Walking in Mind

A Trail of Thoughts


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Her neck is scraggy,

and she needs help standing,

but how majestic she looks

with that fine head of broccoli hair.

A mother of pines,

wearing her age so well.

 

 

[The Pi d’en Xandri is a stone pine (Pinus pinea) that stands near the head of a path leading from Sant Cugat (Catalonia) into the hills of the Parc de Collserola, on the other side of which lies the city of Barcelona. Dendrological analysis suggests that the tree germinated in 1774.]


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Wishing Wall

As a piece of graffiti it lacks artistry. The letters are prototypical, like those which children produce before their fine motor skills become a match for their imagination. Yet we are drawn in all the same, hooked by what is missing, by the lack at the heart of the message.

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BEFORE I DIE I WANT THE

Was the author disturbed before the wish could be fully uttered? Did he – something about those letters tells me it was a he – flee of his own accord, racked by indecision in the face of life’s possibilities? Or is there, perhaps, a rogue Lacanian roaming the streets, having the last laugh and reminding us that desire is always a story without end.


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In the Pyrenees There is Beauty in Both Life and Death

1.

High in the Catalan Pyrenees

a lignified cetacean,

a washed-up monument to deep time,

to the singularity of sea bed and mountain peak.

 

Mountain pine. Pinus uncinata

Mountain pine. Pinus uncinata

 

2.

The Catalans call it clavell de pastor, shepherd’s carnation,

the name a reminder

that this is the wild source

of a flower we know from elsewhere,

a decoration for table or gravestone,

and once a symbol of revolution.

 

 

Maiden pinks. Dianthus deltoides

Maiden pinks. Dianthus deltoides

 

3.

Its purple cowls draw the eye,

invite the hand to touch,

revealing nothing, yet,

of the poisonous heart

that for millennia

has served schemers

and fooled the unknowing.

 

 

Wolf’s bane, monkshood. Aconitum napellus

Wolf’s bane, monkshood. Aconitum napellus

 

4.

Here at the source,

before contamination and ownership,

we may drink freely of the water of life.

 


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He was talking of you and me…

I was born in Cornwall, but live in Catalonia.

I have a British passport and a Spanish wife.

I am an immigrant here and I am loved and accepted in my adopted home.

But today I am afraid, afraid about what has been unleashed in my country of origin by politicians who are happy to foment hatred in order to further their personal ambitions, who are willing to sacrifice community and compassion on the altar of greed and prejudice.

Today I have wept, and will weep again for what my country is becoming.

In March 1939 – the date says it all, surely? – WH Auden wrote:

Once we had a country and we thought it fair,

Look in the atlas and you’ll find it there. 

We cannot go there now, my dear, we cannot go there now.

How hard it is for us to learn. So let us come together and speak out against hatred and prejudice, against bigotry and lies, before it is too late. And let us not think that the victims of our silence and inaction will be others. That is not the case now, just as it wasn’t the case in 1939. As Auden wrote, a few lines later in the same poem:

Came to a public meeting, the speaker got up and said:

“If we let them in, they will steal our daily bread”;

He was talking of you and me, my dear, he was talking of you and me.

Jo Cox, RIP. Like so many, I never knew you, but like so many I will reap the rewards of your efforts. Thank you.


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Postcard from Cadaqués (Catalonia)

The photo poster in the window of the bar is as faded and familiar as the black and white image it displays. There on a stone bench sits the owner of the bar in his youth. He is playing a small Spanish guitar in the company of a much older man who is sitting to his right, Salvador Dalí.

Inside, the Café de La Habana has changed little since I first came here over twenty years ago. Tealights on the low wooden tables, rickety chairs, and, in one corner, a little cube of stage adorned with a single microphone stand.

At 11 o’clock sharp the owner appears carrying the guitar that he once played for Dalí. Both he and his instrument are old now, but together they continue to offer songs of protest and of love, songs sung in Catalan, Spanish, French and English. Borders are crossed, the edges of time blur. I am held in the present day only by the absence of cigarette smoke, by an unsilenced mobile phone, and then by the words of a song.

In Ancient Greece, a foreigner without citizen rights in his or her city-state of residence was called a metic. The English word is formal and uncommon, but the French métèque acquired the tone of our ‘mongrel’ and became a derogatory term for Mediterranean immigrants regarded as having impure origins and shifty-looking features. It seems that we have learned little in the almost fifty years since Georges Moustaki composed Le Métèque, proudly proclaiming himself to be a cultural mongrel and inviting us to think again about what we see. Here I am, he says, that man with the ugly mug of a wandering Jew, of a Greek shepherd; that man with the hands of a petty thief; that vagabond among you, offering this song of love.

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Elsewhere

Launched in the spring of 2015, Elsewhere is, in the words of its Editor-in-Chief, Paul Scraton, “a journal dedicated to writing and visual art that explores the idea of place in all its forms, whether city neighbourhoods or island communities, heartlands or borderlands, the world we see before us or landscapes of the imagination”.

Alongside the print journal, the Elsewhere website also hosts a blog, to which I am delighted to have contributed a piece of writing entitled A Dance of Memory. You can read my piece here, although I recommend you also have a leisurely browse around the Elsewhere website. The print journal appears twice a year, and you can take out a subscription covering four issues for just €48.

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Reflections on Homecoming, Two Centuries Apart

When we lose a loved one it is not uncommon for objects that had themselves been lost during that person’s lifetime to re-emerge. Sometimes we discover things we didn’t even know existed.

In the months following my father’s death in 1994 one of the objects that resurfaced was a small red book with a golden anchor debossed on its front cover. For many years I showed what now seems like a discourteous lack of interest in its content, but more recently, while reflecting on all that had led me to make a home away from home, I have revisited the little red book time and again, as if looking for a thread to pull and tie to those from which my own life has been woven.

Towards the end of 2015 I was invited to submit a piece of writing to a website called Cornish Story. An initiative of the Institute of Cornish Studies at the University of Exeter, the stated goal of Cornish Story is “to promote a greater knowledge of Cornwall and the Cornish Diaspora overseas”. The website hosts both written and visual work, and if you’re interested in Cornwall and its history then it’s well worth a look.

The piece I submitted drew not only on my own experience of walking from Catalonia to Cornwall last summer, but also on some of the stories I had discovered in that little red book. You can see the piece as presented on Cornish Story here, or simply read on.

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Dehwelans / Return

I arrived in Plymouth aboard the Armorique, he on the William and Amelia. I had walked a thousand miles across France from Catalonia, and had then been ferried across the Channel in just six hours. He had set sail from New Brunswick and had endured thirty-nine days on the Atlantic. His name was Richard, and he was my great, great grandfather.

In 1984, aged nineteen, I left Cornwall for London. There I studied, laid the foundations of a career, made friends and fell in love. When things fell apart I did what countless others have done before me and looked elsewhere in hope. The choice of Barcelona was not a random one. I had Catalan friends and had spent several summers visiting them and their city. So, in January 1998, I returned there with the idea of spending a year, maybe two. Nothing permanent, just long enough to get back on track.

Richard Nance was born in Roche in 1791, and he was a carpenter by trade. On 14 June 1818 he left Plymouth aboard the Mary, bound for Halifax, Nova Scotia. I know this because he kept a diary of his voyage, a pocket-sized book that passed down the family line to my father. On the opening page of his diary, Richard expresses the hope that he is going “for a better country, a more hospitable clime where it is possible that I may enjoy the Blessings of life in a far greater degree than I can in my native country”.

He reached Halifax in August 1818, and from there sailed on to Boston, where he soon found work and a small house to rent. On his second day in Boston he wrote in his diary that he believed “the New World to be much better for the labouring classes than the Old”.

The idea of walking from Catalonia to Cornwall came to me a few summers ago. By then I had long since settled in Barcelona, but that year I spent my holiday trudging across the north of England, following a coast to coast trail imagined by A.W. Wainwright. When I returned to Barcelona I realized that the experience had taught me a lot about what we gain by travelling on foot, not least that it is a way of finding new and deeper meaning in our relationship to place. Over the years, I had come to call Catalonia home, but this had always had its counterpoint in a longing for Cornwall. By walking between the two, I would follow that thread of longing to its source.

Having recorded his outbound voyage and arrival in some detail, Richard Nance then wrote nothing in his journal for two years. When entries resume, it is clear that the promise of the New World has faded. Permanent employment has proved elusive, and he has decided to return home.

He departed New Brunswick aboard the William and Amelia on 22 July 1821. On 10 August the ship met with a terrible Atlantic storm that lasted four days. In words reminiscent of Psalm 107 my great, great grandfather described the experience as follows: “Now the vessel skims the frightful ridge and again sinks into the deep abyss. In such dreadful scenes as these, horror and dismay seizes the vitals of those who are unacquainted with the wonders of the Lord on the face of the deep”. Amidst the gales and the mountainous seas, however, he found solace in the purpose of his journey, writing that “the best of all is every heave of the billows wafts us nearer to our native spot endeared to our memory by the ties of love and friendship”.

Although my walk across France this summer was arduous both physically and psychologically, the seascape on my Channel crossing could not have been more different to what my forebear experienced on the Atlantic. Mizzle fell upon the ferry’s decks as it pulled out of Roscoff under a sky the colour of Delabole slate, but I barely noticed the swell as we headed out into the Channel. Warm and dry inside the giant, metallic cradle I soon dozed off, and by the time I awoke, the early morning grey had given way to white and blue.

When I heard the announcement that we were half an hour from Plymouth I went out onto the upper deck and waited for the land to form. Gulls wheeled above me on the wind, and turning to starboard I spied the yolky head of a gannet skimming seaward. As we passed the breakwater and entered Plymouth Sound I went and leaned on the portside rails, from where the first villages of Cornwall – Kingsand and Cawsand – could be picked out with the naked eye. The ferry held a north-easterly course, and then, as it drew level with Drake’s Island, arced ninety degrees west, bringing it head on to the docks. I switched to starboard once more and anchored my gaze on the red and white hoops of Smeaton’s Tower. Approaching Plymouth almost two centuries ago, my great, great grandfather would also have seen this tower, yet not as a memorial on the Hoe but as a working lighthouse further out to sea on the Eddystone Rocks. Even more than I, perhaps, he would have looked upon that tower as a prelude to home.

After landing at Plymouth, Richard Nance secured passage on a boat that would take him along the Cornish coast to Charlestown, from where he could travel over land to Roche. Due, however, to what he describes in his journal as “contrary winds” he had to wait almost two weeks before making the final leg of his journey home. I know nothing more about his life.

Ten days after my own arrival at Plymouth I reached the end of my walk, Cape Cornwall. I climbed up onto the promontory to where the old mine stack still stands, and there I sat, staring out over the sea, my mind drifting off across days and miles. Finding it hard to take in, I took out my iPhone and scrolled through the GPS tracks, reassuring myself with hard data that the walk had been more than an act of imagination. The numbers were there – 77 days, 1132 miles – but they only told part of the story. On the first page of my journal, however, I found something that captured more of what I felt there on the Cape. The day before leaving Catalonia I had recorded some thoughts, hopes and fears about the journey ahead, and among these jottings were some words written by the Spanish poet Antonio Machado: “¡Ay del noble peregrino, Que se para a meditar, después del largo camino, en el horror de llegar!” / Pity the noble pilgrim, who stops, at the long journey’s end, to reflect in horror upon having arrived.

It was time to go. I started down the path that leads to the remains of St Helen’s Oratory, but before I’d gone more than a few steps I was brought to a halt by a flash of red moving among the rocks. Red bill, red legs. Palores. True to its Cornish name, which means digger, the chough was pecking at the earth, just a few feet away. Of all the experiences I had been gifted during my walk, this unimagined encounter with another returnee felt like the ultimate reward for my efforts.

I thought then of the silence in my great, great grandfather’s journal, of how he wrote in detail about his two Atlantic crossings but very little about what happened in between, as if what mattered most was leaving and returning. Perhaps he was aware of the Cornish word dehwelans, and of the psychological sting in its tail. For dehwelans means not only ‘return’ but also ‘atonement’. It is in the act of returning, it seems, that a Cornishman makes amends for having left.

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Stories That Need To Be Told, And Heard

In my final post of 2015 I reflected on my walk across France this summer, and on how different my experience and situation was from the plight of those who walk to save their lives. The focus of that post was a piece of music by Toumani and Sidiki Diabaté, Lampedusa, and one of my final reflections was that it is in the telling of people’s stories that we weave a thread of hope from events worthy of lament.

The purpose of this new post is simply to share a link to a programme that was first broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on 29 December 2015, but which I only heard when it was repeated yesterday. In The Boat Children, Hashi Mohamed, once a child migrant himself, travels through Italy gathering stories from some of the young people who have made it this far from Eritrea, from Somalia, from Afghanistan. He reminds us that these are children who have travelled alone, without their parents, for thousands of miles, and through their stories we learn of their ordinary dreams, of their hope for a better life, not just for themselves but for the families they have left behind.

One of the young men interviewed explains that his goal in life is to wipe out the poverty in his family, and as I listened to his story I thought of my Cornish ancestors who sailed for America in search of a better life, and of the many Catalans from Sant Pere de Ribes, the town where I now live, who did the same. These Cornish and Catalan emigrants were not fleeing war or persecution. They were, in today’s parlance, economic migrants, a class of person who is now regarded as less deserving of settler’s rights than is the refugee. We have forgotten, it seems, that a thread of economic migration runs throughout our own past, and that it contributed to the accumulation of the wealth we now enjoy.

The stories recounted in The Boat Children need not only to be told but also to be heard, so please share the link widely (the programme is available indefinitely via the iPlayer Radio app and the programme website).

 


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With A Few Steps Into The Past, The Walking Year Begins

The path ended at the edge of an almond grove, and there at the far end we saw what remained of the hermitage. Passing among the trees we noticed that some of them already bore their first flowers, as white as the snow that this year has yet to fall.

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The wizened tree that stood snug against the north-facing walls must surely have taken root long after the stone was raised.

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Circling the ruins we found a way into what would have been the nave.

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Once inside, we saw that the ribs of the carcass had been picked clean by time…

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…but at the eastern end the curve of the apse was still distinct.

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As we entered the recess where the altar would once have stood, we glimpsed a ghostly visage in a niche, a reminder that this was a place where people once dwelt.

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