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.