From the mobile #1

Good evening,

Well it’s 2300hrs here in China. This is the first post ever typed on my phone and slapped online. There won’t be much by way of content, thought or matters of interest. Nothing changes then. Same old junk e-mail style blog. Here’s a thought, and by no means original, imagine I was typing crap at 23:59 (or having an actual pooh on a loo), but didn’t finish either scenario until two minutes later. Same crap different day?

Today was spent with good company over coffee and a great salad full of beans and healthiness. Following that a swift train ride got me from Changping town to Xiping in Nancheng inside 40 minutes plus waiting time (easily 20 minutes). Football was tiring and hard, with Murray’s FC playing 8 a side in a training game against ourselves. Although during the game, I felt it was more against myself and my body than usual. Age and recovery are not best friends these days. Long before tearing muscles in football, I had to tear three sheets of two-ply at Changping South Railway Station. Big bro’is having a gander, and he knows that I tried to scan twice. Luckily, I only needed three sheets but prior to deploying my excess materials into the squatter toilet, I didn’t know my demands. The pleasure of the Dambusters reenactment over a Tony reservoir was met by the need for only three sheets of paper.

Today wasn’t all doom and gloom. Stay shining. Peace and love,

John

Wilson x Silva: Musical Football Hero

How do! / 你好 (nĭ hăo) / Namaste / Welcome!

Spanish footballer David Silva is a part of Manchester. Tony Wilson is ‘Mr Manchester’. What an ace city to be part of?! It’s got Shameless, it’s got Coronation Street and it’s got football and music by the bucketload. Some are born here. Some arrive here and fit right in.

I remember hearing the local tones of Anthony Wilson on Granada Reports news as a kid. In contrast to the home counties accents of England, used by the BBC, here was ITV’s regional voice with a proper twang. Known for his nightclub (Hacienda) and Factory Record, Anthony H. Wilson was deeply rooted in Manc culture. He still is, even after his early death, aged 57, in 2007.

Born in 1986, in Gran Canaria’s Arguineguín, a small fishing village, David Josué Jiménez Silva’s rise in football has been dramatic. His 5’ 7” (1.7m) stature has been iconic in the Premier League since his arrival at Manchester City in 2010. He leaves the club having won 4 league titles, 2 F.A. Cups, and 5 E.F.L. League Cups. There were also 3 Community Shields. During his time at City he has represented Spain and gained two UEFA European Championship trophies. All on the back of 2010’s FIFA World Cup crown. Bizarrely there has only been one Premier League Player of The Month award (September 2011). Many other individual awards have been picked up. David “El Mago” Silva is and has been Mr Manchester City.

“The best signing we [Manchester City] have made.” – Carlos Tevez, former Manchester City footballer, October 2011.

After finishing the delayed Champions League campaign, David Silva will leave the sky-blue base of Manchester for a new challenge. Seen as one of the best and exquisite midfielders around, he will leave buckets of memories for his adoring fans. His possession-retaining ball play, his rarity in losing the ball, his deft passes and his nimble runs along the Etihad Stadium turf will be missed.

Born in Pendleton (Salford), the man dubbed ‘Mr Manchester’ slotted into journalism, concert arrangement, and radio. His record label, Factory Records hugged Britpop and Mancunian music. His love of the city of Manchester can be seen throughout his colourful career. As an entrepreneur his Factory Records gave us Happy Mondays, A Certain Ratio, Joy Division and New Order. Madchester was born here in the late 1980s. Amongst the gloom yellow smiley faces and exciting vivid colour schemes gave pride back to the people of Manchester. He threw money at music and was a little careless in terms of making a profit. By the end of the 20th century both Factory Record and the Haçienda went bump. No money. No glory. His voice carried on and even down the road in Liverpool he was identified with. He didn’t like centralisation and clearly wanted more regionalism.

Xavi and Andrés Iniesta played alongside David Silva, and it can easily be argued that such dynamic playing styles will have influenced each another. Between the trio, how many future stars, current players and fans will have been inspired or motivated by them. The drool spilled from each twist and turn would probably fill Victoria Baths (Manchester) many times over.

“He pulls the strings on the pitch. A brilliant footballer with great movement, he can score, assist, a player who decides a game. He’s got so much to his game, that I would consider him one of the best ever.” – Andres Iniesta, footballer, Manchester Evening News, January 2020

Steve Coogan didn’t do too much of a bad impression in 24 Hour Party People. In fact, if anything, he elevated a charisma known to few of the younger generation and brought real warmth for Manc culture and the main man, Anthony Wilson. I’ve seen him star on World in Action and After Dark amongst other shows. What always truck me was his voice and his belief in what he said or did. When he started on Channel M it was exciting but never lasted beyond one episode due to his illness.

“I used to say ‘some people make money and some make history’, which is very funny until you find you can’t afford to keep yourself alive. I’ve never paid for private healthcare because I’m a socialist. Now I find you can get tummy tucks and cosmetic surgery on the NHS but not the drugs I need to stay alive. It is a scandal.” – Anthony H. Wilson, BBC News, 11/7/2007

In Spanish and Mancunian footballing history David Silva ranks at the highest orders. The boy from UD San Fernando (Maspalomas, Gran Canaria, Spain) will leave Manchester as a man – a man who has touched the hearts and minds of many City fans. His son Mateo will be able to look back on his father’s time at City with pride. Not bad for a boy born into City’s culture without knowing it. At the end of the day David Silva has been an exemplary custodian of Manchester City. To think that he started his playing days as a goalkeeper before switching to a winger and then midfield dynamo or trequartista. It’s been a journey with City and it all started under Roberto Mancini. The rest they say is history. Tomorrow night’s game against Real Madrid could be his final, or it could be close to the last game. The UEFA Champions League final would be a fitting farewell, but not all fairy tale has a happy ending.

Manchester Town Hall’s flag flew at half-mast in August 2007 following Tony Wilson’s death. FAC 501 was the number on his catalogued coffin. Peter Saville, famed designer and artist, alongside Ben Kelly (an interior designer) designed the gravestone. The headstone is marked as Anthony H. Wilson, ‘Cultural Catalyst’. Since then Factory Records has been reborn in some shapes and forms, and HOME/First Street in Manchester has a new square, Tony Wilson Place. A fitting tribute for a true champion of Manchester.

“Mutability is the epitaph of worlds/ Change alone is changeless/ People drop out of the history of a life as of a land though their work or their influence remains.” – Mrs G Linneaus Banks’s 1876 novel The Manchester Man

Exam stress: COVID-19 style.

How do! / 你好 (nĭ hăo) / Namaste / Welcome!

This has been the most testing semester of my time teaching within China. When we look back on the spread of the pandemic from China outwards, we can count the tragic loss of lives, the social effects and far more damage to community. Many will look back at the economic impact with aversion. There will be hatred by some, about how governments and leaders globally have failed some and their nations. Loathing and abhorrence towards such matters as travel. There may be limited opportunity to flourish in this COVID-19 era. Trouble is already rife. How many people have lost out? How many people plan right now? Is there a disinclination to trust bug business? Has repugnance crawled around the globe like a thick mist? Do many feel a new kind of animosity?

My personal antipathy is towards the setbacks slung upon education. For many students and parents, they were locked in. Properly shut away. No outreaches and limits held over their head like a noose. Some students have been apart from one of their parents for so long. A mother in China here. A father over in Singapore, or Japan, or Korea, or France there. This isn’t a way for a kid to grow up. How many families are split up by the control of disease? Some will find their father or mother as close as Hong Kong to Shenzhen is, but to their tiny innocent minds, the distance may as well be as far as Kathmandu is from Sao Paulo. These are testing times as we approach the examination periods. Students are being drilled in test papers, exams, and assessments at a rate like bullets spraying from a machine gun in battle.

These poor little minds need protecting with less demands so early in their primary life. In China, students are tested mid-term, end of semester, mid-term and end of year. On top of this there are other tests, so many tests, and very little time to stop thinking about tests. Outside of the primary classroom, they may be assessed at extra learning and training centres, or even via online teaching assessments. I don’t recall seeing a test until I was in year 6 of Chapel Street Primary School. And then, year 9 of secondary school was key for testing. After that every secondary year, college and university year had tests. Yet, outside of England, and the U.K., testing can be little (like Finland) or frequently often (like China).

The pandemic claimed weeks of teaching, then came online teaching which many believed to be near-ineffective. The excitement and rush to the classroom was filled with joy, but soon the happy faces fell away as the weight of condensed programmes filled their tiny blossoming minds. A nine-year-old girl shouldn’t tell you she feels pressure. A ten-year-old boy shouldn’t break down in tears and worry about missing his drumming class. They should be playing in sand, building towers of Lego or shoving their fingers up their nose with not a worry in the world.

Last night’s defeat in the football game between City and Liverpool F.C.’s feeder team Southampton is thrown away. The perspective I have today is clear. These exams should be lighter and easier on the young minds of primary school kids. This is not a way to learn. My first foray into contact rugby on Saturday with Dongguan Bulldogs was tough physically but mentally it was far easier than what these students are facing in China. The gloomy feel of a pandemic lurking in shadows, worries about family and life are entering the world of children too early. Let’s be sensible and try to help them out. Less exams please.

The Mancunian Way, Dongguan

How do! / 你好 (nĭ hăo) / Namaste / Welcome!

“I feel so extraordinary; Something’s got a hold on me; I get this feeling I’m in motion; A sudden sense of liberty.” – New Order’s song True Faith.

I’m patriotic towards the U.K. in a way. I sing praise and fly the flag for great people, wonderful history and fantastic places. I know that the story of the U.K.’s history has often been brutal, cruel and deserves little love. Even within the 21st century the U.K., as it moves away from a colonial and European past, and becomes less connected, yet more dependent on overseas trading and manufacture is and always will be a wonderful country. It’s my home. I was born in Manchester, England. I don’t call myself English. I’m British, when I choose to be. I’m Mancunian always. I have Celtic blood in me from my Irish and Welsh great grandparents. My roots are clear and free. But this tree doesn’t cling to the past and history. This tree wants to expand and be watered by different skies. For me tradition and culture are important but understanding and freedom to choose your own pathway are far more intrinsic to living. This tree is currently sat on its arse in Changping, Dongguan. Today’s and yesterday’s rugby and football have been washed out by Dragon Boat rains. I have some free time.


Today, I want to show a gallery and write a little about the culture of Dongguan and China. I’ve been here for the vast majority of the 2308 days now (11th February 2014). I believe many great days have passed and many more will follow. That’s why I am right here, right now. I arrived and didn’t feel too much way of culture shock. Around me a reasonably established cultured expat community threaded amongst the fabric of the local workforces and people of Guangdong.

“Because we need each other; We believe in one another; And I know we’re going to uncover; What’s sleepin’ in our soul” – Acquiesce by Oasis.

Since, I arrived I have seen Dongguan grow and grow. It is now classed as a Megacity. It seemingly will never stop growing. There are skyscrapers and apartment blocks skimming the sky in every single district of Dongguan. Whereas in 2014, I’d notice dozens of these mammoth constructions and many more sprouting buildings, now I am seeing hundreds and hundreds of established communities and hubs here, there and everywhere. I used to consider Nancheng and Dongcheng as the central axis of Dongguan. Now the townships of Chang’an (home of Oppo), Changping and the ever-growing former fields of Songshan Lake (home of Huawei), and the sprawls of Liaobu town could easily be seen as central areas. The arrival of the Huizhou to now West Dongguan Railway Station (soon to be Guangzhou East) or 莞惠城际轨道交通  /莞惠线 Guanhui intercity railway has added to rapid growth. As it joins the short-named Pearl River Delta Metropolitan Region Intercity Railway System (珠江三角洲地区城际轨道交通). That’s more than 65 railway stations in close proximity to Dongguan. Like all of the Pearl River Delta, this city is growing fast – and going places.

 

When not hopping on 200 km/h (124 mph) railway systems, I have ample opportunity to meet great people. Dongguan‘s community is largely migrant with people coming from all over China and the world beyond. International jet-setters with lives here, include Serbians, Kiwis, and even Scousers. They can be found in some of the office places, factories, bars and restaurants throughout the city. Playing football with Brazilians or Russians, or cycling with Dongbei people is possible or a spot of chess at Murray’s Irish Pub with Ukranian opposition. Anything goes here. Drinking homebrew at Liberty Brewing Company (曼哈顿餐吧) in Dongcheng after playing tag rugby with Tongans, South Africans, Germans and Malaysians makes me realise how lucky I am. This is a city that is tidying up and beautifying itself at an alarming rate.

Throughout the 6.5 years of life in and around Dongguan, I’ve slipped up and down ginnels, seeking out the new and old. There have been trips to pizza joints in obscure areas, Dragon Boat races watched, Cosplay events attended and English competitions observed. Dongguan, like Manchester, has a heartbeat that shows anything is possible and if it isn’t here, you make it. You can make something new, or your bring something to the party. You can sit and complain about people taking your photo or saying, “wàiguórén” (foreigner/外国人) or you can show the people around you, your worth.

This week I was asked by the Dongguan Foreign Bureau to teach them. Sadly, I cannot fit their demands into my day. I’ve bene lucky to narrate advertisements, wear watches for model shoots, test-drive new bicycles and play with new robotics before they reached their target audience or global factory floors. Daily life has been far from mundane here with oddities and pleasures as varied as can be. What’s around the next corner? Well, visas are quicker and easier to get, despite more rules and demands. It seems far quicker than when I first arrived. Sometimes, I doubt that I have done everything right, yet it seems clear and simple. Just a checklist. This week I received my medical report back. Now, I need just a few other items for the 2020/21 visa… That’s progress.

Bridges have been made and links that could prove lifelong. The west and east have collided in bizarre ways often forming a touch of the unique. There has been colour, rainbows and diversity amongst the traditional and the common. There have been flashes of light and inspiration. There have been days when solitude has been sought and there will be more, no doubt, but one thing I find, and have found throughout my time here, people are just that. Just simple down to earth, regular people going about their days, looking for peace and good opportunities to survive or better themselves. There are more cars and less bicycles, which shows that some people’s bank accounts and credit-ratings have improved. Quality of life needs balance, and with that the subway/underground system of Dongguan is projected to change from one line to seven lines.

Words can say how thankful I am for my time here. I am enjoying life in different ways to others, and being who I want to be, when I want to be. I’m selfish or I’m sharing. I’m open or I am closed. I read or I watch. I write or I dictate. There are times to slip unseen, and times to lead an audience. It is good for the mind to be bored or alone. I truly believe that’s where creativity lies. It sits there waiting to be tapped and delivered to paper, computers or other outputs. I can wander from craft beer breweries to model car clubs to fusion and western food restaurants with ease and all of the time remain connected to modern and old China.

There is plenty of ugly in Dongguan, just like the rest of the world. To quote the 18th century French phrase, “ne saurait faire d’omelette sans casser des œufs“:  You can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs. Humans must learn from the stains and damage we have caused to our planet globally, whether disease or pollution. We can’t give in. Our cultures, our pride and our people need to fight on and find solutions. Just as #BlackLivesMatter, all lives matter – whether human or worm or bug or panda. Life must find a way. Dongguan is radically changing its energy consumptions, factory practices and the way its environment is being respected. This is good for all. Maybe, I should really put my words into action and finish studying towards the HSK (汉语水平考试 Hànyǔ Shuǐpíng Kǎoshì) course for the Chinese Proficiency Test.

 

Dongguan has gone from a place with a handful of limited cinemas, to those with the IMAX, vibrating seats, private screens and many of the latest releases from the west. KTV bars make way for baseball batting cages, ten-pin bowling, archery cafes and all the latest crazes. The great thing is that with Wechat (born 2011), Alipay etc, you can leave your wallet behind and pay swiftly with ease using these simple electronic methods. Gone are the days of using equations and haggling to get a taxi a short distance. Piles of services are available via your phone, including electrical bills, water bills and Didi (driver and carshare service) is one such saving grace.

During these COVID-19 pandemic times, your phone provides your health code, advice in travel, guidance on health services and help. Dongguan’s local services for healthcare, private insurance and banking are on your fingertips, rather than a a few hours out of work. Life can be as fast or as slow as you wish. In 2010, Dongguan was named a National Model City for Environmental Protection and greenways, green belts and other greenery followed. There are hundreds of parks now, over 1200… it is easier than ever to stay healthy.

There is culture around us, old temples, modern pagodas, relics of time and shells of history. Dongguan’s landmarks are a tad tough to visit now. The Cwa humid subtropical climate here is far above the reported average annual temperature of 22.7 °C (72.9 °F). The rainfall is typical of the land below the Tropic of Cancer now. It is raining cats, dogs and occasionally elephants. Wellingtons and umbrellas are common sights these days, rather than the Dongguan Yulan Theatre, GuanYinShan (Budda mountain), Hǎizhàn bówùguǎn (海战博物馆 Opium War Museum) or Jin’aozhou Pagoda. Even a trip to my local coffee shop, Her Coffee, is like a swim in a river. It is blooming wet lately. As a Mancunian, I feel at home.

I’m here for education – to both teach and to learn. This city has hundreds of educational institutions, even Cumbria’s St. Bees are opening a school here. I’ve heard there are around 550 primary schools, 480 kindergartens and several universities now. To bump into a teacher amongst the 21,000 plus teachers is not unusual. Although it seems every second teacher works for one of the many Eaton House schools here. I’ve heard Tungwah Wenzel International School (TWIS) in Songshan Lake is one school to really watch. Like its neighbouring Huawei school, it is massive with around 1,000,000 square metres of surface area. I’ve seen the modern sports gyms, performance space and technology labs. It uses the latest gadgets and networking. It really is 21st century over there at Songshan Lake. Although Huawei have a German-style train-tram zipping around, piping back to older days. Dongguan University of Technology(DGUT; 东莞理工学院) is one of universities in the area meaning that you can educate beyond your teenage years here. It really is a place to learn. Watch out Oxford and Cambridge! Maybe that’s why Trump is always bad-mouthing China’s growth?

From eating chicken anus, to two weeks of quarantine in XiHu Hotel, Dongguan has given me more time to turn the contents of my head to words. Now that I am ready to publish a novel, I need a publisher, but how to do this during a pandemic? I haven’t a clue, but I know one thing, the challenge will be tough and worth it. Nobody ever climbed a mountain to sit at the top and look down without seeing another mountain, right? At the end of the day, the sun sets only to rise again. Dongguan faced lockdown impeccably and other challenges, just as the world did and does. Chin up, keep going and let’s crack on.

Last night, I ate Korean barbecue with great people to celebrate a treble-birthday, followed by proof that I am terrible at ten-pin bowling and awoke today feeling optimistic. The world is often reported to be going through a pandemic-sized recession. As the world sailed a wave in 2008 and Dongguan grew from that recession, I will everyone to go on. Manufacture a bucket of optimism. Just like the strings of New Dawn Fades by Joy Division, there is darkness but remember these famous lines: It was me, waiting for me; Hoping for something more; Me, seeing me this time; Hoping for something else. In 2008, low-tech industry switched to the high-tech. Boomtime arrived. Chances are that one in five phones around the globe were made in Dongguan. Is your phone Vivo, Oppo, Honor or Huawei? It was probably made down the road from me. So, Dongguan is closer than you think.


Manchester isn’t any place I will visiting in person for some time, so it has to come to me via playbacks of Oasis gigs at Maine Road and the written word. Over the next few months, I plan to read the following Mancunian-connected books:

Hell is a City – Maurice Proctor; The Manchester ManIsabella Varley Banks; Passing Time – Michel Butor; Magnolia Street – Louis Golding; Fame is the Spur – Howard Spring; Lord Horror – David Britton; The Emigrants – WG Sebald; Cold Water – Gwendolyne Riley; The Mighty Walzer Howard Jacobson; Manchester Slingback – Nicolas Blincoe; Vurt – Jeff Noon; A Man’s Game: The Origins of Manchester City Football ClubAndrew Keenan; Mary Barton – Elizabeth Gaskell; Cranford – Elizabeth Gaskell; North and South – Elizabeth Gaskell.

“I was thinking about what you said; I was thinking about shame; The funny thing how you said; Cause it’s better not to stay” – The Last Broadcast – Doves

Jump On, Happy Now

How do! / 你好 (nĭ hăo) / Namaste / Welcome!

I recall Mr Jones at Chapel Street Primary School making a simple poem. It was wordplay on my name John. Jump on, happy now. So simple. So memorable. Like other school events. When I was young, our class went to Mam Tor and the Blue John Cavern in Castleton, Derbyshire. I remember very little other than giggling at the name Blue John. The cavern is named after a semi-precious mineral Blue John. The 250 million years old was and is mined for the purposes of jewellery. The cavern sits beneath Mam Tor, a rather tall hill, a 517-metre (1696ft) peak of the world famous Peak District. I never picked up any fluorite (with bands of a purple-blue or yellowish colour) but I do recall the French name of bleu-jaune (blue-yellow). So, my name went from blue to yellow. In China blue movies are called yellow movies.

Our class had walked the 4.8km up (3 miles) from a car park, where our coach awaited. In misty wet conditions we returned, a little soggy. The views across the Edale Valley and Kinder Scout were wasted on us. It was completely shrouded by clouds. The Derwent Moors were less than visible. We even walked to another cave, Windy Knoll, but the entrance was covered by loose rubble. That was invisible to us too. Still we’d climbed up the peak that means ‘Mother Hill’. The brittle shale and so-called shivering mountain also left us shivering in the damp and cold too. As our teeth chattered a teaching assistant rambled on about Bronze Age and Iron Age forts. To kids in a field, drenched head to toe, he mustered zero enthusiasm. We all had ideas of using the caves (Speedwell Cavern, Peak Cavern A.K.A. ‘The Devil’s Arse’ and Treak Cliff Cavern) as a kind of natural umbrella.

So, that was my first time to see the name John in a strange place. Our primary school used to have three Johns. John O’Neill and John Doherty, with myself. Recently, I played football with John Burns and John Crompton. My surname is Acton. So, here in China, we had John A, B and C at Murray’s F.C. It isn’t an unusual name. John is Jewish, or was. It coms from a word meaning ‘Graced by Yahweh’ – a kind of Samarian God. Jack, Jackie, Johnny and Jonathan all come from the name John. Jackie Chan is a wannabe John. also comes from the name John but as a Manchester City striker, I can’t take responsibility for him, and nor should the name John. Johns can be equally good or bad. Everton, not the football team, but the name also comes from the name John. Being a very biblical name, John has been mutated and transpired into Celtic (Ianto), Germanic, Romance, European, Arabic (يُوحَنّا‎), Hungarian, Albanian (Xhoni), Slavic (Ján) and other forms. One of the most common names in English-speaking countries is sticking around hard and fast.

Yahweh is or was a storm-and-warrior deity which explains why I like the rain a fair bit. That and being Mancunian – it’s a kind of Stockholm syndrome. Here in China, as the Dongguan rain lashes down, I can write Yuēhàn (约翰) into my phone to produce a local version of my name that sounds more German than Chinese. My Korean student Kim could write my name as Yohan (요한) and my Japanese student Leon could write my name as Yohane (ヨハネ). Then there are countless feminine forms around the world such as Jone, Johanna, Ghjuvanna and Sinéad.

John is mentioned countless times throughout religion, with the Gospel of John, First through to Third Epistles of John and the Book of Revelation by a certain Saint John the Divine scribbling something down. There were no blog pages in his time. Apocalypses have remained popular in fiction and non-fiction ever since. Well, until the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic. Gospel of John was the third sequel to the Gospel of Matthew. Mark and Luke were the other members of the Gospel boyband. The Gospel of John has much prattling and something to do with the raising of Lazarus and contrasts Judaism. It’s probably where Christianity broke away, circa AD90-110. Three faith-raising sermon letters (epistles) of John followed much like the Fast & The Furious franchise.

“Who’s that writin’? John the Revelator. Who’s that writin’? John the Revelator. Who’s that writin’? John the Revelator. Wrote the book of the seven seals” – John the Revelator, Blind Willie Johnson

Many kings and queens have taken on the various forms of the name John through time, with prophet John the Baptist (died 30AD-ish), John the Apostle (one of a dozen). John the Evangelist (an author type), John of Patmos (the Revelator/the Divine), John the Presbyter (open to interpretation), another John (father of Saint Peter etc), John of Antioch (a chronicler which is a kind of news reporter of the time), umpteen Pope Johns (at least 21 of them), and several Saint Johns. There are Saint John churches and places as diverse as Cornwall (a parish village with the nearby St John’s Lake SSSI), Malacca in Malaysia, the capital city of Newfoundland and Labrador and even the Church of St John-at-Hackney. Wherever a boat could sail, and a missionary could set up a parish, that’s where the name has reached. If you don’t believe me, take a glance at the maps of Antigua and Barbuda, Barbados, Dominica and Grenada. Oh, and there are ambulances displaying the saintly name: St. John Ambulance. Mighty Mouse was even a St. John Publications comic character.

Nicknames involving Johns area round us too. My Dad had a friend who was nicknamed ‘John the Ghost’ because of his pale look and I think had a few near misses with death in hid life. John the Hunchback isn’t as famous Quasimodo. Being a General and Politician in Roman times on the flanks of the Eastern Roman Empire wasn’t quite as romantic as being the protagonist of The Hunchback of Notre-Dame. John “the Savage” features in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. John “OO” Fleming is a trance D.J. and his music could be heard on a portable speaker sat atop your very own Johnboat (an aluminium hunter-fishing boat). My mate John Petrie shares the name of Arbroath F.C.’s striker extraordinaire – he scored a record 13 goals in a 36-0 win. That’s something to mull over as you listen to former Meat Loaf and Marilyn Manson guitarist John 5. There are countless Johns to plug: I mentioned John Rabe and John Nichols before.

Whether in a campaign, a B-side on a Kylie Minogue with Robbie Williams song, a Giant Cave of Gilbratar, the John’s Langur (Semnopithecus johnii), a famous New York pizzeria, archaic phones, or a show about Tourette’s syndrome, the name John can be used for good or bad. Fritz John made an ultrahyperbolic partial differential equation that carries the name John’s equation. It was pretty bad for my eyes to see it and understand very little of it. Not all Johns make sense. I know that I don’t.

“Be thine own palace, or the world’s thy jail.” – ― John Donne, The Poems of John Donne (Volume 1)

The name John is popular in many ways. Master Chief Petty Officer John-117 from the video game Halo wasn’t an ideal role model for me but he did accompany far too many adolescents through early development blasting the hell out of crazy religious Covenant alien radicals. Almost as great as sending a Dear John letter to tell your loved one that they are a former loved one and now you have a new loved one. Writer Philip Jerome Quinn Barry wasn’t a John but in 1927 the New Yorker published his play called, yes, you guessed right, John. That play was unsuccessful. Bad John. Lil’ Wayne (2011) and Desireless (1988) didn’t write their songs of the same name, based on P.J.Q. Barry’s failed play. They sold around 2 million and 313,000 respectively.

“The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven.” – John Milton, Paradise Lost.

Other odd uses of the name John can mean someone who uses a prostitute, slang for a toilet (cheers America!), tropical storms and hurricanes, and there are about 13,400,137 Johns in the U.S.A. at any one time. That’s about one in every 25 Americans. On the flipside, John the Ripper is a program used to test the strength of a password. In Morse code John looks like this: .——….-. (which may be useless in the digital age). John Lennon and John F. Kennedy didn’t get any Morse code message of their fate. John R. “Johnny” Cash is one of my favourite Johns, in terms of talented Johns. John Paul Henry Daniel Richard Grimes is not.

Bizarrely the names Eoin, Evan, Yohannes, Ifan, Ioane, Hermes, Siôn, Janes, and Núño have origins in the name John. Jhon is also a real name. I guess somebody couldn’t type or spell, and it stuck. John has grace the rich and famous with numerous kings, Elton John, the late huge-nosed Gottfried John, Dame Olivia Newton-John and (was it personal?) R&B singer William Edward “Little Willie” John having a certain name. That 24-bar blues song Leave My Kitten Alone is so underrated. The Beatles and Elvis Costello copied it at some state too.

“Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard, are sweeter” – John Keats, Ode on a Grecian Urn and Other Poems

The name John is classic. It is a natural and wholesome formal name, refined and well at home in history and equally strong for the present day. It can represent the boring aspects of name history and the simple yet serious mature look of a person. Whether the name represents an author or an actor in Downton Abbey, the name John could likewise be a Canadian prime minister or a character in DC comics. John can be legend or literature, musician or theologian. The name John was once consistently popular in one of its many forms. Now newer names and international culture are heavily influencing naming across the globe. The name John, however, will not fade away.

Johnny Marr is from Manchester and spent some of his years in Ardwick. He probably wasn’t far from another famous John in Manchester. All of the above writing could easily have been a huge and tedious introduction to Manchester’s famous John Dalton. Born in Cumberland at a place called Eaglesfield (by Cockermouth), John Dalton headed for Manchester. He would go on to be a hugely influential chemist, physicist, and meteorologist. He made huge contributions to atomic theory research, the study of colour blindness and dissenting educationalists from church-backed establishments. He was radical.

Buried under Ardwick’s playing fields (former cemetery), Dalton’s legacies are far more than a statue-bust in Manchester’s town hall. The John Dalton Building of Manchester Metropolitan University houses the Faculty of Science and Engineering. There’s a statue of John Dalton outside. John Dalton Street connects Deansgate and Albert Square in central Manchester. There’s a bleu plaque at 36 George Street, his former residence. Dalton published many pieces including work on the Law of Multiple Proportions, Dalton’s Law of Partial Pressures, Daltonism (also known as colour blindness). He earned his Royal Medal amongst many plaudits and lived to study and research. Nowadays his name lives on through such terms as Dalton (S.I. unit), Daltonism, and the Dalton Minimum. The latter was a period of low sunspot count, representing low solar activity, possibly much like the City of Manchester’s exposure to sun at the peak of winter, right?

“John Dalton’s records, carefully preserved for a century, were destroyed during the World War II bombing of Manchester. It is not only the living who are killed in war.” – Isaac Asimov, Writer & Biochemistry professor

Their gaff, their rules?

How do! / 你好 (nĭ hăo) / Namaste / Welcome!

“If the freedom of speech is taken away then dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep to the slaughter.” – George Washington

Before I write any more, firstly, I need to clarify that I hate the idea of animals suffering. Actually, it forms one of the reasons why right now I do not have a pet. If I cannot be certain where I will live within twelve months, how can I look after a cat, dog or hamster? I’ve been lucky enough in my life to be raised around animals. My Dad and Mum gave me Pup, who was with me for about 17 years of my life as man’s best friend, a wonderful dog. There were cats along the way, Basil (think of a detective that was a rodent), Sparky and Tigger (original, right?). I had umpteen hamsters: Bright Eyes, Stripe, Gizmo and Gremlin to name but a few. Astrid, my sister, will tell you of her hamster Doris, and how she selected it on the basis that it bit her bigger brother (me) in the pet store. There were mice, bred and rehoused, with responsible intentions. I had fleeting dreams of being a vet – but for a huge dislike of blood. Then, it was time to study a BTEC National Diploma at North Trafford College and eventually study a BSc Behavioural Biology. Since then, my wildlife and animal passion has evolved into a pastime, set of interests and hobbies. The professional world was oversubscribed, underpaid and hard to escape clicks. It wasn’t for me. Instead I find myself softly influencing future generations and making people think twice.

“I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”- S.G. Tallentyre, The Friends of Voltaire.

Stumbling into education with transferable skills just meant I swapped elephant dung in the morning for a whole raft of new pooh. I’m in China, their gaff their rules. But I can talk freely about some topical issues. What is a wet market? Well, it’s just a marketplace that sells fish, meats, vegetables, and fruits. The produce is not dry (like fabric or electronics). The goods at wet markets are perishable. Not all wet markets slaughter animals or have a fishmongers. Across the Indian subcontinent (e.g. Thailand), China, Japan, Korea and the island countries northwest of Australia, wet markets can be found and are a common feature of daily life. Foods can be fresh, cheaper than supermarkets, and going to these markets themselves can be a huge part of your social life. It is tantamount to culture and traditions for many people. To close many wet markets may be seen as xenophobic and cause more problems. But, will these same wet markets yield the next outbreak?

Wang Mengyun’s video of a bat being eaten in Palau has become infamous. It is disgusting in my opinion. What adds further disgust is that RT and the Daily Mail, amongst many, posted this via news outlets and social media claiming it was from Wuhan. I was even sent it on the Chinese app Wechat. I’m not justifying or defending her, or any other fools eating weird crap. Data and images can easily fit any story, without, erm, actual information. Of course, if China is involved, then there’s always an element of menace and worry from a social point of view. What exactly are they up to over there?

The wet market here hasn’t reopened (and many will never reopen, as many are rumpured as marked for demolition, to be replaced by more sanitized versions) which is great. I’m actually excited for when it does because they have limited the list of edible species right down. You wouldn’t believe the list before. There was no list. It could have been likened to taking a walk in a zoo. Except, that zoo was closer to The Green Mile, and all the inmates were destined for the grimmest of chops. Owls, giant salamanders and frogs may not appear on the menu in Beijing, but across this large nation of China, there are huge differences in diets. Here in Guangdong, it is said that the Cantonese eat everything with four legs, excluding chairs and desks.

Afterall the list isn’t far off what is approved as meat in the U.K. The most exotic things are to be found all over Britain such as ostrich, deer, reindeer, alpaca etc. Sadly, the list still includes fur species: mink, foxes and raccoons. BUT activism and conservation are growing here. Thoughts are changing. Many influential and middle-class people really believe that bigger changes are coming. Conservation and animal welfare are some of the few things people can protest here. The WHO advised China to “sell safe food with better hygiene”. That seems to be triggering a huge revolution in hygiene. There’s revulsion at the rich who can afford palm civet soup, braised bear paws and deep-fried cobra. These rarities are not farmed or caught for everyone. There’s status and face to show off, and keeping up with the Joneses is on the menu. Rebecca Wong explains in her book about the illegal wildlife trade that things are far from simple.

The China Biodiversity Conservation and Green Development Foundation is pushing for an end to meats from wild sources. Many cities such as Shenzhen and several provinces are banning the sale of wild-sourced meats – yet China only has a temporary ban in place (and that excludes use for Traditional Chinese Medicines – T.C.M.). Is the ban effective? Well, The Daily Mail, managed to get images and a journalist into Guilin, Guangxi province and show dogs alongside cats, with T.C.M. posters showing bats. The W.H.O., the U.N.’s Convention on Biological Diversity, have called on China to do more.

China’s Wildlife Protection Law to permanently make catching and eating wildlife as a food into a criminal law will follow. The decision’s first real steps had been made on February 24th 2020. It is expected the list of 54 wild species bred on farms will be further reduced. Do people really need to eat hamsters and bird of prey? Do these horrific farms need abolishing? Does the farm license from The State Forestry and Grassland Administration conflict with their interest in wildlife protection? Places like Guangzhou and this province of Guangdong will need to seriously rearrange their eating habits. Chinese news sources, backed and owned by the state, have decried the practice of eating wildlife. One such piece, China Daily, went further than most with an English opinion piece by author Wu Yong. He correctly pointed to the Institute of Virology of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (home base: Wuhan) and their publications warning of the next big outbreak, following SARS in 2012. There are voices from within China banging a drum to the same beat: stop eating wildlife (50% of people surveyed in 2014 said wild animals should not be eaten). And should the laws come how vague will they be? How will provinces, cities and local areas enforce the laws? Who will steady the balance books of those who need the income?

“Without freedom of thought, there can be no such thing as wisdom – and no such thing as public liberty without freedom of speech.” – Benjamin Franklin

It is easy to say that wild animals carry viruses, and should they not be eaten by people, then there is little to no chance of these zoonotic viruses affecting human lives. If we do, then the viruses are with us. But, how many viruses start on farms from long-term domestic animals? Think Pandemic H1N1/09 virus and its outbreak from Mexico/U.S.A. in 2009 that killed about 151,700-575,400 people globally, according to the CDC. The problem is that for some their eyes are bigger than their bellies. They don’t want you and I, or others telling them what is right or wrong. For some status and entitlement is paramount. Why can a rich U.S. hunter go and shoot a lion in Africa, when a poor villager can’t catch pangolin in Vietnam to support their family? Will bans work? Will the trade go from loosely regulated to completely underground shady dealings? “Psst, wanna but a civet?” What is a civet anyway? I imagine many having seen a pangolin too. Look them both up. They’re wonderful little critters. Just don’t grill them!

“It is clear that not in one thing alone, but in many ways equality and freedom of speech are a good thing.” – Herodotus

China has endured food safety scandals, unusual additives being included in food, a distrust of food regulation, corruption and countless public health appeals and campaigns seeking to improve standards. If you live here long enough, you’ll know having diarrhea tablets to be most useful. Food poisoning happens and at public ad even private restaurants, finding hand soap can be a miracle. Everyone carries hand sanitiser and tissues, but few look forwards to visiting an outside toilet. To get to the modern regulation systems of the U.K. standards, the U.K. under the name of Great Britain and its Empire had many flaws and faults. Many want change but it will take time. Not every country is perfect, some wash their chicken in chlorine, don’t you America? Tradition and odd ingredients need talking about, at least. Without conversation and debate, how can we as people strike a balance between nature and need?

This pandemic is always going to throw up many questions. Should all wet markets adapt and abandon tradition in favour of hygiene and high standards? Yes, for the sake of humanity, surely! Should we be searching for the next big pandemic? Should we be vaccinating our pets and our zoo animals when the cure to COVID-19 arrives? Will the virus replicate and mutate in other domestic animals? Have we ignored the warnings (2017 and so on) for too long? Will wildlife poaching rise in the shadow of little eco-tourism? How many more lies will the internet spread about handwashing?

“We have to go see Bill Gates and a lot of different people that really understand what’s happening. We have to talk to them, maybe in certain areas, closing that Internet up in some way. Somebody will say, ‘Oh, freedom of speech, freedom of speech.’ These are foolish people. We have a lot of foolish people.” – Donald Trump, Twitter user.

Keep talking. It’s the only way to progress.

 

The cover image: chicken anus on a stick. From a Taiwanese takeaway store, in China.

 

The new norm.

How do! / 你好 (nĭ hăo) / Namaste / Welcome!

The plague of the 21st century isn’t locusts or bubonic. Not at all. It is lies, rumourmongering and misinformation.

If I was to state that taking antihistamines for hay-fever will help your rheumatoid arthritis, I’d be right up there with Doctor P.O.T.U.S.A. Trump. I’m fairly certain, by his instinctive logic, a sticker plaster (band-aid) may heal a lost limb. Hydroxychloroquine is a mouthful to say, let alone take. Trump loves to say hydroxychloroquine. I think his instinct about the drug is overshadowed by his pride in the ability to say this long word. In my instinct, I think this psychopathic P.O.T.U.S.A. is enjoying every utterance of the drug’s name. “What have you to lose? Take it,” said the man claiming common sense wins him the right to issue medical advice. Trump tweeted about it, with 103,400 re-tweets and 386,900 likes, so at least nobody noticed him and won’t have to worry about the possible side effects list (four patients had liver damage and one patient severely worsened in Trump’s favoured French study – so from twenty, 25% had big problems).

The losses are probably higher than reportable. Doctors and nurses will have been approached about the miracle drug. Imagine all that lost time. Drug therapies are in their infancy because this new virus and the COVID-19 that it causes are only just being researched. As outbreaks go, it is a baby. Malaria and SARS CoV-2 are not that closely related. Twenty patients tested in France, in uncontrolled circumstances alongside another drug azithromycin, was inconclusive. Only a few patients shown a positive response. Like many other studies, things are in their infancy. But, remember, that as one drug becomes popular, its demand rises, and those who truly need it – battling malaria or for other uses may be short. And, what happens when the drug kills? Always use hydroxychloroquine responsibly.

There is a huge distrust of China globally.  The internet age revolution is finally being eclipsed by a very grey area of lies, untruths, and extreme bias. People like Jack Patrick Dorsey (Twitter CEO/co-founder) don’t ban far-rights and extremism of views. They believe in freedom of speech – at the supression of protecting everyone else from extreme views. Didn’t he and Twitter learn about World War 2? Because, should such a person do so, then populism, as needed by Trump (the P.O.T.U.S.A.) would have no secure place in our world. Fake temperature devices, faulty goods, corporate espionage, 5G battles, cybersecurity, and other such exposes are leaving China in a different light for many. Over here in China, I can see Chinese channels and media slamming the U.S., Taiwan (funded by the U.S.; and funding Hong Kong’s resistance?), Britain’s fragmented and gradually anti-Chinese stance. It’s a horrible place to be for an expat in China, knowing that one word wrong by one politician could ruin six years of working here.

Some guidance had been set by China on managing the virus, but has enough been done to understand how this drug and virus react together? The NHS now has several trusts giving trial to it. Everywhich way you look, there are many hoping to find the cure. We all look on and hope. Remember normality and a regular daily life? Wouldn’t it be nice to be there. I’m over here in China and yet I can’t see it. Not yet.

There is guidance knocking around W.H.O. on what to do, after relaxing lockdowns. The biggest point is that transmission should be controlled. China is definitely doing that! Even after quarantine, I have 14 days of temperature checks, swabs before I restart work (alongside all the staff and students), and a QR code showing a green tick to show that I am apparently clear of the dreaded buggy virus. Every supermarket and restaurant must check me, and all others on the way in. Any hint of too high a temperature and there is no admittance – and probably a report to the authorities.

Today, the Police and garden/village management took my details and gave me a form to fill in. On the other hand, today, I’d walked past a guy without a mask on, sneezing his cloud of nasal blobbery into the air. Oh, and a dozen others coughing out of masks. Even a twinge of my muscle or a slight hint of exhaustion and I worry. Anxiety is my bedfellow. Luckily China’s health system capacities are detecting, testing, isolating and treating as it suppresses this beastly vile virus. The essential places are being re-opened but by bit, yet cinemas stand empty, many shops and restaurants have gone for good and the country has severely controlled flights out of China: one airline, one country, once a week… so please don’t ask my summer plans and what I plan to do after this contract at this school. The only one thing I want to do, is see my loved ones, my family and my close friends – but I will not be coming home, endangering them now or later. It is time to stay home (or The Winchester), stay safe and save lives… and wait for this to all blow over. Or Chernobyl to burn and cause a global nuclear problem. Perhaps they’ll be a follow up series to HBO’s Chernobyl after all.

The virus outbreak has left many alone in their final hours but it has also gave many care in those moments too. It has left pets without homes and also gave many homes. Every exception, every aspect and every scenario seem to be at play now. Some are regional, some are national and some vary from culture to culture. Fear and humanity are battling. Art is out there in the shadows and beauty abounds, but the media and noise is loud. We mustn’t lose touch of who we are and what we are doing. What are you doing in the new norm? 

After quarantine.

How do! / 你好 (nĭ hăo) / Namaste / Welcome!

 

After quarantine isn’t quite what I expected. I expected life to be much more difficult, but it isn’t. On arriving back to the garden compounds of my home apartment, I had my temperature checked, had a form filled in for me, and after maybe ten tense minutes, I was driven to my apartment door. Here I took the squeaky-clean lift up to my floor, opened the door, scanned a QR code and registered myself. That’s for the garden management, the local authority and the Police to know where I am. There was a form given to me, with 14 days on it, for my temperature but as I’d completed government-ran hotel quarantine and had a lovely certificate to show for it, I was exempted.

“If your smiling you’d better smile, for us all; If your laughing you’d better laugh, for us all; Well you better from now on; Yeah you better from now on” – For Us All, Levellers

Every day in quarantine, I thrashed my exercise out to several songs, one was For Us All, by the Levellers, alongside their track England My Home and many more! When the darkness drifted in and I felt myself so alone, I turned to music. I read the songs in my mind like fine books. I embraced the beats, the tempos and felt raw emotions like never ever before, perhaps enhanced by my temporary hermitage existence. The solitary confinement can’t be compared to that of a prisoner in a box of solitude, but for me, it was a personal struggle. I can be a loner of my own choosing, but this eremitic period of time has certainly convinced me that I will never be a true solitudinarian. More upbeat numbers of my childhood such as Sub Sub’s, Ain’t No Love (Ain’t No Use), and copious amounts of Black Grape (It’s your big day in the north, love…).

Outside, after a gentle jog (I felt knackered after doing less than 2km) and a brief wander to say hello ( and collect a medal from a colleague), I went to Kings Bar in Changping to enjoy pizza and a trio of beers (two IPAs and a stout from Master Gao brewery). I felt shattered and tired all night. It was good to be out, but emotionally it was a strain. I could see my colleague Gerry, wasn’t too fresh from quarantine too. There’s only so much conversation that you can have when you’ve both been stuck in a room for one, over 14 days. Luckily Kingston and Andy added to our nattering. The complimentary stout helped welcome us back – and was much, much appreciated.

“But it’s there to find if you have the mind; And you don’t live in fear of it…” – Men-an-Tol, The Levellers

Today, I went to a supermarket and a coffee shop. Temperature checks and all that were normal. The frequency of said checks in the supermarket was abnormal: four times. Yesterday, an old man spat towards me on the way to school. He shouted something towards me calling me American or something about America. Gerry had a car refuse to pick us up, and they messaged him with the word ‘poisonous’. It is fear and worry, no doubt, but it’ll go away, we all hope. This is not a time for hate and fear. That being said counterfeit testing kits and fake masks, scams, lies, pure hate, alleged W.H.O. bias, and xenophobia are fuelling a global atmosphere of hate and distrust. Fight I with love and support. The minority, the knobheads and the uneducated lowlife responses don’t represent us all – and increasingly many governments and politicians do not either. There’ll be a brighter day soon.

There is hope out there, amongst the gloom. UCI show us how the professional cyclists keep going; charities left, right and centre help those in need; research is making progress in finding a vaccine or helping to alleviate symptoms; footballers are throwing their money at the NHS too; and countless other goodwill moments. China is sending aid to many countries – sometimes to mixed responses. The Vatican had benefited, Pakistan too, Israel has, Spain (did but they were faulty), France also, similarly Greece and Italy likewise. Pick a region or country and you’ll find China has been helping, whether through government, enterprise or charitable donations. Many argue the W.H.O., U.N., U.S.A. and China working as one are key. Some argue that there isn’t enough input from one or the others; but Europe is increasingly receiving support from China. The U.S.A. appears to be extensively alienating itself. Canada and Mexico, its geographically closest neighbours aren’t exactly being encouraged. 3M were ordered not to export to Canada despite 3M receiving the bade components and materials. And, Mexico is always the brunt of a Trump border problem. Corona beer production in Mexico is on hold for other reasons.

Oh and my letter to Dongguan was published on the local Here! Dongguan magazine online channel. Right time to go eat a salad… homemade with sweet potato leaves and peanuts. Why not?

Visit Kathmandu 2020.

Sawasdeekhap / Namaste / Welcome!

I’m sat here, in Thailand, writing an chomping away on a bag of makok. These fruits come from the Spondias Dulcis flowering plant. They’re sour, and pickled ever so slightly. The tough flesh makes it feel like a beastly olive. I’ve had this fruit in curries before, and always wondered what it was. Now, I know, I like makok. Oh. That’s erm, awkward. I like to eat… No I can’t finish that. Makok is very… No, not there either. The sour pickled green ball is yummy. That’ll have to do. I bet it’d make a mean dip if the chunky seeds were removed. Just don’t name the dip.


 

Finally, I have got round to my time in Nepal this year. 2020 has been marked as Visit Nepal 2020, a concerted effort by the Nepal government to get overseas and overland visitors to bring their hard-earned money into the country – and experience ever-lasting moments that will tease visitors back time and time again.

The landscapes from valley to valley within Nepal can give you sensory overload. My experiences across two visits gave me a bombardment of sounds, sights, tastes and colours. The moment I left Nepal the first time, I wanted to return. This applied to the second time – and has since applied to this third time of visiting.

I touched down in Kathmandu, Nepal once more. This trek was to take in some of the Annapurna Circuit region. With prior knowledge of snowfall being heavy, I purchased some rusty looking blue crampons in the twisting narrow streets of Thamel. I’d enjoyed a great breakfast at the Northfield Café and a good night of sleep at the Northfield Hotel. I was excited and happy to be back in Nepal. My plan was simple. Go for a wander. No aims, no worries. Some passes and some mountains can’t always be seen. It is, what it is. Bumping into Srirang at The Café With No Name, he revealed his plan to trek the Annapurna Circuit with Livia, from Hungary. We’d all met last year trekking the Everest Base Camp route. I had no problems about joining them on the walk this time around. Srirang looked much leaner than last year. He must have been training hard in his native Mumbai city.

Armed with a great salad, and a wonderful pumpkin soup, I tucked into my Panini and enjoyed the feel of this wonderful backstreet café. A ginnel is the route to the small and atmospheric café. All the profits of The Café With No Name are sent to the charity Our Sansar – which benefits street children and brings them into education. Every great coffee or beer you have, benefits someone. That’s maybe why I decided to visit this place every lunchtime I had spend in Thamel, this time round. You can find it down a small alleyway. Look for a chalkboard when you face from the central supermarket looking in the direction of Purple Haze Bar. When you reach the bar, swing left and somewhere by Merry Hotel, you’ll find this treasure of a café. Expect to feel at home on the crate-made tables, and cosy furniture. There’re books to exchange and lots of things to make the eyes wander. The staff are great and so heartwarmingly friendly, it makes you want to live in Kathmandu. Perhaps the world’s dustiest city needs great retreats. This is one such wonder. Expect to feel a great musical vibe and return time and time again.

At Northfield café, that first morning, I sat with a beaming smile on my face. I enjoyed a good hearty breakfast, with the masala omelette filling my belly, alongside a strong coffee. The staff went to turn on the heater, but I was enjoying the cool air. Cold air sharpens the senses. It keeps your wits sharp. It helps me to focus. Heat makes me sleepy and sluggish. I sat watching people drift up and down the street outside. Few shops were open. Shutters sank and sagged to the ground like dull metallic cold blinds to the world beyond them. A few clear western people walked by. Some were spiritualists, hippies long off the bandwagon of Thamel’s once famous Freak Street, trekkers, climbers, cultural tourists and no doubt a few who reside in Nepal for work. There’d be some amongst them feeling enlightened, some caught in the ambience and many sponging up the vast cultures around them.

Looking at the headwear of those passing by, there were knitted ski hats, traditional and regional ethnic pieces, and an equally diverse array of jackets. Some combined with various pieces of formal office wear and others with striking multi-coloured knitted socks. Evidence of around 125 different people and 123 languages mingled with tourism and those from elsewhere. It all belonged perfectly. A tapestry of diversity in a wealth of colour. This intertwined nation coexists with such ease. Poverty and adversity sit only around the corner from the luxury cocktail bars and the bright lights of pocket-sized night clubs.

The tarmac road created less than two years ago, now looks swollen, crumbled and churned. Bits stand out here and there. A vintage Royal Enfield motorbike tackled potholes and narrowly missed  a static scout mannequin outside of a store proudly displaying Gurkha knives, the kukri. Khukuri World Store was a trove of gifts, memorabilia, and shiny things hoping to lure people inside. The scout model held out a Nepal flag, its beautiful triangles coated with the sun and moon, a combination of blue, red and white like no other flag. Next door to this knife and survival gear shop, a sprawl of 100% natural cashmere and yak wool piles spilled over two steps. The Friendly Pashmina Shop had so much stock, it was practically leant against the White Mountain Outdoors shop further along the row. Above which was a White Water Rafting Co., somewhere beneath layers of dust and soot. Dusty raincoats, sleeping bags and long puffy down jackets hung still, half admitting that they’ll never find a buyer anytime soon in that state. A ginnel (tiny pathway) into Nana Hotel looked uninviting between a sodden empty crates and Nepalaya Money Exchange. The shutters of Al Noor Gems revealed little indication of what treasures lay within. I guess even Indiana Jones would be put off by the rusting bulk of metal. The possibility of tetanus for the sake of some fool’s gold wouldn’t be a good gamble.

A hairdresser and the ATM cash machine tussled for space over a few cubic metres as the morning footfall started to increase. School children dressed in an array of uniforms drifted in small clusters or singularly up and down the road. A hooded man, slimmer than a twig, drifted amongst the crowd playing the sarangi (a string instrument) and trying to sell many of the same pieces from his sagging shoulder bag. Along the very same road, powerlines and cables draped the floor as workers fed neat replacements overhead, clearing years of cluttered dangerous cables. Trybal Handmade’s shop’s lights flickered in reply. A call for help and stable feeding. New life, please.

Inside the glass-window front of the restaurant and a little over the shoulder, a family sat enjoying their foods and drinks. The grandmother of the group made gratified noises as two younger women, perhaps in their forties, jostled food around their plates. Three young children ate quietly with great respect for their surroundings. They talked infrequently, warmly and softly, amongst themselves in what I believe was Urdu. I don’t know the language but I recognised one or two words. A smiling waitress with big beaming eyes came over to them and served them tea. The well-kept long hair spilled from her headscarf far beyond the rear of her waist. Her hand glittered with earthly coloured stones, natural and modest yet bold and fitting. The Northfield Café itself had warm earthly colours dominate the walls, and even a real tree trunk shot up through two floors and out of the roof offering a canopy of green amongst the buildings.

Effigies of door gods stand by the glass entrance doors. A piece of A4 paper is taped onto the inside of the door. It boasts of WARM DINING inside, without skimping on the use of capital letters. By now my omelette had vanished and a second cup of coffee had found its way into my hand. Three men joined the large respectful group. The conversation remained tender and calm. The younger children remained as attentive as I did to my coffee.

Two staircases within Northfield Café stretched upwards. Two lobbies spilled outwards giving an aura of space. The energy of the room had a seamless flow. My eyes strayed around the room enjoying the care and attention each member of staff gave to newly seated customers. Each patron matched the calm of the room. The staff both blended in and simultaneously made themselves available. Hidden servants of the spiritual rooms of Northfield Café. The very essence of the symbiosis within the walls. Just like the draw of Kathmandu, I was excited to be back in the Northfield Café once again.

Sticking to food, we visited Gilingche, a Tibetan restaurant, far too late in the day and ate far too much. I had to take a doggy bag home – and fed a dog. I’ve visited here a few times and always enjoyed it.

Following two days in Kathmandu and a few purchases, Srirang and I took a tiny taxi (enough room for knees by your ears), two bags and a squashed driver to the new bus station. Here we purchased our bus tickets to Pokhara. And with a ticket for 17:00 and being told it would take around 13 hours, we departed just after 15:00 and arrived less than 9 hours later. The bus had spent an hour loading with apples on an industrial estate within Kathmandu too. It stopped at the Dal Bhat Power restaurant, around half way – and the scenic route had weaved perilous mountains throughout the foothills of the Kathmandu valley and the lower Himalayan range all the way to the reasonably flat Pokhara area.


 

Visit Nepal 2020 has progressively barred visa on arrivals to many nations. China, as Covid-19 origin, copped for it first. Three missing Nepali guides and four Korean trekkers succumbed to a terrible avalanche that also saw hundreds of people rescued from the Annapurna Base Camp region. In 2014 alone, 40 people were killed on the Annapurna circuit in one sever snowstorm. Nature rules these ranges. Man (and woman) is a guest. On top of this Donald Trump and USA struck Iran’s top military brass with missiles, putting many under the impression that perhaps a global war would follow. Even days after I landed the tragic news of eight Indian tourists died in a room, probably from carbon monoxide poisoning. With a lack of flights, and mobility – or will to travel during a time of pandemic, Nepal’s tourism, imports and other support lines have shrunk. Hotels, trekking lodges, guides and other such avenues offered to overseas clients have receded faster than my hairline (in the last decade). The demand from these avenues to agriculture and industry will slim faster than a diet pill overdose. An already struggling country is facing yet more challenge. I witnessed Kathmandu on my return from Pokhara and the Annapurna regions. It was akin to that of a ghost town. Nothing much happening, but worry and fear. And on top of all this (and more), many have mocked the artistic interpretation of the yeti drawn up for the Visit Nepal 2020 campaign.

Rhino deaths, Nepal may struggle even further. Over half of the money, earned overseas by Nepali workers, comes from Qatar (think World Cup construction), the U.A.E., Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Bahrain. As the virus hits that region, Nepal has taken actions to keep its people safe and on Nepali soil. It was no surprise to see that Visit Nepal 2020 has been postponed until 2022. I hope to return for Visit Nepal 2022 – and maybe I’ll pop back in 2021, if time permits. But right now, humanity is battling. We must pull together.

But, first a cup of tea…

The Land of Make Believe

Sawasdeekhap / Namaste / Welcome!

There are videos and supposed news pieces all over the media. Us and them. Blame and hate.  No need for it. Time for togetherness and understanding. Some videos serve as propaganda for and against something or other. They are wide open to criticism and debate. How do we know the story is real or fake? They come on entertainment channels, news sources and social media. Believe half of what you see and nothing of what you hear. Don’t believe the truth.

For example, I am in a WeChat social media group called Dongguan Tube (deceptive as it isn’t round or a television channel). It has around 187 members. One member shared a video, shot facing the camera, wearing sunglasses, indoors. My first thought was that he wishes to remain anonymous. Then, I realized he used his DouYin (Tik Tik) account. That’s registered to a phone number and email address, and in turn to a national ID card for Chinese citizens or other. Then facial recognition sprang to mind. I watched his tirade, because right now, there are some interesting and some worrying self-narratives floating around the world. He claimed to be a victim of abuse by a customer from somewhere or other. To stress the point his language was careful, considerate and colourful. Now, was it true or not? I don’t know. I hope he wasn’t as distressed as he made out. There are bigger worries in life. On one hand you have a nationalistic believer in a great nation, as his right, having grown up under a strict ideology only recently influenced by the west. On the other hand, 186 people within the group could debate and argue their own opinions or views. None would be helpful. I use this as a loose example of the footage zipping around cyberspace.

There is hate everywhere. I’ve seen tinfoil takeaway boxes shaped into coffins. Many of us have seen Norwegians posting flags with stars shaped like a certain virus. Opinions, and art are okay, but how far do we go to upset people at a very sensitive time? Well it seems we go a little far, like almost all the way to the right. Hitler would probably like some of the stuff today if he had a Twitter account. I imagine Adolf would be as active on Facebook groups too, sharing some of the posts of the elected few from supposedly developed nations. That and possibly clicking on Youtube videos of dancing Germanic dog breeds.

Politicians and so called experts sling muck into an international emergency situation. Congratulations world, Covid-19 is officially a pandemic – alongside HIV which has been around for a long time on the pandemic list. Many argue that this new beastly virus isn’t the Spanish Flu that killed 50 to 100 million people over the course of three years. Most will agree that this has spread around the world almost with ease inside the space of a quarter of a year. Many fear it may be as bad as another round of the bubonic plague (still available in USA, I believe) and many argue it is just the seasonal flu. Smallpox was eradicated, measles is controlled in many countries, and tuberculosis ravages the developing world but is under great investigation. Research into every known disease and virus has been gradual and continuous since their initial understandings. Covid-19 is just a baby in a petri dish, compared with Hansen’s disease and malaria.

Meanwhile leader of China, President Xi was in Wuhan, as China battens down its hatches on imported virus cases. China reports that the cases have almost dropped away completely. Their methods to defeat the viral outbreak involved intense hand-cleaning propaganda, mobile apps, lockdowns and transport shut-downs. Quarantine in some places has lasted over 45 days. It hasn’t been perfect but it has been swift, aggressive and consumed gargantuan amounts of personal protective equipment. Some of which has been complex, psychological, and utterly heartbreaking – and totally preventable. China is no doubt battling the virus and making inroads into development of a cure – and looking at the cause, in terms of prevention. China, and any other nation battling the bug, will have no time for rumours of failed biological research as the cause – or a biological weapon dropped by a rogue nation. This isn’t time for fans of The Walking Dead or Mary Shelley’s The Last Man. Personally I prefer The Andromeda Strain, by Michael Crichton, over I am Legend (Richard Matheson’s novel was made into a Will Smith movie). Novels, like too many of the things shared in social media can be considered as fiction. It doesn’t help that the news shares lies.

Toxic newspaper and historical database of bullshit that has ruined communities and blamed innocent Liverpool fans for years, The Sun shared satellite images showing raised sulphur dioxide (SO2) levels claiming to be increased cremations (proven as wrong). The Express newspaper also did the same. Some places admit mistakes, and others just lie (5G, really?), or use sensational statistics (more deaths by snakes remember)  to blind people with mindless titles. Even Trump retweets manipulated media. He loves the word hoax so much, yet he was fooled by a hoax. A fitting yarn.

The worst thing for humanity would be a collapse of social systems, a mutation or a reoccurring wave after wave of this new virus. There could be drug resistance or sporadic outbreaks, like Zika virus and the Ebola epidemics. Superbugs are feared by the World Health Organisation (WHO) – the specialised agency of the United Nations set up to bring nations together and improve public health. The world’s economy is crashing but that will be little interest to those experiencing and battling to save lives. Money can wait. It has no use after life.

The current President of the USA (who maybe is hoping he doesn’t have the hoax virus) and many other so-called briefed experts are just like you and me. We’re all learning about this new disease and virus. The problem is there is too much white noise and too much panic. We can’t see the wood for the trees. And in once fire-ravaged Australia, then flooded, they’re panic buying toilet rolls. I should be okay, at present, I have a bum hose. Squirt. Squirt. Clean. However, I do worry, and I worry too much for family, friends and those I hold dear, because right now, we’re in an age when Presidents are unaccountable, and trigger fingers make it feel like the Wild West. There is dirt to be tossed, and someone always gets burned. Should we be more sociable or more selfish? Is it time to grab my football from the field and take it home making it game over for those playing? I think now, more than ever, let’s find a way to bring nations together and work away this mess, and then maybe afterwards look at the environment and other such global concerns. Or we could do a Trump and just look after number one. The choices are not always our own. Stay safe. Stay sane.

I’ll get off my soapbox – and at some stage write about my wonderful trekking experience around part of the Annapurna circuit from January to February.  Peace and love.

P.S. – Don’t buy The Sun