Category Archives: Travel

Twenty Years!?

I saw a Facebook post recently which reminded me of something. Well, not so much ‘reminded me’ of something, more like hit me over the head with something. It’s been twenty years since I had my first story published. Twenty fucking years. I was going to say it’s been twenty years since I started writing, but that wouldn’t be strictly true. I’ve been writing since I was a kid. My first published story was called Monkey Man, and it came out in a Welsh literature magazine called Cambrensis some time in 1997. It was a different landscape back then. In the late-nineties there was a thriving small press consisting of various genre mags as opposed to a glut of websites. I also had some early success in Raw Nerve, the Asphalt Jungle, Roadworks, Tales of the Grotesque & Arabesque and several others. The thing was, even back then I was very conscious of getting paid for my efforts, and the vast majority of these titles didn’t offer anything except ‘exposure.’ In fact, when you consider materials, printing and postage expenses, in the pre-digital age it actually cost money to submit to publications. It was a two-way street. Being physical entities, it meant these magazines cost money to put together and distribute.

Having flunked all my exams (even English) I was working in a factory at the time for minimum wage. Mostly, I put things in boxes. Soap, shampoo, pills. You name it, I’d put it in a box. I wanted to find some way of generating extra income, so I started submitting feature ideas to newsstand magazines. This was when shows like the X Files and Buffy the Vampire Slayer were at their peak, and this was manifested in the popularity of paranormal-themed publications like Fortean Times, Enigma and Beyond. I soon found my little niche, and what was more, they paid! They paid pretty well, actually. Sometimes, I would get as much money for one 2000-word feature as I would for an entire week slaving in the factory. My magazine work and general fascination with the weird and fucked-up led to me researching and writing my first book, Into the Dragon’s Lair: A Supernatural History of Wales, which was eventually published by a mid-size Welsh publisher called Gwasg Carreg Gwalch in 2003. Into the Dragon’s Lair set my life on a different path. It was targeted mainly at the tourist trade, and generated a lot of media interest. Several national newspapers did stories about it, and I was a guest on a live Radio Wales programme. It all resulted in a division of the Welsh government giving me a grant to go to university as a mature student.

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I had a choice of two; Carlisle and Southampton. I chose the latter because growing up I was a big Matt Le Tissier fan, who played for Southampton FC. It was that simple. Two weeks later, I was enrolled on a journalism degree and working part time as a barman at the football stadium. I’d hardly left Wales before. In my spare time, I decided to knuckle down and write ‘The Great Welsh Novel,’ a partly autobiographical tale called Rainbow’s End. It took a couple of years, but as soon as it was finished it was snapped up by a new start-up publisher called Flarefont, who promptly went bankrupt. During this time, I also started working on a book about Cardiff City FC, which eventually came out in 2014, again on Gwasg Carreg Gwalch, after another publisher strung me along for about three years until eventually pulling the plug.

From the Ashes F

During university, one of the most beneficial things I did, was go on work experience placements at every magazine that would take me (Front, Ice, Maxim, FHM). I learned more during those two-week placements than I did in three years of university, and I managed to form relationships that would serve me well later in my career. After I graduated from university, I freelanced for a year, writing features for Nuts, Record Collector, Rock Sounds, Urban Ink, Chat… It’s Fate, and anyone else who would pay me, before bunking off to China to teach English. I mainly worked at universities, which meant I had a lot of free time during which I continued to freelance, adding China to my list of specialist topics. One freezing Spring Festival in Tianjin, through sheer boredom, I started writing fiction again, a full nine years after my last published effort. Perhaps this explains why some people assume I am relatively ‘new’ to the scene. Nah, mate. Been here a while. Just had a rest. Over the next couple of years I wrote Apartment 14F: An Oriental Ghost Story and Dead of Night (both published by Damnation Books), and Devil’s Island (Rainstorm Press), as well as a clutch of short stories, which would appear in Screams of Terror, Gore, Siren’s Call, the Literary Hatchet, Trigger Warning, Deadman’s Tome, and a few anthologies.

Then, in 2012, I had another huge stroke of luck. A Staff Writer job came up at Nuts magazine and I was given a shot at it mainly because the deputy editor had somehow noticed some of my funny quips on social media. I flew back from China and was suddenly zipping around London fraternizing with models and film stars. But times were already hard in the ‘lad mag’ market, and getting progressively harder. I was soon got laid off as the sector went through its death throes. I reinvented myself as a sports journalist, and landed a job on the new-fangled Sports Direct magazine. That, too, went belly-up for entirely different reasons, and was re-launched as Forever Sports (later FS). After a couple of years as Senior Writer I was offered a promotion and a pay rise, and asked to move to another new launch at a different publishing company. It didn’t work out. I butted heads with my new editor for a while, then left to go back to freelance, and the new launch sank like the Titanic. By this time I was beginning to realize that the magazine industry was a ruthless arena with very little in the way of job security.

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Parallel to my magazine career, I took advantage of the rise in self-publishing and put out a steady stream of material. To help keep a degree of separation from my day job(s) I modified by name for fiction. There were some things I wrote while I was in China (including Sker House, and No Man’s Land: Horror in the Trenches) which just needed tweaking, and I also started gathering my previously-published short stories into a series of collections. I’ve lost a lot of faith in publishing companies, so I much prefer to put these things out myself. That way I can maintain complete control over every aspect of the process from the cover art to the contents and pricing. These days, I make a living by maintaining several revenue streams, fiction and magazine work being just two components. It isn’t easy, but it’s the life I chose. The past two decades have been a hell of a ride. I’ve done things I never thought I would do, and seen things I never thought I would see. I’ve met some amazing people, more than a few cunts, and lived in 12 different places, in eight different towns and cities, in three different countries. I’ve come to realize that moving around is a big part of my identity. I get restless if I stay in one place for too long. I need the constant sense of ‘newness.’ It keeps me focused. All things considered, I’ve far exceeded my own expectations, and anything beats working in that factory.

I can’t wait to see what the next twenty brings.

 

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RetView #3 – An American Werewolf in London

Title: An American Werewolf in London

Year of Release: 1981

Director: John Landis

Length: 97 mins

Starring: David Naughton, Jenny Agutter, Griffin Dunne

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Some films you see during those impressionable childhood years make an indelible mark on you. Others scar you for life. For me, An American werewolf in London undoubtedly belongs in the latter category, and not just because I was obsessed with Jenny Agutter.

It should need no introduction, but for the uninitiated, the film starts with a pair of American tourists David (David Naughton) and Jack (Griffin Dunne) hiking across the Yorkshire Moors (actually the Black Mountains in Wales). When night falls they take refuge in a charming little pub called the Slaughtered Lamb, where they find Rik Mayall having a game of darts and Brian Glover in a particularly prickly mood, but leave when things turn frosty and find themselves lost on the moors. As if that wasn’t bad enough, things take a huge downward turn when Jack is ripped to pieces by a huge wild animal, later revealed to be a werewolf. There’s no helping Jack, but a crowd from the pub arrive and kill the werewolf just in time to save David.

David wakes up in a hospital in London. We don’t know how he got there, or why he was taken there rather than somewhere closer as it’s about 200 miles from Yorkshire to London. But let’s not focus too much on pesky common sense and practicalities. It’s a werewolf film for fuck’s sake. Jack returns from the dead to warn his friend that next time there is a full moon, he too will turn into a werewolf. The banter between David and Dead Jack, fast, witty, and shot-through with humour, form some of my favourite parts of the film (example: “Have you ever talked to a corpse? It’s boring!”).

The anticipated change does indeed occur in a gut-wrenching yet iconic sequence which won an Academy Award for special effects (creator Rick Baker went on to win six more from eleven nominations. A record) and David goes on a bloody rampage across London. One of the defining scenes was set and filmed at Tottenham Court Road tube station, and anyone who has ever used that particular transport hub will surely agree that the only time you are likely to see it quite so empty is when there is a blood-crazed werewolf riding the escalator. David wakes up naked in the wolf enclosure of the zoo, and then sets about piecing together the events of the night before with the help of Alice (Jenny Agutter), a nurse who he somehow managed to pull at the hospital. It has to be said that she takes all the werewolf stuff remarkably well, which was just one more reason to love the woman.

One of the most terrifying scenes ever committed to celluloid is the dream sequence where David witnesses his family being brutally slayed by a bunch of mutant Nazi demons with machine guns in a home invasion. It’s as weird as it is shocking, and has been the cause of endless debate over the years. Was it included just for the shock factor? An extra element of controversy (as if it were needed)? Or is it a remnant of a sub-plot which was otherwise edited out?

It’s interesting to note that earlier on in proceedings, nurse Alice and her friend make what appears to be an off-hand Jewish remark dressed up as a dick joke, and the movie has been lauded in certain circles as a significant piece of Jewish cinema. A little digging reveals John Landis was born into a Jewish family, and with that kernel of knowledge, the sub-text swims into focus. David (the name of the first monarch of the Israelite tribes) is a walking allegory for Judaism itself. A displaced, wounded hero, a stranger in a strange land, struggling to come to terms with a tragic past. This article does a pretty good job of further exploring the Jewish connection. Personally, I’d never even considered the possibility until I re-watched it recently and started wondering what the fuck those mutant Nazi demons with machine guns had to do with anything.

When it was released in 1981, An American Werewolf in London formed one third of a holy trinity of werewolf films, which all came out the same year, the others being Wolfen and The Howling. Director John Landis (who is more commonly associated with comedy having been involved with such seminal films as Animal House, The Blues Brothers and Trading Places) claimed he was inspired to write the script after working on the film Kelly’s Hero’s in Yugoslavia. Whilst out driving, he stumbled across a group of gypsies performing a ritual on a corpse so it wouldn’t ‘rise again.’ At first he had trouble securing finances, with most would-be investors claiming the script was too frightening to be a comedy and too funny to be frightening, before PolyGram Pictures eventually put up the $10 million budget. Happily, their faith was repayed as the movie became a box office smash grossing over $62 million worldwide.

In contrast, a 1997 sequel, An American Werewolf in Paris, which featured a completely different cast and crew, was a critical and commercial failure. As a curious postscript, in late 2016 it was widely reported that John Landis’s son Max would write and direct a remake. There’s been nothing but the sound of crickets ever since.

Trivia Corner:

In the Piccadilly Circus sequence, the man hit by a car and thrown through a window is none other than John Landis himself.

This is part three of my monthly #RetView series, following Lost Boys and Shock Waves.


Inside Apartment 14F

My latest novella, Apartment 14F: An Oriental Ghost Story (Uncut), just came out. As the title suggests, it’s a partially re-written and expanded version of an earlier release. The original came out on Damnation Books eight years ago, and truth be told I was never really happy with it. By the time the publisher was absorbed by another company and consequently vanished off the face of the earth a few years later, our contract had expired and all rights reverted back to me. That meant, the story was free for me to do what I wanted with, and I felt a remix was in order.

So here we are.

I wrote the original version of Apartment 14F: An Oriental Ghost Story in January/February 2009, when I was living in the industrial city of Tianjin, northern China. Tianjin is like a Chinese Middlesbrough, only with much harsher winters. Yep, it really is that bad. I’d spent the year before in Beijing, where Apartment 14F is set, and had moved to Tianjin to be closer to my then-girlfriend. Obviously, the moment I moved there she dumped me for another dude, leaving me alone and heartbroken doing a job I hated (teaching English at a primary school) in a freezing cold foreign country far too close to Russia with no friends.

Like most teachers, during the Spring Festival period I had a long holiday. It was too cold to go out for any other reason than buying supplies and Chinese TV is a bit shit, so I decided to do something constructive. Though I’d had a few short stories published in the small press when that was a thing years earlier, I’d taken a long sabbatical from writing fiction to focus on feature writing for magazines (the money is better) and was just beginning to get back into the fiction side of things. To me, it’s always been more of a labour of love. I consider any money I make from it a bonus, but it’s so time-consuming and energy-sapping that I feel I have to justify it somehow.

 There’s a different skill-set involved when writing fiction. It’s a bit like opening a door into your mind, and I’m not always entirely sure I want people to see what’s in there. Subconsciously or otherwise, you write about some pretty personal shit. There’s a lot of my early-China experience in Apartment 14F. The sense of isolation, feeling like an imposter, or an alien, feeling strangely detached as lots of weird shit goes on around you. It all added to the loneliness and simmering resentment.

Apartment 14F: An Oriental Ghost Story started life as a short story called When Eyes Lie (Did I mention how bitter I was about the girlfriend thing?). I submitted it to Damnation Books, who were then a new start-up and had just put out a submission call. They loved it, but said it was too short and could do with being bulked up. It was good advice. There was a lot more I wanted to say, and I’d rushed through the short story. At over 17,000 words, the second version was almost twice as long as the original.

I’d hate to bite the hand that used to feed (they didn’t feed me much, but a little) but over time Damnation Books developed something of a reputation for being difficult to work with. I heard a lot of horror stories from other writers, and not the good kind. It’s not my place to air other people’s dirty washing. If you are interested, you can Google it. All the negativity came later. At the time, like most writers, I was just happy that someone liked my work enough to publish it.

In the case of Apartment 14F, there were a few things they wanted me to change. It’s not that I’m precious. I’m always open to suggestions from editors. It’s their job. But I don’t like making wholescale changes on the whim of someone who’s probably spent barely a few minutes skimming my manuscript, whereas I’d been working on it for months. I could have argued my case, but if you argue too much you get a reputation for being difficult and the publisher is liable to pull the plug on your book. I learned a long time ago to choose my battles. Some things are worth fighting for, and some things just aren’t.

Two key scenes came from different dreams I had. I had a lot of weird dreams when I was in China. Still do. It’s a fucking trippy place . The first dream I worked into the story is the hair in the bed scene. If you read it, you’ll know the part I mean. The second was the fortune teller with the inventive way of telling your fortune. That was one creepy nocturnal escapade, and luckily for me, the creepiness translated well to the page. I just described it as best as I could remember. The feelings, the sensations, the thoughts that ran through my head. That one scene has probably provoked more discussion than anything else I’ve written. Discounting the time I did an assignment for the sadly departed Nuts magazine and had the pleasure of telling the world what Lucy Pinder’s tits thought of the Southampton FC back four. But that was a different kind of writing in a different world.

Apart from being forced into making changes to the story, the other sticking points I had with Damnation Books were the amount of promotion they did for the book (none) and the price they set. Both the paperback and the ebook were on sale for over $7, that’s a lot for a novella-length work by someone you’ve never heard of.

Despite being overpriced, on it’s initial release Apartment 14F: An Oriental Ghost Story did extremely well. When Damnation Books imploded a couple of years later, it was still second in their all-time bestseller list. Okay, I know it’s not like being on the New York Times Bestseller list, but it means something to me. DB released A LOT of books. But like I said, I never really felt comfortable with it. I turned a corner with my writing not long afterwards. Must have been the 10,000-hour rule in effect. I went from being a part time writer to a full-time writer, and started doing a lot more fiction as a kind of release from the day job.

Whenever I went back and read the original version of Apartment 14F, some parts made me cringe. I think I have much more insight now. I lived in china another four years after I wrote the original story. I also like to think I’ve improved a lot as a writer since then, and maybe now I can finally do the idea I had back in ’09 justice. It also has a snazzy new cover…

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As an extra little sweetener, I’m also including a bonus short story, Little Dead Girl, which was first published in a short-lived publication called Unspoken Water (2011) and later in X2: Another Collection of Horror (2015). It’s a story written in a similar vein, ironically based on another deeply disturbing dream I had whilst living in the Middle Kingdom, and also featuring a teacher on the verge of a nervous breakdown as the lead character. You could probably say they are set in the same spooky-ass far eastern universe. The two stories kinda compliment each other well, I think.

This is an edited version of an essay which appears in Apartment 14F: An Oriental Ghost Story (Uncut). Available now on Amazon:

UK LINK

US LINK


Apartment 14F – Collected Reviews

I recently released a new, updated and uncut version of my novella Apartment 14F: An Oriental Ghost Story. Here is a selection of reviews of the first release.

“Christian takes you by the hand and drags you deep into a world that most of us will never experience and then thrusts you headlong into a mystery we are never sure will be solved. The climax is a twisted view of love and needs unsatisfied, which leaves you wanting to keep the light on. The surrealism within this story is something I haven’t personally experienced in literature since H.P. Lovecraft and Algernon Blackwood.”

– J.F. Taylor, The Monsters Next Door

“In this short story the author tries to illustrate what most humans are afraid of. We fear death and at times we are afraid of dying alone. Saunders also points out a belief of many, that when we die there is another side whether it’s good or bad. The author also great job does in showcasing the Chinese culture and their beliefs and traditions.”

– The Horror press

“Saunders has written a frightening tale full of thrills, chills and unabashed terror ready for avid horror readers to devour. The author shows amazing depth and realism supported by interesting and well developed characters as well as a plot that will require a night light after reading. You might also want to consider checking under the bed. For anyone interested in a chilling tale Apartment 14F: An Oriental Ghost Story is the way to go.”

-Bitten By Books

“Saunders needs to be credited for doing a professional and credible job in this short novella. His portrayal of China and its culture is top-notch.”

-Blood of the Muse

“I thoroughly enjoyed  Apartment 14F. It was a much more melancholy tale than I had expected going in, considering it was a ghost story. But this is not a bad thing. You won’t find any horrific slice’n dice special effects in this graceful and intelligently told tale; instead you will experience a story dripping with atmosphere, loaded with tension and just enough foreshadowing to shock you with its surprise ending.”

-Mark Edward Hall, author of the Haunting of Sam Cabot, The Lost Village, The Blue light series and others

“I liked that Saunders brought a little more depth to the classic Asian horror story. In a lot of Asian fiction, the story gets lost in translation, so the unfamiliar Westerner doesn’t see the whole cultural picture. Saunders kept the story clear and comprehensible.”

-Swamp Dweller Book reviews

“I quite liked Saunders’ writing – there is a slightly sarcastic sense of humour throughout, as well as a sort of modernity (one exposition scene is done through Facebook. It’s kinda cool. The future is now!) and real-ness. He doesn’t bull-shit around with unnecessarily complex weirdness, rather, the writing is straight and to the point, and the story is punctuated by some cool and accurate comments.”

-Sketchy Sketch Blog of Horror

“The way C.M. Saunders has written this book is pretty spectacular. I could almost feel myself in Apartment 14F.. The story gave me goosebumps and tears in my eyes. I give this book a 5 star review. Brilliant.”

-Amazon reviewer

“I first saw this book as a recommend in a magazine. I hadn’t read a book for a while and being a horror story fanatic, I was instantly intrigued by the write up. I read the whole book over 2 days. Quite an original story line, and for once I couldn’t double guess the ending! Well done. With a twist in the tale, I would even liken the style of writing to the master James Herbert.”

-Amazon reviewer

“ANYONE WHO LOVES ASIAN HORROR, NEEDS TO READ THIS BOOK!!! EXCELLENT!!”

-Amazon reviewer

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UK LINK

US LINK


Boss Blogs #1: Meet Me in the City Tonight

For many people, seeing Bruce Springsteen live, especially with the E Street Band, is akin to a religious experience. His epic three-hour plus live shows are the stuff of legend. The vast majority of artists have their carefully arranged 16-song set consisting of a smattering of tracks from their latest sub-par album, closing the show with a few hits from when they were more popular to send the crowd home happy. They play the same songs, in the same order, every night. Even their salutations are hollow. “Thank you (INSERT NAME OF LATEST STOP ON THE TOUR)! This has been the greatest night of our lives!”

Of course it has, pal.

Springsteen doesn’t just go through the motions. Every show, every note of every song, is shot through with energy, emotion and intensity. Virtually every night the set list is different. Sometimes there are minor tweaks, sometimes there a radical overhaul. He usually does something special, making it unique for those lucky enough to be in attendance. He might dust off a rare deep cut, a non-album track, a new arrangement of an old classic, or an unexpected cover. He has an extensive repertoire to draw from, and nothing is off-limits. After Prince died last year he played Purple Rain as a tribute, in London he played the Clash song Clampdown in homage to Joe Strummer, and in Australia he played the relatively obscure INXS track Don’t Change as a nod to Michael Hutchence. It wouldn’t be beyond the realms of possibility to witness him tackle a George Michael or Motorhead standard at some point. The first time he ever played in Wales on the Magic tour in 2008 he started the show with From Small Things (Big Things One Day Come), in reference to the size and stature of the country.

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I’m not as fanatical as some Springsteen aficionados. I’ve met people who have seen him live literally hundreds of times, making my six gigs in four countries over twenty years seem pretty fucking weak. Still, I do have some good stories. Like the time I was on a coach coming back from Rotterdam and French border police decided to take us in a room one-by-one and strip search us all. I’d never had that treatment before, so that was an experience. As was travelling all the way from Wales to Philadelphia for the reunion tour in 1999 only to arrive at the venue to find the show had been cancelled because of a hurricane. After being shut in the hotel bar for the night, we eventually got to see another show later in the week so the trip wasn’t completely wasted. Unlike me that night in the hotel bar. At the actual gig, my then-girlfriend went out for a cigarette halfway through the show and security wouldn’t let her back in, so she had to stand in a car park by herself in downtown Philly for two hours. No, I didn’t go out to find her. A man has to get his priorities right. Besides, I didn’t know what had happened until later. There were no mobiles in 1999.

Thinking about it, my Boss gigging history has been dogged by drama. I was also at the infamous Hyde Park gig in 2012, when the council pulled the plug in the middle of a historic duet with Paul McCartney. Hilariously, the Boss started the next gig in Dublin in the middle of Twist & Shout and had a fake policeman drag him from the stage at the end. The first time I ever saw the him live was as a starry-eyed 18-year old at Wembley Arena in 1992. By some fluke, my friend and I had great seats, just a few rows from the front. But probably my favourite ever Boss gig was at the San Siro, Milan in the summer of 2003. I’ve always thought the music spoke to me on some weirdly personal level, and that show seemed to prove it. I still worked in a factory in Wales at the time. I had a car, a steady girlfriend and a PlayStation. All the things that are supposed to make you content. But man, I was so fucking miserable. I was beginning to realize it’s a big world out there, and I was frustrated at only being allowed to experience a tiny part of it. My first book had just been released and, I knew big changes were coming in my life. He sang ‘Follow That Dream,’ a song he doesn’t do often, and it almost sent me over the edge. It certainly put things in perspective. I decided to roll the dice and risk everything to pursue a career in writing. Within a few months, I’d split up with my girlfriend, sold my car, laid my PlayStation to rest (which I still think is the biggest loss) and moved to Southampton to study journalism. Strange how things turn out. I look back on that San Siro gig as some kind of tipping point.

When Bruce & the E Street Band began this latest tour, they were playing The River album in it’s entirety from start to finish, then a handful of oldies at the end. Everyone knew it wouldn’t last. It was too rigid, too predictable. The handful of oldies at the end soon stretched to a dozen, then 15 or 16, and by the time he got to Europe the ‘whole album’ format had been discarded altogether in favour of a career-spanning mash-up. What’s even better is EVERY show is being recorded and released via his website. I used to collect live bootlegs. Over the year I amassed hundreds of them. I’ve always been aware that the studio albums, even taking into account the 4-CD retrospective set Tracks, only tell half the story. But they were expensive and the sound quality was hit or miss. Normally miss, to be fair. These new releases are absolutely flawless, and at $9.95 (MP3 format) for four hours of music, reasonably priced. There’s a bit of polishing and mixing going on, but if it enhances the sound quality I’m not against it like some purists are. Incidentally, if you want my opinion, I don’t think you can go far wrong by investing in the Washington National Park show.

After a few months off following the last US leg, the River tour found it’s way to Australia last month. Because, bizarrely, it’s summer there. And winds up next week in New Zealand. I’m envious of all you Australasians who were lucky enough to get tickets but I’m not that put out. I’ll just get the MP3s.

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Little Virgin Boy Pee Eggs

Today is Chinese New Year! That means it’s time for another China story from the vault. I’ve posted quite a lot here about China, like the time I ate brains and the time I got to be Bad Santa. There was also the snake shop, and when I got pulled in Shanghai airport and some beefy security guards tried to take my cheese off me. No way, mister! Even the most mundane things, like getting a haircut, take on a whole new meaning in the Middle Kingdom.

In 2009-2010 I lived in an extremely inhospitable northern industrial city called Tianjin. I imagine it was a bit like a Chinese Middlesbrough. I only went there to be closer to a girl I was dating, who then promptly dumped me for another dude leaving me alone, miserable and stuck in a job I hated. Said job was teaching English in a primary school. It wasn’t the teaching I disliked. it was the kids. There, I said it. It’s probably hard enough trying to educate children that young when you speak the same language, but at least then you can reason with them. If you don’t speak the same language, forget it. It’s like fighting a war with no weapons. Every class was anarchy.

Eventually I hit on the bright idea of rewarding the good kids with lollipops, hoping the naughty ones would see what they were missing and fall in line. It didn’t quite work out like that. Instead, every kid who didn’t get a lollipop threw an epic temper tantrum. Mostly products of the one-child policy, they were a mass of Little Emperors. They broke me. Regularly. I would cave in and give them all lollipops just to shut them up, costing myself a small fortune in sugary bribes.

One of the few things I liked about this school was the little breakfast stall stationed outside, selling a selection of traditional local food, along with some more normal fare like boiled eggs and corn on the cob. I stopped by there most mornings. It was cheap, and saved me time.

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There was a lot I didn’t like about the school. But the worst thing were the toilets. Toilets in China are gruesome places at the best of times. But in the school there were no locks on the doors, because the little shits would shut themselves in. That meant whenever I used it, I had a swarm of kids around me pointing and laughing. It was enough to give anyone a complex.

I noticed the boys all peed in buckets, which struck me as a bit weird. But lots of things struck me as a bit weird in China, and the buckets of piss just blended in with all the other weirdness. People would come in sporadically, carry the full buckets out, and come back with empty ones. Presumably, they were emptying them down a drain somewhere. I didn’t know, and frankly, I didn’t care. I didn’t think much about it. Until one day, when I was talking to my teaching assistant and he told me something that first confused me, then horrified me to the core. The school was selling the pee. Those people who came in to take out the buckets of piss were actually paying the school for the privilege.

“What? Who would buy buckets of pee?”

“People.”

“What people?”

“Like the people at the breakfast stall where you go in the mornings.”

“Why?”

“Tong zi dan.”

“What’s that in English?”

“Not sure. Little virgin boy pee egg or something.”

He explained that in some regions of China, Tianjin included, urine from young boys, preferably under the age of ten is harvested. It is boiled, and eggs are soaked in it for a few hours. Then the shells are cracked, presumably to let the pissy goodness inside, and it is boiled some more. The practice has been going on for centuries, and is tied to TCM (Traditional Chinese Medicine). Eating little virgin boy piss eggs is said to reduce high blood pressure, stop you catching a cold, and relieve joint pain, and I’d been unwittingly eating them for months.

I’ve never been able to look at a boiled egg in quite the same way since.


Dear London

This isn’t an easy letter to write. I think you know, things haven’t been right between us for a while now. I’m not sure they ever were. Don’t get me wrong, we had a lot of fun together. Those early days, when there was so much to discover and indulge in, were very special. So new new and exciting. For a while, I really thought you might be ‘the one.’ I thought I’d finally be able to settle down. But those feelings didn’t last. After a couple of years, all the little annoyances I used to find so charming started getting on my nerves. These days, I find it difficult just to be around you. Everything’s such hard work, and I derive so little pleasure from what we do together. It comes down to balance, I suppose. This relationship is all take and no give.

I would give you that time-honoured “It’s not you, it’s me,” line.

But that wouldn’t be fair, because it’s mostly you.

I know the score, okay? I know how things are. You are this rich, powerful, older woman and I’m just A.N. Other guy. I have to work my balls off to impress you and stay in your good graces. Do you have any idea how exhausting that is?

Didn’t think so. You act like I should be happy just to be here. To have the opportunity. But my best was never good enough. You have ridiculously high standards, and even higher demands. I know if I let my guard down for just a few moments, there’ll be a line of would-be suitors queuing around the block. Like vultures. Half the guys in the world want to get with you. That’s a lot of pressure. Plus, you go through my money like it was piss in the rain.

God, you make me feel like such a failure sometimes. On the other hand, you make me proud just to be with you. That’s the paradox of love. Anyway, enough waffling. The bottom line is our relationship is turning destructive, and it’s probably best I leave before someone gets hurt.

There, I said it.

Sorry to be so abrupt, but you broke my heart, London. At least three times, you cold, heartless bitch.

I know you are fucking other people, okay? You always were, and you always will. It’s just what you do. You don’t care. And why should you? You don’t owe me anything. You’re thinking, “You came to me, remember? Feel free to leave at any time.”

I also want to thank you. You taught me how to be humble, how to be strong, and how to grow. Along the way you taught me a few hard life lessons. But someone had to teach me, and I’m glad I learned from the best.

I’m not bitter. It hurts to know that you’re so ruthless and callous, but I get it. It’s not personal. And don’t worry, even though I knew all along you were using me I have no regrets, because I was using you, too. We were just having fun. I always knew it wouldn’t be long term. How could it? We both value our freedom and independence too much to make any kind of lasting commitment. Many better men (and women) than me have tried to have a relationship with you and failed.

Thinking about it, I suppose we were only ever fuck buddies. At first, there was only passion and lust. I wanted to do everything with you. But then, the spark died. The dream ended and reality bit down on us hard. We stopped going out as much, most of our ‘friends’ slipped away, and our sex life went down the toilet. When we did manage it, which wasn’t often, it was functional and mechanical. Like we were just going through the motions. Yeah, we’d blame things like work and family and the weather and whatever else. But the truth is, we just drifted apart. I know that you never gave all of yourself to me. There was always that part of you that you kept hidden. And no matter what I did, you were never going to reveal it to me. I could spend a lifetime trying and still not discover ‘the secret of you.’

Maybe I was the same way.

I admit, I haven’t exactly been faithful. There’s this other girl called China. I don’t understand half the things she says or does and she has these really strict parents who make things difficult, but she’s just so beautiful and exotic. Then there’s my mental ex, Wales. She was my first love, so I guess she’ll always be in my life. We went through too much together for me to ever really forget her, but we are so volatile together we fight like mad.

Anyway, goodbye, London. I don’t know where this journey will take me next, but I do hope we can stay in touch and who knows, maybe we can hook up again further down the road. The future is a place where anything is possible.

Take care of yourself, and stay beautiful.

hearts-of-london-bike2


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