Archive for January, 2017

My travels: E for Easton-on-the-Hill

January 13, 2017

Easton-on-the-Hill has always seemed an odd name for the village where I was born, mainly because whenever we approached it, from Stamford, we went downhill into it… back in the day it was actually in Northamptonshire, but now is in East Northamptonshire (whatever that may be). County borders are quite complicated there, as Stamford is at the boundary of five counties. It’s one of the beautiful villages in the area because of the colour of the local stone, and also the famous Collyweston stone slate roofs: Collyweston is the next village along, only a couple of miles away and a scene of dread to my sister and I when we were very young, for it was the site of the ‘prick shop’, ie the local clinic where we had to go for our vaccinations…

I have happy memories of this village where I lived for five years; the family next door, the eccentric old lady two doors down, the little sweet shop a couple of doors in the other direction. There was also a small, fairly stagnant pond a little way beyond our house. There was a post office and a bakery further up the village, and a bus service to the town, which I got to use on Sundays when it was a treat for my dad and I to come back from church on the bus, and later, when I started school I had to go into town and back on the bus, though this was only for a term, for then we moved into Stamford itself. There’s a small monument to Polish paratroopers from the Second World War; my father spent some time stationed near there during the war, which is probably why this was my home village. It’s two miles from the town, a walk that I had to do every Friday while quite small, there and back as my mother went to the market; a bag of broken biscuits from Woolworths under the pram cover (my sister being in the pram) sustained me on the homeward leg.

I think I know the village better now than I did then, as it’s on a really pleasant circular walk from Stamford itself, a walk which does take you seriously uphill, and past the ancient and rather beautiful parish church – Anglican, of course, so as Catholics we never had anything to do with it when we lived there – largely twelfth century, I think, and quite modest in itself, timeless in the way it is surrounded by its graveyard, and the aisles within are very worn down by the feet of worshippers over the centuries. Quintessentially English. There’s a memorial in the church to a Norman knight, probably one of the Conqueror’s crew, with the inscription in Norman French. It’s a very quiet and peaceful place, and if I ever do the walk I always spend a few minutes in the church, in the Philip Larkin manner: ‘It pleases me to sit in silence here…’

I’ve always tended to romanticise village life; as long as you’re within a couple of miles of a town, it’s bearable, but further than that and I think the disadvantages begin to tell…

Sergiusz Piasecki: L’Amant de la Grande Ourse

January 13, 2017

51t79-mp7l-_ac_us160_Well, this was an unexpected pleasure, in the sense that it was very different from, and a lot better than what I’d anticipated. Piasecki seems to have been a very wild character, leading a wild life, though ending up dying in poverty in England. What attracted me to the book was that it was a novel set in the times and places where my father had been a young man, near the Polish/Soviet border.

As a novel, it became clear quite early on that it was quite thinly disguised autobiography; it was apparently a best-seller in the 1930s and saved the writer from death from TB in Poland’s harshest prison…

It’s basically about smuggling across the wild borderlands that existed between Poland and the new Soviet Union in the 1920s, a time when Belarus was part both of Poland and the Soviet Union, and when the region’s commerce seems to have been largely in the hands of Jews. Interestingly, there’s no overt anti-Semitism in the novel, though because the Jews have money and the locals generally don’t, no-one’s averse to occasionally scamming them.

Our hero learns smuggling from other smugglers; there is a deep and powerful code of loyalty between them. They are ridiculously hard-drinking. They learn all the routes through the forests and fields, avoiding occasional frontier fortifications and obstacles, out-smarting border patrols from both sides most of the time, but life is cheap and there are deaths. There’s also a ridiculously large amount of money to be made, but almost nothing to spend it on apart from drinking, eating and whoring, and by the end of the novel, our hero can’t really see the point of having it…

I’d have expected the book to be dull, once I’d realised that it was basically smuggling, without any real plot other than whether he was going to get the best girl or not (he doesn’t, his arch-enemy does), but it really wasn’t. There’s a marvellous picture of the beauty of the borderlands region and its nature and landscape that pervades the whole book; the Great Bear of the title is the constellation in the sky that he learns very early on is his guide back to safety in Poland if there are ever any problems. There are marvellous characters who are brought to life (and death), his various smuggling companions, and his loves, as well as his rivals who he must constantly outsmart.

The world of the smugglers grows increasingly fraught and violent, with more betrayals and scams and insecurity, and it cannot continue: his only surviving friend, the Rat, loses his mind and lights out for new pastures and our hero leaves us contemplating the beautiful landscape on his last night: he has vowed to leave forever the next day…

I came across the French translation of the book while in Carcassonne last autumn; my researches haven’t turned up an English version. Sorry.

My travels: D for Deauville

January 11, 2017

Please do not be concerned if certain letters of the alphabet are missing: they may appear eventually!

I spent a year living in Normandy as a student; for my year abroad as part of my degree, I was named as assistant to the Lycee in Deauville. I think I was a hit with some of my students, but not really with the school as I was in the middle of my hippy phase, so not all that serious about things. But I had a marvellous time actually living in France, as opposed to merely being on holiday; clearly you can learn a lot more about a country and its way of life. I have wondered at times about living in France; if I could turn back the clock I might seriously contemplate it, but I would not want a career as a teacher there…

Deauville was – probably still is – an incredibly wealthy town, with its own international film festival, a casino, racecourse, and lots of very flashy hotels and shops, and expensive weekend and holiday villas, being only an hour and a half from Paris, so it tended to be very quiet during the week and crowded at the weekends. It was a newish town, with nothing architecturally interesting; Honfleur just up the road with its picturesque harbour and old buildings, and Caen with William the Conqueror’s castle a little further along, were the sight-seeing spots. But it had a wonderful bookshop with a friendly Polish proprietor who I drank with, and who ensured I got my weekly fix of English newspapers, the school was on the beach – which was swept by an enormous machine every day! – and the views out to sea were phenomenal, especially at times of bad weather. It was the summer of 1976, the best and hottest summer I’ve ever known; I did take some of my classes on the beach, and came back with a really good tan. And then there was Trouville, the real town, the historic town as painted by various impressionists, literally across the river, on the other side of the Touques

I had to wrestle with French bureaucracy, needing both a carte de sejour and a bank account; I also needed to feed myself at weekends, as the school’s internat only functioned Monday to Friday. But I was incredibly well-fed during the week: the school had a proper chef and we got a traditional Normandy diet, very rich, with lots of cream. The only things I found repugnant were tripe, and white pudding. One evening we even had souffle! And for the teachers, free beer at lunchtime.

I saw a fair amount of Normandy, and came to love the lush green landscapes, and the cheeses that came from such rich pastures. Devon, only more so. Not many things in my eating list are to die for, but a well-ripened Pont l’Eveque comes pretty close… I got used to the accent and I think it permanently affected the way I speak French, too. And Paris was only just over an hour away on the train, which was a bonus…

My travels: B for Bartoszyce

January 9, 2017

Once upon a time there was a region of Germany called East Prussia. What I’ve read about it makes it sound like a rural idyll, small towns, well-organised peasantry, prosperous, with a large city – Koenigsberg – as the provincial capital. One of my very favourite novels, Ernst Weichert’s A Simple Life, is set in rural East Prussia; it’s another of those magical books that capture the vanishing of an era, like Lampedusa’s The Leopard, or Josef Roth’s The Radetzky March. The population was mixed German and Polish, proportions varying according to sub-regions, and various bits were plebiscited post-WW1; most chose Germany. The whole area had been mixed nationalities for several hundred years, at least since the times of the Teutonic knights. And all this was to change, irrevocably, in 1945…

My uncle, and his parents, were taken by the Germans as forced farm labourers to East Prussia during the war. His parents – my grandparents – returned home; my uncle didn’t, and ended up living in what had been East Prussia until it was divided between Poland and the Soviet Union, and all the Germans forcibly expelled. After the way the Germans had treated the Poles in the war, this ethnic cleansing was inevitable, understandable, and probably justified. But it changed the area forever, as, indeed, so much of Eastern Europe was irrevocably transformed: the people went, the buildings remained; former East Prussia was now populated by Poles moved out of the territories Poland lost to the Ukraine, Byelorussia and Lithuania. The town of Bartenstein became Bartoszyce. It’s a medium-sized town now, with a typical gothic town square and brick gothic churches. Almost all trace of Germans has been eradicated. On my first visit there in 1970 I remember being very shocked that the old German area of the town cemetery had been bulldozed; all the broken gravestones were higgledy-piggledy, in vast heaps…

It felt like quite a sleepy little place, partly because the border with the Soviet Union was less than ten miles away. The main railway line that used to link Bartenstein with Koenigsberg had been dynamited; there was a single freight track remaining. So it was the edge of nowhere, really. The roads were appalling. A mound where a castle used to stand, a river, forests, a lake, farmland. And where our family lived. Further east one moves into the beautiful Masurian Lakes region. I’ve been back several times. It’s still a backwater, still right next door to Russia, more prosperous than it was, and visited by hordes of wealthy Russians doing their shopping; unemployment is at least 20%, so it’s not part of the better-off new Poland yet. And for some reason, one of the main streets is still Karl Marx Street, over a quarter of a century after the fall of communism…

Ella Maillart: La Vie immédiate

January 5, 2017

51si-hpbtjl-_ac_us174_Many years ago when I was on holiday in France, I asked a bookseller in Dinan about travel writing, and he introduced me to the writing of Ella Maillart, a Swiss woman who travelled widely in the Middle East, China and India in the 1920s, 30s and subsequently. I never looked back: this was the last and hardest to find of her books, so my collection and enjoyment is complete.

It’s a book of her photos from many of her journeys, taken with her trusty Leica camera – she was one of the first people to have one – presented and introduced by her friend and traveller Nicholas Bouvier. There are some marvellous images that take one back into the first half of the last century, in distant parts of the world, atmospheric because of their age. They may lack the full-colour splendour of what the National Geographic magazine used to print, but they make up for it for me in their connection with one of the last few real travellers.

Maillart travelled in the Soviet Union in its early days, reaching places she wasn’t meant to go to; she travelled in central Asia; through China to India in the days of the civil war and Japanese invasion, in the company of Peter Fleming, a correspondent for The Times (his account of their trip, News From Tartary, is also well worth reading); in Afghanistan at the start of the Second World War and in India during that war. And her travels were hard work, gruelling, in the company of local people. She couldn’t escape from difficult situations by hopping on a plane or a train, she didn’t ease her poor Western limbs and sensibilities by taking time off in a luxury hotel when she got tired… she experienced the real life of the places through which she travelled, the difficulties and the hardships, and these willingly, as she gradually came to realise that she was not just on a physical journey, but on her own emotional and spiritual journey of self-discovery. It’s for these reasons that, to me, her observations and accounts feel far more real and interesting than most more recent travel-writing.

Initially Maillart wrote in French but soon turned to English so that most of her writings are accessible here, although also long out of print: she hasn’t been re-discovered yet. She used the proceeds from her writings – books and magazine articles – to finance her travels. She was extremely lucky to have been Swiss, in the sense that the two world wars did not directly impinge on her in the ways in which they would have done to almost any other European; she and her friends were appalled at what Europe had managed to do to itself in the Great War and were quite happy to leave it behind; equally, as the next nightmare approached, Maillart left for the other sideof the world.

I find her writing inspirational, in a way: she threw herself into her travels and became a part of them. There’s no European standing aloof or apart from people and places, and pontificating about them: she participates, shares, describes with a humility and an equality as well as an enjoyment of where she is and what she is doing, that is simple, healthy and life-enhancing, and I admire her more than any other traveller I have come across so far.

Paul Theroux: Dark Star Safari

January 5, 2017

41d180a54cl-_ac_us200_It took a long while to get into this book: I found Theroux‘ approach initially very annoying. The whole premise of his journey came across as self-indulgent, and his attitude to many of the people he met seemed patronising, to say the least. Then I found myself coming back to my taxonomy of travellers and travelling, and realised that here was another example of wealthy and sophisticated Westerners being able to do just what they liked: when he feels like it, he can hop on a plane, take a train or a taxi, spend a night in a luxury hotel…

I’m also being terribly unfair here: Theroux lived and worked for several years in Africa when he was younger, and obviously developed an empathy with and understanding of its peoples, too; here is is re-visiting some of his earlier haunts and meeting up with some of those he knew and worked with in those earlier days. What I was trying to tune in to, with varying degrees of success, was his attitude to Africa’s perceived current problems, and what he thought possible solutions might be.

There is a good deal of excellent description of places and travelling in this book; his approach is thoughtful, once I’d tuned in to it, and he clearly was both shocked and conflicted by the lack of progress, the regression even, that he saw since he had last visited some of the places he writes about.

A great deal of Africa’s problems stem from whites, colonisation and exploitation which lasted several centuries; Conrad‘s Heart of Darkness serves as a shorthand for such attitudes and behaviours. Tourists compound the problems, as much infrastructure serves them rather than Africans, and tourists come away with totally false perceptions of what the continent is like. Parasites is too kind a word.

Foreign aid is another serious issue, and Theroux is rightly scathing about this. Aid exists in its own self-perpetuating bubble, creating its own elite, again divorced from the realities of the continent and what it really needs: the charities recycle foreign money endlessly in a closed loop, and very little goes towards building African economies, supporting African ways of life. This, in turn, tends to foster corruption in governments and leaders, whose interest lies in things staying the way they are, rather than any change of direction…

At times, it feels like a portrait of despair, and that Africa really is the basket-case that many glibly name it. Theroux clearly loves the place with a great affection, and his frustration bursts through at various points as we see outsiders doing all the wrong things because it suits them, and Africans being fatalistic and unwilling to help themselves, almost expecting others to provide them with a living. It’s the cities that are the real problem; out in the sticks, people muddle along as best they can as they have always done, when wars don’t intrude…

As the Irishman said when asked for directions, ‘If I were you, I wouldn’t start from here…’; this is what I felt by the time I’d got to Cape Town in Theroux’ company; our interference has compounded so many problems, perhaps we need to leave and let the people begin to sort themselves out. And yet, there’s the small question of our (partial) responsibility for the chaos in the first place. A sobering read, ultimately.

My travels: A for Arnstadt

January 4, 2017

Realising that I spend quite a lot of space in this blog writing about other people’s travels, it occurred to me to write about some of my own. I shall be interested in my readers’ responses.

I stayed in Arnstadt for a few days back in 2014 when I finally got around – thirty years after I’d promised myself the trip – to doing my tour of the places in the life of my favourite composer, J S Bach. Arnstadt, in Thuringia, was where as a young man he got his first post as organist.

Thuringia was a revelation: it was like going back in a time machine. So many of the towns were full of centuries-old houses, the ‘fachwerkhaus’ style, which we call wattle-and-daub, and of which some examples remain in older towns and cities in England such as York or Shrewsbury. But in this part of what used to be the DDR, they are everywhere.

You could see that Arnstadt and other places like it hadn’t caught up with the West, even more than twenty years after the re-unification of Germany: there were crumbling buildings, pavements and infrastructure everywhere, alongside new-build and modernisation. Roads could be dreadful, and often long stretches were completely closed in both directions for renovation. It felt poor compared with what I was used to in western Germany. Bargain-basement supermarkets abounded: my favourite, with its non-PC reference to Scottish parsimoniousness, was called ‘McPfennig’. People were friendly and helpful; it was a lot more ‘white’ than other regions of Germany, and there was quite a lot of right-wing political activity in evidence.

The flat I rented was in a building that had been a monastery in pre-Reformation times; a plaque noted that Martin Luther had stayed twice in the monastery (one of the town’s churches proudly marked the spot where he had preached from when he was in the town) and the coloured glass in the main house door included the date 1685 – the year my hero Bach was born… You could walk around the remains of the town walls, visit the church where he was organist, and a museum dedicated to him in the castle. There was a rather raunchy-looking statue of him as a young man in the town square. And you could walk the two miles to the small village of Dornheim to visit the church where he married his first wife Maria Barbara (except it was closed while I was there).

It was a hectic holiday as I strove to take in as many sites as I could in ten days, but as I drove around I noticed how beautiful the Thuringian countryside was, too, and realised that if it weren’t so far from England, I could have a really good walking holiday there too…

Svetlana Alexievich: Second-hand Time

January 1, 2017

31-sknsa7il-_ac_us200_I really don’t know where to start with this book: it’s probably the most harrowing thing I’ve ever read, and will go around in my head for ages. I’m not really sure it’s anything a Westerner can fully comprehend…

Some context first: Svetlana Alexievich is a Belarusian writer who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2015. She’s written about Soviet veterans from Afghanistan, the consequences of the Chernobyl accident, and, in this, her latest book, the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union. She’s not a novelist or a poet: she gets ordinary people to speak, and presents the reader with their words. Hardly the stuff a Nobel laureate is made of, I found myself thinking, but then, she actually does the same as any other writer: she selects, orders and presents; only most of the words aren’t hers. Only twenty-five years have passed since the Soviet Union ceased to exist, and already a serious amount of annotation is needed for the reader to begin to understand much of what is said.

In one way, the book stands as a tribute to those who really believed in their ideals and strove against the odds to bring them to fruition; their memory deserves to survive. Not everyone who lived in Soviet times repudiates those times, though we are often led to believe they do. We hear from real Russians: they are given voices and allowed to speak; they deserve a hearing and respect. They speak of comradeship, of common efforts, of how they defeated fascism, of how they built a great and powerful nation in far less time than any western land.

Some recount the almost unbelievably bloody past of Stalin’s era; some are proud of their part in it (!): I reminded myself of every nation’s bloody past – the British Empire, the United States’ treatment of the original inhabitants of that land, their treatment of non-whites… fill in the blanks for yourselves. Some recount the horrors of ethnic conflict once the Soviet umbrella disappeared, and it’s incredibly scary how quickly and easily everything erupted and how savage it became. Many are appalled at the savagery of the dog-eat-dog capitalism that was released with the advent of the market, how they were deceived, deluded and robbed. And, as well as the voices of the losers, we hear from some of those who came out on top.

It’s when I try to make sense of the book at a deeper level that I’m utterly thrown: was it Lenin, Stalin, communism that allowed such misery and such horrors to be perpetrated? Were all those people who thought they were slowly and painfully building a better future utterly deluded fools? In the end, is all human existence a bitter struggle for who gets to the top of the pile and sh*ts on everyone else? If so, we really are not a very intelligent species, and perhaps do not deserve to survive.

I can’t accept such a simplistic analysis, in the end. Mistaken struggles for a better world are still attempts to make something better, and the genuineness of the wishes and beliefs of many ordinary Russians shines through. And Russia has not been blessed with an easy history, has not followed the same tracks as the ‘democratic’ West. Capitalism was determined to bury the Soviet experiment, and did so through the arms race; it cost the West a fortune but it cost the Soviets everything. And when the Union collapsed, the West supported the sharks in the sidelines. Most importantly, the example, the alternative, though dreadfully flawed other way of looking at things was abolished, no longer an danger, no longer able to support other experiments around the world: ‘There is no alternative’.

I have to emphasise, this is my current take on a monumental book. I think anyone who wishes to express an opinion on those times should read it.

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