Saturday 4 June 2011


“Sweet childish days, that were as long
 as twenty days are now…” - William Wordsworth

I was out driving this afternoon whilst going out to meet up with friends and I passed by a park in Carlton. It was a cool but fine afternoon and many people were about. I stopped at a red traffic light and my eye caught and father and his two young children. They must have been three or four years old and they were having such fun. They were playing in a big pile of fallen autumn leaves. Jumping into the midst of the heap, tossing up the dry leaves, rolling around them while squealing with delight. Their father was laughing while watching them, and I too stared from across the road, smiling and partaking vicariously of their carefree and joyous pleasure.

How short our childhood is, in retrospect! While we are young time flows so slowly, and our perception of time is dilated by our limited experience of it. Just as is perception of distance, which seems to be judged by our smaller stature. “Are we there yet?” – that ever-familiar cry seems to exemplify the enormity of both time and space as experienced by the child. Yet, while looking a the scene in the park this afternoon, I thought ruefully how now, in my middle age, time seems to rush by (nearly half the year is over – where did it go?). Cars, trains, planes, our busy lives have made space smaller, and all too quickly “we are there”.

When was the last time I experienced the pure unadulterated pleasure those children playing in the fallen leaves this afternoon were enjoying? Surely decades ago, when I was a child myself. The magic kingdom of childhood, a happy place, a carefree place, a place where we enjoy life the best, or so it should be. For some children things are not as rosy as this…

Today is the United Nations’ International Day of Innocent Children Victims of Aggression, which is observed every year. The purpose of this day is to acknowledge the pain suffered by children throughout the world who are the victims of physical, mental and emotional abuse. This day affirms the UN’s commitment to protect the rights of children. The day originated when UN workers raised the alarm as they were appalled by the great number of innocent Palestinian and Lebanese children victims of war. On August 10th, 1983, the United Nations General Assembly decided to commemorate June 4th of each year as the International Day of Innocent Children Victims of Aggression.

While considerable progress has been achieved in the past few years in obtaining a framework of international norms and commitments that protect the rights and wellbeing of children, the general situation for children remains grave and unacceptable.

It is only appropriate that tonight’s music for Song Saturday is devoted to children and what better than Robert Schumann’s “Kinderszenen” (Scenes From Childhood - 1838) played by Vladimir Horowitz. This is a 1962 studio recording from New York City.

Movement 1: Von Fremden Ländern Und Menschen (Of Foreign Lands and Peoples)
Movement 2: Kuriose Geschichte (A Curious Story); starts at 1:33
Movement 3: Hasche, Mann (Blind Man's Bluff); starts at 2:42
Movement 4: Bittendes Kind (Pleading Child); starts at 3:18
Movement 5: Glückes Genug (Happiness); starts at 4:13
Movement 6: Wichtige Begebenheit (An Important Event); starts at 5:02
Movement 7: Träumerei (Reverie); starts at 5:49

Thursday 2 June 2011


“How fair is a garden amid the trials and passions of existence.” - Benjamin Disraeli

Today we had a salad that was made only from produce of our garden. Although most of our garden is devoted to flowers, we also cultivate seasonal vegetables and herbs, almost as a decorative addition between the clusters of rose bushes, clumps of bulbs and flowering shrubs. The vegetables, herbs and flowers coexist happily and the added benefit is that we always have fresh seasonal vegetables and herbs for our table.

Presently, we have lettuce, spring onions, ochrus vetch, radishes, nasturtiums, broccoli, a variety of herbs (dill, rosemary, parsley, mint, peppermint, oregano, thyme, perennial basil, etc) all growing happily and cropping. Add to that the ripening citrus and the bright red tamarillos and you will see that a salad was there crying out to be made!

I suspect you may not be not familiar with ochrus vetch (Lathyrus ochrus), so I shall provide some explanation. This is a pulse that has been in cultivation for millennia in the Mediterranean region. The Minoans of ancient Crete cultivated it as a vegetable nearly 5,000 years ago and modern day Greeks still enjoy its distinctive flavour. It is available here in Australia although you may have to go out of your way to find it!) and I am sure that it is also known in other parts of the world. The best way to always have it on hand it sow some seeds in the garden in autumn and pinch off the young growing tips to use in salads.

The tamarillo (Cyphomandra betacea) is a very rewarding fruit tree, which requires little care and crops heavily (suits us very well!). It is native to the Andes of Peru, Chile, Ecuador, Colombia and Bolivia. Today, it is still cultivated in gardens and small orchards for local production, and it is one of the most popular fruits in these regions. It is also cultivated widely in South Africa, India, Hong Kong, China, United States, Australia, and New Zealand.  The first internationally marketed crop of tamarillos in Australia was produced around 1996, although permaculture and exotic fruit enthusiasts had increasingly grown the fruit around the country from the mid-1970s on.

Dill (Anethum graveolens) of course, is a popular herb and is a standard ingredient in Greek lettuce salad. It has a highly distinctive flavour and is another plant that has a history of thousands of years of culinary use.

The salad below is an unlikely combination of ingredients that was dictated by the availability of the produce of our garden, but which nevertheless works well!


    • Half a lettuce
    • 2 handfuls of young ochrus vetch tips
    • Several young dill shoot tops
    • Three ripe tamarillos
    • 2 spring onions
    • 1/3 teaspoonful dry mustard
    • Olive oil to taste
    • Lemon juice to taste
    • Salt to taste

Wash and dry the lettuce leaves and heart. The tender stem is chopped and added to the finely shredded leaves.
Wash the vetch leaf tops and add them to the lettuce, stirring through.
Chop the dill finely and add to the salad.
Wash and clean the spring onions, chop finely and add to the salad.
Peel the tamarillos and half them lengthwise. Then slice thinly and add the salad.
For the dressing, combine the oil, lemon juice, salt and mustard and pour over the salad, tossing well.


“Every civilization is, among other things, an arrangement for domesticating the passions and setting them to do useful work.” - Aldous Huxley

On the 30th of May, the BBC aired an episode in a program called “Egypt’s Lost Cities”, which recounted a marvellous archaeological discovery in the northern part of Egypt. One may hardly blink an eyelid because in a large country like Egypt which has such a long history, has been civilised for thousands of years and is so rich in artifacts, yet another discovery like this is not unusual. However, the strange thing about this discovery was that it was spotted by infrared satellite imaging.

The satellite image revealed a distinct pattern of streets and buildings in the buried ancient city of Tanis. This new imaging technique that has been recruited by archaeologists has also shown the sites of 17 lost pyramids as well as thousands of tombs and settlements. Dr Sarah Parcak of the University of Alabama at Birmingham uses satellites to probe beneath the sands, where she has found cities, temples and pyramids. Now, with Dallas Campbell and Liz Bonnin, they are off to Egypt to discover these magnificent buildings buried under the sands.

It is possible that only one percent of the wonders of Ancient Egypt have been discovered, but now, thanks to this pioneering approach to archaeology, the means that we make our discoveries is about to change. The satellites that orbit 720 km above the surface of the earth provide the images, which the researchers analyse and enhance to display the patterns of ancient streets and settlements, temples and pyramids. This gives them very precise information about where to dig and by looking at the satellite image it is almost as if they have a road map of the ancient site.

The city of Tanis is relatively unknown among Egypt’s historical sites, although it yielded one of the greatest archeological treasure troves ever found. Tanis was once the capital of all Egypt, and the royal tombs of Tanis have yielded artifacts on par with the treasures of Tutankhamun. Movie buffs may remember Tanis as the city portrayed in the Indiana Jones film “Raiders of the Lost Ark”. In this movie, the city was buried by a catastrophic ancient sandstorm and rediscovered by Nazis searching for the Ark of the Covenant. This is Hollywood fiction, as in reality the Ark was never hidden in Tanis, the sandstorm didn’t happen, and the Nazis never battled Indiana Jones in the site’s ruins. However, Tanis does exist and its ruins hide many wonderful secrets.

Ancient Egyptians called Tanis “Djanet”, and the Old Testament refers to the site as “Zoan”. Today it’s known as Sân el-Hagar. The site of the city is in the Nile Delta northeast of Cairo, and Tanis was capital of the 21st and 22nd dynasties, during the reign of the Tanite kings in Egypt’s Third Intermediate period. The city’s advantageous location enabled it to become a wealthy commercial centre long before the rise of Alexandria. However, political fortunes shifted, and so did the river’s waters, which led to the city’s abrupt abandonment. It was long known that the ancient city was hidden somewhere in the area, but not exactly where.

In 1939 Pierre Montet, a French archaeologist, discovered Tanis after nearly a dozen years of excavation. He unearthed a royal tomb complex that included three intact and undisturbed burial chambers, a rare and amazing find. The tombs were full of dazzling funereal treasures such as golden masks, coffins of silver, and elaborate sarcophagi. Other precious items included bracelets, necklaces, pendants, tableware, and amulets. Statues, vases, and jars also filled the tombs, all part of an array that still bears witness, after thousands of years, to the power and wealth of the rulers of Tanis. One of the kings, Sheshonq II, was unknown before Montet discovered his burial chamber. But he wore elaborate jewellery that once adorned the more famous Sheshonq I, who is mentioned in the Bible.

Montet’s discoveries were extraordinary, but the timing of his finds was unfortunate. The discovery of Tanis was completely overshadowed by the nearly simultaneous eruption of World War II. Even today, few people know the tale of the treasures Montet discovered. Although the objects of Montet’s excavations are exhibited in Cairo’s Egyptian Museum, they draw far fewer visitors than their more famous counterparts such as the treasures of Tutankhamun’s tomb.

Tanis was found largely as it had been abandoned in ancient times, so the city is home to many archaeological treasures in addition to the tombs. Temples of Amun and of Horus, have been found, with many more to be excavated. Even large urban districts of the ancient city remain, and the site continues to host archaeological expeditions in search of more finds. The “blueprint map” of the city that the satellite images have disclosed is likely to yield rich finds that the archaeologists will now unearth.

It is easy to underestimate the achievements of our ancestors and the size and extent of past human settlements. Visiting many ancient sites one is amazed by the degree of comfort and luxury that ancient people enjoyed, as well as by the advanced science and technology they used to build marvellous edifices. Finds such as Tanis should be instrumental indemonstrating to us that our forebears were sophisticated and highly civilized people who lived complex and highly organized lives in cities that rival many modern-day towns and make other modern towns seem primitive.

infrared |ˌinfrəˈred| adjective
(Of electromagnetic radiation) having a wavelength just greater than that of the red end of the visible light spectrum but less than that of microwaves. Infrared radiation has a wavelength from about 800 nm to 1 mm, and is emitted particularly by heated objects.
• (of equipment or techniques) using or concerned with this radiation: Infrared cameras.
the infrared region of the spectrum; infrared radiation.
ORIGIN: from Latin infra ‘below.’

Tuesday 31 May 2011


“In seed time learn, in harvest teach, in winter enjoy.” - William Blake

The first day of winter Downunder started frostily this morning with a brisk 3˚C, as I was reaching the train station to catch the 6:31 a.m. train into the City. As I was climbing the stairs of the overpass to cross the tracks, I could see the crystals of ice on the steps, shining like strewn diamond dust under the spotlights. The sky was clear of clouds and the stars shone brightly, with the bright sparks of Jupiter and Venus coruscating in the eastern sky. As the sun came up the day turned out to be cool, but beautiful and sunny. Crisp air and bright sunshine lasted the whole day long, warming the air to about 17˚C and feeling very pleasant as one walked out and about.

Here is a poem I wrote a few years ago inspired by the season, but the difference is that I have now evicted the winter from within me and enjoy a warm summer inside of me while the cold winds may howl outside:

Winter Walks

Winter sun for silver sunshine
And a cold, hard, stony-blue sky.
Denuded trees that clutch at sunbeams
With a myriad twigs weaving like spinnerets
Intricate lace of light and shade
On soft, sweet-smelling carpet
Of fallen leaves.

Winter snow for roaring blazes
And steamed up window panes.
Rain that falls in glum, melancholy gardens,
The drizzle like a fine gauze,
Imprisoning butterfly-leaves of bright evergreens.
Silence and advancing dusk
Suffocate a soul’s scream.

Winter winds for soft rich furs
And the smug caress of many layered warmth.
Icy breaths that chill the heart
Cutting like razors made of sharp icicles.
Deep iceberg green and rainy blue mingle
Keeping me company with the whistling of the wind
In winter’s frozen solitude.


“There is no friend like an old friend who has shared our morning days, no greeting like his welcome, no homage like his praise.” - Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.

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Monday 30 May 2011


 “A custom loathsome to the eye, hateful to the nose, harmful to the brain, dangerous to the lungs, and in the black, stinking fume thereof nearest resembling the horrible Stygian smoke of the pit that is bottomless.” - James I of England

Today is World No Tobacco Day, which is celebrated around the world on the last day of May every year. In 1987, the World Health Assembly of the WHO passed Resolution WHA40.38, calling for April 7, 1988 to be “a world no-smoking day”. This date was chosen as it was the 40th anniversary of the WHO. The aim of the day was to urge tobacco users worldwide to stop using tobacco products for 24 hours, an action they hoped would help those trying to quit. In 1988, Resolution WHA42.19 was passed by the World Health Assembly, calling for the celebration of World No Tobacco Day, every year on May 31. Since then, the WHO has supported World No Tobacco Day every year, linking each year to a different tobacco-related theme.

This year, the WHO celebrates the successes of the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (WHO FCTC) in the fight against the epidemic of tobacco use. At the same time, WHO recognises that challenges remain for the public health treaty to reach its full potential as the world’s most powerful tobacco control tool. Since the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control was adopted by the World Health Assembly in 2003, 172 countries and the European Union have become Parties to the WHO FCTC. Among other measures, the Parties are obliged over time to:
•    Protect people from exposure to tobacco smoke
•    Ban tobacco advertising and sales to minors
•    Put large health warnings on packages of tobacco
•    Ban or limit additives to tobacco products
•    Increase tobacco taxes
•    Create a national co-ordinating mechanism for tobacco control.

These initiatives may seem extreme, especially in developing countries that are facing what most people think are much more serious heath problems. However, it is useful to keep in mind some basic statistics regarding tobacco use. Tobacco kills nearly 6 million people each year, of whom:
•    More than 5 million are users and ex-users
•    More than 600 000 are non-smokers exposed to second-hand smoke
•    After high blood pressure, tobacco use is the biggest contributor to the epidemic of non-communicable diseases (such as heart attack, stroke, cancer and emphysema), which accounts for 63% of deaths
•    Smokers are more susceptible to certain communicable diseases, such as tuberculosis and pneumonia

No consumer product kills as many people and as needlessly as does tobacco. It killed 100 million people in the 20th century. Unless we act, it could kill up to 1 billion people in the 21st century. All of these deaths will have been entirely preventable. It is also sobering to realise that as most Western nations are beginning to drastically reduce their tobacco consumption, developing countries are the largest users of tobacco products, with use increasing rather than decreasing in many of these. In India, about 20% of the population (about 241 million people) use tobacco products and usage is increasing.

The WHO says the following countries have the highest use of tobacco:

And just in case you were wondering, Ethiopia has the lowest reported rate, with only 52 cigarettes/adult/year being reported.

There are more than 4000 chemicals in tobacco smoke, of which at least 250 are known to be harmful and more than 50 are known to cause cancer. Tobacco is the second major cause of death in the world, after cardiovascular disease, and is directly responsible for about one in ten adult deaths worldwide, equating to about 6 million deaths each year. Cigarettes kill half of all lifetime users. Half die in middle age - between 35 and 69 years old. No other consumer product is as dangerous, or kills as many people. Tobacco kills more than AIDS, legal drugs, illegal drugs, road accidents, murder, and suicide combined…

It’s time we quit!


Society bristles with enigmas which look hard to solve. It is a perfect maze of intrigue.” - Honoré De Balzac

At the weekend we watched Mira Nair’s 2004 film, “Vanity Fair” starring Reese Witherspoon, James Purefoy, Romola Garai, Bob Hoskins, Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Gabriel Byrne and Tony Maudsley. The film is from the classic novel of the same name by William Makepeace Thackeray (1811-1863), the famous English 19th century novelist. “Vanity Fair” is Thackeray’s satirical masterpiece of contemporary English society and manners. In it he creates the unforgettable portrait of the roguish upstart Becky Sharp, who although is quite amoral, one cannot but defer to in terms of her being a survivor by virtue of her wits. Another famous novel of his transferred to a now classic film is “Barry Lyndon” directed by Stanley Kubrick in 1975.

The director Mira Nair one may remember from her 2001 film “Monsoon Wedding”, which was quite popular and very enjoyable. She also has other films to her credit, including the wonderful “The Namesake” of 2006, and the confronting debut film “Salaam Bombay!” of 1988. She is an accomplished Film Director/Writer/Producer who was born in India in 1957 and educated at Delhi University and then at Harvard. She began her film career as an actor and then turned to directing and writing. Her films if not about India and Indians are often full of references to her homeland, evident even in “Vanity Fair”.

Nair’s “Vanity Fair” is very English and very 19th century, however, India was very English at that time as well. Thackeray was actually born in Calcutta to parents associated with the British East India Company. When his father died, young William was sent back to England at the tender age of 5 years to be confined in a boarding school. His childhood memories of India surface in his books, “Vanity Fair” not being an exception. The novel “Vanity Fair”, first appeared in serialised instalments beginning in January 1847. Even before Vanity Fair completed its serial run, Thackeray had become a celebrity, sought after by the very lords and ladies he satirized, who hailed him as the equal of Charles Dickens.

The plot concerns itself with the life and times of Becky Sharp, the poor daughter of a French “opera singer” and a starving English artist. Her mother’s abandonment and her father’s death leave the young girl at the mercy of the principal of a home for orphaned girls. She manages to work her way into a governess’s position in the home of a shabby aristocrat. As new opportunities arise, she hastily abandons her post to become the companion to a wealthy relative, Miss Crawley. Much to Miss Crawley’s displeasure, Becky wastes no time to climb the social ladder by secretly marrying Miss Crawley’s nephew. He is sent off to war and on his return, their marriage is rocky due to his gambling debts, her living beyond their means, and her never-ending quest to raise their status. When Becky meets a nobleman who collects her late father’s paintings, she uses his money and his influence to continue her rise in the social hierarchy, causing more stress in her marriage.

Thackeray’s novel is a panoramic cavalcade rich in detail, full of remarkable characters and many plot twists and turns, as well as numerous sub-plots. Nair has tried to cover the expansive novel, but by necessity must distil the essence and leaves the characters somewhat undeveloped. Becky is portrayed by Nair rather sympathetically as a victim of the social system who by her razor-sharp wit and keen mind is merely taking advantage of opportunities that present themselves to her while allowing circumstances and events to benefit her grand plans. This contradicts with Thackeray’s Becky, who is less likeable: She is a vicious, manipulative and cunning woman, who turns events into anything that will benefit her rise up the social ladder. Nair has changed the essential features of the character and has robbed the plot of its cutting satire.

The film more than makes up for this in the richness of its visual splendour, authentic period detail. Declan Quinn’s beautiful cinematography is a feast for the eyes and the Indian touches are quite sumptuous (although Becky’s Indian dance is a bit questionable). There is quite good acting (even with Witherspoon doing an English accent, which fails every now and then, but we forgive her that!). Bob Hoskins has such a whole lot of fun in his role as the scungy nobleman, as does Eileen Atkins as Miss Crawley. James Purefoy and Jonathan Rhys Meyers as the male leads do a good enough job and Romola Garai as the gentle Amelia is contrast enough to Becky.

The film is not a true distillation of Thackeray’s novel. Its spirit and biting satire have been lost, Becky Sharp has become laundered into a victim of circumstance rather than the heartless and calculating vixen Thackeray describes her as. For someone who has not read the novel, Nair’s film would be quite satisfying and enjoyable, perhaps. However, if you have read Thackeray’s “Vanity Fair” this film disappoints.

There have been numerous other translations of this novel to the screen, notable being Rouben Mamoulian’s 1935
“Becky Sharp”, which also has the distinction of being the first, full-length Technicolour film with Miriam Hopkins in the title role. One of the better adaptations is the BBC mini-series from 1987, which at eight hours can afford to be more faithful to the original.

Nair’s “Vanity Fair” is worth seeing, but do judge it on its own merits and divorce yourself from Thackeray’s novel. It is a modernisation, an adaptation, a derivative artwork. Just as we admire both the original “Mona Lisa” and Marcel’s Duchamp’s irreverent L.H.O.O.Q. so we should enjoy reading both the novel and Nair’s interpretation of it. Let’s just call Nair’s “Vanity Fair” by the name: “Becky Sharp with a Moustache”…