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.