Three Steppes to Heaven


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So, yeah, the painting is back home now and I even bought a small wooden thing (she’s a wood person, she claims, being born in a cocky year, but the site I looked at said she was an earth rooster, which means I should have sent her pottery; me being a water dragon doesn’t bode well for exciting presents — anyway I don’t believe in any of that crap, being a typical Libran).

So the small wooden thing can go in the post and I must turn my attention to repainting a face. And getting it to Chinaland, in a safely packed A1 crate of some sort.

If you waded through last week’s entry (Taiga Economy), you’ll know I’ve considered but bottled out of taking it on a slow boat, and have been considering the Trans Siberian Railway.

A bit of research showed said train runs a couple of times a week from Moscow to Beijing, via Mongolia or Manchuria (Mongolia has more appeal). Getting to Moscow from Scotland, and the final leg from Beijing to Hangzhou should be un morceau de pis, even if the UK leg will be plagued by replacement bus services. The TSR takes a week and there were visions of going in the cheapest carriage, open plan with curtained bunks. Then the visions of pissed-up, lively Russian folk, filling the long nights with vodka-fuelled Cossack dances round the samovars, led to a more disturbing vision of a booted foot, during a spirited rendition of Kalinka, going straight through the middle of the very masterpiece this form of escorted transport was supposed to keep safe from damage.

So the first class option seemed essential. One could always lock the pic away in the compartment and join the drunken revels in pauper class anyway. And there was the added possibility of meeting the glamorous member of a once-aristocratic family, no doubt with shady connections, over a plate of blinis demidoff, and beginning a great amour de fou.

Trouble is, said first class option brings the price for that leg alone to around £500. As the lady is only offering £400 for the painting, that’s an expensive bit of work for the artist. True, she did say she’d pay the shipping costs too, but I think she was rather assuming that would be care of our old friends at Crystal Sky Trading who usually take care of these matters. Not three times the base cost of the picsh.

As ERNIE failed to fling any Premium Bond winnings my way to start the year, it looks more and more likely that the adventure simply ain’t gonna happen.

Maybe the one remaining hope is that I can interest a tv documentary crew in turning the journey into a ten part series, send a small crew to accompany and film me (or at least give me the necessary state-of-the-art kit to film myself), and, I need hardly add, pay the fares. There’d be plenty of time to do a blog (I assume the TSR has wi-fi) and work on the book of the series, on those endless days where the view is an unchanging vista of open steppes or gloomy forests. That’s if I wasn’t too busy canoodling with countesses or carousing with Cossacks.

Can’t think of a snappy title just yet, but the sub is “a crazy English guy takes a painting of Italy to a Chinese lady via Siberia on a series of trains”. And I’ve no idea how to go about finding who to pitch the thing to. So, if you happen to have the right connections and think there’s any film maker out there who doesn’t feel the barrel of train-related programmes hasn’t quite been scraped clean, do get in touch.

Anyway, before any definitive travel or posting plans can be made, there’s still the impossible task of making her face ‘lovely enough’ …


Taiga Economy


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Let’s get the compulsory but sincerely meant greetings out the way first: at this time of Yearturn, best wishes for surviving and even prospering in 2018CE to any readers who happen to float by,

So what are the plans, wishes, resolutions, revolutions, and all that sort of rot of your crumbling correspondent for the coming year?

None really. I’m a Zen Nihilist, me. Plans is pointless. But I have decided to make and keep one resolutingness for this year and am proud to report that I have succeeded in keeping it. I think the problem most folks have is that they resolve to do something for the whole year, or even for the rest of their lives. This is doomed to failure. Get real.

In previous years (not always a Jan 1 thang) I have started out on a scheme of getting fitter by walking to the local gym every day. I don’t go in, of course; that costs money and I get enough cardiovascular shit from the brisk walk there and back (with detours to shops, cafés, &c).  For one reason or another, circumstances have always thwarted this (which is another way of saying they have provided an excuse to stop).

I had got so far with it one year, that I felt fitter enough to walk to the next nearest gym, a posh place, as opposed to the nearby (600metres) municipal swim and fitness centre (I don’t not go in to the swim centre as I can’t swim, as explained in an earlier blog [which?]). By walking this extra half k, including a steepish incline, I was therefore getting more fitter, more quickerly, and saving more money.

But then my father got very ill and I had to make regular trips down to that England they have South of the Border, which disrupted the routine. So I stopped and rapidly returned to my natural condition of slobbish torpor.

So this year I resolved to do it every day for the first three days. Here is today’s picture of me outside the place, to prove it. At least it wasn’t pishing down for the final walk.

As for vague plans and ideas … having suddenly broken the travel seal last year, I wouldn’t go so far as to say I’m suffering from Wanderlust, but some further peregrinations may be called for. Your blogger, a miserable sod at the best of times, finds few things more depressing in their lonelitude — not Crimbo, Birthdays or Valentine’s — than sitting alone in a hotel room somewhere. So if spending a week alone (probably in an airbnb) in Cádiz or Sevilla may seem odd enough (the reason is a friend on a cruise ship, which seems an even more soul-destroying venue, stopping off there to celebrate her 60th brithday), then being stuck on a train crossing the wastes of central Asia must be complete and utter insanity.

But that is the general idea. Maybe instead of el Andaluz.

It came about in this wise: the painting, which you may recall from previous bloggery, will be purchased by its  subject (the lassie, not Assisi), if and only if your humble paintist can make her face ‘more lovely’. If this is done, the picture needs to be transported to Chinaland. Without damage. Googling advice on packaging paintings for posting, threw up a great many dire warnings, an impression that however hard one tried, there was always the possibility that some philistine baggage handler would chuck the thing idly across a room and crunch the corners of the stretcher.  Confidence was not inspired.

So naturally your favourite nutjob thought he should take it himself. Centuries ago he saw a documentary item about a couple travelling in the luxurious cabin of a banana boat to the Caribbean, the cabin reserved for the shipping magnates, should they wish to accompany the fruit for some reason. The idea that perhaps some container shipping company might let out cabins in similar fashion appealed and brought the phrase ‘slow boat to China’ to mind.

Further research failed to show a simple means of booking such a passage, though it seemed tantalisingly not impossible; also it revealed the fascinating (or not) fact that a slow boat to China was a New York poker players’ phrase to describe a player who lost steadily but not spectacularly, and thus a source of long-term gain. Frank Loesser, who wrote the song, was a keen Tin Pan Alley card player, and saw the potential of the phrase in a more romantic setting.

But, not for the first or last time, I digress. And get bored. The lights in the hall of the Abode of Stones arre having problems, there’s shopping to be done and the story of Trans Siberical voyaging can be continued next week.

The Year’s a Bitch and Then You Go Round Again (Hyvää Joulua)


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Your friendly blogger has mentioned before his religion (or anti-religion) of Zen Nihilism, and mused on the possible ceremonies and liturgies that might mark rites of passage and all that sort of rot.

And at this time of year, when so much bullshit flies around about what to call the season (Nadolig Llawen, by the way) and the fake ‘war on Christmas’, it seems obvious to consider the nihilist view of that too.

His hilarious and still available collection of silly verse, Parodies Lost even contains a wee riff on the matter …

It is’nae correct, in ‘political’ terms
To say ‘Merry Christmas’ these days;
To avoid gie’in offence (if that mak’s ony sense)
We reword it in mealy-mouthed ways

‘Happy Holidays!’, ‘Guid Solstice!’, ‘Seasonal Cheer!’ —
Just as lang as ye doan’t NAME the Season —
Just spend a’ yer cash on o’erpriced trash,
And forget the original reason.

Ah’m no’ a believer, ah freely admit,
But I hate to see Noël get neutered.
Och, let it be still a time o’ guidwill —
And a damn fine excuse tae get blootered!!


However pointless we might consider our existence to be (and though some find that a cynical or miserablist view, your bloggist finds it very much the opposite, and, while you’re here, a Joyful Hannukah to you), it does seem part of human nature to want to join with other members of this fundamentally gregarious species, if only to get smashed and have fights.

It is important to realise that the present author’s standing as professional miserable git and lonely loser has nowt to do with this nihilism stuff. Zen Nihilism is not saying that life is shit, moan, moan, chiz. In fact it sees life as inexhausibly, if ephemerally and pointlessly, wonderful, as in endlessly inspiring wonder, if only in the sense of I wonder where that fucking microSD card with all my mp3s I had in my hand a few days ago got to. And the fact that it accepts the cold, scientific view that wonder is itself an evolved trait with survival value does not detract from that awesomeness one iota. If anything, the very fact that we evolved that way brings feelings of wonder in its own right. What beautiful circularity that we can find it wonderful that we evolved to find things like that wonderful. You can’t? Poor you.

So nicht dieser Töne, let joy prevail, happy lohri di lakh lakh vadhaiyan &c, as the days start to get longer and the low afternoon light in the west of these Scottish skies blinds us and makes crossing the icy roads doubly dangerous. Let us come together in what may have its origins in and is still enjoyed by ‘pagans’ as a Solstice celebration, and wish each other well and a jolly Makar Sankranti, and all that crap, whether we mean it or no (and we bally well should mean it).

But what to call it? Well, after much thought (all of ten minutes worth), the best answer your worldweary chum could come up with was Yearturn.  Unspectacular, granted, but it would hardly be Zen or nihilistic to go for anything too flashy, would it? A little online research proves it’s neither well-known nor strictly original (but then neither is the term Zen Nihilism). It’ll do. Who cares anyway?

And rituals? Make your own up. Without a huge marketing budget like that which gave us Coca Cola’s Santa Claus or a huge literary following (a writist can dream, but …) like that which gave us the Dickensian Crimbo, traditions can’t be manufactured, they have to grow organically.

Yours Truly, who celebrates the birthdays of Jane Austen and Ludwig van Beethoven (16th Dec, see blog entry before last) likes to use the word Yule, even if his regular greeting of Cool Yule, Y’All is rather naff. Saturnalia also has some appeal, but these do all have strong connections to earlier societies and beliefs, and Yearturn has a pleasing neutrality. And no set beginningn or end. A fortnight should do it, especially if we can scrap all the standard songs that start playing incessantly in the shops from September on (not that they don’t include some gems, but all the bloody time?) and all themerchandising that surrounds it.

So there you have it. Happy Yearturn. What presents did imaginary old men bring you this year? Yes, we should give Yearturn gifts, encourage the idea behind St Nick, of giving without expecting (though this may be a losing battle: a young mother once told your blogger she was not telling her kids there was a Santa because she wanted them to know who had bought their gifts and at what expense, so they’d appreciate her love more!), maybe we even need a Krispy Kringle karakter of our own. But not only that. Many Randian neo-bastard economists deprecate the giving of gifts, because it distorts the correct working of their Great God, the Market (by demanding production of goods and services that are not actually wanted and, even worse, disguising the actual monetary value each person represents to another – so gifts in themselves are not bad, but they ‘should’ be solely monetary or similar trading tokens, and yes, your blogger will accept BitCoins).  Anything that can fuck up that cruel, divisive, poverty-creating monster – even buying that ‘hideous tie, so kindly meant’ – has to be worth the effort and expense. ‘Exchangeis the most pernicious of evils’ (that’s anarchism, not nihilism, but they do make smashing bedfellows).

The final episode of the Moffat/Capaldi Dr Who referenced good ol’ Bertie Russell’s line that ‘love is  wise and hate is foolish’. This strikes me as a bit off the mark. Unless it means that to love is wise, in which case he should have said so. Love itself strikes me as invariably foolish (but all the more glorious for being so), whereas hate is just downright fucking stupid (and always counterproductive to boot). But, in the words of St Quentin (the person born on Dec 25 from whom we can take inspiration), love is important to you because you give it; to expect to get anything back, to demand that it be requited, is like giving a present merely because one hoped to get another in return, and ‘simply will not do’. ‘Understand that’, he said, ‘and the very idea of your heart being broken will disappear’.

Your hopeless correspondent tells himself this a lot at this time of year, when the absence of the increasingly distant belovéd proves that there are forms of loneliness where the crowded avenue is indeed empty and the presence of well-meaning friends only serves to emphasise the all-important absence. Fortunately, jollity is his middle name and the remote company of an oriental motivator has made this the first Yearturn in over a decade which hasn’t been marked by sobbing under a duvet and/or weeping on the brow of a (Corstorphine, pictured) hill. It would have been nice to cycle up to Rest and Bethankit anyway, but the weather outside was shiteful: maybe he can get up there on New Year’s Day. If you’re coming too, do bring drinks. Party like it’s Twenty-Eighteen, dudes.

And either way, a happy Yearturn and a spiffing 2018 to both my readers, whether happy, sad, lonely or surrounded by love. May your lives get no worse than they already are, in the coming circuit round the Sun.



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The joys of automatic translation:

A friend in Beijing posted pics of her cats on WeChat with the message:


which Google translate renders confusingly as

There’s no more cure than a cat on the couch

and Jing tells me more sensibly means

Nothing is more cure (healing/therapeutic) than sitting on a sofa
and stroking a cat

However WeChat’s own translator renders it as

There’s nothing more healing than sitting on the couch
and jerking off to a cat

Which, though it could explain the cat’s expression, rather took me back for a moment.

Then again, we’ve all done it.



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Having spent all day trying to get my wifi interweb connection to work on my mobile devices (this is from the ethernet-connected desktop and I went for a coffee to prove that the Huawei works fine on another wifi connection), what I planned to blog about this week will now have to wait until next.

But I would like to take this opportunity to wish all my reader felicitations of the season (no, I don’t do Crimble, I mean Austen/Beethoven day this coming Saturday, when Ludwig turns 247 and our Jane 242).

Stick the Ninth Symphony on, read some Austen and be merry. Two people who make life almost seem living, sharing a birthday.

Our neighbourhood was small, for it consisted only of your mother. She may probably have already told you that, being left by her parents in indigent circumstance, she had retired into Wales on economical motives. There it was our friendship first commenced… Isabel was then one and twenty… Though pleasing both in her person and manners, between ourselves she never possessed the hundredth part of my beauty or accomplishments. Isabel had seen the world. She had passed two years at one of the first boarding-schools in London, had spent a fortnight in Bath, and had supped one night in Southampton.
“Beware, my Laura,” she would often say. “Beware of the insipid vanities and idle dissipations of the metropolis of England; beware of the unmeaning luxuries of Bath, and of the stinking fish of Southampton.”
“Alas! exclaimed I. “How am I to avoid those evils I shall never be exposed to? What probability is there of my ever tasting the dissipations of London, the luxuries of Bath, or the stinking fish of Southampton? I who am doomed to waste my days of youth and beauty in a humble cottage in the Vale of Usk.”
Ah! little did I then think I was ordained so soon to quit that humble cottage for the deceitful pleasures of the world.
[Love and Freindship]

Random Thoughts


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The elephant is a pretty bird
It flies from twig to twig
It makes its nest in a rhubarb tree
And whistles like a pig

Do kids still recite that in the schoolyard? Do the nerdish ones list all the ways in which it’s not true? Once upon a time there was a kids’ tv prog called Elephant’s Eggs in a Rhubarb Tree: comedy sketches with Ann Beach, Richard Beckinsale of Porridge fame and others.

I remember reading an article about a hundred years ago that explained how the culture of the playground stayed consistent far longer than that of the adult world. Skipping games and nursery rhymes survived far longer than any memes that came and went for the gwowed-ups. Even though the old idea that Ring-a-ring o’ Roses was about bubonic plague was laid to rest long ago, the rhyme did indeed date back a very long way.

But has the rise of the smartphone, following on from that of the hand-held computer game, laid most of these things to rest?  As kids went back in many ways to sharing adult interests, particularly that of being cannon fodder for capitalism and marketing, and being cool not only gained in importance but also got defined as having the latest stuff — oh, and not to mention society absorbing more varied cultural influences — have the old games and rhymes been swept away?

I have no idea. Not having offspring of my own, there are few ways to find out that don’t risk suspicion and restraining orders. So I shall just ponder in disinterested ignorance.


I deplore the rise of the word ‘of’ where ‘have’ is meant. No doubt I shouldn’t of done it will eventually become valid English grammar, along with Elise and me went shopping, and it’s probably no sillier than some constructions that have been acceptable since before I arrived on the scene seemed to the curmudgeons of the past.  But why on earth I initially typed ‘following on from that have the hand-held computer game’ just now is utterly beyond my comprehension.

I love the serendipity of youtube suggestions. It’s worked out I like obscure symphonists and while some of the things it introduces me to are deservedly obscure, there are gems. I’m liking the Danish Symphonist Hakon Børresen and was intrigued, if not fully convinced, by the only symphony of Croatia’s leading Late Romantic, Dora Pejačević (above). There’s an inexhaustible supply and a few gems that could well deserve a place in the repertoire.


But as soon as Mr Børresen’s Second is over I must get  Bach to basics.  Someone in Chinaland wants me to select assorted recordings of Johann Sebastian’s Forty-Eight Preludes and Fugues. And plan some video lessons on English sentence construction.

Keeps me off the streets, I guess.

Landscape Pardoner


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They say — well, someone says — anyway I’m sure I once heard someone say — that you never finish an art work, you just decide to stop working on it.

So I have. 

Walking to Assisi
[oil on canvas, 85x60cm]

There’s an obscure intertextual reference to the once extremely popular Irish writer, Edward Plunkett, aka Lord Dunsany. In his short story, Carcassonne, the protagonists never get to Carcasonne, and my little China girl never actually reached Assisi, as her bonkers itinerary meant visiting three cities on that one day, and the bus stop on the outskirts of the town was the nearest she got, as she headed for city two. As the shadow shows, this walk was taken very early in the morning, at a time your humble blogger still refuses to believe exists outside fairy tales.

The pic will be on display at the Scottish Arts Club from December 6th, after which it will be varnished and shipped to Chinaland, if she decides she looks ‘lovely enough’ for her to buy it. As capturing loveliness is not my strong suit (if I even have one), I just hope she’s not too hard to please.

Good Night, Vieña


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They say you know you’re getting old because the policemen are looking younger. I’d say you know you’re already old if you remember seeing policemen about on their beats.

And Shakey said there were seven ages of man. I think the real rites of passage that mark out a life are that first you go to kids’ parties (once just sarnies, jelly, ice cream; now more about competitive merchandising), then it’s graduation bashes, then weddings, maybe christenings or ‘baby showers’ (for those permitted to breed, he said, without a hint of bitterness), and I’m now at the stage where it’s increasingly what yer man Joyce called ‘funferalls’.  So far, somehow, not my own.

A month ago we had a religious service for Jinty and this week we just dispatched George, an octogenarian artist and designer. The dog collar was not a sign of worse to come as it was a pretty agnostic affair and the vicar ended by quoting one of George’s favourite comedians in saying, and may your god go with you.

As well as a fondness for life drawing, the Goons and Dave Allan, George and I shared a liking for jazz, particularly ‘Sassy’ Vaughan and Jimmy Giuffre, and I played a small part in the final farewell by being able to tell them that the track to which he wanted us to enter the chapel, the opening piece of the movie Jazz on a Summer’s Day (they’d lost the video I gave him), was The Train and the River, as performed by Giuffre, Brookmeyer and Hall. And I think I rose to the occasion, guests having been asked to wear loud ties …

It all makes one think how one would like to be seen off.  I can’t deny that I’d agree with my Dad (a natural nihilist if ever there was one, even though he probably wasn’t familiar with the term), who when asked said, “I don’t care, I’ll be dead”. But I do wonder how one would conduct a (Zen) Nihilist funeral, other than gathering everyone together and saying, He’s gone, they’re open, there’s money behind the bar.

As Mr Khayyam put it (and this might make a good reading, if you must have one):

And, as the Cock crew, those who stood before
The Tavern shouted — “Open then the Door!
You know how little while we have to stay,
And, once departed, may return no more”.

I’ve often thought about the music for the last waltz. For a long time I said I’d like Long Haired Lover from Liverpool by Little Jimmy Osmond, because I hate it and only the reluctant mourners (as folks’ll only come to mine to make sure I’m gone anyway) would have to suffer it. But then I thought it was not only not nice, but what if there not only is a nafterlife, but it’s one in which you have to listen to your funeral playlist on a loop for ever?

I considered one of Dickie Strauss’s Four Last Songs, but that is apparently the most popular choice for gay funerals, and my aversion to the road most trampled extends even to the clichés of other ‘communities’. So maybe Dido’s Lament (alias When I am laid in earth; and, let’s face it, it’s the only way in which I’m ever likely to get laid) would come under the heading of ‘the only thing likely to make anyone shed a tear on that occasion’.

But I heard Carl Nielsen’s Helios overture on the radio the day before George’s last ride, and I thought the slow beginning, glorious sunrise and peaceful ebbing away might be a good thing to expose those celebrating getting shot of me to some culture and stir their souls — and maybe fool one or two into comparing my life with that glorious arc of song, distracting them from the slow drag through the mud that would be a far more apt metaphor. So until I discover a piece called Sludge, I shall maybe write that into my instructions…

At least I’ve done all my shopping for Christmas …

Lights Out, La Viña


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Not so very long ago I watched the celebrity chef Rick Stein’s Long Weekend programme filmed in my old stamping ground of Cádiz. A standout point for many viewers was the scene filmed in my old local, Bar Manteca (The Lard Bar, or Dripping Bar, as we’d have called it in Nott’n’m). As he does his piece to camera, a diminutive figure walks up to him, shouts some indistinguishable syllable and walks off, to amused applause from the regulars.  And I laughed out loud with glee, because I remembered ‘Uchi’ (pronounced Ooshie) from my days there. She shouted random things at me (and everyone else) many a time.

I was surprised on my September return to the old neighbourhood not to see her around.

And last weekend, I popped (well, limped, being at the tail end of an attack of gout) up the hill to Merchiston and the Edinburgh bookshop to see Mr Stein. Not to buy his Mexican cookbook, partly cos I already have a couple for that cuisine but mainly cos I don’t gots no moneys, waiting as I is on the local Council to help (or refuse to help) with my rent costs.

I did get an Elsie with him though.

… and I was able to tell him the sad news that I had seen that very morning, on all the feeds from my spiritual home what I follows, that she had died the day before.

‘Uchi’ leaves the barrio of La Viña an orphan

Today Cádiz is in mourning, especially the neighbourhood of La Viña, having heard of the death of Carmen Gutiérrez, popularly known as ‘Uchi’. She died early this morning, at 60 years of age, from respiratory failure, according to sources close to the family. Uchi was an endearing person for the city, known for her two hobbies: her bicycle and uniforms. A faithful sister, who never missed a mass at the Archconfraternity of La Palma, to whose Virgin she was devoted. She also became very popular for her interruption of the recording of a BBC programme on gastronomic tourism, when entering El Manteca in the recording with Rick Stein.

The mayor of Cádiz, José María González, has shown his regret through a statement. “One of the eternal smiles of the city is leaving. A person loved by all the gaditanas and gaditanos”, he said. Of the ‘Uchi’, González stressed that “she was a neighbour who represented a way of understanding life in La Viña”. Also, he has passed his condolences to the relatives of the deceased in these hard times.

The local representatives of the PP sent similar wishes.  The councilor [and mayor when I was there], Teófila Martínez, has joined the regret for the loss of “a dear woman that we will miss very much”.

[from, 10th November 2017]

As another report said, a light has gone out in the streets of Cádiz.

I think it’s one of the things I love about that city, that they will give far more attention and affection to an ordinary citizen than any person of political importance or tv ‘celebrity’. The streets will be packed for the funeral, and there will be much wailing. I can’t deny I shed a tear.

And not just an ordinary person but someone who would be classified in many societies as a ‘learning difficulties’ disabled citizen, mocked or feared perhaps by the ignorant, shunned in the street or put into a special home and kept out of the way.

[That’s not entirely fair and certainly not true of all communities. I can think of one or two local characters round here who are much loved by their neighbours and whom I never pass in the street without a cheery hello. Whether their passing would make even the local news reports is another matter.]

Not that she wasn’t teased or mocked by the local kids; Cái is the home of banter from flirting to mockery, that might trouble many a politically correct sensitive type.  But woe betide any outsider who so much as looked at her askance in their presence (not easy to avoid when she’d have a wee but good humoured rant at any distinctive passer-by).

I recall her trying to make some sort of noise with a tourist’s didgeridoo on the beach once. Indeed I have photos to prove it. But she made that noise simply by shouting through it, to the amusement of one and all …


Ivan Illich wrote that education — institutionalised, non-convivial structures for education at least — tended to make us more stupid overall, by introducing inflexible pass or fail definitions for success and academic achievement. As he said the person who would once have been called the ‘village idiot’, entertaining and of genuine value (for anything from menial work to bringing a ray of sunshine into life generally), would now be labelled an inferior sort of person and a failure.

Well he may have been thinking of someone like the delightful Uchi (I never knew her real name back then), and her passing has certainly reminded me of the joy she could bring to the area, by something as simple as shouting at a chef.