Friday, 24 August 2018

Walking the Island of Kerrera

Rock trio on Kerrera's south coast

Keep the sea on your left, and you won’t get lost. That’s what my friend said to me before I set out to walk the circuit path on the island of Kerrera.

The tiny ferry to Kerrera leaves from just south of Oban, on Scotland’s west coast. It has room for one car and eleven passengers. It reminded me of the Irish ferry to Bere Island which had room for two cars a few pedestrians and one cow.

There were quite a few people waiting to get on, standing at the top of the jetty slope. I moved down the slope and was aware of people behind me also moving down as if at a signal. I stood behind the car and two people at the side of the car, talking to the driver.

When the ferry laid its pale green ramp onto the jetty the car drove on and we started to walk on. Only eleven said the man-in-charge, with yellow oilskin and cap, and to those left on the jetty – I’ll come straight back for you. .....

I had a small map of the southern part of the island, with the path marked on it. It circled south from the ferry terminal, skirted the south shore, brushing past the tower of Gylen Castle, then coming back up the northern shore, turning inland and crossing the island’s low hills and so returning to the ferry.

Bay and islands off Kerrera's south coast
Keeping the sea to my left as instructed, even I could not manage to lose my way but I did not always know where I was on the map, and there were those pesky forks in the track which always make me think of the Yellow Brick Road. Most of the track was wide and clear. I could not find the point where you could leave the main path to head down to the reddish-brown stone of Gylen Castle – the map did not match the terrain. But I continued on the main path and found it later. I simply had not been as far along the path as I thought.

The tall castle-tower looks out to the western sea, with faint shadows of distant islands or mainland promontories showing as thickened lines, blotches on the horizon. There’s always so it seems to me, a sense of longing, yearning, in such outposts looking west. West – in this part of the world – is not the direction of nostalgia or looking back, but the direction of future, of escape from too much history and time that still lies around in the present, possibly packed into bales and stored in some attic or barn, like contraband that no-one knows quite what to do with, reluctant to pay duty to transfer it to that ‘foreign country’ (as L. P. Hartley called the past) where it surely must belong. And where it should have stayed, instead of cluttering up our present and embarrassing us so.

East, south-east is the direction of nostalgia for what is known, loved and – is possible to be returned to. If you follow the line of south-east until you reach the heart of the world – or at least Europe, located on a shifting grid of light – somewhere in Greece.

Gylen castle and rocky archway

Far from Greece, on this misty promontory, the gloomy dark-brown needle of the castle gazes out into a misty future. I walk a short way along the shore and meet up with the main path. There’s another bay, some lush green grass, a house with a meadow in front of it and a few trees. And how the heart leaps at the sight of trees on an island like this, where there are so few......

View from Kerrera hilltop

 You can read the whole article on Scottish Review

Wednesday, 22 August 2018

Eugene Vodolazkin at Edinburgh Book Festival

This is the coldest greyest wettest Edinburgh Festival that I can remember. But it’s been a year of unusual weather. There was the snow storms of March closing roads, disrupting transport systems and fast bringing chaos to our small island, then the glorious hot and sunny weeks of May and July. And now these grey skies and rain.


A peaceful place behind the scenes at Edinburgh's Book Festival

Still, I’ve been to several talks at the Book Festival, particularly by writers of translated fiction, which always interests me. The Russian writer Eugene Vodolazkin (The Aviator, translated by Lisa Hayden) impressed me with his compassionate take on life.

The Aviator is about a man who wakes up in hospital, and who tries to retrieve and reconstruct his memories, his life. When Daniel Hahn, the chair, talks of the fragmentary structure of The Aviator Eugene says all his texts are fragmentary and it is a convenient structure, for it opens up the possibility of changes of focus; for we don’t describe our lives in detail day by day, we select. There are always empty places.

The germ of the idea for the novel came from the time when he walked every day through the streets of Paris on the way to work at the Bibliothèque Nationale. He passed the building where Stendhal lived and wrote Le Rouge et le Noir. Eugene imagined Stendhal coming back in the present day and finding no friends left, nothing, no black, no red, and he tried to imagine the melancholy he would feel. This was the beginning of his novel The Aviator.

Eugene says there are two types of history – the ‘big history’ of countries and nations,  and personal history.  ‘Big history’ is only a small part of the personal history of a man or woman. What a person remembers is individual to him or her – they might remember the sound of rain – as now, falling on the marquee roof – the little events which are written only in people’s hearts. It is our happy – or unhappy – days which make up our consciousness. And he says, ‘to use Lermontov’s expression – I have no great interest in history, my interest lies in the history of the soul’ that is, personal history.

Continuing with the theme of the personal in literature rather than the epics of great world events he gives an example from Nabokov, who said that if you want to understand Gogol’s writing don’t expect to learn about history, but you will learn about his personal demons. And he says it is the same for him, that in his writing, he is trying to solve his personal problems in a public way.

When someone in the audience asks how reliable are the memories of Platonov (the protagonist in The Aviator) Eugene replies that memories are not always 100% reliable, whether of characters or living people.  ‘As a historian I would say we have to deal mostly with our notion of real events’. In other words ‘actual real events’ are slippery and subject to human interpretation, colouring, angle, geography, climate, source of information. ‘Sadly’ he says ‘Newspapers try to change our ideas about nations and events.’ And while he has ‘no political views’ what is happening in the world right now could be described as ‘the war of the words’. There is so much propaganda and millions believe in this propaganda which makes things very difficult.  At no other time he says, has the world been  ‘so deformed by words’.

An expert in medieval Russian literature and folklore, Eugene is well versed in the positive power of language and stories. The main theme of The Aviator he says is loss, but it is also about the retrieval of stories, of bringing back together the pieces of the past. 

There’s also a fascinating interview with Eugene Vodolazkin here.