Monday, 28 February 2011


I saw Shark's handwriting again today. I admit, for a while, I've been trying not to look. I think I have been hoping it would simply get better, then I need never say my opinion. But I'm unable not to look any longer. I saw it deliberately today.

I tried not to blurt out what really went through my mind. It would have sounded unforgiving and a little cruel. Your handwriting is terrible! Look Squirrel, you cannot just put down a capital T whenever you feel like it! Shark, put those ascenders where they should be! Why are they creeping off down the page? Tiger, show me your handwriting. Show it me. Now.

Handwriting is a difficult one, isn't it? I do so little of it, in practice, and certainly nothing extended. Who does? But still, it seems to occupy a ridiculous place of value.

So I talked about how people judge things about each other. How handwriting seems to occupy a special place. People will understand and sympathise if you struggle with maths, or spelling, or say you're not much interested in chemistry and prefer physics. But they won't have any sympathy with you if you show them terrible mixed up handwriting, especially not as you grow older. They'll judge you, negatively, immediately. And let's not even begin that assessment they'll make about your feminine values when they see the spikiness of those letters.

Shark, Squirrel and Tiger look at me, like this is an entirely new idea. So I have to continue. I say, maybe people think, if they see your handwriting, they're seeing a little peep into you. Your values, your personality, your opinions, your thoughts, the way you see yourself in the world, the value you place on your communication with others. Maybe your handwriting even conveys your spiritual self. I think it does round here. The elegance of your hand conveys the purity of you. A sloppy, messy, scruffy hand? Well, you have to improve your worth.

So I told Shark, Squirrel and Tiger, to be aware of this hazard. How people probably judge handwriting in the same way as they do scruffy clothing, tangles in your hair, the dirt line around your neck. They probably make assumptions about you; your social status, your level of education, your values, your personhood.

Shark, Squirrel and Tiger listened intently, and said, That's stupid. How can anyone look at handwriting and know what someone else is like? Then they wanted to see my handwriting. I thought, that's not the point of this little talk. I want your handwriting to improve, not mine. So I tried to wriggle out of it. But they persisted. Then I copied out a whole paragraph from a book.

We all looked at it. I'm not in a position to judge my own handwriting. But Shark, Squirrel and Tiger all agreed about its impact. Maybe things will turn out alright, because they all suddenly agreed to work harder at their own.

Sunday, 27 February 2011

Did six months pass already?

I count the months on my fingers, and can barely believe it's true, but we left England, and the house, in August. Looked after by friends, the house has stayed up under a battering from junk mail, rain, snow, flood. Now Dig is there, saving us from bailiffs probably, mending a boiler, certainly.

He calls on Skype, and I see him, sitting exactly where he sits in the familiar office, ill-slept and time-worn in a grey-soaked England morning, beamed to me by screen; I sit in evening time Hong Kong. There's a strange reversal for you. He has the cold house, and the boiler that rattles and bangs. I have the warm evening, crickets and birdsong.

All I can I think, is how it's true you can tell yourself the same thing, over and over, for years. I can do it, even though it becomes hard work, and some moments it's nigh impossible. Like, that house, where I lived for over twenty years, right until August. The house where I'll live again from April, that is a beautiful house. It is, I'm sure of it.

Even though, on my screen, behind him, I can see the ceiling light in the office. Is it still really there? I forgot. I hate that ceiling light. Now I remember how it upsets me, everytime I see it. I wonder, how can I imagine I missed that room, when I see that light? How can I want to live with that light again, when I dislike it so much? Who would look forward to living with a ceiling light they couldn't change?

It's not as if I haven't tried. I bought a replacement, but then I clumsily dropped a brass curtain rail on it by accident. I smashed it, even before Dig never managed to put it up. Then I resolved to do something about the ceiling light, but now it's too low down on the list of priorities. I have to face it, I might never do anything at all.

Surely more urgent is the paint peel on the ceiling and the place where the plaster fell off thanks to the leaky water pipe in the upstairs neighbour's bathroom. And the pane of Victorian glass that smashed in the beautiful oak door when the ladder fell over. The bookcase door that doesn't close. The decorative wooden lion on the mantelpiece with its chin and bottom teeth dropped off. The piles of papers over the floor that somehow no-one can ever pick up. The exhausted armchair with the straw poking out the arms; the wall lights which don't light; the cellar that's wet and crumbling; the mirror that's cracked; the walls that are grey; the unused, unplugged fax machine, gone into hiding under a yellow towel, occupying the shelf space where the printer should be. The printer sits on the floor, surrounded by boxes.

I look at the whole now. It's falling apart, more than ever. I wonder if I've done what I can do about that house. It's a house I can't realise myself inside. It's a house I want to leave. It's a house I want to live in. I must keep it alive inside my head. Dig, even though he looks crumpled and worn out with travel, he fits this house, surrounded by papers, hidden by piles of mail, sat by a desk spilling with wires, a discarded keyboard, telephones, jottings of things to do.

For six months, I've only imagined that house. Now I see it, I feel powerless to change anything at all, even a light. And it makes me sad, the thought that living with what's there, how it is, how things stand, they'll always stand. It has to be enough.

There's no way out but to tell myself this. Underneath the mess, the chaos, the hopeless prospect, it is a beautiful house. It is. It is.

Saturday, 26 February 2011

More than you need to know about this subject

Shark, Tiger and Squirrel bound downstairs in a great excited hurry, and tell me they have a new pet.

My heart freezes, and if you knew what happened to the old pet, your heart would freeze too.

I tell them whatever it is, it must not be a pet, because there is a thing called killing with kindness, and to the pet it looks a lot like certain death in a bucket of water.

When I reach the top of the stairs, all the children squeal that I mustn't open the door because THE PET would be alarmed! I say it is me who is already alarmed, now show me the ruddy pet. Tiger points to an open window, where I peer out and see this.

I say that is most certainly not a pet. That is a pigeon.

Pigeons are different, I say sternly. Pigeons can never be pets. They can only be enemies who should be exterminated. Get the bucket of water.

I know the children look shocked, but so be it. A pigeon unloaded its liquid contents all over me in London in June 1982 outside Euston station. Until that moment I was wearing a stunning fitted summer dress and looked fantastic. I shall never forget the expression of horror on the face of the man standing next to me. That single moment created, for all eternity, a dark hole in my heart where pigeon compassion should be. Children, it may be sad to you, but I would happily dedicate my remaining days to executing all pigeons.

Of course the children begin to beg and plead and ask whether they can keep the revolting disgusting pigeon, the one who, if it comes one claw nearer me, I swear I will batter it to death with the bent squash racquet propped by the fridge.

No, I say. Absolutely not. To which Tiger assaults my loveless heart by bursting into tears all over my leg and saying that she has always wanted a pet and we can never have a pet and she is so desperate for a pet that she would even consider a DOG.

I look between the pigeon and Tiger and am just about to suggest they can have it as a pet for fifteen minutes and then I kill it, when Shark asks, why is it so tame and fat? And look, mama, it is ringed.

She is right. Then that confirms my suspicion. I say, calmly, the pigeon might be a homing pigeon! It is already someone's pet! It is loved already. It is merely pausing for a breather on the roof to take a break after a strenuous flap. Soon it must go home. It is now our duty to help the pigeon return to the owner who loves it.

Good, I think, this is excellent, because I can be righteous for my children and helpful and conciliatory and calm, get away with no pet and still hate the stinking pigeon, all at once.

Then Squirrel suggests we find out why we have a tame ringed homing pigeon hiding out on the corner of the roof, and here is the number she's read, so off we go to the Internet.

Oh dear.

We discover things. Like, given our location, yesterday's windy weather, and half a visible ring, this is probably not any old homing pigeon fondly cared for by an old man pottering about a shed who lost his wife but loves his pigeons.

No. This is a trained pigeon machine with serious money on its head. It is a pigeon destined to cross 550 miles with no rest, no water, no dinner. If it fails, it dies. If it succeeds, it dies. If it flaps home bringing pathetic excuses, it dies.There is no room for emotion in competitive pigeon racing.

No surprise it is hiding out on our roof. It is on the run, seeking asylum from fundamentalist pigeon racers.

Believe me, they are out there, in the Taiwanese Pigeon Racing World. I hardly dare direct you, sensitive reader, to the literature of the zealot, but if you browse Young Birds Race in Taiwan, you do not get porn. Well, unless you are unlucky enough to be turned on by explicit methods for breeding warrior pigeons to be the master pigeon race.

I look at that pigeon, hiding on a corner of the roof, knowing the future in all directions is certain death, and I say to my tender hearted daughters, more sensitive than me, Okay, you can feed it a bread pellet, then you must poke it with a stick to help it flap off and find a banana tree to nest in. But say farewell, because next it takes its chances, if not with me, then with the hungry kites.

Friday, 25 February 2011

Just when I thought it was going badly

Grit has found a new friend! Yes! Truly!

This circumstance is greatly heartwarming to Grit. To know exactly how much, you simply have to consider how far the sad Grit has fallen, plucked from the happy state of her familiar chums in Bucks and dropped, lost, on a strange Chinese-speaking island while the husband legs it back to England, probably laughing in glee.

Her gritty life has shrunk thus.

She cannot follow basic conversations in the street, can't remember when the library is open, struggles to buy noodles and not fish skin, has trouble negotiating the hidden rules and regulations of her new home, divorced HSBC even before she married them, and suffers a banana tree for daily company. (Don't ask me where the kids are. Gone off to play.)

By slow turning days her happy heart has withered. Over the past few months, she has become a disagreeable old bastard with a fifteen mile exclusion sulk. With each new lip curl she has grown an invisible force field around her: a bleak and blasted area of defiance and defence guarded by frontier police waving loaded machine guns and savage wolfhounds.

But think! Would this solitary island life not turn any of you into that person burdened with resentful chips upon their shoulders? With miseries on their sleeves, and a large dollop of self-piteous injustice? The sorrow that beats like a living corpse upon the heaving troubled breast where it silently screams Howl! Howl! Howl!

And no-one has yet invited me to even a single expat cocktail party. I simply cannot understand it.

But then!

Along comes lovely, friendly Ditta! She is new, and as yet unaffected by this island life! Even better, she smiles and walks right through Grit's Hong Kong habits of bitter sulking and dour scowling! And Grit is totally won over and soaks up the friendship like a thirsty sponge.

Ditta is utterly charming and just about the best thing ever to hit the island life, and lives a mere stone's throw, or two hour trot, over some mountains. That journey would be as nothing, which is how much Grit loves her new friend Ditta, although I hasten to add, not in a creepy stalking way, and not just because she has an ipad with a GPS satellite installed on it.

No, on that score I have said nothing, but 'Ditta, if you go out exploring Hong Kong with Grit trailed by some kids, please bring the GPS, you're going to need it'. See, it's not just about ingratiating yourself with someone who owns a GPS and remarking how that can help you in tricky situations. It's because Ditta is a lovely, warm, funny person who would probably get along with anyone, and Grit has missed people she feels could understand, and talk to, and probably say just about anything to, and get away with it, and not need to leave the scene in a hurry without her coat, but feeling round her face to see whether her jaw was still intact.

Anyway, Ditta is not only Grit's new friend, she and all her lovely family rule SUPREME with all the mini grits too, on account of the fantastic birthday present given only yesterday, which prove just how brilliant and juvenile is Ditta's sense of fun. Possibly perfectly suited to Grit's. Electronic bugs shaped like cockroaches.

Shark, Squirrel and Tiger love their little cockroach buddies. I can tell, because they set them whirring and scuttling, then snuggle them fondly inside my slippers. They've made the little bugs whole playrooms out of toilet rolls and cut up cardboard, just like home, and now they are talking about making the cockroaches little nests and houses and caravan parks and swings.

And guess what? Even though Grit is jumping squealing around this house thanks to battery-operated cockroaches up her slippers, she is still smiling, and thanking Ditta to the skies, which shows just how fantastic is Ditta, and possibly how very welcome is an island friend by Grit.

Welcome, Ditta to our island fun!

Thursday, 24 February 2011

Happy birthday, triplets!

Mama's home-made birthday cake is a little dry, which is excellent. That means there will be plenty left over. And in my experience, you can never pour enough brandy over a stale cake.

Wednesday, 23 February 2011

Two out of five is pretty good

Remember this, Grit, for next time. You have a dangerous, hypersensitive, volatile child. One who is terrified of all hazards involving fire, water, falling rocks, darkness, tunnels, smoke, lifts in shopping centres, crowds, dog licks, and now (as of yesterday), swallowing and breathing.

So that was a good idea. Who had that one? The one which starts, Let's take all the children into Power Plant!

Power Plant is an artsy, electronic controlled garden which comes alive after dark. One that's lit by fire. Yes, let's take the hypersensitive alien being and walk her through the blinded shape-shifting crowds, blundering their way like the lost souls of oblivion groping their way towards death. Then, as we feel our way between vibrations, bells, alarms, crackling lightening and sublimating dry ice, I can remind everyone how thrilling a sensory garden can be!

Come on Tiger, you liked it before. When the local arts studio did their own version with a giant eyeball. Surely if you liked it then, you'll like it now, no?

No. Apparently, that was in England. This is Hong Kong. In England you could run around in front of the giant eyeball. This is Hong Kong, and is all so obviously different, you are just pretending not to know that, you horrible mother who wishes now only to torture and cause pain.

Well this is an experience reducing to Misconceived Idea in the Pursuit of a Creative Education Number 4,892. Subsections: Education, Dark, Blind Terror.

But it works for two out of five of us, so I'm calling it a success. Never let it be said I'm not an optimist. Shark (academic, articulate, fishy, born in 1842) declares the whole experience wonderful, and pauses to write elegant poems about fire, possibly with a quill pen.

Squirrel (Fairyology expert, student of small things, not yet born) says electric nature is beautiful and nearly as nice as the hairy bits on the back of fairy's neck. (The bits which catch the light, stupid. They don't get those until they are way past their first changeling celebration. Duh. Doesn't everyone know that.)

That's the two from the five. Huzzah! Success!

Tiger (still attempting to recover from Hazard Alley 2007 when the safety officers pretended to set the building on fire) rips my hand off and squeals Let's get out of here until I feel maybe I am locked for eternity inside a bad American movie where cowboys and cops and spies will soon be bursting through saloon bars shouting Let's get out of here just a few more times.

Dig's not included in the count, obviously. He's staring at a wet floor in England and I gave his ticket back to the organisers.

I don't include myself either, thanks to the amputated hand and the misery of my slaughtered guts, plus the pain I feel that my exciting and creative education seems to have bypassed daughter three yet one more time.

Since I have nothing to lose, I may as well add the humiliation of the evening, the one about to repeated at the end of the visit in reverse, and that is to find the place where Power Plant is hosted - Kowloon Walled City Park - I had to take a taxi from the underground station.

Kowloon Walled City Park is actually located round the corner from the underground station. Google suggests it is a 12-minute walk. It may be, but I couldn't navigate my way out the shopping centre. Fortunately, the shopping centre does seem to have a taxi rank running right through it.

So here it is, Power Plant. Ta Dah!

By the way, if you come here for the photographs, you're going to be disappointed. But remember that circumstances are very trying right now. Plus I have a four-year old phone camera and only one hand.

Tuesday, 22 February 2011

Frankly, I don't know where I am

What year is it? I'm clutching threads in my left hand and threads in my right hand but I can't find anything to attach them in the middle.

That's what it is to look out my face and try to follow a progression of events in time. Something happens, and I lose ideas about the connections, causes, consequences and effects that make up the hours. Then I have no control over the bits which connect the days. Swallowing holes, chasms, vacuums, blasts and voids, I can fall into those, no problem.

It's one reason why a daily dairy is a personal mission. Sorry about that for anyone who ever came here hoping for a coherent narrative, one day to the next.

I have to remind myself, while I still have a moment of memory. I am driven to diary for a) the educational militia of some local authority. They will one day send me a letter to remind me that I am an unfit disorganised non-educationalising parent. I will agree immediately. I need proof. Here it is. Squirrel read a book. Polly's March. I talked about 1920. The year Dead Grandmother the First was born. Her born without the vote. She had entitlements, instead, to a mining household, an abusive father and strong women with red arms and voices like rasping sandpaper. They would have made the law and imposed it too, had they not needed to lock themselves and the kids in the privy to escape being beaten up.

So Squirrel, your education for today is, you must vote. It is your moral duty. As to the family history, one day I shall write it for you and then I will die, deliberately, so you can't ask me any questions about where I told the truth and it sounded like a lie, or where I lied, just to hide the truth.

Then there is reason b). If I do not keep a daily diary, I will be totally powerless over anything, because anything could have happened. I could have wandered into 1789 by accident and never made it from France. I might have had a near-death experience; been abducted by aliens; fell down a volcano and not remembered how I climbed out. I could have wandered off in here and I wouldn't know. It's that serious. A diary makes one moment coherent in chaos. It lifts a single sense out of no sense. It plucks one positive from a minefield of negative. It doesn't have to be a grand order. It could be, Today I put the washing out. That would be okay, because tomorrow I will remember to bring it in again.

So I wake up today and find that I look different from yesterday but I don't know how. My skin might have left me, or my lips fell off. Maybe my eyebrows came out, but I can't quite tell. Maybe my head can't keep a constant thought and here's a lot of string, and there's nothing really holding me together. But some things did go and happened. Not always connected.

Dig left for England, where there has been flooding in the cellar, the place where I lock up my history books to prevent them escaping. It's my cave and I can go and curl up in there and live in 1422 instead of my normal lair in July, 1987. I need him to tell me if the pages are all washed away and the letters floating about the floor.

Yes, there was Dig leaving. And there was the Tiger Star, which exploded, shattering all the earth apart and breaking the wardrobe asunder.

That may have done it. That may have led me to the edge of some sort of chasm where I can't recall who I am or where I'm standing.

Tiger, why don't you extract my intestines, stretch them out like elastic, and nail them over the entire area of a football field like a fantastic hopscotch network.

I used to play a game in 1965. The neighbour's daughter, who bullied me and made me cry, would make me jump between the skeins of the skipping ropes that she stretched out around the back yard. When I was made to jump between them, prompted, probably, by a sausage pricking fork from her weaponry that she selected from the kitchen drawer, then she would tell me that she'd made the rope carry electricity, and if my toe so much as touched the cotton string, I would in all likelihood be electrocuted. The next time my mother saw me, she said, I would be charred splinters of split up skeleton bones and no eyeballs. I could have lived lifetimes in the seconds it took to jump across the back yard, feet between the wires.

Tiger, do that thing with my intestines, because you can see I have training to cope. I'll take my revenge to you one day. I shall do what I did to the neighbour's daughter. When she says she's coming to get me, I shall turn and run and hide under the sideboard. I'll hug my knees and stop breathing, for hours, terrified at her approach, realising with horror that I never locked the back door, and there was really nothing to stop her walking right in, pulling me out from my hiding place and stabbing me with the sausage pricker good and dead, once and for all.

Monday, 21 February 2011

Like an idea? Take it. You're welcome.

I have to get this off my chest. Recently I've been reading the type of blog post which begins, I'm miserable! Someone stole my idea...

Sometimes I don't know what the writer's complaining about. Do they mean someone copied a photo or a form of words and put their name to it?

Then yeah, I sympathise, to a point. Passing off. It's illegal in business. I can't take someone else's product and slap my name to it. Seeing your precise form of words or your picture of the dog passed off under someone else's name is probably just as irritating and just as illegal.

But you do have recourse. In blogland, you have a date-stamped entry; so do they. Display the product side by side and present the case before your jury of readers.

Sometimes, I get the feeling this is not what the blog author is complaining about.

Sometimes, a blog writer seems to be complaining that someone lifted an idea. Like, blog writer A stitched a stegosaurus on a knitted dishcloth. Three days later blog writer B did the same, but with a brontosaurus. When blog writer B posts up their work, Blog writer A feels cheated! Blog writer B never credited them with thank you or even a link!

Well, big deal.

Hey, reader of grit's day, if you like an idea here, take it. You're welcome. Take it and make it your own. No need to say thank you. No need to link.

I'm not making a moral point. I'm making a point about learning.

Taking ideas from each other, bringing them into our own worlds, laying over an acquired idea with a new frame of reference, stitching our own experience onto the ideas of others, that's what we do because we are human.

When we start on that process, we call it learning. From kids it's close enough to call copying, but we don't pass moral judgement on it. Shark was aged about two when she repeated instructions I gave, word for word, over several weeks. It might have pissed off Squirrel to hear mama straight from the mouth of a same-age sister, but I didn't squeal plagiarism. I understood how she was taking what she was hearing and listening to the sound of it from her own mouth. Slowly I heard my words and phrases echo back at me in different contexts, with new intent.

Here's another example. Last week, I walked into an art class where Tiger was working with the designs of some artist. (Don't ask me who; he looked Matisse influenced to me.) Tiger was reproducing his ideas in her own way, but fairly closely. In the classroom, this copying is called taking inspiration. I don't expect her to write him a note, saying Hi! Just re-used your ideas! Thanks for the input! Hope to see you over at my forum!

Educationally speaking, people take ideas from each other in order to grow themselves. Students rewrite, reformulate, reuse words and phrases, take whole ideas, lift entire arguments. This is how we learn. Copying each other's ideas is how people develop their own ideas. Close copying from adults might reflect a lack of confidence, but my assumption is, that soon comes.

To me, this process is okay. Just to stick my neck out further, when it happens at university level, what exactly is the point of the moral panic? There seems to be a fear of 'academic misconduct'* which goes well beyond passing off. Now apparently it's plagiarism if students drop in words and phrases from their reading material.

Of course the students are going to reformulate the words of others. They're going to rewrite stuff they found in the subject area you're asking them to learn about. They've been learning to do it this way for years. What else do you expect them to do for goodness sake? Original theories don't just pop from someone's head. People first inhabit the thoughts of others as a means of finding a place of their own. In fact, I think that progression is a healthy and normal part of intellectual life.

I don't know why the plagiarism debate at university level gets so up itself. Except sometimes I think it's people looking to protect a hierarchy of power and a sphere of influence.

Well, that's how I reckon the academic world works. It's about policing ideas as much as sharing them; keeping some people out alongside letting others in. I can see that if the ideas of one person in that world are extensively quoted and used as the basis for other work, then it shows that someone's risen to a position of influence. Having people who call on those ideas then signals deference, empowers the original speaker and writer, and creates a culture whereby someone is elevated in their profession. Then power to influence is what they're trying to protect. What are you trying to do exactly with all that plagiarism software? Except trying to protect words as if words are foot soldiers in building an empire.

Academic courses on fishyfin science, or blogs, it's all the same to me. People who whine about having an idea taken from their blog, maybe they're trying to build empires too; collect groupies, create a centre of power on their terms. They don't want the centre of influence moving elsewhere, or someone else taking the glory.

But blogland is a public place. Ideas are out here, loose and free-roaming. When this post is laying cold, hard and flat across your screen, the ideas here are available for anyone to read, reuse, rehash, take for themselves. I'm okay with that.

If you want to keep your idea about a knitted dinosaur dishcloth for yourself, then don't put it out in the world. If you want everyone to have it, and you want it to make money for you, make sure that when your idea goes out into the world, it goes with a contract that pays you up front.

But if you feel you're going to become morally outraged, violated, and that someone is going to steal your wisdoms, then don't put anything in any public forum at all, not a photo, bit of copy, not a blind bit of anything.

Anyway, Dig is fed up with listening me complain about people complaining on blogs. I'm told, push off and whine to Bakhtin instead. So I'm reusing this from Wikipedia because I can't speak Russian. 'To make an utterance means to "appropriate the words of others and populate them with one's own intention".'

Yeah. So if you reproduce me word for word as git's day, then I'll be pissed off with your passing off. I'll hunt you down and deal with you. But if you see an idea in grit's day that you fancy, then take it. You're welcome.

*Ha! Source deliberately not acknowledged!

Sunday, 20 February 2011

Shoe shopping with girls

Shoe shopping with girls is brilliant, isn't it? Once you've over the arguments, pushing, shoving and yelling - all of which is still an excellent social training for the Debenhams Boxing Day sales - why, there's nothing that can go wrong with this adventure at all!

First you must wander round every shoe shop and market stall within a half-mile radius, notionally to assess styles, but really to pass judgement on all women everywhere, and some men.

This is a brilliant way to spend time with your daughters because you can do some real bonding by listening to everyone squealing in horror and yelling Only a complete idiot would wear those! before telling everyone to SHUT UP because there is nothing wrong with a wonderful bejewelled pair of diamante foot fascinators with slingbacks, the like of which you must declare lovelybeautifuladorablekissykissyhereismysoul before being dragged off to stare glumly at sparkly pink trainers which are apparently much more sensible.

By the second repeat circuit (on what is now called 'the shoe run'), the shopkeepers are noticeably more awkward, since they distinctly remember a grown adult screaming next to the sparkly size 5s only an hour ago, but this time you're more critically aware and able to engage in serious debate about foot sizes and ankle width and have you got a machete? Because if I chop off my toes I think I might be able to fit inside those slingbacks.

After three more hours, two more circuits, one comfort stop, another round of vegetable spring rolls, and an argument in McDonald's - when all we want is an excuse to sit down for ten minutes. Of course we're not buying anything, we're vegetarians! Anyway we think your food is crap. (You tell 'em, Squirrel!) - we can all return to the shoe trek refreshed.

So by this means we finally arrive at the shop selling the Taiwanese copy trainers. (Lext!) Incidentally, the shop we visited first and the place where everyone said, No! No way! Too pink! Too sparkly!

But we all choose those. Except me. I'm afflicted by the idea that trainers are for gyms and not streets and should be practical and not sparkle. (Yes! I'm aged fifty! Whatever happened to plimsolls?)

On the other hand (or rather, foot), diamante slingbacks are meant for the fantastic and adorable all-woman that I really am. They perfectly grace my shapely legs and beautiful ankles, particularly when I roll up my trouser legs and see that my skin bears those little ridge marks from the sock elastic.

The next stop is home, finally, with all our new purchases. Here I can discreetly throw out the old kid shoes and stinking ripped trainers, then bore Dig rigid within 0.89 seconds of my detailed explanation of how adorable were the diamante slingbacks and why my toes are now bleeding because a girl's got to try.

But, while waiting for the boat back home, the daughters must succumb to new trainer desire. They simply must change in the street. There and then, labels and all.

Whipped along by the passion, I join in and photograph the old second hand boots I found down in Yung Shue Wan for a fiver.

They are very boring, are they not? But they were a fiver and saved me from a six hour shoe shopping experience with kids undermining my fantasy aspirations of it-girlery by telling me that diamante slingbacks are simply no good for running about in, and no way as useful as a pair of sparkly pink trainers.

Saturday, 19 February 2011

Just in time came the Rainbow Warrior

After yesterday, I need another young man with another conviction. The sort I'm looking for is a good-looking activist with a beautiful sunbeaten face, a seductive accent, and strong hands. They would do.

Fortunately, Greenpeace has taken over Pier 2 and is inviting the public on board the Rainbow Warrior. Not the first Rainbow Warrior blown up by the French secret service, obviously. That one is at the bottom of the sea off New Zealand.

This is Rainbow Warrior II, soon to be replaced by Rainbow Warrior III. This is an opportunity to say goodbye. Well, it's about farewell tours, and a promotional voyage to encourage membership and raise awareness about the earth, air and ocean, and how corporates, politicians and industrialists usually try and do what they like.

What Greenpeace does, as everyone knows, is try to stop them and piss them off. In the Greenpeace way I think that's called positive change through action.

Let's face it, they've got their work cut out round here. Hong Kong is now a colony of China and I wonder what real decision-making power Donald Tsang holds in the hierarchy with Beijing on the subject of nuclear power. But I applaud Greenpeace for having a go. Better than shutting up and saying nothing.

Educationally, it's an excellent counterbalance to yesterday. Simply at the level of a contrast between resources and technologies.

It's true, the knobs and anchors aren't as impressive, which you'd expect, given that the USS Halsey is funded by government and Greenpeace is funded by Joe Public and another hundred dollars from my purse.

But look here, when we get to the subject of conviction, the freedom fish fighter is happy.

Anyway, the tour does exactly what I needed it to do. Sends us off into discussions about conflicts of agendas, and the rewards and hazards of following through with your beliefs. Call it an education. Hopefully it all makes the kids think, which is my first reason to be here.

Not just for me to catch a few more eyefulls of dashing, young, spirited men. No. Not that at all. Honest.

Friday, 18 February 2011

I don't get invites like this every day

Like this one. Do you want to take a tour of the Destroyer USS Halsey, anchored in Hong Kong waters?

Straight away, I say NO.

NO WAY are we touring anything called a DESTROYER. Kids, we stand firm on our PRINCIPLES. My position is here in black and white. Our presence on board might suggest we are somehow implicitly endorsing all US military strategy; that we give our personal sanction to the covert actions of America which probably help sustain indefensible states around the world; that the very presence of our toes on deck might somehow be taken as tacit approval of US operations which protect American investments and armaments trade most likely to the detriment of civilian lives and hungry kids; and that we all adore Mickey Mouse when, in fact WE DO NOT.


But damn, I am one nosy parker.

And this is an education.

Within seconds of that thought, the invitation to tour a US missile destroyer is completely irresistible. To get on board I must grab a fellow home educator's computer to sign ourselves up, and PDQ before the afternoon deadline expires.

So that's what I do. Which is how we find ourselves led under the skin of the USS Halsey.

Okay, I admit. It was one of the most interesting tours I have taken in a while. Not only for the talk about the big gun, missile launchers, control room, and sight of the folding helicopter. (Did you know they fold up? Helicopters fold up! It's amazing, right! But they do!)

The reason why the tour was so engaging was the crew. The crew on board were faultlessly straightforward, welcoming, humorous, acknowledging of questions, patient and thoughtful. Real people, in fact.

Damn. Not for one moment did any one of our touring crew come over as automatons, two dimensional robots, cardboard cut outs and parrots for US agendas. They expressed hesitancies, considerations and smiles. Damn damn damn. It is easier to be principled when humans do not mess up the black and white.

But then something even worse happened. They showed how fantastically trusting they were.

Get this. They let two dozen wide-eyed kids loose in a deck filled with LEVERS BUTTONS KNOBS DIALS AND SWITCHES.

Would you do that? Would you allow a single trigger-happy, curious kid with itching fingers in firing range of a control panel that could have been lifted straight from a Game Boy testing factory?

Seriously, as a grown adult, I was having difficulty controlling my impulse in front of a single lever with the caption SD768 OFF/ON.

That was one pretty amazing tour. Was it a charm offensive? Very likely. Did it work? Hmm. But to save my fragile principles, I'm calling it all an education. Yes, it led to an interesting discussion with the kids about balances of power, war, politics and conviction. That maybe left our principles intact. No way do we endorse the killing of civilians, the destruction of cities, nor the culture of warmongering for the selling of arms.

And I am sure to forget just how handsome was that young sailor. The one who made me wish I was aged twenty and had no principles at all.

Thursday, 17 February 2011

That would be a job well done

I'm following the debate sparked by US schoolteacher Natalie Monroe, freshly suspended for blogging about her school environment, her work colleagues, and the kids she teaches.

I hear she was fairly frank and judgemental about the limitations of the kids, and not much more forgiving about her co-workers, or the life of a classroom teacher.

In the media swell that's followed, she's (not surprisingly) striking a more questioning line and focusing on the US educational system. What do parents take teachers for? What do you want school to do? What role does education play in your society?

Admittedly, from what I've read, her starting point wasn't too generous. What with the insults, angers, swearing and resentments. And yes, it does smack a little of post-event rationale - like yelling Anyone aged over 70 is a miserable old bastard! Before adding, I was merely drawing attention to social perceptions of the elderly.

But she's turning it to good questions now, and she's bringing those issues into the mainstream culture, which I can't object to.

Of course she's not the first to use her experiences as a teacher for material. Teachers have been writing personally and provocatively about schools, colleagues, and kids, for years. Usually without the effing and blinding. Springing to mind is Edward Blishen, who wrote Roaring Boys (1955) and This Right Soft Lot (1969). They're autobiographical tellings of kids in an ordinary working-class school.

Blishen's books about school life could join dozens of others, but I guess that once you begin listing works that also use school as a background or setting, there'd be no end. School-referencing narratives inform hundreds of works in many genres. You could find the full range, from tales of lads and falcons, to tedious classroom research which dissects every utterance your child makes from his casual grunt to his lengthy discourse on Beckham.

Yet, despite this pervasiveness of educational referencing, and the fact that we can all recognise how school, teaching, and educational issues thread into so many narratives, education in itself - a subject in its own right - is usually apparent by its omission in mainstream culture.

Educational issues are usually marginalised; they're regarded as the supplements or special interest. People don't much tackle them, preferring instead to air opinions on safe, shared ground of poor discipline or media studies. Likewise, teachers aren't expected to discuss the inner workings and management of schools and, in the UK, any parent posing public questions - for example about school policies on racism or bullying - may as well go into voluntary exile.

I notice this in Hong Kong too. Here I'm surrounded by books which explain the English to the Chinese. Pick up these observational or anecdotal books about the English, British culture or UK society, and you'll rarely find any section devoted to education. Sure, chapters about transport, money, keeping pets, shopping in Asda, they're all considered suitable for a general reader, but not education. There's no chapter on that.

Once I start looking for works which set out to recognise the place of education in society for the general reader, rather than those books shared by educational theorists or PGCE students, then the omission is almost spooky.

For example, searching for a list of education blogs written for a mainstream audience is like wondering if they've been struck from the records. I couldn't even find a category marked education on the Wikio lists, although there's a whole section devoted to knitting. (I accept that could be my poor browsing skills.) Similarly, in the US I can find plenty of educational pages, but most of them are trying to sell me a college course or a competitively priced online tutorial.

This omission - straightforward narratives, insights, questions and explanations about education made available to the general reader - is to me simply odd. Especially when I can see that education - and particularly school experience - helps forms such a massive part of the adult psyche.

The gap, unfortunately, is filled by ideas which are popular but probably not much use in communicating educational issues with which teachers and your kids wrestle daily. We can be overdosed in either extreme: twee romanticised versions of interacting with adorable cuties (sorry, Gervase Phinn), or the sex and suicide of your average fantasy staffroom (Channel 4's Teachers). Neither particularly raise those questions Monroe is pushing people to think about: What do parents take teachers for? What do you want school to do? What role does education play in your society?

If the questions she's asking have an impact, if they cause people to think consciously about the education of kids - to raise it and make it an issue with its own clear identity in the adult mind - then I can't help but think that's a positive result.

And we could have a trend here that benefits everyone. Chua, now Monroe. Are they pushing education away from a marginalised, only-referenced place in books, literature and blogs, to a central, mainstream audience? If, through these provocative starts, people began to question their educational landscape a little more, instead of romanticising it, introducing a sex scene, or assuming they know all about education on the basis they went to school, then that could be a step along the way.

Personally, I'd like to see more mainstream discussion on the work of all teachers and the function of schools. I'd like to see less defence of school systems when they're going wrong. I'd like to see more informed comment and ideas about education in general, with more parents and other interested people discussing issues of teaching and learning, and all with less ignorant ranting.

If people educate themselves about education and can intelligently discuss questions like What do parents take teachers for? What do you want school to do? What role does education play in your society? Maybe then we'll also see education taking its place in the mainstream.

If it does, then there's my goal achieved. Alongside weekday school, would fall into place flexischool, distance school, home education in all its wonderful flavours - they'd all become normal mainstream choices too.

I suppose finally I could admit to having a personal interest. (Okay, it's not very interesting.)

In the 1990s when I'd finished with conventional schools, I wrote a range of short stories about the school environment, my work colleagues, and the kids I'd been teaching - working title, Mobile 57. It was the days before blogs. I wanted the stories to be written in a way that wasn't just for teachers, but that communicated ideas about how school related to education, how schools teach stuff (but not what you'd think of as an education), and how it all impacted on the lives of kids.

An agent for Peters Fraser and Dunlop liked the stories, and encouraged me to work on them. Then she got life-threatening sick. Without someone like an editor to dangle a carrot and hit me with a stick, I became subsumed by idlebastarditis, then dropped them. A few years ago, I thought, I'll do something about them now! and started to key them in again. Then the idlebastarditis got me once more.

Really, thanks to Monroe putting those issues out there, I'm minded to have another go. But if that's what it takes, then this time, I'll add some effing and blinding, and say, See now! What do you parents take teachers for? What do you have schools for? What role do you want education to play in your society?

Wednesday, 16 February 2011

Let's watch the Starkey one next!

Sorry, we're out. We're all home educating gone, down to Documentaryheaven.*

*Nope, no-one paid me to say that.

Tuesday, 15 February 2011

'School is somewhere that every child needs to be every day'

This made headlines, didn't it? It changed flavour over here. Children missing an education; the abuse; calls for a national database.

Well, I'm sure it's the start. Of something.

It's such a catchy beginning, too. 12,000. People love factoids don't they? Especially ones that are easy to remember. They're best if they come with emotion, a sense of urgency, or a note of alarm.

Anyway, I see this figure everywhere now, and the more it's repeated, the truer it is.

I bet the TES is not unhappy with the repetition. It helps advertisers feel safe to know their ad budget is in a paper with clout.

But I can't help but wonder about this story.

Apart from the stats, check the language. Interchanging school and education as if there is no difference? Is that deliberate? Or incompetent? Maybe education writers at the TES haven't read any education law. That doesn't reflect well on the TES. Surely, can't be that. But if it's deliberate, maybe the author is under a brief to deliver a particular impression, even if it's wrong. That every child must be in school, and this is the law.

Then get some of the 'charity' quotations too! Complete tripe! Take this one. 'School is somewhere that every child needs to be every day' says Martin Narey.

So Martin, you must include Saturday, Sunday, every public holiday, every school holiday and maybe all children too, from hour zero, thanks to the nappy curriculum. That sounds like prison too! But I think that's well beyond the legal requirement of even a dutiful and law-abiding school-choosing parent, isn't it?

You might think I'm taking what he said to ridiculous limits, and of course he didn't mean it like that, he just said it like that. But I assume he did say it; the writer chose to report it. Even if it's complete nonsense.

But how am I to understand him now, after he said that? Should I not take him seriously? Perhaps I should imagine he's just a big delusional joker with a loose mouth that flaps about in the wind.

So the education writer didn't do him any favours. Made him look a bit foolish, maybe. But still, she reported these words, unchallenged, and uncritical. I wonder why she didn't ignore them, and pursue more accurate words, ones that more sensitively addressed and identified the issues that I'm sure are in this story too.

It's true, I would have preferred to read an article that took more care over statistics, used more sensitive language, and relied on better quotes.

I'd like to have seen a recognition that education is compulsory; school is not. That most schools require attendance Monday-Friday, but flexischooling may not. That alternative provision for children of different abilities, needs, ages and aptitudes does not necessarily take place on school premises. That Children Missing Education statistics should not include home educated children. That some children, registered at school, are not deregistered promptly by parents. That some schools may be slow at deregistration procedures. That some areas probably need a shake up in placing traveller children and the families of casual migrant workers. That some children do 'disappear' from school, but probably not 12,000. That local councils have a suspicion they find difficult to voice about some families within ethnic minorities who persist in forced marriages, or who regard the education of female children more problematic than the male.

I didn't get those ideas from this article. Just a big blast of moral panic. And the 12,000 who should all be in school.

But there's more that worries at me here; more than easy stats, misleading words, and crap quotes. What I really want to know is, what happened to bring this article about? What's the background?

I'm suspicious, because the TES is as good a place to start as any.

Maybe there are various interests - commercial, charity-business, political, corporate, undesirable individual - right now coalescing behind the scenes; people who would benefit from a little moral panic.

Perhaps some social alarm would make it easier to introduce a compulsory, national registration system, one for all children, regardless of who they are, whether they are schooled, educated otherwise, home educated, moved house, or packed off for a forced marriage. Parents, by law, would be obliged to front up information about the kids.

You can almost hear it now. We simply need to know. We are concerned about the twelve thousand disappeared. This will help us identify children who are genuinely missing. If we know where all children are registered as receiving education, then it is easier to identify when children are not where they should be. This register is simply to help us focus our support on the children who need it most.

Then the TES article might make sense. It might have a specific intent to scream some scary figures, yell some thoughtless quotes, plough ahead with mishmashed information, ignore the law, and whip up a little social anxiety.

I can't decide. Whether the TES team hears whispers in government, and this article is a tiny particle kick-starting a sinister scheme of things. Or whether it's just another badly written article from someone who's not sure of the law and doesn't choose their soundbites well.

Oh, I'm not a conspiracy theorist. I'm just old, and I look at the world with a brutal eye.

But if I was Martin Narey, I'd ask for a favourable full page to redress the damage. Maybe an interview with me as Important Person. I'd ask for a different journalist and then I'd check the quotes, in case anyone took me for a complete idiot, all over again.

Monday, 14 February 2011

No comment

Humph. Valentine's Day isn't synonymous with any vice activities round here either. Not at all.


Sunday, 13 February 2011

Gone, gone, all gone!

Over the last days I have wondered if there is any reason for a reader to linger over this blog. Maybe if you are an expat wandering through Hong Kong with a passing interest in pink dolphins.

It has become a very China/Hong Kong blog, hasn't it?

That, I tell myself sadly, is the impact of house visitors. They come here, force you to take them places, demand that you to explain a culture to them - one you are barely able to figure out for yourself - then they hold you hostage unless you show them a walled village.

But that is over. Amidst much child wailing, rending of clothes and gnashing of teeth, Travelling Aunty is travelled back to Blighty; her wheelie case crammed with all essentials, like a packet of Fuku instant noodles, two terracotta warriors, and a dead cockroach. (Only joking Aunty Dee! We didn't put Norman in after all!)

I am sad. But every cloud has a silver lining. Now I can turn my mind to the usual ill-informed, opinionated ranting about AOB. Or, matters childish, family and home educational. The sort that's never going to earn me a chocolate medal the size of a dustbin lid, even though I deserve one.

Saturday, 12 February 2011

Old walled village

Travelling Aunty says she's not returning home to Blighty unless she's seen a walled village of old Hong Kong.

Um. I'm sure we can find one, with the help of the Urban Renewal Authority and a group of Hong Kong property developers. It may have been reconstructed as a superior modern and spacious living environment of 50 floors with security keycode access. Will that do?

Not at all, says Travelling Aunty. Her guide book, she says, lists old walled villages of Hong Kong, and she wants to see one.

Things change quick round here, Travelling Aunty. Not like Northumberland. There you can be away 20 years, go back home, and the streets are exactly as you left them. Dig tried it once. He walked into the greasy spoon down the road after an absence of two years and the waitress looked at him and said 'The usual?'

In Hong Kong you turn your back for five minutes and when you turn round again they've dug up the road and planted a skyscraper. This is the way it goes. The old buildings are neglected, which means they drop to bits in typhoons, electric storms, 39C temperatures and 99% humidity. The developers seize a perfect opportunity to say 'Look at the state of that!' then knock down the neighbourhood to use the land for an MTR, utility connection, retail complex, office space and apartments selling each for $2 million where you'd have trouble swinging a gerbil.

'I'm not going home' she says, 'until I've seen a walled village'. Then she sat down square in the armchair and gripped the arm rests.

Very well. Look, there are some in the New Territories. But those are a long way from our island, so make it four hours there and four hours back. We may be at the mercy of a Hong Kong taxi driver who doesn't normally drop off further than Kowloon Cultural Centre. And don't forget, walls in this country aren't about being pretty. I hear tell of one tribe who lock you in, then won't open the gates again until you've bought their souvenir wood carving of a rabbit. We want to avoid that.

Travelling Aunty narrows her eyes and fixes me with a menacing stare.

So of course we sort it. Thanks to the History Museum, who took over Sam Tung Uk's place.

Sam Tung Uk was a migrant some two hundred years ago, and he did the obvious Chinese thing, which is build a wall around your house. Over in mainland China, they've been doing it for years. They're still doing it.

I am impressed that someone managed to save Sam's place, I don't mind saying it. In Hong Kong, to preserve any old building, to go as far as reconstructing it with authentic materials, tools, and working practices, well, that is one impressive achievement. Someone must have set their face firmly to fight a culture which is simply not encouraged to value old buildings. This is one of the few countries in the world to look at the land area, then think that's not enough, let's flatten the sea and make a bit more.

Credit to the historians, restorers, and the old man who rebuilt the brick fireplace. It must have taken some mighty willpower, heel digging, and threats of screaming with sinister undertones of intentional physical damage.

Travelling Aunty, this is right up your street. Have you considered staying here and becoming part of the Hong Kong Heritage group?

Then here it is. Sam Tung Uk's place. With walls.

Friday, 11 February 2011

The next generation won't go quietly

I'm not going to say, 'Those dolphins? They don't stand a chance'. That would sound like a world-weary oldster just giving in. I know that's exactly what some folks would like us all to do.

Shark's younger, and she's made of sterner stuff. Her message is clear. She says, Hong Kong, stop polluting the water.

I've lived with her for ten years. I know what a loud noise she can make. I've come to the quiet conclusion, it's probably better to do as she says.

Thursday, 10 February 2011

View from the peak

Someone could look at our home education and argue, 'See here? There's not much teaching going on'.

This would be true, if you have a model in your head that to home school is to sit round the kitchen table for two hours a day while teacher-mama points out stuff in books. I guess any deviation from that is unusual, if you keep that model in your head.

But here we are, walking round the mountain, enjoying the views, and drawing the trees. Right now, in this time and place, we aren't doing anything like a kitchen table lesson.

Someone might draw out the inference that because we're not doing anything like that now, we never did. We never will.

Yes, we've done lessons, although not now, not here. The kids might do them again. I expect they will.

Right now, I can try. Some days I would like to sit down and point at a book. Something like maths. I might even carry the idea through into action. One child at a time.

I'd expect the experience - you might call it 'a lesson' - to last for about ten minutes before both of us will have had enough. The experience might end when I suggest my pupil could learn more about that subject area for themselves. Hopefully, my pupil wouldn't already be departing, seething and wishing I was dead under a bush.

Because now, things are changing. It was easier to do that type of 'lesson' when the kids were little, and open to bribery with cereals. Now, they're nearly aged eleven, and gearing up to know about everything. Soon we'll get to that point where I shout Have a nice day! And they'll slam the door and snarl, Don't you tell me what to do.

So here we are, walking. I can see that the 'lessons' my late primary age offspring are having right now, in this time and place, are those I've had no conscious hand in organising, planning, or controlling in any way.

The other day, Shark took herself to her room for two hours. She returned, having copied out the first witchery scene from Macbeth. She'd found the play script and a prose story. She then said she would like to compare the two, so we set about talking how the two styles were the same and how they differed. I thought, I'm sure I taught this lesson years ago to 4G. I'm sure I recall the sharp thinking and rule breaking to get the lads involved. They played the thunder, and shook the building. Rewarding, but hard, and probably not of any lasting impact. The other day with Shark, it was easy and painless, and the tickets for the play are booked.

I can see my children change, and I know I need to keep this flexibility. Lessons, or no lessons. Kitchen tables, or trees. Something that looks like teaching, and something that doesn't. It would probably help if snap judgments weren't made of us.

So what I'm logging down about this way of education - before I forget, and with or without a Travelling Aunty - is that change is vital. And I need to plan for all options.

The kids might yet choose tuition full-time, flexischool, independent learning, or turn their back on schools, and set up in business as a horse whisperer.

Personally, I'd like to see those options kept wide open.

Wednesday, 9 February 2011

Aesop forgot this one

Too much like a flying visit, we're back to Hong Kong today.

This time I exit China splattered in half-digested watermelon, thanks to one unnamed daughter's explosive vomit at the back of the bus en route to the airport. As the watermelon drips off my hair, she regards me, and says by way of consolation, 'I feel a bit better now'.

I am resigned to it.

Last time I left China I was on a boat chugging down the Pearl River, nurturing the start of a bladder infection.

One day, I caution the little Grits, you will be on an eight-hour bus journey packed with old farmers spitting between the bars of the windows while clutching chickens and sugar cane. The bus will shudder to a halt after four hours for a comfort stop. Everyone else will wee sensibly in the open air by the roadside. You, effete foreigner, will shrink and whimper about privacy until someone tuts and nods to a hut. Inside the hut is a bamboo screen. On one side of the screen is a mud patch and a rudimentary hole in the ground. Do not peer over the bamboo screen to see what is making the snuffling and grunting sound. Pigs are easily disturbed.

The moral of this story is, when you have to let it out, let it out.

With the caveat that it is better by a tree than an upset pig. And a plastic bag rather than your mother.

Tuesday, 8 February 2011

Past and present

Walking through Xi'an brings me out in a mild gloom. Twenty years ago it looked like this. Dismal with dusty grey buildings. I think the street trees may be new.

I console myself. The trunks - competing with China's national telephone network, the four lane highway and the thick soupy smog - are still upright. Maybe the way they are cantilevered into place is helping.

But then there's that same absence of colour in the cityscape. (Except for red.)

This has barely changed in twenty years. I put it down to the lack of advertising in China to jolly up the barren concrete, which is another numbingly depressing thought. That the inhabitants of a city can fill their eyes with multicolour only if there are competing commercial interests blasting out advertisements to better procure the yuan in their pockets. That's started, anyway, and maybe the Chinese authorities will invite some more.

So I look to the people instead, and how they're dressed. I recall more worker uniform blue and grey about the streets, whereas now it's utilitarian black, brown and grey padded jackets and trainers. I wonder if it's yet an unthinkable, inexplicable act to dress wildly, flamboyantly. I see one Asian teenage head, bobbing away from us down the escalator, bleached spiky blonde, but he is the exception. Maybe with him, the elders of the Xi'an City Collective imagine they are wrestling with the social problem of urban discontent.

In looking for the Museum of Steles which we found twenty years ago (but this time lost), we stumble across what looks like a craft or an artisan street. Highly organised with regimented stalls it reminds me of Camden after the clean up. Except for the noodle stall, which is a fantastic reminder that street life can be inviting and lethal all at once.

It's not all doom and gloom though. This time it's Chinese New Year, so the inhabitants are blowing the place up, without any ceremony at all. Nothing like, Excuse me, I'm about to create a sound which will make you think you're under artillery fire. None of that. Someone strolls up to a shop front, sets fire to a magazine of 50 firecrackers, then walks away. The pedestrians barely register the smoke. Eventually, their lack of remark transfers itself to me. After a couple of hours of smoke, silver flares and crack-crack-crack, I mostly tune it out and walk on by.

I thought firecrackers had been banned on account of the cost to life and limb, and the way that these rogue incendiary devices have a habit of burning down new hotels and thousand year old temples. Maybe I'm confused, and they were banned once but not now, or banned elsewhere and not here. Anyway, they're sold openly on the streets: I watch one elderly woman teach a toddler how to throw them to the ground for best effect.

But here's a relief. The grocery shops are not as I recall. Twenty years ago I couldn't find any, and ate mostly a pack of peanuts with my own body fat. How different from today! The convenience shops seem to be filled not with live animals, dessicated fish and tree bark, but with soap, alcohol and dried salt biscuits, so that's a relief. To me, anyway.

We find a Vanguard Supermarket, and I wander around there with my eyes popping out, lost in wonder, resolving that I'm living here until my visa expires, so I can learn enough language to shop confidently, play with all the foods, and cook Chinese vegetarian.

I suppose I should add in my educational notebook blog thingy that it wasn't all wandering about the streets in observation and reminiscence. We visited the Shaanxi History Museum and I lectured the little Grits on changes in China over twenty years and six thousand. We revisit what we learned about the Silk Road, because Xi'an is at the beginning of it. Or the end, depending which way you start.

I feel a little sad, because twenty years ago I would have worked out the postal system and posted a letter home to Suffolk where I could let my mother know where I was, and that I wasn't dead yet. She's dead now, so there's no-one to write home to.

But on reflection I think she thought it hilarious that at the age of 30 I declared I might like to stop going to work and go to China instead where I had a mind to bicycle. So I did that, yes I did.

Maybe in twenty years time my daughter might come to Xi'an and write to me back home in Suffolk. I'll open her letter in my papery hands and hear it say, 'Mother, you'll never guess where we are. It looks just the same, all dusty and grey without any colours. But tomorrow we're heading south. We're going to find some bikes and see some mountains.'