Beijing, 23 August 2012

There is a book by a certain Edwin J. Dingle, entitled “Across China on Foot”. It was first published in 1911 and it records a trek which the author undertook in 1909-1910. The title is a little bit of a cheat. Dingle didn’t walk across the whole of China, only 1,600 miles of it, from Chongqing to China’s western border with Myanmar, tracking along Sichuan’s southern border and then across the middle of Yunnan. Before that, he traveled another 1,500 miles, but by boat up the Yangtze River, from Shanghai. He did all of the walking companionless, with only a servant and ever-changing coolies to accompany him. It’s a pretty amazing book, and I highly recommend it to you should you ever come across it.

The book is fascinating on many levels. Most of the regions Dingle walked through were very backward, even by Chinese standards, and he witnessed a China that was almost feudal; some of his descriptions of the practices he saw are eye-opening. The regions he was crossing were really remote, very rugged – in a single day Dingle could climb and descend thousands of feet – but with beautiful, untouched landscapes. His lyrical descriptions of what he was seeing around him make me despair as I look out of my window at the smoggy air of Beijing. He was walking through areas where very few white people had ever been, so he was a phenomenon wherever he went. His descriptions of how the locals reacted to him can be hilarious. And his casual racism – a sort of jokey, imperialistic view of the Chinese – can make you squirm and understand why the Chinese of today have a deep, deep resentment of how they were treated in this period of their history (but it’s not as bad as the blatant racism which Hergé recorded in Tintin’s Le Lotus Bleusee my previous post on this album).

But actually I’m writing about this book because the regions through which Dingle walked were, and still are, home to many of China’s ethnic minorities. Many of his anthropological descriptions, if I may call them that, are about the variegated ethnic groupings he came across, and they constitute a truly colourful background to Dingle’s walk, in every sense of the word: not only do the customs he describes make for a fascinating read, but the peoples he met often wore colourful costumes.

It is the colour of ethnic costumes that is my topic for today. Last weekend, my wife and I went to the National Art Museum of China to see an exhibition of ceramics. We found no such exhibition; what we stumbled into instead was ten times better. Sometimes serendipity works your way.

It was an exhibition of swaddling clothes (and some dresses), made by many of the same ethnic minorities whose territories Dingle walked across a hundred years ago – the Miao, Buyi, Dong, Shui, Yao, Yi, Gejia, and others. For those of you who have never swaddled, it is the habit of wrapping babies tightly in cloths to restrict their movement. This is neither the time nor the place to discuss swaddling and its merits or drawbacks, but in my part of the world no one has swaddled since the seventeenth century while China’s ethnic minorities were still doing it back in the 1970s. Actually, I’m not sure they were swaddling the way we did it. As I understand it, we wound strips of cloth tightly around a baby. What was on exhibit here, though, were squares of cloth about one metre by one with long belts. My guess is that they were used to make pouch-like holders into which the baby was slipped.

But let me get back to the point of the exhibition, which was not swaddling but the decoration of the swaddling cloths. And the decorations were simply lovely: bright colours, complex patterns, bold combinations. I’m not an expert on the decoration of textiles, but there was a lot of very fine embroidery, there was patchwork, there was printing, there was appliqué, and I’m sure I’ve missed a thousand things.  I shall let the photos speak for themselves. Here are a few, just to whet your appetite!

You can see many more at this site.


Just to complete the story, this collection was put together by two dedicated Han Chinese who lived in Guizhou. I record the names of these two wonderful people for posterity: Ma Zhengrong and Ma Li. Over a period of some twenty-thirty years, the two Ma’s “ran around” the province (as the English introduction to the exhibition charmingly put it) collecting these swaddling clothes from the province’s ethnic minorities. They chased their collection over hill and dale – or rather mountain and gorge – up in the back country. All this, while the Great Leap Forward and then the Cultural Revolution raged and burned all around. Somehow they, and their collection, survived unscathed and they have now donated it to the Museum. I salute them.

Like everywhere else these ethnic particularities are disappearing under the onslaught of modernity. Numerous groups around the world are fighting to save this hugely rich cultural heritage that we have accumulated over thousands of years. Like I said in my earlier posting on the Lacebark pine, extinction is for ever; if we lose our cultural heritage it will never, ever come back.

Having smashed everything worthy of the name culture and tried to burn every form of individualism out of their citizens during their Communist period, the Chinese elites are now going at cultural preservation with the enthusiasm of the converted. But is it better than the wanton destruction of before, I wonder? As far as I can make out, the Chinese approach to preservation is to create cultural Disneylands, as one element in their enthusiastic promotion of the tourist industry. What they want is for their ethnic minorities to sit in their prettified villages, dress up in their prettified clothes, and have pictures taken of themselves and their villages by Han Chinese. But that is not what the ethnic minorities want. They, like everyone else, want a modern life, all modcoms. And who are we to deny it to them? Surely the answer is to take their cultural heritage and update it, make it part of all our heritage. They should not embroider swaddling clothes but dresses, shirts, ties, pillows, curtains, sofas. Their beautiful art needs a new, modern context, not the embalming of a tourist village. My wife is looking for a local partner to start getting the great fashion houses of the world into ethnic art. Anyone interested, please post a comment!


Beijing, 19 August 2012

When I received an invitation for my wife and I to attend the 15th Beijing Art Expo 2012, I felt a thrill of pleasurable anticipation. The invitation announced that the exhibition would cover 10,000 square metres, with art works from more than 80 galleries and art agencies, from 16 countries and areas. But yesterday afternoon, when we entered the exhibition my heart sank. I recognized that we had visited the exhibition two years ago and had been underwhelmed by what we saw. I feared the same again.

Unfortunately, I was right. The art being shown was either pretentious crap or sucrose. I gritted my teeth and systematically worked my way from booth to booth. Hope springs eternal. But there was absolutely nothing worth looking at. So depressing …

And then I came across two booths which were exhibiting Russian art. This is not actually the first time I’ve come across Russian art being exhibited in Beijing. I find this art quite refreshing. For the most part the paintings are quiet, reflective views of rural life, with vistas of fields, village buildings, and farming folk just doing what they need to do. There are also some townscapes and seascapes. They remind me very much of the early pictures the impressionist painted in the 1860s and early 1870s, before they began to use a brighter palette.

beijing art expo 2012

The intriguing thing is that much of this art was painted in the 1960s, ‘70s and ‘80s, so when the Soviet Union still existed and so when art was closely controlled. Were these officially endorsed artists? But it doesn’t seem very “communist” art. Were they then “alternative artists”? I have to follow up on this. Watch this space.


Beijing, 17 August 2012

I have a fondness for trees. The memories of my life are punctuated by pictures of particularly splendid specimens I have come across: a copper beech in Somerset, a poplar in a suburb somewhere, a grove of beeches in the Vienna woods, the plane trees I mentioned in an earlier posting, an oak tree on the grounds of some historic house, sequoias in California, … When I was a boy, there was nothing I liked better than to climb a tree and be high up amongst its rustling leaves; there was always a feeling of wonderful remoteness up there. I don’t climb trees any more, as much for my dignity as for my stiff limbs, but I do love standing under them looking at the way the sunlight filters through their leaves creating an infinity of green hues – my wife gently mocks me for the tons of photos I have squirreled away of “sunlight through the leaves” – or running my hands over the bark.  And there is nothing so wonderful as being outside at night in the dark and listening to the wind sighing through the trees.

This fondness of mine does not extend to pine trees. Yes, I can admire a lone umbrella pine on a rocky outcrop that plunges into the Mediterranean, but up close pine trees do not excite me in the same way that other trees do. It’s perhaps their generally more somber hue, or because the needles repel the touch rather than encourage it in the way leaves do, or the fact that sunlight doesn’t filter through the needles in the same way. Whatever it is, I am not a fan of pine trees.

This coolness of mine towards the genus pinus has been somewhat modified since my arrival in China, where I discovered, in Beijing’s parks and other public spaces, the pinus bungeana, or lacebark pine. This pine has a truly lovely bark. In the first place, it is smooth, unlike the rough, often heavily fissured, and really quite ugly, bark of the pine trees that I’m familiar with. It is also a bark that peels, like the eucalyptus or the plane tree. But the bark doesn’t hang off in unseemly strips as it can on these trees. It comes off in smaller, rounder, scale-like patches. And what is most wonderful is the colour of the underlying skin: white or pale yellow, green, brown, red-purple. It seems that the initial colour is pale but it darkens upon exposure to light. A grove of them can be a particularly lovely sight.

Picture 003

Spurred by my discovery, I read up on the lacebark pine. It is a native of northeastern and central China, which goes some way to explaining why I had never seen it before coming to this part of the world. It also has two cousins with the same smooth, multi-coloured bark. One is the Chilgoza Pine, or the Pinus gerardiana to give it its formal title, which is native to the northwestern Himalayas: northwest India, Pakistan, eastern Afghanistan.


Unfortunately, the species is under threat from excessive cutting and intensive grazing. The other cousin, the Qiaojia Pine, or Pinus squamata, is in even worse shape. It is the rarest pine species of the world, considered critically endangered, with only about 20 known trees in a single locality in a remote part of Yunnan province in China.  It was only discovered – by Science at least – thirty years ago, in 1991. I found no picture of the tree, let alone its bark.

I’m always depressed when I hear of species which are in danger of disappearing. Like they say, “extinction is for ever”. In this case, we could be losing some beautiful trees. But that’s a very selfish way of looking at it, based on the thinking that the rest of the world is made for us. Even if we were talking about some revolting insect, it would be a tragedy to lose it. Every species contributes to the fantastically diverse ecosystems around us, which are not only beautiful to look at and be part of but also vital to our own existence. Every loss is the start of a run in the web of life. One day, all those runs will merge into a gaping hole, down which we will all disappear.


Beijing, 14 August 2012

To get to our favourite cafés, my wife and I cross the bridge which spans my piece of canal and then walk all the way down Sanlitun road to the South Village. It’s one of the places in Beijing where many Embassies are located. It’s very green and leafy, quiet, a really pleasant place to walk.

Our usual route takes us past the Belgian Embassy. It has nothing notable about it except for one rather odd thing. Set up outside the Embassy’s perimeter wall, about two metres above the ground and facing the road, lit up at night, is a large picture of Tintin. I tried to take a photo of it for this posting,  but was warned off by the Chinese guard at the gate. So I took a photo in secret, stopping in front of the picture and pretending to take a call but actually clicking a photo! I’m rather pleased with myself even though the photo is skew.

tintin embassy poster 001

Tintin aficionados will immediately recognise this as a scene from Le Lotus Bleu, the fifth album of the series and first published in 1936. It comes from a moment in the story when Tintin, who has been hiding in an opium den in Shanghai to pick up information on the Japanese villain Mitsuhirato, is making his getaway. It’s quite a cheerful picture; Tintin has a slight smile as he jumps out, and the vase has a design of children carrying a paper dragon through the streets. I show here the original picture in the album.

bande dessine 003

So famous is this picture that it is one of a number of scenes from Tintin which have been turned into collectible statuettes.

tintin from vase 008

As I say, I find it slightly odd that the Belgian Embassy, an institution I would have thought anxious to project a sense of its own importance and probity, should decide to put up a picture from a comics album in so public a fashion.  But if it is going to do it, a picture of Tintin, who was drawn by Hergé, no doubt the best known Belgian in the world, taken from a story that takes place in China, sounds like a good choice.

Apart from smiling at this picture seen in such incongruous surroundings, I was also intrigued by it. Before coming to China, I had checked what books were banned here. I had read that Le Lotus Bleu was one of them because it gave too sympathetic a reading of the Kuomintang. But the Belgian Embassy’s bold move suggested that the ban was no longer in place, if it had ever been. Or perhaps the Chinese Government simply didn’t believe that any Chinese walking by would know the story and so recognise the picture. Which is probably true and to my mind quite sad. The Chinese are missing something.

Le Lotus Bleu is of course the most Chinese of Tintin’s adventures, but Tintin en Amérique, first published in 1932, also has strong Chinese echoes for me. The first time my wife and I went to Shanghai, as we walked from the Bund to Renmin Square we found ourselves among buildings from the thirties. And all of a sudden we found ourselves at the crossing of Fuzhou and Sichuan Roads where there are four identical buildings on each corner. This picture is of one of them, the Metropole Hotel:

shanghai-2012 082

… and suddenly I was in Chicago in 1932, watching Tintin roar by in a Deusenberg, chasing Al Capone’s men!

tintin in chicago 010

Oh no! Just around the corner other members of the gang were waiting to gun him down! …

… I miss my Tintin albums. They are sitting in a packing box in the dark of a warehouse in Vienna, waiting for us to come back to Europe to retrieve them. I’m nearly 60 but I’m not ashamed to say that I always got a lift when I pulled one out of the bookshelf and settled down on the couch for a good read.

And I miss the times on that same couch when I read the albums to my young children, translating as I went along. How they laughed at the Fat Man Full of Soup! A minor character in the earlier parts of L’Oreille Cassée, I should clarify, who was called such by a parrot and who thought it was the carrier of the parrot who had dared so insult him. I miss the simple joys which suffused those years, as we watched our children grow. Perhaps one day I will have grandchildren sitting with me on the couch laughing again at the Fat Man Full of Soup.

photo credits
Tintin picture outside Embassy: my picture
Scenes from the album: my picture
Tintin coming out of the vase: www.1000-sabords.fr
Hotel Metropole: my photo
Tintin in Chicago: bd-blogeur.blogspot.com


Beijing, 11 August 2012

My mother died a few days ago. My brother’s email telling me so didn’t give any details, and a later email from my sister simply said that she had passed away very peacefully; the usual words.

My mother has actually been dead for a while. The person I visited last month was not my mother. She didn’t talk, she didn’t react to my talking, she simply sat there gazing blankly. It was the hollowed-out shell of my mother, a moulted exoskeleton. So the news elicited no grief from me, just a melancholy relief that she had finally been spared the indignity of living on.

Did she die well? I would like to think that she did. I would like to hope that she – a fervent Catholic all her life – managed one last prayer to the Lord her God before her heart finally gave out. But I doubt it; she probably died the way an old, badly tuned car engine sputters out, just a last wheeze and jolt and that was it, in the little room that she occupied in the old person’s home.

I have always had this picture of the generations walking in cohorts towards the final end, one behind the other; rather like regiments marching across No Man’s Land. The generation ahead of mine – my parents and my aunts and uncles – is sadly depleted; only three very elderly aunts remain. Soon even they will be gone, and then there will be no-one between me and the end. Even my cohort is beginning to thin; death has picked off the husband of my sister, a cousin … the pace will pick up in the coming years.

This vision wouldn’t bother me so much if I – like my parents – could believe that death is merely an uncomfortable rite of passage to be endured, because it leads to a greater – and eternal – life. But I cannot. Decades ago, I played Claudius in Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure. As he awaits execution in prison, Claudius meditates on what will come after he dies:

…to die, and go we know not where;
To lie in cold obstruction and to rot;
This sensible warm motion to become
A kneaded clod; and the delighted spirit
To bathe in fiery floods, or to reside
In thrilling region of thick-ribbed ice;
To be imprison’d in the viewless winds,
And blown with restless violence round about
The pendant world; or to be worse than worst
Of those that lawless and incertain thoughts
Imagine howling: ’tis too horrible!
The weariest and most loathed worldly life
That age, ache, penury and imprisonment
Can lay on nature is a paradise
To what we fear of death.

At much the same time that I played Claudius I had come to the unalterable conclusion that there was no world beyond ours and I turned away forever from the religion of my forebears. So like Claudius, I am afraid “to lie in cold obstruction and to rot; this sensible warm motion to become a kneaded clod”. And I too feel that “the weariest and most loathed worldly life that age, ache, penury and imprisonment can lay on nature is a paradise to what we fear of death.” But I cannot follow Claudius in his belief of an afterworld, even if his vision is one of terror. I am merely afraid of disappearing forever.


9 August 2012

One of the things I love about art is to see how different artists deal with the same theme. Take the Binding of Isaac, the biblical story of Abraham who was ordered by God to sacrifice his son Isaac as a test of his faith. It was a hugely popular subject in Western art.  The scene almost always has Abraham about to sacrifice his son Isaac, who is lying on an altar with a rictus of fear on his face and the knife at his throat, and being stopped at the last second by an angel pointing to a ram as the alternative sacrifice.  The viewer is always led to think, “well, that was a close run thing”. I don’t know how many times the scene was painted over a period of five hundred years; could it be several thousand? Every museum seems to have two or three of these paintings hanging somewhere on its walls.

By now, my eyes glaze over when I see yet another Binding of Isaac. Yet once, several years ago, I was stopped dead in my tracks by a version I came across in the museum of art in Genova. The artist, whom I no longer recall, had caught an expression on the boy’s face that was so … real! The kind of expression you see when a child is on the edges of a “grown-up” discussion between adults, trying to follow, but not wanting to make himself noticed. It was a look I had seen on children’s faces many, many times.  In fact, I saw it again a few weeks ago during a BBC interview in Syria somewhere. The interviewer was talking to some men, and there was a boy hanging around on the visual edge of the camera following the conversation intently. Obviously my painter had decided on another story line, which I read this way. Abraham has solemnly told his boy to come with him, there has been a troubled, silent walk to the place of sacrifice, the boy feeling something serious is up but not knowing what. His father has told him to climb up on that ledge, there’s a good boy, and then suddenly a wonderful stranger appears and is having this serious talk with his father. Still in the act of climbing onto the ledge Isaac is listening intently without really understanding. The painter has stripped all artifice out of the background; no trees, rocks, or far-away hills, just a neutral monochrome backdrop. This could be a scene on any corner of an Italian street. Magic …

Why am I mentioning this? Well, last weekend I was at an art exhibition organized by the People’s Liberation Army, to celebrate the 85th anniversary of the PLA’s founding.  Naturally enough, the vast majority of the many, many – too many – works on show had a military subject. And they nearly all fell within certain clear typologies: battles against the Japanese; romantic visions of PLA’s modern weaponry; members of the Armed Forces on exercise or in training, enjoying every minute of it; the Armed Forces selflessly helping out in various emergencies; retired ex-servicemen and women; takes on the Chinese traditional landscape painting, but with army units being the human element in them; a strange set of paintings of women of the Armed Forces, but in dreamy, quite unmilitary poses; and of course, many featuring Mao and other senior revolutionaries beaming at the viewer.

As with the Binding of Isaac, the manner in which the artists treated these various topics quickly became tediously familiar. But some works arrestingly broke the mould. Consider this painting, part of the “battles against the Japanese” type.

battlefield scene

There are the usual soldiers attacking, the usual smoke of battle, the usual explosions. But our artist has captured beautifully the essential anonymity of battle. These soldiers have no faces, they are just forms looming out of the smoke and haze, a haze perhaps created as much by the fear in the defenders who are waiting with us, the viewers.

What about this one, which I suppose would also be part of the “battles against the Japanese” type.

peasant before biplane

Instead of the normal storyline of the romantically rugged peasant joining the army of the people, we see here a young peasant lad like so many I see in Beijing working on the construction sites with the modern label of “migrant worker”. This lad, who probably only the previous day had been planting rice, has now been put into a badly fitting uniform – probably they come in only one size –  and told to stand guard in front of what looks like a rather dicey biplane. So there he stands, stolidly looking out at us, with no sense of military bearing, wondering what time chow will be served.  His modern counterpart is the horde of young migrant workers in badly fitting security staff uniforms who stand guard at the doors and gates of innumerable buildings throughout Beijing, wondering what time they can get off for dinner.

And this one, which again falls in the “battles against the Japanese” type, but is part of a sub-genre which depicts cossack-type soldiers, mounted on horses and wearing vaguely Central Asian looking clothes. I don’t know enough about the heroic struggles of the PLA but I presume they included troops from the Central Asian borderlands of China.

cossacks and horses

It is a wonderful construct of blocks of colour, all black or grey with just a hint of red in the faces of the two riders. It is abstract enough in design that at first glance one doesn’t understand what it is. The viewer has to take several steps back for the painting to resolve itself, and then he finds himself staring upwards at these kindly looking horsemen from the steppes. And the sabre, common to all this genre, becomes simply a wash of black. The only sign of anything military is the barrel of the gun poking up near the face of the second rider.

Or take this construction,  a jet taking off from the deck of an aircraft carrier, part of the “modern weaponry of the PLA” type.

ship and jet

The artist has reduced the subject to its essentials – one aircraft carrier, one jet, two colours and shading. No sea, sky, clouds, sailors, or any other clutter usually associated with the type. Just two lovely shapes.

Magic …


Pics: all mine


Beijing, 5 August 2012

My wife and I once compiled a list of the foods and recipes we each brought to our marriage as culinary dowry from our mothers’ kitchens: she is Italian and I am Franco-British. Without a possible shadow of doubt, her contribution has dwarfed mine. Through her, I entered a magical land of taste which I have never left nor ever wish to.

I had my first glimpse of it when I visited Italy as an impecunious student in the 1970s. In those days, simply by flashing a student card one could access University cafeterias, where for a ridiculously cheap price one got a three-course meal, a small bottle of wine, and a coffee. Mmm, even now, after all these years, I still remember with crystal clarity those few weeks of initial revelation. The pasta, just a little hard – al dente – with velvety tomato-based sauces and a sprinkling of parmesan cheese! The meat – veal, beef, pork, chicken, whatever was on the day’s menu – grilled to juicy, tender perfection! Accompanied by a simple tossed green salad, with perhaps a few slices of tomato, drizzled with a little wine vinegar, a generous portion of virgin olive oil, and a pinch of salt. Then just a piece of fresh, ripe fruit of the season to round it off. Washed down with a simple, robust wine, no fuss, no pretensions. And to cap it all, a strong expresso. After such a meal, I had been revitalized and was more than ready to endure another round of museums and churches.

This was just the start. My wife took me by the hand and led me through a fairytale land of food: pastas of all dimensions and geometric complexities accompanied by an astonishingly wide spectrum of sauces; dried and cured meats from every animal and every part of the animal; pizzas and foccaccias; cheeses, whose variety leaves my French cheeses in the dust (let’s not even mention British cheeses); fruits whose names even now I know only in Italian – nespole, cachi, fichi d’India; wines of a breathtaking range which all those fussy French wines can never hope to emulate. And the food always cooked with a minimum of artifice, allowing its essential goodness to come to the fore. Lord, may the cooks in Paradise be Italian!

I was reminded of this cornucopia – indeed, became quite homesick – when my wife served up bresaola for supper last night. From time to time, we feel the need for food from home, and last night was one of those times. For those of you who do not know bresaola it’s a dried beef meat from one of the Italian Alpine valleys, the Valtellina. It’s difficult to find in Beijing, and – even more important – to find of good quality. It has to have the right ratio of fat to lean, it has to be sliced very thin, it must not be too salty. Last night’s bresaola was of excellent quality. And we ate it with a drizzle of olive oil and lemon juice. That’s all. Nice and simple. And delicious.

plate of bresaola


bresaola and lemon: http://1.bp.blogspot.com/_KYIV6yDsmVc/TT8vBvfQjkI/AAAAAAAAAQw/CON9w_ZJAQs/s320/SDC12179.JPG


Beijing, 3 August 2012

These last few evenings I’ve been sorting through the photographs we took during our summer vacation. Much of our time was taken up with doing necessary things – checking repairs to our apartment, visiting relatives, that sort of thing – but we managed to squeeze in a three-day visit to the battlefields of the Western Front. It’s something I’ve been wanting to do for at least forty years, since I first started reading the English poetry and prose of the War.

Because my knowledge of the War is primarily British, our visit ran along the line of the British sector, from the Ypres Salient – the battles of Passchendaele, Ypres, Messines Ridge – to the battlefields of Neuve-Chapelle, Loos, Vimy Ridge, and finally to the battlefields of the Somme.

I’m not a military historian; I’m not interested in the lay of the land, nor do I want to know which regiment swept over this hill to take that objective, or what weapons they used to do it. In any event, as you gaze across today’s peaceful countryside it’s hard to imagine the scenes of a hundred years ago. Even at Vimy Ridge, or Delville Wood, or the Newfoundland Memorial, where the land has been left as it was at the end of hostilities, the ground does not speak to you.

No, what really drew me to this strip of land is the iconography of death. How did the belligerents deal with the enormity of their military dead after the guns fell silent? 2 million dead in Germany, 1.4 million in France, 1.1 million in the British Empire.

Wilfred Owen wrote:

What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
Only the monstrous anger of the guns
Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons.
No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells;
Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs, –
The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;
And bugles calling for them from sad shires.

But each country made sure that there would be memorials for their dead. Indeed, the length of the Western Front is thickly dotted with memorials and cemeteries. We visited only a handful of the bigger ones, mostly British Empire but also a few French and German. As we drove, signs to many, many others beckoned: Le Trou Aid Post Cemetery, Post Office Rifles Cemetery, Crump Trench British Cemetery, L’Homme Mort British Cemetery, Dud Corner Cemetery, Happy Valley British Cemetery … “so many, I had not thought death had undone so many”.

How did Governments choose to present these dead millions to their citizens? As I flip through my photos, in the British Empire cemeteries I see a predominance of white and green: white stone and green grass, leavened by splashes of colour from the roses and other flowers planted at the base of each gravestone. I see few trees.

07 Tyne Cot memorial-cropped

The buildings echo those of that other, Roman, Empire that the British so aspired to emulate: columns, rounded arches, cupolas, brick mixed with stone.


And I see grand phrases written on the walls, commemorating victory, heroic sacrifice, eternal remembrance, and the gratitude of a nation. But I also see scrolling on and on, from one wall to another, the names of the missing, those with no known grave, whose macerated flesh disappeared into the mud of the Western Front. And I see the ages of those who died – so young most of them, my children’s age.


The colours white and green are echoed in the French memorials. But here the Christian motifs are stronger: white crosses for the buried (or white gravestones for the non-Christians) and churches or church-like structures for the memorials. Here too grass dominates the green – trees are rare. And here too the grass’s green is splashed with colour from flowers at the base of the crosses. And here too grand rhetoric is carved into the walls.


German cemeteries differ radically. Everything about them is much more sombre. Black, not white, is the dominant colour of crosses, gravestones and buildings. Although as elsewhere green is ever present, it is a darker green, for trees grow throughout the cemeteries. Their leaves, their bark, their shadows darken hues throughout the enclosures. And there are no flowers to brighten the scene, no triumphant language on the walls.


I suppose the sombre tone of the German cemeteries reflects their defeat. The British and the French could at least claim that their dead were justified by their victory. But the Germans had nothing to show for their dead. Yet to me, the Germans show the better sensibility. For are the deaths of so many young people ever justifiable? They represent a terrible loss for us all, echoing down through the decades. And despite all the protestations to the contrary, they will be forgotten. Already now, how many of the soldiers lying in the soil of northern France and Belgium are remembered by family members or friends? They are just becoming names on a wall or gravestone, and even those names will one day erode away.  The poet Carl Sandburg caught the idea well in his poem “Grass”:

Pile the bodies high at Austerlitz and Waterloo,
Shovel them under and let me work –
I am the grass; I cover all.

And pile them high at Gettysburg
And pile them high at Ypres and Verdun.
Shovel them under and let me work.
Two years, ten years, and passengers ask the conductor:
What place is this?
Where are we now?

I am the grass.
Let me work.

77 Neuville St Vaast cemetery

Tyne cot memorial: mine
Thiepval memorial: http://www.euro-t-guide.com/See_Photo/France/NW_Amiens/Thiepval_Memorial_2011_16.jpg
Menin Gate names: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/e/ee/Menin_Gate_names.jpeg
Notre dame de Lorette: http://arras-france.com/wp-content/uploads/2008/05/notre_dame_de_lorette.JPG
Langemark:  http://www.euro-t-guide.com/See_Photo/Belgium/NW_Ypres/Langemark_German_War_Graves_2011_08.jpg
Neuville St. Vaast: mine


Beijing, 31 July 2012

I am lucky enough to live so close to work that I can walk to the office in the mornings and back in the evenings. It’s the first time I’ve been able to do this in the 30-some years I have been working. I can even go home for lunch!

The walk is that much more pleasant because most of it is along a canal. Many of the canals in Beijing are sorry affairs, either dry or filled with pestilential water. This is true for this canal too, except for the stretch I walk along. For some reason, this reach of the canal has been thoughtfully developed. Willows have been planted along the edge, reed beds too; a small reed island has been formed in the middle; during the spring irises, first blue then yellow, come and go; and a bed of lotuses has been planted.

I treasure that morning walk. It puts my heart at peace and allows me to face the slings and arrows of the day with fortitude. And I am not the only one. From spring to autumn, the edges of the canal are sprinkled with fishermen (and sometimes fisherwomen), meditating on the state of the world and catching a small fish from time to time. In summer, some of the older inhabitants from the nearby apartment blocks sally forth and swim slowly up, down, and across the canal.

Two autumns ago, we woke up to find that my piece of the canal was being emptied. After a brief period where mudlarks waded through the resulting black sludge picking up stranded fish and other strange things, excavators arrived, dug a large trench down the middle of the canal’s bottom, and then a swarm of migrant workers appeared to lay down a large plastic pipe – a sewer line, I would guess. What has taken me two lines to recount, it took the pipe layers a dreary six months to accomplish. But finally, the pipe was covered and silence returned. But not the water. And we waited. Another six months passed. I was terribly afraid that the canal would disappear, that they would fill it in and build a road.

But at last the water reappeared. And slowly, the old canal-side rhythms came back, and my walks to and from the office once again soothed my harried soul. But I was worried about the lotuses. I was worried that the long drought would have killed them. When we left for our vacation there was no sign of them. On my first walk to the office after coming back, I looked out anxiously for them. And they were there, flowering already, their delicate pinks and whites standing out against the dark matte green of their leaves. And all was right in the world.

flowering lotus-1


Beijing, 30 July 2012

Until a few years ago, plane trees were not high on my list of favourites. The memories of my youth were of leprous-looking trees in a ragged line along anonymous city streets, with long strands of dirty bark peeling off them, a pathetic crown often savagely chopped to allow the passage of telephone and other wires, and every passing dog peeing on them. My grandmother would say that they were used because they were the only trees that could survive in cities. But what a life, I thought. Better no life than this …

plane trees in streets-4

And then one day, on a holiday with my wife in Spain, we were walking through the Jardín del Príncipe in Aranjuez, near Madrid, when we came across a row of absolutely magnificent plane trees, of vast girth, with huge spreading crowns of light green sparkling leaves, and whose bark ranged in colour from pale beige through pale green to ivory white.  Simply ravishing. If we took photos, I have no record of them here. So I insert this picture of a plane tree in these gardens which I found on the web, to give the reader an idea of the beauty of these trees.

plane trees jardin del principe Aranjuez-6

I add this picture of a row of the trees in the gardens to give an idea of their girth.

plane trees jardin del principe Aranjuez-1

And I add this one simply because I like the colours!

plane trees jardin del principe Aranjuez-4

I remembered that glorious moment of discovery yesterday when, visiting Ritan Park in Beijing on a beautiful day with a blue and – that rarest of things in this city – clear sky, we found ourselves sitting in the shade of a lovely plane tree.  It was not as majestic as the specimens we had discovered in Spain, but it was still arresting. It had been manicured so that it grew more regularly in all directions, and a bench had been arranged around it in a wide circle.

ritan park 002

ritan park 003

We just sat there, drinking in the quiet beauty of it all.


One year on from writing this, I must report the saddest of news. Seventy years ago, US soldiers disembarked in Italy, carrying with them munitions boxes made with wood of the American plane tree. That wood contained a fungus, Ceratocystis platani, unknown to the plane trees in Europe and against which they have no defence. It has left Italy now and is slowly spreading throughout the rest of Europe. Eventually, it will kill millions of plane trees throughout Europe. This was reported by the BBC, where they were saying that the thousands of beautiful plane trees planted along the Canal du Midi

canal du midi plane trees

are becoming infected and will have to be cut down and burned.

Canal du midi plane trees being burned

I fear that the same fate will soon be shared by those lovely old plane trees in the Jardin del Principe. One more tragedy caused by the global movement of goods and people – and bugs that go with them for the ride.

plane trees on a street: http://animestoi.midiblogs.com/media/02/01/2964573664.jpg
photos of the Plane trees in the Jardin del Principe, Aranjuez:
first: http://mw2.google.com/mw-panoramio/photos/medium/14735886.jpg
second: http://2.bp.blogspot.com/-sCRByt2Qd6s/UUsvkfma43I/AAAAAAAAZ10/eTOTJ_kaYxQ/s640/Platanos+de+sombra+Aranjuez+01.JPG
third: http://turismoenaranjuez.com/sites/default/files/otonojardinprincipe_0.jpg
photos of the plane tree in Ritan Park: mine
Canal du Midi: http://news.bbcimg.co.uk/media/images/56128000/jpg/_56128150_canalview624.jpg
Canal du Midi-plane trees being burned: http://4.bp.blogspot.com/-4yIXXHCnDRY/UYN1Ru6K3yI/AAAAAAAAAuM/16Cdm8bNqT4/s1600/Canal+du+midi+abattage+PK+143+%25287%2529.JPG