Wednesday, 1 September 2010

Butterfly Flow

If you are in Taipei during the next three weeks I can highly recommend this exhibition. Tim Budden makes genre-busting art by cutting sheets of coloured silk into complex and multidimensional images. I reckon he's not only influenced by his sensory experiences here in Taiwan, but also by his previous experience as an 'art cartoonist' (in turn influenced by British printmaking) and of the British landscape.

Saturday, 28 August 2010

Wednesday, 24 February 2010

They are short, but are they stories?

For sale. Baby shoes. Never worn.

Hemingway won a bet with that piece of writing. A bet that he could write a story in under ten words. We can argue about whether it is actually a story; though, at a stretch, we could say it does have a beginning, a middle and an end. And the first time I read it it certainly made me think, and feel.

I've been mucking about a bit with the idea of very short pictures or stories. Some of the outcomes are below. If Hemingway hated them, I might add more adjectives and adverbs.

A young couple, vaguely Germanic, and wearing very tall conical hats made of some kind of rough, undyed natural fibre, stood underneath a piano in silence.

The bird who pecks a hole in the top of my milk bottle and drinks the cream has returned to my doorstep this morning. It is the coldest day of the year. Inexplicably, things speed up. As the bird prepares itself, raising its bill, the milk freezes, emerging from the bottle like a time-lapse fungus. The bird receives a deserved but mild head blow. In some countries, naturally, this could not happen.

My son's birthday is coming. While I was selecting a suitable gift for him, the man in the toyshop told me that a medium-sized dog consumes more energy than a small car.
"You don't need to convince me," I said.
He replied, "I just mean that a soft toy is a good choice, environmentally, I mean."
Perhaps I'm over-sensitive. In any case, I'd had enough.
"I don't come into a toyshop to be talked to like this," I growled.
As I turned to leave, he said, "I see."

One still damp night, as timber merchant Warren was returning on foot to his home, he suddenly saw, from a distance of no more than ten metres, hunched under the glow of the third street lamp, a fox. The fox did not slip away. On the contrary, it gazed coolly back. To Warren, this encounter seemed remarkable.
"Incredible", he muttered to himself.
"What's incredible?" said the fox.

A man walks into a pub with a monkey. He chats to the barman.

Seven under-life-size snowmen are standing in almost organised ranks on the steps of the war memorial in a typical small town. The snowmen all wear sunglasses (the type with black frames). It is far, far colder than normal, even for the time of year. Nevertheless, the snowmen will melt before spring I have no doubt. My question is this: what will become of their sunglasses after they are gone?

Saturday, 13 February 2010

Catching Up

Shameful! No posts since last autumn! I have no excuse, I just lost the urge...

Just a couple of bits of news this time. The important one is that the village built for some of those who lost homes in typhoon Morakot has just been completed, and people have moved in ready for new year. The whole place was built on voluntary donations and voluntary work, and it's hard to add anything meaningful to that fact. If you're interested to know more, there is info here

One of the things on my PhD 'to do' list, is to get my french up to some kind of useful level. I am lucky enough to have a colleague who was willing to do a language exchange with me for a couple of weeks at the beginning of this New Year break from teaching. The outcome for me was a realisation that my French really isn't anywhere near good enough, and I still have a great deal to learn. Happily, there is also a 'product' outcome - a translation of a story by Maupassant. For both I am truly grateful to Robert, and I mean that without a trace of irony. Really!

For me it's a little story with quite a big impact regardless of whether the narrator is reliable. I'm posting my translation here just for fun...


I was going to see my friend Simon Radevin, whom I hadn’t seen for fifteen years.

In the past he was my best friend, the friend of my thoughts, the kind with whom one spends long, peaceful and happy evenings, the one to whom one tells the secrets of the heart, through whom one discovers, in gently chatting, uncommon ideas, ingenious, delicate, born from the same sympathy which inspires the spirit and puts one at ease.

Back then, for many years we had scarcely been apart from each other. We had lived, travelled, thought, dreamed together, loved the same things with the same love, admired the same books, understood the same works, trembled with the same sensations, and often laughed at the same things which we understood completely with nothing but an exchange of glances.

Then he got married. Out of the blue he had wed a provincial girl who had come to Paris looking for a fiancé. How had this skinny little blonde, with clumsy hands, with clear empty eyes and a childish voice, just like a hundred thousand other dolls for marriage, how had she snapped up this intelligent and fine young man? Can one understand all of this? He had without doubt hoped for happiness, a simple, gentle and lasting happiness in the arms of a good woman, tender and faithful; and he had glimpsed all of that in the limpid glance of this gamine with pale hair.

He had never dreamed that an active man, alive and vibrant, is tired of everything as soon as he has grasped stupid reality, is even made such an idiot that he no longer understands anything.

How would I find him? Always lively, full of spirit, cheerful and enthusiastic, or put to sleep by provincial life? A man can change in fifteen years!

The train pulled up in a little station. As I was getting out of the carriage, a large, very large man, with red cheeks and a fat belly, rushed toward me with open arms crying “Georges.” I hugged him, but I didn’t recognize him. Then I murmered, astounded, “Good Lord! You haven’t lost weight.” He replied with a laugh, “What do you expect? The good life! Good food! Good sleep! Eating and sleeping, that’s my life!”

I gazed at him, searching for the features I love in this large figure. Only the eyes hadn’t changed; but I didn’t find that look of old, and said to myself ,“If it’s true that the glance is the reflection of the thought, the thoughts of this head are no longer those of the past, those which I knew so well.”

The eyes were still shining, full of joy and friendship, but they no longer had that intelligent clarity which expresses, as well as speech does, the value of a spirit.

Suddenly, Simon said to me, “Here, these are my two oldest.” A girl of fourteen, almost a woman, and a boy of thirteen in school uniform, came forward, timid and awkward.

I murmured, “Are they yours?” He replied with a smile, “Oh yes.” “So how many do you have?” “Five! There are three more at home!”

He had replied proudly, contentedly, almost triumphantly; and I sensed myself taken by a profound pity, mixed with vague contempt, for this proud and naïve breeder who spent his nights making babies between naps, in his provincial house, like a rabbit in a cage.

I got into a carriage, which he was driving himself, and with that we set off through the town, sad town, drowsy and dull, where nothing disturbed the streets save a few dogs and two or three housemaids. Now and then, a shopkeeper in his doorway doffed his hat; Simon waved back and named each of them to prove to me beyond doubt that he knew every inhabitant by name. The thought came to me that he had it in mind to become a town deputy, the dream of all those buried in the provinces.

We soon crossed the town centre, and the carriage entered a garden which had ambitions to be a park before stopping in front of a house with towers trying to pass for a mansion. “Here’s my dump” said Simon, looking for a compliment. “It’s delightful,” I replied.

A woman appeared on the entrance steps, dressed up for the visit, hair done for the visit, with sentences prepared for the visit. She was no longer the vapid blonde girl I had seen in the church fifteen years earlier, but a large woman with frills and curls, one of those ageless women, without character, without elegance, without spirit, without anything which makes a woman. In brief she was a mother, a big banal mother, a brood mare, a machine of flesh which procreates without any concern in its soul save her children and her recipe book.

She wished me welcome and I went into the hallway, where three children were lined up in order of height for review like firemen in front of the mayor. I said, “Ahah! Are these the others?” Simon, beaming, named them, “Jean, Sophie and Gontran.”

The salon door was open. I entered and perceived, deep in an armchair, something which trembled, a man, an old paralysed man. Madame Radevin came forward. “This is my grandfather, sir. He’s 87 years old.” Then she shouted into the ear of the old shudderer, “It’s a friend of Simon’s, Papa.” The ancestor, making an effort to say hello, wailed, “Waah, waah, waah,” waving his hand about. I replied, “You’re too kind, sir,” and fell into a seat.

Simon was just coming in; he laughed, “Ahah! You’ve already got to know good old dad. He’s priceless, this old one. He’s an amusement for the children. He’s a glutton, my friend, and tries to kill himself at every meal. You can’t imagine what he’d eat if we gave him his freedom. But you’ll see, you’ll see. He ogles the desserts as if they were girls. You’ve never seen anything as funny as you’ll see in a just a moment.”

Then he led me to my room to wash, for it was almost dinner time. On the stairs I heard a loud trampling, and I turned to look. the children were following me in procession, behind their father, doubtless in my honour.

My room overlooked the plain, the endless plain, completely bare, a sea of grasses, wheat and oats, without copse or hill, a striking and sad picture of the life they must lead in this house.

A clock chimed. It was for dinner. I went down. Madame Radevin took my hand ceremoniously, and we went through into the dining room. A servant rolled up the armchair of the old man, who, barely put in front of his plate, passed an avid and curious glance over the dessert while turning his shaky head with difficulty from one dish to another.

Then Simon rubbed his hands, “This will amuse you,” he said. And all the children, understanding that I would be treated to the sight of the gluttonous grandfather, started to laugh; meanwhile their mother simply smiled and shrugged her shoulders.

Radevin set to yelling at the dotard by making a megaphone with his hands, “This evening we have sweet rice pudding.” The grandfather’s wrinkled face lit up and he shuddered harder, from head to toe, to show he had understood and was content.

We began to eat. “Look,” murmured Simon. The grandfather didn’t like the soup and was refusing to eat. They were forcing him, for the sake of his health, and the serving woman plunged a full spoon hard into his mouth, while he, spluttering vigorously to avoid swallowing the soup, sprayed it like a fountain over the table and his neighbours.

The little children doubled up with glee, while their father, quite happy, repeated, “Isn’t he funny, this old man?”

And throughout the meal we were concerned with nothing but him. He was devouring the dishes on the table with his eyes, and with his wildly shaking hand trying to grab them, and draw them toward him. They put the dishes almost within his reach to see his distraught efforts, his trembling surges toward them, the distress signals of his whole being, of his eyes, of his mouth, of his flaring nostrils. He drooled with desire onto his plate, letting out inarticulate groans. And the entire family was thrilled by this odious and grotesque torment.

Then onto his plate they served him a tiny bit, which he ate with feverish greed in order to have another portion quickly. When the rice pudding arrived, he was almost in convulsions. He was groaning with desire. Gontran shouted at him, “You’ve eaten too much, you won’t get any more.” And they pretended they would give him nothing.

Then he began to cry. He wept, trembling hard, while all the children laughed. At last they gave him his portion, a tiny portion, and eating the first mouthful of the creamy dessert he made a greedy and comical noise in his throat, and a movement of his neck like that of a duck which has swallowed too big a lump of food. Then, when he had finished, he began to stamp his feet for more.

Seized by pity in front of the torture of this moving and ridiculous Tantalus, I begged on his behalf, “Look, give him a bit more rice, will you?” Simon replied, “Oh no, my friend, if he were to eat too much at his age, it would be bad for him.”

I stopped talking, musing on these words. O morality! O logic! O wisdom! At his age! Just like that they took away the only pleasure he could still enjoy, over worries about his health! His health! What could he do, this lifeless and trembling codger? They organise his days, they say. His days? How many days? Ten, twenty, fifty or a hundred? Why? For him? Or to preserve for even longer for the family the spectacle of his helpless greed?

He had nothing left to do in life, nothing left. One single desire remained to him, a single joy; why wouldn’t they fully grant him this last happiness, grant it until he died?

Then, after a long game of cards, I went up to my room to sleep: I was sad, sad, sad!

And I stood at my window. I heard nothing outside but the very light, very soft, very pretty chirping of a bird in a tree somewhere. The bird was surely singing, deep and low in the night, to lull his mate sleeping on her eggs. And I thought of the five children of my poor friend, who must have been snoring now alongside his nasty wife.

Monday, 31 August 2009

Peace Mountain

On the 11th August, three days after Morakot, I took a trip north by train to rendezvous with a friend who had driven south from Taipei - we met halfway for a sightseeing trip up into the mountain range called Taipingshan ('Peace Mountain'). It's only now that I feel comfortable to blog about it because I felt a bit guilty in the days immediately following the trip that I had 'had a nice day out' while people in the south of the island were facing disaster. The extent of the damage down south was only just beginning to be fully apparent, and certainly, as I have said before, Hualien was spared damage. In Taipei the 8th of August had turned out to be a quiet sunny day... But I still felt dodgy.

Anyway, now I've got that off my chest, here are a couple of pictures and a 'moving photo' from our walk in the woods at altitude 2000m. If you open the movie, see if you can hear the cicada!

Never Giving Up

This morning, Tzu Chi's TV Channel 'Da Ai' broadcast a report from Daniao village in Taitung (see my post of 24 August) which told the story of a three-year-old boy who had lost his cat. Determined to find it, he was looking across the mudslide, around the ruins and inside the damaged church. Though he could not find it, and adults were suggesting he call off his search, he was convinced it was still alive and steadfastly refused to give up hope. It brought a tear to my eye.

Monday, 24 August 2009

TCU helps out after Typhoon Morakot

On the 8th of August Typhoon Morakot brought a major disaster to Taiwan, and the worst one since the earthquake of September 21 1999. In Hualien we experienced an average typhoon, albeit a wet one, and we heard of no damage to infrastructure or destruction of buildings. I've attached a clip of the typhoon shot from our house at the end of this post.

However, in the south of the island it was a different story. There is plenty of good reporting on the web to show just how dreadful the disaster has proven in several areas. What I'd like to do in this post is just jot down a few thoughts after returning on August 23 from a short relief mission.

One way Tzu Chi University has been involved in disaster relief was by sending a group of about 40 volunteers to Dawu and Daniao villages in Taitung County on the South East coast. I felt very lucky to sign up in time since a lot of students were keen to join; some students had traveled for up to five hours by train to get to Hualien from their homes in Taipei and on the other side of the Island. We were to help in the cleanup of Dawu elementary school and, time permitting, also assist affected familes in Daniao. As we loaded computers, food and water as well as cleanup essentials onto our bus early on Friday 21 August I was already impressed by how many preparations had already been made before I arrived on the scene.

It was not until we had been on the road for three hours and had reached Taimali that we saw the true scale of the change to the landscape caused by mudslides and the consequent damage to houses and to the road, which had only opened to buses the day before. Looking through the bus window was not quite like watching disaster reports on TV, but for some reason what I could clearly see still did not seem completely real to me.

Arriving at the school we discovered that the clay brought into classrooms by the flood had already been hosed out by the wonderful students of Tzu Chi College, so we knew we would have clean and dry places to sleep - in the classrooms and library of the school. We immediately set to work strightening the trees which had been blown askew and cleaning out the smaller gutters, which were full of the mud which had been in the classrooms!

After a simple dinner prepared on-site by volunteers I settled down to sleep on the ceramic-tiled floor of the library. No problem dropping off - the smell of books is so soothing, but I woke amid a dream of being crushed against a wall by a large reversing truck. My guess is that the hard floor mingled with the sound of someone's watch alarm set that one off!

The next morning we began to clear out the large drain on the school perimeter. Though the soil and clay in it only occupied a third of its depth, clearing 150 meters or so took us right through the day. I guess we cleared about 30 cubic meters - all with picks and shovels. One student said it was the first time he'd used a spade, but I'd never have guessed!

In the afternoon some of us went to Daniao village to help dig out the back of a house. Again, the team from the college had done most of the job. All I could do was help re-sweep the kitchen floor and wonder at how unflappable the family were.

The situation in Dawu was much less serious than that at Daniao. Dawu villagers had to deal with wet ground floors and ruined furniture, those in Daniao were perhaps lucky to still have homes. There had been an enormous mudslide which had reached the top of the village and - miraculously perhaps - stopped, pressed up against a church. The slide was made up of earth, shale, larger rocks and bits of trees and had evidently flowed out of an interior valley rather than directly down the side of the local peak. 'Our' house was next in line to be crushed, and the neighbouring house was certainly unfit to live in. Standing on the roof of that damaged house I tried, but failed, to imagine what it might be like to be in such a place in the middle of an afternoon and to see and hear such a mudslide approach one's home.

The depth of the mudslide is clear in the photo, and part of the lower end of the was safe to walk on. Only when I got onto it did I fully sense the size of it - perhaps 8oo meters across at that point. That evening, while looking at the photos taken by a colleague I was struck by the difference in scale between the piles of mud we had dug out and the mudslide I had just seen. I got to wondering how that village could be made truly safe how many 'man hours' would such a job require when even a heavy digging machine appears like an ant on a tennis court. I think I have tried to avoid imagining the other mudslides, the ones which crushed and tore people to pieces. I just hope that in future lessons can be learned about where projects of whatever size - villages, reservoirs, roads, fields of crops - are located.

There are many people providing relief - in addition to the emergency services and the military, the red cross and other NGOs are also active. This disaster has also shown what individuals can achieve when they are connected online by twitter, plurk etc and by mobile phones. Nevertheless, if you are interested to see something of what Tzu Chi is doing to help in the disaster areas, you might like to look here and click on the link to headlines for a specific date (20090812 is a good example), and then click on the small orange streaming button above the programme details (if you want to view using windows media player you have to login - I haven't tried that way yet). Some friends have asked how to donate to Tzu Chi's relief effort, I think most relevant online pages will be in Chinese, but the USA centre has set one up in English here just for this disaster. Apparently there is a small HQ in London, the details are here.

Sunday, 26 July 2009


A. Board-trigger; spring/catch. Impacts at neck, or over eyes. May impact forward of eyes.

B. Adhesive board. Signs of struggle: high percentage of body surface in contact, side of head in contact.

C. Bait-trigger; spring/catch. Zero impact.

Choose C; option A unavailable.

Efficiency: four nights, four mice. Now, I've got to say that the mice which visit the front and back yards here are larger than Yorkshire mice; they are not the same thing at all. In appearance nocturnal: very dark fur, small recessed eyes. Tail same length as body only. Body slim, head long and narrow, nose pointed.

Options - commonest are drowning, scalding, or release. can a mouse find its way home? A blind mole rat can navigate by the earth's magnetic field. Two miles away, past a school and next to a stadium; grass, small trees, shrubs.

Four nights. How many mice? These all look the same: size, colour, shape. This morning's release calm, quiet. Routine.

Saturday, 25 April 2009

A Hundred

In fact I'm easy around ones and tens, but I get to feel cornered,
Gritted by teeth, in receipt.
I'm passing through.
Nowadays I don't shine. I'll never figure in a cast of thousands
From a taxi window.
I line up to be reckoned like all the others, so the lights
Never show my name.

You've never asked me what I wish
To be young again, to feel the spring in my vein

Squeezed between you –
Who almost
Had my number –
My face against your silky shoulder
And yours against mine.
And your pink smell.

This gibberish was sparked off by reading a poem by Simon Armitage called Ten Pence Story. After I wrote it I listened to Simon on Youtube; but I don't care, I'm still going to post it!

Saturday, 27 December 2008

Head Lines

Very, very occasionally, a newspaper headline will make such an impression on me as a sequence of words that it will stick in my mind long after those which flag major world events have faded to nothing. Up to now, the most prominent one has been this, from a copy of the China Post published sometime in the first half of 1990:

Deaf-mutes gamble by fax

But one I spotted in the Taipei Times this week will, I feel sure, snuggle up beside it

Pandas have good bowel movements

After all the debate about panda diplomacy lately, that headline came as a real relief...

For Katie and Neal

They move about a fair bit, don't they? For personages which no longer exist I mean. Since they all fell it's been more static, for me at least. But this lot move about; now falling from a penthouse seems to suit their style now and once their wings went it's all we could expect, but it's funny how they still move. And these two - young right? - this was the thing they stop before their magic fountain (it's tissue not water). I mean they "stop" and the sky was painted before that and the fountain is still undisturbed and they just pose I guess. It doesn't really stop of course, because I notice the paint and anyway she is somehow freed up and steps out and around him. It's their break. She says her piece and after he steps out he says his and then it's back to business as usual.

Sunday, 12 October 2008

Walami Trail

Since Friday 10th October is a national holiday here on Taiwan, after work and school on Thursday we took the opportunity to have a night away from home and drove south from Hualien for about 80km to a town called Yuli. We stayed in our favourite B+B, 'Wisdom Garden', and were lucky enough to be greeted on Friday by a warm and bright morning. We had planned to visit a 'commercial' tourist spot called butterfly valley, but our hostess advised us that a walk on the Walami trail would most likely be more rewarding.

294 kilometres from Taipei on highway 9 is a turn west onto highway 20, which heads up a river valley into the mountains for about 10 kilometres before reaching a parking area and the start of the trail. By this point one has already passed the visitor centre and is well and truly inside the Yushan (Mount Jade) National Park. The Walami Trail continues up and over the central mountain range, passing close to the 3952-metre peak of Yushan before emerging at Dongpu in Nantou County. We walked only the first 5km of the route as after Chiasin it is only open to permit holders and most walkers prebook accomodation at mountain huts along the way.

Our walk may have been over a short distance, but it involved over 300 metres of ascent, and not only spectacular views down to the meandering LakuLaku River below, but also up to the surrounding peaks. We had hoped to see butterflies, and we were not disappointed - I gave up counting after about 15 species. Perhaps I have no stamina when it comes to counting, or perhaps it has something to do with the fact that the UK boasts around 60 species of butterfly, whereas here there are over 400!

For me the highlight of our walk, which with lots of stops to look at insects, plants, fungi and views lasted for at least four hours, was happening upon a family of Taiwan Macaques. We were able to watch them without even stepping off the trail, as they were feeding in trees within 30 metres of us. They were shy, however, and constant alarm calls (from them, not from us!) signified they were not interested in getting any closer. We were lucky to see them - on our way back past the same spot an hour later there was no sign of them.

We also saw no sign of Taiwanese Black Bears in this part of the woods- picknicking or otherwise - though walkers who had done more of the route told us they had heard them. Perhaps I should correct myself here: we did actually see a sign of bears...

Tuesday, 7 October 2008

Monsal Dale Again

In my post of 21 August I mentioned a friend who showed us a truly gorgeous stretch of valley at Monsal Dale in England's Peak District. He has sent me a link which I wanted to share. The dale and its tunnel and viaduct appear from 2'30'', but the whole of this ten-minute segment is just lovely. Just 13 seconds in we can see another example of the kind of light I wrote about on 20 June. Thanks David!

Here's the link

Sunday, 5 October 2008

For Cloud Gate Dance Theatre II

1. Bodylife - Sound

2. Transform/Become

3. Speed

Sunday, 28 September 2008

The Oxford University Museum of Natural History

The Oxford University Natural History Museum is worth a visit just to see the Dodo remains which inspired Lewis Carroll, and other items relating to the author of the 'Alice' books; however, it is also a remarkable building. This summer, I had the rather incongruous experience of standing in the sunshine outside the museum, with my feet in the footprints of a dinosaur. I'm not quite sure which was incongruous, the footprints or the sunshine, but anyway...

Looking at the apparently fairly typical Victorian Neo-Gothic building, I couldn't help but imagine an interior of corridors panelled in dark wood, and stone blind arcades similar to those at London's Natural History Museum. But I was thrilled to pass through the simple lobby area into a single large exhibition space, lofty, open and full of light. The walls of golden stone are complemented by a glass roof supported not by stone columns but by slender pillars and finely engineered open arches, all of steel.

Symbolic of the age, this is a spectacular marriage of the past and future of architecture, and is a union observable right down to the details: the arches are adorned with a steel leaf motif. This modern material is thus a mirror of the fine stone carving we expect to find in public buildings of this period; and since this is a 'cathedral' to science and discovery as well as to nature the carvings here represent plant forms from around the world, and are sited atop columns - all different - which themselves are a catalogue of mineral types.

This airy space provides ideal surroundings for the museum's contents, which these days are a mixture of spruced up Victorian items and jolly new multimedia exhibits. The whole is presided over, entirely appropriately, by a fine sculture of Charles Darwin.

Sunday, 14 September 2008

Lemon Scampi... the name of a new blog I am following closely!

Thursday, 21 August 2008

Another Valley - words, pictures and tunes

Monsal Dale in Derbyshire, now an idyllic spot in England's Peak District National Park, once hosted a busy railway line, opened in 1863.

'There was a rocky valley between Buxton and Bakewell, once upon a time, divine as the Vale of Tempe; you might have seen the Gods there morning and evening - Apollo and all the sweet Muses of the Light - walking in fair procession on the lawns of it, and to and fro among the pinnacles of its crags. You cared neither for Gods nor grass but for cash (which you did not know the way to get); you thought you could get it by what the Times calls 'Railroad Enterprise'. You Enterprised a Railroad through the valley - you blasted its rocks away, heaped thousands of tons of shale into its lovely stream. The valley is gone, and the Gods with it; and now, every fool in Buxton can be in Bakewell in half an hour, and every fool in Bakewell at Buxton; which you think a lucrative process of exchange – you Fools everywhere'. John Ruskin (1819-1900), Fors Clavigera.

While in the UK we took a walk from Monsal Head and down into the valley with our friend David Chang. Now that the railway line has been torn up and the route it took designated as an official walking trail I was - happily - able to avoid being counted among Ruskin's fools, though quite what he would make of our zipping around the country by car for the previous fortnight is debatable. It was a typical English summer's day, I mean it only rained for part of the time, and I took lots of photos. None of my pictures reveal the valley's topography as well as the composite panorama posted here, since it shows both the river and the tops and the viaduct is clearly visible
David showed us the exact spot on the lofty viaduct from which he took the shot for the cover of the wonderful new CD by the superb traditional folk trio Skyhook.

Skyhook play their own tunes along with traditional ones from the Scotland, Ireland and Cape Breton (Canada) - you can listen to some here Not only are the tunes on the album - including the ones written by 'first fiddler' Cath James - really catchy and superbly played, the sound production is really extremely good.

Meanwhile, there are more of David's photos of the band here

Thursday, 14 August 2008

A Welsh Valley

The steep-sided valleys which run north-south through the heart of industrial South Wales provided much of the coal that kick-started the industrial revolution in Southern Britain. The towns which line the valleys developed rapidly and while the coastal city Cardiff is now the capital of Wales, Merthyr Tydfil, at the head of the valleys, was at one time the biggest and most productive town in the principality. The coal industry went into decline and the valleys suffered badly during the economic depression of the 1980s; however, they have bounced back recently - there is now no sign of the dereliction so obvious on even the main streets twenty years ago.

Our walk in Cwm Garw on a bright but showery day took us along the side of the valley near its head at Blaengarw. The views showed us how lovely this landscape is now that the physical scars of the mining industry have healed and buildings and infrastructure are being well maintained. The clean environment means that wild plants, insects and other wildlife now thrive here. Phoebe found the wild strawberries growing along the path much to her taste.
The number of bees and blossoms, but especially the large amount of berries growing in the brambles and bushes makes me suspect there will be a hard winter coming for this part of Britain - folk wisdom says a fruitful summer and autumn is a sign of a frosty season to come.

Thursday, 3 July 2008

Meilun Park

Meilun Park sits on the top of an extinct volcano just outside of the centre of Hualien. From the top one can clearly see across the few kilometres of coastal plain to the first peaks of the central mountain range - already 1,400 metres high. Turning to face the ocean one cannot quite see the United States, but it feels as though one should be able to. This is not your average town-centre park: there are no pebbly pathways on which to massage the soles of your feet, and there is real wildlife to look at as well as some really nice tree ferns and other plants.

We went for a stroll in the park last weekend, and I thought I would share some photographs. The butterflies were all moving too fast for me to get any pictures, but I did capture these two flies, which seem to be taking a break...

They had better maintain some vigilance at least, because this fellow is on the prowl...

He's a lizard. On the other hand, the chap below is a gecko. I'm not too sure what the difference is, I just know that the gecko can walk on the ceiling, and this one looks rather prehistoric. In fact, to me he looks rather scary, quite unlike the geckos which patrol our balcony at home and which come into my office to eat the occasional mosquito and leave the more than occasional 'visiting card' - they are pale and plain, and yet rather cute.

Now, regarding the critter in the next pic, I'll try not to exaggerate, but I reckon it was 7 or 8cm across. Like the gecko, it was sitting under the roof of a small pavilion, just waiting for something tasty to wander into range, perhaps a gecko. I decided on seeing this spider that I would try never to fall asleep in a pavilion in Meilun Park. I would not really enjoy waking up to find one of these stepping from my collar onto the tender skin of my neck...

Friday, 20 June 2008

Exhibition of French Paintings in Taipei

I'm looking forward to seeing works by the Barbizon painter Jean-Francois Millet currently on exhibition at the National Museum of History in Taipei. This show is a big event as it brings many important French paintings to Taiwan for the very first time; it also includes several of Millet's best known pictures. Millet's is a special brand of realism, and his images of peasant workers are unmistakeable. He also produced some remarkable landscapes, including this one, which has a visionary quality of light which reminds me of the English Romantic Samuel Palmer.

One of the most well-known poems by the American Edwin Markham (1852-1940) is a response to Millet's 'The Man with the Hoe' ('L'homme à la houe'), pictured above. Below I have included just the first stanza, in which Markham sees the worn-out man as an insult to God. In the two remaining stanzas the poet warns of dire future consequences if such people continue to be allowed to suffer. Millet on the other hand, always said he was not a socialist and claimed he had no political motivations, though his image was interpreted as a political statement when it was first exhibited.

The Man with the Hoe

God made man in His own image, in the image of God made He him.—GENESIS

BOWED by the weight of centuries he leans
Upon his hoe and gazes on the ground,
The emptiness of ages in his face,
And on his back the burden of the world.
Who made him dead to rapture and despair,
A thing that grieves not and that never hopes,
Stolid and stunned, a brother to the ox?
Who loosened and let down this brutal jaw?
Whose was the hand that slanted back this brow?
Whose breath blew out the light within this brain?
Is this the Thing the Lord God made and gave
To have dominion over sea and land;
To trace the stars and search the heavens for power.
To feel the passion of Eternity?
Is this the Dream He dreamed who shaped the suns
And marked their ways upon the ancient deep?
Down all the stretch of Hell to its last gulf
There is no shape more terrible than this--
More tongued with censure of the world’s blind greed--
More filled with signs and portents for the soul--
More fraught with menace to the universe.


Tuesday, 17 June 2008

For my Friend

The very first thing I did after taking a nap today was to look at Tim's blog. And then this happened, and quite quickly - it is just what happened - and it's for you Tim.

Nostalgia - tunnel in the gardens -
forest of
antipodean roots
where red and black
converse. Straits made apart
yet vertebrae on each side alike
a dive 'snip'
and 'snap' - brock
is still there.


Tuesday, 8 April 2008


One morning last month I arrived at work to see something odd lying on the wooden floor of the lobby area outside our offices. At first, against the morning light, I thought I was looking at a large leaf. Then I thought it was a surprisingly rat-shaped leaf. A moment later I realised it actually was a rat. A colleague disposed of the corpse; but the bloody trail it had left on the floor remained for almost two weeks. I could not bring myself to clean up the mess and therefore saw a kind of bloody clockface every time I left or entered my office, and replayed in my mind a moving image of the rat pointlessly dragging itself in three decreasing circles before making a last gasp lunge away. I’d be grateful of any comments on these three experiments…


Yellowing leaf like
our fertilized rat’s last act
Klein in red not blue


Stem, leaf, crisp profile
are shoulder, pelvis tail eyes
a rat’s pose. Repose.
Chin resting on a clot shelf
minute marker of demise.


Where reversed from dust we might expect
rat’s trace to be direct and lean,
our shared floors are waxed to sheen
and we upon the light reflect.
Today three spirals and a thrust,
tokens of his urge, his lust,
his oily tracks a darkened flight
which once were red and fresh and bright.

By eating without fear or pause,
from concise executed claws
fertilizer from our pots
his life was set summative test:
gagging lurching, scratching west,
he spasmed, spewing ruddy clots.

Many thanks to Tim for all the encouragement!

Saturday, 15 March 2008

A Tasty Challenge

Last weekend the unexpected but very welcome gift from our neighbours of a large bag of home-grown carrots, added to the bag we had bought a few days earlier, posed us a problem: what does a family of three do to reclaim a refrigerator replete with reddish roots?

Solution One

Solution Two

In the end we opted for solution two - a cake which has several advantages:

One, it's super-easy to make; just stir up all the ingredients in a bowl and cook - even a simple table-top oven like ours will do the job; two, it tastes great; and three, it contains carrots.

Here's the recipe. We didn't bother with the topping - in Taiwan cream cheese is scarcer than hen's teeth. Thanks Delia!

Posting Feedback

Many apologies to anyone who has tried to post feedback; I have now opened the filter to allow comments from any reader.

Sunday, 9 March 2008

Cowboy Honey (Tate and Lyle)


I’m a travelling man, don’t tie me down
What storms, what battles did he sing?
I love my women, sometimes they love me
A tale so strong might melt the rocks as well
but I was got someday I still don’t know how

I said oh my God what’s your name
my name’s Lyle
The hero loves as well as you
I looked at her and she looked at me
ever gentle ever smiling and I looked back and she looked back
Cupid strew your path with flowers out together for a walk
her eyes were bright just like the stars
Godlike is the form he bears.

This fellow said stranger, why don’t you just go on home
forsake this land
and I said man that’s where I’m headed to tonight

I walked on through the door and she just smiled, resolved
Faithless man thy course pursue
I’ll stay
No, no away. Thy darkness, guest, is no trouble in my breast take
your boots and walk out of my life

She just smiled man. Ooh I was got I can’t figure out where it went
why don’t I just sing Cupid melt her give me back my paradise.

I ‘wrote’ this just for fun after several weeks of being unable to get the sweet phrase ‘Tate and Lyle’ out of my head. It’s a kind of ‘test crash’ between a pickup loaded with ‘Country’ and a horse-drawn wagon piled with ‘English Opera’.
It's possible that I’m subconsciously nostalgic for the Cowboy Honey’ of my childhood. Perhaps it reveals my opinion of opera/country music. In any case, I was keen to see the outcome of the collision on the women involved. And it seems they have been able to overcome a certain amount of the classical and Nashville expectation they had previously been facing. On the other hand, our hero's fate seems to have become embedded in italics.

Thursday, 6 March 2008

Addio Pippo

March 3 saw the passing of Giuseppe di Stefano at the age of 86; he died in Milan after lying in a coma for three months. The celebrated tenor, known to his friends and fans as Pippo, and whose voice has been described as sounding 'like every great Italian voice rolled into one', had returned to Italy after being savagely attacked by unknown assailants at his home in Kenya.

By the time I discovered opera in the early 1980s, Di Stefano's art was already well into its decline - I never saw him perform, I got to know his work through his recordings, especially those he made with the soprano Maria Callas during the 1950s. His was the first Italian tenor voice I really fell in love with, and it has remained my favourite since.

Born in Sicily in 1921, Pippo's southern roots are said by many to have been the source of his spontaneity and passion. Some afficionados claim that he, like Mario del Monaco, was not the most subtle of tenors. However, he possessed a truly lovely voice: his tone has been described as 'velvety' and his pianissimos, especially in the higher register, were superb. He sang every note with commitment, and though for some this was a fault, I can tolerate occasional lapses in taste as a tradeoff for sheer Italianate authenticity and beauty of sound.

Di Stefano began his career during the 1940s in the Italian and French lyric repertoire, moving on to more dramatic roles in Verdi and the verismo of Puccini as his voice matured in the fifties. His 1953 recording of Tosca with Callas and Gobbi has always been at the top of any checklist of recordings of that opera, and his 1956 La Boheme, conducted by Votto is also justly famous. Nevertheless, he was also powerful in the bel canto repertoire of Donizetti and Bellini. His duets with Callas in Bellini's I Puritani, are for me, unforgettable.

Pippo finally retired from the stage in 1992, almost twenty years later than he probably should have done, but his influence has been great. Pavarotti cited him as his idol both as a singer and as a man, and perhaps there can be no finer compliment.

I have linked to recordings of Di Stefano in Verdi, Donizetti and Puccini

Monday, 3 March 2008

black line redline

You might like to read and listen to Ruth Padel's response to Bridget Riley and her work here . You can listen to extracts from interviews with Riley herself here.

14 March - A friend has just sent me this slinky eye/slinkyise poem - a fun sound link.

Wednesday, 27 February 2008

that 'surprising' one and this kind of 'normal' one

My initial reaction to the news that a large area of Britain had just experienced a 5.3 magnitude earthquake was one of relief that the human damage appears to be limited to one man suffering a broken pelvis, and the physical devastation merely the tumbling to earth of a few chimney pots. The reports have brought back memories of an evening in December 1989 when I experienced my own first earthquake, in Taipei; and I have no doubt that those folks 'back home' who felt today's quake will remember it twenty years from now.

Recalling 'my' earthquake in a 'when + simple past + past continuous' framework perhaps betrays my career as an EFL teacher as well as the impact it made on my senses, but I just can't resist the urge... When the earthquake hit I was talking to my students. In fact, I had just finished teaching a lesson when I got the distinct sense that the ten-storey building in which I stood was built on very wet sand and the toddler offspring of some giant or ogre was stamping out a mega-strop into it. With the blood rapidly draining from my head, and no doubt a tremor in my voice to match the occasion, I asked my students "What should we do?"

The first response came from an otherwise eminently sensible and intelligent young man. His answer?

"Just enjoy it!"

Alas, it was not advice I was able to follow on that first occasion, and perhaps those woken in the middle of the night by the UK quake didn't quite find a way to appreciate their quake as it happened. And I imagine many of them are, even as I write, telling each other just how much they didn't appreciate it.
Nevertheless, since Britain's quakes mercifully appear to be of the 'chimbley-wobbley' rather than the city-felling variety, my suggestion for the next one - perhaps due in 2033? - is, of course

"Just enjoy it!"

Sunday, 24 February 2008

that one

Hualien isn’t big, though it can sometimes seem so, linked as it is to Ji-An to the south and, heading north, to the string of villages which make up Hsin-Cheng. Since Hualien is a low-rise city, the boundaries between it and its close neighbours are not all that obvious. It’s good to get a feel for where one is, so we were happy to head south for a couple of miles on Thursday night to the centre of Ji-An to join the traditional celebrations for lantern festival, the end of the two-week New Year period.

Thronged with people, the two temples and the night market which connects them were alive with noise and colour. Both temples and a large stage were brightly lit and hung with hundreds of yellow lanterns. The whole area was almost rattling with the racket of recorded music, public announcements, the calls of food vendors and the crashes and pops of the fireworks going off directly overhead.

There were plenty of ‘oohs’ and ‘ahhs’ too. Not just for the fireworks, but also over the launching of traditional paper lanterns. This was the first time I had seen this activity at close hand – the writing of wishes on the surprisingly flimsy paper, the lighting of the fuel-soaked pad, and the patient wait for the lantern to fill with warm air. Perhaps the wishes being sent skyward were what gave each lantern its individual character; I noticed that the more athletic among them headed rapidly, and almost vertically up into the darkness. Others – perhaps those bearing the weight-loss sentiments so frequently heard at the end of New Year – lolled and lurched to a rising-falling vocal accompaniment from the crowd. These insisted on crinkling themselves up against the prickly eaves and gables of the temple gateway and roofs before sloping off, seemingly wishing they could hang around longer among the bright lights, happy faces and contented stomachs of the celebrations below.

Saturday, 23 February 2008

this one

My first post is a naughty one. Why? Because I am supposed to have something to say, but I don't at present; I just wanted to get this blog up and get started.