Sunday, 11 February 2018

The Past - In Blue

On a recent walk among snowy fields these sculpted snow drifts made me think of the mountains of Afghanistan, similar in shape, with their smooth and sweeping folds, though entirely different in colour and size.

Later I think of the Alps, snow-covered mountains we crept up slowly, in blizzards, chains on the tyres. We left the little village near Grenoble, the big farmhouse with its log stove and its bare trees, a few forgotten pears squelching underfoot. What was the weather forecast? Were the mountain roads passable? This was a long time ago, long before the days of the internet. We talked to people in the village, listened to the radio, asked the people we were staying with.

There were different opinions, some in favour, some not. M was not the kind of person to be put off by other people’s fears or hesitations but no-one could tell for certain how bad the snow would be in the next few days. He decided to go for it. He got hold of some chains for the tyres, I forget how. We picked up some provisions in Chamonix, snow swirling in the streets. We were lucky, the roads stayed open, the car did not get stuck in the blizzards. We reached the Mont Blanc tunnel and on the other side, we were in Italy. It was night time, we pulled off the road and slept in the back of the car. We woke in the morning to sunlight and mountains and no snow on the road at all.

Seeing the sculpted snow drifts and thinking of the Alps reminded me that I had written a story and other pieces about that time in France and in Italy and made me want to find them, so when I got home I went into the cold attic to rummage around in various boxes and folders. And I unearthed the stories and some other things too I had quite forgotten I had written. Reading these stories again gave me the feeling of reconnecting with my past. 


Tuesday, 16 January 2018

Snow and cakes

It’s been snowing almost continuously all day. Just beyond the house gardens a fairly inconspicuous little machine like a small tractor with tank treads pulling a long trailer has continued driving slowly up and down what has become a tree graveyard. Its attachment, like a metal hand with many adjustable prongs, once the tractor has stopped, can open and grip several tree trunks and deftly swing them onto the trailer.  When the tractor is moving slowly and the metal hand is not clamping and lifting trees, it swings innocuously at the end of the trailer. 

I’m sorry for the driver, out in this weather. I am more sorry for the trees, whose presence and shelter I took for granted, and for the birds who lived in them. I put bird food out several times today. These birds, my regulars, live in the large and sprawling hedge in my front garden. Perhaps they will be cosy enough there, the snow and hedge branches forming a kind of igloo.

We humans are great story makers. We create stories or narrative tales out of – let’s say perceptual material. The creative substance being the imaginative faculty, that seems to arise in the mind, working with a mixture of sense perceptions and memory. We fashion stories out of our lives, from a journey to a destination, to a visit to a friend, whatever happens, we have the capacity to shape raw material into a story.

From a young age don’t we love to listen to stories or read them? I think that creating stories of our lives we engage that higher perceptual faculty or consciousness. I remember the first time I experienced that I was about 7 or maybe 8 years old walking on my own one morning beside cliffs and sea, during the summer holidays, going into the small town to buy rolls for breakfast for the family. Feeling a sense of joy in the early morning and my surroundings I discovered that there was also an observer present, which was also myself, describing what was happening at the same time as I was living it. 

I’m not sure what links these lovely edible creations with the snow and the logs and the tree-collecting machine other than contiguity in time. The hedge branches laden with snow lean over the garden, the snow piles up on the path and I wonder how I will get to the bus stop tomorrow. Beauty in nature and beauty in creation. These cakes came all the way from Poland, (thank you so much J!) so carefully packed that only one of them was broken, the little rocking horse on the bottom left 

 I guess the snow won’t last long and the cakes certainly won’t.


Thursday, 4 January 2018

Arrival in Herat, Afghanistan

Credit: Cattle in Afghanistan by Annemarie Schwarzenbach from the Swiss National Archives

I recently discovered that, 75 years after her death in 1942, Annemarie Schwarzenbach’s photographs have been put into the public domain by the Swiss National Archive. (All the photographs on this post are from this archive.) 

I’m delighted by this as they capture a particular time in the history of Afghanistan. And because the people, the landscape and the buildings in her photographs look exactly as I remember them (whereas more modern photographs I can see online show a far more industrialized city which I do not recognize.) These photographs are a counterpart to her written descriptions and give me more information as I write about her travels, her life and the themes in her writing.

Credit: Swiss National Archive, photo by A Schwarzenbach, Herat

Incredible as it seems to me now, I did not take photographs when I travelled across Asia in the 1970s. And all the notes I wrote down were lost.

But I do remember the vast blue skies of Afghanistan. We arrived in Herat after travelling from Mashhad in Iran. In Herat, we found a place to stay, rooms in a typical Afghan dwelling on the outskirts of the city. The road outside was a dusty track. Ponies pulling the carts that were the main form of transport (gadis) had bells attached to their harness, and their jingling was the main sound I remember of Herat, especially in the evening, when there was a silence we were not accustomed to, no revving car engines, no TVs or radios, no late night revellers. There were no street lights, just the oil lamps gleaming in the chaikahns and little shops. People who walked past moved like dense shadows, almost soundlessly. Clear skies, full of stars, and the jingling of the ponies as they passed by in the street, outside the window. Where we were staying was near the tree lined avenue mentioned below and one day we hired horses and went riding in the surrounding countryside, under those peerless blue skies. 

Credit: Swiss National Archive, photo by A Schwarzenbach, Afghanistan

I remember the bread too, the flat and oval bread, I can remember how good it tasted, and the pilau rice, which was pretty much our staple diet. (Nothing in the west tastes as good.)

Credit: Swiss National Archive, photo by A Schwarzenbach, Herat

It was December but not cold. I was lucky enough to see this country when it was free and peaceful, before conflict and war began to tear it apart, beginning with the Russian invasion in 1979 and it still continues today, nearly 40 years later.

When Annemarie Schwarzenbach and Ella Maillart visited it in 1939, they took many photographs and wrote many articles. (Ella also wrote a book about their journey, The Cruel Way.) From their descriptions it had changed little in the almost 40 years between their visit and mine. But the war in Europe broke out while they were there. They both wanted to get away from the mounting tensions in Europe where already many of their friends had fled from the rising fascism in Germany. 

Once war was declared, their responses were different. Ella went on to India where she would spend the war years, in the ashram of an Indian teacher. Annemarie felt she could not as she saw it, abandon Europe to suffer alone. She felt she had to contribute to the struggle against fascism, and did so in the form of writing and photo-journalism. The piece below, which I’ve translated from Alle Wege sind Offen was written by Annemarie before war had been declared. They were newly arrived in Afghanistan and she would spend several weeks there before heading for India and travelling back to Europe by boat. 


From Alle Wege sind Offen/All the Roads are Open by Annemarie Schwarzenbach (my translation)

Herat, August 1st 1939

It's customary to date one's letters.  We've checked with each other several times and compared our personal journals, so there can be no doubt that today is the 1st August. But when will this letter reach my country?  Will the fires lit in celebration  already be forgotten, will this date appear obsolete and a little bizarre in a world that's grown accustomed to the radio?  It's a journalist's job to give information to newspapers, to be available at short notice and find outlets for their news, wherever they might be, at whatever hour of the day or night. At least, that might be the popular impression. So, here we are, not far from l'Amou-Daria, the Russian border of Turkestan and on the other side of the river there is a railway – but what importance do kilometres and timetables have here!

Credit: Swiss National Archive, photo by A Schwarzenbach, Afghanistan

At Meshad a young Iranian said to me, when he learned that we intended to drive to Afghanistan in our Ford,
'A camel is not as fast as a horse but it is more likely to reach its destination.'
Two days later we were mired in sand, in a no man's land near the Iranian-Afghan frontier post where there was not the slightest trace of any car having passed this way. By our calculations it could only be a matter of twenty or so metres, but each one of these took us almost half an hour and cost us considerable effort. That's when we could well have done with a horse or – even better – a couple of buffaloes...

Credit: Swiss National Archive, photo by A Schwarzenbach, Herat, Afghanistan

So it would surprise no-one to learn that when we finally reached Herat we felt we had good reason to light a 'celebratory fire' but it was simply too hot for that. From the yellow hills to the north of the town a constant and remorseless wind is blowing. We close all the windows in an attempt to keep a little coolness in the central room of our small house, which is completely devoid of shade. This will last for a month, the inhabitants of Herat tell us, and then we'll have a very pleasant autumn. That's why it's preferable to sleep in the afternoon and to wait for evening.

Credit: Swiss National Archive, photo by A Schwarzenbach, Herat, Afghanistan

I got up around five o'clock in the morning to drive the Ford to the chief mechanic. The shopkeepers were just opening their kiosks, filling their baskets with grapes, piling up pyramids of yellow and pale green melons, pouring milk into hanging sheepskins, and mixing in some powder and a little curdled milk from the day before to make the fresh curds ferment into whey. Men on horseback were galloping in the direction of the town centre, their white turbans floating behind them in the wind, donkeys were braying and the chief mechanic, wearing a superb grey Persian lambskin kula (sleeveless waistcoat) opened, with his helpers, the door of his courtyard. Inside, lying there in the morning sunlight, was the solitary wreck of a Chevrolet that had given up the ghost.

Our car has survived quite a few challenging situations – a sandstorm, deserts littered with  thistles and river beds filled with huge sharp stones. And only the day before, while I was crossing an ill-fated earthen bridge, the left side of the car slipped into a deep ditch, right in front of the house of the mudir we had just been visiting.  The chief mechanic tests the springs, smiles, and promises to do his best. I stay for a while and watch him working then make my way back.   Already it is almost too hot. So we wait for evening. And when the car is fixed we will leave, perhaps head north and spend the night somewhere in the mountains, where we can find shade, and where the nomads pitch their black tents.
Credit: Swiss National Archive, photo by A Schwarzenbach, Herat, Afghanistan

The evenings at Herat  are not exactly cool, but they are bathed in a golden light, and the pale moon sails above the old eroded ramparts of yellow clay, then it  floats in the direction of the foothills of the Hindu Kush, these blue mountains with spikes and peaks straight out of a fairytale. The alleyways of the bazaar are full of white turbans and respectable kulas and the streets that lead out of town vibrate a little to the rapid trotting of the splendid frisky horses which pull the two-wheeled gadis.  They head towards the pine-bordered avenue and the gardens beyond it, in this country of bare mountains. Up there, the camels of the great caravans crowd together and the bells tinkle....

Credit: Swiss National Archive - Annemarie Schwarzenbach, Afghanistan

A young Pole comes to see us – the only European in Herat, an engineer employed by the state to build roads, bridges and houses.
He asks us urgently, Have you any newspapers? Do you know what's happening in the world?
But we don't know any more than he does, it's been an effort for us even to work out the date. What political events are unfolding? But that is exactly what we want to escape from!
We're so far away here,  murmurs the young Pole, so far away!  He offers me a packet of real English cigarettes.

Credit: Swiss National Archive

To explain the significance of such a gift, here in this distant outpost of the world, would involve going into great detail. But night is falling, the wind has died down a little and the light is less intense. We're going to go out into the street, hail a gadi, one pulled by a white or piebald horse if possible.  The letters can wait, in this country time has no price tag attached to it. We are going back to the melons and peaches of Afghanistan.


Sunday, 3 December 2017

Bristol & Johnny Cope

I wanted to go to Bristol to see the Clifton Suspension Bridge. And to see other things too but in the end, there was not enough time or daylight hours or energy. We took a train from Bradford-on-Avon to the grandeur of Bristol’s Temple Meads Station, another of Isambard Brunel’s designs. And we walked through Bristol’s streets, saw its tree-lined Queen Square, its yellow sandstone buildings, its glass-fronted modern geometric architecture and one building is topped with golden unicorns.

We climbed Brandon Hill, its park and gardens, full of sunshine, and at the top, the Cabot Tower reflected in the pond just below it, where goldfish flit and swarm, and a few crows circle before landing on the grass and gazing out across the city. 


On the way to the gardens and the Cabot tower, there’s a flight of steps beside the cathedral, with elegant black painted lamps, they remind me of steps leading up to Montmartre in Paris, and the circling paths around the green hill remind me of the green area around the Sacré Coeur, and the view out over Bristol from the top of the Tower is like the view over Paris from the Place du Tertre, scaled down, and much more solitary – there are few people in the gardens – but the feeling of height and overlooking is there, the elegance in the lamps and flights of steps is there, and the same vastness to the sky can be seen from the Tower top showing the sweep and bunch and variety of cloudscape, how much like a river the sky can seem, with its flotsam that rides along the surface, the unevenness of cloud that lets in faint light or spears of light through holes, or mostly, a spread curtain of light, that moves and ripples according to the weight of wind or its pause, its meandering, its halt, where light piles up on top of itself like steps leading to an avenue, and a summerhouse of sun.

View from Cabot Tower: Suspension Bridge in the distance


In the time it takes to climb the spiral steps inside the Tower, the sky has changed completely, cloud armies have massed from all directions and the city dangles underneath the cover, a jumble of scenery from a theatre’s backroom, a tangle of philosophies.

Then we walk through the streets of Clifton, until we reach the bridge.

And here’s another careful loop of thread – the bridge over the Severn, the brickwork of the pillars, and the gentle curve of metal that keeps it all in place. The rocky sides, and far down on the earth, the mud banks, steep sand yellow and the trickle of mud-coloured river. By the time I’ve walked across the bridge and back, the sky folds shut and it begins to rain.

Early morning on the Avon river

It’s the day I have to leave the boat and go home. C wakes me up with ‘Hey Johnny Cope are you wauking yet..’ and an announcement of coffee. I shout to him about my sleeplessness, my having to get up in the middle of the night – to pee, and to refill the hot water bottle which had gone cold. I apologized for my lack of desire to converse, in the cold early hours, in the cold loo, the cold rubber bottle, cold lino under my feet, window cold to the touch, when I looked out. Because I saw a strong beam of light, which then went off, then on again. Also heard a loud bang like a boat door being closed – too fast, too hurriedly, with too much emphasis, with anger with desire to make someone else climb the steps too quickly, fling the door open, follow them out onto the frost-crisp towpath, the muddy planks, flailing arms, furiously, with boots and spanners, logs and bottles at the ready to be used as emphasis or as defence – or perhaps wrapped with shawl or towel or blanket, to entreat their return.

I knew, I said, when I had that late evening cup of tea, I would need to get up during the night, I knew I would regret it…
Oh…. Says C, breaks into song ….je regrette tout, je regrette ma vie, c’est comme ça, oui…..
I go on,… je regrette le thé, et surtout café au lait
je regrette toujours/ ce que j’ai fait,/ le thé, café,/les coups donnés, en bref/ tous ce que j’ai jamais fait…

Morning coffee. Scrambled duck eggs, toast. Pack. Repack. To the station. Catch the train. Change at Bristol.

At Sheffield, the ticket collector announces ‘if you are alighting here please check you have all your personal possessions, please do not leave behind any small children old people or other wild animals.’

I’m reading Rory Stewart’s The Marches. And here’s a coincidence. On page 64 he quotes the words of the same song that C had sung earlier.  We learned it in school, but don’t exactly hear it often. I wonder if they still teach it in schools?

Hey Johnny Cope are you waukin’ yet?
or are your drums a-beating yet?

Sir John Cope commanded the government troops at the battle of Prestonpans, near Edinburgh, fighting Bonnie Prince Charlie and his army in 1745. He was defeated by the Jacobites because he apparently slept in, or at least slept too late, as the Jacobites made a surprise dawn attack.

He slept too long, he missed the dawn,
he didn’t see the sun rise or hear the first bird song.
He might have had a restless night
stayed up too late,
and worried at the coming day,
to lead his men into a battle,
heard his horse move in the darkness,
sensing the day to come
would not be an easy one.
How could he take his horse
into the fight, carry him, his armour
and his sword, when his heather bed
was soft, but damp and he could hear
owls calling in the night?
What if it rained? Turning hard ground
underfoot to mud? Perhaps he only fell asleep
just before first light. Pulled himself
from dreams too late,
the fight already started, and already,
it was over.
As if the stars had written it
all night, in their slow scrawl
across the sky.

Canal reflection in Bath


Saturday, 25 November 2017

Bradford-on-Avon and the Kennett & Avon Canal

Bradford-on-Avon, frosty morning

All the tree colours, the length of the canal, from Limpley Stoke Bridge, to here, Bradford-on-Avon. Green yellow and orange of the beech trees. Pale green and light yellow of the hazel trees, with thin trunks growing in clusters and light falling like stars on the ground. 

A night cloud (one that pulls the light across the sky like a curtain, coming from the south west) has a face, and its eye has a star-shaped pupil. When the sun finally disappears, it leaves a frosted red canopy, a scarf of memory, of indulgence, like burnt time, the embers of all it has left behind.

A silent squirrel, in the village of Whimsy, runs along a wall and rustles up a tree, a cavorting leaf. A second one, displaying a different emotion, hot-pawed, clatters along the wall, performs a squint and clumsy pirouette around the same tree. The sky is bare blue, no wind in this silent village and no signs of human life.
Until that is, we reach the 7 Stars inn, sit at an outside table, sun warm on our faces, eat cake, drink local cider.

The path through the beech wood tumbles downhill, stones, mud, a canopy of fallen leaves. The grass fields are vivid green. In the valley, there’s the railway, the canal, with its clump of boats settled on its surface like coloured mistletoe and the road, with its hum of sound tunnelling through fields and forest, dipping underground, a low growl – I’d like to take you on a slow boat to China plays through my head – before that it was Parchment Farm ‘ain’t gonna do no-one no harm’ - the hazel leaves have serrated edges, often with points at the top – often, but not always – rounded and lace-edged.

Leaves of another plant are divided – one half green, the other pink, in the garden near the Cross Guns inn, by the aqueduct at Avoncliff, where the train stops sometimes, but not always and you can walk across the track. Canal water, quite still in no hurry, is carried aloft on the aqueduct, above the railway, over the river, and leaves float almost unmoving, in the unrestless water, unpulled by tide or moon, or any longed-for destination. 

The leaves are coloured green, yellow, orange and red. And sometimes russet brown. They float, exotic stitches, dropped in the languid waterway that links and crosses the countryside, an erratic lace pattern of leys and loops and crossings out, a script that wanders, marks the passageways, the runnels and the ditches of time’s notches and its crossings, its noughts and stitches, its crosses and its kisses.

Sometimes, in winter evenings, wood in the stove turning red just like the sunset, and the boat tips just a little, just reminds you that you’re afloat, I feel there are good thing brought in by time, through some vents or apertures I cannot see but I’m reminded of by floating leaves, as if they mask a drain that water flows through, can’t resist, the way light can’t resist the lure of the horizon, when the sun tugs light, to go with it. Through the cracks and veins, the gaps and contours of time’s swell, as subtle as the rocking of this boat the good things slip and settle, dip and breathe. And outside, the Pleiades, low down in the winter sky.

Friday, 3 November 2017

More International Literature from the Edinburgh Book Festival

Art nouveau tiles from Poznan, Poland

Rory McLean is a travel writer whose books include historical research, personal memoir and fine imaginative language. I first read Stalin’s Nose, a mixture of memoir and travel in Eastern Europe, several years ago. After that it was Magic Bus, a book about the people who travelled overland to India in the sixties and seventies, their motives and experiences, the landscape and history of the places they travelled through. This was followed by Falling for Icarus, in some ways a tribute to the island of Crete and it’s a glorious mixture of personal challenges and people he met and got to know when he lived there, with an exploration, as you’d imagine from the title, of the mythology of the island.

At the Edinburgh Book Festival in August 2017, he talked about his latest book, Pictures of You. As he walked towards the stage with Gerard de Groot who introduced him, the first thing you notice is his beaming smile. He looks towards the audience as he might towards a group of close friends, genuinely pleased that you are here. He began by introducing the Archive of Modern Conflict which he said, you probably have not heard of. This is because the archive is still in the process of being sorted and catalogued and is not yet open to the public although you can apply for access if you have a particular project in mind. The archive was created by someone with an interest in collecting photographs of the last century. Initially coming across a few old photographs which piqued his interest, he took to buying up whole collections from auctions and the huge archive which he has amassed contains photographs from all parts of the world. Rory was given free rein of the archive, with the one condition being that he preserved the anonymity of the owner. There are plans, once the archive has been fully catalogued, to open it to the public as the anonymous owner wants these photographic memories ‘to reverberate in the modern age’.

Rory’s project was to select a few photographs, one from each decade of the last century. Taking the few facts available for each one he used these photographs as a starting point, tried to put himself into the shoes of these people, and imagined stories from their lives. He wanted ‘to try to feel what it is like to be another person’.  His fascination he said is with how a past place felt like. Gerard talked of his ‘depth of feeling’ regarding his project and his ‘emotional investment’. Rory said that for him, such investment is an essential part of the process. It is through people he said, that we can really understand a place and a time, through imagining what it was like to be that particular individual in a particular time.

I’ve been to several talks in the Book Festival now but Rory’s was particularly warm, as was his quality of engagement when he responded to questions and comments by the audience.

Rory MacLean



Elena Lappin’s memoir What Language do I Dream In charts a journey through different countries and languages. Beginning with her birth in Russia, she moved with her parents to Prague in Czechoslovakia then to Hamburg, Germany. As an adult, she has lived in Israel, Canada and now resides in London. Not surprisingly given her varied experience of languages she studied linguistics. In her talk at Edinburgh Book Festival she began by saying that it’s through language that we feel and perceive reality, for when we speak different languages we experience everything differently – as the way we think, express ourselves, the way we relate to people and even the humour, is framed and shaped according to the structures of the language we are speaking. Language teaching is so important she says as it’s a gateway to another culture. I feel this is particularly relevant to the UK, as we do not focus on learning other languages in schools as they do in mainland Europe and however good our education may be in other fields, we miss out both on the skills and the understanding and so, tolerance, of other cultures.

The main impetus for her to write this memoir was the discovery when she was in her 40s, that the person who brought her up as a child, her mother’s husband, was not her biological father. This revelation led her to research what had been kept hidden from her in her own background as she was growing up and the consequences it had for herself and for her family.

Despite the many displacements in her early years, she says her childhood and family life was very happy. There was no judgement by her Russian Jewish maternal grandparents, of her mother having an illegitimate child, she was welcomed into the family and spent a lot of time with her grandparents, until she and her mother moved to Prague, to join the man she would know as her father. She saw little of her grandparents after that, for even though Czechoslovakia was behind the iron curtain, there were restrictions on travel and visas were difficult to obtain. In the Prague Spring of ‘68, for a brief period, borders opened up, there was a free press and her history teacher said that if they wanted to know about history they should read novels. But the period of open-ness was short-lived as Russian tanks moved into Prague, and she moved with her family to Hamburg in 1970. She said her parents had a talent for creating fun and joy around them, there were always lots of people and parties in their home and lots of good food. In Hamburg, after a short time when things were difficult, they recreated this atmosphere. While it was easier for her as a young person in her teens, to learn this new language, she said it would not have occurred to her parents not to learn German, the language of the new country they lived in. And she stressed the importance for all immigrants to learn the language of the country they lived in, for otherwise they would be cut off from the society around them.
I first read the opening chapter of this memoir here which draws you into the story of a warm, resilient and supportive family, tracing an astonishing trajectory through wars and conflicts and across continents and languages.

Elena Lappin



Daša Drndić is a Croatian writer who has written several novels and her latest, Belladonna, has just been translated into English. When asked about the ‘story’ of her book, she says passionately ‘My book doesn’t have a story – I’m against this infatuation with a storyline!’ Her writing she says is fragmented, to reflect the reality of our lives. While her book doesn’t have ‘a story’ it is full of stories – ‘little stories about little people, who really make history’.  She has deliberately chosen a disruptive form – she is against linear construction. For it is not the form of a work, she says, but how something is written, that makes literature.

Passionate and refreshingly outspoken she says that literature should be offensive, should upset and provoke, should make people react. And while you cannot be a writer without empathy, she is not interested in reading love stories, for she is too troubled by what is happening in the world. She feels these ‘ugly times’ we are living in are reminiscent of the 1930s.

And while, she says, there has always been immigration, what we have now, the immigration from Africa and the Middle East, that’s a boomerang, what we did in the past is coming back to us.  The ‘army of impoverished people’ must not and cannot be ignored. People should react – within the law – she says, but she fears a new and bloody revolution is coming.

The extract she reads from Belladonna describes the shifting populations and territories in Europe – from Poland to Germany, from Germany to Netherlands, from Somalia to Netherlands, and shifting political ideologies too. Threaded into these movements and migrations is the question of complicity with regimes that oppress other people and the Nazi regime in particular.  And she says it is so relevant right now, to remember what happened in Europe in the 30s and 40s, for if we really remember – not the ‘ossified structure’ of history but the real history through the painful, upsetting and desperate stories of actual people, we can hopefully stop it from happening again.

When someone in the audience asks her what she does read, since she doesn’t read fiction she replies immediately, I didn’t say I don’t read fiction. (She had said that she didn’t read love stories.) What do you think fiction is? she asks, and then answers her own question. ‘What we call fiction is something that the writer has experienced or heard or has empathized with – it’s not an invention. And’ she says ‘I don’t believe in inspiration. Writing is solitary, it’s tough, and you work at it.’

She also mentions that she has been to Albania and talked to writers who were imprisoned as political prisoners. When I ask her if she met Fatos Lubonja she responds immediately, yes, I did meet him, he wrote the book Second Sentence about his experiences in the Albanian gulag. And she says that she is going to write about that in her next book. Now that is something to look forward to!

Daša Drndić

Saturday, 28 October 2017

Shaping the Water Path review

Review in Stride Magazine blogspot ( you can read the rest of the review here) by Angela Topping

Shaping the Water Path, Morelle Smith (£5, diehard)


Morelle Smith is a well-travelled poet, and writes very often of places she has lived or spent time in. This latest book concerns places nearer home: Scotland, Chester, Wales, as well as a few further flung places like Corfu. Her poems are very visual and tactile, for instance she describes grass as ‘coiffed with frost’, in ‘Bird Morning, Bird Night’. She looks squarely into the eye of the storm, and is drawn to wildness, in weather, place and often uses these to lift off into metaphor, as in ‘Memorials of Kosova’, where, on a day of heavy rain, she notices the marks of war on buildings, a roofless house where  a family was ‘gunned down’ but concludes with this image:

     We leave history behind.
     Back in the city, in the present
     damp pavements glow
     while evening’s troops move in, silently
     meet no resistance.

Street in Pristina, Kosovo    

Cake in Pristina cafe