Beijing, 31 August 2013

Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests; snug as a gun.

Under my window, a clean rasping sound
When the spade sinks into gravelly ground:
My father, digging. I look down

Till his straining rump among the flowerbeds
Bends low, comes up twenty years away
Stooping in rhythm through potato drills
Where he was digging.

The coarse boot nestled on the lug, the shaft
Against the inside knee was levered firmly.
He rooted out tall tops, buried the bright edge deep
To scatter new potatoes that we picked,
Loving their cool hardness in our hands.

By God, the old man could handle a spade.
Just like his old man.

My grandfather cut more turf in a day
Than any other man on Toner’s bog.
Once I carried him milk in a bottle
Corked sloppily with paper. He straightened up
To drink it, then fell to right away
Nicking and slicing neatly, heaving sods
Over his shoulder, going down and down
For the good turf. Digging.

The cold smell of potato mould, the squelch and slap
Of soggy peat, the curt cuts of an edge
Through living roots awaken in my head.
But I’ve no spade to follow men like them.

Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests.
I’ll dig with it.

Seamus Heaney, Irish poet, Nobel Laureate for Literature, died 30 August 2013.


Beijing, 30 August 2013

I’ve mourned in a past posting the passing of the bicycle culture which so dominated China until a few decades ago. In that same posting I wrote about a sub-family of bicycles which seems to be surviving the onslaught of the automobile. In this posting, I want to write about another sub-family of bicycles which is surviving; indeed, seems to be thriving: the electric bicycle.

When we first arrived in Beijing, my wife and I were intrigued to see these machines cruising up and down the roads in large numbers. Here are a couple of examples of what greeted us:

electric bicycle-1

(this one being ridden by a lady avoiding the sun, about which I’ve also written in another posting)

electric bicycle-2

I have to say, they immediately reminded me of another motorized bicycle which had played an important role in my teens: the French VéloSolex. For those of my readers who are less than 40, I probably have to quickly explain what this is. Originally (i.e., just after World War II), it was a bike (vélo in French) on whose front wheel had been placed a motor (made by the company Solex).


This motor powered a small ceramic roller which in turn turned the front wheel through simple friction. And when you wanted to use it as a bike, there was a lever which allowed you to pull the motor and roller off the front wheel. Very simple. Pretty cool. And cheap.

By the time I came along, the VéloSolex had become a bulky bicycle. Or maybe a thin motorbike.


My parents had bought two of them, for my elder brother and sister. They stayed at my grandmother’s house, ready for use during the summer holidays. As my siblings grew up and moved on, the VéloSolexes passed on to the next sibling. I reckon that by the time I inherited my VéloSolex it was third-or fourth-hand, as it were. No matter, I loved that bike. It was my set of wheels which gave me my freedom, which allowed me to escape from the house when things were really too boring, which they often were in my teenage years.

For me, the VéloSolex was France,


along with De Gaulle

De Gaullle

the Deux Chevaux

deux chevaux

The baguette


And Gauloises unfiltered cigarettes, which – I will confess – I smoked for a certain period of my life.

Gauloises Caporal

Who knows where my VéloSolex is now? In some knacker’s yard no doubt.

To come back to our electric bicycles in Beijing, they have one big difference with the VéloSolex: they are silent. Silent and deadly. One of the things which newcomers to Beijing learn quickly – or die – is to look VERY carefully, in ALL directions, when they are crossing a road, even if the little man is green. Right-turn at red lights is allowed, so cars turning right do so, regardless of whether you, the pedestrian, are crossing. Cars which have the green light and are turning left are anxious to do so before the cars coming in the other direction reach the middle of the intersection, so they whizz across it scattering to the winds any pedestrians that might be in the way. All two-wheelers, motorized or not, ignore lights and keep going, weaving around any pedestrians who may be in the way; to make their case worse, they drive on both sides of the road. In this last category of menace, electric bikes are the worst. They move fast, and they are completely silent. At night, they are even deadlier. None of their riders ever bother to put on their lights – so as not to run down the battery, no doubt – and the street lights are not particularly bright. So fast, silent, and invisible. They make me think of torpedoes.

But electric is the future! Even the VeloSolex, whose production ceased in 1988, has now been resurrected in an electric form


And product designers have got into the act, designing excessively cool electric bicycles. And once they are there, you know the product is IN!

cool electric bicycle-5

cool electric bicycle-4

cool electric bicycle-1

So I guess my wife and I had better buy electric bicycles. Not only will we be riding the wave of coolness, but we’ll be running people down rather than being run down. When you can’t beat them, join them.


Electric bicycle-1: http://thecityfix.com/files/2009/06/cycling.jpg
Electric bicycle-2: http://www.chinasignpost.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/11/electricbike_China-Digital-Times.jpg
VeloSolex-old: http://homepage.hispeed.ch/Spridget/solex/prototyp1.gif
VeloSolex-new: http://img175.imageshack.us/img175/8817/solex1.jpg
VeloSolex poster: http://cybermotorcycle.com/gallery/velosolex/images/Velosolex_postcard.jpg
De Gaulle: http://05.wir.skyrock.net/wir/v1/profilcrop/?c=isi&im=%2F5508%2F87355508%2Fpics%2F3147952278_1_2_Nvepv9eQ.jpg&w=758&h=1024
Deux chevaux: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/6/6f/Deux_chevaux_mg_1748.jpg/640px-Deux_chevaux_mg_1748.jpg
Citroen DS: http://www.blogcdn.com/www.autoblog.com/media/2009/02/citroen-ds.jpg
Baguettes: http://www.tranquilla.it/wp-content/uploads/2013/01/baguette-640×442.jpg
Gauloises : http://3.bp.blogspot.com/_siskXeTIdkY/S-6ACEDO1MI/AAAAAAAAADs/-Ny-fMbye2A/s1600/Gauloises+Caporal+-+ann%C3%A9es+40.jpg
Velosolex-electric: http://www.veloecologique.com/produits/128.jpg
Cool electric bicycle-1: http://evworld.com/press/smart_e-bike_profilecityscape.jpg
Cool electric bicycle-2: http://www.evrdr.com/wp-content/uploads/2009/09/leopard-electric-bike.jpg
Cool electric bicycle-3: http://www.designbuzz.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/07/vw-folding-electric-bike_xfBve_58.jpg


Beijing, 24 August 2013

For several weeks now, as I walk to work in the morning along my piece of canal, I have crossed paths with an old gentleman, a Senior Citizen, who is dressed in casual sporting gear and walking backwards. And clapping as he walks – backwards.

He is exercising.

I’ve been in China nearly four years now, but I don’t think I’ll ever get used to some of the odder exercise habits which I’ve seen here. Don’t get me wrong, I’m sure it does the exercisers good, or at least no wrong. For instance, several web-sites I have visited earnestly explain that walking backwards is actually a very good exercise because it uses muscles that would not otherwise get a good workout. I suppose I can buy that, but in addition, to give it a Chinese philosophical twist, they say that walking backwards sort-of rewinds you and rebalances your karma. Don’t ask me how that works, I’m just reporting what I’ve read. As for clapping, yet other web-sites have informed me that this liberates the clapper of his or her stresses. OK, I buy that too. Certainly better to take the stresses out bit by bit through clapping than all at once by punching someone in the nose. These web-sites add yelling to the list of stress-removing exercises. I’m not so sure about this one. There was a moment when some man on the other side of the canal was always declaiming something in a loud – and I mean loud! – voice when I walked by in the morning. It may have been releasing his stresses, but it was surely building up mine. Mercifully, he disappeared after a while. Perhaps the fishermen told him to bugger off.

The Chinese also have a habit of beating and slapping themselves, on the arms, on the legs, on the face. I still remember very clearly the first time I saw this. I had been in China no more than a week, and was on a plane to somewhere. As we were coming in to land, a woman on the other side of the aisle, who up to that moment had looked perfectly normal, started vigorously – and I mean vigorously! – punching herself, first on the face and then on the legs. No-one else seemed phased by this behaviour but I stared at her in a manner that, if it had been my kids doing it, I would have told them that it was rude to stare at people so. I think this muscular self-pummeling has something to do with encouraging the blood’s circulation, rather like the Finns who flagellate themselves with birch twigs after cooking in saunas.

This last point brings us towards TCM – traditional Chinese medicine – where I have also seen some weird and wonderful things, but I won’t go there today. I’ll stay on exercise.

There are also some fairly normal types of exercises which the Chinese indulge in. One set which I rather fancy is the use of these open-air gyms, which public authorities have thoughtfully placed in many city squares and even on the side of many pavements:

exercise machines-1

We’ve tried a number of these machines, especially the following one:

exercise machines-2

I’ve no idea what you call it; a maxi-strider? Because, as the lady to the left is amply demonstrating, that’s what you do, you swing your legs through these huge strides. I felt like I had been at sea for six months when I got off. Very odd effect.

And then, because this is a country where there are people everywhere, everywhere, all the time, and because of lingering attachments to their communist past, where the individual drowned himself in the mass, the Chinese are fond of communal exercise. My favourites in this category are fan dancing:
fan dance-1
ballroom dancing:
ballroom dancing-1
and of course, best of all, Tai Chi:
Tai Chi as the symbol of China is somewhat cheesy now, but I have a magic Tai Chi memory from my very first trip to Beijing. It was 2001 or 2002, we were driving in from the airport early in the morning, and it seemed that every park, every open space was filled with people slowly, silently, smoothly moving through the balletic steps of Tai Chi. And if any of my readers have the chance to see Michelangelo Antonioni’s film Chung Kuo, grab it.

chung kuo

Apart from showing a fascinating picture of China when it was still closed to foreigners – it was filmed in 1972 – there is a breathtaking sequence when the cameraman filmed for what seems an eternity a man doing Tai Chi as he bicycled along without holding the handlebars.

I keep telling my wife we should learn Tai Chi, and she keeps pretending not to hear. But one day, I will prevail! So that when we finally retire, you will find us early in the morning, in some Italian piazza, slowly going through our Tai Chi moves before having our cappuccino and brioche for breakfast.

old couple tai chi


Exercise machines-1: http://2.bp.blogspot.com/-ZeBmA8vPHeU/TbHjkv9UmWI/AAAAAAAABkc/BDYunnXTi9A/s400/park%2Bin%2Bhutong.jpg
Exercise machines-2: http://static.guim.co.uk/sys-images/Guardian/Pix/pictures/2011/9/20/1316525669182/People-exercising-in-a-Ch-005.jpg
Fan dancing: http://justincalderon.files.wordpress.com/2011/05/xujiahui-park-011.jpg
Ballroom dancing: http://www.usa-rom.com/photography/albums/userpics/10004/Shanghai_China_0529.JPG
Tai chi: http://www.pyroenergen.com/articles08/images/tai-chi2.jpg
Old couple doing Tai Chi: http://images.colourbox.com/thumb_COLOURBOX6239057.jpg


Beijing, 20 August 2013

As we go around gasping for air in the currently hot and humid weather, like fish flopping around on a river bank, my wife and I cannot but notice the common Chinese fashion statement at this time of year of men (never women) rolling up their T-shirts


and – if they are wearing them – their trousers.


In the past, when I’ve seen Chinese men stroll past me so attired, I’ve always wondered if I couldn’t make a T-shirt which is specifically designed to be rolled up – in a somewhat more elegant way than the way Chinese men currently do it. Alas, some searching on the internet has shown me that a Japanese designer, Kaoru Inoue, has already come up with a Venetian blind design for a T-shirt!

tshirt-venetian blind-2

Story of my life, someone always beats me to the good ideas … But I do think that I could perhaps improve on this design – a circle of some stiff material around the bottom perhaps, to ensure that the whole T-shirt gets pulled up?

But actually, rather than think about how to roll up T-shirts in a more elegant way, we should think about why we are wearing T-shirts, or shirts, or even worse shirts, ties and jackets, in this kind of weather in the first damned place. The modern way of dealing with hot weather is to turn every building into a refrigerator – already standard fare in North America for at least 50 years (one of my enduring memories of my first visit to Canada, 40+ years ago, was my going into a supermarket on my second day there and being astonished at the frigid temperature); and fast becoming standard fare in China.

So we scurry from refrigerated building to refrigerated building, and then we sit in our offices and freeze


while outside the world is turning to toast.

burning world

What stupidity. What folly.

Why don’t we do it the way of the few remaining Amazonian Indians do, just wear few clothes?

amazon indians-2

although I think we could avoid the rather small loin cloths these gentlemen are sporting …

A great advantage of this approach is that it would allow those of us who like painting (not tattooing) the skin to do so, with the certainty that our neighbours would see our designs and admire them.

amazon indians-5

amazon indians-1

amazon indians-4


Rolled-up T-shirt-1: http://www.royalmood.com/img/funny/bell/bell01.jpg
Rolled-up T-shirt-2: http://liuzhou.co.uk/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2013/06/P1050163.jpg
venetian-blind T-shirt: http://tab-files.s3.amazonaws.com/images/crop_LL/f6877b6b752d79d4bbdb3e56533f95e433343c73.jpg?1339079993
Air conditioning: http://media.nowpublic.net/images//d6/5/d659eca89a214dd28daac0bc0ca6d4ba.jpg
Burning world: http://ninja.typepad.com/.a/6a00e554fa70848834014e5fbb3ea4970c-800wi
Amazonian Indians-1: http://www.vikingsword.com/vb/attachment.php?attachmentid=65733&stc=1
Amazonian Indians-2: http://www.wehaitians.com/amazon_2_b.jpg
Amazonian Indians-3: http://madamepickwickartblog.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/11/amazon34.jpg
Amazonian Indians-4: http://birdonthemoon.com/Indian_game1104-thumb.jpg


Beijing, 17 August 2013

It was flowers in the Spring. It is insects in the high summer. Because this posting, following on from my previous two on dragonflies and crickets, will be on water striders. I began to notice them a week or so ago, on my daily crossings of my piece of canal to and from work. As is my habit, I was looking over the water to see what was new, when a sudden, evanescent dimpling of the water surface caught my eye. Then there was another, and then another … No doubt about it, the water striders were out and about, skittering across the water’s skin.


I love these insects, they are part of my childhood. During those long summer holidays which my family spent in France with my grandmother – golden-hued in my memory – I spent a lot of time with my cousins biking across the countryside. In those days, there were still a lot of lavoirs, washing stations, dotted across the countryside. They were places where the women (no men, of course …) used to come to wash the family’s clothes.


They were located along a stream. Sometimes, a basin would be built alongside the stream, fed by it and discharging back into it.


But just as often, the women washed directly in the stream; if necessary, a small dam was thrown across the stream to create a pool of still water for washing.


By the time my cousins and I were biking around, the lavoirs were hardly used any more. The march of the washing machine across the landscape was underway. But the infrastructure was still largely intact. We would often stop at the lavoirs, for a rest, to splash our faces, wash our bikes if needs be – and to watch the water striders. The pools of still water which had been created for the washerwomen were very much to the striders’ liking, so they haunted these spots. With the casual cruelty of little boys, we would take a poke at the striders, watching them skim away across the water’s surface. We were fascinated by their ability to stand on water (it’s not for nothing that another name for these insects is Jesus bugs).

I’ve been boning up on water striders, primarily to understand how it is that they can stand on water. I won’t bore you with the details, but it has to do with being light, spreading this light weight over a number of legs, and having a lot of hairs on those legs. This is enough for them not to break through the water tension. Who wouldn’t like to be able to walk on water? With our weight, we can only walk – or at least sit – on mercury.

man floating on mercury

I remember being fascinated by this photo when I saw it years ago in an article in the National Geographic on mercury. Now, with everything I know about the awful effects of mercury on people, it makes me shudder profoundly.

In passing, I’ve also learnt how water striders feed.  When an insect falls into the water, the strider senses its struggles through small vibrations and ripples in the water surface. It darts across to the poor thing, pierces it, and injects saliva. The enzymes in the saliva digest the victim’s tissues. The strider then sucks up the partially digested broth.

Now that I’ve totally grossed out my wife and any other normal readers, I put in this nice close-up picture.

Pond Skater Portrait



Water spiders: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/a/a5/Amenbo_06f5520sx.jpg/450px-Amenbo_06f5520sx.jpg
Lavoir-historical: http://www.stleger.info/les72StLeger/region4/78.cpa/78.foret/78—oiseauxlavoir2.jpg
Lavoir-indirect: http://4.bp.blogspot.com/_55S9JjX9Ot8/TO5NK1GMXsI/AAAAAAAAAZc/EZEjKoTSze4/s1600/lavoir-beaune.jpg
Lavoir-direct: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/1/17/Bullion_Lavoir_de_Moutiers.JPG
Man floating on mercury: http://i.imgur.com/DfTbR.jpg
Water spider-closeup: http://img.burrard-lucas.com/united_kingdom/full/pond_skater.jpg


Beijing, 16 August 2013

Another phenomenon of this hot and muggy season is the crickets. Every tree, every bush, every blade of grass seems to host a multitude of crickets chirping like crazy. “Chirping” does not adequately describe the thunderous noise the crickets are making. Indeed, last weekend, when my wife and I were walking along a tree-shaded street, the noise in the foliage above our heads was so loud that we both instinctively looked up, half expecting to see a giant, four-foot cricket come tumbling down onto our heads.

A little navigation around my favourite fact-checking site – Wikipedia – has informed me that only male crickets chirp – or stridulate if one wants to be formally correct. They do so for one of four reasons: to attract females (“fairly loud”); to court a nearby female (“very quiet”); to chase off other males hanging around (“aggressive”); and to celebrate a bout of successful copulation (noise levels not defined). Since the noise they are currently making is so deafening, I presume we are witnessing either the first or the third of these stridulatory chants (I sort of assume – by extension of human behaviour – that post-copulatory stridulation will be merely a contented buzz). Not surprising, really, since Wikipedia informs me that crickets mate in the late summer. I presume that every male cricket in Beijing is currently hot under the collar and on the prowl.

Wikipedia has also corrected a fundamental misunderstanding on my part. I had always thought that crickets chirp – sorry, stridulate – by rubbing their legs together. Not so! They rub their wings together. One wing has a large vein – the “stridulatory organ” – which runs along the bottom of it and is covered with teeth. By rubbing the other wing along the teeth, our friend Cricket gets his chirp. And by holding his wings up and open when he does this, he gets a loudspeaker effect. Very clever.

I am moved at this point to insert a few photos of crickets, even though I know that my wife will not appreciate them much. Creepy-crawlies are not her thing and these close-ups of crickets make them out to be quite creepy-crawly.



I suppose one of the things that foreigners – or at least Western foreigners – in China find odd is the important role which crickets have played, and continue to play,  in China as pets.  To be honest, I personally find it very strange that anyone would want a cricket as a pet. Don’t get me wrong, I find it admirable for people to have small pets – I think it’s ridiculous, even cruel, to have large dogs as pets in a crowded city, for instance – but I think mice is about the smallest one should reasonably go. Having an insect as a pet seems frankly contrarian, especially since their life expectancy is low to very low: for instance, an adult cricket lives about a month before it kicks the bucket, shuffles off its mortal coil, runs down the curtain, and joins the choir invisible (as John Cleese memorably put it in the Monty Python skit about the dead Norwegian parrot).

But important they have been. Over the centuries, Chinese have lovingly built cages for their cricket pets, using materials which go from the most precious to the most humble:


cricket cage-3-jade


cricket cage-9-ivory

Ceramic (this particular version has some rather naughty pictures on it):

cricket cage-12-ceramic

Ox bone:

cricket cage-6-ox bone


cricket cage-11-zicha


cricket cage-1-bamboo

There was even a cottage industry – controlled by the Emperor’s household, presumably because it was so lucrative – in growing special gourds to be used as cricket cages:

cricket cage-10-gourd

And of course crickets have graced Chinese scrolls:

scroll with cricket-1

scroll with cricket-3

The extraordinary thing is that crickets still play a role in Chinese life. Here is a picture I took outside some pet shops in Shanghai. This is a string of cricket cages, made of humble raffia or something similar

cricket cages Shanghai 001

while this is a close-up of another string, in even humbler plastic, where you can see the crickets inside, waiting for their new masters.

cricket cages Shanghai 002

The Chinese even used crickets to hold cricket fights.  They still do.

cricket fighting

This I have not seen yet. I wonder if English bookies could get into this game.

english bookies-2

And with that, I wish you goodnight through the most famous cricket of all, Jiminy Cricket:

Jiminy Cricket


Green cricket: http://ezwebrus.com/wallpapers/insect/green_cricket.jpg
Brown cricket: http://www.marketwallpapers.com/wallpapers/1/wallpaper-3107.jpg
Cricket cages-jade: http://www.paulfrasercollectibles.com/upload/public/docimages/Image/h/j/p/Chinese-jade-cricket-cages-410.jpg
Cricket cage-9: http://img.carters.com.au/134198.jpg
Cricket cage-ceramic: http://www.christies.com/lotfinderimages/d48014/d4801435x.jpg
Cricket cage-ox-bone: http://image.made-in-china.com/2f0j00cvyQhwERqtga/Rare-Fantastic-Ox-Bone-Tiger-Design-Cricket-Cage.jpg
Cricket cage-metal: http://p2.la-img.com/1567/36700/15356320_1_l.jpg
Cricket cage-bamboo: http://www.asiantreasuries.com/cricket%20cage%20%282%29.jpg
Cricket cage-gourd: http://media.liveauctiongroup.net/i/11138/11502127_1.jpg?v=8CE71FC734C5BE0
Scroll with cricket-1: http://p2.la-img.com/1311/38039/16205516_1_l.jpg
Scroll with cricket-3: http://p2.la-img.com/179/30164/11744435_1_l.jpg
Cricket fighting: http://lh5.ggpht.com/-AVooPylAFsg/TrqrCxFnkwI/AAAAAAAARjY/A13FdWkEFfE/cricket-fighting-14%25255B3%25255D.jpg?imgmax=800
English bookies: http://www.teara.govt.nz/files/38947-ap.jpg
Jiminy Cricket: http://www.waouo.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/06/jiminycricket-236×576.jpg


Beijing, 14 August 2013

As we swelter in the heat and humidity of a Beijing August, my wife and I have noticed over the last week or so a singular natural phenomenon: the appearance of swarms of dragonflies. They are particularly thick around my piece of canal, which I suppose is not surprising since their larvae are aquatic. Neither my wife nor I have ever seen dragonfly swarms in Europe, so we are fascinated by this phenomenon. I tried taking photos with my iPhone but it was a miserable failure. My wife looked at the photos and said, “Sorry, where are the dragonflies?” The swarms are invisible. So I’ve borrowed a few photos taken by people who clearly knew how to go about it (even then, in the first one you really have to look hard to see the dragonflies).

swarm of dragonflies-4

swarm of dragonflies-1

I like dragonflies. They look so awkwardly designed, the kind of thing a kid would put together with a meccano set (does anyone under the age of 50 know what that is?): a bumbling insect, with a big head attached to a thin, thin body, the whole pushed around by those funny double wings. But let me tell you, they are survivors! They’ve been around for 300 million years or so. And the design must be pretty good, because it hasn’t changed much over those millions of years. Look at these fossil dragonflies.

dragonfly fossil-1

dragonfly fossil-2

With a bit of luck, they will still be around when we’ve disappeared off the face of the earth.

I suppose the number of species is also a good indicator of success, and here dragonflies also do pretty well: some 6,000 different species, from every continent (except the Antarctic, of course). The species we are seeing here don’t look anything special, but take a look at these photos. There are some really lovely specimens.

beautiful dragonfly-1

beautiful dragonfly-2

beautiful dragonfly-3

I can’t resist throwing in some close-ups

dragonfly closeup-2

Look at those eyes!

dragonfly closeup-1

My English grandfather, who was a scientist and an expert on high-powered microscopes, took beautiful black and white photographs of insects. I found them by chance in a shoe box in my grandmother’s house. I asked to have them. I took them to school. Somewhere along the line, I lost them – all those changes of addresses …

I’m glad to report that a Serious English Poet (whose poems were included in the magisterial Oxford Book of English Verse, no less) also liked dragonflies. Walter Savage Landor wrote this poem some time in the late 1700’s when a dragonfly landed on the page of his book:

Life (priest and poet say) is but a dream;
I wish no happier one than to be laid
Beneath a cool syringa’s scented shade,
Or wavy willow, by the running stream,
Brimful of moral, where the dragon-fly,
Wanders as careless and content as I.
Thanks for this fancy, insect king,
Of purple crest and filmy wing,
Who with indifference givest up
The water-lily’s golden cup,
To come again and overlook
What I am writing in my book.
Believe me, most who read the line
Will read with hornier eyes than thine;
And yet their souls shall live for ever,
And thine drop dead into the river!
God pardon them, O insect king,
Who fancy so unjust a thing!

Well, I can’t argue with the Poet’s point. Either all living things have souls or none do.

There’s one thing, though, in all this that worries me. It is said that dragonfly swarms prefigure earthquakes. In fact, there is a Chinese film, Aftershock, which starts in late July 1967 with swarms of dragonflies and segues into the destruction of the city of Tangshan. A magnitude 7.8 earthquake. A quarter of a million deaths. So I keep looking around me nervously, waiting for things to start shaking.


Swarm of dragonflies-1: http://www.flickr.com/photos/dcmaster/3534906552/sizes/l/in/photostream/
Swarm of dragonflies-2: http://2.bp.blogspot.com/_bto9jE_yKYY/TNn-8Eg-EuI/AAAAAAAAAY0/cWleFwXL82I/s320/100903-dragonflies.jpg
Dragonfly fossil-1: http://www.bernstein.naturkundemuseum-bw.de/odonata/isophleb.htm
Dragonfly fossil-2: http://www.bernstein.naturkundemuseum-bw.de/odonata/cymato.jpg
Beautiful dragonfly-1: http://www.dragonfly-site.com/graphics/pictures-17.jpg
Beautiful dragonfly-2: http://www.dragonfly-site.com/graphics/pictures-18.jpg
Beautiful dragonfly-3: http://rateeveryanimal.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/07/Dragonfly-pink.jpg
Dragonfly closeup-1: http://jcgator1.files.wordpress.com/2012/08/dragonfly-stare.jpg
Dragonfly closeup-2: http://img.over-blog-kiwi.com/0/01/15/99/201211/ob_cdf5ef5226bf6ca6c7789ee543e3da5e_image-0.jpg


Beijing, 11 August 2013

Last weekend, I was reading a really interesting article in the Sunday edition of the Financial Times. It was about winemaking in Georgia (the country, not the American state), which archaeologists tell us has been in the winemaking business for 8,000 years or so. But what really struck me in the article was the following paragraph:

“The result is a width, a tannic grip and a textural depth that no conventionally made white wine will ever have. The wines’ aromas and flavours are singular too. Their acidity is muted, since they have all been through the acid-softening malolactic fermentation, while contact with the other matter in the jar, especially the yeast deposits, rounds the flavours further. In place of the fresh fruits that so many white wines suggest, these evoke dried fruits, mushrooms, straw, nuts and umami. They have less of an oxidative tang than their colours suggest; indeed, their articulation is often understated and quiet, though orchestral in its allusive range. They are meditative wines, sumptuous and subtle.”

I’m always awed by this kind of writing about wines. Whenever I drink a good wine, all that comes to my mind is “Mmm, that’s good!”

I feel it shouldn’t be so. I mean, wine courses through my veins. My maternal grandparents, whom I have referred to in earlier posts, were both descended from families of vignerons, winemakers, who lived in these small villages in the Beaujolais.



We know that this is where they came from because my father, a passionate amateur genealogist, spent a number of summers in the 1950s ferreting around in the local archives and tracking down the generations one after another. It was a joke in the family that the villagers would see my father hove into view on a bicycle, whitened by the dust on the roads – they weren’t asphalted in those days – and announce in French, but with a very English accent, that they were his cousins.

But back to the matter in hand. Really, I’m just a vigneron with a thin icing of education. So I should be able to talk for hours on end about the orchestral and allusive range of the wine I’m drinking, pointing out the evocations of mushrooms and raspberries and nuts and whatever else. But all that ever comes to mind is “Mmm, that’s yummy! Pour me another glass.”

And the worst of it all – but don’t spread this around – is that I don’t really like Beaujolais. I much prefer Spanish wines.



Julienas: http://beaujolaisandbeyond.co.uk/images/uploads/appellations/Julienas.jpg
Jullié: http://photos.itea.fr/photos/gites69/G/photo10/1606.jpg
Wines from Spain: http://alegriaonline.files.wordpress.com/2013/04/winesfromspain.gif


Beijing, 10 August 2013

Call me old-fashioned, but I don’t really get this new fashion of tattooing – or inking, as the new lingo has it. When I was young, it was only the “Working Class” who sported tatts, and even then it was the more rootless among them who indulged: the sailors, the soldiers, the truck drivers, the criminals.

tattooed sailors

But more and more now, especially when summer rolls around and people disrobe, allowing views of parts of their anatomy which they cover the rest of the year, I am struck by how many, primarily young, people are tattooed. This happened to me again in Italy just a few weeks ago when my wife and I were on holiday there. Walking around the streets and on the beach, I was struck by the number of tattoos that flashed casually into view, worn by people who were manifestly not from one of the professional categories I’ve just listed.

tatuaggio in strada-2

tatuaggio spiaggia

Consider the stats. According to a survey quoted in an article in the Guardian, in the UK’s over-60s (the age group of which, alas!, I am nearly part) a little less than 10% have a tattoo, whereas in the 16-44 year-old group it’s nearly 30% – men and women combined. In the US, the figure climbs to 40% in this last age group. Tattooing is, as they say, going mainstream.

Of course, tattooing does have an honourable history. Our poor friend Ötzi, the Neolithic man found frozen to death in a glacier high in the Alps

otzi iceman

carried 57 tattoos, no less. They were mostly simple lines and dots, like these ones along his spine

otzi tattoo

and he probably had them done for some therapeutic value.

That was 5,000 years ago. 2,500 years ago, a Scythian chief who was buried in the permafrost was sporting considerably more elaborate designs on his arm.


while British children who didn’t stare out of the window while the history teacher droned on and on will know that when Julius Caesar made his military foray into the British Isles in 54 BC, he found people who liked to paint, perhaps to tattoo, themselves blue: “All the Britons dye themselves with woad, which occasions a bluish color, and thereby have a more terrible appearance in the fight” JC tells us in his book Gallic Wars. So this is what my ancestors looked like …


For a history nerd like myself, it’s also fascinating to know that Ahmad ibn Fadlan, a 10th-century Arab who travelled up the River Volga and met the Vikings in their kingdom of Rus, described them as tattooed from “fingernails to neck”

The usual spoilsports, the Christians, came along and banned the practice of tattooing in Europe, seeing it as a pagan practice (to be fair, the Jews had prohibited it even earlier). So in Europe at least, tattooing died out until the late 1700’s, when James Cook – and his sailors – discovered New Zealand and the tattooed Maoris, and reintroduced the practice (more history nerdism: the English word “tattoo” was actually introduced by James Cook, who was anglicising the Polynesian word “tatau”). Here is a picture of a Maori chief from Cook’s period:

Maori Chief 1784

and a later one of another Maori chief, when the practice was dying out among them:

Tukukino maori-2

Not surprisingly, given the source of the reintroduction, sailors were at the vanguard of tattooing among the working class – by the late 1800s, 90% of the British navy was tattooed – but I have been astonished to discover that European royalty also had a penchant for getting inked. The very staid King George V

George V

sported tattoos of the cross of Jerusalem and a dragon, while two of his sons and a bunch of wannabe European royals followed suit. Even the British aristocracy was into the game. It seems that they liked to congregate in the drawing room after dinner and, over the port and cigars, show off their tattoos to each other.

So actually it was only us prim and proper Middle Classes who didn’t have tattoos …

OK, let’s step back now from the social class stuff which so permeates discussions of tattooing, and let’s ask ourselves these questions: Are tattoos pleasant to the eye? Does tattooing enhance a person’s beauty?

Let’s immediately forget about the little dolphins below the ankle (David Cameron’s wife) or the little sharks on the foot (Martha Swire, the Cathay Pacific heiress), or the little kittens on the bum (Emma Parker Bowles, niece of the other Parker Bowles), or the little stars spangled down the back (Rihanna)


These are just cute pictures. I don’t see how having them tattooed permanently on you enhances the look of your skin or of you in general, especially if the onlooker cannot, or can hardly, see them. I mean, I can’t ask the PM’s wife to lift her leg, or Emma Parker Bowles to drop her pants, so that I can take a better gander at their dolphins and kittens, now, can I? And if I can’t do that, why bother having them? I am looking at this from the perspective of beauty … titillating your lover is another issue.

Actually, I have a problem with the idea of tattooing any kind of picture on one’s skin. Look at this photo of Angelina Jolie:


Does it enhance Ms Jolie to have those pictures on her? Do those pictures look better on her skin than on a wall? Personally I think not, in both cases. Her arms just look dirty to me and the pictures do not get better by being on the curved surface of her arm.

So let’s focus on abstract designs, which is what the Maoris had on their faces, and the Samoans had on their nether regions:


Here’s a couple of photos of abstract designs, all on men I have to say, although I can’t see why they wouldn’t work on women:

Tattoo Designs-1

Tattoo Designs-2

Tattoo Designs-3

tattoo designs-4

tattoo designs-5

I really don’t like those heavy sleeves in the first picture (as you can see, I am picking up the language of the tattoo parlour), they just make the arms look dirty. As for the others, I guess they aren’t too bad, even allowing for the fine pecs, or whatever those muscles are called, which the models have in abundance. But do they really make the men (in this case) look more handsome? I’m not convinced; those are really strong, in-your-face colours and thick lines. Maybe thinner lines in more discrete colours, a fainter blue or red? Perhaps the Ancient Britons’ woad will make a come-back …

But at the end of the day (and this post), I really have to ask myself, if you don’t live in Samoa or some other nice South Sea island where you can go around all day more or less without any clothes on, so that your next-door neighbours can admire your designs as you walk by; if you live instead in coldish Europe where you’re covered in clothes all day, and where if you take them off in public they bundle you off to the nearest psychiatric hospital, what’s the point?

And why don’t we do it the way the Indians and others do it at weddings? Use henna, draw beautiful designs on yourself which are ephemeral

henna hands

and try out other designs at the next beach party: beach party, because you can take – most of – your clothes off and parade your new fancy designs which can be in more places than just your hands.

Just a thought.

And finally, with all due respect to the Maoris, please don’t touch your face. In 330 AD, the Roman Emperor Constantine the Great banned the practice of tattooing the faces of convicts, gladiators, and soldiers because, he said, the human face reflected “the image of divine beauty, and should not be defiled.” I couldn’t agree more.


Tatooed sailors yesteryear: http://www.akirabodyart.com/images/content/1/c20_0040-sailors-tattoo-web.jpg
Tattoo on a street: http://www.rosesfanees.it/wp-content/uploads/2013/06/IMG_3571.jpg
Tattoo on a beach: http://2.bp.blogspot.com/_0GG_6fSKfBI/TITqWrghiOI/AAAAAAAAAYQ/m2JEHxwIVzo/s400/tatuaggio_2.jpg
Ötzi iceman: http://www.age-of-the-sage.org/archaeology/otzi_iceman_2.jpg
Ötzi tattoo: http://www.freetattoodesigns.org/images/tattoo-history.jpg
Scythian tattoo: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/a/a6/Scythian_tatoo.jpg
Maori Chief 1784: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/d/d4/MaoriChief1784.jpg
Maori Tutukino: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/4/45/Tukukino%2C_by_Lindauer.jpg
George V: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/e/ee/George_V_of_the_united_Kingdom.jpg
Rihanna’s back tattoo: http://cdn04.cdnwp.thefrisky.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/09/10/rihanna_tattoo10.jpg
Angelina Jolie’s tattoos: http://www.tattoodesignsidea.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/05/Anglina-Jolie-Tattoo-Designs.jpg
Traditional Samoan tattoos: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/9/99/Traditional_Samoan_Tattoo_-_back.jpg
Tattoo design-1: http://photovide.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/01/Tattoo-Designs-07.jpg
Tattoo design-2: http://cooltattooidea.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/07/pics-of-tattoo-designs-sz6ztmti.jpg
Tattoo design-3: http://www.lotonuu.com/images/samoan-tattoos/samoan-body-Tattoo10.jpg
Tattoo design-4: http://samoantshirts.com/images/tattoo/samoan%20tattoos.jpg
Tattoo design-5: http://tattoodesignsmag.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/03/Best-Tribal-Tattoo-Designs.jpg
Hennaed hands: http://www.inkuphoto.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/07/nj-wedding-photographer-nyc-wedding-photographer-boston-wedding-photographer-indian-hindu-sikh-inku.jpg


Beijing, 4 August 2013

It was my birthday a few days ago: one year closer to my sixtieth year, that age which impelled me to start this blog; one year closer to my retirement and the end of my professional life. As the years go by, I remember ever more insistently a line from the last chapters of the book The Ocelot, by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa. The book’s melancholy hero Don Corbera, Prince of Salina, has always seen his life as a stream that is flowing, flowing away. Now, old and sick and terribly, terribly tired, he muses that the stream has become a river, flowing ever more swiftly past. A few pages later he is dead.

Yes indeed, I think to myself on every birthday now, life does seem to whizz by ever faster as I grow older.

My wife was having none of these gloomy thoughts and philosophical musings! She arranged for a wonderful lunch in a restaurant located in an old temple buried in the maze of lanes behind Beijing’s Drum and Bell Towers.

Bell Tower

It is one of the city’s fancier restaurants, with a menu to match. To start, my wife had (I quote from the menu) “chilled asparagus soup, salmon tartar, sour cream”, while I opted for “cream soup of mussels, saffron, white wine, vegetable julienne”.  For the main course, we both chose “assorted seafood, bouillabaisse jus, aioli”. We topped it all off with a selection of cheese. The whole accompanied by a glass of French rosé wine for my wife and a glass of Spanish red wine for me. Delicious. But definitely not filling. As is the case with such restaurants, portion size was in inverse proportion to the final bill.

temple restaurant-2

temple restaurant-1

Having then spent the rest of the afternoon in the office pretending to work, I met my wife somewhere close to the Kempinski Hotel and she took me to a fancy bar for a drink. Having scanned the drinks list, we unanimously plumped for a margarita. The waitress anxiously informed us that since it was Happy Hour – buy one, get one free – we would actually get four if we ordered two. She wanted to make sure that we were aware of this. We confirmed that this was indeed the outcome we desired.


Marvelous drink, the margarita! The sweetness of the Cointreau hits the tartness of the lime juice, only discovered after breaking through the salt coating the glass’s rim; the whole covering the powerful kick of the tequila. We discovered the drink some twenty-five years ago when we were in New Mexico for a holiday. As we sat in the bar of the hotel in Santa Fe wondering idly what to drink, the barman suggested a margarita. Why not, we said. We have never looked back. Everywhere we have been, the margarita has followed us like a faithful old friend, turning up on the drinks list of just about every bar we have ever been to since.

As we drank our – four – margaritas on the terrace of the bar, we watched the evening slowly draw in over Beijing. It was a beautifully clear evening, following a beautifully clear day. Feeling a tad hungry, we ordered two bowls of noodles. After which, hand in hand, we walked slowly back home.


Bell tower: http://www.thechinaguide.com/drum_tower/Drum_Bell_Tower_Beijing_07.jpg
A starter: http://old.cityweekend.com.cn/files/images/image-20120224-0h1d4tf09s9jmtfv1bib.JPG
A main course: http://cwstatic.cityweekend.com.cn/files/images/2011/12/16/image-20111216-fyrz2miltyybbz6hjzlh.jpg
Margarita: http://images.nationalgeographic.com/wpf/media-live/photos/000/224/cache/margarita-drink-beach_22442_600x450.jpg