31 January 2013


Excellent Anne Hathaway as Fantine
Les Miserables? I thought he was a comedian from Bradford - big on the working man's club circuit. Then I realised the film's title was in French so it was probably going to be about the SMT (Senior Management Team) at my old school in Sheffield - The Miserable Ones. Funny that isn't it? Back home the majority of teachers are such anxious, miserable s.o.b.'s that it is engrained in their faces - and they say that education should be enlightening!

But as I settled down into my plush cinema seat at the Major Cineplex in Ratchayothin, north Bangkok it suddenly dawned on me that I was about to watch a musical based on Victor Hugo's famous novel and not SMT members launching yet another tiresome "initiative" or dashing about school corridors chanting their silent mantra - "Do as I say, not as I do!".

The opening sequence of "Les Miserables" was awesome with hundreds of convicts and slaves pulling a broken warship into the dock of some French seaport as Russell Crowe's character Javert looked down from the high wall above - asserting justice, harshly protecting the righteousness of the French state.

I don't know if Anne Hathaway herself was singing the Susan Boyle song "I Dreamed a Dream", but this was a very moving section of the film and if the sound had been muted I would have still marvelled at Hathaway's emotional portrayal of this awful nadir in her character Fantine's tragic and economically blighted life.

The costume, make-up and hair in this excellent production deserve huge applause. There was such dirty, rotten detail in the players' fingernails and teeth. Sitting in a theatre with Dolby digital surround sound literally surrounding you really heightened the impact of the movie. However, having enjoyed the London stage version of this famous musical there was something inordinately odd about a film plot that was advanced almost entirely through song. A dark cinema allows for a more intimate, private experience than a West End theatre customarily provides. I am not inclined to follow suit by conducting professional and private communication through song as I fear this would soon involve the arrival of an unmarked van from the nearest lunatic asylum! But hey, I am still glad I bothered to go and see "Les Mis" and from me it gets a thumbs up for sure.

30 January 2013


Our Eden

We had our Eden
Beyond festooned lianas
And green ginger bushes
Where the sucking fig tree pushes
Up, up to the pristine blue
And  iridescent scorpions
Creep from secret lairs
As  invisible gibbons
Caterwaul across the canopy
Cacophonous cadences
From pre-history
And where retreating shadows
Define and deepen the verdure
Magical yet fearsome
There but not there
In the gathering gloom of dusk
A young bull levers his tusks
To ransack sweet bamboo
Still wild in his fleeing forest
Still blaming me and you.

28 January 2013


Arguably, I was born to be a teacher. Not in a stable but in the front bedroom of a Yorkshire schoolhouse - my father being the headmaster of the village school. Not long after I first learnt to walk, I would toddle next door and roam from classroom to classroom like the school mascot.

At Christmastime, when I was fifteen, I even filled in for the school caretaker - who was poorly - scrubbing every classroom floor and polishing all the windows. At eighteen, as I have blogged before, I was successful in my application to become a Voluntary Service Overseas teacher and was posted to Fiji. Upon my return, I completed a joint honours degree in English Studies and Education in Scotland before working for thirty two years in three South Yorkshire secondary schools.

Such an illustrious career! But towards the end of it, teaching could sometimes be like minding prisoners, spoilt brats or lunatics. You had to work so hard to keep your ship afloat and frequently potentially wonderful and well-planned lessons could be scuppered by reluctant, recalcitrant and downright lazy kids whose manners were sometimes quite appalling. I could tell you such stories of the sheer crap I had to endure just to get that monthly salary payslip.
Kids turning up ten minutes late for lessons without explanation or apology. Dozens of kids without pens or schoolbags. Kids answering mobile phones in lessons. Kids storming between classrooms to pick fights. Kids swearing like troopers. Kids stealing keys, DVDs, library books. Kids flicking to computer games when "working" on computers. Truants returning suddenly after three weeks off and saying a little angrily, "I don't know what we're doing!" Kids fighting. Kids plastering wads of chewing gum under their tables. Kids so lazy that sometimes you'd be lucky to get a five sentence paragraph out of them in forty minutes of "work". Kids whose homework performance was so poor that there was no way you could blend homework tasks with classroom activities - it just wouldn't work. I could go on and on but I won't...

Instead let's flick to Bangkok on a typical Tuesday in late January and let's focus on my Year 10 class - aged fourteen and fifteen. I have set them a research task which will transform into a "speaking and listening" presentation. They have to stand at the front and talk for two minutes about a particular country that I have told them to investigate for homework.

They have all done the homework. They all have memory sticks or "flash drives" containing their background Powerpoint slides. They all have bags and pens - and smiles of course. They all applaud their classmates both before and after their speeches. They all answer my supplementary questions. They all do their best and there is absolutely no fuss. No one is saying, "I'm not doing it!" or "I weren't here when it was set!" and no one is mocking or disrespectful. Okay they are a bit nervous about the task but nobody is backing out because this is what the teacher has told you to do so you do it. You just get on with the job like a proper student.

Proper student - yes, that's a term I often used in Sheffield when troubleshooting for other harassed teachers. Sit down. Listen to what you have to do and get on with it to the best of your ability - like a proper student. Good heavens, these friendly, focussed Thai children could teach many English kids a thing or two and if our children conducted themselves like my Thai pupils there'd be no need for highly paid teams of school inspectors to tour Britain  "kicking ass" in the name of higher standards. You can lead horses to water but you cannot make them drink.

26 January 2013


I have always had mixed feelings about zoos. They seem to be something of a hangover from the nineteenth century when wealthy societies brought exotic animals home for the amusement of  inquisitive citizens who were beginning to discover that there could be more to life than just work. But what do you do in Bangkok when your Saturday social diary is curiously empty? You can keep the city's massive shopping malls - not my cup of tea at all. Instead I decided to visit the zoo that King Rama V initiated over a hundred years ago following his royal tour of Europe.

I showed the taxi driver my city map pointing to the zoo and said "Suat Dusit! Suat Dusit!" which means Dusit Park. Instead this dumb sucker took me to a hotel to the east of the city centre called The Dusit something or other, in spite of me twice showing him the map again when we were stuck in Bangkok's predictable traffic jams clearly going in the wrong direction. Perhaps he was blind - not the best characteristic for a cab driver. Anyway we got there in the end for twice the expected fare but still only £4 ($7).

I had a lovely lunch in the restaurant by the lake that you can see to the left of the third photograph and I observed some interesting creatures even though I felt like setting a lot of them free - especially those larger caged birds that had no room to fly. Here's a sample of what I saw:-
Green tree python
Smooth skinned otter
Lake with view to King Rama V's Dusit Palace
Asian elephant with very dexterous trunk
Bengal tiger watching the world go by. Up The Tigers!
Malayan Sun Bear at feeding time. Until today I had no
idea that this creature even existed

24 January 2013


Have I passed the medical? Lord knows. Will I ever get to see the results? I doubt it. What I do know is that they took my blood pressure twice and in broken English I believe the doctor said I had slight hypertension - whatever that might mean. Like Shooting Parrots's father, I have always tried to stay clear of hospitals and doctors' surgeries even though Shirley is of course a nurse.

So there I was at the Vipavadi Hospital filling in forms with the help of Mr Somsak from the school's Human Resources Department. The Thais love forms and bureaucracy. I guess it keeps many people in work.  I was led from reception to the medical check-up section which must be a virtual piggy bank for the hospital authorities. There was a small army of nurses there all in pale lilac uniforms with nurses' paper hats decorated with different bands of purple which no doubt indicated their different ranks.

Blood sample, urine sample, blood pressure, weight, height, X-ray, cardiogram printout, reflexes, stomach pummelled, intimate inspection, second blood pressure test and the ancient Thai doctor with liver spots asking me if I took illegal drugs. I feel as fit as a fiddle but I will wait with bated breath to see if they have failed me. It's all about the big insurance company that owns the school and the limiting of their liabilities.
Koren woman from northern hilltribe
But that wasn't what I wanted to write about. What I wanted to reflect upon was Thailand's tourism strapline - "The Land of Smiles". Is it deserved? In the Vipavadi Hospital I observed a lot of smiling at reception, at the nurses' stations, in the X Ray room and from the ancient doctor himself. The senior nurse was a radiantly smiling supervisor and she attracted many smiles in return from her staff.

A lovely feature of teaching here is the smiles that can often fill your classroom with warmth. When I greet children they almost universally smile at me and on my walk to work I smile at the streetcleaner and the motorcycle taxi men in their orange jerkins and little Cheera my cleaner and Koy and Nem (I think that's her name) - the receptionists. The lowly paid school cleaners and the catering staff smile at me but what I mostly notice is how readily Thai people smile at each other. In general, there seems to be a lot of human warmth around - though of course I will admit that when you breeze in to an unfamiliar culture, you might not always read the signals correctly - missing subtle undercurrents.

Though there are smiles and the pervasive influence of the Buddhist faith is ever present, there's also great poverty here and for some people survival cannot be easy. There are also drug cartels, a rich overclass of tax dodgers, corrupt police officers, prostitution, occasional murders and political unrest but in spite of all of that I hope I'll remember the smiles. For me the strapline is entirely apposite. Mind you, for my part, I might not be smiling if they say I have failed this afternoon's medical because that would mean I'd soon be flying homewards.

22 January 2013


My £8 a night bungalow at Khao Yai
Jungle guide Beer holds a yellow whipsnake that I also held - feeling its
subtle smoothness as it wove its way expertly back to the greenery
Jungle shadows which I have posted especially for
The Blogger of the Year in New Zealand. 
The scorpion that Beer pulled from its sleepy lair. He thought it would be funny toput this
handsome fellow on my muscular upper arm - like a living tattoo
Beer tried to take a photo of a swinging gibbon by pressing my SLR against
his telescope. As you can see - it didn't really work.
Salty lake in the middle of the jungle where elephants come to drink and
defecate in the early morning. It is called Nong Phak Chi.

21 January 2013


How quiet the jungle. Following our light-footed guide, it seems we are circling though we are going straight. The leaf litter is dry beneath our feet and there are no leeches. Occasionally we hear birds high in the canopy. There are dark holes where creatures live – scorpions, snakes and small mammals. Vines hang like electric cables or wind their way up to the light. Some of the trees are three hundred years old but behind us a rotten branch crashes to the ground, landing with an almighty thud.

How cool the jungle and how old. The light is dappled. Occasionally shafts of sunlight descend like spotlights on the lower greenery. We are in Eden. In this very forest wild elephants live, honey badgers, timid jungle deer, macaques and gibbons and perhaps the very last of the region’s tigers. We hear cacophonous gibbons calling, defining their territory. Sometimes we step over great fists of elephant dung. It is good to be in the jungle.

We see ants and termites and leaves glued together by spiders. Perhaps it’s because it’s January but the jungle seems friendlier to homo sapiens than I expected. In the pick up truck, I was the idiot with the shorts, sandals and tiger T-shirt. The other five looked as though they were sponsored by outdoor clothing companies – boots, goretex tops, fleeces, mountain trousers, jungle hats and insect spray. Unnecessary as it turned out but they’re nice people.

There’s thirty something Zandra and Tomasz from Prague, a delightful lesbian couple from Magburg - Irina and Natalie, and Connie who is also German and a stone restorer who has pedalled her bicycle from Chiang Mai, through Laos – travelling over 2000 kilometres in forty five days. They all speak passable English and we chat happily through the day tour which lasts a full twelve hours.

Our guide, Beer, seems desperate that we should see wild elephants and after the jungle trek we are back in the Toyota pick up truck, travelling this way and that along the national park’s network of roads, looking for these elusive elephants. It’s when the sun is setting and the forest is being absorbed by the shadows of early evening that we finally see a young bull elephant five metres from the road. It’s as if he’s there but not there. You hear him more than you see him in the gathering gloom. He’s crashing into a small bamboo grove. His tusks are his main give away. Otherwise he might have just been shadows.

He’s munching the bamboo and then he leaves pushing deeper into the pristine forest. I kind of like it that we saw him in these circumstances – mysterious and unphotographable. And I feel sad that the human race is gradually destroying these natural forests or turning them into virtual theme parks. There are far, far too many of us for that young bull elephant and the gibbons calling to us from pre-history. All too soon they will be gone.

16 January 2013


Another week at school. This one has been going faster... In "Pavilion One" this afternoon, I went to a British universities fair - where representatives of different British universities literally set up their stalls to attract Thai students to their campuses. I was delighted to see my old alma mater in the corner - The University of Stirling. I chatted with the young Scottish rep and cadged a free pen from her while surveying an aerial photograph of my old stomping ground.... That's where I was assaulted by two Rangers fans...That's where I had to sprint like the wind while being pursued by two security guards and that's the Gannochy sports centre where the best lunches were served... and there's The Wallace Monument. Not a bad job to have - travellng the world to promote your old university. I could do that.
Anyway, I hope to get out of Bangkok this weekend - zoom off from school at 3pm and after picking up my gear get a taxi to the Mo Chit bus station. There I'll be looking for a bus to Pak Chong. It should take about three hours and then I'll need to get on a local pick up truck that will take me to this school's other campus on the edge of the Khao Yai National Park. It will be late when I arrive but I have reserved a hut in the country school's campus. On Saturday morning, another pick up truck should arrive to take me on an all day guided tour of the park - with walking, wild elephants, macaws, monkeys, pythons and green mysterious jungle with shadows, spiders, leeches and other creepy crawlies. It will be an adventure if of course I ever make it to Pak Chong.

And if I survive, I'l report back in the coming days...

14 January 2013


On Sunday, after repeatedly plunging my dirty washing in a big blue bucket I bought from Tesco Lotus - and then hanging it outside to dry, I went out to the wacky races roadway and flagged a taxi  down. I was off to Rot Fai Park to do what many northern Bangkokians do on a Sunday - hire a bicycle and pedal away round the park's tree-shaded circuit.

Halfway round there's a butterfly house with free admission and it's there that I managed to snap these two specimens. Here's the rhymosia plagueus or Georgia Dandy, a gaudy creature that is only happy when it has got its proboscis deep inside a nectar-filled blossom:-
And here's the johannes grayus or the Welsh Earl, a flamboyant butterfly that is equally intent on proboscis plunging though here it is resting on netting after a particularly torrid session in the herbaceous border:-
After a delightful thirty baht lunch in the park, I walked a mile or more along Phaloyothin Road towards Major Cineplex at Ratchayothin. Outside the refurbished Central Plaza I watched a Honda car smashed by a bus. The stupid driver cannot have been looking and her car was shunted forwards sideways on as you can see from the picture I took a minute or two after the accident.

What seemed pretty amazing to me is how the two women in the vehicle climbed out through the passenger door and proceeded calmly to make mobile phone calls. Then the bus driver and his conductor got out of the bus and did the same. Neither party communicated with each other and there was no "Are you hurt love?" or "Why weren't you looking you silly cow!" The women stayed on their side of the car and the two men stayed on their side. They didn't even look at each other and then the helmeted policeman arrived. The calmness of it all was typically Thai. By the way, the windows on the driver's side were shattered and the driver's door was caved in.

Then I hiked onwards to the grand marble  penthouse apartment of the Bangkok-Boothies where I snapped this picture of the young lady who is the reason I am in Thailand a second time. It's Baby Alexa aged three weeks. She's looking at Sir Yorkshire Pudding as if to say "Daddy, who is this man with the big camera and why is he pointing it at me?" She will very probably still be alive in the year 2100 but sure as hell I won't be:-
"I don't want rusks, I want Yorkshire Pudding!"

12 January 2013


A road known as Sukhumvit heads eastwards from Bangkok's central zone. Branching off from it are various little lanes - what the Thais call "sois". Down Sukhumvit's sois you will find various businesses that cater largely for visitors - English pubs, massage parlours, sex shows and a variety of restaurants. On Saturday evening I visited one Sukhumvit restaurant that goes by the curious name of "Cabbages and Condoms".

It provided a lovely, airy environment for dining in - with thousands of fairy lights, gingham tablecloths and various art installations made from coloured condoms. As Christmas is not long past, there was a Christmas tree and an enormous Santa each made entirely from condoms. Even lampshades were made from the same latex sheaths that will undoubtedly be very familiar to several visitors to this blog includingCENSORED BY BLOGGER

Perhaps it all sounds rather tacky but I tell you it wasn't. The food was excellent and I was in the company of several of my adopted school's teachers - some with their partners. It seems there is a message behind the establishment's use of condoms - about staying safe and family planning and a portion of the restaurant's profits go to supporting the fight against AIDS - surely a much worthier war than the pointless horror that is still happening in Afghanistan.

The meal was very pricey for Bangkok - around £15 or $25 - with a starter, two Singha beers and a gorgeous dessert of sticky coconut rice and slices of fresh mango. In contrast my very palatable lunch in the food court above Tesco Lotus cost me just over £1. Cabbages and Condoms eh? Whatever names will they think of next? Nectarines and Nipples? Bananas and Birth Control Pills? Not the kind of restaurant names that would usually attract me, that's for sure.

11 January 2013


Alan Greaves
A week before Christmas, I happened to be in one of Sheffield's suburban villages - High Green. It is a mixed community with affluence and deprivation sitting side by side. I guess that Alan Greaves (aged 68) belonged to the former category having spent his working life as a social worker. He was comfortably off and like Mr Brague (of "Rhymes with Plague") a church organist. He and his wife did good things in the local community and had recently set up a food bank facility for needy families.

On Christmas Eve, at around 11pm, Alan set off on the short walk from his home to St Saviour's Church on Mortomley Lane. He was to play the church organ at the traditional midnight mass but sadly he never got there for close to Mortomley Park, he was struck to the ground by a pair of young thugs who were no doubt looking for easy money to fund their pathetic lifestyles. I very much doubt they meant to kill Alan but that's what happened. He lay on the pavement leaking blood from a head wound till midnight when a passer-by found him and called an ambulance. But it was too late - this kindly husband, father and grandfather and "quiet man" died a few days later in hospital.

I guess this suburban horror story had even greater resonance for me as I had walked over the very spot where he was attacked just a few days before. He was a good man. a religious man but his goodness was no defence on Christmas Eve. He deserves to rest in peace just as his selfish assailants deserve to rot in prison. I know that the entire High Green community is still grieving over this tragedy but it hurts us all. Never ask for whom the bell tolls...

10 January 2013


Hot in Bangkok

It squashes
Suppressing protest
Like an invisible
As still as stillness

Reclining Buddha, Wat Po, Bangkok
By liquid gas
Belch heat
Like oven doors
To test
Fat slabs of meat
Still roasting.

Hanging above
The Vipavadi Rangsit Road
Like an unflappable marquee
A milk-treacle haze
As winter warmers
The vicious sun

And a one-eyed dog
Barely budges
As a silent woman
In a bamboo hat
Gradually sweeps
Rutted concrete
Pausing only
To check texts
In the cloying heat.

8 January 2013


Bangkok to Earth! Bangkok to Earth! This is Commander Pudding contacting you from Planet Thailand. You will (hopefully) be pleased to learn that I am still alive even though I have been thwarted by a series of technical issues connected with emailing, blogging and simply just getting onto the worldwide web. These difficulties have demonstrated to me just how much the internet has become an integral part of my life - like a familar shadow.
Last time I was in Thailand
I am having to type this in the school's best computer room with speedier machines than the clunky old battleship of a machine that resides in my airconditioned classroom.

Over at my accommodation, everything's pretty good. It's a fifteen minute walk from the school passing the wacky races track into town from the northern suburbs of the city - three lanes of thundering, weaving traffic - sometimes grinding to a halt and never short of cars - even in the middle of the night. My "Serene" compound is like a little oasis in the middle of the hustle and bustle. When walking to work, I pass two thirty storey accommodation blocks that were still in the processof construction when I was last here. This is very much a city that is still developing.

I see no signs of the awful floods of August and September 2011 but the little Thai lady who cleans my garden apartment told me in her faltering Englsih how awful it had been for the city's underclass. "We cry," she said.

I have a Year 8 class to teach very shortly so I can't write much more. This is Thailand's coolest month but you could have fooled me. Even at six thirty this morning the air was a sticky twenty eight degress centigrade and it will build to the mid-thirties by the afternoon. Not sleeping very well yet - still finding  a natural sleep pattern. I am so used to a solid, undisturbed seven hours.

By the way, Baby Alexa is a lovely child. I held her in my arms on Saturday though I had forgotten how tiny and floppy little babies can be.... I shall blog again before too long. Sorry for the delay....Over and out - Commander Pudding (Planet Thailand)

2 January 2013


The Rotunda, Stainborough Park - New Year's Day walk
I'm not sure how I felt the night before I last flew to Thailand but tonight jungle butterflies are flapping their wings crazily in my stomach. It's like my mind and my body are reacting to the prospect of what's about to happen - flying half way round the world to another way of living in the hazy tropical heat of Bangkok. No longer will my days be my own to make of them what I will. Instead, I'll be in an air-conditioned school, obeying the commands of the classroom clock. And I'll be thousands of miles away from my nice Yorkshire life with Shirley and the paths of the Peak District, thousands of miles from Hull City's promotion campaign and my local pub where I am well-known and well-liked.

Of course it could all go pear-shaped. The Bangkok school is effectively owned by a big Thai insurance company and all employees have to undergo a rigorous medical which includes a blood sample, urine sample, weighing scales, height measurement, blood pressure and worst of all in the case of male teachers -dropping your kegs so that the doctor can squeeze the victim's testicles and examine one's old lad. Not the kind of activity I normally choose. Last summer an ex-pat teacher was sent home because he failed the medical and last time I had mine, the school secretary knew the fine details of my - presumably confidential - examination. No wonder she later kept fluttering her eyelashes at me. So anyway, I might be back home next Monday. After all that rich Christmas fayre and New Year's Eve boozing I'm definitely not at peak fitness just now.

It's another adventure. And at my age I know that I am lucky to have it presented to me on a plate. For this I thank my former apprentice - Gordon whose lovely wife has now produced a healthy little girl called Alexa. She was born just before Christmas and is the reason I'm Thailand bound in the morning. Hopefully, I will see her on Friday afternoon.

Our daughter Frances will come out to South East Asia in mid-February - partly to see me and partly to visit an old school friend in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. That's something to look forward to. She never really had a "gap year" like many of her well-travelled friends - even though she spent a year at university in Birmingham, Alabama. It will be a much different world for her to taste.

So that's it. My mammoth suitcase is filled with essentials and the next time I make a blogpost it will come to you from Bangkok. The plane leaves from Manchester tomorrow afternoon - Dubai first and then onwards over India to Thailand. If the experience is half as good as it was last time I'll be very happy. Adios!