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there is beauty all around us

Month: July, 2013

KARAOKE ON THE GRASSLANDS

31 July 2013

Well not really the grasslands. We were more where the grasslands of Inner Mongolia meet one of the province’s deserts, whose dunes are gradually invading the grasslands.

mission 001

The government has been struggling for decades to stop the dunes in their tracks. It has had some success, but only some. We were visiting a man who was trying something new. He wanted to make a sustainable business of desert-control (something which the government is incapable of). He was contracting local farmers to plant sand willow bushes on the dunes, paying them to coppice the willows every three-four years, burning the resulting biomass in a small power plant, and selling the electricity to the local grid. Finally, with a small portion of the carbon dioxide emissions he was growing Spirulina in ponds around the power plant to sell as a food supplement.

Very impressive. But actually what I want to write about today is the cultural highlight of the trip, the evening’s karaoke session. After the usual banquet, with its toasts and pledges of eternal friendship, we were all ushered downstairs into the hotel’s rec room. It actually wasn’t clear to either me or my colleague what was going on until an English-speaking member of the company staff brightly informed us that we were going to have a karaoke session. My colleague looked at me. This is not what we had signed on for. But what to do, you have to follow local practice. So putting a brave face on it, we followed everyone into the room and took our seats facing the screen. What would we be invited to sing, we timidly asked? “Edelweiss”, we were informed. Well at least I roughly knew that song. The first couple of songs were Chinese – popular ones, by the smiles and nods around the room – and were belted out, first by the General Manager and then by the Deputy General Manager (I felt that the GM looked somewhat peeved with the DGM’s performance; was it somewhat better than his?). Then came our turn. My hands gripping the mike were slightly sweaty. Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer, dressed to the nines in their Austrian costumes from “The Sound of Music”, danced onto the screen, the music swelled, the words appeared helpfully on the screen, and it was all systems go.

sound of music

In all modesty, I think our performance was quite creditable. My colleague and I managed to follow the verses more or less in tune and in time, and I was able to give a satisfying Frank Sinatra-like croon to the chorus. We certainly got enthusiastic applause at the end – perhaps in the manner that parents energetically clap at performances in kindergartens, to encourage the little ones. This gave us the courage to accept to do another song later in the evening. Here, my colleague took the lead. He knew the song, while I had no idea of either tune or words and just hummed along helpfully. Shortly afterwards, the session wound down and we all stumbled off to our rooms.

It’s a rum thing, this karaoke. I remember back in the 70s when it first appeared on our radar screens in the West as another Japanese export, along with Sony walkmans. I remember how we tittered at these pictures of staid, middle-aged Japanese businessmen singing what we were told were pop love songs, somewhat out of tune. I mean really, did these people feel no embarrassment?

Japanese Businessmen in Karaoke Bar

We might have tittered, but karaoke swept through the rest of Asia, becoming all the rage. My first (and until Inner Mongolia, my only) encounter with karaoke had been in the 90s, in Malaysia. There too our hosts had declared what fun it would be to spend an evening karaoking and dragged me and two very reluctant English colleagues off to a karaoke bar. We got away with singing Beatles songs – “Michelle, Ma Belle” went down particularly well with our hosts, as I recall. And as far as I can make out, karaoke is now making serious inroads everywhere else in the world. The film “Duets”, with that wonderful, wonderful actor Paul Giamatti who plays a stressed-out businessman going AWOL from job and family and becoming a karaoke devotee, is surely showing us that the desire for singing our hearts out in front of others is spreading.

paul giamatti-1

What is it that makes people willing to bare their souls through singing? Well, music – like sex, delicious food and (alas!) certain drugs – increases the levels of dopamine in our brains, which we feel as pleasure. So when we sing we increase our pleasure levels, and hopefully those of others around us (if we don’t sing too awfully …). And why would music have this effect? Because probably it thereby helped our ancestors to share emotions, to work together, in a word to bond. And that helped us to survive. Those readers who are interested in all this should read “The Singing Neanderthals: The Origins of Music, Language, Mind and Body” by Steven Mithen. Great book.

singing neanderthals

So I suppose this explains why I liked singing around the campfire in the Scouts, the closest I have ever got to living like a Cro-Magnon man …

bot scout campfire

.. why the massed choir which I heard singing Carmina Burana decades ago at York University brought out goosebumps all over my body …

carmina burana choir

… and why my heart is torn from its place every time Violetta in Verdi’s “La Traviata” sings to the loss of her love, whom she is giving back to his father and to bourgeois respectability.

la traviata

__________________________

Sand dunes of Inner Mongolia: my picture

Sound of music: http://24.media.tumblr.com/tumblr_mdtx7kdI111qc1i8lo1_500.gif

Japanese businessmen karaoking: http://www.corbisimages.com/images/Corbis-42-15959733.jpg?size=67&uid=b4af3e21-08c3-4b08-be43-4e83d45b134a

Paul Giamatti-1: http://images.dailyfill.com/7f3ed4d25d034a68_9ea55287e2c98de4_o.jpg

Singing Neanderthals: http://www.hachette.com.au/cover/large/9780753820513.jpg

Boy scouts campfire: http://4.bp.blogspot.com/-aMXEdTSATSU/UAbGYL5LNgI/AAAAAAAAFAE/7TPQ72FLd5k/s400/campfire.jpg

Carmina burana choir: http://sz-n.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/06/0192-e1370696994658.jpg

La Traviata: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/f/f7/La_Traviata_-_Giorgio_Germont,_Violetta_Valerie_und_Annina.jpg

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DOG DAYS IN BEIJING

27 July 2013

It’s already dog days in Beijing, with the mercury climbing into the high 30s Centigrade. This weather brings out these strange extraterrestrial beings onto the roads

Hot Weather Lands In Nanjing

which on closer inspection turn out to be women riding cycles while wearing special UV-protective sun visors and covering every bit of exposed skin.

sun visor-1

As for the pavements, they host the somewhat odd spectacle of women sheltering below umbrellas under cloudless skies.

chinese women umbrellas-1

The reason is the same in all cases: the desire to protect delicately pale skins from suntan. Chinese women have a fetish for pale skins, not only shunning the sun but also spending large sums on products which claim to whiten their complexion.

skin whitener-2

The purpose, of course, even if these women don’t realize it, is to distinguish themselves from their sisters toiling in the fields under the broiling sun and getting a tough, leathery skin for their pains – the peasants, in a word. Despite communist-era claims to the contrary

propaganda poster-3

every Chinese knows that life as a peasant is not particularly pleasant

rural woman-1

which is why China’s rural people escape to the cities the moment they have half a chance, and why city folk look down on their rural cousins.

We who come from cultures which have been worshipping the sun for at least sixty years and have proclaimed far and wide the beauty of a tanned skin

sun tan lotion ad-1

can titter at this Chinese phobia of a darkened skin, which sometimes really goes to extraordinary lengths

facekini

But we should remember that before this sun-loving period of ours our genteel women also avoided the sun, for much the same reason. I am indebted to the blog “It’s About Time”, in a section devoted to parasols in Western art (from which I also got some of the photos below), for the following quote from Randle Cotgrave’s 1614 Dictionary of the French and English Tongues, where the French word ombrelle is translated “An umbrello; a (fashion of) round and broad fanne, wherewith the Indians (and from them our great ones) preserve themselves from the heat of a scorching sunne; and hence any little shadow, fanne, or thing, wherewith women hide their faces from the sunne.” Like the Chinese women I see on the Beijing streets today, for centuries our great ladies liked to walk outside screened from the sun, as these paintings from different periods attest:

Fragonard:

00 Fragonard with parasol

Copley:

00 Copley with parasol

Goya:

00 Goya with parasol

Manet:

00 Manet with Parasol 1881

Monet:

00 Monet with-a-Parasol

Renoir (I had the luck to see this particular painting at the Met in New York a few months ago):

00 Renoir-2 with-parasol

Seurat:

00 Seurat with parasol

Valloton:

00 Vallotton with parasol

the American painter Mars:

00 Mars-twenties-with parasols

Are we so right to love a tan? Of course, the snobbish element of having a pale complexion is to be abhorred, but I’m not sure tanning is such a wonderful idea either. I must admit to being biased on this topic; I have a fair skin which burns rather than tans and I’ve always disliked being in the sun. But the rise in skin cancer incidences and deaths is vertiginous in many of those countries where people routinely cook themselves on a beach all summer. It is made that much worse by the thinning of the ozone layer, which is allowing in far more harmful UV than used to be the case. Which explains this public health ad from Australia, one of the hardest-hit countries: many people with fair skin, a strong outdoors culture, and located far south where the ozone layer is thinnest.

australian ad-1

The Slip Slop Slap campaign is another attempt by the Australian government to combat skin cancer:

australian ad-3

Looking at that, it seems to me that maybe our Chinese sisters aren’t so wrong in their sun shunning antics after all.

_____________________

woman with sun visor-1: http://s1.djyimg.com/i6/5100409191528.jpg

woman with sun visor-2: http://images.nationalgeographic.com/wpf/media-live/photos/000/123/cache/fashion-shanghai-motorcycle_12361_600x450.jpg

Chinese women under umbrellas: http://blog.chinatraveldepot.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/07/103-1024×768.jpg

Skin whitener ad: http://gaia.adage.com/images/bin/image/large/Nivea91008b.jpg?1221045176

Propaganda poster: http://chineseposters.net/images/e11-992.jpg

Rural woman: http://chinadigitaltimes.net/wp-content/uploads/2008/10/13china01-6501.jpg

Sun tan lotion ad: http://file.vintageadbrowser.com/l-2sxa9y5hxoogx7.jpg

Facekini: http://www.ecouterre.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/08/qingdao-china-sun-protection-mask-facekini-2-537×402.jpg

Fragonard: http://farm3.static.flickr.com/2475/4438032996_d685b495fb.jpg

Copley: http://2.bp.blogspot.com/-7FFaKUq3lgs/Th6koRKMutI/AAAAAAAArNs/2WRM4y4ZwUs/s640/p%2B1763%2Bc%2BJohn%2BSingleton%2BCopley%2B1738-1815%2BMary%2BTappan%2BMrs%2BBenjamin%2BPickman%2BYale%2B%25282%2529.jpg

Goya: http://www.aparences.net/wp-content/uploads/goya-parasol-vert.jpg

Manet: http://1.bp.blogspot.com/_CvDCiEFbNy8/TGlqCaT0tMI/AAAAAAAAWls/cEdFU0kuto4/s1600/p+%C3%89douard+Manet+%281832-1883%29+Woman+with+a+Parasol+1881..jpg

Monet: http://www.chinaoilpaintinggallery.com/oilpainting/Claude-Monet/The-Walk-Woman-with-a-Parasol.jpg

Renoir: http://www.renoirgallery.com/paintings/large/renoir-lise-with-parasol.jpg

Seurat: http://farm5.staticflickr.com/4037/4367819565_d255f31c2d_z.jpg?zz=1

Vallotton: http://2.bp.blogspot.com/_CvDCiEFbNy8/TH8YPdMzVyI/AAAAAAAAXno/iOmadhyVbOI/s1600/F%C3%A9lix+Vallotton.+%281865+-+1925%29.+On+the+Beach+Sur+la+plage.+1899..jpg

Mars: http://3.bp.blogspot.com/_CvDCiEFbNy8/TJezx5Y-UgI/AAAAAAAAY1g/HY7j9dPmqIg/s1600/Ethel+Mars+%281876+%E2%80%93+1956%29+Nice.jpg

Australian ad-1: http://www.abc.net.au/reslib/200812/r320709_1428893.jpg

Australian ad-2: http://lavaleandherworld.files.wordpress.com/2013/02/slip-slop-slap-legenda.jpg?w=600

100th ANNIVERSARY

21 July 2013

I am astonished to discover that this is my 100th posting! It seems only yesterday that, rather like a kid on his first day at school, I was nervously writing my first posting. This milestone deserves to be celebrated in some way. And what better way could there be than by singing the praises of the written word?

In my very first posting, which I entitled Manifesto (and which later became my “About” page, once I’d understood better how all this blog thing worked), I explained why, as I neared my 60th birthday, I had finally decided to take up the pen (electronic in this case) and write.

My decision to write actually flowed from my habit of reading. I’ve always loved to read. I still remember the day I got really hooked. I was maybe six, possibly seven. I was bored, and as is usual in these cases was bothering my elder siblings, who were all reading. In exasperation, one of my sisters gave me a book and ordered me to read it. I complied a trifle sulkily, but before I knew it I was drawn in – sucked in! – by the story. I still remember the book; it was from the Secret Seven series by Enid Blyton, about seven very English children who sluith around solving various mysteries (I’m amazed to see that these stories are still popular!)

secret-seven-adventure

For most of the next decade or so I read only fiction, but then I lost interest with the excuse that I lacked time.  I took up the habit again in my mid-twenties and I haven’t looked back. The contents of my modest library are packed away in Vienna, waiting to see the light of day again, but in my mind’s eye I can still walk slowly, pleasurably, along my bookcases packed with the books which have marked the passing of my adult life. My library always started with a section which I suppose would be called English Literature in a public library, so in my head my hand is now brushing over the spine of the novel “House of Spirits” by Isabelle Allende, which was the first of her novels I read and which led me – and my wife – to read many of her other novels (OK, strictly speaking these are not English literature, but since I read them in English that’s where I put them). They reconciled me with fiction after a long rift I had with the genre.

isabelle allende house of spirits

My eye is then drawn to the shelves dedicated to detective stories (since those memorable Secret Seven days, I’ve always had a weakness for “yellows” as Italians call them), where my hand falls on “A Morbid Taste for Bones”, the first in the series about Cadfael, the Benedictine monk from the great Abbey of Shrewsbury during the reign of King Stephen.

a morbid taste for bones

I picked up the first out of curiosity at the British bookshop in Milan but it led me, fascinated and hooked, to the next one, which led me in turn to the next one, and on and on like Adriadne’s thread, until one day I had read them all – they always reminded me so much of my school days in a Benedictine Abbey school.

In my library, where space as much as logic has determined where books are placed (my wife has resisted the wholesale takeover of our successive apartments by books), the detective stories are followed by poetry. Here, I pick out the poems of T.S. Eliot, the first poet I came to appreciate, at age 16, during a class at school on English poetry, run by a wonderfully eccentric schoolmaster.The poem he introduced us to was, of course, “The Waste Land”.

wasteland

I always place “The Waste Land” next to the poems by Wilfred Owen and the other First World War poets. I feel that this poem’s sorrowful elegies of times past marry well with the anger that pulses through the war poems, an anger at the sheer futility and waste of that war.  I picked up this particular compendium of WWI poetry in a bookstore on Oxford Street, during a short visit to London.

first world war poetry

The English Lit section finishes with the plays I have acted in and the many more I would have liked to act in (“Mourning Becomes Electra” by Eugene O’Neill definitely falls into the latter category; it is a constant wound in my soul that I have never seen this play acted, yet alone acted in it myself).

mourning becomes electra

After English Lit in my library comes History: my passion – if I had not chosen to do sciences in high school, I would  have done history.   Among my many, many history books, I eye with particular fondness “The Pursuit of Power” by William McNeill,  which is a magnificent synthesis of military, technological, and social history over an arc of a thousand years.

pursuit of power

My hand then brushes over “Guns, Germs and Steel” by Jared Diamond, which (I am summarizing here!) tried to answer the question “Why was it European ships that sailed west and discovered the Americas and not the other way around?”. This book gave me the same shock of intellectual stimulation as McNeill’s book did when I first read it.

Guns Germs SteelI quickly jump to a shelf dedicated to histories of War, where I pick out  “The Face of Battle”, by the British war historian John Keegan, a fascinating analysis about how the field of battle has changed over time. I bought this book on impulse in a Barnes & Noble bookshop in New York 25 years ago and I liked it so much that over the succeeding years I read every single book Keegan wrote.

The-Face-of-Battle

History is followed by Other Social Sciences – politics, sociology, economics, and such like – where my hand brushes briefly over Henry Kissinger’s two volumes on his years in the White House.

white house years

I pass on quickly to the Science section, where I stop in front of my small collection of books on the biological sciences and evolution especially. My favourites are the collected essays on natural history by Stephen Jay Gould, whose warm, wisecracking style I find so quintessentially American, and the books by his “competitor” Richard Dawkins, whose coldly lucid style I find so quintessentially English.

Pandas ThumbBlind_Watchmaker

My science books are followed by my books on religion; why not? science has challenged (and in my view defeated) religion. And here my hand falls on “The Faces of Jesus” by Geza Vermès.

changing faces of Jesus

This was one of those books which takes your breath away by its ability to blow old ideas out of the window. It led me to buy several of his books, to explore who the real Jesus probably was once you get behind all the layers of Christian piety.

And finally, squeezed in at the end of my bookshelves, are books on art, cookery books, travel guides …

In China, I have continued the habit of buying books, nosing out where books in English can be found. We came with nearly no books (two compendia of English poetry, a book on Caravaggio, a book or two on Chinese history), now we don’t know where to put all the books that are piling up in drifts throughout the apartment.

Yet, during all this reading I have always felt a point of guilt: I was passively receiving these written words without writing anything back. Oh, I wrote a lot, but it was all dry, sterile stuff which I had to do for work; at the best of times clear, precise analysis, at the worst of times bureaucratese of the highest order. And so I started this blog. What a liberation it has been! I feel that I have finally gained my voice, that after all the croaking I’ve done I can finally sing (to paraphrase some lines from the African-American poet Langston Hughes, “now do I wonder at this thing, that I am old and yet can sing”). Of course, I don’t pretend to be writing great literature. These postings are just scribblings. My wife urges me to write a book, but I don’t think I can go beyond these brief notes. I am a sprinter, I tell her, I can only run 100 metres, I’m not a marathon runner. Still, the pleasure I derive from this writing is immense – and I hope my few readers derive some pleasure from reading these posts.

Yet, amidst all this pleasure, I have a sense that all is not well in the world of the written word. I see with dismay that bookshops are closing one after another as if hit by some sort of plague, and those that remain often survive by selling rubbish. To some degree, it is simply a change in venue. The written word is migrating from the printed page to an electronic format – am I not writing somewhere in an electronic cloud? For sure, newspapers have already almost vanished to be replaced by their electronic namesakes. Even books are taking this path. A younger colleague if mine urged me to switch to a Kindle; he even gave me his to handle, rather as you would drape a snake around someone’s shoulders to show how nice they really are. But I recoil from this electronicization of books. I want my books the old way, printed on paper, the way Gutenberg started it 500 years ago.

gutenberg

I sense, though, that the malaise with books goes deeper than a simple migration to the electronic cloud. I truly wonder if books will survive at all. The book I am currently reading, “The Swerve” by Stephen Greenblatt, tells me that books have disappeared before.

the swerve

Greenblatt is writing about the near-miraculous recovery in the 1400’s, from some dark corner of a library in a European monastery, of a mouldering 8th Century copy of the poem “De Rerum Natura” by  the Roman poet Lucretius, written in the first decades BCE. But in telling this story he also tells of the time when books disappeared from the Roman Empire as the Empire slowly collapsed in on itself and Christianity spread. It had seemed to the Roman intelligentsia that books would be there for ever, and then one day they were gone. Many Roman writers we know only by name; none of their works have survived. To a book lover like me, it is a story that sends a shiver down the spine.

Those of my generation may remember a film of the 1960’s, Fahrenheit 451. The story is set in modern times, in a society which has banned books and where firemen are there to burn down houses containing books and not put out fires burning down houses. Through various twists and turns, the hero goes from being part of the system of suppression as a fireman to joining a resistance movement whose members live in the forests and keep books alive by each learning a few books by heart to pass on to younger generations, waiting for the time when books will be accepted again.

Fahrenheit 451

I don’t think that the next time books disappear it will be because society is hostile to them, or because society is collapsing. It will simply be through a collective bout of attention deficiency disorder as our electronic toys spin a web of confusion around our minds. Who will need books when you can slip on a pair of super-cool glasses and take part in a 3-D story peopled by electronic characters and set in electronic simulations of paradises on Earth?

I hope I’m not alive to see that day.

_____________

Secret Seven: http://www.enidblytonsociety.co.uk/author/covers/secret-seven-adventure.jpg

House of Spirits: http://swanyart.com/cms/wp-content/uploads/2013/05/houseofspirits.jpg

A Morbid Taste for Bones: http://www.hachettebookgroup.com/_b2c/media/cache/44/a4/44a4f75b43b0f8f64547b5fb88d3d63b.jpg

Waste Land: http://www.whitmorerarebooks.com/pictures/464.JPG

First World War poetry: http://ethershop.umwblogs.org/files/2011/10/poetry.jpg

Mourning Becomes Electra: http://t2.gstatic.com/images?q=tbn:ANd9GcQiKE5e4yBs1a08Z3wtMqkMnkbgAmpbLeajHmGMMCFt-_hTQ-hj

Pursuit of Power: http://www.bibliovault.org/thumbs/978-0-226-56158-5-frontcover.jpg

Guns, Germs and Steel: http://www.beyondone.org/images/image/GunsGermsSteel.jpg

Face of Battle: http://www.jamesaitcheson.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/01/The-Face-of-Battle.jpg

White House Years: http://i.ebayimg.com/00/s/NDgwWDMyNQ==/$%28KGrHqF,!osE8Vffrj3DBPOp0ebETg~~60_35.JPG?set_id=8800005007

Panda’s Thumb: http://www.ateism.nu/images/The%20Pandas%20Thumb%20by%20Stephen%20Jay%20Gould.jpg

Blind Watchmaker: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/uk/thumb/f/f8/Blind_Watchmaker.jpg/240px-Blind_Watchmaker.jpg

The Changing Faces of Jesus: http://img2.imagesbn.com/p/9780142196021_p0_v1_s260x420.jpg [in http://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/the-changing-faces-of-jesus-geza-vermes/1004427856?ean=9780142196021%5D

Gutenberg: http://www.mainlesson.com/books/bachman/inventors/zpage206.gif

The Swerve: http://media.npr.org/assets/bakertaylor/covers/t/the-swerve/9780393064476_custom-90f41678e2d9b3883ed17ae22fff5d2273ca209e-s6-c30.jpg

Fahrenheit 451: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/f/f0/Fahrenheit451B.jpg