It’s time for this blog to cross a few time zones and head to the Caribbean coast of South America. “Torta negra” is the go-to cake for family celebrations in Colombia, if the Internet is to be believed. It’s a fruit cake darkened by caramel (the name means “Black cake”) and it’s lighter in weight and darker in colour than a typical English fruit cake. On the basis of the recipe I started with, from Colombian expatriate Erica Dinho, Torta Negra is a lot less sweet than the average fruit cake over here – although this may vary, since it seems to be another of those bakes where every family has its own recipe.
Erica must have a large family or friendship group, because her recipe is for two substantial cakes at a time. I therefore started by halving her recipe; I’ve also turned the measurements into metric and the US names into English ones. That left the thorny question of the caramel: Erica recommends baker’s caramel or dulce quemado, neither of which I knew how to find (even in the foodie land of North London, where you really can get most things) or molasses, which make me nervous because they have a strong and distinctive flavour of their own which tends to overpower everything else. So I decided to go for making my own caramel, which is messy but not all that hard.
Since there’s a very long waiting time in the middle of this recipe, I’ve split the ingredient lists up according to stage.
Stage 1 – get some fruit macerating
120g pitted prunes
120g dried figs
120 ml port
60 ml rum
Chop up the prunes and figs, then put everything into a tightly sealed jar (I used a Kilner of the sort you use for making jam). Before sealing the jar, do your best to press the fruit down so that as little as possible pokes above the surface of the liquid.
Now leave the fruit to macerate for at least two weeks, turning it every few days to make sure that none of the fruit is simply drying out.
Stage 2 – make some caramel
If you do this immediately before starting to make your cake mix, it will be not too far off the right temperature to add to the mix: you don’t want the caramel to cool past its freezing point the second you add it to your mix, but you also don’t want it so hot that it’s baking the mix the moment it touches it. (By the way, this might be a good time to start preheating your oven, and to get your butter out of the fridge and softening).
15 ml water
15g butter (optional)
Choose a small stainless steel pan. Put in the sugar and water, mix thoroughly, and heat it up, fast at first and then more gently as you’re trying to find the right caramelisation point. It’s going to bubble furiously, but keep stirring it and you’ll eventually get to a point (around 175-180℃, if you have a sugar thermometer) where it turns very dark. Take it off the heat and add the butter and mix thoroughly (the only point of this is it keeps it a bit more liquid).
By the way, you’ll have way more caramel than you needed. When I had used what I neede for the cake, I poured the rest onto a sheet of baking paper: once it had cooled, I broke it up and kept in a jar for future use.
Stage 3 – mix your dry ingredients
½ tsp ground cinnamon
½ tsp baking powder
¼ tsp ground nutmeg
¼ tsp ground cloves
Mix all these together in a bowl.
Stage 4 – make your cake mix and bake
Grease a cake tin and line the base with baking paper. Mine worked fine on a 20cm diameter round springform tin, but I imagine you can use any shape you like.
250g butter, softened
6 medium to large eggs
½ tsp vanilla extract
Cream your butter and sugar together (I use a Kitchenaid stand mixer for this, but if you don’t have one, elbow grease and a wooden spoon works fine). Add the eggs, two at a time, mixing well at each stage. Add the vanilla extract and mix in. Next, put in your dry ingredient mixture and mix thoroughly: you don’t want lumps and you don’t want bits of dry raw flour.
Now add around 2 tbs of the caramel you made above. If you’ve left the caramel long enough for it to solidify, warm it up until it’s the consistency of toothpaste before trying this, or you’ll merely end up with shards of caramel through your mixture.
Take your macerated fruit out of its jar, giving it a squeeze so that you’re keeping as much as you can of the soaking liquid in the jar. Add the fruit to the cake mix and do your best to mix it evenly through the mix.
Put the mix into a tin and bake until the cake passes the usual test of a skewer poked into the middle coming out clean. Erica’s recipe says 1h45: mine was done in 1h15 in a 175℃ fan oven. Everyone’s oven is different, I guess – and I suppose hers might not be a fan oven.
Leave the cake to cool for 10 minutes or so, remove from the tin and leave to cool for another 10, then brush your remaining wine/port mix over the cake, letting it seep in.
Wrap the cake in cling film and foil, leave it to mature for a few days, and serve.
To end with: a few more of the usual in-process shots…
I would love to change our country and our world for the better. But there’s one overriding reason that I don’t go into politics: there are too many things that I think should be done that will never get taken up by any of our major political parties. So whether you agree or disagree with me, I’d love to hear from you.
The UK has a pensions problem. Everyone would agree that it’s a bad idea to let the elderly die in penury, and you have to go a very long way right to find someone who doesn’t think the state should play a part. But the level of the basic state pension is derisory (£4,566 per year in 2019, compared to a median pre-tax income of £29,400). At the same time, the cost of the old age pension is one of the biggest items of government spending – in 2019-20, it’s expected to be £101 billion or around 12% of total government expenditure (which is higher, for example, than education).
And it’s getting worse. People are living longer and requiring more money to be spent on their healthcare. Increased labour mobility has broken up families, destroying the model of multi-generational households and making it hard for people to care for elderly relatives who are now distant.
But there is little political agreement on what to do about it: in fact, there are hardly any ideas for a comprehensive solution. Rather, successive governments of all political flavours have provided a series of kludges: the Thatcher-era push towards private pension provision with “contracting out” and the “state earnings-related pension scheme”, the Blair-era “stakeholder pension schemes”, the “auto-enrolment” workplace pension system of the Cameron-Clegg coalition.
Each of these kludges has piled legislation upon legislation into the pension area. More regulation came about in response to scandals like Equitable Life (where a major pension provider became non-viable because it had not anticipated changes in the financial markets); more still resulted from the decreased trust in financial institutions in the wake of the 2007-8 global financial crisis. The result is a morass of complexity so great as to be almost totally impenetrable to the overwhelming majority of the population. To give you a flavour of how bad it is, here is a typical extract:
The trivial commutation rule will only apply to defined benefit schemes. This is because defined contribution benefits may be taken as an ‘Uncrystallised Funds Pension Lump Sum (UFPLS). You have to add all the benefit values of all types of pension (company pensions/personal pensions/stakeholder pensions/retirement annuities/buy-out plans, but not any state pension) together. If they do not exceed £30,000 trivial commutation may be a possibility. In addition, trivial commutation can apply from age 55, or earlier, if in ill-health.
Do you have the foggiest idea what this is talking about? Because I don’t. I’ve run multi-million pound businesses including subsidiaries of major public companies and I’ve done my own tax return and company VAT returns for years, which I figure puts me in the top 1% of financially literate people in the country. But when it comes to pension documentation, I don’t even come close to understanding enough to make a reasonable decision about anything. I currently have four pension schemes, none of them enormous, accumulated from different jobs. They all send me masses of mandated documentation, all of which is largely incomprehensible. I have no idea whatsoever how to manage these schemes wisely.
Many of the reforms, from Thatcher onwards, have been made in the name of giving consumer choice. But when consumers are utterly unequipped to make any kind of informed choice, that’s a nonsense. The official response to this is to suggest that you get professional financial advice, but that’s simply shifting the problem: consumers are equally unequipped to make a good choice of financial adviser. Take a look at a “find an independent financial adviser” page like this one: I defy you to give me a reliable set of grounds for working out which of these providers are any good.
My one good pensions experience has come not in the UK but in the 18 months that I worked in Singapore in the early 1980s. The system was really simple: I paid what felt at the time like an alarmingly high percentage of my salary into an account held in my name in the “Central Provident Fund”. Had I stayed in Singapore until retirement age, my pension would have been paid out from the fund (since I left the country, they paid out early).
I believe the UK should have a National Pensions Service: a single fund in which every individual has a named account, into which they make substantial contributions from an early age. Everyone should get the same investment return rate: the whole concept of consumer choice and the morass of documentation around it should be abandoned. The concept of a workplace pension should also be abandoned, getting rid of the massive risks for pension-holders of the bigger schemes and the recent onerous bureaucracy of auto-enrolment for small businesses.
This isn’t to say that the private financial services sector has no role to play. I have no problem with anyone being able to make private investments: I just don’t see why they should be subject to any special tax relief. And I also think there could be a role in the National Pensions Service for private investment managers: the NPS could parcel out chunks of the fund for management by private companies, who would tender for the work and would be assessed according to their performance. Their fees, however, should be a small fraction of the 1-2% of capital per year currently charged by the industry.
The level of contribution – and to what extent the state should top up the contributions of those at the lower end of the income scale – is a matter for the usual left-right political debate. But the principles are clear: (a) have a system where the investment returns are the same for everyone; (b) get rid of the titanic confusion levels; (c) get rid of the titanic waste of money currently expended in the financial institutions on management, marketing and compliance as well as on their own salaries and profits.
The transition plan would need a lot of attention (and is probably the hard part of all this). Most probably, a deadline would be set for people to migrate any private schemes to the new NPS, or face loss of their tax advantages – but a softer transition may be more viable.
Are you listening, UK political parties? In the Labour Party, are you too mired in the past glories of the workplace pension to countenance such an idea? In the Conservative Party, are you too much in bed with the Financial Services sector? Or are you both too timid to tamper with something that is so long term and won’t translate into an easy vote-catching slogan?
For the next year or two, I’m planning to explore breads, cakes, pastries and other baked goods from many different countries, including places we don’t normally hear about as well as the obvious ones. Being a rank amateur, will I get to 80 before I give up? I don’t know, but watch this space…
A Plăcintă (the plural is Plăcinte) is a flat pastry or filled bread from Moldova or Romania. It’s a pretty broad term: look up recipes online and you’ll find dozens of different variants: the filling can be sweet or savoury, the dough can be yeasted or not and can be made and rolled in various ways.
For this one, working from a Youtube video from someone called Katy’s Food, I’ve chosen a cheese filling and a yeasted, layered dough, which results in a kind of cheese bread. Each ball of dough is rolled out thinly and wrapped around its filling into a sausage-shape, which is then formed into a spiral before being baked.
The result is a layered, flaky bread that’s very delicious.
Vera, the only Moldovan I know and the person who suggested I try making plăcinte, gave them her seal of approval, although she recommended adding chopped spring onions to the cheese filling and she would have used a medium-soft curd cheese: the nearest you get in London is “twaróg”, which you can find in Polish food shops or larger supermarkets. As far as I can see from the web, quark is similar (though I’ve never tried using it).
I’ve reduced the recipe to make 6 plăcinte, which is what fits into my oven. There’s 100g of flour and 80g of cheese in each one, so they make for a very large snack or a substantial component of a lunch.
600g strong white bread flour
300 ml of warm water (around 40℃)
1/2 tsp salt
1 tsp sugar
8g dried yeast
500g cheese (I used 300g feta and 200g grated cheddar, but see above)
2 large eggs
Method I won’t give instructions for bread-making basics like mixing, kneading, proving, testing for doneness: if you’re already a bread-maker, you’ll have your favourite methods for these; if you’re not, this probably isn’t the right recipe to start on. The best book I’ve found so far is Andrew Whitley’s Bread Matters.
Weigh out and mix flour and salt
Mix warm water, sugar and yeast, leave 10 minutes or so until foamy
Combine wet and dry mixes and knead until you have an elastic dough. then leave to rise
While the dough is rising, make your filling. If using a hard cheese, start by grating it, then beat the eggs and combine them with the cheese(s) to form a paste.
Cut the dough into six pieces (it’s probably a good idea to weigh these out to ensure they’re all the same)
On a floured surface, roll a piece out into as thin a circle or rectangle as you can manage. Transfer the circle of dough onto a large plate or other surface, and brush with a thin later of oil until the surface is covered. Repeat for the other pieces, stacking the circles on top of each other.
And now the tricky part of the recipe: take your first circle of dough and transfer it to your original surface, stretching it with your fingers as far as you dare without tearing it. Take a sixth of your filling, spread it into a sausage the length of one end of a circle of dough, then roll it up into a cylinder. Now form the cylinder into a spiral and transfer to a baking tray lined with baking paper or parchment.
When you formed all six plăcinte, leave them to prove
Brush with beaten egg
Bake at 180℃ fan (mine took around 20 minutes, but your oven may differ: I get the distinct impression that mine runs hotter than most.
Finally, here are some photos at various stages of the process:
“If you only visited Shanghai, you would leave thinking that China is undoubtedly bound for greatness.” After a day and a couple of nights in the last city of our brief tour, I can’t sum it up any better than Rob Gifford, who had been a China expert for decades when he wrote his superb travelogue China Road in 2008. You can’t help but be swept up in the sheer brash optimism of the place, the bright lights, the bustling crowds, the sense of boundless opportunity.
Shanghai reeks of the scent of money being made. In any restaurant of mid-price range and up, you’ll see mixed groups of Westerners and Chinese, most usually businesspeople stitching deals together – or, more accurately, lest we forget that business isn’t simply a series of deals, simply getting on with managing their joint ventures. A typical snippet of conversation, overheard in a decidedly not-top-end dumpling restaurant, was this vote of thanks from a German accented man to his Chinese hosts: “thank you for facilitating this construction project, both by official and unofficial means.” In our brief stay, without making any particular efforts at an inventory, we came across a chemical engineer, a conference organiser, executives from the automotive and semiconductor industries.
The most obvious manifestation of Shanghai’s go-get-em atmosphere is the city lights, and the best place to see them is from somewhere high on the Bund, the former trading area of the foreign concessions (we were at the smart Sky Bar on the roof of the somewhat elderly-looking Roosevelt Hotel, but I’m sure there were dozens of other possible places). The neon glitters and dazzles for kilometres each side of the Huangpu River, much of it in building-sized animations: a meteor shower here, a moving figure there, the “Welcome to Shanghai” slogans on top of the 632 metre Shanghai Tower (the second tallest in the world). On Nanjing Road, the city lights are of a different kind: kilometres of high end retail, the ground floor lights spilling opulence onto the pavements, the product images on the upper floors blazing out their consumerist messages, the quality of the photography up to the highest international standards. And the shops get as high end as the proprietors can manage, from the “Starbucks Reserve Roastery” (I assume some superior form of Starbucks) to the Maserati dealership.
But the busy, get-on-with-it atmosphere shows up in improbable places. The Jing’an Buddhist Temple isn’t particularly venerable, but it’s large and thriving, with new buildings and new statues added to the extraordinarily beautiful pair of jade buddhas that are its crown jewels (it’s often known as the “Jade Buddha Temple”). It’s also obviously a working monastery: you walk past groups of monks chanting, copying out scriptures, setting up votive incense sticks and generally going about their business. This is 21st century China, however, so you also see them with heads buried in their cellphones – a common complaint that the Chinese older generation make about today’s young people.
The game has winners, losers and people in-between. You may not see many of the losers, but we certainly saw the winners in the restaurant we went to on the Bund, and we talked with one young woman who earns a decent living in her adequate day job, but who dreams of being a businesswoman and is unsure how to climb the career ladder. We met another in-betweener in hilariously scary circumstances, when our Chinese Uber-equivalent failed to show up, so our guide hailed a public taxi. The driver confessed that this was his first day driving a cab, and it can’t have been many days into his driving career, as he barely had clutch control of the car, stalling several times in our 40 minute journey. He was clearly terrified of the fairly aggressive lane-changing tactics needed for the Shanghai rush hour, with our guide coaching him on which lane to change into as we went. But we arrived at our show in time (albeit only just), and if he doesn’t crash his taxi, he’ll probably be fine in a month’s time. I certainly hope so.
Broadly, it must be said, the transport infrastructure seems to work. The big expressways make traffic relatively OK during normal times, while the rush hour is no worse than, say, London or New York. Parking is thin on the ground, but not the disaster it is in Beijing. One local complained to us that to save fuel, the maglev train to the airport doesn’t run at full speed except in peak hours – it runs at “only” 300 km/h, the speed of the bullet trains. And once again, I can’t help being struck by the fact that things work. The airport is well laid out, the immigration and security systems run as smoothly as you could imagine: you cannot escape the contrast of the experience to that of the London airports, with their abysmal layout optimised for shopping, not flying, or of Los Angeles, with its random disorganisation and its casual disregard for passenger inconvenience.
Shanghai still has things you won’t easily find elsewhere. The food really is great, from the restaurants to the moon cake vendors (the term “moon cake” here seems to mean anything that’s baked and round, whether savoury or sweet: the pork moon cake we had was like the flakiest, most mouth-watering sausage roll I’ve ever had). The acrobatics show at the end of our novice taxi driver’s journey was a dazzling display of strength and precision body control. The “free silk factory tour” was an effective fifteen minute zoom through the process of how silk goes from worm to garment (vegetarians look away, because the silkworms do die in the process). However, it was free only if you had the strength to ignore the bewildering array of silk garments, bedding and other products in the huge showroom behind. I don’t imagine that many people do: we certainly didn’t. The posh hotels are super hi-tech: we heard from one traveller who ordered a room service coffee and was astonished when his room bell rang and he opened the door to a robot, which dutifully brought the coffee into his room, left it on his table and departed.
Will China become truly great? The picture that Shanghai paints is of a country that will continue its break-neck pace of progress out of poverty and become a beacon of prosperity for the world. Or will China implode from the contradictions of its sclerotic, corruption-ridden political system, or from the sheer size of the environmental challenges it faces? I don’t think anyone can be sure, but I’ll point you again in the direction of Rob Gifford, who explores the question thoroughly and thoughtfully in China Road. Broadly, we’ve only seen the good bits of China on our travels, so I can’t really judge. But after reading a decent amount about China and seeing it at close quarters for the first time, I understand a huge amount more about the country, and particularly how much of what it does is an inevitable consequence of its history. It’s been fascinating, and I’d like to be optimistic.
The river Li, in Guangxi province, meanders gently through a bountiful land: a land filled with rice, water chestnuts, kumquats, oranges, long beans, taro and dozens of other crops. When you see a field being hoed before planting, the soil itself seems to invite you to grasp its richness. The backdrop to this fertility is of the most dramatic kind: tens of thousands of sheer limestone peaks, all but the most vertical overhangs covered in lush green forest.
The Li valley isn’t the only karst formation in the world, and it’s by no means the only beautiful river valley in China. But its combination of lush fertility and the extraordinary backdrop is perhaps unique: certainly unique enough to be printed billions of times on the country’s 20 yuan banknote and to attract throngs of tourists – nearly 30 million a year, 90% of them from the rest of China. Maybe it’s something spiritual that attracts them: if you’ve spent time in Asia, you’ll understand that when you see the lush green of a paddy field, the stems groaning with rice waiting to be harvested, there’s a deep, visceral feeling that all’s well with the world.
In point of fact, not everything is well with the world. All that lush produce is coming from smallholdings and the need to keep food prices low for a burgeoning urban population means, as it has often done through history, that farmers barely earn enough to feed themselves: most farming families require other sources of income. There are government subsidies, but in spite of the huffing and puffing from both Donald Trump and Barack Obama before him, they sound painfully low to me: our guide told us that a mu of land near Guilin, Guangxi’s capital, will attract just 100 yuan (in English: the subsidy for an acre is £67), although subsidies in the famous rice terraces of Longqi attract up to 100 times that, since they are expensive to farm and rightly considered a priceless tourist attraction. And while Guilin and Yangshuo (the town at the other end of the most popular Li River cruise route) look bustling and prosperous, you still catch snatches of underdevelopment and poverty: Yangshuo’s main food market was packed with wonderful fresh fruit and vegetables, but hygiene standards were indifferent. In another Yangshuo market, just before opening time, I saw a number of women crouched among the refuse sacks, reclaiming the contents of half-eaten lunch boxes: one hopes it was for animal feed, but I felt alarmingly uncertain.
The truth is, though, that these are isolated instances in what looks like an improving picture. The main food streets are incredibly busy, which attests to tourist money flowing into the local economy: there are lots of specialities made with local produce, amongst which the large scale hand-chopping of chilies, garlic and ginger into the fiery pickled paste beloved by Guangxi foodies is a delightful sight. Local young people say that their parents and especially grandparents are continually enjoining them to appreciate what they have, compared to the incredible levels of hardship those grandparents had to survive. And it’s become possible to leave government service to be an entrepreneur: we bought tea from a former English teacher who had become fed up with the ten hour working days and low pay and had joined his family in setting up what appeared to be a successful tea business (before he retrained as a tea master, he confessed, none of them had any prior experience). At Guilin’s “Elephant Trunk Hill”, the stall renting traditional dress for children to pose in photos was doing a steady trade. Elephant Trunk Hill, by the way, gets lit up at night in spectacular fashion, with constantly changing colours.
The name Guilin (桂林), by the way, means “Osmanthus forest” – the second kanji character is delightfully pictorial. No, I hadn’t heard of the Osmanthus tree either before I came here, but it’s a dark leaved thing which provides masses of tiny yellow flowers which are incredibly aromatic and make a delicious tea.
One of the signs of increasing prosperity is a kind of slow motion building boom. Most rural families aspire to a bigger and better home. They have enough land to build one on their plot, but they’re short of ready cash to buy building materials: whenever they get a bit of spare cash, they plough it into the next step of building their new home. As a result, you see large numbers of part-finished houses, anywhere from concrete shells with no walls yet through to places that are obviously being lived in but still need work. Another impressive sight is watching a rice paddy being blitzed by a kind of miniature combine harvester: it’s only a tiny thing, not much over a couple of metres in length, but it powers through a small rice field leaving a pile of stalks behind, arriving at the end of its trip to disgorge its pickings into the awaiting farmers’ rice sacks. It bears no comparison with the giant tractor-driven behemoths that you’d see in an English wheat field (let alone its American equivalent), but it’s small, neat and effective.
But setting aside such musings about China’s economy and prospects, the main impression that Guangxi on one is the extraordinary beauty of its scenery. As someone with pretensions to being a serious photographer, I normally spend my life looking around a landscape looking for a good angle. Here in the Li River valley, the lovely slow-flowing river and those amazing karst pinnacles mean that you can stand somewhere and pivot full circle with a good angle for a stunningly framed shot in almost any direction you look. If this place isn’t on your bucket list yet, it should be.
If China’s first bucket list destination is the Great Wall, the second is most surely the Terracotta Army: the 8,000 soldiers of the army of Qin (pronounced “chin”) Shihuang, the first emperor to unite China, each exquisitely sculpted to match the features and accoutrements of an individual soldier, their ranks accompanied by chariots and horses. The site is a much more recent addition to bucket lists than the Great Wall: although the existence of the tomb was written in historical records, the first discovery in modern times was made in 1974 when a farmer came across pottery fragments while digging a well.
There are delicate ironies at work here. When Mao undertook the wholesale destruction of ancient Chinese culture, his prototype was none other than Qin Shihuang, whose drive to expunge Confucianism and impose an even more rigid “Legalist” system included the wholesale execution of the intellectuals of his time (Mao boasted that he was repeating Qin’s work but on a massively greater scale). One can only imagine the thoughts of Zhao Kangmin, the official in charge of the local cultural centre, at gradually realising the importance of the find at a time when the Cultural Revolution was still in progress, albeit in its last throes.
The fate of the whole enterprise is an irony in itself: Qin thought he was creating an immortal monument to the creator of an eternal dynasty, but only a few years after his death, his heir Fusu was dead and the Terracotta Army had been smashed to pieces by peasant rebels. So far, if I heard this right, only one kneeling archer has been recovered unbroken: the remaining figures on show so far have been reassembled from fragments; the zone of partially assembled figures is known locally as “the hospital”, including the “intensive care” unit for the most difficult cases. A high percentage of the army remains asleep underground, awaiting the day when archaeologists get round to awaking them and making them whole once more. It’s like the world’s largest jigsaw puzzle, with added clues provided by proximity but with no certainty that there aren’t pieces missing. These days, computer imaging and matching is used to help the solution, but that hasn’t stopped the pace of restoration from slowing in recent years due to resource constraints (as well as, presumably, a certain amount of fatigue).
The whole site reinforces the two main themes about China to emerge from our trip so far: scale and craftsmanship. The scale is vast from your very first moment when you enter the aircraft-hangar-like structure that covers “Pit 1”, the largest of the three pits excavated so far, and see the massed ranks of soldiers (and of visitors, anything up to 60,000 a day of them). But that pales into insignificance when you open Wikipedia and read that the whole necropolis has been estimated at 98 square kilometres – a not-much-scaled-down model of the imperial compound. This includes Qin’s tomb itself, which has not yet been excavated, ostensibly because of fears over the difficulty of the task and contamination from the two rivers of mercury which flowed through it, although I wonder whether superstition plays a part here somewhere.
However much you’ve heard in advance, the artistry and craft of the sculptures take your breath away. The facial features are so vividly rendered that at any moment, you expect one of the soldiers to step out and start a conversation with you: apparently, this actually happened a few years back when a young German, suitably clothed and face-painted, stood motionless in the army, unnoticed for several hours until a visitor was spooked out by seeing a pair of eyebrows move (the impostor refused to go quietly and had to be forcibly removed by security guards). Armour, clothing and body shapes show gradations in status: particularly notable are the ribbons, upturned shoes, expensive fish-scale armour and generous pot belly of the senior officer (the Chinese call it “corruption belly”). But perhaps the most telling detail of all is the perfectly reproduced pattern of stones set into the sole of the kneeling archer’s foot to provide grip – “Qin Dynasty Adidas”, as our guide put it. The detail of the archer’s hands is also extraordinary.
In the absence of the Terracotta Army, most Western visitors probably wouldn’t bother to visit Xian, although it has some other interesting features. The inner city is one of only a few in China whose ancient city walls survive (like Pingyao, only an order of magnitude bigger), and it has fine examples of the ubiquitous pairing of drum tower and bell tower (the former would be used to tell the time in the morning, the latter in the evening). As the head of the Silk Road, Xian was the jumping off point for many of the travellers who visited India and brought back Buddhism, so there are a couple of significant pagodas: we visited the Small Goose Pagoda, thirteen stories high and unbroken in a millennium and a half of earthquakes.
There’s also a thriving Muslim quarter, which throngs with food stalls and which provided the first three stops on a food tour provided by some people called “Lost Plate”. This turned out to be brilliant: we were spirited around various food venues in the city by tuk-tuk (an electric motor-cycle with a carriage on the back just about capable of holding four people, and able to navigate the tightest of back streets). They chose exactly the kind of places you would never find on your own: a specialist in “biang biang” noodles, whose name comes from the noise made as the noodle-maker bashes the dough while hand-stretching it, an elderly retired man who produced skewers of sumptuous barbecued meat, an amazing place serving “soup dumplings” (think of a large raviolo whose filling has released liquid so that you bite the parcel open and suck the soup out before eating the rest of the dumpling).
Part of the reason that you wouldn’t find these places on your own, it was explained to us, is that Xian is becoming a victim of its own success: with the large number of visitors and a growing economy, rents on the main food streets are skyrocketing, forcing smaller traders into the side-streets or, as in the case of our noodle makers and the barbecue man, back into their own homes. Certainly, Xian shows more signs of being settled down than Beijing does: there isn’t the same manic pace of construction everywhere, the air pollution felt far less severe (to the surprise of our guide, who expected everything in the capital to be better) and the roads far more in harmony with the number of cars: they’re astonishingly wide, many of them with four lanes in either direction. When I suggested that bits of the city must have been flattened to make way for them, I was roundly disabused: apparently this kind of road width has been a feature since ancient times. And the modern world is definitely visible: the road our hotel was on was cellphone city, lined with dozens of shops.
If Qin Shihuang has made it to his idea of the afterlife, he is undoubtedly filled with dismay at having to do so with an army that is a shattered, minuscule remnant of its original glory. But perhaps he can take heart that he is still considered the founder of a modern, united China. And he would surely be amazed at the 12 million people metropolis that his capital Xian – the city whose name means “Western Peace” – has become.
There’s a lot you know about Beijing that doesn’t really hit you until you get here for the first time. So I knew how big and populous the city is, but I was still struck by the kilometres you can drive with high rise buildings stretching either side of you as far as the eye can see. I knew that traffic was supposed to be a problem, but I didn’t really clock the extent until we sat in a jam for fifteen minutes to cover a couple of hundred metres. I’ve read a decent amount about Chinese history, certainly enough to know that this was an ancient and magnificent civilisation, but that didn’t really prepare me for the sheer scale of places like the Temple of Heaven or the Forbidden City.
They do things at scale here. Panjiayuan Market is simply enormous, with hundreds and hundreds of small stallholders plying their wares. The variety matches the size: you can find anything from a Ming vase to an old camera to an abacus or a mahjong set, as well as any knick-knacks you’ve ever dreamed of. The vast majority of it, we were told with some relish, is utterly fake. What is not fake, however, is the Chinese love for arts and crafts. The dozens of rows of stalls selling oddments to decorate your mantlepiece were matched by the numbers devoted to such things as paper, paint and brushes for calligraphy, soapstone for carving seals, driftwood to be made into sculpture, donkey hide to make shadow puppets as well as artists practising all those media and many more.
The romantic English view of Beijing is of the city of the million bicycles. That’s not how it works any more: everyone’s aspiration is to own a car, and nearly six million do. The resulting rush hour traffic is the stuff of nightmares, and the city hasn’t really grown a parking infrastructure to match vehicle ownership, so it’s broadly impossible to make a quick stop somewhere on your way from a to b. The other effect is that the air pollution can be pretty bad – the city is shrouded in a semi-permanent eye-stinging, throat-rasping haze that reminds me a great deal of Los Angeles on a bad day. The authorities, we were told, have now limited car registration permits in the city to 1,000 a year – a tiny fraction of the demand – and there’s been a huge growth in the subway system, but the average commute still runs at well over an hour. I suspect that the feel is something like 1960s London: there’s new wealth, there’s optimism and there’s steeply increasing car ownership in a city that isn’t quite sure how to deal with it.
An early evening stroll round Houhai Lake (pronounced Ho Hay, the name means “Back Sea”, the lake having supposedly been formed by an upstream flood from the ocean) gives a good viewing of the Chinese at leisure. The area around the lake is packed with bars and restaurants, and the surrounding lakeshore is filled with people of all ages: courting couples, the elderly, young groups of friends, parents taking their baby for a stroll, you name it. Several points around the lake count as Beijing beauty spots, and I saw several instances of girls being photographed by a friend in poses that looked destined for whatever is the Chinese equivalent of Tinder. The sheer optimism of the place is inescapable: it was a bigger concentration of people looking generally cheerful (aided only marginally, if at all, by alcohol) than I’ve seen in many a year.
The concrete overload of Beijing’s forest of high rise buildings is moderated – for the tourist, at least – by the loveliness of its open spaces. The Temple of Heaven is striking as a monument, but is perhaps even more notable for the green space around it, while the Summer Palace is set in a stunning park and lake. Like anything the Chinese do that’s an important public space, both are vast.
The Temple of Heaven is the Ming emperors’ place of ceremonial sacrifices to the dragon, who is a godlike spirit with two crucial properties: (1) he controls the weather (i.e. life and death in a mediaeval farming community) and (2) he isn’t tied to any specific religion – especially useful in an empire covering vast territories where Taoism, Buddhism and all sorts of older faiths abounded, but *everyone* knew who the dragon was. For a non-specialist, the architecture isn’t fundamentally different in style from what you’d see in Japan or Korea, the distinguishing feature being the size: substantial palace living quarters, massive kitchens where sacrifices were prepared, an immense plaza for the emperor to be carried up to the imposing “Hall of prayer for good harvest” where the ceremonies took place and which Beijingers consider the true icon of the city – even Mao, that scourge of ancient culture, embraced it as his own rather razing it to the ground. You can see how central the whole ceremony was to the royal family’s legitimacy: if you can intercede with the heavenly powers who control the harvest of every faith in the land, you are a divine ruler indeed.
The Summer Palace has a far more earthly provenance: it was rebuilt in 1895 for the benefit of the dowager empress Cixi (pronounced tsee-she), using money embezzled from naval supply funds. Cixi appears to have been quite a character: starting life as a serving girl, she became a concubine of the emperor, and then empress dowager in 1861, when the emperor died and her son, only a child, inherited the throne (he didn’t live long, either). She duly ousted the various regents and proceeded to control the whole of China until her death, almost half a century later. The Summer Palace is set in a park surrounding a great boating lake, which includes a stunning lotus garden; it was originally one of a complex of many palaces around the lake until the British and French burnt them down in the Second Opium War. The park boasts several architectural jewels, from the 17 span bridge (a favoured spot for kite-fliers – seeing the kites soaring hundreds of metres high is a sight worth the trip in itself) to the Long Corridor (long means 700 metres) to the stunning views from a splendid Buddhist temple set high above the park, to the oddity of a marble river steamboat (no-one in China had the technology to build a real one). The Opium Wars, by the way, may be a footnote of history to most British, but they’re recent and very real to the Chinese. If you imagine, for a moment, that a foreign power is pushing hard drugs to a majority of your population and then, when you attempt to outlaw the drugs, comes in and burns down your capital, only agreeing to go home when your government permits the trade to be restored, it’s not hard to see why the memory remains vivid a century or so later.
You can’t go to Beijing without visiting Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City, but I have to admit to being disappointed. Once again, what impresses is the scale: the queue waiting to enter Mao’s mausoleum, stretching for over a kilometre around the building, the expanse that is the square (largely empty, barred to entry by rather niftily designed interlocking barriers). The Forbidden City feels as if size was the only measure of awesomeness that mattered to the Ming emperors – each gigantic courtyard leads to an impressive palatial building with an open front to display the goings on inside to the assembled courtiers or visitors, which in turn leads to the next super-sized courtyard. (To be fair, although our itinerary lasted the whole morning, there was only time to stop at one of the many museums along the way, a selection of outrageously ornate clocks, much loved by the 18th and 19th century nobility.) It also feels like an unremitting onslaught of buildings and paving stones: the Ming emperors were terrified of assassins hiding behind trees, so you don’t see any green until the very last, innermost courtyard (when you get there, it’s quite impressive, including the massive trunk of a five hundred year old cypress). It takesa trip to the top of Jingshan Park, the hill behind the Forbidden City, to get to the shelter of enough greenery to mitigate the smog and to enable you to fully appreciate the size of what you’ve just been through. Mao, by the way, never entered the Forbidden City, due to some bizarre superstition about both him and the Ming emperors being dragons.
Getting around is a mixed experience. As well as traffic being terrible, finding a taxi in Beijing is less than straightforward: after a few attempts, the guy on our hotel front desk eventually gave up and booked us their equivalent of an Uber, asking to be repaid when we returned after dinner – which worked fine. What’s impressive is the Beijing subway: modern, clean and with enough English that you can find your way around straightforwardly enough. The fifteen-year-old main line Beijing-Xi (Beijing West) station is spotlessly clean but shorter on English than the subway, until you get to the final waiting room – so if you don’t have the benefit of a guide, you’ll need to know your train number. The 300 km/h bullet trains are enviable, whisking you smoothly out of town.
You can eat well at any price in Beijing, and we sampled everything from steamed buns at a street food stall to high end gastronomic fare at the Peninsula Hotel. Unexpectedly, our best meal was our last: dinner at the mid-priced (300 yuan for two) restaurant near our hotel, whose traditional Beijing food was a riot of flavours and aromas. Even less expected was the delight of a trip to see shadow puppetry. We’d seen some of the puppets at Panjiayuan Market on our very first day and thought they were a bit basic. Seeing them in action showed that they can be anything but: in the hands of a master, these apparently simple shapes turned are capable of all sorts of dance moves and imitations of the movement of animals, which were used to tell stories with wit and charm. The creation of a demon gradually turning itself from a skeleton into a beautiful woman, complete with the dolling up process at its make-up table and mirror, was quite virtuosic: a happy reminder that there remains plenty of culture which escaped Mao.
Last month, I made my first visit to Russia, and on a first look, Ekaterinburg could be any European city. There are shops, cafés, banks, office blocks, advertising hoardings, people going about their business, dressed in sensible warm clothing against the chilly autumn weather. The most immediately obvious difference from what I’m used to is the prosaic fact that everything is in cyrillic script.
There are differences in culture and architecture, of course: the glitter of golden onion domes from many of the churches, the Wedgwood-china plasterwork of the Sevastyanov House. And there is a lot of land: Sverdlovsk province has a population of 4.3m the size of (half the population of London) in a land mass of 194,800 km² (nearly as large as the whole of Great Britain). The result is a preponderance of wide boulevards and generous green spaces – albeit not at their best in grey-skied drizzle of early autumn, before the trees have turned properly to gold. Ekaterinburg is a steel town, and those wide boulevards are well used by a lot of cars, with seemingly less congestion than that number would cause in an older, narrow-streeted European city.
There are, however, visible signs that all is not well with the economy. I saw two building sites, one of them huge, where work simply seemed to have stopped altogether, presumably from lack of funds, their giant cranes simply sitting there. The city’s trams look like they haven’t been replaced in many decades, and the cars are notably older than I’m used to. There’s virtually no sign of Russian-made vehicles. There are some fine looking shops, but nothing approaching the retail density that I’d expect in the centre of a Western European city (to be fair, this might be because the retail has all migrated to shopping malls that I didn’t see).
One institution was definitely thriving, which was the Ekaterinburg State Academic Opera and Ballet Theatre, my hosts (who paid for my trip). They seemed to be at the centre of things in a way that’s unthinkable for an opera company back home: Thaddeus Strassberger, the American director of the opera I saw, was bowled over by the fact that the lead up to the production received significant news coverage and that random strangers in the shops knew who he was. Wages are low for singers – a third, I was told, of their equivalents in Moscow, I was told – so the theatre has a large roster of singers under contract. The evidence of my ears says that the quality is consistently very high; the equivalent singers in Western Europe would undoubtedly be travelling from their homes to get the best work; job mobility is presumably lower here.
Russia isn’t really making a big effort to welcome international tourists. The visa process works well enough, but is demanding and inflexible – for example, as a company director, I was required to submit three months worth of personal bank statements and a list of all countries travelled to in the last ten years, and to specify precise travel dates and address in Russia. Immigration officials don’t speak anything other than Russian (or don’t admit to it, anyway) and airport signage is erratic. Ekaterinburg doesn’t feel as if many foreigners go there. Even figuring out its latinised name is confusing: the cyrillic Е is pronounced “ye”, so it’s fairly random as to whether it gets spelt “Ekaterinburg” or “Yekaterinburg” (the cyrillic letter for an “e” sound as in “Edward” is “Э”). There are, however, plenty of visitors from elsewhere in Russia, with two notable historical sites.
Sverdlovsk province is the birthplace of Boris Yeltsin, and Ekaterinburg contains the Yeltsin Presidential Center, modelled on the concept of Presidential Centers in the US. Behind the massive statue of Yeltsin and the very up-to-the-minute (and somewhat overpowering) multimedia displays lurk some fascinating artefacts: for any child of the cold war who lived a teenage-hood in fear of a nuclear holocaust, it’s quite a jolt to see the suitcase with the nuclear trigger that was handed from Yeltsin to Putin on 31st December 1999. Yeltsin’s handwritten letter of resignation to Gorbachev is also on display – or, at least, Yeltsin’s personal copy.
The Ipatiev House in Ekaterinburg was the site of the murder of the last Tsar, Nicholas II, and his family. The house was destroyed in 1977 (on Yeltsin’s orders), but after the Romanovs’ controversial canonisation in 2000, it was decided to build a church on the site: this is now the “Church on Blood in Honour of All Saints Resplendent in the Russian Land” (or, more commonly, the “Church on the Blood”). It’s a bizarre place to Western eyes: we are well used to seeing the Romanovs in standard fin-de-siècle garb, so seeing them transplanted into ancient Orthodox iconography, with its robes and massive gold backgrounds, strikes a strange note.
Both the Yeltsin Center and the Church on the Blood are more notable for the things they don’t say than for the things they do. The Yeltsin Center is conspicuously free of vodka bottles or references to his handling of privatisation and the subsequent rise of the oligarchs: the hagiography of the man as the proud standard bearer of the long march to freedom must not be disturbed. The Church on the Blood is equally free of references to the fact that Nicholas was a weak tsar who repeatedly failed to take action that could have reformed his country and avoided the revolution and the subsequent Soviet rule. Neither site shows any intention to give a nuanced view of complex events, and talking to Russians confirms that such a view is not what they are taught in school (not, I hasten to add, that we in Britain can hold ourselves up as models of this).
But while it may not be an obvious place to visit, the city looks very liveable. The picture of a lone kayaker on the river Iset will stay with me as an image of a calm in a bustling, industrial city.
In Malta, there is a unique sense of continuity over a very long time. Look at the Ġgantija and Tarxien megalithic temple complexes, over 5,000 years old, then go into downtown Valletta and see the newest construction or restorations, and you’re looking at the same creamy sandstone, fashioned into imposing structures. In the countless changes over the millennia of who’s been in charge, you can’t suppress the feeling of a resilient people that sticks to its traditions.
Malta is strategically placed to command the key shipping route between Eastern and Western Mediterranean, so much so that it has been a fortress island for much of its history. The mediaeval battlements were made obsolete by the arrival of heavy artillery, so what you see today is largely a product of the 17th century, the apogee of the rule of the Knights of the Hospital of St John, tasked by the Vatican with defending the West against the Turks. Malta’s unique topography – fingers of land jutting into the ocean enclosing deep water harbours – combines with the impressive military engineering and the continuity of architectural style to produce spectacular views from a plethora of viewpoints and angles in the city. Angled walls, staircases, bridges interweave to provide patterns that would do Escher proud, outlined in sharp contrast against the hard light of the Mediterranean sun.
To describe the Order of St John, three words spring to mind: Catholic, rapacious and rich. And the baroque era being what it was, that means gold in the decorations, in prodigious amounts. St John’s Co-Cathedral in Valletta is a riot of ornate gilt. Whether you consider it magnificent glory or gaudy frippery, there’s no denying the outstanding workmanship or the sheer scale of the effort that went into its creation. St. John’s is by no means the only example: if you try to navigate by seeing a giant dome and assuming that it’s St John’s, you’re doomed, because there are several of similar size.
Take the half hour ferry to Gozo and head for the Citadel, a typically Maltese mix of religion, military and scenic setting: the cathedral in the middle of the stronghold is another ecstasy of gold, together with glorious painting. You walk on an imposing array of tombstones, each inlaid with its particular marble version of a memento mori – a scythe, a skull, even a full skeleton. Back on the main island, stop off at the fine botanical gardens that adjoin the St Anton Presidential Palace, step into the (curiously unguarded) courtyard of the palace itself and take a moment to look inside the Chapel of Our Lady of Pilar to admire the frescoes. It’s a tiny baroque gem.
Each of the congregations of these churches seems to have its own identity, which it delights to celebrate with its own feast day. If you ask the question “when is the feast?”, the answer is either “which one?” or “every day”, the correct question being “which village has a feast today?”. Feasts seem to be characterised by (a) multi-coloured fairy lights on the front of the church/cathedral and (b) fireworks, both night time and in daylight – we were somewhat spooked on our first arrival in Valletta by what sounded for all the world like a re-run of a World War II raid but was in fact the one-week-ahead pre-feast feast in honour of St Joseph, at the cathedral in the suburb of Msida.
A word for the unwary. Malta is without question the most difficult place I have ever tried to navigate around by car. It’s partly because of the language: Maltese is what linguists call a “contact language”, an unfathomable mixture of Arabic and Italian, with bits of Spanish, French and English thrown into the pot for good measure. The result is that road signs tend to have two or three different names for the same place. The difference between Mdina, Medina and L’Imdina is just about navigable at speed; the difference between Victoria and Rabat (in the middle of Gozo) is not, especially given that there’s another Rabat on the main island. But also, the Maltese share the Italian penchant for lulling you into a false sense of security by providing a series of road signs to your intended destination, only to abandon you at some critical junction where a mistake can take you ten minutes out of your way. For a laugh, by the way, switch on a Tom Tom sat nav system and enjoy its attempts at pronouncing Maltese names.
But for me, the defining term for the Maltese is “resilient”, and the place to see it is the National Military Museum in Fort St Elmo, at the tip of Valletta. State of the art A/V tells the story of survival through a series of sieges of ever-increasing ferocity. Like much of Malta, the buildings around you are a strange juxtaposition of immaculately modern and somewhat ramshackle, with outbreaks ofjust plain derelict. But remember that this is an island that was collectively awarded the George Cross for its fortitude in surviving month after month of intense German air bombardment. Malta may be most often seen as a sun-and-sea destination, but it’s a place full of history, a place to make you think.
I campaigned for Britain to stay in the EU, and I’m extremely upset that we voted to leave. But the fact of leaving isn’t the thing that’s most depressing: far worse is what it has told me about our democracy. Successful Leave campaigners should be every bit as worried as I am about some of the things I’m about to discuss.
The first thing that alarms me is the way the referendum was allowed to operate. Anyone on either side of the argument was able to make any statement, however outlandish, however false, with total impunity. After a parliamentary or local government election, voters can punish a false campaign promise by voting against the person who makes it (or at least against their party) at future elections. In the referendum, campaigners could tell whatever lies they wanted to in the knowledge that all they had to do was to get 50.00001% of the votes on the day, and that once that was over, nothing else mattered.
Both sides indulged in outrageously indefensible rhetoric. I happen to think that the Leave side’s was particularly egregious, but that’s not the point: the problem is that a major decision that will affect our country for decades and maybe more was made after a campaign characterised by a tissue of lies.
I’m also disturbed by the referendum’s reduction of the highly complex matter of our relationship with Europe to a single In/Out question, without in any way defining what “Out” meant. Are we talking about “the Norwegian Solution” of remaining in the free trade agreement while continuing to comply with EU regulations? The “Swiss solution” of continuing to contribute to the EU budget? Or a total withdrawal from the free trade zone? Whichever of these options is chosen, the Prime Minister who implements Brexit risks a huge backlash from whichever part of the leave constituency had assumed either (a) we’re going to have fewer rules from Brussels, (b) we can stop contributing to the EU budget or (c) we can continue to be in the free trade block. Because truly, if anyone thinks we’re so important to the EU that they will continue to grant all of our former privileges while releasing us from all of the rules an obligations, they are living in a delusive state. All this means that far from resolving the EU debate, this referendum has merely fired its starting gun.
Why was it constitutionally OK for a political party in government to propose such a simplistic referendum? Of the reasons for doing so, it is now reasonably clear that (a) Cameron had no intention of putting out EU membership at risk and thought he was taking a safe bet; (b) the principal intent was to resolve tensions within the Conservative party and (c) Cameron and his aides didn’t think the electorate were intelligent enough to understand a more nuanced set of questions (I’m guessing on this last one, admittedly, but I think it’s a fairly safe guess). I’m afraid I don’t buy the idea that Cameron called the referendum because he genuinely believed that “the people deserved their say”: I’ve never yet seen a referendum called for that reason and I don’t expect to.
Having spoken to a lot of people in the days leading up to June 23rd, I don’t think the majority of voters made a serious attempt to research and understand the facts. The most intelligent conversation I had with a probable Leave voter was with a doctor of African extraction who is deeply unhappy with EU policy in Africa, which she had checked out in a great deal of detail. Every other conversation showed rampant confirmation bias: people were simply not interested even in discussing their reasons for voting in detail and certainly didn’t want to understand the views of anyone on the opposing side.
One of the important arguments on the Leave side is the idea that outside the EU, we can regain total control of our democratic process. But that’s small comfort when you see the immediate effect of the referendum on that process. The first thing that is going to happen is that from around October, the country will be run for close to four years by an unelected Prime Minister – and probably, in the circumstances, by a Prime Minister of a very different complexion from the one who we voted for a year ago. How was it OK for Cameron to omit to mention that he would be resigning if he lost the referendum?
Early on Friday, I was pretty much in the #AshamedToBeBritish camp, living in the wonderful, open city that London is, but surrounded by a country full of racists. I’ve calmed down from that view, but I still fear greatly that most people who voted leave (not all, of course) did so because they were looking for someone to blame for twenty years of stagnant disposable incomes and ever reducing job opportunities. And the easiest people to blame were “everyone except us” – the immigrants and the foreigners. How much easier to blame a Brussels bureaucrat than to accept that we’ve lagged the world in productivity improvements, that a rash of people got into debt they couldn’t afford, or that the Blairite expansion of university places wasn’t fundable without either increasing taxes or making the students pay for it.
Indulging in arbitrary blame without being prepared to debate the facts isn’t a good way to make important decisions. Allowing a party’s internal issues to have such a huge and immediate impact on our future is worrying. So is having an unelected Prime Minister at what will now be a critical moment in history. And our permitting of demagogues – racist or otherwise – to tell a pack of lies with impunity is the scariest of all.