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)