Saturday, October 27, 2007

What I did on my holidays (2008) and after...

October 27th

Since the clocks are about to go back in Britain, announcing the end of the so-called BST (British Summer Time), it is high time I got around to updating this blog. Apologies to anyone who has been awaiting an up date, no excuses really, just a dearth of round tuit availability.

My holidays began in Saga this year, in the last week in July when we travelled down to Kyushu to support our youngest son, Roderick Genki, as he represented his school in the discus and shot-put events of the National Inter-High Track & Field competition. He finished 18th in the shot but managed seventh place in the discus, with a throw of 47.62 metres, just missing the cut for the final. A very creditable achievement for the youngest lad on the field.

The very next day I was on a KLM jumbo bound for the UK, glad to finally escape the sweltering heat. The weather was fair for the first week, but then turned colder, getting down as low as 11° C in mid August. I was obliged to borrow a fleece to keep warm and scrounge an extra blanket for the bed, while my sister turned on the central heating.

During this period I paid my customary visit to St. James’s Park to see the lads turn out against the Villans of Aston Villa. We were in row Y of the Leazes End which made me suffer bouts of vertigo as I gazed down from the dizzy heights. This was the best I could do, queueing up to buy the tickets a few days before, my usual sources having proved barren. We were in good heart on the way to the ground, the Toon had won 1-3 away from home at Bolton on the 11th of August, which we took as a good omen for the new regime of Mike Ashley and Sam Allardyce. The reprehensible Freddie Shepherd was deposed as chairman of the club in a bloodless coup in the close season, bringing forth rejoicing and merriment among most Newcastle supporters.

In the event, the match was dreadful, a dour midfield 0-0 grind with about 3 shots on goal all told. The Villa could have won it had they put themselves about a little better. Newcastle were clueless. I was reduced to scanning the South Tyneside horizon for landmarks, clearly visible from our lofty eyrie, up aheight.

Apart from Wrekenton church, I noticed that the abominable brutalist architecture of Trinity Centre Multi-Storey Car Park in Gateshead was still standing. Built in 1969, this crumbling concrete monstrosity featured in the 1971 British gangster movie Get Carter, starring Michael Caine. Poor construction using raw concrete meant that by the end of the decade the building had deteriorated considerably and was listed for demolition, which was why I was surprised to see it still standing. Apparently certain people, including Sylvester Stallone of all people, felt it should be preserved as a cultural icon on account of its cinematic history and had launched an appeal to save it. Thankfully, such misguided sentimental nonsense has now been thrown out and the latest news is that this wretched symbol of urban decay is scheduled to be gone by the spring of 2008. Not a moment too soon, in the opinion of many on Tyneside and beyond.

On the way back, to compound our despondency, we noticed a pair of drenched and miserable Bactrian camels stood in the pouring rain in a field opposite the pub where we sought post-match sustenance. Part of a travelling circus, as cloven-footed beasts, these unfortunate creatures had been grounded by the governmental response to an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease far to the south in Surrey. There is always someone or something feeling worse than yourself, I suppose. Since that first dreadful home game, the Toon’s fortunes have improved somewhat, and they currently sit in 8th place in the Premier League, played nine, won five, drawn two, lost two. This is the club’s best start to a season in over a decade, so Big Sam must be doing something right.

After that, the weather improved somewhat and I was able to enjoy a day out in Durham where the cathedral cloisters provided some photo-ops.

On the final day, my parents took me down to Hartlepool where a fully restored nineteenth-century sailing frigate can be seen in an open-air reconstructed replica of a Napoleonic seaport. HMS Trincomalee is a Royal Navy Leda-class vessel, built in Bombay in 1817. She was constructed from teak, on account of oak shortages in Britain caused by the demand for naval shipping during the Napoleonic wars. Apparently she is the oldest warship afloat in Britain and is well worth a visit, in all her copper-bottomed glory. Down on the cramped gun deck, among the twenty-eight 18-pounder cannon, you can really get a feel for those days of ‘rum, sodomy and the lash’, as Churchill described it.

Back in Japan, the heat had not gone away and persisted till early October. During this time I noticed a report that the North-West Passage was ice-free. Global warming is a reality and no mistake. It is nearly November, and still the daytime is warm enough to discourage heavy clothing.

Our son’s sporting prowess has continued with him taking gold medals in discus and hammer-throw at the Kinki Youth tournament, first place in the discus at the Kokutai National Sports Meeting and silver medal in the discus last weekend in the All-Japan Youth tournament. Thus was in the city of Oita, in Kyushu at the ‘Big Eye’ stadium, one of the venues of the 2002 World Cup.

We took the motorcycle down to Kyushu on the ferry and enjoyed a little bit of a 2nd honeymoon as this year marked our silver wedding anniversary. Our first honeymoon was in the same area, again by motorcycle. Kitted out with saddle panniers, Black Mariah served us very well over the four day weekend.

The big news recently in Japan was the announcement yesterday that Nova, the largest chain of English language schools, has filed for bankruptcy and suspended operations indefinitely. Around four thousand foreign instructors and two thousand Japanese staff are currently without income. While this is an unfortunate event (especially for the employees), the writing on the wall has been there since June when the company were forbidden by law from recruiting any more students for a period of six months. The courts ruled that their business practice, of only offering partial refunds if a contract was cancelled, was illegal. Personally, I have never heard _anyone_ say _anything_ good about Nova in all the time they have been in operation.
For some years now they have advertised themselves as offering eki-mae ryugaku (overseas study by the train station) and promised that students could have classes at any time of the day or night, 24-7. In practice, the most popular time for an English class is 7 pm on a weekday evening and it soon became obvious that the company’s claim was hollow, leading to widespread dissatisfaction and attempts to cancel contracts for which hundreds of thousands of yen had been paid up front. The June court ruling had the effect of adding to the student exodus.
They also treated their staff very shabbily, having a rule that no social contact could take place between teacher and students outside of class. This was so they could charge extra for ‘free conversation’ in a special non-teaching room in each school and the students would get no language practice without paying for it.

Though I feel sorry for the newly unemployed people I feel a certain satisfaction that justice has been done. I have had disagreements with certain people in the company I work for regarding the timing of classes. ‘If Nova can do it--why can’t you?’ was usually the gist of their argument. Now it has been proven that Nova are a disingenuous outfit (to put it mildly), I feel confident there will be no more such talk.

Now the autumn weather has truly arrived, and the heat exhaustion now history, I will attempt to update this blog more regularly from now on.