Wednesday, 26 September 2018

Dieppe - its beaches churches and artists

Dieppe harbour in evening, with seagulls

 A longer version of this post (without photographs) can be found at the Scottish Review

The British artist Walter Sickert spent a lot of time in Dieppe, living in le quartier Pollet, the old town. One of his most well-known paintings is of Dieppe’s l’église Saint Jacques. A small information board in front of the church tells you that you are standing in the exact spot he stood in, when doing this painting – the reproduction of it is in tasteful terracotta shades with splashes of yellow, which also fits with this day of hot sun and cloudless skies.

Other well-known painters who fell under the spell of this small seaport town include Delacroix, Renoir, Monet and Camille Pissarro. The latter was particularly taken with Dieppe, spending the summers of 1901 and 1902 there. He called the town ‘an admirable place for a painter who enjoys life, movement and colour’. Like Sickert he too painted l’église Saint Jacques though from a different angle. He also painted a series of eighteen views of the port.

Clearly Dieppe’s charm has not diminished in the past century. Its steep cliffs with their dark shadows falling on the beach, the pale greenish sea with changing moods, that combination of water and land, with its constant relationship, its rustle and whisper, and the hazy horizon with its visible slight thickening at the edge – at least on this clear and sunny day – which might be England.

The beach at Dieppe is pebbles, not easy to walk on even with thick-soled sandals. The stones don’t stay still, they shift under the presence of your feet, so that they are constantly rearranging themselves, as if seized with inner dissatisfaction longing for some ideal pattern that can never quite be achieved. So that each step instead of receiving a push upwards from the ground as usually happens, a reassuring collaboration between finicky and fragile lightweight human being, and the dense and powerful earth that supports us all – instead of this the earth surface retracts and moves sideways. The usual reassurance is replaced with a counterfeit, like a temporary crossing for pedestrians during road works, one that takes you out of your way while claiming to be helpful or – doing the best they can in difficult circumstances and thanking you for your patience and consideration.

This semi-sinking into the stones requires attention – to curvature and time, as each step is marked by a crunching sound and a need to pay undue and unaccustomed attention to equilibrium as if you have become twice as heavy as you were before. Though the recompense, once you reach the solid road, is to feel you have suddenly grown wings.

Inside the church Saint Jacques I discover that it is one of the starting points of the Chemin de Saint Jacques, the pilgrimage routes to Compostella. This particular route is called la voie des anglais and continues to Rouen and Chartres. To the left of  Le Mur du Tresor there’s a pillar entwined by a twisting spiral, similar to the Apprentice Pillar in Scotland’s Rosslyn Chapel, though a much more slender version. Above the doorway and to the right, higher up, there are several coquilles de Saint Jacques, the pilgrim shells associated with the saint, which mark the travellers’ route.

La Chapelle Notre Dame de Bon Secours is situated on a cliff top with a view over the town.

Inside there’s an exhibition of paintings. I speak to the artist, Pascal Voisin, who has thick white hair and a deeply tanned face. He tells me he used to be a fisherman, he has crossed La Manche many times, visited English ports, and has been to Dublin too. He paints streets, houses, boats, seascapes, waterfronts. His paintings are firm and compact as if he has caught his subjects, grasped them and placed them firmly on the canvas. As you might expect from a fisherman, he is not going to let them get away. They are dense with life, with lines, colours, edges and definitions. One or two are black and white, reminiscent of old photos, with the same near-nostalgic charm. Energy bounces off Monsieur Voisin and this energy is visible in his paintings too, with their thick colours, heavy skies and restless seas. 

Pascal Voisin and some of his paintings

So Dieppe continues to inspire painters. Of course I’m seeing it at its best in this glorious summer weather. I wonder what it’s like in winter. Perhaps it will be like Pascal Voisin’s paintings, with their dark and threatening skies and deserted sea front. When the long shadows cast by the sheer chalk cliffs will devour the beaches and extend thin dark fingers into the sea.

Sunday, 16 September 2018

Callander Poetry Festival - the Last Gig

The bookshop, Callander, Scotland

The Callander Poetry Weekend has been organised and hosted by Sally Evans and Ian King at their Callander bookshop (and across the road in the church hall) for almost all of this century. I think the first one was in 2001. The first one I went to was in 2005, and I’ve been back almost every year. It began as an afternoon event, with a few poets reading from their work. It grew and grew into a 3 day event, the first weekend in September, with over 80 poets taking part by 2017. The work involved was huge. Last year (2017) I went early to help Sally with cleaning, and the food preparation for all these people, so I got a glimpse into how much was involved. This year I also helped but it had to be a smaller event for various reasons, just one of them being Sally’s involvement in studying for a PhD. And this year was the last one.

You can find out about her own writing, the magazine Poetry Scotland, the bookshop, and the books she has published under diehard press, at her website.

I've written previous posts about the Callander Poetry Festival, in 2009, in 2012 and 2013, featuring just a few of the fine readers (because there were too many to mention all of them). But in this one I just want to give a huge thank you to Sally and Ian. The editorship of Poetry Scotland passes to Jon Plunkett of Corbenic Poetry Path. The bookshop in Callander's Main Street is of course still open every day, and welcomes all buyers and browsers.

Visitors bring fruit and flowers

I climb the spiral stairs to my friends’ flat, above the bookshop. The stairs are being renovated, on one side the facade has gone, the bare stonework drips with clotted strings of old plaster, uneven surface receding into darkness between enormous rounded stones which balance wickedly, defying gravity. Colours of plum, dark-red, splashes of decaying dirt-brown. I avert my eyes. When safe surfaces are stripped bare, the reality of what we walk on or lean against crumbles and tilts and mocks our assumptions of entitlement to any bulwarks against the seething tides of age, decay, and the vagaries and storms of nature.

I’m thankful for a room of my own, a bed to sleep in. The bed is comfortable, the rest of the room is almost crammed full. Books and bookcases, a massive wooden table piled with assorted crockery, no two pieces the same, painted, patterned or gilt-edged. On the floor, papers and more books. Next to the table is a metal sculpture of two long-beaked birds. Beyond the table is impassable and too distant, just the vague shapes of cabinets; the rays of the very beautiful standard lamp beside my bed do not penetrate that far into the gloom.

The walls are hung with paintings. Just above my bed there’s a black and white print titled Jupiter and Leda. I study it. Languorous and naked Leda is reclining helpfully close to the shore. A flurry of cherubs guide the swimming swan towards her via a cord trailing in the water. He does not have far to go and I imagine has no need of the silken cord. The swan looks modest, of the usual swan-size, moving slowly as swans do. Large Leda looks curious, straight at the swan, legs slightly parted, not alarmed at all. 

I don’t think this image has the slightest impression on my dreams or not that I remember. This desultory meeting on the river bank is not how I imagine it at all. Where is the passion, where the beating wings, the long and curving neck outstretched, the gaping red beak? Where are the sinews and the muscles in the legs of Leda, as she runs through the woodland, fighting off the massive wings, before she stumbles on a tree-root, brought down to earth and Fate? The cherubs no doubt, represent invisible desires. Their smiles are not so much cherubic as sly. The river water barely ripples. I sigh as I turn off the light.

No swans on Loch Venacher, near Callander

Tuesday, 4 September 2018

Edinburgh Fringe Performance of 'Bride of the Gulf'

Bride of the Gulf by Thinkery and Verse (performed during Edinburgh Fringe Festival in Venue 3 Cubed, Lawnmarket). Written by JM Meyer

A big play on a small stage. With an international cast, Karen Alvarado plays the main character (simply called HERO), it takes place in Basra, Iraq, during the Iraq war/invasion by Allied forces. The many different scenes show Iraqi soldiers not yet in combat, sharing jokes and banter. There are domestic interiors, with HERO talking on the phone to her sister who has left Basra, the daily difficulties of lack of electricity, her attempts to light a kerosene lamp but the funnels breaking (they’re designed that way, I break one every other day, she says). Once combat has begun there are journalists trying to get reactions amidst the sounds of shelling and bombardment. Sometimes there are two scenes going on at once, a domestic interior with HERO and an exterior one with soldiers running, shouting and crouching, around the outside. But this kind of split-screen action is not confusing, for it’s very life-like.

One of the simplest and most effective devices was duct tape the soldiers pulled across various parts of the stage. It might have represented barbed wire or possibly more generically the divisions and barriers created by war, and the various daily obstacles people had to overcome, as HERO stepped over it, or had to pull away parts of it that had stuck to her shoes – these daily obstructions, shortages and deprivations.

Her mother-in-law wants her to help her find Akil, her missing son, (and HERO’s husband) who had been working for the US and Allied forces as a translator and who has disappeared. Reluctantly, they view thousands of photographs of people who have died, in order to be able to eliminate the possibility that he is one of them.

This is a beautifully written and poignant play. It is so skilfully arranged, almost choreographed in its action. It shows the confusion of war, the horror of invasion and the suffering of the people. By focusing on one acutely painful story, the particular captures the universal. There is humour too, (often of the absurd kind) as for example the official in the morgue telling her to speak to his female assistant, not him, and then says she has to provide the paper for him to write a letter. She buys paper, brings it to him and then he asks her for a pen, so he can write it!

Between the harsh sounds of gunfire and shelling, there is also music, and while scenes change quickly or overlap, it is not confusing for the whole blends together until the action slows down in a moving finale. This is intelligent and compassionate theatre at its best, a choreography of movement, drama, music, the dark humour of the absurd, and the suffering of war.