Why I think Matt Walsh should teach his kids about safe(r) sex. Because there is such a thing.

A good friend pointed me towards this article by Matt Walsh, “I will not teach my kids about safe sex because there is no such thing“. Walsh is an American Christian blogger who writes on the various subjects that you’d expect an American Christian blogger to do. I started a one line response, which turned into the following counterargument.

Obviously, I am not an essayist or a relationship counsellor or an educator or a parent. I haven’t even written an essay or a literary review in about 10 years. So there may be many problems with my argument.

I think the writer’s failure here is his inability to think through the consequences of the subject.

Let’s take his points in sequence:

1. Sex is terrifying

Then surely the way to conquer any fear is to face it and talk about it? Surely, providing young people with the intellectual tools they need to deal with something that (despite its pleasures) does have the power to hurt. Allowing young people the space to discuss those questions in an open, honest, truthful way is surely far better that to hide the issues away and hope that the kids follow the rules.

2. Abortion

I think I’ll leave that issue. I haven’t read the medical literature and so I can’t weigh it against my own ethical stance.

3. You wouldn’t drink and drive

The argument here gets a bit muddled, but let me try and parse it. The author equivalates saying “Don’t drink and drive, but if you do, wear a seatbelt”.

I see this as a logical fallacy, in that the level of risk (and the level of consequences)of drink driving are far higher than those of unprotected sex. Perhaps a better analogy might be: “You can cook a meal over an open flame, but if you’re careless, you’ll burn yourself”.

The latter analogy does not assume the worst in anyone: it recognises that accidents happen.

I think it’s a dangerous idea to suggest that knowing about something leads someone to believe they have the authority to do that thing. I suspect it’s the same line of thinking that suggests violent video games cause people to be violent (hint: they don’t).

Later on, near the end, he comes back to this same point:

“Do you, in any other situation, elect to forgo teaching your kid to do what is right and instead prepare him to do the next best thing? Do you ever tell your child to shoot for a ‘C’ in math class? Do you ever tell her to make sure she only engages in reasonable levels of bullying and gossip? Do you ever tell your son to only vandalize abandoned properties? Do you ever tell your daughter to only lie to you once a week? Do you ever tell your son to only forge your signature on his report card if he’s really sure it looks super accurate?”

These are, we all agree, bad things to do. But I think these are simply non-equivalent red herrings rather like the drink driving point.

4.Prevalence of non-marital sex

I’d like to see the data on that. Do we assume it’s more prevalent because people talk about sex more openly nowadays? I don’t know. Certainly people do tend get married later. But I don’t see what his point is.

My point

Oh yes, that.

One final point to think about: it’s well proven that (a) non-marital sex happens (otherwise we wouldn’t be discussing); (b) countries with more comprehensive sex education have lower rates of teen pregnancies and STIs; (c) fewer unplanned pregnancies means fewer abortions.

As an aside, I therefore feel that it’s intellectually untenable to be hardline anti-abortion and anti sex education at the same time, given that one is shown to clearly prevent the other. But I digress.

Whether you tell them to abstain until their wedding day or not, it’s important to also give young people a baseline understanding of what sex is, how to deal with it, how to recognise and deal with rape and sexual violence, how to talk about relationships. This gives people the tools they need to cope with the world around them.

I feel that Walsh in his post has simply used a list of logical fallacies to explain why he is unwilling (or unable) to discuss sex openly and honestly. We know that sex is an important part of the human condition (mammals wouldn’t exist without it!), despite and because of all its joys and consequences.

I hope that when his children grow up, Walsh does change his mind and provide his children with the knowledge they will need to cope with the realities of the world around them.

Five Word Reviews: Eurovision 2014

Eurovision_Song_Contest_2014_logo.svgWelcome back, my dearest Eurovisionistas. As promised, I’ve awkwardly stuffed another semi into the bottom of this post. Please, be gentle.

Seriously? A hashtag as your motto? Bad Denmark, bad. Now go and have a long think about what you’ve done.

Well enough of this rubbish. It’s that time of year when I get back at my internet friends for polluting my facebook feed with football and babies and upworthy links (“This Danish TV station put on a singing competition: you won’t BELIEVE what happened next!” etc)

Again, to save you from boredom, I’m reviewing this year’s songs, but only five words at a time. It’ll save you having to watch the whole damn thing in the first place.

Overall: There are some pretty strong contenders this year. But of course there’s some utter, utter lunacy to balance that out. Check back on Thursday for more. In the meantime, enjoy the show.

Big Five & The Host

  • Denmark – Scatman John? Is that you? 4/5
  • France – Eurovision’s first facial hair song 5/5
  • Germany – Wait, is that Lena again? 2/5
  • Italy – Summer 2014’s gay bar anthem 4/5
  • Spain – Pretty sure chorus is ‘Edelweiss’ 3/5
  • UKVery Eurovision. Even the rhyming. 3/5

Semi 1

  • Albania – Enya-Shakira hybrid’s incomprehensible mumbling 2/5
  • Armenia – Aggressive dubstep… Wait. Dubstep? Really? 5/5
  • Azerbaijan – Always with the good singers 4/5
  • Belgium – Most Oedipal entry of 2014 2/5
  • Estonia – Choreography distracts from singing. Thankfully. 1/5
  • Hungary – They do drum and bass 2/5
  • Iceland – Utterly, ludicrously, gloriously, beautifully hatstand. 5/5
  • Latvia – Terrible accident with rhyming dictionary 2/5
  • Moldova – Thankfully not a banshee. Phew. 3/5
  • Montenegro – It’s not Eurovision without wistfulness 3/5
  • Netherlands – Totally gets the hipster vote 4/5
  • Portugal – This is literally the Lambada 2/5
  • Russia – Good song; political voting inevitable 4/5
  • San Marino – Waving my San Marino flag 5/5
  • Sweden – Should’ve undone that key change 3/5
  • Ukraine – Oddly for Eurovision: quite listenable 4/5

Semi 2

  • Austria – Stubble aside, actually quite enjoyable 4/5
  • Belarus – Did he say “Google maps”? 2/5
  • Finland – Finland finally discovers college rock 4/5
  • Georgia – Three minutes, five key changes 1/5
  • Greece – See review for Italy, above 2/5
  • Ireland – She’s no Jedward. Thank fuck. 4/5
  • Israel – THE HORROR *hides behind armchair* 2/5
  • Lithuania – Actually an ancient military song 4/5
  • Macedonia – Again, see Italy review above 4/5
  • Malta – Ignore the video; song’s good 4/5
  • Norway – Tried to write review. Slept. 1/5
  • Poland – Soddit, just get political votes 2/5
  • Romania – Not as good as 2013 3/5
  • Slovenia – Burgundy taught her jazz flute 4/5
  • Switzerland – I personally DESPISE whistling. Shame. 0/5

What? Who said this was supposed to be fair?

And my prediction for top 5 (not necessarily ones I like, but ones that could win the vote):

  1. Denmark
  2. Ukraine
  3. Finland
  4. Malta
  5. Macedonia

Very honourable mentions for great musicianship:

  • San Marino (COME ON VALENTINA)
  • Azerbaijan
  • Malta (as always)

Winner of the WTF award 2014:

  • It’s a close call, but it has to be Latvia. What other Eurovision– or any other– song gives you a recipe while entertaining you?

Winner of the 2014 Great Eurovision Cakeoff is a two-way tie between Latvia and Belarus.

And, most importantly, les nul points

  • Switzerland
  • Georgia

Another big step

Same-sex marriage is to be included into law in England and Wales. It’s the right and fair thing to do.

Many religious politicians claim that this will devalue or destroy Christian mixed-sex marriages. But they seem to forget that for a long time, the UK has allowed pagans, atheists, humanists, scientologists, infertile couples, and so many others to marry to no detrimental effect.

In some statements, Church of England bishops even argues that this was a ‘redefinition of marriage’, while conveniently ignoring that redefining marriage was the very foundation of the good old C of E: the Pope didn’t let Henry VIII annul his marriage to Anne Boleyn, so he created his own religion. Not only that, but we also no longer consider women as property of their husbands; we no longer allow polygamy; we no longer ban mixed-race marriages.

This is simply the big step in allowing any two consenting adults to have the same rights –and responsibilities– as any other couple.

But there is a long way to go. Scotland and Northern Ireland still need to update their laws; and the UK now needs to help undo the Victorian attitudes it instilled in its colonies at the time. Gay people in places like Pakistan, Uganda, Hong Kong, Cyprus, Cameroon, the Caribbean, India and Australia still live under varying levels of inequality. It’s up to the UK to say, “We gave you these attitudes, but we were wrong. We’ve changed. I hope your country will also do what’s right to do”.

Five Word Reviews: Eurovision 2013


Update: Here’s the post about the final.

So, Eurovision is coming up soon. Sadly, with the incredibly expensive tickets and the relatively small venue, I decided not to go to Malmö this year. But I thought it’d be good to take a look at the songs in advance.

I thought I’d do some 5 word reviews for this year’s contest. With a 5 point rating for each one. It started off as a good idea, and turned into a mammoth task. As always.

Overall, there’s quite a bit of your standard Euro stuff, with everything from dubstep to bagpipes. No sign of any rock/punk/metal this year. Oh, and Romania are totally trying to take the title for this year’s Queen of the Banshees.


Big Five & The Host

  • France – She’s like a francophone Adele. 5/5
  • Germany – Gloriously predictable German Euro pop. 2/5
  • Italy – Robbie Williams “Angels”. Plus sideburns. 4/5
  • Spain – What “Lovely Horse” aspires to. 5/5
  • Sweden – Safe, but fun. Host bonus = 4/5
  • UK – Sings both types of music. 4/5

Semi 1

  • Austria – Oh, the drama, the drama! 4/5
  • Belarus – Song bad. Topless dancers good. 2/5
  • Belgium – Content is blocked by GEMA. -1000/5 to GEMA. [For viewers not in Germany: 4/5]
  • Croatia – GREAT voices; bit sad though. 4/5
  • Cyprus – Average. Gets twelve from Greece. 3/5
  • Denmark – Funky beats belie tinwhistle intro. 4/5
  • Estonia – Unremarkable. Words sound nice though. 2.5/5
  • Ireland – Southern Euro sound; great stuff. 3/5
  • Lithuania – Try singing: it could work. 2/5
  • Montenegro – wub, wub, wub, rap, wub. 4/5
  • Moldova – Likely to go off key. 2/5
  • Netherlands – Why you choose minor key? 3/5
  • Russia – What if lyrics were better? 3/5
  • Serbia – She’s just practising her scales. 2/5
  • Slovenia – easily forgettable cheesy-ass pop. 3/5
  • Ukraine – String jabs plus megavoice = winner? 5/5

Semi 2

  • Albania – Big tune, guitar solo. Marvellous. 4/5
  • Armenia – Good, but I prefer wikitravel. 3/5
  • Azerbaijan – Nicely sung (but I’m biased). 4/5
  • Bulgaria –  Europop with pipe and drums. 3/5
  • Finland – Singer misunderstands “walk of shame”. 3/5
  • FYR Macedonia – Standard ballad. Should do well. 3/5
  • Georgia – “Weengs” rhymes with “dreams”. Apparently. 4/5
  • Greece – Average. Gets twelve from Cyprus. 3/5
  • Hungary – Hungary’s entered Eurovision Whisper Contest? 1/5
  • Iceland – Nordic Wistfulness Overload. Love it. 4/5
  • Israel – Cacophonous banshee hurts my ears. 1/5
  • Latvia – Costumes better than the rapping. 1/5
  • Malta – Great song for yoghurt advert. 4/5
  • Norway – Bunny boiler with mockney accent. 4/5
  • Romania – WOOOOEEEEE!! Eurovision’s first male banshee. 279/5
  • San Marino – Power. Drama. Everything. Love it. 5/5
  • Switzerland – Darts thrown at rhyming dictionary. 2/5

And the all-important prediction for top 5 (not necessarily ones I like, but ones that could win the vote):

  1. Italy
  2. Ukraine
  3. Spain
  4. Norway
  5. San Marino

Very honourable mentions for great musicianship:

  • France
  • Romania
  • Croatia
  • Azerbaijan

Les gagneurs du concours de l’Eurovision des nul points:

  • Latvia
  • Israel

What CERN is, and isn’t, doing right

Back in April, I spent a weekend with my buddy Alex in Geneva, visiting him and spending some time at CERN.


Famelab, if you’ll allow me to explain, is a competition (à la Britain’s got the x-factor idol talent) that aims to find tomorrow’s TV presenters. But it’s for a special type: they’re looking for young academics who can explain tough science concepts to a lay audience in a limited amount of time. We’re talking about the next generation of Attenboroughs, Dawkins, Degrasse-Tysons, and dare I say it, even Coxes. (“Eeee, in’t stars grand?”)

Feeling the sense of pompous entitlement that belongs to being one of their 400 million shareholders (that is, the tax paying public) I made my way down to Geneva to visit the hallowed grounds of CERN, and see them have a bash at hosting one of the heats of the Swiss competition.

This, I thought, would be a brilliant opportunity for them to reach out to the public and to show that they have a passion for getting the general public involved in and excited about what they do.

In the spirit of the event, the presenters announced, “We have a special competition for the audience here today – a quiz. The winner gets to go down and see the LHC later this year”

As my nerdgasm approached, they asked, “what spin does the Higgs boson have?”
Brilliant! I read this on a proper news website yesterday! I, a mere amateur science nerd (that is, I read A Brief History of Time rather than just putting it on a coffee table), am in within a correct-answer-out-of-the-hat’s worth of seeing the LHC in person.

Tongue of concentration extended, I prepare to draw a big fat zero across the answer paper, as she continues,
“And why does it have that spin?”

So much for outreach.

CERN, the world’s premier physics research organisation on the swiss french border, is the bleeding-edge of particle research. But its charter means its job is to show that people from any background can work together, and also to train and teach the next generation.
So this was a perfect opportunity to show off their flair.

The young scientist presenters, I should mention, really showed off their passion and talents and I actually learned some useful stuff (like how airline pilots aren’t allowed viagra 6 hours before flying). Everything around it, the overall presentation, however, wasn’t quite so polished.

As the presenter announced our first “lady scientist” onto the stage (and my cringe factor turned up to 11), I started to wonder exactly how well choreographed the whole thing had really been.

I did speak to some of the judges involved in Famelab, and brought up the diversity question (yes, the head of Diversity was there and she very much cringed too). I also asked about outreach in education – yes, they said, they agreed with me that these young presenters should be going out to schools and doing their thing: but I wonder if CERN actually put that into action?

This heat of Famelab was held just across the road from CERN’s visitor centre, called… Erm… Actually I didn’t catch the name at the time. (I’ve been told since that it’s called Microcosm, but I’m sure I never saw a sign).

But what that place could do with is a curator.

The Microcosm is one of those interactive educational places where you can try out some machines and playthings, à la Science Museum in London. I pictured the sight of groups of schoolkids wandering round with clipboards and playing with brightly-coloured toys that sneak a bit of physics up on you when you least expect it.

The rather dark, very outdated rooms belied my imagination.

There were of course a few interactive exhibits: Geiger counters, things on springs, press-button-to-listen headphones, and all that. But it clearly hadn’t been dusted for a while and there certainly weren’t great long lines of visitors queuing up to get inside.

On the other hand: stopped off in the science history museum over in Geneva itself. Surely there’d be some interactive exhibits there supplied free by CERN (who’ve been making science history for a few decades now). It’s a rather well curated museum, in lovely gardens by the Lake, in what looks like an old manor house. Inside they had some educational games alongside some examples of early telescopes, batteries, thermometers and all sorts of other things. Not one of them supplied by CERN, arguably one of the world’s most important scientific institutions (this is where touchscreens, MRI scanners, and even this very WWW where invented, for crying out loud).

I suspect it’s not really to do with funding: it’s not as though CERN is short of the occasional corporate sponsor who’s willing to throw a few thousand Francs their way (if you’ve seen how many watch manufacturers and private banks there are in that city). It just seems that CERN has a lack of awareness of what it needs to do not only to help people understand what it does, but also to secure its future.

Branding Geekery
As a little post script, an anecdote about branding. I picked up some leaflets, and a few souvenirs at the shop (you can never have too many lanyards. Or branded safety helmets).
There are a few experiments that are attached to the LHC accelerator, such as Alice, Atlas, and LHCb. These are, if I may be crude, sort-of clamped onto the LHC tunnel and they record in various ways what happens when particles hit eachother.
Reading the flyers about each of the experiments, I notice that there’s not one CERN logo, not even a mention of the host institution. Even though its what they require to exist. It looks to me like there isn’t a coordinated effort to even think about how the public perceive what the LHC does as a whole.

North Korea – part 2

All the fun of the fair

“We’re going to the funfair,” declares Passepartout, excitedly. Back in the UK, you’d be surrounded by running screaming kids and giggling people and chaos. Not here though. Without the aid of barriers (but with the occasional police whistle), the funfair visitors wait in perfect queues for a go on the rides. Your boisterous bunch of foreigners are escorted to the head of the queues and let straight on the rides (and so we should, at €3 a pop) and we scream and giggle our way around the park.

The park is also populated with a large number of soldiers on R&R. Soldiers, however, are expected to be manly and to prove that nothing scares them. So you have this truly bizarre image of dozens of uniformed men, stony-faced, being hurled around on fairground rides.

Being silly / truly petrified at the funfair

Now, I’ve always been a bit of a rollercoaster junkie: I’m occasionally seen at Alton Towers yelling myself hoarse on the rides. But I’ve always had that knowledge in the back of my mind that everything I’m doing has been built and tested by SCIENCE, and there’s a one-in-many-trillions chance of anything even going slightly wrong.

In North Korea, however, the knowledge that the Great Leader Himself personally attended to the design, safety, and maintenance of the entire theme park didn’t exactly instill in me the greatest confidence that I would exit the park with the same number of limbs with which I entered.

Which made it so much more fun.

My favourite of all had to be the revolving pendulum swing ride. The chest restraints are designed to go over the body and then clip into place, with a short seatbelt clip as backup. Only as the ride starts do I realise that mine hasn’t locked in place, and the only thing holding my entire weight as I’m fully inverted is a six inch car seatbelt taken from a 1972 Trabant.

To which I’d like to say: Screw you, Alton Towers, I’m never coming back. You hear me? Never. It’s communist theme parks all the way from now on.

Turning on the waterworks

Back to the more educational side of things now. North Korea has, as you can see by the map pictured, one hundred and twenty-three natural springs. In the South, there are twenty. You will also notice that the density of springs changes abruptly at the moment you cross the border. Which is all rather convenient.

123 springs in the DPRK, 20 in the South.

To show off their ability to exploit such abundant natural resources they took us to their famous mineral water bottling plant. We were greeted by… nothing. Upon arrival, our local guide phoned to enquire as to whether our factory guide would in fact be turning up to show us around.

The official answer came that the staff were on their lunch break and would be turning up shortly. A bit of wandering around and a lot of waiting ensued. The factory guide did turn up a little while later, and explained that the plant was closed for maintenance during the day currently and that only the night shifts were bottling. Which would be great if there had been any maintenance going on.

Our tour took us through the immaculate plant, and we were shown the machinery that apparently bottles so much water that it even exports to China.

The not-so-busy water bottling plant. Plus lunging.

We were even given a tour of the spring itself. In a separate building, we were able to take a sip of the water straight from the springs. However, while the rest of the group were doing that, a couple of us took a look around the back to see that there were in fact two boys unashamedly pouring water into the back of the building.

A further highlight of the trip was the USS Pueblo. An American spy ship back in the sixties was caught gathering information, allegedly within North Korean territory. The crew were imprisoned and the US government cajoled into apologising in order to secure their release. The Americans claimed a victory for diplomacy; the North Koreans claimed a win over the Imperialist Violator-Aggressors and kept the ship as a prize.

The USS Pueblo: Still technically on active duty

So, upon boarding the ship, still docked in Pyongyang’s river Taedong (and still technically on active duty), we first sit down to the compulsory video. Which you simply must watch too:

We still couldn’t work out though why there was an ice cream machine on board. Seriously. I mean, did they have a ship’s cow?

Propaganda and the future

Our tour took us to a wonderful sight, for which I should now apologise: we were not allowed to take any cameras inside the National Gift Exhibition. This is an enormous building, devoted to storing and displaying every one of the thousands of gifts that North Koreans (no matter where in the world they live today) have given the Eternal Leaders.

My descriptions can do them no justice. But I shall however try.

  • A block of jade, carved into a life-size tiger, standing atop a four foot globe, its claw deeply embedded into the North American continent: I WANT ONE FOR MY FLAT.
  • Two ten-foot statues of the Eternal Leaders.
  • A Spalding basketball.
  • The world’s largest dining table. Actually, a miniature model of the world’s largest dining table. Which would happen to be the same size as a normal dining table. Which I guess would just be a dining table?
  • A coin counting machine.
  • A miniature of Frank Sinatra.
  • A back-projected Samsung TV.
  • Eight mp3 players from roughly 1999.

A miniature model of the world's largest pen.

Far be it from me to suggest that many of these items appeared to be confiscated contraband later presented as gifts, but the evidence was certainly pointing that way.

The pièce de résistance, however, had to be a two-sided oval painting. The obverse, Kim Jong-il in traditional Korean plate armour, sword in hand, riding a tiger. On the reverse: Kim Jong-il, post-ride, doing up the final button of his military uniform, cigarette in hand. The tiger, lying behind him, with an expression that I can only describe as “was it good for you?”.

View of Pyongyang from the Yanggakdo Hotel

The country and cities are not only dotted with pictures of the Eternal Leaders, but there are also the encouraging slogans wherever you look, ensuring that the people never forget what their purpose is.

Our very sweet tour guide for the Children's Palace

Some of our tour group (rightfully) questioned whether North Koreans truly believe everything they’re told. I saw one of the group wearing a crucifix on a chain and I understood that yes, they probably do believe most of it.

In the way that some Catholic people truly believe that the wafer and wine literally turn into actual flesh and blood and bits and pieces, North Korean people do believe that they are under a great leadership. They believe that they are all destined to each play an important part in the struggle towards finally reuniting with their family across the border.

They are born into a society where there is this one version of the truth. They are taught it at school. They have almost no access to the outside world, so why would they question?

This does not lead me to believe that they are in any way stupid, or that they do not question the minor cracks that appear in what they’re told, or that they do not sometimes think that one person may have an unfair advantage over another. But I tell you what: enough people are singing roughly the same tune at the same time.

"Courage towards the future: let's move forward!"

Should the country decide that its fate lies in opening up to the rest of the world, I think there would be a culture shock beyond all culture shocks if the whole thing weren’t handled carefully and slowly. But that’s another essay for another time.

Interestingly though, at the very end of our tour, our senior guide asked for understanding that she couldn’t always answer every question that we had. A knowing nod, at least, to our differences in backgrounds and idealisms about the world around us.

The Epilogue

Exit stamps: Unfortunately we weren't allowed to keep our visas

I originally approached this (incredibly lengthy!) blog post with the intention of trying to prepare you for the possibility of visiting North Korea. As you’ve seen, I think that was rather an impossible feat.

Although, if I could give some tidbits of advice it would be the following:

  1. Focus on the details. If you ever try to think about the picture and ask the big questions, you’ll never get anywhere. Just imagine the final third of the movie The Truman Show and you’ll see what I mean about details. There are chinks in the armour: and they’re what make the whole trip that much more interesting.
  2. The people are extremely well behaved for a reason. The government tells them one single truth. They are strongly discouraged from dissent or misbehaviour by many means, some of which are less nefarious than others. This does, however, mean that it’s absolutely the safest country I have ever been to as a tourist.
  3. Wave and say hello. Especially to children. The people are incredibly friendly and inquisitive and they are happy for a smile and a Korean greeting from visitors (even if like me, you’re hopeless at memorising the eleventy-bajillion-syllabled honorifics that suffix themselves to each and every noun). One of my favourite things to do was to wave at people from the bus and train windows. Obviously, there is only limited contact with local people and you’re not going to just have a lengthy conversation with someone, especially those who don’t work in the tourist industry.
  4. Bring European cigarettes. As with prisons, a pack of snout will get you a long way: especially if it’s European, and not the Chinese crap that usually gets itself into the country.

I’m not entirely sure how to conclude all of this: I think it was one of the biggest learning experiences of my life. It turned out that the people in the tour group were all of a similar mindset in many ways (someone described it as “people who don’t like tour groups”!) and that helped to cement it as one of the most fulfilling and fun things I’ve ever done.

I think that people’s greatest fears arise almost exclusively from things that they simply don’t know. People are worried about what the North Korean government might do next, because they know nothing about what they do right now. In the same way, they’re afraid of the North Korean population as a whole. But once you do go there and get to even get a tiny glimpse of what happens in people’s daily lives, you realise that they’re just as human as me or you.

Wow. That was deep.

To end on a lighter note, here’s some of the group doing Gangnam Style in Pyongyang:

Gangnam Pyongyang in front of the Arch of Triumph

North Korea – part 1

Hi everyone! Sorry that it’s been a very long time between posts: what with work and travel, it’s been hard to squeeze in a good few hours of writing time. I’m presenting here my experience of visiting an insanely brilliant country. There’s no way I could fit in everything, so here’s a link to my travel buddy’s blog for even more entertainment.



The Prologue (some time in late 2011)

“I’ve always wanted to go to North Korea: and you should come too,” announced Ian, halfway through a work lunch appointment. I’d already got used to what my friend-and-co-worker regards as an acceptable tourist destination. The man’s been to the Antarctic, for crying out loud.

“That’s too far away, and far too expensive,” I spluttered into my spätzle, “I’d have to go all the way to China first before even considering that. And I have no plans to go there.”

Sitting in the hotel lobby next door to Beijing train station, waiting for Ian to arrive from the airport (he is now hopelessly late due, it turns out, to him being in China and his luggage being in Frankfurt) I start to wonder if this is a good idea after all.

The Impossible Introduction (mid September 2012)

Shuffling awkwardly in my seat to grab a photo of the man on ice skates balancing a pole on his chin, on top of which is sitting a baboon in a pink leotard and ice skates, it occurs to me that I can only be in North Korea…

A man balancing an ice-skating monkey on a stick

No no no. Wait a minute. That doesn’t work. Let’s try again.

Admiring the gigantic picture of Kim Jong-il and Kim Il-sung, standing atop a wind-swept, snow-covered mountain, pointing wistfully into the distance, I realised…

No. Not quite. I think this might work:

Each one of those pixels at the back is A PERSON.

As I observe, jaw hanging open and not knowing where to look, a perfectly synchronised, gigantic, human cannonball display in an eighty-thousand seater stadium, I wonder to myself what on Earth could lead these thousands of people to spend months of their lives learning how to flip card books in beat-perfect synchronicity for the benefit of their visitors…

No. That doesn’t work either. OK: how about:

Sitting at a piano in a Pyongyang pizza restaurant, playing and singing the classic disco hit, “I Will Survive”, it is at this moment that I understand that North Korea…

Scratch that. I understand nothing.

You see, I’m pretty sure that there’s no possible way to introduce an adventure to this country. Richie, our tour guide from the excellent Young Pioneer Tours (there’s your plug, Richie) met us on day zero in Beijing to give us the briefing of what to do and what to absolutely not do in the People’s Democratic Republic. It was essentially hopeless to try to tell us what to expect, so he kept it to how to behave.

Richie, our Passepartout, showing us how a real man eats ice cream

As you can imagine, the “do not”s far outweighed the “do”s. We should listen to our Korean guides at all times. We shouldn’t take pictures if they tell us not to. We should discretely tip a pack of Marlboro red where appropriate. We shouldn’t question their belief system. We should buy noodles for the 24 hour train journey. We shouldn’t smuggle local currency out of the country. And so on.

It was essentially a case of behaving ourselves and listening to our local guides, and we would expect to have a very enjoyable time. And it did not disappoint.

We were not only educated a lot, but we were also very much entertained.

Yanggakdo International Hotel

Entertainment and Reward

You see, wherever I visit, I have always enjoyed finding out about what passes for an evening of entertainment for the people who live there. For instance, Germans enjoy clapping on the downbeat to jazz music. Brits will happily watch a man in drag telling self-deprecating jokes. The French love an evening of someone impersonating their iconic 1970s chanteurs. For Americans, it’s patriotism and university sports. But the Democratic People’s Republic enjoys something else altogether.

For them, entertainment is an encouragement, and a reward. And boy, are they rewarded.
It is an important part of the culture that the government repeatedly remind the people what they are working for and why they are being rewarded.

And one particular rewards was the highlight of our trip: the Arirang Mass Games.

Arirang is a term you’ll hear a lot in Korean folklore: the name pops up in many a song and many a poem. In short, boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back again. This is the classic love story. The couple find themselves apart, an unrequited love situation goes on, and all of a sudden there’s a bit of accidental killing but then everyone’s OK again and the lovers are back together forever.

It also happens to be an excellent analogy for the situation that North Korea fnds itself in. Portraying itself as a couple who have been torn asunder, who are then reunited after a joint adversity.

King Huseyin

We even managed (much to my surprise and excitement) to visit a real life film studio. All of a sudden, standing in a set that replicated a Korean street, I suddenly noticed that we were in a film set, in a country that was basically trying to be a film set. And then my brain exploded. They told us that Kim Il-sung personally wrote films and visited the film set on 600 occasions. They even made around thirty films a year. Which didn’t really explain why the set was completely deserted, despite them producing one film every twelve days. But still, it was pretty cool to see that they’d built all that.

I’ve yet to watch the DVD I bought of one of their more famous movies, but I shall be looking out for bits of the set as I watch it.

So close, yet so very far

As with any nation whose people are fed on a narrow diet of information sources, one hears a number of facts that are oft repeated yet never questioned. Of these, one I came across more and more frequently was that Korea is the only split nation in the world. Now, as many of you may know, half of my family originates from the small island nation of Cyprus. Without going into the boring details, there is very clearly a significant border and demilitarised zone (DMZ) that splits not only the island but its capital, Nicosia. This appears to be something that is conveniently missed out history and geography classes in the DPRK.

Our Traditional Korean Bedroom

The DMZ was however somewhat too close to home for me. After a pleasant night spent at the Korean traditional hotel (and a lovely dog soup dinner the previous evening), we ventured out to the borderlands. Our bus took us first to the crossing point before the DMZ (a hilarious term: it’s the most militarised place I’ve ever seen). Access to the actual border is timetabled so that tour groups from the North visit during certain hours and groups from the South visit at other times, so that there’s no mingling of groups from both sides.

After much waiting, we’re driven (“No photos!”) along to the border itself: where the two countries are allowed to meet.

The famous site of the North-South Korea border. You can see the concrete line going through the buildings. One the South side there's gavel, and on the North it's sand.

I’m no stranger to a DMZ. Standing there made it really hit home exactly what Korean people have gone through. There are striking similarities between what Cypriots and Koreans have gone through (although there are differences). And I cannot wait for the day when ordinary people might be allowed to show their passports at this very crossing and perhaps see bits of their land that they haven’t been allowed to see since the 1950s.


Being foreign imperialist capitalist violators, we asked our guide lost of questions about the typical working week. The Korean people work six days a week. They get up at seven and then get breakfast then go to work.

Later on in our tour: some people awake at six to clean the communal areas of the apartment block (each household takes it in turns). They then get breakfast then go to work. Halfway through the tour, we learn that farmers get every tenth day off, the first, eleventh, twenty-first and thirty first – if they’re lucky.

Later on, we learn that even our tour guides in their off season join in with whatever manual work is required of them. What is clear, is that none of the general population is left idle: the country clearly puts everybody it can to full utility. It’s had some pretty hard years, especially in the nineties, and in times when it’s snubbed foreign food aid and had to fend for itself.

But even then, we see that people are put to use tending to the roadside verges (we are told that they are all volunteer retirees who are volunteering to do this work of their own accord. I’m not sure why they needed all those uniformed supervisors with them. I’m also not sure why we weren’t allowed to photograph them).

The overseer

Usually on a guided tour for foreigners, you’ll have the guide from your tour company, then the Korean International Travel Company (KITC – North Korea’s only tour company) will send two guides to show you around. In our trip, Mr Kim was introduced as a member of the national tourism agency who will be checking that everything is “going well”. Even now I’m not entirely sure what he was there to report (or indeed on whom he was checking) but I tell you this: the man is a true badass.

It is common for North Korean men at the moment their ladies have withdrawn for the evening to immediately remove shirts and get down to some serious smoking and pool playing (and eating of dried pollock). Mr Kim always took the opportunity to do the same, and he even showed off his insane pool skills (and showed us on poor Richie exactly how good his taekwondo skills were). I miss Mr Kim.

Continued in part two

Don’t Bank On It

Take my advice – never use a Chinese bank.

Why? Two main reasons, really. One, paying-in slips are the devil incarnate. Two, never cross a surly bank teller ten minutes before lunchtime.

Our story starts with the hero (yours truly, naturally) wanting to pay a deposit to the travel agent in Beijing for an upcoming adventure (more of which you will hear in August, if I ever make it back in one piece). This involves taking several thousand of the currency to a local branch of their bank and paying in there. Bearing in mind the largest note is 100 Yuan, this is quite the wodge of cash.

“That’ll be the easy way,” thought I.

Form number one

Rather handily, there was a greeter at the door who helpfully wrote the payee’s name in Chinese on the deposit slip and pointed me to the counter. This was the last time I smiled. Possibly ever.

This is where I meet The Happiest Bank Clerk in the World.

First off, the way I’d written the number “8” looked “wrong”.

Tear it up. New form.

Form number two

I fill everything out again; sticking my tongue out the side of my mouth to aid concentration, I produce the finest lettering I’ve created since I was six years old and trying desperately to impress my junior school teacher with how nicely my handwriting has improved.

I ask: “Is pinyin* OK for the name?”. “Yes,” came the somewhat distracted reply.

I write. I wait. I hope.

Bank teller thrusts it back with a look that plainly says, “What sort of moron is this that doesn’t know how to use a pen?“.

“No, pinyin’s not allowed. Write her name in Chinese.” Tear it up. New form.

Form number three

Thankfully I’d printed out the company director’s name in Chinese beforehand, so, v e r y   v e r y   v e r y   c a r e f u l l y, I copy out the name in front of the increasingly-impatient-looking-ice-queen-from-hell.

She counts it out several times and then, “OK, good, that’s everything. I just need 40 Yuan from you”.


Rage levels increasing.

“Because the account’s not at this branch”.

I begrudgingly shove the cash under the window and get up to leave.

“If you could just press the green button in front of you before you go?”

I do so, but just as my digit is fully depressing the key, I realise that it’s the rough equivalent of a How’s my driving sign, and I’ve just given the sour old goat a 100% rating for her customer service.

And I thought Germany was bad.


*pinyin is the system for using Latin characters to write Chinese words, so that language learners can get to grips with pronunciation without having to spend a decade learning tens of thousands of characters beforehand.

Unfortunately, pinyin is somewhat deficient in that it doesn’t distinguish particularly well between certain vowel sounds. Also a lot of road signs etc don’t use the tonal system so it’s quite difficult to know how to pronounce if you get lost and need to ask the way!

100% Guaranteed Original Quality

I’m not completely convinced that this DVD I found at a market stall in China is legit.

Click for bigger, and check out the blurb









Oh, and check out the blurb on this Iron Lady / Tomb Raider crossover:

Click for bigger to read the blurb on the left. You know what? It almost makes sense.

Cuppa Tea, Guvnor?

– “Hi”.
“Can you take photo of us?”
– “OK”

And so starts the classic Shanghai adventure: The Shanghai Tea Ceremony Scam.

The Scam, in short, involves finding a lone traveller, taking him to see a tea ceremony, and then presenting him with a huge bill at the end. Scammers will pay up as though the price is completely normal. The police, so I’ve heard, are entirely uninterested (which makes sense given the 4 or 5 couples I see regularly on one street).

Unlucky tall Spanish dude gets tea scammed. And no, I wasn't going up against four people to stop him. Apparently, victims end up paying anywhere between €10 and €250 for a cup of tea.

Having an office at People’s Square (or “peep hole square” as the disembodied voice of the Shanghai Metro charmingly pronounces it) certainly has its advantages: a beautiful park, close to entertainment, lots of expensive eateries (including an excellent teppanyaki place in my building). But its dark side is all too near the surface.

As a tourist (particularly as a lone foreign male), I’m approached twice daily either with offers of, “You want sexy lady massage very nice look very young”, or the far less direct, “You take photo of us?”.

Thankfully, I’d been warned about this by my colleagues B and U beforehand. I decided to see, for science’s sake you understand, exactly how it goes. Something like this:

Charming young couple at Peep Hole People’s Square ask a lone foreigner (in this case, the eponymous hero of today’s tale) to take their photo.

It’s at this juncture that I should point out the following: if *you* wanted someone to take your photo, wouldn’t you perhaps ask a local person, who are (a) abundant –particularly so in the world’s most populous nation–, and (b) more likely to speak your native tongue?

Foreigner takes photo.

What I should have done, at this point, was have a look at the previous photos on the camera. It would have been quite interesting to see them.

“I’m showing my cousin here around Shanghai. It’s his first time.”

The cousin, it turns out, is from a nearby city and in his twenties. If he can afford a nice digital camera, he can afford the €12 Nanjing-Shanghai train journey more frequently than once every twenty-three years.

“Where are you going?”
– “I’m walking to meet my friends”, I lie.
“Ah, we were about to go to a traditional tea ceremony. It starts soon, so we should hurry”, as they expertly direct me towards the tea house (I barely noticed that we’d started walking: kudos to them).
– “Well, as I said, I’m going to meet my friends”.
“Call your friends, maybe they want to come too”.
– “They’re Chinese. They’ve seen plenty of tea”.

… and on and on it went until I started walking off and just ignored them. I did stop long enough to see them approach their next unsuspecting victim, but had to make off pretty quickly when the ‘cousin’ noticed me trying to get a picture.

Next time, ‘cousin’, next time.


And finally, as a footnote, an interesting post and subsequent discussion about the Chinese education system and the tea ceremony scam.