Saturday, March 31, 2007

Pajama Palooza

As Ben and Gordo's party last night was titled.

Thanks, guys.

It had all the ingredients - beer, chicks, pizza, Tennessee Tom whipping up cocktails in the kitchen, a local documentary-maker conducting interviews about pornography in the back bedroom, visitations by the police. A good night.

As I explained yesterday on the Barstool, I don't get hangovers. Luckily.

I do get extreme torpidity and disinclination to get out of bed.

It's unfortunate that I have 10 or 12 hours of editing to try to do today.

Ah, procrastination. A very big word for a 10-year-old! (And to unravel that reference, you'll have to visit the Barstool here and here [in the 'Comments' section].)

Ominous, ominous (Where in the world am I? [44])

I couldn't resist throwing out one last little 'Where in the world am I?' with the number 44 on it.

It's a very BAD number in these parts, you see. Oh yes, it's terribly ill-starred, a passport to disaster. The locals are great believers in numerology.

Almost all of them succumb to the age-old superstition to some extent (I suppose most Westerners are a bit hung up about the number 13), and a great many let it rule their lives - to the extent that mobile phone SIM cards here are priced according to the desirability of their number combinations. Anything with 4s in it is considered bad juju, and will sell for next-to-nothing. Most foreigners here (well, the compulsive cheapskates I mostly hang out with, anyway) have at least three or four 4s in their eleven-digit number. True.

Can you guess where it is yet?

Pyjamas in the daytime (Where in the world am I? [43])

I am supposed to be heading out to a friend's house party in a little while.

It is to be a Pyjama Party.

This is quite a popular theme for foreigners' parties in this country. I threw one myself a couple of years ago. [If you're really nice to me, I might one day soon publish the link to my Yahoo Photos page, so that you can see what it was like.]

The reason for the popularity of the pyjama theme here is that one of the charming and distinctive quirks of the local populace is their penchant for wearing pyjamas in public. Yep, in the street, in the middle of the day, without an ounce of shame. It is considered quite natty outdoor attire throughout the summer months. Since the summers can be brutally hot, I suppose it makes a certain amount of sense. It does look funny though.

[The title here is, of course, another line from the Crash Test Dummies.]

Childish things (Where in the world am I? [42])

As a corollary to my earlier observations on the sorry lack of taste or musical awareness we typically encounter here in The Unnameable (though soon to be named?) Country, I feel I must add that the locals do suffer from a kind of arrested development in almost every respect.

Take the cinema. Grown men and women will happily tell you that their favourite films are cartoons. The men will quite often tell you that their favourite cartoon is 'Tom & Jerry' (those feature-length jobs make such demands on the attention-span).

The only live-action films most people seem to have any time for are the occasional Hollywood blockbuster and trivial rom-coms. Oh yes, to go alongside their quaint adherence to the cult of Michael Jackson, they insist that Julia Roberts is THE BIGGEST FILM STAR IN THE WORLD. And this isn't the Julia Roberts of 'Erin Brockovich' we're talking about here, or even 'Pretty Woman'..... or even (god help me!) 'Notting Hill'. No, 'Runaway Bride' is more their level.

For a hardcore film buff like myself, it is deeply depressing.

Ah yes, amongst the reasons I don't think I could ever date a local...... well, I'm not going out with a 28-yr-old woman who carries a Hello Kitty pencil-case around with her everywhere, and that's that!!

A World of Pain

Somebody asked me about my suffering the other day - it doesn't matter which one: family bereavements, broken love affairs, employment contracts critical to survival disappearing in a puff of smoke. Take your pick. There's always something.

But I was feeling remarkably resilient, determined, tough-minded, (perhaps falsely) brave, so I said: "Thank you, the agony is much abated."

Now, this, I believe, is a line attributed to the writer William Makepeace Thackeray, a precocious brat of 7 or 8, responding to a neighbour's kindly enquiry about his recent toothache.

Then again, it could be somebody else entirely. I remember coming across the story years ago in The Oxford Book Of Literary Anecdotes, but (like most of my once formidable library) I don't have it here with me, so can't check. You'll have to do the research for yourselves, and report back to me.

Friday, March 30, 2007

Make it stop! (Where in the world am I? [41b])

One of my correspondents (the renewed Blogspot ban here in **** has made relatively little difference to my 'comment' traffic, since most of my blog-averse friends send me their comments by e-mail or SMS anyway) has pointed out that in that last post on the limited tastes in Western music we have to suffer here, I strangely omitted to mention one of the most egregious examples.

All right, then - Richard Clayderman. Yes, the simpering hybrid-clone of David Cassidy and Liberace is still BIG here, long after his career faded into deserved obscurity in the civilized world. Did I say BIG? I meant HUGE! COLOSSAL! His plinky-plonky pop classics are EVERYWHERE. It's as if the whole country were ONE HUGE ELEVATOR. (That whirring you hear in the background is Chopin and Schumann rotating in their graves.)

Oh, and Kenny G. They LOVE him too. Of course they do - he is the only saxophonist they have ever heard.

(I think that if I ever put out a 'lonely hearts' ad for a local girlfriend, I would have to add the proviso: "Must know who Lester Young and Charlie Parker are." Amongst the many reasons I've never dated a local girl..... But that is perhaps a topic for a later post.)

There is a good reason why I did not mention Richard Clayderman and Kenny G in the earlier post. It is because I had completely forgotten about them.

The reason I had forgotten about them is that I have developed a very useful protective mechanism for blocking noxious thoughts out of my mind.

I am going to re-engage that mechanism now. Please, let us draw a veil over such unpleasant matters.

The Country That Taste Forgot (Where in the world am I? [41])

This country was for many years almost completely cut off from the outside world. Even when contact with foreign cultures did become more common, the effects of this were slow to disseminate, and were still closely monitored and restricted by the central government. Only the most unobjectionable, middle-of-the-road musical performers could get any significant airplay here in the '70s, and even today the level of exposure to Western popular music is minuscule. Most people haven't even heard of the classic performers of yesteryear like Sinatra or Presley.

Really. It beggars belief, but there it is.

No, The 3 Greatest Songs In The History Of Popular Music (if you are a citizen of The Unnameable Country) are:

Yesterday Once More - by Karen Carpenter

Country Roads - by John Denver

Hotel California - by The Eagles (undoubtedly the most daring and surprising of the three; basically, people here recognise the word 'California' and they like the twiddly guitar bits; they have no inkling that it's about drug-induced fever dreams and hallucinations)

I have tried to explain to students in my University classes that I like Yesterday Once More, I really do, it's a pretty song, I really enjoy it when I hear it on the radio back home - because I only hear it 2 or 3 times a year, at most; but, you know, anything can get a bit boring, a bit irritating, a bit SANITY-CHALLENGING when you hear it every f***ing day for 4 years. It's a bit of an ordeal for the foreign teacher here, honestly: students always expect to do a 'skit show' for the last class of the semester, and most of them want to do some karaoke as their 'skit', and at least a third of them will want to do Yesterday Once More. I explain to them that this is a lovely choice, and I am sure their classmates will very much enjoy their performance, but I hope they won't mind if I miss it because I really have to step outside just now and bang my head against a wall for a few minutes.

It used to be really difficult to avoid The Carpenters in this town. You'd have to avoid CD shops that would always be blaring muzak at enormous volume out into the street, you'd have to avoid restaurants that you knew always played that ONE incredibly popular foreign 'rock music' compilation tape that included Karen as the highlight near the end (and Celine f***ing Dion, My Heart Will Go On, and on and on and on....), you'd have to ask taxi drivers to turn their radios off, you'd have to always take the stairs instead of using elevators.... and you'd still be lucky to get through 72 hours without hearing the bitch once somewhere.

Then, a funny thing happened. She got bumped off the playlists by an infinitely more annoying song. There was a dreadfully cheesy European soft-rock outfit (Danish, I think) called Michael Learns To Rock (the name should be enough of a warning: most of us expats who had to suffer their 6 months of ubiquity here came to know them as Michael Kinda Sucks) who came out with an insipid, plodding love ballad called Take Me To Your Heart. It was just atrocious: syrupy, repetitive, grating; one of those songs where, just when you think it can't get any worse, they have another key change. Aaaaarrgghh, aaaaarrgghh, aaaaarrgghh! I'm sure nobody's ever heard of them outside of this country - not even in Denmark; they are so obviously a third-rate band who have cynically decided to target the Asian market by sinking a few notches even lower in quality. Anyway, for several months this was a huge hit, and was played everywhere in music shops, restaurants, elevators. Then, mercifully, it disappeared (although equally dire local cover versions have started to come out). The strange thing was that Karen Carpenter never really came back. You still hear her once in a while, but there's nothing like the overkill we suffered a few years back. A very curious cultural phenomenon, that.

Ah, and The Eagles. Every kid in this town who wants to play guitar learns Hotel California. Often, it seems, that is the only song they learn, and they don't learn it all that well. You don't hear The Eagles' recording of it being played all that often here, but you're quite likely to hear some local picker murdering it in any number of bars and music shops.

One of my more difficult moments in the recording studio came when I was asked to read a ridiculously fulsome account of The Eagles' career that went something like this:

"The Eagles were the greatest rock band in recording history. [Oh, not the Beatles, then? Or Queen? Or Pink Floyd? Or Led Zeppelin? Or The Rolling Stones? Even amongst American bands, you'd think The Beach Boys, The Grateful Dead, Lynyrd Skyrnyrd, even bleedin' Aerosmith would have a rival claim...] Their classic song Hotel California was followed by dozens of other hits. [Dozens? They've got quite an impressive catalogue, but dozens??] Many of their fans wept openly in the streets at the news that they had broken up [They broke up? News to me! Somehow passed me by; I must have been too busy having a life.], but great was the rejoicing when they re-formed 8 years later. [No - must have missed the memo on that as well.]" And there was more in the same vein. I felt dirtied by having to read that garbage. Luckily it hasn't come up again (most of the scripts we do are endlessly recycled - another strain on my fragile sanity!).

Even today, those three artists, those three songs are pretty much it as far as most people's knowledge of Western music goes. The only more recent performer to force his way into the canon is....... Michael Jackson! Yup, this country is still in a time-warp in many ways. Nearly every high school or University student you ask will insist that Wacko Jacko is still the undisputed King of Pop. If pressed for evidence, they will cite Thriller.... and maybe Bad. They seem blithely unaware of the fact that he hasn't really released much music in the past decade or so and that his career is, how shall we say, under a cloud.

Contemporary artists? Hmmm, let's see. Norah Jones is safe enough (although I suspect a lot of people are playing her music without having the slightest idea who she is). Eminem seems to have only a very small and somewhat 'avant garde' following. Marilyn Manson? No, this country isn't ready for Marilyn Manson yet.

It is a very strange place, to be sure. Don't even get me started on the local pop music......

The Post Office: Conspiracy or Cock-Up? (Where in the world am I? [40])

The performance of the postal service here is worryingly erratic. Sometimes whole strings of letters and parcels from overseas will arrive in quick succession, and I'll be lulled into thinking there's no problem. Then I'll get an e-mail from a friend asking why I didn't thank them for the package they sent a couple of months ago, and I'll think, "Oh SHIT, not again!"

Sometimes, I concede, delivery problems might possibly have 'legitimate' reasons. One or two of my friends do have atrocious handwriting; and it's hard enough for the locals to recognise Western script as it is! My good friend Lizzie, my (former) No 1 E-Penpal, claims to have sent several parcels which failed to get through; I suspect it might be because she naively admitted on the customs declaration slips that they contained food products (which are, of course, not allowed). However, it's not as though you receive a polite notice from the International Post Office saying "Sorry, we had to confiscate a parcel addressed to you because it contained banned items" or "We regret that we have had to remove forbidden foodstuffs from your parcel; please come to this office to collect the remainder of the contents." Oh no - the parcel just never arrives. And somewhere in a back room at the International Post Office, the boys are pigging out on Walker's Crisps, Creme Eggs, and Twiglets.

The other thing that quite often seems to 'go astray' is books. It was particularly annoying when, last autumn, an American writer friend sent me an advance copy of her 1st novel, and that disappeared. I wonder if the censors are trying to read all the 'printed matter' that gets sent to me before they allow it to be delivered?? That could result in some long delays!

I am particularly anxious about this at the moment because when I was visiting my family home in Wales last month I cherry-picked 5 or 6 favourite paperbacks from my huge mothballed library to bring back with me; then, realising, the day before my flight home, that my luggage was dangerously in excess of my weight allowance, I decided to post them to myself. That was 5 weeks ago, and there's still no sign of them. Do 'printed matter' packages go by surface mail? I had thought it was a 'less express' form of airmail; I could have sworn I'd received this form of mail in the past within only 2 or 3 weeks of posting (regular airmail letters typically take 10-12 days to get here from Europe or America; usually slightly longer from America, which I take to be the result of some sort of nose-thumbing obstructionism targeted at The Great Satan).

Very, very anxious just now. I love those books. I had the feeling as I handed them over the counter in a post office in West London that it was a bit like waving goodbye to family members boarding the Titanic: there was an awful foreboding, an agonising apprehension that I might never see them again.

But..... is it really censorship or persecution.... or even theft..... or is it just the rampant incompetence that we see in almost every other area of public and commercial life in this country? That is THE QUESTION.

The Curse of the Klutzy Cleaning Lady?

I don't f***ing believe this!!

At around 9.30 this morning Blogspot was blocked again.

I am hoping that it is just a temporary glitch, a local problem.... or that darned cleaning lady dusting the switches again.

If it is deliberate censorship - resumed after less than 36 hours of remission - then.... heads are going to roll! I am going to find out where Kafka Central is and picket the bloody place!!

What I say to the crackpot government of this crackpot country is this: Leave Blogspot alone, you ninnies! You are already universally mocked as one of the great playground bullies of the world - this kind of pettiness only tarnishes your international image still further. GROW UP!!!

Haiku Double-header

My 'professional' commenter, Tulsa, pointed out the other day that the agony of waiting for an answer from my prospective employer is much akin to that of waiting for a lover to call. That reminded me of this haiku, which I don't think I've posted on here before.


Taunter, torturer;
Focus of all frustration:
Silent telephone.

I think that's quite an old one, written well before my frustrating liaison with The Poet last year - but that experience reminded me of it, gave it an acute contemporary relevance.

Of course, in this modern age of 'instant communication', when there are many more ways in which people can keep in touch with us - or fail to do so - the opportunities for this kind of self-torture are compounded. I can't imagine that the pangs were quite so intense, or at any rate not quite so continuous, back in the days when we were just waiting for a courier, a carrier-pigeon, a smoke-signal.

So, anyway, (BONUS haiku this week, to celebrate the restoration of Blogspot here in ****) here's one I was provoked to write by my experience with The Poet.

Incommunicado Girl,
Wilful enigma.

Thursday, March 29, 2007

The sense of loss

I have quoted the Irish writer John Banville on here a couple of times before (the Wikipedia bio of him I've linked to includes an especially fine collection of short quotations from him). This is an extended quotation from early on in his novel 'Athena' - one of the great accounts of love gone wrong; though, as with everything of his I've read, the dense descriptive writing does tend to overwhelm whatever slight narrative there may be.

I happened to discover this book shortly after my traumatic breakup with my 'great lost love', The Evil One, so it was particularly affecting for me. There are several passages in this which I have transcribed, and returned to again and again (arguably in a somewhat unhealthy, scab-picking or revelling-in-my-own-pain kind of way). This is probably my favourite of them all. (Although I have always had reservations about that last line: I appreciate the image, and I feel there's a wonderful rhythm about the phrasing, but it still seems a little clunky to be comparing the rain with something else that comes in showers. Maybe I'm too nitpicky. The passage is still marvellous.)

I think this is the best description I've ever read of what it feels like to be utterly heartbroken (only 3 times in my life have I felt this bad). Much of it is, of course, applicable to other states of loss and dislocation as well; bereavement, for example. Much of it, indeed, even has a resonance with the disruption and frustration we feel over relatively trivial life adjustments we are forced to make (like trying to get by without blog commenting for 10 days!): I love the line about "mentally patting my pockets".


I feel as I have not felt since I was a lovelorn adolescent, at once bereft and lightened, giddy with relief at your going - you were too much for me - and yet assailed by a sorrow so weighty, of so much more consequence than I seem to myself to be, that I stand, no, I kneel before it, speechless in a kind of awe. Even at those times when, sated with its pain, my mind briefly relinquishes the thought of you, the sense of loss does not abate, and I go about mentally patting my pockets and peering absently into the shadowed corners of myself, trying to identify what it is that has been misplaced. This is what it must be like to have a wasting illness, this restlessness, this wearied excitation, this perpetual shiver in the blood. There are moments - well, I do not wish to melodramatise, but there are moments, at the twin poles of dusk and dawn especially, when I think I might die of the loss of you, might simply forget myself in my anguish and agitation and step blindly off the edge of the earth and be gone for good. And yet at the same time I feel I have never been so vividly alive, so quick with the sense of things, so exposed in the midst of the world's seething play of particles, as if I had been flayed of an exquisitely fine protective skin. The rain falls through me silently, like a shower of neutrinos.

'Athena', by John Banville

The Kafka Boys relent

Hooray, hooray!

Late last night, Blogspot was suddenly "unblocked" again.

Just when I was on the point of switching over to the Firefox browser and doing some arcane tinkering with the settings to try to set up a 'remote host' workaround - scary stuff for someone as technologically 'challenged' as me!

It would seem that the Kafka Boys, or their tyrannical masters, have got over whatever little snit they were in with the blogging community and returned things to normal.

Or maybe the cleaning lady jogged a switch in the control room and put us back online accidentally? It could happen.

But no, the consensus here seems to be that the government was testing out some new filtering techniques, and - now that it is confident it can shut us down at a moment's notice - it has decided to be nice and enlightened and forward-looking again..... for a while.

It's not all good news, though. Proxyline now appears to be completely blocked! (At first, only access to Blogspot via this proxy was being blocked; then Wikipedia was excluded too; then....)

Anyone want to start placing bets on when they'll crack down on Blogspot again??

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Yes, but WHO are you? (Where in the world am I? [39])

Today was going so well, it really was. Gorgeous weather. I got a lot of things done. I was even starting to make some, ever-so-slight progress towards crow-barring another contract out of my last employer, the suddenly uncommunicative IT company.

I was feeling in a very positive frame of mind. Nothing about The Unnameable Country was going to bug me today! Nothing!

And then I got a phone call. This phone call:

Me: "Hello."

Caller: "Hello."


Me: "Who is that?"

Caller: "Is that Mr Froog?"

Me: "Well, Froog is my first name, so you don't need to call me 'Mr Froog'. Just 'Froog' will do. But yes, I am. And who are you?"

Caller: "Are you an English teacher?"

Me: "Well, sometimes, yes. But who are you?

Caller: "I am from ABC Company."

Me: "What?"

Caller: "ABC Company."

Me: "But who are you?"

Caller: "I am from ABC Company."

Me: "Yes, but what is your name?"

Caller: [Pause] "I am Janet."

Me: "Hi, Janet. Nice to meet you. Why are you calling me?"

Caller: "I am from ABC Company."

Me: "Well, that's nice. But why are you calling me?"

Caller: "You are an English teacher!"

Me: "Well, yes, I am. But how do you know that? Who gave you my name?"

Caller: "I am from ABC Company. Don't you know us?"

Me: "No, I don't. I've never worked for you before. I don't know anyone who works for you. I've never heard of you. You must have been given my name by someone. Who told you to call me?"

Caller: [Pause, audible flummox] "Er, er, one of your friends told us about you. Don't you know?"

Me: "No, I don't. Could you tell me who it was?"

Caller: "Er..... um..... do you know [deliberately inaudible]?"

Me: "Sorry. What was that? I didn't hear the name you said."

Caller: "Er, er, [mumbling again] Dakar. Don't you know Dakar?"

Me: "Dakar?"

Caller: "Yes!"

Me: "No, I don't. I think Dakar is a place, not a person."

Caller: "Oh. [Audible crest falling] You don't know Dakar?"

Me: "No. No, I definitely don't know anyone by that name. Never mind. Why are you calling me?"

Caller: "I am from ABC Company!"

Me: "Yes, yes, I got that. What kind of company is that?"

Caller: "You haven't heard of us?"

Me: "No, I'm afraid I haven't."

Caller: "We are very famous company."

Me: "Well, I'm sorry, but I haven't heard of you. I don't know a single thing about this company. I can't even begin to imagine what they do. Please - enlighten me."

Caller: "ABC Company?"

Me: "Yes."

Caller: "You don't know ABC Company?"

Me: "No, I don't. Please tell me what they do."

Caller: "They are a company of architects."

Me: [Suddenly perking up - sniffing prospect of some English for Special Purposes work, aka English at Enhanced Rates] "Oh, that's interesting. How big is your company?"

Caller: "You don't know us? Oh, very big. We have offices all over the world!"

Me: "Well, how big is your office here, in The Unnameable City?"

Caller: "Oh, very small."

Me: "But you want to have some English training?"

Caller: "Yes."

Me: "Well, I might be able to help with that. How many people do you want to provide English training for?"

Caller: "Why do you ask so many questions?"

Me: [Thinks: Because you won't bloody well tell me anything.] "Well, it's kind of my job, you know. I have to find out what kind of class you want, how many students, how many hours per week, for how many weeks, and why they want to learn. Then I can decide if it's something I can do or not, and quote you a price."

Caller: "Oh. [Sound of crest falling even further.] Do you really need to know all that?"

Me: "Er, yes I do."

Now, this was not a language problem. This lady had great English. I could understand her fine, and I don't think she was having any problems understanding me.

This was purely a cultural thing. In this country, telephone technique is almost entirely unknown. People do not introduce themselves. They do not explain why they are calling. They do not explain how they got your contact details. They are reluctant to volunteer any information at all. They are reluctant to give out information even when questioned. They behave as if knowledge is power and they don't want to cede any of that power to you: they will only tell you what they think is the absolute minimum amount of information required to get you to agree to something. That minimum is usually far less than what is actually required in order for you to have the slightest notion of what they're talking about.

Finding out why someone is calling you is like getting blood from a stone in this country. And yes, I'm sorry to say, even after all these years, it still gets my goat. There is just no good reason for it.

After taking nearly 10 minutes to find out why the f*** Janet was calling me, I at last discovered that she was trying to set up a 1-to-1 class for her boss..... and I flipped rather. That kind of lesson is a complete waste of time for both parties: it's an ineffective learning environment for the student, and the teacher invariably has to suffer the class being cancelled at least 2 weeks out of every 3 (and thus not being paid). Complete waste of time. No, thank you!!

Conversation terminated at 5.18pm.

On a lighter note

Dang, it probably isn't ever going to get any lighter than this from me!

I have been fretting that there's been a little too much negativity spewing from my keyboard just lately, especially in the briefly proliferating 'Where in the world am I?' series, so I thought I'd counter with this - a frippery from amongst the earliest of my poetic endeavours. I'm not sure that I should even call it a poem, really; it's just a thing, a little piece of whimsy.

It was, of course, inspired by my classical training, by the realisation that one of the paradigmatic stories in world culture is The Quest, the young hero being sent off to 'prove himself' by doing something stupidly dangerous and far beyond the capability of regular mortals; and that, almost always, an element of the motivation for such foolhardy endeavour is to win the love of a beautiful maiden (though in those primitive, patriarchal times, she was rarely a rounded out character; more often a fairly anonymous component of the 'reward', along with the trunk full of gold pieces and the title to a minor, unimportant princedom). I thought I'd take the idea of trying to impress the knickers off a girl by making extravagant promises of heroic derring-do, and distil it to its simplest possible expression; something a little more realistic, a little more flip, more in keeping with modern times. And this is what I came up with.

First Attempt At A Love Poem

I would list 100 impossible things
Attempt several of the least dangerous
And maybe even succeed in a few

All and anything
To win one kiss from you

A very BIG hint (Where in the world am I? [38])

I have just learned that it is now only 500 days until....
The Biggest Event In The History Of The World Ever.

At least, in the eyes of this oh-so-rapidly expanding, ruthlessly modernizing, exceedingly aspirant city that I live in.

A huge clue! Colossal! I've given the game away, really.

But please, don't all write in to unmask me just yet. This lonely luchador of the blogzone will hang on to his anonymity for a few more days at least, thank you very much.

How much do I hate the trees? (Where in the world am I? [37b])

Another thing about the trees...... (And this ties in to my earlier observations on the impassability of most of the sidewalks in this town.)

They are so numerous along many of the sidewalks that they leave no room for the people. Really. The typical spacing is about one every 2 or 3 yards, sometimes less; and, as I said yesterday, each of them is obligatorily surrounded at its base by a sunken rectangle of bone-dry dust about a yard or so square. Many of the narrower sidewalks are not much more than a yard wide..... but that doesn't stop the city authorities planting trees in the middle of them! Like I said before, people mostly walk in the bicycle lanes. There's nowhere else.

Moreover, they tend to plant youngish trees, and not sink them very deep. Result: within 2 or 3 months the root systems of new trees are churning up the paving on the sidewalk, and often the adjoining road surface too. If there is space to walk on the sidewalk, it's still often awkward to do so because of all the cracks, holes, undulations, and shattered paving slabs. Bloody trees!

The amount of money and manpower the city expends on the tree problem is colossal. Watering them. Trimming them. Repairing storm damage. Repairing roads & sidewalks every few months. Watering them. Removing and replanting them whenever there's a road widening or some other public improvement scheme. Watering them.

It's such an appalling, unnecessary waste of resources. But that is something this country tends to excel in!

I can imagine myself getting deported one day for heading out in the middle of the night, drunk and maudlin, with a nice sharp saw to bring a few of these superfluous trees down. Yes, I've always seen myself as Paul Newman in 'Cool Hand Luke'.....

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Death to the trees! (Where in the world am I? [37])

Originality of thought is not commonplace in this country.

People at all levels of society eagerly and unquestioningly parrot fatuous, unsupported ideas that have been planted in their heads by the frighteningly thorough state progaganda apparatus.

Take trees. If you ask anyone in this city what can be done to improve their environment, they will unhesitatingly respond, "Plant more trees!"

I've had this from my students many times: undergraduates, post-graduates, mid-level managers from local government and state-run industries. They all say the same thing: "Plant more trees!"

That's about all they say. They don't really have any other ideas on the environment. But they're very enthusiastic on the trees issue. They don't really know why. They can't remember where this idea came from. They struggle to come up with any arguments in support of the suggestion. But they're absolutely certain it would be a good idea to plant more trees.

I remain a sceptic. "Where would you put the f***ing things?"

I have posed this question (minus the exasperated expletive) to various groups of students. On one occasion I led them over to the window to demonstrate my point: on the narrow strip of parched grass between our classroom block and the next there were a good half a dozen trees. "Tell me," I said, "can you show me 20 sq. m of open space anywhere on this campus that doesn't already have a tree on it? And what about the sidewalks? Do not most of the sidewalks in this city already have trees planted regularly along them, often at a spacing of only 1.5m or 2m, on both sides of the road? And the parks - are the parks without trees? No, there are plenty of trees in the parks. If you were to plant more trees, if you were to replace all the grass, and all the flowerbeds, and all the ponds, and all the playgrounds with trees - which is what some of you seem to want to do - then you would not have a park any more, but A FOREST."

You may suspect me of exaggerating for comic effect, but no. This is really how it is. I'd be willing to have a little bet that this city has more trees per square mile (the locals use the metric system; I do not, except when I'm humouring them) than any other on earth. In parts of the city, at least, there seem to be very nearly as many trees as people.

And it's actually, I think, a major cause of the ecological crisis here. This city is desperately short of water; the water-table beneath us is sinking dramatically year-by-year; our city, in fact, clings to existence in a borderline desert. Washing is an irregular habit for most people here; providing enough water to drink is quite enough of a challenge for the city authorities, without encouraging people to take showers every day. How much water does a tree suck out of the ground every day? How much water do 5 million trees suck up? It's frightening. What's even more frightening is that I really don't think anyone in the government here has ever tried to do that calculation (I used to teach the deputy director of the water department, and she hadn't got a clue).

The city suffers from suffocating humidity in the summer. The climate is quite intolerable throughout July and August. The humidity tends to get trapped under the lavish foliage of our many, many trees. And where does most of that moisture come from in the first place? The only real argument most people make in favour of the trees (apart from their looking pretty) is that they provide welcome shade in the summer. Oh, please. Scoot from one shop-awning to the next. Wear a hat. The direct sunlight is not so bad. It's the f***ing humidity that kills you! I'd happily accept a bit less shade if we could reduce that humidity problem.

This city also suffers appallingly high rates of particulate air pollution, and is plagued by dust storms in the Spring and Autumn. The government likes to foster a myth that these dust storms all originate far to the west, a long, long way from here; but in fact most of them arise right here on our own doorstep. Almost every one of those leafy, beautiful, shade-giving trees that crowd our parks and line our streets is surrounded by 1 sq. yard of dustbowl. The trees suck every last drop of water out of the ground, the grass dies, the earth becomes dry and hard and dusty..... and that dust gets airborne. And the people choke.

I am perfectly serious. The zeal for tree-planting long ago got completely out of proportion here. What we need now is FEWER TREES. And SOON.

Pass me that axe.

Why can't I watch the game?? (Where in the world am I? [36])

TV coverage of sport out here on the local channels is not very foreigner-friendly. Well, it's probably not very local-friendly either. It's just not very good, in fact.

The scheduling is incredibly rigid. For example, if you're trying to enjoy a semi-final match in the US Open Tennis, you can guarantee that the programme will change to a crappy motorsport magazine show just as the third set tie-break starts.

The scheduling is incredibly nationalistic. Major European football games are always likely to get bumped if there's a provincial ping-pong or volleyball tournament going on somewhere.

The scheduling is incredibly arbitrary and inconsistent. Just because the English Premier Football League is now acknowledged as the strongest in the world, and just because its games have been shown live on Saturday nights for the last few years here..... doesn't mean that we won't suddenly subscribe to the lumpen German Bundesliga instead. Just because we showed an English game at 1am last Monday doesn't mean that we won't go for some f***ing Italian Serie B match this week. Just because we showed all the Champions League quarter-finals live, doesn't mean that we will show the semi-finals or the final live. You never know. And I really don't think being able to read the TV schedules would be any help (although, obviously I can't).

When you can find an event you want to watch, the presentation is often hugely irritating - especially for football games. They frequently omit to display the current score (or the match clock) from live games (or obscure it with their channel ident). However, they will almost invariably display the final score during recorded highlights - which rather spoils the fun! Coverage always finishes the second the final whistle is blown: there are NO HIGHLIGHTS shown at the end of matches (and very limited replays during matches). Thus, it is often possible to sit through a game and not know the result (because you missed the start, dozed off for 10 minutes, went to loo when there was a big crowd roar about something...).

Roundups of action are edited together on obscure principles. I don't think I have ever seen all the goals from one match shown in the order in which they occurred. Often there are extended montages of goals, featuring random recent examples mixed in with others from months or years back. Grrrrr.

And then there's the commentary. Usually they're taking the pictures off a TV station with an English-language commentary track, but they remove that, of course (or, even more annoyingly, reduce the the volume to a level where it is just audible but no longer comprehensible). At least with something like American Football, the local commentators have some small residual functionality: because nobody else plays the game, the local language doesn't have any of its own terms for the technical vocabulary, so every few seconds you get a key word you can actually understand - "rhubarbrhubarbrhubarbquarterbackrhubarbrhubarbshotgunrhubarbrhubarbrhubarbrhubarbrunningbackrhubarbrhubarbfumblerhubarbrhubarbrhubarbturnoverrhubarbrhubarb."

No such luck with football, tennis, golf. You just get a continuous barrage of frantic gibberish (it's a tonal language: so, to Western ears, people sound terribly agitated pretty much the whole time!). In fact, what you mostly get is laughter. Giggling, chortling, guffawing. Hoots of wild derision. Schadenfreude is a national pastime here (I once had a 'mature' student - hoping to go overseas to do a Master's in Public Administration - who told me his favourite thing was, "Watching people fall down in the street. And then laughing at them." "Thank you for being so honest," I said, "but please do not mention this when interviewed by the University. In fact, please do not ever mention this again to any foreigner you meet."). If a player misses a 4' putt, overhits a lob, or misdirects a pass to an opponent - the local commentators will positively wet their pants jeering at him for a good 30 seconds. It's quite fun when you first get here; but it gets old really quickly; in fact, I find, it gets somewhat depressing.

So..... you turn the sound down, and hope you can recognise the players, keep track of the score.

Or.... you steel yourself to endure a raucous and expensive evening watching an 'illegal' Filipino satellite-feed (apparently the only way to get the best sporting events with English commentaries) in one of the expat sports bars. Sigh.

The Departed

The Oscars are yet another Western cultural phenomenon from which I have become almost entirely insulated since coming out to live in the East. Not that I miss them much. In many years, the so-called 'Best Film' will just be some piece of crowd-pleasing pap; anything with any real quality is likely to get 'Best Director' or 'Best Screenplay', if it's lucky. Many outstanding small films are never even in the running for nominations.

However, I was rather startled when I saw the results of this year's awards. Startled - because I'd seen 'The Departed' only a month or so earlier (while staying with an old college friend in The Other Place.... as I must coyly refer to this country's '2nd city' for at least a few more days), and had found it more or less instantly forgettable. I was surprised that it even got nominated for anything. It WON??

Well, 'Best Director' for Scorsese we can see. Not deserved on this occasion, but it's one of those classic consolation prize things: finally the Academy realises he should have been honoured for 'Raging Bull' or 'King of Comedy' or 'Goodfellas', and so gives him a Lifetime Achievement Award by another name.

But 'Best Film'?! Do me a favour! Was there really nothing else worthwhile in contention this year?

The direction here was pedestrian. Scorsese was going through the motions. He hasn't actually made a really good film since 'Goodfellas'. Well, maybe 'Casino' (which I consider underrated: it would probably be far more highly regarded if people weren't always comparing it with 'Goodfellas'), but that was over a decade ago. 'The Departed' is probably his best effort in 10 or 15 years, but it's still fairly humdrum.

William Monahan's script? Well, a bit of a mixed bag. Some strong dialogue, sure. And I think in general he does a good job of transplanting the Chinese original to an American setting, plausibly substituting the poor Irish communities of south Boston for the clannish loyalties of the Hong Kong underworld. However, the best scenes in the film tend to be those which are least changed from the original (I'm fond of the bit where the two henchmen outside the bar/mob headquarters are joking about trying to spot the undercover police keeping them under surveillance; having decided that "the trick is that they don't look at you", they quickly come to suppose that every passing pedestrian must therefore be a police spy - "He's a cop." "Yeah, and him. Is she a cop?" "Oh, definitely. Never looked this way once." [My buddy The Choirboy and I often replay this scene when attractive women in bars are refusing to notice us! "She's a cop. And her. And her."]) And, much as I like the Hong Kong original.... well, the story is not really its strong point. The plot is ridiculously convoluted, often melodramatic, and frankly implausible in many respects (How does suspicion not fall on a young cop who rents a fabulous apartment far beyond his means? And who is picked up from his Police Academy graduation ceremony by a notorious mob boss??). Within the genre of the Hong Kong action flick such weaknesses can be tolerated, can even be seen as 'strengths'; 'Infernal Affairs' (the dreadfully punning English name it got landed with is the worst thing about it) could get away with this kind of plotting because it was so relentlessly slick and stylish, and was located in a slightly unreal, comic-book milieu. 'The Departed' was attempting to be a more 'serious' picture, a weighty meditation on loyalty, honour, and identity; I found its credibility completely blown by its overwrought plot. (Hello, yes - the sub-plot about the two moles unwittingly sharing a lover? Inserted into the original purely to create an opening for HK pop tart Kelly Chen to appear in the film. Deeply implausible and completely irrelevant - it should have been cut from the American version, if they weren't going to do something worthwhile with it.)

And the acting? Hmmm. Jack was just being Jack. He's played so many of these glinty-eyed psychopaths now that he can phone it in. The only novelty here was that, in deference to his advancing years, he was being allowed to play a geriatric glinty-eyed psychopath. Martin Sheen was playing President Bartlett, suddenly confused at finding himself sharing an office with the amusingly foul-mouthed Mark Wahlberg (about the only performance I did like, though perhaps more for the character than the acting per se). Fat Alec Baldwin injected a somewhat incongruous comic note. Matt Damon was playing a charmless, personality-less, amoral cypher of a man - some people said this was an astonishing performance, others said it was not acting at all; I'm with the latter group. And Leo - well, Leo I like, he's a fine young actor; but he's already developing a tendency towards scenery-gnawing, and his character here (traumatised, paranoid, insomniac [Sounds like me!]), and the fact he was playing off Jack, just gave him too many temptations to indulge that.

A better-than-average crime flick, perhaps, but overlong, muddled in its motives, often ridiculous in its plotting, and no better than adequate in its acting and direction. Oscar-worthy?? Only in a very poor year!

You know, what they really ought to do is give film awards to the best films of 10 years ago - that way, there'd be some proper sense of perspective. What were the best films of 1996? Really?? Did any of them even get nominated for Oscars at the time?!

Monday, March 26, 2007

All the world seems in tune....

On a Spring afternoon....

I was wary of greeting the arrival of Spring this weekend. I mentioned last week that Spring arrives here infallibly on the last weekend of March each year; but I wasn't sure about the status of next weekend, since it straddles March and April. How would that affect the rule-of-thumb I've developed over these last four years here? Would it be tempting Fate to express the hope that Spring might show up on the last full weekend of March? I feared it would.

It seems I was being too pessimistic. I don't know quite what it is, but when Spring comes here, you know. We've had plenty of sunny days over the last month, but somehow they just didn't feel like it; there was always the lingering sensation that more chilly days might be lying in wait for us, and so there were. This time - this time it's for real. The sky may not be any bluer than it's been before, the sunshine may not be any warmer; but there's something, something in the air that reassures us the chilly days are gone now.

The trees sense it. In the past few days, they have put forth their blossoms as one, exhaling their fragrance into the air like a huge collective sigh of relief - after so many false starts and frost-nipped buds.

This is a very fine city when the skies are clear and the sun shines. It doesn't happen nearly often enough, but we are grateful for it when it does - especially after months of grey and gloom.

And everywhere today, I see people smiling. That doesn't happen nearly often enough either.

Everything returns....

Moods, feelings, ways of looking at the world, poems. This is one I just rediscovered in my 'old' archive, yet it feels as if it might have been written last year, last month, last week.

The original focus, of course, was a woman (probably great 'lost love', The Evil One, and my disillusionment over our failure to make it work, my sorry return to an even longer spell of 'relationship drought'). Currently, it's striking more of a chord with the disappointments I am constantly suffering in my professional life out here - as recounted in my last post.


I have been so long in the desert
that I am afraid of palm trees
on the horizon.

"Another mirage," I think -
not worth the effort,
not worth the agonies of false hope,
not worth the long trudge across the dunes.

The dream of sweet water
retreats inexorably,
forever on the edge of the world.

And I cannot walk that far, that long
through this crushing heat,
this blinding emptiness.

And so I ignore the glimpse of Eden,
turn shyly aside
and carry on my way.

No regrets, no furtive glances;
I tunnel my vision
and focus my thoughts only
on the next step
and the next.
Always one more shambling footstep
in the yielding sands.

And yet the palm-fronds tease me,
nagging at the corner of my eye.
And sometimes they seem closer,
close enough to reach.

Perhaps if I approach obliquely, slyly,
the space between will close unnoticed,
and their shade
will take me by surprise.

I have been so long in the desert
that I have forgotten its lessons.

Thirst becomes imperative:
the need
to refresh, revive, restore
defeats all caution.

I rush upon the mocking palms,
the glittering pool;
I fall to my knees
and gulp
a mouthful
of hot sand.

The Wall of Silence (Where in the world am I? [35])

In a couple of recent posts about some of the more negative aspects of life in this country, I alluded to the tradition of 'saving face', the national obsession with always maintaining the outward appearance of dignity and respect (without the inner reality!). It is, I'm sorry to say, one aspect of the 'culture' here which I find to be utterly without merit (and that's putting it mildly).

One of the most exasperating manifestations of this phenomenon is the compulsive avoidance of delivering 'bad news'. People here (and I mean everyone: even - especially - educated people, people who work with foreigners a lot, people with high-level management positions in Western companies...) would rather give the appearance of being lazy, incompetent, inconsiderate, RUDE, by not talking to you at all, by breaking off a 'conversation' or a correspondence unfinished, than risk a possible 'scene' by telling you something disappointing. When business relationships break down here - as they all seem to, sooner or later, usually sooner - you generally find out only through the fact that they don't return your calls or e-mails any more.

Since I am working mostly on short-term contracts as an English teacher or business trainer, this is happening to me all the time. I ought to have developed some immunity to the irritation by now, but somehow this is one area where my usual saintly tolerance deserts me: it still hurts every time, it still rankles, it still pisses me off big time!

Last autumn I signed a 4-month training contract with a big American IT company. It was one of the nicest and best-paying gigs I've ever had here. Although I don't like to become too dependent on any single employer, this set-up was too good to turn my back on, so I did try to start cultivating them with a view to establishing a regular, semi-permanent relationship. And they said, "Yes, yes, we love you. You're a great trainer. We'd definitely like you to come back. We're thinking of running trainings through 6-9 months of the year. We'll let you know in March."

That's what they said a month or two ago. Now, they're not returning my e-mails.

I would just like to be told that it's not now going to happen. That I can deal with. Oh, and I suppose a reason would be nice too. Any old reason, really: I don't insist on it being the truth.

The likely, or possible reasons include:

1) We think our English is fantastic already, so we don't need any more training.

2) We realise our English is shite, but we're comfortable with that. (Even perhaps, We've decided it's unpatriotic to learn English.)

3) We've realised we don't in fact need our staff to have a high level of English, because they have hardly any interaction with English speakers in their working life. (This is probably what I told them myself at the outset of my training - but of course, they couldn't possibly ever admit that. I was right, and they were mistaken? Major 'loss of face'!)

4) Actually, we think you're a shit teacher: all the students complained about you.

5) We thought we'd try another teacher, just to give the students some variety. (= We thought we'd try another teacher who charges less than you.)

6) We don't have the budget for any more training this month/quarter/half/year/ever.

In practice, it's almost always either 5) or 6) (perhaps with a slight subtext of 1) or 2)), but they just never want to tell you that. WHY not?? What's so difficult about that??

Oh, yes, from time to time, there are even more annoying variations like: We've assigned our training contracts to a big-name company because they gave us a nice little kickback, or We're just so disorganized around here it takes us 6 months or so to decide to go to the bathroom, or...

Deep breaths.

Usually it's just 5) or 6). I know this. It would just be nice, JUST ONCE, to be told - rather than having to infer it from the sudden SILENCE.

Bon mot time

Last week on Barstool Blues I was recalling the great English comedian Peter Cook (in a couple of posts), so I thought I'd turn to him for this week's 'bon mot'.

"Imperfection is an end; perfection is only a goal."

Sunday, March 25, 2007

Supplement: Don't dig yourself in deeper (Where in the world am I? [34])

Following up on that last post about the difficulty of getting a straight answer out here -

If you doubt the accuracy of an answer you have been given, what I say to you is 'Let it go.'

You brought this on yourself by ignoring my previous advice and asking closed questions. If you start trying to elicit fuller information now, once you've already been given the simple answer.... well, odds are that things are going to get bloody.

The initial misleading answer I try to be very tolerant of. I don't like to categorize it as an outright lie. I make all possible allowances for differences of language and culture, supposing that it may after all be a genuine mistake in understanding; or, more likely, that although it was to some extent knowingly misleading, it can still be excused as being prompted by an exaggerated desire to please or a misplaced embarrassment about revealing the real facts.

Ah, but if you question the misleading answer - well, that's when this whole obsession with 'saving face/losing face' can spiral badly out of control. If people here sense they may be about to be caught out in an untruth, their invariable defence mechanism is to DENY, DENY, DENY. And to back up their denial with the most elaborate (and the most transparent) tissue of supporting lies. Yep, people will lie their asses off rather than admit that your dry-cleaning is going to take two days longer than they originally told you. They lie with the desperate single-mindedness and the gauche naivety of small children. It is a wonder to behold.

But - unless you are an easy-going social anthropologist like me - it might get your back up. So don't provoke them. If you think somebody's given you a misleading answer about something, just.... LET IT GO.

Be careful what you ask for (Where in the world am I? [33])

I don't know a great deal about the local language here, other than what I can divine from the mistakes my students habitually make in their English; though, in fact, you can divine quite a lot from that.

For example, they don't seem to have 'question tags' - those little phrases like "doesn't it?" and "aren't you?" by which we prompt for an expected Yes or No answer. They seem to expect that all questions may be answered with a Yes or a No. And yet.... here's the amazing wrinkle, the mind-boggling bizarreness for which I still haven't fully worked out an explanation: they always answer Yes. Even if the question was framed in a negative way. Even if the answer is negative. The one-word answer to any question in English is YES.

Doubtless, there may be further subtle linguistic reasons behind this odd habit. But I don't think the quirks of the native language can be a full solution. After all, all languages are capable of expressing a negative answer. It's more of a cultural phenomenon, I think. Perhaps the local people are just terribly eager to please; they know that people are generally happier to hear a Yes answer than a No, so they try to tell people what they think they want to hear.

This impulse is further compounded, I fear, by the prevalent notion of 'losing face'. People here feel that their dignity is compromised, their status undermined if they admit that they can't do something, or that they don't know the answer to something.... so they'll always give you a positive answer, even if they haven't really got a clue what you're talking about; they'll always say the problem is being taken care of, when it's not; they always say they're going to do what you've asked them to, even though they actually have no intention of lifting a finger.

Many foreigners are tempted to characterize this as an inbred duplicity, a hopeless disregard for the truth - but it is a rather more subtle and complicated matter than that.

It is bloody annoying, though.

And it can be a trap for the unwary. The trick is to throw away your 'question-tags': don't set yourself up for the easy but so often misleading Yes. In fact, try to ask questions that are as open as possible, questions that elicit information ("What are the times of the flights to London tomorrow?" "What days do you have bands playing this week?"), rather than closed questions that require only a Yes/No. If you ask things like "So, I'm confirmed on the 9.30 flight tomorrow, am I?" or "My reservation has been brought forward to the 20th, right?", you're asking for trouble. You can absolutely guarantee that your interlocutor will smile broadly and say, "Yes, of course".... when the truth may be something quite other.

Ask only OPEN questions. Honestly - it's an essential survival tip out here.

Saturday, March 24, 2007

101 Uses of a Sidewalk (Where in the world am I? [32])

I have run this as a lesson a couple of times in my English classes - a vocabulary-stretching exercise. Well, it should be more of an imagination-stretching exercise really, since finding 101 different activities on the sidewalk is pushing it a bit. However, imagination is in short supply round here, so it actually ends up being an exercise in improving the powers of observation.

When I first posed the question, my students (late teens, early twenties) were stumped, dumbfounded.

Eventually, one of them offered, rather hesitantly, "Walk on it, teacher?"

"Well, yes, where I come from, that would be the primary use. Often just about the only use. But that doesn't really happen here, does it? The sidewalks here aren't usually of very much use as a pedestrian thoroughfare at all, are they? Because they're narrow, blocked by trees and telegraph posts every few metres, dangerously uneven and poorly maintained, discontinuous.... [OK, OK, I'm stream-of-conscious-ing here; I didn't actually say all of that in the class. One has to keep the vocabulary and the ideas at an appropriate level.] And because they are clogged with people doing other things on them."

"Like what, teacher?"

"Well, let's take a look, shall we?" I direct their attention out of the window of our 4th storey classroom, whence we have a clear view of a good hundred yards of the street outside the college gates.

And we can see:
cars parked on the sidewalk, bicycles parked on the sidewalk, bicycles being ridden on the sidewalk (on this particular stretch of bumpier-than-usual sidewalk, that counts as an extreme sport), a man selling crockery from a wooden handcart, some children playing in a pile of sand, delivery men piling up sacks and cartons outside the local supermarket, a couple of hot-food stalls, a woman washing a sweater in a plastic bowl, old geezers sitting around on little collapsible stools chewing the fat, itinerant fruit & vegetable sellers nervously setting out their wares (keeping a lookout for the neighbourhood police who are constantly but ineffectually moving them on), a group of people playing chess, and so on and so on.

Yes, the street life here is vibrant, diverse, endlessly photogenic. But you tend to walk in the bicycle lanes, not on the sidewalks.

Of course, you realise THIS means war?

The Kafka Boys are really beginning to try my patience.

There is no sign of a relaxation of their fatuous block on Blogspot. On the contrary, they seem to be gearing up their obstructive efforts: it now appears that they have found a way to stop me accessing it through my favoured proxy route via Proxyline. Grrrrrrr.

Look, I'm warning you guys, you really don't want to make an enemy of me. Stop pissing me off pronto, or you're going to be very, very sorry.

Friday, March 23, 2007

First fruit

I was saddened to discover recently that one of my oddball literary favourites, the determinedly eccentric Scots performance poet and occasional (usually self-accompanied on an asthmatic harmonium) singer Ivor Cutler, died last year.

One of his finest works is "Life In A Scotch Sitting-Room, Vol. 2" (there was no Vol. 1!), a sequence of grim, quirky, often surreal prose poems forming a memoir of his between-the-wars childhood in a Glasgow slum. Rather as with Monty Python's 'Four Yorkshiremen', he often gleefully exaggerates the squalor and privation, having fun with stereotypical images of the Scots and the poor (for example, the family allegedly subsists entirely on a diet of herring and 'grits'). These strange, macabre, oddly beautiful little stories are nicely enhanced by the grotesque illustrations of the English cartoonist, Honeysett (alas, his website,, seems to have become defunct very recently).

The one below, Episode Eight, is perhaps the best of the lot. I shared it recently with my friend The Poet, having been reminded it of it some months back, when, at a writer's group we both attend from time to time, a local friend shared a very similar recollection of her family's ceremonious sharing of their first ever can of Coca Cola when she was a child.

I will do my best to root out some more of Ivor's work to share with you over the next few months.

[The picture, by the way, comes from a website kept by a couple of young photographers working in Toronto, Istoica; they try to post one new image a day: some nice stuff, mostly portraiture. If you browse through their back catalogue you can find a picture of the gorgeous and talented Mr Sam Javanrouh (and also of his even more gorgeous wife, Talayeh), the man behind the Daily Dose of Imagery photoblog which I recommended over on Barstool Blues a little while ago.]

One day Father returned with an orange. It was our first glimpse. We queued up to finger its texture and inhale heavy Mediterranean odours. That evening, after herring, we gathered round to watch. It was glorious to see how fastidiously his knuckled fingers cossetted the glowing orb. He knew by touch how deeply he could penetrate, and as he circumscribed with the kitchen knife, we were mesmerised by the alien tang; our mouths ran with spit. My chest hurt with excitement.

Slowly he stripped away quadrant after quadrant of peel, to reveal dense juicy segments, crouched towards the centre in anticipation of their imminent rape, white threads of pith hanging in torn agony.

"O juicy fruit, pray be delivered to my mouth soon," I prayed.

"See who can swallow theirs first," whispered my sister, who loved masticating with her mouth open. My childish mind, shocked, found no words. How can a girl be so coarse? A quick second of pleasure, a tiny after-taste, and nothing - barely a memory. Is this how one should taste? Was I missing something? Should Life be gulped down? There was always plenty more.

But these thoughts reached the surface only as a faint uneasiness, an attempt by my sister to put her heel on the tender sensuous flower of anticipation. Father inserted his thumb at the top and wrested apart the leaves. There was one for all bar one. Mother shook her head with a smile, to our relief.

"I'm a little loose," she murmured.

I laid mine on the sill, tore the skin open with grey nails, then slowly, one at a time, sucked the oblong globules. Someone was standing behind me, sucking their fingers. It was my sister, smiling, hovering, teasing. With a cry of despair, I gathered up the remains and swallowed quickly, fear killing the pleasure. Then I fell to the floor, crying bitterly. I felt violated, and mourned lost innocence. My brain registered that all future pleasure should be given and taken with love.

Ivor Cutler (1923-2006)

Why so much 'Where in the world?' of late?

Recently, there has been quite a blitz of pieces in my strand about this strange and wonderful country in which I now live. I think I should offer an explanation.

Well, partly, I think, it's just a case of making up for lost time. I was away from here, and not posting much, for nearly 5 weeks - so perhaps you're just getting 2 months or so of 'Where in the world's in the space of 1 month.

And yes, there's a general problem of me being too prolific for my own - or your - good this month, because I am without regular employment.

And perhaps the myriad petty vexations of life here are bearing down on me more than usual at the moment because I am feeling so vulnerable, so emotionally depleted.

The chief reason, though, is that I am planning to discontinue this series next month. YES - make the most of it, because it will all be over in another 8 or 9 days. I've kept up this insistence on anonymity for 6 months now, and it is, I admit, a somewhat odd pretence, a very artificial sort of 'game' - since almost all of my regular readers are friends of mine (many of them living here in The [still, for now] Unnameable Country with me) and know perfectly well where I live; and for any casual readers who don't know me, I think it is probably extremely easy to guess (at least, it is if you've ever been here!).

There are reasons why I have chosen to talk about my country of residence in this oblique way; reasons which I shall expound at a later date.

I choose now to abandon this policy not because I am regretting it or growing tired of it (I think it has many advantages when discussing life in this country, and I feel the 'Where in the world am I?' pieces have often been some of the best posts on this blog), but mainly because I am finding it rather limiting over on my other blog, Round-The-World Barstool Blues - I would like to be able to talk rather more fully and openly about some of my favourite bars and restaurants here on that blog, and the 'anonymity' policy is a bit of of an obstacle to that.

If you really don't know where I'm living, and are curious, watch out for the moment of revelation early in April!!

Supplementary haiku

That last haiku quickly suggested two more - a haiku trilogy in honour of my love, The Poet, and the rather crazy nocturnal lifestyle she was leading me into during our brief, wild affair.

On our nights out together, we both tended to succumb to the rather bad habit of reflexively ordering one more drink (and another, and another, and another) as fuel for the conversation, a prop to keep ourselves awake, a pretext to stay out just that bit longer....

And so, I wrote:

"One more?" Always "One
More"! So I wait up all night
For the one first kiss.

It was a self-destructive way to live; yet the conversation (particularly hers; but there were many other interesting low-lifes we were hanging with also) always seemed to make it worthwhile. Hence this, the final part of the trilogy (which I think I may have posted on here before, a long time ago - but it bears repeating):

The talk is too good
To end; days later, I still
Hear it in my head.

I think this was the order I wrote them in, although I suppose logically - or chronologically - these three poems should perhaps stand in reverse order, as an account of that first night together. However, the second two were written some little time later, and all three of them seemed to have a continuing relevance - in no particular order - to every time we went out together.

A romantic haiku

Probably my most romantic ever, in fact. On my first proper date with The Poet (nearly 18 months ago, but still vividly intense in my memory) we ended up staying up all night talking (as we did on many subsequent occasions also). This induced a kind of emotional 'jet-lag' in me, and I found that the following evening, although completely wrecked, I suddenly became hyper-alert again, disinclined to go to bed, my brain - crowded with thoughts of her - refusing to switch off.

So, I sent her this by text message:

You keep me awake
Even when I'm not with you
Thinking of your kiss

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Supplement: Where queue-jumping really rankles (Where in the world am I? [31])

Now, I said in my last post that I am generally pretty accepting of the various phenomena of 'unsocial behaviour' that foreigners here routinely (and, for my money, rather tediously) whinge about. There is perhaps one notable exception to this: the place where the national 'blind spot' about queueing for anything is most blatant, most egregious, most unforgivable - when you're buying a ticket for the subway.

It's not too bad when there are a lot of people trying to buy at the same time. Perhaps there are certain group dynamics that take hold, your would-be queue-jumper instinctively realising that he might get himself lynched by an angry mob if he tries it on in front of so many people. And at the busier stations, there are usually police and security guards mooching about the ticket hall, whose watchful presence reminds people that they really ought to queue.

However, if the line is short - if it's just you! - you can pretty much guarantee that someone (I was about to say "a guy", but the women are every bit as bad) will come barrelling up to the ticket counter and try to thrust their money through the little window to the the attendant ahead of you. It is as if you are not there, as if they have honestly convinced themselves that at that moment they and the ticket-seller are the only two people in the Universe. It is quite flabbergasting!

These are the tactics which foreigners have evolved for dealing with this irksome circumstance:

1) Fix the queue-jumper with an icy stare to let them know they have transgressed, and shame them into retreating to the back of the line. (This usually works well for me - but I make the most of the fact that I am 6'3", 200 lbs, and can look like quite a psycho motherf***er when I really put my mind to it.)

2) Tell the offender, in the local language, to "get in line". (This is one of the very few phrases in the local tongue that really is worth getting down pat. Some people like to show off by elaborating the instruction with moral lessons or insults, but that's counter-productive. A brusque command on its own works almost every time. Over-elaborations can result in, at best, conversations, at worst, stand-up fights.)

3) Use a combination of body-language, internationally understood gestures, and wordless vocal noises to communicate your displeasure. (Even better than 1) or 2), because the 'icy stare' is so easily ignored, and any attempt to use the local language may get you embroiled in an unwanted longer exchange.)

4) Elbow the c**t in the throat. (Simple, but effective. And for me, since I have a height advantage of nearly a foot over most of the locals, it's remarkably easy for me to make it look relatively accidental. Can of course be combined with any of the above, if success is in doubt.)

5) Obstinately stand your ground, and thrust your money through the ticket window simultaneously, hoping that the attendant will take your side and serve you first. (This is what the locals themselves almost invariably do when confronted with this situation. The weakness of this tactic is obvious.)

6) Allow the queue-jumper to put his/her money through the window first, but then snatch the ticket and politely thank him/her for buying it for you. (I have only done this once, but it was immensely satisfying.)

Ah, the simple pleasures of our lives in this exotic land!

Baby steps towards 'politeness' (Where in the world am I? [30])

There doesn't seem to be much of a history of 'good manners' in this country: oh yes, there are elaborate rituals of courtesy - though largely devoid of meaning or feeling - between the educated classes, and an unfortunately lingering tradition of grovelling deference towards anyone higher up the social pecking-order; but trifling, everyday rules to help people get along a little easier - NO. Amongst the hoipolloi it's always been "every man for himself!" - and it still is.

This impinges on the life of the foreigners living here most commonly, most annoyingly when taking public transport. The concept of the 'queue' is scarcely recognised. When boarding a bus or a train there is simply an ugly scrum around the doors as everyone tries to pile on simultaneously. Quite often this will result in the three or four people at the front of the mob getting wedged stuck shoulder-to-shoulder across the doorway so that no-one is able to get on until one of this leading group manages to break the momentary logjam by wriggling free of his companions and squirming aboard.

Now, I'm pretty tolerant of this phenomenon on the whole. After all, it's scarcely surprising. This is a very populous country, with - until recently - a very limited public transport system. Even today, buses, trams, and subway cars are often packed like sardine-tins during the rush-hour. If you really have to go somewhere, then you're going to have to fight tooth-and-claw to get aboard (don't even think about getting a seat!!) - that's all there is to it.

Of course, this is one of the things that tends to make this country still look a bit 'primitive' in the eyes of the outside world, so the government is (fitfully) keen to try to do something to modify such behaviour. The latest brainwave from the authorities (at least here in my home, The Unnameable City) is 'Stand In A Line' Day. Yes, one day is being specially set aside for everyone to try to remember to behave politely - and not fight like savages to be the first aboard the bus. That's one day per month. Baby steps! I think it's the first Thursday of each month, but I haven't witnessed the great experiment in action yet.

At least, I don't think I have. I noticed a group of people calmly standing in line for a bus on my street yesterday, but I don't think that was down to this new campaign. It can't be the third Thursday of the month, can it? That's just too darned hard to remember!

And you see, I live on a relatively quiet street, in a modestly well-to-do neighbourhood. We have comparatively wide sidewalks, and bus shelters at the bus stops. Thus, there are not usually that many people who want to get on at one time, there is space enough for them to form a queue, and the local residents are perhaps a little more disposed than your Average Joe towards embracing such an idea. Most importantly of all, I think, there are only two bus routes down this street.

On major streets, you typically get three or four bus stops right next to each other, each of them servicing 4, 6, or 8 routes. When the buses all arrive together (as they usually do, here as in every other country in the world!), the drivers will ignore their designated stop and pull up at an adjacent one, or anywhere there's enough space within a hundred yards or so up or down the road. The stops themselves are usually on the narrow kerbs separating the 'bicycle lanes' from the main highway, so there isn't much space for people to stand in an orderly fashion; and, as I've said, they're all waiting for different buses, and have no real idea where those buses are going to stop most of the time. Thus, there are unruly crowds spilling into the road, sprinting towards wherever their bus chooses to stop, and jostling, elbowing each other to get aboard as quickly as possible. The quaint British notion (I know it's not unique to us - but I think we invented it!) of having a bus stop bang on the designated spot, right next to the first person in the queue, so that there's no question about the order in which people should try to get on - well, that is a long way from establishing itself here. And it's more down to the organization of the bus service than the innate uncivilizability of the passengers.

One day things will change.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Another poem on the theme: 'What is poetry?'

Well, kind of.

I found this while rifling through the bookshelves of a friend I visited in London last month. I'm afraid I know nothing at all about the author, other than her name... and that we share a similar sense of humour.

This Poem....

This poem is dangerous. It should not be left
Within the reach of children, or even of adults,
Who might swallow it whole, with possibly
Undesirable side-effects. If you come across
An unattended, unidentified poem
In a public place, do not attempt to tackle it
Yourself. Send it (preferably in a sealed container)
To the nearest centre of learning, where it will be rendered
Harmless, by experts. Even the simplest poem
May destroy your immunity to human emotions.
All poems must carry a Government warning: Words
Can seriously affect your heart.

Elma Mitchell