June 16th Seoul

Dear all

Oh my God , what a week.  Extreme, even by the extreme standards of this place.  I'm torn between telling you all about it and getting out into the town again to have some more.

Trying to remember the beginning of the week is tough, but it all started on Monday, with the Korea /USA match.  When we went to see the friendly match with England  I mentioned the relative lack of interest and knowledge about football here, and outside the bulk of football folllowers I stand by that, but things have changed - drastically.  Everybody here is now a 'red devil', and I mean everybody. The atmosphere on Monday afternoon was unbelievable, but that was only the beginning.  By the end of the week Korea had beaten Portugal, qualified for the '16' as they call it here, and there is a round-the-clock party going on which involves the whole of Korea [well the South] , and the representatives of the world passing through.

Monday's match was a draw, which was enough to prevent riot, but realistic voices were muttering that it was not sufficient to qualify.  It was enough to enable the evaluation meeting about the play, and then my party for the cast to happen, although dramatic thunderstorms forced it inside.  I spent most of the weekend cooking, because having the traditional self-catering single pan and a blunt knife, meant that food for thirty had to be prepared bit by bit.  It was, I think you could say, well-received.

On Tuesday I went for a bath, which I had been steeling myself for.  There are public baths everywhere, but it is a very Korean activity, and no allowances at all are made for explaining what you are supposed to do.  I was a little scared of being intrusively foreign,  taking off my clothes in the wrong place, or not taking them off, and all that.  Also some of the public baths are fronts for more dodgy enterprises called 'turki-tangs'.    Insoo had darkly said she didn't know what sort of things happened there, but I wouldn't like it.  I made her talk me through exactly what might be expected of me, if I happened to chance on a non-dodgy one.

In the end it was wonderful, and I wished I had been more adventurous earlier on in my stay.  It cost about 1.50 to go in, and consisted of three rooms - a changing room, with lots of big mirrors and a hairdressers chair and a TV showing the Korea US match again [One channel seems to be re-playing the korean matches 24 hours a day] , a sleeping room, with mats on the floor, and the baths themselves, with a large very hot stone sauna, and plunge pools of various temperatures, showers and massage tables.  Everybody, including the staff of one [the 'demilo'] is naked, and men are just hanging around relaxing, discussing the football, and grooming.  Also they are massaging  or even washing each other.  The demilo, if you pay extra, will sit you n a plastic potty, and wash you all over, then place you on the table, rub you viciously with a towel, and walk on your back.  I opted for dwelling in the warmest bath and having my Korean conversation with anyone who passed.  When I put it all together it is quite long now, and structured a little like a political interview.  I say what I want to say irrespective of the questions, in fact I say the only things I can say.  Then I make Korean noises, at which I am extremely accomplished.  I can do authentic grunts of surprise, agreement, emphasis and admiration, which make me feel and look as if a real conversation is taking place.  If there is a lull, I sing 'Oh Pilsung Korea', which always goes down very well.  In the bath, if I get stuck, I just go underwater.  When I am a little more confident, I shall just call rather imperiously for the demilo to jump on my back.

Anyway - back to the football.  England Nigeria was the first match I've watched on my own at home, and then ...Thursday.  A public holiday, because as a candidate rather memorably told me in person last week, 'we are having an erection'.  But for me it was a big day because I was off to the cup - to Suwon, with my ticket for Brazil against Costa Rica. 

I decided on this as my single live match here because no tickets can be got for the Korea games, because World Cup equals Brazil, and because it was the only ticket for a day I wasn't working.  It was a lucky choice.  So  was the decision to set off early and see Suwon.  It is a town built at a stroke by a particular king, who wanted a retreat from Seoul.  He built a fortress with a long wall around it, which has been preserved or rebuilt.  But Suwon is also seeking to be famous for its beautiful toilets, and if you only have time for one tour on a visit to Suwon sometime, it is these I would go for.  I don't think I can do better than quote directly from the literature....

'Suwon - a city leading the toilet culture with the world.  The public toilet of Suwon City turn into the most clean and comfortable place of speculation and rest, display., rendezvous, recreation of energy in the world - bringing to advanced toilet culture where foreign visitors feel and learn'

There are 33 beautiful toilets in all, with very individual architecture, themes and features.  Amongst those I visited were the Firefly toilet ['the front of the urinals is made of glass, so as to enjoy a natural view and to listen to music'] which featured a very powerful sound system with constant opera, and Daesulgi toilet ['prepared as wide and just like a cafe atmosphere to feel another charms'].  My impression is that they have got a case for being hailed as world toilet capital '- notwithstanding the gorgeous Cesar Enrique toilets of Lanzarote.  Now why didn't Birmingham think of that?

I am sorry if I've gone all Carry-On on you, but they made an impression - not least because my iron constitution chose this day to have its first wobble, and so I did feel particularly grateful for the toilet culture of Suwon.  Oh I forgot to mention the professors' night out, the mountain of raw fish, including still wriggling squid, which may have been a factor in the state of my stomach....

A soldier in the silver army showed me round Suwon, and I did do the walls of the city too, including an interview for Brazilian TV - did you catch it? -  and then it was time for the match.  The atmosphere around the stadium was just sensational.  I was taken by surprise at the range of people there.  Brazilians and Costa Ricans of course, but people were there from everywhere, and the sun shone, and shirts were swapped, songs and dances performed.  Call me an old softie if you will, but it was really very moving indeed.

The toilets at the stadium,  by the way, although not officially 'beautiful' were excellent.  I managed to make my several urgent visits without missing any goals, which was quite an achievement.  Brazil scored the most they have in a world cup since 1958, and played like Brazil play in the myths.  Costa Rica could have scored ten goals themselves.  Maybe you saw it on telly.   I was there.....  

And what can I say about Friday ?   Two final presentations in schools, which were both very good as expected, and then Young-Ai had arranged to take me to a traditional mask drama in the evening in Daehangno - the student area.  She mentioned that quite a few people had arranged to watch the match there [Korea v Portugal - keep up will you] , so I should watch out for crowds.  I went early, an hour before the play, and three hours before the match.  I have described crowds several times in these messages, and I have run out of ways of saying, this was even more of a crowd, but it was.  It was the biggest, reddest, most excited, most homogenous [I didn't see one other foreigner all night, literally] crowd I have ever been in.  This was with three hours to go.  They had closed a huge dual carriageway, and installed giant screens at intervals.  People were crowding to get a view, and there were thousands whose best chance was to get within sight of the back of one of the screens, and who watched the whole match back to front.  This was not even the main public viewing area in Seoul, it was a spillover arrangement.

An understandably small audience watched the mask drama, which was fortunate for me, because the clown figure had me out of the seats dancing on the stage with him.  Minds were elsewhere, but it was an extremely interesting performance.  The plays were extracted from the folk-plays from Hahoe Maul, the little old village that the Queen and I visited in 1999 [separate occasions] - very vulgar, full of bulls bollocks and urine. [The play, not the queen, obviously] ...anyway, you don't want to hear about folk drama, what about the match?

The crowd had filled up during the performance, and try as I might, there wasn't really a hope of getting a view.  But it was thrilling enough being on the edge of it.  I ploughed my way back home, seeing bits in cafes and bars, and in the theatre at the university, and actually watched the second half at home, with wonderful shouts from everywhere whenever anything happened.  Quite how everyone managed to be out on the street and in their houses at the same time is a mystery, but still, they did.  Korea beat Portugal 1-0 and qualified for the next round.  I honestly think it has been a week that will change Korea's concept of itself.  The nationalistic passion which I am in the middle of would be terrifying in some contexts, but really does feel positive in the context of a nation with an often over-deferential attitude to the world, and with a history of being bullied by the big boys.  Besides, I like everyone here.  They have been so nice to me and my family.  I want them to have this party.

On Monday they play Italy.  I think they may well win, but even if they don't, I think that there will not be trouble [unless, perhaps they perceive any unfairness in the result] .  The point is they have already won the cup.

I can't even tell you about my wild night with the Ireland fans, watching England march on.  They are in Suwon today, playing Spain.  I told them all to go early, and experience the culture.  As I write this now, I can see the emerald green nylon shirts in my mind's eye, singing 'The Wild Rover' as they speculate rendez-vous and display in  the Vivaldi toilet.  Enough.  I have a party to resume.





Letter Fifteen