Ciuitates mutantur

I only turned my back for a minute.

Even if very little else changes in China (e.g. Have people in Jiangsu stopped wearing pyjamas in public? No. Are Chinese motorists considerate of other road users and pedestrians? No), cities never stand still. They perhaps don’t change quite as rapidly as the clichés would have the world believe. For example, it’s taken five years for the buildings to the east of me to reach their current unfinished state, and in Chengdu, the area around 大慈 has managed to go almost nowhere in the past eight years. The original development stalled, and the current one is making glaciers look like Usain Bolt.

But when I got back from Chengdu on Tuesday, I found there had been several changes while I’d been away. The 85° shop opposite Baoli has reopened after being refurbished. I must go in and see whether they have the tiramisu log which Linda introduced me to in Chengdu. Then via my former colleagues, Joe and Lucy, I learnt that the Metro has started running.

A couple of weeks ago, the entrances all seemed to have been opened. There was one from the Parkson building where Burger King used to be, and another from the Far Eastern where the posh wine shop once was. I need to go and have a look at a map to see what course it takes. I know it runs along Zhongshan Lu, which bisects the centre of the city, but I don’t know where the line has come from or where it’s going.

[As an aside, I now suspect that Jiefang Lu marks the line of the old city walls. The Metro exit from the Far Eastern is called 胜利门 (Shenglimen “Victory Gate”), and I see on the map 东门 and 西门. There seems to be no southern gate.]

When I went out to Ikea yesterday to buy a bedside lamp, I did see that there’s a station being built not far from there. I’m not sure whether the line, which is elevated, is going to be part of the Metro, or some sort of light rail link. At the moment, getting the bus to Ikea is no real bother beyond the length of time spent waiting at either end, and the slowness of the journey, which takes about half an hour.

Another new development was the roadworks on 学前东路 (Xue Qian Donglu) alongside Yaohan (aka, Ba Bai Ban). The road is completely blocked off at the moment as they rip up the surface, but that whole section to the next intersection has needed seeing to for a long, long time.

Things have also changed out at Ikea with the opening of the Livat shopping mall. This appears to be run by Ikea, and there are connections between the two buildings, but the shops in the mall are the usual sort of thing, and include a cinema, Auchan (a supermarket), and yet another Suning. The place also has Subway and Burger King, which both used to be in Parkson before they vanished. I’ve been wondering whether either place might reappear in town, but at the moment, they’ve been banished to the New District, and although it’s not difficult to reach them, the journey vacuums up quite a chunk of time.

Livat is also a good deal more expansive than it seems. From outside the building is reasonably large, but that also disguises the depth behind it. Most of the shops are up and running with a few blanks in between. I notice, though, that once again, there’s never anywhere to sit down. Perhaps this is to stop the local bumpkins swarming into the place for free air con but for little else. (They were already lolling all over the beds in Ikea.)

I wandered around the building, but by that time, I’d bought the lamp from Ikea and had had lunch, and there was no reason for me to linger. I note that there is ultimately nothing special about Livat. It’s the usual sort of shops, most of which don’t interest me in the slightest and most of which are already in town – apart from Subway and Burger King. I also note, once again, the complete absence of any bookshops.

One thing I noticed when I was in Chengdu was just how different the Far Eastern is there from the one here. In our one, there is a central space with the shops around it. The one in Chengdu has no central space, which makes it feel very different. It seemed more claustrophobic and more like those vast clothing markets in Beijing which I visited once or twice, where everything is packed in like sardines on floor after floor. On the other hand, the IFS building in Chengdu has a central space which, I assume, is some sort of psychological ploy intended to improve the shopping experience. (That’s probably what the brochure said, but probably didn’t say “ploy”.) Along with many of the shopping malls in town, Livat is based on the same principles.

Map of Wuxi Metro, Line 1

When I go shopping later, I’ll venture into one of the Metro stations to have a look at a map to see where the line goes, and perhaps where it’s supposed to be going. Is Line 1 the usual north-south affair or is it a circuit? What were they doing outside BuyNow on Wu’ai Lu, which seems to be a bit removed from the rest of the Metro system? I thought it was going to be another entrance, but that now seems highly unlikely.

[A little later. I went into the Sanyang en­trance outside Parkson and took this picture of Line 1. I suspect that Line 2 will run east-west and will include the station out near Ikea, though currently nothing heads into the New District (新区).]


The White War. Life and Death on the Italian Front 1915-1919

By Mark Thompson.

At the start of World War I, Italy was still a comparatively new country. It was allied to Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire, but when the war began, it took a neutral stance until 1915 when it launched an attack on Habsburg lands to the northeast, motivated by territorial expansion. The result was the wasteful deaths of hundreds of thousands of Italian soldiers, who often had no idea what the war was about, on the altar of Italian nationalism and military incompetence.

On the other side, the Austro-Hungarian Empire and its multiethnic army clung on by the skin of its teeth because it had the advantage of occupying the high ground and that ground was often better prepared. Against the odds, especially the geographical and climatic ones, Italian attacks may have reached and taken frontline trenches, but they were regularly rebuffed by counterattacks. On each occasion, nothing seemed to be learnt.

The lot of Italian soldiers was not helped by General Cadorna, the commander-in-chief, who threw away the lives of his men with complete indifference and who instigated decimations to punish rebellious units. Similarly, the Italian government caused the deaths of a further 100,000 men by refusing to send food parcels to Italian PoWs. When the PoWs returned to Italy, they were treated more like traitors.

There does, though, seem to have been a lot of casual betrayal. Defectors and prisoners from both sides seem to have felt little compunction about passing on intelligence about imminent attacks.

The narrative of the war is intercut with chapters about the motivations of the soldiers, and the motivators behind the conflict such as the egotistical poet, Gabriele D’Annunzio. Most of these people could simply be placed under the blanket heading of (extreme) nationalists. There is also a look at war reporting. Journalists had to toe the party line, but were privately appalled by what they saw, and military reports were typically full of empty, asinine bombast.

There were some successes, but they were often costly, and when the Habsburg army pushed back, the entire front collapsed to the point that Venice was potentially in danger. The only thing which saved the Italians further loss of territory was an Austro-Hungarian campaign too far. The Empire struggled to cope with all of the demands on it, and units at the front were usually under strength.

Even after the Armistice, the Italian government showed a knack for being extremely annoying because of its excessive demands for territory to which it had no real claim. As a result, Trieste became an international enclave for a time because these issues could not be satisfactorily resolved, and the matter was not really effectively dealt with until after World War II.

There is an appearance by Erwin Rommel, who won Germany’s highest award, Pour le Mérite, for capturing Matajur and just over 9,000 PoWs with a small band of men.

While the book is not uninteresting, the chapters on the philosophical motivations behind the war and its participants tend to bog it down. The toxic effects of Italian nationalism are established early on, and that should have been enough. Some chapters can be excused for focusing on certain soldiers, but Thompson often waffles unnecessarily.

The book also shows that there was already a very strong Fascist tendency in the newly unified Italy, which makes Mussolini’s rise to power in the 1920s unsurprising. The nationalist demagogues were disastrously effective with more exciting arguments than their opponents could bring to bear.

The Kings’ Mistresses

By Elizabeth C. Goldsmith.

The subtitle of this book is The Liberated Lives of Marie Mancini, Princess Colonna, and her sister, Hortense, Duchess Mazarin, which is, I think, just as inaccurate as the title.

The pair, Marie (1639-1715) and Hortense (1646-99) were the nieces of the Italian-born Cardinal Mazarin (1602-61) who was, in effect, Louis XIV’s Prime Minister for nearly twenty years until his death in 1661. Louis and Marie took an instant liking to each other and even when they were separated, they still maintained a steady stream of correspondence until they finally understood the reality of the situation, that Louis was going to marry someone politically expedient in the form of Maria Theresa of Spain. Marie got packed off to Italy to marry the Prince of Colonna.

Initially, Marie’s time in Italy seems to have been quite enjoyable with plenty of amusements and entertainments, but relations with her status-obsessed husband eventually fell apart until they reached the point at which she decided to flee.

Hortense married Armand-Charles de la Porte de la Meilleraye, who was obsessed with her and obsessively religious, whom Mazarin may have seen as the man to curb Hortense’s somewhat independent spirit.

Stuck with two husbands who were not the best matches, Marie and Hortense both ended up on the run, travelling across Europe often under perilous circumstances, contending both with the conditions and the pursuit of their husbands’ agents and looking for safe havens.

Hortense, aged 19, made her way to England, arriving their at the very end of 1665 to spend the rest of her life there among the French émigré community. She was, for a time, Charles II’s mistress, displacing Louise de Keroualle in his affections. It was in England that she wrote her memoirs, although she doesn’t appear to have made much money out of the book. She may have maintained a salon-cum-gambling den, but her life appears to have become a downward spiral gambling and alcoholism leading to her death at the age of 53 in 1699. Ironically, it was because of her debts that her husband finally spent some of the money he had denied her so that he could recover her body.

Marie was also unfortunate in a different way in that she kept ending up as a virtual prisoner in one place or another, financially supported by her husband only because he did not want to lose face. In 1674, at the age of 35, she travelled to Spain where there would be a partial, but un­satis­factory resolution with her husband. After reading her sister’s memoirs and her own (written by someone who seems to have known her), Marie, too, put pen to paper. Her husband eventually died in 1689 while Marie was to remain in Spain until Carlos II died in 1700. After nearly thirty years, she was on the road again in her early 60s.

The subtext at this point seems to be that the Princess Colonna may have been a little senile because she was deceived by a number of con artists. In 1704, she returned to Paris for the first time in forty-four years to bring legal proceedings against one of these tricksters, but she did not see Louis.

Marie’s remaining time was spent in northern Italy, shuttling between her homes in Genoa, Livorno and Venice before dying in Pisa in 1715 just a few months before Louis XIV came to the end of his own life.

As I said above, the title is potentially misleading. Hortense was a king’s mistress (assuming that to be awarded such a title, the relationship must be adulterous). Marie was merely a king’s girlfriend, although back in the day the word “mistress” probably covered both regardless of the marital status of the participants. They were only the mistresses of kings for fairly short periods of their lives. As for their liberated lives, it is true that they did not conform to the norms of the day, but again, I don’t think the subtitle is exactly accurate, either. Marie seemed to spend a lot of time in one sort of purdah or another as she sought to be permitted certain liberties. Hortense may have been more liberated in one sense, but just as Marie spent nearly thirty years of her life in Spain, she spent over thirty of hers in England. She was ultimately less constrained than her sister, but she remained firmly on the far side of the English Channel.

I have included dates and ages in the review to supply a chronological perspective which is lacking in the book. At one point, Goldsmith mentions that twenty years have passed, but there’s little sense of the passage of time from the text. In truth, the sisters seem to have dined out on their notoriety for a long, long time without really adding anything new to their exploits. Their prolonged disputes with their husbands seem to have been a consequence of the two men’s asinine stubbornness more than anything else.

The story of the Mancini sisters is an interesting one. Their plights do seem to have stirred a lot of debate about marriage and women’s rights in European society, but there is a gap between a debate and taking action over an issue. They may have slightly improved the lot of women in Rome, but their overall impact, beyond being a source of news and gossip, would appear to have been negligible.

A Spy among Friends. Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal

By Ben Macintyre.

This is one of those books where at the end of the day, I have little to say about it.

It tells the tale of Kim Philby who got a job with MI6 because of the Old Boy Network, but was, in fact, a Soviet agent. He was charming and charismatic, and an alcoholic. He was lucky that he was not rumbled several times, but was kicked out of MI6 after Burgess and Maclean defected only to be readmitted after the fuss died down. He was also so committed to the cause that the purges of the 1930s did not cause him to waver, and when he was approached by the Russians in Beirut after his period of exile, he resumed his work for them without, apparently, a second thought.

All the while, Nicholas Elliott, who had also been recruited through the Old Boy Network, idolised Philby and strongly defended him against allegations that he was the Third Man; but he also confronted Philby in Beirut when incontrovertible evidence of his treachery came to light and was the one who let him escape to Russia – probably to spare HMG’s blushes as well as MI6’s and Elliott’s own.

Macintyre tells a very readable story about Philby which had me ploughing through the entire book in one day. It tells Philby’s story, but like the two main protagonists, it has a gentlemanly tone, never degenerating into some subjective rant about what a vile traitor the man was.

I myself do not really understand why Philby would have spied for Soviet Russia because presented with the choice of Hitler and Stalin, I would’ve chosen neither, regarding both as equally inimical. Dictators only care about themselves, and one-party states are only paradises for the people who have the power and inevitably the money. Betrayal is not the problem, but rather the wilful preference for a far worse system; but perhaps there was a certain political naivety stemming from the inexperience of youth.

Curiously, in spite of his political leanings, Philby never really seems to have been a man of the people. He never sneaks off to the East End for a convivial evening with “real” people, although because of his job, that would have been a potentially risky proposition. It’s hard not to suspect that Philby would’ve been outwardly jovial, but inwardly horrified by the working classes at close range unless they were female and attractive.

Music in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries

By Richard Taruskin.

(This is part of the series, The Oxford History of Western Music; some reviews on Amazon have complained about not being warned that this is part of a more comprehensive work.) Taruskin opens with a discussion of the appearance of opera, a musical genre which marks out the entire period as distinct from what preceded it. Although he also mentions the rise of purely instrumental music across these two centuries, opera, by and large, remains the focus of much of the book. Throughout, Taruskin also looks more closely at various pieces of music, analysing them to demonstrate what the composer was doing, and show how a lot of works were hardly conventional. He also tries to get away from the notion of defined periods such as Baroque, Classical and Romantic by showing at times how proponents of old and new styles were composing contemporaneously (e.g. Bach and his sons).

Just as Taruskin tries to avoid labels such as Baroque, he also observes that the notion of a classical canon was alien to the age (along with the primacy of the composer and the inviolability of the score), and yet paradoxically, he chooses to focus on Bach and Handel, who are as canonical as any these days, while largely neglecting their contemporaries. More ironically, he notes that Bach was a provincial composer who looked back to a musical tradition and yet composed the harpsichord cadenza in the 5th Brandenburg Concerto which, like these pieces as a whole, was a peculiar thing that was never attempted again.

The culmination of the book is Beethoven, the establishment of a classical canon, and the rise in status of the composer, which contrasts with the reality of the two centuries which preceded this point: no score was fixed, there was a good deal of improvisation, and the composer stood a lot lower in the musical hierarchy of the day.

This is not a book for general readers who enjoy the music of the period, but whose knowledge of composition may be scant or non-existent. Taruskin’s analyses are no doubt interesting to the musically knowledgeable, but for the unenlightened, they are unenlightening pieces of luvvie-ish musical exegesis.

In spite of being published in 2005, the book shows its age. Taruskin is aware of the early-music movement (although rightly excuses any detailed discussion because such things belong to the modern age of musical performance), but seems blissfully ignorant of the revival of neglected and forgotten composers. Corelli is, as far as he is concerned, as occasional amusement for violin students even although a survey of albums of music by Corelli reveals that he is far from neglected. References to the Soviet Union and even Nazi Germany mark out Taruskin as someone whose worldview and thinking belong to a different age.

Another fault, in my view, is the inclusion of occasional references to the US in a book which requires almost no mention of the place whatsoever. It’s another reflection of the parochialism of Americans who often seem to have no conception that they are addressing an international audience and not just a domestic one. In addition, I would have preferred writing that was more objective and more detached.

This is not, therefore, a book I would recommend to anyone who lacks a technical knowledge of music because too much of it will mean little or nothing to general readers. Much of the rest seems to leave large holes (for example, Telemann and Leclair get mentioned in passing), which is understandable because a thorough study of the period would have resulted in a work of monumental proportions.

Appendix 1

While I was reading this book, I was wondering what I wanted in a history of Baroque music. I think that London Baroque, who recorded eight albums of trio sonatas from 17th and 18th century England, France, Germany, and Italy had the right sort of structure to which might be added a half chapters for Spain (name a Baroque Spanish composer; no, I can’t name one either, but I can name several from the Renaissance) and Eastern Europe (because there must’ve been composers who weren’t called Zelenka).

The chapters would not just discuss music in these countries, but also look at them in the context of European culture and the spread of musical ideas. Chapters on music in England would not just be about Purcell and Handel, and ones on Germany would put Telemann back in his place as the real star of the show. Corelli and Leclair wouldn’t just be a couple of violinists who scribbled down some music, just as French music wouldn’t only be Lully, Couperin and Rameau.

Appendix 2

I’ve also been wondering whether much 17th century music should be be classified as something else because it seems to have more in common with the preceding century than it does with the sort of music I think of as typically Baroque. Purcell, for example, may have been composing at the end of the 17th century, but his instrumental music seems antiquated, and I can understand why Charles II preferred something he could tap his foot to. The music, as I’ve noted before, retains a very vocal quality, which is reinforced by the timbre of instruments such as viols and recorders.

Traditionally, 1750 is more or less regarded as the terminus of the Baroque period, followed by the Classical and Romantic periods. There’s no reason why the start of the Baroque period could not be as late as the 1690s, although what the preceding period might be called (Proto-Baroque?), I don’t know.

I also observe that so many so-called Renaissance composers were still around in the early 17th century that the Renaissance period might be extended into the 1620s or so without any undue issues.

There are points in time when things are different. Bach’s sons wrote a distinctly different sort of music, as did Mozart, as did Beethoven to an even greater extent. There is a similar audible gulf between the music of the early 18th century when Bach, Telemann and Handel were hitting their 30s and what preceded it. However, I also recognise that this is a quite complicated matter because the spread of musical ideas across Europe could be slow and even impeded by conservative musical tastes (e.g. Lully in France) so that the Baroque period began in Italy a lot sooner than it did in France and England. At the same time, as I said, there are points where the music of one period sounds different and that is true, I believe, of 17th and 18th century music.

Ikea’s sleepy customers – in pictures | Business |

Ikea’s sleepy customers – in pictures | Business |

If only this was quite as it seems. In fact, most of the sleeping in Ikea in China tends to be done in the sofa section, which is usually near the entrance. And the Chinese don’t just sleep on them. I’ve also seen women changing babies on the display furniture without the slightest regard for anyone else.

In China, there are two sorts of people – conspicuous consumers, who think nothing of wasting huge amounts of money on, say, overpriced handbags (or products from Ikea), and the rest who may not be that impoverished, but are cheap.

These are the people like the good ol’ boys who used to watch DVDs in the Walmart down 青石路 even although they were never ever going to buy the player or the screen.

These are the people who sit on the banks of chairs in bookshops reading books, but almost certain never buying them.

These are the people who never get the brakes on their electric bikes replaced, but use their feet as brakes instead; and who don’t replace the lights either.

A lot of people don’t have 2角 to rub together, but the culture of parsimony remains widespread in China even among people who don’t need to pinch pennies to that degree.

Since I wrote this this morning, pictures of two bright young female things flaunting copious quantities of cash have been mentioned on line today. One is alleged to have made the money from betting on the World Cup (although isn’t gambling illegal in China?), and the other appears to be some vulgar nouveau riche sporting sums of money beyond most of the rest of the population of the planet yet not above flaunting herself in bra and knickers on a bed heaped with ¥100 notes.