Walking in Mind

A Trail of Thoughts


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Suddenly the night has grown colder…

What more can the poet gift us than the words we need to face the hour of his departing.

As someone long prepared for this to happen,

Go firmly to the window. Drink it in.

Exquisite music.

By the window I hear it, the voice of a troubadour in the tower of song, guiding me towards a final verse, a borrowing of words to bid farewell.

We who had the honour of his evening,

And by that honour had our own restored –

Say goodbye to Leonard Cohen leaving.

Leonard Cohen leaving with his lord.

 


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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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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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All Souls’ Day

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.

Charles Causley


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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.


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A Short Walk By The Crooked River

Before I left the house this morning I travelled to the other side of the isle, from North Cornwall to Norfolk in the company of Helen Macdonald. In an article published just before Christmas in the New Statesman she recounts her annual pilgrimage to the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust reserve at Welney in Norfolk, the wintering site for thousands of whooper and Bewick’s swans. Her description of the spectacle is as vivid and original as anyone who has read her recent book H is for Hawk would expect. What does a thousand-strong chorus of Arctic swans sound like? Until this morning I couldn’t have told you, but through her words I can hear them now, I can hear what she calls a “vast amateur brass band tuning up in an aircraft hangar”. But what most caught my attention was something she expresses towards the end of the article: her delight, while watching the swans, that they are as at home in Norfolk as they are in the Arctic.

Home. As a child growing up in Wadebridge, one of the things I loved was to stand on the bridge across the estuarine River Camel and watch the mudbanks re-emerge as the water receded with the ebb tide. There was something reassuring about their reappearance. The world may have seemed different for a while, but at bottom nothing had really changed. Best of all was the grassy mound that sat just upstream of the bridge, and onto which a pair of swans would regularly clamber and there wait patiently for the river to return. When I left home aged 19, the swans and the river were among the few things I acknowledged missing.

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Today the afternoon skies are heavy and grey as Paloma and I set out upstream along the Camel Trail. We’re not planning to go far. We’ll walk until the light begins to fade, and then head back for tea. But that will be enough, for this is rich terrain that is best taken in small amounts that can be savoured. We follow a south-easterly line below Treraven Wood and begin to cross the meandering river at Pendavey Bridge, led on by a gentle honking. Reaching the midpoint of the bridge we see there are twenty or so Canada Geese pottering around the riverside. They seem as unmindful of me as I am of everything else as I stop to photograph them.

IMG_0517Canada geese (Branta canadensis) alongside the River Camel

The woodland opens and the water, now on our right, flows straight for a stretch, belying its original Cornish name, Dowr Kammel: crooked river. On the far side bank, the strip of filamentous grasses seems to shiver in time to our own movement, as if it were a sound waveform capturing the music of this place.

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It is then we spot the second skein of geese and begin to hear and see their announcement of imminent flight. Honk waddle, honk waddle, honk waddle, honk honK hoNK hONK HONK HONK… “¡Qué escándalo!” says Paloma, and there is indeed a considerable racket as the birds take to the air and head downstream. Quiet returns, and we decide to press on for another ten minutes or so, as far as Polbrock. There we climb the steps up onto the narrow road that runs along the top of the twin-arch bridge: one arch spanning the disused railway line along which we have been walking, the other the river itself. From our new vantage point we gaze upstream and marvel. At this distance and shorn of leaves the trees are impossible, with our knowledge, to identify, yet they are no less beautiful in anonymity.

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What was it that the poet Neruda wrote in response to a world of too many names? Pienso confundir las cosas, I have a mind to confuse things. Or as one of my clinical supervisors used to say: Forget the diagnosis, listen to the patient! Sound advice, but not always easy to follow. And so, our vision prejudiced by training, we fill the lacunae with what we think we know. “See that tree there: don’t its branches look like Purkinje cells? And that spindly one to the right: isn’t that a motor neuron?” This is how we bring the anonymous trees into focus, by imagining the foundations of life.

The light is fading now, and we need to head home. As we descend the steps and start back along the trail I think of how my father loved this place, and of how in leaner times he had fished this stretch to put food on the table. For him it was not just a place of recreation, it was somewhere that through care and respect would continue to provide. In his own way, that is what he communicated to us as children. I realize, then, what it was I had felt up there on the bridge. A sense of permanence.

I quicken my step so as to catch up with Paloma, and together we stride out, hand in hand and singing into the dimming of the day. By the time we reach Pendavey Bridge it is almost dark, and that is why we almost miss them, there on the upstream side: six mute swans plopping patiently, one at a time, off the riverbank and into the rising water. A whiteness of swans. The collective noun is right in this light.

IMG_0539Mute swans (Cygnus olor) drift towards Pendavey Bridge

Despite their name, swans of this species are not actually mute, although they would never pass the audition for an Arctic brass band. But they are the swans I know, and they are doing what the River Camel swans have always done. They are moving between land and water, between two homes.

I watch them until they pass beneath the bridge, and then I turn to Paloma. “Come on,” I say. “És l’hora de tornar i fer les maletes. It’s time to go home and pack.”