Sori, 8 March 2021

“Spring his here” crooned Frank Sinatra. And indeed – at least in the little corner of the Northern Hemisphere on which my wife and I are currently perched – Spring is here! Frank  then goes on to lament the lack of love in his life, but that is not our problem. My wife and I can just focus on the flowers exploding into life all around us, humming soulfully a tune or two as we do so.

As usual in Liguria, mimosa was the first to burst onto the scene, with joyous sprays of canary yellow.

Those are fading now, their place being taken by crocuses (high up in the hills)

my photo

various fruit trees

my photo
My photo

and of course daffodils! Gardens and public parks have a sprinkling, but my eye was really caught by this bevy of them planted in a corner of an olive-tree terrace.

my photo

It’s been decades now since I’ve lived in the UK, but first impressions on the young mind are indelible (as opposed to impressions on the old mind which I find to be distressingly delible). My spending the Springs of my youth in rural Somerset, in that prep school which I mentioned in a recent post, has meant that in my mind’s eye Spring will always be that triumvirate of flowers: the snowdrop, the crocus, and the daffodil, which someone at the school had planted in various corners of the school grounds.
Later, when I moved on to my public school (in Brito-speak, a private boarding school for boys (in my time) aged between 13 and 18), my soul was stirred during my first Spring there by bunches of daffodils which sprang out of the lawn in front of my House.


That same Spring, just off the path which led down from the House to the main school buildings, I discovered a group of narcissi, those cousins of the daffodil, scattered down a slope.


I was enchanted.

Alas, I quickly learned that showing a delight in flowers would definitely put me in the uncool category at school. I risked being compared to Fotherington-Thomas in the book “Down with Skool”. Molesworth, the purported author of the book, has this to say about Fotherington-Thomas: “you kno he say Hullo clouds hullo sky he is a girlie and love the scents and sounds of nature … he is uterly wet and a sissy” (Molesworth’s spelling is also quite erratic). This gallery of drawings in the book of Fotherington-Thomas, by the great Ronald Searle, says it all.
At the age of 13-14, that was definitely not where I wanted to be! And so I buried my uncool delight in daffodils and other flowers of Spring under deep layers of teenager cynicism and world-weariness. A few years later, when I got to know it, I could only secretly thrill to Wordsworth’s poem “Daffodils”.

I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o’er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host, of golden daffodils;
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.

Continuous as the stars that shine
And twinkle on the milky way,
They stretched in never-ending line
Along the margin of a bay:
Ten thousand saw I at a glance,
Tossing their heads in sprightly dance.

The waves beside them danced; but they
Out-did the sparkling waves in glee:
A poet could not but be gay,
In such a jocund company:
I gazed—and gazed—but little thought
What wealth the show to me had brought:

For oft, when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude;
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils.

But now that I am old and venerable, and my foibles and oddities are tolerated (“don’t worry about him, he’s just an old fart”), I can openly advertise my delight in the flowers of Spring. I can, like the Great Poet, lie on my couch and let my heart with pleasure fill and dance with the daffodils and all the flowers that Spring brings us.




Milan, 26 February 2020

updated 29 February 2020

“I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o’er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host, of golden daffodils;
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.”

Except that, contrary to William Wordsworth, I wasn’t lonely as a cloud, I was with my wife, and it wasn’t daffodils that I saw crowded on the hillside but primroses. My wife and I were finishing the last stage of the Traveler’s Trail along Lake Como when we turned a corner and found before us this star-burst of yellow.

my photo

True to their name — prim-rose; first “rose”, or flower — the primroses have been one of the first flowers to burst out of their winter hibernation into this Year of Our Lord 2020. They have been a constant companion along the paths we have travelled these last days of February, coming up through the forest floor litter of last year.

My photo

But it is not only them which have been keeping us company. For every primrose we have seen, it seems there has been a small purple flower close by. A few minutes after seeing that crowd of primroses, we saw a heavy sprinkling of these purple flowers along the side of the path.

My photo

Some investigation on my part has revealed that they are liverworts. They are so small that I had to crouch down low to get this picture, with my old bones protesting all the while.

My photo

We have seen them showing off hues ranging from this violet to washed-out jeans-blue.

Nature, slowly coming alive again, has continued to give. Today, as we travelled a trail from Como which wends its way through the woods north of the town, we came across a few bunches of this flower.

My photo

My internet searches failed to come up with a name for this lovely green flower with yellow pistils. Luckily, however, my initial plea for help led one helpful reader to point out that I had another hellebore on my hands, the helleborus viridis, or green hellebore (I happen to have written about the black hellebore in my previous post).  This flower hangs its head modestly on its stalk, so to get this picture I had to lie down on the path – I must confess to having had difficulties getting back up; luckily, my wife was at hand …

A little further, we came across another tiny purple flower. For a moment, I thought it was a liverwort, but on closer inspection I concluded that it was a violet.

my photo

And a little further on, we came across a white version of this same flower.

my photo

And now, riding back on the train to Milan, writing this up, I think I can say about all these flowers, paraphrasing Wordsworth (and severely harming his rhythm in the process), that

“… when on my couch I will lie
In vacant or in pensive mood,
They will flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude;
And then my heart with pleasure will fill,
And dance with the primroses, liverworts, violets, and green hellebores” .


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


Los Angeles, 10 April 2017

The dark clouds which dumped huge amounts of rain on southern California a few months ago have had a multicolored lining: the intense blooms of wildflowers which have burst out all over this desertic and semi-desertic landscape – water is life. A few posts ago, I wrote about the wildflower blooms in Joshua Tree National Park, considerably more intense this year than in previous years.

Last weekend, my wife and I joined our daughter and her boyfriend on a trek in the Malibu hills where they plunge into the Pacific Ocean.

The hillsides were a riot of yellow, with the flowers growing head high, crowding in over the track, brushing your face, leaving pollen streaks on your cheeks.

And there has been the Antelope Valley California Poppy Reserve …

My wife and I went up there some ten days ago. As we exited San Francisquito Canyon high up on the southern slope of Antelope Valley, we saw spread before us on the valley’s opposite slope several faint patches of orange shimmering in the heat: our goal.

On we drove, down to the valley’s floor and along the its northern slope. We turned a corner and the banks of the road suddenly flamed orange. We were starting to see the California Poppy close up.

After paying our park entry fee and parking the car, we started walking the trails. Our aim was to climb to the top of Kitanemuk hill, walk along the crest a while and then come down and loop around back to the car park. These photos document our walk. I don’t think they need commenting.

I love wildflowers. I love their brilliance, their panoply of shapes and colors. I enjoy their anarchy; not for me the regimented flower beds of suburban gardens. I mourn their evanescence. I see them for a short time in Spring, and spend the rest of the year impatiently waiting their return. I’m really glad that our daughter’s birthday – our excuse for coming to Los Angeles – serendipitously coincides with the annual wildflower explosion in this corner of the world. And I’m secretly thankful for all that rain earlier in the year. It brought much misery to many but a great joy to me and my wife.


Pictures: all ours


Beijing, 20 March 2014

It’s the first day of Spring! The day of the vernal equinox! The moment in the year when, after a slow climb out of the short days and long nights of the winter solstice, night equals day. From now on, the days will get longer and the nights shorter, until the summer solstice in the month of June is reached and the cycle reverses.


And actually, apart from cold astronomical considerations, today in Beijing it really was a spring day! A beautiful, sunny spring day! When I walked out of the apartment building this morning, the sun shone out of a blue, unclouded sky, but there was a chill in the air. When I left the office as evening drew in, the sky was still an unclouded blue, but now there was a soft breath of warm air on my cheek. Verily, I felt like Boticelli’s Venus stepping off her shell, with the zephyrs blowing over me

birth of venus

although I will admit that she has a considerably better body than mine.

Humming quietly to myself, I made my way home, pausing for a moment under the willow trees on which the zephyr’s warm breath had worked its magic, covering the branches with a light green furze.

greening willows

Nature awakes from its winter sleep. Venus walks the land. Flora, goddess of flowers and Spring, follows in her wake.



Equinox: http://www.imd-corp.com/figures/ARIX0020.jpg [in http://www.imd-corp.com/formx_ind_display_flexible_getmethod.php?category=name&fname=%%5D
Birth of Venus: http://www.artble.com/imgs/9/b/3/416525/birth_of_venus.jpg [in http://www.artble.com/artists/sandro_botticelli/paintings/primavera%5D
Greening willows: my picture
Primavera: http://www.artble.com/imgs/6/c/a/616543/primavera.jpg [in http://www.artble.com/artists/sandro_botticelli/paintings/primavera%5D


Beijing, 17 April 2013

Spring was in the air this weekend! The temperature was definitely higher, the trees were getting a cover of green fuzz

spring 2013 002

Little violets were blooming along the side of the streets

spring flowers 2013 001

so my wife and I decided to stop hugging our radiator and go out for a walk.

I thought this was a good time to go and visit a small park I had noticed behind our apartment block, which I often pass when coming back from the airport. It always seems to be seething with locals, exercising, chatting, playing, or just sitting. So off we went, past our local 7-11, past the newspaper stand where my wife gets her phone top-ups, past our Chinese supermarket, past the man who mends our shoes, past old (well, old for China) blocks of apartments, until we finally arrived at the park, wedged between the highway coming in from the airport and a local road.

It was good that we went because the fine weather had brought out the local mah-jong players. I had last seen such a group back in 2009 when we took a walk along Qianhai lake on the last day of October – I remember the day well, the next day it snowed. In the intervening years, I had been keeping a weather eye out for other mah-jong players, but no such luck.  I had seen card players, I had seen players of Chinese chequers, I had seen domino players, but I had not seen a single further group of mah-jong players. My luck had finally turned, the good weather had brought them out of hibernation.

So we wandered around, from table to table, watching as the players shuffled their tiles, built their walls, smacked down their tiles, and in some mysterious way won or lost. We watched a few Yuan bills discretely changing hands at the end of games, so the stakes were high!

mahjong player 002

mahjong player 004

I’ve had a certain fascination with mah-jong ever since, many years ago, I read Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. At some point, Dr. Sheppard and his sister Caroline spend an evening playing the game with local friends (a retired Army officer and a spinster) and Dr. Sheppard wins in some rare and extraordinary fashion.

The situation became more strained. It was annoyance at Miss Gannett’s going Mah Jong for the third time running which prompted Caroline to say to me as we built a fresh wall: ‘You are too tiresome, James. You sit there like a deadhead, and say nothing at all!’ ‘But, my dear,’ I protested, ‘I have really nothing to say that is, of the kind you mean.’ ‘Nonsense,’ said Caroline, as she sorted her hand. ‘You must know something interesting.’ I did not answer for a moment. I was overwhelmed and intoxicated. I had read of there being such a thing as The Perfect Winning – going Mah Jong on one’s original hand. I had never hoped to hold the hand myself. With suppressed triumph I laid my hand face upwards on the table. ‘As they say in the Shanghai Club,’ I remarked – Tin-ho – the Perfect Winning!’ The colonel’s eyes nearly bulged out of his head.

This scene has always struck me as so British (of a certain period and of a certain class): here are quintessentially British people in their cosy parlour in the evening playing some exotic game which clearly has been imported from some far-flung imperial outpost – Hong Kong or Shanghai’s International Concession or some such place. It is a world that the recent Poirot TV series admirably captures. This photo from the 1930s gets the atmosphere although these particular people are playing a card game.


Ever since I read that book, I’ve wondered how exactly this mah-jong game is played. When my daughter introduced me to the mah-jong videogame I thought I had the answer and spent many happy hours pairing tiles and watching them disappear in a puff of virtual smoke. But once I arrived in Beijing and watched the locals play, I realized that I had been barking up the wrong tree. So I surfed the web to find the rules for mah-jong. Alas! As everyone knows, you cannot learn a game from reading the rules:

Breaking the Wall: East throws the dice, adds the total, and counts off the players, starting with East, working anti-clockwise according to the number thrown.  The player where the count ends throws the dice again, adds the total of both throws, and uses this total to count along his wall from right to left.  Where the count ends is where the player breaks the wall. He removes the pair of tiles at that point, places the top tile on top of the previous tile and the lower tile in a position two positions further anti-clockwise.  These two tiles are called “loose tiles”.


My wife and I have agreed that we need to find an – English-speaking – club somewhere in Beijing, where we can learn the game by playing it. In the meantime, we have bought a set of mah-jong tiles. We found a lovely old set tucked away in the back corner of a shop here.

mahjong box 002

mahjong box 004

mahjong box 005

I can’t wait to announce triumphantly “Tin-ho! the Perfect Winning!”


Card game 1930s: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/5/5c/Card_game,_circa_1930s.jpg

other pictures: mine


Beijing, 12 April 2013

We were discussing weighty matters yesterday afternoon, the security situation of our organization here in China. It’s a review we carry out once a year, in the Spring. Not unnaturally, the new outbreak of bird flu in the Shanghai area was the first topic on the agenda. After a review of where things stand, we concluded that the new flu virus H7N9 currently represents a moderate threat to our staff members and their dependents, but we agreed that we will need to closely follow the flu’s progress. Next on the agenda: North Korea and the recent ratcheting up of tensions there which I alluded to in a previous post. Conclusion: low to moderate concern for us in China, but the Security Officer to monitor the situation and report back. And so on, down the list of possible threats, both natural, like earthquakes, and man-made, like the outbursts of violent agitation in the Eastern provinces over land use.

All the while, I admired the magnolia in the garden outside the window, with its silky white flowers standing out against the tender green of a weeping willow tree unfurling into leaf. At the meeting’s start, both were picked out with vivid intensity by the sun. But as the meeting wore on and the sun moved in its arc across the sky, the shadows drew in and cast a pall of grey over the white and green.

picture 004

And so our security review was done for another year.