Thursday, 25 January 2007

Full English, White Moon, Abraham Lincoln's Vices

Thursday 25th January
Without the chaotic pressure of school, the past week has been quite relaxing. I am ashamed to report that I haven't been out to the mountains, hunted any wolves or ridden any horses during my holiday. My excuse is that I have kept myself quite busy by teaching two conversation classes each day. I am enjoying teaching the conversation classes, largely because it has been made very clear that my duty there consists of chatting amiably and encouraging my students to do so.

One frequent subject of my conversations with students has been the upcoming festival of 'White Moon' - which, being the Mongolian new year, is second only to the summer Nadaam Festival. The festival, which I believe falls on the 18th of February this year, is a time that Mongolians traditionally spend with their family doing three things - drinking milk tea, vodka and eating 'buuz'. Buuz are boiled meat dumplings, and I am repeatedly assured that that nothing but buuz are eaten throughout the festival. As with Nadaam, there will also be wrestling and horse-racing: as everybody knows, the horse-racing is done by children in Mongolia, and promises to be an interesting spectacle. The reigning champion of Sumo in Japan is a Mongolian, Asashoryu, and by all accounts he is having another very promising year so far. Last night a Mongolian friend told me that Asashoryu's brother won the Nadaam wrestling bout last year. He also told me that Asashoryu was sent to Japan to compete in Sumo by his father in hopes that the traditions of the Japanese sport would help to improve his son's temper and undisciplined character. Asashoryu is a much beloved character in Mongolia, I have heard numerous stories of how he is liable to punch in the face anyone who doesn't show him enough respect, and then consider that person to be honoured to be felled by such a legendary fist. The Speyside distillery have recently begun marketing Yokozuna whisky in Mongolia in honour of the great man - Yokozuna being the highest ranking in Sumo. This week's edition of the UB Post informs me that Asashoryu has won this his 20th 'Basho' and is now ranked as the 5th greatest Sumo wrestler of all time.

For the time being I have transferred my bibulary loyalties from the Grand Khan Irish Pub to Dave's Place English Pub. Cornering the proprietor (Dave, of course) late on Saturday night whilst he was engaged in a merry game of Jenga with some of his regulars quite happily acquiesced to my playing some banjo at the bar on Sunday evening. A proportion of vodka in his veins at the time may have been responsible for his carefree decision - certainly when I arrived at the pub on Sunday morning for a Full English breakfast he seemed a bit apprehensive about any details that might have been agreed to in regard to my playing. I hastened to reassure Dave that nothing had been promised, only that he had agreed that I might come down and play that evening and 'see how things go.' When I returned to the bar as arranged at 7pm to pick, Dave happened to be absent on business elsewhere. The various customers who left as I played were careful to express their gratitude for my performance as they passed me on their way out.

Dave's Full English and his meat pie and chips are very good. There is something very reassuring in knowing that there is no corner of the globe where an Englishman cannot begin his day with fried eggs, bread, mushrooms, bacon, sausage and tomato, accompanied by toast and baked beans. Here in Ulaanbaatar that can only be achieved satisfactorily on a Sunday morning, if Dave's confident dismissal of the Grand Khan's Full English is to be credited: but I think once a week is enough. Afterall, I don't want to be thouht of as a xenophobic, homesick ex-Pat, railing about the indignity of being forced to eat all this foreign muck, and not being able to get a decent pint of bitter and people not knowing how to queue properly.

Abraham Lincoln was inordinately fond of telling raucous and rough-hewn tales, at the slightest provocation and particularly to illustrate his point in an argument. Gore Vidal's excellent biographical novel 'Lincoln' illustrates this side of Lincoln's character very strikingly throughout. Doubtless one important source for Vidal was "Lincoln's Yarns and Stories" by Colonel Alexander McClure, a very lengthy collection of hundreds of Lincoln's annecdotes - some, no doubt, apocryphal, but most as reported by this or that person and covering Lincoln's life from his early days as an Illinois lawyer to the long and difficult years of the Civil War. The book is an extremely entertaining oral history, possibly of wider interest than to Civil War obsessives like myself, and is my recommendation for the week from the Project Gutenberg free e-book website. My favourite quote isn't from one of Lincoln's stories, but from one of the editor's introductions to a tall-tale:

It is true that Lincoln did not drink, never swore, was a
stranger to smoking and lived a moral life generally, but he did
like horse-racing and chicken fighting.