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.

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