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Category: Poetry

THE PAIN THAT NEVER PASSED

Milan, 11 November 2018

Exactly a hundred years ago today, the First World War ended. Some 10 million soldiers and 6 million civilians had been killed by the time the guns fell silent. May they rest in peace wherever they lie, in marked graves which circle the battlefields, or in some spot “known only to God”.

On previous anniversaries, I have written about the soldiers who fought and died in this war. Today, though, it seems more appropriate to commemorate those for whom the pain did not end on that 11th day of November in 1918, for whom the pain never ended.

23 million soldiers were wounded in the war.

For many their wounds healed, leaving only scars to carry to the grave. As Robert Graves wrote in the opening lines of his poem Recalling War, written some twenty years after the war ended,

Entrance and exit wounds are silvered clean,
The track aches only when the rain reminds.

But some men were so badly mutilated that they could never lead a normal life again. The German artist Otto Dix turned his unflinching gaze on these smashed men, forcefully reminding his viewers of their shattered existence and challenging them (challenging us all) not to turn away.


But turn away they – we – did, forcing these men to eke out an existence on the edges of society, like this match seller drawn by Dix.

Or like the barrow puller memorialized by the French poet Marcel Sauvage in his poem Le châtiment, The Punishment. (I give here my modest efforts at translation)

In the street
Cars
On the cobbles, like hard rattles
Taxis flying by
Red, their backs smoking
Heavy lorries
Houses trembling.
Tram lines under trolley wheels
Screeching …
On the pavements
Passersby moving, moving
The city screams
The city: Paris

A car raced along
Rich.
A barrow
Pulled by a pack animal
A man
A man in sweat
Barred its road
A Gentleman leaned out
Of that rich car,
A rich old man.
He shouted at the poor man
Poor devil caught up
In the swirl of the street:
“Idiot
You deserve to be run over …”

I looked at the man
Who dragged the barrow
He said nothing, did nothing.
He had a peg leg
Was dragging a heavy barrow
Was sweating
Pinned on the lapel of his dirty jacket
A military cross
A war medal.
He was yesterday’s hero
A martyr who was sweating
Frightened, resigned
In the swirl of the street
A pack animal
In the swirl of the street
The rich man should have run him over
That poor man –
– there

Some 65 million troops were mobilized for the war. Many may not have been wounded but they carried home psychological scars from the horrors they had witnessed, suffering from what today we wrap up in the scientific-sounding term Post Traumatic Stress Disorders. My grandmother would often tell me of her cousin Ernest. He came out of three years of fighting on the Western Front physically unscathed. But his mind was shot. He couldn’t hold a job down, he began drinking heavily, he quarreled with everyone. He died at the age of 44. Some descended even further into a hell they could never escape from.

Wilfred Owen caught those who were quite smashed in the mind in his poem Mental Cases.

Who are these? Why sit they here in twilight?
Wherefore rock they, purgatorial shadows,
Drooping tongues from jays that slob their relish,
Baring teeth that leer like skulls’ teeth wicked?
Stroke on stroke of pain,- but what slow panic,
Gouged these chasms round their fretted sockets?
Ever from their hair and through their hands’ palms
Misery swelters. Surely we have perished
Sleeping, and walk hell; but who these hellish?

-These are men whose minds the Dead have ravished.
Memory fingers in their hair of murders,
Multitudinous murders they once witnessed.
Wading sloughs of flesh these helpless wander,
Treading blood from lungs that had loved laughter.
Always they must see these things and hear them,
Batter of guns and shatter of flying muscles,
Carnage incomparable, and human squander
Rucked too thick for these men’s extrication.

Therefore still their eyeballs shrink tormented
Back into their brains, because on their sense
Sunlight seems a blood-smear; night comes blood-black;
Dawn breaks open like a wound that bleeds afresh.
-Thus their heads wear this hilarious, hideous,
Awful falseness of set-smiling corpses.
-Thus their hands are plucking at each other;
Picking at the rope-knouts of their scourging;
Snatching after us who smote them, brother,
Pawing us who dealt them war and madness.

But the lives of many non-combatants were broken too, by the death of a son or husband or lover or father, leaving inside of them a void that was never to be filled. The poet Vera Brittain expressed this never-ending sorrow in her poem Perhaps, in which she talks to her fiancé, killed in 1915 at the age of 20 by a sniper.

Perhaps some day the sun will shine again,
And I shall see that still the skies are blue,
And feel once more I do not live in vain,
Although bereft of you.

Perhaps the golden meadows at my feet
Will make the sunny hours of spring seem gay,
And I shall find the white May-blossoms sweet,
Though you have passed away.

Perhaps the summer woods will shimmer bright,
And crimson roses once again be fair,
And autumn harvest fields a rich delight,
Although you are not there.

Perhaps some day I shall not shrink in pain
To see the passing of the dying year,
And listen to Christmas songs again,
Although you cannot hear.

But though kind Time may many joys renew,
There is one greatest joy I shall not know
Again, because my heart for loss of you
Was broken, long ago.

The German artist Käthe Kollwitz captured the desperation of parents who lost a son in the war in this woodcut. They lost their son Peter in the early months of the war, in October 1914, in Flanders.

Her desperation passed but not the pain. Some twenty years after the war she carved two kneeling statues, of her husband Karl and herself, which are now in the German military cemetery of Vladslo, in Belgium, where Peter is buried.

Karl is holding himself tight, as if afraid of showing too much emotion, sorrowfully gazing down at the tomb holding the remains of his son and 19 other soldiers.

Käthe is bowed over, holding her hand to her face, grief stricken.

Another statue she made, of a Pietà, became the model for the statue which now adorns the Central Memorial of the Federal Republic of Germany for the Victims of War and Dictatorship, in the Neue Wache in Berlin. Here, we see the mother cradling her boy, who seems, almost childlike, to be retreating into the comfort of her embrace.

This statue sits in the bare space of the Neue Wache. It is one of the most moving monuments to those who have died in war that I know.

Brittain and Kollwitz could use their art to voice their grief. A multitude of others were tongue-tied, because they could not give form to their grief or because their upbringing barred them from showing it. My great uncle and his wife lost their son Max in April 1915, during an attack on German positions near Ypres. He was just 23. His body was never found. My grandmother used to tell me that Max’s parents never recovered from his death. Yet, in the printed family history that we all received, all that my great uncle could write of this terrible blow to him and his wife was “He is much missed by his family and by Catherine Peake, to whom he was engaged. A fine looking young man, with a pleasant and charming manner, Maxwell showed promise of a brilliant future.”

The same bottled-up grief comes through on this simple plaque which we saw on our visit to Verdun. It was set up on the side of the road known as the Chemin des Dames, which was at the centre of a huge French offensive in 1917.

It reads, “Jean Dauly, 350th Infantry Regiment. Killed on 6 May 1917 in the little wood across the way, aged 20. Missed by his mother, by all his family, and by his friends. Pray for him”. Again that word “missed” … such a small word for such a terrible agony, especially if the body could not be found so there was no grave to mourn over. As the sister of Private Richard Pick wrote in her brother’s In Memoriam printed in the Grantham Journal in 1917,

The unknown grave is the bitterest blow,
None but an aching heart can know.

Sometimes the agony of loss was so great that minds became unhinged. In his book Goodbye to All That, about his experiences of fighting on the Western Front, Robert Graves recounts how he went down to Kent to visit a wounded friend of his who was staying in the family home while recovering. He writes, “His elder brother had been killed in the Dardanelles, and his mother kept his bedroom exactly as he had left it, with the sheets aired, his linen always freshly laundered, and flowers and cigarettes by his bedside.” Although Graves does not say it explicitly, one is led to understand that the mother spent her evenings trying to connect with her son through scéances with the spirits.

Violet, Viscountess Milner lost her beloved son George at the age of 18. He was killed during the retreat from Mons in September 1914. She coped by erecting a monument near where he fell and making annual visits to his grave, and befriending the local villagers.

But her grief was endless. As she noted in her diary on the twentieth anniversary of George’s death: “the sorrow, the loss, the pain, are as great today as in 1914.”

I pray – I pray – that my wife and I will never have to face the agony of losing our son – or daughter – to a war.

I leave readers with an excerpt from the poem Antwerp by Ford Madox Ford.

This is Charing Cross;
It is midnight;
There is a great crowd
And no light.
A great crowd, all black that hardly whispers aloud.
Surely, that is a dead woman – a dead mother!
She has a dead face;
She is dressed all in black;
She wanders to the bookstall and back,
At the back of the crowd;
And back again and again back,
She sways and wanders.

This is Charing Cross;
It is one o’clock.
There is still a great cloud, and very little light;
Immense shafts of shadows over the black crowd
That hardly whispers aloud. . .
And now! . . That is another dead mother,
And there is another and another and another. . .
And little children, all in black,
All with dead faces, waiting in all the waiting-places,
Wandering from the doors of the waiting-room
In the dim gloom.
These are the women of Flanders.
They await the lost.
They await the lost that shall never leave the dock;
They await the lost that shall never again come by the train
To the embraces of all these women with dead faces;
They await the lost who lie dead in trench and barrier and foss,
In the dark of the night.
This is Charing Cross; it is past one of the clock;
There is very little light.

There is so much pain.

_____________________

Walking wounded: http://elsovh.hu/english/page/20/
Otto Dix, Two Soldiers: https://hanslodge.com/file/two-soldiers-by-Otto-Dix.htm
Otto Dix, Prostitute and disabled war veteran: http://www.trebuchet-magazine.com/aftermath-art-in-troubled-times/
Otto Dix, The Match Seller: http://www.germanexpressionismleicester.org/leicesters-collection/artists-and-artworks/otto-dix/match-seller/
Shell shock victim: http://ww1centenary.oucs.ox.ac.uk/body-and-mind/shell-shock-on-film/
Käthe Kollwitz Pietà, Berlin: http://blogueresdesantmarti.net/index.php/etiqueta/dones-escultores/
Neue Wache: https://www.pinterest.com/pin/545991154801328984/
Monument to Jean Dauly: http://www.mairie-chateau-thierry.net/1418/labase/dosmonumEpineChevregnymai17.pdf
Monument to George Cecil: http://www.webmatters.net/cwgc/guards_villerscotterets.htm

MUSINGS ON BRAMBLES

Kyoto, 15 October 2018

As I struggle with jet lag on our annual trip to Kyoto and watch the night sky pale into day, my mind wanders to a previous post that I wrote about stinging nettles. I mentioned there in passing that brambles are also a bitch because of their thorns. And now my tired brain latches onto brambles.

Wicked little bastards those thorns are, capable of slicing with ease through clothing, never mind more delicate tissues like your skin. Look at the damned things!

Talking of which, there was a story doing the rounds of Medieval England which offered an intriguing alternative to the standard narrative of the start of the universal war between Good and Evil. As we all know, that war started with Satan daring to claim that he was the equal of God. Thereupon, in majestic rage, God, through the good offices of his Archangel Michael, threw Satan and his horde out of Heaven – a most dramatic rendition of which scene my wife and I recently came across in Antwerp Cathedral.

The standard story has Satan and his devils all falling into Hell. As John Milton put it so memorably in his opening lines of Paradise Lost

                             Him the Almighty Power
Hurled headlong flaming from the ethereal sky
With hideous ruin and combustion down
To bottomless perdition, there to dwell
In adamantine chains and penal fire,
Who durst defy the Omnipotent to arms.

In Medieval England instead, they had the poor devils land in bramble bushes, presumably as a pit stop on their way down to their eventual hellish destination. The pain was such that every year, on Michaelmas Day, the feast day of their nemesis the Archangel Michael, the devils would go round all the bramble bushes in England and spit, pee, and fart on the blackberries. I sense that on their satanic rounds, the devils would have looked something like this.

Now, there was actually a moral to this story, to whit: one should not eat blackberries off the bush after Michaelmas Day. A very sensible suggestion, I would say; who would want to pick and eat blackberries after they had been so treated? The precise date when this interdict should come into effect is the subject of some confusion. When the story started on its rounds, England followed the old Julian calendar, in which Michaelmas Day fell on 10th October (in today’s Gregorian calendar). In the Gregorian calendar, though, Michaelmas Day falls on 27th September. The key question is: have the devils continued to follow the Julian calendar or did they switch to the Gregorian calendar like everyone else? While my readers ponder over this conundrum, I should note that, like many fanciful stories from our past, a good scientific reason exists for eschewing blackberry eating after end-September, early-October: the damper autumnal weather encourages the growth of molds on blackberries, grey botrytis cinerea in particular, the eating of which could be perilous for the health of the eater.

It’s typical of devils that they would try to spoil the one fun thing there is about brambles, which is collecting ripe blackberries. Luckily, this is done – or should be done – late-August, early-September, before the devils get around to their nasty business. This summer, when my wife and I were walking the Vienna woods,we got few occasions to pick blackberries; there simply weren’t that many growing along the paths we took. But I still remember my siblings and I going blackberrying some fifty years ago. We would head out to the bramble bushes lining the small country lane which passed by my French grandmother’s house, each of us with a container, slowly moving down the bushes and picking the darkest, juiciest berries. This young girl epitomizes that perilous and sometimes painful search for juicy goodness among the thorns.

She at least managed to come home, with purple fingers (and probably purple mouth), with her finds.

We never seemed to come home with any; eating them on the spot was simply too irresistible, and we would troop home with nothing to show for our work but purple mouths and hands, much to the irritation of our grandmother who had been planning to conserve our blackberries for the winter. My memory fails me at this point but no doubt we would be sent off to the bramble bushes again, with strict orders to bring back the blackberries this time.

Seamus Heaney, the Irish poet and Nobel Laureate for literature, captured well the joys of blackberrying in his poem Blackberry picking, although he speaks too of the heartbreak of his treasured finds going moldy, no doubt with the help of the devils.

Late August, given heavy rain and sun
For a full week, the blackberries would ripen.
At first, just one, a glossy purple clot
Among others, red, green, hard as a knot.
You ate that first one and its flesh was sweet
Like thickened wine: summer’s blood was in it
Leaving stains upon the tongue and lust for
Picking. Then red ones inked up and that hunger
Sent us out with milk cans, pea tins, jam-pots
Where briars scratched and wet grass bleached our boots.
Round hayfields, cornfields and potato-drills
We trekked and picked until the cans were full
Until the tinkling bottom had been covered
With green ones, and on top big dark blobs burned
Like a plate of eyes. Our hands were peppered
With thorn pricks, our palms sticky as Bluebeard’s.
We hoarded the fresh berries in the byre.
But when the bath was filled we found a fur,
A rat-grey fungus, glutting on our cache.
The juice was stinking too. Once off the bush
The fruit fermented, the sweet flesh would turn sour.
I always felt like crying. It wasn’t fair
That all the lovely canfuls smelt of rot.
Each year I hoped they’d keep, knew they would not.

Luckily, by the beginning of last century the terrors of the supernatural had been tamed by science, so that Cicely Mary Barker, in her collection of seasonal flower fairies, was able to transform the nasty devils of the past into this very twee Bramble Fairy.

The fairy was accompanied by an equally twee little poem.

My berries cluster black and thick
For rich and poor alike to pick.

I’ll tear your dress and cling, and tease,
And scratch your hands and arms and knees.

I’ll stain your fingers and your face,
And then I’ll laugh at your disgrace

But when the bramble-jelly’s made
You’ll find your troubles well repaid.

Twee it might be, but the poem’s last lines point us to the next step in the blackberry adventure, namely the eating of them in various yummy forms.

In my opinion, one can do no better than eat blackberries fresh with a dollop or two – or three – of whipped cream.

I’m sure my wife would agree. She once spent a Wimbledon championship selling strawberries and whipped cream to those going in to watch the tennis, and since she no doubt scarfed down a portion of her product when the manager wasn’t looking she will testify to the deliciousness of the cream-berry combination.

The English, however, also swear by the blackberry-apple combination, cooked together in a pie. The ideal is to use windfall apples, so slightly tart, with fully ripe blackberries; the tart-sweet combination which results cannot be beaten, I am assured in article after article.

I’m moved to throw in here a brief recipe for this delicious dish. Start by making the dough for the pie. Put 250g of plain flour into a large mixing bowl with a small pinch of salt. Cut 75g of butter and 75g of lard into small chunks and rub into the flour using thumb and fingertips. Add no more than a couple of tablespoons of cold water. You want a dough that is firm enough to roll but soft enough to demand careful lifting. Set aside in the fridge, covered with a tea towel, for 30 minutes.

In the meantime, preheat the oven to 180°C. Peel, core and quarter 6 Bramley apples, cutting them into thick slices or chunks. Put 20g butter and 100g caster sugar into a saucepan and, when the butter has melted, add the apples. Slowly cook for 15 minutes with a lid on. Then add 150g blackberries, stir and cook for 5 more minutes with the lid off.

Meanwhile, remove the pastry from the fridge. Cut the pastry in half and roll one of the pieces out until it’s just under 1cm thick. Butter a shallow 25cm pie dish and line with the pastry, trimming off any excess round the edges.

Tip the cooled apples and blackberries into a sieve, reserving all the juices, then put the fruit into the lined pie dish, mounding it in the middle. Spoon over half the reserved juices. Roll out the second piece of pastry and lay it over the top of the pie. Trim the edges as before and crimp them together with your fingers. Make a couple of slashes in the top of the pastry. Place the pie on the bottom of the preheated oven for 55 to 60 minutes, until golden brown and crisp.

In these troubled times of Brexit, when there are those Little Englanders who would question the UK’s belonging to a wider European culture, I feel that I should point out that this pie is not uniquely English. Already some 450-500 years ago, the Dutch painter Willem Heda lovingly painted a half-eaten apple and blackberry pie (unfortunately, my wife and I did not see this particular painting during our trip this summer to the Netherlands).

I feel I must include here a variation on the pie theme, the blackberry-apple crumble, only because my Aunt Frances used to make the most sublime crumble, whose magnificence I remember even now, more than half a century after the fact.

Once again, pre-heat the oven to 180°C. To make the crumble, tip 120g plain flour and 60g caster sugar into a large bowl. Cut 60g unsalted butter into chunks, then rub into the flour using your thumb and fingertips to make a light breadcrumb texture. Do not overwork it or the crumble will become heavy. Sprinkle the mixture evenly over a baking sheet and bake for 15 mins or until lightly coloured. Meanwhile, prepare and cook the apple-blackberry compote as before. Spoon the warm fruit into an ovenproof gratin dish, top with the crumble mix, then reheat in the oven for 5-10 mins.

Since the Bramble Fairy speaks about bramble jelly, and since something like it was the reason my grandmother sent us out to collect blackberries, I feel I should mention this preserve too.

Staying with the apple-blackberry combination, I give here a recipe which contains apples. But the purpose of the apples is different. It is to naturally add pectin to the mix so as to make a firmer jelly.

Put 1.3kg, 2 cooking apples, washed, cored, and diced, and 450ml of water in a large saucepan. Bring to the boil, then simmer over a low heat for 20-25 minutes or until the fruit is completely soft. Tip the soft fruit and juice into a jelly bag (which has been previously boiled to sterilize) and leave to drip for 8 hours or until all the juice has been released. Prepare the jam jars by washing in hot soapy water and leaving to dry and warm in a cool oven for 10-15 minutes. Measure the juice. For every 600ml weigh out 450g sugar. Put the juice and sugar back into the clean pan, heat over a low heat until all the sugar has dissolved. Bring to the boil and simmer for 10-15 minutes or until setting point is reached. Skim away any scum from the top of the jelly and fill the jam jars to the brim. Cover, seal and label. Store in a cool, dark place until required.

It goes without saying that the juice of blackberries can be drunk too, in many forms. I will only mention one of these, blackberry wine, and only because I once made the closely related elderberry wine at school, with a couple of friends. More on this later. Let me focus first on the making of blackberry wine. If any of my readers want to try this, they can use the following recipe which I lifted from Wikihow.

To make 6 bottles of wine:
– 4½-6 lbs of fresh blackberries
– 2½ lbs of sugar
– 7 pints water
– 1 package yeast (red wine yeast is recommended)

Crush the berries by hand in a sterile plastic bucket. Pour in 2 pints of cooled distilled water and mix well. Leave the mixture for two hours.

Boil ⅓ of the sugar with 3 pints water for one minute. Allow the syrup to cool. Add the yeast to 4 oz of warm (not boiling) water and let it stand for 10 minutes. Pour the cooled syrup into the berries. Add the yeast. Make sure the mixture has properly cooled, as a hot temperature will kill the yeast. Cover the bucket with a clean cloth and leave in a warm place for seven days.

Strain the pulp through fine muslin or another fine straining device, wringing the material dry. Pour the strained liquid into a gallon jug. Boil a second ⅓ of the sugar in 1 pint water. Allow it to cool before adding it to the jug. Plug the top of jug with cotton wool and stretch a pin-pricked balloon to the neck. This allows CO2 to escape and protects the wine from oxidization and outside contamination (the demijohn in the photo has a much more sophisticated stopper for the same purpose).

Let the wine sit for ten days. Siphon or rack the wine to a container. Sterilize the jug, then return the wine. Boil the remaining ⅓ of the sugar in the last pint of water, allowing to cool before adding to the wine. Plug the jug with the cotton wool and balloon and leave until the wine has stopped fermenting. The wine will stop bubbling when fermentation has stopped.

Siphon the wine as before. Sterilize the wine bottles and add a funnel. Pour the wine into the bottles, filling each bottle to the neck. Cork and store the bottles.

Cheers!

Reading this, I realize why our attempt at making elderberry wine fifty years ago was such a miserable failure. Readers should first understand that what we were doing – making an alcoholic drink – was strictly prohibited, so we were exceedingly furtive in everything we did. With this premise, let me describe the steps we went through. As I recall, we mashed the elderberries with water and yeast, a packet of which we bought down in the village (Lord knows what the lady behind the counter thought we were doing with the yeast; she was too polite to ask). I don’t remember parking the resulting liquid somewhere warm to ferment, we simply put the mash into (unsterilized) bottles that we purloined from somewhere; did we even strain out the solids? I have my doubts. Our most pressing problem was where to hide the bottles while the juice was fermenting into (we dreamed) wine. Our first idea was to put them in a sack and haul this to the top of a leafy tree where it was well hidden. But we had forgotten that trees lose their leaves in Autumn. So readers can imagine our horror when our sack became increasingly visible – from the Housemaster’s room, no less – as the leaves dropped off. We hastily brought the sack down one evening and buried it in a little wood behind our House. Later, when we reckoned the fermentation must be over, we furtively dug up the sack. Two out of the three bottles had exploded. We took the remaining bottle into the toilet and drank it. Of course, we pretended to be drunk, although in truth the potion we had concocted had little if any effect on us; the levels of alcohol in it must have been miserably low. And the taste was distinctly blah. I’ve had it in for elderberries ever since.

Unsurprisingly, we humans have been eating blackberries for thousands of years. Swiss archaeologists have discovered the presence of blackberries in a site 5,000 years old while the Haralskaer woman was found to have eaten blackberries before she was ceremonially strangled and dumped in a Danish peat bog 2,500 years ago.

As usual, our ancestors not only ate the fruit but believed that the rest of the plant had medicinal properties of one form or another. As a son of the scientific revolution, I have grave doubts about the purported therapeutic value of berries (ripe or unripe), leaves, and flowers, when no rigorous scientific testing has ever been carried out to support the claims. However, there is one medicinal property which I will report, simply because two widely divergent sources, who could not possibly have known of each other’s existence, mention it. The first is a book of herbal remedies, the Juliana Anicia Codex, prepared in the early 6th Century in Constantinople by the Greek Dioscorides, and which is now – through the twists and turns of fate that make up history – lodged in Austria’s National Library in Vienna. This is the page in the book dedicated to the bramble.

The text relates, among other things: “The leaves are chewed to strengthen the gums ”. For their part, the Cherokee Indians in North America would chew on fresh bramble leaves to treat bleeding gums. The same claim by Byzantine Greeks and Cherokee Indians? That seems too much to be a mere coincidence. When the world has gone to hell in a handbasket because we were not able to control our emissions of greenhouse gases, and when my gums begin to bleed because there will be no more dentists to go to for my annual check-ups, I will remember this claim and chew on bramble leaves.

On that pessimistic note, I will take my leave of my readers with a poem by the Chinese poet Li Qingzhao. She lived through a period of societal breakdown, when the Song Dynasty was defeated by the nomadic Jurchens in the early 12th Century and retreated southward to create an impoverished rump of its empire around Hangzhou, known to us as the Southern Song. Li Qingzhao reflected on this period of decline and decay in her later poems. I choose this particular poem, her Tz’u Song No. 1, because it happens to mention blackberry flowers and blackberry wine.

Fragrant grass beside the pond
green shade over the hall
a clear cold comes through
the window curtains
crescent moon beyond the golden bars
and a flute sounds
as if someone were coming
but alone on my mat with a cup
gazing sadly into nothingness
I want to call back
the blackberry flowers
that have fallen
though pear blossoms remain
for in that distant year
I came to love their fresh fragrance
scenting my sleeve
as we culled petals over the fire
when as far as the eye could see
were dragon boats on the river
graceful horses and gay carts
when I did not fear the mad winds
and violent rain
as we drank to good fortune
with warm blackberry wine
now I cannot conceive
how to retrieve that time.

_______________________

Blackberry thorns: http://iuniana.hangdrum.info
Frans Floris, “Fall of the Rebel Angels”: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/ File:Fall_of_rebel_Angels_(Frans_Floris)_September_2015-1a.jpg
Devil: https://www.etsy.com/sg-en/listing/517991225/the-devil-ceramic-decal-devil-ceramic
Blackberry fairy: https://flowerfairies.com/the-blackberry-fairy/
Blackberry picking: https://spiralspun.com/2013/10/29/blackberry-picking-one-of-lifes-simple-pleasures/
Jug of blackberries: https://spiralspun.com/2013/10/29/blackberry-picking-one-of-lifes-simple-pleasures/
Blackberries with whipped cream: https://depositphotos.com/80606340/stock-photo-fresh-blackberries-with-whipped-cream.html
Apple and blackberry pie: https://www.thespruceeats.com/british-apple-and-blackberry-pie-recipe-434894
Willem Claesz. Heda, Still Life with a Fruit Pie: https://www.masterart.com/artworks/502/willem-heda-still-life-with-a-blackberry-pie
Apple and blackberry crumble: https://www.taste.com.au/recipes/apple-blackberry-crumble/837e5613-3708-42f2-8835-dcd9dd3b3876
Blackberry jelly: https://www.bbc.com/food/recipes/bramblejelly_13698
Demijohn of blackberry wine: https://www.pinterest.com/pin/371476669246000245/
Bottled blackberry wine: http://justintadlock.com/archives/2018/01/27/bottled-blackberry-wine
Glass of blackberry wine: https://www.pinterest.pt/pin/573294227542445354/
Haraldskaer woman: http://legendsandlore.blogspot.com/2006/01/haraldskaer-woman.html

THE CHERRY, SWEET AND SOUR

Vienna, 20 July 2018

In one of my wanderings through the Vienna woods with my wife, I noticed a tree like this one growing along the side of the path.

The bark, with those typical striations, almost scarifications, suggested strongly to me that it was a cherry tree.

The leaves looked cherry-like too. There was a cherry-like fruits hanging on the branches, but they were really small.

Was this a cherry tree gone feral, I wondered?

Cautiously, oh so cautiously, I tried one of the fruits. There was hardly any pulp, although what there was tasted cherry-like. And the small seed looked cherry-like too. I pronounced to my wife, who was standing anxiously by, waiting for me to keel over from eating some deadly poison, that in my opinion we were standing before a wild cherry tree.

Now that I had noticed the tree, I began to see them everywhere along our walks – a nice change from the drifts of wild garlic. Later on, one of the entries along a little “Nature Walk” at Hermesvilla (a large country house built by Emperor Franz-Josef for his beloved Sissi on the outskirts of Vienna) informed me that these were indeed wild cherry trees. In German, they have a charming name, Vogel Kirsche, a name that Linnaeus echoed in the Latin name he gave it, Prunus avium. I say charming, because I can indeed imagine birds feasting on these small fruit. What a lovely banquet Nature has given them! Here, a clever photographer has caught one in the act.

I have since read that small mammals also eat them, spreading – like the birds – the seeds far and wide, this no doubt explaining why I was discovering the trees far and wide in the woods around Vienna.

When I was a much smaller mammal than I am now, I distinctly remember climbing into the cherry tree which my French grandmother had in a corner of her garden – a big, stately old tree which had been there many a-year – and scarfing down its plump purple cherries, spitting out the cherry seeds far and wide. Ah, how sweet those cherries were! Even now, fifty and more years later, I can remember their taste. So I salute the Lords of the Universe, who in their infinite wisdom created the Vogel Kirsche for the delectation of the Vogels and small mammals!

Well, after that flight of poetic fancy, let me return to earth and to a more sober turn of phrase. For those among my readers who are as interested as I am in etymology, it may interest them to know that the English word “cherry” derives from the Old Northern French or Norman word for the tree and fruit “cherise”, which itself is derived from the Latin word “cerasum”, which in turn is a derivation of the ancient Greek word “kerasous”. The etymology tracks the journey of the domesticated cherry tree into Europe.

Kerasous was actually the name of one of the Pontic Greek provinces lying on the southern shores of the Black Sea, east of Trebizond. It was here that the Greek world got to know the domesticated cherry tree that we are familiar with, with its much larger cherries than the tiny fruit of the wild cherry tree which I had nibbled at cautiously. Somewhere in the Anatolian highlands behind Kerasous, farmers had domesticated the wild cherry tree, patiently coaxing it over generations to deliver up bigger fruits more on the scale of us big mammals, and sweeter and juicier into the bargain.

I would assume that Ancient Greeks brought back some trees and planted them in the Greek heartlands. From there, I would have thought it no great flight of the imagination to think that the cherry tree spread to Magna Graecia, Greater Greece, that string of Greek colonies that ran along the insole and heel of the Italian boot and the southern coasts of Sicily, and from there a skip, hop, and a jump would have brought the tree to the expanding Roman world.

Not so, according to Gaius Plinius Secundus, known to us as Pliny the Elder. In his Natural History

written in the late 70s AD, he holds that the cherry tree entered the Roman world in a much more Roman way, as spoils of war. In his words (translated, I hasten to add, by someone much more learned in Latin than I), “before the victory of L. Lucullus in the war against Mithridates, that is down to 74 BC, there were no cherry trees in Italy. Lucullus first imported them from Pontus”. Lucius Licinius Lucullus (to give the man his full name) was a Roman consul in the sunset years of the Roman Republic.

He was, it seems, a brilliant general. Among his other accomplishments, he comprehensively thrashed Mithridates, king of Pontus. In the process, he gained for himself untold riches in loot, which, along with the domesticated cherry tree, he brought back to Rome. He used his riches to live a life of luxury, something which was still frowned upon in Republican Rome but was to become the norm in Imperial Rome. Apart conspicuous consumerism (which included that typical expense of the Roman rich and powerful, the organization of extravagant games), Lucullus created a number of gardens, a fragment of one of which still exists in the Villa Borghese gardens in Rome.

This was another “spoil” of war – Lucullus had picked up the Persian love of gardens during his Eastern campaigns; I have had cause to mention Persian gardens in an earlier post, in quite another context. No doubt it was in his gardens that he planted his imported cherry trees and invited the Roman rich and powerful to partake of its fruit. As might be expected, the fruit became incredibly popular and plantings of the cherry tree grew apace. As the Roman legions moved north carrying the Pax Romana and civitas with them, the administrators who followed carried along cherry trees to plant in the conquered lands. Citing Pliny again, “in 120 years they have crossed the ocean and got as far as Britain”.

Of course, strictly speaking Pliny was wrong when he said that there were no cherry trees in Italy before Lucullus brought them. There were, but of the type which I had come across in the Vienna woods. The natural habitat of Prunus avium stretches from Ireland to the Iranian Plateau.

Our ancestors were eating their little fruits at least two thousands years before Pliny wrote his Natural History – we know this because various Bronze Age sites across Europe have yielded up the tiny little stones – and no doubt Italian peasants were still eating them. But aristocrats like Pliny would surely not have deigned to touch such poor food – much as I do not touch the elderberries which currently weigh purple and heavy on their bushes here in Vienna but whose weak and watery taste I came to despise when I picked them as a schoolboy in the English hedgerows.

Coming back to Lucullus, he was also known for his eating habits. His over-the-top banquets in particular were to become legendary, giving rise to the English word “lucullan”, as in “that dinner was lucullan” meaning that it was particularly large, lavish, and ostentatious (I add this etymological factoid because my wife is fond of using the equivalent Italian word “luculliano” of certain meals; it might interest her to know its provenance). If I mention this aspect of Lucullus’s lifestyle it is because of a recent lunch – not lucullan but definitely many notches above the ordinary – which I shared with an old colleague. After a starter of marinaded char with beer radish, apple and woodruff, followed by a main dish of grilled sturgeon with baby kohlrabi, Risina beans, Meyer lemon and stewed onions, all washed down with a glass of white wine, we both took for dessert a curd-sour cherry tart with hay milk ice cream. It was actually that delicious sour cherry tart that precipitated this post, not my meeting in the woods with the wild cherry.

I must admit to having been a bit sneaky with my readers, having written up to now as if there were only one type of edible cherry. In fact, as all cherry lovers will know, there are two: the sweet cherry, Prunus avium, and the sour cherry, Prunus cerasus.

For the biologically-minded among my readers, it might interest them to know that P. cerasus is actually a hybrid between our friend P. avium and another species of cherry tree, P. fruticosa, or dwarf cherry. This friendly intermingling of genes must have occurred on the Iranian Plateau or in Eastern Europe where the two species’s natural habitats overlap. As its common name suggests, P. fruticosa is believed to have provided the sour cherry tree its smaller size, but it is also thought to be responsible for its tarter tasting fruit. It seems that the hybrids took on a life of their own (“stabilised”, I believe is the scientific word for this) and interbred to form a new, distinct species. The wonders of biology …

I can personally vouch to the smaller stature of the sour cherry tree and to the greater tartness of its fruit. As a young boy, staying at my French grandmother’s house over a summer holiday, it came to pass that my grandmother decided to visit a first cousin of hers who was staying in her country house some kilometers away. She took me and my sister along with her. It was a delightfully faded house with furnishings that were rather threadbare and old fashioned: my mother rather reluctantly inherited it many years later, commenting that it would be more work than it was worth. Having politely pecked the old lady on the cheek and suffered through comments about how much we had grown since last we had met, we were allowed to run off into the garden, leaving the two old biddies to settle down to a nice cup of tea and a gossip. In that garden, tucked away in a corner, we discovered this small tree covered with bright red cherries, all very easy to reach – no clambering up ladders into this tree. Alas! A couple of cherries were enough to dissuade me from going further. They were too sour for my little mouth. I was disconsolate, although when my grandmother took a large bag of the cherries back home with her, I realized that I had stumbled across the source of those fabulous cherries that filled glass jars such as this one which stood in serried ranks on a shelf in the cellar.

My grandmother made assiduous use of those cherries, baking tarts such as the one I had eaten in my non-lucullan but still exceedingly yummy lunch. Memories, memories …

Of course, we love cherries not just for their fruit but also for their flowers in Spring.

Here, the Chinese, Koreans, and Japanese have surpassed us all. They have taken their local species of cherry tree (I should note in passing that there are at least 60 species of cherry worldwide) and over the ages have coaxed them into giving fabulous blooms in Spring.

In turn, cherry blossoms have coaxed wonderful poems out of Asian poets. Here, for instance, is a short poem by the late 9th century Japanese poet Otomo no Juronushi.

Everyone feels grief
when cherry blossoms scatter.
Might they then be tears –
those drops of moisture falling
in the gentle rains of spring?

While here we have Li Yu, terrible ruler (he was the last ruler of the Southern Tang dynasty in the late 10th century) but wonderful poet.

Beneath the moon, before the steps, all cherry blossom has fallen,
Enwreathed in smoke, she looks sorrowful lying in bed.
She feels the same regret today as one long year ago.
Both braids like cloud in disarray, her face is wan and sallow,
The crimson corset wet from wiping tears.
But what’s the reason why she suffers so?
She lies in a drunken dream before the window.

These biological wonders have been carried all over the world to amaze and delight. Many years ago, when we lived in Washington DC, we tried to see the cherry trees in bloom there.

But the crowds were so impossibly large that we beat a hasty retreat. I have a more intimate memory from my university days in Edinburgh. There was a little square, Nicolson Square, just across from the University Drama Society’s theatre space which I used to haunt. I would often pass through the square on my way to and from the other university buildings. It was densely planted along its sides with cherry trees which had an intensely pink flower. In the Spring it was a delight, as you walked first under sprays, then, as the petals fell, through drifts, of pink. This photo, from those years, gives a small idea of the loveliness.

That brief blaze of pink was a harbinger of the (weak) sun and (relative) warmth to come after the long, long, dark, dark, cold, cold months of the Scottish winter. And it always happened just when we had to hole up in the library to study for our end-of-year exams! Such is life …

__________________________

wild cherry tree: https://www.waldwissen.net/waldwirtschaft/waldbau/pflege/lwf_waldbau_vogelkirsche/index_DE
wild cherry tree bark: https://www1.wdr.de/verbraucher/wohnen/service-garten-borken-100.html
wild cherry fruit: https://vollwert-blog.de/wilde-vogelkirschen/
bird eating cherries: https://www.fotocommunity.de/photo/kirschen-essen-vogel-chrisi-online/17347944
wild versus domesticated cherry: https://vollwert-blog.de/wilde-vogelkirschen/
Pliny’s Natural History: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Natural_History_(Pliny)
Lucullus: https://www.istockphoto.com/at/vektor/lucius-licinius-lucullus-gm686730586-126174385
Villa Borghese gardens: http://www.garden.it/chicotti/i-giardini-segreti-di-villa-borghese-giardino-dei-fiori
Prunus avium range: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prunus_avium
Sour cherry: https://gourmandistan.com/2012/05/20/short-sour-cho-chweet-cherry-season/
Glass jar full of cherries: http://lesgourmandesastucieuses.blogspot.com/2011/07/comment-conserver-vos-cerises-2eme.html
Cherry tree in bloom: https://www.istockphoto.com/at/fotos/wild-cherry-tree
Cherry trees blooming in Japan: https://www.redduckpost.com/cherry-blossoms-in-japan-can-you-rely-on-the-forecast/
Cherry trees blooming in Washington DC: https://washington.org/DC-guide-to/national-cherry-blossom-festival
Nicolson square: https://www.facebook.com/lostedinburgh/posts/nicolson-square-spring-1972-lovely/1530993553624989/

THE LATE AFTERNOON OF ONE’S LIFE

Los Angeles, 10 April 2018

A few days ago, my wife and I joined our daughter and her boyfriend at a concert being given at Los Angeles’s Walt Disney Concert Hall. The piece we heard was das Lied von der Erde, the Song of the Earth, by Gustav Mahler. As its name suggests, the piece is composed of six songs. The word “songs” risks to simplify the nature of what we heard. Perhaps musical meditations might describe it better. Mahler built his music around the texts of several Chinese poems from the Tang dynasty. He wove the music and words together to tell us a story of ineffable sadness, of regret of things not done, of memories of youth, of premonitions of one’s mortality, all things which I, at the age of 64, occasionally suffer from; who doesn’t, in the late afternoon of their lives? Aged 48 when he wrote it, Mahler was younger than I am today, but had recently suffered grievous blows: his eldest daughter had died of scarlet fever and diphtheria, he had been diagnosed with a potentially fatal congenital heart defect, and he was being forced out of his position as Director of the Vienna Court Opera by the antisemitic element in Viennese society.

I cite here an English translation of the first and last of these songs, the two which spoke to me most.

The drinking song of earth’s sorrow

The wine beckons in golden goblets
but drink not yet; I’ll sing you first a song.
The song of sorrow shall ring laughing in your soul.
When the sorrow comes, blasted lie the gardens of the soul, wither and perish joy and singing.
Dark is life, dark is death!

Master of this house,
your cellar o’erflows with golden wine!
Here, this lute I call mine.
A lute to strike and glasses to drain,
these things go well together.
A full glass of wine at the right time is worth more than all the realms of this earth.
Dark is life, dark is death!

The heavens are ever blue and the Earth
shall stand sure, and blossom in the spring.
But you O man, how long your life?
Not one hundred years may you delight
in all the rotten baubles of this earth.
See down there! In the moonlight, on the graves squats a wild ghostly shape;
an ape it is! Hear you his howl go out
in the sweet fragrance of life.
Now! Drink the wine! Now ‘tis time, friends.
Drain your golden goblets to the last.
Dark is life, dark is death!

The farewell

The sun drops down behind the mountains.
In every valley evening descends,
Bringing its shadows, full of coolness.
Look! like a silver bark
The moon floats in heaven’s blue lake.
I sense a delicate breeze stirring
Behind the dark fir trees.

The brook sings out clear through the darkness.
The flowers pale in the twilight.
The earth breathes, in full rest and sleep;
All desire now turns to dreaming.
Weary folk turn homewards,
So that, in sleep, they may learn anew
Forgotten joy and youth.
The birds huddle silent on their branches.
The world falls asleep.

A cool breeze blows in the shadow of my fir trees.
I stand here and wait for my friend.
I wait for him to take a last farewell.
I yearn, my friend, at your side,
To enjoy the beauty of this evening.
Where are you? You leave me long alone!
I wander to and fro with my lute
On pathways which billow with soft grass.
O beauty! O eternal-love-and-life-intoxicated world!

He dismounted and I handed him the drink of farewell.
I asked him where he was going,
And also why it had to be.
He spoke, his voice was veiled:
‘Ah! my friend – Fortune was not kind to me in this world!
Where am I going? I will wander in the mountains,
I seek rest for my lonely heart!
I journey to the homeland, to my resting place;
I shall never again go seeking the far distance.
My heart is still and awaits its hour!’

The dear earth everywhere
Blossoms in spring and grows green again!
Everywhere and forever the distance shines bright and blue!

Forever . . . forever . . .

As I bathed in the music and the words, another poem about the consciousness of time passing and of regret at things not done floated into my mind, A.E. Housman’s How Clear, How Lovely Bright.

How clear, how lovely bright,
How beautiful to sight
Those beams of morning play;
How heaven laughs out with glee
Where, like a bird set free,
Up from the eastern sea
Soars the delightful day.

To-day I shall be strong,
No more shall yield to wrong,
Shall squander life no more;
Days lost, I know not how,
I shall retrieve them now;
Now I shall keep the vow
I never kept before.

Ensanguining the skies
How heavily it dies
Into the west away;
Past touch and sight and sound
Not further to be found,
How hopeless under ground
Falls the remorseful day.

I only recently learnt of this poem, through Morse, that most intellectual of police chief inspectors on British television, who cites the last stanza in the very last episode of the series. He speaks it as the sun goes down over the Meadows at Oxford and as he faces the bleakness of his imminent retirement, little knowing that death awaits him the next day.

Housman’s metaphor of the sun rising and setting is echoed in a poem by Sara Teasdale, which I quoted in an earlier post, The River

I came from the sunny valleys
And sought for the open sea,
For I thought in its gray expanses
My peace would come to me.

I came at last to the ocean
And found it wild and black,
And I cried to the windless valleys,
“Be kind and take me back!”

But the thirsty tide ran inland,
And the salt waves drank of me,
And I who was fresh as the rainfall
Am bitter as the sea.

My discovery of this poem several years ago resulted from a student giving me a modern Chinese poem, a poem on departures, in this case from Cambridge. Funny that. In that roundabout way so typical of life, Tang Dynasty poems a thousand years old have been connected by way of Vienna, Los Angeles, and two ancient English university towns back to a modern Chinese poem.

Come on, old man, time to have another glass of wine.

THE ODYSSEY: DAYDREAMS OF MY YOUTH

Milan, 10 March 2018

A couple of days ago, my wife declared that I needed to buy some books since my supply of unread books was running low. No sooner said than done: we popped down into the basement of the large bookshop in the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele in Piazza Duomo and I spent a happy half hour perusing their shelves of English books. As I walked off with five or six new volumes to read, I spied a book whose title was “Odyssey”.

And suddenly I was 10-11 years old again, sitting in the school library, breathlessly reading a simplified version of the Odyssey which was written in installments in some boys’ weekly magazine. Week by week, I followed the crafty Odysseus as he and his men sailed away from the still smouldering ruins of Troy in his “racing warships across the wine-dark sea”, bound for Ithaca and his wife Penelope and son Telemachus. I absorbed his adventures, some of which I illustrate here with Greek pottery or Roman mosaics or sculpture (and in one case with a much more recent print because I couldn’t find an example from the Classical period); I accompany the illustrations with passages from the text of the Odyssey translated by Robert Fagles:

In the land of the Lotus Eaters

Any crewmen who ate the lotus, the honey-sweet fruit,
their only wish was to linger there with the Lotus-eaters,
grazing on lotus, all memory of the journey home
dissolved forever. But I brought them back—I forced them,
hauled them under the rowing benches, lashed them fast
and shouted out commands to my other, steady comrades:
‘Quick, no time to lose, embark in the racing ships!’—
so none could eat the lotus, forget the voyage home.

In the cave of the cyclops Polyphemus, who is now in a drunken sleep after tossing down several large bowls of wine given to him by Odysseus

Now, at last, I thrust our stake in a bed of embers
to get it red-hot and rallied all my comrades:
‘Courage—no panic, no one hang back now!’
And green as it was, just as the olive stake
was about to catch fire—the glow terrific, yes—
I dragged it from the flames, my men clustering round
as some god breathed enormous courage through us all.
Hoisting high that olive stake with its stabbing point,
straight into the monster’s eye they rammed it hard—
and bored it round and round in the giant’s eye
till blood came boiling up around that smoking shaft
and the hot blast singed his brow and eyelids round the core
and the broiling eyeball burst—its crackling roots blazed
and hissed. He loosed a hideous roar, the rock walls echoed round
and we scuttled back in terror. The monster wrenched the spike
from his eye and out it came with a red geyser of blood —
he flung it aside with frantic hands, and mad with pain.

On Circe’s enchanted island

She opened her gleaming doors at once and stepped forth,
inviting them all in, and in they went, all innocence.
She ushered them in to sit on high-backed chairs,
then she mixed them a potion—cheese, barley
and pale honey mulled in Pramnian wine—
but into the brew she stirred her wicked drugs
to wipe from their memories any thought of home.
Once they’d drained the bowls she filled, suddenly
she struck with her wand, drove them into her pigsties,
all of them bristling into swine—with grunts,
snouts—even their bodies, yes, and only
the men’s minds stayed steadfast as before.
So off they went to their pens, sobbing, squealing
as Circe flung them acorns, cornel nuts and mast,
common fodder for hogs that root and roll in mud.

Sailing by the sirens

I stopped the ears of my comrades one by one.
They bound me hand and foot in the tight ship—
erect at the mast-block, lashed by ropes to the mast—
We were just offshore as far as a man’s shout can carry,
scudding close, when the Sirens sensed at once a ship
was racing past and burst into their high, thrilling song:
‘Come closer, famous Odysseus—Achaea’s pride and glory—
moor your ship on our coast so you can hear our song!’
So they sent their ravishing voices out across the air
and the heart inside me throbbed to listen longer.
I signaled the crew with frowns to set me free—
they flung themselves at the oars and rowed on harder.
But once we’d left the Sirens fading in our wake,
once we could hear their song no more, their urgent call—
my steadfast crew was quick to remove the wax I’d used
to seal their ears and loosed the bonds that lashed me.

Sailing between Scylla and Charybdis

Now wailing in fear, we rowed on up those straits,
Scylla to starboard, dreaded Charybdis off to port,
her horrible whirlpool gulping the sea-surge down, down
the whole abyss lay bare and the rocks around her roared,
terrible, deafening— bedrock showed down deep, boiling
black with sand— and ashen terror gripped the men.
But now, fearing death, all eyes fixed on Charybdis—
now Scylla snatched six men from our hollow ship,
the toughest, strongest hands I had, and glancing
backward over the decks, searching for my crew
I could see their hands and feet already hoisted,
flailing, high, higher, over my head, look—
wailing down at me, comrades riven in agony,
shrieking out my name for one last time!

Odysseus killing the suitors

With that he trained a stabbing arrow on Antinous …
just lifting a gorgeous golden loving-cup in his hands,
just tilting the two-handled goblet back to his lips,
about to drain the wine—and slaughter the last thing
on the suitor’s mind: who could dream that one foe
in that crowd of feasters, however great his power,
would bring down death on himself, and black doom?
But Odysseus aimed and shot Antinous square in the throat
and the point went stabbing clean through the soft neck and out—
and off to the side he pitched, the cup dropped from his grasp
as the shaft sank home, and the man’s life-blood came spurting
out his nostrils— thick red jets— a sudden thrust of his foot—
he kicked away the table— food showered across the floor,
the bread and meats soaked in a swirl of bloody filth.

Ah, what stories, what stories!

Then, a few years later, when I was 13-14 years old, I caught the bug of trying to figure out the route which Odysseus had taken in the ten years he wandered the seas trying to reach home: just where were the land of the Lotus Easters, the cave of Polyphemus the Cyclops, the rocks on which the Sirens sat and sang, Scylla and Charybdis? Sitting in the quiet school library

I would surreptitiously shove my homework aside – Latin, Greek, French, History, whatever it was – and go get myself the Times Atlas. This was a very large atlas with a lovely dark blue cover. It had maps of every corner of the world, but I zeroed in on the maps of the Mediterranean: the Aegean Sea

the North African coast up to Tunisia

Italy, especially the area around Sicily

and a glance or two across the western Mediterranean to Spain.

I pored over a translation of the Odyssey, which I found in some corner of the library, trying to tease out clues as to travel time and direction. Then, having got some information somewhere about how fast a sailing ship could go, I would examine the maps with furrowed brow, trying to turn this information into travel distance and direction. I read up on competing theories of Odysseus’s itinerary, which had maps looking like this.

I spent hours on this. But eventually reality stepped in. Either my grades were slipping or I realized that it was impossible to work out Odysseus’s itinerary with any level of certainty; I was slipping into the world of cranks. But it wasn’t all for naught: I was left with a love of maps and of the Mediterranean. And from time to time, when I have a chance encounter such as that in the bookshop, good memories flood back of this brief passion of mine.

____________
Escaping the Lotus Eaters: https://art.famsf.org/theodore-van-thulden/ulysses-and-his-companions-land-lotus-eaters-no-5-labors-ulysses-19633015206
Odysseus blinding the Cyclops: https://it.pinterest.com/pin/498914464951224721/?lp=true
Odysseus blinding the Cyclops: https://trecancelle.wordpress.com/2013/04/22/153-sperlongas-archaeological-museum-and-tiberius-grotto/
Circe turning Odysseus’s men into swine: http://www.theoi.com/Gallery/T35.7.html
Odysseus and the Sirens: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Odyssey
Odysseus and the Sirens-mosaics: http://marmor-mosaike.de/FK035.html
Odysseus and Scylla: https://releaseyourkraken.com/blog-3-kraken-mythology/
Odysseus and Scylla (reconstruction): https://ontravelwriting.com/places-and-people/sperlonga-sculptures-group-ulysses-national-archaeology-museum/
Odysseus kills suitors: http://slideplayer.fr/slide/3720241/
Times Atlas Greece: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Original-Antique-Victorian-Greece-Scutari/dp/B0088WNU8Q
Times Atlas Italy: http://www.stanfords.co.uk/The-Times-Desktop-Atlas-of-the-World_9780008104986
Times Atlas Libya and Egypt: https://www.davidrumsey.com/luna/servlet/detail/RUMSEY~8~1~225480~5506188:Egypt-and-Libya,-Plate-85,-V–IV
Map with journey: https://it.pinterest.com/pin/74379831324150781/?lp=true

SPRING IS COMING!

Sori, 14th February 2018

Once, after I’d made a speech in Bangkok about how the world was going to hell in a hand basket, with multiple environmental disasters awaiting us, I was asked by the MC (who clearly had no idea what to say to me) what I most missed in Thailand. The seasons, I replied: winter, spring, summer, autumn. It was indeed one of the few things I missed in Bangkok from my European heritage; I always felt that South-East Asia was seasonal monotony. It was either hot or hotter, with rain added from time to time.

Now that I’m back in Europe, I can enjoy the four seasons again. Right now, in a masochistic sort of way, I’m enjoying the tail-end of the winter season: ah, that cold north wind which causes you to pull your head and shoulders into your coat like a turtle into its shell … But here on the Ligurian coast, located in its own warm microclimate, we already have signs that spring is on its way! As we have been walking the hills, there have been signs all around us that Nature is getting ready to burst forth again, like in Botticelli’s Spring.

We have the mimosa trees, whose festival it will soon be

the almond trees, seen here on a walk in the Cinque Terre

the crocuses, in the shady underforest

a lone primrose, also spied on the sun-speckled forest floor

carpets of a yellow flower, to me unknown, bedecking the sides of the paths open to the sun


bushes of rosemary growing from out of the rocks

purple irises, not a flower I connect with early spring

a humble little mauve flower, growing at the foot of olive trees

even a bright yellow fungus, returning a dead log to the earth from whence it came.

Yes, nothing so lovely as the Earth bursting into life. No wonder the poets have often sung about spring! Here’s a poem by Gerald Manley Hopkins, entitled simply Spring:

Nothing is so beautiful as Spring –
When weeds, in wheels, shoot long and lovely and lush;
Thrush’s eggs look little low heavens, and thrush
Through the echoing timber does so rinse and wring
The ear, it strikes like lightnings to hear him sing;
The glassy peartree leaves and blooms, they brush
The descending blue; that blue is all in a rush
With richness; the racing lambs too have fair their fling.

What is all this juice and all this joy?
A strain of the earth’s sweet being in the beginning
In Eden garden. – Have, get, before it cloy,
Before it cloud, Christ, lord, and sour with sinning,
Innocent mind and Mayday in girl and boy,
Most, O maid’s child, thy choice and worthy the winning.

Happy Saint Valentine’s!

_____________

Boticelli’s Primavera: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Primavera_(painting)
All other pics: all ours

OSMANTHUS FRAGRANS

Osaka Airport, 22 October 2017

My wife and I have been in Kyoto these last three weeks. I was here to once again give my course on sustainable industrial development at the university. But I don’t want to discuss that, I want to talk about a scent wafting on the breeze.

As we walked around the quiet neighborhood where we had taken an AirBnB, I found my nose suddenly being assailed by a very sweet smelling scent. The first few times it happened, I couldn’t locate an obvious source around me and I began to fear that I was suffering from olfactory hallucinations, that a tumor was growing in my brain and was beginning to press against whichever bit it is that controls one’s sense of smell. What made me particularly susceptible to this theory was that the scent was distinctly similar to the one most toilet cleaning products emit; you know, the scent which wafts off that bright blue or pink stuff you squeeze into the toilet bowl, leaving your toilet smelling like heaven.


Maybe the tumor was triggering olfactory memories of my toilet … Luckily for my growing levels of paranoia, the third or fourth time it happened I located the source. It was an unprepossessing tree on the corner of the road.

It was covered in small orange flowers.

Relieved that the scent was not a figment of a diseased brain, I set to work trying to figure out what plant it was. A google search quickly revealed its Japanese name to be kinmokusei, and that in the month of October it fills the air with its sweet scent. A further search revealed that its official name is osmanthus fragrans, with its English names being sweet olive, tea olive, or fragrant olive (the reference to olive apparently having to do with a similarity in leaf shape to the olive tree).

According to its Wikipedia entry, the several varieties of osmanthus are “native to Asia, from the Himalayas through southern China to Taiwan and southern Japan and southeast Asia as far south as Cambodia and Thailand”. The mention of China rang a bell somewhere in my (non-diseased) brain, something I had read once, while living in China, about osmanthus jam. Sure enough, the Wikipedia article revealed that the Chinese make an osmanthus-scented jam, but also osmanthus-scented tea, dumplings, cakes, soups, wine, and liquor. My wife and I never tasted any of these delicacies when we lived in China, but that was Beijing, in northern China, outside the osmanthus’s range.

The China connection and the nostalgia it evoked in me made me dig a little more. I discovered that the plant’s relationship with China is long; the Chinese have been cultivating it for some two and a half thousand years – its sweet scent saw to that. As might be expected, the Chinese poets weaved it into their work. Here is Wang Wei, an 8th Century Tang Dynasty poet:

I’m quiet, osmanthus flowers fall,
Tranquil is this spring night, empty the hill,
The rising moon startles mountain birds,
Which call awhile in the spring stream.

Or here we have the 12th Century Song Dynasty female poet, Li Qingzhao:

I recover from illness,
My temples have turned grey.
I lie down to rest and watch the waning moon
Climb up my screen.
Tender lips meet sweet mace, boiled in water,
Aromatic as tea.
Books and poems are so dear to me
While I sit idle against a pillow.
The outside scene freshens when rain falls.
All day long, facing me lovingly
Is the sweet osmanthus.

Things have come to a pretty pass when a flower’s scent, which made the Chinese poets sing, only makes me think of toilet fresheners! What a dumbing down we are witnessing …

Luckily for me, the Chinese themselves have made a connection between the flower’s sweet scent and more malodorous things. Osmanthus flowers bloom more or less in the eighth lunar month, which is when the Imperial civil service examinations were originally held.

This temporal connection gave rise to a phrase in late Imperial China which was used to euphemistically indicate that a candidate had successfully passed the exam: “pluck osmanthus in the Toad Palace”. Passing the exams would now open up to the successful candidate positions in the administration where myriad possibilities would exist for him to conclude sweet deals to his advantage during the rest of his no doubt illustrious career. Imperial examinations have vanished, only to have their place taken by the gaokao, the university entrance exams.

This is the first critical step to defining how successful a career you can have in China and how much of a life of preferment and sweet deals you will enjoy. “Plus ça change et plus c’est la même chose”, the more things change and the more they stay the same, as the French writer Jean-Baptiste Karr once observed.

While I have been reading up on all this, Typhoon Lan has been brewing in the Pacific to the east of the Philippines. Now it is moving ponderously northward towards Japan. The rain that’s been falling as a prelude to its arrival has stripped the Osmanthus bushes of their flowers.

Their scent is finished for this year. It’s time for us to fly home, hopefully before Typhoon Lan makes a landfall and closes the airport.

_____________

Toilet cleaner: https://wifinowevents.com/news-and-blog/22000-agree-clean-toilets-wi-fi/
osmanthus fragrans: my pictures
Chinese Imperial exams: https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=AXGQt7Ts1wo
Gaokao exam: http://blog.tutorming.com/expats/what-is-gaokao-chinese-college-entrance-exam
Fallen osmanthus flowers: my picture

UNDER A LINDEN TREE

Vienna, 1 June 2017

One of the reasons we were attracted to the apartment we bought in Vienna is that there is a linden tree, or lime tree, just outside the living room, at eye level.

Right now, the flowers are still forming, but it was July when we bought the apartment and the tree was in full bloom, covered in pale yellow flowers around which buzzed a thousand insects.


The scent that wafted through the open window was divine. For those readers who have not had the good fortune to be near a linden tree in full bloom, let me try to describe the scent: delicate – your brain barely registers it; sweet – at the height of the bloom, insects are crazy to get to the nectar; ephemeral – the scent wafts your way for a second, then disappears just as quickly. I’m sure the memory of that scent still lingered in our minds when we signed the purchase contract.

Strangely enough, even though the linden tree grows in the U.K., I have no memory of that scent from my youth; perhaps because I hardly ever spent any of my summers there. Nor do I have any memory of the scent from France, where I spent many a youthful summer, or from Italy, where I spent many of my adult years. It was only when I moved to Austria twenty years ago that I became aware of it. Was it perhaps because linden trees are common shade trees throughout the Germanic and Slavic lands? Certainly, the street we live on in Vienna has a portion, closer to the city centre, which is entirely shaded in linden trees – and what a treat it is for the nose to walk unter den linden, under the linden trees, when they are in bloom! I will make sure we walk along the much more famous Unter den Linden Avenue in Berlin


when we go there in early August although by then I fear that the peak of the trees’ blooming will have passed.

I have to think that the frequent presence of linden trees in urban settings throughout Central Europe can be traced back to the sacred place the tree had in Germanic and Slavic mythology. When Christianity arrived, it sensibly adapted, planting linden trees around churches, accepting that villagers congregate under the village linden tree for important meetings or for seasonal festivities

as well as encouraging a tradition linking the Virgin Mary to the linden tree (probably because this displaced a pagan goddess linked to the tree).

Thus was the tree’s place in Central Europe’s modern cities assured. But why the linden tree was sacred to Slavic and Germanic tribes in the first place is not clear to me – at least, I have found no good answer in the literature available to me on the web. I have read that the tree was seen to represent the female side of nature (with the oak tree representing the male side), its natural capacity to regrow quickly being seen to symbolize rebirth and fertility. Perhaps. But – simply because it appeals to my romantic fancies – let me add here another theory, which I extracted from the wilder and woolier side of the internet, from a site dedicated to Druidism to be exact. There, the writer noted that the tree is in full bloom around the time of the summer solstice. Well! What better reason to sacralize a tree which gives off a heavenly scent when the great Sun God reaches its apogee! (we have here modern devotees celebrating the summer solstice at Stonehenge)

Whatever the reasons, the linden tree’s connection to the feminine side has meant that it has naturally been connected to love. Betrothals took place under the village linden tree, but so – people whispered – did love in its wilder form. A famous German minstrel song from the 12th Century, Unter der Linden (translated here by Raymond Oliver, with one tiny change by me), says it all (or nearly so).

Under the linden tree
On the heather,
Where we had shared a place of rest,
Still you may find there,
Lovely together,
Flowers crushed and grass down-pressed.
Beside the forest in the vale,
Tándaradéi,
Sweetly sang the nightingale.

I came to meet him
At the green:
There was my true love come before.
Such was I greeted —
Heaven’s Queen! —
That I am glad for evermore.
Had he kisses? A thousand some:
Tándaradéi,
See how red my mouth’s become.

There he had fashioned
For luxury
A bed from every kind of flower.
It sets to laughing
Delightedly
Whoever comes upon that bower;
By the roses well one may,
Tándaradéi,
Mark the spot my head once lay.

If any knew
He lay with me
(May God forbid!), for shame I’d die.
What did he do?
May none but he
Ever be sure of that — and I,
And one extremely tiny bird,
Tándaradéi,
Who will, I think, not say a word.

Of course, the tree’s sacred properties meant that it had a special place in the apothecary of our ancestors, with various parts of it being ingested to remedy numerous ills. A pale descendant of this is the infusions of linden flowers which are available in our supermarkets.

My mother-in-law liked this infusion and always had a packet of it in her kitchen cupboard (my wife and I prefer camomile; it has more taste, we think).

But tasteless infusions are not the only food which is extracted today from linden trees. Bees adore linden flowers, and honey aficionados adore linden flower honey, praising it to the rafters for its sublime taste. Not being a honey enthusiast, I can only offer this judgment without comment. They also mention its much lighter colour compared to other honeys, which this photo certainly attests to.

As can be imagined, the linden tree’s wood was also considered to have talismanic properties. I want to believe that many religious statues in this part of Europe were carved out of limewood for this reason, although more prosaic reasons such as the wood’s ease of carving and its ability to hold intricate detailing are also given. Be that as it may, some lovely carvings have resulted. Here is a Saint Stephen looking pensive and holding in his lap the rocks with which he was lapidated

while this is the Supper at Emmaus, a solemn occasion indeed for the artist, from the look on everyone’s faces.

Well, time now to go to bed. Tomorrow, at breakfast, we’ll open the window again on our linden tree.

___________

Linden tree from window: our picture
Linden tree blooms: our picture
Unter den Linden Avenue, Berlin: http://www.berlin.de/tourismus/fotos/sehenswuerdigkeiten-fotos/1355832-1355138.gallery.html?page=2
Villagers dancing under a linden tree: https://fineartamerica.com/featured/under-the-village-linden-tree-ken-welsh.html
Shrine under linden tree: https://www.lamusdworski.wordpress.com/2017/03/19/linden-tree/amp/
Summer solstice, Stonehenge: http://notihoy.com/en-fotos-mas-de-20-000-personas-presenciaron-el-solsticio-de-verano-en-stonehenge/
Linden flower infusion: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Lipton-LINDEN-Tea-Bags-pyramid/dp/B00TVCXZ7S
Lime flower honey: http://www.dealtechnic.com/shop/honey/raw-wild-flower-lime-honey-800g-with-jar-honey-flow-2014-natural-organic-farm/
Saint Stephen: https://www.pinterest.com/elkie2/small-sculpture/
Supper at Emmaus: http://www.alamy.com/stock-photo-christ-in-the-house-of-mary-and-martha-the-last-supper-the-supper-68542669.html

LYING TOGETHER, FOREVER

Milan, 20 May 2017

Last week my wife and I visited, together with a French cousin of mine and his wife, the First World War battlefields of Verdun and Chemin des Dames. For me, it was a follow-on to a trip we made a few years ago to the battlefields around Ypres in the British sector. For my cousin, it was a chance to visit Verdun, a battlefield still deeply etched in the French psyche.

As during my previous visit to Ypres, I was struck by how peaceful the countryside now looks. Traveling along the Chemin des Dames, but also on the west side of the River Meuse at Verdun, with their rich rolling farmland on every side, it was difficult to imagine the large-scale death and destruction visited upon these lands a mere hundred years ago. The farmer’s plough has smoothed away the millions of shell holes that pockmarked the earth, wheat and rapeseed cover the land with carpets of green and yellow.

Yet that farmer’s plough still brings to light every year unexploded ordnance and other detritus of war, and by some estimates will continue to do so for seven hundred years.


And it still brings to light remains of men who died in these now peaceful fields.

At Verdun, these will be added to the Ossuary of Douaumont, where the visitor can gaze upon mountains of human bones, German and French alike.

In certain places, especially on the East bank of the River Meuse but also at Mort-Homme and Cote 304 on the West Bank, and at the Plateau de Californie on the Chemin des Dames, the land was too smashed, and too dangerous, to give back to agriculture. There, trees cover the land with their green foliage and birdsong fills the air. But if you peer beneath the tangle of branches, you can see the cratered, pot-holed landscape the trees hide from our view.

You can begin to imagine what it must have been like for those poor soldiers who cowered there, and fought like savages when they met each other, and died horrible deaths, and whose bodies were ripped into ever smaller shreds by incoming shells.

The official memorials which the French put up in the immediate aftermath of the war ring false to my modern ear: “Glorious Sacrifice!”, “Victory!” Where was the glory in the stinking mud and blizzard of shrapnel? What victory was this which brought us another World War thirty years later? Even that oft repeated phrase “Eternal Remembrance” rings hollow – who remembers any more the individual young men who died here? Their parents are long gone and the last of the soldiers who fought here passed away ten years ago. I find the small, private memorials put up by families whose sons disappeared without trace into the mire of the battlefield much more touching: “Jean Dauly, 350th Infantry Regiment, killed 6th May 1917 in the little wood across the way, aged 20. Mourned by his mother, all his family, and his friends. Pray for him”, “Marcel Duquenoy, from Calais, aged 20, of the 350th infantry regiment. In memory of our son, who disappeared 6th May 1917, in the wood across the way”. As a parent, I can empathize with the agonies of a mother who had lost her son and didn’t have a body to decently bury and a tombstone to grieve over.

The modern iconography is much more sensitive to the sheer, wanton waste of life of this war. There is a superb museum-memorial near Douaumont, which gives a balanced French and German account of the battle of Verdun and shows in great detail the life of ordinary soldiers on both sides. There is a modern sculpture, the Constellation of Suffering, at the museum of the Cave des Dragons on the Chemin des Dames.

It commemorates the 16,000 African soldiers, mostly from the ex-French colonies in West Africa, who were totally decimated in this battle: the ultimate act of colonialism, using colonial troops to fight your wars. And there is of course that iconic picture of Franco-German reconciliation: President François Mitterrand and Chancellor Helmut Kohl holding hands at the annual anniversary of the battle of Verdun in 1984.

You cannot visit World War I battlefields without coming across the military cemeteries both big and small which dot the countryside. I like these cemeteries. They are oases of peace and beauty, but they are also the one place where I can connect, if only for a moment, with the individual men – boys, often – who died in this carnage. I go down rows reading the names. I feel I owe this to them, so that they can exist again for a brief instant before returning to the cold earth. I’m always sorry that I can’t read all the names, there are simply too many and time too short. We visited many French cemeteries, of course

but also the very big American cemetery at Romagne-sous-Montfaucon, product of the Americans’ Meuse-Argonne offensive in 1918 (with so many who died just a few days before the war’s end)

a few small, modest German cemeteries – the penalty of the vanquished leaving their dead in the victor’s country

and a small British cemetery, the result of the frantic rearguard fighting in the first month of the war.

But the cemeteries I most liked were across the road from the memorial chapel on the Chemin des Dames. All the military cemeteries I have ever visited stand in isolation, each country mourning its dead separately. But here, a German cemetery touched upon a French cemetery. They were not side by side – that would have been unthinkable a hundred years ago, perhaps even today – but they touched in one corner, so that you could walk from one to the other.


It makes me think of a poem by the French poet René Arcos, “Les Morts…”, “The Dead…”

Le vent fait flotter
Du même côté
Les voiles des veuves

Et les pleurs mêlés
Des mille douleurs
Vont au même fleuve.
Serrés les uns contre les autres
Les morts sans haine et sans drapeau,
Cheveux plaqués de sang caillé,
Les morts sont tous d’un seul côté.

Dans l’argile unique où s’allie sans fin
Au monde qui meurt celui qui commence
Les morts fraternels tempe contre tempe
Expient aujourd’hui la même défaite.

Heurtez-vous, ô fils divisés!
Et déchirez l’Humanité
En vains lambeaux de territoires,
Les morts sont tous d’un seul côté.

Car sous terre il n’y a plus
Qu’une patrie et qu’un espoir
Comme il n’y a pour l’Univers
Qu’un combat et qu’une victoire.

Here are my very modest efforts at translation:

In the same direction
Does the wind make
The widows’ veils float.

And the mixed tears
Of a thousand pains
Flow into the same stream.
Wedged one against the other
The dead without hate and without flag,
Hair smeared with clotted blood,
The dead, they are all on one side.

In the same clay where come together without end
The world that dies and that which begins
The fraternal dead temple to temple
Expiate today the same defeat.

Clash, divided sons!
And tear Humanity
Into vain rags of territory,
The dead, they are all on one side.

For underground there is
But one fatherland and one hope
As there is for the Universe
But one battle and one victory.

What more fitting monument could there be than these twinned cemeteries for today’s Europe, which sees us inching cautiously closer together, with the goal of making this war (and its successor, the ’39-’45 war) la Der des Ders, as the French called it, la Dernière des Dernières, the absolutely last war.

______________________

Photos: ours or our cousins’, except:

Landscape Chemin des Dames: http://1418.aisne.com/discovery-routes/ASCPIC002FS000JG/detail/laffaux/le-front-du-chemin-des-dames
Unexploded shells: http://www.europe1.fr/faits-divers/pas-de-calais-plusieurs-obus-explosent-naturellement-dans-un-champ-2638741
Soldiers’ remains: http://www.bfmtv.com/societe/une-vingtaine-corps-poilus-retrouves-meuse-527266.html
Kohl and Mitterrand hold hands: http://www.cvce.eu/en/obj/francois_mitterrand_and_helmut_kohl_verdun_22_september_1984-en-2f9050c7-d5cb-4899-9bb2-e1e05bb9cb26.html
British cemetery Vendresse-Beaulne: http://www.ww2cemeteries.co.uk/ww1frenchextension/vendressebrit.htm

 

FRANKINCENSE AND MYRRH

Milan, 19 April 2017

Some forty years ago, when my wife and I were just beginning our journey together through life, I came down to Milan to spend Easter with her. At her mother’s suggestion, we went to a late-night service in the nearby basilica of Sant’Ambrogio.


It was either on Good Friday night or Easter Saturday night (my memory is clouded on this detail). Either way, at the end of the ceremony we all trooped out into the church’s atrium.

There, the presiding bishop put a light to a nice big bonfire which had been laid down earlier, and intoned loudly several times “Christus Resurrexit!”, “Christ is Resurrected!”. Now, since the resurrection of Christ is the central tenet of Christianity – without it, there would be no Christianity – you would think that the bishop would have shouted out this message with joy and gladness, or at least with a mild level of satisfaction. Not a bit of it! The fellow intoned it so mournfully as to make you wonder if he was sorry that the resurrection had ever taken place at all. Or maybe he enjoyed Lent a lot, fasting and praying and beating his breast, and was sorry that it was all over for another year. Or perhaps his hemorrhoids were acting up. Whatever the reason, the three of us agreed afterwards that the Bish had been a douche-bag, resurrection-wise.

Ever since that ceremony long ago, it has been in the back of my mind to attend it again, if only to see if succeeding bishops were a bit more joyful about it all. But as the Italians say, fra il dire e il fare c’è di mezzo il mare, between the saying and the doing lies the sea (it sounds better in Italian, if only because it rhymes). This year I thought the time was finally ripe, but alas! either the ceremony was on Good Friday night, when we had just arrived back from Los Angeles and were in no fit state to take part in anything, or some boringly politically correct entity like the City of Milan Health & Safety Services had decided in the intervening years that open bonfires in church atria were a no-no. Whatever it was, the bottom line was that there was no ceremony on Easter Saturday.

My wife decreed that nevertheless we should at least step into Sant’Ambrogio on Easter Sunday – something to do with a sort of atavistic belief that this would be a good day and place to receive a dose of sympathetic magic – and I grouchily agreed. So some time in the afternoon of Easter Sunday we made our way to the church, weaving our way through the few Milanese left in the city who were going for their Sunday stroll. We walked through the atrium where there should have been the bonfire, and we entered the church.

Ahh! My nose was immediately greeted by the smell of incense which had been burned in earlier ceremonies, and I was transported back to my youth. I saw the boy that was me inhaling that fragrance, pungent but with sweet overtones, watching the smoke curling towards the ceiling, and generally enjoying one of the few bright spots during those weekly masses which I had to endure.

I also thought that swinging that thingy (which I later learned was called a thurible) from which all that thick smoke poured out was pretty cool.

In my teenage years, when I was finally considered responsible enough, I got to serve in High Masses as an altar boy and to swing the thurible (the idea being to pass air over the incense to keep it burning). Luckily, I never got into trouble as Edward Norton did in the film “Keeping the Faith”. Readers may remember the scene where as a young priest just starting out he gets to swing the thurible, which he does with such enthusiasm that he sets his robes alight and has to jump into the font of holy water to douse the flames.

A quick search of my favourite source of information – Wikipedia – informs me that the incense used in the Roman Catholic rites of my youth contains a varying mix of frankincense, myrrh, gum benjamin, copal, and a few other odds and ends.

Frankincense and myrrh …

“We three kings of Orient are;
Bearing gifts we traverse afar,
Field and fountain, moor and mountain,
Following yonder star.

Born a King on Bethlehem’s plain
Gold I bring to crown Him again,
King forever, ceasing never,
Over us all to reign.

Frankincense to offer have I;
Incense owns a Deity nigh;
Prayer and praising, voices raising,
Worshiping God on high.

Myrrh is mine, its bitter perfume
Breathes a life of gathering gloom;
Sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying,
Sealed in the stone cold tomb.

Glorious now behold Him arise;
King and God and sacrifice;
Alleluia!, Alleluia!,
Rings through the earth and skies.”
(I have cut the refrain)

That conjures up another image of my childhood, me in the school choir at primary school, doing the rounds of houses in the neighborhood, our choir master ringing the doorbell, and us launching into this and other Christmas carols when the occupants opened.

At the end of it all, we trooped over to the choir master’s house where his wife had prepared a buffet supper for us all, and where we got to taste just a little bit of the choir master’s home brew … Good times, those were.

Frankincense and myrrh …

The gifts, along with gold, that those three wise men with such mysterious names – Balthazar, Caspar, and Melchior – are proffering to the child Jesus in those countless paintings of the Adoration of the Magi produced in centuries past.

They are also players in the crèches which appear every year at Christmastime in Italian churches, ranging from the simple

to the very elaborate.

As young children we prepared one at home under the overall theological supervision of our mother – the latter meaning that we were allowed to place in the background other figurines in our possession, such as cowboys and Indians or various animals, but not in such quantities as to crowd out the essential Christian message. The three wise men on their camels were placed far away from the manger in which Baby Jesus lay, and then every day after Christmas we children brought them a little closer, to end up at the manger on 6 January, the Day of the Epiphany.

It all looked all so easy to us, but T.S. Eliot, in his poem The Journey of the Magi suggests otherwise.

‘A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a long journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.’
And the camels galled, sorefooted, refractory,
Lying down in the melting snow.
There were times we regretted
The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,
And the silken girls bringing sherbet.
Then the camel men cursing and grumbling
and running away, and wanting their liquor and women,
And the night-fires going out, and the lack of shelters,
And the cities hostile and the towns unfriendly
And the villages dirty and charging high prices:
A hard time we had of it.
At the end we preferred to travel all night,
Sleeping in snatches,
With the voices singing in our ears, saying
That this was all folly.

Then at dawn we came down to a temperate valley,
Wet, below the snow line, smelling of vegetation;
With a running stream and a water-mill beating the darkness,
And three trees on the low sky,
And an old white horse galloped away in the meadow.
Then we came to a tavern with vine-leaves over the lintel,
Six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver,
And feet kicking the empty wine-skins.
But there was no information, and so we continued
And arriving at evening, not a moment too soon
Finding the place; it was (you might say) satisfactory.

All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.

Frankincense and myrrh …

So desired throughout the Middle East and the broader Mediterranean world that its production centuries ago brought untold wealth to the Yemeni tribes which controlled the resin-bearing trees, allowing them to build cities like Shabwa, Marib, Baraqish.

They also brought untold riches to the tribes which controlled access to the incense route. This snaked its way up the western side of the Arabian peninsula, skirting the Empty Quarter and the Nafud desert, and culminating in Gaza. The wealth generated by the trade built cities like Avdat in the Negev

and helped build Petra in Jordan.

One day, if they stop hating and killing each other in this part of the world, my wife and I will go and visit the groves of frankincense trees.

And we will travel the incense route, preferably on a camel.

____________________

Sant’Ambrogio: http://www.itmap.it/milano/basilica-di-santambrogio/
Atrium of Sant’Ambrogio: http://muse-garret.cocolog-nifty.com/blog/2018/04/index.html
Incense smoke in church: https://www.pinterest.ph/pin/321233385899973661/
Swinging thurible: http://www.diariodejerez.es/semanasanta/Lunes-Santo-Jerez_3_575672440.html
Christmas carolling: https://www.gettyimages.de/video/choir?sort=mostpopular&offlinecontent=include&phrase=choir
Adoration of the Magi: http://en.artsdot.com/@@/8BWV5K-Rogier-Van-Der-Weyden-Adoration-of-the-Magi
Simple creche: https://ask.fm/matteotesselli99_
Elaborate creche: https://collinadeiciliegi.wordpress.com/2016/12/23/er-presepe/
Ruins of Baraqish: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Baraqish
Ruins of Avdat: http://weekend.knack.be/lifestyle/reizen/israel-restaureert-antieke-stad-avdat/diaporama-normal-450517.html
Ruins of Petra: https://magdalatravel.com/detalles.php?id=82
Frankincense trees: http://holistictoolbox.co.nz/product/frankincense-boswellia-rivae-organic/
Camel riding: http://thesandysnowman.com/5-lessons-life-travel/