The Hare and the Point

A warm, slightly hazy day on the north Norfolk coast; a day caught on the cusp as an unusually cold spring stumbles into an, as yet unknown, summer. We walk west past a few lobster boats from the beach car park at Cley-next-the-Sea, scrunching through the shingle to reach a meandering path that leads through low glaucous shrubs at the edge of a salt marsh. Just beyond the shingle ridge to our right is the North Sea, a constant mineral grumble of pebbles grinding on the tide; an aural massage – maritime poetry in motion. In the distance ahead, a solitary single–storey building, ‘Halfway House’, cuts a lonely figure in the landscape. Beyond this, in the murky haze at the very end of the Point, is the bright blue of the onetime lifeboat station that now serves as a visitor centre.

So what’s the point? Or rather, where is the Point? Blakeney Point is a shingle spit that begins at Cley Beach and extends like a claw nearly four miles to the west, the result of centuries of longshore drift piling up sand and stone to create new land. Although famous for its breeding population of harbour and grey seals, we are here today for its little terns, which nest at awkward and not particularly sensible places in the shingle leaving their eggs vulnerable to high tides and attack by opportunist predators like gulls and kestrels. Our friend Hanne is one of several volunteers responsible for keeping an eye on the birds.

A cordoned-off area of shingle encloses some of the tern’s nests, although many by now have moved on west to the end of the Point. There are oystercatchers too, and avocets – each species doing its best to mind its own business. Salt-tolerant plants like sea beet, sea campion and biting stonecrop are all anchored in the firmer shingle, while at the looser-stoned apex of the ridge that slopes steeply down to the water seakale is in full bloom. Elsewhere, clumps of yellow horned poppy, another shingle specialist, are starting to throw up flower heads in readiness for blooming. A place that instinctively you feel should be barren; it seems remarkable that anything can grow here nurtured by little else but stone, sand and saltwater.

Hanne takes us for a walk up towards Halfway House. A skylark sings high overhead, little more than a high fidgeting dot to the naked eye. In the distance, across the marshes close to Blakeney Channel, we catch sight of the unmistakable form of a marsh harrier quartering the reed beds. On the Point itself the bushes are alive with restless flittering birds that turn out to be a mixture of meadow pipits, linnets and reed buntings, although at times of migration almost anything could turn up here. And it does: as first point of landfall for any bird carried unwittingly by powerful winds from the north, Blakeney Point has an impressive record of rare sightings.

Our most impressive sight by far, though, is a meeting with a brown hare – or, rather, a pair. One of them makes a run for it and disappears into the Suaeda (shrubby sea-blite), the other remains, frozen in its tracks, hunched with long ears flattened to its head in an effort to make itself small. In some ways more resembling a small deer than a large rabbit, with improbably long ears and soft, intelligent eyes, it is easy to see how hares have always been revered in British and European folklore. Long gifted magical properties by those whose livelihood affords them a close relationship to the soil, hares engender a strong sense of ‘the other’: a sacred animal, a spirit familiar, a symbol of fecundity, sex and madness. A means of divination too: the Iceni warrior queen Boudicca is said to have read the entrails of a hare as an augury for victory against the Romans in her uprising of AD61.

The hare slowly adjusts to our presence and cautiously and slowly raises its ears, then straightens its legs before finally bolting off to join its companion. Our serendipitous encounter has been no more than a minute in total but the whole incident has put a temporal brake on the space-time continuum. As the hare moves off, time – at least the quotidian linear time that embraces cause and effect – is finally unfrozen.

We continue our walk to head down a wide swath of firm shingle and sea thrift that Hanne calls the Fairway. It leads to the edge of a tidal creek close to Halfway House. The highly prized real estate of Blakeney village is clearly visible across the channel that separates us from the ‘mainland’, as is St Nicholas’ church high above the houses and, west of this, the iconic windmill at Cley. In the network of creeks and mudflats that fringe the channel, redshanks alternate between stabbing the mud in search of invertebrates and flying short distances, calling plaintively as they go. At the muddy margins, marsh samphire is starting to emerge, although it is still too early to pick. Heading back to the car park, we walk along the sloping beach alongside the outgoing tide. Beyond the silhouetted fishing boats ahead, the distant cliffs of West Runton are visible in the sea-hazed distance. Just pure sea-sound now: no motor vehicles or human voices, just the swash of waves on pebbles, the piercing cry of terns and the aerial clatter of a skylark beyond the ridge to our right.

Many thanks to Hanne Siebers and Klausbernd Vollmar for their company on the Point. Check out Hanne’s wonderful photographs of Casper, Cley’s leucistic barn owl at The Silent Hunter

A Welsh Chapel

The isolated Calvinist Methodist chapel of Soar-y-mynydd is often claimed to be the remotest in all of Wales. Certainly, it lies in a very quiet spot: close to the eastern limit of Ceredigion, eight miles southeast of Tregaron within the parish of Llanddewi Brefi (of Little Britain fame)

Built in 1822 to serve a widely scattered congregation of farmers and sheep drovers, it would have originally stood close to the road to Llandovery that followed the Cammdwr valley south. Like many other central Welsh valleys, this was flooded in the 1970s to provide a reservoir that now extends close to where the chapel stands.

Despite its relative isolation the chapel has seen illustrious visitors over the years. Many poets and artists have been inspired by its whitewashed simplicity and even former US President Jimmy Carter was impressed when he visited on a fishing holiday in 1986. (A painting of the chapel by Ceredigion artist Wynne Melville Jones was subsequently presented to the former president in appreciation of his visit.)

The chapel interior is simple, not exactly austere but unfussy: tightly packed wooden benches dappled with red and blue light from the Mondrian-esque stained glass; plain walls that seem to resonate with earnest drovers’ prayers and ancient Welsh voices. On one of the walls a painted scroll bears the simplest of messages: Duw cariad yw (‘God is love’).

 

Abandoned Ferris wheel

IMG_0300Ferris wheel, Toktogul, Kyrgyzstan

One of the enduring images from Pripyat, the main town in Ukraine’s Chernobyl disaster region, is that of an abandoned amusement park. A totem for the fall from innocence, here are rides that children once played upon but will never do so again. Rising above the park is an abandoned yellow Ferris wheel – a dejected structure that has fallen in grace from a onetime wheel of fun and joy to a symbol of nuclear catastrophe.

At one time Ferris wheels could found in most Soviet towns of a certain size. One former SSR state I know better than most is the central Asian republic of Kyrgyzstan, a country named after the once-nomadic people indigenous to the region. With three revolutions now since its independence in 1991, it is classic example of a territory in transition, a new country of arbitrarily imposed political boundaries that is still trying to find its feet.

IMG_1250View of Manas Square from Bishkek Ferris wheel, Kyrgyzstan

To my knowledge there are at least four Ferris wheels that stand in Kyrgyzstan today, although there may be more. The one in Panfilov Park in the heart of the Kyrgyz capital Bishkek has been upgraded in recent years to replace the somewhat creakier Soviet-era one that stood before. Kyrgyzstan’s second city of Osh in the south of the country has another. This Ferris wheel is older (and a little cheaper) than its Bishkek rival and stands in a city park close to the rather desultory canalised river that flows through the city. Alongside the wheel is decommissioned Aeroflot Yak-40 that has been repurposed as a children’s playground. Both Bishkek and Osh wheels afford excellent city views for an outlay of just a few Kyrgyz som.

IMG_1254Panfilov Park, Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan

There is another wheel, said to be the largest in the country, in the resort of Bosteri on the north shore of Lake Issyk-Kul but the other Kyrgyzstan Ferris wheel that I have personal experience of can be found in the small town of Toktogul halfway between Bishkek and Osh. Skeletal and long abandoned, this one is found at the edge of a leafy park next to a crumbing sports stadium. Old-fashioned fairground rides can still be found in some of the clearings; the wheel, though, no longer turns. With its seats removed – for their scrap value presumably – and left to the attention of the elements, the wheel, framed against the blue central Asian sky, evokes an air of melancholia. Argumentative crows perpetually flock around the structure as if it had always been theirs to inhabit, taunting its immobility with wheeling flight. At one time this over-sized bicycle wheel delighted children and adults alike with its thrilling views of Toktogul Reservoir and the snow-capped peaks of the Fergana mountains beyond. Now it is a wheel that no longer wheels; a rusting reminder of a half-forgotten past unknown to the children who visit the park today.

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Crows and abandoned Ferris wheel, Toktogul, Kyrgyzstan

All photographs ©Laurence Mitchell

If you are curious to discover more about Kyrgyzstan you might want to try this…

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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

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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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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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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A Berlin Interlude

img_1874What do you do on a drizzly grey day in Berlin? A midwinter day when the sun is enfeebled and hidden, cowering somewhere beneath a thick duvet of cloud. What do you do in a city that you do not know well and only have experience of in winter?

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In early January the detritus of Christmas can still be seen in the streets – fairy lights cling obstinately to avenues of artificial trees, and discarded Christmas trees litter the pavements awaiting collection for recycling. The year has turned and spirituality and festivities will soon give way to politics. In less than a week, Berliners of a left-leaning persuasion will be attending another regular winter event, the commemoration of the deaths of the Spartakusbund (Spartacist League) leaders, Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg, who were summarily executed during the uprising of January 1919. Each year on the second Sunday in January Berliners gather at the Memorial to the Socialists at Friedrichsfelde Cemetery to commemorate Luxemburg, Liebknecht and others who perished at the hands of the right wing Freikorps. This year is the centenary.

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I am a few days too early for this event so I decide instead to take a walk along the main body of water that flows through central Berlin, the River Spree. I walk out of Berlin Hauptbahnhof railway station and cross the river to its south bank to follow the path to Museuminsel (Museum Island), from where I will strike west away from the river towards Alexanderplatz. Light rain and dense cloud renders the urban landscape almost monochrome. Such colour that there is stands out for its rarity – traffic lights, bright umbrellas, the hi-vis orange jackets worn by street workers. Although this is the heart of a populous capital city there are few other walkers to be seen – the poor weather has seen to that – but here and there is a jogger, a strolling couple, a woman pushing a pram. Tracing the river, I pass a succession of ultra-modern waterside buildings – enterprise temples of concrete and glass that give the impression of being hermetically sealed from the gloom outside. Office workers in a brightly lit dining canteen pay me no attention as I walk past on the other side of the glass wall that separates us. The Foster-designed glass dome of the Reichstag makes an appearance above the surrounding buildings as I progress; black, red and yellow flags flutter in the breeze.

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Leaving the canal behind after traversing Museuminsel, the lofty TV tower of the Fernsehturm at Alexanderplatz comes into view, as eventually do the twin Communist period tiered towers that flank Karl-Marx-Allee. At Alexanderplatz I descend underground to catch the U-bahn and a few stops later emerge once again at Potsdamer Platz where I cross the square to enter the railway station. Past sunset by now, the sky squid-ink black, the fluorescent blaze from the office blocks that fringe the square throws up reflected light from the rain-wet pavement. After colour-robbed days such as this the bright lights of human endeavour contrasted against the intense darkness of night can seem almost a comfort.

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