Sunday, 29 March 2020

Rob’s CV diaries 1: Eruption


I’m sure that lots of people are, or will be, writing about the corona virus epidemic: not surprisingly since the news is chock-a-block with articles, reports, opinions and so forth. I am no expert of course (there seem to be more than enough of those around) but thought it would be worth recording my own experiences and feeling whilst the crisis unwinds. If you’ve had enough of this whole topic then ignore the CV diaries: normal service will be resumed … as soon as possible.

News of the outbreak of the infection came in December 2019, its origin being in Wuhan, China, a city that my wife and I visited during one of out teaching stints in that country. Known as the oven of China it was certainly a hot place, but I have no strong memories of it and cannot find my notes on that visit. When we heard the news I was already arranging our travel details for a trip to Taiwan, Vietnam, Cambodia and Australia. Should we have abandoned that trip in the light of the news? That really never occurred to us. The Wuhan virus seemed to be something local to China and, though we had a very brief stopover in Beijing en route to Taiwan, no precautions were even suggested as we took off on the sixth of January 2020.

As our trip progressed, awareness of the virus could be tracked by the proportion of people wearing face masks. These are not uncommon in Asia anyway, but during January and February their use grew and grew so that even I tried to purchase some in Ho Chi Min City. This was not easy, many convenience stores had sold out by that time. Nonetheless I was derided for wearing one in a hotel in Phnom Penh by a fellow visitor and one Cambodian told me that his country was too hot for the virus! In Australia we heard that only one person had tested positive for the infection and the only people wearing masks there were Chinese.

How things can change is such a short time. We returned to the UK at the beginning of March and found the country pretty much unfazed, but fear was growing - albeit quietly.  The first death from the disease was reported a few days after our return and another soon followed: both had what soon became a common term ‘underlying health conditions’ and were in their late seventies and early eighties. Two things followed that. On a personal front I decided that the sooner I contacted the disease and got the whole thing over with, one way or the other, the better. Then the government and its advisers became more engaged and seem to agree with me: the sooner sufficient people became immune the better - even though some would die in the process.

That initiative did not last long, it was followed by serious warnings to those most at risk to isolate themselves and for those likely to be a load on the NHS (particularly the over 70s) to take similar precautions – that included myself and Margaret.  Meanwhile my main activities in Oxford were being wiped out by the virus and through government warnings. Tours were being cancelled at an exponential rate, I only took out two groups in Oxford after our return from Australia, and the last, on the 15th of March, was for just three people rather than the usual 15-19! It was also clear that my Samaritan shifts would have to go; I did my last on the same day as that final tour. That was also my final weekend in Oxford – and it was great. We attended a wonderful concert featuring the music of Rachmaninov, Tchaikovsky and Borodin on the Saturday evening and a great open-mike night at the Harcourt Arms on the Sunday. Next day we moved down to our house in Stow-on-the-Wold for no one knows how long.

How did I feel? Mixed emotions really. Though I prefer to spend much of my time in Oxford, we do have a very nice house in Stow and, with the vegetable garden and our very own field I would have plenty to do. And, though I realise that for many social isolation is a frightening and depressing prospect, for me it seemed a little bit of an adventure.

Thursday, 19 March 2020

Rob's best reads of 2019


As I’ve written here before, I get most of my reading material via Bookbub and so it is quite arbitrary stuff. Also, I almost always read on my Kindle and that can influence what I read because of the ridiculously high prices imposed on eBooks by the big five publishers. That said here’s the best of my best from books read last year.

I rarely read a book twice, but last year I did just that. I had forgotten entirely that I had read Tony Parson’s Man and Boy some years before as a paper book and hence bought it cheaply as an eBook. Some pages in I realised my mistake, but was so entranced by the sad story and the recollection of how much I had enjoyed it that I ploughed on. It is a fictional account of a marriage break up involving a very young son and the tussles between his mum and dad for custody. In the end the father steps back for the sake of his son and finds a solution that works even though his lawyer assures him that he could have won custody. An interesting and moving tale – very well written.

In the biography department, I read Frank Gardner’s Blood and Sand. His life, first as a banker then as BBC reporter, nearly ended as he was repeatedly and cruelly shot at close range in the city of Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.  Almost miraculously he survived and, though disabled, returned to journalism. It is a harrowing story, but leavened by his early successes in life and his courageous recovery.  Altogether a riveting read.

That’s a couple of mainstreamers, now for some odd balls.  Metropole by Ferenc Krinthy is a strange novel where this middle-aged linguist takes a plane to a conference somewhere in Scandinavia. But he lands in a strange city where the people speak a language that has no relationship to any that he knows. He is rushed to a hotel and given some money and a room. He cannot read any of the signs or communicate with anyone – and so the tale gets stranger and stranger. There seems to be no escape from this packed citadel where everyone is in a rush and all transport is overloaded. It is a weird scene, yet portrayed believably through the eyes of the confused yet rational Budai, the main character.

Then there’s another glimpse into a strange world, this one real. In To the Moon and Back, I gained some idea of what it might be like to be a Moonie. Lisa Kohn spent her childhood as a member of the Unification Church, that strange movement founded by South Korean Sun Myung Moon. In describing her life, including the long period when her mother left her to serve the church, I began to understand the silken chains that tie people to such communities, how they can be so happy within it and how difficult it is to leave.

Back to fiction, glorious fiction, with The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern. I love magic and this book is magical, really magical. The night circus is exactly what its name suggests and more. Many of the acts and displays are beyond physics, beyond trickery, and even the transport of the vast tented circus is magical: it appears overnight very suddenly, without sound or fuss. Within this strangely entertaining book there is an even stranger love story and a plethora of odd, but interesting characters.

As an Oxford guide I often mention the Rhodes Scholarship and its founder, Cecil. So, I thought I ought to delve into his life a little more by reading Rhodes: The Race for Africa by Antony Thomas. It’s an interesting and sometimes shocking biography of a driven man who seemed to exert power over so many during his short, but influential, life. It certainly adds fuel to the campaign by students who demand the removal of the man’s statue from the fascia of his Oxford College – Oriel – though I still do not think that is the correct course of action. One disappointment in life for Rhodes (and for me) is that he concluded that there was no-one whom he could not buy. I think that’s a double negative, but you know what I mean.

Finishing this much curtailed list with another fictional book, I did enjoy A Ladder to the Sky by John Boyne. This is an intriguing tale of an amoral young man who has two ambitions: to be a famous writer and a father. In pursuing the former he has a major weakness, though he writes well he is unable to create a great story line – so he steals them from the people who love him. He is a very attractive man, sexually ambivalent, and entirely without conscience; so it is shocking, but perhaps inevitable, that his thefts lead to the deaths of many who become trapped in his web. I think I’ve written enough already about this book since anything more would spoil a gripping tale which is very well written and capable of making the unthinkable tenable. John Boyne certainly does not have his main character’s weakness.

Oh, but just a mention of the rather zany What’s Eating Gilbert Grape by Peter Hedges. How could I forget Gilbert’s gargantuan mother?

And so, on to 2020 which has a nice ring to it: provided each of the four ‘t’s are clearly enunciated. This coming year will undoubtedly provide me with another feast of fiction, and it looks like I’m going to need it whilst sequestered in my country retreat for who knows how long.

Friday, 6 March 2020

Contrasting Australia and Asia


Well, not contrasting the whole of Asia of course, that’s just too much, and actually just the Adelaide area in Australia. Starting point was Taiwan as in the previous blog, definitely part of Asia but well-advanced along the path to … to what? Let’s leave that to later. Next came Vietnam, then Cambodia, then briefly Thailand and finally Adelaide.

First thing that hit me in Adelaide was the traffic. Not literally of course, that was much more likely in Asia. Crossing the road in Hanoi, Ho Chi Min City, Phnom Pen and so on takes bravura, confidence and luck. Pedestrian crossings do exist, but are ignored. The traffic forms an almost constant rapid stream and consists mainly of motor scooters, some carrying entire families. The pavements are littered with the remains of people who gave up on crossing or were slaughtered in the attempt. That last is an exaggeration of course, but the rest is not. No one is going to stop to let you go, so you just have to go. And somehow, miraculously, the traffic forms a bubble around you as you pass. It is actually very efficient. In Adelaide  I was castigated for daring to cross the road where there was no crossing, and was amazed to see groups of people waiting for a crossing light to turn green when there was no traffic on the road at all. Fresh from Asia I had to constantly restrain myself.

In Adelaide the roads are generally excellent, in Cambodia and to a lesser extent Vietnam; they are likely to have stretches that are not metalled, possibly never have been. The dust kicked up by cars speeding over these stretches is spectacular, and for cyclists such as myself suffocating and blinding. In Cambodia people are packed tightly, standing room only, into open trucks. I saw this soon after crossing the border from Vietnam and was both amazed and appalled. Yet as we, seated comfortably in a bus, passed by them they waved and smiled at us.

As an ex-telephone engineer I take a passing interest in wiring. In Adelaide there is not much to see, in Vietnam and Cambodia you cannot miss it. Multiple cables hang like tangled liquorice from poles, buildings and anything that is stationery. A puzzling mesh which would seem impossible to maintain and is possibly dangerous, thus similar to the public transport networks of those two countries.

May I mention toilets? Yes I can. Oddly enough I prefer the miniature hand operated shower heads attached to each of them in Asia over the wasteful use of tissue paper. That said the general standard of toilet repair and cleanliness is far superior in Adelaide.

Now a rapid switch of subject to wildlife. I saw little in Asia (apart from the Kratie rats and dolphins); though I must confess I did not visit many national parks. However, the fauna of Australia is in your face: in the gardens, parks and roadsides in fact almost everywhere. I especially enjoyed the Australian birds: from the tuneful magpie to the friendly willy wagtail and the colourful eastern rosella and more. Then there are the koalas, kangaroos, echidnas and so on – wonderful.

With regards to people, well its all so mixed up nowadays, but I found the Cambodians the friendliest, possibly the most relaxed and probably the most attractive.

The currency in both Vietnam and Cambodia is quite ridiculous. I regularly drew two million dong from the cash machines in Vietnam, those that worked for me that is, so I now know how it feels to be a millionaire.  Cambodians have a similarly inflated riel but most business is done in American dollars there. I carried one 10$ note with me during all my time in that country and, though I regularly offered it up as payment, it was always refused because it had a minute tear along one edge. Yet in Australia it was changed without a glance.

Then there is food, a sensitive topic for a man with a sensitive stomach. Vietnam leans towards China for many things, yet it also embraces bread as well as rice. Cambodia leans more towards India but has its own recipes, I particularly liked ‘amok’ - curried fish in coconut milk eaten with boiled rice. And Australia leads on snitzel which the sensitive stomach appreciates. But in truth there is little contrast here since Adelaide offers food from all over Asia in addition to British and American staples.

In terms of development Adelaide is a nice clean city with beautiful parks, and everything works. Taiwan could be regarded similarly in relation to the rest of Asia and Thailand is not far behind it. Vietnam comes next displaying a remarkable recovery from that dreadful war with America and, though there is some way to go, the improvements wrought by a capitalist based economy are visible everywhere. Cambodia must be regarded as a work in progress on many fronts, yet blessed with a pleasant capital and lots of temples – oh so many temples. Please, no more temples.

Finally, I haven’t mentioned pubs. All I can say is how nice it was to return to England and drink a few pints of real ale in my local.

Sunday, 9 February 2020

Temples, rats and giant insects



Having whipped through Vietnam with Margaret, I am now in Cambodia, alone. Though sharing a border and a long history, the two countries are quite distinct: if nothing else in language – written and spoken. I couldn’t say which I prefer, though I have fond memories of the exciting local bar life (with music) in Hue, Vietnam and the lovely position of Hoi An where we celebrated the Lunar New Year. Tet, as they call it, played havoc with my usual last minute travel plans from there. At one time we were stranded in the place we liked least, Nha Trang, but rescue came through a Chinese mother and daughter who shared a taxi with us to the hill town of Dalat.

For a tourist Cambodia is Angkor Wat and vice versa, but that is not entirely true. On arrival in the capital Phnom Penh, I found myself in a horrible cheap hotel in an equally nasty area and could not wait to leave, but I found a better hotel near the Mekong river (a river that dominate my travels) and, hey, everything was fine. Fine that is, except that I became a little depressed when visiting the ghastly detention centre used by that unforgiveable communist organisation, the Kmer Rouge, to torture and kill thousands of innocent people.

I moved upriver to Kratie in search of dolphins, these freshwater creatures inhabit a stretch of fast flowing water about 15 Km above the town and are a delight to watch from an open boat. Have a look at the name Kratie and you will find something not so nice in the middle, and that’s what I found there. On my first night, after shrugging off an old woman who attempted to give me a massage right there in the bar I saw four of the devils running along the gutters, ignored by the arrogant street dogs who accept them as do the locals. I know rats are everywhere of course, but these were big ones and not at all shy.

On my last night in rat town (otherwise a very pleasant place) I decided to eat in a corner restaurant near my hotel, partly because I admired the heavy wooden furnishings of the place and also because it seemed popular with the local. As I stood at a table studying the menu, something ran over my sandaled foot – you’ve guessed what I’m sure. To the amusement of the waitresses I threw the menu down and commenced a hasty retreat, my hunger had suddenly vanished. The rat preceded me, it was an ugly fellow with patches of hairless, grey skin and seemed determined to block my path. Ugh.

I left Kratie the next day for an interminably long journey in a packed minibus bound for Seam Reap, the capital of Cambodia’s tourist industry. The so called VIP bus seemed to stop everywhere and more and more people and luggage and boxes were piled in until the narrow corridor form my back seat to the exit door was completely blocked. But the journey had to be done, the temples of Angkor Wat and many others are the main reason for visiting this country, and Cambodia, ravaged by war and communist idealism needs the US dollars ( their main currency, by the way).

My hotel, owned by a Brit called Scotty as it turned out, was fine for the price I was paying and I soon had an agenda for the following day – a tuk-tuk driver would pick me up and drive me to many of the nearest temples, including the most famous, Anghkor Wat, at 7am. First we had to visit the ticket office where I shelled out £37 for a one day ticket to the temple area – a fortune in this country where a glass of beer cost as little as 50p. But the money, hopefully, helps with the restoration and ongoing maintenance of this vast inheritance from the ancient Cambodian empires.


I am not going to describe the temples, there are plenty of accounts around that can convey the splendour of these unique creations set in the midst of the Cambodian jungle better than I can. My own reaction was wonder at the size, extent, amount and detailed stone work and bas-reliefs. Some of the carvings are in great shape having been there for some thousand years, and there are so many finely carved walls representing battles, daily life and processions. The buildings are not so well preserved as photos may suggest and some, like Ta Keo, have been almost ruined by the incursion of the vast trees of the jungle.
By lunch time, to the confusion of my driver, I had had enough. In the heat, the crush of people in some temples, the interminable ascents and descents of dodgy stone steps, the incessant drone of multilingual tour guides and pressure of touts selling everything from books to fridge magnets, I became over-templed. Lunch helped to set me going again and I did finish my tour at a mountain top temple where the masses gathered to watch the sunset. Disliking masses I decided to forgo the sunset itself and make my descent when there was a cry from a man in the crowd, “You have an insect on you!” I looked down to my legs but could see nothing. “On your sock,” he shouted. And there I saw this very large green thing. I was horrified and tried to brush it off, but it would not let go. Then someone came up to me saying, “It’s a praying mantis”. Now I really like those things, but am not so keen on having one attached to me. The man crouched town and gripped the thing behind its head and fortunately it released me. He then placed it on a post where he and I photographed it. This caused great amusement in the many people nearby. Perhaps they will remember that incident over the glory of the sunset.


Friday, 17 January 2020

Letter from Taiwan: Elections and Electric Scooters


I have written about Taiwan before in this blog, and my first impressions are reinforced with every return trip. However, visiting with my son and his family in Judong, a township to the south and west of Taipei, we do get to know the place a little better over time. On this occasion two things stand out: one political, the other environmental.

I jogged most days through the busy streets of the town and up into the surrounding hills. As I ran the first thing to strike me was the sheer number of national flags that were on display: elections were coming and we would be present while they took place. Usually elections in a foreign country are mysterious and of little concern to a visitor, but we, embedded in a mixed race family home, were soon enmeshed – especially since my son arranged a family sweepstake around the presidential candidates.

The election was called to determine the next president together with new members of the legislature and, though the inevitable complexities were beyond me, the basic issues seemed clear and very Taiwan specific. Of the two main parties the DPP stressed continued independence from China (which claims it as part of their republic), whilst the KMT had a very different view springing from its historical claim to be the Republic of China. Naturally, there is a lot of history here and gathered behind those two key viewpoints there are many other political differences.

The initial results of the election, though totted up manually and in a very open fashion, came in very quickly. It was soon clear that the incumbent DPP president had swept the board as had her party in the legislature and so I lost my bet.

I was intrigued by the reaction of the KMT’s top dogs as their defeat became clear, many of them were crying openly as their leader made his parting speech. The re-elected president, Tsai Ing-wen, was much less emotional when she gave a very serious press conference to international reporters. During this she did not smile once and was flanked by three dark-suited men who were immobile throughout. The first query was from the BBC reporter who asked a clever-dick question implying that Xi Jingpin, China’s president, had won the election for her. She replied diplomatically, asserting Taiwan’s independence, but willingness to work with its dominant neighbour.

Later we saw her with party compatriots and here she was dressed much less formally and was all smiles. Later again I saw an interview where she was pressed on her position as a woman at the head of her country where she made it clear that this was not a gender issue, but solely concerned with having the right qualities for the job. She also stated that Taiwan was an immigrant country which also respected its aboriginal citizens - who were traditionally led by women.

On the environmental side Taiwan, together with many other Asian countries, is scooter land. These two wheelers buzz around the streets and countryside like petrol driven flies, noisy and polluting. But a revolution is in progress in Taiwan. My son and daughter-in-law both have electric scooters now, as have many Taiwanese. In fact they have Gogoro scooters a brand that saw sales more than double in 2019 making it the second- largest motorcycle brand in Taiwan. It’s an interesting development and key to Gogoro’s success, I believe, is its elimination of the battery charging problem for users. They pay a monthly subscription then simply ride to a battery swapping centre and change the battery for a charged one, a process that is much, much quicker than filling the tank with petrol.

The scooters look good and are user friendly in surprising ways. It was my son’s fortieth birthday during out stay in Taiwan, the scooter knew this and played the happy birthday song to him! Naturally enough, you can link your scooter to your phone and they have even built in a reversing function for ease of parking. In use the scooters make a whining sound so that pedestrians know of their approach, but they are much quieter than their petrol equivalents. Finally, by the nature of brushless electric motors, the scooters are almost maintenance free. See here if you want to know more.

Could this business model apply in western countries? Probably not since the popularity of scooters is much less there. Good idea though.

And there’s a glimpse of Taiwan for you. Next stop Vietnam.

Sunday, 5 January 2020

Oxford, my Oxford



It’s the end of a year and the new one has a great ring to it: 2020. That’s pronounced twenny-twenny if you cultivate the currently trendy glottal stop – or, if like me you doan’ speak proper. Looking back over twenny-nine’een I think how lucky I am to live in this great ci’ty with its history, fine buildings, good pubs, live music and free lec’ures.

Enough of that, it’s the lectures I want to reminisce about. I probably go to two or three a week when I and the students are in residence (not many outside of term time). They span a universe of subjects from politics to geology, quantum computing to genetics. Here’s a few that have stuck in my memory from last year.

A very topical one held at the Martin School was entitled ‘How China will save the planet’. That brought them out – or was it the free wine following the lecture (happens sometimes)? The lecturer shocked us by saying that China has the most solar panels in the world. What’s more China has the most wind generators in the world. But then again he told us that China burns more coal than any other country in the world. Actually, he told us, their use of coal had been declining, but economic incentives to encourage that were removed and it has risen again. I have seen piles of the stuff lying about in the streets of some Chinese cities.

Then there was the lecture by the Geology Group on the origin of plant roots. There were very few of us there for some reason but I found it fascinating. Most fossils are derived from quite large things of course, but roots, especially pre-historic roots are thin and wispy, hardly likely to become fossilized. But there is a fine grained rock called chert in which fossilized plants have been found in extraordinary detailed form – particularly in Scotland. This provides views of root formation from the Devonian period some 400 million years ago and provided some strong theories of how plants evolved roots .It might sound a dull subject, but with a good speaker and many colourful slides it was fascinating.

Around the same time there were a couple of lectures which updated the whole subject of human migration out of Africa. The lectures were intent on combining knowledge gained from the fossil record with that available from the analysis of DNA. They introduced me to the term anatomically modern humans (us) and how our genetic make up contains DNA from other extinct human groups such as the Neanderthal, which I knew of, but also the Denisovan which was new to me and contributes as much as 5% to the DNA in Asians, including, presumably, my half Taiwanese grand-children.

Another lecture addressed time: its measurement over the ages from the basic egg-timer to today’s cesium clocks which are accurate to one second in 150 million years! The lecturer was quite old, which sort of befits the lecture, but his lecture was bang up to date. He told us that all the measures that we use in everyday life, like the meter or kilogram are derived in some way from the measure of time and other constants of nature. Disappointing really, I always like the idea that that there was a rod and a ball which standardized these things in a triple locked cellar somewhere near Paris.

Other lectures covering everything from the gig economy, to fracking to Brexit filled many pages of my indecipherable notes and maybe, just maybe, improved my understanding of the world in 2019.
In conclusion don’t forget to listen out for the glottal stop in twenny-twenny. Still not sure what it is? Laager drinkers can try the Elocution Bar within my website pub for elucidation.