Fifth news item

"You've Got to Sleep With Your Mum and Dad" is now available on Amazon. Childhood angst, marathon swimming, international exploitation and the threat of impending pinniped intimacy. on 2014-08-13
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Fourth news item

Have a look at my page on Amazon. Still plenty of summer left for challenging literature. on 2014-08-13
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Third news item

Check out my Amazon Kindle page. 'The Baby Who Killed People for Money' is now available. An utterly charming child with a unique and lucrative skill. A father with no defence against his daughter's impulses. Would you take your little girl around Europe for a spot of murder tourism? Of course you would. on 2014-06-30
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Second news item

My story on the Tate gallery website on 2013-11-11
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First news item

A Thousand Natural Shocks An anthology that includes two of my stories. Available now at Amazon. on 2013-11-11
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January 2021
« Jul    

From the moment we alighted on the platform at Guangzhou and a young woman grabbed Stephanie’s breast and hissed, “Change money!” we could see that we would be faced with some unanticipated cultural differences. Some of the most drastic were related to opposite ends of the digestive system: food and toilets.

My first experience of a Chinese public toilet was in Guangzhou. The residue from a diet of snakes, frogs and crazy spicy jellyfish had started to work its way through my intestines. It was a tiled hall with the usual squat toilets. However, the wall around each slot in the ground was only knee-high. I presumed that the Chinese sense of privacy would protect my frail western dignity. This was a foolish assumption because the Chinese had no compunction at all about watching how a round-eye would conduct himself in this universal human rite, especially, I found, when the crucial wiping ritual began,

However, that was in the future. I lowered my jeans and unfamiliarly colourful (to local observers) underthings and squatted. As I did so, I noticed that the products of one’s efforts passed along an open channel until they joined the communal flow in a wide sewer passing next to my cubicle. I was privileged to observe the fruits of everyone’s labours bobbing by as I strained to add to the produce of the good people of Guangdong Province.

But where were the solids? As I looked, the yellow-brown flow seemed free from the sorts of lumps I would have expected. I remembered vaguely hearing that during a drought, official instructions were relayed to the populace asking them to eat less in order to shit less and hence use less water to flush away the evidence. However, although this was the dry season, this establishment had a continuous and copious flow of water conducting the faecal exodus to browner pastures. The markets were clearly overflowing with produce and the patrons of sidewalk restaurants had not been notable for their restraint.

Meanwhile, my self-satisfied western middle-class turds surged along the channel in their stately way, unaccustomed to such public acclaim. The occupants of the cubicles downstream allowed themselves exclamations of “Wah!” and “Oh!” in recognition of my achievements. Why, I wondered again, was the incidence of solids so low? I was later to achieve conformity in the liquidity of my actions.

When Stephanie joined me outside the Museum of Modern Motions, she reported that the exposure of her white bum had been greeted by open laughter. Fortified by our foray into the sharing nature of our new culture, we set off in search of tickets for the ferry up the Pearl River.

The ferry turned out to be a rather comfortable way of getting about. One’s ticket entitled one to occupancy of a rectangular wooden tray, an open square in the wall of the boat through which one could look out onto the river, and about 60cm of vertical space. Visually, it brought to mind images of the slave trade but conditions were excellent for the couple of days it took for the trip. Food was brought around by agents of free enterprise who would board the boat at rough piers and leave a little further downstream after they had managed to get their produce into the hands and mouths of the passengers. It was tasty, filling and sent one rapidly to the ship’s facilities.

Unlike the Guangzhou publics, these were housed in a small wooden room at the back of the ferry. Their whereabouts was advertised by the presence of an odour and their proximity indicated by its potency. One’s offerings slipped down a pipe through which the curious could observe the passing of the river water not far below. This went some way to explaining the lack of people swimming, although the amount of people fishing should perhaps have guided my choice of menu items on subsequent days.

Apart from infrequent journeys to the back of the boat, this was an ideal way to travel. Boats chugged past with interesting cargoes, water buffaloes worked slowly in the fields on the river banks, and basic agricultural vehicles carried people and goods parallel to us. The thick air pollution scattered the sunlight into a gorgeous sunset and darkness descended on the boat.

In the morning we came to a halt for which everyone except us was prepared. Apparently the dry season meant that the river was no longer navigable but a bus was available to take us the rest of the way to Guilin. The bus was a far less spacious and romantic form of transport, but it meant stopping for what we had formerly accomplished on board.

On our first stop, we hunted for a toilet. The familiar smell made itself evident so we headed for a small building, only to discover that it was a soup restaurant. This confusion occurred several times in southern China and we never really learned to distinguish the two by smell. This didn’t stop the soup tasting all right, but it did make life a bit of a lottery.

We eventually discovered the toilets, which were two wooden enclosures in the middle of the field in which the bus had parked. I entered the men’s facility and found that it was a trench with a plank balanced lengthwise along it. I took up a position in the centre of the plank and commenced action. Soon, there was a man each side of me smiling in a friendly and curious manner and causing the plank to move in a disconcerting manner. I finished the business at hand with a wiping procedure that caused my plankmates to make some unexpected adjustments to their balance. Then I stood up to find my progress blocked in both directions. Not wishing to inconvenience anyone, I bounded forward from the plank onto the solid ground a few centimetres ahead. I realised as my feet left the plank that the elasticity of the wood would be exercised by my actions. Determinedly, I headed purposefully out of the enclosure, leaving behind the aggrieved sounds of men having to manage their ablutions on a vibrating bit of lumber.

Menawhile, Stephanie had found that the sight of her bum had again occasioned merriment among the female occupants of the lavatory. On the bus, we were aware of pointing and giggling while one elderly man clutched his occasionally squawking chicken by the legs and glared at me until the next stop.

Apart from anything else, Guilin was a food paradise. You chose your roadside restaurant on the basis of whether you liked the look of the livestock outside. Then you chose the animal that you wanted and waited until it was brought to your table. Proprieters would playfully put snakes down my shirt in an unsuccessful attempt to get me to pay to eat them. Bamboo rats would put their necks against the bars of their cages to be scratched. Fish would flop out of their plastic bowls and splat impatiently against the concrete floor until they were put back in. Freshness was not an issue.

It was at Guilin that I first noticed a certain liquid character developing in my bowel movements. Studiously ignoring this, I bought exciting bamboo-wrapped packages from people on the street, unwrapped them and ate them. Things were usually delicious, whatever they were.

We congratulated ourselves on the cheapness of our train tickets to Wuhan. They were for hard seat class and the trip was 17 hours, but as long as we had seats, we knew we would be all right. We got to the station early and sat down on our packs. The waiting room filled up. I wondered why we were not permitted to go onto the platform. There was still an hour until the train was to arrive and already the waiting room was a crushed mass of people. Time passed slowly and more people squashed into the mass. People were beginning to press towards the gate onto the platform. We stretched and prepared ourselves. It would be good to get onto the train so we could sit down and relax.

The gates opened without warning and the crowd surged out. People were sprinting as hard as they could onto the platform. We reached the gate and saw streams of people running into a tunnel. We followed at a more sedate pace, wondering why they were so desperate to get to the train. We emerged from the tunnel at the tail of the crowd and watched people pack themselves through the carriage doors. People were shoving and fighting to get onto the train. Apparently, it had come from Kunming in the south-west and was already full by the time it reached Guilin. Now it was clear why people had been hurrying.

Eventually we forced our way onto the train. Not only were there no seats, but we were unable to find any standing room. Finally realising why the ticket clerks had not at first believed us when we had said that we wanted hard seat tickets, we shoved our way through the mass using our packs as soft battering rams, wondering if we would find a few square centimetres to stand in. Seventeen hours stretched infinitely ahead.

Unbelievably, we found an empty space. It was right outside the train toilet. We interpreted this as a good omen, owing to the increasingly precarious nature of our digestive systems. A man at the end of the carriage had managed to find a position on a small sink. He squatted impassively on the edge of this sink and did not move for several hours. Why would he go there when there was this nice area in front of the toilet? It might smell a bit, but surely it was better than crouching on a sink.

It wasn’t too long before we found out why this space had been left empty by the experienced train travellers. On a train this full, there was a constant stream of clients for the small toilet. Either the plumbing was inadequate or people’s aim was bad, but the cubicle began to fill with fluid. My one visit to the facility showed that the plumbing consisted of a pipe which allowed anything dropped in it to fall onto the track, so I eliminated the bad plumbing hypothesis. However, the train swung wildly from side to side when moving at speed so this may have accounted for the fluid build-up. There was a metal lip about ten centimetres high which acted as a door sill. This kept the fluid inside and made us determined not to use this toilet. However, as the ordure level rose, the occasional splash allowed liquid to escape and send out exploring fingers towards our packs. I caught the eye of the sink man. He shrugged. Clearly, we would know next time.

The splashes became more frequent and we were wondering whether to brave the crush of the carriages to look for another space. We knew that the only areas available would be outside toilets just like this one. We were by now standing with our packs balanced on our shoulders and hoping that the waste level would not reach above our thick boot soles.

A man with a uniform and peaked cap appeared and barked at us. We had no idea what he was saying but we could see that he was asking us to follow him. We knew this would be difficult and we had no idea what trouble we might be in but we went with him. The population density was such that we had to lift our 25kg packs over our heads and carry them at arms’ length over the curious crush.

After traversing several carriages and several hundred people, we felt hands taking our packs. We didn’t know where they were being taken but there was nothing we could do about it. We kept moving forwards in the general direction of our packs until we reached a part of the carriage where there were two empty seats. Several people stood around smiling and waving us towards the seats. They were a vision of paradise. Unbelievingly, we sat down and were enveloped by a large number of curious people who turned out to be from Hainan Island. News of two foreigners about to be covered with human waste had apparently reached this part of the train and they had decided to rescue us. This was the first of many incidences of amazing generosity we met in China.

One man in our group of saviours spoke English. He was learning it at university and wished to take every possible opportunity to practice. This was just a few months before the 1989 Tiananmen Square incident and people were willing to discuss politics freely. Sadly, my knowledge of Chinese politics did not extend beyond the Long March and I had no idea what the effects of the Cultural Revolution had been. I was soon enlightened. Our English speaker related a series of tales of humiliations, economic disasters and forced relocations. Still, as we passed close to Mao Tse-Tung’s birthplace, nobody was prepared to say anything stronger than to suggest that he may have misguided at this time. People were hopeful about their prospects as the political climate appeared to be moving towards greater liberalisation.

We had Christmas cards in our packs so we extricated these and wrote cards for as many people as we could on the train, then had to explain the changing significance of the Christmas festival. Towards dawn, I fell asleep on the long-suffering man beside me. When I awoke hours later, I realised that he had not moved at all although he must have been desperately uncomfortable. Furthermore, I had left him with a pool of dribble on his jacket. Still, I suppose that compared to the Cultural Revolution, the discomfort I had imposed was short-lived.

Wuhan was not at its best in mid-winter. Snow and ice covered the streets. The ground was cold and hard and nothing was growing in this season, in contrast with the wealth of food available in the south. We had not seen any domestic animals from the train for hours before we arrived in Wuhan so we were wondering whether there was any meat available.

We were debating this when we heard a loud sound like dozens of cats meowing. We looked around and a man rode past on a bicycle piled high with tiny cages. Each cage held a complaining cat. Clearly, these were not pets. We had seen people cleaning the occasional dog carcass by the river in Guilin, but here dog and cat meat was a staple food.

Wuhan was a fascinating conglomeration of three cities at once separated and linked by branches of the Yangtse River. Toilets were interesting and varied and all shared a sub-zero chill which made using public facilities an experience to avoid. We saw no other westerners and from the reaction of the people, they hadn’t seen too many either. Everywhere we went, crowds gathered to watch us. Our necessary visit to the biggest coat market in the world was accompanied by several dozen curious onlookers.

We were nearing the end of our stay there and needed to have a good meal before embarking on a 24-hour train trip to Xian. This time we had hard-sleep berths which meant that we actually had a sleeping place booked. However, we would need to have some food inside us before the trip.

The restaurants near the railway station did not look promising. One of them had tablecloths and clean floors so we went in. I peered through a curtain at the back of the restaurant to see what there was to eat. Hanging from hooks was a row of dog carcasses. I was sure we had eaten dog several times before so I didn’t bother Stephanie with my discovery and we sat down to a meal of rice and heavily salted dog.

Wuhan had been the opposite of rock bottom for my intestines. It was a bustling trade centre full of interesting characters and sights, which I could only enjoy if I knew there was a toilet nearby to accept my liquid offerings. I knew there was a toilet at the railway station so I was feeling relatively secure.

We stood outside, taking advantage of the last few minutes of daylight. Yet another crowd gathered to watch us. Stephanie began to blow her nose. More people gathered. Why was this strange foreign woman putting her snot into a piece of cloth? A group of men on the outskirts of the crowd began to giggle and spit. Tired of having had every move observed for the past fortnight, Stephanie snapped.

“All right everyone. Gather round. Watch this.”

The crowd moved in closer and more people arrived. One of the giggling men splashed a big gob onto the asphalt.

“You.” Stephanie pointed at him. “You need this more than anyone. Watch what to do.”

She unfolded a miraculously clean handkerchief.

“Look at this. You hold it in your right hand…” The gathering nodded expectantly. “…place it against your nose, and…” She demonstrated what to do.

“Here it is…” She displayed the results to the audience. “…and now you fold the hanky and put it away. No gooey messes on the ground.” She finished with a flourish. “Thank you very much.”

The crowd stayed exactly where it was, an impenetrable ocean of expressionless faces. “Let’s go in.”

We walked into the huge station. The pressure was building in my lower intestine but I didn’t want to face the toilet yet. Experience had yet to tell me that the cleaners tended to work early in the day and things went downhill from there. We found a space in a cavernous waiting room and settled down in the human sea to read about Xian.

I was studying a map of where the hotels were when the book was gently lifted out of my hands. A group of people began studying the map. Other people were curious so the guidebook moved to them for their perusal. It took a full twenty minutes for my Lonely Planet to complete a circuit of the waiting room before it was put carefully back in my hand and I got on with looking for accommodation.

Eventually it was time. I was having an anal crisis. I felt like a tyre inflated far beyond the recommended pressure and disaster was looming. I stood up and made my bent-over, stiff-legged way down the stairs towards the inviting characters that meant ‘mens’ toilet’, the first Chinese I had learned to read. I joined the straggle of men trying to reach our evil-smelling goal.

In that peculiar way that human psychology works, now that relief was in sight, the crisis became worse. I could feel enormous pressure inside and my internal gurgling sounds were now loud enough for my neighbours in the surging queue to turn alarmed gazes on me. The effort to keep the liquid torrent inside was too great to bear; the temptation to just relax and damn the consequences was dangerously tempting.

I ratcheted up the resistance another couple of notches and held my breath. Was it going to hold? A few seconds of quivering effort and the crisis was past. I was sweating and weak but my trousers were unsullied. I was close to the entrance now. It was completely dark in there. The men coming out held their arms out in front of them like horror-film zombies, and they blinked comically when they emerged into the light. I failed to notice that they all had wet feet.

The smell intensified until it was difficult not to retch. I could not afford to start vomiting as this would have directed energy away from the need to concentrate all efforts on keeping that vital sphincter shut. I was through the doorway now. I couldn’t see a thing in front of me. The men around me began a low grumbling.

The floor began to slope downwards. I was swept around a corner by the human current. It was now dark all around. I had no idea where any cubicles or drains or holes in the ground might be. I became aware of the liquid washing around my boots. Obviously, nobody else had any idea where the usual ablution plumbing was either.

I knew I had to go through with it. The pressure seemed to have receded from crisis point but who knew how far I was from the next panic? I moved further towards where I supposed was the place where I might reasonably empty my bowels. The depth increased. I felt cold liquid splash over the top of my boot onto my leg. Soft, solid things bumped against me. My sphincter tightened up to withstand industrial levels of pressure.

My resolve deserted me. My overriding drive was to get out of there immediately. I turned and splashed in the dark through a crowd of protesting men. Swimming against the tide, I reached the first corner. I could see light ahead. Hope surged in my breast. I struggled slowly but determinedly towards the faint glow and emerged into the waiting room – a delightful sight.

For the entire 24-hour trip to Xian, I felt no desire at all to visit a toilet.

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