Monday 30 May 2011

Sunday 29 May 2011

Reclining chair

This one's for Lilian.

Friday 27 May 2011

Releasing their words into the world

click to enlarge the poems

Thursday 26 May 2011

Photographing water

During the Easter holidays, I splurged on a new, tiny pocket camera. It's a beautiful small object (silver, not black as pictured), but I still haven't really got the feel of it. So, although it has a far higher spec than the one I've carried everywhere for the past four years, the pictures are interestingly different, but not better. I'm learning, though. For example, because it's much faster it seems, even on the most basic setting, to make a better fist of photographing moving water.

Wednesday 25 May 2011

The Way

I went to see The Way, the film written and directed by Emilio Estevez and starring his Dad, Martin Sheen, about the Camino de Santiago. I looked forward all though a stressful week to indulging in an undemanding, life-affirming film shot in nostalgic landscapes, some of which I walked through - oh, such a long time ago now. I was just a bit apprehensive that it might be, in the best cinematic tradition, too life-affirming and therefore only cloying.

Well, it wasn't that: a quiet film, really, under-plotted, with a blissfully underplayed central performance from Martin Sheen, who can command the screen by raising an eyebrow. The landscapes: yes, they were nostalgic. The low-key plot, the fairly realistic characters and lack of obvious resolutions made it all-too real - quite close to the bone, in fact.

An aging, prosperous Californian opthalmologist, fond of leaving work early to play golf (he has one of those flash little golf buggies, never walks a single hole) receives the shocking news that his middle-aged drop-out son has died in a storm on his first day walking the Camino de Santiago. He flies to Spain to identify the body and on impulse decides, armed with his son’s kit and his son's ashes in a box, to walk the Camino himself. He meets other walkers, notably a stout Dutchman hoping to lose weight, a sad, cynical Canadian woman who wants to give up smoking and a garrulous Irish writer with writer’s block. They’re a bit clich├ęd, but a pretty typical sample of the kind of person you might meet walking the Camino. The bereaved doctor doesn't feel sociable, but the path keeps throwing them together, weaves its own sense of community, its own spell. They meander and argue. We see a slowly changing landscape and slowly changing relationships. It’s a slowish film, as befits the story of a very long walk.

They make it all the way to Santiago and on to the sea, where Tom casts the last of his son’s ashes. There are no epiphanies along the way. The bereaved and regretful father remains regretful. The smoker doesn't give up. The fat man doesn't lose weight. The blocked writer doesn't conceive a great novel. They are just, with the power of the path and of perseverence, more present and awake, and this is true, I think, to the experience of many, many walkers of the Camino.

I liked the film. So why did I chew my fingers throughout and go home feeling so churned up? I suppose because, gently, disarmingly, it took me back there. Seeing these landscapes, beautifully filmed, seeing the path, the actual path, I felt discomfited, confronted, raw.

The questions: Could it really be fifteen years since I was here? Why had I not been back to walk the other half of the path? What had I done with its great gifts?

The answers, after a troubled night's sleep: Yup, fifteen years! I don't know why I haven't been back - the time has not, I guess, felt right; there's some internal path I have to reach the end of first, perhaps. Life did not change magically afterwards, become easier. But, just like the walkers in the film, I'm still here and, with time, I'm more alive, not less.

It's a gentle film that revels in a sense of place and keeps its messages to the simple, but not easy, ones: You are you. You are here. Be kind. Take nothing for granted. Keep walking.

Blue sky abstract

See today's Trail Mix, resumed this week after a break.

Tuesday 24 May 2011

Reflections of the sky

Busy, busy. Blue, blue sky above.

Sunday 22 May 2011

Friday 20 May 2011

A Free Life

This week, on the bus, I've been reading Ha Jin's ironically titled novel, A Free Life. Some time ago, I read Waiting, his coolly devastating novel about people and relationships destroyed by the Cultural Revolution in 1960s China. A Free Life is the equally clear-eyed and disturbing story of a post-1989 Chinese immigrant life in the US - not, or not entirely, his own story, but one drawing certainly on intimate knowledge of how it is for an intense, intellectual person to start again as an immigrant in a new and vastly different language and culture.

This is a wonderful novel, for its sharp and subtle social observation, its complex and equally subtle characterisation. The story of troubled, but ultimately resilient would-be poet Nan Liu, who spends more than a decade slaving with his wife, Pingping, to own a home and build a business (the classic aspirational immigrant story), hates himself for accepting a life with no time to write and finally gives it all up and takes a job as a night desk clerk in a motel that allows him that time, is compelling and unforgettable. Nan is not the immigrant stereotype and neither indeed are any of the other characters so tenderly, but unsentimentally drawn.

It's a tribute to Ha Jin's great skill with story and character that the trouble I have with his language did not decisively diminish my pleasure in the novel. I do have a bit of a problem with his writing style. He's a university professor of English literature and author of many books of prose and poetry in English, so it's not that the language is in any way limited or unsophisticated - far from it. The issue is much more subtle and therefore perhaps more troubling. I kept wondering: what is it that's not quite right? It is, I think, not quite the right voice or register for a novel (and who can define what that is? but I think one can feel it). Worse, the voice and register are uneven, across the book and also within a single sentence or paragraph. A good editor could have worked with the writer to fix this, surely. I have to assume that they chose not to, thought the ever-so-slightly-offness was a plus and not a minus, that it lent a stimulating jaggedness to the narrative. I can't agree. I suppose this is much the same disagreement that I have with some translators of fiction: the 'domestication' versus 'foreignisation' debate. It's a difficult issue. When reading an absorbing novel, the feeling comes first. Once one starts to think, it's not so clear-cut. Perhaps my view is not politically correct, in which case I've finally found an area where I can't go along with political correctness. I know I'm only bothered by this because I find so much else here to love, admire and enjoy.

When the novel was published in 2007, John Updike reviewed it for the New Yorker and I see that, unlike many reviewers, he did dwell on the language issue. He highlights different aspects, though: the odd, unexpected (to a native English-speaker) choices of vocabulary or metaphor, which I actually didn't find grating, but on the contrary enriching.

A big novel that very much engages the reader will give rise to many very personal responses. This is a big novel in every sense: a memorable, satisfying novel. Whilst very different in kind, its overall project is similar to that of The Transit of Venus: nothing less than to dramatise through a small cast of characters all the hardship, the tragedy and the consolations of life in a particular time and place. Like The Transit of Venus, it is remarkably, unusually successful in this. I can't wait to read more of Ha Jin's work.

Tuesday 17 May 2011

Meanwhile, back on Dave's porch

"The brown mountain of two weeks ago is now astonishingly green. Nothing I saw abroad holds a candle to this view, with its scarlet tanager"

It was great l to see you in London, Dave, and sad to see you go, but I'm so happy that you're happy to be home. This is what everyone should feel when they come home from a trip. It depends on having a home-place you love, and on the love and attention you bring to it. Thank you for sharing your home with us on the Internet, and for being one of those teaching me to pay attention.

Ancient Assyrian sacred tree, viewed with Dave at the British Museum. Astonishing and wonderful. But not as precious as the natural world right here, right now.

"His missing right hand...

...perhaps held a cup", said the label at the British Museum.

A poignant image and caption that made time stand still for a moment during a busy week. Ay, ay, so much work got done by me in the past week, I thought my head would fall off, never mind my right hand - smoke and curling fragments of words coming out of my ears. In between, though, some great times were spent hanging out with lovely London blogger friends and Dave Bonta, who was here for a few days on his way home to Pennsylvania after being invited to the celebrations of Clive Hicks-Jenkins' retrospective at the National Library of Wales. The exhibition includes text panels and audio-recordings of poems written by Dave, Marly Youmans and others in response to some of these beautiful paintings. The poems are also collected, together with superb reproductions, in The Book of Ystwyth (on website, click tab). It's all clearly exceptionally wonderful and I hope to get up to Aberystwyth to see it between now and August.

Monday 16 May 2011

Flickering images

I'm thinking about a place and my experience of that place that is clear in my mind, but evades depiction. It flickers. Something about being on the edge, on several edges.

The edge of France. Behind a Jura farmhouse, a path winds upwards through a wood and somewhere in the wood you are in Switzerland.

The edge of language fluency. The French I once spoke well enough that inattentive southerners might think me from the north, but lack of practice means that now I grope for words.

The edge of an ancient tradition, the language of plants. I would go out and gather, for jamjars on windowsills, wild flowers from the many that grew beside that path. A return to childhood, tripping through the woods with a basket. For all my ignorance of their names and properties, a deep attraction and peace in their presence. In the years since then I've learned more of their names, in French and in English, and some elements of medical herbalism as long practiced in both France and England.

The edge of my vision. On the last evening, the shadow of a deer emerging from the forest to run across the field behind the house, so fast I can never be sure it was real and not a trick of the light.

A time and place that flickers brightly at the edge of my heart.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - -

This is included in Language and Place On the Edge, Issue 6 of the >Language >Place blog carnival, edited by Michelle Elvy at Glow Worm

Sunday 15 May 2011

Been busy

Back soon.

Wednesday 11 May 2011

The future...

I think this text is actually on the office-block window as a marketing slogan (what else?) for a new broadband service or something. But, with the arty light and the tree reflection, it looks like something rather more profound!

Tuesday 10 May 2011

Two minds

There's the mind that finds this life consistently dismaying, frightening, that teeters on the edge of despair and hopelessness, exists by the skin of its teeth and from one day to the next. And there's the mind that despite this finds joy in people and art and nature, interest in many things, comes here and lines up these findings like a row of treasured little objects on a windowsill.

Is this a mind on the edge of breakdown? Or is it normal, 'just life', to feel like this? Sometimes I think it's just life and sometimes I think it's just me, that I never learned to live and with age it gets only harder to pretend.

Sometimes I think this is how it is for every rational mind - dismay for much of the time, for every beating, emotional heart - so much pain and fear.

Sometimes I think that what keeps people going against the odds is not the mind and not the heart, but instinct, appetites; that my problem, the reason I live so close to the edge, is my lifelong all too effective inhibition of appetites. It goes back to those days of my earliest memories, two or three years old, when my instinct was to scream and kick, but, convinced that my parents would give me away if I kept on doing this (a harsh parental discourse, but also, even then, my own over-reaction), I started learning to at all times inhibit the instinctive, not to act.

In the absence of appetites, of primal energy and resilience, there remain thought and emotion, pleasure in the beautiful and interest in the intriguing. Not enough, but something.

Monday 9 May 2011

The Transit of Venus

I've just finished The Transit of Venus by Shirley Hazzard, which I acquired after reading a fascinating and provoking review on Tales from the Reading Room and several more from Litlove's fellow Slaves of Golconda (scroll down a bit). I liked it very much, though it's a difficult, wordy, sometimes jarring novel. It's a loaded novel: words, sentences, characters, story all loaded with allusion, significance, complexity. Nothing less than an attempt to distill the meaning and the meaninglessness of everything. It's about the growth of an age and of individuals in the wake of World War II, of flawed, difficult people, sometimes vile, more often simply cowardly. It's pregnant with sadness and resignation, with the waste and cruelty and destruction of the new prosperity and of people's personal choices, with the tragic sense of missed opportunities that so rarely come around again - as rarely as the Transit of Venus. It's a heavy book lightened by the beauty of language and the way it winds around these sad, frustrating, recognisable stories. The effect of such dense language, description and linkage could have been excessively cerebral. It isn't: the effect of this density is a thickly physical evocation of place and people. The tragedy of life is searingly portrayed. So too is its redemption occasionally by love and often by beauty. It's like no other novel I've read, and it's really rather wonderful.

Sunday 8 May 2011


Taking photos makes me stop and notice things, find out things I otherwise never would. My eye was caught one day during the holidays by this statue and the jars of medicines in the window of the Institute of Chinese Medicine just off Trafalgar Square. I photographed the dried Sweetgum fruits because they were visually beautiful and interesting, and new to me. When I got home and looked them up I found there was a particular reason these were in the window. A well-known remedy in both Chinese and North American traditional medicine, Sweetgum is now in demand by the mainstream pharmaceutical industry as a source of shikimic acid, an ingredient in the manufacture of Tamiflu.

Friday 6 May 2011


I know I said I’d stop going on about Antonio Munoz Molina. I can’t. I so love his writing. Many of his books are available in English translation. No doubt I'll be reading the major works and trying to write about them. I thought I’d start with something shorter, though, as I’ve been so tired in recent months and struggling a bit with the challenging reading I normally think nothing of (I’ve given up for now on the first volume of Javier Marias’ Your Face Tomorrow – will certainly return to it). So I bought a short novel published more than a decade ago, Carlota Fainberg, which I've been reading this week on my bus journeys to work. Going back to work after two weeks off is surreally difficult, a matter of deep breaths and one moment at a time. I’ve therefore been grateful to find this novel so absorbing, vivid, thought-provoking, very funny but also disturbing.

Two Spaniards, a talkative, globetrotting businessman and a reticent academic teaching at a nearby university, meet at Pittsburgh airport, trapped there by a blizzard. The academic is flying to Buenos Aires, looking forward to it – if he ever gets to leave, that it is; as the snow keeps falling, he’s starting to fear that the trip won’t happen. Whilst rather appalled by the crass, self-confident businessman who intrusively assumes that a fellow countryman will welcome his company for however long they’re stuck there, he submits to it as a distraction, sits and listens to what becomes an account of the other man’s trip to Buenos Aires some years earlier, his stay in an alarmingly dilapidated grand hotel and the unforgettable woman he met there (evoked in lurid terms not used these days on a US university campus; the listener winces, but keeps listening). It’s very compelling. I’m only half way through.

Yesterday, I turned to the author’s blog and found a post headed To Buenos Aires! He was writing from a New York airport, about to fly there that very day, reminiscing about earlier trips in times of dilapidation, economic collapse and political repression, welcoming recent changes for the better, the new life and cheer in the city. I have rarely felt, on discovering a new writer, such excitement, such connection, such happy anticipation of discovering all his works. As I started reading the blog-post, I hugged myself with joy. Synchronicity happens!

Wednesday 4 May 2011

Painted on glass

Floating like clouds in last week's sunshine: a neighbouring building reflected in the beautiful glass cylinder built in recent years over the entrance to the crypt at St Martin-in-the-Fields church in Trafalgar Square, which houses both a public restaurant and St Martin's well known day and residential services for homeless people. As well as the glass-cylinder entrance, the renewal works created a large open circular well next to the church and above the crypt, bringing light and air into the lower level. Engraved around the ballustrade of the lightwell is a poem by Andrew Motion, who was Poet Laureate when the new buildings were opened. It's heartlifting to see new architecture that is beautiful and inspiring and enhances old buildings both practically and aesthetically. The new projects I admire nearly always involve whole walls of glass, bringing daylight inside, and outside reflecting surrounding nature or historic buildings - truly a magical power of modern construction technologies. Far too few like this, of course.

Tuesday 3 May 2011

Tempting fate

Swore I'd say nothing until I reached this milestone, would not tempt fate. It's taken six months - very slow, deliberately so, knowing where more drastic weight-loss diets often end. Still a long way to go to a healthy weight, perhaps another six months, but lighter now than I've been for much more than a decade. A startled, mostly pleasurable unfamiliarity I wake up to even on the worst of days. Not only pleasurable: all kinds of feelings smothered for so long in flesh, hunger before meals in a belly that's forgotten this sensation and confuses it with fear. It's why everything else has been harder in recent months. It may be wasted effort, destined only for rapid reversal (or maybe the experience of struggling with addiction is never wasted, even if it gets the better of you?). This, when the change becomes inwardly and outwardly apparent, is probably the time of highest risk. Tremulous and trivial and enormous, it's still tempting fate. Yikes, is that a rib? a muscle

Monday 2 May 2011

What I could

Today was windy. The trees rocking. Glinting sunshine with little warmth. Back to work tomorrow. Washed and mended what I could.

Sunday 1 May 2011


It's the light reflecting off the surface of the tables - must go there again.  Only to be done when alone or with at least two others, I feel. Turning away to pose and photograph your wine-glass on the next table probably rivals talking on your mobile as annoying restaurant behaviour. 


The long break almost over and gone. It's been such a privilege, such a gift, this time and the nearly unbroken sunshine. Like most gifts, the pleasure of it up to the receiver, and this receiver still avid, somehow, for something, for everything, but extending the weakest of grasps and feeling massively guilty for not summoning more. The muddle within. And the greater muddle without: I shan't forget the sheepish voice of the newsreader required to pass straight from the wedding to Libya. The precious, absurd, unbearable moment when the seamless discourse almost falters. Ba(a)h.