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Will Buckingham's Wayward Things #6

December 2019 Edition 🎄🎅🏼

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Happy Christmas from Will Buckingham's Wayward Things!

Hello once again from Bulgaria!

I'm writing this from my apartment in the heart of the city, overlooking Slaveykov Square. Outside, the trams are rumbling past, and the Christmas lights are glowing prettily through the haze of smog.

It's been a busy few weeks here in Bulgaria. I've finished the manuscript for Hello Stranger: Stories of Connection in a Divided World, and now I'm waiting to hear back from my editor at Granta. I've been writing a number of other essays (more on these in the coming months), and also I've started recording a new series of audio lessons on the philosophies of happiness, which has been fun. Meanwhile, the Wind&Bones project I co-run is going strong. We've just become a Community Interest Company (hurrah!), and we're planning lots of fun projects in Sofia and beyond for 2020.

In this edition of the newsletter, there are some curiosities from around the web, recommendations for things to read and listen to, a recipe for an orange blossom tart (by request of some friends) and another drinking poem from ancient China,

That's all for this year. Have a very happy Christmas. And I'll be back in 2020 with more news and snippets that will, I hope, offset the gloom of the dark months (if you are in the gloomy northern hemisphere)!

With all best wishes,

Will

Nuggets of the Strange and Wonderful from Around the Web

"Turning, Unfolding, Passing Through" by Ellen Wayland-Smith

This month, I've been teaching creative nonfiction on the course that Wind&Bones are running along with the Academic Foundation for English and American Studies at Sofia University. We're talking about life-writing, memoir and personal essays, and this piece of loveliness from Guernica magazine particularly stood out.
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It is an essay by Ellen Wayland-Smith about spring, about her relationship with her daughter, about growth and decay, about Aristotle, about the extraordinary way in which matter takes on form, and about the joy and the wonder of the beings with which, with whom, we share the world.

Have a read on Guernica's website. It is rich and lovely.

Chance Pieces at the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences

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Earlier this month, I was invited to a conference run by the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences, to talk about the Yijing (I Ching), and to read one of my stories based on the ancient Chinese divination manual. The story I read was one of my favourite ones from Sixty-Four Chance Pieces, a story about the ancient Chinese law-giver, Fu Xi, about the Duracell bunny, about Freudian dreams, and about the perils of invention.

The conference was in the archaeological museum in Sofia. Through one of life's serendipities, it was outside that very building that I first sketched out the plan for Sixty Four Chance Pieces, back in 2007. So it felt good to be back there, over a decade on.

If you want to read the story, then you can find it on Medium over here.

An Ancient Chinese Programming Language

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And this brings me to one of the more curious and wayward things I have found this month: a programming language written entirely in well-formed Classical Chinese.

I haven't programmed anything since the early 1980s, when I wrote a few games for the ZX81 and later the ZX Spectrum (thereby managing to supplement my pocket money). But this combination of Classical Chinese and modern technology is too delicious to pass up, and if anything could persuade me to return to the mysteries of computer code, it would be the challenge of doing it in Classical Chinese.

The philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz—inventor of binary, and one of the first Yijing enthusiasts in the West—would almost certainly have approved. The language sort of works like this:

  • Classical chinese: 吾有一數。曰三。名之曰「甲」。
  • English translation: I have a number. I say it is three. It's name is jia (甲).
  • Javascript: var a = 3;

Chinese Drinking Poem #5: Yu Xuanji

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And whilst we're talking about Classical Chinese, it's been some time since I've shared a Chinese drinking poem here in the newsletter. So here's another poem for you to enjoy. As usual, I'm posting the Chinese as well as the English translation.

This is one of my favourites, and I'm surprised I have not posted it before. It is by the poet Yu Xuanji, a ninth century courtesan whose poems drip with melancholy and longing. Yu's life and death are the stuff of legend. She was either a murderer, or she was framed as such. She was said to have been beheaded for strangling her maid: but it is likely the story is an invention.

In the absence of anything like a reliable biography, her poems remain. And they are extraordinary.

Letter Sent to Zi'an


Drinking in farewell, a thousand cups
will not wash away my sadness;

I leave, my guts knotted a hundred times,
no way of untangling them.

The orchids gone,
I return to the spring garden,

willows on either shore,
I stumble to board the boat:

meeting, parting, already grieving,
the clouds are all unanchored.

Our affection must study
the endless flowing waters.

In the seasons of flowers,
knowing it’s hard for us to meet,

not yet ready for weariness,
I get drunk in the jade tower


醉別千卮不浣愁。

離腸百結解無由。

蕙蘭銷歇歸春圃。

楊柳東西絆客舟。

聚散已悲雲不定。

恩情須學水長流。

有花時節知難遇。

未宜厭厭醉玉樓。

From the Kitchen: Orange Blossom Tart

Orange blossom water is a magical substance. A teaspoon in pancake batter turns pancakes into things of sublimity. And it works well too in this tart, when combined with organge juice and zest. I made the tart for a group of friends when we met at the Traveller's Club in Sofia. I bought the orange blossom water from Ahmed's shop on Tsar Simeon street. If you have been following Wayward Things, you will have already read Ahmed's broad bean recipe last month.

Anyway, my Sofia friends asked me if I could share the recipe. So here it is.

For the pie base:
Rub 125 g butter into 250 g of plain flour. Form into a ball with a little water. Chill, unless it is December in Bulgaria, in which case it is pretty chilly already. Then roll out the pastry thinly, put in a shallow pie dish, cover with baking paper and baking beans (dried chickpeas work well) and put in the oven on a moderate heat. Blind bake until pale, but not brown. Take out of the oven, cool, and spread with a fine layer of jam (raspberry is good). Pastry scraps are good for making jam tarts. So don't throw them away.

For the filling:
Cream together another 125 g of butter with 125 g of fine sugar. Grate in the zest of an orange.

Squeeze the orange and add a tablespoon of orange blossom water to the freshly-squeezed juice. In a separate bowl, beat together two eggs. Weigh out 250 g of self-raising flour. Add a half teaspoon of baking powder to the flour.

Now alternate adding the flour, the orange juice mixture and the eggs to the butter and sugar. Add everything slowly and keep beating so that it doesn't curdle.

When everything is combined, pour the mixture (it will be thickish) over the jam and pastry base, and put back in the oven to cook for 35-40 minutes. The tart is good hot, warm and cold.
thorns-orange-blossoms

What I'm Reading...

It is always a pleasure to recommend things by good friends. Jonathan Davidson is a fine poet, and an incredibly generous-spirited human being. He is also one of the most modest writers I know. Anyway, a few days ago, I got back home to the apartment to find Jonathan had sent me a copy of his memoir of poetry reading and poetry writing, On Poetry, published by Smith/Doorstop.

The package was just propped outside the door on the street. But fortunately the citizens of Sofia are honest, or they care not for poetry, or they simply didn't know what riches the jiffy bag contained. Whatever the case, they missed out on this lovely book about the relationship between poetry and life, and between life and poetry.
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What I'm Listening To...

Obviously, at the moment I'm listening to Jarvis Cocker's 'Running the World', because—let's face it—who isn't?

But what else? Well, for Christmas-themed music, there's Joseph Spence's rendition of 'Santa Claus is Coming to Town' (look it up). You probably need to hear this once in your life. But possibly no more than once (though I personally quite like it).

If Joseph Spence isn't your thing, here is something seasonal and delicious from Bulgaria. It is a traditional Christmas song called Замъчи се Божа Майка. I've had fun discussing with Bulgarian friends how to translate the title. Google goes with 'God Forbid, Mother,' which gives it a Carry On Christmas kind of feel, but which is hardly accurate.

The stumbling-block to translating is the verb 'Замъчи', which is not used in modern Bulgarian. It means, more or less, 'to begin to torture' (Christmassy, no?).

The consensus amongst my Bulgarian friends (all of whom I trust more than Google) is that the title translates as something like: 'the Beginning of the Suffering of the Mother of God', in other words, her labour pains.


This is perhaps not as cheery as Santa Claus is Coming to Town, and it is unlikely to become Christmas No. 1. But it's a lovely tune, and you can listen here.
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That's all for this month. I hope you've enjoyed reading. Have a very happy Christmas, and I'll be back in the New Year!

Will Buckingham

About me

I am a writer, philosopher, researcher and teacher of both writing and philosophy. I write non-fiction, fiction and children's books. I'm interested in the places where philosophies, stories and lives intersect. Currently freelance and based in Sofia, Bulgaria, I am represented by Emma Finn at C+W Agency in London.

Will Buckingham's Wayward Things is a free, monthly digest of things I find interesting, curious or worth sharing.
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