17th March 2002 Seong-Buk-Gu, Seoul, Korea
So here we go...I'm back in Seoul, and your
inboxes are due for a regular battering of unsolicited drivel, to help me get it
out of my system and keep sane in the roller-coaster that is life in the Land of
the Morning Calm - as Korea, without a hint of irony, is known.
I am sending this out to a long list of people in my contact file. Some of you
have actually asked me to do this, and others have been caught in the
cross-fire. Please let me know if you prefer to be struck from this list, or if
the details I have are wrong, or if you don't know who on earth I am and have
been included due to typing error.....
Because of the number of people
included, I am aware that I am up to date with some of you and not with others,
so some introduction may be needed/superfluous. Bear with me.
I am in Seoul for the next four months, teaching an MFA in Theatre in Education
at the Korean National University of the Arts, a course that I came here in 1999
to set up. Many of you are veterans or former victims of the dispatches from
my first tour of duty here
[sorry - the only english-language TV here is the American Forces Network -
those darn guys have infected my mind already] so you know what I was doing
then: well this is different.
This time, like any good sequel, there are new issues, new developments. I'm
here for a 'semester'. Not content with my god-like Visiting Professor status,
I am also making links between schools here, five in Birmingham and six in
Dudley [as natural an alliance as you could possibly imagine!] running a course
for teachers and researching. I shall also be directing a schools tour in
korean of Heads or Tails, a play that I wrote for Big Brum - set in Ladywood,
Birmingham in the 1940s - telling the story of
Steward Street School.
The family is out here for a month starting in May, and then of course there is
the World Cup.... and the International Congress of Toilet Manufacturers - the
two major international events here, for both of which I shall be acting as
your unofficial correspondent. Hold on for an eat-what-you-can barbecue of
bizarre events and images, and please send me word from your allegedly
civilised world every now and then, as I fearlessly perch here on the very edge
If it's like last time, I guess I will write a
lot, for therapeutic reasons, so this time I'm going to put it on my website,
with pictures as well. If you have the stamina, read on....
Three days in, and my pitiful dream of a
grand and dignified re-entrance, between bowing lines of students, and blossom
floating down from the trees, lies in sad ruins. After two hours of flight it
was all going fine, but then my feeble western
let me down [helped I think by a suspect chicken baguette at Heathrow], and
the next nine were spent between my window seat and the toilets at the back of
the turquoise Korean Air jumbo - doing my own close up research for the big
lavatory convention. I was too sick to appreciate fully the brand new
international airport in Seoul too, except to notice that it is like a big
Well I say 'airport in Seoul'.... a couple
of very tricky hours drive later, still clutching my airline vomit bag, I got
to the university. This was great, except that strictly speaking I should
have been at my flat, it being nine at night, and my life ebbing rapidly away
[well OK I was just feeling sick, but that's what it felt like]. The problem
was that Yeong-Hoon, the student-turned-administrator who had fetched me, had
lost it. I don't mean he'd lost his temper, or his mind...I mean he had
lost the flat. It had been there in the afternoon, but now it was dark,
and it was gone. There was no shortage of flats, in the area around the
university. A wonderful ramshackle maze of them, with random numbers and
no two looking alike, but none seemed quite right. We even went into a
to look, but in each case there were in fact people living there.
It was 10.30 and I was actually not feeling ill
any more when we went back with further advice, and found it. Young-Hoon
left, and I have to admit that this trip did not seem like a good idea any
more. All the planning, two weeks of delay in a visa mess -
which I won't stop to explain, because it involves
a system that Kafka rejected because he thought it was overstated.
In the name of God, why? The phone wouldn't call the UK. No Ali, no boys. I
had picked up the information that I was to take my first three hour class at
9.00am, and I was on my own. The underfloor heating was on, it was cosy, I
dumped all my stuff and went to sleep. Things could only get better.
What was that? Better? It was then that the
jet-lag did its bit. I woke up at
2.00 am, eventually went off to sleep properly, and then....
'Peter Sonsaengnim, Peter Sonsaengnim. Wake up,
God, what's the time?'
'It's nine o'clock Professor Peter. Don't
worry. I have called your class and told them you will be fifteen
And so, my entrance, without blossom [due in
April, apparently] and without a great deal of dignity, happened at 9.15 on
Friday morning. Seriously dirty, without any food for a day, [and with the
previous day's worth somewhere in the Gobi Desert] dishevelled,
unshaven, and lacking the level of meticulous planning for my session that I
have always held so dear..... There was plenty of bowing, I'm pleased to
relate, but other details of the next few hours remain hazy. I do
remember revealing in desperation that I was wearing my superman
under my shirt, which was extremely well received. I think in a
desperate kind of way, it was quite a good session. I was so close
to tears that what I'm hoping is that they saw this as an unusual level of
passionate belief in my work. But I'd settle for them just feeling sorry
for me, really. The students seemed lovely, and Insoo, my translator, is
I had a big lunch, without being able to eat much
of it, with Young-Ai, the head of the
department and my reason for being here. It was fantastic to see her. In the
afternoon I did another class [my improvisation class, which was frankly,
well.....improvised], and then there was a big welcoming ceremony [not just
for me, for the whole new semester] which involved each of the staff in making
a short speech. My fellow professors,
grouped together, are an impressive mixture, and the reception each got was
extraordinarily wild - not neat formal rows politely clapping, more whooping
and cheering. Many of the staff are famous performers, and that is the
way they are related to. One relatively big esteemed colleague looked
familiar to me, and I found out later it was because he has been in Bond films.
Eddie is going to be ecstatic. After the speeches [I said my three words of
Korean to wild jubilation] there was a raw fish and seaweed reception followed
at seven o'clock by a short [just 2 hours] performance of extracts of mostly
rather verbal korean drama. All in
all, a bit of a day, but it was over, I
stayed heroically conscious, and the sanctuary of the weekend beckoned.
I'm going to start rehearsing on Monday, and will
rehearse most evenings, and in the day on Saturdays, and some Sundays. My
teaching is only on Wednesdays and Fridays, and the rest of the work will fill
the rest of the time quite full. This weekend I have pottered round, getting
reacclimatised to this extraordinary place. I came with the happy memory of
the end of my previous time here loud in my head, but suddenly what has rushed
back is the memory of how I felt when I first got here. A level of
disorientation I've only felt in the orient. The scale,
the smells, the colours, the noise, the language, the tastes, the
traffic, are relentless and battering and the effect has already swung
frequently between smothering and exhilarating.
I must stop. I don't want to put you off
reading at this early stage, and once
again I run the risk of only experiencing one day in three, while the others
are spent writing it all up! There is loads I haven't mentioned. Remind me
to tell you some time about Calvin and Tommie, about the search for a rubbish
bag, about Insadong and Dongdaemun, about the mistake with the apartment
number, my much-travelled box, the
washing-up dryer and the singing alarm-clock......
By the way, I'm feeling fine now. The weather is
bright but cool - very nice in fact.
With love to you all