I haven’t got any special religion this morning. My God is the God of Walkers. If you walk hard enough, you probably don’t need any other god. BRUCE CHATWIN

Tuesday, 5 April 2016

Afflictions

There was a time when, though my path was rough,
This joy within me dallied with distress,
And all misfortunes were but as the stuff
Whence Fancy made me dreams of happiness:
For hope grew round me, like the twining vine,
And fruits, and foliage, not my own, seemed mine.
But now afflictions bow me down to earth:
Nor care I that they rob me of my mirth;
But oh! each visitation
Suspends what nature gave me at my birth,
My shaping spirit of Imagination.
For not to think of what I needs must feel,
But to be still and patient, all I can;
And haply by abstruse research to steal
From my own nature all the natural man—
This was my sole resource, my only plan:
Till that which suits a part infects the whole,
And now is almost grown the habit of my soul.

Stanza VI from Dejection: An Ode by SAMUEL TAYLOR COLERIDGE 

Sunday, 28 February 2016

Mad, Mad World


If, a short while ago, I'd have believed that Donald Trump might be in the White House or that the unlikely, rather sinister triumvirate of Nigel Farage, George Galloway and Boris Johnson might be scaring us out of Europe, I'd have woken up sweating — knowing it was just one of those rancid nightmares you get from time to time. But, unfortunately, some nightmares are not nightmares — they are the living truth. God help us all. Time for me soon, I think, to retreat to a shack in Croatia or a cave in the Pyrenees. 

Saturday, 20 February 2016

To Where Does It Lead, This Walking?


To where does it lead, this walking? Past sea-lashed stacks and blocky towers of granite, shattered into cubes, to wind-bashed headlands drenched in spume and spray. Through lush-green tunnels of feathery tamarisk, humid as the tropics, wet-warm as rainforests, dripping with hart's tongue ferns and frothy with meadowsweet.

Read more of my Cornish-coast-path prose poem at Roselle Angwin's Qualia and Other Wildlife . . .

Wednesday, 10 February 2016

A Gap In A Hedge

To know fully even one field or one land is a lifetime's experience . . .  a gap in a hedge, a smooth rock surfacing a narrow lane, a view of a woody meadow, the stream at the junction of four small fields — these are as much as a man can fully experience. PATRICK KAVANAGH The Parish and the Universe

Inniskeen Road: July Evening

The bicycles go by in twos and threes —
There's a dance in Billy Brennan's barn to-night,
And there's the half-talk code of mysteries
And the wink-and-elbow language of delight.
Half-past eight and there is not a spot
Upon a mile of road, no shadow thrown
That might turn out a man or woman, not
A footfall tapping secrecies of stone.

I have what every poet hates in spite
Of all the solemn talk of contemplation.
Oh, Alexander Selkirk knew the plight
Of being king and government and nation.
A road, a mile of kingdom, I am king
Of banks and stones and every blooming thing. 

PATRICK KAVANAGH

Friday, 5 February 2016

On Books And Reading

It's true that we're all only ever passing through this world, but part of being alive is that magical process of making it our own. ROB COWEN Common Ground

I love books, but I'm not precious about them. Although books seem to collect around me, I don't consciously collect them. Books pass through my library and life like people: fascinating certainly, often memorable, even life-changing — but one moves on to the next thing. I lend books, borrow books, sell books, give books, am given books, chuck books, even lose them. I have few fine editions with polished spines. Books on my shelves are there to be read, not to impress or gather dust. No doubt this cavalier but rather liberating attitude comes from my previous career in publishing sales. I used to get scores of free books by post every week for many years. I really didn't know what to do with them. Some I sold or gave away. Others I kept, thinking I would read them later — but I hardly ever did. I had far too many books of my own choosing to read!

At some stages of my life I've read omnivorously. At other times I've not read much at all. During my recent trek along the Via Francigena I packed only a guide book. But, of course, I read lots of other things along the way: shop signs, marker posts, graffiti, newspaper headlines, snatches of magazine articles, random fragments from the Bible in churches, words of nonsense and wisdom in pilgrim visitors' books.

At the moment I'm going through a huge bibliomaniac phase. I'm reading library books rather than buying books. I tend to read books in different ways and at different speeds, depending on the form, the content, the style, the density, the difficulty. I've no problem reading some books in a day and others in a year. War and PeaceIn Search of Lost Time and The Alexandria Quartet still lie unfinished on my shelves, though I love these novels more than I can say. I also have no problem reading some books twice, some poems countless times and some texts not at all. Life's too short to feel you have to read certain books just because you think you ought to or because others have praised them.

Having said this, I'm lucky in that I do seem to have a wide taste in subject and styles, and, strangely, this compass is getting wider the older I get (you might think this would be the reverse). I don't read books simply for 'escape' or 'entertainment', though I realise that most people do (I hasten to add that I've nothing against this, naturally, and am in no way an intellectual snob). I read to be moved, enlightened, educated, inspired, transformed. Although I've travelled quite a bit, books take me much further than my feet will ever take me. Books really do enlarge and stimulate the mind, and provide the hope, beauty, joy and consolation so necessary for us all.

As examples, let me take two library books I've just finished with. If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things is a debut novel by Jon McGregor, which was first published on 2002. I remember the sparkling reviews at the time. But after reading the first few pages, and then skimming through it, I really could not bear it. He writes of ordinary life in an ordinary street in an ordinary town. But it's hard to write interestingly about everyday life and, for me, he doesn't quite achieve it. I also could not stomach the pseudo-Beat or Whitmanesque style of the opening paragraphs:

And all these things sing constant, the machines and the sirens, the cars blurting hey and rumbling all headlong, the hoots and the shouts and the hums and the crackles, all come together and rouse like a choir, sinking and rising with the turn of the wind, the counter and solo, the harmony humming expecting more voices . . . 

I found this too general, too contrived, too artificial. I prefer something more specific and gutsy. But that's just me — one's taste is so personal. Many people really did love this novel.

Turning now to Rob Cowen's Common Ground, I came across this book serendipitously in a local library. I'd never heard of it before. It came out last year and focuses on a small triangle of edge-land — borderland between town and country — in Bilton, a suburb of Harrogate. I read it quite slowly — you are forced to, as the text can be densely textured (though not difficult) and startlingly, dazzlingly metaphorical. It's staggering, thrilling writing about the symbiotic relationship between man and wild animal. Cowen manages to convey both the crude blandness of life — with its sewage works, factories, chip shops and traffic — and the magic of nature in this ordinary yet extraordinary corner of England. The mundane and the mystical coexist side by side, and he creates something truly wonderful out of this apparent dichotomy. Cowen is without doubt one of our best current writers on landscape, on a par with Roger Deakin, Richard Mabey and Robert MacFarlane.

In this passage from his book Cowen writes about the brief life of the mayfly:

Time is of the essence and yet there is no sense of time. Not as we know it. No fear of the coming, inevitable unknown; these are prehistoric creatures of the present, 300 years in the making. An order older than dinosaurs. Time to them is in the frequencies of the surrounding birdsong, the fluttering of wings, the sun moving through the foliage, the colours that move across their compound eyes, the vibrations that spill down from a passing heron's croak. Light spills down too, a hot afternoon light that fractures the wood, falling in shards between trees and water. The infinite motion of the river runs in one direction; the endless flux of sky meeting wood in another, and into this strange dimension, as though an irresistible force possesses them, the spinners* rise on stained-glass wings, like angels.

And here he considers the importance of the countless, tiny, overlooked miracles to be found in the the natural and not-so-natural world: 

These long days. These late-summer days, immense and golden. It's Tuesday. I walk up the lane at lunchtime troubled by the thought that I may have been lax in my own recordings of this place. The microscopic details of the here and now seem to possess an inexpressible value that I'm worried I've overlooked. I wish I'd kept more rigorous data. More snapshots. The changes in a single leaf in a single location from day to day.The biodegradation of a discarded fag butt on the stone track. The minute-by-minute movement of a single bird through the wood. Maybe these are the things of true importance.  

* 'Spinner' is a name for the adult form (imago) of a mayfly.        

Sunday, 31 January 2016

What I Did Today

Normally I sleep well and am alert as soon as I wake. I like getting up early, so it was dark when I went downstairs. I like this time of day: it's quiet and peaceful, with no one about. Every morning I do some exercises and every other morning I go for a brisk walk-run. Today I just did my exercises, which are like old friends: bending, stretching, skipping, running on the spot, cycling with my legs in the air. Then I made some Lavazza arabica coffee and wholemeal toast, which I ate watching the TV news.

After I could stand hearing about death, destruction and dispossession no longer, I read a chapter from one of my current library books, Rob Cowen's Common Ground. This is a thrilling, poetic book about our links with the landscape, about those forgotten edge-land places on the border of town and country which are steeped in history and teem with flora and fauna and are full of magic — if we had but the eyes to see. I'm using Amazon less and less (which I'm happy with: look how they treat their staff, look how they avoid paying tax) and borrowing library books more and more. I belong to two county libraries — Nottinghamshire and Lincolnshire — and you can reserve and renew books online. It's very convenient. Nottinghamshire lets you have 24 books at a time and charges 25p for reservations; in Lincolnshire there's no limit to the number of books and reservations are free. Britain's public library system is one of the best things we have, along with the National Health Service, and it must be fought for and protected. Sadly the long-term health of both is far from certain.

Later in the morning I drove to Waitrose where, if you spend £10 or more, you can get a free newspaper. I came back with bread, milk, cheese, yoghurt, ice cream, frozen berries, fresh tomatoes, cans of tomatoes, cans of soup, sausages, coffee and the Saturday Guardian. After a simple lunch of muesli and an apple, I did the quick crossword on the last page of the Guardian Review, then leafed backwards through the section. After reading about the art of Joseph Beuys and the childhood of Alfred Brendel, the 100th birthday of Vogue magazine and the sleaziness of the London rock 'n' roll scene in the 1960s, I arrived at the lead article — a posthumous piece by the Swedish crime writer Henning Mankell, who was diagnosed with cancer in 2014 and died last autumn, aged 67. That's only six years older than I am. 

This made me think of all the recent deaths of people in their 60s and early 70s. There seem to have been so many of them lately: David Bowie, Glenn Frey, Lemmy from Motörhead, Cilla Black — and, just this second, I see that Terry Wogan has gone. Not to mention all the thousands of unknown, uncelebrated, ordinary people like you or me. (Not that I think any one of us is ordinary in the least — no, not at all.) I considered my own mortality, as I do quite frequently. I thought about how common cancer is, particularly among the older population. I reviewed the lifestyle factors which may contribute to causing cancer in later life. And I resolved to continue to live as healthily as I could, to maintain an exercise programme and a balanced diet. But do past destructive lifestyle choices still take their toll on the body despite current healthy regimes? 

I became aware with a sudden blinding clarity how essential it was to live each moment as fully, as deeply and as productively as possible — as if each moment was one's last. We have only one life, a life of great tragedy and suffering, yet also one of great joy and beauty. Both polarities are necessary to life, are inescapable parts of the complete picture. You can't have joy without sorrow, beauty without ugliness. Therefore we should try to embrace both, the all, the whole. Like children do unconsciously, to some extent. As Dan Chelotti writes in his poem, Compost: There is magic in decay. Later in the poem his young daughter, Selma, on seeing a dead snake on the path, guts spewing out, Belly up and still nerve-twitching / The ghost of some passing / Bicycle or horse, reacts like this: Pretty!

In his article, Henning Mankell writes how consoling books (especially familiar ones), music and art are to him. Each day he reads, listens to a piece of music and contemplates a picture. I turn to my Spotify list and select Mahler's First Symphony. I must play more classical music, concentrate on it rather than just use it as background wallpaper. I must listen to more Mahler, make my way through all the symphonies. Mahler believed that a symphony could contain the whole world. This first symphony is a delight — fairly traditional, yes, and influenced strongly, I think, by Beethoven. The first movement recalls Beethoven's Pastoral and evokes spring's awakening, complete with bird calls. The whole work is saturated with folk song; the third movement, a funeral march, is a take on the Frère Jacques tune.

Then I turn to a painting. Mankell says that two of his favourite artists are Daumier and Caravaggio. Daumier I know little about, but Caravaggio is one of my favourites too. I bring up on the computer screen one of his most famous pictures, Supper at Emmaus, which is in London's National Gallery.


Caravaggio was a difficult character and led a colourful life. He was driven, argumentative, swaggering, self-destructive. He was constantly involved in fights and once killed a young man in a brawl. He died under mysterious circumstances in Porto Ercole in Tuscany. He was not in his 60s or 70s, but only 38 years of age.

Saturday 30 January 2016

Thursday, 14 January 2016

Fraternity In Impermanence

OCTAVIO PAZ Convergences: Essays on Art and Literature

Although I occasionally found this book annoying with its bold and sweeping pronouncements on aesthetics (Our painting seeks to be a language without ceasing to be a presence; the oscillation between these two incompatible requirements constitutes the entire history of modern art . . .), mostly I was incredibly impressed with Paz's vast but lightly-worn erudition and his practice of making stimulating connections and correspondences.

As in his poetry, he sees history, society, humanity and art as ever-changing processes, a perpetual dance of complementary contradictions: tradition and modernity, conformity and revolution, stillness and motion, being and nothingness. He likes to compare and contrast, to discover similarities and differences — and, again as in his poetry, explores these polarities by the use of paradox and, sometimes, a very dry wit.

These essays do show their age in some respects (most were written in the 1970s) — particularly when dealing with politics and technology; but their general pervading spirit and philosophy I found eminently sympathetic. Paz does perhaps rely rather too much on the 'logic' of structuralism and semiotics, but he more than compensates for this with his faultless (in my view) opinions on the equivocal merits of our machine and communications age, the dubious 'progress' of science and history, and the subjectivity, relativity and plurality needed for a vital art and culture.

How better to give a flavour of Paz, both man and writer, than by quoting some passages which leaped out at me while reading the essays.

First an example of his dry humour:

It is more difficult to maintain a tradition of good cuisine than a tradition of good literature, as England teaches us. At Table and in Bed 1971

Here he defends the individual against the collective, the lone voice against the system:

We must cultivate and defend particularity, individuality, and irregularity — life. Human beings do not have a future in the collectivism of bureaucratic states or the mass society created by capitalism. Every system, by virtue as much of its abstract nature as its pretension to totality, is the enemy of life. Iniquitous Symmetries 1979

And here he connects erotic desire with intimations of mortality:

The desired body and the desiring body know each other to be mortal bodies; in the now of love, because of its very intensity, the knowledge of death is present. The New Analogy: Poetry and Technology 1967

He is open to popular as well as high culture, and is aware that both constantly feed into each other:

The relation between the two [high culture and popular culture], like all relations, is one of opposition and attraction. At times there is a contradiction between the two extremes, and at times there is fusion. This is what makes a society creative: complementary contradiction. The Verbal Contract 1980

Plurality, particularity, the local and the regional are desirable, as opposed to uniformity and mass production. He would have railed against our current and increasing globalisation, though he was always wary of a too-narrow nationalism:

The nineteenth century inherited from the Encyclopedia the idea of universal man, the same in all latitudes; we in the twentieth century have discovered the plural human, everywhere different. Universality for us is not the monologue of reason but the dialogue between human beings and culture. Universality means plurality. The Verbal Contract 1980

Uniformity is death, and the most perfect form of uniformity is universal death; hence the collective extermination practiced in the twentieth century. Life is always particular and local; it is my life, this life of mine here and now. The resurrection of national and regional cultures is a sign of life. Ibid

This is a perceptive comment on travel:

The French poem is wrong: to travel is not 'to die a little'*, but to practice the art of saying goodbye so that, our burden that much lighter, we may learn to receive. The Tradition of the Haiku 1970)

Among a huge variety of other subjects, Paz was very interested in Eastern thought and Buddhism:

. . . that feeling of universal sympathy with everything that exists, that fraternity in impermanence with human beings, animals, and plants, which is the most precious gift that Buddhism has given us. Ibid

Fraternity in impermanence — I like that.

Finally, he believed passionately in the importance of the personal and the particular in art . . .

To suppress subjectivity is to cut the heart out of art.

. . . and how the history of art can never be measured according to the 'norms' of scientific advance or rectilinear time:

It is difficult — or even absurd — to believe that such a thing as progress exists in the realm of art. From the book Alternating Current 1967

Though it perpetually changes, poetry does not advance. Ibid

All translations from the Spanish by HELEN LANE

*I have traced this quote ('Partir, c'est mourir un peu') to the poem Rondel de l'Adieu by the obscure French poet and playwright Edmond Haraucourt (1856-1941). 

Monday, 11 January 2016

Camino


I’ve always loved walking. I like the simplicity and freedom of it. No tying or troublesome equipment needed — just a serviceable pair of feet. Planes, trains, ships, cars, bikes, horses and donkeys all limit you in one way or another. With foot travel — barring walking on air and walking on water — you can go wherever you want, whenever you want. You don’t have to look at a timetable, you don’t have to wait for a ride, you don’t have to spend lots of money and you don’t have to buy loads of gear.  All you have to do is point your feet to the north, south, east or west. Walking creates an intoxicating sense of possibility you don’t experience with any other form of locomotion . . .

This is part of a post on the Camino I was invited to write as guest blogger on Roselle Angwin's  Qualia and Other Wildlife. You can read the rest of it here . . .