The Mountains of Persia

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There is a bar in Belgrade called the World Traveller’s Club. It is in the basement of an apartment block in the city centre and to gain entrance you are required to ring the door bell at street level and state your business over the intercom. These days the club, which is alternatively known as the Federal Association of Globetrotters, is just one of many quirky bars in the city – homespun decor, art school daubings on the walls, miscellaneous furniture that includes Singer trestle sewing machines for tables, posters of iconic foreign destinations like Paris and Rome. The bar, as it proudly declares on its menu, was established in 1999. The date is significant.

In 1999 Belgrade was the capital of a land still known as Yugoslavia, a much depleted country that by that stage of the breakup consisted of just Serbia, Montenegro and Kosovo. Internationally, the country was considered as a pariah state thanks to the continuing ultra-nationalist regime of Slobodan Milošević. 1999 was also the year that NATO bombs fell on Belgrade and other Serbian cities. It was neither a good place to be nor somewhere that was easy to escape from – a Yugoslav passport, once a document that allowed easy access to both West and Eastern bloc, no longer held any currency. Such a document would get you nowhere.

It goes without saying that not everybody in Serbia was happy with Milošević’s stubborn and didactic rule. Most young people in Belgrade just wanted to do what young people did everywhere – live, love, make mistakes, have fun, travel. Many of these were still possible to some extent but travel was clearly out of the question. As a reaction to this difficult state of affairs a few people came together to create the World Traveller’s Club, a safe welcoming environment where people could meet to travel in their imagination if not in real space. Initially membership was by invitation only. These days anyone can visit although the bar’s original purpose no longer holds much significance other than a reminder of difficult times.

Turn the clock back thirty years, back to a time when foreign journeys required a wider leap of the imagination. In the pre-Internet age any inspiration for travel for its own sake was dependent on books, photographs and the anecdotes of others. In the 1970 film Performance, the Turner character, a reclusive rock star played by Mick Jagger as a caricatured version of himself, reads aloud from a Persian text, The Old Man of the Mountains. A postcard is displayed entitled The Mountains of Persia. Both text and image represent a sort of paradise – that which is unattainable, a dream destination for the two men thrown together in self-isolation in Turner’s Notting Hill Gate basement. Turner is living as a recluse, hiding from fame and perhaps the fear that his powers are diminishing; Chas, the James Fox character, is keeping a low profile to avoid the attention of fellow gangsters. The idealised mountains of Persia represent a sanctuary where both men might manage to escape their past lives.

The curtailment of free movement as in late 1990s Yugoslavia is hard to imagine these days. Many of us in the developed world take travel for granted almost as a birthright. This is especially true in an age in which jet travel is both cheap and easily available, and a journey, a holiday or even an off-the-peg adventure, can be booked with the click of a return key. Now, suddenly, in the light of a rapidly worsening pandemic, we need to think anew. We must accept that for a while at least, probably some considerable time, we are not going anywhere. Perhaps now is the time to form our own fraternities and sororities of imagined exploration? Any globetrotting must be virtual and digital. For the foreseeable future wanderlust is going to be just that, a lust for something unattainable. In this respect I am lucky I suppose. For a number of reasons, in recent years I have come round to thinking that it is just as fruitful to explore my own backyard as it is any exotic far-flung destination. I have grown weary of airports and the mechanical human processing that takes place, the tiresome, albeit necessary, security measures. As B. B. King sang of another sort of love affair, The Thrill Is Gone. The notion of ‘slow travel’ and all that it represents has for me become something that has gone beyond simply an attractive-sounding travel franchise. These days I really do prefer to slow down, to cover a smaller area, to discover the beauty of the local, to chart the quotidian. Less is undoubtedly more but that is easy to say for someone like me who already has the T-shirts, the passport stamps, the photographs, the anecdotes, the well-thumbed guidebooks on the shelves.

In the plague-year situation that the world now finds itself in to complain about restricted movement seems, at the very least, churlish. As we enter what seems like late capitalism’s final closing down sale (‘Everything Must Go!’) we have become, as the columnist Marina Warner has recently written, ‘a nation of shopfighters’. While shoppers squabble over toilet paper in supermarket aisles and some wealthier hoarders, like newly arrived Beaker folk mocking the simple ways of those who still rely on cupped hands, purchase additional freezers for the storage of their panic-shopped supplies, we should maybe reflect on what we (or, rather, some of us) have become. It is an opportunity perhaps to show a little more respect to the land that we walk upon, for the earth that feeds us; a little more kindness to those we share it with. For the time being we can just look out of the window and dream. At the other end of all this the mountains of Persia will still be there.

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Photographs: Karakhanad, Yazd region, Iran 2008  ©Laurence Mitchell

Posted in Balkans, film, Travel | Tagged , , , , , , | 14 Comments

Winter Light

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Even in winter, the northeast Norfolk coast has its attractions, especially over the Christmas and New Year period when many flock here to see the grey seals that come to the beaches of Winterton and Horsey to give birth. For many it is an annual outing, an opportunity to walk off seasonal excesses, to get close to nature, to delight in the spectacle of the seals and their pups. Some are tempted to get too close, of course, but these days a dedicated army of volunteers in hi-vis orange jackets ensure that visitors and their naturally curious dogs do not disturb the vulnerable animals on the beach.

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We arrive to find grey seal mothers and their fluffy-coated pups scattered like driftwood along the shoreline. Some are on the sand close to the breaking waves, while others are further inshore along the tideline, or even in the hollows of the dunes that back this coastline. Here and then along the beach, a hefty bull seal waddles in awkwardly from the surf to try his luck with one of the nursing females – this is the season for both breeding and mating.

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The seals are not the only creatures of interest here today: walking north along the beach, a small flock of snow buntings – perhaps 20 or 30 birds – rise like a flurry of sleet on our approach before setting down again a little further ahead. Winter visitors from much further north in Scandinavia and the Arctic, they resemble frosted sparrows as they peck busily at the seaweed, sticking close together for security.

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The seals and birds are engaging but the real star this cold January afternoon is the quality of the light, which morphs from gloom to gleaming in the space of half an hour. At first it seems as if the sky is weighed down like stone beneath a dense slate-grey sheet of stratocumulus but cracks soon appear and, like a hagstone held to the eye, an opening forms in the clouds to reveal the blue that lies beyond. As the sun loses height  beneath the cloud layer, shafts of pale golden light break through. The play of light on the dunes invokes a ghostly atmosphere. The wind-bent marram grass of the dunes, caught in the glow, seems almost fluid – an impressionist rendering of a wave-tossed ocean. In the distance, beyond the luminous marram, the Perpendicular tower of Winterton’s Holy Trinity and All Saints’ Church rises loftily above the crouched bungalow roofs of the village. This fleeting serendipity of light gives the scene a numinous quality, an eerie supernatural glimmer. It is a scene that might be co-opted for the cover of a book of ghost stories – a lost work by M.R. James perhaps.

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Posted in Norfolk, Travel, wildlife | Tagged , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

Blakean Spirit

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I wander thro’ each charter’d street,

Near where the charter’d Thames does flow. 

And mark in every face I meet

Marks of weakness, marks of woe.

William Blake London

Last week I paid a visit to London to go and see the Blake exhibition at Tate Britain. Every visit to London – not so frequent these days – seems to reveal yet more new building projects, more cranes on the skyline, more high blue fences. Multinational finance keen to invest in real estate seems intent on filling in any remaining gaps, such as they are, with new buildings – a new transistor soldered onto the crowded circuit board that is hi-rise central London. Each new piece of architectural bling serves as a totem to (someone else’s) capital. Meanwhile, the people on the street, who hurry between meetings, or stand hunched smoking and phone-swiping outside revolving glass doors, appear indifferent to the edifices that rise above them as if they were little more than fill-in detail on an architect’s plan.

The affect can be alienating. I cannot relate to any of this: my own navigation of the city depends on outdated mental maps and more familiar topography. Peering through the few remaining gaps in the crowded cityscape I am at least able to identify some landmarks by their distinctive form or superior height – the London Stadium fronted by Anish Kapoor’s helter-skelter Orbit sculpture, the Shard, the Gherkin, the pyramid-topped One Canada Square. But even these relatively familiar sights are less old friends than over-enthusiastic schoolboys with their hands up – ‘Me, Sir! Me, Sir!’

I have to face it: this is not my city. But whose is it? Who does it speak to?

Two hundred or so years ago, London spoke to William Blake but the city he lived in has now largely vanished. All that remains is location and shabbily dressed ghosts. In 1820 – exactly two hundred years ago – Blake moved with his wife Catherine to the last place they would live together, a house at Fountain Court off the Strand. It was here, approaching the end of his life, where he experienced his most profound visions, and where he was judged – the jury will always be out – to be either genius or madman. While living here he must have come close to bumping into fellow traveller (and ‘madman’) John Clare, who on one of his rare visits to the capital lodged nearby, although no such meeting has been recorded. The pair had much in common – Blake, an engraver, artist, poet; Clare, a labourer, fence-builder, poet. Both visionaries of sorts, both opposed to militarism and empire, both horrified by the desecration they saw coming in the guise of the Industrial Revolution.

Coming out of the exhibition, almost cross-eyed from hours of peering at intricate artwork and deciphering Lilliputian script in low light, my friend Nigel Roberts remarked that it was actually a good thing that nothing remained of any of Blake’s London homes – his legacy was one of pure spirit. All that marked his various residences was its former address (if the street still existed) and an optional blue plaque. Even the monument at Bunhill Fields (a place I had visited defiantly on the day they buried Margaret Thatcher, an anti-Blake figure if ever there was one) was merely a memorial stone not a grave marker. The common grave he was actually buried in went unmarked until August 2018, when a ledger stone was finally put in place with the legend: Here lies William Blake 1757—1827 Poet Artist Prophet.

What did remain, in addition to an enormous body of work and a roll-call of sacred locations, was Blake’s indelible imprint on the city. Like a sleeping giant, any future London, however changed or corrupted its topography, would invariably retain a Blakean spirit, a spirit that could be evoked on demand. Blake’s legacy does not depend on bricks and mortar. Here was a man who could see a world in a grain of sand, and angels in a tree at Peckham Rye.

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All Fall Down

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Two weeks ago I read a news article about the demolition of the cooling towers at Ironbridge on the River Severn in Shropshire. Their final demise was witnessed by many who came to see the four great towers collapsing after a controlled detonation. The towers had stood for exactly half a century. Opened in 1969, the power station they belonged to had stopped generating electricity in November 2015. At one time it had provided enough electricity to power the equivalent of 750,000 homes. The space that will be made available by their removal should be sufficient for around 1,000 new homes, a park and ride, a school and leisure facilities.

Before they came down the towers received a musical farewell when Zoë Beyers from the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire performed a solo violin piece on one of the tower platforms. The music was elegaic, an echo of the mournfulness felt by local residents and former power station workers for whom the towers had been a large part of their life. Reduced in seconds to a mere imprint of memory, the Ironbridge geography was instantly transformed for those who lived there. Particularly poignant was the fact that a little way downriver was the original Iron Bridge built in 1781, the first major bridge of its kind in the world. It was no stretch of truth to infer that it was here in Shropshire at Ironbridge and nearby Coalbrookdale that the Industrial Revolution really began.

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In my, admittedly limited, experience cooling towers have always stood for something. They were markers on the landscape that held deeper meaning than just supersized industrial chimneys. Travelling north up the A1(M), the cluster of eight towers at Ferrybridge in West Yorkshire always seemed to mark an arrival in the North far more effectively than any roadside sign could. Their presence spoke of a cultural transition as much as a geographical one, a shift of emphasis from pastoral to industrial. But these too were earmarked for destruction, and in 2019 five of the towers were demolished. The remaining three will be removed by summer 2021. Similarly, the pair of cooling towers that used to stand outside Sheffield at Tinsley overlooking the M1 motorway always seemed like an omphalos for Don Valley industry – a centre of gravity for the steel, coal, fire and dirt of South Yorkshire. These were of particular significance for me as they were visible from the classroom where, in a previous life, I had my first practical experience as a geography teacher. These twin towers – the ‘salt and pepper pots’ as they were sometimes known – had been redundant since the 1970s, although they managed to remain standing until 2008. Despite a scheme to convert them into giant works of public art they could not be saved. Now they are gone, redacted from the landscape, as are the steel foundries of Sheffield’s Brightside – the industrial endeavour of generations of Sheffield lives reduced to little more than memory and a plaque at a shopping mall

I do not wish to romanticise coal-fired power production – it is undeniably dirty, polluting and a significant contributor to climate change – but I cannot help but find some of the fabric of its production strangely beautiful. Smoke-belching cooling towers may well be the embodiment of Blake’s dark satanic mills but, once abandoned, the heft of their curving brickwork seems to take on an eerie beauty. Silent witnesses of the recent industrial past, their inhuman scale and brooding presence make them emblematic of the hubris that persists in these uncertain times.

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Posted in History, Midlands, Northern England | Tagged , , , , , | 4 Comments

The Crossing Place

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A pinch of the River Clyde; a squeezing of the water that flows west through Glasgow towards the sea; a watery place where shipyards once dominated the shoreline and the air shook with the hammering of rivets, the scrape and spark of steel plate, the blinding blue light of arc welding. Across the river, south of the here, lies the city district of Govan, depleted of industry now but once the hub for shipbuilding in the region. Here on the northern bank, at Glasgow Harbour on the site of a former shipyard on the edge of Partick, we stand outside the city’s Riverside Museum. The museum is an arresting zinc and glass structure with a steeply curving roofline that resembles a cardiogram – a late work by the Anglo-Iraqi architect Zaha Hadid.

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Afloat in the water in front of the museum, in purposeful contrast, is the handsome three-masted sailing ship Glenlee, a trading ship that after circumnavigating the world four times (and rounding Cape Horn 15 times) ended her nautical life as Galatea, a training vessel for the Spanish Navy. Abandoned and forgotten in Seville the ship was eventually saved by a British naval architect and in 1993 was towed home to Glasgow to end her days on the river of her birth. From the deck of Glenlee we can make out the old buildings of Govan across the water. But there is no way to cross, not outside the summer months anyway, as the seasonal ferry has stopped operating. So it means a retreat on foot back to Partick Subway station to take the Inner Circle beneath the river to reach our goal on the other side.

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Emerging from the subway into the bright sunlight of a gleaming autumn day, the Govan streets seems quiet, provincial even; not quite what we had been expecting. The Victorian buildings have a patina of age but are well-scrubbed, made of sandstone the colour of ginger cake. Govan’s Old Parish Church is built of the same stone.

Govan is the oldest part of Glasgow. Until 1912 it was a separate burgh that was historically part of Lanarkshire. Once a centre for the ancient Kingdom of Strathclyde or Alt Clut, it was the northernmost part of the Cumbric (a variant of Brythonic or Old Welsh)-speaking region of Hen Ogledd* or the Old North. A monastery was founded here in the 7th-century by King Constantine (later to be canonised as St Constantine of Strathclyde and Govan), to whom the Old Govan Parish Church is dedicated. In the early medieval period Govan was ruled from Dumbarton Rock at the mouth of the Clyde on the opposite shore until it was destroyed by Vikings in 870AD. The Kingdom of Strathclyde, the only part of the Old North not to be conquered by Anglo-Saxons, eventually became part of the Kingdom of Scotland in the 11th century.

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Govan Old Parish Church is home to the Govan Stones, a remarkable collection of 31 grave markers that date back to the 9th century. The church, a fine Scottish Gothic Revival building, is not so old but it stands on a sacred site that was in existence long before the Normans came to dominate the lands to the south. Our timing is impeccable – October 31, the Celtic festival of Samhain – is the last day of the year on which the church is open. As our enthusiastic Scottish-Canadian guide explains, it is too expensive to keep the church heated for the winter months and so it is locked up for the duration.

IMG_7566 The stones are arranged around the church interior so as to make a circuit. There is intricate Celtic lattice work on the first two – the ‘Sun Stone’ and the Jordanhill Cross – and on the third, the ‘Cuddy Stane’, a representation of a man on a horse, or possibly a donkey (‘cuddy’) bearing a Christ figure. A group of five Viking hogbacks, dark and heavy, and resembling those giant slugs that sometimes venture out along garden paths after rain, dominate the transept.  Unnoticed until is pointed out to us, the paws of a supine bear clutch one of the stones at its corners, a complex symbol that combines animal strength and tenderness and might, perhaps, relate to the high-ranking Viking it commemorates. The highlight of the collection is probably the Govan Sarcophagus, the only one of its kind from the pre-Norman era, which was unearthed in the graveyard in 1855. This intricately carved structure is thought to have once held the remains of King Constantine himself, although its symbols suggest that is more likely to have been made a couple of centuries after his death. Elsewhere are ancient stones that have been recycled as markers for later graves – palimpsests where earlier detail has been erased to allow a new name to be cut into the stone.

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The stone for each of the grave markers, like the church itself, comes from the hills across the Clyde. The feat of moving such a heft of stone might seem Herculean in its endeavour but a millennium ago the river would have been shallower and narrower and there would have been a ford across it; there may even have been stepping stones bridging the two shores. Later, in the medieval period, a ferry would have run between the two banks to transport Highland cattle drovers and their stock across the river to markets south of Glasgow.

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By the 19th century Govan became better known as a centre for shipbuilding. It would go on to achieve fame as the birthplace of strong-willed characters like Jimmy Reed, Sir Alex Ferguson and Kenny Dalglish. But long before any ship was launched, Govan was a strategic and spiritual centre where Britonnic, Celtic and Scandinavian worlds overlapped thanks to an important crossing place on the river. If the Govan Stones could speak of those who carved them they would, of course, tell you this… in Cumbric naturally.

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*Hen Ogledd is also the name of an excellent Newcastle-based musical combo whose work sometimes references the early medieval Brythonic world their name suggests

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Over the Ofer

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Ofer: Old English word for border or edge

As I have mentioned here before, I have been working on a book project for some time. A book about a walk – a sort of pagan pilgrimage – made across England and Wales, from Great Yarmouth to Aberystwyth. A book that you might find filed under Travel/Memoir in all good bookshops… well, once I find a publisher that is. Anyway, the book is nearly complete and to give a taste I will not post text but instead a series of photographs taken during the last stretch of my journey across central Wales.

Converted into stark monochrome by the wonders of Photoshop, these might be considered to be embedded images that have been temporarily exiled from their place in the narrative. They depict scenes from the road (or track, or footpath) between the Welsh border (Kerry Pole) to the Irish Sea (Aberystwyth). I have also juxtaposed a few apposite quotes  but am working on the assumption that each picture paints a thousand words. So, here are 17,000 words on Wales. Or, if you prefer, 17 stories.

For more on the Ystwyth Valley you might also want to look here or here.

 

Kerry Ridgeway

You cannot live in the present.                                                                                                          At least not in Wales                                                                                                                             

R S Thomas Welsh Landscape

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Llanidloes to Llangurig

Where was it he was born, Ianto? Llanidloes, was it?                                                                  Nah, Llangurig.                                                                                                                                    Well that area anyway. Inland like. Farms and mountains, fuck all else. That’s all there is yer, just farms and mountains.

 Niall Griffiths Sheepshagger

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Llangurig – Powys to Ceredigion

Hush, not a word. When we’ve finished milking                                                                         And the stars go quiet, we’ll get out the car                                                                                  And go to Llangurig

R S Thomas Border Blues

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Ystwyth River

ystwyth (Welsh) adjective:  supple, flexible, pliable

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Aberystwyth

The cure for anything is salt water: sweat, tears or the sea.                                                    

Isak Dinesen Seven Gothic Tales

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Riasg Buidhe – an abandoned village on the Isle of Colonsay

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It is not that easy to find but if you go to the recycling depot at the highest point on the road between Scalasaig and Kiloran on the Isle of Colonsay, then follow the rough track that leads towards the coast, you will eventually stumble upon it.  The abandoned village of Riasg Buidhe lies a kilometre or so east of the road. The Gaelic name translates as ‘yellow moor grass’, although how yellow the grass is tends to depend on the time of year and how much recent rainfall there has been.

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Walking towards the sea, the Paps of Jura rising across the water like a squirming sea monster, the village ruins slowly pull into focus ahead – a freestanding gable here, a dry stone wall there. The most notable of the ruins is a row of terraced cottages, seven in total, each one now roofless and overgrown with bracken and foxgloves. The cottages are probably of 18th century origin with chimneys and fireplaces added in the 19th century. Originally rush-thatched, their roofs, long-rotted away, are now notable by their absence.

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Formerly a village associated with run-rig agriculture, Riasg Buidhe transformed, with encouragement from the local laird, into a herring fishing community in the late 19th century. The transformation was not wholly successful however, as shortly after embarking on this new venture a great storm silted up the approach to the curing station on neighbouring Islay. The villagers then tried their hand at lobster fishing, pursuing this as a livelihood until the coming of the Great War, after which they left the village for good.

A community had existed at Riasg Buidhe for more than a millennium. Of far greater antiquity than the cottages are the chapel and burial ground that stand to the south of the village. Little remains of the chapel today and clear identification on the ground demands a keen archaeological eye although a few un-inscribed gravestones can still be seen. Southeast of the chapel was the village’s water supply: a well that was once marked with a finely carved cross. This we had seen a few days earlier in the gardens at Colonsay House, where it had been ‘taken into safekeeping’ and repositioned next to another well (Tobar Odhrain – ‘St Oran’s Well’) in the 19th century. The cross, known locally as Dealbh na Leisge (‘the sleepy figure’), is believed to date from the 8th or 9th century and portrays a cleric with a tonsure. Its reverse bears a fertility figure, a reflection perhaps of the pluralistic faith of the Viking settlers who occupied the island when the stone was carved.

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Walking among the ruins, exploring the terraced cottages and trying to make sense of the village layout, the sense of absence is palpable: a tangible awareness of long centuries of human presence and then sudden abandonment. Standing within one of the cottages and looking up, the low walls make a frame for the ever-changing Hebridean sky above, which one moment may be cirrus-flecked blue, and the next, a silver-grey glower of cumulus that threatens rain. These same stone walls and the small, bare living spaces they enclosed would once have rang with children’s voices, Gaelic song, whispered endearments, perhaps heated argument. Like all ruins, they were a stone repository of memory.

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There is an echo here of the much-photographed terraced cottages on Hirta in the St Kilda archipelago. These are similar in structure and size yet Riasg Buidhe was a very different community to that of far more isolated St Kilda. The villagers here were never evacuated wholesale to start a new life on the Scottish mainland, nor were they driven from their homes by the hated clearances that plagued much of the rest of highland and island Scotland. Instead, they moved away simply because of the provision of new homes at Glassard on the coast just a few kilometres away. With more comfortable and better equipped housing on offer, who could blame them?

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Posted in History, Islands, Scotland | Tagged , , , , , , | 9 Comments

Black Sea, Blue Sky – Balkan Rain

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This rain that has been falling almost incessantly here for the past 48 72 hours seems to have followed me back home from the Balkans. Travelling coast to coast, from Adriatic to Black Sea, over a three week period I experienced completely rain-free days only at the very beginning and end of my trip.

After a sunny start in Zadar on the Croatian coast a low blanket of rain cloud followed me all the way from Dalmatia to Srem, then eastwards to the Serbian capital. Rainfall dampened most of my days in Belgrade, pooling the pot-holed pavements of the Old Town, swelling the Danube and Sava rivers, soaking my inadequately-clad feet. The view from my apartment window was drear, smeared by a greasy film of droplets forever abseiling earthwards. Rain’s moist music filled my ears: gurgling drainpipes, the subliminal hiss of drizzle; the soft tintinnabulation of raindrops on roof tiles whenever it started to fall a little more heavily; in the distance, the rhythmic swish of car tyres riding wet cobbles. Any ventures outdoors necessitated frequent dodging into doorways and regular respite of strong coffee in smoky kafanas. Smudged ink in notebooks, vital scribblings rendered Rorschach by an ever-leaky sky – uninterpretable, beyond analysis. Water dissolvingand water removing, the song goes. There is water at the bottom of the ocean! Yes, but there was water in the streets too; thoroughfares transmogrified to shallow streams, solid surface rendered fluid.

I followed the Danube east then south along the Romanian border, enjoying a brief interregnum of fine weather before thick cloud and more rain greeted me at the east Serbian city of Zaječar. Reaching Niš, a balmy afternoon gave way to a brutal evening storm, with rainfall as dramatic and sudden as an opened sluice, lightning flashes illuminating the street like magnesium flares. Southern Serbia was a little better – just drizzle in Vranje and hazy sunshine in Pirot, although after dark it rained some more. Railroading into Bulgaria I thought I might have finally left the bad weather behind me but it was sheeting down in Sofia when I arrived, too wet to venture far from the shelter of the railway station while I waited for the overnight train to Burgas.

Mercifully, I finally managed to escape the rain on the Black Sea coast. I took a minibus to Ahtopol, the most southerly town on the Bulgarian littoral. By my reckoning this would be about as far away as possible from the concrete over-development that plagues much of the coastline. Ahtopol turned out to be refreshingly low-key: a quiet resort that still possessed a modest fishing fleet and a measure of unspoiled charm. Although summer had arrived the town was still locked in preseason inertia. The town’s beaches were virtually deserted, serried ranks of sunshades still unfurled. The sky – at long last – was blue, as was the water (not black at all). Tiny boats bobbed out to sea on gentle waves. Wild flowers bloomed on the cliff tops. Hyperactive flocks of house martins swooped low along the shore collecting flies to feed their young. In the overgrown scrubby area that led down to the beach, hidden nightingales sang, their joyous bubbling out-competing the construction noise of  workmen trying to coax a new-build hotel into service for the season.

I had a couple of days before my flight home and so made the most of this long-awaited clement weather. Even so, I scanned every passing cloud, even the most flimsy and innocent-looking, for any sign of rain to come.

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Ghosts of Mattancherry

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The best of India is often seen in the slow hours before breakfast, the time of day when the subcontinent’s multitude of people and gods stir themselves in the cool mercury light that follows dawn.

On my last day in India I rose early to retrace steps from a walk I had made the day before. Down to the Mattancherry shore, to the narrow streets of the area known as Jew Town, a small waterside enclave of the port city of Kochi. The name was self-explanatory, although very few Jews now lived in the vicinity as most had left for a new life in Israel in the 1940s.

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In the midday heat of the previous day there had been the usual noise and mayhem, the customary bluster that accompanied daily life in any Indian city: pavements blocked with vendors and parked motorbikes, auto rickshaws tuk-tuk-ing incessantly up and down as their drivers looked for fares and nonchalantly swerved around any pedestrian foolish enough to get in their way. Jew Town lay next to the shore, beyond the compound of Mattancherry Palace. A gently touristified quarter of souvenir shops, Kashmiri-run gift emporia and restaurants serving the appetizing alchemy of rice, coconut and spices that was Keralan cuisine, there were few reminders that this quarter of the city was historically Jewish apart from a pristine, albeit virtually redundant, 16th-century synagogue.

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The sun had barely risen above the coconut palms and low-rise stucco of Fort Cochin as I set off down Mattancherry Palace Road. Even at this early hour the Hindu temple on the corner was buzzing with activity, with bare-chested drummers welcoming a procession led by a dhoti-clad priest clutching an offering of fragrant flowers in a coconut half. Most of the businesses that lined the road were still shuttered but a few shopkeepers were already at work outside their premises brushing the pavement in preparation for the day ahead. There was little traffic apart from a few cyclists determinedly peddling somewhere. Whether they were on their way to work, or perhaps heading home after a night shift, there was no way of knowing. In modern India motorbikes are the preferred means of transport for those wealthy enough to afford one yet here in Kochi it seemed that bicycles still had an important role to play.

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I passed a lorry being emptied of its load of bananas on a side street. It was hard to imagine life here in Kerala without bananas. Or, even more essentially, coconuts, whose flesh and milk flavoured almost every meal, whose oil glistened in most women’s hair, whose swaying palms cooled almost every street. Every street, that is, apart from those close to the shore, where ancient rain trees cast huge penumbras of shade – massive, branching moss-hung trees that looked like as if they had been directly transplanted from a rainforest.

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Curiosity led me down another inviting side street but after about five minutes it ended abruptly and so I turned around to return to the main road to continue east towards the water. I soon reached Mattancherry Palace and skirted its grounds along a road that took me past a jail, a newly built mosque and a post sorting office. This curved round to reach the main waterside drag of Jew Town Road. On my previous visit the road had been busy with gift shops, souvenir hawkers and sunburned tourists coached-in from coastal resorts. At this early hour, though, it was a very different place, a somnolent neighbourhood where the stalls were unmanned, the coach park empty, the touts still deep in slumber. In the sprawling branches of rain trees above the road white egrets were perched in anticipation of the free meal that might come later when the food stalls were set up for business. Below them on the electricity wires pigeons had spread themselves out like notes on the stave – a serendipitous score for a morning raga.

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I wandered down to a deserted quay to get a view to Willingdon Island across the water. Faded remnants of advertising were still visible on some of the walls although a ferry had not run from here for years. Back on the main street I walked south through the small tourist enclave into an altogether more quotidian world that declined in prosperity as I continued. What had once been a prosperous Jewish neighbourhood had since become a less affluent Muslim one. Cavernous godowns – spice warehouses – lay behind peeling sky-blue doors. A few were still operating as such while others had been given over to businesses like motorcycle repair workshops. Some of the walls had been painted with colourful murals – public art with text in Hebrew and curling Malayalam script that celebrated Kochi’s maritime heritage. One building that caught my attention had an open entrance behind a pile of rubble. Inside a half-collapsed porch stood another portal, a ragged blue cloth dangling in the space where a door would once have been. It was a synagogue – or what remained of one – its roof aerated by enough missing tiles to allow light and rainwater to penetrate the interior, a void filled with broken bricks, rotting beams and a thick carpet of guano. The throat-searing ammoniacal stench of pigeon shit was so overwhelming that mere inhalation felt hazardous. This sorry wreck of a building was a long way from the lovingly maintained Paradesi Synagogue I had witnessed the day before – the officially sanctioned tourist sight just up the road beyond the gift shops. Here in this neglected, unloved ruin the sense of wholesale abandonment of a community was tangible: here was a place whose ghosts whispered of sorrow and loss.

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Palani – a temple town

 

Palani, a temple town in western Tamil Nadu, barely gets a mention in the guidebooks. Too close to the hill resort of Kodaikanal to be of much interest other than as a transport hub, the town was a necessary stopover on our rail journey between the Kerala coast and the hyperactive Tamil city of Madurai.

We arrived in the town just as it was starting to get dark – enough time to have something to eat and wander around the market stalls that stood at the base of the steps that led up to the hilltop temple. The temple, dedicated to the god Murugan, was clearly a big draw for south Indian pilgrims and all the necessary facilities were in place to service their needs. As well as numerous ‘hotels’ offering ‘Pure Veg’ food and a mass of stalls selling mass-produced trinkets and cheap jewellery, a large sign outside a booth offered an ‘Ear Boring’ service, while another advertised itself as ‘Tonsure Centre’, a place dedicated to providing the correct sort of haircut – head shaven with an application of sandalwood paste – for dutiful pilgrims.

The Murugan Temple – Arulmigu Dandayudhapani Swami Temple to give its full glorious name – stands on a hill above the town. Murugan – aka Muruga, Kartikeya, Skanda, Kumara, Subrahmanya – is a Hindu god of war, a philosopher-warrior figure, son of Parvati and Shiva, who is particularly popular in the southern part of the Indian subcontinent. The temple at Palani is one of six ‘abodes’ (actually, temples) in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu that are dedicated to Murugan. A long flight of stone steps lead up to the top, as does a meandering path for elephants and winched cable car that takes a different, more direct route around the back of the mound.

A little too hot in my hotel room, even under the swishing fan, I dreamed that night of Mark E Smith of The Fall, who in my dream was performing a solo outdoor gig in a Norwich back garden. In the dream world, as in life, Smith was as rambunctious and curmudgeonly as you might expect. He also looked painfully thin, as well he might, and before I woke I recalled mentioning this to someone else present, saying, “I know he’s dead so I suppose this is a dream isn’t it?”

We stepped out into the streets at dawn next morning to make our way to the steps that led up to the temple, leaving our sandals at the bottom before we started the ascent. A line of orange-clad saddhus flanked the base of the steps and scattered by the wayside at various stages of the ascent were gift sellers who touted garlands and puja offerings to present of the shrines above. We were the only foreigners, the only obvious non-Hindus present, yet we were welcomed without fuss. Amplified music of devotional singing accompanied our climb, and mobile phones blazed away around us as we made our way uphill with the other visitors. As everywhere in India, there were numerous friendly requests for selfies – group photos that included us in the frame as some sort of Euro-exotica. This seemed fair exchange, and it was pleasing to know that somewhere out there in the digital ether, in a parallel world to this posting, there existed no small number of images on Instagram and Facebook that included our own heat-flushed faces.

The steps to the top – I did not count them but estimates range between 550—700 – are rock-cut into the hillside. For those unused to it, it can be oddly sensuous walking barefoot for any distance, especially on stone that is deeply embedded with the patina of human activity – a layering of daubed sandalwood paste and windblown dust compounded by the devout footfall of countless pilgrims. Heading uphill we passed chalked mandalas, small shrines and intriguing side temples with attendant bare-chested priests. Macaque monkeys frolicked in the trees that overhung the steps; a solitary owlet stood sentinel on a branch overlooking the plain below. Some of the more elderly pilgrims struggled with the effort of climbing, and a few reluctant children dragged along by parents complained noisily, but overall the atmosphere was cheerful and relaxed – more holiday fun than holy day solemnity.

 

At the top, groups of people were scattered around, snapping family pictures on their phones, eating snacks, waiting patiently for their turn for darshan (a view of the sculpted deity) within the temple itself. Large signs carried warnings about thieves and cheats. We circumambulated the temple clockwise, the scent of incense, jasmine and wood smoke permeating the clear, bright air. This intoxicating cocktail – so evocative, so quintessentially Indian – was my madeleine. Here was the India of old that I knew and loved, a deeply felt nostalgia rooted in time and place that touched a nerve, or rather, caressed it tenderly. Here was something that invoked the emotional memory of previous visits made decades earlier: an echo of that indescribable early morning magic when the deep, ancient culture of the subcontinent seemed to manifest itself in a mysterious yet timeless way. To adopt the epithet used by the late John Peel to describe his favourite band, The Fall, whose erstwhile leader I had so peculiarly dreamed about the previous night, India was ‘always different, always the same’. And it was true, despite rampant modernisation in recent years, India at heart was always different, always the same.

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