Friday, 12 December 2008

60th Annniversary of the Declaration of Human Rights

December 10th 2008 marked the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Article 19 states:
Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression, and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.
An event was held on 10th December at Edinburgh's independent bookshop Wordpower, to commemorate this anniversary.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights has apparently been translated into more languages than any other document. The most translated poem ever is entitled June, and was written by Shi Tao, a Chinese poet who has been imprisoned for the past 10 years, for his writings. International PEN promotes freedom of speech and lobbies on behalf of imprisoned writers; the Scottish branch of PEN is championing his cause. (If you would like a postcard of this poem, to send to the Chinese ambassador in Britain, please contact, giving your mailing address, and one will be sent to you.)

At this event we were reminded that the Turkish writer Orhan Pamuk (well before he was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 2006) had been on trial for mentioning the Armenian genocide; the charges were later dropped. A Libyan journalist was imprisoned and tortured for his writings on the internet, and died soon after his release. Another Chinese writer wrote an email via yahoo, that the authorities did not like. The email was traced but only because yahoo allowed it to be. The writer of that email is now in prison. Does this make you feel uneasy? It does me. Doesn't it raise questions of responsibility of these large companies who offer the freedom of email and internet access? Don't freedom and responsibility go together?

Yahoo, which many of us use, brings these issues closer to home. Also very close to home is the case of the Welsh poet Patrick Jones who was due to read at the Cardiff branch of Waterstone's, but whose reading was cancelled after a letter of protest was sent by a Christian group who called his poems 'blasphemous'. (However, he signed copies of his book collection in the street instead.) And today he read at the Welsh Senedd. There were protests, but the reading went ahead. You can read more about this at the link below.

A few days ago I went for a walk in Dalkeith Park, to celebrate the ability to walk again, after recovery from a flu bug. The sun is always low in the sky at this time of year in this northern latitude, but at one point, it was below the bridge and could not be seen, but its reflection on the water was very clear. This is the photograph I took, and these are the words that came to mind. To me, the sun is the great giver of life. I hope no-one will consider the words blasphemous!

Saturday, 22 November 2008

Archways and Amphitheatres

Archways and Amphitheatres

(Old church, Butrint, Albania)

The fast train to Chester heads through the mountains of the lake district. Whether you go by road or rail you always pass through a valley like a natural theatre, where you're not up on the peaks looking down and you're not at the foot of the valley but somewhere in between and there is this very specific feeling that belongs to this location only and it may be because the first time I only really noticed it was one autumn day many years ago, when M and I travelled south in a green car with a sun and moon painted on the bonnet.

The music that was playing – and perhaps it's a quality of the kind of tunnel formed by the mountain sides – was amplified suddenly and I went floating upwards on this music, as if it had been a pair of wings. Perhaps I should have realised that its hallucinatory effect was signalling something about this trip – that something big, something important was going to happen. But I did not, so that events in London came as a complete surprise. Only weeks after this trip, M, F and I in the same car with its sun and moon, were driving over the snow-packed Alps, chains on the tyres, wondering if the road was going to remain passable.

This experience has branded this swathe of valley for me – or it's a quality of the valley itself, more likely, for it never fails to affect me. It has wide wings and it lifts me up, every time. If you travel on the road, you are higher up, and there is always this pause and silence as you spread out into the grandeur. The train track is lower down, but you can look over and see the tiny toy trucks crawling along the mountainside and you feel the same hush sweep into you and sweep you up. These guardian mountains.

This time the train ran close to the river for a while, and I thought of the Rivertrain in Slovenia, which followed the Sava's twists and turns, faithfully, a momentary nostalgia for that closeness of traintrack and river. And for a moment I felt what it felt like then, an expansive excitement that belongs to the huge continent of land because I could see the Sava so clearly in my imagination, that the feeling came along with it as well.

This track was different, and it did not follow the river, it had its own direct intent, and it swept over the river, and then moved away from it. But that sudden sense of expansion, that too, was a signal.
I'd like to write a narrative account of the next few days, but narrative is tricky, or so I find, as life has heaps of flotsam caught in its river branches, then there's the eddies and currents and spirals of moving water, the litter and the logjams, as well as the abrupt winged ascents through mountain funnels.

There was the huge Moon appearing behind the leafless tree on the other side of the train track at Shotton as we waited for the train to Birkenhead. The thin black lines of the tree branches patterned the rosy cream bubble of wonder that appeared out of the earth, like its very own pearl, hovering like a newborn thought that you imagined was your own. For a second you see how nothing at all is yours and how you belong to everything, especially when this pale-white guardian reminds you that you are held in place, even as the river water catches breath and bubbles, twigs and branches, in its wake, pinned with the gold jewels of fallen leaves, the hatpins of the river cargo.

The outer narrative frays at the end though the inner one gears up for a more epic, less mundane appearance. Girth-straps are tightened and the stirrups are thick with grease and dried sweat and the leather creaks beneath you as you settle into the saddle.

The first train is cancelled and we walk to the next platform, wait for a different train to Chester. The ticket-collector is impressively helpful, when he asks where we are going. I've no idea, but M pulls out the invitation. We're heading for the Guild Hall, Oliver Street, in Birkenhead. Ah then, says the ticket collector, you'll get off at Hootton, the trains aren't running though so it'll be a bus instead, you'll get it just outside Chester Station. Then from Hootten you take the train to Hamilton Square, get off there and you'll need to get another bus to Conway Park. That's your nearest stop, Conway Park.

So we get off at Chester and wait outside again, clutching our tickets and scribbled list of destinations, our narrative frayed now with excitement and this time, it's not the bulge of moon on the horizon but the bluish light illuminating the façade of the Grand Hotel across the road from Chester station. We climb up to the top deck of the two-storey bus and watch the weaving lights of the city streets, then dark gaps, then small towns we pass through. We have no idea of where we are.

I'd given a talk to the I*D writers group the day before- about travelling and writing – about buses and trains in India and Pakistan, Slovenia, Croatia, Italy and the Adriatic ferry to Albania, the amphitheatre at Durres. Chester has an amphitheatre as well, says someone, and it comes to me on this rocking bus, that this is possibly the Roman Amphitheatre shuttle bus, veering on some branch line of the Via Appia. When the bus stops we ask is this Hootton and someone says I've no idea and someone else says no and we only know that we've arrived at Hootton when we pass the Hootton Inn and everyone piles off and its a tiny station and a little train is waiting for us.
(The amphitheatre at Butrint, Albania)
After talking about travel I give people pictures of doorways and archways, so they can exercise their skills of detailed description and amazing scenes and characters, feelings and atmospheres emerge from these simple doors and arches.

These transition places, in the minds of poets, conflagrate, arrive in molten images that take my breath away and here we are, on a stately night bus, swirled around with lights. The full Moon like the sentinel, giving us the go-ahead.

The day before I'd quoted Erik Hansun (Stranger in the Forest)
“ Destination is merely a by-product of the journey”
and we wondered, laughing on the Amphitheatre Shuttle bus, if we would find a destination in this unknown and this darkness, beaded with lights.
(Archway, Chester)

Monday, 27 October 2008

Dublin Trains

From a history lesson at school I remember being told that when the calendar was changed, from Julian to Gregorian – or was it the other way round? - you see how some things stick but others do not – anyway, it meant a readjustment of the calendar, so that eleven days had to be skipped. And people were out in the streets, protesting. Give us back our eleven days, they shouted. I have a sneaking sympathy for such sentiments. Now that the clocks have changed there is this sense of deprivation, of having 'lost' some daylight, precious at this time of year. So I have not changed my alarm clock, sneakily 'gaining' an extra hour of light.

For the past few days I've been editing some travel pieces I wrote years ago. I'm thinking of including 'gravy train' in the title, if I can find out what that means. Meanwhile, here's another train extract.

Dublin Trains
We are becoming such travellers, so good at shuffling in and out of seasons, that it's playing havoc with my driving. I have to think, before moving out into the road. It's no longer automatic, as to what side of the road I should drive on.

But as I prefer not to drive in cities anyway, I take the train or bus whenever possible and today its the squeely train from Tara St. station, not the nimble, lightly-sprung Dart train, with its green and yellow sides and its slanty lettering giving the impression of pure and unalloyed swiftness, one-pointedness and intent, wind in the hair and arrows flying through the air - no, today its the lumbering, heavy-footed mainline train, that squeals its metal bulk to a slow, oh so slow, standstill, making people put their hands over their ears and cry out. Not that I did either. I was secretly delighted to be boarding this ancient carriage, pinnacle of the pioneering, adventurous spirit that created trains and railways in the first place - vehicles of adventure, lined with soft fabric like fake fur, with high-backed seats that made you feel you were alone, in the nice way of being alone, the pleasant way, the unintruded-upon way, that is essential for travelling within the privacy of your own make- believe world, your own fantasy-world, populated by whatever friends, ghosts, demons and daring feats of adventure you care to think up.

In the modern trains, the fast dash, the light slipping of metal on the rails, there are no high-backed seats, the carriage is open and so your thoughts are too, or so it feels, and you have to guard them, or slip behind held-up newspapers and, in this hot weather, you stick uncomfortably to the plastic seats. You also hear other people's conversations which you do not want to hear.

But in these magnificent old trains, with their bulk, solidity, sense of grand purpose and unoiled brakes, you are still travelling in the grand style and I look out at the rooftops and through the gaps in the buildings and we stop at Pearse Station, with another stately entrance and loud announcement of our intention to stop and with an equally slow, regal, unhurried departure.
Through gaps in buildings I see Kitty O'Shea's pub, just across the road from the recording studio, and a little further on, the Spar Store where I've shopped for French bread, cheese, orange juice and chocolate and slowly, oh so slowly, the great king of the train world pulls up at Landsdowne Rd which is my stop and I get off, go through the subway to the other side and walk up the tree-lined avenue, pretending I am coming home from a busy day at work.

Monday, 29 September 2008

Train Tracks of Time

“It is as if [time]” writes Claudio Magris, in Danube “were composed of a great number of railway-lines, intersecting and diverging, carrying it in various and contrary directions.”

Magris goes on to say that the train of time moving into the future “every so often meets another train coming in the opposite direction, from the past, and for a short while that past is with us, by our side, in our present.”

When you watch the surface of a slowly flowing river you can see little eddies, tiny whirlpools that circle around before resuming their course. It seems to me quite possible that time moves in a similar way, with spiral dances where so-called past returns and is in our present, now, only it's not the same because we see it with the eyes of our present awareness. Look at photographs of your own past and you see, not just the image, but your awareness then, at the time you took the photograph. You remember the mood at that moment.

On a walk near St Antonin, you remember the feeling of vertigo as you crept forward to the edge of the cliff, to look down on the river

and the heat when the sun came out from behind the big clouds, and the way the butterflies danced out over the abyss with no signs of vertigo, and when the blue ones closed their wings they became straw coloured.

these reflections in the Aveyron of buildings of St Antonin, and of sky, were taken in early evening, as the sun was going down.

And this is rue frézal, early one sunny morning.

Friday, 29 August 2008

Rouen, Aller et Retour

Rouen, Aller et Retour

The train was packed. Several people were standing in the aisles already. She stood there, a small, slight woman, with light brown skin and a clear complexion, black hair piled on her head, dark eyes, long earrings. Next to her was a girl of about ten and two small boys. She was talking to the man sitting next to me and I wasn't really paying attention. But their voices became louder, she was clearly insistent. So I began to listen. She was saying that she had reserved seats for her and her three children. The man sitting next to me, with his small son perched on his knee, said that she should see the contrôleur if she had any complaints. Their voices became raised. The man's was louder but hers was penetrating and unyielding. I realised that she was referring not just to the seat the loud-voiced man was defending, but mine too, as well as two on the other side of the aisle. I asked to see her tickets. The reserved numbers were clearly written there, whatever the man might say. No question about it then, I stood up. The man next to me went on arguing, but eventually moved his knees just enough to let me squeeze past. I stood in the aisle, along with several other people.

The couple in the seats on the other side of the aisle do not seem to understand French. Il faut les quitter! insists the woman, looking at them very directly. The couple avoid her gaze, look at each other, say something I don't catch, the woman shakes her head slightly, then gazes out of the window. The man, who wears glasses and looks to be in his early fifties, abruptly says quite loudly 'shut up!' This doesn't faze the woman with the reserved seats, she possibly doesn't understand it. Since they clearly know some English I try to explain to them that she had reserved these seats, and paid extra for the reservations. Strangely, the couple do not look at me either. Still without looking at me the woman then says there's normally a ticket on the back of the seat, to indicate its reserved.
Non, jamais, says a young woman with two small children, sitting in front of the seat that had so recently been mine. The couple, who I guess from their accent are Dutch, disagree with this.

The two small boys have squeezed themselves into my vacated seat. The contrôleur appears at the end of the carriage. He is greeted by several raised voices. But he is, surprisingly to me – not very helpful to the reserved seats woman. Someone makes a remark about his 'bulot', to the effect that he is not doing his job. Clearly, this is a supporter of the reserved seats woman. The contrôleur calls out, who's saying I'm not doing my job? And he's trying to sound officious but you can tell that he's clearly exhausted from battling his way through several packed carriages and doesn't really have the stomach for an argument. The vociferous young woman supporter has no hesitation about repeating what she's said. The contrôleur squeezes past us, and has nothing to reply to the advocating young woman taking the part of Madame la réservée. He is clearly not going to prise people out of their seats, but Madame la réservée is not giving up either. She points at the seats occupied by the man and the Dutch couple. The woman with the two children repeats that its not fair, they should give them up. The man who was sitting next to me eventually does get up. But the Dutch couple refuse to look anyone in the eye. The contrôleur is looking a little wild eyed by this time, turns his back and continues pressing past more bodies, which incline over others, to let him through. Madame la réservée raises her voice, although I can't make out what she is saying, as several people are speaking at the same time. Allez en première classe, the contrôleur throws over his shoulder.
But that's right at the other end of the train, Madame la réservée says, why should I go there, with my children and my luggage, squeezing past all the people standing up in all these carriages, when my seats, the ones I paid to reserve, are right here!

The contrôleur's grey uniform recedes, vanishes among the press of bodies, but he repeats – allez en première classe. But she is adamant, she is going nowhere.
Well, says the young woman with two children sitting in front of my ex-seat, moi alors, je vais en première, si elle ne veut pas.
And she stands up, starts gathering up her things.
Do you think we can? I say doubtfully.
Mais oui, bien sur, she says.

So she organizes her children and her things and they move out, I follow her, another young woman follows me and we all begin the long passage, moving past the people standing in the aisles. Madame la réservée moved into the seats vacated by the young woman and her children, so they now all had seats. The journey through the twelve carriages seemed endless. As well as the people standing in the aisles, there were also people squeezed into the little passages between the carriages, some standing, some sitting on the floor. Luggage is piled on the floor, a white dog lies on the floor. And so we make our way through the carriages and finally arrive in the first class seats. I sit down thankfully, stretch my legs in the extra leg room.


P is giving me a lift to the station to catch the train back from Rouen to Paris. We should have left the house ten minutes earlier but P says - Its OK I have a feeling you will catch the train. He has a feeling and I too have a feeling but it isn't certainty, it's uncomfortable, and difficult to trust. It's rush hour and the traffic hardly moves. P swings the van into another lane. He drives it past a stationary truck and the window bangs the side of the truck. I flinch. It's fine he says, ne t'inquiète pas. I take deep breaths.
Now when you get to the station he says, the platform numbers will be displayed on a screen.
Yes yes I think, I know this.
Do not waste a minute, just go straight there.
I won't have a minute to waste I think, there's only about two minutes left before the train leaves but I will have to pause to read the screen.
P screeches up to the station. I grab my bags, lean over to kiss him, stumble out of the van and start to run to the entrance, turn back to wave. My trousers are too loose for running in and I have to hold them up with one hand. Once inside, I see the platform number clearly displayed, it's platform 1, but I cannot find out where to go to reach it. Arrows pointing in various directions to platforms 2, 3 and 4, but where to go for platform 1? Waste valuable seconds going in the wrong direction, then doubling back. One minute to go. Arrive at platform, stick ticket in composter machine. It refuses it. Tournez a l'autre sens it says. Fuming I turn the ticket round, the machine clicks, I run onto the platform but it's empty. I ask someone about the Paris train. It's late they say. But only a minute later a train pulls in. I get on, plenty of seats here. Ah success! But there's an announcement of the stations the train will stop at, as usual almost impossible to make out what's being said, but I'm sure it does not mention Paris. I ask another passenger if this is the Paris train, no he says, it's going to Le Havre. Leap off. Another train arrives. Is this the Paris train I ask someone, no they say, it leaves from the platform opposite. And points. A different platform? How was I supposed to know this? I go to the next platform and see from the illuminated sign that the train waiting here really is going to Paris. Ah relief! I get on the train. Then an announcement says, all passengers for Paris get off and see the contrôleur. So I get off, along with many others, who are crowded around two contrôleurs, and I've arrived too late, I can't hear what he is saying so I ask the silent one, and he explains that yes, you can get that train but it won't get into Paris till 8.10. The other train, the original one, is delayed and they don't seem to know when it will arrive. It was supposed to leave at 5.58 and reach Paris just after 7.00. But this train is definitely going to Paris? I ask. Yes. So I get back on. Better a slow train than an indefinite one.

Paris Morning

Paris Morning

Paris morning, late summer. The traffic sounds from the street, coming in the open window. The klaxons of impatient drivers have their own kind of language – the tiny taps, almost like a polite cough, the short, bright ones, like a greeting, short double ones, like a willingness to converse, and long plangent ones with a lugubrious and deeply felt frustration behind them, a deep annoyance at all that impedes their forward progress.

The sunlight drawls and hesitates, comes out to play, and then is pulled apart like loose wool, by the tribes of clouds, some thin and indistinct, others deep and massing, biblical and serious. So that both sighs and laughter travel across the sky.

The leaves of the chestnut trees are crimped around the edges with a glorious burnt russet shade, which make the little pale green spiked balls of the chestnut covers, stand out against the dark green and russet gold of the leaves. Other trees, that look like elm, have glints of yellow gold like lodged sunlight, little unexpected flickers of light among the smooth and patterned greenness of their leaves.
My days are also flecked with light and shade, patterns drift and freeze and waver across the polished wooden floor, and over the books I'm reading, lying there.

Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita
mi ritrovai per una selva oscura....”

“Mauro lui avait dit la vérité. Rome était inondée de soleil.” - (Ornela Vorpsi)

“[to] feel for a moment free of the shadow falling between the idea - or word – and the thing itself” (Harriet Rubin)

“sunlight through stained glass
fragrance of oranges”
(Alan Spence)

“Heart, since you embraced the mysteries,
you have become useless for anything else” – (Rumi)

A red rose seller walking down the avenue d'Ivry wears a red jacket with a red hood.

The leafy metal of the balcony is art nouveau. Its shadow is art insolite.

Thursday, 14 August 2008

St Antonin Noble Val

St Antonin Noble Val

JR heads east to Germany and I spend two days in Paris. I leave S's apartment on the avenue d'Ivry and walk up to the Gare d'Austerlitz, board the train for Caussade. I buy a newspaper which I'm glad of, for the book I've brought to read turns out to be rather pedestrian. The sun shines fulsomely all day, and its still deliciously hot when I arrive in Caussade. I head for the road to St Antonin, think some positive thoughts, and stick out my thumb. Three or four cars go past in as many minutes. Then one pulls over. A gallant Frenchman, you see, they still exist. A friendly youngish man, cheerful, he smiles a lot and yes, he's going in my direction, not quite as far as St Antonin, but he can take me to the turnoff. He's on holiday, he's going to some event called Le Fil de l'Eau, which is about the history of the past century. He is determined to practice his English, as he says he once spent a week in England, doing a language course. I slip a few English phrases in, to encourage him. After a while I tell him I'm Scottish which immediately and predictably brings an enthusiastic response. Since he's not in a hurry, he decides to go out of his way and take me all the way to St. Antonin.

Memories come back as I walk along the narrow cobbled streets. The newsagents, an art gallery, a shop selling all kinds of fancy soap, the main square, with its crowded café seats, the agence immobilier. P's house has a few cobwebs outside the door and I make a mental note to dust it down. Open the door into the kitchen, and put down my bags, with relief. Open the shutters, open the kitchen window, to let the warmth in and the air circulate. I've arrived.


The first day's 'petite randonnée' started at the bridge over the river L'Aveyron, and climbed up to the Roc d'Anglars - the white rocky cliffs opposite St. Antonin - taking a tree shaded path. There were all kinds of different butterflies, black and white, lapis blue, russet brown.

When a russet brown one landed on the path it was utterly indistinguishable from the reddish stones. And the ones that were sky blue as they fluttered around, disappeared completely when they landed on one of the white flowers, almost cream coloured, with long thin stalks and round bursting balls of flowers, like fireworks which have just gone off. The outsides of the wings of the sky blue butterflies are creamy yellow with faint bubbly markings so that it is almost indistinguishable from its creamy flower hosts, with their straggly and untidy hair. So the russet ones were on the path with reddish stones, the black and white ones on the flat plateau where the stones were whitish and grey and veined with dark seams, and the lapis blue and creamy ones clearly lived among the white flowers with the wild hairdos. Not so much adapted as reciprocal. I wonder if we do the same, even if unconsciously? I feel sure we do. We blend in with the land, we adopt its postures and its slopes, its vegetation colours, its roughness, its dryness, its temperature and its patterns. The land moulds and shapes us smooths and whittles us, turns us into its own.


You don't need the church bells to tell you its midday. The sacredness of that hour is announced by the sudden quietness in the streets. The neighbours are no longer talking to each other, children are no longer playing outside, all the shops are closed and a solemn silence reigns. C'est l'heure du diner. A pigeon coos. You can hear the houses breathing. A fly that's come in the open window, careering around. Then falling silent, once it's found its way out again.

This street is so narrow that there's only just room for a car to pass. As the street actually ends up in the river, (though there is a possibility of turning right before you do) there's not much traffic. But there are tourists who walk past, yes even in this hour between midday and one o'clock. As the kitchen is on the ground floor, they pass only inches away from my window, and sometimes they look inside. It surprises me how quickly I've adopted a nonchalance in the face of this blatant curiosity. At first I felt as vulnerable as a snail whose shell had turned colander, but it no longer bothers me and sometimes I don't even register it any more. I wonder if this habituation is at the root of the colouration of the butterflies as reddish brown as dead leaves and stones, or the blue ones whose wings are straw coloured on the outside.

This morning I heard a loud American voice outside the window. He was a tour guide, informing his tour that this façade was typical 15th century, and further down there used to be a small leper's colony. Oh really? I think, peering down the street at the ex-leper's colony. Maybe that's why it so conveniently ends up in the river.

Arrival in France

We get a little lost in London, miss the turnoff for the South Circular. Double back, find it, and eventually reach Clapham, where JR is leaving the sitar with a friend. He doesn't want to take it all the way to Germany, where he's giving a workshop, but he'll need it afterwards for a gig in England. The sitar is dropped off and we find our way out of London again, head for Dover. The ferry is a fast one, rather small, with two forward prows like the horns of some snail-like creature, testing the waters it's about to sail through.

Not much more than an hour later, we're in France. The roads are empty, there's an enormous vista of green fields all around and the evening sun throws long thin shadows of plane and poplar trees, over the fields. The landscape undulates, the shadows are pencils, threads, dark lines that go on and on, find the horizon and keep going. Something about these lines, the way they dip and curve with the land, the way they stretch and shiver, turn into snakes, turn over, bask in this long evening light, takes me with them, horizontal shadows grow in me too and I am stretched over the hills, the thundering motorway traffic, the narrow crowded little island left far behind. We expand into this enormous evening light, into the green waves of hills, all empty and quiet, like being released from a tormented madness, into a blessed peace. The hills dip and rise, dip and curve slightly, rained on with that special light of late evening, that seems to fold a little, to follow the landscape's curves, folds like something almost material, woven out of light with slender shadow seams.

Have you noticed I say, how as soon as one is on the mainland of Europe, the horizon becomes much much bigger? It expands so far that you think that you can see almost to where the land ends, almost to the sea?
JR has not noticed. He is about to denounce this as a perceptual illusion, I can tell by a kind of stiffness he emanates into the air around him.
It's to do I say with an air of authority, with the physical landscape, which extends or contracts our perception. On any large land mass, Europe, Asia, America, you can simply see further. On an island, it's like being in a room, you can't see further than the walls, can you? You can only see what's in front of you, you are consumed by detail, which is fine for arguing existence's finer points, for following the patterns of needlework or Fair Isle knitting designs or tattoo patterns of Pictish woad but here on the mainland, your eyes can stretch themselves, they're not confined any longer they can extend to their full capacity and its such a relief, like being able to stretch your body after being in a confined space.
I can tell by the air going soft, murmuring a little, turning choppy like the waves of La Manche, that JR has decided not to enter into an argument that he realises cannot be won. Instead, he approaches from an oblique angle that is neither agreement nor opposition.
How is it he says, that in Cornwall the sky looks closer?
Because it is closer, I say.
But there's nothing in the sky, its empty, right?
I explain that the sky is not empty, that there is an atmosphere around the earth, a blanket of soft sussurant something, that we give names to, such as oxygen, hydrogen, carbon dioxide, nitrogen etc. And that this atmosphere is closer nearer the poles (I'm not sure that this is true, but it fits my argument), so that the further north in the northern hemisphere you go, the sky is closer. Hence blue-er. (Well, that is true. Look at those pale pale southern skies, where the sky is so very far away, and the clouds as distant as memories of childhood).
He accepts this argument.
And we drive on through the evening light, the shadows slender as the seams between thoughts, inky lines like the troughs between waves, the landscape's copperplate handwriting.

The western sky grows pink, the cloud rafts dusty purple. We stop in Montreuil sur Mer, whose sea is entirely imaginary, a whiff of salt only, sliding along the banks of its green river.

Wednesday, 13 August 2008

En Route to France

En route to France

On the 7th August JR and I left his 'dreaming spires' (he lives in a converted church) at 5.30 in the morning. The new upper part of his dwelling is made of clean new sweet-smelling wood, and it's on a level with the little windows, divided up into three upper sections and one lower one. So you can see straight outside to the tops of the trees by the river, and over to the hills beyond. There are no sounds except for the calling of birds. This upper level has only recently been created. Before, it was simply the roof, inaccessible and only vaguely seen, the windows grimed with decades of dust, dirt, the home of deceased flies and busy spiders. But with the building of an upper level, the windows were cleaned (I helped to do this) and now you have this spectacular view out over trees, water and hills. Not just the view, but the atmosphere of peace, tranquillity, of a special refuge, which I surmise is because, when this place was a church, people's aspirations would have lifted upwards, and hovered by the windows, and lodged in the roof beams, settled there, high above the meanness and pettiness of Everyday.

It had rained heavily all the day before. To reach this remarkable dwelling, one has to follow a path from the road, which goes over a bridge that crosses the river, and walk several metres through tall grass. A narrow swathe of path has been cut through the grass. When we leave early the next morning, we have too many things to carry in one trip, our bags and backpacks, a guitar and sitar, so JR piles them in a wheelbarrow. A few bats are out late, dart past the doorway in the grey murky dawn. The river has swollen enormously and burst its banks, turning the nearby field into a lake. The church is built on a slight elevation, but the water is very close, another metre and it would enter the 'garden', the patch of grass at the front, surrounded by a railing. A grinning little gargoyle sits on the bench in front of the church, the household guardian.

And so we begin the long drive down through the corridor of England. At first the roads are quiet and empty. The first part of the motorway goes through the Lake District, passes between huge treeless hills, deep green from the rain, and as always, gives a sense of entering a very different territory, like a ritual passageway designed to engender humility in these scrawny beetle-like beings who scud past the mountain sentinels, in their buzzing metal carapaces, ignoring their beauty and sublimity, forgetful of tolls and the mind's high terraces, where some ancient sense of deity might be remembered and acknowledged. Just might be, in these echoing valleys.

And the high places of passage might also be remembered with nostalgia, once you've left them behind, and entered the plains, industrial, crowded with factories and houses, rows and rows of houses, streets falling away underneath the motorway flyovers, the lanes full of traffic, on and on, an endless flow of cars. We stop at services, change drivers, and the passenger dozes. The clouds have vanished, the sun is out, it's hot, and the dreaming passenger sees rose windows of colours and brilliant patterns, behind their closed eyelids.

Sunday, 15 June 2008

Šekspirova Part 2

Šekspirova Part 2
The sky had been like a thick and dusty screen for hours, as I walked along Maksime Gorkog, which could also be called jasmine street, for its whole length is planted with scented trees, which give off little bursts of perfume, scented alleyways. Then Vojvode Mišica was like entering a dark tunnel. Both sides were planted with these enormous slender trees, reaching high above the tower blocks. They had no low branches so it was difficult to see the leaves clearly, but their arrangements were a little like acacia, only they were much bigger and more the shape of beech, only smoother. The walls of the buildings were painted light brown, so already they had a quality of darkness to them, but the combination of these giant slender trees, whose branches, like poplars, seemed intent on reaching up rather than spreading out, and the thick grey almost chewy sky, gave an impression of a sombre kind of joy.

Just beyond the balcony,
the poplar trees are shivering – there’s a gust of cool wind blowing in. the sun has dropped behind the buildings, but there are shafts of light spearing upwards, catching the rough edges of the cloud and snagging it with terse flecks of pink and golden light.I walked over the Varadinski Most across the Danube and on the other side there was a street that had a dark and slightly worn aspect, as if its history debated with the endless stream of traffic. It looked misplaced in time. You could imagine its importance in the days when people crossed the bridge on horseback, stopped to talk and trade, bring news from other places, listen to the winding histories of small events and large ones, rippling in from courts and monasteries and distant cities. All the stories that the Danube brought with it, all its cargo of gold and treasure, muddied with the dross of circumstance. All the secrets it refused to share. Stories come downriver and there are those who follow its broad course, and those who put their ears close to the water, to hear news of those who’ve left, whispers of adventure, omens of their return. Time flowed differently it seems when the river’s cargo travelled slowly. When the water carried currents of emotion with it, time stretched out on all sides and included bird flights and their disappearances, and storms that broke and storms that stayed intact and travelled to some other destination. Time was fibrous with a net of feelings that crossed the unknown with a sense of confidence or daring, with anticipation or with dread, with a filigree of hopes or expectations, with knots of joy, relief or disappointment, like wakes or weirs or underwater currents.

The street of shops and houses belong to that kind of time. The shop doorways are made of old and solid wood. I glimpse the large tiled floors of interiors, thick wooden counters, dim lights, and the outside walls are stained with what looks like centuries of grime, even though the dust is superficial. The traffic speeds past quickly and it never stops to talk. These buildings have turned sour it seems with the neglect of the rituals and the feelings and the human exchange that trade brings.
The cars hurtle over the new bridge and this street of strange dark buildings shoulder their neglect with a grimy resistance that may look like pragmatic acceptance, but feels more like something warm and living that has curdled from indifference. There is a sense of something that has tried so many times and finally, has given up all hope. Ignored by the stream of traffic, it has a feeling of profound abandonment. The cars will always pass through here, ot reach the bridge. It has turned into a tunnel. No flowers or trees can grow here. The buildings are still there, for they were built to last. But it feels as if their spirit has been crushed.

[ Streten
told me yesterday that there are plans to build another bridge, where the old one used to be before it was destroyed in WWII. This means that the traffic will no longer pass through this street, and it will have a chance to regenerate, to become slow and dreamy and full of life again.]


Life on Shakespeare Street, Novi Sad

I'm living on Šekspirova, close to Balzakova, Tolstojeva, Lermontova, Danila Kiša and Antona Čehova. Yes, the literary quarter. And to demonstrate it, the towerblock next to mine is liberally danbed with graffiti, which of course I cannot understand, but it has artistic flair, at least in the layout.

But as far as towerblocks go, these are in the superior range, clean and neat, with lots of trees in front, behind and separating each block. I have a huge poplar tree which rustles protectively just outside my balcony.

On the other side of the main boulevard at the end of Šekspirova is a large park and beyond that, is the Strand, an enormous green park with cafes and play areas for children, and its edge is literally a strand - a sandy beach on the Danube shore. People lie and sunbathe here and paddle in the slightlz brownish water. The Danube is immense, like a lake on the move. In Dora d'Istria's essay on the Serbs, which I'm going to translate here, she says "Your Western rivers are like mere streams compared to this huge waterway which begins at the German border and flows thruogh many countries with a lengh of 2200 kilometers, before dividing into five and emptying into the Black Sea."

A couple of days ago I traveled here from Ohrid, Macedonia, a journey which took 16 hours with an hour's wait at Skopje and half an hour at Niš and three quarters of an hour at Belgrade. When I asked Emilije how long it would take form Skopje to Belgrade she thought perhaps five or six hours. But actually, it was eight. This was partly because the roads from Skopje to Niš were one lane and wound through various small towns and partly because of the delay at the border. As we left Macedonia all passports were collected by the bus driver and taken away to be scrutinized. Once this was completed, the driver came back, shouted out people's names and returned the passports. Among all the Blaskovitches, Ivanovitches and Sudarovaskas, I wondered how he'd cope with mine. In the past, I haven't recognized the Smeet that bus drivers or immigration officers have called out and its taken several Smeets before I realise its me they're referring to. But when it came to mine, he called out Morella, so that was easy.

Wednesday, 14 May 2008

Bluebell Woods and Metaphysical Gateways

The bluebell woods by the side of the road and the hot thick and brooding sky above us. Driving down to the south west of Scotland we are suddenly in the middle of a thunder and hailstorm. The hailstones hit the windscreen so hard we are worried that it might break. The road is awash and we can hardly see. A car coming in the other direction hits a patch of water and it sprays over the windscreen like a wave. As soon as possible we pull over to the side of the road to let the storm pass. We have a small flask of tea, and sip it, as the hail turns into rain and subsides almost as suddenly as it appeared.

Afterwards the sky clears, emptied of its strange almost anguished burden, somewhere between a warning and a gift.

Decades ago I read J B Pick's writing on David Lindsay's Voyage to Arcturus. Here was someone who understood the mystical dimension of what David Lindsay was describing. Mystical but accessible. To read J B Pick's work was so exciting that I wanted to contact him. This was long before the internet. I made enquiries at the library but no-one seemed to know anything about him and I gave up. The other day Tessa said will you come with me to the Bakehouse in Gatehouse of Fleet, they are launching the next issue of Markings magazine which is a tribute to John Pick and he will be reading.

So we drove south, to the reading. It turns out that as well as literary criticism, John Pick writes poetry and fiction, and he lives nearby.

'Seek and ye shall find
but not exactly what you had in mind.'
J B Pick

The whole evening had a surreal quality to it, from John Pick's wonderful short poems, Elspeth Brown's moving words on retiring from several years editorship of Markings, the Bakehouse itself, with its ancient history snuggling up to you with its white-painted walls, to the welcoming hospitality of Chrys Salt and her husband Richard, and to standing outside at midnight, talking, wearing a skimpy t shirt and not being cold! (This was Scotland in May remember!)

As I am writing this, a book drops through the letter box – John Pick has sent me a copy of The Great Shadow House. Let me mention just some of the chapter titles – The Border Ballads:How Many Worlds are There?; The Vision of Beleaguered Light: David Lindsay; David Lindsay and the Sublime; Dream and Reality – Edwin Muir.

And this was the characteristic of the whole week-end – a sense of profound synchronicity, full of what Paulo Coelho calls 'omens' – the storm we encountered, which even at the time felt like one of these experiences that I call gateway or threshold – like signs by the roadside letting you know you are about to enter a different world.

The morning after the reading at the Bakehouse I went for a walk along a path through woods laced with bluebells and the peacefulness and the sunlight flickering through the trees gave me that sense of shimmering threshold, reminding me of the last time I visited this part of the country, many years ago, reminding me of other places too – in Albania, Germany, France, Slovenia. More than reminding, it was like – at least in part – re-entering those places of experience. It was a curious mixture of homecoming and nostalgia.

And there was more. Tessa told me about a place nearby she had visited before and wanted me to see. And there, in another synchronistic sleight-of-hand by whatever powers arrange these things, someone appeared who – did not tell us, but by asking us to reveal what we saw – escorted us through another portal where we discovered that earth sea and sky were connected, where space and time too, were connected and a gateway, both actual and symbolic, had been created a long long time ago. Here, the physical can connect with the metaphysical, the metaphorical. But this experience needs incubation before I can describe it in any detail.

Sunday, 6 April 2008

Vienna Museum and the Night Trams of Bratislava

I have a slight travelling hangover, a feeling of having over-seen, over-absorbed, over-moved. Some impressions: walking along Trnavska cesta very early in the morning, birds just beginning to sing, a slight scent of flowers, and the dark streets, the trams and buses of Bratislava, appearing out of the darkness with a faint rumbling sound, lights on, only one or two people at the bus stop, people in the buses with that dreamy early morning look about them, the magic of night buses, the early morning shift catching the night magic before it vanishes into the daylight.

The feeling of confidence at having mastered the art of moving around in this city, working out which buses would take me to the train station or the city centre or the airport, getting tickets at the little kiosk or discovering how to get them from the ticket machine when the kiosks were closed. I pushed the button for an 18 kroner ticket, put 20 into the slot, and it buzzed and clicked, delivered the ticket and even gave me 2 kroner back. To some this may seem a simple matter, but the practicalities of getting anything mechanical to work for me, are often the most arduous and anxiety producing. It's the little things – how to get the train window to come down, when every combination of pushing pulling and pressing levers just did not work. So I asked someone else, and she managed it perfectly.

Leaning against the yellow stone statue of a partisan outside Banska Bystrica stanica, waiting for the train-turned-into bus which would arrive I was assured, in front of the station. The smeared windows of the train from Zilina to Banska Bystrica, sometimes turned into sheets of light when the sun caught them, but still could not obscure the view of pine-covered mountains falling abruptly into valleys, sometimes right underneath the train tracks so you looked down into a giddy slope, dotted with trees.

The Museum of Musical Instruments is housed in Vienna's National Bibliothek, part of the Hofburg, a massive building that curves round in a semi-circle. Huge marble staircases lead up from the ground floor. When I went through the doors of the Musical Instrument museum – which one is requested to close behind one, to keep it at an even temperature - I felt a sudden sense of familiarity. Perhaps it was the faint smell that old wood gives off, I don't know, but some other time seeped in, and perhaps time is truly contained in objects and communicates itself through our senses. So that in any museum, we hurtle through different times, however much our logical self believes that we stay only in the present. This quiet place connected me with somewhere in my own past, which I only knew through this feeling of familiarity.

On the way up the marble steps, in a glass case, was the helmet of Skanderbeg, the Albanian hero of the 15th century, who, throughout his lifetime, successfully defended his country from the Turkish invasions, and died fighting them.

I'm told that a copy of the original helmet was made, and given to the ruler of what was then Sicily and Calabria, where Skanderbeg's family had fled after his death. His family had taken the original helmet with them of course, and it was this that was requested. According to the story anyway, that was not what he received, but a copy that had been made. The helmet in the Bibliothek is said to be the original which was kept by his surviving family and passed down through the generations.

I peer at the helmet, in a glass cabinet, lit by spotlights. It looks shiny, undented, unscratched. But then I suppose it would have been cleaned up for display. It occurs to me that I am standing in the exact spot that Elena Ghika, aka Dora d'Istria, had also stood, sometime between 1850 and 1860. I know this because she wrote about it. I'm too occupied with fiddling with my camera, taking photos with the flash on and then off, trying to get a good angle from the back, wedging myself between the cabinet and the wall, wondering if some official was going to come up the stairs and tell me not to use a flash, to think any more of it but it occurs to me now, I wonder now, about that sense of familiarity that I experienced, entering the musical instrument museum.

Back in the days of post WW II austerity and rationing – seven or eight years after the war I can remember my mother's ration card – people did not travel anything like the way we do today and I feel sure that had we gone to Vienna, it would have been mentioned. So I decided that it was most likely the smell of old wood, soaked with layers of polish in the lifetime of the instruments, that had stirred some olfactory memory.

Now, I wonder if it was Dora d'Istria herself, whose work I am translating, whose footsteps I was clearly following, if it was her presence and perception I had felt. Perhaps she was pleased and happy that I had sought out and loved what she too loved, perhaps she was communicating her pleasure and her curiosity too, perhaps she was acting as a guide, giving me a whiff of her experience and her perception, perhaps she was enjoying the experience of seeing what she had seen over one and a half centuries ago, in this new time. Perhaps she was encouraging me in my study and translation of her work, pleased that the buried truths of the past, the values that people fought for and died for, the value of freedom and liberty and self-determination, are being brought to light again, values that are placed above individual existence and survival.

In another part of the building, I look out onto the semi-circular balcony which overlooks the square below. A few people are walking across. On the other side of the road, horse-drawn carriages are lined up, brown, white, dapple-grey horses stand in their harness, in front of the carriages, ready to take tourists around the sights of Vienna. The horses are wearing blinkers, some with cloth ear-coverings. The carriages are mostly black, though there is one salmon pink one.

I am looking at the very balcony where Hitler addressed the people of Vienna, after the Anschluss, the annexation of Austria in 1938. It wasn't an invasion he said, it was a rejoining of two countries which should never have been separated. It was an historical, even a spiritual reunion. I wonder what Dora d'Istria, with her passionate egalitarian values would have thought of that?

In the Museum of Musical Instruments I am struck by some words of Schubert, written in Vienna in 1806, talking about the music of the Janissaries, the elite troops of the Ottoman Turks. 'Der Charakter dieser Musik ist so kreigerisch dass er auch feigen Seelen den Busen hebt.' (The character of this music is so stirring that it lifts the hearts of even the most timid souls).
I suspect that Dora d'Istria, who would have read this too, would have agreed with him.

The streets of Vienna have their own art exhibits and performers. There is the silver man, who moves with an amazing gliding technique of slow motion, who turns to look at people who approach him and follows them with facial expressions and gestures, miming that invisible energy that flows between people. There are people who stand on their hands and remain there, perfectly balanced. There is a golden Mozart, complete with golden wig and golden flared and deep-cuffed jacket, golden knee-length trousers, golden stockings and buckled shoes.

But he stands on his plinth looking uneasy, looks around him as if he's lost something and is looking for it. After the fluidity of the anonymous silver man, he looks agitated and uncomfortable as if he doesn't want to be there. And perhaps because people sense this, there is no circle of onlookers as there is around the silver man. Or they may doubt his authenticity – there are so many Mozarts in Vienna after all. They are on posters, they stand outside restaurants, they weave in and out of the crowds. There again, perhaps his unease is deliberate, and he's looking around him as if trying to orientate himself, wondering who these people are, wearing such odd clothes, and what on earth he is doing there.

Wednesday, 19 March 2008

The Box

When I remember them, I write down my dreams. Some stories have come out of dreams, sometimes very directly. The story below couldn’t wait to be written down first as a dream. After a couple of sentences, imagination, that winged being, tugged at the pen and the writing took off, took flight, first person turned into third, and I was writing something the way you write a story, you don’t know in advance what you’re going to write. Yes, the character’s memories were similar to mine, and the ending is just as it was in the dream but the experience was the exciting one of writing a story, that spins you into another world.

Writing down a dream is fairly pedestrian, but writing a story connects with the imagination, so it’s like taking flight. I often use the first person in a story. Often too, they are taken from my own experience, but there’s a sense of detachment from the character, because you’re writing ‘from above’ , that’s how it feels to me, when you connect with the imagination. Or whatever name you choose to give that energy that feels to me to hover above our very present sense of being who we are. When we connect with that ‘other self’ that other energy, our ordinary sense of self becomes looser and more diffuse and you do not need to be writing a story to experience that. It can happen at any time of heightened feeling, heightened perception. I call it feeling that I’m in a film or in a novel.
Of course, our lives are stories, novels, films, complete with soundtrack. But I do not always feel that. But life feels much more exciting, interesting and purposeful, when I do.

The Box

One or two buses passed her as she walked down the road. She thought she could get a bus from here to another part of town, where she knew she could get a Number 5, which would take her home. But she couldn’t clearly remember which buses would take her there from here. She’d once known, she was sure she had once been familiar with this route, but the memory was too vague now and the numbers of the passing buses stirred no recollection. So much had changed – numbers and routes, it seemed like an age ago, that she’d known most of the system of connecting links that threaded their way through the city, like an intricate design.

It was probably when she lived somewhere else, she thought, in another city, which had laid its pattern over this one that she’d lost her once-familiar knowledge of it. It had changed the inner map of her. Not that she thought about that at the time. She simply became familiar with the new city, in the way you have to, of necessity, when you are living somewhere else. You need to know, first of all, how to get from where you live, to where you work. That route, at first so confusing, with its warren of tiny back streets, soon became a known familiar path. She remembered the feeling of confidence, almost amounting to triumph, when she had mastered it and could walk across the narrow wooden bridge over the river,
and know where she was going. Sometimes she’d stop and buy a packet of cigarettes from the elderly man who had a tiny stall on the far end of the bridge. His cigarettes, packets of biscuits, nuts, his handful of bananas and Albena chocolate bars, were carefully arranged on an upturned cardboard box. When she gave him the hundred lek note, he put his hand briefly on his heart, in thanks.

Once she had learned this necessary route, she began to walk around the city learning its geography through the soles of her feet, the only real way to know a place with intimacy. It moves into your body that way, it becomes a muscular part of who you are, its streets begin to be known by your body, its mapping and co-ordinates become your inner map, as the new connections in the mind make jumps and leaps and new discoveries, until one day – and perhaps you may not consciously remember just what day it was, but one day, all these confusing new directions and connections have come together and a new map is laid out, in your mind. And you find yourself walking along and your body knows which way to go, what turning to take, you are no longer fumbling, questioning, not-knowing, your inner network of ways and passages is linked with the outer streets you’re walking through. You have become one with the streets you walk on and the network of the city has become your own inner geography.
When she came back to Edinburgh, the city of her birth, Carla found it had changed, confusing her. Ways of getting from one place to another were no longer in her body, for this other pattern lived in her, was still with her, even though it did not correspond any longer to the physical terrain around her. There was this huge gap between what was inside her and what was outside. Streets she felt should have led to this place, or that, turned out to be dead-ends, or took her away from where she wanted to go. She got lost, in her own home town. Because this felt like failure, she could not admit to it, but she felt like a stranger in this city that she’d once felt part of. She felt rejected by it, as if it said to her – you found another city, you discovered another love, and it is still inside you, I can tell, there’s no use pretending, its still in your body, you no longer touch me in the way you used to, this is something that you cannot hide, cannot dissemble, the map of you is altered, and the language of you, shown in your body’s inner patterning, is not the same as mine. A black line of severance, of lack, of distance, comes between us.

What could she say to that? What possible excuses, explanations or denials could she give? For she knew that it was true. She had tasted truth in these other streets, hesitatingly at first, under grey skies, walking through muddy lanes, skirting enormous puddles. And later, with uncomprehending confidence when spring came and
the mud turned into dust. And later too, in summer, when the sun blazed high up in the sky’s vault, far higher than she was accustomed to and she sought out the streets darkened with the shade of massive chestnut trees. Truth, so hesitant at first, so bewildered and unsure, so lacking in confidence, had grown in her, in the same way as the bare trees began to show a hint of green among the drab grey buildings, the brown of mud and stonework and the black clothes that everybody seemed to wear.

And as the trees began to grow and sprout thick-fingered leaves, as this passion of growth revealed the real nature of sweeping and enfolding trees and the people threw off their black clothes and colour erupted in the streets, so did the growing truth inside her blossom too, she could smell its jasmine scents around her, she could feel sunlight turning truth inside her like a spinning dance. It was a revelation to be turned into something that she had not been before. She knew that she was different, but no name could fit this transformation. She did not want to stop its flow, its energy, by confining it within a name. She did not want this dance to stop. She had no intention of abandoning this dance, this energy, this truth she had become.

But circumstances – the only neutral word that she could find for forces operating beyond her conscious will – removed her from the geography that soared and plummeted inside of her. It was her mother’s death that brought her back here, to her home town. The job was winding up as well, but she had time, or so she thought, to look for something else. Before she could, death on the horizon made her pack her bags, too quickly, there was no time to reflect, consider, or to say goodbye to everyone, there was just this sudden parting, this sense of being torn away from everything that had turned her into truth.

And while she’d been away, the city of her birth had changed and she no longer knew it and it did not look her in the eye, it had become a stranger to her and its back was turned to her, it did not speak her language. But Carla knew that it was she who’d turned away and turned into some other person or some other being really, that had grown in her. But however separated it might be, from its outer place of origin, the truth body was there in her. She felt twice-bereft – of the woman who had given birth to her and nurtured her, and of the place that gave birth to the truth of her and turned her into an altogether other being, which was now an alien in the city she had grown up in. She was inconsolable. She wore a cautious brave and optimistic mask. Inside, she wept and
grieved for loss of her mother and her external city, heart of the country that had nurtured in her this new being of truth. She could not embrace the city of her birth, she could not truly say I love you, not with her heart of truth. That declaration belonged in another place and she could not say it, with the heart of her, to this one.

She could give qualified responses, but they sounded like the explanations of a lover, caught out loving someone else. She knew them all too well. Phrases like – I love you in a different way; its natural to love more than one person; there’s still things we can share; of course I still want to live with you – wrung out deception like a cloth left in the rain.

Truth was now her language and her being, but she was in a place she had to try to love and try to talk to and she lost her way in streets that she once knew and the glitter of the shiny shop-fronts did not welcome her and she was secretly appalled at the grim-faced crowds of shoppers, celebrating Christmas and she thought, that she could not see truth in this celebrating army on the streets and yet, surely, it was Truth that was the underlying reason for the celebration?

She knew she had no right to find fault with this city she had once loved as her own, she knew the lack was not in it at all, just because she couldn’t speak its language. She’d loved it once – could she not learn to love it once again? And so she tried, but still this voice inside her, whispered to her – isn’t this the past? it whispered. Or – how can you give up Truth, for practicality, for survival, for the daily round of commerce, barter and exchange? Truth has blossomed in you, put down roots, given out scent and ripened into fruit. How can you settle for the mundane and the practical, the daily round of work and sleep, how can you make do with a life of empty habits, when you have lived with Truth?

She could not answer this. Something in her could not respond. She let her mind take on responsibility and think up reasons or excuses for the things she went on doing, the actions she performed, the automatic gestures that she made. Though there were holes in her remembering, gaps in the fabric of the city that she wore like a borrowed garment, not like the clothes she wore in that other city which fitted her as if she’d grown them, like the way the trees grow leaves.

Here, her memories did not rise upwards from within her, they had not grown in her, they were rather, like a language she’d once
known and used, but had forgotten. And, when trying to relearn it, she found that it had changed and was still changing. So she felt that she could never quite catch up with the rate of change. And besides, it had become a stranger to her. Whole areas she’d known, had been knocked down, they were no longer there. New shiny buildings had appeared, all glass and glitter and reflection. She barely recognised herself, when she saw her image, reflected from their shiny surfaces. And she did not want to see it – it was as if she was thrown back at herself, while the shuttered buildings gave her nothing of themselves.

It became clear that she could not become one with this city as she had with that other dusty city, full of scents and car fumes, its air thick and motionless with heat. This one here was often windy, like an irritable parking warden, shooing you away from this place, on to the next one. Move on, move on, the wind seemed to exhort, endlessly, relentlessly.

And she always seemed to be in movement in the city now. Because if she stopped, she truly did not know what she was doing there. So that movement, tiring as it was, felt better somehow. She didn’t want to wait at a bus stop for a bus she wasn’t even sure would take her where she wanted to go. A bus that may not even exist. It
could perhaps just be a bus-in-memory, a maroon and white striped ghost of a bus. She got out her purse and rummaged in it. For these buses, you needed the right amount of change. There were only a few coins in her purse, she didn’t bother counting it, but it didn’t look like enough.

Then she realised that if she turned left at the approaching junction and followed that road, it would link up with another main road, which was on the bus route she was heading for, the one that would definitely take her home. She smiled a little wryly to herself. Another example of her forgetting a geography that had once been so familiar to her. It wasn’t far to the junction now. So she needn’t bother with a bus, she could walk there. And she was right, she turned left at the junction and it took no time at all, to reach the main road.

On the corner of this road, on the same side as the bus stop, was a little shop. She went in. It was small and wood-panelled, the dark wood drinking in the daylight coming through the window. Yet it did not appear dingy or dimly-lit; despite the dark wooden interior, there was a brightness inside the little shop. The shopkeeper was an elderly man with silvered hair, wearing a faded black apron with large pockets, tied around his waist. Instead of having his wares
piled up around him in ostentatious displays, giving the impression that your every nutritional desire will be catered for, she could only see boxes, a little like tea-chests, which presumably contained quantities of foodstuffs that would be measured out. It reminded her a little, of a shop she knew from her childhood. It was dimly-lit and the shopkeeper weighed out vegetables on old-fashioned dull brass scales. She had a large nose which was slightly purple at the end. She wore fingerless gloves and dark cardigans buttoned all the way up at the front and she rarely smiled. As a child Carla was a little scared of her, although she was never unpleasant, in word or manner. She was just aloof, inhabiting another world. It was the silence, mixed with her slow economy of gesture as she weighed the vegetables, her silent, concentrated presence and her rather odd appearance, that unnerved her.

The elderly shopkeeper did not unnerve her however. She felt perfectly at ease with him. And his shop was not inadequately lit by a single light bulb hanging from the ceiling. It was possibly its diminutive size and the dark-brown colours of the wood giving it such an old-fashioned atmosphere that made an association.

A small wooden box lay on the bare counter. Carla was struck by the design on the top. It was oval and raised and had subtle
coloured panels painted in it. It reminded her of something, it seemed to her that she had seen a box like this before, but where or when, she could not remember. This is a beautiful box she said to the shopkeeper. He agreed with her, that it was very fine.

She picked it up, examined it. The carved patterns and the colours seemed to swirl around, not staying in one place as you’d expect and she tried to remember where and when she saw one similar, the same in its striking physical appearance and the same in its affect on her. Only it seemed as if, the last time she saw this box, or its twin, she had not said anything, she had not spoken her admiration of it, out loud. She also had the impression that because she had said nothing, its memory was misted in her and she had not formed an intimate connection with it. But because she had remarked on it and the shopkeeper had agreed with her, some bond was formed between her and the box, some link, some secret underlying something that they shared.

It did not occur to her to ask if this box could be bought. Yes, this was a shop and commerce was a part of life, but it was the contents of the containers that were for sale. Instinctively, she felt that something so attractive was not something you could buy or sell. Her relationship to it was her appreciation of its beauty and the
connection formed between them was something that went far beyond exchange and ownership. It was a relationship of such equality that she felt she shared some essential being with this box. She also felt that her appreciation of it enhanced its richness and its beauty.

Even in the marketplace, it seemed to say, a treasure could be found. Why did she respond to the beauty of the pattern and feel that she had seen it in some time and place before? Does it mean that something that we recognize so deeply, love so immediately, must be a part of us already? That we are meeting up with something and some part of us we thought we’d lost? She had been lost, she’d lost her way, but in this little shop she’d found a jewel that stirred the depths of her, that moved her to express out loud the feelings that it touched in her. Maybe that’s it she thought, what wakes us up and brings us to the heart of us is not so much a map we have to work out logically, but something that we feel, a wonder and a mystery, a love, that’s what it is, a love, among the bus routes and the intersections and the ways of getting home, it’s what brings us to the love that’s in us, that will take us home.

A sudden storm erupted out of nowhere. The wind seemed to want to tear trees from the earth, the hailstones lashed the windows and there was one sharp peal of thunder.

And she realised that the hail was beating on her bedroom window as if it had become impatient and wanted her to wake up. I’m not separated, that was what she thought, from the feelings which that other city woke in me. I don’t have to be there to feel love. The home I wanted to get back to is this feeling that the beauty brought to life in me.

It was the first day of the New Year. The tearing wind, the wild hailstorm, they passed as quickly as they had appeared. She lit one candle. Then another. The sky grumbled with grey throughout the blustering, brief hours of daylight. The candle flames burnt blue and yellow, in moving, shifting patterns of light.

Tuesday, 4 March 2008

Une Vie de Chiens

Une Vie de Chiens/A Life with Dogs
By Michko Netchak (2000) (with English subtitles)

This short documentary film was a great success at the Venice Film Festival in 2000. It was shown in the little cinema l’Archipel in the Boulevard de Strasbourg, Paris, as part of the Serbian Film Festival at the end of June, 2007, which was where I saw it.

It portrays the daily life of a young man, Vladimir Vukovic, who looks after stray dogs in surroundings of idyllic natural beauty, in Bosnia. He talks in a quiet and matter-of-fact way about his present, and the circumstances of his past, that brought him to this unusual way of life.

He was born in 1970 by the beautiful Drina river in Bosnia and went to Sarajevo University to study biology. Then the war broke out. Virtually overnight he lost everything – his house, his parents, his brother, his fiancé, and of course his studies. He recounts in an even voice that his mother was raped before being thrown into the Drina, his father murdered, his brother decapitated. ‘One day’ he said ‘my girlfriend said to me I don’t love you any more and went off with someone who could give her financial security. I wonder if that was the real her or just some devil speaking through her’.

The one possession or relationship he did not lose in the war was his dog, who survived.

During the war he said at first he lived off friends and humanitarian handouts, then he got a job with the Red Cross. He refused to pick up a gun and fight. He did the work that no-one else wanted to do, such as clearing away corpses. He saw that it was children and dogs who really suffered in Sarajevo and he knew at that point that he would devote his life to helping dogs or children.

He has many questions about why the war happened, but no answers. When he left Sarajevo he said he buried his friends in the cemetery and buried his love along with them. He felt, he said, something breaking in his soul.

You see him getting up early in the morning, woken by his ‘alarm clock’ dog lying on his chest and whining. Its 4 am. He gets up so early because, as he tells us, the huge pans of dog food meal have to be cooked for two hours. He explains that the bottom of the pans have to be lined with plastic as there are so many holes in them they would leak and a lot of the food would be lost. When it’s ready he pours the thick meal out of the large cooking pans into the containers which he takes outside and distributes among the dogs. They crowd around him eagerly, big, small, black, brown, white, multi-coloured. They are all strays he says.

He describes various of the dogs’ histories. One had its ears docked with an axe, another had an eye put out by its drunken owner; the same owner broke the pelvis of another dog. One was found as an abandoned puppy, almost frozen to death, but given warmth, food and care, it survived. It was this one that was afraid of people and he says that he understands this, he has begun to be reserved about people too.

The compound is spacious, with plenty of room for the dogs to roam around. Just beyond it are wide open green spaces, huge leafy trees with the sunlight filtering through, and green mountains in the background.

‘People think’ says Vladimir, ‘that you need money to live on, but it's not that we need, nor imaginary success or a name that sounds important. It’s actually love you live on, love, fresh air and natural surroundings.’

Sava River, Slovenia

From Slovenia to Zagreb

The River Train itself came from somewhere in the north of Slovenia. I got on at Bled and immediately it began to follow the river's course. I'd spent a few days at an International PEN conference by Lake Bled, in 2007. The photograph at the top of this page is of the church on the island in the middle of Lake Bled. Once on the train, my mind was discharging all the thoughts and ideas, the feelings and emotions that had come up, while listening to talks given by speakers from all over the world. Here in the UK, we know little of the difficulties that some writers experience, sometimes just trying to speak and write in their own language, never mind trying to express ideas that could involve them in punishment, imprisonment or worse. But even the fact that some of these people were able to attend the conference was in itself, a blow struck for freedom, and for peace.

Then suddenly, after such emotional and intellectual intensity, I was on my own, on a slow train heading for Zagreb. It was early April, barely spring, but some trees had turned a greenish shade, a few early blossoms could be seen, stark white colours against the blue of sky. As the train wound its way eastwards around the curves in the river Sava, the opaque sky grew lighter, holes appeared in the cloud fabric, revealing patches of blue. The clouds became ripped and disentangled. Sometimes the train stopped at tiny stations, where no-one was waiting to get on. There were only a few passengers. On the way to Zagreb I wrote Rivertrain, which Liz Price later put to music. You can hear this at  

I was delivering some books to a friend in Zagreb. By the time we reached there, it was late afternoon, the sky was clear and the sun was warm. The next day, I wandered through the old town in the morning sunshine, through the market, a park and the botanical gardens. The tortoises were basking in the sun, their necks and legs stretched out of their shells.

Spires of Zagreb

Sunday, 17 February 2008

Balkan Trains

I enjoy all trains, but particularly Balkan ones. Twice I've taken the Venezia Express, the first time all the way through what was then Yugoslavia, to Thessaloniki in Greece. And from there, to Istanbul, and across Asia, in a series of slow trains and rattling old buses. I remember very little of that first journey through Yugoslavia, decades ago. I did keep a journal of sorts, but all the pages, except one, got eaten in India, by a holy cow. But that's another story.

I remember young men, soldiers, getting on somewhere, perhaps Belgrade. They were on their way to Skopje, and that was the only word I could understand, of their conversation. I heard dobra, dobra, repeatedly (which I now know means good, good) and they laughed a lot, these young men, they were cheerful and happy, showing an energy that was unfamiliar, to me. They had broad faces, clear eyes, prominent jawlines. I liked the look of them, and peered at them from time to time, as I looked up from my book. I had only two books with me, so it must have been either The Bhagavad Gita or Basho's Narrow Road to the Deep North.

The second time I took the Venezia Express, only a few years ago, I got on at Trieste, late at night, around 11.30. The two books I had with me this time were Slavenka Drakulic's Balkan Express and Ivo Andric's Bridge Over the Drina. I was waiting in the Trieste train station, where a few homeless or seeming homeless souls had gathered, along with a handful of others, waiting, I presumed, for the same train. A slightly inebriated man sat down beside me, and wanted to talk. My Italian is very basic and when communication in that language failed, he turned to German. Like so many displaced people from the Balkans, he had spent time in Germany and learned the language. His name was Marko, he was from Bosnia, middle-aged, well-built, with a shock of greying hair. His words were slurred and often difficult to make out and because of this and the sometimes obscure associations of his thinking, conversation was a little halting. He asked for a cigarette and I gave him one. He asked where I was going, and I told him I was going to Belgrade. I'd just begun reading The Bridge Over the Drina, and he asked what I was reading. I told him. His eyes lit up, he was of course familiar with that book, probably the best known classic of the Bosnian writer. This time his words were quite clear. Messer im Herz! he declaimed loudly, and laughed to himself, then repeated the phrase, as if he was calling out to someone on the street. I looked around me. There was a family with two small children, lying on a pile of bags and suitcases, sleeping. A couple of men in worn baggy trousers and scuffed leather jackets, acquaintances of Marko, who also looked as though they were fighting off sleep. The scene did not look threatening in any way. Why Marko had shouted out – a knife in the heart!, was not then clear to me. He explained that it had to do with the book I had just started reading.

When the Venezia express came into the station, Marko came with me, made sure that I was settled in a carriage, sat down beside me for a few minutes, talked to the young man, the only other passenger in the compartment, explained that he was not getting the train himself, he and I had just met in the station, he was simply keeping me company. The young man smiled and a sense of rapport, almost an intimacy, installed itself immediately, a tangible, comforting presence, one that I have only ever felt in the Balkans. When Marko stood up, he swayed a little on his feet, took hold of my hand and clasped it to him, wishing me well on my journey. Eventually he released it and I heard him greeting other passengers as he moved slowly down the corridor, and got off the train.
The train groaned a little as it started up, heading off into the darkness. The night journey had begun.

You can read the story of part of this journey, in Mirror City, at the following link