Tuesday, 30 November 2010

the fat man cometh

Imagine that you are driving sedately along a narrow country lane with hedges on each side. It is so narrow that, should you meet someone coming the other way, it will be necessary for both cars to stop and find some manœuvre that allows each car to continue on its journey. Now imagine that you round a bend in the road. As you emerge into a long, straight section, you see in the distance another car, and it is travelling at a speed that you consider inappropriate for the type of road you are on.

You assume that the other driver will see you and slow down, but unfortunately this doesn’t happen. Do you then assume that the other driver hasn’t seen you but will slow down once he has? Or do you assume that the driver of the rapidly approaching projectile is a dangerous lunatic, prompting you to start looking for a potential escape route, such as a gate you can crash through into an adjacent field? This is an imaginary scenario, but it does have a parallel in the arena of geopolitics.

The ‘dangerous lunatic’ is of course the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, known to the world as North Korea. It is dangerous because it is unpredictable, and its policies are describable as lunatic because there is no rational expectation that these policies will result in any material benefit to the regime. However, one must assume a reason for recent belligerence, such as the sinking of the Cheonan and the shelling of the island of Yeonpyeong.

It is said that the stand-off on the Korean peninsula is a hangover from the Cold War, but this is only partially true. We need to go further back in history, to the period of Japanese modernization and expansion following the Meiji restoration in 1868. One target of this expansionism was the Korean peninsula, partly as a buffer against Russian designs in the region. The Russo-Japanese War of 1904–05 was fought out in Korea, Manchuria and the surrounding seas, and it ended with the utter defeat of Russia, much to the surprise of contemporary Western observers.

Following the war, in 1910, Japan arbitrarily annexed the now moribund Korean empire, which subsequently remained in Japanese hands until 1945. Japanese imperial expansion continued with the invasion of Manchuria, which became a puppet state under Japanese suzerainty, in 1931. And both states became crucial sources of raw materials for Japan during the Second World War.

In 1941, Japan signed a neutrality pact with the Soviet Union, which benefited both sides: it allowed Joseph Stalin to focus on the developing threat from Nazi Germany; and it enabled Japan to prepare for its attack, later that year, on Pearl Harbor and to concentrate on its expansionist aims in Southeast Asia. However, at the wartime conferences in Tehran and Yalta, the British and American leaders urged Stalin to declare war on Japan, and they finally secured an agreement from the Soviet leader that he would do so three months after the defeat of Germany.

This declaration, when it came, can only be described as cynical. An atomic bomb had already been detonated over Hiroshima, and Stalin declared war two days later, hours before a second bomb was dropped on Nagasaki. Elements of the Japanese leadership had been contemplating surrender before Hiroshima, but even after Nagasaki, Japanese leaders dithered for another week, which gave the Soviet forces time to occupy Manchuria and the northern half of Korea.

This is where Kim Il-sung, the self-styled ‘Great Leader’, enters the picture. He had joined the Chinese Communist Party in 1931, and he had spent time in the Red Army, so he was the ideal candidate, in Stalin’s estimation, to head a puppet regime. Local communists were considered much too nationalistic and therefore unreliable (and many were ‘liquidated’, in the mealy-mouthed terminology of the time). At first, Kim had widespread popular support because of his fight against the Japanese, and one of his first accomplishments was the establishment of a professional army drawn from the ranks of former guerrilla fighters against the Japanese and the Kuomintang (Chinese Nationalists).

It can be argued that Kim was provoked into setting up the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea in 1948 by the proclamation that established the US-sponsored Republic of Korea (South Korea) earlier that year, but it is clear that he resented US interference in the peninsula. It was his decision to invade the south in 1950, but he would not have done so without the explicit approval of Stalin, who had already tested the resolve of the West with his blockade of West Berlin in 1948 and who probably reasoned that in both cases a response by the Western powers was unlikely.

Following the inconclusive end to the Korean War, Kim led North Korea until his death in 1994, during which time he established an all-pervading personality cult with myths about his military prowess that only the credulous could find credible, and then only because the unfortunate audience for this bullshit had no grounds for disbelief. However, what is certain is that Kim, inspired by the success of Ho Chi Minh in Vietnam, continued to believe that the reunification of Korea was achievable by military means, and it is possible that some cadres in the Workers’ Party of Korea and the Korean People’s Army still believe this to be so.

Although Kim continues to be president of North Korea, more than 16 years after his death, day-to-day running of the country has, since 1980, been in the hands of his eldest son, Kim Jong-il, who was designated as his father’s successor in that year. However, it was not until 1991 that he was appointed supreme commander of the North Korean armed forces, a vital step given that the basis of all political power in North Korea is the country’s military. It should never be forgotten that this tiny nation has the fourth largest standing army in the world, and the largest as a percentage of population.

Unlike his father, who had a distinguished military career even after the layers of mythology have been stripped away, Kim Jong-il had no military experience, so it is easy to imagine that some polite arm-twisting must have gone on behind the scenes in the eleven years prior to his appointment.

However, there is an interesting juxtaposition here: Kim Jong-il’s appointment coincided with the final collapse of the Soviet Union, which heralded the start of a long and probably terminal decline in the North Korean economy and the end to Kim Il-sung’s cherished policy of self-reliance as the true cost of the country’s ruinous ‘defence’ expenditure gradually became apparent.

It is clear that in the subsequent two decades, the ‘Dear Leader’ has consolidated his power in the country, but he knows that he won’t last much longer. And he has chosen a successor. One cannot fail to note that Kim Jong-un is his father’s third choice, and he does look a choice specimen. “Who ate all the pies?” is the question that springs automatically to mind. I know that one shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, but he looks to me like a serial killer. And I can’t imagine that there are too many high-ranking officers who are happy to see a 29-year-old with no military experience made a four-star general.

So what was his role in the recent shelling of Yeonpyeong? There are only two possibilities: either he gave the order (perhaps with the explicit approval of his father), or he did not. If he did, then we have another dangerous lunatic to carry on the family tradition. However, if he did not, then there are elements of the army that are more than just pissed off at the idea of a bloated and presumably pampered young man telling them what to do. So will the ‘Fat Leader’ succeed to the throne on the death of his father. That may be a fat worse than death.

Monday, 22 November 2010

east is east

Oh, East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet,
Rudyard Kipling, The Ballad of East and West.
If I could point to one thing that I’ve learned after so many years of living among Chinese people, it is that if there’s more than one way to look at a situation or to perform a simple task, the Chinese invariably opt for the alternative to what I’d previously been used to. Take the turning of a key in a lock, for example. You may not realize it, but you probably turn it in the same direction every time. Of course you would, because you know which way works. In my case, having grown up in Britain, I turn the key towards the locking mechanism to lock a door. However, I’ve yet to find a door in Hong Kong that doesn’t require you to turn the key away from the locking mechanism in order to lock it.

Talking of doors, it is common practice in Chinese homes to leave the bathroom door open when the bathroom is not in use. However, Westerners tend to leave the door closed. I’m bound to say that the Chinese practice makes more sense: if the door is closed, then there is someone inside and you will have to wait.

It’s the same with long multiplication, a term that younger readers may not be too well acquainted with. In the UK, we were taught to start at the units column and work progressively through the tens, hundreds, thousands, etc. The Chinese, at least in Hong Kong, were taught to begin the process by tackling the largest denomination first and then to work towards the units. I have used the past tense because it seems that the electronic calculator has supplanted pen and paper, and even the abacus, which in skilled hands is faster than a calculator but requires an understanding of how numbers actually work.

In contrast to the Western model, in which applause for achievement often verges on sycophancy, Chinese men are reluctant to praise anything, even their wives. It can be unsettling for a Western woman to hear her Chinese husband describe her as “an okay wife”, which to Western ears sounds suspiciously like damning with faint praise. However, that same man, who may have reached his present position in an organization by dint of hard work, will attribute his success to luck, as likely as not.

My own experience of this tendency came in the 1980s, when for several years I was enrolled in a wing chun school. Although it is customary to address a teacher of kung fu as sifu, my teacher expected his students to address him as Hong Kor (‘Brother Hong’); however, in all other respects he was a traditional teacher, which meant that he never praised his students. I found this regime tough to take, given how hard we were expected to work, but I did find a way around the problem: the teacher always assigned a senior student to show someone the next move, and whenever it happened to me I reasoned that if I was being shown a new move, the teacher must think that I’d mastered the previous one.

And we all know about Chinese writing: it starts at what we would call the back of the book and reads in columns from right to left, finishing at what we are pleased to call the front. However, you may not know that the strokes in each individual character are drawn in sequence from top left to bottom right, the way we would instinctively read a page of writing. But this is a purely practical consideration, at least if you’re right-handed, because your hand moves away from what’s already been written, which explains why so many left-handers have trouble writing. A particularly egregious example of this is shown by President Barack Obama: as a fellow southpaw, I have an instinctively negative reaction towards people who write in such a cack-handed fashion, having myself been taught to write ‘properly’ at the point of a cane, which means that I can see what I’m writing without my hand getting in the way and without looking like an amateur contortionist.

On the other hand, my Chinese calligraphy is crap, because I’m often pushing the brush where a right-hander would be pulling it, which means that the shape of the stroke comes out wrong. I’ve been told that I need to learn to write right-handed. The point to note here is that Western books follow the instinctive left-to-right pattern throughout, while the Chinese option appears to be completely arbitrary. It is generally believed that the Chinese write in columns because the earliest characters were inscribed on bamboo, but this assumes that there is only one way to write on a long, narrow surface. An alphabetic language would have to be written along the long axis, but because Chinese characters are equivalent to discrete ideas, they can be written in sequence either horizontally or vertically. Starting on the right does seem to be an irrational choice though, because the hand tends to smudge the previous column when the writer moves to start a new one. So I’m left wondering whether there is a subtle practical reason for this counterintuitive choice, given that everything I encounter in Hong Kong seems to work very well, even if it doesn’t always work the way I expect.

However, this choice may be entirely arbitrary after all, given the next point of difference: when a group of Westerners sit down to play a card game, they deal the cards in a clockwise direction. This also applies when those same Westerners sit down to play a board game involving more than two players: the turn passes clockwise around the table. By contrast, Chinese players always deal cards in an anticlockwise direction, and when playing mah jong or dominoes the turn passes around the table anticlockwise.

Superficially, both options appear to be arbitrary, but it is at least possible that the European method is based on solar observation—in the northern hemisphere, the sun moves across the sky in a clockwise direction, and this would have been most easily seen in the shadow cast by the gnomon of a sundial. This movement would then have served as a model for certain types of behaviour, such as dealing cards. Yet the Chinese opted for the contrarian alternative, but then I’ve become accustomed to such differences, and turning a key the correct way has become instinctive. What is more, I never assume there is only one way to do something. Whether the alternative is better than my long-established procedure is another question, and one that I shall leave unanswered.

Thursday, 18 November 2010

return to koon garden

Yesterday was an interesting day. In the morning, I visited the wet market in Luen Wo Hui to buy meat and vegetables. The old lady whose vegetable stall I patronize speaks no English, but that isn’t a problem. I was in the process of asking for a catty (about 20 ounces) of pak choi when a young Chinese girl in some kind of uniform came up and offered to help.

Gei chin [how much]?” I asked the old lady.

Sze man poon [$4.50],” she replied.

“Five dollars,” the girl unhelpfully translated.

I tried to explain to the girl that the old lady hadn’t said “$5”, but I think that she had already assumed I couldn’t possibly have known what the old lady had said. The old lady seemed to be amused by the proceedings, but I gave her five dollars anyway. She gave me a ¢50 coin in change.

I then walked around to the other side of the stall and picked out two very large carrots (the carrots here are much, much tastier than anything I’ve ever seen in the UK). The same thing happened:

Gei chin?” I asked the old lady.

Sap man poon [$10.50],” she replied.

“Eleven dollars,” said the girl.

Again I tried to explain to the girl, but she kept repeating “eleven dollars” as if I hadn’t understood her the first time. The old lady had another ¢50 coin ready to give me, but this time I was able to give her the exact change. I’m sure that the girl thought she’d been very helpful to a ‘struggling’ gweilo, and to be fair her intervention was amusing rather than annoying.

Contrast this with my purchasing of meat (again, I always go to the same stall).

Sai see kwat, yau mo [have you any sai see kwat]?” I asked.

Sai see kwat is a cut of pork from near the base of the spine and is the only cut that falls apart in soup. Meat from any other part of the animal becomes hard and chewy when boiled.

Sai see kwat? Yes sir. How much would you like?”

Yat gan, m goi [one catty please].”

“One catty? Certainly sir.”

I surmise that this man has spent time working abroad, but as a butcher in one of the remoter parts of Hong Kong (I can go for days without seeing another gweilo) he doesn’t get much chance nowadays to practise his English.

In the afternoon, a friend came to visit, and like all first-time visitors to San Wai he was given the Hong Kong Country tour. However, until about ten years ago my friend had been a high-ranking government official, and he was able to provide a lot of additional information of which I’d previously been unaware. The focus of interest was Koon Garden, which I’d mistakenly identified as a house, not having looked inside. It is in fact a chee tong, or spirit house, the principal function of which is to honour a family’s ancestors.

This rudimentary shrine faces the main entrance and wishes blessings and prosperity on three named people, all of whom are presumably now dead.

The front of this shelf, located directly above the shrine, was once brightly painted, but the fading detail can still be made out.

The roof has gone, but the roof and ceiling beams are still in position in a side room (there was no second storey above the main hall).

A mirror remains hanging in the main hall, probably because it would have been seen as bad joss to remove a mirror from a chee tong.

A ruined outhouse on the north side of the building.

The kitchen. The main fire would have been lit under the cube on the left, and the wok used would have been more than three feet in diameter.

Saturday, 13 November 2010


Unlike the English, who had no qualms about the wholesale importation, where required, of words from a host of other languages, when the Chinese don’t have a word for something, they often combine existing characters to form a new word: for example, in Cantonese, a train is foh che (‘fire carriage’), leaving the way open, when motor cars first appeared, for these new monsters of the road to be called hei che (‘gas carriage’). Other concepts new to the Chinese are often named by transliterating (that is, by selecting Chinese words that are similar in sound to the equivalent English expression). Examples, again using Cantonese, include tik see (‘taxi’), bah see (‘bus’) and gar fei (‘coffee’). It can be confusing, however: foh shui (‘fire water’) is kerosene, not whisky, which is wai see kei.

It is seen as essential for foreign companies hoping to do business in Hong Kong and/or China to have a Chinese name, which is usually chosen with great care. The result can be either a disaster or a master stroke. Perhaps the best example of the former is Philip Morris. When this company moved into Hong Kong, its name was transliterated as Mo Lai See. It was badly advised: the same sound can be produced by different characters that mean ‘no lucky money’, lai see being the red packets, containing money, that are handed out during the new year period.

Coca-Cola, on the other hand, got it more than just right. However, Coke had the advantage of a product with four syllables, corresponding to the four characters in a traditional Chinese proverb. The only serious weakness in this approach is that traditional Chinese proverbs come with a back story. My own favourite is yim yee do ling (Cantonese, literally, ‘cover ear steal bell’).

The story goes that one day an itinerant beggar was walking through a village when he espied a shiny bronze bell hanging over the gateway to a house. He resolved to steal the bell, but he could foresee a problem: when he took the bell down, it would be sure to ring, thus alerting everyone in the neighbourhood that something untoward was happening. His solution was to cover his ears with a thick strip of cloth, reasoning that if he couldn’t hear the bell, it wasn’t making a sound. You can predict the rest. So how would you use this expression? If you see someone do something unutterably stupid, the appropriate response is yim yee do ling. Sadly, these four-character proverbs and their back stories are no longer taught in Hong Kong schools, and it seems likely that they aren’t taught in the rest of China either.

So what name did Coke come up with? It makes little sense in Cantonese (Ho Hau Ho Lok), but the Putonghua (Mandarin) version is remarkably close to the English in sound. It isn’t identical though, because then the company wouldn’t be able to claim that it tastes good and does you good (the literal translation is ‘good mouth (taste), good health’). I don’t think that Coke could get away with such a blatantly false claim in any Western country.

However, the most amusing aspect of transliteration is its application to people’s names. When Sir Edward Youde became governor of Hong Kong in 1982, he was given the name Yau Tak, ‘man of virtue’, but the same sounds can also serve as an answer to the question: can you swim? “Swim? Sure.” And his wife, Lady Pamela, was Pa Mei Lai, someone who keeps a suitcase packed (for a quick getaway). The first was a reference to the fact that until the so-called touch base policy was ended in 1981, most of the illegal immigrants entering Hong Kong did so by swimming across Mirs Bay, while the second referred to the uncertainty at the time over the projected handover in 1997. Whoever said that the Chinese have no sense of humour hasn’t been paying attention.

Wednesday, 10 November 2010


Signs are everywhere. We take them for granted, yet they are interesting objects in their own right. They are designed to convey a short message as directly as is possible, using graphics and/or words. Some don’t work very well, but we never think that they could be improved because we think we know what the message is. I’m not convinced.

When looking for a public toilet, especially in a hotel, I always look at both icons before deciding which door to enter. Some are obvious, but I’m often unsure until I’ve been able to see, and compare, the two. Some can be downright mystifying: a notable example in Hong Kong is Felix, a poseur’s bar at the top of the Peninsula Hotel in Kowloon, the work of pretentious New York designer Philippe Starck. The two doors are alongside, but the letters ‘m’ and ‘f’ are part of the design, so you won’t spot them at first. This seems to me to breach the fundamental rule in all communication: to ensure that the information you wish to convey is clear and clearly understood by the recipient. Form over function.

However, for signs that totally fail to convey the intended message, or that convey an entirely different message, I present a few from my immediate neighbourhood:

Very slowly.

A difficult choice.

Stor in the name of the lop.

The next sign is interesting rather than misleading, although I do need to explain why I find it mildly amusing. It is located on the edge of a main road, from where it directs walkers along a narrow footpath across the fields to what at first glance might be the name of a village. But the only village at the end of the path is San Wai, where I live. It is in fact a legacy fossil. The literal translation is ‘horse shit area’. Note that I translated shi as ‘shit’; the Cantonese do have a word for ‘poo’, fan. The name cannot have had a polite origin. As to who kept horses here: it can only have been the British. We overlook a former British army camp, then known as Gallipolli Lines, so I’m assuming that cavalry regiments were once garrisoned there.

Sunday, 7 November 2010

rise and fall

The village of Sham Chung is located in the Sai Kung West Country Park, one of the wildest parts of Hong Kong. I first passed through it in 1974, and even then I was struck by some unusual features. For a start, it had two schools, and there was only ever one other school in the entire Sai Kung peninsula. The other oddity was the distribution of houses: in every other village in the area, the houses were clustered together, but here there were three separate clusters, on the north, south and east sides of a huge paddy field area.

The village is approached by the coastal path from Yung Shue Au, which happens to be the last place in Hong Kong where I saw rice being grown and harvested, in 1975. I wish I’d had a digital camera then. This village too was only approachable by the continuation of the path along the coast and over a narrow col, eventually reaching the fishing village (as it then was) of Sai Kung. The Sai Kung peninsula, in the 1960s, could truly be called a wilderness area. But everything changed in 1970, with the building of access roads to facilitate the construction of the High Island Dam Project, which was in full swing when I arrived in Hong Kong in 1974 (I often used to eat in the workers’ canteens).

After descending from Yung Shue Au, the path meanders through an area of wetland...

and follows the coast around the mangroves.

As Hong Kong expanded after the war, it quickly became clear that the territory’s existing reservoirs were inadequate, and it endured frequent and often severe water shortages during the winter months. This was addressed to a limited extent in the 1960s by the Plover Cove scheme, which involved building dams between a string of islands to enclose the bay of the same name. This reservoir can be seen across the Tolo Channel as you approach Sham Chung along the coastal path. It wasn’t enough.

The High Island scheme was breathtakingly imaginative: take the narrow four-mile channel between High Island and the mainland and build a big dam at each end. The water level when the reservoir was full would be more than 100 feet above the level of the surrounding sea. There is a question that should occur to the alert reader at this point: where was the water to fill the reservoir going to come from? This was the imaginative part: every accessible stream in the area had a dam built across it, hence all the access roads. These dams were designed only to take water from the streams when they were in flood (to safeguard village supplies). And every dam was connected, via a system of tunnels, to the reservoir.

The access roads meant that once-isolated villages, only accessible by sea or on foot, were suddenly thrust into the modern era. A building boom resulted, as indigenous villagers rushed to cash in on their ding rights (if you could trace your ancestry to a given village before the lease for the New Territories was signed in 1898, you had the right to build a 700-square-foot house in that village). Ding was a measure designed to encourage people to stay in their ancestral villages, but the vast majority of the resulting houses were sold on. In fact, the village where I used to live turned the ding system into a lucrative business whereby people with an entitlement were tracked down in Europe and told that a house would be built on their behalf and that the proceeds, less a generous commission, would be forwarded to them. This also explains why the houses in Sai Keng are much closer together than in any other village I’ve seen, to the extent that if your house isn’t on the outside, you will need to keep the lights on throughout the day.

One such access road reached as far as Yung Shue Au, which has since expanded. Sham Chung remained isolated, except for the once-a-day Tolo Harbour ferry, which linked it and other communities to the outside world. Its population, which had been 400 in 1970, quickly dwindled to almost zero. Many would move to the UK to work in Chinese restaurants. It is ironic that the govenment decided to install street lighting after most of the population had already left.

If you had been approaching Sham Chung on foot in 1920, you would have noted that the path was sweeping around the hillside into a small bay, at the back of which was a narrow channel between two low hills that led into a shallow lagoon. This channel was dammed by the villagers in the 1920s and the lagoon drained. The huge area of arable land that this created must have been a big factor in the village’s prosperity, hence the two schools and the ferry pier, which served a population that was well above the average for the area. The dam’s two big wooden sluice gates are still maintained.

The major environmental impact of the dam was that a substantial wetland area developed behind it. The villagers had enough land, and the area behind the dam was always flooding anyway, so they were happy to give it over to nature. The wetland flourished in the 1970s and 1980s, but this idyll was destined not to last.

The Sham Chung wetlands in 2006.

The same view (almost), a year later.

Many of the villagers sold out to a property developer in the 1990s, and Sham Chung was earmarked for ‘development’. Most of the wetland was trashed, in the benign guise of providing an organic farm that could be visited by disadvantaged children. Didn’t anybody tell them the area was always flooding? The farm is long gone, but the damage remains.

There’s more. Large ponds were dug as water hazards for a golf course. There was only room for five holes, however, and the greens were, shall we say, rugged, so nobody came. The developer’s plans for a spa resort, complete with helipad and organized outdoor activities, have been blocked, but you can be sure that they’ll try again. I have utter contempt for property developers. Greedy doesn’t cover it. All they see is dollar signs.

Into this bleak landscape stepped a native villager who had left Sham Chung in 1970 to work in a Chinese restaurant in Bristol. Tom Li subsequently emigrated to the USA, where he opened his own restaurant and became a master chef. He decided to return to his old family home and open a store, which is where I met him a few years ago, when we lived across the bay and I used to cycle to Sham Chung for something to do. He’s the main reason Paula and I still cycle there every Saturday, at least his noodles are, even though it’s a 45-mile round trip from Fanling. Actually, he’s so busy at weekends that we hardly get a chance to talk to him. Run off his feet. But he loves it.

Yesterday, though, he had only two customers. It poured with rain all day Friday and continued in the same vein. No chance of cycling down, but Tom was due to leave for Florida on Sunday night. He would be leaving Sham Chung on Saturday evening. So I drove down to Yung Shue Au and we walked through the rain (the water level in the first picture above was almost up to the path) to Sham Chung. He was sold out of fresh food, but somehow he managed to conjure a masterpiece out of the dry ingredients in his store, with a spring onion from his ‘garden’ (large flowerpot, actually). We can’t wait until February, when he comes back.

The houses on the south side of Sham Chung. Tom's store is the one with the big awning on the left.

Thursday, 4 November 2010

the emperor’s cavalry on parade

What value do you place on an object? Do you value it according to how much you paid for it? Or do you value it for the pleasure it gives you during your ownership of it? These twin questions are the reason I’ve chosen to discuss a narrow strip of batik that Paula bought for HK$1 in Stanley Market long before it became a ‘must visit’ tourist venue and no longer became worth visiting (and long before we were married). I discovered it neatly folded away in a cardboard box, took a look and said immediately that we should get it framed. It now hangs in the front room of our house in the UK, and over the years everyone who has sat in that room has commented on it, even the Jehovah’s Witnesses that I used to invite in when I felt like some cheap amusement. They don’t come any more. I wonder if the last time they turned up on my doorstep has anything to do with it:

“Do you read the Bible?” one asked.

A very poor opening gambit. You’d think they’d know better by now.

“Yes!” I replied, pausing just long enough before continuing. “But I think that the Revelation of St John the Divine is the ravings of a deranged lunatic.”

“Well, if that’s the way you feel….”

Anyone who is constantly pestered by these door-to-door salesmen is welcome to try this tactic. It worked for me.

But back to this flimsy strip of cloth. It depicts the emperor’s cavalry on parade, or so we think the inscription reads (this is an archaic script with which neither of us is familiar). Be sure to click the picture to enlarge it if you want to see the finer details.

There’s a lot to see in this picture. First, whoever produced this little gem has been able to capture movement with what are basically very crude shapes. The swooping lines of birds create the rhythm of movement, and the second pair of riders are clearly riding hell for leather. But what about the first pair? There is an unknown menace off-picture, and the leading riders are doing their best to stop. The horse pulling the first chariot is also trying to stop, although the charioteers don’t yet seem to have apprised the danger. Behind, the horses have got wind of something untoward ahead, but their riders/drivers are oblivious to it.

And then we come to the quixotic figure who brings up the rear. His horse is unsettled, but he trots serenely along, without a care and totally unaware of the hazards ahead. I wonder if this is a metaphor for the human condition. It is certainly more than a static representation of the parade. There is also a kind of luminosity created by the orange and white in contrast with the black of the figures and the background, which focuses the viewer’s attention on the action.

And the pleasure we've had from listening to people's comments: all for one measly dollar. Well, yes, the framing cost rather more, but who’s counting? This picture is priceless.