28 February 2015

Health & Safety at Work

It is a well known fact that workplace ‘Health & Safety’ courses are necessary. When lifting a heavy load always remember to bend your knees, not your back. Yet, however necessary, they are also eyeball-rollingly renowned for pointing out the seemingly obvious; so obvious, in fact, that we often forget to do exactly that – bend the knees! … But, not all workplace ‘Health & Safety’ instruction courses are necessarily boring – it very much depends on the workplace …

The other week I was lucky enough to be given a lesson in how to handle Japanese swords safely.

Having worked for many years in museums, I have a very broad experience in handling a wide variety of objects, from tiny Mesolithic microliths to large sculptures weighing several tons. A variety of pieces of equipment are required to handle such artefacts safely – with both the safety of the object, and your own personal safety as the object’s handler, each being equally important. In some cases, where the object is particularly fragile it’s important to handle the object correctly so as to ensure your handling of it doesn’t hasten the artefact’s deterioration – this may simply be by wearing gloves so that unseen oils and moisture from your hands do not transfer onto the object’s surface, or wearing a face mask so that moisture from your breath doesn’t land on, say, a delicate painted surface if you need to examine the item up close. Or it may be the need to wear steel toe-capped footwear if you are moving a large stone sculpture – not all objects travel in the same orientation in which they are displayed, consequently you may also need to know how to operate heavy lifting gear, or be qualified to drive a forklift as well. The general rule for working with objects in museums is that all objects should be treated with due care and respect, and no such job of work can be rushed. Forethought, planning, preparation, and awareness should always be the rule.

Another rule which I believe always remains true (and this is something I take care to stress when I’m giving object handling instruction courses), is that no matter how long you’ve worked in a museum environment, nor however familiar you are with a particular collection of objects, even if you work with such objects on a daily basis – you never know it all. You should always expect the unexpected! 

Each object is unique, and not least in the sense that each artefact has its own particular weaknesses, damage repairs, or dormant corrosion areas (which may reactivate), which may be invisible or may well have changed since you last handled that very same object. Take nothing for granted. Working in a museum is very much like Heraclitus’s river – it’s never the same. Whenever you pick up an artefact you should do so with the same care and attention as though it were the very first time you were picking it up (and, by-the-by, if you ever go for a job interview for a museum technician’s post, this is probably the key point which the interviewers will most want to see demonstrated that you clearly understand!).

This, though, is also one of the joys of working in a museum – there’s always something new to learn ... Hence why I was being shown how to handle Japanese swords. There are several key considerations to bear in mind when handling this kind of object. They are real marvels of the metallurgical arts. It’s often hard to credit that they are of such antiquity when they often look so new and modern; not simply because their shape seems modern, but rather because the quality of the metal seems so sleek and pure. It is a testament to how well they have been cared for through the centuries, having been passed down from one generation to the next.


The two particular swords which we used to learn the basic procedures each dated from the 15th Century. They are both wakizashi (脇差) – a side or companion sword, the shorter of a pair (daishō 大小) worn by samurai, and each are stored in plain wooden ‘sleeping scabbards.’ The scabbards naturally enough are formed of two parts, a long section for the blade and a short section for the blade’s tang (the fittings for the sword having been dismantled and stored separately). The two pieces form quite a snug fit and it can be quite a challenging task to ease them apart. Needless to say, the first time you attempt this it is hard not to be a bit wary as you are all too aware of the extreme sharpness of the blade concealed within. It’s best to inspect the scabbard first to ensure it hasn’t cracked or split at all. Like all museum objects, they need to be kept in a stable environment which maintains temperature and humidity. With your hand placed firmly around the back or top (blunt) edge side, you should draw the sword handle out with your other hand, and then ease the blade covering portion away. 


The tang is fixed into the handle portion of the scabbard with a wooden peg (mekugi 目釘) that passes through a small hole in both the wood and the metal tang (mekugi ana 目釘). You push this peg out using a wooden punch, yet the tang often remains tightly settled within its housing, so you need to deftly ‘knock’ it out. Again this is quite a daunting task for the first-timer, because the correct way to do this is to hold the sword upright in front of you (with the sharp edge facing away), holding your arm straight and slightly away from your body, you then have to thump the top of the hand holding the sword with the underside of your free hand made into a fist – this has the affect of ‘popping’ the sword from the tang housing (the weight of the blade keeps it from jumping clear of the wood!). This does get easier (and less daunting) with practice, but as the blades can settle into and become stuck in the wood, particularly if they’ve been stored in their sleeping scabbards for quite some time, you may well end up with a fair few self-inflicted bruises on the point where your hand meets your wrist as you repeatedly thump away harder and harder!

The blades themselves are periodically polished and cared for with oil. Before putting them on display they are usually cleaned, a light dusting of uchiko (打ち粉) powder can be applied and wiped off with a soft cloth. There is a set technique for doing this – first you draw the cloth from the centre of the blade to the tip, and then from the centre to the tang. This is primarily so that you do not transfer any possible rust which might be present on the tang to the blade itself. This respect for care and cleanliness is key.

It’s important to bear in mind exactly what kind of object the sword actually is when handling it, for in Japan especially, the sword is not simply a deadly weapon – it is also a work of skilled and artistic craftsmanship; and, as such, it is heavily imbued with a distinct spiritual essence. My long-time friend and colleague (now retired), Victor Harris, is one of the world’s leading authorities on Japanese swords and is a skilled practitioner of Kendo (剣道). He has summed this up best in his book Cutting Edge: Japanese Swords in the British Museum (2004):

“In traditional Japanese culture every workplace has a shrine dedicated to the deity of that particular profession, and sword-making is no exception. The concept of cleanliness is applied to man as well as material, and the smith will bathe and purify his thoughts in preparation for the job. Each process is governed by the practices of Shintō, the native religion of Japan, in which the deities of nature commune with man in his professions and other daily activities. It is often said that Shintō is not a religion but a set of working principles. Whereas it has no specific moral teachings, its great precepts include cleanliness, respect for materials and traditions, and an awareness of the spiritual nature of the world around us.”

As a practical ethos we would do well to echo this mindfulness in our approach to the curatorial aspects of handling and storing ancient artefacts.

The two swords we were practicing with were, as I’ve said, each made in the 15th Century, during the Muromachi period (1392-1573). They are both pictured and described in detail in Victor Harris’s catalogue (No.s 2 & 3). The first dates to around 1400-1428, from Bizen Province (present day south-eastern Okayama Prefecture), and is signed by the swordsmith, Yasumitsu of Osafune village. The second is a little later. It is signed and dated by the swordsmith, Norimitsu, also from Osafune, in 1449. It was also subsequently modified, having been shortened possibly to fit a second owner who was perhaps shorter in physical stature than its first. 

These wakizashi were worn at all times, both indoors and outside, whereas their longer companion swords, or katana (), would only have been carried when out of doors as a pair with the wakizashi. In appraising the quality of a particular sword’s craftsmanship there are many elements to look for, the most notable perhaps being the grain and the hamon (波紋), or ‘the badge of the blade’ – the crystalline pattern formed along the hardened edge of the blade (often seen as an undulating, smoky burnish along the blade’s cutting edge), which is a result of the technique by which the blade is heated until it is red hot and then quenched by plunging into a bath of cold water. There is a detailed lexicon of terms used to describe all the many aspects and variations which characterise Japanese sword typologies and manufacture techniques, to fully understand all the intricacies would require a lifetime of dedication and study, and indeed many of the traditions of sword-making are still practiced and passed on across Japan to this day by the descendents of the same families who created these swords in the 15th Century (click on the images of each sword above to read more about them).

Further Reading:

Cutting Edge: Japanese Swords in the British Museum by Victor Harris (London: British Museum Press, 2004)

The Japanese Sword: The Soul of the Samurai by Gregory Irvine (London: Victoria & Albert Museum/Weatherhill, 2000)

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Victor Harris will be giving a lecture entitled 'Sword: The Essence of Japanese Art' at the British Museum, Saturday July 12th, 2015 at 1:30pm. More information & how to book here

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Listen to another friend of mine, Greg Irvine from the V&A Museum, on the BBC Radio 4 programme, ‘In Our Time’ - discussing ‘The Samurai’ here


All images (except the image of the book) © The Trustees of the British Museum

11 February 2015

Parallax - Patrick Leigh Fermor

Today marks the centenary of Patrick Leigh Fermor’s birth (February 11th, 1915). Leigh Fermor was and remains an inspirational writer – fascinated by freedom, travel, history, linguistics, art, architecture, food, good company – urged on by a boundless curiosity, unhindered by any sort of shyness, he sought to make connections where others might never have thought of looking, let alone expected, in order to build up a picture whereby to understand and appreciate the world and its wonders as he encountered them. For many he is the model travel writer par excellence. A man of his time perhaps, but someone whose writings continue to resonate with readers to this day, works which remain much loved, appreciated, and treasured – even though the life and times they recall can often seem a world away from our own.

I first tried to read Patrick Leigh Fermor when I was around the age of fifteen or sixteen. My sister had given me a copy of his most famous book, A Time of Gifts (John Murray, 1977), which recounts the journey of his eighteen year old self, walking from the Hook of Holland, through Germany just after the Nazis had come to power, to the Middle Danube in the early 1930s. I’m sure she thought the book would appeal to me as I’d recently returned from my first student exchange trip to Germany. I was, then also, of a similar age to Leigh Fermor at the time he made his memorable journey. But the truth is, I couldn’t get much beyond the first few pages. Fermor’s florid prose seemed too dense; yet clearly it lodged in my mind nonetheless, as – when I returned to the book many years later – I found I’d retained a vividly etched picture of his arrival in Holland and his first night’s stay there at an inn. It may have been the strange and (to my mind) apparently irrelevant framing of the book’s Introduction in the form of a letter to his friend, Xan Fielding, which set me off kilter. I think I was probably trying too hard and paying too much attention. Assuming I had to take everything in and remember it all in detail in order to understand in-depth each of the pages which lay ahead. I had no idea at the time that part of the great enjoyment of reading this much loved book is that it ranges so widely across so many varied topics, assuming we know all about, and are just as familiar with them as its author, and that all we need do is simply follow the flow, letting the words wash us lyrically and effortlessly along on the adventures of anecdote and shared curiosity.

Adding another fifteen years and (just shy of) ten more, I eventually returned to make a second try at reading A Time of Gifts. Now older – wiser? ... Certainly more widely travelled, and so, maybe a more receptive reader? – I spent the winter weeks over the Christmas and New Year holidays accompanying ‘Paddy’ on his remarkable journey; reading not just A Time of Gifts, but also its sequel or second volume, Between the Woods and the Water (John Murray, 1986), and the recently published ‘concluding’ volume, The Broken Road (John Murray, 2013). Reading the three books in sequence may seem like quite a travail in itself, but it was interesting – mainly to see how Leigh Fermor’s trilogy had … Well, I’m not entirely sure what word will suffice here – faltered? Developed? Altered? Changed? Dried up? Succeeded? Abandoned? Excelled or exceeded him? … I think any and perhaps all of those words could equally apply.

To get the most out of these books, I suppose, (perhaps rather bizarrely) you need to know something about them before you even begin. It helps to know a bit about Patrick Leigh Fermor’s life, and some details about this particularly enchanting and enchanted journey that he made. Recent editions include a preface by Jan Morris which helps to give some context. The preface is undated so I’m not entirely sure if it opened the particular volume which I originally attempted to read when I was fifteen; or, if it did, I may well have skipped it, not understanding its true relevance for anyone approaching the book for the very first time (I used to be very dismissive of third party intros!)*. The key thing to realise is that the journey he recounts is as much a feat of memory as it is a faithful travelogue. As, Colin Thubron and Artemis Cooper, the editors of Leigh Fermor’s recently published third volume, The Broken Road, explain: “He wanted to call the book ‘Parallax’, a word (familiar to astronomy) that defines the transformation that an object undergoes when viewed from different angles. It was a measure of how acutely he felt the change of perspective between his younger and older selves. Jock Murray [his Publisher], however, balked at the title as too opaque (he thought parallax sounded like a patent medicine) and it was tentatively renamed ‘A Youthful Journey’.”

The first two books were written forty and fifty years after the events they recall. He had long before lost most of the notes, letters, and diaries which he’d kept at the time of the journey itself (although one old notebook did unexpectedly resurface and was returned to him whilst he was writing the first volume). Consequently, he felt inspired and at liberty to roam as freely with his recollections as his youthful self had felt free to wander when making the original journey all those many years before. This meant anything was possible, rather than a literal narrative travelogue he could meander, linger, or digress as his fancy inclined; and, as a result, the book is made all the more remarkable for its unexpected leaps in topic and focus. One moment he is recounting his methodical progress from morning to afternoon on the open road, when – all of a sudden – a remembrance of a particular view or a certain building encountered there will ricochet him off on a tangent which could find its focus in an arcane architectural observation, reinforced by a curious fact of history (which he has only just looked up, as he tells us, catapulting us into the present, sitting beside him in his study), which is then linked to another notable incident (sucking us part way back into the past) from a later and otherwise unconnected journey, again backed up by reference to a date stamp in his old passport (which he checks, having it lying beside him there on his desk as he writes) which confirms how and when he could have known what his younger self would not have known at the time – but (as we the reader will no doubt agree), he would certainly have relished if he’d only been aware of it back then!

A Time of Gifts is a subtle and genial, yet remarkable feat of writing. To read it is to accompany two Patrick Leigh Fermors – the one making the journey and the one recalling it; yet it is also, in many curious senses, akin to knowing and feeling what it was like to be Paddy Leigh Fermor, both on the road and at his desk; vicariously seeing the world through his eyes, yet reflecting with him on it and what we each know of all that has transpired and transformed these parts of the world in the times which have since passed. Reading Leigh Fermor is much like reading Marcel Proust (yet without the ‘inconceivable boredom associated with the most extreme ecstasy’ – to quote Henry James!), as both Proust and Fermor are primarily concerned with the pursuit of ‘lost time’ and ‘time regained’. In certain passages, in this respect, the two writers are almost one and the same.

 Marcel Proust

What makes this trilogy perhaps all the more interesting is how that process – the search for lost time – clearly falters and fades (and perhaps this is where he differs from Proust). For me there is clearly a change in gear between A Time of Gifts and Between the Woods and the Water. And, while The Broken Road (posthumously published) certainly completes the journey, it is actually assembled from his earliest drafts, before his initial ideas had properly crystallised – and, as such, the trilogy essentially remains unrealised as he would have wished it himself. It is a much recounted fact that Leigh Fermor struggled with the heavy weight of expectation which he encountered and felt from his readers to complete the narrative – to reach that golden final destination, Constantinople! ... But there, too, perhaps is the trick – true travellers, though they may not openly acknowledge this will most likely nod nonetheless – true travellers never really want to reach their destination. In the words of photo-journalist, Dan Eldon, very often “the journey is the destination.” And this is what fascinates me most about these three books.

In many respects, I’m attempting to do something similar in writing this blog – not that this blog is anywhere near being on any sort of a par with Patrick Leigh Fermor’s writings! (Although, sometimes, I rather wish I’d had a Jock Murray on hand to tell me how daftly awful my choice of a title for it was – but, I guess it’s too darn late now!) [The original title of this blog was 'Eccentric Parabola']. As a person who travels frequently, and who is often asked by friends and family about these trips, I wanted to find a way of recording them for myself as much as anyone else. I’m sure there will come a time when I no longer travel as much as I do now. Not knowing when that time might begin, it could come sooner or equally later than I realise, but what has always been clear is that sometimes these trips are stacked so close in succession, and sometimes are so busy and demanding in and of themselves, that I don’t always find the time to properly record them as they happen. From some trips I have full and methodically handwritten travel diaries stuffed with old tickets, crinkled beer mats, and dog-eared restaurant flyers, as well as numerous photos which I’ve taken; yet for others I often have nothing more than the vaguest memories and perhaps a single faded ticket stub. That’s why I decided to make a record and share it with anyone who might be interested – after all, there’s nothing travellers like more than to sit and swap travel stories!

Our memories of our past travels often resurface in the form of episodes and snapshots. Coloured by fleeting smells, tastes, half-remembered thoughts, sensations, and feelings. Time lost and time regained. These traveller’s tales often alter in the retelling as different elements are recalled on different occasions for a variety of different prompts or reasons. Setting them down may be an attempt to stop us embellishing them too far, although setting them down is often simply a springboard for yet more tales and other anecdotes – but the real truth is, and I wonder if this might be why Patrick Leigh Fermor never truly felt himself able to round off his trilogy, is that simply – some journeys are perhaps too much a part of us. Parallax becomes paradox. Parabola becomes ellipsis. We can never capture the true essence of the best journeys we’ve made because they are forever refracting and changing within ourselves.

Further Reading & Resources

My thoughts and reflections on the art of the biographer (after reading Artemis Cooper’s recent biography): Patrick Leigh Fermor – Sifting Fact From Fiction

* I later found the original book on a shelf at my sister's house and it let's me off the hook as there was no Introduction by Jan Morris in that particular edition.