Friday, June 29, 2007

Friday 22nd June: Flavunt et Dissipati Sunt.

When caught in a spot in the early game with Noda and Jaime, David declared that his aims were modest tonight and so he cheerfully broke up a developing hand when the going got tough and allowed the other two to battle it out between them. The result was neither so ghastly for David that he lamented his tiles nor so great for Jaime that he trumpeted his luck. Indeed, though the trumpet was often sounded, it was ever a doleful dump on the theme of

"My Luck's Not In Tonight."

It was not an uncertain sound by any means, but nor was it much of a preparation for battle, which made it a gospel trumpet for the other players, even for Kenyon, who lost eighty-seven freakin' points and won a measly three, yet did not finish bottom of the pile for the evening. He did, however, break the record for the lowest score so far this year on the Grand Accumulated Points Table (-327).

Despite last week's reversal of fortunes for Noda, he has been threatening to break through to the top of the table for some time, and in tonight's session he threatened again in the first game and appeared to be on a charge when he won the second game with +44 points.

However, David, who had taken the first despite the distractions of the yakimeshi, also managed to finish in the black for the second. The game went quite quickly and Jaime still had his Yakitori left on the table when it finished.

Noda's attack was halted in the third, with David finishing top and Jaime enjoying his evening's positive result by finishing "second and in the black" on +1.

Hide joined the session at the start of the fourth game at a time when nobody had won or lost an awful lot. Hide, whose form resembles that of Spain in the World Cup, playing with skill and threatening much, tore into his first (our fourth) game and ripped up the evening's form book. Suddenly David, who had been in the top spot mainly by avoiding punishment, was suddenly hit in three successive hands by Hide.

The fourth game was probably the most intense of the evening even though we had agreed to play with all five players in, which means that two players are "out" of each hand and the players rotate in and out of the game by successively changing seats. We have not done that for a while as five-player games can be protracted, and the non-participants sometimes have to wait a long time to re-enter the fray. Concentration usually suffers too, and that may have affected Jaime, who found his barque once again waylaid and bearing the brunt of the punishment. Kenyon, who is apt to concentrate most when others are distracted, weathered the storm and tacked his way along Costa Zero until a friendly chance enabled him to brace the yards and run for anchor. David beached his vessel just a short space from the harbour. He had lost his top sail reef tackle but had furled the rest of the gear in good time and suffered no structural damage. Noda had taken longer to take in his main sail and had lost a mast. Jaime was lost at sea.

In the final game Kenyon's vessel was waylaid by two lesser storms, an English gale and a Japanese typhoon, which also blew out Hide's storm and confined Jaime to Davy Jones' locker.
Flavunt Hideous, Davidicus et Nodarseus et dissipati sunt.

David +17, +14, +27, -3, +58 = +113
Hide --, --, --, +83, -7 = +76
Noda -5, +44, -11, -22, +29 = +35
Kenyon --, -19, -17, +3, -51 = -84
Jaime -12, -39,* +1, -61, -29 = -140

David Hurley

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Sunday, June 24, 2007

Edward Gibbon and The Decline and Fall of the 'Mangan' Empire

The good Doctor's observation that the expansion of fortune in the three player version of mahjong will be checked by the decline of prowess in the traditional four player game (or vice-versa) continues to be born out by experience; the Poor Little Cypriot is currently at the top of his game in the three-player stakes, but performing with less success in the more sedate arena of the monthly four-player game at the home of the parents of the good Doctor.

This month's four-player game, which was played a couple of Thursdays ago, began well enough for me with a swift
Mangan win after just five discards; but my game then went into a gentle decline and an eventual fall to bottom place. The good Junior Doc did not fare much better at the hands of the senior generation either, so the ancient prophecy went unfulfilled,

maior serviet minori.

Nor, in the third game, was Mrs M put off by The Poor Little Cypriot's intimidating array of open South Wind tiles that, being both Table Wind and
Dora bonuses, were supposed to induce her and the other players to give up building hands. Instead, Mrs M went out with a sudden Tsumo to pip the PLC to the post once more.

As the evening progressed the PLC became increasing feverish and distracted and so the details have become a little dull in the memory, but the final ranking was

Mrs M
Dr M sr
Dr M jr

I have since heard that Mrs M particularly enjoys these evenings as it seems that the PLC, unlike suo zio collerico, is thought to attempt to build reasonable hands rather than go out at the first opportunity, and that this in turn, gives Mrs M an opportunity to complete more hands (as we saw in the one example that had secured itself a less than momentary place in my memory, described above).

This month's game fell between the first and second "History in English" classes and the commencement of a new and much anticipated project. Having finished our reading of
A Mighty Fortress, Steven Ozment's survey of German history, we now take up that classic work of Enlightenment historiography, Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Gibbon's history was published one volume at a time from 1776 up until the completion of the project with the publication of the sixth volume, which covers the fall of Constantinople to the Turk, some twenty two years later.

In my late teens I had the notion that I should one day like to read The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire while residing in Rome. I did not realize at the time the extent to which the whole work extends beyond the boundaries of that city or of the Western Empire. I did eventually live in Rome, from September 1989 until June 1990, and while I was there I read the first volume of the Folio Society edition. So, if we make good progress, I have a reasonable expectation of extending my reading into the second volume less than twenty years after putting down the first, though I have no reasonable excuse for my indolence in the intervening period.

It was in Rome, under the benign and civilized tutelage of the late Revd. Bevan Wardrobe, chaplain of All Saints, Via del Babuino, that I entered the Anglican Church. Bevan and I hit it off straight away, and it turned out that he, like my late father, had served East of Suez in the Royal Engineers. Not only that but prior to his taking up the chaplaincy at Rome he had been the headmaster of the Minster School in York during the interval of my undergraduate dissipation in that same fair city of the North.

Bevan was a chaplain of the good old Prayer Book school who ensured that standards of ritual decorum were maintained. The altar was where any dignified altar ought to be, and the priestly offices were performed and the orisons of the Sacrament recited facing East, not uttered in our faces. My growing devotion to the language of Rite "B"
and of the Prayer Book offices of Morning and Evening Prayer, also, I should confess, my partiality to a refreshing post-devotional or pre-prandial g&t with the chaplain, did not cause me to suffer any declension of appreciation for or enjoyment of the fifteenth and sixteenth chapters of Gibbon's Decline and Fall.

Perhaps that was because Gibbon's depreciation of the moral probity of the early "Catholic superstition" is one that lacks the conceited zealotry of a Dawkins, Dennett, Harris or Hitchens.

On his grand tour, Gibbon has this to say about the salon of a Parisian lady in which the atheist dogma held sway:

I was often disgusted with the capricious tyranny of Madame Geoffrin, nor could I approve the intolerant zeal of the philosophers and Encyclopedists, the friends of d'Olbach and Helvétius: they laughed at the scepticism of Hume, preached the tenets of atheism with the bigotry of dogmatists, and damned all believers with ridicule and contempt." - Memoirs of My Life, Folio Soc. p. 140.

Edward Gibbon was born in Putney in 1737, nearly two and a half centuries before a certain teenage fishmonger's mate would help set up a fish stall in Putney market early on a Friday morning, spend up to five hours selling the locals our complete stock of fresh fish (much of it caught off the north-east, east or south-east coasts in the dark hours of the previous night, a fact that used often to baffle our incredulous queue of punters), as well as smoked fish, prawns, crabs, whelks, mussels, scallops and, for the Chinese, the occasional squid. We had usually sold out by midday, after which we would race back out of the hideous urban sprawl of South London into the rural bosom of the Kentish Weald.

According to Gibbon's memoirs, his family too

"...originally derived from the county of Kent, whose inhabitants have maintained from the earliest antiquity a provincial character of civility, courage and freedom." - Memoirs of My Life, Folio Soc. p. 45.
There is definitely still an independence of character and a "provincial civility" evident in Kent, which contributes to the pleasure I have felt lately on my returning to my roots on recent holidays.

On reading the next paragraph of the Memoir of My Life, I discovered that the senior line of the Gibbon family lived in landed grandeur on an estate in Rolvenden, a village just three miles from our own village of Sandhurst, where we lived from 1970 until 1984 in an estate of somewhat less grandeur, being and estate of the modern jerry-built housing variety, which consisted of some one hundred or so modest semi detached houses and bungalows arranged on the gentle slope of the Tanyard and running down to our own Stream Pit Lane. The stream still existed and the boys of the village, myself included, delighted in building a mud and stick dam across it where it ran through an untended orchard, which was our year-round playground, and then breaking the dam and sending a deluge into the garden of the unfortunate occupant of the house immediately adjacent to the orchard.

Although Gibbon was never permanently established in Kent, he did reside over in Cranbrook, five miles from Sandhurst, for a while during his period of service in the militia during the Seven Years War (1756-63),

"...we performed with alacrity a long march (December 1-11) to Cranbrook in the weald of Kent, where we had been sent to guard eighteen hundred French prisoners at Sissinghurst. The inconceivable dirtiness of the season, the country and the spot aggravated the hardships of a duty too heavy for our numbers; but these hardships were of short duration, and before the end of the month we were relieved by the interest of our Tory friends under the new reign." - Memoirs of My Life, Folio Soc. p. 129.
Gibbon was certainly the "English giant of the Enlightenment" (Franco Venturi), as his use of original sources, his religious scepticism, his initiation into the rites of freemasonry, and his belief in progress attest; yet his political philosophy, closer to that of Burke than of Paine, offers a happier and wiser alternative than the zealoutry that marked the degeneration of the French Enlightenment into the dogmatic tyranny of the revolution:

"I beg leave to subscribe my assent to Mr. Burke's creed on the revolution of France. I admire his eloquence, I approve his politics, I adore his chivalry, and I can almost excuse his reverence for church establishments. I have sometimes thought of writing a dialogue of the dead, in which Lucian, Erasmus, and Voltaire should mutually acknowledge the danger of exposing an old superstition to the contempt of the blind and fanatic multitude." - Memoir of My Life

And on the revolution itself and its deleterious effects on society at large he had this to say:

"...our ladies and gentlemen assume the character of self-taught politicians; and the sober dictates of wisdom and experience are silenced by the clamour of the triumphant democrates. The fanatic missionaries of sedition have scattered the seeds of discontent in our cities and villages, which have flourished above two hundred and fifty years, without fearing the approach of war or feeling the weight of government. Many individuals, and some communities, appear to be infected with the Gallic phrenzy, the wild theories of equal and boundless freedom..." - Memoir of My Life

Should not we also be more concerned today with supporting the rule of law, and seeking equity before it, than with spreading our prejudice for "the wild & mischievous system of Democracy", the singular benefit of which is to assist morally and intellectually retarded Paynim and other ghastly fanatics to exert tyrannical power over the weak in various benighted regions of the earth?

Thankfully, here in the Far East, the Japanese have been more craftily pragmatic in their adoption of western democratic institutions. While the Japanese hybrid may have its wild and mischievous side, the nutters are sufficiently cowed to allow the rest of us
to pass our time with some degree of rest and quietness, especially now that the government has banned the big black buses of the ultra nationalists from parading up and down the streets blaring out martial music hits of the 1930s from their amplified speaker systems.

Taking advantage of the quietness afforded unto us, the Good Doc and I have just embarked on a reading of the first volume of the Folio Society's eight volume edition of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, and if Dr M jr enjoys the style and the history presented in the first volume, and feels that many a pithy lesson can be drawn therefrom, then our aim is to proceed through all eight Folio Society volumes.

There are, however, a couple of shocks for the Japanese student in the magisterial opening sentence of Gibbon's magnum opus but I shall leave it up to the reader (if there is one) to deduce what those shocks might be:

IN the second century of the Christian era, the Empire of Rome comprehended the fairest part of the earth, and the most civilised portion of mankind. The frontiers of that extensive monarchy were guarded by ancient renown and disciplined valour. The gentle but powerful influence of laws and manners had gradually cemented the union of the provinces. Their peaceful inhabitants enjoyed and abused the advantages of wealth and luxury. The image of a free constitution was preserved with decent reverence: the Roman senate appeared to possess the sovereign authority, and devolved on the emperors all the executive powers of government. During a happy period (A.D. 98-180) of more than fourscore years, the public administration was conducted by the virtue and abilities of Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian, and the two Antonines. It is the design of this, and of the two succeeding chapters, to describe the prosperous condition of their empire; and afterwards, from the death of Marcus Antoninus, to deduce the most important circumstances of its decline and fall; a revolution which will ever be remembered, and is still felt by the nations of the earth." - The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Vol. 1, Ch. 1.

David Hurley

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Friday, June 15, 2007

Friday 8th June: Two English Seadogs, Three Skewered Sparrows, and the nocturnal exchange between the Oleander and the Hollyhocks.

Tonight saw the reenactment of two notable incidents from the annals of Britain's glorious maritime history.

The Royal Navy Frigate HMS Leeds, entered Hiroshima Bay, bombarded the harbour and destroyed the warehouses of local daimyo Itsuonuri Noda which were known to contain contraband such as unlicenced Overconfidence, bootlegged Lucky Strikes, and unregulated amounts of Skill, not to mention a store of Insight-into-Other- Players'-Hands that breaks all agreed quotas.

The conflagration was augmented by the considerable quantities of Japanese alcohol that had recently been taken in by the daimyo.

It was reported that Noda had committed seppuku with a grilled sparrow skewer in the fourth hour of the bombardment; nevertheless Japanese guns opened fire on the HMS Leeds as it caught the wind and sailed back out to sea. Captain Davy "Sniffer" O'Hurtler, who had been at the wheel for most of the action, reported in the ship's log that the damage was light and the homeward voyage swift and free.

Meanwhile, O'Hurtler's comrade in arms, Captain Jimmy Firedrake of the HMS Manchester, sailed up Colloran Creek on the American seaboard and set about reducing the settlement to cinders at a time when it appeared that, if left unmolested, it might have got its finances back into the black after recent trading losses.

In the third hour of the bombardment a direct hit on the governor's barbeque saw the governor himself receive a skewered sparrow in the short and curlies.

The flagship USS Kenyon is reported to have sunk to the bottom of the creek but rumours that it is completely "US" have yet to be confirmed.

Although return fire was muted, Captain Firedrake was himself hit by a parting shot from a low calibre fowling piece and skewered to his mast like a grilled sparrow as the HMS Manchester sailed away into the night.

The delay caused by that misfortune enabled the HMS Leeds slip home first, navigating by the yearly chart rather than by the Evening Star.

Pontificating upon the outcome of the evening's action Captain Davy O'Hurtler adapted an immortal bon mot from another field of English glory, and speaking to the oleander trees and the hollyhocks, he said:

I certainly wouldn't say I'm the best player in the game, but I'm in the top one.

And the branches of the oleander swayed in the nocturnal breeze and its leaves rustled with a whisper that sounded like, "Again... again..."

And the hollyhocks tossed their gaudy heads beneath the watery and inconstant moon and seemed to murmer in reply, "For now... for now..."

Jaime +32, +43, +58, +27, -22* = +138
David +10, -16, +28, +68, -11 = +79
Noda -7, -21, +31, -74,* +32 = -39
Kenyon -35, -6, -117,* -21, +1 = -178

* Yakitori

David Hurley

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Friday, June 08, 2007

Friday 1st June: Noda Commits a Chombo & Charges On (Assisted By David)

Having gone without lunch, David was perfectly happy to receive a message from Kenyon that he was stuck on a bus in a traffic jam caused by the Toukasan festival as that gave him time to chomp his way through Kodama Mama-san's ample serving of yakimeshi without having to concentrate on the flow of the game and keep his hand in order at the same time.

There were three players for the early part of the evening, Noda, David and Kenyon, while Hide came along with his missus a bit later on.

I don't have the score sheet to hand as I write this but I can remember all too well how the evening panned out...

Noda won a lot. Hide ended up on zero. Kenyon lost quite a little. David lost quite a lot.

There was one moment of fumble-bumble on Kenyon's part which led to a unique form of Chombo by a somewhat aggrieved Noda. Kenyon reached over to take a tile from the wall on the other side of the table and dropped it as he brought it towards his wall. It crashed the end of his discard pile and propelled the 9-Bamboo into the tiles in his hand. When Kenyon had sorted everything out he replaced the 9-Bamboo at the beginning of his discard pile. The whole episode had been observed by both David and Hide with some mild amusement, which turned to bemusement and then hilarity when Noda looked up from a deep contemplation of his hand. Seeing the 9-Bamboo appear on the table, and oblivious to what had been going on, he declared a rather reluctant "Ron!"and showed his hand!

Poor old Noda's nose was put out of joint by the universal declaration of "Chombo!" He argued for a while that it was really Kenyon's fault and that that sort of thing would be construed as tricky play in less salubrious company. But there was little choice but to pay up. It put paid to whatever hand it was that Noda had and also had the effect of subduing the Noda charge for a while - it was the only game he finished in negative territory for the evening.

However, that was not the most foolish action of the evening because David had yet to make his contribution. With Noda showing two sets of open Dragons within the first five discards of the hand, David rather blithely decided to chuck out a Chun (Red Dragon) to achieve Tenpai. He was aware of Noda's Dragons but claims that his inhibitions had been removed by the intake of booze and the fact that he was the Oya and - what the heck - it was only the fifth discard into the hand, dammit. He had overlooked the fact that while it was indeed "only" the fifth discard into a hand in which Noda was showing two sets of Dragons while enjoying a spring roll - I mean a springtime recovery of form.

Ron! - Daisangen! Yakuman, 32,000 points please!

It was a foolish throw anyway, since if Noda had claimed the Chun by going Pon David would have been liable to pay the whole fine to Noda no matter how and off whom he had gone out.

At some stage in the evening Kenyon completed Kokushimusou on Tsumo.

David got stuck with his Yakitori in the fourth game and only managed to finish ahead in the sixth and ninth games.

Noda wandered off home at about 1am and the other three played on until about 3am, some considerable time after Hide's missus had fallen asleep on Mama's sofa.

By the end of the evening Noda and David had changed places on the Grand Accumulated Points Chart and it is only Tsuyoshi-san's victory on the one evening he played that stands between Noda and the top-spot...

Saturday 9th June

Here is the score sheet:

Noda +29, +18, +2, +55, -6, +18, --, --, -- = +116
Hide --, --, +38. -39, 0, -26, -10, +47, -10 = 0
Kenyon -12, -6, -1, +26, +23, -40, +31, -20, -19 = -18,
David -17, -12, -39, -42,* -17, +48, -21, -27, +29 = -98

David Hurley

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Friday, June 01, 2007

Friday 25th May: Noda Is Back!

The three Old Timers returned to Kodama for tonight's game. It was essentially a battle between David and Noda for the spoils of victory and in the third game it looked as if Noda was down and out, finishing with an empty tray and owing David 20,000 points. Perhaps it would be a foreigners-only evening after all... But no, Noda recovered with +62 in the fourth game in reply to David's +58 in the second.

In the fourth game David, unusually for him, was chasing Kokushimusou and was ready to finish but to retain Tempai he had to throw Noda's finishing tile. In the fifth and final game David was once again Tempai as Last Oya, but needed to declare Riichi and discard a Hatsu (Dora) tile. Reasoning that if it worked he would finish top, and that if it failed he would finish second and in the black, he threw it - and finished second and in the black!

That was the second time that Hatsu had also been the Dora tile in the evening. In the first instance all three players ended up Tempai and waiting for just the Hatsu to finish. There was the prospect that if any one of the players had changed his wait and discarded, both the other players would have gone out. As it was, seeing as no Hatsu were showing, nobody took the risk of being the first to discard it.

Noda -8, +34, -72, +62,+27 = +43
David +24, -14, +58, -19, -8 = +41
Jaime -16, -20, +14, -43, -19 = -84

With this result Noda has got into the black for the first time this year (I believe), so we can say that "Noda is back"!

David Hurley
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Thursday 24th May: A Late Spring Evening's Snooze

It is that time of year again when the International Theatre Company London tours Japan and we in Hiroshima get a welcome opportunity to see a Shakespeare performance free of charge, courtesy of Jogakuin University.

In the expectation that quite a few would attend the performance, I spent the past fortnight introducing or recapitulating the play to all sorts and levels of students, and all ages withal, from a four-year-old who was enchanted by Kevin Kline's performance as "Bottom" (or "Oshiri-san" as she calls him) in Michael Hoffman's film version, to a hale and hearty eighty four year old who dutifully attempted to keep track with the meanderings of the plot.

So by the time I flopped into my seat towards the back of the auditorium I was ready for a pleasant snooze.

This year two screens had been set up on either side of the stage and PowerPoint subtitles were flashed onto them as the play progressed. Well intentioned I grant, but rather distracting when instead of getting the script we got the Microsoft default screensaver - you know, the ubiquitous rolling field beneath a blue, cloud studded sky, and not a tree - let alone a forest - in site. Dr M, who joined me during the interval, had much to say about how if he'd wanted to see subtitles he would have stayed at home and watched the Michael Hoffman's version on DVD.

The play began with the "back story" of the battle of the Amazons that is the prelude to the wedding of Theseus and Hippolyta, a typically contemporary offering in which some miserable vermicular fellow was bullied and prodded about a bit by a vixen brandishing a spear. Then along came the King of Athens (no less!) and promptly announced for some reason best known to himself that he was rather fond of the vixen and, forsooth, the vixen and he were soon to be married.

"Well, my good Sir," I thought to myself, "That's your funeral."

The ITCL are past masters at presenting Shakespeare in a way that is entertaining for Japanese audiences and this year's play was no exception. For many in the audience, especially the school and university students, it was probably their first experience of seeing Shakespeare and it is chiefly for them that the production is aimed - a busy performance in which six actors share the divers parts amongst themselves. The emphasis is firmly on the visual and the physical, the overdrawn gesture to convey an essential point so that everybody can get something from the performance.

Here are some comments offered as feedback by some students of Shikoku University which suggest that the ITCL has got the right idea for their Japan tour.
  • "The content of Midsummer Night's Dream was very difficult for me, but gesture and voice was very big, so I was very fun."

  • "I watch such a play for the first time. The songs were very beautiful."

  • "Performers used big movements, especially Harmia. She was short and pretty. And I found the donkey head man very interesting. Last of all, I was happy the story had a happy end."

  • "I could not understand what they said, but I was so moved and so excited by just seeing their act. And when I could understand only a few words, I was so glad!!"

Dr M also affirmed over a few beers after the show that the physicality of the performance had made it intelligible to him and that he particularly enjoyed the second half of the play.

But the emphasis on the motion and gesture does have its not insignificant drawbacks. The timbre and range of the voice suffers; the subtlety of poetic expression is lost. Add to that the contemporary and seemingly irresistible tendency to play the women as chippy, grievance-laden victims and the loss shadow and tone is as complete on the stage as it is from off the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.

My beef is not just with the ITCL; Hoffman's film version also suffers from the inadequate expression of female indignity. What is needed is some method of developing a greater vocal range, an ability to convey the subtleties of the verse, a better way for young actresses to learn how to convey the anger of their character's hearts without resorting to the strained and grating voice, the bent-backed gesture, the handbags-and-fingernails atmosphere of nightclub chavs. Elizabeth Taylor got it right when she played Kate to Richard Burton's Petruchio in the immortal Zeffirelli's film version of The Taming of the Shrew. What a wonderful shrew she made; a shrew worthy to pursue indeed!

To have to marry anything else would be neither a dream nor a comedy but the mother of all farcical nightmares...

David Hurley

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