Archive: Remember, remember…


Remember, remember
the fifth of November,
gunpowder, treason and plot!

I see no reason
why gunpowder treason
should ever be forgot.

Say the two words of the title to anyone from the UK, and chances are that they’ll complete the rhyme almost involuntarily, most likely in a deep, portentous voice. Imagine my surprise, on leaving my country, to find that nobody else really does Guy Fawkes Night.

I shouldn’t have been surprised, of course. In theory, what we do on November 5th is celebrate Guido “Guy” Fawkes’ failure to blow up the House of Lords in 1605 as part of The Gunpowder Plot, a wider Catholic plot to assassinate King James I for being Protestant and replace him with an honest-to-goodness old-fashioned Catholic king like what we had had back in the good old days. Never mind that the last one couldn’t speak a word of English and was married to a woman who burned 280 people at the stake in 5 years, thus inspiring seventeenth-century mixologists to create top tomato-based cocktail/ hangover cure the Bloody Mary. If this doesn’t mean a whole lot to you, you should probably be thankful that your history is not as silly as ours.

If it seems strange that we celebrate one man’s failure to blow up the English establishment by setting fire to things and then revelling in the ensuing explosions, consider this: until 1859 there was actually a legal compulsion to mark the day, known as the Observance of November 5th Act. The Act condemned the “many malignant and devilish papists, Jesuits, and seminary priests” who had “conspired most horribly”, thus ensuring its popularity among Protestants with fire in their eyes for centuries to come. Truth to tell, though, I’ve long suspected that what we’re really revelling in is the fact that someone tried in the first place – it speaks volumes that in 2007, the public ranked Guy Fawkes 30th on the BBC’s list of the 100 Greatest Britons, just behind David Bowie.

So now that the religious froth and fervour has subsided, what are we left with? Well, naturally we get our mates round, drink beverages and set fire to stuff, that essentially being the great cultural constant of any festival. But there are specifics that must be observed. There must be fireworks, for a start. Tradition dictates that these fireworks should be enjoyed from a safe distance after a designated adult, commonly known as ‘dad’, lights the symbolic blue touch paper and stands well back. It is considered good form to greet the explosion of the firework, however pathetic, with the words “ooh” and “aah”. A fireworks party is often enlivened by the falling over of the official projectile launcher/ milk bottle/ toilet roll, with hilariously life-threatening slapstick consequences.

Not contenting ourselves with small pretty fires safely far away in the sky, it’s also traditional to gather up branches, leaves, medium density fibreboard, disused railway sleepers and hedgehogs, douse them in petrol and light an enormous fire known as a Bonfire. These items are considered more appropriate fuel in these politically correct times than Catholics. This fine tradition also serves the purpose of preventing Guy Fawkers from dying of hypothermia, given that the whole November fifth thing entails waiting until it’s bloody freezing before enjoying any fireworks, where other countries rather sensibly enjoy them in summer.

Besides serving as a huddling point against the cold and pizzle, the fire also provides the heat needed to craft such delicious bonfire night fare as charred hot dogs, cremated beef burgers, and slow roasted potatoes with a distinct hedgehoggy aftertaste. Mulled wine helps considerably in raising participants’ spirits, fortifying their resistance to seasonal cold, and generating the aforementioned life-threatening comedy mishaps that remind us all just how foolhardy Mr Fawkes was to mess around with gunpowder in the first place.

A Guy Fawkes Guy

The noble art of stuffing some old clothes with newspaper, then burning them.

A final Bonfire Night tradition worthy of note is the crafting of a guy, a lumpen man of newspaper and old clothes who is then burned in effigy, thus proving how great and good politicians and the monarchy are, hurrah hurrah. Starting out as a sort of devil/ pope amalgam, this later became an image of Guy Fawkes, mysteriously acquiring a curly wig and power shoulders during the Thatcher era. For some years, it was popular to exhibit the result to indulgent adults in return for a Penny for the Guy (see also Money for Old Rope), which would then go to buy hard drugs, and sometimes fireworks.

As the image will attest, I passed many happy childhood years learning the finer points of the art of Guy crafting. However judging by the poor excuses for guys that have recently been taking to the streets, so decrepit and deformed that they must rely on wheelbarrows and human aid to get around, this is a dying art, probably murdered by the same group of burly lads that come round every Christmas, mumble silentnight ‘olynight in a menacing undertone then demand five quid.

From here on November 5th 2012.

Archive: The six most annoying questions to ask a foreigner in Japan – number 2


If you haven’t been following these posts, you might like to start at the beginning.

Here’s number 2 on my own private shit-list of most annoying questions I get asked in Japan.

2. What do you think of Margaret Thatcher?

Well now, there are many different opinions about Margaret Thatcher, famous of course for being the first non-human prime-minister of the United Kingdom. Here’s mine.

Margaret Thatcher is an empty shell of dust and charcoal, a soulless inhuman husk animated by a lunatic hell-wraith of vindictive spite who slurps and sucks at the warmth and affection of communities until they are as dry and lifeless as she, who flails her dread spiderlegs at the foundations of the state and cackles as decades, centuries come crashing down, burying all those who need it most, their arms still outstretched, pleading for succour, who drools and skitters with obscene delight as she spits free school milk in the tear-stained eyes of hungry children weak with osteoporosis, their mouths open in the pathetic hope that the tiniest morsel will trickle down to nurture them.

And when, at long last, the cursed wraith departs the puppet body of what was once Margaret Hilda Roberts, grocer’s daughter, leaving it to crumble into ashes and scatter to the four winds, then, my friends, then shall we shake the skies with our dancing and drain the oceans with our debauchery.

Well, you did ask.

Number 1 is here.

From here on August 17th 2012.

Archive: The six most annoying questions to ask a foreigner in Japan – number 3

Prince William

Prince William enjoying a lovely suit, which I paid for (by TheMatthewSlack, via Wikimedia Commons)

If you haven’t been following these posts, you might like to start at the beginning.

Here’s the third most irritating question I get asked in Japan.

3. Isn’t Prince William lovely?

Is he? Your guess is as good as mine. I haven’t met him, you see. In England we have this little thing called class, which prevents an oik such as myself from rubbing my filthy calloused shoulders with royalty.

Such as my opinion is, here goes. Prince William is alright. He is a shining diamond in the cesspool of leeches that is Britain’s beloved Royal Family. He’s less belligerently racist than Prince Philip, less prone than Charles to equate sanitary products with hot sex, and, seeing as Harry thinks dressing up as a Nazi is a wizard party idea for someone third in line to the throne of Great Britain and the Commonwealth, appears to have inherited the lion’s share of Di’s brain cells.

Alright, yes. But I draw the line at the man being ‘lovely’. I don’t care that he’s losing his hair (as, incidentally, I’ve just discovered by Googling him) – that just makes him a bit more human. It’s more that him and his troupe of blue-blooded freaks are living life high on the hog off the nation’s wealth while the rest of the country is being systematically screwed out of even the most basic social welfare, on the pretext of tackling a budget deficit run up by a slightly different bunch of posh people tinkering with things they didn’t understand. If the second in line to the throne had any idea what reality constituted for the vast majority of ‘his’ people, perhaps he would have passed on that $1 million honeymoon in the Seychelles. Never mind the cost of the wedding.

But then he doesn’t have any idea, does he? ‘Lovely’ as he might be, he’s still the kind of ruddy-cheeked hamster-faced plummy bastard who chortlingly dresses up as a ‘chav’ with his officer cadet friends at Sandhurst and sees nothing wrong in it. ‘Chav’, incidentally, is a word we use now that everyone in England is middle class and has a nice job in a call centre. It refers to the feckless, criminal and ignorant poor – the indolent poor, as we used to call them back in the glory days of the sixteenth century – who steadfastly refuse to take advantage of the wonderful employment opportunities on offer in a nation where 1.2 million young people are out of work.

Number 2 is here.

From here on August 8th 2012.

Archive: The six most annoying questions to ask a foreigner in Japan


Hello. Allow me to introduce myself. I was born in England. I live in Japan. You can call me Caro-chan.

I’ve lived here for a while, and I speak the language (mostly, most of the time, most spectacularly when inebriated). I like the food. I like the people. I like the culture. I can hear the depth of a bow over the phone. I compose haiku to the eggs in oden while knocking back shiso-infused rice wine and playing the koto with my free hand.

But at the same time, I know my limits. I don’t want to become one of those Japaneser-than-thou foreigners who cuts off everyone from their former lives because they’re not wabi-sabi enough. Me, I am a dichotomy, an anomaly, a disunion. I eat salad with chopsticks, but pasta with a fork. I dance thebon-odori on a tightrope between worlds, in Doc Martens.

What I am, then, is a bit odd. I perplex and perturb. I give the wrong answers to questions. What’s worse, I give the wrong answers to the right questions, that holy canon of enquiries that must be asked to all foreign visitors until they give up and go back home. Most expats will have their own internal shit-list of most-repeated, most-unwelcome, most conversation-breakdown-inducing questions. Here, dear reader, is mine, in ascending order of how much they make me want to stuff wasabi up my own nose.

6. Can you eat Japanese food?


Can I eat those? You mean, all of those?

Ahhh, the old stand-by. The only foreigner I know who can’t eat Japanese food was this one guy who had his jaw wired to stop him biting the students. The rest of us are, surprisingly, physically capable of consuming, and indeed metabolising, Japanese food. We do this as a matter of survival, pride, and because it’s rightly world-renowned as being bloody delicious.

That out of the way, we can move on to number 5…

5. What is your favourite Japanese food?

There are two things that bother me about this question. One is that I’ve been asked it quite literally 469 gabajilliozillion times. The other is that there seems to be no satisfactory answer, defined here as an answer that makes the asker go away and stop asking stupid questions.

Unsatisfactory answers include:

  • “Everything really.” This leads to the follow-up question, “Oh, there must be something you especially like”. Then, once you have selected a dish at random, the questioner will run through all of the other dishes they can think of, while you repeat “Yes”, “That too” a lot.
  • “It depends on the time of year.” This is seen as suspicious. Only Japanese people know which season – face-meltingly hot summer, or icicles-are-forming-on-my-nose winter – lends itself better to the consumption of dishes such as hotpot, or indeed shaved ice.
  • Anything non-generic. For example, I adore marinated yellowtail simmered with lotus root (buri renkon). I make it every couple of weeks to my own secret recipe that contains a hint of Chinese spices. Admitting this to the unprepared may induce seizures. I have seen it with my own eyes, and it is not pretty.

4. Do you want to marry a Japanese man? / All English men are gentlemen, aren’t they?

Three gentlemen in Chesterfield coats

Dwayne from Staines, promenading with gentleman friends

I’m going to parcel the two of these up here, seeing as they’re really two sides of the same coin. Maybe it’s because an Englishman will guard his eccentricity with his life, believing that only vile dictatorships would challenge a man’s right to put on a gimp mask and a tutu to go down the pub of a Sunday afternoon. Or maybe it’s because our multi-cultural society makes us more aware of the dangers of stereotyping. Either way, us Brits don’t really like to generalise. Well, I don’t. But I certainly wouldn’t want to, you know. Um.

Which is what both of these questions are doing, really. Japanese guys are presumed to be less progressive, less chivalrous, less attractive to foreign women, less… gentlemanly. All of them. Never mind that I have Japanese friends who are all of the above and awesome. I also know some who are gits. Such is life’s rich tapestry.

English men, on the other hand, are known for wearing tailored suits and treating their servants with geniality and decorum, before retiring to the drawing room for scones. As a result, many Japanese women see them as quite the catch, and I personally have heard many to declare “I shall marry none but an Englishman!” This they then do, and are shocked and appalled to discover, three years into the marriage, once they have learned a bit of English, that Dwayne from Staines is nowhere near the splendid fellow they imagined him to be, and in fact is a bit of a lazy bastard.

Unfortunately, answering this question in the negative simply gets you a reputation as a bitter-and-twisted Western harpy out to shatter the hopes and dreams of Japanese woman-kind. Even offering to provide a list of names and telephone numbers of known scoundrels does nothing to dispel this image.

Read number 3, 2 and 1.

From here on August 1st 2012

Archive: Home from home


From my recent trip back to Britain.

“Sorry pet,”
she said, and smiled
as I pushed in front of her.
Instincts honed
or hardened,
elbows sharpened
in the Hanoi scrum
I have become
imperceptibly, almost
alien in my own land.

Hanoi traffic

Excuse me! Excuse me? Excu- BEEEEP (By Dragfyre, via Wikimedia Commons)

From here on November 14th 2011.

Archive: Why we should and why we don’t

A boy studying

“Hurry up and invent Google Translate, world…”

A different language is a different vision of life ~ Federico Fellini

It bothers me that we Brits are becoming more and more monolingual, almost without a second thought. Not only have we long failed to teach languages in school – my French teacher had clearly modelled her pronunciation of la belle langue on John Major – we’ve given up even trying beyond a token three years, and are now seeing the knock-on effects as universities close language departments

Why might this be? The whole world speaks English? Nothing is forever, and that’s certainly not the point. I can just run it through Google? Don’t make me laugh. Or is it, perhaps, that we don’t really like leaving our comfort zones? 

Confession time. I’m a language teacher. I always tell my students to have a go and not worry about getting it wrong. But deep down I understand how they feel, because I hate hate hate to look less clever than I am. 

However. Something I believe to be true: learning another language is a profoundly humbling, yet hugely enriching experience, because it involves questioning every facet of your understanding of the world, and redefining who you are in response to a different set of wisdoms. 

At 21 I had some right to feel pretty smug, a bright lass fresh from swanning around Oxford’s dreaming spires. Crash! Japan took me right back to zero. With time and a lot of hard graft I became a gurgling two-year-old, then learned to toddle, falling over less and less, then after a year the floodgates opened and I could hold a conversation. But then came the polishing: learning what to say, what not to, when, how. Wrestling with social levels, distance, seniority. Trying to act my age, to express myself fully, persuasively, to truly own my words.

I became someone else for a while, in that process. I cut-and-pasted so much that I lost my voice somewhat. When I tried to put it all back together, though, I felt that there was more of me, more insights and ideas, more perspectives, more understanding of the drives and desires of human beings. 

Isn’t that something we should be teaching our children?

From here on August 25th 2010.

Archive: A cabaret of grotesques

Flames of Hell

A little known addendum to Dante’s Inferno adds a tenth circle of Hell: Appalling Table Manners

Hell is other people, in a Wetherspoon’s at Victoria station, while hamstrung by an enormous backpack.

Across from me, a woman stares blankly into the middle distance, occasionally starting at the world as if she had forgotten it was there. With her is a boy I can only assume is her son, although she pays him no mind. He is grabbing grubby fistfuls of spaghetti and propelling them towards his mouth, with limited success. Once in a while he surveys his T-shirt, to see if enough has accumulated to make a mouthful.

On the next table over is a heavily made-up, harshly blonde woman, in Russian-accented histrionics. Sounds like someone’s stood her up. You say you here at 12, why now you say 5? Is no respect! What I do now, you make fool out of me!

The boy finishes his meal and the mother notices him for the first time. “Wipe your mouth and let’s go love”, she says. The boy obediently drags his sleeve across his face, and with that they leave. Blondie starts sobbing into her cappuccino 

Can’t run, can’t hide. Just another few hours…

From here on August 27th 2009.

Archive: Evil and Orwellian welfare for all



Big brother is watching you poster

And reminding you to brush your teeth every day.

There’s a lot said in Britain about how we’re closer in spirit to Anglophone North America than to continental Europe – as if to prove my point, I had to add the word “continental” to that last sentence on a second reading. This often rears its head in the debate over British EU integration, leading to the farcical suggestion that we ditch Europe in favour of joining NAFTA (the North, um, American Free Trade Agreement). This lobby has been quieter of late – there is speculation that someone may have shown them a map.

Every so often a news story comes along which gives the lie to this notion that the historical accident of speaking the same language somehow trumps millennia of shared history. As if the ongoing debate about the place of creationism (or “Intelligent Design”) on the school curriculum wasn’t enough to suggest that we’re sometimes on very different pages indeed, the debate over health care reform has recently become personal, with the Republican party taking a tack that surely few in Britain can find anything but ridiculous: that the NHS is an “evil and Orwellian” system that presumes to set the value of individual lives in determining access to medication.

The NHS is a flawed system, falling far short of its own lofty aspirations, and we Brits can trash it perfectly well without anyone else’s help. But it doesn’t half stick in the craw to hear this from a nation that rations access to healthcare not on grounds of cost-effectiveness, but rather on ability to pay. Though the NHS has struggled to keep up with rising costs, not to mention the shift away from the progressive taxation that Bevan saw as central to the project, I feel great pride to be from a country which took the remarkably radical decision, surveying the wreckage of post-war Britain, to establish health care, from cradle to grave, as a right not a privilege. This was to be free to all at the point of use, a remarkable leap for a country that had only fully lifted property restrictions on suffrage twenty years before.

It’s probably unfair to base our understanding of American views and values on these Republican voices, but also true that they somehow echo the loudest across the pond. They also weight the average, and exert a powerful rightward sway – a 2008 poll in The Economist found “average America” to be significantly to the right of the UK on most issues, and shockingly so on religious matters and “family values”. So while it’s tempting to laugh when they get things so very far wrong – most Europeans associate Hitler with war, repression and genocide, not welfare provision – it’s less funny to speculate about the very real influence these delusions can have.

From here on August 18th 2009.

Archive: Zen and the art of not sinking

Swimming pool

Scary, scary water

I have never really been able to swim. I do have a badge declaring my ability to thrash out one width of a very small pool without dying, and even feel some (misplaced) pride in this achievement. But I’ve never really enjoyed it or relaxed into it.

This was never much of an issue growing up. My only swimming options were the school pool, more chlorine than water, and the sludgy brown oh-so-cold sea of Barry beach, which we’d dare each other to wade into. It was when I went travelling and sat on the shore trying not to sulk as others ducked and dived and clowned around in warm, clear blue water… that was when it occurred to me that I might be missing out. When I tried to join in half-heartedly, to splash around in the shallows, I realised that this went beyond incompetence: being in the water scared me.

And so it was that I found myself on the bus home one evening last year, breathing deeply and holding back tears at the thought of the ordeal before me: my first swimming lesson in thirteen years. I still vividly remember what that meant in school: forty girls in one tiny pool, the non-swimmers herded down one end out of harm’s way and dreading the ‘race’ at the end of the lesson, invariably won by the team that didn’t end up with me. Terrified the whole time, I struggled against the water in rigid panic, and went nowhere.

I can see all this now because I’ve seen a little of how it should be. I’m still pretty far from being able to swim, but I can at least see that I am supposed to relax, to float and glide and above all to enjoy, not to kick and thrash and hyperventilate. There are rare moments where I get it, and achieve more by trying less. Who knows, perhaps I’ll discover my hidden, laid-back consciousness? Om…

Just being able to enjoy the water would do, mind.

From here on January 9th 2008.

Archive: Boredom, thy name is Martin

A form

An emergency eye-remover

There is a man in work who sits at the desk across from mine. He likes to talk to me. He tells me little stories about his life. These stories are both unbearably snivelling and staggeringly dull, and they make me want to dig my eyes out with a fork in the vain hope that it might, for one precious second, shut him up.

And believe me, he doesn’t stop at telling me them once. I know all about his life. About his thirty years spent scuttling around the corridors of power, jumping into the shadows at the first sign of responsibility. About his evenings spent bending the ears of bored barmaids the city over before going home to his mum. About how hard it is to be him, despite his best efforts to care for no one in life.

Turning away, typing busily or showing a total lack of interest improves matters not a jot: he just comes and hovers too close for me to feign ignorance. What’s worse, he has recently undertaken to give me advice on my life and career, presumably mistaking my slack-jawed incredulity for grateful awe.

I try my best to be nice, but I will crack one of these days. Some days have been touch and go. I keep a fork in my desk drawer.

Help me.

Please, help me.


* All names have been thinly disguised to protect the non-identity of the culprits.

From here on December 4th 2007.