Friday, 3 November 2017

More International Literature from the Edinburgh Book Festival


Art nouveau tiles from Poznan, Poland


Rory McLean is a travel writer whose books include historical research, personal memoir and fine imaginative language. I first read Stalin’s Nose, a mixture of memoir and travel in Eastern Europe, several years ago. After that it was Magic Bus, a book about the people who travelled overland to India in the sixties and seventies, their motives and experiences, the landscape and history of the places they travelled through. This was followed by Falling for Icarus, in some ways a tribute to the island of Crete and it’s a glorious mixture of personal challenges and people he met and got to know when he lived there, with an exploration, as you’d imagine from the title, of the mythology of the island.

At the Edinburgh Book Festival in August 2017, he talked about his latest book, Pictures of You. As he walked towards the stage with Gerard de Groot who introduced him, the first thing you notice is his beaming smile. He looks towards the audience as he might towards a group of close friends, genuinely pleased that you are here. He began by introducing the Archive of Modern Conflict which he said, you probably have not heard of. This is because the archive is still in the process of being sorted and catalogued and is not yet open to the public although you can apply for access if you have a particular project in mind. The archive was created by someone with an interest in collecting photographs of the last century. Initially coming across a few old photographs which piqued his interest, he took to buying up whole collections from auctions and the huge archive which he has amassed contains photographs from all parts of the world. Rory was given free rein of the archive, with the one condition being that he preserved the anonymity of the owner. There are plans, once the archive has been fully catalogued, to open it to the public as the anonymous owner wants these photographic memories ‘to reverberate in the modern age’.

Rory’s project was to select a few photographs, one from each decade of the last century. Taking the few facts available for each one he used these photographs as a starting point, tried to put himself into the shoes of these people, and imagined stories from their lives. He wanted ‘to try to feel what it is like to be another person’.  His fascination he said is with how a past place felt like. Gerard talked of his ‘depth of feeling’ regarding his project and his ‘emotional investment’. Rory said that for him, such investment is an essential part of the process. It is through people he said, that we can really understand a place and a time, through imagining what it was like to be that particular individual in a particular time.

I’ve been to several talks in the Book Festival now but Rory’s was particularly warm, as was his quality of engagement when he responded to questions and comments by the audience.

Rory MacLean





 

















 **


Elena Lappin’s memoir What Language do I Dream In charts a journey through different countries and languages. Beginning with her birth in Russia, she moved with her parents to Prague in Czechoslovakia then to Hamburg, Germany. As an adult, she has lived in Israel, Canada and now resides in London. Not surprisingly given her varied experience of languages she studied linguistics. In her talk at Edinburgh Book Festival she began by saying that it’s through language that we feel and perceive reality, for when we speak different languages we experience everything differently – as the way we think, express ourselves, the way we relate to people and even the humour, is framed and shaped according to the structures of the language we are speaking. Language teaching is so important she says as it’s a gateway to another culture. I feel this is particularly relevant to the UK, as we do not focus on learning other languages in schools as they do in mainland Europe and however good our education may be in other fields, we miss out both on the skills and the understanding and so, tolerance, of other cultures.

The main impetus for her to write this memoir was the discovery when she was in her 40s, that the person who brought her up as a child, her mother’s husband, was not her biological father. This revelation led her to research what had been kept hidden from her in her own background as she was growing up and the consequences it had for herself and for her family.

Despite the many displacements in her early years, she says her childhood and family life was very happy. There was no judgement by her Russian Jewish maternal grandparents, of her mother having an illegitimate child, she was welcomed into the family and spent a lot of time with her grandparents, until she and her mother moved to Prague, to join the man she would know as her father. She saw little of her grandparents after that, for even though Czechoslovakia was behind the iron curtain, there were restrictions on travel and visas were difficult to obtain. In the Prague Spring of ‘68, for a brief period, borders opened up, there was a free press and her history teacher said that if they wanted to know about history they should read novels. But the period of open-ness was short-lived as Russian tanks moved into Prague, and she moved with her family to Hamburg in 1970. She said her parents had a talent for creating fun and joy around them, there were always lots of people and parties in their home and lots of good food. In Hamburg, after a short time when things were difficult, they recreated this atmosphere. While it was easier for her as a young person in her teens, to learn this new language, she said it would not have occurred to her parents not to learn German, the language of the new country they lived in. And she stressed the importance for all immigrants to learn the language of the country they lived in, for otherwise they would be cut off from the society around them.
I first read the opening chapter of this memoir here which draws you into the story of a warm, resilient and supportive family, tracing an astonishing trajectory through wars and conflicts and across continents and languages.

Elena Lappin



 















**

Daša Drndić is a Croatian writer who has written several novels and her latest, Belladonna, has just been translated into English. When asked about the ‘story’ of her book, she says passionately ‘My book doesn’t have a story – I’m against this infatuation with a storyline!’ Her writing she says is fragmented, to reflect the reality of our lives. While her book doesn’t have ‘a story’ it is full of stories – ‘little stories about little people, who really make history’.  She has deliberately chosen a disruptive form – she is against linear construction. For it is not the form of a work, she says, but how something is written, that makes literature.

Passionate and refreshingly outspoken she says that literature should be offensive, should upset and provoke, should make people react. And while you cannot be a writer without empathy, she is not interested in reading love stories, for she is too troubled by what is happening in the world. She feels these ‘ugly times’ we are living in are reminiscent of the 1930s.

And while, she says, there has always been immigration, what we have now, the immigration from Africa and the Middle East, that’s a boomerang, what we did in the past is coming back to us.  The ‘army of impoverished people’ must not and cannot be ignored. People should react – within the law – she says, but she fears a new and bloody revolution is coming.

The extract she reads from Belladonna describes the shifting populations and territories in Europe – from Poland to Germany, from Germany to Netherlands, from Somalia to Netherlands, and shifting political ideologies too. Threaded into these movements and migrations is the question of complicity with regimes that oppress other people and the Nazi regime in particular.  And she says it is so relevant right now, to remember what happened in Europe in the 30s and 40s, for if we really remember – not the ‘ossified structure’ of history but the real history through the painful, upsetting and desperate stories of actual people, we can hopefully stop it from happening again.

When someone in the audience asks her what she does read, since she doesn’t read fiction she replies immediately, I didn’t say I don’t read fiction. (She had said that she didn’t read love stories.) What do you think fiction is? she asks, and then answers her own question. ‘What we call fiction is something that the writer has experienced or heard or has empathized with – it’s not an invention. And’ she says ‘I don’t believe in inspiration. Writing is solitary, it’s tough, and you work at it.’

She also mentions that she has been to Albania and talked to writers who were imprisoned as political prisoners. When I ask her if she met Fatos Lubonja she responds immediately, yes, I did meet him, he wrote the book Second Sentence about his experiences in the Albanian gulag. And she says that she is going to write about that in her next book. Now that is something to look forward to!



Daša Drndić


Saturday, 28 October 2017

Shaping the Water Path review

Review in Stride Magazine blogspot ( you can read the rest of the review here) by Angela Topping

Shaping the Water Path, Morelle Smith (£5, diehard)







 


Morelle Smith is a well-travelled poet, and writes very often of places she has lived or spent time in. This latest book concerns places nearer home: Scotland, Chester, Wales, as well as a few further flung places like Corfu. Her poems are very visual and tactile, for instance she describes grass as ‘coiffed with frost’, in ‘Bird Morning, Bird Night’. She looks squarely into the eye of the storm, and is drawn to wildness, in weather, place and often uses these to lift off into metaphor, as in ‘Memorials of Kosova’, where, on a day of heavy rain, she notices the marks of war on buildings, a roofless house where  a family was ‘gunned down’ but concludes with this image:

     We leave history behind.
     Back in the city, in the present
     damp pavements glow
     while evening’s troops move in, silently
     meet no resistance.




Street in Pristina, Kosovo    
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                









Cake in Pristina cafe
 

Saturday, 14 October 2017

Hermes, Dreams and Getting Lost (again).


View from Troumbetia, Corfu. In the distance, the snow-capped Albanian mountains

The story Travel with Theos Lines is about movement and travel over land and water, and it’s about dreams and the interpretations and assumptions – not just of dreams but of life situations too – that can have far reaching effects on one’s life. Dreams and everyday life intermingle.

Written in Greece, the home of gods and mythic heroes, whose stories still have an impact on our imaginations and so also affect our everyday world, the precise place and time we wake up in, the facts and objects we have to negotiate. Themes of paths taken and not taken, of losing and finding our way, of what is the right way and what is the wrong way and how do we distinguish, and how much of the way we find is not marked on a map but is created by ourselves? Themes of boundaries between sense-perception and intangible energies sometimes personified as gods, and that evocative idea of home and that searching sense within us, a seeking-home sense that can require that we leave home in order to find Home.

It begins like this:

Some dreams glow with a numinous energy. These are the ones that get me crossing my fingers, touching wood, making offerings of fallen oranges – for only their perfect ripeness is suitable for the gods. How after all do we make gestures of gratitude to the gods in the modern world? No it's not something we do too often, is it? So I revert to more ancient ways of giving thanks, because they feel authentic to me, though I draw the line at sacrificing a cockerel to Asklepios, the god of healing dreams. Somehow I cannot quite believe that any god would wish for the death of another living creature. Besides, I don't want blood on my hands.

Other dreams often deal with the go-betweens, the ones that transport or accompany us, from the waking to the dream or mythic realms – and back again – the guides, the ones that know the paths or straits that link the worlds. And, although we have to trust them, we also know there may be negotiations, deals, and bargaining. Charon is not the only ferryman who needs a coin.


I remember the day I wrote it, warm February sun streaming through the open French windows from the balcony of my apartment in Corfu’s old town, where, if I had thrown a stone out of the kitchen window, it would have fallen on the house where Edward Lear lived in the 1850s, on the waterfront. Though I did not know that when I moved in, I only discovered it in my wanderings through the narrow Venetian streets of the old town. I did a lot of exploring then, taking buses to various destinations, walking by the coast, or up in the mountains. 


Street in Corfu's old town

Edward Lear's house on the seafront, Corfu

This story was a prizewinner in a recent competition and I was going to attend the award ceremony. As I rely on public transport and live quite far away from the meeting place I had to look up bus times and routes on the internet. And because the meeting was at 10 am, I had to leave my house early, at 6.30. Everything was planned with precision, and written down. What could possibly go wrong? And whenever someone says that you know that it will. But the thing is, if things do not go to plan, it’s not necessarily wrong, even if it is based on incorrect assumptions.

Rebecca Solnit writes so eloquently about getting lost, Robert Moss in his several books about dreams
and coincidences and their interaction with waking life, positively delights in plans being altered as he then feels that an unexpected opportunity is being opened up.

*
At 6.30 am the sky is newly light, that early-morning sense of freshness and optimism that sense of privilege just to be out at this time as the world wakes up. A thin curve of waning moon hangs in the sky. The cold shocks me though, temperatures have changed very suddenly from summer to autumn.

First coffee of the day, an espresso, at Edinburgh bus station. Then the bus to Glasgow. It’s a little late and I miss my first connection. I go to the desk in Glasgow’s Buchanan bus station to ask when the next one will be. The man is very helpful and says I can walk to Howard Street beside Central Station and get my second connection there. He produces a map and shows me where to go, and the bus route. I know the Central Station and it doesn’t take long to walk there.

At Howard Street stop I work out which is the first bus I can get to take me close to St Andrew’s Drive and it arrives a few minutes later. I ask the driver to let me know when we get there, the stop nearest to Maxwell Road. A few stops later, the drivers change. Another passenger attracts my attention. You’ll need to tell him, the new driver, where you want off she says. I thank her. Glasgow people are so unfailingly helpful. Whenever I exit Buchanan Bus station, I feel the city’s atmosphere so lively and vibrant, people of many ethnicities walking in the streets, speaking many languages and I feel I could speak to any one of them, this sense of all being linked in a common and recognized humanity.

Following the map on my A-Z, a few minutes after getting off the bus, I reach St Andrew’s Drive. I’m a little late, but not much. I ask a passing couple if I’m in the right place (there’s no street sign). They say yes, straight on. I pass a Sikh temple. A couple of other large houses. No sign of the hotel. I walk on, ask other people at a bus stop. They don’t know the hotel but feel it will definitely be further on. It becomes more residential, just a few large manor houses, set back from the road, with pillared entrances and driveways. Then a few streets leading off on either side. Trees by the roadside. It’s a long street and few people. I’m nearly half an hour late and still the road goes on. There’s a park on one side and a man with two black dogs heading towards it. I accost him, ask if he knows of the Westerwood Hotel.
There’s no hotel on this street he says, examining my printed directions. Then he pulls out his phone and in a few seconds, he has it.
It’s in Cumbernauld he says, it’s listed as Glasgow, but with a different post code. That’s about half an hour from here, by car.
Well, says I, I’m in completely the wrong place.
If you want to get back to the city centre he says, you can walk through the park and there’s a train station just across the road from the other entrance to the park.
I thank him.

It’s a grey morning, overcast, and I walk through the park as he suggested, then decide to walk a different way back to the bus stop. I’m in a quiet residential area, the buildings are red sandstone, some of them with dark green painted window surrounds. I explore some cobbled back streets, cross bridges over railways, go past buildings with carved facades and back to the shop-lined Pollockshaws Road, where I get a bus back to the city centre.

 











*


So what did I feel when I realised that I was in the wrong place and I was going to miss the meeting I’d been looking forward to? Clearly I was disappointed but it was so incongruous that it was funny too, and there was also the feeling of remembering Robert Moss’s tales of being on the lookout for opportunities. There was a sense of dislocation, of being pushed out of my usual ‘place’ the one we inhabit in our lives almost without realising it, those of us, that is, fortunate enough not to be literally pushed out of our homes and the current of our lives by war or some other catastrophe.

The immediate result was that I walked through an area of Glasgow I had not encountered before, enjoyed the architecture and the leafy lanes, crossed various bridges, both road and pedestrian, over railway lines and rivers. Though the morning sky had been clear, it had soon become overcast and the grey day had a distant feel to it, slightly unreal and grainy, like a film set I’d wandered into, a parallel reality neither hostile nor friendly, but indifferent, detached. My path was not crossed by any particularly significant beings, animal, human or divine.

It’s only now, writing about this, that I pick up a picture of Hermes which lies beside my desk. It's a dark photocopy,
brown-speckled with damp, of the original by William Blake Richmond.
 


 
 photo credit the Internet Archive and the University of Toronto Library 



And take in again that sideways look of his, that gesture as he fixes his sandal, the pillar he leans against, the sunlight casting strong shadows, and that sea beyond him. That sea – so reminding of the Ionian that I walked beside, that I looked out over from the esplanade of Corfu’s old town, and looked down on from the mountains near Troumbetia so high up I could see the curve of the island of Corfu to the north east and west and the sea and the Albanian mainland beyond.


View from Troumbetia, north Corfu, with the snow-capped mountains of Albania in the background

 (Travel with Theos Lines will be published in a print anthology in 2018. You can read the complete text here )

Wednesday, 27 September 2017

New International Literature from Edinburgh Book Festival


Last month (August 2017) Edinburgh’s International Book Festival took place in its usual venue of the tree-lined Charlotte Square. It attracted even more people than in previous years, and expanded into several marquees extending along the middle of George Street. My pick of writers to listen to in the first week included novelists from the USA, France, Slovenia and Turkey.

The weather in Edinburgh can be cold, blustery and wet and on the afternoon when I went to hear Alexis Jenni’s talk about his book The French Art of War, in the Bosco Theatre in George Street, the wind battered the marquee so badly it was sometimes difficult to hear what was said. This was not helped by the interpreter, who had a tendency to mumble. Voices from the back shouted ‘we can’t hear you!’ so he adjusted his microphone, which made it a little better. But no-one could do anything about the deep thumps of the wind or the rattling of the rain on the roof which was suitably atmospheric you could say, for the topic of war.

Alexis talked about his novel, (which has won the French Prix Goncourt) as an imaginative work about France’s colonial wars in Indochina and Algeria. He stressed that he was not a historian (in fact he teaches biology) but he was told by veterans of these wars who read his book that he had described it ‘exactly as it was’. And one of Algeria’s main newspapers had also lauded it, saying that France had finally recognized her colonial past.

The French Art of War
is Alexis Jenni’s first published novel, and two other first-time novelists, Aleš Šteger and Omar Robert Hamilton, talked about their novels in the Writer’s Retreat in Charlotte Square, a much more intimate venue, and one sheltered from the gales and storms.





Both of these novels show similar themes to Alexis Jenni’s book as they reveal facts of history (though in different eras) which had previously been buried or even denied. Omar Robert Hamilton’s The City Always Wins is about the Egyptian uprising in 2011 in the so-called Arab Spring. Omar is a film maker and at first he intended to write a screen play then realised the best way to express his thoughts and feelings was to write a fictional account which closely follows what really happened in Cairo’s Tahrir Square and the unfolding events, changes of governments, followed by brutal repressions and distortions of the facts by the government-owned media. 

Slovenian writer Aleš Šteger has published several volumes of poetry but Absolution is his first novel. He said it follows a Central European tradition of using irony and dark humour to write about areas of history that have been covered up, such as the massacres that took place after World War II in what was then Yugoslavia. Initial resistance to Nazi Germany turned into a bloody repression of all non-communists by Tito’s partisans. With the city of Maribor, currently on the Slovenian-Austrian border, he wanted to create a metaphor for many places in Europe which have changed identities in the past, and whose histories have been buried, erased and reinvented. In a similar fashion to Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita he writes about the tragic and the bizarre, the absurd and the fantastic. This erasure and distortion of history leads he said, to ‘a vacuum of identity’.


Aleš Šteger


Storytelling, belonging and identity are also themes in the books of two other writers, Burhan Sönmez in Istanbul, Istanbul and Deepak Unnikrishnan in Temporary People.

Burhan Sönmez is Kurdish and currently lives in Istanbul although he lived in England for several years. His book is a fictional narrative of five people incarcerated in an underground prison below Istanbul and the stories they tell each other. In his gentle and reflective voice Burhan tells us that he been a ‘guest’ in similar prisons several times and has been ‘interrogated’ there (interrogation, he says, is a euphemism for torture).


Burhan Sönmez and Deepak Unnikrishnan


It is pointed out that publishing is a very healthy and flourishing industry in Turkey. Burhan says that Turkish people read a lot because ‘we need something different from our actual life’. As a Kurd, a writer, and someone who speaks out openly against Erdoğan, he is aware of the precarious nature of his freedom. As one of the characters in his book says ‘Don’t look for any other miracle – believe in the word’.

Deepak Unnikrishnan’s parents are from Kerala, India. They emigrated to The United Arab Emirates, where Deepak was born and brought up. He now lives in the USA. The stories in his book Temporary People reflect this sense of migration and uncertainty in terms of belonging and identity. ‘I identify as a short story writer’ he says, which reminds me of Albert Camus saying that ‘my native land is the French language’. Deepak’s stories which often feature buildings, perhaps reflecting his upbringing in the skyscrapers of the United Arab Emirates, twist our sense of reality in surreal, quirky and bizarre ways, and have been compared to Kafka’s writing.
 

My personal choices, and the next two books on my list to read are Aleš Šteger’s Absolution and Burhan Sönmez’s Istanbul, Istanbul.

Tuesday, 5 September 2017

A Poem for Europe - Home in Transit



The stopover in Zagreb, where I met Josip, was part of a longer journey, from Belgrade to Trieste. I wrote about Belgrade and this journey, which took place several years ago, in a story titled Mirror City, which is included in the book of travel articles Open Roads and Secret Destinations, published by Bibliotheca Universalis, Bucharest, 2016

Wednesday, 16 August 2017

Cumbria Pastoral 2




Despite my fears of the cold I’m quite warm enough in the little tent, and sleep well. I’m up early and set off walking at 7am. One mile to the road end at Cumwitton, then two miles – this time along the right road – to Great Corby and Wetheral. Where I’m sure there will be a café. The moon’s still visible in the sky 


and the day feels so fresh, the sun so – new and quiet as if no-one has really noticed it yet, it moves through the sky, a peaceable blue, and an as yet undiscovered morning. Lucky me, to be able to share this secret and this light, with the sun. 

And this morning, early and privileged to share this time with the sun, the dew on the grass and fields, the fields with wheat, the fields with cut grass not yet collected and put in the deep-sided trailers pulled by the tractors with the enormous wheels that thunder up the narrow roads, the bare fields, stubble fields, and the fallow fields, with reddish-pink flowers and the regular grass fields that the cows graze in or sit in, cud-chewing, all of these are dew-covered and witness the early sun, that so few people have noticed yet.



And walking in this early morning, joy sidles into me, not suddenly but slowly, it moves into me, with the rhythm of walking and the quiet of morning, only a few cars pass. Beech trees and sycamores rustle in wind. Willow trees sprout from the hedges. Green beeches and copper ones and purple-leaved ones and hybrids of greenish brown. But the walking is hard. And I think – I have to come back, as well.

Great Corby has an old red-stone square, charming old houses. It’s not far to the level crossing and there’s a path running beside the train tracks, to Wetheral. 




A pedestrian walkway beside the rail bridge and the most wonderful view – Best-View Bridge – over the river Eden.









Then the small station. 




And I cross over the bridge and up to the Posting Pot cafe, adjacent to the Post Office.

After walking three miles you really appreciate your first coffee of the day. I’m amazed at how much better I feel after coffee and scrambled eggs on toast. Strength comes back to me and I enjoy walking now, another two miles along a small road that meets up with the river near Warwick Bridge.




From there, I take a bus to the small town of Brampton. I’m on a roll now, and I walk up a hill overlooking the town 



and then on along the Ridgeway, through a glorious wood of beech trees. 




 

I would have liked to walk further, but I know that once I’m back at Warwick Bridge, I have another 5 mile walk to get home. And on the way back, I go over the railway bridge to Wetheral again, just to see that magnificent view of the river.



Well, not just for that reason, but to get another coffee from the Posting Pot. And then a short walk to see Saint Cuthbert’s Well. 



And between Great Corby and Cumwitton there’s a signposted path which I take, to get away from walking on the road. But no-one seems to have walked this way in a long time, it’s hardly a path, it’s the edge of a field, covered with long grasses, plants and nettles. 




Towards the end of this 'path' it goes alongside a field with a horse in it.


Nearly home now. Just a mile and a half to go.

Sunday, 13 August 2017

Cumbria Pastoral 1



I’d recommend Rebecca Solnit’s book A Field Guide to Getting Lost, her writing around the theme of walks, journeys and life stories is hugely enjoyable. 

Before I left home to go camping, a friend offered me a compass. I decided in the end not to take it with me (I have a detailed map, I’d hardly need a compass, so I thought!) But had I taken it and used it, then I might have realised I was walking in the opposite direction from where I believed I was going. I kept consulting the detailed Ordinance Survey map. Not a very good map I thought, it doesn’t show this road going off on the right, or the place shown on the signpost and I should have reached this fork in the road ages ago, surely?

I was up early that morning, heading for a campsite in Great Corby, Cumbria. As soon as the sun comes up over the hill the morning becomes warm and welcoming as the light arrives all at once, a layer of gold on the garden grass. And it’s still, no wind, a good morning for setting off. It feels like autumn really, that chill in the air, those lengthening shadows on the grass, the flicker of red among the long grasses, a docken leaf turns scarlet. And there are a few coy raspberries and brambles turning pinky-red before they become deep-purple glossy.

I’d spoken on the phone to the lady at the camping site and explained I was arriving by bus. Then your nearest stop to Great Corby she said will be Warwick Bridge. I’d missed an important piece of information though I didn’t know it then. The journey of a few hours, with gaps in between waiting for connections (giving time for coffee) was in glorious sunshine. I got off the bus at Warwick Bridge and found a small road signposted to Burnrigg. I checked with a passing pedestrian who assured me the road would take me to Great Corby. I should take the right fork after Burnrigg, the road would turn into a path and I’d need to cross the railway, and then I’d be there. It’s a couple of miles though he says, looking doubtfully at my rucksack.

But I was prepared for that, the sun keeps shining, the road is quiet, the path is lined with trees
 


and once I’ve crossed the railway 



I soon arrive in Great Corby, which is a loose arrangement of a few large houses with big gardens and I spy someone loading his car and ask him if he knows where the caravan site is. He does, and says it’s about 3 miles away in Cumwhitton. This is when I realise I clearly got something wrong, I remember the lady mentioning Cumwhitton but it had not really registered in my mind.

My pack is heavy but there are no buses and it seems I’ll just have to keep going. And then the man says that he’ll give me a lift, which he does, and I am so grateful for this. I check in at the site, put up the tent, have some lunch and decide I will walk back the way I had been driven, now unencumbered by rucksack and tent, to explore Great Corby and possibly Wetheral, on the other side of the river Eden.

And this is when I got lost though I didn’t realise it until I reached a signpost and couldn’t find any of these places on the map. It was only because the name of the crossroads was marked – Hornsby Gate – that made me realise that I had walked in the opposite direction to the one I intended to walk in. 



So I walked back.

Several roaring trumpeting tractors swing round corners with trailers of cut grass, dust rising from their massive wheels. 







 

Back in the village of Cumwitton, I visit the churchyard. All the gravestones look in one direction – towards the dales. In the other direction the view is blocked by old houses and tall trees. The older original stones on either side of the church are the same red-brown or ochre coloured sandstone as the church building itself. These tall thin stones, some of them lean forward or to one side, or both. Some are gnarled and near illegible with lichen and with some, the soft stone has rounded the edges of the letters, as if trying to make the occupant – or perhaps memory, who knows? - feel more comfortable.


The church bell chimes and it’s so loud and close and sudden, it makes me jump. Glancing over I think I see a motionless figure in profile, head slightly bowed, standing by the side of the church.




But it turns out to be green-verdigris stones close together and the round carved decoration of another slab, flush with the church wall and half hidden by a spindly obelisk. 


Graveyards are often peaceful – this one is. Perhaps it’s as much to do with what people bring here and leave at the church gate, as with the restfulness of the dead. We bring sweetness usually or melancholy, sadness, wistfulness and some kind of respect even if we do not know for what – giving it various names none of which define the mystery that we don’t know about – or say we don’t. A cloak of absence – a kind of self-forgetfulness, self-abnegation, covers the well-cropped, well-tended graveyard grass.

Further down the slope, the stones are smaller, shorter, most are shades of grey granite, one or two black. 


A white butterfly dashes past, in late afternoon sunlight.



Sunday, 9 July 2017

'There are more things in heaven and earth...'


The Forth & Clyde Canal

‘There are more things in heaven and earth Horatio than are dreamt of in your philosophy’

Cloud formations were like brief sketches all the more striking for their few bold lines against the blue of sky. One looked as if a rope of cloud had been flattened twisted and smeared across the blue expanse. Another slim rope shot up vertically with one or 2 breaks or segment joins, like some eager celestial plant. Ah good sign I thought, I was up early to catch the bus into Edinburgh and from there, the train to Falkirk. To the Conference on UFOs and the Paranormal. I’m fascinated by unusual experiences – both my own and those of other people – that don’t fit into conventional interpretations of the world.

Afterwards we walked along the Forth and Clyde Canal. 


 

I would take Shakespeare’s meaning of ‘philosophy’ to be not just our ideas or even our beliefs but the totality of our understanding of what we call reality. This understanding anchors our sense of self, who we are as a being, to the world all around us that we inhabit – nature, social reality, our interactions with others. But sometimes the most basic assumptions of what our reality is and how it works can be not just altered but blown apart. This was the case with Sacha, one of the speakers who had had such an unnerving experience complete with a sense of unreality that she had spent the years since then, trying to find answers to what had happened to her.

Shakespeare did say ‘heaven and earth’.


And Rainer Maria Rilke said ‘Jeder Engel ist schrecklich’ (every angel is terrifying)




Alyson Dunlop gave instances, experiences – of her own and of others – of being helped by non-visible energies, that some call angels. All these are positive and uplifting. However, she encountered dark energies as well. Whatever your reaction to the names of Archangels – Michael, Raphael, Gabriel and Uriel – they can be called upon in time of need. Whatever your belief system, construct of understanding of the world or cosmos we inhabit. 


Innes Smith is intrigued by our belief systems. What makes us believe what we do? Although we may talk about evidence he says, what some call evidence is not accepted by others – it is not an agreed term. And sometimes professional scientists have dismissed evidence which is statistically significant, because they cannot reconcile it with their current belief systems.

The Romans were here a long time ago: part of the Antonine wall

Beliefs and perceptions are changeable. Unless we have coated them with a layer of glue – which can lead to the ‘this is how it is and I am right’ kind of thinking.
 

It seems to me it is possible that perception follows belief. How much of our perceived reality is a construct? After all, if we take the perception of vision, the brain interprets what is seen, it doesn’t simply record what the eye sees. This construct is necessary of course for us to participate in our lives as humans, in our groups, families, societies, friendships, and in the natural world too that we inhabit. And if we can consciously change what we believe – and that is perfectly possible, if we repeat for example, a positive statement, such as thankfulness or gratitude –  can we not then change our perceptions and then alter our feelings, thoughts and actions, and too, the effect we have on others?

Why do we believe what we do, what draws us to this belief or that one? Perhaps that’s a long and deep question. Perhaps we identify with one or another and so, like external territory that belongs to us, we will defend it – with ridicule of other beliefs, or emotional aggression or worse.

It seems to me that it’s best to wear our perceived reality loosely, so there’s room for alteration, so there is room in a loose weave consciousness, for light to come through.


And so much light to be grateful for.






The sky on the walk back home was also spectacular, with coloured clouds around the recently disappeared sun, and the full moon rising in the opposite side of the sky.