It needs to be said.
It needs to be said.
Every year, thousands of fresh-faced, eager young things process from the universities of the English-speaking countries and decide to become — at least until they have scratched an itchy foot, paid off a college loan, started to miss Yorkshire pud, been murdered and dumped in a foreign ditch, or just got bored — international people. They will see the world, travel, meet the quaint little people who live in foreign countries with their endearing foreign ways, and in order to facilitate this great adventure, they will adopt the entirely noble and worthwhile occupation of blessing Johnny foreigner with the ability to speak the language of Shakespeare.
Well, not the language of Shakespeare as such, which most of these eager young things would not understand, but certainly the language of Donald Trump or Kim Kardashian.
They will become teachers of English as a foreign language.
What an image this conjures, this title, ‘teacher of English as a foreign language’!
Not English teacher, you dig, but teacher of English as a foreign language. No, a simple English teacher is very bland. An English teacher is rooted to home turf and to their childhood because they never really made it out of school. And they wear bad cardigans. And they teach English to a bunch of kids who already speak the language. How difficult is that? The most difficult part of that job is keeping yourself from slipping into catatonia.
Your actual teacher of English as a foreign language, however, confronts people who are yet unfamiliar with the arcana of the language. You are spreading enlightenment and civilisation, and, best of all, you are a teacher, a professional, without the inconvenience of actually having to learn any actual skill because you grew up speaking the bloody language.
Pretty soon, the new teacher of English as a foreign language finds his or her way to the heart of the task:
‘This is a pen.’
Getting the skills down may require whole minutes of determination and perseverance but eventually the teacher will be tossing ‘this is a pen’ at the students as if it were a four-word phrase.
‘This is a pen. Repeat after me: This is a pen.’
And what a career track EFL offers!
You start off teaching small kids at a language school in Osaka or Seoul or Ulan Bator, and you get to dress as Father Christmas one week a year and you say:
‘This is a pen.’
And you can progress to small groups of adults in the same sort of places where the language of Joyce and Shakespeare is sold like hamburgers at McDonald’s.
‘This is a pen,’ you tell them, and then coax the students to tell you the same.
From there you might do a CELTA qualification in the hopes of teaching in a more serious environment, but it’s still all hamburgers and ‘this’ is still a pen.
‘This is a pen. Repeat after me: This is a pen.’
The next step is going back to university to get a masters degree in applied linguistics so that when you graduate you can work in a university where you say:
‘This is a pen.’
From there, the sky’s the limit in terms of telling people that this is a pen. You can do a PhD, write books that will introduce people to pens in global master classes.
You can say in Japan, in Korea, in China, in Saudi Arabia, in Spain, in Peru — just about anywhere in the world — ‘This is a pen.’
You can say with pride in your professional expertise: ‘This is a pen.’
By this stage, by the time you have done your masters degree, you have joined the EFL Taliban, the EFL fundies.
(You have no idea who you are, do you.)
These guys don’t talk to people who don’t have masters degrees in applied linguistics. They sneer at people who don’t have masters degrees in applied linguistics. They put up with, they tolerate, they suffer people who do not have degrees in applied linguistics.
You think MBAs are bad as a closed circle of mutual masturbators with a language all their own? Well, the EFL Taliban are a close second. They wank at least as much, they’re just as smug, but they don’t get paid nearly as much as MBAs and that last point demonstrates to them exactly how superior they are.
And they do speak a language all of their own. By the time you have finished a degree in linguistics, you no longer have any idea what normal language is or how to speak to normal people.
You see the Taliban at parties in a huddle, out of contamination range of the hoi polloi.
‘Meta-language,’ one will observe. They all smile sagely.
‘Ah ha! Interlanguage or intralanguage?’ which brings the house down.
‘Oooh, look, it’s a preposition.’
‘I just spotted a participle.’
‘Oh, look everyone, it’s a pen!’
‘Repeat after me!’ they all cheer, ‘This is a pen! Ah ha ha ha ha ha!’
Yes, chaps, it is indeed a pen. It was a pen when you started on this career. It is still a pen now.
It is a pen today, it was a pen yesterday, it was a pen the day before that and last week and last month and last year, twenty years ago. For all the jargon, for all the studies in cognitive theories of language acquisition, after all the university courses, seminars, training sessions, and learned books dedicated to conveying the pen-ness of this, the pen is, at the end of the day, just a fucking pen.
Suddenly it’s been a pen for thirty-odd years, and it’s no more or less a fucking pen than it was at the start; it’s no closer to being a penguin or an artichoke or a spaceship or a yeti or a pterodactyl or a coelacanth or a human emotion or a sense of achievement or a laugh or a fucking life, it’s just a fucking fucking fucking fucking pen.
Yes, and those thirty-odd years have gone by — all your adult life — and you are stuck in the world’s dreariest, most banal, most facile career cul-de-sac, and you can’t get out because you’re too old, too stained with the ink of pens-that-are-this, and your boss is trying to get rid of you because he wants the school staffed by kids just out of their placentas because they are cheap and obedient and pre-cowed, or he wants to shift everything online with teachers from a call centre in the Philippines or Calcutta or fucking Pluto because they’ll work for less than the price of the tissues he wanks into when monitoring their classes.
It’s going to be a pen tomorrow, next week, next month, next year; it’s going to be a pen when it’s used to write your fucking death certificate.
So fucking repeat and get it into your fucking head: ‘This is not a life.’
Let’s be clear: the slow death of humanity through mass infertility is a good thing. This nightmare vision of SF and dystopian literature is, to the well-organised mind, a dream come true.
For decades scientists have been telling us about falling sperm counts, an impending infertility crisis. As the evidence mounts, the prospect has turned from a ‘maybe’ to an ‘it’s happening now.’ Epidemiologists Shanna Swan and Stacey Colino bring us up to date on the good news in their recent book “Count Down: How Our Modern World Is Threatening Sperm Counts, Altering Male and Female Reproductive Development, and Imperilling the Future of the Human Race.” The book tells us that total sperm count in the west fell 59% between 1973 and 2011, and seems set to hit zero by 2045. Genital deformities among the newborn are becoming less rare. Apparently lifestyle, pollution, and obesity are to blame.
We thought the end of humanity would come in a blinding light and ball of atomic fire, or we would parch on a desolate plain that was once a verdant forest felled by climate meltdown. But no, we are more likely to expire with a dud orgasm, an inconclusive bang climaxing in a whimper.
Any species that walks wide-eyed into the end of everything by war or destroys the planet on which it lives deserves extinction. Any species that created and tolerated Ant and Dec, Love Island, Donald Trump, the entire British governing class, Nutella, Justin Bieber, mobile phones for dogs, Bitcoin, Brexit, deserves to be culled. Any species that worships an economic system in which we fight like dogs to feed our masters before we feed ourselves, any species that complains about actually protecting itself during a deadly pandemic, any species that will let its home collapse because it doesn’t want to interrupt the shopping deserves to be scraped off this planet. Any species that creates the pyramids, the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, and then descends into entitled infantile squealing as the dominant cultural form; any species that invents the internet, connecting the whole planet and giving unlimited opportunities for creativity and learning, and then uses it as a tool to squirt its own lifeless jizz into tissue-slivers of destroyed rainforest deserves far worse than gentle extinction.
But humanity’s exit is poetic and elegant because it is the testosterone associated with our failing gonads that powered our journey to this state, that propelled us to rape and conquer and control and clone ourselves through uncountable acts of violence. Our proud bollocks are now reduced to dry and withered prunes on a doomed vine through the very vices they fathered.
And compared to nuclear war or total environmental collapse, this end has the advantage of not taking the rest of the planet with us.
It’s as if nature itself has just sighed and quietly said ‘Enough is enough’ and turned off the tap that replenishes us.
With luck we’ll just fade away leaving nature to recolonise the planet as the forests and rats have reclaimed Chernobyl. We have to hope that we vanish before we complete the destruction of everything and depriving nature its chance to regenerate.
Because, sadly, in truth, the end will not be that peaceful. As our numbers dwindle and our ability to plunder the resources and despoil our home diminishes, we’ll turn on each other, fight among ourselves like starved savages stripped of all pretence of civilisation. Some will fight for whatever scraps of sustenance or whatever survival advantage they can get, some will fight just because they’re twats. We can be sure that we’ll try to trash as much as possible out of sheer petulance, like Airbnb guests who defecate in the living room of complete strangers just because. A new pornography will emerge that celebrates the deformed genitals of the last of our offspring, and the psychosexual energy generated will cause Jimmy Savile to reanimate, to become the messiah of this cult of death.
This scorched earth policy inflicted on an earth that we’ve already scorched in our more virile days will be another sad monument to our pathetic stupidity, another illustration of the pettiness that brought us to this pass.
Shanna Swan and Stacey Colino frame their data as a dire warning, they speak of falling fertility as a threat to humanity, and urge a radical change in lifestyle and the way we are contaminating the environment in order to avert this catastrophe. On the contrary, this is a chance too good to miss. And in an age of seemingly unremitting bad news and bleakness, at last there is an end in sight, at last we have something to look forward to.
Yes, I was feeling very happy last night at the prospect of the imminent Monday so I expressed myself, I did. I expressed myself in images, which, we are told, is the thing to do.
Procreate and iPad, if you want to know.
Dateline: January 1st, 2021, on my sofa
I was mildly puzzled this last week to see that beef was being energetically promoted at the supermarket. Beef in Japan is expensive, steaks especially so. But the local Seiyu had piles and piles of steaks, exceptionally large steaks, and other beefy stuff. You could hear the death moos as you passed the cold shelves.
And then yesterday I had a depressing epiphany: beef is de rigeur because 2021 is the Chinese year of the ox.
Yes, it’s moo-cow year, so let’s get stuffed on moo-flesh. Never mind that oxen and cows are different animals. They both have a leg at each corner, eat grass, and say moo. More to the point, the marketing people have deemed we shall spend our money thus.
The simple syllogism suggested by those marketing folk goes like this: 1. it’s the year of the ox 2. ox is like a cow, kinda, 3. ergo, eat beef — and the more depressing thing is that people in their bovine herds go ‘Oh, yeah! That’s so profound — if we eat steak we’ll have good luck all year.’
It’s a bit disappointing for me as a writer to confess that it’s hard to find the words to convey how fucking inane this all is.
First, there’s all the death. How many extra creatures were bred and slaughtered to feed this facile fantasy?
Then there’s the superstitious conflation of dinner and fate.
‘Hello, humans,’ says the cow.
‘Hi cow! How are you doing?’
‘Great! Next year is the year of me!’
‘Yay! Congratulations, cow!’
‘So, you’d better kill me and eat me.’
‘But why, oh moo-cow? If we kill and eat you, there won’t be any you!’
‘Because killing and eating me will make me happy and I’ll bestow magic and good luck on you all year. ‘
‘Oh,’ say the humans. ‘That’s very nice of you. So, is there some special ritual or ceremony to go with this?’
‘Not exactly. I’ll just stroll to the abattoir, where the nice men in blood-stained smocks will string me up on a chain and slash my throat. Then they’ll dismember me, package my bits in plastic and truck me to supermarkets all over the country. The magic bit is where you go go to the supermarket and buy whatever bits of me you fancy — but don’t forget, the bigger the price tag, the more the luck! It’s a special deal, you know.’
Well, we do like shopping, and we have nothing better to do with our heads other than stuff them with this nonsense, so see you there!’
Perhaps 2020 was a crap year because we failed to eat enough rat in the final week of 2019.
And so to be a real thing, eating for lucky fortune must be consistent. The years of the pig and the chicken are to be anticipated with bibs on and a knife and fork in hand, but how do we deal with the year of the snake? Apparently people eat eels, which are not snakes at all but will do considering actual snakes will frighten the customers and since none of this makes any sense anyway. The years of the tiger and monkey present legal and safety problems. But what do you do in the year of the dragon, that particular beast not existing and all that? Does the universe end in entropy because there’s no animating nosh?
Why stop at years and the Chinese zodiac? In March we should eat Mars bars, both July and August demand feasts of caesar salad; on Mondays we can eat rocks and cheese, and, best of all, on Saturday we get to devour our children.
A happy new year to all my readers — I hope.
Of course there’s no deal. There was never meant to be a deal.
The talk, the manoeuvring, the posturing, the negotiations have been an elaborate pantomime, a pretence at getting a deal because no deal was what Johnson and his sponsors actually wanted. No deal was a hard sell to the British public so the charade of the oven-ready, easy-peasy, they-need-us-more-than-we-need-them charade was necessary to keep the voters onside. Boris Johnson and his chaps knew all along that a no deal exit would harm the country, but, again, that’s what they wanted.
So, no deal and a dented British economy was the hoped-for outcome. How do we know? Because it’s no big secret.
In September 2019, Rachel Johnson, the prime minister’s sister, first spilled the beans, announcing publicly that Johnson was in thrall to a particular bunch of hedge funds that had bet against the UK economy, who stand to make untold millions from a no-deal Brexit plunge.
About the same time, Philip Hammond, the former Chancellor of the Exchequer, told us the same story.
We don’t have to take the words of Ms Johnson or Mr Hammond for it. There’s plenty of information sloshing around in the public domain to support the claims.
Those who stand to make a killing from Brexit/no deal are financial contributors to the Conservative party. Yes, Big Money is bunging money at the elected government to trash the country, and with it, the lives of voters, so that Big Money can make even more money.
One such donor is hedge fund manager Crispin Odey (formerly married to Rupert Murdoch’s daughter, Harrow and Christ Church educated, worth £825 million, and recently charged with indecent assault) claims he has already made £220 million from Brexit. See the link in the previous paragraph.
Odey has reportedly donated at least £1.7 million to the Conservative party.
Contributions to the Tories from the financial sector amount to some £50 million. Of this, £18 million comes from just five very wealthy hedge-fund backers.
(What does it mean to bet against the UK economy? Here’s an explainer.)
With this revelation, the whole Brexit project should have been stopped and put under investigation. Instead, the popular press largely ignored the story — unsurprising since the interests of the news media’s billionaire owners are aligned with all the other billionaires who are reaping huge profits from the situation.
It’s not just the Conservative backers that stand to make money. Some of the architects of no deal — influential members of the current government — will make millions through their own market bets. Jacob-Rees Mogg is already a beneficiary to an undisclosed Brexit windfall. This is quite possibly the actual Platonic Form of insider trading.
Fun fact: Rees-Mogg’s own fund is heavily invested in Russia, which interfered in the referendum on the side of the leave campaign.
Of course, making boatloads of money off a no deal was not the only cause of Brexit, nor the only benefit for Big Money. Exit from the union means freedom to trash any kind of regulation that might bother the billionaires in their pursuit of yet more lucre. This means degrading safety regulations (of which Grenfell is but a foretaste), environmental protections (just as we hit the climate change tipping points), labour laws, human rights, food hygiene standards (hello to dirty American food), and so on, and so on.
Central to Big Money’s regulatory irritation was the likely adoption by the EU of rules making it harder to hide dosh from the taxman, an inconvenience now neatly sidestepped.
We don’t know exactly what will happen in January when the break becomes complete. The Bank of England has already estimated that real household incomes have dropped by about £1,000 since the referendum, and the Centre for Economic Performance reckons those real-term incomes are likely to drop a further £2,500 to £5,500 per annum in the next 15 years. I wonder how many voters can afford to lose that kind of income. On top of this we can expect increased insecurity, more reliance on food banks and charity, the de facto end of the NHS, which will likely be replaced by an American style, pay-up-or-die private system.
Drilling down further, we might reflect that the money sloshing around the world’s money markets was created not by the people who ‘own’ it but by the work of ordinary people, whose labour was turned into profit and transferred to the stratospheric realms of the ‘exotic financial instrument’. The ordinary people will be bearing the brunt of Brexit in financial terms and at a cost to their wellbeing and health, in effect being robbed twice by the same people.
And all because a small number of already-rich saw a chance to bag more dosh for an extra yacht or two.
First published in The Cannibal’s Gazette
Links used in this story:
Golden Week. Exploring Osaka with my camera I stopped by Hozenji, Namba, and found a jazz band setting up inside the temple and, nest to the band, an artist arranging drawing paper and coloured pens on a table.
Hozenji is a tiny temple tucked away among the eateries and drinkeries of Namba to the east of Midosuji. The temple and the adjacent streets figure prominently in Sakunosuke Oda’s earthy tales of Osaka life, written in the thirties and forties. These days, the streets immediately adjacent to the temple preserve something of the old Edo atmosphere. In the centre of the temple, a Buddhist icon, shaggy with an extravagant coating of moss kept fresh with water thrown by worshippers. And today, that jazz band and artist.
The music-art event was a fundraiser for Tohoku and the work created by the artist, one-minute pieces drawn to the rhythm of the music, were on sale, all proceeds to the disaster funds.
The artist was evidently a person of some note, an established artist: slightly older, backed up with a staff of helpers and his work illustrated the menu of at least one of the adjacent bars.
I watched in fascination as he pushed his pastels round the paper, in a very individual motion. Each composition was apparently unrehearsed and quite spontaneous and although there were definite motifs, each work remained individual. The line was distinctive — perhaps because of his unusual pushing style — and the sense composition was offbeat and quirky. The pictures featured flowers, birds, doves with branches of peace; all containing whimsy and humour; simple and striking colours and clearly, a great deal of humanity and love for his activity.
I eventually bought one of the pictures: a purple dove holding a flower in its beak, a simple line drawing with an off-kilt construction and the lines inside the wings finger-smudged to soften them and return the focus to the bird’s face: brilliant; fun.
The artist was Seitaro Kuroda and I was intrigued to discover that he was the painter of the big, black bird-man mural in Amerika-mura by the Apple Store, a long-time landmark of the area. Clearly the man is an Osaka institution. More than that, his career spans decades and he has lived in New York, where he has regular exhibitions; he has worked across Europe, Asia, and even in isolated Pyongyang.
His art over the years has ranged from the small, cute and whimsical to large, complex and even scary. We see characters that might not be out of place in commercial merchandising but we also see large abstract works. All the pieces possess the otherworldly atmosphere of a very active imagination.
We arranged an interview, which took me to another of his events, this time in Hirakata, an apartment complex where he was to be painting benches and sculptures in a garden with an enormous number of very small children.
Painting as a performance and a communal activity characterises his work. Most frequently he seems to perform with musicians and has done a lot of work with John Zorn, experimental, avant-garde and jazz composer and performer. In Potsdam, he created a show on a commuter train.
Today: no musicians, but lots of children and sunshine. The purpose of the event: to encourage togetherness and communication and connection through the shared activity of creating. And in the process, turn this communal suburban garden into an outdoor art gallery.
When we arrived, Kuroda was flat on his back on the ground relaxing before the event started but was happy to greet us and start chatting right away. Before I could begin on my carefully composed list of questions, Kuroda was off, telling us about his life and art and eschewing the nice garden bench to get back to the casual comfort of the ground.
He was born in 1939, and his earliest years in Osaka and Kobe were dominated by the war, the austerity it imposed and by the US occupation, all experiences that have conditioned his world view, his approach to and the content of his art.
“The war was futile for Japan,” he says. Images of peace are constant in his work and the occasional presence of violence: in his Amerika-mura mural, the nightmarish bird-man creature walks through the words ‘Peace on Earth’; doves predominated in the Tohoku images. I later asked him about the recurrent images of peace, and he replied cryptically, “they are very important to me, but I don’t like to talk about them.”
His work took him all over the world. “I realised there was no difference between people. People the world over are the same. There is no difference between westerners and Asian people.” These observations launched one of the main themes of his conversation: difference is an illusion. Differences between places, races, nationalities, age, gender, they are all perceptions; artificial.
“The world should be without borders. Art has no borders; music has no borders. Red is red wherever you go; do re mi is the same everywhere. The sky is blue in Pyongyang just as it is everywhere else.” And so the arts are a language, a medium that goes to the essence of being alive.
To work. He is here to paint: wood panels and the concrete benches, with the help of all the kids of course. He punctuates his activities with little talks for the benefit of his audience: “To be born is a miracle; just be happy!” Fine sentiments but whether they sunk in with the primary school kids is not clear. But they were happy, clad in plastic covers to keep the flying paint off their clothes, they daubed and splashed the concrete and the wood and eventually got their hands in too, creating an effect to put the ‘riot’ in ‘colour’.
Kuroda was down on his hands and knees among the kids painting with them and then having his work obliterated by their busy brushes. He also did some solo designs and he showed the same spontaneous, intuitive approach I saw at Hozenji. “I don’t think,” he later told me, “I just do whatever comes to mind. Otherwise it doesn’t work.”
“Life was very tight after the war. Art was an escape from tightness, from social restrictions.” And clearly it has been ever since.
I asked why he was attracted to action art, rather than studio work. “I just like to be outside, with the wind and the earth. I once did an event in the middle of a typhoon in Okinawa.”
Kuroda liked the image of the wind. It is always on the move, like him. Although born in Osaka, he points out he has lived many places (currently Kitakyushu) and doesn’t consider himself from anywhere in particular. Of his almost itinerant lifestyle he said, “I’ll go anywhere if I’m invited. I’ll go like a dog when it’s called,” and laughed. “I don’t like things to stay the same. Things should always be changing.” When he says this, he is also talking about art; art should always be dynamic. When I asked him about his famous mural in Amerika-mura, painted in 1983, he clearly didn’t want to talk about it: “It’s too old. I didn’t intend it to be there so long. One year was enough.” Move on.
To the future? He will be going to New Zealand soon to paint on a mountain with Maori people. Before that, he’s going to Tohoku.
Clearly, Kuroda is a man who likes to live and work without restraint or constraint on lifestyle or imagination, always on the move, communing with people and nature through art: a man without borders.
There are a number of videos on YouTube of Seitaro Kuroda working — just search on his name spelled in alphabet.
This story was first published in 2011 in the now-defunct Kansai Scene