Sori, 9 November 2021

My wife and I have finally made it down to the sea. It took a while; we’ve been back in Italy for three weeks. We got here just in time to witness the – very low key – official celebrations on 4th November of the end of the First World War for Italy: the Austro-Hungarian Empire collapsed a week before the German Empire did.

Among other things, a fresh wreath has been fixed to the plaque posed on the wall of the house near the village church where Francesco Solimano was born back in 1918.

my photo

The plaque states:


Italy’s “Medaglia d’Oro” is the highest award an Italian soldier can get for bravery on the field of battle. I would say that it’s equivalent to the UK’s Victoria Cross or the US’s Medal of Honor. Readers can imagine, then, that Francesco is the pride of his native village. Along with the plaque on his house, he has received that great accolade of having a village street named after him – the same street, it so happens, which our apartment is located on. A couple of years ago, while we were in the municipal building trying to understand something related to one of the local taxes we were paying, we also stumbled across a photo of Francesco hanging in the corridor.

My photo

Readers will note his hat with the feather, the typical hat that all “Alpini” – soldiers in Italy’s Alpine regiments – wear at the various get-togethers which they regularly have. This, for instance, is a get-together in Genova for the Ligurian sections of the Alpini, which Francesco would surely have attended had he lived.


If his photo is anything to go by, Francesco seems to have been a sympathetic fellow. But it wasn’t a smile or a joke that got him his Gold Medal. The official website has his official citation for the medal.

“At the command of a 45-mm mortar squad, during the retreat from the Don he showed exceptional steadfastness by keeping his team steady and efficient, and at its head he participated with legendary valor in repeated hard fighting that took place during ten days of retreat. In the course of the violent offensives, he kept his team at full efficiency by recovering abandoned weapons and ammunition, and so was able to oppose the enemy with renewed ardour and tenacious resistance and react with daring counterattacks. Wounded during a cavalry charge that overwhelmed our lines, he refused aid from the survivors, urged them to fight to the bitter end, and rather than save himself preferred to share the fate of his wounded comrades left on the frozen steppes. An admirable example of absolute dedication to duty and stoic firmness. January 17-26, 1943”

This lyrical description of personal courage skates over the overarching military disaster that the “retreat from the Don” constituted for the Italians. Let me try and describe the titanic battle which took place in late December 1942-early January 1943 between the Soviets and the Axis powers, a battle in which Francesco Solimano and his squad were but a tiny cog.

Francesco Solimano’s squad was part of the 1st Alpine Regiment, which was one of three regiments making up the 4th, or Cuneense, Alpine Division, which, together with the 2nd, Tridentina, Alpine Division and the 3rd, Julia, Alpine Division, made up the Alpine Army Corps. This in turn was one of three Army Corps making up the 8th Italian Army. In early December 1942, the 8th Army was holding a 230-km front along the River Don, north of Stalingrad. Already, attacks by the Soviets in September 1942 had shown that the line was too extended given the Army’s strength and the rather poor weaponry at its disposal. It had consequently been reinforced with German units, but most of these had been shifted southwards as the battle of Stalingrad sucked in more and more German troops. On its left (north-western) flank was the 2nd Hungarian Army, on its right (south-eastern) flank was the 3rd Romanian Army, both even weaker than the 8th Italian Army. The Alpine Corps held the 8th Army’s northernmost sector, next to the Hungarians. Here we have Italian troops moving into new positions in the winter of 1942.


On 11th December, the Soviets attacked the 8th Army, with the strategic intention of annihilating it. Naturally, it chose to attack the Army’s weakest sector, which was on the right, southern flank. Despite being outnumbered 9 to 1 by the Soviets, and facing a huge disadvantage in weaponry, the Italians managed to hold out, though at huge cost. A week later, the Soviets attacked the Romanians, who, already weakened by the battle around Stalingrad, crumbled. The 8th Army was in danger of having its flank turned. Orders were given to retreat but the Soviets now attacked the divisions at the center of the Italian line. After eleven days of desperate fighting, what remained of these divisions was surrounded and surrendered.

It was now the turn of the Alpine Army Corps, which had been relatively unaffected by the fighting in December and were still in their positions on the Don River. By early January 1943, the position of the Alpini had become critical. The Italian Divisions to their right had collapsed, but so had the Hungarian Army to their left, which the Soviets had attacked shortly after starting their attacks on the Romanians. They were ripe for encirclement. The Soviets started the attack on 14th January. They very rapidly smashed through what was left of the Hungarians on the left and a Panzerkorps, which had been thrown in to fill a gap, on the right. The Alpini started a chaotic retreat. Only the Tridentina Division was still capable of conducting combat operations; the Julia and Cuneense Divisions had been decimated in the initial Soviet attack. The Tridentina Division led the retreat, with the remains of the other two Divisions, mixed in with survivors from the German and Hungarian units, following behind. The soldiers fought their way back towards the west, with the Russians continually trying to cut off their retreat. They managed to break though a first Soviet encirclement on 20th January, then a second on 22nd January, then a third on 25th January. Finally, what was left of the Tridentina Division managed a breakthrough on 26 January at a place called Nikolayevka, and after a few more days of retreating westward made it to the safety of the German lines. Those who didn’t make it in the final breakthrough were surrounded at Valujki, some 40 km to the south of Nikolayevka, and surrendered on 27 January.

And where does that tiny cog Francesco Solimano fit into all of this? From the dates given in his citation, it looks like he led his squad back in the retreat, managing to keep them together as a fighting force, fought through several of the Soviet attempted encirclements, and fell a day before what was left of his Division finally surrendered.

Maybe Francesco was right to exhort his comrades to fight to the bitter end. Imprisonment turned out to be a fate worse than death. Some 65,000 Italian soldiers were captured in the fighting, one-quarter of all the soldiers in the 8th Army. 10,000 died on the forced marches eastward to the internment camps.


Another 44,000 died in the camps, mostly during the winter of 1943, of starvation and disease. Only 11,000 made it back to Italy after the War.  As for the 150,000 who escaped encirclement, the aftermath was also pretty grim. 34,000 were wounded or frostbitten. They had lost all their weaponry. The Soviets had accomplished their objective: the 8th Army was no more. The Fascist government dissolved the Army and repatriated the survivors to Italy in March and April 1943. Appalled by their appearance and fearing a backlash from the population if the real news of what had transpired on the Russian steppes ever came out, they kept them hidden out of sight. The news filtered out anyway and helped topple the Fascist regime later that year.

Francesco and his comrades who died on those frozen steppes are not buried in nice, neat cemeteries. The Soviets probably just dug mass graves or burnt the bodies. Why should they have given an honourable burial to soldiers who had invaded their lands? And anyway, they had their own dead to bury. But the Italian government never put up a monument honouring its dead in Russia either; the whole saga quickly became enveloped in Italy’s post-War ideological conflicts between the (American-backed) Christian Democrats and the (Soviet-backed) Communists, with accusations and counter-accusations flying back and forth. And anyway, there was the embarrassing fact that the Italians had fought for the “wrong” side in the War. It was left to the survivors themselves to honour their dead, and a few monuments were put up here and there to remember those who died in Russia. Perhaps the most arresting is a monument that was erected in the 1950s in Bologna.


Francesco and his comrades have another type of monument, in the written memories of a number of survivors. Mario Rigoni Stern wrote “The Sergeant in the Snow”. He was a sergeant-major in the Tridentina Alpine Division, and was one of the lucky ones who broke out alive of the Soviet encirclement. In the book he describes the disastrous retreat from the Don.


Giulio Bedeschi wrote “A Thousand Mess Tins of Ice” and “Nikolayevka: I Was There Too”, both about that terrible retreat from the Don. He was in the “Julia” Division, one of the very few from that Division to break out alive of the Soviet encirclement.


Nuto Revelli wrote “The Road of Davai” about the Italian POWs (“Davai” was what the Soviet guards shouted all the time at the prisoners on their forced marches into internment; it is Russian for “Keep moving”). Revelli was a Lieutenant in the Tridentina Division and managed to get out alive from the retreat from the Don.


All these books, and others, are perhaps the best monument to Francesco and the thousands of other Italians who suffered and died for really no good reason out there on those frozen Russian steppes. They pull back the curtain of forgetfulness and force us to remember what happened to all those young men, badly equipped, badly dressed, badly fed, sent to their fate by a bunch of sinister jokers sitting in Rome, spouting ideological nonsense and strutting on the political stage.

Let us not forget.


Milan, 4 May 2020

We’re out at last! First day post-lockdown in Italy. Like Basil Fotherington-Tomas, I was saying, “Hello clouds! Hello sky!” as I skipped (well, walked) along.


For those of my readers who are not familiar with this character, he appears in the book “Down with Skool!”, written in the 1950s, purportedly by one Nigel Molesworth, a boy in an English Prep school.


The delightful cartoons which pepper the book’s pages are by the great Ronald Searle.

Molesworth’s judgement of Fotherington-Tomas is severe: “you kno he say Hullo clouds hullo sky he is a girlie and love the scents and sounds of nature … he is uterly wet and a sissy” (Molesworth’s spelling is also quite erratic).

Well, I’m not utterly wet and a sissy (although I do admit to being a bit of a nerd), but my joy of finally being let out of my apartment is uncontainable.

Hello sky!

my photo

Hello birds! (even if they are filthy urban pigeons)

My photo

Hello tree!

My photo

Hello ancient church!

My photo

Hello canal of Milan!

my photo

Hello bridge over the canal! (even if you are a pretty ugly bridge)

my photo

It’s great to be out here and see you all again!

We now just have to hope that we don’t get too much of a spike back up in the numbers, otherwise they’ll send us once more into lockdown …



Milan, 9 December 2017

I was recently reading The Lying Stones of Marrakech, a volume of essays by one of my favorite authors, Stephen Jay Gould.

My writing style in these posts owes a great deal to his essays. If any of my readers have an interest in natural history in general and paleontology specifically, I can highly recommend his books. Tragically, he died of cancer at the age of 60.

In any event, I had just started reading an essay entitled “Of Embryos and Ancestors”, which starts by Gould quoting the phrase “Every day, in every way, I’m getting better and better”. He then writes that the phrase was invented by a Frenchman by the name of Émile Coué.

Coué, Gould informs us, was “a French pharmacist who made quite a stir in the pop-psych circles of his day with a theory of self-improvement through autosuggestion based on frequent repetition of this mantra”. Gould mentions in passing that the phrase in the original French reads “tous les jours, à tous les points de vue, je vais de mieux en mieux”. I suddenly sat up – I was reading in bed – as if electrified.

To explain my reaction, I have to recount a little bit of the history of the French side of my family. As I have mentioned in an earlier post, my maternal grandfather contracted tuberculosis in the 1920s. This was in the days before antibiotics, so it was essentially incurable; 50% of the people diagnosed with active tuberculosis had died of it within 5 years, and it was the cause of 1 in 6 deaths in France at that time. Tuberculosis surrounded one on every side. Edvard Munch painted his sister Sophie, who died of tuberculosis at the age of 14, sick in bed (his mother also died of the disease).

Claude Monet painted his first wife, Camille, on her deathbed, killed by tuberculosis.

Literature was full of people who died of tuberculosis: Marguerite Gautier in La Dame aux Camélias, Fantine in Les Misérables, Eva in Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

Coming fast on the heels of my grandfather having lost all his money – actually my grandmother’s dowry – in a failed business, his contracting tuberculosis spelled economic catastrophe. My grandmother was forced to take a job as personal secretary to a rich English woman by the name of Mrs. Green, down in Menton on the Côte d’Azur where the lady and her husband would spend the winters. Mrs. Green stipulated that my grandmother could not live with her husband, for fear that she would contract the disease and – this was the real point – pass it on to her employer. So my grandfather was forced to live hidden away in Nice, where my grandmother would visit him from time to time in secret. In the summer, when Mr. and Mrs. Green returned to England, my grandparents would come up to the house they had managed to hang on to near Mâcon. But even here my grandfather lived apart, away from the children, in a room of his own, using his own sheets, his own towel, his own napkin, even his own plate and cutlery, all in an attempt to avoid infection.

To no avail. One day, my grandmother was diagnosed with tuberculosis. Catastrophe reared its head again. Mrs. Green would fire my grandmother the moment she heard her coughing. But my grandmother was not one to give in to anything. As my mother recounted it, she began to repeat every morning, “je vais de mieux en mieux”. And by God it worked! The tuberculosis was stopped in its tracks. I had always thought that this was just one more example of my grandmother’s indomitable will overcoming yet another setback in life. But reading that phrase in French in Gould’s essay immediately persuaded me that my grandmother had actually been using Coué’s method of autosuggestion.

I was even more convinced of this when I read a bit more about Coué’s method. It was very straightforward. He said that people who wanted to get better should quickly, mechanically repeat the phrase “tous les jours, à tous les points de vue, je vais de mieux en mieux” twenty times, morning and night, while running a string with twenty knots in it through their hands. My mother’s detail that my grandmother had uttered the phrase every morning jibed well with the Coué method.

How my grandmother might have heard about the Coué method is now lost in the fog of time. Perhaps she bought one of Coué’s books, very popular at the time; his best-seller was La Maîtrise de soi-même par l’autosuggestion consciente, published in 1926.

Perhaps she read an article in the newspapers about him. Perhaps she heard the record which he made to reach as many people as possible (I’ve heard it in Wikipedia, a thin, scratchy voice from a long time ago). Perhaps one of her friends told her about it. If she did decide to use the Coué method, she never told her daughter about it; perhaps she was a little ashamed of using something that appeared akin to magic.

Of course, as a scientist Gould is dismissive of the method, seeing it only as an example of the placebo effect. I’m sure he’s right, but it – or something very like it – seems to have helped my grandmother overcome her tuberculosis. Which is just as well. My grandfather died of his in 1936. If my grandmother had also died of it, who knows what would have happened to my now-orphaned mother (and her brother). For sure she would not have met my father, so I wouldn’t be around. So thank you, placebo effect! And thank you, Monsieur Coué, if you indeed helped out here!


Stephen Jay Gould: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stephen_Jay_Gould
Émile Coué: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Émile_Coué
Edvard Munch, The Sick Child: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tuberculosis_in_human_culture#/media/File%3AMunch_Det_Syke_Barn_1885-86.jpg
Claude Monet, Camille Monet sur son lit de mort:
“La Maîtrise de soi-même par l’autosuggestion consciente”: https://fr.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Méthode_Coué


Vienna, 8 January 2017

Back in 2011, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) came out with a report in which it said that one-third of all food grown on farms around the world goes to waste. One-third! When you think that there are still millions of people who go to bed hungry every night, that is a truly shocking statistic. And, mark you, it is an average. We in the richer countries waste about 100 kg of food per person per year, most of that perfectly good food which for one silly reason or another gets thrown away somewhere between the supermarkets and our table. This is ten times – ten times! – the amount of food wasted per person in Sub-Saharan Africa and South/South-East Asia, and there most of the wastage happens between the farm and the market because of poor post-harvest practices: once food is on the table it is not wasted.

Ever since that report came out, I have been haunted by the need not to waste food. I always was careful, fruit, I suppose, of parents who made sure that we ate everything on our plate, but now I am extreme. Everything on my plate, bar pips, stones, bones, and peels, gets eaten.
Everything. Even those silly garnishes they put on your plate in restaurants to make it look pretty.
In this post-festive season, when celebratory family dinners are the norm, when poor unfortunate avians of various types get consumed leaving behind piles of incompletely stripped bones, and when more food than is reasonable gets bought and languishes uneaten in the fridge, I am especially taken by a frenzy to recycle everything. My favourite recycling format is a sort of thick chunky soupy thingy.

So it was this year. I took one look at the bones of the chickens lying scattered on our plates and snapped into action. Out came the pot, in went the bones, split open to maximize marrow yield. In went the giblets. In went a carrot or two, a parsnip, a couple of onions, all left over from some side servings planned for the chicken. But I didn’t stop there, no sirree! In went the can of baked beans which my daughter had planned to take with her but forgot (I will never, ever voluntarily eat baked beans as a main dish). In went a small container-full of a barbecue-type sauce from a take-out meal hurriedly ordered when friends of our son arrived hungry and ready to eat. In went the stem and leaves of the broccoli and cauliflower heads that accompanied the chicken (dice the stem small and it’s perfectly edible). In went the scraggly-looking outer leaves of the Brussels sprouts, stripped off to make the sprouts look nicer. In went the rind of the Parmesan cheese, cut into bite-sized chunks (once softened, perfectly edible). In went the remains of the beaten eggs used to make breaded veal. In went pieces of the breaded veal which somehow got left over. In went the peels of tomatoes left over from making a tomato sauce. In went the dregs of several wine bottles. In went a few left-over caper berries as well as several spoonfuls of their salty, vinegary juice to give the soup a tangy taste. Make-up water was added, along with a bouillon cube or two. The back burner was turned on, the whole was left to simmer for several hours, et voilà!
I grant you that the result might not have looked three-stars, that one might be led to poke doubtfully at all those different bits and pieces bobbing around in the plate, asking what they were (my wife, God bless her, tends to do this with my recycled soups although she nobly follows me on these culinary experiments), but it was actually really most delicious, even if I say so myself.

The way I describe the ingredients going in one after the other might lead a reader to think they all went in together. But actually that’s not so. Once I start on one of these soups, they can endure for several days, eaten from and then replenished with newly generated cooking wastes or further discoveries in the further back reaches of the fridge. They will change physiognomy, colour, and taste over the several days of their life. In that sense, they belong to the noble culinary tradition of pot luck – not the modern sense of that term, where everyone brings a dish they have prepared to a communal dinner, but the old sense of the term, of having an unscheduled guest partaking in whatever might be cooking at that moment on the hob, as in this quote from Charles Dickens’s “The Mystery of Edwin Drood”:

“You had better take your Cayenne pepper here than outside; pray stop and dine.”

“You are very kind,” said Edwin, glancing about him as though attracted by the notion of a new and relishing sort of gipsy-party.

“Not at all,” said Mr. Grewgious; “YOU are very kind to join issue with a bachelor in chambers, and take pot-luck.”
I actually prefer the French term for pot luck: pot-bouille, or pot boil. This describes better what I’m doing: getting a nice big pot, throwing a bunch of stuff in it, and boiling it up with much judicious stirring. The French writer Émile Zola, thirty years Dickens’s junior, used the term pot-bouille in a figurative sense when it became the title to one of his books. In it, he described the goings-on in one of Paris’s then new apartment blocks, where various bourgeois families and their servants were thrown together and stewed in their own juices, as it were. The book was a stinging criticism of the French bourgeoisie and its hypocrisies, a feeling well caught in this cartoon from the period.
Note the flies expiring in the foul exhalations escaping from the pot. From the looks my wife sometimes gives me as I move into full gear on my recycled soup-making, she no doubt would agree with this sentiment. She looked particularly alarmed when in this latest round I wondered out loud if tea leaves could be added to one of my recycled soups. After all, according to a web-site I had just read, most of the nutrients in tea get left in the leaves, and as I recall for centuries the green tea which the Tibetans brought up from the Chinese lowlands was the only vegetable they consumed during the long winter months when they ate it as an ingredient in butter tea.
I think I’ll go easy on this one, to give her time to get used to the idea. I’ll not mention yet my plans to try recycling orange and mandarin peels into some edible dish. And I wonder what could be done with olive pips?

photos: mine, except:
Plate with garnish: https://www.pinterest.com/explore/garnishing-ideas/
Charles Dickens, “The Mystery of Edwin Drood”: http://charlesdickenspage.com/illustrations-edwin_drood.html
Emile Zola “Pot Bouille”: http://www.collectiana.org/quand-ceard-collectionnait-zola-agnes-sandras-classiques-garnier-paris-2012.html
Butter tea: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Butter_tea


Bangkok, 26 May 2015

A week or so ago, I was in Cambodia for some official business relating to a project we are about to start there to reduce dioxin emissions. But actually, that is irrelevant to this post. What is relevant is that I was staying in a hotel room half of whose lights were blue. Why, is a mystery. Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that the hotel claimed to also be a spa; perhaps people in spas like the rather cold light that blue creates. Or perhaps it had something to do with the modern furniture that graced the room; it was Nordic-looking in its design, cool, remote, and the blue light made it all that much cooler. But I’m just hazarding guesses here; perhaps blue bulbs were simply the cheapest on the market at the time the hotel was purchasing its light bulbs.

Whatever the reason, this blue light turned me blue. I only realised it when, skyping my wife, I noticed with astonishment that in the small icon which held my image I was a lovely blue hue. Basically, I looked like this fellow:

schtroumpfThe very youngest amongst us will immediately tell us that he is a Smurf. They are wrong – well, not quite right. He is a Schtroumpf; Smurf is the Dutch translation, adopted later by the English-speaking world.

Aah, the Schtroumpfs …they are my youth! This fellow may look young, but actually I am just a few years older than him. I burst onto the scene in 1954, the Schtroumpfs burst onto the cartoon scene in 1957, invented by the Belgian cartoonist Peyo.

But here I have to clarify something. My real love was not the Schtroumpfs. It was Johan and Pirlouit, invented some years earlier by Peyo. Johan came first, hustling into the lives of little fellows like me in 1952, before I was even a gleam in my parent’s eyes, in the story Le Châtiment de Basenhau, The Punishment of Basenhau. This was the cover of the album (Johan is the young fellow dressed in ragged brown).

01-chatiment de basenhau

The details of the story are irrelevant. The important point is that Johan lived in the Middle Ages and that he was a dashing young fellow. After Le Châtiment de Basenhau came Le Maître de Roucybeuf, The Master of Roucybeuf, in 1953

02-maitre de roucybeuf

and then in 1954, when my mother was heavily pregnant with me, came Le Lutin du Bois aux Roches, The Imp of Rocks’ Wood, in which Peyo introduced us to Pirlouit, who was to become Johan’s bosom buddy.

03-lutin du bois aux roches

Pirlouit is the little blond-haired fellow holding the very large hammer. While Johan was the serious, Boy Scout type, straight as an arrow, Pirlouit was the joker, a hilarious guy who was always doing silly things. But when push came to shove, he was there by Johan’s side, as they fought off the assorted Medieval baddies they had to deal with. From now on, the two were to be inseparable.

Their stories of derring-do, wielding sword, shield, bow, and other assorted medieval weaponry, galloping through dark, forbidding forests – Johan on a horse, Pirlouit on a goat (he was a little person, remember), dealing with sorcerers and their potions, … these were so thrilling to that young me – I was, what? ten-eleven years old when I discovered these albums, when Peyo was already famous throughout the length and breadth of France. I whiled away many a wonderful summer afternoon at my cousins’ house, tearing my way through the collection:

La Pierre de Lune, The Moonstone

04-pierre de lune

Le Serment des Vikings, The Oath of the Vikings

05-serment des vikings

La Source des Dieux, The Spring of the Gods

06-source des dieux

La Fleche Noire, The Black Arrow

08-fleche noire

Le Sire de Montrésor, The Lord of Montresor

08-sire de montresor

to arrive at La Flûte à Six Schtroumpfs, The Flute with Six Schtroumpfs

09-flute a six schtroumpfs

This is where the Schtroumpfs first made their entry onto the world stage. And this is where I start to cry.

Understand me, the Schtroumpfs were nice enough, they added a fun element to the story. But in my view they were minor characters. It was Johan and Pirlouit who were firmly centre stage.

Alas! I was in a minority. The junior readers of Spirou magazine – the stories originally came out in serialized format – wrote letters to the magazine enthusing about the little Schtroumpfs. The editors of the magazine, and Peyo himself, saw the commercial possibilities. And so Peyo took the first steps down the slippery slope. He started with minor albums of Schtroumpf stories. He graduated to major albums. He got involved in animated films. First, in Belgium. Then in the US. Then the breakfast cereal companies came knocking on the door: they wanted Schtroumpf statuettes in the Cornflake packages.schtroumpf statuettes

And after that the advertising firms came knocking at the door, asking to use the Schtroumpfs in various advertising campaigns. As this photo shows, the demand from advertizers continues unabated.

schtroumpf advertisement-1

Peyo always said yes. And John and Pirlouit disappeared; he was too busy with the Schtroumpfs. Peyo managed one more great album, La Guerre des 7 Fontaines, the War of the 7 Fountains.

10-guerre des sept fontaines

To me, it was his best, a wonderful story of Fall and Redemption. After that, he managed only a few more albums, pale copies of what had come before. The Schtroumpfs had eaten up his life. He had his first heart attack when he was 41, his last when he was 64.

And I am left with the memories of my youth, those golden afternoons in the France of the early ’60s, with medieval jousts and battles echoing faintly across the fields.


Schtroumpf: http://www.tattoo-kids.com/581-1284-thickbox/tatouages-schtroumpfs-pack.jpg (in http://www.tattoo-kids.com/pochette-de-tattoos/581-tatouages-schtroumpfs-pack.html)
Chatiment de Basenhau: http://www.bdzone.com/images/tout/9782800100951g1.jpg (in http://www.bdzone.com/chop/couvranteswap.php?serie=JOHA&debut=0&fin=9)
Maitre de Roucybeuf: http://www.bdzone.com/images/tout/9782800100968g1.jpg (in http://www.bdzone.com/chop/couvranteswap.php?serie=JOHA&debut=0&fin=9)
Lutin du Bois aux Roches : http://www.bdzone.com/images/tout/9782800100975g1.jpg (in http://www.bdzone.com/chop/couvranteswap.php?serie=JOHA&debut=0&fin=9)
Pierre de Lune : http://www.bdzone.com/images/tout/9782800100982g1.jpg (in http://www.bdzone.com/chop/couvranteswap.php?serie=JOHA&debut=0&fin=9)
Serment des Vikings : http://www.bdzone.com/images/tout/9782800100999g1.jpg (in http://www.bdzone.com/chop/couvranteswap.php?serie=JOHA&debut=0&fin=9)
Source des Dieux : http://www.bdzone.com/images/tout/9782800101002g1.jpg (in http://www.bdzone.com/chop/couvranteswap.php?serie=JOHA&debut=0&fin=9)
Fleche Noire : http://www.bdzone.com/images/tout/9782800101019g1.jpg (in http://www.bdzone.com/chop/couvranteswap.php?serie=JOHA&debut=0&fin=9)
Sire de Montresor : http://www.bdzone.com/images/tout/9782800101026g1.jpg (in http://www.bdzone.com/chop/couvranteswap.php?serie=JOHA&debut=0&fin=9)
Flute a Six Schtroumpfs: http://www.bdzone.com/images/tout/9782800101033g1.jpg ((in http://www.bdzone.com/chop/couvranteswap.php?serie=JOHA&debut=0&fin=9)
Guerre des 7 Fontaines: http://www.bdzone.com/images/tout/9782800101040g1.jpg (oin http://www.bdzone.com/chop/couvranteswap.php?serie=JOHA&debut=9&fin=9#)
Schtroumpf statuettes: http://img0.ndsstatic.com/wallpapers/e40969b9033ccdd352337e6494a54def_large.jpeg (in http://www.ohmymag.com/les-schtroumpfs/wallpaper)
Schtroumpf advertisement: http://img.xooimage.com/files51/2/4/e/lg-optimus-01-22e2217.jpg (in http://schtroumpfmania.soforums.com/t1518-Smartphone-LG.htm)


Bangkok, 14 March 2015

I don’t know why, but yesterday the tune of a song which my mother used to sing popped unbidden into my head. As I hummed along, I was trying to remember the words. Snatches came back but there were frustratingly large holes. I decided it was now or never: either I dredged up the words today or they would be lost to me forever. Well, my memory is shot, but there is the internet. As I have had cause to mention before, the internet really is a wonderful thing. There is a lot of rubbish, but there is also a veritable treasure trove of stuff ready to be mined, put there by devoted souls. In this case, the devoted soul turned out to be Google, for after trying out a few key words and remembered phrases of the song, I finally found a book from 1843 entitled “Chants et Chansons Populaires de la France”, which Google had scanned as part of its Google Books initiative. There, tucked in among lots and lots of songs that I had never heard of, was mine.

The authors of the book are vague about the date of the song, but I reckon from some words it uses that it was written in the sixteenth century or thereabouts. Its title is “La Vieille”, which can be loosely translated “The Old Crone”, and it is a deliciously malicious take on the foolish desire of some old people to stay young and on the power of money. In a few words, the song tells us of an eighty-year old woman who wants not only to join the young people in their dance but also to be coupled with the youngest and handsomest man there. Not surprisingly, he tells her to go away, adding that she is far too poor for him. After she intimates that she is actually very rich, our young man immediately changes his mind and calls her back to the dance. In fact, he rushes her off to a notary public to be married and no doubt to make sure that a will is prepared leaving all her wealth to him.

la vieille 001

He then takes her back to the dance, where she dances so energetically

la vieille 002

that she expires.

Unceremoniously, her young husband and his friends look in his dead wife’s mouth, no doubt searching for her gold teeth, but find only three teeth, “une qui branle, une qui hoche, une qui s’envole au vent”, one which moves, one which wobbles, and one which is ready to blow away on the wind. They then look in her pockets and find only three small coins: “Ah, la vieille, la vieille, la vieille, avait trompé son gallant”, the song concludes; ah, the old crone had fooled her young paramour. Anyone who is interested in the original words can find them at the end of this post (although in the interests of brevity I’ve cut the repetitions of which the song is full).

My mother loved to sing, and had a really quite beautiful voice (whereas when my father – blessed be his memory – sang, it resembled the croaking of a crow). By the time I knew my mother – that is, by the time I was old enough to judge her – she was of course a decorous middle-aged matron, but also one who had had to endure the slings and arrows of life’s misfortunes. So, apart from the hymns in Church which she delivered with gusto, the songs she sang tended to be soulful and mournful. Edith Piaf was a favourite: “Ils sont arrivés se tenant par la main, l’air émerveillé de deux chérubins”, “they arrived holding hands, with the look of wonder of two cherubs”. But then they were found dead, together, in the hotel room they had rented to make love for the last time. There was another, a haunting lament, about a wife waiting for her husband knight to return from the wars so that she can announce to him that she is with child. He comes back, but only to die in the same bed where the child was conceived, of his wounds. There was also “A la claire fontaine”, which is a somewhat trite song about lost love, but has a beautifully quiet melody.

But when my mother sang “La Vieille”, a mischievous glint would come into her eye and I could see the young, cheeky girl which, in the autobiography that she wrote for us children, she confessed to having once been. The same glint would come into her eye whenever she told droll stories of her family. There were the two brothers, for instance, great-uncles, who were “of the left”, and fervent anticlericals (we are talking of the great anticlerical moment in French history during the late 19th Century). Every Good Friday, they would take a table at the window of a restaurant close by the cathedral and make sure to be eating heartily and mightily when the poor souls came out of Church hungry from their Lenten fasting. One of these same brothers indicated in his will that when he died he wished to be buried in a simple pine coffin like a man of the people. But his daughters, whom I have mentioned before, were having none of that. They found their father embarrassing enough in life, they were not going to be embarrassed by him in death in front of their bourgeois friends. He was buried in a sumptuous coffin, and with a church ceremony to boot. Then there was the uncle, Oncle Jacques, who had been a dashing rake in his youth. Why, he had even been a daredevil pilot, this at a time when it was lucky if planes stayed together in the air. A somewhat older woman, Renée, had fallen hard for him, and in a standard tactic announced that she was pregnant, a pregnancy which mysteriously vanished when he did the Right Thing and married her. In the event, the marriage held and they did eventually have children. But Tante Renée shed many a bitter tear during the marriage over Oncle Jacque’s serial infidelities. This last set of stories were delivered the day before Oncle Jacques and Tante Renée came to make one of their annual visits to my grandmother, using the little train which I’ve mentioned in an earlier post. I still have a memory of the pair, arriving in the garden to effusive welcomes after the walk up the long alleyway from the train station. Tante Renée was hideously made up with pink powder, bright red lipstick, and rinsed hair, and as she bent over to give me a peck on the cheek I was drowned in the overpowering scent of a very sweet perfume. Oncle Jacques, on the other hand, stood there looking distinguished in his old age and with a mischievous glint in his eye.

Ah, memories, memories. Come, let’s finish with the refrain from another old French song, this one about the capture of an English ship by a smaller French ship in the early 1800’s during the Napoleonic wars:

Buvons un coup, buvons en deux
À la santé des amoureux
À la santé du Roi de France
Et MERDE au Roi d’Angleterre
Qui nous a déclaré la guerre.

Let’s drink a cup, let’s drink two
To the health of all lovers
To the health of the King of France
And BUGGER the King of England
Who went and declared war on us.


photos: taken by me from https://books.google.co.th/books?id=2N7F5Gqine0C&dq=chanson+qui+avait+quatre+vingt+ans+l’autre+qui+s’envole+au+vent&source=gbs_navlink_s



A Paris dans une ronde
Composée de jeunes gens
Il se trouva une vieille
Agée de quatre-vingt ans!

Elle choisit le plus jeune
Qui était le plus galant
“Va-t-en, va-t-en bonne vieille
Tu n’as pas assez d’argent!”

“Si vous saviez c’qu’a la vieille
Vous n’en diriez pas autant”
“Dis nous donc ce qu’a la vieille?”
“Elle a dix tonneaux d’argent”

“Reviens, reviens bonne vieille
Marions-nous promptement!”
On la conduit au notaire
“Mariez-moi cette enfant”

“Cette enfant”, dit le notaire
“Elle a bien quatre-vingt ans”
Aujourd’hui le marriage
Et demain l’enterrement

On fit tant sauter la vieille
Qu’elle est morte en sautillant

On regarda dans sa bouche
Elle n’avait que trois dents
Une qui branle, une qui hoche
Une qui s’envole au vent

On regarda dans sa poche
Elle n’avait que trois liards d’argent
Ah la vieille, la vieille, la vieille
Avait trompé le galant!

What follows is a quick-and-dirty translation:

In Paris, at a round dance
Composed of young people
Arrived an old crone
Of the venerable age of eighty

She approached the youngest man
Who was also the most handsome
“Leave me be, you old crone
You’re far too poor for me!”

“If you knew what the old crone has
You wouldn’t say as much”
“Tell us then how much she has”
“She owns ten barrels-full of money”

“Come back, come back, you old dear
Let us marry forthwith!”
They took her to the notary
“Marry me to this child”

“This child”‘ intoned the notary
“Is not a day younger than eighty”
Today the marriage
Tomorrow the burial

They made the old crone dance so hard
That she died mid-hop

They looked in her mouth
She had but three teeth
One which moved, one which wobbled
One which blew away on the wind

They looked in her pockets
They found but three farthings
Ah the old, old crone
She had fooled her handsome boy!



Beijing, 13 July 2014

As I mentioned in the postscript to my previous posting, I was in Budapest these last few days. One evening, in search of a restaurant, I came across this fountain:

Budapest 2014 fountain 001

Budapest 2014 fountain 002

As the pictures suggest, the fountain consists of a sheet of water moving as if it were the page of a book being turned. I rather like that idea. I didn’t notice it at the time, but I have since discovered that two venerable Hungarian universities, Eötvös Loránd University and Péter Pázmány Catholic University, both of whose foundations reach back to the 1600’s, are located across the street from the fountain. I would guess that the fountain is linked to them: aren’t Universities places which revere books? Maybe the fountain is telling us that books water our intellectual life. But that’s a bit too fanciful, perhaps.

My curiosity piqued, I started looking around for pictures of other sculptures where books play the lead role. And of course someone has already helpfully put together a gallery of such photos! It’s on a site called Book Riot, which promotes reading of book reading and writing about them, my kind of site. I have shamelessly lifted a number of their photos to put here. Most of them have obvious connections to book-related institutions.

Stacking books is clearly a popular design motif. Here’s a fairly straightforward stack in a sculpture in front of the Nashville public library


Here is another, a little bit more untidy and making the connection between books and children (which perhaps explains the untidiness of the stacking?). It adorns the public library in Coshocton, which is (and I had to look this up on Google Maps) in Ohio. The sculpture is composed of 100 books, each one representing one year of the library’s service to the community.


Here is another stack of books, this time from Berlin.


This particular sculpture no longer exists, alas. It was part of a set of six sculptures celebrating the football World Cup of 2006. After a few months, they were taken away, who knows where to. This particular sculpture, set up in Bebelplatz opposite Humboldt University, celebrated Johannes Gutenberg who invented the modern letterpress in the German city of Mainz in around 1450.

The stacking motif continues with this sculpture, although a spiraling twist has been given to the whole.


The sculpture is in front of Beijing’s Xinhua bookstore, although I must confess to never having noticed it.

Here, the stacking has turned into a triumphal arch, located in Atlanta, at Georgia State University.

georgia tech atlanta

This is a very obviously symbolic statue. It was created by the sculpture students at the University and is entitled “No Goal Is Too High If We Climb With Care And Confidence”. A visual metaphor dear to the hearts of many a University Professor, I’m sure.

This one, from Charlotte North Carolina, is quite different. Like the sculpture in Coshocton, it makes a connection between books and children, but here it becomes equivalent to playground equipment, showing books as something for children to play with, on, in.


As for Kansas City library, it dispenses with sculptures altogether and has just built the books right into its façade

kansas city public library

Another approach to book-sculptures is to consider the book a brick to be used to build structures. The Czech-Slovak artist Matej Kren has created a number of such structures, a couple of which I have photos for. The first is in the Prague municipal library

prague city library

I’ve not seen it, but I read that if you look inside you get the impression of an infinite tower. It seems that Kren has made clever use of mirrors to get this optical effect.

I don’t know where the structures in these other two photos are to be found

matej kren-1

matej kren-2

The last could easily be an old farm house in southern Europe somewhere. The following site shows a couple more such structures made with books by Kren and other artists.

This last photo brings me to another structure made with books, but of an altogether darker tenor. It is the Holocaust memorial in Judenplatz, Vienna, a memorial to the more than 65,000 Austrian Jews killed by the Nazis before and during World War II. On my way back from Budapest to Beijing through Vienna, and with the book fountain still fresh in my mind, I decided on the spur of the moment to quickly revisit the memorial before boarding the bus for the airport.

holocaust memorial 001

From far away, it looks like one of those squat, windowless blockhouses which dotted the battlefields of World War II. But when you get closer, you see something else.

holocaust memorial 002

You see that the walls of this blockhouse are made of shelves of books. But the books are facing outwards rather than inwards as would normally be the case on a shelf. So unlike the sculpture pictured above in Berlin’s Bebelplatz, we know neither the author nor the title of any of the books. The shelves of the memorial simply appear to hold endless copies of the same book, which can stand for the vast array of faceless victims. The choice of books as the design motif perhaps alludes to the idea of the Jews being a “People of the Book”. Fittingly, another name for this memorial is the Nameless Library. Around the edges of the structure are carved the names of the camps where Austrian Jews died

holocaust memorial 003

At the other end of Judenplatz is a statue of the writer Lessing, staring so it seems at the Holocaust memorial.

Lessing statue Judenplatz

This is the same Lessing whose name appears on one of the spines of the sculpted stack of books in Berlin’s Bebelplatz, a photo of which I included earlier. A connection which allows me to segue into my next memorial, in that same Bebelplatz, a memorial to the campaign of book burnings, orchestrated by the German Student Union, which took place there and in 34 other German university towns in May 1933, shortly after the Nazis had taken power. The purpose was to ceremonially burn books by classical liberal, anarchist, socialist, pacifist, communist, Jewish, and other German and non-German authors whose writings were viewed as subversive to the new regime. Many came from Humboldt University’s libraries. The students first marched in torchlight parades “against the un-German spirit”. Some 40,000 people then gathered in Bebelplatz to hear Joseph Goebbels deliver a fiery address:

“The era of extreme Jewish intellectualism is now at an end. The breakthrough of the German revolution has again cleared the way on the German path…The future German man will not just be a man of books, but a man of character. It is to this end that we want to educate you. As a young person, to already have the courage to face the pitiless glare, to overcome the fear of death, and to regain respect for death – this is the task of this young generation. And thus you do well in this midnight hour to commit to the flames the evil spirit of the past. This is a strong, great and symbolic deed – a deed which should document the following for the world to know – Here the intellectual foundation of the November Republic is sinking to the ground, but from this wreckage the phoenix of a new spirit will triumphantly rise.

Then the students joyfully threw the books onto the pyre, with band-playing, songs, “fire oaths”, and incantations.

bebelplatz book burning-1


In Berlin, some 20,000 books were burned. Looking back at the stack of books which make up the sculpture put in this same square 83 years later, Heinrich Heine’s books were burned, as were those of Anna Seghers, Karl Marx, Heinrich Mann, and Bertolt Brecht. In all, the works of some 60 German authors and 25 non-German authors were consigned to the flames.

The memorial to this shameful episode consists simply of a glass plate set into the square’s cobble stones, below which are visible empty bookcases, enough of them to hold the total of the 20,000 burned books.


Next to it is a plaque, with a line from Heinrich Heine’s 1821 play Almansor: “That was only a prelude; where they burn books, they will in the end also burn people.” Heine was referring to the burning of the Muslim Quran by the Christian Inquisition in Spain. But looking back at the Holocaust memorial in Vienna’s Judenplatz, how prescient is that line! And the book burnings haven’t stopped, as a Wikipedia article eloquently shows.


Budapest book fountain: my photos
The following five photos are from bookriot.com/2013/03/06/10-superbly-bookish-statues
– Nashville public library: http://bookriotcom.c.presscdn.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/03/nashville-public-library-book-statue.jpg
– Coshocton public library: http://bookriotcom.c.presscdn.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/03/centennial-statue-coshocton-public-library-317×1024.jpg
– Berlin Walk of Ideas http://bookriotcom.c.presscdn.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/03/berlin-book-statue.jpg
– Xinhua bookstore, Beijing: http://bookriotcom.c.presscdn.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/03/beijing-xinhua-bookstore-statue.jpg
– Brick book statue: http://bookriotcom.c.presscdn.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/03/brick-book-statue.jpg
Georgia Tech University, Atlanta: http://www.himalayanrestaurantct.com/article_images/best-bizarre-statues-or-public-art-in-atlanta.jpg [in http://www.himalayanrestaurantct.com/arts-culture/best-art-museums-in-atlanta-449.php%5D
Kansas city library: http://media.tumblr.com/tumblr_m37ijcSOnV1qc4g44.jpg [in http://callmeabsurd.tumblr.com/post/22000303273/beautiful-structures-made-of-books%5D
Prague city library: http://davidgutterman.files.wordpress.com/2011/11/book-statue-library.jpg?w=500&h=670 [in http://davidgutterman.wordpress.com/2011/11/16/prague-blog-7/%5D
Matej Kren-1: http://avisualjournal.files.wordpress.com/2011/09/artwork_images_425933222_663093_matej-kren.jpg [in http://avisualjournal.wordpress.com/page/43/%5D
Matej Kren-2: http://pitchdesignunion.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/10/book-cell-02.jpeg [in http://pitchdesignunion.com/2010/10/matej-kren/%5D
Holocaust memorial, Judenplatz, Vienna: my photos
Lessing statue Judenplatz: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Judenplatz#mediaviewer/File:WienLessingDenkmal.jpg [in http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Judenplatz#Lessing_monument%5D
Bebelplatz book burning-1: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/2/2b/1933-may-10-berlin-book-burning.JPG [in http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nazi_book_burnings%5D
Bebelplatz book burning-2: http://cdn2.spiegel.de/images/image-485121-galleryV9-ohuq.jpg [in http://www.spiegel.de/fotostrecke/photo-gallery-erich-kaestner-and-the-nazi-book-burnings-fotostrecke-95652-2.html%5D
Bebelplatz memorial to book burning: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nazi_book_burnings#mediaviewer/File:Bebelplatz_mit_Mahnmal_B%C3%BCcherverbrennung_Aug_2009.jpg [in http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nazi_book_burnings%5D


Beijing, 9 April 2014

The somber, funereal tone of my last post seems like a good place to start this one – a tombstone

Weeping Willow on gravestone

This one has a weeping willow on it, a common symbol on tombstones 200 years ago. Its drooping branches symbolize, you’ve guessed it, the weeping of the world at your passage to the next. Here’s another in the same genre from the same period, this time a piece of needlework memorializing the death of three babies.


And then there were the ballads which used the weeping willow as the symbol of death, lost love, or both:

My heart is sad and I’m in sorrow
For the only one I love
When shall I see him, oh, no, never
Till I meet him in heaven above

Oh, bury me under the weeping willow
Yes, under the weeping willow tree
So he may know where I am sleeping
And perhaps he will weep for me

They told me that he did not love me
I could not believe it was true
Until an angel softly whispered
He has proven untrue to you

Oh, bury me under the weeping willow
Yes, under the weeping willow tree
So he may know where I am sleeping
And perhaps he will weep for me

 Etc. You get the picture.

The weeping willow’s symbolism was used a bit more elegantly in Psalm 137 of the Old Testament, that lyrical lament about the pains of exile, in this case that of the Israelites who had been marched off to Babylon from Jerusalem:

By the rivers of Babylon—
there we sat down and there we wept
when we remembered Zion.
On the willows there
we hung up our harps.
For there our captors
asked us for songs,
and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying,
“Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”

 How could we sing the Lord’s song
in a foreign land?
If I forget you, O Jerusalem,
let my right hand wither!
Let my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth,
if I do not remember you,
if I do not set Jerusalem
above my highest joy.

jewish bible with picture

I’ve left out the last verse where the poet gets vengeful and nasty, talking about taking the babies of their captors and bashing their brains out against the rocks …

But if we brush aside the drooping veil of gloom, we find a really beautiful tree, for the most part sitting elegantly near a body of water, into which its trailing branches will often dip.

weeping willow tree

And such an English tree! (well, you also find them on the continent but we’ll ignore that). Here’s a weeping willow on the edges of a pond in Grantchester, in which, so it is said, the poet Byron swam.


Here are students punting on the river Cam in Cambridge with some weeping willows languidly brushing the water’s surface.

weeping willows on the River Cam

Here is a 1946 poster from the Great Western Railway, inviting Londoners to take a day out in the Thames Valley, with a weeping willow centre stage beckoning to them.

great western railway-thamesvalley

Talking of the Thames, here is the cover of that most English of children’s books, The Wind in the Willows, where we see our friends Mole, Ratty and Toad on the river Thames, waving to Badger on the shore, the whole discretely framed by weeping willows


And of course there’s Three Men in a Boat, a book about – well, three men in a boat, messing around on the same river Thames (a book much loved by my father-in-law, in passing). Here we have them in that quintessentially English situation, rain, together with that quintessentially English animal, the dog, with some weeping willows in the background.

Three Men in a Boat by Jerome K. Jerome

Yes, all very English.

Except that the weeping willow isn’t English.

It’s Chinese.

Well, half-Chinese.

Yes, the willows, suitably called Peking willows, lining my piece of canal in Beijing

peking willows 004

are the ancestors of all those graceful weeping willows whose photos I have included above. It is they which carry the gene that makes the tree’s branches weep.

Somehow, for some reason, cuttings or seeds from these trees made their way to the west. I have read that they were moved along the Silk Road. Probably, traders from the west were charmed by the trees’ weeping branches and wanted them in their gardens. I’ve looked for pictures of Peking willows planted along the Road. The best I have found is a Peking willow in Istanbul.

Salix_babylonica in Istanbul

Not quite on the Road, which ended on the Mediterranean seaboard at Antioch or Tyre or Sidon, but close enough. And maybe one of the ways which the Peking willow entered Europe, through the Balkans.

Somewhere along the way further to the west, the Peking willow was crossed with another willow, the European white willow.

white willow

The two were crossed because gardeners found that the Peking willow suffered in the more humid climate of Europe. Its gene pool needed bracing up, as it were.

So the weeping willow is half Chinese, half European.

Although my bubble of Englishness has been pricked, I’m glad to report that the weeping willow is nevertheless half brother –  or perhaps half sister – to that most English of artifacts, the cricket bat! Because these are made from the willow of a cross between the white willow and (possibly) the crack willow (the ancestry on the other side is not clear). So this allows me to insert here a picture of that most English of cricketers WG Grace holding a bat, in an ad for that most  English of condiments, Colman’s Mustard

wg grace with bat

Well, while I’m about it, I might as well also clarify another misconception. The willows by the waters of Babylon under which the Israelites wept were not willows, they were Euphrates poplars.

euphrates poplar


Tombstone with weeping willow: http://4.bp.blogspot.com/-V965riBwMQE/ThW9WsV_6gI/AAAAAAAAAA4/kGf3gW9vaZ0/s1600/%2523%2523%2523Weeping+Willow+St.+Mark%2527s+Luth+Appenzell+%25283%2529.JPG [in http://callmetaphy.blogspot.com/2011/07/symbol-of-weeping-willow-in-gravestone.html%5D
Girls weeping on tomb: http://mansionmusings.files.wordpress.com/2011/04/mourning-picture-detail.jpg [in http://mansionmusings.wordpress.com/2011/04/29/a-mansion-favorite-returns-home-abigail-walker-needlework-mourning-picture-ca-1803/%5D
Jewish psalter: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/9/97/Chludov_rivers.jpg [in http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Psalm_137%5D
Weeping willow tree: http://www.blogmagazine.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/05/weepingwillow.jpg [in http://www.blogmagazine.org/2012/05/admiring-the-beauty-of-the-weeping-willow/%5D
Weeping willows Grantchester: http://3.bp.blogspot.com/-3Lkrd8FlSCE/UhFK2RfkItI/AAAAAAAAGiM/v5kklmS41GE/s1600/photograph-of-weeping-willow-Byrons-Pool-Grantchester.jpg [in http://ailecphotography.blogspot.com/2013/08/day-18-august-challenge.html%5D
Weeping willows on the river Cam: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/d/da/Punting_on_the_River_Cam_-_geograph.org.uk_-_222149.jpg [in http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Punting_on_the_River_Cam_-_geograph.org.uk_-_222149.jpg%5D
“The Wind in the Willows”: http://www.usborne.com/images/covers/eng/max_covers/the_wind_in_the_willows.jpg [in http://www.usborne.com/catalogue/book/1~CS~CSP~3249/the-wind-in-the-willows.aspx%5D
“Three Men in a Boat”: http://s3-eu-west-1.amazonaws.com/lookandlearn-preview/A/A008/A008727.jpg [in http://www.lookandlearn.com/history-images/A008727/Three-Men-in-a-Boat-by-Jerome-K-Jerome?img=2&search=Jerome+Klapka+Jerome&bool=phrase%5D
Great Western Railway poster: http://www.southernposters.co.uk/Destinations/Resources/thamesvalleylarg.jpeg [in http://www.southernposters.co.uk/Destinations/thamesvalley1946.html%5D
Peking willow, Beijing: my photo
Peking willow in Istanbul: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/7/75/Salix_babylonica.jpg/800px-Salix_babylonica.jpg [in http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Salix_babylonica#Horticultural_selections_and_related_hybrids%5D
White willow: http://bioweb.uwlax.edu/bio203/2011/girard_stev/maintop.jpg [in http://bioweb.uwlax.edu/bio203/2011/girard_stev/facts.htm%5D
Euphrates willow: http://mw2.google.com/mw-panoramio/photos/medium/49589465.jpg [in http://www.panoramio.com/user/1183385/tags/%D7%A0%D7%97%D7%9C%20%D7%A6%D7%99%D7%9F%5D


Beijing, 21 July 2013

I am astonished to discover that this is my 100th posting! It seems only yesterday that, rather like a kid on his first day at school, I was nervously writing my first posting. This milestone deserves to be celebrated in some way. And what better way could there be than by singing the praises of the written word?

In my very first posting, which I entitled Manifesto (and which later became my “About” page, once I’d understood better how all this blog thing worked), I explained why, as I neared my 60th birthday, I had finally decided to take up the pen (electronic in this case) and write.

My decision to write actually flowed from my habit of reading. I’ve always loved to read. I still remember the day I got really hooked. I was maybe six, possibly seven. I was bored, and as is usual in these cases was bothering my elder siblings, who were all reading. In exasperation, one of my sisters gave me a book and ordered me to read it. I complied a trifle sulkily, but before I knew it I was drawn in – sucked in! – by the story. I still remember the book; it was from the Secret Seven series by Enid Blyton, about seven very English children who sluith around solving various mysteries (I’m amazed to see that these stories are still popular!)


For most of the next decade or so I read only fiction, but then I lost interest with the excuse that I lacked time.  I took up the habit again in my mid-twenties and I haven’t looked back. The contents of my modest library are packed away in Vienna, waiting to see the light of day again, but in my mind’s eye I can still walk slowly, pleasurably, along my bookcases packed with the books which have marked the passing of my adult life. My library always started with a section which I suppose would be called English Literature in a public library, so in my head my hand is now brushing over the spine of the novel “House of Spirits” by Isabelle Allende, which was the first of her novels I read and which led me – and my wife – to read many of her other novels (OK, strictly speaking these are not English literature, but since I read them in English that’s where I put them). They reconciled me with fiction after a long rift I had with the genre.

isabelle allende house of spirits

My eye is then drawn to the shelves dedicated to detective stories (since those memorable Secret Seven days, I’ve always had a weakness for “yellows” as Italians call them), where my hand falls on “A Morbid Taste for Bones”, the first in the series about Cadfael, the Benedictine monk from the great Abbey of Shrewsbury during the reign of King Stephen.

a morbid taste for bones

I picked up the first out of curiosity at the British bookshop in Milan but it led me, fascinated and hooked, to the next one, which led me in turn to the next one, and on and on like Adriadne’s thread, until one day I had read them all – they always reminded me so much of my school days in a Benedictine Abbey school.

In my library, where space as much as logic has determined where books are placed (my wife has resisted the wholesale takeover of our successive apartments by books), the detective stories are followed by poetry. Here, I pick out the poems of T.S. Eliot, the first poet I came to appreciate, at age 16, during a class at school on English poetry, run by a wonderfully eccentric schoolmaster. The poem he introduced us to was, of course, “The Waste Land”.


I always place “The Waste Land” next to the poems by Wilfred Owen and the other First World War poets. I feel that this poem’s sorrowful elegies of times past marry well with the anger that pulses through the war poems, an anger at the sheer futility and waste of that war.  I picked up this particular compendium of WWI poetry in a bookstore on Oxford Street, during a short visit to London.

first world war poetry

The English Lit section finishes with the plays I have acted in and the many more I would have liked to act in (“Mourning Becomes Electra” by Eugene O’Neill definitely falls into the latter category; it is a constant wound in my soul that I have never seen this play acted, yet alone acted in it myself).

mourning becomes electra

After English Lit in my library comes History: my passion – if I had not chosen to do sciences in high school, I would  have done history.   Among my many, many history books, I eye with particular fondness “The Pursuit of Power” by William McNeill,  which is a magnificent synthesis of military, technological, and social history over an arc of a thousand years.

pursuit of power

My hand then brushes over “Guns, Germs and Steel” by Jared Diamond, which (I am summarizing here!) tried to answer the question “Why was it European ships that sailed west and discovered the Americas and not the other way around?”. This book gave me the same shock of intellectual stimulation as McNeill’s book did when I first read it.

Guns Germs SteelI quickly jump to a shelf dedicated to histories of War, where I pick out  “The Face of Battle”, by the British war historian John Keegan, a fascinating analysis about how the field of battle has changed over time. I bought this book on impulse in a Barnes & Noble bookshop in New York 25 years ago and I liked it so much that over the succeeding years I read every single book Keegan wrote.


History is followed by Other Social Sciences – politics, sociology, economics, and such like – where my hand brushes briefly over Henry Kissinger’s two volumes on his years in the White House.

white house years

I pass on quickly to the Science section, where I stop in front of my small collection of books on the biological sciences and evolution especially. My favourites are the collected essays on natural history by Stephen Jay Gould, whose warm, wisecracking style I find so quintessentially American, and the books by his “competitor” Richard Dawkins, whose coldly lucid style I find so quintessentially English.

Pandas ThumbBlind_Watchmaker

My science books are followed by my books on religion; why not? science has challenged (and in my view defeated) religion. And here my hand falls on “The Faces of Jesus” by Geza Vermès.

changing faces of Jesus

This was one of those books which takes your breath away by its ability to blow old ideas out of the window. It led me to buy several of his books, to explore who the real Jesus probably was once you get behind all the layers of Christian piety.

And finally, squeezed in at the end of my bookshelves, are books on art, cookery books, travel guides …

In China, I have continued the habit of buying books, nosing out where books in English can be found. We came with nearly no books (two compendia of English poetry, a book on Caravaggio, a book or two on Chinese history), now we don’t know where to put all the books that are piling up in drifts throughout the apartment.

Yet, during all this reading I have always felt a point of guilt: I was passively receiving these written words without writing anything back. Oh, I wrote a lot, but it was all dry, sterile stuff which I had to do for work; at the best of times clear, precise analysis, at the worst of times bureaucratese of the highest order. And so I started this blog. What a liberation it has been! I feel that I have finally gained my voice, that after all the croaking I’ve done I can finally sing (to paraphrase some lines from the African-American poet Langston Hughes, “now do I wonder at this thing, that I am old and yet can sing”). Of course, I don’t pretend to be writing great literature. These postings are just scribblings. My wife urges me to write a book, but I don’t think I can go beyond these brief notes. I am a sprinter, I tell her, I can only run 100 metres, I’m not a marathon runner. Still, the pleasure I derive from this writing is immense – and I hope my few readers derive some pleasure from reading these posts.

Yet, amidst all this pleasure, I have a sense that all is not well in the world of the written word. I see with dismay that bookshops are closing one after another as if hit by some sort of plague, and those that remain often survive by selling rubbish. To some degree, it is simply a change in venue. The written word is migrating from the printed page to an electronic format – am I not writing somewhere in an electronic cloud? For sure, newspapers have already almost vanished to be replaced by their electronic namesakes. Even books are taking this path. A younger colleague of mine urged me to switch to a Kindle; he even gave me his to handle, rather as you would drape a snake around someone’s shoulders to show how nice they really are. But I recoil from this electronicization of books. I want my books the old way, printed on paper, the way Gutenberg started it 500 years ago.


I sense, though, that the malaise with books goes deeper than a simple migration to the electronic cloud. I truly wonder if books will survive at all. The book I am currently reading, “The Swerve” by Stephen Greenblatt, tells me that books have disappeared before.

the swerve

Greenblatt is writing about the near-miraculous recovery in the 1400’s, from some dark corner of a library in a European monastery, of a mouldering 8th Century copy of the poem “De Rerum Natura” by  the Roman poet Lucretius, written in the first decades BCE. But in telling this story he also tells of the time when books disappeared from the Roman Empire as the Empire slowly collapsed in on itself and Christianity spread. It had seemed to the Roman intelligentsia that books would be there for ever, and then one day they were gone. Many Roman writers we know only by name; none of their works have survived. To a book lover like me, it is a story that sends a shiver down the spine.

Those of my generation may remember a film of the 1960’s, Fahrenheit 451. The story is set in modern times, in a society which has banned books and where firemen are there to burn down houses containing books and not put out fires burning down houses. Through various twists and turns, the hero goes from being part of the system of suppression as a fireman to joining a resistance movement whose members live in the forests and keep books alive by each learning a few books by heart to pass on to younger generations, waiting for the time when books will be accepted again.

Fahrenheit 451

I don’t think that the next time books disappear it will be because society is hostile to them, or because society is collapsing. It will simply be through a collective bout of attention deficiency disorder as our electronic toys spin a web of confusion around our minds. Who will need books when you can slip on a pair of super-cool glasses and take part in a 3-D story peopled by electronic characters and set in electronic simulations of paradises on Earth?

I hope I’m not alive to see that day.


Secret Seven: http://www.enidblytonsociety.co.uk/author/covers/secret-seven-adventure.jpg
House of Spirits: http://swanyart.com/cms/wp-content/uploads/2013/05/houseofspirits.jpg
A Morbid Taste for Bones: http://www.hachettebookgroup.com/_b2c/media/cache/44/a4/44a4f75b43b0f8f64547b5fb88d3d63b.jpg
Waste Land: http://www.whitmorerarebooks.com/pictures/464.JPG
First World War poetry: http://ethershop.umwblogs.org/files/2011/10/poetry.jpg
Mourning Becomes Electra: http://t2.gstatic.com/images?q=tbn:ANd9GcQiKE5e4yBs1a08Z3wtMqkMnkbgAmpbLeajHmGMMCFt-_hTQ-hj
Pursuit of Power: http://www.bibliovault.org/thumbs/978-0-226-56158-5-frontcover.jpg
Guns, Germs and Steel: http://www.beyondone.org/images/image/GunsGermsSteel.jpg
Face of Battle: http://www.jamesaitcheson.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/01/The-Face-of-Battle.jpg
White House Years: http://i.ebayimg.com/00/s/NDgwWDMyNQ==/$%28KGrHqF,!osE8Vffrj3DBPOp0ebETg~~60_35.JPG?set_id=8800005007
Panda’s Thumb: http://www.ateism.nu/images/The%20Pandas%20Thumb%20by%20Stephen%20Jay%20Gould.jpg
Blind Watchmaker: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/uk/thumb/f/f8/Blind_Watchmaker.jpg/240px-Blind_Watchmaker.jpg
The Changing Faces of Jesus: http://img2.imagesbn.com/p/9780142196021_p0_v1_s260x420.jpg [in http://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/the-changing-faces-of-jesus-geza-vermes/1004427856?ean=9780142196021%5D
Gutenberg: http://www.mainlesson.com/books/bachman/inventors/zpage206.gif
The Swerve: http://media.npr.org/assets/bakertaylor/covers/t/the-swerve/9780393064476_custom-90f41678e2d9b3883ed17ae22fff5d2273ca209e-s6-c30.jpg
Fahrenheit 451: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/f/f0/Fahrenheit451B.jpg


Beijing, 12 June 2013

Two weeks ago, when I walked into the apartment in the evening, back from a business trip, my wife announced triumphantly that she had discovered a treasure trove on Youtube, shows from a series on Italian TV that we never even knew existed: Commissario Montalbano.

Readers will be forgiven if they look blank at this announcement. I will allow that Montalbano is not (yet) a household name. Yet my wife’s announcement filled me with great excitement. The detective stories written by the Sicilian-born writer Andrea Camilleri about Salvo Montalbano, Inspector of police in some modest township in western Sicily, have gripped me ever since I stumbled across one of them some six years ago. I read them in the original, which I must say is not easy. Already reading in Italian is slightly more difficult for me than reading in English, and Camilleri writes in an Italian which has been heavily saturated with Sicilian dialect. The first time I ventured into one of Camilleri’s books I was reading like a child of 5 for the first ten pages or so until I got the hang of it and could stop asking my wife every ten seconds what this word or that word meant. It’s still tough going, but the dialect really helps to drop you into Sicily.

Well that evening, after dinner, we settled down on the couch, poured ourselves a glass of wine, opened Youtube, chose one of the shows, and started to watch. For me, there was an initial moment of discomfort; when you have read so many stories about the same characters you create an image of them in your mind’s eye, and I was finding it difficult to adjust to this being Commissario Montalbano:


(too handsome!), this being his two main collaborators, Mimí and Fazio:


(too tall the first, too handsome the second), and this being the klutz of the office, Cattaré:


(too much of a clown)

(I also have a very distinct picture in my mind of Smiley, Le Carré’s master spy hero – the spitting image of my Latin teacher at school. But I digress)

Quickly, though, I was drawn into the stories and forgot to mentally tut-tut over the faces of the protagonists, and we have now eased into a nightly ritual of hauling out the computer after dinner, pouring ourselves a generous glass of wine, and watching a Montalbano.

I have always thought that this series of detective stories, inserted as they are so deeply into the Sicilian reality, would have little echo outside Italy. Imagine, then, our astonishment when a few days ago (this coincidence of dates must have some cosmic meaning …) my wife read out an article at breakfast from the Guardian newspaper commenting on the popularity of the Italian Montalbano TV series in the UK. The article also commented on the number of Brits doing Montalbano-themed visits to Sicily! I was gobsmacked. When we did a little bit of web surfing, we discovered that actually people from all over the world love Montalbano (much of this coming from comments left on TripAdvisor about Montalbano’s house, which some canny Sicilian has turned into a Bed and Breakfast).

Is it just that we all love a good yarn well told, and a good detective story has all the makings of a good yarn? Is it the Italianness of the character which attracts people? The relative exoticness of the locations? Something else?

As far as I’m concerned, my attachment to Montalbano goes far beyond the thrill of the detective story. It goes even beyond the characters, marvelous as they are. Through Salvo Montalbano, Camilleri depicts wonderfully well that spirit of contrariness which is very definitely part of the human landscape of southern Italy.  The TV show captures this trait of Montalbano’s nicely, as it does the subtle intelligence and cynical sense of humor – such Italian traits! – which Camilleri gives to his creation. And of course Camilleri injects wondrous descriptions of Sicilian food by making Montalbano a gourmet, something which we see a little of in the TV series by having Montalbano spend a fair amount of time sitting at restaurant tables (but we discovered a web-site which lovingly lists the recipes of all the dishes which Montalbano eats!). My only real disappointment with Montalbano’s TV character (apart from him not looking like I imagine he should) is that I haven’t yet seen Salvo Montalbano’s love of the written word (which is, of course, Camilleri’s). Camilleri has peppered the books with his hero’s musings on various works of literature. I love this about him since I also like to muse (muse to excess, my wife might add) on literature.

But what actually draws me most to these detective stories is the melancholy view of Sicily which permeates them. Sicily the beautiful, damned by the gods and abandoned to its fate. So much my feeling of the island! Camilleri shows it mostly by building in a constant, extensive, subliminal presence of the Mafia – truly like a cancer in the island’s body politic – and exposing the total corruption – moral more than monetary – of the island’s political class. I saw it instead through my work. Fate had it that I had to spend most of my time in Sicily in collapsing industrial zones, built in the 1950s and ’60s. These came into existence as part of a political discourse which claimed to be bringing modernity and wealth to the south of the country by implanting heavy industry there: oil refineries, petrochemicals, agro-chemicals, iron and steel, non-ferrous refining … you name it, there was one somewhere in the Mezzogiorno. It was a stupid idea right from the start. The south had neither the infrastructure nor the industrial culture to digest these huge industrial complexes dumped on them: “cathedrals in the desert”, the Italians aptly named them. This is a refinery in the south of Sicily, with Mt. Etna in the back:

raffineria gela

And the actual implementation of the government’s plans made it all so much worse. Corruption was rampant, with every level involved in planning and construction decisions taking its cut. Many companies only located in the south to take advantage of the government’s tax holidays; it made no economic sense for them otherwise. The moment the holidays were over they upped stakes and moved on, leaving the State to hold the baby. The Government couldn’t afford politically the loss of jobs, so many of these industries were nationalized, which made them even more inefficient and drew in even more corruption (and the Mafia). The Trade Unions fought to remove the only advantage the south had, cheaper labour than the north, by insisting on equal pay for equal work. And then came globalization, which was the kiss of death. It now made even less sense to have these kinds of industries in the south. So I was a small part of a larger strategy by the government to quietly sell off – often in fire sales – the miserable remnants of these industries. The Sicilians I spoke to were so angry, so bitter, so sad about the whole thing. Huge investments by the government, which would never come again, which could have raised the island out of its chronic poverty, but which had just been frittered away … Poor Sicily.


Montalbano: http://www.blogtivvu.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/03/Commissario-Montalbano.jpg
Mimí and Fazio: http://static.televisionando.it/televisionando/fotogallery/625X0/66329/mimi-e-fazio-fidi-collaboratori-di-salvo-montalbano.jpg
Catarella: http://www.ilbrigante.it/wp-content/uploads/2010/04/angelo-russo_preview.jpg
Refinery in Gela: http://static.blogo.it/ecoblog/IverticidellaRaffineriadiGelaSpaindagatiperomissionedicautelecontrodisastri.jpg