Sunday, 11 November 2018

Sand Script

Today never reached full daylight, it was always dimmed, what light there was, filtered through some unimaginably tinted screen pinned to the sky.

I studied the sky on the bus north. The nearer, narrow clouds, bulging slightly in the middle, then tapering a little at both ends, like reluctant-to-grow cucumbers, were stubbornly deep-grey. Higher clouds thinned out and flattened, were silver-leaf but any light they reflected was absorbed by the rotund cucumbers, dark and immobile.

The beach at St. Andrews, on the east coast of Scotland, was busy. Commemorative silhouettes were drawn in the sand. Names were written alongside some of them. Also a sand-drawn image of Elsie Inglis. 

There used to be a hospital in Edinburgh named after her. One of my extended family was born there. It was closed down, decades ago – or transformed into something else. At any rate, the name of that pioneering woman should never have been erased. But it was.
You can see more images on beaches here) 
I walk along the beach. Briefly, the sky shows patches of pale and lustrous blue. The waves are small and faraway. A stretch of wet sand reflects light.

Walking back, it begins to rain, at first just a little, then gets heavier. Thick rain, but I feel lighter. The sky gets darker and I get wetter and I walk through the town, buy a coffee; its taste has only a tenuous relationship with that of coffee. (But my standards are very exacting.)

And the long bus ride home. Tree colours are bright yellow, like ripe lemons, near-neon. Now the sky on the horizon has splashes of blue and silver.

It isn’t daylight though, not real sun-suffused light. It never has been all this grey-long, rain-spattered day.

I feel lighter though, as if I’m now moving downhill, as if I’ve drunk the water and supplies I brought with me and my load is lighter. The trees we pass, if not golden yellow, are pulsating orange. Heading south is definitely to go downhill. Everything now – air, sky, objects – is suffused with that ochre yellow glow you sometimes get late afternoon in winter, on days that never truly get light, there are not enough hours when the sun is showing, for them to fulfil their light-potential. But sometimes when the sun rests on the horizon it shoots light through the clouds and air and breathes a fiery glow onto everything. It isn’t daylight and it never has been. Not today. It’s been like a smoky grainy reflection seen in an old mirror. But the colours! – rust-red, eggshell-blue, sunflower yellow. Clouds lit from within like nascent candles – opaque bodies each guarding and reflecting an inner flame.

I feel lighter as we roll downhill, heading south to that blue on the horizon.

Saturday, 10 November 2018


Colincamps Cemetery near Albert, Picardie, France. Spring 2018

"A hundred times a day I remind myself that my inner and outer lives are based on the labors of other people, living and dead, and that I must exert myself in order to give in the same measure that I have received and am still receiving."
—Albert Einstein: "What I Believe"

In Memoriam Will Smith 1882 - 1916

A flower shop. A young woman
pushes the door open, calls out -
I thought that you were closed!
And I think of the flower shop
near the train station
in Albert. Where I chose
a pot of red roses.

The smiling shopkeeper,
the politesse and conversation -
winter morning, bright with sunshine.
I had just arrived in Paris,
took an early morning train,
changed at Amiens, for Albert.

The florist wrapped the roses
in shiny cellophane, red ribbon.
How could I stop him?
I’d hardly slept, I’d travelled overnight,
I’d only just arrived.
I could not be sure I’d find the place
that I was looking for.
Surprised by sunlight,
for the train passed through a landscape
wrapped in cloud
as if it was a bouquet,
offered as a gift.

Arriving in this small town,
walking from the gare SNCF
the sun burst out of its confining cowl of cloud
and flung open the sky.

My fingers ripped the cellophane,
tore apart the careful curls of ribbon,
in the high wind, in the cemetery.
I pushed the roses deep into the earth,
beside the headstone,
placed there almost a century ago.

In a little English town, months later,
I pass a flower shop
just before the clouds swamp
the streets with rain.
And remember
Picardie, red roses
and the fierce light
lashed to the horizon,
tilting, like a boat at sea.

Morelle Smith

Thursday, 1 November 2018

Chronos, Kairos and the River

This photograph of Belgrade from the air is the last taken in October’s recent travels. The Sava and the Danube rivers meet here at Belgrade and it’s the Sava that the ‘river’ part of this blog is named after (the train is the one I took from Bled through Ljubljana

Dragons guard Ljubljana's bridges

The Ljubljanica flows through central Ljubljana

 and on eastwards across Slovenia, some years ago and I liked so much the way the train-track curved and wound along to follow the river’s course, to stay close to it).

Painting by Anton Karinger – Dolina Save (Bled iz Radovljice) The Sava River Valley (Bled from Radovljica) in Slovenia National Gallery, Ljubljana

Starting with the end as it were, of recent journeys makes me think of chronology and the time zone shifts I’ve been through recently (four, including the last, ‘clock-change’ as UK reverts to GMT); I’ve resisted this one, getting up as the darkness fades, determined to get as much light as possible and so not to grumble about ‘losing an hour of daylight’, a fiction of course, yet is felt, if one follows the dictatorship of the clock. Yes, I’m aware of the ‘real’ time (the one the world around me goes by) but I’m lucky enough to set my own hours for work and I can cope with a kind of parallel existence in two different times.

Today is All Saints’ Day and last night was marked by charmingly dressed and made-up children calling at the door, singing songs and reciting jokes, in return for sweets and oranges. But before the Christian era, this day marked one of the Quarter Days, an annual cycle based on seasonal rhythms and changes. But I’m happy enough for it to be named after the Saints, those semi-mythical figures who inhabit the liminal regions between earth life and post-corporeal life, who assist and intercede (it is said) for fully mortal beings like ourselves, from their greater vantage point, reached after we pass through the portal where we shed our physical bodies.

For some reason Hallowe’en focuses on the disturbing denizens of a spectral world, the ghoulish, restless, haunting possibly malefic otherworld beings. But I prefer to think of those ones who inspire and encourage us to relinquish fears of what comes after that particular portal, as well as emphasising the light (in the dark time of the year, some say, the inner non-material light shines all the brighter).

Image from the old Orthodox church (of the Holy Ghost) in Podgorica, Montenegro

And there’s another Time too, one that is different from the measurement of Chronos, the chronological ordering of events – there’s Kairos, the Time of significance, when you feel things fit into place, a kind of high point (we have to use metaphors of place and space to describe time!) of energy, that draws events towards it, because this is the place/time where things come together, giving a deeper sense of significance and meaning. It is also known as the Appointed Time and our perceptions of this have nothing to do with clocks, zones or mathematical measurements but rather, are ones of expansion. These experiences can come at any time in our lives, personal to us, they’ll provide areas of nexus or cohesion, nodal points around which our lives gather, forming an individual and unique pattern. Singular and unrepeatable. Our personal story, our individual looping labyrinth, which is both path – travelled in time and place – and one all-encompassing whole.

The labyrinth at Chartres Cathedral: Photo credit:

So today I feel accompanied by Kairos and perhaps there’s even a residual uplifting gleam from the saints. The cherry tree in the garden has lost almost all of its leaves, but the bright sunlight gleams on its silver and copper-red bark.

Wednesday, 26 September 2018

Dieppe - its beaches churches and artists

Dieppe harbour in evening, with seagulls

 A longer version of this post (without photographs) can be found at the Scottish Review

The British artist Walter Sickert spent a lot of time in Dieppe, living in le quartier Pollet, the old town. One of his most well-known paintings is of Dieppe’s l’église Saint Jacques. A small information board in front of the church tells you that you are standing in the exact spot he stood in, when doing this painting – the reproduction of it is in tasteful terracotta shades with splashes of yellow, which also fits with this day of hot sun and cloudless skies.

Other well-known painters who fell under the spell of this small seaport town include Delacroix, Renoir, Monet and Camille Pissarro. The latter was particularly taken with Dieppe, spending the summers of 1901 and 1902 there. He called the town ‘an admirable place for a painter who enjoys life, movement and colour’. Like Sickert he too painted l’église Saint Jacques though from a different angle. He also painted a series of eighteen views of the port.

Clearly Dieppe’s charm has not diminished in the past century. Its steep cliffs with their dark shadows falling on the beach, the pale greenish sea with changing moods, that combination of water and land, with its constant relationship, its rustle and whisper, and the hazy horizon with its visible slight thickening at the edge – at least on this clear and sunny day – which might be England.

The beach at Dieppe is pebbles, not easy to walk on even with thick-soled sandals. The stones don’t stay still, they shift under the presence of your feet, so that they are constantly rearranging themselves, as if seized with inner dissatisfaction longing for some ideal pattern that can never quite be achieved. So that each step instead of receiving a push upwards from the ground as usually happens, a reassuring collaboration between finicky and fragile lightweight human being, and the dense and powerful earth that supports us all – instead of this the earth surface retracts and moves sideways. The usual reassurance is replaced with a counterfeit, like a temporary crossing for pedestrians during road works, one that takes you out of your way while claiming to be helpful or – doing the best they can in difficult circumstances and thanking you for your patience and consideration.

This semi-sinking into the stones requires attention – to curvature and time, as each step is marked by a crunching sound and a need to pay undue and unaccustomed attention to equilibrium as if you have become twice as heavy as you were before. Though the recompense, once you reach the solid road, is to feel you have suddenly grown wings.

Inside the church Saint Jacques I discover that it is one of the starting points of the Chemin de Saint Jacques, the pilgrimage routes to Compostella. This particular route is called la voie des anglais and continues to Rouen and Chartres. To the left of  Le Mur du Tresor there’s a pillar entwined by a twisting spiral, similar to the Apprentice Pillar in Scotland’s Rosslyn Chapel, though a much more slender version. Above the doorway and to the right, higher up, there are several coquilles de Saint Jacques, the pilgrim shells associated with the saint, which mark the travellers’ route.

La Chapelle Notre Dame de Bon Secours is situated on a cliff top with a view over the town.

Inside there’s an exhibition of paintings. I speak to the artist, Pascal Voisin, who has thick white hair and a deeply tanned face. He tells me he used to be a fisherman, he has crossed La Manche many times, visited English ports, and has been to Dublin too. He paints streets, houses, boats, seascapes, waterfronts. His paintings are firm and compact as if he has caught his subjects, grasped them and placed them firmly on the canvas. As you might expect from a fisherman, he is not going to let them get away. They are dense with life, with lines, colours, edges and definitions. One or two are black and white, reminiscent of old photos, with the same near-nostalgic charm. Energy bounces off Monsieur Voisin and this energy is visible in his paintings too, with their thick colours, heavy skies and restless seas. 

Pascal Voisin and some of his paintings

So Dieppe continues to inspire painters. Of course I’m seeing it at its best in this glorious summer weather. I wonder what it’s like in winter. Perhaps it will be like Pascal Voisin’s paintings, with their dark and threatening skies and deserted sea front. When the long shadows cast by the sheer chalk cliffs will devour the beaches and extend thin dark fingers into the sea.

Sunday, 16 September 2018

Callander Poetry Festival - the Last Gig

The bookshop, Callander, Scotland

The Callander Poetry Weekend has been organised and hosted by Sally Evans and Ian King at their Callander bookshop (and across the road in the church hall) for almost all of this century. I think the first one was in 2001. The first one I went to was in 2005, and I’ve been back almost every year. It began as an afternoon event, with a few poets reading from their work. It grew and grew into a 3 day event, the first weekend in September, with over 80 poets taking part by 2017. The work involved was huge. Last year (2017) I went early to help Sally with cleaning, and the food preparation for all these people, so I got a glimpse into how much was involved. This year I also helped but it had to be a smaller event for various reasons, just one of them being Sally’s involvement in studying for a PhD. And this year was the last one.

You can find out about her own writing, the magazine Poetry Scotland, the bookshop, and the books she has published under diehard press, at her website.

I've written previous posts about the Callander Poetry Festival, in 2009, in 2012 and 2013, featuring just a few of the fine readers (because there were too many to mention all of them). But in this one I just want to give a huge thank you to Sally and Ian. The editorship of Poetry Scotland passes to Jon Plunkett of Corbenic Poetry Path. The bookshop in Callander's Main Street is of course still open every day, and welcomes all buyers and browsers.

Visitors bring fruit and flowers

I climb the spiral stairs to my friends’ flat, above the bookshop. The stairs are being renovated, on one side the facade has gone, the bare stonework drips with clotted strings of old plaster, uneven surface receding into darkness between enormous rounded stones which balance wickedly, defying gravity. Colours of plum, dark-red, splashes of decaying dirt-brown. I avert my eyes. When safe surfaces are stripped bare, the reality of what we walk on or lean against crumbles and tilts and mocks our assumptions of entitlement to any bulwarks against the seething tides of age, decay, and the vagaries and storms of nature.

I’m thankful for a room of my own, a bed to sleep in. The bed is comfortable, the rest of the room is almost crammed full. Books and bookcases, a massive wooden table piled with assorted crockery, no two pieces the same, painted, patterned or gilt-edged. On the floor, papers and more books. Next to the table is a metal sculpture of two long-beaked birds. Beyond the table is impassable and too distant, just the vague shapes of cabinets; the rays of the very beautiful standard lamp beside my bed do not penetrate that far into the gloom.

The walls are hung with paintings. Just above my bed there’s a black and white print titled Jupiter and Leda. I study it. Languorous and naked Leda is reclining helpfully close to the shore. A flurry of cherubs guide the swimming swan towards her via a cord trailing in the water. He does not have far to go and I imagine has no need of the silken cord. The swan looks modest, of the usual swan-size, moving slowly as swans do. Large Leda looks curious, straight at the swan, legs slightly parted, not alarmed at all. 

I don’t think this image has the slightest impression on my dreams or not that I remember. This desultory meeting on the river bank is not how I imagine it at all. Where is the passion, where the beating wings, the long and curving neck outstretched, the gaping red beak? Where are the sinews and the muscles in the legs of Leda, as she runs through the woodland, fighting off the massive wings, before she stumbles on a tree-root, brought down to earth and Fate? The cherubs no doubt, represent invisible desires. Their smiles are not so much cherubic as sly. The river water barely ripples. I sigh as I turn off the light.

No swans on Loch Venacher, near Callander

Tuesday, 4 September 2018

Edinburgh Fringe Performance of 'Bride of the Gulf'

Bride of the Gulf by Thinkery and Verse (performed during Edinburgh Fringe Festival in Venue 3 Cubed, Lawnmarket). Written by JM Meyer

A big play on a small stage. With an international cast, Karen Alvarado plays the main character (simply called HERO), it takes place in Basra, Iraq, during the Iraq war/invasion by Allied forces. The many different scenes show Iraqi soldiers not yet in combat, sharing jokes and banter. There are domestic interiors, with HERO talking on the phone to her sister who has left Basra, the daily difficulties of lack of electricity, her attempts to light a kerosene lamp but the funnels breaking (they’re designed that way, I break one every other day, she says). Once combat has begun there are journalists trying to get reactions amidst the sounds of shelling and bombardment. Sometimes there are two scenes going on at once, a domestic interior with HERO and an exterior one with soldiers running, shouting and crouching, around the outside. But this kind of split-screen action is not confusing, for it’s very life-like.

One of the simplest and most effective devices was duct tape the soldiers pulled across various parts of the stage. It might have represented barbed wire or possibly more generically the divisions and barriers created by war, and the various daily obstacles people had to overcome, as HERO stepped over it, or had to pull away parts of it that had stuck to her shoes – these daily obstructions, shortages and deprivations.

Her mother-in-law wants her to help her find Akil, her missing son, (and HERO’s husband) who had been working for the US and Allied forces as a translator and who has disappeared. Reluctantly, they view thousands of photographs of people who have died, in order to be able to eliminate the possibility that he is one of them.

This is a beautifully written and poignant play. It is so skilfully arranged, almost choreographed in its action. It shows the confusion of war, the horror of invasion and the suffering of the people. By focusing on one acutely painful story, the particular captures the universal. There is humour too, (often of the absurd kind) as for example the official in the morgue telling her to speak to his female assistant, not him, and then says she has to provide the paper for him to write a letter. She buys paper, brings it to him and then he asks her for a pen, so he can write it!

Between the harsh sounds of gunfire and shelling, there is also music, and while scenes change quickly or overlap, it is not confusing for the whole blends together until the action slows down in a moving finale. This is intelligent and compassionate theatre at its best, a choreography of movement, drama, music, the dark humour of the absurd, and the suffering of war.

Friday, 24 August 2018

Walking the Island of Kerrera

Rock trio on Kerrera's south coast

Keep the sea on your left, and you won’t get lost. That’s what my friend said to me before I set out to walk the circuit path on the island of Kerrera.

The tiny ferry to Kerrera leaves from just south of Oban, on Scotland’s west coast. It has room for one car and eleven passengers. It reminded me of the Irish ferry to Bere Island which had room for two cars a few pedestrians and one cow.

There were quite a few people waiting to get on, standing at the top of the jetty slope. I moved down the slope and was aware of people behind me also moving down as if at a signal. I stood behind the car and two people at the side of the car, talking to the driver.

When the ferry laid its pale green ramp onto the jetty the car drove on and we started to walk on. Only eleven said the man-in-charge, with yellow oilskin and cap, and to those left on the jetty – I’ll come straight back for you. .....

I had a small map of the southern part of the island, with the path marked on it. It circled south from the ferry terminal, skirted the south shore, brushing past the tower of Gylen Castle, then coming back up the northern shore, turning inland and crossing the island’s low hills and so returning to the ferry.

Bay and islands off Kerrera's south coast
Keeping the sea to my left as instructed, even I could not manage to lose my way but I did not always know where I was on the map, and there were those pesky forks in the track which always make me think of the Yellow Brick Road. Most of the track was wide and clear. I could not find the point where you could leave the main path to head down to the reddish-brown stone of Gylen Castle – the map did not match the terrain. But I continued on the main path and found it later. I simply had not been as far along the path as I thought.

The tall castle-tower looks out to the western sea, with faint shadows of distant islands or mainland promontories showing as thickened lines, blotches on the horizon. There’s always so it seems to me, a sense of longing, yearning, in such outposts looking west. West – in this part of the world – is not the direction of nostalgia or looking back, but the direction of future, of escape from too much history and time that still lies around in the present, possibly packed into bales and stored in some attic or barn, like contraband that no-one knows quite what to do with, reluctant to pay duty to transfer it to that ‘foreign country’ (as L. P. Hartley called the past) where it surely must belong. And where it should have stayed, instead of cluttering up our present and embarrassing us so.

East, south-east is the direction of nostalgia for what is known, loved and – is possible to be returned to. If you follow the line of south-east until you reach the heart of the world – or at least Europe, located on a shifting grid of light – somewhere in Greece.

Gylen castle and rocky archway

Far from Greece, on this misty promontory, the gloomy dark-brown needle of the castle gazes out into a misty future. I walk a short way along the shore and meet up with the main path. There’s another bay, some lush green grass, a house with a meadow in front of it and a few trees. And how the heart leaps at the sight of trees on an island like this, where there are so few......

View from Kerrera hilltop

 You can read the whole article on Scottish Review