Category Archives: Places – Real and Imaginary

Eastern Wisdom vs. Tennis

tennis_03When the British assembled their empire, they took their games and sports and moustaches with them, even to the hottest places. Some people were bemused, as in this anecdote, relayed by Jan Morris in her book Hong Kong, when discussing the early days of the colony.

An old tale tells of the Chinese gentleman who, watching a pair of Englishmen sweating away at a game of tennis, inquired why they did not hire coolies to play it for them.

We do not know whether they took heed of this pearl of Eastern wisdom, but it would certainly have been more reasonable to sit calmly in the shade or else, if they were really incapable of sitting still, to equip themselves with something like the following admirable device:


Perhaps this is Dr. Watson trying out the contraption. After all, he was just down the road at 221B Baker St.

The Horse-Action Saddle was also available for ladies:

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It is interesting to note that the saddle does not seem to have the same effect on gentlemen and ladies. Only in the case of ladies is it noted that the saddle provides a “complete cure for … HYSTERIA…”.

Also interesting, at the top of the ad, is the plug from the Countess of Aberdeen (who was never taught the difference between direct and reported speech):

Her Excellency the Countess of Aberdeen writes: “That the saddle has given her complete satisfaction.”

Arise! An imaginary film scene


Recently, I came across an article published in 1945 in the New Yorker entitled “Return to Place Pigalle”, where Joseph Wechsberg, originally from Czechoslovakia,  describes returning to Paris as a US soldier and meeting the musicians he used to play with there in the 1920’s.
The musicians describe the experience of playing in  Nazi-occupied Paris and leds to a discussion  of a violinist-cellist called Maurice, who is remembered for the following:

After 2 A.M., by which hour many of the German customers, not having been brought up on Pommery and Verve Clicquot, were under the tables, Maurice’s favorite sport was to get up and announce in German that the orchestra would play “Deutschland, Deutschland über Alles.” (Maurice had been born in Alsace and spoke German fluently.) The plastered Germans would crawl out from under the tables, make an effort to stand at attention and fall flat on their faces. The French customers would start laughing, and in the end an S.S. man who wasn’t quite drunk would call in the nearest patrol and have the drunken Germans arrested.

I think that this would make a marvellous sequence in a film. In fact, it would be even better if the gag was repeated two or three times in a row. Of course, there is no need for the soldier to be Germans. I think that Russians would be a good alternative, simply on musical grounds, since the Russian anthem has a swaying quality to it which would well accompany the efforts of drunk soldiers to stand up straight. Even better perhaps, Chinese soldiers, once you know that the Chinese national anthem begins with the call qǐ lái (起来) –  Arise! or Stand Up!


Looking at the water

Point your camera at a reflection in a canal or a river, flip the image around and see what a liquid world looks like. Trees try to float up into the sky, lamp-posts become Chaplinesque, railings grope around corners, fish pass by windows and houses breathe in and out.

Around and up and also down

Some time ago I posted an article on my liking for random walks, in which I outlined an insanely complicated method to get to places you weren’t planning to see. Recently I found another way to go to randomly explore the world, without getting up from my chair.

A few days ago, as I was preparing to leave for Prague, I tried to find some information on the city’s railway station. I can’t remember why, I have been to so many places (at least virtually) since then. I happened on a page with a 360 degree spherical picture of Fantova kavárna or Fanta’s Café, originally the main hall of the station as it was built in 1871 by the architect Josef Fanta. The picture was on a website called which, I have discovered, is a wonderful tool for random travelling.

I soon ended up in other places in Prague, my favourites I think being the Bethlehem Chapel, a medieval crane and the wonderful Strahov library, where the picture is so detailed that I am quite confident that I will one day spot a bookworm about to take a bite out of one of the ancient volumes.  Read more…

Signs for Pause

I read a lot and when I don’t have a book, I find it hard to avoid reading any of the signs and labels in my vicinity. Sometimes I come across one which makes me pause.

Here are a few examples

Dementia Bar


Read more…

Africa, slowly, from the sky

The April 19 issue of the New Yorker had an interesting article by Lauren Collins on the American photographer George Steinmetz. His speciality is taking pictures from a motorised paraglider which  he flies low and slow (27 mph is the one speed it has). With it he can get the angles which he wants, whereas “trying to get a pilot to put a plane exactly where you want it is like trying to get someone else to scratch an itch”.

The picture above is of a salt-making site at the village of Teguidda-n-Tessoumt in northern Niger. Read more…

The many ways a minaret might be

Minarets fabricT The other day I came across an article in Le Monde about the political situation in Vorarlberg, a region of Austria. Together with Carinthia, Vorarlberg has adopted a law to prevent buildings being erected which aren’t “ortsüblich“. The best way I have found to render ortsüblich in this case is “typically local”.

And the aim of the provision was to make sure no one thought of puncturing the local skies with a minaret. So far, this seems to be just another of the many depressing stories you hear about nowadays. But now comes the interesting part: in the Vorarlberg town of Hohenems there is a small Jewish museum. The director is  called Hanno Loewy and in response to the provision he organised not one but two conferences  on “How to build a typically local minaret” (September 2008 and June 2009).
Read more…

The Whole Country Dances – The North Korean Music Scene

KJuvMusic(This article was first posted in February 2008. I think it is time for people to be reminded of North Korean music. doesn’t seem to provide songs any longer, which is a great pity, but there is a good selection here. In particular, I would recommend Heroic Workers’ Factory, which has an English translation. It is a song you can try out at work yourselves. See if increases your output.) 

I was leafing through the Rough Guide to World Music one day, looking up countries I had visited in order to find out which melodies I had missed and remembered (but how could one forget) that one of the countries I have been to is North Korea. The book has a box on the musical scene in North Korea with a list of titles including the following:


Song of Bean Paste
My Country Full of Happiness
We Shall Hold Bayonets More Firmly
Our Life Is Precisely A Song
Song of Snipers
The Joy Of Bumper Harvest Overflows Amidst The Song of Mechanisation
Farming In This Year Is Great Bumper Crop
My Country Is Nice To Live In
Music Of Mass Rhythmic Gymnastics
I Like Both Morning And Evening
The Shoes My Brother Gave Me Fit Me Tight
The World Envies Us

These titles brought back many of the feelings one had while one was in North Korea. I was going to leave it at that, but I wanted to find a clearer picture for the cover of  Korean Juvenile Music (reproduced above) and in this search I stumbled across an excellent site which proclaimed

Herzlich willkommen auf

and which has a substantial collection of North Korean CD’s for sale. You can even listen to some of the tracks in their Pochonboentirety. My favourite is My Country is the Best. We’ve Taken Grenades in Our Hands (also in the Korean Juvenile Music series) is excellent too, Glory to General Kim Jong Il is obviously excellent as well even though the Bavarian influence is a little strong for my tastes. But the real discovery was the Pochonbo Electronic Ensemble who play with unequalled confidence and flair. If I had a record company I would not hesitate to sign them up. I think there is definitely a niche market which would go overboard for them. In fact, I have a feeling they would be particularly good at the Superbowl – the style is very similar. I watched a number of their videos, I think I counted eight keyboard players but there may be more. Here is an example of their multi-layered approach:

Someone has implied that the Mansudae Art Troupe are even better, but I can’t say I have been convinced, even though that is only on the strength of one track.

As I said, Herzlich willkommen auf allows you to listen to a number of tracks in their entirety. It is a pity therefore that some of the more intriguing titles have no audio clip associated with them. I would really have liked to have heard O Persimmon Trees at a Coastal Guard Outpost. In any case, I have decided to put down here some of what I feel are the most memorable titles. I have found that arranging them in pairs conjures up a pretty accurate picture of the atmosphere one perceives in North Korea.

We Shall Live Forever to Defend Our Seas
Taehongdan Potato Good for Longevity

Oh, What Is a Party Member?
He Doesn’t Know Maybe

Fresh and Green Edible Aster on Mt. Ryongak
It Will Radiate with the General Sunshine

I Am a Blossom of the Fatherly General
I Also Raise Chickens.

We Are Honourable Infantrymen
Coming to Remove Weeds from the Sky

We’ve Taken Grenades in Our Hands
What Has Happened to the Thaebaeksan Hospital?

Let’s Sing of Paternal Affection
My Youngest Daughter, Pok Sun, Became a AA-machine gunner

Sea of Potato Blossoms in Taehongdan
Pleasant Snack Time

Nightingales Sing in Our Factory Compound
Song of Blood Transfusion

My Mind Remains Unchanged
I Like Rifle

and to end a couple of threesomes

Triple Rainbows
I Always See Them
Deep in Thought, the Nurse Ponders

Our Satellite Sings
Song of Automation Full of Happiness
The Whole Country Dances

Yes, now I remember

The Observation Car

Somewhere along the line

(Listen to the poem here)

The train for Kandy leaves Colombo Fort
just as the morning heat begins to swell.
Inside the observation car the rusty fans
begin to turn and tilt. We watch the platform
where we stood for one, two quarters
of an hour slide off our moving stage.
And now we’re ready for the world
to come by and perform for us.
Read more…

Go-back-to-sleep Road

Some nights I lie awake, thinking how nice it would be to assemble a city which incorporates all my favourite streets and squares. Some of them because they offer an unexpected glimpse of a river at a sharp bend, others because of their beautiful buildings, some because of their fascinating shops or magnificent trees and still others because of the people who live on them, which is a way to populate this city with my favourite people together with number of individuals I’ve only glimpsed but who have made an impression on me, such as:

  • the cross-eyed Sikh taxi-driver in Delhi
  • the boy in Cairo who called every heap of rubbish an “Egyptian garden”
  • the man sitting on the pavement in Dakar who, when asked what time the shop behind him opened, said “We’re in Africa, relax.”
  • the lady in Kampala who, when asked if she sold razor blades, answered, “No, but we have nail clippers”.
  • the bus driver in Mexico who told me, “My brother is an engineer, my sister is a lawyer, but whenever I see a bus go by I want to drive it.”
  • the man in Ireland who went by pushing a car and shouted, “I’ll give you a lift when I get to the petrol station.”
  • the man I saw at 7 in the morning a couple of weeks ago walking down the street outside my house with two parrots on his shoulders.

After a while of sticking thoroughfares more or less haphazardly together to make my city, the whole thing starts on taking on the shape of one of those Escher pictures where you keep on going down steps but never reach the next floor or you find that you reach the sea by walking uphill. As you move around your burgeoning city you also realise how difficult it is to visualise going down a street and then turning round and coming back the other way. Try it.

escher print gallery

Other people around the world, or at least in adjacent time zones, are also lying awake thinking things. In some countries, I believe, some mayors toss and turn trying to devise ways to make life more uncomfortable for people who look slightly different than they do. Sometimes they sit up with a start and exclaim, “Yes, let’s name a street after So-and-so.” So-and-so St. wouldn’t be bad, but sometimes the names they come up with seem to have been chosen to commemorate particularly corrupt or vicious people.

When I get wind of these suggestions I lie awake thinking that I would prefer to have a landfill established at the end of the street rather than get saddled with one of these names. Even worse are names of battles. I think that if you really have to name a street after a battle you should make sure it is one of those things that run like scar tissue through our industrial wastelands. Streets which are full of broken glass and dead rodents.

But even if they are names of people you admire or like, they still don’t work. Some things have to grow like plants. Cities, streets and street names too should develop as naturally as possible. The great thing about cities is that they are full of a million minds. What could be more lifeless than those singly-minded artificially planned cities entrusted to one brain with streets called Progress Road, Democracy Avenue, Nationbuilding Boulevard ? (By the way, if you insist on Progress Road, do make sure it is a one-way street).

You can put up as many nameplates as you want to call a street Beethoven Street but you are never going to get a street to feel like him, not deliberately anyway. And dedicating a noisy, highly trafficked street to Beethoven is just as insulting to him as purloining his Hymn to Joy and making a bad anthem out of it.

Across the river from where I live in Rome is a square called Campo dei Fiori, which means Field of Flowers, because there used to be meadows there. Now there is no grass but instead exorbitantly priced vegetables on stalls. And a statue of the philosopher Giordano Bruno, who was burnt at the stake there in 1600 for thinking too much. Surely nobody could be more deserving of having a square, this square, named after him, especially since he has the added indignity of standing through the night with his plinth full of the empty bottles of beer and wine which people dump at his feet as well as covered by the stranded luminescent flying disks which land on him just a few seconds after they have been purchased from the hawkers in the square. But, despite all this, Piazza Giordano Bruno would also be a lifeless name.

In his lovely poem Evocation of Recife, Manoel Bandeira wrote:

the streets of my
childhood had such lovely names!
Sun Street
(I hate to think
they may have renamed it after some So-and-So)
Behind the house
Nostalgia Street…
…where we used to sneak a smoke
On the
other side the Dawn Street wharf…
…where we used to fish in

I would love to have Nostalgia Street in my city, but I can’t because I have never seen it. On the other hand, there are many which are there on account of their names. Near one of my six harbours is Rua da Cozinha Economica (Cheap Cooking
Road – from Lisbon). Also from Lisbon is Praza da Alegria (Joy Square) where I chose a hotel once simply because it sounded like a positive place to stay. Up a steep hill, goes via Scosciacavalli (Horses-do-the-splits Rd.) from Ancona. And lost in a maze of other lanes is via Senza Nome (No Name Street) from Bologna. When you know the history  of the latter road, it gets more interesting. Apparently Senza Nome comes from a deformation of Sozzo Nome (Dirty Name), which is what it was called in the 19th Century. And it was called Dirty Name, because earlier in history, when the tight alley had been full of prostitutes soliciting it was called via Sfregatette (Scrapetits Rd.).

Scrapetits would, I find, be a good address for a London football club – like White Hart Lane or Stamford Bridge. Perhaps we could get another Russian robber-baron to start up a new club and bribe someone to change the name of a street or even a square to Scrapetits. Maybe one of the many London places commemorating a battle. Perhaps Trafalgar? Nelson might even prefer it.

Anyway, I have a suggestion for you mayors next time you’re fantasizing about renaming a street. Try Go-back-to-sleep Road.