In search of Eastern wisdom

or curry?

Some years ago—sorry, that should read “More Years Ago than I Care to Remember”—I found myself on the courtyard outside SOAS at midday, where whoM [pedant—Ed.] should I bump into but the erudite Tim Barrett—Emeritus* Professor of East Asian History, no less. [1]

Though we had known each other at Cambridge Even More Years Ago than I etc., we hadn’t met up for some time. So it was a welcome opportunity to swap notes, updating myself on his encyclopaedic knowledge of Tang studies and imperial Chinese religion while outlining my more grubby work in the field—disciplines that don’t always correlate clearly.

While we were immersed in our arcane chat, a queue began to form behind me—as if for the services of Johnny the shoe shine boy. Fortuitously, every day at lunchtime impoverished students line up for the free vegetarian curries handed out by Hare Krishna acolytes, often well before the food trolley arrives. Looking up, we found that the queue was growing rapidly—they must have mistaken us for down-and-out early birds waiting to cadge a square meal.

This didn’t occur to me at the time—rather, I was impressed that Tim’s wisdom on the Wonders of the Mystic East was in such great demand.

He will appreciate this link to the popular Tang poetic genre On visiting a hermit and not finding him in. Indeed, in plain clothes he does bear a passing resemblance to Hanshan (cf. Li Manshan and Andy Capp). He has been dubbed “Bodhisattva of the Plastic Bag”—though more recent ecological concerns have tended to make him favour cloth or even hemp.

* Unlike Peter Cooke, I’ve Got the Latin, so I note smugly that emeritus seems to mean “without merit” (cf. this appraisal of a recording of medieval music). Continuing the religious theme, here’s Catch-22:

“Chaplain, I once studied Latin. I think it’s only fair to warn you of that before I ask my next question. Doesn’t the word Anabaptist simply mean that you’re not a baptist?”

[1] Apart from Tim’s voluminous published ouevre, he and Frances Wood make a mellifluous Brian and Stewie double-act in the China coverage of Melvyn Bragg’s BBC Radio 4 series In our time. By 2023 a charming series of chats appeared on YouTube (1, 2, 3), suggesting his broad vision.

4 thoughts on “In search of Eastern wisdom

  1. “E-” is a prefix meaning “out of-“. Cp. “emanating” – “coming out of”, like mammals out of the primordial murky slime. Hate sloppy etymology. If I see one more misuse of “fulsome”, I may/may not have fulsome praise for it.


  2. Pingback: Yet more French letters | Stephen Jones: a blog

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