20-21 August 1968: Time to Remember

August 20, 2018

Today just a brief pause to remember fifty years ago, when the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact invaded Czechoslovakia. Millions alive today have no idea what any of those three entities were. I can still recall my father, on his way to work at seven in the morning, putting his head round the door and telling me, ‘The Russians invaded Czechoslovakia’.

So, let us remember Josef Skvorecky and Milan Kundera, writers who had to leave their homeland in order to be published, and others like Ivan Klima andBohumil Hrabal who stayed behind. And the playwright Vaclav Havel who survived it all to become president of a free country many years later. In memory of Jan Palach, who took his life in protest. And of all the brave people who wanted to build their own version of a socialist society all those years ago.

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August favourites #20: 20th century novel

August 20, 2018

51Kz09gvDWL._AC_US218_I’ve been learning Spanish for the last few years, a retirement project I took on to keep my brain active and challenged, and I’ve been really lucky to have an excellent teacher and a very small class. I’d like to be able to read my choice of best twentieth century novel in the original; I have got so far as acquiring a copy, and because of my familiarity with the text, can make a stab at decoding a fair bit of the Spanish, but I think I’m still a long way before being able to enjoy Gabriel Garcia MarquezCien Años de Soledad – One Hundred Years of Solitude– in the original. Many years ago, when I was a teacher at Harrogate Grammar School, we had one year a Spanish language assistant who came from Colombia; it was shortly after Marquez had won the Nobel Prize for Literature and he was so rightly proud of his fellow-countryman that he translated the author’s acceptance speech for us and I still have my copy somewhere. It is a lovely book – I choose that word advisedly – magically carrying me through the story from start to finish, holding me utterly enthralled. I can’t recall how many times I’ve read it; I’ve worn out one copy and am on my second.

I’m doing something different for the holiday month of August, writing about some of my favourites: poems, plays, music, art and other things, a short piece on a different topic each day. The categories are random, as are the choices within them, meaning that’s my favourite that day, and is subject to change… And I will try and explain why each choice is special for me. As always, I look forward to your comments.


August favourites #19: Travel writer

August 19, 2018

Male travellers and explorers are often out to prove something, particularly more recent ones, and I often find this tiresome: I’m expecting to read about places and peoples, not egos. If a writer is going somewhere because it’s there, out of curiosity, then I warm to them, as I did to the Swiss traveller Ella Maillart when I was first introduced to her writing some twenty years ago. Although she began writing in French, she soon switched to English; nevertheless it’s the French and the Swiss who have kept pretty much all her writing in print. She travelled quite widely in the early days of the Soviet Union, blagging her way to various places where foreigners weren’t wanted and onto expeditions that got her to those places; she travelled very widely in the Middle East and central Asia, and from China to India through forbidden territory during the Chinese civil war and Japanese invasion of that country… and ended up in India reflecting and meditating on the meaning and purpose of her existence. Maillart was an intrepid woman moved by curiosity about and real empathy with those among whom she lived for months, sharing their lives and dangers, and travelling at a time when places weren’t easily accessible, and instant communication was not available.

I’m doing something different for the holiday month of August, writing about some of my favourites: poems, plays, music, art and other things, a short piece on a different topic each day. The categories are random, as are the choices within them, meaning that’s my favourite that day, and is subject to change… And I will try and explain why each choice is special for me. As always, I look forward to your comments.


August favourites #18: words

August 18, 2018

I’ve always been interested in words, their history, derivation, etymology. Some words sound beautiful – concatenationis one of my favourites. But for sheer weirdness, I pick eleemosynary. Not one that’s easily dropped into conversation, and not one that your interlocutor would understand (probably). For me its utter weirdness stems from the contrast between the noun ‘alms’ as in charitable giving (four letters, begins with a, &c), and its adjectiveeleemosynary. And yet both stem from the same, originally Greek, word. The longer one is the closer to the Greek, the short the ‘English’ derivation. How we got there is a source of wonder to me – yes I know I could look it up in an etymological dictionary – and truly language is a marvellous thing.

I’m doing something different for the holiday month of August, writing about some of my favourites: poems, plays, music, art and other things, a short piece on a different topic each day. The categories are random, as are the choices within them, meaning that’s my favourite that day, and is subject to change… And I will try and explain why each choice is special for me. As always, I look forward to your comments.


Annemarie Schwarzenbach: Où est la terre des promesses?

August 18, 2018

51oUriYpn5L._AC_US218_Anne-Marie Schwarzenbach was a friend of the Swiss traveller Ella Maillart, about whom |I’ve written a number of times; they travelled together to Afghanistan by car as the Second World War was about to break out. Maillart recounts this journey in The Cruel Way/ La Voie Cruelle and Schwarzenbach’s account is in this book. The accounts are quite different: Schwarzenbach was a drug addict who was attempting numerous cures to rid herself of her dependency, and in some ways this journey, with a companion, and to places she loved, was another attempt to break her habit, through cold turkey. Ultimately, it failed. Schwarzenbach concentrates almost exclusively on her impressions of people and places and most of the time you would not know Maillart was her companion; Maillart on the other hand is conscious of a sense of duty/loyalty/care/protectiveness to her friend and we never lose sight of her in The Cruel Way…

Schwarzenbach’s descriptions of the beauty of the places through which they travel have a lyrical, almost ethereal quality to them, and more than once I did wonder if she had been under the influence when she wrote. There is a genuine sense of thrill, excitement even, at being on the edge of what was regarded as the civilised world, further and further from the cotton-wool safety of the West, even as it moved inexorably towards another war. There is a Westerner’s innocence as she describes the simplicity of people’s lives and their great friendliness and hospitality; nevertheless she is aware of the difficulties they must undergo, particularly during the harshnesses of winter in the Hindu Kush or the foothills of the Himalayas, and of the limitations to women’s lives under the strictest of interpretations of Islam. In fact, these are the most interesting sections of her book: as a woman, accompanied by another woman, they do have access to so much more than a male traveller would ever experience, and Schwarzenbach does her best to ask questions and discover the truth about how women feel and behave. Such a picture from nearly eighty years ago fascinates both by its detail and by our knowledge of how little seems to have changed.

Schwarzenbach’s love for Afghanistan – or is it its remoteness? – comes across powerfully, and she is also aware of a society, in the late 1930s, at the cusp of change as the inevitable influence of Western technology and life possibilities begin to percolate a very isolated society, and destined irrevocably to change their world…

There is an excellent explanatory postface and notes in the French paperback edition, and the map is adequate, too.


August favourites #17: walking

August 17, 2018

My favourite walking has long been in the Luxembourg Ardennes, and I try to have a holiday there each spring. The town of Vianden lies on the border with Germany, in quite a seriously hilly part of the country, on the banks of the Our river, and there are many marvellous walks which start out from Vianden or nearby, often crossing the border a number of times. One begins in a meander of the river a couple of miles away, at the village of Bivels, and eventually takes one up as high as it’s possible to go in the surrounding hills, to the castle of Falkenstein: the views of the castle itself, from all directions, are quite spectacular; you can get to the castle gates, which are locked, but no further, for it is privately owned and apparently in a somewhat dilapidated state. Sitting eating a picnic at the gates and staring at the stunning views of the river and the valley, I felt so utterly contented.


August favourites #16: Artist

August 16, 2018

I feel a bit out on a limb writing about art, which isn’t a field in which I can claim any kind of expertise or systematic knowledge; I haven’t got much further than liking various paintings and artists. But, exploring a new kind of creativity has been bringing me much pleasure in my retirement. I’m not terribly interested in portraits, or very representational art (we have photography now); impressionism and expressionism, however, fascinate me. I saw an exhibition in Edinburgh about ten years ago, Turner and Italy, which caused me to explore Turner’s work further, and fall in love with it. My favourite painting then was Modern Rome, and it still is. I’m constantly astonished at how he used light so expressively in so many ways, and although I really like many of his large-scale works, I’m also amazed at his sketches and his watercolours, where he can conjure up so much just with a few, almost random, lines, or patches of colour. I have no desire to draw or paint myself. I’m slowly learning to just sit and look, and really enjoy that…

I’m doing something different for the holiday month of August, writing about some of my favourites: poems, plays, music, art and other things, a short piece on a different topic each day. The categories are random, as are the choices within them, meaning that’s my favourite that day, and is subject to change… And I will try and explain why each choice is special for me. As always, I look forward to your comments.


August favourites #15: German novel

August 15, 2018

I’ve read a fair amount of German fiction – in translation, I must admit; although I can get by passably enough in the spoken language, I’m not up to reading novels – but it’s probably the very first German novel I ever read that is still my favourite: Gunter GrassThe Tin Drum. Partly it’s the setting, the vanished Free City of Danzig (now Gdansk in Poland, and a city I know quite well), and partly the writer’s lifelong quest to understand and come to terms with his, and his nation’s appalling behaviour during the Nazi era. Historians have tried with varying degrees of success, and exposed the facts, but writers of fiction are those who can attempt to take us inside the heads of those who lived then. It’s surely significant that Oskar, after his experiences, is the inmate of a mental institution… Grass takes us inside a warped and twisted world that nevertheless feels normal in the pages of the novel, and perhaps that is one of the keys to the insanity of those times. A stunningly powerful read from a writer who – for me – never stopped wrestling with his troubled conscience.

I’m doing something different for the holiday month of August, writing about some of my favourites: poems, plays, music, art and other things, a short piece on a different topic each day. The categories are random, as are the choices within them, meaning that’s my favourite that day, and is subject to change… And I will try and explain why each choice is special for me. As always, I look forward to your comments.


August favourites #14: the Bible

August 14, 2018

I wrote a post once – you’ll hunt it down if you’re that interested – in which I expressed how tiresome I find much of the Bible. The creation myth and the story of the early humans, Adam and Eve, Noah, Abraham and the like, Moses perhaps, are interesting enough, but pretty soon the various imagined versions of Jewish history begin to pall, as do all the lists of ritualist observations allegedly required of the devout. The prophecies I have always found tiresome and repetitive as well as open to being twisted to suit any interpretation, and all the hymns of praise bore me: if there is a God, is He really going to spend all his time listening to that? In the end it’s to the various books of wisdom I turn (although the misogyny of some of those is very hard to stomach), my favourite of which is the Preacher, or Ecclesiastes as it’s usually known. His cynicism is in tune with the modern age: vanity of vanity, all is vanity. There is a time for everything, and whatever we do, everything carries on just the same. We live life and then it stops; no promise of any hereafter. But the Preacher manages to present those thoughts in beautiful words, the rhythm of which somehow makes it all just about bearable…

I’m doing something different for the holiday month of August, writing about some of my favourites: poems, plays, music, art and other things, a short piece on a different topic each day. The categories are random, as are the choices within them, meaning that’s my favourite that day, and is subject to change… And I will try and explain why each choice is special for me. As always, I look forward to your comments.


Marshall: Exploring the world of J S Bach

August 13, 2018

61pagT2fIHL._AC_US218_I wish this book had been published before I went on my Bach holiday to Leipzig and Thuringia a few years back, not because I’ve realised I missed anything then, but because here is the most complete guide I can imagine to all the places where the great composer did live, may have lived, did work, travelled to or through or visited, or may have travelled through or visited… It’s well-written and illustrated and almost every bit of information you could have wished for is there, except for – maps! And the book is subtitled ‘A Traveler’s Guide’.

I’ll clarify. There are historical maps, illustrating the various states and principalities that made up what we now call Germany. But, when it comes to visiting the actual towns and cities where Bach lived and worked, are there any street maps to help the tourist? No. Now I know that maps are easily available on your phone, or from a tourist office, but that’s not the point, really. When a book has everything else, this does seem a glaring omission. Why didn’t the editor sort this out?

41bah4hU2pL._AC_US218_I bought a slimmer, less comprehensive, but still very useful book, in German while I was there: Mit Johann Sebastian Bach Unterwegs, by Hans-Josef Jacobs. I just about managed the German, and there were street maps of all the towns and cities, which made life quite a bit simpler.

I’ve spent some time complaining about the one fault in an otherwise extremely good, detailed and useful book, which has given me plenty of ideas should I ever decide to return to Bach-land. I’d love to, but I have lots of other plans as well. And there was one place I did miss; I knew about it but it was closed and I didn’t managed to arrange to get in, to the little village church at Dornheim, where Bach married his first wife Maria Barbara.


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