The roads from Sado – Day 10

As I was passing through the outskirts of Numata City, Mrs M called to ask if I wanted her to come and pick me up.
‘I’ve got to work tomorrow,’ she said, ‘but I could drive to Nikko today and we could put your bicycle in the back of the car.’
I have to say that for a moment or two I was tempted by the offer, but male pride can be a powerful thing. If I accepted, I would officially have failed in my mission to get to Sado and back by pedal power, something I would probably have to lie about if anyone asked me how my summer holidays had gone. So I told Mrs M not to worry, crossed my fingers and carried on towards the Shiisaka Pass as planned.

About halfway there, a truck driver honked his horn, waved and smiled a cheery ‘Hello!’ in a manner that seemed to say, ‘What the bloody hell are you doing trying to ride a bicycle up this hill, you fool!’ and as if to emphasise his point, the next car to pass by was a hearse. I made it to the top unscathed, though, and after a quick freewheel into the Katashina River valley, it was time for today’s main event, namely the forty-kilometre trek to the Konsei Pass.

The lower slopes were comparatively gentle, and on the way I met Ishii-san, the first proper touring cyclist I had seen on the trip. A university student, Ishii-san was wending his way back from Hokkaido (where during the summer holidays you will encounter a touring cyclist approximately once every five minutes) to Nagoya, and nojuku-ing along the way.
‘To be honest,’ I said, ‘I’m still a bit wary of nojuku.’
‘I was too at first, but you get used to it after a week or two.’
‘Did you come over the Konsei Pass from Nikko?’
‘No, but I’m heading for this place.’ Leafing through his copy of the Kanto Mapple, Ishii-san pointed out the Shibu Pass in Nagano Prefecture, which at 2172 metres is the highest in the country. His bicycle appeared to be a good deal heavier than mine, laden as it was with panniers on both the front and back wheels, and – among other things – a full-size non-stick saucepan with a Pyrex lid, so if he could make it to 2172 metres, there was no excuse for me fail at 1880.

As well as its official title of  ‘Japan Romantic Road’, Route 120 is known colloquially as ‘Tohmorokoshi (Corn On The Cob) Road’, so that was what I had for elevensies, at one of the many roadside stalls in Katashina Village.
‘Come in, sit down, take a break!’ said a friendly old woman in a patterned pinny and headscarf, before handing me some tohmorokoshi that almost surpassed the aburagé I had in Tochio as the most delicious food of the trip. When I was a child, my mum used to boil corn on the cob for about half an hour and smother it in butter, salt and pepper, whereas this, the stallholder told me, had been barbecued for just three minutes. It was soft, sweet and didn’t need anything to accompany it, although she still insisted on including green tea, pickled cucumber and fresh tomatoes in the 300-yen asking price.

From there onwards, Corn On The Cob Road became steeper and steeper, and just to make things that little bit more agonising, a succession of road signs counted down the distance to the pass in 250-metre increments. Depending on how you translate it, the expression hiza ga warau (膝が笑う) means ‘knees are smiling’ or ‘knees are laughing’, and describes the physical sensation of hiking up a mountain. But it can just as easily be applied to cycling up one, and my knees were laughing so much that by about lunchtime it felt as if they had watched the complete works of the Marx Brothers back-to-back.

I stopped for an extended break at the Marunuma Kogen ski resort, where despite the lack of snow, the lifts were still running and skiers and snowboarders were making use of a stretch of all-weather astro-turf. At the entrance to the resort there was a cast-iron hand pump dispensing natural spring water, and as I was filling my water bottle, a family got out of their car and waited in line behind me. When I turned round, the grandfather broke out into a smile, pointed and exclaimed, ‘Steve McQueen!’
‘Pardon?’ I said.
‘Steve McQueen! What was that film again? Ah yes, Die Hard!’
‘Die Hard?’
‘Yes, Die Hard! Steve McQueen!’
‘No, no,’ I corrected him. ‘ Steve McQueen was in The Great Escape. You must be thinking of Bruce Willis.’
As a white man with a receding hairline, I am often likened to Bruce Willis (who is currently starring in this commercial for Daihatsu), even though a receding hairline is pretty much the only feature we have in common.
‘Bruce Willis?’ The grandfather looked confused, and after turning the thought over in his mind for a moment or two, he smiled and pointed at me again.
‘Steve McQueen!’
Just as I was about to leave around an hour later, another potential Steve McQueen lookalike (and the second proper touring cyclist I had seen on the trip) coasted into the car park. Originally from Canada, J worked for an oil company in Egypt, and while this was his first visit to Japan, he had already taken advantage of his month-on-month-off shift pattern to visit most of the rest of Asia. As well as a Mapple, he carried an iPhone and a solar-powered GPS, and while his bicycle was, like mine, a kind of half-mountain / half-road hybrid, the seat looked as if it had been stolen from one of those old fashioned delivery bikes with a wicker shopping basket on the front.
‘I had some problems with saddle sore and I’ve tried several different seats,’ J explained, ‘but if you ask anyone in the know, they always say to get a leather one. It was expensive but it really does work.’

The break had restored my knees to something like their more sombre selves, and I made it to the pass just before three o’clock, where at the other end of a short tunnel there was a sign telling me I had entered Tochigi, my fifth prefecture of the trip. It was decidedly cool at this altitude, and as I changed into my waterproofs ready for the descent, one or two hikers were emerging from the mist, presumably on their way back from climbing Mount Shirané, whose summit was another seven hundred metres above us.

As well as mountains, marshland and dense, natural forests, the Nikko National Park encompasses a succession of rivers, rapids, lakes and waterfalls, the final one being the 97-metre Kegon waterfall.

From here, Nikko City itself lies at the bottom of the Irohazaka (いろは坂), two one-way roads that between them have forty-eight hairpin bends. Each curve on the Irohazaka is named after a letter from an older version of one of the Japanese alphabets – hence the name ‘iroha’, which means ‘ABCs’ – so in amongst the usual characters, you will find the now obsolete and (which are pronounced wi and respectively).

The Irohazaka was quite the most enjoyable downhill ride I had ever experienced – if they haven’t already, the people from Top Gear really should do some filming there – and by the end of it the Rock Spring’s brake blocks had worn down by another few fractions of a millimetre, its wheel rims were almost too hot to touch, and together we had clocked 56.7kph, a new fastest speed for the trip (eat that, Clarkson!).

Covering the fifty kilometres between Numata and the Konsei Pass – mostly uphill – had taken me the best part of seven hours, while the fifty kilometres or so between the pass and Nikko – mostly downhill – had taken less than three. It was almost dark when I arrived at Daiya River Park, which as well as a campsite has an athletics track, a bird sanctuary, a farm, a mini golf course, classrooms and a concert stage, although tonight I was practically the only person there.
‘Do you get many mosquitoes?’ I asked the receptionist as he was showing me to the campground.
‘Not really,’ he said, ‘although you should watch out for abu.’
‘What are they?’
‘They’re sort of a cross between a mosquito and a bee.’
‘And do they bite?’
‘Oh yes, although it’s not itchy like a mosquito bite.’
‘No. It’s just painful.’
‘Right. Er, thanks for warning me.’

There wasn’t much light to see by in this secluded corner of the park, so I changed out of my cycling gear beneath one of the street lights that lined the footpath. Just as I was putting my shoes back on, a jogger emerged from the shadows, and while I bid her good evening in as friendly a way as I could muster, stumbling across a scruffy looking foreigner on a dark evening had probably given her the fright of her life, and she didn’t say anything back. Thank goodness she hadn’t run past when I was halfway out of my shorts, or I could have ended up spending the night in a police cell instead of the Snow Peak.

Glad tidings

Mrs M is pregnant!

Actually she’s been pregnant since late last year, but I’ve waited until well past the antei-ki (安定期 / literally ‘stability time’ – ie. the point at which it’s OK to tell your friends, relatives and readers) before writing a blog post about it.

Surprisingly enough – and in the first of what will no doubt be numerous differences between the British and Japanese experience of child rearing – while I would describe Mrs M as beings six months pregnant, she would describe herself as being seven months. When I first found out that Japanese babies wait for ten months before entering the world, I thought that I was dealing with a fundamental biological discrepancy, but no, when it comes to measuring one’s term, the Japanese use lunar months of 28 days, as opposed to calendar months of between 28 and 31. Confusing, yes, but logical too when you consider body clocks, menstrual cycles and so on.

By the time our little one is born, I will have fulfilled my ambition to delay becoming a father until my fifth decade, and the first time we went to our GP for advice was more than two years ago, in early 2010.
‘You’re both fit and healthy,’ he said, ‘so there’s no need to start running tests. Think of it this way: you’ve got twelve goes between now and next spring, so I’m sure you’ll come back to me with good news before then.’
Twelve goes later nothing had happened, although the GP in question was none the wiser, as by that point we had moved to Japan. Rather than a GP, when you need medical treatment here you go straight to a specialist, so once we had settled in, we registered with the nearest sanfujinka (産婦人科 / maternity-gynaecology clinic). All four doctors at the clinic – mum, dad and their two daughters – are members of the same family, and dad – let’s call him I-sensei – was the first one we met.
‘Do you understand Japanese?’ he asked me.
‘By and large,’ I said, ‘although I’m not very good when it comes to accents and dialects. I prefer “NHK Japanese”, if you see what I mean.’
‘Did you hear that?’ said I-sensei to one of the nurses as he went through to the next room. ‘I speak standard Japanese!’

One Saturday last summer he gave a lecture at the clinic about the science-y side of conception and pregnancy, and the various treatments on offer should they be necessary. The most reassuring fact of the day was that the average man is capable of fathering a child until he is seventy-five years old (I almost punched the air and shouted ‘Get in!’ when I heard this), but according to I-sensei, while my tadpoles were both energetic and longevitous, they were emerging in comparatively small numbers – the average school, so to speak, has 50 million members, whereas mine were in the 10 million range. In order to counteract this shortfall, he suggested that we move on to The Next Stage: jinko-jusei (人工授精 / artificial insemination, which for the sake of brevity I’ll refer to as AI). This meant a lot more trips to the clinic for Mrs M, as there were injections to receive, prescriptions to pick up, and the AI process itself, which without going into too much detail, involved my tadpoles getting some assistance on their journey to meet Mrs M’s egg  – a bit like being given a lift to work rather than having to walk all the way there, if you see what I mean.

After two months of AI and still no result, I-sensei said that it might be time for The Next Next Stage, so as well as my tadpoles getting a lift to work, Mrs M underwent an additional series of injections – one a day for ten days, to be exact, and a process that was, quite literally, a pain in the backside – to enable her to produce multiple eggs simultaneously (this is standard practice with fertility treatment, and increases your chances of having twins to one in five, as opposed to the usual one in a hundred or so). He also referred me to a nearby hinyoh-ka (泌尿科 / urology clinic) for a more thorough check on my tadpoles.

This was, it has to be said, one of the less dignified episodes in my life so far, and took place on the eighth floor of a rather run-down office building (the clinic was on the verge of moving to new, purpose-built premises nearby). After taking my blood pressure, the head nurse – a middle-aged woman with a tobacco-tinged voice and a no-nonsense manner, no doubt developed over many years of dealing with sheepishly embarrassed men like me – said that she needed a sample of my shoh-sui.
‘Shoh-sui?’ I said.
‘She means pee,’ explained Mrs M (a polite euphemism, the literal translation of shoh-sui / 小水 is ‘small water’).
This required filling a paper cup to about the halfway mark, in a toilet that was directly off the reception-area-stroke-waiting-room, and which had a door that was rather tricky to lock: although it didn’t happen while we were there, countless patients must have suffered the misfortune of having someone walk in on them in mid-small water.

Once the nurse had taken some blood to be sent away for analysis, it was time for the most important sample of the three. For this I was given another paper cup, and led downstairs to a little room with a sofa, a TV and a selection of magazines and DVDs (thankfully, the door lock here was more secure and easier to operate than the one on the toilet).

In yet another room – this time with a bed and some machines that looked very much as if they might go ‘ping’ if you pressed the right button – the nurse taped two sensors to what are referred to in Japanese as one’s kintama (金玉 / golden balls). This was to make sure they were functioning at the appropriate temperature, so I lay down for a few minutes watching the figures on a digital readout waver by fractions of a degree, and then stood by the bed for a few more minutes doing the same thing. The tricky part came when the test was over, and I was left in the room to remove the sensors: particularly when it’s adhered to one’s nether regions, surgical tape isn’t ripped off in a single swift and momentarily uncomfortable motion, but rather in a series of protracted and agonisingly painful ones.

Mrs M and I were then admitted to the urologist K-sensei’s office, where he produced a garland-like string of different sized yellow plastic eggs. These are for assessing the relative dimensions of a patient’s kintama, and reminded me of the set of different sized rings Mrs M used in her previous job at a jewellery shop.

‘This may feel a little cold,’ said the nurse as she then applied some gel to my lower abdomen and kintama, in readiness for an ultrasound scan. For minimum patient discomfort, the gel had been warmed up in advance, although the unexpectedness of this was probably more disconcerting than if it had been cold in the first place.

Once the tests were over and I was finally able to put my trousers back on, K-sensei said that my tadpoles were fine – their image through a microscope was on a TV screen in the corner of the room, and apparently, if a certain number are active within a certain area of the screen, you’re in the clear. Where I-sensei was a kindly, professor-like man who wore John Lennon spectacles and used standard Japanese, K-sensei was shambling, eccentric and spoke in a kind of incoherent mumble, as if his voice were a poorly tuned radio, and had a habit of propping his trendy, rectangular specs on his forehead, from where they would promptly fall back down onto the bridge of his nose.
‘The results of your blood test will be back in three weeks,’ he said. ‘But that’s just a formality, really – there’s a condition called koh-seishi koh-tai (抗精子抗体 / anti-sperm antibodies) that we have to check for. I’m sure that if you keep trying you’ll get pregnant before long.’
‘This may sound like a strange question,’ I said, ‘but do you think I should stop riding my bicycle?’ (Along with wearing loose-fitting underwear, the standard advice in the UK is to lay off the cycling if you’re trying for kids.)
‘No effect at all,’ he said. ‘Some professionals suffer from ED, of course, but that’s only if they’re cycling for very long distances.’
‘ED? What’s that?’
‘Erectile dysfunction.’
‘Ah, I see.’

Three weeks later we went back to the urology clinic, where I donated another blood sample, another half-full paper cup of small water and another school of tadpoles.
‘Your tadpoles are fine,’ said K-sensei – they were darting around on the same TV screen in the corner of the room – ‘I’d be perfectly happy if these were mine. But…’ He let out a long sigh as his spectacles plonked back down from his forehead to his nose. ‘You can’t get pregnant naturally. The test came back positive for anti-sperm antibodies. We’ll run another one to make sure, but your only option now is taigai-jusei (体外受精 / IVF).’

While we were both practically speechless with shock, it was quite a relief to know exactly what we were dealing with. Plenty of people who have nothing to physically prevent them from having children take a lot longer than two years before they manage to conceive, but Mrs M had suspected from the start that something was amiss. As anyone who’s ever tried it will tell you, IVF involves large amounts of time, money and stress, coupled with a comparatively slim chance of success, but at least we could now entrust ourselves to medical science, rather than having to cross our fingers every month and hope the stars of fertility would somehow align in our favour.

Shoh-shi koh-reika (少子高齢化) describes the modern Japanese phenomenon of a declining birth rate and an ageing population, and because of the former, the government is desperate for its citizens to procreate. Up until a few years ago, and even if you were paying your national health insurance every month, having a baby would cost you somewhere in the region of £1000, and even more than that if you needed a caesarian, an epidural or an extra few nights in hospital to recover from the birth. Nowadays, though, most local councils will foot the bill for everything, including part or all of the cost of at least a couple of tries at IVF. So while Mrs M and I would still have to deal with the time and the stress, at least we wouldn’t have to shell out too much cash for the privilege.

A few days later – partly out of habit and partly because she had a couple left over from her last trip to the chemist – Mrs M took a pregnancy test.
‘I’m not sure if this is right,’ she said, ‘but there’s a line.’
‘It’s a bit faint, though.’
‘It must be faulty.’
‘There’s one more left in the box. I’ll try again later in the week.’

At the second attempt the line was more distinct, and when we went to see I-sensei to make absolutely sure, he confirmed the good news.
‘But K-sensei said it would be impossible for us to get pregnant without IVF,’ said Mrs M.
‘It does happen sometimes,’ said I-sensei.
‘Perhaps Caucasians are biologically different…’ mused K-sensei after giving us the result of the second blood test, which confirmed the positive result.

If you have anti-sperm antibodies – which as K-sensei explained are normally caused by trauma to the kintama, although in my case the origin was unclear – even if your tadpoles manage to swim all the way to their destination, the antibody stops them from fertilising the egg: like a kind of kamikazé tadpole, they effectively self-destruct. But – and this is the important part – the anbtibody isn’t present in the tadpole himself but in the liquid he swims in, from which he is removed in preparation for both AI and IVF. Even so, while K-sensei was (probably) wrong and I-sensei was (probably) right, Mrs M getting pregnant was still mathematically unlikely and spiritually miraculous, albeit in an athiest, secular kind of way.

(Oh, and in case you were wondering, it’s not twins.)

Preggers pt 2

Mrs M is now seven months’ pregnant (or eight if you count them the Japanese way), and we keep ourselves amused of an evening by watching Muzuhashi Junior on the move. She seems to be most active just after we’ve eaten and just after we’ve gone to bed, and like a cat in a sack, when she kicks her legs or wiggles her arms, little comedy bulges appear in Mrs M’s bump. Late last year, though, when we had only just found out the good news, M Jr was a barely discernable shadow on the ultrasound scan – like the kind of inconclusive photographs people point to as evidence of the existence of UFOs or life on Mars.
No matter how apparently healthy your baby is – a couple of weeks later, and despite being just 8mm long, M Jr’s heartbeat was both audible and visible – the chances of miscarriage are relatively high if you have conceived with the help of infertility treatment. So Mrs M quit her part-time job and spent those first few months doing as little as possible – not that she felt like doing much in any case, as she was queasy from morning sickness most of the time.

Before the pregnancy we had made pilgrimages to various kosazuké-jinja (子授け神社 / ‘child bestowing shrine’), and as well as tossing a coin in the collection box and saying a prayer, bought lucky charms called omamori (お守り) and ofuda (お札 – in case you’re thinking of buying one, an ofuda is supposed to be hung on a south-facing wall and returned to the shrine if and when your baby is born).

Once you’re pregnant it’s time to visit an anzan (安産 / safe childbirth) shrine, and to observe a somewhat obscure tradition called inu-no-hi (戌の日 / dog day). Because they can pop out a healthy litter of puppies every year, dogs have long been regarded as symbolic of safe childbirth, although as opposed to the more commonly used kanji for dog (犬) the dog of dog day (戌) is the eleventh sign of the Chinese zodiac. There is therefore a dog year every twelve years and a dog day every twelve days throughout the year, and on the first dog day of the fifth month of her pregnancy, the mother-to-be buys a length of white material called a hara-obi (腹帯 / literally ‘stomach belt’). The hara-obi is wrapped around her belly to support her bump, protect the baby and keep them both warm, although as Mrs M discovered, having your stomach bandaged up in several metres’ worth of swaddling makes it hard to breathe and practically impossible to sit down. There is a very detailed description of dog day – in Japanese only – at this website, and judging from the diagrams contained therein, Okah-san didn’t wrap Mrs M’s hara-obi in quite the correct fashion.
Shrines and temples, incidentally, make plenty of money from hara-obi, ofuda and the like, and tend to be conspicuously well appointed: above the entrance to the Izumotaisha child bestowing shrine in Kasama City is this enormous rope, which despite weighing in at a quite mind-boggling six tons is replaced every year.
After dog day we went along to the city welfare department to register the pregnancy, and to take advantage of the various financial incentives on offer to prospective parents. As if to emphasise the declining birth rate out here in the sticks, when we arrived at the reception desk the lights were off and there was no one in sight. The sound of laughter drifted over from the far end of the darkened office, along with the unmistakable aroma of McDonald’s french fries, and after calling out a few hopeful ‘Excuse me!’s, a woman eventually appeared and led us into a meeting room to complete the paperwork.

Despite managing to avoid the enormous expense of IVF, we were still entitled to most of the money back for our three courses of artificial insemination (which I have been reliably informed is referred to as IUI – intra-uterine insemination – in the UK), along with a large chunk of what we will pay for scans and antenatal care. Once M Jr is born, as well as child benefit (jidoh-téaté / 児童手当) we will get a nappy allowance every month for the first year of her life, although a cut-price car seat is one of many expenses to have been trimmed from the council budget due to the financial burden of the earthquake.

A couple of weeks later we went back for a Baby Welcome Class, which was mostly for the benefit of us dads-to-be. Using a life-size and life-weight baby doll, we were shown how to change a nappy (the midwife’s advice was to avoid lifting the baby’s bottom by grabbing hold of its ankles, as this can put unnecessary pressure on its lower back) and how to bathe the baby (for this we kept a towel draped over the baby’s body help it feel at ease). The dads were also asked to wear a pregnancy simulation suit, so that we might better understand what it is like to use a Japanese-style squat toilet, for example, or lay out a futon, when you have acquired what is effectively a 10kg beer gut. In fact, the limit on weight gain during pregnancy – strictly enforced by most doctors – is a mere 7kg (just over a stone), and when Mrs M attended a separate antenatal class at the maternity clinic, most of the time was taken up with warnings about how bad it is for an unborn baby to be subjected to a diet of fatty foods.

At the Baby Welcome Class we were also shown an old NHK educational film, in which an expectant father – replete with eighties side-parting and large-framed, Buggles-style specs – was subjected to various tests and experiments. In one rather surreal sequence, a researcher swallowed a small, waterproof microphone and the father talked to the researcher’s stomach as if it were his pregnant wife’s. The resulting recording was played back to show how clearly an unborn baby can hear what is going on in the outside world, although in this case it was merely a rather stilted ‘Hello? This is your dad. How are you?’

While babies can’t see or smell anything when they’re in the womb, their senses of hearing and taste are already developing, and a recent TV programme put forward the intriguing theory that up until they are three or four years old, about a third of children retain memories stretching back until before they were born. Of the children who were interviewed for the programme, several recalled the food their mothers craved during pregnancy, as welll as the moment of birth itself: one talked about the taste of a particular melon-flavoured ice cream bar, and another described the feeling of being popped out of his mother’s stomach when she had a Caesarean, information they (probably) wouldn’t have heard about second hand. (Apparently, such children are less likely to open up to their own parents, so the next time you meet a friend’s or relative’s toddler, try asking them what they remember and you may be surprised by the response.)

Other than the Baby Welcome Class, the only research I have done into becoming a parent is watching The Back-Up Plan on DVD, a thoroughly unremarkable film notable mainly for J-Lo’s hairstyle, which looks as if she has been in head-on collision with a steamroller and a tanker full of industrial-strength bleach. Something tells me that the time has come to start reading Mrs M’s ever growing collection of baby books and magazines…

Amy, Amy, Amy…

Mrs M and I listened to our (pirated) copy of Back To Black in the car the other day, and as always, I was reminded of how great an album it is. First and foremost, at barely thirty minutes long, Back To Black doesn’t outstay its welcome in the slightest: Winehouse’s desire to pay tribute to sixties girl groups extended not just to the retro-style production and instrumentation, but also to the number of songs and their duration, and makes a mockery of artists who cram seventy or more minutes of music onto a CD, of which a lot less than thirty are good enough to be released publicly.

Much has been said of Winehouse’s vocal style, which at times resembles that of a black American soul singer almost to the point of parody, but whatever you think about her voice, Winehouse’s songs are superlative. Janis Joplin, for example, was another white woman with a ‘black’ voice – and another tortured soul who died young – but she wrote very few of her own songs, and certainly none to match Back To Black, Love Is A Losing Game or Tears Dry On Their Own.

Part of the brilliance of Winehouse’s lyrics lies in their use of everyday, North London lingo, much of which is bracingly foul-mouthed: the first few lines of Back To Black, for example, which I shan’t quote for fear of offending my more sensitive readers, or the verse in You Know I’m No Good where she describes spending the night with one man while thinking about another. On the face of it, this youthful, conversational style puts her in the same mould as Lily Allen or The Streets, but where those two artists have a kind of defiant cockiness about them, Winehouse’s lyrics are more likely to expose her vulnerability – you can’t get much more vulnerable, for example, than ‘I died a hundred times / You go back to her / And I go back to black’. Also, I doubt that anyone will pull off a better version of a Winehouse song than she managed with the originals, simply because they are sung from her own personal experience, much of it bitter.

In the musical sense, I think the key to such great songwriting lies in her debut album Frank, which is more parts jazz than it is soul or R&B. As a chin-stroking jazz muso myself, I listened to Frank over and over again, and not just because it’s awash with jazz guitar lines, many of them played by Winehouse herself (as far as I can tell she stopped playing guitar in her live shows quite early on, which is a shame). The thing about jazz songwriting – of which other artists would do well to take note – is that it utilises more than just the standard three chords. In the wrong hands, this can lead to tuneless nonsense – the kind of thing The Fast Show used to parody so hilariously in Jazz Club – but when harnessed to create a three-minute pop song, the results can be much more complex and rewarding than, say, Kylie singing ‘Na na na, na na na-na na / Na na na, na na na-na na’ or Queen singing ‘We will, we will rock you’.

Not that I’ve got anything against Kylie or Queen, and the simplest pop and rock songs are often the greatest ones, but if you listen to Love Is A Losing Game, which many consider to be Winehouse’s crowning achievement, the chord change that comes part way through the verse – between ‘self-professed, profound’ and ‘till the chips were down’ – is achingly beautiful, and it’s achingly beautiful because it isn’t just about majors and minors, but something much more subtle and transitive: a seventh, a ninth or a thirteenth, perhaps, or something diminished or augmented. Back To Black is another example of Winehouse’s expertise: on the face of it, it’s a simple, Motown-style pop song, but the middle eight (or to be strictly accurate, the middle twenty) re-jigs the same four chords that make up the verse, a device that subtly changes the mood of the song, and introduces the spooky, mantra-like repetition of the word ‘black’. (This, I should point out, isn’t something that I worked out for myself, but was explained by a music boffin on a TV programme about songwriting.)

Apart from Help Yourself, which comes across as a kind of Duke-Ellington-with-break-beats, my favourite track from Frank is Take The Box, which I’m convinced was ripped off by Beyoncé for her song Irreplaceable: both are written from the point of view of a girlfriend telling her ex-boyfriend to put his stuff in boxes before he moves out, although apparently Back To Black bears an uncanny resemblance to an old Diana Ross / Supremes track, so I suppose plagiarism is a two-way street. Like Me & Mr Jones from Back To Black, Help Yourself contains some wonderful harmonies (dare I say it, Winehouse was almost better as a backing singer than she was as a front-woman) and like the album’s title, refers, I assume, not just to Winehouse’s lyrical honesty, but to Frank Sinatra – I have no idea what he’s really like, but I can imagine Winehouse’s dad singing her Sinatra songs when she was growing up and fancying himself as a bit of a crooner. Much of Sinatra’s best work was recorded when his relationships were on the rocks, and where Take The Box is a great break-up song, Back To Black is a whole album of great break-up songs, which brings me on, inevitably, to Winehouse’s personal life.

Jaques Perretti of The Guardian made a documentary for Channel 4 a couple of years ago called Amy Winehouse: What Really Happened? in which Blake Fielder-Civil – Winehouse’s on-off boyfriend / husband of several years’ standing – came across as a particularly poor excuse for a human being, and someone who had pushed her into using drugs seemingly as a way of controlling her. Having watched the documentary, I remember thinking that if Winehouse were to die young – something that, sad to say, already seemed likely – Fielder-Civil would be the person to blame, but while she clearly had an addictive personality, Winehouse was, I believe, as much a victim of fame and fortune as she was of booze, drugs or bad taste in boyfriends.

There was a time about three or four years ago when you literally couldn’t open a newspaper or a magazine without reading a ‘story’ about Winehouse, and when she literally couldn’t go to the shops for a pint of milk without having to barge her way through several dozen paparazzi. Paparazzi are in a very close race with tabloid journalists to see who can have the most morally corrupt profession on the planet, and in the sense that she was hounded by both, Winehouse is a kind of Diana for our times: someone for whom fame simultaneously made her and broke her. I can’t help thinking of an early television appearance – possibly on Later With Jools Holland, although I haven’t managed to track it down on YouTube – when she was a fresh-faced girl in a polka-dot dress, still with some puppy fat and as yet without tattoos. Reading the tributes to Winehouse after her death (if you could bear to wade through the appalling English, that is – apparently Kelly Osbourne ‘couldn’t breath’ when she heard the news, and Salaam Remi put More Capital Letters In One Tweet than you Will Normally Find in an Entire Week Of Sun Headlines), a lot of people spoke of how she was just an ordinary girl who didn’t really fit into the world of showbiz, and while this may be a cliché, there has to be some truth in it – after all, we are all born ordinary, and it is a strong personality indeed that can cope with what stardom thrusts upon them.


I first read Catch-22 as a sixteen year old, and it tapped right in to my teenager’s sense of injustice and paranoia about pretty much everything in the entire world. A couple of my more bookish male friends read the book at around the same time, and we would often sit around discussing whatever new Catch-22-style situation we believed ourselves to be trapped in against our will.

Apart from this central theme – or perhaps running gag would be a better phrase – of the world being beyond one’s control and there being no way out of an all-encompassing Matrix of Irony, I don’t remember much about Catch-22 at all, and while I rarely if ever read a book twice, in this case, something told me that it would be worth giving this one another try, if only to remind myself of why it had such a big effect on me in the first place.

So, from a week or so before we left for Japan until a couple of weeks after we arrived, I became engrossed once more in the world of Yossarian: of his ever-increasing allocation of bombing missions, his ever decreasing circle of friends and his wildly eccentric air force colleagues and comrades.

The front cover of the Vintage paperback edition that I was reading calls it ‘one of the great novels of the century’, and I would be inclined to agree, although I have a feeling serious literary critics might look down on it as being rather cultish (instead of Pulp Fiction or Scarface, did students in the sixties have posters of Catch-22 on their dormitory walls, I wonder?). The writing style takes some getting used to, but after a while I managed to satisfy myself that Heller’s excessive use of adjectives and adverbs was a stylistic choice and not a literary shortcoming. In fact, his long, ornate and elaborate descriptions of almost every character in the book (each chapter bears the name of a character as its heading) are one of its most impressive aspects, even if they do, for some reason, leave very little impression – in the mind of this reader, at least – of the physical appearance of those characters. The other thing that made me appreciate how much craft had gone into its writing – and something that went straight over my head as a teenager – is the way in which the narrative jumps back and forth in time without making this into an overt formal device: Catch-22 may be about six hundred pages long – albeit in fairly large print – but I have a feeling it was the structure behind those pages that was one of the main reasons Heller took such a long time in writing it.

There is an introduction by Heller to the Vintage edition that talks about this process, and about the subsequent critical reception and staggering success of Catch-22 (incidentally, why the hyphen, I wonder, and not just ‘Catch 22’?), although I have to say that Heller in his non-fictional guise impressed me much less than in his fictional one. For one thing, the introduction not only manages to spoil the ending of Catch-22, but also of its sequel (Closing Time, published in 1994), which must be some kind of spoiler world record, and justifies my policy of avoiding the introductions to classic books until I have finished reading them. For another, he comes across as rather self-satisfied, in an ‘imagine my surprise when I woke up one morning to find out that I had sold three million copies of the book and was therefore fabulously wealthy!’-kind of way.

I had assumed that Heller wrote Catch-22 directly after returning from his wartime service, its absurdities gleaned from bitter personal experience and transcribed straight from his diaries in an heroic effort to purge himself of post traumatic stress (cf. Primo Levi’s masterful autobiography of the holocaust, If This Is A Man), but Catch-22 was in fact written from the mid-fifties onwards, while Heller was working as an ad man in New York.

Still, much of the writing is so vivid that it can only have been drawn from reality – the description of a mid-air collision that causes a plane to crash into the sea, for example, or of exactly how claustrophobic and terrifying it feels to be cooped up in the back end of a plane that is flying through a storm of enemy flak – and however comfortable Heller’s post-war life became, however little he conforms to my romantic image of the suffering artist, fighting in a war is not something I ever wish to experience first-hand.

Oddly enough, reading the book made me want to see the Mike Nichols film again: a film that I watched just once about twenty years ago and that is by no means regarded as a classic (something tells me that Orson Welles puts in a cameo appearance, although my memory for movie trivia could be deceiving me), but which, looking back on it, contained some very powerful images, not least that of poor Kid Sampson’s top half being vapourised by the propellers of a small plane.

As with almost everything in the book – apart from one particularly bleak and depressing passage towards the end in which Yossarian goes AWOL in Rome – even Kid Sampson’s death is ultimately played for laughs (because he was on the passenger list of the plane in question, which is subsequently flown into the side of a mountain, Doc Daneeka is deemed to have been lost in action, even though he is perfectly fine and walking around the air base as normal), and it is this blackest of black comedy that is the book’s finest achievement, and what makes Heller’s central premise – not so much that war is a futile undertaking as that it is an absurd one – so powerful. Another device that Heller uses here is repetition, so a typical exchange might go something like this:

‘There’s a dead man in my tent,’ said Yossarian.
‘There’s a dead man in your tent?’ replied Dunbar.
‘There’s a dead man in my tent.’
‘But if there’s a dead man in your tent, why haven’t they taken him away?’
‘They can’t take him away because he’s not there.’
‘I thought you said there was a dead man in your tent?’
‘Oh no, his plane was shot down before he moved in.’
‘But if the dead man in your tent has never been in your tent, what’s the problem?’
‘He was in my tent once. He just left his things.’
‘If he just left his things, why don’t you throw them out?’
‘Because he never officially joined the squadron. I can’t throw out his things because if I did then the air force would have to acknowledge that he existed, and they don’t want me to do that because up till now he didn’t. The paperwork would be a nightmare.’
And so on and so forth.

In the hands of a less skilled writer this could come across as a sub-standard comedy routine or a ruse to fill out the book’s word count, but here it is used ingeniously, and no matter how many variations on the Catch-22 theme the narrative throws up, they always manage to torture Yossarian and his more self-aware friends in new and ingenious ways: Major Major Major Major’s decision to only accept visitors to his office when he is not there; the patient who is admitted to hospital encased from head to toe in plaster, and who is drip-fed the same liquid that emerges from his catheter in a continual recycling process; the Chaplain whose sociopathic assistant is constantly trying to undermine him and doesn’t even believe in God; Milo Minderbinder’s contrivance to bomb his own air base for economic reasons. The brilliant thing about all of this is that with one or two exceptions (some of Milo’s followers getting trampled to death as he parades through one of the many towns where he has been voted in as mayor; Nately’s girlfriend managing, like Jaws in the Bond films, to come back from the dead again and again), Heller keeps matters just the right side of credible, so that despite all of the absurdity, one imagines that most of the events depicted really could have taken place – hence my original belief that Catch-22 was, as the saying goes, based on a true story.

The distorted lens through which Yossarian views the world is so expertly conceived that once you are caught up in his story, you start to see the real world in the same way, and like chaos theory or the golden ratio, its patterns begin to crop up all over the place. So for now – or at least until I decide to re-read The Catcher in the Rye or Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance – I shall be lying awake at night trying to stop myself from believing that Japan is in fact a Matrix of Irony in which I am trapped against my will.