Now, in the Assir, I was standing on a mountainside forested with wild olives and junipers. A stream tumbled down the slope; its water, ice-cold at 9,000 feet, was in welcome contrast with the scanty, bitter water of the sands. There were wild flowers: jasmine and honeysuckle, wild roses, pinks and primulas. There were terraced fields of wheat and barley, vines, and plots of vegetables. Thesiger, 1959
Thesiger’s Across the Empty Quarter, strangely, was the backdrop to our recent trip to California. It is odd how quite disparate settings call across time through the intercession of writing, and speaking clearly, pure as a bell to someone radically different but yet similar. When I looked at the Golden Gate Bridge, at the top of the pillars vanishing like a trick up there into the mist. At the mysterious brick red upwards thrust of steel halfway to heaven suddenly not there and not courtesy of any magic of the eye, I was straight back with Thesiger. Across the bay of San Francisco the city was bathed in light, the buildings all huddled together like a multi-story castle, alien and like Kafka’s Castle, formidable if not impregnable. In the distance there was a flotilla of yachts, with white sails, gliding over the water to attempt the impossible, to conquer the Citadel. Alcatraz is the Duke’s lookout post, most foreboding, right there at the mouth of the bay.
Up by the bridge, I discovered that the San Francisco Bay has a microclimate, one that is blustery and more than 10 degrees cooler than the city itself.
Back down at Haight Ashbury, it is like nowhere else. At the corner of Haight and Masonic, we stopped for coffee at a cafe (Coffee to the People) overlooking Jammin N Haight a tattoo palace. The window display had manikins with radiant purple hair and hippy dresses from the 60s. In our cafe there were several dream catchers on the wall. Next door was Gypsy Street Wear.
By the bus stop there was an older man lying on his side, on the pavement with his property, all of it in two bags. Behind me was an apparently mentally ill woman who was talking endlessly to herself, her skin had that sad sallow unkempt tint, of halfway to dying, from excessive dope and drugs. It is the more shocking to find a girl barely 15 perhaps 16 with shorts into the crack of her buttocks. The driftwood and the carefully cool side by side, if not remotely touching.
A man with severe Parkinson’s disease walked past, tremulous, loping in his uneven and uncertain gait. The manner of living and dying was like this young woman’s raspy cough, a smokers cough as well as a harbinger of loneliness and probable solitary death. Next, a young black man, merely a boy, so obviously camp, so obviously on the rent, walked past. The sun was now like a smeary light in a sky that had gone dull.
“You’re on board Car No 1070 down Market Street to the pier”. Our car was early 20th century style, with green leather seats. Not New Orleans and definitely not named ‘Desire’. We all got off at the pier and wandered through the flea market stalls- mostly jewelry. We bought a small driftwood branded with “Yes, I’m a goddess” and then a wonderful tie dye dress for the granddaughter.
Before I knew it, I was drinking an infusion of ginger stem, honey and whatever else. Next to me was a bike rental place and ahead the grocery stalls of mangoes, plums, pomegranates, and in the sun looking as if I was in a Greek Island market. It was that kind of day with autumn in the air but in that sun nothing mattered. We were not yet mourning the summer that never really was and that’s now over.
Here in SF it was not New England and the turning of the leaves was not much to regard. In fact, It was a line of palms that I had in my line of vision.
This morning I left my notebook in the hotel and I have had to stop to buy a new one- from Alexander Book Co. Our assistant was a light skinned black man, camp with glee in his eyes and full of humour. We laughed over the most mundane exchanges –“That’s an ordinary pen, is it?, Not a gizmo” “It’s not automatic and doesn’t swivel and speak”. In America it is good to be served by a black person who is not a minion but an equal, one who is confident, not resigned or defeated.
Our guide on the ‘Hop on Hop off’ bus tour yesterday was Willie, another black man of my age. He was hilarious. He was inventive and entertaining. He asserted his authority and expertise with panache. Now his was another method of adapting to the treacherous place that is America- he met with optimism and inner strength the brutal, uncompromising callousness of the system of living. That’s what resilience is, at least in my book.
I was sitting by Pier 39 watching people go by. An elderly man beside me is eating a chocolate ice cream. A clutch of black people was taking selfies directly in front of me. Young Chinese men are re-inventing the ponytail sitting on the crown of the head and everything else shaved off. It was relatively easy to distinguish Chinese Americans from tourist Chinese from Mainland china- it was something about style of dress, something about self-assurance, and also something about the size of groups.
It was impossible not to marvel at the sheer variety, the plenitude of human forms. There was no valorization of any particular attribute, every description was part of the infinite variety, the infinite characteristics that went to inform life. This was not Hollywood where an aseptic and impoverished monoculture dominates life. In this motley crowd, what constituted beauty? Judging by what was parading in front of me, it was the obese that won hands down.
We were now out of the city heading for Yosemite. The dominant colour was Marilyn Monroe blonde – a variety of yellow that glowed in the evening sun and that was endless across the vast vistas, dominating the hills and valleys. Surprisingly, amongst this were patches of dense green, the dark compulsive green of bushes and trees. We drove through almond orchards, vineyards, stretches of maize but it was the yellow grass, carpeting the hills, valleys and plains that were breathtaking. This was also farmland. Cattle, sheep, grazed on this impossibly dry or burnt dun colored earth.
Sonoma Pass was an 8-mile long winding, hairpin bends, tract going ever upwards, 4,000 feet towards Yosemite. By now our journey was through spruce and firs, mountain ash and perhaps larch. Except for the road we were by ourselves and surrounded by the forest. The sky was an impeccable blue, that is, there was not a fleck of cloud. But, the blue was not cornflower blue or even necessarily beautiful. Close to the horizon it had the color of mist and haze. Where in SF, the houses clung to the hills and cliffs for dear life, as if any minute now, they could slip into the Pacific. And, in truth these houses just might at some point. Here at Yosemite, it was pure nature. There was no large-scale blot on the landscape of human artifacts. It was exactly as it ought to be, grand and severe.
Big Oak Flat Road was miraculous. It had grassland sweeping down to meet pine splendor. And in the background, layers of mountains as in a Japanese print. The rocks- Half Dome and El Capitan seemed to reflect back to us aspects of ourselves- resoluteness, obstinacy, resilience, a kind of grandeur that has heroism at its core.
Up there, at Glacier point, in amongst the pine, cedar and spruce, we had yet to encounter a bear, neither brown nor black. The air had a Pine freshness to it. Again the sky was an indecent blue and the light touched and stroked everything with gold dust. Across the valley, Half Dome, Mount Clark, and the other granite rocks like the Earth’s vertebrae rose up magnificently to our view.
The drive to Sequoia took us through Oakhurst, Coarse Gold, Fresno, Clovis, Minkler (Pop 30), Squaw Valley, by Kings River and Freint-Kern Canal. This was wine country of grapes, peaches and lime. The dry sand colored grass climbed up the hills and in the evening light, for all the world to see, it looked as if talcum powder had been sprayed on the hills. The homesteads had paddocks and horses, also cattle, goats and chicken runs. The tar with its yellow road markings and white line edgings cut through the landscape- a human artifact scarring nature. What a pity!
We had lunch at Mono Meadow, down a dusty path into the valley. I was not sure we actually made it down to Mono Meadow. Where we stopped was not particularly picturesque or memorable except for the sounds of at least two woodpeckers at work.
We stayed at Sequoia National Park in Montecito Sequoia Lodge. We arrived just before dinner ended, at 1929 hours. We rushed to make a meal from the scrapings. I had rice, chicken and grits (Easy Rawlins favorites) and bacon. Jan chose wisely, you could hardly go wrong with salad.
Our bedroom had a double bed, a bunk bed, a chest of drawers from before the Ark, a walk in wardrobe that Elizabeth Taylor would have found commodious and a bathroom squeezed into a rat’s hole- wonderfully basic and unappealing. The décor was from the days of flower power. But we were grateful to lay our heads for $ 200 per night. The fellow behind us, Australian and his partner were turned away –no room at the inn. Except there were no other inns for another 40 miles along treacherous mountain passes that doubled as roads. Frightening.
On leaving Sequoia we stopped for lunch at the Gateway Restaurant overlooking Kaweah River. That wondrous sound of rushing water played backdrop to our lunch of burger for me and, quesadilla for Jan. We spent all morning and early afternoon marveling at Sequoia. It is nigh impossible to describe the magnificence, the imperiousness, the astonishing charisma of these silent but imposing trees. 2-4,000 years old, some of these wonders were already saplings before the Romans came to power, well before the Icelandic Sagas, and perhaps just after the Pyramids at Giza were built. When there were 3 or 4 them together, it was like a convocation, lost in deep thought, deliberating and waiting to declare what life is and is for. The zenith of our trip, literally, was to climb to the top of Moro rock, 6,500 feet above sea level and to look out to the known horizon- layers of mountains, the tops of sequoia trees, and infinite expanse of bewilderment and puzzlement. Words cease to have the audacity to describe what was plainly in front of us.
We came down from the heights of Sequoia, down to Three Rivers –by the Kaweah River Valley, then onwards to Paso Robles, Morro Bay- 160 miles or so of the straightest roads after the Romans. Initially at the foothills of Sierra Nevada and then onwards aiming for the Coastal ranges, mighty impressions of sand dunes in the Sahara or the Arabian Deserts. These undulating and rounded hills once again covered in yellow grass and grazed by beautiful black cattle. Suddenly instead of aiming for these hills in the distance we were surrounded by them. This was the gateway into wine country.
Paso Robles was the beginning of wineries. We took a detour through Old Greek Road, an English Country lane with wineries by the dozens. Then suddenly the Pacific was visible between an aperture of light and the country. That night we stayed at Pacific Shores Inn- in an ocean view room. We had dinner at Off the Hook, overlooking the Pacific- yachts in the bay and sea lions swimming and noisy close by. The sea was glistening like molten tar in the moonlight. I had seafood pasta made of crabmeat, clams, prawns, mussels and lobster meat. Jan had Cobb salad. I had Californian Chardonnay, Krugs and Jan a local light ale. Then we walked back to our rom. That was our night at Morro Bay.
Cayucos has a pier that led out to sea. A Mexican couple told me they had seen dolphins but I had no such luck. Next was Cambria but before that we stopped off briefly at Harmony with its population of 18- what had once been a thriving dairy town on Route 1 but was now a dead town. Cambria was an empty beach with a short walk down to the beach where if you looked hard you might just find jade! We found a handful. Between San Simeon and Raggly beach there was a partly rocky beach with a colony of seals. It was a stopping point for groups to gaze at these enormous males, elephant seals fight to determine the dominance hierarchy and mating rights. The extent of sexual dimorphism in these seals is a measure of the intra-male rivalry and competition for access to the female harem. The males are considerably larger than the females.
At Monterey we stayed at Cannery Row. At the famous aquarium we found the jellyfish special. Then we drove out to Salinas, to the Steinbeck Centre. There was a wonderful exhibition of his life and works. I have two memories- reading either parts of journals or letters at age 13 years and discovering that writing was a self-conscious act, involving discipline and self-scrutiny; The other was reading East of Eden on a greyhound bus between Lagos and Ibadan in 1973. I sat next to a white American man of my age. He was surprised to meet an African reading Steinbeck and I was surprised to meet an American travelling to Ife to study African art. So there, for our youthful misunderstandings and prejudices.
Salinas, Steinbeck’s hometown is a fertile valley, acres on acres of plains, growing cabbage, artichokes, cauliflower, broccoli, avocados and strawberries. The strawberries were being picked by a line of dozens of people in straw hats bent over under the midday sun. In Cannery Row next door to the aquarium is the preserved house of Ed Ricketts, Steinbeck’s best friend- The Pacific Biological Lab. Ricketts was the model for Doc in Steinbeck’s Cannery Row.
I bought a book, Travels with Charley and then we went off to Rollicks for coffee. We were served by a young woman with severe acne- she could do with isotretinoin.
We moved hotels from Cannery Row Inn with our partial sea view room and a king bed to Monterey Hotel, downtown, opposite the Golden Gate Theatre. The Monterey Hotel in its heyday was the hotel in the West, the first to have gas, electricity, etc. It was in a busy district but without the advantage of double glazing- hence the risk of noise. Well, we were forewarned. In fact, it was fine or we were too tired to notice.
At 7.45 pm we walked across the road to the Golden Gate Theatre to listen to Art Garfunkel. He is 75 years old but sang as if he was a younger man. He sang Bridge Over Troubled Waters, Scarborough Fair, Sound of Silence, Boxer and a song by Gershwin and another by Randy Newman. He also sang a number of new songs. He read excerpts from an upcoming memoir. It was an enjoyable evening.
I hadn’t realized how pure his spirit was. His voice was clear, the color of water, transparent, totally true and yet vulnerable. The theatre was ornate, like the Alhambra in Bradford. There were fake battlements and castellations, decorated doorways that led nowhere. The painted ceiling had a figure between a representation of the sun and the diadem of a star. We sat next to a couple from Texas, golfers, who told us they came often to Monterey. The wife was surprised that we followed “our music” and then that we seemed too young to have known Garfunkel. I thought better of telling her that I had listened to Simon and Garfunkel as a student at Ibadan. She might have been even more surprised. The husband was interested in Brexit- he said “Sure you’re from England not the UK!” He also told us that Texas was agitating for Texit.
After 1000 miles and 10 days, our last night in SF was spent at Blues and Biscuit listening to Joe Louis Walker. We sat in the back row of a club that was packed. We had hot chicken wings and yam fries. I had Californian Merlot and Jan a G&T. Next to me sat a black couple. The wife had a round face with the sheen of mahogany whilst the husband wore a black Stetson, carefully shaped grey beard and his skin was flawless ebony, magnificent for a man of 66 years. They lived in Sonoma County. He came from a family of musicians and had played with Joe Louis in his youth. The wife sang in church on Sundays, no profanity for her. When he had his Stetson off, he was not so tall after all. He had a huge head with prominent teeth.
There was some drama when he discovered that he had left his glasses in his car and went to retrieve it only to find out, to his consternation, that the parking attendant had lost the car keys and worse still had left the car unlocked! Well, you can imagine his anger. Luckily the keys had been left in another car that had already driven off but was at least traceable.
The wife talked to me about Trump, his dishonesty, his hate for anyone different from him and the fear that Black people had for the possibility of a Trump Presidency. Next to Jan was a white couple- the wife was an anesthetic assistant, just retired. Like us, they were into travel but had yet to visit Cuba, Grand Canyon, Bryce or Europe. They had both been previously married. He had 3 sons and grandchildren and she had a son who was a nurse in North Carolina. We talked about the poor state of the American healthcare system and the unbelievable deprivation sitting alongside extreme wealth in America. I cited the example of Native American reservations along Route 66. She told us she was brought up in the Appalachians where water and electricity were often not available. That’s America.
Joe Louis Walker was the most inventive guitarist that I had heard in a long time. His keyboard player played the KORG as if he was on fire. The sounds that Joe Louis plucked out of the guitar were unimaginable. He was also a master of atmosphere- like a Debussy or Ellington, creating a mood, a color, textures that had spirit and mystery. Jan said that’s “virtuosic” and it was. We witnessed an exhibition of intense creativity and unfaltering joy in the midst of deepening racism and prejudice. Joe Louis’ daughter and wife were in the audience. Joe Louis told the couple next to us that his daughter used to tour with him, singing but he could no longer afford her fees. That’s life for you. She was there with her son and husband.
Joe Louis was a young looking 67 year old with dreadlocks, lean and lithe. He gave us a brief history of the blues and played homage to Earl Hook, born Zebede Hook! At the end we walked out into SF windy, uphill streets to our hotel, into the Library Bar with its art deco chandelier and light shades. And that was it.
Photos by Jan Oyebode
We are in Italy and have travelled two and half hours through olive groves, vineyards, oleander and the occasional maize crop. The road from Milan to Malcesine is a drive on roads sandwiched between the Alps and the country and then between the Alps as backdrop and Lake Garda on one side and the dramatic granite upswing of land. We arrived well before sunset at our well- appointed dwelling, with balcony looking out to the hills, brushwood and olives carpeting the hillside. There was a magnificent fleckless blue sky acting as the dome of the known world.
I am writing this as I sip from a glass of Pinot Grigio, golden to the eye, to the palate only the slightest hint of bitterness and to the nostril a whiff of innocence, pre-pubertal innocence. A Lagos-type breeze is blowing and banana plants alien and lonesome in this climate edge the boundaries of our dwelling and swing in time to the breeze. There’s a lone bird, white like a cattle egret in the far distance, but it must be lost or being impersonated by a local bird of prey or a greater sea gull.
Last night in Milan, our bellboy was Senegalese, Ahmed. He was tall, maybe 6 foot and had a round, handsome face. He was that sheen of black that shines in darkness. I imagine him to be Mandinka. He told me that he earns € 700 per month and after paying his rent he has little left to send to his parents in Dakar. His tip was all of € 2.50! Our waitress, in the restaurant next door was of mixed heritage. I asked her point blank whether she was African, I had reckoned that she was East African given her European features but was caught off guard when she said “My dad’s from Congo and my mother’s Italian”. I responded “From Kinshasa?”, “No, Congo Brazzaville”. I hadn’t realized that there were that many Africans in Italy, or should say I in Milan.
This morning, at the Milan Duomo, an elderly black man of my age, rather shortish, approached us with his books about Conakry. I thought he was Guinean but no another Senegalese. And at the square many more Africans trying to sell pieces of colored string. Who would want to buy colored string? And at street corners, other Africans loitering or “liming” as the Trinidadians would say, and looking lost and aimless.
We are on our way to Verona via Malcesine. We are here for the opera and love is the subject of both operas that we are due to see. In literature as in life, there are varieties of signals of love. There’s the yearning and longing in the eyes that pools, a bottomless dark lake, wistful, and sorrowful. But, it’s the stillness of the face that frames that kind of love. Then there’s the sudden lurching at the ankles, even when seated, the hip slumps to one side and then a hurried, embarrassed exit to powder the nose. I’ve heard quavers in the voice, a loss for words, and asthmatic in-drawing of breath matched only by a stutter. Finally, there’s the studied indifference.
Chekhov’s style is to examine the relationships and their awkward processes rather than the minutiae of gesture or expression. In “A Misfortune” Sofya Petrovna says to Ivan Mihalovitch
You follow me about like a shadow, you are continually looking at me not in a nice way, making love to me, writing me strange letters…
and she went on
Let us be as good, true friends as we used to be, and give up these sighs and groans, which really don’t suit you…
and he responded
I’m not in the least tempted by friendship with the woman I love.
Yes, the signals are important for Chekhov but it is the complexities of relationships that matter most to him. In “Terror” The signals of love are concealed and revealed in the use of language-
You are dull without your friend. We must send out to the fields for him
You only come here on account of Dmitri Petrovitch.
This story deals with the inexplicable- Dmitri Petrovitch told our narrator that his wife on consenting to marry him had said
I don’t love you, but I will be true to you.
But, what can it mean not to love someone but be true to them?
I love her, and I know that my love is hopeless. Hopeless love for a woman by whom one has two children! Is that intelligible? And isn’t it terrible?
Here is Chekhov at his best exploring sexual love, lust, betrayal, and friendship.
I can imagine a casual, polite hug turn into a clasp that like a vice squeezes the air out of the loved object’s bellows. Surprised at the feeling carried in the muscular grip that he almost loses balance. In “Terror” the heroine says
I can imagine how miserable you would be if you were in love with me! Wait a bit: one day I shall throw myself on your neck…I shall see with what horror you will run away from me. That would be interesting.
Last night we walked along the lakeside path to Malcesine. Starting just before dusk, the sun was dropping into the lake and leaving a reddish, pinkish afterglow, like the wake of a boat. The sky was broad and blue, the lake pinioned between the two arms of the mountain range, vanishing into the distance. And, Malcesine was brick red against the slope of the hill, our goal.
We stopped for dinner at a pizzeria. Our risotto della mare was more clams, prawns, mussels, than rice. We had to search for the rice! The sauce was delicious. Our cappuccino was bitter. The walk back was under a starry sky, the Plough close and large, perhaps a hint of the Milky Way too.
Yesterday we went up Monte Baldo. The cable car queue was 30 minutes long. And if like me you have sciatica that’s a very long queue indeed. The ride was two-staged: the first stage was probably more than halfway up, then we changed cable cars for the second stage. These cars turn as they move, so that you might for instance, start looking back down at the lake and then face upwards towards the mountain by the end. At the top there was a glorious view of the Alps and back down at the lake. It was a hot, impossibly hot day. Even I, am now brown as a nut!
Later back down in Malcesine, we walked to the castle or should I say around the castle. There was an artist’s gallery next door. He had photos of females posed in such a way that suggested their heads were missing. These black and white photos were strange, disturbing but yet beautiful.
For dinner, I had spaghetti carbonara and Jan a salad. Then it was time for a free jazz concert by ‘Swing out Brothers’ doing classic big band Cole Porter, Gershwin and some more contemporary numbers such ‘Fever’, ‘Save the last dance for me’, ‘Johnny’s Mambo’, and ‘I’ve got you under my skin’. The woman keyboard player was also our host. She spoke in the most sensuous Italian accent you’ve ever heard, swaying this way and that like a blade of lemon grass in the wind as she announced the next song. Her long arms and her slim torso in a black long dress cutting a fine figure in the artificial harbor light. The band was in an old caravel moored and lit up for the show. The audience was made up of a crowd of revelers, late diners, families waiting for something to do, and people like us, fools for any free concert. It was a tolerable evening, not spectacular, not memorable.
Along the lakeside path from our hotel, about halfway to Malcesine you can stop and, directly in your line of vision will be the aperture between the Alps and the town itself. It’s a tight waist before the upper body. At dusk a misty haze settles like netting over the giant’s head as she lies down into the distance.
One evening we went to the opera, La Boheme. The castle theatre was in a marquee. All in all there were perhaps 50 of us tourists. It was a cut down version of La Boheme. The choral pieces were missing. It was the most memorable opera we had even been to but not for the singing even though that was fine too. The whole opera was accompanied by a riotous tropical storm. The set rattled, the curtains billowed and the lightening lit up the stage in spectacular unplanned fashion. Thunder roared and clapped, sometimes appropriately as emotions rose but at other times, ironically accenting humor where none was meant. If you’ve seen James Bond, Quantum of Solace, there’s the murderous scene carried out against the backdrop of Puccini’s Tosca. Well this was a real life example of the elements and drama interacting, combining in the most unique and extraordinary manner. Mimi’s dying scene amplified and exaggerated by the roar of thunder and the wind rising and rising, pulling at the marquee, swelling the curtains and competing with the singers to be heard. Well I never!
We walked back to our hotel along the lakeside path. The lake thrashed against the shoreline, it might as well have been the Atlantic at Lagos, pounding the beach. We walked briskly hoping to avoid the unavoidable downpour. We just about made it. As we approached our hotel doorway, giant raindrops dropped out of the sky!
The journey from Malcesine to Verona was punctuated by a stop at Mantua. We had lunch (we seem to spend most of our time eating) at a pizzeria. We sat outside, alfresco style, on the pavement. The market was just closing and we had a wonderful view of the traders shutting up their mechanized motor stalls. It was quite something to see these large contraptions fold and retract into the roof of the vehicles.
Mantua is a small town of 50,000. At its height, Mantua was ruled for 400 years by the Gonzaga family. It is still an enclave even today, separated off by an artificial lake that acts as a moat and a well- preserved city wall. The young Mozart played in Mantua at age 9 years. Virgil and Dante are both commemorated with statues. The library is worth seeing, as is the theatre. I could very easily live in Mantua part of the year in a flat.
Verona is a different place all together. We are here for the opera, on Friday Turandot and Saturday Il Trovatore. We are staying within the courtyard of Giullietta’s house and famous balcony! We have a studio flat decorated in the Renaissance style of painted ceilings. Even though we were in the heart of the city you could hardly tell. There was no early morning bus noises, no trams, and the human voice was at a human level. We have a view of the balcony directly from our own window. We had to force our way through the entrance to get to our front door. There was a massing of the young and old, both sexes, wanting to catch a glimpse of the balcony. The passageway into the courtyard had graffiti of the expected kind- so and so loves so and so, with various sized hearts colored in.
Dante’s connection to Verona was more substantial than that with Mantua. There was a statue of Dante not far from our residence. Catullus is the real poet of Verona. I can’t say that I’ve read him and I have now added him to my to read list.
On Friday we hired city bikes and rode first to the church of St. Zeno, an African nicknamed “Moro” (The Moor) because of his dark skin color. He is the patron saint of Verona. Then we rode along the river to two bridges, Ponte Petra and Ponte Scaligero. Also the cathedral and Chiesa Anastasia with its magnificent arches, painted ceilings, Old Masters, and chapels.
At night at the Arena we saw Turandot, a Zefferelli production. It is unbelievable that the unamplified human voice can be projected, naturally to a vast audience in an arena where in Roman times gladiators would have fought and be killed whilst being cheered, or booed off. The arena is open to the sky, there is a half moon and a few stars, and in the company of thousands of other souls we heard Puccini’s music given voice. It was a triumph of music, movement, dance, color and song.
The following night we saw Il Trovatore. We are having a slow lunch in a cafe next door to the Arena. The props and set from last night, the Emperor’s palace, his audience room, are all outside the Arena walls, just next to us in the cafe. Very surreal, this ordinariness of what last night constituted the illusion of splendor and grandeur, now, merely plastic and tacky.
In opera, love is a drive to action. In Puccini’s Turandot, we find the slave girl (and she is nameless) who sacrifices herself in order to both save her Lord as well as secure him Turandot’s love. This is sacrificial love that accomplishes something grand and ultimate for the other. It is selfless in the extreme. In Il Trovatore, Verdi develops a story of a woman, Leonora, who gives up her life to save her lover, Manricho, from certain death. But, in the end this is to no avail. Her deception of the jealous Duke is found out and Manricho is still killed whilst she dies of self-administered poison. The semiotics of love here are not microscopic behaviors but grand gestures.
Now we are on the way back home. The sunset as seen from our plane was to our west and, was blood red through to yellow and then sand colored before turning to an unblemished sky blue that went all the way to heaven. Below was the dense mass of earth, dark. Where this darkness merged with the multifold forms of clouds, all imaginable shapes rose like dark islands in a sea of red gold.
We’ve had two glorious days of Franco Zefferelli productions, Turandot with a show stopping Emperor’s palace and Il Trovatore with its Cathedral of light and sparkle that drew a tumultuous clap from the audience and the colorful gypsy camp of streamers, flags and inspired dance movements.
The river Adige in Verona is muddy brown. We crossed and re-crossed it at various bridges, cycling and stopping to admire now a tower, there the bend of the river in the sun, and then again, the red, brown, ochre of the houses skirting the river and turning towards the center. Roman, Christian and Renaissance commingling everywhere. The beauty and character of these Italian cities resides in this smooth transition from antiquity to the present. Everywhere you have the most eyebrow arching golden skinned women, smartly dressed and elegant. Somehow all the food hardly does any damage to the exquisite female form.
The spoken Italian word is like lovemaking. Syllables are caressed by the tongue, held for a moment and tasted by the lips, kissed and fondled whilst being lingered over. It’s not that it’s a language for romance and sensuality but that speech is itself an act of adoration of the words themselves. I could listen forever and no matter that I have little or no understanding. One is both enthralled and entranced!
Photos by Jan Oyebode
We were staying at the Custom Hotel, a boutique hotel. It was an ash colored building on Lincoln Boulevard. Our room had the double bed in the center. And there was a light that changed color according to our disposition- red, blue, green or via an interactive program into a color that spoke to our mood. At last a mood-color coded habitat.
On the 8th floor was a gallery that, unfortunately, was closed. Nextdoor was LA fitness. It was on the ground floor of a condominium that boasted a sauna and steam room, a rooftop Italian garden, etc.
Across the road were a traditional diner, an Italian restaurant, a Mexican and a Japanese. The boulevard was as broad as a landing strip, the pedestrian crossings changed in the blink of an eye as if pedestrians were just about tolerated. Well, this was America, after all. The motorcar was king.
We were having drinks at the bar. I was drinking a Chardonnay and Jan a Pinot Grigio. A cool breeze was blowing and the flags at the tops of buildings were flying. A dull haze hung over the city like a pall. This was a smoky pall from the bush fires that had been raging in south California over the past week.
The descent into LA showed a city that was flat and dusty. The earth was between grey and ash. And, there was a way that these cities that are exposed to the glare of the sun seemed somehow bleached and pale. There were trees but they seemed somehow invisible. It was probably the size of the roads, the impossible sprawling infestation of the houses, like ringworm encircling and pushing the vegetation further out into the desert.
The noise of this city was much like the noise of other cities in the New World but not in Europe. It was brash, abrasive, a congealed cooking oil of car exhaust, airplane, and sprinkled with bird noise and human chatter. Music, the blues, some jazz, soul music like fire that licked at the cooking pot to smoke out some fluidity, to liquefy the noisy sediment that coated the air like plaque on unbrushed teeth. There was an electric guitar in the background, music that seemed clawed out of the strings, an ethereal but very modern noise that marked the outdoor bar as American and genuinely so.
Venice beach was only 10 minutes away. The last time I was at Venice beach was at least 15 years before. I had gone to the American Psychiatric Association conference in San Diego, a city that had surprised me. It was the first time that I thought that I could live in the US. San Diego was beautiful and relaxed. The race relations seemed reasonable. You could see black and white walking together down the street, something that was definitely not true for the East Coast in the late 70s and early 80s. And given that my wife is English and my kids are like Obama, of mixed heritage, it seemed plain that living in America was off the cards.
That same year, elsewhere in the USA, I had experienced some of the crudest racism that America can throw at you. In Minneapolis, at the end of a two-day meeting, at the hotel, the staff were passing the luggage to their owners but subtly and without others noticing, a woman refused to assist with mine, I had to carry mine personally. This was a minor matter. I was used to carrying my own load. But it was the being treated differently that mattered. I came fully to understand the murderous instinct in black Americans. I was filled with fury. And I was thankful that I did not live in America and that my children were not being brought up there. The previous year in Washington at the Four Seasons Hotel, whilst waiting for a taxi, I was summoned and peremptorily ordered by a white American to bring his suitcase in: “Boy, bring my bags in”. He was as surprised as I was when I responded “Pardon me” in a non-American accent.
But San Diego was different. It seemed more liberal, more tolerant of difference. I hired a car with 3 others and we drove to LA, stopping at Hollywood, and doing the usual trips to the Chinese theatre, etc. it was a great and, memorable trip.
In LA I should have been thinking of Easy Rawlins, Mouse, Fearless Jones, Jackson Blue, Bonnie Shay. But no, my mind was set on Fernando Pessoa and Lisbon his home town. I should have had in mind Easy Rawlins’ statement
In West Los Angeles, when people looked at their TVs they saw themselves and what they wanted to be: James Arness and Lorne Green, Mary Tyler Moore and Lucille Ball. They had their own jokes and music and interpretations of right and wrong in the world. People in Watts saw the same shows but not their faces, their dreams, and the hard facts of their lives. In Watts, they spoke the same language in different dialects and at separate schools. For darker-skinned citizens employment was synonymous with toil.
But, I was concentrating on Pessoa’s Book of Disquiet. I was not far off the mark. When Easy Rawlins had a drink of Mama Jo’s potions he saw things more clearly, a phenomenon some term depressive realism. Pessoa had this in abundance
My soul today is sad to the very marrow of its bones. Everything hurts me – memory, eyes, arms. It’s like having rheumatism in every part of my being. I remain unmoved by the light autumnal breeze that still bears a trace of unforgotten summer and lends color to the air. Nothing means anything to me. I’m sad, but not with a definite or even an indefinite sadness. My sadness is out there in the street strewn with boxes.
It was this Pessoa that caught my attention. The tone was a sharp contrast to the brazen, unyielding light of LA. Pessoa was all time asking us to be cautious, to look beyond the obvious, to be skeptical of the façade of kindness and generosity, questioning all the time what that kindness hid, what sins lurked beneath the neat rows of housing, and the kiss and hand holding. This brutal confrontation with things as they were was fraught with risk, as Pessoa well knew
It is as if the draw-bridge over the moat around the soul’s castle had been pulled up, leaving us with but one power, that of gazing impotently out at the surrounding lands, never again to set foot there.
The loss by the soul of its capacity to delude itself, the absence in thought of the non-existent stairway up which the soul steadfastly ascends towards the truth.
In LA, Pessoa without saying anything about Hollywood or even ever having been aware of it, had recognized the need for it, the urgency with which make-believe held sway, creating an unreal and unrealistic world, because the real and actual world were bleak and indescribable by comparison. For Pessoa
A marked talent for self-deception is the Statesman’s foremost quality. Only poets and philosophers have a practical vision of the world since only to them is given the gift of having no illusions. To see clearly is to be unable to act.
In LA I needed all of Easy Rawlins’ patience and Pessoa’s dictum
To move is to live, to express oneself is to endure. There is nothing real in life that is not more real for being beautifully described.
Photos by Jan Oyebode
At Léré we ate an improbable dinner at the Lion d’Or, much like seeing the Taj Mahal in Walsall. We had come in to moor, as usual, bow in and Jan handling the ropes. The stern turned out before I killed the engine. I shouted out ‘I’ve lost control!’ and both our pulses quickened. A young blond German man came to our rescue. ‘Turn the wheel full to the left and put the boat in reverse for 3 seconds’, the stern duly swung towards land. I was very politely grateful but had thought up till then I had been captain and now I was just an ordinary crewman. Another indignity to add to that of middle age, a young blond man had triumphed where I had failed. He tied the ropes as well and assured us that all was now safe. ‘I saw you earlier in the week practising’. ‘Thank you very much’ I said.
We then went ashore to explore the delights of Léré. All these small villages have merged into one in my mind. They all have a Mairie, a community school, a boulangerie, and rarely an epicerie. Jan as usual took her camera out to record the rustic excellence of rural France. The mooring spot itself, on the map boasted a shower, toilet, water and electricity refill facilities but as we had learnt by experience, it was rare for these facilities to exist in fact. At Léré, I cannot recall now whether any or all of these facilities existed.
For miles the Lion d’Or had advertised its presence so we searched it out. We confirmed that the menu was appropriate and returned at 7.30 pm for dinner. It was obvious the minute we stepped in that my shorts and polo shirt and my rucksack were not in the spirit of the place. Jan looked English in her cropped khaki trousers and top. The travelling and excitement had brought the colour to her cheeks. ‘Are we too early?’ we asked. ‘Non’. That was the start of the most extraordinary dinner in the middle of nowhere in rural France. The Maitre d’Or must have imagined himself in Paris. We were the lone customers and did they wait upon us? You have to imagine the delights of French cooking in a railroad café or in England along a canal side pub. It was unforgettable.
After dinner, we returned to our boat. In the distance a dog was barking. The sharp taste of Sancerre rosé like the cooling air and the soft satin light, also the canal water, a murky marine green mirror flowing past fixed the scene, an iridescent emerald dragonfly, in my chapbook, August 2005.
Soon after Léré, we came to the end of our time on the Loire valley canal system, although the canal itself stretched on beyond Decize. Our final stop here, at Plagny, between two locks, I suppose, was an appropriate end to our adventure. At the start we had assumed that canal boats in France would be like English long boats, barges, but not a bit of it. Instead of a tiller we had a wheel and hence had to learn to steer whilst handling the boat for the first time. This was no mean feat as we had to navigate the famous Aqueduct at Briare on a Sunday afternoon with families and couples on hand to watch our, no, my poor handling of the boat. We swerved from one wall against the other, banging our way through what was after all straight as a die. It was most embarrassing. Actually it was shameful. Jan said, ‘I don’t know how you managed to do that, in front of all those people’. My reply ‘When you’ve been publically shamed so many times in medical school, you become immune to shame!’
This was a trip through Sancerre, la Charité-sur-Loire, Marseilles-lés-Aubigny, Nevers and Plagny. We had moored each night with increasing confidence beside fields and woods, alongside roads, under lampposts, and on proper mooring posts, the evening light soft and dawn like dense dark butter, rather tar, melting and lightening to grey and then a glorious unimaginable gold, the whole world ablaze and crisp. That incredible brilliance lasted only for three days, then it was like dawn all day- grey, dismal and uncertain, but cool running weather.
In the heat dragonflies and water skaters, butterflies and bees, everywhere swallows and even more swallows, occasionally a heron lifting its wings and skimming the water, the canal ahead, hardly a ripple but, behind us, a wake fanning out and rippling against the bank, like a washing machine washing and rinsing.
On either side a line of birch, elm or mountain ash, the wind rustling the leaves and the sound of rain on rooftops encircling the canal but, in the absence of rain, only a rumour of rain as Andre Brink might have said. We walked too, on towpaths, usually at dusk, two sore thumbs in the empty countryside. When it rained as Simenon put it in The Carter of La Providence, it was a ‘dreary landscape’ but he was referring to Lock 14 at the junction of the river Marne and the canal, we trudged on in our anoraks, bent and crouching, shoulders hunched.
We haven’t been back to any canal since this trip nor visited any château since then. We have run along towpaths and cycled along the Rea river valley. The one enduring habit from this trip has been Sancerre and Pouilly fumé wines. But, the glorious fantasy world of the Loire valley châteaux has been irreplaceable- Château de Cheverny, Château de Chambord, Château de Chaumont, etc.
Photos by Jan Oyebode
The Middle East is always a challenge to my values, my sensibility. Yet it also intrigues me with its concealment of the transactions, the human intercourse that propagates life. It’s a mystery how the electrifying romantic messages that wet the juices are transmitted. The women are, at least superficially, cloistered, veiled and, self-effacing. The men avert their eyes from any direct examination of a woman’s appearance and everywhere seem totally uninterested in the delights of the female form. Nonetheless the women take extraordinary care with the artifice of creating an illusion of beauty, the eyes carefully lined, the lips plumped and painted, the skin plastered and smoothed, that is except for those in full purdah.
The overall effect is that in the few, rare instances when the mating dance is conducted, performed in public, it is embarrassing even shameful. The girl smiles widely and it seems wild. Her eyes gleam and this takes the form of dazzling sunlight at midday. She moves with the unconscious sensuality of I’m receptive to your interest, your daring, but this gesture is magnified and distorted into I desire you and I’m insatiable. There’s no middle course, the absence of eroticism distorts the merely banal into a volcano about to erupt.
All this subdued passion is transformed into gluttony. Hence the oversized abdomens, the sluggish waddle, the indolence that is manifestly amphibian in its stealth and geologic ponderousness. Think glacial time. Corpulence takes the place of copulation!
There’s an even greater ailment. Boredom. Where in Delhi or Lagos you find a frenetic, unrelieved tension and energy. Here it is a sluggish snail pace passivity that receives and then infests the spirit. When everything has been taken care of, what meaning can hard work attract? Servants, underlings, subordinates oil the wheels of the every cart that even sleeping, strange as it might sound, can be done by proxy. How to define death then?
You can see that I am back in the ‘Empty Quarter’. The plane landed after defending through a cloud of dust. The dust was like spray, straining the evening light. Surprisingly once on the ground there was no hint of sand in the air. Unusually my visa was waiting and the woman immigration assistant found it quickly and my passage through immigration to the arrival lounge was swift. I picked up my luggage and went out to the arrival hall. Mohammed was waiting. He greeted me, welcomed me back.
The drive into town was in the early evening. The moon was resplendent and globoid in the sky. Perhaps there was the rarest sliver of one rim missing, a fingernail. Otherwise there it was, miraculous, as it hung there and far too brightly. I took no notice of the city as it raced past, it was a blur of lights, of a skyline that was dark and cut into the night sky. My driver, a man of perhaps my age, sped with the confidence of a professional driver, avoiding the slow queues and joining the fast moving lanes effortlessly. This was a far cry from the usual Russian roulette- answering phone calls, texting, undoing and re-doing a turban, singing loudly and jerking in time to some music, all whilst driving as if we were on the set of ‘Fast and Furious’. I was always convinced that there was reward on my head and that the driver was determined to kill me. Not this time, though. The drive was a pleasure.
My hotel was on the Marina.
One evening I set off to the Souk Mubarakiya. It was a confusing place to visit if you don’t know it well. I was dropped off in a different corner than I was familiar with. Hence it was difficult finding the carpet quarter. Eventually I found it and it was, as ever, a gem, literally, a gem. I went into Mohammed’s shop, entirely by chance but I couldn’t have chosen better. He was knowledgeable. He gave me a seminar on carpets- kilims from Afghanistan, from Iran and Iran. then more and more varieties of carpets from Iran and Afghanistan, Beluch, Bakhtiari, etc. I was tempted to part with some money but common sense kicked in, how to transport a carpet to Birmingham in a small hand luggage.
At last I left. Dinner was back at the hotel. Tonight it was in the basement where breakfast was usually served. I was on a small table for three. But there were corporate dinners hosted by drug companies, Eli Lilly, MSD, and others. But the outstanding event was the gaggle of spruced up beautiful women and who, surprisingly were on their own. We guessed they were agents of cosmetic firms out on the night to celebrate their annual sales convention. But in here in the Empty Quarter! I thought they might be friends on a night out. They laughed, smoked cigarettes and Hookahs. A few in mini skirts, an even larger number without scarves and with hair that had been put through a hairdresser’s imagination- glossy, piled up, elegant and like peacock feathers, extravagant and provocative. Definitely not the Empty Quarter! I suggested they must be Lebanese or Syrian and when we asked the waiter he said yes, they were friends who lived in the Empty Quarter but were from Lebanon and Syria, the Levant. Touché.
It was almost unspeakable to see such unconcealed beauty paraded for all to see. Because of the rules of dress, what would have been modest in London, here, was blatant like being naked to bare skin. These were elegant women, in stylish trousers, in flowing gowns, in blouses that hugged the bosom, in scarves that arched and puckered on the head like lips flaunted for a kiss. It was exhilarating and sensuous. It was orchestrated to claim space, to advance freedom, to dare the conservatives, simply to speak as women everywhere do, without the moral censors. I loved it. It was a kind of chromatography of the hidden composition of the soul.
It reminded me of my very first trip to the Empty Quarter. I had come almost directly from Peshawar where the Taliban was in charge. The separation of the sexes was so severe that to look at a woman was an offence to the spirit, if not in law. And here, in the Empty Quarter, I was expecting the same rigour, the same strict division but to my surprise, a young woman came to sit next to me. I was filled with terror, I thought “please stay away from me, can’t you see I’m a man, keep your tempting female form away from me! I can’t even look at you, that’s how dangerous you are!” Even today, I still marvel at how quickly I had become acculturated to the absurd, that my whole being screamed in rebellion and terror as I was approached by a young woman.
Yesterday evening along the corniche, at dusk the sun flared as it dropped, and then there was an afterglow, like a blush rising on a young woman’s face when others discover she loves a particular man, a teacher, say. Later the sea out to the horizon and up to the canvas of the sky looked like blotting paper with the ink spreading, another version of a blush but in blue, mauve, grey and darker grey this time.
On my last night I went to dinner in a genteel part of town with individually designed houses, architectural features that spoke of power, influence, and status. These were not mere houses, not homes but palaces in every sense. My host met me on the doorstep. Just outside were two straggly frangipani plants, a banana tree, a pair of mango trees, climbing vines that were dusty and clinging to the pergola. Indoors, in the immediate reception hall, carpets and rugs from Iran, from Afghanistan, perhaps even Iraq. These were everywhere, on the floor and as wall hangings.
Further in, the sofas were in Indian style, carved dark wood, probably copying European baroque furniture with intricate whorls, swirls and flourishes like saris billowing out in the wind as a young woman throws rice seeds with a wide opening gesture of her arms. The sofas lined the walls as if the master would hold court any moment now. What it lacked in intimacy it made for in grandeur and formality.
Guests arrived and there was the usual kissing on both cheeks, hugs, laughter and geniality. Ouzi was served, a lamb suckling laid on a bed of rice. Minced lamb in vine leaves, chicken salad Arab style, wonderful small packets of condiments in fried parcels, then the inevitable sweets, rich and far too sweet. And, suddenly the night was over.
On my final morning the sun rose low in the sky, it was unsurpassable in its brilliance. It shone, bouncing and glancing off the Arabian gulf whilst the sea itself turned molten silver. I looked at it and thought of Ibn Batuta’s words
I set out alone, finding no companion to cheer the way with friendly intercourse, and no party of travellers with whom to associate myself. Swayed by an over-mastering impulse within me, and a long cherished desire to visit those glorious sanctuaries, I resolved to quit all my friends and tear myself away from my home.
Maybe next year Bukhara, Samarkand, Tashkent, Isfahan.
In Seneca’s Letters from a Stoic he wrote
[…]this reading of many different authors and books of every description. You should be extending your stay among writers whose genius is unquestionable, deriving constant nourishment from them if you wish to gain anything from your reading that will find a lasting place in your mind. To be everywhere is to be nowhere. People who spend their whole life travelling abroad end up having plenty of places where they can find hospitality but no real friendships [my italics]. The same must needs be the case with those who never set about acquiring an intimate acquaintanceship with any one great writer, but skip from one to another, paying flying visits to them all
Seneca is wrong, of course. Or, at least I believe so. The world of books is to me as vast and rich as the world, the inner workings of cities. The idea that only Plato, Nabokov or Neruda is worth reading, or that I ought to spend more time with these authors to the exclusion of others. Or, that there is such a thing as genius whose writings to the exclusion of all others ought to solely compel my attention is strange and contrary to my sensibility.
The world that Lawrence opened to my 12-year old, immature self in The Rainbow, lying on the lower bunk bed in Ekiti was so different from my normal visual and visceral experiences. These people, the Brangwens, lived in a village that was nothing like what I knew a village to be. Furthermore, Lawrence opened the darkness of inner life, the perturbations lurking beneath the awkwardness of language. He made manly frailty, manly vulnerability, that masked attribute visible. But, then take Baldwin’s Go Tell it on a Mountain or Chinua Achebe’s No Longer at Ease, and for the self same 12-year old other universes of experience came to display. But, to be condemned to just one of this three, in a fruitless monogamy rather than the fruitful and pleasurable promiscuous intercourse with the others would have been unimaginable poverty.
A multitude of books only gets in one’s way. So if you are unable to read all the books in your possession, you have enough when you have all the books you are able to read.
He ends this letter, as is usual, with lesson from one of the greats
My thought for today is something which I found in Epicurus […] ‘A cheerful poverty,’ he says, ‘is an honourable state.’ But if it is cheerful it is not poverty at all. It is not the man who has too little who is poor, but the one who hankers after more […] You ask what is the proper limit to a person’s wealth? First, having what is essential, and second, having what is enough.
I am drawn to the conclusion that the logical slip in this letter from parsimony in reading to a discussion about the limits of wealth, for Seneca are inter-related: what is essential reading (canonical texts) and how do we know whether we have read enough? On the face of it, these two questions, of wealth and books, do not seem related. The accumulation of wealth and material goods, like gluttony, are, in my book, undesirable activities, whereas, books, (now that’s totally different), are a mark of scholarship, of knowledge, and ultimately relate to the good. And hence there’s no surfeit of books.
Seneca’s letter by a subtle slight of hand raises the question whether books too, like all other material goods, can become mere objects, symbols that stand for other things. And, that books can be collected, eroticized, fetishized, and then displayed on shelves like mine are not for their intrinsic value but for their symbolic value.
Tolstoy’s parable How much land does a man need? Explores the same theme but again focuses on wealth but can be read as an exploration of the limits of acquisition of any object including books. I think I have just discovered that my continuing and boundless collection of books is clear evidence of poverty, but of what kind of poverty?
These thoughts accompany me to Budapest. Another indulgence in Seneca’s light. It’s 20 degrees in the shade! And the sky is impeccably blue with not a streak of cloud. The light too is like Provence, bright and like a clear and clean windscreen, unlike the murky, smeary not-light of winter in Oslo.
Lunch is alfresco again today, at Kelet. There’s a girl sitting in front of me in a white lace top and a short skirt, polka dot blue and purple tights. She has on purple shades in black frames. I’m surprised that she’s brought out with her a stuffed pony, quite sizeable in brown felt and mustard manes. She has it tucked behind her with its head sticking to one side. Strange. Worse still it’s a stuffed horse head and with its torso on a hobby stick, a hobby horse no doubt! But what for?
Her friend has black hair probably dyed from brunette brown. She has on a black vest with bra straps showing through. Her denim jacket is strewn across her knees on her black skirt. Her shades like open visors poised on her forehead.
My waitress is another of these tall Hungarian girls, almost 6 feet tall. Her lips full and parted, the face striking and open, inquisitive, interested, as if the world was a book to be investigated and comprehended. I had thought she was young until I noticed her hair- prematurely grey, truly grey, not white, not silver, but dark charcoal grey, highlighted in red-orange and bunched into a ribbon at the crown.
I’ve never worked out what it is that gives a face its emotional signature. What turns an innocent born person into one with deviousness slipping like a chemise beneath the dress or sourness in the corners of the lips like grime in between the fingernails? There’s also the shiftiness or shyness, in the wake of deep emotions. Like saying I’ve said too much already by my smile, by standing too close, by a lingering touching, now my body is turned towards you but my face is averted.
Later, at St Stephen’s cathedral the voices are a hubbub except for the occasional triumphant soprano, singing an octave higher than the background din. The echo is of the sea at night when the street and other sounds have gone to sleep and all that is left is the roll of the waves and the pounding of the sand. I shut my eyes in the cathedral, to shut out what there is of the street noise only to discover the inner sea sound unwavering and rhythmical, I suppose you could say it’s a rhapsody that begins forcefully from my chest and throbs into my torso and then groin.
At the Castle up above Buda, looking out across the Danube at the parliament building, and far in the distance we saw the cathedral, once again. The sky had clouded over somewhat.
We had come up by funicular railway but walked back down. As we approached the Chain Bridge a flock of cyclists flew by through a tunnel and as each went through they shouted and the reverberations were musical and odd as the voices of women, children and men commingled, a flare lighting up the night sky and in a wild breeze too, breathless.
Dinner was in a restaurant opposite Elizabeth Park. A group of young men were drinking at the end of the restaurant when we arrived, maybe 10 of them. This was possibly a prelude to going out on the night. I had deer stew and Jan had ratatouille with sausages, red wine to top this off. We walked the long 3 miles back across the river to our hotel. And to finish the night off I had apricot palinka and Jan plum. I haven’t had spirits in decades. This burnt my mouth and the inner linings of my stomach. But I took it like a man! Even my long dead grandmother swore by schnapps and she had no trouble knocking back a few glasses.
It is Sunday. We’ve checked out of our hotel and are passing the time of day at Kelet, inside rather than on the pavement this time. The auspicious Spring has come to an abrupt termination. It is cloudy, has just stopped raining and it is dreary and cold. We are not alone. The place is full of the young and studious. Kelet is like a private library of second hand books. The girl, opposite is sitting with a friend and drinking a latte. Her friend is having a glass of red wine. They’re doing what young women do, gossiping, giggling and nodding. One plays with her dangling earring. She has a scarf wrapped round her neck. It’s linen and Matt blue with glass studs. Her friend rests her head against a bookshelf, with legs crossed and trussed in tight denim jeans. It’s a familiar sight everywhere where a cafe culture exists in the context of freedom. You won’t see it in large swathes of the Middle East.
The conditions of freedom not only determine but condition your dress and your associations. These conditions dictate whether your smile and laughter is unhindered, that it’s without guilt and shame. Modesty is not the aim of the barrel of scrutiny, it’s your mind, the capacity of the soul to fret its wings like a bird ready to take flight that is the target of the religious police.
Seneca’s thesis is that a few books will do as will few travel destinations. This is a position I would not have anticipated, never mind talk of endorsing. But viewed in the light of Tolstoy’s parable, it becomes imaginable that all covetous behaviours, whether apparently seeking a primary, some would say greater good or not, amounts to the same thing, promiscuity allied to gluttony.
We are now at the airport on the way back home. The greyness and dampness has set in properly. The distant hills are cloaked in mist. The iridescent green of the trees once attractive is now dull, a soldier’s khaki drill. But the lounge is agog with noise- glass clinking, the buzz of voices, that clack clack of heels, high heels, and the delightful singsong chirping of children. We could be in a cathedral and maybe we are. The imagined world is alive and able to metamorphose, amoebic in its capacity. It can be whatever it chooses and books and travel are its ready accomplices.
This trip had started with Seneca’s letter and as I’m walking towards the Danube, on our first morning, I stopped for a Turkish coffee and hummus at Kelet, a café and library. I sat under awnings on the pavement. It was my first alfresco lunch this spring.
Budapest is a curious mixture of Central European 19th century architecture and modern Soviet brutalist buildings. The sculptures too are that square and grand style of the common man, the peasant standing or toiling, broad shouldered, supported by his female companion. Adam and Eve reconfigured for the 20th century, striving forward to what we now know to be the tragic demise of Communism.
Budapest is a youthful city but the incidental elderly person, the ancients are, very ancient, sloping and bent, wrinkled and leathery, monuments to harsher, poorer times. The youthful style is slim or skinny trousers with tee shirts. But there’s the other style, frumpy, outsized, dull even, wood lice suddenly exposed to light and scurrying blindly and crazed.
My coffee is Chelelektu, from Ethiopia made in the Turkish style. It has the most remarkable aroma of dust, damp earth, Africa in the armpits, and the taste is bitter , bitter and then there’s the surprise of strawberries in the undertow. All this in the shadow of mountain ash, the leaves lightly glancing off the air, in the sunlight.
A young mother has just walked past with her toddler son. He is stopping every few steps to pick things off the pavement, pebbles from the bottom of tree trunks, touching a water hydrant, exploring. His mother is the archetypical modern mother, slim and in skinny jeans. She has none of the stigmata of motherhood, not even a wedding ring. There’s an infinite procession of the beautiful, the confident, of strides that thrust forward like the Soviet styled sculpture. Then there are the wallpaper clinging like vine to the invisible walls.
I stopped for a second cup of coffee, this time cappuccino. It’s a small place, for artists I suppose since it smells of oils and turpentine. And there are easels about. The people have that customary arty look, beards, ponytails, and a friendliness that’s reserved for kindred spirit- you can’t be in here if you weren’t one of us!
My walk has taken me from Buda through to Pest, across the Danube. I have wandered through the great Market Hall. Then the rest of the time was spent simply ambling along back streets with cafes, restaurants, shops, Thai massage places, and vacant places. The sun and the girls were out. Here the girls, the teenagers and those in their early twenties clump together like bushes in the Savannah. Giggling, sitting cross-legged on the grass or pavements. Even the girders of the bridges are reclined upon like beds in the most private of apartments except this was in the full glare of the sun ablaze in the sky, a magnificent single eye staring down at the youth of today.
My barista is a dark haired pretty woman, young and with a warm, welcoming smile. She has hairy forearms, and her skin has that dark sediment of the Turks and other invaders. Her buttocks, the gluteus of peasant girls, strong and eye catching. Like all the young the world over, she is on her mobile phone, chatting and flicking her hair behind her ears, standing on tiptoe to sit on the bar stool, and tossing her other arm across her chest under her breasts. When she isn’t tugging at her scarf, she is rocking on her bottom. She has just asked if I need the wifi and I am caught between guilt for describing her without permission and replying “No, I don’t need wifi”.
It is travel, books, different and varied authors who make all this thinking and talking to myself possible. I’ve never thought it was anything but good. But now after Seneca, who knows?
Photos by Jan Oyebode
I don’t know whether you know about Nkisi nkodi. It is a Kongo nailed figure, a container or statue of forces directed at an end. It is one of the most potent figures of African art. The nails are hammered into the wood whilst ritual curses are spoken. Each object may have dozens of these iron bits. An nkisi is an extraordinary object. The best way to think of it is as concentrated power actively and consciously employed to a goal. The act of forcing the iron into the wood requires muscular tension, sweat, the appropriate words and the requisite atmosphere of terror. This is an example of commitment to an act, to a purpose and is bounded by faith in the possible. Often, the power that is sought for is retribution, for vengeance, or simply to charge envy with venom. But, it is the concentrated commitment that interests me. Think Coltrane playing the saxophone, every note charged with commitment as if his life depended upon it. His breath and spirit, his very vitality and vigor directed at one aim, to transform what is unseen and unheard, what is impalpable into what is concrete and transient, into music.
In Egil’s Saga, we find a Norse example
He took a hazel pole in his hand and went to the edge of a rock facing inland. Then he took a horse’s head and put it on the end of the pole. Afterwards he made an invocation, saying, ‘Here I set up this scorn-pole and turn its scorn upon King Eirik and Queen Gunnhild’ – then turned the horse’s head to face land – ‘and I turn its scorn upon the nature spirits that inhabit this land, sending them all astray so that none of them will find its resting-place by chance or design until they have driven King Eirik and Gunnhild from this land’. Then he thrust the pole into a cleft in the rock and left it to stand there. He turned the head towards the land and carved the whole invocation in runes on the pole.
I know that it is unusual to exemplify commitment to life in the very places that seek to deny life or invoke harm. But it is the focused attentiveness to an act that is alluring here. It displays for our observation, exposes what is often unobserved in the daring and courage of everyday life, the studious seeking of a goal. Egil’s life was lived with as much resolution as demonstrated in this act of poisonous hatred.
My intention is not to romanticize the extreme violence of the Icelandic sagas or even to ignore the surprising amoral tone of the sagas. I am merely drawing attention to the manner of living, the transparency of intentions & how their guiltless and remorseless conduct displayed an arid moral landscape
Egil was paired against a boy called Grim, the son of Hegg from Heggstadir. Grim was ten or eleven years old, and strong for his age. When they started playing the game, Egil proved weaker that Grim, who showed off his strength as much as he could. Egil lost his temper, wielded the bar and struck Grim, who seized him and dashed him to the ground roughly, warning him that he would suffer for it if he did not learn how to behave. When Egil got back to his feet he left the game, and the boys jerred at him. Egil went to see Thord Granason and told him what happened. Thord said, ‘I’ll go with you and we’ll take our revenge’. Thord handed Egil an axe he had been holding, a common type of weapon in those days. They walked over to where the boys were playing their game. Grim had caught the ball and running with the other boys chasing him. Egil ran up to Grim and drove the axe into his head, right through to the brain. Then Egil and Thord walked away to their people.
In the Saga of the People of Laxardal, Unn, a heroine of this saga in her old age held a wedding feast for her favourite grandson, Olaf. At the feast
She entered the hall, followed by a large group of people. When the hall was filled, everyone was impressed by the magnificence of the feast. Unn then spoke: I call upon you, my brothers Bjorn and Helgi, and other kinsmen and friends as witnesses. This farm, with all the furnishings you see around you, I hand over to the ownership and control of my grandson, Olaf’. Unn the rose to her feet and said she would retire to her bedchamber. She urged them to enjoy themselves in whatever way they saw fit, and people could take pleasure in drinking. It is said that Unn was both tall and heavy-set. She walked briskly along the hall and people commented upon her dignified bearing. The evening was spent feasting until everyone went to bed. Olaf Feilan came to the sleeping chamber of his grandmother Unn the following day. As he entered the room, Unn was sitting upright among the pillows, dead. Olaf returned to the hall to announce the news. Everyone was impressed at how well Unn had kept her dignity to her dying day.
There was an indisputable conscientiousness about dying, as there was about living in the Icelandic sagas. Unn’s death in old age followed a format that was well established and perhaps even rehearsed. And we have notions too of ‘bad deaths’-
Kveldulf asked Olvir about the entire incident in Sandes when Thorolf was killed, about the worthy deeds he had done in battle before his death, and who had struck him down, where his worst wounds were and how he had died. Olvir told him everything he asked, mentioning that King Harald had dealt him a blow that by itself would have sufficed to kill a man, and that Thorolf had dropped face down at the king’s feet. Kveldulf said, ‘You’ve spoken well, because old men have said that a man’s death would be avenged if he dropped face down, and vengeance taken on the man at whose feet he fell […]
In our time, the thoroughgoing commitment to a unifying social goal in a single-minded manner seems to be present only in individuals rather than as a set of values widely distributed in society. You find it in athletes, in some academics, in explorers and artists. But, in wider society the explicit display of concentrated idolatry is for wealth and material goods. Here, the nkisi nkodi is a bank account, meticulously anointed and worshipped, studiously examined and protected, the bank account statement has all the status of a fetish, a charm that opens the secret vaults of life.
Photos by Jan Oyebode