Washed up on the Catalan coast,
a Venetian mask,
shrunken by the sea
til it resembles nothing but bone,
the splinter of a story
will sound across the Mediterranean.
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.
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.
Were I to find myself in Cornwall today I would walk a mile or so from the town where I was born until I reached the church of St Breoke. There I would climb the grassy path to the top of the cemetery and sit for a time on a weathered bench. The trees in the valley below would, I imagine, be autumn bare, but high in their branches the old rooks’ nests would remain. The air would be cold, but clean and light. At some point I would start speaking aloud to the dead, and another visitor to the place would look up and think me mad. ‘But do you not hear those bells,’ I would say. ‘That is the voice of my father. I am merely paying him the courtesy of replying.’ At this point the other visitor would gather his things and move away, and I would remember a Cornish poet and offer six more words to the wind: For you have never been away.
This is what I would do were I in Cornwall today. As I am not there, but sitting at home in Catalonia, I will turn instead to Charles Causley and his song for the departed. I will take his Collected Poems 1951-2000 off the shelf, and I will open the book to page 265. First I will read On All Souls’ Day in silence, and then again aloud. Finally, I will listen to the poem set to music by the poet’s distant descendant, the Devonian folk singer, Jim Causley.
If you have time for only one of these three things, then I recommend you read the words below while listening to Jim Causley sing them. His arrangement is haunting and beautiful, and his baritone voice brings a weight to the words that I had not previously discovered.
Savour these words, this song, and reflect in peace on those who have been loved and lost, but who have never been away.
On All Souls’ Day
Last night they lit your glass with wine
And brought for you the sweet soul-cake,
And blessed the room with candle-shine
For the grave journey you would make.
They told me not to stir between
The midnight strokes of one and two,
And I should see you come again
To view the scene that once you knew.
‘Good night,’ they said, and journeyed on.
I turned the key, and – turning – smiled,
And in the quiet house alone
I slept serenely as a child.
Innocent was that sleep, and free,
And when the first of morning shone
I had no need to gaze and see
If crumb, or bead of wine, had gone.
My heart was easy as this bloom
Of waters rising by the bay.
I did not watch where you might come,
For you had never been away.
For you have never been away.
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!
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.
Gool Peran Lowen, Onen Hag Oll
Happy St Piran’s Day, One and All
Arles-sur-Tech is a small town at the eastern end of the French Pyrenees, and it is overshadowed to the north by the Canigó massif. These lands at the southernmost end of the Languedoc-Roussillon region have deep connections to Catalonia, both its language and traditions. On 23 June 1955, Francesc Pujades, a resident of Arles-sur-Tech, took it upon himself to continue a centuries-old European tradition by lighting a bonfire to mark the eve of St John’s Day. What made Pujades’ initiative stand out was that his fire burned at an altitude of 2,784 m, at the summit of the Canigó. The idea that followed was that a torch lit from the fire could serve as a mother flame, la flama, from which St. John’s fires could be lit in succession throughout the Catalan lands. As a symbol of a cultural identity that refused to be extinguished despite the prohibitions set in place by Franco’s dictatorship, la flama had considerable value, yet not until 1966 would the torch pass south of the Pyrenees. Today, however, la flama de Canigó is relayed freely throughout the land on both sides of the mountains, and St John’s Day is now a national holiday in Catalonia. As I walked home just before midnight on St John’s Eve, the streets around the main square of my Catalan hometown, Sant Pere de Ribes, were still alive to the sound of snappers, whistling rockets and conviviality.
In contrast to the light and spark of the night before, the town awoke to slate-grey skies, and around midday an intense storm blew in over the Mediterranean, rinsing the air of the gunpowder perfume that had hung heavy into the early hours. When the storm cleared I went out to walk some of the trails that wind their way through the vineyards, scrub and woodland that surround Sant Pere de Ribes. The dirt track I chose is lined to the west by carob trees, and at this time of year they are festooned with unripe glossy-green pods.
As the carob is also known as St John’s bread it seemed fitting to be following this path on his feast day. It also felt good to be alone after so much companionship the previous evening. Alone, that is, except for the birds, who seemed to be relishing the freshness of the storm-swept air. To my left, finches gold and green flitted over and among the vines, while ahead of me on the path, swallows swooped back and forth like stray fireworks. The skies, however, had yet to clear, and maybe it was this, their colour, that turned my mind to Cornwall. St John’s fires would also have been lit in many towns across my homeland, most notably, perhaps, as part of the Golowan festivities in Penzance. In Cornish, the verb golowi means both to enlighten and to illuminate, from the noun golow, light. Until the end of the nineteenth century it was common for the Feast of St John to be celebrated in Cornwall with bonfires, flaming tar barrels and torches, but adminstrative anxiety over insurance claims doused these traditions, which only re-emerged in force during the 1990s. Nowadays, festivities last a whole week, from St John’s Eve right through to the Feast of St Peter on 29 June.
As its name would suggest, my Catalan hometown of Sant Pere de Ribes also celebrates its annual festival on St Peter’s Day. So, barely a week after the St John’s festivities the streets were once again filled with the sound of fireworks and the hum of expectation. Before joining family for the traditional St Peter’s Eve supper I decided to retrace my steps from the previous week. The afternoon was much hotter this time, and I walked quickly past the carob trees with an eye on the shade offered by the small wood that lies at the head of the trail. Just before I reached the cover of pine and holm oak I stepped off into the scrub to inspect what is a dispenser of sweet carnality to all who walk this path in early September, a gnarled old fig tree. Now, in June, however, only green gobstoppers clung to its branches.
I pressed on into the wood and was glad that it offered a shaded path back down to the edge of town where my in-laws live. I reached their house just as the final guests were arriving, so I quickly showered and joined the party for an al fresco supper of cured ham, stuffed omelettes and grilled sardines, followed by a traditional sweet flatbread washed down with a bottle of Cornish sparkling wine that I had been saving for the occasion. As night closed in we waited expectantly for the aerial maroon that would signal the ten-minute countdown. As my in-laws house sits on the western permiter of town it offers a perfect vantage point from which to enjoy the firework display that is launched each year from the tenth-century castle nearby. On the stroke of 11 the first rocket was fired into the air, and for the next twenty minutes the skies were filled with willows and palms, serpents and strobes. The best, however, was yet to come, as the centrepiece of the St Peter’s festivities is a diabolic street parade culminating in the main square. Hessian-clothed and hooded demons of all ages take to the streets, holding aloft staffs from which fountains of fire shower sparks upon the expectant onlookers. The first time you witness it, it all appears quite mad.
As I watched the parade I wondered whether next year I might spend these days in Penzance or in one of the other Cornish fishing communities that mark the Feast of St Peter, their patron, with bonfires. I remembered, then, something I had read back in March on the BBC News website. The item described how the only complete copy of the Catholicon Anglicum, a fifteenth-century Middle-English–Latin dictionary had been purchased by the British Library in order to save it from export to a private collection. Interestingly, one of the entries in this dictionary refers to ‘ban fyre, ignius ossium’, the bone-fire from which our modern bonfire is derived. As a young child I had encountered a similar Latin expression, fragilitis ossium, which for all its apparent authority did nothing to help me understand why my bones broke so much more easily than those of other children. The modern term for brittle bone disease, osteogenesis imperfecta, captures more of the problem, since we now know that the fragility is caused by a genetic defect that affects bone formation. Bone is a composite of two materials, a mineral called hydroxyapatite (a form of calcium phosphate) and the protein collagen. In brittle bone disease it is the latter which is deficient, either in quality or quantity, or both. Collagen is important as it gives bones a degree of flexibility, while the job of the mineral hydroxyapatite is to provide a complementary hardness. Too much collagen and our bones would be rubbery; too little or poor quality collagen and they become fragile.
As in so much of life, balance matters. A summer of too many wildfires can cause lasting damage to the scrub and woodland landscapes that surround my Catalan hometown, yet its people nonetheless turn to fire as a way of celebrating the feast days of St John and St Peter. For those who lived through Franco’s dictatorship it is a reminder, perhaps, that they now live in more enlightened times.
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