Sunday, May 17, 2009

New Blog

I am cheating on this blog with another one at:

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Korea Part One

I was trying to stir up some enthusiasm for the contents of the Rose Records Store at Terminal One of Taoyuan Airport when it occurred to me: Who on earth is going to buy a CD on their way out of a country, other than someone who has momentarily forgotten how an ipod works? Deflated by my insight I put down a very-nearly purchased ‘The Best of The Police’ and wandered out.
Starbucks looked uncomfortably crowded, while Mr. Brown’s Coffee – which enjoyed a much larger and more relaxed seating area, was completely empty. Ha, I will not be swayed by the common man! I thought to myself, and settled into the less well known chain with an enormous bergamot-fuming mug of Earl Grey Tea. Indeed I was about to move out of the realm of the common man; this trip was an invitation from the British Council to work in the far South of Korea as a ‘Master Trainer’. Along with another trainer from Malaysia, I would be in the city of Gwangju enlightening a group of thirty local Elementary School English teachers with pedagogical theory and EFL methodology. They would then go out and train other Elementary school teachers, who would then go and train yet more teachers, until the whole of Korea was speaking English like a Hartley.
Unfortunately, the Earl Grey tea was fucking disgusting, and proved two things - that the common man is often right, and that the girl in the far corner, who had got the coffee from Starbucks, then snuck into Mr. Brown’s, had a far higher IQ, than me, and quite probably more in the way of cojones.
Impossible to be sure, though - she was too far away to check for an Adam’s apple.

‘My name is Captain Hudson, and I hope you enjoy this Cathay Pacific flight to Seoul, South Korea.’
I was happy with that – Hudson – quite a trustworthy sounding name; the kind of name you could imagine quite reliably performing certain tasks – say, flying safely between two Asian countries. In fact the flight was uneventful and smooth for almost the whole two hours. On such a short hop there were no personal TV screens, which I took as a personal insult, but I tried not to let it get to me. As we began our descent I stopped worrying about the episodes of ‘House’ I had been unable to enjoy, and decided to enjoy the fact that I was sat in the row with extra legroom. This meant both that I could stretch out my legs, and make inappropriate levels of eye contact with the attractive stewardess who had just strapped herself into the contraption opposite. The landing gear hydraulicked into place beneath us, we lurched lower and lower, and outside I could see the city taking shape, skyscrapers and stadiums, factories and flyovers separating out from the mass of lights and asserting their independence. Then the flashing urgence of the airport, the beginnings of a runway and-
The thrust, which had been pulling back as we nosed towards the ground suddenly reversed itself, and shuddering with exertion, the aeroplane strained back into the sky.
‘What!’ One word, barked from somewhere behind me as the plane struggled to gain elevation. I took a long, slow breath and tried to rationalize this: Hudson, we were not going to crash with that kind of name at the helm, it was unthinkable. I looked over at the stewardess to confirm my confidence, sure she would be full of a reassuring smile that told me this happened everytime they landed in Seoul. Perhaps it was some kind of cultural thing, the aviation equivalent of a bow.
Unfortunately, the stewardess was staring out of the window with her hand clasped over her mouth and looked like she might be about to throw up.
Before I could extrapolate this into the disaster it almost definitely was, the plane leveled out and the tannoy crackled into life.
‘Ladies and gentlemen,’ he began calmly, ‘this is Captain Hudson again. I am sorry about that. We were about to land when I happened to notice there was another plane on our runway, so I thought we’d better just have another go round and see if we can do better next time.’

On most trips now, I only take hand luggage. I’ve had far too many liaisons with luggage carousels that did not end well. This was a two week trip though, and it wasn’t like traveling back home to the UK, where I could take the minimum of clothing and be fairly sure that:
(a) my parents still haven’t emptied my old bedroom wardrobe of unfashionable 80’s clothing
(b) even if they have, they’re my parents and if they have to put up with me wearing the same pair of socks for ten days, it still won’t be the most disgusting state they’ve seen me in
This was also a business trip, and so there was a bewildering, vomit-worthy cataclysm of ties to cart around on top of all the shirts, suits and shoes. All of this is by way of prefacing that I stood there, at Incheon Airport Luggage Carousel D for a depressingly long time, watching the crowd of familiar co-travelers dwindle until it was just a fat, bald, unkempt guy who may have been staying there to put off having to sleep on the street, and me, with my growing sense of despair. Eventually, though - and quite a while after I’d already calculated how much Korean Won I wouldn’t have left after buying a new wardrobe – my battered blue suitcase popped out of the little tunnel and clattered towards me.
‘For fuck’s sake mate,’ I said, so happy to see it again that I had anthromorphisized it into a best friend. ‘Talk about taking your time.’
‘Are you talking to me?’ said the fat, bald unkempt man with the tone of someone who really hopes the answer is going to be yes.

‘Good morning!’ said the attractive Korean lady stood in the Arrivals Hall, when I indicated that my name was probably as close to ‘Mr. Hartley Pole’ as she was going to get. This would have been fine, had it indeed been morning. As things stood, though, it was nine o’clock in the evening. I decided to make a joke of it, in the hopes that this would cause us to bond, and who knew where things might lead after that.
‘Well, the flight was a bit late – but I didn’t think it was that late!’
‘Don’t be sorry, it was just a bad joke, that’s all. No need to apologize for it.’
‘Never mind.’
‘I will just call my neighbour.’
She produced a walkie talkie, while I reflected on the rudeness of waiting an hour and a half for a customer, then deciding to have a chat with your next door neighbour. It soon became clear, however, that the person she actually wanted to call was the driver waiting outside. Unless, of course, he also just happens to be her neighbour.
We walked outside, and for the first time I felt thankful for the coat I’d bought in Taiwan a few days earlier. It was only minus two or three, but felt like Siberia had just swallowed me.
‘Jesus Christ,’ I said.
‘Ha, ha, ha,’ said the attractive lady.
‘That p-part wasn’t a joke, that was me being cold.’
I pulled my coat tighter around me, and one button immediately fell off.
‘Here is the car.’
It was a black limousine with tinted windows. Me and my overcoat got in, feeling mafia-like, the door closed and the beautiful lady did a deep bow. I waved and smiled at her, then remembered that the windows were tinted and I was quite possibly making a fool of myself, so I stopped in case the driver realized what an idiot I truly was. As I turned to the front and relaxed into the superbly heated seat, I caught the driver’s face in the rear view mirror and realized it was too late.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

A Romp in the Park

It had started with a look, a look and a suddenly shared understanding that everything was about to change.

The cab driver looked at his watch for the umpteenth time, and sighed.
‘Just a few more minutes,’ I said. ‘I just need time to think.’
‘Whatever,’ said the driver, but the tension in the back of his neck suggested there wasn’t much patience left.
The house was out there, looking just the same as before: overgrown garden, second-hand looking front door, the blue paint flaking. Just a normal, sane family house - four years hadn’t been enough to change anything; maybe forty years wouldn’t be. But in the next forty minutes, or perhaps the next four minutes if my nerves calmed enough, I was going to blow it all into a hundred million pieces.

We’d avoided the whole thing for what felt like an impossibly long time. We both knew what revelation of our feelings meant for the future, that a small Southern town like ours could not practice the tolerance that our relationship craved; that family could never understand, or condone such a thing. But in the last days before I left for college, we both felt the tightness of time, the long stretch of lonely months getting closer and closer, and our commitment to doing nothing failed.

‘A few minutes can change everything,’ I said from the back of that taxi. ‘I should have left as soon as I knew.’
‘Don’t unload your problems on me, Bud,’ he said. ‘I’m just the cab driver. You pay me my money then go do whatever you came for.’
‘I will,’ I said. ‘I have to.’
It was the money, the three hundred dollars on the meter, which was just about all I had left in the world. Even my insanely hammering heart couldn’t argue with mathematics. During the journey here, the time spent waiting outside, that meter had been relentlessly clicking, clicking, clicking until now it was on the verge of clicking me beyond my means. I was a man on a tightrope, one end untying its knot, about to plunge me into something I did not want to contemplate.
‘I’m getting out now.’
‘Here’s your money.’ My shaking fingers pulled out the notes. ‘Thanks for your time, and I’m sorry.’
The exertion of opening the door and stepping into the dying light of that day left me feeling like an old man. My legs trembled with weakness, my lungs felt oxygen deprived.
The taxi beeped once - either an unexpected gesture of support or a substitute for the middle finger - and was gone.
‘This is it, then.’
I opened the wooden gate and started up the path. Things smelt familiar.

In college, I had tried to forget, but her face was there whenever I closed my eyes, her smallness, her softness a ghost in my empty arms. And then the phone calls from home, and the questions.
‘Is everything okay?’ Pop asked again and again. ‘You never call. Seems like there’s something going on with you, Bud.’
‘Nothing Pop, everything’s fine. Really, everything’s fine.’
‘You know you can tell your Ma and me anything. Whatever it is, we’ll support you.’
Not this.

Now I was back, because if education had taught me anything, it was that you shouldn’t live a lie. Whatever the consequences, better to put everything on the table and then move on. Even if it meant you had to move on alone.
I had never noticed the walk up that path before. Back when life was not so complicated my attention had never dwelt on the journey between the gate and the front door. But now it felt like an impossible distance, and each step took me closer to something so dreadful that every inch of me felt on the verge of breakdown. The pseudo-fever of panic began to rush my face as I reached for the bell and pushed. The nausea of fear gripped my stomach as I heard an approach.
‘Bud! We thought you’d be back someday soon. Come on in.’
‘Ah… come on in. Whatever it is we can talk about it.’
I looked back, hoping that taxi was somehow still there. In a few moments I would probably need it. And then I could hear her coming, that soft pant, and I knew I couldn’t possibly see that face again with the secret still in my heart.
‘Pop, it’s about me and Lucky…’

Sunday, December 21, 2008

How To Eat Hot Pot

Either you love it or you hate it…or you just kind of like it. Perhaps you’re simply not that keen? Whatever your feelings about Hot-Pot it’s erm…well, it’s hot. And it comes in a sort of pot, if you’re not too fussy about your definitions.

There are a lot of intricacies in successfully completing consumption of this most local of delicacies, and I felt it was the right tie to guide you carefully through the thousands of social faux pas* available for you at the local Shabu Shabu, all of which I have at some time tried to tiptoe around, some of which I’ve collapsed headfirst into with an unfortunate disregard for anyone sitting nearby, or the crowds of people watching through the window. Please bear in mind while reading this that I am a paranoid hypochondriac with acute something-wrong-with-my-stomach syndrome and a lump in my foot that everyone keeps looking at.

There’s no right or wrong way to enter the hot-pot shop, that would be taking things too far*, so let’s get straight to the nitty gritty: If there’s any nitty gritty in your hot-pot, walk out, this clearly isn’t the kind of establishment you’re accustomed to.
Firstly, unless you’re extremely pretentious and go for seafood, you have a choice of meats to accompany the basic set of vegetables, do-pi, do-fu and possibly an egg. Choose what you want – what do I care? After it’s been boiled to death and slathered in sauce, it all tastes the same anyway. Just make sure that after you use your chopsticks to transport the semi-frozen raw meat to the pot, you dip your utensils in the boiling water for a moment rather than transferring the bacteria-laden juices straight to your mouth.

If you are already eating, then you’ve either:
(a) forgotten to go and get sauce, or
(b) found one of those wonderful places where they do it for you – well done.
The sauce is a mixture of barbecue sauce, garlic chili and various other condiments that dip everything in before you eat so that it doesn’t taste like something semi-frozen that’s just been inexpertly boiled by someone so bad at basic food preparation they spend all their evenings in a hot-pot shop. If you’re anything like me, the exact proportions are a frustratingly well-guarded mystery, and so I you should get someone else to do it unless you want to spend the whole meal waving you hand in front of your mouth and making strange hooting noises*. If you’re like me, and let’s hope you’re not, this saucing of the food is an extremely messy business, and it’s worth knowing that the tissues are kept at knee-height under the counter. I suggest securing two packs before you start. Finally, if you’ve got it right the sauce should taste rather divine – that’s because it’s laden with more calories than the whole of all the food in front of you put together and will eventually kill you.

Don’t get obsessed with one type of food. For me it’s do-pi, for you it could be anything. Obviously. But probably not chicken testicles. You can order extra portions of anything, and they’ll bring you a big plate of it which looks good for about ten minutes, when you’ll have eaten so much of it that if you ever see any of that particular type of food again you’ll throw up. Which is unfortunate, because there’ll still be three-quarters of a plate full in front of you. Whatever you do, don’t throw up into the eponymous hot-pot, this is considered bad form.

If you’re going with a local person, for god’s sake don’t order rice. We Westerners have a tendency to want to fill up quickly, usually with potato or bread based substances, but rice will do the trick too. Ordering rice will mean that after half an hour you’ll be sat, feeling completely full while your friend, like the Energizer bunny just keeps eating and eating and eating. Three hours later you’ll have lost the will to live and be obsessing about that lump in your foot again. If you’re going with more than one local person, cancel any engagements you might have thought you were going to have that week, because it’s going to be a looooong meal. Do bear in mind, though, that ex-pat bosses generally don’t accept “we’re still at the Shabu Shabu and someone’s just ordered more lamb” as a reason for missing work the next day. Local bosses would probably come along and join in the ‘fun’.

After an indeterminate amount of time, during which you may or may not have considered tearing out your own eyeballs, all the food will be gone.
“Ah,” you might think, “thank the heavens and all the little baby angels – check please!”
I’m afraid you’re sadly misguided, and have forgotten to consider that having had all manner of rootsy, festery, carcassy things bubbling around in it for the last week and a half, that liquid left in the pot will make a darned good soup. Etiquette insists that you now spend a good hour transferring it to a bowl and drinking it. If you survive this, do not desire month-old ice cream scrapings or burnt popcorn and have the whereabouts of three or four hundred NTD upon your person, why you’re home free. Well done.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Video Promo for New Show

Is now up at:

Sunday, November 23, 2008


As part of an ongoing problem with panic attacks, and possible agoraphobia I am honour bound to accept each and every invitation to leave the safe haven of home, even when every inch of me is screaming this is a bad idea.
‘Have you heard of Jinguashi?’ said Anita that Sunday morning. We were laid in bed reading the Sunday papers. I find this an incredibly disappointing experience, as the Taipei Times takes all of fifteen minutes, while she’s often still wading through her wigwam of news until late evening. The next day.
‘No, I’ve never hear-,’ I started, before realizing that the very article I was reading was actually about a POW who endured torture at the hands of the Japanese down a mine in… Jinguashi. ‘Actually, yes – terrible place. They tortured people there. Down a mine.’
‘Yes, in the Second World W– oh never mind.’
‘We will go there today.’
‘Well, it sounds a bit … brutal. How will we get there?’
‘Fifty –minute train from Main Station, then forty-minute bus from Ruefang. Then back to Ruefang to see Old street and eat snacks.’
‘Ooh no, that’s too much transport, I’ll probably…die,’ I finished weakly, aware that I was probably losing this argument.
‘Get ready, we’re going twenty minutes later.’
Twenty minutes later we went.

You can’t deny the beauty of the Taiwanese coastline – I know, I’ve tried – but it just can’t be done. As the bus twisted and turned towards Jinguashi proper, we passed the imposing hillock of ‘Teapot Mountain’ and the ocean revealed itself. Serene, blue and seemingly infinite. Just about everything I wasn’t, being trapped in the middle of the immense gaggle of tourists somehow smushed into the bus.
‘Help,’ I gasped towards Anita, but she was having her own problems. She had recently been on an expedition to climb Jade Mountain, Taiwan’s highest peak, and now the sight of anything over a few feet was apt to send her into shuddering flashbacks of doom.
‘Teapot…’ she pointed out the window. ‘Don’t make me climb the teapot.’
I gave up trying to get her attention, and decided to focus on my breathing techniques and trust the relaxing scenery to get me through until we got there. Eventually we did get there, and whether I ‘got through’ is anyone’s guess, but at least I didn’t throw up, soil myself or kick the bucket.
‘Gold Ecological Park!’ said Anita, as if this was the moment our whole lives had been waiting for.
‘Right, good,’ I said, trying to walk off my queasy. ‘What is there to do here?’
‘Use our ticket!’
She held up the tickets we’d bought at the station – a tourist deal that allowed us a combination of four things in the area, including bus rides and entrance fees. We’d already used one on the bus, so this was number two. After the exciting transaction, we queued up outside ‘The Living Environment Museum’ or some such thing for ten minutes. Once inside, we packed into a small theatre, where they showed a history of this small, Japanese style, house. It had ‘seen the glories and vicissitudes of life over the last 80 years’ which sounded vaguely saucy and ‘witnessed the beautiful relics and glorious landscapes left behind when the mines closed down’. It occurred to me that if only the North East of England could see it like that, we might have been alright.
Next they showed us old photos of the Taiwan Metal Company workers, explaining their living conditions and concluding that their lives were very, very simple’ while showing a picture of a group of women.
‘Is this implying that their wives were retarded?’ I whispered to Anita.
‘That’s not funny.’
‘You sound surprised – you’ve been with me almost five years, you should be prepared for ‘not funny’ by now.’
The presentation ended by telling us that this little building ‘will be a space for the use of people in the future’, which is about as meaningless as it gets, but at least it was ten minutes when I didn’t have to be back on that bus.
The most interesting thing about Gold Ecological Park, apart from the overall air of quiet calm, and a great view of the ocean, is the Museum. It was in the museum that I got to touch the largest Gold Bar in the world, which at 220 kilos is almost a whole Rick Monday. We then had to troop past various things made of gold, including the motherboard for a laptop. At this, Anita’s money-based instincts immediately kicked in.
‘Gold! In our computer!’
‘Yes, but only tiny amounts – just plating, really.’
‘It not matter – still more than on my wedding ring!’
‘Yes, but your wedding ring is plated with love.’
‘Hmph!’ she said and stalked off to look at some POW memorabilia.
After we’d exhausted all the museum’s possibilities we traipsed outside and she tried to convince me to have some taro ice-cream, which the area is apparently famous for.
‘I don’t want any.’
‘Why? Huh? Today you are a lousy husband.’
‘I am not a lousy husband, I’m just… difficult. I don’t want one because (a) it seems like almost everywhere we go is famous for taro ice-cream, or something. (b) it’s about fifteen degrees, and in Taiwan that’s practically sub-zero.’
She hmphed again and we went off to investigate the bus timetables back to Ruefeng.

Imagine more people than you’ve ever seen in your whole life crammed into an alley no wider than a dwarf’s anal crack. Now imagine that crammed into each side of that vertically challenged person’s dirtbox driveway are a variety of people trying to sell multifaceted crap to all of those people. You’ve just imagined Ruefeng Old Street, well done you.
On the plus side, some of that crap is actually quite palatable, and they do sell that thing where they wrap ice cream, peanut brittle and coriander in a warm crepe. I usually hate coriander, but here it’s strange out-of-place-ness gives me a perverse thrill, like finding old photos of Great Aunt Ethel in a bikini.
‘Is this crepe thing famous?’ I asked Anita, while hoping she wouldn’t notice that, despite my previous protestations, I was now eating ice-cream.
‘Yes! Very famous.’
No surprise there, just about every conceivable kind of Taiwanese food is ‘famous’. This is mainly because of all the programmes reviewing night market food. If I see one more shot of a preternaturally perky girl talking with her mouth full, I’m going to buy a Subway franchise.
After about ten minutes, despite the fact that they also sold hot crisps on a stick, I began to hate the Old Street. There were just too many people, and it was getting increasingly difficult to see anything, pause anywhere or move my arms.
‘This is getting ridiculous,’ I said.
‘Help,’ said Anita, as she became trapped in a confusion of people and transported towards a hot-pot shop.
‘Do you want to go to that hot pot shop?’ I asked.
‘Not really!’ she was starting to panic.
I barged forward, grabbed her hand and extricated her, but a few moments later everything ground to a halt. This was the first human traffic jam I’d ever seen outside of a queue.
‘We’re not moving!’ I said.
‘I know – help!’
‘We’re not moving!!’
My legs were starting to get shaky and I could feel the first twitterings of a panic attack starting to build.
‘I have to get out of here!’
‘Me too –help!’
Things were getting worse, I was now experiencing a rush of blood to the head and the floating, otherworldly feeling that usually preceded catastrophe.
A mother and her four children thrust past us, her shrieking something about making way for small children. Anita, usually the most considerate person you could meet wanted to take advantage of this.
‘Go with her!’
I started to follow her.
‘Hey! Take me with you!’
Oops. I grabbed Anita’s arm and we forced into the woman’s path.
‘等待一分鐘,’ screamed the woman.
‘等待一分鐘 yourself,’ I screamed back, as we escaped into an empty side street.

Just in front of the Train Station, Ruefang Town Square is populated by the kind of men who, if you got in a taxi and saw them driving, you’d get out again. Then call the police. These men were making an afternoon activity out of coughing, spitting, sneezing and just being generally foul. Despite the company, we decided to take a rest on one of the benches to collect our wits.
‘What did you think of today’s trip?’ asked Anita.
‘Well…’ I considered this carefully. ‘Before today, I had some problems with anxiety, but now I think I’ve got Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.’

Monday, November 17, 2008

Natural Science: The Panic Attack

As part of rehearsals for my new show, I've been putting together a sketch on panic attacks. Here is a rough cut:

It will work much better live, I hope!