We sit outside in a pavilion overlooking the river as the sun goes down over the hamlet of Saengcho in the north of Sancheong County, picnicking on tiny deep-fried fish with the usual kimchi side dishes, all washed down with makgeolli. We are waiting for the rest of our party to arrive. Morgan and Yoseph sit looking at the view, their backs framed against the outline of the pavilion, recalling a scene from countless romantic melodramas. Sparrows are nesting in the eaves of the pavilion, and it is not too far to stretch the imagination back to the times of learned sages composing impromptu verses or disputing the finer points of the Confucian Classics. A little bit of alcohol always helps one to feel poetic on such occasions.
Our party is now up to full strength, and so we adjourn across the street to the local restaurant, where we sample an unusual local speciality: a maeuntang stew with freshwater fish (it usually features sea fish), seasoned with sancho, the fragrant mountain herb. More makgeolli follows. But before we can get really stuck in to 2009’s most talked-about drink, a call comes from the mayor’s wife to ask why we aren’t at the fashion show. What fashion show? Well, maybe just one more bowlful of the milky liquid before we respond to the summons…
The Sancheong Medicinal Herb Festival seems to be full of special events – children’s singing competitions, film screenings, puppet shows, music and theatre performances, in fact anything to provide variety for the festival’s thousands of visitors. This hanbok fashion show is inspired by the story of medical hero Heo Jun and his teacher Yoo Ui-tae. Cue lots of colourful costumes of serving girls, palace attendants, king and queen and the great doctor himself. The costumes are designed by Jung Deok-sun (정덕순), creative force behind the Kyungdo Hanbok emporium in nearby Jinju. An impressive array of colours and fabrics are paraded down the catwalk, including some particularly fine cloth with a Hangeul design.
Sitting where I am in the audience, without that licence to get in everyone’s way (namely a big camera with a macho lens), I don’t get many good shots of the show. The ones displayed here are mainly by the official photographer.
When it’s all over, the audience starts filing out, but the models and the dignitaries assemble on stage for the team photo. The mayor’s wife grabs me. “Why don’t you come on stage for the photo?” she asks. Good idea. They will all be standing still, in good light, and I’ll be able to get a good picture with my simple point-and-press camera.
That wasn’t what she meant. Before I know it, I am being frogmarched centre stage, and placed in between the mayor and the hanbok designer, all dressed in their fineries, and me in just a pair of scruffy trousers, trainers and a polo shirt. I haven’t felt so uncomfortable in ages.
But it is all over fairly quickly and painlessly, and we stroll back to the car to find a makgeolli den to finish the evening off. It’s festival time, but nevertheless most of the drinking holes seem to be shut, but persistence pays off. We are joined by the ever-present mayor’s wife, who seems to enjoy our company (and the makgeolli), and we order more food and drink.
I can’t understand why I don’t see more obesity in Korea. Everyone seems to enjoy a drink or three, and all drink is accompanied by food – so why isn’t everyone hugely fat? Ah, but Korean food is so healthy, someone will say.
It’s my last night away from Seoul, and I am determined make the most of it. But also, as I am saying farewell to the Mayor’s wife I try my best to inject some solemnity into the proceedings by expressing my heartfelt thanks to my hosts and to the people of Sancheong for their generous welcome. It is genuinely meant, but probably comes across as rather incoherent. I’m sure Morgan translates it into suitably formal Korean for me.
Then comes the moment I had been dreading for years. I knew it had to come, I’ve known I’ve had to prepare for it, but I’ve never got round to it. It’s the moment when a Korean asks you to sing a song.
A couple of years ago in London I attended a week-long nongak drumming class with Dulsori, the energetic nongak drumming troupe. After the end-of-course concert we all sat round in a circle, eating fruit and sipping beers to unwind. The lead singer started singing some amazing folk-songs. Beside her sat the main changgo tutor, and he went next with a bit of Trot. It was a very special moment, but unfortunately I had to get away to another appointment. In the back of my mind, too, I was glad I had an excuse, because I had a sneaking suspicion that everyone present was in due course going to have to provide some form of entertainment.
I determined that I would learn a suitable English folk-song that I could bring out on such occasions, and thus not be found wanting.
But I never did.
We are in the car on the way back to our lodge from the makgeolli den. Someone in the back seat sings a little tune, and then asks me to sing something. All the other passengers insist too. There’s no backing out. As I’ve been looked after so well I can’t refuse, and I rack my brains for something suitable to perform. My repertoire at the piano pub near London’s Oxford Street where I used to go regularly mainly involves very down-tempo numbers. Amy Woodforde-Finden’s Kashmiri Song (“Pale hands I loved, beside the Shalimar…”) is not what the situation demands, but I wheel it out anyway as it’s the only thing that comes to mind, to distinctly half-hearted applause.
I have to think of some of the livelier numbers, but somehow the makgeolli has robbed me of my memory without ridding me of my inhibitions. In the pub, there are usually other people singing, so if you don’t know the words you can always um and ah for a bit and then join in the chorus. Then I realise: no-one in the car will know if I make up or repeat the words – all I need is enough bluster to carry it off. So my parting gift to my generous hosts is a medley of jolly tunes from the songbook of Marylebone’s Golden Eagle pub, though not many of the words are in the order that the writer intended.