Thursday, 13 December 2007

Denmark: clocks

Or, rather, a clock, a barometer and a thermometer.
Mostly my gifts range from curious to utterly bizarre. Certainly most are not the sort of thing that you would ever want to take home. Very rarely I get given something nice and, even more rarely, I get given something really special, such as this lovely Georg Jensen set given to me by the Danish branch of a top accountancy firm, for yet another brilliant speech, in Copenhagen a few years ago. They could not be more perfect for my study if they had been designed specifically for it.
I do realise, looking at this picture, that I haven't hung the clock back straight on it's hook from changing the time when the clocks went back in October, however!

Georg Jensen

Georg Jensen (1866-1935) studied sculpture at the Danish Royal Academy of Fine Arts and initially worked as a designer at the Bing & Grøndahl porcelain factory. He setup his own business but didn't do very well until he switched to silversmithing and by the time of his death had five shops internationally and was a well known Art Deco designer. He always gave his designers free reign however and now the firm produces all sorts of interesting jewellery, watches, cutlery, bowls etc.

These particular pieces were designed by Henning Koppel (1918-1981).

Henning Koppel

Singapore: Golden chopsticks

These golden chopsticks were given to me by the Singapore Attorney General's office. I suppose they have some symbolic meaning like "have a fruitful life" or "live long and prosper" or "may you win the lottery" or even "eat your food with shiny utensils" but when searching golden chopsticks on the internet all I get is references to the hundreds of Chinese restaurants around the world called "Golden Chopsticks". Maybe they mean "may you have a successful restaurant".

Chopsticks originated in ancient China as early as the Shang dynasty (1600-1100 BC) and are widely used in Asia. The Mandarin Chinese word for chopsticks is kuàizi which is a compound of the words meaning quick and bamboo. The English word "chopstick" seems to have been derived from Chinese Pidgin English, where "chop chop" meant quickly.

"Rubbery noodles!" Probably shouldn't have cooked them for so long, then.

Friday, 30 November 2007

Ireland: Leprechaun

An all time classic amongst Sue's wonderful gifts. This could be taken as an ironic, post-modern statement on the nature and essence of Irishness. Or it could just be a way to extract as much money as possible from stupid American tourists who have no concept of taste.

I've no idea what all the happy Chinese workers, earning their $30 a month, who make these things must make of this. But then given all the other strange things that Chinese factories turn out (Teletubbies, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Spice Girls dolls) they must have a very odd view of the West anyway.

There are arguments about the dervivation of the word leprechaun, but the favourite seems to be that it comes from the Gaelic word luchorpán meaning small bodied. Oddly until the Twentieth Century leprechauns were always described as wearing red, not green.

Leprechauns have always given me the creeps from the time I saw the Disney film Darby O'Gill and the Little People (1959) when it was shown on televison when I was little.

"To be sure it's obvious I'm going to be a huge star!" Not.

This film was notable for an early starring role for Sean Connery (3rd billing) and it was his appearance in this that brought him to the attention of Bond producer Cubby Broccoli. On it's first showing in Dublin several eminent Irish people picketed the cinema as they claimed the film gave out ridiculous sterotypes of Ireland and the Irish.

So I am glad to see that the Irish tourist industry has taken absolutely no notice of this well-meant stance whatsoever.

"A leprechaun? Me? Begorrah!"

As a footnote the use by the Irish of the phrase "top of the morning" is certainly not current and, indeed, may never have been. George Bernard Shaw wrote, "Is it possible that you don’t know that all this top-of-the-morning and broth-of-a-boy and more-power-to-your-elbow business is as peculiar to England as the Albert Hall concerts of Irish music? No Irishman ever talks like that in Ireland, or ever did, or ever will."

New Zealand: The Tiki

This is one of Sue's more peculiar presents from her trip to Middle Earth. He is, apparently, an ancient symbol and a treasured part of New Zealand heritage (like Dame Kiri-te-Kanawa, although you don't get plastic models of her very often).
There are a number of legends about its meaning (no, not Dame Kiri).

Some say he came from the stars and that he was the first man of the world. Some say his webbed feet suggests a strong link to the creatures of the sea. All I know is that he is called The Stig. I mean, the Tiki.

Tiki was respected as the teacher of all things and the wearer of this symbol is therefore seen to possess clarity of thought, loyalty, great inner knowledge and strength of character. The Tiki is regarded as a good luck charm when worn and in some areas is also regarded as a fertility symbol (that I would rather avoid).

The Māori are particularly unhappy, it seems with plastic, mass-production of this ancient and mythical symbol. But who cares, they're on the other side of the world so they can stick their tongues out all they like.

As far as I am concerned he reminds me of the alien foetus from The Erlenmeyer Flask episode of the X-Files (well he did come from another world- which to most Kiwis means Australia).

Oddly, he also has the texture of those horrible Haribo jelly-like sweets which Fuzzy won't let the children eat, despite them being given them all the time at parties, as they contain gelatine so could give them Mad Cow Disease (not that you'd notice). Haribo was a sweet firm founded in Germany in 1920 (it is an acronym for Hans Riegel, Bonn). Of course our jolly German cousins deny that Haribo used forced labour in their factories in the Second World War and instead are slowly destroying the teeth of Europe's children with their gummy confectionery. Makes me glad I'm diabetic.

" Oh my God, Mulder, you went to New Zealand and all you brought me back was this?"

Egypt: Nefertiti plate

I was given this metal plate by an Egyptian government delegation. It is Queen Nefertiti based on the famous statue in the Egyptian Museum in Berlin, which I saw last time I was there.

This marvellous sculpture was discovered by German archaeologists in 1912. The crafty Krauts recorded the find as something unimportant, buried the details of it in pages of tedious paperwork and fooled the Egyptians (and indeed the French, who ran the Antiquities Department at that time) in to letting it go to Berlin where it has been displayed ever since. Now the Egyptians want it back for their splendid new museum near the Pyramids which is due to open in 2012 (which is why they are dragging some of the Tutenkhamun stuff around the world to raise money for the museum). The German's claim it is too fragile to travel. Didn't stop them in 1912, though!

Not such a yummy mummy

Queen Nefertiti herself is entombed in tomb KV35 in the Valley of the Kings but her mummy, which has been recently, if somewhat tentatively, identified, was x-rayed a few years ago. The Discovery Channel sent these x-rays to the University of Nottingham who reconstructed the face of the woman using the same forensic techniques they use to identify bodies for the police.

The Nottingham reconstruction

Crucially, they were not told who the woman might be and their reconstruction showed amazing similarities to the sculpture and, particularly, to an earlier sculpture from the same studio which is less idealised and is more likely to have been done from life. This earler sculpture belonged to Adolf Hitler and for many years was owned by a private collector.

The idealised sculpture from Berlin

Hitler's more naturalistic sculpture - very close to the Nottingham picture

Nefertiti's beauty has inspired many artists over the years from this rather peculiar illustration to this rather more clever photograph.


Thursday, 29 November 2007

Canada: luggage label

If there is one nation you can identify at airports its Canadians. They can't leave their lovely but ridiculously large country without festooning themselves and their luggage with the Maple Leaf.

It is such a recognisable flag that it is surprising to realise that it did not become the national flag of Canada until 1965.

The flag is red and white which are the national colours of Canada as laid down by King George V in 1921. The two red stripes represent the Pacific and Atlantic oceans with the white stripe representing Canada itself. The maple leaf symbol had been used in Canda for many years prior to the flag being created. This design was one of three that were considered. One had three maple leaves on it and the other had fleur de lys which would have been horribly French considering we defeated their army in about 15 minutes at Quebec in 1759.

The pre 1965 flag of Canada.
This luggage label was given to me by Gilda from Toronto, who knows I really do like Canada (or at least their women) whatever I might say!

Ireland: Worrystone

When Sue takes one of her seemingly endless holidays she invariably returns with a "tasteful" present for me.

This is a worrystone from Ireland. These are a very ancient design, originating in Ancient Greece. The idea is that, held between the index finger and thumb, rubbing them is believed to lessen your worries. Massaging it and turning it in the hand uses energy and relieves stress thereby causing relaxation.
I think that in order to de-stress me I would need a much bigger stone; preferably big enough that I could hit the people who are causing me stress over the head with it. Thwack! There, I feel much better already!

Wednesday, 28 November 2007

Malaysia: Mandarin Oriental letter opener

I visited Malaysia for the first time four weeks after September 11th. I was staying at the Mandarin Oriental which was virtually deserted at the time. I was upgraded to a Club Suite which is still the most luxurious hotel accommodation I have ever stayed in: 1775 square feet compared with a normal hotel room which is about 250 square feet.

On entering the suite there was a large circular hall and to the right was a study and a large living room with an L-shaped sofa.

Further round the corner was a kitchen and a dining room which I didn't even discover for 24 hours! On the other side was a walk in dressing room, a bedroom with a four poster bed, and the most fantastic bathroom with a full sized sauna and a shower which would have accommodated about six Malaysian girls. Best of all was a bath with a 36" TV at the end.

I was also presented with this pewter letter opener by the rather gorgeous sales manageress and, to top it off she only charged me £46 a night. The suite, of course, cost rather more than that.


Sweden: A Parliamentary key ring

Stockholm is one of my favourite cities. A quite perfect mix of water, boats, interesting architecture and splendid blondes. It has a distinctive Baltic light that shows off all of the above to great effect.

Added to that is the fact that one sixteenth of my genetic material is Swedish and so as a result I am very well disposed to visitors from Sweden.

This rather austere key ring was presented to me by a Swedish Parliamentary transport committee during their visit to London. The group consisted of opposition MPs who are now in power in Sweden and, as a result, are generating project opportunities so thank you very much to them!

A Cabinet of Curiosities

As I travel the world and meet Johnny Foreigner and, indeed, as he comes to visit me in the City of London I am honoured to receive little tokens of appreciation in exchange for the undoubted pearls of wisdom I strew in their largely unappreciative path.

I have, as a result of all this international activity, acquired an interesting collection of objets and given the effort required to pass these to me I feel that it is only fair that I record them for posterity.

In Victorian times (and, indeed, before) gentlemen collectors would acquire strange things from around the world; dinosaur bones, ancient weapons, interesting crystals, choice pieces of Eastern erotica etc. and display them in what were called Cabinets of Curiosities.

This, then, is my digital version which will record the gifts I receive from business contacts and friends from around the globe.