Sunday, 24 November 2013


I have just finished a book which I really enjoyed.  It is a Penguin Classic (2006 edition) called The Pillow Book by a Japanese court gentlewoman, Sei Shonagon.  Apparently it is one of the great works of Japanese literature.  (I had never heard of it.)

As a ponderous reader who is always looking for new ways of looking at things this book ticked all the boxes! I read it from cover to cover taking my time to look up the notes at the back (which is a third of the thickness of the book).

What is the book about?  Well it is NOT what it sounds i.e. something out of Playboy magazine.  Far from it; it is basically about Japanese aesthetics.  Written about 1000 years ago it is the observations of a well-born Japanese lady whose life at court is recorded in her musings.  So it is rather a female collection of what she finds beautiful or delightful.

Japanese bowl left to Iain by his Auntie Ruth.

The very end of the books explains exactly how she was handed sheaves of paper by Her Majesty and simply used them up with all her day to day notes -  a bit like a diary or a blog.  A better title (and less mis-leading) might have been Sei’s Book of Delights.

It is not in diary form but rather the writer uses headings of categories (or if you were mathematically inclined you might say “sets”) such as “Things Which .....” Only on rare occasions does she look at life’s opposites e.g. “Things Which Irritate Me” sort of topics. (I laughed at her example of “Things Which Are Cocky” ... 3 year olds!)

The translator, Meredith McKinney, makes the book come alive.  The subject matter is often taken up with with poems Sei composes or uses in witty exchanges. The more I read of her ability to use words in speech or writing  e.g. repartee, quickly compose a poem on her inkstone and also how she enjoyed high status in the courtly inner circle, the more it reminded me of Shakespearean plays where 2 actors bantered back and forth using puns which the audience would understand and find delightful.

So given that the book is about all those things that she finds “delightful” I have gathered a few of the categories together and placed them below.  I used a photo to illustrate an example or two.

A few categories of "delight" might be:

DELIGHT TO THE EYE: Himalayan Poppies in the garden

BEAUTIFUL WORKMANSHIP: Ropework on a Tall Ship

CHARMING: Ishie in her summer dress aged 3 years old

MAKE YOU SMILE: Alastair on the beach in Orkney, aged 5 years old

ELEGANCE: The glass staircase in the Glasgow Apple Store

TRULY SPLENDID: The Scottish Exhibition Centre Hydro Arena and the Finneston Crane.  I took the photo a couple of days ago.  There is a man just left of centre who is kneeling down putting the finishing touches to the paving (as part of the final "snagging" of the construction project.)

Another TRULY SPENDID: Alastair and Indy on the beach on the west coast of Islay in August.

UNEXPECTED ENCOUNTER:  On walking around Hampton Court, London, I came upon this figure leaning against the wall.  It's a "sculpture" and it made me laugh.

Another UNEXPECTED ENCOUNTER:  I took this photo on Saturday in Edinburgh.  I had been at a lecture and listening to one very good, then one very bad, presentation. I just had to escape into the fresh air as there had been no interval and lunch was another 1 1/2 hours off.  I walked across the street and there before me was this little fellow, Grey Friar's Bobby!  The shiny bit on his nose is where everyone reaches up high and rubs it as well as reading the plague of his story.

SATISFYING: Results of visiting distilleries in Islay while on holiday.

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