Wednesday, 21 June 2017

李紳 - 憫農: Li Shen - Pity Farmers

A lot of effort goes in to growing the food that we eat. That may be obvious, but it can also be comforting to see continuity between what's obvious now and realities enshrined in poetry over 1,000 years ago. 

illustration depicting Li Shen's poem taken from

The following poem is one of the canonised classics of Chinese poetry that appear in the collection Three Hundred Tang Poems. The collection was first brought together in 1763.Despite what the title might lead readers to believe, this cornerstone anthology comprises 326 poems that were written during the Tang Dynasty (618 - 907). 
chú hé rì dāng wǔ,
weed grain during noon
hàn dī hé xià tǔ.
sweat drops grain down earth.
shuí zhī pán zhōngcān,
who would have thought one lunch,
lì lì jiē xīnkǔ.
each grain hard work.

This poem was written by Li Shen (), who was an official of the Tang dynasty who served as chancellor for a time. During his lifetime Li Shen became renowned for his poems depicting rural life.

I like the following translation from Peter Wang, since it maintains the concise nature of the original .

Farmers weeding at noon,
Sweat down the field soon.
Who knows food on a tray
Thanks to their toiling day?

However, below is an alternative, from Andrew W.F. Wong. It elaborates well on the sense behind the text.

He heaves his hoe in the rice-field, under the noonday sun,
Onto the soil of the rice-field, his streaming sweat beads run.
Ah, do you or don’t you know it?  That bowl of rice we eat:
Each grain, each ev’ry granule, the fruit of his labour done.

illustration taken from Flickr user vacquey
taken from
credit: 易界神刀

Tuesday, 13 June 2017

Bill arrives in the heavenly Grotto

The birdsong there is perfectly played heavenly music. And even the breeze blows in time. You can close your eyes and enjoy the meeting of your face and the warmth of gentle sunbeams. Meanwhile a sense of utter peace is settled over every twig and branch. Rising green is all around. 

One only appears within this world by becoming lost. And by leaving you’ll lose the way back. Yet, though a mythos akin to holiness pervades the very air inside this vast abundant grotto, and a complete harmony is immediately self-evident to all newcomers, quite a different reaction is seen when Bill Ronpatt washes up on those shores, coughing and spluttering as he struggles to rid his lips of the pure spring water that’s found its way in.

Bill stands to survey his new home. His legs ache and his head hurts. He can’t see nowhere to sit down. Only old tree stumps and greasy rocks surround him. He feels thirsty, but can’t think where to get a drink, especially not with the constant sound of that freshwater brook running. He’s so hungry he could eat a horse. The fact that ripe peaches and picture-perfect cherries are hanging all around just adds insult to injury. Confused and unsure what to do, with his irritation piqued further by the blooming sun shining in his eyes, Bill snaps and loses it entirely. Why won’t these birds stop their incessant chatter?  

“Will you be quiet, you stupid bloody birds? Shut up! Shut up! Shut up!”, he shouts. The birds are silenced, but only momentarily. They go on singing. Meanwhile, entirely unaffected by this bellowing ingrate, the trickling of the spring water over rocks in the stream, and the brushing of the breeze past the trees, merely carry on regardless.  

Plum Branch and Bamboo by Chen Ji-ru

Wednesday, 31 May 2017

Les Mêles du Spànne

It’s filled up. There was this total silence around. Except it’s like the breathing in and out sounds of the ground within this glasshouse. That doesn’t count. It’s not planes overhead or cars firing past. There’s both flight path and road nearby but somehow those sounds are a million miles removed. Nothing’s truer than the air that sits inside your ear. Then a breeze passes through. There’s a rustling of wires. A flutter of wings happens and you see a dart of darkness. 

We start to get lightheaded. Skipping lunch is a bad idea at the best of times. Turns out that working under glass, and working with the sun shining right through your eyes all morning long making the top of your head as hot as a bowl of steaming soup, well, it turns out that working all morning under glass and skipping lunch that, that is a very bad idea.

Lightheaded, we forget to listen properly and our hair is stood on end. We sit like a boy in school assembly. We can feel like we might dribble though we should be paying attention.
The birdsong all around is a chorus of love. And it fills up. We nap on the desk and in our mind’s eye the glasshouse is filling with blackbirds and even a border of crows. The sweet peas rise up to feed them. The chilli plants create somehow a soft bed for their spice-resistant wings. Then on aromatic winds they hover. 

It’s filled up with birds and their music. Somehow this is perfect, as we get the sleep we need. All the while we hum the tune Les Mêles du Spànne.

Monday, 27 February 2017

Sicilian Food We Tried

These were delicious. They're made from a mixture of mashed potato and egg that's been covered in breadcrumbs and fried. Very creamy on the inside, though a little crunchy on the outside. Basically croquettes.

pani ca' meusa (spleen sandwich)
I only tried this once.  Perhaps I need another run at it, to get used to the idea. Jo slyly used her vegetarianism as an excuse not to have any. When I ordered it (by mistake - I thought I was ordering something less abdominal), I think the man who served me laughed. This may have been paranoia, but no-one else there seemed to be eating spleen sandwich.

The offal was cooking in a big, brass-looking pan that was very wide but quite shallow. From this it was ladled into a bun and topped with grated cheese. I feel a bit embarrassed to only have eaten about half of my organ bap, but the bits of gristle I kept hitting halted my progress too much and kept bringing my mind back to the gutsy nature of the meal. Also, it was just a bit bland.

The restaurant in Palermo where I had my spleen sandwich is worth a visit. The owners pride themselves in not cooperating with the mafia. They're part of the Addiopizzo movement, in which businesses refuse the pay 'pizzo' [protection money].

The site of my first ever spleen sandwich. It's on Via Alessandro Paternostro, which is also home to independent boutiques, artists studios and some good graffiti.
These are chick pea fritters that are tastier than that sounds. These are everywhere among the street food snacks that tourist guides implore visitors to try. The best version we tried was at the Palermo restaurant Ferro di Cavallo, which did very good, apparently authentic Sicilian food at reasonable prices.

arancini (little orange)
These are not little oranges, but you'll not mistake them for that: it's just what they're named after. They're balls of rice, often with a delicious filling, that are deep fried and sold everywhere as a street snack. Deservedly popular, they seem to be held in high esteem in Sicilian cuisine.

A sweet pastry whose name means 'little tube', these fried delights are generally filled with ricotta cheese. These, too, are absolutely ubiquitous and seemingly tied-up in Sicilian identity in a way that goes beyond their actual tastiness.

Friday, 17 February 2017

17th February 2018

­17th February 2018now that Trump’s presidency is over, just 13 months after it started, I can look back on the breakdown I had that coincided with his failed term in office

In the wake of the rise and fall of Donald trump, I could speak nothing but word salad. Forgive me for this slight misnomer. I just haven’t found a better tag to hang on what happened. Trying to process what happened has brought me to writing this now; I need to reach for any descriptions that get close to the feelings I felt.

Here goes: I failed to connect with the basic meaning of words. As far as my writing goes, it probably seems that I still do. Bad jokes were a feature of that rambling street-roving/bed-ridden time, too. To anyone watching at the time, it must have looked like I was wilfully ignoring grammar rules. Words spilled out like from broken milk bottles. As they ran off the worktops and pooled on the floor, there was no way to put them back in order. 

I’m sure I appeared to be enjoying the sound of my voice just as much as always. All the while, on the inside, I was captivated by the sound of my own furiously beating heart. Something like shock took hold of me. My nerves were smashed. Electrical fires went off at the heart of each frayed axon. Or so I thought. Whatever, it wasn’t the unequivocally tough response my team-mates desired.

In fact, this is all wrong. I shouldn’t use the phrase word salad. It’s unfair of me to over-egg the pudding when trying to describe my breakdown. Unfair to myself, too, since overstating things is what got me into such a broken-down position in the first place. It’s a longstanding habit. 

I can just imagine myself in a final interview for a job in which embellishment and double-speak would be key strengths. The interview is going well. “I’ve always told fibs”, I say. “When I was at primary school, despite what was then a burgeoning pathological fear of nuns, I had the whole convent strung along on my own version of the Rocky narrative. I was amazed that they didn’t know the story. Even more amazed that they believed that I was a 9 year-old boxing champion”. This is true. “At university, I seduced two of my tutors using a mixture of bullshit and sycophancy”. This is also true.

At times I would stay in bed for almost the entire day, only getting up to relieve myself in the toilet. I never quite got to the point of wetting myself. Like I say, I shouldn’t over-egg it. Still, at these points it felt like feelings of any kind were at an incredible distance. Like water glimpsed across a vast desert landscape. Who knew what was real? Since I was the only one in a position to know what was going on, or report what I saw, no one could get a clear idea. There were moments when I thought about language and it seemed that words had in many cases been replaced by symbols. Mashed encodings of indecipherable characters rose up when I tried to put a sentence through my head.  I might have been dying of thirst but I was adrift without a compass. I wandered, aimless and freezing, while the only drink for miles around was a frozen glass of milk lost somewhere in that snow storm.

Like I said before, this was not the display of strong backbone that my colleagues had hoped to see.

It began around the time that Trump was elected, though at the time I thought my up-and-down moods were just cycling along like normal. By the time he was openly attacking the most well-established media outlets, calling everyone a liar and disseminating not only hatred, which we’d become accustomed to during his election campaign, but also so many lies that no-one could see what was fact and what was fiction any longer, well, by that point I was acting like an angry fool. I’d lost all perspective. 

I think the first true signs of the break came when I had an unexpected fit of screaming. My sister was the unfortunate victim and I still feel bad about the way I spoke to her. She made some off-hand comment about how Trump wasn’t that bad; he wasn’t the monster that people were making him out to be. I spent about twenty minutes arguing with her, though really I was arguing with my own ideas of what I thought she was saying. 

At the time, when she was saying “Stop shouting at me, please”, I took it as more provocation. Here she was shouting at me, telling me not to shout. Replaying it in my mind now; however, I can see (or hear) that she wasn’t really shouting at all. I was just taking everything as provocation. Everything I did was rushed and at high volume. 

I was sprinting round on my bike telling everyone to f-off. I would flick the vees at any little old lady, no matter how carefully she was driving down the lane. This was how caught up I was in my own fury. I can’t even remember what I was mad about, but it all happened around the time that Trump was ramping up his hate-mongering. He wasn’t to blame. Don’t get me wrong. He was just an idiot with the tallest soapbox in the world. The factor at fault was the non-stop hate-ticker-tape running in my head. I’ve apologised to my sister and I think, I hope, she understands. Love and forgiveness is all you need, I hope.
Anyway, not to excuse that break with good behaviour, but I couldn’t bring myself to look at the world the right way up. Everything that everyone said seemed to be a lie.

I, the tiny liar who had convinced his schoolmates that he’d been to Hong Kong in the holidays and made up whole narratives about taxi drivers who drank from vodka bottles while tearing through the Kowloon traffic, and giant marbles that needed diggers to be rolled round in downtown games, I was in a rage over lies. Nothing seemed right. 

Yet the required response was, on my part, not forthcoming. The etiquette was, as always, far from me. Trump could lie. He could convince other people that his lies were true. I could feel some indignation, like a portly priest from a Thomas Hardy book, all ruddy-cheeked and parsimonious at the appearance of the travellers’ encampment on the edge of the village green, or like a Jane-Austen-laced bonnet-sporting mademoiselle with a precious Brontë cough, who, with no idea about how the world works goes into some lengthy, high-pitched jeremiad aimed at all the penny-pinching heart-string tailors of this world, but this indignation wasn’t going to get us anywhere. Especially not once it took over. Bouncing around like a perpetually hungry one-legged pigeon: this wasn’t the solution. I should have taken my opinions to a quiet courtyard and dashed their little heads on the flagstones. Ignore me: I’m not even sure what defines a flagstone as opposed to any other stone.

The point is this: in the time that Trump made his rise to power and fell so dramatically therefrom that, we hope, we pray, he’ll never return (a final, more moral bankruptcy from which there’s no redemption), I fell apart. I wasn’t there to help anyone. What would have happened if it really was the end of the world? Instead of being the hero at the heart of some Walking Dead scenario - instead of being the avenger who survives the apocalypse and brings communities back together – I’d be huddled under a blanket crying my furious eyes out. I can’t even say “thanks Obama”.

Let’s hope 2018 brings some better luck. Trump’s made a spectacular fool of himself by falling foul of the law on the grandest stage. Meanwhile, almost incidentally, I’ve learned something. I certainly feel more ready to tackle what comes my way, or accept it. I’ve learned from the heartache I gave myself. I think that’s the only way forward: feel the pain and move on with a better understanding of what to do next time.