They were still dancing when, just before dawn on a late summer’s day, the harbour of Libreville prepared to welcome Le Grand-Saint-Antoine. The band- a pitifully hot quartet in faded dinner-jackets- had long ago packed up their instruments and retired to their remote and stifling cabin. A young boy finished washing down the deck, and two stewards loosened their ties, and heaved the bins full of discarded streamers across to the side. Only the couple remained, and I couldn’t help watching them for a few minutes, as the amount of sea behind them infinitesimally grew.
A strange sense of foreboding, or cowardice, or saving-the-best-for-last, meant I couldn’t quite turn around to look at the land yet. The sea stretched further than ever. A forlorn, not-quite-empty champagne bottle raised its neck above the horizon from its forgotten table as we bobbed on the waves. The dancing woman’s eyes flashed faster than her legs moved; her chin rested on her partner’s shoulder. He was looking out to sea, and she was looking at me with idle curiosity, or perhaps simply drowsiness.
I turned to look at the port’s tangle of abandoned railway sidings- some Chinese container wagons appeared to have taken root in the weeds. A café already had patrons at its outside tables, and a dog was yapping. A tired, dry scent reached me, and I felt the urge to buy a newspaper.
There was a city to explore. I realised I wasn’t wearing a watch. I turned briefly back to look at the ocean, and the dancing couple seemed frozen, the woman’s eyes closed now, or almost, I couldn’t quite tell. From somewhere behind me came the whistle of a locomotive.
I follow the dirt track along the railway, out of the town centre. I jostle with mopeds, bicycles, goats, chickens and the occasional horse and donkey, slapping on sun-cream, and stopping for a ginger juice over ice. I feel some trepidation- if I’d followed all the official advice, I’d barely have left the hotel.
People greet me, but do not pester. The only nuisance I encounter is at the guidebook-recommended ugly central market.
Path out of town
Track out of town
Mad dogs and I sit outside, while everyone else watches the match. Just like home.
Bicycle repair shop
Cattle and cattle trucks
As the town recedes, and mosques and houses are interspersed with grazing land, I realize that by following the railway I have adopted a different geography. Surfaced roads are lifelines, and there is always someone expecting a foreigner to buy something, or to want to be taken somewhere. Here I am met with curiosity, but no assumptions.
Not the main road
Haberdasher’s, ironmonger’s, cybercafé
Foutou d’ignames, sauce aux grains, poisson fumé
Stranger in town
The train arrives from Abidjan (Cote d’Ivoire) a day late, and is prepared for the return journey.
My fellow passengers have spent at least one night at the station, while I was in the hotel pool with my colleagues, grumbling about the interlude between conference and flight home ticking away waiting for this train.
I still manage to travel as far as the first town, Koudougou. One fellow passenger assumes I must be travelling with the only other white people he’s seen today (too much of a coincidence, otherwise) and another insists I must enjoy the more “privileged atmosphere” of first class. The main difference seems to be air-con, and I prefer the breeze from an open window (if this train ever moves…)
Inside second class
The reason it’s empty is that everyone knows it won’t go anywhere for hours yet.
I realize I am attracting spectators for my constant routine of applying suncream, spraying mosquito repellent, and chugging mineral water.
First stop is Bingo, where children congregate from miles around to sell us water, bananas and cashew nuts (no bingo cards).
Next stop Koudougou- but it’s only 5 hours until my flight home, so I have to rush. Asking around in the station square, someone knows someone who has a motorbike. Eventually, I find a car, and after a bit more friendly negotiation, a driver, to take me back through the numerous roadblocks, and then along unsurfaced, unlit roads full of animals, until we reach the capital.
The airport, built in what were the outskirts in the 1970s, has now been swallowed up by the city. I collect my suitcase at the hotel and walk towards the city centre, stumbling across my Air France plane en route. There’s no business lounge- but looking for my passport, I find a stash of cashew nuts.
And train 372 takes us back. One way of putting it is “back from Armenia to Georgia”. Certainly feels like it with a hard border check on a cold platform at 4:40am. But what is a “nation”?
Sakartvelo (our “Georgia” from Persian “Goriestan”, and Armenians’ “Vir”, from Iberia) is a recent creation compared to Lazuri, Mingrelian, Svanetian and other identities (now commonly referred to as “village dialects”). While the Mother of Georgia monument’s QR-activated spiel is a lot of fun (“If you’re not ready for marriage, you could try rock-climbing”, and ending with “Sorry- someone’s calling me on the other line. Gotta go!”), one can’t help wondering if the monolith may not contain some origin-myth.
For other, even sadder reasons, to be Armenian is to be a citizen of the world (perhaps Glendale CA, Lyon or Manchester) as well as Armenia itself.
Neal Ascherson describes the geology of the region’s 4000 years of migration “not as simple sedimentation- every town and village is seamed with fault-lines. Every district displays a different veining of Greek and Turkic, Slav and Iranian, Caucasian and Kartvelian, Jewish and Armenian and Baltic and Germanic. Nostalgia makes bad history.”
Living together may not always mean growing together- but as the Mother of Georgia puts it: “If you’re not ready for marriage, you could try rock-climbing”.
I’ll just come straight out and admit it: I am reading À la recherche du temps perdu in honour of the French Presidency of the EU (I began it in another French Presidency, but that’s another story). Several colleagues whose French is better than mine say they find it “heavy-going”. Since I can’t quite bear to say “Au contraire!” I tend to reply “Then I must be a very superficial reader.” I suspect this is true, but I get such pleasure from it nonetheless.
If you read Proust for meaning, or for the story, it must be very hard work. But if you tend to surf prose, inhabit textures, find your mind wandering on tangents, then fear not: you will find yourself satisfyingly building and juxtaposing layers of different individuals’ perceptions of the same communications about the same events. This is what interpreters do, and is part of much great literature, if not at the heart of it.
If your mind works like this, then it is refreshing and even relaxing to encounter Proust, and other adepts of errabundia such as Javier Marías… ’Hard work’ for you means retaining information crucial to a plot, and not getting distracted by aesthetic details or tiny misunderstandings which a more business-like author would contemptuously dismiss in order to get on with The Story.
The structure seems so natural that you are not even aware you are reading. You know when the narrator is going to stop to dwell on something, not let something lie, turn it around, look at it from a new angle, through another’s eyes, or from our own perspective but in the past.
There was a moment during yesterday’s run in the woods, as I approached the part-frozen lake, when my thoughts became unbounded, rushing out of the schoolroom at 4pm, intoxicated with freedom, but slowly coalescing into organised groups and activities. Skipping over here, football cards there. The running order for a performance, the strategy for advancing a complex project, it all took shape before my eyes. Was I actually running? I was aware of the rhythm, but not of my feet. Surely this was called flying (or Dad dancing)?
Pages pass (or even entire paragraphs), we flap our wings, leave the ground, examine the terrain, savour the clouds. We even begin to see patterns in those clouds. But the ground is there when we need it, and a new paragraph is somewhere on the horizon. We see cloud-like patterns in our own lives. They are shifting, of course, but so are we– remember before it all happened? More importantly, before we had that conversation? When we misinterpreted that remark.
I appear to have slipped into saying “we”. I think I mean: the narrator.
We are up at the crack of dawn for our family adventure, taking the 07:00 EuroCity through Dresden, and along the Elbe Valley through the rocky outcrops of the national park shared by Saxony and Bohemia. We sit on the left for the river view, and tuck into bacon and eggs in the excellent Czech restaurant car. At Prague Central station, there are left luggage lockers (cheap and easy to find on the lower level, though you need Czech currency handy) and we set off to make the most of our afternoon in the City of a Hundred Spires.
This RegioJet is a seasonal special with couchette cars (and a few seating compartments) heading through the heart of central Europe, with portions for the two Croatian Adriatic resorts of Rijeka and Split. Passengers are mainly students, backpackers and young families, and the lived-in compartments with open windows…
A little diversion for a strange month of January- a daily poem (by me at weekends, guest authors every other day) in print and audio form. The idea is that poetry, even when dealing with sad or deep subjects, can bring us out of ourselves, just like a walk up a hill, or a chance encounter in a café.
The Black Dragon is whatever you want it to be- in fantasy role-play Dungeons and Dragons it’s one of the worst, truly determined and malicious. But it’s also the literal translation of “oolong”- so I hope you find something that’s your cup of tea.
January 31: Eloquence At The Oxford Union, by Matthew Perret (1990)
“Ha ha ha ha, I think you’ll find…”
“Ha ha ha ha, I think you’ll find…”
Philosophically enlightening, with an endearing dismissive air
Oh how witty, how charming, and how very debonnair
Your words slip out so easily, and people look impressed
But you just talk bollocks, you stupid little pest.
January 30: The CAP Rap, by Matthew Perret
It’s ’62- what we gonna do?
we got the coal, the steel, but how we gonna get a meal?
no more war, only peace
the French and German economies have gotta intertwine
we help grow grain and pigs and eggs and chicks
and fruit and veg and wine
ooh la la
but where’s the beef?
it’s a mountain!
where’s the sugar?
it’s a mountain!
where’s the milk?
it’s a lake!
just made a terrible mistake…
so we need the EAGGF
with a guarantee for prices
and the guidelines…
which is like the structural measures, er….?
It’s not a load of crap- it’s the CAP rap!
It’s ’82- what we gonna do?
We got the coal, the steel, but how we gonna shift this meal?
Don’t make a meal of it, man!
Just open the door- and give it to the poor
It ain’t too late to put food on their plate
If you dump cheap grain where it don’t rain
The farmer in the dust must go bust
It’s ’92- what we gonna do?
do not worry- got my man called McSharry
he’s a man with a plan for getting us out this jam
don’t pay to grow, that don’t work, you know
got all we need, no more mouths to feed
best thing is to plan it- and gotta save the planet
pay ‘em to go slow, pay ‘em not to sow
McSharry’s a man who sees both the wood and the trees
Then came Agenda 2000
to bring in competitiveness
with social, economic
and environmental goals.
Now rural development
becomes the second pillar
safety, quality, stability
It’s 2003- let’s reform the C.A.P.!
The Cap don’t fit no more
got Poland and 9 others a-knockin’ on my door
no more cold war, only peace
the Eastern and Western economies have gotta intertwine
we grow beet, and pigs, and eggs and chicks,
and fruit and veg, and wine…
But it’s all change in 2008
we need a healthcheck, before it’s too late
It’s time for a spot of decoupling
with a hint of cross-compliance
and mucho modulation
we will no longer pay to grow
we will have a single CMO
(that’s Common Market Organisation)
and mucho modulation
deal with bio-energy and water management
and climate changeification
It’s not a load of crap- it’s the CAP rap!
January 29: The Song Thrush And The Mountain Ash, by Simon Armitage
January 18: Blue Notebook #10, by Daniil Kharms, translated by Matvei Yankelevich.
There was a redheaded man who had no eyes or ears. He didn’t have hair either, so he was called a redhead arbitrarily.
He couldn’t talk because he had no mouth. He didn’t have a nose either.
He didn’t even have arms or legs. He had no stomach, he had no back, no spine, and he didn’t have any insides at all. There was nothing! So, we don’t even know who we’re talking about.
We’d better not talk about him any more.
January 17: A Little History Of Poetry, Part One, by Matthew Perret
He was, primarily, tormented by a sense of God’s absence.
She, like most of her readers, spent a lifetime worrying about whether or not she would go to Hell for eternal damnation- in those days, this was the equivalent of searching the internet for the meaning of your medical symptoms, real or imaginary.
One of the greats: he gave life back its ordinariness.
Poetry was a new way for the over-privileged to express their resentment at the responsible and hard-working.
Poetry critics are derivative, irrelevant, obscure or divisive; sometimes all four.
All theory is grey, my friend, but forever green is the tree of life.
Pay attention only to the metaphorical or associational meanings of words, ignore their literal meanings; read quickly, and out loud.
The writer tests our depths- we do not have any.
To be “ordinary”
If that is what a skilled,
Catching at happiness is called.
It makes grammatical sense, but attempts to paraphrase it look ridiculous.
When his elaborately redundant police force makes its one arrest, God realises the prisoner is a homicidal maniac, and lets him go at once.
We think of the key, each in a prison
Thinking of the key, each confirms a prison.
I managed to suggest I was cleverer than I was, and had these untapped resources which only lack of time prevented me from displaying.
Poets are bastards, I know what
Let’s line them up and have them shot
Unless they’re dead already like Shakespeare’s lot
And if they’re not dead already- why the hell not?
January 16: Ode to BBC Radio 4 Today’s Justin Webb, by Matthew Perret
January 15: Burning Genius, by Brian Patten (1973)
January 11: My Mistress’ Eyes Are Nothing Like The Sun (Sonnet 130), by William Shakespeare
My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun; Coral is far more red than her lips’ red; If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun; If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head. I have seen roses damasked, red and white, But no such roses see I in her cheeks; And in some perfumes is there more delight Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks. I love to hear her speak, yet well I know That music hath a far more pleasing sound; I grant I never saw a goddess go; My mistress when she walks treads on the ground. And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare As any she belied with false compare.
January 10: The Booth Police, by Matthew Perret
If you read Private Eye instead of your docs
If your funky tie doesn’t match your pop sox
If you’re online shopping, not checking the press
And use your lunch-hour to drink to excess
Watch out! Watch out!
There’s an informer about
Keep your nose clean, say “Thank you” and “Please”
Because you might be seen by the Booth Police
If your breath smells, and your shirt has stains
If your mind’s not on the job, because of back pains
If the school’s on the phone ‘cause they’ve expelled your daughter
Or you’re ringing a plumber ‘cause your flat’s full of water
Hang up, and make sure you are back in your seat
‘Cause the Booth Police might be on YOUR beat!
Look out! Look out!
That colleague’s a scout
Dress like an Italian, be punctual as a Swiss
And hang on ’til lunchtime to go for a piss!
If your bus breaks down, making you late for work
If you pretend to pull your weight, but actually shirk
If the best use for the booth is to have a quick snooze
If you finish the crossword, then kick off your shoes
You could make your colleague take relay when you’re actually there
You could wear flamboyant clothing and flowers in your hair
You COULD if you want… but beware, beware!
For the Booth Police has its spies everywhere!
January 9: “I’m Gonna Wash That Man…”, by Matthew Perret
Have you washed your hair
much since Lockdown 1?
You must have done,
but didn’t dare
cut without due restraint
you say, it underwent
a trim to prevent
mayhem, your complaint
is with your face, far too
to remain unchanged
throughout Lockdown 2
Say twice a week, approx.,
for your self-anointing-
that’s nigh on ninety
towel wraps of pure locks
Which pro could help me see
Nature’s new memory?
Which nose could truly
inhale what has drained-
A police dog trained
-no trace of me
since Lockdown 3.
January 8: Have A Nice Day, by Roxanne Shanté
January 7: Learn By Heart This Poem Of Mine, by György Faludy
A nondescript express in from the South, Crowds round the ticket barrier, a face To welcome which the mayor has not contrived Bugles or braid: something about the mouth Distracts the stray look with alarm and pity. Snow is falling, Clutching a little case, He walks out briskly to infect a city Whose terrible future may have just arrived.
January 5: The Applicant, by Sylvia Plath
First, are you our sort of a person? Do you wear A glass eye, false teeth or a crutch, A brace or a hook, Rubber breasts or a rubber crotch,
Stitches to show something’s missing? No, no? Then How can we give you a thing? Stop crying. Open your hand. Empty? Empty. Here is a hand
To fill it and willing To bring teacups and roll away headaches And do whatever you tell it. Will you marry it? It is guaranteed
To thumb shut your eyes at the end And dissolve of sorrow. We make new stock from the salt. I notice you are stark naked. How about this suit——
Black and stiff, but not a bad fit. Will you marry it? It is waterproof, shatterproof, proof Against fire and bombs through the roof. Believe me, they’ll bury you in it.
Now your head, excuse me, is empty. I have the ticket for that. Come here, sweetie, out of the closet. Well, what do you think of that? Naked as paper to start
But in twenty-five years she’ll be silver, In fifty, gold. A living doll, everywhere you look. It can sew, it can cook, It can talk, talk, talk.
It works, there is nothing wrong with it. You have a hole, it’s a poultice. You have an eye, it’s an image. My boy, it’s your last resort. Will you marry it, marry it, marry it.
January 4: Mort Aux Chats by Peter Porter
There will be no more cats.
Cats spread infection,
Cats pollute the air,
Cats consume seven times
their own weight in food a week,
Cats were worshipped in
decadent societies (Egypt
and Ancient Rome); the Greeks
had no use for cats. Cats
sit down to pee (our scientists
have proved it). The copulation
of cats is harrowing; they
are unbearably fond of the moon.
Perhaps they are all right in
their own country but their
traditions are alien to ours.
Cats smell, they can't help it,
you notice it going upstairs.
Cats watch too much television,
they can sleep through storms,
they stabbed us in the back
last time. There have never been
any great artists who were cats.
They don't deserve a capital C
except at the beginning of a sentence.
I blame my headaches and my
plants dying on cats.
Our district is full of them,
property values are falling.
When I dream of God I see
a Massacre of Cats. Why
should they insist on their own
language and religion, who
needs to purr to make his point?
Death to all cats! The Rule
of Dogs shall last a thousand years!
January 3: Happy Fall, by Matthew Perret
“Autumn” is what I used to call
What this year I think’s more The Fall.
Falling in love again, or falling from grace?
Or both… again? Don’t make that face!
Spring forward, fall back
Or fall forward, spring back?
Pride comes before a fall.
It turns out humility does too.
The bigger they are, the harder they fall-
But who’s there to catch you, when you’re small?
We’re all trying not to trip, trying to walk tall.
But who are we trying to kid? Take care, and happy fall!
January 2: I love you like the cliffs love the sea, by Matthew Perret
I love you like the cliffs love the sea
I don’t understand you I can only watch you If at times you hit me during a storm
If at times you brush against me
And I crumble inside
It is soon passed And I return to watching you rise and fall And occasionally skim against me Oblivious of the fact that Slowly slowly You are the changing the contours of my world
January 1: One Art by Elizabeth Bishop
The art of losing isn’t hard to master; so many things seem filled with the intent to be lost that their loss is no disaster.
Lose something every day. Accept the fluster of lost door keys, the hour badly spent. The art of losing isn’t hard to master.
Then practice losing farther, losing faster: places, and names, and where it was you meant to travel. None of these will bring disaster.
I lost my mother’s watch. And look! my last, or next-to-last, of three loved houses went. The art of losing isn’t hard to master.
I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster, some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent. I miss them, but it wasn’t a disaster.
—Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture I love) I shan’t have lied. It’s evident the art of losing’s not too hard to master though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.
A narrow, tree-lined path turns off downhill, looking as if it might lead somewhere, so you take it, and think of ducks and swans. It emerges onto a sandy beach, dotted with gnarled trunks and stones. If you were to quicken your pace and jump in the lake, you know a strange kind of alchemy would occur on contact with the water. You would be in a different lake, with your little brother and big sisters, on the first day of the school holidays. After a long and tiring journey, you would have a new kind of freedom, one you’d been dreaming of, behind your desk, all year long.
But you pause before taking the plunge, and dip your hands in the cool water. You need to observe the different stages in the chemical reaction. Now is the time to make a wish, as if you had just seen the new moon. Please may I stay here forever. Please may the summer never end. Please don’t let me become a skater on the ice of a strangely scentless and adult cousin of this lake, its waterlilies and fish all trapped and buried. Please don’t let this ever become barely a memory, barely as solid as the breath which appears as steam.
If, then, you shut your eyes in the lake, you will suddenly feel your brother’s warm tears of rage at having to leave it, when was it?, two years ago, or three, when the promised next visit was too far-flung to be real: empty words, no help making wishes.
What was it that almost brought the alchemy, though, even at a distance? How did we all, as children and then as grown-ups, somehow conjure it into being, wherever we were? A soft voice is reading a story about sailing boats as we drift off to sleep. I don’t mind if you nod off, I just love reading aloud anyway, it reminds me of my own childhood, she said.
No idea. Something about the plastic water bottles in the desert surrounding Amman, the rigid canals of Suzhou, the railway yards along the Rhine, just outside Strasbourg, neither here nor there- even the phone switches networks, and then switches back, as if making a wish.
In your mind’s eye, all water is connected, and has a beloved skyline of great hills beyond, if you squint enough.
Recently, as you have travelled less, those memories have grown. The big sisters have gone on ahead, talking about books, and you’ve lost your little brother. He’s given up saying that he doesn’t want to leave, and just hides. You’ll promise him a story, and tell him he can draw his own illustrations. You half-sigh, but it’s not really a chore to go back and search for him.
After all, your first name was always that of the youngest sibling.
I got off the Montluçon- Bourges regional “express” train at the small, gloomy station of Vallon-en-Sully. I’d had to get up at 5am in Montluçon, and, due to a lack of taxis near my out-of-the-way pension, take the first bus into the centre of town.
It was after eight, and had been light for a long while; but here, because of the drizzle and damp cold, it felt like dawn.
There was no station café, no shop nearby, not even a vending machine. A few cars bounced over the level crossing, going from elsewhere to elsewhere; the railway, perhaps once a fulcrum of village life, was now an administrative nuisance, used this morning by only four travellers: one vigorously nodding in headphones, one frail and looking, startled, in all directions, one in uniform, inspecting tickets; and me. The others had continued their warm, bouncy journey, and the short diesel train had soon puttered out of sight.
A wooden 8-wheeled passenger carriage sat banished on an abandoned siding, far from the only remaining platform. It had once been painted the kind of green one never sees on trains now. Through the drizzle, I thought I saw the silhouettes of passengers on board, whole families sitting upright, weary from their overnight vigil, hoping to finally make a departure. But the siding was no longer connected to the main line.
I set off on foot, cursing my bad knee. I had to sit and rest every few minutes, but at least I couldn’t lose my bearings- I was following the railway line northwards, as far as the next level crossing. Soon it was quiet, and as I entered some marshes, a curlew called out from the reeds.
A dirt track converged from the west, and I couldn’t help investigating. I was still in sight of the railway line, and hearing the bell of the level crossing, scrambled a little closer to watch a freight train lumber past. Then, on trying to retrace my footsteps, I saw a different track, with two white poles beside it, leading into a pine forest. A small sign read “The Dovecote”.
I took that path, just as tired and aching as before, but somehow content. I felt calm, and yet slightly dizzy, and I suddenly remembered that visiting friend who had pronounced phrases I’d never expected to hear from an adult: “I’ve never eaten mushrooms”. “I’ve never swum in a lake”. She’d been astonished at something I’d said too: “I’ve never used a natural mosquito repellent”. These trees seemed never-ending, but I smiled and decided to be honest with myself: I was quite enjoying the wait. And I didn’t know what for.