The Golden Bowl

If I were Sei Shonagon
I’d put this in my pillow book -
Three lovely things:
A pickled plum; a paper crane;
A Toto Washlet toilet.



(Click on the videos for the full son et lumiere performance.)

Yes, I know it's an extravagance, but once you've sat on a Japanese toilet, you can't go back. Indeed, you don't even want to get up: Haruka tells me that piles are a problem in Japan because people just bliss out on them all day.

It's also, I tell myself, an investment, although probably not a tax-deductible one. In the medium term I want to let a room to Japanese students, and this will be a draw, I fancy.

Deer and Doughnuts

Having Haruka to stay makes for some interesting cross-cultural moments. The other day she saw a Mr Kipling Cherry Bakewell for the first time, and cried, "It's the hinomaru!" And it's true, the resemblance, once seen, cannot be erased.


Then, a couple of days ago, we were looking at a field of deer, and we got to talking about the different names in English for the male, female and young of various animals. (This is one of the areas where English is far more complicated than Japanese, which has a standard prefix for each of these things.) I mentioned that a female deer was called a doe - like in the song.

She looked blank. What song? It turned out that, though she was familiar with that song from The Sound of Music, in Japanese the tonic sol-fa system has a very different mnemonic. In particular, the "Doh" line is: ドはドーナツのド ("Doh" is the "doh" from "doughnut"). This seemed so quintessentially Homeric (in the Simpson sense) that I had to laugh. I'm not quite sure what I was expecting - something more Japanese, I suppose?

Cruz Lines

As I think I've mentioned here in the past, I've never really understood the ban on Americans who aren't "natural-born citizens" becoming President - either the reason for it (it seems an unnecessary smear on the loyalty of naturalised citizens, and on their hypothetical voters) or the technicalities of it.

I know the latter are even now a matter of some dispute - but if Trump was able to keep the Obama birther conspiracy rolling for several years, why has the eligibility of someone definitely born outside the US, with a US mother and a non-US father, not been questioned? I refer of course to Ted Cruz, born in Canada to an American mother and a Cuban father. Isn't he in just the position that Obama would have been, had he really been born in Kenya?

I ask because I keep hearing that Cruz wants to become President, and that this is why he's behaving as he is now. Other considerations aside, would the MAGA people feel obliged to object to Cruz for the sake of intellectual consistency?

(Okay, that last question was a joke.)

Child Catchers and Babby Hunters

Not long ago I discovered to my surprise that the dialect phrase, "More X than ever the parson preached about," meaning "a lot of X," was unknown to any of my Facebook friends. It was much used by my mother and grandmother, and I've been known to say it myself: it is after all the kind of phrase you can roll round your mouth like a gobstopper. Not that it was a family phrase in the sense of originating with us; one friend managed to track it down in a regional dialect dictionary. But it's died out, it seems, except in a few isolated instances - surviving at this point, perhaps, only in my head and that of my elder brother.

Anyway, noticing that a new version of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang was about to air, I wondered whether the idea of the Child Catcher might owe something to the dialect phrase used for truancy officers in early twentieth-century Shropshire: "babby hunter." My great-(great?)-uncle Joe was one such. An unsophisticated man, according to my mother, it was his delight to sit in his outside toilet watching the trains go past at the end of the garden, before wiping his bottom with torn-out pages of What Car. One of her favourite stories was of Uncle Joe coming across one of her schoolfriends, then in her late teens and very much from the right side of the tracks, and pointing his long bony finger at her with the words, "Ah've 'unted thee!"

I just looked up "babby hunter," but Google knows it not. Could this another linguistic isolate?

"What a Moomin!"

"I believe many of my readers will thoughtfully lift their snout from the pages of this book every once in a while to exclaim: 'What a Moomin!' or: 'This indeed is life!'" 

I've always loved that part of Moominpappa's introduction to his memoirs. What oft was thought but ne'er so unblushingly expressed!

I was reminded of it, because one of those memes where you get a point for every thing you have done from a given list (been in a limo, taken drugs, had a one-night stand, etc.) has been going round Facebook lately. I scored rather low, which got me - no doubt a mite defensively - wondering what the basis of selection was. After all, people do many things in their lives: which count as worthy of inclusion on such a list, and what does your score say about you, if anything? From the comments I saw, the general inference seemed to be that points=coolness.

Now, I'm neither cool nor ambitious to become so, but, simply by dint of having lived almost 58 years, I have accumulated a few experiences that, looked at squintways, make me look a much wilder child than I am or ever was. 

So, give yourself a point if you have ever:

Walked barefoot across red-hot coals

Eaten raw horse

Spent the night alone in a haunted house

Spent the night in the British Museum

Cut someone's umbilical cord

Held someone's hand as they died

Had gender-confirming surgery

Published a novel

Played in a pop group on national television

Drunk whisky in an Akihabara maid cafe 

Stood naked in a Welsh sea cave with half a dozen similarly skyclad acquaintances

Got close enough to the Queen to grab her fur coat - and done so

Some of you will no doubt have a respectable score, but I'll be amazed if anyone but me sweeps the board. Don't despair, though! It didn't take long to compile this highly selective itinerary, and if you're north of 40 I bet you could do something similar, just from the random incidents that inevitably occur at times in any life of moderate duration. 

I would love to read your lists, too.

At the Sign of the Stuffed Goose

Today I go to pick up the goose that was to have fed me, Haruka, my brother and his partner on Christmas day. Of course, that's no longer going to happen. Theoretically it might be possible to travel from Brighton to Bristol and back in a day, in accordance with Johnson's latest panicked edict, but it hardly sounds fun, especially as everyone else will also be on the road. So, goose till March, then (although it now seems that Ayako will be free to join us, and may be good for a leg). My plan to give Haruka a very traditional English Christmas has gone a bit haywire, unless 1348 counts as "traditional."

At least my tree looks nice! I bought it from "Refutrees," a pop-up shop run by Aid Box Community, a local charity that specialises in aid work and wordplay. Coincidentally, the other day I was hailed on the street by a Syrian refugee who was looking for the charity, and walked with him to their base, where they were happy to see him, though he looked a bit nonplussed on arrival to find that the charity he'd been seeking was (to the untrained eye) just a room full of Nordic spruces.

Two nights ago, in my festive fury, I took Haruka to Westonbirt Arboretum's Enchanted Christmas Trail, where the trees were lit up prettily, some animated, with occasional sylvan holograms, music, lasers, and so on. It would have been very charming, had it not been raining steadily throughout. I felt especially sorry for the woodland elves who had been hired to interact with the questers for the 'West Pole' (us) and perform little skits. That they were all carrying umbrellas was entirely understandable, but did take a little from the magic, especially since they were made of plastic and not (as one might have hoped) giant rhubarb leaves. Still, life's been hard on Equity members this year, and at least it was a gig.

Things Can Only Get Bitter

In January my friend Haruka won the lottery for a 2-year working/holiday visa to the UK, at maybe the sixth attempt (they hold it every six months). She was delighted, but then of course Coronavirus hit, which made her delay somewhat. The visa clock started ticking in October, and last week she finally came over, in the hope of finding work here. She's staying in my house until she gets herself sorted out.

What a time to come, though! Ports closed, mutant viruses stalking the land, unemployment rocketing, Christmas cancelled, Brexit looming, nothing good on telly, a government whose corruption is rivalled only by its incompetence. Also, it's raining. I hope she has a lovely time, and I'll do what I can to smooth her path, but we may have to rely on the natural optimism of youth a lot.

Meanwhile, she brought - as an omiyage - a packet of official, government-issue masks, as sent to every household in Japan back in the spring.


I don't intend to use them. Rather, they're going into my Corona museum, which is right next to my Reiwa museum from last year - my favourite item from which features a capsule toy with Suga, the current Prime Minister, announcing the name of the brand new era:


Summerisle as Shangri-La - Spot the Differences

As we know, everything that ever happened, happened in 1973. Beyond that obvious truth, however, it's always interesting to dig down into details. I've been repeatedly struck by the weird similarities between these two scenes, both taken from films of that year set in unusually temperate places within a wider landscape more associated with inclement weather The Wicker Man and Lost Horizon. Both feature a blonde woman teaching some remarkably biddable children, a pink-shirted man orchestrating a song about the cycles of life, a large apparatus symbolising the same, a befuddled stranger looking on...

I don't say that one is necessarily referencing the other, but it does seem that the Zeitgeist was up betimes.


A Belgian Bagatelle

"The UK is a vital wintering ground for flocks of curlews, from as far away as Belgium and Russia," said the chap on Tweet of the Day this morning. I did a slight double take, because Belgium doesn't strike me as a great example of "somewhere that's far away." However distant Russia might be, Belgium's inclusion leant the sentence a slightly bathetic air.

But maybe I was also picking up on a sense of Belgium in British (English?) culture generally, as a slightly unserious place? Not for nothing is Private Eye's stock name for a boring British war film They Flew to Bruges. Even in WWI, Belgium was seldom mentioned without the patronising prefix, "plucky little," while Hercules Poirot's repeated insistence that he was Belgian, not French, always seemed to be presented as an aspect of his fastidious vanity. If It's Tuesday, This Must be Belgium (admittedly an American rather than a UK film, though with many a British cameo) would not have been a "funny" title had the country mentioned been France or Germany, the other continental destinations on its itinerary.

I wonder whether something of this attitude has leaked into British diplomacy, given that "Brussels" is habitually used as a synecdoche for the EU? Of course, Johnson's arrogance and incompetence are pretty universal and need no further explanation but, given that his mind is a sponge for lazy journalistic stereotypes, might a sense of Belgium as inherently risible have been a specific component in his latest pratfalls on the world stage?

It's not the most important question of our times, but it's the one on my mind at this moment.

When Imitation is Not Flattery

A comment on a friend's FB led to the following general musing: what books (or films, or whatever) began life as parodies, but have survived the thing they parodied to the extent that the parody is now read/watched, etc. but its original is not?

The example that sparked the discussion was Cold Comfort Farm (who reads Mary Webb today?). Northanger Abbey is another (same question re. Mrs Radcliffe). I'd say that Gulliver might count, on the basis that the travel books it satirises are now largely unread. Someone else volunteered that Diary of a Nobody began as a parody of a particular self-important and longwinded memoir, long forgotten. I wondered too about Chaucer's "Tale of Sir Thopaz" - a parody of mediaeval romances, we're told - but I think it's an open question how many people read the Chaucer without being made to.

Over to you. I feel there must be quite a few still out there!