away kit, the likes of Stoke and Hull becoming attractive destinations for your few half-decent players, Calderwood and Hughton taking Joey Barton for pre-season training. I thought at least things might finally have reached rock-bottom.

Then the Shepherd family consortium rides to the rescue.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Letter in the Paper II

Stalin, Malenkov, Krushchev, Brehznev et al must be spinning in their graves with joy when they see how Britain's once fiercely protected democracy has slid effortlessly into the old Soviet way of doing things and, sometimes, even eclipsing it.
The recent expenses revelations showed how very similar to the old Soviet elite this current crop of MPs' way of life had become.


Not that the right-wing are paranoid or anything, designating second gulags being all the rage among opposition MPs. And when they weren't overseeing forced deportations, catastrophic grain shortages or having people drive icepicks into the necks of political opponents, the masters of the Kremlin apparently liked nothing better than to splash out on big TVs and unusual garden accessories.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Monday, June 22, 2009

Michael Owen

His belief in the potential Management capabilities of his long time friend Alan Shearer meant that he would probably have taken up the offer on the table to extend his contract at St James' Park had the Club stayed in the top flight.

All thirty-two pages, glossy, full-colour, laugh out loud funny.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Letter in the Paper

"No one can condone the racist attacks on Romanian refugees in Northern Ireland which are forcing them back to their homeland but if the Government had any sense, it would feel the heat and see the anger of the local people...As for the PC brigade which trumpets 'jobs for all', there is nothing egalitarian about fly-by-night foreigners taking our jobs...much of the money they earn they take back home...our taxes are used to pay their welfare benefits both here and to their families back in Romania".

I'm not racist, but...

Some of my best friends are black...

They're just not like us though, are they?

Coming over here, taking our jobs...

I'm not racist...

...not racist...

...racist.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Every Little Helps

George Osborne, £47 for two DVDs of a speech he made on Value for Taxpayers' Money, Ed Balls, £58.75 on a sponsored match ball for Ossett Town (how very generous of him), Graham Brady, £70.50 for a locksmith after locking himself out, Nick Clegg, £1.59 for a pineapple from Sainsbury's.

Is there anything this bunch of shysters didn't think they were entitled to bill us for? Jeremy Hunt, 1p for a 12 second phone call. Apparently not.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

The Fixture List

It wasn't until this morning that I realised what we'd lost. While Sunderland open with a game-of-the-day at Bolton Wanderers, we face the long, unfamiliar trudge to West Bromwich Albion. They play Blackburn, we play Palace. They get to visit Stoke, we get Leicester at home. Hack out eight defeats and several extortionately priced away ends and the only gulf between the two divisions is on the balance sheet.
Unfortunately, between a holiday in Croatia and a job in Japan I won't get to see as much of this as I'd hoped. Leicester at home, definitely. Plymouth too. Maybe even Cardiff away.

What little remaining interest I have in the Premier League rests with the Mackems and Manchester City. "I hope they break into the top four," a Sunderland fan said at the weekend. "Yeah, watch Liverpool go bankrupt," agreed his Newcastle-supporting mate. There isn't much that Newcastle and Sunderland fans ever agree on, but watching the Big Four squeal is a universal pleasure these days.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Running

After eight days, my first run. I concentrated on distance not speed, measuring physical condition against the familiar route to the fire station and back. The pace was slow, by halfway I'd managed to get a stitch in my right shoulder, turning for home I cursed myself for not staying in shape, having to do the hardest part all over again.

Things got easier on the way back but my legs hit a wall on the hill before the crematorium. I pushed through, out of breath, inhaling bus fumes and traffic noise. The first time back is always the hardest, I thought, flopping on to a chair in the middle of the garden.

Stockholm - Home

The first thing you notice about Stockholm is how expensive everything is: eighty pence for a piss at the train station, four quid to store your bags in a locker, three pounds for a twenty-minute bus journey. Rain blew across the capital like waves out at sea, the luggage weighed us down and our money was fast disappearing. We decided to head straight for the hostel, a converted Jumbo Jet parked opposite the Radisson Hotel three minutes from Arlanda Airport.

I woke up next morning with a head still swimming in vodka, two flights and twelve hours left before arriving in Newcastle. The London flight was almost full, the men next to me carrying on a conversation about rugby and motorways. "I haven't been up the M1 since we played the Tigers last year." "Really?" "Yeah, the M40 is a much better run." "It's not a relaxing journey the M1, is it?" After three hours in Heathrow's Terminal Five I finally made it to the last leg. At half past ten I was sitting on the Metro at Newcastle, out of change, pondering how many organs I'd need to sell in order to buy a return ticket.

The first thing you notice about Britain is how expensive everything is...

Good Riddance

Thirty-four pages of information about Michael Owen? Like every other Newcastle fan I could tell a prospective buyer everything they need to know in just three words:

He is finished.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Rock Stars

The first backyard barbecue of the summer. Eight people, crates of Carslberg Export on offer from Iceland, twenty sausages for a quid thirty-five, half an hour of hot sun that turned quickly into clouds and sudden, torrential rain, grey charcoal blocks giving off just not quite enough heat.

Inside the house someone had brought two plastic guitars with buttons on the handle, a microphone and a drum kit, stuck on top of a handtowel to stop it sliding away. "Who's singing next?" "I'm not doing bass guitar." "These drums are giving me shin splints." "Fuck's sake, Fleetwood Mac again?"

"He was shit last time he was here," hitting red then yellow then blue. "Aye, he's a music teacher though, isn't he? I think he uses it in class."

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Lead Balloon

No more cash until an owner is found, Chris Hughton on standby if Shearer walks away. Mike Ashley, successful businessman, running the club into the ground.

Whoever buys this mess - and with only nineteen days left before pre-season training it really needs to be soon - it'll take an Old Testament-style clearout just to get us back on our feet.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Jarrow, June 2009

Half the town centre had been turned into building site for the new Tyne Tunnel: bare earth and missing trees, red plastic signs and metal fences. Pedestrian this way said a sign by the post office, as if I was the only person stupid enough to walk. There was an empty shop with Woolworths written above and stickers on a window saying No Deposit, Pay Weekly, Take Home Today, though the only person inside was the one behind the till. Women with cooking-oil complexions dragged canvas shopping trolleys and pushchairs. Men hung around metal benches, dead-eyed, smoking cigarettes.

Monday, June 08, 2009

Riga to Stockholm

It rained non-stop the whole of my last two days in Riga, the only time in the Baltics I ever felt I needed an umbrella. "It's crying because you're leaving," a student told me, a more novel end-of-year platitude than You're the best teacher I've ever had.

I watched Riga recede slowly with two cans of beer and Martin, my now ex-flatmate, who had somehow managed to accrue 31 kilos of clothing despite appearing to wear exactly the same two t-shirts ever since January. The bridges and spires of the Old Town gave way to half-ruined warehouses and underused port buildings. Waves had overwhelmed the pier at the mouth of the Daugava. For the next two hours Latvia remained a flat mark on the horizon, no darker than the clouds above it.

We stayed up until two, dancing with a group of Latvian girls who were moving to Stockholm in search of work. At eight I was out on deck watching the hundreds-and-thousands coastline, islands no bigger than the boat with red-painted houses and streamer-like flags blowing in the wind. A chimney the size of Riga's TV Tower announced our arrival into port. Thirty minutes later we were dragging our cases down the gangplank.

Sunday, June 07, 2009

Practise What You Preach

"The players have to take a long, hard look at themelves," says the self-appointed spokesman for the Geordie Nation. They're not alone. It wasn't Alan Smith who flogged his shareholding to a man who hadn't even bothered to check the books, and even on £120,000 a week Michael Owen is still a long way off taking the club for the kind of cash the Hall family managed.

If he really cared about the club, he'd be putting his money where his big mouth is.

Devaluation Fever

"Latvia's property market was world's worst performing," "Latvia faces fears of currency fall," "Latvian crisis deepens as Europe debates aid". With the Lat on the brink of devaluation, the EU demanding more tax rises in return for financial aid and salary cuts extending to the private sector - my replacement next year will be on eighty quid a month less than I was - it looks like now really was a good time to leave.

Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Final Day

For my last class with the teenagers I had three girls and one younger brother, who drew pictures on graph paper for an hour and a half while the rest of us did a lesson based around an episode of Blackadder Goes Forth.

The official end-of-the-year party was scheduled for midway through the afternoon. After an Oscar-length series of speeches (“They'll be thanking God next,” muttered the Spanish teacher standing next to me) during which the native speakers were called out one-by-one to receive booze, chocolates and a yellow rose, the food and wine were finally opened, the Russian women pretended they weren't really all that hungry after all and the British men loaded their plates as if it was an all-you-can-eat buffet with a twenty-minute cut off.

“No topics today,” asked my final adult class, four hours and one or two glasses of wine later. “Let's talk about life. Where are you going next?”

Good question, I thought to myself.

Monday, June 01, 2009

Last Crop

A week a of warm weather caused my rocket plants to bolt, leaving me with just enough leaves to cover a couple of plates of pasta. I'm saving the rest of the radishes for tomorrow, as an accompaniment to pork chops and whatever else is left at the back of the fridge.

Sunday, May 31, 2009

Hot Weekend in Riga


My last Saturday in Riga began at the Botanical Gardens, which meant a long, hot, non-signposted walk across the grubby side of the river to see some tree-sized rhododendron bushes and a tropical greenhouse that looked a bit like a dilapidated swimming pool from the outside.

In the afternoon I took a boat trip on the Daugava, the highlight of which was the discovery of a bar on the lower deck with cold bottles of Bauska Beer. Finally, after an afternoon nap, we had an unofficial end-of-year party at the huge Lido opposite the TV tower, drinking litres of Latvian lager in the sun and dancing pissed to the music of a man in a black spangly waistcoat and mullet.

Next Saturday I'll be in Stockholm, Heathrow and Newcastle, and various flight paths in between.

Ashley Bails Out

"It has been catastrophic for everybody. I've lost my money and I've made terrible decisions. Now I want to sell it as soon as I can".

Assuming our exile from the big league has spared us the prospect of a Glazer or a Hicks, the local consortium (not including anyone by the name of Hall or Shepherd, please) might turn out to be more than just paper talk at Ashley's 70% off for a quick sale offer. Whoever we get, they can't be much worse than the current lot.

In future the fit and proper owner test needs a section on stupidity.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

East is (Still) East

I made up a pub quiz for my last class with the teenagers, six rounds including general knowledge, sport and music. "If you met Barack Obama, what would you call him?" I asked, hinting at Mr President. "Black?" suggested one. "Nigg..," started another.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Beer Gardens

While traditional bars close or remain half empty, Latvia's growing economic crisis has brought beer garden prices tumbling down. In the Old Town's main square, faced with competition from a red fire engine beer pump, you can get a half-litre for just ninety santimes (about one pound ten) with blankets and really bad live music thrown in for free.

Just don't forget your coat.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Sunderland-upon-Tyne, Famous for Newcastle


"Where are you from?" asked the man on Marrakech's Djemaa el-Fna. "Newcastle? Bobby Robson, Alan Shearer, Toon Army." His sales pitch hadn't changed when I bumped into him a week later, but this time I answered "Sunderland." He looked puzzled, the smile wavered. "Where's that?" "Near Newcastle." His face lit up with recognition. "Newcastle? Bobby Robson, Alan Shearer, Toon Army."

You'll never see a mackem in Milan. They've never heard of them there.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Kuldiga

"If you only have time to visit one provincial town in Latvia then it really ought to be Kuldiga," advises my Rough Guide to the Baltic States. With no trains, bumpy roads and buses from Riga taking anything up to three and a half hours you'd need to have plenty of time on your hands to make the trip worthwhile - even if it does have lots of pretty, yellow-and-beige buildings and Europe's widest waterfall.

That's widest, not highest.

Reasons to be Cheerful

1. We've just saved ourselves a million quid a month on Owen, Viduka and Martins.

2. Ameobi and Xisco might start to look good.

3. Two foreign awaydays in the South of Wales.

4. Mike Ashley's lost a packet.

5. Is Bassong really that good anyway? Let him find out in Arsenal reserves.

6. The London media might forget we exist.

7. Hull and Sunderland are still going down next year and you'll never see a Mackem in Milan.

8. No more Monday night football, cheaper tickets and Blackpool away in September.

9. We did get rid of Dennis Wise. And Jimenez. And Llambias's smirk.

10. Phil Brown isn't our manager.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Welcome to the Championship

Let's be honest about it, we were down as soon the moment the final whistle went last weekend. For the third time in my life (and the second in my memory) Newcastle have been relegated. We didn't deserve any better.

I watched the game live in Riga, with sound from Hull, pictures from Villa Park and Latvians in Man Utd tops jumping around when they scored. At the final whistle I felt more relieved than devastated, sad to go down but glad to see the back of the Premier League and the overpaid has-beens who inhabit it.

I'll be there for the first game of next season, even if Michael Owen isn't.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Back to Sigulda

The sky was grey and heavy over Sigulda, threatening a downpour that only the wind kept away. We hiked for six hours, looping around hills and sandstone caves before we finally found our way on the poorly marked trails, stopping for food at a castle, missing out the best bits in our rush to get back for the train.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

On Top of Stalin's Birthday Cake

Sixty-five metres up, the first thing you notice about Riga is how very flat it is, like a grown up version of a children’s road play mat, only with trams and trains and trolley buses instead of plastic cars.

What little height there is in the city has been provided by man, German, Russian, Latvian: the syringe-like TV Tower poking through the dirty cotton wool fluff clouds, sloping red roofs and copper-coloured spires in the Old Town, crammed between the river and a v-shaped wedge of green, the polytunnel shapes of the Central Market hangars, and the green and silver domes of Orthodox churches scattered like sentries around the edge of the city centre. Clouds mass across the river; behind the glass and steel of the Hotel Latvia shipyard cranes dangle like abandoned compasses. White hands on a giant clock face move round to ten past twelve and there's a slow whir of electric as a train pulls across the railway bridge. The grass is yellow with dandelion heads.