– (of a person or their manner) lacking energy or enthusiasm;
-(of a life) existing without (the need for) lists.

Life is a list. Or rather a series of lists. The lists of things that happen in your life, as well as the lists of the things you try to make happen.

For as long as I can recall, I have made lists of things.

Things to do, to achieve, to find, to send to someone, to do for that friend, to remember to send that person as it might help them with that thing they’re doing;

Pieces of music to learn to play, books to read, others to reread, pictures to upload, emails to send, and even blog pieces to write (!).

At work, it’s the to-do list of course of all the things you don’t want to do have to do, while not forgetting those other things you had to do on that other to-do list you made.

They’re are even those things you’ll do if you have the time to do them, which you only want to do as a step towards doing that bigger thing you want to do.

And even where the list is short, it’s often so vague as to require another cup of tea, before embarking on another more detailed list, lest you be forced to add the the list to the list of failed lists of things you haven’t done and, worse, the lists of things you regret not having done.

Worse still is the mental list of people you’ve lost touch with, people who were once much closer and higher up the list.

Perhaps it would all be easier without lists?



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Silly little mice

A silly little girl had a silly little mouse
which her silly brother found in their silly little house.

The silly little girl spent several silly days
making the silly little mouse a silly little maze

of twigs and leaves and hay and string,
and, well, any- and everything!

How the girl proved silly, watching so amazed
the silly little mouse in the silly little maze.

But how her mother worried and fretted with despair
at the silly little antics of the silly little pair.

“So silly! So Silly! What is this silly craze?!
A silly little mouse in a silly little maze?!”.

“I’m not silly!” said the silly little girl
shaking a head full of silly little curls.

And she never relented from her silly little plays
with the silly little mouse in the silly little maze.

“Mum, play with the mouse!” begged the silly little daughter
proud of the joys that Silliness had brought her.

“He’s just a silly little mouse in a silly little maze!
Aren’t we all rather silly in our own silly ways?!”

I’m a grown up, so can’t be silly, the mother thought out loud.
But maybe I could try for trying is allowed.

So she tried and tried but Silliness left her fazed
as she tried to be play with the mouse in the maze.

Didn’t the mouse care what this maze is all about?
Didn’t he know: he would never work the maze out?

That this maze is eternal, and will never end,
and that Silliness is silly and Seriousness, our friend?!

The girl had watched. She looked at her mother
And saw in her eyes a look like no other.

“Sorry I’m so silly, Mum!” Her eyes were ablaze.
But her mother observed the mouse in the maze.

And she understood at last: that Silliness is life,
the tonic and cure to life’s silly little strife;

That life is a maze, full of rise and fall,
and we’re only silly if we’re not silly at all!

“Don’t be silly!” the mother cried,
paining at the knock to her daughter’s pride.

And she was silly not knowing that life’s best advice
is best learned watching silly little mice.

In her daughter’s own words, the mother surmised,
as they both wiped the tears from their silly little eyes,

“Aren’t we all rather silly in our own silly ways?
We’re just silly little mice in a silly little maze!”


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Unfinished business

I have a small backlog of unfinished blog posts about my time in China but my travels at the end of that 6-month stint are fresh in my mind.  Fresher still are the handful of mistakes I wish I hadn’t made.


1. Finish blogs there and then.

2. On your compulsory excel travel itinerary there is no need for a separate column  to indicate what number day of the trip a given day is. If you do feel the need, definitely don’t put it next to the date column.  Let me explain. My dad arrived on 2nd February which happened to be the first day of the trip. The second day was the 3rd February , the third day the 4th and so on. I tablulated all this information for our 22- day-long journey. If you confuse the two when booking your trains then things get tricky. My initial bookings would have meant that I collected Dad a day late at Chengdu International airport. We would then have missed our train to Shanghai 3 days later,  not been able to pick up my mum from Pudong International Airport, and all three of us would be stuck in Shanghai unable to get to Beijing – not only would we have missed seeing the Great Wall on Valentines Day but my mum would not have got her flight from Beijing on to India. We could have re booked,  you say.  Not so, as we were travelling at during the Chinese New Year, when everything is booked out weeks in advance.  Luckily I hadn’t confused the two columns but I thought I had for an agonising few moments.

3. When crossing from the west to the east side of the river in Shanghai, avoid the tunnel museum. It was a capsule/ pod on a rail that takes you slowly to the other side through a tunnel lit sporadically with sparklers, flashing LEDS originally intended for bike lights,  and accompanied by techno music that would accompany a journey descending into Room 101. Think of the scene in “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” when they’re in the lift to the Gobstopper Room and how excited they are, eyes wide open at the prospect of whatever is next. Yeah, the opposite of that. It looked rather exciting from the poster which means I can only compliment their advertising.


1. The Great Wall. It really was great. Greater still was my dad’s Simon Schama impression, telling me, seconds after reading the chapter on The Great Wall in the Lonely Planet, in a petulant,  mock unimpressed tone that the Wall eventually failed, and that the  Mongols eventually broke through.  A Mexican tourist suffered my mum’s historical grasp too. He complained that parts of the wall we were at (a place called Mutianyu) were hazardous due to uneven steps and uneven, angular rock formations. My mum educated him that the Wall was never meant to be a tourist site, or to be re entered. I think he was just trying to make conversation.

2. Pudong

The east side of the river that runs through Shanghai. Above ground it is the financial capital of this part of the world with a skyline that makes it into every postcard. Underground, as well as the subway,  are flea markets and opportunities to haggle for hand fans, costumes for recent additions to the family and, my mum’s favourite,  umbrellas. If you have a friend of a family friend who can treat you to a home cooked dinner in a beautiful Frasier-esque flat for the evening too, then make it happen if only for their charming but not intense hospitality.

3. Oasis Cafe. Just north of the Forbidden City past the Imperial Gardens. Don’t get me wrong, the Forbidden City itself was magical but as a place to rest your feet on leaving the Imperial Gardens, Oasis Cafe does the trick. For us it and its friendly proprietor did much more. You see, my mum, as an expert witness, was suddenly needed in Scotland for the defence of (I really shouldn’t go I to detail here).  So, we had to make a fair few calls to rearrange flights and establish the logistics of my mum’s  next moves. That required international phone calls and various Internet searches,  all of which Oasis Cafe helped us with.  They do a mean pizza too, and the best hot chocolate I’ve ever had.

4. The Qianmen Courtyard Hotel, Shijia Hutong.  A hutong is one of the ancient alleyways that made up Beijing back in the day. Now the hutongs are a must for tourists, with everything to keep the tourist and the local economy going. Some even have hotels, like ours, The Qianmen Courtyard Hotel. Perhaps it is the beautiful stone architecture,  or the  reverent feeling one gets from the quietly confident staff, but somehow the noise of the hutongs is lost as soon as you step inside the first of its many courtyards. To match,  the rooms have colonial four poster beds, authentic tea sets and a bathroom that invites, dazzles and waits for you to come back from a hard day’s sight seeing. Shijia Hutong links the busy Meishi Street and the pedestrianised shopping haven of Qianmen Road itself which, at a steady pace, is 15 minutes from Tiananmen,  The Forbidden City and close to Qianmen metro and the city buses.

5. Train travel. My father grew up on the railways (not literally) and so I think I get my love of train travel from him. My mum is the most adjustable traveller in the family, but she doesn’t get excitable and hungry on trains in the same way the rest of us do. This is despite the continual refeshments and snacks that first class on the G124 service from Shanghai Hongqiao to Beijing Nan Station. Train travel in general in China is such a thrilling,  involved affair. The security to enter the huge, functional train stations, the signage,  the anguish on the faces of all the guards who want to make sure you get the right train – it all makes train travel resemble air travel. So much so, that the the ambience tricked my gut into thinking I was about to fly, reproducing in me the feelings of nausea I get in airports. The staff, whom I noticed to be almost entirely female, were doubly concerned about people making the right train – China is so big that a mistake could cost you many days more travel  but rectifying such a mistake would be almost impossible in the holiday period where there are 4 million extra journeys per day for 18 days straight. In Chengdu Station,  a separate marquee was setup as a holding area for a train before it left, as the main concourse left room for ambiguity, forcing my dad to describe it as “how Ellis Island would have looked back in the day”!

Why deal with this unfinished business now,  you ask. Well, I’m off to Turkey to be a teacher/ mentor at a summer school based at Koc University in Istanbul for children aged 4-11. Not sure what I’ll be doing but ill let you know.

That concludes today’s business.

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Commuting for work

From a few weeks ago. They rejected me,  by the way, but I still meant it.

Applying for jobs has its own rhythm after a while, like a commute. And like commuting, it is an essential if unloved part of a job. A lot has to go right.

The slight loss of rhythm to the routine of waking up, fumbling the alarm clock, deliriously groping it after a snooze or two, breakfasting, showering and locating your misplaced keys can all delay the glorious walk to the bus stop, assuming that the bus is running on time.

Equally, I’ve grown used two comforting formats of applications. First, the tailored CV/cover letter combo that oozes passion, fabricates interest and consumes the reader with action words and buzzwords. Second, the online application form – an Aladdin ‘s cave of exam grades, life experience and blisteringly over detailed personal competence in key areas like leadership, teamwork and communication.

When a new application starts it is with the understanding that one of these two genies will arise. For both are ubiquitous to the modern job hunt, and neither could be put back into the lamp. Or could they?

My favourite application has been for  a graduate  marketing  role for Penguin Random House. Other than my name and email address and checking that I am available to start on 1 September 2015, there were only 7 questions. Based only on these 7 questions will  Penguin Random House make a decision.

That means no sifting based in exam grades, online tests or other minimum eligibility criteria. No painstaking drop down menus with sections slow to refresh and progress easily lost. No CV to upload or cover letter to attach.

That made their questions harder to answer. Across your portfolio of answers you have to mention all the things you want them to know about you, but concisely enough so as not to exceed the 300 word limit on each answer.

That’s right! Three hundred words to answer each question,  sticking closely to the rubric the provided while showing off your achievements, experience and writing style and personality. It is the ultimate test of competence for a role: I you have to do what the job will require of you. You have to work to a brief, stick to a word count and be interesting.

You have to be relevant, concise and engaging, an unholy trinity far removed from the sanctity of a CV,  cover letter and online application for. It’s like being asked to commute by Fred Flintstones car- harder and more involved but ultimately more satisfying.

I submitted the application with as few minutes to spare. First, i agonised over the choices had made in the things I chose to write about: does the  Money supermarket. Com advert with the baldy strutting along near Sharon Osbourne suitable to write about? I’ve mentioned teaching English twice, is that okay?

Then I noticed the needlessly wordy sentences. You question the language you use, and the whether you’ve over or under explained whatever you’re saying. And that isn’t the beginning of the end but rather the end of the beginning.

As you reread you now highly relevant and to the point answers you wonder, is this well written? Or am I bored? Then you both rationalise and I question every decision you’ve made in every answer.

You can’t sacrifice relevance for style, and it certainly has to be under 300 words.  But then if your style is wordy, you aren’t revealing your personality. But don’ worry your personality wil come through in the things you’ve talked about. But it’s for a job that requires good writing,  not concise show offs. It isn’t showing off if they’ve asked you. But it’s as important how you write it as it is what you write.  Then rewrite it. If I have the time.

The time comes when you have to send something. Only afterwards do you realise how stern a test it is not only of your ability to apply,  but whether you could do the job they need of you. A few other thoughts arise too.

The simplicity of the whole exercise is welcome- the minimalist format of the webpage, the familiar and clear language of the instructions and the timeliness of the application process, which has  the ultimate display of equal opportunities- no questions about race, religion,  sexual orientation or disability. All they know is what’s in my answers.

Once you submit it the screen says “Phew”. (“Yabadabadoo” would perhaps have too much gusto) “Phew” is about right. It is the hardest writing task I’ve ever done. It seems paradoxical,  as you are only writing about yourself.  But here you are marketing yourself, selling your value and doing it through words.

As a test of  competence it outstrips any other by upsetting the rhythm of applying. And like a change to one’s commute, it can disturb a welcome and even comforting routine.  But, at the very least it sets the heart beating a little faster.

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What we have here is a failure to understand…

Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.

In an attempt to minimise “cultural and linguistic chaos”, the Chinese government has decided to ban wordplay and puns.

Now the reaction has been what you would expect – bewilderment at such a ridiculous law that quashes a fundamental right to be silly with words, to have fun with language and to say whatever you want. By all accounts it shows a lack of understanding.

The government doesn’t understand the only constant of language – that it changes all the time. Attempts to hijack the very nature of language are as futile as they are illiberal. Banning things only ever fuels rebellion, and rebellion there already is.

They don’t understand the people themselves, who indulge, according to my friend Priscilla, in a language with so many homophones, and who love to joke, pun and “misunderstand”.

This measure would suggest that we were lumbered with language and have to navigate around it to try and communicate. They don’t understand that humans don’t just have the instinct (ask Stephen Pinker) to produce language but that we actively manipulate it in order to understand.

Cultural and linguistic chaos is only a problem if, like the government, you don’t understand what understanding is:

Not to let a word get in the way of its sentence,

Nor to let a sentence get in the way of its intention,

But to send your mind out to meet the intention as a guest,

THAT is understanding.

Worst of all, they don’t understand their own history and tradition, an essential for a country that will claim the future. The above is a translation of an ancient Chinese proverb. That makes this measure backward.

Backward, not non-Western.

Some are quick to point out that in the West, we have these freedoms. That may be true, but that doesn’t mean we understand any better.

Recently, there have been too many comedians and broadcasters apologising for their comments, or jokes and the offence that was caused. More often than not offence is caused – people allow their offence to overwhelm their capacity to understand the context, subject of the joke, target of the joke and language used.

The fact that they apologise makes it worse. Either say it and back it, or don’t say it at all.

Too often, in the West as much as anywhere else, people, and politicians in particular, are judged too often on what they say without us even trying to understand what they mean. The argument against that is always, “Well, we can only judge you on what you say, so be careful.”

That is true, but we will all fail in that. Failing, like language, is human. Some will fail to say the right thing, just as we will fail to understand. It’s just something that will happen, and something to work on. No matter, just fail again, fail better.

I teach the very people that this measure is meant to be helping. One student, when telling me his morning routine, told me that he wakes up and says “Good morning!” to his “dear”. Another thought this was a sequel to Equus. They joked about it, in English. It was only funny, because comedy is an intellectual pursuit that requires understanding.


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A sino-lemon blend is my cup of tea

I can’t believe it’s nearly eight weeks since I last blogged. I meant to return from holiday and produce a pithy, Theroux-esque prose that would have convinced you that you actually joined in on my 6 days of trains, buses, more trains, and breath..huh!….taking-scenery.

But as you know I didn’t. In the 7 weeks since I returned from Yunnan, life has been giving me lemonade. And with a view to “making the most of it” I have garnished that lemonade, in the best Chinese tradition, with Sichuanese spice and soy sauce.

Oh, but I have been writing, just not here.

I’ve written lesson plans on sports, music, directions, holidays, films, TV, daily routine. Debates with my better students have revealed a lot of disheartening things about them. About half, it would seem, are gold diggers if the responses to the question, “Which is more important: love or money?” are to be taken seriously.

Another 25% are utterly unromantic and one girl perplexed me by resolutely believing that “love has no reality, but money is the only thing that is real.” She was quite convincing, to her credit, but then I think she is unloved. I don’t mean that in a harsh way – that is the only explanation I have for her cynicism.

I’ve been writing in my diary too, my second attempt at one. It’s a factual diary, a log, the raw material from which will bloom my future memoirs. Many recent entries feature a friend who visited me for four weeks.

C, as I will call him, was touring China, and so had to stay with me for at least a little while. Soon “a little while” became “a bit longer” and then he used my flat as a base from which to do a 10-day trip to the Chinese desert and return. A month in all.

We never fully caught up on things, mainly because he’s the type who you can never finish talking to. Thanks to him a lot happened in those few weeks: Sichuan opera, a panda sanctuary, a weekend trip to ChongQing, two karaoke nights, a Taoist, Daoist and Buddhist temple and a strange meal with some colleagues and overly-smooth Australian man. More on that, and the karaoke, at a later date, I promise.

I even used him as a teaching tool for English Club and English Corner. It was for him the start, I think, of a one-man stage show of mime, improvisation and bewildered angst.

I’ve been writing a lot for my online TESOL qualification, too. An example for your records:

Music in the teaching sphere, for me, should be one of two kinds. First, I would incorporate songs, artists and bands that are so internationally popular that children are likely to have heard of them, and consequently would invest themselves more into the lesson. Second, I would use particular songs, no matter what their popularity, that would help children internalise, revise and use particular vocabulary or grammatical structures.

The first kind would ensure that children are engaged in the lesson, especially if, in the case of One Direction and Taylor Swift, for example, they feel I am using their music. The second type is an excellent teaching tool. Music helps recognition, practice, repetition and memory of words in a way that nothing else can.

Both types may influence children to then go and find this music themselves and in that process they may come across other music which they will listen to, like and remember. That entire process will help their English: reading new song titles, listening to new music and then downloading their favourites would work all the faculties of the language.

As you know by now, writing nonsense is what I do best.

I’ve composed my own Mandarin vocab book. Not in the proper script, but in Pinyin, the established method for transliteration into Roman script. Iris, my Mandarin teacher at school, has been teaching me survival Chinese, and I’m able now, I think, to get by.

My conversation, however, is lacking, even more so than in English, so that’s a work in progress much like the reopened case of “What happens after the China chapter?”. The time has already come to think about that too, even though there is still much more to read and write.

I write this now, because I’m ill, and have the time. All that lemonade wasn’t vitamin enough to keep out the common cold.

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New life

Next week I’m going to be visiting Yunnan – six days of blissful tranquility in what the guide book says is the most beautiful part of China. Just a short 20-hour train journey south of Chengdu, it’s the place where Chinese people more so than anyone else like to holiday. My dad said it best – it’s “their version of the lake district.”

In my head though, Chengdu was “their” version of Birmingham and Shuangliu County was their version of Walsall. Given that Chengdu is about ten times the size of Brum, and this Chinese county is larger that my home town,  I have a feeling that “their version of the lake district” might in fact be their version of England.

So, either my China-calibrator needs readjusting or I need to do away with the “their” motif. (A China-calibrator, in case you were wondering, is their version of a Britain-calibrator- a tool for Chinese visitors to use to compare Britain with China).

It will probably surprise you to know that I just spent the last hour cleaning the kitchen and bathroom, putting things up for wash, and even sweeping for dust, all in preparation for returning from holiday and being welcomed by a clean, hassle-free boudoir. Or maybe it won’t surprise you at all as that’s what we should all do when we leave home for a week.

What has surprised me, though, is that this feeling resembles the same one I had when I left my actual home a month ago. If you are as lucky as I am, and you get the opportunity to give somewhere a chance, anywhere can be your home.

A routine has emerged, certain eateries and shops have become a “local” and I even share moments each day with nameless but now familiar faces in the shop, at the bus stop and in the street.

Today that routine was challenged by the spanner in the works that is the last day of term. Nobody really  knows what’s going on, everybody is excitedly waiting for the end and, well, mistakes were made.

Sorry, I was watching Ed Miliband’s conference speech like the rock-star I am and his rhetoric has clearly rubbed off on me: mistakes were not made – I made a mistake.

At first, all seemed well. I walked in, they hushed and I got on with the lesson on music. They were telling me what music they like and why quite happily until their form teacher burst in.

A few seconds of frantic Sichuanese-dialect and chaotic noise later, and it transpired that this lesson wasn’t scheduled. The children were too polite to tell me that there was no third period today, and instead let me give them the worst start to their holiday possible – a lesson on music.

Worse, a lesson on music that ate into the allocated time they had to pack and get on the bus home. I felt guilty of course, then annoyed at not being told, and then bewildered that not one of them tried to tell me, even in Chinese. Politeness is the kindest way of looking at it, but it was just stupidity I think. Funny though, especially for the others in the staff room.

School life is offering me more than just the scheduled teaching now. A few colleagues like to practice their English with me at lunch, and English Club and English Corner now take up two of my lunchtimes.

It is for certain that there are clear differences between English Club and English Corner, but I honestly couldn’t work them out myself. The same people come to both, we do similar fun learning activities things and – actually, I should stop there. For all I know one of the rules of the Club and/or the Corner is that one must never speak about what goes on.

Priscilla, who is an English teacher here and in charge of the school’s foreign affairs but who happily acts like my  mother, mentor, landlord, sister, colleague, friend and language-exchange partner, had a lovely surprise for me after English Club. Or was it English Corner? Never mind.

A former student of hers who now studies music was visiting her, and Priscilla asked me to meet her, and play the piano with her. A very touching gesture from her which resulted in the most bizarre experience I’ve had in China so far.

Her student was painfully delicate in her Bohemian appearance which included the most glamorous clothes I’ve ever seen, and an umbrella that had multi-coloured ribbon casually tailing of the tip.

She seemed to flout about the place as though walking would harm the ground and although she didn’t have an English name. her Chinese one was as soft to say as it was pleasant to hear. I think “Primrose” or “Quavery” would be good choices for her English name, especially if said in a sing-song fashion through pursed lips.

Her first piece was 15 minutes of improvised, minimalist piano that was completely stunning. It lulled us all into absolute stillness and calm from which I thought I would never leave. Until, that is, she blurted out  Sharapova-like grunts that shocked and frightened me but which had no impact whatsoever on Priscilla and the other lady in the room I didn’t know.

When we spoke later (Priscilla is also my interpreter I should mention) she explained how she sometimes just has to emote on to the piano, to let out what was burning inside her and show the world who she really is.

Then, she ran to the piano again, and began to play, snapping her neck from one side to other while looking up to the ceiling (or perhaps the heavens!). I too began to look up and around but there were no hidden cameras in sight.

Life here, then, has become very real for me – even surreal. A good time to have a holiday, then!

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