blending an assortment of thoughts and experiences for my friends, relations and kindred spirit

blending an assortment of thoughts and experiences for my friends, relations and kindred spirit
By Alison Hobbs, blending a mixture of thoughts and experiences for friends, relations and kindred spirits.

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Forward looking

It's New Year's Eve and we're going to have our friends round this evening again. It's time to look forward, not back. Ralitsa has just posted a Happy New Year message on Facebook in Latin––amor vincit omnia!––and I have left the comment sic speremus, let's hope so. Chris has been working on this year's predictions quiz, of course including questions such as "Who'll be the Prime Minister of England this time next year?" and of Canada, of course.

My sister and I have been talking on Facetime about our mother's options for a happier future, and my daughter's thinking hard about happiness in general and how it might better distributed. While my children were growing up I used to encourage them to think of themselves as a stage beyond where they actually were. That thought still applies, to all of us.

Friday, December 26, 2014

At Christmas time

Glad tidying we bring 
To you and your kin ...

sang my oldest grandson at school. His mother liked that sentiment and made sure her oven was clean by Christmas Day.

It's a struggle to keep our homes tidy at this time of year, with all the people and things around. The best policy is to do what can be done and not fret about the imperfections, or so we keep telling ourselves.

Chris went down with a bad cold last week but feels better now that he's had the chance to relax. He kept a singing commitment last Monday, despite the remains of his cold, performing a little, unpublished carol my father composed in 1954, a setting of Winds Through The Olive Trees. We had managed to transpose it down a few tones so that it didn't sound quite as etherial as the original; I think my dad had my infant voice in mind when he wrote it. Chris is a bass. It didn't go too badly, though; the audience seemed to like it. The other carol Chris sang was the 15th century university song––The Boar's Head In Hand Bear I ––with its Latin chorus:
  Caput apri defero, redens laudes domino! 
Chris got everyone to join in with that, me at the piano. The other people at the party were his singing teacher's other pupils and their families. Madeleine, aged 9) played a wistful winter piece on the piano, that she had composed herself, rather in the style of a Russian folk song, although the child was puzzled when I told her that, and Chris too took her aside and whispered to her that she was more musical than everyone else in the room put together. Probably true!

Jonas, with some of Bob's trees!
I remember being one of four musical children at Christmas––the others were my sister, my friend and classmate Sarah and her sister Sue, the youngest of us. Sue was a 9-year-old composer too, in those days, and has since became Director of Music at the University of Kent.

At Christmas I always think of people from the past, and receive cards and letters which I can't bear to throw away.

The weekend before Christmas we'd driven across the snowy wastes east of Ottawa to Bourget to pick up some Christmas tree branches (I didn't want to come home with a whole tree––the branches serve the purpose well enough: see my photo above) and spent a few hours there with our friends, Tracey and Bob giving us their usual warm welcome. Young Jonas joined the party too, this year, and enjoyed his impromptu maths tutorial from Chris, it seems.

We had Carol, Elva, Laurie, Jill and John here on Christmas Eve and Barbara with us for the Christmas Day supper, which meant I spent lots of time in the kitchen betweenwhiles, preparing food. It was worth it for the sake of such good company. We're going to miss John and Jill during the next few months who are just about to set off in John's single-engine Piper Comanche (C-FOIB) from Ottawa to Victoria, BC, an adventure that should take about 20 hours of flying time, depending on the winds. To do this journey in summer would be exciting enough. To do it in winter in such style will be quite extraordinary. They're raring to go and when they do, I'll be following their progress avidly. Fortunately, John is a very experienced pilot.

The weather's remarkably mild at the moment, +5ºC today, all the snow and ice melting and the soil starting to thaw. Today, after a walk through woods and slushy fields above Wakefield with Elva, I came home and did half an hour's worth of gardening! Because of the date, December 26th, that fact did deserve the exclamation mark. Then this evening I did my 30 lengths at the Château Laurier (indoor) pool again. I want to keep in shape because we have now booked our next visit to Sydney, Australia, and I'll certainly want to go swimming while we're there.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Lessons and Carols again

The Christmas Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols I attended in December 2012 at Christ Church cathedral on Sparks Street was the subject of a blogpost I wrote shortly afterwards. I have no idea who reads my blogposts, hardly anyone, I suspect; even so, five of the criticisms I made then no longer apply––the event has improved immensely, so either a dignitary at the church did read what I thought, or someone else forcefully voiced the same opinions as mine, and was listened to!

Today I went (on foot, in the cold wind) to this year's Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols at the same church and came away delighted (buoyed up during my long walk home in the even colder wind, past all the coloured lights on Parliament Hill).

The service began with organ preludes, more suitable as a background accompaniment to people meeting one another and finding their seats in the nave than the vocal music had been, two years ago. This time, the girls' choir was waiting to sing, already assembled in the choir loft and the men and boys were standing at the back ready to move forward to their choir stalls. This year they did process to music, choirs and congregation all on their feet, singing Once In Royal David's City. Each of the hymns turned out to be one that people knew, often by heart––and I was lucky to be standing among good singers in my pew. The main lights were turned off during the choirs' anthems (including Herbert Howells' lovely A Spotless Rose), which helps the concentration, but came on again for the communal hymns so that anyone who needed to could read the words. The barrier of an unfamiliar language had been removed too, the church now having dispensed with its token Bible reading in French.

Here is the programme. (Click to see it.)

Parts of that programme more than delighted me; I found some of that music (William Mathias' Sir Christémas and the Louis Vierne organ Finale) shivers-up-the-spine thrilling. I must admit I have rather a weakness for Stanford Magnificats, too, for personal reasons. How evocative music is! Like Proust's madeleine.

Friday, December 19, 2014

You can't be too careful ... or can you?

I don't usually do this in my blog, but I'm starting this post with a quotation from the Bible (the King James version, because that's the one I know best):
And they brought young children to him, that he should touch them: and his disciples rebuked those that brought them. But when Jesus saw it, he was much displeased, and said unto them, Suffer the little children to come unto me, and forbid them not: for of such is the kingdom of God. Verily I say unto you, Whosoever shall not receive the kingdom of God as a little child, he shall not enter therein. And he took them up in his arms, put his hands upon them, and blessed them.
I went for an "Interview" earlier this week, to be checked out as a potential volunteer who'd be spending time with young children. Not much time, actually, as the volunteering I'm applying for would only be for a few hours, once a month, in the company of other adults and the children's parents. Even so, the latest regulations oblige everyone to comply with the investigation system.

How far things have changed since I last volunteered to work with small children, some 15 years ago, was a revelation to me. Not only do I now have to be interviewed by the social services beforehand, I also have to hand in my CV and an application form, have to sign two statements regarding confidentiality and non-violence policies and undergo not one but two police (RCMP) record checks. The second of these, I was told, the Vulnerable Sector Check (i.e., to ascertain whether I am fit to be left in the company of young children) will probably take three months to be processed. I have to hand the forms in at the police station in person.

Generally speaking I don't know how effective this process is in finding potentially dangerous volunteers. I gather they only check police records as far back as the past five years, and only within this country.

At the interview, I talked about my teaching experience, my previous experience with children and as a volunteer, and found out what the applied-for work would entail. So far, so good. Then the interviewer asked if I understood what their no-violence policy meant.

I was puzzled by this question because "no violence" sounds fairly self-explicit to me; I couldn't think what I was expected to say, and I should probably have resisted the temptation to reply in a rather sarcastic tone, "I imagine it means I mustn't hit the children."

Oh dear, that was not the best possible answer. She gave me a sharp look and made a note on a form that she wasn't letting me see.

Next question: did I understand––and as a former teacher I should, she said, emphatically––what their policy of "confidentiality" entailed? Again, it seemed pretty obvious; I gave her some synonyms for confidentiality. You want to know whether or not I'm trustworthy, and that I won't pass on any private, family secrets revealed by the children concerned (especially not in my blog!), and so on. She was marginally happier with that answer, but still wasn't sure about me. She wanted me to appreciate that some of these families have had recent traumas and are only just recovering. Sometimes they come fresh from tore worn countries, she said. She used this malapropism three times in the course of our conversation. I thought it best not to correct her.

Third question, would I be happy to help with the less sensitive jobs such as greeting the parents or photocopying the information sheets?

No worries there.

Following her script, she then asked, do you have any questions?

Would you trust your child with this woman?
Supposing I'd be interacting with children during the volunteer days, would I be allowed to pick them up, sit them on my lap?

Oh no! was the immediate, shocked response. Of course not.

I pointed out that when I'd volunteered at a centre for children at risk in the 1980s, the professional social workers there had advised us volunteers to take the obstreperous children in our arms and hold them as tightly as we could. That was the policy in those days.

"But that's holding! You can't do that here until you've been on a training course. You can't sit them on your lap either. Why would you want to do that?"

"To keep them under control."

Again, the sharp look and the scribbled note. "What do you mean by control?"

"Well, to calm them down." The children felt safer if they were being held firmly and the method did usually seem to work. "How else should we have managed that sort of situation?" I genuinely wanted to know.

"We would get the parent to come over. Only the parents may hold their child. Or health workers who have been specially trained."

"Would I be allowed to stroke their heads?"

(That would be just about acceptable, it seems.)

"Or touch their hands?"

Long pause. She was not so sure about that. There is so much perversity out there that you can't be too careful. Volunteers, even though they've had their police records checked with such thoroughness, obviously can't be trusted to keep a respectable distance. She told me that baby sitting services were offered by the social services, but that these assigned baby sitters are not allowed to change the children's diapers (nappies) while alone with them. Presumably the poor little things have to wait screaming with misery until their mums get home while the babysitter tries in vain to comfort them with soft murmurs from the other side of the room.

By this stage of the interview I think I was in more of a state of shock than my interviewer, but I did sign the forms agreeing to the appropriate behaviour. After digesting what I have learned, I may think twice now before doing what I was intending to do, so those signatures may be redundant. I wonder how many potential well-meaning, useful volunteers they must lose by confronting them with such hoops and hurdles.

My husband, whom children generally love at first sight but who says he would never dream of undergoing such a demeaning volunteer selection process, reckons that officialdom cares more about itself than the people it is ostensibly trying to protect. "They are just covering their backsides," he says, "and if something goes wrong in spite of all these precautions, they can say, well look, we did follow the correct procedures."

Having brought up two children of my own to be loving and responsible adults and parents in their own right, having been a school teacher, having previously worked as a volunteer with refugee children who spoke no English, and with toddlers at risk, I too feel somewhat insulted by the implication that I still can't be trusted in the presence of a child. At least, not without a lengthy screening first. What upsets me above all is the presumption of guilt that this process implies. It is a sign of the times, like the obsessive security checks at our airports. I am an Englishwoman brought up to believe in what J. Mortimer's Rumpole of the Bailey refers to as "the golden thread that runs through British justice," that a person is innocent until proven guilty. Nowadays it seems to be the other way round, which has a Kafka-esque effect. After the cross questioning, I begin to wonder whether I may, in fact, have unconsciously done something criminal, of which I am not yet aware.

And yet, as Simmler says to himself at the end of Dr. Simmler's Planet (a great novel that I reread recently), we don't need to be told what's good and bad, what's right and what's wrong. "We know, we know!"

I am not a defender of pedophiles. As a matter of fact I believe that, although it isn't listed among the Seven Deadly Sins, cruelty, and especially cruelty towards the most vulnerable, is the deadliest of all sins. In hindsight, perhaps I should have said that at my interview.

It also seems to me that it is biologically natural for a children to snuggle up to any adult who is kindly disposed towards them. They can sense goodness and sincerity and kindheartedness––what else would explain the quotation from St. Matthew's gospel with which I started this blogpost?

Jesus, who never went on a course training him how to hold children in his arms, could be trusted, and furthermore, he didn't mince his words on the subject of offences against children:
But whoso shall offend one of these little ones which believe in me, it were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and that he were drowned in the depth of the sea.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

More or less

I noticed this slogan, 
Crave more! Désirez plus!

on the wall of my local grocery store today (supermarkets in Canada are known as grocery stores). It seems to me to sum up all that's wrong with our lives, especially now, at Christmas time. Really, in order to be healthier, happier and finally at peace, shouldn't we be encouraging ourselves to want less

However, if we consumers did that––no longer kept wanting more and more––the whole capitalist system would collapse. Then where would we be?

To brighten the dark, winter days

Nebel hängt wie Rauch ums Haus, 
Drängt die Welt nach innen. 
Ohne Not geht niemand aus, 
Alles fällt in Sinnen. 
Leiser wird die Hand, der Mund, 
Stiller die Gebärde. 
Heimlich, wie auf Meeresgrund 
Träumen Mensch und Erde. 

Misty grey view from the train near Ulm
Christian Morgenstern entitled that poem of his Novembertag, but it could equally well describe the first week of December in Baden-Württemberg and Bavaria this year. We were in thick, wet cloud from our landing to our take-off, never saw the sun once. Echtes November, said a lady sitting opposite me as we rode through the woods on the S-Bahn train from Sindelfingen to Stuttgart Stadtmitte on December 2nd. The following day Chris and I had the same ride in sleet. Then across the countryside, via Ulm and Augsburg, we sat on a train for two more hours, gazing dreamily at the greyness over the hills and valleys around the headwaters of the Danube.

In spite of that, both Stuttgart and München were ablaze with colour and light. Why? Because of their Christmas markets.


Having been here twice before I didn't need to refer to maps, this year. The market stalls were in familiar places too.  I knew where to go for the chocolate dipped fruit on skewers, and where the talking / singing moose's head would be. They refer to the moose as a norwegischer Elch, in Stuttgart. I bought some little decorations carved from southern German trees for Christmas presents. The childrens' skating rink was in operation, as before. DAS FINNISCHE WEIHNACHTSDORF was still there, beside Stuttgart's Altes Schloss, with strips of salmon being smoked on an open fire, and a very long-bearded Finnish Santa in person too, greeting the visiting children ... and me.

Because my deutschsprachige Konversationsgruppe at home in Ottawa had asked me to think of them while drinking Glühwein, I bought myself a mug of that drink and did so. After the Glühwein, for a sit-down and some spiritual refreshment, I went into the big church at the centre of the market and of Stuttgart, the Stiftskirche, to listen to a lunchtime organ recital. Orgelmusik zum Weihnachtsmarkt is played there every day till December 24th, good value at €2.50: on December 2nd, a female organist (Lara Schaffner) played a Bach prelude, a Pastorale by a composer I'd never heard of called Gerard Bunk, and some variations by Mendelssohn.

I found some lunch at the top of Karstadt, one of the big department stores, and carried on shopping. On my way back to the Sindelfingen train, I passed a lively group of five buskers singing in parts, maybe a Romani family, I'm not sure. They were certainly good musicians, attracting an appreciative crowd.


On December 4th while Chris was at his meetings in the northern suburbs, I had less than two hours to spare in Munich before my train was due to depart. Chris and I had been to explore and find (a gourmet vegetarian) supper downtown the night before, a thoroughly atmospheric scene, but I did want to see the city by daylight as well. It exudes prosperity, offering a wide variety of cultural experiences from opera or ballet to a modern German version of The Importance of Being Ernest, here entitled Bunbury.

Mini Frauenkirche above a market stall
I had a brisk and purposeful walk down the pedestrianised Kaufingerstraße,
turning left to visit the Frauenkirche, Munich's cathedral (one of its giant towers covered in wraps), doing a quick circuit of the Marienhof––more market stalls there!––and so back to Marienplatz where the 5 storey bookshop Hugendubel is. I didn't find what I was looking for there (the Heimat DVD) but did find it later that day in Stuttgart's branch of Hugendubel. Then back past the Munich skating rink, across (or under) Karlsplatz to the Hauptbahnhof; I'd left my suitcase in one of the Schließfächer there. My train to Stuttgart left at 11:30. I climbed on near the front.

Besides the millions of Christmas tree decorations, woolly scarves, Dirndls, Lederhosen and Bavarian felt hats complete with a feather in them are all for sale in the Christkindlmarkt, as are Pretzels, sausages, cheeses, Punsch, Bier and Glühwein, roast almonds, spicey heart-shaped Lebkuchen, chocolates, and roasted chestnuts. I saw a class of young children standing round a Punsch stall in a circle waiting for their glasses of hot Kinderpunsch to cool down.

I have more pictures and descriptions of Stuttgart and Munich in the albums on my Facebook page.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Denglisch everywhere!

We didn't spend long in Germany this month, only three days, but that was long enough for us to notice that the language has changed yet again. English has been creeping into it, ever since the 1940s; now it seems to be taking over, exactly as the Wise Guys show us, tongue-in-cheek and without the use of capital letters for their nouns:

How do the older generations cope? Do they just accept the fact that the language they grew up with is rapidly disappearing? Or do they rant and rail?

Most of German society doesn't seem to mind in the least. In München you only have to glance at the adverts around you in the stations, to see that English is altogether trendy:

Das Jobportal für die Metropole. Täglich neue Jobs. Jobs in der Region. Keine Registrierung nötig. Passende Jobs per E-Mail.

Personal Training.

Cross-Media. Bachelor und Masterabschlüsse [not even Meisterabschlüsse!]. SAE Institute München.

Mit der DB-Monatskarte im Abo clever am Stau vorbeipendeln! [clever used here in the German way, as an adverb, not an adjective]

Railteam Infopoint.

DB Lounge. Exklusiver Aufenthaltsbereich für bahn.bonus comfort-Kunden.

Kunden mit City-Ticket erhalten ...

Alle wollen Tech-nick [sic] smarter!

Smarter Tech-nick involves words like logged in, eingelogged [note the English -ed ending for the past participle instead of a -t!], and geliked, as on Facebook.

and in the newspapers:

Bitte Code scannen und Ihre Meinung abgeben.

Doppelseite –– Highlights der Woche.

Nobody would say einkaufengehen nowadays. Man geht shoppen. One German speaking (?) company was called Clean Up. In the coffee shops you ask for einen Kaffee to go.

Not that they get their English completely right, always. In the hotel we stayed at there was a notice in English by the lifts:  Do not use lift in case of fire.

Wanting to take home some real German culture with me, I bought a copy of the most recent film by Edgar Reitz, Die Andere Heimat. Even that ultra-German creation came in a packet of 2 DVDs mit 40-seitigem Booklet.  It's wonderful, by the way, and das Booklet, written by Mr. Reitz, makes for an absorbing read ... in real German.

What children say

One of the greatest pleasures as a grandparent is to hear your grandchildren chattering. I sit there taking notes. Children's talk doesn't pay attention to adult rules and conventions, which is why it's so entertaining. At the age of 3, like Thomas, they haven't quite mastered the rules of grammar yet, either. English verbs and pronouns are a particular challenge:

I don't brush my teeth now. I did it when Granddad was came to my home.

I played that game with Mummy and I beated him.

Thomas is still in awe of his elder brother:

I like all the things what Alex likes!

When I'm bigger than Alex, I'll go to school. (Touches the top of his head) ... I'm this big!

When Thomas plays, he makes up his own rules for board games. We don't want to read the dructions [instructions], he tells his dad, and he's very definite about where his toy cars should be placed on the road mat: This car goes at the really back!

Being boys, my grandsons and their friends play terribly warlike games, although, with a Quaker mum, and having heard at school about the 1st World War, Alexander is beginning to ask questions. On one of our bus rides he suddenly asked me, Do you wear a white poppy? I told him I liked to wear both red and a white poppies on remembrance days, and (briefly!) why. He then gave me his version of the story of his great grandmother's cousin, a pacifist who'd died on active service in the Friends' Ambulance Brigade of the 2nd World War. Alex had obviously been mulling it over in his mind. Emma told me that he had insisted on buying his own red poppy this year.

At his birthday party, with glowsticks as the weapons of choice, not much pacifism was in evidence. Alex ran around shouting Disintegrate, disintegrate! and, in the garden, I'm going to kill you with ultimate bombs! I noticed that his slightly younger friend Fares, from the Palestinian-Jordanian family next door, was concerned for little Thomas when he tried to join in the wild game: You can play in here but try not to get hurt by us. (Good advice, insultingly condescending to Thomas though, who always wants to be part of the fray.) Fares suggested that Thomas play the role of the medical corps––When you're not actually hurt, you just use a healing glowstick! Thomas comes and heals you. But Thomas objected to that, preferring to be part of the heap of bodies on the floor.

Emma points out that these war games always seem to be played in a spirit of fairness, and I myself heard one of the boys say, at one point, We've got to equal the stuff out. Interesting!

These are the baddies, says Thomas, reliving the excitement with his toy warriors afterwards. They hit people with the pokey things.

What are they? I ask.

They're the things what poke out! he answers, amazed by my stupidity. The battle ensues with many sound effects and fierce facial contortions from their régisseur. Them fighted and they all got dead! he concludes, with great satisfaction. Sometimes the children's lego warriors sustain serious injuries, but it's not the end of the world: He throwed his head off and Daddy puts it back on. 

Emma took us and her sons to the Kingston Quaker meeting on the last Sunday of our visit, but the children didn't discuss the pros and cons of war there. They made Christmas decorations for the rowan tree in the Meeting House courtyard and talked about which Christmas carols they liked best. Apparently their three top favourite carols were Silent Night, O Come All Ye Faithful and Rudolf The Red Nosed Reindeer.

Friday, December 12, 2014

A month later

Glowing in the dark!
We're back in Ottawa, having been on our travels again, since November 21st in my case; Chris set off a week later and we reconnected in Heathrow on the 29th. Our grandson Alexander came with me to meet his granddad, chattering all the way about his chess club at school. Alex is now 8 and for once I was there for his Birthday, December 5th, a glow-in-the-dark after school party for five boys, with pizza, fruit and cake.

Opening the birthday presents from his friends
After my arrival weekend in London, thrilled to discover when we went to the pool in Teddington that both of my grandsons enjoy swimming nowadays (Thomas wearing a buoyancy vest, Alexander mainly underwater), I travelled by train on a misty, frosty morning to Cardiff to spend four days with Mum, helping her with the shopping and housework, playing Scrabble (I still can't beat her), and visiting a nearby home "for those who find it increasingly difficult to cope at home without assistance." The staff are friendly and the interior's bright enough to cheer up the residents, we hope. Mum's to have a trial stay there next year (she would be the oldest person there, they told us) while my sister's away on a long holiday. One of the rooms is a "cinema" with Odeon style red curtains and red armchairs facing a big screen on which they show the rugby or films like It's a Wonderful Life. Children's art from the local school decorates the walls as does a collection of film star photos from old films, many of them produced in my own childhood which makes me think I must be getting old myself. The dining room overlooks a playground for the great-grandchildren.

My mother at the Christmas market in Cardiff
I took Mum into Cardiff to see if I could find her a better magnifier from the RNIB headquarters, but it would require an eye test first, which she's recently had. While in Cardiff I was amused to see Germanic Christmas market stalls in and around the Hayes, some even selling Bratwurst and Currywurst. With Mel and Faith we also went to a place called Chapter, a "multi-artform cultural space" in Cardiff where we watched the very long film Mr. Turner, starring Timothy Spall. It was rather disturbing, and brilliantly made, the photography the best I've ever seen in a film. Mum said she had trouble following the dialogue, much of the lead character's articulation being curmudgeonly grunts.

Thames bridge at Teddington
Back in London that Friday evening, I met the younger generation of my family at the Christmas Parade down the Hampton Hill High Street, a chaotically British affair, though I found an African bean stew to kept me going. Next morning Alexander chatted away about his chess club on our bus ride to meet Granddad at Heathrow. We all had a walk in Bushy Park that sunny day and on the Sunday a stroll with Thomas down the towpath from the Teddington locks (the "tide's end") upstream to Kingston, while Peter took Alex to a party.

Pool at the Kingston Leisure Centre
The next week Chris and I were in Germany (see separate blogposts, yet to be written), and on my third weekend back in London we were visited by the other grandparents, with lunch for 8 at Red Peppers in Teddington, and went swimming again after a Sunday morning at the new Quaker premises in Kingston, where Emma helps look after the children. The Meeting House is next door to the Kingfisher Leisure Centre, where the pool is.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Not just lines

This is a post about Chinese calligraphy.

Yesterday evening I went to the opening of an exhibition––"The Beauty of Chinese Characters"–– at the City Hall in Gatineau, the Maison du Citoyen (a very multicultural place, worth a visit).

Admittedly I couldn't read the characters on display, but learned something nonetheless, in particular that every calligrapher has a distinct style, more obvious than the distinctions between people's handwriting in a western context. Modern Chinese calligraphy, i.e. the real thing rather than the printed or electronic form, is a rapidly evolving art form. "After the 3rd session of the 11th party congress," as the informative posters around the hall put it, "the calligraphic art has witnessed a leaps-and-bounds development [...] papers and magazines [about it] have sprung up like bamboo shoots after a spring rain." Various schools of calligraphy exist in modern China, such as the "broad-art-ark of twin oars" (??) and the "eight eccentric personnages of Yangzhou." Calligraphy has always been a highly individual artform: Yang Weizhen of the 14th century, for instance, is said to have created "a pattern of his own as if a person of tousled hair and indecently dressed."

There's more to calligraphy than meets the eye.

The Canada China Friendship Society hosted a talk on the subject which I stayed to hear, although it was given in Mandarin Chinese and the interpreter pronounced it "killography" throughout. She must have been under considerable stress, with the Chinese professor speaking very fast and impulsively. A real enthusiast and expert, he wanted to tell us everything about the origins of modern calligraphy and had hardly got beyond the 11th century before we ran out of time. Because the interpreter was paraphrasing his long sentences rather than translating word for word, I missed a lot, but took notes on the gist.

Not only is this an art form but also a way of life––many different styles can be observed, but they have a common philosophy that is to do with the Yin and Yang, the hard and soft, and the quest for harmony. There are basic rules and specific applications that express the artist's emotions or personality. The way of writing itself has meaning.

Different brushes can be used, from the hair of different animals. Some modern calligraphers now work with their fingers or with pens, but the mainstream still use a traditional brush. In the Cultural Revolution with its big posters, it looked as though the calligraphers were getting a lot of practice, but they weren't following the proper rules. This wasn't art; it was merely communication. If the philosophy (the spirit) is not properly understood, art goes in the wrong direction.

When children learn to write at the age of 6 or 7, they copy the strokes of the characters, learning from the Masters. Once a sentence has been written in Chinese, one cannot correct one's mistakes. The strokes are "not just lines". The characters cannot be a reflection of nature, but are not entirely abstract either. Modern calligraphers change their structure and use different colours to reflect the subject. If they resort to "random strokes," this is not real calligraphy, in the lecturer's opinion, and should not be promoted internationally.

5000 years ago the first characters were carved onto stone by means of a metal tool, a record of daily life in ancient times. Because of the medium those characters were longer and thinner than today's, and 3-dimensional. It took years before calligraphy achieved its "smoothness." Writing had to be done slowly, like Tai Chi, rather than other martial arts. The second generation of characters were squarer in appearance and the finished result looked like a painting, "all the characters working together."

The most renowned of Chinese calligraphers belonged to the 3rd generation, when the speed of writing had accelerated and it had an easier flow. The lines were now connected because the artists did not hold their brushes tightly. They often worked on silk, the authorities adding signature stamps. In the following periods, from the Tang Dynasty onwards, there was a reaction to this flowing style and each character became distinct and of more or less the same size. There was less freedom of style but the writing was easier to decipher.

Humour that doesn't age

Chris and I went to see the NAC's English Theatre production of The Importance of Being Earnest last week. Oscar Wilde wrote it in 1895, calling it "a trivial comedy for serious people *."

The Ottawa audience, seeing it 119 years after its first performance, loved it and laughed at all the jokes. You can read the play in its entirety here. It's not very long, but the NAC performance, including two intervals between the changes of scene, took nearly three hours. The scenery was so excellently done that when the curtain went up for the second Act the audience applauded.

The only modification from the original script was in these lines––
Cecily: I think you had better wait till Uncle Jack arrives.  I know he wants to speak to you about your emigrating.
Algernon:  About my what?
Cecily:  Your emigrating.  He has gone up to buy your outfit.
Algernon:  I certainly wouldn’t let Jack buy my outfit.  He has no taste in neckties at all.
Cecily:  I don’t think you will require neckties.  Uncle Jack is sending you to Australia.
Algernon:  Australia!  I’d sooner die.
Cecily:  Well, he said at dinner on Wednesday night, that you would have to choose between this world, the next world, and Australia.
Algernon:  Oh, well!  The accounts I have received of Australia and the next world are not particularly encouraging...
––in which, of course, the word "Canada" was substituted for "Australia."

Six years before the first appearance of this play a book called Three Men in a Boat was published, by Jerome K. Jerome. His humour is similarly dateless.

* Quakers are serious people and the word "earnest" is often applied to them, but note what they advise one another about marriage:
Remember that happiness depends on an understanding and steadfast love on both sides. In times of difficulty remind yourself of the value of prayer, of perseverance and of a sense of humour.
(my underlining). I dare say the person who wrote that clause was British, too.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

What's best?

To my amusement, words change, or the use of them does.

When my parents were young, superlative things were spiffing, wonderful or marvel(l)ous, as in this Gershwin song

When I was young, such things were fabulous. Since when I remember fantastic, great, super, wicked, cool, brilliant (brill) all meaning much the same. Recently, things that deserve a superlative adjective––or not, depending––have been, like, awesome, but I have a feeling that word will be replaced soon, too. I wonder what will replace it.

Any suggestions?

Monday, October 27, 2014


Chris and I went to a performance by young people of Mozart's Requiem yesterday, to commemorate the centennial of the First World War's beginning. It was well conducted and well sung, with much energy and in a spirit of dedication. All the performers wore black with red poppies. I have my own, very personal memories of Mozart's Requiem––our family joined in a sing-along performance of it at the Royal Albert Hall in London once; my son and daughter used to sing the Lacrymosa movement in their high school concerts; and in the summer of 1984 the work was sung in its entirety at the Johanneskirche in Crailsheim, Germany, as a musical memorial to my father who had brought English and German youth choirs together.

Since Wednesday, a sad day for Ottawa, when a sentry was shot dead while on duty at the tomb of the Unknown Soldier beneath the National War Memorial and was then carried away to his own grave in a ceremonial convoy, deaths and memorials have been on everybody's mind. So much information and opinion has been published about this already, and about the other young man who was shot dead––the killer––and about the possible causes and implications of the attack, that I don't intend to add to it just now. Incidents like this stir up our thoughts and feelings, and we each react in our own, characteristic ways. I'm in the silent observer category. I saw crowds of people laying flowers near the Unknown Soldier's tomb today or just coming to stand there. Two sentries stood guard. It didn't feel like a dangerous place to be.

In contrast, this weekend, Chris and I were involved in the creation of a very quiet, low-key memorial to a man called Grant Campbell who used to be a familiar face at the Flying Club until in 2013 he suddenly didn't turn up any more. It turns out that Grant had died of cancer. Few of us had realised this, and neither had Chris nor I known that Grant had been a cartoonist-animator of some repute. On Saturday, Grant's sister and her husband came to the airport to supervise the planting of a sapling in his memory, a "fall fiesta" maple, in about the same spot where he used to sit talking to his good friend Tony after mowing the grass around the parked aeroplanes and the picnic tables. One day, when it's grown, the tree will provide some welcome shade there. At the moment it has no leaves, but a few of us stood around it all the same and some people helped to shovel in the symbolic heap of soil that the professional tree gardeners had left beside it. When the rain came down more heavily we huddled under the gazebo and the Chief Flying Instructor said a few words in memory of Grant and read us the pilots' poem High Flight by John Gillespie Magee, Jr. that's usually read out on such occasions.

Group of friends at the airport tree-planting ceremony
(photo by Brenda Reid)

Monday, October 20, 2014

"Courage, mon ami, le diable est mort!"

On Facebook, my brother-in-law challenged me to post three positive thoughts per day for a week. For the record, here they are.

Day 1
#1 This is not difficult. I'm grateful that I'm not mentally or physically unwell; otherwise it would be harder.
#2 When I mentioned this challenge to Chris he just pointed to the book of Schubert Lieder on our piano and didn't need to say a word.
#3 I have a whole lot of tasty leftovers in the fridge after the long weekend so shan't have to spend much time on cooking or grocery shopping during the next couple of days.

Day 2:
Clouds over Lake Ontario, photo by George Hobbs.
#1. I love swimming, especially when I can have the whole pool to myself for a while, as happened yesterday.
#2. Growing mint means that I can start the day with a refreshing drink that's easy to make, contains no caffeine and requires no shopping. I just pour hot water over a few mint leaves.
#3. "J'aime les nuages ... les nuages qui passent ... là-bas ... là-bas ... les merveilleuses nuages!" (Baudelaire)

Day 3:
#1. CWLH had his next work assignment in Germany approved, which means we'll both be able to cross the ocean again before the year's out.
#2. "How far that little candle throws his beams!
So shines a good deed in a naughty world." (Shakespeare)
#3. My grandsons are learning to swim.

Day 4:
#1. Today is a free day for me, with no commitments on the calendar. This is a very restorative thought.
#2. It is so important to be considerate to children, because the memory of a happy childhood will comfort people in their old age. This applies to my mum who had an extremely happy childhood, full of laughter and fun. She remembers it in great detail and cherishes her parents (who died in the 1940s) as if they were still alive.
#3. The leaves on my kitchen windowsill speak for themselves ...

* My mother in Wales, photo by Carol Hinde
Day 5:
#1. A couple of my Ottawa friends visited my mother in Wales* yesterday evening––so kind of them!
#2. The cancellation of the Flying Club's cleanup day means that I can go to the Ikebana exhibition at the Japanese Embassy and perhaps see Mayumi there, so I don't mind the wet day.
#3. My Good Companions, and poetry, and music, and the open air. Those are what counteracts the vicissitudes, always. I'm not sure my grammar is correct, but you know what I mean.

Day 6:
#1. Only one more day of having to think positive, then I can get back to normal!
#2. Seriously though, how could I have omitted HUMOUR from my list of sustaining things? Bookmark this page in case you ever you need a tonic:
#3. We're so lucky to live in Ottawa. With all its faults and challenging climate, it must still be one of the best places to live in the world, a thought that strikes us every time we return from a trip away.

Day 7:
#1. If all my muscles ache this morning after swimming last night, it must mean I am developing stronger muscles.
#2. George will be reunited with his family in Beijing today.
#3. "Let me light my light, says the star, and never debate if it will dispel the dark!" (Rabindranath Tagore). This is the slogan for Child Haven, an unassuming, but very effective organisation based in Ontario that rescues destitute children in India, Bangladesh, Nepal and China (Tibet), to give them an affectionate, happy home and a promising future. I cheer up every time I hear or read about this. Salim Uddin, the owner of Ottawa's Shafali restaurants, is a founder member, his ancestral home in Bangladesh being one of the child havens.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Japanese Sogetsu inspired by Canadian art

Close-up of Mayumi's work of art
I went to an Ikebana show in the Information and Culture Centre at the Japanese Embassy and showed some pictures of it on my Facebook page, but as Facebook is all rather transitory, I'll record it here as well. I was very impressed. The arrangements (sculpture with plant materials) had a unifying theme: they were all inspired by Canadian art. Apparently the Ikebana specialists had been given a limited number of works of art (paintings / sculptures) to choose from and each of their creations was a tribute to one of those artworks.

Mayumi's work, front view
Mayumi Shepherd, a local Ikebana teacher from Tokyo, whom I know, sent me a personal invitation to the show. She was one of the exhibitors, her creation inspired by an abstract painting by Jack Shadbolt, entitled "Winter Theme": "As for my arrangement, it's made with 100 pieces of New Zealand Flax," she told me. "First, I make strings from flax when they are fresh and then I knit them together by hand (without needles) and repeat to make a piece like that. It took 6 months to create this large piece."

In the entrance hall was a different piece, very reminiscent of Mary Pratt's Red Currant Jelly.

The Ikebana arrangement (detail)

The painting by Mary Pratt
Here's another pairing that worked extraordinarily well:

Yumiko and her response to Riopelle
Yumiko Tsunakawa's creation, recalled an abstract sculpture by Riopelle ––Yumiko told me that she saw the picture of the sculpture and immediately know what she was going to do, but her search for the right materials took a long time. The metalic, tube like shapes on the left are made of a special kind of builders' paper.

Rather than list all the creations that impressed me, I'll just mention one more, a reworking of a painting by Alex Colville that I'd seen in Toronto earlier this month.

Infantry near Nijmegen, Holland (1946) by Alex Colville

Nancy Sharp's interpretation of Colville's painting
I was in this relatively small exhibition for a long time. Mayumi also tells me that at an forthcoming Sogetsu exhibition in Tokyo, there are going to be 700 creations on display. Imagine how much time I'd feel like spending there!

Saturday, October 18, 2014

What Ms. May had to say

Earlier this month Carol and I attended a CFUW meeting at which we heard Elizabeth May speak. She was introduced to her audience as "the smartest woman in Canada." She is an MP, the leader of the Green Party. I was expecting to learn something about the Green Party that evening, but she hardly mentioned it except by implication. The theme of her talk was Canadian democracy. At one point, with an allusion to Monty Python, she called it "a dead parrot."

"My vision comes from paying attention through six decades of living," she told us. We should all do likewise––pay attention, get engaged, get busy. We have a diminished democracy in Canada now, with political parties and their leaders exerting unhealthy amounts of power, so an informed and active citizenry is essential.

Ms. May comes from a family of left wing activists and she grew up on Cape Breton. She describes herself as a single mum who has no undergraduate degree, although she does have a degree in law. She's a grandmother and a vegetarian who has just published her eighth book, Who We Are, the book being part autobiography and part economic theory. It was the content of the book she wanted to talk about.

She told us who we were. The Canadians' good press was undeserved, she said, and in any case, we no longer have that good reputation. Our state now resembles an "elected dictatorship," with most MPs voting as they're told to vote and the PMO (Prime Minister's Office) being "a cancerous growth that needs to be excised." In her opinion, the PMO's budget, now at $10 million, should be slashed to $2 million at most. Her concern is that the electorate has allowed our democratic system to become "presidentialised." She fears that the only check on the abuse of power is self-restraint and reminded us that Mr. Harper the Prime Minister was not actually elected into that role.

20 years ago, she claims, we used to get better quality news. Now what we are allowed to know is far less useful and objective information is harder to obtain. Legislative committees have become politicised and political parties have charitable status, which makes it easy for them to spend, for example (in the case of the conservatives), $10 million in TV adverts. Nor does she like the way parliamentarians behave in the Houses of Parliament. She spoke of "contempt of Parliament on a daily basis" and called Question Period "bad high school theatre"––she says it's actually against the rules to heckle but no one takes any notice of the rules. The politicians also rehearse their answers to the questions, so the whole process is very artificial. She's obviously disgusted by it and pointed out that Flora MacDonald, whom she greatly admires, believes that "they haven't had a good Speaker [in the House of Commons] since 1972."

It's regrettable, thinks Ms. May, that the opposition parties were unwilling to work together in 2006, when the Conservatives began to lead their minority government. As a rule, minority governments have been healthier for democracy, in her opinion.

Anyway, the apathetic or despairing among us must get over the idea that by not voting we are somehow punishing the powers that be. More of the electorate didn't vote, last time round, than voted Conservative. If only they had bothered. But our first-past-the-post voting system in Canada is unfair and antiquated. It needs to be changed.

This was all preaching to the converted, it seemed, because when she finished speaking she got a standing ovation.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

China in the '70s

Last night I went to a CCFS lecture on China––"Before and After the 1978 Third Plenary Session of the 11th Central Committee"––which was not as tedious as it sounds. The lecturer was Professor Charles Burton of Brock University, a specialist in Chinese history. In 1978 he was a student studying ancient Chinese thought in Shanghai but also taking in the mood and manners of his fellow students, mainly older than he. They were the first class to graduate from Fudan University (in 1981) after the Cultural Revolution had come to an end.

We heard a few of Mao's sayings, e.g. Let the past serve the present and Let foreign things serve China. Dr. Burton's comrades in those days had little or no experience of foreign things and he told how they hung his cheese (sent from his family) on a pole out of the window because it smelled so suspect. The students had all been in the Red Guard at one time or another and were supposed to report on the foreigner's behaviour. They knew he listened to American jazz on his headphones but they protected him, claiming that he was listening to China Radio news instead.

"I loved those guys!"

Children learned about the British and the Japanese incursions into China, so humiliating to the Chinese national pride. The lecture seemed to imply that the Chinese are still suffering from this "defeat at the hands of barbarians," even now. The point / theory of the social revolution led by Mao was that it would make China dominant again. It was largely a peasant revolt, at first. Landlords would be done away with, and not only landlords but also rats, birds, flies, prostitutes, petty criminals and so on. There were campaigns of wilful destruction against all of these groups. The attacks on birds, though, led to an unfortunate proliferation of insects.

After 1949 the Stalinist model of a planned economy took shape. Steel was the main thing, the product that would transform China. Every household was registered, so that the government would know whom they were controlling and where everyone was. Farmers (the impoverished class) were prevented from entering the cities, therefore there were few slums. University graduates were deliberately sent away to the borders of China to develop these regions and traditionalist thinkers were insulted and demonised (called "cow spirits" and such). Food and cotton were rationed and of course intellectual types were permitted less than the workers. Not until 1979 were the academic youth of Shanghai allowed to return to the city for its May Festival, after 13 years in exile. Their banners made a big impression on the young Charles Burton. "Give me back my youth!" one said.

In the 70s, Volume V of Mao's thoughts appeared including his list of the Nine Stinking Categories of people to be hated:

Rich peasants
Counter revolutionaries
Bad elements
Enemy agents

At 5:30am every day, a "sunrise song" was played over the loudspeakers at the university––The East is red! First it was played on xylophones, then by an orchestra, and the third time around by the full orchestra and mass choirs, by which time the campus was thoroughly awake. This would be followed by compulsory physical exercises. One day, that usual music was suddenly replaced by the broadcast of a tango, and The East is red! was never heard again.

Seek the Truth from Facts read the next slogan (i.e. facts, not Marxist ideology); this was the period when the Gang of Four was tried and condemned. Mao's wife claimed not to be so rich as she was accused of being, but simply living on Mao's royalties, so to speak. When Dr. Burton arrived in Shanghai two portraits hung in the classrooms, those of Chairman Mao and Chairman Hua Guofeng.

The lecturer commented that his contemporaries in China had so little control over their jobs, their homes, what they could buy, that this led to a psychology of passivity and a dispirited outlook. Nowadays, they are nearly all civil servants living and working in Beijing, and rich.

Monday, October 13, 2014

The return flight

Looking along the Toronto islands' shore
Coming home from Toronto was interesting, through a changeable cloudscape. Not such an interesting experience as the following day would have been, mind, since on that day there were waterspouts over Lake Ontario. Although the air temperatures had fallen rapidly, as we'd noticed, the lake water was taking longer to cool. A weak "trough" through which we passed on Sunday afternoon caused further instability: gusty winds and a tendency for the air to rotate. We did well to avoid those waterspouts.

Leaving Toronto towards a mix of cloud
On the Sunday morning of our departure, which we spent exploring some of the Toronto islands park, the weather looked fair, with fluffy cumulus and a strong breeze. In the afternoon the breeze was still strong, favouring us with a tailwind of 30 knots at altitude. Chris took us to 5000ft and in the larger clouds north of the lake the air temperature was hovering around 0º which meant that we had to keep a look out for ice on the wing strut, which would imply ice on the leading edge of the wings as well, before long. I thought I detected some; Chris claimed the drops were still liquid, but there was definitely a white frosting on both tyres.

Even so, I wasn't as nervous about the clouds as I had been on our flight from Marathon to North Bay in the summer. We're now in October. Among the clouds en route isolated TCUs were predicted, but only towering to 12,000ft at most, which is a lot less than 40,000ft. Chris teased me about the prospect of being tossed out in the high altitudes. The surrounding air wasn't bumpy at all, despite the wind, and on the ground ahead (we were flying along through or under the cloud bases) we could see sunny patches, which boded well. Over the lake shore to the east were sunlit, lower clouds, another promising sign.

Entering cloud-bases, with brighter weather ahead

Layers of cloud on the northern shore of Lake Ontario
Chris had predicted that we'd emerge into clearer conditions somewhere around Peterborough. We were somewhat east of there, over the "Land o' Lakes" when the skies began to clear, and the ground at our destination seemed to be sunlit, too. Where the clouds were denser and at their greyest, rain showers were visible and so were rainbows. The VFR visibility was superb. The winds at CYRO were light and variable.

Light and shade around Ottawa

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

In Toronto

We made the most of our weekend in the city. After a good deal of searching I had found us a hotel room at a relatively good price: all the downtown accommodation in Toronto is expensive, but we wanted to be close to where George was staying. So George trundled our suitcase and Chris carried the flight-bag some 3km from YTZ airport, past the CN Tower, etc., to the Hilton on Richmond West where we were allocated a room on the 17th floor with an impressive view and comfy fittings. On two afternoons in succession I took the opportunity to have a recuperative siesta on the huge bed. One of the ways of getting up there was to take a "Scenic Elevator" on the side of the building which offered some more bird's eye views of the cityscape. The lobby was full of Baudelairean luxe, calme et volupté, with giant orchids.

Our meals in the city were less extravagant: we twice ate at a Tim Horton's and otherwise at Asian restaurants (Pakistani, Indian, Vietnamese), at The Loose Moose pub and at Dunn's Famous Deli on King Street West.

George with city sculpture

Toronto is full of interesting art and architecture, sculpture very much in evidence. Last weekend we were lucky to have our stay coincide with the Nuit Blanche exhibits on the Saturday night, especially as most of them were near our hotel. It meant that the city was buzzing with people, enjoying the freedom of the traffic free streets, and there were surprises and talking points on every block. The atmosphere was very festive, with children and young people swelling the crowds. We kept Chris and Rob, George's colleague, in sight by virtue of their hats, Chris in his Tilley hat, Rob wearing a stripy one. Every so often we came across a repetitive installation called The Screaming Booth, a box with a door painted yellow on the outside and black on the inside. Individuals could go inside it for a minute or so and scream at will. George and Rob thought it would be a helpful thing to have at their workplace. Another fascinating work of art was the plastic bubble in which you could sit and be isolated, a comment on urban life, most likely.

Nuit Blanche about to begin on Queen Street West


"Walk among Worlds"

Toronto has good and bad qualities. It always seems to be ruined by roadworks and other noisy, dirty and disruptive construction projects, this past year more so than ever, although the only major improvement that will never take place would be to get rid of the Gardiner Expressway that's been running between the railway and the waterfront since the 1960s and severing the citizens from their lake. However, the city does have plenty of interesting art and architecture. As usual when in Toronto, we paid a visit to the University bookshop and the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO), this time to take George to see the Alex Colville retrospective and take the weight off our feet in the curvaceous and calming Galleria Italia, where they serve drinks. You find it by asking one of the art gallery attendants and then pushing through some heavy doors––directions to the cafeteria are not clearly marked.

Much of Colville's art has a "menacing" feel to it, but not all: his paintings of his wife, who must have been his refuge, were tenderly done, even if he didn't always reveal her face to us. Likewise the images of his dogs. In general we couldn't quite decide if his paintings are realistic or not. In aiming to be super-realistic he seemed to transcend realism. Chris thought that his paintings of things happening at speed seemed to have the subjects suspended in time and space, not moving.

The other thing that's worth paying attention to in Toronto is its multicultural aspect. Walking through Chinatown, you might almost be in Beijing, particularly as regards the smells and the sounds made by the people speaking. Outside the food shops the labels on the produce are rarely translated into English. It's assumed you wouldn't shop there unless you could read the hanzi (汉字). Chinatown extends beyond the AGO along Dundas Street (登打士西街) and the parallel streets, spilling into Spadina Avenue round the corner (士巴丹拿道) where I took this picture of Chris and George:

We made the most of Toronto's proximity to Lake Ontario too, Chris giving George and Rob an aerial tour on Saturday morning, and on Sunday morning we took one of the ferries to the islands and back, the return fare only $7. This area too is a remarkably different world from the rest of the city.

Rob in the front seat of PTN, photo by George

View of YTZ and the city, from their flight

George exploring the south shore of the Toronto islands