August 6th, every year

Sky at dusk

There are some dates that are not ordinary dates: March 11th, June 4th and two dates this week, August 6th and 9th. So much is written and said every year about the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and every year it seems too much, and never enough.

It seems too much because it feels so overwhelming, the images are so iconic and so horrific. Interspersed with interviews with survivors, dignified and mildly-spoken elderly Japanese people who re-tell their stories of the hell they experienced. It is hard to know what to think, other than, make it stop.

And every year, nothing is ever enough, because the years pass and it doesn’t seem like we ever gain any clarity, we make no progress to making sure it can never happen again. I have no words of wisdom, I only have some snapshots of what I have heard from Japanese people over the years. In the absence of anything else, I offer them here:

About fifteen years ago some students made posters about their grandmothers in my class. Two students wrote about their grandmothers’ experiences of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. One wrote that her mother was outside Hiroshima that day, but went into the city in the days following the blast. She swore that she would never tell anyone what she had seen, because she didn’t want to pass on the horror, ‘but she did,’ wrote the student. She didn’t write any more, but I always wondered what her grandmother had told her.

Another wrote that her grandmother’s beloved brother was caught in the blast, but wasn’t killed that day. Instead, he died in her arms a week later, poisoned by radiation. ‘It broke her heart.’ Although she went on to marry and have children and grandchildren, there was always heartbreak because of the brother she had lost. Hers was a life put back around unimaginable grief.

There is a remarkable resilience in the human spirit. People live through horror and somehow put their lives back together around it. In China I have met people who lived through the Cultural Revolution, who were treated very badly, got sent down to the countryside, but then years later returned to the city, maybe had neighbours who were part of their persecution, and somehow manage to live with that.

When I first lived in Japan, I met a woman who had lived in China as a young child. I don’t know why her family was there, but her mother had died and as the Japanese retreated she and her father tried to get some money to get back to Japan. She stood by the side of the road, holding her mother’s beautiful kimono, begging strangers to give her a few coins for them.

I have a friend whose mother is from Hiroshima, and was a small child on that day seventy years ago. She was outside the city, but saw the flash when the bomb was detonated. It’s one of her earliest memories.

Mine is of my brother and our dog.

Hers is the flash of the atomic bomb.

What’s yours?

The meaning of pears

pearOne of the things people often mention about shopping in Japan is the ridiculous price of fruit and vegetables. Fruit, especially, has been elevated to an art form, with perfect, unblemished specimens being packaged and given as gifts. Sometimes fruit is supersized, sometimes grown into unexpected shapes; giant strawberries, square watermelons. If that sounds like fun and you have the budget for it, then Japan is your fruit paradise.

My favourite flavours are the sharp bite of citrus and berries. Anything yuzu-flavoured will get my attention, lemon is always good, and raspberries and blackcurrants are wonderful. Growing up, we had raspberry canes in the garden, and since my father and brother didn’t like them the picking became mine and my mother’s job. Every summer we harvested over thirty kilos, filled the freezer with them, made jam and pies and summer puddings. My after-school routine towards the end of the summer term was to come home from school and go straight into the garden, fight my way under the green plastic netting (they were our raspberries, not the birds’) and pick the ripened fruit.

But there has always been one fruit that I just can’t bear. I don’t see the point of them, I don’t like anything about them: Pears.

I’m on retreat at the moment, and have spent the day joining the Daily Offices at the convent and sitting in the garden and orchard reading Brother Lawrence, The Practice of the Presence of God. I’ve also been wandering round the garden, taking photos and soaking up the beauty of God’s creation.


On my wanders round the garden I found a damson tree, which reminded me of the schoolhouse in Ellastone where we lived when I was just starting school. The school cook used to come into the garden in the morning and pick enough damsons to make damson crumble for school lunch. Even now, when my mother and I see damsons on sale we buy some and make compote and freeze it to brighten up yogurt on winter mornings.


But then I found pear trees, and sighed at the waste of orchard space. Why grow pears when you could have damsons? I considered the bounty of the orchard here; not only my beloved damsons but also plums, figs, apples, even an ancient mulberry tree. Pears. Why would anyone want pears?

Some people in Japan love pears. Of course, they enjoy the Japanese nashi pears, but what is given as gifts is known as La France, the rosy, pleasingly-shaped European pear. Apparently it’s also known as a butter pear. After living in Japan for a long time and hearing friends extol the deliciousness of this fruit I thought, maybe I’m wrong, maybe they really are as good as everyone tells me. I went to a supermarket, bought one, took it home and tried it. I discovered that I wasn’t wrong at all, they were as unpleasant as I remembered them. The texture is grainy, but slightly, unpleasantly soft. Or unyieldingly, unpleasantly dry and hard. The flavour is, to me, off. Slightly chemical. It works as old-fashioned pear drops, when I can think that this is a synthetic flavouring, the work of someone beavering about in a lab. But Mother Nature? No.

Several years ago, a senior student told me that her mother was going to send me some fruit as a thank-you gift. I was looking forward to my fruit gift, until it arrived and I discovered two magnificent La France pears in a specially padded gift box. I took them into school and gave them to a colleague, who was amazed I didn’t want them.

Going all the way back to my childhood, my brother and I used to spend every Sunday with our maternal grandparents, who lived near us. The routine was always the same. In the morning we went out somewhere; a park, a wood or the botanical gardens. If we went to a park we could take our bicycles. A wood meant it was probably autumn and we could kick our way through piles of fallen leaves. The botanical garden had two tropical houses, and in one a parrot, which sometimes spoke. To my primary-school-aged self it seemed worth it to stand in the steamy, smelly glasshouse, hoping to hear the parrot say a word or two. My grandfather was a very superstitious man, and absolutely hated birds. It’s only as I write this now that I realise he must have much preferred the wood or the park.

After our outing we went back to their house for lunch. We almost always had tinned baked beans with sausages. We always ate the tiny tinned sausages last. For dessert, there were two possibilities. One was jelly, with Carnation evaporated milk whisked into it to create air bubbles, a kind of mousse. My mother thinks she remembers her father working for the evaporated milk company at some point and there being a great amount of it at home. I always thought he had invented this concoction himself, whisking the jelly and milk together with a hand whisk and puffing his cheeks out with the effort. This was a great dessert, not your everyday pudding, nothing healthy, nothing luxurious. Sugar. An easy treat, a guilty pleasure.

But what my grandparents really loved to give us was pears. They both loved them, and there were always pears in their house. There was no escape. They had both grown up in very poor families, and had raised their only daughter during the Second World War. Poverty and wartime shaped their tastes. Even in their old age, when they could have had anything they wanted, their treats were flavoured with the things they had been deprived of earlier in life; butter, cream, sugar. And fresh fruit.

I remember hating the taste. I remember hating the texture, whichever end of the pear spectrum it was at, and with pears, it’s always the end of the spectrum. I also hated the way that at some point the top of the pear would break off and you had to eat the rest of it cupping it in your hand. Then I hated the stickiness. Every week, we ate pears, and our grandparents were happy, because they loved pears, and thought we did too.

Years later, when I was at secondary school and university, I discovered I loved baking. When we had been on holiday in France, my grandparents had enjoyed the fresh fruit tarts (butter, cream, sugar) and I found it was not difficult to make them. You made the different bits and then assembled it. I made them pear tarts sometimes and was happy, because they loved pears.

Today I was wandering round the orchard at the convent, and the raspberries, damsons and the pears led me down through decades of memories. I sat in the sunshine and read about Brother Lawrence, and how he did everything for the love of God.

Then I thought some more, and realised far more deeply than I ever had before, just what a gift a pear can be. They are the shape of gratitude and taste of love.


Arisugawa rain 1

It’s the rainy season, and so I am feeling a kind of soggy melancholy , an absence of something, a general dissatisfaction. I am wondering if this is saudade, apparently a longing for someone or something that is absent.

It’s almost the end of term, an in-between time. I’ve finished teaching but still have some paperwork to do. I fly back to the UK next week, but I have a lot to do here before I leave. Sometimes I feel that I’m right here, I am completely where I stand, all of me is concentrated on being where I am, and then other times I feel that I’m not quite here, but not quite there either. Nothing completely connects. This is one of those times.

In London ten years ago, on July 7th, 2005, four suicide bombers blew themselves up and in doing so killed fifty-two people and injured over seven hundred.

In Tokyo ten years ago I spent a lovely evening with a friend; a production of The Producers and dinner, I’m not sure which came first, but I think maybe the theatre. I remember I came home feeling content and relaxed, looking forward to flying back to the UK a few days later.

At home there was a message from my father on the answerphone; a little cryptic, he sounded urgent and was trying to reassure me. He told me that my brother was OK, I wasn’t to worry, everything was fine. Having no idea what he was talking about, I called my parents back, and turned on the TV. I remember perching on the edge of the sofa, rolling my eyes, listening to the phone start to ring, and then absorbing the news from the muted BBC. Four bombs had exploded on London transport.

My father’s message made sense then. My brother was living in London at the time, commuting to work on the Tube every morning. He had been at his desk by the time of the attacks. When I checked my e-mail he had already been in touch, reassuring me that he was OK; he was at work, everything was fine. He had called our parents to tell them the same thing, just as I would do in March 2011; e-mail to him, phone call to parents; it’s OK, it was a big earthquake, the tsunami did terrible damage, but in Tokyo we’re all right. Rattled, but all right.

And then I remember having that feeling, an emotional dislocation, knowing that my country was going through something huge and I was thousands of miles away. I have spent most of my adult life in Asia, and most of that time in Japan. I have consciously removed myself from my own country, I have chosen this distance. And yet, sometimes I feel very far from the mothership. Or rather, I feel the distance between.

I spend my life being British in another country. I routinely get asked random questions about the Royal Family, the correct way to make a cup of tea, the best places to go in London and how to get around, what I think of Stephen Fry, Jeremy Clarkson, the monkey named after the baby princess. Sometimes I have an answer, sometimes I have nothing. Sometimes I want to say, don’t ask me anything after 1990. I don’t know how much a stamp costs, I’ve never watched Downton Abbey, I’m a bit of a fraud, really.

Then I go back to the UK and get all the questions in reverse about Japan. What’s the weather like, is everyone really polite, are your students silent all the time, have you ever been on one of those really crowded trains I’ve seen on YouTube? It all feels like an exercise in time and space, all designed to make me aware of the the distance in between.

I remember calling my brother a few hours later that evening. The trains and buses weren’t running yet, but he was happy to stay at work and go home later. When he had moved to London and decided where to live he had told me that he could walk home from work if he needed to, it was only four or five miles. I asked him to walk home that evening; he declined, and said he’d take a bus or the Tube later. When he got home he sent me another e-mail to tell me he had taken the bus and had seen Tony Blair getting out of a helicopter at Chelsea Barracks. I was annoyed with him for taking a risk, as I saw it, but a month later I was in London myself, and several Tube lines stopped running. I felt almost irrationally determined to get back to his flat on the Tube and when I emerged at Clapham Common I felt victorious in the most deliciously bloody-minded way. Then I understood why he hadn’t walked home that evening.