Beijing, 26 January 2014

Last week, I went to visit a factory on the outskirts of Beijing which recycles waste equipment.  They take old TVs, old computer monitors, refrigerators, air conditioners, and washing machines; if the regulatory conditions become right, they will also start taking mobile phones. They disassemble these old products and recycle the various components, having first properly separated them. It’s fascinating to watch the disassembly, which is the exact mirror image of normal manufacturing: the process starts with the whole product, which as it moves down the (dis)assembly line slowly comes apart, ending up back as its individual components.  This is the future, my friends. All the products we make should be collected at the end of their useful lives, brought to factories like this one, and taken apart so that their component materials can be reused: “Circular Economy” is the tag for this.

But actually, I want to write about something completely different. After visiting the disassembly line and talking with the company management about its plans for the future, we were invited to lunch in the company’s canteen. As is customary, we were taken to a separate room, which contained one large round table and the usual Lazy Mary languidly turning in the middle. As we sat and chatted and picked at the dishes going by, my eyes wandered around the room. They fastened on this painting on the wall:

canteen photo 002

It was a welcome dash of cheerful green on what were otherwise rather drab walls. That being said, it was not much to write home about, a clearly amateur rendering of the scene, the sort of thing one could pick up for 1 euro at any flea market. And yet … there was something about it which sparked a faint memory. The memory fluttered indistinctly around in my mind as we said our goodbyes at the end of the lunch and headed back to the office. It was like having a grain of sand in one’s shoe, softly but insistently irritating. There was nothing for it, I was going to have to do some research when I got back to the office. Luckily, it didn’t take long to pin down the memory. What I had been looking at was a copy – or a copy of a copy of a copy … – of a famous painting by the French painter Camille Corot, Souvenir de Mortefontaine, painted in 1864 and now hanging in the Louvre Museum:

Corot-souvenir de Mortefontaine

But that’s not where I had seen it first. That memory which I had been vainly chasing through the corridors of my brain was set in my grandmother’s house in London.  She had a copy of the painting hanging on her drawing room wall, from where it would look down on me as I sat on the couch drinking my grandmother’s lapsang souchong tea. Strange how life is … an invisible thread loops through time and space, linking my grandmother’s drawing room in the 1960s, cluttered with family memories, to a rather drab factory canteen on the outskirts of Beijing in 2014.

For all the warm, fuzzy memories it evokes, I would not put this particular painting, in original or in copy, on my wall. Memories are one thing, taste another. I remember my grandmother saying once how much she loved Corot. Me, I find him cloyingly sentimental, his feathery trees irritate me, and the grey-green palette he used in this particular series of paintings – he did a number of such Souvenirs – grates on my senses.  If I were going to have a landscape on my wall by a famous painter, I would much prefer any one of a host painted in the last five hundred years.  I could easily live with one of Bruegel’s paintings of the seasons, his Corn Harvest say:

Bruegel-The Corn Harvest (August)-

or why not a Constable, for instance his Wivenhoe Park:

Constable - Wivenhoe Park

or his Salisbury Cathedral (although calling this a landscape may be a bit of a stretch)

Constable-Salisbury Cathedral-1825

I could also happily live with one of the pre-impressionist works which were already being painted when Corot was painting Souvenirs de Mortefontaine, like this Pissarro, La Maison de Père Gallien à Pointoise, painted just two years after the Corot, but which already shows a more real, more vibrant world than Corot’s honeyed one

Pissaro-Pere galliens house at Pontoise-1866

From the impressionist period, I could take a Monet landscape, like this one from a series he made of the fields around Argenteuil, Walk in the meadows around Argenteuil:


From a little bit later, one of Cézanne’s many proto-cubist paintings of Mont Saint Victoire in the south of France would be lovely:

Cézanne-Mont St Victoire

as would one of Van Gogh’s whirling wheat fields like this one, Wheat field with cypresses

Van Gogh-Wheatfield with cypresses-1889

A pointillist landscape would do nicely too, like this Signac, Comblat Castle and the Pré:


I could even hang a fauvist landscape on my wall, like this one, The Turning Road, l’Estaques, by Derain:

Derain-The Turning Road lEstaques

or even, at a pinch, a cubist landscape like this one by Braque, Big Trees at Estaques:


But maybe I would eschew the modernist trends which I have been following up to now, and go for one of the paintings by the American artist Grant Wood, like this Young Corn, painted in 1931:

Grant Wood-young-corn-1931

There are certain similarities to the Bruegel I started with, no?

But in the end, I wouldn’t need to put any of these paintings on my walls, because I already have my landscape painting, purchased in the Dorotheum, the Viennese auction house.

general photos 002

Maybe one day I will have grandchildren who will drink lapsang souchong tea with me, look at the painting, and ask themselves what on earth Grandpa sees in it.


Pic in the canteen: mine
Corot-Souvenir de Mortefontaine: [in
Constable-Wivenhoe Park: [in,_Essex_-_Google_Art_Project.jpg%5D
Constable-Salisbury Cathedral: [in
Pissaro-Père Gallien’s house at Pontoise: [in
Monet-the Promenade Argenteuil: [in
Cezanne-Mont St Victoire-1887: [in
Van Gogh-Wheatfield with cypresses-1889: [in
Signac-Comblat Castle and the Pré-1886: [in
Derain-The turning road: [in
Braque-Big trees at Estaques-1908: [in
Grant Wood-Young Corn-1931: [in
Pic of my landscape: mine


Beijing, 19 January 2014

There is a phenomenon which my wife and I both agree is on the upswing in China, which is the taking of selfies.  We are proud to know this word, by the way, which is so new that it hasn’t made it yet into the Merriam-Webster on-line dictionary – although the Urban dictionary, which is obviously hipper, does contain a definition: “pictures taken of oneself while holding the camera at arm’s length”.   We might know what the word means, but it doesn’t mean that we approve. We actually find it sad to see young women (it seems to be preponderantly young women) taking photos of themselves. It is so narcissistic, we cry!

chinese selfies

But actually the phenomenon is not new, its amplitude is. New technology – the mobile phone with built-in camera – and its fantastic, phenomenal, global dissemination have allowed this. But the picture-makers of old – artists – have been making selfies for centuries now, since at least the Renaissance (in Europe anyway). They made selfies – self-portraits – to advertise their skills, or to allow them to exercise themselves without having to pay a model, or to comment on their or other people’s private lives, or in a more serious vein to explore their inner emotions. Anyone interested in the topic can go to the Wikipedia article on it.  At the beginning, they seemed to be a bit shy (or maybe just cautious; prisons were nasty then), and rather than executing free-standing portraits of themselves they preferred to include themselves (and their friends, and even sometimes their enemies) in the role of modest bystanders in their paintings. Here, for instance, is a painting by Botticelli, an Adoration of the Magi, where the person on the extreme right in the yellow cloak and looking out towards the viewer is said to be the painter himself.

Botticelli-adoration of the magi

And here is a fresco, by Filippino Lippi, The Disputation with Simon Magus and the Crucifixion of Peter, where Lippi is the person on the extreme right of the fresco looking out towards the viewer from behind the pillar.

Filippino Lippi-simon magus

But after a while some artists were having none of this modesty. For instance, Velázquez put himself very obviously in what is probably his most famous painting, Las Meninas, which hangs in the Prado Museum in Madrid.

Velázquez-Las Meninas

On the face of it, the painting is of the young Infanta Margaret Theresa, surrounded by her entourage of maids of honour, her chaperone, bodyguard, two dwarves and a dog. But actually, Velázquez is quite obtrusively in the painting too! You can’t fail to miss him standing behind the Infanta and working on a large canvas, looking out towards the viewer. Behind him, on the wall, is a mirror, which if you look carefully can be see to be reflecting a couple. These are the king, Philip IV, and his queen, Mariana of Austria. Aha! It is them that Velásquez’s is painting, while standing in a painting which he painted … All very clever – and quite cheeky on the part of Velázquez to put himself so central when there were all these kings, queens, and princesses around!

But in my opinion not as cheeky as Dürer, who in a self-portrait of 1500 portrayed himself as a wonderfully powerful Christ-like figure.

Duerer-self portrait

He was following a well-known type of painting, such as this one by the Flemish artist Jan van Eyck.

Christ by Jan van Eyck

I’m always surprised by the sheer effrontery of Dürer comparing himself so obviously to Christ. And not to some meek and mild Christ either.  The painting’s Latin inscription translates as “I, Albrecht Dürer of Nuremberg, portrayed myself in everlasting colours aged twenty-eight years”.  Wow! Talk about someone being sure of his fame in posterity. I’m amazed that he didn’t get hauled in front of some ecclesiastical court for committing the sin of overweening pride with this painting, but apparently he didn’t.

And then there are those artists who used selfies to do a bit of character assassination. Take Cristofano Allori, an Italian painter I’d never heard of until my wife and I came across a painting of his a few years ago in the Queen’s Gallery in London. Well worth the visit, by the way; it houses part of the extensive royal art collection. The painting in question was Judith with the head of Holofernes

allori-judith with head of holofernes

It’s a story from the Bible: Holofernes was a general sent by Nebuchadnezzar, King of Babylon, to wreak vengeance on various nations along the Mediterranean sea board  for not having supported him.  This included Israel.  Holofernes is besieging a Jewish city, which is about to surrender. But it is saved when Judith, a beautiful Jewish widow, visits Holfernes in his tent, seduces him, gets him drunk and then while he’s sleeping cuts off his head. Many painters liked this subject, no doubt because of all the blood and gore; they generally painted Judith in the act of cutting off Holofernes’s head. But Allori’s take is different. There’s no violence here. The head is already off and the blood has stopped running. Judith is holding it as she would a trophy, staring all the while at the viewer with a complacently triumphant look on her face. Anyone who saw the painting at the time and knew Allori must have tittered. Because Allori painted himself as poor Holofernes while his model for Judith was his ex-mistress Maria Mazzafirri and the servant in the background helping Judith was Maria’s mother. Poor Cristofano, they must have said, that harlot Mazzafirri and that hag of a mother of hers really screwed him over, got their claws into his loot (look at that beautiful dress she’s wearing!) and then dumped him. Or maybe they thought, what the hell did the beautiful Mazzafirri see in that dolt Allori? Good for her, good riddance to bad rubbish.

Michelangelo also included himself in a very personal way in a number of his works, the most famous of which must be in the fresco of the Last Judgement in the Sistine Chapel.

michelangelo-Last judgement

In that huge drama, he painted his face on the flayed skin of St. Bartholomew (I have written about the flaying of this saint in an earlier post).

michelangelo-Last judgement-detail

Scholars have debated the meaning of this since it was noticed in 1925. One scholar has suggested that Michelangelo was commenting on his extremely shabby and painful treatment (from his point of view) by the Pope and his minions during the painting of the Last Judgement. Amusing, along the lines of Allori’s painting, but I think other scholars are more correct when they see this as an excrutiatingly personal comment by Michelangelo on the precarious balance of his soul between salvation and damnation: it seems that the flayed skin is at an exact midpoint between the salvation of the Triumphant Christ and the horrified man who is about to be pulled into Hell. The poetry Michelangelo wrote at this time –  he was also a good poet – speaks a lot about his fear for the salvation of his soul.

And suddenly the selfie is an ussie. The artist is speaking for us all.

Personally, I like more the selfie in Michelangelo’s sculpture The Deposition from the Cross, which is in Florence.


I saw the sculpture during my first trip to Italy when I was a University student (I have also mentioned this trip in an earlier post). The old man, presumably Joseph of Arimathea, is said to be a self-portrait.


A look of such sadness, such desolation he is giving the dead Christ! I was so struck by it that I remained transfixed in front of the statue. I stood there so long that someone in a group of tourists flowing by muttered to her neighbour “What’s he looking at?”

That look of intense sadness brings me to Caravaggio, who must be my most favourite painter. As I have mentioned elsewhere, I brought few books to Beijing, but one of these was the massive Caravaggio: The Complete Works by Sebastian Schütze, which I later complemented by Caravaggio: A Life Sacred and Profane, the almost detective story of his life by Andrew Graham-Dixon. Caravaggio included himself in a number of his paintings. Take his Martyrdom of Saint Matthew, one of a cycle of three paintings in the Contarelli Chapel of the Church of San Luigi dei Francesi in Rome.

Caravaggio-Martyrdom of St Matthew

The subject of the painting is the killing of Matthew, the author of one of the four Gospels. According to tradition, the saint was killed while celebrating Mass at the altar. And so we have the saint knocked to the ground, the assassin readying to deliver the fatal blow, an angel thoughtfully passing on to the saint the palm of martyrdom, and the crowd screaming and shouting and running about, the whole bathed in that chiaroscuro, that light and dark, for which Caravaggio is so famous.  A great painting, although in my opinion not as good as the other two in the chapel. In any case, what interests us right now is the figure at the back, picked out by the light, seemingly making an escape but looking back at the scene. It is Caravaggio.

Caravaggio-Martyrdom of St Matthew-detail

Why did he include himself like this? And why that look of intense sadness? Graham-Dixon suggests that Caravaggio is saying, “I am no different from these people, who stand there instead of helping Matthew,  or even run away. I would have had no more courage than they.  I, too, would have run away”.

So different, this look, from the expression we see on his face in an earlier painting, the Taking of Christ in the Garden of Gesthemane, which hangs in the National Gallery of Ireland in Dublin.

Caravaggio-Taking of Christ

Caravaggio has painted the moment when Judas completes his betrayal of Jesus by kissing him in the Garden of Gesthemane, to indicate to the soldiers around him whom they should arrest. Caravaggio is the person holding the lamp at the back.

Caravaggio-Taking of Christ-self portrait

He is there to shed light on the scene, but he is also looking eagerly over the shoulders of the soldiers to get a better view.  Such a wonderful metaphor for every painter, of all ages, trying hard to visualize the scene which they are planning to paint, and which they can see only darkly.

And so we get to the last of Caravaggio’s portrayals, painted late in his career. The subject is another decapitation which was very popular with painters, David’s killing of Goliath. Caravaggio himself did at least three versions of this story, more or less all of the same moment, when David grasps the head of Goliath.  This last one, housed in the Galleria Borghese in Rome, is the darkest, the most tragic.

caravaggio-david with goliath

It is Caravaggio’s face we see in Goliath, as he was in the last years of his life, on the run from the law in at least two jurisdictions but also from enemies who had personal vendettas with him and were trying to kill him, desperately trying to have himself pardoned by the Pope so that he could return to Rome. It is said that Caravaggio intended the painting to be a gift to Cardinal Borghese who had the power to have him pardoned, a sort of “here is my head on a platter, please be merciful and forgive me”. And who modelled David, a David who strangely enough is not looking triumphantly at Goliath whom he has just overcome in battle, whose gaze rather is a mixture of sadness and compassion for his supposed enemy? One interpretation, which I like immensely, is that this is also Caravaggio, painted as he looked when he was a young boy! And so we have a scene where the young Caravaggio is looking on sadly at the old Caravaggio which he will become. Alas, this interpretation does not seem correct. More probably, the model is Caravaggio’s studio assistant, Cecco, looking on sadly as his master slowly falls to pieces before his eyes. And indeed Caravaggio died shortly thereafter.

Another artist whose powerful self-portraits have always fascinated me is the Mexican painter Frida Kahlo. I must say, she was almost obsessed with herself, self-portraits making up a very large proportion of her oeuvre. Here is one of them

Frida Kahlo-self portrait

but there is one self-portrait of hers which stands out above all the rest and which I find truly gut-wrenching, Henry Ford Hospital.

Frida Kahlo-Henry Ford Hospital

She painted it shortly after her second miscarriage, when she realized she would never be able to have the children she so desperately wanted. You see her lying in the blood of her miscarriage on her bed in the Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit (the city in the background; her husband, the Mexican painter Diego Rivera, had been given a commission there by Edsel Ford). Above her floats the baby she has just lost, a baby boy. Also floating around her are a female torso, showing the anatomical parts linked to having children, her fractured pelvis, fruit of an accident she suffered when young and which made it impossible for her to have children, medical-looking equipment used during the miscarriage, an orchid which Rivera had given her, and a snail, depicting the slow pace of her miscarriage. All are linked to her by umbilical-like bloodlines.

I finish with a self-portrait by Käthe Kollwitz, a German artist who was active before and after the First World War. It, too, is about the loss of a child, but this time of a child born.  Her younger son Peter was badly wounded in the first days of the war and died in her arms a few months later. She created this woodcut just after his death. It is of her and her husband, distraught at their boy’s death

Kathe Kollwitz-grieving-parents-woodcut

After the war, she distilled this image into a pair of statues, Grieving Parents, which stand in the German War cemetery at Vladslo in Belgium (I have written an earlier post about these cemeteries).

Kathe Kollwitz-grieving-parents-statues-1

The two figures are based on Käthe and her husband Karl

Kathe Kollwitz-grieving-parents-statues-2

They represent all the parents of the young men buried in the cemetery

Kathe Kollwitz-grieving-parents-statues-3

although it is said that Karl is gazing directly at the tomb of his son Peter.

To parents like us with children still of age to be called up, incredibly moving.


A few weeks ago (June 2014), I saw with great pleasure that my favouritest of favourite cartoonists in The New Yorker magazine, Roz Chast, had made the same connection as I had between the modern selfie movement and artists’ self-portraits

roz chaz selfie 001


Chinese selfies: [in
Botticelli – Adoration of the Magi: [in
Filippino Lippi-The Disputation with Simon Magus and the Crucifixion of Peter: [in
Velázquez-Las Meninas:ázquez_from_Prado_in_Google_Earth.jpg/890px-Las_Meninas%2C_by_Diego_Velá1zquez%2C_from_Prado_in_Google_Earth.jpg [in
Dürer-self portrait: [in
Christ by Jan van Eyck: [in
Allori-Judith with the head of Holofernes: [in
Michelangelo-last judgement:,_Giudizio_Universale_02.jpg [in
Michelangelo-last judgement-detail: [in
Michelangelo-Deposition: [in The sculpture is housed in the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo in Florence.
Michelangelo-Deposition-detail: [in
Caravaggio-Martyrdom of St Matthew: [in
Caravaggio-Martyrdom of St Matthew-detail: [in
Caravaggio-Taking of Christ: [in
Caravaggio-Taking of Christ-detail: [in
Caravaggio-David with Goliath: [in
Frida Kahlo-self portrait: [in
Frida Kahlo-Henry Ford Hospital: [in
Käthe Kollwitz-grieving parents-woodcut: [in
Käthe Kollwitz-grieving parents-statues-1: [in
Käthe Kollwitz-grieving parents-statues-2: [in
Käthe Kollwitz-grieving parents-statues-3: [in


Beijing, 16 January 2014

A few days ago, my wife was showing me a website she had discovered: “Before They Pass Away”. It’s a wonderful site, kept by the photographer Jimmy Nelson, who has travelled to many of the remoter parts of the world to document the world’s vanishing tribes. I really recommend my readers to visit it.

As I was studying his photographs of the Kalam tribe in Papua New Guinea, I was thunderstruck by the absolutely wonderful headgear they are wearing:


It rather reminds me of a headgear I’ve referred to in an earlier post, being worn by a donor depicted in a 14th century mosaic in the Kariye camii church in Istanbul:


but the Kalam tribesmen’s headgear is much, much more magnificent! For a crazy moment, I imagined myself wearing such a headgear to the office. Boy, would I look impressive! But quickly, though reluctantly, I dismissed the idea because (a) I would have difficulty passing through the doors, and (b) my staff would conclude that I had definitively lost my marbles.

This train of thought led me to start reflecting on the wearing of hats. Because I could wear a hat to the office. Hats fit through doors and my staff wouldn’t think it’s time to call in the men in white if I wore one. Yes, I could easily be a smooth operator like Humphrey Bogart (“Here’s lookin’ at you, kid”)

humphrey bogart with fedora

or Spencer Tracy

Spencer Tracy

or a little closer to home and in time, Jean-Paul Belmondo and Alain Delon

belmondo and delon

I would definitely avoid the top hat, which is really too formal

top hat

or the boater, which is really too silly, as Bertie Wooster amply demonstrates (played here masterfully by Hugh Laurie to Stephen Fry’s Jeeves)


or the bowler hat, which is really too English

M.P.'s at Kings Cross

and was amply mocked by Monty Python in their Ministry of Silly Walks sketch

ministry of silly-walks

although one could argue that the 1960s TV show The Avengers gave the bowler hat and attendant umbrella a certain air of glamour.

bowler hat-the Avengers 3

I was certainly moonstruck when I was young by la belle Diana Riggs.

bowler hat-the Avengers 2

But the fact is, I wouldn’t even wear the more normal of these hats to the office. I mean, who wears a hat any more? And that’s really rather extraordinary, because there was a time – before my time, I will admit, but still not that long ago – when no man in the Western world ever went out on the street without a hat on his head. Look at this picture, taken during some demonstration in New York in the early 1900s. There isn’t a single uncovered head.

crowd 1900s

And that was how things were until at least the 1940s and even into the 1950s. Then suddenly, hats disappeared.

Many theories have been put forward for this sudden eclipse of the hat: the rapid rise of the car culture (hard to wear a hat in a car); a reaction to having had to wear helmets and other hats as soldiers during the War; a general trend towards nonconformity (wearing hats was what the older generation did, ergo …); changes in hair styles: from the short-back-and-sides to Elvis quiffs in the 1950s and long hair in the 1960s (hard to wear hats on that); trends towards more casual clothing (hats being seen as a formal piece of clothing), etc. Take your pick.

My father would have been of the generation that abandoned hats. And in fact, I don’t remember seeing a single photo of him wearing a hat, nor do I ever remember seeing him wear a hat. Except once. In London. In the early 1960s, when I started going to boarding school. I have a distinct memory of him striding ahead of me, dressed like a city gent

bowler hat-5

while I trailed behind wearing my ill-fitting school uniform – a hand-me-down from my elder brother – and sporting the only hat I’ve ever worn, if it can be called a hat, the school cap. I looked something like this youngster

school cap-1

although, at the age of 8, I was 4 years older than this little chappie.

In the meantime, regular hat-wearing has become the preserve of the religiously inclined, from Roman Catholic clergy


bishop mitre

to Christian Orthodox clergy

orthodox priests

to Orthodox, Conservative Jews, here seen in their Sabbath finest

Jewish shtreimel-2

to conservative Muslims, here seen preparing for Friday prayers

taqiyah and keffiyeh in london

to Sikhs

Sikhs in Toronto

to certain Buddhist sects.

buddhist yellow hats-2

Sad, really. Unless I convert to a hat-wearing religion, this piece of clothing, which men in the Western world have been wearing in one form or another since at least the Middle Ages, will pass me by. The best I can hope for is a baseball cap to protect me from the sun in the summer and a woolen cap to protect me from the cold in winter.

But I’m sure the hat will come back. All things go round. The current crop of film stars is now being photographed looking glamorously unshaven and wearing some form of hat

brad pitt in hat

a good sign that the fashion of hat-wearing is on the way back. But will hats come back before I too, like the Kalam tribesmen, pass away?


Kalam-PNG: [in—papua-new-guinea#journeytribe0%5D
Kariye Camii-theodore metochites:
Humphrey Bogart with fedora: [in
Spencer Tracy with fedora: [in
Belmondo and Delon: [in
Top hat: [in]
Boater hat-Bertie Wooster and Jeeves: [in
Bowler hat: [in
Ministry of silly walks: [in
Bowler hat – the Avengers 1: [in
Bowler hat-the Avengers 2: [in
Crowd 1900s: [in
City gent: [in
School cap: [in
Bishop mitre: [in
Orthodox priests: [in
Jewish shreimel-2: [in
Taqiyah and keffiyeh in London: [in
Sikhs in Toronto:!.jpg [in
Buddhist yellow hats-2: [in
Brad Pitt in hat: [in


New York, 11 January 2014

I’ve been reading about the political storm whirling around New Jersey’s Governor Chris Christie and his possible role in the partial closure back in September of several lanes of the George Washington Bridge causing mammoth traffic jams, all as a mean-minded act of revenge against a mayor who chose not to back him.

George Washington Bridge traffic jam

As I read and watch the TV commentaries, I smugly remind myself of the fact that 25 years ago, when I lived in New York and for a period had to travel frequently to Trenton, I did NOT drive and so was never at the mercy of tyrannical politicians and their staff. I took the train (the golden haze of history makes me forget that the trains sometimes ran chaotically).

I would catch the train at Penn Station, as miserable then as it is now (although I read somewhere that they might tear it down and replace it with something nicer … hope springs eternal).

Penn Station

But at that time, there was an employee of the railways, announcer of departing trains, who would always end his litany of stops on these trains with a sonorously chanted “All abooo-aard!” He started high on the “All”, dropped to low note on “aboo”, and then rose to triumphant high finale on “aard”. It always put a smile on my lips and sent me off with the sun in my heart.

I needed it. After lurching through the tunnel under the Hudson River, we would emerge, blinking, in New Jersey on the other side. There then followed an urban and peri-urban bleakness. After passing through Hoboken and Secaucus, we crossed wastelands of what must have once been lovely marshes and wetlands around the Hackensack and Passaic rivers, as this small remaining wetland near Secaucus attests

wetlands Secaucus

but were now a tangle of roads and studded with industrial estates

roads through the wetlands

pulaski skyway

many of them abandoned, evidence of the collapse of the manufacturing sector in the US.

old industrial site passaic river

I redid this journey recently, taking the train to Washington DC, and it hasn’t got much better.

Every time I sat in that train 25 years ago, watching the bleakness roll by, I silently lamented that way of thinking which saw wetlands as something useless. Here is what a journalist had to say when describing the Meadowlands in 1867:

“Swamp-lands are blurs upon the fair face of Nature; they are fever-breeding places; scourges of humanity; which, instead of yielding the fruits of the earth and adding wealth to the general community, only supply the neighboring places poisonous exhalations and torturing mosquitos. They are, for all practical purposes, worthless; and the imperative necessity for their reclamation is obvious to all, and is universally conceded.” [1]

So they had filled them in and turned them over to some useful economic activity. But now all I could see was that much of that useful economic activity had upped sticks and moved to China or somewhere else, leaving behind only a blighted landscape. And no doubt as I write, that useful economic activity is upping sticks again, moving to somewhere even cheaper, leaving another blighted landscape behind it.

What of those wetlands around the Hackensack and Passaic Rivers? Perhaps sea level rise, coupled with more frequent and more severe storms, both caused by climate change, itself caused by the carbon emissions from all those useful economic activities, will wipe away all our intrusions and chase us off to higher ground. A revenge which will dwarf Governor Christie’s mean-spirited attempt at revenge – if indeed he was involved, of course. Of course …


1. The new system of reclaiming lands. (1867, November 16). Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, pp. 36–37.

Traffic jam on George Washington Bridge: [in
Penn Station: [in
Wetlands Secaucus: [in
Roads through the wetlands: [in
Pulaski Skyway: [in
Old industrial site Passaic River: [in


New York, 5 January 2014

Kale is king of culinary cool this year in New York. Or so it would appear from a cursory glance at the offerings in the city’s food emporia: every restaurant seems to have a dish with kale in it, every supermarket a ready-made salad containing kale.  Several articles tracking the growing popularity of kale have appeared in the New York Times, while a very recent article in the New York Daily News, reporting on a survey of 500 dieticians, has these worthy people predicting that kale (along with ancient grains and gluten-free diets) will be the top nutrition trends of 2014. Why, even a celebrity chef like Gordon Ramsey has weighed in, making lots of approving noises about kale. He went so far as to propose that a National Kale Day be instituted!

Which is all rather surprising to me, since I have always associated kale with something that you feed to cows.  I don’t think I had ever intentionally eaten kale until a week or so ago when I picked up a take-away tomato and kale soup from a Hale & Hearty Soup outlet somewhere near Park Avenue and 45th Street.

Quite what is so remarkable about kale is not clear to me. It is purported to help you fight various cancers, lower your cholesterol, detoxify yourself, and I know not what else. Having been around a while, I am, like this reporter in the Huffington Post, somewhat skeptical of all these claims. How many foodstuffs have I seen over the years for which extravagant health claims have been made!  It is true that kale is stuffed with vitamins K, A and C.  So if you need those, kale might be your thing. But as for the rest …

To my mind, all the froth and frenzy about kale is nothing compared to the wonderful story behind its very existence. Around the northern and eastern rim of the Mediterranean, in what are now Italy, Greece, Turkey, and maybe further south along the Lebanese and Israeli coast, there lives a humble member of the large family of mustards. This species is known to science as Brassica oleracea, but we can call it cole (a name rooted in the Celtic-Germanic-Greek word for “stem”). With time and I presume human interference it spread from its original homeland and now can be found further north in Europe. Since it tolerates salt well and likes a limey soil, it tends to be found on limestone sea cliffs, as attested by this picture, taken on the chalk cliffs in the UK (I didn’t find a picture of the plant in its original homeland):


Anyone familiar with mustard plants will immediately see the family resemblance. And those long stems are what gives the plant its generic name of cole.

At some point, humans found that the plant was edible and presumably added it to their list of plants to gather. Some 3-4,000 years ago, maybe more, as part of the slow move to agriculture, humans began to domesticate the cole, and as they have done with just about every species which they have domesticated they began a forced process of natural selection to encourage desirable traits in their domesticates and eliminate undesirable ones. So far, so good.  But the cole must have a very flexible DNA because over the millennia farmers were able to coax out of this one plant an astonishingly different array of vegetables. From the plant we see above waving on the cliff top, they managed to obtain our friend kale:


Its close cousin, collard greens:


The cabbage, which itself comes in several varieties, the common white cabbage:

Cabbage isolated on white

the red cabbage, seen here with the green cabbage:

cabbage-green and purple

the Savoy cabbage:

cabbage-savoy 2

Then we have broccoli:

Fresh green vegetable, isolated over white



and its close cousin the strange-looking romanesco broccoli:

romanesco broccoli 2

Brussels sprouts:

brussels sprouts



And last but not least, the Chinese kai-lan, also known as Chinese broccoli:

Chinese_Broccoli 2

Pretty amazing …

The following picture shows which bits in the original cole plant all those generations of farmers fiddled with to get these massively different vegetables:

brassica oleracea-evolution 4

When seeing all these vegetables sitting next to each other on a supermarket shelf, it might be difficult to believe that they are actually the same plant, but when you see them still in the field the family resemblance is more easily recognized.


kale in field






cauliflower in the field


broccoli plant

Brussels sprouts:

brussels-sprouts plants



And when these vegetables flower, which they should not, then you see the mustard-like flower coming through, as in this case of a red cabbage gone to seed:


and of broccoli gone to seed:

broccoli bolted

The early history of all these cole vegetables is shrouded in uncertainty. The Greeks and Romans wrote about one or more vegetables which sound like a cousin of kale and collards. The cabbage seems to have been developed in the colder parts of Europe some time in the early Middle Ages. Southern Italians seem to have developed broccoli quite early on, perhaps already during the Roman period, but it was many centuries before it migrated to other parts of Europe. It is generally thought that the cauliflower came to Europe from the Middle East, possibly via Cyprus and then Italy. As the name suggests, Brussels sprouts seem to have been developed somewhere in the Low Countries around the 15th Century, possibly earlier, but didn’t migrate to other parts of Europe until several centuries later. Kohlrabi seems to have been developed at about the same time, although quite where in Europe is unclear. And then there is kai-lan. Quite how this vegetable, the descendant of a Mediterranean plant, ended up being developed in China is a bit of a mystery. It is theorized that when the Portuguese came to China, they brought with them the cabbage. Chinese farmers then did a second cycle of selection to bring about something which looks and tastes more like broccoli.

Little is known of the history of these vegetables because early European chroniclers didn’t deign to follow the experiments in genetic engineering that the humble farmers were undertaking. In his poem “the Walrus and the Carpenter”, Lewis Carroll has the walrus say at some point:

“The time has come,
To talk of many things:
Of shoes–and ships–and sealing-wax–
Of cabbages–and kings”

But those who recorded history were interested in kings and not cabbages and their ilk, so we will never know who were those legions of farmers who patiently developed this cornucopia of cole vegetables which we have available to us today. I take this occasion to salute these nameless heroes and to thank them for putting such wonderful vegetables on my table.


Cabbage-wild: [in
Kale bunch: [in
Collard greens-bundle: [in
Cabbage-white: [in
Cabbage-green and red: [in
Cabbage-savoy: [in
Broccoli: [in
Cauliflower: [in
Romanesco broccoli: [in
Brussels sprouts: [in
Kohlrabi: [in
Chinese broccoli: [in
B. Oleracea-evolution: [in
Kale in field: [in
Collard plants: [in
Cabbage plant: [in
Cauliflower in field: [in
Broccoli plant: [in
Brussels sprouts plant: [in
Kohlrabi plant: [in
Cabbage-red-bolted: [in
Broccoli-bolted: [in