See ya!

After more than nine years on livejournal, the time has come for me to move on and leave the site.
My new address is - I hope you can follow me there.
I'll still come here from time to time to check my friends list, but this will be the last post on this site.
Have a good one!

Lily Vera Errington, 1922-2011

My grandmother died a couple of weeks ago on the 9th of October. Her funeral is today. Unfortunately it hasn't been possible for me to make it over to England at short notice.  I would like to write her life story here, but since I wasn't around for the first 57 years, I'm not really up to the job. Instead, then, my memories.

Nana lived down in Kent, and I grew up in the West Midlands, so I only used to see her during the school holidays when we'd go for week-long visits. She lived with my Grandad in a bungalow in a quiet little village called Barham. It was strange and beautiful down there - big flat fields, not like the rolling patchwork of Herefordshire. Every morning we'd get up, eat chipolatas and feed the gang of birds outside the front door. There was a big old crow, a seagull with a leg missing and many others, many with their own names. We'd take trips out to different towns in the daytime, to visit different relatives, and to go to the beach. It always seemed exotic somehow. A couple of times we managed to be in the village when it flooded and a temporary river appeared. Nana always seemed so busy - she worked part-time as a nurse, took part in the WI and always seemed to be taking care of my disabled cousin - but this only occurs to me now. At the time, that was just how she was.

A little less than twenty years ago, my granddad died.  Nana was left alone in the house, but she continued to take care of herself right into her mid-eighties. She would make such a fuss every time we came to stay, it was hard to stop her making food and drinks for us when she'd be much better off sitting down and letting us take care of her, so keen was she to take care of people.

Being mostly out of the UK I didn't see enough of her this past decade, just the occasional trip at Christmas or New Year, and a quick visit for a wedding. The last time I spent any time with her was Christmas 2008. Even at that stage her mind was perfectly sharp, though physically she was quite frail. It was only this year that she started to really deteriorate. She passed away peacefully in her sleep at the age of 89.

I'd like to write more, but what I have are just fragments of memory - images, smells, sounds, feelings - all a jumble and all too self-centred, as childhood memories tend to be. Other people are much more qualified to fill in the gaps. All I can hope is that I can be so genuinely kind-hearted and touch as many people as she did. Goodbye Nana, and thankyou.

Work and wires

At the start of this week the landlord turned up at short notice to fix the heating upstairs in the flat. On the one hand this was good news - the upper floor was freezing last winter - but on the other hand we had to send the dog away (he doesn't allow dogs in the flat) and put up with two days of disruption.

He arrived at 9am, while I was having a lie-in, accompanied by his favourite odd-job man and another two guys, one of whom turned out to be the man who sold us our dog. Tongzhou is a small world, even if there are a million people here. They banged, drilled and sawed for the next two days, and left the apartment with an extensive system of pipes, around 100m of the things, giving the upstairs floor a new industrial estate vibe. It didn't occur to them to lay down any sheets or move furniture, so everything was covered in an inch-deep layer of plaster dust - chairs, computers, books - everything. That took the best part of the next two days to clear up. Every time you brushed and mopped the floor you'd release another layer of dust which would settle on the clean floor an hour or so later. We had to keep the baby downstairs for the whole time.

The other thing they fixed, on request, was the wiring system for our water bed. It's been comfortable all summer, but now winter is getting close it's almost too cold to sleep on already. The heating system it came with had a mess of frayed wires and a broken plug. The odd job man claims to have fixed it now. Have a look and see whether you think I should use it. The white part is insulating tape wrapped around a bit of frayed wire. The plug is new. Is it just me, or does it still look a bit dodgy? I've been assured that the water and electrics are entirely separated, but still....

Can I really trust this thing?

Mini poll bar

Mini poll bar

Mini poll bar

Mini poll bar

One Hundred Double Tens

Today is, in a sense, the 100th birthday of modern China, but you'd be hard pressed to notice it.
On the 10th of October 1911 a small bomb was accidentally detonated in Wuchan, part of modern-day Wuhan, injuring one man. When he was taken to the hospital the staff discovered he was a member of a revolutionary group and informed the authorities. The group's cover blown, they decided to launch their coup - this was the start of the Wuchang Uprising, which led to the downfall of imperial China and the proclamation of the Republic Of China on January 1st of the following year. The first president was Sun ZhongShan, generally referred to as the father of modern China.
Unfortunately the story that follows is not quite so heroic. While China had a president and an officially democratic system, in reality most of the country fell into the hands of opposing warlords, and decades of civil wars followed, only to be ended by the shockingly brutal Japanese occupation of the 1930s and 40s. It wasn't until Mao Zedong's victory in 1949 that China was again united.
The losers in the civil war were the nationalists, the party led by Sun ZhongShan in the 1910s. As they were routed from the mainland the remaining nationalist forces evacuated to Taiwan (controversially taking the country's gold reserves with them), where they have ever since continued to refer to themselves as the 'Republic of China'.
Taiwan still celebrates October 10th as their national day - they call it 'Double Ten Day'. On the mainland, though, there is no holiday and no real recognition. My wife, educated not 50 miles from the site of the uprising, was not even told about it at school. China's holidays and celebrations are of two types - traditional, ancient celebrations with elaborate customs and boring official holidays where everyone gets time off in order to not really celebrate a Party anniversary. Double Ten is too mixed-up and ambiguous to celebrate, and doesn't do anything to glorify the current regime. Today, however, is the hundredth anniversary, and it appears that The Party have decided to relent a little. I suspect that the main reason would be that ignoring it completely would arouse more interest than doing it half-heartedly.
Last week I was going through Tiananmen Square with V when we saw a huge portrait of Sun Zhongshan hanging up in front of Mao's mausoleum, a little baffling as he wasn't present at the Wuchang Uprising, and did nothing to organise it. Icons are always preferable to difficult questions. Then last night there was a very dull ceremony on TV where various CCP leaders took to the podium to briefly mention Sun, who had 'opened the door' before going on to the usual eulogies about how The Party had developed modern China. It wasn't a particularly fascinating event, the only item of interest being the appearance of former president Jiang Zemin, who had been rumoured to be dead since his no-show at the CCP's 90th anniversary earlier in the year.

Today there was a stranger ceremony, live from Wuchang on national TV. Events of this sort are generally ruthlessly choreographed, so when there is a slightly disorganised air it seems bizarre. It took place in a public park, the ground covered in unattractive plastic sheets. Party officials stood in rows, but many of them scratched their heads or legs and looked around. At the back there were rows of girls in uniform, but when there was a long shot several of them could be seen to be talking to each-other. These may seem like minor issues, but in China this is distinctly odd.
The next big anniversary is on January 1st, the hundredth anniversary of the declaration of the republic. It's unlikely that much more of a fuss will be made for that, though there's always scope for a surprise in China.

The Family

I live in a house with a family consisting of four Chinese people, one half-Chinese baby and a dog, nationality undetermined. I might also be part of the family, it depends. My Mandarin still isn't up to a level where I can communicate with them freely - and Mandarin isn't even the main language of the house. Generally people get by in a dialect I'll call WuXueHua, and if I want to know what's going on I'll have to learn that instead.
I've never properly written about the family before, partly because they're just part of my world now. But I've got some free time this week, so here they are.

The Father

V's father is from a small town in the South of China. He's a lawyer, or at least he was - he's not had a case for quite a while, and is retiring next year. He's a pleasant, reasonable guy, though stuck in his ways, and has taken on all the housework, including cooking since the baby was born. He's quite busy with this for most of the day. I try to do things for him but he'll only let me mop the floor really.

The Mother

V's mother is from another small town on the banks of the Yangtze. It's nice to have her helping with the baby generally, but most of the time she tends to be in a foul mood, and generally communicates with people by shouting at them. She doesn't always get on with V, but generally they maintain a truce.  Aside from taking care of the baby, she mutters, grumbles and watches soap operas on her computer.

The Elder Daughter

MeiHua, Veronique, V - my wife. Officially an auctioneer, but on extended maternity leave. She has the main baby-care responsibilities of course, and hasn't has an uninterrupted night's sleep since February. In the evenings we usually try to watch films. Chinese ones, Woody Allen, or European films with two sets of subtitles. She's amazing.

The Younger Daughter

MeiWenZuo, AKA 'Scarlet'. Previously she was training to be a lawyer, but in the end couldn't be bothered and has jacked it in to get married. Very girly and keen on anything cute and / or pink, she's the house's number one purchaser of pink iPhone accessories and Japanese stuff. Under the surface, her taste is surprisingly conservative.

The Grandson

Three and a half months old in the picture, he's actually seven and a half months now. Babies are pretty much just babies, but we think we're starting to get some idea of his personality - restless, curious, naughty. So far he likes the barometer, the fan, his grandmother's glasses case, the computer mouse and the fridge magnets, and dislikes the Russian doll and all his toys. His favourite hobby is ripping the wallpaper from the wall next to his bed.

The Dog

 Xiaobei is a nearly three-year-old supposed Bedlington terrier. She behaves herself well, is very protective of the baby while knowing she shouldn't go near him, and never makes a mess in the living room. She does get a bit overexcited when you get home, and depressed when Scarlet is away, but this is fairly normal behaviour for a dog.

...and then there's me.

Mind Your Language - Series 1, Episode 1

A passing mention in a David Mitchell column this weekend started me thinking about the 1970s British sitcom Mind Your Language. As it was cancelled before I was born and not that suitable for repeat showings I knew little about it, apart from that (a) it's the only mainsteam media portrayal of my chosen career and (b) it's generally looked back upon as a shameful excuse for a parade of borderline-racist stereotypes in the name of cheap comedy.
A quick search revealed the episodes to be fairly accessible online, so for some reason I'm going to review the episodes and grade Mr Jeremy Brown on his teaching.

The Programme

If teaching ESL around the world has taught me anything it's that everyone's different but that we share a great deal, and that very little of a person's personality can be determined from their nationality. I can't count the number of fascinating, bizarre characters I've met. Does the first episode of MYL reflect this? Well, no, obviously, it doesn't. Each and every character seems to be nothing more than a broad stereotype with little or no other characteristics. This isn't great, of course, but lazy jokes are the worse crime. To take the most obvious example this is the opening exchange between Jeremy Brown and his student Ali Nadeem, a Pakistani;

"I am Brown"
"Oh no, you are committing a mistake."
"You are not brown. We are brown. You are white!"

In order to add some conflict to the situation, every character is fiercely proud of their country on arbitrary grounds - the German and Japanese characters arguing over who is more efficient, and Ali (a Muslim) and Ranjeet (a Sihk) at each-others throats immediately, possibly spurred on by Brown's erroneous assumption that they are "countrymen". Taro, the Japanese character, is played by British Asian actor Robert Lee, who appears to have very little understanding of how Japanese people behave - his slack bowing and half-hearted handing-over of a business card make his performance somehow substantially worse than the other stereotypes. Did he think that not bothering to do basic research or acting on autopilot would excuse him from responsibility for his role in this? The Chinese character, Chung Su-Lee, is played by fairly respectable Chinese-British actress Pik-Sen Lim, and (it being the 1970s) is portrayed pretty much as a Red Guard. The cultural revolution had ended the year before this series was broadcast, but development times in the world of TV being what they are, this is just about excusable. What's a little less excusable is her accent, which is somewhere between Hong Kong and Japan. She is unable to distinguish between 'l' and 'r', which is not a problem mainland Chinese really face. This might seem like nit-picking, but since this is one of her two character traits, I would've hoped they'd get it right. The cherry on the cake is when she says she's from the "Democratic Republic of China" - where is that exactly? It really is shockingly lazy to not bother to find out the name of the most populous nation on the planet.

Grade: F


As it's a first class, there are no textbooks available, and the class is being constantly interrupted, it's probably not fair to pass judgement on Jeremy Brown quite yet. The odds have also been stacked against him by the school's insistence on putting all the students in a single class, though some are absolute beginners and some are at an advanced level. I wish I could say this was a case of low realism levels, but having taught for eight years I've seen it happen quite a few times.
Though final judgement is suspended for the moment, there are several worrying signs. Jeremy makes no attempt to grade his language to the level of his students, instead opting to speak slowly and loudly while pointing at things, in the time-honoured 'Briton abroad' fashion. He's baffled by the students' errors, though most are simple first language interference and accent issues. I hope a little time and effort will help him get past this. He attempts to get "countrymen" to sit together, though having them sit apart would prevent them speaking their first language in the class. His teaching point for the class is the verb 'to be', which is way too easy for the majority of the class, and accompanied by other, much harder verbs. Thankfully he has the students form sentences with it, which could be considered a first class 'getting to know each-other' activity, albeit a very dull one indeed. At the end of the class he burbles out some homework instructions, fails entirely to check understanding, and runs out of the classroom.
On the whole then, very poor, but we'll give him a chance to improve.

Grade: D-

Watch Mind Your Language S1E1 in Comedy  |  View More Free Videos Online at

Very Late September Update

It's been a busy late summer with work, baby and visits, and this blog seems to have been one of the first casualties. Thankfully work's dried up a bit and we're just about to reach a week-long national holiday, so sporadic service is about to be resumed. So, what have I been up to?
Well, the first thing is the baby of course. He's HUGE now (I fully expect to be repeating this mantra for the next 15 years, so you'd better all get used to it) and it's increasingly hard to believe he was inside V just over half a year ago. It's not a bad existence for him right now, dozing, waking up, making speech-like burbling noises, crying, drinking milk, etc, and we seem to be coping ok as he's got three adults to look after him 24-7 (plus my part-time efforts). Living with V's parents continues to fluctuate between comfort and mutual annoyance, but for the moment at least it's the most convenient option - so convenient, in fact, that we've signed up for another year together, the deciding factor being the massive potential hassle of going out own ways.
Work is a fair bit different now - the TEFL school has wound itself down almost to the point of disappearing, and although I'm still officially the "headmaster" it's a very possible that I won't do any work for them again. To make up for the lost hours I'm doing in-company training for a European company, who pay me more for working 8 hours in a week than the TEFL school paid me for working 40. It's tougher work though, with more preparation needed, and on the other side of Beijing and out of my comfort zone.
Late summer hasn't been anywhere near as lazy as anticipated, mainly because there has been a steady stream of visits and social occasions. First there was a wedding, then my dad & stepmother came to visit (a good chance to see the sights again, but Beijing decided to throw the most English weather it could find at them, and the sights were barely visible through the haze all week - still, we tried lots of great food), then another friend returned from repatriation exile, and finally this week there was a sudden and unexpected reunion for 3/4 of V's gang of childhood friends - so this week we've been taking them to have roast duck, hang out in Nanluoguxiang, etc, etc.
It's 11.52pm as I type this and I really ought to get to bed. Tomorrow is the first day of the 7-day national holiday, a chance for me to finally get up to date with this, and a number of other things.

Forgotten 90s bands - Phantom Pregnancies

The third in an intermittent series. Just found a stash of ripped 7" singles, so may be more of these soon

In 1996 I was in the habit of going into Magpie Records in Worcester* and buying anything that looked even remotely interesting from the 7" singles bin. One of my favourite of the many purchases must be this superb compilation EP of female-fronted underground bands.

From the six groups featured LungLeg were already fairly well-known, with a Melody Maker single of the week, and Helen Love would go on to have a certain amount of success. All six tracks were uniformally great, but the one I kept playing over and over was side two, track three - "Ants In Your Pants II" by Phantom Pregnancies. Here it is, just as it was. Be warned, it's a little harsh on the ears.

Naturally I was curious about this band - I don't think I've heard anything like it before or since - messy, disorganised garage punk with well-formed classic rock licks, played like they were trying to get through it as quick as possible in a single take, but somehow, somehow just amazing (I fully realise the vast majority of people reading this will not agree on this point, but never mind, eh?) Its one-minute-twenty running time later saw it filling up little gaps at the end of many compilation tapes.
I never found any more information about the band, only a seven minute, seven track EP with song tiles like 'Almighty Civilization Cat People' and 'Do You Think I'm Going To Eat It Now You've Squished It Out Of Shape' which was all almost as good as the above, and carried a message that the band were no more. The only information I was ever able to find out about who (and why) they were comes from their page;

"The Phantom Pregnancies are a British cult band that supposedly used to crash other bands’ shows, and set up on stage totally uninvited and play one of their famous five-minute sets. Their music sounds like a riot grrl tornado. Featuring former members of Huggy Bear, Phantom Pregnancies’ trashy garage punk is blended with lo-fi dance tendencies in a very indelicate fashion."

So it's odd, all of 15 years later, to find a new compilation of what looks like their entire works being released by Dim Mak records in the US.

*Amazing now to think that we had a record shop of that quality in Worcester. There can't be more than three or four left in the whole of the UK that could match it.