Sunday, 22 May 2022

Anniversary of Annemarie Schwarzenbach's birth 23 May 1908


The last journey Annemarie made before returning to Switzerland in the summer of 1942, was to Tétouan, Morocco.

In The Buoyancy of the Craft I wrote that …...the outcome of her stay in Tétouan is quite different from what she imagined it would be. With a newly opened heart, she loves this land. She writes several articles while she is there. She and Claude enjoy each other’s company so much that they decide they will renew their life together. She will go back to Switzerland as she has intended, make arrangements to buy the house in Sils – and there is more writing to do. And in the autumn, she will come back to Morocco and join Claude there.

 ...In one of the last articles she writes in Morocco, L'heure d'or/The Golden Hour, her mind is on farewells and partings ...  But the sadness of farewells, she says, is mixed with other feelings too. The love we feel for the people or places we are leaving are closely connected with those emotions very close to sadness – joy and delight. 

From The Golden Hour (in Annemarie Schwarzenbach, La Quête du Réel – Editors Dominique Laure Miermont and Nicole Le Bris), my translation.

An evening walk on my own to one of the foothills of the mountains, on the other side of Tétouan and the valley of Rio Martin. Of all the splendid spots that Morocco offers, that one is my favourite. I did not have much time. It was already late, it was the golden hour of the sun. Walking quickly I crossed the valley floor, the prairies dotted with horses, then the fields, and followed the river; I was captivated by the scene in front of me, flocks returning to their pens, trotting donkeys, turbaned horsemen, springs, and groves of trees. 

Crossing the greenery of former gardens and following the course of a dried river bed, I climbed up in the deep and silent shadow towards the distant glow of the slope at the end of the dip in the path. I had only taken this path once before. But the memory was vivid, of the moment when I had emerged from the cool penumbra, that abrupt entry into the flood of warm light. Then, a mixture of surprise and profound well-being had swept into me, and the same feeling again took possession of me in that moment. You could say there was nothing special about this slope, it was yellow and bare, with a few spiny plants and small stones scattered around; some sheep grazed leisurely, a horse whinnied, a stinging wind blew from the overhanging cliffs of grey rock. The peak which rose above the pile of fallen rocks towards the luminous sky was shaped like the Mythen [mountain peaks in the canton of Schwyz, near the lake of the Four-Cantons - Eds] and it was turning silver, haloed with light, as happens in summer, at the end of a radiant day when a wave of light has just rinsed the horizon. But a feeling took hold of me, an abrupt wave of happiness, a recollection from the past. I drank in the golden air and closed my eyes to let it flow into the depths of my heart, and when I opened my eyes again, the vision, the surge of light, was still there.

What was it that moved me so much? Was it the farewell? Or perhaps a memory – but which one? For I can recall many other visions, the Lataband in the distance, the summits of the Hindu Kush, the hills of Thysville, the great spaces of the Congo and of Persia, Kurdistan or Lebanon, the shore of a lake, and those mountain slopes of the country of my birth – and they were always moments both of farewell and reunion, of tumultuous joy and a mood of melancholy: what is the secret of the golden hours? 

I followed the dream-like thread of my memory. And it took me back along old pathways always following the same voice, which sounded like the echo of an emotion, of both grief and joy. Joy, I thought, is imperishable, and suffering merely the reminder of Beauty, whose reflections we catch in fleeting images, and love resurfaces in us each time the vision of a similar beauty claims our attention. We so much want to hold onto it and never be separated again. And so it seeps into our heart and creates a memory, a personal place of belonging, one that we both dream of returning to, and will in the end, reach again. And the farewells which I have to make now, they are nothing, nothing……

A photograph of Annemarie in Morocco in June 1942 shows her sitting on the wide trunk of a fallen tree, dressed in white shirt and trousers. She sits next to a large flowering bush and part of her body is in its shade. Her eyes are closed, drinking in the sunlight. The sun must be low in the sky. It feels like evening. There are dappled shadows on her right arm and clear chiaroscuro on her face.

My heart was so heavy when I saw your boat moving away from the quay at Ceuta...I’m now going to count the days until October and I will despair if anything happens to delay your journey in the autumn to Tetouan...I need you in the air that I breathe.
Claude Clarac wrote this in a letter to Annemarie, just after she left.

If there was a sense of premonition present in the words penned by Annemarie in her article, and Claude in his letter, it could be put down to the fact that a war was going on in Europe and so any plans could be subject to disruption. The future could not be foreseen, never mind counted on.

But with hindsight, the depth of feeling in the farewells and the fears that their future reunion was delicately balanced on the hinges of destructive conflict – bombings from the air, the minefields of the ocean, the land invasions – could well have been because they were touched by the shadow of future events.

I’m going to post here soon, what I’ve written about the last part of Annemarie’s life.

Sunday, 15 May 2022

North Downs and White Horses


Folkestone, overlooking the sea

North Downs path, Kent.
The back road goes downhill, to the village. Sunshine lightens the steps and half the road is in shade. In and out of the tree shadow.
The village is bright in the silent heat.
Two gardeners discuss, hidden by fences and trees.
A dog barks.

I turn off onto a path, just beyond the Old Railway Museum. Behind a barrier, a faint rumble of slow-moving trains. It’s the entrance to the Channel Tunnel and the trains slide past, invisible. Sounds of movement, of travel, of having a destination. And I too, I am moving, near-silent, on the path, bordered by so many green trees. I have a map with me. I follow the lines on the map, follow the path beneath my feet. I have no fixed destination.

The chalk horse on the hillside suddenly comes into view. No one else walks on the path. Just me and the trees and the view of the white horse caught in mid-stride.


The path then climbs upward.
In another field, two black and white ponies graze and ignore me.

The path passes above one of them, very close.
With one movement, I could jump onto its back. 

What could be better than that?
A leap onto its bare white back?

Monday, 2 May 2022

Book Review: Else Lasker-Schüler


Else Lasker-Schüler Three Prose Works
translated by James J. Conway
published by Rixdorf Editions (Berlin)








According to her translator, James J. Conway, Else Lasker-Schüler was known for her poetry as well as her prose, and this is the first time these prose works, The Peter Hille Book, The Nights of Tino of Baghdad and The Prince of Thebes have been translated into English. Reading them, I felt dipped into an unfamiliar world of fairy-tale. It took me time to fully enter into it, like testing water to see if it’s warm enough before plunging in. But once I did, Else Lasker-Schüler’s prose is immersive. It is not what I think of as prose at all, but poetic and imaginative, it changes scenarios more according to dream narrative than waking chronological events. I came to realise that her perception of life (as she lived it as well as the way she wrote) is a visionary drama, highly theatrical (she was also a performer and experimented with film).

In the first work, The Peter Hille Book, there is a cast of characters who, following dream narrative, act and relate according to their desires. The chief characters are the narrator and Petrus, a leader, an inspiration, a bedrock, foundation (Peter, the rock) a figure of charisma, wisdom, power. He is depicted at different times as like Moses, Noah, Odin, Zeus, a God-like being. The narrator ‘had fled the city and sank down exhausted before a rock’ and having found him, stays by his side, travels with him, for he is the founder of a philosophy, a world, and is recognized as such by a particular group of people. All the characters are shape-shifters, trying on parts as you would costumes, though often marked by one particular mood, emotion or feature, as ‘Antinous looks like an enchanted mythical king, his brother’s curls are bursting yellow, and Onit’s eyes hurry ahead like lean hounds at hunt.’

As in dreams, characters pull at our attention, they merge then separate. We are in the world of Metaphor and everything is alive. The backdrop is infused with the changing terrain and seasons. ‘It is early autumn and the air is still simmering on the stove of summer.’

In The Nights of Tino of Baghdad and The Prince of Thebes, the location shifts to the East. As the translator James J. Conway explains in his Afterword, ‘Tino’ and ‘the Prince of Thebes’ were pseudonyms that Else Lasker-Schüler used in her life as she was someone ‘for whom the distinction between life and work was unusually fluid.’ He also says that the place names that occur in these two works ‘are not signposts to actual places’ but invitations ‘to enter a space in our imagination’.

These imagined spaces, full of Sultans, Pachas, princesses and harems, are far removed from our reality but they have a curious, compelling urgency. You might also imagine that they are written by someone well acquainted with luxury and the time to daydream of distant, exotic lands, but Else Lasker-Schüler’s bohemian existence was far from that. James J. Conway’s excellent Afterword gives us insight into her life, where travel to the Biblical lands in one of those curious twists of fate, became the only place she could actually go to as a Jewish person in flight from nazi Germany.

He also explains who Peter Hille was, a bohemian and charismatic writer with followers who formed a group known as the Neue Gemeinschaft (New Community) and other characters were also members of this group. When these works were written they would have been recognised by contemporaries, but for those who, like me, are not familiar with the German writers of this time, the Afterword was particularly enlightening for its overview of the writers, the literary and artistic movements of the time, and the biographical details of Else Lasker-Schüler’s life.

Though described as prose works, these texts are poetic and highly visual depictions; they make me think of commentaries on vast tapestries, extending from one wall of an enormous mediaeval castle (or some other grand building in some time quite different from ours), to the other. The language, so rich in metaphor, must have been challenging to translate, and James J. Conway is to be congratulated for the vivid imagery and the sweep and flow of his translation. He also has an excellent website at strangeflowers,  where he explores the lives and work of many writers and artists living in Germany in the late 19th and early 20th century.

Thursday, 28 April 2022

Reading in Cumbria


River Lune, Kirkby Lonsdale

Staying at the Old Vicarage again, this time to read, with others, at the Book Lounge, in Kirkby Lonsdale. This local bookshop has an area at the back with tables and chairs, in front of an old-style fireplace, which is where we read. Lots of questions from the audience, about Sally Evans’ novel Wildgoose and my book about Annemarie Schwarzenbach, The Buoyancy of the Craft. (Unfortunately, Karen Lloyd was unwell and could not attend.)

Earlier that day, walking back from Kirkby Lonsdale I find a new footpath from Colliers Lane. First it crosses fields, then forms a narrow strip by gardens, comes out over a stile with a wobbly post, into the village, next to the garage.












The big tree beyond the Old Vicarage garden is as graceful as ever, but has no leaves yet. It’s an ash. Its slender branches hang down and swing in the wind. I think a year is more like a breath to that tree. The rooks go – yah, yah, wibodeh, yah yah. The tree at the foot of the garden beyond the beck is pale green. The dark firs align with shadows, a different territory and time. Honeysuckle slides up the front wall of the house and its waving leafy branches dangle outwards towards the slope of the garden, downhill to the beck.
The house always has different things to say. The attic bedroom floor is wooden, thick uncovered beams. They are dark and polished with age. The windows are very small and square. I manage to open one of them, just a little. It stays open. I hear the first bird in the morning, breaking the silence with an array of trills and melody. Just after that the church clock struck – five am.

The magnolia tree has shed some blossom in a thick white scatter on the grass. 


In the evening the rooks caw and flit between sequoia and two pine trees. They favour the dark trees and the shadows.

Most of what the house and garden talk about are states of mind, of moods that cluster in the blue sky and change and pass, the commentaries of the clouds. You could spend days there, walking up and down the steps and slopes of garden and the house would welcome you each time you stepped inside. 


It watches from the windows and keeps at least one eye on you. It shelters you, its wooden beams surround your dreams, a night-boat to carry you across the ford of sleep – and bring you back. The gardener leaves wild places for the flowers and insects, and a dead tree offers insect hospitality. The garden thrums with life and the house surveys the garden from above, a castle overlooking its domain.

Evening pastoral, from the footpath


Sunday, 10 April 2022

Amisfield Gardens, Hopetoun Memorial & horse statues


Amisfield Gardens

The mansion house has disappeared, but the walled gardens are not just still there, but have become community gardens and are lovingly tended and looked after by volunteers. They are near the small town of Haddington in East Lothian, Scotland. At each corner of the gardens, there’s a grand portal complete with porch supported by pillars. 


It’s one of those hot days that appeared suddenly as if spring has been overlooked and with the disappearance of winter, summer has usurped spring’s rightful place. Of course plants and trees still follow the usual sequence of growth but us humans sit and bask in the warmth, on a bench with a shaped wall around it, for shelter.


This will change and winter will blusteringly sweep back, even scattering snow on hills, and spring will make a re-appearance but for now, we drink coffee from our flasks and munch on grapes, cheese and oatcakes and remark how wonderful the sunshine is.

I’m curious about Amisfield House, which the gardens were originally attached to. The internet shows old photographs of what it looked like. The last time it was inhabited, it was used as a billet for soldiers in World War I. 


(Photo credit  where you can see more images) I wonder if it was simply considered by its then owners as a liability, too much work to restore after being a soldiers’ billet, too much upkeep in general? I still find it strange that such a grand old house should have been demolished, and wonder what the story behind it might be. (It is now the site of a golf club & the grounds a golf course.)

We then drive to the Hopetoun Memorial, also near Haddington. This is a tower structure, built in 1824 (95 feet/29 m tall) and the plaque says it was built in memory of the ‘great and good’ fourth Earl of Hopetoun, by his ‘affectionate and grateful tenantry’.


But this too seems mysterious to me. Why was he considered such a ‘great and good’ landlord, and who actually did the building? And who paid for it? This thin cylindrical structure of pinkish stone sits at the top of the wooded Byres Hill. Walking up the path through the woods we hear a loud but invisible woodpecker trilling and tap tapping at some dead branches, an intermittent drilling sound that echoes through the wood. Trees and gorse bushes thin out as we approach the tower.

The viewing platform at the top is reached by climbing the inside spiral staircase, all 132 steps of it.


As the picture shows, the stone steps became worn and have been patched and levelled with cement. That has certainly made them easier to climb but the ascent is still tricky. There are a few narrow slits in the tower structure which form ledges, as the stone walls are quite thick. These ledges have provided nesting areas for birds, and are packed with sticks from their old nests, suggesting they were quite large birds. Many sticks from these nest-piles have scattered inside onto the steps, making them uneven underfoot. So you have to step very carefully. This is made worse by the fact that only a tiny amount of light penetrates these slits and in between those dimly lit areas the staircase is in total darkness so you cannot see anything at all and have no idea what your feet may encounter on the next step, and exactly what it is that crunches underfoot. The best way to negotiate the spiral steps I found, especially when coming down, was to place one hand on either side of the wall, as it was narrow enough to do that. 


                                                      View of steps from the top

The viewing platform gives superb views over the surrounding countryside, despite the day being slightly misty. 


pointy Berwick Law in the distance


There is a statue, I discover from internet search, of this Fourth Earl in front of the Royal Bank of Scotland, St Andrews Square, Edinburgh. I’m very familiar with this statue of a man and his horse, but had never really thought about who he was. 


Or why he was dressed in a Roman-style toga, but perhaps that was fashionable at the time. It was erected, I now discover from a recent information plaque, ‘in 1824 by public subscription from citizens of Edinburgh. Hopetoun was a Member of Parliament and career soldier. He was considered a hero of the Napoleonic Wars.’ But he also it turns out, ‘had family ties to the exploitation of enslaved people in the West Indies. …. His wife Louisa was a daughter of John Wedderburn, one of Jamaica’s biggest slave plantation owners.’ Other family ties were through his sister’s marriage to the now infamous Henry Dundas, Lord Melville, whose statue is a stone’s throw away from this one, atop a ridiculously tall plinth in St Andrew’s Square Gardens.

Again, ignorance of history meant that many Edinburgh citizens myself included knew nothing of these figures from the past who were memorialized in stone. It was only thanks to hearing talks given by Sir Geoff Palmer  and later reading his book on this country’s involvement with slavery The Enlightenment Abolished, that I found out about these people. Knowledge of involvement in slavery is becoming much more widespread these days, with discussion around the removal of statues. (Sir Geoff says: ‘Don’t take down statues – take down racism’.) Or at least, as in the case of the Fourth Earl of Hopetoun, adding plaques describing their links and involvement.

I’m all for statues or sculptures of horses though.

                                            Statue at east end of Princes Street, Edinburgh

Most blog posts involve some research but this one has led me into various alleyways, not so much blind as obscured by the mists of time and memory. Searching sometimes for old photos of sculptures, taken in which year? I could not find the photos I was looking for, which is why I have only posted this one (a postcard of the sculpture). 


Sculpture 'Horse & Rider' by Eoghan Bridge

I really like Eoghan Bridge’s horse sculptures,  and I was very tempted to buy this small one which I saw in a gallery in the late 1990s. It cost almost exactly the same as my pay cheque for a month which I had just received. So yes I could have bought it but would have had nothing to live on for the next month. Still, I have the postcard – fire damaged, but it survived.

Monday, 7 March 2022

Ukraine's long history of culture, learning and literature

Angelic sower: an etching displayed in the art gallery of  Ostrog Castle, Ukraine.

In this heartbreakingly difficult time for Ukraine I often think back and remember those extraordinary days touring there as part of the Terra Poetica Festival, the concerts full of music, singing, dance and poetry. The wonderful hospitality from these talented, warm people who love the arts.

Right now, I want to think of Ukraine’s love of learning and literature, its long cultural history and traditions (which have survived despite previous invasions, famines and carnage). The Ostroh Academy was founded in 1576, the first in Eastern Europe, and it had many international connections. It is now a National University. And Kyiv's University is named after their most famous poet Taras Shevchenko. I was honoured to receive, as the Audience Award, a beautifully illustrated book of his poetry. 



The Festival was organized by Dmytro Drozdovskyi, Lesia Mudrak with many helpers, and the support of the Ministry of Culture and various media organisations. Writers from Ukraine and twelve other countries gave readings, talks and workshops. Our first performance was in Kyiv’s National Drama Theatre, and in the following days we visited Rivne, Ostroh, Zhytomyr then back to Kyiv. The evening poetry readings formed part of concerts which included musicians, choral singing, opera singers, dancers, all to a packed audience.

Rivne Drama Theatre

 You can read the full posts about this extraordinary tour, Rivne & Ostroh,  and Zhytomyr.

The Ukrainian writer Andrey Kurkov has written several novels but his non-fiction Ukraine Diaries (2014) describes the Maidan events of 2013-14 and if you read it you will understand the spirit of the Ukrainian people, who occupied the Maidan in Kyiv and succeeded in overturning their government when it went back on its agreement to bring Ukraine closer to Europe and away from Russian influence. The book will show you what these people are made of. They will never surrender their country.

The poem below is from the Terra Poetica anthology produced alongside the Festival. The anthology contains many Ukrainian poets, as well as poems of the performers from other countries. All of the poems which were not originally in English, (most of them) were translated into English. This one is by the Ukrainian writer and translator Oksana Lutsyshyna. (Her collection Persephone Blues has been published in English translation by Arrowsmith Press.)

Mementos of Ukraine, and gifts of beautifully produced books of poetry. 


Monday, 31 January 2022

Sea Birds and Saint Bees


We take the little Northern Line train south from Carlisle, Cumbria. Just a few carriages, not many passengers, the outside is grimy, giving the impression of being hard working, industrious, no nonsense, no shiny veneer, no immaculate facade. A tall step up from the platform, and windows that can be opened manually. This is just the kind of train I like, although it cannot quite match Balkan trains.

It’s a cold, bright and sunny day. Reaching St Bees  in late afternoon feels like arriving on a Greek island. A walk along the beach, with glorious colours of sundown. The part of the beach nearest the promenade is made of pebbles, and beyond that, long stretches of sand, some flat sand, some ribbed sand, hard little sand hills with valleys of water.

22, 26


The stones on St Bees beach are mostly round, some of them almost perfect circles. And all smooth, as if carved by a sculptor’s hand. And the sculptor is the sea, its constant movement rubbing away all corners and edges, flattening all bumps, eroding all crevices until they are left here, idyllic ocean offerings. The colours are bluish-grey, slate-blue, sea-green, pinkish red & brownish-purple and there is nothing I can imagine more harmoniously coloured than these round stones, worn into perfect smoothness and swept up by the sea.

The next morning the sky is cloudy, overcast, with a slight mist in the air. We walk from the beach up the cliff, to the coast path.


There’s a view south of Scafell Pike, the highest mountain in England, so the information board says. 

St Bees in the valley & Scafell Pike in the distance

looking south to Seascale & Ravenglass

The view north shows the Scottish mountains, and to the west the Isle of Man is just discernible.

At one point it’s possible to descend from the cliff to Fleswick bay. It’s surrounded by the red sandstone cliffs and has a slightly menacing atmosphere. On one side, a huge slab of cliff has fallen off onto rocks. The cliff side is a mosaic of segments and splinters, a kind of red parquet of stone. 


Some flat slab walls are inscribed with careful lettering by earlier visitors, intent on making their mark. At times I felt a tremor under my feet. Wondered if there were underwater caves, dug out by the insistent pounding of the waves, though there is no sign of them. Or perhaps because the cliffs on either side of the small bay funnelled the sea sound and the sea thump and pound against the pebbles and the rocks? I was glad to leave the little bay, climb back up the stony stream bed, back up to the cliff top and the views out to the grey and shifting tidal mass of water.

And in places where parts of the cliff side is visible, there are ledges favoured by a group of razorbills or guillemots (lower ledge), nestled into the side like miniature penguins. On the ledge above, a few all-black birds which I think are cormorants. The group of guillemots are motionless, tucked into shelter, only spotted with binoculars.


But a little further on, two birds, possibly a cormorant and a guillemot, are on a cliff ledge very close to the path. I approach cautiously to take the photo so as not to disturb the cormorant which looks about to fly away (but it doesn’t).

 The path goes past a lighthouse, and further on, Birkham’s quarry, only used, an information board says, in February and March, so as not to disturb the birds in breeding season. The dark red sandstone dug out of the ground here has been used in many places (including Carlisle Cathedral) both local and international.

Inside Carlisle Cathedral

The stone looks as if it has been soaked in earth and water and the combination produces this dark red colour.

A flock of geese passes overhead

This lovely rock formation looks like a face in profile, eye shut against the fierce wind, which also blows back its bristly almost Mohawk coiffure.


The last part of the walk descends to sea level, then there’s the approach to Whitehaven’s Candlestick harbour and marina.


It reminds me of Kyrenia harbour in Cyprus, with its sunlit bay packed full of boats, and so many cafes all along the waterfront. It reminds me but it is totally unlike it, the only points of resemblance being a horseshoe shaped harbour, with water and boats.

Kyrenia Harbour, Cyprus

But the mind does like to look for similarities, without any prompting it comes up with associations. There is no sunshine here, no awning-covered cafes, few buildings, and while Kyrenia harbour is wrapped with buildings which feel protective rather than crowding, Whitehaven feels exposed and bare. A walk round the harbour, through the vast supermarket car park, and there’s the station, where we board a train to take us back to St Bees.