Travels


1.

 

From the plane we are met by our friends. A limousine with cellular radio. Helsinki airport is tiny. The journey from Gatwick is quicker than the slog by road to Wales!

A first night in the ranch-style Lappio. Fine wood interiors, spacious rooms, suitcases disgorging things for overnight baby needs.

But we do not sleep. Instead we seem to glide through the night on a glacier of half-dream, a momentum of anticipation, a crest of foreknowledge.

 

 

We rose like trout

through one of the thin

walls of the night,

at nearly 5 am.

 

I, with a line – “…not snatched like old

Jews from the streets of Moscow…” –

you with heated legs

writhing in their stride,

 

she, baby girl, sitting up

before she knew it. An electric

storm, all the needles swinging

on the dials.

 

Damage of flood and fire,

breakage, wear and tear,

all uninsured losses,

made good, sewn,

 

restored, repaired,

in the salving rituals of the night

of nibble and heave,

stretch and sigh,

 

easily begun,

renewed, shared:

her hand at your mouth,

my nose behind your ear.

 

 

2.

 

With Tiina and Jyrke straight onto a company-owned launch at Lapeenranta, from where we reach into the whole network of lakes and waterways: Saimaan Vesisto. There are thirty-six thousand islands in the Finnish interior, not to mention many more, sea-islands in the gulfs of Bothnia and Finland. Lake Saimaa is “makea vesi” – sweet water. Our furthest point will be Savonlinna in mid-opera-season with performances in the castle standing  over the lakeside.

 

Depression, as always, at the release from the pressure-pot of work at the start of a holiday.

 

A nerve of misery, signalling despair.

 

M., after getting an abnormally large amount of breast while on holiday, is now mad to get at F., pinching and struggling to attain more. That is how the flesh is, as my evangelical friends would say.

 

Breaking cover.

 

 

3.

 

To a fishing-cottage on an island. The sand around the door has been combed by the previous occupants, like a Japanese garden.

There are quite a few people secluded on beaches and in coves around here but they scrupulously avoid each other and do nothing to attract the attention which would fracture privacy. Finnish nature. Occasionally we catch sight of a flank of lime-green tent or see an orange triangle of windsurfer’s sail. Reticence is measured in tens of kilometres.

Pale nights of the northern summer. I take a photograph in natural light at 10.45 pm.

 

Insects fly for the eyes.

After nightfall moths blunder, fall heavily, huddle their wings, totter towards the candle base.

The lingering deaths of flies startle the dark.

 

Bubbles of poetry falter upwards from inconsolable depths. Focus. A stream of composing.

Reading poetry: decomposing it.

 

 

             ISLAND

 

Still lakes, brushed pines.

Lone sail as bare as a curved bone.

A blade of light glides in the steep red

waters of Saimaa lake.

 

Acres of booms straddle the flat

surface of lake, marshalled for pulp.

Vibrant pine-masts ring to the knock.

A white yacht with double sail,

 

beautiful as a telephone,

scoops hot air. Evening brims.

Islands fuming after rain

cloud a bandstand sunset.

 

A boat’s passing furrow leaves

ribbons of water idling.

Evening spreads. We lay our nets

down the flightpath of the sun.

 

Reeds nod in flocks, all

leaning and pointing the same way.

Nylon fishnets, like old woman’s hair,

spill a rainbow helix.

 

Swamp-cotton shines

in the smoky light of spaced pines.

Their pink and ash-grey pools of fine

mottling peel away in scales

 

from high necks, salmon-grained.

Below are darker trunks and roots.

Our steps spring on coral rock,

spongy with moss. Evening swarms.

 

Horseflies mothy as owls burn

ridged ulcers into scars:

we bare our bodies to the tiny barbs,

root sea-legs in a rocking sauna.

 

Then after dark the heart pumps

its waves on the ear’s shore.

Solitude comes into bloom

round a bulb of candle-flame.

 

 

4.

 

Trees.

The tall pine for the cabin’s whole, straight beams.

The silver birch for the sweet-smelling “vihtas”, leafy twig-bunches for skin-slapping in the sauna.

The “visakoivo”, smaller, rarer silver birch, for the knife-handle with its weaving seams.

Only birch burns with the intense heat for the sauna oven.

The water-lining “leppa” smokes and flavours the fresh fish.

 

Morning walk through the island.

Clouds in rows, springy as rolled-up blinds.

We walk on silver moss to the beach.

Lift elk’s droppings.

 

A brown-winged gull, is poised in observation, then plummets to a metre’s depth in the sea after a fish.

 

Jyrke describes how he waits to feel the thoughts swarming and circling in the minds of the men he does business with, sometimes Russians, just as now he feels how the fish are moving. He seizes and fastens on an opponent’s moment of weakness to clinch a deal. Riding Tiina like that, too, to keep on top. Knowing her moods and ways. A hunter’s animal magic.

“I feel sorry for her because she doesn’t have any parents.”

 

Smoked reindeer meat for breakfast. White-tailed deer soup for lunch.

 

Kerlukka-lukka. M. is learning Finnish. It should be kala-kala, says Jyrke. Kala is a fish.

The way to speak a foreign language is as Tiina does: with aplomb!

 

Handling a boat, a shotgun, sharpening a knife. One fish we catch is the “made”, a snake-fish. It must be hung up and its skin rolled off.

“Like undressing a woman”, says Tiina.

 

 

5.

 

Picking and planning each step with care in the shared small spaces of the boat.

Soon we accumulate a multitude of plastic cups, forks, knives, teaspoons and paper plates.

Nearby appears a flotilla of logs stretching down half the lake, pulled by one tug, herded by another nuzzling deep into an outlying raft.

M. waves to passing boats – with both hands if sufficiently excited.

 

We now have the gleaming skin of faces restored by sauna, wind, some “jerking”.

 

English language news is at 11.10 pm. We listen once. Some musicians and horses blown to pieces.

 

 

6.

 

Gypsies in the market at Savonlinna. Women in colourful traditional rig, very Amerindian-looking, with deep harsh voices. Men unshaven, in high boots, waistcoats. Selling us lace, but lace they themselves had just bought.

“Kuinka paljon?” – How much?

The gypsies are traditional horsemen but now they ride big Swedish cows. The government builds them houses but they are not wanted as neighbours. Hordes of relatives arrive on extended visits at a house let only to one family initially. They operate a lot with booze on the black market.

One man, employed by Tiina’s stepfather, took a week off work: “My uncle’s horse was having a foal and we all went there to see what would come out.”

We offer strawberries to a shy and angry gypsy girl, Nina, who passes in her antique pushchair and stares a lot at M. in hers. She thrusts her fists in her eyes but peeps out from behind them.

 

Wolves came and took eight calves this week here, near Savonlinna, it says in the local paper.

 

On the jetty at Puumala a little boy, about nine, is fishing in his jaunty white cap, changing his place every few casts. For his efforts a couple of “ahven” (perch) to show the men from the boats.

 

 

7.

 

Germans seem to be universally unpopular. “Don’t give them matches”, the Finns still say, remembering how the Germans burned every house in the land on their passage north to the Ice Sea, where their boats were waiting. The chalets and cabins of timber fired easily.

 

Finnish children are almost silver-blonde and as babies have little hair at all.

“We have only one colour”, says Tiina.

 

In marriage the individual features fall away. The sticky business is with the universal woman.

 

To F.: “What’s a little creature like you doing producing such a big baby?”

“If we’d had the light on we’d have seen better what we were doing.”

 

Wheeling M.’s pushchair I feel all the eyes of the women we pass drawn to her. M. shamelessly exploits this baby-power of hers and wherever we go she attracts new friends by smiling flirtations. Only once before did I experience anything similar, when I walked down a street just a step or two behind a very beautiful girl. I felt all eyes drawn to us. Perhaps, in the way in which we long for our unknown futures, men look at women and women look at babies.

 

 

8.

 

Bedtime squalling.

 

The radio left on pumps out anything: non-silence.

 

A round of activities, twitching like a nerve, delays the stilling of the face in the pool.

 

 

                  DUO

 

Fine-eared Naiad with vacant fish-stare

sweeps the open reeds.

Wind sinks her nipples. She is pinned

in a jet of actions issuing like shocks.

Her companion’s gaze

 

bulges at the flags, long lashes like sparks,

his mouth an unoffending fish-pout.

A straying roach he eyes through a soft lens.

No fine quiver betrays

his neutrally enquiring approach.

 

 

9.

 

Living for days on the island without money, without wristwatches. Concerned instead about fresh water.

 

Lexicon: palette, keyboard – for sprinkling practice dabs.

 

My poetry is literally squeezed out from the seams and edges of a tiresome life, all tides pulling away from the pole. Hence its density, concentration.

Dropped in an illicit still.

I tread the measure of my anger, kneading with lips and fingers the bread of the flute.

 

 

10.

 

From tonight, M., no more of Daddy’s storms. No-one emerges from a power-struggle otherwise than withered and evil. The power-ballet distends the family net like Lobachevsky’s planar geometry.

Your hand sleeps like a starfish on the towel that serves as a sheet on your bed on the floor of this boat. The wind that dropped when the sun burst over ladies fragrant for the opera, here where night hardly falls, has pulled your lungs like canvas and lowered your eyelids.

Gone, and sufficient, are the day’s rollercoaster jerks of mummy-coming, mummy-gone. We have clucked in Finnish: WE STOCK LOTS OF COCKLES AND A LOCKED POCKET CLOCK.

In the sauna you crawled and slithered, your naked chubby body large as a child’s, baby no longer, our gene-fusion, the being caused by us, now with a life of its own. You rocked on a firm sauna bench, “a bit boaty”, as you did after your leg-plaster was removed.

Puumula, Savonlinna. Here I make my covenant to venture deeper in love, this point a point to return to, to begin again from the journey that must be begun again.

 

 

11.

 

A revolution is a kind of overwhelming.

The post-revolutionary is the geopolitical equivalent of the schizoid state. The split is finally achieved between reality and abstract ideal but at the same time the two are fatally confused. The continual implicit directive is to the rejection of reality, the reckless embracing of the lie.

 

Soviet freighters with coals from Leningrad, tankers with oil. Not allowed to stop. An unsupervised wave.

 

A day overcast – intermittent rain. A sense of doom, of indecision, a succession of small things going wrong.

 

 

12.

 

The water is a wedding-cake iced with diamonds under clusters of tightly-scrolled clouds.

Again an island and deep-water anchorage close to the rock, moored to a pine.

We roast over a fire a perch caught this morning, its two sides opened out, as if on a hinge, and transparent before the flames.

Mainly pink rocks, granite, with spongy moss so that each step springs.

Everything’s pristine.

 

 

13.

 

The objectification of the self? Or the subjectification of the world?

My way – scared as hell of the romantic ego -, and also the way of Pasternak, is the second.

Yesterday in an art gallery decor shop I was given a long explanation – seconds after acquaintance and in immaculate English – of the subjective and therapeutic meanings of the superb textile series done by the artist, a friend of my interlocutor and a recent widow, exhibited downstairs, which I then went down, much moved, to look at. This is the first way: it woke me up to the power of the artist’s vision, the singleness of eye, wrung from dedication. Yet I felt eventually that perhaps it was not mine. Mine was less personal, more incidental. Perhaps, chameleon-like still, I must continue to reflect my surroundings.

 

Lappeenranta, Suur-Saimaan Komakyla, Ristina, Puumala, Savonlinna, Rauhalinna (“peace castle”, where the snowy Varykino scenes in “Zhivago” were filmed).

 

Finndecor. Pure as air, water, stone, clouds, leaves, bone.

 

 

14.

 

Those who are sceptical about books, who see them only as physical entities (“Haven’t you got enough of them?” – “As if they were ties!”), must also be sceptical about words. Words without meanings belong in books without words. Missing, always, the interior dimension.

 

A stream leaps from the sudden peace of focus.

 

And you can write for paper, for the rinsed margin, or speak still within the axial spin of the very dream that woke you.

 

Mölandet, in Swedish: “virgin land”.

 

 

            MÖLANDET

 

Firs fin through the blue

map of the sky. Cormorants dive

as the boat churns in attack.

Clouds, spilt like skittles, spread

or like water-lilies, broken up,

float apart. The full moon,

its Africas and Newfoundlands complete,

smiles drily on a tideless ocean.

 

Driving curves of vermilion leap

the boat, refilling on two-stroke,

stalled on the flood. Boats’ lights

come on to wink. And across the night

voices cough in mild thought.

Unmoving triangles of sail

prick at the edges of islands.

A slow gull wags over a floating moon.

 

The sun waves tin daggers as

the horizon slides to a band of pink.

Lank cranes, defunct, hinged in stooped crooks,

lurk in the sky of a fitters’ yard.

Boats are grilled on hot spikes.

Gulls creak by or veer

in surprise at a motionless figure.

Suns clash. Moons collide.

 

A fire’s sparks on the beach

light a welcome and gift of fish,

“turska” smoking at the water’s edge

with alder and juniper in a tin oven,

torn trousers, bare feet,

a mouth smiling in a nest of lines.

The sun swings a razor pendulum,

the moon a slow stepladder.

 

Black arrowheads of pine saw

at the belly of the passing sun,

jag the swirl of spoilt glass

that spills in cooling stripes

through the oily pool. Mosquitoes mew

in the ear like sulky kittens.

A wind mops at pecking reeds.

The sun descends steps. The moon is bent.

 

We pour salt water and sweat beer

at ninety degrees. Then in the sea

douse, toes nibbling for rocks.

A callow moon blazes over naked feet.

Unearthed, a vanished sun’s steam

has spread in a yellow stain.

A child stirs in her jacket of sleep,

a small tumult under the moon.

 

 

July-August 1982; January 1987.

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Who should be in charge of the cabin crew on the short flight to Prague? Before the plane had even begun to move from its Heathrow boarding spot, I distinctly heard the captain announce the name of my friend. I sent word. Soon afterwards, the friend rushed up, sat herself in the vacant next seat and gave me a cuddle. Then, all at once, she leapt up again for the take-off. Shortly thereafter, little bottles of champagne began to arrive.Prague Notebook - 1

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Wandering the streets of Prague I was struck, as I had been in the minibus from the airport, by the large, unrebuked graffiti everywhere. In Václavské Námestí (Wenceslas Square), amid all the usual male crewcuts, there were numerous much more criminal types. I was accosted twice by people begging, once by an English-speaking girl who asked ten crowns “to get home”. This threw me into great confusion, as I was still shaky over the money. I gave her all my change but then worried that this was worth practically nothing. (She had been asking for only 20p in English money, scarcely enough to buy a few sweets for a child.)

The communist hell is still visible: dirt, poverty, begging, crime. At the southern end of the Square, a “memorial to the victims of communism” is like a wound, with fresh flowers, unofficial, small, still resented, no doubt, by all those nostalgic for the days of order and discipline.Prague Notebook - 2- Wencelas Square

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It was difficult, in spite of many instructions, to find a Post Office to send off to my friend Šárka a copy of my book of poems. Happily, the building on the corner was the British Council – no less. Here a Čzech woman with excellent English drew a little map for me to find, not only the Post Office, but also the Globe bookshop-café. The Prague Writers Festival, she told me with a gesture towards a poster on the wall, was just getting under way during the week of my visit. Her efforts continued and soon two free tickets and a spare programme were produced, the latter a substantial booklet with biographies and excerpts in English translation.

This is a stroke of heaven. Everything seems to be very near here, so it will require little effort, and less of my ample enthusiasm, to get over to the Ypsilon Studio this afternoon.

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Finished, alas, with Anthony Burgess’s Earthly Powers, the wrath of God and the revenge of Satan locked in close combat, blade to barbed blade. Innocent souls spun to destruction in the backwash of a saint.

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The lady at the British Council was rewarded, to her delight, by flowers and some poems. I went on early to the Ypsilon Studio and wandered into the heart of this former cinema in which Communist officials used to allow themselves to watch banned foreign films, down spirals of steps, and was offered a free coffee by a lady at a hatch. Leaning elegantly nearby was a man who introduced himself as Petr. His excellent English enabled him to tell me about this Art Deco building and about the previous evening’s event. Three American authors – Susan Sontag, William Styron and Robert Stone – had packed the theatre and shocked, among others Petr himself, by how honestly they expressed themselves. Čzechs, Petr explained, had been brought up under communism to respond in uniformity, to “have no fantasy”. An art lesson at school was one in which children all drew the same thing: a Russian flag alongside a Čzech flag. The large audience had all come to learn something about individualism and had not been disappointed.

The day’s programme was Greek and the discussion, when it started, was excellent. But I was moved most by the single poet, Katerina Anghelaki-Rooke. Sixty years old, quite disabled by some deforming condition, she read poems in Greek that, in their accompanying English translation, seemed to grow and fill the hall, tall vibrating columns of pity and terror, their purity and concentration immense.

Later, when I had managed to buy a copy of the excellent English translations, I approached the poet to sign them. Gradually she manoeuvred the vacant chair next to her to rest the book on: “I am a table person.” Then she wrote away, asking my name. I crouched beside her.

“Do you write?” she asked.

“Yes, I’m a poet,” I said.

She looked up. “Why do you say it so sadly?” she asked with her wide smile. Reaching out, she affectionately brushed my cheek with her hand.

Only when I walked shortly afterwards to the Globe literary café for a signing by these authors, did the immensity of this sink in. Passing me just inside the Globe, Katerina saw me again.

“I feel I have known you all my life,” she said.

I replied, “You touched my soul just now.”

By now dazed with sadness and happiness simultaneously, I sat by the books while she read another poem in English, following in my copy. Later I offered to buy Katerina a meal in the interior of the café and she consented, though in the event she wanted only a beer. We roamed widely, in spite of regular interruptions by Greeks, one worried that she had separated from the party, another to give her a signed copy of his book. Occasionally she became excited and shouted loudly. She had just completed translating into Greek the whole of Eugene Onegin and spoke of Pushkin’s language (she knows Russian). Cavafis’ homosexuality was a factor in his Anglophone popularity. English, language of generals and empire, was a language of concealment, perhaps the secret of its political success. Because of a lack of gender agreement, an entire love poem could remain ambiguous as to whether the beloved was a boy or a girl. Rilke she adored, bringing her fingertips to her lips in a kiss. And much else, much else.

I said, quoting from her ‘Red Moon’ that the reason that I was sad was that

All the poems I had ever heard

[Had] returned from afar to bury me.

When I alluded to the ending of ‘Yanoussa counts her possessions’,

Forty-nine and the obsession over

she said that, with men, it goes on a bit longer.

“I am fifty-two,” I said.

“…and the obsession’s still going!” she quipped. We both roared with laughter.

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I was most interested in the Čzech writers. Their first event involved four younger Čzech writers reading from their work, translated by Jim Naughton of St Edmund Hall, Oxford University. Only one, Petr Borkovec, was a poet. I had become frustrated in the programme booklet by the, admittedly skilful, English translation by Justin Quinn, who had managed to reproduce elements of the form, such as the rhyme scheme. Nevertheless I felt the poem itself hovered somewhere behind the English translation. In the Globe once more, I introduced myself to Petr and Jim and, at the table there and then, spontaneously, began to work out with them a literal version. The poetry of Borkovec had, for me, reminiscences of the still-life quality of Osip Mandelstam’s earliest volume, Kamen (Stone).Prague Notebook - 3

Eventually, back in England, I continued with our efforts at retranslation, with the following result:

The lyre is weightless. Overnight,

October has collapsed onto the platform.

The electrified train grates – the station is gone.

Fifteen minutes conveys the travelling scene

to a halt whose beauty chills.

Green clouds, a poplar in blue shade,

a field at the edge of town – Arles for an instant.

And when the low tea-coloured sun collides

with the margin of the town in windows,

I catch sight of a Bethlehem crib.

The lyre is light, so I search for it

as for a wallet or lost ticket.

The younger Čzech prose writers who read from their work seemed to have in common a vein of fantasy, even surrealism. While this was occasionally breathtakingly funny, it seemed to display itself tantalisingly in front of an audience with which it did not connect. Those I spoke to afterwards, Čzech and English, were not impressed. Perhaps surrealism remains the most difficult current to integrate in the modern literary stream, the unconscious being very resistant to our attentions.

The subsequent event was a single author, Josef Švorecky. Breathless with an incipient cough-cold, he read, first in Čzech then in English, a piece concerned, like so much of his work, with jazz, but in this one he improvised a blues to a woman. All poetry worthy of the name, he said, originates in this feeling between a man and a woman. (Subsequently every effort of mine to locate the source of this reading has failed.)

In spite of such passional grounding for his work, Švorecky was decidedly modest, even self-effacing. What was striking to the visitor was the open affection in which he is held by his young Čzech audience. One questioner wondered why he was such a good person. Why indeed? Švorecky did not know but was clearly pleased.

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There can be no doubt that there is abroad here a Spirit of 68. While it does my heart good to hear Bob Dylan and Janis Joplin playing at the Globe, what can it all mean to the younger generation? Do they really want to tear up paving stones and throw them at the police? Perhaps all of this is the achievement of a delicate posture. In the Old Town there is a Marquis de Sade café, into which I peeped one afternoon, finding the roomy wooden interior, with benches, tables and mirrors to relieve the gloom, very inviting. But if one was to read out, suitably translated, a few paragraphs of the Marquis to the customers, the place would quickly empty.

It is the innocence of childhood, the post-communist lull of potential. Some of the Festival presenters, with flower-wielding fixed smiles, seem to think this is all a celebration of awareness, with words and gestures to suit, a happening, a flowering of new consciousness. One strikingly tall philosophy student at Karlovy University I spoke to about poetry had read only Lawrence Ferlinghetti.

Many Čzechs wish to attach their country like a cattle tick to the belly of America. Growing up in Britain one is shielded, to an extent, from the world-wide adoration of America. Indeed I spend much of my time defending the poor things.

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I had experienced a tingle of shock, close to Václavské Námestí by one of the little kiosks advertising organised tours: Terezín. The name held sweet horror. A tourist destination? But gradually it came to seem to me a duty to go, a quiet pilgrim journey amid the Festival flowerings. When would I again be in central Europe within range of a concentration camp? So early one morning a guide came to the hotel to collect me and walked me to the minibus. This tall young Karlovy student was changing his course to one in statistics. He had done some very boring work, he told me, for Reuters, as a result of which he had discovered “I am not a machine” and become altogether averse to computers.Prague Notebook - 4

A British couple, who quickly brought to mind the Borrowers, got into the minibus to wait but, claustrophobic, got out again. The wife endlessly berated everyone in complaint but, when her husband joined in loyally, she said:

“Now, keep calm. You must keep calm!”

Later, at the Terezín crematorium he placed a little Yarmulke on his head, so much of this behaviour would have been anxiety.

Our guide, a woman with arthritic hands in her late fifties and an ex-journalist, gave a rich and insightful commentary. However she was also pessimistic and embittered, for instance at the failures of the post-Communist governments:

“We do not have real democracy in this country.”

I appreciate the intensity of these concerns; but like my Russian friends, people here do not seem to appreciate that democracy means boredom. The Russians certainly think it means the continuation of apocalypse by other means. In Britain we have been asking whether university students should receive grants or pay tuition fees. Ah, that such a throbbing domestic issue should attend the rebirth of the Scottish parliament!

Parliamentary democracy is an admirably labour-intensive source of occupation for those with second rate talents. Let them harmlessly manage and administer our affairs, while those capable of thinking, creating and discovering get on with their work undisturbed. Surely this state of affairs is to be preferred to that in Plato’s Republic, where philosophers are compelled to set aside philosophy, against their will, and rule.

Terezín was a moving, but not a shocking or new, experience. My education seems to have included a great deal of the Holocaust. One could see that families were kept together (as they were not in black slavery), and that prisoners were fed. Matters compared favourably with, say, conditions in the Gulags. Indeed a typical Terezín barracks was strongly reminiscent of actual conditions today in the Saint Petersburg prison we visited in 1991.

Terezín was essentially a transit camp and Gestapo prison under the Nazis and the cultured Jews of the Ghetto poured forth music, writing and art, notably the sketches of Fleischmann, preserved on display in the Museum of the Terezín Ghetto, whose every caption begins, “People …” Stark, haunted and guilt-dirty as it is today, with its millions of sordid bricks, its quietness effectively conceals, what Fleischmann’s sketches reveal, that the place was a pullulating mass of human beings, some 60,000 at any time. This is truly difficult to imagine.

Given their limited resources, the authorities, Communist and post-Communist, have done well to keep the place alive as a meaningful memorial. But little Israeli flags stuck in water-pipes, occasional wreaths and witnessing candles, can never cover over, can never make more than a patchwork of fabric fragments of, the grief, indignation, preservation of children’s names. This is the best we humans can do to tame and domesticate, as a member of the historical order, this outbreak of rationalistic horror. (Our guide revolved the dilemma of “good Germans, bad Germans”.) We draw the fragments together, piecemeal, but they can never form a whole, finished garment. The facts of rational blackness keep erupting; the grief goes on; the memorial is provisional.

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There is, at Terezín, a memorial to the French poet and resistance hero, Robert Desnos. A last poem of his was sent to his wife Youki by a Polish student who found the poet dying of typhus among survivors in 1945:Prague Notebook - 5

Last Poem

I have so fiercely dreamed of you

And walked so far and spoken of you so,

Loved a shade of you so hard

That now I’ve no more left of you.

I’m left to be a shade among the shades

A hundred times more shade than shade

To be shade cast time and time again into your sun-transfigured life.

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Back at the Festival, I now had to bid a fond farewell to Katerina Anghelaki-Rooke. She was soon flying home to Greece and Aegean sunlight. We had both been amused at the antics of photographers and I read her in draft the little joke poem I had composed on this subject:Prague Notebook - 6

Photographers

They clamber over each other at the foot

of the stage, their jaws snapping,

the FAMU girls, beautiful and determined, their hair

between copper and burgundy, firing the season’s black,

the men lean, muscular, with heads forcefully crewcut.

The oversize lenses lurk like bins

to be fed with light.

And all this for writers?

But such expected adorations are ignored.

The mind of a writer is like a defunct wasps’ nest:

thousands of empty chambers rustle

in the small breeze of a thought,

a faint susurrus of indifference

to the crocodiles far below.

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The concierge at my hotel, a young man, perhaps like so many a student himself, made a request. His girlfriend, a student of English, would like me to give her, autographed, some of my poems. Martiná, she had the same name as me. I found three poems that had accompanied me by accident, which he duly photocopied. I signed and wrote the same message on each one for her.

“Tell her,” I said, “that normally I wouldn’t write the same thing three times over, but I have spent the morning in a concentration camp.” He twinkled.

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I, in whom these tides sometimes so majestically and impetuously rise, yesterday failed three tests of practical love.

  1. When there was no group collection for our guide, I failed to add my two-penn’orth to the other individual contributions.
  2. When a lady in the crematorium (only dead bodies were burned here, many Israeli flags notwithstanding) offered a memorial candle for sale, I failed to buy and light one.
  3. When a copper-haired girl, who had gladdened my boyish heart by accepting my invitation to dinner, told me she now couldn’t make it because her “boyfriend is very angry”, I failed to sympathise with the problem this had created for her.

Nevertheless, wandering in the Old Town today, I was given three chances in quick succession to redeem myself, all of which I took, in the form of Romanian, or perhaps Kosovan, refugee beggars. In the matter of begging, though loath to be parted from my money, I hold to the view of Samuel Johnson:

Why should the poor be denied such sweeteners of their existence? Life is a pill which none of us can bear to swallow without gilding. I give money to beggars to enable them to beg on. It is sufficient that our brother is in want: by what way he brought his want upon him let us not too curiously enquire.

He didn’t care, in other words, whether the recipient was worthy or unworthy, or whether he or she spent the money on drink. In this, I believe, he was adhering to the teachings of Jesus, who always urged generosity in alms – unqualified giving.

There is something in the craft and habit of begging that approaches a theatre of abjection. The posture, yesterday, even of a mother holding a one year old child, was one of profound stooping, so that, bent double, her face almost touched the ground and one wondered if she had fallen asleep.Prague Notebook - 7

Of course, there arises in the minds of passers-by an intolerance of this abjection, expressed in comments that can readily and repeatedly be overheard by anyone who cares to spend ten minutes standing close to a beggar. They’ll spend it on drink … She’ll go home in a taxi … He probably owns three houses. There is something about the presentation of an opportunity for charity that arouses antipathy.

Nevertheless the beggars accentuate and exaggerate all the more their postures of abjection, so that the whole performance, including the inflamed responses of passers-by, comes to seem a special form of theatre.

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At the Festival, Ian McEwan had arrived in excellent form but, delighted with his audience, got increasingly into his stride and imperturbably delivered himself, in interview, of immaculate impromptu paragraphs that needed no revision at all. He was particularly funny about the interview mode itself, a genre that began with the Paris Review, and now makes it imperative that a writer explain him- or herself constantly to journalists.

He described the American circuit of literary readings, how polite and friendly everyone was, and how, alone in the elevator, he would pull wild, evil faces but, stepping out at the bottom, put on again the wide-smile, pleased-to-meet-you mask.

People are not, he said, in search of any specific information. They just want to stroke the writers gently with the palms of their hands. Like a children’s farm, put in Jim Naughton, bilingual mediator of this discussion. Yes, said McEwan, but as with children’s farms, there are fears about E. Coli. It may not always be a safe thing to do, to stroke a writer.

McEwan was particularly good on empathy. Cruelty occurs, he observed, when there is no bond of empathy between oppressor and victim. One does not put oneself in the place of the other. In this sense, the novel is an inherently moral form, as it sets out to imagine the feelings and experiences of other people.

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Prague Notebook - 8One day, in the Globe where so many things can happen so easily, a young woman squeezed past my table to enquire whether the seats behind were occupied. No-one had sat in either of them for half an hour, I said. She duly sat herself down. Immediately a couple reappeared and, on the basis of a discarded newspaper and an empty coffee-cup, claimed the seats as their own. Gesturing to an empty seat at my table, at which I had been peacefully writing, I encouraged the woman to squeeze under the stairs and sit down there.

“They had not sat there for half an hour, “ I repeated.

“Oh I believe you,” said the woman. She ordered a beer. I resumed my rapt concentration.

After a while a conversation easily started up. It easily took little turns, winding here and there. I could not remember making an acquaintance before in such uncomplicated fashion. We spoke English, we understood each other, we saw life through the same eyes. After a while, in the same straightforward way, she told me that last year, only a few metres from her house, she had been attacked late at night and raped, suffering extensive brain injuries. Ever since, she had experienced constant fatigue and “brain fog”. For ten minutes I sat speechless, trying not to let the tears roll down my cheeks. Such a brilliant, frail creature.

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Wandering around the streets of the Old Town, I eventually succeeded in buying some small presents. In a literary café in Tynska Street, I was joined at my table by a young couple. The girl was persistently giving the boy a hard time. Nothing he could say proved acceptable. This was apparent, even to one ignorant of the language, in the rhythms of the Čzech, though these were not overly quarrelsome.

Eventually I asked in English:

“Are you happy today?”

So-so, she see-sawed her thumb and little finger.

“How did he upset you?” I asked.

Dismayed, she replied, “He speaks English too!” as if the premise had been a separate dialogue. “It’s just normal argue,” she said. I left them with a smile.

Prague Notebook - 9In a bookshop in a nearby square, I spoke with a girl who seemed able to answer every question and to guide my discovery of Čzech authors. Had she read every book in the shop? It seemed so. There must be stupid Čzechs, but their mothers seem to stifle them in the cradle at an early stage, so that it is impossible to come across them later on. Prague is a city in which everyone reads. But she was from Central Asia, she said, had lived in Saint Petersburg and would move next year to Spain. Then how had she learned such excellent English? “I picked it up along the way.”

Girl in a Prague Bookshop

Who is not looking for love? Your lungs crave

to be packed like a barrel with smoke,

even as your fingertips tap out

a path through new Czech writing.

Who says it’s a strain, being someone,

belonging somewhere?

Intelligence senses itself in others.

You refuse one of those invitations

that so easily give rise to regrets.

The best intentions are full of bacteria.

I am no businessman, but voyage

through people and pages.

I look at people’s faces as lovingly

as at their whole bodies,

searching out the soul that, sometimes,

leaps out unsearched.

You say being a woman is normal,

but I watch the days flow back.

I have pleaded with stupid people

and mourned the treachery of objects.

We bob, laced in a seaweed web.

Like any woman you dazzle me

with my own longing.

Twisted Spoon Press, she told me, was a one-man-band publisher of experimental and innovative writing. Wishing to support this, I brought over to her desk all six or so titles from the shelf.

“Which one should I buy?”

“Oh,” she rose to the challenge, frowning, “It would be either this one or this.” She brought forward two titles from the pack. I replaced the others.

“Now, which of these two?” I continued.

She now demurred. “You should open it and read any paragraph, to see what it is like,” she said.

“I have done that,” I said, “with this one”, indicating a grey cover. “And I was … scared.”

“Modern literature is getting so depressing,” she said.

“It always was,” I replied. We laughed. I started to indicate a preference for the other, rose-covered book.

“But this one is very interesting, I think.” The grey again.

“You want me to be brave,” I concluded, settling for her preference, Lukáš Tomin’s Kye.

Like all young people in Prague she soon needed to go the doorway for a long gulp of smoke. My ‘Snow’ poems, a tribute to Boris Pasternak, were included in New Writing 7, I told her, perhaps the only work of mine available in Prague. I don’t know whether she looked at it after I left.

She had to serve all day in the shop, and I had an evening engagement, so we weren’t able to meet for a meal to talk further. So many things I wanted to ask her, that perhaps she would not have wished to answer…

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Prague Notebook - 10Sunday morning and the Prague Post enables me to find an Orthodox church, Ss Kyril and Methodius, apostles to the Slavs, at the corner of Na Zderaze and Resslova. I believe this is the building where some Čzech assassins of a German general in the war, betrayed, shot themselves rather than face capture. The Nazis had wanted to flood the crypt where they were hiding.

I feel readily at home. Afterwards, in the Orthodox tradition, there is virtually no social contact, but I buy two tiny icons. One of them, a Virgin and Child, I later give to my friend with “brain fog”.

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And so home, to rainy, neglected England. Why do I not like the self I am in England? A cheque from Faber awaits me for £23, being the proceeds from individual viewings of my poems over the internet. This is definitely a first.

I had accepted a P & O freebie to look over their super new cruise liner, the Aurora, in Southampton. This was impressive but a deeply disagreeable impression was created by all the members of the public crawling, like me, all over it. Some had boarded and gone straight to one of the restaurants for tea and cakes. For many, to queue to inspect the luxury of the penthouse suite was the culmination of their life’s aspirations. It may be true, as de Tocqueville said, that consumer democracy keeps people in a state of permanent childhood.

O Prague remember me! Keep alive the Spirit of ’68!

22nd April 2000


Martin Turner, Trespasses. London: Faber, 1992.

Katerina Anghelaki-Rooke, From Purple Into Night. Translated by Katerina Anghelaki-Rooke and Jackie Willcox. Beeston, Nottingham: Shoestring Press, 1997.

Petr Borkovec, untitled poem from Polní práce (Field Work, 1995), tr. Jim Naughton and Martin Turner.

Robert Desnos tr. XJ Kennedy. In Modern European Poetry. ed. Barnstone, W., Terry, P., Wensinger, A.S., Friar, K., Raiziss, S., de Palchi, A., Reavey, G. and Flores, A. New York: Bantam Books, 1966.

Samuel Johnson, on alms being applied by their recipients to spirituous liquors. From the 1984 BBC Radio 3 ‘Kaleidoscope’ centenary documentary drama feature on Johnson.

Martin Turner, ‘Snow.’ In Callil, C. and Raine, C. (eds) New Writing 7. London: Random House Vintage /British Council, 1998.

We sleep tonight on the thirteenth floor of the Keio Plaza International Hotel in the downtown Shinjuku district of Tokyo. F. has accompanied me to a symposium, at which I speak tomorrow, on an improbable configuration of dyslexia, “emergency preparedness” for the handicapped and social entrepreneurship. Our warm and sincere hosts, met tonight at a buffet reception, are apparently paying for the flights and accommodation for both of us and have worked hard to prepare a programme, translate my talk into Japanese and organise “study tours” for us. We expect, on Sunday, to visit a winery that produces a world-famous champagne (its most recent outing was at the G8 summit), sleep in a “Japanese room” (on a mat?) and bathe in a hot spring.

 

We travelled a quarter of the way round the world on an uninterrupted twelve-hour flight, never leaving Russian airspace. Because we were heading east, to the plane’s (roughly) 500 mph must be added 1000 or so mph of the earth’s speed of rotation in relation to the surrounding space. As Australia woke into sunlight, Southern Africa dipped into darkness. I had thought China was vast and Mongolia a large portion of the Far East. Not a bit of it: China was a well-defined province and Mongolia a mere region to the north of India. The vast strip of planet above them passed beneath us with scarcely a murmur of forest and mountain, marked green on the flight data map but empty, apparently, of any defining cities or aspiring population, so great is the remaining mystery, even to cartographers, of all that vast space.

 

Loosely clothed, well-prepared and richly entertained (books, tapes), F. and I were in addition able to expand – in this plane perhaps a third empty – across the aisle into neighbouring seats with leg-extension possibilities. Drowsing between visits of cabin staff with snacks and orange juice, we forgot the time our bodies thought it was and surged forward with the horizon-cresting sun, into the time-frame of novelty and adventure. Around 5-6 am I switched off all lights, screens and musical equipment and drowsed in relative comfort, afraid no longer of the death panics that used to visit with airplane sleeps.

 

Only as the plane curved southeast beyond the upper slopes of Lake Baikal, known to Avvakum and latter day ecologists alike as the largest freshwater lake in the world, did we leave the mysteriously vacant strip of endless green space and head down towards Japan, the Koreas and the Sea of Okhotsk in multi-layered blankets of darkness. My first consciousness of Japan, therefore, was of light flooding the cabin several hours later when I woke after a serious sleep, F. having raised the shutters of her two windows. After a while she said, “Look! Mount Fuji!” and I looked over her shoulder down at the ground, corrugated as an elephant’s hide in close-up. But I could not see it. Then I saw it, not on the ground but in the sky, its magnificent white peak chiming with the whiteness of snow and cloud, but raised high above the surrounding environment.

 

Then, just as the moon used to stay constant in the sky however much I ducked and dived through the lanes and side streets of Walthamstow and Barkingside, so Mount Fuji kept reappearing as a noble constant whatever descending turns and circuits our plane executed in its approach to Narita. In its sacred presence the light kept on flooding my mind with its first impressions of Japan. Though – at 5-6ºC – little warmer than the Heathrow we had left, Tokyo and Narita seemed to sing in a daze of luminance, even after we stepped outside to await, with the help of boys with lists, little English but Japanese intensity, the arrival of the airport limousine bus that would ferry us, along impressively static and toxic aerial decks and slip roads, through the Tokyo rush hour directly to our hotel.

 

The conference itself took place in a long third floor lounge in a business building. The rostrum was equipped with laptop and PowerPoint and wired up so that a microphone transmitted the speaker’s words to two ladies in a translation booth at the back of the hall. Once it existed in Japanese, a team of four stenographers with laptops, writing in series, produced real-time captions which floated up a large screen at the front. In addition, members of the audience had individual relayers with earpieces, so that the talk could be received in the appropriate language. A smiling young man rotated around the room, imperturbably ensuring that all the technology worked.

 

Nevertheless all this electronic facilitation served, as in Russia, an authoritarian monologist world of expertise. Members of the audience slept and even those who remained awake were quite passive: there was very little audience participation, even when questions were invited. Indeed much of the matter being delivered was vague – always a sign of public or otherwise charitable funding – with buzzwords floating around like

 

community … marginalised … project … task-writing … initiative … disadvantage … co-operative … win-win … potential … new mood.

 

The shadowy infrastructure of fragile funding was illuminated by strokes of resolute optimism.

 

The wall-to-wall technology thus served to render a field of loose but cheery fluff for a small audience, among them journalists, entrepreneurs, bureaucrats, academics, who if they stayed awake, were anxious to cement contacts who could be useful to them on their next visit to the U.K. This was the world of the Japanese NPO – not for profit organisation – and the skies of the voluntary sector were occasionally illuminated by the fervent, furtive fires of lurking passion, something which if not to be altogether concealed was also not to be bruited about either. But the anaesthetic of formality was heavy: I was far less spontaneous as a speaker than I would normally be and, pacing myself to the translators in the box, covered too little of my talk in the allotted forty minutes and had to foreshorten it, even though the ladies had said they found it much easier to interpret spontaneous speeds (“people speak as they think”) than the reading even of a prepared text they had seen in advance.

 

There were what appeared to be several felicitous mistranslations:

 

Art can be the vehicle for the invasion of the community.

 

And early on we had been enjoined to do all we could for disabled persons, who would thus be permitted to realise the “divinity” that they had within them. And was that really a reference to an “Institute for a Healthy Future”?

 

Once again:

 

HIRAGANA

syllabary for Japanese words

KATAKANA

syllabary for non-Japanese words

KANJI

Chinese characters appointed 1000 years ago and

morphologically combined.

 

 

 11th February 2003

 

The girl seems divine until she opens her mouth to ask for a cheese sandwich; the notice in stark, splashing Kanji – black on white – in the sanctuary seems a revelation until it is translated: No Smoking.

 

Somehow it is a mistake not to remain in our divinity. With our divinity the prepositions get tricky with numinosity.

 

I asked Phillida Purvis, who has been coming and going to Japan for years, whether she had ever come across a rude shop assistant in Japan. “Never,” she replied without a moment’s hesitation, and went on to tell me how shocked she had been by comparison behaviour in London.

 

One evening we wandered around the streets close to our Keio Plaza Hotel in the Shinjuku district of Tokyo. Every Japanese was helpful, though English was not widespread. As the rain began to freckle, we passed a stall selling the latest models of mobile phone which, at the moment, in Japan, take photographs and transmit colour pictures, though text is unknown and international calls are impossible. It was possible to peel each one off its stand, to which it was attached by a Velcro strip, and experiment: it was fully operational. Moreover the stall was unattended: whoever was in charge was not hovering. This situation was the one, of all those we experienced in Japan, least thinkable in the UK, where mobile phone theft is an epidemic.

 

There is a novel – and to Japanese disturbing – phenomenon of unemployment and homelessness in Tokyo. But one homeless chap we passed on the street at least, amid his blankets and cardboard, had his mobile phone.

 

We lodged on the 30th floor of the 45-floor Keio Plaza Hotel. But the lifts were so fluent we reached the 30th floor without me noticing – I was studying a leaflet. Everybody else waited politely for me to get out, but when I didn’t, resigned themselves to the upward progression.

 

I discovered a coffee shop in the basement of the hotel where, on a tablecloth with orchids, an exquisite waitress whose life story I longed to listen to was prepared to lay cappuccino after cappuccino. I sat and wrote there one evening, whey-faced and wasted though mirrors reveal me to be: in Japan I prefer stimulation. There is much to be said for a mean national IQ of 106. Order is civilisation. So is aesthetic intensity. Mrs Yamauchi, who seemed astonished at my contention that individualisation results from Christianity, described her mother wiping humidity from glass panels: three horizontal strokes, three vertical strokes. At the next table in the restaurant, however, a vast American Negro, full of high-spirited jive talk came to sit with his Arab friend. The Negro seemed to want to fill the restaurant with his noise and to generate a spirit of uninhibited stag-night risk-taking! However the more contained Arab commenced a long, involved conversation with someone on a mobile phone complete with an aerial that trembled close to his temple. It seemed that he was not at all eager to talk to his Negro friend. Gradually the man deflated, though he did not easily relinquish a style of communicating that seemed, here, absurdly out of place and empty.

 

On the landing of the 30th floor a wheelchair approached conveying an elderly Japanese man whose skin had a leaf-like transparency. He was pushed by a younger man who disappeared and reappeared, and accompanied by an elderly woman in simple apparel with a small dark pattern. The lady performed a little ritual bowing and clapping as a charm against the uncertainty of the journey, before getting into the lift. The old man stared at me and through me, serenely unwilling to smile, but also without trace of a frown.

 

We had two free days remaining in Japan after the conference and found good reason to be grateful that we had surrendered ourselves to our hosts’ ministrations. They orchestrated for us every kind of agreeable experience. After the symposium we repaired to a Chinese restaurant where a succession of little dishes was served, conversation flowed and time receded. The soup was controversial: was it shark’s fin? No, it consisted only of the swim-bladders of certain fish. I was flanked by two ladies excited about dyslexia. The one to my right, to whom I had to emphasise that there are no short cuts, preferred like most teachers not to listen but to talk. She advanced her theory – about Japanese brains and reduced self-esteem – translated by the more able lady on my left. After one hefty gobbet I felt more was expected of me, so I said (to my interpreter),

“I understand what she is saying but not the point she is trying to make.”

“Me neither,” came the instant reply.

 

After dinner everybody who was anybody in Japanese dyslexia and social enterprise lined up for “picture time.” My camera, handed (by F.?) to a Chinese waiter, refused to work – for him, for her and for me. Gradually I surmised that the time had come to replace its two lithium batteries; but the photographic moment had passed. Other cameras, mostly digital, flashed, including F.’s, so I hope the grouping will end up in a Japanese sequence in the album.

 

On Monday a long coach journey began with a tortuous exit from Tokyo complicated alike by a bog of traffic and a prolonged extenuation of suburbs. Gradually we came to rice-growing areas and older, tightly packed houses (there are few old buildings in Tokyo) with steps, balconies, mezzanines, bonsais, cars squeezed into doorways and an occasional inhabitant at peace under his vine.

 

Our first port of call was the Coco farm and winery, founded in the 1970s to create healthy, uncomplicated employment for the 100 or so adult inhabitants of a nearby “school” for the mentally handicapped. This curious mixture of business and the not–for-profit organisation was explained to us by Bruce, an engaging Californian wine expert, who had come to trouble-shoot the humidity and mould (Japan’s is a highly unsuitable climate for grape growing) in the mid-1980s and stayed on. After years of cultivating the few skills of wine drinking, I started to understand something of how wines are made. The founder, now 82, put in an appearance at lunch, poised, humorous, elegant, holding a wineglass in his hand by the stem as he spoke. The story was repeated with much amusement how, when he had told some visitors he had first acquired a taste for alcohol at the age of four, one lady had said,

“That’s too late!”

I asked him how to turn an idea into reality. He replied,

“First I bought a mountain”.

 

Our table at lunch was liberally supplied with wine – two whites and a red: this winery simply doesn’t make wine with sub-standard grapes, but discards them, so its high quality is famed throughout Japan – and evidently this was true of the other table also. So when we tiptoed back up the hill afterwards we were more than a little merry. Unfortunately the director and deputy of a local group-home (or hostel for adult mentally handicapped), to which we were going on, were seized at the sight of us, by a fit of provincial self-importance. We all sat around a table on the café terrace as coffee was served and set ourselves to the business of exchanging name-cards and making introductions. Then the director, with an air of a Soviet official, stood up and began making a speech to his tiny inebriated audience. As we collapsed with hysterics (which had no effect on the impervious man), a struggle ensued to cover up our mirth with a semblance at least of straight faces to redeem this most un-Japanese lapse from respectful politeness. The pair made repeated excuses of having busy, important meetings to get to, but seemed never actually to depart, which would have brought their humiliation to an end. It was some time after we had climbed back aboard our bus that our hysteria began to abate. The Russians, I thought, would precipitate such a situation – of speeches and pompous formality – but would not then laugh at themselves or permit themselves to be laughed at.

 

We moved on to two group homes which were an affectionate delight, but something of the same kind of situation persisted. Most societies arrange this kind of provision in a fairly similar way, so perhaps it was not really necessary to unravel the strands of central and local government money and private employment that held together the fabric of a passable life for all concerned. Nevertheless John Smalley wanted to know why the residents earned “so little” and what degree of “financial autonomy” they could have. At this persistent line of questioning our provincial director’s speeches got longer and longer, as he felt exposed to possible criticism . Meanwhile, as often happens after drinking, our little party was, one by one, falling asleep. Eventually, summoning up diplomatic skills acquired in innumerable Russian orphanages, I stepped into the breach and made a speech of my own. It was easy for even the casual visitor to see, I said, how successful had been the efforts of the Director and his wonderful staff. Comfort, security and equanimity were evident in the smallest details of the life around us. (A nursing assistant had quietly ascertained the number of teas and coffees and handed round a tray, while, at the table, a middle-aged downcast woman, absorbed in drawing in a pad on which her pen had produced not very much, had been squeezed round the shoulders by the kindly house-mother standing behind her and had visibly brightened.) Now the Director’s speeches became shorter and shorter, but still nobody moved. Hiroshi, whose head had stopped jerking, had descended tranquilly into deep sleep. Then F. entered the fray, posed a few more questions about the obscure organisation of the place and, with an almost Ericksonian air of finality, leaned back and said, “Thank you!” At which point, everybody stood up.

 

On we went, in our coach, to the mineral spa at Onsen. Here the Roman script was non-existent and everything was done according to Japanese custom. Stooped from a lifetime of toil, country couples would arrive – he with short sight, she with little steps – wrap themselves in kimonos and top-jackets and enjoy the waters’ healing properties. Apart from the latter, one has to imagine a combination of jacuzzi and Turkish steam, for neither of which, perhaps, would one have to make a very arduous journey in Britain. But this was all a cause of deep excitement in our party, for foreigner and Japanese alike. Moreover we all met up for a traditional Japanese supper served at a long low table in a room apart, at which we kneeled, cross-legged, on mats or, in my case, leaned with one leg stretched out and my back supported by an upright seating supplement. The absence of chair and table, combined with irritable fatigue, would mean that I could not write and I woke next morning with a severe back pain. However, it was my birthday and, goaded by Hiroshi who sat opposite, I opened the meal with a toast. Many little dishes appeared with unidentified small portions of beans, vegetable, seafood, aparilla herb, tofu (a curd of soya beans), orchid flowers that turned out to be tiny squid and, ultimately, bowls of rice (as when the fat lady sings, you know the meal is ending when the rice arrives). Best of all, this meal was the long-awaited opportunity to get to know the short, wizened, sad-eyed but ever-twinkling Hiroshi Kawamura, the Renaissance genius behind the whole adventure. He had been a librarian at the University of Tokyo for seventeen years, until he was given the task of programming a Braille system for a brilliant, blind student. The system of “talking books” and “tables of contents” that he devised – Daisy to its friends – has proved to be useful to many others also, including dyslexics. He now chairs an international forum on standardising access protocols for the disabled of many countries. Being in the presence of a truly gifted individual was, as always, an experience both exhilarating and calming.

 

Iranian women have traditionally had their scope confined to core female functions and F., though herself more than emancipated, has always reacted to this intensification of the female by being intensely feminine. She talks about women, not just as one of them, but as an expert, and tends quickly to fascinate the women she meets. Japanese women proved no exception. “I’m an old maid,” confided Yuko, beaming, within minutes of meeting her. At the Chinese restaurant, the junior high school teacher to my right, only towards the end of the meal summoning up the spirit to address F. publicly across the table, chose to congratulate her on her appearance, meaning her fine clothes, but still more her exquisite, youthful looks. Following their shy, giggling retirement to the bath house together, F. reports that Japanese women have small breasts but large nipples, narrow waists but broad bottoms, and are all in perfect trim with no flab or problems of overweight. They all took in their little pots and sat on them in a row, obediently filling bowls with water so as to conserve the fresh supplies, and washed themselves diligently. After the pool, where the water bubbles up through little holes, F. gave them a lesson in the many arts of make-up. The Japanese ladies were amazed to learn that their own brand, Kanebo, was F.’s favourite.

 

After a deliciously cool night on the floor between tatami mats and duvet, we rose, packed once more and headed in our faithful bus to Nikko, a town not far to the north of Tokyo with a famed national park and temple complex that is a world heritage site.

 

Even the approach to Nikko involved a physical ascent, as the immense presence of a group of snowy mountains mysteriously revealed and concealed themselves ahead of us behind trees, streets thick with overhead wires and signs and self-importantly posed, jutting buildings. Once more the day and the environment were full of light, girdling the coach and its little party dazed with happiness, the villages and bonsai-dotted homesteads and stimulating the cameras to emerge from their dark bags and glance hurriedly through the generous bay window at the front of the bus at the scenes that unfolded in quick succession. We were passing through an area famed for its Japanese cedars – sogi or cryptomeria – as our driver, a part-time rice farmer, was pleased to remind us.

 

We emerged from our bus onto a muddy level and unfolded the wheelchair of Rayini, the Taiwanese girl student of five languages who is of the party. Thereafter she progressed either on foot or pushed by one or other of us, to the very topmost temple, jibbing only at the 270 steps that crowned the ascent to a final shrine. Snow lay on the ground to the sides of the paths and the great central avenue that led, by steps and levels, from temple to temple. The air had a pleasant chill; later F. was to pooh-pooh the guidebook pictures of dragon-ornamented lintels framed by spring sunshine and April cherry-blossoms, claiming that the snow and the early darkness (falling from four o’clock) had added specially to the atmosphere.

 

We toiled unhurriedly up the pathway. The pilgrims seemed to consist disproportionately in young people, especially loving couples seeking some sort of blessing on their intentions. On me the unhurriedness had the effect of loosening my body, so that I took long, slow strides, enjoying the shifting balance of my weight going up steps or coming down. Occasionally we stopped to absorb information from our guide, who waved her green flag like a railwayman, indefatigably interpreted by Misako, of whose planning efforts today was the fruit. Or more often we composed our thoughts in photographs, thus absorbing visually the centuries concertinaed detail.

 

Why such happiness? We all felt this, a sense of charm, or good fortune, or grace descending on us as we rose up the mountain, the sense of climax increasing with the altitude. The inner mists cleared, the malice fled, the harmony (kio-chio) prevailed. As a little party we enjoyed a feeling of unity in which artificiality played no part. Delighted to find that my own Christian faith enabled me to rejoice in being, I paused in front of a little shrine and thought: God is not just great – he is infinitely great.

 

Many forms of aesthetic intensity are characteristic of the Japanese, and these can degenerate into mere compulsion. But the flair for detail, and for conveying presence of mind into ritual and creative gestures, intensified at the summit of this very Japanese mountain. Priests, guides and mikkos – vestal virgins in robes as red as cardinal birds – seemed enormously busy and active, channelling and enlightening us tourists. We were led – without shoes and with cameras switched off – round rectangular temple corridors and balconies. Words cannot possibly convey the cumulative atmosphere created by the Chinese carvings (dragons, children), the worked metal and wood, the great bells whose noonday ringing so inspired F.. Layer upon layer of slatted or tiled roofs rose above each other, and above us, and above all stood the cedars, gaunt, curtained, gloved in snow, bound by the priestly Japanese in hoops of iron, but themselves more priestly, lofty and ancient (one was 800 years old) than everything else around them, nobler than the samurais, fiercer than the bushi, more enlightened than the forefathers of Zen and Shinto whose wanderings ended in this place. Their presences were like spirits, someone said: “They are a kind of god”. Yes. I thought, once again pressing onward up some more steps, and the female sexual organ is a kind of god also, but one cannot say so.

 

Now at 38,000 feet we are following a more northerly path than on our outward journey, heading away from the uncharted (but not uninhabited) expanses of northern Russia towards the Barents Sea, having negotiated, first the Lapter Sea, then the Kara Sea, known to cartographers but not to me. Indeed if we do not take a southerly turn soon we may find ourselves at the North Pole. I feel I may now have covered the greater part of what I wanted to record about Japan. I have been writing for six hours, and the excitement scarcely dies down. Incredulous, I see other people sleeping. But perhaps I’m not finished yet.

 

Now we’re turning south at last, over an unnameable icy spur that divides the Barents and the Kara seas. I’m sure that the Arctic fish shoals and submariners far below are oblivious of our shadow, as we pass in the opening eye of sunrise.

 

Will I carry anything of this serenity and energy away from the Nikko mountain as I leave? Perhaps. We descended to our bus eventually as the light began to go and returned to the forecourt of the souvenir shop where we had initially picked up our guide and where the coach had in the meantime parked free of charge. In return we were expected to go inside the shop, where a tray of green teas awaited us, use the toilets and cast an eye over the unutterable kitsch on the shelves. This we duly did, discovering (and buying) some treasures – mainly cups – lurking amid the candyfloss and day-glo colours of the children’s temptations. Back on the coach Misako said we had done well to co-operate. I had heard this word used, in a faintly inappropriate way, at the end of the symposium also: “Thank you for your co-operation”. It struck me that this was a hugely important concept, kio-ryoku, co-operation, or kio-chio, harmony.

 

In the valley between the two mountains rushed a torrent and we crept back up the river to approach our lunchtime destination which sat on an eminence above us, the Kanaya Hotel. This is a world-famous classic hotel that has only recently put aside – but still displays – its blue porcelain. Here Einstein, George VI and others have stayed, their bills of account proudly displayed, complete with signatures. Opting for “western” food for a change, we sat to an alcove table exquisitely laid and consummately served to the highest possible standard. Conversation turned briefly to social harmony (Japan) and rugged individualism (Britain), to Iraq and America and the meaning of culture. But there was a new awkwardness, perhaps because of the Western setting. Nevertheless, at our end little Rayini came to life when she lectured us on the five basic tonal “positions” in Taiwanese and Mandarin Chinese – her own language (my lime-green Virgin Atlantic notepad was out again, to capture the vital words and signs). How much a person’s own language means to them; how its use activates them. As always I had coffee and requested a cup of hot water for F.. We discussed “kinds” of tea, a slightly baffling question for the Japanese, who are fascinated, too, when I drop Hermesetas Gold pellets into my hot drinks. When the hot water arrived, I produced an Earl Grey teabag from my trouser pocket and held it up. “Do you know what this is?” I asked. When they didn’t, I said, “This is called marriage!” After an initially literal reaction they got the point and laughed merrily.

 

And so the story ends, with a coach trip back to reality – or at least normality – as embodied in the Tokyo rush hour. Our very tender goodbyes had to be said on the porch of the luxurious Meridian Pacific Hotel, where we were to experience the epitome of refined comfort (breakfast overlooking waterfall and pool) for £50 a night each, the price comparable to that of the Travel Lodge up the road in Bagshot. Will we meet these very sympathetic friends again – Misako, Yuko, Mrs Yamauchi, Rayini? Our gratitude to them will not quickly die down. Then our English friends, John and his son Rick, who travel to the same destination at the same time by a different airline, must be bid a fond farewell at Narita airport. We have all shared in an experience unexpectedly sublime. And we must say sayonara to Japan itself, whose aesthetic intensity and ingenious hard work (kim-ben) are embodied for the last time in shop after shop of exquisitely produced goods in the terminal’s unhurried, uncrowded arcade. Considering this was not even a holiday, Japan has turned out to be another in a lifetime’s mysterious chain of snow-covered peaks.

 

Nikko fusion

 

 

This mountain has approached all day

and now bows a welcome through archways.

Somewhere a clock strikes noon or afternoon,

far or near, chimes in the lustrous dark.

 

Generations of round-eyed men have laboured

to bring each peak and pebble to visibility.

But how little trace there is of insight, how it evades capture –

the notebooks, the cameras.

 

Far below the surface something is shaken.

A mountain becomes a wave.

Can a volcano be tossing these pines and boulders

tipped with people?

 

And what happiness invades

the climbers agog with frost and fire?

Couples ascend to sprinkle

good luck on their futures.

 

The pines lodged here before the temples,

though hooped with iron some centuries ago.

And ten generations were not enough to layer

the temple grounds, the mossed stone lanterns.

 

Light feet repel the ground.

For the donor, a mini-bottle of sake.

Perhaps the gods are plural, playing hide-and-seek

like dapples of light on the topmost steps.

 

Snow crusts the needle-bunches, while brooms

in the hands of cardinal-red mikkos, part-time vestals,

robustly guide the bergs

towards the destined buckets.

 

There is nothing but happiness.

The trees themselves are a kind of god.

One by one climbers lock onto the sole frequency,

happiness without even the doctrine of silence.

 

And the raven warns from the rooftop

of the old Kanaya Hotel:

Sumimasei! Ha ha!

Two claps, one bow, two claps!

 

7-10th February 2003