the heart thrills

there is beauty all around us

Month: February, 2016


Bangkok, 28 February 2016

Every morning, I stare at myself in the mirror as I shave, a ritual which has enslaved me these past forty odd years. And I stare at myself in the mirror as I brush my hair, or brush my teeth, or – more lately – inspect that suspicious mark on my face (is it melanoma?). And I watch as the face which stares back at me grows rounder and more creased, as the hairline recedes and the temples grow greyer, as the lips thin with the loss of back teeth, as the skin begins to sag under my chin.

I grow old, the mirror remorselessly reminds me every day.

I can’t escape my reflection. It follows me everywhere I go, staring back at me from all the mirrors which we have scattered with wild abandon over our urban landscapes: the bars, the restaurants, the public toilets, the elevators, the shops, the lobbies, … My reflection even beckons to me from the smooth, shiny sheathing and coated windows of our fancy modern buildings.

It was not always so. There was a time, not so long ago in the great arc of human history, when we hardly ever saw our own faces. We saw the faces of others: our mothers, our fathers, our siblings, our tribe, our village, and the few strangers who came from the other side of the mountain and passed through. From time to time, when drinking in a still pool, we would have seen a tremulous reflection staring back at us. But it’s not easy to see one’s reflection in water. Water bodies have this infuriating habit of giving a beautiful reflection of things far away but of being blankly clear at one’s feet.

Numa and Rainbow Peaks Reflecting in Bowman Lake, Montana

This young girl has managed to capture her watery reflection quite well

reflection in water

but I think this picture is more typical of what most of us see when we peer into water.

reflection in a puddle

That’s why I’ve never really understood the legend of Narcissus, the beautiful boy who caught sight of his reflection in a pool, fell in love with it, and died at the pool’s edge unable to drag himself away.


What reflection could he possibly have been so enamoured with? In my experiments in the kitchen with various pots and pans of different colours, the best reflection I got was from a black frying pan


and even that reflection was, as readers can see, murky in the extreme. How could anyone, however beautiful he or she may have been, have fallen in love with this evanescent reflection? Perhaps the original teller of the tale had seen a reflection of a person in a dark pool or vase from a distance, like this photographer has

reflections in a bowl of water

and invented the story around that.

Be that as it may, eventually our ancestors found other ways to see themselves. Obsidian, that beautiful, black, glassy material, product of volcanic activity

imagewas used in the first attempts at non-aqueous mirrors, in Turkey. The country was famous in the pre-metallurgical era for its obsidian, which could be used to make razor-sharp arrow heads – such arrow heads have been found hundreds if not thousands of kilometres away from the mother lode in Anatolia. But large obsidian pieces could also be split open and the faces given a high polish to act as a mirror.

obsidian mirror

Obsidian may be beautiful, but it gives a dark reflection, almost as dark as the water in my frying pan. I am reminded of St. Paul’s famous phrase in his first letter to the Corinthians, “For now we see through a glass, darkly”.

The metallurgical age brought us one step closer to seeing ourselves, in polished copper or bronze mirrors, like this Egyptian copper mirror.

copper mirror egyptian

Copper mirrors would have given reddish reflections like those we see in highly polished copper pans, such as this

reflections in a copper potor this.

reflections in a copper pan

(If nothing else, both photos show the need for a uniformly flat surface for a good result …)

The Chinese especially made mirrors out of polished bronze. These would have given yellowish reflections, like this one

bronze mirror-2

or this one, from a Japanese bronze mirror.

bronze mirror

Mirrors such as these were very expensive – indeed, the Chinese turned the backs of their mirrors into admirable works of art, such as this 9th Century one from the Tang Dynasty with its admirably carved dragon.


So only the rich, the ancient world’s one-percenters, could afford to peer – curiously, vainly, or dolefully – at their reflection. The man and woman on the street still could only see their reflection in water.

It seems that it was the Egyptians who first thought of coating glass with metal to make glass mirrors, but their reflectivity was poor. As for the Romans, Pliny the Elder mentioned mirrors where gold leaf was applied to glass. I don’t know if any such mirror has survived the ravages of time, I certainly didn’t find a trace of one on the Internet. But very fancy gold-plated mirrors such as the one in this photo are now made, for high-tech applications.


I suppose a bleary-eyed Roman plutocrat staring at himself in his gold-plated glass mirror after a night of orgies would have caught such a yellowing reflection as this of his face.

It is the Venetians we have to thank – or curse – for bringing us the modern silvered mirror, which finally allowed humanity to see its own reflection in glorious, embarrassing, or painful technicolour. The glass-makers of Murano figured out a way of making flat – and clear – glass as well as depositing a thin coating of silver on the back of it (my professional self cannot but help notice that they used a silver-mercury amalgam to do this; the mercury inevitably sickened and killed off a good number of Murano mirror-makers – an interesting twist to the French saying “il faut souffrir pour être belle”, “one must suffer to be beautiful”, which here becomes “you suffer, and I admire my beauty”). Once again, it was initially the one-percenters of the European courts who enjoyed – or suffered from – a much clearer reflection of themselves. Venetian glass mirrors such as this one were worth a king’s ransom.

old venetian mirror in good shape

The French one-percenters couldn’t stand the idea that they were sending so much of their wealth southwards to the misbegotten Venetians for glass mirrors. They tried mightily to worm the secrets of mirror-making out of Murano. But La Serenissima, fully appreciating the gold mine they were sitting on, passed draconian laws forbidding these secrets from leaving the lagoon. Eventually, though, the French suborned a group of Venetian mirror-makers, persuading them to bolt from the lagoon and set up shop in the St. Gobain works. Among many other things, this gave us the Hall of Mirrors at the palace at Versailles.


This hall has impassively reflected the fun and games of the French monarchy, but also two crucial moments in recent European history: the declaration of the German Empire in 1871 after the Prussians trounced the French in the Franco-Prussian War


and the signing of the Treaty of Versailles in 1919 between the Allies and the new-born German democracy


that humiliating “diktat of Versailles” which Hitler used to such good effect in his rise to power.

Alas! The silvering process which the Venetians invented, and the French copied, did not last forever. With time, it would crack, it would peel, it would dull, so that reflections would become evanescent once more. How many old houses contain mirrors like this one!


Even our apartment in Milan holds a mirror where Time has inserted its bony fingers into the silvering and has started to strip pieces off.


Like my face, mirrors age. But as men have found ways of making faces last longer, so have they found ways to make silvered mirrors that last longer and reflect better. And through the genius of industrialization they have found ways to make these much better mirrors much cheaper, so that 99-percenters like me can also stare, once vainly and now despairingly, at the reflection of our crumbling selves.

I need to escape from my reflection. My wife and I could have ourselves shipwrecked on some remote islet in the Pacific Ocean. Yet even there, I fear that I would find a shard of mirror on the beach, washed up together with all the plastic bottles and other flotsam and jetsam of our consumeristic life that now fill up our oceans.


Reflections in a lake:×750/Numa-and-Rainbow-Peaks-Reflecting-in-Bowman-Lake.jpg (in

Reflection in water: (in

Reflection in a puddle: (in

Narcissus by Caravaggio: (in

Reflection in a black pan: my photo

Reflection in a bowl of water: (in

Chunk of obsidian:

Obsidian mirror:

Egyptian copper mirror: (in

Reflection in a copper pot: ( in

Reflection in a copper pot-2: (in

Reflection in a copper pan: (in

Reflection in a Chinese bronze mirror: (in

Reflection in a Japanese bronze mirror: (in

Chinese mirror – back:

Mirror coated with gold:

Old Venetian mirror in good shape:

Galerie des Glaces:

Proclamation of the German Empire:

Signing of the Versailles Treaty with Germany:

Old Venetian mirror in bad shape:

Reflection in Milan mirror: my photo



Genova, 25 February 2016

We’re in Italy at the moment, spending a week here to get things in order for my impending retirement. We decided to make a quick visit to our apartment on the sea, by Genova, to check if all was well but also to see the mimosa in flower. The flowering of mimosa on the Ligurian coast is a wondrous sight to behold
especially when you’re toiling up a hill like these hikers are and find yourself in front of a flash of canary yellow, a harbinger of the Spring to come.
All was well with the apartment but alas! we were too late for the mimosa. It had reached its peak some two weeks before and the flowers were already very much past their best.


Disconsolate, I decided to do the next best thing, a little internet surfing to learn more about mimosa.

I had half expected to discover that mimosa originally came from China. After all, that had already been my experience with several plants, from wisteria to the willow. But no! I was delighted to learn that mimosa comes from south-eastern Australia. Here is a photo of it in the State of Victoria, in what is probably its natural state, cohabiting in this case with mountain gums.


Mimosa is actually a bit of a misnomer, for which it seems we have to thank Carl Linnaeus, the inventor of the modern system for giving scientific names to living things.
What I call mimosa is actually an acacia (or perhaps was an acacia; more on that in a moment). For some reason, Linnaeus decided to also give the genus acacia the name mimosa. The confusion was cleared up later, but not before this particular type of acacia got stuck with the name mimosa. Confusion on nomenclature doesn’t stop there, for it seems that acacia is also a misnomer in this case. I don’t follow taxonomic decisions with bated breath, but Australian acacias should apparently now be called racosperma. The august scientific body which makes these kinds of decisions decided so back in the late 1990s or thereabouts, but the Australian botanists, indignant at the thought of having to change the name of their cherished acacias, managed to get the vote reversed in 2005. However, I now understand that the vote was re-reversed. In all of this confusion, I think we should just go with the common name, the wattle. Since there are nearly 1,000 species of wattle in Australia, I have to be a little more specific and say that the “mimosa” planted here in Liguria is the silver wattle.

How mimosa got to this part of the world is not that clear – at least, I didn’t find any clear description of that journey. Another distinguished botanist, Joseph Banks
who accompanied James Cook on his first voyage to the Pacific and whom I have had cause to mention in an earlier post on kangaroos, brought the wattles to the attention of the Western world. But who actually brought the living plant back, or its seeds, and propagated it I don’t know. Whoever it was, the peoples from Portugal to the west all around the rim of the Mediterranean and up into the Aegean Sea and on into the Black Sea to the east have a huge debt to him (or, who knows? her). Every spring, they can enjoy magnificent bursts of yellow, like this one in Odessa in the Ukraine.


Actually, given that the golden wattle, another member of the large wattle tribe, is now the floral emblem of Australia, I was expecting to find a photo on the net of a mimosa in flower in the ANZAC cemeteries of Gallipoli. But no. Photos there are of the cemeteries
but none with a flowering mimosa. Perhaps no-one visits the cemeteries in the early Spring. But if instead it’s because mimosas are not planted in Gallipoli, I think a move in this direction is in order. Should not an earlier immigrant to Europe from Australia welcome the Spring every year in that corner of the Mediterranean where Australians lie in their eternal sleep?


Mimosa in Liguria:
Mimosa on the hills:
Mimosa in Australia:
Joseph Banks:
Mimosa in Odessa:
ANZAC cemetery, Gallipoli:,%20SAMUEL%20DOUGLAS%20JOHNSTONE


Bangkok, 12 February 2016

I saw my doctor recently, for my annual check-up. After all the tests and probings were over, we sat down and talked over the results. Then came the awful verdict: I had to cut out coffee, tea, Coke, anything with caffeine in it. So here I am, sitting at the breakfast table, mournfully sipping water. My body has let me down. It is getting old. It needs maintenance but there are no spare parts. As T.S. Elliot’s Alfred J. Prufrock lamented, “I grow old, I grow old, I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled”. The grave yawns ahead of me!

Sitting here, bathed in an existential funk, I am reminded of another poet, Chinese this time, by the name of Tao Yuanming, who wrote this poem in the year 409 AD, during the Double Ninth Festival, so called because it falls on the ninth day of the ninth lunar month.

Slowly, slowly,
the autumn draws to its close.
Cruelly cold
the wind congeals the dew.
Vines and grasses
will not be green again—
The trees in my garden
are withering forlorn.
The pure air
is cleansed of lingering lees
And mysteriously,
Heaven’s realms are high.
Nothing is left
of the spent cicada’s song,
A flock of geese
goes crying down the sky.
The myriad transformations
unravel one another.
And human life
how should it not be hard?
From ancient times
there was none but had to die,
Remembering this
scorches my very heart.
What is there I can do
to assuage this mood?
Only enjoy myself
drinking my unstrained wine.
I do not know
about a thousand years,
Rather let me make
this morning last forever

The wine Tao Yuanming is alluding to is chrysanthemum wine, made by blending chrysanthemum – flower, leaves, stalks and all – with millet and letting it ferment. It was made during the Double Ninth Festival, with chrysanthemums picked that day. It was left to sit for a whole year, to be drunk at the next Double Ninth Festival.

“Chrysanthemum” in Chinese is pronounced “ju”, which sounds similar to the word for “long”, “jiu”. By that strange Chinese habit of giving deep meaning to homophony, the chrysanthemum was therefore believed to be imbued with the spirit of longevity, and thus – through an animistic belief in sympathetic magic – its consumption would help the consumer live longer. It helped that the chrysanthemum is a flower of the autumn, a flower which blooms when other flowers are withering. Surely such a flower, which defies the dying of nature all around it, must be imbued with the spirit of longevity? “Chrysanthemum” also sounds like the number “nine”, “jiu”, therefore it seemed divinely ordained that this flower should play a central role in the Double Ninth Festival. Drinking chrysanthemum wine at the Festival was an affirmation that, even as winter started to close in, Death did not yet have us in its grip.

I suppose, then, that at this moment when my body betrays me, when I have doubts about my own longevity, I should drink long drafts of chrysanthemum wine. But even in my current brown mood, I don’t think I could drink this brew. It sounds distinctly unappetizing. I shall plump instead for chrysanthemum tea, which can happily take the place of my coffee and tea. In a coincidence which I’m sure the Chinese would find significant, my wife and I recently bought – in Bangkok’s Chinatown – a packet of dried chrysanthemum flowers: not the big, showy chrysanthemums you see in flowerbeds, but small, almost daisy-like, flowers.
I will use these flowers to prepare myself infusions of a very delicate taste.
And I will peer deep into my cup, drowning my existential sorrows in that lovely pale yellow liquid. Who knows? Maybe the Chinese were right, maybe I will live longer, and, like Tao Yuanming, “I will pluck chrysanthemums under the eastern hedge / And gaze afar towards the southern mountains.”

Or maybe, as my wife and daughter have very sensibly suggested, I should start drinking decaffeinated coffee and tea instead …

Dried chrysanthemum flowers:
Chrysanthemum tea:
Tao Yuanming:


Bangkok, 3 February 2016

After reading my last post, my wife asked me a very simple but very penetrating question: “But why are jeans blue?”

One can of course be nit-picking and respond that actually not all jeans are blue. This is undoubtedly true but let’s face it, the huge majority of jeans are dyed some shade of blue. Jeans are not called blue jeans for nothing.

One can also give the trivial answer “because blue dye is used”, which rightfully elicits the riposte “Ha-ha, very funny”. But actually, an interesting tale does hang on the dye used, which I learned while preparing the previous post and which I can’t resist recounting here.

We have to go to Europe for an answer to my wife’s question, because it was from there that the denim material used for blue jeans came to America. So what is the history of blue dye in Europe?

I was delighted to learn that the original blue dye of choice in Europe was extracted from woad. For those – I’m sure many – readers who have no idea what woad is, it is a plant native to many parts of Europe from whose leaves indigo dye can be extracted. I throw in a picture here in case any of my readers might wish to go searching for it.

woad plant

Personally, I must admit that I only knew woad as the stuff which Julius Caesar, in his De Bello Gallico, tells us the Britons smeared themselves with: “Omnes vero se Britanni vitro inficiunt, quod caeruleum efficit colorem, atque hoc horridiores sunt in pugna aspectu”, “In truth, all the Britons stain themselves with woad that occasions a bluish colour, and thereby they have a more terrible appearance in battle”. But I prefer the way it is put in that sublime history of Great Britain, “1066 And All That”: “Julius Caesar advanced energetically, throwing his cavalry several thousand paces over the River Flumen; but the Ancient Britons, although all well over military age, painted themselves true blue, or woad, and fought heroically under their dashing queen, Woadicea, as they did later in thin red lines under their good queen, Victoria.” Mel Gibson in Braveheart shows us how it should be done.

mel gibson

Trivia aside, woad was actually economically a very important crop in many parts of Medieval Europe and made some communities very wealthy. In France, for instance, the trade in the dye from woad built many of the more beautiful buildings in Toulouse


while in Germany woad paid for the University of Erfurt, established back in 1389.

erfurt university

The indigo from woad coloured the best of medieval tapestries.

medieval tapestry

In sum, all seemed to be going swimmingly for the woad sector!

But there was a worm in the rose: the same indigo dye, but extracted from the leaves of another plant, in much larger quantities per leaf, in India.


This stuff was already arriving in small and very costly amounts onto Greek, and later Roman, markets, along those same trade routes which I’ve had cause to mention in earlier posts. Because it was so expensive it was used primarily as a pigment in paint and not as a dye of fabrics. The Greeks called it indikon, the Indian dye. The Romans latinized this to indicum, which eventually gave us our indigo. Once the Europeans rounded the Cape of Good Hope and made it safely across the Indian Ocean, they could buy the stuff directly from the producers and cut out all the middle men. Nice packets like this began to arrive in Europe in the hold of European ships.

Indian_indigo_dye_lumpThe price in the European market places duly dropped, woad producers saw their livelihoods threatened, and they resorted to the classic weapons of getting pliant governments to forbid its use (it’s called anti-dumping these days) and putting around rumours that using indigo from India severely affected the quality of the fabric. All to no avail. The higher transportation costs from India were more than offset by the much higher productivity of the Indian plant. Transportation and production costs were then further slashed when the Spaniards started growing the Indian plant in their Latin American colonies and the British in their southern American colonies (Carolina and Georgia), both with slave labour.

Indigo Processing Carolinas

The British then went on to use their early stranglehold on Bengal to create vast indigo estates, turning the local farmers into de-facto slaves in the process, which further reduced costs.

indigo processing bengal

Woad was doomed and disappeared from the scene.

But at this moment of triumph for Asian indigo, there was another worm in the rose, this time in the form of the nascent organic chemical industry. In the early 1800s, when woad was fighting its final rearguard actions against Asian indigo, Europe and North America were starting to adopt town gas to light and later heat homes and businesses. Town gas was produced from coal.

town gas manufacture

Its production also created various very nasty wastes, some of which I have stumbled across in my professional career buried in old gasworks sites. One of these wastes was coal tar, a nasty, gooey, stinking waste which looks like this.

coal tar

Chemists started dabbling with coal tar to see what they could extract from it. The breakthrough occurred in 1856 when a young British chemist by the name of Henry Perkin, while trying to make quinine from coal tar, serendipitously produced a purple dye that he later commercialized under the name mauveine.

mauveineIt must have been so thrilling, almost magic, for Mr. Perkin to extract this beautiful colour from that horrible, nasty black gunk. For sure, in the chemistry lab as a boy I found those moments when the liquid in my test tube turned a beautiful colour to be the most memorable. But perhaps Mr. Perkins only saw the commercial possibilities in this lovely mauve.

In any event, the race was on! Chemists piled in to see what other dyes (and later other organic products) they could make by fiddling around with coal tar. The Germans soon dominated the field, accounting for almost 90% of synthetic dye production at the outbreak of World War I. It took a while for synthetic indigo to be produced, because coal tar didn’t contain a suitable “carbon skeleton”. Finally, in the late 1870s, early 1880s, the German chemist Adolf Baeyer managed to find several routes to synthetic indigo. His Nobel Prize for chemistry in 1905 was partially based on this work. Chemists at the Badische Anilin und Soda-Fabrick (better known to us as BASF) came up with yet another, commercially more viable, route, and BASF marketed its first synthetic indigo in 1897. By the way, just to close the circle, BASF was created in 1865 by one Friedrich Engelhorn, who had established the gasworks for the town of Mannheim in 1861 and saw in Perkin’s discovery of mauveine a way of turning this damned coal tar waste into something useful. As BASF’s name suggests, the company initially focused on aniline-based dyes. This is the original BASF plant at Ludwigshafen in 1866.


Natural indigo was doomed. Synthetic indigo’s better quality, the greater reliability of its supplies, and its lower cost all drove natural indigo off the market, despite the usual attempts, which we’ve seen already with woad, by sympathetic governments to try and block the use of synthetic indigo by fair means or foul. In 1897, the year that synthetic indigo first came onto the market, 19,000 tons of natural indigo were produced. By 1914, this had plummeted to 1,000 tons and the free fall was not over. Asian indigo followed woad-based indigo into oblivion.

At this moment of triumph for synthetic indigo, there lurked yet another worm ready to devour the rose’s heart: other blue synthetic dyes. Indanthrene Blue RS was patented in 1901, Hydron Blue was developed in 1908, and maybe there were others – the world of textile dyes is bewilderingly complex. I’m not quite sure how these various dyes fought it out for the denim market, but in the 1950s BASF and other indigo producers seriously considered promoting other blue dyes for denim because of indigo’s poor fastness properties. This is jargon for meaning that textiles dyed with indigo tend to fade rather easily. What stopped them was the fact that this very property of fading was what was so earnestly desired by the young owners of blue jeans, the product in which indigo was most used. So indigo was saved and the worm crawled off to devour other roses. Because of the popularity of jeans, indigo is in fact king of the heap. It is the textile dye with the highest production volumes in the world, some 30,000 tons a year (when you think that most of it is used to dye jeans and that it only takes 10 grams of indigo to dye one pair of jeans, readers with good mathematical skills will quickly figure out that literally billions of jeans must be made every year).

But after that tour through the world of dyes and its cut-throat competition, I am afraid to say that I still haven’t properly answered my wife’s question: “why are jeans blue?” Why are they not red or green or black or yellow? Well I think we have established why they are blue today: because of indigo’s quirk of fading in interesting patterns. But why did the Amoskeag Mills in New Hampshire, which initially supplied Levi Strauss with his denim, use indigo dye? Despite my best efforts, I have not been able to find a satisfactory answer. I suspect it was because by the 1860s, when the mill started supplying Mr. Strauss with his denim, this particular fabric had “always” been dyed with indigo or woad or some other blue dye. “Always” seems to mean at least since the 16th Century. One article I came across says that it was at this time that blue in the UK became the poor’s colour of choice for their clothing. Judging by the paintings of the Master of the Blue Jeans, it was the colour of choice for the poor in Europe more generally.

master of the blue jeans

Why? I don’t know. I have to assume that cost was a factor, but it could also have been simply a fashion trend.

So I’m afraid that I have failed to answer my wife’s question at the deepest level. But I shall keep an eye out, and maybe one day I will come across the answer and be able to update this post. Any leads will be welcome. In the meantime, I invite my readers to enjoy some blue.

Blue Spectrum


Woad plant: (in

Mel Gibson: (in

Medieval tapestry: (in

Hôtel particulier, Toulouse:’Ass%C3%A9zat,_toulouse_%28panorama%29.jpg

Erfurt University: (in

Indigofera tinctoria: (in

Packet of natural indigo dye:

Indigo processing Carolinas: (in

Indigo processing Bengal: (in

Town gas manufacturing: (in

Coal tar: (in

Mauveine: (in

Old BASF plant: (in

Master of the Blue Jeans painting: (in

Blue spectrum:×455.jpg (in