Life Flies (La vida es muy breve)

Quote of the Day / La cita del día

Omar Khayyam (1048-1131 A.D.)

Oh, come with old Khayyam, and leave the Wise
To talk; one thing is certain, that Life flies;
One thing is certain, and the Rest is Lies;
The Flower that once has blown for ever dies.

(Omar Khayyam: Rubaiyat)

Dejemos que los sabios parloteen
Nada de lo que dicen es cierto, excepto que la vida es muy breve.
Se fue la flor marchita para siempre;
el resto es mentira y locura.

(Omar Jayam: Las Rubaiyat)

The Greek Language (La lengua griega)

Quote of the Day / La cita del día

Odysseas Elytis (1911-1996)

I was given the Greek language;
a poor house on Homer’s beaches.
My only care my language on Homer’s beaches.
Seabream there and perch
windbeaten verbs
green sea-currents amid the azure currents
which I felt light up in my viscera
sponges, medusae
with the first words of the Sirens
pink shells with their first black shivers.
My only care my language with the first black shivers.

(Odysseas Elytis: Psalm II)

La lengua me la dieron griega;
la casa pobre en las arenas de Homero.
Unica cuita me lengua en las arenas de Homero.
Allí sargos y percas
verbos sacudidos por el viento
corrientes verdes entre las azules
cuanto vi que se iba encendiendo en mis entrañas
esponjas, medusas
con las primeras palabras de las Sirenas
conchas rosadas con los primeros estremecimientos negros
Unica cuita me lengua con los primeros estremecimientos negros.

(Odysseas Elytis: Salmo II)

Lockdown Diaries: Gunpowder Treason

We’ve been told on Saturday night that we’re going into full lock down in England again – obviously because it worked so well the first time round! – starting on Thursday. 

Now let me see. Thursday, 5th of November: that would be Bonfire Night. I was looking forward to having Sophisticated Young Lady + sweet boyfriend (I have to come up with a name for him, he seems a permanent fixture!)  for dinner & fireworks in the garden. That would have been:

  • Goulash cooked in a cauldron on an open fire 
  • Cocoa snails (don’t panic: no actual snails are involved, it’s just cocoa+sugar filled swirl pastry)
  • Red wine (of course!) for those who like it
  • Fireworks (and here’s to Mr Anglo-Saxonist not sending up us all into the sky; he did once nearly decapitated us, guests and all)
  • A guy to burn? (Perhaps I should make the guy look like Boris Johnson instead of Guy Fawkes.)

But What’s This All About?

Advance Warning for Timid Souls: Politically Incorrect Historical Poem Coming!

Remember, remember the Fifth of November
Gunpowder Treason and plot,
I see no reason why Gunpowder Treason
Should ever be forgot.

Guy Fawkes, Guy Fawkes ’twas his intent
To blow up the King and the Parliament,
Three score barrels of powder below
Poor old England to overthrow.

By God’s providence he was catch’d
With a dark lantern and burning match,
Holler boys, holler boys, ring bells ring
Holler boys, holler boys, God Save the King!

A penny loaf to feed the Pope
A farthing o’cheese to choke him,
A pint of beer to rinse it down
A faggot of sticks to burn him.

Burn him in a tub of tar
Burn him like a blazing star,
Burn his body from his head
Then we’ll say old Pope is dead.

Hip Hip Hoorah!
Hip Hip Hoorah!
Hip Hip Hoorah!

(Rhyme commemorating 5 November¹)

Well, that should explain Bonfire Night well enough but if it doesn’t, you just have to look at ¹ below. 🙂

With regards to the coronavirus: I will not exasperate you with my personal complaints; I’m sure you’ve got plenty of your own. It’s all out of our hands; we just have to do the best we can do. So personally:

  • I brought Bonfire Night a day ahead.
  • I’ll go to swim every day until my gym closes leaving me high & dry. 
  • And I guess the daily Lockdown Diaries will be back.

In the words of Queen Victoria: We are not amused!

¹ For those of you who are not English: 
On 5 November 1605, Guy Fawkes attempted to blow up the English Parliament (and the King who was to attend it). Fortunately for Parliament but not so fortunately for him, he had been discovered the night before in the cellars in the company of several barrels of gunpowder. The Gunpowder Plot was a conspiracy by persecuted Catholics and it is commemorated annually with fireworks and bonfires (sometimes still involving the burning of a 'guy'). Children still learn the rhyme although they usually content themselves with the first verse nowadays. ⇒ One of the most spectacular Bonfire Nights in England is in the town of Lewis, in Sussex (cancelled this year, of course)


The Cricket in the Helmet & Warrior Dreams

I was reading one of Matsuo Basho’s travel diaries, The Narrow Road to the Deep North, last night. Those of you have been with me long enough, know that Basho is regarded as the greatest – the first, the last and the only 🙂 – haiku poet who ever lived. (Those of you haven’t been long enough can find links to an introduction to his poetry and to haiku poetry in general below.) Now haiku can be a bit cryptic sometimes, and I was delighted when I came across some of the Basho’s most famous haikus in his travel diary, accompanied by the stories or landscape that inspired them.

Matsuo Basho by Sugiyama Sanpu [public domain via Wikimedia Commons]

I’m sharing two of these today and maybe some others at a later time. Although neither of today’s haikus is difficult to understand or interpret, the story behind them might be of interest to those of you who like history!

The Cricket in the Helmet

so pitiful—
     under the helmet,
          a cricket

I think we had this particular haiku on the blog before, albeit in a different translation. This translation is by David Landis Barnhill.

Basho introduced the haiku in his travel diary with the following explanation:

In this area, I visited the Tada Shrine which contains Sanemori’s helmet and a piece of his armour brocade. In days of old, it is said, at a time when he still served the Genji clan, these articles were given to him by Lord Yoshitomo.

Certainly they were meant for no common warrior: from eye shield to ear flaps there is an engraved arabesque of chrysanthemum inlaid with gold and at the crown is a dragon’s head with the hoe-shaped crests attached.

In the annals of the shrine it is written that after Sanemori’s death in battle, Kiso Yoshinaka dedicated these relics to the shrine with a message of prayer; Higuchi no Jiro his emissary. 

Here they lie before my eyes, just as in the legend.

It is remarkable, at least to my western eyes, that in the late 1600s Basho visited, in effect, a museum, where a precious piece of armour has been preserved from the civil wars of some five hundred years earlier. And of course, he knew the story behind it; but then he was a learned man.

Now I suspect that most of you are not that familiar of the early medieval history of Japan, so a little explanation about who Sanemori was, or indeed who the Genji were, and what civil war we’re even talking about. Some of it will be relevant also to the second haiku we will look at today.

The Genpei War

You probably all know that Japan has been ruled by emperors since time immemorial; however, for most of the time, the emperors’ rule was purely nominal and real power were held by the heads of various warrior clans (I expect the term shogun is familiar to all of you?).

Now back in the 12th century, three clans competed for power: the Fujiwaras, the Genji and the Heike. They were all descended from some earlier emperors, and eventually their contest for power resulted in repeated civil wars. (Just to confuse matters a little, the Genji are also known as Minamoto and the Heike as Taira; but bear with me.) The fight between these two – the Genji and the Heike – is knowns as the Genpei war, in the second half of the 12th century.

Their story is well known in Japan and provided literary inspiration to authors for centuries.

The Story of Sanemori

Sanemori’s helmet in the Tada Shrine

Saito Sanemori, in whose helmet the cricket was sitting, was originally a retainer of the Genji, whose then leader, Minamoto no Yoshitomo gifted him the armour; but he later changed sides. At the time of the battle of Shinohara, in 1183, Sanemori was seventy-three years old. He died his hair black to disguise his age and died in the battle, fighting for the Heike.

Warrior Dreams

summer grass—
     all that remains
          of warriors’ dreams

Again, we had this haiku before, although in a different translation.

And these were Basho’s thoughts and the scenery, where and when he penned the haiku:

The splendor of three generations is now but a dream; the ruins of the great gate lie one league off. All that remains of Fujiwara Hidehira’s castle are fields and paddies. Only Mount Kinkei retains its form.

First we climbed up Takadachi, Yoshitsune’s “high fortress”, and looking out we saw Kitakami, a large river flowing from Nambu Province. The river Koromo encircles the castle of Izumi Saburo and then below Takadachi it pours into the larger river. Beyond the Koromo Barrier is the ruins of the castle of Hidehira’s son, Yasuhira, which protected the approach from Nambu; it probably guarded against the Ezo tribesmen. 

Yoshitsune’s retainers took this castle as their fortress; their glory, in a moment, has turned to grass. “A country torn apart, the mountains and rivers remain; in spring, in the ruined castle, the grass is green.”

I laid out my bamboo hat and I wept without sense of time.

The Story of Yoshitsune

Minamoto no Yoshitsune is the great tragic hero of the era and was always a particular favourite of mine.

He was the son of the aforementioned Lord Yoshitomo. When Yoshitomo was defeated in battle by the Heike in 1160, he was killed and many of his sons were executed outright.

Yoshitsune, then a babe in arms was spared but was separated from his mother and sent to live in a far off monastery. He escaped from there while still a teenager, and when his elder half-brother Yoritomo rebelled agains the Heike, he fought on his side in the Genpei war.

He was a legendary swordsman and an able general, winning several battles for Yoritomo, but after victory was hunted down by his brother and killed. He was only thirty at the time; it’s not known what became of his mistress and his son who was born posthumously. (There are a lot more details to this story but those would make a post in themselves!)

At the end of the war, Yoshitsune’s brother Yoritomo founded the Kamakura shogunate, the first shogunate in Japan, which lasted until  1333.

The line quoted by Basho towards the end, about the country torn apart, is from a Chinese poem, A Spring View by Du Fu (written in 735 AD).

Further reading:
An Evening with Matsuo Basho
Four Seasons in Japan - with Matsuo Basho
The Four Seasons in Japan
The Dark Side of Life (In Nine Haikus)

And more haikus in the following Lockdown Diary entries:
Day 36: Hiking the Kii Peninsula with a Book of Haikus
Day 42: Cherry Blossom Viewing
Day 48: Serenity
Picture credit for Sanemori's helmet: Picture by  retrieved via the blog post Daruma Pilgrim's Gallery (Fair Use) where you can also see a photo of the statue of Basho at the Tada Shrine!

Lockdown Diaries: Day 69 (In Rome with Quevedo)

Virtual Escape: In Rome with Quevedo

Evasión virtual: En Roma con Quevedo

Francisco de Quevedo 1580-1645

Much earlier in the lockdown I wrote about some books I’ve got that would make me look good if I dropped dead with them in hand but which I have never read: an anthology of Quevedo’s poetry in the original was one of them.

Mucho antes en la cuarentena, escribió sobre unos libros que tengo; libros que me harían lucir si me muera con ellos en la mano, pero que nunca he leído: la antología de la poesía de Quevedo en el original idioma fue uno de ellos. 

Continue reading “Lockdown Diaries: Day 69 (In Rome with Quevedo)”

Lockdown Diaries: Day 66 (I Brought My Life This Far)

Locked Down in London, Day 66: Politicians

For the past few days, the row about whether a certain politician who broke the lockdown rules by travelling to visit family at some 200 miles’ distance (for childcare reasons) should resign.

In the circumstances I don’t believe that his reason for travelling was acceptable; but that’s just my personal opinion. What I do know for a fact on the other hand is that my family made sacrifices in the interest of public health instead of doing what was the best for us (as I believe did many others!) – while this mother****** did the exact opposite. Ergo, he should resign.

(Of course he won’t.)

Continue reading “Lockdown Diaries: Day 66 (I Brought My Life This Far)”

Lockdown Diaries: Day 61 (Give Me My Aegean)

Locked Down in London: Open Letter to Boris

Dear Boris,

Today I had a long, hard day at work in an overheated office (our patio) and in my well considered opinion this lockdown sucks, sucks and sucks some more.

I know you’re very busy so I’ll be brief: I want water. Not from the tap! I want to go to the beach; if not that, then to the river; if not that, to the lido; if not that, at least to the pool where I’m a member.

Continue reading “Lockdown Diaries: Day 61 (Give Me My Aegean)”

Lockdown Diaries: Day 48 (Serenity)

Locked Down in London, Day 48: Overworked

So I worked 3 hours extra today, and then despite of the fact that tomorrow is a bank holiday, I had to agree to work tomorrow as well, to meet all those people’s deadlines who have forgotten that tomorrow, actually, is a day off in the whole country. What makes it even more annoying is that of course I won’t even get paid for it or get time off in lieu…!

So what I need right now is, first of all, a large gin & tonic… and then a book of haikus. To regain my serenity.

Continue reading “Lockdown Diaries: Day 48 (Serenity)”

Lockdown Diaries: Day 42 (Cherry Blossom Viewing)

Locked Down in London, Day 42: Olympics in Quarantine

The Two-Tailed Dog Party in Hungary (I did hesitate whether I should be naming political parties here but the name add spice to the story!) is going to run a quarantine olympics this month – events include:

  • Speed Disinfecting
  • Indoor Gazing Into the Distance
  • Synchronised Couch Movement
  • Pancake Making Commentary
  • Toilet-roll Tower Building

Continue reading “Lockdown Diaries: Day 42 (Cherry Blossom Viewing)”

Lockdown Diaries: Day 40 (Of the Aegean)

Locked Down in London, Day 40: Holiday flight

An e-mail from my airline regarding my upcoming holiday flight – the one we postponed from April – left me in the quandary: do I transfer the flight to July (my only remaining free holiday time), do I accept the voucher that I can’t use and try to swindle my way round the fact that it’s not transferable, or do I sit tight and hope that the airline will cancel the flight and I can get my money back?!

On the subject of holiday flights: I saw the following video a while ago, and probably you all saw it by now… but just in case somebody missed out, something to cheer you up!

Continue reading “Lockdown Diaries: Day 40 (Of the Aegean)”

Lockdown Diaries: Day 36 (Hiking the Kii Peninsula with a Book of Haikus)

Locked Down in London, Day 36: J-Pop

I’m becoming an expert in designing walking routes through the neighbouring streets. I now know on which street are the trees in bloom; which front gardens have the nicest tulips (on the way out now), lilacs or artistically arranged evergreens. I connect the streets with patches of woodlands, parks and playing fields in an effort to device myself that I’m walking in the country.

How many days in a row have I walked these exact streets without seeing anything else? Listening to the same music? I had to have some variety so now I’m cycling through world pop, a different country each day. I’m learning new phrases to search Spotify: Latin pop, Euro-pop, J-pop.

Continue reading “Lockdown Diaries: Day 36 (Hiking the Kii Peninsula with a Book of Haikus)”

Lockdown Diaries: Day 35 (Dockside)

Locked Down in London, Day 35: A Day in the Office

A day in the office nowadays consists of: opening our new parasol, putting out the seat cushions, setting out the laptop hood, and then carting out the work laptop and assorted necessary paraphernalia to settle down for the day in the garden, typing away merrily (okay, perhaps not so merrily), next to the lilac tree. And then a family lunch, again in the garden, followed by more work, before it’s time to pack the lot away, and buzz off for a walk in the neighbouring streets.

I think I could get used to working from home, especially on sunny days… although I do miss my swimming with almost physical pain by now!

Continue reading “Lockdown Diaries: Day 35 (Dockside)”

Lockdown Diaries: Day 31 (Loch Ness)

Locked Down in London, Day 31: How Long Can You Stand Quarantine? (A Poll)

Now think about how long you could stand it if you were “shielded”: staying in your bedroom alone, although you’re allowed to open the window; no physical contact with your family/housemates, talking to them only through the closed bedroom door; no exercise or entertainment except what can fit into your bedroom; eating alone in your bedroom; disinfecting the bathroom every time before and after use…

The UK government thinks people who need to be shielded can – should – cope like that for 12 weeks.


Continue reading “Lockdown Diaries: Day 31 (Loch Ness)”

Lockdown Diaries: Day 29 (Books That Make You Look Good When Dead?)

Locked Down in London, Day 29: Too Many Books?

A few years ago we had to have some repairs done to our roof and for a few days we had a workman in. On the last day he finished work early and had to wait for a colleague to pick him up with the company van. We sat him down in the living room with a cup of tea, and he looked at the bookshelves and asked: “How many books do you have?”

Well, truth be told, I don’t know. Mostly I feel that not enough. At some point however we did try to catalogue them by using a scanning program and although we never finished and keep forgetting scanning new books in, I was able to make an educated guess.

“About three thousand,” I said.

His jaw dropped. “Three thousand! And did you read them all?”

That made my jaw drop. “Well, of course…” I have read a lot more than 3000 books in my life, actually. The ones on the bookshelves – those are just my favourites.

Continue reading “Lockdown Diaries: Day 29 (Books That Make You Look Good When Dead?)”

Lockdown Diaries: Day 14 (The World’s Shortest Poem)

Locked Down in London, Day 14: Exit Strategies

If the government has any, it’s not very forthcoming.

According to the press there are four ways we could be done with this:

  1. Intermittent Social Distancing: in other words, we go into lockdown, the case numbers go down, we come out of lockdown, the case numbers go up, we go into lockdown… This merry-go-round can go on and on… and on.
  2. Hurray for the Healthy & the Immune: test everybody, let out those who are not likely to keel over if catching the virus and those who already had it. The elderly and the ill can live their lives in self-isolation until they commit suicide out of sheer boredom.
  3. Search & Destroy: wait until the virus nearly died out, then let everybody out and catch those who still managed to catch it. And then catch their contacts. And so on.
  4. Vaccine or Treatment: wait until somebody managed to make one. Well, let’s hope it doesn’t take 50 years.

It might be just me but – is this a tad depressing?

Continue reading “Lockdown Diaries: Day 14 (The World’s Shortest Poem)”

Lockdown Diaries: Day 13 (On Homer’s Beaches)

Locked Down in London, Day 13: The Year of the Genius Generation

Since the government cancelled all exams this summer (A-levels and GCSEs both), the young and a bright are set to get predicted grades instead.

Wow! This will be the only year ever in which no student fails his exam; the only year when all departments in all schools meet their targets; the year when academic achievement across the country soars to unimagined heights… the year of the Genius Generation!

There’s only one small problem: How will the universities and sixth form centres accommodate all this talent?

Continue reading “Lockdown Diaries: Day 13 (On Homer’s Beaches)”

Lockdown Diaries: Day 10 (An Evening with Omar Khayyam)

Locked Down in London, Day 10: My Hospital Loses the Plot

Today I got a phone call from my hospital. They said they wanted to change my phone consultation from tomorrow to next week, was that all right? No, I will be attending a family funeral on that date. Then how about in two weeks’ time? In two weeks’ time I would have run out of the medication that keeps me alive! Well, in that case, can we have the consultation during the funeral? No, you can’t!

I’m afraid on this occasion my hospital will just have to keep to their original schedule – I recognise this would be unprecedented…

Continue reading “Lockdown Diaries: Day 10 (An Evening with Omar Khayyam)”

The Moody Poets’ Gallery (Or a Melancholy Glance at Hungarian Poetry)

The Connection Between Miserable Weather & Hungarian Poetry (If Any)

So the other day it was grey and gloomy and it was also p***ing it down in a typical London fashion. Moreover it was a Sunday afternoon, and you would expect better from a Sunday afternoon in March, even in London.

In any case, the weather was miserable, I was miserable, and I felt like wallowing in some miserable Hungarian poetry.

Not at all a difficult thing to do, that: misery and poetry goes hand in hand in Hungary, and although we do actually also have some cheerful poems you’re not going to get any of those today.

Before we dive in at the deep end, a word of warning: Hungarian is an obscure language and not a lot of her poetry has been translated into English. (And what's been translated leaves you holding your head - in dispair.) The source of today's miserable poetry is a single bilingual anthology, going by the title of The Lost Rider. It's about as representative as a single anthology can ever expected to be. 

(And some of the translations are, well, dire.)

Continue reading “The Moody Poets’ Gallery (Or a Melancholy Glance at Hungarian Poetry)”

Woe Is Me, Alhama!

Woe Is Me, Alhama!

Boabdil’s Farewell to Granada by Alfred Dehodencq [public domain via Wikipedia]
One of my favourite Spanish historical ballads is A Very Mournful Ballad of the Siege and Conquest of Alhama, also known as The Moorish King Rides Up and Down or Woe Is Me, Alhama! It was also one of the first Spanish ballads I’ve ever read in the original (Spanish learners take note – the text is that accessible). I came across it in a collection of ballads which I found in a second-hand bookshop in Southport in Lancashire; it was a university textbook from the 1960s. In A Brief (Literary) History of the Reconquista I have already shared an excerpt with you (and a shorter version a few years ago in The Moorish King Rides Up & Down) but the ballad deserves better, so today you’re going to get the full version – plus the Spanish original for those of you who can enjoy it.

Continue reading “Woe Is Me, Alhama!”