Friday, 26 February 2010

Red Dragon (ddraig coch) and the Sights of Cardiff

After the reading in Shotton, a small town near Chester just across the border into Wales, I now have a red dragon, protector and companion. Horatio might be his name, because he clearly has a heroic nature, being willing to travel out of his native valleys into the Scottish countryside which is, once again, lightly carpeted with snow. Horatio is a good traveller, uncomplaining, colourful and ready to leap to the defence. I suspect that he's allied with the Dragon Ways of Chinese geomancy, lord of the currents of energy that can enhance or dissipate according to the sweep of valleys, the winding of rivers, the native guardian spirits of place and the way we interact with them. The fundamental principle of Feng shui is the removal of clutter. I'm hoping that Horatio's fiercely benign presence will at the very least, remind me to keep my desk tidy, get rid of clutter on a regular basis and maybe even help me to organise my life better.

I always enjoy reading at Shotton, for the people are so very friendly. The next day Maureen and I went for a walk in Wepre wood, which has a small lake, home to many ducks, an ancient ruined castle where battles were fought in the dark days when Welsh and English princes clashed, and a few resident ghosts. There used to be an old manor house which was sadly demolished in the 1960s, and old photographs show grand staircases, marble fireplaces and gorgeously carved furniture.
Red and gold stained glass dragons above the entrance of the Prince of Wales pub in Cardiff. It rains, a bitter drizzle, egged on by a slanting wind. The covered markets remind me of Parisian passages - Verdeau, la Madelaine. A huge stuffed bear in the window of a tobacconist's. I wander into second hand bookshops, catch snippets of conversation from a retired gent who reminisces about his teaching days.

In the food market one of the stalls sells baklava. I wait while the stall owner shifts some things around on the floor, only the hat-covered top of his head visible to me. When he stands up it becomes clear that we are wearing twin hats, or almost, mock fur with warm ear flaps. There is something so funny about this that we beam at each other as if we were old friends. You want two baklava he says, anything else? He insists I try a dried strawberry. I pay him for the baklava and he gives me another strawberry. He wants to know if I live here. No, Scotland, I say. And you, where are you from? Where do you think he asks. Greece? Turkey? Greece, Russia, Iran, he says. You like it here? I ask. Very much. I come here to study and I sell these things to make money, but I want to stay here always. And you, how long are you here for? I'm leaving the next day. Ah, a pity, he sighs. He then tips yoghurt-covered sunflower seeds, raisins and cranberries into a small plastic bag and hands it to me. I try to pay him for these but he refuses to take it.

The opera house in Cardiff is close to the bay. Over the entrance it has a huge overhanging roof made of copper plates stitched together, which gleam gold in the evening light. This massive roof is supported by a small glass structure, like the slender stem of a wine glass. It looks fragile, near to impossible, a slip of a glass thing under this imposing metal structure, like an inverted pyramid. Across the copper overhang in Welsh and English, is written In These Stones Horizons Sing. The outside walls bordering the illuminated entrance are of layered slate, in various shades of dusky purple, reflecting their origins in different slate quarries of north Wales. These horizontal lines of slate striations copy the old walls of Constantinople, and are deliberate echoes of these walls, parts of which are still standing, so Peter, personal tour guide and consultant historian, tells me. So that the singing horizons referred to stretch from what was I imagine, the most westerly province of the Roman Empire, right across the landscape of Europe, to resonate in The City, as Constantinople was known. So these layers of subtle slate shades reverberate through time as well as space.

A quick crossing of wet flagstones takes us to the Senned. It gazes out across the bay. Its structure is a little like Yggdrasil, the trunk rising up in the middle, inside, and its curving branches forming a solid wooden hood – protective, knowledgeable, who can say, but a covering for sure, of slatted wood. Inside you can peer down below and gain a glimpse, through a visible outer rim uncovered by the tree canopy, of the assembly members, or their desks. We spy one, working at his computer. It's possible to get a better view of them all, by sitting in the public gallery, surrounding the assembly like an amphitheatre – though there are panes of glass between you and them. The view out over the bay is magnificent, with the lights turning pink and an old red brick harbour master building adjoining the Senned, turned into a miniature verging on fairy tale castle, misplaced and slightly dreaming.

Thursday, 18 February 2010

The Americans Arrive - followed by snowdrops, catkins...

Weeks have gone by. Illness began on the way back from Wales, laid me low for a few days and then seemed to go away. Followed by a rush of inspiration, when I finished an article and started two different stories. Then I altered one of the stories into a mini film script, and applied for a Filmscript course. It wasn't accepted, but the process of writing it gave me ideas I hadn't had before and turned it into something quite different and exciting to work on. Now I have the option of turning it back into a very different story, with the new ideas, which incorporates possibly a dream sequence from the past, or...?

But the lurking infection returned, badly timed, for my son M and N his girlfriend were due to arrive from the US, and my flagging energy could not keep up with the capacity of the younglings to enjoy life with the exuberance that only they can express. It was an unforgettable week, though there were some casualties – B blacked out in the rose bushes, though recovered as soon as we had carried him inside, N got asthma and had to be taken to the doctor's, and both N and J, step-son, who decided to fly over from Amsterdam to help M celebrate his birthday, suffered from sprained ankles.

Son M and my daughter F, kept the Smith flag flying admirably. In between trips to the doctor and hospital, I managed to bake a chocolate cake for M's birthday, accompany them all to the theatre, and take a trip with M and N down Mary King's Close, underneath Edinburgh's High Street. This narrow street was badly affected by the last outbreak of the plague in the city, in 1645, and as tenants moved out, it became abandoned and was built over. Its spooky and deserted character has been embellished for the purposes of tourist attraction. It is also said to be haunted. You can read more about the ghost stories of Mary King's Close in Ron Halliday's Paranormal Scotland as well as plenty of other eerie and inexplicable tales.

The pic is of M and N strolling down the High Street in the company of the poet Robert Fergusson, who looks a little surprised to have their company but I can't help feeling that he's also beaming with delight.

After M and N flew back to the US, and J back to Amsterdam, I capitulated and went to the doctor's and took a course of antibiotics which finally, touch wood, seems to have returned me to health. Meanwhile the plants have started to grow, the snowdrops have appeared, and the other day I spied catkins dangling from the willow trees – at least I think they are willows.....

Later this week I'll be going back to Wales, to read at Shotton. The incomparable Onya Wick, are also billed to appear. I tried to upload a pic of them but sadly it didn't work.