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Archive for October, 2010

Earlier on I was at a beach – romantically named No. 6 Bathing Beach, according to my map. That’s where I had a Big Mac and a coffee. The beach was quite nice. With all the high-rise buildings behind it, it was very reminiscent of Haeundae and similar beaches in Busan. At the land end of Zhanqiao Pier, there were some rocks and rockpools that reminded me of the north Wales of my childhood, as did certain aspects of the beach front – the wall and railings behind the beach, for example.

After my coffee and my previous blog post, I got some headache pills. I went into a chemist and the women working there shook their heads when I asked for Tylenol or paracetamol. I pointed at my head and they picked up on what I wanted. They showed me a couple of boxes of pills, one of which, amongst the Chinese, mentioned Ibuprofen in English – so I bought that.

I took a taxi next. I asked to go to Zhanshan Temple, but the woman driving – and who spoke reasonably good English, and who looked a little like Oona King – took me instead to the TV Tower. After experiences in India, I’m wary of taxi drivers, but it seems like she just wanted me to experience more of the city. Before she would let me pay her, she wanted me to buy tickets for the TV Tower (50 yuan) and the ‘Cableway for Tourists’ (60 yuan), which latter would take me to the temple.

It was dusk by the time I ascended the tower – the attendants inside were mostly young women who spoke English hesitantly and rather cutely. The view was decent. It didn’t move me as much as such things would have done in the past – or even a few weeks ago when I went to N Seoul Tower with Habiba and her brother. On the way out of the open air observation deck I noticed a gallery of other notable towers, and noted which ones I’d been to, or indeed up.

The cableway was basically a ski-lift – a rickety old ski-lift – not really worth £6, but whatever. A short walk from the base, took me to Zhanshan Temple. The ticket kiosk was closed, but the place was apparently open, so I walked in, as did a trickle of Chinese visitors. There were workmen doing construction work. As I headed into one particular section of the temple, a middle-aged monk in saffron robes shoed me and other tourists out.

The architecture was generally similar to Korean temple design, but, where Korean temples are multicoloured with a preponderance of green, this one was mostly blue with a lot of gold.

After that, I walked down to the seafront with the intention of finding the May Fourth Square. The Fourth of May is the anniversary of an uprising around the end of the First World War that led to the May Fourth Movement – an important moment in the rise of communism in China. It’s also the anniversary of my birth – so I had to go and have a look. It was dark by the time I got there, but the monument, apparently representing the May wind, was illuminated – it’s a big red roundish thing.

Along the seafront nearby, I bought three big, wooden, six-sided dice. They don’t have numbers on – two of them have Chinese characters, the third has sexual positions. I’ll have to use it with Habiba when I return to Korea.

After that I walked towards the local government building and noticed a coffee shop called Coffee Spark – ‘the coffee meeting spot’ – which is where I am now, drinking coffee, writing this, contemplating the prospect of dinner, a Halloween party at the hostel, taking the train to Beijing tomorrow and meeting Habiba’s friend Charlie.

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On Thursday morning I packed and prepared for my trip to China and I left home just before 1 o’clock. I took the subway down to Dongincheon (East Incheon) station – about an hour and a half journey. Then, on the basis of something I’d read online, I tried asking a taxi driver to take me to the Weidong Ferry Terminal – Weidong being the ferry company I was travelling to Qingdao with. He didn’t know where to take me. A second driver took me to the 1st International Ferry Terminal. Only that was the wrong one – I should have been at the 2nd Internation Ferry Terminal. We’d even passed it on the way and I’d seen a ferry that I thought was the one I’d be taking. I took a bus back.

I arrived just before boarding started at four o’clock – three hours before the scheduled leaving time. I bought some snacks for the journey, exchanged a pile of money and bought a ticket for my return journey from Tianjin. After security, Immigration (where I handed in my Korean Alien Registration Card) and a short shuttle bus ride, I boarded and was given a sheet of information in English and was shown to my cabin. I’d paid a bit extra for the privilege of a four-man cabin – probably worth it; my ticket back is for the cheapest class.

The ferry was fairly grotty. Most of the communal areas were well worn and not too well cleaned. At first I spent a lot of out on deck waiting for the ferry to start moving, taking photos and texting Habiba with updates. Habiba wasn’t talking to me as I hadn’t been sufficiently sensitive to her worries about her upcoming contract. Eventually, the ferry left at about 7:30. The journey was quite smooth at first. Habiba rang and told me she was feeling better and had had dinner with a colleague.

I watched some Prison Break in my bunk. The second to fourth episodes of the fourth and final season. I’d watched all the others with Habiba and she didn’t want to watch any more. The third season was pretty weak, and the first episode of the last one wasn’t much better, but I thought the episodes I watched picked up some of the quality of the first couple of seasons, although the science fiction part of it – a gadget that can copy data just by being within a few feet of it – was pretty silly.

By the time I settled down to try to sleep, the ferry was rolling in a way I found quite alarming. Obviously, by that time we were well into the Yellow Sea. I didn’t sleep very well. The occasional loud thud resounding through the ship didn’t help.

In the morning, I breakfasted on crackers and chocolate. Leaving the ferry and going through Immigration at Qingdao were fairly straightforward; the Immigration official, a young woman, was amused by the young, longhaired chap in my passport photo.

I got a taxi to the youth hostel I’d made a reservation at. I was pretty sceptical of the process. The general state of dirtiness and disrepair reminded me a lot of India – although the infrastructure here seems much more solid and comprehensive. The driver didn’t help when he started smoking and offered me a cigarette. We arrived and I handed over a 100 yuan note (about £10), getting a few scruffy notes in return.

It was indeed the right place – the Kaiyue Youth Hostel, housed in an old church building. I was feeling very crappy – I had a bad headache. I headed up to my room, had a brief conversation with a German guy who was packing to leave and lay down on my bed. I didn’t get better quickly. Over the course of the next few hours I started feeling nauseous and threw up a couple of times. I tried to sleep, but a couple of Chinese guys coming in and out all the time didn’t help. I had a little water with me and a mug of black tea I’d made earlier, but, even though I was very dehydrated all through the night, I could face consuming anything.

By the morning my headache was gone and I was feeling OK. I shaved and showered, dressed and had breafast at the large, atmospheric bar on the ground floor. I managed to get in touch with Habiba on Skype, then I headed out, after buying a map of Qingdao for 8 yuan. I walked around for a while, trying to follow directions I’d been given to the seafront. Eventually I got there and walked around some more. The weather was – and still is, as I write this – beautiful, although rather hazy. I had lunch – not very adventurously – at a McDonald’s. Right now, I’m at an Angel-in-Us – a Korean chain of coffee shops. Unlike Korean branches, this one is nearly empty on a Saturday afternoon. It also sells beer.

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My last day at work was Friday. I had thought it was going to be today, which is the day I agreed to finish working, but I was told that I didn’t need to work on the Monday – which I forgot and had to be retold on Friday. Min-seon, the office manager, who I used to give lessons to, took me out for lunch and said that she’d miss me – not sure I believe that.

The previous night was supposed to be a leaving meal for me and Andrew, the Korean guy who also taught at EducaKorea and managed the Learning Center. Having very little work to do I was ready to go at the official finishing time of 6 o’clock, but Andrew told me people would be leaving at 7. So I left anyway and went to roleplaying. Probably not a very nice gesture to my colleagues, but the prospect didn’t fill me with much joy. Besides which, the night’s roleplaying session was an important one and it overran by an hour.

It was also my last roleplaying session for a while, as I’m heading to China on Thursday for a couple of weeks.

I haven’t blogged about my life recently, so here’s an update of the last few weeks.

Korean drivers aren’t held in high esteem by foreigners. I think Koreans just take them for granted. In some ways, though, Korean drivers are very tolerant of pedestrians. If there’s a small road joining a main road and there are no traffic lights, I’ve found that drivers, while they will certainly try to squeeze between people crossing the small road, they will also wait patiently if there are no gaps in the flow of pedestrians.

A while ago, walking back to the office from my Starbucks writing lunch, while crossing one such road an Audi saloon came towards me too fast. Already halfway across the road, I was confident that it was stop, but it came close to hitting me. I was holding my travel cup at my side, so I accidentally on purpose let it clunk against the car’s bonnet. The man inside honked his horn and shouted something at me as I walked away. I took no notice. From the amount of time it too the car to drive past me up the road, I’m sure he got out to check his paintwork. I wonder what would have happened if he’d seen some damage.

I’ve been wanting to get into hiking again – especially since I bought a new pair of hiking boots over the summer – they cost 150,000 won – about £75. A few weeks ago I went to Namhansanseong by myself on Sunday – it was a location that had been suggested by my friend and avid hiker, Botond.

There was a scary moment on the subway train. I was sitting there reading and there was a loud cry – pretty much a scream – from somewhere on my right. A young chubby guy ran down the carriage shouting wordlessly, holding something in his hand, apparently nothing wrong with him. When he got to the next car he stopped. Completely random and very unnerving. I had felt the adrenaline fountain inside me in a split second, and it took a while for my system to settle down.

The hike was pretty pleasant. After a bit of trek through the town, past all the hiking gear shops, you get to the foot of the hills and trudge up the hillside past a few small temples and plots of short towers made of piled rocks – many of them improbably slender. Then you reach the South Gate of the fortress.

It started raining pretty heavily while I was having a break there, so I put on my newly purchased rain jacket and headed off into the downpour while Koreans huddled under the gate’s roof. Not too long afterwards the rain stopped and the clouds cleared away leaving bright sunshine and good visibility. This latter was important because from some parts of the walls you can see all of Seoul to the northwest.

As I got to the west side of the fortress, having gone anti-clockwise around the perimiter (apart from one shortcut), it got more crowded with non-hikers – people there just for a short jaunt out to some historic buildings and who lack all the expensive clothing and gear that marks the serious hiker (and there are lots of these in Korea). As I headed wearily back to the South Gate, going downhill much of the way, my boots began to feel uncomfortable, my toes pressing againt the fronts.

Two weeks later I went back with Habiba and her colleagues June and Aiden.

In between these two hikes (if memory serves) Habiba, her friend Jessica and I went to the Busan International Film Festival (known as PIFF because it was established back when people used the older McCune-Reischauer system of transliterating Hangul into Roman letters). We saw three films on the Saturday but none on the Sunday.

The three we saw were all interesting in various ways – Honey was an understated Turkish film about a boy whose father has an accident while out collecting honey from his hives up in trees in the forest; Portraits in a Sea of Lies – the best of the three – was a moving Colombian film about a withdrawn young woman who goes on a roadtrip with her cocky cousin to find the deeds to a plot of land; and Viridiana was a strange 1950s drama by the Spanish director Luis Buñuel, about a young woman whose uncle tries to seduce and then commits suicide, apparently forcing her to live on in his mansion and take in a load of troubled homeless people.

The blurb about this last film promised cannibalism, so we were all disappointed when it didn’t materialise – blame Korean translators. Actually, no – blame Korean managers: some PIFF bigwig probably just went to someone in their office and said, ‘Here, you speak English: translate all this by next week.’

Some time ago I went had some problems with my shoulder. I first went to what I think was a Korean acupuncture clinic and when this didn’t do much I went to an orthopaedic hospital that seemed to do the job. I went back there more recently with pain in my left hip. It’s a feeling I get from time to time, especially after playing guitar. This time, however, it was completely random and about the sharpest it’s ever been.

I had more physiotherapy of the heat, ultrasound and electric kind, plus some medication, and that helped a lot. I also had a few X-rays (you can’t go to the doctor in Korea without getting a handful of X-rays done), which showed that there’s a slight problem with my L4 vertebra, near the base of my spine. There’s a little extra space where the disc is, implying, I think, some inflammation. The doctor said it wasn’t anything serious, just a sign of getting older, and he recommended that I strengthen my back muscles and don’t sit at a desk too much. I should get on that – at least the first part: you can’t be a writer without applying the seat of the trousers to the seat of a chair.

I’ve been working on my writing and trying to set things up to help my writing goals. I started a new blog, for instance – this one to be a ‘public’ one, while I think Infinite Probability should be a private record of my personal life. To this end, I think I’m going to transfer some things from here to there – namely my book reviews and Lexicon. I also rejoined Critters – and have found that it’s recently been renovated and looks like a fairly contemporary web site (the old one was very basic). I’ve already had some feedback on one of my stories (‘The Green Marble’) that all makes good sense and that I want to incorporate into the next version of the piece. I just need to get down to the hard work of rewriting. I’m also intending to take part in National Novel Writing Month (aka NaNoWriMo) in November and see if I can’t write 50,000 in 30 days.

I’ve also been putting a lot of work into a roleplaying game system. It’s very hard work, though. Every decision you make for how things should work have repercussions pretty much throughout the system. Even my goals in creating the game are difficult to balance – part of me wants simplicity, part of me wants realism. Still a fair way to go with this project, but I think a lot of the fundamentals are in place now.

Now that I’m not working, I should have more time to work on the things that are important to me. Sightseeing in China might get in the way for a bit. Natural laziness might get in the way full stop.

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The Unbelievable Truth is possibly the best addition to the 6:30 pm comedy band on Radio 4. Listen to it and know the truth for yourself.

Monday’s edition contained revelations about Chinese funerals – they sometimes involve erotic dances or pornography (to get more people to attend, which boosts the honour shown to the deceased). The panellists started riffing on the usefulness of ice cream vans in military conflict: if you dropped ice cream vans with limited supplies of small change behind enemy lines in Afghanistan this would cause a distraction to the Taliban as they tried to find the correct change for their ice creams. Rufus Hound commented, ‘If there’s one thing we know about the Taliban, it’s that they hate change.’

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Last night I had a bumper writing session. I had dinner at a place near work and then went to Starbucks for about three hours. I wrote nearly 2,000 words on the ghost story I started earlier in the month. After a coffee and a tea, I didn’t sleep too well, but I’m very proud of the work I got done and its quantity.

At lunchtime today I got another 400 words done, bringing the total up to 2,600 or so.

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Jeremy Hardy on the subject of the Zoo Quorum (he meant the newly abolished quango, the Zoos Forum), on Radio 4’s The News Quiz on Friday.

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I’ve only just got round to reading last year’s offering by the world’s greatest teller of tall tales, and, to be honest, it was a bit disappointing. All the basic components of a Robert Rankin novel are there – one gormless hero taking on the forces of evil to save the world, a heady mix of science fiction and the supernatural, and much talking of toot.

This novel is a direct sequel to The Brightonomicon and sees Hugo Rune’s assistant Rizla (whose identity was revealed at the end of this novel’s predecessor) travelling back in time to prevent the Germans winning the war. Along the way Rune and Rizla must solve twelve mysteries, each one related to a tarot card (and each of these has a full page illustration created by Rankin), which see them dealing with ghosts and werewolves, the now-legendary Minstry of Serendipity, the spirit of King Arthur resurrected in a Bletchley Park computer, the technology behind the Philadelphia Experiment, and so on and so forth.

A lot of this book seemed like joining the dots. The characters had an arbitrary series of cases to crack before the inevitable show-down with the villain of the piece, Count Otto Black. The story lacked the usual verve – and even the narrator comments on a lack of the usual running gags (although there is a superabundance of devices powered by the transperambulation of pseudo cosmic antimatter). The fact that the narrator’s true identity is also known took away from force of the books, for me.

On the other hand, there are some interesting developments regarding Rune himself – we learn more about his relationship to Black, and there is a suggestion that he might retire himself.

All in all, this was not an outstanding Rankin book, so I look forward to this year’s effort, The Japanese Devil Fish Girl and Other Unnatural Attractions, with a mixture of trepidation and hope.

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In this post I’m going to reveal how many of the books on each list I’ve read and then, by averaging them, come up with a figure for how well read I am.

1. Time – 10

2. The Modern Library – 6

3. The Modern Library – Reader’s List – 19

4. The Modern Library – Radcliffe Rival 100 Best Novels – 14

5. The Best 100 Lists – 28

6. BBC – The Big Read – 24

7. The Guardian/Observer – 11

8. Goodreads – 28

9. The Telegraph – 100 novels everyone should read – 17

10. This Recording – Science Fiction and Fantasy Novels – 29

Total: 186. Divide by 10: 18.6

Therefore I am 18.6% well read. What about you?

Conclusions: I actually own a lot more of the books on these lists than I have actually read – so I need to get around to reading them (Moby Dick, for instance). There’s plenty of others that I don’t own and haven’t read. But I can take some comfort from the fact that I don’t appear to be a complete ignoramus. My score on the sf and fantasy list is a little low – so there’s work there to be done, for sure.

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Howard Jacobson just won the Man Booker Prize with his novel, The Finkler Question. The main talking point of this event is the fact that it’s the first comic novel to win the prize in its 42-year history.

When I think of comedy fiction, three writers come to mind – Robert Rankin, Terry Pratchett and Douglas Adams. For me the first two – and I love Robert Rankin, and am on the positive side of indifferent to Terry Pratchett (it’s just been announced that Pratchett is a World Fantasy Lifetime Achievement Award winner) – are fairly self-indulgent reads. People read Rankin and Pratchett because there’s something comforting about the worlds they’ve created and sustained in the five million novels they’ve written between them (five million is an approximate figure). They are full of wordplay, silliness and running gags. Douglas Adams, for me, is a much more serious writer. When I read the Hitchhiker books I get a sense of existential melancholy; that series explores the fundamental pointlessness of human existence. The answer to the question – the question, about life, the universe and things of that nature generally – is 42 – which is about as meaningful as any other answer people have come up with.

Jacobson’s thesis, from what I’ve read and heard in the past day, is that comic novels are not or should not be a minor sub-genre, but the totality of literature – all novels should make you laugh, he says.

Well, I would say that humour is a useful tool in any writer’s kit – any novel can have flashes of humour that arise from the characters or the situations. But comic writers also use a certain voice – an authorial voice that is itself humorous, witty, punning, observational – that doesn’t often sit well with literary quality. Of the three writers I mentioned, I would say Adams achieves it, but Rankin and Pratchett do not.

It would be nice to think that all writing and writers are published simply for their literary merits, but it seems like the reality is that many books are published because they fulfil(publishing companies’ perception of) market demand. Fantasy novels have to be about 8,000 pages long and tell the story of a young hero, or group of young heroes, in excrucating detail from childhood to confrontation with the ultimate evil that killed their parents. And comedy novels, clearly, can’t be serious literature – it would confuse people.

My favourite series of books is Stephen R Donaldson’s Gap series. It’s a gripping, brutal space opera – but it has one joke (if that’s the right word) that stood out for me. Introducing one character, Godsen Frik, the book says something along the lines of, ‘He had the fleshy smile of a pederast who’d just been made the head of a boys reform school.’ Appropriately dark, but in as much as it is funny (opinions may differ), it’s somehow out of keeping with the tone of the rest of the story.

I think, ultimately, that each book should just be good at was it does, whether it’s a comedy, a funny book with serious bits, a serious book with funny bits or a work of unleavened humourlessness.

I’ve never read any Howard Jacobson, although I’ve seen him in the media over the years and he’s always seemed plain-speaking and likeable. I should get a copy of one of his books at some point – maybe even The Finkler Question. You can read more about him and his shiny new 50,000 pound prize on the Independent website or over at the Telegraph – or any other news site (but you’ll have to search for them yourself).

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I’d never read any Hemingway before I picked this book up, but I knew that he was famous for his pared-down style. For Whom the Bell Tolls is based on his experiences reporting on the Spanish Civil War. It relates a period of about three days during which a young American Explosives expert, Robert Jordan (which is also the pen name of the James Oliver Rigney, author of The Wheel of Time), arrives at the hideout of a small band of Republican guerillas and embarks on the demolition of a nearby bridge. During this time he has to plan the attack and deal with the tricky web of relationships between himself and the partisans.

It’s a sizable book (perhaps not as big as some Wheel of Time volumes) and the fact that only three days pass is quite impressive. The length of attention given to the build-up to the attack on the bridge heightens the sense of danger, doom and melancholy. This is a book about death and although Robert Jordan manfully avoids thinking about the risks of his task, the inevitability of death hangs over him throughout – from Pilar’s harrowing recounting of the slaughter of fascist-supporting townsfolk, to the fate of the previous dynamiter who worked with the guerillas, to the suicide of Robert Jordan’s own father.

The way language is used is interesting. The characters speak in Spanish throughout, but, of course, the book is written in English, so Hemingway uses various techniques to create a sense of Spanishness to the dialogue. There is a smattering of actual Spanish used in the book, particularly the expression que va? which is used to show disbelief or disgust. In order to convey the Spanish informal pronoun , thee and thou are used. Some of the grammar is idiosyncratic; whenever the Spanish characters mention the plan to blow up the bridge they say, ‘this of the bridge’. There’s also some use of ‘false friends’ – these are words in two language that are similar enough to suggest that they have the same meaning, when, in fact, they don’t. For example, the Spaniards in the novel say that a Russian character has a ‘rare’ name, but this is a false friend of the Spanish raro, which actually means ‘strange’.

There is a lot of dialogue in this book – both between the characters and within the protagonists’ own heads. A lot of this dialogue is also quite repetitive. Robert Jordan repeatedly asks the partisans questions – perhaps because he is afraid of anyone making mistakes (although this isn’t stated explicitly). All these qualities give the text a strange readibility – I was always aware that I was reading dialogue and always trying to guess how much of the technique is authorial invention and how much based on experience.

The book paints a consistent and believable picture of life behind enemy lines in the Spanish Civil War. As I mentioned, the shadow of death hangs over the whole narrative – especially given that the reader knows something the characters don’t, namely that the Republicans lost to Franco’s forces. There’s a certain coldness to the story – I felt that I was appreciating the events and the characters and their feelings intellectually rather than emotionally.

Another weak point was the character Maria, a brutalised young woman who falls in love with Robert Jordan as soon as she sees him and who provides a tender counterpoint to the harsh realism of the rest of the story. She’s an annoyingly passive and girly character, always fawning over Jordan. She jumps into bed with him despite the trauma she has very recently experienced.

Incidentally, one episode in the book shows the last stand of the leader of a nearby band of guerillas and a few of his men on a hill, surrounded by fascist troops. This scene was the inspiration for the Metallica song, ‘For Whom the Bell Tolls’ (and what a stupendously brilliant song that is).

All in all, the novel is engaging, thought-provoking and occasionally moving. It is dark, but not depressing – the protagonist may be doomed to die, but he is prepared to die for something he believes in.

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