Mark Halliday and I have three short plays in the new issue of The North. By which I mean, three short plays what we wrote together, not three short plays each. That would be six plays, but it's not. It's three. We collaborate almost to the point of insanity and inanity. But it's good to be a play writer as well as a poem writer, I think. Actually, I'm a bit fed up of being a poem writer, so I might just be a play writer. Who knows? Anyway, also in that issue of The North is an article by me, "A Day In The Life Of...." which is perhaps very fine but it's not as fine as it might be because it's not the version they should've published. I think they've published the first draft I sent them to check whether what I was doing was anything like what they wanted. The final version was longer and, I think, more interesting. I'm a little pissed off with them for publishing the wrong version, but this is poetry world and you get used to such things. I once had a poem published in a magazine and it was backwards. Last verse first, first verse last..... the middle one was in the right place though, so give them credit for that. Of course, nobody noticed. Anyway, I'm putting the proper version of the article here, partly because I want it to see daylight, and partly because I'm going to China tomorrow and it seems apt. At least, it does to me. (Oh, no more E&D until I get back. Early April. If I come back..... I guess I will.)
So anyway, what follows was written last September.....
A DAY IN THE LIFE
It’s morning. At least, I think it’s the morning. Have you slept well? I awaken to the sound of rush hour traffic making its way into the centre of Nottingham. It’s early September, and at the moment I’m not working (working as in “have a job”) because my new “job” as Royal Literary Fund Fellow at Nottingham Trent University doesn’t officially begin until October 1st. I’d like to go back to sleep, but I’m not very good at going back to sleep after 8 in the morning, and so I don’t. I turn on the bedside radio to listen to the Today programme. There’s nothing like having a few politicians piss you off first thing in the morning.
I just spent two years in China, sub-tropical China to be exact, at a university in the relatively new city of Zhuhai (20 years ago what is now Zhuhai was just 2 or 3 tiny fishing villages: booming China) to be exacter, in an apartment on a 5-year old campus which to be even more exacter is some 35 kilometers outside the city in a green valley, and there I’d wake up around four, awoken by the trucks and machinery on the site of the new high-speed light railway being built to link downtown Zhuhai (where it borders Macau) with Guangzhou, the site a very long but not impossible stone’s throw from my balcony. I can go back to sleep at 4; that’s not so tricky. Then at 6 I’d wake up to the alarm clock and the slightly annoying but also curiously reassuring sound of the chap sweeping the street below. There’s no litter, only the almost insignificant dead foliage falling from the trees, but it was swept up continually. Full employment in China can be explained by the fact that even when there’s nothing much to do someone is employed to do it. Of course, that someone earns almost nothing, and will almost certainly live in conditions we in the West would not tolerate, and even perhaps find hard to believe: last year I spent a few days at a friend’s house in the countryside. It was a tiny village, and she came from a poor family. Her father worked on the land, her mother had three very menial part-time jobs. The house, if you can call a small concrete box a house, had no running water, no heating, and when you sat in the living room, or what passed as the living room, you could look up at the ceiling, which was the roof, or what passed as the roof, and you could see the sky. It was February and cold, and in the evening for warmth we huddled around charcoal being burned in a wok placed in the middle of the floor.
But anyway –
Two years in China as an ESL teacher is, was, let’s face it, a working holiday, an escape, two years away from this England. And as one of the handful of foreign teachers on a campus of some 15000 students you are, let’s also face it, something of a superstar. I’m not going to mention how around 75 per cent of the students were girls, because that would be a digression, and a distraction, if not for you then certainly for me.
So here I am in England, this England, in Nottingham, in my new apartment, a 20-minute walk from the city centre, and it’s rush hour and I’m not rushing anywhere today. There’s nowhere to rush to, and anyway I think my rushing days are over. In China I learned to take my time; everyone else does, unless they’re getting on a bus, and then it’s every man woman boy or girl for themselves and the devil take the hindmost. I’m not proud of elbowing little old ladies to one side, but sometimes you have to do stuff you’re not proud of. I am also pretty good at it.
And this is a day in the life, it’s supposed to be around a thousand words or so, I’m approaching five hundred, and I’ve only just woken up. Perhaps I should say how I leap out of bed and write the opening lines of a great new poem; how I leaf through the latest West House Books pamphlet while waiting for the coffee to brew; how while sipping the fresh coffee I check my e-mails and accept a variety of invitations to read here, lecture there, judge a competition, appear on Radio 4. But when they come to write the life of this poet there will be endless chapters about how I sprawled back on the bed, sipping coffee and thinking about whether or not I would go to the supermarket before or after lunch, and which supermarket would it be today? There is such a choice in this England, this Nottingham, this city.
In China the choices were different. They have their version of what we have, naturally. There are supermarkets and shops and cars (although not so many of the latter as you might think) and pretty much everyone has a cellphone, even the guy sweeping the trees up probably has a cellphone. Foreign teachers earn way above the average Chinese wage, and so can live very well. All I needed to do for supplies was stroll across the campus to one of the several supermarkets in school, and pick up a few bits and pieces for the day. I’m a good cook, sort of, but I almost never cooked in the two years I was there; my friends and I ate out. And drank out. It was hot, and the beer was cold. Lots of the time, most of the time, we ate outside, and drank outside. There were a lot of privately-owned restaurants in school, and just outside the school was a little town called Jin Ding. It’s one of the dirtiest places I’ve ever been to, but it had great food. We would often eat at the street barbeques there, alongside the factory workers, in among the regular beggars. And further away but worth the long and often excruciating bus ride downtown Zhuhai really buzzes. The open air bars on the main shopping street had a certain attraction, not all of it technically legal.
Among the places I visited in China were the three largest cities: Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou. Guangzhou was pretty near, so I went there quite a lot, and some of my students lived there and we hung out sometimes, so I got to know my way around pretty well. In each one, for reasons best known (and kept) to myself, I at some time or another found myself walking around the streets on my own in the middle of the night, sometimes at two or three in the morning. The bars stay open late, and I like to explore. And never once did I feel threatened, or scared, or in any kind of danger. Were you to ask me to walk around the centre of Nottingham at midnight I’d be reluctant. It’d be stupid of me to say that crime and violence and all of those disturbing things don’t happen in China, but the difference is astonishing. Back here, now, I feel the difference so much.
People ask me if I wrote poems in China. Yes, I wrote poems in China. It’s what I do, but I don’t do it every day because for me that’s impossible. I just do it when it feels like it’s there to do. I’m not sure those poems from China have any sign of a Chinese influence. Well, that’s not strictly true. There is no sign of a Chinese influence at all, except that stuff from my Chinese days turns up in some of the poems, like stuff from my English days turns up in poems I write here. And some of my Chinese friends are in the poems.
Meanwhile, back in Nottingham, I’ve had my breakfast and while I have all this free time on my hands I’m studying Chinese every morning. You’d think maybe China would be a great place to learn Chinese, and I’m sure it is, but when all your students want to talk English with you, and when you are too hot and tired after teaching to do anything other than have a few beers and relax, then learning a language as difficult as Chinese is a tall order. I learned some, with the help of some students, but I have a long way to go. But since I want to go back, and imagine I’ll go repeatedly back, because something about the country seems to have found a place in my blood and heart, I want to learn the language as well as I can. But it’s tough, believe me. At the moment I’m looking around for a native Chinese speaker in Nottingham to help me out; the place will be full of them when the overseas students arrive for the new term, so maybe I’ll find someone.
I can skip through the rest of my day here, now, pretty easily. Read. And write if I feel like it. Keep my website up-to-date. Doze. Eat. Read some more.
I’m still in touch with a lot of my Chinese students, and chat with them on the internet most days. There’s a seven hour time difference, so it means we chat when it’s late afternoon here and getting on their bedtime there. They are so wonderful. I miss them to bits. I think about them, and then I look out of my kitchen window, and it looks out down along a street with some nondescript offices in it, and whenever I walk down that street during the day there are office workers standing around outside their buildings smoking. They always look kind of miserable, but perhaps I’m imagining that, perhaps I think they should be miserable and so I think they are.
Not that the Chinese people are endlessly happy. Christ no. Far from it. They have their problems and foreigners can’t even begin to come close to understanding exactly what they are. For example, I talked with students who were under so much pressure to succeed, because they had to earn money in the future to repay and to care for their parents who were breaking their necks to put them through school, and some of the kids were almost in tears because they felt they couldn’t do it. So much pressure to succeed, and almost every other kid their age is trying to do exactly the same. Hundreds and thousands, perhaps millions of them. Booming China. But will there be jobs? And if there are jobs, will girls get them? It’s still a very male-dominated society. Then there’s the problem of corruption, within political life and business life. Even the government admits as much, but it’s a token admission, as they punish a few high-profile culprits and all across what is admittedly a huge and probably extremely difficult country to govern countless other examples of corruption and abuse go unhindered. Most of which sounds like something you might read in a broadsheet here, but I have no reason to doubt the basic truth of it. Chinese people will tell you these things happen.
Meanwhile, back here, there’s also a small crisis: I forgot to get any milk this morning, so I have to go to the petrol station down the road to get some. It’s late afternoon, and the people I heard going to work in the morning are now on their way home. If you look into the cocoons, I mean cars, I have no idea if they’re happy or not, and I don’t know if I care. The day I write this, I’ve been back in England, this England, just under five weeks, and at the moment I’d like to be somewhere else.
Finally, before I go, and apropos nothing at all, you don't get out of here without some music:
and if you dig the shirt, they have them on offer at the moment in H&M...... and if you're wondering why he's on the phone in the video, or how he gets his voice to sound all weird while standing in a canal, I have absolutely no idea......