So Vast A Distance


moon 2

An English guy I was sharing a taxi from the airport with told me this story about his mother. Great storyteller. Hard not to listen to him. He had one of those rich, brown voices and it was a sort of ghost story. I could see the taxi-driver leaning back in his seat so as not to miss a word…Anyway this is what he told me in that James Mason voice of his:

Valerie, my mother, he said , had reached the stage where she had to be put into sheltered housing. She was becoming increasingly deaf but poo-pooed the suggestion that being fitted with a discreet  hearing aid would improve her social life and without her glasses she was blind as a bat so if she mislaid them they remained mislaid. When the phone went and I saw who it was I guessed (usually correctly) that she needed me to find them for her, had probably spent hours groping on and under chairs and cushions in a fruitless search for them. Not that she called very oftenShe’s a very independent lady, dislikes being what she called ‘a burden’ to anyone.  It must be like taking your dog for a walk, she told me  the last time we went for a very slow stroll round the park.
Her new flat was only a 5-minute drive away. If you have any problems, just call me, I told her. Anything at all just give me a call. Seriously. Anything at all.
You’ve done quite enough for me already, she said. I’ll be fine.

The first night on her own in her new flat she called.
Richard, she said, her voice little more than a whisper.
I’m hearing voices, she said.
From the street? I asked. From the neighbours’ flat?
No.
Have you switched your computer off?
No reply.
Have you checked that you haven’t just left the TV on?
No reply. I could hear her rapid breathing.
From where then?
You’ll think I’m losing my mind.
From where?
From the ceiling.
Oh

I switched on the bedside lamp. It was 3 am.
What are the voices saying?
Voice, she said. A woman’s voice.
What’s she saying? I asked. It was 3 am. and I was tired.
Richard, she’s frightening me, she said. She  knows who I am. She knows my name.
That woke me up. She’s not the type to imagine things. But a voice emanating from the ceiling…..
This woman, what is she saying? Is she saying something nasty?
The same thing over and over.
What same thing? There was a pause then her voice dropped even lower. A little less than a whisper.
Hello Valerie. 

Hello Valerie?
Yes, my mother said with a quiver in her voice. That’s what she says. That’s all she says. Hello Valerie. Over and over again. Hello Valerie. Hello-
Okay, I said. I could hear her panic. I’ll be round in quarter of an hour, I told her. Don’t worry. Trust me, there’ll be some simple explanation.
When I got there I quickly located the voice.
Right enough, it came from the ceiling.
It was the smoke alarm’s automated voice saying  L o w   B a t t e r y  at 15 minute intervals.

When I got home I told this story to my Mary but either I told it badly or I screwed up the ending or something. Any how she didn’t find it funny. It’s one of these Reader’s Digest urban myths, she said, not even looking up from her computer. Like the legend that Kennedy made a trip to Germany in the 60′s and in a speech in Berlin, trying to win over the crowd,  he told them, “Ich bin ein Berliner”.  According to the myth however, a “Berliner” is also a type of  doughnut so the crowd just laughed at him. They thought he was telling them, ‘I am a doughnut’.
She finished whatever she was doing on the computer and  looked up at me. What do you think? Fact or fiction?  She shook her head. 
All nonsense, she said. Fiction. Fantasy. All of it. I’m surprised that people let themselves be taken in by that sort of stuff.
I just shrugged. She says the same thing about my religion – Fiction. Fantasy. All nonsense.

A hot bath and a generous glass of Glenmorangie later, I went for a stroll round the garden, watched the stars, heard a skein of geese honking their V-shaped way to wherever, whatever, somewhere South…..
Summer where have you gone?
And what was the name of that James Mason film with the Hungarian guy on the zither and Orson Welles coming out of the shadows to ask what have the peace-loving Swiss ever done apart from invent the cuckoo clock? (Which they didn’t; it was the Germans, according to Mary when I asked her what the film was called. It was called The Third Man she informed me. And James Mason wasn’t in it. Joseph Cotton was. And the Hungarian zither player was called Anton Karas. And…..)

I sometimes wonder how a husband and wife can become separated by so vast a distance.

Learning a language



I was standing at the long bar in the Museo de Jamon in Madrid,  half-lifting an arm, half-opening my mouth in a vain attempt to catch the bartender’s eye when the Spaniard beside me, either out of pity or irritation, told me that to activate a waiter in Spain you simply called out Oiga, and forthwith demonstrated how it was done.
Oiga. The bartender responded immediately. No offence taken; none given.
The man went on to tell me that he could identify the nationality of  people by the way they entered a bar. The English, he said, stop as soon as they’ve crossed the threshold, look round sort of helplessly, fiddle with their tie (this was long ago when men wore ties), wait to be told what to do next.
So the next time I was in a bar I walked straight to the counter and tried out the Oiga gambit. The waiter seemed quite comfortable with it (although I wasn’t!).
To me it was like shouting  Oi to a perfect stranger.  Probably a class thing. A middle-class language thing…. I wonder if you would be good enough to pass the salt, please….sorry to trouble you, sorry to disturb the universe….

poppies spain PRINT good

When we were having a stroll in the Spanish Pyrenees one summer, we passed/were passed by other walkers and, as is the way of hill walkers, greeted/were greeted with a friendly Hola. So we decided to perfect our pronunciation of this one word greeting, replicating the Spanish stress, tone, intonation and pitch rather than simply saying  Hola with the English stress etc.  of  Hello.
It was surprisingly difficult. It made me think how much information you convey with a simple greeting. About class, age, personality, sexuality…..

Going back to my schooldays, I remember my excellent French teacher, Miss Yuill, telling us about the mysterious French sense of humour where foreigners were concerned.
” It was a picnic, ” she said, ” une pique-nique, beside a field of poppies on the hillside above the beautiful town of Collioure, famous for all the artists who painted there…..how many of you have heard of Matisse?……Good. Picasso?……. André Derain… There is something so special about the bright, clear light in Collioure.  Derain, who was Matisse’s friend, said that ‘Collioure has no shadows’. Can you imagine such a pure light?”
She paused, and gave a little smile, remembering.
” Anyhow it was a beautiful, warm sunny day, ” she went on, ” and we were having a picnic and Jean-Pierre had just passed me one of these French cakes that are so light, so delicious… ” She smiled again, then frowned.  “When  out of the blue,  à l’improviste, a wasp descended on the back of my hand and I leapt to my feet and shook it off and cried out ‘Dites donc! Un guêpe!’ And you know what? Everyone laughed. Yes, everyone laughed and I was so embarrassed, so hurt…..And you know what they found so funny? You know why Monique and Jean-Pierre and all these lovely people laughed at me?”
She paused and looked down  at her hands. We waited. She sighed and looked up.
Une guêpe. Silly old me. Not un guêpe. Une guêpe. Une guêpe!”
The class was silent. She sounded so angry with herself.  Or with her remembered self. All that time ago. Thirty, forty years. And still so hurt. Still so angry.

A Handful of Similes



dun t

Lonely as a truck on a siding in the Czech Republic

twa dugs Embra

Dispirited as 2 patiently waiting dogs outside the Weston Link in Edinburgh


BeggarMiserable as a  Glasgow beggar in the rain

behind bars

 Friendly as a tail-wagging terrier behind bars in Blairgowrie


Donald

Lithe as an early-riser in Iona

Jasc Ponte 4pic CanvasPreoccupied as a boy with his finger in his ear in France


Main Street, Stromness, May2011Empty as the main Street in Stromness

em 6k

 Happy as a Festival crowd in Edinburgh

Constant Companionship


 
 
 
z-lunan-07-10-2011-01-09-00          After twenty years or so
 
         of constant companionship
 
         he had said
 
         all he had to say to her
 
         but he still went on talking
 
         although years and years ago
 
         she had stopped listening.

Scottish Independence Day 18 September 2014


                         “Should Scotland be an independent country?”

du 7

YES yes

 

                      “Should Scotland be an independent country?”

du 8a

 NO no

 

Today Scotland has to make a choice  between becoming a responsible, grown-up nation,
with all that that entails
or staying put, safe, dependent,
with all that that entails….

(Result: Yes …….45%                                                No………55%)

MIGRANTS


Laz MU

We sailed from  Muhii to Cloijo then on to Iglan Porto, picking up what was left of the  Lete people. They were overjoyed to see us. Heroic survivors, they all had stories  to tell – tales of betrayal, lies, theft, promises, brutality, suffering….how they had managed to avoid/outwit the rogue soldiers  left behind from last year’s failed rebellion….  how some of the soldiers were  mere children but children with guns…how it was their own people who had robbed and betrayed them….how once the traffickers had your money that was it as far as they were concerned.
One of the Lete people, in overalls and tennis shoes, tall, well-spoken,  said she was blind, and to take them to Iglan Maché she had hired a guide who had abandoned them as soon as they left Trasmont.  It had taken  her  and her son a year to get as  far as this.

And cost her all the money she had, no doubt. And you’re not there yet, lady, I thought. Not by a long chalk.
” We’ll soon be there, ” I told her.
She was accompanied by a small boy, ten? eleven? who held her hand in both of his and looked fiercely up at me whenever I spoke. Who was looking after who it was difficult to say.
” We’ll be in Mervidia in a couple of days, ” I told her.
” I have some money, ” she said brightly, producing from her overalls for my inspection a thick wad of notes.
The old currency.

” Take it, ” she insisted, almost pleading.

I closed her hand over her valueless money.  “What’s your name?” I asked the boy who turned away from me and pressed himself against his mother’s legs.
” Take it, ” she insisted. ” If  it’s not enough, tell me. I have more. ”
” Put it away, ” I said quietly, aware we were being watched. They all put their faith in money, these people.  Money was their rock. With money you could escape to freedom. With money you could bribe the soldiers, guards, inspectors, drivers, police. With money there was nothing you couldn’t do. Without it  you were at the mercy of  the evil people who wished you harm. That was the way their thinking went.

The final crossing from Iglan Potro to Mervidia was the tricky part – if the pirates didn’t sneak up on you then the weather would. Luckily it seemed the pirates had other fish to fry and the black storm clouds hovering over Muhii  finally made up their mind to deprive us of their company for a bit and vanished  South. Blown off the map. Our map anyway. But there is always something new, something unexpected to grapple with on that particular crossing either in the treacherous, turquoise waters of Iglan Potro  or the deceptive cerulean blues around  Mervidia. When the strong eastward current rushes through the Mervidian gap and encounters an opposing east wind, this has the effect of building up  monster waves.

The wave that got us wasn’t 100 ft. tall but it was tall enough, tall enough and steep enough and fast enough. Suddenly from nowhere we were confronted by this  roaring glistening wall of green water.
Nothing  I could do except shout warnings just before it hit us, shout out orders that were immediately drowned in the water’s roar.
Down the boat went at first into a deep deep trough that preceded the wave then everything went quiet and we were being lifted up then just as quickly thrown back down, such a long long way down….. 

The first thing I saw when I opened my eyes was the startled face of the little boy close to mine. As soon as I opened my eyes he was gone. I sat up. He was standing close to his mother who was facing out to sea although being blind it wouldn’t matter in which direction she was facing. He was tugging at her hand and saying something to her but she didn’t move.There were others strung out along the beach but not too many, not more than half the number who had set out with us from Iglan Porto.

After a bit I got to my feet. No broken bones. No  cuts.  No bruises. Even to be still alive was a miracle.
I walked slowly along the beach to the woman and child. ” Are you all right?” I asked them.
The little boy looked up at me then pressed his face against his mother’s legs. Without shifting her sightless gaze from the sea, she gently held him against her and said dully, “It’s all right.  I have some money.”

SIGNS and MESSAGES


Notice in a student kitchen:


sign bm

The indignant voice of John Knox lives on in Edinburgh:

sign v

A Glasgow road sign no doubt trampled underfoot in the rush:

Byres Road sign

Dull & Boring

Dull is a small, one-street village in Perthshire on the North side of the river Tay; Boring, in Oregon, has a population of 8,000. They got together in 2012.

Ab 7

I came across this existential/defiant/plaintive fading statement on a wall in France:

j'existe 6

A sarcastic sign:

crash 2

A plaque on the wall of a house in Lerwick, Shetland:

Mrs Humphrey's

A security-conscious Christmas card:

Xmas card

An Asian alleyway in Lerwick, Shetland:

ORK THURSO 025

A reassuring neon sign outside Edinburgh’s Modern Art Gallery:

sign ok

Music Makers


According to William Congreve, music hath powers to soothe the savage breast . The white piano below is soothing savage breasts in the Scottish Arts & Antiques Centre.
Abernyte.
Last  Sunday afternoon.
Chopin.
Nocturne Op 9 No. 2.
According to Chopin’s lover,  Amantine-Lucile-Aurore Dupin (aka George Sand ),  “There is only one happiness in life, to love and be loved “.
They went to Mallorca together but alas alas didn’t find the one happiness in life there.
Or anywhere.
Jane Stirling, daughter of the  Laird of Kippendavie, was the other important woman in Chopin’s life.
She supported him emotionally and financially in his last years.
He dedicated a couple of  his Nocturnes to her.

DSCN1960 mnWhat’s a sitar player doing in Sauchiehall Street?
Glaswegians stop to stare; some even stop to listen to this usually 17-stringed instrument although its name comes from the Persian sehtar meaning three-stringed.
After its popularity in the 50s because of the playing and teaching of Ravi Shankar, the sitar was taken up by George Harrison then incorporated in the Beatles range of instruments ( ” Norwegian Wood”, “Within You Without You”, “Tomorrow never knows” ).anna 7  A woman playing the bagpipes! Whatever next?
She was playing a pibroch at the Waverley Station corner in Princes Street, a spot favoured by bagpipers although at Festival time, they can be found (and heard ) in any available doorway.Embra eoilLike this one.
Reminding  passers-by of Scotia’s past glories.
Unlike the lady piper, this piper has gone for the full Highland military regalia – the horsehair sporran, the white hose tops, the buckled belt, the glengarry….
In the First World War, there were 2,500 pipers whose task was to be first over the top, leading their regiment towards the enemy trenches.
1,000 were killed.
The bravest of the brave.

em bAgain at Festival time in Edinburgh you can find street performers like these two – the one-man band and his unadored but adoring assistant.
The servile clown and the narcissitic  performer are a common duo (in life as on the stage): Beckett’s Pozzo & Lucky come to mind;  and Fellini’s Zampano & Gelsomino.
In   La  Strada,  Zampano ( the circus strong man played by Anthony Quinn) is supported by Gelsomino (the circus clown, played by Fellini’s wife, Giuletta Masino). Symbiotic relationships.
Coulrophobia (fear of clowns) is commonly found in children  (Krusty in The Simpsons, isn’t exactly a barrel of laughs).
The white-faced clown originates from the performances of Joseph Grimaldi.
And as for the comic-relief red nose….? Who knows.festttA young blue-shirted quintet in Edinburgh’s High Street find a site with good acoustics outside St. Giles Cathedral to play their mixture of  classical and modern.
They were very good.em 8A musical trio in a Lanzarote bar play quiet Canary music I was hearing for the first time.laz cbv” O when the saints…”
A Portuguese band in Dundee who played lively music  from the 60s and 70s.
They  moved from town to town – Glasgow  to day, Edinburgh tomorrow.
They were good musicians and their music brought a vivid touch of the Mediterranean to  Scotland’s grey city streets and squares.
Note Desperate Dan in the background.

Dundee

 

 The man that hath no music in himself,
nor is not moved with concord of sweet sounds,
is fit for treasons, stratagems and spoils;
the motions of his spirit are dull as night
and his affections dark as Erebus:
Let no such man be trusted. Mark the music

Nightmare


miss_jessel_

She followed the little girl’s gaze
or thought she did
and saw
or thought she saw,
the nightmare  woman
just for a second,
out of the corner of her eye,
there,
on the island,
across the water,
standing rigidly still
there
among the tall straight bulrushes
rigidly still
in such a severe
such a severe black dress,
not watching
not waiting
not anything
just there then

                                                                   

                                                                                                                                    not there

 

miss_jessel_the_innocents mm

LORD JIM, SCHETTINO and LEE JOON-SEOK


LORD JIM, SCHETTINO and LEE JOON-SEOK

In ‘Lord Jim’  by Joseph Conrad, Jim, a romantic who had always dreamed of fame and recognition, is an officer on board the PATNA, a ship taking Muslims to Mecca. Out of the blue, his chance to be a hero came…and went:
In the night the ship shuddered – as if  it had hit some submerged object – panic and chaos ensued.
Jim found himself at the rails looking down to see the captain and some of the other officers clambering into a lifeboat. They made signs for him to join them and before he knew what was happening he found himself in the water beside the boat.
He had jumped.
The rest of his life was an attempt to erase, atone for, put behind him this instinctive act of panic/cowardice, this jump from duty, this loss of honour.
In Conrad when a character ‘jumps’ – acts impulsively – it invariably leads to disaster.

It’s a book I’ve read and re-read and found it becoming all too real in the recent  news account of what happened to the cruise liner Costa Concordia off the tiny island of Giglio with characters who might have stepped straight out of Conrad’s pages: – Francesco Schettino, the showboating captain who sailed too close to the island, ran onto rocks then in the confusion that followed abandoned the stricken ship, breaking the moral code that naval officers live by; Gregorio De Falco, the Livorno coastguard, becomes the voice of outraged decency. When Schettino made a belated distress call from the safety of the lifeboat, De Falco showed his contempt for the captain’s betrayal of the moral code that naval officers live by:  “Get back on board for fuck sake! There are already bodies, Schettino. Go!”
And when Schettino said he couldn’t do anything because it was dark and “all the officers are on the rescue boat with me” De Falco asked
Why did you allow them to get off?”
” We abandoned ship, ” Schettino said.
With 100 people still on board you abandoned ship?”  De Falco yelled. “  Vada a bordo, cozzo!

A year later, 15 April, 2014, close to Jeju island, the SEWOL, a ferry boat carrying 476 passengers, mostly school children on a 4 day field-trip, capsized and sank with the 69 year old captain in his cabin leaving an inexperienced 25 year old 3rd mate at the helm. The ferryboat  inexplicably made a sudden sharp turn, the cargo shifted and the ship began to tilt. It took 2 hours to sink and for that period the passengers were urged to stay in their cabins. Only 2 0f the 40 lifeboats were deployed. The captain and his crew escaped safely from the sinking ship as did the teachers in charge of the children. Most of the children were not so fortunate.
Later, the captain, under arrest and hidden inside a hooded anorak,  mumbled that he accepted responsibility, that he told passengers to stay put in their cabins because there were no signs of rescue boats and the water was too cold and too full of strong currents for them to survive.
” The conduct of the captain was wholly unfathomable…. it was like an act of murder that cannot and should not be tolerated,” said Ms Park, South Korea’s first woman president
The teacher who organised the trip and who escaped from the sinking ship commited suicide, hanging himself near the school and leaving a note that said  ‘Surviving alone is too painful….I will once again become a teacher in the afterlife for my students whose bodies have not been found.’

The old-fashioned notion was that those in command, in control of our lives and well-being, must be brave in an emergency, cool in a crisis and,  like Captain Smith of the Titanic, willing to sacrifice their own lives in the service of others.

Stein, one of Conrad’s characters in ‘Lord Jim‘ puts forward his (and probably Conrad’s) philosophy on ‘how to be‘:
A man that is born falls into a dream like a man who falls into the sea. If he tries to climb out into the air as inexperienced people endeavour to do, he drowns- nicht wahr?… No! I tell you! The way is to the destructive element submit yourself, and with the exertions of your hands and feet in the water make the deep, deep sea keep you up...”

__________