Friday, 15 June 2018

Carlisle, Chester and Barmouth

Weeping wave and window, Carlisle castle

I was invited recently to read at a benefit evening for SHARE, an organization based in Mold, North Wales, that supports refugees and homeless people.

I travelled there by bus and train, and with some time to spare in Carlisle, I discovered that the Weeping Window installation of ceramic poppies, on tour throughout the UK just happened to be opening to the public that very day, at Carlisle Castle. This display commemorating WW1 has been on tour since 2015 and will end on November this year (2018). It’s at Carlisle until July so if you are in striking distance I would definitely recommend going to see it. 

After arriving in Wales, I went with my friends that evening to the beach at Talacre, Flintshire, with its old lighthouse, no longer in use, backlit by the setting sun. The walk from the road to the beach, through dunes and marsh ponds with the sound of marsh birds reminding me so much of La Laune in La Petite Camargue, with its network of canals and its many ponds and lakes, its birds and bats, and its fields of grazing white horses and black bulls.

This area in Wales of ponds and marshes, close to sand dunes, is also home I was told to the rare natterjack toad, with its distinctive call.

The event the next evening at the Lock Keeper’s, Chester, was a delight. All the work put into organizing the evening by Maureen and Paul paid off, both financially, in money collected for the charity, and in the enjoyment, shared by participants and audience alike. Splendid poetry and prose, songs and music and a lovely warm gathering, where I met up with several old friends.

Maureen Weldon and Paul Beech, organisers of the benefit concert at the Lock Keeper's, Chester

The next day, we drove to Barmouth, on the coast. After a spell of glorious weather, this was the first overcast day and the next morning was misty. The train bridge crosses the water to the peninsula and a pedestrian walkway runs alongside.

View from the railway and pedestrian bridge, Barmouth

In the afternoon, the mist cleared and we had another hot and sunny day. Walking through the town we saw a flyer for St John’s Gallery, and walked up the hill to the current exhibition of paintings in the gallery by Bernard Barnes, Reyna Ruston and Alexandra Cook. As well as housing the exhibition space, the artists’ studios, the gallery has weekly meetings of musicians, and hosts other events of interest to people who live locally or are visiting the area.

Painting by Alexandra Cook in the exhibition

The following day I made the long journey back, going across country from Manchester to York, to avoid the rail works on the tracks, and the inevitable replacement buses. 82 And the sun still shone until we reached Berwick on Tweed, crossing on the railway bridge high on its elegant stilts over the water. The tide was out and the estuary exposed its banks of sand. From this vantage point I see the mist rolling in, great spools wound round spindles that came from far out to sea.

So the spinning spindles have unwound and all the coastline is covered now – the red rocks, the cliff paths, with wet grass – the mist has ridden in, on horses with soft-shod hooves. A damp curtain drawn across a shore. The train veers inland and sunshine spreads its fingers over land again. Sheep graze beside their dark twin shadow selves. North has a near monopoly on shadows or at least – a long discussion re cause and effect, investigations and opinions, a long literary history. Great gulps of gorse flash past on rocky rail embankments and on the woodland slopes beyond. Acres and yellow acres of it.

The sea at Barmouth

Sunday, 10 June 2018

Daša Drndić, Croatian Writer

Daša Drndić, pictured in 2009.  Photograph credit: Mavric Pivk/DELO
(from the Guardian article here) 
So sorry to hear about the untimely death of Daša Drndić. She was so full of life, fiercely committed, and in every photograph I’ve seen of her, she is smiling or laughing.

I’m reposting what I wrote after hearing her talk at the Edinburgh International Bookfest last year (2017).


Daša Drndić is a Croatian writer who has written several novels and her latest, Belladonna, has just been translated into English. When asked about the ‘story’ of her book, she says passionately ‘My book doesn’t have a story – I’m against this infatuation with a storyline!’ Her writing she says is fragmented, to reflect the reality of our lives. While her book doesn’t have ‘a story’ it is full of stories – ‘little stories about little people, who really make history’.  She has deliberately chosen a disruptive form – she is against linear construction. For it is not the form of a work, she says, but how something is written, that makes literature.

Passionate and refreshingly outspoken she says that literature should be offensive, should upset and provoke, should make people react. And while you cannot be a writer without empathy, she is not interested in reading love stories, for she is too troubled by what is happening in the world. She feels these ‘ugly times’ we are living in are reminiscent of the 1930s.

And while, she says, there has always been immigration, what we have now, the immigration from Africa and the Middle East, that’s a boomerang, what we did in the past is coming back to us.  The ‘army of impoverished people’ must not and cannot be ignored. People should react – within the law – she says, but she fears a new and bloody revolution is coming.

The extract she reads from Belladonna describes the shifting populations and territories in Europe – from Poland to Germany, from Germany to Netherlands, from Somalia to Netherlands, and shifting political ideologies too. Threaded into these movements and migrations is the question of complicity with regimes that oppress other people and the Nazi regime in particular.  And she says it is so relevant right now, to remember what happened in Europe in the 30s and 40s, for if we really remember – not the ‘ossified structure’ of history but the real history through the painful, upsetting and desperate stories of actual people, we can hopefully stop it from happening again.

When someone in the audience asks her what she does read, since she doesn’t read fiction she replies immediately, I didn’t say I don’t read fiction. (She had said that she didn’t read love stories.) What do you think fiction is? she asks, and then answers her own question. ‘What we call fiction is something that the writer has experienced or heard or has empathized with – it’s not an invention. And’ she says ‘I don’t believe in inspiration. Writing is solitary, it’s tough, and you work at it.’

She also mentions that she has been to Albania and talked to writers who were imprisoned as political prisoners. When I ask her if she met Fatos Lubonja she responds immediately, yes, I did meet him, he wrote the book Second Sentence about his experiences in the Albanian gulag. And she says that she is going to write about that in her next book. Now that is something to look forward to!

Daša Drndić at Edinburgh Bookfest 2017

You can read an interview she gave with Paris 

Sunday, 3 June 2018

Casterton and Brigflatts

The Old Vicarage, Casterton, in Cumbria, England  
(previous visits are described here (2016) and here (2017)

Lucky to spend time again at Casterton, with its tended garden magical in May sunlight. Its tall trees taking your gaze up to the blue of heaven, lifted by the sawing sound of rook song.

We visit the Meeting House at nearby Brigflatts. In the garden, the hum of bees and insects. Time is worn into the rose bushes, lilacs, and white button blossoms, worn so deep it lines the stone pathways. And who has cut a track through the deep grass, ending in a mown circle? And who scattered pheasant feathers on this cut walkway? And broke a pale green brown egg further down the path?

Brigflatts garden

Brigflatts garden


The Brigflatts Meeting House was built in 1675. Its wooden beams are weighed down with its history, you can almost see it pressing from the gallery onto the space below.   

The poet Basil Bunting,who was born into a Quaker family, is  

probably most well-known for his long autobiographical poem

Brigflatts. He spent a lot of time here in later life, and is buried in the graveyard. The headstones are rounded – they are all the same in shape and colour. Someone has cut paths here too, beneath the copper beech and yew trees. They spread out across the wall, curl around the view, and the green flanks of the dales perform their function – distant view of heaven, backlit – no embers smouldering, no dark reminding of malevolence. It cannot exist here, in the curve of copper beech branch, in the open frame of yew.


Driving home to Casterton we pull off the road into the avenue leading to the house, shaded by fir and larch and holly.
I can’t believe we’re staying here, I say.

We are sitting in the garden. R shows us a painting from the book he bought, Chagall’s fiddler, with an unusual face. Rooks, he says, have conversations such as – this one feeds you, this one throws stones. Their problem solving abilities are those of a seven year old. 

One perches on the topmost twig of the Scots pine, calls to the other on the top twig of a larch. What they says barks back and forth then slows down, till the ruffle of the air sounds almost like a lullaby.

The garden has a field of blue forget-me-nots, patches of orange, peach coloured azaleas and specks of yellow Welsh poppies, just beginning to unfold. The azaleas spread out like a candelabra, the better to receive the light. Everything bends towards the sun. Or floats out like the honeysuckle from the wall. Timber building in the distance, taps out irregularly, already it’s too hot to lift an arm and swing a hammer. This should be siesta hour, surrendered to the rooks who hop languidly from one larch top twig to another. 

Somewhere else, cars drive on motorways, drivers open windows at the tail-backs at traffic lights, feel their pores swell and their goals diminish, scatter and melt in the heat. The temperature bursts green coverings over the damp and crushed red petals of the poppies. Heat unfolds the wrinkles on their scarlet skin, unfolds too, the crushed petals round our organ of time-perception, bursting threads that had it sewn up tight. What is its name, this time-measurer, time-trapper, this unfolded heart with black seeds or yellow pollen at its core?

The striking of the church clock missed a note. The clocks of dandelions listen for a breath of wind dropped maybe by the church chime – irregular and upbeat strokes of silence.


How lucky to be here, the beck waters laughing on their bed of stones, the bank shored up with new wood walls. The massive oak leans out across the water. How lucky to be here among the butterflies, far below the chatty rooks, closer to the birds bobbing on stones in the water that glitters in sunlight.

Tuesday, 8 May 2018

1918 – 2018 To the Somme again Part 2

Detail of Thiepval Memorial, Picardie

Euston Road Cemetery was peaceful yes, but there was a strong wind, just as there was when I first visited it, in 2011. Like a reminder. Wind as presence, wind as monitor, wind as scribe too. Commentator. You won’t forget, not with this wind.

We drive on to Beaumont-Hamel where it is still windy, sun still shines. The fields and trees are green, their branches spread out wide and even. The trenches are green too, so different from how they must have looked 100 years ago. They curve, wind and zigzag between conifers and lime trees, planted since then, since 100 years ago.



The wind is here too, messenger and marker, the carrier of memories – some picked up, some delivered to your door, some distributed through all your cells, not just brain or sight or hearing, but through fingers, through the light hairs on your skin that react without your volition, before you have time to tell yourself it is just imagination.
And it’s gone.

And we go on to the Thiepval Memorial, thick and squat and solid. Dense as the forest of lives it names, those whose bodies were not found. On a slight rise, looking out over a valley. In a way, it offers shelter and support and it is vaulted like a place of prayer but it is also open to the sky.



The wind here is so strong you cannot stand up straight you have to lean into the brickwork.
Is it always windy in these places? The air howls and whistles around the dense, defiant towers. Red brick, furious. Golden sandstone, compassionate.

Does the wind always blow so hard, does it always moan and sing here as if the brickwork and stones form an instrument it blows through, a giant reed the air presses itself against, to produce this chanting and these rhythms and this song?


On to Albert where we stayed the night, with an excellent meal at the Hotel Basilique just across the road from the Church Notre Dame des Brebières where we saw an unexpected treat in the evening – a light show projected against the wall of the Basilique. This year 2018 is of course the anniversary of the 1918 armistice and it is being marked in many ways across France.


Sons et lumières  by Video Mapping Festival  are being shown in different regions and it just happened to be in Albert that week. It depicted the destruction of the Basilique in the war and the legend that when Our Lady fell from the top, (it happened in 1918) that would mean the end of the war.

Friday, 4 May 2018

1918 – 2018 To the Somme again Part 1


The contrast could hardly have been greater. The first time
was after research spread out over years, but concentrated in the last 2 days (in November 2011), fired by determination to find out where my grandfather’s grave was. (The reason for the difficulties is recounted in Looking for Private Smith.) And shortly after discovering the location in Picardie, in the Somme area, I went there on my own in December 2011, when I was on the way to Strasbourg. I took the overnight bus to Paris, trains to Amiens and Albert, and finally, a taxi to Euston Road cemetery, Colincamps. I didn’t have long, as I had to make the return journey to Paris, and then on to Strasbourg.

This time I went with family, and we drove all the way, no timetables to keep to, no changes to negotiate, from bus to train, no luggage to carry with me through metro and train stations. What luxury! We left London early in the morning. April and spring, trees in their first green, K driving brilliantly, first to Folkestone, through the tunnel, then emerging into the wide green of the French countryside, with its wide blue sky, and we reached Arras by mid-day.

Flight to Arras by Antoine de Saint Exupéry was one of the books I remember in the family bookcase when I was a child, though I didn’t read it then, it would be many years before I did.

In the car, the 3 of us agreed that we would have to see Arras, we would stop there for coffee and croissants.

The main square in Arras is more than I had dared to dream of. Reconstructed age, facades carved with roses, sheaves of corn, a Flemish look, a Northern elegance of style and tile colour and crow-stepped gable ends. The vast cobble stone square is empty, roped off, and little grass tufts grow in places between the cobble stones. 

The second square has market stalls and suddenly, the sun appears. At the far end, the large cream building of the Town Hall, with the Clock Tower, the bell tower with its smooth green sculpted bells you go past as you climb the upper spiral steps. 

You come out onto the balcony, beneath the clock, so close in fact that if you stretch with your finger tips you could touch the huge and turning hand of Time. You could slow the hour if you so wished – or you could imagine that it could be done.

Looking down from the bell tower: first square in the background, top left

We climbed down, re-crossed the square, went back to the first one, walked under the arcades and lunched on omelettes and salad, washed down with red wine.

The sun stays out, and afterwards we drive on along the narrow roads, pass through Agny, Ransard, Hannescamps, Fonquevillers, Sailly-au-bois then Colincamps and out on the flat fields the trees are in their newest leaf, most recently-created green, with hints of yellow-gold and the pinkish lilac-bronze of the copper beech.

When we approached the Euston Road cemetery on the narrow, empty road, trees rising from the flat fields, inside a low brick wall – I recognized the trees.

We pull up before the cemetery, all quiet-gathered in the peaceful sun and an emotion meets me at the gate, like an embrace. The light-green trees wave too and I’m convinced that I am recognized. That’s what it feels like. These are the freshest of new leaves, with the fluttering excitement of youth, but somewhere, deeper in the trees’ hearts, some ring of growth remembers me.



Wednesday, 11 April 2018

The Bora and the Riviera

I take a bus from Pula to Opatija. I watch the scenery unfold – mountains, villages, one wound around a church like a French village, a huge scar of a factory, turning the river water bright green, and then it flows into the sea, turns blue again. We pass through several small towns by the sea, Lovran, Brseč, Ičići, before the bus pulls up in Opatija.

The young woman at the Tourist Office finds me a studio apartment in Volosko, 2 kilometers further on. The owner picks me up and drives me there. There are several small apartments, set around a small patio with trailing bushes. It’s delightful. Just beneath it is the main road to Rijeka and on the other side, the hillside leads into the old town of Volosko. It tumbles down the slope in a maze of narrow cobbled alleyways, that twist their way down to the sea. It has one main street, with grand old Venetian buildings that now house a Konsum supermarket and the Post Office on the ground floor. 


I slither down to the sea. This is where the great Lungomare begins – 12 kilometres of waterside walkway, with stone paving and elegant railings built at the turn of the 20th century, still in Franz Joseph’s time. 

And everything here has remained, resolutely, Kaiserlich und Königlich, the large icing-sugar-coated mansions and tall houses, the coves and bays, the trees lining the walkway, to give shade in the summer. This is where they came, in Franz Joseph’s time, the Emperor and Empress, their friends and their retinues, the Riviera of Opatija, heads of state and their attendants, the landowners, the statesmen, the wealthy and powerful, and those who were not powerful yet, but one day they would be.


The sun shines, but the bora still seizes the sea and rips it like a sheet, flings it against rocks and the promenade wall, where it breaks up into foamy fragments. In small pebble bays, the waves breathe up the slope of stones and then crackle like paper when they recede, hiss and snap, the stones tumble with loud popping sounds. The bora has turned the sea violent, overturned memories, emptied the love charms slipped between stones.

The Emperor who would reign forever and the Empire that would last forever. The bora shuffles its memories like cards in a familiar game of win and lose, with Fortune smiling on you or turning her head and her attention, out to sea.

The War came, tore up everything, the silks, the laughter and the wine, the damp paper treaties, paper money, paper notes of assignation, secrets, an undying love. The sea melts then swallows them.

So how come these memories don’t feel like shreds or fragments, but are bora-brought complete with light and shade, with tenderness of thread and stitch, with exultation of the rivets nailing into place this lane-along-the-sea, this shaded slipway, overlooking rocks, curving round each bay? Perhaps because it is built in homage – not to Queens or Emperors, not to power and structures of dominion but to the sea itself and the lacy decoration of the trees. The trees too, as they grew and bulged over their containing stones, look out over the water.

The bora blows, the chill wind from the sea. I feel I’m privileged to see the water like this, teeth snapping in the wind, waves ripping sheets of silk, throwing them on the stony beaches.

I meet other old friends, apart from Franz Joseph, who is everywhere. The Empress Elizabeth or Sisi as she was affectionately called, spent time here too. I first met her in Corfu, further down the Adriatic coastline, at the Achilleon which she had built as a retreat because she loved the pine trees that surrounded it, and the view out over the Ionian Sea. I met her again in Budapest, in the district named after her,
When the walkway reaches Opatija, I come across a plaque commemorating the Marshall, Józef Piłsudski; I’d first met him through Kazimiera, in Poznan. I wonder if she was with him too, at least some of the time. I could imagine her walking here, with her white blouse, long dark skirt, hat tilted at an angle, and parasol in hand. The plaque reads: (with thanks to J for the translation)

"Józef Piłsudski, a soldier and a statesman, the co-founder of Poland’s independence,
First Marshall and the Chief of the Polish State
Lived in Opatija 

On the eve of the Great War for the Independence of Nations
      - Polish Embassy in Zagreb, Polish Cultural Society “Fryderyk Chopin” in Rijeka"

And near the gardens of the Villa Angiolina, built in 1844 by Iginio Scarpa, a resident of Rijeka, I come across the statue of a stout man, hands thrust in trouser pockets. It turns out to be Miroslav Krleža. He is more of an acquaintance than a friend, as I have not yet read his writing, but I intend to. 

For even if they are no longer in bodily existence, I do count these people as friends, I feel I have come to know them either through reading or hearing about them, or reading what they have written or when I’ve been to places where they lived, places that were dear to them, and where their presence can still be felt. Their traces, their effects, their spirits. One of life’s mysteries. Why would we visit the graves of those dear to us or the places loved or lived in by writers or others who have had an effect on us, unless there was something that still has the power to move us?