Mao at the Met: a disturbing juxta-position?


“My idea of a good picture is one that’s in focus and of a famous person.”

Andy Warhol


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Mao Zedong by Andy Warhol (1928‑1987)

Metropolitan Museum of Art, Manhattan


Andy Warhol became interested in China in 1971. “I have been reading so much about China. They’re so nutty. They don’t believe in creativity. The only picture they ever have is of Mao Zedong. It’s great. It looks like a silkscreen”.

The following year he began work on the portrait, which grew into ten variations, all based on the portrait that appears in Little Red Book: the thoughts of Chairman Mao.

In 2012 the portraits were part of the touring art show ‘Andy Warhol: 15 Minutes Eternal’.  The exhibition, organised by the Andy Warhol Museum, Pittsburgh, marked the 25th anniversary of Warhol’s death. The Mao portraits, however, did not make an appearance in either Beijing or Shanghai when the show went to Asia in 2013.  The official Chinese view was that the portraits were disrespectful in suggesting that the former leader wore make-up. All the same, Mao Zedong’s legacy is currently undergoing some re-evaluation in China. There are even admissions that mistakes were made. It is a start…


For more juxtapositions go to Weekly Photo Challenge

Kind of blue and other colours

Weekly Photo Challenge: the hue of you


Stained glass by Marc Chagall, musée national Marc Chagall, Nice

Another of the world’s great little galleries, currently celebrating its 40th anniversary. I went there one October. It left its colours imprinted on my retina and in my heart. If ever you are in Nice, be sure to go there. Also posted with reference to Miles Davis and his ‘Kind of Blue’ album.


And some other good hues:

Weekly Photo Challenge: saturated – Baked Bramleys and Autumn Bliss

Weekly Photo Challenge: Saturated



The fat Bramley apples came from the Women’s Institute market, held in Much Wenlock every Thursday morning. The trestle tables are set out in the old Corn Exchange outside the library and are invariably laden with home-baked cakes – Lemon Drizzle, Rich Fruit, Iced Ginger, Millionaire’s Shortbread. Then there are the jams and marmalade.

But in recent weeks – this being the season of over-laden fruit trees – there has also been garden produce, and in particular bags of Bramley cooking apples. And what better thing to do with a Bramley than to bake it, stuffed with the last of the allotment raspberries?

The raspberries are called Autumn Bliss, and deliciously live up to their name; and especially so when added to apple. The synergy of hot, fruity flavours hits every taste bud with a satisfying zing.

This is how I cooked them.


Baked Apples


Per person: one apple, a handful of fruit, a good teaspoon of honey, a sliver of butter

Set oven to 200 C, 190 C for fan versions

With a corer or sharp knife carefully remove the apple middles, making sure all  tough core bits are excised. 

Remove the peel from the upper half of the fruit, then place in a greased oven-proof dish.

Stuff the apple centres with raspberries, adding a good teaspoon of runny honey to each apple. I used fair trade wild Zambian honey, which is cold-pressed, and has a rich, slightly smoky flavour.

Scatter any spare raspberries over the top.

Slather a small nugget of  farmhouse butter over each apple.

Add half a cup of water to the dish.

Bake for around 30 minutes, basting with the juices half way through. Bramleys have a habit of exploding, as mine were about to do, so keep an eye on them.


Desert apples can also be baked, though they need longer, slower cooking and must be well basted. The result is not as ‘fluffy’ as a Bramley, and it’s better to remove all the peel. But desert apples often have a more distinctive flavour. Dip them first in in  water with a squeeze of lemon to stop them discolouring. 

Of course there are endless variations when it comes to stuffing apples. A good old English version is to use sultanas and raisins with a dollop of Golden Syrup.  You could make my version more sophisticated with a drizzle of an appropriate liqueur. Armagnac springs to mind. Or Creme de Cassis. And serve with some toasted almond flakes. But however you make them, they always go well with Greek yoghurt. (Or thick farmhouse cream…)

© 2013 Tish Farrell

In the Rift: in and out of focus

WP Photo Challenge: Focus

Rift Valley from Escarpment

You may have seen a version of this photo in an earlier post, but it’s worth another look for various reasons – all of them to do with FOCUS. This shot was probably taken late morning. The farmsteads of Escarpment are shadowed by the Eastern Rift behind. Out under the sun, the old volcano Longonot flattens and drifts into mistiness. Your brain tells you that your are witnessing a mirage.

You can climb up Longonot if you want to, and walk around the rim. (We never did.) Inside the crater, Rider Haggard-style, there is a wonderful hidden forest filled with wildlife. In the middle distance, but not quite visible, runs the old road from Nairobi to Naivasha, built by Italian prisoners of war in WW2.

But to come back to the foreground, and the largely Kikuyu community of Escarpment, this is one of the places where, in 1997-8, Team Leader and Nosy Writer carried out some of the Team Leader’s doctoral fieldwork on SMUT. Smut is a fungal disease that attacks Napier Grass, an important animal fodder crop. If you didn’t read the smutting post, coming up is a photo of the smut team in action, complete with some Rift Valley fog which usually happens during Kenya’s cold season in June and July.  Here it provides  the soft-focus-background-look without need of any technical jiggery-pokery.

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Team Leaders Njonjo and Graham weighing clumps of Napier Grass. The object to establish a disease assessment scale for estimating the food loss of a smut-infected field.


Actually, the real leader in Operation Smut was Njonjo. He’s the one holding the bundle of Napier Grass. His family’s land is in Escarpment, much sub-divided between himself and his brothers. When we visited his home he told us that his own holding was about a quarter of an acre. This was one reason why he worked as a driver for the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute and was not as a full-time farmer. He had children to educate, and his land alone could not support them all.


napier grass on the Rift

Napier Grass in the foreground with Escarpment farms beyond. This important crop is grown on road verges and field terrace boundaries to feed ‘zero-grazed’ stock. The small size of most farms  (some less than an acre) means there is insufficient ground for both pasture and cultivation.

napier grass and farms

Kikuyu farmstead on a drizzly El Nino day.


And if you are wondering why Kenyan farms are so very small (several acres in the fertile Central Highlands would be considered quite large for many families) then that’s old colonial constructs for you. Kenya may have been an independent nation state for fifty odd years, but the colonial concept of land management and ownership, along with many other inappropriate British institutions, is alive and well.

Because that’s the thing about British institutions – they are sneakily feudal and thus very hard to unpick. Even in Britain, most of the population is generally unaware that most of the nation’s land is owned by a small number of people who are fully committed to keeping it that way. Ownership in the form of title deeds coupled with an elitist sense of superiority and personal entitlement based on heredity fortify their position. Increased urbanisation is in their interest; it keeps hoi polloi out of the deer parks and off the grouse moors (unless of course they are paying high fees to be there.)

In Kenya much of the population still occupies plots that were part of the designated Native Reserves back in the 1900s.  Since those days the population has increased many-fold, and family farms have been subdivided to point where they cannot easily support one family. This situation underpins much of the creeping poverty that you will see in Kenya today. It is the reason why at least 75% of the nation’s food is grown by women smallholders.


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Women selling their excess garden produce at Wundanyi market, Taita Hills.


These essential growers are the rural wives who stay on what remains of family land to grow what they can, while their husbands  migrate to the towns to work in shops, hotels, and as drivers,security guards and house servants. These men will return home maybe once or twice a year when they have their annual leave. At such times they will help with the harvest and undertake house repairs. This is also the reason why most parents struggle so hard to educate at least some of their children – so they do not have to live this way.


When the British occupied British East Africa at the end of the 19th century, they treated the territory in much the way a British landowner would manage his inherited estates. There was the presumption of absolute ownership. All indigenous people who hunted for a living were labelled poachers and treated accordingly. Land was divided into Native Reserves and Forest Reserves and latterly there were also Game Reserves. All the land that had not been alienated for European settlement was Crown Land unless it was Native Reserve land. By 1914, five million acres had been allotted for European settlement. The Maasai had also been removed from their fertile grazing lands on the Laikipia Plateau and relegated to the poor land that is now known as the Maasai Mara.


European owned wheat fields, Laikipia, below Mount Kenya. Taken from a plane window hence the haze.


Under colonial rule, Africans could not leave their Reserves unless it was to work for Europeans. Hut and poll taxes were imposed to force them to do so. When overgrazing and land erosion became evident in overcrowded Reserves, well-meaning British Agriculture Officers informed the locals that they were doing everything wrong. Farmers were urged to plant in a European way, to grow strains and varieties of crops to suit British markets. In particular, the growing of nutrient-, water-guzzling maize over traditional, more nourishing crops such as millet was promoted. There was the enforced terracing of land and the confiscation of stock animals without compensation if deemed to be in excess.

Meanwhile, large blocks of the best settlement land were taken  up by British settlers, including a number of British aristocrats whose descendants still live on large estates in Kenya. After the 1st and 2nd World War, British veterans of the officer class were actively encouraged to settle the so-called ‘White Highlands’ around the Rift and grow cash crops. When many sold up at Independence, their tea and coffee estates were taken over by European corporations. Other settlers who wished to leave at that time were bought out by the British Government who then apparently handed over the bill to the new Kenyan government. The new nation state thus started out in debt, having paid to get its own land back. It was not a good beginning.


A beautiful corner of Lord Delamere’s estate of Soysambu at Elmenteita in the Rift Valley. The pink dots on the soda lake are flamingos.



Egerton Castle, built in Njoro in the Rift Valley between 1930-40. Its owner was the Fourth Baron Egerton of Tatton, Cheshire. It is now part of Egerton University and used as a wedding venue.


However you look at it,then, the land situation in Kenya does not present a pretty picture, and this is only a brief, soft-focus version. After the British left in 1963, Kenyans might have been able to leave their Reserves without passes, and walk on whichever side of the street they chose, but the Crown Lands concept of absolute possession has dogged the country ever since. Crown Land became state owned land; colonial institutions became state institutions. And as I said, such constructs are hard to unpick. Nor would the Kenyan elite wish to unpick them, any more than the British nobility would wish to surrender their hereditary land rights to the masses. As the fourth President, Uhuru Kenyatta (and son of the first President Jomo Kenyatta) takes office, so the thorny issues of land grabbing and wrangles over title deeds continue.

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A  tea estate with workers’ quarters near Nairobi.

Limuru tea fields in the long rains


Today, ordinary land-poor Kenyans must look out on the large farms and estates still owned by the descendants of European settlers, or the ranches and flower factories of the Kenyan elite, or at the plantations of the multinationals whose profits go to foreign shareholders, or even at the great wildernesses set aside exclusively for wildlife, and wonder what Independence has brought them. Under colonialism most people were excluded from the wealth creating process except to provide manual labour. Today it seems that not much has changed.


Rift Valley and Longonot from Escarpment (2)

© 2013 Tish Farrell

The Great Earthly Curves Mystery: what, when and why?


I could also throw in a ‘who ’ and ‘where’? So what’s your best guess on the identity of this marvellously curvaceous earthwork? No forward peeking. Here’s another shot.


While you’re pondering, I should say that in a former life, in a long ago era that my knees think could well be the Lower Paleolithic, I studied Prehistory and Archaeology. That’s a clue.

Okay. Here’s the whole thing.


1935 and 1937 aerial photographs taken by Major George Allen and  in the possession of the Ashmolean Museum.

Both images are in the public domain.


These, then, are the ramparts of Maiden Castle, one of  Britain’s most famous Late Bronze Age – Iron Age hill forts.  After two thousand years of wear and tear, the whole structure seems to have simply grown from the natural contours of  the Dorset uplands. Of course when they were first excavated, with simple picks, incalculable people-hours, and much project management, the banks would have been higher still, and the ditches more sharply ankle-breaking; in their pristine state of freshly exposed chalk, they would have glistened white across the land and been visible for miles. 

And so in the past this place would have looked utterly magnificent, and other-worldly too, perhaps the equivalent of seeing a shimmering giant spaceship looming over the countryside; and perhaps that was the point. Or at least one of the reasons for its existence. This place was not only defensive, a signifier of tribal authority, but probably also the place of seasonal sacred gatherings, a place of pilgrimage in some sense.

In fact a metaphysical aspect for this location is indicated across four millennia. The first human activity dates from around 4,000 BC when people of the Neolithic or New Stone Age built a prominently sited enclosure. The banks were low and hardly banks at all. Nor were they continuous, so it seems unlikely that it was made for defence. It appears to have been a place where people gathered for social and sacred reasons rather than in times of enemy attack. The burials of two children that were found there date from this time.

Then around 3000 BC, after the enclosure was no longer used, a large ditched barrow was built. It apparently contained no burial, but may still have been a meeting place and important ritual landmark. Again, both the enclosure and the later barrow would have been bright white when newly made.  Over three thousand years later, in late Roman times when Roman beliefs had fused somewhat with local beliefs, a small Romano-British temple was built there.

In between, the site was used by Bronze Age farmers who left behind traces of their fields, then around 600 BC the first hill fort was constructed. At first it was much like the many other hill forts that were being built at this time across Britain. It was not especially impressive, and enclosed around 6.4 hectares (16 acres). But around 450 BC it underwent a massive expansion, involving the enclosure of two hill tops. The defended area increased to 19 hectares (47 acres) which, the English Heritage guide tells visitors, is equivalent to 50 football pitches. Also at this time the defences became very complex, and the banks were raised to a height of 8.4 metres (28 feet). In other words, it was an extraordinary feat of engineering and manual labour. It was a statement of power, capacity and authority. It was a place that people looked up to in every sense.

Maiden Castle is also unusual is that, unlike many other hill forts, there is evidence that people lived there. These people were the Celtic Durotriges. Excavations have revealed that they  lived in thatched round houses, grew wheat and barley which they stored in granaries and kept sheep, pigs and cattle. Doubtless they would have had horses for transport and oxen for ploughing. Iron was worked on the site. Then there were the piles of round stones, strategically placed around the fort. These were probably used for slingshot, and suggest that  an attack was expected.

File:Celtic-roundhouse-1994.jpgReconstruction of an Iron Age round house. Photo: Creative Commons,


It appears, too, that  the expected siege did take place. During the 1930s excavations of Maiden Castle, Sir Mortimer Wheeler uncovered part of a cemetery. Of the 52 bodies excavated, a number showed signs of a violent death. This, Sir Mortimer concluded, was evidence of an attack by Vespasian’s legionaries during the Roman invasion of AD 43. In 2009, a burial site with 50 decapitated bodies was discovered not far from Maiden Castle during road building, and according to Roman historical accounts, Vespasian conquered some 20 hill forts across the Durotriges’ territory.

By the time the Romans arrived, Britain had long been a prosperous country inhabited by a number of different Celtic tribal groups. It was not a backwater as we might imagine. The Romans, after all, were coming for a reason, not out of idle curiosity. For two hundred years before the invasion, Celtic traders had well-established markets in Europe.

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Iron Age Shield found in the River Thames at Battersea Bridge, London. Photo: Creative Commons, Wikipedia.

Their inlaid gold-, silver- and ironwork was exquisite (and endlessly curvy)  – torcs, brooches, shields, swords. They made fantastic weather-proof felted capes. They exported surplus grain from the numerous farmsteads whose traces still remain across Britain’s landscape. They sold slaves, and hunting dogs. In return, they imported amphorae of olive oil and wine, amber and ivory jewellery. It was a moneyed economy.


Gold torc from the Snettisham Hoard, Norfolk. Photo; Creative Commons, (Wikipedia).

Below is an example of a Durotriges gold stater. Coin experts point out that it shows an abstracted Celtic version of the head of Apollo (left) and a dismembered horse (right).  The finds of such coins have been used to plot the extent of Durotriges territory – that is, from East Devon, across Dorset, and including southern Wiltshire. By AD 70 they had become Romanized, and were part of the Roman Province of Britannia. The process of urbanizing the Durotriges occurred, then, not at Maiden Castle, but down on the banks of the River Frome at what is now Dorchester. During this time the hill fort was apparently abandoned, and not apparently used again  until the building of the 4th century temple.


Photo: Creative Commons:  Numisantica (

But to come back to the curvy earthworks and their purpose. Many archaeologists have argued that hill forts of Maiden Castle’s scale and impressiveness belong to the category of defensive tribal strongholds known as oppida. These are found across Europe – from Spain to the Hungarian plain.  In other words, they could be described as proto-towns.

Yet this notion of incipient urban development does not fit the the hundreds of British hill forts that show absolutely no sign of permanent occupation, nor of warfare for that matter. Because there is one BIG disadvantage to occupying a hill fort for any length of time, and that is access to fresh water. The need to bring it in makes the occupants highly vulnerable in all sorts of ways.

All that can be said with certainty is that these structures were of huge importance to the people who built them. The effort that went into their construction, the periods of rebuilding over several centuries tells us this. We can also surmise that the cultures who produced them were prosperous and highly organised. Building these hill top structures required people-power, and from a population who mostly lived elsewhere in defended farmsteads. The building of them could only happen when there was no demanding farm work, probably between planting and harvest time, when digging conditions were favourable. But then if the Celts were known to trade in slaves, then presumably they also had their own.  Perhaps these impressive monuments were built by slaves?

Another thing that we often make mistakes over, is that non-industrialised people do not, and probably never did, divide up their reality into strict divisions of sacred and profane as we do. All reality is sacred in some sense. From our position of self-appointed technologised loftiness we often refer to such belief systems as ‘superstition’, while engaging with our own spirits of consumption in shopping malls and coffee shops. But if people did not occupy these hill forts permanently, then for practical purposes, whether as defensive retreats or the meeting place for the seasonal ceremonies of scattered Celtic clans – the need for a striking location that everyone could find would be paramount. A place where beacons could be lit and seen for miles, where raw rock ramparts would float in the sky like a mirage.

Perhaps there was indeed a need to feel secure from enemies and wildlife while serious rituals were being conducted. But then high banks may also be used to contain sound as an amphitheatre does – the chanting of storytellers, the pronouncements of seers and leaders. Also a hilltop is closer to the spirit world, to God, the Creator, to Heaven; it is a place half way between the mundane and the sublime. And just because a sacred thanksgiving is going on, it does not exclude the possibility for horse trading and dowry negotiation, or for storytelling contests and trials of warrior strength, or displays of obedience from hunting dogs.

So: the great earthwork mystery remains largely unsolved. Perhaps it does not matter. When we visit such places we know they are special; if we allow ourselves to respond, that is enough. With that thought in mind, it is fitting to end with a literary connection. Maiden Castle of course loomed large on the creative landscape of Thomas Hardy, famous son of Dorchester. In the Mayor of Casterbridge, the hill fort provides a dramatic setting where would-be lovers seemingly meet by chance.

“Elizabeth, as has been said, often took her walks on the Budmouth Road, and Farfrae as often made it convenient to create an accidental meeting with her there. Two miles out, a quarter of a mile from the highway, was the prehistoric fort called Mai Dun, of huge dimensions and many ramparts, within or upon whose enclosures a human being as seen from the road, was but an insignificant speck. Hitherward Henchard often resorted, glass in hand, and scanned the hedgeless Via — for it was the original track laid out by the legions of the Empire — to a distance of two or three miles, his object being to read the progress of affairs between Farfrae and his charmer.”


Bury Ditches, Shropshire

Weekly Photo Challenge: Change

Rift Valley from Escarpment

Change, what change? All seems so still in this shot of Kenya’s Great Rift Valley. The day is fine. The short rains have brought on the maize and pyrethrum crops on the small escarpment farms. The distant volcano, Longonot, appears dormant and suggests no kind of threat. It is hard to imagine, then, that this peaceful scene is a site of great seismic upheaval, and has been for the last 30 million years. Likewise it is hard to accept that even as I took the photo, the tectonic plates beneath the Rift floor were v-e-r-y slowly pulling apart. In another million or so years you might stand in the spot where I stood and look out on the Indian Ocean; the ground beneath your feet will be a brand new island, and the low Rift terrace where Kikuyu farm wives presently toil, lost under the sea.

The thought is unnerving. For it’s an interesting paradox: while we accept and embrace increasingly rapid changes in the man-made environment, we’re not too keen to confront the reality of a planet that transforms itself beneath our feet and in ways we cannot control. It is interesting then to think, as scientists have been doing, that our very origins as humankind, could well derive from the creation of the Rift Valley.

The argument runs like this. The Rift has long been referred to as “The Cradle of Mankind”. The earliest remains of human ancestors have so far been found along its length (in Ethiopia, Kenya and Tanzania), but the time when we see the big leap in hominid development coincides with the time of maximum uplift in the Rift. This happened around 7 million years ago when the so-called Wall of Africa was created and Africa’s climate thereafter began to change. The rain shadow created by the upthrust highlands caused the forests, the preferred habitat of our primate predecessors, to give way to the more arid savannah we see today.

Without trees for cover and look-out posts our ancestors became vulnerable; food would have become less easy to find, and so in order to hunt and not to be hunted they had to stand up on two feet in order to see over the tall plains grasses. Thus began the long march to cell phone, app and PC that much of humanity apparently cannot now live without. It’s interesting to think how things end up.

As to what created the 3,700 mile-long Rift, then that comes down to plumes of hot semi-molten rock surging up beneath the earth’s crust. In Kenya this surging has also left behind chains of dead and dormant volcanos, including Mount Kenya which, at 17,000 snow-capped feet, is only a vestige of its former unexploded vastness. The pulling apart of the Rift plates has also created the famous soda lakes of Magadi, Nakuru and Baringo, and the deep freshwater Lake Victoria.

Personally, though, I prefer the old Kenyan story that says the Rift was created by termites. It goes like this. Once there was a marauding giant abroad. He preyed on all the animals and none of them was strong enough to finish him off. In the end it took the cunning of many tiny insects to burrow away under the ground and create a well hidden ambush. The next time the giant came rampaging by, the ground gave way beneath his feet and he plummeted into the great trench that the termites had created and so was killed. It was doubtless a fitting end for a troublesome giant, while the hitherto disregarded insects could look forward to greater respect from their fellow creatures.

©2013 Tish Farrell