A common man marvels at uncommon things. A wise man marvels at the commonplace. CONFUCIUS

Friday, 30 July 2010

Hello Goodbye

You say yes, I say no / You say stop, and I say go, go, go / Oh, no / You say goodbye and I say hello BEATLES

I'll be away, in wabi-sabi mode, from this blog for a few weeks, so I wish all bloggers, blogreaders and cyberspace wabi-sabians a wonderful month of August. Remember to live it to the full and drink it to the lees. For one thing's for sure, there won't be another August 2010. Ever. Ciao for now!
Since impermanence and creative lostness are two characteristic wabi-sabi signatures, I leave you with these two quotes:

Nought may endure but Mutability. SHELLEY

Getting lost is our best defence against being lost. ADAM PHILLIPS

Thursday, 29 July 2010


a rounded pot
curved like the crescent moon:
tints of leaf and stone

a peacock's feather
impossibly iridescent:
the third eye

glass fragments
worn into what they are:
shards of time

a bird's nest
cupping a cracked egg:
thin as paper

sparse brush strokes
hint a vision:
unfinished symphony

summer's pinnacle
lush green, a perfect blue:
evanescent as dust motes or shadows

This poem is nothing special - just something I scribbled down on a piece of paper I had in my pocket on a country walk this morning. But I think it captures something I wanted to say about wabi-sabi, a subject under discussion on George's blog at the moment.

Tuesday, 27 July 2010

The Solitary Walker: An Exclusive Interview

Aphrodite, intrepid reporter from Mythical Love magazine, managed to track down Robert, The Solitary Walker, the other day, and he agreed - slightly reluctantly (but also a wee bit flattered) - to this short interview...

Aphrodite. Hi, SW, nice to meet you at long last! It's been difficult finding you at home recently. Any more treks or travels planned for the rest of the year?

SW. Hi, Aphrodite! May I just say first of all, you're even nicer in the flesh than in my mental store of universal Jungian archetypes! Yes, one more walk is on the cards - backpacking part of the South-West coastal path. I'm really keen to try out my new lightweight camping gear.

Aphrodite. I've been wanting to ask you this for ages, but why is your blog called The Solitary Walker? Does this mean you're quite a solitary person yourself, or are you really a gregarious and extrovert barrel of laughs behind a sensitively-contrived facade?

SW. I think I've explained this a couple of times already on my blog, Aphrodite. The title comes from the book Reveries Of The Solitary Walker - Rousseau's confessional series of walking meditations on life, the universe and just about everything else. And yes, I can crave solitude. Being alone - for days, even weeks on end - does not phase me. But I do like company too. I love it, in fact. It's just that, in the wrong sort of company, I get itchy feet very, very quickly. And feel a compulsion to make a break for freedom and independence once again. No, I'm not a hearty extrovert. But neither am I a solipsistic introvert. Should we say I'm somewhere between the two? Like a lot of us?

Aphrodite. Why do you blog anyway, SW?

SW. That's a hard one, Aphrodite. But I have thought about it from time to time. I started blogging back in June 2007 - that's just over 3 years ago. And I loved it from the beginning. I think there are lots of different reasons I like it and stick at it. Here are just a few. It fulfils some kind of artistic need in me: constructing a post with words and images in a concise, unified and hopefully creative way gives me a great deal of pleasure and satisfaction. I think there's a deeper, psychological need too, a confessional need, and a need to make some kind of sense of the existential random tragedies and brutalities of life. Also there's a communicative need, a need to share experiences with kindred souls who can respond immediately with a 'Yes! I know what you're talking about!' Some things hinted at or more openly revealed in blogs are somehow not the stuff of your average off-line dinner party conversation (oh, how I hate dinner parties!)

Aphrodite. Another question I've got for you, SW, since you're in a communicative frame of mind. What do you really hate right now?

SW. That was an unexpected one from the left-field, Love Goddess! Are you trying to cleverly switch my mood in the hope of some startling revelations? To be honest, though, you really have got me going. Mindless, yobbish behaviour. Rudeness and impoliteness. Fast food. The petrol engine. The cover-ups in Afghanistan. The fact that Blair and Bush have got away scot-free over Iraq. Materialism. Motorways. The destruction of the rainforests (though a muted cheer for the partial resurrection of the Iraqi marshlands). Cable TV ('57 channels and nothin' on' - Bruce Springsteen). Prejudice against the old, the infirm, the unstable, the unwell, the radical, the different and the... anything. Oh, and dinner parties. Of course.

Aphrodite. And, SW, what are the loves, pleasures and delights in your life?

SW. Many, many things. Temperamentally I like to see the glass half-full rather than half-empty, as I'm an optimist by nature, despite the huge odds against this stance if you look at things realistically. Perhaps I'm just an old romantic? A good book, a glass of wine, a great, lovingly-prepared, home-cooked meal, and a sympathetic companion. A solitary trek across the vast plains and rugged mountains of Spain. A short, local walk along the hedge-lined, flower-filled lanes surrounding my Nottinghamshire village. Philosophy, thought, ideas - and, more importantly, creative intuition. And marmite. Naturally.

Aphrodite. Do you ever get depressed?

SW. Yes, I think I probably have periodic mild depression - like many of us. (Melancholy I can deal with - that's fine and natural - just a bittersweet realisation of the transitory nature of life and beauty.) Some years ago I went to the doctor's with what I thought was a more severe kind of depression. She diagnosed mild depression and prescribed anti-depressants. I took them for a few days but they made me feel very ill and I've never taken any such things again. I hate drugs and medicaments. She also said she felt sorry for my wife - obviously a completely unethical and insensitive thing to do. I've tried to avoid seeing GPs since. Luckily I've hardly ever needed to so far.

Aphrodite. Where do you stand politically?

SW. I think it's obvious if I tell you I read The Guardian, Aphrodite!

Aphrodite. How's your sex life, SW?

SW. Sex is one of the greatest things in the universe, and I celebrate that. Aphrodite - you're beginning to hit below the belt here, typical of your titillating New Age rag-mag approach. Is this interview coming to a close soon?

Aphrodite. Just one more question, SW! Have you any aims and ambitions left in life?

SW. That was cheekily phrased, Aphrodite. I'm only 55! I have many aims and ambitions, though I don't like the phrase 'aims and ambitions', which sounds very CV-cliched-capitalist-non-wabi-sabi-speak to me. My main 'aim and ambition' right now is to take a short walk to see the sun set in a golden glow over the river. And that'll do for now.

Aphrodite. Thanks, SW! Be seeing you...

SW. Thanks, Aphrodite. But, if you don't mind, can you ask the mag to send Venus next time?

(The photo shows Robert, the Solitary Walker, photographing the interviewer. Though shouldn't it have been the other way round?)

Monday, 26 July 2010

Italian Farewell: Travel And Life

And now, farewell! On this journey I shall certainly learn how to travel; whether I shall learn how to live, I don't know. The people I meet who possess this art are so different from me in their nature and habits that I doubt whether I have the talent. GOETHE Italian Journey

So it's farewell, Italy, with your succulence...

... your seascapes...

... and your familiar strangers...

(All photos taken in Positano)

Sunday, 25 July 2010

Amalfi Walks (4)

High limestone hills and crags crowd the Amalfi coastline, and Amalfi itself clusters at the mouth of a deep gorge which penetrates the mountains to the north-east. I set off up this gorge for my final walk. See how the cultivated lemon groves have carved a harmonious niche among the native woodlands and limestone bluffs...

The sinuous path climbed from Chiarito on the outskirts of Amalfi to Pontone, swinging between lemon trees and overhanging limestone outcrops...

I paused for a moment to catch my breath, gazing back towards Amalfi...

... then pressed on towards the hillside village of Minuta. The views became even more spectacular...

Here I am looking down across vines at Ravello...

After Minuta, and another steep haul of steps, I broke away from human habitation and cultivated land, and entered a high, pristine landscape of rock and scrub, wild peonies, and deep-sided chasms cut by clear mountain streams...

All this may have been good for the soul - and it certainly was - but more pressing matters were bearing down on me, becoming ever more urgent with each passing rock and steep downward scramble. Yes, truth to tell, I was lost...

The free walking map I'd picked up at Amalfi's tourist office - though alluring and colourful - was simplified, not to scale, and inadequate for the task. But it was too late now. I was following the red and white splashes of a Club Alpino Italiano route, which contoured the limestone crags in roller-coaster fashion relentlessly downhill. Turning back would have meant a huge effort of will and physical strength, and - let's face it - an admission of defeat. I carried on, hanging in space, sometimes losing the path through overgrown patches of vegetation, then rejoining it with relief several hundred metres further on. To make matters worse, the weather was closing in...

Peregrine falcons screamed from the towering cliffs above. I stopped for a drink and to take in the view. I was quite alone. No one knew where I was. If I fatally slipped here, I might not be found for days. But the scenery was unbelievable. And I felt healthy. My limbs and muscles were in good shape. The physical exertion, the landscape's wildness and its craggy beauty, the vastness of the space below my feet, the moody, ever-changing weather - suddenly all these things came together in one brief flash of realisation: wow! It was great to be here. I was privileged. It was fantastic.

After edging my way beneath more sheer walls of limestone, and negotiating deep gorges gouged by feeder streams, I scrambled down a rocky chute and soon joined a wider, more well-used path. Moments later I heard voices. I party of cheery Italian walkers were eating their lunch on a table-top rock above me. I waved to them. They waved back. The temperature grew warmer, and the sun poked through the cloud...

From there it was a simple walk back to Amalfi. It had been such a day to remember...

Saturday, 24 July 2010

Amalfi Walks (3)

Although the walk from Amalfi to Atrani only takes about 15 or 20 minutes...

... its brevity does not belie its beauty...

Here are some mules (or are they donkeys? - anyone know the difference?) carrying earth in... what? I nearly wrote 'panniers', but I think panniers hang down from each side...

After crossing Amalfi's southern headland, I entered Atrani via a secret network of backstreet steps and passageways...

... and enjoyed a beer and a sandwich in Atrani's little square. This is a view of one corner of the square...

As you can see, Atrani nestles beneath a huge limestone cliff...

Friday, 23 July 2010

Amalfi Walks (2)

'... and what is the use of a book', thought Alice, 'without pictures or conversations?' LEWIS CARROLL Alice's Adventures In Wonderland

The Valle dei Mulini is an ever-narrowing ravine which, if you followed it far enough, would take you into open mountain country, and eventually to the top of Monte Cerrato (4314 ft), the highest peak dominating Amalfi. It's lush and it's beautiful, and I walked the valley path one hot, sunny morning as far as a high waterfall. At first you pass the ruins of long-abandoned paper mills...

Paper making was once an important industry here, and Amalfi paper was considered some of the finest in Europe. Only a couple of factories now remain. On the way I passed the intriguing-sounding Paper Museum - which made me think of other quirky and odd museums I'd either heard about or visited in Britain, such as the Pencil Museum in Keswick or the Dog Collar Museum in Leeds Castle (which, for all non-UK readers, is not in Leeds but near Maidstone in Kent!) But I digress (yet what is the use of walking and writing without digressions? Without digressions, a walk would be in danger of being simply a practical route from A to B, and a book simply a logical sequence of events or instructions). Which reminds me of Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Laurence Sterne's Tristram Shandy - novels which are pure diversion and divagation through and through. But I digress again...

So back to the plot. I shadowed the tumbling stream up-valley, then crossed it by this wooden bridge...

After a short, sharp climb and a few rocky scrambles I came to a waterfall - it must have been about 100 ft high - cascading down a tree-strewn cliff. It was so lovely, and so unexpected, that I had to catch my breath. I stood a while before this lacy curtain of splashing water, transfixed and transported. I approached it as near as I could without getting drenched. At its base, behind the final fringe of water before it hit a hollowed-out pool, was a mossy grotto, green and damp - no doubt the home of naiads or other water nymphs. Yes, this was one of those special places, those numinous places, those indescribable places (which nevertheless I've tried to describe both here and here).

I stayed there for what could have been moments - or was it an an eternity? Who can tell? This magical spot had carved a niche in my mind that I knew would be there for ever. That day I had the place to myself. In fact I'd seen only two other walkers all morning. Reluctantly I wrenched myself away. I followed part of a ferny gorge - the gorge that had amazed Goethe and other writers, artists, botanists and geologists when they'd discovered it many years ago - and returned to the wooden bridge and the main route...

Meandering back to Amalfi on a different path on the other side of the valley, I thought, not for the first time, how 'the most soulful places are almost always reached only on foot'...

The more effort you have to make, the more exposed you are to the influences of Nature, then the greater the likelihood of being aware of its beauty. What this implies is that the greater the self-sufficiency and the fewer the barriers imposed by equipment and man-made features, the greater the potential for heightened awareness. Being alone can further increase this awareness. These factors all point to the value of simplicity rather than complexity as an approach to life. COLIN MORTLOCK Beyond Adventure

Thursday, 22 July 2010

Amalfi Walks (1)

After Naples, and before returning to England, we stayed several nights in Amalfi. The Amalfi coast is stunning walking territory. This is the view back along the Valle dei Mulini (Valley of the Mills) towards Amalfi and the Tyrrhenian Sea ...

The landscape was luscious with vineyards and lemon orchards. A stepped, steeply-ascending path led through the hamlets of Chiarito and Pontone, which sweltered in the hot sunshine. After some brief road walking I joined another, more obscure path, which curved round the base of the limestone bluff upon which the elegantly fashionable village of Ravello is built. I climbed to this strange shelter wedged in the lee of the cliff ...

Unseen creatures scuttled in the undergrowth, and black snakes - possibly western whip snakes - shot across the path. This is looking across to the village of Scala ...

A final push up yet more steps and I emerged in Ravello near the monastery of Santa Chiara. I'd met not a single person on my walk. Most visitors to Ravello take the sweaty, jam-packed bus on a circuitous route up the ridge. I know which way I prefer. Here's the view from Ravello's Villa Rufolo, a shot no doubt duplicated by a million other photographers ...

And this is looking out to sea from the belvedere at the Villa Cimbrone, the end point of Ravello's ridge ...

Wednesday, 21 July 2010

Mystical Topography: A Naples Of The Mind

I wonder if the remark by Goethe I quoted yesterday - that his father could never really be unhappy because his thoughts could always return to Naples - resonated with anyone as much as it did with me? For I'm continually recalling special places I've been to, numinous places I've stumbled across, significant intersections of latitude and longitude on this fair earth I've washed up against - and this brings me deep content. It's something I often do before falling asleep each night. Revisiting these sacred spots in the imagination is something I never tire of. And, apart from happiness, I think it's also a source of creativity.

A jewel-like lake high in the Ariège in the French Pyrenees, the top of Haystacks in the English Lake District, the golden crescent of sand at Sandwood Bay in north-west Scotland, a birch and chestnut forest in south-west France on the Voie d'Arles pilgrimage route, the tabletop plateau of the Spanish meseta on the Camino Francés, a view across Monsal Dale in Derbyshire's Peak District on a still summer's day, when I lay in the grass over a precipice, insects busy all around ... The list is endless, and the pleasure of recollection unbounded.

But perhaps the most deeply embedded, the most meaningful of all are those place-memories from childhood. Some of these are inerasably etched on my mind, for they are the places which first gave me that feeling of the thrill and shock of the natural world, and that half-mystical shudder you get when suddenly 'ambushed by beauty'. Among these epiphanies of place I remember the summit of Potter's Hill near Woolacombe in Devon, the semi-tropical Undercliff area near Lyme Regis in Dorset, and the tiny 'island' my sister and I named 'Crystal Island' (a simple patch of grass, a few trees and marsh surrounded by farmers' dykes) which lay a couple of miles from our family home in Lincolnshire ...

We all have a Naples of the mind, a place where we can never really be unhappy. The memories of such special places are ours forever, locked in the treasure-chest of our minds and imaginations, always there to give solace, sustenance and inspiration whenever we turn the key.

(The photo shows one of my special places: the High Ariège in the French Pyrenees.)

Tuesday, 20 July 2010

Goethe On Naples

After the monochrome and muted tones of some more northerly European landscapes, the intense light and vibrant colours of southern Italy come as a wonderful shock to the senses. Goethe travelled to Italy between 1786 and 1788, and was highly enthusiastic about its charms. He was in Naples in March and May 1787, visiting Sicily during the intervening month ...

By the time we reached the outskirts of Naples the sky was completely cloudless, and now we are really in another country. The houses with their flat roofs indicate another climate, though I dare say they are not so comfortable inside. Everybody is out in the streets and sitting in the sun as long as it is willing to shine. The Neapolitan firmly believes that he lives in Paradise and takes a very dismal view of northern countries. Sempre neve, case di legno, gran ignoranza, ma denari assai - that is how he pictures our lives. For the edification of all northerners, this means: 'Snow all the year round, wooden houses, great ignorance, but lots of money.'

We spent today in ecstasies over the most astonishing sights. One may write or paint as much as one likes, but this place, the shore, the gulf, Vesuvius, the citadels, the villas, everything, defies description ... Now I can forgive anyone for going off his head about Naples, and think with great affection of my father, who received such lasting impressions from the very same objects I saw today. They say that someone who has once seen a ghost will never be happy again; vice versa, one might say of my father that he could never really be unhappy because his thoughts could always return to Naples. In my own way, I can now keep perfectly calm and it is only occasionally, when everything becomes too overwhelming, that my eyes pop out of my head.

Everything one sees and hears gives evidence that this is a happy country which amply satisfies all the basic needs and breeds a people who are happy by nature, people who can wait without concern for tomorrow to bring them what they had today and for that reason lead a happy-go-lucky existence, content with momentary satisfaction and moderate pleasures, and taking pain and sorrow as they come with cheerful resignation.

Naples is a Paradise: everyone lives in a state of intoxicated self-forgetfulness, myself included. I seem to be a completely different person whom I hardly recognize. Yesterday I thought to myself: Either you were mad before, or you are mad now ... Every time I wish to write words, visual images come up of the fruitful countryside, the open sea, the islands veiled in a haze, the smoking mountain, etc., and I lack the mental organ which could describe them.

(All quotes are taken from Goethe's Italian Journey.)

Monday, 19 July 2010

In The Shadow Of Vesuvius

On 24 August AD 79 Mt Vesuvius erupted on a massive scale. Herculaneum, Pompeii, and other towns on the Italian coast near Naples, disappeared under a river of molten lava and a deadly hail of volcanic ash and burning pumice stone. (You could say Herculaneum was having a run of very bad luck, for a few years earlier the place had been completely destroyed by an earthquake, and had only just been rebuilt.) When submerged Herculaneum was rediscovered in 1709, archaeologists found that the volcanic mud had kept the town in an amazing state of preservation ...

Small details, such as these earthware storage jars, help bring alive the Roman way of life from nearly 2000 years ago ...

This is a mosaic of the sea-god Neptune and his wife Amphitrite ...

Archaeological investigations and painstaking restoration work are still going on in Herculaneum ...

Saturday, 17 July 2010


Sphinx, Capri

Primavera, Naples

Painted doorway, Palermo

Glad-Eyed Lady of the Midlands: photo portrait taken in the Valley of the Temples, Agrigento

The Valley Spirit never dies.
It is called the Mysterious Female.
Shih wei hsüan p'in

The entrance to the Mysterious Female
Is called the root of Heaven and Earth,

Endless flow
Of inexhaustible energy.

LAO-TZU Tao Te Ching

(Translated by Stephen Addiss and Stanley Lombardo)