Saturday, 1 October 2016

Guardians of Sea and Air

Kent, England, September 2016
I was staying in a friend's caravan, almost in sight of the entrance to the Channel Tunnel. At night there was a distant background noise like faint and faraway traffic. The nights were clear, and the constellations visible overhead between the trees became as familiar as household gods.

Returning home at sunset; entrance to the Channel Tunnel on the left

Guardians of sea and air
The night portals never rest,
the orange lights and the entrances and exits
to the underground, tunnelling beneath the sea,
the same sea we saw today, from cliff-tops,
a turquoise stretch of water, then a haze
of pale blue, no clear line of the horizon.

The night's work,
the guardians of sea crossings,
the tunnel underneath la Manche,
they never rest.

Night lights of planes
weave in and out of stars
altering the constellations.

In the afternoon, the hot sun
on the cliff-tops, white and chalky,
where the edges crumble, rusty signs
warn of danger, but there's the trodden path ahead,
there's the memorial to air battles
fought in World War Two 

the statue of Pilot Everyman
gazing out across the sea
and the valley railway line to Dover
and the sea birds above the blue.


Saturday, 17 September 2016

From Puilaurens to Amiens

It's the French trip again, from the Languedoc in the south, to Picardie in the north. June 2016

So it is in brilliant hot sunshine that we drive the next day to the castle of Puilaurens, which looks out over more magnificent mountains. The approach path, though steep in places, is shaded by trees and is much shorter than the one to Monségur. 

Puilaurens, like all the castles associated with the Cathars, has its own individual history.
It stood on one of those shifting borders, and at one point, before the 11th century, it was part of the territory of Aragon, only later becoming part of France. But during the Cathar crusade, although attacked by Simon de Montfort, it was not taken by him. Cathars, and others who had had their lands taken away from them during this crusade, took refuge there, but it is thought that the castle finally surrendered around the same time as Quéribus, about 1255. It later had to resist several Aragonese attacks and was the most southerly fortified castle in France. When the border of Aragon shifted further south, it lost its importance as a border garrison, and its maintenance and its military defense dwindled. 

So it's now a ruin though the outer walls are still intact and it's an imposing presence perched on the hilltop, with a clear view of villages in the valley, and of anything that might be moving through the valleys and approaching up the lower slopes towards it, and then there's those nearby mountains you can look across at, giving a sense of solidarity and companionship. 


Part of the castle that is still intact is the Tour de la Dame Blanche, which, the information board tells us, was named after Blanche of Bourbon who briefly graced the castle with her presence. It has a stone vaulted roof, and the guide (I've attached myself to a guided tour) points out a particular feature. A tiny slit in the walls, called a 'conduit porte-voix' which if you speak into it carries the sound down to the lower levels, even a whisper the guide says, so that there is quick and easy communication between the different levels of the castle. Or – I think – what is spoken, even whispered, on one level, can be overheard on another one.   

Vaulted roof of Le Tour de la Dame Blanche

The guided tour is a group of women, all with walking canes, peaked shade-giving caps, walking boots and backpacks. As they file down the steps from La Tour Blanche, a man sitting on a stone at the bottom asks 'Vous avez oublié les hommes?' And they all laugh. 

When we sit down in the shade of a solitary tree in the grassy central area open to the sky, I catch snatches of their conversation, which I love to listen to because of the southern accent, those long drawn out vowels and musical endings, sounding at least as close to Spanish as French and perhaps that's what the Occitan language sounds like.
Le jambon, c'est le jambon rouge?.... J'ai un peu du fromage....les gaans qui ne sont pas contaang.....c'est maintenaang je me dirai...


The next day we're up early, packing up our tents before beginning the long drive back through France. I'm going with the others as far as Amiens, where I can get a train to Rouen, to visit friends there. I've checked online to find the train times. We have lunch in the picturesque town of Mirepoix, 

then drive on to Limoges, where we spend the night. But we are leaving the hot sunny weather behind, heading back into grey skies, and mist. We are also heading into the areas which have been badly affected by the floods. Near Limoges, the motorway becomes almost empty, bereft of traffic, we're driving on the Ghost Autoroute, the fog turns to thin rain, and we become convinced, since there is no other traffic, that everyone else knows something that we don't. 

The river Vienne at Limoges

Leaving Limoges early in the morning, once again, it's a ghost highway, no other cars at all, the thick mist turning the roadside trees into vague and menacing shadows like some post-apocalyptic scene.

As we get closer to Paris, we are relieved to see a few cars looming out of the mist. And there is plenty of traffic on the périphérique, but there are signs saying that you could not leave it and go into Paris. The exit sliproads are clogged with stationary cars. This is because of the flooding. We catch a glimpse of the swollen Seine, and then we follow directions for Amiens. My friends drop me off at the train station, then continue on their way to Calais. 

I am in good time for the train and go to buy a ticket. I'm then told that the 14.50 train is not running. Neither is the 17.15. The first train I can get a ticket for is the 19.10. Clearly the information I got online was wrong. I ask the young woman at the ticket counter if it's because this is a Sunday. Non Madame she informs me, c'est à cause de la grève. Ah, the train strike! I'd forgotten about that.

Commemorating the battle of the Somme, 1916, outside Amiens train station

Thursday, 25 August 2016

Sunrise at Red Rock Bay

Walk along East Coast Path. (South-east Scotland)

The day started off grey-skied. I was so ill-prepared that I forgot various things. Most importantly I only realised once I was at the bus stop, was a sleeping bag. We were going to camp (C was bringing the tents) and I'd quite forgotten about a sleeping bag. I phone C – and he had forgotten to  pack his too! But he hadn't yet left his house. I'll bring two he chirrups. I was beginning to feel that this was a doomed expedition but he'd lost none of his optimism. For I'd remembered that we'd have to carry everything as we walked. I'd been thinking when I suggested camping out, of how much I had enjoyed camping in France. But then, our tents were parked on a campsite and when we walked we didn't have to carry anything. I phoned C again to say I wanted to call it off. Instead of camping we could just go for a walk that day. C's phone was switched off.

When we met up, he was cheerful. It's fine, I don't mind carrying both tents he said. So I could hardly complain about my much smaller pack with only overnight things, spare clothes, food, book, notebook and my sleeping bag transferred from his pack. Yet even that came to feel very heavy. And C's, which I tested, was so heavy I could barely lift it.

But as we walked, the grey clouds flicked their tails like fish in the sea of sky and headed south. We walked north along the cliff path looking down on greyish sea turning to blue. There were some rocks by the bays and inlets that were folded with careful precision, an arrangement of time and slow movement. 

Rocks must have a very different sense of time to us I say. We look at dragonflies and think what a short life they have and feel a little sorry that it's so short. Maybe rocks look at us and think the same. 

They look like a loaf of sliced bread says C. 

My goal was Eyemouth and coffee. None was available in Burnmouth.  As the cliffs and shoreline are ragged and indented, so the path weaves around the sea edges.

When we finally were in sight of Eyemouth, it still look a while before the path dipped down to the harbour piled with fishing creels and lobster pots at the end and several fishing boats on the oily water. 

The breeze vanished and I suddenly felt I was in somewhere quite unfamiliar, some small town in an unknown part of mainland Europe, hot, still streets on the other side of the harbour. I felt exhausted, my shoulders ached and we sat outside at the first café we came to. The coffee was delicious. One of the things I'd forgotten was my water bottle which I'd filled, ready to pack, then left behind. But there are shops in this small town and I bought a bottle of water. Totally revived, we continue. 

The path goes up  the cliff side and skirts the caravan site. It was now late afternoon and we were thinking of finding a place to pitch the tents. We had seen one perfect place on the way to Eyemouth and considered going back there. No let's go on I said.

There are fields of ripening grain on our left – wheat and barley, all yellow against the blue of sky. It was a pleasure to walk in this warm sunshine these rich colours on either side, and a slight breeze.

And after the path went inland a little, to skirt a fjord-like cleft in the land, then came back on the other side of the inlet, there was a flat and grassy place beside the sea, covered with clover. I like this I said, let's camp here. It was a sheltered bay, no wind, no midgies. The shore was red stones and the cliff was red rock.

A ring of red stones on the grass showed that others had camped here, and made a fire. And we did too, once we'd put up the tents as there was plenty of dry driftwood sticks lying on the red-stone beach. 

As we ate our provisions a flock of birds flew overhead, heading out to sea. We couldn't make out what kind of birds they were, not seagulls – possibly they were pigeons going home to St. Abbs, where there's a colony who live in a dovecot there.

One solitary wide-winged bird wheels and cries along the cliff-top. It felt as if it was coming to see us, marking our place and passage, a cliff-top guardian.

The sky, a newly perforated container, leaks light, and a bank of clouds turns deep pink, a series of ruffles that look solid as cream. C looks through his binoculars. They look like the surface of a planet he says.

We sit by the fire, watching the clouds fade into blue-grey then merge with the night.
To go to sleep listening to the sounds of the sea.

During the night I hear a few bird calls and several loud barks. I thought it was a dog, a wild fierce sounding dog, a guttural warning in the night. Always ready to mine a bank of unformed fears I conjured up a molosh, one of those huge mastiffs that protect flocks and will attack anyone coming near their flocks unless their master calls them off. But there were no approaching sounds, no more barking. In the morning, C, who had heard it too thought it might have been a deer or a fox, very unlikely to have been a dog.

From the tent I watched the sun rise over the water, appearing briefly between ledges of cloud. 

These pictures were taken from the tent (hence the line of the guy rope), as it was a chilly morning and I was not ready to get up yet. I don't think I have ever seen the sky and sea this golden colour before. When I've seen photographs like this I've assumed that the colours have been altered, but I haven't changed anything in this photograph. And this golden colour was exactly how it was, the sky, the sea and the air all around. This was taken a few minutes before 6 am. Just as an experiment though, I pressed the 'image colours adjust' button, which usually enhances the colours - and this is what came out - very different!

The sky became overcast but after we packed up we headed to Coldingham Bay, then on to St Abbs, to wait for the café to open so I could have the necessary morning coffee. 

My back was aching in various places now. We followed the Creel Path to Coldingham and got a bus back to the city, a strange place full of bustling people. And I came home to my wondrously peaceful house and garden. Where today the sun shines in a late summer, insects pursue their busy lives and the shadows of rowan and cherry trees have stretched their shady, cooling fingers. 

On the Creel Path

Monday, 15 August 2016

Saint-Exupéry - La Guerre est une Maladie

photo credit:Vagabond Productions

I recently went to see The Nine Lives of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, (Vagabond Productions) in the Edinburgh Fringe. I wept at the end.  I've been fascinated by Saint-Exupéry's writing and his life for some time, and the play made me return to a (still unfinished) piece I wrote a few years ago. I've included some of it here.

There was a copy of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry's Flight to Arras in my parents' bookcase. It had a creamy hard cover and the title was written in gold letters on a black background. As a child, I was too busy reading my own books but I liked its appearance and its foreign sounding location, its whiff of the exotic.

Wikimedia Commons: St-Ex in Toulouse, 1933


My first introduction to Saint-Exupéry was at school, where we read Le Petit Prince in French class. I don't remember making any connection with the author of Flight to Arras, the cream-covered gold-lettered book.

I was in my thirties before I read Southern Mail and Night Flight. Books I was grateful to have come across, grateful that they had been written.

After my parents died I looked through the bookshelves but I couldn't find that book that remained so clearly in my memory.

Two years later, my son is studying at flight school in Tulsa, Oklahoma. He is over on a visit and one morning he appears wearing a T-shirt with one word written on it – Aéropostale. Where did you get that T-shirt? I exclaim. He thinks it was in Des Moines. But he hadn't made any association between that and Saint-Exupéry. I tell him – Aéropostale was the name of the company that Saint-Exupéry worked for, when he flew the mail planes. You remember The Little Prince? Of course, he says, you read it to us.

After he has returned to Tulsa, I go to a second hand bookshop looking for books by Saint-Exupéry. I find Southern Mail and Flight to Arras. I send the former to my son, and I keep the latter and finally read Flight to Arras.


La guerre n'est pas une aventure. La guerre est une maladie. Comme le typhus. (Saint-Exupéry) (War is not an adventure. It's a sickness. Like typhus.)

All casualties from WW1 are listed in books that are open to the public in the Scottish National War Memorial in Edinburgh Castle. Their regiment and place of death is also listed. But not the specific place of death. Only 'France and Flanders'. My father said it was not known where his father was killed. 'Somewhere in France.' What he did not seem to know was that more information was available, if one knew how to go about looking for it. I did not know this myself until someone in a French class I was teaching talked about his researches into the place of death of a relative in WW1. It was possible to find out, he said. Nowadays with the internet of course it is much easier, and I made my own researches and eventually discovered where my grandfather was killed, and visited his grave, near Albert and Arras.

But my father had not known. France and Flanders. All his life, he did not know. But did he have some idea? Was that why he kept a copy of Flight to Arras in the bookcase? Or was it just a coincidence?

Saint-Exupéry was born near Lyon, into a large family. When he was still a child, first his father and then his younger brother died. Apparently the last words spoken to him by his younger brother were those he put in the mouth of the little prince – go away now, because if you stay you will think I am suffering.
When still in his teens, Saint-Exupéry persuaded someone to take him up in a plane. A deeply feeling and sensitive man, his passion for flying equalled his passion for writing, and the two were deeply intertwined. He was one of the first to fly mail planes for the company that became Aéropostale – to north Africa and later, in South America.

Wikimedia Commons:Breguet 14 used on the Casablanca-Dakar route

By the outbreak of WWII he had published three books, Southern Mail/Courrier Sud, Night Flight/Vol de Nuit and Wind, Sand and Stars/Terre des Hommes. They were extremely successful. In the first part of WWII, he flew sorties over the area of Arras.



It's 1940. The German tanks are pressing through northern France.
We stand to the enemy in the relation of one man to three. One plane to ten or twenty. After Dunkerque, one tank to one hundred, Saint-Exupéry writes in Flight to Arras. He is the captain of a team that makes reconnaissance flights. He is asked to make a sortie that the major admits is 'awkward'.

When a sortie was not 'awkward',
he writes, one plane out of three got back. Naturally, the ratio was not the same when the sortie was a nasty one. But I was not weighing my chances of getting back. …....The Group was to lose us more or less as baggage becomes lost in the hubbub of changing trains......

Flight to Arras is a description of that sortie. Mixed in with memories of childhood, it is also a meditation on victory and defeat, on what it means to be human, on duty and responsibility, on death.
'If I am alive' I said to myself, ' I shall do my thinking tonight.' Night, the beloved. Night, when words fade and things come alive. When the destructive analysis of day is done and all that is truly important becomes whole and sound again. When man reassembles his fragmentary self and grows with the calm of a tree.

His books have been described as the best books about flying that you will ever read. They are, but they are more than that. Meditations on the nature and the meaning of human existence, Saint-Exupéry, particularly through his experience in Flight to Arras/Pilote de Guerre, peers into the nature of the human soul, having been confronted with his own death.

...true we were already beaten...yet despite this I could not but feel in myself the serenity of [the others] I was filled with the sense of my responsibility. And what man can feel himself at one and the same time responsible and hopeless?

What am I if not a participant? In order to be I must be a the liberty not to exist. There is no growth except in the fulfilment of obligations.

After Paris fell, he escaped from France via Portugal and joined his wife Consuelo who was in New York. His aim was to convince the Americans to join the Allied armies, help defeat Germany and liberate France. But while he was there he discovered that his books had sold so well that he was now fêted as a literary star. And he was miserable because he was there in New York and not fighting with his fellow Frenchmen. He was considered, at 43, much too old to be a pilot. Sometimes he would lie for hours on his bed, consumed with misery. He could not bear to think of others fighting in France, while he was not. However, while in New York he wrote Pilote de Guerre
/Flight to Arras, describing that particular sortie he made during his time stationed in the north of France. He also wrote Le Petit Prince at this time. But all he really wanted was to participate in the war again.

Eventually he persuaded the authorities to let him go back, and take part. Stationed in north Africa with the Free French Air Force, he made several reconnaissance flights. 

On 31st July 1944 he left base on a mission to collect intelligence on German troop movements in and around the Rhone Valley in preparation for an eventual Allied invasion of France. 
He did not return.

In 1998, a fisherman found, south of Marseille, an identity bracelet with the names of Saint-Exupéry and Consuelo engraved on it. And a few years after that, pieces of a Lockheed Lightning plane were discovered on the sea bed near where the bracelet was found. French investigators later confirmed that the wreckage belonged to St. Exupéry's plane.

a metaphor comes into my mind. ….the individual is a mere path. What matters is Man, who takes that path.
(Antoine de Saint-Exupéry: Flight to Arras)

Sunday, 7 August 2016

Satie Synchronicity

Wikimedia - Portrait of Erik Satie by Suzanne Valadon

A case of synchronicity. I've adored Erik Satie's piano music since I first heard it decades ago. So when I saw there was a show on during the Edinburgh Fringe called Erik Satie's-Faction, I went to the press office to get a ticket, intending to review it. I saw the show on Friday, and I was working on the review this afternoon, and had Radio 3 on in the background, as I often do, when I realised I was listening to the very show I had seen live a couple of days ago! I'd had no idea it was going to be on the radio (and it was actually part of the Proms).  But though I recognized quite a lot of it, there were differences in the script (and more music). For example, in the radio programme, the part about Suzanne Valadon, the painter who Satie fell in love with, was not mentioned. (Their relationship was brief, as she did not return the intensity of his feelings, and had other lovers, which tormented Satie with jealousy.)

Wikimedia - Bouquet de Fleur par Suzanne Valadon
But I smiled particularly at one part, where Satie is talking about critics. And this part was definitely in the show. Also the fact that it was on the radio meant that I could make a note of his actual words which I was too covered with a kind of amused embarrassment to write down at the time (and besides, he'd taken my notebook!).

In the actual performance, I was sitting in the front row, which was on a level with the stage, scribbling away in my notebook. And when Satie (played by Alistair McGowan) started to talk about critics he suddenly turned to me and fixed me with a hard stare. He'd been talking about animals and then he said 'there are no critics among animals, this particular art-form is quite alien to animals, a human critic's brain however...' And this is where I got the hard stare...'is a store, a department store, you can find anything there, bed-linen, travel rugs, a wide range of furniture, French and foreign writing paper, gloves, umbrellas, hats, walking sticks....'. He then walked slowly over to where I was sitting and took the notebook very gently out of my hand and held it up for all to see. 'The constant gleam of pride in the critic's eye means he can't always see the pain he causes in his victims …'

This delighted the audience of course as all eyes turned to me. 'But I have never understood' he went on, 'why artists are so touchy about what critics say about them in their reviews. These artists, they should follow my good example...' and he hands back my notebook, walks back slowly, still looking at me 'I – am dazzled by the very presence of a critic, he shines so brightly that I blink for more than an hour after he has gone, I kiss the footprints of his birkenstocks...' (I was wearing sandals – the word he uses on the radio is 'slippers') 'I drink in his words from a long-stemmed champagne glass – well, it is only polite.'  

Alistair McGowan plays Satie

Oh I wish I'd been more quick-thinking and said – but I will write a good review, of course I will, I've always loved your music and I love you too and I would have stayed longer with you than Suzanne did!

Erik Satie's-Faction plays at The Pleasance Courtyard, Edinburgh, 12.50, daily (except 9, 16 and 23) until 28 August 2016
Starring Alistair McGowan

My review is up on Cafe Babel

Wednesday, 20 July 2016


In the village of Monségur

Monségur, Languedoc, France in June 2016

You could call him the Magus of Monségur. He always carries a staff with him and wears a wide-brimmed felt hat. He has a solidity of presence, a compact energy and deep brown eyes which when they look at you give you the sense of looking into expanding ripples on water surface just after a stone has been thrown in.

We follow him into his living-room which is lined on all sides with books – on history, anthropology, mythology, poetry, the esoteric and occult, shamanism, art,
Rennes-le-Chateau, the Cathars, whole sections devoted to books by Lovecraft, Poe, William Blake, Otto Rahn, and many others. The log fire is burning, fills the room with the sweet smell of wood smoke. He goes into the kitchen area to make us coffee and we arrange ourselves on various deep armchairs and gaze around us at the pictures on the walls, some of them painted by his mother he tells us, an artist and anthropologist in South Africa, but who returned to live in Ireland. He shows us one of her paintings that isn't on the wall – a beautiful detailed depiction of 'Goblin Market'.

He has pledged himself he says to protect the pog – the mountain – with the ruins where the Cathar castle of Monségur once stood, on the top. As is the tendency of new religions, to replace the sacred sites of the former religion, the Goddess of Monségur was present before the time of the Cathars (1100-1200s), he says. And as well as the pog itself, the surrounding mountains are full of old legends and folk-tales.

In the kitchen, as we make coffees for six people (Nescafé Espresso – recommended) he tells me that the castle is still seen as a heretical place, rather than being included and sheltered under the protective umbrella of the Catholic church, as a sacred place. And did you know he says, and he looks at me as he talks, as he looks at everyone – not glancing which might suggest he was furtive or indifferent, not staring as if you were an object or a minion, but a look held long enough that makes you feel included, a fellow-traveller on the path. Did you know that every year the villagers in Monségur had to perform a ritual penance for having offered sanctuary to the heretical Cathars? They had to drag a cross to the site where the last Cathars were burned.  Otherwise they would suffer a papal anathema. And that this practice lasted up until the 1920s?
I had not known.

Later, he takes us up a path where there's a good view of the surrounding mountainsides and deep valleys and points out what he says is called 'montagne de la Frau'. I wondered, he said, why it was called the mountain of the lady, until I realised that it came from an old Occitan word, which translates into French as 'frayeur', in other words, the mountain of fear. He didn't elaborate on why it was given this name, though hinted at various folk tales from which the name derives. 

Over lunch, he drops it quietly into the conversation that once people have been living here for a while, they begin to have very interesting dreams. 'And they start to say things like – I could really do with some chain mail or – I need to find a sword' – and he smiles. 'It could be something in the morphic field.' (Rupert Sheldrake's work on morphic resonance includes his theory on how memory can be inherited).

Formerly living in South Africa where he was an anthropologist and film maker (he still is, you can see a clip from his latest film The Otherworld/L'autre Monde here) he has lived in 
Monségur for over ten years and gives guided tours of the area. He also talks of the current plans by the commune to make improvements to the area around the pog and its ruined castle. To create a visitor centre, to fence off the hillside and, possibly, to have the castle floodlit, which he says would be detrimental to wildlife. (Since then the Mairie has responded and made a clear statement that there are no plans to fence off any areas or restrict access or have it floodlit, to the relief of all those who were concerned.) 

The castle of Monségur

After another excellent lunch, climbing up the steep path to the pog of
Monségur crowned by its castle ruins, we witness a turning point in the weather. The fine rain has stopped, the mist is clearing, leaving just a shelf of clouds high up in the sky, and filmy wreaths of mist around the mountain tops. The higher we climb, getting ever closer to these clouds, they begin to break up and sunlight pours through like flattened gold coins on the surrounding plains and mountains.

 This marks the end of the days of rain and cloud, the end of the moody reign of damp and veiled vision, of separation from the sun. The clouds thin out and disappear, the late afternoon and evening shine with reflected light. Warmth and sunlight return to the south.