Thursday, 23 December 2010

Animal Dreams

In Rubin Naiman's Healing Night I read an account of someone's dream. In it, she was very afraid because a wild black stallion was kicking at its confining stall. The dreamer was on the other side of the stall, frozen, unable to move, and afraid that the horse would kick through – she felt as if she was about to die. Eventually she began to wake up and realised it was a dream but

the image haunted her and she told the author about it. She told him that she felt boxed in, in her present life circumstances. It's not hard to see the connection between her comment and the fierce wild stallion, and with the author's help she came to recognize the horse's energy as her own.

Reading about this reminded me of a vivid dream I had many years ago, when I was in Paris. There were two animals In this dream, a bull and a sheepdog, and at first I was simply observing what was taking place between them. The bull was being driven by the sheepdog who seemed to think that the bull should act like a sheep, and be rounded up or at least go in the direction the dog wanted it to go in. The bull put up with this for a while and then lost patience, broke away from the nagging dog,

turned right around and charged towards me. I think that I felt unable to move and felt too, that it would trample me and possibly kill me but I woke up before it reached me.

Like the woman with the stallion dream, I too felt confined in my life at the time. But it took this unexpected, spontaneous visit to Paris, on my own, to provide me with a dream that clearly pointed out my situation to me. I spent the next two days walking through the streets of Paris, mainly, though not always, on my own. A sense of freedom came gradually, it stole up on me and then seemed to take hold of the edges of my perception and prised them apart. I stepped through, into a different world.

After such an experience, you cannot return to what you were before. I made changes in my life, that gave me more space and freedom. I also wrote my experience in Paris into a story, The Number of the Dream. The dream of a potentially destructive force had initiated an experience that broke through my sense of intense frustration and the limitations of my perceptual reality. This potential opponent that can turn into a helping, creative energy is what Arnold Mindell in Shaman's Body calls both 'the daimon' and 'the ally'.

I wonder what happened to the woman who had the dream of the horse. It seems to me that both of us were afraid of our own powerful selves, both of whom were enraged at being confined or controlled. The author does not say what happened to her, perhaps did not know. He mentioned that she had been considering a move to the country as she thought she might feel more free there, with more space, but she did not make this move. But there are many ways of making changes in our lives and re-routing our creative energy so that it is not self-destructive. Wherever they are, I hope that she and her magnificent black stallion are working well together.

Sculpture by Eoghan Bridge - Horse and Rider

Friday, 17 December 2010

Release of Julian Assange

Last night
The new snowfall still lay on gardens, but had melted on the streets. Some pavements were still encrusted with inches of slippery ice that had not melted after the last severe fall. The cobbled road on which the US Consulate is located is blocked off with concrete bollards, so it is not possible for cars to pass or pull up in front of it. But the pavement is unobstructed and as we walk towards it, we see a lone person standing in front of the doorway. It's H. She tells us that soon after she arrived someone came out to tell her that he is the chief security officer and he can have her arrested if she tries to obstruct his work in any way. She tells him she is not there to cause any obstruction, she is there to protest.
M and I take photographs and H asks who is going to hand in the letter in support of Wikileaks. It quoted from a letter published in the Herald by Scottish PEN's President. After mentioning how the Chinese Government put pressure on countries not to attend the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony last week, he says:
'We have no room for complacency in democratic societies. Laws can be changed and individuals can be persecuted, slandered and marginalised at the point where they appear to pose any threat to powerful interests.'
I've never protested before H says. Do we have to ring the bell I ask, or can we just put it through the letter box? While we are discussing this a man comes out, goes up to M and asks him not to take photographs. While we say that we do not think it's against the law to take photographs he says that if we continue he will have to call the police. There are certain places where you are not allowed to take photographs because it's a security risk and this is one of these places. Eventually M says ok he won't take any more. The man heads back towards the door. Will you accept a letter? asks T. No he says, and goes back inside.
That's the one who said he could have me arrested says H. We stand around talking. The moon shines between the trees, and Jupiter becomes ever clearer above the dark shape of Arthur's Seat. About half an hour later the man comes out again, and, his manner affable now, says if we're waiting to deliver the letter, he will accept it. We hand it over and he goes back inside. He must want to go home we laugh, that's why he's decided to accept it. Maybe he wouldn't be able to leave, if we were still there.
We left the Consulate around 5.40 or 5.45.
I read in the paper today that that was the time Julian Assange was released and appeared in front of the court house – 5.46 – to a barrage of flashing cameras. One of the things he said was -
during my time in solitary confinement in the bottom of a Victorian prison I had time to reflect on the condition of these people around the world also in solitary confinement also on remand in conditions that are more difficult than those faced by me. These people also need your attention and support.”
International PEN supports writers in prison throughout the world. The Scottish branch of International PEN currently has an exhibition at the Writers Museum in Edinburgh featuring the work of their Writers in Prison group.

Wednesday, 1 December 2010

Life in the Snow Lane

Normally I hardly ever see the people who live in the same street as me. They get in their cars and drive off. But the past few days, I meet people out walking, or clearing snow from their driveways or digging out their cars.
This morning I shovelled snow from the path again, and also from the path going round the side of the house to the back, where the coal bunker is located – though I doubted that the coalman would make it. On the way down the hill to take some photos, I met a neighbour also equipped with camera. I'm taking photos to send to my friends in the south of England, they're complaining about an inch of snow and I want to show them what real snow looks like, he says.
I meet the postman, walking up the hill, laden with a heavy sack. I take my mail from him, commiserate, and thank him for making the effort. I meet a couple of other neighbours out for a walk, and later, the one who gave me a lift yesterday. As we speak, flocks of geese are sensibly flying in a southward direction, and he tells me how he likes to get up close to geese [he's a professional photographer] and so he lies down in the marshy places where they congregate, and he says he gets to within a couple of feet of them.
After I get back, a neighbour asks me if I need anything, as they're driving to the shops. Another phones to say the coal lorry has arrived. I hurriedly make a better job of clearing the path. But the truck has only made it half way up the hill and the young man has to carry the bags of coal the rest of the way. It's not so bad here he says, over in Duns there's about four feet of snow. He thanks me for clearing the path, I thank him profusely for bringing the coal.

Saint Andrew, the Pilgrim

November 30th, St. Andrew's Day
I woke up this morning thinking about journeys and travel – not just because of some travel writing I'm working on, or even because I enjoy travelling so much, but also because of how much better I feel, in general, and how much more easily my thoughts seem to flow , when I'm in movement.
Fired with enthusiasm, I thought how journal and journey have the same root, and the image in my mind was of someone on a journey, and the scallop shell symbol of the pilgrim.
I determined that I would make an early start and would have a successful journey today, unlike yesterday, when I dug a path through the snow to my garden gate, and walked the half mile or so to the bus stop. I stood there for some time, chatting to a neighbour, but there were clearly no buses running, although the road was passable, demonstrated by a few slow-moving cars. Because of the persistent snow and the fact that it would soon be dark, my neighbour and I walked back.
But today I felt sure of success. I started early – after checking the website of the bus company, to be told no buses were running. I'd barely arrived at the bus stop when a neighbour stopped and gave me a lift to the local supermarket, waited while I did my shopping, and drove me back home. The snow-covered trees, fields and hills were breathtaking – and though my journey was not strictly necessary, [as the BBC exhorted us not to go out unless this was the case] I was running very short on bird seed and nuts. Back home, sparrows, chaffinches, blackbirds and a robin darted around the bird table , while blue tits and coal tits pecked at the nuts. I only remembered while we were driving slowly along the snowy road that it was St. Andrew's Day, but according to Kenneth Roy's article in the Scottish Review [which made me laugh out loud] Andrew was a travellin' man. Maybe it was his image I saw in my mind this morning, cape over his shoulder, held by a clasp in the shape of a scallop shell.

Monday, 29 November 2010

First Snow


pale golden glow of sky

in aftermath of sundown -

strange dignity of clouds

slow-moving vessels,

with their freight of night


The sun turns the snow

into sheets of light

and violet shadows -

then a golden mist -

Nature casually rolls up her sleeves

Friday, 19 November 2010

The Symbolism of the Empty Chair

Fatos Lubonja does not smoke tobacco but in his apartment in Tirana, he showed me a small pile of cigarette papers. When I looked closer, I realised that they were covered in minute writing.

Of course It's too small for me to read now, without a magnifying glass he smiled, but in those days I was much younger and my eyesight was better.

He was referring to the years he spent in an Albanian labour camp as a political prisoner, during the Hoxha dictatorship, where a Stalinist regime of terror was continued even after Stalinism was discredited in Russia. During these years, he wrote a novel, in tiny writing, on cigarette papers and it is these papers that I was looking at. I asked him where he hid the papers. In a dictionary, he says. I thought that was the safest place, as the guards were unlikely to look in a dictionary.

Fatos Lubonja's account of his years as a political prisoner – Second Sentence - was published in Albania in the 90s after the fall of the communist regime and his release from prison, and the English translation was published in 2009. A copy of this book forms part of Scottish Pen's Writers in Prison Exhibition at the Writers' Museum, Lady Stair's Close, off the Royal Mile, in Edinburgh.

Only a few of the showcased writers hit the international headlines – the Russian journalists Anna Politkovskaya and Nathalie Estemirova, the Armenian writer, editor and publisher Hrant Dink, and most recently the Nobel Peace Prize winner, Liu Xiaobo. But there are so many more that do not make the pages of western newspapers.

This exhibition gives information on writers supported by International PEN, and its local branch, Scottish PEN, writers who have been persecuted or imprisoned because of what they wrote. Some, like Fatos Lubonja, have been released, but many are still in prison and some have died because of the words they have written.

The specially designed and crafted Empty Chair symbolises all the writers who cannot be present and speak freely, because of their imprisonment.

You can read more about the exhibition at the Guardian online article,

and on Scottish Pen's website.

The photographs at the top show a list of names of Russian journalists who have been killed, assaulted or disappeared since 2000. At Le Livre sur les Quais event in Morges, Switzerland earlier this year, a Russian writer who lives in France, gave it to me.

Another name will need to be added to this list, the Russian journalist Oleg Kashin, who was attacked [but survived] in Moscow, earlier this month.

Sunday, 31 October 2010

Recent Reads - A Terminated Journey and One That's Ongoing

Ismail Kadare - The Accident

Kadare is excellent at creating an atmosphere of uncertainty, mistrust, of doubt and speculation with nothing more substantial than rumour to go on. In earlier novels, Doruntine, and The Successor, he used the same techniques, an examination of differing reports, rumours, conjectures and possibilities regarding what had taken place.

The Accident stretches rumour, speculation and possibility even further. It examines the lives of two people who were found dead after an accident. It reports the different perspectives of people who knew them – and the two protagonists, Rovena and Besfort Y, themselves. But even the accounts of these two people are sketchy and flimsy and while we are told that they felt this or that, it is puzzling as to why they should feel such things. In fact the two main characters are not so much persons as axes, delineating a certain perspective or angle. With shifts in time and space, these angles and perspectives change; but whether, in actuality the scene is set two or six months earlier, whether they are in Vienna or Tirana or any other European city does not seem to matter much, for there is little to make the city come alive.

The emotional poles of these axes are their most frequented locations for even in the heat of desire there is a general frostiness to the atmosphere and this is where I found my irritation mounting. These chilly geometrical forms aroused no empathy in me whatever. Their sexual engagement was highlighted but was puzzling rather than erotic. It seemed to be what brought them together but what was the obsession was that kept these people flying around Europe to see each other in such stark and unappetizing surroundings as anonymous hotel rooms was beyond my abilities to fathom.

Perhaps this was the point, or one of them. Obsessions – of other people - are hard to understand. Agreed, but had these people been filled out as characters rather than depicted merely as poles of obsession we might have gained some understanding of why they were attracted and motivated.

The prose in The Accident is certainly clear and uncluttered and the translator John Hodgson has admirably conveyed its lucidity. But despite the dialogue, the book feels like sketches of ideas for a story. It reads as the rudiments of a tale, a map of possible approaches, but the histories of Rovena and Besfort Y, their jobs and their lives are so little described they do not ring true.

I understand that the realms of reality, dream, fantasy, hallucination, mis-perception, great tales from literature, myth, history, ideas and interpretations of myth and history – all these are intentionally intertwined in the lives of these people, in what urges, prompts and motivates them - as indeed is the case in our own lives. The writer's purpose may well be to examine this intricate confluence of realities that make up human beings, and can drive them to the most extreme acts which baffle outsiders; it may well be to show the sources of obsession, how it is fed and can grow like a tumour to take possession of people. If this was the intention then it succeeds. But the skill of a good story is to embed these ideas in a narrative that the reader can be involved in.

Catherine Czerkawska is a gifted and experienced writer – of novels, plays, poems and articles – she writes in a recent article about what makes a good story -

We can craft our elegant prose till the cows come home, but if the reader doesn't care what happens next, then we aren't going to get anywhere. Which is not to say, of course, that honing the prose doesn't matter, because it does.

There are of course other kinds of writing and great literature, which do not necessarily tell a story – poetry for example, and poetic or lyrical prose, such as the descriptive prose in Danilo Kis's Garden, Ashes, and Robert Musil's dazzling presentation of ideas, insights, metaphors and descriptions in The Man Without Qualities - and there are many more of course, these come to mind because I read them recently. There is as it happens, also narrative in these novels though I do not feel that great writing has to have a lot of narrative. Perhaps it's the quality rather than the amount.

Other novels of Kadare which I've read are Broken April, and The General of the Dead Army; they work well and involve us totally in the story, while Chronicle in Stone is a captivating read. But The Accident reads like a dossier or report – as it indeed supposed to be – but a novel that is supposed to be a report, to succeed, I feel – needs the craft of making it work well also as a story. The ideas of obsession, confusion, mistrust, speculation, hidden motives and fracture need to be reflected in the lives of human beings, rather than geometrical poles.

Night Train to Lisbon – Pascal Mercier

Pascal Mercier's book has been described as 'a novel of ideas' but these ideas are relevant to all human beings who have ever contemplated what life – and their own individual life – is about. So it is what I would call real philosophy, applied to our own lives.

The hero is not young and dashing, he is prey to the usual human anxieties and concerns – about his glasses, about missing his train connections, about whether he made the right choices in the past. But he sets out on a journey, and there is something of Alice in Wonderland about it, though without the intensely surreal edge to it. He has entered another world, as we all do when we set out, but in his case it is particularly unusual as he has spent almost all of his life in his home town in Switzerland, his journey is to somewhere he has never been before and where he does not know anyone. It is almost a journey made on a whim, but even as a compelling whim this is very unusual behaviour for our hero; but he wants to find out about the author of a book he has come across and which has profoundly affected him.

In his search for the author of this book he meets various people, all of whom have their own characteristics, more or less appealing, all interesting, and all connected in different ways, with the author of the book our hero Raimund Gregorious has found.

A book, a journey, a search – for people and for meaning – and an examination of one's own life – the perfect combination for me!

It is about ideas but also about how they arise in and affect real people [or real characters I should say]. There are no prescribed 'ways to be', no ultimate answers, but the journey is lived experience, and perhaps that is its own answer. The journeys, the talk and sharing, the exploration, both in

a physical environment and in the realm of ideas, this lived and active experience is its own answer, because of the effects it has on us. It is the hero's journey, that Joseph Campbell described, the journey we all make, through the landscape and territory of our lives, and written as a narrative that is absorbing and engaging – the reader does indeed care 'what happens next' – and this reader did not at all want it to end.

One of my favourite passages:

'….We leave something of ourselves behind when we leave a place; we stay there, even though we go away. And there are things in us that we can find again only by going back there. We go to ourselves, travel to ourselves, when the monotonous beat of the wheels brings us to a place where we have covered a stretch of our life, no matter how brief it may have been. When we set foot for the second time on the platform of the foreign railway station, hear the voices over the loudspeaker, smell the unique odours, we have come not only to the distant place, but also to the distance of our own inside;.......'

Monday, 25 October 2010

Fredericksburg and Afternoon on a Bare Mountain

If you drive a little way south west of Austin, you come to a sign that says Gateway to the Hill Country and indeed, the ground does start to undulate, to rise and fall in a very pleasant manner. There are some marvellous names such as Dripping Springs [a town], Old Bees Caves [a street], then there's the Drifting Wind run and the Rim Rock trail. We were heading for Fredericksburg, where German immigrants settled from the mid-19th century on. Apparently they resisted speaking English until the turn of the 20th century and were not incorporated into the Union until 1928.

Fredericksburg [named after Prince Frederick of Prussia] still shows many signs of its German origins, and attracts lots of tourists because of this. Varieties of German Wurst is served in the Ausländer Restaurant and we sampled local wines which were apparently grown from German grapes brought over from the Rhineland.

They also seem to have continued with the art of brewing......

Late afternoon, the hottest part of the day, we headed for the Enchanted Rock. After sampling Wurst, wine and beer, I was beyond finding out anything about its history. But it is a truly magnificent place, a round and bare pink mountain rising up out of the green and largely flat terrain around it. It revived my fantasies of camping out in the wild, under the stars – what unimaginable rock spirits must inhabit this place, what dreams might come to you here.

A Little Texan History

I'm interested in the history of just about anywhere. A few facts can be a springboard, allowing the imagination to take flight. The way that facts are presented makes a difference though – the person or the book may hold the key to the excitement-box, lighting up ideas and associations that stem from the facts. The tour guide in Austin's State Capitol I found out later, is also a teacher and I'm sure he's a good one, for he wore his learning lightly, smiled a lot, made jokes and seemed to thoroughly enjoy himself.

He told us that the life-size marble statues of Stephen Austin and Sam Houston were created by the sculptor Elisabet Ney in 1903 and that the former statue was only 5' 4” because that was his height, although average for the time he said, eyes twinkling. Sam Houston [over 6 feet] had a blanket ove
r his shoulder, apparently given him by the Cherokees with whom he'd lived for several years and who called him The Raven. Someone who lived with the Cherokees and was given a blanket and a name by them is someone I'd like to know more about.

The impressive rotunda on the ground floor shows the seals of the six countries whose flags have flown over Texa
s – they include Spain, France, Mexico, independent Texas, confederate Texas, and USA. So I learned a bit about the history of the state, not having realised that it had ever been considered a part of France or Spain, although admittedly it was back in the 1500s that it was Spanish and the French colony was around Victoriaville, whose precise location in Texas I failed to note. I do remember though that it was a Frenchman, one Mirabeau Bonaparte Lamar, who was connected, perhaps as a governor, with a small settlement named Waterloo. But a Frenchman, especially one with Bonaparte in his name could hardly eagerly embrace the unfortunate associations of such a name, grinned the tour guide, so it was renamed after Stephen Austin, he of the modest stature. Apparently there are still a few Waterloo references in Austin; I saw a block of buildings with the name, and a copy of the London underground sign in front of a store or a business of some kind.

Up in the Senate Chamber the walnut desks are over 100 years old and we are told the rules for the speakers. They can speak without interruption as long as they do not leave the room, have nothing to eat or drink, and do not touch anything at all, such as desk or handrail, while talking. I liked the last one as it seemed to guard against inebriation. The lights on the ceiling were apparently the first electric chandeliers to be made, and the groups of lights spelled out Texas [though this may not be clear in the photo.] We
Texans beamed the tour guide, relishing his pun, are not known for hiding our light under a bushel. We also have the biggest State Capitol in all of the United States – not the tallest though, since Baton Rouge added a tower to theirs, but that hardly counts.

I talked to the tour guide afterwards and he was delighted to know that I came from Scotland. I love the works of your writer Walter Scott, he said. And then – since you guys have been so nice to me I'm going to show you something special. And he beckoned to me and my son to come behind the desk, through another room where someone was sitting at a table – it's our break room now he says – up a step through another doorway, and then
he proudly shows us the old safe. It's a massive metal door, with a small room beyond it. Of course we don't keep anything of value here now, he smiles. But the safe door is exquisite, with coloured patterns and designs inlaid on its metal surface.

Friday, 22 October 2010

Return from Austin

I'm just back from Austin, Texas, very jet-lagged, arriving in a downpour at Edinburgh airport. Yet although wet, the cold was, surprising to me, not as intense as I remember it when I left. I quite like this disorienting feeling, of not being quite here, despite having a nap in the afternoon. Outside it's raining again, and one of the ash trees has lost all its leaves which means that more light comes through the windows.

Looking down on the countryside around Newark, the trees began to be colourful, orange and gold and yellow hats on them. In Texas the leaves just seem to fade or go slightly yellow and then drift to earth

a light rain of small and yellow leaves
soft sunshine, combed with shade -

a breeze rustles little leaf-waves
like the sea -

the dogs' feet crackle on the path

And in a vast second hand bookstore only a few blocks away I found a book I'd been wanting a copy of for some time – Camus'
Lyrical and Critical Essays.

Walking back in the hot sun, crossing under the flyover, waiting for the red warning hand to change to the white pedestrian figure – a man with a backpack and a sun weathered face crossed over while it was still red. Don't you cross though he said - looking out for my welfare - there are cars turning on red. I wait. Turn round to watch his progress, for another pedestrian is a rare sight. He looks back and waves. When I turn back the sign has changed – there's no time to daydream or be looking somewhere else for if you miss it, the red hand starts flashing again only seconds later. I cross over, leave the flyover behind, continue down the wide pavements. There is no hurry and no shade and no other pedestrians in sight.

More later, about the State Capitol, and the Enchanted Mountain....

Monday, 11 October 2010

Camus' Other Life

Camus – A Romance – Elizabeth Hawes
Published by Grove Press, New York

When I say Camus' other life I don't mean that he had a hidden or secret life - any more that is than any of us do - which this book uncovers, but rather that this book reveals Camus to us, as a recognizable human being, one we can relate to, feel empathy for, it celebrates his solidarity with others as well as his sense of isolation, and brings him vividly to life.

Like all good biographies, a large amount of research has gone into its creation. But it differs from others in one important respect, which is probably why the author called it 'a romance'. Most biographies take pains to be detached – or at least to present it in this way. It's hardly possible for us to be detached from whatever subject we study, there will always be our personal interpretation, even if we claim this is not so. But Elizabeth Hawes makes no such claim. She loves her subject, she is deeply involved in Camus' life and work, and in my opinion this makes for a far more interesting book.

While Camus' life and work is followed more or less chronologically, the book also weaves backwards and forwards in time, as some of the chapters are presented thematically. There is for example, a chapter devoted to his illness, TB, and how it must have affected his world view as well as his values, emotions and his decisions.

But most of all, throughout the book Hawes, rather than simply analysing the influences and effects in his life, of the places and the times he lived in, the people he knew, his family and upbringing etc, spends time with what Camus himself wrote, with the words written about him by others and with his photographs, in order to feel what it was like to be him. She charts but does not judge, the troubled self behind the creative works.

This inclusion of feelings and intuitions as well as the more interpretive capacities of the mind, is what turns it into 'a romance'. Bringing affection and compassion to bear on the man and his work produced on me anyway, the kind of effect that going outside into warm sunlight does, after one has been shut inside in a stuffy room. The sense of relief and expansion is palpable.

In an earlier post I mentioned reading a biography of Camus which left me feeling sad and somewhat melancholy, as if the main theme in his life had been – despite his huge amount of work - struggle against isolation, despite his many friends and loves, despite the successes of his books, journalism and plays. Struggle against feeling an outsider [in Paris] against his later writing being misunderstood, against published attacks both literary and personal. Culminating in an early death, the total effect was of struggle followed by failure.

While struggle was definitely a part of his life, Hawes never gives us the impression of failure but on the contrary, charts a series of successes, often against the odds. She describes the background to these struggles, the creative work, the finished oeuvres, published or performed. In the process she draws us into the most secret and private corners of his life. She shows us not just the humane philosopher, the man deeply concerned with ethics and values, but also the person who felt he had to speak out, who could not keep silent in the face of the upheavals and revolutions - both literal, in terms of the wars, and inner or metaphorical, in terms of people's lives, actions and thinking - that took place throughout his short lifetime. She examines both the public and the personal Camus as well as his own sense of conflict and paradox as he recognized the difficulties, at times, in reconciling the two.

His illness, his determination to speak out, his sense of responsibility, his vulnerabilities, his prolific output, his struggle to write when he felt attacked and alone, his deep and lasting friendships, his compassion for others, and his love of life, all these are addressed. From his lyrical essays, particularly about Algeria, to his struggle with humanity's moral questions, in a time of war and totalitarian regimes, to the symbolism of his novels, and the reflections contained in his journals, his Carnets, we see the immense range of his thinking and feeling, we are struck by his honesty, his suffering and his capacity for love.

This book includes the writer. It does not try to see Camus purely in objective terms. It is Camus in relationship to the writer's focus, in the light of the writer's mind. This is no blind love however, but one which seeks understanding and knowledge. Her scrutiny is sensitive. She does not judge but rather tries to go with Camus when his moods and feelings shift, to the places that his emotions and his ideas take him.

It is a fascinating experience as the reader too, feels drawn in to the very fabric of Camus' life, in particular his search for authenticity both in his ideas and his feelings. When he describes his love and nostalgia for Algeria for example, you feel it too, emanating both from Camus' sometimes terse jottings, and from Hawes' ability to lead you to this point and place in his life, where you can almost hear the deep silence of the French countryside, the rooster calling at first light.

Many well thought of and esteemed writers [or any others in the public eye] can become caught inside their own image or their own positions. Sartre for example, seemed unable to shift his position vis a vis communism, even when confronted with the facts of Stalin's persecutions, while Camus was able to say, once he realised what was going on in Stalin's Russia, that he was wrong, and to condemn a regime that could mete out such treatment to others.

Camus' search for authenticity meant that he was constantly grappling with the effects of the persona, the public image. Shortly before his death, Camus was returning to the theatre, writing and directing plays. More than anything, he liked working with others in the context of the theatre and he was popular with all kinds of different people, typesetters, printers, stage-hands as well as writers and actors.

At the time of his death Camus was also working on a novel The First Man. This was not published until several decades later. Incomplete, it tells a story that is clearly drawn from his own life. To know the experiences of Albert Camus the man, for someone unfamiliar with his work and his ideas, this novel may well be the one to start with. And while his most well known novels, The Stranger and The Plague contain his more philosophical and ethical ideas, his essays - particularly those written about Algeria - contain his most lyrical, moving and deeply-felt writing.

'Each artist is undoubtedly pursuing his truth.......But the only people who can help the artist in his obstinate quest are those who love...
The Enigma, Camus

Saturday, 9 October 2010

Readings from the Hearth and Chester's Roman Walls

To Chester, on the 6th, for the Chester Poets reading the next day - National Poetry Day. A fine and sunny day for travelling on the Transpennine train to Manchester, changing for Shotton. The valleys of the lake district, remembering long ago journeys with my parents, to visit my sister in Gloucester, before the motorway was built, taking the old road to Shap, the slow lorries on the steep hills.

The old road is visible from the railway, and a few trucks, looking as small as if viewed through the long lens of time, appear like the past, accomplice of this present journey in the train that sways and rattles through a landscape still a little startled at these brief and recent travellers.

Recent in the hills' memory at least, accustomed to the wide sweep of birds' wings, the calling of hill sheep, the opening of the flowers in spring, and the falling of their petals in the autumn. This shuffling train still feels like an intruder through these valleys, however small it tries to make itself.

someone has spilled gold paint
on the tree tops -
a passing deity, his bucket brimfull
distracted maybe by the light and the sparse pines
that lean into the green and folded land

The reading was at the Commercial Hotel in Chester, tucked behind narrow lanes of medieval buildings, leaning walls and patterned brickwork, echoing alleyways with sealed up secrets and a light plastering of time, sprinkled with subtle lighting from old lamps. Or so it seemed to me. A spattering of night shadows, and great company.

The theme of this year's Poetry Day was Home. The room we read in had an old fireplace with the microphone for the reader just in front of it so one was actually standing in the hearth. Poems from the Hearth somebody quipped.

The next day, yesterday, Sally, Maureen and I walked round Chester's Roman walls.

the stones that form the city wall
are rounded with time's heat and chill -
with its shawl of wet or windy memories -
red stones, red and yellow trees -
the canal is now the silent sentine

Tuesday, 5 October 2010

Experiences of Travel in India wanted

Places for Writers has a call for contributions from women who have travelled to India.

"Seeking contributions from women to travel anthology of creative non-fiction, “Emails From India: Women Write Home.” The pieces may be short vignettes or long essays/stories, focusing on a place/event in India, keeping the female experience somewhat salient. Deadline: November 1, 2010. More info:"

Janis Harper says

Aside from publishing journalism, academic articles (I teach College English), and poetry and prose in journals and anthologies, I’ve edited and published a successful anthology of creative non-fiction with Anvil Press (2007), Body Breakdowns: Tales of Illness and Recovery. It's received a lot of very good press and still garners glowing reviews. It’s the Editor’s Choice in the September 2010 issue of Reader’s Digest magazine, and there’s a 26-page spread of excerpts from it. If you want an idea of the kind of writing I'm looking for, this anthology will give you that, though without the email slant.

Thursday, 30 September 2010

The Delicate Attachments of a Bulgarian Poet

Safety Pins by Petar Tchouhov
Published by Ciela
ISBN 978-954-28-0751-3

Safety pins are objects that can sometimes be of vital importance, holding together two items - usually of clothing - that would spell disaster for us should they remain separated. [Think of when you're about to give a performance when your zip breaks or a button falls off, or you are travelling and your shirt or trousers split.] They form necessary but fragile attachments [for we know that sometime in the future, a more permanent attachment is advisable, if we want to feel secure in our clothes.] The poems in this collection combine that feeling of intense delight with an acknowledgement of the transitory or fragile nature of the two objects ideas or images which are linked together. These attachments or relationships may be delicate and ephemeral, but how glad we are in the present moment, that they have formed their unusual combinations.

As well as having published several books of poetry and prose, Petar Tchouhov is an experienced writer of haiku. I have only ever written about half a dozen haiku in my life but when he talks about haiku I immediately realise that what I wrote probably were not true haiku at all. At the same time, he says that in the west we should not be too strict about the number of syllables because the Japanese alphabet is such that a whole syllable or even word can be displayed by one letter, so to put too much emphasis on the number of syllables can be to miss the main point of a haiku.

He explained this as being [and this is where I realised that my so-called haiku were nothing of the kind] to find two images which would not normally be linked together and to create or discover a connection with them which gives us a feeling of insight or surprised recognition. I make a link in my mind with the surrealists, and their ideas of bringing together objects that have no obvious relationship with each other [such as an umbrella and a sewing machine on a dissecting table ] but a difference is that the surrealists were looking at the absurdity of life or its paradoxical nature or seeking to create a semblance of dream connections or associations, without necessarily working on these images to create a surprising relationship.

But Petar's haiku often create surprising links and there is a sense of recognition particularly as the objects or images described are often homely and everyday and so create a sense of intimacy as well as, so I feel, an enhanced appreciation of these objects, as we glimpse an inherent strangeness and even mystery in what we thought were humdrum or ordinary, at least nothing special. But here they are, suddenly special and glowing with the extraordinary.

Full moon
an orange from the bowl
Is missing

first snow
footprints leading
to the cobbler's shop

Of course that is the sign of all good poetry, that it should breathe life into what we skim over in our daily life, only half-noticing what is around us, and certainly not imbuing it with any particular significance. It's the poet's job you could say, to haul our attention out of its somnolent or distracted state, and make us see the familiar with new eyes. But to do it with so few words, with just a couple of carefully crafted images, is an ability I find admirable. It reminds me of Chinese painting, a few carefully placed brush strokes creating a whole image, for the space or spaces in between the lines as if linked by sympathetic strings, vibrate with their own communication.

In these haiku it is the relationship between the images that, though not directly stated, comes alive and resonates in our minds, through the juxtaposition.
As in

petty quarrel
dandelion fluff
in her hair

There can sometimes be the slightest touch of nostalgia, never over worked, merely hinted at -

morning fog
nobody sees
the falling leaf

All Souls' Day
I open my father's
black umbrella

but mostly, there is the sense of cherishing the small details of life, with a mixture of whimsy, affection and a clear and honed perception.

sunny morning
I love even
my neighbour's dog

full moon
one more ball
for the snowman

Many of these haiku have been published in haiku magazines and several of them have won prizes in international competitions. They are poems to delight, and to go back to, always refreshing, with their mixture of solidarity for the human condition, and a slightly wry smile at the oddness, often endearing, of life

Sunday, 19 September 2010

Impressionist Exhibition at Rouen

At the café Jeanne d'Arc, just off la place du vieux marché

The exhibition at Rouen's musée de beaux arts of impressionist paintings has been drawing huge crowds apparently, since its inception in June. People, says P, have even been coming from Paris especially to see it.

Today might have been one of these days as the musée was stuffed with people, to such an extent that you virtually had to move around in a long line, in the way I remember having to do at the palace of Versailles, where there was only a corridor of space available that was not roped off, and the viewing public moved obediently along the it. There was no hope of turning around, going back, you were in this moving snaking mass of people and you had keep in line. It began to cohere into an organism of its own. While it was not quite as bad as that at today's exhibition, at least at the beginning, it was close. If you wanted to see every painting you would have had to wait a long time. If you'd wanted to study them all you would have had great difficulty for it was virtually impossible to move a step without getting between someone's line of vision and one or other of the paintings. Almost as soon as I entered I felt that familiar of tug of claustrophobia from being in a confined space with too many people. Of course, had there been only 2 or 3 others it would not have been confined but that was not the case. There was nothing for it but to plunge in there, cut in front of other people's views and head for the painting you wanted to look at, abandoning any vestige of politeness.

Incredibly, all the paintings were of Rouen. Monet's paintings of the cathedral are well known but it seems that many other painters visited Rouen, including Pissarro, Turner, and Gaugin, among the most famous. Later there was a 'Rouen school' of painters.

So apart from Monet's famous Rouen cathedral, there was a plethora of misty bridges, rain damp narrow streets [rue du gros horloge], rooftops and rivers and boats and a more detailed rue de l'épicerie.

I decided the only way to approach this was to home in on a few that really struck me. These were Albert Dubois-Pillet's hommage à Pissarro – quai de Lesseps, Rouen. An old-fashioned sailing boat by the quay, a couple of horses on it. The quai with pink and purple colours of the cobbles and the water with yellows and greens and some purples too, all somewhat pointillist
e and all lovely.

Pissarro painted many of Rouen's bridges but my favourite was le pont Boieldieu, effet de brouillard, 1898. Yes it was foggy but there was also smoke coming out of tall chimneys so the bridge and its surroundings were smeared with a pale, luminous ash. In so many of the paintings, these tall chimneys, with their plumes of smoke.

Robert Antoine Pinchon had some lovely ones. La Seine à Rouen au crepuscule, 1906 - close up it looks like a bizarre bank of clotted cream at the side of grey daubs. But when you move further back, it transforms into a truly magical twilight. His Le Chemin, Neige also has an evanescent atmosphere, you can feel the silence of the path lightly dusted with snow, its evening or late afternoon peace. His Les prairies, inondées shows leafless trees sticking out of the water, their trunks an intense blue, and though there's something hallucinatory and strange about the painting, the blueness of the trees looks quite natural, the strangeness seems to come from the silence you can almost hear, because of the water covering the ground and the places where the trees emerge from the earth.

Charles Frechon's [1900/1] Rouen depuis la rive gauche is more detailed and less typically impressionistic, with just a hint of naïve style. There are several boats on the water, and a line of finely drawn shops with narrow awnings. The cathedral spire rises in the background.

Several of rooftops, in this city of 100 spires. And Leon Lemaître's smaller and very lovely paintings of people in the rain-wet rue du gros horloge.

Léon Jules Lemaître, La Rue du Gros-Horloge 1890. © Musée des Beaux-Arts de Rouen.

Léon Jules Lemaître, La Rue du Gros-Horloge 1890. © Musée des Beaux-Arts de Rouen.

But the main impression created by this whole experience – the fleeting glimpses of such lovely images between the passing people – the sense of the crowd almost forming a snaking shape and coherence and flow of its own – the exhibition ending inevitably in the boutique, where expensive books and catalogues were for sale, as well as the humble post cards – was of the gulf between the painters and the process of painting, and the massive machinery that feeds off it.

The paintings possess an almost overwhelming sense of peace and serenity – in most of them there are few if any, people in the streets or crossing the bridges. In most, the light is never flat, but suffused with change - either through dwindling with evening or rich and thick with morning, as in Albert Pillet's quai, or heavy and drugged with water and smoke, as in Pissarro's effet de brouillard. I think of the places you go to when you paint or write, the effect it has on you, at least when it goes well. The gulf and the distance between that original solitude and the high commerce you encounter now.

Well, I enjoyed the coffee in the café Jeanne d'Arc, with the smiling waitress, and all the astonishing buildings in Rouen look even more intricate and old and exceptionally beautiful, as if my focus has been sharpened, and I can see more - not in the panoramic sense but in that filigree'd and detailed way that catches a leaning angle of an old stone pillar, subtle patterns in brickwork. I empty my bag when I get back, pull out notebook, camera, tarte au citron and a yellow beech leaf.