Sunday, 1 January 2023

Remembering Vienna & Egon Schiele


From Sisi Museum, Hofburg, Vienna instagram shot

1 January 2023
It’s always a pleasure to write the date, the first day of January in the new year and this one for some reason even more so, perhaps because of the feeling of change in the air, mixing with the feeling of similarity or continuity. I’m listening as I always do on New Year’s Day, to the Vienna Philharmonic concert and The Blue Danube & the Radetsky March sweep my body with a tingling sensation and demand that I dance. A sense that I belong there, not here, but there, in some time and place that is conjured, remembered, vividly imagined, reconstructed, invented, I don’t know what word is appropriate but, as I listen to the music, or rather, as the music takes hold of me, my heart and my emotions are there. 

This energy that comes to me through listening to the living orchestra playing the music of The Blue Danube, it vitalizes everything. How can it be past when I feel it so concretely now? Today too, the first of the year, a friend in Vienna contacts me, say they hope to see me this year. Perhaps this present feeling will have some concrete outcome in the future. At any rate, I am thinking of Vienna, so I thought I'd post this piece written shortly after a visit to Vienna some years ago.

Egon Schiele in Vienna


Photo of Self-Portrait with Chinese Lantern Plant
photo credit: Vicente Camarasa

A poster advertising the Egon Schiele exhibition displays one of his self portraits.

The colours and the shapes look out of place among Vienna's baroque architecture. 

It looks ugly that's what I thought.  But the original in the Leopold Museum has a 

very different effect. It's something to do with the vividness and I want to say lack 

of interpretation, but I don't suppose we can ever get away from interpretation, but

to me it looks like life given a shove, something bristling with energy being pushed

through the paint. Not trying to make it pleasing to the eye, even less, to conform to

some idea of what it should be, but trying to make it even more like it already is.


I found the self portraits disturbing until I stopped trying to want them to be

different, to conform to what I thought they should be. It was a precarious vision for

me, a tightrope way of seeing, for baggage lurks on the edges of the eye's mind, 

craving to turn it into something it is not, shuffling its rhetoric, its interpretative 

critical moulding and dissembling. It huffs and puffs and tries to be noticed, tries to

intrude its perception – superior of course – into the eye's vision. But there were 

blessed moments when I saw – or it seemed that I saw – what was in front of me. 


 Even harder for me, were his nudes. Reaction and emotion squabbled with my eyes

and the objective interpreter was silenced.  But he was painting the nudes in the

same way, I came to see, as he did his self-portraits – he was not trying to make his

models beautiful, sensuous or erotic but was painting what he saw, with that extra

shove, that emancipated detail that was not smeared or shaded out. And because

detail was not elided into sidelines or suburbs, it was democratised, the result was

unnerving, for we do not give the same credence in life to the marginal, the half-

effaced, the timid; we worship the precocious, the declamatory, and here was 

someone who gave equal voice to what we usually submerge into peripheral vision.


At first glance you might say bold, assertive, but on longer contemplation I felt there

was something much more tender and evocative in the democratic centrality of any

part of the painting. There were no peripheries. The painting did not home in on

this or that area, placing the rest in background. Yet it gained dimensionality from

that, it did not lose it. What our eye or our thinking normally elided into 

background, was equally present which was why there was the feeling of the detail

being pushed in front of our eyes.


His other paintings show this same capacity, whether they depict fully- or semi-clad

figures, buildings or landscapes. The roofs of buildings are intimately tiled. A thin

tree squirms against a pink evening sky. There is an impression of lack of 

perspective but as you look closer, it is inclusion, not lack. By dismissing centrality

and pulling in the margins, dimensions are multiplied.


I walk back from the city centre, following Argentinier strasse.  The last rays of sun

are falling on the Keplerplatz. As the sun vanishes behind buildings, the lower sky

glows with pink.  The centres of the few clouds are murky purple and they have

halos of golden light around them. Behind them the sky flushes a deeper pink, as if

it was absorbing colour, like damp paper.


This colour reminds me of one of the Egon Schiele paintings – a landscape with

hills so thick and layered, terraced and embroidered, they looked like tapestries

with sequins stuck on them.  Then there were the trees, slivers of darkness with

skinny leaves – a strip of water, two rocks, and from the water outwards, everything

was rosy, unforgettable. It was called simply Versinkende Sonne. The colour 

wrapped the landscape – and you knew that it would soon be gone. But because he

had caught it, this marvel could be carried with us, out into the tree-lined Museum

 Quartier, across the street and along the road in front of the Hofburg, where the

 horse-drawn carriages line the street.

Egon Schiele: versinkende Sonne


A dark bird flies across the sky, now the colour of rusted gold. It perches on an

aerial, flicking open its wings from time to time. Another joins it and they sit on the

two ends of the aerial like two black apostrophes, turning the immense pinkness of

the sky into a quotation.   

With thanks to Textualities where this article first appeared.


And I wrote about the experience of visiting Vienna's Hofburg in a blog post here. 

Unfortunately the photographs I took then were lost, apart from the ones in the post.

Sunday, 4 December 2022

Cycling in the Scottish Borders: Back tracks & cycle paths

I set out to find the track leading from the back road to Galashiels. Not the road via Clovenfords which I knew, but a track that veered off the road. I’d been told it existed and a dotted line on the map seemed to bear this out. And I found the track, made of stones, some small and some big and all slicked with mud, and the last part goes steeply downhill. The stones made it bumpy and uneven, shaking me and the bike, and the mud making the stones slippery, and the sunlight so bright I had to keep blinking, and then there were the shadows, stripes of darkness, where the trees bordered the path.

But eventually it levelled off, and turned into a surfaced road which wound down towards the main road. There was a cycle path, which continued after I reached the town of Galashiels, skirting the edge, so I did not have to go on the main roads with all the traffic. The cycle path, completely flat, a memorable part of the journey, 3 kilometers or so of flat path. Then it was up the top road that overlooks the town, and on to the minor road that leads from Galashiels to Lauder. I’d decided to go this way, rather than just turn around and go back the way I came. To explore a different road, and go home via Lauder. And another reason for this route – there is a baker in Lauder that has the best chocolate brownies ever.

When I reach the turnoff I’m a little surprised to see that Lauder is signposted as 8 miles away. Somehow I thought it was not so far. But, on such a sunny magnificent day it doesn’t seem to matter. Two or three miles uphill, there’s the Eildon Hills behind me. I’d brought a flask of coffee, stopped by a gate with a handy round gatepost to balance the coffee cup on.


It had been years since I’d driven up this road and I remembered nothing of it. There were plenty of ups and downs. I toiled uphill, and flew downhill. The air was so still and the light so thick it felt like a painted substance. It covered trees and bushes, fields and slopes and the occasional farmhouse. This time of year, the solstice zone, for a month or so before and after the solstice, during this time the light has a special quality to it, that is different from any other time. And because of that, it slips through time, or joins other times, the memories of these other times, held in this light. So I remember other places at this end time of year – cycling in Cyprus, along coastal routes, and cycling through the tree-lined streets of Strasbourg – as well as here.  

If there are fewer hours of light does it become thicker, more concentrated, to squeeze itself into less time, and into a smaller area of sky? And those shadows – they become so sharp, so pointed, and so fast, racing shadows to cover so much ground, definitely longer to run, further to go, so shadows too are denser, and more muscular through so much exercise. But the shadows have not got into their stride yet, the light is pausing, all downward directed onto the land, and hence the stillness.

A view of Lauder from the crest of the last slope and then it is downhill for a mile or so. The shadows are gathering in the main street though, and the baker it turns out, is closed on Mondays. But I am primed for buying – and eating – something, so I prowl along the main street and find the Spotty Dog, a delicatessen that promises so the board outside says, home baking and sandwiches. I do not want a sandwich, but perhaps they have some cakes left, so I hope. It turns out they don’t but they have all kinds of jams and other small jars of delicacies and packets of rice and teas and biscuits and then I see a packet of cannoli and that I think is going to be the closest I can get to chocolate brownies.


A woman in front of me in the queue asks me if I am the person on the bike (which I have parked outside) and I say yes, it’s an e-bike from the Stow Community bike hub pilot scheme to encourage the use of e-bikes and cycling in general. The woman says she would have liked to hire one of the Stow bikes but she does not live in Stow so she cannot. I say perhaps she can wrangle it, I too after all don’t live in Stow. But it’s a different postcode here in Lauder she says, I’m on the other side. Ah, I say, and think of all that separates this side from the other, is it a valley, a range of hills, or moor, most likely that’s it, for there is the high plateau of moor between this small town and the other one.

This moor is where the shadows get into their stride, or have done so already by the time I reach it, for they have all vanished into the valleys. On the moor the only shadows are myself and my bike, for nothing else protrudes from the grass and heather heathland.

The Eildons can be seen again, further away now.


Once over the moor, there’s the steep hill, the descent into Stow. I am still being careful, still using the brakes, for the road is wet, and the hill ends in a sharp bend. Hills where you can see the bottom and see where it straightens out and where it goes uphill again as it did on the road to Lauder, these are the best for you can release the brakes, but hills where you have to go round a sharp bend at the bottom, you have to stay vigilant.

All the shadows have gathered in the valley, greeting and gossiping. And they follow me on the last few miles of the back road, which is tucked into the bottom of the hillslopes. The sun is low down in the sky now, behind the hills, the back road twists and turns in deep shade.

Wednesday, 16 November 2022

Sea, sand and flight


Rail bridge over the Firth of Forth, Scotland

On a day when the rain makes those pattering sounds on the skylight window, I’m remembering a recent walk in sunshine from Kinghorn to Burntisland on the Fife coastal path.

The sun gleams on the water and 2 birds at the shore which might be purple sandpipers though I cannot get close enough to confirm this, they look like them, that’s good enough. These birds have recently been on my mind, as I’ve written a poem about them for an anthology of endangered bird species. (It will be out later this month, edited by Rebecca Bilkau.)

May be an image of text that says "Poems with something more to squawk about Watch The Birdie again for the 67 ever changing endangered species of birds in the United Kingdom"

And 2 other birds, much bigger, unmoving, on the rock. 

Arthur's Seat and Salisbury Crags visible on the other side of the firth

I go down to the sand, it is level, pristine, unmarked. (Except for bird footprints).

Lots of shells, white shells mostly uniform in size, a wandering line of them left behind  by the tide. 

But further on the sea is barely sea, just a thin sheen of water that catches the light and spreads it all over the surface. And that’s where there are lots of birds like sprigs or flounces of seaweed that’s what they look like, what they could be mistaken for, moving just a little as if there were tiny waves shuffling their edges, black and spiky. But these dark commas and fragments of punctuation are birds pecking at sand, examining the feast of tit-bits in the shallow water.

Arthur's Seat in the background

The train from Burntisland to Edinburgh crosses over the water of the firth, on the massive red complex cat's cradle of a bridge. We travel through the flat countryside near the airport and there’s a plane in the deep blue of sky. And it is coming closer, coming in to land, and for me that sums up the day in its joyful appearance, its movement closer through the endless blue of sky, towards land, to its destination and arrival, this winged sign of completion.

Tuesday, 8 November 2022

More walking in Poznan's streets


(Following on from last post.) Wilda as destination. Near-deserted streets. With their art nouveau facades, some being renovated, under wraps, flapping slightly, covering them like ball gowns, hiding the scarred surfaces before the renovation work is complete. For some the process is already finished, freshly painted and smoothed facades and in one – inside the hallway, the ceiling is painted in patterns resembling wood, different shades of wood, pieces fitted together like secret sliding boxes.


The stair banister is smooth unpainted wood, like a tree fresh from the forest, planed and shaped and it curls its way up the flights of stairs. The walls are light beige and someone has pulled finger marks down them in a darker shade of paint as if they had lost their balance and half slid down the stairs. Someone did that deliberately J says. But the stairwell and the whole block of flats is quiet, as if holding its breath. An absence of people. Then we see one person, one inhabitant, who passes us on the entrance steps and makes her way very slowly up the stairs, her hand on the smooth new banister.


Another street, more like a courtyard, though with a weed-filled, empty area just beyond. There is no through way so we walk to the end, and then back. Some houses look unoccupied. One has an outside stairway, the top balcony festooned with flowers. A woman stands at the top, beside her potted flowers, watching us as we walk back.

On the corner, a tall old building and beside it, an even taller tree. Next to it, a small fenced garden, untended, overgrown. The house is covered with a dull yellow ochre plaster, and the wall facing the tree is pitted and pockmarked. From the war says J. The front of the house looks out onto the street but to the back, there’s the weed-filled area, abandoned looking but probably, says J, earmarked for future building projects.

This ancient mighty house, which has seen so much, which has watched the tree next to it grow from sapling to close companion, spreading shade, turns its back on the scruffy weed-covered empty lot. But high up, some of the plaster has come away, revealing a small patch of half-timbered wood, among red bricks. Just a very small patch, just a glimpse of how it must once have looked, stately, almost austere because of its statuesque proportions. But thoroughly familiar and beloved by its occupants, each brick and wood-crossed path embedded in their minds, turning life into that jagged jig-saw pattern, the geometry of time and life. Anywhere more functional, less decorative, less beautifully crafted, which in later life they had to live in, must have left areas nestled into by memories, a soft regret, nostalgia like the ache of bones that comes and goes, weather-dependent, stiffening the limbs in winter cold, ah my nostalgia is playing up today, old darkened wood with its criss-crossing making diamond shapes of my childhood. And the red and sun-warmed brick, heating skin and heart, limbs and all the senses, though we didn’t know it then, you hardly ever do, until it’s gone.

The heat, beauty, geometry of childhood summers are dripped into our bones and there they stay. Other summers may be more ornate, with more variety of scents and foliage and sea, but the original geometry has settled like silt or sand, becoming the grit of who we are. On bitter winter days, nostalgia forms its crystals of longing on our bones and we ache on the present pavement of our lives, a red and yellow thread of brickwork and wood and heavy sunlight tugging at us, slowing us down on the flat pavements and the drab and starchy tight-fitting plaster covers over buildings. Plaster that is dulled and stained by age, and gouged by missiles in the war – bullets, shell fragments, who knows what kind of bitter missiles struck the house walls, broke the door frames, shattered windows. 

The aches tend to disappear as we walk along, the stings and echoes of the past are drowned out in the traffic sounds, the rattle of the trams.

In our part of town too, there are preserved memories of the past. But I might never have seen them, could have walked past them without noticing, if J hadn’t pointed one out to me. In a strip of greenery between two streets, a public park, a concrete block, stained with time, tree and leaf shadows thrown across it so it vanishes into leaf-green, bark brown and grey lichen. Except for an arrow painted white, a straight line, then pointing downwards. With Luftschutz written above it.

And one day, when these air raid shelters are open to the public, J and I follow the arrow and go underground. Into a dimly-lit tunnel, a museum, with artefacts from the past, sometimes whole, sometimes incomplete. Posters and photographs from that time. Medicine cabinet on the wall, a row of hip flasks. Instead of shop window models displaying the latest fashions, here we have models wearing civilian clothes of the 1930s and 40s, or soldiers’ uniforms, gas masks and goggles over their faces. Cumbersome and, one imagines, heavy, these masks are strapped over the head, covering the entire face, sometimes with tubes from the nose and mouth like a foldable elephant’s trunk, sometimes ending with a flat snout to breathe through. Advertisement – exhorting the people to take care of their mask (it could save your life) – and for a handy shoulder bag accessory, to carry it in.

And the language. You go down some steps and find that underground, that past, speaks another language. How must you feel if you dig into your country’s past and find another language? Language may be neutral but this is the language of a past occupier. Does this preservation of the past mean it persists in claiming some sense of belonging? Is this language tainted with the rusted metal, the corroded fabric of the past? Or maybe it is preserved in specific places underground, allowed to remain there, perhaps as warning.

There are other versions of the past, linked to the pock marks on the mustard-grey walls, that are not plaster smooth with nostalgia but jagged and rough to the touch but you cannot keep your fingers from touching them, like the edge of a wound (but no closer) with dread of their return, like the thud-tramp of marching feet.

Cover your ears, then they won’t exist. From the open window in J’s flat I hear the pianist across the way, snatches and phrases of music, repeated, improvised – this music drifts across the heart’s landscape, calms fears, obliterates the memories of marching feet. This music brings melody and the best of the sunlit alleys of the past into this present, mixed with the rustling of linden and sycamore leaves.

Times dip, bob, surface, sink, melt into each other. The emptiness of Wilda’s rynek, the market square. The emptiness of gardens in front of a grand red brick building; yet they are full, full of trees and sunshine, but this ache now is not for the past but for the present, this emptiness and loveliness of trees.


And for this cloud filling half the sky, deep slate blue and purple, and the premonition of it, advancing like something that will smother you despite the sunshine and despite the deep green trees against the red brick church forming such harmony you would hurl yourself into it forever if you could.

So we walk towards the city, on through streets leading to the converted brewery, now a shopping centre, and this we find is where all the people are. The people who were absent from the streets, from the buildings being renovated, from the market place, from the green gardens and the graceful red and white building, they are all here, bees to the honeypot, bees to the swarm, for there are few solitary bees, who choose to live outside the hive, some yes, but only a few. This converted building is red and solid, angular brick and streamlined curving metal. We are with people, among people, a sudden breathless surge of people in this red ship waiting to set sail and inside, a circular wooden floor.

Have you ever seen a shopping centre like this? J asks. No, not even in dreams – this wooden floor, this burnt-red brick. We take the escalator to the top floor which opens out onto a terrace, dotted with cafe tables.
And whatever happened to the dark and slate blue cloud? The sky is clear blue, shimmering with light. The present has returned like a long awaited carnival. Absences of past have been stuffed with
present flowers, those crevice fillers – yellow and pink, on their tufts of golden grass. The marigolds of memory, that help the air to fill the lungs, help us to breathe without fear.

Saturday, 24 September 2022

A Bookshop in Poznan, Poland


Ježetze is the literary quarter of Poznan or at least part of it is – literary and artistic, with the art nouveau facades on many older buildings. Some of the modern ones too, are designed with deliberation, to blend in with the older architecture. Streets are named after famous writers such as Juliusz (most important says J) Słowacki and the best known Polish poet, Adam Mickiewicz. It seems appropriate that the Polish poet, translator and stateswoman Kazimiera Iłłakowiczowna (1888 - 1983) lived very near here, in Gajowa which, J says, means – leading to a leafy forest.  

The house where Kazimiera lived


Perhaps it did once, but now it’s the old tram depot that’s opposite her building. I first saw it ten years ago and it is still there, still unused, though there are no doubt plans to convert it into something else.

Parallel to Słowackiego is ulica Bukowskiego, named after Charles Bukowski. The small bookshop is called Bookowski so I have to have a look inside.


Of course not all the books we sell are like Bukowski’s says Marcin, the manager, his were experimental but nowadays many people write like this.
These are the first lines of a poem by Bukowski

The Laughing Heart
 by Charles Bukowski

                                       your life is your life
                                       don't let it be clubbed into dank submission.
                                       be on the watch.
                                       there are ways out.

 You can read the rest of the poem here

Ah yes, the avant-garde. Who are now the forerunners, slipping past boundaries as if they didn’t exist? Maybe the defenders of an ancient forest J tells me about, that is threatened with being cut down. They declared it a National Park, the people defending it did that, not the local authorities. They have made tree houses and camp there, and will not allow it to be destroyed.

And in literature I wonder? I tell Marcin I’ve read Olga Tocarczuk’s Flights which I enjoyed, but her latest The Books of Jacob, that’s too big, too long for me. He says it is very full of detailed history and he did not enjoy that. But her Flights, that I would consider avant-garde because it slips between the labels and the definitions.

Marcin says there is a shortage of paper now in Europe, and they have to import from China. Because of this publishers have had to cut back on the number of books they can bring out. People still buy books though, even if you don’t make money from it he says, you do it from love. As manager he can order what he likes, the choices of what books to stock, it’s up to him, he loves books, and people still read books here, that is what is important. The avant-garde, the unusual, the disjointed, the brilliant – they will appeal to some – but not to others. Like The Books of Jacob these beyond-brilliant works will not be read by many. But we will praise their appearance in the public arena, praise their existence.

Marcin lives in Wilda, outside the city centre but it still has some of the old buildings and old character & atmosphere, it’s like Ježetze was about 20 years ago. I tell J about this and she says, yes, it’s an interesting area too, we can go there if you’d like to see it? Yes I say, I would.

So that is our next adventure, not far away in space, just a short tram ride. But unexpectedly, a smooth chute into another time. I thought these solid and attractive buildings would be supportive as a boat in water but instead all those open doors and passages and stairwells lead straight into the past. But who does this past belong to?

Saturday, 3 September 2022

The View Becomes the Exhibition


For the past few weeks I’ve been at the Edinburgh 

International Book Festival, listening to many writers talk 

about books. Lots of ideas and lots of coffee. (You can read my

reviews of Howard Jacobson & Kirsty Bell here. And of Elif

Batuman & Sidarta Ribiero here.) This morning the city is

different, mingling its actual aspect with memories, some

recent, some going back years, but indefinable in time, all

merging together in the morning sunlight. After all the shows

in the Fringe have come and gone – the posters remain, the

overflowing bins remain, a camouflaged bus, scaffolding, an

empty warehouse – all that is left behind, material and 

atmospheric, and the city recalibrates itself in the wake and

the memories of the past. 



But the past is also present here, it isn’t somewhere else, it is

not in another place, so how can it be past? It is more – super-

imposition, yet it does not obscure, on the contrary it adds

brightness to what you see (or is that the sunshine?) but it

seems to be past, highlighted by the present. So it may be a

melange but not one that can be separated out like a 

superimposed image, they blend into each other and create – a

new colour, a new feeling? Yes, that’s possible.

I have some time before going to the last talk at the Book

Festival so I look in at the Talbot Rice Gallery,

where a poster says there’s an exhibition of the work of Céline 

Condorelli. I’ve been to this gallery many times before but not 

since the covid restrictions and maybe longer. At first I’m not 

sure I’m in the right place, it looks completely different, there 

is so much light in the main gallery and I say this to the young 

woman at the desk. Yes she says, we’ve opened up the 


My memories of this gallery is that there were no windows here and now there are several, light pouring in. The ‘opened-up windows’ show the wooden frames and exposed brickwork and the view outside becomes part of the exhibition space and it shows the streets which so recently were full of people and now are almost empty and they also reflect the present and the past, as if what had been going on during the festival is now highlighted like the scaffolding and work going on around the building. 


All the sense of movement that comes in through the windows is in contrast to the white walls and space of the exhibition hall, the tidy, ordered exhibits, and so much space between them, the space itself is a striking part of what is on display. And I didn’t even realise at the time, it is only now, looking at these photos, that it becomes clear that the exposed windows are the exhibit. The light and the view and the streets and the movement outside, all an ongoing video you can stand at the window and watch, as I did.



Upstairs, there is an actual video playing. There are superimposed images, past and present, the historical palimpsest of open spaces, buildings, trees. There is a voiceover too, someone is reading words that combine with the images, that reflect and enhance them.

I only catch fragments of what is said, but these fragments jump out at me,
‘the empty spaces of the Bamiyan Buddhas’ and
‘kitsch – someone’s trash is someone else’s history’
and I don’t know whose words are being read, but the words and the images, the inside and outside are all blending together and this morning is a culmination, as if highlights and soft lights, blurred background and vivid foreground have come together, two aspects of the same thing, once separated, are reconciled into one.

Tuesday, 26 July 2022

The Astronomical Clock, Gdansk, Poland


Church of St Mary, seen from the top of the Town Hall Tower, Gdansk

In the tourist brochure it says that Gdansk’s St Mary’s church, the Marienkirche, is the biggest red brick church in Europe & one of the biggest in the world. But whatever its size and proportions, for me its greatest treasure is its gorgeous astronomical clock. It’s made of wood, created between 1464–1470 by  Hans Düringer. I’m always happy to see visual references to the Zodiac in churches, from those days when they were not afraid of such things, when the church embraced the Zodiac, the celestial groupings of the stars and constellations and the symbols (Ram, Bull, Twins etc) that were given to each of the signs. Two other examples I’ve seen (and I’m sure there are many) are the stained glass windows in Chartres cathedral of all the Zodiac signs, and in Rome, the marble depictions of the signs on the floor of the Basilica di Santa Maria degli angeli (photos of some of them in an earlier post here).

So in this biggest church, we also have the tallest wooden astronomical clock. These deliciously chunky symbols form a circle and the sun is shown in its sign, Cancer at the time I saw it, and the Moon can be seen in Scorpio. The first day I went into the church (The first photo taken the day before the other ones) I only had a few minutes as tourists were being ushered out because a service was about to take place. Just time to admire the clock and take one photo.

Day 1, late afternoon

The next day, before taking the train south, I went in again and sat for a while enjoying the peace and silence.
Travel, crowded airports, bustling city streets and noisy traffic are not what I’ve been used to, these past two years. I’ve become accustomed to the peace of the countryside, the sounds of nature, of birdsong, the rustle of wind in leaves. Sudden exposure to busy airports was quite a culture shock. And I had to negotiate the busier parts of Gdansk, in front of the train station, where buses and trams constantly arrive and depart, to book a train ticket south. The old city centre of Gdansk is fortunately pedestrianised, but these streets, apart from in the early morning, are thronged with tourists.  So, to sit in this church with its white-painted walls and ceiling so high it disappeared almost into space, brought a welcome calm.


I got up to go, and noticed that several people had gathered around the clock, some of them sitting on wooden chairs in front of it as if waiting for a performance. Since something was clearly about to happen, I waited too. And as the clock struck noon, two small doors opened at the top, music played, and from just above the clock face, a line of wooden figures (who I guessed were the apostles) emerged from one side, moved slowly in a semi-circle and disappeared into the interior on the other side.


Ah, but there was a late-comer – a final figure trailing behind the others, followed them. This one was hard to make out but then I noticed he was carrying a long-handled scythe – the Grim Reaper!

Apparently this happens every day at noon – which the people seated on the wooden chairs obviously knew – but I had only been there by a lucky chance. Though the photo from day one is not so clear because of the light and shade, still, you can make out the Sun at the top, in Cancer, and the position of the Moon at the bottom, in Scorpio. And on day two, you can see that the Moon has moved a little, and is now near the end of Scorpio.


Wonderful to think that the elegant craftsmanship of the clockmaker, made so many centuries ago, (though restored after partial destruction in World War II) still delights people today. Best of all for me, that these homely symbols of Zodiac signs, depictions of the star clusters above us, and celestial time, still have a place, linking star time with earthly, Chronos time, and embedded in the fabric of this enormous and ancient church.

And the last figure in the procession, carrying the scythe, is often used to depict Saturn, which, at the time the clock was made, was the last known planet of the solar system. And now we see Saturn as not so much the total ending of life or even the last of the planets orbiting the Sun, but more as a bridge or gateway between inner planets and outer ones, and, like the nigredo in the alchemical process, the ending of a certain form (like a chrysalis). This can appear dead and lifeless from the outside, but inside, a magical transformation is occurring. So that seeming death holds the seeds of renewal and transformation, which we see in the miraculous emergence of the butterfly.

Such were my thoughts as I watched the movement of the scythe-bearing figure that followed the apostles at a distance. Memento mori was such a familiar trope of the Middle Ages but at least, though he puts in an appearance every day at noon, he never catches up with the apostles!