Wednesday, 30 September 2009

Doorways: Red Light District, Amsterdam

I think if I lived here, I'd worry about my door getting fly posterd over one night...

Monday, 28 September 2009

Sussex Mithras

A Sussex castle park is probably not the place that you would expect to find a Mithraic relic. (If religions of the ancient Near East aren’t really your thing, then Mithras was a sun god, often represented as a bull, whose cult was popular during the middle Roman Empire, for a while rivalling Christianity as a somewhat frowned upon underground movement. If you google it, you realise that there are plenty of people out there anything but time poor.)

This column top, was ‘found’ (perhaps Roget’s thesaurus hasn’t quite got around to listing found as a synonym for looted from) in Sevastopol, presented to the Norfolk family and ever since has been exposed to the elements in the park.

This cued quite some ranting about the cheek of describing something clearly purloined as ‘found’, and the subsequent damage down to this interesting cultural relic – in a country that repeatedly tells the Greeks they’re not fit to look after the Elgin Marbles.

Still, the views were nice.

Friday, 25 September 2009

Fading Fun Fair

Skywatch Friday

Wednesday, 23 September 2009

Doorways: Bei Chang Jie

I have a confession. I love photographing doorways. Open, closed, scruffy, peeling posters, graffitied, classically smart...there's a place for them all on my memory card.
But...I rarely share them. Strangely, I keep forgetting to do the 'checkout this door' post, leaving all my doorways lingeringly slightly resentfully on the hard drive, muttering about how the sky pictures get unfair precedence. So, a mid week mini-series is born.

Monday, 21 September 2009

Changing My World

How has going to China changed my world?

When I went away I was looking for something, I wanted something to change and I didn’t know what. I wondered if I would have an epiphany, or a grand love affair, or if my life would change in a startling fashion.

China did change me, shifting something inside – not an immediate dramatic change but something that I think is going to change me even more. I realised and confronted by huge, intense fear of failure.
Ok, I know, it’s hardly like anyone enjoys or sets out to fail, but for almost all my life fear of failure has been my primary motivator, and I’ve lived to the sound of my inner voice telling me that I am a complete and utter failure.

I failed. Some of my early lesson were truly disastrous. They were too easy or too hard. I didn’t realise that what to me were self evident activities, like having a discussion, were bizarre concepts from the planet foreign teacher.

And then… My classes started to come alive, as I learnt from my failures adjusted my classes to the abilities and interests of the students. I think this is the first time that I actually realised that failure is not necessarily absolute and the end of the world.

I lived alongside people who had experiences of hardship that were almost unbelievable – history book and news stories made flesh. And these people impressed me every day with their ability to dream, their determination to make a better life for themselves and, moreover, that they weren’t embarrassed to admit to their ambitions.

I started to wonder why I was so afraid of doing something I cared about, why I had censored myself so completely that I automatically dismissed anything that interested me as ‘ridiculous’ and ‘impractical’. I started to feel that I should take advantage of my privileges, dare to risk listening to myself and act upon it, and that if I should fail it will not destroy me. (There are other experiences lurking behind this revelation too.)

Now, of course, comes the hard part: trying to maintain this when surrounded by well meaning advice and expectations about how my life ‘should’ be, having slipped into familiar routines.
Photographs are from the 798 gallery area, Beijing - a place I love as it's filled with inspiring works and stories.

Sunday, 20 September 2009


en route to the gym

Things I miss about China:

· Moments where I’d think ‘wow, I’m LIVING in China’
· Backstreet barbeques, ‘our’ restaurant, the wonton shop
· My students (some of them!)
· The markets selling delicious fruit and vegetables and snacks
· Despite the language barrier and occasional shoddy taxi drivers, the relative ease of getting around
· The people watching
· The continual sense of discovery
· The satisfaction when I managed to say something in Mandarin and someone actually understood me
· Getting free entry, free drinks and free snacks in nightclubs (we were like an added attraction)
· Going to places I never thought I’d visit

what the local park looks like at the moment
Things I don’t:

· Being at the internet mercy of the Great Firewall of China
· Feeling like I was permanently on display from the moment I left my apartment
· Having ‘Hello’ screamed at me repeatedly by random strangers
· Shoddy taxi drivers
· Finding it almost impossible to purchase clothes not covered in spangles or cartoon characters
· Only being able to get decent coffee at McDonalds
· Having to go to Beijing to get English books
· The spitting – well, until I started doing in myself

a sneaky snap of one of my classes

Saturday, 19 September 2009

Once Upon a Time in China

this supermarket kept me in coffee and chocolate - what more could I ask for?

Let me tell you about one of my proudest moments in China, the moment when I first thought: I can do this, I can survive here, everything’s going to be fine. This epiphany didn’t happen over seeing one of the many wondrous historical sights, or contemplating the small scale diplomacy I was engaged with everyday. It happened over an alarm clock.

The purchasing of the alarm clock at the supermarket – my first unaccompanied visit – had been fraught enough. There had been extreme confusion over the method of having to pay: choosing the clock and communicating this choice through some comedy gestures, taking a handwritten slip to a booth, handing over my money and getting a my slip stamped, then returning to the electronics area to get the clock. Completing this process involved a lot of pointing, a lot of lost wandering, a lot of me thinking ‘I can’t understand anything, what on earth have I done coming to this crazy country, was I insane, when can I go home?’

the courtyard and entrance to the senior school building

So imagine my dismay when the clock stopped the next day. I was sorely tempted to just go back and buy another one, seeing as at least I now knew how this process worked. But…I hadn’t gone to China to teach English, not speaking any Chinese and with no teaching experience, to avoid doing things because I had no idea how to do it.

Armed with my phrasebook and the ability to say ‘ni hao’ and ‘xie xie’ (hello and thank you), I took the clock and my handful of receipts back to the store. I toddled up to what I presumed to be the information desk, and for once I was right.

I ‘ni haoed’ in my friendliest fashion and pointed to the ‘I need a refund, this is broken’ section in my phrasebook, then at the dysfunctional alarm clock. The staff behind the counter not unreasonably spoke to me in what seemed like tongues and then realised that the laowai who probably looked like she’d been smacked around the face with a wet fish didn’t speak any Chinese. They conferred amongst themselves.

The one who’d drawn the short straw of dealing with me came to inspect the phrasebook and the clock: I pointed and gestured again, then they conferred again. This happened a few times, and then they pointed towards the electronics department.

my street

After waiting for a member of staff to appear in the electronics department, I repeated the pointing routine. I’m not sure who was more over-awed: me at trying to deal with this through my jet lag and general confusion or the shop assistant at having to deal with a real, live foreigner.

After some more conferring and demonstration of why the clock was broken, and that another battery did not solve the problem, and a few members of staff trying, rather unsuccessfully, to appear to casually wander past, I had a new, working clock.

I left the shop on perhaps the most unexpected legal high I’ve ever had.

Friday, 18 September 2009

Faces of 798

If you’ve been reading for a while you might have realised that I’m a bit of a fan of 798, the Beijing gallery area. On my second to last Beijing weekend, I took a meandering trip around the area, searching out the hidden corners which were full of intensely graffitied walls and interesting doors and windows.

These are some of my favourites: the Lichtenstein-esque women remind me of the shock and awe and wonder that not only did I feel as a green expat, but that my Chinese friends expressed at the tumultuous history they’d lived through, their excitement about China’s rapid development, and also the hushed conversations about their secret fears and resentments.

The ginger cat made me think of my own ginger feline, but also, strangely, some of my students and their quietly defiant curiosity.

The last image was hard to capture owing to some vaguely remembered physical obstacle, so we’ll all have to make do with fragments. Why is he shooting? What is he shooting? Hands? Smoke? If they’re hands, why are they coming out of a chimney, or a gun barrel? Why is he looking away?

Even if the man refuses to acknowledge his deed, the dove is there, watching. Despite being a tiny part of the design, the watching dove seemed to me to be the metaphorical as well as the literal centre of the work. What do you think?

Thursday, 17 September 2009

Hearts and Stars

Sunday, 13 September 2009

Love Letter

Sometimes, I love Brighton. Despite the pretentions, the attention seeking clothing, the rich people from London who become enamoured of it’s ‘cool boho-ness’ and move down, then determinedly price the said quality out, and make clear there it shouldn’t be anything that’s unsuitable for the eyes of little Jocasta and Huxley.
I love being able to browse a fabric shop stuffed with fabulous cotton prints and that the shop staff didn’t mind that I was walking round stroking bolts whose colours were particularly pleasing to touch. I love even more that my mother is going to make me (and hopefully teach me how) a cupcake dress.
I love having a pub lunch from somewhere where the staff aren’t forced to dress and act like clones, the food is delicious, good value and actually home made on the premises rather than ‘home made’ in a factory in Middlesex by underpaid labour of dubious legality.I didn’t love the caterwauling that passed for singing coming from some right-on festival at the Quaker Meeting House, but I loved that the festival was allowed to happen.

I loved finding new graffiti, and that Brighton is a city whose street art references the decapitated wives of Renaissance monarchs. (If you know that’s not Anne Boleyn, do correct me.) I love finding a street market selling a mixture of local produce, vintage clothing and costume jewellery, funky household bits and bobs, vinyl records and poetry. I love that when I was photographing the tomatoes and a guy reached out to try one, he apologised profusely and sincerely and I made a joke we all smiled. I love that the poet wasn’t a pretentious eejit, and said he was glad to see people laughing, rather than thinking we were mentalists. I love that the street was full of people doing what they loved and ignoring people who say there’s no point in writing, or making crafts, or small scale food production, because there’s no money in it.

I love that I got the train home regretfully, but inspired.

Saturday, 12 September 2009

Split Pant Babies

Align RightOne thing that I did not expect to see in China was baby penis. On the bus, on the street, eating dinner, there it was, courtesy of the split pants that Chinese babies wear until they’re toilet trained.

Aparticularly disconcerting moment was when we were at dinner with our waiban and her family, and her infant daughter decided to demonstrate her gymnastic potential. The four of us, all Anglo-Saxon Westerners, tried (rather unconvincingly, I suspect) to subtly all look on the opposite direction at once, torn between our cultural conditioning and not wanting to make our wonderful hosts feel embarrassed because we were. It was quite shocking to realise how sexualised small children have become in our society.

I never quite figured out the mysterious process by which Chinese babies are toilet trained, although it seems to involve the babies responding to whistle like sound from their parents. I also quickly realised that you should never ever, ever stand in the areas of earth around trees on the pavement, as they seemed to be a nappy substitute for children up to around eight years old.
I am fairly sure that if I ever start going senile I will probably forget the imperial temples and palaces of Beijing and the startling beauty of Yangshuo, but remember watching a boy, perhaps six or seven, do a shit in the earth, then do a perfect downward dog yoga pose whilst his granny wiped his arse, throwing the dirty tissue to linger next to his deposit.

Given how horrendous the toilets were in some of the shabbier areas of our city, I couldn’t really blame children for preferring the street, and indeed had once or twice utilised a discreet alley rather than a noxious unisex squatter at a backstreet bbq or two, but when the rains came in the summer it was hard not to try and think about what exactly you were wading through…

The gratifyingly grossed out reactions I've got back here have more than made up for it though.

Thursday, 10 September 2009

The Colours of Sunday

Tuesday, 8 September 2009

Dutch Tiles

I really like tiles. Well, tiles of the quality decorative sort, rather than the hideous, cheap 1980s bathroom variety. The luminous colours in these ones caught my roving eye - I was particularly impressed that this gorgeous Art Nouveau porch was still intact, unblemished and hadn't been replaced with something cheaply attempting to be 'on trend'.

And how could I resist this thoughtful looking tile cat, cleverly blocking a small street fronting window. I wonder if there was a real feline snoozing somewhere behind the facade?

Monday, 7 September 2009

A List

My week has been about:

· Putting another year on my official age

· Wondering about boundaries

· Laughing with friends over glasses of wine

· Lying in sand dunes, listening to the sea and the wind

· New starts, both paid and voluntary

· Missing China, but loving my own country’s beauty

· Wobbling in self belief

· Remembering to live courageously

Perhaps a haphazard bullet point list isn’t the best writing style, but, right now, that’s how I feel: a bit whirly, a bit scattered.

What's going on in other worlds?

Sunday, 6 September 2009

Sunday Lunch in the Suburbs

Saturday, 5 September 2009

Street Food

I photographed these street vendors in my last week in China, as I tried to petrify my experiences into pixels. The hustle and bustle of provincial China is definitely something I find myself missing, along with the attitude exemplified by the sweetcorn guy: he might be poor, his life might be a struggle but look at him: the ambitious light and determination in his eyes, the humour and willingness to make the best of any situation he showed as he struck a pose for the crazy laowai.

I really admired the entrepreneurial, enterprising spirit that I met with in almost everyone, and the society that encouraged such dreams by not mocking people’s dreams and the proliferation of street vendors, allowing quite impoverished people to start their own business.

Thursday, 3 September 2009


I've been contemplating making some changes to this blog, but before I do I'm curious to know: is there anything you love/hate/want more of?

Let me know and you will be warmed from afar by my gratitude...


Wednesday, 2 September 2009

Husband and Wife

My friend Hayley is to be congratulated not only on her wedding, but on remaining (relative to her normal state) sane during the build up, so that I was looking forward to the event with excited anticipation, rather than feeling jaded after being forced to listen to treatises on the merits of different types of confetti.

It was fantastic: beautiful and simply, effortlessly elegant. I don’t think I’ve ever seen her look so happy, and, at the risk of sounding sentimental, happiness and pride seem to radiate out from the bride and groom and their families.
Not to mention how adorable their daughter looked, even when she asked if the ceremony was over yet.
At one point, I had a slight lump in the throat and felt so proud of my friend, of all the wonderful things she’s done and does, and full of hope that their family would know more happiness than sorrow.
After the ceremony, the celebrations began, and exhorted by the groom to enjoy ourselves, and we did, in a relaxed and joyful atmosphere. It was simply perfect – even the sun shone!
Congratulations to you both!