Friday, 10 September 2021

Ways and Waydreams

 On a recent walk from Tweedbank to Melrose, in the Scottish Borders, alongside the river. The sun is out, there’s no wind. It is a perfect summer’s day.


There’s a grassy area beside the shallow part of the river, where it divides into two, separated by an island of stones, which disappears when the river fills up, gets swollen with rain and haste, submerges the stones with just a flick of its river tail. But the river is somnolent and gentle today, fill of sparkling sun splinters which it jostles on its way, tumbles them over the larger stones that stretch across to the island. This is the place to hear the river’s song, and there are often people here, sitting on the low wall, watching the river’s dance, its loud rushing – almost roaring, when the water is high.

But today, there’s no-one there, the flat grassy area beside the river path is empty. There is one tree, with, I notice for the first time, a picnic table and benches, underneath the tree. This is just the place to sit down and have lunch, salads I’d bought in M&S. I walked slowly along the path by the languid river. Usually I walk quickly, almost as quickly as the river-in-spate but today I wanted to walk slowly, to be aware of my pace, aware of the tall fronds of grasses, with their heads full of seeds, some in clumps, like miniature trees in leaf, some long and feathery, lace-patterned seeds which are easy to run your fingers along, strip the seeds and scatter them over the grasses.

One end of the picnic bench is shaded by the tree and that’s where I sit. This bench has immediately reminded me of the open park in Saint Antonin where I spent some time a few years ago. It was summer, and hot. Every day I’d leave the house where I was staying (P*’s house) in the rue Frézal, with my notebook and pen and bottle of water and sit at one of these benches, shaded by trees, and write.  At lunch time I’d put my things in my small rucksack and go to the boulangerie and buy a croissant or one of those delicious broccoli and salmon quiches, take it back to my picnic table. I don’t remember now if I bought coffee too or if I made up a flask at home and brought that with me. Coffee would definitely have been on the menu, to have with croissant, sitting at the table in the shade.

Old buildings in Saint-Antonin-Noble-Val

I would stay out all day. The house – an old, medieval building in a street of medieval buildings – was cool and dark with its thick walls and small windows – designed to keep out the summer heat. But I am not a medieval French person and I can hardly bear to be inside when it’s so gloriously warm outside – when there is so much sunlight still to be enjoyed. So, in the evenings, after eating a salad supper, I would go out again, walk through the old streets and the warm stonework radiating the day’s warmth. Sometimes I’d cross the bridge to the old (former) train station, its yellow walls in the yellow evening light, and watch the perfect reflections of trees and flowers and houses on the river Aveyron.

Reflections of buildings and sky in the water of the river Aveyron

Some afternoons I went for hikes in the surrounding countryside. I had bought a booklet that described the local hiking trails (petites randonnées) with rough sketches of the terrain and dotted lines winding up hills and through woods and forests. I explored all of these trails and I only got lost once. The path seemed to disappear, after I’d climbed up a steep trail next to some rocks. There was a rail embedded in the rock, with a series of looping ropes to help pull you up. Then there was no more discernable path, just a series of what looked like impassable rocks. So I climbed back down, following the path back the way I came. But that was the only time that the little dotted trails on the map let me down. Every other time I managed to follow the dots and sketches, which formed pleasing loops so you did not have to go back the way you came.

Looking down on the Aveyron river

On clifftops, home to lots of butterflies, I could look down on the Aveyron valley and Saint Antonin itself, far below me.

View of Saint Antonin & Aveyron river

I feel as if I’m looking back on this time with a very particular vision – there is of course some nostalgia, but also an element of remembering, of re-living almost, those glorious hot days, the lush foliage, the mirror-sharp reflections in the Aveyron river, the beautiful tiles on the rooftops, tumbling layers of rooftiles in colours of rust and ochre yellow, lichen and yellow soil, green-grey and beige and all with a layer of time and age, warmth and timelessness, baked with heat and it’s that kind of saturation-with-sunlight that I think about and feel, right now.

It’s not so much that I wish that I was there – although that would be most agreeable and in fact, I would have been there, had it not been for the current pandemic and maybe that’s why I’m thinking so strongly of it right now – but it’s more that I am almost surprised that I can see those streets, houses, paths, rooftiles and river, so clearly now – can feel the hot sun on my skin, the stony paths underfoot, the cool shade of trees, my sunhat shading my shoulders – the black cat who came to visit me at the picnic table, sitting on the other bench, its cat company under the magnificent shade of the tilleuls, the lime trees.

All this, from sitting at a similar picnic table by the river Tweed eating couscous salad from M&S, on my way to see Miguel, the optician.

Maison de l'Amour doorway, Saint-Antonin-Noble-Val

Monday, 30 August 2021

" ... real life takes place in movement"


The Old Vicarage Garden

‘It is widely known after all, that real life takes place in movement’ says Olga Tocarczuk's narrator, in Flights. (Or, as the reviewer suggests, a better and more literal translation of the title would be 'Wanderers'.) 

I read this on the bus south and I smile because I remember writing something very similar to that, only recently. Or maybe it was some time ago, maybe it was even last year it is so hard to keep track of when one thought something sufficiently to write it down. (Time, after all, is another 'wanderer'.) The other thing about thoughts is that one tends to think the same or very similar thoughts, quite frequently. Just read what you wrote a few days ago, years ago, decades ago even, if you reread your journals, you may be surprised, I often am, at the repetition of my thoughts, though they may be approached from a different angle, arise out of different circumstances, and are clothed in different words. (Our thoughts seem to follow a labyrinth-like pattern, traversing similar almost conjoining paths, yet never quite going back over the same ground.) Yet so often, some thought or other can emerge as a fresh and original insight! 

As for ‘real life’ taking place in movement, I would probably have written it in a questioning mode, even though I feel it to be true, at least sometimes I do. I felt that on the bus as I travelled south, the wonderful feeling of movement. But I liked the narrator's statement in Olga's book - with its flick of irony, its sense of ‘everybody knows that, so it must be true’.

Near Carlisle, in the north east of England, I meet up with my friend Sally, and she drives us to her brother’s house in Cumbria, the Old Vicarage, with its big garden, old trees, and the rooks calling in the evening, as they rustle in to roost.


The next morning, I’m walking along the old road, the narrow empty road to Kirkby Lonsdale, a few birds singing, near-silent lane, beech tree borders and other old massive trees. There is such an atmosphere, a presence, from these thick and spreading trees, and the heart rises, singing, as ‘real life takes place in movement’, the rhythm of the walk along the lane, with grass growing in the centre. It turns into a path leading to the Devil’s Bridge, a primal path, that’s what I think, the first kind of travel, a way for people to walk, between these glowing trees, silent but not silent, with their hum of sunlit joy connecting to the heart and the rhythm of the limbs.


In a charity shop in Kirkby Lonsdale I hear one woman at the desk say to another
...that couple who just left, they often come in, you know ...
I move around the corner from the clothes racks to the CD and bookshelves, as if studying the books but of course I am eavesdropping. know, you have to be careful.
What do you mean, careful? says the other woman.
Oh well, I can’t really explain right now, says the first, and I know exactly what she means and why she doesn’t want to be more precise, as I, a customer, am in the shop, as if I didn’t have experience of shops and selling,
...just, you know, careful …
Why, because they’ve got a foreign accent? says the other, and I don’t hear what the reply is, if any.

When I take my purchases to the counter, the lady seems preoccupied, as if she is still smarting – (I recognize her voice as ‘the other’ though she is on her own, her colleague has disappeared somewhere) from the coy comment about ‘being careful’ about the young couple with the foreign accents.

Down Collier’s Lane the high hedges sprout either side of a blue sky. Thistledown lifts from the plants, airborne, so many from a distance I thought they were a cloud of insects. Birds hop from the hedges, pause in the road, turn into leaves. Leaves on the gravel take off, spread wings, turn into butterflies.

A yew tree in St Mary’s churchyard, 


and through the churchyard, a view over the river Lune, it’s known as Ruskin’s view as it was a favourite of his. (Though perhaps should be called Turner's View, after his painting of it.)

The next day we drive to St Bees, on Cumbria’s west coast. On the pebble beach I pick up a perfectly round stone, hot from the sun. The sea sparkles on the surface, in the sun’s path. Children and dogs douse themselves with water. We wade into the sea. From the sea, even if it’s just been your feet you’ve immersed, you come out changed. The sea baptises. Your feet remember. All of you remembers.

Sunday, 18 July 2021

Petre Halkyn and the Rainbow Path

  From a recent visit to Wales.

Last night I walked with my friends to the boundary of this Welsh village, where I noticed a signpost for ‘Path’, a little yellow arrow on green background, but it only seemed to lead to two driveways to houses – one Is y Coed (below the trees), the other, RAINBOWS END (in capitals). The only other possible way that I could see, was through a field, but it had a fence around it, no stile, not even a gate to enter it.

So we walk back, discuss the possibilities of the house name. Obligingly, a rainbow appears above the estuary, or rather, a piece of a rainbow, a thick chunk, with several rainbow echoes or ripples alongside the main chunk, a wedge of disembodied colours among the clouds.

The place where all rainbows end perhaps? Like a sanctuary for stubs, tag-ends, frayed or faint ends, lost ends, or robust ends, grounded on the mud-flats of the estuary with nowhere else to go?
Or – a philosophical statement, as in ‘all things come to an end, even rainbows’.
Super-realists might live there. No illusions harboured here.
We hardly like to say they may be grammatically challenged, missing out the apostrophe, if a single rainbow is referred to.
Then again, as M says, there may not have been room on the wooden board for the lost apostrophe.
Today I walk on my own, uphill from the village, turn left through another village, Wind Mill, then right along the narrow road. Because there is such a view way into the distance.


An information board tells me that lead used to be mined here on Halkyn mountain and beneath my feet there is a network of tunnels. 

site of the lead mines just visible on the left


In front of me, misty sunlight makes the distant mountains glow. Skylarks carouse in upper air.

I walk back through the Wind Mill village, perched on its plain, with views – mountains on one side, the ebbing estuary, mud-coloured, on the other. Another yellow arrow pathway sign. A gate to go through. I open and close it. In the next field, two horses standing. Quite still, one behind the other. At the field’s end, a stile, but it’s not a real stile, no step up and there’s a fence, to make it harder to climb over. It’s also grouped around with eager nettles. A view into the field beyond, wild grass, thistles – and a tractor spraying something in the field. The nettles, I can pass through them (I’ve befriended nettles now) it’s the spraying tractor that puts me off. I see no exit too, at the far end of the field so I retrace my steps back to the road and the houses standing by the road.

And beyond the farm house a man stands, a little off the road, looking down the hill, at something I can’t see. His gaze swivels – from the unseen something – back to me. He wears an earth-brown baseball cap. Even from a distance, I can see his face is tanned, an outdoor person, he stands in front of his landrover. Again, his gaze shifts – from what he’s watching down the hill, to me. I’m quite prepared to meet his gaze – in fact, I relish making contact with a local – but as I approach, he speaks first – you can go down the path now, the tractor’s finished in that field, and left it.

I come closer. I’ve been spotted, spied on, watched in my wanderings. I can’t imagine how he could have seen me, with the farmhouse in front of him. But then – across fields, there’s nothing to prevent the view from tumbling down the hillside, marking tractor and a figure with rucksack, grey jacket (I like to blend in) and umbrella, in case the weather forecast (cloudy, but no rain) failed to fulfil its promise that no rain would pass this way, tripping on the distant mountains, downhill to the estuary.

I come closer and his tanned face is friendly, he smiles, up to the shade of his cap’s peak, and his bright brown eyes. The tractor’s finished now, he says.
It must have been the tractor’s progress he was watching.
What was it spraying? I ask.
Just the thistles in the field.
I hadn’t meant the target of the tractor spray, but rather – the substance that was sprayed. But I concede, to myself, the ambiguity my question held.
Thing is I say, I haven’t walked this path before, I don’t know – where does it come out?
Well, he says, there may not be a stile, a proper gate, but – the path goes on and when you come out onto the road you go left to Halkyn –  
That’s where I want to go! I say. I’d wondered if it might come out at the road we’d walked along, last night. And I did, I really did want to go down that path, rather than back the way I came, along the road.

And so I thank him and he smiles again, this helper of Hermes, guide to faltering, uncertain travellers and I head back – back to the path, back past the immobile horses, back to the nettle cluster round the wooden stile-without-a-step (and draped in wire) and climb over, thanking the nettles for not stinging me.


Into the newly-dusted fields of thistles. I put on my covid mask, as a gesture of protection from whatever substance (best not to think of what it was) was designed to curb the thistle growth. And where was the exit? I walk from one end of the field to the other, then, just beyond a gate, I see the long grass on the other side has been disturbed, pressed down a little. Someone had been here before me and I follow the bent grass, to a tiny lane, screened by a high wooden fence beside a house on one side, trees on the other.


Another brown pony in the next field. 


There are nettles here but not too many. The path continues, (with a proper stile)


and it comes out at the two houses, Is y Coed and Rainbows End. It had been so screened by bushes, trees and undergrowth, last night, I had seen nothing. Truly, all paths do lead to this rest-home for rainbows. And – despite the low grey clouds and the damp air – it hadn’t rained at all.

Thursday, 24 June 2021

Waves and Water

At Folkestone, on the south coast of England 

The sea thuds and rushes, then whispers, rattles like a tempest in a bottle, trying to get out. That’s the stones hitting each other, as the waves drag them back. The next wave will push them up again. Just out of reach of high tide, there’s a bank of them, like old veterans, watching the stir and sigh, the rattle and the rumble – now out of waves’ way, reminiscing of old waves and wars and wanderings.

The sea is stirred with sand, near the shore, opaque, mud-coloured, and further out, it’s pale turquoise and out near the horizon, it is indigo and meets the dark blue clouds and France is there, just out of sight. The seagulls dive, and are lifted up, by wind.

The sea rubs and scrambles up the edge of sky, tears lines apart and the clouds melt into a soufflé, that the sea spoons up and the wind whips into salt and spray.

The clouds are blown away towards the east. The sky shifts from its storm grey, reflected by the sea, into delicate colours of blue and green. The sea responds. 


 We are elongated coastline, damp and rounded stones. Our bones are heavy with the pulse and thump and clatter of the waves.

These sounds we cannot do without. These sounds our bones carry on the cliff paths, into forests, over desert sands, our footsteps sinking, far inland, murmuring memories lining each step, to remind us. We are sea.


Berwick-on-Tweed, on the north-east coast of England.


From the cliff-top path, there’s a series of metal steps leading down to a bay, a curve of beach. I take off my sandals, walk on the wet sand, edge closer to the small waves, let the water flow over my feet. First touch of sea on skin, this year.


I walk to the end of the bay where the red-stone cliffs jut out into the sea. Then walk back. And notice, a little way from the end of the metal steps, what looks like very rough steps ascending a rock. what’s on the other side is invisible. I go back to the flat rocks at the bottom of the staircase. They are carpeted by dried moss and seaweed but further out towards the stepped rock, the seaweed-covered stones are wet. I walk carefully over them. Then they end. To reach the stepped rock I have to go into the water, roll up my jeans, and go in. Clamber out again. The steps are very worn, and sloping, gestures rather than steps. More worn than the steps in Canterbury Cathedral, leading to the casket holding the remains of Thomas Beckett. Who cut these I wondered, was it a smugglers’ path? Perhaps at low tide, the next small bay would be traversable but there are no visible steps on the other side, which leads down to the sea. So I back carefully down the steps again, through the water, up onto the seaweed-slippery rocks, head back up the iron steps to the cliff path.


Making the Wave event at the River Tweed, Melrose, Scotland, in the days leading up to the G7 summit. Tea is served in the river, to point out the dangers of floods and rising waters. And the importance, as the climate changes, of our precious rivers, oceans and land, and all the living beings that live in, on, around and above them and who need them for their existence. As do we.


Friday, 28 May 2021

Annemarie Schwarzenbach's Birthday


Annemarie in Morocco

May 23 was the anniversary of Annemarie Schwarzenbach’s birth. She was born 113 years ago. That number equates to the planet Mercury, ruler of her Sun sign, Gemini. Mercury is the communicator par excellence, the player with words, the traveller between worlds. Annemarie was nothing if not a communicator. She wrote hundreds of articles, many short stories and several novels. All this by the age of 34. She explored all kinds of different worlds – physical territories (in then little explored places such as Iran, Afghanistan and the Congo) and the metaphysical regions of consciousness.

I was drawn to her work many years ago. For the past few years my life became entwined with hers as I lived a parallel existence in the 1930s and ’40s in her company, researching and writing The Buoyancy of the Craft. This felt like a book that just had to be written. That sense of devoir (a Saturnian mixture of duty, necessity, commitment, and immersion in the task) has lifted now. Annemarie has not gone away but rather, our relationship has changed. I’m writing about her with a new lightness, where there’s room for expansion, for experiment and enjoyment.

Every writer it seems, who decides to write about a real person, whether living or dead, has their own take on the motivation and ethics of this. Ajay Close is author of several novels, and her most recent is What we did in the Dark,  a fictional account of the writer Catherine Carswell’s first marriage, and a splendid and engrossing read. Her article about the writing of this novel can be read in The Bottle Imp

Another book which I devoured is Jen Shapland’s My Autobiography of Carson McCullers.  You can see from the title what her take is and I found the mixture of writing – about Jen’s own life and about Carson’s life, quite fascinating. It throws up for question the relationship of the writer to the human being one is writing about. Jen writes “This book takes place in the fluid distance between the writer and her subject” a distance I consciously wanted, when writing about Annemarie, to eliminate as much as possible. 

Annemarie and Klaus Mann

When I was only a short way into the writing of my own book, and people asked me what kind of book it was I was writing, I found it hard to answer. I didn’t want it to be a biography at least not the kind of biographies I had read. All praise to the people who can write objectively about their subject but that was not what I wanted to do. I wanted to in some sense, as much as one can, become her, as well as exercise the kind of imagination that she did, when encountering other people who interested her, who intrigued her, who aroused her deep feelings. 

At the same time I wanted to map the precise itinerary of her life, both literally (in terms of places and people) and metaphorically, in terms of the evolution of her ideas, values, goals and perceptions. So The Buoyancy of the Craft is a hybrid mixture of fact and imagination. Annemarie said in an interview that she wanted to ‘touch people’s hearts’ with her writing. 





She did this with her writing, just as she did, in her life. Nearly 80 years on from her death, several books have been written about her, both biographies, and novels based on her life. The Buoyancy of the Craft is the first to be written in English.

Monday, 3 May 2021



Morning beach & distant sea


To Northumberland, north of England. To the sea!

The small forgotten things about travel come back – the rattle of the suitcase wheels, lifting it up onto the escalator, in the train station.

First day, I knew from the weather forecast that it was going to rain, so I and my companion took the bus to Alnwick and the marvellous Barter Bookshop, in the former train station. (My idea.)

with quotations from Baudelaire, among others

Then to Alnwick Gardens. (My companion’s idea, not mine.) The cherry orchard is impressive, wide swings among the trees and the winding paths covered with a litter of blossom. No one on the swings, in the rain, the damp seats unappealing. But on a sunny day? Swinging among the cherry blossom. 


Reflection on water surface, with coloured lights

A long and complex walk from Alnwick, a path, a bridge over a stream, another path, then it meets up with a track (bridlepath), downhill towards the road. A short distance walk along the road then off onto another bridlepath, to the stream (it’s called Deepford and I fear we will have to wade). But no, at a place called Stepping Stones, there they were, round discs, perfectly formed and spaced out evenly, flat-topped, faux stone cement circles, like very large counters in a game of draughts.


After that, a path following the river on the other side. Two miles to Lesbury, the sign says. I don’t know how many miles we’ve walked already or how many hours. Miles and hours in the rain (I hold the unsteady umbrella aloft) and wind, both of which are now increasing. Some way along this path we pass under the railway viaduct. And shortly after that, a path to Hipsburn, a suburb of Alnmouth. Gott sei gepriesen! Only another mile or so to home!

It didn’t rain for the next two days, but there was always an exorbitantly bitter wind, whether the sun was out or the clouds massed across the sky. First day was the bus to Craster and walk to Dunstanburgh Castle


then the path by the sea.



The local bus rattles long the narrow roads, jumping and sliding round the bends, an impatient cat. Bumps and shakes. Rattles and rolls. Time goes topsy-turvy, in a rhythm of its own. Beats its wings like a high-flyer, circles, pauses, changes partners. And the band plays on.

The following day was a trip to Bamburgh, and walk along the beach to Seahouses.

Sitting outside in the evening, with a view over the estuary. 


At first the sun is out, then a big grey cloud comes over. ‘Risky’ says someone coming up the hill, glancing up at the slow-moving fat and heavy clouds. ‘But if it makes you feel better, it’s pouring down south.’
I feel better. I’ve purchased chocolate and postcards from the village shop. There is actually not a freezing wind blowing in my face though I’ve been consistently cold for two days (except when asleep) and it’s tiring, the effort of fighting against the cold.

The sea – its thudding, thumping on rocks or shore, glissando up sandy beaches, and smacking into sea-surface, wave upon wave. Its storm of noise, sun out, wind behind us, was the only time I was warm. The sea on Bamburgh beach a deep cobalt blue, 


while on our own beach at Alnmouth, it is paler, and further away, reflecting evening clouds on the wet sand. 

Here, there’s a view of the estuary below, a silver surface, with a company of boats.

When the trains pass in the distance, after dark, their carriages lit up, they seem so high up, they’re trains travelling through the sky, through the clouds, quite separate from the earth, ethereal and elevated trains, beyond the reach of human landscape, human problems. And in the night, the sound of one train, rattling and thumping on the rails. The attitudonal train, the midnight blues train, trans-valley trans-melodic train, thip-thumping across the viaduct.

Now the sun comes out, the water glitters and rays streak along the slate-grey clouds.
The horizon cloud has turned into an anvil and the sun shines on its biscuit-crumbly edge. Anvil arms spread wide, the cloud floats on. The estuary trip-ripples, heading for the sea. On this beach, mostly the shells are whole, are perfect, pearl-white, pearl-pink and patterned with grey-blue. All the little creatures they have hosted all long gone, but these hard and colourful homes lie on beaches, smoother ad smoother, lightened by water and wearing and sand. Time is always present – look it says, see how I never go away no vanishing into past, no hugger-mugger impatience jostling with queueing crowds for future, it’s not at all like that. I am always here – see – hold out your hand and touch mine (damp from the ocean and gritty with sand), that is my nature, my being, my life. On the sea shore you will always find me here, you’ll never be without me, never be alone.


A silver pencil train slides along the middle of the distant hill. Such silence. Yet in the night, such noise and clatter like a dream that shakes you, trying to wake you up.

The anvil has broken up into a shower of sparks, all crazy lit up by the sunlight. Behind the sparks, a gauzy curtain. Behind this veil, a churny furnace that we see as a great light and feel so thankful for this distant fire, falling warm on our faces.
Here it comes, billowing bright pushing the curtains aside, the froth and lace of clouds, bright in the sky, surrounded by a thicket of blue and dazzling empty space around it. Our sun. Sole, sole nostra.

The starlings are warbly-porbly birds, their calls like bubbling wine interspersed with slices of lemon – wooo-whistle – sharp-tang taste. They crowd the tree tops looking out for sunlight, their ritual of farewell. How could the sun go down without all the birds wishing it well? No hesitancy here, just love, sinking lower and lower in the sky.

The church clock tinkles and reminds, with an occasional dropped note, too shy to toe the line of melody.