Sori, 2 April 2022

Deary me, it’s been quite a while since I posted. Initially, it was because I was flat on my back – not from Covid, as one might reasonably presume in this day and age, but from a whole series of pulled muscles in my back which all gave at the same time. Which then led me to spending a lot of time doing physiotherapy and having injections of ozone around my lower spine (sounds awful and was indeed quite awful). Then I was rushing around catching up on all the work I had had to put aside because of my back problems. The one silver lining to all this is that my time lying on the sofa allowed me to “file and folderize” (as we used to say decades ago in the office) the photos which my wife and I have taken these last few months.

One set of photos got me writing this post. They were taken in a town called Bellano on Lake Como. The place is known for three things:

A) Being built around the mouth of the Pioverna river which, tumbling down the steep hills behind the town, has, over hundreds of thousands of years, carved a deep, narrow, and tortuous gorge for itself, before flowing swiftly through the town itself.


B) Being the birthplace of a writer and minor poet by the name of Sigismondo Boldoni, 1597-1630.


C) Having played host from 1828 to 2004 to a large, handsomely built factory, the Cotonificio Cantoni, owned by what was once one of Italy’s largest textile manufacturers but is now sadly derelict.


All three things happen to be linked. The gorge is known as the Orrido di Bellano, literally the Horrid of Bellano. It owes its name to the poet Boldoni, who was fascinated by this gorge and once described it as “l’orrore di un’orrenda orrendezza”, literally “the horror of a horrendous horrendousness”, which he then boiled down to the simpler and catchier Orrido. Finally, and more prosaically, the factory was built in Bellano to take advantage of the kinetic energy in the Pioverna river’s racing waters to drive the looms (this, in the days before electricity was commonly available to do the same thing).

It was the Orrido that got me going on this post: not the gorge itself, but the name. To my modern ear, it sounds delightfully strange. For one thing, “horrid” is an adjective, not a noun. But it was, too, when Boldoni coined the gorge’s name, so it’s not as if there has been an “adjectivizing” of a noun in the intervening centuries. I think we can just put this down to – literally – poetic license. More interesting is the change that has taken place in the meaning of the adjective “horrid”. To me, “horrid” conjures up nasty little boys – the ones who, with an evil laugh, pull the cat’s tail or their little sister’s pigtails.


Or maybe some of the food that’s served in school cafeterias could be described as “horrid”.


But several centuries ago, “horrid” had an extra, quite different meaning. It was said of places which were uncultivated and wild, which inspired fear or anguish. We have good examples in the diaries of the English writer and diarist John Evelyn, who was born in 1620 (10 years before Boldoni died) and died in 1706.


His diaries are peppered with the word “horrid” used in this sense. For instance, on a long trip he made down through France and then on to Italy and back again, which he undertook in the late 1640s, he had this to say about various wild places he passed through (to help readers, I have bolded and italicized the “horrids” in question).

“I set forwards with some company towards Fontainebleau, a sumptuous Palace of the King’s, like ours at Hampton Court, about fourteen leagues from the city. By the way, we pass through a forest so prodigiously encompassed with hideous rocks of whitish hard stone, heaped one on another in mountainous heights, that I think the like is nowhere to be found more horrid and solitary. It abounds with stags, wolves, boars, and not long after a lynx, or ounce, was killed amongst them, which had devoured some passengers. On the summit of one of these gloomy precipices, intermingled with trees and shrubs, the stones hanging over, and menacing ruin, is built an hermitage. In these solitudes, rogues frequently lurk and do mischief (and for whom we were all well appointed with our carabines); but we arrived save in the evening at the village, where we lay at the Horne, going early next morning to the Palace.”

“We embarked in a felucca for Livorno, or Leghorn; but the sea running very high, we put in at Porto Venere, which we made with peril, between two narrow horrid rocks, against which the sea dashed with great velocity; but we were soon delivered into as great a calm and a most ample harbour, being in the Golfo di Spetia.”

“On the summit of this horrid rock (for so it is) is built a very strong fort, garrisoned, and somewhat beneath it is a small town; the provisions are drawn up with ropes and engines, the precipice being otherwise inaccessible. At one end of the town lie heaps of rocks so strangely broken off from the rugged mountain, as would affright one with their horror and menacing postures.”

“The next morning, I was furnished with an ass, … we passed through a reasonably pleasant but very narrow valley, till we came to Duomo [Domodossola], where we rested … Here, we exchanged our asses for mules, sure-footed on the hills and precipices, being accustomed to pass them. Hiring a guide, we were brought that night through very steep, craggy and dangerous passages to a village called Vedra, being the last of the King of Spain’s dominions in the Duchy of Milan. … The next morning, we mounted again through strange, horrid, and fearful crags and tracts, abounding in pine trees, and only inhabited by bears, wolves, and wild goats; nor could we anywhere see above a pistol-shot before us, the horizon being terminated with rocks and mountains, whose tops, covered with snow, seemed to touch the skies, and in many places pierced the clouds. Some of these vast mountains were but one entire stone, betwixt whose clefts now and then precipitated great cataracts of melted snow, and other waters, which made a terrible roaring, echoing from the rocks and cavities; and these waters in some places breaking in the fall, wet us as if we had passed through a mist, so as we could neither see nor hear one another, but, trusting to our honest mules, we jogged on our way …”

I’ve personally been along the same path that Evelyn took in two places, the forest of Fontainebleau and the Simplon Pass between Domodossola and Brig. Neither struck me as “horrid” in the old sense. For me, the forest of Fontainebleau was simply a welcome break from Paris’s hyperdense urbanism, while the Simplon Pass looked very pleasant as we swished along through it in the train.

The fact is, in the centuries which separate me and John Evelyn – actually, it’s only really the last two centuries, since that textile factory was built in Bellano – our species has come to so dominate Nature that what was once frightening to us puny humans has become merely intriguing to us Masters of the Universe. Where would I have to go now to feel a “horrid” Nature? Sometimes, when my wife and I are hiking high up on the mountains, with slopes falling away precipitously to our side and not a soul in sight, I feel Nature baring its teeth. Or some of the storms we experienced in Thailand – rain so dense you couldn’t see 20 metres in front of you, accompanied by wild lightning shows – filled me with awe tinged with fear at the power of Nature. Or there was that time my wife and I, with two friends, were sailing on a moonless night from Corsica to Italy. Suddenly, in all of that inky blackness, the boat seemed very frail and the sea very, very deep. If the sea had been rough, I would have been on my knees babbling prayers to the Virgin Mary as I often see sailors do in ex-votos hanging in Italy’s churches.


As I write this, my decades of working on environmental issues set the alarm bells ringing. We think we’ve become Masters of the Universe, or at least of our globe, but actually we haven’t. We think all our clever gizmos have tamed Nature, but it’s not so. We’ve merely estranged ourselves from Nature, we’ve taken our finger off its pulse. If we go on like this, Nature is going to turn on us and with one massive swipe of its paw will wipe us out. Isn’t Covid a warning sign of that? We encroached on Nature too much and the virus came roaring out of the forests.

It’s time for us to show Nature some awe and fear, time to give “horrid” back its original meaning.


24 August, 2021

This post is a hymn of praise to the European beech tree.


The tree has been a constant companion on our hikes this summer as we explore the western reaches of the Wienerwald, the woods encircling Vienna to its north and west. Apart from the odd oak, wild cherry, and conifer, the European beech reigns supreme in the Wienerwald.

My memories of the beech start at the age of 10 or so, at my Prep school (Brit-speak for a private, boarding, primary school). Just outside the school gates, at the bottom of a field, was a magnificent copper beech; we would pass it every time we made our way to the school’s playing fields which were down the road. I have no photo of this tree, it may even no longer stand, so this photo will have to stand in for it and for all these magnificent variants of the beech.


I used to think the copper beech was a different species, but no, all the world’s copper beeches are fruit of a single spontaneous mutation that occurred in a beech tree in a forest in Thuringia, in Germany. It was noticed back in 1690 and was carried from there around the world. One single mutation … like blue eyes.

My next memory of beech is a long beech hedge at my Public school (Brit-speak for a private, boarding, secondary school), which bordered the campus’s entrance road. It was lovely during the summer, with that long solid block of tender green running along the road. Again, I don’t have a photo of this hedge, so this photo of a wonderful hedge somewhere in the UK will have to stand in for it.


It was really only when we moved to Vienna and got to know the Wienerwald that my wife and I discovered beech woods. And what magnificent woods they are! I insert here one photo we took, where the sun dappled the trunks that stretched off into the distance.

my photo

But our iPhones can’t do these woods justice, so I’ve also picked out a few photos from the Internet taken by people who’ve got the right equipment and know what they are doing.


That last photo could be of us, following the marked paths through the woods, rather like Hansel and Gretel following Hansel’s white pebbles.

Having been enchanted by these beech woods, my wife and I have decided that some day we will visit some of Europe’s primeval beech forests. These are beech forests which have never, ever been cut or otherwise exploited by human beings, the kind of beech forests through which our hunter-gatherer ancestors would have wandered ten thousand and more years ago. There are 94 such forests in Europe, and as a group they have become a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Austria has five of the 94, Italy 13. In one way or another, we’ll figure out a way of getting to a couple of them. In the meantime, I throw in a photo of one of the Austrian forests, Hintergebirg.


Interestingly enough, the UK has no primeval beech forests (nor does Ireland, for that matter). It could be that over the centuries the British have simply not been able to leave any of their beech forests alone, cutting them, clearing them, or otherwise fiddling around with them. Or it could be that there never were any primeval beech forests in the first place. The beech is considered natural in the southern part of the island. However, some voices have been raised wondering if this is actually correct. These voices suggest that perhaps the beech was brought to the UK by our Iron Age ancestors, who wanted to have it with them as a source of food – the food in question in this case being the beech tree’s nuts, or mast as it is called. Here we have a (very) close-up – the nuts are quite small.


And here we see them as my wife and I would probably see them, if we went looking for them, half hidden among dead leaves on the ground.


I must confess to having been surprised to read that our ancestors ate mast. But that only goes to show how alienated I have become from natural sources of food – “if it ain’t on supermarket shelves it ain’t food”. By my reckoning, it’s five generations since any of my ancestors might have foraged for beech mast. But foraging is becoming popular, with many websites dedicated to this lost art form. A good number of them mention beech mast, claiming that the nuts are good to eat (although small and time-consuming to gather). Other, probably more objective sites warn that the nuts can taste bitter because of their high levels of tannins, but that they can be ground to a flour and the tannins leached out – that’s probably how my more recent ancestors would have eaten mast, if and when they ate it. I now know that I should start looking out for fresh nuts on our hikes in a few weeks’ time; they fall in late August, early September. I’ll try a couple – and see if I can’t persuade my wife to try them too – and will report back.

Coming back to beech woods, one of their characteristics is that they are – relatively speaking – quite dark; the crown of leaves at the top of the trees are dense enough to keep out a lot of the incoming sunlight. As a result, little if anything grows in the shade of the towering beech trunks. The most common sight is a carpet of bronze-coloured beech leaves lying on the forest floor, the product of the trees losing their leaves year after year. My wife and I see this most spectacularly on the hikes we do during the winter months through a beech wood high above Lake Como, when the dead beech leaves on the ground are the only colour present.


But from time to time we walk through sections of beech woods where a beautiful field of grass lies at the feet of the trees.

My photo

I don’t know what grass this is, or why it only grows in certain places, but the sight of these lawns stretching off into the distance between the trees is a joy to behold. But perhaps not as breathtaking as the fields of bluebells in some of the UK’s beech woods.


The bluebells escape the deadly shade of the beeches by flowering before the trees are fully in leaf. I’m ashamed to say that I have never visited any of these bluebell groves – another item on our bucket list.

The other characteristic of beech woods is the trees’ smooth bark. It’s quite a striking sight to see all these pale grey, smooth trunks towering up into the sky above our heads. And one can immediately spot the lone oak or cherry or conifer skulking among the beeches; their rough barks stand out. This smoothness actually signals a fragility in the beech’s bark; it is easily scarred and the marks remain forever as the bark cannot heal. Many of the beech trees we cross are marked by scars in their bark, no doubt caused by branches of other trees or bushes scraping against them when they were young. But on our walks we also see examples of silly boys, and perhaps some silly girls, using the inability of the beech’s bark to heal to carve their initials into it, quite often combined with the initials of a loved one and the whole enclosed within a heart; they will stay, more and more distorted as the tree grows, until it is cut or blown down.


Initials carved in a beech’s bark is another of my beech memories. This particular beech was in my French grandmother’s garden and the initials carved into its bark my uncle’s. He must have done it 30-40 years before I saw it. Family lore has it that my grandmother was furious with him when she discovered this disfigurement of her tree – “so vulgar!” – and gave him a good thrashing. The tree has gone, alas. It died some 15 years after my grandmother died, shaded out, I suspect, by the mighty sequoia nearby, but also probably suffering from a drop in the area’s aquifer: too much water is being pumped out.

Scratching initials on beech bark allows me to make a connection between this wonderful tree and another wonderful item of which I have many exemplars: the book. Beech and book actually come from the same root, the Old English bōc. This has the primary sense of “beech” but also a secondary sense of “book”. The connection is perhaps more obvious in other modern Germanic languages. In modern German, the word for “book” is Buch, with Buche meaning “beech tree”. In modern Dutch, the word for “book” is boek, with beuk meaning “beech tree”. In Swedish, the word bok means both “beech tree” and “book”. This connection allows me to hold forth on another favourite topic of mine, trade – or rather, the exchange of ideas that comes with trade.

When the Germanic tribes migrated into Europe, pushing out the Celts, they were illiterate, with no culture of writing and no alphabet of their own. When they met the Romans, they fought them of course, but they also traded with them and in so doing came into contact both with writing and with the waxed wooden tablets on which traders (and many others in the Roman Empire) made notes or wrote short missives. As far as the alphabet was concerned, the Germanic tribes adopted a precursor to the Roman alphabet, the old Italic alphabet, to create their runes. As for the tablets, the Germanic tribes used the tree that surrounded them, the beech, to make them, and called these tablets after the tree from which they came. Later, when the Germanic tribes shifted to using parchment, they continued to call what they wrote in books.

Being made of wood, these tablets have normally decayed away, but some examples of Roman tablets have been unearthed along Hadrian’s Wall, somehow miraculously avoiding the normal decay processes.


So from now on the books which surround me will remind me every day of the beech trees which surround us on our walks in the Wienerwald.


Vienna, 23 July 2021

I coincidentally started this blog when the London Olympics were opening – my first post was about the opening ceremony – so with the start today of the Games of the XXXII Olympiad in Tokyo, it seems appropriate to celebrate the II Olympiad of my scribbling with a piece on the act of writing itself. Or more specifically, on the symbols which I use to commit my scribbles to (electronic) paper, the letters of the Latin alphabet. Their creation is a fascinating example of the untiring efforts of people the world over to give permanence to the sounds emanating from their mouths: verba volant, scripta manent, the old Latin proverb intones, “spoken words fly away, written words remain”.

The creation of the Latin alphabet, my alphabet if I may call it that, is also a fascinating story of trade as we shall see. Assiduous readers of my posts will know that I have often written about the material things as well as ideas that have been transmitted by trade.

The overall arc of development of my alphabet can be summarized by the letter
Turn that letter upside down, and you have:

I think readers will agree that this could be considered a very schematic drawing of a cow’s or ox’s head. And that is exactly where my A originally comes from, the Egyptian hieroglyph for ox’s head.

By what twists and turns did that hieroglyph morph over the millennia into my letter A?

The story starts somewhere in the Sinai peninsula in about 2000-1800 BC. A Semitic people there were in contact with the Egyptian civilization and were familiar with their hieroglyphic method of writing. They adopted those hieroglyphs to write down their own language. The earliest example we have is from a place now called Serabit el-Khadim in the Sinai, which in antiquity was the location of a very rich turquoise mine.


This is part of some of the inscriptions there, scratched out on a rock, probably by the turquoise miners, at the beginning of the 16th Century BC.


Initially, this Semitic people followed the basic Egyptian principle of hieroglyphs being pictograms: a picture of an ox stood for the word ox. In this, they were no different from the peoples of East Asia, for instance, who adopted the Chinese writing system – also at its base a pictogramic system – to write down their, very different, languages.

But then, relatively quickly, this Semitic people made one very crucial change: they made the picture of an ox stand for the first sound in their word for “ox”. In other words, their signs began to stand for sounds rather than whole words. This was revolutionary, because it meant that with a relatively small number of signs – some 20 in all – this people could cover all the sounds they used, and then they could string those signs together to write the thousands of words they used. This approach made it much, much easier to learn how to write because it was much easier to memorize such a small number of signs. Compare that to an Egyptian scribe, who had to memorize 1,000 or so hieroglyphs. It democratized writing: only a tiny proportion of Ancient Egyptians could ever hope to be able to write, while – in theory, at least – every one of our Semitic people could become a writer (theory only really became practice in our age, and tragically even today in many parts of the world people have not been able to learn to write).

The Phoenicians, who lived along the eastern coast of the Mediterranean in present-day Lebanon and northern Israel, and who were descendants of those Semitic people in the Sinai, perfected this method of writing. They came up with a group – an alphabet as we would come to know it – of 22 signs, with which they could write any word in their language. Here, for instance, is their “ox” sign; they actually flipped the sign onto its side, like so, probably because it was easier to write with a stylus.
The Phoenician word for “ox” was ‘alep. So this sign represented the “a”-like guttural which was the first sound in the word (Phoenician, like the modern Semitic languages, used a lot of gutturals). With time, ‘alep also became the name of this sign.

For their “b” sound, the Phoenicians used this sign, which stood for beth, or “house” in Phoenician. And again, beth too eventually became the name of the sign.
This sign was ultimately derived from the Egyptian hieroglyph for “house”, although the sign seems to have got bent out of shape over the centuries.

For their hard “g”-sound (like in “go”), the Phoenicians used this sign, which stood for giml, or “throwing stick” in Phoenician. And giml became the sign’s name.
Again, the Egyptian hieroglyph for “throwing stick” was at the origin of this sign.
I could go on, but I think readers will have got the point by now. I do think, though, that the Phoenicians deserve to have their whole alphabet shown here.


In a wave of enthusiasm about the fantastic work they did, I have also decided to show an example of an actual text in Phoenician.


This tablet comes from a temple that was built in about 500 BC on the Tyrrhenian coast of what is now central Italy. It is there because the Phoenicians were present in the whole of the Mediterranean basin. Which brings us to trade.

The Phoenicians were inveterate traders, trading with their neighbours to the east as well as across the whole of the Mediterranean basin; they also established a string of colonies along the shores of the Mediterranean, the most famous of which was Carthage. Not surprisingly, they took their writing system with them wherever they went, and their trading counterparts got to know about it. Many of them quickly twigged to its power and adopted it for their language. The ones who interest me are the Greeks. Around the 8th Century BC, they adopted the Phoenician alphabet wholesale, even transliterating the Phoenician names of the letters into something more Greek sounding. So ‘aleph became alpha, beth became beta, giml became gamma, and so on (and we thus got our name for a group of such signs, or letters as we can now call them: the alphabet, a merging of the names of the first two letters alpha and beta).

The Greeks did have to bring in some modifications to the Phoenician alphabet, because the sounds they used were not quite the same as the sounds the Phoenicians used. The biggest difference was in the vowels. Greek had more obvious vowel sounds than did Phoenician, which relied on gutturals. There was also the hard-“th”, the “ks” and the “ps” sounds. In most cases, the Greeks repurposed Phoenician letters for sounds which did not exist in Greek, in a few others they created new letters.

Actually, because of different dialects spoken among the Greeks, which meant that there were some variations in the sounds used, there were three somewhat different alphabets created by the Greek polities, as shown on this map.


It’s the western Greek alphabet (used in the parts of Greece coloured orange in the map) which interests us most, for reasons which will become clear in a minute. I show this alphabet here, along with the original Phoenician “template”.
One can see the outlines of the classical Greek alphabet peeping out – the one I used as an unhappy student of ancient Greek at school. With time, the Greeks dropped some of these letters and added others, like omega. In some cases, where I show two letters in the Western Greek column, there were variants. And in those variants, one can see the outlines of letters which were to be found in the Latin alphabet and not in the classical Greek alphabet: the C, the D with the rounded “tummy”, the beginnings of the P (the loop still needed to be fully closed), the beginning of the R (the downward slanting stroke was miniscule), the S. The importance of these variants will become apparent in a minute.

The Euboean Greeks, who used this western Greek alphabet, were also, like the Phoenicians, traders and colonists. In particular, they had set up what are probably the oldest Greek colonies in Italy, around the bay of Naples: one on the island of Ischia (Pithekoussai) and one on the mainland (Cumae).


They set them up in the 8th Century BC, pretty much when the Greeks adopted the Phoenician alphabet. No doubt the Western Greek alphabet arrived very quickly in these two colonies. There, the Euboeans came into contact with the Etruscans, who were at the time the major power in the Italian peninsula and, as this map shows, were poised to expand their power and influence even further up and down the peninsula.


The contacts which the Euboeans had with the Etruscans were primarily through trade but, given that the Etruscans eventually enveloped both colonies, these could also have led to political alliances.

When the Etruscans got to know the Euboean alphabet they, like the Euboeans before them, must have realized the power of this writing system and adopted it, although they too had to bring in a good number of modifications to deal with the different sounds which they had in their language. I won’t list their alphabet, for the very cruel reason that their language was extinguished – so thoroughly that its vocabulary and grammar are still only partly known, in spite of more than a century of intense research.

Which brings us to the Romans, who did the extinguishing. Early on in their history, this upstart, but aggressive, tribe from the middle of the Italian peninsula were ruled over by the Etruscans, but they took them on and eventually beat them comprehensively. Along the way, though, in a pattern which must be familiar to readers by now, the Romans also recognized the power of alphabets and adopted the Etruscan one – with the usual modifications to account for different sounds in their language, including the readoption of some of the letters in the Greek alphabet which the Etruscans has dropped as not useful to them.

And so, coming back to the letter A with which I started, let me use it to show the arc of development that took place, from the Egyptian hieroglyph to the Latin letter.

Of course, the story doesn’t end with the Romans. The Latin alphabet could have disappeared at the fall of the Western Roman Empire, along with so much else that did disappear. That it didn’t is a testimony to writing’s utility to the Western Christian Church, the only organization left standing from the Roman era. Apart from the ability to more easily transmit religious ideas, the alphabet allowed the Church to – once again – give written form to languages without writing, in this case all the languages which the Germanic and Slavic tribes brought with them, often mixed in with the remains of Latin and its offshoots. As usual, there was the usual problem of dealing with sounds which didn’t exist in Latin, but interestingly enough no new letters were created. There was just fiddling around with the existing ones. So, for instance, we have Å, Ê, Ï, Ø, Ù to deal with various long vowels, and Č, Š, Ñ, to deal with the “ch”, “sh”, and “ny” consonants, in various European languages (there are lots of other fiddles, but for the sake of brevity I will leave them out). The process of using the Latin alphabet to create writing systems for various languages has gone on in modern times as the European powers colonized other parts of the world which didn’t have writing – the North American tribes, for instance, or the tribes in Sub-Saharan Africa – or even which did, for instance in Vietnam.

All of this has given me the puerile desire to create my own alphabet. I’ll use the same process of development: assign to each letter in my alphabet an object which starts with that letter, create pictograms for each of those objects, and then simplify those pictograms into letters. To identify the necessary objects, I’ll use one of those songs with which parents teach their children the alphabet, songs which go something like this:

A is for apple, a a apple
B is for ball, b b ball
C is for cat, c c cat

As an added plus, I can use the exercise to ruthlessly cull my alphabet of unnecessary letters: C, because S can be used for soft-C, K can be used for hard-C; X, because you can simply write X as KS. And I’ll come up with standardized ways of dealing with diphthongs. In the process, I’ll make English writing sound the way it’s spoken: as any non-English native will tell you, English has one of the craziest spellings in the world, there is no way in hell that you can tell what a word sounds like by the way it’s spelled.

Mind you, I’m not sure what I’ll do with my new alphabet once I have it. I’m not 10 years old anymore, with a BFF with whom I could pass notes back and forth during classes in our own secret code. And I’m past the age of being a spy, sending my minders coded messages about where the weapons of mass destruction have been stashed away.

No worries, I’ll think of something! Watch this space …

Oh, and enjoy the Tokyo Olympics!


Bangkok, 30 April 2016

One of the problems of living abroad is that issues of great moment back home have little if any echo here in Bangkok. So it was with the 400th anniversary of Will Shakespeare’s death, which fell on 23rd April last week. It was only when I was catching up with news from home (to Brexit or not to Brexit?) that I saw the huge amount of chatter on line and realized this.

Well! I cannot let this anniversary go by, even though I am already a week late in celebrating it. I mean, Will and I go back a long way! Before I start my breathless recollections, though, let me throw in a picture of one of the few portraits of Shakespeare which are thought to probably be a good likeness, from his funerary monument in his home town, Stratford-upon-Avon.
(my alert readers will have noticed much circumspection in that last phrase; so little is known about the real-life Will)

I saw my first piece of Shakespeare – a mere snippet – when I was a seven-year old. My parents had taken me along to visit my elder brother at his school’s Sports Day. As the name suggests, the day was primarily about sports, but to show some high-browsedness among all this low-browsedness the Headmaster also put on a few scenes from Shakespeare, played by the boys. One of these boys was my brother, who played a scene from Henry VIII. Although I don’t know which scene it was exactly, I do remember sitting next to him afterwards and – pesky child that I was – pulling off strands of his stuck-on beard.

A year later, I was packed off to the same school, and at one of the next Sports Days I got my first role, a walk-on part as a page of Macbeth’s. My moment in the spotlight was short. I preceded Macbeth onto the stage, who then ordered me off to do something. I bowed with dignity and exited left. After which Macbeth launched into that great soliloquy:

“Is this a dagger which I see before me,
The handle toward my hand? Come, let me clutch thee.
I have thee not, and yet I see thee still.
Art thou not, fatal vision, sensible
To feeling as to sight? or art thou but
A dagger of the mind, a false creation,
Proceeding from the heat-oppressed brain?”

It goes on for several more fevered lines, but we’ll leave it at that.

In later years, I was a regular at these theatrical events on Sports Days, but I never got to do any more Shakespeare. The best I managed was the lead role, as a waiter, in some farce to do with a coconut being mistaken for a bomb. No matter! I was hooked on the acting life.

My school might have been buried in the wilds of Somerset, but that did not stop the Headmaster from trying to expose us to Culture. One way he did this was by taking us to theatrical events. Thus it was that one beautiful summer’s day (“Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?”) we were bussed off to a local Stately Home and watched the Winter’s Tale on its manicured gardens. I can’t say I was terribly impressed by the play, certainly none of the text has remained with me. I appreciated more the strawberries and cream served at the interval. I was probably too young to appreciate the play (I must have been all of eleven at the time). But I did very much appreciate the al fresco setting, and so a number of years later, when I was at high school, I was an enthusiastic member of a small audience watching Waiting for Godot, sitting on the grass watching as Vladimir and Estragon acted out their empty lives on a lonely dirt road.

At that same high school, I acted in my first full-length Shakespeare play, Richard II, as the Duke of York. I’ve mentioned this in an earlier post, so will not elaborate. What has stayed with me all these years, though, apart from dying John of Gaunt’s paeon to England (“This other Eden, demi-paradise … this precious stone set in the silver sea … this blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England”) is Henry Bolingbroke’s icy remark to the captive Richard II, who is wallowing in self-pity: “The shadow of your sorrows hath destroyed the shadow of your face”.

If I’m to be honest, our Richard II was no great shakes. It was a good attempt by amateurs, no more. To prep us, our Director had hired a van and taken us down to Stratford, to see the Royal Shakespeare Company put on Richard II. It was certainly better than what we did, but it was no more than workmanlike, I would say. I had to wait some ten years to see a truly splendid production of Richard II, directed by Ariane Mnouchkine in a large space in the Bois de Vincennes in Paris. Ah, what a wonderful production that was! Mnouchkine used a style that mixed Japanese theatrical traditions with mime, on a large set uncluttered by any of the traditional theatrical props. It was truly magic, one of those theatrical experiences that stays with you forever.
Back to my own theatrical career at high school! It reached its zenith when I acted in Tom Stoppard’s brilliant comedy Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. I played Rosencrantz (or maybe Guildenstern, I forget; the characters themselves were always getting confused about who they were). This hilarious play is a riff on Shakespeare’s Hamlet, in which R&G play minor and totally inglorious roles. To my great regret, I never acted in Hamlet itself. The closest I got was playing a few scenes on the portico of the Scottish National Gallery in Edinburgh, during the University’s charity week. I played Polonius as a completely senile old twerp, unashamedly hamming it up for the audience: a disgraceful exhibition – but fun!

In truth, my days treading the theatre boards were even then numbered. I quickly realized at University that I was a mediocre actor and it was time for me to get serious. But before my final curtain call, I did manage get a modest part in Measure for Measure, playing Claudio, a young man sentenced to death for getting his girlfriend pregnant. It’s a strange play, aptly titled a “problem play”, categorized as a comedy but being no such thing. None of the characters are that nice either, so it’s difficult to feel much sympathy for anyone. My character Claudio gets some wonderful lines as he sits in gaol, bathed in a total funk at the idea of dying:

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

And as I grow older, the lines of Duke Vincentio, spoken in his disguise as a monk to Claudio in prison, resonate ever more strongly with me: “when thou art old and rich, thou hast neither heat, affection, limb, nor beauty to make thy riches pleasant”. So true, alas!

And that was the end of my days on the proscenium. From then on, my engagement with Shakespeare was through films and other people’s theatrical productions. The most vivid of my recollections centre around Laurence Olivier. There was a poky little cinema on the Left Bank of Paris which one year when we lived there held a festival of Olivier’s Shakespeare films. My wife and I first watched Olivier’s film version of Hamlet, the first proper Hamlet I had ever seen. Olivier started with his voiced-over summary of Hamlet: “This is the tragedy of a man who could not make up his mind”.

Hamlet 1948 rŽal : Laurence Olivier Laurence Olivier Collection Christophel

It was masterly, no doubt about it. Of course, there were all the hoary Hamlet quotes: “Alas, poor Yorrick, I knew him”, “get thee to a nunnery”, “neither a borrower nor a lender be”, and of course probably the hoariest of all hoary Shakespeare quotes, “To be or not to be, that is the question”. Actually, behind all that hoariness lies one of Shakespeare’s most profound, and profoundly beautiful, soliloquies, of which I cite here only some lines, those which have always resonated with me the most:

“………..To die: to sleep;
No more; and, by a sleep to say we end
The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to, ’tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wish’d. To die, to sleep;
To sleep: perchance to dream: ay, there’s the rub.
For in this sleep of death what dreams may come
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause …”

In that same poky little cinema on the Left Bank, we got to see Olivier’s wonderful Richard III, which I have commented on in an earlier post, but also his sublime Henry V, a wonderful propaganda piece made in 1944 as a morale booster and dedicated to the “Commandos and Airborne Troops of Great Britain, the spirit of whose ancestors it has been humbly attempted to recapture”. So it is that we have great, reverberating lines like these:

“Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more;
Or close the wall up with our English dead!

I see you stand like greyhounds in the slips,
Straining upon the start. The game’s afoot:
Follow your spirit; and, upon this charge
Cry ‘God for Harry! England and Saint George!'”

“We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile
This day shall gentle his condition:
And gentlemen in England, now a-bed
Shall think themselves accursed they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.”

To my great regret, we missed the showing of Olivier’s film of Othello. But we did later see, in an equally poky cinema somewhere else, Orson Welle’s Othello, filmed in some exotic castle in Morocco. Ah, the terrible torments of jealousy! “beware, my lord, of jealousy; It is the green-ey’d monster which doth mock the meat it feeds on”.
“I kissed thee ere I killed thee, no way but this, killing myself, to die upon a kiss.”

And then there was Orson Welles as Macbeth! Rather over the top – a cross, as Welles himself put it, between Wuthering Heights and Bride of Frankenstein
but home of some of the most sublime of Shakespeare’s lines, uttered by Macbeth as the power he has sold his soul for crumbles away around him.

“To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.”

Orson Welles did another great Shakespeare film, The Chimes at Midnight, a medley from Henry IV Parts I and II, Henry V, Richard II, and even The Merry Wives of Windsor, and focusing on Sir John Falstaff, to my mind the only Shakespearean character who is really comic in the modern sense.

It’s a truly funny film. It’s also the film which brought home to me how Medieval battles were just brutal slugfests, with men bludgeoning each other to death with heavy, and sharp, pieces of metal.
But it’s ultimately a film about betrayal. Prince Hal, a Crown Prince who cannot bear to take his responsibilities seriously, strings Falstaff along, making him believe that they are fast friends. But when Prince Hal becomes Henry V and Falstaff thinks he is now in the clover (“My King! My Jove! I speak to thee my heart”), the newly crowned King rejects him, literally turning his back on him (“I know thee not, old man; fall to thy prayers! How ill white hairs become a fool and jester!”).

Over the years, my wife and I have seen a number of other Shakespeare plays in film or theatre. Most, alas, have left little or no mark. Two, though, have stayed with me. One is a stage production of The Tempest directed by Giorgio Strehler, which was visually absolutely stunning. The other is Franco Zefirelli’s lush Romeo and Juliet. I don’t remember it so much for the love story – to my modern, cynical, ear, it all sounds very twee – as for the way Zeffirelli beautifully captured the edgy, ultimately tragic, banter between Mercutio and the Capulets.

I may be a cynical old fart, but it’s undeniable that the drama of love across forbidden barriers resonates. There’s Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story, an adaptation of Romeo and Juliet to New York’s gangs
and just recently I was watching an Al Jazeera show following the production of a Romeo and Juliet adaptation in Mali, a country where it is still the norm for parents to decide whom you marry; the, mostly female, audience were captivated. 400 years on, Shakespeare is still relevant.

I’ve focused on Shakespeare the dramatist. There is also Shakespeare the writer of the sonnets. One sonnet in particular is close to my heart at this time of my life:

“That time of year thou may’st in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruin’d choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.
In me thou see’st the twilight of such day,
As after sunset fadeth in the west,
Which by-and-by black night doth take away,
Death’s second self, that seals up all in rest.
In me thou see’st the glowing of such fire
That on the ashes of his youth doth lie,
As the death-bed whereon it must expire
Consum’d with that which it was nourish’d by.
This thou perceivest, which makes thy love more strong,
To love that well which thou must leave ere long.”

Like I said, Shakespeare still speaks to us 400 years on. I just hope to have a few more goose-bump moments with Will before the sixth and seventh ages of man which he clinically describes kick in:

“The sixth age shifts
Into the lean and slippered pantaloon,
With spectacles on nose and pouch on side;
His youthful hose, well saved, a world too wide
For his shrunk shank, and his big manly voice,
Turning again toward childish treble, pipes
And whistles in his sound. Last scene of all,
That ends this strange eventful history,
Is second childishness and mere oblivion,
Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.”

Shakespeare’s funerary monument: http://www.hollowaypages.com/Shakespearemonument.htm
Théatre du Soleil, Richard II: https://jeffberryman.com/2009/07/20/finishing-the-story-le-theatre-du-soleil/
Olivier Hamlet: http://www.fanpop.com/clubs/laurence-olivier/images/5111432/title/hamlet-photo
Olivier Henry V: http://hayhistorygroup.co.uk/new-events/2015/9/11/hay-history-weekend-henry-v-at-booths-cinema-olivier-version
Welles Othello: http://filmforum.org/film/othello-welles-film
Welles Macbeth: http://filmforum.org/film/macbeth-scottish-version-welles-film
Welles Chimes at Midnight: http://www.midnightonly.com/2015/04/12/chimes-at-midnight-1965/
Battle Chimes at Midnight: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3bWraOy6Kw4
Romeo and Juliet: https://www.pinterest.com/pin/186125397070342206/
West Side Story love: https://www.filmlinc.org/events/west-side-story/
West Side Story fight: http://cityartsonline.com/blog/2010/06/siff-review-seeing-west-side-story-first-time


Beijing, 26 February 2014

As we drove and walked around during our week in central Java, my wife and I couldn’t help noticing the many loanwords from European languages (presumably mostly Dutch, with more modern loanwords coming from English) liberally sprinkled among the Indonesian words on signs and billboards. I cite a few here: klinik (clinic, or maybe hospital), notaris (lawyer), parkir (parking), bisinis (business),  apotek (drug store, pharmacy, chemist)


asesori (accessories – seen in a shoe shop, for a shelf devoted to shoe polish and the like), oli (oil), bensin (gasoline), gratis (free), buka (book), and – what has to be my favourite – elpiji (LPG)


Indonesians certainly don’t seem to have a problem with borrowing words from a different language when they need them to describe things or ideas.  A little research showed me that each wave of foreigners who have passed through the region for trade or conquest – or both – has dropped words into the language.

Here are a couple of examples from Portuguese, who formed the wave immediately before the Dutch: gereja (church – from the portuguese igreja)


and sepatu (shoes – from sapato). I can understand Indonesians borrowing the Portuguese word for “church” since they had none before the Portuguese arrived, but I’m surprised they borrowed the word for shoes. Did they not wear shoes before the Portuguese appeared over the horizon? Perhaps not, the climate certainly doesn’t require them.

Before the Portuguese came the Arabs. For a country which is 87% Muslim, I suppose it’s not surprising that a number of the Arab loanwords have to do with religion, for instance jumat (Friday – from al-jumʿa)


or kitab (book, primarily religious book – from kitāb), but there is also salam (from the universal Arabic greeting, salām).

As for the Chinese, who arrived a little before the Arabs, they have mostly left loanwords which are about very Chinese things, like noodles. Interestingly, rather than from Mandarin, many of the loanwords came from Hokkien, a dialect from southern Fujian, which reflects the Fujianese’s enterprising spirit. Many of the Chinese found throughout South-East Asia originally came from Fujian. So we have mie (noodles – from ), lunpia (spring roll – from lūn-piá)


teko (teapot – from teh-ko). But we also have, surprisingly, the widely used slang terms gua and lu (I/ me and you – from goa and lu/li). I say surprisingly because normally these are words which come from the mother language and are not borrowed.

And finally in the distant past, there were intense relations with India, with the main royal families being either Hindu or Buddhist. This brought many Sanskrit words into Indonesian: raja (king), pura (city/temple/place), mantra (words/ poet/spiritual prayers), but also kaca (glass, mirror), istri (wife/woman) and bahasa (language), as in Bahasa Indonesian.


(if I understood the article accompanying this photo correctly, these students are demonstrating against the fact that some classes at their University are not in Bahasa Indonesian; intolerance of the foreign or genuine problem?)

I suppose this seemingly painless adoption of words from other languages has to do with the fact that Indonesian, whose roots are a variant of Malay from Sumatra or Malacca, originally developed as a lingua franca spoken by the traders who roved throughout the Indonesian archipelago. The need for a lingua franca becomes obvious when you think that the archipelago was a thick tapestry of languages. As it is,  some 700 languages are spoken today in the archipelago; probably more were spoken in the past when communities were more isolated. All of the peoples whose languages loaned words to Indonesian originally arrived in the archipelago for trade, so they were communicating with Indonesians who were already open to the idea of using foreign words – as long as it made trade easier, why not?

Java Map

Personally, I’m very sympathetic to the idea of a language being open to any word that comes along and is useful in helping communication, and I cheer the Indonesian on in their liberal word borrowing (we’ll skip over the fact that many of the words entered in periods of colonialism from the colonialists’ language – was their language also “colonized”?). My paternal language, English, is currently busily lending all sorts of words to every other language in the world, but originally it was the other way around. The English were quite happy to borrow foreign words – often mangling them in the process, but that’s OK. Why, English even borrowed from Indonesian/Malay. I list here the ones where I went “really? from Indonesian? how about that!”: cockatoo (from kakatua), gecko (actually from the Javanese tokek), orangutan (this one I knew), bamboo (from bambu), paddy (from padi), rattan (from rotan), sago (from sagu), sarong (from sarung), gong (from gong), junk (from jong), Mata Hari (from matahari = sun), amok, as in “running amok”, from amuk, and finally, last but definitely not least, ketchup (from kecap, which is actually a soy sauce, not a tomato sauce; somewhere along the line tomato must have been added to, and eventually substituted for, the soy).

On the other hand, I am quite irritated by the French, holders of my maternal language, and their silly desire to stop the language being contaminated by foreign words. These old fogies, members of the prestigious (or elitist?) Académie Française (and among whom I recognize an ex-French President whose electoral defenestration I was proud to be present at)


sit in this rather nice palace on the banks of the River Seine in Paris


and pronounce linguistic fatwa (an Arabic word which I rather like to use) against English (and presumably other foreign) words which have crept into the French language.  If they feel it necessary, they will coin a new French word as a substitute. Thus, they came up with “courriel” to replace “email”. Ridiculous! Let the people decide the words they want to use! Chuck the old fogies into the Seine! (the origin, by the way, of the word fogy is unknown; its first known use is in 1780 … just thought my readers might want to know).


Apotek: http://static.panoramio.com/photos/large/43053404.jpg [in http://www.panoramio.com/photo/43053404%5D
Elpiji: http://images.solopos.com/2013/05/elpiji-Ika-Yuniati.jpg [in http://www.solopos.com/2013/05/16/elpiji-3-kg-langka-kelangkaan-diduga-akibat-pengguna-tabung-12-kg-pindah-ke-3-kg-406756%5D
Gereja: http://media-cdn.tripadvisor.com/media/photo-s/03/9b/35/96/black-portuguese-church.jpg [in http://www.tripadvisor.com/Attraction_Review-g294229-d379308-Reviews-Black_Portuguese_Church_Gereja_Sion-Jakarta_Java.html%5D
Jumat: http://31.media.tumblr.com/0def87ff6cecf5bdaba08df01555f5d1/tumblr_mwnijh0zzn1qb44klo1_500.jpg [in http://wawicaksono.tumblr.com/%5D
Lumpia: http://id.openrice.com/UserPhoto/photo/0/A2/001ZMRD204116C98F1ABB7l.jpg [in http://id.openrice.com/other/restaurant/lumpia-panas-semarang/104261/%5D
Bahasa: http://www.seasite.niu.edu/indonesian/bahasa_indonesia1.jpg [in http://www.seasite.niu.edu/indonesian/new_page_5.htm%5D
Java map: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/a/a9/Java-Map.jpg [in http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Demak_Sultanate%5D
Académie Française members: http://cdn-lejdd.ladmedia.fr/var/lejdd/storage/images/media/images/culture/academie-francaise/5255893-1-fre-FR/Academie-francaise_pics_809.jpg [in http://www.lejdd.fr/Societe/Images/portfolio/A-suivre-cette-semaine3/Jeudi%5D
Académie Française building: http://i.images.cdn.fotopedia.com/flickr-870543298-image/Paris_and_Vicinity/The_City_of_Paris/6th/Institut_de_France/Academie_Francaise.jpg [in http://www.fotopedia.com/wiki/6th_arrondissement_of_Paris#!/items/flickr-870543298%5D


Beijing, 12 January 2013

We arrived back in Beijing a few hours ago and found ourselves landing in a real pea soup – perhaps carrot soup would be more appropriate since the colour was a dull red; dust from the Gobi desert had blown in. Visibility was really very bad; my wife and I thanked God and radar for having got the plane down safely. As I write, the sun, which was glaring weakly through the fog when we arrived, has disappeared completely to leave behind a grey miasma.


Electronic visibility seems just as bad. Our internet connection is still acting up; it’s very difficult to get through the Great Firewall that surrounds China.


It started getting bad a month or so before the 18th Congress of the Communist Party. Everyone in the expat community agreed that the Powers that Be were tightening their grip on the electronic chatter to make sure that nothing embarrassing or destabilizing got out (the Bo Xilai case was uppermost in everyone’s minds). Everyone also agreed that surely they would relax their grip after the Party Congress and things would go back to where they were (I won’t say normal). But that didn’t happen. So now the expats are saying that internet will be controlled until March when the new leadership takes over, and then surely after that they will relax their grip.

I’m not so sure. Control is a drug; once you get a taste for it, you can’t give up, you want more. I’m afraid that my little tunnels through the Great Firewall will all be blocked up and that my voice will no longer get through to the outside world. These last few weeks in New York have given me a heady taste of what freedom of speech can be like. I published my posts and researched my materials on the internet with ease and speed, without the constant worry that I would lose the connection and everything would crash.

I don’t want to lose my voice. Paraphrasing Langston Hughes, the African American poet, “now do I wonder at this thing, that I am old but I can sing”.  I want to keep singing, to keep sending out my little messages in their bottles.

message in a bottle

air pollution Beijing: http://rt.com/files/news/china-pollution-851/people-walk-heavily-hazy.jpg (Reuters / Jason Lee)
cartoon great firewall: http://www.thetelecomblog.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/12/Great-Firewall2.jpg
message in a bottle: http://1.bp.blogspot.com/_-C_ejcKBFWo/TEnq5dYUa3I/AAAAAAAAJbc/DI29YiFyC-Q/s1600/MIAB.jpg


Beijing, 21 October 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wassily Kandinsky was also quite fond of squiggles.

Paul Klee was also into squiggles

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

And I haven’t even started on the sculpture …

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


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

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



Urumqi, 5 September 2012

The flight started early in the morning in Beijing. It was raining hard as the airplane took off, and we climbed up through a milky whiteness. Finally we broke through and started our trek westward to Urumqi, capital of Xinjian. The cloud cover began to tear over Inner Mongolia, and through the gaps I could see wooded hills with cultivated valley bottomland. And so it went on until we came to the Ordos Loop, where the Yellow River, after flowing north-east from Langzhou for 600 kilometres, turns abruptly to flow east for 300 kilometres, and then just as abruptly turns again, flowing south for another 600 kilometres, before doing one final abrupt turn east to flow on to the sea. The northern part of the Ordos Loop over which we were now flying is home to the Ordos Desert. On cue, as if sensing the harsh land below, the clouds suddenly banked to a halt, and in the now clear sky I could make out far below me the muddy waters of the Yellow River as they started making their turn to the south. And suddenly I spied one small, round, little, cloud, wispy to the point of invisibility, bravely clinging to its space above the desert floor. I watched, fearing that it would evaporate before my eyes, unable to resist the furnace heat below. But no, it was still defiantly there when it dropped out of sight behind me. And now the southern reaches of the Gobi desert rolled into view, with not a cloud in sight to soften the hard edges of the stone plains and rolling dunes, which accompanied me all the way to the mountains that guard the eastern marches of Urumqi.