Writer, photographer, "rapper" and general technophobe takes on the internet in what could be a very, very messy fight. But it's alright: she's harder than she looks, and she's wearing every single ring she could get her hands on.


Monday, 16 May 2011

Being Craig

Song lyrics can be fickle things.

For me, they`re the heart of music: the words inside are what I look for first. In fact, to truly enjoy music as music I have to cut them out altogether, which is why the songs that mean the most to me are always either wordless or spoken in a language I don`t understand.

For others, song lyrics are there mainly to give the melody something to shape around. What is said is less important than how it is said, or sung (which is, presumably, how Britney Spears managed to warble her way into a fortune). Thus inserting the word `ooh` or `baby` or `yeeeeah` or `zigazigah` doesn`t cause these people to flinch, because the word is just an addition that allows the singer to add another note, and for that note the listener is happy. While, for me, I want to take these pointless padded words and throttle them - and the singer - until they`re dead and silent.

There are other people out there, however, for whom song lyrics simply don`t exist. Somewhere between the stereo, or the iPod, or the radio, and the ears of the person listening, the words of music are wiped out entirely: unecessary, ignored and unwanted. And my friend Yuki is one of these people.

"I love this song," she says at intervals whenever we play a CD in the car. "Neh neh neh neh neh neh NEH NEH yes, baby neh neh neh OOOOOOO." That`s her singing, by the way. Not a self congratulatory dance. Five minutes later she says: "I really love this song too! Neh neh, neh neh neh, neh, ooooooh, you know, neh neh NEH."
"Yuki," I said eventually. "Why are you surprised? It`s your CD. And on that topic, why don`t you know the words to any of these songs? It`s your CD."
"What words?"
"The words. You know: what the person is singing."
She shrugged. "I can`t really hear any. It`s all in English."
"But, Yuki, you`re fluent in English. And you neh neh neh Japanese songs too."
"I just don`t really hear any. Holly? Will you make me a CD of songs like this?"
"Like what?"
"Happy, dance songs to party to?"
I listened to what was playing on the CD, and started laughing. "Yuki, this is called Torn, by Natalie Imbruglia."
"Yeah, I love it. So happy and summer party."
"Torn, Yuki. Like, ripped. Broken."
"Torn? What is torn?"
"Her heart. It`s a song about heartbreak. `Nothing`s fine, I`m torn, this is how I feel: I`m cold and I`m alone, lying naked on the floor`. By no stretch of the imagination could this be called a party song, Yukes. Unless it`s a really, really sick party."
Yuki opened her mouth in shock, and then paused. "Why is Natalie lying naked on the floor? What happened to her?"
"I think it`s a metaphor for feeling vulnerable and exposed."
"Wow. This isn`t a party song at all." Then she looked at me. "Unless we`re talking about you at your last party."
"I wasn`t naked, Yuki."
"You were definitely lying on the floor though. Cold and alone."
"I was definitely cold, but sadly I wasn`t alone because people kept jumping on top of me. But thanks anyway." And then I ignored the continued comparison between a drunk Smale and a metaphorical Imbruglia and went through the rest of the song, translating for her - from English to English - and trying to explain the inexplicable (torn skies, for instance).

It was only when she got to Stand By Me, however, that I finally put my foot down. Yuki could mutilate Imbruglia all she liked, but goddamit: she would be leaving Ben E King alone.

"Ne ne NEH ne ne NEH neneneneNEH," she started, "no I won`t be a Craig, noo IIIIIIIII won`t be a Craig."
"Yuki!" I shouted, with my shoulders starting to shake again. "Who the hell is Craig?"
"You know: Craig. Famous Craig. The guy in this song."
"And what happens to famous Craig?" I asked, shoulders shaking harder.
"I don`t know, but I think nobody wants to be him."
I squeaked with laughter. "It`s afraid, Yuki. Afraid. No, I won`t be afraid."
"Ooooooh." Yuki listened to it again. "That makes a little bit more sense. I`ve always wondered who Craig was."
"There is no Craig."
"I kind of miss Craig now," she admitted. And then she completed the track, singing "ne ne ne NE NE afraid, ne ne ne NE NE afraid," and looking at me proudly, like a dog waiting for a biscuit.

Words mean different things to different people: they always do. And nowhere is that more obvious than in songs. Where, to some people, words mean everything, and to some people they mean nothing, and to some people they mean anything they want them to mean.

And maybe that was always the point of music in the first place: to give us the words we`re looking for and can`t find anywhere else, or the silence we`re looking for and can`t find anywhere else.

And to help us to not be a Craig.

Friday, 13 May 2011


The end is always hard, even when it’s right.

I’ve just handed in my notice. I’ll be flying out of Japan for good on the 12th of July; two months today exactly, I’ll be in England. And I’m finding it difficult to imagine already: finding it impossible to know what life will be like when Japan isn’t my home anymore. When my students aren’t my students, and my house isn't my house, and my scooter isn’t my scooter, and my bed isn’t my bed. When the rice fields I drive past aren’t my rice fields, and my spot on the beach isn’t my spot; when the shrine in the cave isn’t my shrine. When this country isn’t the one I come back to, and tie myself to, and dream in and about. I’m finding it hard to imagine my life without Japan in it, or what it will turn into.

And even as I start to pull away - as I start to gently tug my roots away from the land that has been mine for two years - it’s already hurting. This isn’t just the only country I have ever belonged to by choice, not by birth. And it isn't just the only country I have loved with all of me: loved the intricacies and the contradictions and the beauty and the strangeness, not because I come from it, but because I wanted to be here.

It is more than that. Japan is the country where I have learned to love children: to adore everything they are, and everything they have the potential to be. It’s the country in which I have created the strongest memories of my life - some beautiful, some painful - and it’s the country I have given the most of myself to and in. It’s the place where I have finally learned how to be alone, and how to be myself, and how to heal; it’s where I have been scared, and hopeful, and ill, and happy, and free, and in love, and lonely, and full of wonder. It’s the place where I’ve learned how much I am made of, and how little. It’s the country I came to for love, and was broken by love, and came back to so that it could heal me. It’s where I discovered how brave I can be, and how kind, and how strong. And it’s where I discovered that my world was conquerable, but that I was not.

Japan has been everything to me. It has been school, and home, and student, and whipping boy, and brick wall, and lover. And it has changed me completely, because the girl that gets off the plane on the 12th of July will be nothing like the one that got on it in August 2009. She’ll be lesser in some ways, perhaps, and more broken in others, but so much greater in many more. She’ll be someone I know much better, and like more, and understand fully. And I wouldn’t have her without love, or a broken heart, and I certainly wouldn't have her without Japan.

It’s time to do the hardest thing I have ever done and the lesson Japan has taught me: to know when to let go of what I still love and move forward. It’s time to take the strength and courage I have found here and start a new and terrifying adventure. One that will give me what Japan cannot give me, and take me where Japan can no longer take me. But as I start to separate myself from the country that has changed me, and become a part of me, I know that I will fail. Because it doesn’t matter how gently I pull, some of my deepest roots are going to break.

And when I finally leave Japan, I know a part of me will stay here.

Tuesday, 10 May 2011


As a teacher - and I`d imagine as a parent - you get to go through childhood all over again, except from the other side of it. It`s like reading one of those books, told from different perspectives, or seeing a three dimensional shape from an angle you weren`t even aware existed. What seemed to be solid and definable and understandable suddenly flips - the candle in the middle of the page suddenly becomes two faces on the outside of it - and what should be the same thing, repeated over and over again, is actually a totally new experience.

And it can be a total pain in the arse.

Every lunch time, students and teachers in my school clean for fifteen minutes. And every lunch time for fourteen months, I`ve been fighting a battle. The battle to get children to understand what cleaning actually is.

"What are you doing?" I`ve said approximately 278 times at precisely 1:45pm. The child in question - a different child every week - looks up and points at the broom they`re holding. "Yes," I say in English because my Japanese isn`t strong enough to be faecitious yet, "I can see you have a broom. But waving it in the air doesn`t make the floor clean does it."
The child pats the floor with the broom a couple of times, looks at me again and then gazes out of the window. Sadly, I do not incite terror because I give out too many Winnie the Pooh stickers. So I grab the broom. "You have to actually sweep with it," I tell them with decreasing patience, showing them how a broom works. "Like this. Where dirt collects because you have swept it into one place."
I do a quick sweep, and then hand it to them. "Now show me."
And they get the broom again, pat the floor a couple of times look at me and then gaze back out of the window again.

In the last year one of the children has worked out how to make a sweeping motion, but now just sweeps at random in vague circles: scattering the dirt and leaving it in different places and then looking at me proudly. And they all do the same with flannels, which just sort of get flicked at random parts of wood work, and mops, which get duly soaking and then the water just gets flung around the room. Because - and I remember this clearly - when you`re a child, cleaning isn`t about making the room clean: it`s about pretending to make the room clean until everyone leaves you alone and stops trying to make you clean rooms. And there`s no concept of cause and affect - no awareness that if you don`t actually remove the dirt the room will stay dirty and it`s you that will be sitting in it, and not the teacher - so `cleaning` just involves holding the right equipment for ten minutes and assuming somebody else will do it for you if you can just wait it out long enough.

Which they will. Because every single lunch time, for a year, I`ve had to wait until they`ve gone and then clean the bloody room myself. In case the little ones get tetanus and I get sued for it.

In my struggle to get children not to be children, however, I have never lost my temper with a kid the way I lost it yesterday lunchtime. The humidity is horrible, the floor of my English room is continuously wet and brown and slippery, and even the boy students are refusing to sit down in case they get their trousers dirty which wreaks havoc with my lesson plans. And yet when I walked in today, this week`s lethargic and resentful student was standing in a brown puddle, slowly wiping the board. The already clean board.

"You have got to be frigging kidding me," I snapped, and took the cloth out of her hand. "Look at the floor!"
The student - at least thirteen years old - looked at the floor with total incomprehension. I could actually see her thinking: floor? what floor?
"Eh?" she said.
"The floor," I snapped even harder, and grabbed two cloths. "You can`t just pretend it`s not there, you know. Every single lunch time you pretend it`s not there. It is there. The floor is there. Not looking at it will not make it go away."
I gave her a cloth, pointed to the floor, and then knelt myself down and started scrubbing. After a few minutes I looked back up. She`d gone to the edge of the room and was vaguely dampening one of the windowsills.
"Oh my God, the floor!" I almost shouted in exasperation. "That is still not a floor!"
She glared at me, squatted down and started dabbing at the corner under the window.

I opened my mouth to shout again, and then gave up. For whatever reason, this student was clearly going to maintain her position on cleaning - namely that it was the details that counted because they were much, much easier to do - if it killed her. And it might, I decided as I scrubbed the whole floor yet again, for the 251st time. It just might.

"It`s too late," Harai said as he walked past and saw me on my hands and knees.
"What`s too late," I hissed at him, totally seething and covered in brown liquid.
"The Prince, Cinderella. He`s married now." And then Harai started laughing.
"Ooh, clever man, well why don`t you just -" and then I stopped. Because cleaning might not be a habit a 13 year old girl will learn, but you can bet that the words I was about to use probably are.

And I was furious up until I got home last night and started tidying my own house.

It`s okay, I thought as I swept around the rug. Why move the rug? How would dirt have got under there anyway? Exactly. And... no, the broom doesn`t fit underneath the fridge, and I can`t be bothered to move the fridge, so why don`t I just... well, you know. Leave it as it is. And the futon doesn`t really need airing today either. Because... well, how many times does a futon actually need airing, anyway? Exactly. I reckon over-airing is worse for it than under airing. It`ll get bugs in it. And as I went round the house, I found myself taking more and more short cuts, and making more and more excuses. To myself, of course, because there was nobody else to make them to, but doing a damn good job of it nonetheless. "There," I said when I had finished, putting the vacuum down and talking to myself again. "Good job, Holly."

And then I realised that it wasn`t a good job at all, and it was much, much worse than pretending to clean because somebody else was making me. I was pretending to clean because I was making me, and I was pretending to myself. And then I remembered a particular afternoon, when I was fifteen, watching my dad laboriously vacuum around a sock.
"Are you going to pick that up?" I had asked him, purely out of curiosity.
Dad looked at the sock as if it had just leapt at him, and then at a point somewhere behind my left ear.
"It`s an awfully long way down," he admitted after a pause, "so I don`t think I will, after all." And then he continued vacuuming around its little smelly socky edges.

The problem is, I think, that the reality of dealing with childhood all over again is that the picture hasn`t changed at all: it just looks like it might have done sometimes. We`re still the same inside, and the candle flips back again just as quickly as the faces flipped out. And maybe - I thought as I dragged my fridge out into the middle of the room in a fury - that`s part of the reason why adults get mad: because we`re not allowed to be kids anymore. And maybe that`s part of the reason adults got mad at us all those years ago: because we were.

Or maybe it`s just because the room was still filthy and when we walked away somebody else still had to clean it.

And pick up the sock.

And so the picture flips back again.

Monday, 2 May 2011


A year ago, I bought a beautiful old kimono to replace the wall hanging the ex had bought me, and at the time it represented to me hope in freedom, and in recovery. And it still represents hope, only now I think it is finally hope for the future instead of for the past.

"You know," Kristin said to me on Skype yesterday, "I think it`s time you thought about dating again. At least casually. It`s been a year now since you`ve seen anybody, and it seems such a waste."
"Pff," I snorted all over my keyboard. "A waste of what? Honestly, I`ve thought about it, and maybe when I leave Japan I`ll go on a few dates. But it`s not long before I go travelling, so really it seems a bit pointless: you can`t hold down any kind of relationship when you`re never in the same country, so why start one?"
"At least put yourself back on the market, Hols. Give somebody a shot."
"Dude, do you have any idea how many times I`ve been Back On The Market? I`m not sure the market is going to take me back again. Or if it does, it`s going to cover me in little stickers telling the public what all my faults are so nobody makes the mistake of touching me again."
Kristin laughed. "Frankly, I think you put the stickers on yourself. Maybe you could go wholesale?"
"I`d be lucky to get Recycle Shop. Actually, I think - all things considered - I`m now heading for the bottom of a bargain bin somewhere in the storeroom." Kristin laughed again - because true things are always funny - and then I thought about it for a few seconds. "Actually," I said, "hold there for a second."

And I abruptly ran off, ripped the kimono off my living room wall - where it has hung for the last year - and dragged it to the camera.

"What do you think of this?" I demanded, waving it in front of her.
"Wow, Hol, that`s gorgeous." I held it a bit closer so she could see the yellow silk and the gold autumn leaves. "That`s a really incredible kimono." And then - knowledgeably, because she`s actually Japanese - "I think it`s a wedding kimono, actually. Where did you get it?"
"From the local Recycle Shop," I said, and sat down. "At the bottom of a bargain bin. For two dollars."
"Are you kidding me?"
"No." And then I looked at the beautiful kimono I`ve loved every day for a year. "Do you know how I felt when I found this, Kris? I was so excited and so happy. I got butterflies in my stomach and my hands started shaking, because it was so perfect, and so beautiful, and so exactly what I had been looking for. And I couldn`t believe how lucky I was that some moron had been stupid enough to throw it away, and a whole heap of idiots had been stupid enough to walk past it every single day without picking it up, and another moron was pretty much giving it away. I was literally shaking at my own good fortune that nobody else had seen how beautiful it is and what it is worth. And I immediately stopped shopping because I wasn`t interested in anything else, and I couldn`t let go of it: I clung on to this kimono for dear life in case somebody tried to take it away from me. And then I paid the money and raced out of there before anybody could fight me for it, and I`ve loved it ever since."
"I don`t blame you. It`s amazing."

"But don`t you see, Kris? Even if I am in the Recycle Shop, it doesn`t matter. It doesn`t how far into the bargain bin I slide, or how dark it is, or how long it takes, or how hidden I am, or how many other things are covering me up, or how many times I get given away or handed back: one day somebody is going to feel about me the way I felt about this kimono. They`re not going to believe their luck that somebody stopped wanting me, or that everybody else saw me and walked straight past. They`re not going to believe their luck that they found me and knew what I was worth when nobody else did. And they`re going to be so happy, and so excited, that they`re going to hang on to me for dear life and never let go."
Kristin welled up, because she always wells up: it`s one of the reasons I love her so much. "Oh, Hols. Somebody is going to be so excited to find you. And maybe you`ll feel the same way about them too."
"I will. No matter how many times I have to take them to the laundrette to get the smell out."
Kristin laughed. "Hey - the past always takes a bit of washing, right?"
I thought about it for a few more seconds. "It`s hope, isn`t it? This kimono: it`s hope."
"It`s more than that," Kristin said in a wobbly voice. "It`s a future."

For the second time, my kimono has taught me something. It has reminded me that you don`t have to be brand new to be loved, or hung out at the front of the shop. It has reminded me that it doesn`t matter if I end up in the bin a million times, or covered in a billion little stickers detailing my faults. It has reminded me that it doesn`t matter how far down into the pile I slip, or how many people walk past, or if I get put in the storecupboard behind the shoes filled with mould for the next twenty years. It just matters that one day I`ll be found by somebody who knows straight away that I`m exactly what they were looking for.

And that - when they do - I`ll never be put down again.