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.