Thursday, 23 November 2017

Teach in Poland in EL Gazette

Centralny, the Palace of Science and Culture, a gift from Stalin in the 1950s, still dominates the centre of Warsaw. I remember it from my visit to a very different Warsaw 29 years ago!

My article on working conditions, pay and job opportunities for English language teachers in Poland - both native speakers and locally recruited Polish English teachers - is now on the website of EL Gazette, the newspaper for the English Language Teaching industry. Yes, I'm still writing for them, as a freelance.

The feature is the result of my visit to Warsaw in July. I would like to thank Danka Soltyska, Peter Whiley, J Neil Russell, Marek Kiczkowiak, Mike Pilling, Mark Krzanowski and to Elzbieta Jarosz, Iatefl Poland secretary for their help in talking to me for this article, as well as some other English teachers who preferred not to be named. I did thank all the above people at the end of my article, but this was cut out of the final version - I'm not editor at EL Gazette anymore, so I no longer have control over these things!

I'll put the full text of the article here shortly, with some more links.

One of the many branches of the Empik Schools chain of language schools. Empik is the dominant school chain in Poland, it grew out of a bookshop and department store operation. (This one, at Centralny, is above one of its stores.) Empik didn't respond to my enquiries. I heard that one of their selling points is experienced and qualified Polish English teachers rather than native speakers.

Students enrol on Polish-medium sciences degree courses for the next academic year in the Polytechnica (Warsaw Technical University), in the Great Hall, rebuilt in its original style after its destruction in World War Two. These students will have English for Academic Purposes courses and English language support in addition to their main subjects taught in Polish.

The glass roof of the Politechnica's Great Hall

Lincoln Language School, one of the many smaller chains of language schools, has a branch in Central Warsaw. These chains are nearly all Polish-owned, multinational chains are rare in the country.

The Sirena, the mermaid - the emblem of Warsaw – shown here on a bridge over the Vistula River.
All photos: Copyright Matt Salusbury

Mystery lights of East Anglia in Fortean Times

My article on "The Mystery lights of Suffolk" (it in fact covers East Anglia, taking in coastal Essex and Norfolk as well) is in the current issue of Fortean Times magazine, FT 360, the December 2017 issue, on sale now. As soon as the "First British Serial" is over, ie when the next issue comes out, around 7 December, the copyright reverts to me and I will put it up here on the blog.

The current Fortean Times looks like this:

Thursday, 12 October 2017

Anglian Mist

My review of Stuff of Dreams Theatre Company's East Anglian set Cold War drama, Anglian Mist is on Traffic Light Threatre Goer. I caught the play at the opening night of its East of England tour at The Cut, Halesworth. Shown above is my photo of the mysterious Cobra Mist installation as it is today (the project was previously known as Anglian Mist, and then Sentinel Mist) on the Lantern Marshes at the edge of Orford Ness, Suffolk. Anglian Mist is set in Orford Ness.

Monday, 9 October 2017

Wallabies on walkabout in Suffolk

Video footage of a white wallaby hopping down the lanes of Glemsford, West Suffolk, recently emerged on the BBC news Suffolk website. The night-time footage, shot in late September from a camera on the bonnet of Julian Eley's Merc, illuminated by its headlights, clearly shows a white wallaby as it bounds down remote roads on its way to Liston on the Essex border. When it pauses, you can even see its pink-red eyes, showing it's an albino.

This is not the first time an albino wallaby has appeared in Suffolk. Wallabies have been turning heads locally since Mr Wombwell's travelling menagerie passed through Halesworth on its 1907 tour, with the Halesworth Times and Southwold General Advertiser of 3 December 1907 giving particular attention to one animal that "could not even be seen in the London Zoological Gardens. One of these was the albino Wallaby Kangaroo from Western Australia." But the albino wallaby remained firmly in captivity throughout the tour.

The Lowestoft Journal did record the escape of Benny the Benet's wallaby from what was then the Suffolk Wildlife Park in Kessingland in January 1988.

There seems to be a cluster of wallaby sightings around the Wickham Market area. Local man Nick Beagley, cycling from his home in nearby Pettistree towards Ipswich in 2004, had an "absolutely extraordinary" experience when a wallaby appeared, "hopping along the side of my bike before disappearing into the hedgerow."

A dead wallaby was reportedly found in a ditch at Bucklesham, just east of Ipswich, in the same year. An uncredited Ipswich Star reporter also admitted having spotted a wallaby "sitting by the roadside at Warren Heath on the edge of Ipswich" sometime prior to 2004. Kessingland's captive Parma wallabies – a smaller species – were at the time all accounted for, although their spokesman said red-necked wallabies were known to live wild elsewhere in the UK, and "so they could live quite happily in Suffolk." A Suffolk Wildlife Trust spokeswoman told the Star they'd received no wallaby reports. Paranormal Database received a report from a driver and passenger of a "young kangaroo" travelling along Ipswich's busy London Road at around 4pm on the evening of 12 September 2011. Given the unfamiliarity of most Suffolk folk around the various species of kangaroo and wallabies, it could well have been a misidentified wallaby.

I have a family anecdote that may explain how some East of England wild wallabies came to be at large. My mother lived with her mother (my grandmother) briefly at Whipsnade Zoo in Bedfordshire during World War Two. It seemed a good idea at the time, as it was out of London, safe from the Blitz, but within easy reach of London. They knew Erno Goldfinger, the architect, who lived locally near their London house. (Ian Fleming, who also lived locally, didn't like Goldfinger's self-built modernist house and named one of his James Bond villains after him.) Moving to Whipsnade, it turns out, wasn't a good idea. My family didn't know it, but Bomber Command (top secret) was just over the next hill, and it was easy for the Luftwaffe to misidentify a compound of odd-looking modern buildings for Bomber Command. The yak enclosure got bombed at least once, with yak casualties.

My grandmother, who had an active imagination, described one night in the darkness outside the house they lived in on the Whipsnade compound, lifting the bonnet of her car and unscrewing the alternator cap, which you were supposed to do to immobilize your car in line with wartime regulations to stop German paratroopers using it. Suddenly she saw a pair of eyes looking at her, at about the level of a German paratrooper would be were they crouched on one knee taking aim. Then the pair of eyes moved out into the light, revealing - a wallaby! Presumably, the wallaby enclosure had taken a direct hit from Luftwaffe ordnance and the wallabies had got out. They would have since had many years to give rise to a wild East of England wallaby population.

Most of the above historic examples are from my forthcoming Mystery Animals of the British Isles: Suffolk.

Thursday, 22 June 2017

Talking about big cats on BBC Radio Suffolk

I was recently on Jon Wright's BBC Radio Suffolk breakfast show, talking about the Sunday papers but also about big cats in Suffolk, including an update on Mystery Animals of the British Isles: Suffolk. It's been proofread by a volunteer once, I'm working in the corrections, it will go through a couple more proofreads. There's a little bit of work needed on the back cover - "too busy" as my publishers rightly noted. Then there's the pagination for the index and we're all systems go and ready to launch.

You can listen to our chat on the Iplayer until 9 July 2017, they usually send me a short audio clip that I will put on this website. I come in at around 01.23.00 talking about the Curious County's big cats, until 01.29.52. Then I'm on discussing the Sunday papers at 01.37.30.

Wednesday, 7 June 2017

Watching more and more Labour posters go up in Suffolk

FOR THE past few weeks I've been watching with some amazement as yet another Labour poster appears in a new window of yet another house in a particular street in the town of Halesworth, North Suffolk. That's right – Suffolk. Predominently rural Suffolk, in the ultra-safe Tory seat of Suffolk Coastal. Halesworth (population 4,700), just "the wrong side of the A12" – just far away enough from the coast to keep it from being part of the playground of the second-home owners, comes under the slightly more Labour-leaning Waveney District Council jurisdiction, but it's on the northern edge the ultra-safe Tory Suffolk Coastal Parliamentary constituency.

Apparently home-made Labour poster in Halesworth, North Suffolk, a recent addition. House number cropped out.

Normally at election time there are Conservative boards to be seen everywhere round here, usually big ones put up on the edges of big fields by the main road by local landowners. There were a lot of "Leave" signs in the fields on the edges of the big estates last June. This time round they are conspicuous by their absence. I suspect it's not vandalism, they may not have gone up in the first place this time round.

In the seaside village of Dunwich (over 30 per cent of households were second homes at the last count), all the boards in evidence are Lib Debs. But in Halesworth, the gradual accumulation of Labour posters in windows has been really noticeable. In a part of the world where a temporary traffic light put in on a village lane for some roadworks becomes a conversation starter, the appearance of even one Labour poster is a bit of a big deal. At first they appeared in the first floor windows of houses set back a bit from the road, not all that visible. Then, the next day, another. Then another. Then a sort of "Labour window" of a poster, some newspaper articles dissing Theresa May's record on the NHS, and some unfurled local leaflets presenting Labour's candidate for Suffolk Coastal, a young firefighter from Felixstowe named Cameron Matthews.

Matthews is up against till recently seemingly unassailable Dr Therese Coffey MP, widely derided by her constituents whatever their allegiance of lack of one. Dr Coffey has a majority of 25,000 and now serves as Undersecretary of State for the Environment and Rural Affairs. Like Margaret Thatcher, she was a chemist in the confectionary industry (for Mars). Dr Coffey is from Liverpool, she's still a passionate Liverpool FC fan (so no Suffolk origins then). Her candidacy for ultra-safe Suffolk Coastal was a reward for serial defeat in Parliamentary and European Parliament elections. This is in a seat where most candidates even for District Council elections put something along the lines of "born and raised in Suffolk" on the front of their leaflets if they can.

Private Eye noted Dr Coffey's role in ensuring the future of England's only Oil Transhipment Area, just off the pristine coast of Southwold, where mostly Russian tankers transfer oil to smaller vessels heading for the shallower waters of the Baltic. Also noted by Private Eye are Dr Coffey's famously short MP's surgeries in villages, where she announces through posters that she'll be available on a particular day for all of ten minutes or quarter of an hour, running surgeries practically with the engine still running.

The Conservatives have held Suffolk Coastal since its creation in the 1980s, and the seats that came before it (Sudbury and Woodbridge seat and Lowestoft seat) pretty much since the beginning of time, although Labour took Lowestoft in the landslide of 1945 and held it until the late 1950s. Elections for Suffolk County Council are usually a "blue tide" as well. Labour lost four Council seats in county elections in May, with the annihilation of UKIP accounting for most of the District-wide "blue tide." Suffolk's only upset was in the West of the County, where the West Suffolk Independents took Brandon from the Tories. So confident were the Tories of victory in Suffolk Coastal in the 2015 election that they didn't bother to send a representative to an important hustings in Woodbridge, to the "audible disapproval" from the audience.

It's now the day before the election, and last time I cycled down that street in Halesworth, we were up to two Labour posters appearing in windows per day. One of them appeared to be homemade, just printed in yellow lettering on a red background on somebody's computer printer. The same day, somebody had come round to the picture postcard village with its thatched houses where I live a couple of miles outside Halesworth, and as I was out they'd left some Labour leaflets wrapped around the handle of the front door. My jaw dropped, Labour have actually gone door to door in a deepest rural Suffolk village of 200 people. Labour even showing their face round there is to say the least a surprise. Even more of a surprise was the discovery of a "Never Mind the Bollocks" poster featuring a photo of May with duct-tape on her mouth and Sex Pistols-style ransom note cut-up lettering, taped to a tree on a dangerous bend on the B1123 road out of Halesworth heading deeper into rural Suffolk, a couple of miles from anywhere.

Yes, an actual Labour poster in the village of Westleton, Suffolk!

More surprising still was the sight of a couple of Labour posters in the "best kept village" of Westleton, on the edge of Minsmere and Dunwich Heath nature reserves. You don't get much more picture postcard than Westleton. Prince William and Kate Middleton even celebrated their first wedding anniversary with a weekend staying at the uber-posh Crown pub there. Labour posters in Westleton? Yes, I kid you not!

A quick look at the Rural Labour Twitter feed, though, suggests that all across the country, the sight of picture postcard thatched cottages with Labour boards up in front of them suddenly isn't all that rare anymore. Plus the odd photo of a farmer working in the fields in tractor, which proudly displays a Labour board fixed to its mudguard. (See also @LabourBoards.)

Slightly North of Halesworth, where Suffolk Coastal constituency ends and Waveney constituency starts, I was in the market town of Beccles for market day and I stumbled across the Labour Party stall. Its activists (there was a considerable swarm of them) told me the seat had only been Tory since 2010, the Tories were holding on to a majority of only 2,000, with everything to play for.

Given Labour's huge growth in membership since 2015, with the huge increase in resources that this brings, I found it surprisingly hard to actually track down Labour in Suffolk Coastal. Woodbridge Labour have an active website, one of their folk music benefits in the early spring of this year allegedly had to turn people away it was so busy. My nearest branch is Leiston Labour (the town, home of Sizewell B nuclear power station, had Communist and Labour councillors in an alliance in the 1930s, many Communist town councillors taught at Leiston's progressive Summerhill School. Leiston was at the time known as "Little Moscow.") Leiston Labour has no apparent contact details beyond a Twitter and Facebook page, it took weeks for them to reply to a DM message on Twitter. I was eventually able via the Labour Party's website get the contact details for Labour Eastern Region, who in turn eventually put me on to the Blyth Valley Group nearest me.

I was also a little disappointed when I went on the Labour Party website to look for "local events" and all they had was some door-knocking in Lowestoft, over 40 miles away, only for me to find the next day via Twitter that Jeremy Corbyn was already in Lowestoft and nearby Gorleston (the hospital, just over the border in Norfolk, was facing cuts.) It was clear that Jezza would be ending his lightning tour of the East Coast before I could even get on a train. To be fair, the lady at the Labour stall in Beccles told me they'd only got half an hour's notice of Jezza's visit themselves.

This lack of even the basics, such as actual contact details, was a point highlighted in a report that came out not long after Corbyn won his first leadership election, entitled Labour's Rural Problem _ Winning Again in Coast and County.

The report, prepared by then shadow environment secretary Maria Eagle, followed the Milliband-era Labour Party's poor showing in rural seats in the 2015 election – they lost one rural seat. Labour's Rural Problem claimed one issue is "not just rural voters' perception of Labour, but more crucially Labour's perception of rural voters. This problem goes from the top of the party to the bottom - for too many rurality is synonymous with Conservatism, and engaging with these communities is at best an afterthought, and at worst a complete waste of time." (is "rurality" even a word?)

Labour's rural problems date back way beyond Corbyn. When Labour lost the mostly rural Copeland seat to the Tories in a recent byelection, my reaction was, What? Labour still had a rural seat to lose? Given Blair and then Gordon Brown and their talent for taking the vote of entire regions or even nations for granted (Scotland, Wales, the North, etc.) it was just Corbyn's rotten luck to be around when there was somehow still a rural seat to contest that New Labour hadn't managed to lose already.

Hand-made "register to vote" poster aimed at the yoof of Halesworth, spotted in mid-May

At the local level at least, though, this time around someone in Labour now thinks it's worth going door to door to leaflet a remote thatched village of 200 people that doesn't even have a proper village hall, never mind a pub, so things may have changed.

Another failing Labour's Rural Problem identified was the tendency of mobilising any of its rural supporters that they did find to go door-knocking in the towns, as if the rural seats were a write-off. The report gave an example of a case where this happened – enthusiastic rural Labour activists were sent to a nearby "marginal" urban constituency to campaign, Labour did appallingly in that town and actually better in the rural constituency they'd emptied of activists (although still not enough to win it.)

As we speak, I've just called Suffolk Coastal Labour (I got their number from Eastern Region, now that I found out Eastern Region existed and they're actually answering the phone.) They confirmed that they're directing supporters in Suffolk Coastal to go to door-knocking on the day of the General Election in the constituency of Ipswich. This isn't because they've written off Suffolk Coastal though, it's because Ipswich been a swing seat or a "bell weather" seat as long as anyone can remember, for so long, in fact that a young journalist called Charles Dickens was dispatched there from London to cover an election, his experiences there inspired him to write The Pickwick Papers. The seat's changed hands eight times in the last century.

Only the dismalness of the then Labour candidate for Ipswich lost them the seat in the 2015 General Election (some had then tipped Labour to take it, they're fighting Ipswich with a different candidate now.) Ben Gummer, the current Tory incumbent, is an impressive foe, though. Like a lot of East Anglian Tory MPs, he's positioned in the green wing of the Tories (yes, they have one!) and his comments in defence of immigrants and against xenophobia immediately post-EU referendum show he's a far from typical Tory.

There's also a more practical reason for rural activists to go door-knocking 30-odd miles away in the County Town. Most of rural Suffolk is "left behind" _ literally. There's so little public transport left in the county. If you haven't got a car, it's actually easier to get to Ipswich than to other parts of rural Suffolk!

Sunday, 14 May 2017

Encounter with a Bengal cat

Henry the Bengal cat

I've heard a lot about Bengal cats, and how Britain's big cats are supposed to be misidentified Bengal cats, how the genes of Bengal cats and other exotic breeds are supposed to have got into the feral cat population and turned them into something altogether different... and bigger. I heard that Bengal cats were real characters, they liked to go for walks on leads, and that they were such a handful behaviourally that they were often abandoned. I recall reading Big Cat Rescue saying that they used to get call-outs from people saying there was a "Florida panther" on the loose, attacking Alsatians and in some cases frightening old ladies, but when they got there it was often just an ever so slightly bigger than usual Bengal cat that had gone AWOL or been turned loose.

Legends tell of how the original Bengal cats, hybrids of the Asian leopard cat (Prionailurus bengalensis bengalensis) were named after one that was found in the Bay of Bengal on the approaches to Bombay (Mumbai) by early East India Company sailors, swimming out towards them. Like most exotic stories on the origins of exotic cat breeds, it's probably nonsense. (Burmese cats weren't originally from Burma, but from Thailand, "Bombay" cats were bred in Virginia, and so on.) We know they were deliberately crossbred. The UK Dangerous Wild Animals Act 1976 came in largely because Bengal cats (and wolf dogs, crosses between dogs and wolves) were turning up in the country, with the authorities unsure how they would turn out, the law banned wolfdogs (they're now legal) and required a license for Bengal cats that had more leopard cat genes than "F4" (fourth generation). Bengal cats are known for their "confident" temperament (a bit of an understatement!) Breeders sell them for anything up to £800 each.

I finally got to meet a Bengal cat face to face. He lives somewhere in the Blyth Valley in Suffolk, looked after by a fosterer. He came from a smaller house at the other end of the same village, but he obviously decided he didn't like his accommodation and fancied living in a bigger house and garden nearby, so he abandoned his humans and moved on in his new chosen home - fairly typical Bengal cat behaviour, I am told!

He is very vocal, quite friendly, and the two things that really struck me about him are that he is very muscular - at first glance he looks a little on the overweight side until you see that he is all muscle. Secondly, his fur is very short and shiny, it has a different feel to most cat fur. His back is also different to a mainstream domestic cats - a bit more arched. His toes seem a little longer too. The vestigal pad that most cats have towards the back of their paws is much more pronounced.

And check out his markings - quite unlike anything you'd see on a domestic cat - those leopard-like rosettes!

Bengal cat rosette markings

And impressive-looking cat indeed, but if I hadn't been told he was a Bengal I'd have difficulty distinguishing him from an ordinary domestic cat. As for his size - a large, muscular cat but not even as huge as some of the long-haired, captured black feral cats I've seen in the county. Suggesting that British big cats are misidentified Bengals is a bit of a stretch but for one characteristic I've noticed - we British are absolutely hopeless at identifying big cats.

There are also regular reports of an "Ocelot-like" big cat in Cambridgeshire. From a long way off, could this be a Bengal? And any possibly already huge feral cats out there would definitely start to seem more big cat-like a few generations after an injection of genes from those shiny, muscular, arch-backed Bengal cats.