A happy day

For the past week i’ve had the hay fever from hell. So extreme did it become that on Wednesday morning it woke me from my sleep and on Thursday evening i had to abandon my plan to attend Bridget Riley‘s lecture at the British Museum. She was going to be talking about how figurative drawing eventually evolved into abstract art. It was a bitter disappointment.

The peak seems to have been reached however and now, thankfully, the blight is subsiding. On Saturday i woke feeling… well (yes, it took me a while to identify the feeling) and headed off with a friend to see the exhibition of Henry Moore‘s sheep at the Hertford Museum. It was only one small room but perhaps all the more delightful for that. At large exhibitions you tend to develop exhibit fatigue by the time you’re half way round and individual pieces, particularly the smaller, more delicate ones, get lost amidst the masses of objects you’re trying to experience, analyse, appreciate. I think there were no more than twenty-five etchings and a few sculptures at yesterday’s exhibition.

henry moore - lamb & mother

The fact that they were etchings was a surprise in itself. I have the book Henry Moore’s Sheep Sketchbook* and i’d assumed what we were going to see were the original ballpoint and pencil sketches from it. Not so. It seems the popularity of the sketches inspired Moore to produce a group of etchings from them. My two favourites: one of a black-faced sheep, its eyes fixing you with a suspicious glare, and one of lamb suckling from its mother, its legs bent as it twists its head beneath her belly to reach the udder. I love the fact that Moore is able to create pictures which are so touching and individual from animals which are usually experienced as blank, anonymous white blobs on the landscape. He says in the “Sketchbook”:

I began to realise that that underneath all that wool was a body, which moved in its own way, and that each sheep had an individual character.

Another advantage of small exhibitions – but also a disappointment – is how few people seem to visit them. You can wander back and forth between pieces, making new connections; whereas at major exhibitions the experience is often more like queuing at an ATM. I suppose a lot of it comes down to the lack of publicity but i think it also reflects the fact that most of the time people rarely look further than a few national museums when they’re searching for things to see. I include myself in those people. Londoners also tend to have a kind of mental block about venturing outside London, unless the event is a really big name affair.

River Lee - Hertford

After the sheep, the walk. This i did by myself as my friend doesn’t do long walks. My aim was to follow the River Lee as far as i could towards London. I made excellent progress, helped by the fact that the walk is all on the flat and, even more, by the fact that navigation is largely a no-brainer: you follow the river; where it goes, you go. It’s been canalised and a towpath runs along its edge. I missed the twists and turns of a natural river, but not as much as i’d expected and the reason for that was the river – and often the towpath – was crowded with ducklings, goslings, cygnets and baby coots. Plus their proud parents of course. At first it was mainly geese, who – be warned – are very protective of their young (one nearly ran me off the towpath); but later on i saw what looked like a duck nation: i have never seen so many at once and almost all of them had a fleet of ducklings in tow.

At Ponders End i was forced to accept that the light was fading and call it a day. A happy day.

* Henry Moore’s Sheep Sketchbook; ISBN: 978-0-500-28072-0; pub. Thames & Hudson (1998)

Trip 2010: Last day in Istanbul (for now)… and the night train

Friday 9 April

My last day (for the time being) in Istanbul and i was lumbered with a backpack! Only afterwards did i realise i could have left it in a locker at the railway station. I started my day by trying to book my hotel rooms in Greece via the hotel computer. This was difficult as some sites wouldn’t work properly but i eventually got a room sorted out for Thessaloniki, which was the most important place to have accommodation, given that i would be arriving there sometime the next morning.

Afterwards i headed to Gülhane Park where i read for a while and then began the unpleasant business of phoning hotels in Xanthi and Alexandroupoli (having abandoned my hope of visiting Edirne as the journey looks too convoluted). A shame but i will get there one day. The first hotel i phoned was full but after that, to my relief, i had no problems and within a quarter of an hour i had all the necessary reservations made – and was feeling the usual embarrassment at the anxiety that making phone calls causes me.

Gülhane Park - 2010 April 9

I went to a cafe to recover – the same one i’d visited the day before with B. Alas, without her presence the waiters were nowhere near as attentive and left me to shiver. In the afternoon i decided to tackle the Archaeology Museum, which – thanks be to God! – had a cloakroom where i could leave my rucksack. The museum has three parts but i spent so much time wandering about the stelae and sarcophagi in the main building (assuming that the museum would stay open till six o’clock) that i ended up not seeing the other two (the museum in fact shut at quarter to five). Another time.

I found the information panels nearly as interesting as the exhibits themselves: a great emphasis seemed to placed on “the Anatolians” whilst the Greek contribution was subtly downplayed. I recalled reading last year, when i was preparing for the Lycian Way, that the Greeks claim the Lycians were a Greek civilisation while Turkish historians describe them simply as speaking an Indo-European language. The truth of the situation, whatever it is, seems to me less interesting than the way in which it’s contested – the way that past and present interact.

Istanbul Archaeology Museums (courtyard)

As i’ve said, i ran out of time. Of the things i got to see the clay tablets with their ancient inscriptions were among the most interesting. Unlike graves these felt personal; you could almost imagine the scribe marking the clay. I found the way in which proto-alphabetic and cuneiform writing systems seemed to co-exist fascinating. We tend to assume the former supplanted the other as it was introduced, being to our eyes so obviously superior, but it seems that wasn’t the case. Even more moving were the ‘door’ graves, gravestones which were decorated to resemble doors, which would provide entry into the next world for the deceased person. This type of grave marker was typical of poorer people, whose families couldn’t afford elaborate tombs and the inscriptions were usually simple statements of affection. Sometimes there was also a reference to the untimeliness of the death. No dates however as far as i could see – but how did people date events then except in reference to their ruler?

When i left the museum the old man in charge of the cloakroom insisted on helping with my backpack. Bless him. I tried to dissuade him, worrying that, given the weight of the thing, he’d put his back out but he smiled and ignored me. Once outside i was at a loss to know what to do with myself as there were still hours before my train departed and the streets were, if anything, even busier than they had been earlier in the day. The mere thought of boarding a tram brought on waves of claustrophobia.

Sirkeci Railway Station

In the end i hung about the area, buying myself a fish sandwich and a cup of tea. It was cold and when i went to Sirkeci (the railway station) the only place with any heating was the waiting room. I divided my time between trying to keep warm in there and taking photographs: the station is quaint and lovely; you feel as if you’ve stepped into an old novel. A mad Irishman arrived. He began to engage an invisible companion in a heated debate, although i couldn’t work out what he and ‘his friend’ were arguing about. Later, when we were boarding the train he turned up on the platform with his bags. I began to wonder if he was travelling with us but he stayed on the platform muttering and occasionally shouting. He was still there when we left. Perhaps he’s always there.

The train itself was small (just four carriages) but comfortable. I found myself sharing with a young Turkish man (the only Turk on the train as far as i could see). I never learnt his name but he politely explained that he worked for a trade union and had a business meeting in Thessaloniki. He spent the evening typing away on his laptop while i looked out of the window at the suburbs and small towns we were passing through and wondered what the border crossing would be like.

Plaque on the Istanbul to Thessaloniki night train

I was also trying very hard not to think about water as i had just half a bottle to last me more than 12 hours. All that time waiting for the train and only at the last minute had it occurred to me i would need something to drink – and of course i discovered i had nothing smaller than a 50 Lira note which none of the station’s stallholders would change.

Finally, my roommate finished his typing and we pulled down the bunks. These were surprisingly comfortable but i made the mistake of choosing the top one. Not only did the rungs of the ladder cut into my feet as i climbed it because they were angled, but being the cackhanded individual i am, i kept kicking the ladder over. I think the Turkish trade union official got very tired of me. He soon fell asleep however and i was left awake, listening to the train rattling its way to Greece. I was too excited to sleep.

Boarding the night train

At the border we first stopped on the Turkish side at a place called Uzunköprü where a man came on board and took our passports away to be checked. We didn’t even have to get out of bed! We just handed him them from our bunks. My roommate was the exception: he had to go across to one of the buildings on the opposite platform and get a visa. It seemed odd that it was the one person native to the country we were in who needed a visa, but the rest of us all seemed to be EU nationals. Later another man came and announced he was from ‘baggage control’ (all customs announcements were in English). We did need to get up for this as we were required to open our luggage ourselves. It was all over and done with quickly however.

Pythio Railway Station (from Wikipedia)

On the Greek side (Pythio*) a similar process involving Greek officials occurred, except this time instead of ‘baggage control’ we had ‘customs’ and, as no-one had anything to declare, this was even more of a non-event. The Greeks were in fact the most charming customs officials i’ve ever encountered. They were both young men – perhaps new to the job? – and apologised for disturbing our sleep. Customs officials – apologise!?

And then it was done and we were on our way again… through Greece!

* The photo of Pythio Railway Station shown above is from Wikipedia. It was the early hours of the morning when we passed through it so i couldn’t really take a photo.

Polish poetry & me

I discovered the poetry of Poland via the work of Ewa Lipska. I remember reading her poem Instruction Manual, with its insistent refrain “The nation’s dead”, when i was twenty or so. At that time i was at home with a young son, trying to keep my mind alive by reaching out to a world beyond the small commuter town in which i was trapped. Poetry more than anything was my lifeline: language distilled to perfection. Lipska’s work spoke to me despite, rather than because of, its focus on politics; I sought out more and – naturally? inevitably? – discovered her compatriots Czesław Miłosz and Wisława Szymborska. For some reason lost in the mist of time however their work didn’t stick, at least not then.

Soon afterwards i came across another Polish poet whose work did stick: Anna Swir (or Świrszczyńska). I’ve long since forgotten the name of the anthology in which i found her poems and only remember that it was a book showcasing women poets. More frustrating is the fact that i have no idea who did the translations; they (and presumably the original poems) are marvellous – deft, sensual, acerbic, poignant. Three of them i copied out and cherish to this day: A Spring, She Doesn’t Remember and Her Hand. The third of those is short enough to quote in full:

When my mother was dying
I held her hand.
When she died i burnt everything
her hand had touched.
Only my own hands
I couldn’t burn.

A few more years passed and i found myself unemployed and back in my hometown. Up on the city walls there was a little second-hand bookshop and whenever i had a bit of money i’d go up there and spend it on poetry books. Actually, i went up there whenever i got the chance, not just when i had money; but the rest of the time i had to come away empty handed. One of the books i found there was by Tadeusz Różewicz: Poezje wybrane/Selected Poems*, a bilingual selection of his work translated by Adam Czerniawski. This is dark stuff. Forever marked, it seems, by his experience of the Second World War, Różewicz makes lists; he mistrusts beauty. The typewriter-like font (green for the Polish and black for the English) and the delicate paper only emphasises the feeling of austerity. One poem in particular haunts me. It’s called Beyond Words (in Polish: Nad Wyraz) and begins:

What are you doing
emerged from darkness
Why don’t you want
to live in full light

Its final words are even more powerful:

One tear
inexpressible
beyond words

After that – a long while after that – came Zbigniew Herbert, ‘a spiritual leader of the anticommunist movement in Poland’ according to the brief biography which prefaces his Collected Poems 1956-1998**. Herbert’s work is thrilling – comic and grave – yet curiously difficult to quote from; the poems work beautifully, yet if you try to pull out lines to show to people they fall apart. I do like this stanza from I Would Like To Describe, however:

I would like to describe courage
without dragging behind me a dusty lion
and also anxiety
without shaking a glass full of water

(Translation: Alissa Valles)

I too would like to be free of that dusty lion.

Finally, we come to a poet who arrived in my life just a month ago, courtesy of yet another anthology: Anna Piwkowska. The anthology is called Six Polish Poets*** and I found it in the same second-hand bookshop where many years previously i discovered Snow and Summers by Solveig von Schoultz. There is one poem in particular, about the sudden death of young woman as she is getting out the bath, which i think is incredible. It’s called Lament Of That Summer (or in Polish: Tren Tamtego Lata):

She stepped onto the side of death.
Here, one wet foot on the floor,
hair dryer, towel around her hips,
the other foot into the water,
into death, straight from the summer bath.
She managed just once more to run
the wet hand through her tangled hair.
The tea was cooling in the room;
she planned to hang the lingerie,
the light blue nothing, woven
out of fine silk threads.
Summer. Hot quivering morning.
The day had promised joy, and haste;
behind the wall her son called out
about the puppy’s nose in milk.
The dress hurriedly thrown
across the chair, cinnabar, absorbed
the drops of sunshine. The organ
music of Johann Sebastian
flowed across the room, a woman
or some strange furry animal.
The day brought joy. She managed
nothing. Not even a single shout.
Fear or a contraction
as if before a battle or
a trip. But why with no preparing
or good-byes did she let out
this tiny drop of oxygen
like laughter? A small wooden cross
above the mirror. Brief lapse
of attention. Behind the wall
The boy was playing with the dog.

(Translation: Elżbieta Wójcik-Leese).

There you have it: the story so far, spanning two decades, of Polish poetry and me.

* Poezje wybrane/Selected Poems: ISBN 83-08-01777-0;  Tadeusz Różewicz; trans. Adam Czerniawski; pub. Wydawnictwo Literackie (1991)
** Collected Poems 1956-1998: ISBN 978-1-84354-833-6; Zbigniew Herbert; trans. Alissa Valles; pub. Atlantic Books (2008)
*** Six Polish Poets: ISBN 978-1-904614-50-0; ed. Jacek Dehnel; pub. Arc Publications (2008)

The waters close over you

I have been poorly. Not stricken with the plague, not even afflicted with swine flu, but nonetheless knocked down by a virus which i’m only now getting the better of. Thursday and Friday i was off work and languished* on my bed. Saturday and Sunday i don’t work anyhow and by the latter i was definitely up to pootling. In any case, i’d run out of cat food; so i had no choice but rejoin the living.

And today, Monday, i went back to work.

It’s a curious thing, being off sick. You always tend to imagine – alright, make that, i always tend to imagine – that people are wondering where you are or suspecting you of skiving. Hence our tendency to return just before we are better; so that we still have some symptoms to wave at our (imaginary) critics. No-one can argue with a cough.

The truth, of course, is that by and large no-one even notices you’re not around. If they do happen to look up and observe your empty desk, they assume you’re: at a meeting / on a course, or have taken a day’s leave.

Stay off even longer and eventually they forget you’re even supposed to be there. I know this only too well as this happened with a colleague just recently. She was unexpectedly forced to take leave and initially – she’s our administrator so people do notice when she’s absent – there was concern and speculation about how long she’d be gone.

A week passed. People became re-absorbed in their lives and their deadlines.

Another week passed. A temp took over most of her duties.

When she finally returned we realised we’d forgotten she was away. In the words of a friend: “It’s like the waters close over you.” Everyone enthused at her return and – make no mistake: she’s a nice person and a good worker; we were all enthused at her return. Yet hidden inside the welcome was guilt.

Of course, i hadn’t been off nearly long enough for people to forget about me. But i do wonder how long it would take. Not nearly as long as the colleague i’ve just mentioned, that’s for sure.

* I did manage to blog, even while languishing however. The wonders of an iPhone combined with an urge to witter!