Crete is the largest of the Greek islands and strategically separates Europe from Africa. Here on the southern edge of Europe King Minos once ruled; the legendary Minotaur roamed deep in the labyrinth of Knossos and Zeus is claimed to have been born in a cave in the Lefka Ori mountains which form the backbone of the island. To walk along sections of the south west coast of Crete is to travel back in time. In places, where the limestone cliffs fall vertically into the sea, the old sea level is clearly visible. Seismic activity has violently tilted the land upwards until it is three metres higher than in ages past. As well as a journey through geological timescales there are also events which occurred in more recent times. Shortly after leaving Chora Sfakion, where over 20,000 British, Australian and New Zealand soldiers were evacuated when the Germans occupied Crete during World War II, a walker travelling west comes to the steep descent down the cliff face to the long sweep of Sweetwater Beach. So named for the freshwater springs which emerge here after percolating from high in the limestone mountains. St. Paul landed here as the ship he was travelling on collected fresh water. Two kilometres further west from Sweetwater one comes across the tiny church of Aghios Stavros perched above a semi-circular bay. On a hot day a swim here in the silky waters of the Libyan Sea is refreshing before continuing the walk along the oleander fringed path to Loutro, five kilometres further on. Half way round Loutro Bay is the Blue House restaurant and their fish soup makes a perfect first course followed by tender artichoke hearts in lemon sauce. Take your time at the Blue House if you are waiting for the 5.00pm ferry back to Sfakia but be warned, as Loutro may work its magic on you and you decide to find a room here for a night or two.
It’s only a big hole in the ground, man-altered over the span
Of two centuries while all distant history carried on around.
Until, one day in the fifties, the men left and the pumps stilled.
Let us again go down the steep, well trodden path to where
The pool filled slowly and is now deep and black as shadow,
Edging the smooth slate cliffs, reflecting what light there is.
This created space, as through a lens of glass, affirms, fixes and
Enhances our time, place and space in this world.
The overarching rock frames the secretive pool and surely
Here, if the muse exists, and is at large, she will whisper and
Quietly invite us to come again, even as we head up and out
Onto the old flat ground where the white birches grow.
There are places we visit and pass through, while others
Make us linger and return. They exist quietly and being quiet
May become notable and significant, allowing acquaintance.
They become resonant with occurrence and memory which
Even when far away and distracted by ordinary concerns
Awakens a response, urging us to strive to go where the light is.
Knock knock who’s there? he said long before anyone else and it became a foregone conclusion that he really didn’t believe that brevity is the soul of wit. But even with a heart of gold it left him in something of a pickle and one could see that he had not slept one wink when normally he was as merry as the day is long. However to give the devil his due there was method to his madness when he asserted the world’s mine oyster and I’ll not be a laughing stock for it’s neither here nor there nor the be all and the end all when I wear my heart upon my sleeve in this brave new world although that is cold comfort when we gave that devil incarnateLord Chancellor a chance to speak. The relationship was not helped when he heard him mutter by the pricking of my thumbs something wicked this way comes. There was, however, method to his madness when he said he’d be glad to see the Lord Chancellor as dead as a doornail for forgetting that all that glitters is not gold. He then went on to remind us that we will all vanish into thin air and need to look at all our yesterdays as being forever and a day but advised us that with mirth and laughter let old wrinkles come but never to forget that our little life is rounded with a sleep.
A summer day dawns Mist lifts from the mountain top I polish my boots
Missing Parts of Speech
Poetry and prose without adverbs and adjectives is like a summer without sun and strawberries. Their lack creates a drought for our ears and ideas which those missing parts of speech can help to take wing and fly, lifting our minds above chatter and chaff, nurturing insights into mundanity. The discipline of the sadhu on a ledge suits such a being but the potential in language for rhythm, scansion and rhyme are tools to be honed and cherished like a burning glass igniting fires in our hearts and minds that can then take us beyond the shadows in the cave.
Chris had been really pleased when Jane telephoned and asked if she could stay with him for a week of the Easter vacation. She was doing her post graduate teaching qualification in Newcastle and they’d met six months earlier when he’d been doing his. Now he was in his probationary teaching year at Penrith’s Ullswater Boys’ School.
The early Spring sunshine through thin curtains woke Chris and he’d spent a couple of hours cleaning and tidying his rented cottage at Kitchenhill just outside Penrith. Later he met Jane’s train at Penrith station and she said she would like to see a lake. They’d driven down Ullswater, chatting easily, and carried on to Ambleside.
There they’d gone into a chintz and china tearoom owned by a striking woman of about fifty in a long dark skirt, bright green blouse, beringed fingers and dangly gold earrings. Chris noticed the earrings were sigil-like stars and crescent moons as she took their order. They also learned that her name was Mary and she’d previously owned the infamous ‘Jungle’ transport cafe on the A6 near Shap. She’d sold it three years earlier, just before the M6 had opened in 1970.
Mary had asked what they did and Jane told her. “You won’t ever teach” said Mary quietly to Jane. Jane’s brown eyes widened “Why do you say that?”
“I see things.” said Mary with a slight moue and an apologetic lift of her shoulders as she turned back to the kitchen.
We pass the Buchaille Etive Mor, that classic mountain pyramid, as we drive deep into Glen Etive to the head of the Loch. We take down the canoes and pack them with a two man tent, sleeping bags and enough food for three days. After paddling a few miles down the loch we spend the first night camped far from any roads on the loch shore. On the second day we pass under the Connell Bridge as the tide is in and paddle on to the sea. The tide is starting to turn so we quickly paddle back into the loch before the rapids under the bridge can form as they do at low water.
After camping on the loch side for a second night I awake to a glimmer of light through the tent fabric and unzip the tent door and flysheet. Still lying in my warm sleeping bag I enjoy the strengthening light. The Americans call this half hour before and after sunrise ‘the sweet light’ when luminance grows and the world forms anew. Through a light mist a little further down the shore I become aware of large forms moving quietly. In the night a dozen red deer have come down to the loch to graze. Our different worlds, for a few minutes, are shared.
Leaving the early morning village up the steep mule track past the ruined castle, the bee-loud carob trees are soon behind us. The limestone is softened with bright asphodels, thyme, and, occasionally, rank dragon arums. Livaniana lies high above and we ascend steadily through this herb-rich, myth-laden landscape.
Livaniana’s age and dilapidation lends some romance, in the soft morning light, to its buildings whose function easily trumps form. The Aradena Gorge zig zags down to Marmara from the snowy Lefka Ori high above. Overnight the summit snows are tinged brown from wind blown Saharan sand but here the air is soft with hints of real warmth to come. The olive trees are thinly scattered and we know on reaching the tiny isolated church that the solitary wild pear tree lies next to the path we need to descend.
Back near Marmara a distant figure leading a sheep and a goat, silhouetted by the sea, comes into view. It’s Theo who owns the Lykkos taverna and the two animals will be for tomorrow’s feast. After a swim into the marble sea caves we head to Lykkos for a breakfast of Theo’s yoghurt and thick Cretan honey.
The wealth of nations is such a resonant phrase yet so difficult to define. There is the material wealth which can be defined as assets, incomings and outgoings. More interesting to me is the spiritual and cultural assets of a nation. Some years ago I spent twelve days at Tashi Lhunpo monastery in the Indian state of Karnataka. The Indian Government had given an area of land on which were five Tibetan monasteries and a Tibetan village, all of them refugees from Tibet seeking to preserve their culture. The Tibetan, Ladhaki and Nepalese men and boys in Tashi Lhunpo monastery were the sanest, happiest and most generous community I have ever encountered. Yet materially their wealth was utterly meagre.
In the forties Ada was the woman in the street that neighbours came to with problems. For counsel and practical issues she was there for them. A knock on the door initiated everything from tea and dispensed wisdom to a gathering of soap and towels to lay out their dead.
Each of us was handed a calendar page at the writing group meeting the other day. ‘Look at yours for two minutes,’ was the instruction, ‘and then write whatever comes into your head.’
Two Ballet Dancers by Degas
Great art comes in most instances from great toil, even for the innately talented. Degas knew this deep in his mind and eye and fingertips. That bright melding of idea and technique for a finished work both showing and teaching us what was in this refining mind and eye.
Allsorts came out of an exercise in thinking about an ‘Invisible Woman’ …
So they say
Men survey. Women are surveyed. Or so they say. Not Wilma, the Unseen Woman though. She is outside now, listening to workmen rebuilding the storm damaged wall, discussing imaginary conquests and what could be paraphrased as their bra sizes, simultaneously rolling stones into groups defined by their largeness. She goes downriver, where fishermen are comparing their catches both pescatorial and pectorial. She reaches the harbour. Here the ships are in and the sailors strutting. The talk is of salt, seaweed, barnacles and spray. Brandy and wild wide waves. Depth, and swell.
Wilma steps out of invisibility and enters the ocean.
Road building in Poland, August 1961: Lost innocence
She melded in the Tatras.
The only girl, small, neat, bright and American, among a motley bunch of British students on UN vacation work experience.
Ostensibly road building, she lit up days off in the mountains and by the river.
We met, relaxed, in pre-Wall Berlin, about to ‘do good’, naive, self-important.
We returned, frightened, to find the Wall and armed guards.
Clinging to our passports, hers, being American, was most scrutinised.
She alone stayed calm.
We all had fallen for her.
Then she disappeared.
She was called Ruth.
Where is my son? Handcuffed and swept, Unwitnessed, from a street at dawn. A hood over his head, the pressing gun Butted against a mother left to mourn. Jammed behind a passenger seat Hearing only the engine’s growl, And a passing siren that’s not for him. An electric prod sparks, and naked Howls leave sores exposed and weeping, Whilst grief seeps through bones, Turning my chestnut smooth to grey. Everyday I visit this place For I trust in you my Lord. I listen to all the Government’s reasoning, The lies fantastical – no one can quibble Suffocate in fear and longing for truth.
The woman came to me for cutting.
My mother said NO.
I went back to school but nobody would speak to me.
Without cutting there will be no husband.
I didn’t understand.
We moved to a shack in the city.
My Mum cried. I cried.
At my new school the teacher took us to see a film.
A lady said that the cutting was bad for us.
Two of her children had died when they were cut.
The lady on the film was my Mum.
Her two children were my twin sisters Marti and Fatu.
Now I understand.
I dress ‘to kill’ in my feathers and skills.
Shimmering moonlight fills the bedroom. The stone walls glinting, reflecting movements of the river below.
I am cool and white like the moonlight, silky, smooth.
My naked body, cool in his hands.
Weightless, substance-less, I am about to float into space, a familiar journey. When he tries to stop me.
‘Open – your – eyes,’ he commands. He wants to see me.
My body is performing skilfully but I cannot open my eyes. I am only partly there. I have almost gone. Trapped in terror between the worlds of visible and invisible.
I always make my real self invisible …
The First Time
The first time Tom saw Dylan, in 1965, there was already a buzz surrounding this young American songwriter. Queueing, Tom chatted nervously to the girl in front of him. Her A- levels, like his, were near. Once inside the City Hall she disappeared to the balcony.
Eventually Dylan was on stage and for about fifteen songs epitomised presence and lyrical virtuosity in equal measure. At the end of the best two hours of Tom’s young life he filed out for the last bus home, but under a streetlight, smiling, stood the girl from earlier. ‘I can hitch home’ he thought.
Sunday teatime table set, linen tablecloth, lace doilies. Best china polished off and gleaming. Homemade cake, scones and strawberry jam. Hot toasted teacakes run with butter.
Around the table animated talk between mother, father and teenage children. Love, laughter and warmth radiate.
Sunday teatime table set, oilcloth. Crockery chipped and mismatched. Shop bought cake. Mother’s apron hangs forlornly on a hook. Father sits alone, children grown, seeds scattered on the wayward wind.
Sunday teatime table set, linen and lace. Best china adorned with homemade fare. Everyone engaged in animated conversations. Mother seated centre table, heart and soul of the family.
Colette knew they would be coming to claim another victim for Madame Guillotine.
Invisible in the background, never acknowledged, she was a shadow, a faithful, loyal wife. She prepared canvases, mixed paint, even painted whole areas of the portrait. He was the foremost painter of the day. The patronage of the nobility gone, he had fled to England.
The knocking on the door was insistent and she answered fearful for her life. Instantly she recognised the visitor. It was the leader of the mob who insisted she paint his portrait.
Colette became a fine miniaturist.
She divorced her husband.
On becoming invisible
Don’t look for me, I’m gone, but look in the morning shadow across the landing, the sag of the bed, the dregs in the cup, the living, breathing void, a space in the air where my heart still beats. So eat from the fridge, and drink from the tap, walk on the cinder path with bare feet, hold on to everything, and I’ll be holding too. And when your hand slips across the sheet one cold early morning, seeking warmth let me meet it, and let me carry you across the threshold.
Sitting at the kitchen table to write, a resonant first line just wouldn’t come. Nearby was a vase of red tulips and during yesterday their buds had opened slowly to display brazen stamens. The stems now curved softly to overhang the vase rim in an evolving gestural eloquence of movement. Sidelit by the early morning sun it was as if he were seeing tulips for the very first time. Wondering briefly if this was inscape, epiphany, or simply prevarication he reached for his camera, framed the scene, clicked the shutter and moved toward the darkroom to develop the image.