Walking in Mind

A Trail of Thoughts


Last Post

As I walked this summer from Catalonia to Cornwall there were many songs and pieces of music that accompanied me along the way, and I have written about some of them in a number of recent posts. Of all the music I listened to on the trail, however, there was one piece that haunted me like no other, and which became that most oxymoronic of beasts, a welcome earworm. The focus, then, for this last post of the year is a piece of music that might stand as that other kind of last post, as a commemoration of the fallen, in this case, of those whose lives have been lost while seeking refuge.

No-one plays the kora, the 21-string West African harp, like Toumani Diabaté, although his son, Sidiki, is clearly on course to take up the mantle. The Diabaté family are descended from a long line of griots, custodians – through music and storytelling – of the oral traditions of their people. In 2014, father and son joined forces and released a CD of ten kora duets, entitled simply Toumani & Sidiki. Following griot tradition, each of the ten pieces is named in honour of people, places or events, and the title of one of the songs, Lampedusa, manages to evoke all three of these things.

If, at the start of the millennium, you had asked me to name the southernmost point of Italy I wouldn’t have been able to tell you that it was the island of Lampedusa. We all know this now. Despite being part of Italy, Lampedusa is closer to Tunisia than it is to Sicily, and over the last ten years or so it has become one of the main entry points for migrants seeking a foothold in Europe. Some have made it, many have perished in the attempt. In the first four months of 2015, an estimated 1600 migrants were taken by the sea on the crossing from Libya to Lampedusa.

I don’t know how many times I listened to Lampedusa as I walked home this summer. It was there at the outset as I crossed the border into France along a high mountain trail that was once used by smugglers and fugitives but which is now a designated hiking route between Port Bou, in Catalonia, and Banyuls-sur-Mer. At no point along that trail was I required to show any identification or proof that I was entitled to be there. Such are the freedoms I have been gifted simply by being born in a certain place and time.

The song was still with me eight weeks later as I walked west out of Bains-sur-Oust in southern Brittany. I had spent the night as the guest of Dominique and her husband, Gaël, in a house large enough for three families, let alone three adults. In the room where they served me breakfast that morning, a giant flatscreen TV showed the news images of the day, desperate men clambering over wire fences, plodding along railway lines, pleading with lorries. I thought, then, of the minor trespasses that I had committed while walking across the French countryside, and of how close I was, geographically, to Calais. Politically, however, I was a million miles away, for I am a citizen whose rights include the possibility of walking for pleasure rather than to save my skin.

As I write these words on the last day of the year, I am listening to Lampedusa still, this time on a one-track playlist that is set to repeat. Round and round goes the kora dialogue between a father and son who, as griots, know the value of storytelling, and who understand that it is in the telling of people’s stories that we weave a thread of hope from events worthy of lament.

Here, then, are two versions of the saddest and most beautiful thing I have heard all year. The first is the original studio version, the second a live version filmed in Madrid (with Sidiki offering a flavour, I think, of what Jimi Hendrix might have done with a kora).

Happy New Year, one and all / Bledhen nowydh da, onen hag oll


Two Trees

Ca-ca-ca-cak. Ca-ca-ca-cak. I hear them before I see them. One, then a second magpie bobbing around beneath one of the old carob trees that stand just off the riera, the now dry stream bed along which I am walking. The landscape around Sant Pere de Ribes is veined with several of these stony conduits, and since moving here three years ago I have followed their course, up into the hills to the west, or down to the sea some five kilometres to the east. I’m not going far today, however; I’m just using the stream bed as a logical way to orbit the town before nightfall.

The last hour of the last day of autumn. Surely a fine time for a walk. Forty minutes ago I had closed the front gate and looked up at a crisp Mediterranean sky with my coat still open, but the sun has dropped now behind the hills and the afternoon has turned dummity and cold. I button my coat and climb up out of the riera onto the path of dry compacted mud that runs along its side. The carob trees that line the way are restless now with the song of invisible birds calling out the passing of the day. In response, I find myself whistling the refrain of a Duke Ellington tune I’d been listening to at lunchtime, an eleven-note clarinet lick mimicking the Bluebird of Delhi.

I follow the path for a couple of hundred metres and then, after passing beneath the stone road bridge and its red-metal pedestrian twin that allow passage in and out of this side of town, I climb again, up the stony bank and onto firmer ground. Ahead of me on the same side of the road a paired line of Aleppo pines form an inviting tunnel through which I have often walked, but it is not these trees that have brought me this way. The tree I want to look at is an ash, and it stands at the edge of the little car park on the other side of the road.

The ash has lost now the last of its leaves, but a few bunches of brown keys still hang from its lower branches. I reach up and cup one of the clusters in my left hand. By keeping my palm steady I find that I can move my fingertips across individual keys without dislodging the whole cluster. Their touch reminds me of the fine tissue paper that my watchmaker father always used to protect the disassembled pieces of a work in progress. I open my palm and watch as two dry seeds spin slowly to the ground.

The browns and greys of the wintering tree contrast with the exaggerated tones of the plastic flowers that are strapped to its trunk. I think that someone has altered the arrangement since I was last here, but I can’t be sure. Plastic flowers give nothing away. They don’t wilt or fade, which I guess is the point. As a memorial they are meant to symbolise permanence, a triumph over time and events. Yet in wishing for a place where nothing is lost, we cut ourselves off from the gift of living in time, from the possibility of renewal. An absence of decay is not necessarily a sign of life.

I didn’t know Toni personally, although he’d served me on a number of occasions when I bought stuff from the hardware store where he worked. I’d also seen him a couple of times while out walking the woods around town, his face recognisable despite the helmet as he scudded by on his mountain bike. A man in his thirties from a local family, a friendly face at work. That was as much as I knew about him.

The absurdity of the accident must make the loss even harder to swallow. The little car park whose border is marked by four ash trees is an obvious place to leave your car if you’ve just finished your morning shift at the hardware store and are now planning to spend the afternoon up in the hills on your mountain bike. Toni had probably parked there on countless occasions, and he would have been aware of the slope and camber of the ground. As he unloaded his bike through the hatchback door, he wouldn’t have expected the car to move, and it was no doubt an instinctive action to push against it. The mechanics of it all favour a loss of footing, and then a drag until the first obstacle is met. Apparently the paramedics were soon at the scene, doing their best at the foot of an ash.

With the last light seeping from the day I decide to head for home. The road rises past the little car park, and then more steeply still towards the top end of town. Halfway up the hill I take a right turn along a street that gives me a level run to my own, and it is there that I am puzzled by the lights up ahead, braids of red that seem suspended in the air. As I approach the junction I see the source. Where the four streets meet there is a small roundabout, its central island home to an old carob tree that has held its ground throughout the development of the neighbourhood. Since I last passed by a week ago the tree has become a Christmas carob, its trunk and major branches adorned with beaded strands of tiny red lights. I like what has been done to the tree, and I’m sure Ramón will be able to tell me more about it.

Ramón and his wife Marta run the delicatessen that stands just off the roundabout, and they can be relied upon for good cheese and local news. I’m barely through the door before Ramón greets me with a resounding ‘Hombre, ¿qué tal? ¡Cuánto tiempo!’. I smile at the thought that for him, a customer he hasn’t seen for a week should be welcomed with the words long time no see. While I choose the cheese and ham that will be tonight’s supper I ask him about the tree. He looks up, places the knife on the wooden board in front of him and pushes his shoulders back until they are straight.

‘That’s our doing’, he says. ‘Well, not just us, the other shops along here have all chipped in. Council wouldn’t put up ten cents, even said we’d have to get special permission to hook the lights up to the grid.’

‘I like it,’ I said. ‘Good on you.’

‘If it was up to me,’ Ramón said, ‘I’d have music playing in the street as well. Bring a bit of warmth to people’s lives.’

Having bought more than I need from the wily vendor I step back out into the evening and head off toward home. There is a hint of wood smoke in the air, and I think that perhaps I too will lay a fire in, make the house warm for when my wife gets home. Pausing at the end of the street I take a last look back at the illuminated carob, and there in the shimmer of its lights see the spectre of an ash standing alongside it. Two trees. One for sorrow, one for joy.