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