Saturday, 17 October 2020

autumn flowers

Since completing my 14 days of home quarantine at midnight on Tuesday, I’ve been out for a long walk each day, partly because I needed the exercise after being cooped up for so long and partly to see what, if anything, had changed in the more than four months I’ve been away.

Naturally, I took quite a lot of photos, particularly of flowers, because, unlike in the UK, flowers appear all year round in the Hong Kong countryside. I can’t provide any specific identifications. I just like to see them. Some of the following photos are of species that I see all the time, while others, like the first photo, are of species that I was seeing for the first time ever:
The next photo was taken alongside our local river, which you can just make out in the background. This shrub is extremely common, although this is the only example that I’ve seen in the past few days:
The next two photos were taken in a public garden in Sheung Shui, which we just happened to pass through on our walk to North District Hospital, where Paula had a physiotherapy appointment:
I actually caught a small white butterfly in the act of slurping nectar from a flower that I think is a hibiscus:
The next photo was taken in the village of Ping Kong, which I decided to take a look around while Paula was in the hospital because, as a non-patient, I wasn’t allowed to accompany her inside due to covid restrictions:
I’d never seen any examples of the next flower before, although that is probably because I spotted it alongside a path that I’d only ever cycled along previously, and like many of the paths that I follow on a bike, you cannot afford to allow your attention to wander or you are likely to disappear off the edge:
However, I will keep an eye out for it in the future, because as this photo illustrates, there are more buds to burst out.

The next three photos were taken on the path that we follow when walking from our village into Fanling:
The next photo was taken in the village of Fu Tei Pai, a few kilometres east of Fanling. Paula thought that it must be related to morning glory, because the shapes of the flowers are similar. However, I think she’s wrong, because although both are creepers, the shape of the leaves is strikingly different:
The final photo was taken alongside ‘the eastern descent’, which is the most direct route from the walled village of Tung Kok Wai to the major traffic artery of Sha Tau Kok Road, which we need to cross on our way back home:
I certainly expect to take more photos of flowers in the coming months, but if I think they’re any good, I will probably include them in my next photographic highlights collection.

Tuesday, 13 October 2020

sixties music: the bottom ten

Ten years ago, I published a list of tracks from the 1960s under the title ‘Sixties Music: the Top Ten’. This wasn’t a list of what I considered the best songs of the decade; it was a compilation of what I regarded as the most significant. For example, I included the Beatles’ Please, Please Me rather than a track from their later catalogue; Hendrix’s Hey Joe rather than All Along the Watchtower (a rare example of a cover version that improved on the original); and Dylan’s Subterranean Homesick Blues rather than, for example, Like a Rolling Stone.

If you were around in the 1960s, you may still be telling people how great the music was back then, but that’s the result of more than half a century of hindsight. I would wager that you’ve already forgotten most, if not all, the songs that I’m about to list. The only criterion, other than their sheer awfulness, that qualifies a song for inclusion in this list is that it had to have reached #1 in the UK singles chart. Prepare to be horrified!

1. Elvis Presley — Are You Lonesome Tonight? (1961)
Presley had been on a downward musical trajectory for several years by the time this record was released, but this is the nadir. However, it could almost be considered bearable if you treat it as a comedy record, with its earnestly recited—an embarrassingly silly—middle eight.

2.  Cliff Richard — The Next Time / Bachelor Boy (1963)
Cliff did record a few half-decent songs in the early years of his career (e.g. Move It!, Dynamite), but this was a double horror. The people who bought this record clearly didn’t notice that the musical scene was changing.

3. The Dave Clark Five — Glad All Over (1963)
This song’s claim to fame—or notoriety if you prefer—is that it replaced the Beatles’ at #1 in the UK charts at a time when Beatlemania in the UK was at its peak. It may be that the mainstream media emphasized this fact because the record itself is so awful. By the way, I single out the Honeycombs (#5 below) for its poor drumming, but Dave Clark couldn’t play the drums either.

4.  The Four Pennies — Juliet (1964)
I imagine that this ‘band’ secured a recording contract as a result of the rush to sign up any guitar-based outfit in the immediate aftermath of the appearance on the scene of the Beatles in the hope that they would emulate their success. Unsurprisingly, the Four Pennies were a one-hit wonder that quickly disappeared from view. Thankfully.

5.  The Honeycombs — Have I the Right? (1964)
I remember the main selling point of this ‘band’ being that it had a female drummer. It is not my intention to suggest that women can’t play the drums, but this one certainly couldn’t.

6.  Tom Jones — Green, Green Grass of Home (1966)
My abiding memory of this song is of a fellow student in Manchester asking to borrow my copy of Melody Maker, opening it at the charts page and collapsing in a fit of hysterical laughter when he saw that this record was #1. Say no more.

7.  Scott McKenzie — San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers in Your Hair) (1967)
Although this song acquired the status of an anthem for the so-called ‘summer of love’, I regarded that movement then—and still do—as bullshit, with its rallying cry of ‘flower power’. The song doesn’t get any better with age.

8.  Engelbert Humperdinck — Release Me (1967)
It beggars belief that this song broke the Beatles’ run of #1 hits, especially as the record it kept off the top spot, the double A-side Penny Lane/Strawberry Fields Forever, was arguably the band’s best single. ‘Sentimental garbage’ is my opinion of this vomit-inducing song. I wonder who bought it.

9.  Peter Sarstedt — Where Do You Go To (My Lovely)? (1969)
Pretentious. That was my verdict when this song was released, and it would probably be my reaction now if I heard it again (I’m not about to test this assertion).

10.  The Archies — Sugar, Sugar (1969)
‘Bubblegum’ music had a brief period in the spotlight in the late sixties, and I suspect that this song—and Simon Says by the 1910 Fruitgum Company, also a #1—was bought by the parents of very young children to keep them amused. It certainly didn’t amuse me.

11.  Rolf Harris — Two Little Boys (1969)
The only comment that I can make about this execrable rubbish is that it had a remarkably prescient title.
*  *  *
It will not have escaped the notice of alert readers that I failed to keep my list down to the advertised number of ten. I was reading through the comments on Black Music of the 1960s (link below), where I’d proposed Herman’s Hermits as an example of the kind of garbage that was being promoted at that time. One of my readers countered with the Dave Clark Five, and I realized that I’d completely forgotten what may well be the single most overrated outfit of all time—it has been inducted into the so-called ‘Rock ’n’ Roll Hall of Fame’! The Rock ’n’ Roll Dustbin of History would have been a more appropriate repository.

the more positive side of sixties music
Black Music of the 1960s
Alternative Sixties: Part 1
Alternative Sixties: Part 2

These posts include YouTube links, so you can check out tracks with which you’re unfamiliar. For obvious reasons, I’ve not done this with the main list.

Friday, 9 October 2020

god save the queen?

Between January 1974 and January 1978, I worked as a senior instructor at the Hong Kong Outward Bound School. During the last year of this period, I also moonlighted as the television critic for TV & Entertainment Times, a local listings magazine. Around the time I left Hong Kong in 1978, this magazine published an essay that I’d written about Queen, the third of my all-time favourite bands (and the only one I ever saw live). While I begin to refocus on writing after a barren summer in the UK, I thought that I would republish that essay here.
*  *  *
The problem faced by singers and bands that parody rock music is that no one takes them seriously. People do listen to them, it’s true, but only in a vague, slightly amused fashion. However, the best satirists, like the best practical jokers, are taken seriously—the reason being that their particular audience does not recognize the humorous intent.

The band I’m referring to here is Queen. They are possibly the most original band to appear since the Beatles, but the practical joker side of their music is rarely far below the surface. Yet they have reached their present pre-eminence in Britain purely because their audience takes them seriously.

As Perry Martin [a professional musician working in Hong Kong whom I knew at the time] told me: “They’ve made progressive rock into a saleable commodity.” Of course, this is an oversimplification. What they have actually done is to parody rock music in the most effective way: by the best possible use of existing techniques and by the invention of new ones when necessary. In effect, this means that their performance is often far better than that of the band they are allegedly mimicking.

The first clues that the band wasn’t entirely straight appeared on their third album, Sheer Heart Attack. Killer Queen [the first ever track by the band that I heard] is an apparent dig at the female equivalent of Ray Davies’ Dedicated Follower of Fashion, but whereas the Kinks’ ‘hero’ was a feckless, working-class type, Queen’s ‘heroine’ is an altogether more sophisticated character:
Well-versed in etiquette,
Extraordinarily nice, etc.
As for Flick of the Wrist, it could have come straight out of a Victorian melodrama, complete with moustachioed villain (the butt of the humour). Lap of the Gods is more than a little reminiscent of Bryan Ferry’s Roxy Music, while Bring Back That Leroy Brown is a take-off of a traditional jazz band. Dear Friends is only slightly removed from:
Hush! Hush! Whisper who dares,
Christopher Robin is saying his prayers.
How can a band that does this kind of thing be on the level?

It is yet another attempt to introduce ‘theatre’ into rock music. David Bowie was probably the first to try this, but his music was little more than unimaginative science fiction, and he was obliged to resort to glitter and greasepaint to disguise his limitations. In the same vein, Alice Cooper has all but left the music behind, with the result that his act is entirely theatrical. At the other end of the scale, bands such as Jethro Tull and Genesis have a strong theatrical element in their music, but it is implicit (cf. Thick as a Brick, A Passion Play, The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway). The main weakness here is that the intrinsic ‘plots’ are either too convoluted or else too surreal for a wide audience to want to identify with them.

With Queen, the opposite is true. The fun-poking is so outrageously explicit that no one can believe they really mean it. However, they are merely preying on an age-old human weakness, the inability to believe what is right under one’s nose. And in doing so, they have resurrected music hall (US: ‘vaudeville’), updating it for the 1970s. The clue is in the band’s use of ‘barber-shop quartet’ harmonies, even in the most incongruous places. A song that would otherwise be a straight copy of a rock sausage machine such as Led Zeppelin is turned into near farce by the introduction of beautiful harmonizing voices.

Now listen to A Night at the Opera, which, not coincidentally, is also the title of a Marx Brothers film. The album opens with Death on Two Legs, a song ostensibly directed against loan sharks [I learned subsequently that the target of this song was the band’s former manager, who had ripped them off]. Freddie Mercury is a master of the pointed insult:
Insane! You should be put inside.
You’re a sewer rat decaying in a cesspool of pride.
However, the song has been left subtly ambiguous. It could easily refer to a big-shot businessman—after all, how much difference is there between the two types? It just happens that the businessman has his reinforcements more efficiently marshalled, but the ordinary man in the street supports neither type. He simply accepts the status quo, believing that he can do nothing to alter the situation.

The indignant mood of the first song is immediately punctured by Lazing on a Sunday Afternoon, which turns the spotlight on the so-called ‘idle rich’:
I come from London town, I’m just an ordinary guy.
Fridays I go painting in the Louvre.
…the type whose pictures you can look at in the social pages of various magazines—always assuming that you want to in the first place.

Seaside Rendezvous also has a touch of this atmosphere, although the target here is the Charley’s Aunt brand of more or less decorous courtship, from the angle of ‘but who needs a chaperone anyway?’

It will be seen that the satirical element in the band’s work has extended far beyond the boundaries of rock music. The limited credence given to prophets of doom is picked out in The Prophet’s Song. No matter that the prophet of doom is always right. For ordinary people, Noah’s flood never happened, and Armageddon is merely a fond hope in the teachings of fundamentalist Christian sects. And it is all summarized in one line:
Listen to the madman!
Good Company, another song with a quasi-jazz motif, highlights the folly of the man who spends a lifetime building a wall around himself, using people for as long as they serve his purpose, then discarding them. This song also spotlights the technical wizardry of Brian May, who makes his guitar sound like, in turn, a cornet, an alto saxophone and a clarinet.

Love of My Life has to be a jibe at the Happy Days adolescent sexuality of the 1950s, the
Each night I ask the stars up above:
Why must I be a teenager in love?
mentality, complete with hyperbole and mock pathos. It is in a song like this that the true artistry of the band can be seen: the words are straight, almost banal, but the hyperbole comes in the delivery—it is a slow ballad, sung with earnest intensity. However, the illusion of seriousness is dispelled by the ubiquitous harmonizing voices, echoing the lead singer’s words like an unasked-for conscience.

The entire charade is topped off by a poker-faced rendition of God Save the Queen. It’s only as the final note is struck that the listener is treated to a little flourish in the form of a few extra bars—an embellishment that fits beautifully. Again, the subtlety of the band’s art is evident; a heavier-handed band would have ‘jazzed it up’, that is, if they had had the audacity to play the anthem in the first place.

How do they do it? How do they get away with it? The first is the easier question to answer. Broadly speaking, they use a mixture of farce and melodrama, in proportions that vary from song to song but that are selected with an unerring sense of timing. The guitar solo in Millionaire’s Waltz, albeit in waltz time, would be fairly ordinary, were it not punctuated by an absurd single note struck on a triangle.

As for Somebody to Love: how dare they apply such impeccable musical styling to such a trivial subject? But this is the key to Queen’s success. They do have the nerve to do what they do—and they do it so well!

Just listen to Teo Torriate (this, like the last two songs mentioned, is from the band’s latest album, A Day at the Races, another title borrowed from the Marx Brothers). The resemblance to a school choir performing at some inconsequential concert is uncanny, even down to the school music master pounding away at the piano, at the same time doing his best to conduct his proteges with his head.

It would seem that I’m implying that Queen are an eclectic band. This is not strictly true. Admittedly, they do borrow musical ideas, and from the most unlikely places, but these are blended together in a style that is both unique and instantly recognizable. Rock music has come a long way since Bill Haley and Elvis Presley, even since the Beatles, and the post-Beatles era has been one of diversification—there are almost as many ‘categories’ within the genre as there are bands.

However, the 1970s has seen two main trends: mainstream pop music and ‘underground’ rock, the latter originating in the late 1960s with the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane and the Velvet Underground in America, and with Pink Floyd, Jethro Tull and Led Zeppelin in Britain. The factor that distinguishes the two streams is that ‘pop’ music is just that—a barometer of popular tastes at any given time—while what I’ve identified as underground music is music for those listeners who are turned off by the banalities of the former. Being freed from considerations of commercialism, it is invariably more adventurous.

Inevitably, this has meant that over the past decade, the two trends have steadily diverged. Music that attempts to bridge the gap, appearing at a time when pop is becoming increasingly elementary in structure, when talent is no longer a necessary prerequisite for achieving popular acclaim, must be either a tedious preciosity or something very unusual. Most people who have listened to Queen would probably agree that they are not the former.

In fact, if it is time for a major new influence to supersede the Beatles, then Queen are a likely candidate. If this is objected to as an overstatement, it must be conceded that they represent an unexpected swing of the pendulum. Nevertheless, it is important not to underrate the Beatles merely because they were overrated 14 years ago. The hysteria provoked by the Beatles in the period 1963–64 is no longer easy to understand, and it is for this reason that it is extremely difficult to envisage a repeat performance by another band.

The Beatles were technically little better than their contemporaries, but they had the good fortune to be assigned a producer who was sympathetic to their musical ideas. Had they not failed their Decca audition, this would never have happened. Also, nowadays, there are just too many bands of comparable technical ability. However, as I’ve attempted to point out, Queen’s style is unique. Someday, another type of music will supersede rock, yet when today’s leading lights are barely remembered, even as names, I would wager that much of Queen’s music will still be around, valued for its creative genius.

A comparison with the Beatles is not completely fatuous. Admittedly, Queen do have a long way to go to emulate the Beatles’ spectacular chart success on both sides of the Atlantic. On the other hand, it is highly unlikely that anyone will ever do so. However, Bohemian Rhapsody, arguably the finest track ever to be released as a single, did hold the #1 chart position for a record number of weeks. Also, Queen share with the Beatles the rare ability to appeal to all age groups.

The only missing ingredient, if it can be so described, is the USA. It was acceptance in America that transformed the Beatles from just another rock ’n’ roll band into a global phenomenon. Yet this is the principal stumbling block. America still gives its allegiance to bands such as Jefferson Starship, Steely Dan and Fleetwood Mac, all of which play music that is ten years out of date, or even to such anachronisms as the Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin. It is the inevitable result of having an ‘awards’ system, with its unavoidable emphasis on the mainstream and consequent inhibition of innovation.

If you have not heard Queen, I strongly urge that you give them a listen, especially on A Night at the Opera and A Day at the Races. You will not be disappointed. Queen are not merely brilliant; they are a revelation. Queen are not just a rock band; they are a window on life in Britain in the 1970s.

Saturday, 3 October 2020

water from the mountains

Although we had been out cycling on the previous two days, we still planned to go out for another ride on the third day. However, there was a slight problem: when I’d looked at the weather forecast the previous evening, there was a lightning symbol in the forecast for noon, which meant that we would have to go out early. Unfortunately, when I checked the forecast again the following morning, I noticed that a rain symbol had been added for 11am. It seemed prudent to eschew the cycling and go for a walk instead.

Because we live close to the northwestern edge of Penrith, when going for a walk we will always head north to begin with. This takes us through the Thacka Beck Nature Reserve, after which, on this occasion, we followed the eastern edge of town, which is also the highest, southwards until we reached the small hamlet of Carleton.

Sixty years ago, Carleton had been located at the junction of the A66, a major road connecting Penrith to Scotch Corner, a major junction on the A1, and the A686, which leads over the Pennines to Newcastle-upon-Tyne. However, the A66 was rerouted in the late 1960s as part of the infrastructure associated with the construction of the Penrith bypass, now part of the M6 motorway. It is no longer possible to follow the original route of the A66 south from Carleton in a motor vehicle, although it is still possible on foot. Incidentally, ‘Carleton’ is of Old English (Anglo-Saxon) origin. The suffix –ton indicates a farm, while carle means ‘serf’ or ‘peasant’. Carleton was separated from Penrith sixty years ago by an extensive area of fields, but during the intervening years, residential development has meant that the two are now contiguous.

The River Eamont runs from west to east a short distance south of Carleton and can be reached by following the old route of the A66. While most of the rivers in Cumbria have names that are Cumbric in origin (Cumbric was the language spoken by the original inhabitants of the region but became extinct in the 11th century), ‘Eamont’ is purported to be of Old English origin. The first element, ea–, means ‘water’, while the meaning of the second element should be obvious. The most likely meaning of these juxtaposed elements is ‘water from the mountains’.

This is not a fanciful interpretation. The source of the Eamont is Ullswater, the second-largest of the lakes in the district. Ullswater is a narrow ribbon lake about nine miles long that is surrounded by mountains, which provide a considerable catchment area during periods of heavy rain. All this runs off into the lake and thence into the Eamont.

The straight-line distance between the outflow from Ullswater and the Eamont’s confluence with the River Eden is no more than about 12 miles, but the actual length of the river is more than twice this because it meanders all over the place. Unsurprisingly, therefore, the Eamont is prone to catastrophic flooding following winter storms, which dump considerable amounts of rain on the mountains. In one such storm a few years ago, the bridge at Pooley Bridge, the first to be encountered from the river’s source, was swept away, and houses close to the river are often overwhelmed by floodwater.

Our objective on this occasion was the footpath along the north bank of the Eamont from Brougham upstream to Eamont Bridge, which has always been the most important crossing point over the river. Here are a few photographs that I took along the way:

It was quite a warm day, and most of the sheep in the first field were sheltering from the sun in the shade of a large tree:
This is a general view of the river, looking upstream:
I hadn’t expected to see a grey heron here.

Lone trees in the middle of fields are a common sight. I sometimes wonder whether they have been left by the farmer simply to provide shelter for his livestock:
I simply had to include the following photos of a spectacular bracket fungus growing on a sycamore:
One of Paula’s colleagues is a mycologist, so I might be able to find out the species.

I hadn’t been along this path for several years, but I felt sure that at one point close to Eamont Bridge there had been a footbridge across the river. If I’m correct, then that footbridge has also fallen victim to the rapacity of the river:
To end on a lighter note, here is a photo of a wild rose that I took just before reaching Eamont Bridge:

Saturday, 26 September 2020

sneedl’bodja takes a drink

Sneedl’bodja stormed off in a sulk, disappearing in the direction of the village without a single backward glance.

Shunshelstinx was about to call after him, but then he decided that this would not be a particularly worthwhile action to take. By the time he’d made one decision and changed his mind, you can be sure that Sneedl’bodja would have been so far out of earshot as to be coming back into range from the opposite direction. Shunshelstinx and Qumfl’quelunx trudged disconsolately back along the lane leading to Three Foxes Wood, cheered by the thought of sitting in front of a roaring fire drinking cocoa and knowing, or hoping at least, that Sneedl’bodja would catch up with them very soon. In fact, he was probably ahead of them already, because he usually was, but that did not stop Shunshelstinx worrying about him. Shunshelstinx always worried about Sneedl’bodja, because he always worried about everything, and he was not hopeful that Sneedl’bodja could restrain his natural impulse to act first and think not at all. But, he thought, perhaps he knows what he’s doing.

“Even if I don’t,” he concluded.

Sneedl’bodja did indeed know what he was doing. And where he was going. The village inn. Many years ago, he had discovered that the public house in the village stored vast quantities of a large variety of brown liquors, most of which he found very pleasant to drink. He particularly enjoyed a liquor that came in clear glass bottles and tasted like a mixture of fire and water. He would take the most hair-raising risks for a drink of that, especially tonight, but he would have to be at his very quickest.

The lights were still on in the drinking rooms, and Sneedl’bodja peered carefully through the window to spy out the terrain, although carefully and Sneedl’bodja are about as far from being natural bedfellows as it is possible to imagine and still be in the same story. In other words, he shot a perfunctory glance through the window. Inside, he saw several gadgies, some of whom were leaning on the bar in various degrees of instability. Others were standing unsteadily, and all were talking animatedly.

“Did you hear that Old Man McScranagan’s garden shed burned down tonight in mysterious circumstances?” said one, taking a long drink from his mug of foaming ale.

“I heard that it was spontaneous combustion,” said another, who had already drunk too much foaming ale to have any idea what he was talking about but who did not want to be left out of the conversation.

“Bah!” thought Sneedl’bodja irritably. “When I need that pot-bellied poltroon Qumfl’quelunx to provide one of his sound effects, he isn’t here. That is so typical of that vacuous waxwork! I shall just have to think of another plan.”

His ‘other plan’ would see Sneedl’bodja at his most reckless, but it was also what he was good at. Speed of movement, that was the key—well, that and confining those movements within the narrow zone of the gadgies’ peripheral vision. But although he was unwilling to admit it, he relied on Qumfl’quelunx’s bizarre repertoire of sound effects to provide the vital distraction. Without his portly friend, he could not be sure that he would not be seen, but after all, a drink of fire water was a drink of fire water and was surely worth the modest risk involved.

That was it! Yes, it was worth the risk. And with that question answered, Sneedl’bodja sprang into action, his judgement clouded only very slightly by a fondly anticipated glass of fire water. And he knew his way into the drinking rooms, having been there on more than one previous occasion. Shunshelstinx, we can safely assume, is totally unaware of this backsliding behaviour by his frenetic friend. He certainly wouldn’t have approved.

Anyway, in one continuous springing movement, Sneedl’bodja was at the door, which had one of those new-fangled contraptions that allow the door to be pushed open easily from the outside. But then it thoughtfully closes the door behind you automatically, thus saving you all that inconvenience. It must have been a very lazy gadgie who invented that one.

However, unknown to Sneedl’bodja, the innkeeper had attached a bell to this outer door since his last visit, having for some time been puzzled by the speed with which his whisky was being drunk. He was convinced that his customers were coming in quietly while he was in the cellar and sneaking the odd tipple while pretending to wait patiently to be served. Early one evening, before his regular customers arrived, he had marked the level of whisky in the bottle with a red pencil. Shortly thereafter, also before the regulars arrived, Sneedl’bodja, who just happened to be in the neighbourhood, had seen his opportunity, slipped in quietly through the front door and helped himself to a large whisky. A very large whisky. The innkeeper was not pleased to discover a discrepancy of almost an inch between the red line and the level of the whisky, but at least he had confirmed his suspicions. Someone really had been drinking his whisky, as he had thought. But in answering one mystery, he had created another. The bar was empty. Nobody was waiting to be served. He had identified the offence but not the culprit. It wasn’t one of his regulars, after all. Well, yes, it was one of his regulars really, but it was a regular of whose existence he was unaware.

Anyway, Sneedl’bodja pushed slowly at the door. If his hope had been to enter quietly, that hope was dashed by a sudden urgent clanging overhead. Sneedl’bodja’s lightning-fast senses picked up the alarum a fraction of a second before either the innkeeper or his customers, and in a blur of motion he was crouching under a blackened oak settle in the darkest corner of the main drinking room. That split second later, half a dozen pairs of eyes turned to the door, saw it close mysteriously all by itself, and nothing else.

“Must’ve been the wind. It’s pretty gusty tonight,” said one drinker.

“Poltergeists!” exclaimed the one who had already drunk too much foaming ale to know what he was talking about.

A third gadgie sat down suddenly, pushing a half-drunk glass of foaming ale across the table as he did so.

“That’s enough ale for me landlord,” he said emphatically. “I’ve just seen a pixie dressed in a dark brown jogging outfit run across the floor.”

“I’d better get you home George,” said his friend, who knew that pixies do not exist.

By this stage of the evening, all the gadgies had drunk far too much foaming ale to make any connexion between a door that appeared to open by itself and eye-witness evidence of pixies.

“Excellent!” thought Sneedl’bodja. “This is my chance, while their backs are turned.”

He leapt up on to the bar counter, found an empty glass, picked up the whisky bottle, pulled out the cork, poured himself a more generous helping than usual (a far more generous helping than usual), replaced the cork and drank it down, all of it, in less time than it takes to tell how the feat was accomplished. And then, wobbling unsteadily, he started to run back down the counter, but at that moment he caught sight of a strikingly good-looking gelgin in the long mirror on the wall behind the bar.

“Who is that handsome fellow?” thought Sneedl’bodja, stopping suddenly. “Why, he’s almost as good-looking as me!”

Stopping suddenly may have been his intention, but, thus distracted, he skidded spectacularly in a pool of stagnant ale and disappeared over the edge, arms flailing wildly. Regaining his composure in mid-air, he landed athletically on the floor behind the bar, fell over, stood up again and staggered out into the passageway connecting the drinking rooms. How to escape? That was now the problem.

As luck would have it, at that precise moment, the innkeeper noticed that the whisky was still swirling in the bottle. That is how fast Sneedl’bodja can be. Anyway, the landlord had enough time to confront his customers before the eddies died down.

“Not me!” said one, very positively.

“Me neither!” said another, equally positive that he was not responsible.

“And certainly not me!” exclaimed a third, who positively glowed with indignation at the very thought that he even drank whisky, certainly not without paying for it.

“Count me out!” added a fourth, who only ever drank whisky when someone else was paying for it.

“Perhaps the tide has gone out!” interjected the one who had already drunk too much foaming ale to know what he was talking about but who was determined at all costs not to be left out of the conversation.

“Perhaps your brain’s gone out!” said the landlord in exasperation.

Meanwhile, Sneedl’bodja half ran, half crawled along a second corridor, terrifying on the way a small and very yappy terrier. Or was it the other way around? Whichever interpretation you choose to believe, we can safely infer that Sneedl’bodja did not pause momentarily and stoop down to stroke the unsuspecting dog behind the ear, although he may have kicked it. On the other hand, if he did aim a kick at the dog, he probably missed. Anyway, Sneedl’bodja did not stop. He simply kept running, helter skelter, side to side, staggering really more than running. Turn left at the end of the corridor. Miss the turning and hit the wall. Through two open doors. Crash! Ooops! That should have read ‘open two doors’. Up one step and down three, he slipped, slithered and slid until, finally, without quite understanding how he was able to do so, and with a more than generous admixture of sheer luck, he reached the back of the inn. Drawing further on his luck, his judgement not being available for consultation for most of the evening, he found a half-open sash window through which he could probably wriggle, although it would be rather a tight squeeze.

At the opposite end of Sneedl’bodja’s erratic trajectory through the building, the innkeeper was unconvinced.

“Poltergeists indeed!” he said contemptuously.

This is what gelgins call people.

Thursday, 10 September 2020

an illusion of snakes

As I lie in the burnt, acrid dust of despair,
I hear the low hiss of a viper, poised to strike.
I raise my tired head and see the reptile prepare
to sink its fangs into the naked flesh, the meat
of my beliefs, to poison and to make alike
the opposites inside my mind. An objective
opinion is thus distorted by the heat
that places death in such improper perspective.

I cannot move, for I am pinned by a python
that squeezes my body so much less than my mind.
My thoughts race oddly in a lonely marathon
of wonder, continuous no more but broken
by the crushing tentacles of doubt, which can blind
tired eyes so they do not glimpse the truth of logic.
So now, as deliberate lies have been spoken,
the snakes may yet conceal their sinister magic.

My thoughts are polluted by venom, and poisoned
by the racking doubt of mental dislocation.
Slowly, steadily, the processes of my brain
cease to operate, except in wild, unreasoned
spirals of hate and pain: mental immolation.
Yet the body lives on—only the mind is slain.

Tuesday, 18 August 2020

serial changes

I like to play around with words, not with their meanings but with their physical properties. The result is the puzzles that I post here from time to time. I recently set myself the challenge of finding a word in which the first letter can be changed to form another valid English word, then the second letter and so on, at each stage forming a valid word.

This is how this process might work for a four-letter word:
However, finding a solution involving five-letter words is much harder. To date, I’ve found five solutions, although I imagine that there are many more. Can you find one?

Incidentally, I’ve tried to find a solution for six-letter words, so far without success. Can you?

Saturday, 25 July 2020

matching pairs

The four words in the top row of the following grid have different variants of the same ‘property’:

On that basis, place the following four words in the four empty cells in the grid so that each word is directly below a word that has the same variant of the unknown property:
There are 4! (=24) ways in which these four words can be arranged, only one of which is correct. The fact that both groups of four words are in alphabetical order is not relevant to the solution of this puzzle, although the order in which the words in the top row of the grid has been arranged is significant.

Wednesday, 22 July 2020

connecting the dots

I don’t usually post puzzles around this time, but I’ve been struggling with writing for the past couple of months, and I thought that this recently devised poser might serve as a welcome distraction from the more serious matters plaguing the world.

*  *  *

What connects the following six words to the Latin word for ‘bread’?


This is probably quite easy, but I have another, which I will post in the next couple of days, that I believe is much harder.

Tuesday, 23 June 2020


The past week has felt very strange. Last Tuesday, my faithful old laptop finally gave up the ghost (it was at least ten years old), so for the six days it has taken to purchase a replacement, I’ve felt isolated in a way that I didn’t think possible. Fifty years ago, I spent days on end on my own in the heart of the Australian Outback, hundreds of miles from anywhere, without once feeling isolated. This has been different.

I didn’t want to check my Gmail account through Paula’s laptop, because I’d be signing in myself on a new device a few days later, and I was afraid that Google would flag this up as some kind of hacking. It does do that, as I recall from past experience. The second problem was that I don’t remember phone numbers. I keep my friends’ numbers in a Note file on my computer, a file that perished alongside its host. Then there is the coronavirus situation. People may be going about their lives as best they can in the circumstances, but nothing is actually happening. The pubs are shut for a start, and, unfortunately, for a good reason. So ‘social distancing’ really means ‘social shrinkage’.

This is to let regular readers know that only a few new items will be posted on this blog over the next few months as I grapple with a new PC—and the rigours of a new operating system.

However, on the same day that my computer collapsed and died, Paula and I did enjoy a walk along a section of the local river, on which I took some interesting photos. I had planned to write about it that afternoon, but I now hope to complete the project within the next week or so.

Thursday, 11 June 2020

lawrence of cairngorm

In 1973, I was working at the Moray Outward Bound School, which at that time was located just outside Burghead, a small town on the southern shore of the Moray Firth, when I had an experience that still resonates in my memory today. It was September, and my watch (a group of twelve trainees aged between 16 and 20) were about to embark on what would turn out to be the most arduous, physically demanding four weeks of their lives.

Every activity on that course conspired to be the most exciting, the most challenging, that I would experience during my entire Outward Bound career. As a ‘sea school’, Moray included sailing in its activities, but before I joined the staff there, my only prior experience of sailing had been as a watch instructor on the Captain Scott, a three-masted topgallant-sail schooner that sailed out of Plockton, near Kyle of Lochalsh on the west coast of Scotland, where I’d been seconded from the Eskdale Outward Bound School the previous year (although independent, the Captain Scott ran its courses on Outward Bound principles, including land expeditions, which was the main reason I was there).

The sailing at Moray was in two-masted cutters that could just about accommodate an entire watch, but before the first session on this course, the head of seamanship decided that we could split my watch between two cutters because winds were light. However, I’d barely managed to get my cutter out of the harbour when the wind rose to near-gale intensity. The head of seamanship was adamant that he didn’t want to see instructors taking the helm; we could only give instructions. And my first instruction was to take down the mainsail. We spent the remainder of the session with just the mizzen sail and a jib hoisted. At one point, we did sail perilously close to the harbour wall, but we came through that experience unscathed.

The other episode that I remember is a day spent surf canoeing at a beach a few miles east of Burghead. I’d never done any canoeing until I went to work at Eskdale, and that was white-water canoeing down rivers. Surf canoeing requires different skills, which I never really mastered. And it could be scary. When we arrived at the beach, the waves were around 10 feet high, and the idea was to paddle out beyond the breakers, turn and choose a wave to ride. Exhilarating? Certainly, but I must have capsized half a dozen times during the course of the day, including one instance where I was forced to capsize deliberately to avoid an empty canoe that was bearing down on me in a breaking wave as I made my way out to sea to begin another ride.

However, it was the four-day final expedition in the Cairngorms that I strongly suspect the participants still remember today. What follows is an account of that expedition.

The final expedition at Eskdale was the chance for trainees to put into practice what they’d learned earlier during a course on their own, but the Cairngorms are potentially much more dangerous than the Lake District, and it was standard practice at Moray for groups to be accompanied by an instructor. Although Ben Nevis, at 4,409 feet above sea level, is Britain’s highest mountain, there are four peaks in the Cairngorms over 4,000 feet—Ben Macdui (4,295 feet), Braeriach (4,252 feet) Cairn Toul (4,236 feet) and Cairn Gorm (4,084 feet)—together with several summits that are listed in Munro’s Tables, published in 1891, but do not involve at least 500 feet of ascent from the nearest higher peak. There are also a number of satellite peaks that are only slightly lower. This massif therefore has the closest approximation to an arctic-alpine climate of any mountain range in Britain—there was still a small glacier on the slopes of Braeriach as late as the nineteenth century!

I suspect that my intended role in such expeditions was simply to tag along, allow the trainees to make all the decisions and intervene only to avoid dangerous mistakes. You can probably guess my reaction to such a policy: if I’m coming along, then I will set the objectives. And for this expedition, I’d proposed a target of climbing ten ‘munroes’. Now I’ve never read Munroe’s Tables, which lists all the mountains in Scotland over 3,000 feet above sea level, but I thought that to be included in the list, a peak had to involve at least 500 feet of ascent from the nearest higher peak. This was my only mistake (see below).

Anyway, we arrived at the White Lady car park, on the western slopes of Cairn Gorm at around 2,700 feet above sea level, early in the morning. Our first objective was Cairn Gorm, which we reached without too much trouble. The terrain between this mountain and Ben Macdui can be described as an undulating plateau, difficult to navigate in misty conditions. And the mist was swirling around, occasionally cutting visibility down to a few yards and at other times lifting just enough to indicate the way ahead. And I did have some idea of the way to go, having been this way a couple of times earlier in the summer. Our ultimate objective was a small lochan at about 3,700 feet above sea level on the slopes of Ben Macdui, where we would camp on the first night.

As I was preparing my dinner at the campsite, I noticed two things: first, that the mist was slowly sinking into the valleys; and second, that it would be a full moon. A change of plan. I called the trainees together and told them to be ready to move out at 1am instead of the dawn start originally envisaged. They could leave the tents where they were, just carrying enough food and equipment to be able to handle an emergency.

I managed to sleep for a few hours, and when I crawled out of my tent at about 12.30am, I was staggered by what I could see: a luminescent carpet of white through which black shapes protruded, like islands of the unknown in a sea of knowledge. It was so bright that you could read a map without the aid of a torch. And so we set off towards our first objective, Beinn Mheadhoinn.

This peak is more than 3,800 feet high, and unless you’re familiar with Gaelic, I can guarantee that you will have no idea how it is pronounced. And this is an appropriate time to introduce the eponymous hero of the story. Lawrence, who was typical of many Outward Bound trainees, overweight and unused to hard physical exercise. He had a sense of humour though, always ready with a wisecrack to disguise the difficulties that he encountered during the course.

If you’ve ever been walking with a large group, you will be familiar with the hotshots who tear off ahead, stop for a rest then set off again immediately the back markers have caught up. Lawrence found this profoundly demoralizing and complained bitterly, not without justification. He hardly ever got a chance to rest.

And we had a long day ahead. But first our descent into the luminescent fog. Illumination was replaced by a kind of grey darkness, but we eventually stopped going downhill and started to climb again. When we emerged into the light, it was from a different perspective that took some getting used to. We rested a while at the summit.

Our next objective was Beinn a’Chaorainn (3,553 feet) to the east. I thought that this would be a good vantage point from which to watch the sun rise, so I was in no hurry to continue. However, Beinn a’Bhuird (3,927 feet) couldn’t wait for ever. This mountain dominates the east and looks a daunting prospect. Not only did we have to climb it now, we would have to reclimb quite a bit of it from the other side after visiting Ben Avon (3,842 feet).

And all the time, we had been getting further and further from our campsite. The way back was going to be long and arduous. Lawrence had been struggling for hours, but there was worse to come. At around 6pm, after 17 hours on the move, we found ourselves at 1,700 feet above sea level, faced with a climb up to our campsite at 3,700 feet. I didn’t think Lawrence could make it.

What should I do? I can still remember verbatim what I said to the trainees:

“Right! Lawrence goes first, I go second, and nobody passes me.”

You can guess which word I emphasized.

I talked to Lawrence for the entire climb, and he didn’t stop or even hesitate once. His pace was indeed painfully slow—I’d have been more comfortable walking at more than twice that speed—but I had to get the guy back to the campsite. I could worry about day #3 once I’d done that.

It used to be common practice for a policeman to be seconded as a temporary instructor for a single Outward Bound course, presumably so that they might learn something, and as the most experienced mountain instructor at Moray, I usually had the temp assigned as my assistant. Why not split the watch into two groups of six? I would supervise the hotshots, while my assistant could keep an eye on the slower trainees.

The first objective on day #3 was Carn a’Mhaim (3,402 feet), an isolated mountain that is straightforward to negotiate, but then our route crossed the Lairig Ghru, a huge trench that bisects the Cairngorm plateau. We crossed at 1,400 feet above sea level, with Cairn Toul and Braeriach on the distant horizon above 4,000 feet.

There was another objective: the campsite. The Wells of Dee is the ultimate source of the River Dee, a ‘babbling brook’ running past a well-kept ‘lawn’ with room for eight tents. I’d camped here, on the highest campsite in the British Isles at just under 4,000 feet above sea level, on the previous course. The only part of the ascent that I remember is when we emerged onto the plateau and I identified the Devil’s Point. It looked like an easy detour, but it didn’t meet my mistaken criterion for inclusion in Munroe’s Tables.

That was my mistake. There was another: I noticed a peak in the Beinn a’Chaorainn area that looked easy but didn’t meet the criterion either. That would have cut down the exertions of day #2 (no need to tick off Beinn Avon).

So how did Lawrence do on day #3? As I expected, when not being constantly pressured by the hotshots, he could handle the situation—at his own pace. The ‘slow’ group were no more than 10–12 minutes behind after an entire day. And that with loaded rucksacks.

The final day of the expedition started in the middle of the night. I was woken up by the side of my tent flapping wetly in my face. However, there isn’t much you can do in such circumstances. The overall structural integrity of the tent remained intact. Wait for daybreak.

I referred earlier to the putative role of the instructor on these expeditions. If I’d left it to the trainees to decide what to do, I’m sure that they would have opted for retreat from what was an extremely exposed location in suddenly extreme weather. Safety first. When I worked in Outward Bound, I didn’t think like that.

We still had one more ‘munroe’ to climb to reach the target. Sgor Gaoith (3,668 feet) is the highest summit on a north–south ridge that lies a few miles to the west of our wild campsite. The terrain in between is featureless peat bog. And on this occasion, visibility was less than 20 yards. And there were no paths.

I instructed the trainees to form a single straight line, which I directed left or right from my vantage point at the back. The only time in my life that I’ve had to navigate solely by compass bearings for such a long distance, with no physical features to offer guidance. And we eventually hit the col in the aforementioned ridge that I’d been aiming for.

The tenth ‘munroe’ seemed almost like an anticlimax. Over the top and down the other side, where we picked up the school’s transport. I’ve never seen any of the participants in this adventure since the course ended, but I’ve often wondered whether it’s a story that they have told their friends. Perhaps you’ve heard the story. Heard it first-hand. And didn’t think it was true.

Friday, 5 June 2020


I’m finally back in Penrith, after a slightly strange but uneventful journey. The airport in Hong Kong was like a ghost town, and the flight to Doha was only 20 percent full. The Doha–Manchester flight had more passengers but was nowhere near full. Paula had booked our train tickets to Penrith three months ago, but I didn’t expect the trains to still be running. However, they were, although we had to wait an hour longer than we had anticipated because the airline had brought forward the timing of the second leg. And although only 25 percent of the seats on the train were marked as available for occupation, we actually had the entire carriage to ourselves.

May had been my best month in terms of distance covered on my bike in more than two years. I’d been out no fewer than ten times in the first 17 days of the month, usually with Paula but often by myself. I began to wonder whether I could manage 1,000 kilometres in the month, a feat I last achieved in December 2017, but the weather became unstable, with a lot of rain and frequent thunderstorms. And the mercury was hitting 30 degrees Celsius every day. Phew!

Nevertheless, 1,000km still seemed a realistic target, even though with a week to go, I was more than 275km short. However, I went out with Vlad on Sunday, 24th May, and as well as doing the new version of fruity pie, followed by my newly revised version of the final frontier, which avoids the village of Ha Shan Kai Wat and the psycho dog that attacks cyclists, I then thought that I’d show my Romanian friend temple mount, which is a lot harder than it looks, not just physically but also technically. We also included swiss roll, which I didn’t think Vlad had done (but he had). So that was 70km added to the target.

Then on Tuesday, with Paula preoccupied with family matters, I thought that I’d start with the Hok Tau country trails, which I hadn’t done for quite a while and are fun to ride rather than difficult. Then I headed west, where I embarked on a mini-circuit that starts and finishes at the witch’s house. Unfortunately, about 500 metres before reaching Luen On Bridge, the heavens opened. At least I knew that there was a Chinese-style gazebo next to the bridge where I could take shelter, and the route there was along a fast—and wide—concrete path . During my sojourn there, I noted five or six lightning strikes that were so close that the thunder followed almost instantaneously. At least I felt safe in my temporary refuge.

When the rain stopped, I thought about aborting the ride, but my route would take me back to the witch’s house in any case, and if I’m there, I might as well do swiss roll. And if I’m doing swiss roll, then I can also include on the money and oriental garden (video link), not to mention around 5km on fast roads that don’t carry a lot of traffic. So that was another 73km off the deficit.

On Thursday, I started with the Luen On Bridge circuit in bright sunshine. However, I’d just emerged from the top of swiss roll onto Kwu Tung South Road, with 25km already on the clock, when I had that strange experience of hearing the rain a couple of seconds before feeling it, which I’ve only ever encountered in Hong Kong. I had no idea where I might find shelter, but as I reached Kwu Tung Road, I spotted a covered bench on the opposite side of the road. That would do!

I stayed there for just a few minutes, and it looked as though the rain had stopped, but I had just reached the bottom of a hill that I wasn’t prepared to cycle up again when it started, this time much heavier. I thought I remembered some kind of shelter next to the entrance to oriental garden, which turned out to be covering the mailboxes of the people who lived along this alleyway. It was also used as an impromptu minibus stop, so I had to share it temporarily with a couple of people.

I was there for at least 20 minutes, but the rain eventually stopped. However, the road had been thoroughly soaked, so as I continued I continued to get wet from the spray. Eventually, though, everything dried up, and I headed, via a long detour, to the part of my own neighbourhood south of Sha Tau Kok Road, the only road that leads east out of Fanling. I stopped briefly at a gazebo opposite the Tang Chung Ling Ancestral Hall, but the expected rain never developed, so I continued across the swamp (one of Vlad’s favourite cycling segments) to Po Kak Tsai Road.

The rain started again, this time in earnest, so my target was a shelter at the junction with Lau Shui Heung Road. I made it without getting too wet, but in the course of the 20–30 minutes I spent there, I was joined by seven other people, also seeking shelter. And it would not be exaggerating to describe it as cramped. This location has restricted visibility, either by trees or by mountains—or both—so it’s impossible to gauge how the weather will develop, but the rain did eventually stop. I was the first to leave the shelter, because I still had more to do, but I eventually made it home with another 84km added to the total.

That left less than 50km to do on Saturday, but when I awoke at 5am, it was already bucketing down. It didn’t stop until around 2pm! I don’t usually do any cycling on the day I’m due to fly out, even though the take-off time is always after midnight, and in any case, the forecast for the following day was ‘more of the same’. It looked as though I’d missed out.

Wow! It was sunny when I woke up. I had to take advantage. So I was out early, and I took the following photo of the Ng Tung River, from a slightly different vantage point to the photo I included in Photographic Highlights: 2019–20 (Part 2):

I then continued to the Luen On Bridge circuit and included swiss roll, before heading south towards Taipo. My intention had been to go as far as the lumpy footbridge that you have to use to cross the railway before doubling back, but guess what? It started to rain. Luckily, there was a gazebo nearby, and the shower lasted less than five minutes.

I then thought that while I’m here, I might as well tackle the detour de force, which I hadn’t done in ages, before heading home. On the way, I spotted this newly painted graffito on the side of the ramp leading up to the first footbridge crossing the railway south of Fanling:

Crude, but you don’t see much of this kind of thing in Hong Kong. It will probably get scrubbed before I return.

On the way home, I decided that I’d like a bit of fun, so I headed for ignoble hill. I still haven’t worked out the optimum route through this squatter area, but for now it starts next to what I deem to be some kind of community hall at a long and meandering ramp that gets steeper around the second bend (20–25 percent gradient). The community hall has an interesting mural painted on the opposite side of the hall to this ramp:

To date, I haven’t been able to get a straight-on photo, because that view is invariably at least partly blocked by parked cars.

There is another mural on the house next to the mural that I included in Photographic Highlights: 2019–20 (Part 2):

The Chinese characters are a transliteration of the English word ‘store’, although there doesn’t appear to be any kind of store here.

And that was my final cycling excursion of the month: 68km and back home by midday. My final distance total for May was thus 1019.32km, which I shall be trying to beat next winter.

What keeps me going? When you’re in your sixties, you can kid yourself that you’re still middle-aged. When you hit seventy, you’re an old man. However, by keeping going, I can say to myself: not bad for an old man.

Monday, 1 June 2020

arithmetic meets geometry

I was in the bank the other day, and while I was waiting to be served, I amused myself by studying the bank’s logo on the wall behind the counter:

First I counted the number of triangles, then the number of squares. Then I thought: the puzzles that I usually post here are not being solved. Perhaps I should post something that is a little less taxing. So this is the question: if you multiply the number of triangles by the number of squares, what answer do you get?

I’m about to head off to the UK early this morning, and I expect someone to post an answer to this simple question before I get back online sometime tomorrow.
*  *  *
If you found this puzzle too easy, then you might like to try the following, all of which are much more difficult:

What’s the Connection?
Out of Order #2
Rhyme Cryme
A Rotten English Question
A Light-hearted Question
…French and
Four Play
Unusual Relationship Examined

Only the first three have been solved by readers to date.

Saturday, 30 May 2020

photographic highlights: 2019–20 (part 2)

Continued from Part 1

I posted a feature on firecracker vines in January, but the next photo is a close-up of one cluster of flowers before they have burst into full bloom:

Incidentally, the firecracker vines in my neighbourhood continued to flower sporadically until early May, something that I’d never seen in previous years. What is going on?

I took the next photo in the area between the village where I live and eastern Fanling. It shows a type of gourd that I’ve never seen growing anywhere else or being offered for sale in any market:

The ‘wilderness’ in the background was cultivated ten years ago but was then fenced off by the landowner (Henderson Land). I spotted this vine growing up the fence.

I’ve taken pictures of the makeshift shrine in the next photo, which is located next to a road junction near the beginning of the long and winding road, before, but I simply had to stop and take another when I saw the statue of Guan Gung (‘Old Man Guan’), which is a new addition and is at least 1.5 metres tall:

Whenever we cycle the long and winding road, we always stop at Luen On Bridge, which crosses the Sheung Yue River, for a water break. On one occasion, a large herd of goats was slowly browsing its way downstream, and I took several photos. The two goats in the next photo were part of that herd:

The goat on the far side of the channel had leapt across, but I failed to capture that, and I guessed that the nearer goat had bottled out. So I took this photo then put my camera away. The second goat then made the leap, from a much more difficult take-off position, so I missed that too.

On several occasions when we’ve cycled journey to the west, we’ve noticed a large group of black-winged stilts (‘red legs’) on a dam across an unnamed tributary of the Kam Tin River. And on several occasions, we’ve stopped to take photos. This is my best one:

Paula always takes her photos from a different vantage point, and this is her best:

The two photos were taken on different occasions.

This winter, I devised a new way of starting the Tam Mei loop, and I must have cycled past this mural two or three times before I noticed it:

It was painted in August 2016, so the colours have probably faded somewhat. I find the hourglass to be particularly strange and cannot begin to guess its significance in the context of the rest of the mural.

Tortoises are not indigenous to Hong Kong, but there appears to be a well-established feral population, probably the result of pets being released into the wild. They appear to have colonized watercourses, and being exothermic, they can often be seen warming themselves in the sun. This photo was taken on the Ng Tung River, in a location where I’ve seen tortoises on more than one occasion:

There is a small squatter area next to Po Kak Tsai Road, opposite the point where the path across ‘the swamp’ emerges onto the road. As often happens in such areas, someone has made use of a small flat area to grow vegetables. The scarecrow in the next photo may be crude, but I thought it amusing:

When I wrote about ‘ignoble hill’ last year, I included photos of some murals along one of the main alleyways. This one didn’t exist then:

I can’t imagine that many people actually cycle through the area, because there are a lot of steep ramps and tight corners, which is the reason I ride here. The Chinese characters read ‘five street’, so individual dwellings will actually have formal addresses.

Having mentioned tortoises above, here is another photo, which shows two much larger individuals that I spotted in the stream that drains ‘the swamp’:

You may wonder why I took the next photo, which shows the entrance to a standard village house in Kwan Tei, a large village a few kilometres east of Fanling:

But notice the name. I can’t help but wonder: if it’s mainly court, what’s the rest of it?

The flowers in the next photo, taken in the section of my neighbourhood south of Sha Tau Kok Road, are part of someone’s garden. However, this display was hanging over the garden wall, and I like the intensity of the colour:

Snakes are common in Hong Kong, but you don’t often see them because they keep out of the way of humans. However, we were cycling south along Fai King Road, which leads from the frontier area northwest of Fanling, when Paula suddenly exclaimed: “Look out for the snake!”

It had been sunning itself in the middle of the road, but it quickly slithered up the embankment on the side of the road when it became aware of our approach. However, it wasn’t in any hurry to disappear entirely, and I took several photos—the first time I’ve ever had this opportunity—and this is the best:

According to the website that I consulted when trying to identify it, 39 species of snake have been recorded in Hong Kong. This is a checkered keelback and is not venomous.

I’ve seen some bizarre flowers in Hong Kong, but none could match this example, which I spotted when Paula and I were walking through the alleyway that I’ve named ‘fruity pie’ recently:

Sightings of snakes may be uncommon, but I frequently see lizards—monitors and skinks—when cycling along narrow country paths. However, they invariably scuttle off long before I can stop and get my camera out. However, there is a third type of lizard, geckos, that often live indoors. I photographed this individual on the inside of the screen door that leads onto our balcony:

While the border with China has been closed, we’ve extended any ride along the frontier road to include San Tin because there has been a huge decrease in traffic on the road that leads to the Lok Ma Chau border crossing. This includes cycling along San Tin Tsuen Road, which separates San Tin from the fish ponds. I took the following photo from this road:

I cropped the previous photo, with the following result:

I think that this makes a better image, but you may feel that the uncropped version is better, because you can see more. I would welcome readers’ opinions on this subject.

I started cycling along Tun Yu Road, which leads from the eastern end of San Tin Tsuen Road to an unmanned and apparently seldom used crossing point into China, just a few months ago, and I took the next photo on this road on the same day that I took the previous photograph. It shows the same buildings in Shenzhen that can be seen in the last photo from a different angle:

The final photo in this collection is a view from the east bank of the Ng Tung River, with a small part of Shenzhen in the background:

The large pond that I included in Part 1 is located somewhere in the trees directly in front of the leftmost skyscraper that you can see in the photo.

previous highlights collections
Photographic Highlights: 2015–16
Photographic Highlights: 2016–17
Photographic Highlights: 2017–18
Photographic Highlights: 2018–19

Friday, 29 May 2020

photographic highlights: 2019–20 (part 1)

I shall be heading off to the UK for the summer this weekend, and as I’ve done in previous years, I’ve compiled a gallery of the most interesting photos that I’ve taken in Hong Kong during the past eight months. And because I’ve selected more photos than usual this year, I’ve decided to split this collection into two parts.

As usual, I haven’t included any photos that I’ve used to illustrate other blog posts, and the photos appear here in the order in which they were taken. Clicking on a photo will bring up an enlarged version.

The first photo was taken in the grounds of Wun Chuen Sin Koon, a Taoist monastery in the Ping Che area, east of Fanling. It shows a dwarfed tree that has had a knot tied in its trunk!

The next photo was taken on the same day on a road that forms part of the final frontier bike ride. Clearly, some kind of quasi-religious ceremony has taken place here, but to what end I’m unable to say, although I’m guessing that the food has been provided to propitiate evil spirits in the area. The plastic cups will have contained rice wine:

There is a small park behind Wing Ning Wai, one of the five walled villages in my neighbourhood, and the photo is of a nondescript squatter dwelling directly opposite the rear entrance to the wai. In fact, the photo itself is nondescript, and I’ve included it here merely because of the sign:

In case you can’t read it:
…an empty threat, in my opinion. These signs are everywhere, but I’ve never seen any other instances of them being so blatantly disregarded.

The next photo was also taken in my neighbourhood, close to the Tang Chung Ling Ancestral Hall. I take quite a lot of photos of flowers, but this is the only example I’ve come across of these trumpet-shaped flowers, for which I can’t provide an identification:

The purple in the bottom left and the red in the centre of the photo are provided by bougainvillea. Note that these are not the flowers, which are the tiny, cream-coloured dots in the middle of the colour. This is provided by modified leaves!

There is a large pond immediately to the west of the Ng Tung River, about 200 metres before it flows across the border into Shenzhen. You wouldn’t know it was there unless you looked, because it is surrounded by trees. On one occasion, the surface was completely covered by a type of floating flower that I’ve seen elsewhere and tentatively identified as ‘water hyacinth’. I took one photo from a distance, but I was able to scramble down to the shoreline to take a closer look:

I couldn’t decide which photo to use, so I’ve included both. This display was gone 24 hours later!

Whenever I cycle out west, my route takes me across the forecourt of the Sheung Shui fire station, and on one occasion, the firemen were washing the fire engines. Although I no longer publish posts dedicated to abstract photography, I think that this photo is a striking image:

You can suggest a title if you like.

Last year, I showed my friend Vlad how to get to San Tin by bike. At one point, I stopped to tell him that he might like to take a photo of the cluster of ceramic figurines next to a village shrine. However, a woman came rushing out shouting “No photography!” I took this photo on an earlier occasion:

It seems to me to be an entirely higgledy-piggledy arrangement, with examples of the three immortals, the goddess Guanyin and laughing Buddhas, among others. However, if the pots in the foreground containing spent joss sticks are any guide, then this collection clearly has some religious significance.

I’ve included just one photo taken along the frontier road this year. I took this one not just for its reflective qualities. Note the two piledrivers left of centre. This area is in the process of being comprehensively trashed to build a science park:

An environmental catastrophe!

It’s surprising what you can see if you keep your eyes open. Back in November, I spotted a carnivorous wasp that was in the process of devouring another insect on a concrete path close to my house:

The Tam Mei loop is a 3km diversion that we follow on the return leg of journey to the west. Because we cycle this way regularly, I was able to photograph this mural, with its heart motifs, soon after it was painted:

I’ve cycled through the San Tin fish ponds regularly since first coming this way in the winter of 2018–19, and on one occasion I spotted a large flock of cormorants in one of the ponds. As always happens on such occasions, the cormorants took off immediately they were aware of my presence. “Damn!” I thought. “Missed them.” However, they circled around several times—unusual behaviour in such circumstances—and it eventually occurred to me to get my camera out:

It would probably have made for a better photo if I’d reacted more quickly.

I often see cows in and around the basin of the Shek Sheung River, immediately to the west of the main rail line into China. I used to think that they were feral—there are feral cows in Hong Kong—but I’ve since seen the ones in this area being herded.

There is something of a story attached to the next photo. Several cows have scrambled up the bank on the right, but the next one in line appears hesitant. Meanwhile, the cow on the left is clearly having none of it and is storming off in the opposite direction, while three others debate whether to follow it:

When I took the next photo, I immediately earmarked it for inclusion in this collection. However, the next time Paula and I passed this way, we had a close encounter with a large group of wild pigs, and an image of a solitary pig didn’t seem quite so exciting. I’ve decided to include it here anyway:

Only in Hong Kong! There is a casual disregard for rules and regulations here that I’ve not seen anywhere else. To illustrate this point, I submit the following photograph, which I took just outside the nearby village of Siu Hang:

In case you can’t read the sign:
The logo in the bottom left of the sign is that of the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department, so this is an official sign.

I must have cycled past the next sign, alongside the road leading to San Tin Barracks, dozens of times before I noticed it:

It clearly demarcates the extent of the military-controlled area hereabouts, but you may not be aware of its significance: Britain’s War Department became the Ministry of Defence in 1964! The Chinese inscription simply reads ‘military boundary’.

Village arches are not particularly common—there are none in my neighbourhood, despite the wealth of the Tang clan—but what struck me about the one in the next photo, taken in the area that marks the furthest extent of journey to the west, is that it’s in the middle of a field, with apparently no village anywhere nearby!

The name of the phantom village is Chat Sing Kong (‘seven stars mountain’). The fourth character, reading right to left, is simply the Chinese character for village, which is not part of the formal name but which always appears on village arches like this.

One glance at the next photo and I can tell when it was taken: a few weeks before Chinese New Year. The structure in the background is used to cultivate flower bulbs, bowls of which are much in demand in the run-up to the festival. They are brought outside around this time to induce flowering:

Incidentally, the path on the left of the photo is part of the eastern descent, and this section had just been rebuilt—and widened—a month or two before this photo was taken. I don’t know why this was done—it struck me as unnecessary—but there is a 1.5-metre drop off the edge of the path, and I wonder whether someone on a bike went over the edge!

I was cycling north along the Drainage Services access road that runs along the west bank of the Kam Tin River back in January. As I passed underneath the viaduct that carries the MTR’s West Rail line across the river, I stopped to take the following photo:

The reason for stopping should be obvious!

Paula had to visit her nephew, who lives in a housing estate in Shatin, to pick up some items relating to her sister, and she left me to keep an eye on the bikes. The brick paving here is simply a series of parallel stretcher courses, made slightly more interesting by the use of a second colour, and although I took several photos, I didn’t expect to be able to take one with no people in it!

Continued in Part 2.