Thursday, 31 December 2009

Old photos and travel memories

Going through old photographs the other day looking for something in particular (which I didn't actually find) I came across two from the time when I lived in Freiburg, the only two photos of that time that I possess. They're taken in the Alte Shlacthof building, converted into flats, and that was where I lived. This building no longer exists – not long after I lived there, in 1974, that street, Faulerstrasse, was pulled down, so that the motorway could be extended right into the city centre. Even when I was there, there were demonstrations against this proposed extension but of course, it went ahead anyway. The buildings were not listed, they were not particularly old or beautiful, red-brick and serviceable, but neither were they ugly, and they provided cheap accommodation, mainly for students.

The photos are taken, clearly, in the kitchen. The one on the left is of me and James, Gray's brother, and the one with several people are James on the right hand edge, then Gray's Mom, me, Gray and a visiting Dutch friend whose name I think was Albrecht. I hadn't met Albrecht before he turned up at the flat one day, but he said he was a friend of Henk, who'd given him my address.

Gray and I had visited Henk in Amsterdam earlier in the year. I met Henk and his friend Ben in Zahedan at a stopover between the Pakistani border and Tehran. Henk and Ben had also been travelling in India and Henk had kept a meticulous and wondrous record of his time there, not just writing in journals, but also pasting in the kinds of things that are unobtrusively part of your travelling life, train tickets, bits of cigarette packets, receipts, all the little things that only become evocative when you look back at them. At the time they were simply part of life and nothing much in themselves.

I admired Henk's meticulous compilation of memories, and wished I'd thought to do the same. Yet somehow knew that would not work for me. Even the journal that I'd kept had been lost in Chapora, Goa, eaten by a hungry holy cow it was surmised, which also ate a pot of lentils and ripped the tent in its eagerness to get at anything edible. Though it did not touch the Bhagavad Gita or Basho's Narrow Road to the Deep North, the only two books I brought with me. After this incident, I stayed with Vinayak's kind and friendly family, who shared their rice with me, gave me a mat on the porch to sleep on, and made me the present of an boiled egg, a very special gift, when I left.

So when Henk showed me his marvellously evocative and neatly pasted and captioned journal I was filled with a mixture of admiration and a vague kind of disbelief that anyone could be so supremely organized. There was also, if I'm honest, a seam of envy in my attitude towards that superb record of his journey. I'd intended to write as much as possible about my impressions of these places I'd passed through, an odyssey for me really, beginning with the ferry crossing from Dover to Calais, and the night drive through France, the straight and tree-lined roads and the yellow headlights of the cars, finally arriving further away from home than I'd ever been, crossing a new border at Basel, into Switzerland. Bâle! Epitome of the strange, the foreign, the exotic!

Later, there was the San Bernadino Pass, Como, Venice, and the train through former Yugoslavia to Thessaloniki, then on to Istanbul, a 4 day train through Turkey, to Tehran buses across Iran and Afghanistan, another bus from Quetta to Amritsar and a train to Delhi, so cold I got into my sleeping bag, and there was freezing fog in Delhi. A train from Delhi to Bombay/Mumbai and a boat to Panaji, Goa. Where it was hot.

And where my messy untidy and probably self-indulgent and introspective journals were devoured. No great loss really. I was a very beginning writer. It was only when I returned from the East and was living in Freiburg that the words began to flow, poems, and stories, though not very much if I remember rightly, about the travels.

From Desert Trails:
That night in Zahedan, remember? /Sitting huddled round a stove, drinking pots of tea/drawing lots for who should fetch the sugar/and once outside, wishing the desert would go on for ever/and knowing you'd have so much to say/so much to talk about/among the cacti and the green and purple rocks.

Pieces of writing about the great journey only came later, back in Scotland. Discrete and scattered accounts. Freiburg writing was fiction - or poems to do with the present. Memories of that time are all full of sunlight and tree blossom, the cherry trees weighed down with vast bunches of enormous deep red cherries.

The only rain I remember is one wonderful thunderstorm when I was out at the Burse, Littenweiler, the student residencies where most of my friends lived. I was standing outside, enjoying the rain, and Paul called out from his window, shouting wait for me, I'm coming out! and he ran downstairs and joined me outside and we both danced around in the rain.

There was rain in Amsterdam when Gray and I visited it. We were looking for Albert Cuypstraat, Henk's address, but Henk was not in. Gray and I were walking along in the dark rainy street, it was quite late at night, not knowing what to do next, when a figure draped in a vast waterproof cape, pushing a bicycle, walked towards us. It was Henk.

Wednesday, 16 December 2009

More About Camus, Edinburgh's Poetry Pamphlet Fair and Shades of The Far Side

Nicolas Sarkozy's announcement of his intention to remove Camus' remains to the Panthéon, to panthéonize him as the French say, thankfully looks as though it will not succeed.

Why thankfully? It's agreed that it's not because he does not deserve such an honour, on the contrary, but it is argued that the act would feel like an attempt at appropriation of someone who 'belongs to the whole world' as Gérard Courtois wrote recently in Le Monde, whose 'aim was to help people to live' (Catherine Camus in an interview in Spike magazine) 'who is someone who tried to speak for all those who do not have a voice' (Catherine Camus speaking on France Inter), who was distrustful of authority in general and politicians in particular 'who always mouth the same words and tell the same lies' (Albert Camus – Carnets).

This article appeared on Scottish Review and you can read the rest of it here.

At the poetry pamphlet fair in the National Library Building, Causewayside, Edinburgh.....

The excitement of seeing old friends, talking to new ones, wrapping a book and putting it in the bran tub, buying a ticket, to pull out your prize and mince pies and readings - which turned out to be a race against the clock – after two minutes Graeme the MC, banged a cymbal, joking about cymbalism -
Elizabeth Burns, whose pamphlet The Shortest Days won first prize in the London Poetry Pamphlet Competition, reads her splendid poem with the same title -

How the low sun flamed on those afternoons
with their early dusks, how the crusts of snow
in the pasture cast their blue shadows
and the moon's shape grew sharper,
land and sky just prised apart
by the horizon's slit of paler light.....

A C Clarke dedicated a poem to me which she wrote after I told her of an encounter with a mole, its fur so soft, its little feet exactly like our hands, with tiny lines across their palms. In Who Eats Mole Pie? (published in Markings 29) she wrote:

....They shocked you. Not the size,
the pink, hairless palms creased with fatelines
like yours. Too much like yours.

To my delight, my bran tub prize was Mary Johnston's Ring o' Sangs, her translation from German into Doric of Robert Shumann's Lieder, with words by Josef von Eichendorf

and my soul spread wide its wings, flew over the silent land, as if it was flying home.

Exit via the scenic route.
My soul's wings were possibly hampered by alcohol when I left the building, taking an unexpectedly circuitous route. I went through several wrong doors which locked firmly behind me. Rising panic. Shades of Kafka. I got outside via an emergency exit but the deserted parking lot had tall gates all around it. Fortunately one opened for me. The last hurdle was a stout metal barrier which was low enough to climb over. Triumphantly leaping to freedom I misjudged my landing and fell on the ground in a most undignified way. On the other side of the street the baleful blue glow of a Tesco late-night store. It brought to mind Gary Larsson's Far Side cartoons, with the heading something like – Poet attempts to exit the library.

Interestingly enough, since I told this story to a few people, they have recounted their own tales of gates and doors, one of a similar nature, trying to exit a theatre a 'quick' way, also ending up in an enclosed parking lot, and having to climb over a wall (thank you Anne!). Maureen reminded me of how we got lost in Wyper Wood, wandered into a field with no clear exit, and ended up having to crawl through briars underneath barbed wire, to successfully escape out onto a road. Another story was of leaving an interview and being faced by three doors and of course not remembering which one they came through, and, hazarding a (hopeless) guess, opened a door at random, which led into a broom cupboard. (thank you Paddy). Actually, exactly the same thing happened to my niece, so I can only assume it's a nasty ploy regularly used by interviewers to test your reaction to being in a potentially humiliating situation. Aah I think, how wonderful it is to be free-lance, free of the snares of employers, free to create one's own absurd and delightful downfalls!

The review of Fatos Lubonja's Second Sentence finally appeared in the Times Literary Supplement.

And frost covered the garden for three days, prompting me to stock up on bird seed and peanuts so I can watch the birds flocking to the table and pecking at the peanuts swinging from the branches of the sycamore tree.


My son M, who flies aeroplanes in the USA, tells me that it frequently happens that boarding passengers ask him if he has the manual. What manual? He asks. The one that tells you how to fly this plane, they say. Oh! He says, gee, I dunno .........

Recently someone who worked in a restaurant at Chicago airport asked him [he was dressed in his pilot's uniform, with gold stripes on his sleeves] – are you a pilot? Nope M said I just like to dress up like this and come to the airport, have a sandwich, you know -
Yeah, you don't look like much of a pilot, the guy said.

M, who is after all half European, is adept at irony which most Americans find problematical. Mind you even I don't know sometimes when he's joking, he has straight-facedness down to a fine art, don't know where he got that from.

Frost covered trees and bushes steaming in morning sunshine.

Sunday, 29 November 2009

Albert Camus

I've been reading a biography of Camus, reminded by a newspaper article that in January 2010 it will be the 50th anniversary of his death. The biography depressed me, it is very well written, but seems to present such a negative slant. His life had its difficulties yes, but it had its good times as well and I think the book concentrated too much on the difficulties while virtually ignoring the larger or spiritual context. Not that biographies usually write about that, but I think if you don't, life itself seems a miserable affair and any 'success' whatever that might be, is inevitably ground down in the next failure - whether that's an attack by some other writer (Camus was attacked by Sartre and other for his views), illness - he suffered from recurrent bouts of TB - nostalgia for Algeria, its climate and sunshine, and his life there, and a feeling of isolation, both from people and from God, who he couldn't seem to find a place for in his life, except in moments in Algeria and a few other times when he was close to nature. He had this huge nostalgia for Algeria, yet knew that he couldn't go back to live there. And in the end, French Algeria disappeared, as Algeria regained its independence. I can vaguely remember that, as a child with my father, who was interested in politics and what went on in the world, commenting on the French-Algerian war.

In Camus' time, writers were supposed to take political stands, left wing or right wing, for or against war, fighting or resistance, so one could get very entangled in political stances. Not to mention trying to find a philosophy of life that one could live by. Camus was not an existentialist, he didn't seem to think that any philosophy could completely explain life but he was driven to try to make some sense of it and particularly of his own moral stance, regarding war, violence, resistance (during WW II) and Algerian independence.

I don't think life can be understood without including a larger dimension than the intellect. Trying to squash it into the box of the left brain seems doomed to failure, to the 'Huits Clos/No Exit' title of one of Sartre's plays. But if one links with the non-rational, even though it's very hard to put into words, it feels, at times it does, very different, it can feel connected.
I'd like to write about the mystical Camus, who experienced a sense of oneness, who talked about innocence meaning that state of being where one is connected to a greater awareness. He wrote about it too.

In Noces – writing about Algeria – I am one with this wind and live within it, am one with these columns and that archway, one with these flagstones warm to the touch.....
In American Journals, when he was crossing the Atlantic
Yes, I’ve loved the sea very much – this calm immensity – these wakes folded under wakes – these liquid routes. ………
O sweetness of night where all the stars sway and slide above the masts and this silence in myself, this silence which finally frees me from everything.

Wednesday, 18 November 2009

Night Crossing, Paris Streets and Rouen's Musee de Beaux Arts

There's a kind of magic, a tangible feeling of the land being wrapped in something other, different, like entering a fairy story, as soon as the shore on the other side of the water [La Manche] is reached. I don't feel it so strongly now but still feel it. The first time – and it was dark then too - jumped straight up into my imagination, scented and lamplit, first the soft glow of the batons held by the harbour guards at Calais, to guide the cars coming off the ferry and later, the straight dark roads, as we headed south west, the trees lit by the yellow headlamps, these roads had their guardian poplar trees accompanying them. The sheer luck of being waved on by trees, whispered over by trees as the road went on and on. The roadside cafés, the lamps and of course the language. And it's all still there, it comes rushing to meet me, each time I cross the water. There was – and still is – a sense of belonging somewhere different, maybe even belonging in the fairy-story, true home being magical and so – an undercurrent of laughter, sometimes bubbling up.
When I was very young I don't think I was too aware of living on an island. But as soon as I had left it, then, I knew. Each time I leave it now, it's a return to that other place, other self, even – other land of self, entering the magical and other land, as soon as the other side of the water is reached. The north side of the stretch of water has nothing of romantic in it, it is the path of commerce only. There are the rough-hewn steps and blatant props of travel. Rusting cranes by docksides, splinterings of wooden crates, a sheen of oil on water, stench of old and mouldering coiled ropes or nets. No perfume, no distance. Bilge water, old oil, tar and detritus of greasy wrappings ripped and plucked apart by seagulls' beaks. But once on the other side, the south shore, there is the vastness of a continent beneath your feet, that you are joined to. A sense of allure like a lightly fingered treasure casket.
Night crossing.
Waiting at the ferry terminal, flocks of birds rose, strangely silent, spinning like pieces of paper caught in wind. Bright as flecks of foam, tattered flakes catching the beams of light from the string of lamps between ferry and the lines of trucks and cars waiting to drive on.
The water rocks the ferry as if it's determined everyone should sleep, but I'm not sleepy, listening to the regular swoosh of the water, like a thick black whale breathing, with its white foam breath.
The wind on deck is fierce and wet, tearing at clothes, hair, slapping at bare skin.
Because I didn't sleep overnight I'm tired. I wander up Boulevard Magenta, past the Marché de St.Quentin, and the Déjeuner café, down St. Martin, past Notre Dame and a crowd of hunched pigeons, and along by the Seine, with change for the homeless man and the two sleeping puppies.

When I meet up with C she takes me to St. Sulpice, buys me a book by Catherine Clément, and then back to her amazing apartment on rue Vaugirard, every room piled with books. Every room is an office, she laughs. She was the President of the French Byron Society and tells me of someone, whose name I forget, who came to give a talk and claimed to be wearing Byron's ring. 'But how could that be? she said. How could he come to have Byron's ring? Surely they did not sell it? The British, she says, I'm sorry to say this, but the British can be so mercantile.' A truly delicious description! We have an aperitif of port, sitting at a tiny table with a brass tray, books piled all around us, and she then makes soup and lentils à la Auvergnoise.

I wanted to visit the Flaubert museum, but it was closed for renovation. So I went to the Musée de Beaux Arts, where I have never seen so many Impressionist paintings all together. Apart from many Sisleys and Monets – including of course, his Porte de la Cathédrale de Rouen - there was René de Saint-Délis's Le Port d'Honfleur, with light striking the water.

Leaving Calais, the sky was storm grey, but here too, there was a line of light which must have jumped around a cloud, to hit the water.

Thursday, 1 October 2009

Walking in Tirana's Streets

Walking in Tirana's Streets

I head for my usual supplier of hardback notebooks, the huge bazaar at the end of Rruga Dibres, just past the Medresa. But all the notebooks only have squared paper. The woman who has the stall gestures towards a young man, her son, and he says to me – please wait five minutes – and goes off. He returns with two packs of notebooks. Some of them have lines rather than squares, but the formerly kitsh cover designs have turned into ugly images of grimacing little boys with motor bikes. They think I don't like these because I want them for a girl. How old is she, asks the son. The ones with cute little girls are equally impossible for me to use. 16 I say, rather than attempt to explain that they are for me to write in, that the Chinese paper and the kitsh covers are precisely what I love about them. The only possible lined one is plain blue so I take that one and a squared one with gorgeous heart patterns like plush satin. 300 lek for the 2 (£2), the same as they cost 4 years ago.

Walking back to the centre – walking in Tirana's streets is an enormous pleasure for me – I go into a small café to buy byrek, that delicious flaky pastry with slivers of cheese inside. The woman behind the counter is friendly, all smiles. But she has no change for my 100 lek coin. Ska, ska, she waves me away and smiles. It's nothing, don't worry, have it on me. She shrugs, smiles, waves. Faleminderit shum I say, thank you very much.

Continuing towards the centre, I'm watching a policeman at traffic lights. He waves the cars on, while the lights are at green. When they change to red, he holds up his lollipop. Good. Green man – I cross. The first car pulls up and the policeman waves the second which is in the middle of the road, over to the side, behind the first one. I'm eating my byrek, looking back at him and don't see a car coming from my right – well I wouldn't would I? There's a green pedestrian sign, and I have right of way. But the car sounds its horn, clearly intending to continue. I wave my byrek at him and walk on.

Apart from the lack of lined and flowery kitsh-patterned notebooks this part of Tirana is, quite wonderfully, unchanged. Up the Rruga Dibres and Qemal Stafa, all is the same – powerful sunlight, noise, dust, fumes, broken pavements, helpful notebook sellers and friendly byrek sellers and cars that drive through pedestrian green lights, even when there's a policeman just a few meters away.

In the centre of course, particularly in the Blok, the fashionable area, there are very visible changes, painted façades, repaired roads, glamorous shops full of fashionable clothes, and lots of shiny new cars. Even the bicycle stall has a new parasol.

Old version bicycle stall and street

New version bicycle stall and same street.
The sparrows were doing their usual massive flocking in the chestnut trees along Sami Frasheri. I saw many of them, zooming in like fast dark arrows, to join the seething, sparking chorus in the trees. Is it their nightly reunion? Are they squabbling for space in the trees? Have I ever seen sparrows fly so fast and so far, more like swallows – are they really sparrows anyway?

If ever I'd forgotten that identity is not something discrete and compact that one can carry around with you, like a suitcase on wheels, walking along Tirana streets would have reminded me.

We might imagine that this shifting series of impressions, thoughts, and associations, connections and interchange with other people, is who we are, but this is like comparing a thin scarf of cloud tucked into a crevice of the mountainside with the mountain itself.

Identity it seems to me, is geographical, its textures are topography, and it lives in places – or it dreams there, sleeps, until you wake it, or that part of you that lives there, wakes, when your feet touch that ground again.
These street and hillside fragments are all one being, so it seems to me.

Walking in Tirana's streets is like living a double life, an abrupt intensifying of experience. The blaring car horns, the dust and diesel fumes, the smells of hot oil, roasting corn and rosemary and the early evening chorus of the birds as they swoop into the chestnut trees on Sami Frasheri, and shout and call and laugh and greet each other.

Various pasts arrive, just like those gossiping, garrulous birds, they zoom in to join this present moment as I walk up these streets. It's vertigo as well as plain sailing. It's moving up and down with sea swell, and it's those sudden shifts in altitude too, when you drop out of nowhere and you're carried up by something that just appears, and lifts you up.
Where we are is who we are.
Walking up Tirana's streets makes me feel as if something that was previously held inside me has been released, let out.

Friday, 25 September 2009

International Byron Conference in Albania 2009

International Byron Conference, Tirana, Albania

Two hundred years ago Lord George Byron visited Greece and Albania, one of the first Englishmen to do so. He travelled on horseback from Jannina in Greece, then known as Epiros, to Tepelene in Albania, at the invitation of Ali Pasha, then ruler of Epiros and most of Albania. Byron made this journey, along with his friend Hobhouse, and local guides, through mountainous and highly dangerous terrain – Ali was fighting a war against the Pasha of Berat, a more northern Albanian city.

The impact on Byron of this very different culture and its ruler, Ali Pasha, was immense. Out of this journey and this meeting came Childe Harold, the long lyric poem that was to make Byron famous. Out of it too came Byron's lifelong love of Albania and its people.

There are Byron societies all over the world yet this was the first time, the 200th anniversary of his visit, that an International Byron Conference has been held in Albania. And this was thanks to the tireless efforts of Dr. Afrim Karagjozi and his colleagues and students at the University of Tirana.

All the speakers were picked up at Rinas airport. The last time I'd flown in to Tirana was nine years ago (since then I'd taken the ferry from Bari to Durres) and I could hardly believe this sumptuous place I found myself in. Spacious, airy and spotless, no long queues, and you didn't even have to pay to enter the country! (Formerly there was a charge of ten euros). We were then taken to the Hotel Mondial near the busy intersection where Rruga Kavaja meets the Unaza or ring road that encircles the city. After leaving my suitcase at the hotel I could not resist walking up Rruga Kavaja to Skanderbeg Square, drinking in the evening warmth and all the sights and sounds that were immediately so familiar and at the same time so evocative of the past, when I used to live here. The blaring of car horns, the ubiquitous dust, the scents of roasting corn, hot oil and byrek, scorched meat, pungent cheese, herbs and spices, interspersed with various perfumes. Something that is dormant in me when I am not here comes alive in me when I am. Every step along the dusty road was a greeting, an inner incredulity, every step a delight to be back here. Like the birds that cluster in the chestnut trees on Rruga Sami Frasheri in early evening, a cloud of chattering sound, I was singing, though not out loud. Only after I had made my own personal greeting to this city, by walking along its streets, could I go back to join the others, where we had a meal of so many courses I lost count, and our glasses were constantly filled by attentive waiters.

The next day Dr Karagjozi opened the conference, and we read our papers. Byron the traveller, the ghost in Byron's bedroom, his influence on so many writers, the national costumes worn by the Albanians he met, 200 years ago, a modern day journey in Byron's footsteps, the effect of Ali Pasha and Albania on Byron the writer and the man, were just some of the topics covered.

The next two days were spent travelling. We took the
coast road to Saranda, the city of forty saints, stopping
at the Llogora Pass where the mountains slope
downwards to the sea. From Saranda we went on to

Butrint, a World Heritage Site, full of classical ruins,

including the remains of an Asklepian temple, a

Greek amphitheatre, a Christian baptistry and the

mysterious Lion Gate.

The following day we visited Gjirokaster, with several

surviving old Ottoman houses built into the mountainside,

and a museum refurbished with traditional carpets and

wooden carved walls and ceilings.

We stopped at Tepelene, Ali Pasha's birthplace, to admire his statue and the few remains of the vast palace where Byron met Ali Pasha. In a letter Byron described the inner courtyard of the palace as being made of marble with a fountain playing in the centre. This can only be imagined now, beyond the remains of the wall of the entrance archway, where blue flowers sprout between the cracks in the stonework.

But the mountains are still there, quite unchanged.

Tuesday, 8 September 2009

Callander Poetry Festival

The legendary Callander Poetry Festival 2009 is over. I'm back home again, under greyish skies, images and feelings still circulating. So many inspiring and moving words – you can check out all the people who took part at the Poetry Scotland website.

We kicked off a day before the scheduled events, a few of us early arrivals. Left both in charge and unsupervised as Sally and Ian had to go out, it all started off well, with Maureen and I managing to make a salad, and buy wine, then a trail of people later set off for the local off license to buy more. I remember Mike and Kemal's guitar playing, and ending up in the pub up the road, but where I was to stay that night was not so easily remembered, so I needed several people to accompany me to the door, and to ring the bell, where the ever patient and hugely hospitable V sat me down and made me some tea before I headed for bed.

Before I started drinking wine, I did remember though, to turn off the cooker, so that the pot of vegetables which Sally had prepared, would not be burnt, once we sat down to talk and play music. To be absolutely sure that this could not happen, I switched the cooker off at the mains. Switching it on again the next morning, the cooker blew, and all the electrics in the house went out. I don't think I will ever live this down, though Sally and Ian, cheerful as ever, laughed it off. Somehow electricity was restored, apart from the cooker. I do not know how this was done, as my subsequent offers of help were met with a 'no, no, stay away!'

It is always a mystery how Sally manages to feed everyone and this year was particularly miraculous, working sans cooker. Yet once again, plates brimmed with food, with the peach jelly and baklava being particularly memorable for me. Wine overflowed. Yet by Friday night I was enjoying blackcurrant juice and wondering if I would ever drink wine again. (I did, the following day.)

Every year, apart from the superb mix of poets, there is always some particularly fascinating and unusual event. One year we had a resident Zen Buddhist monk, on another occasion, poetry was put to music which was made into a CD, (Snappy Day). This year's special resident was the Itinerant Poetry Librarian who has spent the last three years in various different parts of the world, taking her amazing collection of poetry with her. Her concept, activities, the collection, and her delightful self, are all heart-warming. This is only the second time, she told us, that she has been invited to a specific poetry event. The first invitation was to the International Poetry Festival at Rotterdam! When she talks on her website about liminality and 'the periphery of the periphery' I felt an immediate kinship with this idea, as it was what I was trying to express in the title of the previous post – Loose Threads on a Bead Attached to a Frayed Loop on the Outermost Edge of the Fringe.

On the last evening, after the official events were over, there was more music and singing, and I was able to join in with the inimitable Onya Wick. But just before that, I made an amazing find in the bookshop. For some time I'd wanted to read the novels of Robin Lloyd-Jones but when I asked him about them he said they were out of print. But while I was browsing the bookshop I found a copy of one of them! What can be better than coming home with a bagful of books you look forward to reading? My rucksack broke under the strain, so I foraged in Callander's shops before I left, and bought a new one.

The bookshop cat sat on the

Monday, 31 August 2009

Loose Threads on the Fringe

Loose Threads on a Bead Attached to a Frayed Loop on the Outermost Edge of the Fringe.

Travel from Cahors to home only took about 30 hours, with little waiting in between trains and buses. Train to Paris, overnight bus to London, then buses home to Scotland.
This is London in early morning light.

While I was away in France, flowers I planted in pots bloomed, and leeks and one glossy green courgette were waiting for me.... and the slugs hadn't eaten all the lettuces...hallo lovely plants I said...
Jane and Louise Wilson's installation at the Talbot Rice Gallery, Unfolding the Aryan Papers, stills from and commentary by the actress Johanna ter Steege who was to star in Stanley Kubrick's film, based on Louis Begley's novel, Wartime Lies. The film was never made, but it existed in the thoughts and imagination of both Kubrick and the actress, and now a film or installation has been made by J & L Wilson of her thoughts, of the archive stills, with their categories, which Johanna reads out in an even voice. 'Specific scenes' (we see A. Hitler with a child in a pushchair, a prisoner about to be shot by soldiers); 'civilian activities' ( people sitting having picnics beside vintage cars); 'Warsaw ghetto', 'slum interiors', 'interiors' – with huge bold- patterned wallpaper that looks vulnerable to me now, especially in these black and white photographs, no trace of real boldness, more a kind of patterned sensitivity, soaked with time and sadness.

When I come out of the exhibition, into the empty courtyard of the Old Quad, it is raining, and I feel I am still in a film set, the rain, the grey cobbles and Georgian architecture, the complete absence of any other human beings. I walk slowly, surrounded by these buildings that have been transposed to somewhere in mainland Europe in some place that I once knew so well, and again now, know so intimately, the camera of the Major Director tracking me, this moment, this empty courtyard in the rain.

Fatos Lubonja at the Book Festival, talking of his 17-year prison sentence in Albania, for 'agitation and propaganda'. A warm person, who smiles easily, he talks of the sense of the double self, the inner one that says – you can't say that or write that – because of the dictatorship. He says it is a daily struggle, even now, to be truthful, to say the truth. Invited to give a talk in Belgrade, he was going to give it on what he thought Danilo Kiš, the Serbian writer had said viz. that if you can't tell the truth, say nothing. But apparently Kiš said if you can't tell the truth, use metaphor, and so what he tried to do was bridge the gap between silence and metaphor.
He spoke of how the past in Albania has not really been confronted – none of the former regime have been held accountable for what they did, never mind put on trial. The people in political power now are the same as the ones in power in the Communist regime. In his book, Second Sentence, Fatos wrote about two writers and journalists, Fadil and Vangjel, who wrote a letter to Enver Hoxha suggesting a reconciliation with Russia (Albania was more Stalinist than Russia, after Stalin's death, and so broke off relations with Russia, making the country utterly isolated). For daring to write this letter they were put on trial and sentenced to death. No-one, he said, has looked for the bodies of Fadil and Vangjel and given them a proper grave.

R talks about the degree show at the Art College she went to. There was an installation consisting of a motor bike and beside it, the engine, and the artist was sitting beside the engine. She asked him what his work was about. Oh, I just love fixing motor bikes he says. Ah, so it's about love, says R. Uh – says the artist, who clearly hadn't thought of it in this way before - yeah, I suppose so. How wonderful I say to her, because of your question, he realised something about his work that he wasn't aware of before.

Sunday, 30 August 2009

Cubertou - The Last Days

Cubertou – The Last Days

Peace and silence. In the kitchen, E whisks something in a bowl. His running commentary, sometimes to himself, sometimes to others.
I'm making mayonnaise. Put bread in the oven. Maximum. I'm going to slice it. There is – potato salad – salami – cheese – use up the lettuce as well. All you need to do is reheat the stew a little bit.
To me – the bread in the oven – check it in two minutes, press it – he gestures with thumb and finger - if it goes crik, crik, it's ready.

I drive to Bergerac airport to pick up some new arrivals. When we pass through Villeréal it's 36 degrees. But there's a pale and fuzzy wedge of cloud moving across the sky heading towards us. It has a pearly innocent glow to it. But then it grows thicker and thicker and overhead there are swirling patterns of shades of grey and silver. The first fast drops of rain fall, chilly and personal on the skin.

Driving back between Villeréal and Montflanquin the light gathers and swoops on the cut wheat fields, a blaze of burnt yellow, stinging the eyes. Over towards the horizon the sky is a haze of smoky purplish grey like a picture fading out, dissolving at the edges.

Back at the Cubertou kitchen E lines the plates up on the counter, lays fish on them, then spoons out vegetables and finally, the sauce. Then he points to them. Go, go! he says.
We carry them out across the courtyard. Thick drops of rain are falling. Last week the stars watched over us. Tonight the air is heavy with moisture, a clammy dusk. The candles flicker and struggle with the wet and drooping sky. New people and new weather.
OK, these are ready, go, go!

We come back to the kitchen, carry two more plates over to the barn where the tables are laid out, covered with the blue waxed cloths.
We'll hear this in our sleep I think, E's voice saying, Go, go!
That and the thunder following the forked lightning. And the monotonous drip drip outside the barn as rain splashes onto something metal.

Cubertou dramas:
Water shortage. Ja and I catch the last drops from a dribbling tap into carafes, so that at least people will not die of thirst before the supply runs out completely. (the water came on again the next day.)
H weeping in the courtyard in the middle of the night because there was a spider in her room, so I persuade her to come up to the spare bed in the large upper room.
An accident – a lorry running into M and Ir's car (but no-one hurt) the car a write-off, having to be towed away.
S falling ill with tonsillitis.
J-L's blackberry going missing.
A's plane from Southampton having to turn back because the rubber was coming away from the windscreen.
It's like a Guy de Maupassant story says B.

The next day is overcast, which means its cool enough for me to walk all day. I take the forest path to Chateau Bonaguil.

The following day it's hot again. I take the train (ie the SNCF bus) from Fumel to Puy l'Eveque. I'm the only passenger until Vire sur Lot. When the bus approaches I stick my hand out and it stops. The driver says I shouldn't have waited there but at the other side of the road, where there's a shelter. But that's going in the other direction I say. Doesn't matter apparently that's where I should have waited.

Sitting in the old streets of Puy L'Eveque, there's one of those moments when life feels like a reflection, with a burst of music from an open doorway, a memory, the sound of water trickling over stones, the tone of a church bell. The dry chirp of a bird.

Cahors, at the Musée Henri Martin. A neon sign says the temperature is 43 degrees. Henri Martin lived near Cahors and adopted the pointilliste style. His Toits Rouges is not on display there, but it was the photo of that painting, of the red roof-tiles against the blue water that made me want to go to the exhibition. The water reminded me of a lake near Shkodra in the north of Albania. A group of us went there on a Search and Rescue exercise. We left much too early in the morning, about 5, before it got too hot. The students had to find the location of a (simulated) downed plane, using compass and map references. Fortunately, I did not have to do this, I took photographs and wrote a report of the exercise. I took a short cut to the lake, where we were all going for a swim afterwards. Scrambling down a scree-covered hill I lost my footing and got covered in bramble scratches. I was glad I was on my own and there was no-one there to see my undignified fall.

Cahors was just as hot as that day in the north of Albania. But there were no mountains to climb. And the Musée was cool. And even though Les Toits Rouges was not on display, there were several landscapes of villages, hills and snaky long poplar and cypress trees.
Back at Cubertou, the thunderheads were climbing up in the sky again, muttering and deliberating about a forthcoming drama. But it didn't rain.

Saturday, 1 August 2009

Cubertou, Too

Cubertou, Une Autre Vie

A butterfly swoops down over my head,
in the direction of the buddlea.
Their faded candle blossoms wave,
uncertain arrows
pointing to this part of sky, now to another,
with so much blue, who can decide
which blue way to waver or to point to,
which blue ripple to outline
with dark-blossom direction?

Sometimes I am waitress, bartender, translator. This morning, because S is ill and has been taken to the doctor, I am kitchen hand. Carry the food from E's car into the kitchen, put the baguettes into the wicker basket, take the cheeses downstairs into the cave. Peel the shallots. What knife shall I use? I ask E, the chef. You can use mine he says, and sharpens it. You're honoured, says Js, the other kitchen hand, the more permanent one, he never lets me use his knife. Js peels the onions and cries into the dish. E walks past me and straightens my shoulders. You must not hunch over like that he says. I peel two net bags of shallots. Shall I do the third one? No – hang it up over there. On the hooks are net bags of lemons and oranges. But I've already opened the third net bag so it won't hang up. I slip the bag of shallots in beside a solitary lemon.

It's coq au vin tonight and E pours the wine from plastic bottles into a vast tureen. JL comes into the kitchen, takes the empty plastic bottles and cuts them in half. Then he turns the top half with the narrow neck, upside down and replaces it in the lower half. Pours a little beer into the bottom, and his wasp trap is complete. Exits, to take it outside to the barn where they getting ready for the morning's music lesson.

Next I peel the cucumbers. The dark green peel comes away in long stripes, heap on the table like damp snakes. Then E hands me a grater. I grate the cucumbers into a yellow bowl.
We will have lunch in the open air, in the sloping field with trees at the far end, for shade. Blankets are put out for people to sit on. Two bamboo tables hold the salad, the bread, the lentil dish, the paté. Glasses, cutlery and plates are carried in the wicker trays.

E mixes lemon into the lentil dish. Is that enough? he asks me. Taste it. Get a spoon. From there – he points to the drawer. I fetch a spoon, I taste the lentils. A little more lemon, I say. He puts more in. Is that better? he asks me. Yes, I say.
Do you make pancakes? How many eggs do you put in?
He produces an enormous salmon. I've salted it he says. Try it. Is there too much salt? A little. Further up where it is thicker, it will not be so salty.
Can I go outside now, have a coffee break?
Yes, go. I am ahead of myself today.

Outside, at the table. In the courtyard, E's painting of the mandolin player. Earlier, I helped him bring the other paintings out of the sunlight, but this one is pinned up on an easel. I wonder if it too should be brought in. The shade moves and shifts across the table. Everybody interrupts me and I like their questions. E leans out of the kitchen window. Can you bring in the painting that's outside? I forgot about it. That's just what I was thinking of, I say. I unpin the painting and put it with the others.
Js joins me at the table. Do you have another pen?
Then he brings out his guitar. Which chord sounds better do you think?
Ella reads the paper. Oh, we have a good-looking man in the government she says, and shows me a picture of Muhammad Abdi. And he is smoking a cigarette too!

Wednesday, 29 July 2009

Cubertou, France

A lovely cafe we stopped at on the way.

Cubertou, Lot et Garonne

We had one breakdown on the way, which statistically, is about average. We took the very early – 4 am- ferry Dover to Boulogne, and drove a little way south before stopping, to sleep a little. But when JR tried to start the car later in the morning, it would not, the battery was completely flat. And so the theatre began, of trying to contact the breakdown services. The number rang, and they play some music while you wait. Meanwhile the mobile phone is running out of money. I didn't have time to tell them where we were, before I was cut off. Next, I have to try to top up the phone, but it refuses the information I put in. So we walk to the nearest village, find a café where the owners kindly let us use their phone, get through to the breakdown people, tell them where we are, and in an hour's time someone arrives and charges the battery. It's now well on into the afternoon but we are finally en route.

Today there is a slight breeze and a few clouds, it's blessedly cool and there's an acacia tree just outside the window, which looks down onto the drive leading to the road. Yesterday I found the path leading to Duravel. The trails, petites randonnées, are clearly marked, different colours for each path, so you know where you are going or at least which colour of path you're following. At each turn, a tree trunk or post has a little splash of colour, showing you you're on the right path and sometimes there's a cross, to show you that's not the way to go. The French are amazing, they have it all thought out, and even those with the greatest tendency to get lost, feel that they are catered for. You may not know where the path leads, but you know that at least you are heading somewhere.
The other day I found the ruins of a church dating back to the 11th century, according to the sign, dedicated to St. Avit. She or he is not a saint I am familiar with. On stonework that's clearly been renovated, the equal-armed cross of the Cathars was drawn in the mortar.

Saturday, 4 July 2009

Myths and Plants

Myths are only important if they’re relevant to the present somebody said recently. And it strikes me that people live in all kinds of different times, belied maybe by our everyday conversations and when the focus is on who is winning at Wimbledon and who is fighting who in what part of the world in other words when the focus is on something in the external world. But it seems to me that there are all kinds of myths that are part of our history or stories, pasted onto the inside of our skins. Whether we believe in them or not is incidental. They exist as stories and they adhere to us whether we adhere to them or not. If a story has slipped inside us, there it is, provoking thoughts and daydreams and a kind of backdrop to our lives, the way the garden has taken up its place in mine, a variety of greens, with little maroon flashes (the lettuces) and bunches of cream (an odd kind of flower whose name I don’t remember, but beloved of the bees). Poppies whizz in and out of electrifying reds, oranges and pinks, bursts of colour that flare and vanish fast.

But stories….I am immersed in various periods of time, relating to the Balkans – early 19th century – Byron’s visit there, 200 years ago, mid 19th, Dora d’Istria, whose work I’m translating, and who relates stories that have their origin in the 14th century, other epic songs and stories from the same date, Edward Lear’s visit to Albania, also in the 19th century, Fatos Lubonja’s prison memoir of the 20th century, and Sašha Stanišić’s beautifully written How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone, a novel based on his own experiences as a child in the most recent Balkan war, in the last decade of the 20th century. The Balkans have a way of folding time that feels familiar to anyone who reads about the past and tends, like me, to become involved in what they read, to the extent that it feels just as alive as the present – the evening birdsong, and yes, the garden where the birds are singing and the plants in the ground and in pots visibly growing every day, encouraged by my exclamations of praise and delight at the incredible variety of leaf shapes and the way new ones simply appear, when I’m not looking.

Ismail Kadare said that the Greek myths reglènt toute la vie – they rule our lives, these 21st century lives of ours, full of photographs and internet images and text messages and plants in gardens and singing birds. Where does Troy and Ithaca and the blue and purple Adriatic fit in here?

Fiona Sampson in On Listening has written a fascinating essay where she argues that since we Brits have grown up on classical myths the landscape of the Mediterranean is deep in our early experience, of reading or being read to and has now become installed in our unconscious. It is ailleurs, elsewhere, the 'other' place, faintly remembered and deeply longed for.
Faintly remembered and deeply longed for. Ah yes.


I emerge occasionally from the 14th and 19th centuries into this one, and go swimming. After being immersed in tales of supernatural events, I immerse myself in greeny-blue water, today wearing my new swimming hat (blue) and new goggles ( greeny-blue) and cut a dash in the empty pool, emerging with red rings round my eyes because the goggles are made for midgets. The hat too fails to cover all of my hair but I believe that with a bit of practice I can stretch it to fit.

Saturday, 13 June 2009

Local Journeys

The past few weeks have been a flurry of movement. There was another trip to Gatehouse of Fleet, to attend the launch of Markings 28 with the amazing Pete Brown, who wrote many of the lyrics for Cream, as the main reader. He talked about his hitch-hiking trips to and from Scotland in the sixties. AJ came up in conversation and he happened to phone me soon after that. He said – Pete Brown was the person who started the poetry readings, he was the one who got it all going. He'd pin a handwritten notice outside an art college, saying there would be a reading, and maybe half a dozen people would turn up, then the next time he appeared, there would be twenty.

AJ had tried to get in touch with him, to let him know about his recent books, A Great Beauty and Walking Through Apocalypse, [available from ] so I was able to put him in touch with Chrys Salt, one of the editors of Markings.

The day after the reading at Gatehouse, Tessa and I revisited Cairn Holy (this pic was taken earlier in the year, at the equinox.) Tessa and I went there at sunrise on the equinox, but the mist and rain obscured the view of the line of sunlight moving across one of the stones. J Proskauer later described it to us (he had seen it the year before) : the growing shadow moves across and up, as if cutting the sunlight in two, until the lower sunlight is almost obscured by the shadow. But just before it is, one drop of sunlight moves downwards, towards the earth, an actual and metaphorical view of the seeding of light into the earth.

Then there was a quick visit to Fife, in a slow bus, where J W now resides close to the sea, after living for a few years in the foothills of the Pyrenees. Her poetry pamphlet, Sky Blue Notebook, was one of the winners of the Poetry Pamphlet Competition . We talked about some of our favourite writers, including Henry Miller, Natalie Goldberg and Dubravka Ugresic. She also gave me some needed gardening tips on how to dissuade slugs from lettuce munching. The sunny weather continued though there was a seriously brisk sea breeze.

Music and poetry performances were planned for June 5th, at Iliff Simey's wonder woodland, in Coed Nant Gain, North Wales. The event was cancelled because of the rain, but Maureen Weldon and I still managed to do a small indoors reading. This is a magical forest: Iliff says “The deep ecology concept underpins all that I do at Coed Nant Gain, for we are not dominant but co-exist in harmony with all beings, otherwise we harm ourselves. “ Iliff is also an architect and has built his own wooden house in the forest. You can find out more about his woodland project HERE.

Meanwhile, Balkan Travellers have invited me to be one of their blog contributors on their site, with content relating to the Balkans. The first posting is up, as is the article on Durres and its amphitheatre

Sunday, 10 May 2009

Vindolanda, near Hadrian's Wall

The road that runs alongside Hadrian's Wall. Evening, twilight and the road undeviating, up and down like waves this road goes. Every landscape has its genius loci, its spirit, atmosphere, mood and subtlety. We drive along this straight road, no bends or twists or curves to accommodate the landscape's contours, it's like something placed over the top, a strip of duct tape, yet it has the feeling of having risen up out of the earth. This feeling reminds me of public gardens, where growing things have been tended, encouraged, shaped and trimmed. They glow in this attention. Yes, this landscape glows, an unobtrusive candle softens the rock ridges with their occasional brief lines and fringes of trees, like patches of stiff, arrested stubble. Between two rounded hills on the horizon, one solitary tree. It seizes attention.

This almost empty landscape has a welcoming familiar feel it it. It's a little like a secret too, an undiscovered valley, with civilization bustling and brimming and self-involved, on either side. Gossip and restlessness, fascination with fractured self-reflections lie just a finger's width away. Glass-fronted supermarkets, shiny car surfaces, windows catching partial, buckled images. People stop at a filling-station, as do we, and there's the traffic on the approach roads to Newcastle, the grumbling of cars slowing down at a roundabout and speeding up again. Even the bleakest, most abandoned landscape feels homely compared to this. We head quickly back to this ribbon road, this felt strip like a long bridge over the boulder land and its grassy skin. The few trees have twists and sudden turns in their trunks as if they had a history of grappling with something. The landscape wraps itself around the road.

Vindolanda Writing Tablets

Among many fascinating artefacts found during archaeological digs at Vindolanda camp near Hadrian's Wall are the writing 'tablets'. These are letters, written on thin pieces of bark. The ink used was soot, mixed with water. They were discovered purely by chance. A video in the museum showed people handling lumps of oozing mud. Then fragile brown slithers were uncovered, cleaned, and X-ray photographed, which showed up the writing. I imagined the incredible excitement that must have been felt when they realised that these marks formed letters, they were writing. And after that, the laborious process of deciphering each letter. Handwriting has changed in almost 2000 years (they date from around 120 AD) yet astonishingly, it hasn't changed that much.

It made me think of the process of creation itself, beginning with mud, with something that comes out of the earth, is cleaned and honed into the patterned flight that writing holds in its alphabet wings.

The subject matter is deliciously mundane – will you come to my birthday party? Can you send me some more money? And a derogatory reference to the locals – Brittunculi – wretched little Brits!

While what they're written on and the process of extracting them from their layers of mud and history – is brushed with miracle and revelation. A curious reversal.

A couple of images of Berat, Albania – a tiny church on the steep hillside going down from the
citadel quarter which is perched on a high rock above the rest of the city. And a narrow cobbled path between old buildings in the citadel quarter. You can read about my Berat experience here.

Thursday, 16 April 2009

The Freedom of Fiction and Another Helpful Bus Driver

Milan Kundera in The Art of the Novel talks of the irrational in characters, how characters do not act rationally – just as persons in real life do not – logical sequences are not followed – perhaps that's why our actual lives are patchwork, with trailing glitter, beads, trinkets and real gems – precious metal and plastic thrown into the same box; the clothes we choose, to represent us – the long, lingering aftertastes, our inability to know when past is truly out of reach, our hankerings and yearnings for all that is not, as if we could stroke out the present as we do a sentence we do not like, and replace it with something we prefer.

The present can appear paltry, insubstantial as warm wax. The alternatives strut and parade around, in our early morning mind, but the roots of who we are it seems lie in places of profound emotion, which burrow passages through to other areas that form underground connexions. As if our life, made up of all our past, is an architecture we can wander through, and sometimes can still feel as if we are confined in one small room, with a window looking out onto the world.

Perhaps like bees, we are bound with sweetness, our lives a busy honey-harvest, a singing in the docile air of scented summer.

Kundera again:
..the moment it becomes part of a novel, reflection changes its essence. Outside the novel, we're in the realm of affirmation: everyone is sure of his statements: the politician, the philosopher, the concierge. Within the universe of the novel however, no one affirms: it is the realm of play and of hypotheses. In the novel then, reflection is essentially inquiring, hypothetical.....

J B Pick in The Great Shadow House, talking of the writing of Neil Gunn:

Of course the writer of fiction must express the essential emotions of his characters, whether they are negative or positive, but learning the ability to distance himself from these emotions, while allowing his characters to live their own lives, enables him to control the narrative and to operate simultaneously inside and outside his fictional world.

I was reading this yesterday evening in one of the many buses I found myself on, flitting across the city. I was heading home, but this bus stopped in the middle of nowhere, in the dark. I looked up and there were no other passengers. I went up to the driver and said I thought you were going to Dalkeith. He laughed as if it was a lunar city. Oh yes, during the day we do, but not after 7. When I asked if there was another bus I could get he said yes, a 3 goes there, you can get it from the other side of the road, but I don't know when one is due. Tell you what though he says as he follows me outside, I can take you back into town, to the crossroads, it would be much better to wait there, there's buildings and street lights and people, here it's – well – lonely and deserted. He was young, lively and friendly and swung his arms about – I took the bus back to the crossroads, and someone else was waiting at the bus stop and a few minutes later a number 3 turned up.

It seems to me that Milan Kundera and J B Pick are saying similar things, though one talks of ideas and hypotheses, the other of emotions. It's something to do with the freedom you experience when writing fiction.

André Gide has written

Savoir se libérer n'est rien; l'ardu, c'est savoir être libre

Easy enough he says, to free ourselves but to be free, to live in freedom, ah that's not so simple -

We are rough handlers, manipulating bricks of thoughts, carrying them from one place to the next, to support an edifice. Our concrete lives, our this thought and that thought, castles waiting to be shattered, besieged or toppled.

There, in the rubble, we may find something of great value once again. Our loss, perhaps. Carry it like precious new life. Scoring out our old rule-books. The inner kingdom is not pinned with names, it is fluid with light. Its bricks are for caressing, not for eager accumulations into something that will one day be – what sets us free.

It is the moment that sets us free. The moment, the experience, as of looking down on the Adriatic, from a hilltop in Piran.
(rooftops of Piran, Slovenia, below, then evening sky, Dubrovnik). From that moment, everything else radiates outwards. This kind of time is not historical, one moment among a string of others, it's not Chronos but Kairos. It's a special kind of arriving. Evening sky, from a balcony in Dubrovnik. A meeting. An arrival. The geographical places of its arrival will always be beloved.

To reach these places – which we can never know beforehand – takes trust, faith, faith-in-action. Our bruised memories. We can't force this or flog it on. The two that are divided have to come together, somehow.

When we forget – ah then – cleaning out a cupboard, turning over soil, talking to someone you meet by chance in the street – the magical can come then, slips in by the back door when you are not looking, searching or fixating on trying to find it.

Here, where the daffodils are opening to the sun and a crow flies limply, its wing sliding through the air, trailing its interrogation, its cry of surprise, delight -

Small winged things fly around astonished. Impatience has stretched itself out in the sun. Cow-bells rattle as a bird lands on a branch.

Tuesday, 10 March 2009

The Deep North

The Narrow Road to the Deep North – Basho

Deep North, very early morning, chez A.

A bird singing outside the window so I thought it was dawn. But it was just one insomniac bird. Like me.
Memories. Floating like ice floes – take up so much space it seems that's all there is -

A loose and shining world with so much space and sunlight, filtering through trees, along river banks....Ingelheim-am- Rhein, Mainz - I don't remember the names clearly, but it was the Rhein, a big river, and the sun shone and I was with R and other people. When I spoke to the man in the deli yesterday, I asked where in Germany he was from and he said Hamburg and I went ah, as if Hamburg – but no, I've never been there, but R, he was from Hamburg and I sometimes wonder where he is now – his tiny room in the Burse, Littenweiler, Freiburg im Breisgau -

April is the cruellest month, breeding
lilacs out of the dead land....

TS Eliot

The lilac blossom, all the way along the street I walked in the early morning, to go to work at the Wäsherei. The scent of the lilac blossom - and when I think of T S Eliot's quote from The Wasteland I remember 'spilling lilacs' not breeding lilacs – so I remember the lilac scents in early morning, spring, April maybe, edging into May.

Summer surprised us, coming over the Starnbergersee....
Bin gar keine russin, stamm' aus Litauen, echt deutsch.

And then something like Marie, Marie, hold on tight – and it may be mis-remembered but the feelings, I can still feel them – my memories of that glorious and delicious love – not a love for anyone, that's not what I'm remembering, what it brings to mind is that filling, spilling over feeling, some general and spreading sweetness – memory of a feeling that comes from evoking the words of that poem, that stirs and tugs –

The curtain moves as Emily, the little cat, pads along the windowsill.
Because I hear more distant birds than the one just outside the window, I think it may soon be dawn.
Why this wakefulness?
Where does this tenderness come from? - Marina Tsvetaeyeva.

The tenderness, the lilac blossom scents, the Marie, Marie, hold on tight, all these enter the being, flood it with this delicious sense of entering once more into life.

I was going to say that the memory of such feeling of living so intensely and completely in the present is what presses the experience into the strands of who we are - I mean that the experience itself presses into the fabric, stains it with its completeness, so that it becomes and it remains a part of you. So that its memory – even though all memories change over time – its memory has the power to evoke and repossess you. This is the way that the past /is always present as Mario Relich wrote, in Talking About Gulls.

And I was going to say that the lilac blossom and the sunlight glinting on the huge river, these experiences were of living so entirely in the present moment that I was soaked through with it, through and through, and I felt this flicker of nostalgia for what is not now –

That's when I felt that – we do enter into life again each spring, that it really does happen and I'd been waiting all winter for this feeling. And that's the way it comes – in snatches and in moments, for that's the way that our perception comes, usually, it's in these flicker-moments when our awareness is just caught – by a morning bird, by the deep blueness of yesterday's afternoon clouds – by the vast evening sky, all hanging there, falling away beneath our feet, falling right down onto the hilltops. By the delicate patterns on the river surface, wrinkle-ripples, and the round, gently swirling ones – we link up with these moments and they too, become the real fabric, the real taste of who we are.

These moments – the lilac blossom, sunlight glinting on water-surface, a sky full of bluish clouds – are the real ones of our lives. We return to who we once always knew ourselves to be. We touch our long-lost love. Fingers trailing in the water. Sunlight raking memories, like fingers. This is what it's looking for. The real moments. They remain. The glints of gold, yes – might have been the reason why we came here anyway – while we looked for god or love or a lifetime partner or a place where we belong – it was the lilac blossom and the jasmine scents, the way the sky began to get light and the deep blue clouds, the purple shadows -

No photos of lilac blossom so here's one of jasmine, in Gjirokaster, Albania

and skies near Vauvert, France

Monday, 16 February 2009

Quand les amandiers commencent à fleurir ....

Quand les amandiers commencent à fleurir ....
When the almond trees begin to flower you know that winter's truly gone, so they say in the south. They start to flower in February. I first found one solitary blossom on the trees by the old railway near La Résidence , the same trees I'd picked almonds from the summer before last. The next one I saw a few kilometers along the road to St. Gilles. The third was a huge tree, further along the same road.

Some other images – bird signatures in the sky at sundown,

a flashy sunset

a black dog asleep in front of a farmhouse with brown shutters,

posing horses

and the last sunset, that is, the last sunset I would see in France, before going home. I'd spent the afternoon at Didier's, the photographer, then at Jean's, the artist. I still had several kilometers to go to get home to La Résidence when I took this photo and I had no lights on the bike. But la piste verte is reserved for cyclists and people on foot, and I didn't meet anyone at all. Cycling in the almost dark between the old railway and the canal, with the rustling of the reeds, and the black needles of the protective cypress trees, was magical. I came off the piste at the point where it almost joins up with a track that wanders through the vineyards – crossing over the railway line, cycling beside another canal, past the solitary almond flower and through the fields to home. There was still just enough light in the sky to see the path.