San Francisco, 24 September 2012

While in San Francisco (see the previous post), we did a few touristy things. One of these was a bus tour of the city. Our guide and driver, a chatty fellow prone to making politically incorrect comments, took us down to the bay shore below the Golden Gate Bridge. From there, he invited us to take advantage of the only toilet stop on the tour and admire what he intriguingly called an excellent example of industrial art nouveau – never heard of that category of art. But what I admired more was a veritable carpet of tropaeolum majus, or garden nasturtiums, tumbling down the slope on the side of the road. I had never seen so many nasturtiums before.

I love nasturtiums. In my previous post, I mentioned my childhood memory of morning glories. Another memory from the same period is of nasturtiums growing luxuriantly up the wall of our house, under my elder sister’s bedroom window (the window through which I spied on her “carrying on” with her boyfriend, who proceeded to give me money for an ice-cream to get rid of me). I fell in love with the flower’s fiery colour scheme, red, orange and yellow, against a background of smooth round green leaves. And at some point, I had learned to pick a flower and suck the nectar out of the nectar spur at its base. It gives your taste buds a delightfully tiny burst of soft sweetness.

I loved nasturtiums so much that when my mother gave me a small strip of land in the garden to plant as I wished I chose to plant nasturtium seeds. I watched carefully as the little plants emerged and started to grow. And I still remember sharply my concern when my parents decided to have a nearby tree cut down. It looked alarmingly like the tree was going to fall on my nasturtiums. I sat there with the whole family, watching the tree cutters proceed. My siblings found the whole thing exciting and chattered along happily. But I was in an agony of apprehension for my nasturtiums. Sure enough, the tree fell on them and flattened them. What misery!

I close with a recipe. I discovered recently that both the flowers and the leaves of nasturtium are edible. This particular recipe is from the following web site: http://fruitandveggieville.blogspot.com/2008/06/flowers-you-can-eat-nasturtiums.html.

“Recipe for a Nasturtium Salad
­       1 lettuce – iceberg, butter or cos
­       small bunch of nasturtiums – leaves and flowers
­       ripe red tomatoes
­       1 tablespoon capers
­       feta cheese

Decide quantities to your own taste. The nasturtium leaves are peppery and the more you put in the hotter the salad gets. Wash and dry the lettuce and tear into the size pieces you prefer. Rinse the nasturtium leaves, and tear or chop into rough strips. If you’re using baby tomatoes halve them, chop bigger ones into cubes. Cube the feta cheese and sprinkle over the salad with the capers. Top with the whole flowers and maybe one or two whole leaves. This peppery, bright salad is just right to accompany pizza, cold meats or as a starter on its own.”



San Francisco, 23 September 2012

We left this morning for San Francisco, to visit our son. We were up early, and since it was a beautiful morning – the sky was a cloudless clear blue – we decided to walk to the station to catch the train to the airport. The walk took us past our local supermarket, the modest housing estates that cluster around it, past the smart office buildings along the Third Ring Road, and finally along a rough semi-constructed path that follows the highway out to the airport until the stairs to the station are reached. The last stretch of our walk reminded us that Beijing is still constructing itself. It is one of those pieces of land that get left behind in urban renewal projects, stuck between new constructions – in this case, the highway on one side, modern office buildings on the other – and are fast going feral. Weeds were growing in abundance along the side of the path and covering the construction rubble underfoot, rogue trees were beginning to push up through the cracks, the fencing along the path was rusting and bent. We picked our way along, weaving to avoid the commuters streaming in to work, with the suitcase stumbling behind us over the rough paving.

Suddenly, there, in the shade of the early morning sun, was a cluster of morning glories flowering on the fence. The plant itself is nothing much to write home about; it has the weak tendril-like stalk of a climbing plant and the leaves are a drear matte green. But the flowers were magnificent – a cool, dark violet colour, almost phosphorescent in its intensity. I’m guessing they were Ipomoea purpurea, the purple or common morning glory. We stopped for a minute to admire them, but we were in a hurry now and had to move on.

As I write this, my mind’s eye suddenly whirls off half a world away and I find myself walking down the main coast road south of Genova, just as it enters the village where we used to spend our summers when the children were young. I am next to the cemetery; the village dead have the best view, out over the coast to the distant promontory. It’s a beautiful summer morning. Down in the cleft where a creek runs off the hills behind me, the morning glories have run amok, covering and smothering everything. But the flowers are open, beautiful in the morning light, cool, dark, violet.

And my mind’s eye whirls off again, this time alighting in the town in Africa where I was born. More than fifty years have passed and the memory is fading. But I see a wall – is it in a park, in a garden? – covered in morning glories, glowing in the morning light, cool – dark – violet.



picture: http://georgeswebpage.com/almanac


Beijing, 6 September 2012

I intimated in my last post, on the exhibition “Passion for Porcelain”, that the exhibition’s coda reduced the rest of the exhibition to nothing. In the main, the final pieces were from earlier periods.  I was especially entranced by two pieces, made during the Northern Song dynasty, 960-1127 AD.


Look at them: such pure shapes, so simple, so harmonious, … so modern! And look at the glazing, one colour but with subtly different shadings, and in the case of the flask with craquelure enhancing the overall effect.

I was so taken by these pieces that I was moved to work my way through my copy of the book “Chinese Ceramics” by He Li (ed. Thames & Hudson, 2006)  and study all the pieces from this period. Here is a sampling, in no particular order




Now look at those dates again: 960-1127 AD.  These pieces were made when William the Conqueror and Harold Godwinson were fighting it out in the Battle of Hastings!

And this is the pottery they were making …

Truly, Chinese ceramics are awesome.

Bayeux tapestry picture: http://larsbrownworth.com/blog/2010/08/11/is-the-bayeux-tapestry-reliable/
Norman pottery picture: http://www.potweb.org/PotChron1-01.html
The V&A and British Museum pictures are from the website of the National Museum of China


Beijing, 6 September 2012

Last weekend, my wife and I visited the exhibition “Passion for Porcelain” at the National Museum of China on Tiananmen Square. Through pieces from the collections of the Victoria & Albert Museum and the British Museum, the exhibition celebrates the discovery by Europe of Chinese porcelain, that wonderful moment in the seventeenth century when chinaware began pouring into Europe as ballast in the holds of the East India companies’ ships. Europeans were dazzled by what they saw, for compared to Chinese porcelain the European ceramics of the time were rough, crude articles.

Chinese potters first exported ware with purely Chinese designs

Passion-for-Porcelain 008-dragon plate

Then they started exporting wares with European designs. Some of them are hilariously bad, like this example.

Passion-for-Porcelain 006-jesus baptism plate

It takes a moment to understand that the two blobs in the plate’s centre are John baptizing Jesus. Obviously, the Chinese designer had no feel for what he was copying. Or take these two figurines, which the label insists are figurines in French court costumes.

Passion-for-Porcelain 012-french figurines

Some are simply odd when seen in a Chinese context. Plates with the armorial bearings of some English aristocrat, for instance, sound a strange note on Tiananmen Square.

Passion-for-Porcelain 013-armorial plate

But I suppose it is no stranger than Christmas decorations pouring out of a modern Chinese factory ready for shipment to the US or Europe. In all fairness, some designs have merged Chinese sensibilities exceedingly well with European-driven designs, like this plate picturing the trading hongs in Canton.

Passion-for-Porcelain 009-hongs plate

Then the Europeans started to make copies. And some of these are hilariously awful in their depiction of Chinese scenes.

Passion-for-Porcelain 015-english chinese mug

Others are technically poor copies of Chinese techniques, like these two articles which are both using the flambée technique; the European version suffers distinctly from the comparison.


Once the Europeans had mastered the technique of porcelain-making, they could cut the cord with China and make wares of purely European design.

An interesting journey indeed through Europe’s love affair with porcelain. But the exhibition’s postscript made all the previous showings “full of sound and fury signifying nothing”.  But I will deal with this in my next post.


Urumqi, 5 September 2012

The flight started early in the morning in Beijing. It was raining hard as the airplane took off, and we climbed up through a milky whiteness. Finally we broke through and started our trek westward to Urumqi, capital of Xinjian. The cloud cover began to tear over Inner Mongolia, and through the gaps I could see wooded hills with cultivated valley bottomland. And so it went on until we came to the Ordos Loop, where the Yellow River, after flowing north-east from Langzhou for 600 kilometres, turns abruptly to flow east for 300 kilometres, and then just as abruptly turns again, flowing south for another 600 kilometres, before doing one final abrupt turn east to flow on to the sea. The northern part of the Ordos Loop over which we were now flying is home to the Ordos Desert. On cue, as if sensing the harsh land below, the clouds suddenly banked to a halt, and in the now clear sky I could make out far below me the muddy waters of the Yellow River as they started making their turn to the south. And suddenly I spied one small, round, little, cloud, wispy to the point of invisibility, bravely clinging to its space above the desert floor. I watched, fearing that it would evaporate before my eyes, unable to resist the furnace heat below. But no, it was still defiantly there when it dropped out of sight behind me. And now the southern reaches of the Gobi desert rolled into view, with not a cloud in sight to soften the hard edges of the stone plains and rolling dunes, which accompanied me all the way to the mountains that guard the eastern marches of Urumqi.