Sori, 4 April 2021

My wife and I have spent the last month or so on the Ligurian coast, far away – we hope – from the modern pestilence ravaging the bigger cities of northern Italy. Our base is the small seaside village of Sori, which sits at the end of a long and narrow valley that slices up into the range of hills backing the sea. Our apartment is up one side of the valley, with our balcony overlooking the village below and giving us a view of the olive trees tumbling down the steep valley side opposite.

Often now, more often than we remember, as we sit there admiring the view we will see seagulls coming in from the sea, riding up the wind currents on the far side of the valley, banking, and then gliding past our balcony seat back to the lapis-lazuli sea, with perhaps a lazy flap or two of their wings. Once in a while, their flight will be accompanied by the bells ringing out from the village church, as is the case as I write this.

A seagull in flight is a beautiful thing. I’m too busy watching them to take photos, and anyway my iPhone camera is not up to the task. But photographers far more able than I have caught them in flight, as these few photos culled from the net attest.


Sometimes, as the gulls fly by they open their beak – and the love fest is over.


The calls which gulls make are really horrible. A mournful wail is really the only way I can describe it. It can come out as one long sound, or as a string of short sounds, or as both. In fact, I learnt while reading up on gulls that their original name in English was mews, a Germanic word (the German word for gulls is Möwe, for instance, while the Dutch word is meeuw; even the French have used the German root, calling gulls mouette). It’s clearly onomatopoeic – another way of describing the noise gulls make is that they are mewing. For some reason, though, the descendants of the Anglo-Saxon immigrants to the British Isles switched to a form of the Brythonic Celtic name (compare “gull” to the Welsh gwylan, the Cornish guilan, the Breton goelann). I would say a rare example of a victory of the original Celtic immigrants over their later Anglo-Saxon overlords.

The moment gulls mew, I am instantly transported to my youth. I am back in some small English fishing port. It’s cold, it’s windy, it’s probably also raining, the tide is out, the boats are sitting awkwardly on the mud flats. And the water is absolutely bloody freezing.


The photo gives the scene a certain aura of romanticism, but for me there was none. I would always become enveloped in a dark cloud of melancholy in places like this, made all the worse by the mournful mewing of the seagulls flying overhead. I thank God every day that the Hand of Fate led me to escape the British Isles, Celtic, Anglo-Saxon or otherwise, and end up in a part of the world where there are no tides (or hardly any), where the cold is moderate, and where the water gets warm enough by August to tempt me to bathe.

While I’m at it, I might as well get my other beefs with gulls out on the table. First, there’s their eating habits. I read that people call gulls “rats of the sky”. I’m afraid this is an apt description. They’ll basically eat anything, which is why – like rats – they thrive on landfills or waste dumps.


The one time I worked on a landfill, I’d mentally take out my depression of being in such a shit-hole on the flocks of gulls dancing around the mounds of fresh garbage being deposited, mewing and squawking as they fought amongst each other for food scraps. How could they demean themselves to eat that crap?!

And they are really cheeky bastards, quite willing to snatch food from beachgoers.


Kleptoparasites, a scientific name to describe their feeding habits, is a polite way of describing this nasty behavior on their part.

And of course, like other species which feed on the crap which our civilizations spew out (rats, pigeons, cockroaches, to name a few), the gulls are thriving while thousands of other species are collapsing all around us.

My other beef with gulls is their readiness to poop on to you the digested remains of that food they snatched from you – another epithet for gulls is “bags of crap with wings”. Of course, it’s hilarious when it happens to someone else, as exemplified by this moment in the Tintin story “Temple du Soleil”.


But it’s less droll when it happens to you.

But why am I complaining? Gulls are what they are. If we want them to behave nicely, we should behave nicely first and not destroy the planet we all share.

And with that moralistic conclusion, I shall go back to watching the gulls – or mews – soar up the valley, bank, and glide down back past our balcony.


Beijing, 14 August 2014

There was a board game I used to play when I was young, I forget its name, but it had to do with pirates and their treasure. I suspect that the game was loosely based on Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island, which the boys of my generation had all read.

Treasure.Island frank godwin 1925

“Harr, me hearties, pull strong, pull straight! Yohoho an’ a bottle o’ rum!” etc.

The purpose of the game was to capture the treasure, and like all good board games it had miniature treasure – miniature gold bars, miniature rubies, miniature diamonds, and so on. You stockpiled your treasure on islands, and you attacked each other to lay your grubby hands on everyone else’s treasure. I was fascinated by all that miniature treasure. I most lusted after the rubies. “Get in thar, lads, and grab t’ treajaye!”

This fascination of small boys like me with pirates and treasure was brilliantly tapped into by Hergé, the author of Tintin, who in two volumes caught the whole buccaneering spirit


and the subsequent hunt for buried treasure


Ah, look how that evil pirate Rackham the Red shows off his treasure to Captain Haddock!

rackham montre le tresor

And look how his great-great-great etc. grandson Captain Haddock’s head is sent spinning when he finally finds this treasure!

Capt Haddock trouve le tresor de Rackham le rouge

All that glinting gold! All those sparkling gems!

But I grew up, and grew more sensible, and found that I didn’t actually like sparkling gems (I still like gold, though …). I’m told that gemstones are cut and faceted to bring out their sparkle – or to use the correct language, their brilliance and their fire. Some fellow called Marcel Tolkowsky even went so far as to work out mathematically the best faceting to give gems so as to use the light’s reflection and refraction to maximize their fire and brilliance. But when I now look at my once-favourite rubies

WellsFargoInsertRuby, July

or sapphires

sapphires-blueor emeraldsemeraldsor diamonds


I see nothing but cold, hard precision, stuff for the Rich Bitch.

This was forcefully brought home to me last Christmas when my wife and I visited the Metropolitan Museum of Art during what has become our annual visit to our daughter in New York. The museum happened to be holding an exhibition of the medieval treasures from the Cathedral of Hildesheim in Germany. At that time – we are talking the 1100s – people didn’t know how to facet stones, so gems were mainly polished and rounded into cabochons. Take a look at these photos to see what I mean.

Here is a bible cover.

photo 012

This is a cross.

photo 004

This a reliquary.

photo 010

This a liturgical fan.

photo 007

The rounded shape in a gem is so much more simpatico, I feel, warmer, more approachable, so much more like us. I mean, we’re sort of round – more round than faceted. OK, it’s all a bit fanciful, but it is true that cabochons are much more like all those rounded, smooth, coloured pebbles that I’m sure we all picked up as kids on the beach and dreamily turned over and over in our hands.

boy on beach

I was certainly an assiduous pebble collector, a habit which I have kept up all my life. Everywhere I have gone, I have collected stones smoothed by the passage of water. I am always looking for interesting colours, striking striations, or curious shapes. Every time I find myself on a beach, my eyes will automatically drop and scour the sand or pebbles for interesting stones (or shells, or any curious flotsam thrown up by the sea). Even here in Beijing, far away from any beach, I have my collection of smooth stones, collected here and there.

So you can understand that in my sensible adulthood I have not been so interested in Rich Bitch jewelry like this

emerald necklace elizabeth-taylorpreferring “ethnic jewelry” like this.

ethnic necklace

(there is also a small matter of the price tag, but we’ll put that aside for the time being)

I insert here a photo of a wonderful necklace I bought my wife some five years ago. It’s a string of red agate stones. Very pebble-like, don’t you think? You see it here gracing her wonderful neck. I bought it in a little shop in Vienna which specializes in Asian ethnic jewelry.

my wifes necklace 001

In these preferences I feel a bond with my faraway ancestors. But back, back we have to go, beyond the Romans

Roman necklace

and the Greeks

Helenistic gem and gold necklace

where too much gold intrudes.

Beyond even the Egyptians, where silver gets in the way

Egyptian Electrum Cowrie Shell Necklace

We have to go back to the Celts two Centuries before Christ.

celtic necklace 2nd C BC Switzerlandand even further back to our prehistoric ancestors, 4,000 BC in this case

Late Prehistoric Beadsand 2,600 BC in this case

Late Prehistoric Beads-2

I’ve always felt myself to be a bit of a Cro-Magnon man. I think my wife sometimes agrees …


Treasure Island book cover: [in
Le Secret de la Licorne: [in
Le Trésor de Rackham le Rouge: [in
Rackham shows Haddock the treasure: [in
Capt. Haddock finds the treasure: [in
Rubies: [in
Sapphires-blue:×737.jpg [in
Emeralds: [in
Diamonds: [in
The Hildesheim treasures: my photos
Boy on beach: [in
Emerald necklace (Elizabeth Taylor): [in
Ethnic necklace: [in
Necklace on my wife: my pic.
Roman necklace: [in
Hellenistic necklace: [in
Egyptian electrum and beads necklace: [in in
Celtic necklace 2nd C BC Switzerland: [in
Late prehistoric necklace: [in
Late prehistoric beads-2: [in


Beijing, 14 August 2012

To get to our favourite cafés, my wife and I cross the bridge which spans my piece of canal and then walk all the way down Sanlitun road to the South Village. It’s one of the places in Beijing where many Embassies are located. It’s very green and leafy, quiet, a really pleasant place to walk.

Our usual route takes us past the Belgian Embassy. It has nothing notable about it except for one rather odd thing. Set up outside the Embassy’s perimeter wall, about two metres above the ground and facing the road, lit up at night, is a large picture of Tintin. I tried to take a photo of it for this posting,  but was warned off by the Chinese guard at the gate. So I took a photo in secret, stopping in front of the picture and pretending to take a call but actually clicking a photo! I’m rather pleased with myself even though the photo is skew.

tintin embassy poster 001

Tintin aficionados will immediately recognise this as a scene from Le Lotus Bleu, the fifth album of the series and first published in 1936. It comes from a moment in the story when Tintin, who has been hiding in an opium den in Shanghai to pick up information on the Japanese villain Mitsuhirato, is making his getaway. It’s quite a cheerful picture; Tintin has a slight smile as he jumps out, and the vase has a design of children carrying a paper dragon through the streets. I show here the original picture in the album.

bande dessine 003

So famous is this picture that it is one of a number of scenes from Tintin which have been turned into collectible statuettes.

tintin from vase 008

As I say, I find it slightly odd that the Belgian Embassy, an institution I would have thought anxious to project a sense of its own importance and probity, should decide to put up a picture from a comics album in so public a fashion.  But if it is going to do it, a picture of Tintin, who was drawn by Hergé, no doubt the best known Belgian in the world, taken from a story that takes place in China, sounds like a good choice.

Apart from smiling at this picture seen in such incongruous surroundings, I was also intrigued by it. Before coming to China, I had checked what books were banned here. I had read that Le Lotus Bleu was one of them because it gave too sympathetic a reading of the Kuomintang. But the Belgian Embassy’s bold move suggested that the ban was no longer in place, if it had ever been. Or perhaps the Chinese Government simply didn’t believe that any Chinese walking by would know the story and so recognise the picture. Which is probably true and to my mind quite sad. The Chinese are missing something.

Le Lotus Bleu is of course the most Chinese of Tintin’s adventures, but Tintin en Amérique, first published in 1932, also has strong Chinese echoes for me. The first time my wife and I went to Shanghai, as we walked from the Bund to Renmin Square we found ourselves among buildings from the thirties. And all of a sudden we found ourselves at the crossing of Fuzhou and Sichuan Roads where there are four identical buildings on each corner. This picture is of one of them, the Metropole Hotel:

shanghai-2012 082

… and suddenly I was in Chicago in 1932, watching Tintin roar by in a Deusenberg, chasing Al Capone’s men!

tintin in chicago 010

Oh no! Just around the corner other members of the gang were waiting to gun him down! …

… I miss my Tintin albums. They are sitting in a packing box in the dark of a warehouse in Vienna, waiting for us to come back to Europe to retrieve them. I’m nearly 60 but I’m not ashamed to say that I always got a lift when I pulled one out of the bookshelf and settled down on the couch for a good read.

And I miss the times on that same couch when I read the albums to my young children, translating as I went along. How they laughed at the Fat Man Full of Soup! A minor character in the earlier parts of L’Oreille Cassée, I should clarify, who was called such by a parrot and who thought it was the carrier of the parrot who had dared so insult him. I miss the simple joys which suffused those years, as we watched our children grow. Perhaps one day I will have grandchildren sitting with me on the couch laughing again at the Fat Man Full of Soup.

photo credits
Tintin picture outside Embassy: my picture
Scenes from the album: my picture
Tintin coming out of the vase:
Hotel Metropole: my photo
Tintin in Chicago: