The Feather

Posted on Sunday, June 26, 2011, under

Once a child, always a child. This morning I am drawn to a brownish feather blown over onto the balcony floor, where I’ve noticed it gently swirling. I grab it in midair, hold it up by the shaft, like a writing quill, sniff the vane, straighten out the barbs. It is a fine specimen, caramel and chocolate brown around the edges, off-white in the middle. I wonder what kind of bird it may have come from – a brown pigeon? I suddenly wince as I hear concerned voices in my head: ‘Don’t do that! It might be infected with avian flu or something!’ I am instantly ashamed by this cowardly, nonsensical thought. Anyway, even if there were any bacteria in there I already inhaled them. So, what next? For a moment I consider throwing the feather back to the winds. If only the bird would come back I’d reattach the feather to its wing. Well, it’s on my desk now, inside a pen holder. I may photograph it, or write a haiku.

Three stages of self-awareness: the child, the schooled adult, the would-be artist. Once a child, always a child.

Sunday, June 26th, 2011

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Bamboonery - Part 3

Posted on Sunday, June 26, 2011, under , ,

Some ‘bamboo verse’ by early Japanese women poets:

Let us plant
in a warrior's garden.
May you become bows, may you become arrows
clumps of bamboo
of ten thousand years.                           
Takabatake Shikibu (d.1881)

I wake, with no one around the room is clean.
As always I rub the musk ink, and it sounds swish-swish.
The bamboo, not waiting for the moon in the window,
in light shades, aslant, aslant, emerges through my hand.              
               Ema Saiko (1787-1861; from ‘Breeze Through Bamboo’)

What are you saying?
That we can't meet –
not even for a time
brief as the space between joints
on the reeds of Naniwa?             
Lady Ise (c. 875-938)

as hail falls
on bamboo leaves
rustling, rustling
how can I sleep alone?                          
Izumi Shikibu (c. 970 – ?)

Who might dwell there?
Who has fixed his abode
at the foot of the hill,
with none for neighbour
save a lovely bamboo grove?                  
Abutsu-ni (c. 1222-1283)


The great Basho famously wrote: “Learn of the pine from the pine; learn of the bamboo from the bamboo. And in doing so, you must put your subjective preoccupations to one side. Otherwise you impose yourself on the object and do not learn.” This call to a total immersion in nature — physical, sensual, spiritual — is also a direct allusion to the then prevailing formal rigidity of both renga and haikai, the popular poetic forms whereby groups of people composed linked verse following specific rules and regulations. Rules and regulations — yuck. The ‘preoccupations’ are the synonym for any poet’s straightforward interpretations of nature limited by the detachment, by the absence of what Basho elsewhere calls a ‘wind-swept spirit’ of his poetic persona. The logic of Basho’s message thus goes something like this: break with the current tradition (‘preoccupations’), and develop an independent spirit by embracing/exploring nature to the full and your poetry is on the right path towards originality. Basho: “The first task for each artist is to overcome the barbarian … heart and mind, to become one with nature”. Note Basho’s unusual equations: barbarian mind = subjective, uncultured; close to/one with nature = cultured mind.

In order to experience various aspects of nature one needs to do lots of travelling, preferably on foot. Here is a lovely rendition by Cid Corman of a passage from Basho’s Back Roads to Far Towns:

"Moon & sun are passing figures of countless generations, and years coming or going wanderers too. Drifting life away on a boat or meeting age leading a horse by the mouth, each day is a journey and the journey itself home. Amongst those of old were many that perished upon the journey."

‘The journey itself home’ — I love this line! And here is Basho’s own bamboo-themed haiku (trans. Lucien Stryck):

From moon wreathed
bamboo grove,
cuckoo song.

Basho was a dedicated scholar of the Japanese and Chinese literary classics. He was a follower of the Buddhist monk poet, Saigyo (1118-1190), another extensive traveller, whose waka praised the natural scenery and who happened to believe that all of nature is fully interdependent (sounds very pre-Darwinian). Saigyo’s love of nature was however at direct odds with the restraints of his Buddhist practices, which in turn served as a sort of point of departure in his poetry. Intoxicated by nature, Saigyo would let his verse assume some unexpected, if heretic, overtones. He searches and finds Buddha in the plants, wishing to die under a blossoming cherry tree — a sacrilegious thought; he dares a passionless monkhood, obsessed with the abandonment of desire and earthly attachments, to get ‘saddened’ by the sight of a single snipe flying up into the autumn evening. Saigyo the tireless traveller is constantly open to new experiences, is anxious to ‘go searching for blossoms in directions [he has] never been before’, and is profoundly saddened when a previously marked nature trail has completely disappeared:

In fifth-month rains
no trace of a path
where I can make my way
meadows of bamboo grass
awash in muddy water                           

It seems that among Japanese poets of early times a substantial number were lifelong travellers and nature lovers. Their art was a way of extrapolating truths out of the natural world. But fast forward a few centuries and we find modern poets starting to utilize natural phenomena as symbols and psychological metaphors. Heavily influenced by European nihilistic philosophies — you know, Dostoevsky, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche — Hagiwara Sakutaro (1886–1942) is credited as a major innovator and regarded as the pivotal figure of modern Japanese poetry. Not only did he daringly employ free verse and colloquialisms in his verse but he utilized these in a highly personal and evocative manner. Take the couple of poems, both entitled ‘Bamboo’ from Sakutaro’s first, and still the most popular collection Howling at the Moon (1917)

Something straight growing on the ground,
something sharp, blue, growing on the ground,
piercing the frozen winter,
in morning's empty path where its green leaves glisten,
shedding tears,
shedding the tears,
now repentance over, from above its shoulders,
blurred bamboo roots spreading,
something sharp, blue, growing on the ground.

On the gleaming ground bamboo growing,
blue bamboo growing, 
under the ground bamboo roots growing,
roots gradually tapering off,
from root tips cilia growing,
faintly blurred cilia growing,
faintly trembling.

On the hard ground bamboo growing,
from the ground bamboo sharply growing,
straight, blind, bamboo growing,
at each frozen joint gallantly,
under the blue sky bamboo growing,
bamboo, bamboo, bamboo growing.

            trans. Hiroaki Sato
These poems were placed as the second and third in the collection, building on the image from the first poem entitled ‘Sickly face at the bottom of the ground’, in which ‘a lonely invalid's face emerging/ […] time the winter solstice, from the lonely sickly ground / roots of thin blue bamboo beginning to grow’. What we have here is the essence of suffering itself, the physical and mental terror of the Confucian bamboo-man (see the earlier post Bamboonery 2).

Hagiwara’s bamboo poems, previously published in 1915, included the postscript ‘a poem of purgatory’ after the second poem. Not only that, but this poem carried the following two lines: ‘If I pray, if I pray, growing towards the sky / from the sinner’s shoulder bamboo growing’ — subsequently omitted from Howling at the Moon. So that’s where the ‘repentance over’ comes from! Apparently Hagiwara was a church frequenter and an ardent Bible reader at the time — the purgatory postscript stuck to five other poems in the collection. The fact that Christian concepts creep into his verse suggests one unique artist with an effervescent imagination and a knack for innovation, the ‘essential poet’ if you will. And when it came to the natural world, this was no mean feat as Hagiwara practically had centuries of deeply rooted poetic traditions to contend with.

In his insightful book ‘Principles of Poetry’ Hagiwara mulls over a question — an insulated Japan or a cosmopolitan Japan: ‘[…] If we want to choose the latter, we will have no choice but to carry on the lively spirit of the Meiji Reform and to stress more the vigorous poetical spirit — yearning for things non-existent and beyond reach’. 

You can find more Hagiwara's poems here!

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Bamboonery - Part 2

Posted on Monday, June 13, 2011, under ,

Su Shi, often referred to as Su Dongpo (1037-1101), one of the major poets of the Song era, painted bamboo and wrote his poems in praise of the plant. Said Su Shi: 'I can go without meat in my meal, yet I can't live in a place without bamboo. No meat makes people slim, no bamboo makes people meretricious. Slim people can put on weight again, but meretriciousness cannot be rooted out.’ 

Bamboo has a profound meaning in Confucian, and therefore Chinese, iconography. Bamboo for the Chinese is much more than a plant. In fact, Confucianism teaches that human characteristics correspond with a bamboo. The plant’s straight stem is the symbol of moral strength, pliant yet unbreakable by the adverse winds. Its knot represents harmonious integration with others. The branches represent flexibility. The hollow inside of the bamboo stalk symbolizes the purged clarity of mind, or the absence of chaos, that is a prerequisite for a constructive thinking. The leaves symbolize subtlety and the poetic mind. Perhaps the earliest poem about bamboo, written during the Tang Dynasty by a government official Bai Juyi (772-846), encapsulates this spirit:

Planting Bamboos
trans. Arthur Waley

Unrewarded, my will to serve the State;
At my closed door autumn grasses grow.
What could I do to ease a rustic heart?
I planted bamboo, more than a hundred shoots.
When I see their beauty, as they grow by the stream-side,
I feel again as though I lived in the hills,
And many a time on public holidays
Round their railing I walk till night comes.
Do not say that their roots are still weak,
Do not say that their shade is still small;
Already I feel that both in garden and house
Day by day a fresher air moves.
But most I love, lying near the window-side,
to hear in their branches the sound of the autumn-wind.

Bamboo painting, on the other hand, requires the mastery and control of the brush strokes in order to balance the composition. The blank of the paper signifies yin while the brush strokes signify yang. Zheng Banqiao, a poet and a bamboo master in the Qing dynasty, wrote: ‘Love to tear the white paper window, with the bamboo shadows entering the meditation bed’, touching on the poetic idea of painting the bamboo shadows reflected upon the rice paper, usually seen on Chinese windows. In 1701 the ink bamboo painter Wen Tong wrote in The Book of Bamboo: The first principle of bamboo composition is, the four parts of the plant should be considered in the following order: stem, knot, branches and leaves. If the basic rule is not followed, time and effort will be wasted and the picture will never be completed.’ It was apparently said of Wen Tong that there were whole bamboos in his heart.

Here is a detail of Su Shi’s own ink-on-paper painting depicting bamboo, chrysanthemum and Tai-hu rocks ( Bamboo in itself is a complete subject because it carries lasting ethical values and it commands a truly talented painter to create varying tones that never repeat — the careful placement of dark/light tones, the execution of perfectly cylindrical internodes etc..

Su Dongpo not only painted bamboo but wrote numerous bamboo poems. I will introduce them beginning with a rather unique example, unique in that it shows how one bamboo metaphor, among many others, resulted in a political intrigue, and eventually in Su Shi’s demotion and exile. The following poem is critical of the government’s stiff reforms of the salt monopoly that made salt increasingly hard to find:

An old man of seventy, sickle at his waist,
Feels guilty the spring mountain bamboo
and bracken are sweet.
It's not that the music of Shao has made
him lose his sense of taste.
It's just that he's eaten his food for three
months without salt.


Notice the old man’s vicarious guilt, its transfer down the hierarchical ladder — from the bureaucrats as the real perpetrators, to the common folk as the actual victims. How Confucian was this? It somehow reminds me of the upending of the Communist ideals centuries later.

For his popular political poems Su Shi underwent numerous arrests, demotions, and spent twelve years of his life in exile. He was the main culprit of The Wutai Poem Case, a famous literary inquisition during the Song Dynasty rule. Here is Su Shi’s poem on the subject which shows that even in exile his satire hadn’t lost its sting.

On the Birth of His Son
trans. Arthur Waley

Families, when a child is born,
Want it to be intelligent.
I, through intelligence,
Having wrecked my whole life,
Only hope the baby will prove
Ignorant and stupid.
Then he will crown a tranquil life
By becoming a Cabinet Minister.

This sarcastic tone seems to be removed miles away from the Confucian formula and the ‘will to serve the state’.

Well, on a lighter note, here is a true anecdote that not only shows Su Shi in a domestic, relaxed atmosphere, but might even whet your appetites:

Huang Zhou was an agricultural heartland and as the price of pork in the area was cheap, it was a regular feature in the diet of Su Shi… One day, he was cooking pork with bamboo shoots when a friend dropped by. Switching the fire to gentle heat, he left the kitchen to play chess with the visitor. So engrossed was he with the game that he forgot the cooking. It was only at the end of the game he suddenly recalled the pork and bamboo stew and rushed to the kitchen. Expecting to find the pork burnt to crisp, he was surprised by the aroma when the lid of the pot was lifted. The edible pork had a rich red colour, tender crispy but not flaky with a glutinous texture without the greasy taste. The bamboo had soaked up excess fat. Together the pork and bamboo tasted terrific. Henceforth, it became a regular dish for himself and his guests who couldn't get enough of it. Marvelling at his creation, Su Shi composed an ode:

Huang Zhou produces excellent pork,
the price is cheap as dirt.
The rich despise it,
the poor can't cook it well.
Long on fire,
Short on water,
It will be delicious in its own time.
A bowl a day,
will satisfy a man enough to forget all cares. 

(from Dale A. Johnson: ‘Bamboo Dreams’, found on

                                             Dongpo’s Pork was thus inadvertently created.

Apart from odes and political poems, Su Dongpo wrote numerous ‘tune poems’, or ‘Ci’, poetry originally written to fixed tunes, with strict tonal patterns and rhyme schemes. ‘Ci’ originated in the Tang Dynasty and was fully developed in the Song Dynasty. Here are extracts from two of Su Dongpo’s ‘Ci’, where bamboo plays a prominent role (trans. Yun Wang).

To the Tune of Ding Feng Bo [Calming the Wind and Waves]

Hear not sounds that pierce the woods beating the leaves

Why not chant a little     sing     and take it slow
Bamboo stick     straw sandals     lighter than riding a horse
Who is afraid?
A capeful of fog and rain all my life

To the Tune of He Xin Lang [To the Bridegroom]

A baby swallow flies into the splendid house

Quiet and no one around
The day retreats to shades of the wu-tong tree
I rise from a bath into the cool evening
My hands play with a round fan of white silk
The fan and the hand seem both jade
When I tire I recline
sleep alone my fresh sleep
Who pushes the painted door beyond the curtains?
Interrupting a dream of singing on terraces of jade
It is only the wind
knocking on bamboos
The unabbreviated poems here:

The stone portrait of Su Shi, the original of which is kept in the Six-Banyan Pagoda in Guangzhou, Guangdong Province. Spot the inevitable bamboo stick.

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Bamboonery - Part 1

Posted on Sunday, June 12, 2011, under , , ,

Last Sunday I joined a hiking group of about 30 odd people in Yawata town in the southern outskirts of Kyoto. After a couple of hours walking along the Kizu river, the biggest challenge still lay ahead — the climbing of the Otokoyama mountain through a wonderfully thick bamboo forest. Some half an hour later we reached Iwashimizu Hachimangu shrine, one of the three great Hachimangu shrines of Japan, in the olden times the rear Demon’s Gate of the capital Heian-kyo (literally “tranquillity and peace capital”), nowadays known as Kyoto. What was equally interesting, and certainly more surprising, was to find the shrine’s wooden tablet amulets called ema, usually reserved for kanji inscriptions or pictures of horses, bearing images of what unmistakably looked like a Western face of an older, bearded man. From some distance it looked like KFC’s colonel Sanders (didn’t know the monks liked chicken burgers), but it was instead revealed to be the face of none other than Thomas Alva Edison. Soon enough we came across a black-stone monolith dedicated to the memory of Edison. Thus awoken my curiosity demanded an explanation — no notices in English though.

Edison in fact used the bamboo from Mt. Otokoyama as a filament for the production of the first ever commercial incandescent light bulb! And so, Shinto religion being polytheist, their gods were more than happy to turn the great man into a deity because, as the shrine’s unofficial homepage attests, ‘he gave light to every people in the world’. After all, ‘electricity occupies the twilight zone between the world of spirit and the world of matter’, God himself being ‘the Great Electrician’ [Elbert Hubbard, Jovian society welcome address].

Edison was experimenting with a variety of materials in order to achieve a desired length of 600 hours which in his opinion would be long enough to justify its mass manufacturing. One day he picked up a bamboo fan, took a strand from it, carbonized it, and found that it burned for 200 hours, much longer than the bristol board filament he had been using thus far. Edison then sent out researchers around the world to find the bamboo of the highest burning quality. One of the delegates ended up in Japan and was told that the best bamboo could be found in Kyoto. It transpired that the electric bulb with the Yawate bamboo filament lasted for nearly 2500 hours, which persuaded Edison, and in turn J.P. Morgan, to heavily invest in the new company Edison General Electric in order to manufacture the electric light bulbs with the sticky, durable filaments made from the Yawata bamboo. This production went on for 10 years, until it was replaced by cellulose filament bulbs in 1894.

But the tale does not end here. Edison hoped that Japanese bamboo could be bettered and sent a team of explorers to South America, who after coming upon some great bamboo, became confused by the river systems and forgot where they had found it. Edison then sent a man named James Ricalton out to the jungles of Sri Lanka, Burma, Malaysia and India. Here are a few extracts from Ricalton’s own reminiscences of his meetings with Edison ( Ricalton, a village schoolmaster, is summoned to appear before the great scientist apparently without being given any hints as to its purpose.

With a quizzical gleam in his eye, [Edison] said: `I want a man to ransack all the tropical jungles of the East to find a better fibre for my lamp; I expect it to be found in the palm or bamboo family. How would you like that job?' Suiting my reply to his love of brevity and dispatch, I said, `That would suit me.' `Can you go to-morrow?' was his next question.

No beating about the bush. It took Ricalton a few days to ‘learn his new trade’ of drawing and carbonizing fibres, after which he was promptly given further instructions by the wizard.

[…] Mr. Edison came to me one day and said: ‘If you will go up to the house’ (his palatial home not far away) ‘and look behind the sofa in the library you will find a joint of bamboo, a specimen of that found in South America; bring it down and make a study of it; if you find something equal to that I will be satisfied.’ At the home I was guided to the library by an Irish servant-woman, to whom I communicated my knowledge of the definite locality of the sample joint. She plunged her arm, bare and herculean, behind the aforementioned sofa, and holding aloft a section of wood, called out in a mood of discovery: ‘Is that it?’ Replying in the affirmative, she added, under an impulse of innocent divination that whatever her wizard master laid hands upon could result in nothing short of an invention, ‘Sure, sor, and what's he going to invint out o' that?’

After a 365-day long expedition Ricalton returned believing he had found the perfect bamboo in Ceylon. Alas, his efforts turned out to be in vain as Edison in the meantime had begun using artificial carbon as filament. It is rather refreshing, however, to find not a single trace of regret or disappointment in Ricalton’s reaction to the disheartening news. Indeed, he seems to feel thoroughly in debt to the scientist. 

[…] during my connection with that mission I was at all times not less astonished at Mr. Edison's quick perception of conditions and his instant decision and his bigness of conceptions, than I had always been with his prodigious industry and his inventive genius.
Thinking persons know that blatant men never accomplish much, and Edison's marvellous brevity of speech along with his miraculous achievements should do much to put bores and garrulity out of fashion.

                                                    taken last summer in Arashiyama

Bamboo Facts:

* One out of every six people on earth lives in bamboo constructed homes.
* The fastest growing woody plant on this planet. It grows one third faster than the fastest growing tree. Some species can grow up to 1 meter per day. Size ranges from miniatures to towering columns of 60 meters.
* “I am not sure about how fast bamboo grows, but when I was in South America, we could hear it growing. We would walk past a patch and hear the creaking. Definitely a weird sound. The locals told me you could sometimes see it grow..” (MacLloyd from Arcadia, CA).
* A critical element in the balance of oxygen and carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Bamboo is the fastest growing canopy for the re-greening of degraded areas and generates more oxygen than equivalent stand of trees.
* Bamboo provided the first re-greening in Hiroshima after the atomic blast in 1945.
* There are over 1000 species of bamboo on the earth.
* The technical name for a bamboo stem is a 'culm'.
* Most bamboos flower and produce seeds only after between 12 and 120 years growth...and then only once in a lifetime.
* An essential structural material in earthquake architecture. In Limon, Costa Rica, only the bamboo houses from the National Bamboo Project stood after their violent earthquake in 1992.
* The best gramophone needles were made of bamboo until the 1950s.
* A bridge over the Min River in China is 250 m long, 3 m wide, and built entirely of bamboo - no nails.
* A traditional kendo stick (‘shinai’) is made from dried bamboo.


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Posted on Sunday, June 05, 2011, under , ,

As with most things civic and communal, Japanese have come up with a functional, albeit unnecessarily elaborate, pedantic and bureaucratic way of processing/renewing of driving licences. The system is in fact a curious version of Orwellian collectivism in the name of expediency. Yesterdays’ visit to the Kyoto Driving Licence Centre, which some smart planner dumped in the most inaccessible part of the city, proved indeed to be an Orwellian experience of sorts. Never have I felt less of a human and more of a ‘number’ whilst being prodded from one counter to the other, at each being peremptorily instructed what to do at the next by a busy clerk barely visible behind a low grille, all the time precariously carrying a bunch of papers about whose specific purpose I knew nothing about. In the course of a quarter of an hour I visited a dozen counters and even managed to have an eye-test and a photo-for-license taken. I was finally given a red-coloured tag numbered 26 and sent upstairs to what I had been dreading the most: a two-hour lecture as the final indoctrination into the ‘acceptance’ of the highway code rules. This is it, I thought, it’s my room 101. Except that it was ‘the red room’ — the tag turned out to be correspondent with a wooden seat of the same number (there were also a blue and a green lecture rooms, presumably for people with more/less traffic offences).

But the gods of roads and highways looked rather kindly upon me, thanks to my little plan and thanks to my ‘Julia’. We explained to the lecturer that I hardly understood a word of Japanese while Julia didn’t speak English well, or well enough, which would render the whole lecture pointless. He might have asked how on earth do you communicate then, in Chinese?!, but instead he came up with a half solution procuring a book of traffic rules in English (he twice reminded us it is only for ‘rental’) and sending us to the back benches of a half-empty classroom, where the air was much breezier than what looked like a controlled rigidity in the front rows. It was also a reversal of roles for me, from my everyday one of a classroom teacher to that of a student, a rather passive and disinterested one at that. The lecture itself proved to be much more instructive to Julia who really was just a trespasser and who, by the way, is currently a proud holder of ‘the golden’ license. This type of license carries no penalty points. And how could she earn any when she’s hardly driven since she got the license years ago. But the lecture was intended to instruct those of us who can actually drive, who have learned our lessons the hard way, on the actual streets and roads. Talk about role reversals. Talk about conversions and reconversions.

Anyway, this whole episode reminded me of a poem on driving I read only a couple of days ago (the word ‘coincidence’ carries less and less meaning as years go by) by Jamie McKendrick from his first collection ‘The Sirocco Room’, entitled Fetish, the fetish of course being the car. The speaker’s tone effortlessly blends the comical with the profound, and that for me is some achievement. Here is the beginning…

That my first car, at thirty, should be fifth-hand,
a filthy patchwork of worn azure and bare zinc
and amateur spray-jobs like a subway wall,
appeals to my pride as a failed consumer.

…the profoundness…

It takes me places that I thought I’d never see
even though seeing them is not that different
from not having seen them — but who’s to say
if experience doesn’t help, doing nothing does?

…and a lovely closure:

But what would happen if it left me?
I heard you say just now it’s dangerous
And drives you mad to fall in love at thirty.

At the moment I can only think of one other poem dealing with cars, and it is a ‘conversation’ with a driving instructor, by Michael Donaghy, entitled ‘L’. Again it’s an amusing piece with its own doses of insight and a ‘punchline’, which seems to be a prerequisite in the car-poems. Here is the poem in its entirety and I hope I am not infringing any copyrights as it was already published on the web here

‘Switch off the engine and secure the car.’
He slots his pen across his clipboard
and makes a little cathedral of his fingers
as though I were helping him with his enquiries.
‘Tell me, Michael, what's your line of work?’
I tell him the truth. Why not? I've failed anyway.
‘Driving and writing have a lot in common,’
he parleys, and we sit there, the two of us
blinking into the average braking distance
for 30 mph, wondering what he means.
I want to help but it's his turn to talk.
When my turn comes he'll probably look at me
instead of his hand, stalled now in mid-gesture
like a milkfloat halfway across a junction.
Look at him. What if I'd said butcher?
At last ‘It's all a matter of giving – proper – signals’
is the best he can do. But then he astonishes me.
‘I'm going to approve your licence,
but I don't care much for your … ‘ Quick glance.
interpretation of the Highway Code.’

Once I told Michael how I really liked this poem, to which he rather cryptically responded by saying something like ‘I am glad you liked it’ with the emphasis on ‘you’ which I took to imply he was maybe surprised that a rather serious figure I must have cut 15 odd years ago would enjoy this humorous oddity. But you were seldom 100% sure with Mike.

Readers, do let me know if there is a driving/car poem that you know of, or perhaps have written yourself. Cheers. 

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