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.

Tuesday, 7 March 2017

Shaping the Water Path - Prose Poems & Liminal Spaces

Bay near Kassiopi, north Corfu

The last two sections in Shaping the Water Path both have watery associations. In the Prose Poems the water themes embrace a river in the Scottish Highlands, the eponymous beck in the Cumbrian garden of the title, the view from a narrow boat on the Kennett & Avon canal, 

and the sea off the Kent coast.

As to why they are prose poems – well sometimes that's just how they come out. They have rhythms cadences and sometimes even rhymes, but not perhaps that sense of pause that
demands line breaks, grouping certain words together and separating others

For me the difference between prose writing & poetry (which includes prose poems) is that the latter seems to come from a different place. (Not everyone agrees with me on this. I remember talking about this different place of origin when I was giving a reading with another poet, who made it clear that for her, this was not the case at all). But that's how I experience it.  It was years later when I read Sherod Santos book A Poetry of Two Minds - and he seemed to agree with me. I wonder what other writers of both prose and poetry think?

Some call these different 'levels' of the mind the concrete mind and the metaphorical mind. The concrete mind is adept at the everyday tasks, it's the one that gets us from one place to another and that means we can navigate the stations and the ticket vendors, the shops, the bills etc. and it deals in cause and effect. The metaphorical mind on the other hand is at home in associations, whether in poetry or prose, it is more fluid, often working with images and it doesn't need cause and effect or a narrative, though it certainly can work with them too. But it often focuses on descriptions,
perceptions, states of being and consciousness.

The last section
Liminal describes those in-between places, shorelines, harbours, ports, thresholds between one element and another. 

Places or states of being that are not clearly one thing or another, shifting and mercurial, blurring boundaries between elements, terrain, moods and mindsets.

Reflections - Ionian Sea

And the Albanian Mountains
From Liminal:
Edward Lear's House in Corfu

I walk down a flight of steps,
through a narrow passageway,
come out on the waterfront
where the houses look towards the sea.

In the house with yellow walls
Edward Lear lived, painted,
traded insults with his manservant, the Souliote,
made wicked sketches of his neighbours -
learned Greek, wrote rhymes and nonsense,
made up words, wrote funny stories
so his friends would smile,
hid his afflictions, wept in solitude,
wrote about owls and pussycats
and pea green boats -
looking out over a sea of palest green -

Perhaps he too woke  in the night
to hear the squalling cats, the barking dogs,
the seagulls and the nesting herons -

The house beside the waterfront
has lemon yellow, slightly peeling walls,
closed shutters and an empty look -
in the evening the shadow of the little lamp
is thrown against the wall. 

Edward Lear's house, Corfu town

Thursday, 2 March 2017

A New Book - Shaping the Water Path

I've not been very good at promoting my work in the past, so I am trying to remedy this. Watching my publisher out of the corner of my eye, seeing all that she does on her blog, her websites (such as keep poems alive) her own books and writing, her publishing, her editing work (Poetry Scotland) her posts on twitter and facebook, her many readings, I am trying to learn. Sally is a true individual, always energetic, encouraging, hospitable (oh yes, there's the Callander Poetry Weekend which she organises and hosts). She is an Aries, bless them all, where would we be without them?

She has published my latest book of poems Shaping the Water Path (Diehard – Sally Evans and Ian King). I'm particularly pleased that they have brought this out as they published my very first book of poems, back in the last century (Deepwater Terminal) and because they are such fine people.

So I spent a lot of time working on these poems and images for the cover, at the end of last year. I had fun with the photographs, placing one over another.  The cover photos were taken by me and Sally made the final design. The larger backdrop one is the sea off the south coast of Crete, and the overlay one is of the performance room in the Art Book Museum, Lodz, Poland (which features in the prose piece the title is taken from). I played around with other possibilities, some of which are below.

The garden at Casterton with bridge over the beck, whose path was reshaped
The background here is the bay of Triopetra on the south coast of Crete, in black and white

Top photo:statue of the poet Julien Tuwim, the bottom one is the outside of the Art Book Museum, all in Lodz, Poland

Along with George Colkitto, whose book The Year of the Loch Diehard has also published, we gave a reading at the Blend Café in Paisley.

The title Shaping the Water Path comes from one of the prose pieces included in the book, written last year at Casterton. I also posted one of the poems here,  Guardians of Sea and Air.  Sally asked me for some local poems so the first section has poems from Scotland and the second, from England, Wales & Ireland.

But there would have to be a section of poems from elsewhere. Travel is always an inspiration for me, and wherever I am I'll write about the landscape either directly or as part of the environment I find myself in. And then there's the people, the fascinating characters you meet, such as Josip in Zagreb's train station, Georgio in Messolonghi, Amira in Carcassonne. Other places included here are Poland, Ukraine, Hungary, Greece, Cyprus, Kosovo and Albania.

George Colkitto reading at the Blend Cafe, Paisley

 Almost all of the poems in the book are recent ones from the past few years. One or two which Sally asked me to include are older, but only recently published – in Every Shade of Blue, which describes my travels with my musician friend John Renbourn. At that time I was immersed in so much wonderful music, it's not surprising that I found some poems coming out like songs. Recently, on a walk by a river I found a tune for one of them Café Impasse and turned it into a song. When I got home I found some chords that – more or less – went with the song, and I sang it at the Blend Café, the first time in many years, since I used to perform with our band Wolf Wind.

This is becoming much too long, so I'll leave a description of the other sections for another post.

And there was more music too from Wullie Purcell, in all a brilliant evening, with the après-reading (talk, wine, music and song) going on long into the night.

Wullie Purcell playing at the Blend cafe. Photo credit: Kathryn Metcalfe

The book is available from Diehard, address here, (or from me, same deal) for £5, (send a cheque) which includes postage. The ethos of this publisher and bookshop is to keep prices low – you can find amazing bargains in their second hand books (and I frequently do). 

Saturday, 18 February 2017

Yørgjin Oxo - a play of elements

Photo credit: Farnham Maltings

Farnham Maltings Theatre Group is on tour, playing Yørgjin
Oxo, by Thomas Crowe.Directed by Gavin Stride & Kevin Dyer
Tour Manager is Olly Jacques

As the audience arrives, the actors mingle with them, offering them delicious twig tea and Marshland cakes.
The story is about Marshlanders and it is as much a celebration of sound effects – sometimes singing without words – as it is of the characters and

Uncle Quagmire teaches our eponymous young hero about the delights of mud and boggy ground.
When danger appears, it is brutal and shocking. Many Marshlanders are taken as prisoners to Firmland, where they have to work as slaves in the mud mines to make bricks, to create a vast cathedral.

Yørgjin is discovered to have special powers which only operate when he is asleep. The elements play important roles – the water of the ocean, the earth bricks of the tall cathedral that rises high up into the air, the fire that razes villages and the rain that is the ultimate saviour, after the resolute courage of a sword-wielding mouse.

Yorgjin climbs the church steeple. Photo credit: Charlotte

The acting is excellent and the plot is constantly surprising. The actors sometimes move through the audience and you feel very much a part of the story. All your emotions are drawn in. There's fear and horror inspired by Simeon, the Viking-like leader of destruction. Yet even he comes to realise he has a soul, darkened by his misdeeds but able to let him glimpse the possibility of how love could transform him.

Love in its different forms – for landscape, elements, other people and other species – creates the threads that hold the story together and brings the triumph of justice at the end.

This is a superbly-acted and warm-hearted production. Go and see it if you can.
Tour Dates here (19th February in Wigtown, Dumfries & Galloway)

And Yørgjin (Robert Durbin) survives to ........ enjoy a morning bowl of porridge 

Friday, 10 February 2017

Refugees from the Russian Revolution: 2 From Kyiv to Odessa and Novorossiisk

Odessa  in early 1900s; photo credit HOBOPOCC - Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=10667361

Teffi reaches Odessa where she and all the other fugitives believe they will be safer and this feeling is confirmed when France, which is one of Russia's allies, occupies the port town. But one day, without warning, the French troops left. Rumours of the approaching Bolsheviks were rife, gunfire could be heard at night, and people who had hoped to get travel permits from the French were scrambling to get on the last boats to set sail.

Friends of Teffi had passes to go on board the Shilka, heading for Vladivostok and said she could go with them.

'Now that something had been arranged, I realized just how much I wanted to leave...I could see what life would be  like for me if I stayed. It wasn't death itself that I was afraid of. I was afraid of maddened faces, of lanterns being shone in my eyes, of blind mindless rage. I was afraid of cold, of hunger, of darkness, of rifle butts banging on parquet floors. I was afraid of screams, of weeping, of gunshots, of the deaths of others. I was tired of it all, I wanted no more of it. I had had enough.'

But when she turns up on the quay at the agreed time, there were no lights on the boat, and no-one else was waiting. She went back to her hotel, where almost everyone had left, including most of the staff. When another friend turns up, distraught and not wanting to be on his own, he says that the friends who had said she could go with them on the Shilka, had already left, on board the Caucasus, heading for Constantinople. But he suggests she go with him on the Shilka, as he had two passes and didn't want to be on his own.

'We drove along the dark streets to the harbour.
We heard the odd shot somewhere nearby; in the distance, though, the gunfire sounded more serious.'

The Red Cavalry Brigade enters Odessa, 1919; photo credit wikimedia commons
They succeeded in getting on board the Shilka, which eventually arrived in Novorossiisk. But this journey became the most bizarre of them all, including an engineer among the passengers having to fix the engine, while all the other passengers had to load the coal for the boiler, and gut the fish for the meals, as most of the crew seemed to have absconded.

From Novorossiisk, where there were no rooms to be found, she ended up back on board ship and staying there, until she was asked to go to Yekaterinodar, '[which] was at this time our centre, our White capital.' Teffi's plays were being performed there, and she was asked to give a short reading. They performed to a full house; many high ranking officers including Anton Denikin, the commander in chief of the White forces in southern Russia, were in the audience. 

Photo credit: wikimedia commons

Almost all of the refugees including Teffi, believed that they would go back to Moscow or Saint Petersburg at some point or at least to some part of Russia. They also almost unanimously believed or hoped, that the Bolsheviks would soon be beaten back by the White Army and that some kind of normalcy would return. For Teffi and many others, though they did not know it at the time, they were leaving Russia for good; sailing away from Novorossiisk, meant seeing their homeland for the last time. While Teffi herself would go on to live out the rest of her life in Paris, some of her friends would return to Russia  and many of them would not survive in the Bolshevik regime.

Tuesday, 7 February 2017

Refugees from the Russian Revolution: 1 – From Moscow to Kyiv

Memories: From Moscow to the Black Sea by Teffi (Pen name of Nadezhda Alexandrovna Lokhvitskaya) 
translated by Robert Chandler and Irina Steinberg


Thanks to Pushkin Press and  their excellent translations I've made another discovery, the Russian writer Teffi. In Memories she writes about her journey as she escapes Russia in 1919, in the throes of the civil war that followed the revolution. In a series of extraordinary stories and sketches, she presents memorable characters and remarkable conversations. She writes in a deceptively simple and seeming light-hearted prose about the varied adventures and sometimes near-desperate situations she and her companions undergo.

For example, after they have succeeded in leaving Moscow, the next hurdle is getting across the border into Ukraine. After a helpful officer disappears (with rumours that he has been shot, for taking bribes) it seems impossible that they will be allowed to cross the border. But in the nearby rundown transit settlement they are asked to put on a performance of plays and songs to an audience of Red Army soldiers, and assured that if they do, they will be allowed to cross. One of their number, Gooskin, says “Now we're in real trouble. Slap into the hornet's nest. Executions every day. Only three days ago a general was burned alive. And they make off with every last piece of luggage. We must get out of here fast.”

By some miracle, the day after their performance they are given the promised escort to the border and continue their journey with several changes of trains, to Kiev, where Teffi sees an extraordinary sight – a Russian officer standing outside a bakery, eating a cake. She writes,
“Just imagine – daylight, sunshine, people everywhere, and in the officer's hand, an unseen, unheard-of luxury, the stuff of legend – a cake!
I close my eyes and open them again. No, it isn't a dream. So it must be real life.”

Sunrise over modern day Kyiv
 Teffi finds a room to rent in Kyiv. It is virtually unfurnished and the windows don't close properly (it's winter) but it is central and spacious, and she likes it. She writes some articles for the local newspaper, Kiev Thought and then comes down with Spanish flu. In a delirious state, she remembers friends coming to visit her, bringing bouquets of flowers. After she recovered she writes,

“.. when I went outside for the first time, Kiev was all ice. Black ice and wind. The few pedestrians I saw were barely able to make their way along the streets. They were falling like ninepins, knocking their companions off their feet too.
I remember an editorial office I used to visit from time to time. It was halfway up an icy hill. Trying to get to it form below was hopeless – I'd manage ten steps then slide back down again. Approaching it from above was no better; I would gain too much momentum and slide straight past. Never in my life had I encountered such ice.

The mood in the city had changed; it was no longer celebratory. Something had been extinguished. Everyone was on the alert, ears pricked, eyes darting about. Many people had quietly disappeared, to destinations unknown. There was more and more talk of Odessa.
“Things are looking up in Odessa, I've heard. Whereas round here... Peasants, armed bands....They're closing in on us.....Petlyura or something....”
Kiev Thought did not fear Petlyura. Petlyura was a former employee. He would, of course, remember this.
He did indeed. His very first decree was to close down Kiev Thought. Long before he entered the city, he sent his minions ahead with instructions.
Kiev Thought was perplexed, even a little embarrassed.
But close it did.”

Centre of Kyiv today

Petlyura was the leader of the Ukrainian Nationalists. During the revolution and the ensuing civil war, Kyiv was sometimes controlled by the Nationalists, sometimes by the White Army and ultimately by the victorious Bolshevik army.

As well as poetry, short stories and satires, Teffi wrote plays, and this shows in her superb dialogue. As her journey continues, with events and characters becoming more and more surreal I suddenly understand Mikhail Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita. In an utterly bizarre world how else can you write? In situations in life which make no sense yet you have to respond to, and when these events clash hopelessly with your sense of reason, your desires, your usual way of responding and relating to others, the imagination makes leaps into fantasy.  Or the imagined past, as Bulgakov does so well as he gets inside the mind of his character of Pontius Pilate, living at a time when events were equally bizarre. 

Bulgakov had personally requested Stalin to let him emigrate, but permission was refused. The Master and Margarita was written in secret, and never published in his lifetime. But living in the Stalinist regime where he was not free either to publish what he wanted, or leave, writing his surreal masterpiece makes complete sense.

Teffi and her fellow  citizens, acquaintances, friends and colleagues are trying to escape. In situations where the normal rules of life are suspended, and as rumour follows rumour, they have no idea what is going on or what will happen. Russia, after the Revolution, was in the throes of civil war, Ukraine was occupied by the Germans, but after they retreated, Ukraine declared itself independent. After this very brief spell of autonomy, it was occupied by the White Army, followed a few months later by the Red Army.  As soldiers who had fought in the White Army found themselves no longer able to protect the city and the citizens, they were in grave danger themselves. Bulgakov's The White Guard, written several years before The Master and Margarita, tells the story of a family caught up in these terrifying times. (It was dramatised, but later suppressed by Stalin's regime.)

Saint Michael's monastery, Kyiv