Fallen Tang

Chinese Herder

“The season of the falling blossom” was a metaphor used by Du Fu to describe the collapse of the great Tang Dynasty, the high water mark of Chinese Imperial Civilization.  The Tang was a time of great prosperity in China.  A healthy population growth gave the Chinese huge military resources.  These in turn allowed the Chinese to dominate surrounding nations and receive tribute from Japan, Korea, Vietnam and from Central Asian rulers as well as the Arabs and the Indians.

They were able to carve out a huge western empire along the silk road, and trade flourished.  In this golden age art prospered.  It was an age of literature, painting, sculpture, ceramics, theater and poetry.  Silks, tea, block printing all flourished.  It was a time of sophistication, summed up by the poem “Eight Immortals of the Wine Cup” which described eight leading lights of the arts who imbibed freely of the grape.

Ultimately it was the strong military that doomed the Tang.  Frontier generals commanding seasoned veterans carved out their own kingdoms.  The painted soldiers on comfortable palace duty were unable to match the tough border troops.    The central government became weak or disinterested and was dominated by the Eunuchs.  When a series of natural disasters struck, leading to flooding and widespread famine, the huge population faced starvation.  Bandit armies sprung up in every province.  They took over trade that previously delivered wealth to the Government, such as the salt trade.

The dissolution took many decades and follows themes that are familiar to students of the decline and fall of the Roman Empire.  A peaceful central civilization surrounded by barbarian populations who covet the luxury and lifestyle of the empire.  Bloated bureaucracy, effete emperors, corrupt officials and ambitious frontier generals.




Meeting Li Guinian South of the River ; by Du Fu

In Prince Qi’s mansion house, I met you often,
By Cui Jiu’s hall, I heard you several times.
Truly the landscape south of the river is good,
I meet you again in the season of falling blossom.


The Wisdom of Jim


Here is another piece of wisdom from the mind of Jim Hourihane, my late father in  law.

Conversations are like plates of biscuits.

Four people sit at a table for tea.  In the centre of the table is a plate of biscuits.  All the biscuits are the same type and there are eight of them.

As everyone is putting milk and sugar in their tea one of the people at the table starts eating.  He scoffs down three biscuits, and picks up a fourth.

At this stage the other three people have worked out the maths.  This guy has eaten his own biscuits and half of the biscuits of two others.  The rest of the tea break is uncomfortable.  Three biscuits are quickly snatched up, and the remaining one sits there just daring anyone to pick it up.

It is so much more pleasant for everyone when people sit back a little, relax, and take one biscuit.  Wait to make sure everyone has a biscuit before taking another.  The biscuit muncher quickly finds that others avoid sitting with him at break time.  If he is lucky an outspoken colleague will tell him to stop hogging the biscuits.

So what has this to do with conversation?

Some people are like the biscuit muncher.  They barge their way into conversations and talk at everyone, without assessing if anyone is listening with interest.  They speak seemingly without taking a breath, in case anyone else interrupts.  If someone else speaks they don’t listen because they are more interested in working out the next thing they want to say.

They are so interested in what they want to say themselves that they often interrupt others mid-sentence to get their points across.  If someone else has done a thing they have done it bigger or better.  No matter what problem you have they will tell you how to solve it.  If one person dominates the conversation then it is like one person eating all the biscuits.  It becomes awkward for everyone else, and they slip away.

The art of good conversation is to include everyone.  Some people are a bit shy and need to be coaxed to engage in conversation.

As children we were told that when someone offers you a biscuit you should refuse the first time out of politeness.  Then accept only when they press you a little.  The general rule in Ireland is to refuse twice and accept the third offer.  This little politeness was born in times of extreme poverty.  People would offer food to a guest out of politeness while they starved themselves and their children.  An astute guest knew the difference between a polite and a genuine offer.

In conversation we sometimes need to give a bit of time and space to the shy or quiet person if we want them to join in.  That patience can pay dividends.  Still waters run deep and it is often the person who speaks least and last that says the thing worth hearing.  But the quiet people who take their time to make their point never get a chance in the company of a biscuit muncher.

I come from a whole family of biscuit munchers.  Conversations amongst my siblings have a lot in common with the Hunger Games, they are a blood sport.  One-upmanship is the norm, interruptions are frequent, listening is for wimps. Growing up in this way does not make you a fine conversationalist.

This, of course, is why Jim tried to teach me about the biscuits.  I did listen!


How to live your life

Mont Blanc

Jim Hourihane, my late father in law, liked to talk about life being like a bar of chocolate.  When you are a kid and someone gives you a whole bar of chocolate to yourself you gobble down the first half without thinking.  Then you realise you only have half left.  You begin to take your time.  You start to appreciate the remaining chocolate more.  When you come to the last square you take a long time to savour it.  You let it sit on your tongue until it melts.  You eek out every last ounce of pleasure from it.

The poem below is on the same theme.  Where do you live your life today?  Are you in the mindset at the start of the poem?  Are you focused on the negatives of the daily grind?  Do you bemoan Monday mornings and wish the week away to Friday?  Do you look at the clock at 10:00 and pray for 17:30?

How better to live every day the way he lives the last 3 minutes.  Enjoy the journey, it doesn’t last long.


25 minutes to go: by Shel Silverstein

They’re buildin’ the gallows outside my cell.
I got 25 minutes to go.

And in 25 minutes I’ll be in Hell.
I got 24 minutes to go.

Well, they give me some beans for my last meal.
23 minutes to go.

And you know… nobody asked me how I feel.
I got 22 minutes to go.

So, I wrote to the Gov’nor… the whole damned bunch.
Ahhh… 21 minutes to go.

And I call up the Mayor, and he’s out to lunch.

I got 20 more minutes to go.

Well, the Sheriff says, ‘Boy, I wanna watch you die’.
19 minutes to go.

I laugh in his face… and I spit in his eye.
I got 18 minutes to go.

Well…I call out to the Warden to hear my plea.
17 minute to go.

He says, ‘Call me back in a week or three.
You’ve got 16 minutes to go.’

Well, my lawyer says he’s sorry he missed my case.
Mmmm….15 minutes to go.

Yeah, well if you’re so sorry, come up and take my place.
I got 14 minutes to go.

Well, now here comes the padre to save my soul
With 13 minutes to go.

And he’s talkin’ about burnin’, but I’m so damned cold.
I got 12 more minutes to go.

Now they’re testin’ the trap. It chills my spine.
I got 11 minutes to go.

‘Cuz the goddamned thing it works just fine.
I got 10 more minutes to go.

I’m waitin’ for the pardon… gonna set me free
With 9 more minutes to go.

But this ain’t the movies, so to hell with me.
I got 8 more minutes to go.

And now I’m climbin up the ladder with a scaffold peg
With 7 more minutes to go.

I’ve betta’ watch my step or else I’ll break my leg.
I got 6 more minutes to go.

Yeah… with my feet on the trap and my head in the noose…
5 more minutes to go.

Well, c’mon somethin’ and cut me loose.
I got 4 more minutes to go.

I can see the mountains. I see the sky.
3 more minutes to go.

And it’s too damned pretty for a man to die.
i got 2 more minutes to go

I can hear the buzzards… hear the crows.
1 more minute to go.

And now I’m swingin’ and here I gooooooooo….

English is hard

Just take a look at a list of words like though, through, although, thought, taught, taut, tough, throw, threw, thorough and you begin to get a sense of how difficult a language it is for learners.  Ran across the anonymous poem below and thought it was a clever demonstration of the issues.


English Pronunciation Poem

I take it you already know
Of tough and bough and cough and dough?
Others may stumble, but not you
On hiccough, thorough, slough, and through.
Well don’t! And now you wish, perhaps,
To learn of less familiar traps.
Beware of heard, a dreadful word
That looks like beard but sounds like bird.
And dead: it’s said like bed, not bead,
For goodness sake don’t call it deed!
Watch out for meat and great and threat
(They rhyme with suite and straight and debt).
A moth is not a moth as in mother
Nor both as in bother, nor broth as in brother,
And here is not a match for there,
Nor dear and fear, for bear and pear.
And then there’s dose and rose and lose–
Just look them up–and goose and choose
And cork and work and card and ward
And font and front and word and sword
And do and go, then thwart and cart,
Come, come! I’ve hardly made a start.
A dreadful Language? Why man alive!
I learned to talk it when I was five.
And yet to write it, the more I tried,
I hadn’t learned it at fifty-five.

Peace Man


The early morning commuter train is a quiet space.  Many of the travellers try to catch up on their sleep.  Those of us who work do so quietly.  It is not a place for yawping.

The lady opposite me today seems to be in a temper with her stapler.  She is angrily making up sheaves of notes for some meeting.  As she staples each sheaf together she drops her stapler noisily onto the table.

She seems to be carrying a lot of negative baggage into work.  Not a great start to a day.  Perhaps she should read the poem below.

Desiderata: by Max Ehrmann

Go placidly amid the noise and the haste,
and remember what peace there may be in silence.

As far as possible, without surrender,
be on good terms with all persons.

Speak your truth quietly and clearly;
and listen to others, even to the dull and the ignorant;
they too have their story.

Avoid loud and aggressive persons;
they are vexatious to the spirit.

If you compare yourself with others, you may become vain or bitter,
for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself.

Enjoy your achievements as well as your plans.
Keep interested in your own career, however humble;
it is a real possession in the changing fortunes of time.

Exercise caution in your business affairs,
for the world is full of trickery.
But let this not blind you to what virtue there is;
many persons strive for high ideals,
and everywhere life is full of heroism.

Be yourself.
Especially, do not feign affection.
Neither be cynical about love;
for in the face of all aridity and disenchantment,
it is as perennial as the grass.

Take kindly the counsel of the years,
gracefully surrendering the things of youth.

Nurture strength of spirit to shield you in sudden misfortune.
But do not distress yourself with dark imaginings.
Many fears are born of fatigue and loneliness.

Beyond a wholesome discipline, be gentle with yourself.
You are a child of the universe no less than the trees and the stars;
you have a right to be here.
And whether or not it is clear to you,
no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.
Therefore be at peace with God, whatever you conceive Him to be.

And whatever your labors and aspirations,
in the noisy confusion of life, keep peace in your soul.

With all its sham, drudgery and broken dreams,
it is still a beautiful world.
Be cheerful.
Strive to be happy.

David Bowie RIP


“Iconic” A much bandied and hackneyed word.  But from time to time it really fits the bill.  Bowie was iconic.  His music.  His lyrics.  His use of media; he practically invented the music video (Ashes to Ashes).

Well, from where I stand the Stars look very different today.  So long David and thank you for the music.

Oh You Pretty Things : by David Bowie

Wake up you sleepy head
Put on some clothes, shake up your bed
Put another log on the fire for me
I’ve made some breakfast and coffee
Look out my window and what do I see
A crack in the sky and a hand reaching down to me
All the nightmares came today
And it looks as though they’re here to stay

What are we coming to
No room for me, no fun for you
I think about a world to come
Where the books were found by the golden ones
Written in pain, written in awe
By a puzzled man who questioned
What we were here for
All the strangers came today
And it looks as though they’re here to stay

Oh you Pretty Things
Don’t you know you’re driving your
Mamas and Papas insane
Oh you Pretty Things
Don’t you know you’re driving your
Mamas and Papas insane
Let me make it plain
You gotta make way for the Homo Superior

Look at your children
See their faces in golden rays
Don’t kid yourself they belong to you
They’re the start of a coming race
The earth is a bitch
We’ve finished our news
Homo Sapiens have outgrown their use
All the strangers came today
And it looks as though they’re here to stay

Oh you Pretty Things
Don’t you know you’re driving your
Mamas and Papas insane
Oh you Pretty Things
Don’t you know you’re driving your
Mamas and Papas insane
Let me make it plain
You gotta make way for the Homo Superior

War on Poverty


These days we are used to hearing the USA declare war on unbeatable opponents.  At this stage the USA has lost the War in Vietnam, lost the War on Drugs, lost the War on Terror etc etc etc.

There was a time, back in the 1960’s when the USA was motivated to declare a more positive kind of warfare.  In January 1964 President Lyndon. B. Johnson declared a war on poverty.

More properly it led to the passing of the Economic Opportunity Act.  This built on measures introduced in the “New Deal” by FDR and established many structures that remain in place even today.

Sadly the War on Poverty in the USA was lost.  The republicans got into power and steadily eroded the foundations of the US Welfare State.  Wealth has increasingly shifted into the hands of a smaller and smaller elite of the super-rich.

Happy societies are those that offer the greatest opportunities to the lowest of the low, to enable them and encourage them to rise and better themselves.  Capitalist societies are not designed to deliver widespread contentment.  They are focused on the exploitation of the masses for the gratification of the few.

Purely communist societies have largely failed because they are not able to compete economically with capitalist societies.

Managed economies, be they rooted in Fascism (eg Post War Spain), Socialism (eg Yugoslavia) or in tradition and religion (eg Saudi Arabia) are designed to protect a ruling elite at the expense of reform or progress.  While they can be initially decisive and dynamic they rapidly decline into stagnation.

The best societies are those with a centrist democratic political structure, representative government, rule of law and a market economy.  The very best societies are those with the most educated populations and the strongest female presence in senior industry and political roles.


To a Poor Old Woman; by William Carlos Williams

munching a plum on
the street a paper bag
of them in her hand

They taste good to her
They taste good
to her. They taste
good to her

You can see it by
the way she gives herself
to the one half
sucked out in her hand

a solace of ripe plums
seeming to fill the air
They taste good to her

Charlie Hebdo


1 year later.  1 far worse massacre later in Paris.

I don’t read Charlie Hebdo.  To be honest I don’t like the magazine, I find it can be pretty offensive.  Despite this I fully support the right of Charlie Hebdo to publish freely.

If ever you question the need for censorship then take a look through history at the regimes that felt they needed to censor the press and literature.  Censorship is a tool of dictators and oppressive governments.

Muslim fundamentalists believe they can punish non-muslims for breaching the rules of their religion.  Reason that one to its conclusion and  where do we end up?   If I pick my nose I am probably breaking a taboo in some obscure religion.  I wonder what the punishment is.

Any religion that justifies murder is sick.

When the world turned


On this day,  January 6th in 1492, the world turned.  Ferdinand and Isabella entered Granada, ending over 700 years of Muslim occupation of Spain.  The Joint monarchs, Isabella of Castille and Ferdinand of Aragon, ended a journey that began in the year 718 at the Battle of Covadonga when Pelagius led his small Asturian army to glory against the Umayyad Caliphate.  The Muslim armies swept across the Strait of Gibraltar in 711 and by 719 they were across the Pyrenees and fighting in southern France.  For the next 700 years the Spanish and Portuguese Christians fought the long road to drive the Muslim armies from “Al Andalus” ( the land of the Vandals).

The taking of Granada had a profound impact upon the entire world.  For the first time the Spanish could turn from looking inwards to looking outwards.  Instead of devoting their energies to the reconquista, the reconquering of their hereditary home, they could look beyond their natural borders.

In Granada Christopher Columbus presented to Ferdinand and Isabella his scheme to round the world and reach the spice islands by sailing west across the Atlantic.  The Catholic Monarchs decided to sponsor Columbus and funded him to the tune of three ships.

So it was that in 1492 Europe discovered a “New World”.

Janus’ Gate

Janus Gate.jpg

Janus was the Roman God of boundaries.  Many homes had a shrine to Janus at the entrance.  The two faced god looked inwards and outwards at the same time.  He was the God of doormen.

In the Roman Forum stood the Temple of Janus, an arched portico which could be closed by two gates.  The gates were shut in time of peace and opened in time of War.  For most of the history of Rome the gates remained open.

Janus also marks the boundary of the year, giving us the name for the Month of January.


Amoretti IV: by Edmund Spenser

New year forth looking out of Janus gate,
doth seem to promise hope of new delight:
And bidding the old Adieu, his passed date
bids all old thoughts to die in dumpish spright
and calling forth out of sad Winters night,
fresh love, that long hath slept in cheerless bower:
Wills him awake, and soon about him dight
his wanton wings and darts of deadly power.
For lusty spring now in his timely hour,
is ready to come forth him to receive:
And warns the Earth with diverse coloured flower,
to deck herself, and her fair mantle weave.
Then you fair flower, in whom fresh youth doth reign,
prepare yourself new love to entertain.