Friday, August 28, 2009

Commedia del'arte

This sixteenth century drama in Italy was the precursor to our pantomime tradition. There were three pairs of characters: Harlequin (Arlecchino) and Columbine, Pierrot (Pedroline) and Pierette and Pantaloon (Pantalone) and Clown. Harlequin was a very agile but slow-thinking servant adored by the maid Columbine. Pantaloon, sometimes Columbine's master and sometimes her father, was against the match and engaged Clown to help him break off the affair. Pierrot, another servant, suffers from unrequited love for Columbine and Pierette is his friend who listens to his tales of woe. The highlight of the play was Harlequin being chased around the stage by Pantaloon and Clown, whacking various objects with his stick as he passed them, transforming them by magic into different forms.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Mithridates - A.E.Housman's view

There was a king reigned in the East:
There, when kings will sit to feast,
They get their fill before they think
With poisoned meat and poisoned drink.
He gathered all the springs to birth
From the many-venomed earth;
First a little, thence to more,
He sampled all her killing store;
And easy, smiling, seasoned sound,
Sate the king when healths went round.
They put arsenic in his meat
And stared aghast to watch him eat;
They poured strychnine in his cup
And shook to see him drink it up:
They shook, they stared as white’s their shirt:
Them it was their poison hurt.
–I tell the tale that I heard told.
Mithridates, he died old.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Mithridates VI Eupator

There is news that the remains of Mithridates' palace have been excavated on the Taman Peninsula in Russia. He lived from 134-63 BC and was King of Pontus, on the south coast of the Black Sea. He conquered the neighbouring territories, expanding his kingdom into Anatolia and then came up against the Romans, eventually being defeated by Pompey.

He was famous for his paranoia of being poisoned. He suspected his mother of poisoning his father and many of his siblings and is said to have hardened his body against poison by consuming increasing amounts of sub-lethal doses and then making a universal antidote whose ingredients were, according to Aulus Cornelius Celsus: "1.66g Costmary, 20g Sweet Flag, 8g hypericum, gum sagapenum, acacia juice, Illyrian iris and cardamon, 12g anise, Gallic nard, gentian root and dried rose-leaves, 16g poppy-tears and parsley, 17g casia, saxifrage, darnel, long pepper, 20.66g storax 21g castoreum, frankincense, hypocistis juice, myrrh and opopanax, 24g malabathrum leaves, flower of round rush, turpentine-resin, galbanum, Cretan carrot seeds, 24.66g nard and opobalsam, 25g shepherd's purse, 28g rhubarb root and 29g saffron, ginger, and cinnamon. These are pounded and taken up in honey. Against poisoning, a piece the size of an almond is given in wine. In other affections an amount corresponding in size to an Egyptian bean is sufficient."

Do you have a view on whether an almond is larger or smaller than an Egyptian bean?

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Indian economy

I went to an Indian conference last week and learned that every year there are on average 29m children born in India. Of these, only 400,000 are eventually employed in "organised sector employment." Of the rest, 10m go into the agricultural sector, 8m into self-employment and 10.6m are left unemployed. The Indian government is concentrating resources on education and I met some impressive companies who are broadcasting lessons from well-qualified teachers situated in Delhi via satellite to thousands of children in village schools. The IT systems enable questions and answers and are a great step forward. The founders of one of these companies, resplendent in her sari and dripping with gold jewellery, explained to me that in the past, biology teachers used to have to draw arterial systems on a blackboard with chalk but nowadays the children can see the heart pumping the blood around the body on a computer which gives them a far clearer understanding.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Bournemouth Air Show

Being at the seaside removes many stresses of working life. I worked in London for many years and first had the twice daily struggle with the sweaty tube. I was later given a space in the office car park which meant that the journey in was fine for my 7am start but the journey home could take an age, particularly when Chelsea was playing at home. Eventually I found the perfect commute: a walk across Hyde Park which was all the more spectacular for the occasional early morning exercises of the Household Cavalry. The job, however, was not perfect and so I moved out of London and joined my old boss who'd set up in Bournemouth so I now enjoy a daily drive through the New Forest and can go to the beach at lunchtime to blow my cares away. Then, of course, there's the annual Bournemouth Air Show. To see the Red Arrows painting red, white and blue pictures over the sea, to be thrilled by the roar of the engines and to see them upside-down in corkscrew manoeuvres just about compensates for the glitter of the cavalry in the early morning sunshine.

Friday, August 21, 2009

US vs UK health continued...

I was talking to a couple of Americans about the health debate yesterday. One said that as the US system is run for profit, there are far too many tests being offered. He gave me the example of his 95 year old uncle who's living in a home and had a fall. The home then rang his son and said they needed to perform 10 tests, each costing $x. He said that his own parents are in their 80s and each see 7 consultants about various ailments. The other said that one reason that the NHS costs so much less than the American healthcare system is that it offers very little preventative care. She claimed that the NHS offers breast screening to women aged 50 and over, whereas in the US, screening starts at the age of 38. She said this is the reason why a far higher percentage of women die from breast cancer in the UK than in the US. I do not know whether this is true. Do you?

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

RIP Kim Dae-jung

The former President of South Korea, Kim Dae-jung, died yesterday aged 85. He had received the Chinese curse: "May you live in interesting times." In the 1970s and 80s he fought hard to promote democracy in South Korea and survived five attempts on his life. In 1971 a 14 tonne truck forced his car off the road. Kim survived, injured. In 1973 South Korean intelligence agents kidnapped him from a hotel room in Tokyo and dragged him off into a boat with the intention of drowning him. He was saved by the CIA arriving by plane, an act which Kim, a devout Catholic, described as the intervention of Christ. He became President in 1998 and is best known for the introduction of the Sunshine Policy: engaging with North Korea. Here's a photo of him with Kim Jong-il, the Dear Leader of North Korea.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

The moon and the hare

An Indian legend relates that Buddha was a hare in an early incarnation, travelling in the company of an ape and a fox. The god Indra, disguised as a hungry beggar, decided to test their hospitality. Each animal went in search of food, and only the hare returned empty handed. Determined to be hospitable, the hare built a fire and jumped into it himself, feeding Indra with his own flesh. The god rewarded this sacrifice by transforming him into the Hare in the Moon.

In China, the Hare in the Moon is depicted with a mortar and pestle in which he mixes the elixir of immortality; he is the messenger of a female moon deity and the guardian of all wild animals. In Chinese folklore, female hares conceive through the touch of the full moon's light or by crossing water by moonlight or by licking moonlight from a male hare’s fur. Figures of hares or white rabbits are commonly found at Chinese Moon Festivals, where they represent longevity, fertility, and the feminine power of yin.

Monday, August 17, 2009

The Fates

Phidelm was reminding me of famous classical trios such as the Fates. In Greek mythology they were called Clotho ("Spinner") who spun the thread of life, Lachesis ("Alloter") who alloted the length of the thread to each person and Atropos ("Unturning" ie "Inevitable") who cut the thread with her terrible shears, thereby causing death. The Romans changed their names to Nona ("Nine"), Decima ("Ten") and Morta ("Death") and by so doing changed the meaning. This was because a child born in the ninth month was by Roman calculation premature. The tenth month was on time and "morta" meant "still born." Therefore, the Romans used to pray to the Fates before a child was born.

Friday, August 14, 2009

The teeth of the matter

The scare stories about the NHS being paraded in the US as arguments to avoid state subsidy of the health sector are quite funny. I heard one American saying that he thought the worrying thing about the Obama plan was that American teeth would deteriorate to the condition of British teeth. I am not an expert on dentistry but I am told that Americans spend three times as much on it as Brits and consider brilliant white, perfect teeth to be a basic right. My source also claims that Americans have far fewer false teeth than Brits and says this is due to the fact that they didn't have to suffer rations in the War. I find this hard to believe as I thought Americans consumed far more sugar than Brits. What is your view?

Thursday, August 13, 2009

On the Moors (a day late)

This was a John Leech cartoon published in Punch in 1854.
The caption is:
Mr Puff: "My bird, I think."
Mr Muff: "Belongs to me, I fancy."

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

The Graeae

The Graeae were daughters of the sea god Phorcys and the hideous sea monster Cetus. Hesiod says their names were Deino ("dread"), Enyo ("horror") and Pemphredo ("alarm"). In Greek mythology they took the form of ancient grey haired ("graeae") women who shared one eye and one tooth between them. Perseus stole their eye when they were passing it to each other and forced them to betray the whereabouts of their other three sisters, the Gorgons, namely Medusa, Stheno and Euryale.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009


As we are waiting for Wumart, the Chinese supermarket company (think "Wal-Mart"), to announce its results today, I am reflecting on what an extraordinary few months the shares have enjoyed. Last year, a Chinese businessman called Zhao Danyang paid a record $2.1m in a charity auction on e-Bay to have lunch with Warren Buffett. The lunch took place on 24 June this year at the Smith & Wollensky steakhouse in New York. The day before the lunch, Zhao Danyang told the press that he'd be recommending Mr Buffett to look at one of his favourite companies, Wumart. This news set the share price on fire. On 24 June the price was HK$8.55. When he got back to China on 28 June, Zhao Dayang had already made a profit of $14m on his Wumart investment and on 3 August the price hit a high of HK$12.92. It is not known if Warren Buffett also invested.

Monday, August 10, 2009

The Winter's Tale

My neighbour very kindly gave me some tickets for The Winter's Tale at the Old Vic. I hadn't read or seen the play before but I must say I really enjoyed it. The first half is a tragedy of jealousy set at the Sicilian court and the second half is largely a comedy of rustics in the Bohemian countryside. It has notable elements of Oedipus: in each play the king is told that his child will fulfil an oracle. Both kings refuse to believe the oracle and both arrange to have the children killed. Both children (Oedipus and Perdita) are saved by shepherds and in both cases the oracle is fulfilled but in Oedipus' case there is a terrible outcome whereas in Perdita's case there is reconciliation and joy.
The production by Sam Mendes is part of the Bridge Project, a Sam Mendes-Kevin Spacey joint venture so half the actors are British and half American. Simon Russell Beale, Leontes, King of Sicilia, was the best British actor and I thought the best American was Ethan Hawke who played Autolycus, the thieving peddlar. He played the guitar and sang the Shakespearean lyrics in a very modern American style: bravo!

Friday, August 07, 2009


Phidelm, a recent commentator on this blog, was reminding me of playing backgammon in Turkey. As you may know, I taught English to a family in Antakya, for a few months between school and university and went back to visit them on many occasions. My employer (Gazi) was a property developer in Turkey although I lived with his sister and her family while I was there. Gazi had his country's passion for backgammon and he gave me some useful advice on how to improve my game, skills which subsequently I tried out on my schoolfriend JC, over many years. (To this day, we always play backgammon when see each other as she brings her travelling board in her handbag.) Anyway, about a decade after I had first been to Antakya, I visited Gazi in Istanbul and he challenged me to a game. "We'll play for 20,000 Turkish lira!" he declared. I was fairly confident but my optimism was misplaced. I duly handed over the 20,000 note. "Wait!" Gazi said. He handed me a pen. "Your autograph please!" I signed the note, gave it to him and he opened the desk of his drawer. The drawer was full of signed 20,000 notes.

Thursday, August 06, 2009

Omens of the day

I was walking along Bournemouth High Street yesterday when I noticed a large (sadly fake) pearl on the pavement. Mindful of pearls and swine, I picked it up, sure that it was a lucky omen. Back in the office, my colleague told me that he'd returned to his car after shopping and found the whole of the back window covered with flying ants. Apparently the south of England is plagued with them at the moment. I don't suppose Gordon Brown had a good day yesterday, seeing all those photos of Putin flexing his muscles. I'm looking forward to seeing a snapshot of GB diving into Lake Windermere.

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Glad tidings

An angel mosaic has recently been uncovered at the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul and there are plans to uncover three more. As you may remember, Hagia Sophia was a basilica constructed between 532-537 AD under the Emperor Justinian and was converted to a mosque after the sack of Constantinople in 1453. The Ottoman Turks then plastered over the Christian mosaics. It remained a mosque until 1934 when it became a museum. They are trying to date the angel mosaic but are not specific as yet: it could have been made at any time between 900 and 1300.

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Ali Baba or a Li Ba Ba?

There's a good story in today's FT about the Chinese trade of faking Persian carpets. Pakistani rug dealers are outraged that their clients are spending several thousand dollars on Iranian silk carpets which turn out to be Chinese-woven counterfeits. Dealers claim the only way to spot a fake is that it will be sold at around a third to half the price of what one would pay for the genuine article. A Chinese copy of a Turkish Hereke carpet was sold recently at an auction in Turkey and went for six times its estimate of $1000 but whether that was to a dealer to be resold or simply to a happy home, it does not say. caveat emptor.

Monday, August 03, 2009

Black Snowflake

The Winchester sky was thick with black clouds on Friday morning, inspiring me to choose an autumnal brown outfit for Glorious Goodwood. What an error, for Goodwood lived up to its description: hot sunshine and all the favourites came in! The most striking horse was the Godolphin owned Black Snowflake. They had paid $370,000 for the animal and clearly need many victories to recoup their investment. Sure enough, Frankie Dettori had a winning ride.