“THE POWER HOUSE OF ART”

Shanghai, 5 November 2012

It was difficult for my wife and I not to make comparisons with the Tate Modern when we visited the newly opened Shanghai Museum of Contemporary Art. Like the Tate Modern, the museum is housed in an old power station on the edges of a river running through a big city. And in this country where copying is a way of life, it was hard not to see the whole enterprise as just a me-too Tate Modern.

But let’s not be too negative. Let’s just go and make our visit.

Our understanding is that the mission of the Power Station of Art, as it is cutely called, is to focus on post-1980 contemporary art, mainly from China. It is not clear to us if the museum will use just the power station or if it will spread to some of the other adjacent old Expo pavilions. When we visited they were using just the power station, but there seemed to be works going on in the near-by spaces. I suppose this gives us an incentive to come back another time to check things out.

Anyway, when we went they were holding the Ninth Shanghai Biennale, or Biennalé as the Voice on the show’s audio-guide called it. There was a lot of dross as there always is in these kinds of shows, but a few things stood out. I show some photos below in no particular order.

This greeted you as you entered the building.

In the entry hall – hugely high, it must have been the generator room – there was this sculpture; I’m sure I saw a smaller version of it in San Francisco.

This intriguing sculpture, made with a series of neon strip lights, hung in a very high well which I suspect had been linked to the old chimney somehow.

In another stairwell was this series of kites, quite striking.

This was a lovely idea, using Chinese pots to make a very high totem pole, using the high ceilings of the generator room to maximum effect.

A smaller version has been placed on the museum’s huge terrace, which by the way has a great view over the river and Pudong. My wife and I are thinking of doing an even smaller version in our apartment – we had better start collecting the pots.

Moving to the smaller scale, here is a great picture from the Italian section of the show (Palermo, to be precise). Using just thick paint the artist has created a nice 3D effect of the sea.

While another of the Italian contingent created this amusing triptych commenting on the Jesuit priests who came to China.

From the Indian (“Mumbai”) section of the show came this piece, made of pressed burlap bags. It had a wonderful “feel” to it.

This sculptural piece was by a Japanese artist. I don’t what it is, but it seems so very “Japanese”: maybe it’s the neatness of it, allied to the strict geometry.

And finally, this small piece. It was actually one of a number of such pieces, all with the same subject of Christ on the Cross and all made with bits and pieces. It reminded me of an Italian expression, “povero christo” or “por’ christ’ ” in the dialects of northern Italy, which can be roughly translated as “poor bugger”.

One final note. From the museum’s terrace one could see, in the distance, China’s pavilion at the Expo.

It now houses the China Art Museum. That’s where my next post will come from.

WORKING TO MAKE CHINA GREAT

Shanghai, 3 November 2012

Even though it was dark now, there were still dozens of them up and down the Bund, couples headed for wedlock who were preparing their wedding albums. Striking a thousand poses, most with Her in a red dress and Him in a matching dinner jacket, they used the river and Pudong as a background as they gazed dreamily, coquettishly, lovingly, laughingly at the cameras. Their future – young parents with babies, parents with teenagers, grandparents with grown children and small grandchildren – strolled along behind the snapping cameras. Yesterday’s buildings of the Bund, lit up as theatrical backdrops, and tomorrow’s skyscrapers on Pudong, glowing and pulsing with lights, looked down on them all benignly, while tourist ships with their outlines picked out with bright green, blue, white and red strings of lights glided back and forth along the river. Pretty, so pretty …

All the while, burly ships hauling sand, coal, ore, and other sinews of the economy threaded their way through the happy throng, rumbling quietly by, lightless silhouettes against the lights – floating daguerreotypes – working to make China great.

ships-2013-11 006

ships-2013-11 013

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first two pix:
http://farm8.staticflickr.com/7153/6431300581_41f2593603_z.jpg”
http://www.chinatourguide.com/china_photos/shanghai/attractions/hrc_shanghai_huangpu_night_cruise.jpg”

ALL THOSE SQUIGGLES …

Beijing, 21 October 2012

For my fiftieth birthday my wife took me to revisit the mosaics at Ravenna. I had seen them for the first time during that first magic visit to Italy which I have written about in an earlier post, and many times since then I had emitted the desire to see them again. Our two children were with us, and an extraordinary thing happened to them when we entered the first church. It was as if they had entered a parallel world whose gravity was ten times that of Earth. They collapsed onto every horizontal surface and were as if glued to them, hardly able to drag themselves to the next church …

If I mention this it’s because it is exactly the way I feel every time I enter a room in a museum dedicated to Chinese calligraphy. Partly it’s the light, which is always subdued, no doubt to protect the fragile materials on which the texts have been written. But mostly it’s because the texts do not touch me in any way. They are merely squiggles on pieces of paper. As I stand there, willing myself to see something in the scrolls in front of me, a terrible lassitude overcomes me and my eyes start cutting left and right, searching desperately for a bench to sit on.

I have been with Chinese when they start to wax lyrical about the penmanship of the calligraphy on a scroll: the brush strokes, the ink, the I don’t-know-what-else. Apart from not understanding what is written, which I think makes it difficult to appreciate good penmanship, handwriting is an art form that touches me not a bit. I put it down to being the first generation – in the West, anyway – for whom writing became strictly utilitarian. My first years were spent struggling with ink pens, different colours of ink, different nibs, and cursive writing – all made more difficult by my being left-handed – but at the age of 12 came the liberation of the ballpoint pen, at the age of 17 the further liberation of the typewriter, and at the age of 25 the even greater liberation of electronic word processing. The squiggles on the sheet of paper are strictly functional to me (although I will admit to sometimes critically comparing different fonts in my word processing).

The divide between me and the Chinese on this is symbolized by the rack of writing brushes which I have purchased here in China. My rack has the brushes arranged so that they run from the biggest to the smallest, emphasizing the strict geometry of my composition. Even more important, I have kept the bristles in the point which they had when I bought them (bar a few which distressingly have fallen off the rack and had the point blunted). I find the shape of the brush, coming to a point in the bristles, quite beautiful to look at.

But for a Chinese this is meaningless. The brush is there to be used so it must have the bristles undone, flowing, possibly slightly bent from use. Mine is a sterile composition to them. They delight to keep their brushes untidily in a mug, bristle-side up, ready to be snatched up and used.

And yet … in different contexts, I have found Chinese writing quite beautiful to look at, just as a composition of abstract lines. For instance, I’m often attracted by the boards which hang over the entrance to temples with a phrase carved on them; the meaning of the phrase is of no matter to me, it’s just the composition I find striking. This is an example from South Korea.

Or I’ve sometimes seen just a character or two written on a wall which I feel “says” something to me as a composition, like in this example.

Or I have seen sculptures of characters; Chinese characters seem to lend themselves very well to being sculpted. Here are a couple of examples.

I have the same occasional attraction to Arabic, another script in which I am illiterate. Here’s a nice example I found surfing the web.

I suppose I am heir to a hundred years of abstract art, which tells me that it’s “alright” to just enjoy squiggles on a canvas as long as the overall composition has balance, a good colour scheme, and generally “works” for me. I mean, what’s a Jackson Pollock but an infinity of squiggles on a canvas? I show again here the Pollock I showed in an earlier post.

Wassily Kandinsky was also quite fond of squiggles.

Paul Klee was also into squiggles

As of course was Joan Miro, who must be the squiggler-in-chief.

And I haven’t even started on the sculpture …

So with that, I will go out and seek more Chinese writing compositions that I like … but I will keep away from those dimly-lit calligraphy rooms in museums. All those scrolls hanging there one after another are just too much for me.

POSTSCRIPT

Since writing this, I have come across the Chinese artist Qin Feng. In at least one period of his life he brought together calligraphy and abstract art. Here’s a couple of his paintings from that period:

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Pix (except for my brush rack):
Calligraphy rooms in museums: http://www.sfgate.com/art/article/Out-of-Character-Asian-Art-Museum-3936470.php
brushes in a holder: http://www.lovellhall.com/product_list.php?cat=40&start=10
plaques at temples: http://tripwow.tripadvisor.com/slideshow-photo/chinese-characters-in-korean-temples-by-travelpod-member-akrn-seoul-south-korea.html?sid=12667092&fid=tp-7
Chinese characters on walls: http://www.flickr.com/photos/35464002@N08/6124930840/
Chinese character sculptures: http://www.shho.cuhk.edu.hk, http://www.flickr.com/photos/fotofish64/7292747450/sizes/m/in/photostream/
Arabic calligraphy: http://jchristinahuh.blogspot.com/2010/08/arabic-calligraphy.html
Pollock painting: http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/works-of-art/1982.147.27
Kandinsky paintings: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wassily_Kandinsky
Klee painting: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paul_Klee
Mirò painting: http://mercoledis.blogspot.com/2010/10/joan-miro-palazzo-blu-pisa.html
Qin Feng’s paintings:

http://asimg.artsolution.net/tsmedia/GoedhuisGoephoto/goedhuis692011T1437.jpg?qlt=100&ftr=4&cell=450,480&cvt=jpeg

PASSION FOR NORTHERN SONG PORCELAIN

Beijing, 6 September 2012

I intimated in my last post, on the exhibition “Passion for Porcelain”, that the exhibition’s coda reduced the rest of the exhibition to nothing. In the main, the final pieces were from earlier periods.  I was especially entranced by two pieces, made during the Northern Song dynasty, 960-1127 AD.

 

Look at them: such pure shapes, so simple, so harmonious, … so modern! And look at the glazing, one colour but with subtly different shadings, and in the case of the flask with craquelure enhancing the overall effect.

I was so taken by these pieces that I was moved to work my way through my copy of the book “Chinese Ceramics” by He Li (ed. Thames & Hudson, 2006)  and study all the pieces from this period. Here is a sampling, in no particular order

    

   

   

Now look at those dates again: 960-1127 AD.  These pieces were made when William the Conqueror and Harold Godwinson were fighting it out in the Battle of Hastings!

And this is the pottery they were making …

Truly, Chinese ceramics are awesome.

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Bayeux tapestry picture: http://larsbrownworth.com/blog/2010/08/11/is-the-bayeux-tapestry-reliable/
Norman pottery picture: http://www.potweb.org/PotChron1-01.html
The V&A and British Museum pictures are from the website of the National Museum of China

PASSION FOR PORCELAIN

Beijing, 6 September 2012

Last weekend, my wife and I visited the exhibition “Passion for Porcelain” at the National Museum of China on Tiananmen Square. Through pieces from the collections of the Victoria & Albert Museum and the British Museum, the exhibition celebrates the discovery by Europe of Chinese porcelain, that wonderful moment in the seventeenth century when chinaware began pouring into Europe as ballast in the holds of the East India companies’ ships. Europeans were dazzled by what they saw, for compared to Chinese porcelain the European ceramics of the time were rough, crude articles.

Chinese potters first exported ware with purely Chinese designs

Passion-for-Porcelain 008-dragon plate

Then they started exporting wares with European designs. Some of them are hilariously bad, like this example.

Passion-for-Porcelain 006-jesus baptism plate

It takes a moment to understand that the two blobs in the plate’s centre are John baptizing Jesus. Obviously, the Chinese designer had no feel for what he was copying. Or take these two figurines, which the label insists are figurines in French court costumes.

Passion-for-Porcelain 012-french figurines

Some are simply odd when seen in a Chinese context. Plates with the armorial bearings of some English aristocrat, for instance, sound a strange note on Tiananmen Square.

Passion-for-Porcelain 013-armorial plate

But I suppose it is no stranger than Christmas decorations pouring out of a modern Chinese factory ready for shipment to the US or Europe. In all fairness, some designs have merged Chinese sensibilities exceedingly well with European-driven designs, like this plate picturing the trading hongs in Canton.

Passion-for-Porcelain 009-hongs plate

Then the Europeans started to make copies. And some of these are hilariously awful in their depiction of Chinese scenes.

Passion-for-Porcelain 015-english chinese mug

Others are technically poor copies of Chinese techniques, like these two articles which are both using the flambée technique; the European version suffers distinctly from the comparison.

 

Once the Europeans had mastered the technique of porcelain-making, they could cut the cord with China and make wares of purely European design.

An interesting journey indeed through Europe’s love affair with porcelain. But the exhibition’s postscript made all the previous showings “full of sound and fury signifying nothing”.  But I will deal with this in my next post.

THREE TAKES ON BROKEN CHINAWARE

Beijing, 31 August 2012

Take 1:

When I was a boy, I spent a fair amount of time with my English grandmother, on my way to and from boarding school. One of my memories of her is a set of china plates which she used for meals. The plates carried polychromatic designs of butterflies, flowers and trees on a white background, and I liked studying the designs as I ate my meat and two veg (making sure to keep my elbows well in; my grandmother was quite particular about table manners). The strange thing about these plates was that they had all been broken, often quite badly. But rather than throwing them away, my grandmother had had them carefully stapled together! By that, I mean that small pieces of metal had been fixed across the breaks. Here is the picture of such a plate.

stapled plate

I suppose my grandmother was very attached to the plates and preferred to keep them in this strange, cobbled-together form rather than not have them at all. But I won’t ever know because I never asked her the reason.

Take 2:

On our living room table, in a wide wooden bowl, my wife and I have carefully laid out some broken pieces of porcelain. I think they are from a bottle. They all have a blue pattern on a white background.

broken bits 001

They are part of our larger collection of odds and ends we’ve picked up in the streets during our three years in Beijing: broken bricks from construction sites, chunks of coal, a set of Chinese chequers. But our collection of broken porcelain has a special significance; we collected the pieces on the verge of the road outside Ai Weiwei’s house. We feel that somehow they have been bathed in his aura.

Take 3:

At the window near the entrance to the Opposite House, a chic hotel on Sanlitun, stand two wonderful sculptures. They represent an old Chinese dress and an old Chinese jacket. They have been created out of bits of broken Ming pottery, and all have blue patterns on a white background.

 

China’s old Ming pottery works are littered with broken crockery from all the runs that failed. The artist collected some and has turned these failures into pieces of real beauty. A wonderful example of arte povera.

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the stapled plate: http://jwcsybaritic.blogspot.com/2011/11/stapled-porcelain.html
other pictures: mine

EMBROIDERED SWADDLING CLOTHES

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.

http://www.flickr.com/photos/abellio-apple-god/with/7838593340/#photo_7838593340

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!

ART FROM THE PEOPLE’S LIBERATION ARMY

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 …

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Pics: all mine

MY PIECE OF CANAL

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

PLANE TREES

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.

POSTCRIPT:

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.

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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