“The Garden of Evening Mists”: melancholic and exquisite

I was sad when I finished this The Garden of Evening Mists. I was sad mainly because I loved the book, but it is also a melancholic book dealing with loss and the complexities of memory. Two people recommended me to read the book, which is always a good sign, and I recommend it without hesitation. Indeed, I’ve bought it for my wife.

The book is preceded by a quote from Richard Holmes: “There is a goddess of Memory, Mnemosyne; but none of Forgetting. Yet there should be, as they are twin sisters, twin powers, and walk on either side of us, disputing for sovereignty over us and who we are, all the way until death.” Everybody in the book, just like all of us, has things they won’t to forget and things they want to remember. Sadly, we may remember what we would chose to forget and forget what we would chose to remember.

Statues of the twin sisters appear in the book, on the terrace of the house at the centre of the Majuba tea estate in the Cameron Highlands of Malaya. By the end of the book, the face of one of the statues has been badly eroded, while the other is still complete. Majuba, a battle that the Boers won in the Boer War, is something that the owner of the estate wants to remember but the visiting British official would like forgotten. Tan Twan Eng does a wonderful job of creating the smells and feel of the estate, jungle, tea plants, and gardens. Every day while I was reading the book was uncharacteristically hot in London, but I felt and enjoyed the coolness of the evenings and the mists in the Highlands.

The novel has everything you hope for: a plot that engages; characters that interest you and you care about; wonderful, evocative writing; interesting allusions; excellent quotes; and learning. Plus the novel immerses you in a new world. Although I read many novels I love, I rarely find a complete set of these characteristics.

The novel jumps backwards and forwards in time from when the Chinese narrator was a child in Penang before the Second World War through her time in a Japanese prison camp and working with her lover after the war to build a garden to the time at the end of her life knowing that she has a disease that will soon wipe her memory and kill her. I was reminded of The English Patient, which has just been declared “the Booker of Bookers.” As well as the jumping backwards and forwards in time, the war, the colonial feel, and the melancholy, the two books share a strong filmic feel. The film of The English Patient has already been made, and I was pleased to learn that a film of The Garden of Evening Mists is soon to begin. Great books rarely make great films, but The English Patient was an exception–and I hope that The Garden of Evening Mists will be as well.

The book deals with Japanese, Chinese, Malayan, Afrikaans, and English cultures, but Japanese culture is at the heart of the book, although it is set in Malaya. We learn with great pleasure about Japanese gardens, art, archery, buildings, and tattooing, but we also learn about the brutality and cruelty of the Japanese during the war. How, we wonder, do these two sides of the Japanese fit together? We don’t understand, but the main story of the book is how the Chinese narrator who hates the Japanese for making her sister a prostitute during the war before murdering her comes to love a much older Japanese man.

One of the pleasures of the book was that I anticipated what was going to happen before it happened, which gave me the illusion of being clever. Tan Twan Eng, with great calculation I’m sure, dropped just enough hints to fool the readers into thinking themselves clever in seeing what was coming but not so many as to make the plot predictable.

This is a book to read again before I die.

Here are quotes I took from the book:

I felt I was about to enter a place that existed only in the overlapping of air and water, light and time.

And yet it was only in the carefully planned and created garden of Yugiri that I had found a sense of order and calm and even, for a brief moment of time, forgetfulness.

‘Though the water has stopped flowing, we still hear the whisper of its name.’

For what is a person without memories? A ghost, trapped between worlds, without an identity, with no future, no past.

‘Nou lê die aarde nagtelang en week in die donker stil genade van die rëën,’ [‘Now lies the earth night-long and washed in the dark silent grace of the rain,’]

I am writing one of my judgments, experiencing the familiar sensations as the words snare me in their lines until I lose all awareness of time and the world beyond the page. It is a feeling in which I have always taken pleasure. It provides me with more than that now: it gives me some control over what is happening to me. But for how long this will last, I have no idea at all.

‘The palest ink will outlast the memory of men.’

The garden has to reach inside you. It should change your heart, sadden it, uplift it. It has to make you appreciate the impermanence of everything in life,’ I say. ‘That point in time just as the last leaf is about to drop, as the remaining petal is about to fall; that moment captures everything beautiful.’

Old people are allowed to be tactless. Otherwise where’s the fun in growing old?’

‘At my age, you know what I wish for? That I should die while I can still remember who I am, who I used to be.’

It was odd how Aritomo’s life seemed to glance off mine; we were like two leaves falling from a tree, touching each other now and again as they spiralled to the forest floor.

‘What other beverage has been drunk in so many different forms, by so many various races, over two thousand years? Tibetans, Mongolians and the tribes of the Central Asian steppes; the Siamese and the Burmese; the Chinese and the Japanese; the Indians and, finally, us Europeans.’ He paused, lost in his dream of tea. ‘It’s been drunk by everyone, from thieves and beggars, to writers and poets; from farmers, soldiers and painters to generals and emperors. And if you enter any temple and look at the offerings on the altars, you’ll see that even the gods drink tea.’

Memory is like patches of sunlight in an overcast valley, shifting with the movement of the clouds.

I have spent most of my life trying to forget, and now all I want is to remember.

‘When the work is done, it is time to leave,’ the nun says softly. ‘That is the Way of the Tao.’

‘You’ve never recovered from being a prisoner.’ ‘Do you know of anyone who has?’

Are all of us the same, I wonder, navigating our lives by interpreting the silences between words spoken, analysing the returning echoes of our memory in order to chart the terrain, in order to make sense of the world around us?

‘It was Magnus who first told me the story of the Garden of Eden. I had great difficulty imagining it,’ he remarked. ‘A garden where nothing dies or decays, where no one grows old, and the seasons never change.

How miserable.’

‘What’s so miserable about that?’ ‘Think of the seasons as pieces of the finest, most translucent silk of different colours. Individually, they are beautiful, but lay one on top of another, even if just along their edges, and something special is created. That narrow strip of time, when the start of one season overlaps the end of another, is like that.’

‘A horoshi will always leave a section of the horimono empty, as a symbol that it is never finished, never perfect,’

‘My memory is like the moon tonight, full and bright, so bright you can see all its scars.’

We are the same, I realise. The people we loved have left us and we have been trying ever since to go on with our lives. But the one thing we cannot do is forget.

The pond is a meadow of stars.




Howard Hodgkin: last and very beautiful paintings

The paintings of Howard Hodgkin are exactly the sort of paintings where somebody not interested in art might say dismissively “A child could do that.” It’s a silly thing to say because children have a directness when creating that we adults lose and struggle, mostly unsuccessfully, to regain. But Howard’s paintings are instantly recognisable, extremely beautiful, and take usually years to paint, although they have an immediacy that looks as if they are done in an instant.


Chicken and I went yesterday to the exhibition of Hodgkin’s last paintings at the Gagosian Gallery in Mayfair. (The gallery itself is a most beautiful space, with ceiling to floor windows that themselves make pictures.) We went round the exhibition together, peered closely at the paintings, and Chicken, a painter and lover of paint, pointed out to me how Hodgkin might have achieved effects that look effortless but take great skill.

Odd as it might seem to somebody not interested in art, Hodgkin follows on directly from the English landscape tradition of Constable, Palmer, and particularly Turner, who in his later years was painting pictures that were entirely abstract and filled with colour and light. Indeed, Turner is said to have been trying to paint light itself. https://richardswsmith.wordpress.com/2016/05/08/turner-a-bank-note-and-a-theory/ Hodgkin is perhaps doing the same.

Hodgkin died in 2017 aged 84, and we have already been to one exhibition of his that included some of his later works. https://richardswsmith.wordpress.com/2017/04/16/howard-hodgin-portraits-filled-with-memories-and-associations-and-just-sometimes-figures/ He loved India, and many of these last paintings evoke the colour, heat, smells, beauty, gardens, and even food of India. All of these paintings were on wood, most with his characteristic hallmark of painting over the frames and leaving the wood bare in places. Chicken thought that he probably had the wood and frames made cheaply in India.

Hello Bombay

One of the reasons that Hodgin’s paintings are instantly recognisable is his use of colour, greens against orange, a deep red unique to him, watery blues, and the yellows of Indian sunsets.


Chicken and I played the game of deciding which pictures we’d take home. In one room we both selected Love Song (with Hodgkin’s famous spots) and Red Sky at Night. We thought differently in the other room, where I would have taken Hello Bombay, with its riot of yellows and Portrait of an Artist Listening to Music, where you can see both the figure and the music.


Hodgkin, something of a misanthrope, said: “For an artist time can always be regained…because by an act of imagination you can always go back.” Perhaps that’s what we are all trying to do when we struggle to create anything. (I’m even doing it now, not that I claim to be anything but the lowest, sluggiest form of an artist.) Now dead, Hodgkin cannot regain time–but we can regain his time, until we too are dead.


A visit to the London Mithraeum on the day President Trump visited the city: London at its best

I met Jane outside the Mithraeum Museum in the heart of the City of London. https://www.londonmithraeum.com/learn/ (For anybody who doesn’t know the City of London is not the whole city of London but the square mile that in other cities is called the financial or business district: it’s said to be the richest square mile in the world and has 400 000 people enter each day to work but only 10 000 inhabitants, of whom Jane my friend is one.)  Jane and I have known each other for nearly 40 years. We worked together for 25. She’s the wisest person I know, the person I consult when faced with difficult decisions.

The Mithraeum Museum is built around the Roman temple to Mithras, which was built in 240 AD and now lies more than 20 feet under the present street level. It’s incorporated into the ultramodern Bloomberg building, and the architects and designers have done a wonderful job of presenting the temple and explaining its context.

The temple reminds us that London is a Roman city, Londinium. Little was here before the Romans built the city and occupied it for 400 years. After the Romans left London fell into ruins until rebuilt hundreds of years later. The temple was discovered in 1954 after the bombing of the City during the war. Nobody knew what the building was for until the head of Mithras, the god, was discovered on the last day of excavation. Some 30 000 went to visit the site when it was first uncovered.

Nobody seems to understand exactly what members of the Mithras Cult believed, but we do know that they were all male. Many members were soldiers, and we encountered a temple to Mithras when we walked Hadrian’s Wall. https://richardswsmith.wordpress.com/2016/05/26/the-joys-of-walking-the-hadrians-wall-path/ Hadrian himself was a member. The temples had a tauroctony on the “altar,” a relief of Mithras killing a bull. Mithras always looks away, and the museum does a marvellous job of explaining the iconongraphy. But nobody understand exactly what it means, but the story may be a creation myth.

Bull slaying

On the ground floor of the museum the Argentinian artist, Pablo Bronstein, who lives in London has created murals of how he imagines Roman London might have looked. He’s not depicted anything historically accurate but rather a fantasy that doesn’t look much different from London today, I liked it. Also on the ground floor is a cabinet with 600 objects excavated from the site; altogether 14 000 were excavated, most of which are in the Museum of London awaiting cataloguing. The objects, which include doors, pots, knives, and instruments for weighing are well displayed and Ipads that are available explain each one.


You then descend a floor to an area where electronic boards explain more about Mithras, the cult, the iconography, where in the world temples can be seen–and much more. Everything is well designed.

Every 20 minutes a small group is admitted to the temple itself, which is lower still. The remains are walls some three feet high, and the temple is a rectangle of some 36 feet by 12 feet. A glass walkway surrounds the temple, and when you enter the light is low. After a few minutes the “experience” begins: you hear the voices of men talking in the temple–in Latin, of course. You can’t make out most of the words, but the impression created is that Roman London was similar to the busy City of today. Lighting is used effectively to create the columns of the temple and to illuminate the altar. There is no explanation, you are expected to have gathered that from the information you’ve already had presented.


It is all extremely well done, no expense has been spared–and when I got home I emailed friends recommending that they visit the museum when next in London. It’s free to visit, but you must book.

Back in the street Jane and I walked into St Stephen’s Walbrook, a church designed by Christopher Wren. It is crammed in between modern buildings and buildings from Victorian and other periods. The great pleasure of the City is this intermingling of the ancient and modern. The streets and alleys twist and turn, reminding everybody that this is a medieval city. But it’s one that was burnt down in 1666 and heavily bombed in the Second World War. Remnants of the City walls remain, but the ancient is supplied mostly by the dozens of churches, many of them restored after the war. St Stephen’s is not ancient, but I looked through the doors to see a beautiful space under a dome that is clearly inspired by the Pantheon in Rome. We couldn’t enter because an organ recital was underway.

St Stephens

We then walked through the twisting streets in the hot sunshine, passing people eating at tables and beside fountains, drinking outside pubs, and queuing for their lunch. The streets were crowded, and, although it was a working day, it felt like a holiday. I was struck for the first time of the similarity between the City of London and Venice, a similarity that emanates from the narrow streets and alleys and the ease of getting lost. We saw the monumental dome of St Paul’s at the end of an alley; no Londoner of my vintage can look at the intact dome without thinking of the dramatic war time pictures showing how St Paul’s avoided the destruction that was all around it. We walked through a square filed with people in deckchairs watching a tennis semi-final at Wimbledon a big screen.

Our destination was St Bride’s Church, the journalists’ church at the end of Fleet Street, which was once the home of the national newspapers. It’s another well kept, airy, light-filled church, and we listened to Maria Milanova, a Bulgarian pianist who now lives in London, play ten pieces from Provokiev’s Cinderella (I liked especially Orientalia), ten pieces from J P Rameau’s Pièces de Clavassi (Le Rappel des Oiseeaux was my favourite), and two pieces by a Bulgarian composer Pancho Vladigerov. She’d selected an unusual but attractive range of pieces and played well. The venue and the music were a delight, and I felt privileged, glad to be alive, and that perhaps I could live forever, endlessly discovering new music as well as new books.

St Bride's Church, Fleet Street

After the concert we walked again through the sunny streets to the White Swan, where we drank a red Sancerre (me) and an Adnam’s pale ale (Jane) and could have eaten faggots and peas, pigs’ trotters, and tripe an onions, all traditional English dishes, if we hadn’t opted for something less adventurous.

While we ate tens of thousands of people, including friends of mine. filled the streets to protest at the policies of President Trump, who is visiting Britain and creating as much disruption as ever. A huge balloon of a baby Trump in a nappy, was part of the protest and the mood was celebratory even through the protests were heartfelt. Trump attacked London’s Mayor, Sadiq Khan, for allowing such a breach of hospitality and Khan rightly answered that stopping people from protesting because a visiting dignitary might be offended would be a dreadful slippery slope.

Trump baby

Meanwhile, at Wimbledon an American and a South African played a tennis match that lasted over six hours.

My personal experiences and the other events in London made me think that this was a day with London at its best. (It can, like all big cities, be dreadful as well.)

“Head fall off?”

I have some 15 stitches on my neck where I’ve had a basal cell carcinoma removed. https://richardswsmith.wordpress.com/2018/06/26/ive-got-cancer/ I thought that Alexander would be fascinated by it, and I was right. He stared at with an expression that mixed horror, fascination, and curiosity.

“You must be careful wrestling with Grandad,” said Granny.

“Head fall off?” asked Alexander with excitement and fear.

“No,” reassured Granny, “but you mustn’t hurt Grandad.”

We might be amused at a three-year-old’s idea that somebody’s head might fall off, but look at that scar: it’s not so illogical if you live in a world where toys regularly break, castles fall down, and heads come off through both accident and design.

Head fall off

John Clare: a great poet of nature, joy, love, and sadness

I knew of John Clare, of course I did, but I knew little or nothing of his poetry. Now after reading through a Faber collection of his poems I know him and his poetry well and am right glad that I do.

Clare has been described as, “the quintessential Romantic poet,” a poor man, a farm labourer, with little education, an understanding of the oral tradition, and a deep deep love and knowledge of nature. Yet somehow he doesn’t rank alongside Wordsworth, Coleridge, Keats, Byron, and Shelley, the first division of romantic poets. Perhaps it’s because he wasn’t well to do and as well educated as them, didn’t roam abroad, saw no revolutions, and concentrated on the undramatic nature at his door, the birds, flowers, and fields, eschewing most of the time the grandest themes. Or perhaps it’s because he spent the last 20 years of his life in Northampton Lunatic Asylum. Most of his poems were published posthumously, and appreciation of his work began to grow only a century after his death in 1864.

Born in 1793 he loved among the open fields of his youth and was much affected by the industrialising of agricultural land and the Enclosure Act of 1809. George Monbiot, the ardent environmentalist, calls him “the poet of the environmentalist and compares his experience with that if indigenous people across the world: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2012/jul/09/john-clare-poetry

“What Clare suffered was the fate of indigenous peoples torn from their land and belonging everywhere. His identity crisis, descent into mental agony and alcohol abuse, are familiar blights in reservations and outback shanties the world over. His loss was surely enough to drive almost anyone mad; our loss surely enough to drive us all a little mad.”

The Faber collection, although infused with melancholy, is filled with joyous poems celebrating love and nature. There are many I could have selected, but here is one on summer (a clock-a-clay is a ladybird, and there is a whole poem about one).


Come we to the summer, to the summer we will come,

For the woods are full of bluebells and the hedges full of bloom,

And the crow is on the oak a-building of her nest,

And love is burning diamonds in my true lover’s breast;

She sits beneath the whitethorn a-plaiting of her hair,

And I will to my true lover with a fond request repair;

I will look upon her face, I will in her beauty rest,

And lay my aching weariness upon her lovely breast.


The clock-a-clay is creeping on the open bloom of May,

The merry bee is trampling the pinky threads all day,

And the chaffinch it is brooding on its grey mossy nest

In the whitethorn bush where I will lean upon my lover’s breast;

I’ll lean upon her breast and I’ll whisper in her ear

That I cannot get a wink o’sleep for thinking of my dear;

I hunger at my meat and I daily fade away

Like the hedge rose that is broken in the heat of the day.

But two of Clare’s best known poems–I Am! and Sonnet: I Am! are desperately sad, poems of depression and contemplated suicide:

I Am!

I am—yet what I am none cares or knows;

My friends forsake me like a memory lost:

I am the self-consumer of my woes—

They rise and vanish in oblivious host,

Like shadows in love’s frenzied stifled throes

And yet I am, and live—like vapours tossed


Into the nothingness of scorn and noise,

Into the living sea of waking dreams,

Where there is neither sense of life or joys,

But the vast shipwreck of my life’s esteems;

Even the dearest that I loved the best

Are strange—nay, rather, stranger than the rest.


I long for scenes where man hath never trod

A place where woman never smiled or wept

There to abide with my Creator, God,

And sleep as I in childhood sweetly slept,

Untroubling and untroubled where I lie

The grass below—above the vaulted sky.


Sonnet- I am!

I feel I am — I only know I am,

And plod upon the earth, as dull and void:

Earth’s prison chilled my body with its dram

Of dullness, and my soaring thoughts destroyed,

I fled to solitudes from passions dream,

But strife persued — I only know, I am.

I was a being created in the race

Of men disdaining bounds of place and time:

A spirit that could travel o’er the space

Of earth and heaven — like a thought sublime,

Tracing creation, like my maker, free —

A soul unshackled — like eternity,

Spurning earth’s vain and soul debasing thrall

But now I only know I am — that’s all.


And from What Is Life?

And what is Life? An hour-glass on the run,

A mist retreating from the morning sun,

A busy, bustling, still-repeated dream.

Its length? A minute’s pause, a moment’s thought.

And Happiness? A bubble on the stream,

That in the act of seizing shrinks to nought.


In 1860, four years before he died, Clare wrote in a letter:

“Dear Sir, I am in a Madhouse & quite forget your Name or who you are you must excuse me for I have nothing to communicate or tell of & why I am shut up I dont know I have nothing to say so I conclude yours respectfully John Clare.”

It is perhaps inevitable that the saddest poems hit us hardest, but I feel that I have done disservice to a book that has more poems of brightness than bleakness. I urge you to read it yourself. I doubt that you’ll be disappointed.


Alexander writes letters and becomes a postman

Life with Alexander, who will be four on Monday, is a life of endless inventions, many of them surreal. While playing football in the garden he suddenly sits on a chair and says: “You play self. I be referee.”  I’m not sure how to play by myself but I run backwards and forwards from one goal to the other while Alexander pretends to blow a whistle. (Later we make red and yellow cards.) But one of yesterday’s best games was Alexander being writing letters and being a postman.

Like everybody, he likes to get a letter; and he likes to send them as well. Granny helps him write one to me. He’s more obsessed with churches than ever (for completely unknown reasons), and whenever given a piece of paper he draws a church–with a spire, a cross on top of the spire, a clock, and doors, which are often closed.

(As an aside, he decided yesterday that our front room, where I was watching England beat Sweden, was a church. This had advantages because we had to whisper. I prayed fervently and then took over from Alexander as the priest. I chanted The Lord’s Prayer in what I thought to be a priestly voice and then asked Alexynder to say after me:

“I Alexander”

“I Ayexander”

“Will do a pee when I need one.”

“Will do pee when need”

“And will not pee in my pants.”

“Not pee in my pants.”

Alexander’s problem is that life is too interesting, too full of possibilities to stop to pee. We see him crossing his legs and holding his willy and try to get him to pee. “Don’t need pee,” he answers, but we know he does. Usually he manages to avoid peeing in his pants, but not always.)

Alexander then writes his name in his own inimitable way. So far he stops at Alex, ander is still to come. While Granny draws a butterfly and ladybirds, Alexander draws spiders–with far too many legs. He then has the bright idea to draw rings round the spiders and so make them my glasses. Granny folds up the letter, puts in an envelope, and gives it to Alexander who delivers it under the closed door of the front room.

I’m suitably excited to get a letter.

When the football ends, Alexander and I draw a series of letters to Granny. Every time he draws a church and spiders and writes his name. When it comes to delivering the letters I suggest that he goes out of the front door and post the letter through the letterbox after I close the door. He likes this very much, and we do it several times.

I think that I must get him a postman’s hat and satchel. We might deliver letters all around Clapham Old Town, letters condemning Brexit. There’s definitely room to develop the game.

My letter to Kate Hoey, my MP, asking her to support a People’s Vote on the Final Brexit Deal

Dear Kate Hoey,

I am one of your constituents, and hope that you will support a People’s Vote on the  Final Brexit Deal.

As a committed Brexiter, you might, I suspect, be more willing to support such a motion today than you would have been yesterday. We seem to have arrived at a negotiating position that the Cabinet has approved but which satisfies nobody. It’s a ghastly compromise, a camel created by a Cabinet trying to create a horse.

My position is that I think it madness to leave the European Union, and I’ve written to you before to explain that this is not just a rational position but an emotional one for me whose grandfather fought at Gallipoli and father at El Alamein. https://richardswsmith.wordpress.com/2018/05/17/my-almost-certainly-fruitless-letter-to-my-mp-kate-hoey-asking-her-to-vote-to-stay-in-the-european-economic-area-or-resign/ I’m disappointed that you didn’t respond.

A People’s Vote on the Final Brexit Deal seems important to me for everybody. Leavers have argued that the Britsih people made clear their intentions and that a “second referendum” is therefore unnecessary. But the people–everybody, including you and all Members of Parliament–had no idea of what they were voting for. We still don’t know and won’t know until a final deal is agreed. It therefore seems to me an unanswerable argument that there ought to be a People’s Vote on the Final Deal, or a “second referendum” if you prefer. This should be equally important for Leavers and Remainers.

I hope that you will thus support a People’s Vote on the Final Deal.

Yours sincerely

Richard Smith

Clapham Old Town

Peples vote