Archive for the ‘Cambridge’ Category

Black-eye Fridays all round

December 19, 2014


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Of all the great Cambridge traditions — wearing silly capes to dinner, jumping in the river, spying for the Soviets — Black-Eye Friday is surely the finest spectacle. On the last Friday before Christmas (today!) the good townspeople of the city remind us of their presence by getting as drunk as possible and fighting in St Andrew’s street, between Downing and Emmanuel colleges.

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So seriously is this tradition observed that a special medical team from the 254 Medical Regiment Army Reserves is called in to attend to the wounded. A legion of Black-Eye Friday ‘street pastors’ roams the city through the night, sweeping up broken glass, offering flip-flops to inebriated women in high heels, and ‘reasoning’ with those who just want to get on with a good fight. Police gobble up precious overtime and get to tell people to ‘spread ’em’ against the railings of Emmanuel college (through which those detained can conveniently vomit while awaiting their fate).

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So far the build-up to the most violent day of the year has been auspicious. Sub-editors at the Cambridge News were gifted the most prized headline in journalism before dawn on Monday when a man involved in a violent altercation allegedly bit a dog before dying of a heart attack.

In mid-week, the News sent its crime reporter to test the waters of St. Andrew’s street and he was pleased to report on a large-scale drunken brawl between a group of men dressed in Christmas jumpers. In a separate incident, a pastor offered a blanket to a young, insensible woman whose lower half was clad only in a pair of black lace knickers; she told him to go away, explaining that she had ‘come out like this’. Sadly, the News declined to publish photos of these interesting incidents.

Global link with Chinese food reference

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But it is not only in Cambridge that people are getting black eyes today. Over in Hong Kong, spooky-looking mega-billionaire Thomas Kwok, of Sun Hung Kai fame, has been found guilty of bribing the man who was about to become the second-most powerful politician in the territory (FT sub needed). Tommy might well be sent for a bit of prison congee when sentencing happens next week.

It is all rather shocking. The judge apparently failed to understand the Asian culture of gift giving, in which a consultancy retainer while holding public office, a couple of rent-free flats and an interest-free loan are simply ways of saying: ‘Hello, how are you?’ The sort of treatment that has been meted out to church-going born-again Christian Tommy suggests that almost any act of friendship can be called into question — as, for instance, when uber-billionaire Li Ka-shing gave retiring HSBC chief executive Michael Sandberg a metre-high, solid gold statue of the HSBC headquarters building. Thank god that black-eye Friday is only one day a year.

More from Hong Kong

Bloomberg details testimony from the trial about money, mistresses and paranoia. The ransom paid to Big Spender, who kidnapped elder brother Walter, was also stated in the trial, as HK$600 million. (Big Spender later kidnapped Li Ka-shing’s eldest son, Victor. It is all in Asian Godfathers…)

 

Menaced in a Cambridge pub

November 7, 2014

They say there is no crime in this town, but there could be.

I return from a drink with a Japanologist, and decide that one for my road is in order at the pub at the end of our road, the Red Bull in Newnham, Cambridge.

Inside is frequent bar-propper Rory McGrath, of television fame. I don’t know him, but various people I do do. Since he does a comedy telly programme about Three Men on a Boat (I have watched perhaps 10 mins, have no view on it), puttering around the UK on narrow barges talking about who knows what, I show him a couple of pics that I took of a narrow barge that was granted permission to come up among the colleges recently. I blogged about it.

All good so far. Then, I say: ‘Listen, I don’t know you, but I was very surprised about the idea that Griff Rhys Jones might be a closet Nazi.’ This seems to me like standard pub banter. If you haven’t followed the story, RJ gave a long interview to the Telegraph in which he said that if the next government introduces a ‘mansion tax’ he might emigrate. The point is that RJ is quite funny, and yet, confronted in middle age with a modest tax on the huge capital gain he has made on London property, he suggests he might move to somewhere where I suspect he does not even speak the language.

Well, this set Mr McGrath off on the kind of frighteningly aggressive one-on-one verbal assault that I have not seen since I complained about being short-changed, as a student, on a marijuana purchase in Ladbroke Grove in circa 1985. That earlier incident did involve a knife, but the bile from McGrath was very much the same. It made me wonder if even comedians fall into the stylised description of John Carey’s classic work in which the British intelligentsia is shown to be drearily self-interested, drunk, and small C conservative.

I walked home thinking that McGrath must have some sort of point. But I can’t see it. Even if Rhys Jones spent 100% of purchase price fixing up his principal London home, he still made 4 million quid tax free. The mansion tax would be frivolous by comparison. Indeed it would be a much less rational tax, and a much lower tax, than one linked to capital appreciation. Andy Wightman sets out the numbers clearly on his blog.

These people — RJ — used to be our heroes. So what happened? I cannot even begin to imagine. To paraphrase, perhaps we are looking at: ‘All money corrupts, and lots of money corrupts a lot.’

Meanwhile Rory McGrath, was essentially trying to pick a physical fight with words of crushing violence. It appears he has form in this area. What do I say? I say: Fat. Drunk. And this evening ignorant. Sober up, my friend. I hope we will kiss and make up.

Damn and blast

November 5, 2014

A new study from the Centre for Research and Analysis of Migration at University College London shows that migrants from the European Union make a net contribution to the UK fiscal system — it looks to me, very roughly, like a cumulative 1 percent of GDP over the past 10 years.

I tell this to Camilla the Polish cleaner as she starts folding washing in the kitchen. She looks suspicious. I ask why. She says that the UK benefits system is outrageously generous and that fake ‘single mothers’ with husbands or fiancees ‘living’ at second addresses of convenience are driving around Cambridge in Audis while claiming benefits.

I ask her to unpack these assertions. First, she says, when she had cancer last year there were bleeding-heart liberals from the council coming round to her flat encouraging her to claim housing benefit because she was too ill to work. Naturally, she refused and sent them packing. ‘I have my savings,’ she says, and she never intended to let cancer keep her out of the labour market for more than a year. It did not.

Fair enough. But does she actually know any fake single mothers whose partners are living at separate addresses so that they can claim benefits? It costs at least £80 a week in Cambridge to rent a room. Would the benefits you could get by this ruse be substantially more than the £80 cost? She doesn’t know because she doesn’t claim benefits. And, no, she doesn’t have any actual cases of fake single mothers with Audis to present. But there are definitely Polish people who drive Audis.

Camilla goes back to earning her £10-an-hour, telling me how much she likes our house and her job. ‘People ask me why I do cleaning,’ she says, ‘but just now I am happy to have less pressure and spend more time with my kids.’ She used to be the Operations Manager of a chain of hotels in and around Cambridge. The last cleaner, a Hungarian, was a Research Chemist and left last year after being offered a too-good-to-refuse job in a research laboratory. She apologised that we poor English people would have to do our own cleaning for a couple of weeks, until Camilla showed up.

So this is all rather bad news for UKIP and Theresa May. How to loathe those who pay in more than they take out? The Brits, of course, are substantial net drainers of the welfare system at present. But self-loathing is hardly a viable election strategy.

Britain’s Essex-born Tory Immigration Minister was quick, when the report was published, to suggest that the Tories have never claimed EU migrants are net benefit scroungers (ho, ho, ho — this chump trained as a lawyer). Instead the problem is all about putting too much pressure on public infrastructure [which the Tories have failed to invest in for several decades]. If you have a sub to the FT, you can read his weaselly drivel here.

The serious point about the study is that it highlights the brain drain from continental Europe to the UK, as over-regulated labour markets in southern Europe, and eastern European countries with a dearth of professional jobs, force hard-working young people onto planes to the UK, with its highly deregulated labour market. Once there, all they have to do is to compete with poorly educated, monolingual Brits who drink during the day…

 

Farage with beer

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The point is well made by David Green of centre-right think-tank Civitas in The Guardian.

Anyhow, all this leads us to the blog post I need to write about Italy.

Not anarchists, but liberalism

October 6, 2014

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A curious morning.

I was editing an FT opinion piece about Hong Kong that will go live soon when suddenly I spied a narrow-boat steaming towards the college.

As you will know the University allows only punts on its manor, so my immediate thought was that it must be hippies, hopefully anarchists, storming our citadel.

I walked down to the river bank.

‘Are you anarchists?’

Blank stares.

‘Trotsyists?’

More blank stares.

It turned out to be nothing of the sort. Instead, the university had given these people PERMISSION to bring a motorised craft upriver.

What the hell is going on? Much more of this and they will stop giving unearned MAs to undergraduates. You will be allowed to leave a formal dinner at the wife’s college to go for a piss before dessert. You won’t need a beard and a Nobel prize to walk on the grass. They’ll start calling bedders ‘cleaners’ and pay them a living wage.

Historians of the future please note: it all started with that boat. And it clipped one of our punts.


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Actually Dave, you are still rubbish

October 1, 2014

This feels cruel. But I have read Cameron’s ‘greatest ever’ speech to today’s party conference, and it is not very good.

Here is a late-night attempt to parse it and to translate it into plain English (pace Boris, who I don’t much like either).

 

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The full text is here.

1. ‘William Hague…greatest living Yorkshireman.’ Obviously not true. I plump lazily for David Hockney. Does he vote Tory?

2. ‘I am not a complicated man.’ This is the problem, Dave.

3. ‘I believe in some simple things.’ You mean simplistic things. File under ‘Farage’.

4. ‘It’s pretty simple really.’ No it is not. See above.

5. ‘The highest employment rate of any major economy.’ Try: the lowest productivity gains of any major economy.

6. ‘£25 billion is actually just 3% of what government spends each year.’ He is talking about proposed new welfare savings. The truth: yes, but you have already backloaded the cuts you promised in this parliament into the next parliament so you would need cut at least double what you are saying. It is undoable short of civil war.

7. We have a new new policy called ‘Starter Homes’. Dave, you are already providing this subsidy. It is growth by asset inflation. It is not sustainable in the absence of productivity gains. Ask George, at least he took a 101 economics course.

8. Some stuff about ‘My 3 young kids go to prole school, we are all in it together.’ Yes, Dave, but not for long. You will move them out of the National Education System at 13 and do your bit in undermining the Big Society you claim to represent.

9. The £41,900 tax-free plus lower-rate threshold will rise to £50,000. Already dealt with in today’s earlier blog post. As I said in the update it is somewhat devious/sloppy accounting. But the main point is that it is undeliverable in combination with a rise in the tax-free rate to £12,500 and all the other stuff that you and George have promised/are promising. George has already reneged on his deficit cutting plan so many times I cannot count and is now running the original Alastair Darling plan. It begins to seem as if all you care about is power, Dave, not honesty.

10. Ed Balls is… ‘a mistake’. This is in fact true.

11. Tristram Hunt, the shadow education secretary, went to a private school but does not agree with the existence of private schools in an optimal education system. That makes him — here is the key term — a ‘hypocrite’. No it doesn’t, Dave. It makes you either a retard or a liar. At least George has the dignity to send his kids to private school the whole way through and publicly not give a fuck.

12. ‘I’ll tell you who we represent.’ No, I will. The ignorant, the angry, the greedy, and people who are having a nice time and don’t notice the world around them.

13. ‘From the country that unravelled DNA…’ DNA was unravelled in Cambridge, not Oxford, Dave, and nobody here votes Tory.

14. ‘It’s about getting people fit to work.’ Exercise for poor, fat cleaners, Dave. Exercise for poor, fat cleaners.

15. ‘Our crime-busting Home Secretary, Theresa May.’ Imagine any Tory Home Secretary as your next-door neighbour. I fucking dare you.

16. ‘I know you want this sorted out so I will go to Brussels.’ Why not just say it: ‘I can’t speak a foreign language — bit like Farage — and I don’t understand history. Even if I like holidays in Italy, they are still wogs.’

17. ‘Our parliament… the British parliament.’ It was created to curtail the antics of inbreds like you. Best not mentioned.

18. ‘If you want those things, vote for me.’ You are going to lose, Dave. You will then spend the next 10 years wishing you had had bigger balls, and ideally a bigger brain too. George will visit you.

19. ‘Our exports to China are doubling.’ Dave, I am losing the will to live. Look at the baseline.

20. ‘I don’t claim to be a perfect leader.’ Ok, all is forgiven. Emigrate.

 

Amazing that it should be 20 things.

I am going to bed and not reading this through, so apologies for typos.

 

Later:

A pretty funny video of Brave Dave following his speech has been posted to Youtube. Here it is. 1.2 million hits already. It contains profanity.

Weekend reading and viewing

July 13, 2013

1. First up, a farewell piece from Evan Osnos, China correspondent of the New Yorker. All about his poet bin-man friend.

A BILLION STORIES

POSTED BY 
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In my neighborhood, near the Lama Temple, the men and women in fluorescent orange jumpsuits work for the district sanitation department. Many are migrant workers from the countryside; they sweep the alleys, clean the public restrooms, and collect the trash. Some wear straw farmers’ hats that cast a shadow across their faces, and, I admit, the matching uniforms make it difficult for me to keep them straight. I don’t know if there are three of them or thirty.
One afternoon not long ago, I was chatting with my next-door neighbor, a retiree named Huang Wenyi—a proud Beijinger, born and raised—when one of the sweepers in an orange jumpsuit wandered by. He had tousled hair, sun wrinkles around his eyes, and a smile of jumbled teeth. He approached and pointed to a gray flagstone at our feet. “Can you see the emperor on that rock?” the sweeper asked.
I thought I’d misheard. He said, “I can see an image of the emperor right there on that rock.”
Huang and I looked at the rock and back at the sweeper. Huang was not interested. “What are you bullshitting about?” he asked. “You have no idea what you’re talking about.”
The sweeper smiled and asked, “Are you saying you think I’m not a cultured man?”
“What I’m saying,” Huang said, “is that you’re not making sense.”
The sweeper gave him a look, and turned, instead, to face me. “I can look at anything, and pull the essence from it,” he said. “It doesn’t matter how ordinary something is; in my eyes, it becomes a treasure. Do you believe me?”
Huang was irritated: “Old man, I’m trying to have a chat with our foreign friend here. Can you not disturb us, and go back to your work?”
The sweeper kept talking—faster now, about ancient Chinese poetry, and the great modern writer Lu Xun—some of it too fast, and the references too obscure, for me to understand. He sounded somewhere between interesting and bonkers. Huang had had enough, and he poked fun at the man’s countryside accent. “Come back after you’ve learned to speak Beijing dialect,” he said.
Under his breath, the sweeper said, “As long as it’s a dialect of human beings, it’s legitimate.” But Huang didn’t hear him. He’d waved him away and wandered into his house.
I introduced myself. The sweeper’s name was Qi Xiangfu. He was from Jiangsu Province, and he said he had come to Beijing three months ago. Why did you come, I asked.
“To explore the realm of culture,” he said grandly.
“What kind of culture?”
“Poetry, mainly. Ancient Chinese poetry. During the Tang Dynasty, when poetry was the best, every poet wanted to come to Chang’an,” he said, invoking the name of the ancient capital, the predecessor to Beijing. “I wanted a bigger stage,” he said. “It doesn’t matter whether I succeed or fail. I’m here. That’s what matters.”
It was getting late; before I went inside, Qi said he had competed in poetry competitions. “I won the title of ‘Super King of Chinese Couplets.’ ” In his spare time, he had taken to hosting an online forum about modern Chinese poetry. “You can go online and read about me,” he said.
That night, I typed his name into the Web, and there he was: Qi Xiangfu, the Super King of Chinese Couplets. In the photo, he was handsomely dressed in a bow tie and a jacket; he looked young and confident. Chinese poems are hard for me to understand, and many of his, especially, were impenetrably weird. But I appreciated some moments of grace: “Earth knows the lightness of our feet,” he wrote. “We meet each other there / Between heaven and earth.”
To my surprise, the more I searched about Qi Xiangfu, the more I found of a life lived partly online. He once wrote a short memoir, in which he described himself in the third person, with the formality usually reserved for China’s most famous writers. He wrote that his father died young, and Qi was raised by his uncle. He wrote, of himself, “The first time Qi read Mao’s poem ‘The Long March,’ he resolved that Mao would be the teacher to show him the way. Later, he studied the poetry of Li Bai, Du Fu, Su Dongpu, Lu You, and others, and he made a promise to himself: Become a master of literature.”
He described the first time he ever presented one of his poems to a large group—it was played on a speaker at a construction site—and he described a bus trip in which he met, as he put it, “a girl who sympathized.” They married and it “ended his life of vagrancy.” There were hints of trouble in his life—at one point, he wrote a plea for donations, saying, “Alas, Comrade Qi is having a difficult time”—but something in the spirit of his online persona captivated me.
So much of it was impossible just a few years ago: the journey to the city, the online identity, the interior life so at odds with the image he projected to the world. When I first studied in China, seventeen years ago, the Internet was only a distant rumor. It had reached China two years earlier, but hardly anyone had access. When I brought a modem from the U.S., and tried to plug it into my dorm-room wall in Beijing, the machine emitted a sickly popping sound and never stirred again.
When I moved to Beijing, in 2005, to write, I was accustomed to hearing the story of China’s transformation told in vast, sweeping strokes—involving one fifth of humanity, and great pivots of politics and economics. But, over the next eight years, some of the deepest changes in the lives around me have been intimate and perceptual, buried in daily rhythms that are easy to overlook. A generation ago, foreigners writing about China marvelled most at the sameness of it all. Chairman Mao was the “Emperor of the Blue Ants,” as a memorable book title had it. But in my years in China, I have been seized most of all by the sense that the national narrative, once an ensemble performance, is splintering into a billion stories.
Living in China at this moment, the stories bombard you with such fantastical vividness that you can’t help but write them down and hope to make sense of them later. Writing about China, in The New Yorker, for the past five years, I’ve tried to capture something of this age, to grab a few of these stories out of the air before they slip by. The complexities of individual lives blunt the impulse to impose a neat logic on them, and nobody who stays here for some time remains certain about too much for too long. To impose order on the changes, we seek refuge, of a kind, in statistics. In my years here, the number of airline passengers nationwide doubled; sales of personal computers and cell phones tripled. The length of the Beijing subway quadrupled. But the longer I stayed, the less those impressed me than the dramas that I could never quantify at all.
On Sunday, my wife, Sarabeth, and I are flying out. I’ll be on leave for the next couple of months, wrapping up a book about a few individuals I’ve come to know in China. It will be published next spring, and I’ll be saying more about that later. I’ll resume writing for the magazine this fall, based in Washington, D.C. China is not leaving my blood stream; I’ll be back to write pieces, and, in between, I’ll be writing at Daily Comment and elsewhere about how China looks from afar.
Since we launched this blog, in January of 2009, I’ve written about five hundred posts. This will be the last for a while, and I want to thank you for visiting over the years. There will be much more to come on China on this site, and in the magazine, so I won’t pretend to sum things up. For now, I’ll mention only the fact that returns to me more often, perhaps, than any other: never in modern history has China been more prosperous and functional and connected with the world—and yet, it is the only country in the world with a winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in prison. Contradictions like that have been the essence of this moment.
After I met the street sweeper Qi Xiangfu, I started bumping into him frequently. We swapped phone numbers, and he would send me a poem, now and then, by text message. He typed out the characters on his phone, with the help of a magnifying glass to aid his eyes. Many of his poems were heavy with Communist fervor; others were oracular and strange. But I sympathize with anyone trying to make sense of this place in writing, and I admired his persistence. “I’ve experienced every kind of coldness and indifference from people,” he told me once, “but I’ve also given myself knowledge, all the way up to the university level. I don’t have a diploma. People look down on me when they see me.”
A few weeks ago, Qi told me he had been reassigned to the sanitation department in another part of town; he said he would come back when he could. The last time I saw him, he wasn’t wearing his uniform; he was in street clothes—a crisp white shirt and a black jacket—on his way to see his daughter who worked at a restaurant nearby. He had a book under his arm: “Ten Contemporary Authors of Prose.” For the first time, I saw the two personae, online and real-world, in one. What inspires you, I once asked him.
“When I write,” he said, “anything becomes material. In life, I must be practical, but when I write, it is up to me.”
Photograph, of Evan Osnos and Qi Xiangfu, courtesy of Osnos.
2. Next, a bit of Australian fun. A Kath and Kim movie came out last year. It got terrible reviews, so don’t go see it. However this appearance on Sunrise is pretty funny. Seems like good background to the Ashes series.
3. Next: Oh. Bama! Just to keep piling pressure on the liberal president, here is a Guardian piece about the sale of ambassadorial positions. Sort of Lloyd George goes to Washington. You might want to watch Lou Reed talking about Snowden and Obama again, (if only to watch the put-down of the obsequious female journalist at the end).
4. Now something serious. Christopher Wood, one of the best (perhaps the best) equity analyst in east Asia, doesn’t like his weekly missive reposted. So I am just going to quote a couple of bullets about the income distribution effects of the QE approach to stabilising the global financial crisis. I was banging on about the same thing soon after the crisis hit in 2010 and the QE started:
<The practical way unconventional monetary policies work is to lead to ever more extreme wealth distribution. Wealth distribution would have become much less extreme as a consequence of the 2008 crisis if losses had been imposed on creditors to bust financial institutions in line with capitalist principles, as opposed to the favoured ‘bailout’ approach pursued for the most part by Washington. The ‘great reckoning’ has been deferred to another day as the speculative classes have continued to game the system by resort to carry trades actively encouraged by the Fed and other central bankers. The leverage taken on in such trades is highly risky because of the underlying deflationary trend.>
5. More serious and interesting stuff is Philip Stephens in the FT (sub needed) parsing the Anglo Saxon-created disaster story that is the Middle East.
6. Looking at the Stephens’ canon, I see a piece from June (sub needed) making the case for shutting down the UK Treasury. It would save money and get rid of dangerous incompetents whose follies we, the taxpayers, must finance. I would just add that in shutting the Treasury to save money, government could also shut the Foreign Office, another black hole of self-regarding incompetence. George Osborne is right that we should not waste money. Mainly on people he went to school and university with.
7. Finally, this looks like something useful to do if any UK university students read this blog:
Hi there, My name’s Jonathan Goggs – I’m from an organisation called Team Up, who are establishing a student committee at Cambridge for 2013/14. I would very much appreciate it if you, or one of your colleagues, could circulate the following blurb into an email to all students in the business school, including the enclosed attachments as well. Do let me know if there are any questions from students by responding to this email, or copying me in. “Team Up is passionate about improving social mobility and transforming the prospects of bright young people and we are looking for outstanding university students from Cambridge to join one of our accredited leadership programmes next year. You will be trained in the highly sought-after professional skills to make a genuine difference and empower young people in your community to academic excellence. We believe in developing our university students to foster the skills they need to tackle the UK’s biggest social problem (social mobility) and secure exceptional careers. That’s why, once we’ve processed your application and conducted a short interview, we’ll be running master classes and networking opportunities, in partnership with leading businesses and charities, to give you the tools to lead, inspire and excel. The programme runs for 20 weeks, alongside your degree, and an overview of the year is attached, together with descriptions of the roles you can apply for. Last year our programme partners were Teach First and Bank of America Merrill Lynch and next year we will be partnering with even more organisations in management consultancy, education, social enterprise and finance. Places are competitive, so early applications are encouraged. Over the past two years we’ve received over 2,000 applications and some incredible student feedback – 9 out of 10 students said they enjoyed the programme. At Team Up, we think it’s a tragedy that so many young people are still disqualified from leading universities like Cambridge and fulfilling careers, because they come from low-income, socially disadvantaged backgrounds. If you think the way we do, we’d love to hear from you. To apply, click here.” Kind regards, — Jonathan Goggs Programme Officer | Team Up 18 Victoria Park Square, Bethnal Green, LONDON | E2 9PF E: jonathan.goggs@teamup.org.uk | W: www.teamup.org.uk

China comes to my home

July 9, 2013

We are having a Chinese primary school teacher to stay. She and a bunch of other Chinese teachers are supervising 40 Shanghainese kids on an English language immersion trip to Cambridge. Since our teacher (the senior one) doesn’t speak much English, I figured it would be good for our kids to have a week practising their Chinese.

It turns out that our kids also get a cultural lesson thrown in for free.

The Chinese teachers and schoolchildren have been billeted with Cambridge families around town. So far so good. But in order to consolidate them in the morning  so as to get everyone to school, they are not using one of the regular Cambridge taxi firms. Instead they are using a Chinese taxi firm I have never seen before. It’s a guanxi thing, you see.

Sure enough the driver gets to our house already half an hour late having gotten lost. Being Chinese, he doubtless also left half an hour spare in case of mistakes, so the group has likely already wasted an hour this morning going to wrong places. Plus, of course, the actual origin to destination driving time.

Finally the car pulls up outside our house and disgorges two panic-stricken occupants, both teachers. Spotting Senior Teacher Zhang, who is staying with us, they head for our front door. ‘We need the toilet!’ they exclaim, pushing into the house and straight past me in the corridor. ‘Hello!’ says one, as he locates the downstairs toilet under the stairs and heads in. A female teacher, beaten to the downstairs toilet, scoots straight off upstairs in search of another one, quickly locating it.

I wander into the street with my espresso to take in the scene.

After a couple of minutes the toilet-seeking teachers reappear becalmed and join Senior Teacher Zhang and the others in the taxi.

‘Sank you!’ says one.

And with that the people who are taking over the world are off.

Liberal parenting II: blending seamlessly into Cambridge

October 31, 2011

I have gotten into the habit of taking the kids on a very beautiful walk in Cambridge. We cycle five minutes down to the west gate of Kings, lock up the bikes, and enter the college via its back door. We walk down to the college’s internal bridge over the river Cam, survey passing punts and geese, take a loop around the gardens, and exit the front gate to a tiny cake shop down an alley opposite. This is the pay-off for the children. Caked-up, the three of them gambol merrily around the corner to Clare College — to me the most beautiful — via whose courtyards, bridge and fellows’ garden we return to the other side of the river and our bikes.

It is hard not to feel pleased with yourself in such august surroundings with three attractive children behaving with reasonable decorum. I am normally too nervous of them to enter any of the college buildings. But today, seeing there is a service in Clare chapel I accept the request of the eldest to take a look. Arriving early, we mill around with devout, serious-looking old people in the narthex. After a couple of minutes, I am summoned animatedly by the eldest child, eight, to view a large book displayed in the middle of the room in which people are writing names.

‘What is this?’

[I ponder.] ‘It is an ‘In Memoriam’ — in memory — book where people are invited to write the names of those who have died in the last year so that they can be remembered in prayers.’

‘Grandpa died three years ago. Who can we write in the book?’

[Pause.] ‘I don’t know anyone who died in the past year.’

‘I do — Gaddafi.’

‘You are not writing Gaddafi’s name in that book.’

‘Why not? He died this year and someone should remember him.’

‘Because, because…’

‘He died a few days ago… How do you write his name?’

Luckily, at this point the eight-year-old’s younger male sibling butts in with a very loud ‘I don’t like churches’. Before the four-year-old — who originated this refrain and caused a major scene in St Peter’s in Rome last year — can join in, I herd them out.

 

School’s in

October 3, 2011

It works quite well for us in Cambridge that I can go for a run while the kids ride their bikes. I get some exercise and they get to win. On Sunday I went with the eldest on a circuit through town, where we agreed to poke around a college. We picked Trinity Hall, which is small, rich and riparian.

Upon entering, it was clear that undergraduates were arriving. At the Porter’s lodge a group of keen helpers in pink T-shirts was ready to nab a newby.

Further on through a couple of courtyards, parents were being allowed to drive in to the college to deposit their children. The cars weren’t flash. There was one Mercedes, but otherwise these were the vehicles of people who had spent a jolly lot of money educating their kids.

Confident young people ignored signs instructing them not to walk on the grass. It was, I suddenly saw, a perfect replica of an English public school at the beginning of term.

We went and sat on the wall down by the river and watched the punts. Next to us, three girls with squeaky boarding school accents chatted. Someone had hung a pirate flag from the window of their room. One of the girls, noticing this, observed in deadpan tones: ‘They should take that down. I think it cheapens the place.’

For some reason, the scene made me think of the signs in Italian courtrooms that say ‘Everyone is equal before the law’.

English honeymoon

September 6, 2011

Last week I loaded a child into the car and headed north, through Switzerland, France, Luxembourg and Belgium to the UK. The wife and other kids joined us this week. We will spend at least a year in Cambridge. I cannot say that I am sad to have moved my base away from Italy at this point, although we will be back regularly and there are friends we miss.

It is the first time we have lived properly in England for 20 years and there are forgotten marvels to remember, as well as new ones to behold.  I have been enough of a regular visitor over the years to know how much chocolate is sold in petrol stations. But on family visits to Marks & Spencer and Tesco we are dumbfounded by the number of refrigerated aisles containing those processed foods that Brits eat so much of. (At least six in a row just in M&S, versus two in our Italian supermarket. Many, many more in a hangar-size Tesco.) On a hot September day we are suddenly desperate to wrap up warm while inspecting the rows of chilled curry dishes, mezze, pasta favourites, pre-cooked joints of meat and the rest. The stuff is staggeringly expensive when you think how much veg you can buy for 10 quid. And yet for people not habituated to daily fresh food preparation, these offerings are compelling.

Tesco now has self-checkout counters which allow your children to experience at an early age the type of employment they can expect if they do not pay attention at school. First time round they find the work invigorating, especially when an item fails to scan and they have to call for assistance. But I reckon that by Christmas they will have figured out that it is worth up-skilling somewhat.

On Sunday morning we rise early for a ‘car boot’ sale — and it does not disappoint. About 100 people have their car boots open by 9am, offering up the most indescribably useless tat in return for money. A pair of low quality circa-1970 skis catch my eye. Imagine actually turning up to a ski resort with them. To be fair, the stuff is not that much worse than some of the junk displayed at the monthly ‘Retro’ Citta di Castello antiques fair — but whereas the Italians display their crap with a little finesse on tables in a beautiful piazza, here it is simply dumped on the Tarmac of a car-park. The children find the car boot sale as perversely interesting as I do, and when we leave I realise that we have acquired two serviceable children’s bikes for just £35. This could become a habit.

Part of the reason I came to England ahead of the rest of the family was to do appeals for school places. Our two eldest kids were offered places at their second choice primary school — 20 minutes by bike instead of five for the closest one — while the council wanted the youngest child to be shipped across town every day in a taxi to a new school several miles away. Cambridgeshire has the fastest-growing population in England and school places are failing to keep up. The appeal process was everything that Italy is not: immediate, decided by fairly sensible rules, and binding on the participants. The council puts its case, I put ours. The notion of sending the youngest child miles away by taxi was shot down and the council representative instructed to create a place at her first choice school. The other two kids were left with their second choices. We will have to cope with two different schools for now, but the situation is far from dire.

What else is immediately pleasing? Apart from the fact that Cambridge is very cosmopolitan and people are dedicated to getting stuff done in an unfussy way, I would say fast internet access. It really is another world after Italy. With connection speeds like these you could spend all day messing around on the InterWeb…

If you did, here are some examples of what you might find:

Bob Marley plays acoustic Redemption Song.

Brian Ferry covers Dylan’s A Simple Twist of Fate rather well.

A 12-year-old child plays You Shook Me All Night Long in his bedroom rather well.

ACDC’s Angus Young and Brian Johnson are interviewed by German TV while Angus nurses a tea mug.

Bob Dylan proves he is capable of smiling and having fun at Farm Aid in 1985.

Moreover Dylan keeps enjoying himself.

And Dylan really likes playing this song.

Bob Dylan is portrayed on the Simpsons.

Bob Dylan is portrayed on Family Guy with Tom Waits, Popeye and Ali.

Various interviews with people believed in some religions to sit on the left hand side of God the Father Almighty

Mr Dylan.

Mr Young.

Mr Waits.

Mr Cale.

Meanwhile back in Italy:

If this crisis were a movie, half the audience would be asleep. The government changes its mind every day about austerity budgets, there is no traction on structural reforms, the unions strike without offering any policy agenda of their own, Italian bank stocks are back in free-fall, and Italian bond yields are rising again despite the ECB having swallowed over Euro40 billion of government debt — much of which must be Italian — in the past three weeks. We all know the ending, so why not just cut to the IMF?


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