Sunday, 3 December 2017

Bristol & Johnny Cope

I wanted to go to Bristol to see the Clifton Suspension Bridge. And to see other things too but in the end, there was not enough time or daylight hours or energy. We took a train from Bradford-on-Avon to the grandeur of Bristol’s Temple Meads Station, another of Isambard Brunel’s designs. And we walked through Bristol’s streets, saw its tree-lined Queen Square, its yellow sandstone buildings, its glass-fronted modern geometric architecture and one building is topped with golden unicorns.

We climbed Brandon Hill, its park and gardens, full of sunshine, and at the top, the Cabot Tower reflected in the pond just below it, where goldfish flit and swarm, and a few crows circle before landing on the grass and gazing out across the city. 


On the way to the gardens and the Cabot tower, there’s a flight of steps beside the cathedral, with elegant black painted lamps, they remind me of steps leading up to Montmartre in Paris, and the circling paths around the green hill remind me of the green area around the Sacré Coeur, and the view out over Bristol from the top of the Tower is like the view over Paris from the Place du Tertre, scaled down, and much more solitary – there are few people in the gardens – but the feeling of height and overlooking is there, the elegance in the lamps and flights of steps is there, and the same vastness to the sky can be seen from the Tower top showing the sweep and bunch and variety of cloudscape, how much like a river the sky can seem, with its flotsam that rides along the surface, the unevenness of cloud that lets in faint light or spears of light through holes, or mostly, a spread curtain of light, that moves and ripples according to the weight of wind or its pause, its meandering, its halt, where light piles up on top of itself like steps leading to an avenue, and a summerhouse of sun.

View from Cabot Tower: Suspension Bridge in the distance


In the time it takes to climb the spiral steps inside the Tower, the sky has changed completely, cloud armies have massed from all directions and the city dangles underneath the cover, a jumble of scenery from a theatre’s backroom, a tangle of philosophies.

Then we walk through the streets of Clifton, until we reach the bridge.

And here’s another careful loop of thread – the bridge over the Severn, the brickwork of the pillars, and the gentle curve of metal that keeps it all in place. The rocky sides, and far down on the earth, the mud banks, steep sand yellow and the trickle of mud-coloured river. By the time I’ve walked across the bridge and back, the sky folds shut and it begins to rain.

Early morning on the Avon river

It’s the day I have to leave the boat and go home. C wakes me up with ‘Hey Johnny Cope are you wauking yet..’ and an announcement of coffee. I shout to him about my sleeplessness, my having to get up in the middle of the night – to pee, and to refill the hot water bottle which had gone cold. I apologized for my lack of desire to converse, in the cold early hours, in the cold loo, the cold rubber bottle, cold lino under my feet, window cold to the touch, when I looked out. Because I saw a strong beam of light, which then went off, then on again. Also heard a loud bang like a boat door being closed – too fast, too hurriedly, with too much emphasis, with anger with desire to make someone else climb the steps too quickly, fling the door open, follow them out onto the frost-crisp towpath, the muddy planks, flailing arms, furiously, with boots and spanners, logs and bottles at the ready to be used as emphasis or as defence – or perhaps wrapped with shawl or towel or blanket, to entreat their return.

I knew, I said, when I had that late evening cup of tea, I would need to get up during the night, I knew I would regret it…
Oh…. Says C, breaks into song ….je regrette tout, je regrette ma vie, c’est comme ça, oui…..
I go on,… je regrette le thé, et surtout café au lait
je regrette toujours/ ce que j’ai fait,/ le thé, café,/les coups donnés, en bref/ tous ce que j’ai jamais fait…

Morning coffee. Scrambled duck eggs, toast. Pack. Repack. To the station. Catch the train. Change at Bristol.

At Sheffield, the ticket collector announces ‘if you are alighting here please check you have all your personal possessions, please do not leave behind any small children old people or other wild animals.’

I’m reading Rory Stewart’s The Marches. And here’s a coincidence. On page 64 he quotes the words of the same song that C had sung earlier.  We learned it in school, but don’t exactly hear it often. I wonder if they still teach it in schools?

Hey Johnny Cope are you waukin’ yet?
or are your drums a-beating yet?

Sir John Cope commanded the government troops at the battle of Prestonpans, near Edinburgh, fighting Bonnie Prince Charlie and his army in 1745. He was defeated by the Jacobites because he apparently slept in, or at least slept too late, as the Jacobites made a surprise dawn attack.

He slept too long, he missed the dawn,
he didn’t see the sun rise or hear the first bird song.
He might have had a restless night
stayed up too late,
and worried at the coming day,
to lead his men into a battle,
heard his horse move in the darkness,
sensing the day to come
would not be an easy one.
How could he take his horse
into the fight, carry him, his armour
and his sword, when his heather bed
was soft, but damp and he could hear
owls calling in the night?
What if it rained? Turning hard ground
underfoot to mud? Perhaps he only fell asleep
just before first light. Pulled himself
from dreams too late,
the fight already started, and already,
it was over.
As if the stars had written it
all night, in their slow scrawl
across the sky.

Canal reflection in Bath


Saturday, 25 November 2017

Bradford-on-Avon and the Kennett & Avon Canal

Bradford-on-Avon, frosty morning

All the tree colours, the length of the canal, from Limpley Stoke Bridge, to here, Bradford-on-Avon. Green yellow and orange of the beech trees. Pale green and light yellow of the hazel trees, with thin trunks growing in clusters and light falling like stars on the ground. 

A night cloud (one that pulls the light across the sky like a curtain, coming from the south west) has a face, and its eye has a star-shaped pupil. When the sun finally disappears, it leaves a frosted red canopy, a scarf of memory, of indulgence, like burnt time, the embers of all it has left behind.

A silent squirrel, in the village of Whimsy, runs along a wall and rustles up a tree, a cavorting leaf. A second one, displaying a different emotion, hot-pawed, clatters along the wall, performs a squint and clumsy pirouette around the same tree. The sky is bare blue, no wind in this silent village and no signs of human life.
Until that is, we reach the 7 Stars inn, sit at an outside table, sun warm on our faces, eat cake, drink local cider.

The path through the beech wood tumbles downhill, stones, mud, a canopy of fallen leaves. The grass fields are vivid green. In the valley, there’s the railway, the canal, with its clump of boats settled on its surface like coloured mistletoe and the road, with its hum of sound tunnelling through fields and forest, dipping underground, a low growl – I’d like to take you on a slow boat to China plays through my head – before that it was Parchment Farm ‘ain’t gonna do no-one no harm’ - the hazel leaves have serrated edges, often with points at the top – often, but not always – rounded and lace-edged.

Leaves of another plant are divided – one half green, the other pink, in the garden near the Cross Guns inn, by the aqueduct at Avoncliff, where the train stops sometimes, but not always and you can walk across the track. Canal water, quite still in no hurry, is carried aloft on the aqueduct, above the railway, over the river, and leaves float almost unmoving, in the unrestless water, unpulled by tide or moon, or any longed-for destination. 

The leaves are coloured green, yellow, orange and red. And sometimes russet brown. They float, exotic stitches, dropped in the languid waterway that links and crosses the countryside, an erratic lace pattern of leys and loops and crossings out, a script that wanders, marks the passageways, the runnels and the ditches of time’s notches and its crossings, its noughts and stitches, its crosses and its kisses.

Sometimes, in winter evenings, wood in the stove turning red just like the sunset, and the boat tips just a little, just reminds you that you’re afloat, I feel there are good thing brought in by time, through some vents or apertures I cannot see but I’m reminded of by floating leaves, as if they mask a drain that water flows through, can’t resist, the way light can’t resist the lure of the horizon, when the sun tugs light, to go with it. Through the cracks and veins, the gaps and contours of time’s swell, as subtle as the rocking of this boat the good things slip and settle, dip and breathe. And outside, the Pleiades, low down in the winter sky.

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.