Thoughts about living in China – All quite random – Part 1

Between about 2006 and 2009 we lived and worked in Beijing, Lotty in one International School (Beijing City International School) and I in the Western Academy Beijing (WAB). I was employed as what they called their Production Engineer, which effectively was the equivalent of what I used to do at the Roundhouse in London, in other words, I functioned as their Production Manager, being responsible for the sound and lighting crew of the school. As we had something like 7 venues to deal with, and as they tended to start each morning at about 8 am and finish some time in the evening – with rock concerts, classical concerts, film shows or whatever, we tended to work for about 70 hours a week.

I had a number of Chinese guys working with me, so I found it relatively easy to learn Mandarin (the Chinese dialect spoken in Beijing, and thus the official language of China), except that it is a tonal language, and the tone used can change the meaning of a word totally – for example, the word “Mar”, can mean the following:- Horse, Wife, Arrow and who knows what more? So if you happen to get the tone wrong, you could be saying something like, “I shot my wife at a straw target”, or “I would like to introduce you to my arrow”. When the Chinese use their tones, it is very subtle, and hardly noticeable, but for us Long Noses (Western foreigners) it is extremely tricky! Which makes a language that on the face of it is very simple and logical, incredibly hard to use properly, so I spent my entire time making that sort of mistake – oh well……

While we were living there, the number of cars increased exponentially. When we got there, most people still used bicycles, but by the time we left, every week another 10 000 cars were registered in Beijing alone! This, of course, caused huge traffic jams, sometimes they were up to 100 km long!!!!

Also, the Chinese hadn’t grown up with cars, the way we in the west had done, so they did the most extraordinary things when in cars, or even when simply crossing the road. For example, when driving on a motorway, if they happened to miss their turning, they were perfectly happy to turn around, and drive against the other traffic until they got to their turning, and then leave the motorway. I have seen the crew of a police car happily having a picnic on the hard shoulder of a motor way, and I have also seen a shepherd happily putting his herd of sheep across a motorway – altogether extraordinary!

Also, in all the cities, the two opposing lanes of the roads have large, and very secure, fences on them, to stop people crossing the road anywhere but at the places intended for them to cross – this because people tended to simply wander across the roads anywhere they happened to be – the results of many, many years of only bikes on the roads.

Another hang-over from the days of no cars (for the ordinary people), when an official is being driven somewhere, they have a total right of way, so all other vehicles have to give way to them and their hugely important passenger(s), and the military have even more right of way than the politicians – so if you happen to be driving in Beijing, watch out for large cars with special number plates, they have, and will take, an absolute right of way!

In another post, I shall dwell on yet more curiosities of life in Beijing – a city that I truly enjoyed living in.

Thoughts about the Olympics in Brisbane

Having experienced quite a bit about the Olympics while I was working in Beijing during their Olympics I have rather strong feelings about the lunacy of wanting them in our fair city of Brisbane.

My introduction to the Olympics started about 8 months before they actually happened with a bunch of TV technicians who arrived at the huge International School I was working in (I was called a Production Engineer, and was responsible for all the stage sound and lighting stuff, in a school that had about 7 stages and arenas).

These technicians were there to train a large number of locals in how to use TV cameras as there simply were not enough trained people available locally to cover the many events of the Olympics. And a damned nuisance they were too! I was basically working a 70 hour week, as we had events to cover that started at about 8 am and other events (rock concerts, talks, film shows etc. that went on until about 10 pm) and to have these guys and their many students milling around the place was tricky. Curiously enough, they worked for a British commercial TV company (ITV) who in the UK were responsible for ordinary TV programming.

As things went on, I discovered that there were no end of companies who simply worked on the Olympics, going from city to city as it was decided which city would have the next Olympics – TV people, physio-therapists, uniform makers, builders, decorators and so on, an almost endless collection of people whose only work was the Olympics,, and who earned damn good money from their work.

In other words, for a lot of companies, the Olympics was how they earned their living.

As time went by, I discovered more and more about the way in which the Olympics work, and how – to be honest – the athletes were the industrial equivalent of the coke in coke bottles, in other words, their presence was the justification for the rest of the huge, money earning, circus that was the commercial side of the Olympics. And was the whole reason for the Olympics as far as I could see.

The other side of the Olympics is the building of huge arenas in which the various sports will occur. In Beijing this happened too, of course, and since the Olympics most of the huge arenas have rotted away as they are simply too damn big for normal use – Huge, expensive white elephants.

The other lousy thing about the Olympics is the way it snarls up the traffic. In Beijing there was a section of the road which was reserved for the cars and buses that were ferrying the athletes and officials from event to event, or from the “village” to the arenas. But not all the vehicles – of course – stuck to that lane, so the awful traffic jams that Beijing was famous for, were made even worse.

If the Olympics should continue (and for my part, I see no reason why they should), then there should be a permanent summer games stadia and village (probably in Greece) and a permanent winter venue (probably in Russia) and the TV crews, sound crews, maintenance crews and so on will all be permanent staff, employed by the Olympics and the whole thing continued thus.

In other words, instead of building totally useless stadia, training loads of locals to do work that disappears as soon as the Olympics are finished and so on, we have a set of stadia, villages and technicians all trained to work on the Olympics and the whole thing becomes a normal commercial operation – which, of course it absolutely is!

Also, it might be fun to run the modern Olympics in the manner of the original ones – ie. the athletes have to be nude, they have to be only male and all wars have to cease for the duration of the games. Now that would be fun!

How to Read a Book – Is This the Future? Funny Video

So, how do you read a “real” paper book?  I know, we can all do that, but will we still know how to in, say 50 years time?  We have all seen those videos of small children trying to swipe to the next page in their kiddies books, as they have been brought up on iPads and similar devices and found those videos to be charming and funny in a nice and fuzzy way.   But in fact they are showing us the future of reading.   Like it or loathe it, ebooks are where we are heading, and patently paper books are slowly but steadily being superseded by their digital descendents.

And it is possible that in the not too distant future, paper books will only be read by academics in pursuit of their knowledge of these primitive predigital eras.   Depressing thought isn’t it?

In spite of the fact that I own a blog that is devoted to all aspects of ebooks, I am also a passionate lover of the paper variety as well, and have  thousands of them which I read and reread with enormous pleasure.   Loving the feel, the smell and the weight of a real book – And those rows of book spines on my bookshelves, all of which promise me so much pleasure and escape to new and different worlds.  Whilst I am very fond of my Sony, Kindle and so on, and truly appreciate their convenience, a couple of lonely looking, albeit sleek and smooth ereaders on a book shelf, each containing an enormous number of ebooks are in no way to be equated with the pleasure of the real thing obviously.   A total lack of the sense of adventure that a decently filled book shelf offers us.

Paper books sitting there on the shelf offer us in a highly visible manner an escape from the daily grind, romance, friendship, relaxation and all the many benefits of reading, and they do this in a tangible and individual manner.  ereaders obviously offer the same experiences, but they are discrete, nothing to be seen, no visible promise of pleasures, actually really very sterile objects.

Continue reading “How to Read a Book – Is This the Future? Funny Video”

We head north and get a better idea of how huge Australia is.

Recently we (Lotty and I) went for a trip to the north of Brisbane, our first time to the middle of Queensland, and it was an amazing experience – to put it mildly!

The first thing that it showed us was how damn big Australia actually is – we drove for days and hardly covered any ground on our map of Queensland. The trip north was reasonably quickly done, as we were signed into a Yoga Retreat at an area called Mission Beach, about almost 2000 km north of Brisbane, so we simply went up the coastal road, which was for the most part, a motorway.

Once the Retreat was over, we headed further north, through Cairns and onto Daintree, where we camped for a few days. Whilst there, we indulged in a river expedition to gaze at the millions of different birds who live in the rain forest up there – and in passing, also gazed in horrid awe at the huge crocodiles who live in that river.

A huge male crocodile, at least about 5 meters long! – king of that section of the river!

We also saw cattle drinking from the river, with a female crocodile about 2 meters away from them – happily she didn’t grab any of the cattle, presumably she was full?

We then set out to get back to Brisbane, but this time taking our time about it, and using the “inner” road, so we could see the actual scenery of Queensland.

This was an odd experience, not least because of the distances between towns (mostly actually small villages). We quickly came upon road signs that said that the next village was about 400 km away. And that was actually how it was! The road disappeared into a geometric vanishing point.

And the only thing we saw on this road (apart from the very occasional village) were trees and Termite nests and very occasionally, another vehicle.

There were literally thousands of these huge towers dotting the landscape

We passed small villages, small towns and occasionally even ghost towns, sundry old buildings, but no one living there, which was odd, but given that most of these villages were built by prospectors who when the gold, coal or whatever mineral they were after was finished, simply moved on, leaving their town to rot. Odd though.

And to cap it all, on the last leg of our journey we found ourselves in a forest, just about 200 km north of where we live, this forest was about 100 km wide, and the road through it was simply a dirt track, so for about 100 km we bumped along a very rough road – which caused my back to be screwed up for several weeks after our trip – the infamous corrugated dirt tracks of the Australian outback!

Almost 100 km of this track….. Not good!

So, an amazing trip which told us a wee bit more about the country we are living in.. an amazing place!

If you have ever travelled in this area, please let us know via the comments below, so we can share your experiences.

Some of the joys of hitching around Europe

Way back in my youth – in the ’60’s of the last century – every summer holiday I used to wander from south England (where I lived in those days) to go down to Greece, via sundry other European countries. In the course of these journeys I had a number of experiences, both pleasant and very much less pleasant – though I am happy to say, that generally they were pleasant.

One thing I did notice however, was the weird way in which men felt that they had an absolute right to touch women’s bums and other parts of their bodies.

On one journey I was with a girl (not particularly my girlfriend, simply a girl who was travelling with me) and we were in northern Greece and were offered a lift in a truck, so I sat next to the driver, and the girl sat on my far side, thus as far from the driver as she could get. This in no way interfered with the driver’s attempts to grope the poor damn woman – he merely stretched over me and groped her groin as if I wasn’t there. To be honest, neither she nor I knew what on earth to do about him so we managed to say to him (in our broken Greek) that he should stop and we would find someone else to drive us to Athens – which happily he was OK to do. This sort of experience was, sadly, all too common in southern Europe.

On another trip, whilst walking around in Florence – this time with an American girl – we found ourselves surrounded by a group of about 10 young Italians who proceeded to grope her bum, even though this was in one of Florence’s main streets. Her reaction was superb however! As soon as they started to grope her, she stopped, roared in good American a load of swear-words and generally gave them hell! This was the right way to react, as they were covered in embarrassment and quickly disappeared. She later told me that she was regularly treated in this manner, and had evolved this technique to deal with it, and by and large, she told me, it had worked.

But one has to wonder why men behaved in this fashion, did they feel that it was their “right as men” to do this, or did they feel that somehow girls would value this form of behaviour? Or did they simply assume that any young women from other countries were sluts? Altogether very odd.

Did you have any similar experiences whilst hitching? If so, do share them with us here please.

The times I have been confronted with someone dying.

During my long life I have not been confronted with too many people dying, but those I was present for, made a huge impression on my life and how I viewed the world and life generally – as death rather tends to do………

The first time I was consciously aware of someone’s death was in Port Said in about 1947 while we were on our way to Australia (the various deaths I must have seen during the bombardment of England during the war I have no recollection of), and that was a pick-pocket who was on the ship among loads of Egyptian people trying to sell stuff to the passengers, which was the normal way when ships went through the canal.

Anyhow, this fellow carried out his profession but was seen by the victim, who shouted out something to the effect of “Stop thief”, whereupon the Egyptian cops who were also on board , simply shot the poor bloke, which made a heck of an impression on this 5 year old! I can recall standing near to his body as the cops sorted out what should happen to him now that he was dead. Like all dead people I have seen, he looked very peaceful, as all the facial muscles relax when one is dead, so a bland expression is the norm for all corpses – which is a pity for those writers who delight in phrases such as:- “The dead guy’s face showed sheer terror and showed how terrible his death had been…..” Never true I am afraid!

Anyhow, the body was duly hauled away, and we carried on to Aden, a God-forsaken place if ever their was one, where I saw my second corpse. This time it was simply a bloke lying on the pavement who I was told was simply dying – though of what, wasn’t specified. Anyhow, there he was, about to die, and I had to step over him to carry on with our wander around the town of Aden. So that is exactly what I did, but I stopped once I had stepped over him, and stayed to see what happened. What happened was that he carried on with the business of dying, and duly died, while I watched in fascinated horror. As I have since noticed when someone dies, peacefully, one knows exactly when he has departed as there is a marked change in how someone seems, it is hard to describe, but in all the occasions I have been present when someone died peacefully, it was totally obvious when they actually died, even if they were unconscious as they died. A change that is impossible to describe happens to them, at the moment of death.

Odd.

The next time I saw someone dying was many years later, when I was about 17 or 18 years old, and was working in a lunatic asylum (as a holiday job) when I was present for several deaths (patients). All died peacefully in their beds, and all of them died in the same way – while asleep. Even so, I knew exactly when they had died as that change happened that I first noticed with that guy in Aden.

Since when, happily, I have not been present at anyone’s death, and frankly, I hope that the next one I am present for will be my own – but in the worlds of Spike Milligan, “I am not afraid of dying, I just don’t want to be there when it happens!”

If this post sparks any thoughts in you, please share them via the comments section below – simply scroll on down and you will see it. We will be really appreciative of any thoughts you might have on the topic of dying.

MATALA – I live in a cave in Crete

Just before the time that the CIA caused a coup in Greece, popularly known as “The Colonel’s Coup” I found myself wandering around in Crete – an amazingly wonderful and slightly alarming place in those days – about the mid-60’s. A lot of the men walked around with huge and highly decorated knives in their belts, which I gathered they were altogether prepared to use at the drop of a hat.

I got a lift across the island from the guy who was in charge of security at the huge American Airbase on the island, who told me that he had to regularly get airmen taken off the island with no warning as there were fathers, brothers and male cousins looking for them as they had spoken to local girls – a definite no-no.

Anyhow, all that aside, I was heading for a village called Matala which I had heard about – a place where a load of Travelers were living in what we thought were Roman Burial Caves (it turns out they were actually Neolithic living caves) and I thought that might be a pleasant way to spend some time.

So I duly arrived in the village of Matala, which in those days was more or less deserted, just a few houses were inhabited and I seem to recall there was one café and a bakers shop and a couple of inhabited houses. However, the caves, which were on the opposite side of the bay from the village was almost full of people who could be described as Hippies, though they were mostly part time Hippies, not the real thing. So I wandered along the beach to the caves and hunted for one that was empty, which I found on about the third level of the caves, so I moved into it and made it my temporary home.

General view of the caves – mine was in the top layer on its own.

It was in fact a very pleasant cave to live in, as it had a front door and a window that gave a view over the bay and to the – then tiny – and almost deserted village of Matala. It also had a bed, which was simply a flat area dug out of the wall of the cave which had obviously been intended ( we thought) for the dead Romans, but it now turns out was the original beds of the Neolithics who lived there and who had dug the caves out.

On a slightly gruesome note, during the war, the Cretan Resistance used the caves – we were told – to dump the dead bodies of the German soldiers they had killed, so there were quite a few human bones knocking around the caves, which the people living in the caves used as jewelry which was rather odd… Young girls wandering around with Human collar bones on string around their necks.

All that aside, the people who lived in the caves formed a friendly and close-knit group of people, much given to communal meals around bonfires to gaze at the stunning sunsets over the sea and I had no trouble fitting into the group.

So I spent a couple of months pleasantly in among these good souls, enjoying the peace and tranquility of living in the Cave Community and then headed out again to further explore Crete – An amazing island full of the most extra-ordinary people. I mean the actual Cretans here, they were still living in those days as they had for centuries. The film Zorba the Greek gave a very actual picture of how it was in those days – both the good and the bad aspects. Notably the police were all mainland Greeks, as the government in Greece knew damn well that when dealing with an “honour killing” or some similar, there was no way that a Cretan cop would deal with it as a crime. Odd folk I found.

They all had an enormous admiration for Australia as Australian soldiers had apparently had the same enthousiasm for killing German soldiers as the Cretans when Germany invaded Crete, so many an elderly Cretan villager expressed happily how Australian soldiers had killed German paratroopers with their knives – Gruesome!

Here is a video that I came across on Youtube of a bunch of elderly women describing how they passed their time on Matala in their youth. Altogether rather amazing – seeing how those Hippy like young girls I knew then had grown up into really rather reasonable adults…..

Fun, eh?

If this post sparks any thoughts in you, please share them via the comments section below – simply scroll on down and you will see it. We will be really appreciative of any thoughts you might have on the topic of how people deal with life, deal with living in historical ruins and similar…

Yet More Thoughts On Being In Isolation Because Of The Dreaded Virus!

I know, I know, I have written several posts on this topic- as has just about everyone in the world by now.  But I have a few remarks about my life in this moment that I would like to share.

People are beginning to gather in crowds again I have noticed here in Queensland, which is a pity as I was hoping that people would stick with the obviously successful – if mildly irritating – social distancing rules.   So today as I was heading into Samford to obtain some medicine (phoned before setting off, medicine will be brought to my car with cash machine, so I have no need to go into chemist) I came across a gang of overweight motorcyclists roaring down the road on their noisy damn motorbikes.  Currently only three people (not of a family) are allowed to gather, but there were a least 20 of these guys – pity really.   Ah well.

Image by Jim Black from Pixabay

Obviously this photo is not of the group I saw, I was driving after all.

Also I have now come across larger groups of cyclists as well, so soon it will be back as it was before the plague – every weekend driving will become tricky as one confronts huge groups of Lycra clad people on their bikes blocking most of the road..   Another case of Oh Well……….

Other than these couple of things, I am hugely enjoying being in isolation.  For me it is simply a pleasure, but then, I live on 5 acres of beautiful country, so I can wander around at will and don’t live in a two room flat on the tenth story of an inner city tower-block.   For those people it must be horrible, and they have all my sympathy.

Directors I have known, Brook and Barrault, Two very different men

During my years at the Roundhouse Theatre, we had the most amazing range of shows, from enormous film festivals, film crews shooting films, classical concerts, both ancient and contemporary, musicals, Shakespeare in a variety of styles, rock concerts, conferences, dance theatre and so on, the list is actually way too long to remember. Most shows were either one day events or only stayed with us for a month or so. Thus the change overs were long and frequent.

I have never worked so hard in my life as I did there.

Some of the events we had, do remain firmly in my memory, others have disappeared in the mists of time, which for some of them is a kindness to put it mildly as they were so unbelievably awful they deserve no better.

For the fun of it I shall describe some of those that did stick in my memory and the events surrounding them.

Some of these descriptions will be short, and only mention things that stood out about a particular production, others may well be rather longer if I can both remember anything much about them, and if they were so remarkable they are worth describing in some detail. So a series of random anecdotes really.

Obviously this will mean that I shall tell of my impressions of working with a number of amazingly talented, famous or totally untalented individuals who passed me in those years. Some of the least talented were also the most famous… Amazing what some people can manage with a loud voice and no talent.

Lets start with Peter Brook.

At that time he was probably the most successful and famous theatre director in the world, held in awe and almost godlike admiration by all actors and theatre folk for his brilliant directing mainly of Shakespeare. And there is no denying that he was a most amazing and wonderful director, and all his productions were a joy to experience. But unfortunately for me and my stage technicians, he was also a most unpleasant and arrogant man to have to deal with.

While I was at the Roundhouse he directed, either A Midsummer’s Dream, or the Tempest, I cant remember which it was, and his production entailed completely rebuilding the stage and seating in the theatre, which is a hell of a lot of work obviously. This we were used to, and had systems in place to make it as easy as possible, but it is a noisy and messy affair.

Generally productions were rehearsed elsewhere in rehearsal rooms somewhere, and the actors only came to rehears in the theatre for the last few days before their show opened, which gave us the time to crash around, hang lights, build seating rostra and stages and so on at our own pace.

For some reason however, Brooke felt it was necessary for him and his actors to do all their preparations in the theatre itself, not a happy mix.. Noisy technicians and actors trying to come to terms with his idiosyncratic vision of the play do not go well in the same space.

So whilst demanding we build a very complex auditorium and stage for his production, Brook also insisted on total silence as he and his actors played a range of theatrical games in a corner of the theatre.

His technique for getting silence was to sort of freeze whenever a particularly loud crash or stream of furious swearing from one or other technician occurred. Curious to see, he would sit there like a statue waiting for us to realise he was displeased and stop making any noises.

Unfortunately for him, my technicians had seen so many famous and admired people that they were totally unimpressed by him, and started to play a game with him… One of them would start hammering away at a bit of wood, which would cause him to freeze…. Silence would fall…. Then Brook would unfreeze and start working again.. whereupon one of the technicians would produce a loud noise… Brook would freeze again, and so it would go on, all day long.

During all of this I tried to stay out of sight, so I couldn’t be asked to make my guys work in total silence, as this would obviously been impossible and silly.

On the other hand, we also had a production called Rabelais, directed by Jean-Louis Barrault who was also a director of genius, a man with a long and highly regarded history in film and theatre. Unlike Brooke, this guy was a dream to work with, kind, thoughtful, brilliant, funny and civilised, and more importantly also worshiped by actors, particularly the cast of this show.

In spite of hardly speaking a word of English, and working here with an entirely English cast, he managed to communicate his ideas and needs with no real trouble, often resorting to mime to do this (for those of you who do not know of him, he was a famous mime among other things). I shall never forget him miming a war horse for one of the British actors who was having trouble miming that damned horse….. Barrault got up on the stage and damn me, but he became a horse… Superb guy.


He even managed to win over my technicians, which is no mean achievement, they fell for him totally, and would do anything he asked of them at once and to the best of their abilities.

Curiously he had a remarkable similarity to Kenneth Williams, which was a bit disconcerting at times.

The show itself was great fun to see, as it took place without seating over a long more or less cruciform set of stages, so the audience sort of followed the action from stage area to stage area. By the way, it was actually Rabalaise’s story of Gargantua, a very noisy, earthy and funny story, which an all English cast managed to pull off, in spite of the trouble English trained actors have with moving, being more word orientated in their training.

It is interesting to see how two more or less equally brilliant directors got the results they did by such totally different approaches to their cast and technicians. Give me Barrault’s approach any day over Brook’s arrogant approach.. The Barrault experience was a real pleasure for all involved, the Brook was only good for the audience, we hated him with a passion and thus got no enjoyment out of our work with him. And enjoying your work is important we all felt..

More to come as I think of it….

Thoughts on, or about, being self-isolated during Corona Virus outbreak

Like almost everyone in the first world just now, both my wife (Lotty) and I, as we are both well over 70 years old, are in voluntary isolation, which is a very odd situation for us both in different ways.

For my part it has meant that I no longer lead the life of a Professional Volunteer as I am in the habit of doing (see several other posts on this aspect of my life) and as a result I am feeling more than a little discombobulated to say the least.  For Lotty it has meant the end of her regular walks with our pooch, Gizmo, and a number of friends, followed by a happy hour or two sitting in one or other of Samford’s many cafes solving the many problems of the world or taking several Alpacas for their daily walks at a local riding school.

On the other hand it has meant that she has almost unlimited time for her garden, which is great, as her garden is a self-created jungle in a near vertical slope.

All of that is is pretty normal I suppose.  If one is suddenly unable to pursue one’s normal activities for whatever reason.  But given that we are healthy enough (for our ages) and at peace with the world, it is an odd feeling that it is unimportant to know what day of the week it is, the almost total silence on the nearby roads (we live in the country about 35 km outside Brisbane) and our normally well filled calendar (Literally, that is how we keep track of our various activities) is now empty – apart from a dental appointment I made this morning for the 1st October to make sure that I beat the rush when this isolation finishes – assuming it ever does of course.

Also the lack of having to be anywhere or do anything special at a given time is an odd feeling.  We are able to wander around in our garden so we don’t feel that we are in prison, which I can well imagine those who live in flats in cities can do, so apart from not having used either of our two cars for days now we are living in a reasonably “normal” fashion by and large I suppose.

So basically, we are living in a more or less normal way but with a feeling of isolation at all times, as if the outside world has ceased to exist – which is very odd to say the least.  We are sort of living in a small bubble, just our garden and a small section of the road outside our house.

The other main change is that we see none of our friends any more – occasionally one passes on the road and we shout greetings at each other and then they go on their way, so apart from via Facebook and the phone, we have really no contact with anyone else in the whole world and it is now several weeks since I was away from our house – not even in the local village to shop as our son is dealing with all of that.

So we are living in more or less complete isolation in the middle of thousands of other people doing the same – really an odd thing.

Oh well, assuming it will ever be open ( and humanity still exists), I assume it will all return to what we consider to be normal, which is really a pity I feel.