Sunday, 9 July 2017

'There are more things in heaven and earth...'

The Forth & Clyde Canal

‘There are more things in heaven and earth Horatio than are dreamt of in your philosophy’

Cloud formations were like brief sketches all the more striking for their few bold lines against the blue of sky. One looked as if a rope of cloud had been flattened twisted and smeared across the blue expanse. Another slim rope shot up vertically with one or 2 breaks or segment joins, like some eager celestial plant. Ah good sign I thought, I was up early to catch the bus into Edinburgh and from there, the train to Falkirk. To the Conference on UFOs and the Paranormal. I’m fascinated by unusual experiences – both my own and those of other people – that don’t fit into conventional interpretations of the world.

Afterwards we walked along the Forth and Clyde Canal. 


I would take Shakespeare’s meaning of ‘philosophy’ to be not just our ideas or even our beliefs but the totality of our understanding of what we call reality. This understanding anchors our sense of self, who we are as a being, to the world all around us that we inhabit – nature, social reality, our interactions with others. But sometimes the most basic assumptions of what our reality is and how it works can be not just altered but blown apart. This was the case with Sacha, one of the speakers who had had such an unnerving experience complete with a sense of unreality that she had spent the years since then, trying to find answers to what had happened to her.

Shakespeare did say ‘heaven and earth’.

And Rainer Maria Rilke said ‘Jeder Engel ist schrecklich’ (every angel is terrifying)

Alyson Dunlop gave instances, experiences – of her own and of others – of being helped by non-visible energies, that some call angels. All these are positive and uplifting. However, she encountered dark energies as well. Whatever your reaction to the names of Archangels – Michael, Raphael, Gabriel and Uriel – they can be called upon in time of need. Whatever your belief system, construct of understanding of the world or cosmos we inhabit. 

Innes Smith is intrigued by our belief systems. What makes us believe what we do? Although we may talk about evidence he says, what some call evidence is not accepted by others – it is not an agreed term. And sometimes professional scientists have dismissed evidence which is statistically significant, because they cannot reconcile it with their current belief systems.

The Romans were here a long time ago: part of the Antonine wall

Beliefs and perceptions are changeable. Unless we have coated them with a layer of glue – which can lead to the ‘this is how it is and I am right’ kind of thinking.

It seems to me it is possible that perception follows belief. How much of our perceived reality is a construct? After all, if we take the perception of vision, the brain interprets what is seen, it doesn’t simply record what the eye sees. This construct is necessary of course for us to participate in our lives as humans, in our groups, families, societies, friendships, and in the natural world too that we inhabit. And if we can consciously change what we believe – and that is perfectly possible, if we repeat for example, a positive statement, such as thankfulness or gratitude –  can we not then change our perceptions and then alter our feelings, thoughts and actions, and too, the effect we have on others?

Why do we believe what we do, what draws us to this belief or that one? Perhaps that’s a long and deep question. Perhaps we identify with one or another and so, like external territory that belongs to us, we will defend it – with ridicule of other beliefs, or emotional aggression or worse.

It seems to me that it’s best to wear our perceived reality loosely, so there’s room for alteration, so there is room in a loose weave consciousness, for light to come through.

And so much light to be grateful for.

The sky on the walk back home was also spectacular, with coloured clouds around the recently disappeared sun, and the full moon rising in the opposite side of the sky.

Friday, 9 June 2017

Kos Past and Present

This article (without the images) on Kos past and present appears in full in Scottish Review

Spending a few days on the Greek island of Kos has involved seeing a lot of ruins. The main one was the Asklepeion, a temple dating from the fourth century BC where healing and medicine were practised by Hippocrates among others. There are several Asklepeia in Greece, named after Asklepios the God (or demi-god to be precise) of healing dreams, and this is one of the largest ones. People would travel long distances to these temples and after ablutions, fasting and prayer to Asklepios, would spend the night there, hoping for a dream that would indicate a cure for their illness.
Steps up to the Asklepeion
Other ruins and mosaics were in the Western Excavations near the Odeon. 

And the ruins of the Ancient Agora, in Kos town centre, close to the harbour. This is a vast excavation area, including a lot more than a marketplace. The oldest parts date from the 3rd century BC and there are the remains of a shrine to Aphrodite and a later Christian Basilica dating from the 5th century. 

Once again, lying on the ground are massive stone pillars broken into pieces, and beautifully carved capitals. What is more startling is to come across mosaics, half hidden by the long grass. These are mostly fragments but there is one complete one of a rather pensive looking bird. 

What strikes me about these stone ruins is that they don’t seem to have aged at all. Perhaps it’s the quality of the stone or the dryness of the atmosphere or both, but these stones look as though they could have been thrown there just a few years ago. They’re surrounded by long dried grasses and prickly plants that scratch your legs as you walk through them – though some paths have been worn by numerous feet – and colourful wild flowers dotted among the grass. The dense growth of these fearsomely sharp and spiny yellow stalks are nothing like the feathery soft green vegetation that we call grass.

After admiring all these broken and scattered stone remains and braving the scratchy undergrowth, all in hot sunshine, I felt it was time to increase my knowledge in the cool interior of the Archaeological Museum in Plateia Eleftherias in Kos town centre.

platia Eleftherias, Kos town

But when I reached the outer gates of this building there was a handwritten note pinned to them, in Greek and English, saying that it was closed today (17th May) because of a national strike. As I walked away I noticed a small crowd gathering in the square just opposite the Museum....

You can read the rest of this article here

Wednesday, 24 May 2017

Kos, the bird, and Saint Phanourios


Kos is shaped like a bird, leaning down into the sea. Perhaps it's looking for food or for another of its own kind. It may be gazing at its own reflection but I think it's looking beyond that, right down into the depths of the sea, mesmerized by what it sees.

Northern coast

Near Kefalos, barley field in high wind

The brown eye in the centre of its head, in profile, is Mount Theologis. But I discover as I cycle along the road that this mountain is a series of pine covered peaks and the road to Agios Ioannis winds its way through them. Sometimes you look out over the northern sea sometimes the southern one, as the road climbs ever higher, in a series of switchbacks.

The bird's neck is narrow, it looks to be only about two or three kilometers wide and at one point you look out over the bay and you can see across the neck to the sea on the other side. 

South coast (right) and north coast (on the horizon)

Then the road slips round another peak and it’s the northern shore you see. Some visual illusion makes this sea look as if it climbs halfway up the sky, its horizon is higher than you are.  

At the edge of the narrow road the ground drops precipitously and at some points I have to look away, look straight ahead to avoid even looking at the sea because that is to be aware of the cavernous gulf that lies between me and it. The wind is fierce and makes a howling noise as if it doesn't like me being there, it moans and pushes me across the narrow road whose surface has partially crumbled away turning it into a track littered with small stones. I clutch the handlebars grimly because I know how dangerous stones on the road can be.

The end of the track is the headland and the bird's head, the end of the island where the two seas meet. It feels like the end of the world, stony, desolate, deserted. Something about this place makes me uneasy.

Now, back home and safe on my balcony, I think I recognise the feeling. Then, I did not, for that is part of its strangeness. You don't recognise it or yourself. It’s a feeling of creeping alienation and I've felt it before. This is Pan's world and it's not the friendly nature that we live with, that we've planted, tended, shaped and watered, encouraged to grow and delighted in its green flourishing.

I pedal fast back along the windy ledge of road and once I reach the switchbacks it takes no time at all to swoop down them and when I reach the pine wood and the little shaded water tap in a clearing by the side of the road with a row of colourful beehives just above it, it feels welcoming and protective. I am so glad to be back in the outskirts of Kefalos. 

The other road from Kefalos leads to this little church, in a landscape of spiny bushes, shrubs and wild thyme. It's as if no one has ever visited it since the ending of the last story and the door was closed. Something stirs a faint memory - of this other life, this other story. And  at the same time it's as if someone has just left, there are slim brown beeswax candles burning and a feeling of presence. Time vanishes like a burst bubble.

What you thought lost in the past, you rediscover here. This feeling is as different from the one in Pan’s domain, as it could be. This is welcoming, rediscovery, expansion of awareness and memory. The feeling of being blessed.

I wrote the above while I was sitting outside this church, underneath the little tree whose branches you can see in the photograph. There was a small white chair provided. 

And though there were many icon paintings in this little church, I only took a photograph of this one, as it caught my attention. 

I knew nothing about the saint and it’s only now, back home, that I look him up. It turns out that Agios Phanourios is ‘The Revealer’. An icon of him was first discovered in Rhodos (or Cyprus) in a pristine condition in 14th or 15th century AD.

Orthodoxwiki says:
'Saint Phanourios has become famous for assisting the faithful in revealing lost or hidden spiritual matters of the heart, objects, directing or revealing actions that should be taken, restoring health and similar situations.'

Another image of him:

Photo credit:

I went to Kos specifically to visit the Asklepion (which I’ll write about later). But it was beside this little deserted church at the southernmost tip of the island (or near the top of the bird’s head ) that I felt this sense of peace, presence and blessing.

Monday, 1 May 2017

Sea Crossing, Corncrake Country

Today really felt like the first of May when I woke up this morning. It felt new, it felt spring, it felt as if the boats of the past, those millstone memories, to mix metaphors a little, had been reduced to ashes. The night before, I had even imagined burning things from the past, that I really did not need to hold onto any more, things with painful associations. And only this morning, remembered that last night was Beltane, the night of fire and burning. In olden days when people had hearth fires which they kept going all the time, they let the fire go out on Beltane Eve, and lit a new one in the morning, May Day.

I said to a friend today that I would not, not ever, go camping in Scotland again. But I’m glad I went, I said, for going away anywhere always changes something in you, and this time, I am totally appreciating my home now that I am back here, to have a house for shelter, to have a warm bed to sleep in, to work in the garden weeding and grass cutting, and to see the little seedlings I had planted, sprouting above the earth. All this is joyous, after the cold of camping, so cold I hardly slept. But I did enjoy the bus journeys, past gorgeous lochs surrounded by mountains, and the ferry from Oban to the Isle of Colonsay.

We camped at the end of a small loch, beside a grove of willow trees, beloved of bees, off a track which was muddy in places and in others pitted with water-filled holes. By the side of the track was marshy ground and I spent a lot of time trying not to sink into the marsh mud-and-water mix. Sometimes I found paths around the boggy areas, sometimes they just had to be negotiated. Further on up the track, there is a tiny stone circle.

Downhill from there, I heard a sound which could almost have been a frog sound, and almost a cricket sound. C reckoned it was a grasshopper warbler. Further on still, a blackbird, visible on a fence post, and quite unperturbed by us walking past, made a sound like laughter, on a descending scale. Then reverted to its usual, melodious call. As it got dark there was still birdsong and the occasional flights of geese. Apart from that, silence so thick you begin to imagine you can hear the trees breathing. 

The next day we followed a path by a loch, 

then through a wooded area that skirts the big house and grounds, and on to the Kiloran Bay, a wide sweep of sand brushed smooth by the sea and winds, no shadow of a footprint. Until I clamber over the rocks and walk across the sand to the sea. Wet sand close to the sea, still with a film of water over it, reflecting rocks and clouds. Tiny little wavelets. 

The bees hum around the hazel trees next to the tents. The catkins are coming out, all pollen dusty. The bees hum and move from one catkin clump to the next. After Kiloran Bay I walked back to the village where the ferry docks, where there is a Post Office, a petrol pump

a general store and most wondrous, the Pantry, selling coffee and a beehive cluster of dark cakes. I feel much better after that. Because of lack of sleep and resulting exhaustion, the walking has been arduous.

On the way to the bay we heard a corncrake, singing its saw song, its grinding notes sounding almost mechanical, like an electric saw or an engine trying to start.

After the delicious foamy cappuccino and cake, refreshed and invigorated, I stagger slowly up the hill back to the camp.

The humming of the bees sounds like approaching summer, like the tug boats pulling the huge ferry of the summer, into land. The sky’s still cloud covered but the sun wrestles with the thin places, gnaws at the edges, and shimmers them with light.

Whatever ghosts are here are mavericks, dramatists at heart, only wanting just a little admiration just some recognition of their bravery and history and dealing just as we do, with the vagaries of nature, the swampy ground, the insects and the rain. We are blessed with no rain, just the constant oozing of the peat lands, in places running over the track till you long for gravel so you can lift your eyes up scan rocks and hills and sky and keep a lookout for the sea. The clouds have broken into cotton clumps which the sun has prised apart. Rents of blue show through the seams and lightens up the bee trees, their pollen filling station.

When C gets back he gathers dried heather stems and makes a small fire. The smell of woodsmoke plumes around us in the changing wind. Night creeps closer and the birds are singing still.

Tuesday, 25 April 2017

Somewhere between map and memory

I wonder sometimes about pictures, images or photographs of the places I write about. Sometimes, particularly if they are of nature, the photographs accompany the words as if they were made to be together. I enjoy images with text, whether it is in a blog post or a book, and I think it was in W G Sebald's books that I first noticed small black and white images that had inserted themselves between the printed lines and what I particularly liked about them was their unintrusive nature, they were not especially beautiful photographs and were not meant to be. Their function in fact or so I thought, was somewhere between map and memory or aide-memoire or sketch made while writing the notes and included in the finished product so that the reader might also follow the deliberations of the writer, add to their sense of curiosity and their enjoyment as they participate in the threading of thought and image and association, leading to a clearing in the dense wood, or to a rise which when you reach the top, gives you this immense view out over the surrounding countryside or the city below you and these sketchy photographs have formed part of the path, part of the wings that have carried you up here, to a view that strikes you like a thunderclap, a slap of insight a heavy wave of water that knocks you off your feet with the power of it, and you fall over laughing, in the spray of the breaking wave.

I've been thinking about this because I wanted to post an excerpt from a piece of prose that's been published recently and because it is about a very particular place, I went looking for some photographs to illustrate the place I was writing about. I could not find any because I did not take any at the time. And I thought that even if I had, would they have conveyed the streets I had written about, really? For writing is made up of that mixture of vision and imagination, and of associations and perhaps memories that arise, and the photographs would not convey that, not really. I don't think so anyway. And, looking through other photographs of streets near the ones I wrote about, in Tirana and other Albanian towns it seemed to me that they invoked their own stories so I could imagine looking at them and writing a story from them, but that would be a different story...

So I decided to put in photographs at the end. They might be seen as sketches or fragments from a notebook, or they might form a story of their own.

An excerpt from Walking in Tirana, included in Scottish PEN's anthology of prose and poetry, I'm Coming with You. It says on the back that the writing 'reflects on places, journeys, people, home and exile, and most powerfully on freedoms found through writing and reading.'

Near the clock tower I walk across a flat expanse of earth, with here and there a tuft of grass growing, emerald green against the brown. The area of earth is scattered with shiny puddles and most of what is not underwater is slicked with a film of mud. I negotiate the lakes and swampy areas and I feel briefly like a child, playing at explorers.

I do not know who I am as I step over fragments of patterned paving stones, the sunlight chopping all that it touches, slicing it up into brightness and shade. I am swept up with the rubble and smoothed down with the dust. I am nothing other than this. I am laughing and frightened. I am possibly only the words that I write. So I have to keep writing, as I have to keep moving, in sunlight, or out of it.

I don't know who I am as I walk through these streets. I feel like a chink in a wall, stuffed with extravagant flowers. In the evening, the flowers droop and drop, one by one, from the gap that they filled.

A loosened soil, I could be that, as I walk through these streets. Something crumbling. Maybe a stone. Maybe, once part of a red-brick archway, like the one I saw on a muddy track between Bajram Curri and Myslym Shryi, with greenery dangling from the curve of its roof. Or the darkness the archway is covering. Tell me I whisper to the sauntering streets, tell me who I am. My walking is waiting and listening, not walking at all.

Wednesday, 5 April 2017

Return to the River and the Rooks

The Old Vicarage, near Kirkby Lonsdale.

In the last post I mentioned that Shaping the Water Path has both poems and prose poems and I got to thinking about the differences between poetry and prose. And recently, thanks to The Solitary Walker I was reminded of John Berger's illuminating description of that difference.

Poems, even when narrative, do not resemble stories. All stories are about battles, of one kind or another, which end in victory and defeat. Everything moves towards the end, when the outcome will be known.

Poems, regardless of any outcome, cross the battlefields, tending the  wounded, listening to the wild monologues of the triumphant or the fearful. They bring a kind of peace. Not by anaesthesia or easy reassurance, but by recognition and the promise that what has been experienced cannot disappear as if it had never been.....the promise is that language has acknowledged, has given shelter, to the experience which demanded, which cried out.

Poems are nearer to prayers than to stories....In all poetry words are a presence before they are a means of communication.
The poet places language beyond the reach of time: or, more accurately, the poet approaches language as if it were a place, an assembly point, where time has no finality, where time itself is encompassed and contained.
Poetry can speak of immortality because it abandons itself to language, in the belief that language embraces all experience, past, present and future.


(from and our faces, my heart, brief as photos by John Berger)

And I was reminded of that encompassing of past and present when we returned recently to the Old Vicarage where I first wrote the piece that gave the title to the book, Shaping the Water Path.

The water path shaped

In the time between the two visits – almost a year has passed – the book has been created, thanks to the encouragement and hard work of my publisher, Sally Evans of diehard books, and this seems the most appropriate place to give a reading from it. (You can see photographs from the reading on Sally's facebook page.)

Back in the garden, where time and the river, where journey and trajectory have a presence. Like time, the river is in perpetual movement, yet there is also the ongoing work to give stability to the water course, the creation of walls to strengthen the river banks and the planting of flowers and bushes, permanence framing the rushing water and the shimmering movement of the rooks and other birds.

The next morning I went for a walk, following the narrow road uphill, that winds through the valleys of the fells.

Coming back towards the house, I opened the new gate into the adjoining field. The land falls away towards the little river.

It looks as though the wall surrounding the garden goes right down to the water and so there's no room to pass. But when I reach the beck I discover there is a way into the garden from outside. From the narrow path between the beck and the high wall, through a new wooden door set in the wall. Open it and step into the magical garden. You are met by a flurry of pink, a flowering currant bush.


Gardeners work on a wooden bridge over the beck, making steps leading up to the slope of garden, with the hazel tree and its new shower of yellow catkins, to the rock garden that falls away from the house walls.

The sequoia is the guardian, protector, and beside it are other trees, where the rooks have their homes. We share this garden with the rooks, whose conversation is louder than ours. It is possible they hardly notice our tinkling twittering and laughter as we sit at the outside table in the sunshine. They have lived here forever these rook-lords of the garden, tolerating the gardeners' work, the pruning and the planting, the shoring up of beck bank, the wooden doors and bridges, the map-making of walks and trails, connecting this green space.

At dusk, a bat flutters like a black leaf, from tree to tree. When we go inside, there are no curtains drawn, and sheets of light spill out of the windows onto the path outside.

At night in my room I hear the beck sounds, the rushing of its water on its busy garden course. And once, a sound like hail or crystals, cascading on the window pane. I don't know what it was. Garden spirit or bat language become audible, this different language rustling like a tumbling bolt of beaded silk against the window pane, invisible, reassuring.