52% intelligent. 9% modest. More monkey than bear.

Tuesday, May 31, 2005

every smile you fake...

I acquired a new reader over the weekend.

How do I know? Not because I obsessively check my stats (I am so over that), but because she mentioned it to me at work today. She's likely to be reading this, I suppose, so I'd better give her a name, otherwise it's a bit rude isn't it? Let's call her Rufus-Fan.

It's my own fault really. Rufus-Fan and I were chewing the cud on Friday afternoon, and when she asked me what I was up to at the weekend. I said that I was doing a 50km walk, and when she then asked why, it just seemed easier to show her the Ultimate Olympian's blog, as that would explain everything. Being a curious sort, and because it's a ridiculous challenge and a very well-written blog, she read a fair bit of it. Somewhere in there I'm mentioned by name and there's a link here. A curious Rufus-Fan clicked the link, and found this blog, and then read on with interest.

There is something mildly disconcerting about discovering that a colleague from work is reading this. I think it's got something to do with the protection of my anonymity.

Believe it or not, SwissToni isn't actually my real name.


That's pretty much the entire extent of the figleaf protecting my identity on this blog though. My real name is fairly readily available if you wanted to find it, you know I live in Nottingham, and as if that wasn't enough, I quite often post pictures of myself (sans moustache). Alright, I don't talk much about my job, but that's mainly because it would probably be as boring for you to read about as it would be for me to write about it. I also don't think I've ever mentioned the name of the company I work for, although it wouldn't be terribly hard to guess it. If you asked me what it was, I'd probably tell you anyway.

Nah. It's not my anonymity on the internet that I'm worried about protecting; I want to protect some of my real identity from work.

I'm sure to some extent we all do it, no matter how much we may try not to. We all have a work persona that is different from the way we are when we are amongst our friends. My dad is certainly like this: I have always struggled to reconcile the grumpy and impatient man that I know (especially when I'm ill), with the caring and expert doctor that the majority of his patients clearly see.

Whilst I try to be myself at work as much as I can, I just can't be entirely me, and actually I think I quite like it that way. I don't live to work, and although I get on really well with a lot of people in the office, I can count the number of real friends that I have at work, friends who I would happily spend some time with voluntarily outside of work, on the fingers of one hand. If I meet colleagues from work out of the context of the office, say at the supermarket, I am almost always entirely stumped for words. Part of it is my natural shyness, but some of it is because I just don't have anything to say to them away from work. I don't really know what my colleagues think of me, but I'm pretty sure that they don't really know me all that well, and that's fine. I like keeping something back.

I am pretty honest on this blog, I think. Whilst I don't talk about everything that's happening in my life here, I do talk about a lot of things. You know a lot about my politics. You know about my schooling. You know what kind of music I like. You know what kind of books I read. I've been telling total strangers things about my life that I've never told anybody in the whole world about before. C. sometimes says that she has to read this blog to really know what's on my mind; to know what I've been thinking about.

So how do I feel about some of my colleagues at work having access to these insights? Will it begin to constrain some of the things that I talk about?

Nah. I don't think so.

What you read here is basically what I'm like. These are the things that I really think about, the things that I really care about. Anyone who is interested enough to read these ramblings, is welcome to them, and that certainly includes Rufus-Fan (who, incidentally, has an excellent taste in music, and is thinking of starting her own blog.... I think she definitely should. I'd read it.)

Now, it might be a bit weird if absolutely everyone I worked with read this, but I don't think I'll ever have that many readers, and I'm not all that sure that everyone I work with has the requisite concentration span to plough through my overly verbose ramblings.

I'm constantly amazed that anyone does.

Monday, May 30, 2005

And i'm braindead virtually...

The more I think about it, the more I'm starting to realise that there are startling parallels between life and buying a cup of coffee:

Buying a cup of coffee used to be simple. You either had it white or you had it black. You had it with sugar or without. If you were really fussy, you might even choose to have it decaffeinated. You had choices, but you didn't have too many choices.

Suddenly, and without you really noticing, the world changed, and there are choices (and coffee shops) everywhere. Good morning sir, how are you today? Will you be having Expresso, Cappuccino, Latte, Mocha, Macchiato? With syrup or without (hazelnut, caramel, vanilla, gingerbread, mint....)? Full fat, half-fat or skinny? Hot or iced? Tall, Grande or Venti? With an extra shot? Full caff, half caff or decaff?

Sure, it comes in a nice big mug with a logo on it, and you get to wallow in a nice comfy sofa with the paper, but there's a small price to pay for all this luxury. Well, not such a small price really - it's bloody extortionate. It's so expensive, that to feed your burgeoning caffeine habit, you have to stop eating (except for panini and muffins, obviously).

And so it goes on. You drink more and more coffee of an ever increasing complexity and cost, and then you die; bloated, sleep-deprived and profoundly unfulfilled.

Hmm. Or perhaps you can stretch a simile too far. I'm sure that won't be happening to any of us.... will it?

I think I'll have a cup of tea instead.

Friday, May 27, 2005

And if we got to frisk you down, then that's the way we take 'em...

Earworms of the Week - Guest Editor #2 - The Urban Fox

Ladies and Gentlemen, I am proud, honoured and a little bit humbled to be able to present the soundtrack to the inner workings of the brain of one of my most favourite bloggers.... so without further ado, over to Fox.....

10 - The KLF - Justified and Ancient

I bought a friend a Bill Drummond book for his birthday and my mental archive retrieved this little specimen at the till. It then had a fine old time yelling "MUU MUU!" to itself for a few hours.

9 - Kylie - Shocked

For obvious reasons (i.e. recent media coverage of the lady's health). I was alarmed to find that I know every single word to the abysmal rap in the middle 8: "You and I are of the same mind, it seems to me that we're one of a kind..." Oh dear.

7 - Gillian Welch - Revelator

Ah, Sunday mornings. Blisssss. Surveys show that Gillian Welch is 87.4% more soothing than yoga. Try it yourself if you don't believe me. (I did of course make up the statistic, but still defend the FACT behind it.)

6 - Crazy Frog - Axel F

The musical equivalent of bird flu. And still, I can't help being slightly glad it's going to beat Coldplay to the number 1 slot on Sunday, if only to annoy the Real Music = Miserable White Men With Guitars brigade. Ha. [ST's note - you do know that this is my blog, right?]

5 - The Smiths - Sweet and Tender Hooligan

Speak of the devil. "ETCETERA, ETCETERA, ETCETERA, ETCETERA! In the midst of life we are in death, ETCETERA!" This gem invaded my brain as I walked past a branch of Books Etc. A terribly mundane and peculiarly British moment of inspiration, just the way Moz likes it. [ST's note - that's more like it!]

4 - The Police - Every Breath You Take

Dear god. Absolutely no idea why this slice of AOR horror stalked me on Wednesday. All I remember is wandering around humming it, before being punched into silence by a gang of hooded tune vigilantes. Justifiably.

3 - Gonzales - The Joy Of Thinking

This might look like a boring choice, because I have a quote from it at the bottom of my own blog, but it's honestly one of this week's worms. It was set off, predictably, by me noticing it on my own page. Note to self: change template.

2 - Dhola Re (from 'Devdas' film soundtrack)

This bloody song. Every single day in the shower, it springs from nowhere. I can't get rid of it. It's ace, I grant you, but even so. Perhaps it wouldn't be so irksome if my Hindi was good enough to remember more than about 5 words of the lyrics. "Re dhola, re dhola, re dhola, re dhola, um, la la la, la la la, thingy..."

1 - Public Enemy - Gett Off My Back

I don't watch a lot of TV, especially not the reality voyeurism sort. So it was with slack-jawed bewilderment that I noticed Flavor Flav - ! - on Channel 5's 'The Farm', while flicking channels. (The show became semi-notorious last year when it persuaded microcelebrity Rebecca Loos to masturbate a pig on camera. Insert your own Sun subeditor-style joke here.) You see, Public Enemy were one of the important bands of my teens. Flav was always a buffoon, admittedly, but still. It's like spotting your uncle kerbcrawling. I've had this Flav-led ditty in my head ever since, probably indicating deep psychological trauma.

+ uf +


thanks Fox!

I'm hoping for some cheesy pop and solid gold 80s classics next week. Yup, I'll be handing the keys over to Lord Bargain....

Right. That's me. I'm off to Oxford now to take part in the 50km Walk with the Ultimate Olympian... have a good bank holiday weekend y'all, and if it rains, I'll be wanting to know which of you cursed us all by getting your BBQ set up....

toodle pip.

Thursday, May 26, 2005

I've spent too long on your trail

Star Wars has been a part of my life since I was 4 years old and my dad took me to the cinema when we were on holiday in Guernsey to see the first film. In those days it was simply called 'Star Wars', but apparently we now know it as 'Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope'.


I don't remember it at all.

My first proper Star Wars memory comes a couple of years later in 1979 or 1980 when I queued up in the rain outside the Electra Cinema in Newport Pagnell to watch 'The Empire Strikes Back'. I don't remember many details about that first viewing, but it clearly made a massive impression on me because I began to collect the Star Wars figures (I think my first was C3P0 - the original one with the arms and legs that didn't come off). We also began to play 'Star Wars' in the school playground. In those days, everyone wanted to be Luke Skywalker, in the completely mistaken belief that he was the coolest person in the films. The only way we could persuade anyone to be Han Solo was by pretending that he had a little lightsabre dagger (let's face it - lightsabres were, and are, pretty damn cool). I used to go round to my best friend's house with all my figures in a bag, and we would play 'Star Wars' for hours. I lost count of the number of tiny little plastic guns that we mislaid.

I remember anxiously waiting for the release of 'The Return of the Jedi'... I can even remember when they changed the name from 'The Revenge of the Jedi' because revenge wasn't an appropriate emotion for a Jedi (ah, if only Annakin had understood that, then the galaxy would have been saved a whole lot of bother).

I don't remember having a problem with the Ewoks either. In fact, I was desperate for my mum and dad to buy me the Ewok Village for Christmas, and was devastated when they didn't.

At around this time, I taped 'Star Wars' off the telly on our Betamax video. To this day, when I watch the film, I can still remember where the adverts were. As I recall, they were mainly adverts for the Boxing Day sales....

Damn it, I loved those films.

I think I first bought the videos at some point around 1995, and a year after that, I found myself at University with a whole bunch of people who had also grown up with these films - they were a common cultural reference point. This, together with the fact that the Special Editions were about to hit the cinemas again, and the growing availability of fanboy information on the internet, deepened my interest in the films, and I learnt all kinds of totally pointless information (can you name the co-pilot of the Millennium Falcon during the attack on the second Death Star? I can....). I was now watching the films with a markedly different standpoint from the first time around. I had now worked out that 'Empire' was the best of the films by miles (and still is), that Han was the coolest character by miles (and still is), that the Ewoks were a travesty.... all sorts of geeky stuff. Cool though it was to see the films in the cinema again, I was also fairly pissed off that George Lucas had tinkered pointlessly with the films that I loved: Greedo now fired first, Jabba appeared, Mos Eisley had bigger crowds of people.... big deal.

I bought the Special Editions on video (and idiot that I am, I left my original videos with an ex-girlfriend). I also bought a couple of the newer, bizarrely muscular, new figures as well...although I don't think my heart was really in it (I had a Luke with a Yoda in a little backpack, but I gave it to my friend Tracy). I had a Yoda t-shirt.

'The Phantom Menace' came out in 1999. The teaser trailers had been fantastic (double-bladed lightsabre!), so how could I not be excited? The UK release date was some time after the US, and so the first thing I did when I stepped off a plane in Orlando, Florida, was to head to the cinema to watch the film. I fell asleep during the pod race scene. 'The Attack of the Clones' was better, but was muddled. I still bought both of them on DVD. I also picked up a Darth Maul lightsabre.

The Special Editions of the original trilogy were released on DVD. I bought them.

I plodded off to see 'Revenge of the Sith' as soon as I got back from Korea. It's pretty good. No, it's better than that. I'll buy it when it comes out on DVD.

I am sad that you can't buy the original films in their original edit. When they are released on DVD, as they surely will be, I'll probably buy them too.

I've got loads of opinions on the films: on the classic trilogy, on the prequels, on George Lucas and his so-called 'vision' and his ham-fisted self-mythologising, on Jar-Jar bloody Binks.... but at the end of the day, I've decided that I don't have the energy, and it's not that interesting for anyone except my fellow geeks. For better or for worse, my life has been bound up with these films for more than 25 years now. How the hell can I be expected to offer up anything approaching an objective opinion?

Now excuse me, I have 5 films on DVD to re-watch and a second trip to the cinema to make....

:: how jedi are you? ::

(yeah, I know I've posted this before, but it seems relevant)

though your dreams be tossed and blown

One of the best games of football ever, and I didn't watch a single kick of it, as I was in the finest restaurant in Nottingham with my lovely girlfriend for her birthday meal.

I don't know: first her brother schedules his wedding (in France) for the Saturday of the Trent Bridge Test against the Australians, and now this. I reckon there might be some kind of "anti-sport" gene. Isn't that the only explanation? It's not that she doesn't like sport, either, because she does - she plays football herself.... there's just some alignment of the stars and planets that mean that the sporting calendar just does not align with major events in her life. All those people who schedule their weddings for the same day as the FA Cup final - they've got this gene too. It's not like they pick the day deliberately, it's just that they were unaware of anything else happening on the same day.

If such a gene does exist, one thing I do know is that C. and her brother certainly didn't get it from their father - he rang her up from France (where they live) to wish her happy birthday whilst we were having our pre-dinner drink at the restaurant, and took the time to pass on the score to me.... (we bonded over test match special, you know - none of C's French boyfriends ever really understood cricket).

Still. I wouldn't have been anywhere else last night.... of course I wouldn't..... although I should offer thanks to Lord Bargain for sending me regular text updates on the game, which were gratefully received until C. got the hump and I thought it better to read them the next time I went to the toilet....

It was a delicious meal though, and I hope she had a very happy birthday.... I'm lucky to have her, and ultimately no football game is more important than that (and, frankly, Wolves are never likely to put me in a position to really test that theory, are they?)

Wednesday, May 25, 2005

You push in that button, and that button comes alight

As I mentioned in the comments below, we won the pub quiz last night. I wish I could say that this was down to skill, but the pub has adopted a "Blockbusters" style format: you get given an answer sheet with a blockbusters style board on it, each box with a number on it instead of a letter... questions are then read out in a bingo stylee, and you write the answer down in the relevant box. To win a round, you have to form a line of correct answers across the board. This means that winning involves a large slice of luck, and the right numbered questions coming up so you can form a line across the board on the answer sheet. There were four rounds in total, and the jackpot (£50) was awarded to the winners of the fourth round, with the winners of the first three rounds getting next to nothing. We won the fourth round and walked off with the pot. The winning answer? The one that formed the line across our answer sheet?

What was the name of Rene's wife in "'allo 'allo" ?

Yes - it was that kind of quiz. The fact that we had also known which English poet had died fighting in the Greek War of Independence was irrelevant, as that answer was not in our line.

You think the fact that we won would mean that I could let this one go - but I'm afraid I can't:

There was a question that we got wrong. It made no difference to the outcome, but I'm annoyed because I just don't believe the answer, and wanted to ask you lot to see what you think.

Which of these two animals is able to survive the longest without water: the rat or the camel?

Let me know what you think and why.......

Tuesday, May 24, 2005

pour myself a cup of ambition


I've been back a couple of days now, and I've been doing some thinking.

This evening, the thoughts that have been swirling around my head since my return from Korea began to crystallise as I was swimming at the gym. From a kaleidoscope of seemingly formless thoughts, patterns began to emerge and take shape into something more tangible, more concrete. By the time I had finished my swim, these ideas had solidified enough to enable me to arrive at a shocking revelation.....

Working for a living is rubbish.

It really is.

It's proper bobbins.

And with that bombshell, ladies and gentlemen, I'm off to the pub.

Thank you and goodnight.

Sunday, May 22, 2005

stop 'em at the 38th parallel...

Hello all.

Long time no see and all that. After a seemingly interminable journey, we finally got back home through the front door at about 1am this morning, about 20 hours or something since we set off from Seoul (it's actually only about 13 hours in the air, but there's all that terrible hanging about in airports, including a very wearing 4 hours in Frankfurt....)

So. Korea then.

Let me summarise it for you: it is an absolutely beautiful country with the most lovely, friendly and welcoming people and delicious food.

Perhaps I should just leave it at that.... what else is there to say?

As mentioned below, my reason for going was primarily to attend the Korean leg of the wedding of my elder brother. This is a big deal in Korean society and is a serious occasion because the ceremony represents the bride formally joining a new family, and severing her ties of responsibility and duty to her own family. It is also a big event from the point of view of the social status of a Korean family, and as well as being attended by friends and family, a large number of business associates are expected to show up and pay their respects to the bride's father (or to have respect paid to them, depending upon their status).

As part of the groom's family, I had to stand in a lineup and welcome all of the guests as they arrived, signed in, and left an envelope of cash for the happy couple. We were taught how to bow slightly and say "thank you for coming" in Korean as people came in, but actually, although we were stared at quite a lot, not that many people walked down the line and shook hands with us, and tended to make a beeline straight for the father of the bride. This isn't because people were being rude, but because (as well as being western) the guests had not been introduced to us, and had no way of gauging where we sat in the social pecking order, whereas they generally all knew the bride's father as a business associate, or as head of the family, and it was fascinating watching whether they bowed to him, or he bowed to them, to assess their relative social standing.

All in all, about 700 people showed up.

The ceremony itself was divided into two parts - both for show rather than having any legal consequence. The first part was more like the traditional weddings we have here - the groom was wearing a morning suit, and the bride wore white and walked down the aisle. The ceremony was then conducted by an old family friend, and basically consists of a public announcement of the marriage and a symbolic transfer of the bride from one family to the other. Both sets of parents wear traditional Koran hanbok, and after the happy couple have been joined, they then turn to each set in turn and pay their respects with a bow.

As you can see, my mum and dad look pretty fine in their traditional costume... and my brother looks like he is either a magician hired to keep everyone entertained, or perhaps the conductor of an orchestra....

The next part of the ceremony was more traditionally Korean, and took place in a small room, although it was televised to the guests on big screens in the main hall. The bride and groom changed into traditional outfits, and then conducted a tea ceremony for the various members of the now joined family, according to their status. Each couple in turn sit opposite the bride and groom and are served tea by them, and formally welcome them into the family with a few words. The parents of the bride were first, then my parents, then C. and me, then my younger brother and his wife, and then the bride's brother and sister. This is in order of status - the couple with the higher status always sit on the same side of the table, so the bride and groom move sides when they have served everyone of a higher status than them, and although they still perform the tea ceremony, they are visibly showed to be the couple with the more status.

I only found out all this status stuff after the event - as it turns out, C. and I were put on the wrong side of the table i.e. given more status. I like to think this is simply a recognition of my natural air of gravitas, but I suspect it might have more to do with the fact that I am taller, greyer and balder than my elder brother... hmph.

There's also a little ritual (as pictured above) where the mother and father of the groom toss some dates and nuts at the bride and groom, who catch them in a cloth - the number they catch represents the number of children they will have. They caught 2 dates, and will so have 2 daughters, apparently (dates representing female children, and nuts representing male - I wonder why... any suggestions??)

It was all very interesting, and there was a splendid buffet too!

Of course, our trip to Korea wasn't just about the wedding. Our visit coincided with Buddha's birthday, which meant that Seoul was decorated throughout with lots and lots of lanterns.

Each lantern has a paper tag attached underneath on which is usually written the names of the family who hung the lantern up, and it is a kind of prayer for health and happiness over the next year. Each temple also has a lantern parade on the day itself, and we were lucky enough to take part in one.

Basically this meant that we grabbed a couple of lanterns, popped in some candles, and marched through Seoul for about 2 hours in a great procession following a giant inflatable dragon, a big inflatable Buddha, some buddhist monks, some temple dignitaries and some dancing drummers. The walk finished back at the temple, where we all took our lanterns and hung them up (generally getting covered in wax in the process). Again, brilliant fun. My dad seemed to think that this would be a great thing for his local church to do, but to be honest, I prefer the buddhists. It just wouldn't be the same with the vicar and his friends singing a few hymns, would it?

We also got to see various other things whilst we were there, but this post will go on forever if I talk about them all. I think a couple of things are worth mentioning specifically though. The first is the trip we took to the Demilitarized Zone - the 4km strip that separates North and South Korea. Here you can see first hand the most heavily fortified border in the world, which you reach by being driven along a road surrounded by signs warning of a minefield. From the visitors centre, we looked out over the DMZ and saw 2 giant flagpoles facing each other, one displaying the flag of North Korea, and one the flag of South Korea, separated by a mere 4000m strip of lush greenery. It's very, very sad. I got a real sense from the Koreans there that they were one nation that had been torn apart, and that one day they would be reunited (and in fact, they are currently working on a high speed rail link between Seoul and Pyong-Yang). As things stand at the moment though, a South Korean is still unable to visit the North. The whole place is a real reminder of the Cold War. We took a tour down "Tunnel No.3" - a tunnel discovered by the South Koreans in the 1970s that had been dug from from the North Korean side of the DMZ out to the South Korean side with the aim of being able to start an armed incursion (Seoul is only about 60km away from the border). It is somehow very sobering to walk down this tunnel and to reach a locked and bolted door surrounded by barbed wire. Perhaps 10m away on the other side, there are tourists on the other side being told about how the perfidious South Koreans had been busy tunnelling away and when discovered had tried to pass it off as a coal mine (this is what the North Koreans actually did.... they even pained some of the rock of the tunnel wall black in an attempt to prove their point!). Interestingly, one positive thing to come out of the DMZ is that the lack of human intervention in this whole strip of land (it's 4km wide and about 250km across) means that it has become a sanctuary for plants and animals that are under threat elsewhere. The South Koreans at least seem hopeful that this is a symbol for the future, and shows how hope can flourish in even the most inhospitable places.

The North Koreans are still thought to be tunnelling apparently.

Our Korean hosts were also kind enough to organise a road trip of the South Korean countryside for us, and hired a little minibus to ferry us around on 1500km round trip over 4 days.

Let me tell you - Korea is stunning. About 70% of the country is made up of low mountain ranges (the highest is about 1200m) that are completely covered in woodland, and form a spendid backdrop to almost everything. In addition, outside of Seoul, the country is pretty rural - with mile upon mile of padi fields and gin-seng plantations. As you might imagine, the markets are fascinating, filled with fresh fruit and vegetables, tanks of live sea food, tonnes of dried and salted fish and shell fish and, yes, I did also see a dog butcher (although only in Seoul, and I should point out that most Koreans find the idea of this disgusting too)

I ate all kinds of things, but one thing that sticks out in particular: a delicacy partularly favoured by schoolchildren, apparently.... silkworm larvae. Served warm.... and yes, I did try one. In case you are wondering, they have a slightly nutty flavour with a particularly lingering aftertaste. I can't say I'd recommend them, and in fact, just thinking about it has brought the flavour flooding back...!

Oh yes, and I should also mention that my visit to Korea has enabled me to cross-off one of the more difficult to reach host cities for the Olympic Games - Seoul hosting the games in 1988 of course. My visit would not have been complete without a visit to the Olympic park and a set of silly photos....

The Koreans also seem into sculpture, so I've taken a whole pile of photos for Statue John, including a giant thumb, a tiger and Mark Spitz... keep your eyes on Stand By Your Statue over the next few weeks, I guess.

I've also discovered that Koreans in general have a real desire to go out of their way to make sure that tourists leave with a good impression of their country - we were frequently given gifts in shops or free dishes or drinks with our meals, and Koreans seem to have the rather charming desire to practice their English by striking up a conversation on the tube. Being western and nearly 2m tall, I inevitably stood out, and being stared at was something that happened every single day. When we were out touring the countryside, we frequently ran into busloads of schoolchildren out on trips, and they all tended to get terribly excited when they saw us, and cheered and shouted out things like "Hello!", "How are you?", "What is your name?" or "Welcome to Korea!". I was also given a small insight into what it must be like to be a rock star or a footballer, as teenage girls in particular seemed fascinated by me, and would either gasp loudly when they saw me, or would simply giggle and shout out things like "I love you!".... a little disconcerting perhaps, but not altogether bad for the ego!

I even (just about) survived 2 weeks living in extremely close proximity to my mum and dad.... although I have to say that I am very glad to be back home to spend some time on my own with my extremely patient girlfriend.....

It's a fantastic country, and I feel really lucky to have been able to see so much of it over the last couple of weeks.

So how are you?

Friday, May 06, 2005

The game of life is hard to play

Well. It looks like I've finally made it through the week, and tomorrow I head off for 2 weeks in South Korea. Naturally, as is the way of these things, I had to cram 3 weeks work into one week, and I am now completely knackered. Still. I made it. All I have to do now is pack, and then collapse into bed (oh, and charge up the iPod).

The main purpose of the visit is to attend the wedding of my elder brother and his lovely Korean wife.... yes, his wife - they actually got married in the UK in August last year (legally in a registry office, and then they exchanged vows again a few days later in a ceremony for family and friends in my mum and dad's garden, so this is their third go at it). Family is very important in Korea though, and weddings are a public display of status, so it's very important for the bride's family to have a traditional Korean ceremony. To reflect the social position of the father of the bride (he's a lawyer), there will be several hundred guests. My mum and dad have already been fitted out with traditional Korean costume, and will be expected to stand in the line up and meet all of the guests, which will apparently take a couple of hours..... I have no such official role, but have already been warned that as I am both western and about a foot and a half taller than the average Korean, that everyone will make a bee-line for me and start talking to me, even though they know I won't understand them. Time for a lot of deep breaths, a few strategic bows, smiles and nods and plenty of wine....

It should be ace.

After the wedding stuff, our hosts are going to take great pride in showing us some of their lovely country. We will be based in Seoul, but we apparently have trips lined up to:
  • The Demilitarized Zone
  • Namsan
  • Insadong
  • various palaces
  • mountains
  • temples
  • historic old cities
  • etc. (I'm a little vague on the details as basically this is all I know)
We'll also be in Seoul for Buddha's birthday, when apparently there is a lantern parade through the streets.

Sounds brilliant, no? Can you think of a better way of discovering a new country? I'll be taking my camera, and I reserve the right to bore you all silly with it when I get back.....

I'm travelling out with my family tomorrow - probably for the first time since we all piled into the back of a small family car in about 1989 to head off for Eurocamp in Brittany. I'm hoping that this time around there will be fewer arguments about whether we get to listen to "Five Go Down to the Sea", "Asterix the Gladiator" or "The Sign of Four"....

Look after yourselves kids....I'll be back before you know it.


You might notice I haven't done any earworms this week... no? ah.

Well, I just ran out of time, I'm afraid. I'm not sure it's a good thing to own up to, but the tune I've had buzzing around my head most over the last couple of weeks is "The Bad Touch" by the Bloodhound Gang. Hmmm. My number one this week though, if you're interested, would be "monkey gone to heaven" by the Pixies, as I've had 'Doolittle' on in the car this week. Now there's an album.

I'm shattered. Time for bed.

Thursday, May 05, 2005

and if the ground's not cold, everything is gonna burn

I cast my vote earlier this morning. As usual it was a strangely downbeat experience: this year it was in the hall of an otherwise completely deserted infant school. The two election officials looked pretty bored, even though polls had only been open for a couple of hours. One sorted me out with my two ballot papers (one for the General Election, one for the Council elections) whilst the other one rather obsessively found my name on the electoral role and crossed me out, using a ruler to make sure that the line was just so. I went across to the little booths, picked up the ratty piece of pencil and put the relevant X's in the relevant boxes, folded the papers in half and popped them both into the plastic ballot box. The only other voters that I saw during the whole process were actually rather relieved to see me coming in, as they had clearly got lost in the school, and my entrance showed them where the exit was. So I cast my vote, left the building and went to work.

Democracy at work folks.

I had to laugh though. There were six candidates on my ballot for the General Election. All of them bar one had a local address, the other apparently living in Ealing, and not thinking enough of his chances to even bother to pretend to be local. This same chap was also the only candidate on the paper with a party leader arrogant enough to have his name stamped on the bottom of the ballot... Ken Clarke's simply said that he was "The Conservative Party Candidate". He didn't feel the need to have "Party Leader - Michael Howard" printed underneath. Perhaps he's self-confident enough to think that people would vote for him on his own merits, perhaps he was sure that we knew who his party leader was, and didn't feel the need to remind us, in case anyone walked into the polling station and thought, "ooooo. I like that nice Michael Howard, but I don't know the name of his party".

Can you guess which party this guy was representing? Yup. He was the Veritas candidate.


I won't be bothering to stay up anxiously waiting for the results.... what's the point?


one more work day until holiday

one more work day until holiday

and miles to go before I sleep

and miles to go before I sleep

Wednesday, May 04, 2005

All in all it's just another brick in the wall

Is education a right or a privilege?

Last week all of the main party leaders appeared on Question Time and faced a question and answer session with an audience made up of a cross-section of the public (one by one - Tony Blair refused to have a presidential style debate). It was pretty much a damp squib: no one asked Charles Kennedy a particularly challenging question and he performed well, Michael Howard looked and behaved like a creature of the night and Tony Blair was booed when he came on, struggled to manage the hostility of the audience and started to sweat under the pressure of some pretty tame questions.

It was rubbish really, but one thing has stayed with me. Blair was challenged by an angry student over the introduction of student top-up fees.

In the good old days, not only was Further Education completely free, but each student was given a "grant" each term - a cash handout to help them through the term. By the time I was a student (1992-1995) there had been some changes to the system: my tuition was paid by my Local Education Authority, but the grants were now means tested, and the student loans company had been set up to provide borrowing at a "reasonable" rate. This remained the case until the Labour Government came to power in 1997. Acting on the recommendations of the Dearing Report that had been commissioned by the John Major government, an up-front, means tested tuition fee of £1,125 was introduced, and student grants were abolished altogether. This was extended by the Higher Education bill, passed in 2004, will mean that Universities will be able to 'top up' this tuition fee charge to £3000 from 2006.

This has had a massive impact: the average student in England & Wales now leaves University with a debt of £12,069. It is estimated by the National Institute Economic Review that the introduction of top up fees will triple this.

When I left University (after completing a Masters degree), I was not in debt, thanks mainly to the generosity of my parents, but also to the succession of holiday jobs I had taken on (silver service waiter, barman, warehouse worker, the post office night shift... and so on and so forth, until I landed a full-time job working in HMV as I applied for graduate jobs). It staggers me to think that young graduates are now leaving university with a degree and something like £30,000 worth of debt. If they are lucky they will get a graduate job at around £15,000 a year. They face years and years of debt.

And all this from a Labour Government. Not all that surprising then that this guy was so angry at Blair for introducing these changes.

Hang on though.

Tony Blair also made some interesting points in his defence. He had received his education free, but only 1% of the population attended university at the time. Now the numbers were closer to 40% of the population, and the state simply cannot afford to pay for that number of people to have their Further Education for free, and who else should pay for it if not the main beneficiaries?

The inquisitor was not pacified by this. He refused to see this as the answer and thought it was unfair. He had spoken to several graduates, and they had all indicated that they would be more than happy to pay some sort of graduate tax....


I believe that the opportunity to go to University should be open to everyone, not just to those people who can afford it. That is not the same thing as saying that everybody should go to University. The only benchmark for access to University should be your intellect. This is where Labour have got it wrong - it has been a key Labour policy to get as many people into University as possible, so frankly they have only got themselves to blame when some of these people get angry about how these places get funded.

There are now hundreds of universities and colleges of further education in this country. Thousands of impoverished students are graduating every year and the job market is flooded with them. Whatever the Government may think, no one can tell me that all degrees are created equal. There is no way that I am going to pay any kind of "graduate tax" for some pissante on a cultural studies course at the University of Luton.

and now that I've started to rant about it:
  • How come parents are now buying their kids houses in University towns? I didn't know a single person at university who owned a house.... how is it cheaper to buy a house than to rent one for a couple of years?
  • When I was a student, I ate a whole lot of baked potatos and pasta and did the whole weekly shop on £10. How come a load of the students that I see in Sainsbury's each week are buying Stella Artois and Ben & Jerry's?
  • and they all seem to have cars....
  • and don't even get me started on their haircuts.....
  • gah!

The polls are open from 7am until 10pm tomorrow, and in spite of my dissatisfaction with the whole election campaign, I will be making use of my mandate at some point during the day. I disagree with the Labour government on several key issues (the war in Iraq and ID cards being the two big ones that spring to mind), but I think I will be casting my vote for them again this time. Tony Blair is not perfect by any means, but I still think he represents a better bet than any of the alternatives. Actually, forget Blair; this election should not be won or lost solely on the basis of personality. Labour have made some massive mistakes, but they have also done some good stuff over the last few years, especially with the economy, and I haven't forgotten what a unprincipled bunch of shits the last Conservative government were either... this lot are angels by comparison. It's not much to go on, I agree, and my little gesture won't mean much in a safe Conservative seat, but... well... it's what I'm going to do.

Monday, May 02, 2005

maybe I should chalk it...*

I think I first read the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy when I was about 13, and it blew me away. Of course it did - it's an absolute classic. By the time I read it, it had already been out as a book for 8 years and had also been on the radio and on the telly.

Of course, the film was famously stuck in pre-production hell for nigh on 25 years, and Douglas Adams sadly died before he was able to see his baby finally arrive on the big screen...

Was it worth the wait? Geeks have of course been endlessly picking over the details: is Marvin's head too big? What do you make of the addition of Humma Kavula? and so on, and so forth. In the main though, the film has been really well received, and so I went to see it tonight.

And what did I think?

Well. Perhaps it was the late night I had last night. Perhaps it was the bottle of Grolsch that I drank in the cinema. Perhaps it's my over-familiarity with the material. Perhaps it's because the joke is 25 years old, and nothing dates like science fiction.... whatever it was, I thought it was boring. Sorry, but I did.

I don't think anything is particularly wrong either - Martin Freeman is an excellent Arthur Dent, Mos Def is pretty good as Ford, Sam Rockwell is suitably annoying as Zaphod, Stephen Fry and Alan Rickman are well cast as the voices of the Guide and Marvin respectively..... it's just all been done before (arguably better) in the radio serialisation and in the TV version, and the film version inevitably adds little that is new. Galaxy Quest is a better film for starters.

I know Douglas Adams was a thoroughly bloody nice chap, and it was a damn shame that he died so young.... I know the books have a special place in a lot of people's hearts and that they desperately want to like the film.... but I didn't. I think I fell asleep in some bits, and I left the cinema feeling very disappointed.

Sequels are inevitable, but I don't think I'll be bothering.

I keep feeling like I should apologise.



* post title brought to you courtesy of Statue John as his prize for winning the poster competition the other day. Well done sir!