Wednesday, 21 December 2011

Solstice, Rebirth, Resurrection

Colmar also has its festive decorations but the reason I went there today was to see again the paintings by Grunewald in the Unterlinden Museum. Actually, really only one, The Risen Christ. When I first saw a reproduction of this several years ago, I felt like shouting for joy. Or singing many hosannas. For all the paintings and sculptures and representations of Christ on the cross, these ubiquitous images, where I wondered, were the uplifting ones, that showed that life never dies, that shows rebirth and renewal? Well, we have one. Two actually, as today in the Unterlinden, I saw another one, by Martin Schongauer. But the Grunewald is still the most impressive.

In the early hours of the 22nd December, the sun moves from the sign of Sagittarius into Capricorn. In other words, astronomically, we have the solstice, and from now on, the days get longer, the sun rises higher in the sky, there is more light. Before the emergence of the religions that we are familiar with today, this time was celebrated by people who we call pagan nowadays [from the Latin paganus, which simply means the countryside, the land]. When humanity and nature were in closer communion than they are today. The sun, Sol, was worshipped as the life-bringer that it is. A great feast was held, to celebrate this occasion of the solstice – the Saturnalia. The Christian celebration of Christmas was grafted onto this seasonal and celebratory event.

For me, it is still, and always, about this blazing star, this source of light, we circle around on our small and astonishingly beautiful planet.

Solstice, from the Latin, means the sun stops, stands still. It does not of course, actually stop. But something shifts, changes direction, at this time of year. And because it involves the relationship between earth and sun you could say that everything changes. The angle of the light as it hits earth and us, will become less acute, moving away from horizontal as the sun climbs higher in the sky.

Meanwhile, we are always spinning around the sun. Extraordinary.

Thursday, 15 December 2011

The Winter King on the German Border

La piste des forts is the name of the bicycle path that goes from Strasbourg, over the Rhine and into Germany. It's well named. If you were not strong before you started you will be less so once you've done it. Huge trucks barrel along the main road and while the cycle path is off to one side, I still get showered with murky moisture from the puddles that sprayed out from the truck wheels.

This is my first time out on the bike. I first had to find the bike shop to get the saddle lowered. It looked easy enough on the map, the bridge, the border, Germany, is very close. But of course it's always different in actuality. Still, after only a few kilometers, over the Pont de l'Europe I go, and reach Kehl, the small town on the other side of the border.

The weather all morning has been dark and lowering, with little bursts of rain. But once I reach Kehl the rain becomes earnest. But still, the cycle paths are marked. You want to go to Offenburg, to Kork? It's clear which way to go. I shelter under an archway for a while and then the rain eases. I set off again, and soon find myself outside the small town, and on a towpath that follows a stretch of water. It leads to another road, not too busy, and still, there is the bicycle path at the side. Trees line this road, which goes over a bridge, swings to the right, skirts Neumühl and a couple of kilometres later, I arrive in Kork, which is really only a village, with a few shops, a school, some delightful looking wooden fronted houses, and a square with a statue of a kneeling bull. The inscription underneath is very hard to make out but it seems to involve a legend of a wild bull kneeling before some prince or other


By this time the sun has come out.

I head back in the same direction, but fail to find the quiet towpath. The wind is now against me, the sky has returned to its threatening ways, its billows of purple like a bag of many sighs drifting across the sky, its colour between violet and indigo, massing around the mountains of the schwarzwald, the black forest, and spreading outwards.

I decide to stop in Kehl on the way back, for refreshment and a rest. I head for the town centre, where there's a near empty square, with dried leaves scuttling across it, caught up in snatches of wind like fitful half-remembered prayers. Bright lights on one side of the square announce a Euro shop. There's a café bar in the middle of the otherwise empty square, with outside tables underneath large awnings. One client, an elderly man, sits at a table, smoking and drinking coffee, looking out over the deserted grey square. Next to him is one of these admirable heaters for outside clientèle, but it's not on.

I sit down a couple of tables away, with a view to two sides of the square – the tourist information office in front of me, and the church to one side. The church has a stolid appearance, reddish stone, functional. While I wait for coffee the wind increases its irritated bursts and rain patters on the canvas table awnings. The man gazes straight ahead of him, seeming indifferent to the vagaries of the weather, the unchanging scene. A friendly woman, who I take to be la patronne, comes out and asks me if I'd like anything. Möchete ich ein Kaffee haben bitte I beam, delighted to be able to practice my threadbare German. She is all smiles. She then goes to the elderly gentleman says something to him. Later she comes out with my coffee and places in front of the man an enormous dish of ice cream, heaped with layers of white, cream and caramel colours.

I decide he must be the Old King of Winter, out surveying what his lesser functionaries are up to. Perhaps he's deeply displeased with the intermittent nature of the bursts of wind, the rain as if thrown from a colander that's quickly emptied, the clouds that have stirred up trouble in the mountains of the Schwarzwald but have lost their impetus when confronted with the mighty Rhine, its smooth waters, its working boats carrying and offloading freight, barges with smudged and peeling paintlines, dusted with coal and mud, its ports and dockland areas, its vast dignity and importance, the rainbow of history wrapped around its banks. Perhaps he's wondered why the scourges of winter have taken so long. There's nothing he can do about the Rhine, but surely the clouds could be persuaded to form ice pellets high up in the stratosphere, to make percussive noises on taut canvas and tin roofs?

Mid December, and people can still walk around without hats and gloves, even though the wind messes their hair it's true, with its fingers, made keen and supple from spending time among the lean pines of the black forest, crowding on the slopes of the mountains. Time on its hands in small-town Kehl, the wind chases the dried leaves, then heads for the bridges over the Rhine, where it sweeps over the water in a kind of reverential ecstasy at being so close to the River King. Meanwhile, the Winter King spoons his ice cream and gazes at the tourist information office. The canvas awnings thud and crack in the wind.

When I've finished my coffee I head for the tourist office, to practise my German. I want to know which direction to go in, to reach Strasbourg. The assistant beams at me, her only customer, explains where to go, says it's signposted, shows me on a map and then insists I take it with me. Such delightful friendliness!

I cross the bridge, la passerelle du jardin des deux rives. Built to demonstrate the harmonious relationship between the two countries, with its gardens on both banks of the Rhine, it is for pedestrians and cyclists. There is even an area in the middle with tables and benches, should you want to stop and contemplate the river, the boats, the sky, the sense of being on an historic border, the history and trade of this area, the terrible conflicts of the past century, the hope for continued positive relations in Europe in this one.

The wind is fierce so I decide to pass on contemplation. Beyond the French side of the jardin des deux rives you come out into a main road of heavy traffic. I dodge into side streets, a whole area of the Porte du Rhin, a closed SNCF train station, an abandoned, roofless building, road works, dockland areas, mud-spattered roads. The kind of place you would not want to be lost in. Heading in the vague direction of the north part of town I eventually arrive in the spruce architecture of central Strasbourg, not far from home.

Saturday, 10 December 2011

City of Reflections

Strasbourg is a city full of water-surfaces, as if many rivers undulate and flow through it although it's really only one, divided up, and with canal-like tributaries coming off the main river, the Ill. So it is also a city of bridges, and of reflections. And at this time of year it is a city of Christmas markets. They are crammed into the main squares, and some of the streets are decorated with small santas, polar bears, windows festooned with glitter and wreaths and gingerbread houses, with leafless trees painted white to look frost covered, with loops and twirls and bunches of lights. Scene after scene of theatrical gaudiness and glitter, fairy tale worlds that have edged into the usual streets of the everyday world, with their commercial signs and their colourful frontages designed to catch people's attention.

But Strasbourg already has fairy tale buildings, striped with wooden beams of different colours, walls leaning away from perpendicular, sagging or sloping, with latticed windows or small windows you can hardly see through, or coloured glass windows

with dim and blurred shadows passing behind them.

It also has an immense cathedral. But it is not like the cathedrals of Chartres or Rouen, which have a much more solid and planted appearance, like stone equivalents of massive oak trees or yews. This one is more like a silver birch or poplar, with its slender spire rising like a pointed spindle, around which the world must surely turn and spin, while there are all kinds of lesser revolutions in shaped and decorated stone curling inwards or outwards like scenes from different times depicted in the faux naïve style of the days before perspective was inserted into images and we were obliged to look at paintings in sequential fashion. And take time to read it. Take time to enter the story and carry the story back with us into our daily life and conversations so they rubbed against the rules and mores of our days, or shaped them maybe, underlined them, justified them, gave them a bulwark of credentials. Haven't the structures of our lives always been bolstered by the grand stories, etched in their dilemmas, their theatricals, their challenges and their light? Their long journeys, their years of tribulation, their struggle from oppression into freedom, their angelic guidances, their prophecies of what would come?

The ancient wood fronted buildings are skewed by time and lean against each other and look out over the river, where willows branches drift down to the water, still with green and yellow twisted ropes of leaves. Smells of burnt chestnuts, smells of cinnamon and spice. A pianist plays gentle music à la Keith Jarrett, near inaudible until you're very close. I stand a few metres away and listen, and the sound of all the voices, the crowds of people speaking French, German, Italian, all disappear and there is just this whispering music like the sound of water running and splashing over stony paths and falling into pools and you have to come close up to hear what it is saying.

Sunday, 4 December 2011

The Portrait and the Real

[Extract from Journal, December 2010]

While you are recounting your pictures and impressions of this person –
She said – I dreamed about a dog I'd left behind – how could I have forgotten about it, how could I?
You think you are presenting her as clear as a portrait – clear and complete, with severe borders, stiff and solid, just the way you like them -

No stray threads, no paths leading nowhere, no fuzzy parts you could misinterpret or have to strain to see – no doubt you see, no doubt -

She, meanwhile, is someone else entirely, snagged with her private half-formed thoughts, uncertainty like a snapped dried stem of plant, blotched brown and dirty yellow – in dry weather the creamy colour of starched sunlight, in wet, like this, with snow turning to sludge and mixed with a colour of dark and rotting fruit, pale ivory turns into blotchy pulp.

The clouds are not so much clouds as the weight of Questions that will not be answered, piled like centuries one on top of the other until they form a palisade of quilted years, their stuffing half pulled from their sides, as if mad dogs attacked them, then lost interest.

Soaked questions, mauled by hunger and by time. A future world is horror-struck by the bloated debris of a world maddened by its loss of memory of who it really is – so it turns on itself, and rips its fabric of forgetting – in the way a trapped creature will gnaw at its own body, to free itself. This is what this civilization will be seen as, in a future that will live within its memory of Who it Really Is – a filigree of gold, a droplet of sunlight, the heartbeat of a star.
While now – we cannot breathe properly beneath the metal bands of clouds, our lungs cannot expand and so – we forget what air tastes like, how it can fill us – how it once could – we forget that we are the air – selfhood, crushed by cloud weight -
All these things are passing through her mind, and her body signals lack of sky and lack of warmth and the reassurance of movement -

She looks solid – she glows with definition, she feels like the aftermath of a clenched fist – whittled and splintered, damp and indecisive – then she half-turns and – though the sky has not changed, its texture and shade like half-melted snow – she remembers something someone once said to her – the dark honey in the voice and gesture – like someone's finger on her arm, she is arrested, she is loved, and she bites the neck off brittle stalks, tears them with her hands, feels prickly burrs against her palms and remembers the feeling of how juice is sucked out of her then how it surges back across her skin like light.

Tuesday, 22 November 2011

Launch of Gold Tracks Fallen Fruit

Kathy Kituai introduced me to tanka last year, with her splendid collection, Straggling into Winter, a tanka journal. I experimented with five-line poems but as they are not strictly tanka, I decided to give them another name – quinta. The idea of journaling in poetry [I have written prose journals for almost as long as I can remember] was also appealing. So the book, a selection from the many quinta I've written over the past year, has just been published by Cestrian Press. I was reading from Gold Tracks, Fallen Fruit, in Chester last Thursday. Kemal Houghton was also reading from his new collection, Pastizzi, and Edwin Stockdale played ethereal music on the harp.

Journal and journey of course share the same root, and within our long – or short - passage through time and space, our lifetime, a journey that everyone makes, there are also forays into the unknown, geographical, psychological and metaphorical, the wanderings and the stories, and how we are changed by the features of the landscapes we pass through.

As I was travelling back through Italy and France earlier this year, in the summer, I was thinking about the effects that travelling can have on us, very positive effects, so it seems to me, as one is removed from one's usual context and one's usual identity. With these familiar accretions of identity removed, who are we really? For although we 'identify with' all kinds of familiarities, it has been my experience at times, that there is another identity waiting in the wings. Our usual associations and patterns of thoughts and feelings are removed by some circumstance or other, either deliberately sought out, or seemingly accidental. Travelling in unknown places is just one way of making space, leaving a door open for this other to make its presence felt. In an extreme form it can be like Inanna's journey to the underworld where everything is taken from her. But that's not the end of the story. Death is followed by transformation and rebirth.

the journey strips us of possessions -

language, context, self-importance.

Sunlight on sea and bougeainvillea,

scents of lime – here our travelling soul

feels perfectly at home

Later, I came across this quote from Albert Camus which evokes similar feelings, describing both the fear and the treasure that we find on the journey.

.....For what gives value to travel is fear. It breaks down a kind of inner structure we have. … robs us of …..... refuge. [We are] far from our own people, our own language, stripped of all our props, deprived of our masks (one doesn't know the fare on the trams, or anything else) …...... But [we] also...... restore to every being and every object its miraculous value. A woman dancing ….... a bottle on a table, glimpsed behind a curtain: each image becomes a symbol. The whole of life seems reflected in it.....

From l'Envers et l'endroit - Amour de Vivre

And, from Nikos Kazantzakis (Odyssey – a Modern Sequel )

'My soul, your voyages have been your native land!'

The Christmas lights in Chester are already up, delicate nets of white lights strung between buildings in the narrow streets of the city centre. These lights are, of course, a celebration. But they also remind me of clusters of constellations, pinpricks of light, reflections of the night sky.

Wednesday, 16 November 2011

From the Shore

On the 13th November, In the Voodoo Rooms above the Café Royal in Edinburgh, the Shore Poets celebrated 20 years of existence. Poems and music by the Kitchen Stools, Jim Glen, Minnow, and Brighde Caimbeul with Jim Wilson as compère extraordinaire.

Brighde Caimbeul, Angus Peter Campbell's daughter was the star, for me, playing extraordinarily good bagpipes. It was the first time I heard her father read, and that too, was impressive.

Photo of Brighde courtesy of Fin Wycherley

Photos of all the other readers, musicians, compères and commenters can be seen here.

Ken Cockburn asked all of us current or former Shore Poets to supply a memory of past readings.

A couple of my personal favourites are below [they're anonymous so I can't credit the writers].

Those occasions in the Canon's Gait when a reading seems about to be transformed into a sonata for human voice, telephone and till, plus choral improvisations from the upstairs bar.

At the Fruitmarket Gallery, the curiously endearing sound of trains shaking the postcard stands.

Someone and I can't remember who it was, mentioned being introduced by someone, as being a member of the Shore Porters! I like this very much. It combines the idea of carrying, bearing as in the bearers of a tradition, mingling responsibility with a down to earth quality, a practical bardicness, nothing flighty or off-planet here, but a humble craft-making as well as service to the community, lightly silvered with the misty liminal quality of shore and all that that entails – blurred boundaries, shadowy outlines where the material mixes with something less tangible.

Christine de Luca, Peter Cudmore, Ian McDonough and various others have worked hard to create the CD, From the Shore, to mark the 20th anniversary. The fantastic cover photo is by James Christiethe words and music are good too!

The poems on the CD can be read on the website, by clicking on the names listed on the right. I remember hearing Mark Ogle reading English Rain, about fifteen years ago and being struck by the poem's ability to evoke a powerful nostalgia, even then, even in someone who spends as much time as possible getting away from this climate! It has now become the literary equivalent of an icon, and evokes nostalgia in all of us. Mark died in 1999.

English Rain by Mark Ogle

I want today to close with English Rain
Tapping on my window in the four o’clock gloom.
I want Wellington boots, damp coats in a hallway
And to fight from a warm room against a screaming seawind
To the poached puddled gateways of fields
Where mud flanked cattle wait at winter’s end for hay.
I want trousers soaked to the thighs
From walking in the long grass
In fine misty rain that doesn’t fall
But fastens glistening droplets to my clothes and skin
And to listen to the sucking sounds of meadows as they drain.
I want to come home early from work in the afternoon
Because of the rain and sit with a book by the fire
And hear the words ‘Attention all shipping’,
And glimpse pale blue through broken cloud
And hear brown water running loud
Through the streets of the village
During a lull in a three day gale.

Today on this parched dusty plain
I want rain to start falling and not to stop
Until trees take such deep root, they can only turn green
As they begin to do in England now,
Thanks to the English Rain.

Uttar Pradesh, March 1980

Tuesday, 15 November 2011

International Day of the Imprisoned Writer

The day began by helping to lift a heavy metal cage from the stage door of the Festival Theatre into the van that J and D had driven through from Glasgow. We then drove to the Scottish parliament. There was a brief discussion regarding the merits of the architecture. I like the arrangement of bundles of pale mustard coloured sticks on the front, some of them slightly warped, giving the impression of naturally curved reeds and vulnerability [though they are actually quite stout, as D discovered, when he tried to dislodge one when the policemen weren't looking]. It has to my eye a kind of makeshift appearance, something cobbled together - and of course to give that effect takes a lot of skill and contrivance.

Various quotations are carved into the stonework on one side of the building, and this one, by Alan Jackson, is one of my favourites.

We set up the cage in front of the Parliament. We found that two of the sides had become lodged together, but with the aid of a stout stick and muscle power, we managed to prise them apart. A spacious cage was then prepared for Ron Butlin, the Edinburgh Makar, who soon found himself behind bars.

The event was to draw attention to the plight of writers around the world, imprisoned because of what they have written. Many countries and political regimes do not respect human rights and freedom of expression.

Alba, the Gaelic TV channel filmed the event and interviewed Ron. A small crowd gathered. A couple of well-behaved golden haired dogs added some flashy brightness to the overcast day. But it did not rain. J had brought along a tartan tarpaulin to put over the cage, to protect the imprisoned writer, should it rain.

Several Kurdish people turned up and thanked us for making this demonstration particularly as Ragip Zarakolu a Turkish writer and publisher, has recently been arrested again in Turkey. One of them talked about how difficult it is for Kurdish people in Turkey today. He has lived in the UK for 8 years now, and he drives a taxi. He texted his friends when he heard about our event.

A couple of poems were read out, written by imprisoned writers, one of them Liu Xiaobo, who received the Noble Peace Prize last year but was unable to go to Oslo to receive it. Scottish PEN organized the creation of a special 'imprisoned writer empty chair', which flew to Oslo to be present at the Nobel Prize ceremony, symbolizing those writers unable to attend because of arrest, detention or imprisonment in their own country.

Wednesday, 9 November 2011

Talks at the Sauniere Society

Days at Newbattle Abbey. The sun arrows through the big windows into the drawing room. Some of the shutters are closed, to reduce the amount of light coming in, so that the images can be seen clearly on the white screen. If there are images. In Sylvia Francke's talk about Rudolf Steiner, she put up a picture of the Goetheanum, the second one, at Dornoch. The first one was burnt down in a fire possibly started by people who were opposed to his ideas. This talk reminds me that Rudolf Steiner stands head and shoulders above most thinkers and seers. He combined these two remarkable qualities – profound intelligence and equally startling clairvoyant abilities. His vision also had far reaching practical applications in the fields of education and agriculture. He had ideas about social equality that were way ahead of his time. In his many books and lectures he addresses the really big questions about life – the purposes of humanity, our connections with the cosmos, how our individual life links up with these greater purposes.

In between talks there are coffee and meal breaks, and the sky is cloudless blue and the trees in the grounds are the colours of bright flames and blanched light and smouldering fires. At night, the Moon has grown plump as a ripe almond with a furred edge on one side, as if the soft outer covering over the hard shell is still there. The last unpicked gleaming almond in the night sky, the tree invisible and magical as das ringelte Klingelte Baumchen, a fairy tale tree. Some of its branches are sketched against the black sky backdrop, sprinkled with glitter stars. The Moon tilts slightly in the direction of Jupiter, the topmost star on the sky tree.

A few years ago Stephen O'Shea wrote a book about the Cathars of the Languedoc, The Perfect Heresy. His talk at the weekend focussed on his most recent book, The Friar of Carcassonne. When you're in a place that is utterly unfamiliar to you he said, and where you do not understand the language, I find the focus is on meal times. In such a situation, you're deprived of two senses – the ability to talk and to hear, or at least to make sense of what you hear around you. The senses of smell and taste become heightened and gain in importance, as if to make up for the loss of the others.

Well, that has nothing to do with the subject of his book, although it is connected with his travels while he is doing his researching. You have to go to the places you're going to write about, he said,

it's only by being in the actual places where the events happened that you'll know what the light is really like, how the landscape feels, and the effects it can have. This seems to suggest that the landscape can give you insight into how people viewed the world, how it affected these views and perceptions, and still does. It is good to hear this idea being spoken. It is good to know that others are travelling and exploring and listening to what the land, the air the sunlight, the weather, to what all of nature is saying.

I've only just got the book and haven't read it yet, but if you are interested in the Cathars, you will probably want to know more about The Friar of Carcassonne. [You can read a review here ]

When it comes to landscapes, Stuart McHardy, whose talks are always fascinating, seems to have discovered or rediscovered, a perception of landscape that has regifted it with the sacred. His exploration of certain places, and the myths and stories connected with them, such as the Nine Maidens, has given him the ability so it seemed to me, to see it with the eyes of people for whom the landscape was sacred. He also has the ability to communicate the excitement of that vision to show that if we explore it with knowledge, interest, curiosity and openness to what it may reveal to us, a relationship with the land can be regained, a relationship that modern people have lost. It then becomes not so much an objective observation, where what is observed is something separate, but where the land begins to 'speak' to us. Where 'the dancer and the dance' become one. It makes me think of J, who spends so much time with the alignment of stones at Cairnholy, where the landscape responds to his openness to it and reveals itself in an ongoing conversation. A new relationship is being developed.

It makes me think of Rudolf Steiner too, and his biodynamic methods of plant cultivation, where plants are treated as living energies with individual needs, which are recognized and taken into account.

In the mornings, the grass had a crisp white covering of frost. In late afternoon, it was layered with light. At sundown, the eastern horizon was wrapped in bands of blue-green and pink.

You can find out more about the Sauniere Society here

Thursday, 27 October 2011

Edward Lear in Corfu

Edward Lear, talented and troubled, loving and lonely, first lived in Corfu in 1855. The weather was wet, Lear suffered from attacks of epilepsy and depression and for a while could not work at his sketching and painting. When spring made an early appearance and he got to know more people and started selling his drawings, his mood and outlook also improved. He began to explore the island and in a letter to his sister Ann he wrote “The hills are positively an immense crop of geraniums all gold colour - & in the olive woods, the large white heath looks like snow & the pale lilac asphodels in such profusion as to seem like a sort of pale veil over all the ground.”

He was a restless man. His perceptions fluctuated, turning a fresh and expansive outlook into a cold and shrunken territory. But when he travelled, no matter how difficult the journey might be, simply to be in movement released the feeling of impoverishment of the senses and emotions, it lit up the landscape of possibility, like a shaft of sunlight.

In 1848/9 he had travelled through mainland Greece and Albania, sketching and painting. His Journal of a Landscape Painter in Albania makes fascinating reading, in its detailed descriptions of the lives of a people little known to the English speaking world. It is also full of Lear's witty and sometimes self-deprecating comments.

He left Corfu after two years because he wanted to make a journey to the Holy Land, though he returned in 1860 and lived there until 1864 when the British protectorate ended and Corfu and the other Ionian Islands became part of Greece.

The house where he lived in the 1860s was very close to Prosforou, where I lived earlier this year, and a poem about him, and a picture of the house can be found on Catapult to Mars.

Thanks to Corfu blues for the image above of Lear's painting of Paleokastritza, Corfu.

Edward Lear: The Corfu Years - A Chronicle presented through his Letters and Journals

There is also an excellent biography of Lear by Vivien Noakes

Monday, 17 October 2011

House of Exile - an Appreciation

Evelyn Juers – House of Exile

This is what biography should be! This book pushes you deep into the consciousness of the time by its descriptions of the lives of individuals.

The main characters are the writer Heinrich Mann and his wife Nelly Kröger-Mann. [photo of Heinrich and Nelly, courtesy of] Other members of the Mann family put in frequent appearances particularly his brother, the Nobel prize-winning Thomas and his son Klaus, and a host of other writers, including James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, Bertolt Brecht, Robert Musil, Walter Benjamin, Lion Feuchtwanger, Jakob Wassermann and many others. It takes us through the thirties and the rise of fascism in Europe, and the war years.

What has often irked me about biographies is a tone that can sometimes slip into the critical or judgemental – how easy I think, to look at another's life, one that, presumably, is admired [why else write about them?] and see 'flaws' in their character or decisions they made. Evelyn Juers has managed very cleverly I think, and after a huge amount of research, to get inside the lives of her main characters. She does this partly by quoting their letters and journals, partly through magnificent writing where she does not signal her presence by waving opinions or interpretations, though does sometimes say things like - I imagine her walking down the Kurfurstendamn etc. So that we feel as if we are experiencing events through the eyes of the people described. And there is no hint of judgement, but rather, great compassion, which is not overtly stated, but in which the whole book is steeped, like a colour, a subtle scent or flavour, the kind of light which is only found in a certain place, whether geographical or psychological.

What sticks in my mind is that boat full of Jewish refugees fleeing Hitler's Germany crossing the Atlantic and being turned away from the USA. Having to go back across the Atlantic and as the author said, probably ending up in the camps. The way that the French collaborationist government helped to seek out German residents in France, who were then sent back to Germany and to the concentration camps. The way all the German resident exiles had to apply for visas to the USA and exit permits from France. And if you knew someone in the USA already, it made it at least more possible. How many writers committed suicide. How Virginia and Leonard Woolf had a suicide plan ready, should the UK succumb. The way Heinrich [then nearly seventy] and the others with him had to climb over the Pyrenees to escape to Spain. And how the Nazis in pursuit reached Cerbère near the French-Spanish border a day later – they were just in time. The relentless pressure, anxiety, fear for oneself and one's loved ones. No wonder people turned to alcohol, and came to rely on morphine, barbiturates and other drugs, as they tried to sleep at nights.

The suicide toll goes on and on. People still in Germany who had been arrested, or knew they were about to be, those who lived in France or Prague or other European cities, after France's capitulation and collaboration with Germany. People who were trying to escape but did not manage it, like Walter Benjamin on the Spanish border, taking the same route that Heinrich and Nelly took. He did not have a French exit visa and was refused entry into Spain. A few weeks earlier he wrote in a letter - the complete uncertainty about what the next day and even the next hour will bring has dominated my existence for many weeks. Like so many of the refugees he carried a lethal dose of morphine tablets with him, and took these rather than return to France.

Thomas Mann's journals and letters are often quoted. It's clear from them that he never liked Nelly, Heinrich's wife, considering her 'common'. After her death – she had problems with alcohol, other health problems, and eventually took her own life – Thomas Mann says 'she caused him [Heinrich] a lot of trouble.' She also cooked for him, looked after him, typed up his manuscripts, went out to work and took on menial jobs in the USA to support both of them, and clearly loved him. She was described by others as 'a ray of sunshine', and 'the kindest person I ever met'. Heinrich was devastated by her death, and particularly remembered her courage and how she helped him when they were escaping over the Pyrenees into Spain.

So relevant to our own times too, as many refugees from various wars and oppressive regimes continue to seek asylum, escaping from horrors quite unimaginable to us, who live in freedom and relative security.

You can find the Guardian review here

Sunday, 2 October 2011

Back Roads and Magic Carpets

What is the name of these fair wondrous plants, now somewhat withered, past the fullness of their blossoming, and appearing as with the colours of clouds near the horizon at the setting of the sun with a faint whisper of pink in their feathery aspect, like plumes of some exotic bird, scattered by the roadside?

These may not be the exact words of my companion, but that's how I remember them, more or less, with perhaps a faint inserted echo of Chaucerian English, which somehow I associate with him, at least in my imagination.

(Answer to his question – rosebay willowherb)

We're driving through hills of an extraordinary colour, part-russet from bracken part purple from heather – all in this low sunlight, a summer day slipped into autumn like a surprise thin packet, tied with a ribbon of many colours, a glitter of silk, a slim wedge of shiny paper, with the resulting startling yellows and deep reds of trees glowing among the shades of green. There's also the statuesque profiles of windfarms and we discuss the possibility of painting them rainbow hues, to shed colour on the hillsides, on grey winter days.

It's open day for artists' studios in and around Dunbar. We first visit Lesleymay Miller's and Judith Rowan's in a basement in Church Street. JR notices things - he points out a lobster creel in the garden which I would have failed to see otherwise. I tend to look into the distance, to horizons. Lobster creels and pink roses.

A band playing traditional jazz music can be heard off the High Street, where we go for coffee to the 1650 café. We decide it is so named because that was the time when coffee houses first made their appearance.

We then drive to Stanton, following a narrow country road through velvety corn coloured fields – the road lined with beech-hedges, pale green and yellow tinted – the low sunlight shines in my eyes and I pull down the sun visor. JR looks at the map. I circle a roundabout a couple of times then find the right road. There is no wind and the sunlight laps over the land, in peaceful unhurried waves.

Aliki Sapountzi's photographs are of Turkey and Afghanistan. The tomb of Shah Abbas. Stony landscapes. Deep blue skies. It seems to me that if you have travelled in a particular landscape then a part of you belongs to it and it is somehow always inside of you so that you are then part of it, inseparable. Seeing images of these places reminds you of that other part of you that's also you. This is the way I feel connected to the photographs of Afghanistan. It then seems inexplicable that I should be here, when I feel this connection, shiny as copper, stony and dusty as the tracks and mountains, deep blue as the sky – with this other land. Its minerals I feel, part of my hands and fingernails. Lapis in the veins. Turquoise around the finger joints. Bowl of sky like a loose blue scarf around my neck.

I don't have photographs from that time but I remember the deep silence at night, so many moving points of light, stars in the night sky. It's as if there is another perceptive self, one that doesn't always see the lobster pots, may not register the present details but carries its own memory imprint, that returns in feeling like a soft and subtle cloak and its language is more one of shifting light, colours, and the slopes, curves and hollows of landscape.

Its terrain unfolds, it rolls out like a carpet when I see images of that remembered land. Look! it says – step onto this carpet and walk over the thick wool, feel the worn places and the ridges underneath your feet - and it turns into the vegetation and the dust of this land. As if I'm walking in another being's footsteps – smell the baking bread, in the mountain air...

(Images of Afghanistan courtesy of wikipedia)