Do I head to Northern Ireland with this post, or to Ukraine, or to India, or stay back home…? Northern Ireland, and that absurd boast from Rishi Sunak that Northern Ireland now has the best of both worlds. It can trade with open borders with the rest of the UK, and with Europe. Just as we all could do before June 2016. We will leave it there.
Ukraine: the issue our government should be focusing on. Instead we have and will have more of that ruinous Brexit aftermath.
It was my privilege with many of my fellow villagers to attend a Ukraine evening at the Ukrainian Social Club in Gloucester, which dates back to immediately after the Second World War. One highpoint was the dinner, with local dishes, beginning with borsht and ending with a layered coffee cake. Next came an auction, with a highlight being a very fine birch-wood clock, retrieved I believe from a bombed-out factory. It will in the near future have pride of place on the wall of our village hall. And, finally, a concert: solo violin, accordion, a Cossack dancer of extraordinary style and agility, and singing – adults and children – and Oksana in a long white dress and silver boots leading us, it seemed incongruously, but maybe not so, in the chorus of Dylan’s Knocking on Heaven’s Door.
They were fundraising, we have to remind ourselves, for a war. Even Switzerland has to re-think its historic neutrality, though it’s not there yet. But more than that, we had a sense of a country, a culture and a language, and a thriving democracy (corruption issues notwithstanding). The contrast with their eastern borderlands, and with events in Donbass, is so extreme. And yet, Russia is the land of Pushkin and Tolstoy, of Dostoevsky and Chekhov, of Pasternak and Solzhenitsyn and Mandelstam.
(Thinking of Donbass … Shakhtar Donetsk are one of Europe’s leading football teams, but they no longer play in Donetsk. In 2014 they moved to Lviv and now are playing matches in Kyiv.)
And they love their Shakespeare in Russia. I thought of Shostakovich’s curiously-named opera, Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District. The story is very different from Shakespeare but we have Lady Macbeth (she is planning a murder) as a universal trope or archetype. But I’m assuming any hint of the subversion of an existing order would be too much in Putin’s Russia, as it was in Stalin’s.
We went to Stratford for the Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of The Tempest last Thursday. Prospero and Ariel are played by women, and quite brilliantly and convincingly so. There was a very special and personal link between them. Could we imagine a woman playing Prospero in a Russia where gender roles are increasingly narrowed down to the old male and female and ‘there-shall-be-no-other’ split?
We are curtailing our imaginations, we are losing creativity. Erdogan imprisons any journalist with a creative and thereby critical take on the country’s fortunes. He’s an example to Narendra Modi, responding to a recent highly critical BBC documentary with a police raid on BBC offices in India, on the grounds of tax irregularities. A charge of corruption is the reason for the arrest of one of the leaders of a rising opposition force in India, the Aam Aadmi party.
Istanbul’s mayor, a leader of the main Turkish opposition party, has been sentenced to over two years in prison for ‘calling members of Turkey’s supreme election council “fools” in a press release three years ago’. There’s a crucial election coming up.
Rupert Murdoch admits that his TV channels in the USA went along with the Trump lie about a stolen election. They are polishing their hate figures in the USA, polishing their anger. There’s a very relevant comment in an article by William Davies in the current London Review of Books. He highlights Donald Trump’s ‘affective state of seemingly constantly being on the verge of losing his temper’, adding ‘a sense of danger and excitement to his political career’. ‘Boris Johnson, by contrast, always appears to be on the verge of bursting out laughing’. Both approaches win converts, as we’ve seen only too well.
We have to be watchful on all sides and everywhere. Republicans in Congress are challenging the levels of expenditure on the Ukraine war. Maybe they aren’t as foolish and sinister as Trump in his cosying to Putin, but they haven’t fully bought into the reality that this is where democracy, as we understand it, stands or falls.
The reality is that democracy is for many, on the right primarily but also on the left (think Lopez Obrador, known as ‘AMLO’, in Mexico), seen as the way to power, and once they have that power they are keen to pull up the democratic drawbridge after them.
Bring on the Ukrainians: they are focusing our minds. We can see where our complacency might lead.
I read that Ian McEwen has read everything on Brexit, admitted to being an obsessive. He’s just written a book, Cockroach, about a cockroach which wakes up to find it’s become prime minsiter. He admits to a lack of subtlety.
I keep reading on Brexit. Never was a subject so pervasive and invasive. But any kind of orginality requires deep reading. And life just now has other attractions!
What can a literature festival offer? The Cheltenham Literature Festival is on my doorstep. One of the great advantages of living out of town, in the country, but not as much in the country as you might think. Maybe the Hay Festival is my favourite, by a small margin – the scale and vibe is overwhelming, and I love it. Cheltenham is urban, and you’ve a cafe and street culture which sets it apart.
I’ll take language as my theme. Not maybe what the organisers of the Cheltenham Literature Festival had in mind. They’re celebrating their 70th birthday. But what is literature if not language. Though language may not be literature.
It’s Saturday morning. I’ve yet to read David Nott’s book, ‘War Memoir’, about his life as a frontline surgeon, operating, literally, in the world’s most violent places. He was our first event, and he came across, initially, in interview, as out of his element. But honest. He’d found when working under fire in Sarajevo a kind of high, an excitement, this was where he wanted to be. Less a moral compass than a vocation. But he found that compass and now trains surgeons to work beyond the specialisations into which they’re shoe-horned by modern hospital practice. He has met Mullah Omar, met ISIS, and his dedication to life made his denunciations of those who seek and exercised power and the language of power for its own sake, careless of death, all the more powerful.
Our next event, the debate ‘Populism: Death of Democracy’, was topical, though there was always the danger we’d simply be re-visiting well-trodden territory. So it proved. The debate was chaired by Leslie Vinjamuri, of the think-tank Chatham House. Matthew Goodwin brought a British perspective to the subject, and Amy Pope, ex Obama advisor, an American perspective. Do the origins of populism lie more in cultural or economic issues? Identity or issues relating to jobs and income? Populist leaders exploit both – the apparent undermining of national cultures, of ways of life – being left behind – victims – of a political system, of elites operating in their own interest. The issues are real, and the crisis, with hindsight, inevitable. But the debate went round in circles.
Focusing on language would have helped. The misuse of language has turned a crisis which might have brought people together in a common understanding into conflagration. Language brings together, its misuse divides. Post-truth was well-established before 2016. Fake news and disdain of real expertise took hold in 2016 and beyond. Current parliamentary debates have coupled disdain and anger in a way that challenges truth in language still further.
Amy Pope contributed an American standpoint: she sees hope in the wider race and gender representation in the House of Representatives. But as she admitted, that doesn’t address the issue of the resentments of the ‘flyover states’, everything, that is, between the East Coast and California.
Sunday morning. Time for my next event, a celebration of the life of the American novelist, Toni Morrison, who died in August. As an editor at Random House, the first black editor in US publishing history, she opened doors for black writers, and she herself opened up the realities of Afro-American life as never before. She didn’t whitewash, or glorify, or sympathise. She allowed language to tell it as it is, and as she saw it. And the language is wonderful, inspired, magic passages of writing which capture all the hurts and hopes and failures, resignation on the one hand and the search for identities and roots on the other. The panel were black women, writers and publishers, and I’m a white and male, and in a big minority in that Cheltenham tent. But I came away inspired. The panel spoke Morrison’s language – Miss Morrison as two of then called her. They quoted favourite passages, and the most resonant was the speech she gave at the Nobel-Prize-giving ceremony.
‘…the recognition that language can never live up to life once and for all. Nor should it. Language can never “pin down” slavery, genocide, war. Nor should it yearn for the arrogance to be able to do so. Its force, its felicity is in its reach toward the ineffable.
Be it grand or slender, burrowing, blasting, or refusing to sanctify; whether it laughs out loud or is a cry without an alphabet, the choice word, the chosen silence, unmolested language surges toward knowledge, not its destruction.’
‘We die. That may be the meaning of life. But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives.’
Next, another debate, ‘Who’s Next for the White House’. Leslie Vinjamuri again, joined by Sarah Baxter and Adam Boulter, both now of the Sunday Times, festival co-sponsors. As a choice, this was interesting, intriguing, but probably a mistake. We were on the same ground as the populism debate. And the same radical uncertainty of outcome. I may for my part see hope in a new and raised awareness coming through, or at least a cause we can identify with, in the opposition to populism. But where lies hope in the battle to be president? The Democrats are divided centre and left. Theirs is at least a debate I can connect to. Elizabeth Warren a powerful candidate, but with big-state ideas which could panic centrist voters. Trump is Trump, widening his river of no destination ever further and carrying his supporters along in the turbulence. We were asked for a show of hands at the end. Who do you think will be the next US president? Two-thirds, at least, thought Trump. Not me. I’d thought – Trump, no way, last time. Not again, that I cannot believe. Though were I to expect a Trump victory maybe my penchant for guessing wrong would somehow influence the outcome – and Trump would lose …
In the evening we had ‘An Evening of Joni Mitchell’. Note the ’of’. She is recovering slowly from a brain aneurysm, re-learning how to walk. She is not travelling. I knew that. Some didn’t. They expected Joni to be there. A 40-minte four-way ‘expert’ conversation talked about her childhood polio, speculated on its influence, touched on her relationships – but never on the detail of her songs. We’re back to language. They never touched on the language of her songs. What inspired her to write them. They are her legacy to the world. Would that come over in the second half? No. Her songs were given the full jazz band, wild sax, treatment, and the words got drowned. Very occasionally her rhythms came through. But while the music was almost OK, the treatment was a travesty.
And, finally, two events on the Monday. Smaller venues. The first in The Pillar Room, in the Town Hall. Two writers. Philip Marsden writing about a single-handed boat journey from Cornwall via the west of Ireland to the Summer Isles (the title of the book as well – I love the name) off the north-west coast of Scotland. You’re face to face with the sea, with the world, when single-handed. He’d walked with his aunt who lived in the North-West Highlands, and she’d died out there in an accident. Her library was full of books on (if I recall aright) on simplifying life, on Zen. Also talking at the event was Dan Richards about his book, ‘Outpost’, where he writes about bothies and cabins and lighthouses and even sheds at the bottom of gardens – your stepping-off points, as an explorer, of wilderness, or as a writer, the open spaces of the mind. The idea appeals, and I will buy the book. The authors are different as personalities, Marsden aspiring to the slightly grizzled loner, Richards rather more (if he will forgive me) urbane. But for both experience is everything, and truth to experience, and truth to the way it’s expressed in language.
And finally, Laura Cummings, chief Observer art critic, and her family memoir, ‘On Chapel Sands’. Another smaller venue, The Nook: we sit round small tables, in greater comfort and more intimacy than usual. This was better for a writer whose book is about the brief and unexplained disappearance of a little girl for five days from a Lincolnshire beach, when she was only three years old. The little girl was the author’s mother. A long-time unsolved family mystery. She bravely followed the story where it took her. The small venue allowed intimacy and author tears. In pursuit of the truth about the abduction, she dug behind family stories, as we’d expect, but she also interrogated family images. Her art critic skills proved useful. Photos can tell lies, or they can be bland – just another family photo. Or they can, as in this case, hide secrets which only a practised eye can reveal. A husband and wife photo from 1910 – but posed like a Vermeer, but Vermeer was all but unknown in England back then.
So, three days at the festival. For me it’s been, so far, above all about language. About the integrity of language. The natural substrate of a book festival you might think. But what’s struck me this time around is the importance of awareness of the role of language. A surgeon whose role would be so much less needed round the world if only power was subservient to truth. Politicians will, they must, use language as best they can to put an argument across. But to weaponise truth, which quickly becomes weaponising untruth, is a very different story.
Toni Morrison, and Philip Marsden and Dan Richards, opened/open up not narrow down the world. Language and shouting don’t go well together. Toni Morrison – a writer who engaged with an agonised world with extraordinary honesty – a writer of genius. And two writers who talk of quieter times, sailing or walking or writing. They’re not out to change the world, they don’t insist or demand. But they tell it like it is.
Yes indeed – time to walk, or if you’re so inclined, as I am, to run, out into the hills, through the woods, and the farmland. Seek out another perspective on the world.
Six weeks ago the first pale green leaves showed on the beech, now the wood is dark, and the light seeks out chinks, or clearings where the foliage is less intense. Many climb tall, planted close together. In time, many years hence, they will be harvested, fuel for our wood burners.
But, given the chance, beeches spread their trunks wide. On one, pollarded long ago, I counted ten trunks. It and its fellows mark the edge of the woodland, where it meets the big hedge-less field, where the barley now four-feet tall is growing abundantly.
Oaks are fewer where I run, but they are there. I know of none of the old, the 500-or-600-year-old, oaks. But across the Severn estuary, into the Forest of Dean, they are abundant. Felled for shipbuilding – and replanted (at Nelson’s instigation, so I read) for the same purpose. But by the time the trees had matured iron had become the main building material.
Can you mention the oak, without mentioning the ash? I often wondered about the old saw, ‘when the ash’s before the oak, there’s bound to be a soak’. When in my experience was the ash in leaf before the oak? Never. (I read that, back in the 18th century, the ash did sometimes beat the oak. But our climate has changed.)
The ash. … the ash is in crisis. They always gave a lighter cover, with their compound leaves. But now leaves are fewer, twigs and branches bare.
I used to sing the old Welsh folk song, The Ash Grove, at school.
The ash grove, how graceful, how plainly ’tis speaking;/The harp through it playing has language for me…/I lift up my eyes to the broad leafy dome…/The ash grove, the ash grove again is my home.
The lover found solace beneath the ash. And now it seems it is the ash itself we must weep for. Our only solace – there are resistant strains, we can replant.
The ash is woven not only into song but into our history – and Norse mythology. What off Yggdrasil, the great ash if Norse mythology? Must the tree of the gods also suffer dieback? (There is a symbol for our times!)
‘The ash is of all trees the biggest and the best. Its branches spread out over the world and extend across the sky. Three of the tree’s roots support it and extend very, very far. …The third … root of the ash extends to heaven, and beneath that root … [there] the gods have their court.’ (Extract from the Prose Edda, see also below.)
Tree recognition hasn’t been a strong point of mine. How might ash differ from sycamore or oak, or lime or white poplar? I knew the shapes, sort of, but I guessed. Now I know the ash. They are in groves, and near me, lining hedges, and especially, they’re where local farmland rises to a gentle summit, prominent, lording over the land. They are thinner now, you can see through them. When they go, so will our landmarks.
(Ash and sycamore – I puzzled a day or two ago over two trees apparently growing together, their trunks conjoined – it’s called inosculation.)
At a more mundane level, we were wondering over lunch – is there a plan, a national plan, to replant? Or at least recommendations? Or guidance? None as far as we can tell. A recent report in Current Biology estimated a total cost to the nation of the loss of trees (no mention as far as I am aware of replanting – of ultimately restoring the landscape) at £15 billion.
And the ash trees that line our lanes? Are they the farmer’s responsibility? The local council? Primarily the latter, according to the report. I’m told when they’re felled in the diseased state, weakened by fungus, they shatter, and there is a mighty mess.
I’ve recently returned from the Hay Book Festival. Robert Macfarlane was there, talking about his new book, ‘Underland’. There’s a marvelous chapter that focuses on the ‘understorey’ in woodland, where fungi spread their hyphae, a network which not only consumes dying matter but also supports the living.
‘The relationship between plant and fungi is all about exchange, swapping chlorophyll for nutrients, but far more than this, ‘the fungal network also allows plants to distribute resources between one another … sugars, nitrogen and phosphorus can be shared between trees in a forest: a dying tree might divest its resources into the network for the benefit of the community, for example, or a struggling tree might be supported with extra resources by its neighbours.’ (Underland, p98)
But the dieback fungus is at another level, a fungus which feeds only to destroy. A dead-end fungus.
So I despair to see the ash die back. And I wonder what lies ahead. But I also wonder at what lies beneath. My eyes have been opened to something extraordinary. But as town-dwellers, most of us, we take it all for granted.
We take the ash for granted.
(Prose Edda, Gylfaginning, 15) “The ash is of all trees the biggest and the best. Its branches spread out over the world and extend across the sky. Three of the tree’s roots support it and extend very, very far. One is among the Æsir, the second among the frost-giants, where Ginnungagap once was. The third extends over Niflheim, and under that root is Hvergelmir, and Nidhogg gnaws the bottom of the root. But under the root that reaches towards the the frost-giants, there is where Mimir’s well is, which has wisdom and intelligence contained in it, and the master of the well is called Mimir. …The third root of the ash extends to heaven, and beneath that root is a well which is very holy, called Weird’s well (Urd’s well). There the gods have their court.
We’ve been out walking, 10km (not miles, that’s the way it is these days), for ‘Walk the Wards’, a charity event to raise money for local hospitals in the Cheltenham area. (My partner, Hazel, is a volunteer on the oncology ward at Cheltenham Hospital.)
There’s something wonderfully positive about such events. I’ve run marathons for charity, but this was more laid-back, more focused – one charity, not many, and walking, so time to think, and no crowds to cheer you on, just mud (too much rain overnight) and a sense of common purpose.
The mood continues into the afternoon, this afternoon, Sunday afternoon. It’s drizzling outside.
It was drizzling – raining – at Woodstock in 1969, when the singer Melanie came on stage for her first-ever performance to a big crowd. The audience were lighting candles to beat back the rain. (We had imagination in those days!) She came away, as she said, a celebrity, and with the chorus of ‘(Lay Down) Candles in the Rain’ in her head. ‘I left that field with that song in my head, the anthemic part.’
Lay down, lay down, lay it all down…let your white birds smile/at the ones who stand and frown./Lay down, lay down, lay it all down…let your white birds smile/at the ones who stand and frown.
We were so close, there was no room, we bled inside each /other’s wounds.
We all had caught the same disease..and we all sang, the songs /of peace.
I wasn’t at Woodstock, but I listened and lived it back in 1969. Listening to Melanie singing Ruby Tuesday (in the bath, after the walk!), and that catch in her voice – something of the old optimism came back to me.
Today’s walk, ‘Walk the wards’, did a little bit of the same. Brought back the optimism.
In this overly negative, too often backward-looking era, with Barack Obama a memory (though still an inspiration), we have to hang on to the ‘can-do’, make it new, share it with our kids and their kids.
Another Melanie song, ‘Peace will Come’:
And my feet are swimming in all of the waters /All of the rivers are givers to the ocean /According to plan, according to man …
Oh there’s a chance peace will come /In your life
Each generation feels the push-back, each new generation has to push forward, all progress is slow, but if the older generations can find it in them to join with the younger, as I did with my two children, very grown-up children, last year, opposing Brexit in Trafalgar Square, then there is hope…
And yet… a mention of Brexit slips in. Many walking today will be Brexit supporters. Nothing is ever simple.
Father, son and daughter in the Lake District. No talk of politics, just much sharing of music, all our of favourites, from fifty years back in my case, back to Grace Slick belting out White Rabbit – where did such amazing music come from when all had been doldrums only ten years before. Not quite so far back for Ben and Rozi, but they have good taste, and are slowly convincing me that I should love You can be heroes...wrong… We can be heroes… wrong again, just Heroes, and maybe come round to David Bowie after all these years. Now that he’s gone.
We try and avoid politics, though father and daughter are political animals. Whoops of delight when I see that all the election posters in Coniston are for the LibDem candidate. What, I wonder, does Theresa May talk about with her husband, and passing strangers, when out walking? And what if I met her out walking? A cheery good morning?
Bagehot in the Economist has a piece on Theresa May, under the heading Tory of Tories. Her Britain he writes is ‘the Britain of the Tory heartlands, a Britain of solid values and rooted certainties, hard work and upward mobility, a Britain where people try to get ahead but also have time for the less fortunate’. That made me wonder. What’s to disagree? Well, let’s get started…
Rooted certainties – that of course has never been England, or the UK. It’s our ability to change, to move quickly, to adapt, to draw on skills from around the world (here in the Lake District the Coniston mines and Millom tannery are two local examples) that has made us what we are. Not clinging to rooted certainties. ‘Solid values’ – a euphemism too often for closing ranks against the world. ‘Hard work’ – it’s inspiration, and we’ve drawn over centuries much inspiration, and wisdom, from Europe, we need as well. ‘Upward mobility’ – and what of those left behind? Not the JAMs, the just about managing, an invented concept if ever there was one, but those whose disadvantages of birth and position deny any opportunity of upward progress. The Tory world is too often a world where the barriers comes down, and the shutters.
There’s another free-trading Tory as well, a different breed, and they have a curious co-existence with the heartland Tory. Not Mrs May’s world at all, nor it seems that of her ‘guru’, Nick Timothy, who likes to quote Joseph Chamberlain as a hero, claiming him as a people’s champion against … free trade. Falling into the old trap of quoting history out of context, one that seems to be everywhere in these post Brexit days.
All a frightful muddle.
And if we’d met her out walking? A cheery hello, as I manage with most walkers, that would have to suffice. Puzzling over the contradictions of Mrs May would be for another time, and the certainties.
Walking is about the next horizon, and the one after that, and horizons open up as you travel to take in the whole world…
Troubadour, two definitions : 1) medieval lyric poet/musician; 2) a singer, especially of folk songs. (Merriam Webster) It’s the first definition I like.
The death of Leonard Cohen set me to thinking. Who might be the troubadours of our own time? Troubadours for our time?
I tried in an early version of this post to characterise Leonard Cohen as somehow in that medieval tradition. As a poet of love, even courtly love. He was inspired and tormented by his muse, and his audience connected and were inspired in turn. But I’m foolish to try and say more than that. The more I listen to his songs the more in awe I am. There’s a fine piece by Edward Doxx connecting Cohen to John Donne. It gets closer than I ever could. He quotes Cohen: ‘So come, my friends, be not afraid/We are so lightly here/It is in love that we are made/in love we disappear.’
Cohen didn’t take up the cudgels against violence and injustice, as Dylan once did. Nor did he understand ‘the other side’ quite as Woody Guthrie did: ‘As I went walking I saw a sign there/And on the sign it said “No Trespassing.”/But on the other side it didn’t say nothing,/That side was made for you and me.’
But he did write and sing ‘Democracy’, which lays bare a dysfunctional USA, but in the midst of it all just about finds reason for optimism. ‘It’s coming to America first,/the cradle of the best and of the worst./It’s here they got the range/and the machinery for change/and it’s here they got the spiritual thirst.’
Asked two years ago if songs can offer solutions to political problems, he replied, ‘I think the song itself is a kind of solution.’
Dylan back in the 60s confronted the ‘masters of war’ and racists: ‘William Zanzinger killed poor Hattie Carroll,/with a gun that he twirled around his diamond ring finger.’ There was a rawness about Dylan back then, just voice and guitar and a language we’d never heard. There’s something about a troubadour who carries his guitar and gathers an audience around him wherever he might be. (Once or twice I did just that!) No band in sight.
Dylan put overt protest behind him, took on another persona, many personas – but he’s still the troubadour.
As for others …..Buffy Sainte-Marie has long been a favourite of mine. ‘Welcome welcome emigrante,’ words for our own time as much as hers. Pete Seeger and Euan MacColl were at the political coal-face: amazingly MacColl also wrote ‘The first time ever I saw your face’. Joan Baez has never lost her touch or her commitment, or her ability to inspire. She was the first for me, back over fifty years ago.
Bruce Springsteen, a man with a guitar, and a rock band. A different kind of troubadour. As for Steve Earle, ‘hardcore troubadour’, Springsteen may have been the ‘consummate chronicler of welfare-line blues, but Steve had lived the life’. (Lauren St John).
There’s another , who I’ve just re-discovered, playing my old vinyls. Someone who maybe I should have put first, ahead even of Cohen, Guthrie, Dylan. I’m thinking of Victor Jara, a Chilean troubadour who died for his songs, his poetry, his guitar, his beliefs, his hands first broken, and then murdered in the stadium in Santiago on 1973, when Pinochet with CIA backing overthrew the Allende regime. His songs have a purity and a magic, and a simple beauty, and they stop me in my tracks.
Yes, my guitar is a worker/shining and smelling of spring/my guitar is not for killers/greedy for money and power/but for the people who labour/so that the future may flower. (His last poem, which could never be a song, written in the stadium.)
The Beatles could have been troubadours, if they’d followed the direction taken by Penny Lane and Eleanor Rigby. Ralph McTell (Streets of London) was memorable, though sentimental. Billy Bragg never sentimental, stridently political, a street singer. But in truth he never inspired me. One song that did was Peter Gabriel’s lament for Steve Biko, which is searing, searching, and angry.
Edith Piaf, Charles Aznavour, Yves Montand… chanteurs/chanteuses, troubadours. There’s a Gallic intensity we Brits and Americans find hard to match. They’ve inspired me, but they’re not my focus here.
For I’ve a question. For anyone who reads this, for my children, for generations born in the 1970s, 80s, 90s, even the noughties.
Who are your troubadours?
Singers and poets for whom words matter, for whom stories matter, for whom love matters, and above all – injustice. Who sing to be heard, and to be understood. Who sing with passion and with anger.
Back in the 60s the civil rights movement galvanised us, in the UK as well as the USA. Apartheid likewise. We’d a sense that history was on our side, justice and social justice would prevail. Now, in 2016, post Brexit and the Trump election we’re on the defensive. Nativist, racist and sexist attitudes find favour. Trump somehow finds the rule of law and torture compatible.
(Trump and torture reminded me of Victor Jara. Pinochet’s soldiers thought torture and death legitimate. Once hatred in engendered anything is possible.)
Who is singing for us, writing songs, wanting to be heard? Who will be singing?
Maybe we’ve been listening to the music too much in recent decades, and we’ve forgotten the song.
This is the alternative blog – based on messages home to my partner, Hazel. Carlos, by the way, is a small Steiff bear she gave me before I set off on the Camino Frances last year. He sits, usually with his head out, in a small side pocket of my rucksack.
Wednesday 31st August:
Eating a very good octopus and bean stew after a stroll round the very lively streets of Porto. One girl belting out an Eric Clapton blues. Marvellous evening views of the river from the cathedral, the port houses of the likes of Cockburn and Sandeman still lining the shore. Hotel OK. I’ve bunk beds in the room as well as double bed – should I need them!!!
Thursday 1st September:
I’m sending a photo of Carlos (now on his second Camino!) taking in the view (the Atlantic, lost in the heat haze) just before we finished our walk. We (he and I!) are staying at the monastery in Vairao – beautiful location. Countryside surprisingly green, given the hot weather. Walked 17 miles in the hot sun.
Started 10.30, after exploring Porto by daylight, especially the cathedral – I loved the cloisters. Slept well and walked well. Only problem might be a plantar fasciitis recurrence – felt sore even before of started walking. Not bad, doesn’t really hurt… Staying in the high 80s here. I think I like it! Carlos thinks Portugal is …cool!
Friday 2nd September:
18 miles in 88 degree heat. Yes I did wear my sun hat! Shade always came to my rescue. Eucalyptus woods have a sweet smell! Two great cafes en route – they love peregrinos and make you feel like a celebrity. Barcelos is delightful – somewhere for you and I to visit when we do our northern Portugal trip!! (Did you know about that?) Tomorrow – 20 miles and no cooler – I’ll probably do 12 miles [I didn’t – I did 21] and stop off at an earlier albergue. Ponte de Lima does sound special.
There’s a spiritual quality in all this, somewhere, must remember that, and too much mega hot sun doesn’t help! Don’t worry – I will be sensible.
Saturday 3rd September:
Today probably the toughest of any Camino day – close on 21 miles in 90 degree heat. Took a longish lunch break, mega amounts of water – camels have a good plan, and did the last three hours down to Ponte de Lima in stages – 15 mins then water, then shade. Think feet OK, but they’re sore, and a blister needs watching! Wonderful rolling wooded country, maize and vines in abundance, but too little shade. Carlos complains he’s getting a tan! …Tuesday forecasting 40 degrees here – over 100F. Won’t walk after 10 – will begin at 6 maybe and make it a short day! [That at least was the plan!]
Ponte de Lima beautiful and bridge medieval, long and narrow, for pilgrims and horses, but the whole place is touristy. Currently sitting outside after a shower (communal!) and drinking a local craft beer….
Sunday 4th September:
Got to Rubiaes about midday after five hours walking – and that is enough! Sheltering in the albergue, as is everyone, no-one daft enough to be out there walking! Wonderful walk from the Lima valley – a high pass only 1400ft but rugged and the sun already hot. They’re collecting pine resin from the trees – plastic bags attached to capture – so a sweet smell. And big views. Hot tomorrow again – aiming for the Spanish border…[News that Strictly Come Dancing has started already]… God help us all! They’d all die dancing in this heat… Planning a 6.30 start – not too early – Roman bridges don’t look special in the dark!… Flip-flops a big success. Sore left foot no longer sore! But sore spot on right foot. Such is life!
Monday 5th September:
Having a coffee in Valenca, fortress above the Minho – view upriver takes some beating! Left at 6.10, arrived 11.30. Off to Spain in a few minutes – just 2km to Tui….
Now well-settled in Tui. Mixed dorms but we’re spared mixed showers! Breakfast with eccentric ex-postman from Wigan and chatted to Polish guy who has his own travel magazine, takes own photos and hates smartphone cameras! Otherwise I’ve been swinging along through beautiful country, Roman bridges – it was once a Roman road, wooded paths, a few red-barked cork oaks, and singing, and happily lost in thought – walking as the good Lord meant it to be. Heat building, but OK. Tomorrow is the mega heat day – should I leave at maybe 4.30? Could be 2 hrs walking in the dark… Time now an hour ahead – funny gaining an hour going north. Mega hot out there – can it really be that tomorrow will be 6 or 7 degrees hotter still?
Tuesday 6th September:
Our international party, Polish photographer, Antonio, Czech student, Michaela, and me, walked 22 miles from Tui to Redondela, leaving at 5.40 and arriving 2.10, in 97 degree heat. Feet done in but otherwise beginning to recover, aided by beer, water, bread and cheese. We kept talking and and helped push each other along. On my own – would I have made it? Other people on the Camino today included – more Poles, a group of Spanish scouts, and a Mexican couple. No Brits save me!… [Tomorrow] heading for Pontevedra. Easy walk, I think. Assuming I can walk! Feet in rebellion!…
[Message from home: ‘No Brit would be mad enough to walk in that heat.’] Are you suggesting I’m not British?! I’m not one of your lily-livered Brexiters! Antonio called out a moment ago – ‘How is Brexit?’ (meaning me) ‘Do not call me Brexit!’ I shouted back. Such are the burdens we old-school Eurobrits have to bear!
Talking of bears, Carlos got some serious attention today – he’s feeling better about things. Brave bear – coping with the heat. And I’m doing the walking for him, of course.
Wednesday 7th September:
Arrived Pontevedra 12.45, having left at 7.40 – last person out of the albergue. Most are gone by 6, but sunrise 8.10 here, and I want to see where I’m walking! Easy day, two healthy climbs, but sun came out late and I had my favourite breakfast – fresh orange juice, croissant and café con leche. Bounced along after that. Lesson for and from today – think of nothing, just take it all in! Staying in a cheap hotel – Hotel Virgin del Camino – better than vergin’ – it’s actually on the Camino! Now off to eat and sight-see.
Carlos’s fur trapped in zip but I think he’s OK…[‘Might Carlos like his head out of the rucksack, so he can enjoy the views…’] Carlos does have his head out of the rucksack, all the time. Only the rain would keep him in. Sometimes he stretches out a paw and waves as well!… I loved Pontevedra but wandered around too long, and my feet are very sore…
Thursday 8th September:
Arrived Caldas de Reis at 12.15 – walked non-stop from Pontevedra, not far short of 4 miles/hr pace. Too many slow Spanish walking groups and I needed to get well away from them! They talk! Beautiful gentle country, bright sun, and temperature high 60s. That makes two happy bears – Carlos tambien! Wondering whether to call him Carlito – little Carlos. Ibuprofen and blister plasters helping – feet doing better than I expected. Now enjoying bread and tapas lunch!… Amazingly I’m now halfway through this jaunt!
Friday 9th September:
Arrived Padron 12.30. Enjoying a very good menu de dia in a local restaurant! …very modern albergue – bunk beds with curtains! Big plus – they’ve done all my laundry! Shortish but beautiful walk – oak, pine, chestnut, under a deep blue sky. Chilly first thing. Bumped into Martin, who I’d met in Tui, and we did a short tour – walking up the hillside to where St James [doesn’t sound right if you’re a peregrino – has to be Santiago!] is reputed to have first preached the Christian message in what must have been about 40AD. Martin an Irish Catholic so a good companion for this! House/museum of a legendary Galician poet – Rosalia de Castro – up the road so I trekked off for a visit. Early start tomorrow – will be tight to get there in time for midday mass.
Saturday 10th September:
Photo [sent home, to Hazel, and to my son and daughter] taken a moment ago, 10.30, local time, 8 miles out from Santiago [I’m looking remarkably sprightly, all considered!] …
Arrived to music and carnival an hour ago. A mere 16 miles this morning and I chose to explore the longer way in – being a glutton for punishment (and I knew I’d missed the mass). Once I start moving I do walk fast – all that running and marathons and the like. Wonderful place to be – on the steps above the Praza do Obradoiro. Met my Czech friend, Michaela, from our big walk from Tui. Big shout of – Chris! Antonio around somewhere. And others I recognise – we’ve all walked a long way!
Sunday 11th September:
Mist down low over Finisterre [I took a bus, and did feel a bit of a cheat], there’s a little overhead sun but wherever I walk I won’t see much. Maybe it will add to be mystery, and there’s a lot out there….
The mystery is now the view, on a perfect evening! The mist cleared over the last hour. This is where you would, in classical times, pass over the horizon, to the other side, to the spirit world. No-one is closer than I am at this moment. Back in the now – you’d love it here – sun, sea and waves breaking gently. And warmth…. a wonderful day, in the end. I’d set out for the cape about 4pm and walked and scrambled and stopped and pondered and took photos till about 8.30. Magic, all a big surprise. No idea what I’ll do tomorrow. Just got back to the port (the cape is 2½km away) and I’ve a plate of salad, and a jug of wine, in front of me….
Monday 12th September:
Damp, cloud down, forecast dreadful, no point walking 17 miles to Muxia [there will be, has to be, another time!], left Finisterre on an early bus, back to Santiago, thought I’d go to midday mass, but refused admission – my rucksack too big! Must have been by a centimetre! Maybe I look dissolute. [Tonight in a cheap hotel] tomorrow back at my favourite, the Balalada. So far a bit of a damp squib of a day!… Bought a shirt, so feel less scruffy, had a snooze, and a coffee with Martin … wonderful evening mass, felt inspired. A bit of a downer of a day early on but you can’t have the ups without the downs! Tomorrow it will rain, but I will smile!
Tuesday 13th September:
Sitting on the steps of the Praza do Quintana, near the Holy Door specially opened this year for Pope Francis’s Year of Mercy. But it seems to be just another entrance for the usual tourists – the message lost. Pilgrim mass in English this morning, lots of Irish, and an Irish priest officiating. We all introduced ourselves, said where we’d walked from – which was nice. Then I toured the monastery of St Martin, hard by the cathedral – full of altars and choir stalls which put San Millan to shame – but nothing quite to compare with the sculptures of Santo Domingo de los Silos. Galician (!) hamburger for lunch, with Stones tracks in the background. Sun now, after rain, but a chilly wind. Latest invasion of pilgrims has arrived – they’re everywhere! Each day they invade – proud to have been one of them. Funny to think – back home tomorrow night.
Wednesday 14th September:
Wrote a Santiago blog late on yesterday – still work in progress. But now fired up to get out and see things again! Funny being on your own – you can go anywhere, anytime you choose, yet you want to share it, and share coffees, and chat, as we did back in May [Pamplona, Roncesvalles, Castrojeriz…].
[Two big events, not mentioned in messages home – searching out the statue in the Alameda park of Rosalia de Castro, who is already my hero, and then the Museum of Sacred Art, with paintings and statues and much more on the Camino and on pilgrimages worldwide – few people there, and yet it’s one of the best museums I’ve seen anywhere.]
For cool damp weather, come to Santiago… Now queuing to board my flight…Bus to the airport took me via the last stages of the Camino Frances route into Santiago. Everyone wearing ponchos, and the rain then got harder. Lots of sun for them on the way – shame that Santiago lets them down now. But if they don’t know already – they’ll soon discover it’s one of the most remarkable places on earth!
[Carlos, sensibly, has stayed all the while inside his pocket!]
Many of the songs I’ve sung to myself on the Camino have travel in there somewhere. And, curiously, a sense of losing someone, and looking back. They aren’t songs of triumph – look I’ve made it! But they do tell stories.
What, I wonder, do other peregrinos sing on the Camino? To keep themselves company, for sheer joy and pleasure, or just because they match the rhythm of their step…. A few have headphones and listen to music from downloads, not from memory, and that puzzles me. Singing may be a performance of one, but you’re pro-active, as surely you want to be on the Camino, and not re-active. (Wear headphones and you also miss birdsong, the rush and babble of streams and brooks, the sound of the wind in the grass and trees.)
There’s a sense of re-engaging when you recall an old favourite. And you may be taken by surprise, by something old and long-forgotten. The rhythms of the Camino can take you surprising places.
For me, Kris Kristofferson for starters: ‘Me and Bobby McGee’: From the coalmines of Kentucky to the California sun,/Bobby shared the secrets of my soul….
Leonard Cohen has travelled with Suzanne for fifty years, as I have too (almost!) – I’ve been singing this legendary song since I was 19! On the Camino it was like meeting up with an old friend. Susanne takes you down to a place by the river/you can see the boats go by, you can spend the night beside her…
As for the Rolling Stones’ Ruby Tuesday, ‘she would never say where she came from/… ‘There’s no time to lose I heard her say…’
Not sentiments you’d expect from a peregrino. Though how many of us are getting over, or moving beyond, an event that’s troubling us, that’s turned our life on its head? And we peregrinos – we do tell each other where we’ve come from – and hopefully, we have time to lose. We can go slow.
I’ve sung the blues along the way. But not travelling blues. Or Woody Guthrie’s ‘Hard Travellin’: I’ve been doin’ some hard travellin I thought you knowed…’ And I’ve not been riding the blinds – leaping and hanging on to passing trains!
One moment I remember (somewhere between Ponte de Lima and Rubiaes on the Camino Portugues), singing Howlin Wolf’s ‘Spoonful’. (Give me a spoonful of coffee…) After each of three repetitions of ‘that spoonful ‘ a cock crowed. He and I struck up a rhythm together. I tried a fourth time – but he’d lost interest. I carried on of course.
One other song, with no travelling connection at all, but when you sing it you bounce along, and that’s ‘Light my fire’. I love the original Doors version, but try singing it like Jose Feliciano, with a Latin, syncopated rhythm, and, well, not surprisingly, you’re almost dancing. So maybe don’t walk that way with too many other people around.
I’ve long been a fan of Melanie, ever since I first heard her sing Ruby Tuesday back in the early 70s – way better than the original Stones version, which – thought I could never say this about Jagger – seems lacklustre by comparison.
I’ve been singing one of two old blues numbers at a local pub, on Open Mic evenings, and it’s been fun, and I’ve enjoyed it, and I hope – I think – one or two locals have too. Helps if you get everyone singing along with something like Mojo (‘I got my mojo workin’) and an old Son House field holler, John the Revelator. (I saw Son House once, in Hammersmith, with the wonderfully named Sleepy John Estes, and that was a few decades ago!)
However, I see that Melanie on her brand-new album, Ragamuffin, has a song with the following lines:
I can’t take no more, there ain’t no use /Can’t keep on doin’ what it is you think I do /And the words that I’ve been listening to /Are as honest as a white man sounds when he sings the blues /I know we’re through
‘… as honest as a white man sounds when he sings the blues’
Well, I guess I know what she means.
I sure ain’t no Hoochie Coochie Man (Muddy Waters) – I’ve not had much success ‘making pretty women jump and shout’ … I’ve never been part of a team building railroads (Linin’ track, not very romantic, as sung by Leadbelly) … I’ve largely kept my mojo to myself (Muddy again)… and I wouldn’t want the hurt and I don’t think I’ve ever reached that place which Howlin Wolf sings about in Smokestack Lightnin…
Whoa-oh, tell me, baby,/Where did you stay last night?/Why don’t ya hear me cryin’?
So, if I ever sing the blues to you, be very wary. I’m white and if Melanie’s right I may just not be quite as honest as you think!
Mind you, there’s a difference between blues and the old R&B – rhythm and blues. R&B -you’re out there in the world, doing your stuff. It’s urban, urgent, driven, assertive. That’s Mojo, that’s Hoochie Coochie Man. You’d know where you stand with that kind of guy.
Smokestack Lightnin is the bridge between the old blues, which carry the hurt of ages, the hurt of slavery and subjugation, the blues of the old South, the cotton fields – and R&B. Howlin Wolf sings a hurt that’s palpable, tears him, and the singer, apart.
The old blues – From four till late/I was wringin’ my hands and cryin (Robert Johnson) – has no resolution. The hurt won’t go away. In Smokestack Lightnin I don’t know about the hurt, that doesn’t go away – but the girl, come the last verse she’s out, and scorned. He’s found himself again.
And the white man – he’s simply not been there – he can’t understand the depth of those emotions. They come from somewhere else, where he simply hasn’t been. He may try as I do to sing the blues. I leave it to you to decide if you trust him…
We’re rediscovering vinyl, or as once it was, LPs.
My daughter now has a turntable, as a Christmas present, and I want one. Boxing Day evening we sat down and played music, vinyls she’s just been given of War on Drugs and Tame Impala (band names, for the uninitiated) – and then some real oldies from my collection which haven’t seen a turntable for 20 years.
Sergeant Pepper for one. I’d bought the LP on 1st June 1967, its release date, and retired to my room on Oriel Street to listen. I can still remember a mild perplexity listening to the first track, to the band striking up.
And now? A Day in the Life, A Little Help from my Friends… I’ve listened to the CD in recent years, but the tracks all sound way better on vinyl. Maybe it’s just watching the rotation, being mesmerised, watching the needle. Maybe the sound is actually better. There’s an immediacy about vinyl that there isn’t about a CD which we slide into our music system, and the sound surrounds us, there’s no locus, or an MP3 file which even more is pure sound, all virtual, nothing else. Do we need some kind of focus for our musical attention? At least give me something tangible – give me a record sleeve. Remember all those wild Roger Dean album covers from the 60s and 70s!
I mention vinyls to friends and there’s a refrain I hear – ‘I chucked them out 20 years ago.’ A minor gloat – I didn’t, and there’s a whole world of discovery, re-discovery, awaiting me. And maybe they’re actually worth a bob or two!
We tried a recording of Tub Jug Washboard Band music, one those happy musical byways I explored in my Oxford days. ‘Catch another mule sleeping in my stall/mama, going to tear it down.’ Love the image. Wonderful, crazy – and obscure.
And then the second James Taylor album, which I’d bought when it came out in 1970. Nothing obscure here. He’s as popular today as back in 1970. ‘Country Roads’ accompanied Martin Sheen as he walked the Camino, or at least the soundtrack did!
Joni Mitchell – ‘Michael from mountains/go where you will go to/know that I will know you/someday I will know you very well.’ All sorts of resonances from the past, shared with Rozi, who loves America, and loves song, and connects to Joni Mitchell as I do. Will thirty years on the next generation connect to another great songwriter, and Rozi’s hero, Sufjan Stevens? Let’s hope so.
Rozi has her turntable. And I will shortly have mine, and I’ll play my old collection, 200, maybe 300, one by one, and dig out the memories and the associations each has. Blues and folk music – so much that I used to sing, and have almost forgotten.
Almost, but not quite.
Tonight there’s an Open Mic evening at the local pub, the Black Horse, and I might just sing one or two of the blues hollers and the folk songs that I used to sing in clubs either side of 1970. I don’t need to hit high notes… the old bass resonances are still there, and that’s what matters, I can still deafen myself and others, given half a chance.
I will report back…..
No go. Pub too crowded, no space for a newcomer! But for next time I have a holler or two (Red Cross Store – a place to be avoided, charity in 1920s America, with strings), and a few folk songs (Euan McColl’s version of To the Beggin’ I Will Go – if you didn’t want to work the looms, you could take to the road). You can get a great driving rhythm going on both.