Saturday, December 23, 2006

God rest ye merry gentlemen...

Saturday, December 23rd 2006
Two days till Christmas and might as well end up the year’s blogging on a cheerful note. Not that I ever celebrate Christmas very much any more. I only ever have December 25th off when it’s a Sunday; something which always comes as a surprise to the each year’s generation of students who always seem a little disappointed when I don’t go on about how I celebrate. Where I come from, the North of England, it always seemed to me that the New Year was a more important celebration--and that is the way it is in Japan.
In theory anyway. A walk down the road for the casual observer would see garish American-style outdoor illuminated decorations bedecking houses with reindeer, Santas, angels and holly, each household trying to outdo the other in how much power they can waste. It is an annual source of amazement to me, when less than 1% of the population are Christian. Of those, I think the majority are sober types like Methodists or Baptists for whom showy Christmas is not really part of the deal.
Since mid-November, the shopping malls have been similarly done out, with schmaltzy Yuletide tunes assaulting the ear at every turn. It’s nothing to do with Christ, but everything to do with Roman Saturnalia and the other pagan festivals which the early Christian missionaries felt it was convenient to adopt. The Yule log and decorated fir-tree from the Vikings, the mistletoe from the Druids, turkey from the Native Americans and so on. Very eclectic.
One part of it all that I’ve got no problem with is the notion of ‘Peace on Earth and Goodwill to all Men’. Would that it were true! There seems to be more strife now across the face of the globe than I can ever remember, but that’s maybe because I have access to more information now than I ever did before--thanks to broadband Internet access.
On Dec 28th, we will be on the road to Saga for about a week’s worth of doing very little. Sitting in the kotatsu and eating mikan oranges, I hope to catch up on some reading and to not go near a computer for the duration. We were going to leave on the 27th but my youngest son has to attend a special ceremony where he will be presented with the Kobe City 最優秀選手 (sai-yuu-shuu-sen-shu) award for 2006 aka the Blue Riband or MVP of sports, on account of his performances this year. It’s dog-with-two-tails time again...
In the New Year, I’ll be looking into the world of web-cams so we can see more of the family back home rather than just Skype-talking to them. I’ve been messing with a discarded Sony Digital Handycam to see if I could make that do the job of a web-cam, but alas, it has only a lowly USB connector and FireWire is what is needed.
In the meantime--all the best for ’07 to those who read this blog.
I’ll be back…

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Birds of a feather...

One of the first things I remember about entering the University College of Wales in September 1973 was that people were getting very agitated about events in Chile. With good reason, as it turned out. At first reports were very unclear, sounding more like rumour and counter-rumour, but it soon became very clear that a disgraceful event had taken place. The democratically elected Chilean president Salvador Allende had been overthrown in a bloody coup d’etat, with the full complicity of the USA, merely because he was a socialist. It was led by Augusto Pinochet, who previously had been a trusted presidential aide, in charge of the military. Allende did not survive the coup, allegedly taking his own life. For the next 17 years Pinochet ruled Chile with an iron hand, establishing one of the longest lasting dictatorships in Latin America.
Who’s your Daddy?

He and his thuggish entourage soon revealed that they had little use for democracy, viciously crushing any opposition to their rule. This resulted in approximately 3000 people dead or were simply not there anymore. The verb ‘disappear’ was given a new transitive format. The 1977 ‘Operation Condor’ and the infamous ‘Caravan of Death’ were among the devices used to further his program of obliterating resistance. By 1990 he had been forced from office and spent the rest of his time among us deftly avoiding trial for his crimes against humanity, at the same time allegedly building up a hoard of ill-gotten gains in murky overseas accounts. He was incarcerated in Britain for about 18 months in the late 1990’s awaiting trial for human rights abuses, but finally managed to wriggle off the hook on the grounds his state of health had made him unfit to stand trial. One of his strongest defenders was the former UK Prime Minister, Margaret Hilda Thatcher, who argued that he was ‘a true friend’ to Britain thanks to his support during the Falklands War. It is my considered opinion that Thatcher showed her true colours at this time, and that we saw in Pinochet’s actions what she would have done to her opponents during her time in power, had she not been constrained by a parliamentary democracy.
Britain needs ‘true friends’ of Pinochet’s ilk like a collective hole in the head.

The evil old monster has now gone to his grave, without ever having to answer for his crimes. For some people, Pinochet was and remains a hero, on the grounds that he was strongly influenced by the Chicago School of Economics, using its tenets to ‘transform’ Chile into South America’s strongest economy.
Oh, I see, so that’s all right then...

Friday, December 08, 2006

What I did on my holidays and other ramblings...

Well, the last time The Cap'n blogged was just before the World Cup started in Germany and it was mainly ranting on about the enforced Budweiser sponsorship of the event. When the tournament got started I watched a lot of the action and lost a lot of sleep as a result. On the other hand, England never really got going and with hindsight were a major disappointment, from the final lachrymose crocked Beckham exit, to the hideous belligerence of Rooney, which almost certainly lost us the best shot we’ve had at the trophy in a long time. Penalty kicks are an awful way to go out and an even worse way to win the thing, which Italy finally managed to do after setting new standards of precipitously low gamesmanship and downright cheating when claiming fouls had been committed to garner free-kicks/penalties. From a Newcastle United supporter’s viewpoint, the worst sight was that of Michael Owen being carted off the pitch on a stretcher after playing less than 2 minutes of the Portugal match. It’s still not clear what happened, but I heard he was thinking of suing the German FA, on the grounds that the playing surface was uneven and not fit for a top-level match. Severe cruciate ligament damage means he is not expected to make a first-team appearance this season, in a squad decimated by injuries. I’ve certainly known better days as a Toon supporter and no mistake. However, as I write the reports are all of a 3-2 win over Reading last night, in a pulsating encounter at St. James’s Park which has eased the relegation worries, for a while anyway. The lads are unbeaten in 7 games and are a lowly 15th in the Premiership as they travel to Ewood Park, Blackburn to try and get a result.
The World Cup was no sooner over than we were off to dear old Blighty for our annual summer vacation. It is always a relief to escape from the stifling heat of Japan’s summer season and this year was no different. However, it marked the first time that my wife and I have travelled by air without the offspring, which felt a little odd at first. It is something we will have to get used to though, as they gain years and wisdom. My wife was only there for a week, being worried about leaving our daughter in charge of the boys for any longer than that. I was there for nineteen days and had a fine old time, even though the weather did not play its part all the time.
I did manage to get to St. James’s Park to see the black & whites take the field, treating my old friend Keith to his first view of the interior of the magnificent stadium.

As he is a Sunderland supporter (aka a Mackem) he had difficulty in saying anything at all positive about the home ground of his deadly rivals, but he did mutter some monosyllabic grunts to that effect. The opponents in a friendly game were Villareal of Spain and the ground was less than half-full, but I was determined to enjoy myself. Newcastle, though, did not seem to be up for the affair and went behind in the 13th minute to one of the softest goals I’ve ever seem them concede, gifted to Josico. Keith was most amused, of course, and began to pay close attention to the field of play. I was somewhat relieved when Ameobi powered a quite exquisite header into the top-right corner of the Leazes net on twenty-two minutes to level the score, but this feeling did not last long. Villareal were not to be denied and went in at the half leading two-one after more defensive dithering allowed Pires to net. The half-time pie was most excellent, far better they ever used to be, which almost put me in a better mood. Surely Glenn Roeder had something up his sleeve to turn the tide?
If he had, he kept it up there because we were floundering again just after the hour when Rodriguez rose unmarked in the Leazes penalty area to plant an unstoppable header past the helpless Shay Given. I began to question my sanity in forking over hard-earned specie to be ‘entertained’ in this manner but Keith was having the time of his life, chuckling away in a manner not seen for years. It all looked black for us until 15 minutes from the end when Roeder made an inspired substitution, bringing on Nicky Butt for the lacklustre Babayaro. Somehow Butty snatched respectability from a rout, by scoring twice in 2 minutes in front of the ecstatic Gallowgate crowd. The last ten minutes were almost worth the price of admission as both teams went for the kill, bringing fine saves at both ends of the pitch, but all-square was how it ended after the ninety minutes were up. Even Keith had good words to say, even though he had been denied the ammunition to bait me with for years to come. Funny old game is football...
One good thing about being at home on holiday without my immediate family was that I got to spend more time with my own mother and father than is usually possible. We had a couple of really good days out, even though the weather didn’t really play its part. One of these days was a trip across the Tees borderline into North Yorkshire, with the aim of catching a glimpse of the restored A4 Pacific class locomotive Sir Nigel Gresley in its new role pulling passenger trains on the scenic 18-mile route between Grosmont and Pickering. The A4 Pacific class with its streamlined bodywork is generally reckoned to be one of the most beautiful steam locomotives ever built, whether you are interested in them or not. One of my earliest memories is waking up with a sore throat after a tonsillectomy in Durham General Hospital. As the nurse threw back the curtains, one of these locomotives came hissing into Durham station across the viaduct, all billowing steam, polished brass and gorgeous green livery. Fantastic it was. I think it was the Mallard but I’m not sure. In 1937, the hundredth such locomotive to be built was named after its designer, honouring him before his death in 1941.

This gorgeous piece of kit was rescued from the knackers yard in 1966 and underwent extensive restoration work over many years, at great expense. When the website of the North Yorkshire Moors Railway informed me where Sir Nigel could be observed in 2006 my interest was fired up and we duly set off on the pilgrimage. The weather was fine as we left but it rapidly deteriorated and as we crossed the Tees into Yorkshire the whole countryside was thoroughly shrouded in grey gloom and drizzle. It was very nostalgic for me to be honest, Yorkshire is really like that most of the time which is why it is such a green county. We had decided to try and view the locomotive from the hamlet of Beck Hole in the valley of the River Murk Esk. Beck Hole was a popular spot with Victorian and Edwardian visitors and is halfway up one of the the steepest inclines on the rail network. The one in forty-nine gradient means the locomotives are really labouring at low revs, providing the deep, satisfying CHUFF - CHUFF- CHUFF sound so beloved of live steam enthusiasts.
As it happened we had some time to kill before the next scheduled Pickering - Grosmont run of Sir Nigel so we went for refreshment in one of the smallest pubs I have ever been in.

The bar was full of smokers so we went in the lounge, my mother, father and I, meaning that it was really crowded. The man in charge entertained us with some ancient photographs of Beck Hole and the pub in days gone by. A nice pint of Theakston’s for me and a pot of tea for Mam & Dad had us suitably fortified and about half an hour later we drove the car up to the arch bridge to wait for our rendezvous.
When Sir Nigel arrived (late--some things never change) I was a little dismayed to find the tender was leading with the loco pulling the train in reverse, so the shot I had been anticipating did not quite materialize.

What I had been hoping for was something like this:

The best-laid schemes of mice and men, gang aft a-gley, as I’ve noted before. Never mind. The NYMR do put on a Sunday lunch service on the trains which sounds like a good idea for our 2007 excursion, though we would need better weather to make it worthwhile.
On return to Japan, I was almost immediately whisked off to the island of Shikoku, to the city of Marugame in Kagawa Prefecture. The reason for this was that my youngest son, Genki, was representing Hyogo Prefecture in the All-Japan Track & Field Championships, taking part in the shot-put event. In the end he managed a very creditable 4th place, but there was a considerable distance between the top 3 and his best effort. Shot-put involves body-weight above all and he simply does not have the bulky frame to excel at it. Nevertheless we were very pleased and very proud of his efforts, all the while hoping he would heed the advice of his coach and concentrate on discus. Two months later all dreams came true when on October 27th he took the gold medal in the discus event of the so-called ‘Junior Olympics’ at Yokohama International Stadium.

Wow. Dat’s ma boy! Numero Uno! At first he looked a bit wobbly as his first practice throw nearly hit the line-judge, while the second almost landed on the running track. Fortunately, there was no race in progress at the time. When time came for his first throw proper it flew far and straight in a perfect spinning arc, to touch down at 54.70 metres, fully 2 metres further than his previous best and bettering his great rival from Kyoto by a metre and a half. I swear I could feel the latter’s ego deflating as he contemplated the mountain he had to climb. At close of play, no-one had bettered 54.70 and so he stood proud on the podium like a dog with two tails, his previous rival taking the bronze.

One of the first entries in this blog was a report on the 2005 Ashes Test series victory by England, which was most gratifying to write. 14 months later, the series is taking place in Australia and England trail by 2 matches to nil, after a second innings batting collapse in the 2nd Test deflated our hopes of a come-back. We were beaten out of sight in the 1st Test, no mistake about it. It doesn’t bode well for a retention of the odd little urn that is the trophy, which allegedly contains the ashes of the cremated bats, balls and stumps from the first time Australia beat England at cricket, in the late 19th century. However, all is not over till the Fat Lady sings and the Third Test begins on December 14th in Perth at 02.30 GMT. I’m hoping the Three Lions on a shirt can prevail, otherwise it’ll be a pretty gloomy end to 2006.
I hope 2007 will see me blogging a bit more regularly. All the best for the season!