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.