Walking in Mind

A Trail of Thoughts


2 Comments

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


2 Comments

Trail Music: Track 6

Here’s another track from my trail playlist (just click on the song title to watch a live performance). The Spanish-to-English translations that feature in this post are my original work. If you want to use or quote them elsewhere, please include a link to my blog. Thanks.

Cantares: Joan Manual Serrat

The career of the Catalan singer-songwriter Joan Manuel Serrat spans more than four decades, and his songs form part of the cultural life of generations across the Spanish-speaking world. This song, Cantares, dates back to 1969 and to Serrat’s second vinyl release: Dedicado a Antonio Machado, poeta.

The Spanish poet Antonio Machado was born in Seville in 1875, although by the age of eight he had moved with his extended family to Madrid. This proved to be the first of many journeys he would make during the 63 years of his life. He remained in the Spanish capital throughout his adolescence and early adulthood, although he also made two lengthy visits to Paris during his twenties. This experience not only contributed to his artistic development but also enabled him, once back in Spain, to earn a living as a schoolteacher of French while he worked on his poetry. In 1907, having already published his first two collectons of poems, he took up a permanent teaching position in Soria, a city around 200 km to the north of the Spanish capital. This period of his life culminated in the publication of a new collection of poems entitled Campos de Castilla [Fields of Castile]. However, it also ended in tragedy, for in 1912 his young wife, Leonor, died from tuberculosis. Distraught, Machado requested a transfer back to Madrid so as to be closer to his family, but he would have to wait nineteen years to achieve this goal: only in October 1931 was this lifelong supporter of Republican ideals awarded a permanent teaching post in the capital by the new government of the Second Spanish Republic. Further tragedy was, of course, on the horizon, and following the military coup of 1936, Machado, due to his age and public prominence, was advised to leave Madrid. He spent the next two years in the province of Valencia, from where he continued to write and speak publicly in support of the Republic. However, as the Nationalist forces took control of an ever increasing area of Spain, Machado and his family moved further north, to Barcelona. By the time of his arrival in the Catalan capital in April 1938, his health was failing, and conditions in the city were bleak.

On 22 January 1939, four days before Franco’s troops finally entered Barcelona, Machado embarked on what would be his final journey, one that would take him once more across the border into France. After a tortuous trip that lasted six days, he and his party reached Collioure, a small coastal town that lies some 30 km north of the Pyrenees. Had he been able to continue as far as Perpignan he may have been able to receive the medical care he needed. But it was not to be. In 1939 Ash Wednesday fell on February 22, and it was on this day, in a room of the Hotel Bougnol-Quintana in Collioure, that Machado died. His simple grave in the town cemetery might easily be overlooked were it not for the fact that it is forever adorned with words and flowers left by those who continue to this day to visit his place of rest. The words carved into the tombstone, however, belong to the poet himself:

Cuando llegue el día del último viaje, y esté al partir la nave que nunca ha de tornar, me encontraréis a bordo, ligero de equipaje, casi desnudo, como los hijos de la mar.

[When the day arrives to make the final journey, and the ship that will never return is about to depart, you will find me aboard, travelling light, almost naked, like the children of the sea.]

This image of a journey that can never be repeated is echoed elsewhere in Machado’s work. Among the poems that make up the aforementioned Campos de Castilla is a series of Proverbios y Cantares (Proverbs and Songs), and it is here, in the last of these short verses, that we find what are perhaps the most famous words of this poet who was also a walker:

Caminante, no hay camino, se hace camino al andar.

[Wayfarer, there is no way, the way is made by walking.]

These are the words that serve as the inspiration for Joan Manuel Serrat’s homage to the poet. The song Cantares begins with three verses from Machado’s Proverbs and Songs, the first two of which Serrat sets to music. The third – and most famous – verse is then recited. In the opening verse we are invited to reflect on whether the paths we follow in life have as solid a grounding as we often assume them to have:

Todo pasa y todo queda, pero el nuestro es pasar, pasar haciendo caminos, caminos sobre el mar.

[All things must pass, all things remain, yet life is a passing, a passing and a making of ways, ways upon the sea.]

This theme is then developed in the third verse, where we find Machado reflecting further on the fleeting and invented nature of our life’s journey:

Caminante, son tus huellas el camino y nada más; caminante, no hay camino, se hace camino al andar. Al andar se hace camino, y al volver la vista atrás se ve la senda que nunca se ha de volver a pisar. Caminante, no hay camino, sino estelas en la mar.

[Wayfarer, the way is nothing save your footprints; wayfarer, there is no way, the way is made by walking. It is walking that makes the way, and when we look back we see the path that never again shall be trodden. Wayfarer, there is no way, only a wake upon the sea.]

This spoken third verse provides the bridge into the second half of the song, in which Serrat offers three verses of his own that stand as if in dialogue with the poet and his fate:

Hace algún tiempo en ese lugar, donde hoy los bosques se visten de espinos, se oyó la voz de un poeta gritar: Caminante, no hay camino, se hace camino al andar. Golpe a golpe, verso a verso

[Some time ago, here in this place where today the forests are draped in thorns, the voice of a poet was heard to call out: Wayfarer there is no way, the way is made by walking. Step by step, verse by verse…]

Murió el poeta lejos del hogar, le cubre el polvo de un pais vecino. Al alejarse le vieron llorar: Caminante, no hay camino, se hace camino al andar. Golpe a golpe, verso a verso

[The poet died far from home, and lies covered by the dust of a neighbouring land. There in the distance he was seen to weep: Wayfarer there is no way, the way is made by walking. Step by step, verse by verse

Cuando el jilguero no puede cantar, cuando el poeta es un peregrino, cuando de nada nos sirve rezar: Caminante, no hay camino, se hace camino al andar. Golpe a golpe, verso a verso

[When the goldfinch is without song, when the poet is a pilgrim, when our prayers are said in vain: Wayfarer there is no way, the way is made by walking. Step by step, verse by verse

My own route across the Pyrenees and into France this summer veered west before reaching Machado’s resting place in Collioure. However, the words of the poet, and those of Serrat, were ever present as I followed a mountain trail that had once been a conduit of hope for those fleeing oppression. As I climbed to the high pass on that early June day the only oppression I encountered was as a result of the heat. No-one asked for my identity papers, and my safe passage into France was never in question. The border was as fluid as the sea below me to the east. These are the freedoms that people of my generation have been granted as a result of the struggle and sacrifice of others, most of whom are either forgotten or remembered only by their living relatives. So in remembering Antonio Machado, let us also remember the words of the German-Jewish philosopher, Walter Benjamin, himself an exile whose mortal remains lie elsewhere across a Pyrenean border: It is more arduous to honour the memory of anonymous beings than that of the renowned. The construction of history is consecrated to the memory of the nameless.


Leave a comment

Trail Music: Tracks 4 and 5

Here are two more tunes that accompanied me on the trail this summer.

Resolution (Part 2 of A Love Supreme): John Coltrane

When, as a young student of psychology, I began listening to A Love Supreme I was unsettled by not knowing where John Coltrane was trying to take me with this music. It was different to anything else I’d heard up until that point, including earlier work by Coltrane, and I couldn’t fathom it, not at first. Thirty years on, the fact that I do not where A Love Supreme will take me is precisely what I find enthralling. It has become an antidote to a staleness of thought, and whenever I listen to it I feel more grounded, emotionally, in life.

Coltrane was a profoundly spiritual man and regarded A Love Supreme as his musical gift to God. In the poem that appears on the album’s liner notes, and which is expressed musically in the suite’s final movement, Psalm, he asks of that God: Help us to resolve our fears and weaknesses. I find Coltrane’s choice of verb here interesting. Resolving our fears and weaknesses would mean that some course of action can be decided upon in relation to these aspects of our self, that some kind of solution can be found. But resolution is not the same as triumph; it is not, in our emotional life, a final settlement. The root of the verb also gives us the noun resolve, and implicit in Coltrane’s plea to God is that we may be granted the determination required to resolve the challenges we face in life. This, I think, is why Resolution is the second movement of Coltrane’s four-part suite, coming after Acknowledgement but before Pursuance. Resolution, Coltrane seems to be saying, is not the end point, but rather the step that enables us to begin pursuing a deeper connection to things. Only by addressing our own limitations can we begin to pursue what really matters in life.

Several people have asked me what I was hoping to achieve by walking from Catalonia to Cornwall, the implication being that anyone who engages in such behaviour must surely be trying to resolve something in his or her life. Have you found yourself?, one old friend asked me. Questions of this kind are legitimate, but they are also wide of the mark. For many years I did struggle with the reality of living in Catalonia while longing for Cornwall, but gradually over time I have come to celebrate rather than suffer the task of calling two places home. Having reached that point, the act of walking ‘home’ was simply the continued pursuit of something already resolved.

Walk On: Michael Jerome Browne

It was my brother David who introduced me to the music of this Canadian guitarist and songwriter. This tune might be little more than a straight-up slice of R&B, but how could I not include a song that so effortlessly captures a feeling known to anyone who has walked alone for hundreds of miles: Well your mind gets worried, when your shoes get thin. Don’t know where you’re going, but do know where you bin. Walk on, walk on… I’m gonna keep on walking til I find my way back home.


4 Comments

Trail Music: Tracks 2 and 3

Following on from the Intro and Track 1 that I posted on 20 September, here are the next two tracks on my playlist for the trail.

Done: Frazey Ford

Shortly before I set off on what would be an 11-week hike from Catalonia to Cornwall I was tipped off to this song via a tweet by the people over at Caught by the River. This infectious slice of modern soul moves at a pace that is just right for walking, and I’ve lost count of the times that it helped me regain my step as I began to falter or wilt as the summer days wore on. The video’s great, too!

Helston: Dalla

Since their formation in 1999, Dalla have led the way in promoting, writing and re-interpreting traditional Cornish music. This tune, Helston, is a furry dance and a musical centrepiece of the St Michael’s Day celebrations that are held each year in the Cornish town of Helston, traditionally on 8 May. In this original arrangement, the clarinet leads us off up the road, while double bass, brass and djembe help to keep us in time. Towards the end, we are reminded that the tune is sometimes known as ‘John the Bone’, with Dalla singing the following refrain against the musical background: John the Bone was marching home, when he met with Sally Brewer, He kissed her once, and he kissed her twice, and he kissed her three times over. Furry dances are meant to be danced by couples in line, so thankfully there were no Helstonians around to watch in dismay as a solitary walker, poles in hand, bobbed his way along the back roads of France.


1 Comment

Trail Music: Intro & Track 1

I don’t normally listen to music while out on the trail. Walking brings its own rhythms that I find are best complemented by attention to other melodies: to birdsong, to the wind singing in the trees, to the tune being hummed by my own rambling thoughts. However, spending weeks alone on the trail is a different proposition, and as I wove my way across France this summer I found that music was often a welcome companion. Some of it had a visceral energy that brought renewed vigour to my footfall as I began to flag on a hot afternoon. At other times a tune or song stayed with me as a reminder of the home I’d left behind, or of the one towards which I was heading. And then there was the music that carried me deep down inside, to more spiritual reflection and to an awareness of what was going on elsewhere as I walked on into the day.

Back home now in Catalonia, much of that music continues to resonate, and so I have decided to share a selection of ten pieces, ambassadors of all those songs and tunes that proved to be good companions on the trail. Each selection is accompanied by a short text that says something about my connection to the music, and by clicking on the title you will be able to listen to and/or watch a performance of the tune in question. While out on the trail I had time enough to savour this music, and I would like for you to have the same opportunity. Therefore, rather than presenting all ten selections as a single playlist I will post them in dribs and drabs over the next few weeks. Here’s the first tune. Enjoy!

Walk Awhile: Fairport Convention

Back in the early 1980s my brother-in-law, Len, had a brown Morris Ital, and one of the most memorable trips I recall making in that car was to Fairport Convention’s annual reunion at Cropredy. I had not long turned eighteen at the time, and was still many years shy of discovering the pleasures and pain of long-distance walking. When, over a quarter of a century later, I walked Wainwright’s coast to coast trail eastwards across the north of England, Len was one of those at my side. This summer, as I walked west across Brittany, he was there again for a few days, quietly urging me towards my goal. While the Ital has long since left the road, Fairport Convention continue to reunite each year, and two brothers continue to learn new things about each other. As for the song’s refrain, we need more than ever for it to be true: “Walk awhile, walk awhile, walk awhile with me. The more we walk together, love, the better we’ll agree”.