Thursday, 31 December 2015

Gifts from Poland

Look at this wonderful New Year's Eve present which just arrived in the mail! 

Question 1: How am I supposed to eat such exquisite objects? 

Thank you J and the girls for these beautiful objects, sent all the way from Poland. 
Along with the card below. 

Question 2: This is the birthplace of whom? 
1) It was sent from Poland 
2) The piano 
3) Portrait on the wall 
4) Just happens to be my most favourite composer ever.

Saturday, 26 December 2015

Blue Spectrum

Book Cover, from a photograph taken in Cubertou, France

All books require effort and planning to bring out – the writing of them is often the easiest part or the most pleasurable part. After that comes the long business of editing, selecting, preparation. Most of this one, apart from the last chapter, was written two decades ago, on planes, in cafés, in people's gardens or apartments, and in hotel rooms, when I was on tour with John Renbourn. I called it Every Shade of Blue because blue was John's favourite colour. 

Collage - John in (top) Reims, France, & Colosseum, Rome, (bottom) Bilbao, Spain, & Foix, France

I didn't keep a diary of events, of all the towns and cities we visited, all the places we stayed, all the people John played with, all the music they played, and all the people we met. The music was the elixir that turned everything magical but I could not write about the music itself. I think that I often wrote from it, from that place the music took me to, mixed with the geographical locations – wading into the Pacific ocean near Santa Barbara, crossing the Bay Bridge from San Francisco, and, in Italy, walking in the narrow red-roofed streets of Perugia, discovering the cobbled back streets of Rome for the first time, and gazing out at the slate-roofed houses of Barge, from the castle perched on a rocky pinnacle above the town. 

Sunrise over Barge, Piemonte, Italy


Preparation for publication of this book was different from that of other books, because John died earlier this year. A few years ago, John and I had talked about publishing them together, but it didn't come to anything. I guess the time wasn't right. Just recently, a friend said that bringing out this book now was a really good way for me of channelling both the memories and the feelings that necessarily accompany a loss and an absence. These were both incentive and impediment. At first the difficulty lay in the profusion of memories that came up when I worked on the revision and rummaged among the many photographs, to decide what ones to include. I could only do a certain amount at a time.  But as it progressed, as I handled the words and the feelings, memories, images, ideas, the physical materials and time, as I deleted and added, spliced, rejected, enhanced and wove all these materials together I began to feel a sense of presence, a subtle companionable energy. 

Huge thanks to Jennie Renton at Textualites and Main Point Books  for all her work in making it possible.

Copies are available from amazon or from me (morellesmith [at]

Friday, 18 December 2015

Reviews, 2015

Bagpipes player Neseber, Bulgaria

Sometimes I'm asked to write reviews, sometimes I write them entirely for my own pleasure, combined with a feeling that I want to let others know about this book or film or theatre production though usually it's a book, and far more often than I actually write something I imagine writing something and might even take notes and meanwhile, life goes on and other things come up, appear, distract or involve me.

I've put some links below to reviews written this year that have appeared elsewhere (and others can be found on the Online Publications page of this blog).

Michel Houellebecq's Soumission

Ajay Close's A Petrol Scented Spring

The fantastic production of Shakespeare's Othello by Smooth-faced Gentlemen

Tangram Theatre's brilliant, hilarious, sell-out production – a musical interpretation of Darwin's Origin of Species. 


Books come into my life in all kinds of ways, people give me them or recommend them, some I discover, some I seek out. And before this year slips away I want to mention a few of my favourites of the past year. In this post, two volumes of poetry, one from a Bulgarian/American writer, another from an Estonian poet, and the third from a Bosnian novelist now living in Sweden. (The images for this post are random, though there is a connection with Katerina, who comes from Bulgaria, though now lives in USA).


Train in Bourgas station, Bulgaria

The Porcupine of Mind – Katerina Stoykova-Klemer, Broadstone Books, 2012
These poems are full of warmth (especially for creatures we tend not to notice because they don't use our language) and humour (for language and everything else). Katerina Stoykova-Klemer has an ability to catch a transient feeling and turn it into a narrative tapestry that hangs in a room on the mind's wall, urging you to touch it lightly each time you pass.
From One Should Exercise Caution –  'when kissing a daffodil./ Someone could get hurt./ It helps to have dabbled in botany.' From Clarification – 'The beetle/lying on his back/is not kicking in the air./ He is praying/for wind.' This book is guaranteed to make you delight in the world around you, but it may not let you off the hook of your past indifference to all life-forms. Or there again, it may.

Sunflowers, seen from the Bourgas to Sofia train

Of Snow, of Soul – Juri Talvet (trans HL Hix) Guernica, 2010
These poems mix intimacies –  family, homeland, nature and weather –  with a large literary and actual landscape, including Germany, Denmark, Canada and Spain, and the works of Lorca, Mickiewicz, Bulgakov and Pessoa.
From 58: It grows so empty so empty – 'A snowdrift has taken it in its lap/in the sun-glitter –/ this house where a soul calls another soul/from night to night/now that it is winter
From Exiting Summer  - 'don't fear impossible love – even/the celts knew it – and besides/it's the only kind'.
Juri Talvet's prize-winning poetry mixes the lyrical, the literary and the sensuous, giving us a glimpse into the snow-bound beauty of Estonia's landscape.

Approaching Sofia, Bulgaria

Thinner than a Hair – Adnan Mahmutović, Cinnamon Press, 2010
Written in the voice of a young Bosnian it describes her experiences as tension rose in her country leading to the outbreak of the Balkan wars in the 1990s. This was experienced as growing suspicion and hostility from neighbours who had only recently been friends. Fatima and her boyfriend Aziz discuss whether or not to leave. They go to Sarajevo to get passports. 

'The city was like a haunted mind. It was beautiful and uncanny at the same time....The whole sight of kids and sweets, and the pigeons, calmed me. The brave and mad sweets man made me feel safe.' 
But there is increasingly, nothing of safety for Fatima and Aziz, not even in their relationship. Everything lurches into uncertainty, cracks appear in the most stable-seeming fabrics until the inevitable eruption of violence, the flight of the young people, and the places and people they find themselves with. Circumstances are harsh and there are no easy outcomes. The language of Mahmutović's prose is astonishing, innovative, and deeply authentic, drawing on his own experience, as the author was himself a young refugee from the wars in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s, and now lives in Sweden.

Street in Sofia, Bulgaria

Aleksander Nevsky Cathedral, Sofia

Saturday, 5 December 2015

Riverside Walk - with Weather

The day started off sunny, warm and blue-skied. By the time I got off the bus, it was cloudy, but light shone at either end of the hills. As if I had entered a tunnel, this valley with the river running along it, at its lowest point. A sleeve of blue clouds wrapped the sky above the river.

This is a part of the Tweed I haven't walked along before. At the side of the road I saw a path leading through a field, with a gate a little further along. A sign at the gate said 'please close' so I knew I was on the path I'd seen marked on the map. Through this gate and then another, and it led to the straight track that followed the river. It's an old railway line, slightly raised above the level of the rest of the field. On the map, the dotted line of the path stayed on this side of the river for a mile or so then crossed over and continued on the other side. I walk straight ahead, the grass barely damp, though there's a line of yellowish sticks near the river edge, showing how far the river had spread itself, in the recent rains. 

The sound of the water is a kind of pulsing rush, almost like short lived waves on a beach. But there is no sense of in breath, pause and out breath, just a persistent rhythmic rushing sound, as the water surges always in the one direction. This sound is relaxing and reassuring. I cross another fence, with a stile. In the distance I see a figure run across the field, with a loping gait. I wonder what he is doing. Perhaps, I think, his car is parked over by the road. But why is he running? I wonder still more when I see him run back the way he had come, to the river bank, which is exactly where I am heading. A few trees screen him from view. Perhaps I think, he had left something over on the other side of the field, and had gone to pick it up. That must be it, I think, there can be no other reason for someone to run across a field and then run back. I begin to wonder about this loping stranger. Usually, if I meet anyone at all on these paths, it's another walker, or someone with a dog. Strange things can go through your mind, when you see a running stranger. I straighten my shoulders and prepare to meet a madman who charges across fields in an ungainly fashion. 

The river shifts direction just a little, and the straight track no longer runs parallel with it but is on a path to meet it. And just before it does, the screen of trees ends, and I see two figures by the river bank. They are dressed in typical fishing gear, dark greenish-brown waders and jacket. I recognize the loping man (because of his long waders and general fisherman's attire) and another older man is with him. I hail them as I approach, asking if the path continues. 

This is called viaduct bay they say, this is where the railway viaduct crossed the river. When the water is low in fact, you can see the concrete posts of the old bridge. I tell them that the map shows the path crossing the river and had wondered if there was a bridge. Not now they say cheerfully, you would have to wade across. I smile at the idea, as I am not wearing the thigh length waders that they sport. Loping man is moving his body from side to side as if he was doing exercises. Actually, he says, gesturing towards the river, you can see the concrete foundations now. I lean towards the river and it is true, I can see  pale blocks not far beneath the water surface. But it seems quite deep, and there's a strong current so I move back again. I saw you running across the field I say. The man stops twisting his body and laughs. It's kind of you to say I was running. Well, loping, I say. I'm trying to warm up he says, before I go into the water.


I try to imagine the railway crossing the river. Surely the viaduct could not have been very high up as the remains of the track are only slightly raised from the level of the field. I imagine crossing the river in the train, looking down on the water, not far below. But it would not need to be high above the river, not really, just high enough to avoid touching it in times of flood, when the level rose and the water turned murky and its pace accelerated as rivers do, when they are full and fierce and impatient.

At the end of the field the river is only separated from the road by a thin strip of trees on a steep bank and there is no room to walk beside it. So I walk along the road, every so often looking down on the steep tree-covered bank. Once the river moves away from the road, and the steep bank levels out into a green field and the trees end, I climb down the short bank and walk again beside the river. A couple of fields further on I pass a fisherman's hut, with occupants, steamed up windows and an open door. A smell of gas and warmth from the open door takes me back to childhood, a stove must be lit in there, fuelled by a gas canister, as the fishermen make tea before deciding to wade into the water. Or perhaps they've already been in. Perhaps like the early birds, it is the early fishermen who catch the fish.

Further on, the ground forms a small hump, like a sleeping whale. The path goes uphill and, because it's bordered by trees and bushes and looks down on the water, it reminds me of Aphrodite's path near Cap Greco in Cyprus. 

Just because of the rise of ground and the trees. But there is no other resemblance. In fact this one slight topographical resemblance shows  that in every other way they could hardly be more different. I remember the sun high in the sky, the warmth, the spiny plants and the eucalyptus trees, the turquoise sea far below. 

Aphrodite's path, Cyprus

I can just make out a few buildings in the distance. The next village is in sight. And at the far end of the valley, the sky is bright. At one point, through a break in the clouds a patch of sunlight falls on a hilltop and then moves down the slope. 

But it is still far away. The sunlight leaps across the valley gap as if the river was something it had to bridge, and it is much higher up than the old railway bridge would have been. As if it did not want to get its sun-ray feet wet. Or was showing how high it could jump. 

I walk on under the cloud cover. Just one more field now, and the straggle of houses will condense into a few streets, with a path leading from the river to the road, where I will get a bus back home.

Thursday, 12 November 2015

In Praise of Maps


Sometimes when I leave the house I forget to take a notebook with me. So if something strikes me and I want to write it down, I have to hunt for something to write on. In extreme cases I have been known to write on my kindle & send it to myself as an email, but I don't often have it with me. So I scribble things down on the back of bus tickets. These jottings are shorthand, and though they make perfect sense at the time, I cannot always work out what I was trying to express, when I look at them later. It can also be difficult to read my own writing, especially if I'm writing on the bus, which jolts and bumps. But I have managed to decipher recent notes, which are to do with maps, location, and finding your way around.

A few days ago, someone gave me a lift in their car. I don't often get chauffered around, and I sat back to enjoy it. This friend does not live near here, and did not know the area well. Besides, he enjoys using the sat-nav. I knew the way, or thought I did, though it has been many years since I drove along this particular road, in the days when I had a car. So I convinced him that I would be able to give him directions. But just to be sure, he switched the sat-nav on, (though with the sound turned down), and it displayed our position on a road, and where the next turnoff would be. I'm pleased to say that my memory did not fail me. And we were helped by the fact that our destination was clearly signposted.

We drove along small back roads in the autumn sunshine. The roads were lined with trees, mainly beech trees, all tremendous shades of yellow and burnt gold. I thought about maps and knowing where you are located on a map, and where you are heading on a map and how this transfers to an inner map or so it seems to me. And if you know a place well enough, you can then navigate a terrain, whether rural or urban, without recourse to any outer map at all. For some reason, this kind of knowledge, built up through experience, seems important to me. To really know somewhere, so that it becomes a part of you.

Of course, there is always the excitement of exploring new places, the thrill of discovery, of simply just being in a place you've never been in before. Yes, there's that too. But perhaps they are intimately related. Without knowing a place, how can you have that thrill of discovery? Without knowing what familiar is, how can you feel that leap of joy that comes from the unfamiliar? Although I'm not blind to the usefulness of a sat nav in unfamiliar places, we all managed to find our way from A to B before they were invented. Through a combination of map reading, sign reading, and accosting strangers to help us.


Map of Iran

For me, to look at a map is to fire the imagination. It's not the place itself, but it is full of the anticipation of journey, which is as much part of it as all the feelings that are linked to it, a mixture of desire, hope, delight and quivering fear. I think there is another feeling too and I'm trying to pin-point it. It is excitement mixed with anxiety, mixed more with bravado, it has a fierceness at the same time as a vulnerability. It is a determination that is full of holes, and at the same time this perforated intent fits next to the skin, is flexible as water and it weighs nothing, is the opposite of weight, has the tremulous feeling of feathers in air-currents, a sense of uplift as if it can barely wait to take off.

Not to have a map would mean for me to be deprived of all that. And even more – if you look on a map you 'know where you are' because you transpose somehow the image in front of you onto your imagination or your inner eye or map. What's in front of you won't look anything like the lines and colours on the page, but somehow, having learned the language of maps, we can translate it. And though of course it operates on a different scale, the relationship of different features to each other – of hills (colours), rivers and towns –  is still maintained.



I remember when I was first in Albania, maps were difficult to obtain. And the curious thing was, that if we showed someone a map and asked directions to a certain place from where we were, people could not tell us as the map was clearly incomprehensible to them, like showing them something in a foreign language. We came to realise that maps had not been produced during the decades of communist rule, probably linked to the paranoia and denial of the regime, where free movement around the country was unthinkable. If you wanted to travel you had to apply for permission, which would not necessarily be granted. So why produce maps when most people were unlikely to have any use for them?  The result was that most people, after the collapse of communism, when faced with a piece of paper covered with lines and street names, were unable to make any sense of it. Deprived of so many things, these people were also deprived of that sense of inner location within their own country, never mind in the larger world.


On the other hand, they would of course have a very good knowledge of their local area, the streets of their own city, through the familiarity that comes from living there and walking around. This local knowledge was so profound, that many of the streets had no signs on them and their names were unknown. Initially this added to our confusion until we learned to give and follow directions using various reference points.  But this would not confuse the very few foreign visitors during the communist era, as they were always shepherded around by the official guides. Since they could not wander around freely, and local people were forbidden to speak to them anyway, there would be no need to ask for directions, so, no need for street names – or for maps. 

If you rely on a sat-nav, though mostly they work, you can still get lost, as they are not infallible. And all you have apart from the voice, is a small picture on a screen which gives you little orientation to your surroundings. And, I say to my friend who is driving me around, if you don't develop the practice of reading a map, how will you find your way to heaven?  He just laughs.

Celestial map from the 17th century, by the Dutch cartographer Frederik de Wit.
"Planisphæri cœleste" by Frederik de Wit - Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons. Scanned by Janke. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons

The wikipedia page says these star maps "have been used for human navigation since time immemorial." I expect it means that they've been used for navigation on earth but I like to think that celestial navigation is via the imagination, using these pictures of the constellations.

Sunday, 8 November 2015

Journey to the Somme

From Looking for Private Smith, written 2012-13

......Gare du Nord. I enquire about reservations for the trains to Albert. I don't need them, the trains are not TGV, they are regional, TER trains.  I take a train to Amiens, where I change for the train to Albert. As the morning gets lighter, the sky is bleakly grey. The trains pass through a landscape weighed upon by grey and heavy skies. But somewhere between Amiens and Albert, the sun comes out. When I come out of Albert station, it's windy, but the sun is bright in a clear sky.

....The flat countryside, the light sharp as lemon stung my eyes and it became blurred, all these green fields, stripped trees, with waving needles of dark branches, and the ploughed earth the colour of damp sand. As if the sea could not be far away, you know this because of the gentle gradient of fields, the colour and texture of the earth, the way sand looks just after the sea has left, and turned into horizon.

The light becomes piercing, flicked like metal over the fields, the grass, like light metallic plates bumping into each other, faint and irregular bells, throwing reflections, echoes, and this strange clutching feeling in me, as I walk through the rows of stones and there are several people there which I did not expect. I'd imagined such a silence, such an emptiness, a contemplation and stillness, not this clashing orchestra of wind and sharp light, and these people who it seemed, were going about some normal daily task, in the middle of this preternaturally wild and walled off place.

But I knew which area to go to, the plan of the cemetery was on the website and I'd studied it beforehand. And even though I enlisted the help of these other people because I could not ignore them and to one of them I told my story yet again and he set off to look as well and I was saying the letter G and the wind whipped at least half of the sounds I made out of my mouth, so no wonder the poor man did not understand. But I found Area 1 and row G and some way along the row there he was, or there was, rather, the stone engraved with his name, regiment and number and date of death and I shout out to the man, I've found him, I've found it, it's here, je l'ai trouvé, voilà, je l'ai trouvé..... 

I spoke to the man who had been helping me to find the stone. He said this is what he and the others did, this was their job, they were the gardeners, they cut the grass, trimmed and tended these plots of ground, removed the weeds.


Saturday, 31 October 2015

One of the Quarter Days

The Zodiac Constellations, and some others. The vertical line marks the solstices, and the horizontal line marks the equinoxes

There are some people who seem to have made a pact with habit. They go about their business and can be relied on to appear in an accustomed place at an accustomed time, with regularity. And they appear too, to inhabit this routine with cheerfulness. Of course we only see from the outside. But this at least, is the appearance. And we come to rely on this regularity, it helps to give structure to our everyday world. (Think of bus and train timetables!) Just as we rely on the regularity with which the Sun comes up, and the seasons change.

I go to the milkman's van, which appears in the street on the same days of the week and at more or less the same time, give or take a few minutes. I buy milk, eggs, fruit and fruit juice from him. His manner is utterly reliable too. He is invariably friendly in a calm and unassuming way, quietly cheerful, and seeming content with his work and his life. Our conversation is usually limited to comments on the weather.
Goodness it's warm today, I say.
For the time of year, I'm astonished by the warm wind, blowing the gold-tipped leaves off the trees.

Yes, it's mild, he agrees.

He tots up the bill, using the kind of mental arithmetic that I'm accustomed to, as I learned it at school. As he is round about my age, he probably learned it then too. Why use calculators when you can do it yourself?
My purchases come to £6.66 pence.
Oh! he says – we'd better make that £6.65. And we laugh at this.
And it's Hallowe'en too! he remarks.
Here's some change, I say, take the 66 p, no-one will ever know, we'll keep it secret – only God or the Devil that is, will know, apart from us.
Funny though isn't it, he says. And then tells me a story. His granny is buried in a local graveyard, not far away. He passes it regularly, on his milk round, but never, he says, goes to visit her grave. Then one day, the thought came to him, to go and visit her grave. And this is the odd thing, he says, for the very next day he got a phone call to say that his mother had died.
I asked if this was recent.
Oh no, several years ago. But that's something we all have to go through. Still, that was odd wasn't it?
I agree. One of those strange coincidences.
But I do believe, I say, that we can communicate with others like that.

And I could have told him stories about people appearing to others, in dreams or visions just as they died (so they were told later) and about my own grandmother's near death experience, but this is not a conversation in a café, this is a small but colourful story – so it seems, with all these autumn colours around, yellow scarlet and gold –  a gesture from a larger world, slipping its warm hand into our time-wrapped one, a gesture that shows how porous the boundaries of time can be, especially at this point of the year, one of the 8 marking points of the ancient calendars, in the days when we were more connected to the cycles of the seasons and the turning world, which gives us life, and its relationship to the Sun, which gives us life. It is one of the Quarter Days, (sometimes known as the Celtic Quarter Days) all of which fall on the mid-points between equinoxes and solstices. These days are the first of November (Samhain)  of February (Imbolc/Saint Brigit) of May (Beltane) and of August (Lammas).

All Hallows E'en, the evening before Samhain or All Saints Day, has been turned into a ghoulish festival in this part of the world, with emphasis on the dark and frightening. (There's a fascinating article here by Robert Moss, on the origins of Hallowe'en).  According to Rudolf Steiner we are closer to the spiritual worlds not just on this one day, but throughout the winter, from this Quarter Day to the next (Saint Brigit's Day). And he says – and others would agree with him, including my grandmother who saw angels and her beloved husband (who was deceased) waiting to meet her in the light in the distance – that those we were close to while they were alive in the body, but are now in the spiritual worlds, may well reach out to us and be felt by us, whether in near death experiences or dreams or small promptings (like the unaccustomed visit to a grave), sudden unaccountable feelings of joy, or perfumes that seem to come out of nowhere on a dark city street, as if we've walked past a blossoming garden.

As I leave, the milkman puts his finger to his lips. Remember, he says – don't tell anyone!

Friday, 2 October 2015

Berwick Walk and the Sinners Cafe

Berwick on Tweed.


The sun is out but in the town there's a freshness, a hint of sharp sea air. I'm going to find a coffee before I start walking. Going past an arched entranceway I see a sign for Sinners Café, which claims to have the best coffee in town. I haven't seen it before. I go through the alley into the small courtyard where people are sitting at the outside tables and chairs, enjoying the sunshine. Then I go into the café itself and order my cappuccino to go. The people are very friendly. I mention the sign that claims they have the best coffee in town. Yes she says, it is, it's strong and fresh. I don't say I'm going to rate it in my mythical book of Travellers' Guide to Good Coffee Around the World. Because if I mention this I might feel obliged to do it.

There are several factors to be considered, in this Good Coffee Experience Guide. One is the friendliness of the people. Other factors are – whether or not the sun shines.. where one is. If one is truly happy to be there, if one is in some foreign place that it has taken time and effort to reach and one feels expansive – well then, that will all benefit one's coffee experience.

The coffee is good if a little too milky for my taste. Another thing I should have mentioned in the above factors is that – one has one's own individual preferences, and if you don't spell them out, you could be disappointed. If you do, or if I do anyway, I fear being judged as someone whose pernickityness verges on the pathological. I should have said that as well as not wanting too much water I don't, either, like too much milk. Still, it is good, and I'm glad I found this café and I would definitely recommend it.

I walk up the hill following the map to small roads or a trail that heads inland. The sun stays out. A view over the town, the sea just visible. A couple of cyclists pass.


The path sidles up to the main road. I think it's going to end but no, there's a small alleyway, marked with a wooden signpost, and bounded by a trim high beech hedge, separating me from the road. Then the hedge ends and the path comes out onto a pavement beside the road. A few metres further on, a marked crossing. I cross this busy road walk along the other side for a few more metres then turn off onto a cycle path. One way leads to a minor road, which I take. There's still a pedestrian path but it's overgrown and there's some litter casually tossed I imagine from passing cars. About a mile or so further on there's a dotted line on the map. And it turns out to be marked as a public right of way. So I follow it. It's a track that goes past a house and outbuilding. Someone sits in front of a big barn, tapping something with a hammer.


Through another gate and now it's the edge of a field, nothing to suggest it's an actual path. The last part however goes steeply down a few metres and it's overgrown – full of nettles thorny brambles, tall thistles. I'm only wearing sandals. I hesitate. But it isn't far now, to the next small road. So I cling to the fence and a few centimes of grassy tussocked earth, almost slipping down into the seething cauldron of nettles and thistles below.

Then the 'path' turns right away from the fence. I have no choice but to descend into the stinging, thorny way. It seems that no-one has been this way since the Prince fought his way through the mass of brambles grown up around the dwelling of the sleeping Beauty. This allegory of the soul's awakening sustains me. I'm nearly there. I'm not going to give in, so close to my goal. And for the last few metres, someone clearly made an attempt earlier in the summer to clear the path.


 The nettles and grass are shorter, though much longer ones lean over from both sides. I turn the corner and there's the lichen-encrusted wooden signpost and the road, a quiet minor one. A few cyclists pass.


From the map I see another path further on, that will take me back to the cycle path near the crossing over the main road. It's all downhill from there, with a view over fields, some crops still uncut, some already harvested – and a few distant hills.


 Back over the road and along the beech hedge alley. Instead of going back the way I came, I take a path with a freshly made wooden signpost erected by the Berwick Ramblers Association and the path leads down to the river estuary, the riverside walk and the bridges of Berwick.

Tuesday, 22 September 2015

Sunny Folkstone

Still from July....

“It was one of those hot clear days that Folkstone sees so much of...”. 

This was written by HG Wells and displayed somewhere on the walk that took us along the promenade, down steps and onto the Leas, paths –  sometimes wooded – that skirt the beach. We walked along a paved path beside the pebble beach, as far as a house painted turquoise blue and sporting a plaque saying that HG Wells lived here in 1898.


The Victorian bandstand erected in 1899 drew protests from the townspeople of Folkstone – they complained it would spoil the sea view.

The yellow rose beneath the olive tree, with a deeper more pungent scent than even the orange roses in the King's North Park. (The bright pink ones had no scent at all).
The gentle thump and rush of waves, below the olive and the pine tree, and the rose.

Walking down the zig-zag path, with its cave – it's funny the way they've made it to look as if natural, natural-artificial says C. This makes me think of a cave, a natural cave, called the Cyclops Cave, off the south coast of Cyprus. It was deep, but with a low roof, too low I thought, to house Odysseus, his crew, the Cyclops and all his sheep.

And further down, still looking down over the sea, an area where seagulls dropped down, wheeled around, spun, flapped decelerating wings, sometimes landed, most often flew back up to have another go. Like skiers on a slope, swooping and turning, an exhilaration of the seagulls, shrieking their delight.


A crumpled package sits across from me, on the other side of the path. It stirs slightly, unravels, a silhouette of black, a hunched magpie.

The clouds have thinned, into pale patches of lazy foam, adhering to the cup of sky. Maraschino morning becomes a cappuccino afternoon. Strong coffee, with a whiff of bitter chocolate on the white foam, indenting it like a rough track, a worn place, marking the only way across a desert.

A black bird shape perches in a nearby tree. Its back is to me, it faces out to sea. The lacy seams of the sea sleeve, la Manche, the silken garment that rests between this island and the continent we both love and turn our back on, we long for, and try too, to forget, the foam of this silk lies between us, a blue flag, stitched with a herringbone of white.

The beach and sea walk was fiercely lit by sun, a cloudless sky. The sea and beach were empty, near-desolate, but with this independence of the light, as if it came from it, was wedded to it, sea and ball of flaming light, they were the same source, springing from a cauldron of the cosmos so enormous and so empty, we can hardly contemplate it. The stony beach kept all away – swimmers, picnic-ers, day-trippers, locals. The sea burned in its solitary glory. Waves hissed and clattered up the stones, receded with a throaty, gargling sigh.

Then a silent moment, a pause, sea and sun caught in a memory of vast, empty and glorious expanse, beyond the net of human vision.

On the far side of the path, the beach huts are brightly painted – purple, blue, yellow pink and green. As if someone has resurrected colour – boxes of brightness, looking out on an empty pebble shore.


Yes, that was the best day, when the sun leaned out from its sky tower, allowed us to see the foamy ragged threads streaming from the seams of the Sea Sleeve, that outstretched arm of water between France and the chalky English shore.

Friday, 18 September 2015

Wales, Kent and Caveman Coffee

From July, some wondrously hot and sunny days in Wales and Kent.


C and I helped Joy Miller of the Sauniere Society, with her book stall at the Conference  in Dinas Mawddwy organised by the Network of Ley Hunters. I don't dowse for leys, though many years ago I was taught how to dowse with a pendulum.
I was staying at the nearby camp site in a minuscule tent. 

Evening at the camp site, after the Conference.


By the river, thoughts may be like the light reflected in the water. Stillness, after the day's hubbub, the rain, the coffee, the tipping into sunshine. The sky's brass band, burning an entourage of shadows.
During the day, we are introduced to straight tracks, waymarkers on a path towards the centre of the sky, with the circumference lightly indented at the edges.
To standing stones that mark – as well as dusty, infinite horizons – the paradox and the complexities of longing. The way the sun bisects the earth with morning, creeps like a snail across the surface of our memory, sparking it like a bottle of champagne.

The sky grows dark. The blue and red lights, in the misty evening, round the camp, will soon be twinkling.


 The path back from the village to the camp site is through darkness and long grass. After being with so many people, it's good to walk the darkling, misty path, alone. To zip the tent closed. To know the night is close, a thin tent skin away, the moon swinging, trapeze artist, in between the hills. Which crowd in close, a cradle for the moonlight, misty meshes fluttering like flags, just above the trees. The lights come on. The sun is long gone. Night lifts up from the ground it seems, a hesitation of the dark green tops of trees.


Kent. I'm staying in a caravan here, such bliss, after the tiny tent!

The morning we left Wales, I woke up, looked out of the tent flap. It was very early, about five or so. And I glimpsed that feeling I had when travelling in Asia, of being in an utterly strange place, quite new and unknown to me, an immense sky, and the wondrousness of being there, in that totally unfamiliar place.

Of course I wasn't, I was in Wales, but I did glimpse that feeling – so thrilling in its sense of total unfamiliarity and strangeness yet this very newness and strangeness had a sense of belonging.

Perhaps it's always the unfamiliar we crave; or rather, that the familiar, however beloved, can get in the way, can block, something that we yearn for, however dimly – or sharply – aware of this we are. At least for those of us who feel this, who have yearnings for something intangible, it could be that, the desire to lose all familiarity, in a moment, under foreign skies, in quite unknown terrain. Breathing unfamiliar scents in the air.


 Walk along the downs, near Folkstone

A visit to Canterbury

We take a bus from Folkstone and arrive at Canterbury's bus station. Coffee is on my mind, as I haven't had one yet today. And right away I spot the Lost Sheep coffee stand. It's just a few metres away from a sculpture of a lamb which is on the site of the old cattle market. So the young man in the coffee stand tells me. He also says that 'Lost Sheep Coffee' was here before the lamb sculpture was made. The coffee is really good. (He says it's 'Caveman' blend). This is important. Everywhere I go, I rate the coffee. Sometimes I've wished that I'd made a note of every cup I've ever had, so I could publish a guide, of where to get the best coffee, and which shops or stalls to avoid. But if I think about it, it's almost certainly already been done. Yet, on the other hand, since there are so many cafés throughout the world, there would surely be room for another guide. Possibly the worst coffee I have ever had was from a kebab shop (it was the only place open at the time) in Kehl, Germany. Another recent dreadful one was in Machynlleth in Wales, but I don't remember the name of the café. It would hardly be fair to mention it anyway, even if I did. Far better I think, to mention the good ones. The Lost Sheep coffee stand on the site of the old cattle market in Canterbury gets five stars from me.

We walk along the city walls then in the parks beside the river in Canterbury. There are boats on the water, moving slowly, someone standing in the stern, pushing the boat with a long pole. There's the chapel built over the river, enclosing both banks, in an embrace of utmost and perfect equality. Right and left, destra and sinistra brought together in these arches of ancient stone. Gothic, slightly pointed, rising just above the water.