Monday, 25 September 2017

Quietly flows the river...

The Greek philosopher Heraclitus  said that no person can ever step in the same river twice because it is never the same river and the person is not the same person. However much we may wish to go back, however much we may wish to repeat the same experience, we are stuck in the present, going forward. Stuck is the wrong word, of course, because  the present is always changing. If stasis exists it is entirely of one's own construction. It exists in the mind.

Last week was the tenth anniversary of my sister's death. Ten years. That's supposed to be a milestone, isn't it? But that's also a construction. Every day since her death has been a different day. I am a different person to the one I was when I received the phone call that September night and I really wouldn't want to swap the new me for the old me. Which is not to say I don't miss my sister and it's not to say that I don't still love her and wish her by my side. But grief can't keep up with the living. Our footsteps outmatch grief in nearly every instance I can think of. There are very few people who enter the two dimensional world of stasis.

And yet...

There has been a fundamental shift in me. My capacity for happiness has been altered. I'm talking about profound happiness here. Happiness is different to having fun. Anyone can have fun. Happiness is deeply layered. It's like love. It is love, perhaps.

Nobody could make me laugh like my sister. She made me laugh in a way that was like being joined to her. Her hair, which was the colour of sunshine, had a texture that reminded me how her presence could fill an entire room. She was like light itself.

I used to find strands of her hair in random places after she'd come to England to visit - on a jumper, on a cushion, on the page of a book. And there were those occasions we'd both think of the same thing at the same time or we'd buy each other the same present. Then there was the last holiday together.

I flew over to Tucson for her 50th birthday. It was the happiest holiday of my life. I thought that then and I thought that afterwards when I was flying back and that's the way that holiday has been ever since. No other holiday has ever matched it.

We had fun - plenty of it - and we had moments of quiet contentment. We walked every day, we drove into the desert, we watched tumultuous rain running down from the mountains into the city run-offs, we talked about death and severance,  we shared the awe that comes from looking at a human body stripped down to its tendons and vascular system in an exhibition and it was pretty much the same curiosity that held us spellbound when a tarantula crawled like a slender hand down the wall into her yard one night. We were so used to sharing, so used to sitting side by side, so used to just being with one another.

And then it was all gone.

My picture is of the River Vecht near Ommen in the Netherlands. I chose it because I took so many photos of it during my last evening camping there and every shot is different. I also chose it because the holiday I had this summer has been my happiest holiday in ten years. It has been the equal of the holiday I've just been describing.

Perhaps I was just ready for happiness to enter my life again. But I think it was more than that. I suspect happiness has to be earned. I spent the whole year prior to it learning German. It's not been easy. In fact, I've found it quite a struggle. I also signed up to an exchange visit with Oxford poets to poets and artists in Bonn. Trying to translate your own work and reading in German as well as in English was, frankly, more than a little unnerving. I also worked flat-out before I went away - I did a two month stint without a single weekend off. The prospect of the holiday was starting to become more than a little significant. There was the mileage involved. From Hoek van Holland to Uelzen and down to the Black Forest and then up to Bonn and back through the Netherlands again was fairly demanding. It was going to be sad-sweet too - post-Brexit, post the deaths of some really close friends, not to mention the climate of mass migrations and terrible violence in the world. There was something keenly alert in me as I set out for Harwich at the beginning of August, something resonating in a way I couldn't easily describe.

First off  was the sea, where I always begin and end up in my poems and stories, and the stunned realisation that these days the Atlantic doesn't play much of a part in my emotional world. I was longing to swim in the North Sea, which I did more or less on my arrival. And I couldn't wait to get on my bike and cycle amongst the dunes, which I did, or test out my rather limited German, which I also did. I was prickling all over with life.

Next I had to buy a Plakette for the Umweltzonen and new tyres for my car. Talking tyres with blokes in a garage is like speaking a different language anyway. Talking tyres in German took it to a whole new level. And so to Lüneburg Heath which this time of year is covered in purple heather and a fabulous campsite with an ice cold pool fed by ditch running off the Ilmenau river. It rained for three days, but there were such moments of clarity - a tiny tot with a top-knot sitting in the middle of a blanket just being herself underneath the dripping leaves and splashes of birdsong, a man swimming silently in the rain, sitting in the sun picking dirt out of my cycling cleats after grappling with a schlecht and schlammig cyclepath for several kilometres, the sudden smell of chamomile, a raven's call from a far off tree.

Trying to find clarity at Bergen-Belsen was not possible, though. In the end you give up, because the scale and depth of human cruelty is just beyond you. It has gone on for centuries and it continues even as I write this. It isn't a tragedy. I think of a tragedy as something quite incidental. Holocausts are deliberate. The extermination of native populations in the Americas and Tasmania, the African slave trade, Pol Pot's massacres, hundreds of thousands of women burnt at the stake as witches, this unspeakable horror of Nazi death camps, Rwanda, former Yugoslavia, the persecution of Yazidis...

And yet...

These mittens were made by a Russian woman at the camp. A little girl who had been deported to Bergen-Belsen without her parents used to visit her in the hut where people could get potato peelings. The woman gave her a turnip on her first day. The little girl used to go every day. Sometimes the Russian woman was there, sometimes not. Sometimes the woman had something for her, sometimes not. One day, a very cold day in January, the woman gave her these Handschuhe. She'd made them from the threads of blankets. The girl never saw her again. Yvonne Koch is in her 80s now and she gives talks to young people. She became a research doctor and worked on an AIDS project. Her message today is strongly humanitarian. But for the Russian woman's kindness, that little girl may not have survived. There is human warmth even in the most forsaken of places. We must never forget that.

I drove down to the Black Forest in the second week and in some ways the next nine days felt like a healing process, though I'm not sure what healing can actually take place after witnessing such horrors. Perhaps it isn't healing then. Perhaps it's more of an adjustment, a shifting of perspective, a search for context to give some kind of shape to the narrative arc of human experience.

I understand now why every German I spoke to  lit up whenever I said I was holidaying in den Schwarzwald. It has always held a place in my imagination, but for German people, it's the imagination of the blood. Here is a landscape of folklore and storytelling, rich with symbolism and archetypes, and there's something amazing about a green that is so dense that it is actually black. The skyline is a sequence of dancing curves. Everywhere are the calls of crows and ravens and soaring birds of prey. Closer to, is the liquid sound of nuthatches and the shy peeps of bullfinches. Tiny flowers nestle in the crooks of rocks and fallen logs. Sapling firs grow out of the root balls of upended pines that have tumbled down a slope in a storm. Rainbow fungi hug the sides of trees. Pools of rainwater reflect the sun and sky. Small streams trickle between banks of thick moss. You tread quietly in these places. You listen more. You accompany yourself in a way that you never could in a city or town.

I walked for miles. I cycled for miles. I climbed hills and swooped down into magnificent valleys. Sometimes I just sat and and looked.

I wasn't exactly ready for Bonn - any city seems a strange and alien place after such stillness - but I was refreshed and looking forward to meeting everyone. Bonn is Oxford's twin city. Both cities are celebrating 70 years of their twinning agreement. It was a brave thing to set up in 1947. Today, we have regular exchanges of choirs and student groups. This was the first between poets and artists, or certainly the first I've been involved with. Preparations had been under way for some time and we were probably all feeling a little nervous.

Our reception by Dada war alles gut couldn't have been warmer or more generous. We quickly began to establish good working relationships and after a rehearsal were very likely as ready as we'd ever be for the public performance with Diana Bell's 'Big Question Mark'. Open air readings are notoriously difficult and we had to deal with a failed microphone, a helicopter, a plane and church bells as well as local traffic. Nevertheless, people seemed to be listening really very closely as we read in both languages.

Diana's installation was easier to engage with. It generated a lot of discussion. Her key questions were -

Where do you come from?
Where are your roots?
Where do you belong?

These are not easy to answer. I have always believed I could live almost anywhere in the world given the right set of circumstances. My answers might be different if I were to be displaced or forcibly removed and held against my will. The longing for home when you're behind bars is like starvation and bereavement rolled into one.

My hosts, Eva and Oliver, were extraordinarily generous with their time and hospitality. It is a privilege to be accepted into the heart of someone's home. It can be quite daunting to open yourself up to a complete stranger, but we shared some lengthy conversations about our cultural heritages and about history in general. We talked deeply about so many things and we also spent a great deal of time laughing and knocking back a few beers in the process. It felt like a huge wrench when I eventually left to start the homeward journey. I hope we remain friends for a very long time.

The exchange entailed a visit to Bonn's Oxford Club - which I found rather quaint with its red telephone box outside and plates of crustless egg sandwiches and bland mini-pasties inside. Is this really the best Oxford catering can come up with? What about our Lebanese restaurants? What about my favourite little Jamaican haunt? Still, it was interesting to meet so many friends of Oxford.

Again and again I was asked why I've been learning German. I started in an on-and-off sort of way a number of years ago and it wasn't at all like my epic love affair with France which prompted me to learn French. It hasn't been a lavender, wine and literature courtship. It's felt more like righting a wrong. I had a German penfriend as a teenager whom I really regretted losing touch with, especially as our careers ran on parallel tracks in the end. When he died, I couldn't recover that lost ground. I couldn't read his obituary and I couldn't understand the songs he sang. Having German friends has been influential, too, and finally there began to grow in me a curiosity about my own language. When I embarked on reading and transforming the Grimms' hausmärchen for Kissing Bones, the journey truly started.

The Bonn poets were great to work with. We spent a marvellous day at the Arp Museum, where Dada war alles gut meet, exploring the work of Henry Moore and Hans Arp and learning about the history of the place. Eva Wal was an inspirational guide.

Nearly everyone was able to write something that day. I was so completely overwhelmed, I couldn't find my way into anything. Arp is an asterisk floating off the page to Moore's heavily underlined footnote. I got lost somewhere between the two. Moore always takes me inside my own body - it's the world of bones and ligaments and cartilage - the world my sister and I were so fascinated by. Arp moves with atoms and the ever-expanding universe. So, no, I haven't been directly responding, but I am currently preoccupied with the estimated atomic weight of a human being when it's alive and with the function of the atoms that comprise the human body when we are not. It's going to take a long time for something to emerge.

Our final reading together at Jacques' Wein-Depot was a treat. Without the distractions of traffic and church bells, we were really able to focus on each other's work. It was a very rich experience and, as always, wonderful to hear the poems in both languages. The rhythms are interesting. I had always thought that perhaps English and German were quite similar in many ways. They aren't. The unique syntax puts a completely different pressure on a line. Learning another language enables you to think more deeply about prosody and diction.

This is reflected in a much wider and more global context. Learning another language, learning about another cultures enables you to explore your own.
No man is an island,
Entire of itself,
Every man is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manor of thy friend's
Or of thine own were:
Any man's death diminishes me,
Because I am involved in mankind,
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;
It tolls for thee.
                                                                                                         John Donne
Kein Mann ist ein Insel
Eine Gesamtheit für sich.
Jeder ist ein Stück des Kontinents,
Ein Teil des Ganzen.
Wäre ein Klumpen durch das Meer weggewaschen,
Ist Europa weniger.
Sowie, als ob es ein Kap wäre.
Sowie, asl ob ein Wesen deines eigens
Oder deines Freundes wäre.
Der Tod jeder verringert mich
Denn ich bin mit der Menschheit beteiligt.
Also schick nicht ze wissen
Für wen die Glocke läutet:
Sie läutet für dich.
                                                           Übersetzung: David Paley

Here is the Vecht again in the early hours of the morning before I left. As I cycled off to the car with my sodden tent strapped to the pannier rack, the day began changing...
                                                   and changing...
                                                                                                 and changing...


Diana Bell
Eva Wal
Oxford Stanza II


  1. Your blog posts are like London buses Pat. Your holiday sounds like it was a real jouney and your tribute to your sister is so deep and eloquent. We never "get over" death do we? And there is no time limit that defines how long it will affect us for, it's always there and we just have to work with it.

    I know what you mean about German. This summer I recklessly volunteered to do part of a ceremony in German having only studied it for a year or so at school. I really struggled to get my head round the syntax in order to inject some expression into the words and I suddenly realised just how different a language it is, much more so than Italian I think. But all the Germans present, including the groom, were incredibly supportive.

    You sound re-envigorated and I really enjoyed reading it.

    1. Hello Doug. London buses is a nice connection. Yes, this was a bit of a double-decker blog. There has been so much to process. I don't mind working with death. I think we are actually working with ourselves when we do that. I've come to think of grief as a sort of gift. We can't begin to measure love until we've experienced grief. You can't acquire knowledge without effort and seldom can you acquire knowledge without change being involved.

      Isn't German a fabulous language? I love it. In some mouths it's spoken like the jewelled workings of an old gold pocket watch. In others, it's more urgent sounding. I love the various accents, too - from ik (ich) in the north through to ish (still ich) in the south. And the names of things change. A bullfinch is a Dompfaff in the north and a Gimpel in the south.

      Indeed, I am re-invigorated - and also
      continuing with my German studies. I'm not sure if I'd have the nerve to conduct a ceremony in German though! You've very brave.

    2. Not brave really Pat, you get lots of help if one of the couple has a different mother tongue and the German guests were really touched. I did one wedding part in French this year too, that was very satisfying as the French guests felt so much more welcome and the English guests liked it too as it made the atmosphere more inclusive. Doing vows in two languages can also really add drama and emphasis.

    3. I had to speak Fijian for my very first funeral! The family dropped it on me the night before when some people couldn't fly over. I learnt phonetics at college and this has helped enormously. Since that funeral I have had occasion to speak Luxembourgish (I didn't even know the language existed till that funeral!), French, German, Dutch, Welsh, Irish, Portuguese, Ukrainian and probably a few other languages I've left out. Often this comes in during the welcome and I agree, it's very important. The only dual language ceremony I've done was two friends' wedding - one bride is English, the other French. It wasn't massively dual language, but there were some bits in both languages. I'm more comfortable with French. It's fun too, isn't it?

  2. I'm reading this the day after what would have been my Dad's 92nd birthday. I went to the cemetery yesterday to put some flowers on his grave as I do at various significant times of the year - birthday, Father's Day, the date of his death in 1991. It may be 26 years since he died but every time I go, it seems as if it was just the other day. You are so right when you say that you never "get over" the loss, I miss him every day and find myself using phrases he used. Friends still talk about him and laugh which means he is not forgotten and the fact that his memory lives on in that laughter is comforting to me and in a strange way, means that he is still with me. Does that sound weird? It might to some people but I know you'll understand.

  3. Hello Chris. I'm always very moved by your posts about your lovely dad. I remember him so well. He was a kind and generous man. He was loyal and stable, too. Your whole family has been built on that foundation. I think you're right when you say that keeping someone close is comforting. The heart is a good resting place. It's the home of love. The grave is the letting go bit, the heart is the keeper. Laying flowers connects the past to the present.