Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Under Western Eyes

My summer reading continues. I have just crossed Joseph conrad's 'Under Western Eyes' off my list.

A curious work- very unusual in its narrative structure, but it is handled with mastery- which tells the story of a student in Czarist Russia who is caught up against his will in a violent conspiracy, tries and fails to extricate himself, becomes an exile, and is forced to assume, and finally reject, his role in the movement. It is told through the memoirs of Razumov, the young man, but indirectly, through a series of multi-layered narrators, and it is always, ultimately, Western eyes that try to see and understand circumstances, motivations and actions which, we are repeatedly told, only a Russian can understand.

It inevitably reminds you of Dostoievski, as the story of a man caught up in events beyond his control, partially digested by a system which had no interest in him, but had picked him up like a grain of sand in a clam and had to find the right way of spitting him out. Or perhaps he was more like a fly which you have accidentally let into your bedroom. It makes no difference to you if it flies out of the window before you can swat it, as long as it ceases to annoy you. Or again, like a leaf caught in the gears of a printing press, some way must be found of working  it through, by pulling, scraping, pushing, charring, releasing, different levers and parts, until it can no longer damage the working of the machine or the quality of the product. Or … insert metaphor of choice here…

But, though he has some luck, and makes mistakes at the beginning, he does try to take control of his new situation from the very start. And he is quite successful, shrewdly manipulating everyone to his advantage, which at first is merely to avoid association with the event, then to stay alive, but later to exploit those who have come to believe in him. It would perhaps be wrong to describe him as cynical. He is a man of limited and weakly-held morality, interested mainly in his studies and some personal idea of his own well-being. He is forced to become something he has no wish to be and he finds that to do that he must in fact become something else again, until in the end he effectively chooses to give in to the fate that he has come to believe he cannot escape.

Having said roughly the same thing in three different ways, I think it’s time to stop. I enjoyed it. You probably will, too.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Greyhounds in the Field

Greyhound racing is taken very seriously in the village. They buy and sell them, know a great deal about them, what to look for and how to train them, they race them whenever they are arranged, and organize races themselves. Like anyone with a passionate for anything, they get together as much as possible to talk about dogs. They eat, sleep and breathe greyhounds. Their conversation can probably get rather dull. Fortunately I don't know any personally. I do know a lot of hunters, though, which is the other great passion in this region, and they can be very boring indeed. I imagine Mrs Hickory feels the same way when my father and I start to reminisce about that great Essex team of the '80's under Keith Fletcher…

Anyhow, despite their love of greyhounds, there are no dog tracks. The great stadiums of Romford and White City are not to be found in this region, or anywhere else in Spain (or even in Romford any more, I believe), rather the races are run in fields, from end to end, over some length that probably depends more on the space available than on any characteristics of the dogs, but those I have seen are over about 800 yards. Every summer, by tradition, we allow a morning’s racing on one of the fields nearer the village, at Festival time (now), in exchange for which we get tickets for the bullfight. (There used to be a ploughing competition as well, but since a dispute with a previous mayor it’s now held somewhere else.) So I sometimes go and see what the atmosphere is like and how it all works.

There is nothing complicated in the mechanics of greyhound racing- you point them in the same direction and let them go at the same time, much as though they were horses or Ethiopians- except that the motivation is provided by a hare, which they chase. The way in which they get the hare to operate is quite interesting. A long, thick stake with a kind of capstan on top is driven into the ground beyond the finish line. Through this threaded a steel cable which is then attached to the hare. A motorbike takes the hare down to the bottom of the field where the starting line is. The other end of the cable is wound round a spool attached to some kind of engine. In the photograph the engine is a car engine and the spool is adapted from the wheel of the car. This year the spool was mounted on the back of a van and had its own engine, which makes it easier to move around and gives you finer control over the hare. He was also somewhere about the middle of the course, so the cable must have been well over half a mile long. Once the race is underway, the hare driver keeps his wits about him and his eyes on the dogs, and keeps the hare at whatever the appropriate distance is considered to be. It looks to be about ten yards, though I assume he uses his judgement.

When the dogs reach the top of the field, such members of the organizing council as are still sober will have been deputed to judge the finish, and then everyone involved, and probably idle spectators as well, will argue at length about the result. In the end agreement will be reached and they begin to prepare the next race. It looks fun, and in fact, despite the picture I may have given, it is not chaotic or disorganized at all. As I said, they take it very seriously. Whenever I have seen it everything has gone off as intended, and the crowd has had a good time. Then everyone hides under the trees to eat sausages and drink a lot of wine until about one o’clock when it starts getting too hot and they drift home, doubtless nursing grievances about decisions gone against them, voicing suspicions of nobbling, and planning the next meeting.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Memories of Marrakech

This was many years ago, but I was recently digging around in forgotten corners of my brain in an attempt to reconstruct a journey I made in the summer of 1987, and the memories of Marrakech were especially clear, and they seem worth writing here even now.

The train from Tangier as far as Casablanca was very modern and comfortable. Someone said that the French railways had given Morocco a number of disused or never-used trains and they ran on the long distance lines. (The others we took were much older and much worse.) The station I remember as open and sunny, with a number of platforms and lines. It was early afternoon and very bright. The journey was extremely enjoyable, and I remember it especially well because the railway line is very close to the coast most of the way. For much of the time you could actually see the beaches and the sea. I watched the shorego by, the beach, the sand, the sea, the people walking, playing, swimming, and the sun shining brilliantly down on it all. It is just over 300kms, the journey took maybe 6 hours, and I recall that for much of it we were looking at dunes and people and water. I’m sure I remember only the best bits but there were certainly a lot of good bits.

The next morning we went to Marrakesh on an older, more cattle-like train. It stopped at all the villages and people kept getting on with baskets full of fruit and vegetables and chickens. It got very full.

 We went to the bazaar or souk (I don’t know if there’s a difference), a collection of covered alleys full of stalls, open alcoves, really, where they sold carpets and clothes and ornaments and household things and accessories and doubtless a lot of other things too. They drank a lot of tea, calling it down from the tea-shops that were part of the life of the place. I imagine the sellers must be there six days a week and their life is very much bound up with it, so their friends and their rest is there as well. I bought something, I don’t know what, for which I paid with money and a half-smoked packet of black cigarettes. The deal was done. So, I expect, was I. There was lots of colour and life and smell and facial hair.

The thing I remember most was the market square, not the only one, but the main square of Marrakesh. It was large and open, with a road around three edges and building only beyond that road. It was clearly an important centre of commerce. During the day there were stalls, where those who were there every day had their produce and their lives organized. It was mostly fresh fruits and vegetables on the stalls. I don’t remember much meat, and in fact I don’t think they ate much of it, and there was no fish, of course, that I remember.

There were other sellers who mostly seemed to be Berbers come down from the mountains for a few days to sell what they had. Craftwork, non-perishable produce, maybe some longer-lasting stuff but I seem to remember objects rather than food. They had it all laid out on a carpet, and in the evening when they had sold all they were going to sell that day they told stories with what they had left, and left out a bowl for donations. The children were not expected to pay, and they were sitting on the ground all arou
nd the rug. Adults came and went. I understood nothing, but I got the impression there was magic and spirits involved.

Around the edge were a number of stalls, vans I think they were, selling fruit drinks, cool but not very cold, and very sweet. One was from a green fruit that I didn’t know and can’t remember the name they gave it.

Around and about, I remember them as being at the opposite side of the square, near a colonnade, there were remolques which consisted of a large board with bowls of different kinds of food, a light, a flame for cooking, a space for the owner/waiter/cook, and benches on the sides that folded down to sit on. They were towed in in the morning by car, and towed away again at night. An efficient and popular way of providing food to the people, the sellers and the customers. You sat down, ordered what you wanted, or in our case pointed to it, it was put together on a plate, heated as required, and you ate it. There was couscous and some kind of meat (rabbit) and vegetables and a lot of stuff that you couldn’t identify. I just pointed at a few things and ate what I got. It was ok. I assume there was drink as well though I don’t remember it.

Also in the square were snake-charmers, photographers, guides, and others who live, honestly or less so, from the tourists. I took a picture of a snake, or with a snake, possibly. For some reason those photos were never developed. I bought a camel-skin handbag for my mother which she used for years, and bracelet in the form of a snake for someone or other. I bought it from a man who seemed prepared to throw in his sister to clinch the deal. I may not have understood the fine print.

On the train back to Tangiers we met a couple of lads in camel-skin hats, like the Arabs wear. They were sheepish about it but in the end they told us how they had been persuaded to buy Arab cloaks so they wouldn’t look foreign and people would leave them alone. Needless to say, it didn’t work. They were blond Scots, but even had they been darker they would obviously have stood out. It is easy to spot a foreigner by the body language and the guides and beggars are very used to it. When they saw it didn’t work they persuaded the seller to swap the robes for hats, which were at least interesting and could be worn back in England. We joined indulgently in their laughter at themselves, and kept our mouths firmly shut. We, of course, had not done anything remotely as silly...

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Answers to comments, and a minor Apocalypse

The barman at our local here in the country is a bright chap, the sort of barman who only exists in James Taylor songs and stories by Raymond Chandler. I have been reviewing the Apocalypse of St John in Greek, and I asked this barman to serve me what the Saint had beem drinking when he wrote that extraordinary work. He nodded thoughtfully, sought clarification of a couple of details, contemplated the ceiling lights in a distrait, barmanly fashion, and suggested absinthe. I imagine he was wrong, in that the Evangalist was probably not inspired directly by that particular substance, but it his professional instinct had reached an answer that sounded right. Unfortunately he had no absinthe, and we were not able to try our hand at a recreating Revelations. This disappointment has led me to seek Revelation without pharmaceutical help. The result will be published here. Vincent I can't get the comments form to work on the phone, so I must answer your comment hete. I enjoyed my time in Sweden, because it has natiral beauty of exactly the kind I love, and enough new things to keep me amused. It is, however, as you divinef from thevpsots, a vountry that has nothing extraordinary to offer. I have no sense of having entered and experiencef another world, as I often have after visiting other countries, but it is pleasant enough, and at this time of year eveyone is determinedly happy and optimistic abecause the other ten months are misetable. Yes, it is ordinary. I will do my best in the next few days to try to explain why someone would want to visit Seeden ad a tourist. From what you have said though, you probably shouldn't. Of the places you say you have been to in the last few years, all have much more novelty to offer the curious visitor than Sweden, I think.

The Land of the Blessed Virgin

While I was reading 'Of Human Bondage', I also had a look at Somerset Maugham's 'The Land of the Blessed Virgin'

I wondered how the discerning observer and fine stylist would have seen the southern Spain of a hundred years ago. I was a little disappointed, as it is very much the opinions of a man who stayed outside everything around him.

It is very well observed in places, but there are too many statements glorifying, exaggerating the exotic which he thinks he has seen or should have seen. Generalized descriptions that cannot possibly be true.  I suspect he has not seen much of what he claims to have seen, and much of what he has he has not understood. A lot of the time he seems to be quoting guidebooks, adding literary embellishment of his own, sometimes good, often not. He has clearly had almost no contact with real people, he has not got to know anyone, except one woman, Rosarito, who I strongly suspect was not real anyway. Everyone else is described in the ignorant terms of the armchair anthropologist,.

He generalizes from a lazy interpretation of a single instance.  He has little curiosity about people, he is more concerned with finding a pretty phrase or a making an extreme pronouncement. Even the individuals he is forced into direct contact with, a doctor, a bullfighter, a watchman, etc, are described in terms of how he expects them to be, rather than how he has found them to be. On the other hand, some things he does describe well and in considerable detail, as though he had paid real attention. The Cathedral, the bullfight, the rain on the fields. It's not a book that will tell you anything much about the Spain of 100 years ago. At least, it won't tell you what you thought it was going to tell you. It will tell you how one man experienced a journey through Spain at that time. As such, it is a story well told, just not at all the one I was expecting.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

San Pedra

I walked today along the route of one of the many dry or almost dry streams in the area. The map is full of blue lines, some full, some broken, with the words ‘non-permanent water-course’ next to the symbol in the legend. Many of them have not had water for many years. Some, in fact, are barely visible on the ground, but are perfectly clear from satellite photographs, and you wonder where the water has gone that once created these great channels.

The stream I took today does have water this year, and when it doesn’t you can still see where it flows. I particularly like this path because it takes you between bright red hills covered with bright green vegetation. The water may be barely visible, but the plants know it’s there. There is a freshness to it which is very rare here.

But there is a lot more to the path than a feeling. There are little stone bridges where it winds back and forth across the water. There are little cottages used by the men who have gardens there, as sheds are in England, but some are bigger and become a place of refuge, especially during the summer. Some are proper houses, two floors and whitewashed walls, and once families would have lived there all year round, with the chickens and the dogs and the pig in the corral. Now they are just summer dwellings, quiet, solitary places which appeal to the owners who still grow crops on the old riverbed.

There is a ruined Moorish castle, little more than a square turret, rising through the trees on a small hill near where you pick up the main road again. I saw it once after very heavy rain had turned the hill into an island, and you see the castle as it was intended to be, unreachable by stealth, a safe place from which to keep an eye on the surrounding country. There are a lot of them here.

From that point you pass a forlorn and empty campsite, unable for some reason to attract more than a handful of campers, even when at the other campsites downstream they are queuing to get in the doors.

And from there you are beside the lakes. You pass an attractive hotel, tumbling down the rocks to the waterfront, dressed always in freshly laundered white, accessorized tastefully in well-kept wood, and adorned with dabs of red and green and gold in just the right places. You are back among people, and can then choose to swim, row, take the sun or contemplate the world at any point along the banks where you can find room.

Friday, August 9, 2013

La Familia de Pascual Duarte

Camilo José Cela won a Nobel Prize back in the 80's, and was awarded a Marquesate some time later by the King. He is known in Spain for these things and for swearing a lot. It's some years since he pronounced his last swearword, having gone to sit at the great writing desk in the sky, doubtless in front of a window through which can be seen far more interesting things than the ones he's now trying to write about (Perhaps that's just me, and might explain why his success was rather greater than mine. I wrote about 'La Colmena' a couple of years ago, I think, but the holotype, as it were, of his work, is generally considered to be 'La Familia de Pascual Duarte', which I had never quite got round to reading.

It was written in the early 1940's, and set during the preceding decades, as it describes most of the life of the title character. It sets the scene at such length, and is at first so pleased with the conceit of its own narrative framework, that you begin to wonder if there is any story to be told at all. But there is, it develops rhythm and power, and it gains a sense of its own surroundings, almost accidentally in the end, having tried so hard to do it deliberately, which makes it matter. It is not clear why Duarte does, or does not do, the central acts of the story. It is never explained why he didn't kill his sister's lover, why his brother died as he did, how his wife died, why he left his home and his wife, why his sister became a tart, why he killed his mother… His story is a series of  disconnected and unexplained actions.

The story is told, effectively, in his own words, supposedly in a manuscript found by the prison governor. he explains little, he only states, describes, sometimes justifies, often omits. He seems to care for nothing; fair enough. The family is not the story, the house is not the story, although that might have been the original idea. It is a combination of all these things, a mood created by them collectively, that is the story, and what makes the book worth reading.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Otis tarda

It could be the name of death metal band (perhaps it is), but I'm referring here to the great bustard, a large bird which has traditionally nested in the south of Spain, and over the last few years is back in increasing numbers. As I cover a lot of ground on my travels, I have seen a few of them this year. They seem to like some of the farmland near the lakes. They nest on the ground, and they congregate near the centres of large fields (fields are large here because the land is poor and you need a lot of it to grow a worthwhile crop). They avoid the paths where people and vehicles might go. I don’t imagine they can conceive the purpose of paths, of course, but by constantly moving away from any people they do see, they will end up with a preference for a spot in the centre, where they will only be bothered at ploughing, sowing and harvest time (or by the occasional lost wanderer who, having given up hope of finding a path that actually goes somewhere near his goal, and wondering vaguely whether he will be missed at lunchtime, or they’ll have kept his beer on ice, decides to walk straight across on the off-chance that on the other side of the field there is something that is of use to him). There are rather beautiful birds. Light earth brown on the wings, bordered and finished below in white, they look at first sight a little like emus. They vary greatly in size. Some are like turkeys, but I came across a small group the other day that were around four feet tall. They were only 50 yards when they too flight, and for a moment when I saw them I genuinely couldn’t work out what they were, so impressive was there size. They fly little, but with an elegant, efficient grace which is a pleasure to watch. They are, it is said, the biggest flying things on Earth, and yet they have none of the clumsiness of many ground-nesting birds (watching a partridge fly you wonder if the chap in the workshop in Switzerland who put it together had lunched rather too well). Whole families stay together until the chicks are hard to tell apart from the adults, so you might suddenly see a dozen of them rise from the corn in front of you are argue briefly about the best direction to take before splitting up and reuniting somewhere beyond the next copse. It is a remarkable sight to see them fly, and they give a different scale to the skies. They make the eagle owls look small and clumsy.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Of Human Bondage

Attentive readers will have noticed that Mrs Hickory and I have been in Sweden, enjoying it with all the open-mouthed wonder of a farmboy taking his cabbages to the local market town for the first time. Which is how I think most things in life should be lived, even though I am prone to forget this and give in to world-weary cynicism at the first opportunity. Anyhow, we are now on the farm, and have been for a while, so now it is summer things: books I am reading, places I am walking through, curious things that happen, stray thoughts that strike me as I wander through this now familiar land

 I have just read Somerset Maugham's 'Of Human Bondage'. Many sources seem to consider it his masterpiece I really can't agree. It is in not a masterpiece, and Maugham himself has written better books. 'The Moon and Sixpence' is much better, in the literary sense, and a better read, and some of his short stories are innovative and compelling, which this isn't. It seems a bit unpolished to me. There are good and interesting characters, some well-painted scenes, some sections are genuinely captivating, but the whole doesn't work. The beginning, the childhood and school, is dull and might well have been left out. It would have some purpose if it created the character of Philip from the details that he experiences, but it doesn't do that. When we need to learn something about his character the narrator simply tells us what he is like. The end is predictable in part; it is obvious he is being set up for settling down with a specific girl, and obvious he is going to get on with the crusty old doctor. I wonder if it for moral reasons that the narrator doesn't let Philip travel as he wished once he is qualified. It seems strange in Maugham to care about that, but I don't see any other reason, unless he was just tired of the whole thing and wanted to finish it.

I wish we had been able to follow Paul's travels in Spain and the East before he was sacrificed to the demands of normality and maturity. But it is Maugham's book, not mine, and he conceived it that way. The central relationship is very powerfully created and the tension is maintained throughout. I repeatedly experienced an empty feeling in my stomach when I feared he was going to fall for Mildred once again. That is a sign of good storytelling, when it has you shouting at the character not to be a bloody fool.

Saturday, August 3, 2013

Public Art in Sweden

Public art appears to be less subject to any constraints of quality or taste or return on taxpayers money than even in England. The place, the country, is dotted with abysmal creations that I am sure no one has paid for willingly. There are big display cases with pointless, as in having neither purpose nor anything to say, stuff in them, there is a poorly made figure of a pink giant urinating into the river. There was, in a nearby square, a great structure of wires strung with bathroom furniture and other objects in a meaningless parade of tat. Someone is laughing as they take the money. In front of the castle in the river there are three figures of businessmen standing in shopping trolleys. There is at least a touch of humour in this, probably Marxist humour of course.

It turns out that these piles ofuninspiring junk  are part of a festival called OpenArt. The woman in the tourist office encouraged us to do a tour of all the pieces. We shan't be doing that. What we have seen of it captures everything that is wrong with taxpayer-funded artists. It is lazy and dull. There is never more than a single idea, usually trite and poorly executed. There is no attempt at doing real work or conceiving a more complex idea, something worth expressing, and working on the best way to express it. For 'public' artists it is always and only about money. Other people's money. The art itself doesn't matter, as they are not communicating with anyone, not even themselves.

It was a pity to have to navigate all this stuff in order to see the simple beauty of the town.

Friday, August 2, 2013

At Orëbro

Mrs Hickory came across this area by chance when she was looking for somewhere we could go walking well away from Stockholm. There is a large and beautiful system of lakes nearby, a lot of people have wooden cabins there for holidays, and so we went for a couple of days to walk around. Cue photographs of water and birds.

The river runs through the centre of what is only a small town, really, and it divided and rejoins itself again to form a small island called Large Island. It’s a matter of perspective, I suppose. The island and the neighbouring banks are a park, a very green and pleasant one full of unnecessary bridges and playgrounds and peculiar objects that were part of an art exhibition. There is a castle on another little island next to it and this was the view we had from our hotel room, which was across the river. It’s a conference centre now and inside it looks like one, but it has an impressive presence from without. A marauding band of brigands or disgruntled thane of lands to the North would think twice about trying to take Orëbro.

And bicycles. There are a bicycles everywhere. Huge numbers of bicycles. Just as in the other cities we saw, but in such a small place the quantities are exaggeratedly large. Everywhere there are people riding bikes, but also there are banks and hoards and rows and columns of bikes parked by the dozen or the hundred on almost every corner and every widening of every street, in racks intended for the purpose. The bikes are old-fashioned and in most cases just old, with high wide handlebars, the people are not dressed for cycling, they often look as though they are doing it for transport, not pleasure, and despite the numbers on the streets, many of the parked bikes have clearly not been moved for months or years.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

A Couple of Stray Notes from Uppsala

Uppsala. At breakfast there was a biker whose jacket said he was from the Uppsala chapter of the Ards Vikings. I didn't know they had clubs for them. He looked pleasant and friendly despite the build, the tattoos and the facial hair and it occurred to me that they might be a bit like elk. Having no natural predators they are calm, clumsy and mostly harmless.

At the river we walked along the bank a few hundred yards. It was full of young people, students I suppose, doing what young people do, hanging out, drinking beer, trying to impress the girls. Being young. I miss being young.