AUTHOR GUY PORTMAN'S BLOG

PORTMAN'S PONDERINGS, PROCRASTINATIONS, PREAMBLES, PROGNOSES & PARODIES.

1
The Road to Wigan Pier
2
Hyper Japan 2012
3
La Pandilla Basura
4
Books about North Korea
5
Blog Post 37
6
Fireworks
7
Book Reviews
8
Tokyo Dentist
9
Tokyo
10
Traditional Sushi Dining Experience

The Road to Wigan Pier

This week’s blog post takes the form of a review of The Road to Wigan Pier by George Orwell.

The Road to Wigan Pier by George Orwell

This highly acclaimed and controversial book came into existence as a result of a left-wing publisher by the name of Victor Gollancz commissioning Orwell to make a contribution to what he described as the ‘condition of England’.  Gollancz later decided to include the resulting work in his Left Book Club series.

The first half of the book sees Orwell traveling through industrial Northern Britain, detailing and commenting on the working-class life that he comes across, beginning with his experiences in a squalid boarding house.  In typical Orwellian fashion the prose abounds with vivid descriptions, such as a bedroom smelling like a ferret cage, a full chamber pot under a dining table, the event which finally leads the author to find new lodgings, and a room ‘festooned in grimy blankets’.  A poverty stricken woman struggling to clear a blocked pipe with a stick is one image that is particularly poignant.

Orwell outlines in minutest detail the conditions of the houses that he visits, including the degree of rot, the state of the living rooms, sleeping quarters, sanitation, which is universally outdoors, and even the cooking facilities.  The author’s visits to the coal mines, the cornerstone of industrial England at the time, are not without difficulty as he discovers that his unusually tall frame is ill-suited to the low mine shafts.  Orwell’s fascination with his fellow man is prevalent throughout as he analyses the distance the miners travel each day, their wages, washing facilities and eating habits.  He is very particular and fastidious in this regard, as the detailed tables that are included will testify.  There is even an assortment of photographs inserted in the middle of the book, which capture the essence of working class conditions of the time.

The second half of the book takes the form of a highly critical and opinionated commentary in which Orwell’s Socialist leanings are in evidence throughout, as he argues eloquently about everything from the inevitability of our increased dependence on machinery, to attacking assumptions and prejudices about Socialism and his loathing of Fascism. The author was so opposed to this growing global threat that shortly after writing the book he headed to Catalonia to participate in the Spanish Civil War, in a losing effort against the Fascists.  Despite the assertive and judgmental nature of the text, examples of Orwell’s sense of humor can be found in abundance.

This eloquent commentary, which continues to have political relevance even today, will not be to everyone’s liking, due to the detailed numerical data and relentless opinion.  Those with left wing tendencies, the most ardent Orwell fans and anyone interested to discover more about the working conditions of the day will no doubt embrace this valuable literary contribution wholeheartedly.

There are many more reviews in the Book Review section of this website, including a review of another Orwell book, Down and Out in Paris and London.

Hyper Japan 2012

Last weekend I went to Hyper Japan at The Earls Court Exhibition Centre in London, an event that celebrates J-culture. There were numerous stalls, contemporary and traditional exhibitors and many people dressed up in cosplay.

IMG_0350

さいたまチェーンソー少女
Saitama chainsaw girl

Saitama Chainsaw Girl was an ordinary school girl by the name of Kirisaki Fumio, who after finding out that the boy she liked was interested in someone else went on a killing rampage, culminating with the taking of her own life, harakiri style with a chainsaw. Did I mention she’s a fictional Manga character.

Below is The Fat Princess, eyeing the food items in front of her lustfully. At least I assumed it was the Playstation game character by that name, but thought it best not to ask her.

IMG_0353
Here are some other characters present at the event.

IMG_0356

IMG_0361

There were numerous Japanese culinary delights on sale, including Takoyaki (see below), which have octopus (Tako) in the middle.

takoyaki
(Courtesy of http://recipe4you.blogspot.co.uk/2011/01/takoyaki-cute-balls-from-japan.html)

To date eighty different flavours of KitKats have been created in Japan. Personally I am of the opinion that the original version would have sufficed.

Below is a photo of a shelf of KitKats from one of the stalls.

IMG_0357

Each variety of KitKat represent different prefectures.

Top Row (left to right) is Azuki beans (Tokai), Blueberry Cheesecake (Koshin) & Sweet Potato (Okinawa).
Bottom Row (left to right) is Wasabi (Shizuoka & Kanto), Apple (Shinshu) and Strawberry Cheesecake (Yokohama).

La Pandilla Basura

Having written 38 blog posts (this is my 39th), I was interested to find out how often each post had been viewed, where the visitors were coming from and why.  Fortunately my advanced data skills were not required as Word Press kindly provide a range of statistics.  As anyone who reads my blog will know, posts are about everything from social media to travel, book reviews, London 2012 and random stuff such as crabs (not those kind of crabs) and even Justin Bieber.  Considering my original intention was to use the blog to market my book, Charles Middleworth, it appears that I may have got a little side tracked.

These are the three most viewed posts to date and the number of page views they have received:


1). Garbage Pail Kids                         673

2). Wenlock & Mandeville                  336

3). Twitter Viruses                               270 

Amazed that a nostalgic trip back to a childhood experience about Garbage Pail Kids stickers could have garnered so many views, I was intrigued as to where the visitors were coming from.  Total visitors to the blog have come from 71 countries to date, though evidently no one has told WordPress that The Isle of Man and Guernsey are not countries.

Bizarrely however the majority of viewers of the Garbage Pail Kids related post have been originating from Colombia.  By the middle of October, it appeared the whole nation had gone Garbage Pail Kids ‘loco’ as the phenomenon spread like wildfire through Latin America with considerable Garbage Pail Kids related traffic coming from neighbouring Venezuela, Mexico, Ecuador and Peru, though the Brazilians remained largely unaffected.

With the quantitative analysis now complete it is time for the qualitative, to gain an understanding as to the reasons for Latin America particularly Colombia’s 1980’s nostalgia for all things Garbage Pail Kids or La Pandilla Basura (The Garbage Gang)/Bandistas (Trashlings) as they are known in Spanish speaking Latin America.

Relations between Colombia and Reagan’s America became increasingly strained over the course of the 1980’s, as Colombian cocaina or yeyo (the term made famous by Scarface) flooded the U.S.  In the other direction, in addition to American political and military interference in Colombian affairs came La Pandilla Basura.  By the mid-eighties the ‘American Product’ had become an epidemic, surging through schools and barrios from Barranquilla to Bogota and Cali to Cartagena.  In this Latin American melting pot the ensuing buying and dealing in all things La Pandilla Basura reached a crescendo rarely witnessed even in its American homeland.

Perhaps this plague can be understood as a reflection of the era, as Colombian society at large mirrored the sinister, rebellious and unpredictable nature of La Pandilla Basura’s parody of the ‘saccharine cuddliness’ of The Cabbage Patch Dolls, which had been their inspiration.

This might explain why these adults now desire a nostalgic trip back to their childhoods and are scouring the net for all things La Pandilla Basura.

Or perhaps not.

Books about North Korea

Information relating to North Korea fascinates us.  Take the country’s deceased leader, the despotic platform shoe wearing midget Kim Jong-il’s obsession with films, to having live lobsters airlifted to his private train and his alleged golfing prowess. The Dear Leader once completed a round of Pyongyang’s eighteen-hole golf course in thirty-eight under par, an incredible feat that included eleven holes-in-one.  Even golfing greats such as Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods have never come close to achieving such a score.

(The Dear Leader Kim Jong-il in his prime)

On a more sombre note there is the suffering of the country’s population, particularly during the famine of the 90’s and for the many thousands of people estimated today to be imprisoned in the country’s vast network of prison camps; whose whereabouts are now being revealed to the world by Google Earth.


I have read several fascinating and revealing firsthand accounts of life in this secretive country, including the widely acclaimed book Nothing To Envy by Barbara Demerick and Escape from Camp 14, which I recently reviewed. This week I read The Aquariums of Pyongyang. Please find my review of it below.

The Aquariums of Pyongyang by Kang Chol-Hwan & Pierre Rigoulot

In the preface for this the revised edition, the author Kang Chol-Hwan is living in relative obscurity in South Korea when he is invited to the Oval Office to meet with President George W. Bush to discuss the plight of the North Korean people. The author’s belief is that George W. acted as a divine tool in bringing the plight of North Koreans to the World’s attention. Whilst some of us may have a rather different opinion of George W., there is no doubt that the then president’s influence was of great assistance in bringing this book to international prominence.
After an introduction outlining the recent history of the Korean peninsula, Chol-Hwan begins his life story. Though born in Pyongyang, the capital of North Korea, his family had previously been living in Japan, as ‘zainichi’, Japanese residents of Korean heritage. The family had flourished in their adopted country, accumulating significant wealth. However the author’s grandmother’s communist ideals had eventually led to the family emigrating from Japan and moving to North Korea. A decision they were to later deeply regret.
Chol Hwan reminisces on his early years living in an upmarket city apartment with his family and an assortment of aquariums as a contented time. However this period in his life comes to an abrupt end when aged nine his grandfather allegedly provokes the ire of the authorities and is removed to a prison camp, never to be seen again. A short while later the police arrive at the apartment and as is the custom in North Korea, the immediate family of the political prisoner, though in this case with the exception of the mother, are taken away. After a lengthy journey, the vehicle eventually draws to a halt and the young boy clasping his last remaining aquarium is deposited in his new home, Yodok, a vast, squalid and unsanitary prison camp, surrounded by an electrified fence. A world characterised by relentless hunger, bestial conditions, guard cruelty and the omnipresent threat of punishment and even public execution, an event the author is to later witness.
Despite the punitive working schedule and never ending struggle for survival in this bleak environment, the narrative is interspersed with numerous anecdotes from the author’s time spent at the camp school and interactions with other prisoners.
Ten years after the family’s incarceration, they are informed unexpectedly that they are to be freed, presumably due to the grandfather’s death in another camp. After a period spent working in the provinces, Chol-Hwan escapes and flees across the border, before making the hazardous journey to South Korea and a new life in the capitalist metropolis that is Seoul.
It is unfortunate that a book with such a fascinating subject matter is so poorly narrated. One can only presume the blame lies with the co-author and the translator, as the prose is often awkward, whilst the incessant overuse of commas is intrusive. The reader is left with no emotional attachment to any of the book’s numerous characters and it is as if they are devoid of the emotions, characteristics and habits that make us individuals. The book purports to serve as an account of Chol Hwan’s life, yet it contains the passing of moral judgement on virtually every event and decision that takes place when the facts alone would have sufficed. Nevertheless The Aquariums of Pyongyang serves as a valuable account of life in North Korea, though I would argue considerably inferior to the other two books I have read on the subject; Nothing to Envy and Escape from Camp14.

Blog Post 37

What an eventful week its been.  No sooner was Bonfire Night over than The American Elections were underway and the excitement didn’t end there, for on Thursday it was announced that a former oil executive by the name of Justin Welby would be the next Archbishop of Canterbury.  However for me the most interesting thing that happened this week was that I read Down and Out in Paris and London by George Orwell.  Please find my review of it below.

Down and Out in Paris and London by George Orwell

George Orwell’s first published novel, Down and Out in Paris and London, is an account of the author’s time spent living in abject poverty, first in Paris and later in London.  Having spent his savings and with tutoring work having come to an end, Orwell is nearing destitution.  Teaming up with a resourceful and resolutely proud Russian ex army officer, by the name of Boris; the famished duo struggle ceaselessly to find work, finally gaining employment in the kitchens of the upmarket Hotel Lotti on the Rue de Rivoli.  Plunged into its foul, fetid and hectic kitchens, Orwell outlines in intricate detail the workings of the hotel, the hierarchy of its staff; chefs, waiters and the lowest of all, the dish washers or plongeurs as they are known in French, the position in which he himself is employed.

The second part of the novel sees the author returned to his native land, existing in squalid conditions, reduced to the status of a tramp.  An existence spent travelling from one bug infested doss house to another, whilst surviving on the diet of London’s poor at that time, the ubiquitous tea and two-slices.  Orwell’s compassion, understanding and empathy towards his fellow man is in evidence throughout, both in his observations and the relationships that he forms with a number of poverty stricken characters, including Paddy, a continually complaining yet generous Irish itinerant, and Bozo, a street artist, who despite calamitous circumstances has retained a positivity in his outlook on life.   This compassion for the plight of the poor is enduring and there is never even the slightest hint of derision or disdain for the unfortunate people that he comes across.

The captivating prose and vivid descriptions allows the reader an appreciation of the nature of urban poverty during the early twentieth century, as the evolving young author successfully demonstrates the skills that would later be refined, most notably in his best known works, Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four.

Fireworks

Last night having grown weary of watching the build up to The American Elections, my thoughts turned to fireworks.  Not surprisingly perhaps as we are now merely days away from November 5th, when we English celebrate Guy Fawkes’s failed attempt to blow up The Houses of Parliament in 1605.  The celebrations traditionally take the form of the burning of  ‘the guy’, accompanied by fireworks.

The following blog post is devoted to fireworks, so look away now if you have no interest in fireworks or indeed find them disagreeable.  Fireworks are after all incredibly noisy, potentially injurious and a fire risk, in addition to being an environmental pollutant.

Yesterday I discovered that:

1). The World’s Largest Firework display was in Madeira on the 31st December in 1996.  It lasted for about ten minutes and cost approximately 1 million Euros.  No doubt it was a contributing factor in Portugal’s current debt crisis.  This year Madeira might consider celebrating with sparklers or even using less expensive mini fireworks (see below).

(Courtesy of ww.pyrosociety.org.uk)

2). The World’s Largest Firework Rocket was unveiled at The 12th International Symposium on Fireworks, at yet another Portuguese location, Oporto.  This behemoth weighed an improbable 13.4kg, was 7m metres in length and had a maximum range of 98.37m.  We can only hope the Iranians never get their hands on it.

(Courtesy of www.msnbc.msn.com)

Below is a picture of the Gizmotrix, the World’s largest firework shell.  It has a 48 inch diameter and weighs an enormous 930lbs.  It is launched every September in the town of Katakai town, Ojiya city, as a dedication to the god of the local shrine.

(Courtesy of www.gizmotrix.com)

And below is a picture of what is purportedly the largest Catherine Wheel ever.  It has a diameter of 105 feet and was ignited in Malta on June 18th 2011.

(Courtesy of www.guinnesworldrecords.com)

That’s probably quite enough about fireworks records for one day, so I’ll bid farewell with some well known fireworks related trivia that you can test your family and friends with on Bonfire Night.

  • Fireworks originate in China.
  • Fireworks date back to the 10th Century.
  • Fireworks first came to Europe in the 13th Century.
  • Black powder is the most common fuel found in fireworks.

Click on the link to find out more about my book, Charles Middleworth, a humorous tale of the unexpected.  The first two chapters can be read for free, by clicking on the link below.

CharlesMiddleworth(ch 1-2)

Book Reviews

This week I finished reading two quite remarkable though very different books.  The books were Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee by Dee Brown and American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis.  Please find my reviews for them below:

Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee by Dee Brown

First published in 1970, Dee Brown’s masterpiece is a testament to the plight of the Native Americans in the years 1860-1890.  The author successfully employs a compelling and emotionally charged narrative, as he outlines the history of the various tribes during this turbulent and merciless period in American history.  As the flow of white immigration became an insatiable surge, it pushed ever westwards, encroaching onto the lands of the original inhabitants of this vast country.

This fascinating and compelling account details the noble efforts of individual Native American tribes to maintain their way of life through a multitude of broken promises, treachery, violence and greed that was to ultimately lead to the loss of their liberty and in many instances complete obliteration.

The book allows the reader the opportunity to gain an intricate understanding of these various struggles, including Sitting Bull’s efforts to retain control of The Black Hills and the Apache chief Geronimo’s highly effective guerrilla war.  The author is also equally adept at narrating the less well known yet equally captivating histories of other tribes during this period, such as the Modocs in California, the Utes of Colorado and the flight of the Nez Percés under their charismatic chief Joseph.

The book ends with the massacre of the Sioux at Wounded Knee in 1890, a tragic and avoidable incident, which was to mark the end of an era.

American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis

American Psycho is a highly controversial novel that brought its young author Bret Easton Ellis instant fame.  The book is written from the perspective of a young Wall Street financier, Patrick Bateman.  Patrick is intelligent, well educated, wealthy and good looking, in addition to being a psychopath.

The anti-hero’s bland narcissistic existence revolves around activities such as fretting over dinner bookings at a host of Manhattan’s finest eateries, a rigorous and very particular fitness regime, a dizzying array of beauty products and an underlying obsession with materialism, particularly clothing; his own and others.  Patrick’s relationship with his numerous hedonistic male and female friends and acquaintances is characterised by a universal shallowness, including that with long-time girlfriend Evelyn.

As the book progresses we are drawn into the mindset of a killer plagued by periods of psychosis and an increasingly voracious appetite for debauchery on an epic scale, which includes torture, mutilation and murder.  At times the narrative is truly horrific in its unrelenting scope for savagery, barbarity and misogyny.  Yet the book is often humorous, particularly the numerous comical scenes in which Patrick attempts unsuccessfully to shock people.  Examples of this include asking for a ‘decapitated coffee’ and when referring to mergers and acquisitions as ‘murders and executions’.  The dark comedy lies not merely in the clever word play, but also in the fact that the parties concerned remain utterly oblivious to what is actually being said.

Essentially the book can be viewed as a satire of the yuppies culture of the 1980s, as it is evident that the author is commenting on society’s obsession with the meaningless and trivial, such as our obsession with fashion accessories.  American Psycho is a fascinating, complex, bleak and often comical book that allows one to gain an understanding of the inner workings of a psychopath, whilst at the same time questioning the very essence of capitalist culture.

Tokyo Dentist

Today is my last day in Tokyo.  Having toured the city, visited temples and eaten at exclusive sushi restaurants, there is only one more place to visit; the dentist.

My last visit to a dentist had been some months previous in London.  On entering the premises that day my suspicions had immediately been aroused by the casually dressed receptionist, who despite having never met me before had greeted me by my first name, a habit I deplore.  Moments later an Eastern European hygienist was ushering me towards an archaic looking dental chair.  My efforts at small talk proved unsuccessful, which only added to the sense of impending doom.

Her methods could best be described as agricultural; from the crude probing, to the ghastly sound of the scraping of the hooks against my teeth and the incessant bleeding.  As I squirmed uncomfortably, she would utter, ‘this is not pain,’ repeatedly.

‘I’ll be the judge of that…,’ I had replied on the fifth or sixth occurrence, as I sat up spitting blood into the dentist basin, before rising and departing the room haughtily.  From his position behind the desk, the receptionist enquired as to what was wrong, ignoring him I continued through the lobby.  He reminded me about the outstanding bill.

‘Sue me,’ I shouted, an arc of blood spraying across the desk.

Back in the present these thoughts couldn’t be further from my mind as I recline in the top of the range dental chair.  The array of dental accessories so dexterously employed on my teeth as to give a soothing sensation.  On completion I hold a small hand mirror aloft and view with delight the sight of my Hollywood white teeth, before uttering a torrent of Japanese superlatives to signify my approval.  As I leave the premises, clasping Omiron’s latest innovation in dental care in one hand, the entire staff of the dental practice line up before me and bow deeply in unison, before thanking me for my custom in the most honorific of forms.

Minutes later I am sitting on the train attempting with great difficulty to decipher each of my new Omiron Mediclean HT-B470 electric toothbrush’s features.  I read each one aloud, almost silently.

  • ‘230 mm Length.
  • 120cm power cord.’

Looking up I notice two teenage girls sitting opposite me, whispering animatedly to each other.  I grin widely at them, exposing my ivory white teeth.  One emits a shriek as they both rise in unison and flee down the carriage.  I return my attentions to the Omiron HT-B470’s features once more.

  • ‘48g Weight
  • 25,500 Sound Wave Oscillating’

Thank you to everyone who bought my book, Charles Middleworth.  If you would like to read the first two chapters, click on the link below.

CharlesMiddleworth(ch 1-2)

Click here to read a previous blog post about a Boots home brand toothbrush.

Tokyo

I am travelling on the Tokyo subway.  The carriage despite being half full is silent and this along with the warmth and the constant motion is having a soporific effect.  My eyelids flicker briefly and momentarily I lose consciousness.  When I open them again, I am surprised to see a peculiar man in cross dress sitting opposite me (see picture 1).  Even in Tokyo, a city that quite possibly embraces a wider range of attire than any other place in the world, this is an odd sight and he draws some concerned looks from my fellow train passengers.  I subtly take a photograph with my iPhone, making sure not to draw any unwelcome attention from the subject.

Minutes later and I am at my stop.  I leave the train hastily and head above ground.  Waiting for the lights to change at the zebra crossing in front of me is a multi-coloured individual with bizarrely patterned apparel and hair that is blue on one side and pink on the other, inspired perhaps by a circus clown (see picture 2).  I quickly take a photograph whilst he has his back to me and hurry across the road.

A short while later I am wandering around the fashionable Ginza area when I come across this famous Lottery booth (see picture 3).  Note that the mostly elderly hopefuls are all queuing at booth 1, whilst no one is waiting at the other two booths.  The reason for this is that booth 1 is apparently one of Japan’s luckiest lottery ticket locations.  People travel here from afar in the hope of getting the lucky ticket.  I buy my ticket from booth 2.

It is now evening and I am still in the Ginza vicinity doing nothing in particular other than observing the surroundings, when I stumble across this restaurant under a railway line (see picture 3).  The waitresses are all wearing bizarre uniforms, which appear to me at least have an Alice in Wonderland theme.  Resisting the temptation to rest my weary legs I continue onwards.

Sometime later I notice a rather quaint and incredibly narrow bar (see picture 3).  Quite possibly the world’s narrowest drinking establishment I conclude on entering the premises and ordering a double Suntory whisky on the rocks.

My book, Charles Middleworth, is a humorous tale of the unexpected, available from Amazon in paperback and on Kindle (£1.96/$3.14).

Click on the link below to read the first two chapters for free:

CharlesMiddleworth(ch 1-2)

Traditional Sushi Dining Experience

I have been to numerous sushi restaurants in Japan, but none quite like the one in which I am now sitting, ideally located many hundreds of miles south of the leaking Fukushima nuclear plant.  This particular restaurant is so popular that to avoid disappointment, bookings should be made at least a month in advance.  On entering the premises, there is surprise that the dining area consists of a single counter with six seats and I wonder how the establishment could possibly turn a profit from so few seats.  I bid the chef and my fellow diners Kombanwa (Good evening), then sit down and order a beer.  I am informed that I will be not be drinking beer but rather green tea, as it does not interfere with the taste of the sushi.  With some assistance, I inform the waitress that I will take my chances with the beer.  This proves to no avail.  Apparently traditional sushi restaurants only serve green tea.

Admonishing myself for my ignorance, I inspect the ornate dining utensils in front of me, see Picture 1.  The dripping water visible behind the counter is to wash ones hands after each serving.  Picture 2 is of the sushi counter, if you were wondering what the white substance is, it is salt.

The meal consists of eighteen separate servings.  Not only is each sushi exquisitely presented, but they are perfection, quite superior in fact to any I have previously encountered.

My particular favourites are the tuna, which literally melts in the mouth and the sea eel which is soft, succulent and served warm.  There is even poisonous puffer fish sushi (see image ); a local speciality.  The waitress constantly replaces our cups of green tea, so as to keep the liquid at the perfect temperature to cleanse the pallet after each serving.

Having finished the meal, I continue sipping green tea, contemplating on how this has been the best sushi experience of my life. Sometime later a diner to my left remarks in broken English that I am looking a little green and suggests it might be a result of the poisonous puffer fish.  The chef casts a nervous glance in my direction.  They need not be concerned; my complexion is merely the result of the contents of the bill.  It is now abundantly clear how the restaurant is able to operate with so few seats.

My book, Charles Middleworth, is a humorous tale of the unexpected.  It is available from Amazon in paperback and on Kindle (£1.96/$3.14).

Click on the link below to read the first two chapters for free:

CharlesMiddleworth(ch 1-2)

Copyright © 2015. Guyportman's Blog

%d bloggers like this: