Friday, 27 July 2012

In praise of arbitrariness

I’ve just returned from a walking trip. It was originally proposed by a friend who has long cherished the idea of walking from Yoxford, in Suffolk, to Oxford, our hometown. There was no particular reason for the venture: it was neither to raise money for charity nor to beat some previous record. We just did it because we wanted to and Yoxford  and Oxford have such similar yet dissimilar names.

Neither of us completed the walk, though we bottled out at different points along the way and for different reasons. There was little planning put into the trip; in fact right up until the very last moment we were discussing two very different possibilities: walking or cycling. I was for the former, Peter was for the latter. We finally decided this important matter at the spin of a coin – now that’s arbitrary.

We had a beginning and end point, but no set route between them, just a pile of maps. Except for the first night when we spent an excellent evening with Mark and Yvonne in their home in Yoxford we had no accommodation planned and carried only back packs with sleeping bags: no tent. We thought we would find somewhere to sleep wherever we finished up for the night – that’s arbitrary, and frightening for some.

We planned our route day-by-day and sometimes hour-by-hour. Our only overriding plan was to reach Oxford within seven days. We wandered along footpaths through the county of Suffolk using roads only if we forced to do so, walking through storms under cloudy skies with just the occasional glimpses of the sun.
On the first day my companion suffered from blistered feet, and by the third he had to give up. Plainly in great pain, he bravely soldiered on for as long as he could, but finally admitted defeat in Haverhill and took the bus to Cambridge then home. So, arbitrarily, I found myself alone.

The Icknield Way (an ancient track originally used by ancient Britons) became my constant companion soon after Haverhill. I followed it as closely as I could for two days then finally linked up with the Ridgeway, another ancient path: this was the most beautiful part of the journey.

Finally, after eight days of walking, I ended up in a pub in Thame footsore and exhausted. The weather had changed. The sun had beaten down upon me so much that I had to use an umbrella for shade as I traipsed along an old railway track from Princes Risborough. Arbitrarily I decided that I had had enough. I had walked about one hundred and fifty miles and was already in Oxfordshire so I finished my second pint, said goodbye to my three recently made drinking friends and took the bus home.

I enjoyed that walk from Yoxford to Oxford so much. Not the pain in my heels and my soles, nor the spasms in my legs as the days wore on, nor the constant ache in my shoulders as the backpack’s weight seem to increase day by day, nor the rain, nor the puddles of mud, nor the often wet feet – no, none of those. But the sudden appearance of a beautiful cottage or stately home, the surprising sight of a herd of deer, the metre high rabbit that turned out to be a wallaby, the tiger spotted from the corner of my eye in someone’s garden, a glimpse of Chequers – all of this and more made my walk a magical one. At the end of the day I often felt that I could not go on, did not even have the energy left to find somewhere to stay. But I always did find somewhere and I also found real ale which revived me and, more often, than not, company that regaled me.

And do you know? Along the way, somewhere between Royston and Baldock, I had an inspiration. I now know what my next writing project will be.

On the last night I struggled down from the Ridgeway to the town of Wendover. The first pub had no room at the inn and the second, the King and Queen, wouldn’t take me either. I had few options left: sleep on a park bench or somehow get back to Oxford and home. The latter was out – I still had a strong desire to reach Oxfordshire on my own two feet. Then a friendly voice next to me said, “You can stay at my house for the night if you wish.” So I did.

The voice belonged to a man called Peter. We drank together then walked to his home where he cooked a very welcome meal. He made me scrambled eggs on toast (with mushrooms) for breakfast and we engaged in a long and rewarding conversation over both meals. He turned out to be a really interesting man as well as a hospitable one. I am sure that we will meet again following our arbitrary crossing of paths at the end of my arbitrary trek.

Please note that any connection between the Yoxford to Oxford walk and the forthcoming Olympics is quite arbitrary and that this blog is an Olympic free zone.

Sunday, 15 July 2012

New book on China

I’ve published a new eBook! That makes eight that I’ve now got up in the Kindle store. They do sell, but not in great numbers – got a cheque from Amazon for just over $100 the other day though which is nice.

I blogged earlier this year about my ‘brilliant’ marketing ploy which consisted of giving one of my books away. I stopped that at 300 downloads and to my disappointment my generosity seemed to have little effect on follow up sales and did not result in a single review.

The new book is another ‘brilliant’ marketing ploy. It is about our two trips to China and should turn up if anyone searches the Kindle store for books on travel to that country and there are a few general keywords which should  also draw in a goodly number of potential readers. It stands alone as a book, but is also an advertising channel for my novel Shaken by China, which I would really like people to read. So it’s not a loss-leader, but should be a leader.

The new book is called China: Don’t go there until... Catchy eh? The ‘until’ is until you’ve read the book of course. Sort of Catch 22, sort of. You can see more details in my bookshop or in the Kindle bookstore. You don’t need a Kindle to read it. Just go to this link and download Kindle for PC (or Mac) and you can read it on your screen (but not in bed).  Here’s the blurb:

If you are thinking of going to China to teach or travel then don’t – not until you have read this book. The book may entice you to go or it may persuade you to stay. Either way if you are interested in China and wish to venture far beyond the tourist guide view then read this book.

The author lived in one of the most famous cities in China, yet few in the West have heard of it. He also lived near the epicentre of the most damaging earthquake in recorded history, yet it is long forgotten. China is so big that it hides behind itself so you need a book that takes you beyond the veil: this is that book. It is not a detailed study of the country, yet reveals the heart of the place through insightful revelations.

You will enjoy the accounts of teaching and travelling which are sometimes funny, sometimes sad. You will be surprised and shocked at the descriptions of school life and the life of the poor. You will begin to understand the very real cultural differences between the West and China and learn how to cope with them. You will also learn how to buy beer in Chinese restaurants.

Rob Walters’ book spotlights the fundamental problem facing the foreign teacher in China and provides a solution. It is entertaining and informative and, since it is based on two separate visits, gives a sense of China’s unending paradox: its stability and its ability to cope with rapid change.

Wednesday, 11 July 2012

Dampening the Olympic Flame

I haven’t written to this blog for while. I’ve been busy: walking, guiding and also trying to finish a book about teaching and travelling in China. This is a special year for me and one way to celebrate it is through walking. However, my first venture of the summer was, well, wet. Who would venture into the English Lake District with a tent and sleeping bag in what turned out to be the wettest June on record?

We had three good days though – and afterwards my companion forced me to watch the Olympic flame's passage through Keswick. What a commercial thing that was: an hour of artificially simulated hysteria followed by a crescendo as the Coca-Cola bus passed by, another peak as the Samsung bus blasted us with music and a declining climax as the Lloyds-TSB bus came by. Following this jamboree of noise and dancing, the crowd hardly noticed the torch as its adrenaline rapidly leaked away (the crowd’s not the torch’s). Still the kids of all ages enjoyed the whole thing, I think.

On my return from the Lake District I had to prepare a whole day tour of the Cotswolds for an American couple. I have only ever done a day tour of the Cotswolds once before and on that occasion it was for a busload of singles. This time I decided that I really must include Chipping Campden (my own choice for the ‘jewel of the Cotswolds’ award) in addition to Chipping Norton with its wonderful, unbelievable, wool factory (now luxury flats).

I do know Chipping Campden a little, but not enough to do justice to a tour so I began researching. Turning to the web for some nugget of information, I found myself confronted once more by that travelling torch. The Olympic flame was due to pass through the town on the very day of my tour! The bloody thing is everywhere, even as I write it’s passing through Oxford; one of the reasons that I am hiding away in my little flat in the north of the city. The Chipping Campden website contained a warning from the police: they planned to seal off the town once the car parks were full and further warned that all empty houses would be searched prior to the great day: empty houses in desirable Chipping Campden, surely not!

So I had to drop the jewel from my itinerary. However, despite the flaming flame my Cotswold tour was a great success, I think. Generally I have been kept pretty busy leading tours in my city of Oxford. I like the job – though a few groups that I meet are best forgotten and will have certainly forgotten me - I hope. There is a problem bubbling away beneath the rich surface of Oxford tourism. It is a lovely place, redolent with history, characters and stories. And it has depth: however much you know there is always more to learn. The problem is that it is being oversold, not deliberately, but dangerously. Its highpoint is clearly the university and colleges and, though there is plenty more to talk about, these remains at the core of any visit. But quite a few visitors want something else.

I made a vow when I first qualified as a city guide that I would not conduct tours based on fictional characters – it seemed to me that there was plenty to cover in the real world. Despite that I have, over the years, expanded my portfolio of tours by specialising in: pubs, ghosts, literature, science, rogues and architecture. Yes, I know that you unbelievers think that ghosts are fictional, but you must keep an open mind. What I do not do is Harry Potter, Inspector Morse or Alice tours – though the latter is tempting since a real girl forms the basis of the books.

I must confess however that I do admire the Harry Potter stories and am now coming to the end of the sixth book (hence currently grieving over the death of Dumbledore). My excuse for reading children’s fiction is twofold. First, I need some background for my general tours which do encounter various Potter film locations and many visitors are really interested in these. Second, I am reading the books in Spanish to try to improve my understanding of the language – and I can tell you something - it’s very hard going, especially the later books where the vocabulary becomes so much wider.

However, like Harry or hate him he is only a sub-text in the real story of Oxford, as is Morse and even little Alice. The real story is in the history and the buildings of this world famous city. Yet so many people are drawn to it by the fictional characters and have little interest in the real Oxford. The place is not Disneyland; it is essentially a city of learning and car manufacture. Many tourists come here for the right reasons and thoroughly enjoy it. Those coming for the Disneyland experience are inevitably bored by the very things that make Oxford what it is – the real Oxford.

All that said I have a break coming up. A friend and I are going to attempt to walk from Yoxford to Oxford in seven days. So I am just off to make an offer of appeasement to the rain gods.