Asia, Travel

Touring South-West China with Davide Melia

This week I’d like to introduce you to Davide Melia, creator of ‘South West China with Davide Melia’ on Patreon. Davide lives in the Dehong Dai and Jingpo Autonomous Prefecture in south-west Yunnan and for several months his site has provided subscribers with an online portal to this special place.

Davide’s photographs, videos and stories illuminate daily life in this area. At a time when travel has been severely curtailed, these posts have provided a welcome—even therapeutic–escape. Whenever the stultifying sameness of the living room started getting to me, I knew I was only a few clicks away from Yunnan’s delicious food, spectacular landscapes and fascinating history. It’s been a bit like having a personal tour guide without having to go anywhere or to learn the language(s).

Davide was kind enough to agree to an interview talking about his life and the region. If you find this interview interesting, please consider subscribing and supporting his work.

1. Can you tell us a bit about yourself and your life before arriving in China?


Of course! Well, I was born in Perth, Western Australia at the end of 1982, and my parents are migrants from Italy who arrived in Australia in the 1970s.

Growing up, I lived in Huntingdale, an outer suburb about 1 hour’s drive from the centre of Perth city. I went through 12 years of Catholic primary and secondary school, then attended the University of Western Australia where I did a double major in English and History and then Honours in English. After that, I spent 6 years post-uni working as a doorman at different places, mainly big nightclubs and pubs, around Perth.

I was very involved in the punk scene in Perth. I was not a musician, though many of my friends were. At one point I worked as the head doorman of the Hyde Park Hotel, in many ways the home of punk in Perth, before it was taken over by a large conglomerate and turned into a cookie-cutter, sanitised suburban pub.

I’ve also been involved with anti-racist activism in Perth since I was a teenager. Why anti-racist activism? Well, Huntingdale (and the neighbouring suburbs, Thornlie and Maddington and Gosnells) have always had large populations of Indigenous Australian peoples, and of people from different parts of the world, but Gosnells was also the home of Jack van Tongeren, the leader of the Australian neo-Nazi group the Australian Nationalist Movement, and it was quite a racist place in some parts.

When I was very young, the ANM were very active in posting neo-Nazi propaganda, putting neo-Nazi graffiti everywhere, and making attacks on various people and their homes and businesses. They were all jailed when I was very young, but in the early 2000’s, they made a comeback, and started getting serious about doing the same kind of shit they did back in the late 80’s.

Jack van Tongeren with suggestive hairstyle and moustache


So, remembering them from when I was young, I was very active in disrupting their plans and goals, collecting information about who they were and what they were doing, and generally interfering with what they wanted to do. Thankfully, that time around, their group was broken up without them doing any serious harm to anyone – and van Tongeren was exiled out of the state (and is very old by now), so a third coming of the ANM has not and is not going to happen.

2. Where are you now and how did you get there?
 
I live in Mangshi, which is the capital city of Dehong Dai and Jingpo Autonomous Prefecture, which is located in south-west Yunnan, which is located in south-west China, right on the northern border of Myanmar.After I finished working as a doorman at the end of 2009, I went back to university to do my graduate diploma (I’d previously completed a BA in English and History, with Honours in English), and while I was there, I met a visiting scholar from China. We wrote a book together, and I mentioned to her that I knew very little about China, and that I would be interested in working there for a year or so.

Image from here


So she helped me find a job at a private English training school. That job lasted for 6 months until my boss tried to cheat me out of wages and I left after an extremely acrimonious argument which culminated in him throwing a chair at me. When I came back, in 2013, I went to work at the Dehong Teacher’s College. That job was great. It lasted for 3 years, but then I went back home because my grandfather was dying. And a good job I did – he passed away a week after I got back.

At the end of February, I am going back to work at the Dehong Teacher’s College.

3. How does your region relate to the rest of China? How is it different?
 
Where I live is right on the border with northern Myanmar.

Well, Mangshi city itself is a couple hundred kilometres away. It would be much less, except that this whole part of Yunnan consists of mountains, hills, rainforests and valleys. However, Ruili, which is like the commercial centre of Dehong, is literally on the border – the border crossing to Shan State in northern Myanmar is in Ruili itself. In fact, Ruili is a two-part city – the side on the Myanmar side of the border is called Muse, and it is a single city, more or less, with a national border going through it.

Riuli, on the border with Myanmar


So, as you can imagine, the geography and climate is very similar, in fact the same, as that in northern Myanmar. I’ve already mentioned the geography, but the climate is very sub-tropical, with two distinct seasons – cold and dry in the winter and autumn, and warm and very (very!) rainy in the spring and summer.

There’s also similarities in the people who live here. For one thing, 75% or so of the construction and hospitality sectors in Dehong is staffed by people from the Myanmar side of the border, and also, the same ethnic groups tend to live on both sides of the border. They might have different names in Myanmar – for example, Dai people are called Shan, and Jingpo people are called Kachin – but they are the same peoples.

There are also a lot of similarities in the foods that are eaten, the music that people like, and many other cultural aspects.

But as for similarities with the rest of China … well, it is very much still China, even if it has a very different culture as a result of being an ‘ethnic autonomous prefecture’ with a very varied population.

Shan State is largely neglected by the Myanmar government, given that the Myanmar government is dominated by Bamar people who don’t care very much for the ‘hill tribes’ living in the ‘ethnic areas’ on the border. So it’s very under-developed. It suffers from a gross lack of government investment and government funding. So even though the people are hard-working and do the best with what they have, Shan State is noticeably more run-down and under-developed than Dehong. You can see this clearly just by going to Ruili and comparing the Myanmar side of the border to the China side.


Dehong is a very low GDP-per-capita area in a very low GDP-per-capita province of China – Yunnan is the second-lowest GDP-per-capita area of China. In spite of this – or more accurately, because of this – it has received massive amounts of government investment over the last 10 or 15 years, and has developed very much in that time. Roads that were once treacherous and narrow have been replaced by multi-lane expressways leading to every other part of Yunnan and China, and even out of the country.

Villages and towns have received massive amounts of investment, which has meant that every aspect of life in them has improved. This is something which Dehong has in common with very many other, similar, areas all across China, and particularly in northern and western China.All of this sounds a lot like a PR job, or the outright P-word – but it is nothing more or less than the god’s honest truth. That’s one big issue with Western coverage of China – if it’s not outright negative, or at least laced with negativity, it’s largely regarded as propaganda. The well has been poisoned so thoroughly that just trying to give an accurate view of how things are here is somehow suspect.

Mangshi

4. You often mention your wife, Weina. Can you tell us a little bit about her background, how you met and her interests? What was the procedure in terms of your residency there?

Well, Weina is from Shandong province way on the other side of China. She did her degrees at universities in Kunming, which is the capital city of Yunnan, and after she was done, she got a job here at the teacher’s college, where she has worked ever since.

Weina’s very much involved in her work, and very serious and professional on that. Most Chinese academics and teachers are like this, especially those who work in marginal areas like this. But she also very much likes travelling, reading for pleasure, learning about different things, listening to music, watching television, and other things besides. In this sense, and many others besides, we’re pretty well matched with each other.

Weina and Davide


We worked at the same college for three years, from 2013-2016, but we didn’t meet during my time at the college. Well, we met a few days before I went back home, but then I went home and we didn’t talk again until the latter third of 2017, when we were introduced to each other by a colleague from the college. We talked a lot, got along very well, went on a holiday together at the beginning of 2018, and from there decided that we’d both like to stay together from that time on.

So at that point, we started preparing for me to come back to Mangshi. It wasn’t too difficult because I already had a passport and had a job lined up, so I went through the usual process involved in obtaining a work visa for China. That’s the first step. Once I had been issued a work visa, I flew to China, and from there, I obtained my residency permit, and I’ve been living here ever since.

5. How do locals react to your being a foreigner?

It varies quite a lot.

Children range from horror at my ogre-like presence, to treating me like a celebrity. I don’t mind either – it’s quite funny. Children are children, and their reactions have more to do with how they feel at a given moment than anything else.The reaction of adults also varies quite a lot, but isn’t so extreme. Dehong is already quite a multi-ethnic region – it has many different local ethnic groups, plus lots of people from Myanmar and other nearby countries. But not too many ‘Westerners’.

Kids from Davide’s post “Pictures from a Xinjiang Primary School, Kashgar, Xinjiang”.


So, the reaction of adults varies from friendliness, to utter indifference. Really old people, who associate Westerners with the Americans and others who were here during the war, are uniformly friendly. People who are a little older than that, who grew up during the Cultural Revolution and the time in China’s history when foreigners never came here, are a bit more ambiguous … some are friendly, some are unfriendly, and some are obviously wondering what the hell I am doing here. Mind you, they wouldn’t have met a ‘foreigner’ who wasn’t from Myanmar until quite recently. At the earliest, they would have met foreigners maybe twenty years ago. So these kinds of reactions are understandable.

But I have never come across anyone who was openly rude to me, or hostile, or anything like that. The local people are wonderful and tolerant.

Well, once I was threatened with a big knife for taking photos of people who really, really didn’t want to be photographed, but that was at the jade market in Ruili, the border city with Myanmar. And even at that, he just brandished his knife at me and made me understand that I should stop taking photos, which I immediately did.

Jade market in Riuli



Another time, some dudes were sizing me up like a particularly juicy pork-chop – and not in a friendly way – but I’d stumbled into illegal stuff going on, and had a camera in my hand. On both occasions, even though there was an implicit or explicit threat, I was still shown a large amount of forbearance and tolerance, for which I can only be grateful. Neither of those events were because of my being a foreigner, though – my own ignorance caused them.

6. From your posts, I’ve learned that there are several different ethnic groups who live in the region and who maintain a sense of their distinct identity, for example the Dai,  De’ang and Jingpo. Can you talk about some of these minority groups –language and dialect, for example, and their relationship with the Han majority?

Dehong is a Dai and Jingpo Autonomous Prefecture, after the two largest ‘ethnic minority’ groups who live here. However, Dehong is home to at least five different ethnicities besides the Han, Hui, Bamar, and others who live here – the Dehong Dai, Jingpo, De’ang, Lisu, and Achang.

First, there’s the De’ang people. As far as anyone knows, they’re actually the indigenous people of Dehong, and were living here when the Dai people arrived from further north-east over a thousand years ago.

De’ang language is part of the Austroasiatic language family, and is most closely related to certain other languages spoken in India, Bangladesh, and other areas around south-east Asia. They were pre-literate, and now use Dai script – they were introduced to it along with Buddhism by the Dai people when they arrived here – but have a long and rich history and culture.

De’ang people picking tea [Photo/Xinhua] china daily newspaper]


They were and are an agricultural people best known for tea planting- in fact, they may well have introduced tea to the Han people and other peoples of China. Tea is, after all, indigenous to this part of the world, and spread over the world from here. They believe that they are descended from primordial tea plants in an earlier era of the world (I can only compare this era to the Dreamtime, although this is an imperfect comparison to make)- and tea is an integral part of their culture, at every level.

Second, there’s the Dai people. The Dai people are from much further north-east in what is now China. They spread out over Yunnan, Myanmar (where they are called Shan), Thailand (where they are called Tai), and as far south as northern India, from the borderland of modern-day Guizhou, Guangxi, and Hunan provinces, although their ultimate origin is thought to be even further north-west still.

Over the centuries and millennia, they followed the rivers and mountains and hills and valleys to the south and west, where they formed smaller groups in suitable locations for rice-farming, which grew over time into powerful independent kingdoms and principalities. The modern-day Thai people, for example, are related to the various Dai/Tai/Shan peoples – Thai language is about 50% cognate with Dehong Dai language, with many shared vocabulary items (such as numbers).

That bring us to their language. There are many different Dai languages, all of which are mutually intelligible, but which have different influences and vocabularies based on the influence of their neighbours in a given area. Dai languages are part of the same family as Burmese, Thai, Sinhalese, Balinese, Kannada, Tamil, and other ‘south-east Asian languages’. The Dai language spoken in Dehong is referred to as Dehong Dai (or Tai Le or Tai Nua), and has a vast amount of literature, both sacred and secular, written in it, as well as a rich spoken heritage.


Women of the Dai minority


If the De’ang are associated mainly with tea, the Dai are associated mainly with rice planting. The Dai people may have been among the first rice-planting cultures, who introduced the crop, and the best ways of planting it, to many other cultures and peoples. Rice farming has always been the basis of their way of life, their prosperity, and their principalities and kingdoms which have been very powerful and influential in the past. Even today, Dai people are the main basis of the agricultural wealth of Dehong, which is mainly an agricultural area.

Then, there’s the Jingpo and Lisu, who I will deal with together, since much of what is true for the Jingpo is also true for the Lisu. The Jingpo and Lisu are actually two parts of what is called the ‘Jinghpaw Wunpong’, or ‘Jingpo Confederacy’ – a confederation of five different peoples. Or six or seven – it depends who you ask. However, only two of those peoples, the Jingpo and Lisu, live on this side of the China/Myanmar border.

Jingpo woman dancing, photo courtesy of Davide Melia. He has a fascinating explanation for the costume in the February 2021 post “The Dragon Woman, Ja Nang, the progenitor of Jingpo women”



The peoples of the Jinghpaw Wunpong originate from much further north, in central Asia, from a land which they call Ka-ang Shingra. From there, they slowly and gradually moved south – spending a lot of time in different areas along the way, such as Mongolia, modern-day Sichuan province, and many others besides – until they arrived in this part of the world about 500 years ago.

The Jingpo speak a number of languages but here in Dehong, they speak two – Jingpo and Zaiwa. Both of these are Sino-Tibetan languages, although part of a rather rarified branch; many of their closest relatives are in the mainly-extinct Luish/Asakian language group.

Jingpo/Kachin people in this part of the world have been best known for living in the hills and mountains, where they have practiced various forms of agriculture such as swidden farming and raising cattle and other suitable livestock. Jingpo areas have a lot of mineral wealth – most famously, jade and emeralds – and the Jingpo people were well-known as miners.

Unlike the Dai, who were able to maintain large standing armies thanks to their style of agriculture, Jingpo people have long practiced a form of warfare which we might compare most accurately to guerrilla warfare, using smaller units and depending on precise manouvres and hit-and-run attacks. Most recently, they were instrumental in pushing the Japanese out of northern Burma and Yunnan in World War 2. They were organized and trained and armed by the British – although, by all accounts, they didn’t need that much training from the British in guerrilla fighting!

Unlike many other peoples in this part of the world, they are mainly Christians, and were converted by the China Inland Missions in the late 19th Century – although they also retain ideas and cultural elements from their previous animist beliefs.

And then there’s the Achang people. They are the least-known of the ‘ethnic minority’ groups of Dehong, among the people of Dehong themselves, which is a shame because they basically all live here. Their earliest recorded origins were in the region bordering modern-day Sichuan and Gansu provinces. About 2,000 years ago, they travelled to Dehong when their home region was placed under the control of a Han governor at the beginning of the Ming dynasty. At one time, they were tributaries to the Nanzhao and Dali Kingdoms based in Dali, and are well-known for rice farming.

Achang man



Like the De’ang people, the Achang have also been influenced quite a lot by the Dehong Dai. Achang people commonly speak their own language, which is related to Burmese and Arakanese and Zaiwa, but have also spoken Dehong Dai and Mandarin for trading purposes for hundreds of years.

Overall, though, the Achang are very little known – not a lot of work has been done on their history and culture, and even less has been published in the English language.

How do all of these ethnic groups relate to the Han? And how have they related to the Han in the past? Well, for a long time, the Han were not very well established here in south-west Yunnan. There has been a significant Han/Hui presence in Baoshan prefecture to the north-west for about 500 years, but for the most part, the region has been dominated by the various Dai peoples and by a wide variety of different ethnic groups depending on the locality. Various local kingdoms and principalities paid tribute to the Imperial court under the tusi system, but there weren’t really significant populations of Han people in this part of Yunnan for a long time. So, the story of inter-ethnic-group relations here has more to do with how the different non-Han ethnic groups have related to each other. That’s a question which could fill entire volumes of books!

7. What are the aspects you like best about living in Mangshi? What are some of the more challenging things?

Mangshi has a number of features which make it very attractive to live in.

First of all, as you’ll know from my photos and videos, it’s absolutely gorgeous. Dehong is about 1,000 metres above sea level, and it’s made up of 80% rainforest/mountain/hills, 15% rural land, and it’s only about 5% urbanised. It’s basically a giant ‘carbon sink’. So the environment is really good, the air and water are clean, and it has a lot of bio-diversity – even by the standards of Yunnan province, where much of China’s bio-diversity is to be found.

Mangshi River, flowing through a lush green landscape


Second, it has always been, and still is, multicultural and multiethnic. So, not only are there all kinds of different peoples and cultures here, tolerance and acceptances have long been ways of life here. With so many different peoples from so many different places living here, it had to be that way, otherwise society would have broken down a long time ago. Third – the necessities of life are very cheap here. Because it’s a low GDP-per-capita area, wages are quite low. And 2020 was very difficult – I myself was below the poverty level of income, even for here in China, for much of it. And yet, we still got along pretty well. Rent is relatively cheap, transportation is cheap, and food is very cheap indeed, as well as being good-quality.

One thing that is challenging about Dehong is that it is an isolated area. It’s very far from my home in Australia, and from Weina’s home in eastern China. So it’s difficult to see our families more than once a year or so – and lately, what with the virus, it’s been even longer in-between visits.

Another thing is that there are so many different peoples, and so many different cultures, and my eyes are bigger than my stomach. As much as I try, I can’t learn as much as I would like about everyone – so my knowledge is mainly limited to the Dehong Dai and Jingpo people, with a decent amount about De’ang people. So I continually feel like there’s stuff I don’t understand, or that I’m not getting.

8. I particularly like your photographic portraits and the stories you extract from people about their lives. You seem to have a knack for putting your subjects at their ease. Do you have a favorite portrait and accompanying story?

Well, that starts with choosing suitable people to photograph. Some people just don’t want to be photographed, and even asking them is likely to accomplish nothing but aggravating them. If you can clearly see that people look unhappy, or unfriendly, or are doing something that they wouldn’t like others to see – they’re probably not looking to be photographed.

Photographs of wedding guests from the January 2021 post “The wasteland/agricultural land near the new development, Mangshi, Dehong, Yunnan.”



I err on the side of caution on this one – as I said, I’ve been threatened with a big knife once, and had a group of guys out in the countryside regarding me in a very unfriendly fashion – and it would accomplish nothing for me to get tied up in anything like that here. I spent a lot of time in my twenties having people trying to stick me with knives, broken bottles, and so on, as part of my work, but it’s 10, 15 years on from that time in my life, and there is no possible way I could benefit from anything like that now.

From there, if it’s at all possible, I ask permission. It’s not difficult to ask people if they would like to be photographed, and it’s just good manners. It ensures that they’re going to be happy to be photographed, and if they’re happy, they’ll be more relaxed and the photo will turn out better. Sometimes they’d like to take a photo with me, or of me, as well!

I like to photograph people doing everyday things. People pose for photos in much the same way wherever you are in China, or in the world – but their normal body language is very different in different parts, and that difference is part of what makes photographing people so interesting.

I have a lot of favourite portraits, but if I was being prompted to pick one, I’d probably pick one of the pictures I took of an elderly Han woman, who had been foot-bound in her early days, sitting in her grand-daughter’s shop.

A grandmother with bound feet, from Davide’s December 2020 post “Intergenerational Change in rural China, Mangshi, Dehong, China”



Because it’s so isolated and out on the periphery of China, foot-binding actually kept on going here into the 1950s. This lady was one of the very last women who were foot-bound in China, maybe. This is a cultural practice that had been done in China for over 1,000 years, and it only stopped dead in the 1950s, when the Communist government made sustained efforts to stop it, and to remove it from the culture altogether.

But her own daughter didn’t have to go through that, and neither did her granddaughter. She was confined to her family’s home, but now, two generations on, her grand-daughter has her own business, owns the building that her business is in, and can do whatever she wants to do with her life … and didn’t have to go through her whole life functionally crippled.
 
And even though she has been basically crippled for her whole life, she’s pretty happy in her old age, because her daughter and grand-daughter never had to go through that.

9. What would you most like people to take away from ‘South-West China with Davide Melia’?

There’s been an absolutely massive, sustained, propaganda campaign against China, and against the peoples of China, for a long time now – but it’s really spiralled out of control since 2014, when Xi Jinping came to power. And I feel that nearly all of it is being done in bad faith, because many countries see China’s development and growth as an existential threat.

But the truth is, China has gone through many positive changes in that time. Hundreds of millions of people have been raised out of the most awful poverty imaginable. The country is developing at an absolutely unprecedented rate. Even here, in one of the lowest GDP areas in the entire country, this process is going on. Things are getting better for the majority of people in China.

And the people of China are not a mass of evil-doers and brainwashed drones. They are some of the kindest, most friendly, most intellectually curious, and dedicated and committed people I’ve had the pleasure to live amongst.

If people are going to take just two overarching ideas away from my photos and videos, that would be it, I think.

From the October 2020 post “A Red De’ang lady at the mobile phone shop, Mangshi, Dehong, Yunnan”

If you enjoyed this article and would like to learn more about the region, please consider subscribing to Davide’s Patreon page. A very low price gives you access to all previous posts. Plus, Davide is very responsive to feedback and willing to create posts according to subscriber questions and interests.

Uncategorized

A Change is Gonna Come

I’m extremely excited to announce that I’m moving to a new site very soon. It’s going to have a better design, so not only will it look more beautiful but it will also be easier to read, scan and navigate. You’ll still be able to find all the posts you’re used to: merry misadventures, odd short stories and interviews with interesting people from all over the world–it’s just going to look and work a whole lot better.

This is all thanks to Lyn Collie, who is not only an excellent writer, teacher, film-maker, academic and kombucha-brewer, but also a wonder-working web-design wizard. But I will be talking more about Lyn and our website journey in a later post, so stay tuned!

As with any interplanetary trip, there may be a bit of turbulence. For example, you might notice that you can’t leave a comment on this site for a day or two. Apart from that, the transition should be pretty smooth. If you’ve already opted for email notifications for new posts, you should receive an email as usual when I post on the new site. If you ‘follow’ this blog on WordPress, you’ll get a notification on WordPress Reader as usual.

If you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to email me at fictblog@gmail.com

Thanks for reading and I look forward to seeing you on the other side!

Fiction, Original Fiction, Short Stories

A Mendoza Mystery

“I ought to begin by explaining just what I was doing in Argentina.” Rashid Sharif said after setting down his wine glass with care and deliberation, much as a priest would set down the chalice in the Liturgy of the Eucharist.

Ruth Agu, the tall and fashionable MP for Chipping Barnett, amused herself by presiding over lavish dinner parties every Saturday night. It suited her generous nature and a sense of egotism; she liked playing the part of the queen at a banquet, the mistress of ceremonies. As usual, she had dressed her voluptuous six-foot-two frame in rich fabrics and gold jewellery and sat on a gem-encrusted chair that looked suspiciously like a throne.

On this particular night she had invited three guests linked by a common factor: all three had at some point solved a strange murder. Sir Arthur Allen, a retired Detective Chief Inspector, had solved many in a professional capacity. His name was linked to some of the most infamous and grisly crimes in the British Isles. The two others were amateurs and had solved one each, owing to a combination of brains and luck. Claire Cooper, an Oxford medievalist, had helped nut out the Holy Island Horror. And Rashid, a confectionery mogul, dandy and oenophile, had uncovered the strange and terrible Mendoza Mystery.

“I belong, as you may know,” he said, “To a wine appreciation club here in London. It’s very exclusive—members must pass a stringent exam that includes oenology, soil profiling, chemistry, language, history, etiquette and the rhetoric of wine criticism.”

“From what I have heard,” drawled Ruth, “It is something like the Freemasons.”

Rashid waved a scornful hand.

“My dear Ruth, the Freemasons are as about as exclusive as the YMCA nowadays. This is more like the Knights of the Round Table or the Skull and Bones of Yale. In fact, there are only fifteen living members right now. We meet weekly at a little room on Curzon Street to exchange notes and pick one another’s brains. The advantages of membership are considerable—we are invited to taste wines at the best restaurants, we are sent bottles of by boutique houses who produce the most exquisite vintages. Not infrequently we are invited to visit one of these. Of course, they know that we have influence on buyers but it is really more than that. Most of them can already name their price. It is more that we share an appreciation for the tastes and confirm the quality in a semi-official way. “

“Yes, dear Rashid, but the murder?” Ruth said.

“Yes. In a nutshell, it all started with a little bottle of dynamite that arrived at my house one morning by courier.”

“Not real dynamite, surely?” Claire gasped. Hers was a brilliant but literal mind.

“No, though perhaps it would have been better if it was,” Rashid said. “It was a bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon from the Uco Valley of the Mendoza province of Argentina. The label was handmade and unusual in that there was no information about the vintage at all. It simply featured the black-and-white pen-drawn design of a labyrinth with a Minotaur in its centre. I must admit (though I hasten to add that I would never judge a wine by its label) that I was completely charmed by this drawing.”

“I’d like to see it some time,” Ruth, one of the most avaricious art buyers in the city, interrupted. “May I?”

“My dear lady, you may take it!” Rashid said. “I put it in a drawer and don’t want to set eyes on it again.”

“You exaggerate,” Ruth smiled.

“I assure you, I do not,” Rashid snapped.

Flustered, he smoothed back a silver lock of hair that had come loose and turned a signet ring of carnelian and gold around on the ring finger of his right hand. “But at that time, as I say, I was intrigued—no, fascinated. I opened the letter that had accompanied the parcel. It was written in elegant cursive by the winery’s owner, one Dedalus Brunier. He introduced himself as the scion of a Bordeaux winemaking family. His father had taught him viticulture and winemaking and had early on encouraged his independent scientific researches. The result was, he said (in a tone that seemed to me slightly defensive), that he had set out to produce a wine that would marry the best of tradition with modern science, a wine that would (in his words) transcend any other that had ever existed!”

Arthur Allen twitched his moustache.

“Well, but is that possible?”

“I would not have thought so, Sir Allen, but yes it is. The sip that I took of that unnamed wine…for half an hour I sat at my kitchen table with my mouth open. It was…indescribable. When the shock had worn off, I sent him a reply by email assuring him I’d be there as soon as I could. Not ten minutes later, he had already sent a reply expressing his pleasure in anticipation.

Well, I was so excited that I invited my friend Walter over for a blind tasting. He was amazed—of course he identified it as a Cabernet Sauvignon but he couldn’t guess where it was from and as for the effect, he was as shocked as I had been.

When I told him who the maker was, his face went through a series of contortions. At first it cleared up as if everything was explained. Then it crinkled in displeasure and he shook his head.

“You say you’ve already booked a flight?” he asked.

“Yes, I did it the same day I got his letter,” I replied.

Walter pushed his glass away from him gingerly, as if it contained Polonium. He looked me in the eyes and said in a low voice, “Rashid, I tell you now, for the sake of our friendship and of your own happiness, you must not take that flight.”

“What?” I was amazed. “Why not? Didn’t you just taste that miraculous creation? Walter, you know me, I simply must know more. I will not rest until I’ve seen the soil and placed a hand on one of the oak barrels, until I’ve been a witness to the alchemy of sunlight on vine leaves in the misty southern dawn. Why, this is the ineffable goal of our vocation!”

Walter paced the kitchen, his face strained, thinking carefully of how to word his disagreement.

“I know, Rashid, I know. That’s how it seems to you. The wine is…unusual, I grant you.”

“Unusual?” I scoffed at the inadequacy of the word.

“Of course it would affect you this way. You are the true devotee. Your spirit responds to what is exquisite, beautiful, fascinating in its make-up. It is right and natural that you should want to kneel at the temple.”

“So, what on earth is the problem?” I shrugged.

“The problem,” he took a deep breath, “After the nose of a dancing girl with a rose between her teeth, after the bouquet of parrots in ceiba trees, the chill of Andean snow…after all that, or behind it or under it, didn’t you notice anything else?”

I pondered.

“Well, yes. I noticed a subtle shadow, a movement, as of a Leviathan passing beneath a rowing boat. Of course,” I shrugged, “This only added to the attraction.”

“And? The scent of brimstone?”

“Sulfur, of course. But exaggerated to glorious, outlandish dimensions, just like all the other elements. Each aspect becomes larger than life, larger than imagination even.”

“My dear friend,” said Rashid with that serious face that was really starting to get on my nerves. “That is the smell of fair warning. If you like, it is the smell of Evil.”

I stared at the man, wondering if he’d lost his mind.

“What do you mean?”

He shook his head sadly.

“I can’t say more than that.”

“For goodness’ sake, don’t be so vague and dramatic,”

“I told someone close to me that I wouldn’t tell. You have to trust me as your friend.”

I laughed, thinking that this must be some kind of silly prank. But he took me by the shoulder and shook me angrily. His face was purple.

“I’m serious Rashid! You must not go to Mendoza!”

I wriggled free from his grasp and looked at him with horror. I had never thought that Walter was suffering from delusions. He’d always been expressive and dramatic but not to this absurd extent and for no reason.

Then a terrible thought struck me. He was jealous! He envied my discovery. Either he planned to go in my stead or, like the dog in the manger, he wanted to deprive me of what he couldn’t have.

“I’m sorry, Walter,” I said haughtily, “But I will go to that vineyard. Frankly, I think your objection absurd—at best.”

Walter wilted. He understood.

“You suspect my intentions? Then already the poison is having its effect.” He sighed and looked into my eyes once again, searching for a hint of our old friendship. “You’ll remember what I’ve said, won’t you? And if—when—something terrible odd happens, something you can’t quite explain…look out for yourself.”

“I promise,” I said scathingly, “That if Señor Dedalus turns out to have a forked tongue and cloven hoof, I’ll think of you.”

To my surprise and consternation, he seemed to be choking back tears. He spontaneously threw his arms around me and held my face in his hands, studying it as if for the last time. He kissed my cheek, then dropped his arms by his sides in a gesture of defeat.

“Goodbye, my friend,” he said and turned away.

This meeting seriously annoyed me, not least because it half spoiled my exhilaration at tasting wine and the prospect of going to Mendoza, which was effectively identical to the thrill falling in love. Walter had deliberately thrown a wet blanket all over my fire of passion and for this I found it hard to forgive him. I decided not to tell anyone else at the club in order to avoid more unpleasantness.

“Damn the man,” I muttered to myself. “Why should I be made to feel low and skulking? It is my duty according to our Oath to pursue with the best wines of the world.”

I decided to go ahead as I’d planned, to return with notes and sample bottles and to triumphantly present it to the club. It would be a fait accompli, and to hell with Walter’s envious objections.

By the time I arrived in Mendoza, I had almost forgiven Walter for his outburst. The novelty of the sights, sounds and smells of Argentina had dazzled my senses and put me in a generous frame of mind. And then, from the moment I met Dedalus, I was so swept up by his charm and enthusiasm that it was impossible to think of anything else.

Dedalus Brunier was an elegant figure whose clothes fitted so well that they seemed an organic part of his person. He looked to be in his mid-fifties and was smaller than average with a shock of wavy grey hair on the verge of mutiny. He moved with the easy, efficient grace of a waiter at a good restaurant or of a gymnast. In all his gestures, his eyes and words there was a suppressed electricity that gave the impression that something extraordinary was about to happen—a revolution or miracle or cataclysm. This was partly due to his habit of taking me aside by the arm and talking in low tones, like a conspirator.

“Tell me, Mr. Sharif,” he murmured, “What do you think of my little wine? Ah!” He held up a finger, arresting my response, “There is no need to hold yourself back. I welcome criticism. Especially from one of your calibre.”

I thought this somewhat disingenuous considering I’d already praised the wine to the skies in our email correspondence, but as a matter of courtesy I repeated in detail the wonders of my initiation into that superlative taste, the first effects of the elixir he had wrought. He listened in rapt attention, his dark eyes thirstily absorbing my words. Finally, he threw up his hands as if releasing a dozen doves.

“Perfection! Mr. Sharif, today you have made me very happy. Yes, very happy. In these few words, you have managed to conjure the very essence of my life’s work, the expression of which I first felt only in my soul but after these many years have succeeded in wrestling from the soil, from the fruit, from labour and fortune. After so many disasters, failed attempts, mistakes, it was realized. But until I heard your words, I did not feel the sweetness of my success. You see, you understand!”

He seemed genuinely moved. Pushing aside my initial embarrassment, I felt the warm glow that rises between fellow enthusiasts.

“Mr. Dedalus,” I said, “That is why I’ve come here, to spread the gospel. Thanks to my connections, your creation will be known for the triumph of winemaking in our age. I plan to make you famous!”

I should at this juncture take a moment to describe the house where he lived. It was in the Uco Valley in Mendoza, near a big more commercially oriented vineyard whose premium wines sold well in fancy restaurants and whose box wine graced dinner tables throughout the world. At one corner of this large vineyard, Dedalus’ section occupied a conical hill, a little like a tumulus or earthern pyramid. The mound was terraced carefully so as to maximize growing efficiency.

What’s more, I noticed on approaching the property that the soil gave off a distinctive odour. There were hints of sulfur but also of chalk, white roses and something sickly and repellent, rather like an open-air abbatoir I’d seen in Morocco. It was the kind of dark olfactory  mystery I was looking for when I came to explore the terroir, and my heart started beating faster in anticipation of what I would learn.

“My friend,” said Dedalus as we strolled through the trussed up vines, “Can you guess how old these plants are?”

I eyeballed them and made a quick guess, confident of the ballpark.

“They’re three years, roundabout. The right size, the green vigour, the tell-tale color of the budding leaf.”

He smiled slyly, like a child who has successfully duped an adult. He shook his head.

“Guess again!” he cried.

“They are certainly no more than five. The limbs are still green and flexile, not a trace of woodiness.”

“In fact, Mr. Rashid,” he said with barely disguised delight, “They are a hundred and fifty years old.”

“What?! I don’t believe it!” I cried. And I didn’t. I was offended that he would think I’d fall for such a big lie. No grape vine on earth produces decent wine after more than 70 years. And besides, he himself had told me that he’d only acquired the vineyard a few decades ago.

“How old are they really?” I asked.

“Really they are a hundred and fifty years. They were planted in the year 1870 by—well, it doesn’t matter who, but this is the truth. Not only is it the truth, but it is the secret of the wine’s very success!”

“I’m afraid I don’t understand,” I said. “What do you mean?”

He laughed and tapped the side of his nose with a finger. “Do you suppose I would part with my secret so easily? Have patience, my friend, and it shall perhaps become clear.”

Mystified, I brooded on his words and was hence only listening with half an ear as we continued walking and he pointed out the vines, the special methods of cultivating them, the influence of local weather patterns, and so forth.

In the distance, the snowy peaks of the Andes stood like ancient guardians of the valley. They were not going to give up their secrets either, I could tell just by looking at them.

By the end of our little tour, I was feeling quite fatigued. My shoes were not designed for long hikes and, besides, my mind had been running around in circles trying to discover what Dedalus meant by saying the vines were 150 years. I said I felt the need of a little rest and he showed me to my room and pointed out an electric bell I could ring if I needed anything. We settled on meeting in the banquet hall for a tasting session at seven o’clock that night.

While folding up my jacket and setting it on a chair by my window, I happened to see something that made me freeze like a statue. There, walking along the path below my window, was Walter! He was disguised, wearing a pair of faded blue overalls and with his long hair cropped short, but there was no doubt about it. The handsome, ox-like face, the height, the grace of his movements: these all belonged to my erstwhile friend.

He was walking from the main house to the large barreling shed, carrying a hammer and a set of keys. There were about four different locks on the door and he unlocked each one with a practiced hand. Then he looked around him, entered and closed the door behind him.

After my initial amazement, I was consumed with indignant anger. That snake-in-the-grass had gone to great lengths to dissuade me from coming here. When that didn’t work, it seemed he’d smuggled himself into the staff and now he was actually snooping around the barrels, no doubt collecting samples for analysis.

For a few minutes I sat down on the chair, heedless of rumpling my jacket, and wrestled with my conscience. After all, despite our recent falling out, Walter had been a dear friend for many years. On the other hand, what he was doing was certainly criminal and could potentially compromise Mr. Dedalus’ business. Mr. Dedalus was my host and, what’s more, a charming person. Suddenly, too, I realized that if Mr. Dedalus discovered my friendship with Walter, he would immediately think we were colluding against him. The prospect horrified me. My reputation would be ruined! I cursed Walter’s foolishness and pushed the bell.

“My dear Mr. Rashid! What is the matter? Are you feeling well?”

Shortly afterwards, my host appeared in person. His happy beam faded as he saw the anguish on my face.

“I am not, I’m afraid. I have bad news, Mr. Dedalus. The fact is, I have just seen an intruder enter your barrelling shed.”

He left. In a few seconds a piercing whistle filled the house. Dozens of people dressed in blue overalls appeared. I hadn’t seen any of them before and was surprised that his staff was at once so large and so discreet.

“An intruder!” he exclaimed. “I have been afraid of exactly that. Thank you and please, excuse me.”

Walter emerged from the door still holding his hammer and I expected him either to flee or to attack his assailants. My heart was in my mouth, fearing that he would meet his death there in Mendoza and that I would bear responsibility for it. But, as it happened, after a few heated words, he shook his head. The leader of the blue-overall brigade touched him on the shoulder in a friendly way, then Walter shrugged and went back inside with a couple of other men. They were in there for about five minutes. My eyes remained fixed on the door and finally they came out together, all laughing and joking. They said a few words to the crowd, which then dispersed as quickly and quietly as it had appeared.

I was now thoroughly confused. Somehow, Walter had convinced them that he was genuinely a member of the staff. It became clear to me that I ought to speak privately to Dedalus to tell him the risk he was running.

Again, I pressed the button. After three or four minutes, Dedalus appeared again, all smiles.

“I am happy to say that we have searched the shed thoroughly and there was no one there except Mr. Lyons, my right-hand man.

“Mr. Lyons? Is he quite a tall fellow in overalls with a broad forehead and a Roman nose?”

“Yes, that is he,” my host nodded.

“I regret to inform you, then,” I said with a heavy heart, “That the man you know as Mr. Lyons is in fact Walter Boniface of London. I don’t know why he should be here under false pretences but I’m sure it is against your interests to give him free reign of your establishment.”

Dedalus frowned.

“Walter, you say? But my friend, that is impossible! Mr. Lyons is my oldest and most trusted employee. He helped me plant the first vines so many years ago! He has not left the vineyard for more than a week at a time. I’m afraid you are mistaken.”

I gaped at him.

“A case of a doppelgänger, that is all,” he shrugged. “And lucky for us that it is so, eh?” he laughed. “Forget it. In one hour, you will come downstairs to the banquet hall and I will present to you Mr. Lyons and to some of our vintages, yes?”

“Yes, of course,” I murmured, forcing myself to break out of my trance to answer as civilly as possible.

He departed in a buoyant mood and I was left in a fog of misapprehension. A doppelgänger? Could that be it after all? A coincidence of fairly giant proportions. It didn’t satisfy me, not at all. It was then that I remembered Walter’s warning to me:

If—when—something odd occurs, something you can’t explain, be careful!

Already, two odd things had occurred: Dedalus’ assertion that the vines were 150 years old and now Walter-who-wasn’t-Walter. What did it all mean? And be careful of what, exactly? Determined to forget the situation for a moment, I pulled my dog-eared copy of Donaldson’s Wine Guide from my briefcase, threw myself into an overstuffed chair and lost myself in the old familiar lines.

At a ten to seven, the dinner gong sounded downstairs. I dressed with care and descended with a renewed sense of anticipation. Already my initial excitement had returned and the strange dread occasioned by the afternoon’s strangeness had receded. After all, a lot of people resemble others. And prior to my journey I had been admittedly a little obsessed with Walter’s bizarre Beware-the-Ides-of-March routine. I had strained my mind and so was inclined to see Walters everywhere, that was all. Not only that, but the window of my room was a little dirty and smeared with the dust of ages. Probably that had obscured my view.

Such were my thoughts as I entered the banquet hall such as they were, they immediately vanished when I met Walter there, for now I was sure it was him and him alone. He stood up smiling to greet me and extended a hand.

“How do you do?” he said. “My name is Bernard Lyons.”

“Like hell it is!” I snarled. “Your name is Walter Boniface and you are playing some kind of elaborate prank! I demand an explanation for your behaviour.”

I glared at him expectantly. To my astonishment, the man laughed a little and even slapped and on his thigh. His teeth looked unnaturally white in his sun-browned face.

“Of course!” he cried. “I should have guessed.”

“I see nothing funny about it whatsoever,” I said grimly.

“No, no, of course,” he assumed a serious expression. “Look, but it all makes sense! You’re a friend of my brother. That’s why, when you saw me enter the shed, you assumed I was intruding. You see, he’s my identical twin. You know him as Walter but his given name is Ralph Lyons.”

I looked at him suspiciously, not sure if I could credit such a bizarre statement. But now I noticed that the back of his neck was brown and leathery from long exposure to the sun, whereas Walter wore his hair long and his skin had been rather pale. And his hands, too, were calloused and wrinkled. Walter’s had been as white and slender as a girl’s.

“Walter never mentioned having a brother,” I said dubiously.

“I imagine,” said Bernard, “That he never mentioned family at all. Did he?”

I had to admit that this was true.

The man dug into his pocket and produced a wallet, from which he extracted a print of a painting of two angelic little boys, both dressed like Ottoman generals, riding a toy horse and waving little swords.

Jeanne Vergouwe, Portrait of twins riding wooden little horses oil on canvas, 1668

“That’s us when we were five,” he smiled. “I keep it with me to remind me of happier times. Tell me, when did you first meet Walter?” 

“About twenty years ago.”

“He used to work here, you know.”

“Did he?” I was starting to believe him in spite of myself. His eyes were wide and limpid.

“Yes, we both joined at the same time, when we were still in our teens. It was our dream to plant our own vines. Dedalus already had a reputation for genius and we thought we would do well to follow him.”

“So, what happened? Why did Ralph leave and change his name?” I asked.

Bernard shrugged. He crossed over to a table where several bottles sat breathing out in readiness for the tasting. At that moment, Dedalus entered.

“Shall we begin, gentlemen?” he asked, rubbing his hands together.

That night I lay awake for hours. It was not because of my excitement over the wines. No, that had been eclipsed by what I’d learned of Walter. He was one of my oldest friends and now I realized that everything I thought I’d known of him had been a lie: his name, his background (he always insisted he’d been born in Spain). Nor was I satisfied by Bernard’s casual explanation of his departure for England. There was something in Bernard’s face that suggested it was a lie, that story about him leaving on a whim. Something, I was convinced, had happened. And now that I had his name, Ralph Lyons, it might be possible to get to the bottom of it.

The next day was a Monday. As soon as I’d dressed, I sent a message to Deirdre, a close friend of mine who works as a librarian. I asked if she could locate for me any news stories containing the name Ralph Lyons.

Downstairs, bright and fresh at the breakfast table sat Dedalus. He told me he had a full day’s programme mapped out for us. He’d invited experts to lunch with us and discuss the composition of the local soil. Then he would take me to the vineyard’s archives.

Lunch was a pleasant enough affair, Dedalus’ personal chef was of a calibre that you might find at a Michelin-starred restaurant. The pairings were analogous to duets played by two virtuosos in perfect sympathy in their prime. But though my mouth watered and my nose was bewitched, my mind was perpetually busy with the puzzle of Walter’s true identity.

Over dessert, a dulce de leche macaron, my phone vibrated and I excused myself to take a cigar outside. Standing under a rose-laden bower, I checked: it was Deirdre. She said she’d found a few matches but nothing from Mendoza in the period I’d mentioned: no birth announcements, no mentions of any kind. Disappointed and puzzled, I put my phone away and gazed a few moments at the looming peaks of the Andes.

Was Bernard Lyons lying? Was Walter not his twin brother? It occurred to me that there was a way I could check—quite easily—whether Bernard and Walter were one and the same person. I called Walter on a video chat. He answered immediately.

“Rashid! Hi! What a surprise!” he exclaimed.

I was conscious of a feeling of awkwardness.

“Hi! Walter, listen…” my mind was working, trying to buy time as I checked him out. “I wanted to apologize to you for my behaviour the other day, you know, losing my temper like that.”

His hair was still long, his face was still pale, the hands soft and pale. He was in his kitchen in his central London apartment. Through his window, I saw a double-decker bus go by. It was Walter, and Walter was not Bernard.

“Oh, don’t mention it!” he waved a hand. “So how are you? How was the flight? Everything OK?” he asked and his face had assumed a worried expression. I had half a mind to share my thoughts with him then and there, but something in me resisted.

“Oh, yes, everything’s tip-top,” I said. Looking up, I saw Bernard walking towards me. “Listen, I have to go…just wanted to make sure things were OK between us. I’ll call you later. Ciao!!” I hung up quickly, not wanting Bernard to see who I’d been calling.

Bernard nodded a greeting. In the sunlight I could see once and for all that he definitely wore no disguise and even looked very different from Walter in some respects. His skin was leathery and brown from countless days spent in the summer sun. His hands were brown, and calloused. His eyes had none of the romantic, limpid quality characteristic of Walters. Instead, they were rather hard, with a boring intensity.

He nodded a greeting.

“So, you’re a friend of Ralph, eh? How’s he keeping these days?”

I had the uncomfortable sensation that he’d been reading my mind.

“He’s good,” I said as naturally as possible. “You know…healthy, good job, owns his own apartment, a lovely spot near Piccadilly. He’s one of the country’s leading wine critics. Well,” I laughed, “I’m sure that comes as no surprise.”

“And what sort of work does he do these days?” Bernard asked lazily. “That he can afford an apartment like that?”

I realized, with a flush of embarrassment, that I didn’t know. I’d always assumed that he’d had family money. Our friendship was a longstanding one but it was firmly rooted in our mutual interest in and passion for wine, nothing else. Well…that is not strictly true. We cared for one another too, of course. It was just that our friendship had grown up out of wine, was nourished by wine and needed little else to flourish.

“I believe,” I hesitated, reluctant to admit my ignorance, “He has an important position in finance. He doesn’t talk shop much—I assume so as not to breach confidentiality.”

Bernard smiled wryly. “Sure. Well, I’m happy he’s made such a success of himself.”

He took his hands out of his pockets and one was holding a set of car keys.

“So, Dedalus suggested I drive you to the archives. Unless you wanted coffee first?”

“No, no, let’s go,” I said.

We walked to a silver sports car very sleek and low to the ground. For the first five minutes we were silent. The drive was incredibly smooth, the spectacular landscape seemed to fly by. I was starting to enjoy myself when Bernard started humming a little tune. I recognized it as “Le Veau d’Or” from Gounod’s Faust. It seemed to me that he was humming it in an unpleasant, insinuating way and wished that he would stop.

I decided to make conversation to stop the humming.

“So…these archives. What sort of information do they contain?”

Bernard didn’t answer, he just smiled in a way that was a little grotesque.

I was a annoyed at the vague insolence of his response but was determined not to show it. “I suppose it’s records of the land and the like, things like where the vines were sourced from and the chemical composition,” I was babbling, I knew, but the sound of my own voice was comforting.

The car stopped abruptly outside of an architectural curiosity, a very low pearl-grey building with tinted windows.

“Here it is,” he grunted.

We got out and as we crunched over the gravel I had the feeling, the image flashed into my mind of a man being led unwittingly to his execution.

He unlocked the entrance door with an electronic key and I stepped into a vast hall whose ceilings were very high and of glass, so we were standing under the blue cloud-scudded sky. I gasped.

“The building looks low from the outside,” Bernard explained, “But its walls are made of tall mirrors. It’s a trick.”

“A little like a trompe-l’oeil,” I nodded appreciatively.

“Anyway,” he looked at his watch, “Dedalus said I should show you a film

We entered an auditorium with seating for about 200 people. He showed me to a seat and then left to go through a door at the back. I suppose it was the projection room.

The movie began with a bird’s eye view of the vineyard—a leafy expanse with the snowy mountains in the background. Then it switched to an oil painting, supposedly done in 1795, by a well known portrait painter. I knew it must be a joke because the proprietor in the painting was Bernard himself. He was dressed in old fashioned clothes but it was certainly him.

Baron Antoine Jean Gros (French, Paris 1771–1835 Meudon) François Gérard (1770–1837), later Baron Gérard, 1790 Oil on canvas; 22 1/8 x 18 5/8 in. (56.2 x 47.3 cm) The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Gift of Mrs. Charles Wrightsman, 2002 (2002.441)

The movie continued, describing the business’s various setbacks and successes. From the late 1800s there were daguerotypes of the land. These also featured figures that looked just like Dedalus and the Lyons twins. It was like that the whole way through: in each period the same people appeared without having aged at all. In the 1920s they wore bowler hats. In fact, in 1926, there was old film footage of a horse-drawn coffin.

“Then, in 1926, tragedy struck: Ralph Lyons died of tuberculosis.” I read the English subtitles with disbelief.

The film rolled right along. In the ’50s they were in polo shirts, in the 1990s they were in T-shirts, jeans and sneakers. I noted in passing that Ralph Lyons had left the vineyard in 1926 “for personal reasons”.

The thing was intriguing. I wondered at the effort the filmmakers had gone to in constructing such an elaborate illusion. Why? Was it to make the vineyard seem older than it really was?

When the movie ended, the room suddenly flooded with natural light. I saw that Dedalus had entered and was making his way down the aisles towards me.

“Well, what did you think?” he asked with his usual smile.

“Fascinating! I was wondering who the director was. They did an excellent job, it all looked quite convincing.”

“What was that? Convincing? Well, of course! It’s a documentary. It’s real,” he shrugged.

“But Mr. Dedalus, I mean…the gist might be true but the way you and the Lyons brothers kept appearing in every decade without aging in the least, I mean that was really clever cinema.”

“Like I said,” Dedalus spoke slowly, smiling slyly, “It is all completely true.”

I was now convinced that he was trying to con me but I didn’t quite know how to contradict him without creating an ugly scene. After all, I was still his guest. So I shrugged and smiled and hoped that we might change the subject.

“That is what I wanted you to see, Mr. Rashid,” Dedalus said softly. “The truth about me, about us. I thought that you would be someone who could comprehend, in a way that most ordinary people couldn’t.”

My toe started twitching with impatience but I exerted some self control.

I waited for him to go on.

“This is not just about wine,” said Dedalus in a stronger voice. “This is about you and your potential. You have before you a choice, my friend! Sit down, let’s watch some more.”

Suddenly the lights went out again and the screen was filled with golden flames. I froze in place, clutching the arms of my seat, not completely sure of what was happening.

A woman’s voice calm, suggestive and assured oozed over us.

“Has it ever occurred to you how much you might do if you had more time? What about if you had many centuries more time? One of the tragedies of mortal life is how briefly our brightest lights burned. Mozart—dead at 35, Catullus at 30, Evariste Galois at 20! What if they had been allowed to live, how much they might have shown us, how much they might have done.”

Dozens, hundreds, thousands of faces flashed across the screen in fast, flickering motion.

“Now you may choose anonymous, futile oblivion or you may choose an eternal life in which you are able to create masterworks, solve theorems, invent machines all for the greater benefit of humankind.”

The screen showed a helicopter, a defibrillator, an intubator, a cellphone and dozens of other everyday items. Finally, it showed a bottle of Dedalus wine.

“This is the product of what ordinary men can do with 150 years. It is the best wine you have ever tasted. You know why? Because one team has devoted that amount of time to one project: testing, developing, improving it without interruption, without the informational loss that accompanies the physical loss of a life. The elixir that you can’t believe is real, is real. It’s a miracle that whispers to you of your own potential. Don’t ignore that whisper.”

The film ended.

Dedalus turned to me.

“Don’t ignore that whisper, Mr. Rashid.”

“What are you saying?” I asked.

“I want to propose a partnership with you.”

“What kind of a partnership?”

“Join us,” he said simply, “And live forever!”

“I’ll have to think about it,” I said.

“Of course, of course,” he patted my sleeve. “It is not something to do lightly. I understand. But I will also tell you, you won’t regret it! Come, let us head off to the house. You must be tired.”

“Yes, yes,” I said faintly, “I do feel tired.”

When we got back to the house, Dedalus offered me a liqueur to assist my sleep. I drank it like an automaton and went up to my bedroom. I texted my librarian friend Deirdre and told her I urgently wanted information about a vineyard in Mendoza in 1925 or 1926. She promised to find out within a half hour.

Then I must have drifted off to sleep because the next thing I knew, my phone was ringing and buzzing in my hand, just in time for me to see Bernard Lyons come into my room with a hammer in his hand.

Despite my drowsiness, adrenaline forced me into action. I took a picture of him and sent it to Walter.

“I have just sent a picture of you to your brother, Mr. Lyons. He will transmit it to the police. I’m afraid that if anything happens to me, things will not go well with you.”

He dropped the hammer on the floor and laughed.

“Why, Mr. Rashid! What do you mean? I was simply coming to ask whether you were comfortable!”

“In fact, I am very far from being comfortable. I would like you to leave. I am leaving this den of weasels in five minutes flat.”

He left and I quickly stuffed my belongings into my bag. I also took a pill to keep me awake and to counter the fluffy feeling in my head. I half expected Bernard to brain me with some other implement the moment I stepped out of the door, so instead I escaped through the window. I knew it was a few kilometers to the nearest village but I was prepared to get a few blisters for the sake of my life.

As I walked along the dusty road, the phone rang. It was Walter.

“Are you all right, Rashid?” he asked breathlessly. “The police are on their way.”

“Excellent, then I won’t have to walk so far after all.”

Back in London a few days later, I asked Walter to come clean with me.

He looked haunted. Unusually for him, he hadn’t shaved and looked thinner.

“I hoped he wouldn’t do it. I believed he’d changed,” Walter shook his head sadly. “The temptation was too strong, I suppose.”

“You’d better tell me about it from the beginning,” I said.

He nodded.

“Dedalus was born in 1750, the son of a French aristocrat from Bordeaux who’d attended the Academy of Bordeaux, determined to discover the perfect methods for creating wine. He taught his son everything he knew and instilled in him a passion for scientific investigation into the art of growing grapes.

“My father discovered something remarkable, that the fabled Phlogiston exists, though the process of distilling it had been soiled with medieval superstition. After years of experimentation, he used the distillate to create an elixir that effected rejuvenation. Unfortunately, this elixir also required the extract of a human marrow bone.”

“How did he…acquire this…?” I stammered.

“Our poor mother,” Walter said with a catch in his voice. “Once he had discovered this, he couldn’t be stopped. He fed the formula to us as infants. Bernard and I are his sons,” he said. “The three of us are immortal.”

“My father was on the verge of presenting the formula to King Louis XVI. He hoped to become a member of the court. After all, with his secret, what monarch would be without him? But then the Revolution broke out.

“Our family fled to North America. My father was distraught because we had to leave our instruments behind. In a way, he’d left his powers behind. We kept moving south, ending up in Argentina. It was here that he began his life’s work: the vineyard.

“But after a hundred years, he noticed something: he was starting to age. So were we. He figured out that he needed to make another sacrifice. There was a woman who worked on the vineyard. Her name was Eloise. She was a kind-hearted, simple woman, devoted to my father.” He hung his head.

“Bernard killed her with a hammer. I didn’t know about it. They knew I was squeamish, that I might report it to the police. My father prepared the solution and I’d drunk it before I knew what it was. Eloise’s husband suspected something, though. He came around asking for her. He became an annoyance to my father. And one day he stopped coming around. I decided then that I didn’t want any more part in his world. I left for Europe.”

“In 1926,” I said.

“Yes,” he nodded. “And now, I suppose, they were starting to feel the effects wearing off again and they needed another sacrifice. I shouldn’t have let you go,” he said.

“You tried to stop me,” I said.

“Not hard enough,” he had tears in his eyes.

“I wouldn’t have believed you,” I scoffed and hugged him. “But there’s one thing I’ve been wondering. Why me? Couldn’t they kidnap any local and brain them with a hammer?”

“I’ve been wondering about that,” said Walter. “And I believe I know the answer. My father cares about wine. It is my belief that he had so honed the process that he wasn’t satisfied with the marrow of any old human: he needed the marrow of a connoisseur.”

The guests all shivered at the conclusion of the story.

“Well!” said Ruth “I sincerely hope you keep an eye on your colleagues at your wine appreciation club!”

History, Medieval, Travel

The Battle of Clontarf Heritage Trail

A couple of weeks ago I set out on a coastal run little suspecting that it would be paved with the storied bones of proud chieftains and rapacious Vikings. In fact, the curve of the coast from Clontaf to Howth was marked all along the way with signs that told of the Battle of Clontarf, one of the bloodiest and most significant battles in Irish History. What was it all about?

The approach to Clontarf from Dublin

The Viking Age in Ireland

The very first entry in the Annals of Ulster, in 841, is “Pagans still on Lough Neagh”. It’s quite a telling sentence, suggesting that the strangers had arrived fairly recently and were entirely welcome to leave.

“Visitors from Over the Sea” by Nicholas Roerich (1910)

The Vikings (for they were the Pagans in question) had no intention of going away any time soon. They had been successfully raiding the British Isles since at least 793, when they popped into the priory at Lindisfarne, an island off England’s eastern coast. The Archbishop Alcuin of York wrote a chilling account of that particular visit:

“Lo, it is nearly 350 years that we and our fathers have inhabited this most lovely land, and never before has such a terror appeared as we have now suffered from a pagan race, nor was it thought that such an inroad from the sea could be made. Behold the church of St. Cuthbert spattered with the blood of the priests of God, despoiled of all its ornaments.”

As long as there were treasure-filled undefended monasteries to loot, the Vikings didn’t see any reason to stop doing their thing.

Eighth century gilded disc crafted in Ireland or Scotland and excavated from the tomb of a high-status Viking woman in Norway

In Ireland, the Vikings (mostly Norwegian as distinct from the Danes who settled England) founded fortresses and trade centers that would later become cities. They first arrived in the Dublin area about 795, raiding a monastery on Lambay Island. By 841, they’d established a settlement there. The Irish called it Fine Gall (foreign people) and/or Dubh linn (black pool). Both names stuck; Fingal is now a county and Dublin is the capital of the Republic of Ireland. Over the next three centuries it became a major trading post, and the biggest ‘export commodity’ was slaves.

Dublin seen from Howth. It’s true, the water is a bit dark.

The Irish frequently fought with the Vikings but they also fought among themselves. There was one nominal ‘High King’ but in fact there were about 150 local kingdoms and a dozen over-kingdoms, all fighting for dominance. According to John Hawyood (author of Northmen: The Viking Saga AD 793-1241) this fractured political landscape made Ireland less vulnerable to a large-scale Viking takeover than either England or France. At the same time, the Vikings gradually assimilated into Gaelic society and became Norse-Gaels.

Brian Boru

In 997, the High King of Ireland Máel Sechnaill Mór and his old enemy Brian Boru, King of Munster met and decided to make a truce and split up the island between them: Mael would get the northern half of Ireland and retain high kingship, Brian would get the southern half. The people of Leinster (an area just outside of Dublin) objected to this and made an alliance with Dublin to revolt. In the Battle of Glenmama in 999, Mael Mor and Brian Boru crushed the Leinster revolt so decisively that they had a clear path to Dublin. In 1000, Brian Boru plundered the city, burned the Norse fortress and expelled the King, Silkbeard (Sigtrygg II Silkbeard Olafsson). Silkbeard looked around for friends but found none and finally went to submit to Brian Boru, who offered Silkbeard his first daughter in marriage, while Brian took Silkbeard’s mother Gormflaith as his second wife.

Posthumous coin minted in 1050 to commemorate Silkbeard

In the 1010s, Brian Boru and Silkbeard had a falling out. In the first place, BB divorced Silkbeard’s mother, who then (according to Njál’s saga) nagged her son to kill him. Meanwhile, Leinster was gearing up for another revolt. Silkbeard joined Leinster’s cause and made alliances with the Viking leaders in Orkney and the Isle of Man. In Holy Week 1014, Silkbeard’s Viking allies sailed into Dublin. They were met by Brian Boru, High King Máel Sechnaill, several other kings and thousands of troops.

Battle of Clontarf (Vikings in Red) By 赤奋若 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0

Hugh Frazer Battle of Clontarf (1826). Picture Colin Keegan, Collins Dublin.

What ensued was the Battle of Clontarf, in which most of the commanders, along with thousands of unnamed soldiers, died. According to Cogad Gáedel re Gallaib (“The War of the Irish with the Foreigners”), a twelfth-century account of the battle, Brian Boru was killed in his tent whilst praying. Silkbeard was not involved in the battle as he stayed in Dublin in case the fighting should turn in that direction. He survived for many years but his power over Dublin weakened until in 1032 he was forced to abdicate and go into exile.

The traditional view is that Viking power in Ireland was finally broken at the Battle of Clontarf. However, some modern historians contend that it was merely one event in a centuries-old civil war and that Vikings fought on both sides. Perhaps, then, the main reason for the decline of Viking influence after this date was that they had so successfully fused with Irish Christian culture.

The Crozier of Clonmacnoise shows a beautiful fusion of Viking and Celtic styles

The Trail

These days, Clontarf seems pretty peaceful and if the signs weren’t there it would be hard to imagine a huge battle in the vicinity. Here is a selection of local scenery along the way to Howth.

The promenade at Clontarf, looking towards Poolbeg
A Moai statue donated to Dublin by the Government of Chile
Redshanks

View looking across Dublin Bay from Howth towards Dalkey and Dalkey Island
Racial memories
Sunset from Sutton Strand
History, Modern, Travel

Would You Like to Go to Phoenix Park?

Thunder and lightning is no lark
When Dublin City is in the dark.
So if you have any money go up to the park
And view the zoological gardens.

“The Zoological Gardens”, lyrics by Dominic Behan

We’ve been in Dublin for a couple of weeks and one of the biggest surprises has been the massive green space close to the city, Phoenix Park (the name is an anglicization of fionn uisce, which means ‘clear water’). It’s a patch of land whose history mirrors that of Ireland itself, in the sense that it has passed from one ruling party to another and retains the scars of battle and souvenirs of different eras. Like a phoenix, it has repeatedly risen from the ashes.

Some idea of the size of the park

In the twelfth century, Anglo Normans started getting an eye for Irish real estate. This all started when the King of Leinster Diarmait Mac Murchada was dispossessed of his kingdom and called for some outside help. The one who answered the call was Richard de Clare, 2nd Earl of Pembroke (now popularly known as ‘Strongbow’). Together, they raised a large army and got the the kingdom back. Diarmat died shortly afterwards, probably of grief, and Strongbow lost no time in claiming the kingship for himself, much to the displeasure of both the Gaelic kings and Henry II. Henry invaded Ireland and brokered the Treaty of Windsor, which stated he would become overlord of all existing Norman territory within Ireland and Rory O’Connor would be High-King of all the rest. Unfortunately for Rory, and for the Gaels, the Normans interpreted this as a bit of a free for all, their territory expanded rapidly, and by the mid-thirteenth century, Ireland looked like this:

Stormin’ Normans. Map taken from here

So how does the Park come in? Well, after the invasion, the Norman knights who’d helped Henry received land and titles as a reward. Hugh Tyrell was one of these and he received land later known as Castleknock, gifting the area that is now Phoenix Park to the Knights Templar. They built the Abbey of St. Brigid’s on the ground and held it until 1308, when Edward II had the order condemned and suppressed (probably under the influence of his father-in-law Philip IV of France). The land and abbey subsequently passed to the Knights Hospitaller, who kept it until Henry VIII ordered the Dissolution of the Monasteries in the mid-sixteenth century. The land went the king’s representatives in Ireland.

James Butler, 1st Duke of Ormonde, by William Wissing

When the Irish Rebellion of 1641 broke out, one James Butler was chosen as commander of the Royal Irish Army, charged with defending Dublin from local Catholics who wanted self-rule and an end to anti-Catholic discrimination. A staunch Royalist in the ensuing English Civil War and Cromwellian Invasion of Ireland, Butler lost his troops and went into exile with Charles II and lived with him and his retinue in Paris. After the Restoration, Butler was made Duke of Ormond in the Irish peerage and recovered his extensive estates in Ireland. In 1662, the Duke of Ormond established a royal hunting park, stuffing it full of deer and pheasants so that it required a wall to keep them in. Fallow deer are there to this day, wandering about, though I haven’t seen any pheasants.

Incidentally but entertainingly, in 1680 the Duke of Ormond was kidnapped by a bravo named Thomas Blood, the same ruffian who tried to steal the Crown jewels the following year. Ormonde escaped in the nick of time before being lynched. Blood, meanwhile, was inexplicably pardoned for both outrages. John Wilmot, the second Earl of Rochester, wrote a scurrilous poem about it:

Blood, that wears treason in his face,
Villain complete in parson's gown,
How much he is at court in grace
For stealing Ormond and the crown!
Since loyalty does no man good,
Let's steal the King, and outdo Blood!

Rascal

The park was opened up to the public in 1745 by Lord Chesterfield (1699-1773), during his eight-month viceroyalty in Ireland. Chesterfield is probably best known as the author of Letters to His Son on the Art of Becoming a Man of the World and a Gentleman (1774). These were collected and published by his son’s impoverished widow, Eugenia Stanhope, after Lord Chesterfield unkindly left her out of his will. Samuel Johnson was scathing on the subject of the letters, saying “they teach the morals of a whore, and the manners of a dancing master.”

Philip Stanhope, 4th Earl of Chesterfield

Well, notwithstanding his dubious literary legacy, Chesterfield left a lasting memento of himself in the park itself and in the neo-classical monument of a Phoenix on top of a Corinthian column. This now stands in the middle of a roundabout in the road that runs through the park.

Decimus Burton

When the nineteenth century rolled around, the park was getting a little dishevelled. The man hired to give it a makeover was one Decimus Burton, famous as the architect of a large number of Victorian public projects including Hyde Park, Regent’s Park, St. James’s Park and the seaside resort of Queenstown. Not only did he redesign Phoenix Park, but he was also the architect of Dublin Zoo, which still stands today.

Escapee elephant in Phoenix Park, 2002

Part of the spruce up involved putting a honking great obelisk on the grounds, a testimonial to the achievements of Arthur Wellesley, the first Duke of Wellington, particularly his achievement in defeating Napoleon at Waterloo. At 62 meters high, it is the tallest obelisk in Europe and was funded by public subscription. This is kind of ironic because although Wellington was born in Dublin, he considered himself British and despised the Irish.

Portrait of the Duke of Wellington, by Goya (1812–14). This painting was stolen from the National Gallery in London in 1961. Five years later, elderly pensioner Kempton Bunton confessed to the crime.

The mid-nineteenth century was pretty busy for Ireland. Great Britain’s laissez-faire, not to say brutally callous, attitude to the Great Famine of 1845-49 increased Irish desire for Home Rule and calls for an end to the vampirical system in which absentee landlords profited from the labor of tenant farmers. When these farmers, who often lived at subsistence level, could not afford to pay rent, they were generally evicted. One of the most effective advocates for land reform and Home Rule was Charles Stewart Parnell. In 1879, at a time when popular anger was growing, Parnell was elected president of the Irish National Land League. Over the next year both evictions and retaliatory violence against landlords and enforcers increased. On October 13 1881, Parnell and his colleagues were arrested and imprisoned in Kilmainham jail in Dublin under ‘reasonable suspicion’ for inciting violence. Together they issued the No Rent Manifesto, a fiery call to tenant farmers “to pay no rents under any circumstances to their landlords until Government relinquishes the existing system of terrorism and restores the constitutional rights of the people”. He was released on May 6, 1882 after signing the Kilmainham Treaty, in which he agreed to withdraw the manifesto and discourage agrarian crime provided that the Government would allow 100,000 tenants to appeal for fair rent before the land courts.

Charles Stewart Parnell

Only four days after Parnell’s release, there was a politically motivated fatal stabbing at Phoenix Park. The victims were Chief Secretary of Ireland Lord Frederick Cavendish and Permanent Undersecretary Thomas Henry Burke. Parnell was shocked. He offered to resign his position as MP and made a speech condemning the murders. As it turned out the killers were Joe Brady and Tim Kelly, members of the Irish National Invincibles, a militant breakaway movement. They got away in a cab driven by James Fitzharris, nicknamed Skin-the-Goat, and subsequently fled to the US. In the end, the incident allowed Parnell to make a break from more radical elements in the Land League and so to increase his political influence.

Memorial to the victims in Phoenix Park

Another feature of this park is the magazine store, a military fort built in 1735, when the country was quite poor, which prompted Jonathan Swift to write a satirical ditty about it:

Now’s here’s a proof of Irish sense,
Here Irish wit is seen,
When nothing’s left that’s worth defence,
We build a Magazine.

This fort was kept in use for 250 years and was raided twice. The first time was during the Easter Rising in 1916, when members of Fianna Éirann unsuccessfully tried to blow it up. The second was on December 23, 1939, when IRA members took weapons and more than one million rounds of ammunition. The materiel was recovered shortly afterwards. Since 1988 it has been owned by the Office of Public Works.

The fort from a path

Probably the most notable thing to have happened at the park in the last fifty years is the visit of Pope John Paul II in September 1979, the first ever visit to Ireland by any Pope. He helicoptered in to Phoenix Park and celebrated mass with 1,250,000 people–one third of the country’s population at the time. His visit came at the height of the Troubles and he had wanted to visit Armagh but they were having a particularly violent year of it. Such was the importance of the occasion, that nine months later the country had a baby boom–people born around July 1980 are still called the Pope’s Children.

A crowd gathers in Phoenix Park to celebrate mass under Pope John Paul II

The Papal Cross erected for the mass still stands in the park. The simple white cross stands 116 feet high. Something about the scene, with the graceful deer and trees and mist (and cars). I found it quite affecting, it reminded me of old poems like “The Dream of the Rood:

Many years have gone–yet still I have it in remembrance–since I was felled upon a forest’s edge and wakened from my slumbers. Strange foes seized hold on me and wrought me to a pageant and bade me lift aloft their wretched men. Men bore me on their shoulders, till that they set me on a hill; enough of foes, forsooth, fastened me there. Then I beheld the Lord of men hasting with mighty, steadfast heart, for He would fain ascend upon me. Yet might I not bow down nor break, against the world of God, what time I saw the compass of the earth tremble and shake. All those foes might I lay low; yet firm I stood.

I had a few more things I was going to say but it’s soo late so here are just a few more pictures.