cycling from summer to autumn

I have a class in Linlithgow on the last Sunday of the month, and last weekend I cycled home from it. My plans for the 22 mile ride along the Union Canal towpath this summer had been stymied first – often – by weather, and then by engineering works which meant that I couldn’t get the bike to the start point by train. Weather and other commitments have also prevented me from building up much in the way of fitness, so this would be easily my longest ride of the season.

Over the course of a few hours (including two pub lunch pit stops – I said I was unfit), stony surfaces, where the hinterland was arable and open, alternated with squelchier ones on long wooded sections. The repetitions began to create a sense of deja vu in one unfamiliar with the route. Robert Macfarlane borrows a term that I like from American artist William Fox: ‘cognitive dissonance’ (The Old Ways, p.79). Macfarlane finds this chiefly in what he calls ‘data-depleted landscapes’ such as high moors and tidal strands, my own favourite terrains, but it can happen when any sort of defamiliarisation is induced. Sea voyage, test match, Ring cycle. With the canal a constant on my right hand I felt as though I was cycling from summer to autumn. I know what West Lothian looks like: I’ve travelled between Edinburgh and Glasgow regularly for twenty years. I watch it from up in the Pentlands on a weekly basis. But I don’t know it. Canals subvert our knowledge of terrain, linking places by the line of least resistance, the contour, and not the line of greatest efficiency (the road). Their sinuings show you the locality in a new way.

The route of the Union Canal makes a lengthy detour around the Broxburn bings. The red spoil heaps are a memorial to the extraction of shale for oil in this area. Accustomed to seeing them in the distance, their denuded and increasingly biodiverse proximity experienced from cycle level startles. It’s like a passage through an otherworld, or, to use another Macfarlane term, a xenotopia, in the middle of the central belt.

Progress eastwards was slow; Edinburgh seemed as though it was getting further and further away, even when the Pentland Hills and Arthur’s Seat had become visible on the horizon. Signposts – Winchburgh, Almond Aquaduct – kept indicating the passage of a ridiculously low mileage since the previous one. It was the final weekend of the Edinburgh festival, and the journey felt a bit like a (slow) progression from one stage set to another. Woodside, fieldside, woodside alternated like scenes designed to build dramatic tension – or muscle fatigue. I wanted to switch to a higher gear and higher cadence in order to get home a bit more quickly, but wasn’t able to on the narrow track.

A couple of people had told me that there was ‘a rough section’ on the towpath. I think it would be more accurate to say there was a smooth section, a surfaced stretch around Broxburn. For the rest of the route, I and my bike, which is officially and accurately classified as a rugged hybrid, were jolted along uncomfortably. On FB* there’s a photograph of me taken at a poetry reading last week. The forearm grasping my paper, honed by absorbing shock from the the rugged hybridity of Lothian cycle paths over the last couple of years, probably has even better definition now.

And the fest? As usual, I was just getting into my stride in week 3 when fatigue was setting in for everyone else. Unusually, I didn’t attend many music events, choosing to focus instead on poetry and spoken word. Refusing to make a distinction between ‘page’ and ‘stage’, or  book and fringe festivals, was liberating and enriching, though I followed with interest the debate  around the dichotomy and hierarchy between them. I went to two concerts, on the final Friday, and they were very good, but my head was still (too?) full of words. Other highlights: Juliet Binoche in Antigone; gyoza from the Harajuku Kitchen stall in George St; the moon making a guest appearance above the magical lights in Charlotte Square and George Square. Still to come: the exhibitions that stay up in September, and space to actually look at them. More cycling before it gets too cold, and some hillwalking before the heather dies away. Going back to work, and my ‘Summer’ holiday.

* Never an early adopter, I was initiated into the world of Facebook this summer and as a result my blog posts have become even more sporadic. I don’t even know if it is ethical or possible to link to the photo.


the play of work and other optical illusions

I’ve had a week off – no teaching, client work or meetings. Instead I took day trips to look at art outwith Edinburgh, for once without the agenda of preparing a workshop or a poem. I returned home in the evenings to watch highlights of the Vuelta a Espana and Tour of Britain. In the land of TV cycle touring, I’ve noticed, ‘podium’ is a verb and ‘abandon’ a noun. I wish I could say I’ve also had a week off from the Referendum coverage, but it’s too close (to polling day; to call), and too important to ignore. I had to turn the volume off during an exchange between Dennis Canavan and someone else on Reporting Scotland the other night. Of course I understand that with the stakes so high, and the subject so inflammatory,  interested parties will overheat. But as a voter and citizen, I’m just glad to be living in a fairly peaceable democracy. I’m starting to feel as I do when people over-identify with a sporting team: reactively neutral. Whatever the result, good and bad things will happen  Meantime, thank heavens for the wit and sanity of Gary Imlach, the best sports journalist I’m aware of.

On tuesday I travelled to Perth to look at the Alison Watt paintings that form part of GENERATION, the Scotland-wide celebration of art made in the last 25 years. I love her paintings of fabric; her painstaking crafting in paint of its folds, falls and crumples in works with titles like ‘Shift’, ‘Hood’  and ‘Tuck’. The Perth show is a mini-retrospective, a dozen works ranging from Watt’s self-portaits and nudes of the eighties, through the luscious work she produced after removing the model and making the figureless drapes the subject of the work, to new pieces that approach abstraction. One, Orion, completed this year, achieves the luminosity of a lit photo studio or stage set. Watt claims it alludes to Norman MacCaig’s beautiful short poem ‘Praise of a Thorn Bush’ (I couldn’t find a link, but it’s on p.319 of his Collected Poems); poetic is one of the first, and most lingering, words to spring to mind when viewing these paintings. In some of them, flesh, or plaster, are also suggested. Huge canvases absorb you as you approach them. Some seemed to draw me in towards a  vortex at their centre, where the darkest tones represent creases and folds in the mostly light/neutral/white fabrics. Once up close with the painting, our privilege is to observe the mark-making: how exactly she’s created the crack in a floorboard; shadow; toes.  I may not have been working, but I was still concentrating hard. Starting to experience sensory overload, I went out for a walk.

Beyond the North Inch parkland, a mile or so up the Tay, beyond the grand houses with lawns that terrace down towards the river, there’s a place where the current runs fast. On the far bank – the right bank, the east side, the Scone side –  is a shepherd’s hut kind of structure, quite camouflaged amongst trees. A human figure was sitting on the  bench in front of it, quite camouflaged against the walls. I sat down on a public bench opposite  and watched the current play. Eventually the person rose, picked up some tackle and waded in, making an arc from a gravel bank by the shore, through the shallows, until he was waist high in the midst of the fastest current. I watched him casting his line, slowly against the rapids, for maybe half an hour. When I returned my gaze to the bank, the verge in front of me was rotating, steadily, clockwise. My brain had however cleared enough to return to the gallery, and I walked back downstream.

Reflected in the seemingly static Tay, the arches of Perth Bridge completed into perfect circles, like portals to an otherworld.You could not help but imagine passing right through their centre. The trees on the banks also found their counterparts, sharp and solid below the water surface. Watt’s paintings were wonderful, and so was the scene outside the gallery. Attributing this to atmospheric conditions rather than any portent, or  illusion, of what the nation might become, I returned to the capital, from where I could cycle to a sunny Portobello beach on Wednesday, and on Thursday go to Jupiter Artland in the haar.

I grew up with the big Hepworths and Moores in the big landscapes of the Yorkshire Sculpture Park; this is maybe more akin to Ian Hamilton Finlay’s Little Sparta at the other end of the Pentland Hills, but differently ludic to his self-styled ‘republic’. You have to seek out some of the works more subtly embedded in their wooded context.  Jupiter generously afforded opportunity for another day’s play with reality and illusion, amongst Charles Jenck’s landforms, and structures built by Andy Goldsworthy: a hut floored only with unfinished rough-hewn bedrock; an unlit interior densely furnished with  floor-to-ceiling tree trunks. Boulders from the same source as the hut – the ditch spanned with a stone arch by Hamilton Finlay, and tagged ‘only connect’ –  nestled like erratic tree-houses inside coppiced branches inside the woodland. Be wildered.

the power to communicate

I’ve lost my voice. I think I contracted something on an Edinburgh tram. I caught one one along Princes St on their first day of public service, en route to the Three Harbours Festival in East Lothian. There was a continental, party atmosphere in central Edinburgh. The sun was shining, staff were aplenty and smiling  and there was no mention of delays and budgets, though one of the tracker announcements was playing up, and the number of minutes to the promised arrival of the next westbound tram kept increasing rather than decreasing. A tannoy announcement  exhorted people to take selfies (I never thought I’d use that word) and send them to Transport for Edinburgh. I don’t even have a smart phone, and hadn’t thought to bring a camera. My friend Rosie and I went on to have a grand day out by the sea, wandering around the open studios, and enjoying some excellent fish and chips. I regretted not packing the camera: Cockenzie looked continental too, and next time the weather’s that good, the twin chimneys of the power station that overlooks the port may have been demolished. On the way back we’d had enough of the 26 bus by York Place, alighted and hopped onto a second tram. This is where I suspect I was infected. It was like rush hour on the London Underground, and it was with relief that I fought my way off at Haymarket. My camera had stayed at home, but Olga Wojtas, a fine writer, was out and about with hers. I was particularly amused by this shot of Ingliston Park & Ride.

2014 05 31_5036_Ingliston park and ride stop

Enough to give you hayfever. From which I was suffering anyway, before the onset of summer cold. After a week of attempting to clear nasal and cerebral congestion with some vigorous coughing and nose-blowing, I strained my vocal chords. I didn’t know you could do that. As a year-round allergy sufferer, I’m always attempting to un-block congestion by these means. The doc advised me to shut up for a week. Luckily I’m not a singer, actor or motivational speaker, and voluntarily keeping schtum (partly voluntarily: I can only whisper and croak) is actually quite liberating – as I remember from a couple of bouts of laryngitis when younger.

Ironically enough, this term’s theme at South Side Writers is ‘The Power to Communicate’. We’re contributing text for an exhibition of digital art at the Scottish Mental Health Arts and Film Festival in October, and taking the opportunity to address the topic as widely as possible while we’re at it. You could say that promoting the power to communicate is what a writing group does by default, but once you start tackling the issue deliberately, the questions raised are many and fascinating. When you move beyond famously power-laden discourses like law and medicine, themselves very fertile areas for creative writers, you can begin to consider the fictive or poetic potential of kids passing notes in class, or dedicatory quotations in gifted books. And I think it’s always useful for writers, whatever their level of experience, to examine and maybe re-evaluate how they communicate to their readership.

I shan’t be communicating via the spoken word this Friday. I can, however, nod, smile, wave, print out a handout and write illegibly on a flip chart. Were the theme something other than ‘the power to communicate’, I’d probably cancel the class, but under these circumstances I think it will be fun just to give it a go and see what happens.


a night at the opera, at the cinema

The twenty-first century phenomenon of the live HD broadcast was of course a way away when Wagner developed his idea of the gesamkunstwerk, or all-embracing synthesis of the arts.  The first season the New York Met did the live relays into cinemas, I saw a couple of  performances screened at the Cameo in Edinburgh, then didn’t quite manage  to follow them up with some dance and straight theatre in this medium. Nor did I go to see Borgen on the big screen. Birgitte / Sidse Babett Knusden was beguiling,  the supporting cast excellent, and the visuals of Copenhagen not as desolate as those of The Killing, but I have paid for my TV licence. After I even missed David Tennant’s  Richard II recently, a friend  who stays just east of Dunbar offered to take me to Berwick upon Tweed to see the Royal Opera House’s screening of Parsifal for my birthday.

I decided Parsifal  was my favourite opera when I heard the Prelude and Good Friday Music as a nipper (on vinyl and cassette), and this didn’t change once I started listening to whole performances on the radio and CD, or after I’d seen productions in theatres and on DVD. Not difficult now for me to see why: time becoming one with space; suffering relieved through compassion; healing balms and springs and pathless ways; those glorious, endless sonorities; a deconstructed eucharist or two that celebrate mystery and ritual at the same time as testing the concept of  an institutionalised, hierarchical faith.. . what was not for me to like? (That’s a rhetorical question: I have  no problem with selectivity when it comes to the appreciation of Wagner.)

Wer is gut?, who is good?, is a question posed verbally in, and implicitly throughout, the opera. In the  case of this production by Stephen Langridge, evidently not the grail brotherhood, who quite literally released their blood, with syringes, before piercing the side of a pre-pubescent Christ figure who – rather than the usual translucent lighting plus or minus wine goblet – represented the actual grail. Then some of them donned masks and seized firearms. I was diverted for a moment into wondering if there should have been a warning for needle-phobics like myself, and hoping there was no screening in Lockerbie that night. In Act III the knights bullied Amfortas into performing his office with more menace than I’ve seen before. All of this worked beautifully to make additional sense of a text that has engaged me creatively for several decades now, not least because it superbly pointed up the moral ambiguities of holy wars, closed societies and spiritual rituals.

 If the protagonist is Parsifal himself, the redeemer; and Gurnemanz, the elder and chorus / commentator has – by a considerable margin –  the most lines, what purpose in this trinity is served by Amfortas? This character is punished for his lust for Kundry, the only main female character, with  a unstanchable groin wound. Usually, as per stage direction, he’s wheeled on on a hospital trolley or somesuchlike in order to sing his lines about his night terrors, before being wheeled off again for the bath that might provide some temporary alleviation of his symptoms. If the singer / actor is good-looking, cue some audience indulgence in the eroticism of the wounded male body. Here Amfortas was on stage from the start, in a white cube of a hospital room that, as would be expected, served other functions in the production (shrine of the grail, bed of seduction). He was on a drip, and the grail knights were his medical as much as spiritual attendants. He walked, first with extreme difficulty, then with a zimmer frame.  The medieval setting can make this opera feel very remote from our world: this, literally clinical,  modern staging reminded us of the pain of being a hospital visitor, or relative or carer of a very sick person. And the imagery made it  seem  very much a post-AIDS Parsifal, too.

One of the problems a director of Parsifal always faces is how to represent the eucharistic grail scenes. Some, like Langridge,  invent new symbolic and gestural languages for the ritual  which critics in their turn  hate.  Instead of a processional mass, or holy communion, the knights and acolytes queued up to touch the wounded side of the christ-boy. Other stylised movements and poses were interpolated throughout. I don’t mind if something looks silly – this didn’t – because it just points up the actual arbitrariness of adopted styles and practices. If an act(ion) is repeated  often enough and you believe in it and it comforts you – nothing wrong with that – it becomes normal, traditional, important. When it becomes unchallengeable,  you start to get problems, so you have reformations and schisms and disruptions. Life goes on. My friend, a big fan of dance and physical theatre who was new to Wagner, said she could happily have watched the choreography in silence, and I agree. The whole opera was beautifully staged, and the staging was beautifully filmed. Nowadays the arts of singing and acting for the camera, and of filming  stage acting and singing, are becoming more specialised and refined. The gesamkunstwerk redefines itself.

Berwick upon Tweed’s arts complex, The Maltings, was chromatically warm and thermally cold, with a quirky and comfortable bar. Inevitably the sonorities and subtleties of Wagner’s final opera were rather lost in its small auditorium, or by its audio equipment: you really need to be, if not in Bayreuth, in a space with a live orchestra in the pit, to get the full sonic benefits of  this one. Outwith the theatre, you can’t of course achieve that visceral connection with a resonating voice that I find to be one of the greatest pleasures of being in it, either. The singing nonetheless  sounded pretty impressive throughout. Tenor Simon O’ Neill‘s Parsifal  had a rich and lovely lower register, but he was unable to bring an appropriate luminosity to the higher passages. Maybe even that was a good thing – others overdo it; and he securely landed the final sung note, where many  have faltered, before the sublime closing orchestral passage, when the audience gets to see the director’s solution to the ending of the drama. Amfortas and Kundry, suitably redeemed, possibly embarked upon a feasible partnership, though my companion thought it a more spiritual assimilation, after death. The sacrificial christ-boy has gone; the shrine is empty. (If nothing else, this is a great compression of the gospels.)   Several reviewers seemed to think that this symbolised how the brotherhood, under the direction of its newly-annointed leader Parsifal, had relinquished its selfish monopoly for the benefit of humankind. It could equally say something about the emptiness and superfluity of symbolism. I think that’s a more compelling initial reaction, whatever later reflection yields.

As with much of Wagner, the orchestra itself is a key protagonist. When I was sitting in the upper circle slip seats in Glasgow’s Theatre Royal a decade ago, shoreless waves of cellos in the final act seemed to reverberate against the auditorium wall . . . the other night I remembered  the previous times and places where I’d heard Parsifal before: isn’t that one of the things Wagner is meant to do, anyway? In a womb-red new cinema/theatre space,  wrapped up in my warmest coat, with – according to the weather forecast, and the next day’s news – a storm raging outside, I  re-lived who I have been, and revelled in where I was. Zum Raum wird hier die Ziet, now time is made one with space.

So, one of the lovely things I did for my 49th birthday was to go to the opera at the cinema, in the country next door, no matter that it was also showing on three screens in Edinburgh.  I hadn’t actually set a foot in England since 2012. As we drove back to Dunbar on the A1 I was also reminded of a youth spent travelling between England and Scotland at night, and, more prosaically, of the etiquette of using the beam. Coming home the following day, in low and cloud-diffused light a couple of days before the shortest one, the surrounding fields of the Lothians and Fife across the firth, and the buildings on Edinburgh’s shore-front ahead looked stunning, unfamiliar, transformed.

stanza 13: legacy and place


Photo: Stephanie Green

StAnza Poetry Festival, St Andrews, Scotland, 6-10 March 2013

One of the festival themes was ‘Legacy & Place’.

It was like a Hebridean holiday: you bumped the same people several times a day. Andrew the drystane-dyker poet; Enid who wrote so movingly in your workshop; Annie the young journalist; Rebecca whose poems graced the walls of the room used for workshops,  complementing paintings of the peripheral made by her collaborator Anna. People you knew from Edinburgh; Canadian writers you just met for the first time; cheerful StAnza staff.

Weather enclosed and defamiliarised the Fife town and seemed to intensify and brew the creative and social activity.  The wynd where  I took shelter  from the landfall of an Orcadian wind suddenly felt like a Stromness pend, and was filled with kent faces. I was happily disorientated. When the visibility improved a little on Saturday, I walked along The Scores to the West Sands to ground and assimilate the many wonderful words I’d heard over the previous three days, from the voices of Gillian Clarke, George Szirtes, Ken Babstock, Chris Whyte, Erin Moure, Mark Doty, Jean Atkin and more. Offshore, in parallel, waves broke endlessly, uniformly, companionably from the still-near horizon. Up at the cathedral, I stepped over the remnants of low walls and was reminded of the cloistral ruins on the tidal island of Birsay, and every bit as cut off from the quotidian. The wind intensified; drove in a tide of Shetland vowels. Time to return to the warmth of StAnza’s replacement hub, the Town Hall, made resplendent with words, sounds, images and tactile textual objects, to see  the collaboration between Fife poets and Shetland craft makers, Farlin. Time to hear Walt Whitman and Marina Tsvetaeva echoing down the generations and across continents.

It wasn’t  unexpected that, meteorologically enabled or not, sounds and other senses from  the northern and western isles  found their way along the wind and waves and into my experience of the venues in St Andrews. It did however come as a surprise to me to be taken back to the Lake District. When Gillian Clarke spoke of childhood fear as a foundation for poetry in her compelling exploration of  Brythonic verse and the Welsh alliterative pattern cynghanedd,  she cited Heaney’s testament to the pervading power of early terrors.   I was reminded of Wordsworth’s assertion near the beginning of The Prelude that he was ‘fostered alike by beauty and by fear’, before embarking on his incomparable blank verse catalogue of childhood adventures and misdemeanours. When Erin Moure, in a dynamic workshop on revision, commented that ‘language can do more than we know’, I searched my memory for the source of his line ‘we feel that we are greater than we know’. And then Jean Atkin, appearing with Zoe Skoulding in the highly atmospheric vaulted undercroft at St John’s, read her poem about the old coffin path that connects Ambleside and Grasmere. I was back in my graduate school days, trying to impress American delegates at the Wordsworth Summer Conference whilst walking that same path on a visit to Rydal Mount, the Wordsworths’ home between 1813 and 1850. Or  earnestly studying early MS. drafts towards The Prelude at Dove Cottage, but waiting for the weather to clear so I could climb Helvellyn (a Cumbric place-name, incidentally, closely related to Brythonic). My supervisor was the late Robert Woof, director of the Wordsworth Trust, who tended to be there, rather than doing his day job across the pennines at Newcastle University. Since that time, the Trust, like the universities, has recognised the benefits of welcoming creatives alongside academics. Time to pay a return visit, perhaps.

But for now, thank you, Eleanor Livingstone and all the StAnza team and participants.