pastimes


In 1920, Mao and his friends established the Cultural Book Society in Hunan. This was to be – through spreading new modes of thought – one part of a larger effort to establish an independent state of Hunan. In each of the books sold, the following notice was placed.

A Respectful Notice from the Cultural Book Society to the Gentleman Who Has Bought This Book

The fact that you, sir, have purchased this book will undoubtedly have a great influence on the progress of your thought, and on that we wish to congratulate you. If, after you have read this book, your unslakeable thirst for knowledge inclines you to buy a few more books to peruse, we invite you, sir, either to come once more to our society to purchase them, or to do so by correspondence. We are prepared to welcome you!

The items which our society has for sale have undergone a rigorous process of selection. They consist exclusively of comparatively valuable new publications (We want nothing to do with stale and outdated thought.) … Our goal is that the thought of everyone in Hunan should progress as yours has done, so as to bring about the emergence of a new culture …

We are profoundly mortified that our abilities are too meagre to shoulder the great responsibility of propagating culture, and we hope that superior men of goodwill from all walks of life will grant us their assistance. If you, sir, can help us by taking the trouble to introduce us by word of mouth, we shall be extremely grateful …

We wish you, sir, continued good health.

Colleagues of the Cultural Book Society

56 Chaozong Streetm Changsha

On my recent overnight flight from China to Australia, I found myself seated in a row of four with two seats free and a woman at the other end of the row. Dinner was eaten, a movie watched and then each of us sttempted to get comfortable for the night. We tried to stretch out on two seats each, without much success. So I suggested she stretch out her legs and lie against the seat backs and I would stretch out in reverse and lie down in the remaining space. So we were able to lie down at full stretch, heads at either end of the row of four seats. I found a pair of smelly socks close to my nose, my consolation being that my socks were even more aromatic beside her nose. But I soon fell asleep. Some hours later I woke to find my hand resting on her somewhat ample thigh. I sheepishly removed it and smiled a good morning.

I was not quite sure what to expect: a slap or a kiss good morning. Instead, she was keen to talk and asked me what I did. I mentioned writing on Marxism and religion, researching in Australia and teaching in China, my children, travel etc. She, it turned out, was the head of a major company, married and with a brood of children. To top it off, she was a fundamentalist Christian who had found the command to obey her husband immensely helpful – she told me with Bible in hand. She was used to calling all the shots, so it was a relief to be able to let him do so some of the time. So on we chatted until the plane landed. But neither of us mentioned my wandering hand or her thigh. At least it broke the ice.

I can say that while teaching in China I am enjoying the process of setting young and active minds on the correct path. To that end, I tell them:

1. The United States is a very strange country, unlike any other. For that reason, they should not generalise from the USA.

2. Europe is a very barbaric place, full of petty tribalisms.

3. Bourgeois (liberal) democracy is a dreadful system, best avoided (actually, they know this already).

4. Australia is neither a Western nor an Eastern country, since it is in the South.

5. Kangaroo meat is very good for you.

Since many of my students will be future government leaders and officials, I hope these items and more will have some effect.

However, I have also learnt a few things from them:

1. Communism is not a rational ideal that you then try to actualise.

2. Communism is not singular but multiple.

3. They work very hard and know much more about the rest of the world than the world knows about China.

4. One’s stomach is the best guide for travelling to different places.

5. Office hours mean I buy them lunch and we talk for more than four hours – about everything.

Many, many years ago my father acquired an old pedal reed organ. Having been constructed some 100 years ago, it had been partially reconditioned in 1962. It’s bellows leaked air, so my father patched up the holes with medical tape. Still, he would play it often enough until his hearing went. After his death, I mentioned to my mother that the organ has some beautiful timber that I would love to use. Initially, she was not so keen on the idea of me dismantling the thing and reusing the wood, so I let the suggestion lie. At last, she agreed that it would perhaps be the best use. But what to make out of it? Obviously, a bench for the kitchen sink.

When it first arrived in the kitchen, after some time under construction, it was a little threadbare:

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But after we completed the finishing touches, it finally began to feel at home:

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It has many features from the old organ, such as the stops and swells:

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And I could not miss the opportunity to find a prominent place for the organ manufacturer’s name:

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As also the agent in Australia:

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Strangely, the sink and its bench are about the same size as the original organ, which now has a new life:

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Having recently demolished our kitchen, I realised how much crap there really is in a kitchen. Endless cupboards made out of some substance – chipboard – that continues to exude fumes for its entire life, a stove, a fridge, a sink, plumbing, benches, tiles, table and chairs … the stream of stuff out was endless. And people thought we had nothing in our kitchen. Some have freezers and dishwashers and ice machines and coffee makers and what have you.

So how much do you really need in a kitchen? No more than three items: a source of water, a bowl to hold water and a fire. That’s it. In fact, most people throughout human history and even today have little more than those three items. All the rest is junk, the detritus of generating needs that we never knew we had.

Whoever uses an air conditioner is a wimp. As the real heat-waves of summer are upon us, many people in these parts flee indoors and turn on the air conditioner. At home, at work, in a car – wherever you happen to be, an air conditioner is available.

But then you miss the glorious feel of summer. The sting of the sun at noon, the smell of air that has been baked, the sweat that cleans out your pores, the indescribable feel of lying in bed naked at night, floating on the heat and drifting off to sleep. Nothing beats the sensation of going for a run or a ride on a 40 degree day. And if you spend all day blasted by an air conditioner, how can you appreciate the sea on a hot evening?

What happens if the air conditioner breaks down, or if the button gets stuck on hot? Having lost the ability to enjoy the heat, let alone tolerate it, you’re stuffed.

‘Don’t swim after eating or you’ll get stomach cramps and drown.’

‘Wait an hour after eating before swimming’.

These and more are part of the common folklore, repeated ad nauseam to children in summer as they holiday by the beach. So the kids fidget and annoy each other before finally being allowed to swim again after what seems like an eternity. We have it from parents, teachers, and pretty much everyone.

It’s complete rubbish. You may as well say, don’t ride your bicycle after eating, or don’t run after eating, or don’t do anything energetic after eating. You might get a stomach cramp and crash your bike, trip over, or some other dire outcome. Actually, it is much like the myth of the common cold – that if you get a chill you might catch a cold. Like that myth, this one too is usually impervious to facts.

As for me, I have swum plenty of times on a full stomach. Not even a twitch in my gut when I do so.

Too often do we neglect the fact that Hegel was German through and through. Every now and then it shows through with one of those sentences that brings you up short. In the midst of his long and rather unoriginal ramble on the question of evil, he writes:

For to err is human and who has not been mistaken about this or that circumstance, about whether there was cabbage or sauerkraut with yesterday’s lunch, and about countless matters of greater and lesser importance? (Elements of the Philosophy of Right, 140(e))

At this time of year, more people than usual tend to stay the night for whatever reason. The polite thing to do as a host is provide clean sheets, clean towels, and a clean bathroom (at least). But then you have to wash the whole damn lot after they leave. So may I suggest a more practical approach: save the washing until after they have left. Who will notice that the sheets have been slept in already, that the towels are a bit on the nose, or that the bathroom has scum and streaks all over it? Alternatively, it may be more practical to keep some linen for guests – just wash it after, say, a dozen guests have used it.

The other day I suddenly realised that this is the first time in four years that I have been home for a full spring and summer. I’m thoroughly enjoying it: the days have that almost indescribable feel of the first heat of summer; the beaches are some of the best in the world in an unpretentious working town; swimming every day in the ocean; and reading Hegel’s Philosophy of Right and Marx’s critique. What more could you possibly want? There’s no other place quite like it.

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Some more pictures from our hike yesterday on a section of the Great North Walk - the last part that runs along some of the beaches around here.

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