The Midget Conundrum

My daily journey to and from work on the subway passes, most days, without incident. The system is terrifically efficient and comfortable, even warming my little arse with heated seats on a -6º day like today. Kendra and I ride together on Line 4 to Dongjak station, sipping our morning coffees and bickering, before going our separate ways to work. From Dongjak, I join the shiny new Line 9 and ride it 4 stops to Sapyeong station which is a 5 minute walk from my school. This 4-stop journey on Line 9 has been known to cause some issues.

Firstly, as I have already mentioned, Line 9 is new. The stations are new, the trains are new and everything is shiny and smooth. Very smooth. Especially the floors. I wear black loafers to work that clip-clop like a newly-shoe'd horse and the soles are far from efficient for this surface which, quite frankly, is like an ice-rink. This morning for example, running slightly late as I was, I stepped swiftly off the escalator, placed one foot on the floor and slipped backwards into an old lady, spilling coffee on my jeans and jacket. She looked at me like I'd just shagged her daughter and walked off leaving me red-faced and pissed off.

When I join the subway on Line 9, the trains are always full. Very full. We're squeezed in like a fat arse into lycra, in fact. I wear a backpack to work and, as you can imagine, this isn't the most appropriate baggage when trying to squeeze into a small space. Anyway, intuitive as I am, I have developed a trick for bypassing this minor problem. I drain my coffee before the train arrives and make sure I am standing on the right-hand side of the doors. Then, when the train arrives and the passengers exit out of the left-hand side of the doors, I slip my bag off my shoulder, enter the train sideways and then make a little twist as the doors close so I am facing the door and don't have to make eye contact with anybody who's crotch I may have inadvertently rubbed my hand against. Anyway, on this particular morning last week, I had prepped myself in the usual manner and had my backpack held by my side as the train approached. The passengers got off and I crab-walked my way onto the carriage, heard the doors begin to close and began my little twist manoeuvre before....disaster! Some little punk was biting my moves and had squeezed into the carriage behind me. This meant that I was trapped between a chubby man and this punk character, mid-twist and unable to complete it. I had one arm up against my chest with my hand in the air like a gimp and my face literally 2 inches from that of the fat-boy, looking directly towards him. I had to ride that way, avoiding eye contact and trying not to touch his cheek, for 10 whole minutes.

The main thing that troubles me about Line 9 has become known, rather grandly, as The Midget Conundrum. And when I say 'become known' I mean 'become known by me and only me'. Now, there is a scene in Curb Your Enthusiasm - you may have seen it - where Larry David discusses the fact that he finds himself nodding at black people. He can't really help himself, he just finds that, more often than not, he will nod at a black stranger. I have a similar problem. I smile at midgets. I don't know why, but I do. I always have done. It's not that I find them particularly amusing (well, I find them a little amusing) or that I mean to be at all patronising...it's just something I can't seem to stop. Anyway, most mornings, a little midget lady gets off the subway with me at Dongjak and walks with me to Line 9. It's always very busy and people in Seoul aren't really the best at keeping out of your personal space, so I see her quite often being pushed around and shoulder barged - okay, knee'd - out of the way. This angers me a great deal so, one morning, as our eyes met for the first time, I gave her a smile which I thought said, "I feel sorry for you little lady, how you feel is how I feel in a group of North Americans, I can feel your pain". However, from the daggers she sent from her eyes to mine, my look apparently said "I've seen videos of your kind doing unspeakable things". I've seen her a few times since then and I haven't been able to get any sort of eye contact from her. It breaks my heart really. I don't know how I could have offended her. Maybe she's somehow aware that the first time I saw her I had to text Kendra to tell her about it. Or that I secretly wonder if I'd be able to fit her into my suitcase. Or that I have actually seen those videos.

Either way, I don't think I'll be smiling at midgets or dwarfs or elves or any of Tolkien's creatures, in fact, for quite some time.

Love, Smithy x


Christmas in Seoul

I haven't really felt Christmassy in years. Let's see if Mr. Johnny Cash can do it for you.

When I was younger I would go through stages of excitement which steadily rose to a crescendo on Christmas Eve and went through the roof on the day itself. Christmas Day was a routine of pure joy - wake up as early as possible (usually by my sister, Lindsay, who loved Christmas even more than I did) and go into my parents' room to open our stockings which would always be stuffed with chocolate Santas, chocolate coins and our little gifts (there were always dozens of varying sizes, we were spoiled rotten at Christmas). Then, after giving our parents their gifts and making the vague pretence that this day was also about them, my sister and I would stand at the top of the stairs waiting for my Mum to confirm whether or not 'he had been' (seriously, this went on into my 20's). Downstairs, we'd drink tea and open our presents, taking turns between my sister and I, and confirming with my parents which order we should tear through our gifts. Every year my Mum would forget which present was which and would be almost excited as we were as we opened them. Later in the morning, Auntie Pat and our family friend Bob (you need not know who they are, just know them to be as lovely as their names suggest) would come round and Lindsay and I would look at each other with frustration as our present-opening was halted. However they'd stay only for half an hour or so - just enough time to shower us with even more gifts (well, a book token in Auntie Pat's case, always) and allow my Dad to make us all bacon sandwiches before round 2 of the present-opening commenced. We'd reconvene on the living room floor, dressed still in our pyjamas and dressing gowns even though it was nearly midday, and work our way through to the big present finale which included, over time, the Ghostbusters house and car, the WWF ring with different sound effects and numerous gaming systems. After the gift-giving came The Feed and, wearing my ubiquitous new sweater, I'd help welcome whichever guests we were having into our house that year while my parents busied themselves in the kitchen. Turkey, stuffing, roast potatoes and gravy would be joined by a token sprout on my plate and we'd all pull crackers and wear paper hats whilst telling stupid jokes at the table, my grandad groaning at every punchline. The feast over we would, in stereotypically English fashion, retire for naps in front of whichever dire movie was playing that day, waking mid-evening for a turkey and stuffing sandwich and a play with the new presents. Christmas was ace.

The last few Christmases have not been quite so special. Various factors including, but definitely not limited to, my own chemical experimentation and my parents' separation have found me dreading the season and feeling a certain amount of relief when the whole caper was over. Last year, my head clear for the first time in a long time, was quite an improvement as it was spent with my Mum and Kendra in Hong Kong. Turkey was eaten and gifts were exchanged, but I still felt very detached from the holiday itself and could just have easily of been celebrating a friend's birthday.

This year will be different.

Seoul started celebrating Christmas in mid-November. Shops draped themselves in the glitter and vulgarity that comes with commercial festivity and, despite a little grumble at how early everything was happening, I felt a long-buried excitement when I began to hear the Christmas carols for the first time. We've had snow already which certainly helps, as does working with children whose passion for Christmas will forever surpass those who have been dragged into adulthood. I spent last week with my 1st and 2nd graders making Christmas cards and listening to Christmas music and I couldn't keep the smile off my face. Kendra's self-imposed ban on Christmas has been lifted now her birthday has passed and we finally got round to watching our first Christmas movie together (it was National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation, by the way. I'd never seen it before. It's brilliant.) In fact, right now, I'm listening to an album of Christmas songs which is very unusual for me. I'm excited for Christmas this year. Very, very excited.

We'll be spending the day in a Canadian pub near to us at a Christmas party they are hosting. The booze will be flowing and they are catering it with a turkey buffet so I'm hoping for a noisy, cheery and festive affair. Some old friends from my stint in Geoje last year are coming to join in and one of them, Jessica, is having her brother fly in from South Africa so there will be a family feel to the party. Also, a couple of days after Christmas, my Mum is flying into Seoul for the first time and Kendra and I are looking forward to showing her around the city and letting her get to know this crazy little country we've been living in for the last couple of years. Add that to the fact that we have tickets for Muse and The Killers concerts in January and February respectively and that we have just booked our flights to Malaysia and Thailand in late February and that on the Malaysia leg of that journey I will be meeting up with my oldest friend and all his family, many of whom I have never met before...well, this could be the happiest Christmas period I have had for a long, long time. Of course, you should never say never, but this will more than likely be my last Christmas in Asia and I am determined to make the most of it.

It has taken a minute for me to get to this point in my life and, I must say, it feels fucking fabulous.


Smithy x


The Cutting Edge (Archive - 2008)

The problem of violence amongst Britain's youth has for a long time left me and my friends largely uneffected. The horror stories I've read in the press have been just that - stories. However, in the last week, an acquaintance of mine, Edgie, from my street back home in Bury, found himself attacked whilst on a night out in Manchester and was left in a coma. Thankfully, it looks as though he might pull through, but it certainly made me realise that anyone can be effected by the violence and anger on the streets of my country and, even when you are walking away - as Edgie appears to have been doing - you can still catch that one maniac in the wrong mood who will smash you across the head with a metal bar.
Anyway, I thought I'd re-post something I wrote last year when the stories coming from the British press were getting too much for me to take. I apologise for the language. I was a little angry when I wrote it.

I'm a regular visitor to the BBC News website and, let me tell you, that is how you make a website. Quick, easy to navigate, thorough, impartial, informative...and utterly depressing. A standard visit to the UK section of the website will regularly show these headlines - credit crunch, stabbing, credit crunch, stabbing, credit crunch, stabbing, rape. And since the credit crunch bends my head (I have no idea what it means; Forte explained it to me one time but I've drank since then so I'm just going to presume it's an alliterated work of fiction designed to keep us ignorant and the war funded and carry on living my life) I spend most of my time reading about the delightful little terrors that are running around England, stabbing each other to death.

There is, undoubtedly, some Daily Mail-style scare-mongering going on here. A brief glance within the pages of that racist, stuck-in-the-40's, wasn't-Diana-wonderful, right-wing pamphlet of hate would suggest that you can't leave your house without bumping into two young, working-class boys duelling with steak knives. Now, granted, I've been out of the country for some time, but I'm assured things aren't quite that bad. You can't argue with the figures though.

The UK does not have a huge problem with gun crime. Definitely not on the same scale of a country such as America. I cannot begin to get my head around America's gun laws. They terrify me. If I was ever living in a country where my local nutcase could buy cereal, milk, duct tape, eggs, condoms, bread and a bloody Mac-10 in the same visit to Wal-Mart then I would just move. I'd be out of there in a minute. But, since there aren't many handguns lying around in the kitchen drawers of English homes, our angry, disaffected youth are finding shiny, sparkly, serrated blades in their stead.

And the scary part of all this is it's almost understandable why the kids are arming themselves in this way. If I found myself wandering the streets of an inner-city council estate because my benefit-grabbing mother was too busy raising the 6 other pay cheques she'd dropped since I was born to keep me entertained then I'd probably carry a knife too. Because you can be damn sure that the other group of lads has got one and what am I going to do? Not defend myself??

I didn't have a knife as a child. I never saw anyone with one and I never knew someone - or even knew someone who knew someone - who carried one. Now we are told that that there are 400 victims of knife crime a week. Whilst we must take these statistics with a huge pinch of salt, it can't be disputed that young people in Britain are killing each other in large numbers. But why?

It's my own personal opinion that the youth of Britain are angry. And with every justification. They've been abandoned by the system and, without the luck of having a good family or the naivety to be drafted into the forces to fight an illegal war, they are sent out onto the streets to fend for themselves. They are constantly bombarded by the tabloid media and TV abominations like Big Brother and told that there is this 5-minute, effort-free route to fame and fortune. But then, when it doesn't happen for them, who's there to explain that life isn't like that? The parents? They're too busy grabbing benefits, remember? Then we tell the kids that they are stupid and ignorant, that these violent episodes must be provoked by rap music, or movies or video games. That's not patronising is it? And they are constantly told that they aren't performing in schools like they used to...and then the GCSE results come out, they are the best results we have ever had, and it has to be because the exams papers are getting easier! How demoralising is that??

We live in a culture of anger and hatred and this is perpetuated by a media which has to be held responsible. We always have to be angry about something. Whether it's Russell Brand leaving a slightly lewd voicemail on the 'phone of some old actor that nobody cared for previously, or the Baby P scandal which, whilst tragic and terrible - truly awful - was just another example of child abuse which just so happened to receive more coverage than any of the others did that week. If we keep allowing our kids to feel this anger towards people and happenings, then can we really be surprised when this anger manifests in violence? Just today, one of the people on my facebook joined a group called 'Dem ppl who caused dem fires dat killed da orse shud be torchered n burned'.

What? Is that a fucking joke? Are you serious right now? 'dat killed da orse'? And are you seriously advocating that some arsonists that killed a horse should be burnt at the stake like Joan of Arc? Let's castrate rapists as well shall we? And while we're at it, let's cut the hands off thieves. And stone adulterers to death. Oh wait, hold on, now we're Iran. It's this sort of misplaced, vengeful anger that leaves 16-year-old boys lying dead in the street over an Xbox.

The Government has a responsibility to promote positive ideals and alternative resolutions to conflict. We need to elect a leader who will set an example. Invading a country and leaving thousands of people dead in order to pillage its most saleable asset and, in the process, lying to your people about the reasons for committing these atrocities is not sending out the right message. Why would a young lad think twice about stabbing some lad for his 'phone when his Government is capable of such appalling behaviour?

We need to rebuild the moral fabric of our society and move away from this obsession we have with celebrity culture, the get-rich-quick, the material fantasy. We need to find aspirations that are less transient, more attainable. Peace, love, unity, friends, family, happiness...these are the things that will keep the knives in the kitchen drawer. If we can demonstrate this to our young people, then perhaps we could lead them in a more positive direction where they can achieve the best that they possibly can in life. And this doesn’t mean being the most successful businessman, or having the biggest house. This means building a happy home, a family, leaving a legacy - no matter how big or how small.

These people have been lost in a world where reality TV 'stars' take the front page while lost soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan are hidden in corners on page 6. No wonder the line between right and wrong has become blurred.

Peace and love,

Smithy x


A Tragic Tale

On 2nd November 2007, a beautiful young British student, Meredith Kercher, was found with her throat cut in the bedroom of her rented apartment in Perugia, Italy. Her flatmate, American student Amanda Knox and Knox's then-boyfriend, Raffaelle Sollecito, were eventually charged with her murder along with Rudy Guede, a pot dealer with joint Italian/Ivorian citizenship. The stage was set for a drama of Shakespearean proportions.

This case was, from the beginning, a media-led farce with not-so-subtle racist, sexist and anti-American undertones. The British press in particular were keen to paint Amanda Knox as a complete slag as well as a keen drug taker and party girl; Sollecito became the weird loner with the creepy website; and Rudy Guede was a drug-dealing immigrant, ungrateful to the Italian family that adopted him from his home country. The press had a field day when they learned that Amanda Knox's nickname back home was 'Foxy Knoxy' and that she had once written a short story about a man who drugs and rapes a young girl. Similarly with Sollecito, when pictures emerged of him posing with a meat cleaver and a bottle of bleach, it was easy to paint him as a deranged young man with sick, murderous fantasies. Rudy Guede was even easier to pigeonhole. He was black. He had links to the 'underworld'. He received a fast-track trial and was quickly sentenced to 30 years for 'his part' in the murder.

Guede's reasoning for requesting the fast-track trial was that he feared a conspiracy between the two lovers, Knox and Sollecito. He claimed to have been in the bathroom when the attack occurred, heard screaming and Knox and Kercher fighting, and returned to find Meredith's blood-soaked body. He made quick attempts to clean up the mess before panicking and fleeing to Germany where he was consequently arrested for riding a train without a ticket and returned to Italy to face trial. The evidence that convicted Guede? A bloody fingerprint on a pillowcase that matched his.

Raffaelle Sollecito and Amanda 'Foxy' Knox (a nickname given to her aged 8 due to her fancy footwork on the soccer pitch by the way, and in no way related to her supposed promiscuity) told the same story at their joint trial. They told the court that they spent the evening at Sollecito's apartment where they smoked a bit of weed and watched a movie before Knox returned to her apartment and found blood on the floor, evidence of a break-in and then called the police who broke down Kercher's locked bedroom door to find her body.

The prosecution alleged that Knox, Sollecito and Guede had tried to induce Kercher into a 'drug-fuelled sex game', she refused and was held down by Sollecito, sexually-assaulted by Guede and had her throat cut by Knox as a punishment. The jury believed them. After 22-year-old Guede's earlier 30-year sentence, 23-year-old Knox and 25-year-old Sollecito received 26 and 25 year sentences respectively, the extra year given to Knox, seemingly, for being the culprit who actually brandished the knife.

I followed this case rather closely throughout the year-long trial as I was fascinated by it on many levels. The victim had been spending a year during a foreign country, much like I am, and so I was drawn to it for that reason. I was also compelled by the young ages of the defendants, their middle-class backgrounds and the quite disgusting media coverage of the whole spectacle. The over-dramatisation of murder cases, particularly those involving attractive young females, is nothing new but this appeared to take it to a whole new level. The media vultures swarmed and tore Knox's character to shreds. Any member of the jury who even glanced at a newspaper after her arrest would find it impossible to not be influenced by the way they attacked her. But none of the media's attacks made any sense. They focused on this 'Foxy Knoxy' character which, as I already mentioned, was bollocks, and they used that short story that she wrote as proof of her sick fantasies. Ignoring these things, Amanda Knox appeared to be a perfectly normal, intelligent and popular young woman. Hey, I once wrote a short story based on the Oedipus Complex. Doesn't mean I fantasise about it!

Now, I want to make myself clear here - I am not in the habit of defending murderers. If Knox, Guede and Sollecito acted as the prosecution allege they did, then they deserve every year of the sentence that they received.

The problem is though, I just don't think that there is enough evidence. I think what we have witnessed is a panicked Italian judicial system, feeling the focus of the world upon them, determined to show that they punish criminals to the full extent of their power. We have a crime with no motive, 'no blazing gun' as one writer has put it, and 3 suspects with different stories who have all been convicted. DNA evidence is slim - highly questionable in fact - and I am amazed that they have been found guilty. Each is allowed an automatic appeal in around a year's time, and I don't think that we have heard the end of this case just yet.

Let's not forget that, at the centre of all this, a 22-year-old girl with her whole live ahead of her has died. She had her throat cut like an animal as she lay in her bed in a picture-perfect Italian town. It is an absolute tragedy. Now, we have 3 more young adults who have had their own lives cut short as a consequence.

Wouldn't it be equally as tragic if their loss were as needless and unnecessary as Meredith Kercher's?