Saturday, 28 August 2010

TGV to Geneva

By an incredible stroke of good fortune I was invited to the writers' residence at Chateau de Lavigny, Switzerland. I travelled there in my usual slow fashion, overnight coach to London, then via ferry to Paris, and at the Gare de Lyon took the TGV – which was not slow at all – to Morges, via Geneva. Met at Morges by S K, then driven here. It is a marvellous building, with a superb garden. The terrasse near my room looks down onto the courtyard, decorated in patterned cobblestones. One of the doors is wood, painted blue-grey with a decorative rising sun on the topmost part. On the walls are trellises with pink roses hanging outwards, nodding their heads slightly.

The room names are Rowohlt, Nabokov, Faulker, Hemingway and Camus. My room is Camus.

The afternoon of my arrival I walked to Aubonne, set on a hill, with narrow streets and a pristine appearance. It looks down on Lac Léman. Beyond the lake are the mountains, most of them misty blue, some snow-covered - from this distance, irregular protuberances, like spikes set in a wall by some half-asleep designer trying out new shapes, idly experimenting with something between defence and artistry....

I am also experimenting with 'not-tanka', that is, short poems that may resemble tanka but are not. Equally, the idea of keeping a tanka journal is appealing, or rather a not-tanka journal, which I could call 'Comme un Journal Tanka' [after a Paris bookshop called 'Comme Un Roman'.]

So here is one about the mountains:

Spikes rise up behind the lake -
bluish-grey or icy white.
These peaks I realise, are fingers
of a giant hand.
I am ringed by a benevolence of mountains.

And roses:

The roses in the courtyard
cling to the trelliswork, pink flowers
against a map of green.
In this mountain protectorate
we lean against giant profiles

Thursday, 19 August 2010

Absurdist, Surrealist and the Guest House

Edinburgh evening rooftops

I came across this blogsite - Who is the Absurd Man - and although I've only looked at two posts, the most recent and one with a quote from Henry Miller's Quiet Days in Clichy, I know I'll go back to it. It quotes Camus

“Living an experience… is accepting it fully,”

and explores the concept of the absurd, what Camus meant or might have meant, how they understand it and its practical application. Their latest post with the description of applied absurdity leading to less stress and more equanimity reminds me very much of Buddhism which is not to compare either favourably or unfavourably or to reduce or limit either in any way, just an observation.

Miller's lovely quote immediately gives me the feeling of Paris. We are 70 years on from the time when he wrote that but in parts of Paris - and I'm actually not thinking of Clichy but of the 14th [I think] arrondissement, near la rue de la Tombe Issoire, and walking up the rue St. Jaques towards the city centre – there is such a tangible feeling, atmosphere, the light, smells, the texture of the air and it all comes flooding back and makes me want to go there right now.

But the way he talks about accepting life as it is, embracing the totality of it, its paradoxical nature, its absurdity, is also uplifting. Writers – some writers anyway – seem to have or to develop this ability, it almost seems to be part of the nature of writing itself whether it's fiction or not seems immaterial, it's that recollection, whether in tranquillity or not, that Wordsworth talked about, a kind of reliving I would call it. In the writing you explore aspects and impressions of experience that perhaps could not be fully lived at the time, perhaps because there is simply too much going on for us to take in. But if you are the kind of person who is fascinated by e.g. the associations that come up around what someone says, what it fires off in you, if you are interested in people and the messages you receive from them, beyond the words they are saying, if it sets you to wondering what is in the background for them, in terms of feelings, problems maybe, mindset and assumptions, then there will be a huge amount of information that's subliminal and which you may later want to explore in thinking or in writing. You may well turn it into a story, into fiction, because that seems the best way of writing about truth....

The absurdist view, that conflict Camus summed up so well in his quotation, 'the mind that desires and the world that disappoints' is experienced sometimes, no doubt about it but the embracing of all of life's aspects and experiences as both Miller and Camus say, is a way of not being demoralised by the difficult and painful parts of life's experience.

One of the most fascinating aspects of this stroll, gallop or journey at whatever pace, through life, is the barriers we come across when presented with great difficulty, conflict, pain – these seem precisely the places – whether literal or metaphorical – that lure us into exploration for, like the underworld guarded by three-headed Cerberus, they can reveal hidden treasure. For me 'the present' is a breathing place, it can expand and contract and in its most expansive it seems to require the kind of engagement that I find in writing.

Meaning, that the absurd shows clearly is not present, is not necessarily part of our perception, at least not our usual everyday one, if one can talk about such a thing, as our perceptions drift and dart around in many places throughout one day - or rather the perceptions that we are aware of. In dreams for example we often forget where we've been, what we were doing and feeling, but when we were there we were living as fully and sometimes more fully, than in waking consciousness. We know this from the dreams that we do remember.

But meaning can be experienced sometimes, and even at the same time as we are also experiencing the sense of the absurd; our perceptions of life's meaning can co-exist with our perception of its absurdity – in such glorious moments, for me at least, lies the treasure.

Camus said in The Enigma, in Lyrical and Critical Essays, talking about being back in Algeria:
'Where is the absurdity of the world? In this shining glory, or in the memory of its absence? How, with so much sun in my memory, could I have wagered on nonsense? was in fact the sun which helped me..'

I'd have to agree there – the sun helps me too!

This philosophy of acceptance is very much present I feel in Rumi's The Guest House

'This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all!.... '

If such a welcome can be applied this can override the resistance of not wanting [for fear of disappointment, conflict pain etc] and lead into that garden of experience which is not corralled by rules and fears, but which could scarcely exist without the sun.

Last week I went to see a Surrealist exhibition on at Edinburgh's Dean Gallery. The day marked the 50th birthday of the Gallery of Modern Art and so entrance was free for that one day. I've liked Delvaux's paintings for some time, with their sense of stillness and mystery, an empty train station, with his large-eyed ladies, sometimes nude, sometimes cloaked in greenery, trailing ivy hair. One I had not seen before but lingered in my memory was a version of the Annunciation, with a very gentle atmosphere, the angel and Mary adorned with green-leaved coverings.

Behind this sculpture – I suppose that's what you'd call it – you can just see another one, and below you can see it in close up - The Virgin of Alsace – 1919-21, by Emile-Antoine Bourdelle.

Surrealism and the absurd have plenty in common of course but as Camus said, also in The Enigma
'the absurd can be considered only as a point of departure.....'

I guess Antony Gormley's half-submerged man is also setting off somewhere..

Monday, 16 August 2010

Beyond Borders Event at Traquair House

There had been so many mornings when the sun was out and the sky was blue only for the weather to turn on us like a sulky and capricious deity, turning its grey and leaden back, sometimes with the clouds emptying its sacks of water, sometimes holding them just above our heads, refusing to go away and refusing too, to spill the contents, stubborn and unpredictable. This morning, in the garden, there were blurry mist-filled areas in the sky so I set off with jacket and scarf, only to shed them at the bus stop, where the sky had become serene and suffused with blue, only blue, a butter not melting in the mouth expression, the sun confident and superbly reassuring.

At the bus stop I chat to a young woman going to her Saturday job in Galashiels. School goes back next week she says glumly. After a half hour wait in Galashiels – where I sit on a bench in the sun and read the London Review of Books, I take the next bus to Innerleithen. I read
Jenni Diski's article about noise and silence, how some people consider it is their right to make a lot of noise and how there is actually no such thing as silence, it is a spectrum apparently and some people really are sensitive to noise, it is a recognised condition, hyperacusis, but Jenni Diski would rather be considered 'an old bag' who doesn't know how to enjoy herself [ie put up with noise chosen by others rather than herself] than a victim of this condition. I know people who do feel easily upset by high-pitched sounds, such as shrieking children, who are physically affected by them. If you've ever seen a baby reacting to sudden loud noise, you will have noticed how their whole body reacts. Perhaps these 'victims' of a 'condition' have simply not lost that sensitivity. While I agree with JD and would rather not be described as a victim, I would champion all sensitivity, which, at least in my case, seems to be something that increases with age.

And as for silence – in the mountains of southern Albania a few years ago I discovered or rediscovered the experience of silence or near-silence. No traffic sounds no low humming of power lines, no mobile phones [no signal], nothing at all. Just the occasional tinkling of goat-bells. Bliss.

Picked up by C, Mark Muller's brother, and driven to Traquair House, to the
Beyond Borders event. C lives in London but does not feel at home in the city. He's considering doing his MA in international relations. He's got a place but he's still not sure. Go for it I say, if you want to work for human rights organisations, it will be invaluable. Do you think so? he asks? Yes, I say.

There are discussions going on in the main marquee, and later Tom Pow and I read in the International PEN teepee. I describe the border crossing from Macedonia to Serbia and afterwards a German woman who used to live in Berlin says it reminds her of what it used to be like.

As we left Macedonia all passports were collected by the bus driver and taken away to be scrutinized. Once this was completed, the driver came back, shouted out people's names and returned the passports. Among all the Blaskovitches, Ivanovitches and Sudarovskas, I wondered how he'd cope with mine. In the past, I haven't recognized the Smeet that bus drivers or immigration officers have called out and it's taken several Smeets before I realise it's me they're referring to. But when it came to mine, he called out Morella, so that was easy.

After the passports were returned, the bus crawled along the short distance between the Macedonian and Serbian borders. I wondered if we would all have to get out and go through immigration as sometimes happens. But a customs official got onto the bus and moved slowly down the aisle, stamping each passport with extraordinary precision. She was strikingly beautiful with long blonde curly hair, blue eyes and an expression of such immobile severity that it was mesmerizing. Her facial muscles did not move, her posture was of extreme rigidity, shoulders back, chest pushed out. Her only gestures were to take each proffered passport, her penetrating gaze flickering over the passenger, stamp the passport then move it a couple of inches towards its owner, a sign for them to reach out and retrieve it. The only sound inside the bus was the click of the metal stamp. There were no words exchanged, no thank-yous, no smiles or even nods of acknowledgement that any human contact, however brief, had taken place. You had the feeling that if you lit a match, the atmosphere would explode. If I was a movie director, I would offer her a part, immediately. She turned this fairly routine procedure into a theatre full of suspense.
[Excerpt From Macedonia to Novi Sad, in Sons of Camus Journal No 7]

Later in the afternoon Linda Cracknell and Christine de Luca read – the former about walking in southern Spain and Perthshire, including a conversation with a dry stane dyke - while the latter reads poems about Shetland, and Scotland. She's just finished telling us about sheep on the hills when a black dog rushes in as if drawn inexorably to the idea of rounding up sheep.

The discussions in the main tent cover the topics of the Taliban in Afghanistan and the role of the coalition troops there, the difficulties of walking in Palestine [by Raja Shehadeh – Palestinian Walks and A Rift in Time ] and how wonderful it feels to him here in Scotland where one is free to walk as one wishes, without countless borders and check points. And this reminds us how lucky we are and how we tend to take this for granted. I am drawn to his emphasis that the land will be there long after we and our borders and divisions have disappeared.

Christine gives me a lift to Innerleithen and I take the bus back. Seven in the evening and it is still hot. When I left the house in the morning the feeling was distinctly early autumn but the rest of the day was late summer. No wind, few clouds, and these almost unmoving, hot sun, the history of the old house settling within and around it, and the hope and the promise that these discussions for a more open world, without border checkpoints and with a true equity for all people, which we need to fight for, will continue.

Saturday, 14 August 2010

Post-Launch and The Shore

The launch of Time Loop at Wordpower Bookshop - Jeff Merrifield, publisher, author and playwright

Post-launch, post grand cross. Two bunches of flowers on the kitchen table. It all seems filmic now, and while I did not have to rush across town to any car rental place, I have an image in my mind of Kemal carrying a box of books to the car, coming back and carrying a box of wine bottles, some empty, some full and then having to go back to get some of the full ones and taking them to the restaurant, the Nile Valley, where several of us went afterwards. It rained, and people came into the bookshop with wet coats and wet hair. Some of the images are etched, stamped with vividness. I imagine the memory-stamping angel, all inky-fingered, bustling, busy, adoring to be so fully occupied, catching glimpses and gestures, the open-hearted moments, the generosity, when all the doors are opened, and while the members of the party come into the bookshop, damp with rain, the recording angel of the heart moves deftly among the lights – the light coming in through the window at the front and the one at the back, the shop lights, the lights reflected from hair shiny with rain, from glasses held in hands, from all reflected surfaces, badges, spectacles, glossy book covers, the metal microphone, the stamping angel flits effortlessly among the people, because light is its medium of travel.

The next day I went with Maureen and Kemal to The Shore, and watch a cormorant in the water, its black head on its long thin neck, rising out of the water, taking a gulp of air one imagines, then plunging down, beak-first, underwater, holding its bird breath and re-emerging a few meters away. The sun coming out, fierce and unexpected in Leith Walk and we shed clothes like autumn leaves, turning our faces to its hot face.

Out of the Blue Hall, with its glass panels on the roof so it is filled with startling light. And Alastair Cook's glorious photographs of sea and land, of spiky-grass trail
s through sand dunes of sky joining sea and land and all the space of ocean in there. More images here on Alastair's blog.
Walking back to the Shore we discover a peaceful church with a stone angel guardian in the grass opposite. A st
reet of Victorian architecture copying Georgian, bay turrets, a sculpted ram's head, and wide alley entrances, wide enough for carriages drawn by horses, to pass through. Sky a cloudless blue. And back on The Shore, in among the upmarket restaurants and the new flats with balconies, an old wall on the cobbled street looking out over the water.

Tuesday was the reading at St John's Church, an ongoing series called the Golden Thread. Thursday was Blackwells Bookshop and tomorrow is at Beyond Borders, Traquair House.

Tuesday, 3 August 2010

A Curious Pattern of Time

It is 20 years almost to the day since I visited Monsegur in south-west France. I would have to dig out old journals, assuming I still have them somewhere, to get the precise date but it was a few days before the event in Beziers the date of which can be checked without recourse to my journals because I remember vividly the alignment of the planets on that day. I've just checked it in the ephemeris and the date was – rather curious I think – August 6th, which is the date of the launch of Time Loop, my novel about the Cathars of the Languedoc.

The date when we visited Monsegur must have been around the very end of July I think. This was a story in itself, one where the old van, a converted ambulance, did not quite manage to get up the hill approaching Monsegur, and this was the only hill that proved too much for it; it even managed the Pyrenees later. We watched the sky become completely suffused with an incredible pale pink colour, then made something to eat on the gas stove. It was dark by the time we climbed the twisting mountain path to the top – but it was warm and we had the light of the moon to guide us. It was one of those truly unforgettable experiences, sitting up on the ruins of the castle of Monsegur, in the warm dark, in the moonlight.

The end of July and beginning of August is one of the quarter points of the year, known as Lammas. They all mark a shift – in the growth cycle of the planet we live on, and in the light cycle, the planet's relationship with the sun. Some years this change is very noticeable, as if a line has been drawn, a curtain pulled, a bridge crossed. There is a clear sense of division. The weather can change dramatically. I've noticed it this year, and last year there was a similar direct and sudden change. It isn't just the weather, there is a shift in atmosphere.

It was a hot summer in 1990 and I don't remember remarking any change in the weather after visiting Monsegur, as we drove across the Pyrenees to Barcelona, to see the Gaudi architecture. But there was a sense of having passed some kind of high point, of a goal having been reached which was not so surprising as the south of France and Monsegur in particular had certainly been my goal. But something in the energy had changed, the intensity had changed and our fortunes certainly did. The bag containing our passports, travellers cheques, drivers licenses and cash was stolen, and after reporting this to the police we began the long journey to Marseille where there was a British embassy and where we could get temporary passports. Then in Beziers, one of the van tyres became swollen and was on the point of bursting. We didn't have a spare. My friend R had tried to get one before we left but had not succeeded. We parked the van beneath some trees in Beziers and the following day began the protracted phone conversations with the French AA to try to find a tyre for the van. This proved to be a difficult task as the converted ambulance had an unusual size of tyre – which was why R had not been able to find one before leaving the UK.

With no money or food and a dwindling supply of water, as the fruitless phone calls continued, as we propped open the door of the cabine so that we were not completely suffocated by the heat, I felt a sense of complete frustration and utter desolation and could see no way out. It was R's turn at the phone box. I lay down in the van and prayed. When R returned he was triumphant. If we could get to the Avis car hire in time before it closed, our AA cover would pay for the hire of a car. In the end, after another drama at the Avis car hire, where they refused to give us a car because we could not produce a driving licence – they'd also been stolen in Barcelona – and I had refused to leave until they did give us one – we phoned the AA again and the miracle occurred – they had found a tyre and were replacing it right now.

That afternoon four planets had formed an alignment in the sky known as a grand cross. Although I had not thought at that point of writing a novel about the Cathars of the Languedoc, still, it was its inception in a way. During our reluctant stopover in Beziers I did not know that it was here that the first massacre in the crusade against the Cathars took place, in 1209. There were no survivors. I only discovered this back home, when I began to read all I could, about the history of that time.

The novel was written a few years later and published as an e-book in 2000. The website soon folded as the publisher did not make any money from e-books. It was published again in 2003 on another e-book website which also shut down a year or so later. After that I was involved in other writing and publishing projects. But a couple of years ago my friend M asked to read the typescript and afterwards she insisted that I make efforts to get it published in book form. So it it very much thanks to her th
at it will finally appear. It is also thanks to C who gave me a non-fiction book about the Cathars which prompted me to get in touch with that particular publisher, last year. And on 6th August exactly 20 years after that grand cross experienced in Beziers, there will be another grand cross and the book will appear. Time Loop wanders between 13th century France and end of 20th century France and Scotland. But the story of the story seems to have created its own arc or loop in time. This time I won't be racing across a city to reach a car hire office before it closes, only to be refused one because I don't have a driver's licence. Or refusing to leave the premises until they give me one. At least I hope not. Writing about it now, the Beziers experience sounds more like a dream than anything real.
Or a story.....