Wednesday, 30 October 2013

A bit of a rant

I recently finished reading 1421, The Year China discovered the World,by Gavin Menzies and found it ...interesting. The thesis he proposes, that the Chinese surveyed the whole world in a relatively short period of time, with a huge fleet of ships, is presumably possible, but there seems to be not quite enough solid evidence to back it up as yet, despite the author's claims. I found his assertions about Chinese genes being found in a variety of populations in different parts of the world not entirely convincing, also his claims that certain diseases were brought to the places they visited by the Chinese also a bit suspect. The explanation of how the Chinese discovered, or worked out latitude was very interesting, however and as the current re-appraisal of the European "Dark Ages" shows, the study of the past is always turning up new ideas and facts.
One point really enraged me, almost to the point of tossing the book across the room.In the Epilogue,: the Chinese Legacy, on page 441 (paperback ed) he states"By the Tang dynasty (AD 616-907) at a time when our European ancestors were dressed in rags, rich Chinese were dining off gold plates....etc. Well, the Book of Kells was produced in AD 800 or slightly earlier; England was also producing many gold artefacts - Saxon hoards are still being turned up from this period (which admittedly was one of unrest in Britain and  Europe, as various kings sought to establish supremacy) containing beautiful objects.Some people may have been dressed in rags, but I bet there were quite a few impoverished Chinese dressed the same way. In the latter part of the period the author says the Chinese were so superior to Europeans, English embroiderers were producing Opus Anglicanum, beautiful ecclesiastical embroidery, worked with precious metals, pearls and gemstones on silk or velvet. To dismiss the whole of European culture of the period in such an offhand  way is not the remark of a true scholar.  One of the questions which remains is : why did the mandarins destroy the reports and other evidence of these voyages? Could it perhaps have been because during their travels, the Chinese discovered other countries and places were as rich and powerful as they were, and their idea of bringing the whole world into their tribute system was an impossibility, and so was abandoned.
However, it made an interesting read over several days, and I might even read his follow-up book, 1434, which is about how China sparked the Renaissance in Europe,  as I did an Open University year on Renaissance and Reformation as part of my (OU) degree a long time ago.

Friday, 25 October 2013

A visit to Salers

As yesterday was an absolutely sparkling autumn day here in the Cantal, I went for a drive to Salers, "un des plus beaux villages de France"- one of France's most beautiful villages, and about half an hour away by road. In summer it is usually crowded with tourists, but today was almost empty, with only a few of the little restaurants open. There are several hotels there which all seemed to be open, as its school holidays here in this part of France, and there were a few people wandering about, admiring the somewhat sombre architecture of the place, and enjoying seeing the place at its autumnal best.
The view from the little parc Barouze, overlooking the site where three valleys meet was stunning,

and the drive back up the val de Maronne to the Col de Neronne and then down past the forest of the Cirque du Falgoux showed the beautiful autumn colours of the trees, contrasted with dark evergreen firs. We love visiting this part of France at this time of year, as we are often lucky with the weather, which enhances the natural beauty of the mountains.

Friday, 18 October 2013

Recent reading roundup

I recently finished Stoner by John Williams, which had been recommended by Ian McEwan on Radio 4's Open Book and what a lovely read it proved to be. Elegantly written, with absolute clarity of meaning, the story of John Stoner's life unfolds as the pages turn.
 John Stoner is born to a poor farming couple, works on the family fields, and as a bright boy at school, is given the opportunity to go to college to study agriculture. Yet during a lecture on English literature, his imagination is awakened as by no other subject. He changes his course of study to literature, graduates and also achieves his masters degree, all while working on a relatives farm for his board. Stoner becomes a lecturer in English literature, marries a banker's daughter who is the wrong woman for him, and who manages to take over their daughter, while also pushing Stoner out of his own study at his home.He has an affair with a lovely post-graduate student, and has difficulties with the university internal politics. Although the story could be seen as that of a sad and disappointing life,  it did not seem that way to me. Stoner had his weaknesses, faults and disappointments, but he also had good things in his life , including self-knowledge. He seemed to me to be a complete human being in this story.

Clair King's The Night Rainbow is a child’s eye view of life. Peony  or Pea as she is known, is a young girl, living with her mother on a farm in the south of France. The story tells of Pea's relationship with her sad, grief stricken and pregnant mother after the loss of her baby and the  death of her partner, as well as the grief of a neighbour. Pea’s “younger sister” Margot is her constant companion and although ostensibly younger in age, yet seems more worldly-wise than Peony herself at times. The relationship between Peony and her mother is tenderly described. Pea befriends Claude, a neighbour, who has also had a great loss in his life. There are beautiful descriptions of a heatwave during a French summer, as well as how relationships develop and change between adults and children, and how both cope with loss and unhappiness.

To The Lighthouse is one of Virginia Woolf's best known novels, a story in which not much seems to happen, yet is totally engrossing.The Ramsay family and their guests are holidaying in their house in Scotland, young James wants to sail out to the lighthouse, but bad weather prevents the trip. Time passes  and in the latter part of the story, set ten years later, the sailing trip to the lighthouse is achieved. The writing is wonderful, conveying how people think, feel and act on different levels but at the same moment in time. "All that in idea seemed simple became in practise immediately complex" (page 172, Penguin Modern Classics edition) This idea is also expressed in Virginia Woolf's diary, which I had read just before starting this novel. I am slowly reading as many of Virginia Woolf's writings as I can, but only one at a time, as I feel they are books to be savoured and reflected on, rather than rushed through all at once.

Sunday, 13 October 2013

A Visit to Chenonceau

On our way back from France last month, we stayed the night at Chenonceaux. Although we had visited the chateau several years ago, we couldn't resist another visit, and what a contrast each visit was. Last time  was in summer, hot and crowded. This time, very early autumn, and as it was late in the day, very uncrowded indeed. We managed to see a lot more of the interior of the chateau than we had previously, although access to the garden the other side of the river was unavailable so late in the day. We had the long gallery all to ourselves, which in some ways made it easier to imagine the life that the place has seen over the centuries. I think one of the reasons for its popularity as one of the most-visited sites in France is its setting on the river, with the Long Gallery spanning the river, giving access to the land on the other side of the river, as well as its association with Diane de Poitiers, a king's mistress.

 We stayed at Le Relais Chenonceaux,  a fairly reasonably priced hotel, one of the several  which now seem to  make up the greater part of the village. It was a very comfortable night, with a delicious dinner and the whole visit was a lovely break on our last evening in France for a while.

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