Thursday, 25 August 2016

Sunrise at Red Rock Bay

Walk along East Coast Path. (South-east Scotland)

The day started off grey-skied. I was so ill-prepared that I forgot various things. Most importantly I only realised once I was at the bus stop, was a sleeping bag. We were going to camp (C was bringing the tents) and I'd quite forgotten about a sleeping bag. I phone C – and he had forgotten to  pack his too! But he hadn't yet left his house. I'll bring two he chirrups. I was beginning to feel that this was a doomed expedition but he'd lost none of his optimism. For I'd remembered that we'd have to carry everything as we walked. I'd been thinking when I suggested camping out, of how much I had enjoyed camping in France. But then, our tents were parked on a campsite and when we walked we didn't have to carry anything. I phoned C again to say I wanted to call it off. Instead of camping we could just go for a walk that day. C's phone was switched off.

When we met up, he was cheerful. It's fine, I don't mind carrying both tents he said. So I could hardly complain about my much smaller pack with only overnight things, spare clothes, food, book, notebook and my sleeping bag transferred from his pack. Yet even that came to feel very heavy. And C's, which I tested, was so heavy I could barely lift it.

But as we walked, the grey clouds flicked their tails like fish in the sea of sky and headed south. We walked north along the cliff path looking down on greyish sea turning to blue. There were some rocks by the bays and inlets that were folded with careful precision, an arrangement of time and slow movement. 

Rocks must have a very different sense of time to us I say. We look at dragonflies and think what a short life they have and feel a little sorry that it's so short. Maybe rocks look at us and think the same. 

They look like a loaf of sliced bread says C. 

My goal was Eyemouth and coffee. None was available in Burnmouth.  As the cliffs and shoreline are ragged and indented, so the path weaves around the sea edges.

When we finally were in sight of Eyemouth, it still look a while before the path dipped down to the harbour piled with fishing creels and lobster pots at the end and several fishing boats on the oily water. 

The breeze vanished and I suddenly felt I was in somewhere quite unfamiliar, some small town in an unknown part of mainland Europe, hot, still streets on the other side of the harbour. I felt exhausted, my shoulders ached and we sat outside at the first café we came to. The coffee was delicious. One of the things I'd forgotten was my water bottle which I'd filled, ready to pack, then left behind. But there are shops in this small town and I bought a bottle of water. Totally revived, we continue. 

The path goes up  the cliff side and skirts the caravan site. It was now late afternoon and we were thinking of finding a place to pitch the tents. We had seen one perfect place on the way to Eyemouth and considered going back there. No let's go on I said.

There are fields of ripening grain on our left – wheat and barley, all yellow against the blue of sky. It was a pleasure to walk in this warm sunshine these rich colours on either side, and a slight breeze.

And after the path went inland a little, to skirt a fjord-like cleft in the land, then came back on the other side of the inlet, there was a flat and grassy place beside the sea, covered with clover. I like this I said, let's camp here. It was a sheltered bay, no wind, no midgies. The shore was red stones and the cliff was red rock.

A ring of red stones on the grass showed that others had camped here, and made a fire. And we did too, once we'd put up the tents as there was plenty of dry driftwood sticks lying on the red-stone beach. 

As we ate our provisions a flock of birds flew overhead, heading out to sea. We couldn't make out what kind of birds they were, not seagulls – possibly they were pigeons going home to St. Abbs, where there's a colony who live in a dovecot there.

One solitary wide-winged bird wheels and cries along the cliff-top. It felt as if it was coming to see us, marking our place and passage, a cliff-top guardian.

The sky, a newly perforated container, leaks light, and a bank of clouds turns deep pink, a series of ruffles that look solid as cream. C looks through his binoculars. They look like the surface of a planet he says.

We sit by the fire, watching the clouds fade into blue-grey then merge with the night.
To go to sleep listening to the sounds of the sea.

During the night I hear a few bird calls and several loud barks. I thought it was a dog, a wild fierce sounding dog, a guttural warning in the night. Always ready to mine a bank of unformed fears I conjured up a molosh, one of those huge mastiffs that protect flocks and will attack anyone coming near their flocks unless their master calls them off. But there were no approaching sounds, no more barking. In the morning, C, who had heard it too thought it might have been a deer or a fox, very unlikely to have been a dog.

From the tent I watched the sun rise over the water, appearing briefly between ledges of cloud. 

These pictures were taken from the tent (hence the line of the guy rope), as it was a chilly morning and I was not ready to get up yet. I don't think I have ever seen the sky and sea this golden colour before. When I've seen photographs like this I've assumed that the colours have been altered, but I haven't changed anything in this photograph. And this golden colour was exactly how it was, the sky, the sea and the air all around. This was taken a few minutes before 6 am. Just as an experiment though, I pressed the 'image colours adjust' button, which usually enhances the colours - and this is what came out - very different!

The sky became overcast but after we packed up we headed to Coldingham Bay, then on to St Abbs, to wait for the café to open so I could have the necessary morning coffee. 

My back was aching in various places now. We followed the Creel Path to Coldingham and got a bus back to the city, a strange place full of bustling people. And I came home to my wondrously peaceful house and garden. Where today the sun shines in a late summer, insects pursue their busy lives and the shadows of rowan and cherry trees have stretched their shady, cooling fingers. 

On the Creel Path

Monday, 15 August 2016

Saint-Exupéry - La Guerre est une Maladie

photo credit:Vagabond Productions

I recently went to see The Nine Lives of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, (Vagabond Productions) in the Edinburgh Fringe. I wept at the end.  I've been fascinated by Saint-Exupéry's writing and his life for some time, and the play made me return to a (still unfinished) piece I wrote a few years ago. I've included some of it here.

There was a copy of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry's Flight to Arras in my parents' bookcase. It had a creamy hard cover and the title was written in gold letters on a black background. As a child, I was too busy reading my own books but I liked its appearance and its foreign sounding location, its whiff of the exotic.

Wikimedia Commons: St-Ex in Toulouse, 1933


My first introduction to Saint-Exupéry was at school, where we read Le Petit Prince in French class. I don't remember making any connection with the author of Flight to Arras, the cream-covered gold-lettered book.

I was in my thirties before I read Southern Mail and Night Flight. Books I was grateful to have come across, grateful that they had been written.

After my parents died I looked through the bookshelves but I couldn't find that book that remained so clearly in my memory.

Two years later, my son is studying at flight school in Tulsa, Oklahoma. He is over on a visit and one morning he appears wearing a T-shirt with one word written on it – Aéropostale. Where did you get that T-shirt? I exclaim. He thinks it was in Des Moines. But he hadn't made any association between that and Saint-Exupéry. I tell him – Aéropostale was the name of the company that Saint-Exupéry worked for, when he flew the mail planes. You remember The Little Prince? Of course, he says, you read it to us.

After he has returned to Tulsa, I go to a second hand bookshop looking for books by Saint-Exupéry. I find Southern Mail and Flight to Arras. I send the former to my son, and I keep the latter and finally read Flight to Arras.


La guerre n'est pas une aventure. La guerre est une maladie. Comme le typhus. (Saint-Exupéry) (War is not an adventure. It's a sickness. Like typhus.)

All casualties from WW1 are listed in books that are open to the public in the Scottish National War Memorial in Edinburgh Castle. Their regiment and place of death is also listed. But not the specific place of death. Only 'France and Flanders'. My father said it was not known where his father was killed. 'Somewhere in France.' What he did not seem to know was that more information was available, if one knew how to go about looking for it. I did not know this myself until someone in a French class I was teaching talked about his researches into the place of death of a relative in WW1. It was possible to find out, he said. Nowadays with the internet of course it is much easier, and I made my own researches and eventually discovered where my grandfather was killed, and visited his grave, near Albert and Arras.

But my father had not known. France and Flanders. All his life, he did not know. But did he have some idea? Was that why he kept a copy of Flight to Arras in the bookcase? Or was it just a coincidence?

Saint-Exupéry was born near Lyon, into a large family. When he was still a child, first his father and then his younger brother died. Apparently the last words spoken to him by his younger brother were those he put in the mouth of the little prince – go away now, because if you stay you will think I am suffering.
When still in his teens, Saint-Exupéry persuaded someone to take him up in a plane. A deeply feeling and sensitive man, his passion for flying equalled his passion for writing, and the two were deeply intertwined. He was one of the first to fly mail planes for the company that became Aéropostale – to north Africa and later, in South America.

Wikimedia Commons:Breguet 14 used on the Casablanca-Dakar route

By the outbreak of WWII he had published three books, Southern Mail/Courrier Sud, Night Flight/Vol de Nuit and Wind, Sand and Stars/Terre des Hommes. They were extremely successful. In the first part of WWII, he flew sorties over the area of Arras.



It's 1940. The German tanks are pressing through northern France.
We stand to the enemy in the relation of one man to three. One plane to ten or twenty. After Dunkerque, one tank to one hundred, Saint-Exupéry writes in Flight to Arras. He is the captain of a team that makes reconnaissance flights. He is asked to make a sortie that the major admits is 'awkward'.

When a sortie was not 'awkward',
he writes, one plane out of three got back. Naturally, the ratio was not the same when the sortie was a nasty one. But I was not weighing my chances of getting back. …....The Group was to lose us more or less as baggage becomes lost in the hubbub of changing trains......

Flight to Arras is a description of that sortie. Mixed in with memories of childhood, it is also a meditation on victory and defeat, on what it means to be human, on duty and responsibility, on death.
'If I am alive' I said to myself, ' I shall do my thinking tonight.' Night, the beloved. Night, when words fade and things come alive. When the destructive analysis of day is done and all that is truly important becomes whole and sound again. When man reassembles his fragmentary self and grows with the calm of a tree.

His books have been described as the best books about flying that you will ever read. They are, but they are more than that. Meditations on the nature and the meaning of human existence, Saint-Exupéry, particularly through his experience in Flight to Arras/Pilote de Guerre, peers into the nature of the human soul, having been confronted with his own death.

...true we were already beaten...yet despite this I could not but feel in myself the serenity of [the others] I was filled with the sense of my responsibility. And what man can feel himself at one and the same time responsible and hopeless?

What am I if not a participant? In order to be I must be a the liberty not to exist. There is no growth except in the fulfilment of obligations.

After Paris fell, he escaped from France via Portugal and joined his wife Consuelo who was in New York. His aim was to convince the Americans to join the Allied armies, help defeat Germany and liberate France. But while he was there he discovered that his books had sold so well that he was now fêted as a literary star. And he was miserable because he was there in New York and not fighting with his fellow Frenchmen. He was considered, at 43, much too old to be a pilot. Sometimes he would lie for hours on his bed, consumed with misery. He could not bear to think of others fighting in France, while he was not. However, while in New York he wrote Pilote de Guerre
/Flight to Arras, describing that particular sortie he made during his time stationed in the north of France. He also wrote Le Petit Prince at this time. But all he really wanted was to participate in the war again.

Eventually he persuaded the authorities to let him go back, and take part. Stationed in north Africa with the Free French Air Force, he made several reconnaissance flights. 

On 31st July 1944 he left base on a mission to collect intelligence on German troop movements in and around the Rhone Valley in preparation for an eventual Allied invasion of France. 
He did not return.

In 1998, a fisherman found, south of Marseille, an identity bracelet with the names of Saint-Exupéry and Consuelo engraved on it. And a few years after that, pieces of a Lockheed Lightning plane were discovered on the sea bed near where the bracelet was found. French investigators later confirmed that the wreckage belonged to St. Exupéry's plane.

a metaphor comes into my mind. ….the individual is a mere path. What matters is Man, who takes that path.
(Antoine de Saint-Exupéry: Flight to Arras)

Sunday, 7 August 2016

Satie Synchronicity

Wikimedia - Portrait of Erik Satie by Suzanne Valadon

A case of synchronicity. I've adored Erik Satie's piano music since I first heard it decades ago. So when I saw there was a show on during the Edinburgh Fringe called Erik Satie's-Faction, I went to the press office to get a ticket, intending to review it. I saw the show on Friday, and I was working on the review this afternoon, and had Radio 3 on in the background, as I often do, when I realised I was listening to the very show I had seen live a couple of days ago! I'd had no idea it was going to be on the radio (and it was actually part of the Proms).  But though I recognized quite a lot of it, there were differences in the script (and more music). For example, in the radio programme, the part about Suzanne Valadon, the painter who Satie fell in love with, was not mentioned. (Their relationship was brief, as she did not return the intensity of his feelings, and had other lovers, which tormented Satie with jealousy.)

Wikimedia - Bouquet de Fleur par Suzanne Valadon
But I smiled particularly at one part, where Satie is talking about critics. And this part was definitely in the show. Also the fact that it was on the radio meant that I could make a note of his actual words which I was too covered with a kind of amused embarrassment to write down at the time (and besides, he'd taken my notebook!).

In the actual performance, I was sitting in the front row, which was on a level with the stage, scribbling away in my notebook. And when Satie (played by Alistair McGowan) started to talk about critics he suddenly turned to me and fixed me with a hard stare. He'd been talking about animals and then he said 'there are no critics among animals, this particular art-form is quite alien to animals, a human critic's brain however...' And this is where I got the hard stare...'is a store, a department store, you can find anything there, bed-linen, travel rugs, a wide range of furniture, French and foreign writing paper, gloves, umbrellas, hats, walking sticks....'. He then walked slowly over to where I was sitting and took the notebook very gently out of my hand and held it up for all to see. 'The constant gleam of pride in the critic's eye means he can't always see the pain he causes in his victims …'

This delighted the audience of course as all eyes turned to me. 'But I have never understood' he went on, 'why artists are so touchy about what critics say about them in their reviews. These artists, they should follow my good example...' and he hands back my notebook, walks back slowly, still looking at me 'I – am dazzled by the very presence of a critic, he shines so brightly that I blink for more than an hour after he has gone, I kiss the footprints of his birkenstocks...' (I was wearing sandals – the word he uses on the radio is 'slippers') 'I drink in his words from a long-stemmed champagne glass – well, it is only polite.'  

Alistair McGowan plays Satie

Oh I wish I'd been more quick-thinking and said – but I will write a good review, of course I will, I've always loved your music and I love you too and I would have stayed longer with you than Suzanne did!

Erik Satie's-Faction plays at The Pleasance Courtyard, Edinburgh, 12.50, daily (except 9, 16 and 23) until 28 August 2016
Starring Alistair McGowan

My review is up on Cafe Babel