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Category: UK

CONKERS AND CHESTNUTS

Milan, 26 September 2017

A few days ago, my wife and I decided that for our usual afternoon walk we would take the subway up towards the northwest of Milan and then walk back home. This strategy had us walk through a small park that was once part of the grounds of the royal palace. As we walked down one of the park’s shady avenues, conkers started raining down on us. Well, that may be a bit of an exaggeration. Let’s say that two or three seed balls came cannoning down from above our heads and landed with a thump on the gravel, releasing their conkers which rolled around our feet. I picked one up and rubbed it gently with my fingers. Fresh conkers are really lovely, with their brown, lustrous skin and their smooth velvety feel.

Their seed casing is also very pretty, bright green with soft spikes all over it.

More than anything, though, conkers bring back happy memories from my childhood. I still distinctly remember during the breaks in the schoolyard fishing out my conker from my pocket and squaring off for conker duels with my friends. For those of my readers who are not familiar with this playground game, let me quickly explain how it works.
– Find a conker.
– Drill a hole through it with a nail.
– Thread a shoelace or other such string through the hole, and make a strong knot at the end.
– Face your opponent.
– One of you lets his conker dangle, let’s say your opponent.
– You swing your conker at his conker in a rather special way – see the photo below, which looks to have been taken during my boyhood years.

– If your opponent’s conker breaks, you win. If not, you dangle your conker and your opponent takes a swing at it.
And so on, until either one of the conkers breaks or the bell rings and it’s time to go back to those boring classes.

Conkers was, of course, a game of Autumn, played in the first month or so of the school term until the conkers stopped dropping off the trees and the conker supply dried up. Other games then took over the schoolyard until it was mid-September again and time to prepare that monster conker which would surely smash all other opponents in the schoolyard.

In case any of my readers are wondering, conkers come from the horse chestnut, that tree which gives lovely white or pink flowers in the Spring



and which in the last several decades have often looked distressingly mangy by summer time

the result of attack by the leaf miner moth. It seems that this disease was first noticed in Macedonia and has been marching across the globe ever since.

Perhaps, like I used to, some of my readers think that chestnut trees and horse chestnut trees are related. I mean, the nuts in both cases are so similar, as are their casings!

Yet they are not. They each belong to quite different families. I suppose this must be a case of convergent evolution.

One thing which very definitely distinguishes them is that conkers are not edible, but chestnuts very much are. And in fact in this Autumn season, Milan’s shops and markets are putting out piles of chestnuts to entice you.

I haven’t yet seen chestnut roasters on street corners, though.

Maybe they only appear when the weather turns cooler. I await them with anticipation, so that I can buy my paper cone full of roasted chestnuts.

________________
Conkers: https://www.google.co.uk/amp/s/www.collinsdictionary.com/amp/english/conker
Conker seed case: https://www.google.co.uk/amp/www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-3838298/amp/The-end-conker-Playground-staple-vanish-15-years-horse-chestnut-trees-felled-pests-disease.html
Playing conkers: https://www.google.co.uk/amp/s/www.pinterest.com/amp/pin/437834394994706958/
White horse chestnut tree in flower: http://www.davekilbeyphotography.co.uk/index.php/plants-landscapes/species-trees/horse-chestnut-05/
Pink horse chestnut in flower: https://ag.purdue.edu/btny/ppdl/Pages/POTW_old/6-10-13.html
Horse chestnut attacked by leaf miner: http://www.alamy.com/stock-photo-common-horse-chestnut-tree-damaged-by-the-leaf-miner-moth-cameraria-39467824.html
Chestnut and casing: http://tcpermaculture.blogspot.it/2012/09/permaculture-plants-chestnuts.html?m=1
Chestnuts in an Italian market: http://mercatidiroma.com/mercato-trionfale/trionfale
Chestnut roaster, Italy: http://www.alamy.com/stock-photo/chestnut-street.html
Cone of roast chestnuts: http://www.ricettedalmondo.it/caldarroste.html

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THE NATIONAL ART AUDIT

Vienna, 30 July 2017

As is my wont, I was perusing the electronic newspapers a few days ago during a leisurely breakfast (ah, the joys of retirement!). Normally, I focus on the unfolding Brexit tragedy, shooting off comments on various articles (another product of leisurely retirement hours), or on the soap opera that US politics has become. But a few days ago my eye was caught by an article on a “National Art Audit” conducted in the U.K. This very fancy term covers a publicity gimmick paid for by Samsung, to advertise its new television which doesn’t actually turn off when you turn it off, but instead shows electronic copies of paintings, photos, etc. Samsung has given the TV a picture-like frame so that you can hang it on the wall to make it look like a picture.

Very clever.

But back to the National Art Audit. It purports to give a snapshot of the Brits’ favourite pieces of art at the moment. In truth, the result seems to be a bit cooked in that works of art were pre-selected by a committee of arts writers and the final choice made by a mere 2,000 people. But let’s give the organizers of this exercise the benefit of the doubt and assume that the tastes of Britain’s arts writers more or less mirror the tastes of the general population and that the 2,000 people were a statistically valid sample. So what do we have?

I list the first twenty works in their order of preference:

1. We start with some street art, Banksy’s Girl with Balloon. The man, or woman, or collective (for who knows who hides behind “Banksy”?) stenciled copies onto walls in several locations. This copy is to be found – I think – on the stairs of the South Bank, Blackfriars bridge, in London.

There’s a lot of poo-pooing by art critics of Banksy’s work, but I rather like these whimsical pieces with a political sting which appear mysteriously overnight. Personally, I find this particular work somewhat twee, but no doubt that explains its popularity. I used one of Banksy’s more political works in an earlier post. Here’s another.

2. Constable’s The Hay Wain. The original is in London’s National Gallery, but copies are to be found in their thousands on biscuit boxes, tea towels, and puzzles, which no doubt both drives and explains its popularity.

I suppose the painting feeds into that nostalgia which so many English (not necessarily British) people have for the country’s past, although I suspect that that past was not quite the Garden of Eden that this painting would have you believe.

3. Jack Vettriano’s The Singing Butler. The original is in a private collection, but reproductions of it have made it the best-selling art print in the UK.

Interesting fellow, Vettriano. You wouldn’t think so from his name, but he’s Scottish – he adopted his mother’s name at some point. He had a very poor childhood, almost Dickensian I would say, even though he’s my age more or less. But he managed to teach himself to paint, so there’s hope yet for all us frustrated artists. I’m not terribly keen for his work, I have to say, much of which tends towards sado-maso soft-porn, like this painting.

4. JMW Turner’s The Fighting Temeraire. Another painting which hangs in the National Gallery.

For those of a romantic bent, His Majesty’s Ship Temeraire fought in the Battle of Trafalgar, and here the grizzled warrior, old and outdated by modern technology like the steam tug towing it, is being taken to its final berth to be broken up for scrap.

5. Antony Gormley’s The Angel of the North.

This 20-meter high steel statue stands very close to the motorway to Scotland, near Newcastle-upon-Tyne. Probably the view most people have is from the motorway as they drive north. Since it is quite a striking sight as you drive along it has no doubt impressed itself on the memory of many a motorist.


6. LS Lowry’s Going to the Match.

Although Lowry is undoubtedly very popular, I personally find him depressing as hell. He painted from the late 1920s to the 1950s (he produced this painting in 1928), and his visions of industrial Britain in this period – these bleak urban landscapes with smoking factories, treeless streets, and gaunt people – are a nightmare as far as I’m concerned. This painting in particular makes me think of George Orwell’s 1984:

“So long as the Proles continued to work and breed, their other activities were without importance. Left to themselves, like cattle turned loose upon the plains of Argentina, they had reverted to a style of life that appeared to be natural to them, a sort of ancestral pattern…Heavy physical work, the care of home and children, petty quarrels with neighbors, films, football, beer and above all, gambling filled up the horizon of their minds. To keep them in control was not difficult.”

7. John William Waterhouse’s The Lady of Shalott

Well, if you like the painter’s style, “the epitome of the style of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood”, then head down to Tate Britain to see it. I prefer to quote the lines from Tennyson which inspired the painting:

And down the river’s dim expanse
Like some bold seer in a trance,
Seeing all his own mischance
With glassy countenance
Did she look to Camelot.
And at the closing of the day
She loosed the chain, and down she lay;
The broad stream bore her far away,
The Lady of Shalott.

8. The Beatles’ Sgt Pepper album cover, designed by Peter Blake (and which I happened to refer to in a recent post).

I’m glad that album covers have made it onto the list, I’ve always believed that I had a rich collection of art in my LPs. It was one of the reasons I was unwilling to make the switch to CDs. It was great to lie on the sofa admiring the album cover while the music boomed around you. Mind you, personally I would have chosen the Yellow Submarine album cover for the Beatles.

9. Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon album cover, designed by Hipgnosis and George Hardie.

Another great album cover, although personally I would have chosen Pink Floyd’s Animals album cover.

10. George Stubbs’s Mares and Foals in a River Landscape, another painting in the Tate.

I put its being in the list down to the British love of horses. But even I, who have no great love for horses, can appreciate that they are very fine specimens of the species.

11. Thomas Gainsborough’s Mr and Mrs Andrews, in London’s National Gallery

This seems to be the epitome of an English painting, and I use that geographical term advisedly; I see nothing Scottish or Welsh or Northern Irish in this painting. That being said, I do remember years ago, a lifetime ago in fact, during the French elections of 1981 which François Mitterrand won for the Socialists, the French satirical newspaper Le Canard Enchainé published a whole magazine on the wrongdoings of the-then President Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, the cover of which was this painting with the faces of Giscard d’Estaing and his wife pasted over those of Mr and Mrs Andrews.

So perhaps the painting’s message is more European than Little Englanders might think?

12. John Everett Millais’s Ophelia, in Tate Britain.

Like I said earlier, you have to like the Pre-Raphaelite style to appreciate the painting. I find it more interesting that Laurence Olivier, in his film version of Hamlet, chose to model Ophelia’s death scene on this painting.

I should also say that I am not untouched but this painting. As I’ve evoked in an earlier post, an evening in a cold airport in China set off a train of memories from my childhood which led me to this painting.

13. Andy Goldsworthy’s Balanced Rock Misty. Anyone who wants to see the original photograph should go to the Carlisle Museum and Gallery.

The work dates from 1979 and is located in Cumbria (or more probably was; I can’t believe that that rock is still balanced like that). I must confess to never having heard of Andy Goldsworthy before looking at this National Art Audit. I read in Wikipedia that he “produces site-specific sculpture and land art situated in natural and urban settings”, that he “is generally considered the founder of modern rock balancing”, of which this is surely an example, and that “photography plays a crucial role in his art due to its often ephemeral and transient state”, no doubt the reason he took this photo. Without knowing it, I’d actually come across a work of his at the Storm King sculpture park north of New York when my wife and I last visited it, where he had built this stone wall snaking through the trees.

14. David Hockney’s A Bigger Splash, another painting in the Tate.

It’s from his time in the 1960s in California. Personally, I prefer Hockney’s much later work, like this landscape, painted when he came back to the U.K. a decade or so ago.

15. Bridget Riley’s Movement in Squares, painted in 1961.

For once, this painting is not in the Tate, although still in London. It’s in the Arts Council Collection at the Southbank Centre. I’ve never really liked these optical illusion paintings. I find them too visually unsettling and I don’t see why I should look at a painting that unsettles my balance. But hey, beauty is in the eye of the observer.

16. Anish Kapoor’s ArcelorMittal Orbit.

I’ve never seen this thing (not sure it really fits the definition of a tower), so I shouldn’t comment. I suspect, though, that it will become London’s response to Paris’s Eiffel Tower.

It certainly seems to be attracting the same kind of passionate criticism and praise that the Eiffel Tower did in its time. I understand they’ve added slides to the Orbit, to attract visitors. Maybe the Eiffel Tower could add them too.

17. Stik’s A Couple Hold Hands in the Street. Another street artist, this time with a face but no name. I’m not completely sure what work this entry refers to, but I think it’s this one.

This is what the artist had to say about it: “This one, with the burka, was done around the back of a mosque on Brick Lane. I was really nervous about doing it actually, because there had just been an attempted assassination on a cartoonist who had depicted Mohammed somewhere in Sweden. … But I did my research and I found that actually, within Islam, if you choose to depict living beings you have to do it in a two-dimensional way without any illusion of depth, and that’s me!” First time I’ve heard of this.

18. Maggi Hambling’s Scallop.

The sculpture stands on a beach at Aldeburgh in Suffolk, where Benjamin Britten lived. It is a tribute to him; the words piercing the shell, “I hear those voices that will not be drowned”, come from Britten’s opera Peter Grimes. The artist has had this to say about the sculpture: “An important part of my concept is that at the centre of the sculpture, where the sound of the waves and the winds are focused, a visitor may sit and contemplate the mysterious power of the sea.”

19. Henry Moore’s Reclining Figure. The problem is, Henry Moore did a lot of reclining figures and I’ve no idea which one this little exercise is referring to. So I show here reclining figures of his from 1929, 1939, 1957, 1969-70, and 1984, and readers can take their pick. (Giving a time-series like this also allows one to study how Moore went about “decomposing” the body into abstract masses)





20. And so we come to our final entry, Sex Pistols’ Never Mind the Bollocks album cover, designed by Jamie Reid.

Interesting. Can’t think what else to say about it. Perhaps because I was never a Sex Pistols fan the picture doesn’t evoke any fond memories in me.

So what do we conclude from all of this apart from the rather unsurprising conclusion that my personal list of the best 20 would have been somewhat different – I mean, this list represents some sort of national average. One thing that struck me is how London-centric the list is, with the majority of the works to be found in the capital. Maybe I noticed it because recently so much of my newspaper reading has been about Brexit, and “London vs the rest of the country”, “London getting all the attention” has been an important thread in the arguments between Leavers and Remainers. But it does seem to me from this list that London is sucking the cultural air out of the lungs of the rest of the country. The other thing that struck me is the absence of any advertising art. Yet this can be a very honourable art form, and I’m sure certain ads are very familiar with many people; the old Guinness ads, for instance, which I’ve often seen copies of.

Or how about propaganda art, which is a close relation to advertising art? This one from World War II seems to have taken the world by storm. I constantly see T-shirts with endless variations on the theme.

Or that most iconic of all posters, the London Underground map?

I don’t know, it seems to me that there’s a whole form of art here that people are very familiar with and enjoy, yet is missing. Maybe for the launch of its next super-clever TV product Samsung can make sure this gets included.

_______________
Samsung The Frame TV: http://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/gadgets-and-tech/news/the-frame-4k-tv-samsung-wall-art-standby-uhd-led-a7630716.html%3Famp
Banksy Girl with Balloon: https://hubpages.com/art/banksy-girl-with-balloon
Banksy Make Trouble: https://www.canvasartrocks.com/blogs/posts/70529347-121-amazing-banksy-graffiti-artworks-with-locations
Constable The Hay Wain: http://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/john-constable-the-hay-wain
Jack Vettriano The Singing Butler: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Singing_Butler#/media/File%3AVettriano%2C_Singing_Butler.jpg
Jack Vettriano Fetish: https://www.collectorsprints.co.uk/product/fetish/
JMW Turner The Fighting Temeraire: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Fighting_Temeraire#/media/File%3AThe_Fighting_Temeraire%2C_JMW_Turner%2C_National_Gallery.jpg
Antony Gormley The Angel of the North: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Angel_of_the_North
The Angel of the North from motorway: https://www.reddit.com/duplicates/3obbfn/angel_of_the_north_gateshead_uk_a1_motorway/
LS Lowry Going to the Match: https://artuk.org/discover/artworks/going-to-the-match-162423
John William Waterhouse The Lady of Shalott: https://commons.m.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:John_William_Waterhouse_The_Lady_of_Shalott.jpg
Sgt Pepper album cover: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_images_on_the_cover_of_Sgt._Pepper%27s_Lonely_Hearts_Club_Band
Yellow Submarine album cover: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yellow_Submarine_(album)
Dark Side of the Moon album cover: http://www.b-wave.be/blog/david-gilmour-on-the-run-dark-side-of-the-moon-on-synthi-a/
Animals album cover: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Animals_(Pink_Floyd_album)
George Stubbs Mares and Foals in a River Landscape: http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/stubbs-mares-and-foals-in-a-river-landscape-t00295
Thomas Gainsborough Mr and Mrs Andrews: https://mydailyartdisplay.wordpress.com/2011/05/02/mr-and-mrs-andrews-by-thomas-gainsborough/
Les dossiers du canard: http://m.ebay.fr/sch/i.html?_pgn=1&LH_Auction=1&LH_PrefLoc=2&_sop=12&isRefine=false&_nkw=miscard
John Everett Millais Ophelia: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ophelia_(painting)
Ophelia drowned in Laurence Olivier’s Hamlet: http://arainbowofchaos.blogspot.co.at/2011/12/?m=1
Andy Goldsworthy Balanced Rock Misty: http://www.goldsworthy.cc.gla.ac.uk/image/?tid=1979_068
Andy Goldsworthy Storm King: http://www.pinterest.com/amp/pin/505388389415343402/
David Hockney A Bigger Splash: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/A_Bigger_Splash
David Hockney Landscape: http://minimatisse.blogspot.co.at/2014/12/hockney-landscapes.html?m=1
Bridget Riley Movement in Squares: https://artuk.org/discover/artworks/movement-in-squares-64038
Anish Kapoor ArcelorMittal Orbit: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/ArcelorMittal_Orbit
Eiffel Tower: https://www.getyourguide.com/eiffel-tower-l2600/
Stik A Couple Hold Hands in the Street: http://www.eastendreview.co.uk/2015/09/08/stik-new-book/
Maggi Hambling Scallop: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maggi_Hambling
Henry Moore Reclining Figure 1929: https://www.henry-moore.org/collections/leeds-sculpture-collection
Henry Moore Reclining Figure 1939: http://www.tate.org.uk/art/research-publications/henry-moore/henry-moore-om-ch-reclining-figure-r1147454
Henry Moore Reclining Figure 1957: http://www.tate.org.uk/art/research-publications/henry-moore/henry-moore-om-ch-working-model-for-unesco-reclining-figure-r1171983
Henry Moore Reclining Figure 1969-70: http://www.tate.org.uk/context-comment/articles/lost-art-henry-moore
Henry Moore Reclining Figure 1984: http://www.geograph.org.uk/photo/4637053
Never Mind the Bollocks album cover: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Never_Mind_the_Bollocks,_Here%27s_the_Sex_Pistols
Guinness poster: https://www.amazon.com/Guinness-Poster-Lovely-Tucan-Weather/dp/B009SDXUUM
Keep calm and carry on poster: http://www.businessinsider.com/the-surprising-history-of-keep-calm-and-carry-on-2015-6?IR=T
London Underground map: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Harry_Beck

SEA BEET

  • Milan, 11 February 2017

I’ve written much earlier about the culinary dowry which my wife brought to our marriage, a splendidly long list of Italian foods and dishes against which my contribution shriveled to nothingness. The columnn on my wife’s side of the kitchen ledger should have been even longer, though. I wrote that first post when we were living in Beijing and I drew up the list from memory. Now that we are back in Italy a good part of our time, I can closely scan the supermarket shelves to see what delights we have come back to. One of these is the vegetable known in Italian as coste, chard in English (often called Swiss chard, although there is absolutely nothing Swiss about the plant).
img_1857When I first tried coste all those decades ago, cooked by my mother-in-law, I was immediately struck by two certainties: the first, that I had stumbled across a culinary treasure; the second, that this treasure had never crossed my lips either in the UK or in France – neither of my grandmothers seemed to have been familiar with this worthiest of vegetables.

The wonderful thing is that the cooking method for chard which I prefer adheres strictly to my golden rule for all things in life, the KISS principle (Keep It Simple, Stupid!). Strip the stalks of the leaves. Boil each briefly in water. Then briefly fry each separately in butter (oil will also work). Serve. That’s it. Yes, you can add this and that, garlic for instance, but it’s really not necessary.
img_1856

The stems are by far the best. Cooking them gives them a delicate, slightly sweet taste that inexorably leads you to eagerly slip the next stalk into your mouth. They are addictive.

Readers looking on line will see that many recipes consider chard a side dish, to be eaten as a complement to something else. I disagree. They stand on their own, as a complete dish. If anything, the stalks can be the main dish, the leaves the side dish. Many other recipes mix it into soups or into quiche-like things or into pasta sauces. Forget it. Just eat them on their own.

I thought perhaps that with the broadening of the British culinary horizons over the last forty years I would now find chard commonly stocked in supermarkets. But no. I went on Sainsbury’s and Tesco’s websites to see what vegetables could be ordered online, and chard was nowhere to be found. I double-checked with a friend of mine in the UK and he confirmed that chard was not readily available in supermarkets (although he did note that his sister, who has a green thumb, grows them in her vegetable garden).

It’s funny, that, because the wild ancestor to chard is sea beet.
Papier beet
For reasons which will become clear in a minute, I also show it uprooted.
img_1859
Sea beet can be found along along the coasts of the UK more or less up to Scotland, so it is a plant that surely made its way into the British cooking pot very early on, when people ate whatever the local environment offered and when hunger was a constant companion. From a quick zip through web sites run by enthusiasts dedicated to recreating ancient recipes, chard was certainly eaten in Britain in Medieval and Tudor times (when it was called beet; Lord knows why the name changed). Take this entry from John Gerard’s 1597 Herball:
Beta alba. White Beets….the white Beete is a cold and moist pot-herbe…Being eaten when it is boyled, it quickly descendeth … especially being taken with the broth wherein it is sodden…
Beta rubra, Beta rubra Romana. Red Beets, Red Roman Beets …The great and beautiful Beet last described may be vsed in winter for a salad herbe, with vinegar, oyle, and salt, and is not onely pleasant to the taste, but also delightfull to the eye. The greater red Beet or Roman Beet, boyled and eaten with oyle, vinegar and pepper, is a most excellent and delicate sallad
.

(It seems that by 1597 farmers had already produced beets of varying colours – the earlier photo of uprooted sea beet shows that white was originally the only colour complementing the green.)

For some reason, chard seems to have fallen out of favour with the greater British public in later centuries. I’ve read that spinach, to which chard is often compared, could have been the culprit, displacing chard in the hearts of consumers. Naughty spinach …

The opposite fate has befallen another descendent of see beet, the beetroot.
beetroot isolated on white backgroundThe quote above from Gerard goes on:
But what might be made of the red and beautifull root (which is to be preferred before the leaues, as well in beauty as in goodnesse) I refer vnto the curious and cunning cooke, who no doubt when he hath had the view thereof, and is assured that it is both good and wholesome, will make thereof many and diuers dishes, both faire and good.
From which we can gather that the root of the chard/beet was not eaten by Brits in 1597. But things changed somewhere along the way, for if the selection on offer from Sainsbury’s and Tesco’s is at all a guide to general British preferences in vegetables, beetroot does now have a following in the UK. Perhaps the reason for this change of heart can be traced to the growth in the size of the root. Gerard’s illustration of the Red Roman Beet in his Herball shows it to have a pretty skinny root in his day, much like the root of the sea beet. Perhaps only when a myriad of farmers had patiently coaxed the beet’s root to grow mightily in girth did it become popular.

Not that the British have ever done anything very exciting with the beetroot. The best they have managed to do is to pickle it.
img_1861
That sweet-sour combination certainly seems to be a winning combination for the beetroot, and has been brought to a glorious culmination by “curious and cunning cookes” with the borschts of Eastern Europe. Every country from that part of the world has its own borscht tradition, but there is a commonality in all the recipes. Sauté a variety of vegetables including, of course, beetroots. Add stock. Simmer for a bit. Serve with a dollop of sour cream. The result looks something like this.
img_1862
Let’s not forget the leaves of the beetroot! Just as much as chard is edible so too are the leaves of the beetroot. Various Italian (and English) recipes show that they can be prepared exactly the same way as chard.
img_1863
And there is of course Gerard’s suggestion to eat them with “vinegar, oyle, and salt”.

This celebration of the sea beet and its offspring would not be complete without a mention of two more of its descendants, neither of which are normally eaten by humans: the splendidly named mangelwurzel, developed in Germany as fodder for cattle
img_1864
and the sugar beet, developed – also initially in Germany – from the sweetest of the mangelwurzels around at the time, as an alternative to sugar cane.
img_1866I’m not sure we should celebrate the sugar beet, since there is a growing consensus that sugar is a plague.
img_1869
Mangelwurzel, on the other hand, deserves to be given a big hand. We don’t eat it, but farm animals like to eat it very much
img_1867
(as do their wild cousins)
img_1868
and we like eating the farm animals. On top of this, mangelwurzel is used to make jack-o-lanterns in certain parts of the UK
img_1865
an art form that is surely worth celebrating.

____________
Chard: http://www.dimeoremo.it/pianta_da_orto.php?idorto=4
Cooked chard: http://blog.cookaround.com/peg930/bieta-a-coste-saltate-in-padella/
Sea beet: https://www.researchgate.net/figure/261719699_fig1_Wild-sea-beet-Beta-vulgaris-subsp-maritima-the-wild-ancestor-of-all-cultivated-beets
Sea beet uprooted: http://www.bushcraftuk.com/forum/showthread.php?t=142391
Beetroot: http://www.realfoods.co.uk/article/so-fresh-and-so-green
British pickled beetroot: http://m.tesco.com/h5/groceries/r/www.tesco.com/groceries/product/details/?id=272309421
Borscht: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Borscht#
Cooked beetroot leaves: https://www.google.co.uk/amp/allrecipes.it/ricetta/5137/foglie-di-barbabietole-saltate-in-padella.aspx/amp/
Mangelwurzel: http://www.naturganznah.com/shop/index.php?sid=x&shp=oxbaseshop&cl=details&anid=c7943302e125e3a84.49084479&tpl=&lang=1
Sugar beet: https://www.gardeningknowhow.com/edible/vegetables/beets/sugar-beet-cultivation.htm
Book on sugar: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Beat-Sugar-Addiction-Now-Cutting-Edge/dp/1592334156
Pigs eating mangelwurzel: https://hisandhershomesteading.wordpress.com/page/2/
Wild boar eating mangelwurzel: http://footage.framepool.com/en/shot/550643113-turnip-field-mangelwurzel-potato-field-pack
Mangelwurzel jack-o-lanterns: http://herbs-treatandtaste.blogspot.it/2012/05/mangel-wurzel-confusing-vegetable.html?m=1

POLITICALLY-CHARGED PUBLIC ART

Milan, 4 November 2016

There is a quiet square not too far from where my wife and I live in Milan which goes by the name of Piazza Affari. As the name suggests, this is meant to be the pulsating business and financial centre of Milan. That was certainly the idea when the square was fashioned back in the early 1930s by demolishing a whole block of buildings in front of the just completed stock exchange, the Palazzo Mezzanotte.
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This quite handsome building clad in white travertine is often considered “typical” Fascist architecture because of when it was constructed, but in truth it is actually a nice exemplar of the Italian architecture of the turn of the century, most famously exemplified by Milan’s main train station.
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Another building opposite the stock exchange, finished in 1939, closed off the new square.
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Well, the war came and went, this corner of Milan survived the intense Allied bombing of the city, Fascism fell, and life went on. Then, in 2011, as part of a plan to make Milan a centre of contemporary art, the-then municipal government wanted to hold an exhibition of the works of Maurizio Cattelan, a famous Italian contemporary sculptor well known for satirical sculptures. As part of the deal, the city commissioned an outdoor work from the artist. After some back and forth, it was decided to place this piece in Piazza Affari and Cattelan came up with this.
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Of course, everyone immediately decided that the artist was giving the finger to Italy’s financial sector – this was a few years after the near meltdown of the banking sector worldwide, whose impacts on the Italian economy were then being felt (and continue to be felt). The denizens of the stock exchange hated it, everyone else loved it. What was meant to be a temporary exhibition has turned out to be permanent. It has been pointed out, and the photo above shows it clearly, that the hand is not actually giving the finger to the stock exchange but, if anything, to the anonymous building on the other side of the square. And the artist himself has said that the sculpture was actually a commentary on the fall of Fascism – some complicated explanation to the effect that the hand really represents the Fascist salute, and the chopped-off fingers represent the fall of Fascism; its positioning in front of a building seen as Fascist is what links it to Fascism. Others have commented that this finely sculpted hand (look at those veins!) in lovely white marble, in a square with its vaguely Roman look (look at those arcades attached to the 1939 building), reminds them of a De Chirico painting.
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None of this matters. What is important is what people think. And people think the finger is being given to all those goddamned bankers who screwed us all over, and they cheer the artist on.

Statuary in public places has always excited intense emotions. Staying in the world of white marble, consider the statue of the naked Alison Lapper, a British artist born without arms and only stubs of legs, and eight months pregnant when the statue was made.
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In 2005, this statue was placed as a temporary exhibit on the fourth plinth at Trafalgar Square in London, which has been empty ever since the square received its current look back in the 1830s.
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Many people hated it (because it was ugly; did those who said this realize the judgement they were passing on handicapped people?), many people loved it (because of its optimistic message about the handicapped and because it brought handicapped people more into the mainstream). A much larger replica was used in the opening ceremonies of the 2012 London Paralympic Games.
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But what about that granddaddy of white marble statuary, Michelangelo’s David?
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(another statue, I note in passing, with lovely hands)
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Today, we look at it simply as a glorious work of art, but at the time of its unveiling it was also a highly charged political statement. Already, David had a special place in the heart of the Florentines. They identified with the puny boy who destroyed the huge, nasty Goliath (seen to represent Rome, the French, the Holy Roman Emperor, or any other power threatening it at any particular moment in time). A committee of notable artists, including Da Vinci and Botticelli, was charged with deciding on its emplacement. They chose to have it stand in Piazza Signoria, at such an angle that the statue glared defiantly towards Rome.
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A statue whose unveiling in 1992 had particular resonance for me was that of Sir Arthur “Bomber” Harris, commander-in-chief during the Second World War of Britain’s Bomber Command.

As the picture shows, it is the typical statue of some Worthy Person which dots every public space in Europe, nothing terribly exciting artistically. But Bomber Command was the group responsible for the so-called area bombing during the War which wiped out entire German cities, many of no military value. Dresden is perhaps the best known.
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There are many people, and I include myself among them, who believe that these bombings were a crime against humanity, so I have difficulty feeling any disapproval for the person who did this to Harris’s statue.
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To be fair to Harris, he was not the only person in high circles (Winston Churchill included) who thought that area bombing was a good idea, but he implemented the plan with particular relish.

The placement of politically-charged art in public spaces continues. Banksy’s painting in the Calais “Jungle” of Steve Jobs as an immigrant trying to get in shows this.

In a rare statement on any of his art, Banksy commented that he wanted to remind people of the value of immigrants. If Jobs’s father, an immigrant from Homs in Syria, hadn’t been let into the US we wouldn’t have Apple. In this day and age of heated debates, especially in Europe, about refugees and how many to let in, Banksy has very publicly taken sides. It’s a pity that his high mindedness has been subverted, first by an entrepreneurial inhabitant of the Jungle demanding to be paid 5 euros to view the painting and then by a nihilistic vandalizing of the painting.
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I presume that the vandalizer was doing no more than celebrating The Clash’s third album. Such is life.

Let’s see what this year will bring us in politically-charged statuary.

____________
Palazzo Mezzanote: http://www.newsly.it/braxit-ultime-notizie-borse-europee-in-rialzo-scommettono-sul-si-1
Stazione centrale: http://www.milanoguida.com/visite-guidate/altri-monumenti-milano/stazione-centrale-milano/
Palazzo on other side: https://ripullulailfrangente.wordpress.com/2012/08/24/ancora-per-milano-al-mattino-presto-targhe/
Il dito: http://www.manageronline.it/articoli/vedi/3359/il-dito-medio-in-piazza-affari/
Giorgio de Chirico: http://www.beniculturali.it/mibac/export/MiBAC/sito-MiBAC/Contenuti/MibacUnif/Eventi/visualizza_asset.html_1741131230.html
Alison Lapper statue: http://www.arupassociates.com/en/projects/trafalgar-square-fourth-plinth/
Alison Lapper statue close-up: http://albertis-window.com/2014/01/
Alison Lapper statue Paralympic Games: http://www.goodtoknow.co.uk/wellbeing/galleries/34626/london-2012-paralympic-games/41
David: https://www.pinterest.com/pin/430234570629286662/
David’s hand: http://www.accademia.org/explore-museum/artworks/michelangelos-david/
David’s head: https://www.pinterest.com/almetrami/renaissance-david/
Sir Arthur Harris: http://www.fotolibra.com/gallery/1172664/sir-arthur-harris/
Dresden bombed: http://www.ibtimes.co.uk/dresden-bombing-70th-anniversary-interactive-then-now-photos-show-scale-destruction-1487817
Harris statue defaced: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/debate/article-2166966/PETER-HITCHENS-The-heroes-Bomber-Command-deserve-memorial–unlike-butcher-led-them.html
Banksy’s Steve Jobs: http://edition.cnn.com/2015/12/11/europe/banksy-steve-jobs-graffiti/
Banksy’s Steve Jobs defaced: http://www.zeroviolenza.it/component/k2/item/74240-alto-4-metri-e-lungo-un-chilometro-il-nuovo-muro-antimigranti-è-a-calais

HORSERADISH

Turin, 12 October 2016

I’ve just had a yummy lunch at the airport, which is a bit surprising since airport eateries are not known for quality. It was nothing special; actually, it was very ordinary for this part of the world (this part of the world being Austria). It was two sausages of the frankfurter variety (although longer and thinner than the classic frankfurter), a bread roll, a dollop of mustard, and some grated horseradish. Voilà!

What really made the dish for me was the horseradish. It was the first time I ate horseradish like this, and I found that its slightly sweet tartness calmed the excesses of the mustard.

I have to confess to being a great fan of horseradish, although I joined this particular fan club latish in life: I only discovered the culinary delights of the root once I moved to Austria, when I was already over 40. For those of my readers who (like me) have never seen a horseradish in the flesh (as it were), I throw in a picture.
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It’s rather surprising that I came to horseradish so late, because it’s actually quite popular in the UK. A common way of eating it is to mix it with vinegar and use it as a condiment with meat or fish. This commercial offering looks very fancy.
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Fancy or plain, I never partook; the closest I ever got was lamb with a vinegar-based mint sauce, the glories of which I have extolled in an earlier post. I’m guessing that the British picked up the habit from the Germans: Wikipedia informs us that a certain John Gerrard, in his Herball, or Generall Historie of Plantes of 1597, writes that “the Horse Radish stamped with a little vinegar put thereto, is commonly used among the Germans for sauce to eat fish with and such like meats as we do mustard.” I wonder if, rather than classic mustard, John Gerrard meant Tewksebury mustard (another British condiment which I have never tried). It seems that the British, since at least the Middle Ages, have been fond of this blend of mustard and grated horseradish. No less than Shakespeare mentions it in Henry IV Part II, where he has Falstaff say of Poins: “his wit’s as thick as Tewkesbury Mustard”. Here’s a modern version, sold by the ASDA supermarket chain, so it can’t be too fancy a condiment.
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Just to close the circle, a very similar horseradish-mustard blend, called Krensenf, is popular in Austria. I suppose the cook in my airport eatery was expecting me to make my own blend before slathering it onto the frankfurter; ignorant at that moment of Krensenf, I just blended it in my mouth.

I haven’t mentioned in what dish I first discovered horseradish. It was that great, that glorious, Austrian dish, Tafelspitz. It’s actually a very simple dish: boiled beef, served with boiled root vegetables (carrots, parsnips, celeriac) and re-fried boiled potatoes.
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To my mind, what elevates it above similar dishes, like pot au feu in France or bollito misto in Italy, is the sauce into which you dip your morsels of meat: it must be a blend of thickish apple sauce and grated horseradish. The horseradish wakes up what is otherwise a rather bland apple sauce, and this jazzed-up sauce wakes up the otherwise slightly bland meat, to the delight of one’s taste buds. I see that this mixing of sweet with horseradish seems quite popular. Several parts of Eastern Europe (which seems to be the original home of the horseradish, by the way) mix it with beet roots, as do the Ashkhenazi Jews, who often use it as a condiment for gefillte fish. Another recipe from Franconia in southern Germany blends horseradish with lingonberries.

No discussion of horseradish is complete without a mention of wasabi, that wonderful green paste which, together with ginger, accompanies sushi and sashimi.
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I’m not particularly keen on the ginger, but wasabi is a must for me – whenever my wife eat sushi or sashimi, she gives me her wasabi and I give her my ginger, which she loves; it’s a deal made in heaven. As anyone who has eaten both horseradish and wasabi will know, there is a definite relationship; the tastes are too similar for it to be coincidental. In fact, the two plants are close botanical cousins; the picture above shows the greenish root which is the source of wasabi. But here I have to reveal a mournful truth. In this era of globalized cuisine, where sushi bars seem to be sprouting up everywhere, when we eat wasabi we are nearly always eating horseradish paste mixed with green colourant. The wasabi plant is difficult to grow, so production cannot keep up with demand, hence the substitution. Sad in a way. An Italian friend of mine was recently telling me of a similar case, for a foodstuff I am particularly fond of, bresaola, which has also become a global food-star. In principle, bresaola should be made from cattle reared in the Valtellina, in the Italian Alps. But cattle production in this really quite small Alpine valley cannot possibly keep up with demand, so cattle is shipped in from Brazil to be processed in the Valtellina and stamped “bresaola”.

My wife and I are going to Japan in November. Let’s see if we can find a place which serves real wasabi.

_______________

Horseradish: http://www.herbalextractsplus.com/horseradish-root.html
Horseradish and vinegar: http://www.handmade-treats.co.uk/shop/horseradish-vinegar/
Tewksebury mustard: https://groceries.asda.com/product/mustard/asda-extra-special-tewkesbury-mustard/80755029
Tafelspitz: http://www.lecker.de/tafelspitz-19222.html
Wasabi: http://www.seriouseats.com/2014/03/pantry-essentials-all-about-wasabi.html

LET’S NOT LEAVE THE EU

Bangkok, 18 June 2016

As my country of citizenship moves inexorably towards a historic referendum on whether or not to leave the EU, with there being a damned good chance that a majority will vote yes, my thoughts turn towards what it means to be British. And of course, the first thing that comes to my mind is … cricket (although you can’t really say it’s a British game; it’s the English who developed it while the Scots, for one, hardly play the game at all).

I started playing cricket, at school, in the summer of 1963, and played my last game, at school, in the summer of 1972. I stopped playing with no regret (and anyway went to University in Scotland, where, as I have just mentioned, hardly anyone plays cricket). Truth to tell, I was never very good at the game. I never could get over my nervousness of having someone throw a hard – very hard – ball straight at me, and pretty damned fast at that. In the years I played, batters protected their shins with pads and their testicles with a cup. The rest was naked, unprotected, at the mercy of nasty, vicious hits from the ball. That being said, when I was far out of the line of fire, standing in the far reaches of the field waiting idly for the odd ball to come my way, I could not help but admire the simple beauty of it all: lovely green grass sweeping off into the distance, framed by a venerable tree or two, the field dotted with people kitted out in impeccably white attire, and with luck a beautiful summer sky crowning the whole.
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It’s even better if there is a quaint old pub in the background to which one can retire for a refreshing draught of the local ale.
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And when batsmen were good, it really was a pleasure to the eye to watch them taking clean, easy swings, knocking the ball this way and that, twisting their body elegantly as they followed through their shots.

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Yes, elegant is the word for the best of cricket.

I still remember with great pleasure a match we played when I was 12-13 years old, against the local village. It was an annual affair, where we fielded a side of mixed Masters and boys. For some reason, I was included – someone must have been sick. In any event, I have this memory of politely playing against the local farmers on the village green, a beautiful oval surrounded by great beeches. I batted way down the list and was out pretty quick. Then I watched from the edge of the playing field as we got convincingly trounced. No matter, we were English, and the winners and the losers mingled in good cheer at the end:
“For when the One Great Scorer comes
To mark against your name,
He writes – not that you won or lost –
But HOW you played the Game.”

As the summer sun slowly set and the shadows grew longer across that village green, we ate home-made cakes and quaffed the local cider – we boys quaffing with special permission from the Headmaster.

Well, as much as I have changed, so has cricket. The commercial diktats of TV required that the achingly long Test matches be shortened to much shorter one day-and-night matches. The result is far more exciting to the uninitiated, as slugging has become the norm for batters rather than the patient, incremental build-up of runs of yesteryear; anyone can appreciate slugging. Taking a leaf out of football, all that uniform white in the kits has given way to a rainbow of colours as each national side now goes out in its own distinct colour. I suppose like that it’s easy to tell who is batting and who fielding. To get the evening viewers, matches go on into the night under the glare of lights. No doubt players get paid much more. And cheating during play, so as to make money on the betting, has begun. I’ve not heard of doping scandals in cricket, but if it isn’t happening yet I’m sure it eventually will.
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Sometimes, when I look at a modern match of cricket, I wish we could go back to the old ways. Cricket seemed so much nicer back then.

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Of course, my memory has quietly deleted those much less pleasant memories of cricket, on a nasty windy day, for instance, or under the rain; it really was not as wonderful as I’d sometimes like to think it was.

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And anyway we can’t go back. The world has changed, and so must cricket.

I’m sure much the same nostalgia drives many of my countrymen and women who want to vote to leave the EU. They want to go back to the past, to a time when Britain was great, was self-reliant … and was white. But paraphrasing Karl Marx, history repeats itself, the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce. Britain’s past history was not necessarily a tragedy, but it wasn’t as glorious as some people might think. My family did well out of Britain’s industrial revolution and later imperial ambitions, but there are many, many, many British families who suffered enormously from the industrial revolution

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and there are a multitude of families in the countries we colonized who suffered enormously from our imperial ambitions.

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As for Britain’s future, trying to go back to its, largely mythical, past will simply condemn the country to be a poor, foggy little island on the outer edges of Europe, which itself is turning into the frazzled outer edge of a renascent Eurasian continent. Britain’s future history will not necessarily turn into a farce, but it will be trivial. With no manufacturing sector to speak of, sacrificed decades ago to the financial services sector, and with no financial services sector to speak of, since an exit from the EU will all make them emigrate to Frankfurt, Britain, like Italy, will have to rely more and more on tourism to make ends meet. It will become one vast Disneyworld
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welcoming hordes of foreign tourists to its shores, to watch – for five minutes – its quaint games of cricket, visit a quaint pub, watch the Queen or King inspect all those nice toy soldiers with their lovely scarlet tunics and tall, funny hats

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visit its majestic museums (while muttering to themselves about how much stuff was stolen from them)

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and send their children to spend a year in one of its quaint universities getting a costly but ultimately meaningless Master’s degrees.

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Let’s not make this our future.

POSTSCIPT 24 June 2016

Well, my (very modest) call to remain fell on deaf ears. By midday today (Bangkok time), it was clear that a majority of my country men and women had decided to leave the EU. A pity.

________________
Cricket on local field: http://blog.acis.com/2013/08/
Cricket in front of the local pub: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/earth/countryside/8695840/The-village-green-is-crickets-soul.html

hitting a six: http://www.gettyimages.com/event/first-test-india-v-south-africa-day-3-51766051#robin-peterson-of-south-africa-hits-a-six-off-harbharjan-news-photo-id51774798

One day international at night: http://colorlibrary.blogspot.com/2012/07/stadium-which-hosted-most-number-of-one.html
Old painting of cricket: http://www.antiquemapsandprints.com/chelmsford-1934-old-vintage-print-nice-view-cricket-match-essex-l-b-bruhl-185061-p.asp

Cricket under the rain: http://www.alamy.com/stock-photo-a-set-of-stumps-at-an-abandoned-village-cricket-match-due-to-the-rain-9630656.html
Social consequences of industrial revolution: http://economistsview.typepad.com/economistsview/2007/08/social-conseque.html
Aborigines in chains: http://nationalunitygovernment.org/content/prisoners-frontier-wars-blackbirding-chain-gangs
British Disneyland: http://www.dailymail.co.uk

Trooping of the colours: http://www.zimbio.com/pictures/GChQyMYbIXr/Trooping+The+Colour

British Museum: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/British_Museum

Cambridge University students: http://www.theguardian.com/education/2016/feb/02/cambridge-university-to-introduce-written-admissions-tests

WATER

Bangkok, 7 May 2016

It’s hot here in Bangkok at the moment, very hot.

And it’s humid, very humid.

We drag ourselves through the day, stumbling from one air-conditioned space to another.

We scout the horizon for clouds. Will the cooling rains ever come?

We sweat, we’re thirsty. We go to the fridge to get that bottle of cold, cold water. We pour ourselves a glass. A film of water immediately forms on it.
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We drink. Aaaah, sooooo good …

In her garden, my French grandmother had a water pump which looked like this.
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When we were children, half a century ago, my cousins and I would amuse ourselves by pumping the handle vigorously till the water poured out. Watching us one day, my mother told us that when she had been a child our age, so some time in the late 1920s, early 1930s, before refrigerators were common, on hot summer days she was sent out by various uncles and aunts who were visiting to get a glass of water from that pump. But she was not to take the first water to gush out, no, she was to pump and pump until the water was “bien frappé”, well chilled, enough to form a film on the glass …

That pump stopped pumping 30 years ago. As ever more water was sucked from the aquifer the level dropped, until one day it dropped so far that the pump ran dry. It never pumped a drop of water again.

At my old primary school in Somerset, whose halls I graced half a century ago, there was a bubbling little stream that ran along the edge of the playing fields. We played for hours on it, floating sticks and leaves, building dams, and generally mucking about. It looked like this, minus the horses.
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30 years ago, when I visited one summer, it was gone, dried up. The aquifer had dropped too far.

A larger stream ran along the valley floor not too far from my French grandmother’s house. It was a quick bike ride away, and my cousins and I would often go there to catch freshwater crayfish in its clean, clear waters and bathe in a deep, blue pool that had formed in the middle reaches. 20 years later, when I visited, it was turgid and scummy, with froth floating on it.

Bangkok is a water city. It sits on a river and is laced with canals. It should be lovely to travel on its waterways. Instead, it’s like cruising along stinking, fetid sewers. We take a water bus from time to time, when the traffic is really bad, from the Golden Mount Temple to the modern downtown.
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Instead of enjoying the passing scenery, I live in dread of spray from the canal landing on my face; God knows what viruses and bacteria populate the water. I always scrub my face vigorously when I get off. As for the river, from our apartment terrace we look down on the rubbish of the city which floats by every day.
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Recently, we visited Halong Bay, in Viet Nam, a World Heritage Site. We gazed on the unutterable beauty of the surroundings. But we also gazed at the rubbish floating around us and at the locals’ pathetic attempts to get rid of it.
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Are we mad? We guzzle water like there was no tomorrow and treat it like a rubbish dump. Yet we need water, it’s vital to our lives. How can we treat so badly something we absolutely cannot do without?

________________
Glass of water: http://www.healthydietbase.com/does-drinking-ice-cold-water-help-you-lose-weight/
Old water pump: http://fr.123rf.com/photo_20440985_fonte-ancienne-pompe-a-eau-de-fer-humide-dans-le-jardin.html
Small stream: http://www.gettyimages.com/image/photo-2-tarpan-horses-crossing-a-small-brook/508354517

Bangkok canal: http://aspiringwriter.ca/tag=bangkok

Rubbish in Chao Praya River: https://bangkok2birmingham.org/2013/05/30/deteriorated-water-so-what/

collecting rubbish in Halong bay: https://www.pinterest.com/pin/

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

INDIGO

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

Hôtel_d'Assézat,_toulouse_(panorama)

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.

Indigofera_tinctoria

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.

BASF_Werk_Ludwigshafen_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

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Woad plant: http://woad.weebly.com/uploads/1/5/7/6/1576/1436768_orig.jpg (in http://woad.weebly.com/grow.html)

Mel Gibson: http://media-cdn.timesfreepress.com/img/news/tease/2012/11/02/braveheart-3_t1070_h10b97cb70851af7b29a07a4e9321ac5de746798e.jpg (in http://www.timesfreepress.com/news/sports/columns/story/2012/nov/02/5-10-friday-mailbag-dooley-dynasties-defenses-and-/91886/)

Medieval tapestry: http://www.needlenthread.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/09/wool-tapestry-01.jpg (in http://www.needlenthread.com/2011/09/pins-and-woad-dyeing-of-textiles.html)

Hôtel particulier, Toulouse: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/4/43/H%C3%B4tel_d’Ass%C3%A9zat,_toulouse_%28panorama%29.jpg

Erfurt University: http://www.suehnekreuz.de/PHP/ewiki/sk_wiki.php?binary=internal%3A%2F%2F84cd21ee849566f965b0eeaaf15626e8.jpeg (in http://www.suehnekreuz.de/PHP/ewiki/sk_wiki.php?id=Erfurt)

Indigofera tinctoria: http://s3.amazonaws.com/sagebudphotos/INTI/Indigofera_tinctoria2_600.jpg (in http://sagebud.com/true-indigo-indigofera-tinctoria/)

Packet of natural indigo dye: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Indigo_dye

Indigo processing Carolinas: https://www.unf.edu/floridahistoryonline/Plantations/images/IndigoProcessingSCMap-lg.jpg (in https://www.unf.edu/floridahistoryonline/Plantations/plantations/Indigo_Cultivation_and_Processing.htm)

Indigo processing Bengal: http://www.columbia.edu/itc/mealac/pritchett/00glossarydata/terms/indigo/iln1869.jpg (in http://eastindiacompany1600-1857.blogspot.com/2015_01_01_archive.html)

Town gas manufacturing: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/a/a0/Drawing_the_retorts_at_the_Great_Gas_Establishment_Brick_Lane.png (in https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_manufactured_gas)

Coal tar: http://www.permastripe.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/05/coal-tar-16.jpg (in http://www.permastripe.com/coal-tar-parking-lot-sealer-is-it-toxic/)

Mauveine: https://lilyabsinthe.files.wordpress.com/2015/05/6233293ca7d59e6c175f596742cba93b.jpg (in http://lilyabsinthe.com/2015/05/14/mauveine/)

Old BASF plant: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/7/7c/BASF_Werk_Ludwigshafen_1866.JPG (in https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/BASF)

Master of the Blue Jeans painting: http://images.artnet.com/images_us/magazine/reviews/karlins/karlins1-26-11-2.jpg (in http://www.artnet.com/magazineus/reviews/karlins/master-of-blue-jeans1-25-11.asp)

Blue spectrum: http://pl.wallpapersma.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/05/Blue-Spectrum-728×455.jpg (in http://pl.wallpapersma.com/wallpaper/blue-spectrum.html)

KEEP IT SIMPLE

Bangkok, 19 December 2015

I don’t know what it was, it seems to be happening to me more and more often as I near retirement, but a few days ago my mind wandered off the Worthy but Very Boring Thing I was working on and, light as feather, drifted away on the winds of memory to finally alight in St. George’s Chapel in Windsor Castle, which is the spiritual home of the Order of the Garter.

Yes, I know, very strange. What can I say, that’s where my mind went that day.

My wife and I had visited the chapel some nine-ten years ago. For those of my readers who have never been there, I throw in a photo that gives a generalized view of the chapel’s interior.
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I could chirrup on about the age of the chapel, its architecture, its history. But I won’t. I invite readers who are interested in these details to go to the relevant websites. Instead, I will focus on the one thing that immediately strikes any sentient being who crosses the chapel’s threshold: the flags hanging from its walls.
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I need to explain these flags, which in turn requires me to give a brief background to the Order of the Garter. As any English child of my generation will know, if they didn’t spend all their history classes snoozing, the Order of the Garter was created by King Edward III one evening back in the early 1300s, during a dance, when the Countess of Salisbury lost her garter. As the King picked it up, someone sniggered, and the King pronounced (in French; the English kings didn’t speak English yet) “Honi soit qui mal y pense”, which can be loosely translated as “Only dirty buggers would see anything wrong in my simply picking up a garter”. Now, why this story should have led to the creation of an Order of Chivalry (basically, a club of aristocrats), with the reigning monarchs at its head and the original kingly utterance as its motto, was not clear to me when I was a ten year old boy and is still not clear to me as a sixty-one year old adult. But there you go, it did.

The important point as far as the flags are concerned is that the members of the Order were originally all aristocrats, and as we all know one of the many things which distinguished aristocrats from the vulgar hoi polloi like us was the fact that they had the right to a coat of arms. So what we have hanging from the walls are the heraldic banners of the members of the order (which of course means that when the Order began to let in representatives of the vulgar hoi polloi these vulgar persons had to get themselves double quick a title and a coat of arms).

For the purpose of my story, there is another important point to make about the Order’s membership. From the start, there could only be 24 members in addition to the sovereign and the Prince of Wales, and of course the members were only English (and later British). But George III started adding “supernumerary” members, to deal with the pressing problem of him having a whole bunch of sons who all wanted to be members. Then he had the bright idea of adding the Emperor of Russia as a supernumerary member, after which various other members of European royal families got added, then more exotic royalty like the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire and the King of Persia, to finish – importantly for this story – this march to the East with the Emperor of Japan in 1903. The Emperors of Japan have been members ever since (barring, understandably, the World War II years and several decades thereafter when spirits were still bruised by Japanese atrocities).

OK, so what, I hear my readers say. Well, all this allows me to vault onto one of my favourite hobby horses, my insistence that design should be simple. In this case, I am referring to the design of the members’ heraldic banners. To see what I mean, please see below the coat of arms of one of the British members, that of Gerald Grosvenor, 6th Duke of Westminster (I choose him for no other reason than he is stinking rich due to his property holdings around Grosvenor Square in London and elsewhere).
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So complicated! So fussy! So busy! The formal heraldic description of the shield, which is what is on the banner, says it all:
“Quarterly, 1st and 4th, Azure a Portcullis with chains pendant Or on a Chief of the last between two united Roses of York and Lancaster a Pale charged with the Arms of King Edward the Confessor; 2nd and 3rd, Azure a Garb Or”.

Aïe! Contorted! Confusing! And this is not the most complicated of the Order’s members’ banners. I mean, look at the one of the good Prince of Wales
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with its heraldic description of the shield “Quarterly 1st and 4th Gules three lions passant guardant in pale Or armed and langed Azure 2nd Or a lion rampant Gules armed and langued Azure within a double tressure flory counterflory 3rd Azure a harp Or stringed Argent overall an inescutcheon of the Royal Badge of Wales”. It hurts my eyes just to read this.

Consider, now, the banner of the Emperor of Japan, which responds to the same original need – signaling who you are on the battlefield – but adopts a completely different design principle:
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So simple! And simply so beautiful!

The beautiful, essential simplicity of the Japanese banner immediately leapt out at me that summer morning years ago when we visited the chapel. The second photo I’ve inserted shows this, where the Emperor’s banner shines out among all the surrounding fussiness. And I have kept that memory with me ever since, as a vivid reminder of the KISS design principle: Keep It Simple, Stupid (a principle originally enunciated, interestingly enough, by the US Navy in 1960).

It must have been some fussy design which set my mind wandering those few days ago …

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St. George’s Chapel interior: https://boothancestry.wordpress.com/booth-profiles/knights-of-the-garter/
The flags:
https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/St_George%27s_Chapel,_Windsor_Castle
Duke of Westminster’s coat of arms: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Order_of_the_Garter#List_of_Founder_Knights
Prince of Wales’s coat of arms: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Order_of_the_Garter#List_of_Founder_Knights
Emperor of Japan’s standard: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Akihito