Expensive French perfume is wasted on the Kazakhs

  Tue 16th January 2018

I arrived at school this morning having had my usual bottle of wine the night before.

"Er...are you wearing cologne?" asked Lidia, once we were in my tiny office. "Well," I said unsuspectingly, "I wear Coco Chanel. Is it a bit strong?" "No, I just wondered if you had... well..." and she meandered about a bit before she asked me if I'd had a drink before I'd set off for work.

"I'm sorry," she said. "I'm very sensitive, and the children notice everything. I thought -- you don't like the cold, so you take a drink."

She was keen for us to go early to dinner in the canteen, for our homemade 60p meal. To talk privately? To give me something to eat to make my breath less obviously suggesting an Englishman abroad?

We had a delicious vegetarian rassolnik, beetroot salad, and kompot -- a warm mixed fruit juice -- in the canteen. I ate it quickly, hoping to eradicate the stubborn perfume of last night, during which she leant confidingly or sniffingly into me, telling me about the daytime drinking of the teacher I have replaced. "I like a couple of glasses of wine with my meal at night Lidia, but simply because of the lack of opportunity now I'm not a daytime drinker."

Later, she called me into her class in order to help her advanced learners with modal and semi-modal verbs. A bollocking for coming in with wine breath would have been easier to deal with.

I've got the bus service worked out now; getting used to being stared at whilst on one will take longer. My favourite bus conductor pushes, not without decorum, between tightly packed bodies in order to collect our 20p fares, and sing-songs each stop in Kazakh with a rising intonation which has none of the irritations of the Australian variety.

I got lost coming back from the shopping centre the other night.

Half a pound of cheese, same of olives, a tub of beetroot salad, a bar of soap, a loaf, two toilet rolls, 200g of ground coffee, a bottle of Moldovan pinot noir and three bottles of beer -- came to thirteen quid, but my delight with my bargain haul was tarnished by the fifty minutes that followed.

The address guides you to this glossy lower slab of restaurants, behind which stand three 35-storey blocks of flats. I live (let's say) in Flat 131 in block 1/2, 23rd floor.

However, you have to know which entrance to 1/2 you need to use, because the lifts are arranged in the blocks so that they communicate only with their side of it. Unblessed with the esoteric knowledge of the local babushkas, and not having had an opportunity to pop down the Department of Municipal Works of Glorification to study the architects' plans, I sweated self-consciously in my tweed jacket, riding up and down the lift, trying various combinations of floors and room numbers -- and worse, up and down the unlit stairs, the haven of our block's secret smokers -- thinking there might be a secret door to the magical other side which holds my 131.

I walked repeatedly past the adjacent flats 130 and 132, and imagined that Our Father must have ordered the disappearance of Flat 131 due to a recent infringement of the Non-Specific Offences: Other (Other) (as amended) Against the Provisions of the Annexe to the Civil Code published in some editions of the Astana Police Gazette on 26th December 1997, before the idea of trying the other lift occurred to me. Having worked more on faith than knowledge, I lighted with spiritual relief on my front door.

On Friday night I sent a text to Wendy: "Time was on a Friday night, I'd be off me tits in some dodgy warehouse with the fittest girl on the planet dancing to some well hard techno. Now I'm repeating phrases in Kazakh back to a computer screen. But I'm back in June. I wonder if I could persuade her out again?"

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My lovely horse

  Thu 11th January 2018

Last Sunday, NDN, my next door neighbour and minder here in Kaz, took me to show me the school. First we went to buy some paper for the school. NDN, a retired Kazakh Government official, pointed out Nazarbayev's portrait, looking up at it with starry eyes.

"That's our President," she said. "Our President. That's our President." I nodded and assented with stepwardly upward force. "I know it's your fucking President. You can hardly escape him can you? Is he the Kaz 'government official' who bought a 65 million Euro apartment in Paris in November?" I didn't say.

For some mysterious reason, she stopped the car about a hundred yards away from the Presidential Palace. "Please look here," she said. "Yes?" I replied, thinking I was going to be shown another architectural expression of the benevolent refulgence of The Father.

Instead, she wanted me to get out; and said that she would pick me up from the same spot in five minutes. The area was deserted, yet hostile. I walked nervously around the huge building with the bitterly amusing name, "The Ministry of Justice", aware that two policemen in a nearby police car were watching me, hairspring alert.

I decided to turn back and wait for her. Out of nowhere, I saw this huge black clad man staring at me from about twenty yards away. He was walking in a slow, wide-legged way towards me, gun stiff at his side. At that moment, she arrived to pick me up. He watched me get in, his eyes tracing me.

Seeing the outside of the school filled me with a foreboding almost unto sickness, because of the irreversibility of what I had done. Afterwards, NDN took me to an agreeable little caff nearby. I ploughed my way through the nearest thing to vegetarianism that I could find -- a chicken and potato pie effort, a carrot salad that seemed to go on and on and on, reproducing itself in the dish as fast as I ate it, with a side of potatoes. I had this odd pre-sweetened tea. Here's the bill for two of us. There are 400 Tenge to the pound.

On my way to my first day at school, I stared from NDN's car at the half-mile of golden, reflecting glass windows of the curving edifice of government buildings which acts like a protective parabola to shield the Presidential Palace behind it. Fear, insecurity, and temporary power as architecture. I had a dissociative, fatalistic feeling, a resignation to death. A stress reaction, certainly; an unglamorous out of body experience, perhaps.

The school is on one of those unplanned, scruffy Soviet-style estates
where smoking urchins hang out of windows and shout down to people
below. There's a dodgy looking little shop and the building itself is
placed at a jaunty angle facing no street in particular. Inside, it's Soviet-modern: black lettering on gold-coloured plates just to let you know what floor you're on, but only a single plug socket in each classroom.

As NDN said goodbye and handed me over to Lidia, my mentor at school, I felt this urge to grab her coat tails and and beg her not to leave me. Lidia was lovely though, a rare example of an adult Kazakh who can smile, and to my great surprise, the first day went reasonably well; and there was one moment when I looked out to see a black cat plunging with feline delicacy into the snow with every step, and I had to resist a premature hope that this might actually work out for me.

The propect of eating with the other teachers in the canteen had been another colour to my fearful, sleepless night, but Lidia was an expert translator-cum-canteen host. I had borscht and bread for 50p. I am the sole male member of staff in the school, and I have been informed that they consider me too thin and that I would benefit from some proper Kazakh food. I'm trying to steer the horse away by stressing how much I love the range of vegetables you can get here.

I sat down with Lidia afterwards, who said that I'm the third native English teacher this academic year. "Please don't leave us looby. Please stay until the end of the year at least. I saw a fire in your eye this morning looby" (Lidia, that was fear), "and you're the first person ever to mention wanting to learn Kazakh."

When I got in there was an odd email from the London office. "Please be careful with what you say to any local teacher in the school. Don’t say anyone that you are experiencing problems apart from Lidia. No one should know you [have] had a long break [from teaching]. Some of the local teachers see us as a threat and will report everything what you say or do to a director, anything can be used against us." I'm not surprised. The native English teacher is paid a lot more than the other teachers, doesn't have to work Saturdays, and gets to live in a rent-free flat that they wouldn't be able to afford.

And one from my brother, reporting that my Mum, who is convinced I live in a wooden hut with only a friendly horse for company, is willing to send over the fare home immediately, should I desire it. The untravelled visit their anxiety on the traveller: Kim told me that my flat might be bugged.

Turn the radio up, Winston

The school and I are in a state of co-dependency, which provides both parties with equally good a hand. And so far, I'm having a fine time here, easily funded with not much. I changed £100 at the airport six days ago for 40 000 Tenge, and I've still got 17 000 left. The line between drunkard slacker and breadhead can be a fine one.

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A Sky Full of Stars

  Sat 6th January 2018

Christmas was lovely. Kirsty's glittering and overfed artificial tree, the cat arching in front of the gas fire, and most of all, my girls back after their first term at their various universities.

On 27th, me and Trina went over to Middlesbrough. My mum enjoys a trip to the Toby Carvery, where we can eat food sweltering under lamps which ferment every airborne excrescence that your average sneezing, coughing, spluttering, nose-picking Smoggy can fling at it.

As part of my New Year's Resolution -- to have the kind of difficulties I want to have, rather than the ones I have in Lancaster -- I started answering ads for TEFL jobs. With her connivance, I'd forged a reference from ... and played the Caring Dad card by explaining the hectares of vacant space on my cv with the unanswerable "full-time childcare responsibilities".

Fifteen applications yielded three interviews, one of which -- for a job in Kazakhstan -- had to be scheduled for mid-carvery. I borrowed Trina's phone and we Instawhatted for half an hour. She rang back to say I'd got the job -- but -- "please could you not tell anyone at the school that you haven't got any recent experience?"

So I'm typing this tonight from my grace-and-favour apartment in Astana, the second coldest, and the gaudiest, capital city in the world. I'm bang in the centre of town, surrounded by Our Glorious President's monuments to himself.

A day later, at the Christmas meeting of the Unholy Trinity, Kitty and Wendy sparkled. "Maybe he'll meet a female yak farmer," said Kitty. "Maybe he'll meet a female yak," said Wendy.

I called in at the The Shipbuilder's Arms, where Les gave me a betting slip. "Your going away present, he said, "because you're a star." The horse, called A Sky Full of Stars, came in at 8/1 and I had a free afternoon's drinking. An ex-Army bloke, as drunk as un-habitual drinkers get on furlough, released his ambivalently friendly grip around my neck only when I reached a pitch of repeated and increasing force to iterate that I was not going to Afghanistan.

The night before I was to leave, sleep was almost impossible. Amongst my preoccupations was The Injunction. Issued by Wendy's ex, administered by her, and obeyed by me. It makes me glower with resentment that both me and Wendy comply with its terms. Wendy can do what she wants, but I'm not going along with it any more. Neither am I waiting on her months-old promise to "sort it out".

Possibly spoiling the pre-departure goodwill, I sent a text to Wendy saying that, as far as my own actions are concerned, The Injunction no longer applies. "I'm fucked if I'm doing all this and then coming back to obey some little twat's orders -- having to hide behind a car when I simply want to drop a card off!"

On the flight out, there was a three hour stopover at Frankfurt. To get out to the big concourse where all the bars and cafes are you have to go through security again, whereupon I was taken aside, in the company of a German gentleman carrying a yard-long gun, because my computer had tested positive for explosives. I've had my finger in a couple of dodgy pies in the past but I'm not a bomb-maker.

They made me switch it on and load it up, and so I stood shaking like a leaf while Herr Flick stood over me with his weapon while it came on.

As soon as the "server not found" message came up on the start page, they let me go. I asked the marginally more approachable of the cops what the problem had been and he unhelpfully repeated "it came up for explosives."

On the second leg, I had a very good spinach and cauliflower curry, plentiful large glasses of red wine, and enjoyable sign language banter with my neighbour. As I went to get off the plane, the man behind me genially poked me in the back to indicate that I was wearing one of my own shoes and one of his.

I arrived in Astana at 5.30am, fending off the predatory taxi drivers picking on foreigners to offer their services at special prices before I was met by the school owner's aunt.

We walked into the car park. The cold was shocking; my trousers had turned into paper. She couldn't find her car for a few minutes, but when we did, she turned the heated seats on, which felt weird. Cold should be a holistic experience.

She kept talking about taking us to "our house", and I imagined us living together, and how secretive I'd have to be about my drinking. We went to the block, where to my partial relief I given a mercifully briefly tour of a flat adjacent to hers. As soon as she left I collapsed into bed.

My body is resolutely refusing to adapt to Kazakh time. It's half past three in the morning here and she's taking me out for dinner tomorrow. Which may well involve something which once had a mane.

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I can dishonestly say I love you

  Sun 17th December 2017

"...looby, I can honestly say I love u xxxx". As soon as a woman says that, you know it's over.

Karen started getting keen to see me again -- "I've missed ya lol xxx", "Soooo looking forward to seeing u xxx" -- but given her track record for repeatedly cancelling on me, for reasons as pressing as "I'm going to Preston with my sister," and "I'm at my Dad's", I was cool and held out for a while, eventually agreeing to meet her yesterday afternoon in The Shipbuilder's Arms before she went to her sister's for her tea.

She was wearing a shift dress with a fine black geometric lined pattern against a creme background. Everything was going well for a while -- until the ex turned up. I have no animosity towards him whatsoever, but it's an awkward asymmetry. He took her hands in his and they turned slightly turned away from me, which I took as The Ex's efforts to assert ownership of her, but I refuse to get into any kind of competition for a woman. I want to be chosen for how I am, not for being better in some respect or other, than another man.

I got chatting instead to the 72-year-old ex-prossie I snogged in there a few weeks ago. She was articulately resentful about her inferior status compared to call girls who work out of hotels. I felt a deal of sympathy for her, and admired how even for a pedestrian Friday afternoon she'd bothered with a tailored brown cord jacket, a blue and green faux-silk scarf and narrow black trousers, but as interesting as the political economy of prostitution is, it was Karen I wanted to talk to. Still, every time I checked, there was no sign of getting her back.

I decided to leave. She protested, but I was hardly attracted by the prospect of sitting like a gooseberry while she chatted exclusively to her ex, and bade her a kissless farewell.

I stopped to text her. "I'm sorry pet. I just can't be doing with sitting there while you two sort out all this relationship shit. I just want a nice easy night out with chat and blah di blah and swapping stories with a nice interesting girl like you. Let me know how your meal goes. God help you with that! Lots of kisses xxx"

A couple of hours later she texted to say she hadn't made it to her sister's. She didn't sound very happy, and there were no kisses on her texts, so I rang her. I apologised for leaving her but said that I didn't want to spend the evening talking to the ex-prossie. My confirmation into sexlessness -- "I can honestly say I love you" -- was delivered in a text afterwards. The following day: "You mean everything to me and have been a rock in my life and I will never forget that looby XXX".

I hardly need a second girl who "loves" me. Wendy loves me by not allowing me ever to visit her, to hide when I drop a card round, and lying to her ex when she's seeing me. Karen's love for me is expressed by spending an afternoon -- before which she had said that she was "sooo looking forward" to seeing me -- chatting to her ex.

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  Sat 9th December 2017

"I met a woman in town, she was drunk and apparently she'd recently fallen off a cliff. Must have been your lucky day. Are you free for a drink on Friday lunchtime?
Wendy X"

Every shred of resolve dissolves. I am drunk on unreciprocated love, again.

"I would be delighted to take you up on that. Thank you. Not sure I
deserve it but I'll say yes before you change your mind. Let me know
when and where suits

We had an almost unspeakably enjoyable hour-and-a-half. The low sun shining onto her face, wonky strands of her beautiful ragged hair hanging down over her left eye. Her dark blue eyes. Her skinny brown dress, the hem, her crossing her legs, her thighs. The always, always, far too brief, hug, her knowing what I want it to mean and her rejection of that.

As it behoves me to create more distance between a girl I love who doesn't love me, I sent a restrained email afterwards which I hope leaves her with an idea of the cool and reserved atmosphere between us which would be better for both of us.

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looby, n.; pl. loobies. A lout; an awkward, stupid, clownish person

M / 53 / now in Astana, but from Lancaster ("the Brighton of the North").

"Looby is a left-wing intellectual who is obsessed with a) women's clothes and b) tits." -- Joy of Bex.

WLTM literate woman, 40-65. Must have nice tits, a PhD, and an mdma factory in the shed, although the first on its own will do in the short term.

There are plenty of bastards who drink moderately. Of course, I don't consider them to be people. They are not our comrades.
Sergei Korovin, quoted in Pavel Krusanov, The Blue Book of the Alcoholic

I am here to change my life. I am here to force myself to change my life.
Chinese man I met during Freshers Week at Lancaster University, 2008

Tell me, why is it that even when we are enjoying music, for instance, or a beautiful evening, or a conversation in agreeable company, it all seems no more than a hint of some infinite felicity existing apart somewhere, rather than actual happiness – such, I mean, as we ourselves can really possess?
Turgenev, Fathers and Sons

I hate the iPod; I hate the idea that music is such a personal thing that you can just stick some earplugs in your ears and have an experience with music. Music is a social phenomenon.
Jeremy Wagner

Using words well is a social virtue. Use 'fortuitous' once more to mean 'fortunate' and you move an English word another step towards the dustbin. If your mistake took hold, no-one who valued clarity would be able to use the word again.
John Whale

One good thing about being a Marxist is that you don't have to pretend to like work.
Terry Eagleton, What Is A Novel?, Lancaster University, 1 Feb 2010

The working man is a fucking loser.
Mick, The Golden Lion, Lancaster, 21 Mar 2011

Partial archives only - uploading everything since 2005 will take time

"Just sit still and listen" - woman to teenage girl at Elliott Carter weekend, London 2006

Desiring Progress
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