Wednesday, 23 January 2013

Snow Path, Snow River

It didn’t really snow today, the sky just stayed immobile, smooth and even as careful plasterwork, almost the same colour as the ground, so that in the distance, you could hardly tell earth and sky apart. Every so often a few light flakes of plaster would drift downward, as if a little too much whitewash had been applied, the excess flaked off, as it dried. Apart from that, both sky and earth were motionless. And silent. It’s harder of course to walk through snow than it is over bare ground, with old grass turned wintery tawny yellow, and the dried stalks, once an off-white faded colour, like tasteful lacy dresses the kind our grandmothers kept, packed in tissue paper in a wardrobe – the stalks with moisture embedded in their stems by frost and snow, now dark brown. Even clumps of spruce trees on the hills wore a scattering of snow, seed pearls, turning them a paler green.

Footprints of dog and human showed that someone else had walked this track today, or even yesterday. I would have liked some snowy declaration from the sky, some burst of temper or of benediction who can say, but the sky held in its crystal feelings, turned away from us, bided its time or rested, gathering its energy while looking for some direction it might head for, leaving barometers poised to strike a balance, to adjust their needles, sensitive and delicate, all to give us information, to assuage our hunger to know the future, guess at how things will be, perhaps from love of future or perhaps from a triumphant need to know, to be prepared, not to be caught out or surprised by anything, the closest we can come, or edge in the direction of – control.

Under the road bridge over the old railway, its inner arch coated and patched with a creamy white substance, a chalky deposit that drips and forms little shoots, downward-pointing, of stalactites, but which have disappeared now, most likely frozen and fallen off.

Thin yellow stalks of dried grasses emerge from the snow, throw delicate lines of cream colour across the smooth unchanging whiteness. Further on, at the rail bridge across the river, a small machine is parked, surrounded by a high mesh fence that has a notice pinned to it, declaring it to be a site works, where protective head and footwear, as well as ear and eye protection, must be worn.

Down the slope to the river, islands of river bank that collapsed in recent floods, lie in the water flow, each with their own covering of snow. 

Even the stones by the river on the patch of flat ground like a beach, where the river bends, even they are snow-covered. And further on, where tree limbs lean out across the water, they have their own shapely snow strips, following precisely each turn and angle of the branches. 

Frozen water covering. And below them, the moving water of the river. It is the only thing that moves, apart from some flickers of small dark birds, skimming the water and disappearing into dark stones, dark branches, just vanishing.

Monday, 14 January 2013

Sea ships and stars

I take two buses to reach the coast, and when I get off I’m within sniffing distance of the sea. The sun shines, but it’s cold. A chill wind circulates around my neck, slips in a cold finger. I wrap my scarf around my head and neck and pull up the jacket zip.

A few people are walking dogs on the beach at Spittal. The waves rear up, tip over, rush up the sand. 

I walk along the promenade and then follow a path that climbs up to the cliff top and continues alongside the railway. The path is muddy and to avoid the little craters filled with water I go close to the cliff edge. 

Some of the rocks below, splashed by the waves, are layered like carefully planted bricks, like the ruins of some building, but it cannot possibly be that, no-one would have built a house of rocks beside the water, yet it persists in looking like an abandoned dwelling, beloved perhaps of mermaids or lobsters, or even perhaps, some smuggler’s hideout long ago, when people did not walk on cliff tops, when there was no railway and no viaduct spanning the valley entrance to this sea port.

Cliff headlands are made of red rock. There’s a long ship out at sea, near the horizon, but it’s coming closer. In the small bay far below, receding waves streak the sand with lines of white foam. There are a few yellow blossoms on the gorse bushes.

The sun has been behind clouds but it emerges for a little while, throwing a line of shadow over cliff and sea. 

A small bump on the horizon, like a ball of string, unrolled from the coast, is Lindisfarne. The length of the connecting string gleams pale gold in the sunlight. It always seems as though the sun shines in some distant place on the horizon – that’s the allure of elsewhere.

I stop and drink the coffee I brought with me. The miracle of the thermos flask. When has coffee tasted so good?

A warning hoot, a humming in the train tracks and then a train hurtles past.

Walking back, the sunlight catches the little town of Berwick, clustered round the sea. 

The big ship has crept closer 

and there’s another one, anchored in the small bay, filling it entirely, dwarfing the buildings round the sea wall – houses and church and small bridge. The graceful rail bridge, on its stilt arches, lies further back, bleached by sunlight, merging into the duns and browns of landscape. The mighty ship is called Aldebaran. The other one is just nudging into the harbour as I walk past.

Although the light has changed since the solstice, the birdsong has changed, and we hear the preparatory trills of birds responding to all the changes that come from the sun’s course and light, it is quite dark by the time I get off the bus and walk home. It’s a clear night with no moon, but lots of visible stars. Orion leans on the horizon. And just above him, the constellation of Taurus, with the Pleiades and the bright eye of the bull – the star Aldebaran.

Wednesday, 9 January 2013

Le Havre

You know how it is at the end of a year – many newspapers ask people to nominate their favourite or the best, in their opinion, books, films etc of the past year. Sometimes I’ve agreed with them, sometimes I’ve felt that their choices have been so predictable (well-known, well-publicised books yet, who knows, maybe it really was their favourite) but often I’ve felt well, I wish they’d asked me! For don’t we always feel that we want to talk about that book or film that we have thought was so good? Well, it finally happened last month, and I was asked to write a short piece about my personal favourite of 2012 – by the Scottish Review.  (The link is so that you can read other people’s choices, many of which were far from predictable, and all the more interesting, so I feel – wonderful to see Carol Craig, Ronald Frame, Tom Hubbard and Michael Sandel chosen by other Scottish Review contributors).

After seeing Le Havre earlier last year I was so impressed I wanted to write about it but as so often happens I didn’t find the time to do it. But after being asked, it did not take me long to decide that this was going to be my choice for 2012. Four hundred words was the limit, so I had to trim it just a little bit. But when I looked at the email again I saw that I hadn’t read it properly and the word count was 200, not 400! So I had to do quite a drastic bit of cutting and rewriting.

After making the effort of writing the 400 words though, it seems a pity that it should languish on my computer, so I’ve put it up here.

Le Havre directed by Aki Kaurismäki.

Set in the eponymous French coastal town, Marcel, a middle aged man, encounters a young African illegal immigrant, Idrissa, who is on the run from the police. Marcel helps him, but Inspector Monet is determined to find him. At the same time Marcel’s wife becomes ill and is taken into hospital.

The theme of illegal immigration places it firmly in the present, yet it has a feeling of the fifties about it, old cars, small apartments with basic furniture, stove, wardrobe, table. As in the best French films, the focus is on mood and nuance, while its profound understatement perhaps comes from its Finnish director. The camera shots do not flit around in the way we are used to in most films, giving it an astonishing authenticity, for this leisurely perception seems to reflect the way we actually see things.

The understatement means that you never quite know what is going to happen. Devoid of any predictability, the film is humorous, ironic, moving and serious at the same time. It uses humour and irony to depict profound truths. Initially, Inspector Monet seems to have only one focus and one facial expression too, unsmiling and suspicious. He is elegantly dressed, being French, in black belted raincoat, black gloves and black hat and you wonder if his slightly disdainful demeanour is going to erupt into fury – although it never does, because he is, after all, French. Imagine this well-groomed French policeman entering a café, and all conversation stops. He sits down at a table and places a pineapple beside him. It is absurd, yet potentially tragic. Will Idrissa be discovered? Will Marcel’s wife get better?

The effect of authenticity is perhaps created through a mixture of the way the film is shot, the starkness of the surroundings, the meandering and tangential nature of encounters between people, and the way that emotions are not so much shown in people’s expressions but displayed in the surroundings, the cafés, the harbour, the streets, stripped of any adornment. But these minimalist lives are rich with familiar human qualities of routine, hopes and fears, small gains and no surging ambitions. The shift in Inspector Monet’s attitude is so subtle that it’s impossible to pinpoint it. But to say any more would spoil the ending. Perhaps the secret lies in the positioning of the pineapple on the café table.

Tuesday, 1 January 2013

Not the Tomai Train

Just because someone does not disagree with what you say or does not comment, does not mean that they endorse you, agree with you, empathize, collude, feel just as you do, think the same way, are in perfect harmony with you. We keep mistaking other worlds for us – imagining a world that’s ours, that’s part of us, a world where we belong.

A flurry of bright leaves rushes past the train window. They’re not me, but I enjoy the sight of them.

My tactics are to duck and dive, to avoid, evade, keep silent, rather than state my position. I don’t much want to be a position anyway, no fixed co-ordinates. I prefer slow trains

and fast rivers, rolling waves and green tinted oceans,

 landscapes I have never seen before.

Groves of olives,

coloured leaves flung past the window of the train. 
When I alight, who will I be? A handful of sand, slipping through fingers? 

The feel of humid air that’s lifted off the ocean, touching skin? 
Whale-shaped clouds, ironed flat against the sky? 

The young woman with clear olive skin wears a waistcoat that says on the back – CLEANING YOUR EAST COAST TRAIN – in large white capital letters against a navy blue background. She walks up the aisle of the train with her large rubbish bag, scrupulously clean – she walks too quickly – I only just have time to scoop up my empty coffee container and hand it to her. She says nothing – has no need to – her function is clearly written on her back – what else is there to say?

The server of hot drinks and snacks pushing the trolley, takes a call on his mobile phone, breaks off negotiations with two coffee-seeking customers, pushes the trolley back across the junction between carriages. The floor is uneven here, it bumps and rattles. A long stalk of piled-up plastic mugs curls over slightly like a slender tree branch, wobbles, brushes against the ceiling of the corridor that links the cars.

When he comes back, he explains that a plumber working in his house has just cut through a pipe … it will cost me 1000s he says, brand new house too...he serves the coffees to the wrong pair of people, a young American couple, instead of the elderly couple from Newcastle who were too polite to say anything. The American youth flatly refuse the coffee, which is when the Newcastle couple murmur that ...actually...they would like some.
Bet you’d rather not have known, someone else says to the trolley vendor, commiserating.....

The thin, pressed-flat clouds were stretched into faint colours,

When you are not with me in Tomai...

...the young US couple both have small laptops....they discuss things, she gets irked at him sometimes but he remains steady, cool, his voice does not change pitch. Sometimes they laugh at some absurdity.

..I chisel you day and night
in the middle of the garden....


I remember looking out of the third floor window, even leaning out of it, to get a better view perhaps..... then rush downstairs to the Hallelujah Hardware All-Purpose Store, which the proprietress has owned since the 1940s – or – perhaps it was her any rate, it’s been in the family for a long long time and it sells almost everything you could imagine....I rush downstairs to buy rubber gloves for washing up (for at least then I’ll be active, I’ll be doing something) I can glory in the movement, in the shiny dishes and clean counters, in the sense of accomplishment, in this strange and novel desire to clean, to tidy, to make fragrant, to refresh, to renew, to remove staleness, dirt, inertia, inability, apathy, dust, congealed food, crumbs, stains....

Or I rush downstairs to go to the nearby supermarket, to get some small thing that’s been forgotten – toothbrush, coffee, milk – or things that have not been forgotten but can clearly only be bought in the morning such as fresh croissants, flown in from the boulangerie in the 13e arrondissement, arriving in time for the 6 am opening of the supermarket...

I take the steps two at a time, to go and walk in the neighbouring park, trotting among damp leaves, slippery underfoot, where dog-owners call to misshaped dogs, and where, further on, I pass allotments and even further on, the maroon and yellow trains pass just a few meters from my outstretched hand. 


When you are not with me in Tomai...

...on behalf of myself and the team here at East Coast trains, I’d like to thank you for travelling with us today...Peterborough, your next station stop...

..I chisel you day and night
in the middle of the garden out of the crystal clear
air of Karst....
– Josip Osti, translated by Evald Flisar 
(in Ljubljana Tales, published by New Europe Writers 2012)