Xmas Letter 2009

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December 19th 2021
Published: December 19th 2021
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I quit working in Ghana in June 2008 and returned to Vietnam to begin work at my new school there: the American International School.

This is my 2009 Xmas letter:

December 12th

Dear Overseas Friends,

2008–9 has been, like last year, something of a curate’s egg. (“What the devil is a curate’s egg?” I hear you say. Well, E.W.Swanton – and you’ve all heard of him - used the term in his cricket commentaries circa 1970.)

I began the year working in Ghana as an illegal alien (employer did this knowingly and hid the fact from me until I twigged) in a hyped-up but dodgy school (Lincoln Community School) in a lacklustre city (Accra). My life in Ghana, until I left in June 2009, was mainly uneventful. Highlights are hard to recall but include: watching Ghana and Togo play football in Accra Stadium; Obama’s inauguration on TV early one morning; Thursday evening chess; landing a new job in Saigon (by Skype interview). Between these highlights I went shopping, cooked for myself, listened to jazz and blues, went out for the occasional Club beer (or “brown Fanta”) and became a Sambucaholic (with Sambuca only $10 a bottle you can’t blame me).

In June I flew from Accra to Bangkok, carrying all my worldly goods in two holdalls, a rucksack and a computer case. Thence to Cambodia and, by boat, to the border with Viet Nam, where my girlfriend, Thuy, was waiting on her motorbike. After two weeks in her small town – where I am always the only non-Vietnamese – I took the bus to Saigon and shortly afterwards moved into what seemed like a good apartment.

In early August my new job began. The American International School of Saigon embraces three campuses, and I work at the High School campus. I teach ‘World Literature’ to five classes. I have no books apart from one monstrous and uninspiring tome – ‘The Language of Literature’ - that the students are compelled to buy. I haven’t used it; instead I’ve taught short stories and poetry - inter alia - from photocopies. Of my 93 students, all but two are Vietnamese. My colleagues are mainly North American. The students and the teachers here are fine, but the administration sucks. Admin consists of the Vietnamese Director, who, until recently, sat on her arse dong nothing, and the Headmaster, Dr Mark Uerkvitz, a consummate twerp. I have grown to be wary of educators with doctorates. In Venezuela we had a Dr Warren Ortloff as our Principal, and he was dire. But Dr Mark takes the biscuit. He is monumentally incompetent. His “PhD” (Phony Doctorate?) was awarded by a Southern Baptist University (University of KFC?). He has no idea how to run a school. He’s the world’s worst communicator, has weird ideas about education (“No handwriting! Students must write everything on their laptops”), cares nothing for the well-being of students or teachers, only cares about himself and the WASC accreditation, has a heart condition causing him to be frequently absent, is emotionally fragile and paranoid about certain teachers (me, for example). One evening, at 9-30 pm, he sent me a deranged SMS, claiming I was wrecking school morale. Recently, after repeated complaints about him, the Director bowed to staff pressure, took active control and demoted Dr Mark to janitor status. He is no longer a major player in the running of the school; he has been metaphorically chained up in the attic.

With the emasculation of Dr Mark, the school now has a chance to solidify and grow, and I am hopeful of being there next year. I am also hopeful of teaching with sets of novels next semester.

Enough of that. It’s wonderful to be back in Saigon, my favourite city on Earth, where multi-channel cable TV costs less than $4 a month and a DVD 75 cents (or 50p). I eat out, cheaply and royally, most evenings – usually at an Indian restaurant. I play nine-ball – badly - once a week. I drink world-class black beer with my pals at either of the two Czech breweries. I watch the latest Hollywood rubbish – ‘2012’, ‘New Moon’ – on the big screen at one of the new plazas. I pop over to the Big Mango, Bangkok, for the occasional hedonistic weekend. Most of all, I’m happy in my new apartment. The first apartment had one enormous, initially invisible, defect: a mean and mercenary landlord. He refused to mend things that broke, claiming I had broken them. I managed to get out, sans penalty, after three months and am now enjoying life in a splendid 20th-floor apartment owned by a saintly man. In case I didn’t send you it before, I’ve attached a photo of the view from my balcony at dawn.

The two best books I’ve read this year are ‘The Road’ by Cormac McCarthy (he surely deserves the Nobel Prize) and ‘The Surgeon of Crowthorne’ (aka, in its American version, ‘The Professor and the Madman’) by Simon Winchester.

Many musical highlights. No live music worth mentioning, but lots of good experiences from CD and DVD. Mississippi Fred McDowell, Son House’s ‘Death Letter Blues’, Mississippi John Hurt, Tim Buckley were discoveries. Skip James’s ‘Today’ album was a wonderful rediscovery (many years after being separated from my old vinyl copy, I picked up the CD in Bangkok). One DVD is a must-buy: ‘Eric Clapton and Stevie Winwood Live from Madison Square Garden’ in 2008. Both men are on fire, the other musicians are top-notch, and the choice of songs is impeccable.

Sporting highlight was Manny Pacquiao’s destruction of Miguel Cotto in Las Vegas – paving the way for ‘the fight of the century’, between Pacquiao and Floyd Mayweather, in March 2010.

One of the many defects of my new school is the holiday schedule. We had no October break and have only two weeks at Xmas. In those two short weeks I will take Thuy to Dalat (Vietnamese beauty spot) and Nha Trang (lovely coastal resort), stay with her in her home town of Tan Chau, and then spend five days in Malaysia with my friends from Papua New Guinea.

A year of two halves – the first African half quite boring but with bright spots, the second Vietnamese half exhilarating in spite of problems at work.

One more thing: I’ve become a slave to fashion by joining Facebook. I used to call it Facebollocks, but now, with my 58th birthday looming, and fearful of being labelled a reactionary old fart, I’ve signed up. It’s an experiment; if I don’t like it, I’ll cancel. Please keep emailing me; send your serious news to my email address, not to Facebook!

I wish you all a Cool Yule and a Nonpareil Noël! Or, as the Vietnamese say, CHUC MUNG GIANG SINH (Merry Xmas)!



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