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The QuarryThe Quarry is Iain Banks’s last ever novel. He died shortly before it was published in June 2013. The book is about Kit, the narrator, a young man whose father, Guy, is dying of cancer. Banks apparently didn’t know that he, too, was dying of cancer until he’d nearly finished the first draft.

“If I’d known it was going to be my last book, I’d have been quite disappointed that I’m going out with a relatively minor piece.”

And yet how apposite a final book The Quarry is, despite it being neither really finished nor one of his best.

Kit and Guy live in an old house that is pretty much literally falling apart – like Guy’s body – and which is located very near the edge of a quarry, whose expansion is due to cause the demolition of the house – like Guy’s cancer. A bunch of Guy’s university friends – apparently the only friends Guy ever made – come to the house for a long weekend, to have a kind of living wake for Guy and to look for a certain tape.

The tape is a video tape – the friends were all film students and they made their own amateur productions – that none of them want to see the light of day. The plot – inasmuch as the book has a plot – concerns the search for this, as well as the slow revelation of old tensions and jealousies.

Guy is an embittered, prematurely aged, grumpy old man. He affects an attitude of despite towards everything. The unfairness, pain and grottiness of a slow death by cancer is never far from the page. One of the most moving parts of the book is towards the beginning when Kit is helping his father wipe himself in the bathroom.

‘Is there blood?’

‘There is a little blood.’

‘Well, what does that mean? What does “a little” mean?’

‘It means there is a little blood.’

‘Don’t be fucking smart, Kit; just tell me how much blood there is. And what colour? Red? Brown? Black?’

‘Are you sure you can’t turn around and take a look?’

‘Not without going out into the fucking hall, waddling, with my trousers round my ankles and my cock hanging out, so, no.’

‘If I had a smartphone I could take a photo and show you.’

‘I’m not buying you a fucking smarthpone. Will you shut up about the fucking smartphone? You don’t need one. And you’ll just post the photos on Facebook. Or find a way to sell them in your stupid game.’

‘Course I wouldn’t,’ I tell him. ‘Though you could have Faecesbook, I suppose,’ I add. Well, you have to try to lighten the mood.

‘Oh, Christ.’

‘There’s only a smear,’ I tell him. ‘And it’s red.’

‘Good, fine. Look, just, just, you know, wipe me off and … Christ, this is … Just, would you? Okay?’

This doesn’t happen all the time but, sometimes, I have to wipe my dad clean after he’s moved his bowels. He can’t stretch round or underneath any more to do it himself; even on the opiates the pain is too much now that the cancer has moved into his spine. Often Mrs Gunn will do this. She is paid to be a carer now, though I’m not sure this whole arse-cleaning thing is really within her remit. Guy cried following the first time she performed this service for him. He doesn’t know that I know this; I heard him through his bedroom door, afterwards.

The book doesn’t really go very far after this gut punch. The friends hang out, drink, take drugs, look for the McGuffin and argue. It feels like a first draft. The arguments are repetitive and nothing really different from what Banks had done before. Apart from Guy and Kit, the characters are rather two-dimensional; Haze, for instance, is a cardboard cut-out middle-aged stoner without an ounce of self-discipline or common sense; his main function in the story is to shoot party poppers out of his nose – and maybe to exemplify an extreme of the fucked-upness that afflicts all the older characters.

Kit is supposed to be a high-functioning autism sufferer, and this makes him suitably dry, analytical and naïve as a narrator – but it doesn’t really ring true. Kit is more of a surrogate Banks – as is Guy, actually, with all his verbal abuse against religion and capitalism and popular culture. Kit is far too knowing, too similar to the other characters, too unphased by their middle-aged licentiousness. He even makes a pass at one of them in quite an accomplished and briefly, initially successful way – even though he’s supposedly never so much as kissed a girl.

The book’s conclusion is deliberately bathetic. The search for and discovery of the tape is underwhelming – in much the same way that Guy’s life has been underwhelming – in much the same way that all our lives are underwhelming. All the characters are disappointments to themselves – apart from Kit, who spends half his time (when he’s not putting up with his father and surrogate aunts and uncles) playing an MMORPG. Kit seems to have the best life, is the only one is solvent, hasn’t sold out and has no skeletons in his closet; and yet he’s partly disengaged from reality and doesn’t know how to cope with it. Will he end up being a forty-year-old-fuck-up like the others?

Use of WeaponsI’ve been reading Iain Banks’s books since the early nineties (at a guess); I own all his novels and the whiskey/travel book he wrote. The first one I read was Use of Weapons, which I picked up from the library because I liked the cover. It’s one of his best books and the ending forced me to do an immediate re-read of the novel – the only time I’ve ever done that. I’d been holding off on reading The Quarry – for no good reason, really; well, reading Le Morte d’Arthur recently took a lot of time and willpower. The Quarry is a good enough book – as eminently readable as anything he wrote, but not really classic Banks.

And there will be no more Banks novels – no more Culture books (except, I’ve just discovered, a volume of his poetry will be published next year). It’s hard to say how I feel about this. It seems like his fiction novels as a group and his science fiction novels as a group didn’t really go anywhere much. If you’d read one of either group, you would have had a strong idea of what the others were like (apart from a couple of oddballs like The Bridge and A Song of Stone). I’m very sorry he’s dead (let’s not mess around with namby-pamby euphemisms – he wouldn’t), but I don’t have a sense of work unfinished like in the case of Robert Jordan.

But there are still nearly thirty novels ripe for re-reading. Sometime.

Iain Banks

Fortress of EaglesI read the first book in this series a few years ago – I picked up my copy of Fortress in the Eye of Time at a street-side secondhand bookshop in Bombay (or Mumbai, if you prefer) and enjoyed it a lot. Although I think I knew there were successor books to it, I don’t think I thought of them as direct sequels. It was only fairly recently that I got Fortress of Eagles from What the Book? in Seoul.

The story follows on directly from what happens in the first volume – and as it’s a while since I read it, and my memory for story details isn’t that good anyway, so I was a little bit lost at first. In Fortress in the Eye of Time, Tristen is called into being – Shaped – by an old wizard called Mauryl. He apparently has lots of knowledge, and even memories of a previous life, locked away inside him, but he is pretty much a naïve tabula rasa. He befriends the crown prince, Cefwyn; there’s a big fight with a dark wizard called Hasufin Haltain; Mauryl dies (apparently), and Cefwyn becomes king.

Fortress of Eagles concerns the aftermath of these events. There’s lots of contemplation of intrigue; the courtiers of Ylesuin have varying levels of support for Cefwyn’s choices – his betrothed, Ninévrisë, is due to become the ruler of the neighbouring enemy nation, and Tristen is widely seen as an abomination, a product of sorcery who doesn’t follow the established religion.

The book is very contemplative and very talky. Until the last third or quarter, it moves at a very sedate pace with not much happening. This is a flaw, but it was a also a nice change of pace. It was never boring to read, as the two viewpoint characters – Tristen and Cefwyn – are both well realised and engaging, Tristen especially. Tristen has lots on his mind, not least of which is the nature of his own existence, and there were plenty of clues that much more would be revealed about this in future installments of the story. Cefwyn has a fractious court to balance, which is interesting enough, and one of the best characters is his adviser and military chief, Idrys (whom, naturally, I kept visualising as Idris Elba), but Tristen was always the more interesting.

Cherryh’s writing is very readable and she can write very good dialogue – which is good, because the characters have long conversations full of long paragraphs. It’s not necessarily realistic dialogue – the characters talk about things that are going on in the world and that are relevant to the story in a way that is basically infodump, but feels pretty natural – it’s the kind of thing a king would talk about, for instance.

She has also developed a particular style of writing and dialogue that somewhat mimics pre-modern writing without being heavy-handed or unreadably dense. Take this bit of banter between Ninévrisë (speaking first) and Cefwyn at a ball:

“Am I the prey tonight or is it Tristen? Policy must attend this festive mood. You are stalking someone.”

“Good lady!” He laid a hand on his breast, above the Marhanen Dragon, worked in gold. “I am suspect?”

“Today since dawn you have held close converse with the captain of your guard, the Patriarch of the Quinalt.” One finger and the next marked the tally. “Your brother the duke of Guelessar, and your brother’s priest, besides a converse again with Idrys, with Captain Gwywyn, and with Captain Kerdin – I discount your tailor -”

“Your spies are everywhere!”

“You ensconce me in this nest of women all with ambitions, all wishing to persuade me to confide in them, and wonder that I know exactly the object of your inquiry, who was riding to Drysham today -”

“Cressitbrook. You don’t know everything.”

“- with his guard. It is he, is it not? Has Tristen done something amiss?”

“Tonight,” he said with a glance at the women in the distance, and with his voice lowered.

“I hear it all, you know. The Warden of Ynefel [Tristen] is out spying on the land. He converses with the horses, quite dire and lengthy discourses, and likely with the sheep. His birds fly over the land and bring him news from every quarter …”

The writing style may not be to everyone’s taste, but I think this is almost exactly how fantasy novels should be written. There is absolutely no reason for characters in a fantasy world based on Earth cultures of centuries past to talk like people from the 21st century, still less for characters in a fantasy world based on Earth cultures from before the colonisation of the Americas to talk like 21st century Americans.

C J CherryhIn the last section of the book, a lot happens – and although it’s very clear how this fits into the overall scheme of things in Ylesuin, it also comes as a bit of a surprise, given the slow pacing of the earlier part of the story. For 450 pages, I did feel that more could have happened; as a result the book feels very much like an episode rather than a self-contained story. You get the feeling that the arc story is just getting started.

Despite this, Fortress of Eagles was a great pleasure to read, and I hope it won’t be long before I secure a copy of Fortress of Owls.

Le Morte d'Arthur, Volume 1It took me about six months to read this book. I’m not happy about that fact – but I was also reading it during quite a stressful time in my life when I was feeling distinctly under-energied. But that’s all done with now. I also haven’t written anything for my blog in a long time; hopefully this might be the start of a re-ignition of my interest in it, but I also have lots of things on the go. Anyway; the book.

The version I read is based on a 1485 edition – but, thankfully, with modern spellings of words. My Penguin edition comes in two volumes, each of about 450 – 500 pages (I picked them up a few years ago at a secondhand English language bookshop in the little underground shopping precinct near Seoul City Hall). The novel is presented in 21 books, each book consisting of anything from six to 86 chapters, each chapter being generally only two to four pages long. Each chapter begins with a short synopsis; the books don’t – which is quite annoying when you want to find out which characters feature in which books.

One of the first things I noticed about Le Morte d’Arthur is that, on a word by word or sentence by sentence basis, it’s actually not that difficult to read. There is quite a number of archaic words employed, most of which are footnoted when they first crop up in addition to being listed in a glossary, and sometimes the syntax can be tricky to figure out, but it’s nowhere near as dense or complex as Shakespeare, for instance.

NOW leave we there [the matter of the previous chapter] and speak of Sir Launcelot that rode a great while in a deep forest, where he saw a black brachet [hound], seeking in manner as it had been in the feute [track] of an hurt deer. And therewith he rode after the brachet, and he saw lie on the ground a large feute of blood. And then Sir Launcelot rode after. And ever the brachet looked behind her, and so she went through a great marsh, and ever Sir Launcelot followed.

Compare this paragraph (there were no paragraphs, originally) from Book VI with the original:

Now leue we there & ſpeke of ſyr Launcelot that rode a grete whyle in a depe foreſt where he ſaw a black brachet / ſekyng in maner as it had ben in the feaute of an hurt dere / And ther with he rode after the brachet and he ſawe lye on the ground a large feaute of blood / And thenne ſyre launcelot rode after / And euer the Brachet loked behynd her / and ſoo ſhe wente thorou a grete mareyſe / and euer ſyre launcelot folowed /

That would not be fun to read.

Mind you, the updated version was also not that much fun – and yet it was still strangely fascinating. For a modern reader like me, there were several things that got in the way of enjoying the stories presented in Le Morte. It’s quite repetitive in places – especially when it comes to fighting, of which there is a fair amount. Battles are generally a series of knights or kings getting knocked off their horses and being re-horsed. Contests between knights almost always have them jousting with their spears (the word ‘lance’ is not used once in the book), one or both of them getting unhorsed and then fighting with swords; the two basic variations are the number of hours the fight takes and how much blood is shed on the ground.

Then they hurtled together as two wild bulls, rashing [rushing] and lashing with their shields and swords that sometimes they fell both over their noses. Thus they fought still two hours and more, and never would have rest, and Sir Turquine gave Sir Launcelot many wounds that all the ground there as they fought was all bespeckled with blood.

The text is also strangely pedantic – often every single king and knight taking part in a war or tourney will be listed individually, like so:

Then there swore King Lot, a passing [exceptionally] good knight, and Sir Gawain’s father, that he would bring five thousand men of arms on horseback. Also there swore King Uriens, that was Sir Uwain’s father, of the land of Gore, and he would bring six thousand men of arms on horseback. Also there swore King Idres of Cornwall, that he would bring five thousand men of arms on horseback. Also there swore King Cradelment to bring five thousand men on horseback.

That’s about a quarter of the swearing.

Le Morte d'Arthur, Volume 2Another problem – which was exacerbated for me by the length of time it took me to read the thing – was the number of characters and stories contained within the whole book. The presence of Arthur, Merlin, Lancelot (Launcelot, in my text), Gawain, Gallahad, Mordred and others was a given, but you also have the whole story of Tristan (Tristram, according to my edition) which takes up two long books right in the middle and feels very shoehorned in (which it was). There are also a range of much lesser known knights like Lamorak and Palomides (who, along with Lancelot and Tristan, comprise the top four knights in Britain (and therefore the world; actually, Sir Palomides is an unchristened Saracen and one of the more interesting characters)) and the cowardly Breunis Saunce Pité. King Arthur is barely in the most of the stories – excepting the very first and last books.

Sometimes the text treats characters in a bizarre way – Sir Lamorak and Sir Tristan both die off-page, for instance, despite being major characters. To be fair, many of the other protagonists refer back to Lamorak’s treacherous murder by Mordred and his brothers, as this simmering conflict contributes to Arthur’s ultimate downfall. But Tristan’s demise is greeted with little more than, ‘Oh, right – that guy.’ Merlin – having been instrumental in hiding the young Arthur’s identity and then revealing his identity as heir and telling the young king exactly what to do in the early days – gets imprisoned by Nimue at the start of the fourth book and therefore takes no part in the remaining seventeen books.

Time passes strangely in the course of Le Morte d’Arthur. As it’s really a collection of stories about different characters, sometimes an older version of a knight will appear earlier in someone else’s story, before his younger days are recounted later in the book. I didn’t really notice that happening too much, as I tended to forget a lot of those details. There’s an episode, though, where Lancelot has been tricked in to believing the maiden Elaine of Corbenic (not to be confused with Elaine of Astolat, who also falls in love with Lancelot, but who doesn’t have such sorcerously helpful relatives) is Guinevere and he begets a child on her – Galahad. In the morning, when he realises what he’s done, Lancelot jumps out of a window and runs off to spend two years roaming the wilderness. When he comes back, Galahad is a strapping young man of fifteen years old.

Despite its many quirks and flaws, I still enjoyed reading Le Morte – despite the fact that it was a huge slog. You get used to the idiosyncracies of the writing, learn a slew of new (ie, very old) words and get a fuller picture of the Matter of Britain than is presented in modern portrayals. There is quite a lot of good, or at least entertaining, characterisation – like the fact that many knights turn a blind eye to Lancelot’s affair with Queen Guinevere and support him against the psychotically angry Gawain; or like the Dame Lynet’s continual verbal abuse of Gareth as he defeats a series of colourful knights.

So it was certainly worth the read and I don’t regret it, but it wasn’t easy and I regret the fact that it took me so long to trudge through it. Now I’m interested in reading more up to date interpretations of the story of king Arthur and his knights – probably also in writing something inspired by it (but when I’ll find the time the time for that, I don’t know).

The Fellowship of the RingI’ve been pretty lazy when it comes to my blog lately, so it’s been a while since I finished reading this – and an even longer while since I started reading it (which is a logical necessity, when you think about it). We read The Lord of the Rings in my friend Steve’s Tolkien and the Inklings group in Seoul; it was the culmination of a year of Tolkien reading. In fact, it was most of the Tolkien reading as we read it one book at a time for our monthly meetings and the novel is divided into six books (but often published in three volumes). So this review is pretty much a year in the making – and, as I don’t have the books with me right now, it will probably end up being rather vague.

I read The Lord of the Rings first when I was a teenager, I believe – during that period of my life when I often visited Shopping City Library. I don’t have any particular memory of it though – so I actually may not have read it then at all. I did read it (again – or possibly for the first time) when I was at university in my mid-twenties. This was the time when Peter Jackson’s films were coming out; I picked up a nice boxed set with the whole thing divided into seven volumes – one for each of the books and one for the appendices. I remember being impressed by the invented world and history and the rather post-modern structure, and less than impressed by the writing style.

In particular, I remember reading the very end of the story in a gazebo next to one of the ponds at Bath Spa University and pretty much breaking down in tears at the sadness of the conclusion.

All throughout the months of reading it this time around, I wondered if it would affect me quite as much. It didn’t.

The Return of the KingOne of the great attractions and flaws of The Lord of the Rings is its simplicity. The writing is quite naïve; none of the descriptive writing is especially literary or challenging by mondern standards. The characters are generally quite two-dimensional – with the exceptions, perhaps, of Boromir and Frodo (one of whom dies a third of the way through, the other is not present on page for large portions of the rest of the novel). This makes the story seem a little less like the struggle of individual characters than a dance of paper dolls.

But, of course, Tolkien wasn’t trying to make something comparable to modern literature – he was writing a fairy tale, a myth. I remember thinking, when I read the story in the 2000s, that the childlike simplicity of the text allowed it to somehow slip through the reader’s critical defences, to operate on a more primitive level. I didn’t necessarily feel that this time – I found it more of a constant distraction.

Probably one of the reasons why The Lord of the Rings is so popular is because it is not at all challenging, literarily or morally. It’s a bit like a warm, unconditional hug from a parental figure. Nature and rural life is unconditionally good and meet and beautiful; the good guys are always ultimately good – even if sometimes troubled or tempted – and all their actions turn out for the best; evil will always be defeated.

The Two TowersThe Lord of the Rings is too important and influential a book – personally and globally – for me to dismiss it. There is much that is genuinely beautiful about it. In particular, the sense of a world changing, becoming less than it once was, personified exceptionally in the age-long melancholy of the elves and their eventual passage to the West … and less exceptionally in the industrialisation of the Shire. Gandalf is a wonderful character – a wise and benevolent, yet reluctant leader, who, despite his utter trustworthiness, still has his secrets and is not a stranger to losing his temper (‘Fool of a Took!’).

The narrative structure is one of the most interesting features of the novel. The first volume, The Fellowship of the Ring is the most conventional part, but thereafter it alternates, book by book, between focussing on Frodo and Sam on the one hand and the rest of the characters on the other. This works very well for building suspense about what is happening to Sam and Frodo – especially as Aragorn, Merry, Pippin et al have no idea how their friends’ unlikely quest is proceeding. There are a couple of parts where first Merry and Pippin’s adventures and later Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli’s are glossed over in flashback (the sacking of Isengard by the Ents and the ghost army’s routing of the southern corsairs) somewhat unsatisfactorily – but that may just be because we’ve already seen these things in the films.

J R R Tolkien

There is more that could be said – and we discussed a lot of these issues and more in our book group over the months we were reading The Lord of the Rings – but I would rather this review stayed reasonably concise. In short, many of the core elements of the story are archetypally powerful and it’s a masterpiece within its own terms. In the contexts of twentieth century literature and contemporary fantasy, it’s a little lacking. I couldn’t help thinking many times what it might be like if the same story were written by a more ‘grown-up’ writer like Stephen R Donaldson, George R R Martin or R Scott Bakker (fantasy writers having an ‘R’ initial in their name is a old charter or a tradition or something). Nevertheless, I’m sure this is far from the last time I will read The Lord of the Rings.

From home to home

Given that I had some time off before I started work, I decided to fly back to Britain for a couple of weeks. It wasn’t particularly a Christmas visit – it was just a coincidence that that event fell during my work hiatus, and it seemed like the perfect time to be back with my family.

I flew with Finnair (yes – boarding my flights, I disappeared into Finnair) via Helsinki airport. Both ways, I was a little anxious about my baggage. On the way there, I hid my small backpack in my carry-on suitcase, taking it out once I’d passed through security. On the way back, I was a little concerned about the weight of my big backpack, containing, as it did, several books in addition to clothing and suchlike, but it only weighed 17kg – well under the 23 kg limit (but still a bugger to swing on to and off my back).

I also paid extra to bring my guitar (a Mexican Fender Stratocaster) in its flight case back with me to Korea; even though it was well wrapped in plastic the case suffered a little damage – the guitar is OK, though. It’s been fun playing it in the past few days, although a) I do regret not getting over to my late grandparents’ home to pick up my Metallica music books and b) it’s given me a flare-up of sciatica, for which I will try to resume my back exercises.

At Helsinki, it was rather charming to see the airport staff getting around on adult-sized push scooters.

I barely had chance to unload my backpack and share the wealth of Korean snacks I’d brought back with my family, and to have an early Christmas dinner with – amazingly – my whole family, before I headed down to Bath to spend a couple of days with my friend Alex, and then to Bristol to do likewise with my friend Lawrence and his girlfriend Yi Vei. I got them all Korean snacks, too – including the ever-popular Pepero.

Alex and I, accompanied much of the time by his friend Jason, spent pretty much all our waking hours playing Magic: The Gathering with a little Munchkin and Islands of the Azure Sea on the side. My Magic decks didn’t do very well, as Alex has recently got back into the game and has much more of the recent powerful stuff than I do – and Jason is an adept newcomer to the game.

Before catching my train to Bristol, Alex and I visited Waterstone’s, where he bought me a bunch of Magic cards and card sleeves and I bought him Star Munchkin.

Lawrence and Yi Vei took me to a burger restaurant, Atomic Burger, that was decked out in old toys and where all the burgers had the names of American icons – I got a Johnny Cash. The following day, I was supposed to take part in Lawrence’s workshop at a Buddhist centre, but I had a terrible headache from not drinking enough before bed and sleeping too long. I felt bad about dropping out, but I was far too grumpy to join in the spirit of it.

Once back in Whaley Bridge at my sister’s place I spent much of the time playing board games with her, her kids, her boyfriend, her kids’ aunt. They enjoyed my Islands of the Azure Sea game; as usual, I’d modified the rules since playing it previously, which helped to balance the gameplay. I got them Forbidden Island and Catan Junior as gifts and we enjoyed them, too. I bought Munchkin Cthulhu along with its Call of Cowthulhu expansion for myself and got to try that out.

Other plans – like blogging, working my new game idea The Hell War, reading a friend’s novel, researching MA courses in Seoul – were pretty much forgotten. As Alex and Lawrence are two of my oldest and best friends I prioritised visiting them, and that, along with Christmas, limited my ability to see other friends. Another time.

In addition to my guitar and Munchkin Cthulhu, I also brought back my Monopoly and Scrabble as well as Civilization, a board game (which predates Sid Meier’s Civilization computer game) my parents got me about ten years ago and which I’ve only ever played once (and I cut that game short when my friends decided to change the rules as we were playing). I also got Stephen R Donaldson’s recent last book in the Last Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, The Last Dark, Iain (M) Banks’s last book before his death last year, The Quarry, Robert Rankin’s latest, The Chickens of Atlantis and Other Foul and Filthy Fiends, Philip Pullman’s Grim Tales, Swords & Dark Magic and Strange Dreams – both anthologies, the latter edited by Stephen Donaldson. Finally, I ordered and received a small pile of unusual dice and brought them back along with all my other dice.

Since then, I’ve played Civilization with my friend Peter and Munchkin Cthulhu with some other friends – Matthew, Erica and Jihyena – celebrated the New Year with meat, uninspiring fireworks, drink and card games and paid my rent for January, leaving me with precious little money until I get paid some time later in the month. I’ll be living on my credit card until then.

I start work on Monday and I feel pretty ambivalent about it. I’m not exactly looking forward to it, but I want to get the initial period over with and settle in as fast as possible, and also get used to getting up early every day. It seems like there are lots of documents to get used to dealing with and probably not much time during normal working hours to fill them all out. And the kids’ mums are apparently the kind that love to complain about everything. I should just try and keep my head and enjoy teaching the kids as much as possible.

I’m sure I’ll be back in a month or two to report on my progress.

Job sorted

On Monday, I had two interviews at kindergartens, one near Mia in northern Seoul and a second just round the corner from where I live. This latter seemed like the perfect location, at least, and the kindergarten seems like a very nice place. By the end of the interview, it was clear that they were happy with me and wanted me to sign a contract right away (as did the other place). I got an e-mail address from one of the foreign teachers (or ‘native teachers’ as Koreans generally refer to us) and sent her a few questions, later on. Her answers weren’t as flattering to the hagwon as the message I got before starting my last job, but it didn’t seem at all terrible; she’s been there for going on for three years.

The biggest problem I’m likely to face is ‘psycho parents’, specifically mothers – those who complain about every little thing they possibly can. At least they’ll generally only interact with the Korean staff – which sucks for them, but provides a useful buffer for native teachers. Some unpaid Saturday work seems to be part of the job, too, but only two or three times a year … or so I’ve been assured.

At the moment there are three foreigners working there, but they’re all leaving in the near future and five more – including me – will be hired. Whatever the problems, the convenience of the location will make up for a lot of them.

So, I went back on Tuesday to sign a contract and the boss and head teacher and I spent about three hours going through the contract, printing off various versions and figuring out what I had to do to get my visa transferred to my new employer. As the job is starting on the 6th of January and my E-2 visa from my previous job was due to expire on the 19th of December I had thought that I would need to transfer to the job-seeking visa, the D-10 visa, and then transfer again to my new teaching visa.

However, after another call to Immigration, the head teacher told me I should transfer my visa to a new E-2 sponsored by my new job immediately. This involved printing out a new contract for Immigration purposes that stated that I started that day. They gave me some business registration documents and I promised to go to Immigration right then.

Which I duly did and, after waiting in line for a good while – long enough for me to fill in a couple of forms, contact my old boss for her business registration number, and my landlady to clarify our address, and still hang around for a good while – I was able to hand over the documents and my passport and my Alien Registration Card and they changed my visa and my address details within five minutes or so. Free of charge, too, which I wasn’t expecting.

Unfortunately, I forgot to pick up a copy of my police subject access letter, which my employer apparently needs in order to register me with the education board. So I took care of that today, by heading back to Omokgyo Station and thence to the Immigration building, waiting for a much shorter while in the same place as before – the room for visa extensions and stuff – but, when I got to the desk, I was told I needed to go up to the seventh floor.

So up the stairs I went, found a likely looking room and went in. A young woman working at a desk near the door seemed to know exactly what I wanted before I even said anything. Sure enough, at the desk where she told me to sit was an English translation of the form I needed to fill in, with the relevant boxes highlighted and containing example information. A few minutes later, I had a copy of the police letter and my degree certificate, too.

The other thing I needed to do – my new supervisor informed me – was get a new health check. I did a search for hospitals with English-language services and found that the closest to my home is St Mary’s Catholic Hospital, so I went there to try to get the health check done. I found the English-speaking clinic, but I was told to go to a different department and was led most of the way by an older man who complained about the smog that’s apparently blown over Korea from China.

In the other building, I found a place with ‘Visa Health Checks’ or something equally apposite over the door. The young male doctor and female office worker seemed very confused by what I was asking and wanted me to come back the following week when their office manager would return. After more inquiries, they got on the phone and then eventually told me to go to a different St Mary’s Hospital, this one at Yeouido – close to the Immigration building – in the morning.

After I later updated the head teacher on my progress, she gave me a further hospital to go to – Hanaro Medical Foundation, not too far away near Seolleung Station (I used to work near there in 2010). So I’ll go and do that, hopefully, tomorrow morning.

I may have to wait a couple of weeks for the health test results to come back – which could be a problem, as I won’t be in the country in a couple of weeks. Last night I booked tickets to fly back to the UK for a fortnight from the 16th of December. It was something I had been thinking of doing during the coming summer, but with some money in the bank and a month of free time, I might as well do it now. I imagine I can have the results posted to my new kindergarten.

When I go home, I plan to take back some of my read books along with various Korean foods and maybe drinks (soju?) as gifts. And I plan to bring back more books and board games. I generally say that there’s not much that I miss about England, but I’m actually looking forward to going home again. My sister had a fake, November Christmas for me last year; it’ll be nice to spend time with family for the real thing this year. I plan to introduce my neice and nephew to my board game, Islands of the Azure Sea.

I’m not so much looking forward to leaving my cat by herself for two weeks, though. My friends who live in the neighbouring flats would be happy to feed her, but I would to find someone to stay here so she doesn’t get too lonely. It’s a difficult thing to judge: would she be more stressed by being left alone or by having a stranger move in? Fortunately, I have some good, cat-loving friends who I think would be willing to help out.

The past month or so has been one of those transitional times – but it’s been good.

My job was always a pretty low-key affair. Many hagwons for elementary and middle school children put on events for Halloween and Christmas; apart from putting all of our kids into the one room to play games and have food, there was no great to-do this October. Nevertheless, I had most of my kids skip their studies for a class or two to make Halloween decorations – even the older kids who no longer have many opportunities for fun stuff in their schooling. I even played zombie (blindfold tick) in my classroom with my all-girl class (plus one boy, Brian, who always comes at the same time as the girls but usually studies separately – when he joins the female class, I call him Briana).

Some students produced some excellent artwork, too.

Emily's Witch

Seung-ho's Death

Tony's Vampire

And then my leaving date started to draw near. I was thrown three separate parties – one with my mixed elemetary school class plus the girls, one with my high-level middle school class and one with my younger middle school class. The middle one of these classes put up balloons and bought me a fancy quattro-style cake. In the other parties, we had fried chicken on Monday and pizza on Friday. It was probably the most fuss that’s ever been made over me for leaving a job. From what they tell me, Korean kids will spontaneously organise things like this with their own money; I don’t recall that ever happening when I was at school.

Leaving Party Balloons

In addition to leaving parties at work, I had a final coffee morning meeting and a meal and drinks (and games) with a bunch of friends from both inside and outside Cheonan. It wasn’t the mega-party of my birthday, but it was good fun and it was great to see people there.

It was my hope when I was looking for a job last year to find something in Seoul, but I had hardly any offers of interviews; one recruiter told me in an e-mail that he couldn’t really do anything for me as I didn’t live in Korea. The job that I eventually took in Cheonan was actually the first offer that I had, but it seemed like a very good place to work – and thus it proved. And it got me back into the country.

I am lucky enough to have really fallen on my feet when it comes to finding somewhere to live in Seoul. My two friends, Matthew and Zach live next door to each other and the flat next door to them has been empty for a long time. As the landlord kept the door unlocked, we were able to have a look around the place together a couple of times. It’s bigger than their places, although the bathroom is much smaller, so I was concerned that it would be too expensive. But they both disagreed and were enthusiastic about the prospect of me moving in there.

I asked them to ask the landlord what the rent would be and the answer was ₩650,000 (£375) a month with a key money deposit of ₩5,000,000 (£2,900) – the same as both of my friends’ places. And that pretty much settled it. I made arrangements to pay the landlord in a couple of phases, as I wouldn’t have all the money until I got my last month’s salary and bonus, and went and signed a contract.

I asked my friend Peter if he’d help me move if I paid his expenses, but his wife pointed out that it would be pretty expensive to drive from Daegu to Cheonan and on to Seoul and all the way back again. So she suggested that her father could do it for a reasonable fee (a third of the ₩300,000 my boss said it would cost to hire a small lorry). And he did. Shortly before I moved, I’d taken a few things up to leave at Zach’s place; if I’d been more assiduous I would have taken more on different occasions. It turned out to have been a good idea, as Peter’s father-in-law’s car got filled to the roof with all my stuff. My cat sat quietly in her case on my lap on the way up.

I’ve been there a while now and am very happy with the place. Having a bedroom in addition to the main area is quite a luxury. Even though the place is not massive, it’s still pretty big – so much so that it feels a little empty. Shortly after I moved in I invited a few people over for a flat-warming party; I made vegetable bolognese and we played games until two in the morning. My only real concern about the place was the mouldy smell – which is starting to fade, or at least be hidden, now that I’m cooking there. I’ll have to make sure the mould doesn’t get any worse.

The next step, of course, is to find a job. This has been going well. I had four interviews before I left my last job, travelling up to Seoul early in the morning on the subway and heading back to Cheonan by express bus at lunchtime, of which I was offered two positions. I turned them both down; in the case of the first, I didn’t like the boss, and the second was too far to commute every day.

After a slow start where I concentrated on cleaning and unpacking and buying a few extra things that I needed from the nearby Daiso (mmm, Daiso), I got my job search back on track again last week. By the end of the week, I was starting to get invitations to interviews – and I had two seemingly successful interviews on Monday, one of which was at a kindergarten very close to where I live. Even if nothing comes of these particular jobs, it leaves me feeling pretty confident about future prospects.

The only potential fly in the ointment now is getting a D-10 visa (my E-2 visa, sponsored by my last job, expires a month after I finished working, ie, mid- to late December). This is a ‘looking-for-work’ visa, and to qualify for it, I will probably need to prove that I can support myself in the country until I get a job. I can support myself – but my money is all in my British accounts and I don’t know if that will be a problem. It seems like getting the D-10 is usually not a big deal.

And that’s my life at the moment, work-wise. 2013 was a good year. I think expectations are the surest path to disappointment and frustration, but I have pretty high hopes for 2014.

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