Beijing, 27 May 2014

Ten days ago, this was.

We walked into Camogli from Recco, getting a first glimpse of the little harbour from the road.


We walked down to the harbour, skirted its edge.

camogli port

We passed on to the boardwalk on the other side of the church.  Glancing back, this was the sight which greeted us.


Our goal was San Rocco, sitting high above Camogli on a steep spur of Monte di Portofino.

san rocco from the sea

We started climbing, slowly, stopping often, huffing and puffing, using one of the old mulattiere, mule trails, which criss-cross the hills around here.

Camogli-San Rocco path-2

We toiled up past rather decrepit houses and semi-abandoned olive groves until we finally reached San Rocco.

There, from the little piazza in front of the church, we had these gorgeous views, south-east towards Punta Chiappa

monte di portofino-1

and north-west towards Genova.

monte di portofino-2

We sank onto the bench and drank in view and sun. And as we sat there, in my mind’s eye I overflew the seaboard of the Mediterranean. Burning, burning, all burning …



The West Bank

west bank












Protesters shout slogans during a demonstration to call for the departure of the Islamist-led ruling coalition in Avenue Habib-Bourguiba in central Tunis

and finally Libya



from where, amidst all this rage and pain and despair, poor souls are struggling against all odds to cross the Mediterranean and sneak into Europe


a Europe which is itself sinking under its own weight of troubles: Greece of course

Greece Financial Crisis

but also Italy itself


as well as France

France Strike

and Spain


I closed my mind’s eye. Tomorrow, tomorrow, I said to myself, my wife and I would worry about the state of the universe tomorrow. Today, sitting on the bench and enjoying sun and sea, we just let the world go hang.

san rocco-1


Recco-Camogli: [in
Camogli port: [in
Camogli-boardwalk: [in
San Rocco from the sea: [in
Camogli-San Rocco path: [in
Camogli San Rocco path-2: [in
San Rocco-1: [in
Egypt: [in
West Bank: [in
Syria:,,17607086_303,00.jpg [in
Lebanon: [in
Turkey: [in
Morocco: [in
Algeria:–/YXBwaWQ9eW5ld3M7Zmk9ZmlsbDtoPTQyMTtweG9mZj01MDtweW9mZj0wO3E9NzU7dz03NDk-/ [in
Tunisia: [in
Libya: [in
Libya-2: [in
Pantelleria:×348.jpg [in
Greece: [in
Italy:!/httpImage/image.jpg_gen/derivatives/landscape_960/image.jpg [in
France-Marseille:×421.jpeg [in—live%5D
Spain: [in
San Rocco: [in


Beijing, 24 May 2014

As readers of my previous post will know, every time I go back to Europe now after four years of living in China, I am intensely aware of physical differences between Europeans and Chinese. In the previous post it was differences in nose size that I dwelt on. In this post, I will dwell on ears. Or more specifically what people in Europe are doing to their ear lobes.

Let me explain.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen a Chinese person here with ear lobes looking like this


whereas it is a common enough sight now in Europe for it to impinge itself on my consciousness: “hang on, didn’t I just see one of those?”

young woman with stretched ear lobes-2

When I was young, the most that people pierced of their bodies, at least in Europe, was their ears, and even then it was only women. And even then, many women didn’t – my mother didn’t, my sisters didn’t, my grandmothers didn’t; my future wife didn’t, my future mother-in-law didn’t. I suspect it was a social thing. Nice Young Ladies didn’t pierce their ears, Gypsies and Peasant Girls did. When I was at University, I once voiced the idea of having my ear discreetly pierced and wearing a small ring; it was beginning to come in as an alternative fashion. My then-girlfriend decisively nixed the idea – I would look queer, she said (“queer” being then what “gay” is now). Then, quite suddenly, in the early 1980s as I recall (my wife and I were recently discussing the timeline), we began to see young people with multiple rings in their ears, then sporting rings or studs in their noses, then in their eyebrows, cheeks, tongues, belly-buttons, … we even read about people piercing more intimate parts of their anatomies, the mere thought of which I find too horrible to contemplate.

At the beginning, piercing, whichever part of the anatomy was concerned, was very much an alternative lifestyle, the sort of thing squatters and punks would do.

Pierced punk

But slowly it entered into the mainstream. I mean, didn’t Mathew Broderick, in the 1997 film Addicted to Love, discover, when he kissed his soon-to-be ex-girlfriend,  a primary school teacher and therefore quite mainstream, that she now sported a tongue stud?

matthew broderick and kelly preston

Or look at Zara Phillips, granddaughter to “Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Second of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland” (to give the old lady her full title). She has a tongue stud

zara phillips with tongue stud

as well as a belly-button stud. More mainstream than that is difficult to find.

But this stretching of ear lobes seems quite a new phenomenon in the piercing movement (although I read somewhere while preparing this post that it started back in the 1990s; if it did, it was happening in parts of town that I didn’t visit). I was particularly struck by it because it is undoubtedly more spectacular than many other forms of piercing, but also because it reminded me of a book which I had read long, long ago, Aku-Aku: The Secret of Easter Island, by Thor Heyerdahl.

When I was young and still dreamed of becoming a polar explorer or finding the long-lost El Dorado in the Amazon forest or accomplishing some such feat of derring-do (although exploring the moon was never on my bucket list; my feet were always planted firmly on this planet), I loved Heyerdahl’s book The Kon-Tiki Expedition, the story of his 1947 trip across the Pacific on a balsawood raft, to prove that the indigenous peoples of South America could have sailed to Polynesia. So I eagerly read Aku-Aku when I came across it in the library at school. The book is about an archaeological expedition which Heyerdahl led to Easter Island in the Pacific Ocean. The book is quite light on serious archaeology, but it is full of exciting “discoveries” of one form or another. What I particularly remember, though, was Heyerdahl’s description of what the first European discoverer of the island, Admiral Roggeveen, found when he arrived. The Admiral was greeted by a chief:

He was ornamented with a crown of feathers on his head, which otherwise was close-shaven, and he had in his ears round white pegs as large as fists. This man showed by his bearing that he was a prominent person in the community, and the Dutchmen thought that he might be a priest. The lobes of his ears were pierced and artificially lengthened so that they hung down to his shoulders, and the Dutch noted that many of the islanders had ears artificially lengthened in this manner. If their long ears got in the way when they were at work, they just took out the pegs and tied the long flap up over the upper edge of the ear.

Heyerdahl’s book contained a picture of a drawing made at around the time of these first European trips to Easter Island. I don’t know if it was this particular one, drawn in 1777, but it’s close enough.

Easter Islander with long ears

And to show no gender bias, I include a photo of a companion drawing, of a woman.

Easter Islander woman with long ears

The idea of looping the extended ear lobes over the top of the ear to get them out of the way flipped me out.

These “long ears” seem to be reflected in Easter Island’s famous stone heads.

Easter Island Statues

So when I began to see these extended ear lobes around me in Europe, I was transported in my mind’s eye back to Easter Island (which I’ve never visited, by the way; some day maybe …).

I may be wrong but I think it will be a long time before a granddaughter of the Queen of the United Kingdom etc. has stretched ear lobes and even longer before we see this on an Obama or a Cameron or a Xi Jinpin. A discreet tongue stud is one thing, a large in-your-face ear lobe plug is another. This will stay in the alternative life style for a while.

Yet it was not always so. I mean, King Tutankhamun, King of Upper and Lower Egypt, Lord of the forms of Re, Strong bull, Perfect of birth, He whose beneficent laws pacify the two lands, He who wears the crowns, who satisfies the gods (King Tut to you and me) had stretched ear lobes if his mummy casings are to be believed


And it seems to have been common among the rich and powerful in Mesoamerican cultures. For instance, Olmec stone heads show clear evidence of ear lobe plugs

olmec head

as do Mayan bas-reliefs such as this one from Bonampak

maya bas relief

(I don’t think you had your head sculpted in stone if you were a peasant …)

The Buddha also had stretched ear lobes. His statues always show long ear lobes, such as this one in Japan


and this one which I just recently saw in Bangkok

bangkok buddha 003

In his early life as a rich aristocrat the Buddha had worn heavy jewelley in his ears as a status symbol, the weight of which had stretched his ear lobes. When he eventually renounced his wealth and discarded his jewelry, his ear lobes were permanently stretched. By showing the Buddha’s stretched ear lobes without jewellery, images of him memorialize his renunciation of worldly wealth. Nice idea …

So anyway, one day maybe the rich and powerful of the world will sport ear lobe plugs (and loop the ear lobes over the top of their ears when they are working). But for the time being the best we can hope from them is a bright tie.



Young woman with stretched ear lobes: [in
Young woman with stretched ear lobes-2: [in
Pierced punk: [in
Matthew Broderick and Kelly Preston: [in
Zara Phillips with tongue stud:–a.jpg [in
Easter Islander with long ears: [in
Easter Islander woman with long ears: [in
Easter Island statues: [in
Tutunkhamen pierced ears: [in
Olmec statue: [in
Maya ears: [in
Buddha Japan: [in
Buddha Bangkok: my picture
Obama with red tie: [in


Beijing, 21 May 2015

I’ve just come back to Beijing from Europe. I’ve been living long enough in China now that whenever I’m back in Europe I acutely notice differences, especially physical differences. For instance … noses. We white folk have really big schnozzles, you know! This was one of the first things which the Japanese noticed when the Portuguese showed up on their shores in the late 1500’s. The Japanese paintings of the time stress differences in nose sizes.

Jesuit in Japan

And now, after just four years in Asia, I feel that everyone in Europe is Cyrano de Bergerac

cyrano de bergerac

or San Carlo Borromeo, the cardinal saint from Milan whose conk sticks out mightily from every painting of him in every church of Milan


As I see these large noses all around me back home, the lines from Cyrano come to mind, where he mocks his own gigantic hooter in front of an appreciative audience, on stage and off:

Ah ! Non ! C’est un peu court, jeune homme !
On pouvait dire… oh ! Dieu ! … bien des choses en somme…
En variant le ton, —par exemple, tenez :
Agressif : « moi, monsieur, si j’avais un tel nez,
Il faudrait sur le champ que je me l’amputasse ! »
Amical : « mais il doit tremper dans votre tasse :
Pour boire, faites-vous fabriquer un hanap ! »
Descriptif : « c’est un roc ! … c’est un pic… c’est un cap !
Que dis-je, c’est un cap ? … c’est une péninsule ! »

 Or, in English:

Ah no! young blade! That was a trifle short!
You might have said at least a hundred things
By varying the tone. . .like this, suppose,. . .
Aggressive: “Sir, if I had such a nose
I’d amputate it!’ Friendly: ‘When you sup
It must annoy you, dipping in your cup;
You need a drinking-bowl of special shape!’
Descriptive: ”Tis a rock!. . .a peak!. . .a cape!
–A cape, forsooth! ‘Tis a peninsular!’
Curious: ‘How serves that oblong capsular?
For scissor-sheath? Or pot to hold your ink?’
Gracious: ‘You love the little birds, I think?
I see you’ve managed with a fond research
To find their tiny claws a roomy perch!’
Truculent: ‘When you smoke your pipe. . .suppose
That the tobacco-smoke spouts from your nose–
Do not the neighbors, as the fumes rise higher,
Cry terror-struck: “The chimney is afire”?’
Considerate: ‘Take care,. . .your head bowed low
By such a weight. . .lest head o’er heels you go!’
Tender: ‘Pray get a small umbrella made,
Lest its bright color in the sun should fade!’
Pedantic: ‘That beast Aristophanes
Names Hippocamelelephantoles
Must have possessed just such a solid lump
Of flesh and bone, beneath his forehead’s bump!’
Cavalier: ‘The last fashion, friend, that hook?
To hang your hat on? ‘Tis a useful crook!’
Emphatic: ‘No wind, O majestic nose,
Can give THEE cold!–save when the mistral blows!’
Dramatic: ‘When it bleeds, what a Red Sea!’
Admiring: ‘Sign for a perfumery!’
Lyric: ‘Is this a conch?. . .a Triton you?’
Simple: ‘When is the monument on view?’
Rustic: ‘That thing a nose? Marry-come-up!
‘Tis a dwarf pumpkin, or a prize turnip!’
Military: ‘Point against cavalry!’
Practical: ‘Put it in a lottery!
Assuredly ‘twould be the biggest prize!’
Or. . .parodying Pyramus’ sighs. . .
‘Behold the nose that mars the harmony
Of its master’s phiz! blushing its treachery!’


Jesuit priest in Japan: [in
Cyrano de Bergerac: [in
San Carlo Borromeo: [in


Beijing, 16 May 2014

Several scents have followed me through my life. I wrote earlier of the scent of water. Another scent which has been a lifelong companion, gladly greeted when met, is the scent of anise.

I first became aware of the scent of anise during those long summer holidays of my youth which I spent at my grandmother’s house in France. To while away the summer days, my cousins and I would go for long bike rides through the surrounding countryside. We would often stop at bistrots in the villages we passed through, to have a break and slake our thirst. Given our young age, we would ask for soft drinks: a lemonade for me, while my cousins would opt for a sirop à la menthe, a peculiar French drink, violently green in colour and based on mint. Propping up the bar, meanwhile, there would always be a couple of locals, drinking, regardless of the time of day, un petit rouge (a glass of red wine), or un petit blanc (ditto, but white), or a beer, or a pastis.
They were normally also enveloped in a thick cloud of cigarette smoke which emanated from the unfiltered Gauloises cigarettes hanging from a corner of their mouths.

I was particularly fascinated by the pastis. For those of my readers who are not familiar with this drink, pastis is a typically French liquor very much associated with the south of France.
It gives off this wonderful aroma, being flavoured with aniseed (as well as licorice). It is strong (40-45% alcohol by volume), but it is never drunk neat. The drinker will add a fair amount of cold water before drinking it, at which point the liquor’s original dark transparent yellow colour clouds to a milky soft yellow.
As a boy, I would never tire of watching this wondrous, almost alchemical, change take place before me and breathe in the sweet scent of anise.

Since my family never used anise or the closely related fennel in cooking, I only next stumbled across the scent of anise when I came to Italy for the first time, nearly forty years ago. My wife to-be (as it turned out, although I didn’t know it then) introduced me to finocchio, or Florence fennel, a special cultivar of the fennel which was developed in Italy.
Many people (my late mother-in-law for one) eat finocchio cooked or braised but I prefer it raw, sliced very thin, almost shaved, with a simple oil and vinegar dressing.
Like that, it maintains the scent of anise, which begins to waft out as you prepare it in the kitchen, rises appetizingly from the plate as you spear the fennel slices, and is liberated in your mouth as you crunch down on them. Whenever I’m in Italy, and if it’s the right time of year, I will eat finocchio. In fact, it was my having a finocchio in salad last night that moved me to write this post.

Years later, just after coming to China, I stumbled across the scent of anise in another guise. During one of the early banquets to which I was invited, I noticed a star-shaped thing sitting in my dish.
Intrigued, I asked what it was. Star anise, I was told, a spice which is commonly used in Chinese cooking (and actually in the cuisine of much of Asia, as I later discovered). It’s actually a very pretty spice:
In any event, even more intrigued, I took a tentative bite and suck, and it did indeed taste of anise. But later research showed me that similar taste and scent do not a botanical relationship make. Anise, Pimpinella anisum, and Fennel, Foeniculum vulgare, are flowering plants which are both members of the Apiaceae family, and in fact look quite similar:
Star anise, on the other hand, is the fruit of a medium-sized tree or big bush, Illicium verum, of the Schisandraceae family:
The same-scentedness arises from the happy chance that all three plants (as well as licorice to some degree) contain the organic chemical anethole – and here I get distinctly nerdy and add a diagram of this chemical
Why these unrelated plants should all contain anethole I don’t know – and why we smell it and taste it as pleasant I don’t know either. Somewhere out there in the ether there may be papers which explain. But I have neither the patience nor the energy to trawl through the depths of the internet to find them.

But what I have found out is that there is at least one other plant out there whose leaves contain anethole. This is the rare tree from the Australian rainforest, the ringwood or (appropriately) aniseed tree, Syzygium anisatum – although confusingly, the leaf, which contains the anethole, is called anise myrtle.
Feeling rather like one of those birders who will travel to the ends of the Earth to sight a bird which they have never seen, I am thinking (although I have not yet told my wife this) that she and I should travel to Australia again, this time to try this new, exotic source of anise scent. I read with interest that anise myrtle is considered a bush tucker spice in Australia, that is to say a spice from a native plant which can be used to spice a dish of native fauna and flora. Anyone for a stew of kangaroo and warrigal greens spiced with anise myrtle, followed by a couple of quandong fruit for dessert?

A village café: (in
Pastis poster: (in
Pastis going cloudy:©-Peng-CC3.0.jpg (in
Finocchio: (in
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Star anise in a dish: (in
Star anise alone: (in
Anise plant: (in
Fennel plant: (in
Illicium verum: (in
Star anise on tree: (in
Anethole structure: (in
Aniseed tree: (in
Anise myrtle: (in


Milan, 13 May 2014

My wife and I have finally arrived in Italy. On our way home from the station last night we dropped into our local supermarket to buy stuff for supper. We chose simple fare which required no cooking. We started with mozzarella di bufala, mozzarella made in the south of Italy from the milk of water buffaloes


My wife pours a teaspoonful of extra virgin olive oil on her mozzarella, but I like it on its own. Like that you can really appreciate the delicate milky juices oozing from the cheese when you put a slice of it in your mouth.

We then had a plate of bresaola, air-dried beef from the Valtellina, an Alpine valley to the north of Milan. It is at its best with a drizzle of lemon juice and olive oil.
We followed this up with a plate of cooked ham and cantaloupe melon. Italians will normally eat their melon with raw ham
but I prefer it with cooked. That was always the way I ate it in France.

Our dessert consisted of nespole (loquat in English), a fruit I had never tried before coming to Italy thirty years ago.
Its yellow flesh is succulent and quite tart, and it contains very beautiful large, brown, glistening stones.

We washed this all down with a Dolcetto red wine from the Langhe region in Piedmont.
That’s all. Quite simple, as I said. And all from the local supermarket.

I love Italy.


Mozzarella di bufala:,%20Alessio%20&%20Mattia/mozzarella%20di%20bufala.bmp (in
Bresaola, lemon, oil: (in
Melon and ham: (in
Nespole: (in
Langhe region: (in


London, 12 May 2014

When I studied history in primary school, it was still taught the old way, by rote. So one learned royal genealogies by heart (“William the Conqueror, William Rufus, Henry I, Stephen, Henry II, Richard I, John Lackland”, etc.) as well as names of battles and the year they were fought (“Battle of Hastings 1066, Battle of Bannockburn 1314, Battle of Crecy 1346, Battle of Agincourt 1415, Battle of Naseby 1645, Battle of Culloden 1746” etc.). It was all very 1066 And All That, which is why I so dote on that book. One especially tricky set of battles to remember were those won by the Glorious Duke of Marlborough, who really stuck it in the eye of the French King, rah-rah (it was especially trying to be half French in these moments of our history classes when the Brits were triumphing over the French). For those of my readers who might have forgotten these battles (or much more probably have never heard of them), we are talking about the Battles of Blenheim, Ramillies, Oudenaarde, and Malplaquet, fought in the years 1704, 1706, 1708, and 1709. To help us remember the names of these battles and their dates, our history teacher taught us an ingenious mnemonic in the form of a telephone number: BROM-4689 (only British readers as old as me will remember that there was a time when UK telephone numbers were a mix of letters and numbers). So now, for the rest of my life I will remember the dates of these four battles, glorious victories for the British, rah-rah. A quick whip through the internet shows me that my history teacher wasn’t the only one who used this mnemonic, which has somewhat deflated the admiration I have had for him all these years.

If I am recounting this old story, it is to explain the emotion which I felt when my wife and I visited Blenheim Palace a few days ago. After all those years of having BROM-4689 uselessly rattling around my brain, I could finally see a concrete output of at least one of these battles, the Battle of Blenheim.  For the Duke of Marlborough was given a modest manor and its grounds by a grateful Queen and a promise of funds from “the nation” (i.e., the taxpayer) to knock down the manor and build a grand new home and garden, worthy of the victor of the glorious Battle of Blenheim, rah-rah. In the event, the Duke and Duchess (because she was heavily involved) got little if any funds from the “grateful nation” and the Duke paid for most of the works from his own pocket. The story of the building’s construction is worthy of an opera, but I will skip over that to focus on the end result, here seen in all its glory from the air




To be honest, I think it’s really only from the air that one can appreciate this ducal pile. My wife and I found that from ground level it’s all rather overpowering. Here’s a shot of the front taken by another visitor. Note the size of the persons compared to the building.

We visited the inside, looking respectfully at all the nice things displayed – the portraits of worthy grandees, the tapestries, the long library with its organ, the expensive baubles scattered over various surfaces – but all the time my wife and I kept saying to each other “how did the Dukes keep this place warm and lit?” The bills for the upkeep must have been staggering. And in fact the current Duke has had to do all sorts of things (add a little train, build a butterfly house and a maze) to attract the tourists and get their entry fee. And you can get married there – for a fee. Etc., etc.

What really caught me was the garden. It would, of course. It was designed by Lancelot “Capability” Brown. I love his style, which is so very naturalistic. He creates these undulating fields of grass which sweep up to the house. He scatters clumps or belts of trees, or even individual trees, over these fields. He will often create lakes by invisibly damming small rivers or streams running through the property. His garden at Blenheim Palace has all of these. This is a modern photo


But I prefer this old painting


For me, Capability Brown’s gardens are the quintessence of the English garden, preferable by far to the strict and sterile geometry of a French garden, of which Blenheim Palace also has an example.


By one of those strange twists of Fate which one’s life is filled with, I had first come across Capability Brown at the same time that I was learning BROM-4689. My grandmother had come down for the weekend to visit me in my primary school and she took me to visit Longleat House, another of those stately homes which dot the English countryside, this time belonging to the Marquesses of Bath.


As required by the fashion of the times, Longleat had boasted of a very large, formal French garden


but luckily good sense had prevailed and the 1st Marquess of Bath (they had been mere Viscounts before that …) had hired Capability Brown to replace the formal gardens with one of his creations.


See how Brown’s work fits seamlessly into Britain’s natural landscape.


Of course, the Marquesses of Bath have been under the same financial pressure as the Dukes of Marlborough. At Longleat, the Marquesses have adopted the same kind of tourist attractions as the Dukes at Blenheim: little trains, mazes, weddings, and so on. But the Marquesses went one step further and created one of the first Safari Parks in the UK in the grounds of Longleat. So in Capability Brown’s landscape we now find lions, giraffes, zebras, and more.


How fallen are the mighty. But what to do, even Dukes and Marquesses (finally) have to make a living like everyone else.


Blenheim Palace aerial view-1: (in
Blenheim Palace aerial view-2: (in
Blenheim Palace aerial view-3: (in
Blenheim Palace front door:×480.jpg (in
Blenheim Palace-gardens-modern photo: (in
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Blenheim Palace-formal gardens: (in
Longleat House: (in
Longleat old French gardens: (in
Longleat gardens: (in
Longleat aerial view: (in
Rhinos at Longleat:×401.jpg (in


London, 7 May 2014

My wife and I were on Oxford Street yesterday, where she did one of her favorite things, namely she entered a shoe shop to inspect its contents. In this case, the inspection led to her purchasing two pairs of moccasins. Flushed with this success, she emerged from the shop wearing one of her purchases. After a few hours of further walking around London, the inevitable happened. My wife’s face started taking on a strained look, and she eventually confessed to sore feet. The new shoes, she announced, needed breaking in. I then suggested, in a moment of flippancy, that she should find someone to break in her shoes for her. She waved this off as the flippant suggestion that it was.

And yet … it was not so foolish a suggestion. I, for one, had done exactly this at school. I had broken in a pair of shoes for someone else. Boots, actually.

I should explain.

It was June 1972. My classmates and I had just finished taking our A-levels and we were about to leave school for good. A bunch of us got together and decided to celebrate this rite of passage by crossing the Yorkshire moors (which lay just to the north of our school) from one side to the other, all in one go. This may not sound like much, but actually it was a bit of bravado. We’re talking of a distance of some 60 kilometers, so to do it in one go meant starting at 3 in the morning with the hope of finishing in the late afternoon. I realize now that what we did was the Lyke Wake Walk or some variant of it. This walk runs from the village of Osmotherley, which lies on the western edges of the moors, all the way to the sea which laps at the moors’ eastern border. We started feverish preparations, which brings us to the topic of boots and their breaking-in. I suddenly realized that I had no adequate footgear. Gym shoes were far too light (the heavy running shoes of today did not yet exist), but I didn’t want to buy a pair of walking boots just for this. At the last moment, the younger brother of one of the walking team offered to lend me his brand new boots. By using them I would be doing him the favour of breaking them in. Damned good deal, I thought.

So at 3 am of a Saturday morning, we were dropped off from an old army truck, me in my brand-new borrowed boots, with the escarpment of the moors looming up in front of us in the darkness. Feeling a bit like a bunch of commandos on a special mission to knock out the enemy’s gun positions, we quietly filed up the path which carried us to the top of the escarpment and then started walking across the heather. And we walked.

The sky slowly lightened up until we could see around us. It was really very beautiful, bleak perhaps, certainly remote, but beautiful.

image image

We stopped for breakfast, munching on some sandwiches we had brought with us. A squall swept through, luckily the only one of the day. After which we started walking again, with stunning views around us

image image

And we walked. And walked. The sun in the meantime slowly climbed to its zenith, the clouds clearing away and leaving a beautiful sunny day in their wake.


At lunchtime, we reached a road on which the old army truck was parked, waiting for us. As we each trudged in, we clustered around the truck and took the food and drink being handed out. We sank down on the heather, glad to have an excuse to rest our aching legs a while. Eventually, though, we had to lever ourselves back on to our feet and walk on. And so we walked. And walked.


An hour or so later we reached Fylingdales, those strange “golf balls” in the middle of the moors, which are actually part of an RAF radar station.


We stopped a moment, with the excuse to admire the balls but really just to be able to stop walking for a bit. But we soon had to push on. The earlier joshing and joking had died away hours ago. We now just walked, oblivious to the beauty around us


By this point, the new, being broken-in boots were hurting me so much that I took them off and walked barefoot. How much further, dear God? How much further? My friends began to stumble past me as I shuffled on slower and slower, and they weaved off unsteadily ahead of me through the heather. At last, at last, I crested a rise and there, down on the road, was the old army truck. Thank God, thank God, and thank God!! Still after all these years, I can remember with perfect clarity the exhausted joy of sighting that truck. I sank down in the heather beside it and promptly fell asleep.

And the next day, after I had crawled stiffly out of bed and had had some breakfast, I solemnly handed over the boots to their owner, who was very pleased by the impeccably thorough breaking-in I had given them.

So all of this to say that I’m sure my wife could find a penniless student who would break in her shoes for her, for a price.

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London, 4 May 2014

I like George Orwell. His novels are good, no doubt about it – some of them, like 1984 and Animal Farm, are classics – but it is really his non-fiction work that I appreciate the most. When I was young and going to school in the UK, I particularly liked those books of his like Down and Out in Paris and London and The Road to Wigan Pier in which he excoriated the smug, self-satisfied, class-ridden Britain of the 1930s, a Britain which still existed, albeit in a milder form, when I was going to school.

Orwell had a particular animus against colonialism, in part no doubt because of his first-hand experience with it as an officer in the Burmese police. But he still showed a certain compassion for the colonial administrators. I particularly remember his description of one of his superiors who had spent his whole working life in the colonies, who by necessity believed he had a deep connection with the Mother Country (wasn’t he out there on His Majesty’s Service?), but who in his rare visits home would sit friendless and familyless in his Club in London, looking out at a country he no longer recognized or felt part of, nursing a gin and tonic while waiting for the boat to carry him back.

I am not a colonial administrator but I have been out of the UK for nigh on forty years. I didn’t mean it to be so. When I left after University I was quite expecting to come back, but you know how it is, life just takes over. And now, on one of my rare visits back to the UK, I too, like that colonial administrator of long ago, no longer feel any connection to the country. I too sit there, not participating in the social, economic and political life going on around me, but merely observing it. Even my own language is becoming foreign to me. I don’t get many of the jokes any more, referring as they do to situations I am not familiar with. Much of today’s slang is a closed book to me. I’m even beginning to experience difficulties in understanding some of the stronger British accents!

This alienation from Britain sometimes fills me with melancholy, as it did today walking around the streets of London. Where do I belong? I am just a stone rolling around the world gathering no moss. I am Rootless in Beijing today, I will be Rootless in some other city tomorrow.

It’s not as if I can even mourn the loss of British roots, because I’ve never really had any. My parents left the UK before I was born and I only went to school there. When I tell people I’m British, they normally ask me where I’m from in Britain. I just say London. Everyone has heard of London and I did spend some time there with my grandmother. But I’m no real Londoner.

To make it all worse, I’m only half British, with my other half being French. At school, they sometimes called me froggie in that way children have of unerringly picking up differences and using them to pick on you. The fact is, I did feel different from most of my schoolmates. They were so much more English than I was! But my French side gave me no comfort. I was even less French than I was English. I just spent summer holidays there.

When I was younger, I didn’t mind my rootlessness. In fact, I was quite proud to be a citizen of the world, of belonging nowhere and everywhere, and I quite liked the fact that I could often ignore the social conventions of the places I lived in because I was foreign and not expected to conform.

But with age, I feel ever more urgently a need for roots. I want to have a place where I can say, “here, I will lay down my head; here, I will lay my bones to rest”. Luckily, my wife has given me strong roots in Italy. That is where I will finally come to rest when my tour of duty in Beijing is finished.

Goodness me, what is all this maundering self-pity? Time to pour myself another gin and tonic and discuss with my wife what we shall do tomorrow.