Saturday, 10 April 2021

"You feel as if you're floating along" by the sea


It’s been too long since I walked by the sea. And the other morning, the sun was shining and I thought yes, I’ll take a day off and go to the sea. Shades of truancy as I head to the bus stop but once I reach town everyone I speak to is so nice – the man in the Post Office, the man in a little Turkish bakery I discover, selling feta wraps & coffee, and then when I get to the beach, the two guys letting people into the public toilets (thank goodness for the loos, after drinking coffee). You should have a tip jar I say, trying to give them coins but they refuse, no no they say, we’re open every day.


Sunlight on my face, and the sound of the sea, the tide is coming in and the air is so fresh and everyone smiles and I look around at the dazzling light and it’s as if I have escaped to another world. It’s hardly unfamiliar, I have known this coast all my life, but it looks brand new today. So long spent at the desk at home, and walks close to home, this feels like freedom, sunlight and walking by the sea. The firmness of the sand just at the edge of the waves, where it has been washed over and over, smooth and soft and solid underfoot.

This is the first step I think, the next one will be to a coast further away, and after that – after that is still unimaginable, but there are memories of Croatian coastal paths, the Adriatic whipped into peaks and rough waves by the bora, and Greek paths, stony and windless, bordered by pomegranate trees …



On the bus home I read an article in The New European about the photographer Robert Doisneau (born April 14 1912). Towards the end of his life he wrote “Some days the mere fact of seeing feels like perfect happiness. You feel as if you’re floating along. The policeman stops the traffic to let you across and you feel so rich you want to share your jubilation with others, you have more than enough for yourself.”

That’s how it was today.

Two sea-related poems I read recently.


From Imogen Forster’s new collection The Grass Boat (Mariscat Press)

From Richie McCaffery’s latest pamphlet Coping Stones (Fras Publications)


Light and stonework reflected in the windows of a Georgian building.

From gaps between tall buildings a geometry of light thrown across the road.

Thursday, 25 March 2021

Crossing the Styx - aller et retour


Les mythes grecques sont la réalité qui règle notre vie – Ismail Kadare

Crossing the Styx by Joachim Patinier,  1524

Separations, partings, forks in the road.  There can be many deaths and rebirths of 

the Self in one lifetime, and the profound emotions that can surface, carry power. 

Painful transitions bring to mind Psyche’s descent into the underworld. Her task – 

which she carried out successfully – was to brave the dangers there and bring back a

precious jewel. 

Or the shamanic traditions of ritual dismemberment (to break habits that no longer 

serve us) followed by realignment – to free up new pathways of energy for greater 

expansion of vision and connection.

Psyche by Pietro Tenerani (1789-1869)

In this guest blog post, the poet A.C. Clarke reviews S.D. Curtis




Diary of a Divorce    S.D. Curtis  Arc Publications
Both the dedication of this spare, emotionally bruising pamphlet, ‘To my (ex) husband The Banker’ and its epigraph from John Berger, ‘The promise is that language has acknowledged … the experience which demanded, which cried out’, prepare the reader for the unflinching directness and honesty of the poems which follow. Diary of a Divorce is not a comfortable read but it offers to the many who have been through parallel experiences the comfort of recognition and ultimately a kind of resolution.

The book is not a diary in the usual sense but charts a series of significant moments in the breakdown of a marriage. In the opening poem ‘Anniversary Gift’, the speaker starts with a fairytale notion of marriage but by the tenth anniversary ‘I spit truth/like blood’. The following poems explore the widening gulf between the speaker and her husband, which, it becomes increasingly clear, stems from a fundamental divergence in their values: on the husband’s part ‘the cleanness of numbers/the sturdiness of marble’, on the wife’s ‘sweat and blood,/sticky words remembered.’  In the long prose poem ‘Story’ which draws the collection towards its close this perception has crystallised: ‘you went beyond the reach of words we had shared; entered the world of transactions, where all that is given freely is without value’. The division between the couple becomes emblematic of a fundamental political divide in which the world of commerce and the world of love are irreconcilable.

Yet this bleak conclusion is not where ‘Story’ ends. A feature of the poems throughout Diary of a Divorce is how they shift ground as they weave through a succession of emotions, never quite leaving the reader where she expects. The last of the twelve sections of ‘Story’ opens up the possibility of ‘trespasses forgiven’ and ends with the surprising ‘our weapon of choice, only tenderness.’ And tenderness suffuses the last poem in the book, aptly titled ‘The Last Page’ where the poet, having presented her own view of the relationship passes the story to the husband: ‘I pass you the pen, the book and the scream’. The last word in the collection is ‘hope.’

This is a remarkably assured debut collection which refuses to hide its pain behind a tissue of fine words or decorative imagery but looks clear-eyed at the failings of both people concerned, precise, unsparing, truthful.

S.D. Curtis is a writer, translator and publisher. She is the founding 

editor of Istros Books, a publishing house which is a rich resource 

for translated work from the Balkans and south-east Europe.  For 

anyone who wants to know more about this part of Europe through 

its finest writers I thoroughly recommend their books, which fill 

such a gap in translated literature. Just to single out a few, there is 

the rich and poetic language of  Asli Biçen's The Snapping Point

Ludovic Bruckstein's With an Unopened Umbrella and a couple I've 

written reviews for, Olja Knežević's Catherine the Great and the 

Small and Alma Lazarevska's Death in the Museum of Modern Art



A.C. Clarke has won several prizes and awards for her poetry. She

has combined her humanitarian concerns and her literary and 

translation skills by working with Scottish PEN to translate and 

promote the work of refugee writers. Her poetry collections have 

been published by Cinnamon Press and Oversteps Books, among 

others. She has the distinctive gift of placing herself in the minds 

and circumstances of historical characters, and creatively re-

imagining their experiences and their effects on others (Fr Meslier’s 

Confession) and A Troubling Woman (Margery Kempe)

Her pamphlet Wedding Grief, centred on the courtship of the 

surrealist poet Paul Eluard and his first wife Gala, is due out from 

Tapsalteerie this year.

More information about A.C. Clarke and her work can be found on 

the ScottishPoetry Library website ,

the Scottish Book Trust website

and Oversteps Books site 

Thursday, 4 March 2021

Annemarie Schwarzenbach, writer, traveller and photographer




Any day, every day is of course relevant to celebrate the achievements of women, but as we approach International Women’s Day, I’m thinking again of photographs of and by the writer, traveller and photographer Annemarie Schwarzenbach, the subject of my biographical novel, The Buoyancy of the Craft.



Two years ago, still involved in research and writing the book, I posted photographs (from the Swiss National archive) of some of her women friends.

And last year I posted about other women photographers Dora Maar and Gerda Taro.


The photographer Marianne Breslauer said that ‘Annemarie was the most beautiful living being I have ever encountered’.

Annemarie Schwarzenbach courtesy of Swiss National Archives

Courtesy of Swiss National Archives


Excerpt from The Photographer’s Muse, The Buoyancy of the Craft.

There are many photographs of Annemarie. In her childhood her mother liberally documented the family. She was accustomed to being photographed. All these poses, as if to adopt or even to create, a self. So many ‘this is who I am’ - none of which of course are ‘who she was’. As a child, she is told how to stand, turn, look, dress, arrange limbs and features.  

As an adult, Annemarie takes control of the image, claims possession of materials – place, time, dress, stance, mood – with which to create a self. To reclaim the self from the childhood one that her mother possessed. Or – to create a new one – her self, made out of her chosen materials. Hence – the unsmiling look – almost defiant. This is who I am, she says, not the one my mother made, but this one, that I am making.

For sure, the modern obligatory happy face is a recent phenomenon. Old photos show severity, the serious miens of our default expressions, not sad, not even possibly, thoughtful, but distant. Sometimes even absent, as if these people, the subjects of the photograph, have checked out, gone off to explore the fringes of dream. But in Annemarie’s time and situation – she isn’t absent, she’s deliberately present, defying the moment and the photographer to represent her as anything other than what she chooses to present to the world. She is not a passive subject, she is engaged in the process, she is making something – a statement? A clay pot? She’s making her own history. Making herself.

Thursday, 11 February 2021

Flussreise, Winterreise/ River Journey, Winter Journey



I was taking a photo of the river, swollen by all the recent rain and snow, when a train happened to pass. Only afterwards I realised how appropriate that is, for this blog, RiverTrain. It is named after the Sava river, when I was travelling by train from Ljubljana to Zagreb in spring, and the train followed the curves of the river so devotedly. Rivers have to be allowed to follow their own course, a living water course. That’s why I feel sad to see canalised rivers, their constricted lives. Rivers too, need freedom to follow their own way, pursue their own lives and determine where to turn, where to change direction, make their own choices. 

Who could know better than rivers where to flow, where to pick up speed passing between rocks and boulders, hurtling through narrow canyons, foaming white, and spreading out and lingering in plains. Their plans do not include getting somewhere by the fastest route, the most direct way. Rivers are just like people. No-one wants to be imprisoned according to someone else’s idea of what is best. For rivers, it is the contrasts, the exchanges, the variety of landscapes and river residents, birds, small mammals, plants, it’s all about the journey, and the present.


It’s snowing. Again
frozen unmelted areas
are covered over
in descending white. Another layer.
Winter loves us.


Time – clusters like the starlings
round the bird table –
on the tops of trees –
I gather damp twigs,
dry them by the fire,
chop logs.


Thick time is a way of keeping warm.
Starlings line up
in rows along the wire –
morse code of dots,
and gaps of dashes.
Then they drop
into the white sky
like the ending of a song.


There’s still joy here,
the woodpecker –
visiting and vanishing.

Piano music drops its notes
like falling birds
like snow.

Monday, 25 January 2021

More about Annemarie Schwarzenbach and The Buoyancy of the Craft


My publisher diehard asks me questions about Annemarie Schwarzenbach, and my book about her, The Buoyancy of the Craft.

Herat, Afghanistan. Photo: Annemarie Schwarzenbach 








Diehard: To what extent do you identify with Annemarie? She has travelled a lot, as you have – and in what ways is she different from you?

I first came across Annemarie as the companion to Ella Maillart (also a traveller and writer) in their overland journey from Switzerland to Afghanistan. That immediately interested me as I had made the same overland journey, 34 years after they did. Once I discovered Annemarie’s own writing, she revealed how important it was to her,  as a practice which was deeply satisfying, and as a craft which she wanted to hone and perfect.
I could also identify with her struggle in her youth, against familial expectations and the conventions of the time, basically, her need for freedom, to explore both the outer world and her inner self and psychology, to understand and find meaning and purpose in her life.
So yes, quite a lot.

There are some differences in our characters though. Annemarie tended to plunge passionately into her adventures, without always calculating the risks. I tend to be much more cautious, with a greater sense of self-preservation! 

Tallinn, Estonia. Photo:Annemarie Schwarzenbach










How much were her travels necessary and how much voluntary?

Annemarie’s first travels outside Europe were with a group of archaeologists who visited digs in  Iraq, Syria and Persia, where she later worked as an assistant archaeologist. So these travels were necessary, and she took notes which she used in her writing, both fiction and non-fiction. Travel to the Soviet Union Writers Congress in 1934 was not strictly necessary but an invitation which was hard for any writer to resist, especially one interested in what was happening in the Soviet Union at that time. Her travels as photo-journalist were to write articles about these different places. She managed to combine every journey she made with writing of some kind. But usually she picked the places she went to, the journey to Afghanistan with Ella being a good example. Before they left, the two women secured commissions from magazines to write articles, and funded the journey that way.

Danzig/Gdansk. Photo: Annemarie Schwarzenbach

How far does the politics affect Annemarie's writing?

She was not a political writer as such, but in her journalism and some of her stories, she wrote about people who suffered under Hitler’s regime just as she wrote about people in the USA who suffered from the effects of the Depression. Her articles were published in Swiss Journals and newspapers but the stories she wrote about the difficulties of Jewish people in 1930s Germany were not published in her lifetime because of the censorship. She started an anti-fascist journal Die Sammlung/The Collection, and helped to get contributors and funding for it, but asked Klaus Mann to be the editor, as she knew he would be good at it. Klaus was in exile by this time, and found a sympathetic editor in Amsterdam to publish it. After the war broke out she felt she could best play a part by using her talents as a writer and journalist, and worked as a foreign correspondent out of Lisbon and later for the Free French in the then Belgian Congo.


Edward Lear - the Vjosa river, Albania

Edward Lear - Tepelene, Albania










Does she bring to mind any Scottish or English writers who have had similar writing lives?

I can’t help thinking of Edward Lear and Bruce Chatwin, both of them great travellers and writers. I’ve also studied the life of Edward Lear, who combined making a living (through his drawings and paintings) with travel, initially for his health, and later because of the subject matter it gave him for his paintings, and because he enjoyed it. Lear is probably best known for his limericks but he was a fine writer, as his Journals testify, with a painter’s eye for landscape details, and also very funny. (See his Journals in Greece and Albania, Calabria and Crete, among others.)
Bruce Chatwin very successfully combined travel with writing but, like Annemarie, died young and so we don’t know if he would have settled anywhere later in life.

Photographs by Annemarie Schwarzenbach courtesy of Swiss National Archives.

Monday, 18 January 2021

Publication of 'The Buoyancy of the Craft'

cover photo: by Annemarie Schwarzenbach courtesy of Swiss National Archives


The Buoyancy of the Craft: The Writing and Travels of Annemarie Schwarzenbach

There is always a long list of acknowledgements to be made when a book comes out but for now, apart from the obvious thanks to my publisher, I’d also like to thank all the people involved in the production, including the design, printing and delivery. Delay was inevitable because of the pandemic restrictions. People have worked from home, worked overtime, sometimes having to isolate, and courier and mail services face huge backlogs. So many thanks to them.

Annemarie (left) & Ella Maillart from the cover of Ella's book The Cruel Way


Below are some questions that my publisher, diehard, asked me about the book. Well, one question. Others will follow!

Diehard: Where did you get the idea for the title and what does it mean?

In the first chapter I write about the necessity of a philosophy, like a boat to carry one through life’s storms and challenges. And I suggest that it might be love that gives the necessary buoyancy to our craft, our floating vehicle. Annemarie put a lot of emphasis on love in her life, not just passionate and erotic love but also love from the heart. We may not call it a philosophy but we all create a worldview based on our beliefs, life experiences and values. The strength of Annemarie’s and what gave it buoyancy, was, I believe, her passion, her love for what she did, the way she followed her heart, despite the difficulties and dangers.
In dreams, a house often represents our psyche. Vehicles of one kind or another can represent our body, and not just the physical body but the emotional one and the intellectual one, created through our beliefs and values. Some of these we may not be  conscious of, but if we dig down into our unconscious and pay attention to our dreams, we may find beliefs, attitudes and values that underpin our actions.
Annemarie studied philosophy as well as history and she had a life-long interest in the ways and patterns of the mind and feelings, the bases on which choices are made. She questioned the nature of freedom and of free will. An explorer in the realms of the mind and consciousness as well as in the physical world, she posed questions and was never didactic in her discoveries. She recognized that everyone creates their own ways and values and we are all highly individual in that sense.
A physical place of her own, a home where she could belong, was important to her and she did eventually find such a place. But up till then she spent so much of her time travelling and seeking that I felt the metaphor of a boat, a craft, a home that’s in movement, was applicable to her life as a journey. I felt, the more I read of her work, that she perceived life more as an ocean on which she sailed than dry land, with its accompanying sense of firmness and stability.
You could say her external world of travel, dangers and adventures reflected her inner tides, storms and becalmings. Perhaps she sought in the outer world what reflected her own inner experience. She certainly had agency and plenty of courage. But she also longed for a place of calmness and sanctuary, before setting off again. I’m reminded of Edward Lear’s comment in one of his many letters when he wrote I wish I had some settled aboad – at least until the last narrow box. But if I settled myself I should go to Tobago the next day.

There were many times during her life of travel when Annemarie feared that her vessel would be destroyed by the powerful ocean she was sailing on. Her most formidable challenge was loss of love, parting from those she loved, a deep sense of isolation and alienation, each time that she felt she had to begin again, to return to zero. But although there were times when she felt she was close to drowning, Annemarie’s vehicle of travel, her craft, did in fact have enough buoyancy to carry her across all the oceans in her life; storm-damaged, flooded, capsized even – it survived the storms. She shaped that craft herself, she worked hard at her understanding of life and her own nature – self-critical and idealistic, she did eventually manage to reconcile conflicting aspects of her nature, to accept herself, others, and her surroundings, to let joy into her life, to love and accept all that life brought her.
Her revelation came through the physical place she found herself in, the African Congo, that ‘dark heart’ that Joseph Conrad wrote about, it was as if she had to travel into her own darkness, to discover illumination and understanding. That is something that her compatriot the Swiss psychologist C G Jung would have understood and might even have recommended to her, had she ever consulted him (which she did not). But Annemarie found her own way there, (both literally and metaphorically) fashioning and travelling in her own craft (in both senses of the world – boat and writing) though I’m sure Jung would have appreciated the symbolism. Her inner reconciliation then led on to an outer one as she travelled to Morocco to meet up, after several years of separation, with the man she married in Tehran, Persia, seven years earlier.
Their time together was so successful and enjoyable for both of them that they agreed to meet up again a few months later. Before that, Annemarie had further things to settle and arrange in her life, back in Switzerland. A reconciliation with her mother, a novel to finish and a home to secure, a house of her own, in her beloved Swiss mountains. She succeeded in all of these. But just as she was beginning this new life it would seem that her boat, her vehicle (this time in the physical form of a bicycle) let her down. Yet it was not her fall from the bicycle, it was subsequent mis-diagnosed and brutal medical treatment that crushed her body’s capacity for recovery. She had survived the privations and dangers of travel to Afghanistan and within the Congo, but it was the treatment at home (however well-intentioned) that tested her body’s endurance beyond its limits. I wonder what Jung would have made of that symbolism.

[Copies are available directly from me, £9 which includes postage in the UK. For postage elsewhere I would keep to the minimum, only 2 or 3 pounds or euros more. Contact me with your details and I'll be happy to post one out to you.]

Sunday, 10 January 2021

January 2021 - Snow, Details & Horses


Detailed tiny snow coverings on the bare dried stalks of last year’s plants. 


The downward swoop of larch tree branches, each branch with its white layer of snowdust, every surface faithfully covered, the snow following each sweep and curve of branch.


These are days for details, not for horizon scanning or at least not in the sense of where you might go for you know you are not going any further than where your feet will take you. So to look to horizons is to see their details too, of what they hold. Today they held for a short while, 2 tiny planes and their vapour trails and because of the slope of a nearby hill, as the 2 planes curved through the sky into the distance, they then dived down to meet the horizon. 


One or two white birds, seagulls, caught the sunlight and turned silver, little sparks that crossed the sky. Which was all blue, so deep blue, a vast and empty blue above the almost unmarked white below.

What showed through the white were small patches of dark green gorse where the snow had not been able to lie, though the tops of the gorse patches were snow covered.


And then down in the valley, the ribbon of black stream water.


Parts of the stones that made up the wall around the field where the horses were, and the coats the horses were wearing (even the horses themselves were white).


But otherwise, only blue of sky and white of snow-covered hills.

Even the shadows are blue, though not as deeply coloured as the sky.


I can see traces in the snow where other creatures have been, no human footsteps, but the trails criss- crossing, circling, of rabbits or hares, and several hare paths leading downhill to the stream.


A hare highway, several tracks but no sign of anything living apart from those silver flashing drops of light in the sky. And once only, the sound of a crow carrying a long way, sounding so loud in the snow blanketed stillness, and I look up and there is a black wing crossing the blue sky.

Looking back, into the sun, the fields and the whole landscape is polished, shiny as meringue. As if the snow had been whipped and then smoothed over the land. The silence of a pristine, unmarked path.


The hare-tracked path is surely just as silent but the traces of the hares’ journeys feel almost like sound, almost as if you can hear the tracks they made, can listen to the past, their frosted breathing, their searching, their intent, an almost-sound on the empty track.

Turning back I face the sun.


It is warm on my face. The sun feels warm. That warmth is enough for me to imagine how it will gradually rise higher in the sky, how it will, eventually, take longer and longer to reach the horizon point where it will sink below it, how the arc it makes across the sky will extend, how its presence will grace us, longer and longer. I know it will never, not here, rise so high in the sky that shadows will shrink to near nothing at all, but they will be shorter than they are now and it will feel warmer. Already in January in the snow, the sun is warm on my face.