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Things that make you feel cheerful
...in Japan, in the year 1000
Welcome to the fifth issue of the Lists of Note newsletter: each Sunday, a new (old) list. And should that not be enough for you, become a paid subscriber and I’ll send you a couple more each month.
Born circa 966, Sei Shōnagon was a Japanese court lady responsible for writing The Pillow Book (Makura no Sōshi), a truly wonderful collection of hundreds of observational notes that paint an illuminating, amusing and often touching picture of life in 11th-century Japan. To my delight, much of the book is written in list form, with headings such as “Pleasing things,” “Infuriating things,” “Things it’s frustrating and embarrassing to witness,” and those that follow.
A son-in-law who’s praised by his wife’s father. Likewise, a wife who’s loved by her mother-in-law.
A pair of silver tweezers that can actually pull out hairs properly.
A retainer who doesn’t speak ill of his master.
A person who is without a single quirk.
Someone who’s superior in both appearance and character, and who’s remained utterly blameless throughout his long dealings with the world.
You never find an instance of two people living together who continue to be overawed by each other’s excellence and always treat each other with scrupulous care and respect, so such a relationship is obviously a great rarity.
Copying out a tale or a volume of poems without smearing any ink on the book you’re copying from. If you’re copying it from some beautiful bound book, you try to take immense care, but somehow you always manage to get ink on it.
Two women, let alone a man and a woman, who vow themselves to each other forever, and actually manage to remain on good terms to the end.
THINGS THAT MAKE YOU FEEL CHEERFUL
A well-executed picture done in the female style, with lots of beautifully written accompanying text around it.
An ox carriage crammed with ladies on their way back from some viewing expedition, sleeves tumbling out in profusion, with a great crowd of carriage boys running with it, skilfully guiding the ox as the carriage hurtles along.
Something written in very delicate strokes with just the tip of an almost impossibly thick brush, on a lovely, clean white sheet of Michinoku paper.
Beautiful glossed silk threads tied together in a bundle.
A game of dice-matching in which there are lots of matches.
A particularly eloquent Yin-Yang master whom you’ve called in goes down to the dry river-bed and proceeds to rid you of a curse.
Water drunk when you’ve woken in the night.
It’s wonderfully cheering and satisfying if a guest, a person you’re not particularly intimate with, comes visiting when you’re feeling bored – someone in the know about things, well aware of both the public and private sides of life, who sits there chatting and recounting stories of various strange and interesting and unpleasant things that have been happening, but without going on annoyingly.
You go to a shrine or a Buddhist temple to ask for some prayer of yours to be read at the altar, and the shrine priest or temple monk recites it beautifully clearly and fluently, far better than you were expecting.
THINGS THAT SHOULD BE SMALL
Thread for sewing something in a hurry.
The hair of women in the lower classes.
The voice of someone’s daughter.
THINGS NOW USELESS THAT RECALL A GLORIOUS PAST
A fine embroidery-edged mat that’s become threadbare.
A screen painted in the Chinese style, that’s now turned dark and discoloured and developed a scarred surface.
A painter with poor eyesight.
A switch of false hair seven or eight feet long, that’s now fading and taking on a reddish tinge.
Grape-coloured fabric when the ash dye has turned.
A man who was a great lover in his day but is now old and decrepit.
A tasteful house whose garden trees have been destroyed by fire.
The pond is still there, but it’s now uncared for and thick with pond weed.
The back of a piece of sewing.
Hairless baby mice tumbled out of their nest.
The seams of a leather robe before the lining’s been added.
The inside of a cat’s ear.
A rather dirty place in darkness.
The above list can also be found in the Lists of Note book, first published in 2014 and now out of print. If you’d like one, I’m selling the last copies of its gorgeous special edition here.