20 December, 2010

England is Closed

It's true - England is closed.  The extreme weather has come at just the right part of the year, as we close up our various responsibilities and head back to our family homes for the Christmas vacation.  

The country has gently rolled to a complete halt.

Winter 2010
The snow, it snoweth every day

As we go about our last few days, the snow keeps on tumbling, reminding us all that we will soon be unable to travel.

Winter 2010
Heidu used to enjoy sitting on this table - I double-check to ensure that the bump in the snow is not him

Advent services, Christmas lunches, end-of-term dinners, all fading gently into the constant silence of falling snow.

Winter 2010
Compare our frosty woodpile with the same from warmer times...

I close up my work for the year, and tie up the loose ends from the past few weeks of interviewing.  This is the second year in which I have been interviewing candidates for our undergraduate course, and the process turns the university upside-down in the week after term.

"The Oxford interview" has a special place in England's folklore, having become something of a myth.  Newspapers like to speculate about what happens; there are always urban legends of candidates being asked to perform bizarre tasks in oak-clad, secretive chambers, while bespectacled dons stroke their beards and throw port glasses into roaring fires.

College in Winter
Even a stopped clock keeps the right time twice per day

The reality is more mundane; we, the interviewing tutors, devise some questions to test the candidates - ideally questions that are harder than their schooling, so that we can see how they stretch their reasoning to new situations, such as they'd encounter during the rather gruelling undergraduate course.  The idea is that no-one can solve the questions alone, but that we see how much help we have to give them to reach the end of each question. 

It's very hard work, and it must be done right - the candidates have a lot riding on the interviews, given that we ultimately have to pick about 10% of the candidates to be our students for the next academic year.  There are many variables - the media like to scrutinise us (and rightly so) to see if we are admitting a decent proportion of students from state schools and ethnic minorities.  Just last week-end, an indignant article in The Guardian newspaper published a familiar (and rather unfair) anti-Oxford piece on what they perceived to be our archaic procedures.

It is an all-consuming process, given that we are stiving to be fair, and the end of the process is a huge relief.  The Master of the college was kind enough to break out some decent bottles at our farewell lunch to thank us for the hard slog - mine was not the only tired smile at the table. 

Now, back at home, with snow mounting on windows, I celebrate the true end of the year by pulling out the last portion of a 1990 Fuhai / Kunming tuocha, from Teamasters (with accompanying notes here).

1990s Fuhai Shupu
The wrapper says "Kunming Tea Factory", but the Teamasters label has "Fuhai" - it's one of the two

I don't always drink shupu, but when I do, I prefer good shupu.

1990s Fuhai Shupu
What's a few jinhua [golden flowers] between friends?

This shupu is very decent.  Assuming that it's not the rubber tyres + fishpond of a bad shupu, a good shupu can be rich in flavour, akin to mahogany, and very smooth.  This tuocha is very clean, and produces a crisp, sweet soup that reassures the soul.

Its texture is particularly particulate - "dusty library" is my usual phrase for describing this sort of character, as it has the distant flintiness of damp paper, but aged, matured, and deepened.

Cup after cup of this constant, pleasant bookishness remind me that shupu doesn't tend to evolve during a session; nor is it potent, unless mixed with a portion of shengpu.  However, its constancy is a virtue, when you crave a calming, soothing experience with a welcome old friend, as you toast goodbye to last term, and last year.

1990s Fuhai Shupu
The last of 2010

And so, ladies and gentlemen, I bid you adieu.  I trust that you and yours will have a most excellent Christmas, and I look forward to sharing a (possibly virtual) cup with you in 2011.

Lei and I are now off to the family home to introduce Xiaohu to his relatives.

Winter 2010
Here endeth the lesson

15 December, 2010

Back to the Tea-Table

Advent. 'Tis the season to be jolly. Somehow, despite all of my best attempts, the Christmas spirit has insidiously worked its way into my shrivelled, darkened soul and I feel festive. This terrible feat has been worked upon me by the combined effects of singing carols in college choirs, and receiving generous quantities of stollen from tea-chum and champion bratwurst-consumer, Herr Dr. Kim.

Currently, I find myself stuck in a university town in Belgium (pictured below), where some of the locals had foolishly asked for me to give a six-hour talk on extreme value statistics.  I will ensure that this is a mistake they will come to regret.

Gallia Belgica

While trapped in a slightly more modern version of The Shining's "Overlook Hotel", surrounded by snow-laden Belgian pine forests, I have time to reflect on some writings from my sordid little journal, written last week-end, when I managed to spend some time at the tea-table.

Darkness, Monday, 6 a.m.  My tea-table has come out of storage.

No tea session comes close to that which I have at home.  In my office, or college, the teas tastes different - flatter, emptier, unexceptional.  The same teas at home, at this long-serving tea-table, are transformed.  Zidu, my pot, along with some good water, brings pu'ercha alive - and me with it.

A retour

It is before dawn, and so all I see in the uncurtained windows is a reflection of the bright room in which I sit.  My tea-table now has a permanent place at the far end of our long dining table; my back is to a bay window that looks out onto the Close, my view is of the sitting room, then the conservatory,  Out further, in the distant darkness, the huge willow tree sleeps at the end of our garden.

each sip I take
the old willow tree
loses more leaves

Winter Garden

Yellow leaves fall in bundles; near-naked branches are whipped by the wind and snow - the wet hair of the willow. I composed this willow haiku, which pleases me despite its humble accomplishments, while sitting with the spiced woodiness of the 2003 Quanji Bulang

My teas were picked at random from the various packing-crates around the house.  Each has its own charm, and is entirely different to its companions. The 2009 Yunzhiyuan Guanfengzhai is more yellow, fresh, mushroom-like, sweet.  The 2003 6FTM Fengqing Lushi is dark red, tar-like, smooth.  The 1997 Henglichang Bulang is sharp, woody, and clean.  Finally, the 2007 Douji Yiwuzhengshan is tobacco-like, dark, and yet sugary sweet.

I remember them all, and the character of each comes to mind like a sequence of favourite musical pieces.

Old friends, waiting

Retired at last: my old tea-cloth, kindly provided by M. Erler many years ago, which has now run its course.  In its place, a yellow-cotton baby's bib, my new tea-cloth.  One of a stack of similar yellow bibs.

baby's yellow bib
mops up the dribbles
from papa's teacup

Like father, like son.