Saturday, 10 January 2015

Freedom of Expression, Freedom of Movement

Place de la Republique, Paris


There was a strong wind last night. That's not unusual here, but this wind felt different. Instead of the usual intermittent gusts, it seemed to do a dance in the different levels of air, swooping down and changing course, so that it felt like a very swift direct approach, an intimate wildness. I wondered if it could somehow, really could, open a door or window and come in. It felt as though it could have, had it wanted to – as if it was playing with the air tunnels, with the trees, the houses, scattering garden objects (as I discover later) – flowerpots, a bench, a bird-table – showing its power the way a gymnast delights in flexing its muscles, stretching its body, revelling in its own ability.

The wind continues, but it has moved away from the house and garden, it is playing with the forest now, mainly planted spruce with occasional birch, pine and larch scattered through it. The spruce trees are cramped together, long and spindly, the strings of the wind's personal orchestra. After every high wind, some of these trees fall down, often catching on others, so that trees are tangled together, a leaning cross-stitch, a clumsy trelliswork angled against the upright trunks. If you look up, in a high wind, the spruce trees wave and bend like a field of grain.

Yesterday, to get away from the news which I'd been obsessively listening to on the radio and reading on various news sites, I went for a walk along the River Tweed. My mind full of the events, the killings at Charlie Hebdo offices, the reactions, my thoughts about it, about freedom of expression, about what could be done. My mind struggled to find some 'position' to take, some action to take. But I was confronted with this path, in bright sunshine and I remembered other times I'd walked this path. 

(You can see how it looked in summer from this photo journal post)

This was the first time that I had never seen another soul, either out walking their dog, or on the nearby golf course. The path was muddy in places, after recent rain. The river was full, wide and enormous, with that sense of power, of effortless flow, that one sees in swollen rivers. There's a new intent in such rivers, as if they bask in their own power, not menacing, simply engorged with their own being, murky with mud and debris, exulting in their new power and depth and speed, the agility of concentrated, brackish bulk.


I skirted the most muddy areas, walked across the deserted golf course, to look at this river, thought of the Danube, how it leans against horizons, how it moves leisurely as if carrying something regal on its surface, its long train of ripples flowing behind.


The golf course ends, and now the river comes within a few inches of the path and a pool on the other side shows that it had completely submerged it, very recently. Maybe that's why there's no one else walking this way, on this sunny morning. At each bend I expect to see river in front of me rather than path, but it does not happen and the path veers away again.


Just before I reach the red-stone road bridge, an ambulance, lights flashing, siren sounding, is visible above the parapet. The only sign of human life and it too, is an emergency. I cross the bridge and head up into the woods on the other side of the river.


The woods are hung with silence, as if something threatening or dangerous has just passed and yet – there is also this feeling of waiting too, an impending feeling, not judgement, but the weighing up of wet wood, future delicately treading on the present. A tree balanced on an outcrop of crumbling land, worn away by the river. 


The path descends out of the wood, runs alongside the river bank, where there are no trees at all, and it begins to rain. I pull my hood up round my head. Looking back, the flash of a rainbow against the trees. I've been asked by a journal to think about my hopes for this coming year and I struggle even with the concept of 'hope'.
There is freedom, and all we might mean by that. Suicide bombers are willing to die for their beliefs and journalists in Paris have also died for their beliefs in freedom of expression. In response to previous death threats, in a recent interview Stéphane Charbonnier (Charb) of Charlie Hebdo said he had no intention of giving up his work, which would mean 'living like a rat'.  And I wonder if I have any values that I would die for, die defending, and the driving rain has soaked my jacket already and the fastening of my hood has been pushed against my mouth by the wind and I bite it, my teeth against the wind's teeth. 

But by the time I reach the bushes and small trees clustering around the river bank, the cloud and the shower have passed, the sun is out again and it and the wind will soon dry my jacket.

No, I think, I don't have that kind of courage, I avoid skirmishes if I can, hide behind parapets, try to merge into background, throw camouflage colours round my shoulders, enjoy following paths rather than striking out across untrodden wilderness. I am no trail blazer, I feel fulfilment in placing my footsteps on earth paths, weed-bordered, where many have walked before.


There are so many places of agreement, so many circles marked with blackened stones around camp fires, where people have come together. We cannot excise a different viewpoint or belief. Inclusion, understanding.  We have immense freedoms, I would hope we could value what we have, know that everything is transitory, value what we are blessed to live alongside – freedoms of speech and movement – and respect that they are greater than us, that the earth and sun, without which we could not live, are greater than us. We live on and off the earth, and would be nothing at all, without the sun. To talk about freedoms as if we own them, is not to see our real place in the large scheme of things, and the real energies to which we owe our being.

The path turns away from the river, runs alongside a walled garden, then beside a few houses. It's only then that I see other human beings, two of them, gardeners, one on a quad bike with one of those branch-trimming machines. I greet them enthusiastically. On the same spot in autumn, I met a gardener who was using a leaf-blower to tidy the fallen leaves and he switched his machine off, to speak to me.

After that, I cross the pedestrian swing bridge and follow the path with its view over the river to the Eildon hills. 

Still, I don't meet anyone else, until the path goes past the long sloping gardens of houses in the back streets of a small town, and someone emerges from her garden, closing the gate behind her. Not a good day for walking she says to me. But I cannot agree, the sun is shining, it has been for me, a perfect day for walking. But it's a cold wind, she counters. Walking keeps you warm I say. She smiles.

Michel Houellebecq is being criticized for making a political statement with his latest novel, Soumission (where he imagines a future France ruled by an Islamic President). It's been described as 'a gift to the Front Nationale'. So should novelists stay away from possibly inflammatory topics? That's one thing I would hope for this year – that they won't. 
(This is a link to an interview with him, in Paris Review, translated into English)