"The Talisman" by Stephen King and Peter Straub

Interesting collaboration between two celebrated authors - the process of joined creation always strikes me fascinating, since it means input from two people with enough respect for each other to give other side a freedom and space to come up with ideas. By 1984 both King and Straub were successful enough respectively so this might sound as a safe bet, however it is still a curiosity that two such famous people decided to cook something together, not many authors are able to do that.

Contrary to my expectations, "The Talisman" is actually not a horror at all. Sure, it has occasional dark and chilling moments, its occasionally even creepy but mainly this is a fantasy story with a twelve-year old protagonist floating between two worlds (our reality and its mirror image, which is kind of medieval) in a search of talisman that will cure his dying mother. Jack Sawyer is kind of medieval knight himself (despite his young age) in a search for a Holy Grail and along the way he has to journey trough difficult and dangerous places, encounters all sorts of strange characters, avoid the enemies and befriends delightfully bizarre sidekicks. It was a fairly gripping read, as you would expect from anything that King wrote and if there is one thing that slightly bothered me, it was that my affections were not so much centred on Sawyer kid (who is supposed to be the main character) but far more towards his comical sidekicks - as if they are aware of this, authors eventually decided to eliminate everybody who might upstage their main hero (noble boy fighting to cure his mother) which upset me greatly and I even considered stop reading the darn book any further - once my favourite character was out of the story, it lost its charm and attraction for me and the rest was just plodding away to its conclusion. Authors tried to patch it up later, but I wasn't convinced. I noticed this with Stephen King already before, the tendency to create literary characters we get attached to, just to dispose of them in the next chapter, it is a kind of mental cruelty, really. 

"If Walls Could Talk: An Intimate History of the Home" by Lucy Worsley

Earlier this year I was enjoying historical TV documentaries by wonderful Helen Castor - even read her book "She wolves" about earliest female rulers in England - so naturally, eventually I came to discover another celebrated historian and TV celebrity, doctor Lucy Worsley. Now, Worsley is completely different kind of presenter - she is also hugely knowledgeable and informed but hers is lighthearted and sparkling presence, perhaps also because she looks petite, cute and somehow mischievous. There is a steel behind her charming smile and I can sense the strength behind that bubbly personality, so don't be fooled by all that cuteness, but she is extremely interesting and TV is definitely perfect medium for somebody so engaging - Worsley did many TV documentaries and they are all available on youtube, in fact there is actually a programme where both Worsley and Castor appear together, however I needed something lighter after bone-chilling previous book so I decided to dive into Worsley's "If Walls Could Talk" (while simultaneously watching her TV show) just for a welcome change of pace.

Worsley is hugely entertaining and very charming as a TV presenter - this book is a tie-in with a celebrated TV show - it is a kind of female answer to similar book by Bill Bryson who has already covered very much the same territory earlier, but where Bryson simply roams trough the house and gleefully recount all sorts of random anecdotes that had popped up in his mind, Worsley is much more focused - instead of exploring the house from bottom to the top, she zooms on four rooms of particular interest to her: bedroom, bathroom, living room and a kitchen. It is a very interesting story and full of delightful little details about the ways everyday life has changed trough the centuries, but it must be told that particular charm and spark that Worsley personality has in abundance on TV screen don't necessary translate in the book - not that the book is dry or boring (far from it), its just that by reading the book you would never guess what a delightful TV personality she is - I recommend checking the TV show, simply for the fun of seeing her doing all sorts of crazy experiments, which are not part of the book itself. 


From the old music archives

Some two decades ago, as a young student, I dabbled in radio work, as a person who selects music playlist - they probably expected that someone young might bring fresh ideas and newest, coolest trends, however my curiosity was focused in unearthing completely forgotten & obscure recordings that languished covered with dust in archives. Mind you, there were many other colleagues who went straight for current pop charts - and there was a official rule where one has to play a certain hit of the day several times trough the shift - but my main interest was in music archaeology. Since money was next to nothing, at least this was something that kept me happy. Old recordings were not just forgotten, but often scratched as well, which made them even more desirable in my eyes - the whole fact that this wonderful music was neglected, made me delve even more into archives and often I would get delighted response from both the audiences and colleagues who were unaware we even had these tracks around. Interest in old recordings never left me completely and to my greatest joy, I have discovered recently that "Croatia records" now have their complete catalogue (previously released as "Jugoton") available as digital download, which made me pour over titles with greatest excitement.

"Melodija tjedna III" (1965)
This was very interesting collaboration between biggest local recording company and one of the most popular radio station in the capitol, famous "Radio Sljeme" that to this day courts its urban audience, perhaps the one real radio station that represents the spirit of Zagreb. In the mid-1960s Radio Sljeme had a context where listeners were encouraged to vote for their favourite new hit of the week, which after a month will be included on a latest EP recording by "Jugoton" under the name "Melody of the week" and preformed by most celebrated homegrown vocalists. This is one of these recordings and is fascinating document of its times, since it shows where local music at the time was - idolising and emulating Italian artists but (truth to be told) artistically standing absolutely next to them. 

Conductors Nikica Kalogjera and Pero Gotovac gave professional, silky orchestration to what must have been ungrateful task of following international numbers note by note (my guess is that there was no room for improvisation in project as this) but the most interesting is how local artists warmly welcomed the chance to sing this music: every single of vocalists included here is excellent and shines in their retrospective numbers. Cover of Italian "In Ginocchio Da Te" might be forgotten amongst huge subsequent discography of Tereza Kesovija, but this kind of bombastic melodrama suits her to a T.
Another Italian cover "Era D'Estate" gives a perfect spotlight to wonderful and criminally under-recorded Drago Diklić who was one of the best balladeers of his day (personally I wish he got more attention from recording companies) and to my biggest surprise even Elvira Voća sounds actually fine on her version of Burt Bacharach. To counterbalance all these foreign hits, one from Slovenia was included with Croatian lyrics and its "Poletna Noč" associated with  Marjana Deržaj but here performed by Beti Jurković who translated the lyrics. It is absolutely lovely, mid-1960s mainstream pop that inspires more search into this series. 

"Melodije Jadrana 1. - Split 64"
Where some other local pop festivals (namely ones in Zagreb and Opatija) always resulted with their own LP albums, for some reason Split festival had humble beginnings with occasional EP recording as memento. Which is strange in retrospective, since with time it absolutely eclipsed the other two forebears. This particular recording from 1964. brings selection of popular music performed that year in Split and naturally the self-penned number by young Arsen Dedić shines like a diamond, it will eventually become one of the all-time classics of Croatian chanson but here it was just another pop number, nesting uncomfortably with other, frankly peppy performers. Not that Trio Tividi or duet Ivo Robić & Zdenka Vučković were bad, but in this company poetic young Dedić stands head and shoulders above everybody else because he was so sophisticated. One can't help but wonder how this particular genius grew like a wild flower out of nowhere, inspired with rare foreign movies and occasional record, to combine it all in his own beautiful creations. Unorthodox in every possible way, "Kuća pored mora" (A House by the sea) is not a typical happy, summer number but a broodingly dark invitation to adultery - its protagonist seductively describing the joys of adventure and exhilarated freedom, despite of social ostracism. Nowhere in the lyrics is mentioned that the other side might be married, but its heavily hinted (and Arsen himself was just a perfect picture of a starving student who might have turned head of some married lady). The whole film could be made out of that song. 

"Melodije Jadrana 2. - Split 64"
Since that particular year Split festival catapulted masterpiece "Kuća pored mora", everything else sounds like a lesser afterthought compared with Arsen Dedić who in my book simply had no competition when it came to writing and performing a high-class, poetic number. Still, it is interesting to hear who were also-runners. Veteran Ivo Robić came up with song he composed himself (indistinguishable), while composer Nikica Kalogjera combined two lovely voices of Gabi Novak & Marko Novosel for a lilting duet. Another successful composer, Alfi Kabiljo also paired Robić with wonderful Maruška Šinković but they have no chemistry together and Šinković is wasted on this kind of forced happiness. Vice The Lionheart  Vukov comes for finale and even though his song doesn't genuinely have any commercial potential, his was such intoxicating voice that one could listen him forever - this was full Italian (well, Croatian, obviously) Bel Canto sound and he had just unbelievably beautiful sound. 

"Melodije Jadrana - Split '65" 
One of the earliest recorded Split festivals, this particular one again spotlights young Arsen Dedić who caused huge criticism and uproar with his song "Stara cura" - in his cinematic vision, Dedić was describing citizens of a typical coastal town and a particular lonely spinster but something in the lyrics or perhaps even singer's performance struck audiences all wrong. Be it that figure such as this is well-known in coastal places where lots of sailors often never return from the sea or the subject might be too painful to be used on pop festivals, people took it as Dedić pokes fun at someone's tragedy. Nothing he said subsequently could erase the initial impression and personally I don't think he really belonged on that particular music stage that promoted lightweight summer hits. Even today, with distance of more than half a century, the song might rub listener all wrong and although lyrics are strong and impressionistic, it appears even more misplaced in company of other frothy songs of that year.  Another interesting oddity is again Dedić in a lovely, lilting barcarolle (far more suitable for Split festival) duet with his future wife Gabi Novak in a song composed by her than-husband - who, in turn, would later marry Maruška Šinković who was also on this recording (does this makes you dizzy?).

"Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China" by Jung Chang

This terrifying, cathartic and utterly gripping book - still officially forbidden in mainland China, where communists prefer to sweep the past under the rag - appears initially as a personal, family saga, where in fact it represents multi-layered depiction of last hundred years in society that went trough huge metamorphosis. Jung Chang is surprisingly open and clear-eyed, considering her upbringing discouraged any show of affections - allegedly she left the past behind and didn't even want to think about it, until mother visited her and for the first time disclosed until never discussed stories about hardships. Chang herself was battling breast cancer at the time, so there might have been a sense of urgency to tell the story. 

I have encountered the expression "cultural revolution" only just recently, during my visits to Shanghai and local museums, where curators pointed that these ancient art objects somehow miraculously escaped being destroyed during 1960s - it piqued my interest, so I checked out disturbing "Red scarf girl"  and now "Wild Swans" that profoundly shook me to the core. If the title suggest women's novel, it just appear so on the surface - this is a epic saga covering last hundred years in China and how the ordinary people lived, died and coped trough fall of the empire and rise of communism. From time to time I thought this was too brutal to even contemplate but I couldn't stop reading it - it is very disturbing, mostly because its all new to me - I vaguely knew about political pogroms in Stalin's Russia, but nothing about recent history of China, so this was really eye-opening experience. There are million unforgettable details that will forever stick in your memory - too many to count here - but it all comes down to how the whole society can suddenly become brainwashed and sink into collective psychosis, the mobs mercilessly taunting any individual careless to stick out too much out of line, politics going so far to actually rule people private's lives (imagine the state where married couples have to live apart and can spend twelve days together per year, private kitchen are forbidden, meals are only served in public canteens, children are made to denounce parents, screaming paroles are being shouted trough loud speakers everywhere, etc, etc) and of course some distant Big Brother figure looming on the horizon (in this case, Mao Zedong with his vindictive wife in the background). 

If the first part ("Grandmother's story") is at first a bit shaky, its only because hers is a story completely alien to modern readers, some other, distant time when daughters were considered so insignificant that they would not even get the proper name ("daughter nr.2") and packing her off as official concubine was the only thing the whole family aspired to. That initial introduction was not very exciting, but once I continued with "Mother's story"  things picked up immediately - we arrived in modern era and post-WW2 China, where new regime replaced the old, lives are centred around communist party and atmosphere of prosecution gradually builds up to a fever pitch. With "Chang's story" I found myself totally enthralled and involved - at this point it was impossible to put the darn book down and I just couldn't wait to get back to it. If I had my way, I would probably read it at work somewhere under the counter. I have just finished it today and my head is still buzzing. If you are interested, you can hear Jung Chang herself as celebrity guest on classic BBC4 radio program "Desert Island Disc" where she explains how and why she wrote this book - her speaking voice is just as lovely as one would expect: 


Pu Yi and Wanrong - The Last Emperor of China and his empress

At the moment I am reading "Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China" by Chinese writer Jung Chang - it is a gripping family saga that encompasses three generations in one Chinese family and it gives even bigger picture than my previous read "Red Scarf Girl" - where "Red Scarf Girl"  focuses only on particular time in 1960s, "Wild Swans" actually describes life and social atmosphere in imperial China and how it all got completely transformed once communists came into power. It is not a pleasant read - it constantly makes me squirm with discomfort and horror just by reading about brainwashing, imprisonments and cruelty that was part of daily lives of people back than. Out of curiosity I have also checked the fascinating lives of the last emperor of China and what happened to him.

I was vaguely familiar with Pu Yi from celebrated movie directed by Bernardo Bertolucci ("The Last Emperor") which was basically a westerner's fantasy about life in Forbidden City and allegedly whitewashed real character of emperor who was a sadistic, spoiled child monster. Placed on a throne with unlimited power, little boy was only three years old and surrounded with entourage of kowtowing slaves (mostly eunuchs) who were there to care for his every whim, open the doors for him and suffer his tantrums. Since nobody could control or criticise him, Pu Yi grew into psychotic despot (which was not depicted in the movie) and it obviously deformed his personality - living exclusively in the royal palace and surrounded with sycophants, his power was divine and absolute. I just find it absolutely fascinating that the whole royal court bowed to this spoiled brat, who obviously needed some control. Everything came to the end when Pu Yi was about eight years old - communists took over and forced him to abdicate - of course, grown ups signed the abdication - he was allowed to continue to live in Forbidden City and even assigned a Scottish teacher to teach him history and languages. Sir Reginald Johnston was impressive and self-confident man who deeply impressed young Pu Yi and perhaps the only real authority he had in life up to that point. At this point, seventeen year old was married to Gobulo Wanrong who shared very much the same aristocratic background and was given instructions how to behave like a empress.

Marriage was not a happy one - it is a questionable was it ever consummated at all, since Pu Yi didn't care for women - however, initially they seems to have gotten along but there was never any particular passion or affection between them, as Pu Yi was basically incapable to think about anybody else except himself. Political upheavals eventually turned their lives topsy turvy - invading Japanese army placed Pu Yi on a throne of a newly created Manchukuo state but he was there without any power or influence and had to toe the line. It was around this time that frustrated and lonely empress became opium addict (which Pu Yi encouraged, as this kept her quiet) and after adulterous affairs produced a child, she was locked away and her newborn baby killed - Pu Yi too much of a coward to protect her. With Japan losing the war and in aftermath of Atomic bombs exploding in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Pu Yi had to abdicate his puppet throne and he was quickly bundled away in security, while Wanrong and her ladies stayed behind. Chinese communists displayed opium-dazed, delirious Wanrong in a cage like animal, where she starved to death to apparent thrill of visitors who came to gawk at what became of the last empress.

Pu Yi was eventually captured by Chinese authorities - contrary to Russians who eliminated their last Tsar, Chinese communists decided to show their superiority by transforming their last emperor into a communist. It was often said that he spent his days living quietly and working as a gardener but this is just official version - after years of humiliation, imprisonment and brainwashing, Pu Yi became a broken man who was constantly apologising to everyone and was harassed on every step, even made to sweep the streets by sadistic Red Guards. Not unlike his ex-wife, he was also shown around (except not in a cage) specially to visiting diplomats, as a perfect example of a transformed and obedient communist. It is a fascinating story that deserves new, fresh perspective and a book that honestly deals with both imperial and communist China.

Great Wall of China

I have visited the Great Wall of China and it makes me feel incredibly proud & achieved, although in reality of course this is just another tourist attraction and the way locals explore curious western visitors for monetary reasons - in any case, I actually don't know anybody outside of my profession who has been here, so there you go, it is a wonderful thrill. After all, I have seen Table mountain in Capetown, Nordkapp on the top of Norway, sailed trough Caribbean, Indian, Red and Black sea (now I am in Pacific) so it all counts as interesting, rich life and occasionally I even feel very blessed with all this. 

The place my ship docked was Tianjin from where its possible to take a fast train to Beijing - I would have loved to had a chance to see Forbidden City but time restrains means one has to chose and naturally, I would rather see Great Wall of China than anything else. So off we went, the whole crew excursion (everybody terribly excited even though we had to bleed to pay the price, even discounted this was still a substantial sum when one is earning peanuts) trough three hours bus ride, where we witnessed absolutely apocalyptic nature and how much the industry completely damaged the land. Everything was grey and dead, covered with polluted air and soot, it seems Chinese are now trying to grow lots of young trees in order to somehow create some Oxygen but honestly, it all seems pretty scary and lifeless. It struck me how Chinese are usually first in many things and now they are first to destroy their land with industry - I don't recall ever seeing such a huge territory feeling and looking like a wasteland, for hours all we saw was just greyness, soot and people with masks on their faces. 

After a short stop to some ancient temple (that nobody genuinely cared about, since we were all so primed for the main course) we eventually arrived at Huangyaguan which of course is just one of the many famous stops along the Great Wall (after all, it goes on forever). Later I found out that our elderly and overweight guests were taken elsewhere, on easier place while crew was brought here, since we are supposed to be younger and will not complain about conditions. Well, nobody even thought about complaining - at least initially - as we were all too excited to be here. The tour guide tried to swindle us and sell us some official certificates that we visited the Great Wall, but we didn't go for that, after all, it is just a piece of paper and why paying extra for something that can be lost and damaged, after all I know that I was there and that's all that matters. 

First impression: wonderful. And very mountainous terrain, spiky mountains everywhere, it must have been a nightmare to built anything here. The walls we walked on were completely reconstructed in 1984 so it didn't really feel ancient, but it looked right so who cares. One starts to walk nicely but very soon it becomes clear that casual stroll is out of the question because before you know it, the stairs get extremely steep and climb really becomes a strenuous effort. At no time everybody was puffing and panting on all four because it became impossible to actually walk, you need to support every step with hands like chimpanzee and it somehow wasn't really a pleasant experience + the air was very polluted so it made it even worse. Since people continue to climb further and further and one is aware of this once-in-a-lifetime-chance nobody wanted to stop so we all continued "just one more tower" but it wasn't a joy at all, in fact I sweated and cursed and wondered is this actually worth all the effort, after all what if I die from heart attack in the middle of Great Wall, well I guess it would have been a sensational end of such life full of travels. Up and up you climb, with slippery steps and extremely thin air, people in front of me pausing for a cigarette break, those behind me for a beer. Everybody quite shocked how difficult all of this is. And than suddenly realisation than in 30 minutes our bus goes back so quick, quick, run down - impossible to say is it worse to climb up or to go down, since this time the pressure is on your knees - again hold yourself for the walls, colleague laughing behind you "you are old man"  and I do feel old for the first time ever, since its not possible to simply stroll down, again it is a tense and slow effort (unless one simply tumbles down and breaks the neck). Honestly, I was relieved when I finally reached the bus, in fact I might have been the very first person to return to that darn bus. Excited and exhilarated but this is definitely once-in-a-lifetime experience, I would never do this again.


"Alfons Vučer Gold Collection" - Tribute to great Croatian composer (2012)

Long gone are the days when "Jugoton" (now "Croatia records") was the major player in local, homegrown discography and the prestigious lighthouse attracting biggest names in the music business (hell, this company was the music business) - cataclysmic changes that completely transformed the society, demographics, politics and music itself, reduced this giant to all sorts of Gold or Platinum collections, thematic compilations and such. Milking the archives and scrapping the bottoms is not bad in itself, since it introduces audience to our venerable predecessors, but its alarming if we don't have new young talents who should built their own legend (starlets promoted on TV talent shows are here today and forgotten tomorrow). This particular compilation - long overdue, by the way - shows that decades ago this same territory cultivated highly sophisticated music that was exciting and inspired as anything on international scene.

One of the biggest movers and shakers on 1960s pop festivals was composer Alfons Vučer who is the main hero of this compilation. Nowadays we think of him as distant forerunner and relic of some other times, but back than he was in his early twenties: the first hit that opens this chronological collection was composed when Vučer was only twenty three. In fact, it seems that everybody was incredibly young - all those now-classic names and artists listed here were very much hungry and green, their group photos looks like any school class on bus excursion. For a decade or so, Vučer was invincible - he was by far one of the most prolific, creative and award-winning people in the business, even if you are not familiar with his name, you know that irresistible, lilting waltz "Zagreb, Zagreb"  that became unofficial hymn to the town. Because his music was tailored for particular pop festival stages and had to conform to certain three-minute frame, it sounds charmingly quaint today but nevertheless, songs are ebullient, sparkling and quite unforgettable. It helps that voices Vučer used were exceptionally gifted artists, in fact the list of names looks like who's who of the biggest stars back than (from Ivo Robić and Gabi Novak, to Đorđe Marjanović, Vice Vukov, Lola Novaković and beyond) - apparently they all grew up (so to speak) together, building local pop music - and themselves, in process - by joining forces.

Because his star burned its brightest during golden era of pop festivals (with huge orchestrations, conductors and whole shebang), Vučer is forever associated with 1960s. Often he was called Croatian Burt Bacharach although - as time will unfortunately prove - he is much closer to our local homegrown version of Phil Spector. Crossing that thin line between genius and madness, Vučer will eventually descent into abyss but that part of the story has nothing to do with music he created previously - he should be remember the way he once was, in his twenties, full of inspiration and spark, when music flew out of him. This collection is genuinely impeccable as his testament.  

"The Gorilla Hunters: A Tale of the Wilds of Africa" by Robert Michael Ballantyne (1861)

Published three years after his phenomenally successful "The Coral Island", ""The Gorilla Hunters" finds Ballantyne bringing back three friends from previous novel but this time they are grown up men and instead of Pacific, the story is set somewhere in Africa. It's all very exotic, adventurous and one can feel author's excitement as he muses about places he imagines - it must have been thrilling for his readers back than - however, the time wasn't kind to this one, it clearly feels like a work from a bygone era and it reflects opinions and perspective of Victorian writer.

I giggled with joy when Ralph, Peterkin and Jack meet again, after being apart for six years: they are different, grown up men now but in some ways they are still the same as we remember them, in fact, sometimes I even think they are three different aspects of the same person. Very soon, though, the huge gap between our modern sensibilities and dear old Ballantyne became evident - his characters are indulging in man's sport (that is, hunting) and even if he goes into trouble of explaining it all as a sheer scientific expedition (animals are being killed and collected for a purpose of research and exhibition back home) it grates very badly on modern reader who is not so bloodthirsty. There is a subplot involving all sorts of fights with native people left and right (described as simpletons, as Victorians would have seen them) but focus is mainly on three friends swaggering around with their guns and killing unsuspecting wild animals while they are drinking water from a pond or playing with each other. Gorilla, Elephants, Giraffe, you name it, they all get killed, eaten and collected as trophy. Even Ballantyne himself is not exactly sure about all of this, because he feels compelled to explain their actions as pure science: “For,” said Jack, “what would the naturalist do without the hunter? His museums would be almost empty and his knowledge would be extremely limited. On the other hand, if there were no naturalists, the hunter—instead of being the hero who dares every imaginable species of danger, in order to procure specimens and furnish information that will add to the sum of human knowledge—would degenerate into the mere butcher who supplies himself and his men with meat; or into the semi-murderer, who delights in shedding the blood of inferior animals. The fact is, that the naturalist and the hunter are indispensably necessary to each other—‘both are best,’ to use an old expression; and when both are combined in one, as in the case of the great American ornithologist Audubon, that is best of all.”

Well, I love animals - the fact that we kill them and use them as food troubles me deeply, since apparently we can find proteins elsewhere and inflicting pain and suffering on any living species seems like a hypocrisy, as we tend to play affectionately with our pets but have no problems with killing, skinning and roasting some other animals. I saw a waggon yesterday with several young calves who were obviously taken on a road with no return and it was chilling to see them so oblivious to their destiny, such beautiful, young animals taken for a slaughter. So to read about these three young hunters enjoying themselves while killing wild animals in their natural environment (just because they look dangerous, scary and protective of their offspring) didn't sit well with me. 


"Red Scarf Girl" by Ji-li Jiang (1997)

Since I am in China now, I thought it would be appropriate to read something about local people, their traditions and culture. To be honest, all I know about China is impressions that I got from Pearl Buck's novels and she was a foreigner anyway. However, when facing thousands of years of local history, their countless dynasties and emperors, it looks a bit intimidating - where to start? I have checked Wikipedia pages and found out about phenomenon previously unknown to me, a period from 1965-76 when so called "Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution" had thousands of people publicly executed, humiliated and imprisoned during what was basically a political purge, very much like the ones in Stalin's era except that here it was all about Mao Zedong who fanned the flames. This is something we don't really know in the West and I encountered expression "Cultural Revolution" already several times during my visits to local museums, when curators wanted to stress how miraculously these priceless objects escaped destruction during the decade when officials demanded that everything that connected people with historical past has to be eliminated. Mainly, it is described as movement against four olds: old customs, culture, habits, and ideas. So it was down with books, temples, churches and anything remotely historical (including The Great Wall of China) and naturally ordinary citizens were harassed for any real or imaginary suspicion of being counter-revolutionaries.

More terrifying than any horror fiction, "Red Scarf Girl" is a first person narrative of a woman whose childhood was forever scarred with whirlwind of Cultural Revolution" - just like any children, Ji-li Jiang just wanted to be accepted in a school and to succeed in her little preoccupations, until political turmoil changed her life overnight: in a world where neighbours denounce neighbours, children denounce their teachers and parents, police raids loot civilian's homes with party blessings and people are imprisoned for having bourgeois ancestors in the family, there is no place left for careless childhood games. Confused and scared, Ji-li Jiang swings between what school brainwashed her with (total faith into personality cult of a great leader) and emotional attachment to her (suddenly blacklisted and humiliated) family. At times, she is even embarrassed to bear that family name, since it just brings her taunting in the school. 

Writing from her adult perspective, Ji-li Jiang still bears the scars of that age, although I wonder how much is she aware of it all, since she insist that no one is to blame and it was all one terrible political chaos. Reader must focus between the lines and find descriptions of who exactly were rabid dogs who persecuted all those innocent people: frustrated and unfulfilled characters who found their first taste of power as party members who sadistically tortured neighbours who happen to always posses more than they had. Old man who refused to lend his bicycle to Red Guards finds himself beaten at his doorstep. Elderly widow humiliated for being well-off and forced to sweep the garbage in the street. Lazy kids denouncing their school teachers for deliberately ruining students’ eyesight by making them read a lot, so they could not join the Liberation Army. Arrests, torture and public humiliations at every step. At times, Ji-li Jiang gets a bit annoying with her insistence on her school achievements in all this mayhem (can't she see the bigger picture?) but we have to remember that she was just a kid and naturally her's was tunnel vision. I got so swept away with the book that I read it in one day - it felt as book read itself - and naturally it changed my perspective to the China that I see around me, suddenly I am more aware of the people's faces and all those sculptures in the parks. And definitely more aware how powerful the mob could be. 

"What We Did on Our Holidays" by Fairport Convention (1969)

Not something I listen often but I do visit this old friend every now and than, always liking it more than before with each listening and although I have no idea how it came that I discovered it in the first place, "What We Did on Our Holidays" might be one of my all-time-favourite albums because passing years seem to give it the glow and luminousness that just grows with time - even though I was sure that I knew every note on it, still I find details that thrill me and music always transports me into completely different sphere.

I actually fairly enjoyed Fairport's first album, but it seems that in this incarnation everything finally came in the place - not just Sandy Denny but inspired choice of material and it seems that everybody breathed the same air (or drank the same wine), artistically group was at its peak and there is a beautiful melancholy that just speaks to me trough time, its just amazing how this collection moves me still, after all these years. There are many highlights and it seems that I can't make up my mind what is actually really the centrepiece since I just love the whole album but the opener "Fotheringay" encompasses everything I admire about Fairport - poetry, history, Mary Stewart, gentle guitar strings, Sandy Denny, ghostly voices echoing trough the castle Fotheringay, its just too beautiful for words. Mind you, I could say the same for early Joni Mitchell song "Eastern Rain" or anything else, including the wordless "The Lord Is in This Place...How Dreadful Is This Place" and the sound of coins being dropped on the floor in front of homeless Denny. It is not something I would listen with other people, this is kind of album to listen when you are alone with yourself - bedsit album? - because it works magic on some private, personal level and its very, very soothing kind of experience that does not need big audience.

"A Portrait Of Arthur Prysock" by Arthur Prysock (1963)

Lo and behold, here is the voice that surpasses even mighty Billy Eckstine in sheer majesty, expressivity and imposingly deep, sonorous baritone. For as long as I can remember, Eckstine was number one in my book as pinnacle of Afro-American baritones in American Songbook and I still think he was excellent but this guy is a revelation. Of course, Eckstine was not the only one, there were others before and after him, notably Harlan Latimore who back in the early 1930s came extremely close to Crosby in those early Neanderthal days of recordings, when singers had literary two minutes of "vocal refrain" before the orchestra bulldozed them away. 

I first heard Prysock on the album recorded together with Count Basie who had his share of collaborations with greatest vocalists in the business (he also recorded with Eckstine) and vividly remember how impressed I was with that voice. On this particular 1963. album Prysock shines even more - if that's possible - since the concept is built around heartbreaking ballads, encompassing everything from depression to suicide and back. Its mature voice that reflects disappointments and knowledge that comes from lifetime of experiences. God knows what exactly made him such artist but boy was he great and no amount of cheesy strings, harps and angelic choirs can diminish the total effect, which is not unlike Lady Day on "Lady in Satin" but from man's perspective. Strange how certain voices actually magnify their effect when surrounded with such silk & satin cushions - arrangements and orchestrations are very much the product of its time but just listen to Prysock slowly burning trough "Stella by Starlight" or "I'll Be Around" and marvel at the sheer stately beauty of that massive voice. The album opens with "Ebb Tide" and its perfect opener because Prysock comes along like a tide or slowly moving iceberg, he is a force of nature and has total control of the sound - just to show that he knows very well what he is doing, from time to time there is a sensual crack in that voice, kind of saying "this hurts me too much" - with all those famous standards, its great to discover inclusion of old Jewish ballad "Wo ahin soll ich geh'n" (recorded here as "Where can I go" but I knew it as "I Love You Much Too Much" by Alberta Hunter) - it is a perfect late-night listening, what a voice,  never thought I would come to say this but Eckstine sounds like a little pageboy in comparison. 

"Black Coffee" by Peggy Lee (1953)

It took me forever to warm up to Peggy Lee since she emulated you-know-who so much, but eventually with time I came to appreciate (if not exactly love) her. For one thing, hers is art of smoke and mirrors - Lee whispers and croons, rather than bowls listener with sheer power or beauty of the voice - and she was definitely not the first singer who discovered that gentle whisper can be far more effective than a shout (Maxine Sullivan and Lee Wiley did it before). But if the initial success was gimmicky ("Mañana", "Caramba! It's the Samba" and "Chi-Baba, Chi-Baba" were just few of her 1940s hit singles) by early 1950s she somehow metamorphosed into first-class interpreter of American songbook and what distinguish her from the crowd is willingness to experiment and take risks - switching between "Decca" and "Capitol" and back, she always insisted on artistic integrity and employed only the top of conductors, arrangers and producers (Sinatra famously conducted one of her albums).

Her first proper album, "Black Coffee" is still a stunner after all these years -Lee croons and whispers right in your ear, as she creates aural equivalent of smoke rings. Recorded with just a basic quartet and focusing on classy repertoire (Cole Porter, Rodgers & Hart, Johnny Mercer and her old favourite Willard Robison) she gives a lesson of what sophisticated nightclub singer was all about in the early 1950s. Its all very intimate and seductive, but mind you,  some of lyrics sound dated and masochistic today, I think - I hope! - that women today are not such doormats as back in 1953. Not that Lee was doormat at all - just listen how assertive she could get in "Love Me or Leave Me" and its clear that all of this was carefully arranged stage act but she loved to play around with image of soft, vulnerable woman. The original album had eight tracks and was later fattened with four additional songs which perfectly suit the atmosphere and the sound of the original - perhaps the attraction of the album is in its simplicity and late-hours atmosphere, sometimes less is more and maybe this is why the album continued to live on. "You're My Thrill" and "There's A Small Hotel" are absolutely luminous, kind of stop you in the tracks, absolutely hypnotic pieces. 

Children in a war

This is something I encountered in Nagasaki - and it deserves more space than to mention it just in passing sentence - while there, I have visited Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Museum that has quite impressive exhibition that introduces visitors to the life in Nagasaki before Atomic Bomb destroyed the whole city, kind of before-and-after, very interesting and naturally a moving experience. Well, at least for me, some of my fellow visitors didn't like being faced with what is obviously a moral dilemma so I could hear them muttering about exhibition being one-sided, however to be fair I must admit that most of the people simply fell apart. Its one thing when one just reads about it and completely another experience when one can connect faces and the names with this enormous tragedy. I kept myself relatively well together until the very end when this photo really got me: it was a photo taken immediately in aftermath of explosion, when people brought bodies to be cremated and this little boy brought his baby brother with him. Since this is not something kids do just for fun, it must be that little boy probably didn't have anybody else left from his family. Here is what photographer (Joe O’Donnell) had to say about the picture:

“I saw a boy about ten years old walking by. He was carrying a baby on his back. In those days in Japan, we often saw children playing with their little brothers or sisters on their backs, but this boy was clearly different. I could see that he had come to this place for a serious reason. He was wearing no shoes. His face was hard. The little head was tipped back as if the baby were fast asleep. The boy stood there for five or ten minutes. The men in white masks walked over to him and quietly began to take off the rope that was holding the baby. That is when I saw that the baby was already dead. The men held the body by the hands and feet and placed it on the fire. The boy stood there straight without moving, watching the flames. He was biting his lower lip so hard that it shone with blood. The flame burned low like the sun going down. The boy turned around and walked silently away”.

Well, talk about picture worth thousands words - the whole exhibition was heartbreaking enough, but when I encountered this photo, I was already weeping out loud (and I wasn't the only one), the rest of the day I wasn't myself anymore and found very hard to focus on people & work around me, everything seemed so trivial compared to this.

Just before I arrived in Shanghai, I decided to check it out a little bit more on Wikipedia, to at least get some idea what is the city all about. Not surprisingly, I have discovered that in years leading to WW2 China and Japan were in extremely tangled and complex relationship, there was lot of fighting, bombing and whatnot, basically the whole area is a very explosive one and I thought Balkans were dangerous, but boy, we have nothing on Far East. Apparently there was a Japanese attack on Shanghai in 1937. and focus of bombers happened to be Shanghai South Railway Station - Japanese air crafts concluded that huge crowd assembled there must have been retreating soldiers so they bombed the station - unfortunately as it happened, crowd were all civilians trying to escape the city, no army whatsoever.

Moments after massive bombing basically completely destroyed the railway station and people were strewn across the tracks and platform, a cameraman and reporter H. S. Wong arrived on a scene and took this unforgettable picture of a burned and crying baby in the ruins of the station. In confusion and mayhem of circumstances he never found out identity of the child, except that it was eventually carried away on a first aid stretcher. The picture was immediately published all over the world and became known as "Bloody Saturday" - it was incredibly powerful and influential media weapon that finally convinced people that non-interventionism is not really answer. On their part, Japanese authorities claimed that photo was staged - but there were far too many witnesses and photographer has several pictures taken at the same time from various perspectives, so we know its genuine. Just like the picture above, it just breaks my heart, it doesn't matter is it Japanese or Chinese or who in the world, when children suffer in the war it upsets me very much and this is something I can't distance myself from, this is one of the rare occasions where I would get involved totally, without thinking twice. Even the animals have protective impulses towards their offspring, but people are the only species on the planet that enjoy cruelty for cruelty sake. 

I See Asia # 3

And now, something completely different.
Behind me are impoverished Cambodia, Vietnam and Indonesia - from now, your special reporter is sailing around far more interesting places that are not only financially far more prosperous but have lots of history, architecture and culture to explore. Yes, it is really sad that previously mentioned places are in such a bad shape and I am not judging countries by the number of their shopping malls, but enough is enough, I don't get the kick out of someones poverty and found it all not exotic but disturbing.

The first place I saw on this itinerary was Taiwan, which has a very complex background because it apparently belongs to China but its famous political leader Chiang Kai-shek managed to keep it completely separate from the mainland. This has been all completely new to me so I did some research and apparently there was a genuine war going on between two opposite branches: this guy in Taiwan and Mao Zedong in mainland, with Japanese invasion along the way (don't ask, too complicated, how anybody survived is a wonder). In any case, Taipei was a huge city with almost 3 million citizens and magnificent skyline (famous 101-floor tower Taipei 101 appearing like some SF miracle above it all). That particular day it was actually very rainy and I almost wished that I stayed in the bed instead of walking outside in all that out pour + everywhere we went it was very crowded but hey, when will I see Taipei again, I might have as well use this chance. First place I saw was famed The National Palace Museum which has huge collection of art that Chiang Kai-shek took with him from Forbidden City - lots and lots of stunning bronze pieces dating to really awesome times (The Bell of Zhou, The Mao Gong Ding, both 9 century B.C) + some incredible Jade figurines and really beautiful ancient Chinese porcelain on display. However, the place was incredibly crowded - the digital counter at the entrance showed 2 600 visitors and that was just 10 a.m. - so lots of my fellow visitors were alarmed and uncomfortable with all that chaos around us. We sighed with relief as we left the building. Next thing I saw was The National Revolutionary Martyrs' Shrine which was quite impressive but we are westerners and have no idea who were the martyr's in the first place and the walk in the pouring rain already made everybody miserable. The tour guide later apologised for the weather and someone teased him "you are terrible man".

Even the rain couldn't diminish the awesomeness of National Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall which was a huge temple gracing spectacular park, built in the honour of you-know-who. It is fairly new but it looks and feels like something from another times, I must say that this was the first time I have encountered such a structure that appears absolutely impressive and its not from some ancient ruler but from 1970s. Inside there is a very large exhibition about Chiang Kai-shek and his life, it might appear as extravagant to some foreign visitors but I grew up with Yugoslavia treating Tito with the same kind of idol-worshipping so the whole cult of personality business is not so alien to me, I kind of understand it and get what the man meant to local people. 

In all honesty, Naha was actually nothing special but I was so overwhelmed (and overjoyed) with the idea that I arrived in Japan that it didn't matter one bit: instead of going to check out its main attraction (Shuri Castle, left it for another time) I decided to simply walk to the town and explore it the way I like the best, on foot. Along the way I stopped to admire simple little temple (Kume-Shiseibyo) dedicated to philosopher Confucius, it was absolutely perfect spot in the middle of residential area and every inch of the place was carefully arranged, including the far away corner behind it - Japanese have this beautiful aesthetic sense where tiniest place could be lovingly beautified with several stones and plants. Here I must mention perfectly polite Japanese people who shuffled in the crowded streets with utmost elegance and politeness, you never hear one single car honking and little children always nodded respectfully when they saw me. I even treated myself with a lunch in Japanese restaurant and to my horror found out that instead of withdrawing $ 50 I have actually withdrew $ 500 (in Japanese currency) which left me in the shock for the rest of the day, but eventually I just had to accept these things happen when you are tourist. Knowing that Japanese love western music, I have also checked local music shop and found myself utterly confused amongst shelves full of artists unknown to me. Even in Greece I recognised at least one or two names but here it was all Martian to me.

Another Japanese island, this time Fukuoka - this is where I went to see lovely Kushida Shrine which was genuinely beautiful spot, like something out of a dream. Again, polite people everywhere and Cherry trees blossoming all over the place. I even bought little oracle that told me (very appropriately) "Keep in mind to control your temper and things will turn out the way you wish"  which I found very amusing since I do have short fuse. If anything, the group of visitors who swaggered around with me appeared like true Barbarians, talking loudly and being absolutely obnoxious, while locals kept their respectful reserve and didn't even complain when we snapped the photos of a private wedding. I even visited local museum (Hakata Machiya Folk Museum) with its delightful collection of figurines dressed in traditional clothing. At the end we went to see Fukuoka tower which is the tallest seaside tower in Japan - the building is basically steel & glass construction and elevator brings you up to 123 meters from where one can see stunning panoramic views of the whole city and the coast. It is designed to withstand magnitude 7 earthquakes, which is very important in these places as earthquakes are quite frequent. 

Nagasaki of course is world-famous for one thing and that is tragically Atomic Bomb explosion in 1945. We all knew this, of course but the glow of the spring kind of made us forget it as we walked trough beautiful Peace Park with its Fountain of Peace and lots of sculptures donated from all over the world - US, Soviet Union, Brazil amongst many who sent art with strong anti-war messages. Even the place called "Ground zero" (Hypocenter of Atomic Bomb Explosion) had so many Cherry tree blossoming that one gets caught up in the moment and forgets the reasons why we are here. Eventually Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Museum made us all very somber and serious, as this was nothing to laugh about - the exhibition introduces Nagasaki the way it was before the war and later illustrates how the explosion completely destroyed majority of the city, most of them citizens who had nothing to do with the war. I controlled my emotions fairly well until the very end when a certain photo affected me so strong that I fell to pieces (more about that photo another time). I left the museum with a complete conviction that nuclear weapons are immoral, evil and should be forbidden by the whole planet before they cause our destruction. Some of my fellow visitors mumbled that exhibition is one-sided but I was not in the mood to discuss anything with them - we know who threw the bomb at Nagasaki and no amount of discussion can erase this fact. 

Back to China and this time mainland - Shanghai is such a breath-taking experience that I believe that its one of the most exciting places I have encountered in many ways of my globe-trotting. First, its a home to 23 million people. Second, it has spectacular architecture. Third, one can stay here for months and still discover new things, thats how huge the city is. I walked to the city centre and walked and walked on beautiful promenade The Bund before I turned to main shopping street, mind-boggling Nanjing Road which is one the world's busiest shopping streets (I didn't care for shops but had to cross this path on my way to museum) - when the crowd started passing on the traffic lights, it felt as two armies collided. Eventually I found my way to famous Shanghai Museum right in the middle of People's Square, now this has been quite a long walk and I was actually tired when I arrived but whatthehell, here I am and I will walk some more: the museum has a collection of over 120,000 pieces of ancient art and its a marvel that any of them actually survived mid-1960s communist idea of Cultural Revolution where communists intentionally destroyed anything that had to do with the China's past (fabulous, ancient bronze pieces, for example, were melted down) - thanks to private collectors, museum eventually saved many of priceless pieces like ceramics, calligraphy, paintings, jade, coins, ancient seals and furniture. Because this was all a bit too much to take (and my feet were already hurting) I investigated just a few selected exhibitions, like ancient Chinese sculpture and the furniture (simple and elegant structures, no metal nails whatsoever, just selected wood that has to be neither too subdued, nor to showy). Later I still had to walk back and was completely exhausted but happy with what I had seen. This part of Asia is absolutely fascinating and completely different from what I have seen so far. Ah yes, because I am obviously not local and my features are striking contrast in any crowd, I was attacked by streetwalkers left and right, the girls were just throwing themselves at me, not discreetly but rather openly offering business - I guess this is what they expect of foreign visitors. Or at this age I just look as a potential client. 

By some real lucky accident, my very first time in Shanghai happened to be a bit prolonged - under normal circumstances, cruise ships usually stay in port just during a morning or afternoon but here I was for three days yay, so naturally I walked and walked and explored until I dropped from exhaustion. Amongst other things, I treated myself with a red hop on/hop off sightseeing bus, like a real tourist and had a good look at various parts of the town, the best of all being the discovery of area called The City God Temple - it is situated in a oldest part of town, which is extremely picturesque and quite a difference from westernised Nanjing Road - everything here is based on real, historical Chinese architecture and its very, very fabulous. Actually I had just a vague notion where I was and just like Alice in wonderland, I simply followed some path inside, until I found myself on the most stunning market that just went on forever in a labyrinth of shops and magnificent buildings. Strangely enough, I actually didn't do any shopping at all - I simply soaked in the atmosphere, the crowd, the sounds and the smells, the fountains, the tea houses, without actually thinking about necessity of shopping. I even entered the temple of City God itself (lighted some incense in front of the building) and watched with curiosity how the locals pray, pointing incense at four different directions, most of them praying really intensely. Later when I found myself in the new part of the town, with its skyscrapers, shops, metal and glass, they left me completely cold because what I saw previously in Chenghuang Miao district was just too good for words. Unforgettable.