Beijing, 28 January 2013

This morning, I walked along the opposite side of the canal to go to work. I wanted to see what someone had written into the snow that thinly covers the ice. I took a photo. Readers interested in seeing it are referred to the postscript I have just added to my post “Clear, Pure, Clean, Peaceful”.

It so happens that a path has been cleared in the snow next to the script, which carries to the other side of the canal. Many people take a short cut across the ice to the other side. I hesitated. Crossing across the canal would shorten my walk to the office somewhat. But crossing ice like that always makes me a little nervous. Decades ago, when I was fourteen, I had ventured out onto a frozen lake where the ice got progressively thinner from one side to the other. As I trotted across, the ice began to creak and crack ominously. I beat a hasty retreat and all was well, but sometimes – especially if I venture onto iced-up water bodies – the sound of that creaky-cracking comes back to me; stuff of nightmares. So I hesitated.

I finally decided it was alright and set off across the canal. The cleared ice was very transparent, although the view through it was bent and warped by the unevenness of the ice. As I looked down through the ice, I saw a multitude of bubbles, of all shapes and sizes, ghostly white, trapped in the ice. Perhaps it was the slight trepidation I felt as I walked over the ice, but suddenly it seemed to me that I was seeing the last bubbles of air exhaled by a host of people who had got trapped under the ice. I half expected to suddenly see the ethereal face of some drowned person looking up at me through the ice.

I reached the other side. Silliness … I shook the feeling off. But as I turned around to survey the canal, I remembered a shard of T.S. Eliot’s poem. The Wasteland.

Phlebas the Phoenician, a fortnight dead,
Forgot the cry of gulls, and the deep sea swell
And the profit and loss.
A current under sea
Picked his bones in whispers. As he rose and fell
He passed the stages of his age and youth
Entering the whirlpool.
Gentile or Jew
O you who turn the wheel and look to windward,
Consider Phlebas, who was once handsome and tall as you.


Beijing airport, 7 December 2012

Perhaps it is the tiredness that is seeping into my bones as I wait at the airport to take my third flight this week, or perhaps it is the piercing cold that has descended on the north of China these last few days, but I find myself in a melancholy mood. My last post on red hair is making my mind wander off to a sad tale of a young woman who lived and died long ago, decades before I was born.

My mother was the source of the tale, which she in turn had received from her mother. The events took place in the early 1900s, when my grandmother was in her early twenties. It was that moment in the lives of young women of a certain class – to which my grandmother firmly belonged – when their attention was increasingly taken up by their matrimonial prospects. If a woman was not married by her mid-twenties, she was considered an old maid and condemned to spinsterhood, which meant living with her parents for the rest of their lives and eking out a modest living thereafter off the kindness of her family; working was of course unthinkable. It was a fate to be avoided at all costs.

My grandmother was very friendly with the girl next door, who was close to her in age. This girl’s main claim to beauty was her wonderfully long, auburn, hair. The girl’s father was a wine merchant, as were many in that region. Perhaps too many, because he went out of business and was bankrupted. This was a catastrophe for the whole family, never more so than for the girl. For now there was no money for her dowry, and in those days a girl without a dowry simply could not marry (or could only marry beneath her station, which was unthinkable). The father compounded the calamity by committing suicide, to save his honour it was said.

A solution was found for the girl’s younger brother. He was placed with an uncle who was working in Romania, in the wine industry. But as I said, work was not a solution for the girl. She was faced with the prospect of passing the rest of her life with her mother, with no likelihood of ever marrying, living off some miserable amount of money.

But in this dark time, she met a man, who made promises. And she succumbed to his blandishments. He got what he wanted, but he reneged on his promises. She came to see my grandmother one evening to tell her all this. She stood in front of the mirror and looked at her hair, and said “No-one will ever be able to enjoy this hair after all.” My grandmother tried to comfort her, telling her that things would look better in the morning. The girl thanked her, hugged her and left. She was found a few days later floating in the river than ran through town.

I think of her every time I see the painting of Ophelia drowned, by the pre-Raphaelite Millais.


But I don’t suppose the girl looked nearly so nice when they hauled her out of the river.

Ah, they’re calling the flight. I might get to bed before midnight.


Ophelia drowned: http://2.bp.blogspot.com/-NsRjraTWfLI/TmDuDyK05LI/AAAAAAAAATs/XzybC5ru9uk/s1600/Drowning%253F.jpg