Friday, 30 April 2010

New Look Study and Recent Reading

Now that the planes are back safely flying and family members are equally safely returned to where they should be, I find I have an elegant new look study, freshly painted walls and varnished floors. Trouble is, it’s so clutter-free, neat and tidy that I feel intimidated by its aura of calm tranquillity and hesitate to disturb it with my piles of books and papers. In order to re-engage with various projects, I’m going to have to mess it up. How long I wonder, before it once more resembles a rat’s den? [I know what a rat’s den looks like, someone I used to share with had the most adorable pet rats, and after they left, I discovered a pile of strange things, including several lost biros, hidden away in their secret place. I speculated on how on earth they managed to transport them – for they were very small rats.]

To ease the transition back into my own writing, I’ve read a couple of good books lately.

Anna Gavalda's Consolation [which takes place mainly in Paris, hence the photos of Paris]brilliantly captures the way our awareness and attention flicker, brief thoughts, truncated ones, the distractions of car horns, other people, mobile phones, radios, ipods, sat navs, the clamour and near-disintegration of continuity in our minds, emotions, lives. Except for the dumb persistence of habit, our faithful dog selves, the self most connected to our body and its automatic functions, the self our rebel self taunts and harasses, finds fault with, even as it does its duty, continues on its path, until something big comes along to push it out of its grooved ways, and forces a confrontation with the rebel self, which needs its co-operation.

This is what happens to the main protagonist, Charles, when he hears of the death of someone he loved deeply, when he was young, but who he did not keep in contact with, once he grew up and became busy with a career that he seemed to fall into rather than pursue. He’s drawn back to
the abandoned waste-ground of his youthful emotions and discovers, beneath the layers of detritus, dried bindweed, broken toys and garbled memories, something powerful and still very much alive, despite its discarded and desiccated appearance. It’s as if it has come to meet him, throwing his present life into disarray, pushing through the floorboards of the life he has laid out, taunting him with its realness, compared to his fractured life of international flights, meetings in various foreign countries, mounting pressure as his list of appointments, consultations and conferences piles up.

He is pushed into a journey to reconnect with his past, his emotions, all that makes life flourish and shiver with meaning. It’s a modern-day hero’s journey beyond the narrow confines of the known world, the search for authenticity and reconnection with roots, a reconciling of the embattled self. It requires facing danger of course – the dragons of our own fears which in
our modern world are often emotional aspects of our selves.

I feel it would make a good film for all Charles’s inner conflicts are well described. His hesitations, denials, refusals, uncertainties as to whether what draws him is a temptation to be fought against, or the brambles surrounding the castle where his soul is sleeping, which need to be hacked down with commitment and determination. All these could be portrayed through his expressions and actions - and the descriptions of modern life, with its trams and airplanes, its elevators and towerblocks, its streets, either choked with traffic or narrow, cobbled and deserted, lend themselves so easily to symbolism.

There is a whiff of predictability of outcome and I wonder if there is also the slightest suggestion of a firm hand on the controls of the characters. The shade of victimhood hanging over the character who is only revealed through Charles's memory, the woman who has died, feels just a little irksome. If she was so vital and so caring, why did she give up? Perhaps I'm being unfair, but I feel she's been manipulated by Charles's love and particularly his guilt, in having lost touch with her. I feel she's been used as a sharp spike, to goad him into changing his life completely.

Which he does. A little bit too abruptly, for me, to be entirely convincing. Yet it has to be said that Anna Gavalda writes well about the kind of everyday events that don't usually figure in novels, the enjoyment of playing with children in the countryside, the presence of domestic pets, even if some of them are highly unusual, the kind of details that underpin our lives yet can so easily become blurred in our modern stressful urban living.

Cora Sandel's Alberta and Jacob on the other hand, is a wonderful description of an awareness [in the main character] which feels desperately out of place, and longs to get away from the stifling petit-bourgeois family and small town in Norway she lives in. Descriptions of the weather, landscape and the choked atmosphere of constrained social relationships all pervaded with Alberta's longings is described in entrancing detail. It feels more honest somehow, to focus on Alberta's misgivings, frustrations, social ineptitude and desperate desire for a more open and expressive life, yet doing it in such a way that hope rather than despair breathes life into the descriptions, whether it's the people and the way they interact, or the effects of the landscape and the weather, particularly on Alberta's moods.

This is the first volume of a trilogy, though I read the other two first. The second, Alberta and
Freedom, takes place in Paris, showing that Alberta did succeed in escaping from the constraints and frustrations of the small town she grew up in. But there are, of course there are, other problems. Her experience of Paris takes place many decades before Charles' in Consolation – there are no ipods, no plane trips, and far less money. Jobs are hard to come by, and life is very much hand to mouth. Relationships are awkward and troubled and fraught with disillusion. But Cora Sandel has the most remarkable gift of writing about difficult situations with a stubborn determination that is inspiring and uplifting. And imbued with an authenticity that gives you flavours and subtleties of mood shifts that are utterly recognizable.

Wednesday, 21 April 2010

Varnishing the Past

While F is still stuck in Barcelona amid the traffic chaos while people try to return home, I keep my mind occupied doing practical things. I’ve varnished most of the floor of my work room, dismembered a stack of shelves I never liked and sawn it up for firewood. To prepare for painting the walls I move furniture around, remove whole shelves of folders, books and accumulated scraps of paper with vital information scribbled on them, sort through envelopes, printing paper, old notes and letters, pens and pencils, erasers, pencil sharpeners, ink cartridges, rulers, paper clips, staples, foreign stamps removed from letters [why do I keep them?] ceramic tiles, unused, bought from a tile shop near the Place des Vosges in the Marais, Paris, old calendars, and a ton of postcards bought in various parts of the world.

From the walls I remove photos of family, friends, hommages to Giancarlo and Robert Capa, photos of Dhermis and Tirana in Albania, of the Canal St. Martin, of the sculpture of the dancer near the beach at Budva, Montenegro, posters from readings and exhibitions– Le Scriptorium, Venus Rising, of the poem Black Cat, displayed on Edinburgh buses and of Water Barge from the Glasgow Underground. There are photos of the Buddha in York University campus, and one of a winged and roguish Mercury, tying on his sandals and throwing a provocative glance over his shoulder.

I also remove lists of work in progress, things to do, a list of summer time changes from 1917 on, a picture I painted years ago, a crayon drawing of a brown bear my son did, also years ago.

I am stripping years of my life from these walls, and scraping off the remnants of blue tack, sticky particles of past.

Meanwhile several of my neighbours are saying how is F? Is she managing to get a flight? Will she be home soon?

Saturday, 17 April 2010

Floods, no flights and volcanic ash

On my latest escape attempt I managed to book my flights and then – like many other people – found that the volcano had grounded us all. While my daughter languishes in Barcelona unable to get home, I am still here, so took myself off to Edinburgh with my camera.

I always like abandoned or derelict buildings or patches of waste or empty ground that used to have buildings and probably will again. I found these buildings in a part of town I haven't explored before, behind Leith Walk. They are also close to a railway track. I was on the bridge over the railway when someone appeared around the corner on a bike and said my name - is that you he said, then, I'm not stopping, and as he went past said why are you taking photographs? Because I was supposed to be flying away to somewhere warm and now I can't I wanted to say. But didn't.

The night before I decided to book a week away in sunny Cyprus I had this dream. I was on my own in the back of a camper van. It's roomy, like a kitchen, I turn on – or light – the gas, to make tea, the gear controls are in a different place and I think to myself, this is just what I need, a travelling home. Only, I suddenly realise that the van is moving, the road has started to slope downhill and it's picking up speed. And that I need to be in the driver's seat, at the controls. I try to reach the driving compartment and find that it's inaccessible – there's floor to ceiling cupboards of what seem to be kitchen utensils, cutlery etc. I cannot find any way through to the driving area. I know I need to put my foot on the brake but I can't reach it. I desperately try to think of what I can do with the gears [which are in this area] but I don't seem to be able to work out what to do there either. And why are the gears in another place, so one has to rush around to different areas, doing different things? A light blinks somewhere which I think means that the power has cut out or is running down which I interpret as a good thing as, if the van has run out of power, it will slow down. Or perhaps the road becomes level. At any rate, it comes to a stop and all is well. Then I wake up.

I thought it was a clear danger sign that I was spending too much time on domestic issues and needed to get up front, get into the driver's seat and control where I was going. Take the initiative. Clearly. But that does not seem to have worked. Not yet.

That evening the washing machine flooded the kitchen once again when I tried to untangle the
hose at the back, thinking – well, imagining - that would be perfectly possible while I was waiting for the parsnips to grill. There's a lot of things I need to learn, clearly, one of them being that you turn the water off before you unscrew the washing machine hose pipe. Kitchen floor and self got soaked before I managed to aim the hose of forceful water out of the back door, leave it for a while [at which point it promptly turned around and pointed back inside] to turn off the grill, point it outside again while I worked out that I needed to turn the water off, and then reach the mains water tap.

But, after the water had been swept out the back door again, the hose untangled and reconnected, so there is now no leak, all was well. Come to think of it, the actual scenario was not unlike the dream, in that there were different things I had to do, in different places, until I worked out the solution. Not nearly as dangerous as the dream of course, but still, alarming enough.

And, according to the billboard, the Scots are keeping the world flying. This is clearly one of the brave flyers I encountered near the top of Leith Walk, you can tell by the way he's dressed. The sun had come out briefly, but I felt he must surely be cold.

Clearly I am going to say nothing about going anywhere until I actually get there, but I don't know when that will be, as this week was the only possible one for a while.

Sunday, 11 April 2010

Reality's many levels - The Silk Road, Croatia, planting flowers in spring sunshine

Street in the old city, Dubrovnik
I'm working on an article about travelling in Croatia, and I find that in my notes I've mentioned a book I'm reading. I don't usually include comments about books, as it would mean giving a resume of it, to explain its impact or importance. But it strikes me that books one reads on a journey are just as much a part of the experience as everything else. They are part of the journey just as dreams are. Sometimes very graphically linking up exploring, expanding commenting on and opening out experience, and sometimes not clear at all in terms of relevance. Not at the time anyway. What dreams have to say can become much clearer when looked at later. Sometimes we simply lack the ability to stand outside of our situation sufficiently to make sense of what dreams are saying, but the distance of time can hand us this perspective.

The book I was reading was Silk Road by Jonny Bealby, an account of travelling along the famous Silk route, in the company of someone he had not known very long. As everybody knows, travelling with someone, even someone you know well, can uncover such previously unrevealed aspects of people, as if we were layered as deeply as soil, and travel crumbles into fragments our seeming-solid table of topsoil, so that something raw and vulnerable can no longer be hidden. It can feel intoxicating or unsavoury, depending on many things, these oh so uncontrollable circumstances. This of course, along with the excitement of all the new things to see, all these new sensuous experiences, is the great gift of travel, this uncovering of layers of oneself, and possibly of others.

Travel is not just the movement through different places and all that we see and hear and the interactions with others. It is also the books we read, ones we bring with us or that we acquire along the way. It is the effect of these books, the effects of our memories, and the dreams produced by all the impressions, including what we read. Travel seems to stimulate the relationship between our waking world and our dreaming one.

In Silk Road Jonny Bealby has expectations, both about the journey and the relationship with the person he is travelling with, and he is quite open about this. When both begin to take unexpected turns, he at first resists the unwelcome incidents and disagreements, until at some point he goes off on his own and has a hard think about it all. This results in him realising that he had been trying to control the situation, both the trip and his travelling partner, wanting them both to be the way he'd decided they would be. He changes his attitude and becomes more accepting. At this point I have a lot of sympathy for him, and I admire his courage in recognising this, in facing up to the fact that his expectations and the actuality of what is happening, simply do not coincide, and in letting go of his former expectations.

And that night I have a dream that I feel is connected with what I'd been reading. I wake up with this feeling of excitement and insight into feelings that we judge as negative, such as disappointment that our expectations have not been met, or judging our emotions as being 'too much' or inappropriate. This feeling I wake up with is of a dawning of understanding, a penny dropping, an embracing. This feeling gives me an understanding of the tremendous and powerful gift the so-called 'negative' can be. How much it can teach us, show us, if we allow it, rather than denying it, pushing it away, being afraid of it.

The negative – where life has 'gone wrong', has not matched our ideals or wishes, has 'let us down' – is a gift, if it can be accepted as it is – it can tell us us about ourselves – in every moment, there is a feeling, a response. When that feeling is accepted, something happens, something changes.

And the season has changed, so suddenly it's like a slammed door. Only a few days ago the snow was thick on the ground. The branches of whin bushes have turned a smoky purple-brown, so dark it's almost black. All day I've been in the garden, weeding and preparing the plant pots. I've even planted a few flower seeds. It's curious the way the warmth of the sun brings one so completely into the present and at the same time jolts memories, and a stream of images wakes up and begins to flow and chatter. The same thing seems to have happened to the birds, only they sing their memories and conversations. There's the gorgeous dipping, rising blackbird song, the regular chirrups of blue-tit, the oyster-catchers and the first curlew I've heard this year, the high keening of buzzards and even a day-time owl mixes in with these memories-on-the-move. It's as if a presence has flown in and reverberates around me, a cloak made up of birdsong and memories, the scent of warm earth, a bumble-bee, a butterfly. A thick gleam of yellow/orange light shines between the tree trunks in the wood. Now there's a whoop-ee bird. And a cawing rook.

Thursday, 1 April 2010

Snow Story

The snow swirls past the window, and while it was raining heavily with a bitter wind in Edinburgh, a few miles south it turned to snow, coating the road and the surrounding fields. The bus sometimes swerved and skidded, we passed a police car and ambulance, though I could not see what had happened, and a little further on, another bus had pulled into a lay-by and we took on the passengers, coated with snow from the short walk from their bus to ours. Apparently that bus's windscreen wipers had failed and so they'd had to stop.

The snow has fallen all night and it's over a foot deep,[I would make that metric, but a third of a metre does not trip easily off the tongue; still I suppose I could say about 30 centimetres] coming over my boots. There's no power. I put out food for the birds, though its quickly covered over again, with snow. The bushes and the hedge are bent over with the weight of it. There is a quality to the silence that reminds me of a French farmhouse, with thick walls and oak beams, a low sky and empty fields stretching away to the horizon. Il manque seulement le cri du coq. The only sounds are the occasional whoosh like wide descending wings, as piled-up snow falls off tree branches. And the faint pattering sound of the snow on my hood when I'm outside shovelling the snow off the path. I light a fire put a pan of water on the coals to heat and once it's boiled, make some tea. It tastes slightly sooty, marvellous to have hot tea. When I put the pan back on the fire it sings a thin reedy little song, which deepens into something more breathy and gushing as it comes to the boil.

1st April
Today the sun comes out and the snow gleams and glitters in the light. I'm standing at the front door, feeling the sun on my face when I notice a trudging figure walking up the hill. It's the milkman. Usually he brings his van up to the top of the hill, to deliver the cartons of milk, but today he tells me, as I walk to the gate, to save him coming up the path, that he could not get his van up the hill, you'd need a four wheel drive to do that, he said.

In the city there's no sign of snow. I go to the Pen office in the Writers' Museum and tell N about the snow, and the lack of power. Ah so that's why you've come in today, to be somewhere warm, he says.

It's still sunny when I leave a few hours later. There's an odd feeling about this day, first of April, April Fool's, as if its real nature is lurking under the surface, and what can be seen could be just a façade that could change its nature in the blink of an eye, laughingly throw off its disguise and turn into what it really is. Like the Lord of Misrule, the snow has swept its cloak over everything, and now it's vanished, look, just like that. But the bus takes a different route, as the A7 is blocked by a fallen tree. A van by the side of the road, on the way back, is parked on an embankment, tilted at an angle that makes it look as if it could fall over at any moment. But even though it's still cold, the light loiters in the city streets, giving the feeling of time being gently stretched, a hovering stillness, despite the crowds of people walking briskly about.