Friday, July 11, 2014

Back To The Source

18th July 2014


Who knows what is going to spark and take flame for a writer.  It can be the most mundane of things, like a red wheel barrow beside white can be the look on the face of a child, or a host of golden daffodils. It can and very often is place.  Commonly for ex-pats it is place. For me it is this place. When I am  drifting off to sleep, this is the bridge I walk over, the image that settles into my bones and connects me like an umbilical. I grew up in this place, surrounded by cows and fields and sea, looking across the bay to the floating islands of the Hebrides. Like some fictional character myself, I wandered in my teens through the forests to hilltops where I would stand like Julie Andrews with my arms outstretched, my clothes billowing crazily like flags on a pole. I was the place and the place was me. Eleven O'Clock at night in the summer when you could see yourself in moon shadows, I would stop at the cattle grid at the end of our lane, not wanting to break the spell.

So, if I love this place so much, why did I ever leave it?  Why does a child rebel and reject the home it needs? When I was a young child, my grandparents lived in Harwich, Essex, a port in England from which huge ferries leave all day for the ocntinent. I used to stand at the end of my grandparents street, watching the ferries leave and experiencing an inkling of something that would become a bit of an affliction for me, and for which German has a wonderful word: Fernweh. It has equivalent in English, and it means the longing for far away places.  As the saying goes, however, "you can take the girl out of Scotland, but you can't take Scotland out of the girl. 
It's a bit like that song by Dougie MacLean, Caledonia: Let me tell you that I love you, that i think about you all the time. Caledonia, you're calling me and now I am going home.....

So here I am again. The summer brought me back. It's been calling me back, and I am getting worse at ignoring the call. There is too much of me stamped in this place, too much of it stamped in me. I am becoming ill at ease anywhere else.  Like Emily Bronte out of Yorkshire, something is withering at the heart.  

If Music Be The Food...

11th July 2014

All summer long Aspen enjoys a much celebrated music festival. Like everything else Aspen it is expensive, but if you go about it right, you can enjoy fantastic music all summer long for a song (so to speak.) And it is so important to get music into your life, because as Victor Hugo said, "Music expresses that which cannot be said and on which it is impossible to be silent." Music is the vehicle; the human heart is the freight. So, get chugging. If the spectrum of human creativity stretches from physics at one end through writing and poetry as you get to the opposite end, it ends with music. Whereas good poetry almost bypasses the intellect, music lies beyond the reach of intellect altogether, which is why it is so powerful. It gets you at the quick.
To beat a well worn gong of mine: modern art, including modern music, has lost sight of that maxim, and so we run into the thinking of the artist instead of the non-speaking zone. Modern poetry has lost its proximity to music, which is why it has also given up on rhyme. The tradition in modern poetry has been to mimic the spoken word, and so it has lost its musicality. It's a good thing music can't lose its musicality - or can it? Listen to Benjamin Britten and you might think otherwise. Last year Aspen music festival did a run on Britten to celebrate his centenary, and there were so many complaints (and not just because people are being unimaginative - think of the Emperor's Clothes) but because it doesn't chime with the upward beat of the heart.
Kahlil Gibran said, "Music is the language of the spirit."  This year, to make up, the festival laid on some favourites: I just went to hear Beethoven's 5th. Oh yes, it is an old chesnutty piece, but people fill the tent. Yesterday I went to hear Joshua Bell play Bruch's violin concerto, and I thought I might bleed all over the floor. Why? A woman I know met me outside the tent and placed her hand over her heart. "Oh," she said, "the music." Yes, the music.  Every time I sit through one of these pieces, my eyes well up, though I remain doggedly determined not to let a tear fall. Why? It's embarrassing; we live in an age of stony silence. Sentiment is highly suspect. People would think me over the top. I am over the top. Always have been. Bleeding is the thing I do best. But I am a Brit who should have been born an Italian and then the tears would have been able to flow, and I wouldn't be in this battle between feeling and decorum. Bruch's violin concerto takes a dagger and plunges it into the heart. It makes me cry. What can I say? It makes other people cry, too. So it is doing the job of the unspeakable art. It is speaking to the ragged heart.

When I signed a copy of my book for a music teacher recently, I wrote in the inscription: "Yes, but music is better."
I am told there is a statue of Mozart in Salzburg with the inscription Die Macht der Musik (I like that in German both power and music are feminine - sometimes languages give much away!) The Power of Music. Like I told my teacher friend, music is still the best, the thing on our armour that shines the brightest.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Dead Poets

August 1st 2014

All over Britain are remnants of the Celtic people who first inhabited these shores. With various invasions of other cultures, the Romans and then the Angles and Saxons, they got pushed out to the western-most fringes. So you have small Gaelic-speaking populations in Cornwall, England's south westerly point, Wales and the west coast of Scotland and the islands.  Dylan Thomas belonged to such a population, and I do, too, which is maybe why the man sends me into raptures and why I have made my way down to his home town of Swansea for the celebration of his centenary.  

A few days ago, I was heading north to Stonehaven in Scotland when I drove past a sign for the Grassic Gibbon centre and knew I would have to drive back to investigate. Lewis Grassic Gibbon is another of my heroes, because he took the Scottish landscape and made of it a character in his novels, the best of which is "Sunset Song."  This is Scottish literature at its best, not just that the author happens to be Scottish but in which the land is allowed to speak. That longing the author feels for the landscape of his childhood draws the reader in on the level of soull. It literally sings on the page.
Dylan Thomas did this for southern Wales and for the dreamy state of childhood. It is a profound human state, one that turns the writer in exile forever back to the land of his or her birth. And it's what makes you sad when you visit it. The longing can never be sated, and you are sent away again back to the place you live now restless and aching for the ineffable dream.

Dunadd 2

 25th July 2014

At Dunadd where my book is set and where I am staying just now, the Scottish Trust has mounted new plaques describing more of the history of the place. Good timing, I say - look at this one with an artist's depiction of how Dunadd might have looked in the time period I am writing about.


Well, it's only an artist's imagination, and my imagination didn't put a large building on the top, though everything else is pretty much the same. On the top of my 8thC Dunadd, is Sula the druidess's house, because their pagan religion was more than likely woman-centered, even though they would have allowed the men to hold positions of apparent power. This is the way matriarchal societies work, keeping it quiet who is really ordering the way things play out. DH Lawrence wrote a wonderful short essay about this called, "Cocksure men, hensure women." At the glass doors of my Dunadd cottage are five brown chickens waiting for me to scatter another handful of oats. They are all female. You can't have cockerels around holdiay cottages because they start crowing at ungodly hours of the morning. They are male and like to strut their stuff. As long as men are allowed to strutt their stuff, everything goes along smoothly and they won't question the real policy makers. That's why I put Sula the druidess in the highest poistion - she was up there looking out for her people.

Friday, July 4, 2014

Celebrating Independence

July 4th, 2014

When you live in a foreign country, some of the holidays leave you a little bewildered. I can never remember which end of summer Memorial Day or Labor Day falls. Presidents Day is for celebrating presidents, I guess, good or bad.  Thanksgiving is a whole story in itself and when I first came to this country I refused to celebrate it in deference to the Native Americans and the hyprocrisy of celebrating a people whose help you sought and then turned around and eliminated. But I eventually had to concede, because whatever its roots, it is nowadays a celebration of family and get-togethers, so how can you fault that?
Today, Fourth of July, puts me in the awkward position of living among a nation that is celebrating the absence of British people like myself.
Valentines Day is the same here, but different. In Britain, Valentines is only for lovers or would-be lovers. None of this sending your mother a Valentines card, because that would just be downright weird. Growing up, it was the day no one sent you a card because no one fancied you. Even though you waited all day for a Valentines card to pop up in unexpected places, or a declaration of love from out of the blue, nothing came but the sorry realisation that love was not on the cards. The song by Janis Ian called 17 must have been written on just such a day.
And then being an ex-pat, I miss the holidays I have had to give up. There's Guy Fawkes, pretty hypocritical itself, that celebrates the government in Westminster, which for reasons of nationality, I have come to regard as Westmonster. It's our bonfire and fireworks day, magical for a child whose birthday was only two days down the road. Autumn just needs a bonfire - the smells all go together - and that is ours.
And then there's good old Boxing Day. Come on, folks, you can't have Christmas Day and then back to work as usual. You need a buffer zone. You need Boxing Day so you can do the whole thing (minus the presents) over again.  All the family that you didn't necessarily want over on Christmas Day can come and have another round of turkey and Christmas pud.
Then there's those spurious holidays, like Halloween and Easter, so obviously pagan, but ones the church tried to dress up in monkish outfits to varying degrees of success.  What does anyone think rolling eggs down a hill or celebrating little chicks and rabbits is all about? Tack on a cross and you've got hot cross buns, but it ain't anything to do with Christianity.

Halloween - well, they tried (All Hallows Eve), but there's not much you can do about a celebration of witches and ghouls. It was and ever shall be the Day of the Dead, the time when the veil between the living and the dead gets thin enough for a person to peer through. In Gaelic it is Samhain, and it figures in my novel series a lot. I have neighbours that call it The Devil's Birthday. Well, maybe it is, but The Horned One was a benevolent fellow in the pagan way of looking at things, and so was the witch.  Same goes for the black cat, for Pete's sake, whoever Pete may be. All of these icons got stood on their heads by the church, so I don't mind celebrating the birthday of the Horned God, no matter what country I live in.
I'll take Halloween and Boxing Day. The rest can go to the devil.