Journeys on the Silk Road

by Joyce Matthews and Conrad Walters.

This is a book in two halves. The first half is about the Anglo-Hungarian explorer, Sir Aurel Stein, journeying through Turkestan and eventually arriving in Dunhuang where he acquired a large part of a collection of hidden manuscripts which included the Diamond Sutra – the world’s oldest printed book, as the authors persistently remind the reader.

The other half of the book covers a less coherent range of topics such as the cultural impact of the Diamond Sutra, its conservation, and how modern Hotan has changed since Stein’s time. (And by the way, Hetian is merely the Chinese rendering of Hotan; the authors seem to have been unaware of that.)

While the first part of the book is of some interest, the second half is like a series of feature articles in some newspaper magazine. One or two were worth reading, but I  felt no qualms about skipping pages of waffle.

Overall, I’m inclining to three stars. Buddhist fanboys of the Diamond Sutra can add another star.


Heavy snow

Branches bent and broken.

The snow which was forecast fell sometime last night, making this, I think, the heaviest fall I’ve seen in some time. What’s noticeable on this occasion is the num­ber of trees which have lost branches. Over on the lane on the east side of Jinma, some of the trees are drooping very low.

The streets are awash with filthy sludge, and although I was careful to traverse them with caution when I ventured out, there are still too many clowns out there who need to moderate their speed. I wouldn’t be at all surprised to learn that there have been various accidents like the one a couple of weeks ago when 19 cars and a bus slid into each other on a flyover.

I’m keeping my fingers crossed that the snow will mostly be gone by tomorrow because school resumes. (Sob.) Unlike Beijing, where such a day could often be fol­lowed by a clear night, turning  the snow to solid ice for another two months or so, I don’t think we’re in for sub-zero temperatures tonight.

But at the moment, the streets are very, very wet, and I’d forgotten that I ought to wear my over-trousers in such conditions to keep my trousers from getting wet.

Later. This afternoon. The snow has mostly been cleared away, and we’ve had a herd of clouds passing overhead. Outside the Far Eastern there are a couple of enormous fat snowmen, and up the street outside the modelling agency is a snow bride, complete with a wig.

Shares in the company

Buy fireworks!

It’s been quite a few years since I was around for the Spring Festival. I’ve largely managed to avoid it by being absent for that particular week, but this year, not knowing that the Festival was in the third week of the winter holiday, I walked straight back into it and its attendant noise and air pollution.

But that was last week, wasn’t it? Fireworks should now be the punctuation which occasionally interrupt the day, shouldn’t they? But it seems not. No day since the official end of the Spring Festival has failed to start with fireworks sooner or later. It’s Monday morning as I type this, and still the fireworks are going off. I know the locals like their fireworks, but the Spring Festival is so last week.

I’m surprised Wuxi doesn’t have record levels of smog with all the smoke which must’ve been pumped into the atmosphere over the past week or so.

Dr Who, Series 6

I bought this when I was in New Zealand because it may not ever appear in the DVD shops here; or it might. This series was about the death of the Doctor and some pseudo-mystical nonsense about the first question, which must never be asked.

The overarching storyline was the child which Rory and Amy had, Melody Pond, who was, in fact, River Song, who was brought up as an assassin with one mission in mind – kill the Doctor. The opening episode started with the Doctor being killed by an astronaut emerging from a lake somewhere in the States, and the rest of the series led back to that point, and included a fake Amy, a fake baby, and Adolf Hitler.

It was a story on an epic scale, and yet the episodes felt a little same-y in that the Doctor would waltz in (capering), wave his sonic screwdriver around, babble, and the problem was solved. The solution was often deeply contrived and seldom seemed to require any real effort to achieve. The stories seem to have got a little too formulaic and phoned-in.

Musical dusting.

I’ve continued editing the details of all of my music as I try to bring some uniformity to my collection. There are still quirks which I don’t fully understand such as some details being partly omitted, or there being extra details, or WMP and Explorer don’t agree with each other.

My most recent purchases were Purcell, Complete Sonatas of Three & Four Parts, Pavans by the Purcell Quartet, and For His Majestys Sagbutts and Cornetts played by, er, His Majestys Sagbutts and Cornetts. I already had Purcell’s Three-Part Sonatas, but it was impossible to get the Four-Part ones without buy the former again.

I quite like Renaissance and Baroque trumpet (brass) music probably because of its mellifluous vocal quality. I don’t have a lot of it, or may have more than I realise, especially where the trumpet isn’t the main instrument in a piece of work.

However, it’s time for some more Heinz Ignaz Franz von Biber, who was a 17th century German composer roughly contemporary with Danish composer, Dieterich Buxtehude. I have Mensa Sonora, some trumpet music, and a Requiem, but not the Rosary Sonatas, Sonatae tam aris quam aulis serventes, or Harmonia artificiosa-ariosa. It’s also a good time to buy because the exchange rate is quite favourable again.

A ripping holiday

Get ’em before they rot.

I had meant to keep the blog updated with my antics in New Zealand, but I just never got round to it.

The trip went smoothly, although I noted that instead of heading south from Shanghai, we headed east towards Korea and Japan and were obviously skirting the Diaoyu Islands. I had no problems being on time for the 9.00am flight to Christchurch, which was delayed because some Chinese person had missed the flight and they had to remove their bags.

The weather for the first week was brilliant once any morning cloud had dissipated. The skies were blue, the air was clear, and there was none of that carcinogenic haze which plagues China.

I got on with re-ripping all of my CDs at 320Kbps, which also meant editing them yet again, and in the end, to speed things up, I scanned album art where it was missing and track information where it was wrong or wanting. I could probably have scanned the CDs at the higher rate the first time, but I was unaware of such things.

I learnt that The Genteel Companion by Richard Harvey has now deteriorated so much that the final track can no longer be ripped, and even on my Dad’s CD player, the flaws are now audible. After some research on the matter, I find that the flaws in the CD are a consequence of ageing, although my oldest CD, which is about 30 years old, is still fine. Nonetheless, there may come a day when the CDs can neither be ripped nor played.

We went to Blenheim for a few days, where the weather remained clement. We stopped off at a seal colony near Kaikoura and watched the pups lolling around on the rocks.

In Blenheim, we went to the Omaka Aviation Heritage Centre. At the moment, this covers machines from World War I, but will be expanding into the period between the wars and World War II. The museum contains some original planes (a 1913 Caproni CA 22) as well as working replicas such as a flight of Fokker Dr.1s (the triplane flown by Baron von Richthofen). Sir Peter “Hobbit” Jackson and companies he is involved with are responsible for the outstanding displays, which include a plane which has crashed in a tree, and the aftermath of the death of the Red Baron as souvenir hunters swarmed around the plane.

We also had a trip from Havelock out on the Greenshell Mussel Cruise. It’s been awhile since I’ve been to sea (if you count trips across Victoria Harbour in Hong Kong), and we had a very pleasant afternoon sailing out to a mussel farm. We got a lecture on mussel farming from the master of the boat, who explained the whole process of keeping the mussel gene pool chlorinated and getting them to grow on the lines which hang from the floats, each of which carries a tonne of mussels. After that, we ate mussels and drank wine before returning to Havelock.

The start of the following week saw autumn getting in some early practice. The weather turned grey, wet, and cold – colder than Chengdu, and only marginally better than Wuxi. It did eventually improve, and was turning rather nice again by the time I had to leave.

My Mum and Dad have acquired some monarch butterfly caterpillars from an unknown source. Monarchs have been quite rare, and the swan plants had about thirteen caterpillars altogether. The biggest of them have just started pupating, and the smaller ones should be ready to start in the next week or so.

This ended up being a clothes buying holiday with the acquisition of new shirts, a new pair of pyjamas, and a couple of new singlets. I looked for shoes, but couldn’t find anything quite right and think that I need to leave such matters for Hong Kong.

I did buy the 6th series of Dr Who, and the first part of the 7th. On my next visit to a DVD shop here, I’ll probably find both, but it’s too much of a lottery.

I’ve also managed to solve the speaker dock problem by chance. Mum has a Sony speaker dock which she can use to recharge and listen to music on her Walkman. I’ve had my Walkman connected to speakers via a cable, but have had to resort to charging the device every so often (typically at awkward moments). I bought a USB plug so that I wouldn’t lose one of the ports of my USB hub (and I’ve never been keen on using my laptop as a source of power for other devices). I’ve found that while I’m recharging my Walkman, I can still use it, which means that I’ve got the equivalent of a speaker dock without enjoying the expense of one.

The flight back to China was sufficiently empty for me to have a whole row to myself, although the arm rests didn’t go all the way up and the attachments for the seatbelts jammed into me at times.

Back here, I took the offer of a private car or would’ve been stuck at Pudong till 11.20am, and not home much before 2.00pm. It’s bad enough having to wait until around 10.00am, but would’ve been a nightmare after a twelve-hour flight to have been stuck at Pudong for about 5½ hours. I had thought the week of the Spring Festival was the second week of the holiday. If I’d known that New Year’s Day was Sunday, I perhaps would’ve returned home today instead.

Downton Abbey, Series 3

Lord Grantham, financial wizard.

One of the things I did in New Zealand was watch the third series of Downton Abbey, although I never got round to watching the Christmas special.

Matthew and Mary finally get married, though not after some ridiculous last-minute drama between them.

Edith finally got to the altar only for her aged and partially disabled beau to leave her at the altar, but she ended up writing a newspaper column and taking a fancy to the editor, whose insane wife cannot grant him a divorce.

Sibyl had her baby, and then died because of the incompetence of the Harley Street specialist who her parents had brought in. That led to questions about her husband and the baby’s religion. He was assimilated to the family, but the baby, also called Sibyl, was baptised as a Catholic, much to the horror of Lord Grantham and his mother.

Meanwhile, Lord Grantham had invested all of his money in a dead cert in Canada. “Bye bye, money,” said Lord Grantham’s solicitor. What was the earl to do? “Hello, money,” said Matthew. “Well, not ‘hello money’ because you’ve come from my other fiancée’s dead father, and I’ve got annoyingly large scruples. Also, I’m not going to read this letter which will chase my scruples away.” Fortunately, Mary did read the letter, and all was well, although it made Matthew part-owner of Downton.

Below stairs, Bates finally got out of prison after sufficient evidence came to light, which cast doubt on the original conviction. Thomas almost got nobbled after O’Brien sabotaged his gaydar. Daisy fancied Alfred, Alfred fancied the new kitchen maid, the new kitchen maid fancied the new footman. Daisy did get promoted, but had an even better offer from her father-in-law. Mrs Hughes bought an electric toaster.

Matthew’s mother took to saving fallen women and encountered Ethel, who had been on manoeuvres with an infantry captain during World War I and got pregnant. She relinquished her son to his grandparents, but eventually found a job which allowed her to be near him.

The series ended without any major cliffhangers and was comparatively free of some of the more idiotic story lines of the previous two series.

Midnight in Peking

By Paul French.

Midnight in Peking is the story of the murder, in early 1937, of Pamela Werner, the daughter of a former British consul in China, whose badly mutilated body was left outside the Fox Tower in Beijing.

Officially, the case was never solved, but her father managed to put enough evidence together to point to a group of expats who went hunting together in the Western Hills, and who ran a nudist colony and who organised naked dances. It appears that Werner fell in with them one evening, but refused to play their game.

As her father investigated the case himself, he was frequently blocked in his efforts, which was, in part, a consequence of his relationship with British officials in China who he had managed to annoy in almost every post he had had in the country. The other great impediment was World War II. At the time of the murder, the Japanese occupation of Beijing was imminent, and although they initially offered some assistance to Werner’s father, they ultimately interred him in the same camp as the man who was the likely killer.

It is unfortunate that French does himself no favours with the style in which he writes. He seems to be trying to merge history with noir, which just doesn’t work in this case. Throughout the book, assumed motivations are attributed to various characters, which leave the reader wondering how French could possibly know half of what he writes.

French’s English is often irritatingly repetitive:

  • …to tiffins, dances, dinner parties, concerts.
  • …going out for tiffins, dinner, dancing, late nights.
  • …gossip about tiffins and dances
  • …going out for tiffins, to cafés, skating.

Sounds as if our man likes the word “tiffin”, and later in the book he gets a bit obsessed with “roust”, which is not a word I know at all. Someone needs to give the author a thesaurus for his birthday or Christmas, whichever comes first.

I got the impression that the book (Kindle edition) may have been partially translated into American since there is a peculiar mixture of Anglicisms and Americanisms, which don’t sit well together.

Overall, Midnight in Peking gets three stars for readers who can tolerate the style, but two for those of us who can’t.

20.10.13. Via Sinocism I’ve found this website, which raises a number of questions about the accuracy and veracity of Midnight in Peking. Ultimately, the site’s conclusion is that Werner’s killer remains unknown and that relying on evidence from her father’s investigation badly skews what the truth at the time may have been. As I noted above, I wondered how French could know certain things about certain people.

Grammar and punctuation test: take our quiz | Teacher Network | Guardian Professional

Grammar and punctuation test: take our quiz | Teacher Network | Guardian Professional.

Oh dear, another amateur falls into the English Grammar pond, waves their arms about, kicks their legs, and declares that they can swim. I assume this is some hack’s attempt at a grammar quiz rather than something based on an official sample.

I managed to get 13 out of 14 right, but have no idea which one might be (allegedly) wrong because the link to the answers didn’t work.

Question 4 was nonsense because the sentence “He thought he might be able to dig a tunnel through the rock” is neither a “command” nor “passive”, which only leaves “conditional”, and it’s not conditional, either. Note also the mixing of moods (command, conditional) and voice (passive); also, I don’t fail to overlook that “imperative” is the more usual term than “command”.

My suspicion is that I might’ve tripped up somewhere on Qs. 6, 7, and 8, which are about determining whether the nouns are abstract, collective, or both. I think “team” is collective, and “truth” and “pride” abstract, but have a sneaking suspicion that one (team?) is possibly meant to be both.

Question 12 also had me wondering whether the notions of “main clause” and “subject” might be being muddled up. I think the answer is meant to be “The rescuers were stunned” even although “by the destruction”, as a prepositional phrase, is part of the main clause. I’m also a little diffident about calling a relative clause subordinate in the same way words such as “when”, “after”, and “before” introduce subordinate clauses, but I’m probably being a little picky.

Overall, if this bears any resemblance to what school children are going to have inflicted on them, then I’m sorry for the school children.