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Will Buckingham's Wayward Things

Issue 8: May 2020

An Irregular Bulletin of the Curious, Wayward & Intriguing
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Welcome to the May 2020 edition of Will Buckingham's Wayward Things.

As it is spring, I thought I would start with an image of spring branches in blossom from Zou Fulei, dating from 1360 (the original is in the Smithsonian National Museum of Asian Art).

Here in Sofia, the trees in the square are now in leaf, and most days the sun is out. But it's been a strange couple of months, here as almost everywhere.

It's been a while since I sent out a newsletter. I've been busy writing, and like everybody else, trying to make sense of what it means to live in this new, adjusted reality. But in this edition, there's the usual array of interesting and intriguing things. There are a few updates about what I've been doing, a couple of pieces from the archive, some interesting and intriguing articles from elsewhere, a melancholy little poem from Li Bai, and some recommendations for things to read and listen to. And I've got a new, refreshed design to go with my newly refreshed website.

Until next time, I hope you are weathering the storms, wherever you are. Wishing you health and happiness,


Hello Stranger: Stories of Connection in a Divided World

For much of the past couple of months, I've been occupied (or preoccupied) with finishing the draft of my next book Hello Stranger: Stories of Connection in a Divided World. The draft is now done, and on the desk of my excellent editor at Granta.

The book is about my long obsession with hospitality, and about the philosophical and social implications of living with greater openness to strangers. I first made notes for this book over two decades ago. It's a strange time to be writing about the virtue of opening up our homes and worlds to outsiders. But the principle of openness is still one worth holding to, even if practice, we need to find newly creative ways of going about it.

Wind&Bones Updates

Just before the lockdown started, I was planning all kinds of exciting projects with my new social enterprise Wind&Bones. We were having talks with a bunch of organisations in Bulgaria and beyond, and making plans. But then the virus hit, and so we've had to change direction for the time being. Things on the website look quiet; but behind the scenes, my collaborator Hannah and I have been cooking up some new projects. Amongst these are a new online course in creative nonfiction (still at a very early stage, but we're really excited by it), and an expansion of our work mentoring writers. Have a look at the website if you are interested in finding out more.

From the Archive

As I've been working on the book, I've not had much time to write other things over the last couple of months. So here are two pieces from the archives. One is about vacations, suffering and the art of writing. And the other is about storytelling, anthropology and ethics, and how sometimes a good story gets through where analysis falls short.

On Vacation: Reeling in the Mind

For the last few weeks, I've been wrestling with the ghost of Liu Xie, the Chinese writer who lived between the fifth and sixth centuries, and whose work straddles Buddhist, Confucian and Daoist traditions in fascinating ways. I've written here before about Liu's most famous book, the Wenxin diaolong or The Heart of Literature and the Carving of
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On Vacation: Reeling in the Mind

Storytellers and Anthropologists

I'm currently in the middle of editing a book that I've been working on about the Tanimbar islands in Indonesia. I was in Tanimbar some twenty years ago as a fledgling anthropologist, and it was in Tanimbar that I started writing seriously. In fact, I find it hard to disentangle my time in Tanimbar from my life as a writer. This, in part, has …
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Storytellers and Anthropologists

Elsewhere Online

Here are some of the things that have caught my attention recently. There's an intriguing piece about lemurs and their fruity wrists, a podcast on Sichuan cooking from the incomparable Fuchsia Dunlop, something on the delights of the paternoster lift, and a truly excellent tool for upgrading your language skills if you are a Netflix subscriber.

Male lemurs may use their fruity-smelling wrists to attract mates

I love lemurs. And this dating tip from the lemur world must be my favourite headline from the last couple of months. The article comes to you courtesty of New Scientist. And also, look at this lovely lemur painting from the Jesuit missionary and painter, Giuseppe Castiglione, dating from 1761.

The Food of Sichuan

The months I spent in Sichuan between 2015 and 2016 left me with an enduring love of Sichuan food. In this podcast, Fuchsia Dunlop talks to Georgetown University's Jim Millward, and Kaiser Kuo about Sichuan cooking. Dunlop is a great writer, and knows absolutely loads about Sichuan cooking. The podcast is also full of brilliant tips for cooking Sichuan Food at home.

A Paternoster Requiem

When I lived in Leicester, I often found myself in Leicester University's Attenborough Tower, which until recently had one of the few remaining working paternoster lifts. The lift added a pleasing degree of peril to going between floors. Here's a piece in Granta by Mark Blacklock about how, when you ride a paternoster, you become a part of the circulatory system of a building.

Language Learning With Nextflix

Lately, under the pretext of keeping up my Chinese, I've been watching Love Around (真愛黑白配) on Netflix in Chinese, thanks to the brilliant Chrome extension, Language Learning With Netflix, which gives you the tools you need to watch nonsense in other languages, and learn as you go. It's an absolutely brilliant tool for upgrading your language skills.
Love Around

Another Chinese Drinking Poem: Li Bai

Just a short one this time: a poem that I don't think I've shared before, by China's most famous poet, Li Bai (李白), who lived between 701 and 762 CE. Legend has it that he met his end by falling into a river, whilst trying to embrace the moon. Let this be a warning to all you wine-loving poets out there. Anyway, this poem is particularly lovely.
Cheering Myself Up

Lost in wine,
unaware of dusk,

my clothes are filled
with falling petals.

I stand up, drunk,
stagger towards the moonlit stream:

birds in the distance,
few people.


What I'm Reading

I've been reading a lot over the last couple of months, and there are loads of books I'd like to recommed. But let me limit myself to just two for this month.

Jenny Odell's How to Do Nothing is an absolute corker of a book. It is about the art of listening, about the qualities and textures of attention, about the many ways there are to resist the attention economy, about how to make friends with crows and about how doing nothing is a political act.
My second recommendation is Elena Passarello's wildly inventive Animals Strike Curious Poses (which takes its name from Prince's When Doves Cry). It is a series of snapshots of named animals throughout history, and the strange, sometimes brutal, relationships we human beings have with the rest of the animal world.

It is worth reading for the piece on Mozart and his pet starling alone.

What I'm Listening To

Two things I'm missing here in lockdown in Bulgaria are my guitar and my record player. I bought this record by Omara Portuondo and Martin Rojas from a charity shop a couple of years back. I absolutely love the cover. And the whole album is both rough at the edges and exquisite.

I managed to track down a copy uploaded to YouTube. Here's one of the tracks, El desierto y la lluvia, which is a wonderful combination of delicacy and intensity.
Omara Portuondo & Martin Rojas

From the Kitchen: Bulgarian Banitsa

When I first came to Bulgaria in around 2005, I became obsessed by cheese pastries. I can still remember one particular banitsa in Devin, up in the Rodopi mountains, that I still maintain was the finest banitsa ever made. Anyway, over the last couple of months, some of my favourite places to buy banitsa here in Sofia have been closed, so I've taught myself how to make it at home (see the picture above). This recipe is adapted from the demonstration given on Olive's Branch, over on Youtube. It should serve 6-8 people. If your household isn't that big, or you are not that hungry, banitsa can be frozen after cooking, and is almost as good when defrosted.
For the Filling
  • 2 eggs
  • 300 ml yoghurt. I use 4% fat.
  • 400g Bulgarian white cheese. Any white cheese will do, but if you go for a non-Bulgarian variety, you should know the grandmothers of Bulgaria, if they find out, will be very disappointed in you.
Banitsa filling
Beat the eggs and the yoghurt together. Crumble in the cheese. Beat again. It should be slightly lumpy, but not too much.
For the Pastry
Well, you could make your own. But who has the patience? I bought this ready-made filo pastry from the local shop. As you can see, it has a label on it saying it is 'одобрени от баба', or 'approved by Grandma', so that is good enough for me.
Get a large flan dish and grease it with olive oil. Now for the fun bit. Take all the filo pastry out of the packet and lay it flat with the long edge towards you. Cover the top of the pastry pile with a thin layer of filling (don't go all the way to the edges), pick up the edge of the top two sheets, and roll away from you, until you have a long, thin roll of pastry filled with cheesy goodness.

Pick up the rolled pastry, and starting in the centre of the flan dish working outwards, shape it into a spiral. Now go back to the pastry, and cover it with another layer of the cheese mixture. Roll the next two sheets, and keep adding to the spiral in the flan dish (you can watch the bit on the video if this explanation is confusing). Keep going until either a) the dish is full, or (b) you have run out of pastry and cheese mixture.

Finally, pour some olive oil over the whole thing, and put it in a medium oven for 20 or so minutes, or until it is browned.
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About Wayward Things

Wayward Things is an occasional newsletter from writer and philosopher Will Buckingham, an irregular bulletin of things I find curious, wayward & intriguing. The newsletter is free, and is free of affiliate links. It's just for stuff I like, and think there's a chance you might like as well.

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