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Will Buckingham's Wayward Things #2

August 2019 Edition

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Welcome to the August 2019 Edition of Will Buckingham's Wayward Things!

Welcome back. Or, if you have just signed up, welcome!

It's been a busy month here in Thessaloniki. Between taking in the sights and spending time drinking Greek coffee in local cafés, I've been hard at work on my book Hello Stranger: Stories of Connection in a Divided World (Granta 2020).

The draft is shaping up nicely. I'm enjoying plunging into history, anthropology, myth and philosophy, as I try to map out the many ways in which we connect, or fail to connect, with strangers.

Meanwhile, I've been putting together this month's Wayward Things. The timing of this newsletter is slightly melancholy: today (1st August 2019) marks the third anniversary of the death of Dr. Elee Kirk, my long-term partner, collaborator and friend. In this month's newsletter, I'm sharing a link to a piece I wrote about Elee, which will give those who don't know about her fabulous work in museums and education a flavour not just of what she did, but who she was.

Also this month, there's the usual mix of interesting and wayward things: an article from The Atlantic about the precursors of tablets, laptops and other portable writing devices; the first in a series of drinking poems from China, this one by Li Qingzhao; the second in my Obscure Philosopher of the Month series; some posts that I've written over on Medium—about writing, creativity, and Baby Shark; and bits and pieces that I'm reading, writing, thinking about and looking at.

I hope you enjoy reading and exploring. If you want to say hello, feel free to drop me a line. And I look forward to seeing you next month.

With all best wishes,


In Memory of Elee Kirk (1977-2016)

Elee postcard small
Postcard designed by Elee Kirk, summer 2016.
Several weeks before she died in 2016, Elee designed a postcard to be handed out at her funeral. It read: Ride bikes. Visit museums. Watch clouds. Enjoy nature. Drink tea. Think of me. Over the past few years, when visiting Elee's friends, I have seen these postcards on desks, stuck to their fridges, on mantlepieces, pinned to noticeboards.

It was typically generous of Elee that she wanted to leave something behind, reminding those she knew to continue living well. So if you knew Elee, or even if you didn't, take time today (or whenever, really!) to watch some clouds, drink some tea, visit a museum, ride a bike, or enjoy the natural world.
Elee Kirk
To mark today's anniversary, I'm sharing an article I wrote for Museum & Society, in memory of both Elee and her work. It's about hedgehogs and foxes, museums and the natural world. And above all, it is about the virtue of listening.

In the weeks before she died, Elee and I talked a lot about what mattered most to her. The thing she said again and again was that she believed in the virtue of listening. First listen, then speak, she said. Because if you don’t listen, how do you know what to say? If you don’t listen, how is there anything to talk about at all?

The piece is called Elee Kirk: Snapshots of a Life in Museums. I hope that you enjoy it.

Elsewhere online...

writing tools

Writing Boxes and Other Portable Devices

Are you hooked on your laptop, your tablet, or some other writing device, and feeling nostalgic for the good old days when things were simpler? Laura R. Micciche from the University of Cincinnati writes a nice piece for the Atlantic's 'Object Lessons' series about early portable writing boxes: the charm, the fascination and the possibility for procrastination these devices provided.

Writing never happens in the abstract, but only by means of objects—not to mention identity, sensory experiences, memory, nostalgia, hopes, and more. Mobile-writing devices help make writing intimate. They empower writers to feel a connection with the world via their tools.

Read the full article here.

Obscure Philosopher of the Month #2:

This month's obscure philosopher of the month is a philosopher from Korea. Im Yunjidang 任允摯堂 (1721-1793) was a formidable philosopher who wrote philosophy in the Confucian tradition. 'Although I am a woman,' she wrote, 'there is no difference between man and woman in terms of human nature.' This assertion opened the way for her claim that women were as capable of sagehood as were men. It is a perspective that begins to undo many of the gender assumptions of the largely male Confucian tradition.

Even more exciting, an annotated translation of her writing is in the works. See this article on the Daily Nous. So hopefully Im Yunjidang will not be obscure for much longer.

Chinese Drinking Poems #1

A few years ago, I spent a happy couple of months translating poems from classical Chinese about drinking and drunkenness. I did the translations mainly for my own pleasure and I never got round to doing anything with the translated poems, other than reading them repeatedly to Elee, to benefit from her wise editorial advice.

As I'm currently working with my friend Xia Chen from Sichuan University on a book chapter for Routledge about translating Chinese poetry into English, I thought I should brush these off and share them from time to time in this newsletter.

The translations are pretty free-form. For those of you who know Chinese, I've provided the original text. This is mainly so you can have fun disagreeing with my choices.
Chinese wine-making (this is grape wine, but most Chinese poems written about drinking are about grain-based alcohol rather than grape-based).
The first poet in the drinking poem series is Li Qingzhao. Li lived between 1084 and 1151, and she is famous for her restraint and delicacy. This is one of my favourites.


Drunken Faded Flowers

Mist and thick clouds—
I’ve fretted all day;

the camphor incense,
in the golden burner is spent;

they are celebrating again
for the autumn festival;

but my jade pillow,
and mesh-screened bed,

by midnight,
are drenched with cold.

Near the Eastern fence,
I drank after dusk,

dark fragrance
filling my sleeves.

Don’t speak,
don’t get carried away—

the blinds are blown
by the West wind,

and this life more fragile
than a chrysanthemum.

Li Qingzhao: A Brief Biography

Li Qingzhao was a prolific writer. As well as six volumes of poetry, she also produced seven books of essays. Unfortunately most of these are lost to history.

The poem here was written shortly after her marriage to Zhao Mingcheng. He had been called away on official business, and she sent him the poem as a letter.

Zhao was both impressed and intimidated by her talents. His response was over-the-top: he sat down and wrote her fifty poems in the same style and sent them back to her. But whilst the quantity was impressive, none of them equalled the beauty of his wife's poem.

You can find out more about Li Qingzhao and read more translations of her work in this free PDF publication in the Sino-Platonic Papers series.

A final note. I often curse all those Chinese poets who like to write about chrysanthemums. It is a terrible word to have to get into a poem in English. I've done my best, but there's only so much you can do...

Here's the Chinese text for those who are interested.



Latest News and Blog Posts

I've recently started writing over on Medium. If you are on Medium and are a subscriber, you can find me here: https://medium.com/@willbuckingham. If you're not a subscriber, these articles will appear behind a paywall. But don't worry! I'll post regular direct links in Wayward Things bypassing the paywall.

Here's a selection of some of the things I've been writing about this month:

Serendipity: Cultivating the Art of Creative Luck

I wrote this piece to pull together some thoughts I'd been having on creative luck, by way of Horace Walpole and those famous three princes who were, 'always making discoveries, by accident and sagacity, of things they were not in quest of.'

Read more here.

And whilst on the subject of writing...

I also wrote a piece over on Medium about the hard grind of writing, and why if it's a grind, then you might be doing it wrong. At least according to medieval Chinese writer Liu Xie.

Incidentally, if you received last month's newsletter, you will know that I began an occasional series called Mr. Liu's writing tips. Mr. Liu is currently on his August holidays. But he assures you he will be back next month.

Read more

And finally, something about Baby Shark...

My philosopher friend, Mary Valiakas, was doing a public philosophy project at the Little Chill festival, and she asked me to contribute a short piece on what it means to be human in the 21st century. As I'm living opposite a nursery here in Thessaloniki, and Baby Shark is the soundtrack of my life, this is what I ended up writing about.

So... is is the end? Read my piece to find out.

And whilst you are at it, look at the brilliant stuff Mary is doing with her Oi Polloi project.

What I'm looking at...

Okay. On to recommendations. Last week, I was Thessaloniki's municipal art gallery. It's a beautiful gallery, half way between downtown Thessaloniki and Kalamaria where I'm living. The middle floor is dedicated to Nikolaos Gizis (Νικόλαος Γύζης) who lived between 1842 and 1901.

My advice is to skip the slightly turgid large-scale oil paintings, and go into the side room that displays his zelatines (ζελατίνες). These are paintings done in Indian ink on gelatine photographic surfaces. They are backlit so that they glow with light, and they are absolutely exquisite: both intimate and somehow majestic.


What I'm reading...

Last week, I took delivery of my first ever ebook reader. And it has been a revelation. So I've been celebrating by spending much of the last few days curled up on the sofa and reading Mark Mazower's Salonica: City of Ghosts. It is an extraordinary book about an extraordinary city, focussing on the relationships between Muslims, Christians and Jews in Thessaloniki from 1430 to 1950. Stories of would-be messiahs, would-be martyrs and foreigners of dubious repute abound. And Mazower's historical nuance throws a lot of light on present day politics, both in the region and beyond.

I've now moved on to A Short Border Handbook by Gazmend Kapllani (Granta 2009), which is an equally extraordinary book about migration and borders.

What I'm Listening To...

I first heard Mercedes Sosa as a child. Two of my uncles lived in South America, and we had a few old, scratchy records of Latin American folk and popular music in the house. If you don't know Mercedes Sosa's 1969 album Mujeres Argentinas, where she performs with the wonderful Ariel Ramírez on the piano, you should have a listen.

One of my absolute favourite tracks is Alfonsina Y El Mar. You can have a listen on YouTube. Sosa's voice is extraordinary. And that exquisite piano break is one of the loveliest things ever.
That's all for August. I hope you've enjoyed reading. Until September!

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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 Thessaloniki, 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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