Illustration of woman sitting by the pool

The Ledger

August 2017

Energy can be changed from one form to another, but it cannot be created or destroyed, goes the First Law of Thermodynamics – in a loose sense, what goes around comes around. The implications of this are manifold. Did you know that mice nibbling spicy chillies have quieter bellies, thanks to the heat of the compound capsaicin cancelling out inflammation in the gut? One could be forgiven for being unfamiliar with that recent and rather arcane discovery, but no one who acknowledges the tenets of scientific method and the laws of physical reality can at this point doubt the hazards of global warming. Sixteen of the seventeen hottest years on record have occurred in the 21st century. Short of drastically curbing emissions, adopting en masse the painstaking practices of Jains or installing a giant air conditioner in the sky, what are we to do? Doris Sung, an architect based in Rolling Hills, California, has begun experimenting with a dynamic new building material, the alloy thermobimetal. Its two types of metal expand at different rates in hot weather, creating a slow, self-regulating curl that can be used to open apertures for ventilation and shut them for sun shading. For those of us allergic to the numbing hum and faintly powdery odour of freon, the prospect of an innovation that obviates the need to build a bot with frond-fanning capabilities strikes us as a sensible technology indeed. Then there are those late-summer moments that want for nothing: lying in a hammock trussed between two trees, a book balanced on your knee, or strolling along a stretch of beach at sundown. And those that dazzle in their intensity, like a sudden storm that finally punctures humidity’s heavy balloon. The drum roll of thunder, the flash of neon in daylight – a summer storm makes ceraunophiles (thunder-lovers) of us all.

Illustration of an erupting volcano


Tempest Anderson: drawn to the flame


With a first name that denotes inclement weather, it seems fitting that Tempest Anderson was a volcanologist fascinated by alpine avalanche and pyroclastic flow (the violent deluge caused by superheated gases colliding with volcanic ash, rocks and lava). An ophthalmic surgeon turned explorer, Anderson left York to join a 1902 Royal Society expedition to the Caribbean, where he photographed the rubbled topsoil of Martinique and St. Vincent in the wake of volcanic eruptions. He also visited Vulcano, a small island in the Tyrrhenian Sea, where he captured the striking image of a woman in Victorian dress whose parasol seemed to offer little protection against a cresting wave of steam emerging from a crack in the earth behind her. Anderson’s lectures were enhanced by his use of a ‘magic lantern’, an early slide projector. The 5000 slides he amassed in the course of his travels, which he bequeathed to the Yorkshire Museum, were recently digitised, and to look at them is to tunnel across oceans and eras from the safety of unshaky ground.

Illustration of a scuba diver


An unflinching gaze on suffering: Fuocoammare

Gianfranco Rosi is the rare documentary filmmaker who eschews talking heads, explanatory subtitles, voiceover, music, the soundbite and the take-away – who doesn’t put a gloss on the raw material that interests him. His most recent film, Fuocoammare (Fire at Sea), was nominated for an Oscar for Best Documentary Feature. Its brilliance lies in the calm way Rosi shows us utterly harrowing scenes, and then scenes of everyday life. His subject is the Italian island of Lampedusa, closer to Tunisia than to Sicily, and its role in the refugee crisis that is roiling Europe and the wider world. A young boy named Samuele has a lazy eye and panic attacks about homework that may seem insignificant, but Rosi refuses relativism in favour of a catholic attitude toward suffering – it spares no one. It also speaks for itself, freeing the director to focus on colour, light and composition. He spent nearly five months on Lampedusa before he began filming, and shot Fuocoammare mostly on overcast days. ‘The clouds have their own narration,’ he told an interviewer ‘They create tragedy through their colours.’




A wild and beautiful yonder: 2 Durnamuck

From noon to 5pm on August 20 – a window as brief as the life of a daylily – affords you the chance to experience one of Scotland’s national treasures: 2 Durnamuck, a garden on the edge of Little Loch Broom in Wester Ross and every bit as charming as it sounds. The so-called ‘coastal plantsman’s garden’ of herbaceous borders, wild meadow, South African and Mediterranean species and vegetables overlooks the gorgeous northwest coastline; the vivid blooms against a backdrop of grey-green heather and deep blue sea bring to mind a magic, untamed garden out of Tolkien or Peake. Admission is £3, some of which goes to the Children of Madagascar Foundation, and you can and should partake of high tea. The website’s directions capture the remote beauty of the site: ‘take the turning along the single track road signed Badcaul, continue to the yellow salt bin, turn right, go to bottom of the hill and it is the house with the red roof.’




The exacting ways of Elizabeth Bishop

Elizabeth Bishop was not the most prolific poet of the 20th century. She wrote only 101 poems in her lifetime, preferring to ponder and then to polish. That process yielded unfussy gems like ‘One Art’, which begins with the indelible line ‘The art of losing isn’t hard to master’. A fractured yet privileged early life transitioned into a well-to-do yet unconventional adulthood, which included stints in Europe, Key West and the Brazilian city of Pétropolis, where she lived with her lover, the architect Lota de Macedo Soares. When The Paris Review interviewed Bishop in the summer of 1978, she said of her plans for the season, ‘I want to do a lot of work because I really haven’t done anything for ages and there are a couple of things I’d like to finish before I die.’ She worried later that the interview made her sound superficial, and added, ‘I hope that some readers will realize I do think about art once in a while even if babbling along like a very shallow brook…’ It was Bishop’s hallmark to tenderly capture the physical world and imbue it with loneliness and longing; there’s no doubt that these babbling waters ran deep.




Points of affinity at Yokohama Triennale 2017

This year sees the 150th anniversary of Taisei Hokan, the return of political authority to the emperor of Japan in 1867, which led to the opening of a first port to the West; and the city of Yokohama on Tokyo Bay has chosen a fitting theme for its Triennale (August 4 – November 5): ‘Islands, Constellations and Galapagos.’ Lately, as the festival’s organisers note, ‘people appear to be banding into small, disparate groups’. Here, participating artists such as Ai Weiwei and Olafur Eliasson and the photographers Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin speak to related issues of openness, isolation, hard and porous borders and exile. Lesser known to Westerners may be Naoya Hatakeyama, whose work considers the relationship between nature and the city, and Bangalore-born Prabhavathi Meppayil, whose heavily gessoed surfaces are sshot through, like cutaways of a building’s walls, with copper wire.




The delectable taste of tradition in Kuala Lumpur

If you're seeking the pungent, authentic street food of Kuala Lumpur but without the ambulatory aspect, Lima Blas, in the heart of the city, is a nice place to sit still – in the leafy rear courtyard, weather permitting, or at simple wooden tables in the dining room, where charming accents and antique fittings have a traditional Peranakan flavour. The menu is old-school, the produce very fresh, and you can’t go wrong with the classic Nyonya curry laksa with rice noodles, tender poached chicken, deep-fried tofu and fish balls in broth spiced with chilli paste. Equally good is sambal petai udang, healthful ‘stink’ beans with juicy prawns and a searing sambal. Either pairs well with house-made ginger Peranakan ale. Leave room for sago gula melaka, a tapioca-like pudding drizzled with caramelised palm sugar and coconut milk.




Ever a joyful noise: Novos Baianos

There are only so many times a person can listen to certain samba standards, or Sinatra’s ‘Girl from Ipanema’ for that matter, on a sweaty late-summer night. For something both lively and soothing, seek out Acabou Chorare, the second album from the innovative Brazilian band Novos Baianos, recorded in the early 1970s. Strains of samba mingle with Hendrix-inspired psychedelic rock to melodious effect: it’s one of those albums you can listen to over and over, no doubt a quality that contributed to its gaining first place in Rolling Stone’s 2007 list of The 100 Greatest Albums of Brazilian Music. Bossa nova legend João Gilberto was a mentor of sorts to the band’s five members and inspired the first song, a joyful ballad based on a story he told about his daughter. ‘Preta Pretinha’, ‘Besta É Tu’ and ‘Tinindo Trincando’ are three especially catchy tracks – listen for Baby Consuelo’s snazzy vocals.




Sorrow tempered by hope: Claribel Alegria

Born in Puerto Rico in 1924 to Nicaraguan parents exiled by the American occupation, Claribel Alegría was raised in El Salvador and considers herself Salvadoran. A poet, essayist, novelist and journalist, she was awarded the 2006 Neustadt International Prize for Literature for her contributions to the Central American canon. The dominant themes of her poetry are loss, nostalgia and longing for a world with less violence and oppression. Flores del volcán (Flowers from the Volcano), a volume of poetry that was one of the first of Alegría’s works to be translated into English, brought her recognition from North American critics. The titular volcano represents the Pacific Ring of Fire as well as the explosive violence that accompanied the civil wars of the 1970s and ’80s in Nicaragua, Guatemala and El Salvador; the flowers are a little like desert blooms, brief and unlikely tendrils of hope. The ‘rosary of names’ she recites in the poem ‘Sorrow’ includes the Chilean folksinger Victor Jara, killed by security forces in Santiago in 1973.



Illustrations by Jeffrey Cheung

‘It has done me good to be somewhat parched by the heat and drenched by the rain of life.’
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow