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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Photos by Jan Oyebode
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Photos by Jan Oyebode
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.
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.
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.
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.
Us miserable humans.
Photos by Jan Oyebode
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.
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.
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’.
[…] 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 …
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.
Photos by Jan Oyebode
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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
Open the curtains of your being
Clothe you in a further nudity
Uncover the bodies of your body
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.
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.
He lived, died, and resurrected,
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.
Photos by Jan and Femi Oyebode
It takes 11 years for Titan Arum to grow from a seedling to this remarkable 2 m fleshy spike and 3 m circumference of leaf-like structure. And, there we were standing before one of these monsters, barely 48 hours away from the spectacular inflorescence. The inflorescence itself lasts 48 hours if you’re lucky and is accompanied by the smell of rotting corpses that ants, bees and flies can detect 3 miles downwind and humans from a mile away. When all is expended, the spike turns into a glorious tumescent growth of red brightly coloured seeds, showy and inviting.
A good way to think of this is to imagine a man spread-eagled on his back and lying on the damp earth, his buttocks the bulb immersed in the ground and his limbs the spathe, the leaf like structures when they’re expired and his genitals the gigantic, titanic spadix all erect and at attention. But, you will have to magnify this vision several fold to get anywhere close to the reality of a titan of the tropical forests of Sumatra.
I overheard some close by flies saying -one of my ancestors came here in the crate from Sumatra with this one and he told us of the legendary smell that is worth dying for. Another cousin said his ancestors had remarked that not since the Battle of the Somme had the earth produced such effulgence and that was marred by tragedy whereas the Titan, well that is all glory, it is life pretending to be dead. And another fly boasted how his ancestors nestled in the spathe, delirious with ecstasy, feted and sated, were ready once more to breed ivory maggots. What were the chances of any fly witnessing this unique inflorescence anywhere in Europe, if not for the magnanimity of the Eden project?
We were spending the last day of our holidays at the Eden Project. Everything after the Titan was of a different scale. The begonias with their purple and green leaves, the purple flowers of periwinkle or the white flowered variety, black pepper plants with their light green leaves and climbing vines, the deeply green leaves of coffee plants and delicate, ultra sensitive mimosa, these were like afterthoughts after the impending inflorescence of the Titan.
I came across a snowbush, with their green leaves that were brushed and stained by pretend snow. We had a hedge of these in my youth, in Lagos and did not know that this here plant was a parody of snow. Perhaps the shampoo ginger came closest to Titan with its eye catching red torch but perhaps not.
The planet has survived 5 previous mass extinctions! That’s food for thought. We are sleepwalking towards another cataclysm, this time manmade and masterminded by the Great Leader. All this glory, the wonderful and indescribable plurality of life put at jeopardy for a few bucks. That’s another form of tragedy.
We had arrived to stay at Duloe Manor just a few days ago. Lewis Carroll wrote parts of Alice in Wonderland here. We were not staying at the main house, at the manor but in one of the many cottages on the grounds. We arrived on a bright sunny spring day. The light was exactly as it is in Provence- soft with a lucid quality that lights up everything.
Our first walk was from the manor to the medieval stone circle in the fields nearby. Even though we could see the stones we could not immediately find a path to them. We stopped to watch a country/village cricket match. We skirted round the match and walked on the marked footpath- there were pink and white campion everywhere also, primroses, lady’s smock, dandelions, buttercups and bluebells. Overhead, rooks were cawing and flying in and out of their nests.
Very quickly the sun disappeared behind the clouds and what had been a pleasant day quickly turned cool as the temperature dropped, as if the wind sweeping in from the coast was pushing it further down. We did not go far, perhaps 2 miles and turned right round back to the manor.
On May Day we drove to Kingsand and walked through to Cawsand. It had rained without stop all of 2 days, almost. We walked up the coastal path, 4 miles of it in a drizzle that did not falter. The view out to sea, from up the path was grey and seen as if through a fine gauze. The cove beneath was picturesque. And across the bay, two yachts were out with their sails open. The coastal path was bordered by vetch, ferns that were not yet fully unfurled, a carpet of bluebells covered the valley floor. There were the occasional ‘white bells’ too. Again there were campion, both white and pink.
We were out to see the annual Black Prince Flower Boat Festival parade from Millbrook through Kingsand and ending in Cawsand. We had lunch at the Halfway House. Back at Kingsand the children had gathered round a maypole and were dancing with bright coloured ribbons. With each dance, the ribbons formed a pattern on the Maypole. Each dance was choreographed to create an even more exquisite pattern of plaits at the top of the maypole.
Then the Town Crier called us to order and read from an ancient scroll – the May floribunda would banish the gloom of winter and welcome in the summer, except that it was a cold damp day, hardly auspicious for summer’s start. He prayed too for a successful harvest season from land and sea. Six naval ratings picked up the Flower Boat with 2 walking behind and we set off from Kingsand.
At our first stop, two groups of Morris dancers performed- an older group wearing black trousers, white shirts, black hats and the other group, younger by far, dressed in light blue jeans, white shirts or blouses and were riotous. The young revolutionaries enacted a conflict in Plymouth between the aldermen and freemen. At the Halfway House Inn, more Morris dancing by the young revolutionaries enacting the 12th century conflict between Cornwall and the French- there was much attack and repel in this dance.
Behind us was a young man with a hidden camel hump of cider connected by pipe to a tap. He mucked about pretending to piss the cider from in between his legs whilst at the same time being free with his drink. In his company were two young women dressed as green men- in frocks decked in leaves and their faces were painted in green and glitter. An acquaintance lamented being a family man now and far too old to lark about in green costume, getting inebriated on cider.
W had been out 4 hours. We drove back to Duloe along the most treacherously narrow lanes in Cornwall, winding along the coast’s precipitous cliffs and the utter beauty of the valleys suddenly opening up as we turned a corner to reveal rounded and green hills with the grey sky and bluish grey and steel coloured sea in the distance.
New words are some of the most priceless discoveries of these trips away. At Kingsand, the house names- Moonfleet, Seagarth, Seaview, Tamarisk and Spindrift made concrete and new what was already old and known. At Carnglaze caverns, it was the names of fossils, stones and minerals that made it for me- silicates, phyllosilicates, cenartz, fluorites, chinastone, feldspar, orthoceras, amethyst, red haematite, deep dark purplish morion quartz, and black zinc blende.
The cathedral cavern had rust red walls that were also brown, yellow, orange or a different shade of red. The baby pool was turquoise and the mother pool was shimmering with ripples that fanned out. Our walk through the enchanted dell with faeries and azaleas and rhododendrons in bloom was strangely enchanting.
We went to Golitha falls, where the river Fowey cascaded down 90 feet from its source at the Brown Willy on Bodmin Moor right down to Fowey where it entered the sea. The river flowed and meandered through gorse and grass, bluebells, lichen and moss. Right here at Golitha falls the birds twittered and this was the backdrop to the indescribable gurgling of the river running over rocks, splashing through cracks and openings and then splayed out in spray and spume.
To end the day we drove up to Bodmin moor along the river. There was gorse everywhere. The moor looked as if it had been sprayed or sprinkled with red gold that shone in the late evening light. The brilliance was like an outpouring of song in church. We stopped for a drink at Jamaica Inn and from up there we could see the top of the moorland around, perfectly rounded, perfectly stretching out to the valleys below.
Then it was time for the seaside at Seaton beach, a grey-coloured sandy beach. It was a medium sized bay with a café at one end and the start of a promenade at the other end. It was impossible to walk bare-footed on the stony beach. Out to sea we could see Looe snuggling into the hillside and the vast ocean just going out into the forever. Inland was Seaton valley itself. The trees up the valley were all fresh with delicate newly sprouted green leaves. Then even more gorse in clumps of yellow like giant pollen dusted on the horizon.
At Polperro harbor we came across the most perfect natural harbor ever. There was a long inlet into the harbor proper. The homes on one side were exactly as you would imagine a harbor- cottages cramped together, white washed with the odd blue or black splash of color. Narrow and intimate spaces crying out for smugglers and wenches. We stopped for drinks at the Blue Peter Inn, a small pub on the first floor just round from the harbor. The ceiling was black oak, low narrow beams with sayings- ‘Beer was invented so ugly people can get laid’; ‘the more people I meet, the more I love my dog’; ‘I would argue with you, but then we would both be wrong’. The barmaids were a trio of one brunette with shades on her head, one blonde in jeans and a blue jersey and a third older blonde and still comely. They were all cheerful.
We are now safely home. Some 150 miles back in the Midlands and the sun is out. I am sure that the Titan Arum would be its majestic self today and maybe, just maybe if I put my head outdoors I might just catch a whiff of its magnificent smell of decay. Death is just there in the undergrowth of life.
Photos by Jan Oyebode & Femi Oyebode