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Month: April, 2016

WILL AND I

Bangkok, 30 April 2016

One of the problems of living abroad is that issues of great moment back home have little if any echo here in Bangkok. So it was with the 400th anniversary of Will Shakespeare’s death, which fell on 23rd April last week. It was only when I was catching up with news from home (to Brexit or not to Brexit?) that I saw the huge amount of chatter on line and realized this.

Well! I cannot let this anniversary go by, even though I am already a week late in celebrating it. I mean, Will and I go back a long way! Before I start my breathless recollections, though, let me throw in a picture of one of the few portraits of Shakespeare which are thought to probably be a good likeness, from his funerary monument in his home town, Stratford-upon-Avon.
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(my alert readers will have noticed much circumspection in that last phrase; so little is known about the real-life Will)

I saw my first piece of Shakespeare – a mere snippet – when I was a seven-year old. My parents had taken me along to visit my elder brother at his school’s Sports Day. As the name suggests, the day was primarily about sports, but to show some high-browsedness among all this low-browsedness the Headmaster also put on a few scenes from Shakespeare, played by the boys. One of these boys was my brother, who played a scene from Henry VIII. Although I don’t know which scene it was exactly, I do remember sitting next to him afterwards and – pesky child that I was – pulling off strands of his stuck-on beard.

A year later, I was packed off to the same school, and at one of the next Sports Days I got my first role, a walk-on part as a page of Macbeth’s. My moment in the spotlight was short. I preceded Macbeth onto the stage, who then ordered me off to do something. I bowed with dignity and exited left. After which Macbeth launched into that great soliloquy:

“Is this a dagger which I see before me,
The handle toward my hand? Come, let me clutch thee.
I have thee not, and yet I see thee still.
Art thou not, fatal vision, sensible
To feeling as to sight? or art thou but
A dagger of the mind, a false creation,
Proceeding from the heat-oppressed brain?”

It goes on for several more fevered lines, but we’ll leave it at that.

In later years, I was a regular at these theatrical events on Sports Days, but I never got to do any more Shakespeare. The best I managed was the lead role, as a waiter, in some farce to do with a coconut being mistaken for a bomb. No matter! I was hooked on the acting life.

My school might have been buried in the wilds of Somerset, but that did not stop the Headmaster from trying to expose us to Culture. One way he did this was by taking us to theatrical events. Thus it was that one beautiful summer’s day (“Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?”) we were bussed off to a local Stately Home and watched the Winter’s Tale in its manicured gardens. I can’t say I was terribly impressed by the play, certainly none of the text has remained with me. I appreciated more the strawberries and cream served at the interval. I was probably too young to appreciate the play (I must have been all of eleven at the time). But I did very much appreciate the al fresco setting, and so a number of years later, when I was at high school, I was an enthusiastic member of a small audience watching Waiting for Godot, sitting on the grass of a lonely dirt road on the edges of which Vladimir and Estragon acted out their empty lives.

At that same high school, I acted in my first full-length Shakespeare play, Richard II, as the Duke of York. I’ve mentioned this in an earlier post, so will not elaborate. What has stayed with me all these years, though, apart from dying John of Gaunt’s paeon to England (“This other Eden, demi-paradise … this precious stone set in the silver sea … this blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England”) is Henry Bolingbroke’s icy remark to the captive Richard II, who is wallowing in self-pity: “The shadow of your sorrows hath destroyed the shadow of your face”.

If I’m to be honest, our Richard II was no great shakes. It was a good attempt by amateurs, no more. To prep us, our Director had hired a van and taken us down to Stratford, to see the Royal Shakespeare Company put on Richard II. It was certainly better than what we did, but it was no more than workmanlike, I would say. I had to wait some ten years to see a truly splendid production of Richard II, directed by Ariane Mnouchkine in a large space in the Bois de Vincennes in Paris. Ah, what a wonderful production that was! Mnouchkine used a style that mixed Japanese theatrical traditions with mime, on a large set uncluttered by any of the traditional theatrical props. It was truly magic, one of those theatrical experiences that stays with you forever.
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Back to my own theatrical career at high school! It reached its zenith when I acted in Tom Stoppard’s brilliant comedy Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. I played Rosencrantz (or maybe Guildenstern, I forget; the characters themselves were always getting confused about who they were). This hilarious play is a riff on Shakespeare’s Hamlet, in which R&G play minor and totally inglorious roles. To my great regret, I never acted in Hamlet itself. The closest I got was playing a few scenes on the portico of the Scottish National Gallery in Edinburgh, during the University’s charity week. I played Polonius as a completely senile old twerp, unashamedly hamming it up for the audience: a disgraceful exhibition – but fun!

In truth, my days treading the theatre boards were even then numbered. I quickly realized at University that I was a mediocre actor and it was time for me to get serious. But before my final curtain call, I did manage get a modest part in Measure for Measure, playing Claudio, a young man sentenced to death for getting his girlfriend pregnant. It’s a strange play, aptly titled a “problem play”, categorized as a comedy but being no such thing. None of the characters are that nice either, so it’s difficult to feel much sympathy for anyone. My character Claudio gets some wonderful lines as he sits in gaol, bathed in a total funk at the idea of dying:

“Ay, but to die, and go we know not where;
To lie in cold obstruction, and to rot;
This sensible warm motion to become
A kneaded clod; and the delighted spirit
To bathe in fiery floods, or to reside
In thrilling region of thick-ribbed ice;
To be imprisoned in the viewless winds
And blown with restless violence round about
The pendant world; or to be worse than worst
Of those that lawless and incertain thought
Imagine howling – ’tis too horrible!
The weariest and most loathed worldly life
That age, ache, penury, and imprisonment
Can lay on nature is a paradise
To what we fear of death.”

And as I grow older, the lines of Duke Vincentio, spoken in his disguise as a monk to Claudio in prison, resonate ever more strongly with me: “when thou art old and rich, thou hast neither heat, affection, limb, nor beauty to make thy riches pleasant”. So true, alas!

And that was the end of my days on the proscenium. From then on, my engagement with Shakespeare was through films and other people’s theatrical productions. The most vivid of my recollections centre around Laurence Olivier. There was a poky little cinema on the Left Bank of Paris which one year when we lived there held a festival of Olivier’s Shakespeare films. My wife and I first watched Olivier’s film version of Hamlet, the first proper Hamlet I had ever seen. Olivier started with his voiced-over summary of Hamlet: “This is the tragedy of a man who could not make up his mind”.

Hamlet 1948 rŽal : Laurence Olivier Laurence Olivier Collection Christophel

It was masterly, no doubt about it. Of course, there were all the hoary Hamlet quotes: “Alas, poor Yorrick, I knew him”, “get thee to a nunnery”, “neither a borrower nor a lender be”, and of course probably the hoariest of all hoary Shakespeare quotes, “To be or not to be, that is the question”. Actually, behind all that hoariness lies one of Shakespeare’s most profound, and profoundly beautiful, soliloquies, of which I cite here only some lines, those which have always resonated with me the most:

“………..To die: to sleep;
No more; and, by a sleep to say we end
The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to, ’tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wish’d. To die, to sleep;
To sleep: perchance to dream: ay, there’s the rub.
For in this sleep of death what dreams may come
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause …”

In that same poky little cinema on the Left Bank, we got to see Olivier’s wonderful Richard III, which I have commented on in an earlier post, but also his sublime Henry V, a wonderful propaganda piece made in 1944 as a morale booster and dedicated to the “Commandos and Airborne Troops of Great Britain, the spirit of whose ancestors it has been humbly attempted to recapture”. So it is that we have great, reverberating lines like these:

“Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more;
Or close the wall up with our English dead!

I see you stand like greyhounds in the slips,
Straining upon the start. The game’s afoot:
Follow your spirit; and, upon this charge
Cry ‘God for Harry! England and Saint George!'”

“We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile
This day shall gentle his condition:
And gentlemen in England, now a-bed
Shall think themselves accursed they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.”

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To my great regret, we missed the showing of Olivier’s film of Othello. But we did later see, in an equally poky cinema somewhere else, Orson Welle’s Othello, filmed in some exotic castle in Morocco. Ah, the terrible torments of jealousy! “beware, my lord, of jealousy; It is the green-ey’d monster which doth mock the meat it feeds on”.
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“I kissed thee ere I killed thee, no way but this, killing myself, to die upon a kiss.”

And then there was Orson Welles as Macbeth! Rather over the top – a cross, as Welles himself put it, between Wuthering Heights and Bride of Frankenstein
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but home of some of the most sublime of Shakespeare’s lines, uttered by Macbeth as the power he has sold his soul for crumbles away around him.

“To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.”

Orson Welles did another great Shakespeare film, The Chimes at Midnight, a medley from Henry IV Parts I and II, Henry V, Richard II, and even The Merry Wives of Windsor, and focusing on Sir John Falstaff, to my mind the only Shakespearean character who is really comic in the modern sense.

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It’s a truly funny film. It’s also the film which brought home to me how Medieval battles were just brutal slugfests, with men bludgeoning each other to death with heavy, and sharp, pieces of metal.
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But it’s ultimately a film about betrayal. Prince Hal, a Crown Prince who cannot bear to take his responsibilities seriously, strings Falstaff along, making him believe that they are fast friends. But when Prince Hal becomes Henry V and Falstaff thinks he is now in the clover (“My King! My Jove! I speak to thee my heart”), the newly crowned King rejects him, literally turning his back on him (“I know thee not, old man; fall to thy prayers! How ill white hairs become a fool and jester!”).

Over the years, my wife and I have seen a number of other Shakespeare plays in film or theatre. Most, alas, have left little or no mark. Two, though, have stayed with me. One is a stage production of The Tempest directed by Giorgio Strehler, which was visually absolutely stunning. The other is Franco Zefirelli’s lush Romeo and Juliet. I don’t remember it so much for the love story – to my modern, cynical, ear, it all sounds very twee – as for the way Zeffirelli beautifully captured the edgy, ultimately tragic, banter between Mercutio and the Capulets.

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I may be a cynical old fart, but it’s undeniable that the drama of love across forbidden barriers resonates. There’s Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story, an adaptation of Romeo and Juliet to New York’s gangs
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and just recently I was watching an Al Jazeera show following the production of a Romeo and Juliet adaptation in Mali, a country where it is still the norm for parents to decide whom you marry; the, mostly female, audience were captivated. 400 years on, Shakespeare is still relevant.

I’ve focused on Shakespeare the dramatist. There is also Shakespeare the writer of the sonnets. One sonnet in particular is close to my heart at this time of my life:

“That time of year thou may’st in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruin’d choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.
In me thou see’st the twilight of such day,
As after sunset fadeth in the west,
Which by-and-by black night doth take away,
Death’s second self, that seals up all in rest.
In me thou see’st the glowing of such fire
That on the ashes of his youth doth lie,
As the death-bed whereon it must expire
Consum’d with that which it was nourish’d by.
This thou perceivest, which makes thy love more strong,
To love that well which thou must leave ere long.”

Like I said, Shakespeare still speaks to us 400 years on. I just hope to have a few more goose-bump moments with Will before the sixth and seventh ages of man which he clinically describes kick in:

“The sixth age shifts
Into the lean and slippered pantaloon,
With spectacles on nose and pouch on side;
His youthful hose, well saved, a world too wide
For his shrunk shank, and his big manly voice,
Turning again toward childish treble, pipes
And whistles in his sound. Last scene of all,
That ends this strange eventful history,
Is second childishness and mere oblivion,
Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.”

___________________________
Shakespeare’s funerary monument: http://www.hollowaypages.com/Shakespearemonument.htm
Théatre du Soleil, Richard II: https://jeffberryman.com/2009/07/20/finishing-the-story-le-theatre-du-soleil/
Olivier Hamlet: http://www.fanpop.com/clubs/laurence-olivier/images/5111432/title/hamlet-photo
Olivier Henry V: http://hayhistorygroup.co.uk/new-events/2015/9/11/hay-history-weekend-henry-v-at-booths-cinema-olivier-version
Welles Othello: http://filmforum.org/film/othello-welles-film
Welles Macbeth: http://filmforum.org/film/macbeth-scottish-version-welles-film
Welles Chimes at Midnight: http://www.midnightonly.com/2015/04/12/chimes-at-midnight-1965/
Battle Chimes at Midnight: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3bWraOy6Kw4
Romeo and Juliet: https://www.pinterest.com/pin/186125397070342206/
West Side Story love: https://www.filmlinc.org/events/west-side-story/
West Side Story fight: http://cityartsonline.com/blog/2010/06/siff-review-seeing-west-side-story-first-time

SOÑAR NADA CUESTA

Bangkok, 23 April 2016

There is a small olive orchard abutting the path that runs behind our apartment in Liguria. It’s in a sorry state, seemingly sorrier every time my wife and I pass it on our way into the hills. I’ve never taken a picture of it, but it looks something like this, only worse.
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It’s the sad fate of many of the terraced olive orchards in Liguria. It makes no economic sense any more to harvest olives in this part of Italy, and as the peasant-farmers who own them die off their children and grandchildren abandon the orchards to their fate. And so the brambles and nettles and vines and finally maybe some scrubby oaks recolonize the land. Harvesting Ligurian olives is now a labour of love.

My wife and I could lavish that love on that derelict olive orchard, once I’m retired. I have a dream of us identifying the owners and making a deal with them. Let us clear the orchard, I tell them, let us give those poor olive trees a bit of TLC, so that they can once again shake out their branches and drink in the Mediterranean sun.
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In return, I say in this dream dialogue with the owners, let us have the olives which those trees, in their gratitude, will give birth to.
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Neither my wife nor I have ever picked an olive in our lives, but in my dream this is not a problem. My wife and I would extend under the spreading olive branches those orange and green nets I’ve seen so often in Liguria to catch the olives as they fall (would we have to shake the branches, I wonder?)
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And then, arm-in-arm, we would bring our harvest of olives to the local olive press.
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Actually, an internet search has informed me that the nearest local olive press is 10 km away, so a car ride rather than a stroll would be in order. Also, it doesn’t use stone presses, that is passé; something along these lines is used – more modern, more sterile, but, the internet assures me, more efficient.

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No matter, one way or another the oil from our olives would be squeezed out

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and after some filtering, some racking, and some other things (I’m going to have to learn the olive oil lingo), we would become the proud owners of several bottles like these of cold-pressed, organic, extra-virgin olive oil.

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We would drizzle this nectar of the gods on our salads for a year, until the next harvest was brought in.
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Or might we want to pickle the olives? A quick whip around the internet persuades me that it’s not that difficult to pickle olives; you just need time and brine.

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OK, it’s decided: we will follow what happens in the global olive market, we will pickle 10% of our olive harvest and use the rest to make our very own olive oil.

Lovely dream. Of course, there might be a few snags in the real world. We may never find the owners, the owners may tell us to bugger off, the trees may be too old or too sick to fruit any more, the fruit or even the trees themselves may be attacked and destroyed by what seems on cursory reading to be a vast army of animalcules just waiting to sink their fangs or similar organs into fruit, leaf, or bark. But like a colleague of mine in Colombia recently wrote to me, “soñar nada cuesta”, to dream costs nothing.
_______________________
Abandoned olive orchard: https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=6n7eBKRLQ80
Clean olive orchard: http://www.vinoemozioni.com/blog/tag/anfosso/
Olives on olive tree: http://www.tavoladautore.it/contenuti/id/22/Gli-ulivi-di-Liguria–cultivar-e-caratteristiche.html
Nets under olive trees: http://www.casalefiliberto.com/gallery/gallery_oliveto/index.html
Old olive press: http://www.casait.it/it/toscana-grande-villa-vendita-vigneto-uliveto-S96J/
Modern olive press: http://www.oliofrantoioamoretticarlo.it/frantoio-da-olive.html
First press oil: http://novellaevignolo.com
Bottled olive oil: http://www.mraxani.it/prodotto/olio-extravergine-di-oliva-agrintec/
Olive oil on salad: http://www.foodinitaly.com/news/fotogallery/OLIO_EXTRAVERGINE_D’OLIVA_LE_REGOLE_D’ORO_PER_SCEGLIERLO-2527.html?start=4
Pickled olives: http://www.yaffa.co.uk/product_p/ogt1.htm

CORAL REEFS AROUND SURIN ISLAND

Kuraburi, 18 April 2016

It was a few minutes before we turned back to the boat that my wife and I spotted them, a school of pale lemon yellow fish, browsing on the bottom of the reef. Much internet surfing suggests that we saw yellow runner fish.

Yellow runner school fish in Similan, Thailand

As we watched, another school of fish, light blue this time, floated by, pulled by some unseen current. They were fusilier fish, I think
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During our two-day snorkeling trip to the Surin Islands National Park, just north of Phuket, we saw much more besides on the four or five reefs we visited.

The last time I’d snorkeled was half a century ago, in the shallow waters of a bay near Buea, Cameroon. My father had some work to do there, and he had brought me along. An English family living in Buea had taken me with them on an afternoon outing, and so it was that after a merry hour spent sinking up to my thighs in the micro-quicksands which dotted the bay, I spent another hour floating on my stomach, watching with fascination the tiny, brilliantly coloured fish darting back and forth across the black sand, fruit of the nearby volcano, Mt. Cameroon. A badly burned back was the result of this excessive curiosity. Still remembering the pain of that red and peeling back, I snorkeled this time with a shirt on. Alas! In the intervening five decades, my hair has thinned so I found afterwards that my scalp was burned from floating face down in the water (my wife instead got burned just below her swimsuit, on what our personal trainer calls the glutes).

All of which has not taken away one jot from the pleasure we derived from the wonderful sights we took in as we paddled slowly hand-in-hand along the reefs, with no sound but our breathing, witnessing a riot of colour as fish swam into our line of sight and then disappeared, intent on their business. Below is an incomplete catalogue of our sightings:

Powder blue surgeonfish
imageRainbow parrotfish
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The wonderfully named Moorish idol

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Lined surgeonfish
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Black surgeonfish
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Emperor angelfish
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Triggerfish
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Melon butterfly fish

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Blue lined grouper

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We saw other denizens of the reefs too:

A powder-blue starfish

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The aptly named crown-of-thorns starfish

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Squamose giant clams, which would snap shut as we floated over them
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Magnificent sea anemone, whose green tentacles would wave this way and that, revealing a wonderful blue-mauve body beneath

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And of course there were the corals, around which all these other species revolved:
Staghorn coral, whose tips seemed to glow phosphorescently
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Table coral

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Mushroom coral
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But really, although it was fun to point out to each other new species that we spotted, it was the reef communities as a whole that were most fascinating

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those tens of species all working in and around a coral mount which surged up from the bottom towards the light.

I suppose we’re lucky to have seen this. As we were floating over the reefs around Surin Island, an article appeared in the Guardian about massive coral bleaching going on at the Australian Great Barrier Reef. The immediate cause is El Niño, which is leading to much warmer waters than usual; coral dies if the water is too warm, and all you are left with are the bleached bones of coral, devoid of that blizzard of life with which it would normally be surrounded.

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But behind this latest episode is climate change, which is making El Niño events ever longer and more intense. Two days before this article appeared, the Guardian had another announcing that the month of March had been the hottest on record.
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But so had February. And so had January. And so had 2015 as a whole.

One of the many, many – many – impacts of climate change will be the die-off of coral reefs the world over. Coral reefs everywhere are showing signs of increasing strain. And with that die-off will come a steep decline in fish species: coral reefs are home to an astonishing 25 percent of the world’s fish species. That favourite cartoon character, Nemo, will lose his real-life counterpart.
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Can we really let this happen? Surely we humans can collectively take on our responsibilities for controlling climate change. Let’s not destroy this beautiful planet we inhabit.

_________________
Yellow runner fish: http://www.123rf.com/photo_24661711_yellow-runner-school-fish-in-similan-thailand.html
Fusilier fish: http://www.123rf.com/photo_16881582_blue-and-gold-fusilier-fish-at-surin-national-park.html
Powder blue surgeonfish: http://www.alamy.com/stock-photo/acanthurus.html
Rainbow parrotfish: https://www.pinterest.com/pin/303922674822811295/
Moorish idol: http://diveadvisor.com/sub2o/the-moorish-idol
Lined surgeonfish: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Acanthurus_lineatus
Black surgeonfish: http://photography.nationalgeographic.com/photography/wallpaper/surgeonfish-laman_pod_image.html
Emperor angelfish: https://cococares.wordpress.com/2012/11/14/maldives-emperor-angelfish-at-3-different-stages-of-life/
Triggerfish: http://www.seafocus.com/species_triggerfish.html
Melon butterfly fish: https://www.flickr.com/photos/thailandbeach/3568555120
Blue lined grouper: http://www.aquariumdomain.com/viewSpeciesMarine.php?id=49

Blue starfish: http://www.shutterstock.com/pic-3387803/stock-photo-blue-starfish-close-up-similan-islands.html

Crown of thorns starfish: http://www.bubblevision.com/underwater-pictures/racha-noi/pages/crown-of-thorns.htm
Squamose giant clam: http://forum.scubatoys.com/showthread.php?t=9755
Magnificent sea anemone: http://www.shutterstock.com/video/search/heteractis
Magnificent sea anemone: http://forum.scubatoys.com/showthread.php?t=9755
Staghorn coral: https://www.fau.edu/facilities/ehs/info/elkhorn_staghorn_corals.php
Table coral: http://adamjadhav.com/2010/
Mushroom coral: http://www.messersmith.name/wordpress/tag/mushroom-coral/
Reef life: https://www.govoyagin.com/activities/thailand-phuket-snorkel-and-see-sea-turtles-and-sharks-in-phi-phi/2039
Bleached coral reef: http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2016/apr/17/great-barrier-reef-worst-destruction
March global temperatures: http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2016/apr/15/march-temperature-smashes-100-year-global-record
Clownfish: https://prezi.com/m/m7zrpx-gkdqs/life-cycle-of-a-clown-fish/

KIMCHI AND SAUERKRAUT

Seoul, 13 April 2016

I’m in South Korea at the moment, giving a training on green industry. It is Spring here. In Bangkok, I’ve forgotten what Spring is like and the delights it brings to the heart of the first signs of new growth. There are wonderful, wonderful cherry trees in bloom just outside the training room, which makes it difficult for me to focus on my presentations.

But I don’t want to talk about any of that. I want to talk about kimchi, which I was confronted with last night at an otherwise perfectly respectable Korean meal. For those readers who have not heard of this foodstuff, it is without doubt the national dish of Korea – both Koreas, actually, North and South (on this deeply divided peninsula, there are two things that unite its peoples: their love of kimchi, and their deep dislike of the Japanese). South Koreans eat it at breakfast, lunch, and dinner (as I’m sure would the North Koreans had they any kimchi to eat and any rice to eat it with). There is a museum of kimchi in Seoul. It has been listed with UNESCO as an intangible cultural heritage, by both North and South Korea – separately, of course. It is said – but I wonder if this is not an urban legend – that during the Vietnam War, the-then South Korean President begged President Johnson to urgently help get kimchi to the South Korean troops who were fighting alongside their American comrades; without it, their morale was sagging badly. More believably, when the SARS crisis hit in 2003, kimchi sales in South Korea soared 40%, on the back of people’s belief that it would surely help ward off the evil disease.

As one might expect from a dish which is the subject of such national adulation, there are many regional variations and no doubt noisy arguments about which variant is the best. That being said, the most common type of kimchi – and certainly the one I have seen in Korean restaurants and eateries – is based on cabbage, napa cabbage to be precise. To make this kimchi is very easy, and if I’m not mistaken any self-respecting Korean housewife (not housespouse; this is still a very male dominated society) can make her own. Take the cabbage, cut it in pieces, thoroughly coat the pieces with salt, let them stand in their own briny juice for several hours, pressing them down from time to time. In the meantime, chop up some Asian radish and scallions, and prepare a paste of finely chopped garlic and ginger with fish sauce or salted shrimp and crushed dried paprika (this is the basic paste recipe, to which I’m sure can be added other ingredients whose identity are the jealously guarded secrets of individual kimchi makers). Thoroughly rinse the cabbage pieces of their brine, mix them well with the radish and scallions, and coat the whole with the paste. Let this mixture stand in some suitable container for several days at a cool temperature – in the old days, Korean housewives used beautiful pots like these and buried them in the earth during winter.
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What is happening behind all these manipulations is that the cabbage is being subjected to fermentation by lactobacillus bacteria. The results look like this.
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Depending on tastes and needs, the kimchi can be eaten “fresh” or left to continue to ferment and eaten months later.

It is sad to report that while the Korean populations love this stuff, I hate it. Well, “hate” may be a strong word: “thoroughly dislike it” may be the better term. During my first-ever trip to South Korea, while my credit with my hosts soared after I ate dog and declared it to be most delicious (and I wasn’t being polite), it crashed when I made it also very clear that kimchi was revolting. What to do, the perils of cultural exchanges.

It’s actually puzzling that I don’t like kimchi, because I looooove sauerkraut or, to give it its French name under which I first got to know it decades and decades ago, choucroute. Aah, those most magnificent choucroutes garnies of my youth, sauerkraut served with pork chops and various sausages, with boiled potatoes on the side!
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If I close my eyes, I can still remember, still taste in my mouth, a truly wonderful sauerkraut which I had on a German ferry boat carrying a bunch of us from school to Germany (we were on our way to do two weeks of “military service”, required of all of us by our high school, with a British tank regiment stationed near Hannover; but I digress, these fond memories being triggered no doubt by the lingering taste of that truly epochal sauerkraut).

As I say, it is indeed puzzling that I don’t like kimchi, because sauerkraut is also cabbage-based and is subjected to exactly the same procedure of brining followed by a fermentation at the hands (as it were) of lactobacilli. What is going on here?

After some thought, I have concluded that the paste is to blame. Actually, I think this is a no-brainer. I mean, what else is different between the two? My problem with kimchi has to reside in the paste. My first thought was that the paprika was the culprit. As I have written in no uncertain terms in an earlier post, I can’t stand hot spices, and the paprika in the kimchi certainly doesn’t endear me to the dish. But my problem with kimchi goes deeper than the burnt-out mouth it gives me. Below that lurks another problem, a problem of bitterness. One or more of the other ingredients in the kimchi is changing the taste from the sour of sauerkraut to the bitter of kimchi. I’m afraid I will never know which it is until I do some scientific experiments in the kitchen, making fermented cabbage and varying the ingredients it is pasted with. I can therefore cheerfully add sauerkraut/kimchi to the list of foodstuffs which I will try making when I have retired, and I will report back if and when I find the solution.

In the meantime, all this writing about sauerkraut has given me a serious desire to eat some. I need to send an urgent message to my wife, who is excellent at searching the Internet, asking her to identify a restaurant where we can eat a half-decent choucroute garnie in Bangkok.

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Kimchi pots: http://www.lovethatkimchi.com/Kimchi_Pots/Onggi.html
Kimchi: http://www.surakoreancuisine.com/koreas-greatest-food-kimchi/
Choucroute garnie: http://www.foodandwine.com/recipes/choucroute-garnie

TENNYSON IN HALONG BAY

Hanoi, 5 April 2016

It was our second day in Halong Bay, Vietnam.

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We’d climbed up the 173 steps to the Surprise Grotto, we had politely looked at the stalactites and stalagmites (“stalagTites from the Top, stalagMites like a Mountain” had helpfully intoned our guide) and been quite taken by the cave’s ceiling, a tracery of dimples formed by wind and water, a natural flamboyant gothic.

Shot taken at Surprised Grotto of Halong Bay. A Massive Cave system with thousands of gigantic stalactite and stalacmite decorating of almost all parts of cave's wall, based and ceiling.

We had climbed back down the 215 steps to the dock, we had puttered back to the boat, and now we were lying on the sunless sun deck waiting to be ferried to our next activity, a bicycle trip to a small village on the island of Cat Ba followed by lunch. All around me, rising sheer out of the water, were cliffs of greying limestone, topped with vegetation which tumbled down to the water’s edge.
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I spotted, high above me, a black kite, hovering, scrutinizing the water’s surface. With a slight trim of its tail feathers, it wheeled out over the little bay, waiting. A quick flap of its wings and it made up for lost height. Again it circled, and glided, waiting and looking. In an instant, it plummeted down to the water, grasped its prey with its talons, and soared upwards again. And there rose unbidden in my mind the lines by Tennyson:

He clasps the crag with crooked hands;
Close to the sun in lonely lands,
Ring’d with the azure world, he stands.

The wrinkled sea beneath him crawls;
He watches from his mountain walls,
And like a thunderbolt he falls.

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Halong bay: https://www.shutterstock.com/video/search/asia-pacific-region
Surprise grotto ceiling: http://evelinakristanti.com/portfolio/series/ha-long-bay
Cliffs in Halong Bay: http://www.gettyimages.com/detail/photo/halong-bay-limestone-cliffs-at-sunset-high-res-stock-photography/542678795
Black kite: https://www.flickr.com/photos/tyleringram/8538728245