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Bamako Style

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We were on our way to Paris. We caught the Eurostar at St Pancras. The overnight stay at Comfort Inn and Suite was hardly comfortable. The suite, an ironic term, for a pokey room with a cupboard for a bathroom and barely enough space to swing one elbow and the other (or as the English say, to swing a cat) between the narrow passage that passed for a suite. In the event of a fire we would have collided with the radiator then the TV and then we finally extricated ourselves from this collision, there was still the broom cupboard that was home to our coats. Dismal is a euphemism for this hole in the ground. Well, some you win and others you lose. This was a loss.

 

When we arrived last night the receptionist, an Eastern European, probably Polish was to start with welcoming, that was until he asked for my passport, ‘Passport?’ I replied. This was the first hotel and I repeat myself, the only hotel in the UK where I had been asked for my passport (the word hotel was an exaggeration; this was really a hostelry). He asked for my passport and failing that my credit card for pre-authorization! That request might sound normal, even benign until you know that I had already paid and there was nothing to pre-authorize. A wholly unexpected and unpleasant series of exchanges then ensued. All that needs be said is I’m definitely not returning to the Discomfort Inn and Insult! Be wary dear traveler of holes in the ground in the neighborhood of King’s Cross-.

 

We had chosen a grey autumn day to travel. The countryside as it whizzed past was in mist, perhaps this was what atmospheric refers to. Think of a painting in a subtle grey palette with a dim, watery sun, barely visible on the edge of the canvass and you have the scene and maybe something of my mood too.

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‪Friday morning and it was raining. The rain was striking against our hotel room window. It was cold too. Our room looked out at Boulevard Raspail and directly across the road was a chemist, with its green neon sign reading “Pharmacie”. I’ve been coming to this annual pilgrimage to Paris for the past 19 years except for 2 years all spent at Pitié-Salpêtrière discussing psychopathology, expanding and extending our knowledge of the intricacies of abnormal phenomena- delusions, hallucinations, the nature of reality, embodiment, and thinking itself which was our subject this year.

 

In the evenings, when Peter Berner was still alive we would assemble in his flat ‪on Friday evening for an aperitif and then afterward across the road for dinner. In the later stages of his life when he was incapacitated with chronic obstructive airways disease and needed his own supply of oxygen to get about he ceased joining us at dinner. In his time Peter had been an authority on paranoia. His comments were always thoughtful and well judged. Alas, since he passed away the ritual of aperitif and joint dinner has fallen away.

 

As ever we were staying at Hotel Raspail. It was strange to think that we’ve been staying here year after year bar one year when I stayed next door. It is a most convenient site at the junction of Boulevard Raspail and Boulevard Montparnasse. Hemingway, Sartre, de Beauvoir and their friends ate and drank in the many cafes and restaurants a stone’s throw from here. At night the Gaite was full of life, the restaurants, bars, and cafes were bursting with people, and the low life of sex shops and massage houses and a Hamam that has now closed, like at Soho enriched the atmosphere. Now, it is not unusual or unexpected to find a Romany mother and child, lying on the pavement after midnight, in the cold, begging for money. This was even more conspicuous as the chosen site was directly in front of a bank at the corner of the five crossed roads. Homelessness and begging the twin evils of modern life!

 

We spent ‪Saturday night with C & P. It was an evening of wine, French cuisine, and talk. ‪On Friday night we had been to Duc Lombards jazz club to listen to a 13 piece Brazilian jazz band. We sat in the gallery, sipped our drinks, J had a non-alcoholic cocktail and I had a gin and tonic. The music was exactly as we expected- whiffs of the girl from Ipanema, Santana, and Yoruba drumming (not that the Brazilian musicians would have known this). The event seemed to be a magnet for mixed couples- next to us sat a young couple, the man African and his pregnant European partner and just behind us another young mixed couple. The same was true of some of the couples downstairs.

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Before the jazz club, we had stopped to have dinner in a packed place just on the approach to the bridge into Cite. I had escargots for starters, which was as close I managed to get to giant African snails. My main course was paella- French style. There was a throng of young people everywhere within miles. Even though it was a cold night, the whole world and its mother were out for a good time.

 

At C & Ps operatic arias played in the background whilst we talked of children and their partners. And in our case of grandchildren and the new grandson just born barely 24 hours before. Then since P is American talk turned to Trump and his divisive and hateful messages. To my surprise, they had time for Macron, a man whose comments and outbursts about Africa mark him out as barely better than Trump except for his fluency and boyish looks. But perhaps in contrast to Hollande or Marie Le Pen, he was more desirable even admirable.

 

These December evenings along the Gaite where there was always a crowd drinking or eating or just coming out of Bobino, there was an atmosphere of gaiety, of the artistic life, and the numerous eating houses, Japanese, Korean, Thai and Italian acted like accents in a language, embroidering and enriching what otherwise could be merely flat and prosaic.

 

On Sunday we caught the Eurostar returning to London but halfway before entering the channel tunnel, we stopped for fear of a flood. We were delayed for 45 minutes and arrived in a London gripped by snow and ice. Trains out of Euston and Marylebone were either canceled or running late. At one point we did think we were never going to get out of London and might have to stay overnight in a hotel. Thankfully a canceled train was followed by 1740 to Birmingham Moor Street.

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When I look back now the highlight of our trip, this time, was our visit to the exhibition of Malick Sidibé’s (1935-2016) photographs ‘Mali Twist’. Sidibé was born into a Peul family in Soloba. He trained as an artisan jeweler at what is now the National Arts Institute Bamako. His photographs are predominantly of young people in Bamako, at clubs and at the local beach, on the River Niger called Egret’s Rock.

 

The exhibition focused on the photographs of dances, mainly twist. But my interests were different. In an untitled photo, there were two young women, sitting side-by-side and facing in opposite directions. There was one in a sleeveless dress and the other in a short-sleeved dress. They both had cornrow braids and the one with a low cut dress, her décolletage visible, had a stone bead on. Their expressions were that of modest innocence that says we are maidens, pure. They had that shy downward shift of the eyes that is at once endearing and distancing.

 

Another photo had another young woman, an experienced woman who looked directly at the camera. Her broad nose and broader breasts, her collarbones like oars encircling the neck, and the wonderful sheen of black skin were like confidence and tranquility personified. Behind her was a basket unfocused on the window ledge. And there was another young woman, in trousers that were flared at the ankle. Her tight fitting blouse with its broad collar and her sun hat, her stance with arms at akimbo with face turned to the world, and her eyes staring directly at the camera. She had a modern attitude that was neither coquettish nor daring, simply free and unfettered by tradition. I suppose this was nonchalance. A tall slim woman in a long dress, bare at the arms had one leg on a stool. And her arm, her elbow was positioned on her raised thigh. She was modern and independent, she was open in her attitude, her fashion and style all turned to the future. These women were all the more remarkable because Sidibé said that many of them were now Muslim women with covered heads and demure manners.

 

 

In another untitled photo, an old man in his starched brocade boubou, with Obama’s ears, two jug handles astride his bony face solemnly stared at the lens. His grey beard and short-cropped hair, the lines of worry on his forehead and the wrinkles on his neck placed him where age and wisdom combine in folklore and myth to signal antiquity and trust.

 

 

I loved “Yokoro” a photo in which two young boys, stood next to one another. One, the taller of the two stood side on to the camera but with his head turned towards us. He was wearing a pair of shorts and long sleeved oversized jersey stuffed with a pillow or hay perhaps. His companion stood facing outwards with a raffia hat, holding a stick. His body was daubed in chalk markings. His groin covered in rolled up knickers. His face was painted white and large such that he had the appearance of a midget rather than that of a child. It was a spectacular photo, iconic and enchanting, also awkward and mysterious. Who are they, these two apparitions? What was their import, their provenance?

 

And then ‘The three FBI agents’- a photo of three young men in gabardine mactonishes standing close together, sideways on, at night. The middle of the three is in dark colors with his lapel and collar upturned. The other two in light colors. They all, had cloches on, the brim down and their pose was full of tension, the whites of their eyes, bright against the darkness and their sumptuously black skins strangely brilliant in the dark night. These were no ordinary agents, the Bamako noir was darkly threatening.

 

Sidibé’s art, his photography was unintended documentaries of a time, only just recently past, when style and modernity were emerging, purposefully aiming for a future that was optimistic and confident. That was all before the failure of leadership.

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Photos by Jan Oyebode

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Hudson River Valley

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Up here on the rooftop of the Metropolitan Museum, New York’s skyline juts up like a range of jagged cliffs piercing the dark sullen clouds. The breeze too was picking up and the vine leaves on the pergola were fluttering. The displays of statues were surprising. There were several dinner tables- one had a young woman and a cat coiled asleep under a rock that was really a large discarded mask and another was of a youth asleep over a knight’s effigy in eternal rest.

 

Inside was a Matisse ‘Sitting Odalisque’ of a young woman dressed perhaps for a harem, staring out at us. Her affect was inscrutable. The colors were out of a dream, pinks, greens, and blues in patterns behind her. She was in pantaloons and a voile blouse.

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We had had enough of New York and it was time for other kinds of towns. Peekskill was a curious town. We stopped to browse books at Bruised Apple Bookshop. Then, at Fern Tree African Gift Shop, even more, curious than the town itself we found poor quality earrings, poorly packaged black soaps (Dudu Osun) and dresses in tie-dye and Dutch prints and pretend Kente. There was an Elk Lodge across the road from the Chase Bank and from there we could see the Paramount theatre with its mural. Bruised Apple Bookshop was playing Ali Farka Toure.

 

In Cold Spring, we ate. The village as self-styled had more antique shops on its high street, than cafes, restaurants or banks put together. We walked down Main Street to the Hudson. The waterfront had a pier, a square that jutted out into the river. Ahead of us was the range of hills and the Hudson Valley itself. The sun was glancing off the flowing river.

 

Upstate New York: these villages and towns had the feel of living outside time, not merely that time had left them behind but that time no longer existed for them and that if one chose or liked, one could just about live forever, without the encumbrances of electronic devices, and horses and carts might be resurrected with the scythe and the hobnailed boot. There was vertigo that came from free falling without the constraint of minutes and hours. Every moment was measured simply in seconds and these were slow languorous seconds too.

 

It was the lapping of the waves, and the breeze both jointly lulling me into fancy!

 

The shops had names like Arts and Antiques, Ellen Hayden Gallery, Bijou Galleries Ltd, Gallery 66NY, Kismet at Caryn’s, Pink Olive and the Gift Hut. The people were unhurried and the workmen too with their bronzed arms and pates, and the women with colorful red trousers, hair lacquered and frozen still and unruffled in the wind. The dark sunglasses were out but there were very few straw hats if any.

 

We drove to Audubon and parked the car in the 8-car parking lot and then walked down to Indian Brook Falls, a modest fall of clear spring water. From up on Constitution Hill, down in the marsh was a solitary heron.

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It was not so strange how here at Sherwood Island Beach there were so many Canada Geese. They’ve only had to fly a few hundred miles due South. But, at Cannon Hill Park in Moseley Birmingham, they would have flown all of 3,00 miles! There were puny sized crabs under the rocks at the waterline and statuesque seagulls and their wonderfully brown patterned juveniles too.

\When I looked across the bay that was shaped like my earlobes, past the flotilla of sailing boats with their elegant white sails, there was Manhattan on the far horizon, just beyond the mist, a dense greyness just there.

 

It was a cool late summer day –Labour holiday weekend and there were clusters of families round benches and tables with the odd barbecue. The 9/11 memorial stone was placed exactly where the smoke of the Twin Towers was visible on the day and then the memorialized names. What a waste of innocent lives and an unspeakable callousness.

 

Yesterday at Cold Spring, it was the Hudson and the encircling hills. Later it was Bear Mountain peak and again the Hudson. Up there at Bear Mountain, there were women in traditional dress- probably Pakistani or Bangladeshi, with headscarves, with husbands and families and laughing as they looked down at the Hudson River. It was a Labour Day outing.

 

The contrast of New York City and suburban Connecticut was like black to mauve, radical without gradual fading out. It was possible to ignore the tragedy that was Houston, the open sore that was Trump. Everything that was against the grain was far away.

 

At Mianus watershed, the trails lead up and down, alongside oaks and silver birch. There were acorns everywhere. In the undergrowth, moss, iridescent green thrived on fallen and rotten logs and ferns had colonized the spaces left by fallen leaves. Also, there were toadstools and mushrooms.

 

It had been a gloomy, out of sorts kind of day, all day. The rain had thrown everything including the kitchen sink at the roof. Then surprisingly, a miraculous and angelic sun came out and in between the interlaced leaves and branches, the sun shone like a honey colored lacquer translucent in the air. The river did what all rivers do, it meandered and untwisted. Where it tumbled a few feet, it gurgled like a baby. We heard the few intermittent birdcalls and saw the unidentified yellow, brown or white streak of a bird in flight. It was a cool day, not unlike early autumn in Hebden Bridge up on one Crag or another.

 

Next day we ordered an Uber taxi to Norwalk and then hired a car. I shall pass over the laughable service from the Indian attendant, his ponderous scrutinizing of my driving license and passport. Let’s just say that he tried to find fault and failed.

 

The drive from Norwalk to Poet’s Walk was unexceptional. We stopped for lunch at the Red Hook Diner. It is always a surprise to come through a hundred miles of woods, forests, verdant valleys and hills in the distance and then to suddenly come to what amounts to a mediocre town with a string of clapboard houses on either side of the main street.

 

The Diner was friendly enough and the food portions were American sized, that is to say excessive. I left well over half of mine and so did Jan. Then it was to Poet’s Walk, a 3-mile loop through mown grass, then woodland, stopping at a gazebo, then a viewpoint of the Hudson and the Catskill mountains dimly visible in the mist. It was a muggy day and I was sweating like a pig and breathing like one by the end. Thankfully, it was a mere 3 miles.

 

Next stop Hudson where there was a revival going on. We stayed at 26 Warren Street in Edwards Room, named for Edward Avedisian, an artist who lived in this house for 30 years or so. We had an elevated 4-poster bed with hints of Buddhism- there was a photo of the Dalai Lama, a magnificent dragon prince, and Hindu paintings over our bedstead. The bedside lamps were huge red lilies on long stalks. Ah, wonderful!

 

Dinner was at American Barbecue. We sat in the terrace and at long last the rain that had been forecast all day finally arrived but late. We walked up Warren Street looking for a café at 8 pm but strangely they were all closed. This Hudson was proving to be a small town like Leamington Spa for instance. The renovated colonial buildings were elegant, pleasing and desirable. There were properties on the market that made the eyes water- a period detached house in 8 acres for a snip at $ 300K, and you can drive to a station and catch Metro North to NYC. Well I am about to pack up and leave Birmingham England, move to Hudson and commute to NYC. What about that for a career move?

 

By now the drizzle had turned into proper rain but not yet a torrent. We stopped off at Or, a bar and café. But we were the only two customers. There was the young barman, a DH Lawrence lookalike and a young woman, tall and well proportioned with a tattoo over one elbow. I think she wasn’t a natural blonde, the dark roots were showing through, but it suited her. I had a mug of coffee. A cookie, I hear you say, yes, a cookie, a chocolate chipped cookie no less. A first for me.

 

It was bedtime.

 

At breakfast the next morning we met two other guests, Gene, and his partner. Gene was a man in his late 60s and a book illustrator. His parents were involved in developing imaging for breast cancer. His partner was probably in her early 60s. She was a writer of spiritual, self-therapy books. She was the kind of person who holds your hand in both her hands and looks intently into your eyes, earnestly. She was far more optimistic than me and believed in positive psychology, I think. Dementia can be cured by the right diet and attitude and Daniel Ames has good evidence that this approach works- at least 80% of his patients recover! She was insistent that I look him up and I did. He is a controversial American psychiatrist who is obviously financially successful and his empire is built on functional neuroimaging of patients with purported dementia from which he derives he necessary nutritional prescription. Enough said!

 

I held back as long as I could manage- “ Dementia is a neurodegenerative disease and whatever Daniel Ames might say he couldn’t possibly cure it”. Between J and me we talked about neuroplasticity, the nature and importance of dendritic pruning in early life, and the structural effects of childhood trauma and abuse.

 

Whilst packing to leave, Gene’s partner knocked on our door to tell us how exceptional we were at explaining things- perhaps we should travel the world teaching. I said, “You’re so kind”. She said, “No, it’s not meant as a compliment, it’s true”. It was a well-meant comment and we took it in that way.

 

After a brisk walk up Warren Street, admiring the wonderful colonial New England buildings, several were undergoing renovation, we set off for “Olana”, Frederick Church’s estate overlooking an iconic bend on the Hudson River.

 

The house was set on the summit of a hill commanding what can only be described as the most spectacular view of the Hudson. From the balcony, the Catskills rising up in subtle colour changes bordered by the misty sky and the mighty river itself both lifted and calmed the spirit.

 

From the parlour, the window was framed as if it were a painting frame and the bend in the river was perfectly set like a changing display of nature for Man’s benefit. What arrogance and confidence.

 

In his time Church was one of the leading landscape painters in the USA. I can’t say that I responded to his artistic vision except for one or two paintings. His European contemporaries were Cezanne, Renoir, Pissarro, Monet, etc. I think Church was looking backward to the great Italian Masters and well he couldn’t match them for skill or inner vision. But notwithstanding my gripe, Olana was well worth a visit.

 

Next was Omi, a sculpture garden, like Olana, set in 130 acres of marvelous Connecticut country. There was Tony Tasset’s monumental Deer, the 3 white female busts by Philip Gransman- Victoria 1991-2000, Susanna 1996-99, and Leucantha 1988-93. Also, there was Bachler’s Walking Figure.

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It was a miserable wet day and it took resolve to walk through 50 acres to see the figures round the lake. By the end my shoes were sodden. I was also famished- what can one expect given that 6 hours after a light breakfast, blood sugar levels were liable to drop?

 

We travelled to Rinebeck, a pretty town of restaurants and antique shops. We ate in Pete’s Famous Diner and eavesdropped on the female manager talking to a customer: these were two immigrant women with heavily accented English, one from Thessalonica and the other from Georgia. This was a welcome antithesis to Trump’s America. The way the mind works, Trump’s intolerance and now clearly delineated racism was one of the subject at breakfast and thankfully our host and the other guests were liberals who totally rejected racism and white supremacist ideology even though they were white.

 

David Brown who owns 26 Warren Street was a highly present human figure. We found out later that he had been a principal dancer at Martha Graham’s and jointly with his partner and ex-wife Elisa Monte owned their own dance company. He was a tall, bronze man with grey dreadlocks and a memorable sculpted face. He certainly made an entrance when he came to say ‘good morning’.

 

Bret, the other half of the duo who owned 26 Warren Street, was a gentle, dark haired woman who was solicitous and efficient both at once. She was also self-contained. She told us that she has two daughters in their 20s. She was most exasperated with the endless talk of what’s wrong with Trump- “We all know that he is bad, that he’s racist, now let’s get rid of him!” I couldn’t have said it better myself.

 

This past fortnight, natural disasters included flooded Houston, Dhaka, and Markurdi. Sadly only Houston made the news. In the past 48 hours, Hurricane Irma wreaked havoc in the Caribbean and was now heading for Florida. Close on its tail was Hurricane Jose. These tempests are the physical embodiment of the tumultuous and catastrophic changes going on in America and with Brexit in the UK.

 

 

This long trip to America was coming to an end. On our last full day, we went to Philip Johnson’s Glass House in New Canaan. It was set in 49 acres and he lived there with his partner David Witney. Our guide told us the 3 themes governing Johnson’s architecture- procession, safe-danger and, reveal & hide. Like Frank Lloyd Wright, Johnson loved small entrances that opened out. I suppose he had in mind a flute, or the cervix what we call ‘Ferese ile omo’ in Yoruba.

 

Johnson’s Glass House was transparent from outside and also from inside. It was practically part of the landscape, and from some perspectives, it could be difficult to see, that is how much like gossamer the house was. It was surprising that Johnson and Witney lived in this transparent home – the elegant lines are equally matched by the frugality of the inner arrangements: no clutter, no unnecessary or unclean lines. This style has been termed ruthless elegance and I concur.

 

Johnson’s Kunst Bunker was currently home to Lynn Davis’ Ice- an exhibition of photos from Greenland. Again, like with Frederick Church, it’s not the aesthetic vision or the realization of innovation that I found most appealing- it was the audacity to work with nature, altering it where necessary, in order to master it and then leaving a mark.

 

Beside his house and the other buildings, my own personal approach stood out in relief and it is one characterized by self-doubt, by restraint, by a melancholic disposition, an awareness of our fragility as humans and our mortality. Maybe a poetic sensibility is more inclined to shadows, darkness, and the demonic. Also, there is the knowledge that words are inadequate to capture what is most important because these are ultimately unutterable and unspeakable.

 

The journey to JFK was by Uber. Our driver, Robert, was a man of about our age, that is in his 60s. He had majored in geology, psychology and media studies. His passion was geology, he told us, with the aim of working in the oil industry. By his account, the chairman of his academic department advised him against this as he (Robert) was Jewish and most oil works were in the Middle East. He switched to the theatre and worked as an actor on Broadway for a time. He moved into producing adverts and did well until 2008 when he “took a hit”. He was now working as a cab driver whilst trying to set up again. He talked endlessly and expressed surprising opinions and strange values. He pointed out Trump links, praised Bloomberg and Trump for how swiftly the deal was completed. He didn’t like De Blasio, a liberal, how sad some of the things he was doing in New York.

 

Robert told us “ docility and domestication were achieved in dogs by ruthless breeding, imagine what could be achieved in humans, etc.” I don’t believe that I had ever met anyone, who explicitly and without irony, promulgated eugenics as a potential contemporary solution and it was most strange.

 

I was troubled by the Immigration Act 1924. I had understood from Rachel Maddow that Congressional eugenics experts developed the originating Bill. And furthermore, that the decision to end DACA was in part determined by Jeff Session’s admiration for the 1924 Act that attempted to retain the racial demography of the USA to the 1850 census data. The racist/racialist underbelly of American life was continuously surprising and frightening especially given the current incumbent of the White House.

 

Glad to be going home.

 

 

Photos by Jan and Femi Oyebode

 

 

 

Early Autumn in Darien

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We walked down Nearwater Lane to Weed Beach. It was already 18 degrees Centigrade at 8 am. We walked along the shoreline, looking out to sea and, watching the flock of seagulls and the solitary heron. Here at this time, there were very few people. There were only one family and a young woman in black running gear. On the tennis court, a doubles match was going on. Crickets were also just waking from their sleep with intermittent stridulations.

 

And when we were back on Noreton Avenue and sitting in T’s back garden, the cricket stridulations were constant rather than intermittent even if waxing and waning with a periodicity of 10-15 seconds. In the garden, the canopy was composed of two firs, two silver beeches, and two Acers.

 

Here in Darien, we were as far from Trumps’ America as one can be, a whole world away from the dark inner world of his prejudices and hate. That particular morning he pardoned a racist Marshall, reintroduced his ban on transgender people from the military as Hurricane Harvey hit and devastated Texas. In Darien, the clapboard homes spoke of a settled and tranquil America even if privileged and affluent.

 

Two homes on the other side of the road from us were flying the American flag. I am never quite sure of feelings about patriotism and nationalism. It has always seemed to me an easy and potentially treacherous step from patriotism to prejudice and violence.

 

Is it possible to be Yoruba, deeply so, with all the pride and self-satisfaction of identity without the need for denigrating others, for instance, the Hausa or Ibibio? Lurking within a rich and self-confident identity is the desire to think of others unfavorably. The germ of white supremacist reasoning and rationale – a dangerous and odious ideology – is too easy, far too easily comprehensible, and hence too readily condoned.

 

We spent the day at PepsiCo headquarters in Purchase. A sculpture garden that was open to the public. The highlights for me were Miro’s Personage, a piece that must be based on ET; Rodin’s Eve; &Max Ernst’s Capricorn (a most complex and subtle piece). Ernst’s piece was a man wedded to what we call ‘mammy water’ and their offspring. It is a formal family sitting for a portrait. There was Leonora Carrington’s Music for the Deaf of a male harpist with hollowed out eyes, maybe he was blind and, Henry Moore’s reclining figure and George Segal’s Three People on Four Benches.

 

The garden with its lakes, firs, Japanese garden and lotus in flower was simply magnificent. There were carp in the lake, and maples, oak, Kentucky coffee tree, hemlock, and juniper. In the Japanese garden, two frogs made our day. One perched, all glistening emerald on a lotus leaf and the other bullfrog eyes just above the water line, the rest of the body submerged. The glorious lotus flowers were pearl white, pink or yellow in the sun.

 

Afterwards, we went to Greenwich for lunch at a fast food place, Be Good, for clean and virtuous eating of super grains, quinoa, beans, kale, maize, lettuce and in my case chicken. What is there to say about Greenwich except that its well to do, and that although the High Street wants to mimic an English high street it is far too broad and the shops and their shop fronts too clean, and preserved in aspic.

 

On the way home, we stopped at Fairway to shop. America is abundant, excessively so. The variety of coffee was astonishing. I bought half a pound of Ethiopian Sidamo and Ethiopian Yirgachieffe, maybe next time Yemeni or Tanzanian coffee. We were preparing Sea Bass with leeks for dinner and maybe some wine.

 

T told us a story about Fairways- just a few weeks before our arrival, 3 men had filled a trolley full of items but at the checkout, their credit card was rejected thrice and they calmly walked out but the cashier was suspicious enough to call the Police. By the time the Police arrived the men had left. To everyone’s surprise, the men returned and started to unpack the trolley and there underneath the goods was a gun and 10,000 dollars in cash! They were promptly arrested. That is America for you.

 

The next day we walked down Ring’s End to Pear Tree Point Road. To get to Pear Tree Point Road we crossed Goodwives River. The river was at low tide. The homes on its banks were of white painted clapboard with large jetties, wide gardens, and terraces. It was another bright and warm day, the sun was overhead and cast wonderful shadows of the homes on the river.

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Pear Tree Point Road has some of the most impressive house in CT. These houses spoke of old wealth, grandeur, of stability and patrician attitudes. Here all the problems of America seemed far away. Hidden somewhere in the urban, inner cities. All there was here was a slight imperceptible breeze, an otter carrying a fish in its mouth, a daring deer bolting across the road in the late morning. And then the beach at the end of the road, a small bay the shape of a horseshoe. There was a party setting tables, readying for a birthday party. Only a few others were out at this time. There was no one in the water and Long Island across the sound was indistinct in the haze.

 

An obese man who was power walking went past us as did a young athletic woman and couples cycling as well as families. There were country courtesies of greeting and gestures, not something that I associated with America. The day before at Weed Beach, the attendant at the entrance, a small Italian American with what I took to be a Hollywood Sicilian Mafia accent wanted to talk. He told us that the beautiful birds with yellow breasts were canaries- “In Europe, we call them canaries”- this sentence gave him away as European. He was proud of his camera and his photos. He told us about his picture of a grey squirrel that held a nut with both hands whilst standing on its hind legs (how photogenic). But, alas he couldn’t find it and in any case, a car was waiting to drive in.

 

What is a Euro-African to make of the instant bonhomie? Sometimes it all feels all wrong, all fake and superficial. How to account for the lynching and hatred given the friendliness on display? Strange indeed.

 

Next was out obligatory visit to Broadway. The first night was Miss Saigon, a re-writing of Madam Butterfly, I presume. It was set in Vietnam, Thailand, and USA. Musicals as with opera, one has to accept the improbable and absurd as true. Parodies become facsimile. Angels like in dreams can materialize, and love sprout and blossom in a brothel. We all love to believe the impossible, to see good triumph over the dark and tragic underbelly of life. More troubling and surprising is the admiration for the irrepressible charming cutthroat; in Miss Saigon, the character of the ‘Engineer’ was played masterfully. Here was a ruthless operator who smiled, sang and with cunning daring attempted the impossible.

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The youthful and virginal Kim by the end is ‘deflowered’ and corrupted that to rescue her reputation, she had to sacrifice herself for her son’s life in the USA. The meta-theory was sordid but our participation in the narrative thrust relied on our acceptance that the acme of human existence lay in the USA and it went against the grain to accept this unless the USA was merely a symbol of possibility and not the concrete expression of the desirable. No matter!

 

The following day we walked up 5th Avenue, Madison, 6th, and Broadway. We stopped for lunch at Herald Park, a small park dedicated to the Bennetts, proprietors of the New York Herald. Next stop was Bryan Park. One of the wonders of New York are these parks, green oasis like man-made valleys buried deep within these massive skyscrapers, peaks, and crags piercing the sky. The other miracle was all the people. What Trump dislikes most, what he abhors, even hates most, the immense diversity of the human race. Next to us on the bench, were 2 young Jewish men with skullcaps. Across the way a young Indian couple, studying and talking, then Chinese, Africans, African-Americans, Hispanics, and blond or brunette European Americans. There were tall, short, thin, emaciated, fat, obese, squat, athletic, muscular and in between people. The sheer variety of female thighs and backsides, of postures and gaits, and of dress were astonishing.

 

Three elderly men were playing petanque with a young black man most probably a French West African used to playing boules; that was just one of the many incongruities that challenged and undermined assumptions about liaisons and alliances, the kind of incivility and separation that Trump stands for and wants to promote. Mixing and miscegenation are quietly going on without Trump’s permission, ruining orthodoxy and enriching the pool of talent that will inherit the earth.

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Michael Moore’s one-man show at the Belasco Theatre “Terms of My Surrender” lasted two and a half hours. It was a tour de force of polemic, persuasive communication, diatribe and fire and brimstone sermonizing. We discovered how ignorant Americans were- 11% couldn’t place the USA on a map and 60% did not know where the UK was. Some 88% of Republicans believe that Obama was President and ineffective during Katrina! The peril that is Trump was brought home to everyone, he could still be in power in 2025.

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Moore emphasized that doing a little, even a smidgeon to push liberal values and agenda was important. His own life stories were inspiring. After the show we dined at a Cuban restaurant, then in the evening, it was a different kind of theatre- Doll’s House Part 2. Nora Helme returned to Torvald’s house after an absence of 15 years. The dialogue between Nora and Torvald, Anne-Mari, and Emmy allowed for exploration of what it was like for Nora after she left her family, what her aspirations were and what she valued most. It was a competent play that was well acted and directed. It was amusing, humorous, witty but not the greatest theatre. What was radical in Ibsen was merely self-indulgent here. Between Doll’s House and the Lady of the Sea, Ibsen dealt effectively with the basis of marriage, how freedom is essential to equality within a union. In the Doll’s House Part 2, there was far too much talking, not enough Ibsenian action that challenged the audience and that was properly speaking morally troubling.

 

It was time to return to the suburbs, away from the bustle of New York.

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Photos by Jan Oyebode

Lamplight at Popovica Ulica

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Our first evening meal was at Konoba Insula. We ate alfresco, sitting along a wall in the narrow, impossibly narrow Popovica Ulica. It was well past 8 pm and dusk was quickly turning into night. For lunch, I had grilled bass in sesame seed and that night I had seafood risotto. There was much that was like Italy, especially Venice in Split.

 

No 1 Popovica was a 5-storey stone building. The main entrance was reddish brown wood, but very definitely not mahogany. The windows had green shutters. We were practically sitting shoulder against the outside wall of No1. Whilst we were eating people arrived to stay at No 1, so that we concluded it must be a hostel: a group of young men and women arrived in shorts, backpacks, vests and Dr Martens boots and displays of tattoos and bangles.

 

Next morning we arrived well past the busy hour at the fish market that was designed by Ante Bezić. We` arrived towards midday. The stalls that were still open had wild sea bass, majestic and silver in their elegance, skate, immature stingrays, bream, red snapper and sardines. Mussels and whelks were in another hall. There were far too many minnows that the sea here would likely be dead soon, fished dead, that is.

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The statue of Gregory of Nin by Ivan Mestrović stood at 8 meters tall in front of the North Gate of the Palace of Diocletian. The Bishop, Gregory of Nin, was holding a bible in his left hand in the pose of Moses with the Ten Commandments and his right hand was raised with one finger about to hurl a thunderbolt.

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Above the Golden Gate leading into the inner gate there was a narrow chapel dedicated to St Martin. A wide colonnaded street with Diocletian’s mausoleum to one side (now a cathedral) led to the opus quadratum. It is ironic that Diocletian who persecuted Christians now lies within a church. Diocletian travelled to Egypt and like all warlike plunderers brought a 4,000-year old sphinx that sat in front of his mausoleum. This regal and properly ancient object was carved in black basalt and had all the serenity and confidence of power that is extinct, that no longer threatens by subterfuge, treachery or crass bullying to kill or maim.

 

Opposite the mausoleum were temples to Cybele and Venus. The restaurant here was called Luxor in honour of Diocletian’s plunderer’s trip to the upper Nile. But, perhaps I ought to be more generous to Diocletian. On the face of it, here was a Roman emperor who shared with Maximilian the empire and appointed assistant emperors to rule over the Roman Empire, a man from humble, Croatian background, who abdicated by choice, after 20years and retired to his palace in Split. He lived another 7 years. When he ruled over the Eastern Empire, Maximilian ruled over the Western empire. Maximilian was also of humble origins and retired to his native Serbian home. This concession to self-imposed time-limited rule flies in the face of the despotism of Kabila and other tyrants of our times. Sadly though, Diocletian’s wife Prisca and his only child, his daughter Valeria were murdered by his rivals out in Syria.

 

The Temple of Jupiter is now the Cathedral of St John the Baptist. The wrought iron gate was painted green and had the Greek letters for Christus Victor. But, the gate was framed by an older pagan frieze of subtle emblems, Dionysian vines, skull heads, Cherubs with their lower limbs in the mouth of serpents, etc. The real marvel of Split is the sudden and unexpected residue of the Ancients amongst the living: the Forum as an active space in the 21st century.

 

We had been for our walk along the Dalmatian coast. We then sat by F de Mar, waiting for our dinner, sipping a glass of Merlot. The evening light was lighting up the city and the sea was glistening and moving, dancing in the light. The city was set against the Diocletian hills, wondrous and beautiful, drenched in honey. The masts of the luxury yachts were waving in the air.

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In the time between sitting and eating, the sun went from golden honey to peach pink, and the hills too became like the atmosphere above, a more subtle lilac. It was the time for promenades in Mediterranean culture, elderly couples, young couples, families, and troupes of girls in bikinis wrapped in towels, walked slowly, ponderously, deliriously, or briskly. The sun was below the hills and there was a dark glaze rippling over the sea. The temperature was a comfortable high 20s. A breeze, a comforting breeze was blowing. After coffees we went off to watch Turandot. The last time we saw Turandot was in Slovenia, with the Chinese State Opera. Puccini is always excellent. Here in Split, Turandot was played in the open, like at Verona, but a more intimate scale, more human. The music was, well, Puccini, melodious, dramatic, varying themes that were introduced, expanded, suggested and concealed. In Split, Turandot was balletic, well choreographed, and visually ornate. Strangely, the conductor did not come out to take his bow, too exhausted I suppose.

 

At Trogir, we found the cathedral. It was a welcome respite from the heat. But, even here, in the splendid limestone walled space, it was still hot and I was dripping wet in sweat. Ivan Trogirski’s chapel has his tomb and the treasury had his relics including his hands, I think, encased in ornamental silver replicas of the living flesh, with a gem on each palm. It was strange to find in a Catholic church, the hand of Fatima, to ward off the evil eye. The last time we saw that was in Fez.

 

Trogirski lay on his left side, his shepherd’s crook beside the whole length of him. His head was on a pillow and guarded by two angels. He was asleep in the never-ending rest and repose, as if he might just wake up.

 

A frieze of Adam and Eve standing on Roman lions, fig leaves covering their privacy, surrounded the cathedral’s entrance. There was also a display of the monthly calendar, turning pigs into sausages, shearing sheep in April and so on. There was a lot of mythology about Trogirski’s hands- how one arm was torn off and taken to Venice and how it magically flew back to its rightful place at Trogir. Even more preposterous, how his body and coffin were lost and found after revealing themselves and their whereabouts in a dream to whoever, I suppose that’s what tells you that Trogir was a medieval city with a superb cathedral, a town hall, a legal/administrative space and narrow streets and wall.

 

We had lunch at an Italian of sorts and then there was the 3 hour drive to Plitvice, up and upwards and across, and switchback, and downhill unto the far and beyond, the remote wilderness of Croatia.

 

We stayed in an Alpine style house up in the hills. From our attic room, we could see one of the lower lakes, blue-green in the distance where Swallows were swooping and every now and again we caught sight of their flashing light coloured breasts. There were pine, larch and olive trees. Our abode was genuinely idyllic in its remoteness, its lush green colours and the sky held in place by the circle of hills.

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The next day we walked the length of the numerous lakes and waterfalls: Milanovački, Milanova, Veliki, Movakovića, Prošóansko, Giginovacetc. I had not expected or imagined that there would be so many people. A continuous single file of them, walking along the boards, stopping for selfies and photos of fish, ducks, the waterfalls and string of lakes laid down like lapis lazuli on a string. And the fish too, the ones skating under the surface of the water: first were the rainbow trout, swimming against the tide; it must take undue energy to stay still, not merely to swim against the current, their tail fins were an iridescent turquoise. Further down, perhaps carp that changed their fins from royal blue through to astonishing black. There were the surprising eel, slithering away among the bulrushes and carp that looked for the world like swordfish without the sword, its fins an intricate working of wine red and oyster buff.

 

The lakes and waterfalls in magnificent attire that nature wore lightly sang the watery sigh and hush against gravity and limestone. It is easy, far too easy, to think of a time before man, with primeval forests and the cascade of waterfalls and the lakes- an abundance of fish, of wild boar, deer, bear, and a sky so vast and infinite to truly be infinite. There was restfulness and mystery, a depth and darkness of feeling, something almost spiritual or religious, sacred is a much better word, in the immensity of the space at Plitvice.

 

There were emerald and turquoise dragonflies, glistening in the midday sun, flapping their wings, slowly in some kind of code unknown to humans. There was a surfeit of water skaters, balanced on the tension of the lake’s meniscus. Then butterflies in amongst the willow and bulrushes. The lake was suddenly glistening with millions of pinprick points of light, diamantes, it was quite impossible to do justice with words to the grandeur of it all.

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The following day, we came upon a path that was far from the madding crowd. It hugged Lake Kozjak. Only a few other people had discovered it. There was the faintest hint of a centrifugal ripple of water coming out to the edge, much like the perfume of a woman long gone but now momentarily disturbed as you open the door to her boudoir. After sometime, we found the most restful place to sit, watching fish swim by in the blue-green and clear water. There, fir and beech were in abundance. Ferries glided on the water with a wake that was like two strings slicing the water. An occasional German or Russian voice, a strained equivocal English, halting, accented, but mostly it was silence that predominated.

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We sat under a crown of beech trees and the wind picked up, the branches swaying and dancing, the leaves in an ecstasy of tremors. But, the real wonder was the rustling of the leaves, in that indescribable currency of a stream splashing against rocks or of endless brooms against a tiled floor. The lake was far below us, at this point, and it stretched to the other bank, and even further away to the imagined horizon- that is what hope is this stretching to imagined horizon– the unseen but providential future against the possibility of an abrupt unforgiving bank.

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In the late afternoon, as the sun was starting to set we travelled to Radoke, a town that was built on a network of springs, streams, rivers, waterfalls and cascades. Houses had their floors as bridges over a dense network of waterways. Surprising gushes of water cascaded down gullies into rivers far below. I had never seen anything quite like it before. Jan went for a swim where the locals swim in the evening- families and young couples and troupes of teenagers lay by the river, some diving and some lazing in the water or simply paddling. The sunset was spectacular; a motorway bridge seemed for a short time to prop up the sun before its final descent.

 

At dinner we sat next to F, a Scot-Australian lawyer/businessman who was travelling through Eastern Europe for 4 months. He had driven from Slovenia, Ljubljana and Lake Bled, before then Budapest. He told us about his wife who died 3 years before from breast cancer. He talked endlessly about his business concepts, his firm, his law practice and his difficulties with his daughter. He was one of these superficially jolly people, who if he stopped speaking for a minute might breakdown into tears- that was how controlled his emotions were but threatening to breakthrough to the surface were the dark surges of his melancholia.

 

I woke up well past midnight to look through the skylight at the night sky and, yes it was spectacular. The stars were absolutely incredible- the myriad galaxies and formations of my childhood, everything was pinprick clear and luminous, like chinks of glass in an echo chamber.

 

We travelled back to Split, stopping at Zadar for lunch. Zadar was another medieval walled city built circa 10th century. It was an elegant city with a monastery complex belonging to the Benedictine Order. The narrow cobbled streets and the terrazzo bridge from the new town to the old town was charming, in an English old-fashioned sort of way. We had lunch just off the main street and then set off back towards Split.

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Back in Split we stayed at B luxury suites in the new city. Our room was on the 2nd floor and was large and airy. The security was second to none. The door was steel plated and heavy, probably bullet proof. We couldn’t have been safer if even we were Mafiosi.

 

It is probably fair to say- there were far too many beautiful women in Split. Along the seafront, if you just sat for a drink and watched the world pass by, you would find the greatest variety of the female form and of the male for that matter. There were bronzed lissome limbs in the most graceful melodious bodies. A young, tall woman close to 6 foot walked past, leaning back with her chin jutting out and her shoulders square, her long hair and dress blowing in the wind. The shorts are cut so low that crescent shaped gluteus maximi like under slips peeped out.

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Our last evening in Split was spent going up to the summit of Marjan hill -as sunset approached we climbed further and further upwards, stopping at each viewing station to take photos of the dying light over the city. It was a hot humid evening. We were dripping in sweat and the sweat was literally like runnels from the forehead into eyes and running in the natural crevasses of the nose and then dripping into shirts and the floor. We raced on to attain the peak before 2014 hours to witness the actual sunset and phew! We made it in time and it was worth the effort, the breathless expenditure of energy and the strain on the heart and muscle. Briefly, the sun was balanced like a Chinese lantern, yellowish-red, poised between two branches or forks of a faraway tree. It floated still and then it set behind the hills.

 

Our walk back downhill was leisurely but the air was still warm and humid, sticky as the English would say. Night was closing in over the Adriatic and the incomplete moon shone straight down. A young woman was stuck up a high wall and as J said I rescued a damsel in distress, gave her my hand to rest on as she worked her way down, all apologetic in apologetic English.

 

Our last dinner was at O’zlata, a fine restaurant for fine dining- very pricey. After 20,000 steps and 52 floors we retreated to bed.

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Photos by Jan Oyebode

Writing in cinnabar red ink

 

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We arrived by train at the station in Oranienburg, the self-same station that the inmates of this concentration camp arrived in. They would have been met by SS and marched to the camp, a distance of just over 1 km. The houses along the road are detached dormer-type homes with shiny glazed roofs. The gardens, all well kept. The SS guards lived in these houses apparently the design exactly the same as in Dachau and Buchenwald.

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At the main entrance, Tower A. The gate has the grotesque and dishonest maxim ‘Work will set free!’. Work in this setting would never have set anyone free.

 

In this camp perhaps 250,000 passed through and between 60-70,000 were systematically murdered.

 

A tract of land excluded from the neighbouring town by the erection of a wall where more than death was planned and executed. A grand, terrifying scheme of torture, debasement and degradation was meted out here. Even the naming of the towers from A to Station Zed, the chamber of death was macabre. Terms like ‘execution trench’, ‘gas chamber’, and innocuous terms like ‘barrack’, ‘kitchen’, hospital’ were not and never were innocent or ordinary terms in this setting.

 

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The so called hospital where no Jew or gypsy was ever treated, served as the centre for experimentation on living human beings to intentionally and ruthlessly inject with disease whilst studying the nature of disease progression and testing for the elusive cure. How many people were subjected to this inhumane treatment and suffered and died too? A misuse of a dissecting table.

 

And there was a prison too, a prison in a concentration camp! The hierarchy of defilement meant that criminals, petty criminals were more valued as human beings and better treated and dealt less contumely than the true innocents- this was an unimaginable space of desecration of values- whatever hell is or the realm of perfidy, this place was it.

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Our guide, Pietro, a young Italian talked about Himmler, a vegetarian who was said to faint or puke at the sight of blood- yet, invented and elaborated an industrial system of murder. The system for murdering Russian soldiers was callous and cunning. First you deceive them to believe they are about to be released, next you spruce them up in a bath and shower and then ask them to stand against a wall to be measured for your new uniform but your killer fits a gun in a hole behind the base of your skull and fires to kill.

 

It was an ordinary day here at Sachsenhausen. The sky was blue and flawless. The sun was out and there was a gentle breeze. But in 1941, it was anything but. If you were not being punished, you were being tortured, or working or underfed, or sick, or being experimented upon. The odds were your life was at grave risk. Simply put you were likely to be willfully murdered by the SS.

 

It was the most dispiriting outing of my life. This is what we are capable of, us human beings.

 

In the evening we went to a jazz concert at B flat club. A trio led by a Russian guitarist, a student in Cologne was playing. It was very delicate music, not raucous, not introspective either. But, balanced and poised as if each note was a trapeze artist on the rope and the tension bobbed the wire up and down and steadied the next note. I had a glass of Portuguese red that I nursed all night long. Outside, when we came out, was still cool, even.

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Us miserable humans.

Photos by Jan Oyebode

Vallejo on the 1550 to Euston

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My train is hurtling towards Euston. It’s that time of the year when all the trees are freshly green and resplendent especially in the full afternoon sun. We’ve just gone past Rugby. There are no more stops before Euston.

The fields to my left have yellow buttercups bordered by Mayflowers. There’s the occasional hedge of vetch. A canal glistens as it too aims for London.

I’m not sure what Vallejo (1892-1938) would have made of a day like this, on a train such as this, travelling through countryside with black and white cows barely moving, like toy cattle on a make believe landscape.

Once he commented to a man “The sun has opened” and the man replied “Yes. A sweet and fallow sun”. This answer discomforted Vallejo because that’s exactly what he thought too. And another man said “Yes. A sweet and shallow sun”. Vallejo was nonplussed. The next man answered “Yes, very cloudy” and the last “A half-sun”.

Vallejo’s poetic sensibility wished to be unique, not at all like anyone else. He wanted to see what others could not, and also to find the right words for it. To his astonishment and chagrin he was not unique or special in his ability both to see the world and to accurately describe it.

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But, Vallejo could be said to have prompted these responses since his actual statement was unusual- it’s not everyday that someone, anyone says “The sun has opened”. Does it open like an umbrella or a door flooded with light? Is it more like a flower or mimosa recovering from being touched? There was in his statement an ambiguity that spoke to poetry, that questioned what we see and how we see and speak about it. And Vallejo is doing that all the time in his poetry.

In a prose poem ‘Sounds of the steps of a great criminal’ he wrote

When the switched off the light, I felt like laughing. In darkness things resumed their tasks where they had left them: in a face, the eyes lowered to the nasal conches and there they took an inventory of certain optic values that were lost, taking them immediately; […] three parallel raindrops stopped at the height of a threshold waiting for one that had been caught up, who knows why; the guard at the corner blew his nose noisily; the highest and lowest step of a winding staircase once again gestured to each other regarding the last passerby who went up them

Here in this poem, Vallejo is using darkness as a device to help us re-examine the world, to re-discover the reality of mundane, everyday objects and situations and to valorise them, making more visible, more poetic, if you wish.

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My first encounter with Vallejo was the poem ‘I am going to speak of hope’. The very first paragraph was arresting enough

I do not suffer this pain as Cesar Vallejo. I do not hurt now as an artist, as a man or even as a mere living being. I do not suffer this pain as a Catholic, as a Muslim, nor as an atheist. Today I simply suffer. Were my name not Cesar Vallejo, I would suffer this same pain […] Today I suffer from deep down. Today I simply suffer

I thought, here was a writer who understood how suffering, pain, sorrow could be both personal and yet not contingent on any identity markers. In melancholia, the agony is unbearable at once as being inexplicable. This is the territory that Vallejo traverses,

It is necessary to distinguish my actual pain from the pain that comes from having nothing to feel pain for. Today I suffer a pain without cause nor lack of cause. There are pains like this in the unfathomable kingdom, in the continent – without history or future – of man’s heart. I suffer, thus, without conditions or consequences

I suppose what drew me to his writing was realisation that he knew something of the distress that I was seeing everyday in the clinic, the deep and visceral disturbance of the humours, what the Ancients termed accidie. And that he was  finding the roundabout route to map and make it recognisable in the absence of unique words.

As my train drew into Euston, it was still a summer’s day. It was warm, bright and sunny. I was still travelling with Vallejo. As I stepped off the train behind a youngish woman and her two children, a boy of perhaps 8 and girl of 6, I overheard the mother say “I wish Trump would just die soon, except Mike Pence would take over and he’s said to be worse”. The boy, all 8 years of him, with the gravitas that innocence gives “But, he might not. He’s involved too, you know”.

I was surprised at the quality of political dialogue between mother and her precocious son. And, it took me straight back to Vallejo’s ‘The discovery of life’.

He wrote

[…] Gentlemen! Today is the first time that I am aware of the presence of life […] My joy comes from the newness of my excitement. My exultation is such because I had not felt the presence of life before. I have never felt it. Whoever says I have felt it lies. He lies, and his lies hurt me so deep, it would make me wretched. My joy comes from my faith in this personal discovery of life, and no one can contradict this faith. If someone did, his tongue would fall out, his bones will fall off …

He ends

Right now I don’t know anyone or anything. I find myself in a strange country in which everything acquires an emphasis of birth, a light of everlasting epiphany. No sir, do not speak to that gentleman. You have never met him and he would be surprised by such unexpected chat. Do not set foot on that little stone: who knows, it might not be a stone and you might fall into the void. Be cautious, for we are in a completely unknown world

Vallejo’s ability to marvel at the newly discovered world, to be full of awe, to be enthralled by the visible yet mundane everyday world, and to insist that we see the world as it is, pure and pristine, as it is given to us. And to avoid complacency, rust, and resignation. To see my 8-year old as a thoughtful, thinking being in discourse with his mother was indeed seeing a completely unknown world.

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Photos by Jan Oyebode

 

 

Octavio Paz and Me

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I don’t believe that I’ve told you how much I was influenced by Paz. Here was a writer who was constantly seeking the gap between what is real and known and that indefinable domain of the imagined and ephemeral. And in that gap, even though words too are deficient and far too inadequate to the task, he worked at metaphor, sought for compromises with language, in his effort to explore and define a treacherous and dangerous zone. He was an explorer of the netherlands.

When he said

I step on the newly rained earth, the smells sharp, the grass vivid. Silence stands erect and questions me. But I move forward, and plant myself in the centre of my memory. I breathe deeply this air charged with things to come. Swells of the future approach, rumours of conquests, discoveries and those sudden voids with which the unknown prepares its invasions.

That was me, reading the runes, trembling with the anxiety and excitement of youth. Reading those lines today, when I’m no longer young, in the final stages of life, there’s sorrow and disappointment, at what’s been lost not only about how little has accrued over time. The harvest is indeed meagre.

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In another poem, Paz said

I’ve spent the second part of my life breaking the stones, drilling the walls, smashing the doors and removing the obstacles I placed between the light and myself in the first part of my life.

Even though these lines are underlined in my copy of this book, I did not really understand his meaning- I was a mere 25 year old when I first read those words and the second half of life was hardly on the horizon.

I’m sitting under the dome of Grand Central, eating lunch on the run. It is a sunny first day of June outside. Everyone is out. The young women are dressed for the sun, bared shoulders, short skirts, lanky shaved legs, and hair flowing in the slight breeze. It’s the kind of breeze that’s a godsend to runners, only the barest of hint of leaves swaying on the branches of the May trees, spent flowers falling off slowly.

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Paz had a gift for turning the mundane into myth. An ordinary street in town in the afternoon heat becomes

The anthill erupts. The open wound gushes, foams, expands, contracts. The sun at these times never stops pumping blood, temples swollen, face red. A boy – unaware that, in some corner of puberty, fevers and a problem of conscience await him – carefully places a small stone on the flawed mouth of the anthill. The sun buries its lances in the humps of the plain, crushing promontories of garbage.

And, finally

I return to the plain, to the plain where it is always noon, where an identical sun shines fixedly on an unmoving landscape. And the ringing of the twelve bells never stops, nor the buzzing of the flies, nor the explosion of this minute that never passes, that only burns and never passes.

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In another poem, and these are prose poems, Paz writes once again about the sun, the solar stone that burns with incredible energy, the very one that inflames our world, and enlightens it-

The day unfolds its transparent body. Tied to the solar stone, the light pounds me with its great invisible hammers. I am only a pause between one vibration and the next: the living point, the sharp, quiet point fixed at the intersection of two glances that ignore each other and meet within me.

Paz is forever interrogating the self. Here is a prepubescent boy, if he is like me, he does not yet know of the problem of conscience. And I’m an adult, knowing it, has it done me any good? Especially that I’m mere moment, mere transient point in space, in other words ephemera!

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He is ever dealing in the interstitial yet to be uncovered truth- a simple act like a touch for Paz is at once problematic and serious. It signals where the physical meets the imagined and tenuous

My hands

Open the curtains of your being

Clothe you in a further nudity

Uncover the bodies of your body

My hands

Invent another body for your body.

 

He is saying that in that caress that pleases and awakens lurks another caress, a seeking after an elusive body, maybe of a lover, a mistress, maybe only of the longed for desired other.

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It is always remarkable that anyone, but particularly myself, finds himself in the writings of another person, one who is 37 years older, who speaks Spanish and lives in Mexico. But that is the magic and thrall of literature. When Paz says

He invented a face for himself.

Behind it,

He lived, died, and resurrected,

Many times,

His face today

Has the wrinkles of that face.

His wrinkles have no face

he is addressing the public face that I wear, that secretes its darkness and moist undergrowth behind smiles and silk. Paz is knocking on the door that is locked and barricaded for fear of the ruthless crowd who lurk and prey on the vulnerabilities of the self. That face, that door is veiled in the wrinkles of age and weariness.

Paz knows deeply indeed that every thing that we encounter in the world but everything, reality as we call it, is inside of us, tremulous and opaque, dissipating before we can capture it and is fleeting like time itself, and treacherous if not a perilous adventure into self.

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Photos by Jan and Femi Oyebode

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