Sunday, 18 March 2018

The Istrian Coastline

I never tire of looking at the sea. On my first walk along the Istrian coastline it was a warm and sunny day. A few boats in the bay, then I followed the coastal path, no boats or people, just one or two seagulls sitting on rocks. The sea surface was ruffled, its colours shades of deep blue with areas of pale green.

At one point, a deep chasm between rocks, and the water in the cleft is turquoise. Scarlet anemones are scattered round the opening like red buttons.

The next time I took a different route to the sea, coming out further along the coast. It's cooler and the sea is rougher too with some waves splashing against rocks.

It's a stony track, negotiable by cars. A large 4x4 passed me, avoiding the puddles, driving half up on the bank, as if he was in a hurry. Later, he's parked at the track edge. He had not got out to walk but was sitting in the car looking out to sea. Perhaps he was simply seeking the solace of gazing at the waves breaking on the rocks, the shifting water with its varieties of colours, and the hills on the other side of the bay, a fuzzy blue merging with the blue of the sea.

Some of the rock formations are thin layers piled on top of each other, pressed together like millefeuilles.

Today is a different mood entirely. It's chilly, windy, and the sea has white wave tips and waves crash against rocks. The surface is whisked, shifts, as if restless to get somewhere and there's a roaring sound, a mixture of wind and surf, a primordial growl, a fierce deep joy out of which come the individual thumps and hisses of waves crashing over rocks.

Tonight there is a wild storm, wind, rain, thunder and lightning.

Tuesday, 13 March 2018

From Rivertrain to Rocktrain

The journey from London to Liznjan took 26 hours. I left my friends in Brentwood around 9 pm, took a bus to the nearest tube station on the district line, got off at Victoria, then took a bus to Stansted airport. There were lots of people stretched out on the floor and I did too but I didn't sleep. As soon as the desk opened I dropped off my bag - which you have to do yourself now, in front of a machine - then went through security. After a long walk through the duty free, there was a much-needed coffee. A train to the gate and a few minutes later we were boarding.

The flight lasted two hours, but as soon as we were up in the air - that wondrous everyday miracle - I fell asleep and only woke up just before we landed at Ljubljana airport. Where the fields were covered with a thin layer of snow. Not freshly fallen snow but old snow, grubby and worn looking but like a well-used carpet, it had established a relationship with what it covered and had become tolerated, accepted perhaps even viewed with affection.
I certainly did.

For old snow is generous, it has made its statement, when it wiped out pathways to the outside world and to the roads connecting cities and people and workplaces and provisions. It has expressed itself and brought our transport systems and our lives to a grinding halt. And now, relaxed, like an ocean after storm, it accepts our admiration of its stained calligraphy, its extraordinary ice works, which change every day as snow shrinks or is cleared and piled up, as it darkens and gathers soot and mud and general dirt from cities and their modes of transport - cars, buses, trains and their sooty exhalations.

      In the area beside the river in Ljubljana's old town, there are wooden cafe tables covered with awnings and there are heaters too, for the outside clientele. And between the cafe tables there are heaps of old snow mounds that have settled into artworks, each ripple of contour dotted or streaked with a darker decoration.

The entire landscape viewed from the window of the train from Ljubljana to Rijeka is old snow and black trees. Sometimes it seems the land falls away sharply from the train tracks into a deep valley but it's so mist-filled it's deceptive, depth is blurred, and I'm glad the train knows how to pick its way through the sliding land levels, glides through mountains and comes out the other side.

The River Train (which gave this blog its name) is what I called the train from Ljubljana to Zagreb which runs alongside the river Sava, faithfully following its curves and contours. This train cuts through mountains. The embankments it slides through are black chunks of rock topped with their blankets of snow, so this is clearly the Rock Train.

I didn't think I'd be posting any more photos of snow but I couldn't resist one or two. Taken from the train window, most are blurry and indistinct, but the one with the pylons captures the starkness of the landscape. By the time we reached the border with Croatia the snow had disappeared.

The train arrives in Rijeka at dusk. It's a short walk from train station to bus station. A flock of dark birds swoops across the sky and I feel I have truly arrived.

The final part of my journey is a bus to Pula where I'm met by my host and driven to the nearby village of Liznjan. I am in a wonderful apartment, full of books in Croatian, German and English.

I go to bed and sleep for ten hours.

Wednesday, 28 February 2018

From Sea to Snow

By the river, 2 weeks ago

Between snow showers this morning the sky gleams blue, beaming with borrowed light. Then the grey cloud gathers like bunched silk, something languid, penitent almost, about this snow. It drifts in small grains, a barely revealed discovery of feeling, a timid emotion.

Silence, when I open the back door. No traffic sounds from the main road. Then one, just discernible, sounds like a plane. I can just see a lorry passing in the distance. Between snow showers I clear a path to the bird table put out piles of seed and fill the feeder. The birds are quiet this morning, dark specks pecking at the food. 

A crow call. Each sound is magnified. What’s this one? It really is a plane this time. Or is it the wind in trees? A train? Are the trains running? No, it is the wind. I have a pile of logs stacked by the fire. It is very peaceful.

The windows look like Christmas card windows, a dusty gathering of snow in corners. They never look like that at Christmas. But they do today, the last day of February.

Later I go out in the blizzard. The worst part is getting round the side of the house in the deep snow. 

Then down the hill where the snow comes up to the top of my boots. A tractor has recently gone along the back road and I walk in its tracks. The main road shows signs of some traffic having passed. 


A few days ago I walked along the clifftops at Berwick so I could look at the sea. It looked like this, welcoming the spring, no thought of snow.

Sunday, 11 February 2018

The Past - In Blue

On a recent walk among snowy fields these sculpted snow drifts made me think of the mountains of Afghanistan, similar in shape, with their smooth and sweeping folds, though entirely different in colour and size.

Later I think of the Alps, snow-covered mountains we crept up slowly, in blizzards, chains on the tyres. We left the little village near Grenoble, the big farmhouse with its log stove and its bare trees, a few forgotten pears squelching underfoot. What was the weather forecast? Were the mountain roads passable? This was a long time ago, long before the days of the internet. We talked to people in the village, listened to the radio, asked the people we were staying with.

There were different opinions, some in favour, some not. M was not the kind of person to be put off by other people’s fears or hesitations but no-one could tell for certain how bad the snow would be in the next few days. He decided to go for it. He got hold of some chains for the tyres, I forget how. We picked up some provisions in Chamonix, snow swirling in the streets. We were lucky, the roads stayed open, the car did not get stuck in the blizzards. We reached the Mont Blanc tunnel and on the other side, we were in Italy. It was night time, we pulled off the road and slept in the back of the car. We woke in the morning to sunlight and mountains and no snow on the road at all.

Seeing the sculpted snow drifts and thinking of the Alps reminded me that I had written a story and other pieces about that time in France and in Italy and made me want to find them, so when I got home I went into the cold attic to rummage around in various boxes and folders. And I unearthed the stories and some other things too I had quite forgotten I had written. Reading these stories again gave me the feeling of reconnecting with my past. 


Tuesday, 16 January 2018

Snow and cakes

It’s been snowing almost continuously all day. Just beyond the house gardens a fairly inconspicuous little machine like a small tractor with tank treads pulling a long trailer has continued driving slowly up and down what has become a tree graveyard. Its attachment, like a metal hand with many adjustable prongs, once the tractor has stopped, can open and grip several tree trunks and deftly swing them onto the trailer.  When the tractor is moving slowly and the metal hand is not clamping and lifting trees, it swings innocuously at the end of the trailer. 

I’m sorry for the driver, out in this weather. I am more sorry for the trees, whose presence and shelter I took for granted, and for the birds who lived in them. I put bird food out several times today. These birds, my regulars, live in the large and sprawling hedge in my front garden. Perhaps they will be cosy enough there, the snow and hedge branches forming a kind of igloo.

We humans are great story makers. We create stories or narrative tales out of – let’s say perceptual material. The creative substance being the imaginative faculty, that seems to arise in the mind, working with a mixture of sense perceptions and memory. We fashion stories out of our lives, from a journey to a destination, to a visit to a friend, whatever happens, we have the capacity to shape raw material into a story.

From a young age don’t we love to listen to stories or read them? I think that creating stories of our lives we engage that higher perceptual faculty or consciousness. I remember the first time I experienced that I was about 7 or maybe 8 years old walking on my own one morning beside cliffs and sea, during the summer holidays, going into the small town to buy rolls for breakfast for the family. Feeling a sense of joy in the early morning and my surroundings I discovered that there was also an observer present, which was also myself, describing what was happening at the same time as I was living it. 

I’m not sure what links these lovely edible creations with the snow and the logs and the tree-collecting machine other than contiguity in time. The hedge branches laden with snow lean over the garden, the snow piles up on the path and I wonder how I will get to the bus stop tomorrow. Beauty in nature and beauty in creation. These cakes came all the way from Poland, (thank you so much J!) so carefully packed that only one of them was broken, the little rocking horse on the bottom left 

 I guess the snow won’t last long and the cakes certainly won’t.


Thursday, 4 January 2018

Arrival in Herat, Afghanistan

Credit: Cattle in Afghanistan by Annemarie Schwarzenbach from the Swiss National Archives

I recently discovered that, 75 years after her death in 1942, Annemarie Schwarzenbach’s photographs have been put into the public domain by the Swiss National Archive. (All the photographs on this post are from this archive.) 

I’m delighted by this as they capture a particular time in the history of Afghanistan. And because the people, the landscape and the buildings in her photographs look exactly as I remember them (whereas more modern photographs I can see online show a far more industrialized city which I do not recognize.) These photographs are a counterpart to her written descriptions and give me more information as I write about her travels, her life and the themes in her writing.

Credit: Swiss National Archive, photo by A Schwarzenbach, Herat

Incredible as it seems to me now, I did not take photographs when I travelled across Asia in the 1970s. And all the notes I wrote down were lost.

But I do remember the vast blue skies of Afghanistan. We arrived in Herat after travelling from Mashhad in Iran. In Herat, we found a place to stay, rooms in a typical Afghan dwelling on the outskirts of the city. The road outside was a dusty track. Ponies pulling the carts that were the main form of transport (gadis) had bells attached to their harness, and their jingling was the main sound I remember of Herat, especially in the evening, when there was a silence we were not accustomed to, no revving car engines, no TVs or radios, no late night revellers. There were no street lights, just the oil lamps gleaming in the chaikahns and little shops. People who walked past moved like dense shadows, almost soundlessly. Clear skies, full of stars, and the jingling of the ponies as they passed by in the street, outside the window. Where we were staying was near the tree lined avenue mentioned below and one day we hired horses and went riding in the surrounding countryside, under those peerless blue skies. 

Credit: Swiss National Archive, photo by A Schwarzenbach, Afghanistan

I remember the bread too, the flat and oval bread, I can remember how good it tasted, and the pilau rice, which was pretty much our staple diet. (Nothing in the west tastes as good.)

Credit: Swiss National Archive, photo by A Schwarzenbach, Herat

It was December but not cold. I was lucky enough to see this country when it was free and peaceful, before conflict and war began to tear it apart, beginning with the Russian invasion in 1979 and it still continues today, nearly 40 years later.

When Annemarie Schwarzenbach and Ella Maillart visited it in 1939, they took many photographs and wrote many articles. (Ella also wrote a book about their journey, The Cruel Way.) From their descriptions it had changed little in the almost 40 years between their visit and mine. But the war in Europe broke out while they were there. They both wanted to get away from the mounting tensions in Europe where already many of their friends had fled from the rising fascism in Germany. 

Once war was declared, their responses were different. Ella went on to India where she would spend the war years, in the ashram of an Indian teacher. Annemarie felt she could not as she saw it, abandon Europe to suffer alone. She felt she had to contribute to the struggle against fascism, and did so in the form of writing and photo-journalism. The piece below, which I’ve translated from Alle Wege sind Offen was written by Annemarie before war had been declared. They were newly arrived in Afghanistan and she would spend several weeks there before heading for India and travelling back to Europe by boat. 


From Alle Wege sind Offen/All the Roads are Open by Annemarie Schwarzenbach (my translation)

Herat, August 1st 1939

It's customary to date one's letters.  We've checked with each other several times and compared our personal journals, so there can be no doubt that today is the 1st August. But when will this letter reach my country?  Will the fires lit in celebration  already be forgotten, will this date appear obsolete and a little bizarre in a world that's grown accustomed to the radio?  It's a journalist's job to give information to newspapers, to be available at short notice and find outlets for their news, wherever they might be, at whatever hour of the day or night. At least, that might be the popular impression. So, here we are, not far from l'Amou-Daria, the Russian border of Turkestan and on the other side of the river there is a railway – but what importance do kilometres and timetables have here!

Credit: Swiss National Archive, photo by A Schwarzenbach, Afghanistan

At Meshad a young Iranian said to me, when he learned that we intended to drive to Afghanistan in our Ford,
'A camel is not as fast as a horse but it is more likely to reach its destination.'
Two days later we were mired in sand, in a no man's land near the Iranian-Afghan frontier post where there was not the slightest trace of any car having passed this way. By our calculations it could only be a matter of twenty or so metres, but each one of these took us almost half an hour and cost us considerable effort. That's when we could well have done with a horse or – even better – a couple of buffaloes...

Credit: Swiss National Archive, photo by A Schwarzenbach, Herat, Afghanistan

So it would surprise no-one to learn that when we finally reached Herat we felt we had good reason to light a 'celebratory fire' but it was simply too hot for that. From the yellow hills to the north of the town a constant and remorseless wind is blowing. We close all the windows in an attempt to keep a little coolness in the central room of our small house, which is completely devoid of shade. This will last for a month, the inhabitants of Herat tell us, and then we'll have a very pleasant autumn. That's why it's preferable to sleep in the afternoon and to wait for evening.

Credit: Swiss National Archive, photo by A Schwarzenbach, Herat, Afghanistan

I got up around five o'clock in the morning to drive the Ford to the chief mechanic. The shopkeepers were just opening their kiosks, filling their baskets with grapes, piling up pyramids of yellow and pale green melons, pouring milk into hanging sheepskins, and mixing in some powder and a little curdled milk from the day before to make the fresh curds ferment into whey. Men on horseback were galloping in the direction of the town centre, their white turbans floating behind them in the wind, donkeys were braying and the chief mechanic, wearing a superb grey Persian lambskin kula (sleeveless waistcoat) opened, with his helpers, the door of his courtyard. Inside, lying there in the morning sunlight, was the solitary wreck of a Chevrolet that had given up the ghost.

Our car has survived quite a few challenging situations – a sandstorm, deserts littered with  thistles and river beds filled with huge sharp stones. And only the day before, while I was crossing an ill-fated earthen bridge, the left side of the car slipped into a deep ditch, right in front of the house of the mudir we had just been visiting.  The chief mechanic tests the springs, smiles, and promises to do his best. I stay for a while and watch him working then make my way back.   Already it is almost too hot. So we wait for evening. And when the car is fixed we will leave, perhaps head north and spend the night somewhere in the mountains, where we can find shade, and where the nomads pitch their black tents.
Credit: Swiss National Archive, photo by A Schwarzenbach, Herat, Afghanistan

The evenings at Herat  are not exactly cool, but they are bathed in a golden light, and the pale moon sails above the old eroded ramparts of yellow clay, then it  floats in the direction of the foothills of the Hindu Kush, these blue mountains with spikes and peaks straight out of a fairytale. The alleyways of the bazaar are full of white turbans and respectable kulas and the streets that lead out of town vibrate a little to the rapid trotting of the splendid frisky horses which pull the two-wheeled gadis.  They head towards the pine-bordered avenue and the gardens beyond it, in this country of bare mountains. Up there, the camels of the great caravans crowd together and the bells tinkle....

Credit: Swiss National Archive - Annemarie Schwarzenbach, Afghanistan

A young Pole comes to see us – the only European in Herat, an engineer employed by the state to build roads, bridges and houses.
He asks us urgently, Have you any newspapers? Do you know what's happening in the world?
But we don't know any more than he does, it's been an effort for us even to work out the date. What political events are unfolding? But that is exactly what we want to escape from!
We're so far away here,  murmurs the young Pole, so far away!  He offers me a packet of real English cigarettes.

Credit: Swiss National Archive

To explain the significance of such a gift, here in this distant outpost of the world, would involve going into great detail. But night is falling, the wind has died down a little and the light is less intense. We're going to go out into the street, hail a gadi, one pulled by a white or piebald horse if possible.  The letters can wait, in this country time has no price tag attached to it. We are going back to the melons and peaches of Afghanistan.


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