Tea, ginseng, and correspondence


I had two surprises this morning. Up at dawn again, I've been working on various things, listening to the Blues Band, brewing tea, wandering around the soaked garden, finding a few remaining tomatoes even this late. Getting various chores done, finishing touches to an article, correcting a little Chinese, and then a knock at the door. The postman. A small parcel from a friend in America containing Peet's 'Yunnan fancy' China black tea, extra-dark-chocolate pastilles, and dried strawberries. Yunnan is one of my favourite teas, although she didn't know that, which despite it being a favourite I haven't bought for ages. It's a delicate large-leaf tea. She writes:

'It seems like a good tea for a scholar.'

I go to an old fashioned teashop where the man behind the counter recognises me and will be taking the packets off the shelf as I come through the door, saying:

'Hello sir, keeping well? One Mao Feng Keemun, one Oaklands Assam, and might I recommend the 1st flush Glenburn Darjeeling just in, light liquor, estate 4000 feet above sea level, soon be gone this one sir.'

I haven't been there for a while now, not being able to afford the very best tea any more, so the gift of Yunnan was especially appreciated. Next time I go into town, damn it, I'm going to blow some money on a packet of Mao Feng Keemun. If you like Keemun, you really must have the Mao Feng.

Ginseng is another expensive habit I once had, I used to buy the best Korean red ginseng root I could find, they'd measure out a small handful of dried and brittle dark red slivers, almost crystalline and transparent, I'd raise the paper sachet to my nose and smell, and I could tell instantly how good it was so adept was my connoisseurship. I'd think nothing of handing over £80 for a tiny amount.

Just returned from the kitchen with a cup of Yunnan. I'd quite forgotten the special thing about Yunnan, when you take the lid off the pot and stir for the second time before pouring, Yunnan gives off a most delicious sweet aroma, quite indescribable. Another thing that seems to go with Yunnan is not having it that often, it's better to forget just how good it is.

The second surprise the postman brought was a long letter from Eric, a chap I've been corresponding with on the Yijing since 1985, who I have never met. Our correspondence has slackened over the past few years, he was nursing his wife who was ill, who eventually died. I hadn't heard from him for such a long time I must admit I was beginning to wonder whether he himself was still on the planet. So after going months of only receiving email, and having nothing whatsoever of any interest come via the postman, two wonderful things arrive at once.

Getting up at dawn is a pleasant change for me, although I find myself flagging by late afternoon and draw the curtains on the failing light and have a siesta for an hour or two, rising again to one of my normal nocturnal days. The point is surely to sleep when you're tired and be active when you feel in the mood for activity. No point going to bed at 2am if I don't get tired till 7am, no point staying in bed if I wake and feel like doing something after 2 hours sleep, after all, if 2 hours is not enough I can add to it when I again feel tired. Been quite busy, although I was reflecting yesterday that absolutely everything I'm doing I could just drop, just like that, and give myself a complete emptiness in which to simply sit and do nothing.

Surely the best kind of activity to spend your life doing is the type you could decide not to do any more just like that and clear yourself an immense space, even if you never do drop what you're doing feeling you're able to is a good feeling. Things like this I am forever only just realising, like the 80-year-old Zen calligraphy teacher who had been brushing enso (a circle) most of his life, he was recognised as a great master of the art, then one day his students were stunned when he raised his head from the paper after brushing a particularly fine one and said: 'Hey, I'm just getting the hang of this!'


I wrote two articles on my passion for the rejuvenating properties of the finest ginseng in the 'Jabs & Jibes' column in THE LANCET, the above recollection has prompted me to put them online. On being a ginseng connoisseur recounts the first time I tried ginseng root. Squid and square cigars is about the time I was brought back some unusual ginseng from the Far East.

While sorting out these articles I came across another column I wrote for THE LANCET, Armadillos under the house.